From Arbanassi, the bus did not return us to Nikopol, where we had breakfasted. Instead, we went to a berth downriver, at Ruse. Ruse is Bulgaria's major Danube port. It was also our last stop on the river, contrary to our original itinerary. From Ruse, we were to have cruised through the Danube delta to the black Sea port of Constanţa. Little rain had fallen that Summer, however, and the water levels in The Danube were too low to permit safe navigation through the delta's sandbars. Our captain, he of the unforgettable surname, had been consulting other river captains along our route. He told us that a ship similar to the M/S River Aria had run aground, necessitating the rescue of the passengers from the middle of the river. Our captain did not want us to share that fate.
When we had booked our trip, the tour company had apprised us of the possibility that the fluctuating river level could influence the choice of ports. We would remain docked in Ruse, and the ship would be our hotel for the last two nights of the cruise. Buses would take us to the Black Sea through Bulgaria instead of Romania, to the port of Varna.
When I heard that, I gripped HL's hand and began to grin. I had wanted to visit Varna ever since I first read Bram Stoker's Dracula. The very name conjured up a port so remote and exotic that I was thrilled by the prospect of being there. Varna was Radi's home, and she had praised its beaches and general ambiance more than once. Meeting a native of Varna had transferred the city from my imagination to a place with an actual longitude and latitude. When Radi spoke of Varna, I was sorry that it had not been included in our itinerary. When it was added, it felt like a gift.
On the road from Ruse to Varna, as seen from the bus