'Tell me again," my friend asked. "Where is it you're cruising?"
"The Balkans," I said.
"No, the Balkans," I replied. "It's in Eastern Europe, the southeastern part. You know, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania. . . . The Danube River runs through them."
I doubt my friend is the only person who finds the association of "cruising" and "Serbia" hard to grasp. But since the conflicts of the 1990s ended, the Balkans have heated up -- in a good way. Savvy travellers are flocking to the area. Guidebooks about the region are proliferating. And cruise lines are serving up Balkan itineraries.
Their route follows the legendary Danube. At nearly 2,900 kilometres, it is the second-longest river in Europe and cuts through 10 countries. It also holds an unparalleled place in history, playing host to merchants, empire-builders and rabble-rousers from Attila and his Huns to Celtic tribesmen.
I decided to conquer the region aboard a sleek 150-passenger vessel run by Viking River Cruises. In 15 days, we would float from the centre of Europe to the Black Sea, from Budapest downstream.
Our first stop was the Serbian town of Novi Sad. Called the "Serbian Athens" because of its many artists and writers, it was the birthplace of Albert Einstein's wife Mileva. Today, the city's downtown is home to lovely Old World architecture, a slew of sidewalk cafés and well-stocked bookstores.
Back on board the ship in time for lunch, I chose traditional Serbian cevapcici from the menu. While I demolished the tasty grilled-meat dish, my eyes scanned the mud-coloured river through the dining room's large picture windows. Cows grazed along the shore, men fished from small boats, and there was a stretch of white houses with red-tiled roofs that seemed just a good rain away from being flooded.
I was feeling less than stable myself come evening. As we entered Transylvania, a region of Romania, the wind started up and the waters grew choppy. By morning, I saw that our previously flat terrain had given way to mist-shrouded peaks looming over the ship. On deck, a lone raven clutched onto a railing, screeching its black head off.
Soon, fog reduced all visibility. Out there, beyond the Danube's north bank, lies the land that fostered the likes of Vlad Tepes, a 15th-century prince who was the inspiration for Bram Stoker's Dracula.
But early the next day, when we docked at the Romanian port of Giurgiu, the murkiness had subsided. As we started a day-long tour of Bucharest, it was clear enough to see that the 65-kilometre drive to the country's capital ran through patches of the Middle Ages. Peasant-garbed women swept streets with twig brooms. Farmers plowed with horses.Still, Bucharest itself startled me. When I was there 20 years ago, during dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's reign, the city was a wreck: few cars, nothing for sale in the stores, little food. But on my recent visit, there were traffic jams, stores selling designer clothes and, according to our guide Carla, 22 McDonald's restaurants.
There were also tourists thronging the city's most popular attraction: the grandiose Palace of Parliament. The 1,000-room complex was Ceausescu's dream project, though it wasn't completed until after his execution in 1989. Now, it's the world's second-biggest building, so sprawling I couldn't get the whole thing in my camera's viewfinder.
From here, we continued down the Danube, which grew wider as we went. Often, walls of trees lined both banks. With no settlements, it was easy to imagine I was looking at the same scene witnessed by Roman legions 2,000 years ago.
The next day, the boat docked at the Romanian port of Cernavoda, meaning "black water." Our excursion was to Mamaia, the country's top resort, where villa construction was booming. I put my fingers in the Black Sea, and it hit me that I was at the crossroads of Europe and Asia.
Not far away is Constanta, Romania's second city and largest seaport. Here, I didn't need to use my imagination -- the Romans came through this landscape, and it shows: Ruins nonchalantly speckle the grounds of a city park, and outside the city Roman-style vineyards cover the hillsides.
