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Under “Aunt” Rosa’s watchful eye, I crumpled a thin sheet of filo dough and placed it delicately over a mixture of egg, feta cheese and yogurt.
“Don’t fold it too much,” Rosa said, smoothing a few of the wrinkles in the dough. “Like this.”
Her niece, Ramona, walked over to examine our work. We were in her home kitchen in Vidin, Bulgaria, learning to make banitsa (a traditional Bulgarian cheese pastry). After it cooled, we stole a few bites of the gooey, salty snack before taking the rest back onboard AmaWaterway’s AmaSonata, tethered to the banks of the lower Danube.
This short-yet-meaningful interaction I had with Ramona and her family mirrored the active and authentic nature of our time on AmaWaterways’ 12-day Gems of Southeast Europe itinerary from Vienna to Bucharest, with ports of call in Budapest and Mohacs, Hungary; Vukovar, Croatia; Novi Sad and Belgrade, Serbia; Vidin and Rousse, Bulgaria; and Giurgiu and Bucharest, Romania, along with a full-day sailing through the Iron Gates.
Before coming onboard the 164-passenger ship, I had the perception that river cruising was mainly enjoyed by older travelers (one reason I invited my baby boomer mother along).
But I found that millennials — like me — who often seek out active excursions, local interaction and a significant amount of unscheduled time, had plenty of enjoyable options.
By choosing to attend the banitsa-making shore excursion, for example, I was missing an 11-mile city bike tour around Vidin and a hike up to Baba Vida Fortress. Many times, I struggled with deciding how to divide my time — each activity promised a unique way to explore Eastern Europe’s river cities.
And although we did spend a few hours on tour buses, my mom and I found a fair amount of time to wander on our own, interact with locals and participate in excursions that had us climbing fortresses and maneuvering through underground tunnels. Each day provided the choice to participate in two to three excursions, which made an evening sitting on the balcony of our upper-level stateroom a welcome ritual come nightfall.
This is one reason this particular itinerary tends to attract seasoned travelers and repeat river cruisers — approximately 40 percent of the passengers onboard my voyage had sailed with the line before, some as many as seven, eight or nine times.
These loyal passengers have already sailed the Rhine and the Upper Danube and are looking for an unconventional way to explore Europe, according to Kristin Karst, executive vice president and co-owner of AmaWaterways.
But that doesn’t mean that new cruisers and millennials don’t have a place onboard, too, she added.
“We look forward to welcoming more millennials onboard because they are our future generation,” Karst said. “We try to provide plenty of options for them.”
One such millennial, 23-year-old Matthew Harrington from Vancouver, B.C., said he was pleasantly surprised at the offerings available to young cruisers during our sailing.
“A lot of my friends are backpacking through Europe, and many haven’t done river cruising at all,” he said. “But I’ve enjoyed it so far. I like to have choices. I was surprised how active some of the people were onboard.”
Many of the countries we visited were still developing their tourism infrastructure and showed the lingering signs of an oppressive Communist regime. Despite this, each local guide we had was professional; tour buses were clean and well-maintained; and activities were organized in a way that led to a deeper understanding of the country’s culture and people.
It’s not just millennials that the river cruise line is hoping to attract, but families, too. Overall interest in river cruising is up, and Karst and AmaWaterways president Rudi Schreiner recently partnered with Adventures by Disney to offer a family river cruising product on the Danube.
Appealing to baby boomers, millennials and families — with itineraries to suit any interest — makes river cruising appealing indeed.