Photographed by Susan Laubach
“Under Communism,” Simona, our cruise director, told us, “we had plenty of money but there were no products. Today we have plenty of products but there is no money.”
There are indeed many products for sale on the formerly empty shelves of the formerly Communist country of Romania. In a shop in the capital city of Bucharest, I picked up a jar of a famous local skin cream. (“It works so well, ladies,” Simona had said, “you better not use it before you go through customs because they won’t recognize you from your passport photo.”)
I was reading its label when a sour-faced saleswoman snatched the jar from my hand. “Zat iss for young people,” she hissed. Taking another of the same brand from the shelf, she handed it to me. “Ziss iss for old people.”
OK, so they still have to work on marketing skills. But things have improved economically in the Baltic Peninsula enough so that during our recent seven-day lower Danube River cruise with Grand Circle Travel, we were more than comfortable and always well-fed in each of our five ports-of-call.
To me, there is something both romantic and mysterious— almost film noir-ish— about those European countries whose names end in “ia”: Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia. So when Grand Circle, with whom we have traveled quite happily in the past, offered this itinerary, my husband, Bob, and I jumped at the chance to see the Baltic countries for ourselves, from the comfort of a cruise ship with the additional benefit of having to unpack only once.
To reach our river ship, we flew into Bucharest, then rode in a private train to the Romanian seaport of Constanta. As the train pulled away from the station, a large dark-haired man slipped into our compartment of five fellow travelers and took the one remaining seat.
“I am Nikita, local guide,” he growled, pulling a map from the jacket pocket of his limp, brown double-breasted suit. He unfolded it on his knees, and began to explain our Danube River route, pointing out the locks and the villages and adding bits of history, all in rambling but excellent English.
“Tomorrow we take tour of ancient city Constanta, founded by Greeks 2,500 years ago, settled by Romans in 600 B.C.,” Nikita said as he left our compartment for the next, “... and beooootiful seaside resort of Mamaia.” He paused, and then added, “Now we go to ship.” His expression turned to a mild scowl. “Never, never call it a ‘boat,’” he admonished. “These people are very proud.” Indeed, they should be proud of the Grand Circle Line’s M/S River Ship Aria, a sleek white swan-of-a-craft, launched in 2001 and small by ocean liner standards; it accommodates just 164 passengers.
From the spacious entryway where we were greeted by our cabin stewardess to the lounge where we later sat in deeply cushioned chairs and watched the river roll by through floor-to-ceiling windows; from the vast dining room with seating for twos, fours, sixes and eights to the cozy library that featured both books and magazines, as well as daily news sheets extracted from The New York Times, the Aria was truly “deluxe,” as advertised. Our mid-priced cabin was as well appointed as a fine hotel room, compact but with plenty of drawers and shelf space, a large table between the twin beds, a television set, and a writing desk and chair.
We stowed our clothes and joined the swarm of fellow passengers heading for the lounge and the pre-dinner welcome reception during which we met the captain, a darkly handsome Romanian, and his crew, mostly tall, blond, and, also, Eastern European. The introductions were followed by a “Port Talk” (which would be a nightly occurrence), to acquaint us with the next day’s schedule and itinerary.
The next morning as we boarded our tour bus at our first port, Constanta, Nikita appeared wearing a long black raincoat and brown felt hat pulled low over his eyes, looking shady and somehow perfect for Eastern Europe. Constanta’s down-at-heel waterfront, once a busy Soviet port, is cluttered with rusting warehouses and abandoned shipping paraphernalia but perched on its north end is an elegant cream-colored mansion, the Casino, built in the ’30s and unused during the Communist era. In order to beef up Romania’s tourist industry, plans are afoot, Nikita told us, to restore the building. How long, I wondered, before waterfront renewal follows?
