Sunday, October 02, 2022

Down the not so Blue Danube. October 2022.

 After taking a river cruise up the Rhone in France in 2019, we decided in early 2022 to try cruising down the Danube.  Although more expensive than high sea and big ship cruising, we found that river cruising was far more relaxing. These ships are usually only 3 or 4 decks high as they have to fit under endless bridges.  They carry typically no more than 140 passengers and 40 crew compared to thousands on big cruise ships. It makes for a more intimate experience and therefore far less hustle and bustle. Getting on and off is a matter of a few minutes rather than the long lines coming on and off the big cruise boats. 

Meals are served in one sitting in a dining room which is small compared to the huge feeding rooms of several decks one finds on huge cruise ships. Getting around a riverboat is simple as there are only 4 or 5 steps to climb between decks.  The cabins are better laid out with most having only a sliding external door but no balconies. The dining room and main bar are located in the forward bow section and there is a small reading and meeting room on the stern. There is even a small exercise room near the dining room. Maybe a message is being sent there...

On the outside, there is a top desk that runs the full length of the ship which tends to be about 150 feet or 50 meters long. Here on the top deck,  there are chairs where one can sit and watch the scenery move gently by. Some chairs are under canvas roofs to protect them from the sun.  Here is also the main wheelhouse where the captain manages the ship. One can usually approach the wheelhouse to chat with the crew. Interestingly, the whole wheelhouse which is about 10 by 25 feet in size is built on a hydraulic lift system allowing the whole contraption to drop down to the deck-railing level when passing under low bridges. When I asked the captain how this worked he proceed to drop the bottom of the wheelhouse into the hole and then he started to drop the top part of the wheelhouse. A simple maneuver to do. There are steering and motor control panels on both sides of the ship for the captain to control the ship when approaching the pier or entering a lock.  As most rivers have bridges every few miles, this operation happens many times a day or night. The captain steps out of the wheelhouse and gets into a small trench on the side of the ship from where he can see ahead and on the side and thus steer the ship without the danger of losing his head as the boat often passes within inches of the underside of the bridges.

I booked our trip with an agency in Connecticut called Smartours that offered reasonable prices and that had a good reputation. This is an important decision as the cost of such a 10 or 11-day cruise is around twice to three times more expensive per person than sailing on large ocean-going cruise ships.  So shopping around makes eminent sense when planning such a trip. One usually has to put down around 10%  when making the booking with the final payment due 2 months before departure. Given the current uncertain times, we were not sure this cruise would be possible, even 2 months ahead. But we decided to go ahead as we had not traveled in over 2 years and we have a long list of places we want to get to in the years ahead. There was a bit of bravado as I felt I was not going to let Putin determine my way of life.


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We decided to get to Vienna 3 days before boarding our ship in order to have time to see Vienna and to get over the normal jetlag.  We flew with  Air Canada in executive economy class. We find that the upgrade cost is reasonable and provides adequate space. We arrived in Vienna after an 8-hour flight but it was only 8 am.  We had booked an Airbnb flat but it was only available at 1 pm.  So we dropped off our bags at the office and headed out to buy tickets on the local Hop on, Hop off bus system.  We have found that if one is in a town for more than 2 days, this is a great option as they sell tickets valid for at least 3 days.  We hopped on the bus but did not hop off as we were too tired.  We made a couple of loops around the city and headed to a restaurant to have a bite to eat near the flat. At the appointed time, we checked into what turned out to be a very well-located flat on Marie-Theresien Strasse near a transport center called Schottenplatz. The flat came with plenty of room including a full kitchen and living room.  We certainly had more space available than in any normal hotel room at a more reasonable cost. We decided that we would not do any further tourism and spent the afternoon and evening resting from the overnight flight.

For our first full day in Vienna, we booked tickets to see the morning practice session of the Lippizaner Spanish Riding School. 

Tickets to the full show are booked out months in advance.  The practice session is done in the same white hall where the full show is done. It lasts one hour with the first 30 minutes taken up by 6 junior riders with their young horses followed by a 30-minute session with 6 senior riders putting their mature well-trained horses through most of the complex movements the Lippizaner are known for throughout the world. It is a wonderful experience and well worth the cost. This school which goes back to the 1700s has a long tradition of perfecting the union between the riders (male and female) and the stallion horses. In fact, riders spend 5 or 6 years training the same horse and learning to control their animals.  The young horses are 3 years when they arrive at the school and are mostly dark gray and rather small.  Over the years, they grow and gradually acquire the pure white color for which they are known and loved throughout the world.

