My ten-day, Highlights of Eastern Europe trip was to begin in Budapest, the capital of Hungary. It’s a beautiful city, a bridge between Western and Eastern Europe, I was told by a few acquaintances who’d been lucky enough to have once visited there.
I wasn’t that fortunate. Five days before the trip was to begin, my husband and I received an urgent email from our travel agency. Due to COVID concerns, Hungary was closed to tourists. Uniworld, our cruise company, would not be offering the Budapest program. And if we flew into the airport there, we had to have plans for “transiting out of the country within 24 hours.”
Yikes! Not only was I disappointed that one of the major attractions of my trip was now off the agenda, but our group of eight was also scheduled to fly into Budapest a day early and had reserved hotel rooms in the city.
In a last-minute scramble, we rebooked to end our flight in Vienna, spending our pre-cruise night there. Vienna is a lovely city, too, but we’d all been there before. It hadn’t been the plan.
We hired two drivers to pick up the eight of us at our Vienna hotel the next morning and transport us straight to our riverboat docked in Budapest, about a three-hour drive.
The only view I had of this lovely old city was from the Danube as we set sail early that evening. Here’s the famous Hungarian Parliament, the country’s largest building, the one I’d hoped to tour. Doesn’t it look like a castle?
Budapest is actually divided by the Danube into two sections: Buda and Pest. Bridges connect the two parts of the city.
Our revised riverboat cruise agenda took us for the first full day to Croatia. Leaving the boat and boarding a bus, we visited Osijek, the fourth-largest city in Croatia. As with many European cities, there was a church that simply must be seen.
This is the Osijeck Co-Cathedral of St. Peter and Paul. Although titled a cathedral and the biggest structure in the city, it’s deemed only a parish church. It’s Catholic, not Orthodox, which is an important distinction in Eastern Europe. (More about Catholic versus Orthodox later.)
Pretty fancy for a parish church in my book.
Here’s the ornate interior of the Osijek Co-Cathedral. There are 40 stained-glass windows and many decorative frescoes. Masses take place here throughout the week. What a beautiful place to worship.
Visiting Croatia, we heard a lot about what the citizens there call the Homeland War, also known as the Croatian War of Independence. This conflict took place from 1991-1995 when Croat forces declared independence from Yugoslavia. Serbs living in Croatia opposed the idea and wanted to be in a state with Serbia within Yugoslavia. That’s a simple explanation for what became an ethnic war as the country of Yugoslavia dissolved not too many years after the death of its famous dictator Tito.
About 800 people were killed in the shelling of Osijek which took place from August 1991-June 1992. Bullet holes can still be seen in the buildings there.
On a lighter note, our group enjoyed an “exclusive home-hosted lunch” in a small village in eastern Croatia. The main course was baked chicken, much like we’d have here at home. What you see pictured (in addition to my husband) is the first course, a vegetable soup, that again, tasted similar to what we are accustomed to eating. What was distinctly different was the bottle of the local brew, a fruit brandy called rakija. The custom is to have a tumbler of this high-octane stuff before eating. Ah, no thanks. You can see my full glass to the right of my water.
Our cook spoke little English but we had an interpreter who sat with us at our meal. This young woman explained that the area where we were in eastern Croatia had been overrun by Serbs during the Homeland War. The residents had to flee and were unable to return to their ravaged homes until years later. She painted the Serbs as the aggressors during the war.
As I noted earlier, there is also a religious conflict at play here as well. Croats are Roman Catholic; Serbs are Eastern Orthodox. Roman Catholics look to the Pope in Rome as their spiritual leader whereas Orthodox consider the patriarch in Constantinople as their ultimate authority. There are other theological differences as well, but basically, Catholics look to the West while Orthodox look to the East.
I wasn’t that familiar with the differences between these two Christian faiths until this trip, but I learned faith and politics are intertwined in these countries.
In my next post, I’ll talk about Serbia, our destination after Croatia.