Nearly 35 years ago, my husband and I stood on the banks of the Mosel River in Germany as a young military couple and watched boats filled with passengers go past. We dreamed of a day when we could book a river cruise. Our dream became reality last year when we booked the Passage to Eastern Europe, an adventure from Bucharest to Budapest down the Danube with Viking River Cruises.
We discovered that the river cruise offered us the opportunity to blend the best of what Viking River Cruises offers with some of our own spirit of adventure. We could get off the ship and explore to get a great overview of places we had yet to experience.
Welcome to Bucharest for the Danube Viking River Cruise
We flew from Phoenix to Bucharest, Romania via London. After an overnight at the Radisson Blu Hotel Bucharest—Viking River Cruises had arranged the airport transfers, the hotel and luggage pickup the next morning—we were off to explore Bucharest for a few hours. I was finally in Eastern Europe!
Back when I lived in Europe 35 years ago, Eastern Europe was part of the “Soviet Bloc” countries and not tourist destinations. I studied Soviet-era politics extensively in college, but had never visited. Eastern Europe turned out to be a land of contrasts. Parts of opulent Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires remain alongside remnants of nondescript Soviet-era buildings. Bucharest was no exception.
One of the most interesting places we visited during our quick visit was the Palace of Parliament, also known as the House of the People. This is the world's largest civilian administrative building and I probably said “wow” a hundred times during the tour inside.
Life Onboard the Viking Aegir for the Danube Viking River Cruise
Finally, after a day of exploring, we made our way to the ship waiting for us at the dock in Giurgiu. I boarded the Viking Longship Aegir for my cruise on the Danube with excitement. These are really unique boats and I honestly didn't understand them until I boarded. The longships are just that—long and low, perfect for river cruising in Europe. The Viking Longship Aegir has 95 rooms. We had a Veranda Stateroom and I enjoyed watching the river go past from our private veranda.
The staff was lined up in the lobby to greet us as we entered and ushered us to our stateroom. The foyer is also where you can find the Viking Concierge, a library, refreshments, a couple of computers, and entry to the lounge and restaurant. The Viking Concierge is available to help you make arrangements at various ports—spa treatments, dinner or theater reservations for extended port stays, or help book private excursions.
There are several different dining options for breakfast each day. Pastries are served in the lobby early, or head to Aquavit Lounge for continental breakfast.
For me, however, the highlight was the buffet breakfast served up in the Restaurant. There are buffet options and fresh-cooked selections.
Lunch and dinner are both served in Aquavit and the Restaurant. Aquavit is more casual while the Restaurant is a bit more formal. There is no assigned seating, meaning you have a chance to meet more people onboard the boat. No, you don't need a jacket/tie/dress onboard a Viking River Cruise.
I suggest purchasing the Silver Spirits Package. Normally, you can order coffee, tea, juice, and soft drinks only during meal service. House wines are available during lunch and dinner. Outside of meal service, anything you purchase at the bar is billed separately. However, with the Silver Spirits Package, you can opt for sodas, wine, beer, and liquor throughout the day at no additional charge.
Exploring the Outdoor Spaces Onboard the Viking Longships
You won't find yourself spending much time in your stateroom onboard the Viking longships. When you aren't off on shore excursions, you might be spending time in the lounge. We loved ordering a drink and watching the landscape slipping by inside when the days grew a little warm.
But the outdoor spaces are absolutely breathtaking. We were up early to catch the sunrise from the deck, which offered gorgeous 360° views. Perfect for a cup of tea as the world awoke.
We also enjoyed the games, the herb garden and the walking path on the deck. And, of course, the lounge chairs.
But, I must say that the sunsets from the deck of the Viking Longship Aegir were some of the best wow moments of all my travels. The Danube Viking River Cruise was filled with so many unique vistas, but the peaceful moments on the water were still some of the most memorable.
Wandering Veliko Tarnovo
Our Danube Viking River Cruise was underway! We departed Bucharest in the evening and arrive at our first stop of Veliko Tarnovo the next morning. I was surprised as we rode through the countryside after docking to see miles of fields covered in sunflowers.
The former Bulgarian capital sits on a ridge above the Yanta River, surrounded by lush forests. The Tsarevets Fortress, built in the 8th through the 10th centuries, sits in the distance.
The town is also known for its local crafts and we had time to wander the little shops. We explored local goods—pottery, wood carvings, icon painting and weaving. Then, it was time to return to the ship and head off down the Danube.
