BLACK SEA CRUISE, 2005

Via "Awful-lon Waterways"
AKA "A FISH'S EYE VIEW OF THE MUDDY BROWN DANUBE"
(Netherlands, Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania)

Just before my previous trip I was worried about Hurricane Emily which went ashore two days before I was to leave. Fortunately it went well south to the Texas/Mexico border. This time it's Hurricane Rita which as a category 5 storm was headed directly towards Houston, and to hit on Saturday before this trip. Cancel???? Again fortune since the storm curved east and so we were on the weak side and got almost no damage. Is it the Balkans that are the jinx, or is it me?

Day 1, Thursday, September 29 Board our overnight flight to Europe.
Hooray! A different airline - no AlwaysLateHansa this time. It's a fairly short trip so I leave at 12:00 and drive to the airport. With the price hike on the airport shuttle, parking cost for 12 days is now the same as the taxi/shuttle combination. 7-hour time change Houston-Amsterdam. KLM is on the ball - rollback is only 5 minutes behind time and we actually get to Amsterdam ahead of time. Excellent (for airlines) dinner and a very decent breakfast. Hooray for KLM.

1KLM KL0662Houston - Amsterdam3:40 PM - 8:00 AM9:202:00
2KLM KL3201Amsterdam - Budapest10:00 AM - 12:00 Noon2:0013:20

It's fortunate that we're here early. The second flight isn't actually KLM - just a code-share. Because it's not KLM, I couldn't get the boarding pass in Houston and have to go through a very long line to 'check in' again - so I really need the extra time. The flight is run by Malev(olent) Hungarian Airlines. Why Malevolent - because of the 'gremlins.' The gate agents didn't show up so they had to round up some. We didn't even start boarding until after push-back time. Thus we miss our takeoff time and also the flight slot in air traffic. Result - an hour delay. Luckily it's the 2nd of the 2 flights so no harm done.

Day 2, Friday, September 30 Arrival in Budapest, Hungary
No further time change. Just the time change due the very late arrival and also that Malev(olent) continues to have gremlins - it takes almost an hour for us to get our luggage. Then we sit on the bus for about 45 minutes waiting on another group of tour passengers whose plane is even later. Thus instead of getting to the hotel area about 1 or 1:30, It's more like 4:45. No time to rest or start exploring the city during the balance (what balance) of the day. Bring some paperbacks since this is a repeat of a recent visit. Oops - no meals included. I need lots of Forints. Weather cloudy, damp, very cool. Brief meeting at 6PM to let us know about the local schedule. We have a local tour director here - will have a Cruise Director onboard the ship. Hotel: Sofitel Atrium Budapest. Excellent (except the beds are too soft and I get a real back-ache both mornings. Super breakfast buffet. (SF)

Optional: Dining and Folklore. Allow us to show us the finest of the Hungarian Cuisine in a beautiful setting of one of the City's premier restaurants. Enjoy our classical Hungarian Buffet Dinner with fine Hungarian wines at our discretion. Typical musical entertainment . (I did this before)

Day 3, Saturday, October 1 Budapest
Still cloudy and cool. Off at 8:30 for a morning half-day guided sightseeing includes historic Buda Castle, from where we have a splendid view of the twin cities of Buda and Pest spread over both banks of the Danube. Also see 500-year-old MATTHIAS CHURCH, St. Stephen's Basilica and distinctive Fishermen's Bastion. All a repeat. (BB)

This time the Globus info brochure was WAY off about optional excursions. Not good.

Optional: St. Andrew Excursion. Bohemian village of St.Andrews with shopping time. Spend an unforgettable afternoon in Hungary's best known artists and artisians colony. Admire the beauty of the typical small Hungarian town on the Danube and browse through some of the best local souvenir shops in the country. Learn about the Serbian and Greeks settlers here, who gave the town its rich cultural and historical background. Visit the MARZIPAN MUSEUM. Taste some fine Hungarian pastry and just let the world go by as we sip coffee in a bohemian coffee shop in St Andrews. (Cancelled for some reason. Too bad - sounded good and I haven't seen it on the first trip.)

Optional: Budapest, the City of Lights. Budapest is known for its splendid illuminations. We are introduced to the beauty of the city by night! We go to the Gellert Hill where we can enjoy the breathtaking panoramic view of Budapest: the Parliament, the Fisherman's Bastion and other landmarks of the capital of Hungary. (I did this 7 weeks ago.)

Optional: Hungarian Parliament. A guided visit to the Budapest Parliament Building. (Not offered).

