Lessons from My First River Cruise

By Jillian Dara

I was so excited about traveling—sailing rather—through Eastern Europe with my best friend. A mostly all-inclusive AmaWaterways river cruise that still allowed for cultural experiences along the Danube? Sign us up! But a last-minute change of plans had me arriving at Bucharest airport solo, and now, doubting the week ahead. Would I go stir crazy in my cabin? Who would I frolic around medieval cities with? And who would I sip wine with as the ship set sail nightly?

As I waited for my driver at the airport, I mingled with a few of my fellow passengers—little did I know that I’d come to call these strangers dear friends, having experienced the allure of the Danube together. Of course, not replacements for my best friend, but certainly quality connections that enhanced my journey.

The ship set sail in Giurgiu, Romania. And I have to say, the first thing I learned was that booking a couple of days in Bucharest to see more of Romania would have been ideal. My cruise offered pre-trip extensions for convenience; next time! But, I didn’t mind getting to the ship and settling into my home for the week. There’s something soothing about unpacking and getting organized, especially when you only have to do it once on a trip; one of the perks of cruising.

That evening, I went to survey the nightly happy hour, at which point I realized a reception for returning passengers was taking place in the main lounge. Sitting at the bar, on the outskirts of the reception, I witnessed genuine reunions with passengers who had seemingly sailed together on a previous journey, perhaps previous journeys. I wondered if that would be me on a future ship.

As I finished my wine and prepared to head down to dinner for one, the ladies I met on my transfer caught me and insisted I sit with them. They were traveling as a mother-daughter duo, and their friendship very much reminded me of the relationship I have with my mom. I was a little worried about intruding on their journey, but they happily ‘adopted’ me to what quickly became our journey.

My decision to sail through Eastern Europe was influenced by my intrigue for the lesser-known cities flagged on the itinerary. Giurgiu, Romania; Vidin, Bulgaria; Novi Sad, Serbia; Ilok, Croatia; and Mohács, Hungary. They were cities I was curious to explore but don’t think I would have explicitly traveled to without getting my toes wet first; the cruise offered that opportunity. Since I was used to the well-equipped tourist hubs like Zurich, Vienna, and Amsterdam, the state of some of the smaller ports we stopped in slightly shocked me. There were times I questioned the appeal of the cities we stopped in, but only from a superficial level. Once I was able to hop off the boat and explore, it became very clear this was a different kind of tourism—one where my dollar went farther in developing these cities’ infrastructure for long-term tourism.

Take Novi Sad—a city of 300,000 and our last stop in Serbia; a country I unexpectedly became enamored with. Novi Sad offered pastel façades and towering church steeples that reminded me of Vienna, but its soul and spirit were unlike any European city I’ve visited. In fact, if I wasn’t aboard the AmaCerto, I probably would have overlooked this gem of a town. It was eye-opening.

Once I recognized the journey for its value and greater impact, I was more invested in the tours and excursions that allowed for local interaction. I was curious to learn what I could, in what now seemed like too short of a trip. And so were my new friends. They were inquisitive. Never too shy to ask questions. We received answers that we swapped at dinner, relishing in the unique exposure we were getting to a region still very much recovering from decades under a Communist regime.

Local interactions took form in both predetermined excursions, like learning how to bake Banitsa pastries (a traditional layered pastry that can be savory or sweet) with two generations of a Bulgarian family. But our interactions could also be traced to the organic encounters with locals, like communicating in sign language with a Serbian shoe designer, her smile beaming as we all bought a pair of boots from her—we laughed saying, she probably could have closed up shop for the day after we left. And they also happened in cities that weren’t even on the itinerary—a storm delayed our trip upriver and AmaWaterways showed us a seamless transition, stopping at a small port in Donji Milanovac to keep us entertained. Our little group took off exploring the cobbled streets and steep stairs leading to terraced housing. We found ourselves at a quaint pub, ordering up the bartender’s choice of local beer and shooters of plum brandy. We mingled with the bartender, again doing our best to understand one another through sloppy gestures, because tourists, therefore English-speakers, aren’t widely popularized throughout these small towns.

Observing the local’s mannerisms, gracious respect, and unapologetic pride to welcome us to their towns was an experience in itself. Being able to trace our impact made the trip more meaningful. And being able to share the experiences was what imprinted these moments into memories.

So yes, when people look at my photos, they see the highlights of a well-curated itinerary; sailing through the Iron Gates, tasting some of the oldest wine in Hungary, learning about the Queen of England’s obsession with a Croatian wine, almost lost during WWII—this was all incredible, but I remember the people and the faces most. And if I could guess, that’s why people get hooked onto cruising—the community. By the end of the trip, I had personally interacted with a majority of the 162 other passengers—international couples spanning every corner of the world from Tennessee to Toronto, China to the Dominican Republic.

And by the end of the trip, I had scratched the surface of a new Europe, one still struggling with their history, but welcoming to change—proud of all the growth in the past thirty years and proactively working toward creating more opportunity for their hometowns; they aren’t abandoning them, they’re part of its brighter future. And tour companies like AmaWaterways, and their ability to incorporate these experiences—not just as façades and gimmicks—but as realities, as lessons, that’s my biggest takeaway.

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