From the comfort of our cabin aboard Tauck’s MS Switzerland II, we watched the gentle countryside bordering the Danube glide by. Our 1,100-mile cruise from Bucharest to Budapest was so idyllic that the centuries of turmoil, which have characterized this region, seemed remote indeed.
Tauck first offered its 12-day Black Sea to Budapest cruise this spring. Beginning with two nights pre-cruise in Bucharest and ending with two nights post-cruise in Budapest, Tauck’s experienced tour directors introduced us to selected highlights of Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia and Hungary. Well-conducted excursions led us to eclectic treasures: fortresses, medieval churches, castles, craftsmen and folk art.
Our journey produced many indelible memories: Private homes in Veliko Turnovo received us for a traditional Bulgarian meal. Local Serbian guides walked us through Sremski Karlovci’s 16th-century monastery and Novi Sad’s historic Petrovaradin Fortress overlooking the Danube.
Enthusiastic Croatian children in colorful costumes treated us to a private folk dance performance. Our young guide in Vukovar, Croatia, pointed with optimism to the considerable progress made in rebuilding that war-ravaged city. In Budapest, we braced ourselves for the Terror Museum, a graphic depiction of horrors endured under Nazi and Communist rule. Today’s Budapest, upbeat and prosperous, has obviously come full circle. A pre-cruise reading list, daily printouts and onboard briefings enhanced the educational value of this trip.
The MS Switzerland II, a 104-passenger state-of-the-art vessel, entered service in 1991 and was renovated in 2001. All cabins are outside with large picture windows. Our cabin was well-appointed with TV, radio, safe, mini-bar, air conditioning, good storage and bath with shower.
With only two years in the European river cruise market, Tauck now lists nearly 60 departures. Our sailing had 95 passengers representing 14 states and several foreign countries, including Germany, the U.K., Australia, South Africa, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, Hong Kong and Canada. Most were well-traveled, sophisticated seniors, but there were also two three-generation families on board. Many were repeat Tauck travelers. Although this itinerary involves some stairs and walking on uneven surfaces, it was heartening to see passengers with health and mobility limitations participate fully. (There is, however, no elevator on the MS Switzerland II.)
We appreciated Tauck’s all-inclusive pricing. Land/cruise price includes pre-cruise and post-cruise nights, airport transfers, excursions, port charges and gratuities. It was nice not to have to think about tipping, for a change.
Meals aboard the MS Switzerland II are well prepared and attractively presented. Breakfast and lunch offer generous buffets, as well as menu selections. Dinner is a several-course affair with four choices of entree. A choice of complimentary wines is provided. The large dining room accommodates everyone in one sitting.
This trip will attract the well-traveled, intellectually curious person in search of new destinations. It should also appeal to those with family roots in the Balkans. Our Tauck tour director called us “path finders,” as we were only the second group to make this journey.
Tauck puts in over two years advance preparation before offering a new tour. Even so, our director advised that while local guides, buses and roads might not always be up to standards normally associated with Tauck, they are the best the region has to offer. This is an emerging area for tourism, which made it all the more interesting for us. These countries are looking forward eagerly to full EU membership and its advantages. (Presently, each of the five countries visited has its own currency.) But ATM machines are conveniently available, credit cards are accepted and, for small items, U.S. dollars are generally welcome.
Smaller, less-traveled ports used by the MS Switzerland II remain refreshingly noncommercial, which is a nice change from overcrowded cruise ports.
Tauck recently celebrated 80 years of excellence in tourism. Their products are found on seven continents with 40 different European itineraries. And, best of all, they appreciate travel agents, always advising, “Call your travel agent or Tauck World Discovery.”
Gayle Christensen is a travel consultant with Alamo World Travel in Alamo, Calif.
Tauck’s 12-day Black Sea to Budapest cruise/tour visits five countries bordering the Danube: Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia and Hungary.
Newly offered in 2006, there are six departures scheduled for the fall. Prices begin at $3,840, per person, without airfare.