Budapest to Bucharest: A review of a River Cruise on Amawaterways Amacerto

Reputed to be the best river cruise operator by Berlitz and numerous travel sites, we ventured on our first river cruise on the Amawaterways Amarcerto boat from Budapest down to Bucharest via the Eastern Danube. The founders Rudi Schreiner (The father of river cruises) had come over to Manila to officially launch Amawaterways several weeks earlier to an overflowing elderly crowd in the Conservatory in Peninsula Makati and had convinced us to try it out for my father-in-law’s birthday. The cruise we selected was the “Gems of Eastern Europe”.

It seemed interest was high and other past traveler’s experiences were well rated so let’s take a look into what the cruise is really all about..

THE LOBBY

Photos courtesy of Amawaterways

THE STATE ROOM

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The most important part of a cruise is actually the room itself. Each room came with an ample size balcony and was clean and very compact.

My cousin-in-law Caren Grey who just started a Philippine travel agency called mylocalite worked with Intas who is the official registered agent to plan our trip.

Travel Tip: The greatest part of cruises is NOT HAVING TO PACK AND UNPACK! Just put your clothes in the closets, use the rubber mat on the bed to keep things clean as you unpack your suitcase and place your luggage under the bed to save space. Voila! Stress free travel especially for the elderly or those with handicap.

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As mentioned in my earlier post, we started with a river cruise at night along Budapest and then proceeded down the Danube.

Travel Tip: The best part of this river cruise is the boat as it is a shallow hull therefore quite stable so if you get motion sickness this is the option for you! Lastly if you are like my husband and constantly do risk assessments he already as asked what happens should the boat sink… the answer was take a cocktail at the roof deck as the boat is actually taller than the riverbed.

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After the room, the second most important thing is the FOOD! It is all included as with most cruises but what sets this apart from the rest is that you can book the “fine dining” restaurant called “chef’s table” for one night and do not pay extra for it. There is a personal waiter for your table and your own chef. I must say we were very impressed with the food in general which did may not have lobster or Angus rib eye steaks but had very good local delicacies and fresh ingredients like tomatoes (Mostly agricultural business in this region).

Travel tip (Healthy Option): I asked the head waiter if they could make me oatmeal chocolate chip cookies as a healthier alternative. The first few tries were pretty dry but they got it eventually (with enough coaching)! I really appreciate the extra effort! A baker comes on board every morning to make the baked goods by the way so you may be able to ask for other items next time.

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Lastly, the final component is entertainment. There is not much entertainment on board as our onboard musician while nice did not seem to have any songs past the closing of the Iron Curtain. Luckily my family always likes to improvise so we had a name that tune game on the first night and found similarly spirited group in the tour who took up the songs with a very talented singer of their own (Sadly our family have no singers but my aunt’s could dance I tell you!)

My husband enjoyed the massive chess board on the deck and had a thrilling match with his brother. He also swam at the roof deck pool (Ok more like waded as it is quite small).

On the last few nights we hooked up our Iphones to play some songs to start the party off with the same group who actually out partied us on a nightly basis.

Travel Tip: There is a free cocktail hour before dinner with FREE drinks. My husband liked the Whiskey Sour although it was premixed. Wine is free flowing during dinner as well so make sure to make space. The local wines are quite good although not well known.

 

 

I will end this with our tour of Vukovar which pretty much encapsulates Eastern Europe which is a land frozen in time trying to rebuild itself once step at a time after a harrowing period. I recommend this tour to those who have done most of Western Europe has to offer and are looking for something off the beaten track and a little rougher (Yes cheaper as well) than the main tourist photos of Eiffel Tower and London Bridge. It is also a great way for them to provide jobs to the locals in a very tough economy. My husband calls it “Charity tourism” every time we are faced with a somber faced waiter telling us we can’t split the bill or order a meal with something slightly different on the menu (Me: Can you remove the olives from the salad and dressing on the side……. waiter: No not possible!)

Thank you Amawaterways for the great service from the warm waiters to the hard working housekeeping. The hotel manager Pascal was great at making things run smoothly and our cruise director Florentine was always there to send us off on our tours and keep us informed of the days events.

Captivating Cappadocia, Turkey

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A Short hop, skip and a jump from Istanbul is a fascinating place called Cappadocia that is well known for it’s hot air balloon rides over amazing rock formations but actually had many other hidden gems lying underneath the surface literally…

Behind a rock door lies an Underground city which sheltered thousands of Turks from numerous invaders over centuries due to its important location as the crossroads of trade and power between Europe and Asia.

Travel tip: If you have handicap or have difficulty bending down and moving this is not for you. Best to only go to the first floors/rooms and then go out if at all (ask the local guides)

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We visited the amazing Fairy chimneys which were formed by a combination of separate layers of rock formed over millions of years. My husband wasn’t able to use his drone for this but he said to take a look at this amazing drone video

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He did however take this amazing shot of our Museum Hotel that had amazing views of the surrounding landscape and is right behind a Fortress which looked like a life size sand castle. I will review the hotel more in a future post but for now I will say it was a truly unique romantic experience I will never forget.

