Budapest from the Danube-a tour in pictures by day and night

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Photo ©Jean Janssen View of the Parliament Building from the Danube. Budapest, Hungry.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. A side view of the Parliament building, Budapest.

Budapest has been one of my favorite cities in Europe for many years now after Boris suggested we visit with Rocky on a self-directed land tour of Vienna, Prague, and Budapest.  Prague had been as amazing as I had hoped and Budapest had been the surprise.  It was before many of the buildings in Budapest had been restored and I am so glad to have seen the before, so I can now really appreciate the after.  This is my fourth visit to Budapest and I have seen many changes.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Cave Church along the Danube, Budapest.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Along the Danube, Budapest.

There is not much left of the communist feel.  However, I have not visited other parts of Hungary.  Word is that the leadership puts all the money into Budapest with its strong attraction for tourists and the rest of the country is suffering.  I may need to venture farther afield next time.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Along the Danube, the Gellert Monument, Budapest

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Along the Danube, Freedom Bridge with Gellert Hill and the Liberty Monument in the background, Budapest.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Cave Church along the Danube, Budapest.

There is nothing like viewing this city from the water, certainly the best concentrated scenery of our river cruise.  Capitalizing on that, our captain will go up and down the Danube by day and we will do it again tonight.  If you go to Budapest, you must do a tour by boat.  I recommend two boat tours, one by day and one by night.  In case you can not get there, here is my tour of Budapest from the Danube in pictures.  Enjoy.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Along the Danube, Buda Castle, Budapest.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Along the Danube, Pillar of the Chain Bridge, Budapest.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Along the Danube, Castle Hill near the funicular, Budapest.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Along the Danube, Fisherman’s Bastion, St. Mathias Church, and the Hilton Hotel incorporated into the ruins of a Dominican Monastery (where Natasha stayed on her first trip to Budapest).

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Along the Danube, Budapest.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Along the Danube, the Parliament Building from the side, Budapest. The boat flies the fly of the country we are visiting. You see the Hungarian flag in the shot.

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Natasha at the Parliament Building, Budapest.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Along the Danube, St. Margaret’s Bridge, with Margaret Island in the background.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Along the Danube, the Royal Palace (Buda Castle) with the Chain Bridge in the foreground, Budapest.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. We are docked at “The Whale” next to the old train station.

We are docked at The Whale (Baina), the glass structure next to the old train station.  The Whale was under construction during my last visit.  It is now complete, but far from full.  Intended to house galleries, markets, shops, and cafes, the rent is so expensive that it is not fully occupied.  After docking, they are offering several tour options for the afternoon.  I’ll put those in a separate post and also encourage you to check out my previous posts on Budapest.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Parliament Building, Budapest.

But before I close, we have to take the tour again by night.  This city photographs so beautifully in the fading twilight, that you may see a few of the buildings repeated.  All worth another look.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Buda Castle, The Royal Palace, Budapest.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. St. Mathias Church, the Fishermen’s Bastion, and the Hilton, Budapest.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. A side view of the Parliament Building, Budapest.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Buda Castle, Budapest.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Chain Bridge, Budapest.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Buda Castle and the funicular, Budapest.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Freedom Bridge (green by day), Budapest.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Detail of the Freedom Bridge, just before going underneath, Budapest.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Gellert Hill, the Liberty Monument, and the Freedom Bridge, Budapest.

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Vukovar and Osijek, Croatia

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Along the Danube.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Dockside in Vukovar, Croatia.

Today we reach another country in our westerly river trek on the Danube, Croatia.  We are docked at Vukovar (wolf) on the border with Serbia and the site of great destruction during the Yugoslav wars.  The 87-day siege of the town in 1991 was the most horrific in Europe since 1945; Vukovar was the first European town to be destroyed since the end of WWII.  The invading army met with much resistance from the Croatian civilian population.  We passed out of city on the major roadway though Vukovar called “the tank graveyard street” because it was once littered with 110 tanks destroyed by ingenious methods by lightly-armed Croatians.

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The water tower in Vukovar, Croatia, shelled more than 600 times in the war for independence. The facade will remain while the scaffolding shows where a museum is under construction.

Ultimately, hundreds of Croatian soldiers and civilians were massacred and the area was ethically cleansed of over 20,000 non-Sebians.  The city water tower, built in the late 60s, once housed a restaurant on top and was a popular spot for viewing the city before the outbreak of the conflict.  During the siege, it was a frequent target of artillery and took over 600 shots.  The tower still stands and has been kept as a memorial to the fallen citizens.  The tower is currently under restoration; the exterior will remain the same, but the interior will house a museum.  Vukovar remained in Serbian control until 1998.  On the anniversary of the occupation, November 18, citizens light candles and float them on the Danube.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Close up of the water tower in Vukovar, Serbia.

The Vukovar Hosptial Massacre was perhaps one of most vicious acts of the war.  Near the end of the war, the Croatian forces negotiated an evacuation of the the local hospital.  The Serbian forces ultimately refused to give the Red Cross access, removed the patients to a nearly farm, beat them for several hours,  and then shot them all.  The hospital patients ranged in age from 6 months old to 74 years old. They were buried in a mass grave that was discovered in 1992.

