Hawaii (March 24-April 3, 2023)

Up at 4:00 AM, out the door at 5:30, at the airport at 6:15, checked in and enjoying a coffee by 7:00, took off at 8:45. We met our old friends and fun, up-for-anything travel buddies, Sandy and Alan, at the gate yesterday morning totally pumped for our back-to-back adventures. First stop: Honolulu, Hawaii.

The 10.5 hour flight took us through 6 time zones. It was daylight the whole way. The time passed pretty fast with two meals, a short nap, two movies (Ticket to Paradise and The Elephant Queen), a small snack, four episodes of 1883, a guided stretching session, and a few chapters of my new book, Daisy Jones & The Six.

Our approach gave us a beautiful view of the aqua water splashing the shores. The real treat was seeing Pearl Harbor from the air. It is huge with islands delineating different sections within the harbor. In contrast, the entrance to the harbor is quite small, or seemed so from the air. Seeing it from above made me excited for the tour we’ll have later in the trip.

Once on solid ground, we took a cab to the Hilton Hawaiian Village on Waikiki Beach. We opted for an early dinner and a quick stroll around before settling in for an early night.

Today … 82 and partly cloudy
Determined as were were to sleep late, we both woke up around 3:30 local time, tossed, turned, relaxed, made mental lists, and counted our blessings. All under the covers, in the dark, with our eyes closed hoping sleep would come for us again. We threw in the towel at 5:30 and started rustling around.

We arrived a day early for our seven-night cruise so that it would not be a fire drill or a stress fest getting to our ship today. We enjoyed a lazy morning and headed to the port around noon. The in-processing procedure was efficient and quick. Once on board Norwegian Cruise Line’s Pride of America we went straight to lunch and then passed the time visiting until we had access to our cabin and our luggage was delivered. After the mandatory safety briefing, we took a quick shower and then headed to a delicious dinner. Tired from our uneventful day, we all passed on the show (an Elton John tribute) and headed to our rooms to wind down before calling it a day.

… Did You Know? …

Surfing was invented in Hawaii hundreds of years ago.

Hawaii is the only U.S. state with two official languages: English and Hawaiian.

Vog = volcanic haze. Voggy skies make for beautiful sunsets and moonrises.
The magnified sun and moon look huge and orange.

Good news: there are no snakes in Hawaii less a tiny, harmless one resembling an earthworm.
There are also no squirrels, hamsters, or gerbils.

Aloha serves as hello as well as goodbye.

Hawaii is one of only two U.S. states where all forms of gambling are illegal. 


Another Day in Bucharest (November 12, 2022)

Our last day in country was totally free, just what the doctor ordered. We didn’t even get down to breakfast until after 10:00 and then spent an entire hour grazing. The pastries are made in-house daily and definitely worth a second or third pass. The omelet guy had an attitude and we were surrounded by people speaking languages we did not recognize.

Our whole goal for the day was to see if we could snag tickets to tour the Parliament Palace, the heaviest as well as the most expensive administrative building in the world and the second largest office building in the world, behind the Pentagon. Our handsome, friendly doorman, Marcel, offered to call and see what our chances were and low and behold, he said, if we could get there by 12:30 we had a shot at getting a couple of the tickets not released on the internet. Thankfully he advised us to run to the room for our passports or our efforts would have been totally in vain. We racewalked the mile to the gate, ran in, and got tickets.

Marble is the name of the game, tons and tons of beautiful white marble. The other outstanding features are the elaborate wooden doors, chandeliers of all shapes and sizes, and beautiful ceilings. By order of Nicolae Ceaușescu, the president/dictator of a communist Romania at the time, construction of the palace began in 1984 after tens of thousands of people were displaced to free up the acres and acres it took for the massive building and its grounds. Only one third of the 1,100 rooms are actually being used currently. What must it cost to heat and cool the place?

Ceaușescu had grand plans for his capital city. In front of the Parliament Palace he built a huge plaza bordered on two sides by beautiful multistoried, semi-circular buildings. Between the two building is one end of a boulevard built to be longer than Paris’ Champs-Élysées. Ceaușescu and his wife were found guilty of genocide and executed in December of 1989 and never had the chance to wave at the adoring crowds from the central balcony overlooking the plaza and long boulevard. Michael Jackson, however, did, as did we.

After our tour of the Parliament Palace we walked to the old part of the city and strolled around with stops here and there to peek into small churches and courtyards. Cafes and restaurants were a beehive of activity. We eventually made our way back to the hotel by a route that took us past the construction site of what will soon be People’s Salvation Cathedral, the tallest and largest Orthodox Cathedral in the world. It is a stunner and situated almost next door to the Parliament Palace, a decision that would no doubt had pissed off Ceaușescu.

For dinner we decided on pizza (delicious!) at one of the hotel restaurants. On our way up to the room to prep for our transfer to the airport tomorrow morning we ran into Rose and Peter and heard about their unusual day. Their new son-in-law happens to be Romanian, so they spent the afternoon with his non-English speaking parents and delivered the crockpot as a gift from their son.

If tomorrow goes as planned, we’ll head to the airport with a boxed breakfast around 5:00 a.m. for our 8:30 British Air flight home. With good luck, nice weather, and no surprises we should walk in the door at home about 21 hours after waking up.

