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updated 6/6/2005 7:12:41 PM ET 2005-06-06T23:12:41

Awaiting those who purchase European river cruises are castles, pristine scenery, quaint villages, forests of birds singing to celebrate your arrival ... and you are easily granted large doses of absorbing adventure and complete serenity.

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New Adventures Open: Growing up in the Mid-West in a working-class family, I could not imagine ever being given the privilege of going to summer camp ... let alone former Soviet Iron Curtain States. New York City seemed to me to be eons from my reality ... even beyond were exotic places like Budapest, Belgrade, and the Black Sea.

Come with me now and explore my synopsis of fascinating and thoroughly exhilarating Viking discoveries into newly opened waterways of the East. I was thrilled to be part of this journey, adventure, a cultural and personal pilgrimage ... this was to be a voyage not to be forgotten.

The Beginning: We broke a cardinal rule we had established for ourselves — never fly into a city on the same day as cruising. This allows too much opportunity for the airline portion to get vacations in a mess ... you know, delayed luggage or missed connections. Time constraints forced this issue for us, but even with moments of anxiety about flight connections, we landed in Vienna, Austria on schedule! Luckily, we had toured Vienna previously, as there are just too many treasured delights in Vienna for you to miss.

Vienna is the city of musical genius ... a gathering place of culture where the East meets West. Mozart, Beethoven, and the Strauss family lived and worked in Vienna. The Danube river plies through Vienna on its western route toward Passau, and Melk — but looking east ... Yes, east ... what mysteries await on the Danube?

Vienna is a city where you can see Emperor Franz Joseph's Schonbrunn Palace — a spectacle of opulence. Vienna offers wonderful concerts, historic areas, world-class museums and you can walk into Mozart's home near St. Stephen's Cathedral. We were in Vienna to meet the Viking Europe for her inaugural voyage east on the Danube river.

Viking River Cruises is the largest river fleet in the world, and has a commanding presence in Europe. Viking markets are opening up in China, the Ukraine, and other exotic areas, but our attention at present is the former Soviet strongholds east from Vienna on the Danube. What countries would these be ... can you even imagine?

The Viking Tradition: By the year 800 A.D. Nordic Vikings were known throughout Europe. Fear came into the hearts of villagers as the northern bears came to plunder the waterways. They came by sea and viks (smaller rivers and creeks) to take from others ... hence the name Viking. The Viking Europe, built in 2001, is 375 feet in length, and explores European waterways with 150 passengers aboard at capacity. She plunders only good adventure, leaving fond memories for those aboard.

Boundless Itineraries: Last year we made the almost perfect voyage called 'A European Adventure' from Vienna to Amsterdam, or the reverse is available. This was a superior memory and experience. That cruise was our initial discovery of river cruising. This eastern route would be a new adventure, and we wanted to explore with Viking River Cruises!

The Eastern European Odyssey: Just a few short years back the countries east on the Danube were part of the former Soviet alliance, and even more recently they were areas that were blocked due to NATO bombing of bridges in the ouster of Slobodan Milosevic for humanity war crimes. Yugoslavia was once a dominate Eastern European domain, now it has divided into many smaller countries. As of January 2003 what remained of Yugoslavia became Serbia and Montenegro, under one capital of Belgrade. This cooperation is expected to last for at least the next few years.

The Danube is open this year, and river cruising and traffic are normalizing ... thus Jeffrey Dash, President, and Torstein Hagen, CEO of Viking River Cruises are able to complete a dream of having a water route for vacationers open from the North Sea (Amsterdam) to the Black Sea at Romania. We participated on this opening voyage on the Viking Europe — it was a memory of a lifetime!

We were cruising off into current history, and also days of Vlad Tepes III, the historic character that Bram Stoker based his novel, Dracula. Viking River Cruises would in fact help us make a Viking exploration to the Bram Castle were Vlad the Impaler had stayed and even made war. What a thrill exploring the nooks and small stairwells of this well preserved 1300's castle in the Transylvania region of Romania.

Before Romania, we explored Slovakia, Hungary, Serbia and Montenegro. We would sail through Croatia, and extensively tour Romania and Bulgaria. In our wildest imagination we thought these former Soviet-style communist states would never be on our vacation venue. But, what a magical memory and cultural expose these delightful and engaging countries have created for us.

