Sunday, November 14, 2010



It does sound like that movie If It's Tuesday It Must Be Belgium. After all, we were in nine countries in 18 days, with a day at either end for flying - which daily grows more of a hassle.
The link was the Danube River stretching between Bulgaria and Romania and Germany and the Czech Republic. From swimming in the cold Black Sea to the great steps of Prague Castle.
Sadly, the Danube is not the blue delight of the song. Its waters more closely resemble dirty sock water. It's a river of the tugs and barges of commerce, the major artery through Eastern Europe.
A few days after we passed through Western Hungary, a reservoir wall gave way and the floods of toxic waste killed nine and injured 150. As the respected Economist magazine observed on Oct. 14, "the Danube basin is littered with accidents about to happen."
Still the trip through the the ancient glories and the modern curses left behind by communism was the "odyssey" promised by Viking (in the ancient name of Homer for an epic journey.) The scenery was often a picturesque movie, with the ruined factories and leaking storage facilities left by dictators obscured by the pleasant banks of a mighty river.
I would be happy to sail the Primadonna again, a giant catamaran accommodating 148 guests, and a tiny but efficient staff. It sailed so smoothly, you didn't know it had left the dock.
It was the key to the odyssey because we sailed the Danube in our cosy cabin and wonderful dining room, and were bused with guides chatting over our earphones to the major points of interest. If we had travelled instead by plane, train or bus, our nerves would have been as frazzled as the ruined countries left behind by the cruel and discredited communists.
The 40-year-old movie about Belgium - which has become the cliche condemnation of package tours -no longer resonates with me and other travellers, because we've done it the old way, searching vainly for hotels and restaurants with tattered guidebook in hand while night looms.
We prefer more of the comfortable cocoon, knowing where we're going to eat and sleep each night.
My wife and I have searched the lanes of Cairo and Jerusalem while sweat smarts the eyes.
We've spent a night in Brussels in a whorehouse with no bedroom ceiling and the toilet down the hall. The only bed we could find at midnight. Yet Mary wasn't about to sit in the railway station all night.
I have too many such stories about the perils of doing it on your own, even if you have rented a car and have a vague idea what part of the country you may be in.
A photographer and I once went around the world on a day's notice, with me carrying only a one-suiter for two weeks. I could do it again, providing I had a bathing suit and cold beer. But it's nicer to have company when misery creeps into the trip, and there's always some boring bit.
Our tour group called the Intrepids is based loosely on Humber Valley United Church members in Etobicoke led by the indomitable Cathy Wilkes. We adopted the name when we went to Turkey despite a new Iraq war along one border. They've also been to Egypt and other African countries, and Russia, China and Japan. We will continue sailing off into the sunset as long as airline security doesn't grow so tight, they will no longer allow any passengers at all.
Our river cruise displayed the glories of the past and the emerging good and the awful residue of communism and war. It included the usual tour stuff of lofty cathedrals and lowly old churches disguised to protect Christians. We saw the ancient houses of the rich.
We explored the grotesque rock formations of Belogradchik in Bulgaria, shaped by erosion, and the scenic stretch of the Danube in Serbia known as the Iron Gate. And we listened to the waltzes and classical music of old. (The best music for a Danube cruise is Smetana's Moldau . The Czech's most famous tune has the surges and flowing water of notes as brooks and rivers merge near Prague.)
There were hitches. One of the Primadonna's great engines failed for a day or so, so the excellent guides had to scramble to patch the schedule.
So we were packed off to a stud farm for the Lippizaner white horses of war. Not well done. Besides, there are too many places claiming to be the original home of the famous horses.
Mary and I know the truth because we once spent a great day and night on what's really the home, a stud farm at Lipica in Croatia. At least I got a nice shot in Vienna of three of the famous horses. It will hang on my wall to jog my memory, and my thoughts will be good.
Yet not all the memories of Eastern Europe are, not when the Balkans have long been one of the notorious trouble centres of the world.
We visited the Croatian city of Vukovar where 2,000 amateur soldiers held out for 87 days against the professional killers of Serbia - 36,000 soldiers, 110 tanks and dozens of war planes.
