As always, a long but straightforward day, traveling with KLM via Amsterdam.
The hotel is incredible. Right next to the Matthias Church, with our room over-looking Fisherman’s Bastion, one of the great viewpoints from Buda to Pest.
Again, for a “package” booking, the room itself is exceptional. Very large, on the business floor, with uninterrupted views across the Bastion to the Danube and Parliament building below. The rest is Hilton at its very best in terms of decor, services and facilities.
After a bit of recovery time, we went for a stroll around this part of Buda - just as pretty and “historic” as we remembered. Not as crowded as last time (which was also October). However, last time it was 25˚C, this time 9˚C - maybe there’s the clue.
We needed dinner, so we found somewhere that looked interesting. Is this “land on your feet day” or what!
The Black Raven (Fekete Holló Étterern) was just around the corner, and looked pretty good. We learnt that it is (allegedly) the oldest restaurant in the Castle district, serves “the best” traditional Hungarian food and has live gypsy music every night. We can confirm the last two. And the musicians were amazingly good.
The food? All good and plentiful. I had a steak cooked with goose liver and mushrooms that was very probably the most tender and flavoursome I’ve tasted in many a year. Margaret’s goulash was incredible (I stole a fork or two!).
Three courses and drinks, plus a tip for the musicians? 19,000HUF (£45, $70). Going back tomorrow!
You can tell it was good. I never photograph food!!!!
A bit cool and overcast today. Not quite as cold as yesterday, but still very refreshing!
We spent the morning strolling around the Buda Castle district. Some very interesting buildings, but mostly just a pleasant place to be. With fewer people about and more time on hand (last time we were here it was a drop spot on a city tour), we also found new places from where to view the buildings.
We also wandered through a gate at the back of the hotel and found it had been built into the ruins of an older building. That was a surprise!
We spent the afternoon with a visit to the Hungarian Parliament. It’s a lovely walk through the Castle District, down to the Danube via the funicular railway, and across the Chain Bridge.
The Parliament Building is magnificent from the outside and it has an inside to match. Originally an Austro-Hungarian Empire palace, and you can tell!
A really strange, but fascinating artefact (there were dozens of them, in fact) were brass objects all around the debating chamber’s anterooms.
Some years ago, members of the parliament used to enjoy an Havana cigar, but smoking wasn’t allowed in the chamber. Therefore, members would retire to the anterooms to enjoy a smoke if the proceedings were a little boring. When something worthwhile began, they could leave their cigars burning, and then return to them. Each slot was numbered so they knew whose was whose.
If their interest held them in the chamber, so their cigar burnt away, they would say (and it’s apparently an Hungarian saying now), “Well that was worth a fine Havana”.
We strolled back along the Danube, retracing our steps. Unfortunately a café serving pastries filled with cream caught our attention and delayed the walk. Oh well, couldn’t be helped!
Same restaurant as last night for dinner. Food photography resisted!
Overnight, the ship moved to Kalosca. Never heard of it! Not surprising, really. It’s a small town with nothing special about it, except that whilst having a population of around 18,000 it has six major international brand supermarkets including Aldi, Lidl and Tesco.
It also has a church with an outstanding organ and an outstanding musician to go with it. Our first stop was for a recital at the church. It sounded pretty good to me, and it’s not my sort of music (even slightly). Those who properly appreciate the style, were very impressed.
However, the highlight of the day was a visit to a “horse farm” about 30 minutes out of town. Here we were treated to some samples of traditional Hungarian snacks, mulled wine and local apricot brandy. 10:30am? Who cares. The horsemanship was exceptional.
We sailed after lunch for Croatia, with a border stop at Mohacs (never heard of that either!). None of the countries we visit from now on are in Schengen, so this is the first of several. I didn't approve of Europe’s open borders, but this makes me wish that it was compulsory for all EU States (except, of course, the UK).
Whilst customs & immigration went on somewhere on board ship (it went on and on and on for 1½ hours and we never saw the Border Control Police) Viking, thinking we might be wasting away, laid on an Hungarian afternoon tea. Sandwiches, cakes (oozing with cream), strudel. And only 2½ hours until dinner! Thought of giving it a miss, but you’ve got to stick with the programme. Take one for the team.
