Cruising the Danube with Mona: The Iron Gate and Serbia

As mentioned in my September 1st post, we spent the first days of our river cruise visiting Romania and Bulgaria, and Day 5 all on deck, cruising the Danube, admiring the scenery, and snapping pictures.

The most spectacular scenery was the dramatic gorge of the IRON GATE, a narrow and formerly very dangerous passage on the Danube. The Iron Gate divides the Carpathian and Balkan mountains, forming part of the boundary between Serbia and Romania. It is about 2 miles (3 km) long and 530 feet (162 meters) wide, with towering rock cliffs that make it one of the most dramatic natural wonders of Europe. 

Our cruise ship approaching the Iron Gate dam,
and going through the Iron Gate dam.

In the 1960’s, a massive lock and dam were built to help control the speed of the river and make navigation safer. The joint development project of Romania and Yugoslavia on the Danube River (including a dam and hydroelectric power plant) was completed in 1972, providing equal amounts of energy to each country and quadrupling the annual tonnage of shipping. The name Iron Gate is commonly applied to the whole 90-mile- (145-kilometre-) long gorge system.

Our cruise ship going through the locks.
The crew member changing the flag as we entered Serbian territory.
Our cruise ship cruising in the open again.

On our way to Serbia we passed the rock sculpture of Decebalus, a colossal carving of the face of Decebalus (r. AD 87–106), the last king of Dacia, who fought against the Roman emperors Domitian and Trajan to preserve the independence of his country, which corresponds to present-day Romania.

It was commissioned by Romanian businessman Iosif Drăgan and it took 10 years for twelve sculptors to complete it. The lead artist sculptor’s name was Florin Cotarcea. According to Drăgan’s website, the businessman purchased the rock in 1992, after which the Italian sculptor Mario Galeotti assessed the location and made an initial model. The first six years involved dynamiting the rock into the basic shape, and the remaining four years were devoted to completing the details.

Under the face of Decebalus there is a Latin inscription which reads “DECEBALUS REX—DRAGAN FECIT” (“King Decebalus—Made by Drăgan”).

The carving was placed opposite an ancient memorial plaque, carved in the rock on the Serbian side of the river facing Romania. The plaque, known as the Tabula Traiana, records the completion of Trajan’s military road along the Danube and thus commemorates the final defeat of Decebalus by Trajan in 105, and the absorption of the Dacian kingdom into the Roman Empire. 

The Tabula Traiana marker laid by the Roman emperor Trajan over 2000 years ago can be seen on the left bank of the Danube.
You will also pass a beautiful Orthodox Church built on what appears to be a pier.

On Day 6 we arrived in Belgrade, capital of Serbia, and previously capital of Yugoslavia, situated at the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers.

Overlooking the city of Novi Sad with a spectacular view of the Danube and surroundings is
Marshal Vauban’s unconquerable Petrovaradin Fortress. Dramatic events in the recent past
have shaped both the present and the future of this region, resplendent with natural beauty and
a proud history. Located high on the right bank of the Danube River in the city of Novi Sad, the Petrovaradin Fortress (Petrovaradinska Tvrdjava) has played a significant role in Serbia’s history. Over the centuries, the site of the fortress has been used by the Romans, Byzantines, Celts, Turks, Hungarians and Austrians. Starting in the 17th century, the Austrians spent nearly a century building new fortifications, including new walls, water moats and channels with movable bridges and control gates. A 16-kilometer long system of underground tunnels was completed in 1776.

 Pobednik (in Serbian Cyrillic ‘The Victor’) is a monument in the Upper Town of the Belgrade Fortress, built to commemorate Serbia’s victory over the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires during the Balkan Wars and the First World War. Cast in 1913, erected in 1928, and standing at 14 metres (46 ft) high, it is one of the most famous works of Ivan Meštrović. The park is also one of the most visited tourist attractions in Belgrade and the city’s most recognizable landmark, a good place to watch the sunset over the city.

The Temple of Saint Sava  is the largest Orthodox church in Serbia, one of the largest Eastern Orthodox churches and it ranks among the largest churches in the world. It is the most recognizable building in Belgrade and a landmark, as its dominating dome resembles that of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul that has been converted to a mosque, after which it had been modelled. Every day, its grandiose bell towers with almost 50 bells announce noon. The interior is famous for its exquisite mosaic work. It was under remodeling when we visited.

The city center has a lively pedestrian area and charming outdoor cafes. There were colorful cows statues everywhere.

