Last Updated on August 24, 2023
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Updated for 2022 / 2023
By Jim Ferri
It comes down to the ability to communicate. If you can’t speak the local language, or if those in the host country don’t speak yours, it can make for some difficult times.
The problem is exacerbated when you’re traveling through several countries where different languages are spoken. Eastern Europe is a good example, where the bouillabaisse of languages can leave your head spinning.
An Eastern Europe river cruise, with numerous guides speaking the language of the day, is a perfect solution.
Then you move effortlessly through several countries and languages all in the comfort of your stateroom, which is why when Royal Viking Cruises invited me to sample their Passage to Eastern Europe package, a cruise on the Danube from Budapest to Bucharest, I accepted their offer.
Passage to Eastern Europe, A Five-Country River Cruise
Passage to Eastern Europe, the name of this river cruise, is an 11-day (including transit), five-country cruise. Seven nights are aboard the 190-passenger Viking Embla. The ship stops at six small ports along the way, with passengers take a bus inland to see some of the sights away from the river.
Viking uses upscale hotels for the land portion of the cruise. In Budapest, we spent two nights at the Hilton, in Bucharest one night at the Inter Continental.
After arriving in Budapest, passengers have a day of sightseeing on a bus tour about Budapest. They then have a half-day to wander on their own before boarding the ship.
After two nights at the Hilton, passengers take a bus to the Embla, one of Viking Cruises‘ “Longships.” Aboard they enjoy a nice cruise down the Danube, stopping in river towns along the way. in addition, passengers are bused to other towns farther inland. The tour then ends in Bucharest, Romania.
My medium-priced cabin on this Eastern Europe river cruise is quite comfortable. It has good lighting and ample 110 and 220 outlets, plus a decent size bathroom and outdoor balcony.
There are also plenty of movies, as well as CNN, BBC and other networks, to view on our large-screen TV. TV reception and Wi-Fi were good all along the river with only a few interruptions.
Horsemen of the Puszta
Following two nights in Budapest and a tour of the city, we board the Embla. Conveniently, boarding takes place right in the center of the city.
The next morning, following an informal Welcome Reception and dinner on our first night onboard, we awoke at a small dock in the Hungarian countryside.
Following a good breakfast – all the meals were very good – buses took us to the small Hungarian town of Kalocsa. There we had for a walking tour, before continuing to the Bakodpuszta Equestrian Center. The latter turned out to be the more interesting venue of the day.
At the Center we watched performances by the Hungarian horsemen of the Puszta. These cowboys are the descendants of the Magyar warriors that emigrated to Hungary centuries earlier.
It was a great hit, and included one act that likely was the last thing any of us expected to see in Hungary: a cowboy standing on the haunches of 10 white stallions galloping about a corral at break-neck speed.
The performance was accompanied by samplings of Hungarian brandy and other peasant foods. Also, as expected, there was the opportunity to buy Hungarian embroidery and other items in the center’s little market.
Following lunch back on the ship we were off to Vukovar, a Croatian town. Unfortunately, there town bore much of the brunt of the Serbo-Croation war in the 1990s.
Vukovar was only our base to meet our buses, however. Our destination was actually the town of Osijek, the 4th-largest in Croatia. Once there we walked along 18th-century cobbled streets lined with the best-preserved Baroque buildings in the country.
While I enjoyed our tour of Osijek, I was stunned the next day. It was when on this Eastern Europe river cruise we visited Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. I had been to Belgrade many years ago and had avoided it ever since. The reason was because I remembered it as a drab, dour-looking city.
But now, I found it amazing how the city had changed, transforming itself from boring to beautiful. Despite the rain, I became more smitten with the place every place we went.
Following lunch back on the Embla, I took an optional tour to the Kovacica Art Colony in a small town further north.
I know it was due to my high expectations, but I found the art gallery of naïve paintings disappointing. On the other hand, I found our later visit to the home/workshop of a violin maker fascinating. It was wonderful to watch an Old-World craftsman ply his trade and answer our many questions.
River Cruising Through the Iron Gates of Eastern Europe
It was comfortable aboard the Elba but I rarely took advantage of time to relax on deck since on this Eastern European river cruise we were always exploring towns during the day and sailing at night.
That was rectified on Sunday as we spent the day cruising through the Iron Gates, the narrowest and, to some, the prettiest section of the Danube.
It’s a lovely section of the river that is flanked by tall limestone cliffs, a 150-yard wide channel that cuts through the Carpathian and Balkan mountains. One of the most famous sights on it is the huge carving in the rock of the ancient Romanian tribal chief Decebal, completed in 2004.
Wonderful Veliko Tarnovo and Arbanassi
The following day on our river cruise through Eastern Europe we docked in the Bulgarian port of Vidin to visit the unique Belogradchik Fortress, a stronghold originally constructed by the Romans and enhanced by successive empires. We climbed the rocks about it for some spectacular views of the surrounding countryside.
Later that day we visited Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria’s former capital, and the town of Arbanassi and were surprised by both.
Let loose to wander on our own for an hour in Veliko Tarnovo, I wandered up Rakovski Street, a wonderful artisan’s street, lined with art shops and galleries, and the occasional workshop of a potter or coppersmith. The cobblestone street curved along the hillside, flanked on both sides by century-old buildings filled with small shops and galleries.
It was an amazingly photographic and colorful, and even from an architectural perspective quite interesting. Coming out of one gallery I looked up and saw contrails of two jets flying high overhead and felt as if I was in another world, transported back in time.
Arbanassi, The On to Bucharest
Later on we drove to Arbanassi, just a few miles away and had a delicious lunch accompanied by quite good Bulgarian Cabernet Sauvignon. Throughout it we were entertained by local musicians and dancers. After the restaurant, we walked over to the nearby fresco-adorned Church of the Nativity, another over-the-top cultural icon.
Our river cruise in Eastern Europe ended in Bucharest in another ecclesiastical icon of sorts, the lively and crowded Caru’ cu Bere, a restaurant in the old section of Bucharest that was originally built to look like a church.
I never discovered whether that was just local lore or not, but the inside of the place was amazing, and the food quite good.
If You Go:
Viking River Cruises
5700 Canoga Avenue
Woodland Hills, CA 91367
Tel: (877) 668-4546