Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Down the Danube from Budapest to Bucharest:: Bulgaria

We can walk from the ship to town center and our downriver speed has given us extra time to do so. Fortunately, our guide is ready and it is Leveler flat, although initially the surface is uneven in places.

Rose Freedom Square. Photos © by Judy Wells.
We come to the pretty Freedom Square, its park filled with flowers and monuments to soldiers surrounded by attractive buildings.

Opera House. Photo © by Judy Wells.
The Opera House, a confection in pink and white anchors one end. Children play and adults watch, shaded by large trees. Idyllic.

Trinity Church. Photos © by Judy Wells.
To the right of the Opera House is the barely visible Trinity Church, the oldest in Ruse (Roo-say) and a gem inside. The original in 1632 was wooden. Deceptively small above ground, the current 1764 version was built during the Turkish occupation when churches couldn't be higher than neighboring houses or a mounted Turkish horseman, so it was expanded below ground.
Interior, Trinity Church. Photo © by Judy Wells.

Tip: There are approximately 20 steps to the lower level. (Sorry, but my hip was hurting too much to do them for an exact count.)

Warning: The priest followed our group out like an angry storm cloud, insisting to our guide that anyone who visited his church should have paid. Our guide glowered back, informing him that no one in his country pays to enter a church. Don't be browbeaten by this or any other priest. Donate, light a candle but only if you want.

We realized that Romania and Bulgaria are the two poorest of the Balkan countries but the incident put a bad taste in our mouths and a damper on the day.

Back aboard, we listened to and watched icon painter Tiva as she made us feel better about the Eastern Orthodox in Bulgaria.
Icon by Tiva. Photos © by Judy Wells.

Tip from Tiva: If you are buying an icon, it should be blessed by an Eastern Orthodox priest and hung on an eastern wall.

Veliko Tarnova
The next day we head toward the Balkan Mountains, an extension of the Carpathians, passing the inevitable fields of sunflowers and corn until the terrain began to get more mountainous.

Veliko Tarnova was the Medieval capital of Bulgaria, 1186 to 1393, until the Turks destroyed it. Today, a town of 70,000, it is famous for the production of rose oil, a necessary ingredient in the better perfumes and an export of Bulgaria for 350 years.

Our guide explained that to produce the best oil, the petals must be picked between 4 a.m. and dawn. A gallon of the oil sells for $1,700 and a billion tons are exported annually.
Medieval center or .... Photos © by Judy Wells.
... Veliko  Tarnova.

We are given a choice, visit the fortified hill fort and the remains of the medieval town or go on and have more time to explore the modern town.

Tip: There are more than 360 steps up to the old town and its cobblestones. The views are lovely but I chose to take pictures at the road level then go to town, the better decision according to those who went to the fort.

Veliko Tarnova is a visual delight, a blend of old, new and quirky.There are slopes and hills but they are manageable as are the few sets of stairs- uneven but no more than six or seven steps at a time - you encounter.

The winding street of craftsmen, the town's main street in the 19th century, is filled with the workshops/stores of jewelers, wood carvers, coppersmiths and artists.

It covers several blocks, each winding higher. Sundries stores sell creams, ointments, powders, perfumes featuring rose oil and small vials of the oil itself. Power boxes and some storefronts are painted with light-hearted images instead of graffiti.

Narrow alleys and lanes elbow off temptingly.

We regroup for lunch at a hotel with Bulgarian college students who are studying languages. The local sauvignon blanc wine is quite good. A little more time to explore the town ends much too quickly. I could have used hours more but wouldn't have missed our next stop for anything.

This village has been named an architectural and museum preserve, an open air look at what this successful trading center was like in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Our first stop was at a former monastery, site of the Church of Saints Archangels Michael and Gabriel. We approach up a lane lined with daisies to a tree-shaded plateau with expansive views across the hills and valleys.

Plain ochre stone on the outside, inside the church glows with the rich colors of original frescoes.

 Intimate and welcoming, female saints are depicted in a starry sky, and we are charmed and awed.

As if that weren't enough, we are treated to a brief concert of a cappella Slavic chants by the Orthodox-VT quartet.

We exit exalted.

We visit one of the houses, one built by a prosperous trader. It is interesting, but the experience at the church stays with us. Truly a satisfying, memorable day.

Leia Mais…
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 clay 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. 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…