The Real Passage to Eastern Europe
Aaron Saunders, River Cruise Advisor
Tuesday, July 12, 2016
There’s nothing like seeing a bullet-riddled, half-collapsed building to make you grateful for what you have in life.
Today, Viking River Cruises’ Viking Embla arrived in Vukovar, Croatia. At Danube Kilometre Marker 1333, it is less than 200 kilometres further upstream than yesterday’s port of call of Belgrade, Serbia. Yet this capital city had a monstrous impact on the future of Croatia.
In 1991, Croatia declared it intended to separate from the former Yugoslavia. Megalomaniacal dictator Slobodan Milosevic decided that wasn’t going to happen. For the next four years, Vukovar and nearby Osijek were bombed back into the stone age, with 1,724 people from Osijek alone having died in the conflict.
Vukovar, where Viking Embla docked today, didn’t fare much better: over 200 people were buried in a mass grave after being shot in groups of ten on November 20, 1991. The grave wasn’t found for a full year, and it wasn’t exhumed until 1996. The incident is now known as the Vukovar Massacre.
It’s heavy stuff. I remember – vaguely – learning about the Croatian War of Independence in school, and hearing about it on the news. To a kid, Croatia was a world away from the safe embrace of Canada. Even today, this part of Croatia is a world away from the capital of Zagreb, or the seaside paradise that is Dubrovnik.
Before coming on this Passage to Eastern Europe voyage, I’d heard a lot of people tell me it wasn’t good; that it was somehow a lesser river cruise. I think those people are confused; this is (and has been) every bit the journey that I expected. But this itinerary is more raw and real somehow than its Western Danube counterpart.
On the Western Danube, ships sail through prosperous, rebuilt Germany and Austria. On this run, ships sail through countries like Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Croatia: countries that are still trying to find themselves. Of these, it is our last destination – Hungary – that is arguably the most put-together. It is a member of the EU. It is a participant in the Schengen Zone (however long that lasts.) And tourism flourishes.
Our visit to Osijek today is one of pleasure for those aboard Viking Embla, but one of necessity for those in this part of Croatia. River cruising injects much-needed tourism capital into this part of the country, and locals are eager to greet them. The highlight of our afternoon tour was an included “Home Hosted Visit”, where groups of eight to ten are sent to local homes for coffee, cake and conversation.
For me, this was the absolute highlight of this Passage to Eastern Europe river cruise thus far: the chance to hear about life in rural Croatia. Our hosts, Natalie and Matthew, were kind and hospitable, serving up coffee, cake, and traditional slivovitz plum brandy. The latter was homemade, and served in a carafe shaped like a Smith & Wesson rifle. Natalie’s husband repairs guns for a living, in addition to other jobs.
What happens in Croatia? Educated Croats leave the country, in search of better careers and financial well-being elsewhere in Europe. Some end up in Germany; others settle, inexplicably, in Dublin, Ireland. They send money back to their families. They may even take the odd EasyJet flight back to visit. But they never come back for good. This is particularly true of the younger generation: the motivated ones try to get out of the country. Those who aren’t as motivated? They drink. Heavily. And the cycle repeats itself.
Viking gives you the opportunity to decide which tours you want to do, and to skip out on tours if you so wish. My advice: don’t skip this one. Osijek isn’t much, but the home-hosted visit is more than worth it.
The trouble is, it’s tempting to stay aboard Viking Embla all day – particularly when temperatures hit 36°C as they did this afternoon. Apparently, Osijek broke a weather record today for hottest temperature recorded on this, the 12th day of July.
I enjoyed myself this morning as if I were on a grand ocean liner, surrounded by every comfort. I was up at six, just in time to do a few laps around the jogging track on the Sun Deck and to watch us come alongside at our technical stop of Ilok, Croatia, before heading down for another great breakfast in The Restaurant.
Then – at the ripe hour of eight a.m. – I retreated to the Viking Lounge to put yesterday’s post online. I grabbed myself a glass of water and a cappuccino from the self-serve coffee station outside the Lounge. Unlike other ships, which have one coffee machine guests have to battle over, Viking’s Longships feature dual coffee machines, water stations, and pastries.
Having done that, I read a book I brought along as we set sail from Ilok and made our way upstream to Vukovar. This is a luxury I can rarely afford on most ships, yet I always do on Viking. A river cruise lends itself well to reading; Viking’s own onboard Library even encourages it, with some amazing titles on nearly every destination along the Danube.
At ten, our Program Director Sonya talked about her experiences growing up as a small girl in Eastern Europe. An hour later, a local Croatian Tamburica Band embarked the ship as we arrived in Vukovar to play traditional tunes and entertain guests. I love any time these local performers come onboard; they’re almost universally fantastic. The band also played John Denver’s Take Me Home, Country Roads, but that’s beside the point.
After our afternoon tour in a sweltering Osijek, guests returned to Viking Embla. We had cocktails in the Viking Lounge and listened to Sonya’s daily briefing. We had another beautiful three-course dinner, which was excellent and flavorful, just like every other night.
After dinner, guests retreated to the Viking Lounge for cocktails and dancing. People twice my age are zipping around the ample dance floor (well done, Viking!) as I type this, dancing in unison to, inexplicably, Billy Ray Cyrus’ Achy Breaky Heart. Cyrus released this country hit in March of 1992 – right about the time that Yugoslavia was decimating the Croatian countryside we’re currently docked in.
My home city has never been bombed. My country, aside from both World Wars, has never known war. At least, not on its soil, and not in living memory. I’m sailing away on a ship that looks like something out of a dream. I realize how fortunate that makes me: the family we had coffee with today can’t sail away from their country in the way we’re about to. Our reality isn’t their reality; in fact, when I’m on the Viking Embla, reality feels more like fantasy; coddled in a layer of gourmet food, luxury toiletries and superb service.
You have no idea how good you have it – until you travel the world.
Our Voyage Report from onboard Viking River Cruises’ Viking Embla in Eastern Europe will begin tomorrow from Kalocsa, Hungary! 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|