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Photo @Jean Janssen. Vukovar, Croatia

Today the population of Vukovar in 60% Croatian and 40% Serbian.  The town has never regained its earlier prosperity.  Unemployment in Croatia hovers around 15%; it is 20% in Vukovar.  Vukovar is located where the Vuka River meets the Danube.  It is Croatia’s largest river port. Some of the people are “yugo-nostalgic” and still learning to be free.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Memorial at the port of Vukovar.

Leaving Vukovar and as we made our way to Osijek, you could still see the evidence of the war in the buildings that have not been reconstructed.  Our guide said the war was not about the religious differences, but power, territory, and access to the sea.  Reaching the countryside, I noted how lush and green is was, a sign of rebirth.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The fort at Osijek with festival preparations.

Osijek is not far from Vukovar.  We are one day early for a festival taking place in the city and the rides, food, and drink booths were being constructed at the fort’s entrance during our visit.  We are visiting the fort and old city.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Osijek, Croatia.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Osijek, Croatia

The Old Town is part of the Tvrda, or citadel.  The Hapsburgs built the fort on the bank of the River Drava when they drove out the Ottomans.  “It is the best-preserved and largest ensemble of Baroque buildings in Croatia.”

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. In the foreground is the Former Guard House, now the Archeological Museum. In the background is St. Michael’s church, built by the Jesuits on the site of an old mosque.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Within the fort, Tvrda at Osijek, Croatia.

Once in the fort we went to one of the smaller churches for an organ concert.  The music was lovely and it gave me the chance to sit and admire the church furnishings.  After that it was a comfort stop and local wine and snacks in the church courtyard.  Boris hit the gift shop.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Choir Loft with our organ from the concert.

We didn’t get any free time just to wander around the Tvrda.  I would have preferred that to the food and wine break.  I did stop to take pictures as we wandered through to the square where the German/Austrian influence of the Hapsburgs is definitely seen.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Tvrda, Osijeck, Croatia.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Tvrda, Osijek, Croatia

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Tvrda, Osijek, Croatia

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The square in Tvrda complete with outdoor dining. Beyond the fountain is a Plague Statute.

We had a better view of the outer walls of the fort as we left Osijek and crossed the Drava River into another province of Croatia.  I thought the guide in the church was little to heavy on the gift request, but the next stop was worse.  While the owner was entertaining, the sole purpose was to purchase souvenirs.  That stop was not on our cruise itinerary.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. View of the fort as we left Tvrda and Osijek.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Fortifications on the other side of the River Drava, Croatia.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Folk art and one of Boris’ purchases in Croatia.

I enjoyed our drive through the countryside to our unique final stop.  We will be welcomed into the home of a local family and share a traditional lunch.  The tour group is divided into smaller groups of 8-10.  Our host family knew very little English so our tour guide went along to translate.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Steeple and a stork nest.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen In the Croatian countryside.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. This newly-consructed straw house is someone’s weekend home. Croatia.

Stefen and his wife Olga welcomed us to their home.  The dining room was right by the door to the garden; it also had a small kitchen and seating area in it.  However, this was not the kitchen where the food had been prepared.  It was brought from another area of the house.  Most of these home owners also operate a bed and breakfast and it is possible that the room were were in is part of their rental unit.

We enjoyed asking questions of our hosts. Stefen is from Croatia; Olga is originally from Bosnia.  They did not share a religion when they married.  Stefen said the family takes on the religion of the husband as the head of the household.  I write that “Stefen said” but actually it was the translator that shared his thoughts and answers to our questions.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Olga had made a variety of homemade desserts.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. On the farm.

We started with a tomato soup with meat.  Boris ate two whole bowls.  It was all homemade, simple, hardy, and tasty.  Next was bread, then fried chicken, and four sides dishes and salads.  It was not about presentation; we ate family style.  They also served bottled water, a homemade cherry juice (very sweet and very good), and wine.  Stefen asked if we wanted to try his homemade wine.  We said yes, and I asked if he would join us.  Up until then, the couple just served us.  Stefen seemed very pleased to be asked to sit with us.  After serving dessert, Olga joined us too.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The hosts’ farm is self-sustaining.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Stefen and Boris bond over farming. No common language required.

Since they had told us about their life, Stefen asked about us.  Everyone was hesitant, so I told them about Boris and I.  Then Boris shared pictures of the crops he grows.  Stefen loved it.  After everyone had shared their story, Stefen took us out to see their farm and he and Boris headed out into the fields.  All too soon the visit was over.  Certainly the highlight of our day.  The personal interaction was wonderful.  It was a genuine experience.  We were treated like family and didn’t feel touristic at all.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Carl enjoyed our hosts’ garden.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Our hosts’ fruit trees.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Our Croatian hosts in their garden.

After this special afternoon we went back to the boat.  As we had earlier in the day, we passed typical Croatian houses.  A narrow side faced the street.  The lots were narrow and deep.  A long porch ran the length of the house.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. A typical Croatian-style home.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Street view of a Croatian-style home.

