Where History Speaks: The Danube From Bucharest to Budapest by Daniel R. Schwarz
“Where History Speaks: The Danube From Bucharest to Budapest,” with photographs by Marcia Jacobson Ithaca Journal, Elmira Star-Gazette and Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin, Aug. 9, 2014, 1D-2D,http://www.ithacajournal.com/story/life/2014/08/08/traveling-danube-bucharest-budapest/13814077/
Our River Cruise Accommodations and Itinerary
To build on our prior travels in Eastern Europe, my wife, Marcia Jacobson, and I bought an 11-day Viking cruise package that included seven nights on the Danube. The cruise began in Bucharest and ended in Budapest and we added to the Viking itinerary a day in each of those cities. Before our Viking package began, I gave a talk on my New York Times book at Bucharest University. When we booked our trip it was as much to sample a river cruise as to add new countries and destinations to our portfolio, but in fact the trip turned into a history lesson. We visited Romania, Bulgaria, and Serbia for the first time and returned to Croatia and Hungary. Among major cities, we made our first visits to Belgrade and Bucharest, and revisited Budapest.
We sailed with 180 or so passengers–rather than the thousands on a large cruise ship–on a new “long boat.” With fewer passengers, getting on and off the ship is less cumbersome. Moreover, on a river trip, the water is almost always calm, and no one gets seasick or tossed about.
The top two passenger decks, except for a handful of small suites and two much larger ones, are similar with good views and some balconies that cost extra. The lower passenger deck not only contains somewhat smaller rooms but also, more importantly, one looks up see the water and therefore has no view. I would not recommend that deck unless money is tight. With a king-size bed on the top deck, a full window and a balcony (called a “veranda”), our room met our expectations and was an efficiently organized 206 square feet. As usual on cruises, we used the balcony less than we expected, but it is does extend the feel of the cabin space.
Service was excellent, especially that of our room attendant who called himself, “Lady Gaga.” Indeed, a number of members of the staff seem like descendants of the Borscht circuit Tummler, the person who makes things happen while amusing the guests.
Lower Danube, Iron Gates region, cliff carving of Decebalus, the founder of Romania
We were on the Danube for seven nights (but six full days since you arrive at 6 on day one and leave early on day eight. Viking includes five excursions, dividing the 180 or so passengers into four buses.
On the third full day we simply sailed and that included the nice experience of passing through locks located in the Iron Gates which is a gorge connecting Romania to Serbia.
Because there is not much to see on some of the stops outside the major cities, Viking struggles to find excursions that work. On the plus side, with one exception, our guides were reasonably good and spoke comprehensible if not perfect English. The excursion guides did give us some basic information on the bus, but usually simply described a building as we drove past. I was not alone in finding that too many visits included places to shop with minimal snacks and beverages served as incentives to stay and buy.
Viking seems to cater to elderly people, even though a reasonable percentage of our fellow travellers were quite fit. Viking should have had at least one of four buses for more vigorously inclined passengers.
With no gym on board—and I would suggest a small gym be made out of one or two cabins on the lower deck–I tried to walk as much as possible on the upper deck and on excursions when we were docked.
Having ordered many new long boats, Viking is expanding and perhaps appealing more to a high middle clientele than the luxury traveler. On balance, the Viking passengers were more well-travelled–few people choose an Eastern European cruise as their first foreign travel–than the Holland-American or Celebrity Cruise passengers we have encountered and more financially well off than those we met on a more modestly priced Grand Circle river cruise. We were fortunate to meet many interesting people. But seasoned travelers are not necessarily cosmopolitan in other aspects of worldliness and intellectual sophistication. We met several people who seemed oblivious to the Bosnian wars and to the essentials European history.
Entertainment on board was low-keyed but often quite good. We enjoyed a splendid indigenous Serbian music and dance performance by a group called the Talija Ensemble. The next day a Croatian band was fun. Another highlight was a lecture on Serbian history. But we should have had more of that kind of stimulus, perhaps one lecture on all five countries we visited or on the World War Two, the Balkan Wars, and the Holocaust. Dancing after dinner one night to the cruise director’s singing along with a pianist was fun, and there was some dancing on one or two other nights.
Meals On Board
Meals on the boat are not imaginative, but are nicely served. Open seating enables travelers to meet a wide variety of people, although we found two exceptionally compatible couples with whom we had dinners. The food was good, but not exceptional and certainly not fine dining. I did not feel the meals were comparable to best cruise ship meals we have had. Dinners are the basic three courses (appetizer, entrée, desert) although you can ask for more than one choice. The best food was quite good, as when asparagus was featured and appetizers included asparagus soup and fresh asparagus. Because of an elderly clientele, there is not much seasoning and portions are smallish. If you ask the kitchen will try to please you. Upon our request, they brought my wife and me fresh juice and some sliced tomatoes.
