For a Culturally Rich Cruise Experience Go with Viking

For a Culturally Rich Cruise Experience Go with Viking

About to board the Viking Idun in Budapest

Travel is the only thing you buy that makes you richer

— Anonymous

We just completed our “Passage through Eastern Europe” journey with Viking River Cruises, and I have to say, it was fantastic, for many different reasons.

Some people absolutely love cruises. For a lot of people on this trip, cruising is their favorite way to travel. Of the 186 guests on board the Viking Idun, over 100 had cruised with Viking before. That is a real testament to the quality of Viking Cruises and the experiences they provide their guests.

But we at Euro Travel Coach don’t often go on cruises. Our preference us usually to get to know a place on the ground and really immerse ourselves in a country and its culture. That way, we can truly learn what they are all about, and try to dig deep into the history and meet the local people. We want to understand what makes each one interesting and unique. We want to eat regional food, drink great local wine, and get a glimpse of their distinctive perspectives. It has always seemed to us that a cruise only gives travelers a chance to scratch the surface.

I have to say, however, this journey helped us understand multiple countries in new and different ways. For those who love to travel, and want to do so in comfort, while having all the details taken care of by experts, cruising from place to place can be a great way to go.

How Did We Choose Eastern Europe for our Viking River Cruise?

Viking currently operates a fleet of 68 vessels – including both ocean and river ships – so there are lots of choices when you are trying to decide where in the world you want to go! We talked with lots of the other guests on board, and we heard again and again about some of their favorite trips they had already taken with Viking.

For a Culturally Rich Cruise Experience Go with Viking

Gulbac Fortress in Serbia

Some of their favorites were the following, and each one has a different appeal:

We carefully reviewed these, and all the other options, when we were trying to decide where to go. In making our choice, we really wanted to travel to places we hadn’t yet been in Europe. In our first year of traveling full time, we spent six weeks in areas that had once been behind the “Iron Curtain.” We were in Berlin for a week and then spent a month in Poland. After that, we spent a week in Budapest. We learned a lot about WWII, the Holocaust, and living in Communist controlled Europe during that time. In choosing our cruise, we felt this would be an opportunity to understand more about these peoples’ experience. We chose the Passage through Eastern Europe from Budapest to Bucharest because we thought we would learn a lot, and have fun. We were not disappointed.

Where Did We Go along the Danube in Eastern Europe?

For a Culturally Rich Cruise Experience Go with Viking

The Budapest Parliament on sail out night

Our itinerary included the following stops:

  • Budapest, Hungary

  • Kalocsa and Puszta, Hungary

  • Osijek, Vukovar, & Bilje, Croatia

  • Belgrade, Serbia

  • Golubac, Serbia and sailing through the Iron Gate gorge

  • Vidin, Bulgaria and the Bologradchik Rocks & Fortress

  • Veliko Tarnovo & Arbanasi, Bulgaria

  • Bucharest, Romania

As mentioned, we had been to Budapest before, but all the other locations were completely new territory for us.

One of the benefits of a Viking cruise is that there is an excursion included in every stop. We did all the included excursions except in Croatia where we opted to visit the same places as the rest of guests, but on bicycles, so we could see even more. We also participated in additional optional excursions in Belgrade and in Vidin. In Belgrade, we had privileged access through Viking and went “Behind the Scenes at the Serbian Opera.” In Vidin we did the “Home-Hosted Cooking Demonstration” where we visited a local Bulgarian home and learned to make traditional banitsa.

What was our impression on this Viking River Cruise?

Viking states that their cruises are “designed for discerning travelers with interests in history, art, music and cuisine” and they offer guests “the thinking person’s cruise”. In our experience with Viking, they truly deliver on this charge.

I was somewhat skeptical about the quality of the included tours. It’s sometimes hard to know what you will get with guides you don’t choose yourself – the knowledge and style of the presenter can make or break an experience. I have to say, however, that we had excellent guides in every location. All the excursions were outstanding – and I can be a pretty harsh critic!

Viking did a superb job vetting their providers in every single place we visited. They clearly train them well so they deliver what their guests want: information about what will be included in the tour, excellent historical and cultural information specific to the location and the region, interesting and important places to visit, and regular rest room breaks. We were comfortable, well informed and entertained at every port of call.

For a Culturally Rich Cruise Experience Go with Viking

For a Culturally Rich Cruise Experience Go with Viking

Vukavar, Croatia still shows signs of conflict

For a Culturally Rich Cruise Experience Go with Viking

Special Experiences on this Cruise through Eastern Europe

We enjoyed many interesting and unique experiences during our cruise, but I would like to share some that were the most special. These are experiences I don’t think we could have encountered if we had been on our own.

Home Visits

For a Culturally Rich Cruise Experience Go with Viking

With our host on a Viking River Cruise Home Visit in Croatia

In Croatia, we were invited into a woman’s home. A group of 12 of us sat around her dining room table and enjoyed her apple cake, while she talked about what it was like for her and her family during the Croatian War of Independence from 1991 to 1995. It was heartbreaking to hear her stories of leaving her home with only 2 suitcases, sending her children to live near the Adriatic where it was safer, and returning to her home years later after it had been lived in and then looted by Serbian soldiers. Hearing her descriptions of this horrible period of time was humbling.

