Monday, October 29, 2018

OMG: My Favorite Day of the Trip!

October 8

We began our day with  a visit to a home in Vidin, Bulgaria. We were greeted in the traditional manner, with bread and a paprika-mix dip and  local brandy by our hostess, her aunt, and her uncle.

Romania's house is not typical. She lived in the US with her husband, and upon their return, built a home with a large open area, similar to American homes. 

Romania, her aunt and her cousin demonstrated how to make traditional Banitsa. While her pan was in the oven, we worked in teams to created another Banitsa pastry. 

Banitsa is an egg-custard dish made with phyllo dough. It an be savory or sweet. It is most often part of celebrations, such as Christmas or New Year's Eve. I enjoyed the pastry and will be making it at home for special occasions.

Then, we were off to the "Kindergarten"

We were greeted by twins in traditional clothing. They offered the traditional greeting of bread, with something to dip the bread into. This time it was honey.

The "Kindergarten" is a school for children ages 10 months to six years. The oldest group entertained us with a cute skit. 

After the skit, the children sang a number of songs, in English.

And some songs in their tongue.

Then, they all came to sit across from us. We all worked on making scenes with cut out papers, colored pencils and glue. 

"Our" kids were cute as can be. Dahu and Noaha. They didn't speak any English. We spoke no Bulgarian. They write in a Cyrillic alphabet, we write in a Latin alphabet. But, we had fun creating our scenes, trading them, and giving hugs. I wanted to take the kids home with me!!

The Director of the school took us into a conference room and patiently answered our questions. She showed us the "curriculum" they use in the school to prepare the kids for elementary school, which begins at age 6. This particular school is paid for by the government, except that parents must pay for the meals provided to the children. 

As thrilled as I was to see these beautiful children perform for us, I began to think of the movie, "Groundhog Day". I realized that having tourists come to the school must be a money-making proposition for the school. That's great. But... how many times each week do these children "perform"? Are there other things the kids should be doing? Ach... the educator in me puts a negative film over such fun experiences!

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Between the Iron Gates

October 7, 2018

We had a rocky night. It was one of the first where we left our window open, and we enjoyed the sound of the passing waves and being rocked gently as we slept. We heard that folks on the other side of the ship were inundated with splashing water! Waves? On the Danube?!

This portion of the river is very wide, and the wind whipped the water into a fury. The waves may have been 3-4' high!

We were on our way to Golubac Fortress, Serbia. The fortress is at the narrows of the river. It is the opening to the "Iron Gates", so called because of the bald mountain comprised of iron ore. 

We enjoyed a tour of the fortress, which is undergoing major reconstruction. One thing we noticed is that many of the Eastern European countries are working to renovate some of their ancient sites to encourage tourism. For this landmark, the first challenge was that the main regional road was routed through the old fortress. The ancient gates were torn down or widened, to allow a modern road to go through the fort. The road has been reconstructed to one side, and amazing efforts are underway to reconstruct the structures. 

A second challenge is that the river was dammed downstream from the fortress. Much of the original structure is underwater. 

We were invited to taste local wine and brandy, as well as honey and local treats. Our host was dressed in chainmail. 

After leaving the fortress on the bus, headed for Lepenski Vir, we saw our ship sailing on the Danube.

Lepenski Vir is an amazing archeological site. Before the dam was completed a group came together to save the artifacts from this ancient civilization, estimated to be from 7,000-9,000  BC. Wow! That's old! 

Sections from the ancient village were carefully moved to the current site, far above the water of the dammed Danube.

Settlers in this area created structures of similar shapes. All of the doors faced the "iron mountain", a bald peak on the other side of the river with enough iron ore in it to attract lighting. 

The citizens of this ancient town used clay to created images. 

This early civilization created or traded for utilitarian items. 

Numerous skeletons were also found, laid to rest in differing positions. It was found that almost every skeleton, aged 40-65 years of age, still had every tooth and there was no decay evident in the teeth! There were no signs of traumatic injury, as would have been seen in conflict with other bands of humans. They were a peaceful group.

I often laugh when I think of things that are "old". Buildings classified as such in the US are mere babies compared to what we see in Europe!

Wednesday, October 24, 2018


October 6, 2018

Visiting Belgrade was an eye-opening experience for this WASPy, sheltered, privileged (by comparison) optimist. It made me realize just how fortunate I am and how sheltered my life has been. Our first activity was a bike ride around Belgrade.

We rode across the Danube and stopped at the site of a Nazi extermination camp just across the river from Belgrade. Originally the site was used as a fairground, similar to a World's Fair. During the war it became an extermination camp. Over 20,000 people were annihilated. It was sobering to hear the details. A few of the buildings are used for industry today, others house squatters.

The central point of the fairgrounds was a tower, which Phillips used to broadcast the first television signals from in 1925. It was later used to patrol the concentration camp's borders.

From there we rode by The Federal Executive Council of Yugoslavia. This HUGE building was constructed under Tito's administration. Several of our guides commented that the public loved Tito and that life was good under his regime. Everyone got paid. Everyone had housing. The economy flourished. Upon Tito's death, all was dissolved. Yugoslavia, a nation of six republics, began to crumble. Currently most of this grand building is unused. 