Seaside Croatian cities and towns enjoy revenue from tourists.  They would certainly like to encourage tourism in this area of the country as well.  Of course, it is a completely different experience.  (Boris and I have visited sea coast cities in Croatia several times.)  There are language barriers, but for an authentic experience I encourage your visit.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Eastern Croatian countryside.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Osijek, Croatia.

Tomorrow is the last country on our tour and our final destination, Budapest, Hungary.

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Yugoslavia in a Yugo

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Natasha ready for her tour of “Yugoslavia” in a Yugo.

During our afternoon in Belgrade, Serbia, the cruise line is offering an optional tour to visit the city as the capital of Yugoslavia, a country that no longer exists.  The Kingdom of Yugoslavia was established in the 1920s.  After World War II, the kingdom became the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Ready for touring. A collection of Yugos.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Our tour leader setting out.

With a collection of those iconic vehicles which even made it to the west as the cheapest cars on the market, this tour company offers you opportunity to ride in style (although without air conditioning).  The Zastava Koral, also marketed as the Yugo, was produced from 1977 to 2008.  It was marketed in the USA from 1985 to 1992 (when sales dropped to  only 1,412 cars sold).  The base model was introduced with a sticker price of less than $4,000.  By 1991, the Yugoslav wars contributed to a decline in quality due to the unavailability of parts which had traditionally been produced in the different and now clashing regions of Yugoslavia.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The mint condition interior of our Yugo.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Here we go.

We went out in groups of three cars.  The tour was priced by car with one to three guests with a driver.  Our driver was using his grandfather’s Yugo which was purchased in 1979 and spent most of its time in the garage.  I asked him if he learned to drive on this car and he laughed and told me he was not allowed anywhere near it.  It may be a basic car, but it was in pristine condition.  While he pointed out landmarks, we talked about what it was like to live in Yugoslavia and the time since its dissolution.  He is in his late 30s.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Belgrade, Serbia.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Touring Belgrade in a Yugo.

Arriving at a particular location, our tour leader (also one of three drivers in our tour group) would give us the history and a guided tour of the area.  It was a 2 for 1 deal, getting both the insight of our friendly driver and a tour guide.  Our drive through the city took us past more bombed out buildings in route to our first stop at the House of Flowers.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The House of Flowers, Belgrade, Serbia

The House of Flowers is the building and garden which contains the tomb of Josip Broz Tito, the Communist Leader of Yugoslavia from 1948 until his death in 1980.  The mausoleum is part of the larger Museum of Yugoslav History on the same grounds.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Tito’s uniform as displayed in the House of Flowers, Belgrade, Serbia.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. A desk set gifted to Tito from US President John F. Kennedy.

Just after World War II, Tito had very close ties to Moscow.  He was considered by some as second only to Joseph Stalin in the Eastern Bloc.  However, Tito wanted independent control and his own style of Communism.  Stalin believed that Tito would fail without Soviet support; Stalin also attempted to have Tito assassinated on several occasions without success.  Tito’s break from Moscow endeared him to the Yugoslavian people.  It also allowed him to seek support from the west.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Model of the Blue Train, Tito’s Peace Train and traveling residence, in the House of Flowers, Belgrade.

During the Cold War, Tito tried to adopt a position of neutrality for Yugoslavia.  Unique among the Eastern Bloc countries, he allowed foreigners to visit the country and Yugoslavian citizens to travel abroad.  Tito himself reached out to countries all over the world and traveled extensively.  At the House of Flowers, we saw a model of the Blue Train, commonly called the Peace Train.  In this traveling residence, Tito traversed his own country to interact with his citizens and made over 120 “peace missions” traveling to 71 foreign states and meeting with over 60 foreign leaders.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Display of some of the relay batons given to Tito on his birthday. They came from the military, organizations, villages, and schools. It is estimated that 1/3 of the Yugoslav citizens participated in these ceremonies by designing, making, or carrying the batons.

While the focus at the House of Flowers is on Tito himself, it is also a chronicle of Yugoslavia during its communist years.  The exhibits give excellent time lines on the history of the country.  The gifts given to Tito are on exhibit as well as film clips and photographs from the period.  Our guide gave us some background on the exhibits, particularly the unusual batons gifted to Tito.  The origin of the presentation of the relay baton goes back to the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and is met to symbolize the communication between the people and their ruler.

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Natasha with our driver and his Yugo on the National Yugoslav Museum grounds, location of the House of Flowers, in Belgrade, Serbia.

After our tour, it was back to our driver and our Yugo to head to our next stop.  After crossing the Sava River, we found ourselves at the original Belgrade Fair Grounds founded in 1937.  On the grounds, there were multiple pavilions.  In 1941, the Gestopo took over the area and turned the pavilions into barracks and the fair grounds into a concentration and extermination camp.  The communications tower, which is abandoned but still stands, was the guard tower.  After 1945, the fair grounds were not rebuilt on this location.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen.  Behind the overgrown trees and bushes is the central tower of the original Belgrade Fair grounds (1937).  In 1941, it was converted to the guard tower of the Sajmiste Concentration Camp.

