The Hungarian Parliament Building, on the bank of the Danube River
Published November/December 2013

A River Runs Through It

A cruise down the Danube, from the Black Sea to southwestern Germany, provides a glimpse of many Central European cities

BYSam Lowe
The big crowds haven’t made it to the shores of the Black Sea in Constanța, Romania.  Not yet, anyway. The big ocean liners have no access to the Black Sea and the riverboats carry only about 150 passengers and crew, so those who select a smaller cruise have this area of Eastern Europe pretty much to themselves.
Since the lure of visiting places off the beaten path means fewer people and relatively undiscovered sites, our cruise on the ms River Adagio of the Grand Circle River Cruise fleet — with stops in Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia, and Hungary — offers plenty of opportunities to explore, unimpeded by the masses.
Roamin’ around Romania
The journey starts in Bucharest, the capital of Romania, where photo opportunities abound. The enormous building known as “the Palace of the Parliament” by the government and “the Monster” by the locals, looks down over the city and is a popular destination. Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu razed a major part of Bucharest to build it, then called it a monument to the people. The people called it Ceauşescu’s monument to himself because construction costs broke the country. When communism fell in 1989, Ceauşescu and his wife came to untimely ends during a people’s revolt.
Regardless of whom it memorializes, it stands today as the second-largest building in the world, right behind the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.
Elsewhere, the city is one of vibrant contrasts. Its heritage is a mixture of Ottoman, Saxon, Austrian, French, Roman, and Russian influences and it shows in a variety of ways — crooked streets that wind past mom-and-pop stores, excellent wine, and cuisine that can be traced back to settlers and conquerors (whose ancestors still inhabited the city). 
Although Ceauşescu demolished a big portion of the original old town and replaced it with ugly social-realist architecture, much of the former charm survived. There’s an Arc de Triomphe standing on one of the main thoroughfares. The National Philharmonic Royal Palace, National Art Museum, the Opera House, and the national library are bunched together near romantic Cişmigiu Park. The Lipscani Historical District, the medieval section of town, is only a few blocks away.
A four-hour bus ride the next day took us to Constanţa, our point of debarkation. It’s the country’s oldest continually inhabited city, dating back more than 2,500 years. Legends say Jason and the Argonauts stopped there after recovering the Golden Fleece. There are no plaques or monuments dedicated to that feat, but the city does boast the mosaic-paved Roman Edifice of Tomis and a very photogenic Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul.
Promenade at sunset in  Constanţa, Romania
Promenade at sunset in Constanţa, Romania
Szechenyi Chain Bridge, Budapest
Szechenyi Chain Bridge, Budapest