We peddled on and went along a promenade on the Sava River. As it was Saturday, and sunny, families were out en masse and the promenade was crowded with kids, strollers, scooters, lovers walking hand-in-hand... many things to dodge on our bikes. We stopped for a glass of beer, then peddled through an old section of town (Lord knows where we were) dodging cars, market-goers and more people, before heading back to the ship. 

We had a bit of time to visit the fortress of Belgrade. Like many European cities, a medieval fortress was built, and improved upon over the centuries, to protect the town. I confess, that I did not take too many photos as I stole 30 minutes or so to make a sketch.

Gates into the fortress

This appears to be a more modern tower in the fortress

From there we walked across the street to the "shopping district"; a pedestrian-friendly promenade crammed with tourists and locals. As I said, it was a beautiful day and EVERYONE was out and about. I was not enjoying strolling along back-to-front, shoulder-to-shoulder with mankind in Belgrade, so we tromped down 128 steps (with blistered feet) to the ship. 

This is the view of a church steeple, with gold accents, from the ship. 
It glowed in the sun.

So, we got a brief snap-shot of Belgrade. We didn't spend a lot of time here. But, our overall impression was that Belgrade today is a lot like Budapest when we visited in 2006. The city seemed dirty and the citizens seemed weary. I can only hope that time will be kind to those living in this Serbian nation.

Sunday, October 21, 2018


October 5, 2018

Osijek, Croatia

Another interesting educational day! We had to cross the border from Hungary into Croatia. Although Croatia is a member of the EU, it is not a member of the Schengen area. Thus, the border is strictly controlled. Our two bus loads of tourists had to exit the buses on the Hungary side of the border and line up, with our passports, in order to cross. Each person, in turn, handed his or her passport to an agent who examined it and scanned it. Then the passport was handed back so that we could advance three steps and hand it to an agent from Croatia, who duly examined the passport and scanned it. The buses drove across the border, and we were permitted to reboard. Our guide cautioned us not to act silly, explaining the guards are very serious. He suggested that we not take pictures of the folks lined up for the crossing, but he did take pictures of a few of us at the border sign while we waited. It was a little intimidating.

I learned a bit more about the EU on our trip. All of the countries we visited are members of the union, but do not use the monetary system. All of those countries are working toward that end, but first must demonstrate economic stability. Employment rates, inflation rates and interest rates must all meet a specific target and be maintained before the EU can be adopted. So, we bought things in many different types of money. Converting from one monetary system to our own was a headache-inducing exercise!
In Prague we used Czech Crowns - 1 crown is less than $.05.
In Germany & Austria we used Euros. One Euro is equal to about $1.15.
In Hungary prices were listed in Forints. 1 Forint was only .0036 of a dollar.
In Croatia we saw prices in Kuna. Each Kuna was about $.16.
Serbians use Dinars as their currency. 1 dinar is ,0097 of an American dollar.
Bulgarians use a Kev which is equal to about $.59
In Bucharest the use Leu, and one Leu is about $.25.
Lucky for us we were almost always in tourist destinations where Euros and credit cards were cheerfully taken as a form of payment. We did get some cash converted in areas we knew we'd have more time for shopping or eating out. It felt strange to use different currency and to get my head around paying what seemed like huge amounts. For example, a packet of Paprika in Budapest cost me $850 Forints!

Our first stop was a visit to the town of Osijek. We toured the relatively new fortification, dating from the early 18th century. The citadel, at one time, was state of the art. Much of the elaborate wall surrounding the town and fortification was torn down in the middle of the 20th century. Our guide related that townsfolk were told they could take the bricks... and they did! What I found most interesting was that the magazine was across the river. A tunnel was constructed under the water to enable powder and armaments to be transported out of sight during an armed encounter.

I found this aerial shot on the Internet. 

You can see the extent of the original walls from this bronze model.

Here are some shots of the fortress and town.
Most of the buildings are in a state of disrepair.

This area has been renovated.

We were treated to an organ concert in the church.

I noticed three layers of paint were exposed on this wall.

We boarded the bus and were taken into the country to a farm named Orlov Put, which means Eagle's Way. Our host gave up city life to realize his dream of owning a farm. His farm is the first certified organic farm in Croatia.

We were treated to an enjoyable lunch.
We had a tasty soup, some sort of stew, sausage made from Mangalitza pig - a Croatian breed that is supposed to be less fatty than other breeds, and bread with lard and paprika. Our beverage choices included still water, bubbly water, white wine and a juice. Both the soup and the juice were made from nettles! Both were tasty!

Our host built everything on the farm, from his house, to all of the furnishings.

This is one shot of the living room in the log house. Like the chairs and tables, the cabinets are unique. Our guide said that one can hear termites chewing on the wood at night. The owner shrugged his shoulders and commented that he will be long dead before the termites take down his building!

We had the opportunity to walk around the farm yard. The barn housed goats, sheep, pigs, geese and cows.

I loved this guy!

Next we traveled to Vukovar to connect with our ship. We had a brief walk through town, from the bus stop to the river. This particular building (like many others) was damaged by heavy bombing in the war with Serbia in the 1990's. The owner plants flowers that drape from the windows. An eerie reminder and a glimmer of hope for beauty to come.

When we arrived at the ship we noticed this installation. It is called the Phoenix, and symbolizes the rise of the fallen.

I recall watching coverage of the war. It was hard to imagine that much destruction... but it was over there... somewhere. I could go on with my own, safe, predictable life. This trip was truly enlightening  about the conflicts and wars and the deep-seated causes. 

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