Postcards from Eastern Europe
Best kept secrets from a Lower Danube Cruise
Travelling from Bucharest, Romania to Budapest, Hungary is not a simple cruise, a touristic product created for everybody, is a jump in time and space in a world hidden for so many years behind the Iron Curtain. Is an amazing journey in a land were “normal” for western travellers tend to be “exceptional” for locals and “local daily life” is an “experience” for most of us. Everything in a space where the peace and calm of the landscape hide centuries of agitated history.
If, you, traveller, decide to discover the beauty, the history and the culture of this part of Europe during your Lower Danube cruise, some tips can reveal hidden gems of the itinerary and create memories for a lifetime
If you start your journey with some free time in Bucharest don’t hesitate to jump in a taxi and after a 20 minutes ride discover in the outskirts of Romanian capital the quintessence of the Romanian Renaissance style or Brâncovenesc style. The architectural gem was built between 1698-1702 by Constantin Brâncoveanu just before the Romanian ruler was executed with his entire family in Constantinople by the Ottomans. Spending couple of hours in the palace and in the beautiful gardens will give anyone the chance to discover the bitterness of medieval, modern and contemporary Romanian history.
One evening is a good idea to discover in the heart of Bucharest a traditional Romanian restaurant (my favourite is VATRA, located minutes away from the old city, on Brezoianu street) and indulge yourself in a typical Romanian feast. A “must have” are sarmale . There is no Romanian traditional meal without Sarmale. Usually prepared during winter time and Christmas holidays, Sarmale is a dish made of rolled minced meat (pork usually) mixed with rice and herbs and covered in cabbage leaves. It is usually accompanied by Mamaliga (or Mamaliguta) – polenta made of boiled corn flour, as well as by hot peppers and sour cream. The cabbage used is in fact sauerkraut (pickled cabbage), which gives a particular taste to the dish. The meat must be quite fatty; sometimes pork greaves are added to increase the taste.
If you decided to try a full day trip to the Black Sea and you will visit the city of Constanta take some time and admire the beautiful Art Nouveau Casino. Once considered to be the country’s very own Monte Carlo, abandoned remains are now all that’s left of Romania’s majestic Casino Constanta. Perched on a cliffside overlooking the Black Sea, the impressive structure’s art deco shapes and details are still intact despite having shuttered decades ago. The Casino is challenging your imagination step by step, with every ornament, every broken mirror, and every crack in the wall producing an emotional roller coaster outlined by the magnificent view of the sea. What used to be the main social and cultural attraction of the city in the past today is lying in despair, completely neglected like a true old man celebrating alone his 100th anniversary. There is a legend saying that Constanta Casino was built by a navigator who had a girl. She died young at 17 years old. Then, her father decided to built the Casino for young people to share moments that his daughter couldn’t. If you look from the top, the casino supposed to look like a hearse and the windows like graves. Legend says that during the summer, those who lost gambling were jumping in the waves of the Black Sea. This explains the autumn and winter storms started in the seafront.
Your day in the Bulgarian city of Rousse will take you for sure to Veliko Tarnovo. During the period of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, from the year 1185 to 1395, Bulgaria was the largest and the most powerful state in Southeastern Europe, and Tsarevets Hill was the main fortress of the medieval capital – Veliko Tarnovo. Gossip had it that a secret tunnel underneath the palace kept seven stone tubs full of gold, precious stones and jewelry. Three crowns and a scepter, symbols of statehood, as well as a Christian cross, were laid on a marble table in the crypt. This legend speaks of the relentless popular faith that the Bulgarian Christian state would resurrect after the Ottoman conquest.
A short ride from the city will take you to the village of Arbanasi with breathtaking views towards Veliko Tarnovo and Aegean air which, according to a local urban legend, arrives here after crossing thousands of kilometres and two mountain ranges. Built in the time of greatest prosperity, in the 16-18th centuries, Arbanasi was home to 1,000 households and 11 priests. Take some time to discover incredible churches heavily painted, tiny, dark, squat spaces, whose walls are covered with naive frescoes of strangely charming religious scenes and portraits of benefactors. The detailing and the state of preservation are astonishing, and you can gaze at these centuries-old faces for hours, until you feel light-headed. The most spectacular of the six Arbanasi churches is the Rozhdestvo Hristovo, or Nativity church. From the outside, the 17-18th Century bare stone walls of the church do not reveal anything of the splendid colours, figures and religious drama that await you inside. Separated into several sections, including one for women, the church is a claustrophobic maze of low ceilings and thick walls. Each room of the interior is covered with scenes from the Old Testament mingled with solemn saints and poignant episodes from the Gospels, with a particularly descriptive mural of the Last Judgement.