The Sajmiste Concentration Camp, later called the Zemun Concentration Camp, was the Nazis’ repository for Jewish women, children, the old and infirm, some Jewish men and gypsies. “Women and children were placed in makeshift barracks and suffered during numerous influenza epidemics. Kept in squalid conditions, they were provided with inadequate amounts of food and many froze to death during the winter of 1941–42.  Between March and May 1942, the Germans used a gas van sent from Berlin to kill thousands of Jewish inmates.”

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. On the day of our visit to the site of the Sajmiste Concentration Camp in Belgrade, a child enjoyed a swing in the playground on the grounds of the former extermination camp.

The camp was later used to imprison additional Jews and members of the local resistance.  Most of the estimated 32,000 who passed through the camp and 20,000-23,000 who were killed or died while imprisoned there were Serbs.  Towards the end of the war, the Germans tried to erase the evidence of the camp deaths, exhuming thousands of bodies and incinerating them.  It is believed that half of all Serbian Jews died at the Sajmiste Concentration Camp.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Another look at the Central Tower at the Concentration Camp with children’s playground equipment in front.

Oddly, it appears the former barracks are apartments and a children’s playground sits on the site of the camp.  Across the street is a restaurant.  While noted as “one of the most important memorial places in Serbia”, there is only one small sign commemorating the losses at this site.  Mostly, it appears abandoned and overgrown.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. A side view of the Palace of Serbia, next to the parkland.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Avenue view of the Palace of Serbia.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Blending the old (soviet) and the new in Novi Belograd, Serbia.

On both tours we drove through New Belgrade, a planned city from 1948, showcasing  Soviet style architecture.  During our afternoon tour in Novi Belograd, we made a stop at Palace of Serbia; several ministries and agencies of the Serbian government are housed in this sprawling building.  I felt an uneasy feeling in this area.  In the parkland that surrounds the Palace of Serbia, lone males, many shirtless, roamed among the trees.  It reminded me of hippy hollow in Austin, Texas.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Hotel Yugoslavia, New Belgrade, Serbia.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The west tower of Hotel Yugoslavia, hit by two NATO missiles.

While the buildings were tightly packed in the city of Belgrade, Novi Belograd features wide avenues and patios among the concrete structures.  Our next stop was Hotel Yugoslavia.  The hotel was once a luxurious property built in 1969 to appeal to visiting celebrities and dignitaries.  Some of the famous people to have stayed at the hotel include Queen Elizabeth II, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Tina Turner, Neil Armstrong, and Buzz Aldrin.  Due to information regarding those in residence, the west tower was bombed by NATO in 1999.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Interior of the Hotel Yugoslavia. Our guide said it is as it was in its prime.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Behind the Hotel Yugoslavia.

The hotel is now past its heyday with only one floor of the hotel currently in service.  I checked on-line and an air-conditioned room goes for $42 a night.  The back side of the hotel overlooks the river and is lined with cafes (including a Mexican cantina) and service shops.  Riverside appeared to be a pretty popular during our visit.

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©Jean Janssen. The Genex Tower, officially the Western City Gate, in Belgrade, Serbia.

Our last stop before returning to the city of Belgrade is the Genex Tower, the Western City Gate.  The 35-story tower is built in the Brutalist Style often associated with socialist architecture. The two towers are connected with a two-story bridge with a revolving restaurant on top.  However, upon completion, the restaurant only revolved for a few days before breaking down.  It was never repaired.  The restaurant was only for the employees of the office building businesses and their guests.  Our driver had once eaten in the restaurant.  He said the views were fantastic.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Around the Western City Gates, support services are nonexistent and the grounds are in horrible shape.

The office building is closed and appeared to have been abandoned for some time. The windows of this tower are now covered with a promotional “billboard”.  These tall on-building billboards are found all over town, often covering abandoned or bombed-out buildings.  The bridge and restaurant are also closed.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The residential tower at the Western City Gate is open in the center. This is the view from the hallway on the ground floor through the center.  The hallway is open to the outside on both ends.

The second tower is residential, originally intended for the office workers next door.  The residential tower is still occupied, but it is hard to imagine a bleaker home in an iconic building.  The grounds are in horrible shape.  We went inside the residential tower walkway and looked up and it appeared just as depressing.  This tower is actually slightly taller than the office building.  There were times when the power would go out which meant among other things no elevator service.  Rather than make the long walk down and back up, residents on the higher floors would lower baskets with a list and money for friends or family to do their shopping and return the items to the baskets to be hauled up by rope to the apartments. above.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Western City Gate in New Belgrade, Serbia.

The buildings were designed in 1977 to represent a raised city gate welcoming visitors arriving to the city from the west.  However bleak the present condition, the building did make for a wonderful photographic opportunity.  (I just wouldn’t want to live there.)

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Boris converses with our driver outside the Western City Gate in Novi Beograd.

Boris and I loved our driver.  It was very interesting to have the direct contact with a local.  He has a mixed ancestry from the Yugoslavian regions and beyond and is currently studying Hungarian (which he has found a very difficult language to learn).  He told us about a program through the Hungarian government where by if you can show ancestry from the Austro-Hungarian empire and pass a test in Hungarian, you can get Hungarian citizenship and thus EU citizenship.  He takes the test next week; he can try again if things don’t go well the first time. The Hungarians currently have a low birth rate.  Since one of my grandmothers was Austrian, I could potentially take advantage of the same offer.  Now all I have to do is learn the Hungarian language.  Natasha could one day be an EU citizen.

