When I was invited to check out Riverside Luxury Cruises’ MS Mozart I was given a few options for itineraries. One jumped out at me as being both having more time on the river to check out all the ship offered and, selfishly, a truly unique itinerary visiting areas I have never been to and which lend themselves to a river cruise.
It was different than, and exceeded, my expectations. It offered a troubling, rather dark, perspective of this part of Europe…and I am better for it. Alas, it is this sort of thought-provoking experience that inspires my love for travel. And, at times, my questioning humanity.
This article is more of a travelogue as I’ve already written about my time in Budapest, Hungary before boarding the MS Mozart and also about the ship itself:
Our journey is roundtrip Budapest, visiting ports in Hungary, Croatia, and Serbia, with a cruise to the Iron Gates in Romania as we sailed downriver before heading back to Budapest. Unfortunately, rain has been a fairly constant companion on this river cruise.
In fact, it has been raining so much over the past month that the Danube River is running high and fast. This has, unfortunately, caused a exploring couple of short stops to be eliminated during our return to Budapest. But, fortunately, I have been able to get a good bit of work done (the internet has been excellent) and had three massages!
But make no mistake, for those who are engaged in history and its effects upon mankind, this was not an easy, light-hearted, journey.
Our river cruise started with a late afternoon departure from Budapest, arriving the next early afternoon arrival was in Vukovar, Croatia. To say it was an eye-opening experience would be an understatement. Since my walking tour was not until 3:30 PM, I headed out (in the rain) for a wander through town; a town that had about 90% of it destroyed in the war that followed the end of Yugoslavia upon Tito’s death.
While the population has not fully recovered, a good portion town has been rebuilt. However, equally noticeable are the scars of buildings that no longer exist and others with bullet and shrapnel holes. I am sure the grayness of the day caused them to make a deeper impression on me.
I returned to MS Mozart for lunch and then my tour. Our guide was a young woman who clearly was not alive when Tito ruled with his iron fist. She was quite good at explaining the war and some of its economically harsh aftermath, but then she talked about Tito; asserting he was a “Benevolent Dictator”.
While this struck me immediately, her explanation of life under Tito raised concerns akin to those who don’t appreciate the horrors of the Nazis. She explained that life was good if you just didn’t question Tito or complain. Oh, the “benefits” of compliance.
But she went on to explain that those who did were sent to “Naked Island” to “push rocks from one side of the island to the other and then back” for a year or two. In reality, the island’s name is Goli Otok, located in the Adriatic Sea. It is where Tito established what some consider to be the most violent and horrific of all concentration camps. It was not where pushing rocks was the focus, but rather forcing prisoners to beat and torture each other or, if they refused, be killed themselves.
As our tour continued, our guide pointed out a famous shoe brand and explained how the factory was located in Vukovar but in the late 1940’s the government nationalized all industries. The fact that the owner that created the business lost his business and wealth was glossed over.
At the time, I could not put the dots together as to how or why she could speak of the darkness with such casualness and with the belief that Tito was somehow benevolent. Both disconcerting and thought-provoking, to say the least!
The next day we arrived in Belgrade, Serbia. Due to the river conditions, our itinerary was modified so that we visited earlier in the journey. I think it was a real improvement to have this important city earlier in the cruise. That said, at the time I was not sure what to be expecting, but I wasn’t expecting what I experienced!
My day started with a Culinary Morning Stroll Through Belgrade (in the rain). It consisted of a visit to a farmer’s market, then a small restaurant for a platter of fried bread, roasted peppers, a sort of cheesy butter, a tomato, and two types of fried pork. You know I eat just about anything, but the greasy fried pork just wasn’t worth the effort…especially since fried bread with cheesy butter was a winner.
We then headed to a bakery where we sampled two types of walnut pastry. As soon as it hit my lips I thought of my Austrian grandmother’s cookies! Her cookies were light as a feather and this was a good bit heavier. She never told me her secret ingredient, but it was out – over 50 years later: Ground Walnuts!
A further stroll into a more residential area with cafes lining the streets and we came to a wine shop where we sampled two unexceptional Serbian wines; one white and one red. (Are then any exceptional ones?)
