Dispatches from Europe: Views on the Danube
by Sam Matthews
May 30, 2014 | 3289 views | 0 0 comments | 61 61 recommendations | email to a friend | print
BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — After five days of mostly chilly, sometimes rainy weather in Berlin, we arrived by Air Berlin to Budapest, Hungary’s capital city, and were greeted with blue skies and warm temperatures.

And when I say “we,” I mean the 27 people from all corners of the U.S. who are members of a tour organized by Road Scholar, previously known as Elderhostel, which stresses educational elements on its tours.

The first thing we did after being bused from the airport to the center of the city divided by the Danube River was to board the 150-passenger river ship AmaCerto. Only two years old, it is among the new breed of well-appointed river ships constructed to meet the demands of the recent surge of river travel all over the world. Our cabin on the second deck proved more than adequate, with large windows and a balcony for easy viewing of the river and passing scenery.

Budapest is indeed a world-class city, with the hilly Buda side featuring a castle and church atop a hill overlooking the river and the flatter Pest side beyond.

A bus tour the next day gave us an overview of both sides of the river, and there is certainly a lot of historic sites connected to the city’s and nation’s long history, capped by its emergence in 1989 from Communist rule as a member of the eastern bloc of nations controlled by the Soviet Union.

Monica Feher, our ship tour director and a native of Hungary, reminded us that it was the Hungarian government — traditionally more moderate than some of the other Soviet bloc countries — that triggered the tearing down of the Berlin Wall and Iron Curtain in November 1989 by allowing, a month earlier, Hungarian and East German citizens to begin traveling through gaps in the Hungarian-Austrian border fences to the West.

Since then, Hungary, with a long history of agricultural productivity, has built a mixed economy that makes the Budapest area appear busy and successful, despite the ups and downs of economic conditions.

After the daytime bus tour, the AmaCerto’s captain took the ship on a nighttime tour of the Budapest riverfront. The towering spires of the Hungarian parliament building on the bank of the Pest side provide a majestic symbol of city and nation, especially when bathed in spotlights at night. If you’ve seen the Viking River Cruises ads on TV, the parliament building has appeared countless times.

The harbor was filled with river ships. I counted more than two dozen large, modern ones and countless smaller vessels. Yes, river cruising is thriving — and rapidly growing

Heading west from Budapest on the Danube — a broad, fast-moving river with green, not blue, water and tree-lined banks — our first stop was at Bratislava, capital of Slovakia, the eastern part of Czechoslovakia that became an independent nation in 1993.

From its reputation as an industrial center (several auto factories and other major industries in the region), I didn’t expect much in the way of old-world charm. Boy, was I wrong. Bratislava has a wonderful, compact historical center, one that is rich in restored and rebuilt buildings, pedestrian-only streets, town squares and countless restaurants and sidewalk cafes.

Like Hungary, The Slovak Republic is part of the European Union, but Slovakia is also in the Euro zone, easing the task of paying for coffee, or anything else.

After the group walking tour was completed, we plopped down on outdoor seating in front of The Giraffe, a coffee house by day and a night spot after the sun goes down. We ordered several kinds of coffee. The affable owner, Jura Rasia, sat down with us. He said he had visited his brother, an attorney living in Irvine, Orange County. And yes, he said, the boom in river travel was bringing many more tourists to Bratislava. The season, he added, was just starting with the good weather this week following the heels of rain and wind last week.

“We should be busy all summer and into the fall,” he said in fluent English. “And the Danube ships are certainly a growing part of the reason we’ll be busy.”

From The Giraffe, we walked back to our ship docked on the Danube. We had done our part to keep Bratislava’s river-ship trade booming.

Next week: We keep heading upstream, visiting Vienna and other ports of call in Austria.

• Sam Matthews, Tracy Press publisher emeritus, is traveling in Europe and will provide reports along the way.

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