To be honest I took several for the team. In fact, I probably took enough for the whole team; they were so good.
Today we docked in Vukovar, Croatia, the site of the worst atrocity of the Serbia-Croatia War in the 90’s (one of the many wars that made up the Balkans’ Conflicts following the break up of Yugoslavia). The locals call the town "Croatia’s Stalingrad".
Although largely rebuilt, many properties are shells and many others still have the scars of bullet holes. The guide’s commentary (she, in her late 20’s) still shows a deep bitterness. She referred to “Serb aggressors” in “the Homeland War” when talking about the conflict. It was here that a hospital of injured, the youngest 16, the oldest 77, were driven away and shot, buried in the largest mass grave outside of Bosnia.
We didn’t tour Vukovar (perhaps understandably), but instead travelled to Osijek, stopping en route for a home hosted visit with a family.
We were a bit sceptical about this, but it proved to be really enjoyable. Our hosts had prepared some local cake snacks, served homemade blackberry wine (tasted as strong as a brandy) and coffee. Helped by a local student as translator we talked about their lives and lifestyle. He was ex Patriotic military and she, military intelligence. You can’t get away from that war, it seems.
Their home had to be completely rebuilt, with a minimal amount of Government aid, and was very stylish and modern. Their garden was massive. They kept golden and silver pheasants. Not pets, I thought!
From there we travelled on to Osijek, a quite charming but unremarkable town, strolled around and enjoyed some (rare, so far) warm sunshine.
Back on the ship, after lunch for a quiet afternoon with some free time before a teatime departure.
Free time, thought I. Let’s see why we didn’t tour Vukovar. I found out!
Whilst Vukovar is obviously trying to “recover”, you can still see the bullet holes in many of the buildings. Quite sad to be honest.
Yesterday evening in Osijek around 4:45pm, Serbian border police came aboard to do whatever border police do. We were still docked at about 8:30pm, when I slipped out during dinner for a nicotine break. Passports all over the reception desk and frustrated looking Viking officers.
Minutes later, the hotel manager came down the staircase with two bottles of Scotch, which he handed to the border police. It seemed this concluded the essential entry requirements. The police left about 2 minutes later. He told me this was necessary if they didn’t want to experience a 10 hour delay on their next passage into Serbia.
Welcome to the only Balkan State not in the EU! The only country we’ve visited (apart from Russia) where we’ve been told to carry our passport with us at all times and not to lose them because, “Losing a passport in Serbia is a life changing experience, and not for the better!”.
During the morning we took a coach tour around Belgrade, visiting the under construction Orthodox Church, the city centre and the Fortress.
Belgrade has been destroyed 44 times in its history, most recently when bombed by NATO in 1999 during the Bosnian war. It’s been largely rebuilt and has only a few scars left. A nice enough city, but far too “international” with the main street lacking that much local character. Monsoon, H & M, lots of Italian stores but, surprisingly, nothing much American. McDonalds, Burger King, Starbucks all conspicuous by their absence.
However, when 2 coffees come to less than £2, it explains why there are many “authentic” pavement cafés.
During the afternoon we were offered options: to visit a local “Naïve” Art Village, a backstage tour of the National Opera or a Cycling Tour. The first two didn’t appeal and the third caused us much private amusement even at the suggestion. Shuttle buses back to town were also available.
We took option 4. Teas, coffees and Kindles. What a good choice!
After a lovely sunny morning with broken clouds, at about 2:30pm the skies darkened, lightning flashed and the Valkyrie thundered across the sky, accompanied by rain of Biblical proportions. Who said cycling could be good for you?
Belgrade is located on the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers. The dock is a few hundred metres up the Sava where it flows in to the Danube. Never, anywhere else in Europe, have I seen so many empty plastic bottles floating by. Maybe this is part of Serbia’s plan to get back at the EU? As you may have guessed; Belgrade is not too high on my “Places to Return” list.
A large selection of Balkan flavours served as mixed platters (a sort of Indian Thali) which included duck, pork, stuffed cabbage, stuffed peppers, kebabs and some things that tasted really good, but were (and will probably remain) unknown. For dessert, baklava and some other unknown items sweet enough to cause hyper-activity in young children. A plum brandy (50% abv) was enough to make the eyes water.
