My trip down the Danube in September 2019 was made up of a lot of firsts. My first time on a river cruise, my first time going through the Iron Curtain, and my first time experiencing the contrast of Central and Eastern Europe.
When I went on the Grand Danube Passage trip with my significant other, we knew we were in for a lot of great food and great beer. But we didn’t realize the stark contrast of cultures we’d experience.
We started in countries like the Czech Republic, Germany, and Austria, with their beautiful architecture, castles, cafes, and hearty-but-delicious foods. This was the Europe that I was used to. The one with awe-inspiring architecture on every corner and overflowed with great beer, delicious pastries, and the best coffee I’ve ever had. This is the Europe I studied abroad in, learning marketing and refining my German. This is the Europe that I was able to easily navigate.
Then we cruised into Slovakia, where we took a bike tour down the Iron Curtain. We saw old bunkers, and I was reminded of what I learned in college while studying the German language. I had my own preconceived notions about Bratislava, though (mainly coming from the 2004 comedy Eurotrip). But as our guide spoke, he talked about the impact being in the EU had on them. And how most of his friends had to get second jobs just to pay rent, some even smuggling. And I couldn’t help but see the underlying struggle to live in Bratislava as we walked through the picturesque, touristy part of the city.
Then we got into countries like Hungary, Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria. And as we got further east, we saw the more significant impact that communism had on the region. By Serbia, the beautiful facades went away and were replaced by an increased frequency of crumbling concrete and rebar. We saw the occasional stray dog or cat as well. But despite the worn infrastructure, we were able to discover the rich history of each country and the unsuspecting dynamic culture that existed today. We explored the old bohemian street of Belgrade and stumbled into a local brewery.
In Bulgaria, we were able to walk around on their Independence Day, learning about their culture and struggles in the last few decades. We saw Roman ruins casually displayed in the street and saw the beautiful architecture with its many influences.
This trip helped us uncover the rich history of Central and Eastern Europe. It opened our eyes to the impact of Communism not only on the landscape but the people. It shaped how I think about Europe as a whole. I would never have been able to easily recreate this trip and am thankful for this once-in-a-lifetime experience with Michigan Alumni Travel.