Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Down the Danube from Budapest to Bucharest: Serbia and the Iron Gates

The Danube and Valva Rivers meet in Belgrade. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Situating a settlement at the confluence of two rivers can be an advantage economically and strategically. The problem is, as we learned entering Kalemegdam Fortress in Belgrade, Serbia, everyone else wants it, too.

We didn't see an "attack here" sign, but in the past 2,016 years the city has been destroyed 77 times and changed hands 66 times with 6 million residents killed in the process.
Entering Kalemegdan Fortress. Photo © by Judy Wells.

The Romans built the fort on the bluff overlooking the Danube and Valva  Rivers, the most important stronghold on the "stumble road," the military route between Constantinople and the West. The gates are massive, pocked with holes and dents from former assailants.
Doors of Kalemegdan Fortress. Photo © by Judy Wells.

Tip: Yes, you climb a slope but the path is either clay, paved or grassy and the elevation change is very gradual.

When the tribes came south in the 7th century A.D., the Serbs were the largest and strongest of them all, replacing the Romans and commanding three times the land they have now. The Turks arrived and took over in 1389.

It is easy to see why they all wanted to control Belgrade. The views from the fort's ramparts are as beautiful as they are strategic.

Today the fort is a park, lushly green and leafy, dotted with monuments inside with slay tennis and basketball courts, a children's play area and displays of old military weaponry outside and in the grassed over moat.
A dinosaur show in the children's play area. Photo © by
judy Wells.

Downtown Belgrade looks equally engaging but after a comfort and snack stop in Republic Square, rain storms curtailed our exploration. Word is that the city has a booming nightlife.    

Revolution Square area in Belgrade.

Donji Milanovac

Young dancers came first. Photo © by judy Wells.
Ship's tour leader Alina warned us the next stop, Donji Milanovac, was a small town with nothing much to see but that the locals were going to show it to us anyway. First, after passengers had assembled on the dock, the young people entertained with lively folk dancing.

The small museum was interesting, especially the section on sturgeon fishing which used to be the village's main economy. A family was allowed to take one sturgeon a year; the sale of caviar from a 600-pound sturgeon supported them nicely. The town was moved three times to accommodate shifts in the Danube and the resulting dams killed of the sturgeon.

Greek Orthodox Church. Photo © by judy Wells.
We saw the Greek Orthodox Church and the school but there was little else to see until we returned to the dock. Despite high winds, artisans and seamstresses had set up booths, hanging embroidered shirts, skirts and table cloths outside.

Tip: Walking is easy with few changes of elevation and not far to go.

After days of switching currencies every day and being stuck with leftover bills and coins that were useless in the next country, this came as both a shock and a treat. Vendors not only took any currency you happened to have, they returned change in any currency you wanted.

I think Donji Milanovac has found a new industry: tourists.

Iron Gates 

Cruising the Danube as River Splendor transits the Iron Gates, 83 miles of gorges separating Serbia and Romania was a treat. The good news was that we loved relaxing with a beverage and watching the beautiful scenery pass by, waving at fishermen and pleasure boaters. The bad news: there was no stopping and a few places looked worth one. 
Dacian King Decebalus carved into a cliff. Photo © by judy Wells.

Particularly intriguing was the "Romanian Rushmore," a giant head of Dacian King Decebalus caved from a stone-faced cliff.  It was an eerie vision, like a scene from a Tolkien novel, and strangely disappointing to discover it was completed in 2004 and not centuries ago. 
Trajan's bridge brought the defeat of the Dacians. Photo © by judy Wells.
Sad, too, as the King's visage stared at the point where Roman Emperor Trajan's forces built a bridge to cross the river and defeat his kingdom. 

It was bittersweet going through the locks that killed off the sturgeon but also fun getting to see the "tags" of ships' that have used them.

We share a lock with Avalon Passion.
Also a testimony of the growing popularity of river cruising.

