This is a very long trip report.
For some reason my wife dreamt of a Danube cruise and chose one going from the Black Sea to Budapest. But we were not going to go to Europe for just a 12 day cruise, so we organized our own travels via Paris and Aarau to Bulgaria and Hungary with a few days in Bucharest.
We flew Turkish Airlines from SF to Paris via Istanbul, which adds about six hours to the total flight compared to a direct flight to Paris, but at half the cost. From Paris we took the train to Aarau (59€ per person). From Zurich we flew to Sofia via Istanbul. We traveled by bus from city to city in Bulgaria. From Veliko Tarnovo we took the train to Bucharest. We joined the cruise group in Bucharest. We left the group in Budapest and did a RT to Pécs. Then we flew from Budapest to Istanbul, stayed a few days there, and then flew back directly to SF. That’s our itinerary in a nutshell.
Why Turkish Airlines? Because it cost $1800 for the two of us for all the flights listed, whereas when I booked the flights in February other airlines would have charged us that amount per person just to fly from SFO to Paris. The airline has better service than most of the trans-Atlantic airlines we have taken in recent years, with complementary drinks before and during the main meals. The food was a notch above U.S. airlines, with the exception of the final breakfast; for some reason west bound flights have worse food than east bound flights. The disadvantage going to Europe is minor, but coming back a flight from Budapest to SFO on Turkish Airlines would have taken 30 hours or more because of the layover in Istanbul. No problem for us, because the last time we were there we promised ourselves to return, so we spent four days in Istanbul on our return leg of the trip.
We try to get to Paris whenever we go to Europe. There are always things to see; and we always arrange time to see friends and relatives. We were there for four days. Saw a special exhibit (Carambolages) at the Grand Palais, unfortunately not in the main hall which we also wanted to see. We saw the renovated Picasso museum, a special exhibit on the Victor Hugo family in the Victor Hugo museum, and the Cognacq-Jay Museum which I consider a minor museum; it had a Jean-Baptiste Huet exhibit when we visited.
We went with my cousin for a day to Rouen. Mainly walked around the town and did not see the Fine Arts museum as recommended by guidebooks. I had not realized that the cathedral has a flamboyant gothic frontage. The Monet paintings captured it perfectly in that the eroded states of the statuary are well represented by the Impressionist style. https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/26874951223/in/album-72157624436592493/ We’ll have to go back.
The pictures of Rouen have been added to this set: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/sets/72157624436592493/show
We had three meals worth mentioning aside from the croissants and palmiers from le Blé sucré. One was at Eat Intuition, 53 rue de Charenton: two prix fixe, an extra hors-d’œuvre and a pichet of wine (99.50€). The food is inventive, with a Caribbean twist. The other one was le Cotte roti, 1 rue de Cotte (near the marché d’Aligre) which is more popular and probably requires reservations. There too we took a formule each plus supplements (mine was for bone marrow) and two glasses of wine (116.50€). We skewered the age statistic. In appearance and atmosphere it is very much like a trendy SF restaurant oriented toward the Millenium crowd. In both restaurants the wine is surprisingly expensive: the pichet cost 14.50€ and each glass for the other meal cost 8.50€. These were probably the least expensive options. On our day of departure, we had lunch at Le Train Bleu for very traditional food, probably expensive for what it was ($121), but the atmosphere can’t be beat.
The pictures of Paris taken on this trip have been added to these sets: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/collections/72157624827228334/
We stayed with an old friend of the family in Aarau. He drove us around to see the Schloss Wildegg (https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/26870818654/in/album-72157622927438333/ ) which is particularly interesting for its furnishings tied to a continuous family history. It’s definitely worth a visit. We also took a day trip to Luzern and another one to Zurich to visit relatives. Train travel is expensive: a one-way ticket costs about $50 for two, but the available passes would not save us any money, costing a minimum of $200+ per person for a three day pass.
The pictures of Switzerland taken on this trip were added to this set: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/sets/72157622927438333/show
From Switzerland we flew to Sofia via Istanbul, which obviously lengthened the travel time considerably, but it was part of our Turkish Airline package.
Our main guidebook, aside from what we gleaned on the Internet, was Lonely Planet’s Romania & Bulgaria
In Sofia we stayed at the Hotel Niky (http://hotel-niky.com/ ) for 6 nights ($325), reservations obtained through Expedia. The hotel was well located a couple blocks from the main pedestrian zone and a subway stop. The people behind the desk were friendly, the room was fine, although I do not remember if air conditioning was available. The restaurant is in a covered patio, and was drafty and chilly when we ate there one evening—we had cool weather throughout our stay in Sofia.
We could have cut one day from our Sofia stay. The city is simply not a major capital compared to Budapest or Bucharest. It is a pleasant town, with a large pedestrian zone and parks scattered throughout the center of town; which was true in all the towns we saw with the exception of Veliko Tarnovo which has no pedestrian zone. These pedestrian zones are one of the constant pleasures of the smaller cities we visited on this trip.
