Belgrade, Serbia

03 June 2011 - We arrived in Belgrade, Serbia at about 7am. Need-less-to-say I was still asleep until 8:30am. The breakfast buffets onboard are fantastic. They have several kinds of cereals and fruits to choose from, oatmeal as well. Then you have hot scrambled eggs with crisp bacon and pancakes; you can also have a made-to-order breakfast of a variety of omelets or eggs benedict......fresh orange juice to top it all off and if you want some cheese, it's there as well next to baskets of muffins and croissants with European jams aplenty. After the morning feast it was off to explore another new city. Belgrade. 

Belgrade is not a beautiful city - even Belgraders agree on that - but it is an interesting city that's full of hedonism, passion and finesse. Architecturally, it's a mishmash of two centuries of grandiose buildings and ugly Soviet-style concrete blocks. Perched between the Danube and Sava Rivers, the ancient Kalemegdan Citadel has always sought (not always successfully) to protect the city. Leading from it into the city heart is the princely Knez Mihailova, a street of restaurants, bookshops, galleries and shops full of pretty things. Belgraders love to shop and party, which probably developed as an antidote to the numbness of the Milošević years.

Belgrade is the capital of Serbian culture, education, science and economy. As a result of its tumultuous history, Belgrade has for centuries been home to many nationalities, with Serbs of the Orthodox Christian religion making up the majority of the population. The official language is Serbian, while visitors from abroad can use English to communicate. 

Once we finished our tour we went back to the ship for lunch. Lunch is also buffet style but there are a ton of hot and cold choices including roasts and great soups with fresh baked breads. The desserts are phnominal and unfortunately we are all indulging.  

In the afternoon we we free to visit on our own. I walked around and mingled with people and found a cute lil Serbian dog to photograph. I have been making a collection of one special dog photo from each location I visit which I feel will be fun when all grouped together.   

I was a bit tired this afternoon so a short nap was in order. I always get sleepy around 4pm and then wake up refreshed around 7pm to get ready for dinner. Speaking of dinner tonight I chose a seafood salad, a Serbian cream of potato soup followed by BBQ Norwegian Salmon. Of course no meal is complete without dessert and tonight I had a chocolate mousse with fresh fruits.

Osijek, Croatia

02 June 2011 - Today we arrived in the port of Vukovar, Croatia. After an early breakfast we headed off for a tour to Osijek. It is the largest city and the economic and cultural centre of the eastern Croatian region of Slavonia, as well as the administrative centre of Osijek-Baranja county. Osijek is located on the right bank of the river Drava, 25 kilometres upstream of its confluence with the Danube.

After a tour of the town we visited a school to see a presentation of some local folkloric songs and dances. The costumes were very colorful and it was enjoyable to see the proud faces of the girls and boys beaming with pride for demonstrating their local culture.

The highlight of the day for me was a hosted lunch by a local family. We were broken down in groups of eight and had lunch prepared by a local Croatian family in their home. When we entered the gate there were three little miniature Doberman dogs sitting there at attention as if to welcome us.

The meal comprised of a hearty vegetable soup with some home made bread, a salad, roasted chicken with great potatoes and home-grown vegetables and finish it off a nice sponge cake. They pride themselves in offering their home-made brady but man is it strong! It's 50% proof! One shot of that and you don't have to heat your home for weeks!

After the meal I just had to go out and play with those dogs. They came running over and were dancing all over the place with friendliness, very cute. I noticed a pond in the yard and then saw some small frogs jumping from lily pads into the water, when the dogs caught sight of them all hell broke loose! It was hysterical to see these small dogs swan dive into the pond and look for the frogs (which they never caught). They ran around the pond in a frenzy while the frogs mocked them, I had a great time watching them.

Behind the yard the owners had cages with an owl, some pheasants and other farm animals. They also had the biggest roses I have ever seen, I'm sure some were the size of lettuce heads. Very beautiful to see this calm way of life, a quiet village with small cottages dispursed here and there overflowing with flowers and caring neighbors and small animals. It was a fabulous day.