At this point, our cruise was half over and the ship turned round to go back up the Danube. This is how the Turks intimidated Europe -- going upstream until they were stopped in 1683 at the gates of Vienna. For nearly 500 years beginning in 1396, the Turks ruled Bulgaria, our next port of call. In addition to its political past, though, the area is defined by the Balkan mountains that lend the region its name. And it's this hilly terrain that makes the town of Veliko Tarnovo so stunning: Stone houses carpet hillsides, a ruined citadel perches on a peak.
Mind you, after a full day of shore touring, it was blissful to return to the pampering of the ship and a full 48 hours without a port stop. Why not take advantage of fine-dining, the glass-walled observation lounge and bar and classes on regional culture (strudel making, for example)?
Then there was the endless entertainment of simply watching river life: the ship jockeying its way through two locks, a stream of barges, people washing clothes or fishing. By afternoon, we were gliding through the dramatic Iron Gates gorge, where the river squeezes itself between towering limestone cliffs on both sides -- Serbia on one bank, Romania the other.
According to the cruise manager, this is "the most scenic part of the Danube." But once upon a time, this 100-kilometre stretch was infamous for its treachery. Muscular currents. Exposed rocks. Then a huge dam tamed the passage in 1974 and passengers' only concern became capturing this scenic loot on camera.
Our next stop was Belgrade. The Serbian capital was full of life -- often very chic life. On the wide pedestrian-only street Kneza Mihailova, women were dressed to the nines, stiletto heels clicking as they sashayed past grand architecture housing upscale boutiques, stylish cafés and bank machines galore. Everyone seemed to have a cellphone at his or her ear.
This revitalization is nothing new for a city that has often found itself in trouble. Over its 2,300-year history, Belgrade has been destroyed and rebuilt about 40 times. All of which leads you to expect at least one knock-out fort. Which comes in the form of the Kalemegdan Citadel.
Roosting high on a hill at the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers, this is a strategic edifice -- but it's also more than a historical landmark. "Belgraders come here too. It's like a park," said Milos, a young fellow who was my guide. It's also where retired Serbian NBA player Vlade Divac learned to shoot hoops.
In other parts of town, we drove past mansions on leafy streets, five-star hotels, overcrowded local buses and a couple more McDonald's.
Appropriately, the cruise ended in aristocratic Vienna, the city most associated with the Danube. After all, it was here that Johann Strauss Jr. composed his famous waltz in 1867. As we drove from the river into the city, a guide motioned to a balconied building at 54 Praterstrasse, and said, "That's where Strauss wrote the Blue Danube. On the second floor."
And what was on the first floor? A McDonald's. The latest conqueror of Eastern Europe to make its way along the Danube.
Pack your bags
Viking River Cruises: 1-877-668-4546; http://www.vikingrivercruises.com. There are 14 sailings of the 14-night Eastern European Odyssey from May 14 to Nov. 12. Prices start at $3,710 (based on double occupancy), and include 12 guided shore tours.
For 2006, cruises will be aboard the Viking Neptune, which features all outside cabins.
Intrav: 1-800-456-8100; http://www.intrav.com. This cruise line offers two slightly different itineraries:
The 11-night River of Emperors, sailing June 21, June 28, July 8, and July 15 starting at $2,780.
The 13-night Danube and the Black Sea with departures May 20 and June 1 starting at $3,705.
Prices are double occupancy, including shore excursions.
Peter Deilmann Cruises: 1-800-348-8287; http://www.deilmann-cruises.com. This line offers 10- and 11-day cruises on three different ships. Cruises run in May, June and July with prices from $1,850 a person, shore excursions extra.
Uniworld: 1-800-360-9550; http://www.uniworld.com. This cruise line offers four different Lower Danube itineraries:
Budapest to the Black Sea is an 11-day voyage starting at $3,251.
The 13-day Black Sea to Vienna starts at $4,065.
The 21-day Prague to the Black Sea starts at $6,620.
The 25-day Ultimate Grand Cruise from Amsterdam to the Black Sea starts at $7,435.
All rates are double occupancy and include shore excursions, as well as airfare from select American hubs.