Accordian players and the waiters in traditional costume all added to a super dinner-time.
Clocks forward 1 hour tonight - change in time zones and probably a change in cultures as we move in to Bulgaria.
Sailing all day tomorrow through the “Iron Gate”. Should give just enough time to digest tonight’s meal!
We cast off at 10:30pm yesterday and will dock tonight at 10pm. Given the 1 hour time difference, that’s 23½ hours sailing down the Danube. Maps and aeroplanes give you no sense of distance. Boats on the other hand…
The most interesting part of the day was around 8:30am, when, for about an hour we sailed through the Iron Gate Gorge. Through history, this provided a choke-point for armies from Turkey and Asia (and a few hairy-arsed local barbarians) moving from Eastern to Central Europe. Not always successfully, history tells us.
The Gorge must have been massively more impressive back then (although still impressive) as, since the damming of the Danube, the water level is several hundred feet higher. A dank foggy clouded morning certainly added to its unwelcoming aspect.
About half way through is an ancient rock carving honouring a fabled warrior king. I’ll wager that once, when hundreds of feet above them, many an hairy-arse trembled at its sight.
The weather cleared gradually during the day as we continued along the Danube, passing many (even by British standards) up-market looking small towns and villages with riverside beaches. Confusing, to be honest, given what we think we know about Bulgaria, Romania and Serbia.
We docked in Vidin, the equivalent of a county town in the UK maybe the size of Swansea or Gloucester.
It was foggy beyond belief; visibility in feet, not yards. The morning tour was to Belogradchik, a mountain fortress with incredible rock formations around it. We feared the worst, the guide hinted at it as we set out, and it all came true, You couldn't see a bloody thing! If there were mountains there they stayed well hidden. Add to that a 3 hour round trip and a coffee stop in an hotel, which did it’s best (which by Bulgarian standards, is not so good), a pretty unimpressive morning.
So back to Vidin for lunch and some free time in the town. We weren’t exactly encouraged to stay on board, but there was entertainment and lectures arranged a little more densely than usual. I’d gone on “unofficial walkabout” once before, so I decided to take my camera for a stroll around town instead.
Now I can see why Bulgarians can’t wait to get out of the country. We don’t know the true meaning of poverty.
This is a regional capital. These photos were taken within a 1km radius of the City Hall. The main-line station, bus station and pedestrian shopping area and some housing fall in that circle.
A local singing group joined us for a dinner show. Clearly, this is designed to give an entirely misleading impression of conditions here.
We leave tonight. I’m not sorry we visited here. We don’t appreciate what we have enough in Western Europe.
This morning we docked in Giurgiu, and transferred to the Inter-Continental Hotel in Bucharest.
En route we first stopped at a Folk Village on the city’s outskirts. Very like St Fagans near Cardiff, for the last 50 or so years they have been collecting old and traditional buildings from around the country to preserve their history and heritage.
Almost as (some would say more) interesting was the vast number of cats who patrolled this village. Literally dozens of them. Not pets, but not in the least feral. All of them beautifully clean and respectable. They came when called, loved to be stroked and purred loudly if picked up. Not a bit like cats at all!
This was followed by a traditional lunch at a local restaurant (simple but very tasty) accompanied by (oh, God, not again!) a folkloric band and dance troupe.
After lunch, on to the Patriarch’s palace, a beautiful Orthodox church in manicured grounds. Closest I’ve seen to Russian standards!
The journey’s sightseeing concluded at the Parliament Building, one of Nicolae Ceaușescu’s boastful projects. It’s the second largest adminstrative building on Earth (The Pentagon’s #1) and looks down a be-fountained avenue longer than the Champs Elysees. He never saw it finished as the anti-Communist revolution ended his 24 year reign. Spectacular! It serves today as the seat of the two Houses of the Romanian parliament as well as hosting conferences, conventions and trade shows. Even this can’t make full use of it’s thousands of rooms.