… Parting Bits and Bobs …

Romania is roughly the size of Michigan and has a population of 21 million.

The tallest wooden church in the world, and the second tallest wooden structure in Europe, is in northwestern Romania.

Romania’s Scărișoara Glacier is the second largest underground glacier in Europe.
It has been in existence for more than 3,500 years.

The minimum wage is 500 euros and the average wage is 700 euros a month after tax.

The currency is the Romanian Leu.
$1.00 = 5 leu

Romanians enjoy free healthcare, pensions, and education through high school.

Transylvania (November 10-11 , 2022)

Most of our fellow cruisers headed home this morning, but we opted to extend the trip so we could explore Transylvania, a region in central Romania famous for #youknowwho (Dracula).

We had another super guide who regaled us with her knowledge of the area and her country as we headed toward the Southern Carpathian Mountains. The roads were in terrific shape and the weather was unseasonably warm considering they usually have snow by now. On our way out of town we noticed mini-mansions built next to the road and learned they belonged to the Roma people. It was news to us that Roma is the politically correct term for Gypsies or Travelers. It is their habit here to build as large a home as possible right by the road as a testament to their wealth and status. They rarely live there, however, preferring a modest dwelling out back that is much cheaper to heat and cool. The large houses are used for big occasions or possibly guests. Hold the phone: animals are even stabled in some of them!

As we drove through tidy villages and past fields resting up for spring the guide talked us through the Ottoman practice of devshirme which translates to child levy or blood tax. Between the 15th and 17th centuries Christian boys, mostly from the Balkans where we have been, were removed from their homes, taken to what is now Istanbul, forcibly converted to Islam, and educated in everything from languages to math, horsemanship, and weaponry. Once grown, they served the Ottoman government and were never allowed to returned home. Stop crying Cyd!

On a cheerier note, we had a comfort stop (potty break) at a huge mall that took everyone by surprise. It had everything from Carrefour if you needed French groceries to H&M for clothes to Leonidas for Belgian chocolates to Starbucks and a carwash. Dan headed in the direction of Carrefour; I went to a nice toy store; and Rose and Peter went in search of a crockpot. Really.

Our destination for the day was Sinaia where we visited Peleș Castle, completed in 1883. No expense was spared in tricking it out with European art, Murano crystal chandeliers, German stained-glass windows, and Cordoba leather-covered walls. With its own power plant it was the first European castle to have electricity. All the beautiful fireplaces are fakes because it also has central heat. Add hot and cold running water; a central vacuum system; armories displaying some 4,000 pieces; a library with a secret door; small elevator; 60-seat theatre, with royal box, where the first movie projection in Romania was shone in 1906 and you’ve got yourself quite an amazing place to put your feet up! As an uberfan of the painting Lady in Gold, Dan was excited to learn that the frescoes in the theater hall were designed by his favorite Austrian artist, Gustav Klimt, and a pal of his that Dan dismissed as no doubt having made minimal contributions to the magnificence of the hall. I jest. The 160-room castle served as the summer residence of the royal family until 1947.

We had worked up quite an appetite by the time we finished touring the castle, so we headed straight to a cute local place where we chose delicious cabbage rolls with sides of ham, polenta, and cabbage before continuing on to Brasov for the night. Rose and Peter got the exchange rate mixed up and realized they had left a tip worth $1.27. Not funny for the server but we got a major giggle out of it. On the way to the bus we grabbed five Dracula t-shirts and an elaborately machine embroidered shawl to add to my international collection of shawls. Wink.

The two-lane road that took us out of town and down the mountain must be a nightmare during ski season, tourist season, and holidays since it was slow going for us. Before calling it a day, we had a quick walking tour of Brasov and could easily tell money was no stranger to this city situated at the intersection of old trade routes. It has the charm of a Bavarian town. The main square, home over the centuries to burnings, hangings, public announcement, markets, beheadings, and large gatherings, is huge and lined with well maintained building and paved with small white and blacks stones. Off to one side of the square is Biserica Neagră, Black Church, so named for the fire damage it suffered. The most striking features of this large gothic church is the unfinished wide plank floor and the small, centuries-old Ottoman carpets hung above some of the pews.

Dan and I grabbed a quick bite at the hotel bar before calling it a day. Rose and Peter joined us and shared laugh-’til-you cry stories which made for a perfect ending to our full day.


Today was built around our visit to Bran Castle, commonly known as Dracula’s Castle. Built into and around the rock at the highpoint of town during the 14th century, it was used by Vlad the Impaler, a national hero for Romanians, as his headquarters for his incursions into Transylvania. We enjoyed going room to room and found it bright, cheerful, and far less formal than Peleș Castle. Intimidating instruments of torture were on displays in one room. Beautiful tile and stucco fireplaces were in several rooms. Add some chainmail; weapons of the day; a crown and scepter; secret windows; spiral wooden staircases; balconies; and dark, narrow stone stairways and we could almost imagine life over the centuries playing out here.

Judging by the wares in the souvenirs stands, Bran Castle is best known nowadays because of the legend of a Transylvanian nobleman who went by the name Count Dracula. It drizzled all day under dark skies which seemed a perfect compliment to the concept of blood sucking.