During our stroll, the guide spoke a bit about the history of Belgrade and the influences of both the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarians. But our guide did not talk about the recent past at all, which I found curious.
When we returned to the ship for lunch I asked one of the Serbian waiters if talking about the recent past was to be avoided. He said, “It doesn’t matter.” And between the two of them, it got me thinking.
With the rain continuing, almost everyone canceled the afternoon Forest Hike to Avala Mountain; so it was just me, the guide, and two “social media influencers”.
Fortunately, as we drove to the forest, the sun came out and we had a very nice light hike up Avala Mountain.
The guide and I hit it off so conversation flowed as we hiked. Meanwhile, the social media folks did whatever it was that they did – other than annoying me with their total indifference to where we were and what we are experiencing: Searching for emotionless “beautiful” photos and videos.
When we got to the top of the mountain our guide took us to The Monument to the Unknown Hero, which was quite striking as was the guide’s explanation of the politics and art surrounding it.
However, the “social media influencers” just overtook the monument so I could not get near it, lest I interfere with the self-absorbed activities/photo shoot. So I let them and had a chat with my guide, noticing the monument speaks of Yugoslavia, not Serbia.
That led me to ask if he sees himself as a Yugoslav or a Serb because there was a Serbia before a Yugoslavia and now again. He paused after first saying he was – at the time – a Yugoslav and now is a Serb. Interesting. So I posed this to him: I am culturally Jewish but I am also American; they aren’t exclusive. And that led him to start talking about how they want a place for all Serbs to live connected.
No mention was made of “removing” Muslims, etc. from those areas, but I felt it was a hint that “they don’t belong where we live”. And that sent a chill up my spine as the thought of the horrific ethnic cleansing that occurred where we were…and not so long ago.
Then I relayed that neither my morning’s guide nor the server wanted to talk about recent Serbian history. He paused again, and then responded, that it is difficult to deal with the actions of the government versus the feelings of the people. He didn’t take it any further than that, as he clearly was uncomfortable, but his message was clear.
I appreciated he opened up just that little bit. I’m not sure he wants to do that any time soon, though it is so necessary.
It reminded me of a discussion I had with a guide in Nuremberg, Germany a few years ago as we toured Hitler’s stage, the Cathedral, etc. She said that for years Germans didn’t want to recognize and deal with the Holocaust. The Germans just didn’t talk about it. But then the adults started to realize that the youth of Germany really didn’t understand the importance of what happened and why it cannot be wiped away by ignoring the horrors of it. Now they are teaching the German youth about the Holocaust and politics of the time because it is so important to Never Forget.
Eventually, I did get to enjoy the beauty and meaning of the Monument while my head was swirling with thoughts that I felt I had to keep to myself.
Honestly, I needed the respite of Riverside’s MS Mozart to relax and unwind. That evening I sat quietly in the Cigar Lounge sipping on my Glenfiddich and puffing on a couple of nice cigars I had brought with me.
The next day was a “sea day” as we traveled far down the Danube to The Iron Gates of Romania. I was going to sleep in, but my alarm went off and I was up. Unfortunately, as we were cruising with Serbia on one side and Romania on the other, which is an hour ahead, my phone switched to Romanian time and I was up early rather than leisurely late.
It wound up being fortuitous as the beauty of the river, the shear rock faces, the greenery, etc. were so appreciated…even with the rain coming and going. There were also some interesting sites we passed along the way, including a monastery and a curiously creepy stone face carved into the mountainside.
As I stared out at the beautiful landscapes, I reflected back on my two visits to Constanta, Romania, and the hardships put upon the citizens by its dictator, Nicolae Ceausescu. The difficulties in recovering once he was removed and executed were very apparent.
The Iron Gates, where MS Mozart turned around and started the journey back up to Budapest, Hungary, is not a set of iron gates, but rather the long gorge itself. I cannot find a consistent answer as to how it obtained its name. But as there now is a dam that crosses the gorge, many onboard thought that was it.