Leia Mais…
Thursday, October 12, 2017

Down the Danube from Budapest to Bucharest: Croatia


Following World War II, Marshall Josef Tito cobbled Yugoslavia together by combining a number of previously autonomous states. When he died, the struggle of those countries, beginning with Croatia and Slovenia, to regain independence brought simmering resentments and prejudices to the fore. The confrontations were ugly, in many cases involving ethnic cleansing, beginning at Vukovar where 1,500 militia members battled a 20,000-strong, well-armed Serbian army that wanted to hold Yugoslavia together. When the last defender died 90 days later, a massacre ensued.

Vukovar water tower. Photos © by Judy Wells.
Unrestored building.
Most of the city was destroyed as was its number one business, the manufacture of shoes. Physically, much has been repaired and restored, but the city still shows the results and its guides make sure visitors hear their side. Some of the buildings have been left alone,  especially the bullet-riddled water tower that once boasted a revolving restaurant, and now is a symbol of the city and country's successful resistance.

Church of  St. Philip and St. Jacob, after the war above, and now.
After a guitar and cello concert by two talented students at the local music academy, we walked to the 17th century Franciscan Church of St. Philip and St. Jacob. Largely destroyed during the war, it has been lovingly restored.

Downtown Vukovar.
The once booming city center (only a quarter of the prewar population has returned) is flat, a boon for Levelers. The Maria Theresa-era baroque style architecture adds grace to the almost empty streets.

A delight to visit is Castle Eltz.  http://www.turizamvukovar.hr/vukovar_eng.php?stranica=170. The 18th century home has become the Vucovar Municipal Museum, with creative displays ranging from Neolithic artifacts to exquisitely embroidered clothing.

Tip: The museum is compact and there is an elevator that connects all floors.


A short bus trip takes us to the city saved by ferrets. Hit by the plague in 1738, Osijek seemed doomed until city fathers brought in a force of famished ferrets. The beasts made short work of the diseased, plague-carrying rats. We see icons of ferrets in the city seal and advertisements.

Historic Trinity Square was filled with the monthly antiquities fair, a glorified flea market ringed by booths of food purveyors. We were turned loose to visit the cathedral and other buildings, but I can't tell you about them. Wandering the square and people watching was much more fun than yet another church or museum.

Tip: Arrive on the first Saturday of the  month to catch the Fair. The Square and the streets around it are cobblesone, but flat aside from a curb-height step or two.
We are welcomed to the home of Zorica and Voja Vojislav.

The food looked grand but we were to divide into small groups to have lunch in nearby local homes. I found it a fun experience with genial, gracious hosts and the best apple strudel our lucky group of nine had ever tasted.

Returning to River Splendor that afternoon provided the opportunity to get a closer look at riverfront sculptures, all memorials to those who died in the Serbian-Croatian war.

All in all, an easy day for Levelers.


Leia Mais…
Friday, October 6, 2017

Down the Danube from Budapest to Bucharest: Hungary

A nighttime cruise through Budapest with its Parliament a highlight for river cruisers. Photo © by Judy Wells.
River cruises are ideal for Levelers, especially if time and funds are limited.

• The scheduling, meals and touring are taken care of for you.
• There are no waves so no seasickness.
• Modern river ships not only have elevators (although on board you will rarely need to handle more than one flight of stairs), they come with chair lifts so anyone can reach the uppermost deck.
• You are either a short, easy stroll from town or the tour buses drive right down to the pier.
There are drawbacks.
• You may stay too long in one place, not long enough in another.
• Your meals and beverages are included in the fare so you aren't likely to get the true flavors of where you are unless the chef includes local specialties as options at every meal.
• Tours are also included so you are less likely to go exploring on your own.

Nonetheless, I highly recommend them, especially for areas that might intimidate you.

I took Vantage River Cruise Travel's nine-day cruise aboard River Splendor going downriver from Budapest to Bucharest.

