On Tour in Five Countries of Eastern Europe

Touring Budapest

So far we’ve only taken about a million photos of the Budapest Parliament Building. One of these days we’ll step inside.

We took Viking Cruise’s trip down the Danube, from Budapest (Hungary) to Bucharest (Romania). The tour is called “Passage to Eastern Europe,” and ours was the last trip of the year, from October 26 to November 5. We chose this trip because it would take us to parts of the world we’d not visited before, including southern Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania.

We were hosted by Viking, but there’s no discussion in advance regarding the topics we might cover. I only discovered en route that what most interested me were the personal stories we heard, from our crew and from guides and locals we met on shore. We didn’t agree with everything we heard, but it made for a fertile learning pastiche.

THE LAND EXCURSIONS

The planned excursions can make or break your river cruise. Here’s our itinerary of on-shore tours, with notes of what we heard along the way.

Budapest, Hungary
We had a week on our own in Budapest, so we skipped Viking’s organized tours here. We really enjoyed having the time to relax in Budapest, and managed to do two Context Travel tours (through the Palace District and around old Buda) and a fun circus outing!

Bakod Puszta Equestrian Center Tur with Viking

Getting out into the countryside to see oxen, horses, and baby farm animals is good for the soul. Bakod Puszta Horse Farm with Viking tour.

Kalocsa, Hungary
The entertaining visit to the Bakod Puszta Equestrian Center eclipsed the walk through Kalocsa’s town square. The horse farm is now a multipurpose event center and farm/ranch operated by a family and locals who work for the investor who was able to pull the property together after the 1990 collapse of the Soviet co-op system.

For background, during our bus ride, we heard the guide’s family story. Her grandfather wanted to keep his farmland, but was blackmailed to join the Soviet agricultural co-op via threats to remove their son (our guide’s uncle) from University. After 1990, when lands were returned or compensation was doled out, the guide’s father took his compensation in machinery and started a business working the land that others reclaimed but were not interested in farming. He now has 41 client/farmer/landowners.

Given her father’s success, maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised that our guide (an educated woman in her 40s) described the 70s and 80s as ‘not so bad’, but more pointedly, that now there are too many intellectuals, too many going to university, and not enough trades people.

Viking Tour Russe, Bulgaria

In the town square of Russe, Bulgaria, this little one models some of the fine needlework we frequently saw..

Osijek, Croatia
Viking arranged home visits for groups of about eight people. Ours was a remarkable introduction to Nada, a young woman who survived the war of 1990. To us, the war is a vague memory; to Nada and others it is an era from which recovery is slow an arduous. See our post about the visit with Nada.

Belgrade, Serbia
On one hand, it was impressive to see the site itself, where Belgrade sits on the Danube at a key juncture with the Sava River. Plains to the north, mountains to the south, strategic in every way. On the other hand, we had to listen to an extraordinarily abbreviated history of Serbia’s involvement in the last war. But we didn’t have to swallow it. Our bus went by a defense department building in central Belgrade, still standing in ruins and displaying precision bombing from the recent war. Nearby we had a behind the scenes tour of the opera house–which stages theater and dance productions, too. Front row seats to the opera cost about 10 Euro. There’s distinct pride in Belgrade’s musical heritage, and perhaps a little defiant pride in showing tourists the NATO bombed building.

Bedrock in Belogradchik, Bulgaria

Bedrock in Belogradchik, Bulgaria

Vidin and Belogradchik, Bulgaria
We had a couple tour options this day. I went to the gorgeous rock formations of Belogradchik, climbed, and snapped pictures. Tom walked the poor town of Vidin, still very much in recovery. And others signed on to visit a school and home for special needs children, an option Viking is considering adding to its menu of tours.

Veliko Tarnovo and Arbanasi, Bulgaria (plus Russe)
We passed on the trip to Veliko Turnovo, old capital of Bulgaria, mostly to avoid the bus ride. (By all accounts, it’s worth the visit for the architecture alone.) We started the day with an optional tour of Russe, which only led to frustration because of our goodhearted but poorly informed young guide. Tom in particular took exception to the guide’s refusal to admit any connection between the Cyrillic and Greek alphabets. (They have 18 letters in common, for starters). But there’s your cultural lesson for the day: Bulgarians are never going to give any credit to Greeks, and let’s not start talking about Macedonia.

Viking EastEurope Tour

The ruins of a synagogue in Vidin, Bulgaria

We enjoyed the rest of the day walking around Russe on our own. We were reminded that river cruising doesn’t keep you locked up on a boat, and that we were still able to stumble upon interesting sites by ourselves. Or just stumble. (Watch your step, Kris.)