And for lunch try my favourite spot – Restaurant Isvora – The Spring (Opalchenska street) where the Bulgarian hospitality is at its best and the famous Shopska salad (the traditional cold salad made from tomatoes, cucumbers, onion/scallions, raw or roasted peppers, white brine cheese and parsley) is huge.
A stop in Vidin will take you to Belogradchik Rocks and Fortress – a group of strange shaped sandstone and conglomerate rock formations located on the western slopes of the Balkan Mountains. The fortress’s walls are over 2 metres (6.6 ft) thick in the foundation and reaching up to 12 m (39 ft) in height. Three separate fortified yards exist that are connected with each other through gates on a total area of 10,210 square metres (109,900 sq ft).
If you go close to the rocks at twilight and just listen for a while, you will hear the cry of a cuckoo. It is the Cuckoo rock calling. The rock truly produces the same sound as the bird and for this reason people gave its name. Is this only a play of the wind or the Cuckoo rock tells the story of the nearby Horseman, Madonna and Nunnery rocks, no one can tell for sure. The legend tells that the rocks are connected. The Horseman’s name was Anton (Anthony). He was a poor shepherd. The Madonna (the lady with child in hands) bore the name of Vitinya. She was very beautiful and belonged to a rich family. The two of them fell in love, but Vitinya’s father didn’t allow them to marry and sent his daughter into the Nunnery on the mountain’s slope. Nevertheless, the two beloved continued to meet in secret and soon conceived a child. The nuns ousted Vitinya with her child and Anton came, riding a horse, and rescued them. In this moment a storm arose, one thunder stroke, the earth shook and everything around turned into stone! Only a cuckoo survived and flew out of the woods…
The Iron Gates is a piece of a paradise between the Balkans and the European Union, in which is combined superior beauty of nature and traces of history that testify to its importance. The highest gorge in Europe shows the most beautiful face of the Danube River surrounded by mountains with Serbian and Romanian side of the border. There are no words enough to describe the beauty and the strength of this gorge: Iron Gates links four valleys and four gorges through which the Danube shows its changeable nature. Golubac gorge, Gospodjin Vir, Mali and Veliki Kazan are the gorges that are unified into one – the Iron Gate. Kazan is a place in the Djerdap Gorge in which the river seems to boil (as in boiling cauldron) because of the many vortices located in there. The deepest part of the Danube through the gorge is about 90 meters and it is the maximum recorded depth of a river in the world.
The gorges made transportation treacherous on this part of the Danube, so the Iron Gate Dam was constructed, starting in 1964 and ending in 1984. The water level is now 130 feet higher than before the dam was built. At least 7 towns were covered, the Turkish fortress island of Ada Kaleh was destroyed, and 23,000 people were relocated.Close to the Iron Gates Dam you have the unique chance to se the only place in the world where the flag of former Yugoslavia is still visible next to TITO’s name
The Europe’s largest monument in the wall is located in Djerdap Gorge. The monument is 40 meters high and it was built by powerful Romanian businessman Constantin Dragan who invested a fortune in the chiseling Decibel statue on the Romanian side of Djerdap gorge. It is said that he invested nearly two million dollars to the monument in which creation participated 12 carvers and several dozen of climbers. Its building lasted ten years, it was interrupted several times and it is very controversial. The most intrigued is the inscription on the monument: “Decebalus Rex Dragan Fecit” literally translated as Decibel ruled / or won but Dragan built. If you pay attention on the top of the statue you can see the cross – the legend says that a young couple jumped from the top of the monument because of their tragic love.
With a little bit of luck and good weather you will have the chance to see couple of caves on the Romanian side, each with interesting legends. One is Veteran’s Cave, from which Austrian soldiers once harassed Turkish shipping on the river. Another is Ponicova Cave. Romanians used it to attempt escapes from their communist rulers. A few succeeded to swim to Yugoslavia. Others were shot as they swam, and some made it across but were returned by the Yugoslav guards.
Outspoken, adventurous, proud and audacious: Belgrade is by no means a ‘pretty’ capital, but its gritty exuberance makes it one of the most happening cities in Europe. While it hurtles towards a brighter future, its chaotic past unfolds before your eyes: socialist blocks are squeezed between art nouveau masterpieces, and remnants of the Habsburg legacy contrast with Ottoman relics. So many things to do, so many things to see.