General tip: All of the major cities we visited in Bulgaria and Bucharest in Romania offer free (tips accepted) two hours tours, which sometimes lasted longer, led by university students. They vary in quality as the students are not necessarily urbanists or historians—one was a law student—and their English, while fluent in all cases, varied in their rhythmic and colloquial quality. But all were worthwhile as an introduction to the city. In Sofia we also took the Communist tour, for which there was a charge—the equivalent of 5 euros per person if I remember correctly. These tours are part of United Europe Free Tours that can also be taken in other European countries.
We took two excursions with a driver/guide named Florian in the Latinized version. The first day was to Rila Monastery with a stop at the Boyana church while returning to Sofia. Florian was very knowledgeable and very Bulgarian. His parents are urging him to leave Bulgaria to make a life for himself, but he does not want to leave, he is very nationalistic and religious. He majored in history at the university. That meant that we had extensive explanations of the frescoes in Rila and on our second tour to Koprivshtitsa, which is a historic village that was an intellectual center of the 19th century Bulgarian revival, explanations of the importance of the poets and intellectuals who had homes, now museums, in the village. In its present condition Koprivshtitsa is like a plus beau village, in that there is little evidence of agricultural activity. I suspect that quite a few old houses are now summer homes.
The tour company is V Travel, Ltd. (http://www.vtravel.bg/ ), which I recommend. We were there early in the season, which meant that we had private tours, although their brochure mentions van travel, we were only four the first day (us, Florian and a trainee) and just three on our second day. They honored the special that was posted in our hotel lobby for the first tour, but charged us almost double for the second as it was not an advertised special. We paid about 100€ for the second tour. Florian chose good eating places for lunch, not very expensive, but offering local specialties—I had excellent trout on our Rila excursion. The meals are not included in the tour price.
The Ethnography Museum and the Academy of Arts are located in the same building which was closed for renovation while we were there; as was the mosque in the center of town. We did visit the archeology museum which was dismissed as unimportant by Florian, that the one in Plovdiv was better (true), but which had interesting pieces nonetheless with a fairly large treasury with Thracian gold objects. We mainly saw the city’s exterior architecture—for the most part a mix of turn of the century (19th to 20th century) architecture and post W.W. II constructions. There is an extensive outdoor market that is worth visiting with bakeries and grocery stores lining both sides of the street. The TZUM department store (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/TZUM ) is almost an empty shell, but then throughout eastern Europe the new and the old, the active and the abandoned frequently are juxtaposed even in the very centers of the cities. The subway is an exception; it appears to be brand-new and is easy to use with clear directions on the ticket dispensing machines.
Here’s a striking example from Bucharest with a rehabilitated formal building behind which is a crazy dilapidated top structure: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/28568309845/in/album-72157671497987116/
Next to our hotel in Sofia, well re-done, was an old mansion which looked abandoned, until one evening we saw someone leaning out the window. As explained to us, people may have had the money to buy or hang on to a property but have no money to fix it, or may have fixed the interior but not the exterior. Sofia has quite a few turn of the century buildings in disrepair.
Food was fine in Sofia. The Hotel Nicky probably had the most run-of-the-mill menu and food. The other locations where we ate were:
Rest. Moskovska 15 (http://moskovska15.com/ ) $30 for a light lunch, nice atmosphere in the front patio. Located on the other side of the park behind the Ethnographic Museum. The prices are very reasonable. There are 2 levs to the euro. which means that the main dishes are roughly between $7 and $11. All prices are for two and exclude the 10% tip we normally gave.
Rest. Magernitsa ($68) which has a rabbit warren of rooms upstairs where we ate. I felt a little pushed into a corner as our room was the antechamber to a larger room where a group of ten Britishers were carousing. I would have preferred being in a room with more tables for two’s and four’s. My recollection is that the food was good, but did not meet the hype. http://magernitsa.com/en/
Sun-Moon Bakery ($18) We at there twice. It’s not expensive, the food is well prepared, essentially vegetarian, which is a nice change from the predominantly meat dishes that constitute the main courses in most restaurants. https://www.tripadvisor.com/ShowUserReviews-g294452-d7146893-r261387305-Sunmoon-Sofia_Sofia_Region.html
Restaurant MOMA ($47), in a renovated mansion, was very good. That is where we discovered lyutenitsa - great appetizer spread. It is in the same area as Sun Moon. http://moma-restaurant.com/en/%d0%b7%d0%b0-%d0%bd%d0%b0%d1%81/
From Sofia we traveled to Plovdiv by bus. The central bus station is next to the train station and services several bus companies. The system is similar to the Mexican system, and one has to find out which company services the desired destination. These stations are located at a metro stop, so that using public transportation to get there—unless the originating metro stop is inconveniently far—is no problem. Transportation by bus and train is cheap—inconsequential compared to the daily cost of lodging and food.