We chose a cute place for lunch (think fried cheese and salad) before getting comfortable on the bus for the four hour ride back to Bucharest.

… Oh Really …

Bela Lugosi, the actor who played Count Dracula in the 1931 film,
was born in Lugoj, not far from Transylvania.

No meal starts in Transylvania without a shot of palinca,
a distilled alcoholic drink made out of fruit that is similar to Russian vodka.

Sinaia was named for the Sinai and used to be a stop on the Orient Express.

Bucharest, Romania (November 9, 2022)

We are now in the land of Vlad the Impaler and Dracula. If that doesn’t get your attention I don’t know what will.

Because of low water levels, we could not go downriver as far as originally planned necessitating us leaving the ship this morning rather than tomorrow morning. Our suitcases were packed and ready to be taken to the gorgeous, ideally located, huge-for-a-city-center hotel, the Marriott Bucharest Grand Hotel, before we loaded on the buses for our two-hour drive to town.

As we approached this city of three million we passed block after block after block of apartment buildings, sometimes six deep, that were built during the Russian period to house workers. Our guide told us the apartments have been nicknamed matchboxes because of their size and the thinness of the walls. (Thin walls made for easy spying on one another back in the day.) On the whole they were just as drab as we have seen in the other countries, but many had been spruced up a bit with cheerful paint. High officials, we were told, lived in large apartments in beautiful buildings toward the center of town and were said to be participating in ‘fancy communism.’

Before we got close enough to the city to see the apartment buildings we noticed mini-mansions built along the highway. It was explained to us that they are where Roma people live. I was not familiar with the term Roma, so I asked and learned it is the politically correct reference for Gypsies or in England, for Travelers. It is their habit here to build as big a house as they can possibly afford close to the street for all to see. Animals might live there or they might use the large house from time to time for a big event, but they live day to day in a modest dwelling out back in an area not visible from the road.

Our destination was the Central Historic District. Once there we enjoyed visiting Curtea Veche Church with its large outdoor area for candle lighting and beautiful exterior of cream and red repeating patterns. We stopped at Stavololeos Monestary with its beautifully painted interior and picturesque mini-courtyard. Buskers were performing on the street, flowers were for sale at small stands, and scooters were zipping by on their way to deliver lunch. Bucharest is a city of wide boulevards reminiscent of places in Western Europe. Some of the sidewalks are paved in labor intensive small, square stones. We took note of the detailed manhole covers, contemporary shops, and signs in English as well as Romanian. The city rivals Budapest in sophistication.

Bucharest made its reputation as a trading center centuries ago. Inns were built to house the traders who came to town on business. These two-story inns were large with two long rows of rooms facing a common courtyard. After dark gates at each end were locked to keep thieves out. Sadly fire has destroyed all but the one we saw today.

We drove past an Arch of Triumph on our way to the last stop of the day: Muzeul Satului or the Village Museum. Some 300 authentic dwellings from all regions of the country have been relocated and reassembled, including rural cottages, farmhouses, water mills, summer kitchens, churches, and even a chicken coop. We could peek inside some of them. Oddly what fascinated me the most was the array of fences. Well, those and the two homes built two thirds below ground.

We were pooped at the end of the day and chose to join our new friends John, Patty, Rose, and Peter for bar food in the lobby of the hotel.

By the way, on this day in 1989 East Germany opened the Berlin Wall! A very big day that signaled lots of changes for the countries we have visited on this trip.

… Famous Romanians …

Nadia Comaneci: winner of five Olympic gold medals and
the first athlete to receive a perfect score of 10 in an Olympics gymnastics event.

Elie Wiesel: holocaust survivor, author of nearly 60 books, human rights advocate, and one of four Romanian Nobel laureates.

Dustin Hoffman’s parents: fled Romania for the U.S.

Johnny Weissmuller: an Olympic gold medalist, holder of 67 world records, and the first actor to play Tarzan.

Francesco Illy: founder of Illy Caffè and inventor of the first automatic
steam espresso coffee machine.

Vidin, Veliko Tarnovo, and Arbanasi, Bulgaria (November 7-8, 2022)

We woke up yesterday to fog in the modest, unassuming port of Vidin. Our fun, funny, and informative guide met us on the dock and whisked us away for an hour’s drive out of town. We passed block after block of drab, gray, concrete housing that illustrated perfectly our guide’s opinion that it’s impossible to use the words communism and architecture in the same sentence. She referred to all structures built during the era as communist disasters. We passed a few churches and small chapels that she said were built by communists who were hedging their there-is-no-God bet. We learned that Bulgaria is roughly the size of Tennessee and that it is known for its wine, yoghurt, gypsum, fun tour guides (got cha), rose oil, intricate embroidery, and fertile farmland among other things. Our guide was born to a farm couple, actually, and was raised on her grandparents farm where they, like all their neighbors, made their own wine and produced much of their food.

