Rural Beauty, Cosmopolitan Splendor in Eastern Europe

Retired English teacher delights in land of ‘Dracula’

Besides our quest to see 100 countries, there were a few reasons why Keith and I wanted to travel on the Eastern Europe to the Black Sea River Cruise. We already visited Hungary on The Best of Eastern Europe in 2006, as well as Croatia in 2008 on Dubrovnik and Beyond: From the Adriatic to the Alps. But we had never been to Romania, Serbia, or Bulgaria. We had been fascinated with the former Communist Bloc countries we had experienced in our earlier travels, and wanted to see more of them.

One of the most enlightening parts of our trip was the Life Under Communism discussion onboard the M/S River Adagio, and our young Program Directors led a great Q&A session afterward. Here’s our fellow traveler Yvonne Von Der Ahe from Washington, Missouri, with speaker Daniel Draskoczy of Hungary.

Also, before I retired, I worked as an English teacher for 31 years, mostly on the secondary level in my hometown of West Plains, Missouri, where I live now. We decided to take the pre-trip extension to Romania to learn more about the region of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” It’s never been out of print since it was published in 1897, so we thought there has to be something to this region, with its rumors of gypsy camps and vampires.

Here I am at Bran Castle, Wallachia overlooking the road to Wallachia.

The castle was the headquarters for 15th-century ruler Prince Vlad Tepes, the son of Vlad Dracul, also known as Vlad the Impaler for his practice of impaling enemies of the kingdom—at the time, predominately Ottoman Turks. Today, he is still a folk hero to Romanians and our Romanian Program Director jokingly claimed to be a descendant of Vlad. But in reality, she was a loving, accepting, and open-minded individual. We also appreciated the strength, knowledge, openness and politeness of all of the ship’s program directors, especially coming as they were from various countries in the region.

After our castle visit, we had lunch in a mountain restaurant, which started out with the traditional Welcome Drink of plum brandy (we were treated to this spirit a few times on this trip). One is expected to drink it “bottoms up.” We also enjoyed homemade bread with salt, vegetable soup, and Romanian stew with polenta. This was only one of several great meals we enjoyed both on and off the ship. At our Home-Hosted Meal in Osijek, we enjoyed more plum brandy (homemade!); vegetable and noodle soup; a salad with homegrown vegetables; and a main course of cevapcici chicken patties and kolacky pastry for dessert.

Here I am with the daughter –and interpreter—of the family we shared lunch with for our Home-Hosted event in Osijek, Croatia.

When Keith and I got back home we had a small gathering and made some of the recipes for our guests, and I also included these in the travelogues I like to make for our trips. This trip really inspired me to talk about this lovely section of the world with anyone who was willing to listen. As someone who grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s, in the midst of the Cold War with the U.S.S.R., I was taught that communism and the countries that embraced it were “bad,” and to be feared. But today, I think they’re anything but. It was also very interesting to listen to the “divide” between the younger and the older populations. I was slightly surprised to learn that many young people in the former Communist Bloc countries embrace and love their new freedoms and welcome the chance to better themselves by their own merits. But many of the older people feel that they have been left with almost nothing left to live on and without the ability to compete to better themselves. Thus, the change to new freedoms has not been totally welcomed by everyone. As in the case in any country, sometimes opinion is divided.

I travel for escape from myself and into the larger world—in essence, as my favorite quote says, to “become a young fool again”—to feel and think in new, fresh ways. Here’s an excerpt from Pico Iyer, taken from his essay “Why We Travel: A Love Affair With the World”:

We travel, initially, to lose ourselves, and we travel next to find ourselves…. We travel to bring what little we can, in our ignorance and knowledge, to those parts of the globe whose riches are differently dispersed. And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again—to slow time down and get taken in, and to fall in love once more.

Love looks the same in any country—Keith and I took this photo of a young couple by the Danube in Belgrade, Serbia.

As for my loves, determining which country was my favorite on this trip would be like deciding which of my three biological offspring is my favorite child. I loved the beauty and the historical and cultural monuments of art, particularly in Bucharest and Budapest.

Keith and I in front of a cathedral in Bucharest.

I also loved seeing both the natural and cultivated beauty of the rural regions perhaps even more than the cities. The Carpathian Mountains have been an attraction for centuries, including for the royal family of Romania; yet they contain enough wild beauty that the American movie “Cold Mountain” was filmed here.

A mountain vista in rural Transylvania.

We saw so many great sights on the Danube, too, especially the Iron Gates. In combination with the natural beauty of the river, man-made structures grace the area, too, including Europe’s tallest rock sculpture.

The face of Dacian King Decebalus, who ruled AD 87-106 took ten years and 12 artists to finish

I greatly enjoyed the historical and cultural opportunities on this trip. They’re the primary reason that we love to travel and they help me feel a connection to all of humanity. There is nothing wrong with surfing, snorkeling, swimming, or basking on a beach with a little sunscreen. But I prefer the sensuality of learning and discovery, the stimulation of being somewhere that is different than any other place I have been. And on this trip, I went to three countries I had never been.

If you’d like to learn more about this trip from our travelers, check out this video featuring Grand Circle Cruise Line travelers like Janice and Keith describing—in their own words—what made their experience in France so memorable.