In Plovdiv we stayed at the Hotel Renaissance (http://renaissance-bg.com/www4/en/ 260€ for 4 nights through Hotels.com), a small hotel with just five rooms, at the base of the hill that constitutes Plovdiv’s main historic district. The room was clean, breakfast, as with all hotels, was included; not as plentiful as is some hotels, but with a freshly prepared egg as desired, coffee, juice and rolls. I can’t complain as usually do not eat any breakfast. The hotel owner was very nice and helpful. He drove to the other side of town the day before our departure to get us our bus tickets. Naturally, he also arranged for the taxi to take us there on time on our departure day.
Of our three stays in Bulgaria, Plovdiv may have been the most satisfying in regard to the towns themselves. We could have taken our day trip to Koprivshtitsa from Plovdiv, but I would base such a decision (Sofia or Plovdiv) on the availability of time. Plovdiv has an extensive historic center built on one of its seven hills, with many houses that have been turned into museums—I photographed far too many interiors. It has a pleasant pedestrian walk interrupted by the ruins of the Roman stadium next to the main mosque (most of the stadium is buried under the pedestrian street). It has an excellent archeology museum with an important Thracian gold collection. And it has a variety of good restaurants. While the hill town is in good shape, with a large proportion of the buildings rehabilitated and some new added in, the flat part of town illustrates the phenomenon of development/rehabilitation next to existing decay even in the most popular parts of town with all the international stores lining the street—one just has to raise eye level to the second story to see the contrast. For my wife, the Bank of Bulgaria building was a classic, still in its pre-1990 condition: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/28466304465
We took the free tour offered by a law school student, which offers a nice overview of the center of the city. And then we wandered on our own, concentrating mainly on the old town.
We ate well in Plovdiv. There is a good cheaper restaurant going up to the fortress. It is on the last block on the right, has a pleasant terrace. One dish plus a beer will be more than sufficient for lunch.
The other restaurants were:
Philippopolis $42 http://www.visitplovdiv.com/en/node/274 It was in some ways a strange experience. We made reservations (totally unnecessary) and after visiting the gallery—not that interesting—we were seated at the end of a large room, against the wall, and we were the only patrons during our entire meal. The meal was fine, but nothing memorable.
Hemingway restaurant $52 (http://ipspecial.bg/en/hemingway-2/ ) We did not have reservations, but one probably should for weekends and popular hours. It appears to be popular with the business crowd, but dress is casual (as in all the restaurants we frequented). We started with a large sampler of dried meats. The food was very good.
We ate twice at Dayana (http://en.dayanabg.com/ ), which is a family restaurant on the theme of traditional food and setting. It was quite good, although we had some problems ordering because the waiter’s English was practically nil and our Bulgarian is non-existent. I can’t give the price because I have no credit card record for the meal. We do not have a chip credit card, and although the reader could read the strip, it also asked for a code which we do not have (we could, but choose not to). This happened at another time, but by changing reader the other establishment was able to process our credit card; the explanation given is that the readers were tied to different banks, and the banks’ policy in regard to credit cards varied.
A similar restaurant, with a somewhat cozier atmosphere (the pictures on Dayana’s home page are quite accurate) is XIX Vek. (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g295391-d1101037-Reviews-XIX_Vek-Plovdiv_Plovdiv_Province.html ). It is close to the archeological museum, should anyone be in that area.
From Plovdiv we took a very cramped extended minivan to Veliko Tarnovo. My wife who is 5’1” had her knees touch the seat in front of her, and I had to sit at an angle with my legs out into the aisle; not all towns are connected by big buses. The bus arrives in Tarnovo is what appears to be a nondescript parking lot in the middle of nowhere. We scrambled to get a taxi, not being sure of what other transportation would be available and if taxis are there only according to the bus schedule. The drive to the hotel crosses the new town, going on a broad boulevard lined with high-rises as is frequently the case in these countries. The old town of Tarnovo is located along a horseshoe bend of the river and is very attractive with the exception of an enormous hotel built in a brutalist style with a hodge-podge of other add-ons, as described by our introductory tour guide. We stayed at the Hotel Gurko ($223 for four nights through Trip Advisor http://www.hotel-gurko.com/index_en.php ), in the middle of the bend overlooking the Art Museum and the large memorial monument in front of it. I would stay there again as I would in all the hotels of our trip—but we never look for or expect special amenities. My wife did not like the shower facility in our room because it was a hand-held shower over a whirlpool tub with no curtains (https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/28362178402 ). All the other hotels had shower stalls. Because we stayed four nights, our laundry was done for free.