Optional: Jewish Budapest. A guided visit to the Synagoge and other Jewish sites. (Not offered)

Day 4, Sunday, October 2 Budapest (Embarkation)
Start of the "New" part of the trip. Cloudy again, but clears some later. This morning leave (after a significant delay due to the running of a marathon race through the city - the route of which goes right in front of our hotel, and the busses are 'trapped' a block away. Neither they nor we can get through the mob of runners.) the city for the puszta and admire the show of traditional Hungarian equestrian prowess performed by the csikos wranglers in their picturesque costumes. Admire the unsurpassed qualities of the Hungarian equestrian virtue at an active stud farm in the Great Hungarian Plain. Enjoy the signt of the groud Lippizaner as he leads the festive procession. Take a typical country wagon ride and learn about the life of the typical Hungarian farm. Experience the well-known Hungarian hospitality in the most natural environment of the Puszta Farm. Excellent lunch included.

This afternoon transfer to our luxurious river cruise ship ("MS Artistry") docked in the center of the city. Orientation and safety drill from 6-7. Tonight gather on board for a Gala Welcome Dinner (finally included meals - if we can call a 6-micro-course set of snacks a meal) with (noisy!) Gypsy violins. I'm thoroughly disgusted with their 'wine or nothing' policy. Since I don't drink, but have had to pay the inflated prices for unlimited wine with dinner meals, why can't they provide at least one soft drink. By the end of the trip I'm so 'fed up' with the deal that I won't take a cruise with them again. (BB,L,D)

Apparently I'm on a cruise that wasn't totally sold out. I booked for category "E" - the least expensive, and got a category "D" cabin - #111: supposedly a $99 upgrade value. See ship info on the last 2 pages. The cabin is very nice - I've stayed in some hotels in Europe that were smaller and not as nice. However I'm STILL down on the lower (Steerage) deck where the windows don't open. This (the windows) is a good thing since the lower part of the window is often 2-4" below water level so if someone left a window open, steerage level could flood (though since the river is so shallow, the people on the "sky deck" wouldn't know it if the ship sank). Thus I get a fish's eye view of the river and whatever is floating down with the current. When the ship is moving fast or there's a cross chop, the water often splashes even higher than the top of the window. The double hull also serves as sort of a 'drum' and the water pounding against the hull gives an almost constant rumble/boom depending on the ship's speed. The 'ceilings' are fairly low - only about 6' 6" (2m).

Day 5, Monday, October 3 Kalocsa - Croatia - Serbia
Cloudy again; it rained overnight. Cloudy but warmer, and clears later. Spend the morning in Kalocsa, rich in charming baroque buildings and a treasure of Hungarian folk art. The town is also well-known for its paprika production. First stop is a beautiful church and we even get an organ recital (about 40 minutes). Next stop at a Folklore Farmhouse (neat place to visit) and browse through a fine selection of extraordinary local embroidery and choose to enrich my own collection (what collection?). Then visit the PAPRIKA MUSEUM where many people were expecting to buy some paprika products but they weren't open - and weren't interested in opening even for 160 customers. Many of us had done some shopping at the farmhouse so we had our souvenirs. There are 5 busloads of us and I was lucky to get an extremely good guide, Annika (sp?)/Annie. Very good and *great* personality - my favorite local guide on the entire trip! Sail past historical Mohacs where Turkish victory in 1526 determined the destiny of Hungary for 150 years to come. After lunch, we get info on Serbian tours - but all were already full when I got to the desk except the fancy dinner which I decide to 'pass' on. I skip dinner tonight - already had too much to eat with a big breakfast and lunch. I do this a few more times during the trip - big full breakfast - always excellent - and a good lunch - also very good. (FB,L,D)

Day 6, Tuesday, October 4 Novi Sad
Very good weather. An unforgettable day on the Danube with beautiful vistas of Marshal Vauban's unconquerable Petrovaradin Fortress at Novi Sad - which we don't get to see since we pass it during the night (about 5AM). In a lecture, learn about dramatic events of the recent past which shape both the present and the future of this region, resplendent with natural beauty and a proud history of struggle, victory and defeat alike in a specially organized lecture. This was supposed to be a cruising-only day but it seems that the Serbs still have the pontoon bridge across the river an Belgrade and won't open it except at certain times (late night/early AM) so we 'have some time to kill.' Thus a change in plans - and in the morning, an extra local tour of Novi Sad. Very nice tour and excellent guide - Ivana. After everyone gets back on board after the concert (late) we make an overnight 'mad dash' down the river (very noisy due to the booming hull noise) to Belgrade. Why don't they get/have more spaces on these optional tours. I miss out on two today and another tomorrow!!! (FB,L,D)

Optional: Sremski Karlovci. Experience the jewel of northern Serbia's Vojvodina Province. This afternoon a leisurely drive through the famous landscape of Fruska Gora brings us to an old Serbian, Austrian, and Hungarian town of Sremski Karlovac. Replendent with Baroque monuments of lasting value. Visit northern Serbia's Orthodox PATRIARCHY CHURCH. Visit the KRUSEDOL MONASTERY, Vojvodina's center of Orthodox faith. (limited space - already full.)