Bucharest, Romania
We had an excellent, info-packed guide who narrated our drive around Bucharest and our visits to the ethnographic Village Museum, and the enormous Palace of the Parliament. This brought the Ceausescu era back into focus for us, and brought home some of the atrocities of his lovely wife Anna, too. (We’d heard about her propensity for burning people alive from a Bulgarian guide.) Even with this quick tour by bus, we could see how dramatically Ceausescu changed the landscape of the city.

We highly recommend adding days to the front and back of your Viking River Cruise, as we did in both Budapest and Bucharest. Explore on your own. The introductions are nice, but getting a feel for these bigger cities will only come from walking around when and where you want.

Viking Tour parliament palace bucharest romania

Sneaking a photo of about one-eighth of the gigantic Parliament Palace building in Bucharest, Romania. It’s big.

PROGRAMS ON THE BOAT

In addition to the seven included tours off the ship, and a few other optional excursions, we were lucky to hear from a couple crew members about their experiences growing up in this part of the world during Soviet times.

Growing Up in Soviet Times
The star of the staff, Program Director Sonya Bakalova, half Czech, half Bulgarian, moved from Czechoslovakia to Bulgaria when she was school age. Now 50, she talks about her first 25 years in terms of her father’s work commitments; he was away for a year and a half working as an engineer. She described the brainwashing environment of the school system, and the teacher who finally taught her the importance of keeping her mouth shut, for safety. Nuclear threats were real, and Chernobyl were close by. (Her father, distrusting reports or lack thereof following the Chernobyl failure, took a Geiger counter–borrowed from a neighbor who was allowed to have such a device–to their land outside of town to find it contaminated.) Today Sonya engenders an emotional response when she acknowledges her good fortune to be in contact with the whole world through her work.

Another Viking staff member, Concierge Sanya Dzeletovic, 30, is a Serb with a Croatian grandmother. Sanya also stresses the pervasive lack of contact with the outside world as defining her childhood in Soviet times. In fact, in 2002, when she turned 18, she was given the a choice of a computer or two weeks in Paris. She chose Paris for a chance to see the world.

The personal exchanges between passengers and crew and between visitors and locals set the tone for the week. I doubt there was anyone who didn’t spend their time on the Danube imagining other people’s lives. And isn’t that the point of traveling?

Viking East Europe Tours

On tour in Belgrade: from the fortress, a view of two rivers, two landscapes, new and old towns, and a bunch of historical perspectives.

21 Comments

  1. Emily November 28, 2015 at 12:41 pm - Reply

    Kris, you MUST “step inside” the parliment building in Budapest! It’s one of the most beautiful buildings we’ve seen in our travels around the world. I took the exact photo, from the exact angle in MY millions of photos of the exterior of the building. We liked Budapest enough to want to return; we spent a week there (same week as you ) and just scratched the surface of all there is to see.

    I agree that the personal stories we hear are the most enriching part of travel and this post was extremely interesting in that regard. Although we still prefer to travel independently, for those who prefer not going it alone, it sounds as though Viking offers more in-depth experiences than others do. And we’d accept the deal they offered you in a heartbeat!!! 🙂

    • Kristin Henning November 30, 2015 at 12:50 pm - Reply

      Hey, we’re back in Budapest and made reservations to visit Parliament tomorrow morning. Thanks for the encouragement.

  2. Rebecca Hall (Bex) November 30, 2015 at 3:49 am - Reply

    What a lovely region! I live in Athens, Greece and must be honest, even though I’m so close to these regions of Eastern Europe, I’ve never considered visiting. Your post has helped me decide that I must make the effort one day.
    Hungary looks amazing! It must be hard to know where to start with all your photos.

    • Kristin Henning November 30, 2015 at 12:52 pm - Reply

      I’m already developing a list for “next time’! That will include hiring a car to visit the wine region of Hungary.

  3. Betsy November 30, 2015 at 6:36 am - Reply

    This part of the world is staggeringly beautiful and a favorite of ours. The people are amazing. We began to understand more about differing opinions and outlooks when we visited a couple years ago. This past summer in Serbia, we got an additional set of conclusions on Tito to supplement the rather simplistic assessment American history books are wont to provide. Like you, we were shown the NATO-bombed building in Belgrade (by a still angry cabbie who then proceeded to rip us off on the fare! ::insert rueful “take that!”::). Serbians and some Croatians believe(d) the 90s wars were civil wars within the republic, and Bosnians, Kosovans and other Croatians that they were wars of independence. Lines on a map. None of this negates, condones or neutralizes the bloodshed. Those who do the bleeding are rarely if ever the ones doing the deciding. We were encouraged that the younger people, our kids’ ages, appeared to want no part in perpetuating the old conflicts. The best understanding happens micro, not macro. Person to person, not government to government. We will return.

