Cruising the Danube from Bucharest to Budapest

I’ve missed traveling over the past eighteen months, so I was very excited to be taking our first international trip since Covid shut things down. We decided to join some friends on a Danube river cruise with Brand g vacations. It was our first trip with Brand g, and also the first time we cruised with Amadeus River Cruises. I’m happy to report that both were wonderful and made jumping into the uncertain travel waters we’re currently experiencing very pleasant and stress free.

Well, as stress free as possible. I did worry about making sure we had all of the requirements down, a challenge since they seem to be ever changing. We flew through Heathrow so we needed negative Covid tests as well as Passenger Locator forms just to transit airside (you can find the Heathrow Covid page here). We weren’t sure what forms we needed to enter Romania, and even the folks at British Airways seemed confused. We needn’t have worried; we were given the necessary forms on our flight and I was greeted with a huge smile and a thumbs up when I showed the immigration official in Bucharest my vaccination card. Despite all my pre-travel worries it was relatively easy to navigate our way through.

Transylvania

Peles Castle

We started our adventure with a two day excursion to Transylvania. Day one we toured Peles Castle. Built by the first king of Romania in the late nineteenth century, it perfectly embodied the fairytale Eastern European castle I had imagined. It’s spectacularly set amidst the Carpathian Mountains and surrounded by beautiful gardens and courtyards. The interior is decorated with elaborate carved wood throughout, with medieval weapons and coats of arms adding just the right amount of gothic ambiance. After touring the castle, we spent the afternoon in the lovely city of Brasov, exploring its gothic-style Black Church and medieval walls.

The next day we toured Bran Castle, better known as Dracula’s Castle. It’s also set among the beauty of the Carpathian’s, but having been built mainly for defense against the Ottoman Turks this castle is much more stark and severe. It’s also much older than the palatial Peles Castle, with construction dating back to the thirteenth century. Sadly, I only got to see the exterior. We had been treated to a very adventurous authentic Romanian dinner the night before. The food proved too adventurous for me, leaving me quite dehydrated the next morning. So I sat out the tour of the castle, instead nursing myself back to health with copious amounts of juice and water. My husband Dennis ventured on, and shared his impression of the castle upon his return. His verdict: “Boring, cramped and hokey”. I guess he didn’t appreciate the inclusion of so much Dracula kitsch into the castle’s tour. Of course I also realize he could have just said that to make me feel better about missing it.

Bran Castle

Bucharest

We arrived back in Bucharest for two days of sightseeing. The city has some nice areas, but much of it still has traces of its days under communist rule. Some of the architecture is severe and a number of buildings are in need of repairs. The Old Town is interesting and beautiful though, and was my favorite part of the city. It was a short stroll from our conveniently located Raddison Blu Hotel so we made several trips down there for dinner and sightseeing. I loved the small jewel of a church at the Stavropoleos Monastery and the interior of the Caru’ cu bere restaurant (along with the good food and fun entertainment). We finished off the afternoon strolling through the verdant Cismigiu gardens and exploring the National Museum of Art. The museum has a nice collection of modern European paintings but was a little heavy on the medieval religious art for my taste (Dennis got up to 47 Madonna and Child’s before he stopped counting).

We also got to tour the monumental Palace of Parliament, dubbed the People’s House. One of the largest buildings in the world, I was surprised to learn that it holds the Guinness record for also being the world’s heaviest building. The grandeur is a tribute to Ceausescu’s ego, with an interior adorned with every type of marble imaginable. I’m sure that contributes to its weight and also contributes to it being the most expensive administrative building in the world. The tour only covers a small fraction of the palace and even that required significant stamina. A highlight was the stop at one of the terraces overlooking the forty-two fountains representing the counties of Romania plus Bucharest.

Bulgaria and the Iron Gates

After touring the People’s House we boarded our ship, the Amadeus Queen, and started up the Danube. We cruised along the Romania/Bulgaria border, reaching our first port of call in Vidin, Bulgaria, the next evening. There we were treated to a wonderful concert in a magnificent setting, the medieval Baba Vida Fortress.