We then drove back to the ship to get ready for dinner. Tonight I had a very good consomme with dumplings, roasted rack of lamb followed by an amazing hazelnut cake served with hazelnut ice cream and caramel sauce.....OMG I can just imagine the calories on that one!

After enjoying a few Coke-lights in the library while I checked my emails and chatted with some friends, I went to bed around 1am...tommorrow is another day!

Budapest Part 2

01 June 2011 - Today we were in Budapest for another day. Right after breakfast we went on a real different tour out to the Puszta to see a horse show.

We exlored the vast Hungarian landscape on our half-day visit to the Puszta which literally means “plains”. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, our tour of the Puszta began in Domonyvölgy. We drove for about 45 minutes befgore we reached this ranch and we were greeted by a handsome cowboy. We then got on covered wagons pulled by two horses to be led to the main building. We had so much fun laughing and cracking jokes, a good time.

They gave us upon arrival a pogaca (salty scone) and the traditional Hungarian welcome drink  palinka (fruit brandy). That stuff is lethal, it is 50% alcohol!! When you drink it you can feel the heat going down your throat and then it feels like your chest is on fire. They all make their own home made version and drink this stuff like it was water...hahahaha.

As the Puszta was originally inhabited by cowherds, horse herders, and shepherds, we were treated to an equestrian extravaganza. The horse show was very interesting and these Hungarian cowboys’ skills, including demonstrations of

pyramid riding and competitions between the horsemen was really fun to watch.

At one point they showed how their horses were well trained; they had them lay down on cue and then sit on their hind legs, was great. Then they had a  demonstration with large whips that make cracking noises as they are snapped. There was even a cute donkey pulling a cart.

Following the show we went to visit the stables to see the Lippizzaner horses since they are bred and trained here. They also had all kinds of other animals to see. There were water buffaloes, goats, chickens and a turkey all in the middle of hundreds of acres of land which belonged to the rancher. After the tour we headed back for our ship.

I had lunch onboard and dinner as well and when it was dark I decided to go take pictures of the chain bridge which is the world famous main bridge in Budapest.

I walked along the embankment of the Danube with the city all lit up reflecting on the water, it was truly magical. As I got closer to the bridge I could see the massive stone lions at the entrance all lit up, so beautiful at night.

I walked the entire length of the bridge from the Buda side t the Pest side and walked around for a bit taking pictures of some monuments there. There were lovers walking on and off the bridge and strolling along the Danube, it was a warm and romantic night.

I then walked back across the other side of the bridge, taking more pictures and leisurely mace my way back to the ship. By now it was close to midnight and most people were gone to bed. I made my way to the cabin and opened my patio door to marvel at the beautiful bridge I had just crossed. Waves flowed on the Danube. I finaloy got into bed turned out the lights and for a little while I gazed out at this fascinating city glowing in the Danube and then fell asleep thinking of the next adventure that lay ahead.  

Budapest Part 1

31 May 2011 - Today we arrived in Budapest. I had to get up real early in order to see us sail past the Parliament building which is a major monument in Budapest and I wanted some great photos! It was so amazing to finally sail past this wondrous sight that I had seen in so many books in the past year. The city is bursting with cafes and shops big and small and it is so stupendous to see the Danube flow on it's banks.

One side of the Danube is Buda and the other side is Pest, these are separated by many bridges. The mosy popular one is Chain Bridge which has a pedestrian walkway and has these massive stone lions guarding each entrance.

We departed at 9am for our tour of Budapest and boy there was a lot to see! We visited the Castle District which is high on a hill with great views of the city, I got some great shots from there! Castle Hill is a 1,5km long hill, overlooking the Danube, located in Budapest’s No1 District. The Old Town occupies the larger part of Castle Hill – it is also referred to as the Buda Castle; the Royal Palace occupies the southern portion. Because of its medieval origins, 17th and 18th centuries monuments, and its historical significance, the Old Town is Budapest’s primary tourist attraction. It is on UNESCO’S World Heritage List.

