April 14th-24th was spent sailing the Danube river from Bucharest to Budapest with 2 Peace Corps friends. (There were supposed to be 4 of us, but unfortunately our friend Sam was sent back to the States for medical tests.) Blake, Candy & I traveled by taxi to Bucharest on the 14th as we are not allowed to drive in any Peace Corps country, but it only cost about $180 split between the three of us. Bucharest is quite a city of contrasts ranging from opulence to shades of oppression. Their parliament building is the 2nd largest building in the world (after the pentagon) built during the Ceausescu era, yet only about 8% of it is utilized. (Unfortunately the first half of the trip pics are ‘stuck’ in the camera and I’ll need help uploading them, so no pics until second half) After a night in the hotel and touring the city, we were taken by bus to Silestra on the Danube to
board the Avalon Imagery. Candy and I were right across the hall from Blake, but truth be told we didn’t spend a lot of time in the rooms.
We sailed down to the Black Sea and visited the city of Varna. The black Sea has so much fresh water with 5 major rivers flowing into it that sea life cannot live below 200 meters. Then we headed north and I won’t detail all the little towns and cities, but we enjoyed each excursion and the character of each place we visited. The food was wonderful with plenty of selection and featured wines included. After dinner we frequently went to the lounge and enjoyed dancing and music with other passengers. I liked the Riverboat cruise ‘feel’ with ~120 passengers who become your new best friends, rather than the 3,000 passenger floating cities that are Ocean Liners. Meals were ‘open seating’ so you got to know people and looked forward to seeing them at different times.
The Iron Gates were the next highlight of the trip. I’ve never been through a set of locks before and found the process fascinating. That was the only really rainy day, but we enjoyed it nonetheless.
Belgrade, the capitol city of Serbia was next. After the organized tour, Candy hit the Princess museum while Blake and I spent several hours in the history museum. For me, reading the actual signs in German of the Nazi occupation was very impactful. “For every dead German soldier we will kill 100 people. For every wounded German
soldier we will kill 50 people.” And then followed the Tito regime, a different kind of oppression, but most Former Yugoslav Republic people of my generation say the economy was better, and upon my learning of the billions of US tax dollars that poured into the region during that time, I understand why. Did you know that Stalin was
responsible for at least 5 assassination attempts on Tito?
From Belgrad we sailed north stopping in Nova Sad and Pecz, both beautiful towns, and becoming more “European”. And finally Budapest…simply the crown jewel of the trip. It was Sunday, and we set off to tour the famous Opera House which did
not disappoint. At the end we stayed for a mini-performance and I was pulled out of the crowd by the performer to dance to the famous beer-hall song from La Traviata. Fortunately I know how to waltz and was even able to pull it off when he twirled me at the end. That night Blake and Candy went to the sold-out Opera with the hopes of getting single tickets, and were
successful. I opted to treat myself to room-service and a massage. The next day was a ‘free day’ and we decided to hire our own tour guide in order to maximize the time and see as much of the city as possible. It was stunning. We took the incline up to Buda Castle, saw the tunnels (used to hide during WWII), the Matthias Church and Fisherman’s
overlook. Then we did the Pest side including the memorial park, famous restorative baths, the national repository, Chain Bridge, St. Stephen’s Church, and much much more. Did you know that Budapest has statues of 2 American presidents? We ended the day by viewing the remainder of the Jewish ghetto wall from WWII
and touring both the modern and traditional synagogues. The memorial gardens were sobering.
Our tour guide was very knowledgeable as she’d been doing this since she was 18. Now a single-mom with an 8-yr old daughter and a musician by night, she’s struggling to make ends meet. We felt priveleged to hear
details of her own family history–her parents met after being released from jail following the 1956 uprising, and could have fled the country, but following Prime Minister Nagy’s lead, stayed and accepted the consequences of their rebellion against Soviet occupation. (Nagy was later tried and executed.) Taxes are now at ~60%,
the national debt is at a dangerous level and one “brilliant” proposal was to sell the gold in the National Reserve. Their most recent president was forced to resign in scandal over his credentials. (OK, now I’ll tell you….the 2 American presidents that have statues in Budapest are Washington and Reagan)
The last day, Tuesday, we went to the Parliament building to tour the place and see St. Stephen’s crown and scepter. The tour was interesting, but
also interesting was that there are over 350 members reflecting a time when Hungary was 3 times bigger than it is now. They keep saying they will pass a resolution to reduce the size of congress, but no one really expects the politicians to vote themselves out of jobs.
Tuesday evening we flew back to Sofia where
timely taxi driver Robert was there to pick us up and take us back to Kriva Palanka. It was a great trip. The food was good, meeting new people was fun, the cabin was comfortable and the amenities luxurious after 18 months of PC life. Blake and Candy and I traveled well together and even picked up an Australian widower who
rounded out our card games and after dinner dancing in the lounge.
Now back to the grindstone….and Peace Corps adventures.