After the horse show, we ambled back to our flat.  Downtown Vienna is beautiful with wonderful architecture everywhere one looks. It is also a great city to walk as there are many streets without cars. That evening we had dinner with  Ekatarina Glazovskaya Haberkorn, a Russian niece of mine who is married to Daniel Haberkorn.  When we were in Moscow in 2019, we had dinner with Andrey Glazovsky who is her father. 

We met at the Landtmann Cafe with is a very traditional Viennese location. It was a pleasant evening and fun to meet a new member of the family.  Monique learned to drink a very Viennese coffee called Melange which is basically a cafe au lait but only available in Vienna.  Since then she has taken to drinking her Melange several times a day. 


 Ekatarina and Daniel have a 10-year son Maxim.  I always enjoy meeting new people and old friends when traveling as it gives a better understanding of the place when talking to locals.

The next day we took the metro out to visit the Schoenbrunn castle.  It is a dark and rather depressing place that served as the summer palace of the Royal family. 

On Saturday afternoon, we boarded our ship, the River Governess.  We had booked a cabin on the top desk which had sliding doors but no balcony.   

On Sunday, we joined a city tour given by the ship which included a guide, Dusan. Dusan traveled with us the whole trip and was an amazing guide.  One of the highlights of the tour was the original Hundertwasser building. He was as unconventional as Gaudi in Barcelona. The apartments are rented by the city and the rents are fixed at Euros 10 per square meter. Thus a 100 square meter of rent-controlled housing in Vienna would only cost Euro 1000 per month. This is dirt cheap compared to market-value flats which would cost 2 or 3 times as much. Plus parents can transfer their rent rights to their children.

We settled into the cabin during the rest of the afternoon. On Sunday evening, we went with several others from the ship to one of Vienna's many concert halls for an evening of Viennese music. They were a group of 12 musicians as well as a few singers and waltz-dancing couples who put on a nice show of lively music, It was entertaining and we were back on board by 10.30.   At 11pm the ship slipped away heading for our first stop, Bratislava, Slovakia,  60 km away. 


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The next morning we awoke in Bratislava which is the capital of Slovakia. It has a population of around 500,000. Monique and I decided not to join the morning tour organized by the boat as we are both dealing with the start of a bit of cold. We decided to have a quiet morning.  In the afternoon, we headed ashore to visit this small city with a very varied history of Hungarian,  German, Austrian, and Turkish periods of occupation and the city has lots of different buildings with ties to one or the other period. 

The whole downtown is pedestrian so it is a fun place to explore on foot. We opted to take a small tourist train which goes around the old town for about 35 minutes.

This is what the main group used in the morning but we had the whole train to ourselves. After the tour, we walked the old town on our own.  There were very few people in the streets. As it was all very small. We had done the town within two hours and headed back to the ship.


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The ship left Bratislava at 11pm and at 2 am we went through a lock that must have been over 60 feet in drop. The next morning we were moving down the river and for the first time, we could watch the scenery going by as we had traveled at night up to now.

  The morning was beautiful as the banks of the Danube moved by. It is quite surprising to see at what speed the current of this river flows. I was told it is 5 to 6 km per hour. As far as the Danube being blue, that is a fairy tale as the water is brown/green with lots of debris floating down. I saw trees and all sorts of pieces of branches in the water.  Interestingly, when these big boats come in to tie onto the piers, they turn into the current to be able to control the boat against the current.  What I found surprising in Hungary was that along the river are endless forests in the mountains until one gets close to Budapest.

By noon on Wednesday, we tied up in Budapest where we were for a day and a half.

After lunch, we boarded a bus to make a 2-hour visit to the Pest side of the city. The city is located on the North and South banks of the Danube with the Buda side on the South. The Buda side has a huge imperial castle on the mountaintop and is basically a steep mountain face. The Pest side is flat and has most of the main attractions such as museums,  St Steven Basilica, the main Synagogue, the Opera house, and the wonderful parliament building which is the third largest in the world after those in London and Buenos Aires.  In fact, Buda was known as the Imperial city and Pest was the commercial city. In 1867, it was decided to merge the cities into one with its current name.

The city is clean and bright which is such a change from the last time I was here in the early 90s. That was a few years after the fall of Communism and the city was dark and dirty.  Now all the buildings have been cleaned and the city really looks beautiful. 