Tarnovo has a shopping street of little shops oriented toward tourism. Behind there is an old town very similar in terms of building structure to other old towns such as Plovdiv, but less wealthy at the outset. The houses do not have the grandeur of those in Plovdiv, and that section, even if only 5 minutes from the square where the shopping street ends, has very few foreign visitors, at least when we walked around it; in fact, it was empty of street life. As the capital of Bulgarian before the Ottoman conquest, Tarnovo has an extensive fortress structure, of which the walls and the rebuilt church are the main components. The view from the fortress is worthwhile, as well as the view of the fortress. The church is interesting in that it is not a functioning church and is one of the few in our travels through Orthodox lands that contains murals painted in a modernistic style. Except for a stained glass window in the Ruse cathedral, this was the only church art that was more than a replication of Orthodox iconography. On the street of the Gurko Hotel there is also a mansion of a 19th century banker that can be visited. Built on the steep hillside of the river bend it cascades 4 stories down, but only the upper two stories can be visited.
We took a taxi to Arbanasi, a village a few miles from Tarnovo. There are three things to visit there: the mansion of a merchant which is one of the few where the kitchen and toilets can be seen. It has what I think of as a Levant type furnishings, like many houses in Plovdiv, with wide divan like platforms covered with carpeting instead of chairs in the “living” rooms, one of which was a birthing room. But the bedrooms must have been on the next floor which is not accessible to visitors. There are two small Orthodox churches in the village which have murals that pre-date the 19th century. We took a bus back which dropped us off the main square by the ugly casino and the post office.
There is one restaurant in Tarnovo which is supposed to be in a class of its own, otherwise we did not find any that match the better restaurants that we frequented in the two previous cities. But we did not eat badly. There was one disaster—the fancy restaurant. We decided to splurge and followed Lonely Planet’s recommendation (“without a doubt Veliko Tarnovo’s finest restaurant”) and made a reservation at Han Hadji Nikoli (http://cms2.hanhadjinikoli.com/index.php/en/home ). The guidebook even gives a suggested menu (escargots bourguignon, chicken, dessert) which I followed. The escargot were shriveled, with too little butter and parsley, and not hot enough to need the special tongs, the chicken was meh, and the dessert was thankfully different. The waiter was incapable of discussing the wine list, they forgot one appetizer, gave my wife a main course she had not ordered—eventually the maitre d’ took over and the waiter disappeared. This was not a busy night, we were the only clients in the restaurant. The meal was such a disaster that we received a complimentary selection of all the desserts. Before anyone tells me that escargots should only be eaten in Burgundy, or perhaps France, I had some of the best mussels ever in a trattoria in Bucharest, and in a fish restaurant in Pécs, far better than what I had in Antwerp a couple of years ago.
We had good food at the Egoclub Pizza (https://www.facebook.com/pages/EGO-Pizza-Grill/325988876842 $27 plus tip), right across the street from the tourist information office. It turns out that many Bulgarian dishes can also be cooked in pizza oven, or at least the kitchen is set up for both types of cooking, as was the open kitchen in this restaurant. The other one, perhaps slightly more upscale, is Restaurant “Lucky 1” (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g303653-d1101062-Reviews-Restaurant_Shtastliveca_1-Veliko_Tarnovo_Veliko_Tarnovo_Province.html ) which is very popular. It’s on the main avenue of the historic town. We also had a decent meal in Arbanasi, just across the street from the bus station, on the veranda of the local hotel.
In trying to recreate our restaurant expenses in this trip report, I checked our credit card expenditures. There are about 3 or 4 credit card expenses that I cannot explain, one from a company that sells compressors, another from a sportswear store that is not in a part of town we visited, and so on. Since we had limited access to computers, and in any case do not wish to compromise my account by accessing it on a public computer, we were too late to contest the charges. We had asked for automatic payment for that month, knowing that we would not be in town to even pay the bill, much less question it. At any rate, it does not add up to more than $100 or so of questionable expenditures, which stopped as soon as we left Bulgaria and possibly Bucharest. I sometimes think that it is some type of tax levied through contracted intermediaries.
This is the end of the Bulgaria section of the trip, except for two stops on the Danube during our cruise. These are the photos taken during this part of the trip: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/sets/72157666850902394/show
We took the train to Bucharest. It turned out to be a little problematic. The office that sold international tickets was located in the central post office, but moved. We finally found it. There are very few numbers on the houses, so we had to keep on going in the stores to ask what their address number was and keep on going down the main street until we found the office. They could not sell us tickets because they had just opened and neither the computer nor the proper paper forms were in the office. The train station in Tarnovo had no international ticket selling office so on the day of our departure we took a taxi to Gorna, and found the international ticket office on the train station platform—the regular ticket office in the train station does not sell international tickets. There was a little confusion about the train and which wagon, as the wagon going to Bucharest would be separated from the rest of the train ending in Ruse. The border crossing in the middle of nowhere, with a station intended only as a passport check, with passports taken from you rather than immigration going through the wagon, was reminiscent of the good old days of eastern European border crossings. The wagon was also a relic of by-gone days.
