Travelogue from a Danube river cruise. Sunday June 25th 2006.
Vidin in Bulgaria
The Danube glitters like silver in the morning sun as the ship awakens. We lie by the Bulgarian city Vidin.
The tour starts at 9 lead by a local guide in a summer dress. We walk today. Solid iron plates lie along the bank as far as you can see. They can be raised with a crane as an extra protection against the Danube if necessary. This spring the water was but 3 cm from the top of the normal dike.
Between the city and the river is a long narrow strip of untended park with tall trees, grass and benches that are falling apart. A bombastic monument from the communist era is covered with red paint and graffiti. Weeds flourish in the pavement's cracks.
There are mixed feelings about Bulgaria joining the EU, says the guide. The younger generation is thrilled and can hardly wait, but the older is more sceptical:
"We just got rid of one tyranny and have gained independence - then why should we welcome new masters with open arms?"
However it is probably inevitable - parliament makes the decision and a referendum is out of the question.
The city's well preserved fortress is built upon the ruins of a Roman fort. Some places you can see original Roman stones in the foundation, and they look more clear cut and regular than the stones of latter times when the Turks and the Austrians ruled.
Triangle of Faith
The ruin of the Jewish synagogue stands with naked walls and a garden wilderness. I am out behind to study laundry on the balconies and do not hear if the synagogue was destroyed during the Second World War or what. I don't have the patience to listen to everything the guide says and then you are bound to miss something. A bit further on is an old mosque with a small annexe (library) from the Turkish period. The tiny library had 6000 books that are now in a museum in Sofia. The Russian Catholic church is the last leg in this triangle of faith.
Some half-naked gypsy children beg outside the church. One of the boys has learnt to say "Pleeze give me monni" and repeats this over and over. He has a terrible scar on his shoulder, but looks cheeky and well nourished.
It smells mouldy inside the church, and Helle and I leave quickly and sit on the stairs outside waiting for the others. The kids try their begging skills again, but eventually give up. Beside the entrance is an advertisement-board with death notices. There is an untended playground with no children, and a very young charmer walks by and smiles before he rushes back to mummy.
Some of the Americans return. One of them has accidentally broken some glass-thing inside the church, and now they ask their guide to please find out how they can pay for the damage. The guide sulks, but obediently enters the church. One of the American ladies sits down next to us and starts a conversation with Helle. She is sweet (the American that is), but terribly naïve. I log off when she begins to talk about her daughter, who is a missionary in Indonesia where things are so idyllic and peaceful. Some obviously does not read or hear the news, but I see no reason to inform her about events in Indonesia. She is happier not knowing about bombs and violence.
We wait a long time for the others. So long that I predict they will exit as converts. Back home most Danes see churches inside at weddings and funerals only, so it is a mystery to me why they are so anxious to count wax candles when abroad.
From the church we reach the city square through one of the old city gates. Here we say goodbye to the local guide. We now have some time on our own, but it is Sunday, shops are closed and nature is sending me urgent calls, so we return to the ship, which lies temptingly nearby.
The Morning Team tells that they dropped the guided tour and went on their own to a market. On the way they saw shacks and shocking poverty.
Later we have a chat with Bodil og Keld, who joined us on the guided tour. Bodil is a warm and sensitive person and cries a bit when she thinks of the poor children. "I just can't take it - he was so thin!", she sobs unhappily. The boys did not look thin to me, but she may have seen some other kids, and we try to talk about something else and cheer her up.
Back on the Ship
After lunch (meatloaf) we sail on. We are going home tomorrow, so we go to the cabin and pack some. The window faces south, so in fact it is hotter here than on deck, but we need to rest our ears a bit and lie down until 5 o'clock. Five is teatime and we find shadow on the deck.
There isn't much traffic on this stretch of the river - you see trees and more trees. Some have flooded roots and some have fallen over. Except for this we do not see signs of the flooding this spring, but trees block the view to the land behind. Peaceful it is.
