Trip down the Danube River was travel through European history
Lee Dyer of Evans City didn’t get to see the sunken Nazi warships in the Danube River. but he thoroughly enjoyed every other aspect of his nearly two-week cruise through Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia and Romania on the famous river.
Because of Europe’s summer drought conditions, dozens of German warships that were sunk during World War II had resurfaced earlier this year because of low water levels in the Danube River near Prahovo, Serbia.
The vessels were among hundreds of Nazi Germany’s Black Sea fleet that retreated from Soviet forces in 1944.
But when Dyer and his companion arrived for their cruise earlier this month, the river’s water levels had risen, and the Nazi craft were again under the water of the Danube.
The Danube flows through 10 European countries, making it the second-longest river on the continent.
Dyer traveled along the river from Sept. 4 through Sept. 16 with his companion, Joyce Yasko.
“We flew from Pittsburgh to Washington, D.C., to Munich, Germany, to Budapest, Hungary,” he said. “The bad news was the water level was up, so we didn’t get to see any of the Nazi ships.”
But that was a minor concern compared to their time on the Viking river cruise’s long ship, the Ullur which was named for the Norse god of the hunt.
Dyer estimated the ship was about the length of a football field and could hold up to 175 people. His cruise had a complement of 145 travelers.
“I had two rooms, a bedroom and a sitting area. They were very well appointed, very comfortable. And I had a balcony,” he said.
“The biggest majority of the passengers, I’d say 60 to 65% were Americans. And there was a very large British contingent,” he said.
The cruise started in Budapest, Hungary, and ended in Bucharest, Romania.
“It was outstanding. The Danube was really blue in one spot only when the light was just right,” Dyer said.
“We had absolutely beautiful weather. It got slightly warm once, and it never rained,” Dyer said.
One of the more interesting parts of the trip was when the long boat navigated through the Iron Gates, a series of four narrow gorges that separate the Carpathian and Balkan Mountains.
At the beginning of the Iron Gates is the 14th century fortress of Golubac on the south side of the Danube in Serbia.
“The Iron Gates is 60 kilometers of sharp turns and bends. There are cliffs and bluffs and fortresses,” Dyer said. “It was interesting watching the captain navigate through it.”
It was easy to see the captain in action because the ship’s bridge is on scissor jacks and can be raised and lowered to provide the bridge crew with a better view of the river.
The cruise was “absolutely as smooth as silk,” Dyer said. “You didn’t have the sensation you were moving at all.”
Dyer said the long boat produces a daily newspaper that contains articles about the region the vessel was was traveling through, as well as the scheduled excursions for the day.
“Each day included one or two excursions,” Dyer said. “We saw churches, an unbelievable parliament house in Budapest.
“In Bucharest, we visited a local family and just spent hours discussing our worlds and our lives,” he said. The excursions always included a host who spoke English and could act as an interpreter.
On another day in Hungary, Dyer toured a working ranch where an equestrian demonstration was held. According to the guide, the country has a tradition of horsemanship that began when nomadic Magyar warriors crossed the steppes from Asia.
Their descendants settled on the Great Plain, or Puszta, of Hungary where fiercely independent Hungarian cowboys, or csikos, were employed to control vast herds of cattle and horses.
Dyer said the horses are half Arabian and half Mongolian and trained to respond to the crack of a whip which never touches the animal.
The demonstration included a rider standing on the last horse of a 10-horse team and controlling the team.
Dyer was also impressed by the architecture they encountered along the river.
“Several of the buildings, you can’t imagine how beautiful and articulate they are. It looks like something out of your imagination and not the real world,” Dyer said.
“Belgrade, Serbia, has been destroyed and rebuilt 20 times. You can still see where NATO bombed it during the war,” said Dyer referring to the 1999 bombing campaign carried out by the United States and its allies against Serbia during the Kosovo War.
Some of the region’s grim history was also represented by its architecture. Dyer said the saw the so-called “House of Terror” in Belgrade.
“It was a house where the German occupiers tortured people during World War II,” Dyer said. “They said when the Russians took over, the only thing that changed was the color of the uniforms.”
Dyer also found the food, with one exception, to be excellent.
“One night we had dinner in the Bohemian section of a town (Belgrade),” he said. “There was roast chicken, sausages, there was ham. They are big beef eaters. The goulash was to die for. The breads, I don’t care where you went, they were amazing, heavy with grain, so good.”
However, each country they passed through had its own version of a fiery paprika base for foods that Dyer found too spicy in any of its variations.
“The people were absolutely wonderful. We met beautiful people everywhere we went,” Dyer said.
“The region has an amazing history. How many times have land changed hands. There are still disputes about what is really Serbia, what is really Hungary,” he said.
“If there are still tensions, it’s mostly between the rulers of Country A and Country B,” he said.
Although this was Dyer’s first river cruise in Europe, he’s a devoted river boat traveler, having taken many cruises on rivers in the United States.
“I’ve been on the Mississippi, the Snake, the Allegheny rivers. My first trip was Pittsburgh to Louisville and it got me thinking I really could ‘Live my life at eight miles an hour,’” he said.
Dyer said he is already planning his next river cruise for 2023, this one in the United States.
“It’s going to be Nashville to Memphis,” he said. It will include stops at the Grand Old Opry and Graceland.