Cruise Line: Viking River Cruises
Name of Ship: Viking Europe
Sailing Date: May 15th, 2003
Itinerary: Eastern Europe Vienna to Black Sea Round Trip
Begin the Journey: Vienna has always been the city of musical genius ... a gathering place of culture where east meets west. Mozart, Beethoven, and the Strauss family lived and worked in Vienna. The Danube river plies through Vienna on its western route toward Passau, and Melk — but looking east ... Yes, east ... what mysteries await on the Danube?
We broke a cardinal rule we had established for ourselves — never fly into a city on the same day as cruising. Time constraints forced this issue, but even with moments of anxiety about flight connections, we landed in Vienna, Austria on schedule! We were meeting Viking Europe for her inaugural voyage east on the Danube river.
Vienna is a city where you can see Emperor Franz Joseph’s Schonbrunn Palace — a spectacle of opulence. Vienna lets you enjoy wonderful concerts, historic areas, world-class museums and you can walk into Mozart’s home near St. Stephen's Cathedral. Luckily, we had toured Vienna previously for there are too many treasured delights in Vienna for you to miss.
Viking River Cruises is the largest river fleet in the world, and has a commanding presence in Europe. Viking markets are opening up in China, and other exotic areas soon, but our attention at present is the former Soviet strongholds east from Vienna on the Danube. What countries would these be ... can you even guess?
The Viking Tradition: By the year 800 A.D. Nordic Vikings were known throughout Europe. Fear came into the hearts of villagers as the northern bears came to plunder the waterways. They came by sea and viks (smaller rivers and creeks) to take from others ... hence the name Viking. Viking Europe, built in 2001, is 375 feet in length, and explores European waterways with 150 passengers aboard at capacity ... and she plunders only good adventure, leaving fond memories for those aboard.
Cabins: Seventy five cabins, 63 deluxe and 12 standard ( a bit smaller) present a well designed European feel of both space and comfort, with television, and huge viewing window. Many cabin windows open for the pleasing sounds of nature and fresh air comfort. Each cabin has individual climate controls, and the option for a twin bed arrangement can be accommodated.
Dining: Open seating and resort casual dress are welcomed features of Viking River Cruises, (Open collared shirts and slacks for men). We met four additional people on the second night that matched well and we stayed with them for evening meals. During breakfast and lunch we switched around meeting new people every day, and that was fun.
The meals were well presented with quality preparation pleasing most passengers including our own wishes. Always available were off the menu standards of beef tenderloin or chicken breast with accompaniments to suit. This year and last we felt the menu was up to its high reputation for excellence, and client satisfaction.
Itinerary: Last year we had made the almost perfect voyage called ‘A European Adventure’ from Vienna to Amsterdam or the reverse is available. This was a superior memory and experience. That cruise was our initial discovery of river cruising. This year Chairman Torstein Hagen keeps the Viking traditions of exploration alive with the opening of the Danube route east from Vienna. This was a new adventure and we wanted to explore with Viking River Cruises!
“River cruising is better than an ocean cruise or bus tour. Our river cruises show you the best of Europe from large cosmopolitan cities to small quaint villages ... you come aboard, unpack just once, and see it all.” Torstein Hagen, CEO
Eastern European Odyssey: Just a few short years back the countries east on the Danube were part of the former Soviet alliance, and even more recently they were areas that were blocked due to NATO bombing of bridges in the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic for humanity war crimes. Yugoslavia was once a dominate Eastern European domain, now it has divided into many smaller countries. As of January 2003 what remained of Yugoslavia became Serbia and Montenegro, under one capital of Belgrade for at least the next few years.
The Danube is open this year, and river cruising and traffic are normalizing ... thus Jeffrey Dash, President, and Torstein Hagen, CEO of Viking River Cruises are able to complete a dream of having a water route for vacationers open from the North Sea (Amsterdam) to the Black Sea at Romania. We participated on this opening voyage on the Viking Europe — it was a memory of a lifetime!