Stop for a while and visit the charming Ružica Church and St. Petka Chapel. There have been several legends passed on as to the first Ružica Church, erected here during the rule of Serbian king Stefan Lazarević and destroyed by the Ottoman Turks in 1521. One legend says that a knight, while tending to an injured maiden, found the water spring that still runs beneath the Saint Petka Chapel today. He used the healing water from the St. Petka Spring to nurse her back to health and she had a church built on the spot in gratitude. Another legend says that, around the same time, Serbian troops were surrounded and trapped in this spot without food or water. The miraculous spring appeared and enabled them to survive. Yet another legend says that three sisters, Ružica, Marica and Cveta, each erected a church here to show their devotion to Christ
Another stop, another exciting slice of Belgrade’s history: The Roman Well, located in the southwest part of the Upper Town within Kalemegdan fortress, though in truth the well really isn’t Roman, at all. More likely is that it was actually built in the 18th century by the Austrians and that the name could be connected to their ambition to be considered as the inheritors of the great Roman Empire, or as the holders of the title of the Holy Roman Emperor, a confusing title which came after the actual Roman empire and referred to the ruler of the Germanic lands. The notoriety of the ‘Roman Well’ comes from the many tales and legends of prisoners being thrown down the hole throughout the Belgrade history and left to eat each other, rebels imprisoned by OZNA, Nazi treasure hunters whose bodies were never found, the communist secret service and a wife murdered by a jealous husband among many others. Alfred Hitchcock visited the well in 1964 and said that an environment like that is always a treat for him. The well is 51m deep (it’s bottom lies below the bottom of the nearby Sava river), with 3m in diameter and two spiral staircases that connect at the depth of about 35 meters forming a DNA-like shape. The water in the well is incredibly clean, and is home to an endemic species of tiny crab that lives only there.
If you really search for a thrilling experience a visit to the underground Belgrade is exactly what you need. Underground Belgrade has always attracted tremendous attention since it hides more than one hundred caves, canals, tunnels, passages and incredible stories. History of underground Belgrade is in connection to various empires and states that have ruled over ages in this area. Under Belgrade there are hundreds of cellars, caves, tunnels, bunkers and passageways, many of which have yet to be opened. Some archaeologists think that there are so many tunnels under Kalemegdan and Zemun that it would take decades to explore them all. The tour Underground Belgrade will take visitors to the Roman hall where lie foundation of the main gate of the Roman fortress and Roman aqueduct and they will hear stories about Tito’s (former president of Yugoslavia) political games and spy secrets from the time of Communist Information Bureau.
When you visit Vukovar today, it’s a challenge to visualise this town as it was before the war. A pretty place on the Danube, with roots stretching back to the 10th century and a series of elegant baroque mansions, it once bustled with art galleries and museums. All that changed with the siege of 1991, which destroyed its economy, culture, infrastructure, civic harmony and soul.
You can not miss Vukovar water tower – one of the most famous symbols of Vukovar and the suffering of both this heroic city and the country in the Battle of Vukovar and the Croatian War of Independence. The tower, just like the city itself, was largely destroyed by the Serbian forces was one of the most frequent targets of artillery hit more than 600 times during the siege
When you are in Vukovar you must find some time to visit the incredible Vukovar City Museum – Castle Eltz – founded in 1948 by a donation of Roman money, furniture, weapons, and paintings given to his city by Dr. Antun Bauer. The museum started in the Coach Post Building in the old baroque centre, but was moved to Castle Eltz in 1966. Up until 1991 the Museum had about 50 thousand exhibits in four separate divisions. To this day the collection has gathered over 1400 pieces of modern Croatian and European art. This collection represented the beginning of the cultural restoration of Vukovar and it is displayed at the restored Castle Eltz today, along with other museum collections which are part of the permanent collection of the Museum. Now that it is renovated, the Castle Eltz complex represents a unique museum and gallery, science, and multimedia centre, which preserves and presents cultural heritage as an element of national identity and the continuity of life in this area.
In 2013 the Vukovar City Museum won a prestigious Anton Štifanić Award for special contribution to the development of tourism in the Republic of Croatia and in 2014 won the Simply the Best award.
And if you are hungry try Burek – a family of baked filled pastries is made from layers of dough, alternating with layers of other fillings in a circular baking pan and then topped with a last layer of dough. Traditionally it may be baked with no filling (prazan), with stewed minced meat and onions, or with cheese. Modern bakeries offer cheese and spinach, apple, sour cherries, potato, mushroom and pizza-burek, as well.