Hungary is a county of 10 million of which 3 live in greater Budapest.  It was a much larger country 100 years ago.  After siding with Germany in the first world war, it lost 2/3 of its land and 3 million of its nationals under the treaty of Trianon.  Since then and up to now under the current president, Orban continues to play on this loss to stimulate support.  Hungarian history has the country on the wrong side of every conflict. They again sided with Germany again in the second world war and came under Russian rule after the war with the usual oppression common to Communist rule throughout the world. In 1956, they had a revolution against the local communist party and the USSR which was put down when Russia sent 31,000 troops and 1000 tanks killing 4000 and ending the uprising, and causing the emigration of 200,000 people to Europe, America, and Australia. Finally, in 1989 Hungary became a truly democratic republic.  

To the credit of Hungary, they were the first to open their borders in 1989 and let their people flee to Austria. This began the fall of Communism through Eastern Europe and the collapse of the USSR. The whole Russian-controlled USSR only held together because it operated as a prison with walls like in East Berlin and thousands of miles of huge mined and towered borders keeping people from leaving. With the collapse of the regimes in Eastern Europe there was an exodus of people who fled to the West.

That evening, I had arranged to have dinner with a former colleague of IFC who is Hungarian,  Borbala Czalo. I had met her while she was the IFC resident representative in Budapest and I was the Resident Representative in Germany.    She held that position for 4 years and then went to DC for a further 6 years. This was an exception to a rule which precluded locals from being resreps.  But Borbala was special.  She left IFC in 2001.   From 2006 to 2010, she was the Hungarian ambassador in London. She was proud to show us a nice picture of herself presenting her credentials to Queen Elisabeth.

She invited us to her lovely home high above the Buda side of the city. We took a Bolt taxi (local Uber) and had a hard time finding the house. Borbala received us at her home and we had a drink and chatted for an hour. It was fun reminiscing and comparing notes.  Her house had a glass roof and looks down into Budapest with a breathtaking view.   

It is really fun to meet up with some former colleagues as it is almost as if one had seen one another only a year earlier, not 20 years. The bond is still there.   After a pleasant visit to her home, we went to her favorite restaurant, Bobo on the lower side of Buda.  As I had invited her to dinner, it picked up the bill.  With the current exchange rates, the dinner cost around half as much as it would have cost in North America or in Europe.  A pleasant surprise. After dinner, Borbala insisted on taking us back to the ship in her taxi.  We drove along the river embankment and enjoyed the beautiful sight of Budapest at night. It was a fun evening and Borbala was a gracious hostess.

Today, Wednesday, Monique and I took a river cruise on our own to see the sights. It was an easy and pleasant way to see the city. We will be leaving this evening after dark and our ship has promised to go upstream again so we can get a last view of Budapest by night.

We awoke the next morning tied up at a place called Mojacs, Hungry.  It is a famous place where 2 important battles against the Ottoman Empire took place. We had arrived at 7am and were awaiting the Hungarian authorities to do the inspection of passports and the ship before leaving Hungry. Although we were leaving for Croatia, another EU member and member of the Schengen agreement, Hungary insists on doing this inspection.  We had to wait 3 hours until the Hungarians deigned to allow us to continue our voyage.  Totally unnecessary and unacceptable only to satisfy the Hungarians' wish to show who is boss. It leaves a sour taste after a nice visit to Hungry.


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That afternoon we arrived 3 hours late in Vukovar, Croatia.  This is a small city of 24,000 inhabitants which endured a 90-day siege by the Serbians in 1991 as part of the civil war which raged at that time,. The city was destroyed and thousands were brutally killed by the Serbs.  Milosevic was the Serbian leader and he and other Serbs were later convicted of war crimes. 

It is a small town with only a few streets and has been totally rebuilt. It was eerie to walk the streets where only recently thousands had been slaughtered in a brutal war with no motif other than territorial desires on the land of a historical neighbor, the Croats. Mementos of the past war are everywhere to see. 


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This is a city of some 225,000 with parts on both sides of the Danube.  Walking around this pleasant town there are no monuments to the past civil war as it would seem national shame has forbidden it.

I went ashore alone as Monique was still fighting her cold. I spent an hour ambling through the town market and picked up a few trinkets. Interestingly, most people understand Russian or German.  The Serbian language is always written in Cyrillic and Latin letters and there are many common Slavic words from Russian. Prices seem very low. I met one of our crew in the grocery store and she was stocking up on cigarettes at 4 Euros which she said is the cheapest in Europe. I bought a pair of cheap slippers in a Chinese store and even used my still-existing Mandarin to negotiate the price down by 2 Euros. Later in the day, we both went ashore to amble through a very active and large evening handicraft market.