Optional: String Quartette. Serbia prides herself as being the cradle of musical talents. Enjoy a most relaxing and yet thrilling evening at a private concert of classical music for our party in one of Belgrade's most exciting concert settings and discover the charms of highly talented and enthusiastic local performers. (very limited space - already full. *#$*!!!!)

Day 7, Wednesday, October 5 Belgrade
Another day of very good weather. Our guided morning sightseeing tour features the KALEMEGDAN FORTRESS (very interesting), Belgrade's principal landmark famous for its ravishing panoramas of the Sava River flowing into the Danube. Admire the world's largest Orthodox church of St. Sava and learn about the heroic struggle of the Serbs against the Ottomans at the Karadjorje Monument. Former Yugoslavia's Communist past is relived at the tomb of its founder, Marshal Tito. Nice tour and the same excellent guide, Ivana. Later an optional excursion gives us the opportunity to spend the evening at the popular Bohemian Skadarlija district and taste some of the finest local specialties. (FB,L,D)

Optional: Serbian Folklore Show. Afternoon. (already full. *#$&#*&!!!!)

Optional: The Royal Compound A guided afternoon visit to the formerly closed White Palace (not offered)

Optional: Dinner in the Skadarlija District. An evening at the Bohemian Quarters and their "Old Town Tunes." (sounds good but already full)

Day 8, Thursday, October 6 Iron Gate - Serbia and Romania
We've been doing most of our cruising during the night and usually even when there is light, there's not much to see. That changes today (and unfortunately, today only). Past the Serbian fortresses (in the night so we can't see it) of Smederevo and Golubac to the legendary Trajan's Table, marking the Roman conquest of Dacia, and onto the Danube's most dramatic gorge of the Iron Gate. This narrow and formerly very dangerous passage divides Europe's Alps in the northwest from the Carpathians in the southeast. The impressive Djerdap hydroelectric project is the subject of a lecture this afternoon. We go through some very large locks today - 4 of the river cruisers at a time. Time change tonight. We lose an hour. (FB,L,D)

Day 9, Friday, October 7 Svistov, Bulgaria - Veliko Târnovo - Rousse
Off at 8:15 for a full-day excursion. As we start out, we go past the deserted warehouses along the docks, then through (slum?) areas to a dirt road (cross between a cowpath and random collection of potholes) out of the town of Svistov. So much for Svistov. There's heavy fog and overcast, but later in the day it clears up. Then after an 1 1/2 hour drive, we can admire the ancient capital of Bulgaria at Veliko Târnovo on the banks of the Yantra River. First is a refreshment stop at a nice hotel (free refreshments and a WC with no "dragon - lady"). There are several souvenir booths set up and I get some "rose oil" and a Koukeri figure. Next up to the museum town of Arbanassi visit the ETHNOGRAPHICAL MUSEUM (nice) and the CHURCH OF THE NATIVITY (one of the most interesting churches I can remember visiting) with its outstanding collection of frescoes. Enjoy a typical Bulgarian lunch at a hotel which was once the residence/palace of the communist governor. After stuffing ourselves, climb the famous Tsarevits Hill is the home of the Royal Fortress, and the PATRIARCH'S CHURCH is well worth a visit. Whew! Long climb! Rejoin our luxury cruise ship at Bulgaria's largest inland port of Rousse (after a 5-minute zig-zag "city tour"). So much for Rousse. We did about the same last time when the bus tour came through. Excellent guide today: Stefka. Back to the ship about 5:45. (FB,L,D)