  4. Kristin Henning November 30, 2015 at 1:01 pm - Reply

    Yes, Betsy, true that. As if their heads were still spinning, several (not just one or two) mentioned their country of residence changing without their ever leaving home! It is difficult to look at the long history of battles in this area (over borders but also over control), much less live through it.

  5. Irene S. Levine November 30, 2015 at 6:34 pm - Reply

    Since there aren’t any sea days (like on an ocean cruise), the excursions really are the “main event” on a river cruise. Sounds like you made some great choices on your Viking Cruise!

    • Kristin Henning December 4, 2015 at 11:44 am - Reply

      I was impressed that they were testing new tours and visits, even as they were conducting the pre-planned ones. They were certainly open to feedback, too.

  6. Michele Peterson ( A Taste for Travel) December 1, 2015 at 4:43 pm - Reply

    Great advice to add days at the beginning and end of a Viking Cruise! It’s so worthwhile to be able to see the destinations in-depth. Your photos of Belogradchik and other spots along your route are really stunning. It’s amazing to hear about these under-the-radar travel places.

    • Kristin Henning December 4, 2015 at 11:40 am - Reply

      Thanks, Michele. So glad we left a couple weeks open to see more of Romania, and last time we were with Viking, we did the same in Southern France. Viking introduced us to Lyon, and we didn’t want to leave.

  7. The GypsyNesters December 1, 2015 at 6:25 pm - Reply

    Looks like a great trip. We sailed the other way on the Danube with Viking a few years ago and loved it. Would love to do this trip too.

    • Kristin Henning December 4, 2015 at 11:38 am - Reply

      We had this last moment idea of extending out trip and heading up river to see more Christmas markets! Back in the States for a few weeks, though, and now I’m looking forward to 2017 Mississippi river trips with Viking.

  8. Kay Dougherty December 1, 2015 at 10:38 pm - Reply

    Wow – you got to a lot of really interesting places I haven’t been! I have to say that at least in the U.S. I can’t say that we’re overloaded with intellectuals… Doesn’t Viking do the best job ever of picking local guides and crew? Their people are simply the best and add so much to the enjoyment of a trip with them.

    • Kristin Henning December 4, 2015 at 11:37 am - Reply

      Regarding too many or too few intellectuals: it must be the media’s fault. We keep on writing about shootings instead. Damn media.

  9. jj December 4, 2015 at 10:25 pm - Reply

    There were more buildings and objects bombed in Belgrade and Serbia which have since been cleaned up and some rebuilt.
    Like you had the Chinese Embassy which was bombed, killing 3 Chinese journalists and also killing Serbian pedestrians walking nearby it.
    NATO also bombed the Serbian TV building, with staff still inside, and I remember seeing pictures of a man half handing out and bloody between pancaked floors.
    Also, with regard to Croatia, the census shows that it is the Serbian population of that country which was purged. The Croats ethnically cleansed over 400,000 Croatian Serbs throughout the war.
    The Croatian census shows the Serbian population dropped from 12.2% in 1991 (just prior to the war) to less than 4.5% in 2001.

    The western narrative blocked reports of what was done to Serbs from the very start of the war. Serbian civilians were kidnapped, torture and killed from the start, and in some cases even before the official war began.
    That those in Belgrade don’t speak much, is probably due to them not being inside the other former republics, unless the tour guide would be a refugee or displaced person themself.

    But Serbs who were actual victims do not talk about it – this was the observation of Stephanie Bond (an American from Tennessee who served as a UN officer in Croatia throughout the war and as a return officer until 1998).
    She was witness to Serbs being killed and also was there for the Croatian “Operation Flash” in May 1995 (and later there was “Operation Storm in August 1995).
    She witnessed dead Serb civilians all the time and said that Croatia officially downplays the number of dead, as does the west.

    Meanwhile, the Balkan Muslims and Croats will often walk up to a foreigner – especially, for instance, a U.S. soldier – and tell them a tale of woe (which may in fact be mostly propaganda) to demonize the Serbs and impress themselves as big victims.

    Not all people there are honest, and many who went to serve there – and were briefed and guided to see the Serbs as the bad guys – ended up usually realizing the non-Serbs got away with a huge amount of atrocities.

    You had the Canadian soldiers, for example, who witnessed the Croats and foreign mercenaries, murdering Serb civilians at the Medak Pocket massacre.
    Even the Canadian government kept quiet about it at the time and for years later, despite it being one of the largest military engagements/battles since the Korean War for Canada.

  10. Ivan February 17, 2018 at 4:35 pm - Reply

    Hi, I’m looking for information about Camino de Santiago and came upon you site.
    Just to note that the pictured synagogue is in Vidin, not in Russe.

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