Tourism & Cruises

Is a river cruise right for you and your gang? This tale of the eastern Danube may hold the answer

In Budapest, the Hungarian Parliament, on the eastern bank of the Danube, is Europe’s second largest legislative building. The largest is in London. 2016.
In Budapest, the Hungarian Parliament, on the eastern bank of the Danube, is Europe’s second largest legislative building. The largest is in London. 2016. Jane Wooldridge / Fivestarstounderthestars.com

Traveling with a group is never simple. Traveling with six couples of disparate ages, political viewpoints, physical abilities and interests is, well, a little crazy. Our common ground: our neighborhood bagel joint, where we met by happenstance 15-plus years ago.

Deciding on a river cruise was easy. A decade ago, we sailed through the Baltic Ocean and learned that cruising offered just the right mix of independence and comraderie. Deciding where and how to sail turned out to be a different matter.

Should we go for the fairytale villages of the Rhine, the imperial palaces of the western Danube, or the wine regions of France? What were the differences between the river-going lines? Was the cheapest fare really the best?

Four group meetings and a bulging spreadsheet later, we had settled on a 10-night Scenic Cruises trip that included five countries and hotel stays in our beginning and endpoints of Bucharest and Budapest. Included in our fare were house cocktails and wines, tips, electric bicycles, a wide selection of daily tours and round-trip airfare cheaper than we could ever book on our own. Our sailing would take us to villages and cities in Romania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia and Hungary — most of them unfamiliar to us.

The biggest challenges: which excursions to choose, and who would dash down to dinner to save the dining room’s sole table for 12.

Most days were split between lounging on the sleek 169-passenger Scenic Jasper and organized excursions, often sporting annoying-looking but immensely handy headsets. In another time and place, the trip might have felt herdlike. But because of the wide choice of daily tours included in our fare, each of us was free to go our own way.

And in Eastern Europe, where tourism is still young, the experiences we treasured most would have been difficult to arrange on our own. Though many people we met spoke English, some of the elders didn’t. Without our guides, we might well have missed out as we sailed through this unfamiliar territory once dominated by communism.

Our vacation began in the Romanian capital of Bucharest, founded in the Middle Ages along the trade route to Constantinople. Though home to two notorious despots, Vlad the Impaler (who inspired the Dracula legend) and the 20th-century Nicolae Ceauşescu, Bucharest proved an easy, walkable city of parks, welcoming cafes and wallet-tempting boutiques tucked into 19th century facades that could have been in Paris.

Still, monuments to Ceauşescu’s penchant for excess abound. His private home, opened to tourists in 2016, is modest by McMansion standards but filled with Murano chandeliers, Rosenthal china, Bohemian crystal and a plush cinema room where the dictator reportedly binged on Telly Savalas films. Even more eye-popping is the 3.9-million-square-foot Parliament building containing 2,000 chandeliers (including one weighing in at five tons) and a million cubic feet of marble. Its $3 billion-euro-plus pricetag proved a stark contrast to the poverty and food shortages that plagued daily life in 1984, when construction began. No wonder the tyrant was ousted in 1989.

A 90-minute bus ride through the countryside took us to our mooring along the Danube. Then then we were off, slipping smoothly through forests and fields on a voyage that would take us first to the east, and then west toward Hungary.

Like other European river vessels, ours was relatively small. Still, as on most ships, there was room enough for a generous lounge/bar for nightly briefings and a small plunge pool on the long open top deck. But unlike many river ships, ours offered both a main dining room and smaller options for casual meals during the day and specialty gourmet dinners at night. Other bonuses: a pillow menu, floor-to-ceiling glass windows that lower to become balconies in the comfortable staterooms and a butler who delivered our in-cabin coffee and shined our shoes.

One of the attractions of river sailings is mooring in the city center. On the Danube’s eastern stretch, most excursions visit inland villages — which means a modest bus ride.

So it was with our visit to a Bulgarian village school. While some excursions can seem canned, this one came with a reality check from our guide, a teacher herself. She was surprisingly open about her views on government shortcomings, brain drain — “The whole class at the medical school is leaving” — and an increase in human trafficking. Under communism, school was free; today it comes with fees that inhibit many children from attending. “My generation dreamed of conquering the universe,” she said. “These kids cannot read and write and dream of becoming a dishwasher in Europe.”

Though we traveled during a school holiday, a group of grammar-schoolers gathered to showcase traditional songs and dances. Our guide brought a dress for the star, who despite winning national folkloric contests could not afford one herself. The visitors were invited to join in the dancing, and though the event was clearly staged, the sweetness of the moment felt genuine.

Similar challenges were echoed by our walking companion in Belgrade, a 24-year-old electrical engineering student who spoke of Serbia’s massive unemployment and low wages. But other locals pointed to the harshness of the totalitarian past. One Bulgarian guide spoke of environmental damage wrought by a 1980s chemical weapons plant. Another spoke of living in constant fear in those Communist times.