At a Glance: With a little imagination you can visualize that countries closer to Austria are more up-to-date, with countries further east being less advanced. Slovakia and Hungary and even Serbia (aside from bombing remains of the NATO attack) look quite like many areas of Europe, with Hungary being the most up-to-date and lovely in our opinion.

Romania is a country with a wide mosaic of haves and have-nots. Romania has either great areas of development, or areas with a complete lack of it. The capital city, Bucharest, has many remaining tattered soviet style tenements; tall, crowded, and poorly constructed. Surprisingly, Bucharest has areas that look like Paris. The city is home to the second largest government building on earth, and displays wide boulevards and fountains.

If you travel into one of the less developed areas of Romania you will quickly find horse carts, gypsy caravans, and people toiling from dawn to dusk with hand tools in their fields. We noted only one tractor in our trek from the Danube many miles up to Transylvania. The land however, is so fertile that it would make any agricultural student envious.

Romania is perhaps just a few years from economic prosperity. Romania has good land, hard working people, friendly atmosphere, and resources. Many areas of Romania are framed in snow-clad peaks, fields of swaying sunflowers, and pastoral byways ... it is picture-post-card lovely!

Bulgaria, once a strong military state, is now the most meager of the countries we visited on this adventure eastward. Over one million people have vacated this lovely land in search of work, but again here is a country with rich land awaiting a fervent plan under some able governmental direction to propel it into the 21st century. Bulgaria has many ancient treasures, and lovely countryside.

Our final trek east was our bus outing to Constanta, Romania where we were able to dip our feet into the Black Sea, and view the seaside resort area. At this point we were perhaps 95 miles form Turkey, 95 miles from the Ukraine, and likewise close to Greece.

This had been a captivating journey eastward on the Danube. And, unlike many of the new shorter voyages on the Danube going east, our Viking Europe cruise was going back to Vienna with many new and exciting stops along the way. This 'Eastern Odyssey' would be extensive - an adventure of a lifetime to remember.

Overview and Critique: Viking River Cruises is the largest fleet of river cruising ships on earth. Viking gained their fame and reputation through quality management and service. Viking River Cruises may set the overall standard by which other river cruising companies measure themselves. We found the Viking experience an unparalleled vacation concept. We consider the staff, and dining a high quality pleasure, and Viking went over expectation in arranging interesting tours and excursions.

Passengers don't just cruise rivers and then dock ... your cruise price includes extensive optional tours by bus with guides. Above expectation were day adventures that included meals and highly professional local entertainers. One of our outings into Transylvania included an overnight hotel stay with meals. Note - I feel this new itinerary that I am presenting will change and adjust, but in any case eastward on the Danube is an adventure into new lands once off limits, with lovely scenery and friendly people.

Cabins: Seventy five cabins, 63 deluxe and 12 standard (a bit smaller) present a well designed European feel of both space and comfort, with television, and huge viewing window. Many cabin windows open for the pleasing sounds of nature and fresh air comfort. Each cabin has individual climate controls, and the option for a twin bed arrangement can be accommodated.

Dining: Open seating and resort casual dress are welcomed features of Viking River Cruises, (Open collared shirts and slacks for men). We met four additional people on the second night ... we all had fun and we stayed with them for evening meals. During breakfast and lunch we switched around meeting new people every day, and that was enjoyable.

The meals were well presented with quality preparation pleasing most passengers including our own wishes. Always available were off the menu standards of beef tenderloin or chicken breast with sauces and accompaniments to suit. This year and last we felt the menu was up to its high reputation for excellence, and client satisfaction.

To remedy: If we had anything on our wish list for Viking Europe on this itinerary it would be to arrange music availability in the cabins. This could be done using the intercom system if music is out of satellite serving areas, but this minor miss-step is one Viking River Cruises can easily remedy ... and I am sure they will rewrite this musical score.

Get Packing: Tell your travel agent or travel manager that you would like to seek discounts and special offers ... it never hurts to ask for discounts and upgrades when cruising ... it's your money!

Worth repeating? - What awaits those who purchase European river cruises are castles, pristine scenery, quaint villages, forests of birds singing to celebrate your arrival ... and you are easily granted large doses of absorbing adventure and complete serenity.

Directory:
Viking River Cruises
877-668-4546

Travelworld International Magazine features articles, columns, and photos from members of the North American Travel Journalists Association. For more information on Travelworld Magazine, please contact the NATJA by phone (310) 836-8712 or email at info@natja.org.

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