We woke up the next morning with our ship docked in Rousse, Bulgaria. From there we were bused an hour and a half through the Bulgarian countryside to the village of Arbanassi near the former Bulgarian capital of Veliko Tarnovo. We rode through large agricultural fields of corn, sunflowers, wheat, and roses. The country has primarily an agricultural economy and one of its specialties is roses, rose oil in particular. The oil is used in creams, rose water, soaps, and all kinds of homeopathic medicines for asthma, gallstones, and nervous diseases brought on by stress.
Today Arbanassi is an open-air museum that includes 80 houses, 5 churches and an inn. In its heyday during the 17th and 18th centuries the village was home to well-to-do merchant families and skilled copper and gold smiths. The late 18th and early 19th centuries brought pillaging, plague and cholera as the Ottoman Empire began its long decline. Like Romania, Bulgaria was occupied by the Ottoman Empire for roughly 500 years. The 1878 Russian defeat of the Ottomans eventually led to Bulgarian independence in 1908.
We toured a traditional home that had been reconstructed to showcase how a well-to-do extended family of three generations lived during Arbanassi’s heyday. The family practiced some Turkish customs like sitting cross-legged on platforms and, of course, placing lots of beautiful Turkish carpets throughout their home. The animals were housed on the ground floor and the people on the floor above.
The kitchen was the largest room in the house and, in this case, held a secret staircase in which to hide very young boys. The Ottomans had the nasty habit of taking young boys from their families and transporting them to Turkey to train them to be soldiers in the Ottoman army.
The highlight of our day was the tour of Nativity Church with its remarkable painted murals on the inside walls. The church is very plain on the outside with no cross or spire to announce its purpose. But the inside is an astounding depiction of the universe as seen through Orthodox Christian eyes. The purpose of the murals was to teach the mostly illiterate population the precepts of the Old and New Testaments. Men and women had separate rooms for worship.
The Wheel of Life is my favorite wall painting. It tells the story of an ambitious young man as he rises in the world and becomes a powerful person but then falls victim to his own egotism, putting himself above the laws of God and falling into the arms of Satan at the end of his life.
The next day commenced with our tour leader Valentin giving us a presentation entitled “Humor in Communism.” His talk had some funny moments but it was basically the same anti-communist/anti-socialist rant we had been hearing since we arrived in Romania. To me what his talk really revealed is a deep cynicism about government in general.
In the afternoon we were on the bus again, this time going to the Belogradchik Rocks where the Romans built the original Fortress of Belogradchik. The rocks are huge geological formations that occurred over 200 million years ago on the ocean floor at the start of the tectonic cycle that folded the ocean floor into the Balkan Mountains. The rock formations are so high that the Romans only had to build walls on two sides to make their fortification. Later, after the Ottoman conquest, the fortress was expanded as a response to the insurrectionist activity that was occurring.
After the Ottomans were finally driven out of the country, the new government wanted to tear the walls of the fortress down because it represented a hated symbol of Ottoman rule, but the local shepherds were using it to corral their sheep and staged “a sheep-in” to keep it intact. Their protest worked and the Fortress of Belogradchik became an important symbol of the struggle for Bulgarian independence.
The site has been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site but some work should be done to make it a safer place to visit. We were able to walk inside the walls but it was quite treacherous climbing up the stairs to the higher levels. The stairs were in need of repair and the handrails were quite shaky. I basically ascended on my hands and knees and descended on my butt. Noel wisely watched from below.
The next morning found us cruising on the Danube leaving Bulgaria behind as we headed toward Serbia through the Iron Gates. The Iron Gates mark the narrowest part of the Danube. Originally, there were four narrow gorges and three wide basins on this section of the river, spread over a 50-mile area. Navigating the Danube there was very tricky and dangerous. In the 1960’s and 70’s the governments of Romania and what was then Yugoslavia entered into a joint project of building two large hydroelectric dams that had the effect of raising the river 130 feet, thus creating a storage lake about 100 miles wide.
After our ship passed through the locks at the two hydroelectric dams that now comprise the Iron Gates, our tour leader Valentin pointed out the Tabula Trajana, a large Roman tablet on the Serbian side of the river honoring the Roman emperor Trajan. Trajan’s tablet had to be elevated up over the lake.
Opposite the Tabula Trajana on the Romanian side of the Danube we passed an enormous rock carving of the face of Decebalus Rex, the last king of Dacia, who fought against the emperor Trajan and lost. Dacia was an independent tribal region in what is now Romania that was conquered by the Romans. The sculpture was commissioned in the 1990’s by a Romanian businessman with nationalist sympathies named Constantin Dragan. He wanted a “faceoff,” if you will, between Romania and Serbia. He challenged Serbia to erect a giant head of Trajan opposite his champion Decebalus Rex. The Serbs chose to ignore him.
The dams have had a profound negative impact on the Danube’s wildlife, notably its sturgeon population. Over the years Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria have all banned sturgeon fishing and made attempts to restock the river with some success; but it is an ongoing project.
