I’m still trying to imagine what paprika in brandy (apparently a speciality in Hungary) would taste like when Gabor, my guide on a tour to the Hungarian puszta, announces: “We give it to visitors we don’t like so they don’t come back.” That roughly sums up what I was imagining so I look around hastily. No sign of any super-fiery firewater going the rounds in the coach. Phew! Clearly, Gabor is satisfied we have all been paying attention during this excursion to see whip-cracking cowboys showing off their horse-riding skills.
Of course, we have. It’s been an excellent day out watching them gallop their steeds while carrying full pint glasses, whip bottles off a podium and persuade their horses to lie down. One even drove 10 horses at speed around the ring while standing on the backs of the last two.
The tour is one of several great trips offered on the lower Danube cruise I’m doing with Emerald Cruises that is taking us from Romania to Hungary by way of Bulgaria, Serbia and Croatia. It’s been a great trip with war, invasion, Greeks, Romans, Ottoman Turks and Russians all playing their part and leaving their mark in the form of coffee, forts and roses. Roses? They were introduced to Bulgaria by Alexander the Great and are such big business these days that the country calls itself the Land of Roses due to all the oil it produces from the petals, which are also used in jam, jelly, Turkish Delight and schnapps. The locals even use them on rashes and to get rid of headaches.
The cruise started with a night in a hotel in Bucharest and a tour of the Palace of the Parliament built by former Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu - a massive building (the second-largest administrative building in the world) and lavishly over-the-top with marble floors, grand chandeliers and fine silk panels. Ironically, before Ceausescu could move in, the Soviet Union collapsed, he and his wife were arrested, tried for crimes against the country and executed. That afternoon we transferred to the port of Giurgiu to embark Emerald Sun, a superb river cruise ship with cabins and suites with balconies and panoramic windows and a glass-enclosed swimming pool that was so lovely I took up residence there most of the time we were sailing.
From Giurgiu we sailed to Rousse and Vidin in Bulgaria, Golublac and Belgrade in Serbia, Vukovar in Croatia and Kalocsa in Hungary before disembarking in Budapest. We saw spectacular rock formations in Belogradchik, had a day to explore buzzing Belgrade, which was packed with people, bars and restaurants and transited the Iron Gates Gorge, a valley that narrows to less than 500 feet at one point. The gorge is picturesque but the main attraction is a huge rock statue of King Decebalus, the erstwhile ruler of Dacia, in present-day Romania, who tried to fend off a Roman invasion. He failed but is still a hero to the Romanians.
Emerald Waterways is a relatively new river cruise line but its growth has been meteoric, expanding from one ship cruising the Rhine and Danube in 2014 to seven vessels that also cruise the Rhône in France and the Douro in Portugal. This summer, it will grow again as the new Emerald Harmony enters service with one-week cruises on the Mekong River in Vietnam and Cambodia. It’s a really exciting itinerary, visiting local markets, riding on tuk-tuks and being blessed by Buddhist monks. The cruises, between Ho Chi Minh City and Siem Reap, are available either with extra time in both cities with excursions to the temples of Angkor Wat and the Củ Chi Tunnels where Viet Cong fighters lived during the Vietnam War, or longer tours of Vietnam that visit Hanoi, Hue and Hoi An. Most Mekong cruises have been snapped up for this year but 2020 and 2021 dates are already on sale.
But back to the lower Danube. From Rousse, we went to Veliko Tarnovo, the capital of Bulgaria before the Ottomans invaded in the 1300s. They stayed almost 500 years, spreading their empire across the Balkans before being defeated at the gates of Vienna in 1683. During their tenure, the Turks turned churches into mosques, destroyed castles and palaces and generally made themselves very unpopular but one good thing did come out of their occupation, according to Inga, our guide in Croatia. When they fled, they left their coffee behind and so the coffee-house culture in what was to become the Austro-Hungarian empire was born.
From Vukovar, we went to Osijek, a city famous locally for opening the first brewery in Croatia after the Ottomans were kicked out in the late 1600s and a large fort built by the Austrian Empire to make sure they didn’t return. The tour was good but the best bit was yet to come - a home-hosted lunch in the nearby village of Aljimaš. Which is how I ended up tucking into Croatian fasirka, a kind of meat patty served with rice and proja, a muffin-like dessert made with cornflour, pears and apricots, with bed and breakfast owner, Branka, who talked frankly about life in Croatia now and during the war with Serbia as Yugoslavia collapsed. It was all so interesting that I forgot to stop eating - at least that’s my excuse for having three fasirka’s!