Passage to Eastern Europe
March 25 - April 8, 2014
"Ya Just Can't Keep a Good Man Down!"
***Greetings from Budapest, Hungary!***
That is correct! I am again on the travel road, on a Viking River Cruise, “Passage to Eastern Europe”, from Budapest, Hungary to Bucharest, Romania, with a side trip afterwards into Transylvania, Romania.
We arrived yesterday evening about 5:30 PM by British Airways from London, having transferred there from another British Airways flight, non-stop from Los Angeles, a long flight! We departed LAX at 6 PM on Tuesday evening.
The flights went well with a little turbulence only once or twice over Greenland and Iceland. The real challenge was changing planes – and terminals – at London’s Heathrow Airport; our LA flight arrived at Terminal 5 and our Budapest flight departed from Terminal 3 but what a hassle! A real nightmare, but we made it!
On arrival we were met by Viking personnel who handled our transfer to the Budapest Marriott Hotel, a very nice and new hotel at which Viking houses their cruise guests; it is on the Danube River near the famous Chain Bridge, and the view from our room is fabulous! Across the River to Castle Hill with the old buildings lit brilliantly at night, along with the lights on the Chain Bridge and the many river boats cruising back and forth: breathtaking view!
Needless to say, we were exhausted from the long flights and time changes; Budapest is 8 hours ahead of California time. After a short orientation talk we got our room keys and very shortly were luxuriating in our beautiful room, enjoying the lights outside our window before crashing into a well-awaited sleep. Of course, around 2 or 3 AM, I was wide-awake. We finally arose around 5 AM, showered and changed for our 6:30 AM breakfast buffet down in the lobby.
What a breakfast buffet! I started with a custom omelet accompanied by sausages and bacon, juices and coffee. Plenty to eat for the day!
Then came our Viking Tour of Budapest from 8:30 AM until 12:30 PM that covered both the “Pest” and “Buda” sides of the city, divided by the Danube River. Having been here before I remembered a lot but had forgotten how really splendid is the city of Budapest; it is truly an architectural treasure! Paris and Vienna can hardly compare.
By the time of our return from this tour, I was again dragging from lack of sleep, so the afternoon was spent enjoying another long nap. Now I should be caught up, ready for tomorrow’s optional tour out to the Gödöllõ Royal Palace, and our transfer to the Viking riverboat, the Rinda where I look forward to our upgraded Veranda Suite.
These two nights at this Marriott have been a real pleasure but it will be good to finally be aboard our river boat, one of Viking’s new “Longships”, for the next week, cruising DOWN the Danube toward Bucharest and the Black Sea.
Yesterday after our sumptuous breakfast buffet at the Marriott Hotel – I again enjoyed a delicious custom-made omelet along with bacon, sausages and sautéed mushrooms, we were requested to have our luggage placed in the hallway by 8 AM in preparation for transfer to the nearby riverboat. We had chosen to take the optional tour out to visit the Gödöllõ Royal Palace from 10 AM until 1:30 PM, returning then directly to our riverboat for embarkation, and it turned out to be a very interesting trip.
The weather could not have been more pleasant; still a little nippy in the early morning but brilliant sunshine during the day. The 45-minute bus ride out of central Budapest was along an impressive new motorway (freeway) into the countryside, just now showing the beginnings of spring with green just starting to show in the trees and some trees already resplendent in their blossoms.
The Palace is very historic, dating back for centuries, and is now still undergoing restoration from it many years under Communism when it was used for Russian Army barracks. One could hardly believe it now with the shape it is in, or at least that portion of the 135-room mansion that has been restored. The 20 or so rooms which we were able to visit were absolutely stunning, decorated authentically with draperies and other period fixtures such as stoves, furniture and magnificent paintings. It was at one time the summer home of the Hapsburg family, the royalty of the time.
Our arrival at the riverboat coincided with that of several other buses and our introduction to our cruising “home” for the next week was less than cordial. Lunch had been prepared in the dining room, or rather sandwiches, soups and salads, but the onslaught of up to 200 passengers was not handled well, I thought, and I was lucky to grab what little food I could. There was complimentary wine, however, which made up for some of the staff’s shortsightedness in coping with such a crowd of starving passengers.