Supper is cheese salad, a creamy soup, chicken in piquant sauce and pancakes. We spend some hours on the deck and admire the sunset. The orders for Monday say wakeup call at 6, so we retire early.
Bucharest and Going Home
Monday June 26th
We arrive to Giurgiu. From here it is an hour's drive to Bucharest. I pack the last stuff and after the morning pipe and a cup of coffee it is time to pay the bar bill. An American is asked if he has paid and answers proudly that he has no bar bill. He has been on the ship for 10 days and has not even bought a bottle of water. And that makes him proud? I would have been slightly embarrassed, but realise that I have just experienced a cultural gap.
After breakfast I settle on the deck and think back on the trip. On one hand it has been very peaceful to flow down the river, but on the other hand I am almost bursting with impressions.
It was a good thing that we sailed with the current. We did not even think of that when we ordered the trip, but now I see we were lucky; had we sailed against the current, the machine should have worked so much harder, and that would have caused noise and vibrations. If there is a next time, I must remember to bring a pair of binoculars.
The cruise has been well arranged and Best Travel's guide, Søren Wormslev, has been fantastic. Helle and I must admit however that we are better off on our own than on guided tours with our allergy to monuments and certain types of sights. When on our own we have a better chance of seeing the 'back alleys and laundry' we prefer to monuments.
When all baggage is on the bus we leave for Bucharest. Between Giurgiu and the capital it is farm land. People work in the fields and use horse carriages and horse-drawn ploughs.
The local guide explains that after the fall of communism much nationalized land has been returned to the original owners or their descendants. But many of these now live in cities and therefore much land is lying fallow. At the same time the birth rate falls and the young do not want to be farmers, so soon there will be only old people to farm the land. The farmers are poor and cannot organise shared use of machines, so things are old fashioned and inefficient. Agriculture will soon be in a crisis unless something dramatic happens.
The local guide speaks English, and as always Søren is an excellent translator. He tells us that the local guide never mentions Ceausescu or his wife by name - she just says 'He' or 'Her'. And after this Søren uses the phrase: 'He who must not be named', and thus Ceausescu is demonized like Voldemort in Harry Potter's magical universe.
The suburbs of Bucharest offer sad concrete apartment blocks and miserable roads. Closer to the centre many house fronts are covered with banner adds. People actually live behind the covered windows. It is probably the ugliest city I have ever seen. The gigantic House of the People is monstrous; the old regime just managed to finish it before its downfall.
We are unloaded close to a McDonald's and get help to exchange money. The guides have warned us strongly against exchanging in the street, because we'll most certainly be cheated or conned. Instead the guide takes us to a bureau, where I (trusting the guide) exchange 10 Euro. Too late I realise that I have paid four times the official Danish exchange rate and have indeed been cheated. Even with the standard fee it would have been much cheaper to use my VISA card in an ATM. For the first time there was something our guide Søren did not know to perfection.
We get a cappuccino at a café where there are at least four to do one person's work. There is a supermarket in the basement below McDonald's. We put a few bananas and an apple in our basket. Even if I divide the prices by four to get closer to the real value it must be quite expensive for Romanians.
The price is per kilo, so the fruit must be weighed. You cannot trust customers to do that, or maybe it is cheaper than cheating to employ a weight watcher. She takes the plastic bag with the bananas and seals it in a special machine to prevent us from adding anything. She then pushes the banana button and puts on the price tag. When the procedure is repeated for the single apple (which I had not put in a bag), I notice that her hands are blackish with grime. Later I polish the apple on my shirt a long time, before I take a bite. Suddenly I feel an aversion against everything strange and long for home.
The bus takes us to the airport and at 14:35 the plane takes off. We fly via Frankfurt to Copenhagen with delay, but fortunately the plane from Copenhagen to Aalborg is delayed too, so we do get home the same evening. Our suitcases do not, but that is another tale.
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