A Day in Bulgaria, and a Big Win for Viking
Aaron Saunders, River Cruise Advisor
Friday, July 8, 2016
After a good night’s sleep, I was up early at six this morning, where I stepped onto the heated floor of my stateroom’s bathroom to begin my day. It’s such a simple luxury – not having cold feet first thing in the morning. And every cabin on every Viking Longship includes this great amenity, the temperature of which is controllable.
Today, Viking River Cruises’ Viking Embla is docked in Russe, Bulgaria. It’s our first port of call on this 10-day voyage that will bring us to Budapest, Hungary within the week, and my first -ever time on this stretch of the Danube. Or in Bulgaria, for that matter.
Two included tours are on offer today. The first is an 8.5-hour exploration of the towns of Veliko Tarnovo and Arbanasi, including a local lunch. The second, shorter included option focuses on the town of Russe and features a walking tour of the city, followed by a late morning return to the Viking Embla and an afternoon of cruising the Danube.
So, how do you pick what to do? A lot depends on your comfort level: how long you want to be gone, what you want to see, and how you’d like to see it. Also, on any cruise, your chosen excursion is always a gamble. You roll the dice, and hope you like what’s on offer.
Today, I picked wrong – and I’m not ashamed to say that. I did the full day tour of Veliko Tarnovo and Arbanasi, which was good, but which also required a substantial amount of time (about four hours total) in the motorcoach getting from one place to the other. Tired and still slightly jet-lagged, I overdid it. It’s an easy thing to do on these river cruises.
The tour ended up not being one of my favorites because of that – it was just too much time on the coach for my liking. Bulgaria, too, is a bit of a slow burn for me – and that’s also okay. That’s why we travel – to see different places. Some you might love. Some you may feel indifference to. The important thing is to experience all of them.
However, I did learn some fascinating things about Bulgarian culture today. Bulgarians consider it a weakness to smile and look someone in the eye. They also shake their heads ‘no’ when they’re agreeing with you, and nod knowingly when they disagree with you. The driver of a blocked car that had to wait for us to cross the street in Arbanasi, however, had no communication issues at all: he rolled down his passenger-side window and shouted obscenities at us in Bulgarian, waving his fists as he did so before peeling out in his ageing 1980’s-era Audi.
How do I know he shouted obscenities? I suppose I don’t. Most people, however, don’t roll down windows and gesture violently when they’re happy. Although, maybe…
After a refreshment stop, we travelled to the ancient hillside town of Arbanasi, where we sampled the local plum brandy known as Slivova Rakia, which really hit the throttle on the morning. It’s very strong, with an almost medicinal quality to it. Certainly if you were feeling ill, this stuff would fix you right up.
We were also treated to a visit to the 16th century Nativity Church before having lunch at a local restaurant, where I had one of the best salads I’ve ever eaten: nothing but diced tomatoes, cucumber, and shaved goat cheese. Exceptional. The rest of the meal was okay; a sort of goulash concoction with chicken, onions and mushrooms.
After lunch, we had a short amount of time (35 minutes) to explore the shopping district in Veliko Tarnovo before heading back to the ship.
Was it a bad tour? Not at all – in fact, it packed as much in as possible. Perhaps too much, as not a lot of time was spent at any one site. But, as I learned today, it’s important on these river cruises to think about what’s best for you. It can be very easy to overdo it on a smorgasbord of excursions and events.
Tonight, during cocktail hour in the Viking Lounge, the crew began pouring complimentary champagne for everyone in the room. Hotel Manager Katja soon explained why: Viking Ocean Cruises was voted best ocean cruise line in the world by readers of Travel + Leisure magazine. It’s one of the cruise industry’s most prestigious awards; one that, every year for the past 20 years, has gone to Crystal Cruises.
This week, that all came to a stop as Viking claimed the title for itself, coming on the heels of the absolutely incredible Viking Star and her sister, Viking Sea. Viking Star only set sail last May; Viking Sea, this past spring.
In our staterooms, Viking had left a note to us written by its Chairman, Torstein Hagen. Hagen – one of my favorite figures in the cruise industry for his forthrightness and earnest opinions – closed his note with a token of heartfelt appreciation:
“I am so grateful for the passion and commitment of our team who strive to make your journey exceptional – the people you speak with on the phone, those who work behind the scenes, and our officers and staff who become like family while you’re traveling with Viking. Together with your support, their hard work is of course what has help us achieve this great award. We are all deeply honored.”
If anyone deserves this award, it’s Viking. There are lots of good and even great cruise lines out there, but Viking has pulled out all the stops with its Viking Longship river cruise ships like Viking Embla, and it took ocean cruising to new levels when Viking Star launched last May. The vessel is an absolute masterclass in great shipboard design and planning, and Viking has, at long last, brought river cruise-style amenities to the oceans of the world.
The crowd in the Viking Lounge gave a hearty cheer and raised their glasses to what many, including myself, hope will be a long and prosperous future to come. Everyone at the line has worked so hard on each and every voyage I’ve been on, and I can’t think of a nicer group of folks who deserve such meaningful recognition. The King is dead; long live the Vikings!
This evening, I’m writing this from my balcony onboard Viking Embla, as the sun dips beyond the horizon. Most of the guests (nearly all, in fact) are up on the Sun Deck, enjoying cocktails outdoors tonight, snapping photos of the gorgeous sunset in rapid-fire bursts. In fact, out of all the river cruises I’ve taken, I’ve never seen so many people up on the Sun Deck, enjoying the evening and our scenic cruising.
Personally, I like the solitude my balcony – a real, step-out one – affords me. It’s on Deck 2, so the close proximity to the water makes it feel like we’re absolutely racing along, when we’re probably only doing 10 to 12 knots.
If you’ve done the stretch of Danube between Budapest and Nuremberg before, this isn’t that Danube. On that stretch, highways and rail lines run parallel to the river. Towns and cities loom up and fall astern, and nearly every five feet there’s a church steeple peeking out from among the trees. Cyclists can outrace the ships sometimes as they zip along the bike paths – made from the original “tow roads” used by horses to haul riverboats upstream – and the din of modernization is everywhere.
Not here. We may as well be in Alaska now for how quiet and remote it feels. There are no roads that line the shoreline; no towns to dock in. The odd commercial dock is located here and there, but the only real man-made feature on this stretch of river that appears with any kind of consistency are the red and green channel markers. Even the mileage markers – ubiquitous on the Austrian and German sections of the Danube – are largely absent from the shoreline here.
It’s quite, serene and peaceful, with Viking Embla gliding along silently through the night towards Vidin, Bulgaria. Through it all, I’m vaguely aware that this is one of those moments I’ll remember well after it has passed.
Today’s tour may not have been my thing – but the day ended up being one of my absolute favorites thanks to this great evening onboard Viking Embla.
Our Voyage Report from onboard Viking River Cruises’ Viking Embla in Eastern Europe will begin tomorrow from Vidin, Bulgaria! 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|