The next morning we cruised through the Iron Gates between Romania and Serbia. This gorge is one of the most spectacular stretches of the river, highlighted by a massive hydroelectric dam. It was a great experience passing through the largest lock on the Danube. After we passed through the lock we sailed up the narrow Kazan Gorge, with sheer cliff walls rising from the river on either side of us. That afternoon we learned about the Mesolithic Iron Gates culture at Lepenski vir. I was surprised to learn that this is the oldest urban settlement found in Europe and wondered why I hadn’t heard of it before.

Belgrade, Serbia

Next stop, Belgrade, where we docked overnight. The morning was spent touring the city, stopping at the magnificent Orthodox Cathedral, the Temple of Saint Sava. It’s one of the most amazing churches I’ve seen and is also one of the largest in the world, modeled after the Hagia Sofia. I was awestruck by the mosaics that decorate every inch of the interior. It is relatively new, the structural portion only completed in 1989 and work still continuing on the interior. I had no idea there was anything like this in Serbia and it alone made the trip to Belgrade worthwhile. Not that Belgrade doesn’t have other charms. While portions of the city are a little run down, the pedestrian area is vibrant and the square around Parliament and the Town Hall is a tranquil spot. I stopped to rest for a while in the park there, admiring both of those impressive buildings.

The next day we had a excursion to St George’s Church Oplenac. During the long drive there, I was questioning whether the site would be worth the trek. Once there, we had an additional climb up a steep mountainside to finally get to the church. Wow, was it worth the effort it took to get there! Inside was one of the most ornately beautiful churches I’ve seen. The church is actually a mausoleum, founded by King Peter 1 of Yugoslavia in the early 1900’s to house the remains of the royal family. The interior walls are covered with sparkling mosaics, with the crypt below even more amazingly bejeweled.

Hungary

Crossing the border into Hungary, we left the boat at Mohacs for a long bus ride to Kalocsa. Along the way our guide treated us to a two hour dissertation on all things paprika. I knew the spice was important to the Hungarian economy but had no idea there was so much to say about it! Then in Kalocsa we toured the Paprika Museum where we heard it all again, this time with pictures and props!

Ok, the paprika part of the tour wasn’t the most interesting. More engaging was the horse show we watched on the Puszta near Kalocsa. The riders were impressive, especially the one that stood up riding a team of 10 horses! There was also a trainee rider on a donkey that provided plenty of comic relief.

Kalocsa horse show

Budapest

I’ve written about Budapest in a previous post, since it was the embarkation point for our first Danube cruise, so I won’t go into too much detail here. We did have a wonderful couple of days there, reinforcing my opinion that this is one of the most vibrant and amazing capitals of Europe. I was particularly taken by the interior of the Matthias church, which I didn’t remember from our first visit. Our ship sailed on an Illuminations tour our final night, highlighting how magical Budapest is when it’s lit up at nighttime.

Overall Brand g did a wonderful job with the cruise, and the entertainment they arranged for us was exceptional as well. On several evenings we were serenaded by the amazing voice of London West End star Alison Jiear. Other nights, Female Delusionist Extraordinaire Miss Conception had us laughing, singing and dancing with her unique performance. They both did several Sound of Music numbers, prompting Dennis to share that he wasn’t a fan of that musical. He was shunned for the remainder of the voyage.

Reminders that we were traveling in the time of Covid were continuously in the background. We were masked indoors everywhere we went. Everyone was tested before we went into Serbia (required by that country) and of course before we all flew home; happily everyone on the ship tested negative both times. The rules each country had in place around US travelers seemed to change by the day. Yet despite all of that it was a wonderful trip and I was happy to get back to international travel. Maybe these restrictions, hurdles and uncertainty will be our new travel normal for the foreseeable future. I’m ok embracing that uncertainty if it means I get to continue to go, go, go.

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