Discovering Eastern Bloc Countries along the Danube

budapest-parliament-building

by: Anna Hobbs

“I am beginning to think of our trip as a cultural kaleidoscope,” one of my travelling companions says.

With each twist in the river, we are seeing different patterns of life in five countries that were once conquered by the Turks and the Romans and, from 1945 to 1989, were sequestered behind the iron curtain. This 10-day cruise on Emerald Waterway’s Emerald Sky, along the fabled Danube is taking us from Bucharest, Romania, north to Budapest, Hungary.

It is a vacation to go down in my memory book for, in addition to experiencing first hand what life is like transitioning from a Communist regime to a free market society, we are indulging in Emerald’s four-star service, clubby ambiance and ultra chic accommodations.

In Bucharest, Romania, a city of nearly two million, and often referred to as ‘the Paris of the East,’ dreary gray towers are wedged between handsome Roman, Spanish and French buildings, providing concrete reminders of Communist-era life. But it is quickly obvious that Romanians are survivors. Latin people at heart, they love life and make time to enjoy it, as witnessed by the rejuvenation of the historic district of Lipscani. Today this pocket in the heart of the city that dates back to the Middle Ages is rebounding with a lively café and nightlife scene.

We experience Bulgaria, the poorest country in the European Union, touring the countryside, glimpsing small farms and the traditional, rural way of life. Horse and donkey carts populate country roads. We drive through run-down villages where we learn three generations frequently live under one small roof. We pass factories that are shut down and deteriorating. Unemployment is high. The average monthly income, for those that are employed, is about $500 US.

“When you have explored the touristy destinations of Western Europe and want to expand your horizons, this is the trip to take,” says Jana Pkstaitis, Emerald Sky’s vivacious cruise director. “These riverbanks are fascinating. They are diverse and they are steeped in history.”

These riverbanks are also spectacularly beautiful. From the innovative indoor teak deck of my sophisticated Panorama Balcony Suite, I have a captivating front-row seat as we glide from country to country, past thickly wooded areas, lush farmlands, and through the Iron Gate, the spectacular narrow gorge between the European Alps and Carpathian Mountains. So many of Europe’s famous cities have been built upon rivers; the Danube is no exception. Emerald Sky, a gem of a ship, is built to tiptoe effortlessly (or so it seems to 150 passengers) into curbside berths at the centre of cities, even villages.

Docking at Belgrade, Serbia’s vibrant capital city, we are a five-minute stroll to the lovely old city centre with its cobblestone pedestrian streets, fashionable boutiques and lively cafés and bars. Camera-toting tourists are exploring.

“In over 2,600 years, my city has been destroyed 40 times,” our guide Miloš Jevtovic, tells us. “For 100 years, we have lived in some kind of dictatorship. It’s not easy building from this. We are15 years into these changes. I believe it will be another 10 or 15 years to be where the country should be.”

Touring the city, Jevtovic points out a landmark McDonalds – the first for a communist country when it opened in 1988. “I stood in line for 45 minutes to get a burger and fries,” he says. We pass the Hotel Moskva, which opened in 1908 and is one of the oldest hotels still operating in Europe. From 1941 to 1944, it was used as Nazi German’s Gestapo headquarters. A bombed-out building nearby stands as a reminder of the last war. “Very good for tourism,” Jevtovic deadpans.

Like many of the youthful guides we meet, Jevtovic is proud of his country and optimistic about its future – despite the fact that today the majority of Serbians struggle to make ends meet.

Although the history of Croatia and the events that led to the 1991 War of Independence are complex, there is little evidence of the destruction driving through the pastoral Slavonian countryside. Today conflict and politics take a back seat to food and family life as six of us share in a home-hosted lunch, a highlight of Emerald’s shore program. At Stjepanu and Milena Lakic’s farm, (where three generations of Lakics have lived), the distance travelled from farm-to-table is merely steps. The food for the entire meal has been grown and prepared by our hosts. Stepping off the bus, Stjepanu is waiting with a welcoming toast – a shot of homemade plum brandy. What follows is a simple, delicious meal of tomato soup with mini pasta, delicate pork balls, mixed vegetables and pickled beets, followed by traditional cherry squares. Stjepanu is eager to show us his farm. Before leaving our newfound friends, we traipse around their fields and gardens, beneath the cherry trees, and past the chicken coop and the pigs in their pens, promising to visit again some day.

Returning from a day down on the farm, none other than the captain (who we now know by first name) is at the gangplank offering us with a welcome thirst-quencher and inquiring about our latest shore adventure.

The glittering surprise on the last day materializes on the horizon, after sundown, as we sail into Budapest. Thousands of sparkly white lights frame the majestic buildings along the banks and the eight bridges that join Buda on one side of the river and Pest on the other. It is a dazzling spectacle of such fairytale proportions that everyone is on deck snapping photos. Budapest, which is basking in the limelight as a top-tourist destination these days, offers up a breathtaking welcome. Although this wasn’t the fabled Blue Danube immortalized by Johann Strauss that I imagined, it was, more, much more, and as Jana Pkstaitis promised, it was “fascinating and diverse.” And most definitely memorable

Anna Hobbs travelled as a guest of Emerald Waterways on the Emerald Sky from Bucharest, Romania to Budapest, Hungary. To learn more about Anna, visit her website: www.beyondlavenderhill.com