We were cruising off into current history, and also days of Vlad Tepes III the historical character that Bram Stoker based his novel Dracula. Viking River Cruises would in fact help us make a Viking exploration to the Bram Castle were Vlad the Impaler had stayed and even made war. What a thrill exploring the nooks and small stairwells of this well preserved 1300’s castle in the Transylvania region of Romania.
Before Romania, we explored Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia and Montenegro. We would sail through Croatia, and extensively explore Romania and Bulgaria. In our wildest imagination we thought these former Soviet-style communist states would never be on our vacation venue ... but what a magical memory and cultural expose they have created for us.
We had explored Hungary with our friend Otto Rona, "www.citytour96.net", in 2002. Otto does city and countryside tours out of Budapest, Hungary. Hungary proved again to be a delight! Slovakia and its capital Bratislava, plus Romania and Bulgaria, Serbia and Montenegro awaited.
At a Glance: With a little imagination you can visualize that countries closer to Austria are more up-to-date, with countries further east being less advanced. Solovokia and Hungary and even Serbia (aside from bombing remains of the NATO attack) look quite like many areas of Europe, with Hungary being the most up-to-date and lovely in our opinion.
Romania is a country with a wide mosaic of haves and have-nots. Romania has either great areas of development, or areas with a complete lack of it. The capital city, Bucharest, has many remaining tattered soviet style tenements; tall crowded, and poorly constructed. The city also has its areas that look like Paris. The city is home to the second largest government building on earth, and displays wide boulevards and fountains.
If you travel into one of the less developed areas of Romania you will quickly find horse carts, gypsy caravans, and people toiling from dawn to dusk with hand tools in their fields. We noted only one tractor in our trek from the Danube many miles up to Transylvania. The land however, is so fertile that it would make any agricultural student envious. Romania is perhaps just a few years from economic prosperity. Romania has good land, hard working people, friendly atmosphere, and resources ... plus many areas are picture-post-card lovely!
Bulgaria, once a strong military state, is now the most meager of the countries we visited on this adventure eastward. Over one million people have vacated this lovely land in search of work, but again here is a country with rich land awaiting a fervent plan under some able governmental direction to propel it into the 21st century. Bulgaria has many ancient treasures, and lovely countryside.
Our final trek east was our bus outing to Constanta, Romania where we were able to dip our feet into the Black Sea, and view the seaside resort area. At this point we were perhaps 90 miles form Turkey, 90 miles from the Ukraine, and likewise close to Greece.
What a fascinating journey eastward on the Danube this had been ... but unlike many of the new shorter voyages on the Danube going east, our Viking Europe cruise was going back to Vienna with many new and exciting stops along the way. This ‘Eastern Odyssey’ would be a 17 night adventure of a lifetime to remember.
Overview and Critique: What can you say about the largest fleet of river cruising ships on earth? Viking gained their fame and reputation through quality management and service. Viking River Cruises sets the overall standard by which other river cruising companies measure themselves. We found the Viking experience an unparalleled vacation concept. We felt the staff, and dining a five star pleasure, and Viking went over expectation in arranging quality tours and excursions.
You don't just cruise rivers and then dock ... your cruise price includes extensive optional tours by bus with guides. Above expectation were day adventures that included meals and highly professional local entertainers. One outing into Transylvania included an overnight hotel stay with meals. This new itinerary will change and adjust, but it is an adventure into new lands once off limits, with lovely scenery and friendly people.
Fixes: If we had anything on our wish list for Viking Europe on this itinerary it would be to arrange music availability in the cabins. This could be done using the intercom system if music is out of satellite serving areas, but this minor adjustment is one Viking River Cruises can easily adjust.
“Since the start of the company in 1997 with the purchase of four Russian ships, Viking River Cruises has focused on expanding the company and the overall awareness of high quality river cruising. Vacationing markets in general have had tremendous challenges since 9/11 but we feel the future for Viking River Cruises provides premium vacationing options and promising growth!”