On the lighter side of things – balance is important – it was also a great day for a good massage followed by a long nap! Why? because my daughter, Devin, was finally “walking” after graduating from Columbia University with her Masters of Fine Arts. Obviously, I couldn’t be there, but Columbia was live-streaming the evening event. So, I was awake from 1:00 AM to 4:00 AM watching it all and texting with Devin throughout. It was truly a unique way to attend, but it worked!
Next up was Novi Sad, Serbia which – due to time constraints – was just a morning visit. I wish we had more time there, as it was the first charming city we visited and having a bit of a wander after my Walking Tour would have been appreciated.
The walking tour started out with a visit to Jevrejska (Jewish) Street and Novi Sad Synagogue for a concert. The history of the significant Jewish population of Novi Sad being relocated to this street and the street being chained closed each night was not mentioned. But I knew it had to be – and was – the case. (We were told of a thriving Jewish population wiped out by the Nazis…as if there was no Hungarian involvement…which there was.)
In fact, it wasn’t mentioned that the synagogue was no longer active (quite the contrary). But I had my suspicions when I noticed the entirety of the interior had been painted over in with flat white paint, with only a minimal amount of Jewish remnants still existing. Alas, only about 400 Jews remain in a city of over 300,000 and the government took over the synagogue long ago.
Taking a deep breath, we were given a wonderful concert that I really enjoyed. And, of course, at least the synagogue is being used for something beautiful.
We then walked into the city center in the rain for a brief chat about Novi Sad’s history and then the dreaded “typical” stuff happened. A visit to a church, 30 minutes of “free time” – which is never enough to do anything other than shop – and then a five-minute stop at a souvenir shop that wound up being twenty. Ugh.
And there was my opportunity to wander about Novi Sad gone. Had it been a sunny day, with people out and the cafes that were everywhere filled, I might have been more disappointed than frustrated. Oh well.
That evening I enjoyed the Vintage Room experience. There was an enjoyable presentation of cuisine and some of the finer wines onboard.
Did it compare…could it compare…to my Michelin star experience in Budapest? Of course not. Was it a fun time with fellow guests in an upscale room with great service and delicious and creative cuisine? Absolutely! Now, whether it is worth the price tag (almost $300 a person) is a personal decision.
As my river cruise winds down, the last day before arriving back in Budapest (where we will overnight) we had an early morning stop in Mohacs, Hungary but only to drop off the guests that wanted to take an full-day tour to Pecs. Almost all of the guests took the tour, but personally I could not see having two and half hours in a bus to visit a porcelain factory, a paprika museum and such. Most all that took the tour said it was enjoyable and were glad they took it.
With the sun peaking out, and the ship sailing upstream, some quiet time on the top deck and some other with my French balcony door open as I continue to catch up on work seemed like the best choice for me.
Unfortunately, again due to the high water as we travel upriver, my anticipated tour in Kolocsa, Hungary was canceled as it was now just a stop to pick up the guests who went to Pecs. I know it is a town, which has a rich history, and one of many where the Nazis deported all the Jews and very few ever returned.
However, on arrival I was told I could get off and walk around for an hour. As the town was too far away, I had a bit of a stroll and found a little “village” with a couple of very small restaurants. Well, you know what I did, right?
I saw that Fish Soup was available with a number of options, including “No Fish”. Well, I went for Fish Soup with Mixed Fish with Noodles (another option) and a local beer. I sat down at a picnic table and waited admiring the peaceful view across the Danube.
My soup was a delicious fish broth with a tomato and paprika base accompanied by a plate of fish (Danube carp, Danube catfish and another unidentified but delicious one) and a plate of rather stiff and flavorless noodles that when put into the soup absorbed all that deliciousness. Yum!
As I headed back to the ship – on time, I might add! – the crew greeted me and were genuinely excited (and a bit jealous) of my culinary experience.
As we sailed toward our last destination, Budapest, we finally had a beautiful sunset, but my journey was not yet over. And little did I know that my respite from the cultural immersion and difficult history that MS Mozart gave me would only be even more appreciated after my day in Budapest!
We overnighted in Budapest, Hungary. For my final day, I arranged a private tour that, honestly, I could not have chosen better after the thought-provoking experiences I had so far: Dictatorships of Hungary.