Day 10, Saturday, October 8 Black Sea Canal - Constanta, Romania
This morning in the dark, marvel at the pride and joy of Communist achievement, the 40-mile long Black Sea Canal, while sailing to Constanta, the Queen of the Romanian Black Sea Riviera. The comprehensive tour of Constanta highlights the NATURAL HISTORY AND ARCHAEOLOGICAL MUSEUM (the local guide is studying archaeology at the university, but as a group tour guide, he's one of the worst I've had on any trip), one of the top museums of Europe, the PETER AND PAUL ORTHODOX CHURCH (nice, but so-so) and a drive to Romania's premier seaside resort of Mamaia which is closed for the season so all we do is drive down a major thoroughfare and back. Ho-hum. The tour ends with a champagne (or nothing) reception. At least they do have nice finger-food (supper?) and I got to see the Black Sea. Looking at the menu, I decide to skip the "Captain's Dinner" - and feedback later is that some people wish they had also. (FB,L,D)

Day 11, Sunday, October 9 Oltenita (Disembarkation) - Bucharest
We had to put our bags out last night before we went to bed, but the crew didn't actually pick them all up until after we were already up for breakfast. Bid farewell to our cruise ship (suggested tips: crew: $120, cruise director: $32) this morning in Oltenita (total distance traveled: 1628 km or 879 nm) and transfer to Bucharest. We get to the hotel at 10 and as expected, the rooms are not yet available (understandable). I walk around for a while, but since it's Sunday morning, most everything is closed. The first (optional) tour of the day is the "Palace of the People" which I skip since I did it last time. My room is ready at noon. At 2 - included city tour: Admire the sights of Romania's lively capital this afternoon on an included (repeat) visit of the city. The highlight (?) of our tour is a visit to the NATIONAL ART MUSEUM (ho-hum; art galleries are not my favorite place to visit), housed in the former Royal Palace. Actually I decide to skip the city tour (which I took 2 months ago) and meet friends. Andrei Razvan met me at the hotel and we walked around (and had dinner) from 1:45 to 6:20. Great afternoon. Thanks, Andrei. For others, there's also the evening optional Opera and Ballet (not enough tickets). For those staying on with the extension, tomorrow morning is an optional tour to the Heritage Village Museum which I liked so much last time. I wish it had been scheduled for this morning - would have been very nice to have another chance to go through it. (FB) Hotel: Athénée Palace Hilton The hotel was built in 1916 (there are 1916 and 2002 paired comparison photos in the lobby) but I has been remodeled/upgraded recently. It retains its basic character, but the rooms are quite nice and the a/c actually works. (SF)

Optional: The Gold of the Skipetars. A visit to the Romanian Treasury. (not offered)

Optional: The Palace of the People. Morning tour. Same as on my previous trip. (did this last time.)

Optional: Romanian Opera and Ballet. (sold out)

Day 12, Monday, October 10 Fly Home
Up at 3 to catch the 4 AM shuttle to the airport. I'm supposed to get a breakfast, but not likely (again, as usual) with the early departure. The cruise director asked for an 'early bird' buffet breakfast for those of us leaving early (4AM). So when does the hotel staff start setting up the (orange juice and coffee buffet) -- 3:58 AM as we are getting into the shuttles mini-busses. My homebound flight arrives the same (long!) day. (no BB)

3KLM KL1358Bucharest - Amsterdam6:35 AM - 8:25 AM2:502:05
4KLM KL0661Amsterdam - Houston10:30 AM - 1:40 PM10:1015:05

(seven hour time change) Nice (for airlines) lunch and a light meal later. I like KLM, but their 747 seats are VERY narrow. At least I got a bulkhead seat on both the long flights so nobody was leaning back crushing my knees. Two flights and I get through two paperbacks. I never sleep on airplanes.

The flight from Bucharest to Amsterdam is of course longer than Amsterdam-Budapest, but the return flight Amsterdam-Houston is about an hour longer than the flight over - must be a different routing. There's a 20 minute delay while we wait on 3 passengers who checked in but didn't bother to get to the gate on time. We don't make up the time, so into Houston about 30 minutes late. The total is about 2 hours longer on the way home. Good luck here - luggage ready as soon as I get through passport control and I catch a parking shuttle immediately. Last time took quite a bit longer. And at least it's not the 36 hours it will take to get home from Bangkok next year.

Selected pictures
Click to enlarge




AIRLINES:
1KLM KL0662Houston - Amsterdam3:40 PM - 8:00 AM9:202:00
2KLM KL3201Amsterdam - Budapest10:00 AM - 12:00 Noon2:0013:20
3KLM KL1358Bucharest - Amsterdam6:35 AM - 8:25 AM2:502:05
4KLM KL0661Amsterdam - Houston10:30 AM - 1:40 PM10:1015:05

EXTRA DAYS:
I had considered the extended WLZ trip which includes two extra days in Bucharest to tour into "Dracula" country and see some of the old castles. However on checking, it's what I was to see/just saw on the Greece/Balkans trip.