 

 

After saying goodbye to our driver, we found the folk dancing on the ship already in progress.  We enjoyed the show and our full day in Serbia.  Tomorrow we go to another former Yugoslavian region, Croatia.  Good night, I am off to study my Hungarian.

 

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Belgrade, Serbia

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Belgrade, Serbia

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. At the Royal Palace, Belgrade, Serbia

Today we are docked at Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, at the intersection of the Danube and Sava Rivers.  Serbia was part of the former Slavic nation of Yugoslavia and the dominate region in Yugoslavia.  Belgrade was the capital for each country.  Serbia is the country in the Balkans which retains the closest ties to Russia.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. House of the National Assembly, Belgrade, Serbia. Note the interesting political signs in front.

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Photo© Jean Janssen. Serbian government building in Belgrade.

The six regions that made up Yugoslavia split in the 1990s in the difficult period after the fall of communism.  The Yugoslav Wars erupted when ethnic Serbs in the departing regions opposed the withdrawal from Yugoslavia.  Today the disputed region of Kosovo is still considered part of their nation by the Serbians.  The United States, along with a majority of the countries of the United Nations, consider Kosovo an independent country.  In 1999, during the Kosovo War, NATO bombed several strategic sites in the city.  Many of these buildings have been left in their bombed state as a memorial.  It felt like our guide’s favorite line was “that was bombed by NATO”.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Bombed out Ministry of Defense building across the street from Serbian government building, Belgrade.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Serbian Ministry of Defense building damaged in the 1999 NATO bombing.

After a drive through the city, we reached the Royal Palace, home to the Karadordevic royal family who have no real standing in the country.  They do not own the residence, but are allowed to live there.  Visitors are very limited and we are fortunate our cruise line was able to secure us entry.  If the Prince is in residence, you are not allowed to take photographs of him, but he often greets the guests.  He is not on the property today.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Looking out from within the Royal Palace, Belgrade, Serbia.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Dining room in the Royal Palace, Belgrade, Serbia.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Courtyard at the Royal Palace, Belgrade Serbia.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Interior of the Royal Palace, Belgrade, Serbia.

The palace has a beautiful wooded setting.  If a building could be photogenic, this palace would be it.  I do have a love for photographing windows and doorways and I had a field day at this residence.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. On the grounds of the Royal Palace, Belgrade, Serbia

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Looking into the Oriental Room in the Royal Palace Basement.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Basement in the Royal Palace, Belgrade, Serbia.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. This fun couple from Cape town, South Africa both loved taking pictures as much as I did.

One of the most beautiful parts of the Palace was the basement with its arched ceilings and uniquely decorated rooms for private conversation, billiards, and movie screenings.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Railway station near the new waterfront development in Belgrade, Serbia.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Belgrade University.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Hotel Moskva, Belgrade, Serbia.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. National Museum of Serbia on Republic Square.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Belgrade, Serbia.

Next to the palace is the American Embassy which is behind a wall and heavily guarded.  After leaving the Palace we drove by and saw the new controversial waterfront development near the railroad station.  Many families were displaced by force to clear the area.  We also passed the National Museum, closed for renovation through 2018.  We saw some beautiful architecture; I took photos of buildings I found unique.  In several cases I found out that these were some of the landmarks of the city.  Our guide told us that there is not a single street in the city in which the architecture is all the same style.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Belgrade Fortress sits at the intersection of the Danube and Sava Rivers.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The fortress walls surround the basketball court.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. A beautiful park skirts the edge of the Belgrade fort hosts to athletes, families, and on this day, a bride and groom taking wedding photographs.

Last we visited the Kalemegdan Fortress, built on Roman ruins.  We passed through the Stambol gate by the converted walls of the fort that now houses tennis and basketball courts.  The fort has the unique setting overlooking the intersection of the Danube and Sava Rivers and is the most visited attraction in the city.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Missing our own Peabody, I snapped this picture of a westie near the Belgrade Fort.

Our guide pointed out the steps which lead from the park entrance and the major pedestrian street to the dock where our ship is docked below.  We went back to the ship for lunch.  Our fellow passengers have a free afternoon to enjoy the park and the city.  We have chosen to take an optional tour and see Belgrade as it was as the capital of Yugoslavia.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Carving detail at the Royal Palace, Belgrade, Serbia.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. From the interior of the Royal Palace, Belgrade

 

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The Iron Gates on the Danube

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Cruising the Iron Gates along the Danube River, Eastern Europe

Today is one of scenic beauty as we cruise the Iron Gates, a series of gorges in the Danube River that separates Romania and Serbia.  Yes, Natasha is about a gain another country.  This is the longest series of gorges in Europe.  The gorges also separate the Carpathian Mountains and the Balkans Mountains.  Given our western direction on the Danube, we will first pass through the two-lock system at the Dam.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Iron Gate Dam on the Danube

The dam (or more accurately a series of two dams) is not without controversy.  Several settlements were permanently lost due to the construction, as well as the Isle of Ada Kaleh.   The primary purpose of the dams’ construction was to provide hydroelectric power to the two countries the dams border (originally Yugoslavia and Romania, now Serbia and Romania).  In fact one of the eeriest parts of the passage was when we were directly under the power lines; the buzzing was intense.