We spent a couple of days in Bucharest before joining the cruise group. We stayed at the Hotel Rembrandt (http://www.rembrandt.ro/ Expedia reservation $304 for three nights) in what may have been the tiniest room of the whole trip, but the location added a premium to the room—right in the center of the walking area of Bucharest. From what I heard, it is difficult to imagine what the area looked like ten or fifteen years ago. It has been completely rehabilitated, with Caru’ cu Bere, a ca. 1900 establishment being one of the few original businesses remaining. The area is now filled with sidewalk cafés, restaurants, night clubs, fancy shops and galleries.
We took the free introductory tour of Bucharest which starts in a park near the center of town and ends at the national theater, covering the essentials of what is to be seen in between. We went back to stroll through the old section, see the interior of the early 19th cent. caravanseray (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Manuc%27s_Inn ). We visited the Ceaucescu parliamentary building, in which everything had to be the biggest and the best. This is a very popular tourist destination. Tour groups in all languages leave every 15 minutes, a reservation is unnecessary but one must carry a valid passport (a photocopy will not do) which will be held at the entrance and returned at the end of the tour. From there we went to the Museum of the Romanian Peasant, where one can eat good traditional foods in its cafeteria but with pre-1989 service. I was not overly impressed by the museum itself, but its gift shop is a shopper’s paradise for those seeking traditional items, be they out of wood, ceramic, or textile; it is the largest folk item shop I have ever seen, with barrels of painted Easter eggs. We walked back into town, stopping at the Georg Enescu museum which was his wife’s inheritance. The outside is an impressive 19th century mansion. The interiors have maintained the general shape of the rooms, but all of them are turned into exhibition rooms, so that there is little sense of 19th cent. life remaining; moreover, Enescu did not like the place and lived in a smaller house in the back, which can also be visited.
There has been a great deal of construction around the center of the city, and I found it more interesting than the restored center itself, in that it often tries to combine the old and the new.
We ate well in Bucharest. Near the Memorial to the 1989 Revolution we were looking for a place to eat and fell upon the Trattoria Buongiorno Lido on the Strada Rosetti (http://www.trattoriabuongiorno.ro/en/ ) with a large outdoor eating area. There we had the best mussel soup ever, with a large portion of mussels. The waiter was pushing the traditional mussels, but this turned out to be better in that the broth was not just the mussels’ salty liquid. We ate three times at the Car’ cu Bere (https://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g294458-d739896-Reviews-Caru_cu_Bere-Bucharest.html ), once for dinner when I ordered the pig knuckle for two. I did not pay attention to the amount. 1.6 kg is too much even for two. Cost of the entire meal was $33; this was one instance where the original card reader did not work, as it kept on asking for our code, but another one (presumably tied to a different bank) did accept our card. The second time was for lunch. I paid cash and the waiter never returned with the change—do not give a nod of recognition, but specify that you want the change. I complained and the change was returned. The third time was with our cruise group, and the lunch was much less interesting, but the dark beer just as good as one the previous days. We also had an excellent evening meal at http://www.lacrimisisfinti.com/en/menu.html which is a modernized version of traditional dishes.
We took a taxi to the hotel where we were to meet our cruise group—as with all official taxis, a receipt will be produced at the end of the ride. He did not use the direct route to avoid rush hour traffic, which gave us a glimpse of all the old housing, quite a few pre W.W.II or even older mansions, that was run-down because the owners did not have the money for anything but the most essential repairs. He also gave us a basic economic rule. He was 26 years old, and said that all the young people in the old town drinking and snacking on the sidewalk cafés are spending money like under the old régime—what you have you spend, because nobody knows what tomorrow will bring. He pointed out that for him, cost of living is high. From his point of view, a taxi driver is paid pretty much the same in terms of units, but a unit in western Europe goes much farther than a unit in Romania. In other words, he charges hypothetically 10 lei for a ride which would cost 10€ in western Europe. But gasoline costs the same: 2€ per liter and 8.9 lei, because it is an internationally traded item. A pack of cigarettes costs 7€ in France but 16lei in Bucharest. The percentage of his earnings going to cigarettes his higher than the taxi driver’s in western Europe. The ratio of annual wage is roughly 1 to 5, for every dollar earned in Romania, 5 dollars are earned in Europe (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_European_countries_by_average_wage ). In other words what appears cheap for us can be expensive for the local population, which is why we could not understand the crowds of young Romanians in the old town. He also added, with a trace of anti-Semitism, that many Israelis come to gamble in the hotel casinos of Bucharest, spending hundreds of dollars, and then argue about a 10 lei difference in the cab ride. He did not like Middle Eastern visitors in general, flashing their money around and acting as if they own the world.
