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Springtime in Eastern Europe sounds idyllic. Viking River Cruises’ Passage to Eastern Europe offers 11 days exploring five countries, four of which are new to us.

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Another aspect of this cruise that differs from the Viking cruise I took through Russia is that we’ll be starting and finishing this journey at luxury hotels (the first two nights in Budapest, the final night in Bucharest).

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We’re both pretty excited to be able to return to Budapest, a city we both fell in love with years ago while visiting close to Christmas. This magical city is filled with beautiful architecture, bridges, important landmarks, a gourmet market hall and excellent Old World cafes.

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We fully intend to enjoy our time there before embarking the Viking Atla.

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Getting Ready to Cruise Through Eastern Europe

Including start and end points Budapest and Bucharest, our cruise covers seven stops with optional offshore excursions, some included in the fare, others at an additional cost.

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[Gorgeous Neo-Renaissance Peleș Castle, Transylvania]

There are also pre-trip add-on stays available in Budapest and Prague, and post-cruise stays in Bucharest and Transylvania.

Via our personalized My Viking Journey online portal, we’re able to pre-book our excursions. Here’s where we can also locate our to-do checklist, maps, flights, ship and stateroom details plus a countdown showing how many days until we set sail.

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About a month before our departure, we receive our guest packets in a dark blue felt zippered pouch with a wonderful quote by Albert Einstein. I couldn’t agree more!

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Soon enough, we’d be aboard the Atla, relaxing in our Veranda Stateroom on the upper deck while gazing out at the Danube River as we take in the sights along our 11-day journey.

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The Viking Experience

Following our Lufthansa flights from Vancouver (including a stopover in Frankfurt), we’re greeted at Budapest’s Ferenc Liszt International Airport by a couple of Viking Cruises guides (the transfer is included when you book through Viking Air).

Once our entire group has met up outside customs, we’re brought to Budapest via bus where we’re based for two nights at the centrally-located InterContinental Hotel.

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The Veranda Room

Once we’ve boarded the ship, our luggage is brought to our room, located on the top floor of the three-deck Atla. A compact but functional room includes several outlets (including 110V) for charging tech, a large flatscreen TV, lots of shelving and drawers plus a balcony with two chairs and a table for watching the world go by.

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The well-organized bathroom (with heated floor!) is on the small side but is designed to maximize space.

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[The Lounge]

Food, Entertainment and Service on Board

We’re welcomed on board with a wine and cheese afternoon event, made all the more special with panoramic views of the Chain Bridge and Buda on the top terrace. With newly-made friends, sipping a glass of regional wine adds a memorable quality to our sailing that evening from Budapest headed towards Kalocsa.

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Meals are often accompanied by sprigs of fresh herbs from the ship’s roof deck garden. Staff quickly get to know of any dietary restrictions and preferences.

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[Executive Chef Carlito Tandiama gets the soup course underway]

On the day of our Belgrade docking, we get treated to a special Serbian buffet at dinner with all the regional delicacies.

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Evenings can be enjoyed in the lounge. On one night, it’s dancing, other times there’s trivia, games and live music.

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There’s a library filled with a wide variety of books on loan; nearby are a couple of computers and desks.

Port of Call: Budapest, Hungary

Arriving in Budapest, we’re introduced to a city of gorgeous architecture, stunning bridges and cozy cafes. While Viking offers an optional city excursion on this first morning, we decide on a leisurely day recovering from a long day of traveling by taking in the sights around town.

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We soon discover that Hungary’s capital is a compact, easily walkable one, divided by the Danube River into Buda and Pest. Our hotel for two nights is the modern Budapest InterContinental, perfectly situated right along the river next to the imposing Chain (Széchenyi) Bridge.

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From here, we indulge in relaxing weekend brunches at the hotel’s restaurant, cross the Chain Bridge and hop on the tram to Király fürdő, one of the city’s not-so-secret gems. This thermal bath was first built during the second half of the 16th century during Ottoman rule. Talk about the ideal way to revitalize!

The bath house contains several Turkish domes with a classic octagonal pool at its heart. Once you check in and rent a cabin (or locker), change into your swim gear and walk the halls to the mineral showers leading to the pools, eucalyptus steam bath and sauna.

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We’re in for a spiritual experience as we watch the sun peek through the tiny, rounded glass windows of the domed ceiling and bounce back beams of light onto the water.

The thermal water contains healing-rich sodium, calcium, magnesium bicarbonate, sulphate-chloride and a significant amount of fluoride ion. The water temperature in the four different pools range from 26-40 °C.

Wish we could have photographed some of the centuries-old interior but photos aren’t allowed.

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Király’s unimposing entrance is a couple streets back off the tram line almost directly opposite the Hungarian Parliament Building, at Fő utca 82-84.

