Whenever my wife and I travel, I let her do everything from details about our itinerary to what excursions to take, from what travel documents to bring to last minute instructions to our daughters. She is really good at it. She also keeps any useful information to make our trip less stressful.
So what do I do? Nothing much, except to pack my clothes several days ahead of our departure, which my wife, who packs her clothes the night before we leave, does not find surprising anymore.
I purposely don’t expect anything from any of our trips because I want to surprise myself with what each country that we visit has to offer in terms of its landscape, culture, food, history, and tradition. As one writer puts it, “Traveling forces you to face the unknown.”
Last July 22, my wife and I, together with her siblings and their respective spouses, took the Viking River Cruise to Eastern Europe. We visited Budapest, Kalocsa and Puszta in Hungary; Osijek in Croatia; Belgrade in Serbia; Vidin and Rousse in Bulgaria; and Bucharest and Brasov in Romania.
This is the second time that we cruised together as a family. The first one was an ocean cruise in 2017 where we immersed ourselves in beautiful St. Petersburg in Russia; Berlin in Germany; Tallinn in Estonia; Copenhagen in Denmark; Helsinki in Finland; Gothenburg in Sweden; and took a side trip to Prague, capital of the Czech Republic and Vienna, Austria’s capital.
The cruise was fun, memorable and an eye-opener in many ways. But I didn’t write about it. I felt something was missing. I don’t want a repeat this time because traveling is really one great educational experience that should be shared. It’s like going into a classroom and you leave the classroom far more educated than when you entered.
When I travel I always learn something new. I learn about the history and geography of most places I visit. Upon our arrival in Budapest last July 22, as I was standing outside of our hotel in proximate full view of the River Danube, I came to know, courtesy of our tour guide, the incredible demarcation of Buda and Pest by the River Danube. I was fascinated by how the Danube River is cordoned off with a beautiful bridge like the Chain Bridge that connects the hilly Buda district with the flat Pest. The merging of Buda and Pest was originally called Pest-Buda but later renamed Budapest.
Traveling also affords me to learn about the culture and traditions of different countries. I never knew that the Hungarians living in the Puszta Region still rely on horses for transportation. Many locals keep the tradition alive by elevating horsemanship to an art form.
While in Puszta, we were entertained by the Magyar cowboys with a horse parade where the horses exhibited complicated moves like sitting or lying down. We were also offered free paprika bread and apricot brandy. Kalocsa is the “paprika capital of the world.” Paprika is a kind of seasoning added to color many types of dishes in diverse cuisine.
Another benefit when traveling is being exposed to local food. We tried some traditional Hungarian food at the Central Market Hall. My wife and I ordered what was advertised as crispy pork. But it was not at all that crispy. I thought it was the Hungarian version of our lechon, but it was not. I felt like cheated but I quickly realized that food preparation is a cultural thing, resulting in a different type of “crispiness.”
After a walking tour in Bucharest under the sultry summer weather, we were all thirsty and decided to order a frappe in the historic Lipscani Disrict. All of us expected it to be served cold or slushy. But it was not. In fact, it was warm. Lesson learned: Don’t assume anything when travelling. Although it makes sense to follow the adage, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” when it comes to ordering local food, it’s better to ask first. That’s what I learned the hard way.
Traveling through Osijek by bus one gets the impression that it is not an industrial city. But there is always something captivating, be it in church or in a museum, which adds significance to the history of the place. I was made aware of this when we visited the Raising of the Holy Cross Church in Osijek.
The church is a landmark to behold. From the outside, the Church looks small and unimpressive. But once inside, the Baroque style used to decorate the altar, the dome, the stucco statuettes of angels and saints made me wonder in amazement and appreciate the religious themes that the Franciscans, who built the Church, wanted the local Catholics to internalize.
And, this brings me to the influence of the Orthodox Church in Easter Europe. As a Catholic, I know that there is a theological difference between Catholicism and Orthodox Christianity. But when we visited the Orthodox Nativity Church in Rousse, Bulgaria, the Church of St. Sava in Belgrade and the Snago Monastery in Bucharest, I was more drawn into the statues of their saints, their angels, and of the Blessed Virgin Mary that I found to be “Catholic like.” I felt that there are more things that unite the two religions than divide them. Traveling has forced me to think differently and be more understanding of religious differences.
Traveling has also taught me that people are generally friendly, open, and respectful. I initiate a conversation with fellow cruisers and they respond appropriately. You learn to make friends out of strangers and get more comfortable talking to them. From small talk to big talk, I become adept on how to ask interesting questions that make sense. Travel makes people better people.
The best takeaway of the two-week European cruise for me was being able to visit Bran Castle in Romania, the fabled castle that has been associated with Bram Stoker’s most famous creature – Dracula. “Dracula” is Vlad III Dracula, also known as Vlad the Impaler. He died in 1476 and was buried in Snago Monastery in Bucharest.
Vlad the Impaler was the model for Stoker’s Dracula although there is no supporting evidence that Stoker had ever been to Bran Castle. Good to know and what a way to end our cruise – my childhood fantasy had been debunked.
I still have a lot of places to visit in my bucket list. I’ve only just begun. But the cultural awareness, respect for differences, and the lessons that I’ve learned from the places that I visited have already made me an educated person in more ways than one.
As St. Augustine once said, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”