Tennis champion Novak Đoković is the big hero of Belgrade–and a generous one. We heard of Restaurant Novak 1, Tennis Center Novak, Nova Vita hospital…

We were treated to a special performance of local folkloric dances before the river ship sailed away from Belgrade.

When going on any cruise you shouldn’t forget your books. Here are two newly released novels for your entertainment.

Available on Amazon
He adopted two minority children but lost his wife. Finally things settle for him, until the lovely surgeon he hires turns his life upside down.

Released September 22

Available on Amazon
A biracial lawyer and jack of all trades, he fights discrimination to win the heart of the pretty blonde travel agent.

Release Day October 5

Cruise with Mona on the Blue Danube: Romania and Bulgaria

Our itinerary from Bucharest to Vienna, sailing along the Danube River for thirteen days.

We flew from New York to Bucharest, capital of Romania for a two-week cruise along the Danube River on Avalon Waterways River Cruises, but first we spent two days in Bucharest. On our first evening, we walked through the wide avenues of the city center and discovered the new place on our own.

The massive statue, cast in bronze, represents Carol I of Romania, the first King of Romania and founder of the Romanian Dynasty. During his reign, Romania conquered its independence from the Ottoman Empire, in 1877, in the course the Russo-Turkish War, known in Romania as the War of Independence.
Posing in the downtown area for a first picture in Bucharest.
Created in bronze in honor of the former Romanian politician, Iuliu Maniu, who served three terms as prime minister of Romania. The statue is located in Revolution Square in central Bucharest.
Kretzulescu Church is an Orthodox Church built
between 1720 – 1722. It is located on Calea Victoriei, at one of the corners of Revolution Square,
next to the former Royal Palace.
We were lucky to attend a wedding while visiting the old church. I was impressed by the elegance of the guests.
The Romanian Athenaeum is a concert hall in the center of Bucharest and a landmark of the Romanian capital city.

On Day 2, our first morning in Bucharest, Avalon Cruises took us on a tour of the city and a visit of the impressive Parliament Building. The former Royal Palace now houses the National Art Museum.

Parliament Building is the world second-largest
government building after the Pentagon.
The Royal Palace Square was the scene of riots in 1989 which led to the collapse of the communist dictatorship. I took this picture from the balcony of the Parliament Building.
Inside the Parliament Building,
the grand marble staircase
Inside the Parliament Building, one of the formal rooms

 

In the afternoon a short moto coach ride took us to Oltenita where our cruise vessel was docked. Before dinner the crew welcomed us with a reception and then we sailed to Silistra, a port city in Bulgaria. By the way, the blue Danube is far from blue, more like dark greenish black. We were told you see it blue only when you’re young and in love.

On Day 3, after breakfast, we travelled by bus to Varna, a naval base and sea resort on the Black Sea.

Varna is one of Bulgaria’s most popular destinations. While just over 335,000 people call the city home, during the summertime, its pristine Black Sea beaches fill up with over 1 million people, drawn to the sunny weather and fun nightlife.

It was a gorgeous day. Many sunbathers were topless. By the way, the Black Sea was blue, not black, rough with whitecaps and strong currents.

A most enjoyable lunch on the Pirate ship.

We had lunch on a pirate ship in the Black Sea.

The Dormition of the Mother of God Cathedral in Varna: we didn’t visit.
Lunch with the pirates!

On Day 4, we continued our bus trip to Veliko-Tarnovo. Often referred as the “City of the Tsars“, Veliko Tarnovo is located on the Yantra River and is famously known as the historical capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire, attracting many tourists with its unique architecture.

The Patriarchal Cathedral on top of the Tsarevets Hill
Standing at a café on top of a hill.

The old part of the town is situated on three hills, rising amidst the meanders of the Yantra. The city was a natural fortress with ancient stone houses clinging to the steep stones. Tsarevets Hill is home of the Royal Fortress, palaces of the Bulgarian emperors and the Patriarchate, the Patriarchal Cathedral, and also a number of administrative and residential edifices surrounded by thick walls.

Entering the gate to the fortress
The Royal Fortress
A view of the city from the top of the hill.
A view of the fortress from the top of the hill.

We spent Day 5 on the ship sailing through the Iron Gates–A story for another day.

(The Danube cruise blog will be continued on October 1st)

May I offer you my newly released book FAMILY PLANS, (Love Plans Series, book 7) just released on August 25. It’s on sale at 99 cents for a few days.

The plane crash devastated two families and revealed painful secrets. Can a brighter future arise from those ashes at Christmas time?