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Photo Jean Janssen. Heading into the first lock. Note the electric power lines above the lock. The dam was built to generate hydroelectric power.

We were expected to reach the dam between 7 and 8 am.  It takes about an hour and a half to go through the locks.  I woke up in plenty of time but opened the shades to note the beginning of the low barriers and realized that at 6:20 am we were a lot closer than I anticipated.  I threw on some clothes, put my hair in a clip, and headed up to the sun deck with my camera.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Within the lock.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. In the lock, note the difference in water levels.

The dam is huge.  Although I have been through many locks large and small, I think this is the only time I have been through a double lock system.  My first lock experience was as a child when I went through the Soo/Sault Locks between Ontario, Canada and Michigan in the US.  The Sault Locks allow for boat traffic to travel between Lake Superior and the lower Great Lakes.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Looking out my Juliet Balcony on the River Beatrice, I took this picture showing how close the ship sits to the lock wall.

This double lock system means we will rise before traveling into the second lock,  repeat the process, and ultimately rise about 115 feet. Depending on your arrival time, you may be in locks on the Romanian or Serbian side.  We are going through a Serbian lock.  As with most locks, it is shocking how close you get to the side when you pass through.  Our cabin faces the Serbian side and we were right against the lock wall.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Homage to the long dead communist leader of Yugoslavia on the Serbian side of the Danube at the Iron Gates Dam. The paint color was bright enough that it caught our eye from a distance (this shot is taken with a zoom lens) and that the memorial continues to be maintained.

Given our early arrival at the dam, I felt fortunate to have seen the entire passage from the sun deck (except for that one intentional trip to the cabin to get the lock wall picture).  We will reach the most scenic part of the Iron Gates in about an hour, so it was time to grab breakfast.  I ordered the wonderful Uniworld eggs benedict and had a couple of mimosas.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Plaque commemorating Trajan’s Bridge over the Danube on the Serbian side of the River. I got this great shot from the Juliet Balcony of our cabin on the River Beatrice.

When I headed back to the cabin to grab my camera, what a surprise I got.  Commentary had already begun upstairs (we are ahead of schedule) and looking out the window I spotted one of the famous landmarks along our Iron Gates route.  We were at the Great Kazan, the most famous and narrow of the Iron Gates gorges where Roman Emperor Trajan ordered a bridge be built across the Danube.  Constructed in the years 103 to 105, the bridge created passage and allowed for the final conquest of Dacia, the ancient name for what is now Romania.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Rock Carving of the Dacian King who opposed domination by the Roman Empire on the Romanian side of the Danube. It was carved between 1994 and 2004.

Not wanting to miss anything, I headed back up to the sun deck.  Keeping the festivities going, our new friends from Tomball (just outside Houston), Carl and Lyle, ordered more champagne and the mimosa morning continued.  At the small Kazan, a rock carving of the Dacian King Decebulas, constructed between 1994 and 2004, who opposed Trajan is found on the Romanian side of the River.  The rock carving of Decebulas is 131 feet high and the tallest rock sculpture in Europe.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Great Kazan in the Iron Gates on the Danube. Just off-center to the right is the Mraconia Monastery.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. River view of the Mraconia Monastery on the Romanian side of the Danube in the Iron Gates.

At the Great Kazan, we also saw the charming Mraconia Monastery and the road that wraps around the Danube.  On either side of the Iron Gates gorges are the national parks maintained by Romania and Serbia.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Romanian roadway (note the car) wrapping around the Danube through the Iron Gates.

Farther in our journey we spotted many caves in the Rock formations.  The largest cave on the Danube, Ponicova, is located within the Iron Gate gorges.  We saw boats at the large entrance and at a dockside opening with stairs.  The Ponicova Cave is accessible by water or by land.  It was a beautiful, relaxing morning cruising the gorges.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Dockside entrance to the cave system along the Danube in the Iron Gates.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. There was lots of tourist travel at the water entrance to the Poricova Cave in the Iron Gates of the Danube. It is on the Romanian side.

Once the Iron Gates were behind us, we had lunch at prepared for a short stop at a Serbian town of Donji Milanovac.  Locals had come out with embroidered linens for sale, as well as some local wines.  We got off the boat and wandered through the town.  I walked up to the Orthodox Church where I was warmly greeted by the young priest who welcomed us in. He was burning incense and was playing recorded chanting.  He had the door to the altar open, although the entrance was blocked.  It was probably the only opportunity I will have to see an Orthodox altar which is generally hidden.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. We were missing our burgers, so Carl ordered them for us for lunch. Lyle presents the all American burger.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Inside the Serbian Orthodox church.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Most visitors to an Orthodox church will never see the altar.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Note the lovely icons inside the chandelier in the Serbian Orthodox Church.

