As they did for so many people, global events caused us to “adjust” our plans to cruise from Budapest, Hungary, to the Black Sea. First, the COVID-19 pandemic postponed our adventure by more than a year, and then the the war in Ukraine canceled the last stop at the Danube Delta.
My wife, Cheryl, and I always prepare for vacations by gathering information. We’d travel 15 days, 700 miles, and visit five former Iron Curtain countries—Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and Croatia—in the Balkan Peninsula, where the Danube River forms the border between them. Our goals were simple: My wife wanted to dip her toes into the Black Sea, and I wanted to visit the bridge on our ship, the MS Thomas Hardy.
On the first day, I met one of the ship’s two captains, who invited me to tour the bridge. When we visited the bridge, the ship was approaching the entrance to the first of two locks, so I decided not to ask for a turn at the wheel.
Capt. Martin explained that the ship has a draft of only a few feet. The deepest part of the river meanders quite a bit, and the buoy system is marginal, often non-existent, requiring a lot of knowledge and attention.
Only a handful of people operate the ship, experienced captains and a chief engineer joined by a mostly trainee crew managed by the skilled first mate.
We watched most of the dockings and departures, often with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine in hand.
On day seven, we took a bus tour to Constanta, where we dipped our toes in the Black Sea, meeting both our goals.
The Balkan Peninsula’s rich history
Having been navigated since the 7th century BC, the Danube supplies drinking water and power to 10 million people. The western part from Germany to Budapest has some seasonal flow rate and depth challenges. We sailed on the eastern part, which stretches over 90 miles and has dams at either end. Constructed in the ’60s, the dams are jointly operated by Romania and Serbia. This section of the river, which contains the Djerdap Gorge, drops over 110 feet.
As we learned from the many excellent tour guides, these countries share an unimaginable history of war, conflict, and occupation from the Greeks and Romans, the Byzantines, to the Ottomans and Hapsburgs, through World Wars, communism, and finally, the transition into democracy.
These countries have all suffered brain drains as 30% of younger, educated or skilled workers leave for jobs in the European Union. With its rich soil, the Balkan Peninsula relied on an agricultural economy for many centuries. Under communism, private farms were taken over and combined, and today the farms require few people to operate. The difference between life in the country and the city is large. Even with money from the EU, the lack of infrastructure within and between countries is hard to overcome.
We learned a lot from visiting the region’s many Orthodox Christian Churches. Typically, they have no seats, no musical instruments, and no statues. Icons, many with gold backgrounds, cover the walls and ceilings. Each country’s church has an independent patriarch.
Most of the “South Slavic Countries,” which had been part of the Soviet Union, are now members of the EU. Although each has its own currency, they all use the Cyrillic alphabet.
While cruising the river, we had fun and made friends. The river’s beauty, views of the countryside slowly flowing by, and visits to historic places all contributed to our rich experience. This was, without a doubt, one of the vacations where we learned the most.