The Silver Travel Book club explores Eastern Europe with sponsor Emerald Waterways
The mighty Danube cuts a 1,700-mile watery swathe through Central and Eastern Europe, from Germany’s Black Forest in the west until it drains into the Black Sea in the east.
In that south-eastern corner, where Europe nudges Asia, the river may be constant but ownership and control of the land either side seem to have been in a permanent state of ebb and flow through the centuries.
I started my river cruising adventure in beautiful Budapest, bound for a history lesson through the Balkans, from Hungary into Croatia, then onwards through Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania. And as Literary Editor of the Silver Travel Book Club, proudly sponsored by host Emerald Waterways, I would be reading books set firmly in destinations along this fascinating route.
The great travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor left school in 1933, and at the tender age of 18 decided to walk across Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople (now Istanbul). The second volume of his adventure, entitled ‘Between the Woods and the Water’, picks up the journey as he crosses the Danube close to Budapest, before riding on horseback across the Great Hungarian Plain and over the Romanian border into Transylvania.
Emerald Waterways ‘Enchantment of Eastern Europe’ cruise is a 9-day holiday, with 7 days on the river book-ended by a day each in Budapest and Bucharest, with flexibility to add on extra days at either end. And during the cruise, there are optional excursions on land every day, that really help to bring the history, culture and people of this ever-changing region to life.
On a trip to Puszta horse farm, near Kalocsa – one of the oldest towns in Hungary – we were treated to a mesmerising display of horsemanship by traditional Magyar cowboys, and could almost imagine being with Leigh Fermor when he talked about the ‘crack of the gaucho whip’.
Overnight the ship headed downriver to Osijek, on the river Drava where it meets the Danube, in eastern Croatia and close to the Serbian border. During the most recent Balkan conflict, everyone was evicted from the town in 1989-1990 and unable to return to their homes until 1997, although many had already made new lives elsewhere and never went back to Osijek.
In ‘The People We Were Before’, author Annabelle Thorpe weaves a rich story around the war, art drawing a sad parallel with life. Young Miro is uprooted from his home town of Knin, in the historically emotive Krajina area, and his family are forced to make a new life in a small village on the Dalmatian coast.
On our guided tour around Osijek, the ancient Baroque fortress and beautiful neo-Gothic Church of St. Peter and St. Paul are impressive, but stand in stark contrast to the bullet marks still scarring many buildings in the town. A visit to an Elementary School in the nearby village of Laslovo was a highlight of the trip: children aged 6-15 put on a delightful performance for us, before showing us around their school, answering questions in perfect English about their family and lives. They are charming, bright young people, full of fun and ambition. It’s to be hoped that the troubled history of their region doesn’t repeat itself.
Josip Broz, better known as ‘Tito’, presided over a unified ‘Yugoslavia’ from 1945 until his death in 1980. During a tour of the Serbian capital of Belgrade, we saw his final resting place and also heard how the city was badly damaged by NATO bombs dropped in 1999 to try and curtail the war.
The remarkable unfinished Church of Saint Sava in Belgrade is one of the largest in the world, and is named after the founder of Serbian Orthodoxy. But it also reflects another troubled time, when – during the centuries-long occupation by the Ottoman Empire – Saint Sava’s sacred remains were stolen in Kosovo by the Turks and burnt in Belgrade.
With such a strategically important location between east and west, it’s no surprise that the region has been subjected to constant conflict and occupation. Thracian, Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Serbian, Austro-Hungarian empires…take your pick.
‘The Bridge on the Drina’ won Yugoslav writer Ivo Andric the Nobel Literary Prize in 1961. The story revolves around a bridge and spans four centuries of Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian rule, with a particular emphasis on the lives, destinies and relations of the local inhabitants, especially Serbs and Bosnian Muslims.
With a literacy rate of 95%, Serbians are avid readers. I enjoyed my self-guided walking tour of Belgrade, a city still being rebuilt but with high marks in my literary eyes for having so many bookshops!
Back on board the sleek Emerald Destiny, the landscape changes dramatically as you pass through the Iron Gates, the 60-mile long gorge where the Danube has carved a narrow passageway between the southern Carpathians and the foothills of the Balkan mountains.
Onwards to where the river forms the border between Bulgaria in the south and Romania to the north. I had already enjoyed reading ‘Street Without A Name’, Kapka Kassabova’s memoir of ‘Childhood and Other Misadventures in Bulgaria’ before the cruise. She is an entertaining observer of growing up behind the Iron Curtain:
‘There was a strict State quota on everything, from apartments and cars, to female sanitary pads and sunflower margarine. You couldn’t just go and buy what you felt like, whenever you felt like it – that was capitalism. No, the State provided everything, and by the time you got it, you had waited so long that it felt like a small miracle – and you felt relief mixed with gratitude.’
Our Bulgarian guide in Vidin was equally damning about the period of Soviet control. The town was prosperous throughout the centuries, including under Ottoman rule, but was destroyed by 45 years of Communism. Nevertheless, a new bridge linking Vidin with Romania on the other side of the Danube has brought some optimism to the town and the surrounding area. And family-run boutique wineries like Dos Alamos, a short drive from the town, give more hopeful signs of an economic recovery.
The ship’s final stop was at Giurgiu, from where we were transferred to Romania’s capital city, Bucharest. Once known as the Paris of the East, this fine city was largely destroyed by Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu during his evil leadership from 1965 to 1989. And in ‘Land of the Green Plums’, author Herta Müller narrates a sad story of betrayal and terror, based on her own experience of living every day in an environment of fear and corruption, at the mercy of Ceausescu’s Secret Police.
My first river cruise was a revelation in so many ways. The books – whether fiction, non-fiction or memoir – added an extra layer of insight into the complex history and culture of the separate countries along the ship’s route. But the expert local guides provide a brilliant stand-alone commentary during the optional excursions, and there is also often time to stroll around the towns and villages by the ports on your own.
But whether you set foot on land or not, and regardless of your level of interest in the region’s history, politics and religious diversity, the luxurious Emerald Destiny remains a calm oasis for the duration of your holiday.
The Destiny is the newest of Emerald’s fleet of Star-Ships, all designed to complement the eternal flow of the rivers they sail on. With only 92 cabins and a maximum of 180 passengers, time on board felt like a private house-party with friends. The quality of food was outstanding, as were all the facilities. You could embrace the entertainment on offer, or you could relax on the Sun Deck, in your cabin or by the swimming pool, which magically morphed into the cinema room by night. The entire crew were a delight to get to know, but special mention must go to Cruise Director Geanina, a perfect combination of professional efficiency and good humour.
The books were sourced from Silver Travel partner TripFiction, a website and database with thousands of books set firmly in places around the globe, enabling you to find literature relevant for any trip. And don’t forget…it’s not too late to try and win a copy of ‘The People We Once Were’ by Annabelle Thorpe, this month’s Silver Travel Book Club read, a book which fits so well with this fascinating trip through Eastern Europe on the Danube.
Huge thanks to Silver Travel Book Club sponsor Emerald Waterways for allowing me to combine literature and travel in such a rewarding way, and in such an intriguing part of Europe.
Emerald Waterways ‘Enchantment of Eastern Europe’ cruise sails on the Danube from Budapest to Bucharest, or from Bucharest to Budapest. From £2,195 per person in 2019. More details.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Emerald Cruises.