The sky darkened and the rain poured as I tried to take photos while juggling an umbrella on the banks of the Danube. Outstretched before me were dozens of sculptured shoes. “Shoes on the Danube Bank” honours the Jews who were killed here by fascist militiamen during World War II. Ordered to take off their shoes, the Jews were shot at the edge of the water so their bodies fell into the river and were carried away. The memorial keeps their memory alive.
Budapest is considered one of the most beautiful capitals in Europe, but it seemed all too fitting that the sky was ashen and there was a chill in the air as I photographed a reminder of the horrors that took place here.
In Budapest and Eastern Europe, sorrow and pain walk hand in hand with beauty and triumph.
Budapest was the first stop on my Viking River Cruise “Passage to Eastern Europe” with its ornate 14th century Matthias Church, Fisherman’s Bastion overlooking the Danube, stately Hungarian Parliament Building and historic Heroes’ Square.
I would learn during the 11-day cruise aboard Viking Lif that Eastern Europe is a destination of triumph over the oppression; a destination of strength and victory with a colourful and rich history.
After a tour of Kalocsa and a dramatic organ concert at a local church, we are transported to Lazar Equestrian Park to witness “The Horsemen of the Puszta,” a fantastic demonstration of horsemanship, athleticism and horse training.
The horses are trained to not be afraid of the crack of the whip, which simulates gunfire. The tradition comes from a time when the horses were used in battle. The whip never touches the horse. The horses are also trained to sit and lay as they once did to hide from the enemies in the tall grass of the Hungarian Plains.
The show features not only the talents of the trainers and the riders, but the beautiful horses so willing to be put in unnatural situations.
After the performance, I wandered through the barn to get a closer look at the magnificent animals.
During our morning, we toured Osijek and visited the home of a retired soldier and his family to learn what it was like to live under Dictator Josip Broz Tito. It would seem, as dictators go, Tito was a compassionate one. His biggest mistake, according to many historians, was not leaving one person in charge of Yugoslavia upon his death in 1980.
The retired soldier said he spent last 10 years of his career finding and disarming land mines. On our way to his house were forested areas with signs warning of land mines. On the way back to Vukovar, where the ship was moored, I was able to piece this information together with other facts, observations and the help of our tour guide for a better understanding of recent Croatian history.
After Tito’s death, some areas of Yugoslavia wanted independence; some wanted the country to remain intact. “My father said everyone thought there were talks going on,” the young guide told me. “But they started bombing and shooting at Vukovar. My family was able to escape to Germany; we left in the middle of the night.”
The Battle of Vukovar took place between August and November 1991; the Croatian War of Independence lasted until 1995.
Most of war-torn Vukovar has been repaired, but there is still evidence of war when the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA), supported by various paramilitary forces from Serbia, attacked Vukovar, including bombed out buildings and bullet-riddled storefronts.
In Serbia, our guide focused on history before this conflict, including a lovely walk through the grounds of Belgrade Fortress. For centuries, the city population was concentrated within its walls situated at the confluence of the Sava and Danube Rivers. We also visited the Temple of Saint Sava, the largest Orthodox Church currently in use.
I spend the afternoon walking in Kalemegdan Park watching men play chess and feed the birds, couples walking along the river and merchants selling souvenirs.
Our cruise continued sailing down the Danube through the Iron Gate; a spectacular narrow gorge with enormous white limestone cliffs. Past a convent, a castle and the rock sculpture of Decebalus, King of the Dacians, and through a series of locks we passed dramatic natural beauty.
Belogradchik and Vidin, Bulgaria
Bulgaria is beautiful. We had so many excellent experiences. One of my favourites was Belogradchik Fortress built into the Belogradchik Rocks. Dating to the Roman era and expanded by Bulgarian tsars and the Ottomans, the best way to see it is to go up for the view and to understand not only its size, but also the ingenuity of building the fort among the natural rock formations.
The city of Vidin and Baba Vida, a fortress dating to the 10th century, was another highlight. Fortress labyrinths add to its charm and romance.
In front of the fort, there were souvenir and craft booths with friendly locals ready to chat about their city.
Walking back to the ship, I passed the “Memorial of the Victims of Communism,” the ruins of the city’s once-grand synagogue and beautiful parks.
The morning started well with a visit to the Village Museum, an expansive open-air museum featuring houses, churches and peasant farms from Maramures, Moldavia, Transylvania, Muntenia and other rural areas. Dozens of locals, many in authentic costumes, were selling handcrafted items: dolls, clothing, shoes and household decorations.
After the vibrant and happy museum experience, we paid a stoic and almost sickening visit to the Palace of Parliament. Nicolae Ceausescu was inspired to build “The People’s House” after visiting Kim Il-sung in North Korea. Understanding what the citizens of Romania had to endure so the Communist dictator could build his palace is disheartening. The second largest building footprint in the world, second only to the Pentagon, is a show piece of marble and gold. Seventy per cent of its rambling rooms and hallways are never used.
If you go:
What was reality in the Eastern Bloc is changing. What visitors find today is a hopeful and resourceful population, friendly, helpful and happy to open their doors to the West. This cruise is about places, but more importantly, this cruise is about people.
For more information: http://www.vikingrivercruises.com