Try it: Tell the next five people you meet that you’re going to be spending two weeks in Eastern Europe this summer and see what they say.
You’ll probably hear that Budapest is supposed to be nice. Or that coastal Croatia is just as beautiful as its other Mediterranean neighborhoods and still super cheap. You’ll probably hear some jokes about goulash.
Yeah…that’s exactly why I’m going to Eastern Europe.
Last year, I whetted my appetite for the post-Soviet world, spending two wonderful weeks exploring Russia with my mom and getting to know a part of the world that, for a long time, had been completely shrouded in mystery to me. It was exhilarating. During those two weeks, my mom and I discovered how onion domes are made, how devoted to the arts and literature Russians really are, and how complicated the everyday lives are for people who live, day in and day out, under Vladimir Putin’s rule. We saw the commingling of Communist-era blocs—homes still owned and lived in by the families who were given free housing back in the 70s—and we saw the intense contrast between that world and the elaborate palaces, cathedrals, and summer homes of the Romanovs. We visited the island of Kizhi and witnessed a cathedral that was built in the 1700s completely out of interlocking wood pieces –no nails or glue of any kind. We sat outside at midnight under the large, low sun and imagined what it must be like to try and sleep during Russia’s white nights if you don’t have pitch-black curtains. We took a little boat down the canals of St. Petersburg, and we wandered the cosmopolitan streets of Moscow.
More than anything else, our trip broke, reinforced, and fractured every stereotype I had about Russia (except the whole “polar bears on the streets of Moscow” thing …sadly it was 70 degrees Fahrenheit and sunny). Just like the United States, Russians, too, find themselves in a globally powerful country that politically doesn’t always jive with their interests, and most of them want to be heard, understood, and respected.
I’ve been thinking about it all year. With every article I wrote about my trip, I realized that I wanted to know more—I wanted to learn more about what life was (and is) like in the countries and societies that were also affected by Russia and by Communist rule. I wanted to meet more people, hear their stories, and better understand a part of history that is still so elusive to me.
Basically, I wanted to see more of Eastern Europe.
And what better way than to sail with Viking again? One of the best parts about taking trips with Viking is that you really can cover a good bit of ground—and you’re surrounded by experts who live and work in the countries you’re visiting. After Russia, I felt like I had such a deeper and more profound understanding of the culture there because I could ask questions and talk to our tour guides about their own experiences. Plus, they held a few “round-table” sessions where we could come and ask questions about education, housing, politics, and anything else that was on our minds. People did come, and they asked hard questions. The tour guides were ready for all of them and answered each query honestly and openly.
Plus, Viking’s philosophy is centered around three different kinds of immersion experiences:
- Culture & leisure (such as attending Swan Lake at the Hermitage Theatre in St. Petersburg)
- Work & everyday life (such as attending a cooking class or visiting the home of someone who lives in the community)
- Access to points of cultural or historical interest (such as a privately-curated tour of the Peterof Palace)
I looked through the itineraries online and quickly decided on the one that would be most beneficial to me:
Passage to Eastern Europe
The 11-day cruise covers 5 countries, including Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary. It offers a number of offshore excursions, too, that sound like they would really give me a diversity of perspectives on life in both the city and countryside. I signed up right away.
Then, I went to the store, bought a card, scribbled a note to my husband about how much I wanted to celebrate the beginning of our new chapter together (more on our spectacularly crappy professional year later), and I invited him to join me. He opened the card and looked at me in the way he always looks at me when I’ve concocted up a new way for us to travel together. He could see that my eyes were sparkling in a mix of anticipation and excitement.
“Yes,” he said. “Let’s do it.”
So here we are. We leave tomorrow morning for our long voyage to Hungary. Once we’re there, we’ll spend a few days at the Radisson Blu Hotel Bucharest (sounds swanky…I hope they have those fluffy terrycloth bathrobes and slippers!), and then we’ll hit the Danube for our cruise.
In case you’re considering a trip to Eastern Europe, here’s the scoop on where we’ll be headed and what my plans are while I’m there. Keep in mind that I’ve crammed in a couple of side trips/journo stuff for my own writing (you wouldn’t necessarily be interviewing a Magyar horseman, investigating the history of paprika as a colonial food, or visiting Memento Park to see gigantic Soviet-Era statues….well, you might be, in which case, let me know!).
Here’s the lowdown on where we’re headed.
ROMANIA (Days 1-2)
The first leg of our journey will be two days in Bucharest, Romania’s cultural capital. From what I can tell, Bucharest seems to be relatively underrated as a tourist destination, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In our first two days, we’re going to check out the French-style boulevards, public gardens (I have heard marvelous things about the Bucharest Botanical Gardens), and visit a few of the city’s palaces. We’ll be spending an afternoon in the historic Lipscani district, which, from what I can tell, is a European beauty—full of cobblestone streets, boutique inns, art galleries, and shops and restaurants.