Our ride passed quickly with her commentary, the two songs she played for us, and what scenery we could see through the ever-increasing fog. Once we reached an elevation of 1,600 feet and arrived at our destination, the fog dissipated as if on command. Perfect timing to see the highlight of our day: Belogradchik Fortress. It dates back to Roman times when it was built to protect the transport of goods and gold. It is situated on the highest naturally inaccessible part of the rocks and remained in use for one thing or another through the Byzantine period and later by Bulgarian tsars and the Ottomans. The Romans were clever enough to choose this site where Mother Nature had done half of the work for them. By incorporating the natural rocky landscape for two sides of the fortress they only had to construct the other two sides. Those who came behind made changes, improvements, and expansions with the current walls 6.5 feet thick at their base and 40 feet high. We strolled the grounds and made our way through all three gates to the tippy top where we had a perfect view of all the fog below.

A local sculptor of some renown was selling his work near the exit and I decided I needed the small metal chicken wearing a bowler hat and standing proudly on a base of gabbro stone. I had no local money, but the sculptor was happy to take dollars. The exchange rate was $1.00 = 2 Bulgarian lev.

After another wonderful noon meal on board we strolled around the port area and particularly enjoyed seeing Baba Vida Fortress, one of the best preserved medieval fortification in Bulgaria. Built with a mote at the water’s edge right in town, it is tiny by comparison with Belogradchik. We lucked into a lovely handicraft store on our way back to the ship where we each made a couple selections. As we approached our vessel we passed a man wearing a Putin T-shirt and a few healthy looking street dogs with tags in their ears indicating they had been neutered.


We woke up a bit downstream in Nikopol. After breakfast we boarded a bus for a long but enjoyable day. We drove past rape seed fields, yellow with their fall crop, and numerous small villages each with a collection of dilapidated buildings with broken glass and sunken roofs as well as beautifully maintained red brick and stucco buildings with red tile roofs. Grape vines were planted in such a way that they shaded the sidewalks in the summer. I enjoyed as much of the scenery as I could between little cat naps.

Once in Arbanasi we enjoyed a lovely lunch with folk dancing and pita bread the size of small frisbees. With full bellies we headed next to the small Nativity Church. The exterior of the modest one story building does not give a hint at the floor-to-ceiling art smothering the interior walls. Nearly every inch of the five chambers of the church, which dates back to the 17th century, is covered in dark paintings and frescoes of predominately black, red, and gold. We went from the men’s room to the women’s room to the gallery which was used for socializing.

The whole village has rock walls, some dating back hundreds of years. We strolled past many of them on our way to an old house that is now a museum. The first story was made of stone and the second of wood. The floors are stone downstairs and wood upstairs. We walked through the living room, kitchen, dining room and the bedroom with its huge, wall-to-wall bed that the whole family shared. The bedroom with its family bed was a surprise, but the bigger surprise was the birthing room where mom and babe would be sequestered for over a month. It was all a bit unfamiliar and interesting.

Before the two hour ride back to the boat, we stopped in Veliko Tarnovo. We enjoyed the view of the ruins of the royal castle on Tsaravets Hill in the distance but spent most of our free time wandering along Samovodska Charshia popping in and out of craft workshops where local artists make and sell their wares. Dan fell in love with a plate and I bought a bread basket.

… Famous Bulgarians …

André the Giant was one of the most popular French wrestlers ever to appear in WWF. 
Betcha didn’t know that Matt.

Christo, an artist best known for wrapping huge sites around the world.

The primary bacteria that turns fresh milk into yogurt, lactobacillus delbrueckii subsp. bulgaricus, was first
discovered by Dr. Grigorov in 1905. I like how cleverly Bulgaria is hinted at in the naming of the bacteria.

Historians believe that Spartacus, known for being the gladiator in charge of the biggest slave uprising
in the history of the Roman Empire, was born in what is now southwest Bulgaria.

John Atanasoff, inventor of the first electronic digital computer, was of Bulgarian descent.

Belgrade and Golubac, Serbia ( November 5-6 , 2022)

We woke up in a country famous for being a stop on the Orient Express as well as for producing the abysmal Yugo car, renowned tennis players, raspberries, mining enterprises, and the first McDonalds in an x-communist country. Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, has endured 115 (not a typo) wars and been destroyed more than 40 times. Talk about resilience. It is nestled into the confluence of the Sava and Danube, a fact Dan sorely regretted not paying attention to. I’ll get to that.

The city’s number one attraction is Kalemegdan Fortress which dates back 2000 years to Roman times. As you can imagine, it has been damaged, repaired, enlarged, redesigned, enhanced, reimagined, blah, blah, blah a zillion times. Today it is a huge city park complex with a large dinosaur area for kids of all ages, an outdoor display of weapons from the two world wars, walking paths, lots of green spaces for families and dog walkers, memorials to the suffering of war, and picnic areas. It’s primo location at the top of a hill offers fantastic views of the river and surroundings.

Our other stop before lunch was at the Church of Saint Sava. With a capacity of an astonishing 10,000 it is the second-largest Orthodox Church in the world. There are 49 bells in the bell towers and 18 gold plated crosses on its domes. It’s size and beauty from the outside in no way prepared us for the dazzling inside. Gold, marble, detailed mosaics, a stunning floor, and a huge crown-shaped chandelier took us by total surprise and made us wonder why it was not the number one attraction in the city. There are no chairs (you have to stand for services), so the interior comes at you all at once.