The most important sights in the castle are the Mátyás Church, the Fishermen’s Bastion and the Royal Palace. Walking along the medieval streets of the Old Town one comes across numerous historic dwellings, public buildings as well as many museums. The Castle offers wonderful panoramas of the Danube, its bridges, and of the Pest side. The Old Town can be comfortably approached on foot via a track under the Fishermen’s Bastion, via the funicular railway, or by bus.
The Neo-Romanesque Fishermen’s Bastion, located behind the Mátyás Church, was erected between 1895 and 1902, on a site where previously the medieval castle walls had stood.  The structure, which is a prominent landmark in the city, was designed by Frigyes Schulek.

After the tour it was back to the ship for lunch and to relax. Dinner onboard was great as usual.

Bratislava, Slovakia

30 May 2011 - Today after another great breakfast we arrived in Slovakia. Our tour took us to the capital city, Bratislava. 
This city is so quaint and medieval, it even has a castle sitting on top of a hill. Bratislava was once the capital of Hungary for over 300 years. It is quite a fairytale place. It was founded in the 2nd century BC. There is an Old Town section which is two interlinked squares. In one squaqre you can see a fountain and antique statues. There is a structure called Michael's Gate which is the only gate remaining from the medieval fortifications. It is stunnng with it's baroque facade. The city is small and quaint so it is easy to see all the main sights in one day. 

Casanova loved Bratislava and declared it the most beautiful city in Europe. It is filled also with beautiful people who really seem to enjoy life.  

We also visited the Franciscan Church which is Bratislava's oldest religious buildings. It has magnificent stained-glass windows and impressive statues. It was here that knighting ceremonies were performed. The altar is wonderfully decorated and you get such a sense of peace in here.

Then we were off to see Bratislava Castle for an extraordinary vantage point to get a panoramic view of the city. It truly was a fascinating vista. You could see for miles the tiny cobbled-stoned winding streets, the red-tiled rooftops and dozens of varieties of colored flowers all perched along the beautiful Danube river. The castle, on a hill above the old town, dominates the city of Bratislava. It features in the first written reference to the city, which appears in the Annals of Salzburg of 907, in association with a battle between Bavarians and Hungarians.
The castle hill was populated as early as the late Stone Age; its first known inhabitants were the Celts, who founded a fortified settlement here called ‘Oppidum’.

We then went to St. Martin's Cathedral. These churches that are hundreds of years old are so magnificent that words can't describe how stupendous and monumental they are. St. Martin's was built from the 13th to the 15th century. They are making renovations to the outside tower so it did have some scaffolding but the inside was marvelous.  It has four chapels: the canons’ chapel; the Gothic chapel of Sophia of Bavaria, widow of the Czech King Wenceslas IV; the chapel of St Anne; and the baroque chapel of St John the Merciful. The portal of the southern antechamber represents the oldest example of Renaissance architecture in Slovakia. Between 1563 and 1830 St Martin's served as the coronation church for Hungarian kings and their consorts, marked to this day by a 300-kg gilded replica of the Hungarian royal crown perched on the top of the cathedral's 85-metre-tall neo-Gothic tower. At the beginning of September each year the pomp and circumstance of the coronation returns to Bratislava in a faithful reconstruction of the ceremony.
We were back to the ship around 1pm to rest and have lunch and the afternoon was at leisure. Dinner was at 7pm and in the evening I caught up with emails and my blog.

Vienna, Austria Part 2

29 May 2011 - After breakfast it was off for the city tour of Vienna. This city is so beautiful to see. Intricate heavy wooden doors with intricate wrought iron gates, window boxes fill the luxury apartments along wide glorious boulevards.

As the former home of the Habsburg court and its various empires, the city still has the trappings of the imperial capital it once was, and the historic city centre is inscribed on the  Unesco World Heritage list.

Vienna is the city of music. More famous composers have lived here than in any other city – in Vienna, music is literally in the air: Waltzes and operettas have their home here, and so do musicals "made in Vienna," which have conquered international audiences. The city’s concert halls and stages offer the whole range from classical to progressive sounds with end-to-end festivals the whole year through.

Just a few paces from Vienna's old city, trendy beach bars along the Danube Canal provide that Riviera feeling with music, cool cocktails and delicious food.

