The Danube is the second longest river in Europe (after the Volga) and much of the continent's tempestuous history lies alongside its banks. Existing long before roads, the Danube leads right into the heart of European cities and into lands untainted by national tourist offices or tourists. Sailing the Danube proved to be an excellent way to experience Eastern Europe's complicated past and present.
Taking to the Waters
Our home during our 2-week adventure, the 360-foot-long River Countess, is operated by Uniworld Grand River Cruises. Uniworld, based in California (800-733-7820; www.uniworld.com), has been catering to American passengers on Europe's rivers for 30 years, with ships taller than the rivers are deep.
On river cruises, you experience the motor coachâ€“like convenience of a professional escort to diverse locations without having to unpack each night. Uniworld cruise prices are competitive, charging less for its three optional shore excursions than you'd pay local tour operators. As a further bonus, Eastern Europe seems unaware that the dollar has collapsed against European currencies.
The cruise sailed off from Vienna, Austria, the city of Mozart and Strauss. We spent time listening to the famous composers' melodies and waltzes in the famous 140-year-old Kursalon concert hall. We visited lands practically unknown to American visitors. Bratislava, Slovakia, once called by Hans Christian Andersen "the most beautiful city in Europe," proudly displays a statue of the Danish storyteller with his muse perched on his shoulderâ€”one of the many whimsical statues found while walking Bratislava's cobbled streets.
Some surprises discovered during the cruise included the excavation of an ancient vacation village for Roman emperors at Viminacium (www.viminacium.org.yu) in Serbia. We were curious to discover that politics still prevents the completion of the magnificent St. Sava Cathedral in Belgrade (the world's largest Orthodox church); that Belgrade had been destroyed 44 times in 2500 years; and that, in the inflation of 1991, an already depreciated 500,000,000,000 Dinara banknote went from a value of $1 to 10 cents in one day.
A restored castle and prison that had withstood attacks as far back as 1003 AD in Baba Vida, Bulgaria, is now a stage for folk dances performed by costumed children. Varna Archaeological Museum (www.amvarna.com) has a 6000-year-old necropolis exhibit, "the oldest gold treasure in the world."
Despite the TV news coverage, we were saddened to see how much Croatia had suffered in the Balkan War. We had an arranged lunch with local families and saw, in shop windows, America's 1917 army recruiting poster. However, the revised poster had Uncle Sam pointing and saying "I Want Youâ€”in Croatia." Tourism may be Croatia's salvation.
We ended our cruise in Romania's fascinating capital, Bucharest, the city of Vlad the Impaler and the late, unlamented megalomaniac, Nicolae CeauÃ§escu. Bucharest is the location of the Palace of the Parliament, the second largest edifice in the world (after the Pentagon). It is said that CeauÃ§escu bulldozed one sixth of the old city to build the monument.
Indeed, Eastern Europe may be the new destination for today's world-weary, seen-everything travelers. And in many ways it may be a bargain. Discovering the unknown was the ultimate reward from this cruise.