My guide was excellent, both knowledgeable and charming. And I am glad the charming part was there because the subject matter was difficult and upsetting, but at least I was hearing the unfettered truth with nothing being held back. I won’t get into the details, but Hungary hasn’t had much time not effectively under a dictator or authoritarian.
We started with a long walk along the Danube River, passing the Parliament Building and The Shoes on the Danube Promenade, my guide started our discussion of life under the various regimes and their impact. The Shoes memorial is in honor of the 3,500 people (800 of the Jews) who were executed and thrown into the river by the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party in 1944-1945.
We continued on, walking Liberty Square and its statues of Ronald Reagan, George Bush Sr., a monument to the Soviet Union’s liberation of Hungary, arriving at a most disturbing and controversial monument “honoring” the Year of Holocaust Remembrance.
Keeping in mind that Hungary cooperated with the Nazis to deport over 400,000 Jews…and The Shoes on the Danube memorial…this effort by the current Hungarian regime to whitewash Hungary’s past has offended – better angered – everyone; including most Hungarians.
Let me explain a bit: Planned and constructed in secret in 2014, it depicts the Nazis in the form of an eagle flying over an angel, depicting Hungary as a victim, and is flanked by a disingenuous plaque, “In Memory of the Victims” in English, Hebrew, German, and Russian.
There were many large protests against it. Currently, there is a long barbed wire with numerous photographs, letters, sketches, etc. all setting out the truth of Hungary’s indisputable involvement in the horrors. It was quite moving.
OK, time for a needed break. We stopped a shop that pretty much sells one thing: Langos – Hungarian Fried Bread. We bought two, one traditional one with cheese and one with cheese, sausage and onions. We paired them with a light Hungarian Wine (Frittmann Irsai Oliver) and soda, also known as a spritzer. Ya gotta love fried bread!
It was then back to reality. We took the Hungarian Metro, a small subway system which was proudly mentioned to have been built in 1896; almost a decade before the New York subway was.
It took us the The House of Terror. I have to admit I thought it was going to be a touristic horror movie exhibit. Oh, how wrong I was! It truly was a house of terror where torture and executions took place.
While the videos of the atrocities of the Nazis and the Soviets were chillingly impactful, having a private guide to explain much of the history and explaining the exhibits and the actual torture rooms, cells and execution stations, made this a visit that I will not soon forget…nor should I.
We then took a long walk, sort of unwinding from the day’s intensity, along some beautiful, tree-lined, boulevards, through the large and impressive local farmer’s market (I have to go back there!), and finally winding up at a tram station, which we took back to the ship.
Leaving aside the subject matter of the day, having a lovely walk along the banks of the Danube, a stroll through the city, having a bit of a taste of Hungarian cuisine, a ride on the metro and on the tram, made for a nice way to see the city of Budapest in a fulfilling way.
But my time on Riverside Luxury Cruises’ MS Mozart was not done! I made it back just in time to have a bit of a Top Deck Barbeque which was winding down, as my tour took longer than anticipated. Huge grilled prawns and a baked potato with a cold local draft beer was both needed and delicious.
After a shower, a nice nap, and a final cocktail hour on the Top Deck overlooking Budapest, it was time for a final dinner
and a 2:45 AM wakeup for my included airport transfer for my journey back home.
Reflecting back on my time on Riverside Luxury Cruises MS Mozart, I wasn’t really prepared for how solid the river cruise product would be delivered since Riverside is a brand new company (albeit part of an established hospitality corporation).
Nor was I prepared for how impactful the itinerary and provided tours could be. I thought this unique itinerary would provide me access to places I hadn’t been, but not how deeply they would impact me. Now, to be sure, I think my perspectives were different than most, as some came for just a river cruise.
Having the respite of a true luxury river cruise “home” – especially with the rainy weather – most definitely gave me the opportunity to feel the impact of the journey without being overwhelmed or depressed by it. It was, to be sure, a very well appreciated balance.
I don’t think I could give Riverside Luxury Cruises a better compliment.
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