Saturday/Sunday, 18/19 September – Getting there [Posted from the Danube R just entering the Black Sea]

The trip from home to Frankfort, Germany was uneventful, though tiring. But unlike previous trips, all 18 members of the group arrived together.  The Frankfort Airport is under renovation so we had apron disembarkation. It was a quick 2-hour hop to Bucharest, Romania, and that too was uneventful.  By the time we assembled on the bus, though, most of us were approaching a zombie state of sleepiness.  We had a short but interesting tour of the city then off to Oltenita and aboard the Viking Primadonna.  We rested a bit and then off to a briefing.  Looks like a good trip!  Dinner was great with lots of laughter, very good food and free-flowing wine, The great ending for the day was standing on our balcony watching the Bulgarian coast go by [ south shore Bulgaria, north shore Romania on this part of the Danube].  The moon is large and bright and so only a few stars in sight.  Hoping for a good rest tonight as tomorrow is a big day on the Black Sea.

Monday, September 20

We had a lovely stroll on the top deck, watching the sunrise and enjoying riding downward in a lock.  Then we were among the first at breakfast and enjoyed views of Constanta harbour through the panoramic window of the dining room.  At 8:45 we all gathered for a tour of Constanta and the resort town of Mamaia.  There is a great deal of evidence of what our guide called "both the upside and the down side of revolution".  Much of the economic capacity of Romania disappeared along with the communist officials [ in 1989 ].  Many buildings and much equipment are derelict.  We visited a cathedral and a lovely museum.  It started as city hall and gradually a large and interesting collection, especially of local archaeological items.  The Roman baths and their mosaics are still visible and interesting.  Finally we had coffee at the Golden Tulip in Mamaia [ the next-door resort on the Black Sea ].  We had planned to swim in the Black Sea but of all of us only Lizzie actually did -- the chill breeze and cloudy sky scared the rest of us off.  We did dabble our toes in it.  Back at the ship we enjoyed a light lunch.  In the afternoon there was a talk about the role of canals and locks in the history of transportation [ all the while going through one of the many locks going up the Danube ].  The Captain hosted a champagne reception and dinner, after which several Intrepids spent the rest of the evening in the salon.
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Tuesday, September 21

It looked cloudy this morning and we feared another cool,damp day. Luckily by halfway to our first stop the sky was blue. We were docked at Russe,Bulgaria from where we drove south to the foothills of the the Balkan Mountains that cross the middle of the country. We began with a stop at Tsarevets - the King's Hill in Veliko Tarnovo. It's dramatic at the top of a hill with wall off in several directions. In a way it reminded me of the Great Wall of China.
From there we went to a hotel for morning coffee and cookies, then wandered along a cobblestone street of artisan's workshops and stores. There was some shopping and several people came back with bags. We didn't.
We drove to Arbanasi for lunch. Many courses and quite delicious! There were musicians and folk dancers to entertain while eating.
After lunch we walked to a 16-17th century church which was made to look like a stable to be as inconspicuous as possible on the outside since Christians were subject to persecution under the Ottoman Empire. The inside is lavishly decorated with many fresco icons and religious scenes.It was very impressive. I took a pass on the next stop, which was a salesroom for rose products. Roses thrive in parts of Bulgaria and their products are a big part of the economy. They include rose oil,rose water, brandy etc.
The final stop on this excursion was a wealthy merchant;s home from the 16/17th century. The eastern influences are conspicuous. There is a 'safe room' where the family sought refuge if the Ottomans raided their home.
Then back on the bus for the trip to our new port, Nikopol/Svistor.
Click Show below, then click Slideshow

Wednesday, September 22

Bulgarian independence day!
Early departure from Vidin by bus to Belogradchik for coffee and ├ęclairs (Yum!!). Afterward we wandered up the hill to view the red rock formations and a town square where a band was playing. We danced a bit to the great interest to those around us.
At the beautiful fortress at Belogradchik rock we climbed to the very top to enjoy the view of the amazing rock formations and down into the town.
In all the villages we could see wonderful private gardens - tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, grapes and much other food. They try to be self-sufficient. Buildings are rough brick or stucco, often whitewashed Drystone walls and red tiled roofs and chestnut trees everywhere on narrow rough roads and streets. Our guide explained that they try to maintain authentic Roman roads :)
The Danube Valley is fertile and the climate moderate.
Under communism there were attempts to introduce heavy industry-those failed after communism ended [ and factory derelicts are evident ].
The city of Vidin lost half its population when the chemical industries shut down and is returning to its roots as an agricultural, fishing, tourism and administration centre.
The communists left Bulgaria with a huge debt with which they've struggled ever since. They are receiving EU funds for infrastructure projects. Sitting in our cabin after lunch I could see many barges and ships plying the Danube.
My Uncle Max warned me that the Danube is not blue, and most of the time that's true,but yesterday evening for a few moments it was blue. In any case it flows through beautiful country.
This afternoon, while Larry napped, I walked into Vidin and through the open air market. Some very tempting produce as well as a lot of clothing, shoes, toys and so on. We had no local currency so it was all window shopping.
The town centre is a very large open square with a war memorial and fountain. There's a lovely church and long pedestrian street. Kids were out with firecrackers, celebrating Independence Day.
Later in the afternoon we attended a ship lecture on the Eastern Orthodox Church and icon painting. The icons were gorgeous and they were for sale, but we resisted[ like where would you put it ].
After dinner most of the Intrepids headed for the music quiz in the Lounge. We danced up a storm, but sadly didn't snag any prizes.

