By Bob Harwood

The Other Europe


In 2009 we embarked on an exploration of The Other Europe—Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, Hungary and Slovakia, countries along the Lower Danube that had been largely off our radar screens until 1989 as it had taken their Russian ‘liberators’ 45 years to go home.

From a centrally located hotel in Romania’s Bucharest we strolled streets and grand boulevards, lingered in parks and grand palaces of this Paris of the Balkans. We then embarked on a 12 day Uniworld river cruise to sail up the Danube at a scenic, leisurely pace with ample shore time to savor each country. At Varna we sailed the Black Sea and lunched on shore as sunbathers reclined au naturel on adjacent beaches. Ancient civilizations here predated Rome’s glory days. On board ship local artists entertained us with the music and dance of each region and well versed academics briefed us on sites we were about to explore. We heard of the region’s turbulent history as empires rose and fell. We developed relationships with just 70 fellow passengers and a crew drawn from no less than nine countries.

We wandered pedestrian-only streets and squares of architecturally magnificent small towns just minutes from our ship and bussed inland on other expeditions. Castles and fortifications along the Danube spoke to war torn histories. The great natural sandstone formations of Belogradchic were reminiscent of America’s south west. And Mount Rushmore came to mind as we sailed between the walls of the Iron Gates en route Serbia where a giant face carved out of the cliff side honors Decebalus for repelling the Romans. Other sites marked the remnants of societies dating back 8000 years. These waters are now navigable since completion of a massive hydroelectric dam project.

We toured the restored archeological site at Serbia’s Viminacium, a
bastion every Roman Emperor visited at least once. In Belgrade Tito was memorialized at every turn for leading Serbia’s Nazi resistance and building a nominally Communist state but one defying Russian hegemony. In the 20th century only Queen Victoria’s and Charles de Gaulle’s funerals garnered more heads of state. But, only a decade ago, Serbia and Croatia were torn by violent ethnic conflict. In Croatia we drove from bomb scarred Vukovar on the Danube past signs warning of not yet defused minefields to Osijek. There we savored the healing balm of colorful period architecture under sunny skies and the pleasure of an intimate small group lunch graciously hosted in an artistic private home.

On our day in Slovakia from castle heights above we could yet again observe modern high rises on the far side of the river while savoring the period pleasures of the peopled public spaces in our immediate area. It was not our first visit to Budapest and Vienna but we were reminded once again and at every turn that in the glory days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire these cities were equally cultural capitals of the world with the grandest of architecture, dance and music. So we stayed on in Vienna for three musical evenings in venues as intimate as the room of Mozart’s home in which he had performed for the peers of his day to more palatial grandeur for full orchestral / operatic / ballet performances—all within walking distance of our small hotel.

Throughout our journey we encountered an almost universal hope for a more prosperous, peaceful future under the auspices of the European Union. I will enlarge on this at a future date as it was one of the most significant insights garnered on our 2009 exploration of The Other Europe.

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