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Our ship tied up on the Sava River just off the Danube, at the foot of the city of Belgrad, the capital of Serbia. We boarded a bus in the morning for a tour of the city. It is a large city of 2 million. It is a cold-looking city with a combination of Socialist and Communist buildings which is not very appealing. In addition, I could not put out of my mind the memory of the atrocities these Serbs committed in the civil wars of the 90s. Places like Vukavor, Kosovo, Screbenica, etc.. come to mind. Milos Milosevic was found guilty of war crimes but it was far more the troops under him who were Serbians killing neighbors in a brutal fashion.  They tarnished the name of Serbs for history and I was very uncomfortable walking around the place.

We visited the main cathedral which is a monster, not to say a monstrosity sitting in the middle of the city. It is a pompous, over-decorated, gold-covered church that seems to scream pompous and aggressive. Not my taste in a place of worship. Rather it is a statement by the Serbs trying to convince the world that they are better and stronger. 

We then ambled the length of the central pedestrian area with the usual suspects of high-end stores. We sat at an outdoor cafe and watched the pedestrians walk by. As it was Saturday and a nice warm afternoon, there were lots of people.

We met up with the bus after a few hours and were driven to a huge park outside the city called Ada Safari for a Serbian lunch at a restaurant built in Serbian style.  The food was good and the setting was pretty as it was on a lake. A trio of musicians played lots of Serbian music and the restaurant served lots of bad Serbian wine.  It was a fun event and we lucked out on a warm and sunny autumn afternoon.

That evening on the ship, a group of Serbian dancers and musicians came on board and put on a very colorful show of national dances in many different traditional costumes. One saw clearly the cultural influences of Russia, Greece, and Turkey on the history of this country.

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We left that evening at 11 pm after the city put on a nice fireworks display in some distant park.


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The next morning we awoke in a little town on the border of Serbia. It was a technical stop to clear immigration out of Serbia. It was also the site of the huge Castle Golubac built over 600 years ago. 

Reading the history of this fortress, one sees that this part of the world has been under attack almost constantly. The Serbs, the Ottomans, and the kingdom of Hungary. It was owned at different times by the Turks, Bulgarians, Serbs, and Austrians. It reflects the very turbulent area we are in which seems to always have been in battle with one or the other neighbors. The Balkans seem never to have had peace over the last hundreds of years. The Ottoman empire seems to have been constantly attacking the area, subduing some parts, and losing others in wars over centuries. Even today, the region is not peaceful and the cauldron of nationalism is being stirred by the likes of Milosevic in Serbia and Orban in Hungary.

The main reason for the location of the Fortress is that it stands at the beginning of where the Danube goes through 134 km of narrow gorges. Apparently, at one point, a chain was put across the Danube to ensure that all boats first paid their passage tax to the owner of Golubac as the Danube is very narrow at this point,

In fact, the Danube used to be so narrow that it was very dangerous to navigate with fast currents and lots of rapids, and dangerous curves. Between 1964 and 1972, two sets of enormous locks were built to raise the level  and width of the river. Both Iron Gate locks are also  hydroelectric plants feeding electricity into Serbia and Romania.  The gorge offers spectacular views of rock rising out of the water to high above the water.

The contrast with the first part of the Danube is quite amazing as suddenly one is surrounded by huge walls of stone rising at times 200 meters from the water. The dams raised the water level by about 35 meters compared to the natural level of the river of only 6 or 7 meters. Some 17,000 people were displaced by the rising waters which even cover an island known as Ada Kaleh

which was over a mile long and was a walled city.

We spent the afternoon going down the gorge which is so impressive. I even got to sit in the captain's chair although I did not touch the controls.

It was a beautiful afternoon. In the late evening, we entered the Iron Gate 1 lock, which is a two-step lock.

  It is a huge lock which can receive 4 river boats like ours.  The first lock drops about 18 meters. The door in the front of the lock then drops under water and the boat moves into the second lock which drops a further 12 meters. All quite impressive.

Late that same evening, we went into the Iron Gate 2 lock and dropped a further 35 meters. This was opened in 1984. It looked very badly maintained as we went through that evening. These hydroelectric plants produce around 30 MW. each.


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This morning we awoke in the small town of Vidin. It has a population of 235,000. In fact, the downtown is very nice and is all pedestrian and clean and modern,  But we took a few side streets and there things looked in much worse shape.

