At first glance, the countries of Eastern Europe that lie along the Lower Danube might seem like an unusual choice for a vacation. More than 20 years after the fall of communism, the economies have still not stabilized in many former Eastern bloc nations, as evidenced by high unemployment, dwindling population and fluctuating currencies. Scars from internal wars in the now-splintered Yugoslavia can be seen in bullet holes and burned out buildings. Only Budapest boasts the typical skyline of castles and cathedrals that most tourists come to Europe to see.
Yet life is far from gray in this part of the world. Wander the pedestrian-only areas in Belgrade, and take in the vibrant Serbian cafe culture. Look past the Soviet-style apartment buildings in Bulgaria, and appreciate some of the few pieces of communist sculpture that still stand. Gawk at gorgeous frescoes within Romania's Orthodox churches and monasteries, even as you marvel at the people's resilience. And pencil in several days to explore the beautiful 19th-century architecture and definitively 21st-century nightlife of Budapest.
Above all, be prepared to learn. After a Lower Danube cruise, you can't help leaving Eastern Europe with increased knowledge of the region's tumultuous past -- and understanding more of its challenges going forward. My fall 2012 cruise occurred on the River Splendor with Grand Circle Cruises, but most river cruise lines make similar trips, including Uniworld, Vantage, Viking, Tauck, Avalon and AMAWaterways. Click through this slideshow to see what you've been missing.
Get ready for superlatives: Sailing past the Chain Bridge that connects historic Buda with vibrant Pest is an experience worth all the pictures you'll take. Most ships plying the Lower Danube allow passengers to spend several days exploring the city's highlights, which include its Parliament, Fisherman's Bastion and elaborate thermal baths housed in art deco structures.
Tip: After dinner, leave your docked ship, and head into Pest to experience one of the city's "ruin pubs," bars that were created out of abandoned buildings. For those who aren't night owls, no worries -- one of the most popular, Szimpla in the Jewish Quarter, also has a Sunday market, where you can buy local cheese, bread and sausage. Finish your indulgence with a piece of cake from Gerbeaud.
The landscape changes as you head out from hilly Budapest. Southern Hungary is the country's Great Plains, home to cowboys and agriculture. Paprika is grown there, and it's a main ingredient in many native dishes. Some ships offer an optional excursion that includes a horse show and choral concert; otherwise, there's not much to see in town beyond a somewhat sad Paprika Museum.
Tip: In my opinion, this is the most disappointing stop on a Lower Danube cruise. If you're shopping itineraries, look for a line that stops instead at Pecs, which has the well-known Mosque Church, early Christian tombs, a porcelain museum and easier access to well-regarded wineries. Or use this port as a time to book an onboard spa treatment, read a book on deck and rest up from your Budapest adventures.
In this interior town, buildings still bear bullet holes from vicious fighting during the 1991 Homeland War with Serbia. Several river cruise lines use this stop as a place to meet locals, who earn extra money by serving authentic fare in their homes and discussing candidly the challenges of rebuilding. Want to start a debate? Ask a Croatian how he or she feels about joining the European Union. Their answers might surprise you.
Tip: Your Croatian hosts will likely pour you some homemade wine, as well as shots of sljivovica (plum brandy). While all of the countries on the Lower Danube produce great wine, most of which is unknown and unavailable in the United States, the Croatian varietals are particularly pleasing. If you're looking for something cheap and delicious to drink on your balcony, this is the place to buy.
Belgrade will surprise you with its parks, hidden historic buildings and vibrant cafe scene. Serbs are notoriously social, and the pedestrian walkway Knez Mihailova is full of outdoor coffee shops, bars and ice cream stands, where groups of locals converge. Add in a visit to Sveti Sava, the world's largest Orthodox Church (still under construction), the Nikola Tesla museum and Tito's grave, and you'll wish you were staying longer.
Tip: Skip lunch on the ship, and wander down to Skadarska, a cobblestoned street full of restaurants that fancies itself Belgrade's Montmartre. Don't miss kajmak, Serbian cream cheese that has the consistency of butter. Spread it on a loaf of the puffy bread that most classic Serbian restaurants serve, and it could be the best meal you eat on your trip.
A "sea day" on a river? At last! After all of the city walks, tours and history that you've taken in, you'll be ready for the break. Coincidentally, this stretch of the Danube, where the river reaches its narrowest point, is among the most picturesque. Cliffs rise on both the Serbian and Romanian sides of the river, with castles and monasteries dotting the landscape. The highlight for photographers is the Statue of Decebalas. The 40-meter-high face of the Dacian king is the largest stone sculpture in Europe.
Tip: If the weather is nice, stake your chair on the top deck, and settle in for the day. Transportation buffs will want good seats for the Iron Gates, a series of locks that all vessels must pass on their way to the Black Sea.
Poor, with one of Bulgaria's highest unemployment rates, Vidin bears witness to the struggles that have arisen since the 1989 revolution. When communism collapsed, so did the state-sponsored factories that went with it, and the economy has yet to recover. So why stop? The port is home to Bulgaria's best-preserved medieval fortress, Baba Vidin, which is often used as a film set.
Tip: Across the region, most of the Soviet-era monuments glorifying communism have been torn down. In Vidin, however, the Monument of the Resistance -- dedicated to Bulgaria's anti-capitalist and anti-Fascist forces -- still stands, although locals have darkened the faces of the figures with graffiti. Even if communist art isn't your thing, the sculptures are an eerie relic of Cold War-imposed groupthink.
If Vidin showed the more desperate side of Bulgaria, this port, with belle epoque architecture downtown and industry on the outskirts, gives one hope that the country will eventually find its way. If your cruise line offers it, sign up for the optional day trip to Veliko Tarnovo, one of Bulgaria's medieval capitals and a university town. There you can visit the impressive Tsarevets Fortress atop a gorge, and help the Bulgarian economy by spending money in the artisan shops along the cobblestoned pedestrian way.
Tip: By now, you may feel inured to the splendors of Orthodox frescoes. But the churches in Arbanasi, a wealthy resort area in the hills outside of Veliko Tarnovo, remain notable for their original murals that date back to the 15th century. Your day-trip will likely include a stop at one of them.
The river gets much shallower as you approach the Black Sea, and you can spot egrets and other birds among the bank's marshlands. By mid-morning, you'll reach the Danube-Black Sea Canal. Once known as the Death Canal, portions of the waterway were built by political prisoners and dissidents, who died by the scores. By afternoon, you should have a chance to touch the Black Sea in Mamaia, Romania's answer to the Jersey Shore.
Tip: Your final city walk through Constanta includes a stop at the History & Archaeological Museum, where you can see evidence of occupation by the Romans, which gave the country its name. Take time to walk along the promenade to photograph the seaside Casino, which, at one point, drew dictator Nicolae Ceausescu's pals in the Communist party to drink, dance and debauch. The city hopes to reopen it someday.
Bucharest, RomaniaIn the country's capital, you'll view Ceausescu's legacy: rows of block-style apartment buildings, which he forced residents to move into during the communist era. Take note of the Palace of the Parliament, the world's second-largest administrative building and one of the grandest monuments to megalomania ever created. Built in the early 1980's, when people were starving, the structure now houses Romania's government.
Tip: You didn't come all this way to miss out on Dracula. Go up to Transylvania to see the two castles that made the region famous. Although Bran Castle has only a tenuous connection to Vlad Tepes, the inspiration for Bram Stoker's vampire, it's worth a trip to see the fortress in its naturally gloomy atmosphere. Take time to visit nearby Peles Castle. The envy of Europe, it was the first castle to be fully powered by electricity.