On Cruising the River Danube: Part 4 of 4

This is the last installment about the cruise we took on the Danube River this past summer. It was a fabulous trip. Besides recommending it, we look forward to our next river cruise (whenever and wherever it may be).

When moving downriver from Germany, changes in socio-economics in easily seen. Especially in Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania. However, these countries also offer many wonderful sights to visit. This part travel from Belogradchik to Bucharest

 

Belogradchik, Bulgaria

Located atop the foothills of the Balkan Mountains, Belogradchik is a small town with two unexpected sites: interesting natural rock formations (Belogradchik Rocks) and an ancient fortress built within the rocks (Belogradchik Fortress).

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Cetate, Romania

Describing our several hours in Cetate is difficult. Listening to the poet who was a dissident during Romania’s Communist era was enlightening. To me, the part of Cetate that we saw felt like a commune – but it isn’t. They grow many of their own crops, nurture their own livestock, make wine from their organic groups, and promote their own art. Here’s Cetate’s website.

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Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

We spent the day on a bus trip into Bulgaria from Rousse. As the City of the Tsars, Veliko Tarnovo is home to castle of Bugarian kings. After lunch, we hiked up to the castle for wonderful views of the city and surrounding region.

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Arbanassi, Bulgaria

Located above Veliko Tarnovo, Arbanassi is a village with an old church that has unique frescos. Because photography was not permitted inside the Church of the Nativity of Christ, click here for a link to Google Images search result.

 

Bucharest, Romania

After disembarking the ship in Oltenita, Bucharest is about a 90-minute bus ride. As Romania’s capital and largest city, Bucharest is busy. To me, it’s a big city without much to offer. Sure their is the second largest Parliament building in the world, the Avenue of the Fountains, old palace, and a vibrant Old Town sector, but our highlight was the food tour we took in the evening through a local neighborhood.

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Hope you enjoyed the 4-post trip down the River Danube. I don’t know if I’ll return to Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania, but I’m very glad that I got there at least once.

Previous Posts

Part 1 (Prague to Linz)
Part 2 (Melk to Budapest)
Part 3 (Budapest to Iron Gates Gorge)

On Cruising the River Danube: Part 3 of 4

 Please excuse the interruption, but a beach walk will return next week. 

………..

Because we cruised 75-80% of the Danube, parts 3 and 4 of this series features the lower Danube -downriver from Budapest  through Hungary to Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania. This portion of the river is less travelled by river cruisers.

 

Budapest, Hungary

As I mentioned in the previous post, Budapest was our halfway point. We hiked the top of a hill on the Buda side for an awesome view of the city. Visited the nearby Cave Church. The view of Budapest at night is spectacular, and a must-do for visitors.

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Pecs, Hungary

Located about a 40 minute bus ride from our dock in Mochas, Pecs (PAY-ch) is Hungary’s fifth largest city. It’s early Christian necropolis is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the location of interesting archeological excavations.

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Belgrade, Serbia

I recall Belgrade as the capital of Yugoslavia. Although not dominated by the Soviet Union, Marshall Tito had a different view of Communism – so Yugoslavia remained an arm-length from the USSR. Belgrade pleasantly surprised me.

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Donji Milanovac, Serbia

This small town served as a base for the 20-minute bus ride to an archeological site (Lepenski Vir) dating back to 6000 BCE. That’s old! Thought is that the culture worshipped the mountain. Before docking in the town, the ship passed the museum. The actual site is now well below the water level.

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Iron Gates Gorge

The Iron Gates is a spectacular natural beauty separating Romania and Serbia. From the time we entered the region at 7 AM, there’s no better view than from the ship’s top deck. For me, this region served as one of my top highlights of the trip.

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Previous Posts

  • Part 1 (Prague to Linz)
  • Part 2 (Melk to Budapest)

On Cruising the River Danube: Part 2 of 4

Both the previous post and this one focus on the Upper Danube River. This happens to be the section that most river cruises take (between German and Budapest) in one direction or the other. This post features from Melk to Budapest.