The Inter-Continental is very central, and convenient for the old town, where there’s a lot of cafés, restaurants and bars. A bit like us, it seems Romanians like foreign food, so it’s mostly Italian, Greek, German; anything except Romanian. We found a really good Italian. Brusetta to start, Risotto for me, pizza for her, drinks and a tip? 70 leu (£11.60, $15.80). And seriously decent portions. Might go wild next time, save up and have a dessert!
A really good day. Off to Transylvania tomorrow. The garlic, wooden stake and silver hammer already packed.
Off to Transylvania. First stop (apart from coffee en route) was at Bran, the location of Dracula’s Castle.
First impressions? The vampire legend has become local custom & practice; the locals try to suck tourists dry (Vampire tradition?). Below the castle is a market offering the largest selection of overpriced “kiss-me-quick” crap I’ve seen assembled in many a day.
It’s a steep climb to the castle, most of us arrived looking and feeling like the living dead. It gets no better inside as, being a castle built for medieval defence, the interior is climbed by viciously steep and narrow stairways. Handrails are for wimps, apparently, and can be used only sparingly.
The castle was renovated in the early 20th Century by Queen Mary (a granddaughter of our Queen Victoria). So not even a bit spooky; just a collection of very well appointed rooms.
The final blow! Vlad the Impaler (Dracula) never lived there - that was his grandfather, Bram Stoker never visited there and… there are no Romanian myths about vampires; they are Serbian myths (vampyres in a Serbian word).
After lunch, on to Brasov.
This was as much a pleasant surprise as Bran had been a disappointment.
We’d expected a smallish, slightly down at heel town; what we found was a small city (about 300k inhabitants), vibrant and lively with large out of town shopping areas and a beautifully clean and well maintained city centre. We could have been in any regional western European capital.
We checked in to the hotel on the outskirts, but a shuttle bus was available or you could take a taxi for the 20 minute journey back to town for 15 leu (£2.75).
We went back for dinner. There were many restaurants, mostly busy. Our first choice didn’t expect a table to become free for 2 hours. This worked out well, because even though we didn’t find the Romanian traditional food we were looking for, we found an Italian restaurant which served possibly the best pasta dish I’ve ever eaten (including all parts of Italy), again at a price so low, we felt embarrassed to pay.
A really long day, ups and downs, but apart from a great evening, we have one of the most charming, informative and entertaining young tour guides we’ve met, so we’ve throughly enjoyed ourselves.
More castles, shopping and back to Bucharest tomorrow.
Back to Bucharest today, stopping at a royal castle and the resort town of Sinai’a.
Romania is starting to confuse me, killing off dozen of misconceptions about this country. It’s beautiful, friendly and dynamic. At least, Transylvania is, where we’ve toured the last 2 days.
We’ve seen New England in the Fall. Sorry New England this is just as beautiful, but on a far greater scale. The Carpathian foothills smothered with autumn colours. Bavarian, maybe Swiss, maybe Tyrolean villages waiting to greet the snow and a thriving skiing location. We’re told, also that at the height of the ski season, you can rent hotel rooms for around $10 a night!
Peles Castle. Still owned by exiled King Michael but still every inch a royal palace (hunting lodge maybe). The setting is magnificent. The building’s interior has been designed for both awe and comfort. What a way to spend a morning. Glorious surroundings, sunshine, mountain air - perfect.
A lunch stop in SInai’a. Could have been Zermatt. Clean, pretty, views to kill for. This (and many of the other towns we passed through) are summer venues for hiking and wolf or bear spotting and winter ski-resort towns.
It seems to me that, whilst the Dracula stories have brought many tourists to the area, overall they have lost out as Transylvania is perceived to be a dark, dangerous and inhospitable place. It’s exactly the opposite. It’s been a very long time since anywhere has been such a pleasant surprise.
Later we returned to the Inter-Continental, Bucharest ready for tomorrow, our final day in Romania.
Our final full day spent in Bucharest. It’s quite a surprising city.
Our Program Director has suggested that, because Ceausescu was a communist, but not a Soviet Stalinist, the 40 years of communism played out differently to the rest of the Eastern Bloc. The other countries were effectively satellites of Moscow. Romania’s relationship was more arms length.
As a result, not everything was torn down. Even though much was, much also remains intact.
