Backgound: My wife (57) and I (60) travelled the Passage to Eastern Europe itinerary (Bucharest-Budapest) on the Viking Modi in April. While seasoned ocean cruise travelers, this was our first river cruise and inaugural trip with Viking. Eastern Europe appealed to us as neither had been to the five countries of the itinerary. We were both in the military stationed in Germany during the late 80s and were prohibited to take vacations behind the Iron Curtain. So this was an opportunity to see some of the old vestiges of communism and how these new democratic countries were integrating into the rest of Europe.
Day 1 Bucharest Romania: Viking arranged flight from Tampa to Bucharest was on Lufthansa with a connection in Frankfurt. We were met at Bucharest airport by a Viking rep with bottled water and towelette. There was somewhat of a duffle bag drag in Bucharest Airport due to configuration of airport and where the bus could park. The check in at Sheraton Bucharest at 1800 was smooth and room was on quiet side of hotel. There was a lack of dinner recommendations by Viking rep but we found a nice crepe restaurant close by that was open on Sunday night. Many guests just ate in the hotel restaurant or the Pizza Hut next door.
Day 2 Bucharest/Giurgu Romania: Nice breakfast buffet in hotel. Luggage out by 0730, had stateroom tags on bags as they were delivered to our room on the Modi in Giurgu. At 0900 boarded buses for city tour, visit to the Parliament Palace and the Village Museum. Highlight was the Parliament Palace (second to the Pentagon as the largest admin building in the world and a lot nicer inside than the 5 sided one). Parliament tour was by government guide and was outstanding as we had access to the main rooms and halls of the Palace, no restrictions on video or photos. Village Museum represented historic houses/churches from the three regions of Romania. The tour was interesting but light rain put a damper on this outdoor activity. Local ladies had a table with painted eggs for sale that were a popular buy for our tour group. After the Village tour we went to a local restaurant (Pescarus), for the included 4 course lunch (cabbage Salad, vegetable soup, beef stew over potatoes, apple strudel). Good hearty food on a rainy day. After lunch we drove 90 mins to Giurgu and boarded the Modi. Check in was smooth and the luggage was awaiting in the stateroom. Welcome briefing, safety drill and port talk was that evening. After dinner we sailed across the river to Russe, Bulgaria
Day 3 Russe Bulgaria: Russe was our tour departure point to Arbanasi and Veliko Tarnovo. Great tour guide covered a lot of Bulgarian history/culture during our 90 minute bus ride. Stopped at a hotel for tea and restroom break. Tour of Arbanasi included an ottoman style house, church and shop to sample local liqueurs. Included 4 course lunch in at the Izvora (cucumber/tomato/goat cheese salad, vegetable soup, chicken clay pot dish, desert). Highly recommend the desert (yogurt with honey and walnuts). After lunch we drove to Veliko Tarnovo. Were given free time to either shop in town or walk the Tsarevets Fortress grounds. We chose the fortress and walked to the top of the hill and into the Patriarchal Church. Dating to the 12th century, this strategic fortress is one of two highly fortified hills that protected Bulgarian rulers living on the site in the tsar’s palace. Today it provides great views of the town and countryside. Upon departure from Veliko Tarnovo we drove to Svistov where the Modi had moved up river to meet us. That evening we sailed to Vidin.
Day 4 Vidin Bulgaria: Vidin was our departure point for Belogradchik Rocks and Fortress. After bus tour of Vidin it was a 90 minute drive to Belogradchik which included a hotel stop for coffee and cookies. Fortress included rock formations that you could climb through a series of stairs. Luckily it was a sunny dry day as rocks have moss covering and would have been difficult footing if wet. We had one hour on site and it was one hour back to ship. After lunch on the ship we walked down to the Baba Vida Fortress in Vidin. Back on the ship there was a sponsored afternoon talk with two girl high school students and a show by children's dance group. Departure at 1800.
Day 5 Cruise through Iron Gate: Set clocks back one hour. Went through one lock during night and one during day. Very windy going into the gorge between the Carpathian and Balkan Mountains. Passed the Viking Alta heading downriver. Went by the stone monument to Dacian King Decebalus and the monastery. Took a tour of the wheelhouse, loved all the electronics. Afternoon tea in the lounge with Apple Strudel making session. Lounge talk about other Viking cruises with $200 for $100 credit offer on future cruises.
Day 6 Belgrade Serbia: Arrived at 0600 in Belgrade and tour start 0830. Had to have passports when off boat. 4 hour tour included: city tour, crypt visit to St. Sava church, one hour in pedestrian zone (Knez Mihailova) for shopping and walking tour of Kalemegdan Fortress. After lunch onboard, walked up to pedestrian zone in afternoon for more shopping. Late afternoon was a fascinating guest lecture on Serbia-history and today. Dinner was Balkan food either served or buffet. Serbian folklore band and dancing after dinner was great. 2300 left Belgrade for Vukovar.
Day 7 Vukovar Croatia: Morning cruising, walked on sun deck. Croatian Tamburica Band played before lunch and was great. After lunch and docking there was a bus tour of Vukovar. Signs of the 1990s conflict where evident as the town was the epicenter of the Serb/Croatian war. Toured the fortress in Osijek which is now used for academic and commercial purposes. Visited church and heard young lady sing. In small groups we visited houses in Imish. We visited a house where the lady had a cake making business, weren't we lucky. After a great conversation with our host we headed back to the ship.