Apparently the real #1 attraction here is the nightlife. Young people come from all over to partake. What we took for houseboats lining the shore are actually restaurants and clubs where a lot of this fun takes place. We had a great guide who talked us through the party scene, the abundance of graffiti, the basics of Serbian history, the loss of life in WWI (25% of the total population!), the history of corruption in the government (the current government is a light dictatorship in the cloak of a democratic republic, per our guide), average monthly income of 600 euros after 63% is removed for taxes, Tito’s worldwide renown that landed him the third largest funeral of his century (after Queen Victoria and Mahatma Gandhi), and much more. Our guide was a human font of knowledge.

With our brains overflowing with Serbian and Yugoslavian history we strolled back to the ship for lunch and then Dan went his way (shopping) and I joined a small group headed to an artist village. I definitely made the better decision.

My group, along with the font-of-knowledge guide, went a little way out of town to visit a charming 74 year old violin maker and restorer, Jan Nemcek. He welcomed our little group into his home workroom and talked us through the process of making a violin beginning with going into the forest to choose the right wood and ending with 10 layers of varnish on the finished product. He is a second generation craftsman with hopes that his son and granddaughter will carry on when he is gone. Just to be clear, he does not dabble in this, he has customers lined up from all over the world waiting for one of up to five violins he produces each year. He shared some of his valuable collection of violins, the oldest dating to the 1500s.

The National Museum of Naïve Art was our next stop. It is located in a restored village house and has a few hundred works in its collection. The curator is very proud of the number of pieces from the two most famous painters from this small town: Zuzana Chalupova and Martin Jonas. Zuzana specialized in children and Martin painted country folks with disproportionately huge hands and feet and disproportionally small heads. Neither had any formal training and are household names in the naïve art community worldwide. We ended our tour by visiting the home that Martin bought once he could afford to live off his paintings and move into town from the farm where he lived when he started painting.

The tour ended just passed 6:00, well after dark. I hurried onboard knowing Dan would be waiting for me to join him for a cocktail before dinner. I quickly dropped my stuff in the room, freshened up, and hurried to the lounge without noticing that Dan’s jacket was not on the hook. After a quick look around the lounge I knew for certain that a) it was dark, b) he was lost, c) he had no idea where the boat was docked, and d) he had until 10:00 to find his way back. Around 7:45 an exhausted Dan found me in the dining room with his tale of heading back from his shopping trip around 2:30, five exhausting hours prior. Apparently he headed in the wrong direction, asked for help from several non-English speakers, got sent to the industrial dock on the Danube (we are docked on the Sava), got a ride from a nice couple, caught a bus that he had no local currency to pay for, found a man who called him a cab, drove across a bridge going further out of his way……..and finally (read: miraculously) got back! Lesson learned: NEVER leave the vessel without one of the small cards available at the front desk at each dock. We now know they give the location of the dock along with phone numbers in case of emergencies or questions.

We ended our day with a lecture on Serbia past and present, its place in the former Yugoslavia, the leadership of Tito and Milošević, and the power of ethnicity in this geographic area. Not light topics, but it gave us a greater understanding of the area’s complicated history.

No surprise: bed was calling Dan’s name after the lecture.


Fairy tale Golubac Fortress and the beautiful dock were right out our window when we woke up. No chance of getting lost this morning. Phew! Low fog lent an appropriate air to the imposing sight of this 14th century, ten-towered fortress. A guide walked us around the grounds and the water-level palace explaining part of its tumultuous history. The wolf pit in front of the main gate was a creepy feature of the fortress. Enemies not deterred by the prospect of boiling water or oil being poured over theirs heads from above could be coaxed forward just a bit further only to fall into a pit that had spikes, sometimes with poisoned tips, waiting to impale them. (The name comes from the spikes being as deadly as the fangs of a wolf.)

We were surprised to learn that the only road in this area ran right through castle grounds until quite recently. Our guide recalled her school bus squeezing through the narrow gate.

Some folks opted to go from the fortress to a national park for a hike or to a Stone Age archeological site for a look around, but we opted to spend the morning cruising. It was quiet, peaceful, and beautiful to watch the world go by.

After lunch and an immigration stop in Donji Milanovac, where we picked up the folks who had elected to do optional tours, we got back on the water. We traveled through what is considered to be one of the most picturesque areas of the Lower Danube: the Iron Gate—a series of four narrow gorges with enormous white limestone cliffs that separates the Carpathian and Balkan Mountains. We enjoyed the program director’s commentary about the region and scenic points of interest as we sailed downstream with Romania on our left and Serbia on our right. My top two waterside surprises were a monastery that would fall into the river had it been built any closer to the water and a 180 foot tall carving of Decebalus Rex, the king who successfully fought against the Romans to preserve the independence of present-day Romania. We went through two locks along the way.

Our evening was high spirited and fun too. Our witty program director sang popular tunes and told jokes to a very receptive crowd.

… Oh Really …

Belgrade was the capital of the former Yugoslavia.

$1.00 = 119 Serbian dinar

Serbia is about the size of Scotland.