This is the end of our independent travel before the cruise. Here are the pictures that I took in Bucharest: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/sets/72157671497987116/show
We joined our cruise group in Bucharest, staying at one of these international hotels near the airport. We were immediately divided into four groups of about 40, each one with a leader from one of the countries along the Danube. Ours was from Serbia and could only work on the boat because she had acquired EU citizenship (Spanish) by being married to a Spaniard. The composition of the passengers was also restricted. Some of it is purely voluntary: largely retired people, and for once we fit in the age group. We also heard, but did not have it confirmed, that only Americans can join this particular group, and I can’t imagine why this restriction would exist. At any rate, this is an English speaking cruise.
I had read bad reports about the cruise company—Grand Circle Cruise line—but we had no problems. Some of the negative reports had to do with a medical emergency (we had none), associated airplane issues (we arranged our own flights), and some of the extensions (we took none). We chose it because friends recommended it, and my wife dreamt of a Danube cruise. For those who associate the idea of a Danube cruise with hilly country dotted with picturesque villages along the shore, this is not it. The Danube between the Black Sea and Budapest is generally wide (the Iron Gates are the exception) with few towns in between.
From the glimpses I had of the other cabins (we were in the least expensive), all of them are essentially the same: two single beds set up at night which are benches during the day separated by a table; and en suite bathrooms. The difference is the amount of light coming in as the windows at our level are small openings close to the ceiling, upper decks have larger windows.
The food was very good, especially the buffet for breakfast and lunch. It is very easy to over eat. The wine was not very good on the first dinner, but either it was planned or there was enough grumbling that they subsequently switched from the insipid Rot Burgunder that we were served that evening to local reds. In theory we had the right to one free glass of wine per meal, in practice our glasses were frequently refilled. They push the extras, such as buying your own higher class wine bottle, with a discount for multiple bottles; not being familiar with any of the wines, I had no reason to order any of them—European table wines tend to be acceptable with meals.
Laundry service is expensive at full price (53€ for a relatively small bag of laundry) but once we were on the boat for a couple of days, we were offered 25% discounts for laundry service. It usually was same day service, and it appeared to be rough on the clothing. The prices while on the cruise itself are given in euros and charged in euros when dealing with the cruise company itself—thus tipping of staff can be done with a credit card and paid in euros or dollars for those willing to be subjected to the DCC. But the group guides are more like independent contractors and are tipped in cash—dollars and/or euros. The brochure gave the impression that there was a bursar on board who could exchange dollars or euros for local money when necessary (we had time on our own in Bulgaria, Serbia and of course Budapest), but that was not the case; we had to use ATMs on land for local cash.
On our first day with the group, we had a bus tour of Bucharest in the morning with a meeting with one of the student leaders of the 1989 revolution. Basically we saw the memorial to the revolution, drove past the parliament building to a war memorial where there was a local market where we could purchase fresh fruit, smoked sausages, and homemade raki and wine (but could only drink it in our cabin). We had lunch at the old restaurant in the old town and then drove to Constanza. The next morning in Constanza we visited the center of the town with its cathedral and archeology/ethnic museum and also saw its beach front. The boat then left the harbor to take the canal to the Danube.
Our first stop was in Ruse, Bulgaria. There was an optional bus tour available to Tarnovo which we did not take. Instead, our group leader took us into town with a local guide introducing us to the area. We visited the cathedral (church and mosque visits were quite frequent, starting in Romania) which was interesting from my point of view because we were allowed to photograph the inside (generally not allowed in Orthodox churches) and it had a modern style stained glass window (also rare in Orthodox churches). After the tour we were on our own. I decided that I wanted to visit the Ivanovo Rock Monastery and asked our group leader about a taxi to take us the 30 km. to the site and back. She arranged for a guide and taxi service,(€30 per person) which probably was much more expensive than a simple taxi ride, at least compared to what we paid in Sofia. We had the local currency to pay for it. The monastery is not what one would imagine, it is more like a hermit’s cave on a cliff but with all the walls and ceilings painted. My wife was disappointed, I found it interesting. Near the boat docks there is an interesting 19th century mansion that can be visited—our guide was unfamiliar with it.
The cruise company tries to provide information that goes beyond look and see. Activities that were include during the 11 day trip were: 2 folk dancing groups (and one talent (?) show by the staff), meeting individuals involved in recent upheavals ( a 1989 leader in Bucharest, a volunteer leader to provide food and other help to the refugees at the Budapest train station), presentation of life in these countries (students who spoke of their education and dreams—Grand Circle Tour has a non-profit that gave money to rebuild schools in Vokuvar—, and our group leaders talked about their families’ lives then and now), a meal at a farmhouse near Novi Sad and a meal with a family (only the wife was present, the others were at work) in Croatia. All very pleasant and often eliding the real problems that exist in that part of Europe. For example, little was said of the Croatian-Serbian enmities that have existed for centuries and were not eradicated after W.W.II. On one side was the idea of Greater Serbia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greater_Serbia ) and on the other the Ustashi (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Usta%C5%A1e ). The war after the break-up of Yugoslavia is a reflection of these historical movements, reviving all the bad memories between these two groups.