After the Serbs killed the defenders and demolished the port city and the war ended in 1995, 800 Croatians were missing and 22,000 killed or exiled. There had only been 30,000 residents.
So the dateline of Vukovar is a bitter reminder of the insanity of war between ancient enemies. The jagged walls of shelled houses still remain on too many streets, while the Croatians have left the huge water tower standing as a monument that was holed like Swiss cheese by artillery.
The hatred still festers in much of the disintegrated Yugoslavia.
In the giant church cave still under construction of St. Sava in Belgrade, one of the largest Orthodox churches in the world, a Serb I was talking to cursed the Slovenians for departing the Yugoslav federation on Jan. 25, 1991, one day before the Croatians. The Serbs abandoned their war on the tiny pastoral country after only 11 days because of the stiff resistance where 67 were killed, most of them Serbs. The angry Serb's curses were drowned by the pealing of the bells above the huge white structure. The guide was mortified because all of their commentary as we floated from country to country was carefully correct and neutral.
As we idled down a street of restaurants, Mary asked a lounging maitre d' how the Serbs said thank you. Then she asked how the Slovenians did and explained her parents had come from Slovenia. Young punk waiters said they had never been to Slovenia, which is as close there as Toronto to the Falls. Besides, one sneered, Slovenians were lazy and murderers.
Imagine! Spewing racist hatred to casual tourists. And the Serbs wonder why so many hate them. Back on the Primadonna, the staff was embarrassed again.
Yet most of our travels were good, even if Bulgaria and Romania are filled with the derelict buildings and economic rust left by failed communism. Empty fields, or with just a few animals, closed factories and shops, and the unemployed sitting on corners. Bulgaria is the poorest Balkan member of the European Union and EU officials grumble that they allowed it and Romania in too soon. Now the European hassle is over the gypsies from Romania
Mary and I had a chance to return to fabled Cesky Krumlov, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We had a marvelous time there once with our son John Henry, when we still travelled on our own and came across a enormous bargain of room, dinner and beer for $20.
The great beer centres that gave us Budweiser and Pilsener are near the lovely Bohemian centre. I told my fellow travellers how the arrogant brewers of American Budweiser went after the brewery in Budvar over naming rights and were reminded that the Czechs had been brewing Budweiser before the U.S. existed.
Ah, Cesky Krumlov, one of the best preserved cities in the Czech Republic. The beautiful baroque, Gothic and renaissance architecture. The market square. The bridges over the curving river.
It often pops up when I think of travels. For me it's like the Brigadoon of movie musical fame which comes to life one night each century. I would love to spend years there.
There are many who rave about Vienna. I've found in three visits that it is too full of itself, from the imperial Ringstrasse that encircles the inner city to St. Stephan's Cathedral which is always being scrubbed. The Viennese boast of their elegance and romance, of their musical heritage and their food. Demels lives up to its rep as a great bakery of confections and cakes but on a previous visit I found the famous tort at the Sacher Hotel behind the restored State Opera House - one setting for the fabled Third Man movie - to be a dry chocolate cake that people would send back in Canada.
I much prefer the crowded streets of the people's Prague to royal Vienna. Our visit was a post-cruise extension. There were literally thousands of young people swarming the cobble lanes and compact medieval centre of the city of a hundred spires. Occasionally it seemed they were all on my street.
The Charles Bridge is unique in a world filled with great bridges. No visit to Prague is complete without seeing the grand pedestrian bridge that began in 1357 and is lined with 30 Gothic religious statues that artists use as backdrops as they paint their tourist patrons.
Then there's the 600-year-old Astronomical Clock which has had dials, facades and moving statues added over the centuries. Crowds of tourist worship its hourly wonders, carpeting the square underneath to watch.
A great walking city, and walk we did for two days, from Wenceslas Square to the Old Jewish cemetery, with time out for beer and sausages.
Nothing like munching and sipping a real Bud and talking about the wonders of past days, like the 900-year-old Melk Abbey perched on sheer cliffs above the Danube, with rainbow colours splashed on the walls and ceilings inside the abbey church making up for the arduous climb. And the twin cities of Buda and Pest with the massive hilltop castle and the lovely stonework of the restored Parliament.
A grand trip. One we would like to do again. And I will. Especially Prague.

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