July 29 – August 16, 2015. We began this journey with a few days in Alt Limbach, Germany, visiting our longtime friends.
They accompanied us to Munich and after spending three days there, we said goodbye and boarded a train for Budapest, Hungary. It was a beautiful ride as we skirted the Austrian Alps, via Saltzburg, and on into Hungary.
What we could not have known, was that in only two weeks the same train, and Hungary itself, would face the largest migration of refugees (from Syria) seen in Europe since World War II. Without a doubt, this trip to Budapest would have been a very different one had it been two weeks later.
After several days revisiting this beautiful city we fell in love with last year, we boarded our Viking cruise ship for a trip down the blue Danube through the beautiful countryside of five of Eastern Europe’s countries; Hungary, Croatia. Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania/Transylvania.
Our stops in Hungary were Budapest and Kalocsa. While Budapest remains one of our favorite cities, Kalocsa was a delightful town, with its Trinity Square and Archbishop Place, where we were delighted with a short organ concert. The highlight of this stop, however, was the traditional Puszta horsemanship performance at the Bakodpuszta Equestrian Center. These horsemen live outside year-around, making them very tough and adept equestrians. Dressed in billowy blue-and-black garb, they are romanticized heroes in folk songs, dances and literature.
Hungarian Fun Fact: Paprika is Hungary’s favorite spice and a national treasure. An Hungarian scientist, Dr. Gyorgi discovered it contains 7 times more vitamin C than oranges. His research won him the Nobel Prize in 1937.
Our first stop in Croatia was in Vukovar, which was a pivotal location during the Serb-Croatian War. Our second stop was into Osijek, Croatia’s fourth largest city. This pleasant town is well-known for its Baroque architecture, 18th-century cobbled streets, and elegant ochre-colored buildings.
Here, a beautiful suspension bridge crosses the Drava River leading to the neo-Gothic styled Church of St. Peter and St. Paul where we were treated to a beautiful vocal presentation by a local college student.
Later we visited the port town of Osijek and walked the old streets that still held visible evidence of the not-to-past Croatian-Serbian war. We concluded our time here by visiting the home of a local woman who served us coffee/tea, cake and homemade plumb brandy, a typical local libation.
Croatian Fun Fact: Dalmatian dogs were named after Dalmatia on the southern coast.
The city of Belgrade was unexpectedly enjoyable. Situated on the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers, this ancient capital gets its name from the famed Kalemegdan Fortress which looms over the old town with its medieval gates, Orthodox churches and victory monument. In fact, Belgrade means “white fortress”.
The city center is being modernized and is very friendly and enjoyable to visit. But most of all, the shopping is great. Things here are cheap! cheap! Cheap! And, there are no fees to exchange currency.
The next day is spent cruising through one of the most picturesque areas of the Lower Danube. The Iron Gate is one of Europe’s most dramatic natural wonders, a spectacular narrow gorge with enormous white limestone cliffs with a massive man-carved head.
Serbian Fun Fact: The only Serbian word commonly known across the world is “vampire.”
We debarked in the small town of Vidin and took a bus ride to Belogradchick. With its strange red-colored rock formations, it is one of the most scenic areas of Bulgaria. This site was formed by millennia of weather, erosion, and time, resulting in the formation of a multitude of fantastic figures resembling silhouettes of people, towers, ships, and animals. Built in a maze of rock columns and pillars by the Ottoman conquerors, the castle was used for the last time during the Serbian-Bulgarian War of 1885.
Further down the Danube, we debarked in Rousse and were bussed through the countryside to the lovely former Bulgarian capital of Veliko Tarnovo. After visiting the Tsaravets Hill and vewing the ruins of the royal castle, we spent time shopping on the beautiful old street of Samovodska Charsia with its traditional old buildings and shops selling excellent handicrafts and other goods. Artisans made their wares before your eyes and were delighted to receive the small amount they were asking for their products. It was a shoppers delight!