We rode through the narrow streets, past an awakening commercial district; an Orthodox church, its entryway jammed with worshippers coming and going (“Services continue through day, every day,” Nikita explained); a green space dotted with low stone walls (“once Roman marketplace,” Nikita said) to the city’s archaeological museum. Here Nikita, brandishing his long-handled guide’s flag like a saber, led us through the display of Greek and Roman artifacts. He grew ever more dramatic in his delivery of the long local history, ending with a flourish of flag, at a mosaic the size of a football field, once the floor of a Roman commodities exchange, now preserved and displayed under a glass enclosure overlooking the sea. We were suitably impressed at the complicated floor of fading pinks and blues, imagining the commerce that took place there more than 2000 years ago. After a few minutes of allowing photos, Nikita declared, “Now we go to Mamaia!” in an exultant voice.
We traveled a few kilometers north on the bus to Romania’s most popular resort, a five-mile strip of white sand between the freshwater Lake Mamaia and the Black Sea (so named because it lacks oxygen in its depths). Alighting from our bus, we followed the charging Nikita through empty walkways leading past shuttered shops and amusements to the vast beachfront. “You may peek op shells!” he announced. “Beooootiful shells!” Dutifully, we scattered across the sand, leaning over to pluck up those shells most intact and hold them out for Nikita to identify. The beach was empty except for an elderly man, dog leash in hand, who stood at the water’s edge. A freighter in the distance broke the horizon of the blue Black Sea.
Shortly after we returned to the ship and waved goodbye to Nikita, the captain set sail into the Danube Canal. That afternoon, we joined our fellow passengers on the Aria’s open deck, which tops the entire ship, and watched the green countryside, dotted with small farms and the occasional thick forest, drift by. We saw so few people that when a lone fisherman appeared on the shore, we all waved with such enthusiasm that he must have felt we were in some kind of distress. Two locks and several hours more sailing brought us from the canal into the Danube River itself and onto our next port of call, Ruse, Bulgaria.
Now, I’ll admit to total ignorance about Bulgaria. The name conjured up only strong men dictators and steroid-ridden Olympic weight lifters. But we learned in our evening Port Talk that Bulgaria is best known for its roses. Bulgaria is one of the world’s largest markets for rose oil, used in the manufacture of perfume products. Who knew?
Thirty of us traveled by motor coach for two hours the next morning through heavy rain, from the lackluster port city of Ruse to Veliko Tarnovo, an “optional” trip for an additional $50 each. This inland town is known for its artists and craftspeople, as well as, according to Simona, its “picturesque location and panoramic views.” Well, maybe in better weather. Fog completely obscured the surrounding countryside, and, in the town, the only things we viewed were the umbrellas ahead and our feet below as we stepped carefully along the cobblestones, trying to avoid the water rushing down the hilly main street.
Behind every door there were plenty of artists and craftspeople, however, and they greeted us warmly when we peeked into their tiny studio shops. (What a contrast to the cheerless clerks in Romania!) We interrupted icon painters and woodcarvers and weavers, all working industriously to produce the pieces displayed in the windows and on the shelves.
In one small storefront, an elderly woman sat in the corner, manipulating knitting needles with lightning speed while her 30- ish granddaughter beckoned us in to see “my granny’s tings.” The “tings” ranged from heavy wool sweaters to vests to scarves and hats, all of which looked mighty inviting for the weather, which had turned cool overnight.
From Veliko Tarnovo, we rode to the neighboring village of Arbanassi, located on a mountain pass that came into startling view when the fog finally lifted. Suddenly we could see for miles; we were above and between lush green hills and valleys dotted with neat farms and fields.
Heavy rain continued to pelt us as we hurried from the bus up a narrow muddy path to our next destination, the small Orthodox Church of the Angels Michael and Gabriel, originally built in the early 17th century during the Ottoman Empire. Its size and plain exterior promised nothing.
