The Broken Dreams of Vidin
Aaron Saunders, River Cruise Advisor
Saturday, July 9, 2016
It’s the middle of the afternoon on a Saturday. The temperature hovers near 32°C, and I can literally hear the sound of cheese pizza sizzling on the pavement. No, really: there are two slices of cheese pizza that someone has left on a concrete block next to a bench overlooking Vidin, Bulgaria’s main shopping street.
A shopping street that, I might add, is utterly deserted. Hostel-deserted. A few old men sit drinking beers at a café that looks as worn-out as they do. They stop talking as I walk past. Their heads follow me and then, once I’m safely out of earshot, they resume their conversation. Old habits die hard.
Today, Viking River Cruises’ Viking Embla arrived in Vidin as we entered our fourth day on this Passage to Eastern Europe river cruise. Up again just after six, I was greeted by another gorgeous sunrise. I enjoyed an early-morning stroll around the Sun Deck, and then headed down to the Restaurant at seven for the start of breakfast.
Breakfast has to be one of my favorite meals aboard a Viking River Cruises ship. The line makes its own yogurt onboard, which is the best I’ve had on any ship, period. It also serves up a wide variety of buffet items, including some Norwegian specialties (say hello to fish!), an assortment of cheeses, fruits, cold cuts, and fresh-baked breads.
There’s an omelette station where you can have your own creation cooked-to-order. If you’d prefer, a menu is available from your waiter, and contains things like French Toast and pancakes.
Viking offered two tours this morning: an included, four-hour excursion to Belogradchik to see the Belogradchik fortress known simply as Baba Vida; or an optional home-hosted cooking excursion that offers up the chance to experience local cuisine and to make the traditional Bulgarian pastry known as banitsa.
Today, I chose to do neither – and this is an option you can definitely take part in, if you so choose. Instead, I chose to sit in the lounge and avail myself of the excellent Cappuccino while I completed a pressing deadline. While I might have been the only person working, I certainly wasn’t the only one enjoying the lounge: a dozen or so guests elected to stay onboard as well, reading or playing cards or socializing amongst each other.
In the end, I had a much-needed relaxing morning enjoying the Viking Embla. It was absolutely perfect, and it was concluded with a delicious (and light) café lunch served in the lounge at 1:00 p.m. Regular sit-down lunch is available in The Restaurant, but I often like the café lunch served in the Viking Lounge for its lighter fare that typically consists of soup, sandwiches, salads and desserts.
A look at what’s happening onboard today:
- 6:00 – 11:00 AM: Café Breakfast. Coffee and pastries are available at the coffee station in front of the Lounge.
- 6:30 – 10:00 AM: Continental Breakfast. A selection of beverages and breakfast items are available on the Aquavit Terrace.
- 7:00 – 9:30 AM: Breakfast. Enjoy a buffet breakfast and a choice of dishes cooked to order in The Restaurant.
- 9:00 AM – 1:00 PM: Shore Excursion: Belogradchik. Visit to the Belogradchik Rocks and the Belogradchik Fortress.
- 9:15 – 11:45 AM: Optional Shore Excursion: Home Hosted Cooking Demo.
- 1:00 – 2:30 PM: Lunch. Join us for lunch in The Restaurant.
- 1:00 – 2:30 PM: Café Lunch. If you prefer, enjoy a lighter, buffet-style lunch in The Lounge.
- 2:30 – 5:00 PM: Optional Shore Excursion: Home Hosted Cooking Demo.
- 3:30 – 5:00 PM: Afternoon Entertainment: The Flowers. Folk Music from The Flowers, a group of young singers and dancers who perform asymmetric Bulgarian rhythms.
- 5:30 – 7:00 PM: Cocktail Hour. Enjoy a drink and some lively music in The Lounge.
- 5:30 PM: All On Board. Please be back on board the ship by this time. We will depart Vidin for the Iron Gate shortly thereafter.
- 6:45 PM: Daily Briefing. Program Director Sonya invites you to the Lounge to find out about tomorrow’s excursions and events.
- 7:00 PM: Dinner. Our Chef Lajos and Maitre d’ Gabor invite you to the Restaurant for dinner.
- 7:00 PM: Bar Menu. Enjoy our “Smoergersboard” on the Aquavit Terrace.
- 9:00 PM: Nautical Talk. Join our Captain Boris and Hotel Manager Katja for a nautical Q&A. Followed by Music and Dancing with our on-board musician Zivko.
After lunch, I set out on foot to explore Vidin and was confronted with a city of contrasts.
First, the place was deserted. Maybe even borderline abandoned. The number of vacant, crumbling buildings in this, the pedestrian-driven, touristy end of town was surprising. Block after block, every other building sits vacant. And on nearly every door, power pole, and tree trunk, are A4 sheets of paper with photos of a person and Cyrillic text. They are death notices.
When someone dies in Bulgaria, mourners have to to print flyers – called necrology – that are placed on doors or apparently anywhere near where the deceased lived, announcing the death of the deceased at repeating intervals. I saw dozens today, and no less than a dozen of these yesterday. I would have taken a photo, but I’m pretty sure that’s bad luck.
Bulgarians are terrifically superstitious. In addition to these necrology notices, mourners have to cover their mirrors for 40 days, in order to keep the soul of the departed at bay.
These superstitions don’t start and end with death. To wit: wedding dresses should never be backless, otherwise adultery will occur. Then, you can’t clean the wedding dress until the baby is born – that’s bad luck. Also bad luck: baby showers, announcing a pregnancy before the first trimester, turning your back on a cemetery, and jumping over open graves, though that one seems more practical than not.
I mention this not to poke fun, but to illustrate a point: there are so many unwritten superstitions and rules in Bulgaria that day-to-day-life must be quite frustrating, particularly for foreigners trying to integrate into Bulgarian society. Wishing someone a Happy Birthday, for example, before their birth hour, is also not a good idea. That, too, brings bad luck.
Bulgarians are very smart people, but very traditional in many ways. Thus, even very educated Bulgarians will still subscribe to many of these superstitions because of how deeply ingrained into their culture they are. As a tourist, just realize that you’re likely going to careen from one horrifying faux pas to the next.
So while the locals eyed me with deep-rooted suspicion, I strolled the wobbly pedestrian streets of Vidin. The whole area looks like it was laid down in a hurry: brick work is uneven and rises and falls with the terrain, and the city’s administrative center – clearly Soviet in nature – towers above everything around it.
On one hand, it’s almost exactly what I wanted to see on this Eastern European river cruise: remnants of a different time. On the other, it’s sad: the “Iron Curtain” has long since become a thing of the past yet Bulgaria – the poorest member of the European Union – has benefitted little.
Tonight at 5:30 p.m., Viking Embla let go her lines and set sail along the Danube once again, bound for the famous Iron Gates. We’ll spend our whole day tomorrow sailing the Danube in and around this legendary monument, and I’m looking forward to another great day onboard the relaxing Viking Freya; a floating bridge between cultures and nations.
Our Voyage Report from onboard Viking River Cruises’ Viking Embla in Eastern Europe will begin tomorrow from the famous Iron Gates! 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|