Jeffrey Dash, President
What comes to mind when you hear of places like Slovakia or Serbia and Montenegro? How about Bulgaria, Croatia — or Romania? Before our Viking River Cruise exploration on the Danube (Sunnyside 6/25/03), I could only imagine a few thoughts ... conflict, communism, and Dracula! Let’s examine some realities, dispel some myths, and shine some sunlight on others! As you know the Count does not like the light of the sun ...
The Adventure: When sailing the Danube east from Vienna, Austria, you explore new cultures and history which may be completely new to you. Immediately you ply the eastern neighborhoods of Europe. I will forgo recounting lovely Budapest, Hungary as it was extensively covered in my 8/07/02 Sunnyside. I will focus on these locations today: Romania, Serbia and Montenegro, and Bulgaria.
Romania: The only thoughts I could conjure up prior to this adventure about Romania were trite; soul filled violin melodies by campfire, daunting castles, and perhaps gypsy caravans trekking along rural byways — and Dracula.
Romania covers 92 thousand square miles — the size of Wyoming. The Carpathian mountains dominate central and southern areas, and Romania has a coast on the Black Sea and along the Danube. It is a land blessed with rich soil and hard-working people. Gentle Danube lowlands rise gradually to dramatic and mystic snow-clad mountains of the Transylvania region — it is a beautiful country with over 23 million residents.
English novelist Bram Stoker took a keen imagination with him to Romania near the end of the 19th century. He studied a historical figure, Vlad Tepes III Dracul (dragon), as he was known. Stoker mixed in heavy doses of researched Romanian and Balkan area mythology (vampires and werewolves). Stoker also found and focused on a castle in Transylvania, now known as Dracula’s castle, or the Bram Castle, after the author. His imagination and research found the soul of Vlad Tepes III, and the castle on that trip! The rest is history for this author, and for the many Hollywood renditions that followed, and will follow — for Dracula seems everlasting just as Stoker portrayed him.
Vlad Tepes III Dracul could not be a more perfectly cast character for the Dracula figure. Born in 1431 in Romania to nobility, he faced a harsh tormented childhood. He was always torn between the Turkish power to the east, and Hungarian to the west. The Turks killed his father in front of him as a boy, then abducted him to be raised in a life of seeing others tortured, maimed and mutilated for even simple crimes.
Add to this childhood dilemma Vlad’s own imperfect concept of Christianity — as most Christianity was of his era — an eye for an eye justice, and collecting money from everyone just as if it were taxation instead of a voluntary religion. Vlad was a cruel, merciless ruler who was loved by many, feared by all, and like the times he lived in ... short lived. He was 45 when overthrown and killed without mercy.
Vlad rounded up gypsies, poor people, nobles who were out of his favor, or just anyone who did not suit his taste and vision of Transylvania. At one such round-up he threw a huge party with drink, music, and food aplenty ... and then set the hall afire. This somehow fit his demeanor to a tee. He became known also as Vlad the Impaler, for he began a practice of skewering his enemies — impaling them on spiked poles for all the world to see. His tactic wrought fear into enemies, and countrymen alike. No one wanted to cross the short-statured but fearsome Dragon!
At one point he had over 20 thousand victims impaled along his castle route and Transylvania’s byways. Vlad Tepes was also known to drink the blood of his victims, and this was good fuel for Stoker’s Dracula character. His legendary cruelty drove off a Turkish invasion army four times as large as his. His methods often worked, and by many in Transylvania he was seen as a disciple of the common man, and a friend of Christianity — this does not think out logically with 21st century ideals, but for that era Vlad’s thinking and methods were not all that out of sync.
Generally by way of his childhood and overly abundant inhumane tactics he is historically prejudged to be insanely cruel — by today’s standards this is likely so — but for his era he was perhaps only a cunning ruler with a mission.
The 1300’s Bram Castle was visited by Vlad for hunting trips, and at one point he attacked the castle in a dispute. The castle is a perfect setting for Bram Stoker’s concepts and its stunning views and sense of history speak to you from its spiral stairwells and walled terraces.