Viennese palaces once served as city residences for noble families. Today they are home to numerous interesting shops, particularly in the historic city center. The term palace was originally used to describe a noble residence that, as opposed to a castle, was neither fortified nor in a rural setting. In Vienna, where the Habsburg family resided for centuries, numerous noble families from all over the empire settled in the capital to be near the Hofburg. After World War II many of the palaces were sold by their original owners. Today they house government ministries, embassies, museums and shops.

I found the city to be so romantic, you can see horse-drawn carriages everywhere and if you close your eyes and listen to the the sound of the clip-clop of the horses on the cobbled-stoned streets you can imagine you are in the time of the "Sound of Music" or during the time of the Empress Sisi.

We drove along the Ringstrasse which is the major boulevard of Vienna which houses wonderful shops filled with all sorts of crystal, silver and wondrous findings.

Vienna is home to the world famous Spanish Riding School which is the oldest and last Riding School in the world where classic dressage is still practised in its purest form. This Institute was founded in 1572.

It's name was derived from the fact that the horses were of Spanish origin.
The Lipizzaner is regarded to be the oldest classic horse race in Europe. The horses have been bread in Lipizza in Slovenia. Tody, there is a stud in Piber, close to Graz. Young Lipizzaner are black and only turn white when reaching maturity. They need to undergo elaborate training before they are able to perform their prancing Renaissance ballet to the sound of classical music. They are the Rolls Royce of horses and I always wanted to see one because of their rarity.

I was all excited to see them in person in Vienna but I was disappointed to hear that on the day we were in Vienna there was no visiting allowed.....OMG I wanted to desperately see one of these beautiful horses, I was so disappointed!

As I walked along the tour secretly sulking I heard the guide say "to the right is the world famous Spanish Riding School. I immediately perked up and to my surprise and jubilation the door was open to the inner court yard which I am told never happens and lo and behold there were two of the most beautiful horses I had ever seen!!! They were in their stalls and I stood there praying they would turn around so I could get a better look and then miraculously one looked straight at me and posed, I immediately snapped his photo! I was so pleased I could have cried, I always wanted to see one in person and my wish, however brief, was exonerated. 
Now I was happy to continue the tour and we had some free time to visit on our own and I had some great experiences. In one of the plazas of the old town there was an old accordianist  playing Viennese music and several costumed couples danced all around in a circle.  

Then it was on to St. Stephan's cathedral. This is an imposing black structure with gothic spirals that make an awesome contrast to the blue sky. It always amazes me to touch a stone that was once also touched by a crusader or monk hundreds of years ago. This building is one of the main icons of Vienna with a main square in front of it and many charming side streets lined with cafes and souvenir shops.

Here I saw young couples strolling hand-in-hand, old men in deep discussion at a sidewalk cafe, street musicians engulfing the air with classical music and many small dogs out for a walk with their masters as the Viennese populace intertwine with the visitors all awestruck with the Vienna landscape and culure.

After stopping in a small shop to pick up some famous Viennese chocolate for the cabin we continued on to the Austrian National Library. I have to admit that this was the most beautiful library I have ever seen in the world! It has 50 ft high coffered ceilings painted with the most immpressive frescoes I have ever seen. The rooms are sensational filled with books written by philosophers and scientists dating back to the 12th century. This, the largest baroque library in Europe, was erected in the first half of the eighteenth century as an independent wing of the Imperial Palace.

More than 200,000 volumes are exhibited here, among them the comprehensive library of Prince Eugene of Savoy as well as one of the largest collections of Martin Luther’s writings from the Reformation Era. In total over 7 million items are on exhibition here comprising in addition to the volumes, papyri, maps, manuscripts, sheets of music, photographs as well as rare autographs.

Among the exhibits are two exquisite Venetian baroque globes: one for the earth and one for the sky, each with a diameter of more than one meter. Sculptures are perfect ornaments to the beautiful old leather bound books which line the walls. Most shelves are so high you need a ladder to reach them. Some priceless manuscripts and books are kept in glass-enclosed cabinets and it is chilling to see the written words of hundreds of years ago on parchment paper.

Later is was back on the ship to relax, eat gourmet meals and sail towards Bratislava!