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Thursday, September 23

Luckily, we moved from Eastern European Time to Western European and so gained an hour of sleep, because we had to be on deck by 7am to experience the passage through the Iron Gate. The scenery is spectacular - high mountains surrounding the river on both sides, interesting buildings,ruins, carvings, and caves, all in the narrow, fast-flowing part of river.
We moved into Serbia, docing at Donji Milanovic for customs and immigration formalities.
We were able to go ashore and see the sights. We even did a bit of shopping (a water colour). The church was lovely, and we were able to look through the door in the icons and see the altar. This was a surprise after the churches in Russia where those doors were tightly closed. It is a nice town and we saw more evidence of entrepreneurial initiative than in either Romania or Bulgaria. Lots of lovely handmade goods for sale.
We sailed on up the river for several hours before stopping at Kostolac to visit the Roman Ruins at Viminacium. The excavations there have been underway for more than a century, but strip-mining for coal in the close vicinity has some urgency to it. Already part of the burial grounds have been destroyed. We sampled local wine (not bad) and learned more about the country.
Kostolac is largely a resort town with few permanent residents, but the houses are very nice.
Across the river in Romania we could also see large estates. That area looks more prosperous than the ones we visited earlier.
After dinner it was time for (ta-da!!) the Canadian Quiz. We had a fine time and I think the guests did too! [ Janice did a great job hosting the event. ]

Photos of the day; click for larger view.

Friday, September 24

Another fairly early morning for the Belgrade tour. There were vendors of home-made items at the waterfront. Again we admired the beautiful workmanship and were pleased that they were not aggressive about selling. Our guide today was particularly good, conveying the important historical and political facts in an interesting way. The weather was perfect all day, too.
We passed several embassies on our way to the Kelemegdan Fortress. The embassies are impressive and beautiful, as are many buildings in Belgrade. We walked through the Fortress, moving backward in time. This point of land at the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers has been a crossroads and strategically important location for millennia. Consequently, its history is blood-soaked. The views and fortress itself, though, are wonderful.
We then drove to Republic Square and walked through pedestrian streets to a hotel for a soft drink, then back to the bus.
It's a bustling city for sure, with many signs of growing prosperity. However, we also saw some pretty grim residential areas, and a lot of damage remaining from the NATO bombing 11 years ago.
Traffic is pretty heavy and in many places has out-stripped the capacity of the streets.
Our last morning stop was the church of St. Sava. It is simply awesome! Huge and white, with the largest open area I've ever seen in a church, under a huge, high graceful dome. At noon the bells in the bell-tower all rang out.
After lunch on-board, we got back on the buses to visit the town of Kovacica. It is north of the Danube and so not on the Balkan Peninsula. It sits in the midst of a vast, flat, fertile plain. It is the home of many "naive" style artists. At the main gallery, we saw much of their work and had it explained.

As well we enjoyed a performance by a small local orchestra and ate really delicious strudels.
We also visited the home and workshop of a famous violin maker, Jan Nemcek, who showed us how he selects wood and many of the violins he has created. Quite amazing!
On return to the ship we decided not to eat in the dining room, but just to snack in our cabin.
The evening entertainment was a Serbian folk dancing group who amazed us with their energy - to say nothing of their many costume changes!
[ Before the entertainment a historical expert lectured on Serbia today. There was pretty good history but when he got to the last 10 years his comments where very Serbia-serving on issues such as Kosovo and Bosnian war. Tomorrow there will be another point of view from the Croatian as he pointed out. ]

Photos. Click for larger view

Saturday, 25 September

We were slowed down today by the breakage of one of our two engines this morning. That put our arrival in Vukovar, Croatia down a bit as we lost a lot of speed. However we had a really interesting talk on the history and present situation of the European Union.
It's cool, cloudy and breezy, but we're hoping that the possibility of rain is unrealized. In this light the "blue" Danube is definitely brown.
Just as we arrived in Vukovar the rain begain. However it was light enough that we soldiered on.
Vukovar was one of the most damaged places in the war of 1991; it was the first line of defence against the Serbs. 1200 of the towns people held out for 3 months against the professional Serb Army but secumed at last. [ As a reward for this the the Serbs drove most of the families out of the town, killing many along the way and burying many, including the whole hospital patients and staff in mass graves. Unbelievable! ]. Most buildings, including the large and beautiful church, were destroyed, or badly damaged. Some are still in a state of collapse; others show much damage from shrapnel but many have been rebuilt and repaired [ giving the town a very surreal look ]. The reconstruction of the church is still ongoing on the inside.
From Vukovar we drove to Osijek. Though it did come under attack too, the UN peacekeepers arrived in time to save it from such great destruction. We toured the fortress which dates back to Roman times but the visible part is more recent [17/18 century].
We visited a lovely church and a pub [ Yes!! ] on the way back to the bus. On the trip back we saw fields with warnings of land mines! They are left from the 1991 war and records were not kept of where they were placed;[ about 15% of the land is uncleared ]. That means that the farmers can only use those fields that have been cleared.
On our return to the ship we went to the lounge for our normal briefing of the next day's activities. To our surprise Marek was joined by the Captain and another officer, all in full uniform [ my thinking: this can't be a good sign! ]. Well it turns out that the strain of driving the ship on the single engine caused it to fail as well so we are down to no engine at all. We cannot leave Vukovar on schedule. Engineers are on rushing in from Spain tomorrow to assess the problem and we'll get another report at 6:15 tomorrow.
We all felt like we would rather be "stranded" in Budapest or Vienna but we will see how this goes.
Later in the evening Marek gave a marketing presentation on other Viking Cruises that can be enjoyed. Afterwards we gave him a jolly hard time on the challenges of his presentation, given the current circumstances.

Photos. Click for larger view