There is little to see and do here so we ambled up and down the 1 km of the pedestrian area and watched people.  We managed to add to Monique's growing collection of fridge magnets to the point we may need to buy a second fridge...

In the afternoon, I went to visit the local art museum which was written up as having several original paintings by international artists. Well, that was not the case, as the whole museum only had 18 paintings of unknown local artists. As there are no cars in the center of the city, the place is almost eerily quiet. As if the place was stopped.  I guess I will have to go back to Bulgaria to see the real country.  Maybe one day.


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We left that evening for our last stop on the cruise.  In the morning, we awoke at a small town in Romania where we boarded buses for the 2-hour drive inland to Bucharest.  

The ship had booked us for 1 night at the Novotel and I had added an additional night to allow us to see a bit of Bucharest.  The bus ride took us through huge flat areas which were being farmed on a large scale.  The earth looked rich and Romania is able to grow a large variety of crops. We drove through small villages which seemed very poor and often deserted.  There were a number of large Soviet factory buildings which now were abandoned. We arrived in Bucharest and were given an hour's tour of the city. It is a flat city with very European-type buildings to the point that it is referred to as the Paris of the East. It is not a pretty town but it seems prosperous with lots of people on the streets.

 As Monique and I were both now coughing badly, we decided to take the afternoon off and stay in our room resting.

The next morning, after a bad night, I decided that I would cancel my planned trip to Poland and Germany. I rebooked my ticket to fly home directly to Montreal with Monique via Munich the next morning.  We did a little bit of walking around Bucharest but mostly lay low as we both felt poorly.

The next morning we boarded our Lufthansa flight to Munich. We had a 3-hour layover in Munich and arrived that evening in Montreal.  The next day, I headed to Burlington Vermont to the University hospital emergency room as my coughing was serious.  I was diagnosed with Covid and sent home.  The following day, Monique also tested positive. Given the 2 week incubation period of Covid, it would appear we contracted Covid already back in Vienna. We are now isolating and resting. Neither of us is in any pain other than a persistent cough. We are both going through a Paxlovid treatment and hope to be out and about in a few days.

 It was a nice trip to an area we had never visited.  We saw a lot but we saw very little of each of the countries we visited.  I feel there is so much we missed in each country.  We really only touched the surface without getting a true insight into these countries. Traveling by ship at night, we had a limited view of this area. One day, we would have to go back to one or the other country to spend more time.

October 18, 2022. 


Blogger dunstan said...

As usual Keyserlingk an excellent precis of your trip to date....replete with solid history and current affairs in places you visited, as well as specs for your various means of transport. Splendid! Chic

PS: I did not find a way to access your pictures.

October 5, 2022 at 11:42 AM

Blogger Nico said...

This is a nice account of the river cruise. Your account makes it seem quite pleasant, while painting ocean cruise ships as pretty awful, which sounds about right.

It would be a great compliment to have the photos, but I believe you said the blog was still in draft.

October 6, 2022 at 2:00 AM

Blogger Alexander Nicolai Graf Keyserlingk said...

Pictures to be added later.

October 7, 2022 at 11:10 PM

Blogger Alexander Nicolai Graf Keyserlingk said...

Pictures are now part of report.

October 18, 2022 at 2:23 PM

Blogger Nana said...

Interesting Alex. Quite a detailed narrative. Thanks for sharing.

October 18, 2022 at 8:18 PM

Blogger Tammy said...

Wonderful journey!
Try the Saxon area of Rumania next time. Follow Patrick Leigh Fermor’ s brilliant book “Between the Woods and the Water”( on foot to Constantinople) .
Loved it, thank you for sharing
Tammy )

October 19, 2022 at 11:20 AM

Blogger Smithconsult said...

River cruising sounds wonderful, somewhat on a par with rail travel vs flying. I more or less tracked your trip in reverse on the Istanbul to Vienna train (ex Orient Express) some years back. My 3 hour delay was entering Bulgaria from Turkey. Seems old immigration habits die hard!

October 19, 2022 at 1:30 PM

Blogger Anton said...

What a Wonderfull description of your tour. (as always), In my early days, before AMSCO, and before Tito died, I used to spend my summer holidays, driving a reconstructed delivery fan into a camper in those countries. So much history but also so much life. Thanks for an inspring suggestion.

October 23, 2022 at 11:52 PM

Blogger Alexander Nicolai Graf Keyserlingk said...

I am sure you would see huge differences now after so many years. Only the rivalry between countries still exist.

October 24, 2022 at 6:32 AM


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