 

Melk, Austria

Melk Abbey majestically sits above the city of 5,000+. Founded in the 11th Century, this UNESCO World Heritage site is magnificent inside and out. Here are two Google Images searches: Exterior; Interior: plus a 4-minute video from Rick Steves.

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Wachau Valley

Protected by UNESCO, The Wachau Valley very scenic. A great day to sit on the top deck and watch the world go by.

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Durnstein, Austria

Durnstein is a small town located in the wine-growing region of the Wachau Valley. The medieval sector (with its narrow streets) is full of shops and free of automobiles. I hiked to the Durnstein Castle ruins sitting high above the town that offers wonderful views of the area.

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Vienna, Austria

Vienna – the center of the Hapsburg Empire for 500 years – and the city where classical music is the real king. The city was busy – very busy. Maybe too busy, so the city didn’t grab me as it should. However, that evening we attended a private concert by a chamber orchestra composed of  12 fabulous musicians who sounded like a large orchestra. The evening was unquestionably extra special.

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Bratislava, Slovakia

Whereas Vienna disappointed me, Bratislava captured my heart. I love old-city-sectors in Europe, and Bratislava is my kind of place.

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Budapest, Hungary

Budapest, a vibrant, opulent city, is where 102 passengers disembarked and 104 replaced them as 36 of us had reached our half-way point. Because we spent two-full days there last year as part of our Rick Steves tour, we wanted to do different things. We our visited an exhibit of a Hungarian artist (Miska Roth), toured the Hungarian Opera House (great but under renovation), and enjoyed some Hungarian cake. For more information about this wonderful city, here are links to four past posts: Budapest, Liberty Square, The Bronzed Shoes, and Tidbits.

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Past Post in the Series

Part 1 (Prague to Linz)

On Cruising the River Danube: Part 1 of 4

Our first river cruise was a good one, so thought I’d share a bit of it with you. My first thought was 2 posts: the Upper and Lower Danube – but those posts would be too long with too many pics in each post. (That’s a self-imposed standard.)  So, I’ve decided to spread this trip over 4 posts, but in order of occurrence. This post features Prague to Linz.

 

Prague, Czech Republic

Although not located on the Danube, Prague is a common beginning (or end) point for Upper Danube cruises. We first visited Prague last year at the start of our Rick Steves tour. Because we loved it this city by the River Vltava , we didn’t mind returning. For more details and images of Prague, here’s a past post.

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Terezin, Czech Republic

Until last year’s trip, I had never heard of Terezin until our guide mentioned it. After reading about it in Madeleine Albright’s Prague Winter, and then watching a documentary on it, I couldn’t pass a tour opportunity to visit. Terezin served as a town and a military installation. The Nazis took it over and turned it into a “model city” for interned Jews. It is an interesting, yet horrific, story. I’ve very glad I visited.

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Regensburg, Germany

A bit more than a two-hour bus ride from Prague (and before boarding the Avalon Passion), we spent the afternoon in Regensburg. Because it wasn’t bombed in WW2, it’s medieval city is still intact – and vibrant!

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Passau, Germany

Our first cruise stop was Passau. This city of three rivers is where the Danube, Inn, and Ilz rivers meet. Interesting how the Inn’s murky water affects the Danube from this point and beyond. (From here down, it’s not blue.) Someone saved a young Adolph Hitler from drowning in the Inn.  After an Old Town tour, we hiked up to the castle for a scenic view.

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Linz, Austria

Linz is one of the larger cities in Austria. Although not one of my favorite stops, my dad was part of the army that liberated Linz in WW2. From Linz, some passengers went to Salzburg. Because my wife is a mega Sound of Music fan, she wanted more than a couple of hours.

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On Murals in Reykjavik

Embed from Getty Images

 

After cruising the British Isles in 2017, we flew to Reykjavik, Iceland where we had an outstanding 4 day/3 night stay. Not only were the tours outside the city spectacular, the city of Reykjavik was a pleasant surprise.

With a population of about 110,000 (approximately one-third of the country’s population), Reykjavik was charming, quaint, active, and unique. Although I’ve already posted about the city, Reykjavik has an outstanding collection of murals! … and Resa would love them!