Our overnight Viking excursion into Transylvania had us in the winter resort town of Sinaia, Romania, nestled in the snow-capped Carpathian mountains in the four star Palace Hotel. We visited the opulent 19th century Peles Castle plus the Dracula Castle from our Sinaia base. This outing was included as part of our Viking River Cruises excursions on our ship — Viking Europe.
Small horse carts, mountains, fertile land, beautiful children, and myths and mysteries of Romania will forever be a pleasing memory for us. Romania remains a step behind the world economically, but offers visitors much to see, and vivid imagination ... but, keep your silver knife and garlic by the bedpost!
Bulgaria: About the size of Ohio at 69 thousand square miles, Bulgaria is a true crossroads from Europe to Asia in the Balkans. It too has a Black Sea coast and Danube access, and is a country with rich lands. It has abundant rain and snow in winter, but the summers can be long and hot. Bulgaria was the most meager of the countries we visited, and over a million people have vacated Bulgaria looking for work.
With the collapse of Communism, factories shut down and whole villages stand abandoned except for the very elderly who had no place to go. This is a scenic country with some of the best beaches on the Black Sea of any in Europe. We visited the remarkable rock formations at Belgradshick, Bulgaria where Romans used the natural features to complete a fortress high above the countryside.
Belgradshick is a wondrous spectacle of nature and mankind. It reminds me of Sedona, Arizona and parts of the structure look like the walls in China. The fortress was constructed nearly two thousand years ago and provides a special view of Bulgaria’s beautiful countryside. We had a traditional lunch nearby to complete a perfect outing. Bulgaria is a rich land seeking inspired commercial and political leadership to prevent a further exodus of its richest resource — its youth and imagination — its citizens.
We were in Bulgaria on Cyrillic Alphabet Day! What? you wonder ... You have seen the Russian, Baltic sort of lettering? It is uniquely different and in fact will not print with our newsprint software. On this proud nationalistic day singers and dancers were out in every community in customary dress to celebrate — what a special treat for us!
Serbia and Montenegro: In January, 2003 this area was still known as Yugoslavia ... in this part of the world things change rapidly. If you are scratching your head about Serbia ringing a memory bell ... yes, the Serb, Croat, Bosnia area was one of immense conflict in the late 1990’s.
After the fall of communism and the collapse of the Soviet empire, many areas such as Yugoslavia had no stabilizing force like the massive Soviet army, so they reverted for a time to nationalistic, religious and cultural conflicts. Finally NATO took steps to bring war crimes action against Slobodan Milosevic, former president of Yugoslavia, and he is on trial now in the World Court in Hague, Netherlands.
We did not see any evidence of being unwelcome in Serbia and Montenegro, and we enjoyed Belgrade and Novi Sad. The country seems glad to be out of conflict, and ready to join the European Economic Community.
There are sad reminders of the bombings in Belgrade using NATO smart weaponry, and there are downed bridge remains along the Danube that kept it closed until debris was removed. The Danube is open, and Serbia and Montenegro are welcoming and friendly. There is still a pontoon bridge used at Novi Sad — a last obstacle to river traffic. It is opened a few times a week for short periods. This last obstacle will be removed this year as permanent bridges have been replaced.
You get to visit two countries for one right now; Serbia and Montenegro have a three year pact to remain unified under the capital of Belgrade. After that they may divide entirely if they choose. In any case this modern country, aside from the war remains, is a fascinating and historical area worth your time and enjoyment.
Overview: Viking River Cruises is a unique way to traverse Europe. You see the heartland, not just the coastal area, plus tours are included in the pricing, so you don’t have to think about tour pricing and what to do ... do it all or do as little as you like. Unlike bus tours of the past, your deluxe river ship is your hotel, and you therefore only have to unpack once! Check with your community travel agency about discounts and planning. We hope next year we are able to explore more Viking adventures — perhaps Russia — everyone we meet raves about the waterways from St. Petersburg to Moscow.
What awaits those who purchase European river cruises are castles, pristine scenery, quaint villages, forests of birds singing to celebrate your arrival ... and you are easily granted large doses of complete serenity.
Call 800-640-4899 for extra discounts for all Viking Sailings