Afterwards we checked in at Reception and were given our room keys and shown to our staterooms. As previously mentioned, we had been upgraded from a Veranda Stateroom to one of the 7 Veranda Suites, and ours is the first on the third deck. Awaiting us was chilled champagne and glasses as well as a small floral arrangement on the coffee table in the living room, separate from the bedroom and large bathroom. Very luxurious!
The Viking Rinda is one of the newer ships and shows many advanced features unusual for river boats, including sliding “pocket” doors, a spacious balcony with chairs and a table, TWO large screen TVs – one in the living room and one in the bedroom, exotic lighting, and a huge shower with upgraded hardware. I am quite impressed and may never want to go back to a standard stateroom!
A safety drill was held at 5:15 PM and then at 6 was a welcome toast by the Captain and his staff in the Lounge – which is just down the way on Deck 3: free champagne! Then a lengthy discussion by the Cruise Manager of the next day’s activities. Finally dinner was served in the Dining Room, downstairs on Deck 2, at 7 PM.
Unlike the earlier unpleasant lunch experience, dinner was well handled and I was most impressed with the style of service: menu selections, etc. It was most reminiscent of the dinner service one would expect on an ocean cruise ship. Of course, wine is now complimentary at lunch and dinner. Seating is open and there is only the one seating, so everyone finds their own seats at the tables for 6 or more. We were lucky to have met another couple on our City Tour of Budapest with whom we were seated at dinner. It was a most pleasant experience; my choice of grilled prawns was excellent.
At 9 PM after dinner there was entertainment in the Lounge – a local Budapest group, but I chose to retreat to our Suite for an early-to-bed. Right now it is quite early – around 5; my sleep patterns are still not back to normal, so I just got up and decided to compose this email to you. This morning breakfast is at 7 AM in the dining room and our morning tour leaves at 8:30 AM. I will describe further this afternoon.
***Cruising Down the Danube***
Right now we just departed Vukovar, Croatia where we have been docked for the day, enjoying a full morning tour to Osijek. The weather has been beautiful! Clear skies with a slight chill in the air. Spring is just arriving here with most of the trees and bushes all budded-out.
Yesterday we were docked at Kalocsa, Hungary and our morning tour included a city tour, stopping at an Archbishop’s Residence before proceeding out to a horse farm in the Puszta (plains) for a very entertaining horse show. Before in 2007 we had taken a tour out of Budapest to a similar – and far superior – horse show, and I had mistakenly assumed that this one would be the same; wrong! Interesting, never the less, with expert riding demonstrations and bull whips by the Hungarian cowboys, dressed in their traditional costume of flowing blue culottes.
Today was our first visit in Croatia, still showing signs of the terrible “Homeland War” of the 90s when Serbia attacked and did considerable devastation to the country. Our first stop was at a home, made into a tourist attraction by its owner. Samples of homemade brandies were offered as well as white and red wines along with snacks. Many hand-made items were available for sale, along with the brandies. An interesting visit.
Then it was a drive on into Osijek to the ancient fort there for a short walking tour, one stop being at a church; the cobble-stone streets added to the ancient style of the houses, schools and other church buildings.
After our morning tours, it is back to the riverboat for lunch aboard, and then – usually – a lengthy afternoon nap. (My internal clock is still messed up!)
Tomorrow we are in Belgrade, Serbia for the day, so our usual 8:30 AM until 12:30 PM city tour will be on schedule, back to the boat for lunch, and then optional independent touring back into the center of Belgrade.
Time for bed.
***The Iron Gates of the Danube***
Today there were no ports of call for us; instead the entire day was devoted to cruising down the Danube, one area of interest being the region of the River referred to as the Iron Gates. This region is characterized by its very narrow gorge, faced on each bank with tall, sheer cliffs of rugged rock structures. On one particular cliff is sculpted the face of a man, of huge dimensions. We passed through this region this morning around 9 to 10 o'clock.
Then came the gigantic “Iron Gate” locks (2) which lower vessels traveling down river by 17 and 16 meters, respectively, a joint project of the former Yugoslavia and Romania on the two banks of the Danube here. The lengthy process of passing through these two locks brought us past lunchtime, and so now – past lunch, the river is quite wide with fairly low hills on each bank.