Although I originally planned a more informative look at the murals, this post (the first of my Closeout Tour) looks at some of the one’s I captured. “Resources” at the end offers links for more information and additional images of the beautiful murals in Reykjavik. Many of the murals in those links are stunning!

Do you have a favorite?

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At the airport (KEF) I was surprised to find this complex mural.

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Resources

On La Habana

Click for either background music or watch to get a feel

Note: There is a lot in this post. The more you read, the more images you see, and the more links you follow, the more you will learn. Then again, I understand time is a limitation. Enjoy however you can. 

 

We Baby Boomers remember images of a fun-loving Havana from the 1950s movies. We also remember the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1963. Given the latter and the almost 60-year trade and travel embargo, I never imagined visiting Havana, Cuba.

 

While approaching the city, I was anxious with anticipation. The thought of a time gone by with a sea of vintage American cars. A place caught in a time warp. A place of disrepair from years of neglect. A place with unhappy people from years of suppression and poverty.

 

Pulling into the cruise terminal, I was struck by the two adjacent terminals appearing as weathered, empty shells of what they once were.

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I expected vintage cars dominating the roads. Yes, they are present – but most serve as taxis and tour vehicles, which are primarily visible when cruise ships are in port. Yes – old cars (clunkers) are present – but I see them at home. Yet in Havana, I also saw newer cars and vans. After all, do you think the European and Asian automakers are going to stay away just because the US automakers did?

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For our brief stay (10 AM – 5 PM), we spent most of our time on a walking tour of La Habana Vieja – Old Havana.

 

Old Havana allows visitors to engage with colonial Spain. Its narrow streets (many are closed to traffic), pleasant plazas, grand architecture, and an array of colors transports visitors into the past. Shops, vendors, music, and places of work allow visitors to engage with today’s Havana.

Old Havana’s colonial architecture is grand and serves as a sign of its prosperous past. The buildings drew me to Havana’s heart. After all, I love “old city” sectors – especially in Europe – and Old Havana has an Old World feel. Although worn buildings serve as a reminder of the past 60 years, renovations and fresh coats of paint delivered a sense of hope for the city and its people.

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We went into one pharmacy that I would not have known what it was if it wasn’t for the guide.

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Travelling in Florence, Italy about five years ago taught me something very important that has stayed with me when I travel – Look Up! Because people’s eyes tend to focus on eye level, especially looking into store windows, many never see the fabulous sights found above. If you ever visit Havana, look up!

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Havana does have a combination of oddities and time warp.

  • US Credit Cards and ATM cards are not accepted!!!

    Look around for the oddity in this image

  • Visitors cannot receive Cuban Currency in advance!

Tourists have a different currency than the locals. I have no idea how that is managed within its society! CUPs (Cuban Pesos) are for the locals. It’s bills have images of people on them. CUCs (Cuban Convertible Pesos), for the tourists, are obtained just outside the port of entry for a modest 15% exchange rate. CUC bills display images of monuments – so when receiving change after a payment, I always checked the bills because the two currencies are not equal.

Travellers may convert CUCs for currencies when leaving for another 15%. Because I don’t believe British Pound Sterling, Euros, and Canadian Dollars have as steep of an exchange fee – if at all! We came home with a 10 CUCs that we planned to give to a friend who is visiting Cuba in November. A win-win would be to sell them to her for $10 – but what the heck! However, President Trump’s latest travel restrictions changed her cruise itinerary, so she’s not going.

Cubans are economically poor. I could see it in some neighborhoods seen from the ship. Wages are low for most jobs. However, Cuban culture is rich and the people show their pride in their dress, music, food, services, and interactions. I saw and encountered a lot of kindness.

I also noticed that Cubans embrace their past, deal with the present, and are hopeful for their future.

Not only was Havana better than I expected, the sights, sounds, and people collectively worked in sync to captured my heart – so yes – I would be willing to return – well, if the travel door reopens.

I wonder what lies ahead for the nation and its people. Time will tell. For now, it seems capitalism is slowly working into society. Its Communist Party still runs the country, and I didn’t not see signs of that changing.