It is a testament to Viking that they make it possible for 186 passengers to have this experience. They broke us up into smaller groups so we could all have an intimate encounter in different homes. Each host had a unique story to tell, and when we got back to the boat we were able to hear some of the recollections shared in the other houses. Each one was poignant and represented resilience, tragedy, and hope.

In Bulgaria, we visited a family and learned how to make banitsa. This delicious pastry, made from phyllo pastry, eggs, feta cheese, and butter, is a central part of family celebrations. While we were there, I got to speak with a family member who had lived in the US for 6 years after the Iron Curtain fell, and before returning to his home in Bulgaria. We talked about living in Bulgaria during the Communist era.

This man is a mechanical engineer. He was paid less than the workers who operated the machinery he carefully designed. He said that during Communism, the workers were believed to be the most important people in an operation, so although they weren’t paid much, they were paid more than he was. He also said most people weren’t motivated to do much work because everyone had a job, whether they did a good job or not. It was a very interesting conversation, and one I couldn’t have experienced if it hadn’t been for this chance to visit his home.

Cultural Experiences Onboard

For a Culturally Rich Cruise Experience Go with Viking

The Bulgarian Children’s Ensemble aboard the Viking Idun

Viking exposed us to local folk musicians and dancers on many different occasions, but my favorite was Vidin’s Bulgarian Children’s Ensemble. These young people came onboard and performed for us in the ship’s lounge. Dressed in traditional Bulgarian costumes, they danced and sang songs and invited us to dance with them.

At the end of the performance, I thanked the woman who had introduced them. When I reached out to shake her hand, she wrapped me in her arms and hugged me. She encouraged me to come back to Bulgaria, this place that she loves so much.

By this point in our journey, we had already visited multiple Eastern European countries. Some had been devastated by the Bosnian War. They all had suffered under Communist rule. When foreigners come, and appreciate their culture, try to understand what happened, and spend their tourist dollars, it is meaningful. To me, her long bear hug meant that our presence and our attempt to understand somehow makes a difference in their lives. I was really touched by her expression of appreciation, when I was the one who was thanking her.

Informative Lecture on the Ship

After visiting Croatia, we traveled to Serbia, which was of course, on the other side in the struggle. A guest lecturer came on board and talked about Serbia today. He reminded us that there are multiple sides in any conflict. In order to understand this particular struggle, he took us back over 500 years. In an hour, he presented some of the complexities of the challenges that have been faced in this region. He did an amazing job. Although I can’t say I fully understand the conflict now, I certainly know more than I did before. I also learned to appreciate the different perspectives that can lead to these horrible battles that negatively impact peoples’ lives for decades. It was a powerful lecture.

For a Culturally Rich Cruise Experience Go with Viking

The ceiling of the National Theater in Belgrade, Serbia

Privileged Access to the National Theater in Belgrade, Serbia

As lovers of the arts, we thoroughly enjoyed this opportunity to visit Serbia’s National Theater. We had our own personal guide and we also got to hear from the director of the theater. He told us about famous people who performed there in the past, including Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti, and also talked about some of the performances at the theater that were attended by Tito, the Communist leader and President of Yugoslavia from 1953 – 1980.

After our behind the stage tour we were treated to a performance by some young women who are studying in the Academy that is connected with the theater. They were exceptional and it was quite a treat to sip sparkling wine while enjoying their arias.

Cruising Through the Iron Gates

Sailing through the Iron Gates is one of the highlights of this particular cruise. The river passes between the Carpathian Mountains to the north and the Balkan Mountains to the south, through some absolutely spectacular scenery. Years ago, this river was dammed. On the Serbian side, we could see Trajan’s Tablet – a sign that marks the construction of a Roman military road. It was moved up on the side of the cliff so that it could still be seen even after the river level rose due to dam.

The day we sailed through this spectacular narrow gorge was not a gorgeous weather day. It rained from time to time and the skies were grey and cloudy. But when we approached the most beautiful parts of the Iron Gates, the rain held off and those of us on the upper deck had a fantastic view. The Viking crew made it even more celebratory by serving hot chocolate with rum to help us keep warm. This was an incredible site to see.

For a Culturally Rich Cruise Experience Go with Viking

For a Culturally Rich Cruise Experience Go with Viking

Some of the things I like about Viking

I really like the way Viking prepares each of its guests for their trip. From the very beginning, they send you information to help you prepare for your upcoming travel. There are great videos with helpful information, thorough descriptions of the included and optional excursions, and informative book and movie recommendations directly related to the places you will visit.

For a Culturally Rich Cruise Experience Go with Viking

Our banitsa making class in Bulgaria

Once you are onboard, the Viking Daily is delivered to your stateroom every night. It includes all the events available on that day and shares information on the country, city and site destinations you are visiting. The cruise director offers direction and advice every evening, and is both informative and entertaining.

