Thursday, April 8, 2010

Danube Cruise is an Opportunity to see the new Eastern Europe


Usually, I'm too busy getting ready for a trip to actually get excited about it beforehand. I think about bailing out because I can't get everything done in time. Invariably, I realize how stupid that would have been, when I'm on the plane, and it's heading for the clouds, and I finally think about where I'm getting to go.

The routine was proceeding as usual until the FedEx guy rapped at my back door last week. He handed me the Viking River Cruises package, which contained the documents for the 15-day "Eastern European Odyssey" sailing I'm scheduled for, starting Saturday .

I tossed it on the kitchen table. Later, maybe. It took a couple of days of later, but during a cereal snack break I needed some reading material. The envelope was within reach. And I needed to get some particulars on the trip, actually, because I wanted to let you guys know about this latest escapade, to let you know you can follow along, moment to moment (or at least mishap to musing to epiphany) on my blog at

So I opened the envelope and pulled out the itinerary and turned to a random page; which turned out to be the details of the Bucharest and Transylvania Post-Cruise extension I'd added. My eyes slid down the day-by-day information. …. Bucharest … Brasov … "mysterious Transylvania"…. Sighisoara, a UNESCO World Heritage site and birthplace of Vlad Tepes …. Carpathian Mountains, Sinaia ...

I noticed, after a while, that my cereal spoon had disappeared into a mush of soymilk-bloated flakes and overpuffed berries. I relocated to the couch, to the side closest to the reading light. I decided to read from the beginning, from Day 1, embarking in Munich. The cruise itinerary started with places I'd been to before: Passau, Melk, Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest. But by Day 3, my heart was speeding up just a little. Cesky Krumlov, among the best-preserved cities in the Czech Republic, is a World Heritage Site, a place I'd never heard of and the first of many places on the itinerary with accents on letters I'd never known could be accented (Cesky features a convex curve, like a parenthesis on its back, arms up – called a hacek, or hook – atop the C, and an accent aigu over the y). From there to the neighboring Budweis — original home of that all-American, day-at-the-stadium staple, Budweiser, the King of Beers.

I kept reading, to Kalocsa, Hungary's red-paprika capital; Vukovar and Osijek, Croatia, the latter full of art nouveau architecture; Kostolac, Serbia, "the Balkan Pompeii" with Roman ruins dating back 2,000 years; the Iron Gate of the Danube — not a gate but a treacherous (once, not now) stretch consisting of four gorges in a row; Belgradoshick, whose weird red rock formations sounded to me like Bulgaria's version of Sedona; Rousse (aka "the small Vienna" because of its architecture and location on the Danube) and Veliko Tarnovo, with ancient castle ruins and serious handcrafts; Constanta, not only Romania's oldest settlement (originally founded by the Greeks in the sixth century BC) with an art nouveau casino, but yet another surprise accent – a cedilla/comma sort of thing under the second "t." Ending on Day 15 in Oltenita (one more accent note: another cedilla-esque second "t").

Don't you just love going to places you can't pronounce, much less type?

Of course, this cruise along the Danube and ancillary waterways etc. wasn't an actual surprise. I had become intrigued by this particular cruise itinerary last October, as the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall drew near. Though there were other cruises to Eastern Europe, they usually hit the most popular cities and sites. I'd been to quite a few of these places myself, and the rest were so well-explored I felt like I'd been.

So I was stuck on Viking's "Eastern European Odyssey," with its unfamiliar, unpronounceable and even unlocatable (at least to me) destinations.

Alas! It was apparently intriguing enough for all 2009 departures to be sold out. So I booked quickly for 2010. In fact, I made the first payment two months ago – an unfathomable act of advance planning for me. Since then, when friends asked, "Where are you off to next?" I've answered, "Eastern Europe, to places I can't pronounce and probably couldn't pick out on a map." I couldn't give any more detail than that, because, as I said, I was too busy getting ready to go away to prepare for where I was going. The only other information I could say with certainty was, "I can't wait." Because it's one of travel's basic truths: All that as-of-now unknown will, soon enough, reveal more surprise and discovery than you could ever have imagined. I imagined this to be especially true in Eastern Europe.

Did I – do I – sound jaded? Like I've been traveling for so long the only parts of the world that remain intriguing are the completely unpronounceable and barely known?

I'll admit, there is some fun in the outrĂ©. But the main attraction of this Eastern Europe itinerary has to do with the definition of "Eastern Europe" these days. Sure, once upon a time the label was valid for those countries behind the Iron Curtain – Soviet images of landscapes, breadlines, a babushka on a street corner selling one lace collar, newspaper cut into squares for use as toilet paper.

But much has changed in the past 20 years. And in some countries, the stereotypes and the stereotypical division between Eastern and Western Europe no longer apply. Some of the countries involved have insisted that the broader (more descriptive) term "Central and Eastern Europe" be used instead. The meltdown of the Iron Curtain and the fall of the wall broke the barriers to new freedoms and opportunities. At first, there was chaos, and confusion and corruption, and deer-in-the-headlights what's next. But there was determination, and experimentation, and a palpable spark of excitement, ignited by a future filled with possibilities.

I visited several Eastern European countries early on – and felt that sense of possibility and change. I also saw, in Russia, and to a lesser extent in Budapest, some of the corruption and fear still lingering.

Eventually, there was progress, prosperity. But it has come in different ways and not evenly paced. Slovenia and the Czech Republic were clear winners, as far as freedom and the Westernization and economic development are concerned; the Ukraine, Belarus, Romania and Bulgaria are still far behind.

As far as tourism goes, the progress has similarly run the spectrum. While Eastern Europe was once synonymous with "emerging tourist destination," and "unbelievably inexpensive," the stereotypes no longer apply. Prague has basically become part of mainstream European tourism. It is one stop in the triangle of Eastern Europe's three most popular destinations, which also include Budapest and Krakow.

Today, Prague, where I was basically able to steal gorgeous crafts and glass and see black-light puppet performances for next to nothing, is as expensive as many Western European cities.

I remember visiting Krakow 20 years ago, strolling the Old Town and being stunned by the beauty of it, but also feeling thwarted by the language: The only English-speakers I found were two university students, and there wasn't a translated sign in sight. I particularly remember buying a soda from a street vendor; I opened the unlabeled bottle (no opener needed) and found rust around the top. I can't be sure, but I believe I dumped it.

I bet they've dealt with the bottling process by now in Poland.

Eastern Europe was, and remains, a vast laboratory in freedom, in human nature, in the best and worst of human beings. Upsetting, frustrating, and exhilarating.

So what I wanted was an overview, a broad range that would sample the spectrum. An Eastern European experience that confronted stereotypes, a snapshot of life in this part of the world right now. Granted, a cruise doesn't provide the ideal situation for really digging in, getting to the nuances of a place. But it's a good start. Especially if the cruise is designed with educational opportunities along the way. Which is something Viking River Cruises is known for, through its Culture Curriculum and hands-on Old World Highlights immersive experiences.

So starting Saturday, I'll be hitting the road – and the river. And reporting back in my blog, as often as events – and technology – permit. Follow along.

And if you would like to really follow along, sign up at and you'll hear from me when I post a new entry to the blog, or find myself held captive by some count with disturbingly prominent canines.