Really, there’s not a lot to see in Bucharest that wasn't included by Viking on our city tour, unless you have a specific interest in something. There are, for those who have, museums on almost every subject imaginable. Military conflict, history, costume, classic art, modern art, natural history, communism; the list goes on and on.
However, walking around this city and country, we felt that it has something none of the other Eastern Bloc countries we’ve visited seem to have: ambition.
Just outside our hotel is a modern newly built National Theatre. It’s been busy every night.
Shopping centres are modern, brightly lit and whilst there are the usual international suspects, like H&M, many Romanian companies have established themselves and are thriving.
Parks (and this is a very green city) are manicured; they have an obsessive need to sweep up fallen leaves. Historic buildings have been cleaned and all have multi-lingual plaques outside explaining what they are.
Romanians have an obsession, it seems, with fresh cut flowers. Dozens of people on the street are carrying bouquets, often more than one. Street sellers are everywhere - not the begging type; properly established stalls with beautiful displays of arrangements.
One open market was a total surprise. Across a wide boulevard (which most are) we spotted the backs of a few dozen stalls. We love browsing flea markets, so off we went.
We found it was Orthodox Central!
Every stall was selling religious accessories. Rosaries, icons, incense burners (thuribles, apparently), priests’ robes, wall hangings, chalices… you name it; it was there somewhere. Many of the stalls were staffed with priests and nuns and they were doing a roaring trade.
Toured out by now, we returned to the hotel for a quiet afternoon. We’re going back to last night’s Italian for dinner - Romanian food is really good but very heavy on meat. Vegetables are just plate decor!
Tomorrow, KLM and home.
This has been a really interesting tour. Lots more ups and downs than usual.
Hungary and Romania are vibrant, clean, lively and interesting. They are ambitious; they successfully combine their historical culture with 21st Century Europe, maintaining (perhaps developing) a distinctive and welcoming ambience.
The others - Serbia, Eastern Croatia, Bulgaria - give a sense of being “down at heel and proud of it”. You feel they’re looking for sympathy and someone else to fix their problems. Maybe a wrong impression, but its how it all struck me.
I’d come back to Hungary or Romania without a moment’s hesitation. The others? I’d take a little persuading!
For the first time the sun came out properly.
Today was an all-day outing to the original “Golden Ages” capital of Bulgaria, Veliko Tarnovo and the hill top town of Arbanassi for lunch.
Another Bulgaria. Still touches of 3rd World, but a lot cleaner and more up to date than yesterday.
Arbanassi’s outskirts, in fact, looked like a retreat for the rich & famous. The centre was very tourist focussed. We had a tour of Arbanassi, a restored period house and Orthodox church being the main sights. Lunch was served in an hotel and was quite exceptional. Some folkloric performance (never my personal favourite) accompanied the 4-course lunch. All in all, a really good morning.
After lunch, we made the short journey to the original Bulgarian capital. Situated in a narrow valley, it was clear to see how such an easily defensible location could have become the Centre of Eastern/Balkan Europe (before canons spoilt the party).
The town itself was a collection of touristy shops with prices that suggest that they’re testing what the market will bear. Some prices would have shocked me in Paris or Vienna, let alone in the middle of nowhere. We’d bought a nice hand-made wooden souvenir yesterday for €2. Something very similar here was €30. And people were buying them. Lambs to the slaughter!
Dinner on board was the Captain’s farewell dinner; six excellent courses and then waiters brought us “champagne” and a celebration cake, singing and generally causing a fuss. A lovely end to a lovely day.
Tomorrow, we leave the ship for the InterContinental in Bucharest. Another country waiting to surprise us.
Quiet day today, retracing steps and revisiting favourite places. Showery rain didn’t dampen the spirits (too much). We’d travelled prepared.
Today we transferred from the Hilton to the Viking Lif. When we’d planned the trip, it was to join up with the tour we’d taken in the spring, continuing our journey down the Danube. We’d even booked the same cabin number. Viking “got with the program”. The Lif was docked in exactly the same berth as the Var had been when we left it. It’s amazing when a plan comes together!
We sail tonight at 11pm. It will probably be a while before we come back to Budapest - but I’m sure we will one day. It’s probably my favourite European city.