Day 8 Kalocsa and Puszta Hungary: Early morning passport check on board as we entered Hungary at Mohacs. Morning cruising included a movie on the European Union. 1230 docked in Kalocsa. 1330 Tour of town included a visit to the Assumption Cathedral in Holy Trinity Square for a organ recital. After we drove 20 minutes into the country side to Puszta where the Hungarian cowboys (csikos) put on a show of horsemanship. Make sure you visit the animal stables to see the horses. They also have a breed of pig (Mangalica) that has curly wool like sheep and sheep (Racka) that have antelope style spiral horns. That night we had a final farewell talk as we sailed to Budapest.
Day 9 Budapest: Luggage outside stateroom by 0830 as it will be delivered directly to the hotel. Close out ship accounts. Vacate stateroom by 0830 and await 0930 tour of Budapest. Tour of city with stop on Buda side at Fisherman's Bastion and tour of Matthias Church. After is a visit to the Central Market and free time for shopping and to have lunch on own. 1530 check-in to hotel which was the Radisson Blu Beke Hotel in Pest. This is my only true criticism of the trip. As much as Viking got right, I can't believe they picked this hotel. When we originally got our itinerary they listed the Hilton on Buda side as our hotel which got rave reviews. We then got an email saying they changed our hotel to the Radisson. The issue with the Radisson is that it has been under renovation for the last 5 months and this had to be known to Viking when they made the switch of hotels. Many of us were on the second floor of the Radisson with jackhammering occurring on the floor below. The vibration would rattle your teeth. We were in one of the renovated rooms which the cable went out the first night and the shower pressure would decrease as you made the water hotter. So obviously some bugs to work out in the rooms that have already been renovated. Went out for a city walk late afternoon to get out of hotel. Walked to the Parliament, along the Danube, over the Chain Bridge and back and through Liberty Square. Nice evening.
Day 10 Budapest: Breakfast in makeshift ball room as café under construction. Got out of hotel early before renovation worked started. Bought 24 hour transportation pass and rode tram and bus up to Buda Hill. Had Fisherman's Bastion free of crowds, took great pictures. Went to Harry Houdini's Museum as he was originally from Budapest. Took bus down to Pest side and start of Deák Ferenc utra and Vaci utra which are the pedestrian shopping streets. Revisited the Central Market for some souvenirs. Took the Metro back to a stop close to the hotel.
Day 11 Trip Home: Baggage placed outside of hotel room at 0945 for trip to airport at 1030. Bus to airport was uneventful. Budapest is a modern airport with a nice food court. Lufthansa flight was Budapest-Munich-Newark. Then United to Tampa. Arrived home after midnight and was glad to find my bed.
- Stick with the included tours since you paid for them; unless of course there is a culinary or wine tour that you must do. We found all the included tours went to great locations with very knowledgeable guides that spoke good English. Utilization of the QuietVox system allows space to spread out the tour group. We recommend tipping the bus drivers/local guides if you enjoyed the tour.
- Local currency. Each of the five countries visited retains its own currency even if they are members of the European Union. We did not ATM withdrawal or exchange for any Levs, Kuna or Forints. We found all the tourist shops/restaurants either took credit cards, euros and in some cases dollars. We tipped the local guides in Euros.
- We found the food on the cruise to be of higher quality than experienced on Princess or Holland America cruises of the past. There was always a three course selection of local cuisine available for dinner and we would recommend you consider this first. Service was outstanding as there was never a long wait time to be served or in between courses. Most of our meals were taken in the dining room. We had one dinner and two lunches on the Aquavit Terrace. This was attributed to the outside seating was only open one afternoon due to the weather and inside seating is rather limited.
- Your passports are secured by guest services upon arrival on the ship and you receive them back at the end of the cruise. The only time we were required to have them was getting off the ship in Belgrade Serbia for the day. There is also a passport photo check with immigration officials on board when you cross into Hungary as you are entering the Shengren Area of the EU.
- This is an enrichment cruise and the on-board entertainment is reflective of that. We found the local musical groups/dance tropes to be very talented. The lecture by the university professor in Belgrade was not to be missed. As well the reflections of "growing up behind the Iron Curtain" by the cruise director Nikolay and hotel manger Frank were entertaining and informative. Nice father and daughter duo that provided nightly music.
- Viking is very cognizant of the age demographic of its guests and this is reflective in the opportunities for utilization of restrooms on the tours. While most restrooms on the cruise tours are free, the restrooms in Budapest are not. Both at the Matthias Church/Fisherman's Bastion site and the Central Market Place there is a 1 Euro charge to use the restroom. Therefore, best to have some change available to use the loo.
Overall is was a fantastic cruise and hopefully you will get a chance to experience it too.
Smaller than other cabins experienced on ocean vessels. Nevertheless, we utilized the space well: luggage under bed, maximized drawers and shelves. Great that they had 4 each 110 and 220 volt outlets in the room. French balcony was nice to see scenery go by. Considering the weather in early April not sure we would have utilized a Veranda if we had it.