Danube Riverboat Cruise

Sometimes, hidden gems are right out in plain sight, like a simple bench high on a hill overlooking the confluence of the Sava and Danube rivers in Belgrade. Neda, our young guide, explained, “We call that the Kissing Bench. It’s said if you kiss someone there, you’ll be with them forever.”

Local legends pointed out by local folks and serendipitous discoveries on our own characterized our cruise of the Lower Danube from Budapest to the Black Sea. In lands that long lay behind the Iron Curtain and that have been the object of conquest and conflict for centuries, the five countries we visited — Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania — all offered unexpected surprises, from an underground labyrinth in Budapest where the real Dracula was once imprisoned to breath- taking Orthodox frescoes in Bulgaria.

The Scenic Crystal served as our aquatic chariot on this journey. A boutique vessel that Scenic designates one of its space ships because of its spacious cabins and public areas, the Crystal has 85 suites and a maximum of 169 guests, making it easy to befriend other passengers in the comfortable lounges and decks. With a ratio of three guests for every crew member, individual attention and pampering were guaranteed — the bartender definitely became familiar with my fondness for bourbon! And with everything all-inclusive, even every last one of the fascinating shore excursions, adventure was assured.

There were also plenty of diversions on board — evening entertainment   included   local   Croatian  singers, Serbian dancers, a trivia night, and a ’70s music and dance evening with members of the crew donning the apparel of the decade and dancing to ABBA numbers. Meals were sumptuous and everyone had the chance to enjoy a dinner with our spirited Bulgarian captain.

In Belgrade, the ship had docked in the perfect place — at the foot of a hill on top of which was Kalemegdan, an imposing fortress that’s been the site of 115 battles and been destroyed more than 40 times through the centuries. That’s where we saw the famous Kissing Bench. Later, on our own, we discovered Skadarlija, the city’s bohemian quarter with cobblestoned streets lined with art galleries, antique shops and restaurants, and St. Sava Cathedral, the world’s largest Orthodox church.

Our visit to Belgrade was the mid- point in our Danube cruise. We’d boarded the Crystal in the fairy-tale city of Budapest, one of the most architecturally astounding and fascinating cities of Europe. After your arrival, Scenic will accommodate you in a riverside hotel and see to it that you get a full-day bus tour of the city before boarding the river- boat that transports you down “The Beautiful Blue Danube.”

My best advice? Do as we did and arrive a day early, spending the day exploring in whatever directions this magical city pulls you. Don’t miss the famed Gellert Baths, an Art Nouveau masterpiece that turned 100 years old this year. It has 10 thermal pools of various sizes and temperatures, and is the most famous of the Baths of Budapest, which sit atop 125 thermal springs. Or enjoy goulash in  an  outdoor  café,  or  pastry  with  salty peanuts and apricots at the Café Gerbaud, since 1858 a place where sweets can be enjoyed underneath chandeliers and ornate stucco moldings. Another recommendation — the Labyrinth of Buda Castle on Budapest’s famed Castle Hill. It’s a centuries-old maze of passageways where Vlad the Impaler, a sadistic 15th-century count who served as inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula, was once imprisoned.

Scenic times its departure from Budapest for late afternoon, allowing a magnificent after-dark cruise past the brightly lit Hungarian Parliament building and passing under the Széchenyi Chain Bridge. The on-deck viewing of the city’s architecture was one of the best ways to experience how the Hungarians have adorned their riverfront with stunning buildings.

When you wake up, you’ll still be in Hungary, with your first day’s excursion into the town of Kalocsa, stopping by the House of Folk Arts with its intensely colorful handmade embroidery and the House of Paprika to learn all about how pervasive this “red gold” is in Hungarian cuisine. But it’s the symphony of whips at a Hungarian rodeo that will be the highlight of your day. We watched genuine Hungarian cowboys wearing historic costumes come sweeping into an arena, cracking their whips in ways that sounded like sonic booms. And that was just for starters! Any number of equestrian feats followed, ending with one rider driving a team of 10 horses, standing barefoot on the backs of two of them.

Highlights of subsequent days include a lunch inside a Croatian family’s home. Our hostess, Rejna Tkaloevic, met us at the door of her lavender house with little cups of plum brandy and then served us a typical Croatian meal. An effervescent woman, she was eager to talk about life in Croatia, even about the troublesome Homeland Wars from 1991 to 1995, when Croatia declared its independence from Yugoslavia and the Serbian minority rose up in rebellion. Today, you can still see buildings riddled with bullet holes. Tkaloevic described her own family’s difficulties — her family was forced to leave their home or they’d have risked being killed by their Serbian neighbors. Today, she’s adopted an attitude advised by her mother — “Let it go. Don’t hate the whole Serbian nation. Hurting hates you, not them.”

Passing through the Iron Gates, the Danube narrows and passes through a deep gorge with towering cliffs on either side. It’s not just the intense natural beauty that fascinates here — the ship passes the ruins of a 14th-century castle, a plaque with Latin inscriptions placed there by the Roman emperor Trajan, and a huge carving chiseled into a rock of a Dacian chieftain whom Trajan had come there to conquer. Another highlight of the day was passing through two locks where dams have been constructed across the river.

After the Iron Gates, the Danube serves as the border between Romania  and Bulgaria. We took two excursions inside Bulgaria. The first was a visit to Veliko Tarnovo, one of the most beautiful cities in the country, situated on high hills on either side of the meandering Yantra River. From a distance the whitewashed houses with red tile roofs appear to be stacked on top of one another and could easily slide down the steep slopes into the river below. We also drove into the hills overlooking the village of Arbanassi, where we visited two churches with exceedingly plain stone exteriors.

Walk inside both of them and — wow! — every square inch of the interior walls is covered with a visual explosion of exceed- ingly colorful Orthodox frescoes. Our  other excursion inside Bulgaria was to the port of Varna on the Black Sea. Varna’s mostly modern structures belie its millennia of existence. The real appeal, however, is Varna’s seaside location. After lunch on a simulated pirate ship, we strolled on the white beach enjoying the sun and sea breezes.

Our stop in Romania was bitter- sweet because we sadly said goodbye to the Crystal and the many crew members who’d become like old friends. We then took a bus to Bucharest, where we were to fly home. One last afternoon and evening allowed us a brief visit in Romania’s capital, a city of wide tree-lined boulevards, green parks, and beautiful Belle Époque architecture — there’s even a mini-version of Paris’s Arc de Triomphe. We drove past the monstrous Palace of Parliament, built by former dicta- tor Nicolae Ceausescu, who nearly bankrupted the nation building the opulent structure.

It all ended with a lavish banquet hosted by Scenic at our downtown hotel. All in all, Bucharest had been an astonishing surprise to us, as so much of the trip had been. There’s so much more I want to go back and see that I only just heard about — the mountains of Transylvania, the enchanting Rose Valley of Bulgaria. But thanks to Scenic, I’d had a remarkably thorough introduction, not to mention an enchanting ride down one of Europe’s longest and most alluring rivers.

Ohio-based travel writer Richard Warren travels the country and the world looking for offbeat and off-the-beaten-path stories. His work has been published in the Chicago Tribune, Dallas Morning News, Cleveland Plain Dealer, National Geographic Traveler, AAA Home and Away, AAA Highroads, Ohio Magazine, Country Living, Long Weekends and others.