Viking suggests even more unreasonable tipping expectations than the typical exorbitant expectation: 12 euros ($1.36 or so to the dollar) per day per person, 2 more Euros for the cruise director, plus 2 Euros per person for the daily excursion guide and 1 Euro for the bus driver; this totals over $46 a day per couple. All cruises, I believe, should include service and not expect the passengers to pay the salaries of their staff. Most experienced travelers to whom I have spoken prefer to have an all-inclusive package even if they pay a little more.
I was impressed with the vitality of the University students and other young people I met. The Romas—commonly known as gypsies–are descended from Indians from Asia. They are a separate people and are usually poor and uneducated. They are most prevalent in Romania, but are also present in Bulgaria and in Serbia and Hungary in small percentages.
Bucharest: the Athenaeum; concert hall is above this entry hall
The Old Town area and its environs are the center of the city’s cultural life. Walking in the historic Old Town, a center of Bucharest cultural and social life, with its quaint winding streets and 19-century buildings is a highlight. A brief tour of Athenaeum, a beautiful neo-Gothic concert hall built at the end of the nineteenth century, is a must. Old Town includes some small and beautiful churches decorated with iconographic frescoes and a moving Holocaust memorial. The Royal Palace and National Art Museum within it are worth a visit. The Museum has traditional European and Romanian collections.
Before getting on the boat at about 6pm, our Viking tour included a day tour of Bucharest. The Palace of the People—sometimes called the Palace of Parliament– built by the former Communist ruler Ceausescu–is the advertised as the second largest public building in the world. Built at great expense and labor intensive, the kitsch building marries elegance to bad taste. Most of the houses in the Village Museum at Herastrau Park were not open, and that site proved a disappointment. What was really a waste of time was a visit to a shop selling folk art, but we soon learned that Viking builds such occasions around toilet stops.
Bulgaria: Belogradshick Fortress
On our first full day, across the Danube from Bucharest, our all-day excursion focused on the Bulgarian city of Veliko Tarnova. We enjoyed the beautiful Church of the Nativity, an Orthodox Church with stunning frescoes and icons painted in the Byzantine Style, as well as the Tsarvets Fortress overlooking the city. In part because the guide made it seem as if we would be needing oxygen and rope ladders, only a handful of our group of 40 hiked to the top.
Bulgaria: Remains of synagogue in Vidin
On the second day after we docked at Vidin, the poorest city in the entire European Union, we took a bus to Belogradschik Fortress to which some of us climbed. In the afternoon we went to the Vidin market, but because it was Sunday little was open. We walked around Vidin on our own and visited the remains of a synagogue, dating to 1894, which was once Bulgaria’s second largest synagogue. Bulgaria no longer has much of a Jewish community but did better than most at saving its Jews during World War II. The young people of Vidin were exceptionally friendly, spoke English, and made clear that in Vidin there was not a future for them.
Since 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell, Bulgaria’s population has declined from 9 million to perhaps under 7 million. The Communists had appropriated land, undermining the tradition of small farms, and emphasized industry to create exports to the USSR. With factories closed after 1989 and the agrarian economy controlled by large foreign companies, young people leave in droves because there are no jobs.
Belgrade: view from Kalmegdan Fortress
One of the trip’s highlights was Belgrade, a city at the crossroads between the Balkans and Central Europe. Belgrade is the capital of the old Yugoslavia and now the capital of Serbia. At the confluence of the Sava River and the Danube, it is, despite some neo-Stalinist architecture, the most attractive city on our trip, except for Budapest. With our Viking tour, we visited the Kalemegdan Fortress that embodies Belgrade’s history of battles and changing hands. We also visited the world’s largest Orthodox Church, which was begun in 1935, resumed after Communism in 1985, and still seems far from finished.
On our own, we visited the active Sephardic synagogue where the Rabbi could not have been more welcoming, and we also enjoyed the Museum of Applied Arts.
Croatia: Rococo church (St. Anthony), in Osijek
In Croatia, after docking at the river port of Vukover in the Slavonia region of Croatia–an area where the Serbs had tried to establish hegemony during the Balkan Wars and had committed atrocities–we traveled to Osijek (still in the Slavonia region). We visited a rococo church where a young woman sung Christian hymns, saw a Holocaust memorial in the Church grounds, and then proceeded to what was billed as an invitation from an estate owner, but really was another shopping expedition, this time for folk art. My wife and I had spent some time in Dubrovnik. Split, and Hvar a few years ago–all on the Adriatic Coast and quite wonderful for tourists–and in terms of scenery, we found rural Croatia a tad disappointing.
