Ask Harriet: Eastern Europe books for Black Sea cruise

Author Ralph Waldo Emerson said "Life is a journey, not a destination". As a book lover and travel enthusiast, that’s always made so much sense to me. Preparing for a vacation is half of the fun, whether it’s reading and researching where I’m traveling to next. That’s why I was delighted to be able to answer this question from John Segrist of Spearfish, South Dakota, who, with his wife Sharron, will enjoy his second vacation with us on our Eastern Europe to the Black Sea River Cruise Tour.

Q: What are good “reads” before taking this cruise?

A. Hi John,

Thanks for asking a great question—I’m sure plenty of other travelers are wondering the same. Whether you like to prepare months in advance with stacks of books, or whether you wait until the plane ride to pull out your e-reader and “cram,” I’ve found doing any reading beforehand helps enrich our discoveries. Because you’ll be cruising five countries—Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania—you’ve got a wealth of options.

R.J. Crampton's, A Concise History of Bulgaria includes illustrations of the medieval empire, to Ottoman rule, through the fall of Communism. For a more comprehensive view, Andrew Eames’ Blue River, Black Sea touches upon Hungary, Serbia, Croatia and Romania, among other countries, with entertaining encounters via foot, horse, bicycle, and boat travel. One of my favorite travel authors, highly regarded Patrick Leigh Fermor, includes some of his youthful adventures in Hungary and Romania, culminating with his arrival at the Iron Gates on the Danube, in Between the Woods and the Water.

Because of its place on the world stage—declaring independence just 22 years ago in a struggle that captivated the world—there are several newer books about Croatia. Croatia, A Nation Forged in War, was written by British correspondent Marcus Tanner, who reported on the region during the early 1990s. It includes the region’s medieval origins, to Nazi occupation, to the present day. And in A Traveller’s History of Croatia, Benjamin Curtis untangles the complex history of this crossroads of Europe.

If you are taking the Vienna extension, eleven-time fellow traveler Mary Bailer of Bellevue, Washington, a frequent contributor to our Travel Forum, suggests The Fig Eater, by Jody Shields, a turn-of-the-century murder mystery set in Austria’s capital that I have read and thoroughly enjoyed. She also recommends The Illusionist, a 2006 movie about a magician set in the same city and timeframe. It should be widely available through Netflix or at your local library.

As always, for more books, maps, and movie suggestions, you may refer to your Travel Handbook, which is also available online by clicking here. Happy reading and watching—and have fun on your cruise!

Which books or movies have enriched your travel experience on a Grand Circle trip? Share your thoughts with me at