Day two and we’re off after breakfast to A Taste of Budapest tour with the Parliament Building and Szimpla Market as its highlights.

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Our guide Ursula meets us at the InterContinental lobby after check-out. We get into a couple of cabs and head over to Szimpla Market, located in the Jewish Quarter. This ruined bar-cum-Sunday market is filled with local dairy, meat, honey, sweets and other vendors in a colourful, offbeat atmosphere.

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This two-story market is filled with crazy art installations, plants, seating and a weekend buffet upstairs, making this one of the most interesting farmer’s markets I’ve yet to visit. Within moments, Ursula’s bought a bag of cheese bread pastries for our group. Tasty and filling, they’re a tad on the sweet side.

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The next part of the tour brings us to Szabadság Square (Liberty Square) via the massive Hungarian Parliament Building.

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Before our Parliament tour, we walk through the square, getting a good dose of history as we admire the ornate buildings, statues of Imre Nagy and Ronald Reagan as well as the three gorgeous Art Nouveau buildings that contain the US Embassy.

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It’s then on to Urban Betyár Restaurant for a cup of goulash soup followed by a sampling of their phenomenal strudel.

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Back through Liberty Square, we’re lead inside the Parliament Building, joining several others for our appointed tour.

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This “city within a building” was the world’s largest parliament building when built. It’s now the third-largest in the world (behind Bucharest and Buenos Aires) and combines Baroque, neo-Byzantine and Renaissance styles.

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In 45 minutes, we get to see just a bit of its interior, containing gorgeous decorated ceilings, St. Steven’s holy crown and ornate Assembly Hall. This half-day tour nicely combines Hungarian history with culinary delights.

Port of Call: Kalocsa, Hungary

According to our local guide Màté, there’s more to Hungary than Budapest, so this morning we’re off to both Kalocsa and Puszta, located in the agricultural heart of the country. Hungary’s Schankus region (“surrounded by mud” in English) is a former swamp area, its high quality black soil ideal for agriculture.

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Paprika is also cultivated here, sowed by hand in spring. The labour-intensive process involves irrigation, weeding and picking red paprika pods in the heat of summer. Friends gets together to pick the pods that are then strung out onto string and hung on walls and rooftops, giving the city a blast of paprika aroma.

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Did you know that paprika oil contains six times more vitamin C than lemon? True fact.

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We’re also treated to a gorgeous organ concert inside St. Joseph Church, dating to 1754 (the church we see today is the fourth incarnation of the original). Composer Franz Liszt performed on this very organ, one that includes 4,863 pipes.

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A short bus ride brings us to Bakodpuszta Equestrian Center, a family-owned farm where the famed Horsemen of the Pustza still train and perform stunts on their horses.

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Cracking their bull whips, the horsemen trot around the ring, showing off their skills with various breeds, plus one little donkey who gets all the love during our time there.

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The horse-training custom began when nomadic Magyar warriors arrived from Asia on horseback, settling on the Great Plain (aka Puszta) of Hungary.

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The 19th century herdsmen trained their horses to disappear in the exposed landscape, their saddles designed for quick getaways. Our ‘show’ was themed “How to Steal a Horse”.

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Riding bareback allows the horsemen to feel the horse’s muscles and nerves, so they can sense – and anticipate – the animal’s movements.

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The horses aren’t actually whipped; the swift movement at the end of the whip crosses the sound barrier, a brilliant guise to make their enemies back in the day believe that the men had ammunition left over.

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We also get a chance to sample local paprika sprinkled on bread, cheese scones and a shot of apricot brandy. A quick carriage ride allows us all to appreciate the other animals that call this farm home.

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Port of Call: Osijek, Croatia

We’re docked in Vukovar today, getting the chance to engage with a local family in the tiny village of Laslovo.

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The couple have rebuilt their home and small farm following seven years of war in the region, when the Serbs attacked Croatia, aiming for their economic output and territory.

Through photos, our group gets a glimpse of what life was like before the war ended, turning former Yugoslavia’s six provinces into six independent countries.

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A short walk though Osijek brings us to the Rising of the Holy Cross Church, where a mosque originally stood during the Ottoman era. This lovely church, constructed between 1709 and 1722, is connected to a monastery that’s still active today. A soprano soloist gives a short recital on piano, elevating the ambiance of the Baroque church.

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After lunch, there’s time to walk through the cobblestoned streets of tiny Vukovar, badly destroyed during the war. There’s still signs of bullets in many of the decaying buildings, but the city has begun to reconstruct and rise from the terror of war, even with the challenges of high unemployment and a shrinking population.

Part two of our cruise feature continues tomorrow in Belgrade, Serbia.

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