Kayaking Woahink Lake

Kayaking Woahink Lake
Kayaking Woahink Lake

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Free Day in Vienna October 10

IMG_2945 We woke to another lovely sunrise out the south facing window of our room. The NH Danube City Hotel in this part of Vienna is quite nice in an Austrian sort of way. It is very slick, with the lobby all black and white and the amenities are very nice. The wait staff is impeccable, but as we have discovered in Vienna, bringing the bill is something that just doesn't happen until they are dang good and ready. We decided to skip the downstairs buffet this morning, after experiencing the crowded lines yesterday. We both knew that our day in town would likely bring pastries and coffee.

waiting for the very efficient Metro in Danube CityAfter yesterday, we were old hands at using the Metro, and Lorena's description of how to get to the Royal Stables seemed straightforward. We thought there would be transfers, and decided to buy a 24 hour pass so that we didn't have to worry about buying more tickets for transfers. 

The Metro station at the Vienna International Center is just a five minute walk from the hotel and is easy to use. At 9am it was quite busy. From the way things looked, the Viennese must all go to work at 9am. We arrived at St Stephens Square easily and then looked high and low for the transfer to Josef. We couldn't find anything on the map that showed a line in that direction, and the city map had such tiny IMG_2947print that we were having some difficulty figuring it all out. I finally called Lorena, who was already off on the Danube Cruise with the rest of the group, and in her darling but sometimes difficult accent, she said, "No no, not a transfer, you just walk!" Oh. Then, as usual, I couldn't begin to figure out where I actually was in relation to where I had to walk, even with the map. For a map maker, in these cities I am pretty sad at navigating. Out came the phone again and I turned on google maps one more time. Ahhh. The blue dot began blinking and I put in Stephansplatz and there we were. Quickly turn off the cellular data roaming and head for the square.

Stuff I learned; It is worth every single penny to pay for at least some mb of data for you smartphone mapping application. I only used it a few times, but those times really helped us a lot when we were turned around.  These cities have very narrow streets and very tall buildings, and it is quite easy to get turned around, or to not know exactly where you are.  Even as a map maker and reader, I still had some difficult moments.  I was sooooo happy that I could turn on the phone and get that little blue dot to tell me exactly where I was.

IMG_2953 I paid for 100 mb of data but since I have Verizon on the iPad and ATT on the phone, I can't really remember if I actually paid for data on the phone as well. The internet is so bad at the hotel I can't seem to get to my account pages to actually check. Guess I'll find out when I get home. I have kept the phone either turned off entirely or in airplane mode for most of the duration of the trip unless I am hooked up to WiFi.

the Spanish Riding School Once in the proper square, we found the line for the practice showing of the Spanish Riding School. Somehow we thought Lorena said that viewing practice was free, but of course that wasn't right. It cost 10 E urofor me and 14 for Melody to enter the royal stables to watch the Lippanzaners do their drills. They are beautiful horses, and watching them work was wonderful. I was glad we did it, and actually seeing the luxury of the royal stable interior was impressive. The stable tours were sold out for the next week, and of course the actual performances were sold out long ago. They are also expensive.

secret photo inside the Spanish Riding School In front of the riding school is a preserved Roman ruin, visible below the street and protected from vandalism by clear covers.  Melody was enthralled again by this part of history.  I would so love to take her to Turkey where she could see many many ruins both from the Roman era and the prior Hellenistic era as well.

a_vienna_lipizzan_horses_1 There is a lot to do in Vienna that is wonderful. The city is filled with art and history and culture. The tour of the Opera House would have been amazing, and I wish we had managed to do that tour. No matter where you turn, there is opulent architecture and interesting tours and classical performances. There are so many museums to choose from that we chose none and instead just spent our day walking and watching people. Vienna is nothing if not opulent, beautiful, expensive, and somewhat overwhelming. In my dreams of this trip, I imagined listening to Mozart in Vienna, but somehow with our short stay, the concert was more than we could manage.  I also love Gustav Klimt, not particularly “The Kiss”, but some of his more esoteric art really intrigues me.  Klimt was from Vienna, and in addition to Klimt collectibles on every corner, there was the art museum featuring his art that we also didn’t manage to get to.  More days in Vienna were needed, a bit more time, and a commitment to spending the money for these extra tours.

at the front of the Spanish Riding School I think it would be a great destination to visit with a lot of time and plenty of money. There is no place better for seeing a different opera every night or hearing classical music at its finest. Culture for a price. As I experienced the city, I was even more appreciative of our guide's comments from the previous day regarding the combination of capitalism and a social state that insists that there be 60 completely different opera performances a year, all paid for by the state of course. 