Some of the ship’s guests and a fair number of the crew went ashore in Donji Milanovac.  Although all our food and drinks (including alcohol) are free on board, people still tried the local bars and  Serbian beer and wine.  I have already been to several of the Eastern European countries on this itinerary when we cruised the Black Sea and Hungary on land-based trips and other river cruises.  However, this is the first time I have been to Serbia.  Natasha is now been to 120 countries.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen At our first stop in Serbia, Donji Milanovac, the locals brought out their handmade linens and homemade wine to sell.

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A Rock Castle in Bulgaria

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The Belogradchik Fortress in the Rock Formations, Bulgaria.

Today we are docking in Vidin, Bulgaria on the Danube.  We have two touring options, both included with our cruise.  You can take your passport, cross a bridge back into Romania, and go to a cultural center with food and wine options.  We chose the alternative option and stayed in Bulgaria to visit some famous rock formations.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Coming into the city below the fortress. Belogradchik, Bulgaria.

We don’t dock in Vidin until 1 pm, so it was a lazy morning for me and I lingered over a late breakfast.  It was a great catch-up after yesterday’s full day of touring.  The ride out to the rock formations is about an hour through the green Bulgarian countryside.  This region is known for its agriculture, particularly the vineyards.  As we head into the mountains, we leave the Carpathian Mountains behind and see the Balkans ahead.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Mountain views from the fortress.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. View of the Balkans and the rock formations from the hotel terrace.

This was the Germans’ route to Turkey.  The Bulgarians tried to remain neutral during WWII.  With the threat of invasion and the promise of new lands, the Bulgarians did sign with the Axis powers, but did not participate in the invasion of Yugoslavia.  Their young leader was summoned to Berlin to explain his actions.  He died only a week later after returning from Germany; many believe he was poisoned.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. A stork nest in Bulgaria.

We made a comfort stop in the town of Belogradchik, which translates to small white city.  The people like to white wash their houses and use red tiles on their roofs.  Once again we enjoyed some Bulgarian pastries.  Belogradchik is an important stop on the rail lines that connect Vidin with Sofia, the country’s capital.  From the hotel terrace we had lovely views of the rocks, formed some 230 million years ago.  People often see faces or an animal in the rock formations.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. I see a face in these rock formations.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. View from the hotel terrace.

This is when Natasha has to fess up that she has had to be a little less adventurous on this trip.  I tore a tendon in my right foot and although I have a brace I am limited when it comes to extended walking or climbing.  I am having surgery as soon as we get home.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Within the second gate, the schoolchildren made the climb look easy.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen There are tunnels through the walls in the lower formations, Belogradchik Fortress, Bulgaria.

To see the fortress, there are four levels.  You go in through the first gate and see the later fortifications.  From here our guide gave us a brief history.  Going through the second gate, you arrive at the long, winding staircase to the older fortress.  This is as far as I could go.  Once you reach the fortress at the top, there is another shorter climb to even more spectacular views.  People told me that I did make the right call on the stairs; they were a bit treacherous.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The second gate in the Belogradchik Fortress, Bulgaria.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. More tunnel entrances within the fortress walls

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Boris takes off toward the fortress (without a camera).

Even from below the views were breathtaking and I personally thought the most marvelous shot was looking up at the imposing castle.  The fortress only has constructed walls on two sides, the natural rock formations serving as the remaining walls.  The original structure was built during the 1st-3rd centuries when this part of Bulgaria was part of the Roman Empire.  It was originally used as a hideout and for surveillance.  It was not until the 14th century that additional fortifications were built outside the original structure.

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A view from above. Belogradchik Fortress

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. With the “newer” fortifications in the foreground. Belogradchik  Fortress, Bulgaria.

Boris hit the souvenir booths outside the fortress walls and then it time for our bus ride back to the River Beatrice in Vidin.  Vidin is located in the Northwestern part of the country near the border with Serbia.  This is the poorest part of the country.  Danube- based industry has not done well here since the fall of communism.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Bullet holes in the metal doors in the second gate at the Belogradchik Fortress.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Yes, Boris in Bulgaria. His last souvenir purchase in the country.

Upon our return there was a performance by young Bulgarian dancers.  Unfortunately, they performed with their backs to the uncovered lounge walls which meant it was hard to get a good picture.  After their performance, we had a yogurt demonstration, Bulgaria being one of the larger producers of the culture.  They also supply cultures for many of the Greek yogurts.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Bulgarian Children performed for us on the River Beatrice.

Tomorrow will be an early morning as we sail through the locks and then scenic sailing through the Upper and Lower Kazen, the most beautiful section of the Iron Gates.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. One more look, Belogradchik Fortress, Bulgaria.

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Boris in Bulgaria

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Boris in Bulgaria. Give him a hat and a pretty girl and he is happy.

We woke to enjoy one of those fabulous Uniworld breakfasts before heading out to explore Bulgaria, our next stop on our Eastern European river cruise.  It looked a little grey outside so I asked the front desk attendant if rain was predicted.  She said it would be sunny.  I should have followed the program advice instead.  I brought a raincoat and umbrella on the cruise, but left both in the room.  Boris wisely got both of us umbrellas.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. The ancient Bulgarian city of Veliko Tarnovo.