Aboard our ship, our cruise director spoke of a father imprisoned after turning down a municipal contract because he couldn’t afford enough employees to complete the job. “Things have changed dramatically with the free market economy,” said Szilvia, who grew up in Bulgaria. “For some people, life is harder. There are always two sides.”

That theme sounded again in Osijek, Croatia, where the day’s options — walking tours, fishing and a bike ride — included lunch in local homes. For several in our group, the hospitality of homemade plum brandy, a pork-and-beef dish called faschile and cherry cake served with frank conversation was a highlight. Said bagel-grouper Donna Underwood, “We liked it especially because their heartfelt discussions of difficult political burdens made us even more thankful for living in a country with the same stable government for more than 200 years.”

While many locals we met yearned for a better future, others sought to preserve their heritage through embroidery, pottery, baking and singing learned at the knees of their own grandparents. At the Kalocsa, Hungary, paprika museum, 76-year-old Ante Maria explained how she learned as a child to harvest the pepper seeds, then plant and nuture them into the next crop. A few streets away, a white-haired granny painted Easter eggs. Watching folk dancing, nibbling on traditional cakes and buying hand-finished lace doilies felt like acts of virtue. In another generation, so much will be lost.

So, perhaps, will the traditional horse-riding skills of the Great Hungarian Plain, a flat prairie where fields of rape seed and barley seemed to stretch right to the edge of the crystal sky. There, on a 500-acre privately owned farm, a handful of csikos breed and work a stable of Furioso-North Star horses, a crossbreed known for both agility and elegance. The description applied to their riders as well, deft horsemen who could snag a bottle with a long whip from atop the saddle, convince their horses to lie down in the dirt with a man aboard and ride standing on a galloping team of more than a dozen horses. For any child who read “Black Beauty,” it was a staggering sight.

Our sole sailing day brought a welcome respite from touring, time for a shipboard massage (our only extra onboard charge), reading on the balcony, learning to fold towel animals. For the most part we lounged on the top deck, watching the world roll by: canola fields, stone villages, vineyard-covered hills, garbage-heaped barges, rusting factories long out of use. East of Belgrade, along the Romanian-Serbian border, we traversed shipping locks associated with a pair of hydroelectric dams and slipped into the narrowest stretch of the gorge known as the Iron Gate, between the rocky faces of the Carpathian and Balkan mountains in a canal a mere 750 feet wide.

This and every day ended in the same delicious way: at a table of bounty. While breakfast and lunch were served as buffets, dinner was a seated affair with choices of appetizers, soups, desserts and cheese, with mains of fish, meat or vegetarian dishes. Should we have the fillet of hake with Champagne-Dijon sauce, the rack of veal with fig jus or the herb pancake with mushrooms?

Each evening brought a tough decision, indeed. That was doubly so during our evening at Portobellos, the specialty restaurant included with every fare, where we were tempted by halibut fillet on root vegetables, veal loin with mushroom risotto and homemade involtini with ricotta and spinch stuffing. Wine pairings included, of course.

Sated, we arrived in Budapest after dark on a misty night, sailing past hillside palaces, bridges and Hungary’s domed Parliament, all aglow like a fairytale. To our surprise, we moored just across the river from the spired 100-year-old government hall. Bageler Lori Welbon recalls getting up during the night just to take in the sight, deeming it well worth the lost sleep.

The twin cities of Pest, on the Danube’s easter bank, and Buda, on its western hills, brought us into the Austro-Hungarian grandeur that is typical of the Danube’s western reach. For two days we would explore Medieval ramparts, the massive Parliament, the delicately tiled Mattias Church, the poignant shoe sculptures commentorating the Holocaust, and the city’s famous thermal springs housed in a baroque palace.

Budapest has become a tourism darling, and for good reason. Riverside cafes, luxury hotels, art museums and au courant menus speak to prosperity. Yet it is a city without the gentle children and grannies of the rural east. Our voyage delivered the flipsides of town and country — a pairing worth repeating.

Jane Wooldridge, the Miami Herald’s Business Editor, has traveled in more than 110 countries. Follow her blog, fivestarstounderthestars.com.

If you go

In 2018, a similar 10-night Danube trip from Bucharest to Budapest (or reverse) begins at $5,110 per person before promotions or discounts on Scenic, www.scenicusa.com.

Lines offering similar itineraries at a variety of price points include AmaWaterways (www.amawaterways.com); Avalon Waterways (www.avalonwaterways.com); Scenic’s lesser-priced sister line, Emerald Waterways (www.emeraldwaterways.com); Tauck (www.tauck.com); Uniworld (www.uniworld.com); and Viking (www.vikingrivercruises.com).

Through July, several lines are offering discounts on 2018 travel.

Jane Wooldridge

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