Yesterday in Belgrade, our morning city tour was extensive, traveling to both sides of the Danube in this large city of several million. Highlights of this tour was a visit to the gigantic church which sits atop the city; although appearing complete from the exterior, it is far from complete, its construction having been interrupted on many occasion by wars, so now the interior is still under construction which is predicted to be complete in the year 2020. During WWII the Germans used the structure as a garage, and during the communist era, very little was done on its construction.
The second highlight of our tour was the ancient fort that sits high above the city and river, and has been the source of interest for hundreds of years under the various military regimes. Now it is a park popular by school children and tourists alike.
Afterwards, we returned to our riverboat for lunch, but then free shuttle busses were available at various times during the afternoon to return to the City Center for further sightseeing. We took the 3:00 PM bus and I sat at a sidewalk café while Jim raced around to different historic points of interest for photographs. We returned to the ship on the last shuttle at 5:20 PM.
Although there was a local Serbian musical group performing aboard our riverboat after dinner at 9 PM, I chose to skip it and get another early-to-bed; the lengthy walking tours of the day had taken their toll. We again lost another hour to a time-change last night, so it was a lazy morning for me.
Right now we will be taking a tour of the wheelhouse aboard ship.
***Goodbye to the Danube***
This morning we are disembarking the Viking Rinda after 7 days of luxurious living and cruising down the Danube from Budapest; at 8:30 AM we will be bussed on into the Romanian city of Bucharest, a trip of an hour and a half. Our bags have to be placed in the hallway by 8 AM, so it was a late night last night, getting everything packed up again. Tonight we will be staying at the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bucharest, another 5 star hotel.
Yesterday was our second day visiting Bulgaria, and it was a full day tour down to Veliko Tarnovo, once the ancient capital of Bulgaria; it was a hour and a half drive through rolling hills of farmland, lush with new growth of crops.
The city is built on the top of a mountain – literally, and I was reminded of some of the homes in Laguna Beach, clinging to hillsides. We visited one area of choice homes that included an ancient church of low design and filled with exquisite murals.
Our lunch was at a nearby restaurant and offered local Bulgarian dishes: a delicious salad of tomato, cucumber and peppers with a white cheese, a bowl of hot vegetable soup, and a chicken dish cooked in a crockery pot. All absolutely good.
The day before we had also taken a drive from the port of Vidin down to another hilltop city of Belogradchik where is located a natural rock outcropping around which an ancient fort is constructed; reaching it was a real challenge to reach.
Time to go so this report will be a bit short.
***Our First Day in Bucharest***
After departing the Viking Rinda in the port city of Giurgiu, Romania, just across the Danube River from Russe, Bulgaria, we were bussed into Bucharest during the morning.
Our first stop was at a large park in which exact replicas of ancient houses of Romanian heritage are displayed. All very interesting but we were all ready for lunch!
Lunch did follow shortly in a large restaurant where we were served delicious vegetable and beef soup along with a salad, followed by a chicken-cooked-in-a-pot dish with rice. Dessert of ice cream, in addition to complimentary wine of course, completed this enjoyable repast.
Our second stop during an extensive city tour of this beautiful city of 3 million was at the gigantic Parliament Building, the second largest building in the world – bested only by the Pentagon Building in Washington, D.C. Entrance to this building is highly restricted, requiring passports and a security clearance – similar to that at airports.
Built by CeauÈ™escu in the late 80s – as a monument to himself, the building was not yet finished before CeauÈ™escu’s death in 1989. Climbing the 300 marble steps was a real challenge for me but led to the many rooms we were permitted to visit.
Every item used in the construction is native to Romania including the many tons of white marble and the magnificence of the over-sized, enormous rooms is awesome. Many very large chandeliers enhance the ornately adorned ceilings and the floors are all done in marble mosaic designs. An amazing structure to say the least! Needless to say, the return DOWN those 300 marble steps was even more of a challenge for me!
Finally we were dropped at our hotel, the Radisson Blu, where we found our rooms to be just as splendid as those in the Budapest Marriott. Viking certainly does things in a 5-star manner!