We lifted off early in the morning (5am to be exact) to catch the morning sunrise. We were 5 to a basket so it was a bit tight so best to go as a group of 5 so you are more comfortable and can swap locations with each other.

Once airborne you can marvel on the amazing landscape that stretches before you amidst the hundreds of hot air Balloons that dot the sky. I would have wanted to take them from the ground as well but will have to wait for another trip.

We ended the tour with Champagne (non-alcoholic so probably more like sparkling grape juice) and watched them slowly deflate the balloon on to a waiting truck bed. They are so efficient that we were back in the hotel for breakfast at around 8am.

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We ended the little side trip with a short stop before the airport to feed some pigeons and take a last shot of this amazing place. We will be back one day to see more of it! I would highly recommend it for a short stay or part of a around turkey tour which we plan to do soon.

Travel tip: Turkish airlines is very centrally located especially for those traveling from Asia to Europe so it is a great stop over area (they allow you free stopover) to break up those dreadful long haul flights!

 

Eastern Danube Odyssey Budapest to Bucharest

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Early in the morning the Amawaterways Amacerto slowly glided out of the dock on the “Pest” side of Budapest and then the engine roared to life shaking my headboard with vibration to wake me up. Instead of being annoyed though a tingle of anticipation went down my spine as I knew the cruise had begun. I awoke to a beautiful tranquil sunrise from my balcony. So began my 7 day family river cruise from Budapest to Bucharest. These are the tours we chose and places we visited.

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Day 1: MOHACS, Hungary

PECS Excursion – Our first tour took us to the UNESCO World heritage site “Early Christian Necropolis of Pecs” which was composed of a early mausoleum. We also visited a church with it’s four corner tower which was quite unique and looked more like a fortress than a catherdral.

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Day 2: Vukovar, Croatia

Croatian Wine Tasting Tour – introduced us to the Traminac white wine which apparently supplies the British Royal family for special occasions (Yes that includes the upcoming wedding of Meghan Markel and Prince William). The most interesting story was of how during the soviet occupation, the wine maker used to stash bottles of the rarest wines behind a wall which he then covered up.

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Day 3: Novi Sad, Serbia

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Frusk Gora National Parl Hike – took us up a mountain with a monument to serbian resistance fighters. It was very peaceful as we walked through the trails and up a watch tower in the middle of the forest. I would say that the hike wasn’t as long and scenic as I thought it would be and perhaps the bike tour of the town may have been a better choice.

Petrovardin Fortress Evening Walk – was well worth the late night departure time which made it too dark to take any meaningful pictures amidst the twisting tunnels and walls. The history is fascinating though as it was the most secure fort in the Austrian Empire where the Royal Treasures were kept during the invasions of the Turks. Our guide said that to this day some gold diggers search for it within it’s labyrinth of tunnels and constantly try to drill into the walls in search of a hidden passage or vault.

Day 4: Belgrade, Serbia

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Belgrade City Tour – A relatively mundane city pretty much like all the rest of Eastern European cities but given the recent difficult times they endured this is understandable. The highlight was seeing the reconstruction of the Serbian Orthodox church of Saint Sava which they need more funds to build the ceiling mosaics. They have finished the first dome as seen above.

Day 5: Belgrade, Serbia

Cruising The Iron Gates

On this day we spent it on the Cruise ship as it traversed a three docks of hydroelectric dams to get to the next part of the Danube.

We admired going through the Iron Gates which had several highlights like a stone face carved into the hillside (no one knows who made it) and an old Roman monument that used to mark the way for invading armies.

Day 6: Vidin, Bulgaria

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Belogradchik Fortress hike –  The first thing they may need to do is change the impossible to spell name! Perhaps it is better known as the Kaleto Fortress. Seriously though this could have been the fortress used for the Eyrie, the principal stronghold of House Arryn in the Game of Thrones. My husband could almost imagine the archers lining the battlements  as  the Lords of the Vale marching up the walkway to ascend to meet Lord Arryn… yes he was in his fantasy world once again.

Travel Tip: The climb up is worth the view. Just be careful since there are steep ladders on the way up.

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This is definitely one of the best spots on the tour….. We call these moments “HIGHLIGHT!” (My husband kept call it “FANTASTIC!” like his uncle so told him to get a new term)

Day 7:  Rousse, Bulgaria

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Arbanasi Village was the first stop on the way to our final destination. It was surprisingly quite popular with tourists with little guest houses and sports cars parked on the road perhaps due to the upcoming music festival. We stopped by the Nativity church which had beautifully painted black backdrops for the murals which was quite unique. Many were also set below ground as churches could not be taller than the mosques after the Turkish occupation.

 

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Veliko Tarnovo Excursion after a total of 2 hours from the ship we (yes it is worth it you HAVE TO TAKE this tour) we finally arrived at the Fortress walls of the Tsaverets which was the capital of the second Bulgarian Empire. A terrible story was told on our way there about Basil the Bulgar-Slayer who was a Byzantine Emperor that once captured 30,000 Hungarians and blinded everyone but 99 out of every 100 solider to return home. This so shocked their leader Samuel that he fell stricken and died two years later and thus the second empire came to be. Truly fear and horror in this side of the world back then!

