Friday, 1 June 2012

The Glorious Danube - Croatia

Continuing our epic Danube River voyage – the Imperial Capitals of Europe – on the River Duchess of Uniworld from Romania to Austria...

Surprising Croatia - Part 1
Having had a full day's exposure to the Serbian part of the former Yugoslavia, it was time to cross the border into the neighbouring country of Croatia, another of the 'new' states that came into being with the collapse of the former communist regime led by Marshall Tito.

Our arrival point was Vukovar (above) - a stunning and sobering town just across the river from Serbia, where fully 90% of the buildings were destroyed in the civil war of 1991-95. The evidence of that brutal and heart-rending conflict was literally everywhere, both in the bullet and shrapnel damage of the surviving buildings and the fact that most of the town was virtually brand new, all rebuilt since the local residents returned in 1998.

While the 'who did what to whom and why' remains a tough and controversial question, the feeling of being in a 'victim' environment was much more stark and notable than in Belgrade, with the bullet and shell-riddled buildings serving as mute testimony to their ill use at the hands of Serbian invaders.

With that background in mind, the sunny morning and flower-bedecked town seemed to make light of the tragic past and concentrate purely on a hopeful future, ready to forgive if not to forget.

We were greeted by our guide for the day, Marco, at the dock (a recurring theme on this trip), and were able to walk through the town to our coaches for our delve into Croatian culture. And it was to be a thorough experience.

The drive out of town, and out into the more rural areas, was greeted by more war-ravaged buildings, mixed in with the strikingly new construction seemingly everywhere, great testimony to the human spirit's ability to survive and move on.

Our first stop was the village of Laslovo, where the local Elementary School was waiting to receive us. Yes, that’s right – a visit to a local school, where the children from age 6 all learn English and are keen to practice the language on all their visitors.
The welcome reception took the form of a series of songs, speeches and even a Punch-and-Judy type show, all performed by the children themselves, from the youngest to the oldest (about 14/15). And then it was time to take a tour of the school itself, courtesy of a gaggle of young, ultra-keen and hyper-active kids, who clearly have done this before and absolutely delight in the opportunity to showcase themselves and their culture.

After an all-too-brief hour’s visit in the company of these heart-warming children and their teachers (we spoke to one teacher who was only five when the war broke out and was saved by his mother, who ran through a cornfield to escape the invading army while other family members and friends were not so fortunate), we re-boarded our coaches to learn more about this relatively young country from guide Marco – a non-stop repository of Croatian history, politics and culture (another feature of Uniworld’s ground tours, as every guide was superbly equipped to impart their knowledge and understanding).

Next stop was the city of Osijek, the biggest in this part of the country and a charming mix of modern Europe and medieval fortress, with a superb monastery tucked away in its heart. The original fortress was replaced by the impressive Watergate moated fort in 1710, a massively walled emplacement designed to withstand cannon shells and built under the supervision of Prince Eugene of Savoy.

Here, we were treated to a sample of the Balkan firewater slivovitz (never to be taken lightly!) and a full tour of the medieval town with its truly beautiful main square, complete with cafes and bars. At once both photogenic and tragic (still bearing some of the scars of the civil war), it proved yet another surprise on our grand tour of eastern Europe.

After Osijek, we moved on to the village of Karanak, where we were sorted into groups of 12-14 for lunch. But that is also a story that needs a lot of telling, so I’ll add that in Part 2…

This ‘Imperial Capitals of Europe’ voyage can be booked at www.uniworldrivercruises.co.uk, with Titan Travel (in the UK only) at www.titantravel.co.uk or, for more on river-cruising in general, seek out the luxury cruise-agent specialists of The Cruise Line Ltd on this link.