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Port of Call: Belgrade, Serbia

Today we’re off to explore Beograd, the White City — aka Belgrade. Starting off with a bus ride to the Kalemegdan Fortress, with its imposing location at the top of the city. From a collection of cannons and weaponry to the Statue of The Victor, commemorating Serbia’s victory over the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empire during both Balkan and First World wars.

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Through the park we get to see some of the remains of the fortress before heading back into town for a glimpse inside the enormous Church of St. Sava (the second largest Orthodox church in the world).

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It’s still being constructed with financial aid from around the world. The crypt downstairs however is a stunning display of columns, chandeliers and colourful artwork, a sharp contrast to the bare interior of the church’s main level above.

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Our morning tour ends at the Square of the Republic. From here, there’s the option to return to the bus and head back to the boat, or take the afternoon to explore the city some more.

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We decide to sample the city’s favourite fast food, borek, a filled pastry available in varying forms — cheese, meat, spinach and cheese and dessert varieties, mostly served up from a round tin, cut into triangular slices.

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We tuck into sandwiches and salads at Boutique (a popular spot with a large indoor non-smoking section at Trg Republic 3) before making our way to the Nikola Tesla Museum via cab. This tiny, two-room museum, founded in 1952, is contained in an old character home.

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Serbian-born Tesla is famous for having invented the Tesla coil and alternating current machinery. There’s several exhibits, instruments, some of his gloves, top hat and boots, photos and drawings.

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[Tesla is honoured on Serbia’s 100 dinar note]

Tours alternate between Serbian and English and are offered on the hour (best to check in that day as we discovered the schedule changes on the fly and tours fill up quickly).

Stopping into the Hilton Belgrade for a fancy java fix gave us a chance to relax before exploring more of the busy streets, filled with old architecture (some of which remains badly damaged as a result of the war).

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[Departing Belgrade at night offers a lovely view of Kalemegdan fortress]

This city has a vibe all its own and we’re glad to have had a full day to take it in, especially amongst the spring flowers and sunshine.

Iron Gate

Sail Through: Iron Gate, Serbia

As we approach the Carpathian/Balkan Mountain ranges, this is our chance to unwind and enjoy the surrounding nature.

Today we’re sailing through The Iron Gate Gorge inside Djerdap National Park, marvelling at four of Europe’s deepest gorges (separated by three basins) surrounded by towering white limestone cliffs. The Carpathians are to our north and the Balkan Mountains to our south.

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[“God created the beard on himself first” – Serbian proverb; King Decebaulus, Iron Gates]

We serenely float along the Danube, anticipating one of its highlights, the carved face of 43-meter high Dacian King Decebaulus on the Romanian side of the gorge. I’m equally impressed by the monastery that we spot just moments before the King.

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The weather’s on our side, with sunshine and a perfect 76F/24C. We also encounter our first of two downriver locks of the cruise.

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[At the first lock of our cruise]

Since we’re on the ship all day, there’s a variety of programming to keep guests occupied (nautical movie, Q&A, wheelhouse visit, Serbian tea, lecture on growing up in Eastern Europe, port talk). Grabbing a good read and relaxing on the upper deck is also a sweet way to pass the time. During dinner, we arrive in Vidin, Bulgaria.

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Port of Call: Vidin, Bulgaria

We next dock in the small port of Vidin in the northwest corner of Bulgaria, our main goal being a visit to the Belogradchik Rocks and Fortress following breakfast the next morning.

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An hour by bus and we approach the mystical Belogradchik Rocks, formations created over 230 million years ago in the Balkan Mountain range.

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These limestone rocks with reddish hues house hundreds of caves, one even includes cave paintings and the bones of prehistoric animals!

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The rocks have been named after their unique shapes and relate to moments in history, legends and animals. While our tour guide points a few of them out during our visit, we’re happy just climbing higher and higher for some amazing views on a picture-perfect morning.

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Vidin is home to Baba Vida, a fully preserved, 10th century medieval fortress. The UNESCO site contains nine towers (three remain true to their original height) and two concentric curtain walls.

During the Middle Ages, Baba Vida served as the region’s most important fortress and line of defence, one of the few fortresses not destroyed by the Ottomans. It was constructed at the site of an ancient Roman watchtower.

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A walk through town along the banks of the Danube allow us to take in a mix of architecture off the beaten tourist path.

Sunset on the Danube

As we straddle Bulgaria and Romania along this stretch of river, we’re treated to sunrise in one country and sunset in the other.

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Port of Call: Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

On our last full day on the boat, we encounter the gateway to Transylvania, visiting Veliko Tărnovo and Arbanasi, two gems rich in Bulgarian heritage.

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It’s about an hour and a half to the medieval village of Veliko Tărnovo with its hilltop fortress.

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We get our shopping fix at Samovodska Charshia, a street filled with traditional handicrafts. Many of the artisans are at work producing their pieces on site.

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Nearby Arbanasi is heavily influenced by Greek heritage. The tiny village’s gem is the Church of The Nativity of Christ, filled with beautiful frescoes along its walls and ceilings. The church recently applied for UNESCO status which it plans to receive this year, but you’ll have to enjoy the beauty with your own eyes: no photography allowed.

Bucharest

Port of Call: Bucharest, Romania

After breakfast, it’s bon voyage to the Atla as we disembark and head into Bucharest by bus (about an hour away from the port town of Giurgiu). Our main two activities today include the Palace of the Parliament and an open air museum.

Along the way, we pass Communist-era housing as our guide discusses the horrors of both Communism and Nicolae Ceaușescu’s reign of terror.

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Before our visit to the Palace, we get a full lunch with entertainment at Pescarus, a restaurant formerly frequented by the dictator himself.

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Dimitrie Gusti National Village Museum contains a collection of churches, homes and exhibits showcasing traditional life in Romania through the ages, spread around a lakeside park. Vendors sell local handicrafts around the various houses and there’s a souvenir shop near the entrance as well.

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Our luggage is transferred to five-star Radisson Blu Hotel Bucharest, located close to beautiful Belle Époque architecture and lovely patisserie and wine stores.

The hotel has an amazing health club with a huge jacuzzi that contains an array of massage jets for an evening of unwinding.

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We really enjoyed the variety on this cruise, from hotel stays to city excursions to nature outings, and while on the ship, you only need to unpack once!

We were guests on the Passage to Eastern Europe sailing. Opinions, as always, are my own.

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