Dinner was on our own, and this would be the final evening for those returning home the next morning; for those 23 of us remaining for the 3-night Transylvania Extension, our transfer by bus to Brasov would follow the next morning.
***Back in Bucharest***
Late this afternoon we returned to Bucharest for two more nights before our return home on Tuesday morning, April 8th.
Last evening we spent the night in the Transylvania city of Brasov, at the Ramada Hotel, having spent the morning driving the hour and a half distance from Bucharest; we stopped during midmorning at a giant new shopping center, CarreFour, for a toilet break. The center is similar to a large Costco shopping center and was very impressive in its offerings and substantial customer base.
Then it was on to Peles Palace, one of the summer homes of Romanian royalty; ornate dims in meaning to the splendor of this place, loaded with tourists. The woodcarvings were most impressive. It was then to lunch at a nearby restaurant and then eventually to our hotel, after an extensive city tour. Dinner was at a local restaurant downtown, reached by a hotel shuttle bus, since the hotel’s location was not very convenient.
Yesterday our main interest was in the small town of Bran and its famous “Dracula” Castle. The fame of this legend has transformed this sleepy little town into a major tourist attraction, and it was with hordes of other tourists with which we toured the many rooms. The weather had changed during our drive into the Transylvanian mountains and it was quite cold and wet.
The long drive back to Bucharest gave opportunity for a nap, interrupted only by a repeat visit to the large CarreFour shopping center for a break. It was still nice to again be in our comfortable room here at the Radisson Blu Hotel.
***Today in Constansa***
At 5 PM we returned from our day tour to Constansa on the Black Sea. Since we were the only ones opting for this special tour, it was essentially a private tour for us, conducted by Adrian, a former cruise program manager, in his car, traveling the 150 miles along a high-speed toll road between Bucharest and Constansa.
Despite the time involved – around 3 hours each way, it was a very interesting drive through absolutely flat farm land, crossing the Danube – and a tributary – twice in addition to the Danube Canal connecting the River directly to the Black Sea.
Although rather run down from its former elegance as a Black Sea summer resort, Constansa reeks of history and is one of the oldest cities in Romania. Many ancient buildings are currently under renovation, so needed by so many others.
Our first stop was at an old mosque whose interior displayed brilliant mosaics and religious icons. Then a short walk brought us to the old casino, rather run down and in need of restoration; outstanding architecture in any case.
Then we took a short walk up one of the streets through the old part of the city to City Art Museum.
A short drive took us to the Mamia district of the city that is lined with resort hotels facing the Black Sea, and walked out onto the wide sandy beach. I actually dipped my hand into the waters. Surprising to me was the considerable surf rolling in; not big enough for serious surfing but substantial never the less.
We then stopped at a nice restaurant for a delicious lunch before saying goodbye to the Black Sea and the charming city of Constansa. Needless to say naps were in order during the long drive back to Bucharest.
It was a fine day and this tour completes my cruising from the North Sea in Amsterdam to the Black Sea in Constansa.
Tonight will be spent rearranging our luggage for its final transfer tomorrow morning: 6:15 AM for luggage with a 6:30 AM departure for the airport. Our British Airways flight to London departs at 8:50 AM.
So this much-anticipated “Passage to Eastern Europe” cruise/tour has come to an end, a very satisfied and full filling experience.
The long trip is over and went exactly as planned, with the exception of our arrival at LAX and the long, LONG walk from the remote landing area - via bus to the new Bradley Terminal – through the new section and finally to the immigration control, and THEN the long walk on to the baggage claim and THEN to customs control, and FINALLY to the exit and finding SuperShuttle for our ride home. NOT a very “welcome home!”
We decided to stay at Jim’s Long Beach apartment overnight before returning me home the next day, Wednesday, where I have been trying to recuperate from the substantial jetlag: a 10-hour time change from Bucharest, Romania. Yesterday was the first day I have felt “normal.”
So, I am now home, rested from jetlag, and still enthralled with the great experiences this “Passage to Eastern Europe” cruise/tour has provided. I am SO GLAD that I was recovered sufficiently to have proceeded with this trip, so long planned and anticipated.