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Secrets of the Danube: 8 Inspiring River Towns of Eastern Europe

River cruising is a laid-back way to see many destinations in one trip. The elegant barges glide effortlessly from one port to the next, giving you ample opportunities for exploration and photo ops.

I recently embarked on a five-country, Viking River cruise that took me from Bucharest, Romania, to Budapest, Hungary, along the Danube. We visited former communist capitals regaining their pre-Iron Curtain glory, stopped in small villages flanked by medieval fortresses, and passed through locks that moderate the waters between Serbia and Romania. Here’s the path the ship took, highlighted by photos I snapped along the way:

For more itinerary specifics, here’s some background on each of the ports and what we did there either through group tours or independent excursions:

Bucharest, Romania

Our trip started with a pre-cruise stay in Bucharest, a short drive away from the port of Giurgiu where we later transferred to the ship. Now that Romania is a democracy, the capital city has shed its communist cloak and added layers of modern sophistication through significant growth and development. The Old Town has been restored, and new restaurants, clubs, and shops have popped up all over town. Our day in the city included a walking tour of the historic district (with a break to see a statue of “Vlad the Impaler,” better known as Dracula), and stops at the Palace of the Parliament (the world’s largest administrative building for civilian use) and the Village Museum, an open-air collection of authentic peasant homesteads from all over Romania.

Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Crowned by the Tsarevets Fortress, the town of Veliko Tarnovo was the capital of Bulgaria during the Second Bulgarian Empire in the 12th century. Nowadays, the town attracts legions of shoppers to its cobbled streets, where craftsman carve wood, paint, and make pottery in their workshops right before your eyes. Bulgaria is known for is rose oil, and the town is also the perfect place to purchase lotions and creams with the distinctive rosa damascena scent. After our shopping escapade, we enjoyed a traditional Bulgarian lunch in the nearby village of Arbanasi and then walked to the Cathedral of Nativity to marvel at its biblical and humanistic-themed murals.

Vidin, Bulgaria

Despite what TV commercials tout, the world’s best yogurt isn’t made in Greece, but rather in Bulgaria (or so the Bulgarians say). The reason, as I learned at a cooking class in the town of Vidin, has to do with the type of cow the milk comes from and the strains of lactobacillus bacteria that you can only find there. After the lesson—and a feast on banitsa, a local dish made with filo dough, feta cheese, and the special yogurt—I walked through town to the restored Baba Vida fortress, which faced sieges from Byzantine, Hungarian, and Ottoman forces throughout the Middle Ages.

Iron Gates, Serbia and Romania

Sailing through the Iron Gates gorge (part of Derdap National Park) was one of the highlights of the cruise’s itinerary—and we never left the ship. The day of sailing between Serbia and Romania started with a transit through a series of locks that were so narrow you could almost touch the cement walls from our stateroom balconies. We then sailed passed the Mraconia Monastery (in the Romanian town of Orsova), the rock sculpture of Decebalus (a 130-foot high cliff carving of the last king of Dacia), and further down, Golubac Fortress (a 14-century Serbian stronghold with 10 towers).

Belgrade, Serbia

At the confluence of the Danube and Sava rivers, Serbia’s capital is an ever-evolving city with a mix of socialist bloc and art nouveau architecture, lively pedestrian walkways lined with shops and cafes, and landmarks representing its Ottoman past. Our tour took us to the Church of Saint Sava, one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world, and Republic Square marked by the statue of Prince Michael (the prince of Serbia from 1839 to 1842). We also had some free time to shop on Knez Mihailova Street and to sample the famous cake at the nearby Hotel Moskva.

Osijek, Croatia

Located where the Danube meets the Drava River, Osijek is a cultural and agricultural town that has faced turmoil over the ages due to its strategic position along the Croatian boarder. And while it recently sustained significant damage during the Croatian War of Independence in the 90s (you can still see demolished houses and bullet holes lodged in building facades), its beauty endures. We walked through the narrow streets of Old Town while admiring the baroque-style St. Michael’s Church and Tvrda Fortress. We ended our day tour with a home visit in nearby Aljmas, where local hosts fed us homemade cakes and plum brandy while telling stories of life during the war.

Kalocsa, Hungary

Considered a national treasure, paprika (or “red gold,”) is one of Hungary’s most popular commodities, and there’s no better place to find it than in Kalocsa, where much of the country’s supply is grown and transformed into the sweet, hot, and smoked spice. But there’s more to the town than the famous chili pepper. On a tour of Holy Trinity Square, we paused to look at The Archbishop’s Palace as well as the cathedral, which houses a magnificent pipe organ once played by Franz Liszt. We also ventured a few miles outside of town to the Bakod Puszta Horse Farm, where riders perform stunts such as racing carriages or standing upright on a chain of nearly a dozen galloping horses.

Budapest, Hungary

Our cruise ended in Budapest, which couldn’t have been more of a pièce de résistance as a port of call. I was lucky to wake up early enough to watch the city go by as we passed under bridges (including the distinctive green iron Liberty Bridge) while the sun began to rise. Once docked, we boarded buses for a tour of both the Buda and Pest sides of the Danube, stopping at popular sights such as Matthias Church in Buda’s castle district. During my free time, I shopped for Hungarian spices at Great Market Hall and took the waters (and got a relaxing massage) at Gellért Thermal Bath. I couldn’t think of a better way to finish the trip.

Photo: Budapest from Fishermen’s Bastion (Anne Banas)

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