Story by Carol Stigger
Photos Carol Stigger and courtesy AMA Waterways
Sailing ahead of the crowd through the Balkans
Cruising European rivers on a luxurious river boat is becoming one of the most popular ways to explore Europe. The “unpack once” and “all meals included” features save time, money, and energy; shore excursions are included in the fare. Exploring a port city or village on your own appeals to the more adventurous while a guided tour with an English-speaking local assures you will not miss a destination’s highlights. Now, riverboats are cruising the lower Danube through the Balkans taking in Hungary, Bulgaria, Croatia, Serbia, and Romania.
I recently enjoyed Ama Waterway’s Black Sea Voyage that sailed the Danube River. “Black Sea” indicates a region of Europe also known as Eastern Europe or the Balkans. This voyage is ahead of the industry curve in a region that was devastated by war and tyrants twenty years ago and, although lightly traveled, has an emerging tourist industry.
On the flight to Budapest, I recalled the convoluted history of a region torn apart by wars for centuries and knitted together in different configurations by conquerors and treaties. Now that the region is at peace, luxury river boats are pioneering ancient destinations now safe for tourists. While the Balkans countries have laid down their arms, they have not agreed on a common currency and some shops do not take credit cards. However, ATMs are abundant, and the ships provide maps of port cities with ATMs clearly marked along with cafes and points of interest.
Inside elegance and Danube vistas
Boarding the Ama Prima, we were surrounded by service and elegance. A glass elevator in the foyer was beautiful and greatly appreciated by a man who uses a wheel chair and a 94-year-old woman traveling from South Africa alone with just a cane. We called our stateroom a stately room with a French balcony as well as an outside balcony. Waking up to a sunny view of the river and enjoying a star-studded drink on our private balcony were enchanting ways to begin and end our days. The stateroom was compact but comfortable and furnished with a desk, two chairs and a coffee table. Wifi is free throughout the boat, but reception varies depending on geographic location. This region is less developed than Western Europe.
The best view of the trip was from the sundeck in what may be the world’s smallest swim up bar. This heated mini-pool has four barstools. With flutes of champagne we toasted casting off and were stunned by Budapest’s bridges, historical buildings and a castle ignited in shades of white and gold. We could hear the program director’s narration on the deck where most passengers were seated in cushioned wicker lounge chairs or teak deck chairs and snuggled in shawls. His narration was broadcast in the lounge for passengers who wanted a warmer view of Budapest by night.
Fine dining every meal
Dining is especially pleasant with open seating and buffet options for breakfast and for lunch salads and desserts. On two evenings, dinner began with an amuse bouche. In addition, a small sorbet was served before the main course. Menu choices included regional cuisine such as Hungarian goulash, lentil soup with sausage, sauerkraut soup, chilled yogurt blueberry soup, and langos – fried bread. This Hungarian street food topped with sour cream and cheese paired well with an elegant dinner.
The dining room is walled with windows on both sides, but the best dinner-time vistas are at the Chef’s Table restaurant at the front of the ship: here, three sides are all glass. Seating only 24 and with an open kitchen where the chef prepares your meal and explains what he is doing, it is an unusual and enjoyable experience. The four-course set menu gives two entrée choices. Guests are encouraged to dine there once and are not charged extra. The menu is repeated most nights.
Ama Waterways is the only river cruise line invited to join La Chaines des Rotisseurs, one of the world’s most prestigious culinary organizations. Founded in 1950 in Paris, this international gastronomic society is based on the traditions and practices of the old French royal guild of goose roasters, whose authority gradually expanded to the roasting of all poultry, meat and game. Today, it is dedicated to fine cuisine and promoting and developing gastronomic values while at the same time widening its focus to table art. Every Ama Waterways vessel cruising in Europe is an official member of La Chaine des Rotisseurs. Membership is considered an achievement of world-class culinary acumen.
A selection of excursions was offered on all but one day. The first morning we visited Pecs, which is the former European capital of culture with a spacious, flower-filled town square and a church with Roman foundations, early Christian tombs, and sacred art that spans the centuries. After lunch on board, we enjoyed wine tasting in Villany, one of Hungary’s most prestigious wine regions. Some passengers used the ship’s bikes or walked to explore Mohacs, the town where we docked. A Turkish victory 500 years ago still shapes the culture. Symbols and statues of men wearing alarming Buso (masks) represent the villagers’ attempts to scare off the Turkish invaders.
Other stops along the Danube included Vukovar, Croatia; Novi Sad and Belgrade, Serbia; Vidin and Rousse, Bulgaria; and Giurgiu, Romania. From Giurgiu, it was an hour and a half bus ride to Bucharest, but worth the time on the bus to see a city recovering from Ceausescu who was executed in 1989 after a brutal totalitarian rule. I saw many travel agency signs in a country whose citizens were not allowed to cross the borders a generation ago. The Village Museum, open since 1936, has more than 60 original houses, farmsteads, and churches dating back to the 1700s from historic regions of Romania.
Return to Vukovar
Our excursion to Vukovar, Croatia, was especially meaningful to me. I was there in 1997 as a journalist covering the aftermath of war with Serbia. Even after a few years of an uneasy peace, hidden shells were still exploding; ruined homes were mined. A one-legged man with hand hewn crutches made awkward detours around holes from ordinance that beat his once graceful town to rubble. Survivors bought food and clothing at wooden stalls or begged with trembling hands and need mapped on their faces. No church bells tolled. Steeples had fallen along with homes and hospitals, along with soldiers and innocents, along with trade and tradition.
Now, the town that had been 95 percent demolished has been 75 percent rebuilt. Refugees have returned, commerce has taken root. Recreational boats are in the harbor. Sidewalk cafes are lively, and an outdoor market has an abundance of produce and customers. Of great joy to the townsfolk, the storks have returned to build their nests on rooftops as they have done for centuries.
On a more somber note, victims have been reclaimed from mass graves and reburied in a hauntingly beautiful cemetery. The water tower that withstood 1600 bombs and grenades stands as a testament to a spirit that the invading country of Serbia could not break.
Luxury has many facets, some obvious like waking up to an unobstructed view of a pristine forest or enjoying a picnic on the sundeck. My personal and unexpected luxury was revisiting Vukovar where that part of my heart that broke many years ago began to heal.
To understand the Balkans, one needs to do more than stroll the ancient streets. For an in-depth look at this complex region of the world, I recommend the books Balkan Ghosts by Robert Kaplan and Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West.
People with mobility challenges should check with the cruise line. Some companies are unable to accommodate people who use wheelchairs. Ama Waterways has accessible boats and makes every effort to include people with mobility issues on their land excursions.
Thanks to Ama Waterways for their gracious hospitality.
© July 2015 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.