As the ship departed the port, I again look at those two weathered, gutted terminals – but this time I smiled because I was thinking that they are now being renovated in order to increase the number of spots for cruise ships from 2 to 6 – therefore a sense Cuba is ready to embrace the world – maybe even the US. On the other hand, the current administration wants to keep us distant. Would you want to miss sights like this?

 

Enjoy this 3-minute video of Old Havana by National Geographic

 

We recently saw Cuba, a new IMAX film, during a visit our museum center. The trailer is below.

On Oceania Regatta

Click for background music while reading.

 

In April 2019, we cruised from San Diego, California to Miami, Florida through the Panama Canal. The purpose of this post is not to report on the stops, but to review the cruise line and the ship.

This was our first time on Oceania Cruises. We primarily selected it because of the itinerary; plus, several friends raved about Oceania – so we decided to “step up” on this cruise.

 

Oceania is not a luxury, all-inclusive cruise line as Regency, Crystal, Silversea, Seaborne and others – but it is a higher standard/level and more expensive than our previous experiences on Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, and Princess. Then again, every cruise line has their niche and identity – that’s good business!

Oceania uses smaller ships. Our ship, Regatta, is about 600 ft (180 m) long with a customer capacity of nearly 700. The capacity of their larger ships is only 1200, where as the majority of Celebrity, Royal Caribbean, and Princess ships are 2000-3000, plus Royal has several mega ships capable of carrying over 5000 vacationers. It is important to remember ports with smaller harbors are more accessible to cruise lines with smaller ships (like Oceania).

 

Oceania markets itself as a cruise with a casual country club atmosphere. Although no formal nights, they want customers to dress casually nice in certain areas. The overall quality of food was better than previous cruises. Regatta also offers two specialty restaurants, and the price includes a meal in each. The larger Oceania ships have additional specialty restaurants.

Not only did we enjoy Oceania’s policy of no set time for dining or assigned seating, we were always willing to share our table with others. This also allowed us to meet many interesting and nice people.

This dessert looked like a hamburger with relish – but moose with fruit and more. Tasty! Here’s the menu description: “Chocolate Mousse Burger on Almond Bun Topped with a Layer of Apricot Jelly”

 

Entertainment was on-par with the other cruise lines, but with less lavish productions. Instead of a larger theater, entertainment was in a large lounge that provided an intimate, cabernet atmosphere. For cruise days (which this itinerary had many), Oceania offered very good enrichment lectures. Between the two of us, we attended most of them.

Staff is predictably friendly, and there wasn’t a push to buy drinks, services, and merchandise as on the other cruise lines. We didn’t even see a ship photographer! Coffee, tea, soft drinks, and bottled water are inclusive, which is a nice touch that isn’t always the case. Servers would graciously serve passengers those drinks. Plus, soft drinks and water are also in the cabin.

Complimentary wireless is a nice feature, but with the following twist: only one person per cabin at a time. My wife and I made it work, although Oceania offers a streaming upgrade.

On the downside, although cruise ships are not known for spacious cabins, Regatta’s cabins seemed smaller than normal. News about the ship’s upcoming renovation mentioned an additional shower door, which caused me to wonder “where’s the space” in an already small shower. However, Oceania cabins are known for having a plush mattress – oh yes!

The majority of the passengers are retired – including many in the upper 70s and into their 80s. Therefore, others must exercise an extra level of patience in dealing with slowness, standing, and waiting.

Atypical for us, we took our share of cruise excursions/tours, which are very much “hurry up and wait” operations in the cruise industry. We relied on the ship excursions because of our safety concerns in a region known for safety concerns. On the plus side, Oceania gives a 25% discount when booking 4 or more tours. Then again, we encountered several avoidable issues and heard of several others.

The Bottom Line

Would I consider Oceania in the future? Yes. Would they will be my first choice? No. Destinations and itinerary are the prime factors in our cruise selection – not the cruise line. Relative price would also be a factor. However, in my opinion, what we got did not justifies the extra price.

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