Again, we made our way down the river during the night and arrived at the port in Vidin, Bulgaria the next day. My husband and I decided on two separate excursions this day. He opted for one of the formal Viking excursions to the Belogradchik Rocks and Fortress while I explored the town of Vidin.
The Belogradchik Rocks and Fortress are located about an hour away. The Belogradchik Rocks are a long strip of rock about a mile wide, stretching for 18 miles and soaring 650 feet high.
He found the scenery fascinating. The area is hot and dry each summer and the climb brisk, but the vistas well worth it for those on the tour.
The Belogradchik Fortress is built into the rocks and dates back to Roman times. Viking creates different itineraries so that people can do as much or as little as they want on each trip.
I stayed behind to explore the town and found a unique city that showed such extremes—architecture borrowed from the Romans, Turks and Bulgarian heritage.
The town is filled with beautiful parks, contrasted by wide expanses of street that were reminiscent of the influence from the Soviet era.
I found myself exploring food markets that contained everything from food items to a section dedicated to underwear…rows and rows of underwear, that I assume were from the town's garment factory.
As I wandered the streets, I discovered the ruins of an old synagogue that seemed filled with ghosts of yesteryear.
Finally, I made my way to the Baba Vida Fortress. Perched on the banks of the Danube, about a 20 minute walk from where the Viking Aegir was docked, this is definitely worth the stroll during your time in port.
Constructed in the 10th century, it is surrounded by a moat with water from the Danube. It has nine towers, a chapel and a prison inside the well-preserved walls. By the way, you do need local currency to visit, so pick up a bit of cash first.
That afternoon, local Bulgarian children performed folk songs back in the ship's lounge and shared some of their lives with us—in English. They were charming and informative.
Our Day on the Danube—Viking River Cruise at its Best
When we booked our cruise, I found out one entire day was spent on the water. I was a little nervous. Would I be bored? I discovered there is something cathartic about riding along the smooth surface of the water.
The day of cruising is spent going through the Iron Gates National Park between Serbia and Romania. We started the day by going through a series of locks. We passed through the Iron Gate Gorge in Djerdap National Park, where the river is only 153 yards wide. At one point, perched on the banks is the ruins of Gloubac Fortress, dating to the 14th century. In another place, a massive face is carved into the rock.
The heavily wooded forests are home to lynx, bear, wolves, and jackals. It was quiet and peaceful with the breeze blowing past. I read and occasionally grabbed a glass of bubbly to pass the time.
After a day on the Danube, we woke up the next morning in Belgrade. It was another city filled with contrasts—beautiful Art Nouveau from the Ottoman Empire alongside bleak Soviet buildings.
We wandered through parks and the Square of the Republic, the city's active central hub. We made our way to the grounds of Kalemegdan Fortress, now a beautiful park overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers. The Victor Monument was built there in 1928 to honor the Serbian victories over the Ottoman Empire during the Balkan Wars.
My favorite exploration in Belgrade was the Church of Saint Sava, a Serbian Orthodox church that is one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world. It was first planned in 1905, but never started because of the Balkan Wars. Construction officially began in 1935, but halted in 1941 during the bombing of Belgrade in World War II. Construction restarted in 1985 and work continues today.
After a morning of exploring, and lunch on the Viking Aegir, we took one of the Viking River Cruise's custom tours—a behind-the-scenes to the National Theater, home to the Serbian Opera. We saw sketches of costumes, explored the theater, watched performances from some of the actors and had one-on-one conversations with the cast members. Definitely a memorable afternoon.
For those who choose not to go on an organized tour, there are hourly shuttles from the ship into central Belgrade.
Cultural Experiences During the Danube Viking River Cruise
Back on the ship, that evening featured one of the lectures that Viking offers multiple times on each of its cruises. They are presented by local experts and give you an opportunity to find out more about the countries you visit. That afternoon, we heard about modern Serbia.
For those who chose to try the local flavors, the evening featured a “Taste of Balkan” dinner. We had a selection of local meats, pickles, cheeses, and pastries, including the favorite burek, or pastry layers with various fillings in between.
Vukovar—A Croatian Wine Experience
We left Serbia and headed for Croatia, arriving at Vukovar about mid-morning. While there were a couple of options for organized tours, we had coordinated with the Viking Concierge to arrange a private tour to take us to a nearby town to visit a winery.