Family Plans on Amazon

 

Left inconsolable by his wife’s death in a plane crash, Tim Kent dedicates himself to his daughter, Brianna. He allows her to get closer to her best friend Debbie whose father died in the same plane crash. When Tim meets Erin Perkins, Debbie’s mother, he’s impressed by the beautiful, young woman struggling to raise six children on her own while working at an exhausting job. He does his best to help her. Attraction develops between them. While Brianna practically lives with her friend Debbie and shares Erin’s motherly attention, Tim acts as a surrogate father for the six fatherless children. But the sorrowful plane crash that brought them together threatens to separate them when shocking secrets are revealed.

 

Travel with Mona to France-The Loire Valley

A Writer’s Inspiration: France

Of all the countries I visited, France has always been my favorite. Maybe because of its rich culture and history, or maybe because I am fluent in French and have several friends living in Paris who always welcome me.

With its cobbled streets, stunning Basilica, artists, bistros … Montmartre is full of charm! Perched on the top of a small hill in the 18th arrondissement, the most famous Parisian district has lost none of its village atmosphere that appealed so much to the artists of the 19th and 20th centuries.

The Sacré-Cœur basilica is a masterpiece of grace and grandeur. You can see this entirely white landmark from all parts of Paris. Built at the end of the 19th century in the Romano-Byzantine style, it is dedicated to the heart of Christ and is an important place of worship in the capital. It houses the largest mosaic in France, measuring no less than 480 m²!

A narrow street with cafes in Montmartre.
A unique view of the Tour Eiffel from the
balcony of my hotel room
Perched on the Butte (hill) Montmartre, the basilica is accessible by funicular from the Place Saint-Pierre or via the lawns and steps from the little public garden ‘Square Louise Michel’. 

If you go to Paris, you’ll probably climb the Tour Eiffel or use the elevator after staying in line for an hour. You’ll visit the Arc de Triomphe, Les Invalides, Les Tuileries, many more monuments and must-see places and of course Versailles.

Although Paris would inspire any visitor with fabulous dreams, there is more to France than its capital. A few years ago, my husband rented a car and we toured the Loire Valley.

The valley is known for its dry white wines,
and sparkling-wine 
Blois, a hillside city on the Loire River, is the capital of the Loir-et-Cher region in central France.

The châteaux of the Loire Valley (French: châteaux de la Loire) are part of the architectural heritage of the historic towns of Amboise, Angers, Blois, Chinon, Orléans, Saumur, and Tours along the river Loire in France. They illustrate Renaissance ideals of design in France.

The châteaux of the Loire Valley number over three hundred, ranging from practical fortified castles from the 10th century to splendid residences built half a millennium later. When the French kings began constructing their huge châteaux in the Loire Valley, the nobility, drawn to the seat of power, followed suit.

The Chateau de Chambord, the most sumptuous one, was built by King François I and inspired by Leonardo Da Vinci. The chateau remains one of the most famous and visited buildings in France. Chateau de Chambord was listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.

The château d’Amboise was built over an old roman fortress. Throughout France’s troublesome 16th Century, the château d’ Amboise was the home of King Henry II and his wife, Catherine de’ Medici. Leonardo Da Vinci spent the last three years of his life here, as a guest of King Francis I. Although he lived in the neighboring château of Clos Lucé, Leonardo da Vinci is buried in the Royal Château of Amboise.

The château de Chenonceaux, called the Ladies’ Castle, is famous for its architecture which bridges the Cher River. Founded on the pilings of a mill in 1513, the château was completed in 1522. The château was confiscated by Francis I in 1535. Henry II presented it to his mistress Diane de Poitiers. On his death his queen, Catherine de Médicis, forced Diane to give it up. Chenonceaux was extensively restored in the 19th century. The village was occupied by the Germans and slightly damaged in World War II.

The château de Chaumont, built in the 10th century, is one of the oldest castles in the Loire Valley.

Villandry is better known for the magnificent gardens surrounding the castle.

The château de Blois has been the residency of several French kings. It is also the place where Joan of Arc went in 1429 to be blessed by the Archbishop of Reims before departing with her army to drive the English out of Orleans.

The château de Cheverny was built between 1630 and 1640, because a young wife was caught cheating on her husband.

While visiting so many famous castles, I visualized gallant aristocrats entertaining beautiful women in lavishly decorated galleries and plush gardens. Stories played in my mind. I don’t write historical romances but kept thinking about the settings.

A year later, my niece related her summer training in France. As a Harvard University student in Architecture, she was offered the unique opportunity to work on the restoration of a chapel in a French castle. When I asked jokingly, “Was the owner a haughty old man?” My niece answered: “He was a young, handsome count and the five girls in my team had a crush on him. He dated my friend.”