My wife and I first visited Budapest in the mid 1990s after I gave a lecture and seminar in Prague. Hovering over the visit were the historical memory of the deportation of Budapest Jews in 1944 to Auschwitz and the personal memory that one of my eight great grandparents—my grandmother’s mother– came from Hungary.
Because it was on the losing side and lost 70 per cent of its territory, Hungary claims to be “the only country surrounded by itself.” It lost most of its Jews because the Arrow Cross allowed the Germans to deport most of them to Auschwitz where 90 per cent were immediately gassed or shot.
Budapest: Shoe Holocaust Memorial by the Danube
With its architecture varying from baroque to art nouveau, splendid coffee houses, and nightly lit up buildings and bridges along the Danube, Budapest is the most beautiful city on this trip. Pest is flat and Buda is hilly. On our first of three full days in Budapest, we took an extensive walking tour led by a guide hired by Viking. Be sure to visit the Matthias Church, and the Holocaust memorial composed of shoes to honor those who had to discard their shoes before being shot and their bodies thrown in the Danube. The most cosmopolitan city in Eastern Europe, it has splendid musical opportunities. We saw the Hungarian National Ballet’s production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs; meant for children as well as adults, it was great fun and beautifully presented and choreographed. We had fine seats, and they were inexpensive.
On our second day, we took an overpriced Viking tour to the Art Museum and stayed several hours after our tour was over. While the tour included an informed talk by a museum guide on a special Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit, the guide ignored the permanent collection with its El Grecos, Rembrandts, a Velasquez, and two Raphaels. The collection is worth a visit, but it is not on the order of the world’s great art museums.
Budapest: Great Synagogue (one of largest in world)
The focal point of the following day was the Great Synagogue, which has been beautifully restored in the 1990s after being bombed and occupied by Nazis. Seating about 3000 and one of the three largest synagogues in the world, it is a Reform synagogue with Islamist influences but the Hungarian Jews were of Ashkenazi origin. Admission to the entire complex—including the memorial garden and three museums and a guided tour—is about $12.
As we were reminded every day, five interrelated events inform every day in Eastern Europe: 1) The rise and fall of Hitler, including World War II; 2) The Holocaust; 3) The USSR’s military occupation of Eastern Europe after the World War and its hard line political presence and domination in Poland, Bulgaria, Romania, and Hungary. The Soviet presence was less forceful in the old Yugoslavia, where Tito took that country somewhat on its own less dogmatic economic and international path; 4) The Communist economic system from 1945 to 1989; and 5) The 1990s Balkan Wars during which horrific ethnic cleansing occurred at the hands of Serbians.
Affecting the countries that once made up Yugoslavia, the Balkan Wars are never far from the personal and historical memories of the citizens of Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia. Of course the tales we heard were radically different, but having been in Bosnia and Croatia before, I know how the Serbs sought to impose their will by military force and that was possible because President Slobodan Milosevic, a Serbian, controlled the Yugoslavian national army. Significance signs of devastation remain and tensions continue in both Bosnia and in the parts of Croatia where Serbians live.
If You Go:
On balance, the Viking Cruise is a good product for the market it serves. Price will vary depending on you choice of room and dates of travel, and you can find less expensive river cruises.
Bucharest: We stayed at the quite splendid J.W Marriott that, notwithstanding the Stalinist architecture of the exterior, has all the amenities of a five star international hotel. The more centrally located Radisson, from which the Viking cruises began, was quite nice, but in a different league from the splendid J.W. Marriott. The Internet was much slower, and the “at your service” phone took several minutes to respond.
Budapest: the Danube at night
Like the Buchartest J. W. Marriott, the Budapest Marriott is quite elegant on the inside, despite pedestrian soviet style architecture on the outside. Breakfasts are excellent, but the highlight was a terrific view of the lit bridges and the Danube.
Budapest: Szazeves (Piarista utca 2; near Marriott). Veal stew within a potato pancake was typically heavy mid-European cuisine; the strudel was disappointing and might have dated from the restaurant’s 1831 founding.
We had a few informal meals in the Marriott Executive Lounge in both Bucharest and Budapest but three Budapest restaurants I wanted to try but time didn’t permit: Rezkakas (Sas utca 3), Pilvax (Pilvax koz 3), and Onyx Restaurant, Vorosmarty square 7-8; people I trust think Onyx is excellent.Author of numerous travel articles and the well-received 2012 book Endtimes? Crises and Turmoil at the New York Times (Excelsior Editions of SUNY Press, recently released in a new paperback edition) and fifteen other books,, Daniel R. Schwarz is Frederic J. Whiton Professor of English and Stephen H. Weiss Presidential Fellow at Cornell University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on twitter at www.twitter.com/danRSchwarz and https://www.facebook.com/SchwarzEndtimes