Our next stop was Vidin, which we were told is the poorest town in Bulgaria, although one could not see that from the outside. It has a small fortress that can be visited and the center of town has a very pleasant pedestrian area. We visited the local mosque which was presented to us by the local imam. The congregation is very reduced. If I remember correctly, there are about 20 Muslim families in the town.
The Iron Gates are the most scenic part of the cruise, and the guides let you know that. Throughout the trip there is a certain insistence of telling us to appreciate this or that. The word “beautiful” crossed their lips too often; I would like to decide for myself what is beautiful or not.
Our visit to Belgrade started with a group tour of the fortress and then a bus ride to the new cathedral which was one of the least interesting stops in our cruise. The cathedral is not yet finished, and the only reason for stopping there is that a good part of the funding was provided by expatriate Serbian community in the U.S. We also met our guide’s parents for 15 minutes, because of course, many group members would have been disappointed if our guide had just slipped off for 15 minutes to see her parents and her dog privately. We had the afternoon off, and we went to the local market and then to visit the museum of decorative arts (not easy to find), which has some interesting 18th and 19th century items.
Novi Sad was more interesting. The town center is very pleasant. The city must have had a large Jewish community before W.W.II (another elided historical issue) because the large synagogue and surrounding compound are still there, but it was closed. The outdoor market has been upgraded: every meat and dairy stand has a permanently installed refrigerated case. Later my wife went to the local museum while I joined a group that walked up to the very imposing 18th century fortress and took a tour of part of its tunnels—it has miles of tunnels.
In Vokuvar we visited a fortress that never functioned as one, and had a very pleasant family meal (we were divided into groups of 6 or 8). It was in a village, and the family had a farm, although that was an after-work enterprise. The meal took place in its residence on the other side of the village, in a new house built by the family itself with the help of other villagers. The wife was a city girl trained as a hair dresser who married a farmer and then had to learn out to take care of their chickens and pigs and do all the traditional cooking. Her English was fluent.
In Budapest the ship berthed right by the Parliament building. We had the standard bus tour, ending at the Heroes’ Square with its heroic statues. Lots of heroic statues in these countries, either of historical heroes (ancient kings and emperors) or of W.W.II liberators. After lunch explored on our own the Andrassy area near the Oktagon metro stop and discovered the Lizst Academy with a wonderful statue of Georg Solti in front. The building itself is pure Art Nouveau. The next day we took a group tour to an Eiffel market, had lunch on the boat, then took a historical tour which we left early to see the ethnographic museum behind the House of Parliament, definitely worth a visit. That evening we had a night time cruise of the Danube while changing docking area away from the center of town.
Here are the pictures of our Danube cruise: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/sets/72157671298558895/show
The next morning we paid our final charges (tips, laundry fees) and took a taxi to the train station to go to Pécs. The train station has a luggage lockers for a nominal fee, so we had time to wander around that area, definitely a grittier part of town. While walking around, still within sight of the Keleti train station we were stopped by a plain-clothes “policeman” who flashed a badge and asked to see our passports. He gave as a reason the need to see if we were carrying counterfeit money. Rather than refusing outright, I suggested that we go to the police station. After repeating that a couple of times, he let us go. There have been postings about being asked for tickets in the metro. That is a different issue. Every time we took the metro, there were obvious controllers at the validation posts making sure that every ticket is validated. This was not the same thing. Strolling down a street, obviously innocent of any questionable activity, means that there is no reason to stop you; if stopped, insist on going to the police station—that should clarify the status of the individual stopping you.
Pécs is a wonderful town. We stayed at the Hotel Palatinus (http://www.danubiushotels.com/our-hotels-pecs/hotel-palatinus?_ga=1.79536084.1572795960.1472144142 $93 for two nights, buffet breakfast included) right in the center of town. We visited the Szolnay factory compound which has an important collection of its products through its existence. It also has an excellent café where I ordered what in France would be called un duo de tartares which was such a beautiful presentation that I had to take a picture (I usually refrain) https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/28551533535/in/album-72157623003638578/ The Zsolnay center is within easy walking distance from the center of town. The town also has quite a few Organic Architecture buildings, and some Art Nouveau buildings, especially the main post office. There are Roman ruins to be visited, a mosque that is now a church, and a fairly large synagogue which has a small museum component to it. In it I learned something interesting: in January 1945 the synagogue was already a refugee center while Budapest was still experiencing Fascist massacres of Jews (see the shoe memorial by the Danube). It is a town worth exploring.
