Day 3. Embarking on the river
Sunday dawns hot and sunny and before we get on board MS Treasures we’re treated to a walking tour of Buda; Fisherman’s Bastion, the Hospital in the Rock and, in the 1920s former home of legendary Hungarian composer Bela Bartock, we get a private piano performance.
This Tauck Danube river cruise is an all-inclusive tour, which means everything on board is included; all meals and drinks including premium wines and spirits, all excursions, and all staff gratuities. The boat awaits and a pleasant surprise is the lack of paperwork as we board; A name check and passport handover are all I need to get my cabin card, a refreshing drink and a cold towel. My luggage is already in my cabin, transferred directly from the hotel.
So, all good to go. My air-conditioned cabin, while not being as spacious as say a cruise liner, is well fitted out, the French Balcony patio doors providing welcome fresh air, and once I hide the luggage under the bed there is more than enough room.
We all meet in the main lounge to toast Captain Novak and his officers and make friends with Carlos our Cruise Director, the go to guy on board for everything. As he tells us “I never sleep. I am always at my desk at Reception 24/7”. I make a mental note to find out if Carlos is telling the truth. I bump into Paul and Ilse at dinner and we share a table. It is open seating in the Compass Rose the main restaurant, and as we sit down I suddenly realise we’re moving. Silently and smoothly, Budapest is slipping away.
Dinner is a delightful four-course adventure of flavours and choices. My goose liver brulee, tomato and basil strudel soup, roasted veal tenderloin and gratine of forest fruits were all washed down with some impressive Hungarian Cabernet. Everyone seems to have paired up for dinner, although Marty and Sherry are at the opposite end of the restaurant to the other Tauck vets for some reason.
Post dinner we find ourselves upstairs in the main lounge listening to Wojtek our resident Polish pianist from Plock doing his set, everything from Sinatra to German folk songs. Marty and Sherry have set up camp near the dance floor with a steady supply of spirits and spurred on by Wojtek’s rhythms are busting a few moves and my small group has expanded with another British couple Tom and Inga who convert me to the delights of double Rémy Martins. This is the beauty of all inclusive cruises, premium spirits on tap is far too tempting to pass.
Day 4 Pecs, Hungary
We’ve been cruising through the night and Monday morning we find ourselves moored at Mohacs for our first excursion out to Pecs, a delightfully historic Hungarian city on the slopes of the Mecsek mountains. There are more than enough coaches waiting for us as we troop off the boat after a hearty buffet breakfast.
On my coach, Marty is looking a little worse for wear so I sit with Jim, a big man from Chicago who with his wife Diane are here treating their grandkids to a cruise. Big Jim and I discuss prohibition gangsters and Wimbledon as we head for Pecs. We spend the morning visiting Pecs’ 11th-century cathedral, the UNESCO-protected early Christian Necropolis of Sopianse and the impressive Synagogue which still has a small active community although before WW2 there were over 4,000 Jews living here.
The highlight for me is a lunch stop at the Polgar Winery in Vilany where Zoltan and Katalin Polgar were one of the first private vintners in Hungary. We eat a remarkably good traditional Hungarian lunch down in the huge vaulted cellars; cold plates of homemade salamis, hams and sausages with graves cream, and a choice of roast pork chops, roast duck or Boeuf Bourguignon. Of course, tasting a selection of eight different wines is also gratefully received particularly by Marty who seems to have suddenly perked up now.
We’re back by mid afternoon and I grab one of the boat’s free bikes and take a pedal along the Danube before dinner.
Later in the lounge, a Remy materialises in front of me before I ask (the mark of an excellent bartender) and Wojtek is trying out his Polish version of Abba hits. It seems the day’s sights have exhausted everyone, so it’s an early night. Wojtek looks relieved.
Day 5 Vokovar, Croatia and Novi Sad, Serbia
Vukovar was once a thriving Croatian port with elegant 18th century mansions. Sadly all this was extinguished during the Croatian War of Independence in 1991 when the city was under a Serbian siege for 87 days and over 2,000 townspeople lost their lives and 20,000 were exiled. Today Vukovar is slowly restoring but we still see signs of destruction as we walk through the town.
We take coaches to the small village of Laslovo where we split up into small groups and visit villagers in their homes. Over home-made sljivovic plum brandy and sladoled cake, Sara who still lives here with her parents tells us of the day she had to leave her home as Serb forces closed in and remained there for 7 years. “One day I had to leave with just the clothes I was wearing and go to Hungary for 10 years.
When we came back our house no longer existed, and my parents had to start all over again.” She shows us around her new garden with pigs, rabbits and chickens and all kinds of vegetables. Very self sufficient. It is a remarkable story and one we think about all the way back to the boat.
We cruise on in the afternoon and enter Serbia, where we pause at Novi Sad in the evening and after dinner join the locals for a walk through the old town. Our tour directors pool their cash and buy us all an ice cream. A great little diversion and a perfect opportunity to soak in a bit of local colour.
Day 6 Belgrade, Serbia.
Lily our Belgrade guide is quite the comic. “Someone asked me why we can understand Turkish ” she smirks at our group, “well, we had free lessons for over 500 years.” More anecdotes follow as we tour around the impressive Kalemegdan Fortress park high up on Belgrade’s upper town overlooking the union of the Sava and Danube rivers.
I come across Belgrade’s oldest souvenir hawker, at 81 she has been flogging the old worthless Yugoslavian 500 billion dinar notes ever since they ceased to be legal tender. Sensing my interest, she offers to sell me all the other Dinar denominations too. I flee under threat of drowning in billions of worthless notes
On our way to Tito’s Memorial we pass by the two buildings bombed by NATO during the Kosovo war in the centre of Belgrade, a brutal reminder of this region’s war-torn past. Back on board, we’re treated to a Serbian folklore performance – lots of energetic acrobatic dancing. Charlene is taking notes for later.
Tonight’s dinner is another Tauck exclusive – at Belgrade’s White Palace, the home of the former Serbian royal family who have lived in exile since 1941. It’s a magnificent compound, the Royal Palace quite literally fit for a king and queen, the frescoed Royal chapel, (desecrated by communist forces with a bullet hole in the centre of Christ’s forehead) and the White Palace originally built for the King’s three sons and designed by the same architect as the White House in Washington.
We’re all dressed up for the night, and Inga and Sherry are having trouble navigating the stone flooring in their high heels as we tour the Royal Palace. Tito used to entertain his many VIPs here, and downstairs we explore the fountain room where the noise of the water was loud enough to allow him to talk freely to his guests without the worry of bugging. His state-of-the-art cinema and billiards room is quite the man cave.
Dinner in the White Palace is a grand affair; drinks and canapés on the huge outdoor terrace and a private three course dinner inside. I sit next to Vanya now an American who was born in Serbia and as a child was a refugee from the war. She tells me of her time here and how coming back has been a cathartic experience. A remarkable dinner companion.
We’re all back on board by 11pm and perhaps fuelled by the impressive Serbian wines we had, we’re putting Wojtek through his paces. Sherry takes this opportunity to recreate her Serbian folklore moves she learnt this afternoon with Marty who looks greatly concerned about his safety. On reflection, I suspect Wojtek’s Strangers in the Night is not quite folklore material.