I noticed a large hillside installation on the Serbian side of the river honoring Josep Broz Tito who governed what was Yugoslavia from 1945 until his death in 1980. We would hear a lot more about Tito over the next few days.
Finally, we arrived at a small Serbian village where a bus was waiting to transport us to Lepenski Vir. Lepenski Vir is a museum displaying the archeological remains of a mesolithic human settlement that established itself in the area around 7500 BC. Apparently, a new group of humans from Asia Minor arrived in the area and integrated immediately with the indigenous population of hunter-gatherers. The new arrivals brought with them knowledge of agriculture and animal husbandry. Serbian archeologist Andrej Starovíc claims that this rapid blending of the two cultures was an important stepping stone in the development of human culture in Europe. Lepenski Vir thrived as a permanent settlement and the notions of family and village began to take hold across the entire continent.
The original location of the Lepenski Vir site is now under water. It was excavated between 1965 and 1971 when the whole site was then relocated to higher ground to avoid the flooding caused by the construction of the Iron Gate I Hydroelectric Power Station. We were treated to a very interesting 30-minute documentary of the excavation. The museum exhibits are fascinating with small and large sculptural objects of humanoid figures with fish-like features that suggest they represent river gods. There are several recreated burial sites on exhibit. The main exhibit hall displays the trapezoidal-shaped foundations of the houses and their positioning in the village.
Our guide this day was terrific and conveyed well the museum’s message – if there is food, shelter and security, human beings will thrive and live together peacefully. The Lepenski Vir location with its natural whirlpool (vir means whirlpool in Serbian) offered its human occupants lots of sturgeon to catch, good hunting in the surrounding forests, and a safe place to build shelters.
On the Romanian side of the river directly opposite the village is Treskavak Rock, a huge trapezoidal-shaped stone outcropping embedded with feldspar crystals. There is a lot of speculation about what this natural monument represented to the people living in Lepenski Vir – a marker for the winter solstice, a natural lightning rod that protected the village from lightning strikes, a home of the river gods, maybe all three. It is certainly no coincidence that the foundations of the houses mirror the trapezoid shape of Treskavak Rock. Our guide described being in the museum when there was a lightning storm. According to him, Treskavak Rock’s propensity to attract lightning creates quite a show at times.
One of the most impressive things about the Lepenski Vir museum is the beauty and simplicity of the building’s contemporary architecture. We cruised by it later on in the day and it glowed like a white shield protecting the remains of this fascinating stage of human history in Europe.
The next day we arrived in Belgrade with high hopes after our visit to Lepenski Vir the day before. The Danube merges with the Sava River in Belgrade. It is the resting place of the famous Serbian scientist and electrical engineer Nikola Tesla. He developed the AC or alternating current of the electrical supply system. After immigrating to the United States, he worked briefly with Thomas Edison at Edison Machine Works where he and Edison apparently collided. There are claims, perhaps justified, that Edison stole some of Tesla’s innovations. On one of the streets in Belgrade we came across a statue of American actor Karl Malden whose parents were Serbian immigrants to the U.S.
We toured the Cathedral of St. Sava and the impressive Belgrade fortress, but by then I was a little burnt out by cathedrals and fortresses. However, we did spend the afternoon visiting some places that the average resident of Belgrade might visit – a farmers’ market, a bohemian neighborhood with shops run by local craftspeople and a distillery where we were treated to a rakia tasting. Rakia is a collective term for various kinds of fruit brandy.
As we were being bused back to our boat later in the afternoon, we passed by the Serbian parliament building. I was struck by two powerful statues that flank the stairs going up to the entrance. Both are stone sculptures of a man wrestling with a large horse by the Serbian sculptor Toma Rosandic. Installed in 1938, they are entitled “Playful Black Horses,” but the horses are anything but playful. Rosandic never made any public statement about their meaning, but to many who see them the pieces represent the common man being ridden and crushed by overbearing authority. They shook me out of my afternoon lethargy.
Before dinner that night we listened to a lecture on the history of Yugoslavia and Serbia by a historian and former tour guide. His talk was very rambling and he was definitely not enthusiastic about Josep Broz Tito. However, the lecturer made it clear that Tito was very highly regarded by most of the world’s political leaders. He split politically with the Soviet Union’s Joseph Stalin even though they both called themselves communists. Apparently, Tito was not the centralist that Stalin was and espoused something that has been called “market socialism.” He thought that socialism should be achieved based on the particular conditions in each country as opposed to Stalin’s practice of achieving socialism in all underdeveloped countries with rapid, centralized collective industrialization and modernization.
In spite of Tito’s willingness to adjust his strategy to accommodate local conditions, he managed to unite the Slavs in southern Europe for almost 40 years. Tito’s leadership united Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia into Yugoslavia. He didn’t successfully groom a successor and it all fell apart after his death. To quote our friend and fellow comrade Ed Clark, “There was only one Yugoslavian and his name was Tito.” The politics of this region of the world are complicated, to say the least.