“It was kept small so as not to attract attention from the Ottomans or later, the Communists,” our local guide told us. She directed us into the church’s front room, empty of people, furniture or decoration. We stood for a minute listening to the rain beat on the shingled roof, while I wondered why we had rushed to see this small, featureless box of a building huddled at the edge of a nondescript courtyard.
I was soggy and getting cross when a tall dark-haired man ducked into the room from a low-curtained doorway at its end. He motioned for us to follow him, and we did, bending to avoid hitting our heads. On the other side of the curtain, we straightened up to a display of painting that took our collective breath away. Surrounding us on every available inch of wall, crossbeam and ceiling space in an explosion of color were frescoes in deep blue, vivid red, green and gold, some 200 biblical scenes containing thousands of characters, in such a compact space, it was like standing inside a jewel box.
We stood in hushed awe in front of the iconostasis, behind which the beckoning man had disappeared. He reappeared a few minutes later, accompanied by three other men, all garbed in floor-length black robes trimmed with red. They began to sing. Through five hymns of the Eastern Orthodox faith, their rich voices blended together in one full, fat tone, reverberating against the walls and ceiling, drowning out the sound of the rain.
The following day was spent rolling down the river, reading our books, visiting the galley and the bridge, talking with our fellow passengers. There isn’t much to see on the Lower Danube— no villages or castles or vineyards such as those that line the shores of the Upper Danube, and little barge traffic plies its waters. For the most part, the attractions lie inland, such as the vibrant city of Belgrade, Serbia, which we visited next, its occasional black holes of NATO-bombed buildings contrasting sharply with elegant pre-World War II architecture.
At the memorial to Yugoslavia’s Marshal Tito, we stood by as a party of grizzled gray men and women reverently laid a huge wreath of roses on his impressive white marble casket. Although we were taught in school that Tito was a bad guy Communist, he is remembered fondly by many in Eastern Europe as the genius who was able to unite the Balkan states, at least for 40 years.
The union disintegrated after Tito died, as is tragically apparent in Croatia. The ship landed at Vukovar, Croatia, where ordinary shopkeepers, doctors, housewives and farmers staved off the invading Serbs for 90 days without food, water or adequate weaponry. Some areas are returning to life but much of it remains a bombed-out mess.
Grand Circle frequently includes in its itineraries home-hosted meals for its travelers. In Vukovar, we were delivered in groups of five and six to local hosts for lunch. Our visit, with two other couples, was to the rebuilt home of a Vukovaran named Michael who told us over a meal of roasted chicken, “Our furniture and all the things we had from our families [were taken to] Serbia. The worst is that some of the invaders were our former neighbors.” Our final port on this eye-opening excursion was the elegant, sophisticated Budapest, Hungary. We docked on shore of the hilly Buda, across from the city’s commercial center, Pest, close to the Chain Bridge that, lit at night, looks like a diamond necklace spanning the Danube.
Waving goodbye to the congenial captain and crew, we disembarked the Aria for our last adventure on this lovely trip: three days in Budapest before flying home to Baltimore.
Compared to, say, Prague or Paris, Budapest is an undiscovered delight, not overrun with tourists but with plenty of sights to see. The Parliament Building that sits on the banks of the Danube is one of the most magnificent buildings in Europe and the Ethnography Museum just across the street offers an extensive look at the many cultures within Hungary. The most unusual pleasure of the visit, however, came when we stopped into a neighborhood bakery/tea shop for cake after dinner one night. While we stood at the cases picking out our cakes, a woman strode in with a sheaf of sheet music in her hand, walked over to the piano and began to play.
To my surprise, a man of imposing size appeared at my side, took my hand and led me into the middle of the tile floor. In spite of his bulk, he was grace itself as we twirled and dipped to a trio of American show tunes while the women behind the counter and the other customers looked on in astonishment. I felt like Ginger Rogers dancing with a great big Fred Astaire, young enough even for the charmless clerk in Bucharest and her jar of Romanian face cream. Indeed, young enough not to need the stuff at all.