A set of headlights on the Serbian side of the Danube River disappeared into a tunnel and emerged, and I had to remind myself that it was I — not the land — that was drifting by. In that moment, I was as carefree as a leaf on a stream, a stream called the Danube.
It was Day 10 of our 12-day cruise last fall on the river from Vienna to Giurgiu, Romania, followed by several days in Istanbul. It was an excursion into another world, another history and another humanity, distinctly different from and more diverse than anything my wife, Sandy, and I were expecting.
FOR THE RECORD:
Danube River cruise: A June 29 article about a Danube River cruise said that, from the vantage point of the cruise vessel, the Pest portion of Budapest was on the right and Buda was on the left. Cruising south on the Danube, Pest is on the left and Buda is on the right. —
The river is the only constant in this corner of the world, the countries war-torn and orphaned by failed regimes, their peoples separated by culture, ethnicity, language and even currency.
Vienna, Days 1-3
We arrived in the early afternoon and checked into our hotel: UniWorld's River Duchess. The opportunity to shower, nap and unpack made all the difference in how we were able to reset our clocks and begin our vacation.
On our first full day in Vienna, we marveled at the architecture, toured the sites, walking mostly, and lounged in the Demel coffeehouse, indulging in pastries and espresso to the strains of Mozart and Beethoven.
By the second day, we had established an ideal vacation routine: breakfast, walking tour, local lunch, shorter walking tour, then back to the boat for a nap before cleaning up for dinner, the social highlight of the day.
The daily dinner specials included meat, fowl and fish, much of it indigenous; complimentary red and white wines were served with lunch and dinner. (Starting this year, cocktails also are complimentary on all of UniWorld's ships.)
We spent our last night here at Mozart Hall attending a concert of Strauss and Liszt that had been arranged for us in this Baroque masterpiece. It was more than we could have hoped for.
Budapest, Hungary, Days 4-6
We arrived midday, gliding beneath Budapest's famous bridges, with Pest to our right and Buda to our left. We had seen pictures, had read articles, had known people who had lived here, but nothing could have prepared us for the splendor of this city.
Over the next day and a half, we toured its two distinctive halves: Buda, the hilly, more subdued and artistic side with spectacular vistas from Matthias Church; and Pest, the flat, commercial side with its churches, synagogues and public buildings.
It was in Pest that we experienced Soviet Baroque, the locals' name for the utilitarian buildings of the former Eastern Bloc. Each had its own sad story of abandonment, indeterminate ownership and imminent collapse.
It was here that we had our first brush with the currency conundrum. Although Hungary and the countries downstream are members of the European Union, many have not yet qualified as currency members. All accept euros and most accept U.S. dollars, but expect to receive change in the local currency, which is virtually useless beyond its borders.
Daylight drab gave way to the dazzling jewel that is Budapest at night, its streets, buildings and bridges lighted up beneath a clear, cool sky.
We sailed past the huge Parliament Building on our way of town, its illuminated arches and spires reflected in the Danube in a scene surreal and magical. It remains the most memorable image of our trip.
We would not see such grandeur again until we reached Istanbul, although we did see some evidence of a golden age in stops we made in southern Hungary, Croatia and Serbia. Mostly though, we saw poverty and despair amid economic and infrastructure collapse.
The landscape itself, with rare exception, was flat, with rich farmland, its workers stooped and evocative of America's sharecroppers.
We were thankful for the welcome breaks from the bleakness:
— A grammar school concert (afterward, the affectionate children took us by the hand to show off their classrooms);
— A lively performance by local folk dancers and singers;
— A delicious, traditional meal of baked chicken and vegetables hosted at a sabo (rooming house) and washed down with several glasses of homemade brandy.
On this stretch of the river, Belgrade, in Serbia, held the most intrigue, but the "White City," for all of its pollution, could scarcely live up to its nickname. Still, it was fascinating to see Josip Broz Tito's home and resting place, the Royal Grounds and the Karadjordjevic Dynasty Palace and to walk the boulevards of a city that had been off-limits to Westerners for nearly 60 years.
We returned to the comfort of the River Duchess to enjoy another dinner, then slept well knowing that the captain had promised that we would awake to the most beautiful stretch of the Danube.
The Iron Gates, Day 10
For the first time on our cruise, the river was bordered by hills and mountains, with each bend revealing new vistas and intriguing settlements. The Iron Gates, a not-so-towering version of Norway's fiords, were impressive nonetheless, with Serbia on our right and Romania on the left. Passengers gathered in the lounge to visit and take pictures, but mostly to lose themselves in the spectacular scenery. For lovers of nature and serenity, this day was the high point.
Days 11 and 12
We emerged from the Iron Gates into the flat lands of western Bulgaria and Romania. For two days, we toured the countryside and the once-striking cities of Ruse and Bucharest before saying farewell to the crew of the River Duchess. With our cruise director leading the way, we flew from Bucharest to Istanbul, which has been the capital of no fewer than four empires.
Istanbul, Days 13-15
Our tour here, part of our UniWorld package, included the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar, the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia, as well as a cruise on the Bosporus strait, with Europe on its western shore and Asia to the east.
Now, several months later, it's the cruising we remember most — the smooth, steady plying of the Danube without a hint of rocking or rolling, pitching or yawing as we glided by cities and towns, prairies and forests, as carefree as a leaf on a stream.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO VIENNA
UniWorld Boutique River Cruise Collection, (800) 733-7820, www.uniworld.com. Fares for the Imperial Capitals of Europe cruise begin at $6,699 a person, double occupancy, and includes all meals and beverages (including alcoholic beverages), transfers, shore accommodations and most excursions.