It also has good restaurants. One night we ate at a modern restaurant—it would not have been out of place in San Francisco or Paris—where I was served a foie gras crème brulée and excellent catfish filet (http://www.jokaibisztro.hu/ $56). The next evening we ate at a café around the corner from the first restaurant where we had the excellent mussels previously mentioned (http://pecscityguide.com/2015/bloff-bistro-is-your-best-source-of-grilled-fish-in-pecs/ $56). I also ordered the mackerel, but the waiter suggested that it was not the freshest, that it would be better to have the sea bass that came in that day. In both restaurant we had excellent service.
Here are the pictures of Pécs incorporated in my Hungarian album that goes back to 1975: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/sets/72157623003638578/show
We took the train back to Budapest, dropped our suitcases off at the hotel (http://medoszhotel.hu/?page_id=130&lang=en $80 through Expedia)—an easy metro connection; then walked around town for the afternoon. The hotel is close to the Liszt Academy and the Opera house, for those interest in musical events. We ate across from the Liszt Academy—http://www.korhelyfaloda.hu/english ($50)—the street is lined with restaurants, and ours looked interesting, otherwise why choose it, but I have little recollection of it.
These are my collected pictures of Budapest, from 1975 to the present: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/sets/72157670730601912/show
We flew from Budapest to Istanbul and spent four days there. We stayed at the Hotel Basileus ( http://www.basileushotel.com/ $292 for 5 nights through Expedia), in between the Blue Mosque area and the Kumkapi neighborhood, near the Little Hagia Sophia. It’s a family run affair, which is how they survive given the 25% reduction in tourism when we were there, after the bombing in the Blue Mosque area but before the bombing in the university area. Now, after the attempted coup, it must be much worse. This was our second visit to Istanbul, so we skipped the Topkapi and the Blue Mosque. We visited the Hagia Sophia under the impression that the renovation was finished; but it was not. On the other hand, we discovered the tombs next to the Hagia Sophia which we somehow had missed during our last visit and which have some wonderful tile work. This time the Suleyman Mosque was open, and we wanted to go back to one of our favorites, the Rustempasha Mosque but it was closed for renovation. We discovered that we prefer the spice market to the Grand Bazaar. We walked along the sea of Marmara and in the European side of Istanbul near the Hotel Pera. Had brunch in Aheste Pera (http://www.ahesterestaurant.com/ $31 + tip) that catered to a fully Westernized crowd (but we only heard Turkish) that could have been part of the Millenium oriented San Francisco restaurants—the food was good. We visited the Turkish & Islamic Arts Museum, which is less interesting than the archeological museum (closed at the moment, I believe) but had a special exhibit of the Koran through the ages which demonstrated a wonderful variety of calligraphy—the text is for us as meaningless as the text of an illuminated Medieval manuscript.
On our last day we visited the Sadberk Hanim Museum (http://www.sadberkhanimmuzesi.org.tr/default.asp?hl=en ) which has a collection divided in two: one building contains the pre-historic and Roman artifacts, and the other the Christian era and Ottoman artifacts. It has a good mosaic collection, the only one we found which was not attached to the wall of a mosque or a palace. The hotel manager insisted that the town was within the greater Istanbul transportation district, and that a single fare would get us there and back, going there by bus and coming back by ferry. We had no problem getting there, but at the ferry terminal of that town it was impossible to get through with our transportation pass, the man insisted that we had to pay a much higher fare. So we returned by bus. We had two options, inland or along the shore, with the former going much faster. We decided to go back the way we came, along the shore, and it turned out to be fortuitous because there was a massive demonstration on Taksim Square where would have arrived had we taken the other bus. Back at the hotel the manager insisted that ferry rides are part of that single fare transportation system.
The neighborhood restaurant the hotel suggested was OK, the Kumkapi fish restaurant was better and far more interesting for people watching, we had a good meal at a small restaurant around the corder from Giritli, and best was Giritli (http://www.giritlirestoran.com/ $112 for 18 mezes, a main fish dish, dessert and raki and wine) where we had been in 2008. In most instances we paid we cash, and because of the strange small charges that have occurred, I think that this is the better way to go.
Here are the photos of Istanbul: https://www.flickr.com/photos/mksfca/sets/72157622934223233/show
The return to San Francisco was uneventful, but the food was not as good as going over.
How we organize things: We have a folder that contains all the hotel reservations, printed Turkish visas, various scheduled flights, pre-purchased train tickets—all of which are numbered in the order they will be used and clipped together. It’s otherwise frustrating to look through the different sheets of paper to find the correct one, and it pretty much guarantees that an item will not be misplaced unless the entire folder is misplaced.
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Trip Report: Bulgaria, Danube River cruise, and more, May 2016
This is a very long trip report.