River Navigator on the Danube and Black Sea

Friendly faces, lively music, colorful art and beautiful churches are what my husband and I found on our 12-day “Danube and Black Sea Sampler,” a river cruise from which we returned on Oct. 17, ’04. The cruise was offered by Vantage Deluxe World Travel (90 Canal St., Boston, MA 02114-2031; phone 800/322-6677).

After flying from the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky Airport to Chicago, we boarded a Lufthansa flight to Frankfurt, then went on to Bucharest, Romania. The first night was at the Marriott Grand Hotel, originally built by Ceausescu to house friends and relatives and now an excellent and beautiful hotel.

We toured Bucharest the next day, then transferred to Oltenita to board our ship, the m.s. River Navigator, our home for the next 10 days.

Our group of approximately 135 was divided into three groups: green, blue and orange. Each group had a program manager and its own bus, which made sightseeing trips more manageable.

For the first time on any tour or cruise we’ve taken, we were given earphones with battery packs for excursions. This is a great idea because one doesn’t have to be crowded around the guide to hear the talk. The sound was very good and there was volume control. We all really liked the earphones and hope this practice continues.

Among highlights of the trip was Constanta, Romania, on the Black Sea with a visit to the National Museum of History & Archaeology and the Roman market. A large Roman mosaic floor has been uncovered there.

Next was a full-day tour in Bulgaria to Veliko Turnovo, an old city built along a gorge, and the nearby village of Argassi. There one can see a centuries-old Eastern Orthodox church, now a museum. Its entire interior surfaces are filled with iconic paintings, even the rafters.

As it is a small building, worshipers stood, the men and women separated into different rooms, and services were sung instead of spoken. While we were there, four men dressed as priests in long black robes entered the room and sang a service. It was a thrilling experience.

While in Belgrade in Serbia & Montenegro (formerly Yugoslavia), we made an excursion to the artists’ village of Kovacica, where in the middle of the 20th century members of this rural community began to paint. With no formal training, these painters of “naive” art turned out many colorful, wonderful works of art and still do so. We visited a gallery and museum to see this art and were treated to local music and refreshments.

In Hungary we took an optional excursion to Holloko, a UNESCO World Heritage Site (there were several on this trip). It’s a centuries-old village of some 400 people with whitewashed houses where old handcrafting and cultural traditions still take place.

The women of the town met us wearing their local dress of old with white stockings and colorful headdresses. They sang for us and made us welcome. Each group of 10 of us was treated to lunch at a home where we were served noodle soup and chicken paprikash with apple and raspberry strudel for dessert. It was delicious.

Throughout the cruise, we enjoyed entertainment brought onto the ship: singers, dancers in costume and excellent musicians. Musical entertainment was provided on excursions also.

Tourism is important to the economy in these countries emerging from communism. Prices are low. Many locals speak English, especially the young people. Everyone was friendly and glad to see us.

The cost of our cruise, including airfare, taxes, port fees and other charges, was $3,249 each for category B. The trip to Holloko cost $59 each, and an optional Budapest Parliament tour was $29 each. All other tours and excursions were included.

Many passengers on this trip were continuing on to Amsterdam, a 28-day trip along the Danube, Main and Rhine rivers.

London, KY