Tip: Whenever possible opt for downriver. Going with the current you are less likely to have problems with water levels and will reach stops earlier, giving you more time at each destination.
Pest's Palace Hill.  Photo © by Judy Wells.

The Danube divides Budapest. Buda,where the city began, rises quickly from the waterfront with Fisherman's Bastion and St. Matthias Church the focus for tourists. The old city is charming and hilly, the views across the river are spectacular. The tour bus will deliver you as close as possible and the elevation change is gentle.

Matthias Church. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Tip: I recommend climbing up to the walkway above Fisherman's Bastion despite its 32-step stairs.
Fisherman's Bastion. Photo © by Judy Wells.

The ship tied up on the Pest side which is largely flat. Shuttle buses ran in the afternoon between there and the Intercontinental Hotel making forays into the city easy.
A portion of the shoes memorial. Photo © by Judy Wells.

Tips: The two-story Central Market has elevators at both ends. There are 28 steps from street to river level; take them because you don't want to miss the heart-rending bronze shoes sculpture, a memorial to the Jews gunned down here during World War II.

Fields of sunflowers. Photo © by Judy Wells.
Mohacs and Kolacsa
 The ship moors in Mohacs and passengers are bused to Kolacsa through fields of corn, sunflowers and peppers, Hungary's primary cash crops.

Kolksa Cathedral. Photo © by Judy Wells.
A short walking tour of Kolasca goes to the Cathedral, one of the finest examples of Italian Baroque. After that the bus takes us back to the Blue Danube Restaurant in Mohacs where we are given lessons in making paprika bread, snapping whips, painting eggs and embroidery. The ship is a short stroll away.
A cruise passenger paints and egg. Photo © by Judy Wells.

In the afternoon an optional tour goes to Bakod Puszta equestrian center for a demonstration of the Hungarian Halfblood and Chikos, Hungarian cowboys.
Roman riding atop a 10-horse team. Photo © by Judy Wells.

Tip: No major exertion required for this, primarily walking on flat, paved walks and finding seats in the visitors' covered bleachers.

A center of culture for centuries, Pecs is known for its university, Peter and Paul Basilica and most of all, the remains of its Roman founders, a UNESCO Heritage site.

One of the earliest and largest Roman Christian Chapels outside of Italy has been excavated and opened to the public through an ingenious series of ramps and, unfortunately for Levelers, stairs.

Overview of Roman-built Christian Chapel. Photo © by Judy Wells.

Tip: The elevator was out of order when I visited so here is the step count: 17 steps to the overview, 18 spiral steps to one level, 18 spiral steps down, 11 steps, 22 steps and 17 steps. It is made easier by varying levels and having something to see at each.

Peter and Paul Basilica. Photo © by Judy Wells.
The Basilica is considerably easier - 5 steps to Cathedral Square, 7 into the church which is well worth a leisurely look.

Wandering through this town is pleasant and easy thanks to its relatively flat level.

Leia Mais…
Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Chapel Hill: Historic college, good beer and great food

Chapel Hill seen from the deck of Top of the Hill.
If cuisine is your thing, Chapel Hill, NC, is your place, Levelers. It's flat and full of mouth-watering options.

Situated as the southwestern base of the isosceles triangle that is completed by Durham and Raleigh, Chapel Hill is home to the University of North Carolina, one of the America's three oldest public universities, and Southern Season, one of the country's best gourmet markets and cooking schools.

Add primo hostelries likethe beloved The Carolina Inn and The Siena Hotel, a Marriott boutique property, both with restaurants to write home about, and you have a delicious destination.

Begin with a bit of history and education. UNC at Chapel Hill is full of both. The downtown campus is beautiful, dotted with huge trees and mature plantings, plus a few must-see sites.