We’ll also be checking out a few of Bucharest’s tourist “hot spots:” the monastery where Prince Vlad is rumored to have been buried, and the Palace of the Parliament, which is said to contain over 3,000 rooms. Now that’s a house.
BULGARIA (Day 3-4)
Our first stop will be the town of Russe, Bulgaria, otherwise known as Eastern Europe’s “Little Vienna” for its historically critical port, mash-up of neo-baroque, neo-rococo, and Renaissance architecture, and its relaxed, European waterfront lifestyle.
We’ve signed up for a day trip to Veliko Tarnovo and Arbanasi, two medieval towns renowned for their handicrafts and local artist colonies. We’ll have coffee at a rooftop café in Veliko Tarnovo, overlooking the Old Town, explore Samovodska Charshia (one of the art districts) and visit castle ruins. Then, we’ll head to Arbanasi, where we’ll have lunch and meet with a merchant who makes products out of the essence of roses.
I’m not sure we’ll have time for the Russe City Walking Tour, but if we do, it will take us to the old city center and to a couple of museums, including the Museum of History (which houses over 140,000 artifacts—I can’t to dig into the archives on some of these objects!) and the Ethnographic Museum, which houses objects and artifacts related to people’s everyday lives in historical Bulgaria.
The next day, we’re planning on heading to the Belogradchik Rocks, a trip which will no doubt inspire the archaelogist inside me. The Rocks are not only a geological wonder, the result of millennia of erosion, freezing, and weathering, but they are also home to the Ottoman-built Belogradchik Fortress—a maze of rooms built into the cliffs.
IRON GATE (Day 5)
Today, I think we’re just sailing through the Iron Gate, an area renowned as one of Europe’s most stunning natural gorges. We’ll see the Carpathian Mountains on one side and the Balkan Mountains on the other.
SERBIA (Day 6)
Today will be devoted to exploring Belgrade, described by Lonely Planet as “outspoken, adventurous, proud, and audacious” (sounds a lot like the kind of person I’d want to hang out with) with a “gritty exuberance” (where do they find these adjectives?!). We’re planning on taking a city tour and then hopefully catching at least a happy hour. I mean, if we’re going to be in one of the world’s hottest places for nightlife, we have to at least have a Serbian cocktail, right?
CROATIA (Day 7)
Now, it’s really too bad that I can’t skip away for a day or two and head to the Mediterranean coast of Croatia, but I’m actually kind of excited about where we are going: Osijek. I don’t know exactly what this excursion will entail, but we’re planning on visiting a family and then walking along the promenade on the Drava River. I’m imagining a relatively relaxing day in this small Croatian village—which is perfectly fine with me.
HUNGARY (Days 8-11)
To be honest, Hungary is one of those countries I’ve wanted to visit since I was a little girl, and I don’t know exactly why. Maybe because I always laughed about the name—how could a country share a name with my language’s word for wanting to eat?!—but also because I’ve always heard such magnificent things about Budapest, the country’s capital. Our journey will end here, in Hungary, a place I am so excited to meet.
We’ll begin our three days in Kalocsa, a place I’ve learned is not only where the majority of the world’s paprika is harvested, but also where the Hungarian Puszta, a community devoted to preserving a non-motorized world and who get around on horseback, live, work, and play. I’m hoping to interview one of the horsemen before or after their show (which is rumored to be both acrobatic, artful, and death-defying) but I’m not sure we’ll be able to communicate with each other. I’ll have my Google Translate app with me, but it’s not always so easy to do an interview when you’re both typing into a smartphone what you’d really like to say. But we’ll see—I really want to learn more about their attitudes against motorized transport and modernity.
Our last two days will be in the lovely city of Budapest. We’ll hop on a city tour one day and head to a Roman thermal bath, but the rest of our time in Hungary will be spent running around trying to fit in all the places I’m writing about. Though I don’t know exactly how I’ll get there yet, I’m planning on finding Memento Park, where, according to their delightful website, the “ghosts of Communist Dictatorship” live. The park is basically an open-air museum where, after the fall of Communism, people dumped a whole bunch of gigantic Communist statues. I can’t wait to see this place.
I’m also interested in visiting the Central Hall Market, which I’ve heard from some other travel writing friends is a photographer’s dream. Because of my nerdy interest in public spaces and rhetoric in the world, I’m also trying to fit in a trip to the For Sale Pub, a bar that encourages drinkers to leave their words on the walls, floors, chairs, and ceilings. They can leave their “personal advertisements” anywhere they like. It sounds magical, and weird, and the perfect place for me.
With that, then, I’m going to start packing. Typing these words has started making my heart flutter just a little bit faster…oh, travel, how you ignite my soul, time and time again.
If you’ve been to Eastern Europe and have any tips for me, please leave a note for me here or get in touch with me on social media! I can’t wait to share this journey.
Yours in travel,
All photographs from Flickr’s Creative Commons. I thank them for their generosity and I hope my photos turn out just as beautifully!
I’m excited to be traveling to Eastern Europe with Viking River Cruises on their 2016 Passage to Eastern Europe cruise from Bucharest to Budapest.