INCLUDED TOURS:
Budapest City Tour repeat
Budapest Horse farm very nice lunch
Kalosca City tour good, Fantastic local guide
Novi Sad City tour good, excellent guide
Belgrade City tour good, excellent guide
Veliko Târnovo half day tour very good, excellent guide
Constanta local tour poor, lousy guide
Bucharest City tour skipped to see friends

OPTIONS:
Budapest: Dining and Folklore I did this last time.
Budapest: St. Andrew Excursion cancelled
Budapest Budapest, the City of Lights I did this last time
Budapest Hungarian Parliament not offered
Budapest Jewish Budapest not offered
Novi Sad: Sremski Karlovci sold out
Novi Sad: String Quartette sold out
Belgrade Serbian Folklore Show sold out
Belgrade The Royal Compound not offered
Belgrade Dinner in the Skadarlija District sold out
Bucharest The Gold of the Skipetars not offered
Bucharest The Palace of the People I did this last time
Bucharest Romanian Opera and Ballet sold out
Bucharest Village Museum On Monday, darn it.

COMMENTS:
1) Very nice ship and the "stateroom" is larger and nicer than some of the European hotels I've stayed in. Not really spacious, but not cramped either.

2) Crew is very good, also considerate and helpful.

3) For the most part the local sightseeing is good and I was lucky enough to (all but once) have very good local guides.

4) Most of the cruising is at night which means that we don't get to see much of the river, but except for one day (lower gorge) when we do see the river banks, there's nothing much to see. Taking a river cruise - probably would have been much nicer on the Rhine or the upper Danube.

5) The company definitely needs to make more spaces available on the optional tours.

6) The special evening dinners are more like appiteazers - just a taste of this and a taste of that

7) Because of the (censored) wine-or-else-nothing policy at the evening dinners, I definitely won't go with the Globus/Avalon/Amadeus river tours again.

HOTELS: (different hotels from the other trip here)
Sep 30 - Oct 1 Budapest: Sofitel Atrium Budapest (SF) Excellent - except for the bed
Oct 9 Bucharest: Athénée Palace Hilton (SF) Old hotel, but excellent except for the fouled up early breakfast

MS Artistry The newest river cruiser in Europe.
What sets the Artistry apart from the rest?
It's a feeling we get the minute we step on board this luxurious river cruiser. The gleaming two-story lobby, lit by a central glass skylight, is a preview of the light, airy feel and the spectacular views we enjoy on this modern, spacious vessel.

We (sometimes) enjoy the value of these cruises. That means our one to two shore excursions per day, all meals, wine with dinner, unlimited coffee, tea, and mineral water (but no soft drinks!) during the day, transfers and fees are all included in one competitive cruise price. Of course, tipping of cruise and shore excursion staff is still up to us (obvious hint, hint, hint!).

This vessel boasts some of the largest staterooms (at 172 square feet) of any river cruiser. All rooms are designed by the famous architect Hans Sabert. Staterooms have either a picture window (right at water level for me), or 70% have sliding glass doors (obviously, not mine!). The ship accommodates 178 passengers.

The dining room, lounge and other recreation areas are spacious and airy with both the dining room and lounge featuring floor to ceiling windows so passengers can enjoy panoramic views of the muddy brown Danube. Unique to the Artistry is the glazed lobby that is open through to the Sky Deck with a central glass cupola-a sparkling welcome to passengers.

Included values aboard the Artistry are:
All staterooms feature spacious granite bathrooms, large closets, individual climate control, direct dial telephone, color satellite TV, radio, minibar (for extra $$$), safe, and hair dryer (for laundry)
All staterooms are outside with large picture windows, 70% have sliding glass doors (not mine)
Beds may be configured as two twins or one queen (I'd choose the twins, but got a queen)
Connecting rooms are available for families
All staterooms are insulated with a twin hull wall affording the utmost sound protection
The interior of the ship is non-smoking (hooray!)
Relax at the Sky Bar (probably not)
Enjoy the onboard hair salon and gym (not likely)
Enjoy personal service from our English-speaking staff
Open seat dining with one sitting
Wine included with all onboard dinners (how about soft drinks for those who don't drink wine?)
Internet available (at about $250/hour)
The Sky Deck is fitted with newly developed shade systems, guaranteed to be back in position immediately after passing under a bridge

Built: 2004; Length: 426 ft.; Crew members: 43; Cabins: 89