We left the riverside city of Rousse where we were docked for our day-long tour of the medieval capital of Bulgaria, Velikovo Tarnovo, and the Bulgarian village of Arbanasi.  Along the way, we will have a traditional Bulgarian lunch and be back to the ship by 5 pm.  Some guests chose to tour Rousse and see the cave churches instead.  Their tour ends at 2 pm.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Rousse, Bulgaria.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Newer apartment construction with shops on the bottom. Rousse, Bulgaria

As we left Rousse, a city of soviet-style apartments and crumbling architectural beauties used for that purpose, the guide gave us information about Bulgaria.  It is a country of 7.2 million with a declining population.  They rely on tourism, grain farming, and heavy industry as their main sources of income.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Rousse, Bulgaria

Under communism, they were part of the 5-year plan of specialization between countries.  Bulgaria concentrated on textiles, computers, bicycles, farming, and ship building.   There was negative unemployment; they even brought in workers from Cuba and Vietnam to assist with the ship building.  With the collapse of communism and the loss of guaranteed markets, there was massive unemployment.  Having always been given a job and guaranteed employment, people did not have the mindset to deal with the new system.  In the 90s, unemployment was at 25%.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Veliko Tarnovo is on the Varna River, Bulgaria.

Bulgaria joined the EU and with investment from the European Union unemployment dropped as low as 4%.  It now hovers around 7%.  Not all EU countries are on the same footing.  If coming from another EU nation, you still have to go through immigration to enter Bulgaria or when entering another EU country from Bulgaria.  They do not use the Euro currency.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Ancient bridge, Bulgaria.

Bulgarian children go to school until the age of 16; some go on for more advanced studies.  They are experiencing a brain drain, especially in the medical profession, where their students can make far more money abroad.  There is a large expat community of Bulgarians in Chicago.  The most popular courses of study are math and the sciences and the students do very well in international competitions in these areas.  The average monthly income in Bulgaria is 500 euros.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

It was a lovely drive to Veliko Tarnovo through the Bulgarian countryside.  The city itself sits on three hilltop with the River Yantra below.  It is the medieval capital of Bulgaria.  Today it is a University town with a thriving artists community and one of the few cities in Bulgaria that is growing.  It has a incredible setting and tourism continues to grow.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Velido Tarnovo.

We took a comfort stop at a local hotel and admired the view while trying Bulgarian pastries.  We will return here to do a little shopping later today in the artisans shops.  As we re-boarded the buses, the rain started.  Closer views of the castle were all from inside the bus and at least one photo stop was cancelled due to rain.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen decoration on exterior of Orthodox church in Arbanasi, Bulgaria

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Church of the Archangels, Michael and Gabriel, Arbanasi, Bulgaria

We went on the the village of Arbanasi less than 4 miles from Velido Tarnovo.  Arbanasi is a tourist designation in and of itself with its beautiful 17th and 18th century churches (disguised on the outside) and the buildings in the Bulgarian National Revival style.  In fact, any new construction in the village must follow this architectural style.  It is enchanting and the light rain (it had eased a bit at this point) made it even more romantic.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. We enjoyed beautiful a cappella chanting in Arbanasi.

In the historic Orthodox Church of the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, we heard lovely chanting by four a capella singers.  People stand in the Orthodox churches and there is limited seating for the infirm with high arms around the edges.  When you wanted to pull yourself out of these narrow spaces, you learned why they had high arms.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Exterior of the Church of the Nativity of Christ, Arbanasi, Bulgaria.

We next visited the Church of the Nativity of Christ where a wonderful guide told us about the amazing artwork and architecture.  From the exterior the building was very unassuming.  During foreign rule, the churches were permitted if they had a low profile and no bell tower.  They were dug deep into the earth to give the full height inside.  Unfortunately, no interior photographs were permitted in this church.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Rooftops in Arbanasi, Bulgaria

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Home interior, note the beautiful carved ceiling, Arbanasi, Bulgaria

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. “Indoor Plumbing” at the historical museum Arbanasi, Bulgaria

We did a little more walking the village in the rain ending up at a gift shop that sold rose oil products, a regional favorite.  After the shop, we walked across the street tot he village museum where they depicted what life had been like for the inhabitants.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Home Confinement Room where mothers stayed with their newborns for 40 days after their birth to regain strength. After 40 days the child was introduced to society and baptized.

After the museum, we went to a charming restaurant where were served  a traditional Bulgarian lunch-a salad of cucumbers and tomatoes, a vegetable soup, a meat stew with bread, and a yogurt dessert.  The rain was really pouring outside, so we were happy to be indoors and enjoy the wonderful food and the music and dancing.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Bulgarian dancer, Arbanasi, Bulgaria

After lunch we returned to Velido Tarnovo and walked the artisan street in the rain.  Both Boris and I found handicrafts to take home with us-decorated wooden spoons, embroidery, and a mask.  We enjoyed our full day in Bulgaria.

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Photo ©Jean Janssen. Bulgarian musicians, Arbanasi, Bulgaria

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