The Passage to Eastern Europe Is A Pleasant Surprise
Aaron Saunders, River Cruise Advisor
If you ever want to appreciate the value of a cruise, take a long-haul flight in economy class. I have two inches between my knees and the seat in front of me, and even less between my elbow and my seatmates’ elbow, which keeps encroaching on my personal space. I’m dining on a luscious meal of “chicken”, with the alternative being, “pasta.” To wash that down, I’m kicking back some very adequate Merlot. And, on my personal five-inch-by-five-inch inset seatback screen, I’m watching William H. Macy bumble his way through a botched kidnapping in Fargo.
My journey aboard Viking River Cruises’ Passage to Eastern Europe voyage aboard the stellar, 190-guest Viking Longship Embla came to a close on Saturday. That afternoon, I flew back to Canada, which – after 10 days in Eastern Europe – seems a lot like a glorified Disneyland.
I find I miss Eastern Europe. I miss the sights, the sounds, the visible scars of long-fought battles against the injustice and tyranny that affected this region so badly, and so frequently.
I also miss Viking Embla. Viking has done it again, delivering a river cruise product that continues to grow and mature along with its ever-expanding fleet. I was interested to sail aboard Viking Embla, which celebrates her fourth birthday this year. I was worried she might look tired or run-down. Instead, she sparkles – just like when I stepped aboard her when she was just weeks old, back in 2012.
This has been a most unexpected voyage through a part of the world that’s full of surprises. And one of the best surprises is that, when it comes to Viking’s river cruise product, it seems to always be getting better with age.
Our full Voyage Report:
- Days 1 & 2: Arrival and Embarkation in Bucharest
- Day 3: Veliko Tarnovo and Arbanasi, Bulgaria
- Day 4: Vidin, Bulgaria
- Day 5: The Danube’s Iron Gates
- Day 6: Belgrade, Serbia
- Day 7: Vukovar & Osijek, Croatia
- Day 8: Kalocsa, Hungary
- Day 9: Disembarkation and hotel check-in in Budapest
- Day 10: Exploring Budapest on foot
After spending 10 days on this fantastic voyage, I’ve come to the conclusion that this isn’t the trip you take as your first river cruise; that should be Viking’s Romantic Danube or something of the like. Instead, this is a great river cruise to complete on your second, third, or fourth voyage.
It’s also a great companion for anyone that has already sailed the length of the Western Danube and is looking for something different. Although these two destinations may share the same waterway, the experiences you’ll have on the Eastern Danube are nothing like the those in the West.
Sail Viking’s Passage to Eastern Europe Itinerary If:
- You’re looking for something raw and authentic. This sailing is most definitely that, particularly in Bulgaria, which seems poorer and less well-off than it surrounding counterparts.
- You’re interested in history, particularly Soviet and Communist history. All of the countries on this itinerary have deeply turbulent pasts, and are only now emerging from the shadow of communism.
- You’ve done the Western Danube. Seriously, this may be the best reason to take this itinerary. Why not see it all?
- You like Viking’s river cruise product. Everything you know and love about Viking is here, from the onboard local performers and artists to a traditional Balkan feast highlighting the regional culinary specialties of these countries.
Avoid The Passage to Eastern Europe If:
- You can’t handle countries with less-than-pristine infrastructure. If you’re looking for Paris or Vienna, this isn’t it. While many ports of call – like Bucharest and Belgrade – are quite beautiful, it’s a raw, rough-around-the-edges kind of beauty.
- You’re vegetarian. Onboard your Viking Longship, you’ll be catered to perfectly. But ashore, the concept of vegetarianism is quite foreign to most of these countries, many of which rely on a very meat-and-potatoes culinary tradition. At one meal ashore, one guest was given chicken as his vegetarian meal.
- You intend to preach to the locals. Unlike the West, the locals will point out that Communism, while deeply flawed, had its good points. If you can’t go along with that, this isn’t the trip for you. Locals are frank and honest about the turbulent past of their countries, but they demand respect for their traditions – and rightly so.
In the end, I found that Viking continues to deliver exactly what I expect them to: a good quality river cruise vacation with an assortment of inclusions (and a few optional extras), packaged up within the confines of a beautiful Viking Longship and tended to by a dedicated and friendly crew.
To me, that’s Viking’s greatest strength: it’s consistency. A vacation is a considerable financial and personal investment, and it’s nice to know that the line continues to offer a product that, personally speaking, fits my needs like a glove.
And yet, I still see Viking continuing to make small tweaks and improvements, like the addition of the entrance to the Matthias Church in Budapest as part of the Panoramic City Tour; the new optional excursions that are of a consistently high quality (the one I took in Belgrade was one of the best excursions I’ve had with Viking); and even the replacement of the L’Occitane toiletries with the German-made Freyja brand that can also be found aboard Viking Star and Viking Sea.
Viking’s Passage to Eastern Europe is just one of 23 river cruise itineraries that Viking offers in Europe. Of those, a full nine itineraries are brand-new for the 2016 season. And that’s just Europe: Viking also sails to Russia & the Ukraine; to China and Southeast Asia; and to Egypt.
The main takeaway: much like our journey, these new trips typically include pre-and-post hotel stays. It’s a nice to be able to linger in the ports of embarkation, and I think Viking has done a great job of our hotel stays on this trip, both at the InterContinental Bucharest and the Budapest Hilton. The latter still isn’t my favorite, and the line could put a bit of pressure on Hilton to streamline its group check-in process, but on the whole I’ve been very pleased with how Viking has handled the land portion of this trip.
Finally, this is one trip I want to repeat again. While I saw a lot, I feel like there is still more to experience. I’d like to go back and do some of Viking’s optional excursions, or participate in tours I didn’t have the chance to this year. With ports of call that have this much history and unique cultural offerings on the table, I feel like this Passage to Eastern Europe itinerary could be sailed more than once without repeating the same experiences.
Of course, if you haven’t river cruised through this part of the world, my only advice to you is this: go now, while it’s still unpolished enough to be authentic. And if you do go, you could hardly go wrong by sailing aboard one of Viking River Cruises still-beautiful Viking Longships.
Our Voyage Report from onboard Viking River Cruises’ Viking Embla in Eastern Europe has sadly come to a close, but we’ve always got more exciting river journeys in the works. Be sure to follow along on twitter @deckchairblog or using the hashtag #LiveVoyageReport.
Viking's Passage to Eastern Europe
|Day 1 & 2||Bucharest, Romania|
|Day 3||Veliko Tarnovo & Arbanassi, Bulgaria|
|Day 4||Vidin, Bulgaria|
|Day 5||Cruising the Iron Gates|
|Day 6||Belgrade, Serbia|
|Day 7||Vukovar & Osijek, Croatia|
|Day 8||Kalocsa, Hungary|
|Day 9||Budapest, Hungary|
|Day 10||Budapest, Hungary|
|Day 11||Recapping our Journey|