by Anna Hobbs

A cruise on the Danube with Emerald Waterways delivers a cultural smorgasbord – delicious, diverse and memorable.

Hungarian Parliamnet buildingsHungarian Parliament buildings in Budapest - Focusstock/iStock

As tour guides go, Serban Capatana, the young history buff leading the way around Romania’s capital, Bucharest, not only knows his stuff, but he also knows how to bring it to life. “We have been put together like a Lego kit,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye, adding that until 150 years ago, the country was under Turkish control. “After 1866, we were allowed to do what we wanted.” Today, within one downtown block, you can see Roman, French, Spanish and French buildings, as well as the new Romanian architectural style developed in the 1900s. Added to the mix are grim reminders of the Communist era - drab concrete towers that pepper the streetscape. “We are like a big tossed salad,” Serban says.

Credit for creating this city that’s dubbed the Paris of the East goes to Carol I, the king imported from Germany who ruled from 1886 to 1914. He commissioned Georges-Eugène Haussman, the architect who rebuilt Paris, to create broad, tree-lined avenues flanked by impressive public buildings and elegant mansions. The city even has its own scaled-down version of the Arc de Triomphe, built to commemorate Romania’s victories during the First World War.     

BucharestCovered arcade with bars and restaurants in Bucharest, Romania - Adam Petto/iStock

We’re touring this handsome city before boarding Emerald Waterways’ ten-day, Enchantment of Eastern Europe – a Danube River cruise through five countries, bookended by Bucharest in the south and Budapest in the north. This being my first visit to the Balkans, and my first river cruise, I have granted the experience permission to surprise me every day, in every country, without any guidebook preconceptions.

If your idea of a cruise ship is a mega-floating-hotel with a climbing wall, three swimming pools and a cha-ching, cha-ching casino, then Emerald Sky isn’t for you. But if a sleek, modern river ship that provides friendly, exquisite, mainly all-inclusive service for 150 guests as it glides along a beautiful river, docking in ancient cities and quaint towns appeals, then look no further.

Reflections RestaurantReflections Restaurant - Courtesy Emerald Waterways

PoolCourtesy Emerald Waterways

On this voyage, all five countries we visited were once part of the Eastern Bloc. “This is the trip to take when you have explored Western Europe,” says Emerald’s vivacious cruise director, Jana Pakstaitis. “It is a fascinating, diverse region. Your experiences will be different and memorable.”

That diversity is obvious in Bulgaria, the poorest country in the EU, where horse and donkey carts populate country roads. We pass factories that are shut down and deteriorating. Unemployment is high.  “It is a continuing struggle to transition from a communist society to a free market,” our young Bulgarian guide tells us. “Things change for the better, little by little, but not as quickly as we would like.”           

Yet here, in a rather gloomy old hotel, I meet four gentlemen (the youngest is 89) who have been friends since their teens. They meet in a cavernous banquet room every morning at 11 for coffee – Tim Hortons, Bulgarian-style. They tell me about their love of their country, about all the difficult times that Bulgaria has gone through, how it has always managed to survive, and how proud they are of its history. I am awed by their strength and resilience.

Iron Gates Natural ParkEmerald Sky passing Decebal's head carved in rock in the Iron Gates Natural Park, Romania - courtesy Emerald Waterways

The day we sail through the narrow gorge called the Iron Gates – between the limestone cliffs of the European Alps and the Carpathian Mountains, separating Serbia from Romania - is a day to relax onboard.

My Panorama Balcony Suite has an indoor teak deck, with two chairs and a small table. At the touch of a hydraulic switch, the upper half of the glass wall lowers, creating an open-air balcony. It’s a perfect place to enjoy a quiet afternoon with a book, admiring the passing scenery and to be lulled to sleep by the sound of the rippling water. 

Panorama Balcony SuitePanorama Balcony Suite onboard Emerald Sky - Courtesy Emerald Waterways

The next morning, we are in Serbia, tied up alongside Belgrade’s cruise terminal, which is within walking distance of the city center.  

“We have been bombed five times in the 20th century,” our guide points out as we pass the remnants of a decimated building. Despite this gruesome reminder of the most recent conflict, renewal is obvious. With its cobblestone pedestrian streets, restaurants and bars, fashionable shops and the historic National Theater, the city centre has a lively vibe.  “I believe we need 15 more years to be where this country deserves to be,” he says.               

Included in Emerald’s tours is a special opportunity to share a meal with a family in their home. The highlight of my day in rural Croatia is lunch at the farm of Milena and Stjepanu Lakic. Stjepanu is at the end of the driveway to greet us and loses no time in proposing a toast with his homemade pear brandy.  Lunch, served family style, begins with tomato soup, (so good, we ask for the recipe), followed by hearty pork meatballs, (so delicious, we all have seconds) mixed vegetables and pickled beets. Dessert – equally delicious - is a traditional cherry square. Most of the ingredients have been grown or raised on the farm. 

We see another aspect of rural life in the Hungarian town of Kalocsa where traditional folk art flourishes. Along with its lively songs, sprightly dances, colorful peasant costumes and beautiful embroideries, Kalocsa is famous for the production of paprika. Hungarians, we learn, are so obsessed with the red spice that the average family consumes three kilos per year.  Songs and dances tout its importance and there’s even a museum in its honor.   

The most spectacular surprise of the trip comes as we sail into Budapest after sundown. The handsome buildings that line the riverbanks - with Buda on one side of the river and Pest on the other - are garlanded in myriad white lights, creating a dazzling display against the night sky. 

GoulashStreet food in Budapest - Courtesy Anna Hobbs

Budapest by day is equally thrilling. I had been told that the river at its heart makes it an easy city to navigate on foot. With just one day to absorb as much as possible, I set off. The climb up to the Buda Castle rewards with a breathtaking view across the Chain Bridge to the Houses of Parliament. Striking turn-of-the century architecture and luxuriously restored buildings have replaced the impoverished communist-era image. I discover a city with a rich history, steamy thermal bathhouses, indulgent coffee houses and a lively culinary scene. Aria, the new music-themed, five-star, boutique hotel adds yet another reason to return to one of the most vibrant capitals in Eastern Europe.

I have been treated to a cultural smorgasbord – delicious, diverse and, as Jana promised, most certainly memorable.

Originally published in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles Fall 2017 issue.

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