By Randy Mink.
In Part 2 of Randy Mink’s Eastern Europe river cruise odyssey, the story continues on board the 169-passenger Scenic Crystal as it plies the Danube River toward Bucharest, calling in Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania. The 10-night “Black Sea Explorer” itinerary comprises a 7-night cruise and two hotels nights before and one after.
(Click here to read Part 1 of Randy’s story.)
Belgrade, with 1.6 million residents in the metro area, is home to a quarter of Serbia’s population. From my short visit I found the city to be a bit funky; having been ravaged and rebuilt so many times, it’s not exactly attractive. Yet people on the street were engaging, there’s a lively cafe and bar culture, and I liked the university students who guided the two-hour walking tour from the ship, which had deposited us in the heart of town.
Much of our morning walk was spent at Kalemegdan Fortress, where, from lookout points atop the stone ramparts, we snapped away at the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers. Actually a city park, the sprawling citadel has everything from tennis courts and an archery range to dinosaur displays, historical monuments and a military museum. Then we explored Knez Mihailova, the main-drag pedestrian street full of boutiques, restaurants and banks, plus souvenir kiosks selling items like Serbian army caps, Vladimir Putin T-shirts and Tito magnets.
During free time that afternoon, some of us visited St. Sava, the biggest Eastern Orthodox church in the world, and Belgrade’s festive bohemian quarter, Skadarska, where traditional restaurants draw in tourists with the aromas of roasted meats and zingy sounds of strolling musicians. Serbia uses the Cyrillic alphabet, so the street signs are a challenge to tourists, but a semester of college Russian helped me figure out certain words. Rounding out the Belgrade visit was Scenic’s Sundowners event, a happy hour with a band at one of the Sava River’s many floating restaurants.
The Iron Gates, between Serbia & Romania
Part of the next day was spent on the Scenic Crystal’s Sun Deck as we sailed through the Iron Gates area, Europe’s longest and deepest series of gorges. Everyone came out to take in the rock-walled shores of Serbia and Romania — the most dramatic scenery of the cruise — and watch the ship pass through locks. By mid-afternoon we had left Serbia behind and entered the 372-mile stretch of the Danube that forms much of the Romania-Bulgaria border.
From Ruse (sometimes written Rousse), our first all-day excursion in Bulgaria went to the medieval town of Veliko Tarnovo, which flourished as the capital of the second Bulgarian Empire from the 12th to 14th centuries. Spilling across an amphitheater of wooded hills high above the Yantra River, it commands a stunning setting dominated by the Tsarevets Fortress. One stop was a store selling rose-oil cosmetics and foods. (Bulgaria boasts the best quality rose oil in the world — one ounce of perfume sells for $40 an ounce.) We helped ourselves to samples of rose-petal jam, rose liqueur and rose-flavored candy. In the sleepy village of Arbanasi, the excursion featured two 16th-century Orthodox churches with lavishly frescoed interiors. A choir sang a Gregorian chant for us at the church of Archangels Michael and Gabriel. (Bulgaria is 85 percent Orthodox.)
In the seaside city of Varna the following day, we saw some of mankind’s first gold jewelry in the vast Archaeological Museum and then had time to shop or dip our toes in the Black Sea. Lunch was at a replica pirate ship right on the beach. (Though an excursion from Silistra goes to Varna on the coast, Scenic Crystal does not sail as far east as the Black Sea, despite the name of the itinerary.)
Local Guides & Their Stories
Just as fascinating as the snippets of local life looming outside the bus window were our guides’ comparisons between Bulgaria today and in Communist times. On the way to Varna, our guide, Clemena, talked of limited goods for sale in the stores (one kind of yogurt, two kinds of cheese) and “ugly” clothes and shoes. But in some ways, she said, life was better under totalitarian rule—everyone had a job because factories were working full force to supply ready markets in other Soviet-bloc countries, and all the news was positive because there was no voice other than the government’s propaganda machine. Many older people, she added, yearn for a past when big-brother control lent a sense of security.
For ease in following the guides’ remarks on shore excursions, each Scenic passenger gets a high-tech audio device, called Tailormade. Touch “Voice Guide” and through the ear piece you can hear the guide loud and clear, even if you’ve drifted to the back of the pack. Tailormade’s “Self-Guided Tours” option, meanwhile, becomes the best friend of those who want to roam independently in cities on the cruise route, with brief descriptions of select sights and a digital map. (Happily, in every port of call we had chances to wander, shop or sit down at a cafe, and even many excursions included free time.)
Besides being enlightened by local guides, we learned much about the region from Scenic Crystal crew members, many of whom are Serbs. During a cocktail-hour session on “Growing up in Eastern Europe,” staff members told their stories and took questions from the audience. They talked of their childhoods and discussed their countrymen’s current hopes and dreams. Cultural programming also included Serbian dancers and Croatian singers who came on board.
Lunches and dinners in the dining room featured a wide variety of international cuisine, including Eastern European specialties. Every passenger is invited to have one dinner at Portobello’s, a sectioned-off area where 32 guests each night enjoy an Italian meal with wines from Tuscany.
In Giurgiu, Romania, alas, it was time to say farewell to all the good eating on the Scenic Crystal and board buses for Bucharest, where we had a choice of two tours before checking in to the hotel. Some passengers opted to see inside the Palace of Parliament, the gargantuan creation of Communist strong man Nicolae Ceausescu (the world’s second largest building after the Pentagon).
I chose the National Village Museum, an open-air collection of homesteads relocated from rural Romania, to get a taste of the country as a whole. At night we explored Bucharest’s Old Town, a happening scene where hip bars and eateries are rejuvenating the historic city core.
From Budapest and Bucharest to Belgrade, Bulgaria and the Black Sea, Eastern Europe is the place to “B” for curiosity-seekers eager to chart a course through lands a bit off the beaten track. The eastern frontier beckons.
Scenic’s 2018 “Black Sea Explorer” cruises are scheduled for April 14 and 22, May 26 and June 3. The first and third sailings are Budapest-Bucharest; the second and fourth operate in reverse. Fares start at $4,895 USD per person, based on double occupancy, plus airfare. Included are all meals, drinks, shore excursions and tips. For more info, go to www.scenicusa.com.
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