The Tsarevets fortress was built on a imposing mountain surrounded by a natural river and seemingly impregnable…. nevertheless apparently a guard was bribed to open the gate and thus the fortress fell after three months to the invading Ottomans. They are still uncovering many remains of the former palace as most of what was there was burned down.

The church at the top was rebuilt but they could not replicate the art so they decided to install their own modern interpretation which came out quite different and dramatic in my opinion.

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As we finished the last of the land tours we got on the cruise to sail to Bucharest. This part onwards we did on our own with the family on a separate tour. I will write a review of the Amawaterways on the next post. In the meantime I am off to catch the flight home! Cheers!

Breathtaking Budapest

We started our Eastern European trip for my father-in-law’s birthday celebration in the exotic city of Budapest.

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We stayed in the Ritz Carlton and had a lovely stay with great service. The lobby was modern yet elegant with its preserved domed ceiling and located right at the heart of the city in front of a little park and restaurants nearby.

Buda Castle

Early the first morning we woke up at the crack of dawn to catch the sunrise as it peaked through the battlements of Buda Castle while there were no tourists around. We were rewarded by a truly amazing glimpse of glorious sunlight bathing this mythical setting in a warm glow. I swear we were part of a scene from the Game of Thrones! I expected Daenerys Tangaryen to come down the steps towards us surrounded by her dragons as if taking King’s Landing from Cersei Lannister (seriously they should shoot footage here for GoT maybe prequels)

Later in the day we took a tour to Gellert Hill upon which the Liberty Statue was at the top commemorating the hard won freedom of the country. Most of their history is very tragic as seems to be a common thread with all the countries behind the Iron Curtain. We can understand the generally stoic nature of the people but underneath (or after a few beers) you get to see an inner warmth beneath the icy exterior. It’s good to expand your horizon to see this side of Europe that has been closed off for so long and seems to have been locked in time.

We had an outdoor lunch at Rezkakas which was recommended by the Ritz. The Goulash soup was amazing with soft cubes of beef. My husband had the pea soup as well which was creamy and rich. Unfortunately the main dishes were mediocre at best with my husband’s duck to firm and my scallops over cooked. Travel tip: It may be better to eat the street food instead which we rather enjoyed more. See below!

My husband enjoyed his Hungarian Sausage which he said was the right balance of salty and meaty. It was HUGE! (Now don’t be green minded!)  That is perhaps why that is one of their well known exports. We then walked to the largest market in Europe The Great Market Hall which has to be seen to be believed. Travel Tip: Avoid lunch hour as it gets packed to the rafters literally! Try walking along the shopping boulevards but don’t stop in front of the shops as they get upset (As if that many people are buying… they really need to learn about customer service. This is not Communism anymore!)

On the night before we sailed on our cruise (article to follow) we took a scenic cruise along the Danube river. We saw the beautiful Parliament and crossed under classic bridges flanked with dinner cruise boats and historic landmarks.  This is a definite must do much like a Paris river cruise. We saw many dinner cruises along the banks.

So began our Amawaterways river cruise….

 

 

A Wedding Anniversary in India

Majestic Taj Mahal

As we celebrate our tenth wedding anniversary, we wanted to flashback to one of our early trips to India and our visit to the wonderful Taj Mahal. In a country of crowded streets full of crazy driving traffic jam with cows and monkeys mixed in, it was surprising to see such a pristine white palace in the middle of nowhere. A three hour bus ride from Delhi which was slow but safe and brought us to this truly amazing gem.

The sheer size and audacity of the place becomes apparent as you come closer to it.

Travel Tip #1: Make sure to walk through the exterior areas as perhaps the greatest part is to appreciate the intricate inscriptions from the Quran on the walls and arches.

Inside is a lot simpler with not much furnishings yet still filled with fine Craftsmanship and exquisite detail in the beautiful arches and interior hallways.

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You have to see it in person to truly appreciate its majesty. Taj Mahal took 22 years to build and 22000 labourers and 1000 elephants . The fact that  it was built by Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan for his beloved wife Mumtaz Mahal in her memory after she passed away giving birth to their 14th child! It is perhaps the greatest monument to love and the power to move a person’s soul. A truly fitting stop to celebrate the importance of marriage and the time we have to spend with our spouses.

The Red Fort

Perhaps not as popular but also quite interesting was the Red Fort in Delhi which had simple exteriors but a beautiful domed ceiling at its heart.

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After all the tours, we were brought to a house with a huge garden which we thought was a dinner at a friend’s house but actually led to a surprise event!

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A full blown Indian Wedding! And we were the celebrants!

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Our gracious hosts threw us a famous Indian wedding which did not last the usual 4-5 days (I really don’t know how people manage that to be honest I was tapped out after one day in our wedding) but was nonetheless very colorful and lively.

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The ceremony was quite long and the ministers quite strict but with a puff of smoke and after circling around for sometime we were done. What a truly memorable way to relive your wedding vows!