Osijek, Croatia (November 4, 2022)

We spent a wonderful few days along the Adriatic coast of Croatia a few years ago but never managed to get this far inland. We woke up in Vukovar which is in the northeast part of the country where the Danube intersects with the Drava River. After a quick breakfast we headed inland to Osijek. The drive took us through rich, flat farmland that has hosted a cast of characters from the Stone Age through the Romans, Ottomans, and Hapsburgs. Our guide did not spend any time reaching that far back in history though; she focused on Croatia’s War of Independence in the early 1990s that devastated this part of the country. She pointed out numerous buildings that have yet to be repaired or replaced and told her family’s story and the lasting tole it has taken.

A home visit was our first event of the day. We, along with a translator, pulled up in front of what looked like a modest home in a residential area. We were invited in and shown to a long table where we were offered homemade desserts, bottled water, mint infused water, and homemade plumb brandy (read: fire water). With the formalities out of the way we were invited to ask our host anything we wanted. Knowing that he was an adult during the war, our questions mostly focused on life for him and his wife at that time. Other questions involved the country’s efforts to rebuilt, the current price of gas ($8.10 a gallon), the tendency of young people to immigrate (to Germany, Sweden, and Ireland) making it more difficult for the country to fully recover from the war. Our host’s three sons were born after the war and are all local he was happy to say.

It was explained to us that properties in neighborhoods like we were in are customarily designed a particular way. The house and garage are close to the street and make the initial impression. Behind the house is what they call a pleasure garden which in this case is a large covered patio with a sizable fireplace, koi pond, outdoor office, flower beds, and a path that took us deeper into the narrow property where all the animals are kept. Our hosts have rabbits, pigs, ducks, and chickens. From there the path lead to gardens and a small orchard. Quite an impressive operation and no small amount of work.

From our home visit we went to Saint Mary’s Church for a quick look inside and a short concert. Martina, a 26 year old student and proud member of the vocal group BREVIS, accompanied herself on the piano. Our guide explained that members of BREVIS, Martina being one of them, performed on Croatian Idol. They did not win but their audience grew like crazy and the group ended up more well known than that year’s winner.

We shopped near the dock, strolled around a bit, and were back on board for lunch and a quiet afternoon broken up with an enthusiastic performance by a local tamburica band. One guy played a guitar, another an accordion, and the star of the show for us was the guy who played the tamburica, a long-necked lute that looked to me like an oval ukulele with a long neck.

The best pork I’ve even eaten was the centerpiece of my dinner tonight. Add Croatia’s take on flan and you have a gal too full to go to bed. I guess I’ll go down and listen to the panel made up of crew members who will be talking about what it was like to live behind the Iron Curtain.

… Croatia Trivai …

The average monthly income after taxes in Croatia is 800 euros.

The country is about the size of West Virginia and has a population of less than four million.

Medical insurance and education are free thanks to a brutal income tax ranging from 38% to 52%
and a VAT of 25% (the second highest in Europe).

The Croatian kuna is the currency here.
$1.00 = 7.6 kuna
In January they will switch to the euro.

Kalocsa, Hungary (November 3, 2022)

Today was a perfect day! It started with a fabulous pastry, melon, and coffee and just went up from there.

While we slept, our captain and crew took us 90 miles south to this archbishopric of 16,000 known for its paprika and folk arts. We visited the Saint Joseph Church complex with the bishop’s home, administrative offices, and what will soon be a hostel for pilgrims. The centerpiece of the complex is the church, of course. It is yellow and cream outside and bright and cheerful inside with soft pastel walls and ceiling, creamy marble columns and statues, and stained glass windows made of muted, soft, translucent glass that lets in a lot of light. The accent color throughout is gold. They did not scrimp on the gold! In fact the wooden pulpit is covered top to bottom in it. In a place of honor at the front is a large statue of King Stephen, the first Hungarian king to be baptized and converted to Christianity. We enjoyed a tour of the church and a short organ concert consisting of six classical tunes and ending with a rousing rendition of Glory, Gloria Hallelujah. Our talented, and I assume fun-loving, organist waved to us from the outside balcony as we headed to the bus.

As impressive as the church complex is…and it is…the highlight of our day was visiting a horse farm and enjoying a performance of traditional Puszta horsemanship. It clearly takes skill and training on the part of the horses as well as the riders. No small feat I can only imagine to get a horse to lie down on command no less accept a man standing on its belly while lying down no less sit on its haunches like a dog. Add a long leather whip snapping in its ears and you have nothing less than a miracle. We were spellbound and enthusiastic. Next up: horses and riders chased one another to steal a scarf held between a rider’s teeth. That would be chase with an uppercase C. Read: they ran FAST. A carriage came out pulled by four well-matched horses. A driver was in the front seat and a second man was in the back seat. They galloped in circles. The job of the guy in the second row was to shift his weight and lean so that the carriage did not topple over as the tight turns were executed. Again, more than a little skill is required. The pièce de résistance was a team of 10 white horses galloping into the ring. There were two rows of four in front and two horses in the back. A super-talented rider/driver stood on the haunches of the last two horses and away they went! Another equestrian miracle that was well received.

Besides the talented horses, we saw four huge long-horn cows yoked together as a team. They did not do any tricks unless pulling a wagon counts, which to me it does. We visited the stables, took a brief wagon ride, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. There were no keep out signs, velvet ropes, or do-not-enter signs, so we were free to roam and take pictures. We just happened to be at the barn when the driver detached the 10 white horses one from the another. He told them to stand still and they did. Once they were free, the horses were told to go in the barn and wait in their respective places. And they did!