Oh, oh. Château . Handsome count. Training on a historical chapel. Maybe looking for a historical statue. I had an epiphany. Here was my story premise. Below is the château I used in my story. When I pitched it to an agent at the RWA conference, she suggested I change the plot to make it a romantic suspense. I took her suggestion to heart and upped the stakes with a missing statue and the murder of a professor. THE MISSING STATUE was born.

THE MISSING STATUE: Are his statue and chateau worth endangering the life of the impetuous young woman who’s turned his life upside down? https://www.amazon.com/dp/B010FX4OOY/  

“… is a great romance with an excellent mystery.” ~Publishers’ Weekly

This is a wonderfully exciting romantic suspense novel. The characters are appealing and the setting is very romantic, a chateau in the Loire Valley. There is an interesting cast of characters. The plot is full of action and the reader is never sure who is on the side of good or evil.” ~ Romance Studio
“Murder, mystery, and intrigue seem to follow Cheryl as she assists Francois on his project. A great contemporary romantic read.” ~Review Your Book
Mona Risk brings old-fashioned romance back into style… full of mystery and intrigue.  I loved Ms. Risk’s injection of humor into the story. A sweet mystery romance you’re guaranteed to enjoy.” ~ Two Lips Review


If you have a chance to go to France, do yourself a favor and visit the châteaux de la Loire. I promise you won’t regret it.

I have three new books on pre-order.

KISSING PLANS: From best friend to lovers. But she’s engaged. What better way to get rid of the undesired fiancé? Finding him a girlfriend.

FAMILY PLANS: The plane crash devastated two families and revealed painful secrets. Can a brighter future arise from those ashes at Christmas time?

HEALING PLANS: He adopted two minority children but lost his wife. Finally things settle for him, until the lovely surgeon he hires turns his life upside down.

Grand Canyon Adventure #RachelleAyala @Mimisgang1 #mgtab

My Visit to the Grand Canyon

I have no words to describe the majesty and awesomeness of being at the Grand Canyon. The beautiful views and the colors and textures are overwhelming. All I know is I had a memorable time with my two sisters and brother-in-law last week.

We were fortunate with the weather. It was cool in the morning and never got above seventy degrees in the afternoon. Upon arriving at the South Rim, we couldn’t get enough of the view. It was everywhere, since the path of the Rim Trail is about two and a half miles along the edge. We walked along the paved Rim Trail and then took a short hike down the Bright Angel trail, a series of switchbacks that descend from the popular Bright Angel Lodge. Even though it’s a “beginner” trail, well maintained with water stations, it was quite steep and we had to keep warning ourselves that traipsing downhill is easy, but what goes down must come up.

After a few turns of the switchbacks, I noticed the people coming up looked like they were red, sweaty zombies in a death march. Since the Grand Canyon is at high altitude, 6800 ft, we decided to turn back and were able to enjoy the hike back without passing out.

Watching the sunsets and sunrises make for more spectacular views and photos. We drove all the way to the East, Desert View, where there’s a tower [which is closed], and then made our way back, stopping at the view points. Being there, you get the full sense of the panoramic view, as well as the dry wind that blows sand and dust in your face. There’s the chapped lips, the dry mouth, and the sting of sunburned lips, but nothing takes away from the sheer beauty of the views, including a few patches of snow visible in a shadowed area.

We also took a trip to the Hualapai Reservation where they offer pontoon boat white water trips. Instead of paddling, you hang onto your seats on the sides of a motorized pontoon boat while the driver barrels through rapids for maximum splash and bumps. It was quite an experience and you can read my review at Yelp for the Hualapai (Walla-pie) River Runners. Another must-visit place is the Yuvapai Geology Museum. Out of their panoramic bay window, you will see rock formations from all the different ages. Finally, we ate several times at El Tovar Dining Room–a rustic restaurant with views of the Grand Canyon.

Since I’m a romance writer, I took a picture of a pair of lovers perched on the edge of the cliff watching the sunset at Grandview Point. I’m sure I’ll be coming up with a romance or romantic comedy set at the Grand Canyon. I learned about the grueling hikes, down the South Kaibab to the river and then up the Bright Angel, and I stood by while the mule guide was giving the orientation to the riders. Maybe I’ll have a personal trainer and a swapped itinerary for my heroine who finds herself on a vacation she didn’t expect. Yep. Grand Canyon is for Lovers.

Grand View Lovers, It’s a Long Way Down

Catch up with my books at my website. https://rachelleayala.net/ and if you’ve never been to the Grand Canyon, I hope you’ll be able to make it there someday. Aloha!