I had heard great things about Croatian wines, so the concierge arranged a visit to Iločki Podrumi. It was such a memorable afternoon. The drive through the countryside was gorgeous and the wines proved to be quite nice. The winery survived The Croatian War of Independence from 1991 to 1995, when the local townspeople sealed off prized wines and kept them hidden until after the war.
This was just an introduction to Croatia for me. The cruise offered me a peek at the country and their wines, and I hope to plan a return visit where I can go back and fully explore the country.
After leaving the winery, we drove back through the countryside that had been battlegrounds only 25 years earlier. I was fascinated by the history of this area. Croatia, which was independent as early as 925, was conquered by the Hungarians in 1091, but then reclaimed its autonomy just a decade later. It later became part of Hungary in the 16th century.
After declaring its independence in 1918, Croatia joined forces with Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia to create what would later become known as Yugoslavia. During a vicious civil war, Vukovar became the scene of a massive siege and bombing in 1991. For 87 days, the local townspeople defended themselves. In one night's massacre, 200 people were killed. Thousands more died during the war and many more disappeared. We passed the water tower that still stands, its bombed out shell a reminder of those times that still haunt the city.
After we returned to the port, we still had a couple of free hours, so we walked into the small town of about 27,000 people. As I walked around, I felt the remnants of a civil war that was only 25 years in the past. It's not uncommon to pass homes and businesses that still bear bullet holes and bomb damage.
The people seem to want to keep reminders at the ready that freedom is tenuous. I was probably more moved by my day exploring Vukovar than any other on the trip. It was lovely to see people out enjoying the blue sky, to see buildings refurbished, and to watch children once again playing in the parks. But the irony was not lost on me.
In 1990, these people led a life similar to mine. A year later, it had all changed for them. I was thankful, appreciative and bit somber as I returned to the ship that evening. It was rewarding to be able to experience all of these sites—and know that sometimes wow moments come in many different forms.
Paprika—Treasure of Hungary
Early the next day, we made our way into the final country on our itinerary—Hungary. After a brief customs stop in Mohacs, we continued sailing toward Kalocsa. Kalocsa is a scenic little town and one the oldest in Hungary.
It also happens to be the center of the country's paprika industry. Yes, I purchased fresh paprika in the market to bring home. The area is also known for its folk art—bright flower patterns embroidered on clothing and painted on pottery, walls, furniture and jewelry. I picked up a couple of those as well. I wandered throughout the town for a while, enjoying a cup of coffee in a scenic café and admiring the architecture and tree-lined avenues.
Once again, the town—as is much of Eastern Europe—is a land of contrasts with architecture borrowed from the Turkish, Ottoman, Hungarian and Roman empires over the years, leading to some striking architecture, even for a small town.
Hungarian Horsemen of Puszta
We left Kalocsa and headed off to experience a Hungarian equestrian tradition that started when the Magyar warriors invaded across the steppes on horseback many centuries ago. Their ancestors settled the Great Plain—or Puszta—of Hungary. The vast open fields and miles of sunflowers reminded me of Kansas, Oklahoma and Eastern Colorado. The area became home to Hungarian cowboys, or csikós, who controlled the massive herds of horses.
They traditionally lived outside year round, trained their horses to lie flat in the grass to hide and run away fast. There are folk songs, dances and costumes to go with the lifestyle—much like those romanticized in the American West, but they look and sound completely different. We saw the Horsemen of the Puszta perform, had wine and snacks, and had a chance to speak with some of the locals before heading back to our ship for a final night on board.
Arrival in Budapest
After a final night of celebration onboard Viking Longship Aegir, we arrived in Budapest sometime during the night. It was thrilling to awake to the city the next morning. With the Danube stretching out before us, it was a city that only made me want to return.
One final day of the Danube Viking River Cruise was spent exploring the city before we took a few days on our own to explore. I fell in love with Budapest, but highlights included:
Riding the Buda Castle Funicular from the city to the top of Buda Castle.
Seeing Matthias Church atop Buda Castle hill.
Wandering through the old town atop Buda Castle hill.
Exploring the markets and streets in Pest and stopping in the many sidewalk cafés.
My Danube Viking River Cruise had, at last, come to an end. The Passage to Eastern Europe had been a passage through time and space. We had seen five countries in ten days and experienced centuries of history. Viking River Cruises filled me with “wow moments” along the way.
Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with accommodations, meals and other compensation for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.