Surbian Proverb: A man without enemies is worthless.
There was a terrible drought this summer of 2015, the temperatures hovered around 100F almost every day of our 2-week cruise, and the Danube became so low we had to make our final exit from the ship much further upstream than anticipated. We were bussed into Bucharest, founded in the 14th century, and Romania’s capital. As in all the other countries we had visited, crops in the fields were dying of heat and no water. It was very sad to see.
After several hours we arrived at our lovely hotel near Old Town. Bucharest was a real surprise. It is modern and making huge strides to bring itself out of its communist “hangover”. Everywhere we looked, the capitalism and entrepreneurial spirit was alive and well. It seemed to us they were spending their EU loans very wisely. Our hotel was very nice, service was excellent, and all the food we enjoyed while in Romania was good. However, communist influenced still exist at every turn. The past dictator, Ceausescu, built a palace which is the world’s largest civilian building with an administrative function and lavishly decorated it. To add insult to injury, as his people struggled for enough food to eat and heat for warmth, he called this lavish expanse “House of the People”.
A walk around Old Town Bucharest was enjoyable and full of lovely old buildings and quaint cobbled streets. A quick mid-day snack at Caur’ cu Bere was welcomed. This old restaurant and beer hall resembles a German beer hall from the outside, but it belies the beauty that waits within its walls. The food was good and the beer was cold.
(and all things Dracula)
Technically Transylvania is not a country, but a part of Romania. It was unexpectedly beautiful and enjoyable. Our bus tour took us up into the beautiful mountains through the Transylvania countryside, stopping for a tour of Peles Castle, a 19th century fortification and exquisite castle.
It was then on to the Bran Castle, commonly known as Dracula’s castle. This landmark citadel, built in the 14th century, is the best-known of several locations linked to the Dracula legend; it was used by Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler, as his headquarters for his incursions into Transylvania. Despite the hype, Vlad is thought to have only spent 1-2 nights in this castle as he fled from his enemies. Most likely his impaling and horrors were done at his castle in Old Town Bucharest, Muzeul Curtea Veche, which is currently undergoing renovation.
We overnighted in the panoramic and charming hamlet of Brasov. The town square was a step back in time with it’s Council House (complete with ancient Trumpets Tower) and lovely fountain. This is a town we would love to revisit. All and all, Transylvania was the most beautiful and unusual of our journey. This is the Winter Wonderland of Romania, and people come here to ski and enjoy the mountains just as we visit the Rockies.
The last day of our Eastern European Passage trip was spent in Bucharest and my quest to continue looking for all things Dracula continued. I hired a driver and took a 1.5 hour drive to the tiny island of Snagov Monastery, a solitary island about an hour outside of Bucharest, which can only be accessed by boat or footbridge. Legend has it that this is the burial place of Vlad (Dracula). There is nothing on this charming island except a monastery and the small, pretty chapel where Dracula is said to be buried directly below the cupula. While this is an intriguing story, and the island was fun to visit, I’m sure the myth is much better than the truth. Photos of inside the chapel were not allowed, and only a marble slap marked the grave of such a mythical creature. I was told x-rays had only shown animal bones—a bat, perhaps????
Upon returning to Bucharest, we returned to Old Town and the Muzeul Curtea Veche. Located in the center of Old Town, this area of archaeological diggings has released proof of the existence of a 14th-century fortress which was built in the time of Vlad the Impaler (Dracula). This site is most probably where Dracula ruled and did some of his most gruesome murders. It is currently undergoing renovation for a future open-air museum and fragments can already be easily seen and photographed. Exactly where Dracula was actually buried still remains a mystery. But aren’t the stories and legends fun?
The next morning, after no Dracula sightings–Is that a good thing?–we left early for our flight home. It was a wonderful and unique trip. We are happy we went before the maps are again redrawn and these countries perhaps renamed. Our best to these strong war-weary people.