No adventure is complete without a little snack. The horse farm got the memo and served us homemaker bread slathered in pork lard with paprika, red onion, and salt. Our choice of red, white, rose, and fruit juice was available to wash it down. Yes, we were drinking at 10:30 this morning. And yes, the bread was delicious.

We were back on board in time for lunch. I settled for pumpkin soup knowing my afternoon would be a stream of temptations and Dan had a hot dog. We shared a table with a fun couple from Kansas City and swapped travel tales and top tips. My #1 takeaway: think of travel as a way of life, not a vacation.

We enjoyed a perfect afternoon on the water as we sailed toward the Croatian boarder. While Dan napped I went to a poppyseed strudel demonstration and tasting. Then, with a blanket over my shoulders I enjoyed tea in a rocking chair at the front of the ship. The river was deathly quiet, narrow, and less a few vacation homes, bordered with long narrow beaches and trees. A few fishermen in small boats were near the shore and we passed a couple cruise ships going north.

Throw in cocktails and a short briefing on tomorrow’s itinerary, and it was time for dinner. We returned to our room to find a Congratulations on Your Retirement card and a box of Belgian chocolates.

Happy Birthday Cleone!

… Paprika …

Although Hungary is now widely recognized as the producer of the finest paprika,
it probably came from Mexico and Central-America originally.

Paprika was imported to Europe along with tobacco and potatoes.
First it was cultivated in Spain, later in Great Britain and the south of France.

The Turks brought it to Hungary and now Hungarian paprika rules.

Budapest, Hungary (November 1-2, 2022)

As I sit down to write, the bells of Matthias Church, which is right next door, are ringing. I don’t know if it’s a Monday thing or if it is because today is All Saints Day. Either way, it is lovely. The church is one of the three most famous houses of worship in the city and a stunner. The interior has a beautiful tile floor laid out in a floral pattern; dark, ornately painted walls and columns; and lots of stained glass windows. In a place of honor are the remains of the only king, out of 51, for whom remains have been located. He is laid to rest next to his queen. A death mask is in one special nave with the skull of the deceased inside. All of this to say that my favorite part of the church is outside: the roof. It is covered in colorful Zsolnay tiles which are laid out in a geometric pattern and are stunning against the backdrop of the sandstone building and blue sky. We were told that it took 150,000 tiles to get the job done. A few other old buildings in the city have these eye catching tiled roofs. They are made of a special type of ceramic that is acid and frost resistant. Before we left we lit a candle for Aunt Jerry.

Our guided city tour today gave us a very nice overview of both the Buda side, which has a third of the population, and the Pest side, where most of the action is. We drove past lots of old mansions and palaces that have been restored and converted into lovely hotels, embassies, schools, apartment buildings, and so forth. We drove down EmbassyRow; Andrassy Road which is their Champs Elysees; the house where Houdini was born; a statue of none other than George Washington; ornate, expansive baths fed by some of the 100 natural hot water springs in the city; the Museum of Sweets and Selfies, and the New York Coffee House, voted the most beautiful coffee house in the world. (I can attest to that having gone when I was here before.) We drove past the opera house, which is eye catching from the outside but eye poppingly gorgeous inside (I can attest… blah blah), and the second largest synagogue in Europe which seats 3,000 with standing room for 2,000 more. Fun fact: it was fully restored after WWII by the U.S.’s own Tony Curtis in honor of his Hungarian grandfather who died in a concentration camp. We also saw the first artificial skating rink in Europe, still used for that purpose; entrances to Europe’s first subway system; and the Parliament building, fashioned after London’s and supported by 70,000 wooden pylons imported from Lebanon. After a stop at Hero’s Square, home to their Unknown Soldier, we were taken back across the bridge to Buda and dropped at Fisherman’s Bastion where we were turned loose for the rest of the day.

Hard to believe we could do and see and listen to so much before noon, but we did. After a quick stop in our room Dan and I headed off to find lunch, visit a small church built into a cave, and have a coffee and treat of some sort. We headed in the direction of the cave and floundered our way into a fun lunch spot where we settled on goulash soup and spongy, crusty bread. Then on to the church a mile or so further down the river. Gellért Hill Cave is at the top of a rise and well worth the visit. The tiny church and home to monks belongs to the Paulist monastic order. After our brief audio tour we strolled across the bridge into Pest determined to find a treat…and we did. We shared a large, sweet langosh. I say a sweet one because they come sweet or savory. Marry a doughnut, beaver tail, and funnel cake and you have yourself a langosh. Then top it with whipped cream and jam mixed with mascarpone. We dove in sorry we did not each get our own.

By the time we sipped the last of our decaf cappuccinos and scraped the plate it was dark and we decided to head back. It was a cool, beautiful night, so we made our way across the bridge and walked slowly along the water. We made a final stop to see a huge, more-than-lifesize lion made of legos. Really. Our only challenge after a long day was climbing dozens and dozens of stairs to get from the river’s edge back to the top of hill where our hotel is located.

