Taking a cruise solo can be intimidating, but taking a reluctant spouse can be a scenario that is even more daunting. Faced with the knowledge that my husband spent his early years in the U.S. Navy deployed on a warship with little ability to choose cabin mates and none to choose the destination or duration of his “cruise” it made perfect sense why he avoided such scenarios in the past. Luckily, his curiosity peaked when I showed him Viking River Cruises’ incredible Passage to Eastern Europe itinerary and he decided to give it a chance. Equally fortunate, the activities and presentations exceeded both our expectations due in large part to the effervescent Viking Lif Program Director Leonard Miron.

In addition to making sure our experience with Viking was consistently wonderful logistically, we appreciated that Leonard put together thoughtful programming that was culturally sensitive but brutally honest in its portrayal of the difficult and rather complex history in the region. There was a perfect ebb and flow of lighthearted and cerebral experiences both onboard The Lif and on each shore excursion.

Along with our shipmates, we delighted in twirling dancers dressed in native costume keeping to the beat of accordion and pan flute musicians in the heart of Bulgaria. We marveled at the skill of the Hungarian Csikós (cowboys) of the Puszta who perform death-defying equestrian tricks at incredible speeds. We soaked up the myths behind the Belogradchik Rocks and made the 650 foot trek upwards to observe “The Madonna” and “The Monks” from a bird’s eye view.

One of the best ways to experience a foreign culture is through its cuisine. Not expecting much in terms of gastronomy, it was a pleasant surprise to find Eastern Europe is big-time into organic, non-GMO fruits, in particular tomatoes and cucumbers. Each country had their own version of simple, fresh salads that often accompanied locally sourced spicy Paprika in Goulash-type dishes. Eastern European wines tended to be too sweet but the local beers were on par with their Western counterparts. Budapest is home to the best ice cream treat invented – a work of art and creamily delicious – the “rose” flower cones are a handcrafted concoction of epic proportion. You choose two or more flavors of ice cream and the artisans layer one on top of the other forming the petals of the rose as they go.

Each day, whether we were sailing on the Danube relaxing on the deck floating through the Iron Gates in awe of the massive rock sculpture of Decebalus (a roughly 40 x 30 meter rock portrait of the last king of Dacia who fought Roman Emperors preserving independence for what is now modern day Romania), or on a walking tour with a local docent through the war- torn river banks in Belgrade, we were transfixed by the complicated history and mesmerizing beauty of Eastern Europe.

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The most captivating evening aboard Viking Lif came courtesy of Leonard. His heartfelt presentation about growing up under Communist Romania brought us passengers to the brink of tears one minute, and then broke the tension with an amusing quote eliciting copious amounts of laughter the next. Speaking sans notes, he shared his vivid recollections of a childhood spent in queues for literally everything. We laughed at the Seven Wonders of Communist Romania where “1. Everyone had a job! 2. Even that everyone had a job nobody worked. 3. Even that nobody worked all the jobs were done 100%. 4. Even that everybody’s jobs were done 100% the stores were empty. 5. Even that the stores were empty everyone had everything they needed. 6. Even that everyone had everything that they need everyone was stealing. 7. Even that everyone was stealing nothing was missing.”

Many dabbed a leaky eye when Leonard described the inability to roam freely or trust openly in Romania during the era of the Communist tyrants Nicolae and Elana Ceausescu. He went through the timeline of their mock trial and hurried execution, explaining that today’s Romanians are conflicted about the their hasty demise – would society have been better off holding them accountable in an International Court? He didn’t answer, just laid out the quandary. He ended on an upbeat note and received a well-deserved standing ovation.

Each cruise with Viking leaves me impressed with the enthusiasm, seemingly boundless energy and professionalism of the crew and, in particular, Program Directors. It is without exaggeration that I say Leonard Milo delivered on all those fronts in spades. I know that my husband was swayed in a positive direction by the well-equipped cabins (comfy beds that are 1,000 times better than his bunk on the ship) and the friendly wait staff, however it was the outstanding programming in the end that turned my “reluctant to cruise” husband into a definitely will sail again convert. Mission complete!

For more information on this or other Viking River Cruises: Passage to Eastern Europe

Collection of cruise images courtesy Priscilla Pilon