The Davie poplar, battered but still standing.
The Davie poplar, for example. Versions of who other than Revolutionary War general William Richardson Davie the 350-year-old 100-foot-plus-tall tree should be named for, but legend says if the poplar falls, so will the university. Southern legends are nothing to trifle with so after several lightening strikes and numerous storms, on March 16, 1918, a grafting, Davie Jr., was planted.  As part of the university's bicentennial celebration, Davie III was planted Oct. 12, 1993. A more recent legend says that if a couple sitting on the stone bench beneath the tree kisses, they will marry.

Want good grades? Legend says drinking from the Old Well on the first day of class is the pathway to A's. It's easy to spot, covered by a replica of Versailles' Temple of Love. You might also catch a marriage proposal being made there.

No legend, the popular journalist and UNC alum Charles Kuralt is buried at the School of Media and Journalism which also houses his former New York office.

Appetite whetted? On to restaurants.

There are many reasons to catch lunch at Top of the Hill Restaurant and Brewery. It is as casual as its entrance isn't, an elevator in a tall office-type building. The food and beer, which is brewed there, are good and the upstairs deck provides a great spot from which to watch downtown Chapel Hill. You might try a  USDA certified organic vodka, gin or the only fully organic NC grown 100 percent wheat whiskey. They make those in the Top of the Hill Distillery nearby.

Crook's Corner Cafe and Bar has been a hot, literally and figuratively, spot for years and was named an American Classic Restaurant by the James Beard Foundation  in 2011. Chef Bill Smith, semi-finalist for the Beard "Best Chef in the Southeast" in 2010, cooks up an impressive array of choices with a distinct palate and personality. Inside, surroundings are cafe casual; outside is a tropically decorated covered patio. The spicy Shrimp and Grits talks and sometimes shouts to your mouth, the cornbread is tastefully sugar free and ice tea is sweetened with simple syrup. Each Wednesday barbecue from a different North Carolina restaurant is brought in.

Bad photo but to-die-for banana pudding.
Don't miss dessert. If you luck into honeysuckle season, the honeysuckle sorbet is as heavenly as the scent of its flavoring flowers. In any season, the banana pudding is a religious experience.

Il Palio is an Italian experience of the most delicious kind. Described as a fine restaurant with a luxury hotel (Siena) above it by by Chef Teddy Diggs, the kitchen lives up to the dining room's elegant decor. His philosophy, "We take the best ingredients and treat them as gently as we can."

Dessert tasted as good as it looked.
The result is entrees with flavors as distinct as their primary ingredient; salads dressed with intriguing but not overpowering flavors; seafood presented with sauce that enhances its inherent flavor, desserts that add a sweet and lingering satisfaction rather than cloying excess.

Shrimp and grits.
My dinner at the four-diamond, four-star Crossroads Chapel Hill Restaurant in The Carolina Inn was an extravaganza of Carolina Cuisine. Between us, our group of travel writers shared all of the starters, ordered our own entree and then tasted all of the desserts.

Crispy NC oysters.
My faves: the crispy NC oysters for starters followed by the grilled asparagus and fried green tomatoes. The shrimp and grits here were milder than at Crook's Corner but more to my palate. The desserts? All were worth the calories.

Leave half a day at least for Southern Season. We began with breakfast at its restaurant, Weathervane, in University Mall. Suffice to say what a way to start the day. Would love to return for lunch or dinner; the space has a good feel to it from bar to patio to mezzanine.

A small part of the candy section.
Filled to the gills, we then began tasting our way through Southern Season next door. Walking in there was entering the adult version of a candy shop, including the candy.

Want a frying pan? Freshly baked croissants? The latest tea pot? A fine wine? Place mats? A new sauce? Exotic cheese? Flowers for the hostess? Mixing bowls? Table settings of china, silver, stainless, napkins, crystal? The most esoteric kitchen gadget? They have it.

Southern Season cooking school.
Can't cook? They can take care of that, too, with a cooking school. I didn't want to leave.

Felt the same way about Chapel Hill. #SATWchapelhill #satwraleigh

Leia Mais…