Speaking of the hotel. It was built here because Zsa Zsa Gabor, an Hungarian, was married to Conrad Hilton at the time and convinced him to build the first Hilton behind the Iron Curtain. It incorporates the ruins of a 13th century Abby and cloister and a 16th century facade of a Jesuit college. We have a view of the ancient cloister walls from our room. Thank you Zsa Zsa.


One day out and I have already chosen a souvenir: a seated ceramic lady made by an Hungarian artist. Dan has two mini-boxes made of Herend porcelain to add to his collection and some groceries. Dan and his international grocery habit. 😉 We were free until time to transfer to the ship, Viking’s Ullur, at noon, so we were strolling the narrow streets of the Castle District when the shops opened. It was not difficult to hit them all since the main shopping districts are on the Pest side. Treasures in hand, we strolled around what was a castle but is now a large, impressive museum. It sits on a promontory overlooking the river and afforded us great views. The sun was out for the first time which was a nice, much appreciated, touch for sure.

We got to the ship around 1:00, made a beeline for lunch, and then went to our room to settle in. I say room, but it is really a small, well appointed two-room suite. We will be happy here, I guarantee it. Dan and I passed on cheese and wine at 3:30, so he could hit the market and shops on this side of the river and I could relax and catch up on my writing. We did rally for cocktails at 5:00, the welcome brief at 6:15, and dinner at 7:00.

We pushed off around 8:00 and enjoyed the lights on both sides of the vessel.

Our two days here have given us a head start on jet lag and have us excited to see what else lies along this end of the Danube.

… Trivia …

Budapest became a city in 1873 when three neighboring cities united: Obuda, Pest, and Buda.

No building in the city can be taller than 315 feet.

Houdini’s former home is now a magic school. I would not kid about a thing like that.

Just a reminder, Ullur, stepson of Thor, is the god of the hunt.

Hungary is very proud of its Herend porcelain founded almost 200 years ago.

The currency here is the Hungarian forint.
$1.00 = 415 forint

Cruising from Budapest to Bucharest (October 31- November 12, 2022)

We headed to the airport yesterday afternoon knowing that the Marine Corps Marathon was in town but quite sure it would not cause us any delays. Wrong. About a third of the way there we came to an abrupt stop. Our trusty cab driver, Mohammad, quickly went to plan B but had to switch to plan C when the exits we needed were blocked. To pass the time Mohammad, a gentleman we have used a few times, showed us the latest picture of his grandson, the apple of his eye, and kept us entertained with stories of his recent trip to Pakistan and his stopover in Saudi Arabia to visit religious sites. We arrived at the airport in plenty of time.

We headed straight to the new and very nice United Polaris lounge where we each enjoyed a gin and tonic and dinner in the cafe. Dan went for one of his standards, a burger, and I chose from the small plates menu. Add a stop at the buffet to grab a couple of small desserts and before we knew it, it was time to board.

Boarding was unique this time because we were told to have our passports and boarding passes in hand but not to show them. Instead we stood in front of a facial recognition machine for clearance to board. We pushed away from the gate at 5:30, set our watches ahead five hours, and settled in for our eight-hour flight to Zurich. Having eaten, I settled for nuts, a glass of wine, and herb tea while I enjoyed the movie Peace by Chocolate. Think true story meets Nova Scotia meets chocolate meets Serbian refugees. Fun, uplifting, and thought provoking. Movie over, I reclined my seat, curled up with my pillow and blanket, shut my eyes but got very little sleep.

We landed at 1:30 a.m. our time, 6:30 a.m. local time. I looked like a sleep deprived, rumpled refugee from the movie I watched last night and Dan looked just like he did when we boarded. Not a hair out of place. We headed to the Swiss Air (a United partner) lounge where we spent what was left of our seven hour layover. We passed on breakfast on the plane deciding it would be wiser to kill time eating in the lounge. Good decision. We had a delicious hot breakfast and then situated ourselves in the quiet room on some lounge chairs, each in a private cubicle.

Our 90-minute connection to Budapest went as planned. Lunch was served, eyes were shut, and boom, we landed. A rep from Viking was there to greet us and to whisk us into town, a 40 minute drive. To get from our door to the door of the hotel took us 20 hours. We quickly checked into the Hilton for a two-night stay, dropped our suitcases in our room, and joined some of our fellow cruisers for a short guided stroll around the hilltop Castle District which is situated on the Buda side of the river.

Our long day ended at the hotel bar getting to know two fun cruisers from Pennsylvania, Patty and John. Dan joined them in trying Hungarian beer and I tried a Hungarian red. I shared a sandwich with Dan and called it a day. Dan had had a conference here a few years back and I tagged along for grins. We knew then that we liked it here and are headed to bed excited to do more exploring.

… Guess What? …

No covid tests, proof of vaccination, or masks required this trip. Whoop whoop!

The Swiss Air lounge had a little vat of individually wrapped chocolates at the cold buffet.
We shamelessly grabbed a handful each time we passed.

This trip we are traveling alone in spite of our efforts to cajole others into joining us.

The Castle District is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Danube is Europe’s second longest river. It flows through 10 countries and four capital cities.

Danube in Hungarian is pronounced Duna. Rhymes with tuna.