The memo about smoking and health hasn’t reached Romania. Its capital, Bucharest, was our first stop on a delightful week-long Ama Waterways river cruise that sailed upriver along the Danube and through Eastern Europe. But, unlike almost all of North America and Western Europe, restaurants and other public places still allow smoking. Even with the thick haze, local food is very tasty and quite inexpensive (a lunch with a glass of beer was just $3.00 Canadian for seniors).
Bucharest is a city with poor promotion and not usually on tourism radar. In Germany and Austria, the Danube is often crowded with river cruise ships and commercial traffic. But its eastern end, which empties into the Black Sea, is much less busy but just as fascinating. In a week, our Ama Waterways ship sailed the Danube (Strauss got it wrong: it’s not blue, but brown) through five fascinating countries – Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia and Hungary.
We flew to Bucharest a couple of days early before joining the 150-passenger AmaPrima. The city is known as “The Little Paris of the East” for its elegant architecture which includes the extravagant, 1100-room Palace of Parliament. It was started in 1983 by communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and is second only to the Pentagon as the largest building in the world. Ceausecu impoverished city residents but still insisted on a million cubic metres of marble and 3500 metric tons of crystal for his massive building, plus an adjacent boulevard that was one metre wider and six metres longer than the Champs Elysees. The man had ego (but was shot by firing squad in 1989).
We stayed at the century-old Athenee Palace Hilton Hotel, known for its marble and gold pillars, glittering chandeliers and comfortable rooms. It includes an excellent breakfast buffet and is in an ideal downtown location for exploring the city on foot.
Before we boarded the AmaPrima, we wanted to visit two outstanding castles an hour or two outside Bucharest. Peles Castle was constructed in 1873 as the summer residence of King Carol 1. Among the most impressive and extravagant in Europe, the 170 room castle stands in a vast forested park. Even more popular but less extravagant is Bran Castle in the Transylvania region, better known as Dracula’s Castle because of its association with Vlad “Dracula” Tepes (Vlad the Impaler, known for his thirst for blood). Built in the 13th century, Bran Castle is now a museum honouring the Romanian Royal Family.
The next day we headed for the AmaPrima, one of the newest ships in the Ama Waterways fleet. All European river cruise ships tend to be similar in size (for going under bridges and through locks) but the design of this elegant vessel seemed especially clever. Our spacious room on the second deck had both a French balcony and a small traditional balcony with chairs. Public spaces were clean, bright and functional with a plunge pool and comfortable armchairs on the open top deck, a gym, small library, and large dining room. There’s an extensive lounge for daily debriefings and entertainment (although the service island in the middle of the room made it occasionally difficult to see the talented local performers that joined the ship on several evenings). Food was generally very good (the complimentary regional wines were excellent, especially those from Romania and Bulgaria) but the optional Chef’s Table (no extra cost) at the stern of Deck 3 was especially fine. AmaPrima offers a variety of free excursions at each port with outstanding guides, and bicycles are available for adventurous guests.
As we headed up the fast-flowing, brown river we met our Austrian captain, 34-year-old Lukas Zatschkowitsch, one of the youngest masters in the fleet. Passionate about river cruising, he received his captain’s license at age 21. “The river is always changing,” he told us. “Each cruise is different. High water, low water, fog, different passengers. Never boring.”
He was right on that last point. Eastern Europe has now emerged from the Communist era (although many ugly apartment and office buildings still scar the cities) and welcomes tourists. Many historic artifacts have been ruined by decades of civil war but, at each stop, our guides (tours are complimentary) were knowledgeable about the ancient past and recent problems. In Bulgaria, for instance, we visited the Baba Vida Fortress, the largest preserved medieval castle in the country, and Belogradchik, another fortress from the Roman era that’s built into a series of impressive, tall limestone and sandstone rock formations.
In Belgrade, Serbia (formerly part of Yugoslavia), we were impressed by the massive St. Sava, one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world and then took a bus to the nearby Quburich Distillery for generous samplings of a Serbian specialty, 10-year-old plum brandy.
The next day (the delightful plum brandy glow had worn off) the AmaPrima stopped at the historic Serbian city of Novi Sad (second in size to Belgrade, it was devastated by NATO bombing during the 1999 Kosovo War) for a walking tour and a visit to a working farm where the family showed us how to make buhtla, a special plum filled pastry that we baked and enjoyed.
Our visit to Croatia was brief – just a half day – with two choices for tours. Some wanted to visit Vukovar, site of intense civil war fighting between Croats and Serbs between 1991 and 1995. We chose a less traumatic rural tour, driving by vineyards that have been growing grapes since Roman times, followed by a visit to a local winery.
Before the cruise ended in Budapest, the AmaPrima stopped near the Hungarian city of Pecs for a tour of the Christian Necropolis, a remarkable series of decorated Roman underground burial chambers. Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, the chambers and their 4th-century Christian murals are among the best preserved in the world.
We met a Canadian couple, Alan and Wendy Lutz of Saskatchewan, who were thrilled with the chance to visit Eastern Europe. “Until you’re here,” they told us, “it’s hard to understand the complex history and political situation that has shaped these countries. A river cruise like this is the perfect way to see them.”
John and Sandra Nowlan are travel and food writers based in Halifax
If you go:
Ama River Cruises – www.amawaterways.com
Athenee Palace Hotel, Bucharest – www.hilton.com
Photos by Sandra and John Nowlan. All rights reserved.