I was extremely impressed by the way Viking handles all the logistics for their guests. Their system for dividing the guests equally between busses for the excursions, and ensuring everyone knows who to follow and which excursion they are on is slick and efficient. It works great!

What impressed me the most regarding logistics, however, was the way they handled our passports. They have figured out the best way to make it easy and efficient to both meet all the legal requirements for moving 186 guests between 5 different Eastern European countries in 8 days, and keeping their guests happy by not bothering them with details.

The staff collected our passports once we were on board and kept them in a locked briefcase. Each time our passports needed to be stamped by the authorities for legal purposes, the customs officials came on board the boat and took care of the documents, while the guests got to do whatever they wanted to do on board. What might have been a chore for the guests was handled efficiently and effectively by Viking. The system was as smooth as silk. It was amazing.

Viking is 100% professional in every way. They just do everything right. The room and amenities are first rate. Traveling the way we do, we have experienced all kinds of bathrooms in our accommodations. The bathroom in our Viking stateroom had everything we needed and more. It was so special to have heated floors, a nice hot shower, and amenities with labels you can see without using your reading glasses. Their staff is friendly, helpful and likeable. They really make every effort to take great care of their guests. I think Viking does an incredible job.

For a Culturally Rich Cruise Experience Go with Viking

We even loved the Viking amenities!

I like that there are no casinos on board a Viking cruise ship. And even though I love children, not allowing kids on board makes the cruise experience one where guests can really focus on where they are, and the opportunity to sit back and relax, and learn from the experience.

Taking a cruise is a great way to travel if you like to have all the details taken care of for you. You don’t have to think about any of the plans. Sometimes finding a bathroom along the way can be a challenge when you are traveling by yourself, and this was never an issue; they provide plenty of rest room breaks. You never have to worry about language issues as there is always someone who speaks English and can help you if needed. You really can explore the world in comfort.

Viking has perfected the system of taking care of their guests and all that they need. It’s a great way to travel for all these reasons. And for those who are older or less mobile, it offers a way to continue to see the world, even if getting around is more difficult.

There are some Challenges

For a Culturally Rich Cruise Experience Go with Viking

Hiking at the Belogradchik Rocks

If I heard one complaint while we were traveling, it was that we spent quite a bit of time on a bus. While this was true, I’m not sure how Viking could have gotten around this. Some things are simply out of their control. They are not able to alter river levels. If a river is too high or too low for the ship to navigate, they have to handle the situation in the best way possible. They do this by putting guests on a comfortable bus and creating a new experience for them.

If a destination guests want to see is not right on the river, the company has to transport them somehow, and a comfy bus is the best solution. Spending time on a bus may not be ideal, but Viking makes the most of the situation by giving you excellent guides to explain what you are seeing along the way, and adding to your travel experience in ways you may not have anticipated.

We had a Great Experience on our Viking River Cruise

Even though it is not our typical way to travel, we had a great time on our cruise through Eastern Europe. Viking does an amazing job and we learned a lot on this journey. It was also fun to meet the other guests, share stories, and get to know other culturally curious travelers. We even met a woman who went to high school with my brother, and a man with the same name as Greg’s dad. We loved getting to know the couple from New York we shared most of our dinners with, and another couple from Madison, Wisconsin, where our daughter is moving soon. The ladies from New Orleans were were delightful. Meeting new people and sharing the adventure is part of the fun.

If you would like to experience Europe or other worldwide destinations while cruising in comfort, and learning about the history and culture along the way, I can highly recommend Viking.

If you are interested in a Viking cruise, I would love to discuss the many options with you, and help you plan an amazing trip! Whereas Euro Travel Coach does not make decisions based on earning a commission when we do our custom itinerary planning, we do earn a commission if we book a cruise. That said, it doesn’t cost you any more than if you book online yourself. You can talk to me about all the different options and choices you have available, and if I have access to a promotion at the time, I will do my best to make sure you can take advantage of it. So please, if you’re interested in a Viking Cruise, contact me! I would love to help!

Remember, we are always available to you and your friends and family to plan a custom trip to Europe. We are experts in creating travel itineraries and leading small group trips to European destinations. You can always feel free to send me an email to discuss the possibilities. We would love to help you make your travel dreams to Europe come true!

For a Culturally Rich Cruise Experience Go with Viking

Approaching the Iron Gates aboard the Viking Idun

For a Culturally Rich Cruise Experience Go with Viking

Betsy Ball – Betsy is co-founder and partner of Euro Travel Coach (ETC), which crafts custom European vacations for independent travelers and leads small group trips to Europe. She is a passionate and culturally curious traveler who thoroughly enjoys sharing her love for exploring Europe with ETC clients. Prior to founding ETC, Betsy taught International Business at Tarleton State University in Texas (part of the A & M System) where she led study abroad trips to multiple European countries and other worldwide destinations. She retired from teaching two years ago and now travels 9 months of the year in Europe. She has a degree in hotel, restaurant management from Michigan State University and an MBA from Southern Methodist University in Dallas. She also holds a Level 3 certification from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust.

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