After the lecture, we were once again loaded onto a bus and driven this time to the Skadarlija neighborhood of Belgrade where we were treated to a Bohemian dinner and entertained by local musicians and actors. It was a long day.
The next morning brought us to the second largest city in Serbia, Novi Sad. It appears to be a prosperous city with a growing population and large energy and financial sectors. It also has an important information technology industry and a large student population with four universities and several technological and research institutes.
However, my memory of Novi Sad will always be the sculpture in a beautiful park on the banks of the Danube called “The Family” or “the Raid Victims Memorial.” It was built in 1971 by the Serbian artist Jovan Soldatovic to honor the victims of a Hungarian Nazi massacre of Serbs, Jews and Roma people (Gypsies) that took place from January 21-23, 1942.
The victims were lined up and forced to strip and each was methodically shot and shoved into the icy waters of the Danube. One of the victims was a woman who had just given birth and was carrying her baby girl. As her turn to be shot approached, she passed the baby back to the person behind her. That person in turn passed the baby on. Eventually, the day ended with many more victims still in line and the baby still alive after being passed down the line. The Nazis called it a day and locked up everyone left alive. The next day those locked up, including the newborn, were all sent to a concentration camp. The baby survived the camp. In 1992 the sculptor added 78 bronze plates to the sculpture that tell the story of the massacre and the names of the victims. Artist Jovan Soldatovic fought with the Yugoslav Partisans resisting the Nazis. Their leader was Josep Broz Tito.
That afternoon our ship brought us to Croatia, Tito’s home region. We were treated to a wine-tasting in the village of Grad Ilok at Ilocki Podrumi or Ilok Cellars. We had been drinking the local wines all during our journey and found them all to be very good, but this was our first formal introduction.
We began with a tour of the Old Wine Cellar built in 1450, the first designated cellar for wine in this part of Europe. The tradition of winemaking in this region goes back 1000 years. Particularly outstanding wines are “archived” in the cellar. One particular archived wine is a 1947 premium white Traminer that was served at the coronation of England’s Queen Elizabeth II. Croats are said to be the first to store wine in glass bottles.
At the tasting we were given three wines to try, two whites and one red, all very good. Ilok Cellars has wine shops throughout Croatia, but their wine is not yet available in Chicago. From our limited exposure, Eastern European wines are excellent and very well priced, but we don’t yet have the selection we should in the U.S.
One thing that loomed large over our Croatian visit was the 1991-95 war with Serbia that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia after Tito’s death in 1980. Our Croatian guide was obsessed by it and described in detail the trauma the war brought her as a teenager. The issues and details of the war really elude me. A museum in the nearby village of Vukovar ran a continual movie of the war’s destruction but with no commentary. As we walked back to our boat through the village of Vukovar, our guide pointed out the war damage that is still evident on some of the buildings. She also expressed strong anti-immigrant sentiments about the refugees coming through Croatia from Syria, Afghanistan, and the rest of the Middle East.
Our visit to Hungary was very brief. On the day after we left Croatia, we arrived in Mohács, Hungary, a small city on the Danube with a population of less than 20,000, and from there we traveled to Pécs, the fifth largest city in Hungary. It has a very interesting history from the Celtic and Roman times up to now and is known for its multiculturalism. Although Hungarians make up more than 80% of the population, the city has significant communities of Germans, Roma, Croats and Romanians. Roman Catholics are the largest religious group, followed by Calvinists and then Lutherans. Almost 30% of the population claim no religious affiliation at all. In 1998 the city was awarded the UNESCO “Cities for Peace” prize for its support of its minority cultural population and for its welcome of the refugees from the 1991-95 Yugoslav war.
We toured the late Roman and early 4th century Christian underground tombs, the Acropolis of Sopianae, that make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site is so extensive that it is close to rivaling the Roman catacombs.
This was our last day on the Avalon Artistry II. That night we were given the required antigen test for covid that is required for re-entry into the U.S. We arrived in Budapest the next morning and were given a brief tour of the city before checking into our hotel. Unfortunately, because there were so few of us left, we were driven around the city in a van and couldn’t really get good views of the sites from the van.
Our guide was the polar opposite of the open-minded, non-partisan guide we were blessed with in Pécs the day before. Our guide in Budapest laced her talks with the usual anti-communist comments embellished by laments at the contemporary invasion of modern architecture into the historical districts. In a park outside the American Embassy she proudly pointed out two statues of American presidents erected by the Hungarian government – Ronald Reagan in 2011 and George Bush Senior in 2020.
In fall of 2022 we are scheduled to cruise the rest of the Danube from Budapest to Vienna. We’re going to book a couple of extra nights in Budapest to explore on our own. Noel, a retired juvenile magician, was very excited to notice the birthplace of Houdini, now a museum dedicated to the magician, as we were driven past. Budapest is physically beautiful city and we want to see more. Stay tuned.