Kalocsa was founded as Esztergom in the 11C by Stephen I as a bishopric. Elevated to the status of an archbishopric, a cathedral was built here. Despite bouts of destruction and the town’s small size, its religious past justifies the presence of two important buildings in the centre: the Archbishop’s Palace and the Baroque cathedral. Beside the history and the famous chicos ( Hungarian horsemen) Kalocsa is the paradise of paprika.
Paprika is not simply a popular seasoning in Hungary, but it’s at the very core of Hungarian cuisine. It is used for its flavor and for its bright color in two varieties: édes or sweet and erős or hot/ spicy. Most households will have both for Hungarian dishes like goulash (gulyás, or gulyásleves: say goo-yaash), which is the flagship Hungarian dish (alas, slightly threatened by more modern and healthy cuisine trends). Growing paprika in the Kalocsa region (mid-southern part of Hungary) goes back to the 18th century, but industrial production only started in the 1920’s. Paprika became a popular part of cuisine in the 1780’s in Hungary. The technique of making sweet paprika was gradually developed in Hungary from the 1850’s by getting rid of the seeds and stems, only keeping the pods.
The Magyar horsemen were highly-skilled and greatly-feared in the 10th century when they raided deep into the heart of Europe.T he rapport and trust between horses and riders was obvious with the noble animals submitting to all manner of unhorsely behaviour. The Magyar horse-riding circus celebrates the age-old art of animal husbandry endemic to these Eurasian steppes. Horses are trained to endure gunfire with loud ostor (whip) cracks and taught to lie prostrate in the fields of long wheat so their riders can lie in wait and spring an ambush, presumably against the regular Turkish invaders. Our heroic riders command eight horses, standing bareback on the last two, and hang on like speedway sidecar riders.
Straddling the Danube River, with the Buda Hills to the west and the Great Plain to the east, Budapest is a gem of a city. I love Budapest for all the right reasons – architecture (especially Art Nouveau), romance (particularly the views from the bridges) and sticky apricot jam – and some of the wrong ones, too (killer pálinka (fruit brandy), and being lazy in the Turkish baths). Budapest’s beauty is not all God given; humankind has played a role in shaping this pretty face too. Architecturally, the city is a treasure trove, with enough baroque, neoclassical, Eclectic and Art Nouveau (or Secessionist) buildings to satisfy everyone. Overall, though, Budapest has a fin-de-siècle feel to it, for it was then, during the capital’s ‘golden age’ in the late 19th century, that most of what you see today was built.
A unique experience is a drink in the always-popular Ruin Pubs remain the most unique part of Budapest’s entertainment scene. A must on every visitor’s to-do list, these pubs, located in formerly abandoned buildings, have a great atmosphere any time of the day. Ruin Pubs (‘rom kocsma’ in Hungarian, literally: pub in a ruin) are located in formerly abandoned buildings in the city and are very popular hot spots. Most are open year-round, some are temporary outdoor pubs, open from May to September and some are located in the cellars of old houses. Live music with the best Hungarian bands, charming retro décor, unique atmosphere and late opening hours make these places perfect for party. Ruin Pubs certainly represent a new wave of entertainment in Budapest. The trend started about 10 years ago and although some places come and go or change ownership; you will always find a Ruin Pub that’s popular
Home to some 40 statues, busts and plaques of Lenin, Marx, Béla Kun and others whose likenesses have ended up on trash heaps elsewhere in the former-socialist world, Memento Park, 10km southwest of the city centre, is a mind-blowing place to visit. Ogle the socialist realism and try to imagine that at least four of these relics were erected as recently as the late 1980s. Newer attractions are the replicated remains of Stalin’s boots – all that was left after a crowd pulled the enormous statue down from its plinth on XIV Dózsa György út during the 1956 Uprising – and an exhibition centre in an old barracks with displays about the events of 1956 and the changes since 1989, and a documentary film with rare footage showing secret agents collecting information on ‘subversives’.
Of course, there are so many things to discover, to see or the learn in a journey on Lower Danube! You can try it for yourself.
VIKING LIF operates in 2017 “Passage to Eastern Europe” – Sail to lands rich in traditions: see Bucharest’s 3,000-room Palace of Parliament. Make banitsa bread with a home cook in Vidin. Explore Belgrade’s Ottoman and European treasures, including 6th-century Kalemegdan Fortress. View the Danube’s towering Iron Gate. Visit a Croatian family’s Osijek home. Witness Hungary’s daredevil Puszta horsemen. Behold Budapest’s grandeur. Once hidden behind the Iron Curtain, the eastern Danube still has secrets to reveal on a 11-day cruisetour from Bucharest to Budapest/ Budapest to Bucharest
Visit http://www.vikingrivercruises.co.uk/ for more information and special deals.