He said, "The Viennese really love children, just not their own. They have one of the lowest birth rates in the world. The don't like paying taxes, and they don't like tourists. That doesn't work very well in a closed system like we have. Where is the money to come from?" I wish I actually had his commentary on tape because he was one of the funniest, most informative guides ever.

people watching in Vienna When we asked Lorena what was the most important thing to do in Vienna in one day she said one word, "Coffee". Coffee in Vienna is basically the long slow accompaniment to people watching in the square. You walk for a bit and then sit at a cafe where the elegant waiters will come and serve you before disappearing forever. The idea is that they don't want to disturb you, and you can sit with one small cup of espresso or Melange (the Viennese version of cappuccino) for as many hours as you wish. The only problem comes when you decide that you might actually like to leave. It is nearly impossible to get the waiter's attention until he is  good and ready, and even then he will wave to you and say, "in a minute, in a minute". Do NOT have coffee in Vienna if you have anywhere to go. If you need to make a visit to the WC (water closet, bathroom, toilet) then be sure to have a supply of coin euros and a coffee partner who can be left at the table waiting for the waiter while you go. 

IMG_3031 Melody loves fashion, is an avid reader of Vogue, and she was so excited to actually be in a place where she could go to all the big name shops, especially Louis Vuitton. I had no desire to go in the store just to look at expensive stuff. Window shopping is fine for me, so I stayed outside while Melody went in all her famous designer name shops. Sadly in some of the shops, she was treated very shabbily by the snotty staff, and I don't think she expected that. I am sure this isn’t something just endemic to Vienna, as there are snotty staff in snotty stores all over the planet. Once we migrated from the very highest end shops to the mid level shops, though, I loved it. Some of the goodies were delightful, including a cashmere coat for only 4000 E urothat I almost bought. Well, in my dreams anyway. I laughed that I could go on a couple of trips for what that coat cost.

IMG_3120 Then as we slipped down to the true mid level shops, we were both delighted to find a two story hat store. Now I have to say that was fun and the shopkeepers were all charming and helpful and the walls and walls of hats were fabulous. There were lots of women exclaiming and trying on hats of all kinds and having fun. I did buy a couple of hats for us, including a cute little boiled wool “Made in Austria” winter hat that looks like something out of the 20's. Finally, something other than breakable crystal or porcelain as a keepsake of this country!

Vienna is actually quite walkable, and the tall spire of St Stephens is in the center of town with the Ringstrasse circling the city center. If you just keep walking, whatever direction, you will either reach the cathedral square or the Ringstrasse. On the previous day, we saw the Market and the guide encouraged us to go there repeatedly. After all that opulence and being hounded by salesmen in period dress to buy expensive tickets to a Mozart concert, we decided that a free market would be a good alternative.

DSC_0116 We found it easily, and were delighted to see that it was much like the familiar Pike Street Market in Seattle, with row after row of food stalls filled with gorgeous food. No one was throwing fish, but the quality and variety was amazing. Of course there were eateries and tables everywhere and of course we sat and had another coffee while watching people stroll past. In this place, though, our waiter was a lovely young girl from Istanbul who had thighs about the size of my forearm. (Actually most of the women here are incredibly slim and chic!)

DSC_0128 She served us and left us alone, but then came right to us when we needed to pay, and then was talkative and friendly. She has been in Vienna for several years but misses her own country where the people are friendly and like to TALK. She said that learning German was hard for her, and her mixture of English with a German Turkish accent was so charming.

As we strolled to the far end of the market, the food stalls gave way to the trinket shops with a bazillion pashiminas and cheap junk and the shopkeepers became more aggressive. Men came entirely too close to me for comfort, and I was glad that my camera was firmly attached to my Cotton Carrier, and my bag was well hidden and strapped under my clothes. It was the first time on this trip that I have felt uncomfortable and unsafe. Within a very few minutes we were once again on the Ringstrasse walking back toward the U (the underground metro station) and everything felt just fine.

amazing Market in Vienna The metro was easy to find and easy to use, and even though it was late afternoon, we still found seats.  It was nice to be able to sit down.  Again, within minutes, we were home to our hotel and settled into the room for a bit of rest before we decided what in the world to do for dinner.  There were fewer options in the district where we were located, and we decided that maybe a dinner in the hotel would be a good idea.  It was an especially good idea for Melody because with her lovely red boiled wool coat she went to dinner in her pajamas.  No one had a clue! 

DSC_0121 The dinner was nice, with excellent service, and the thing I loved most was this very small green salad that was served European style after our main dish was brought to us.  That salad was the sweetest, most tender, tastiest, lovely thing I have eaten in a long time.  We also got a complimentary “taste” for an appetizer which was a tuna mousse on a small cracker.  Looks quite tiny on the plate, but oh my! it was tasty.  The tuna mousse was fresh and mild and the cracker needed something to keep it from levitating it was so light and fresh.

Vienna 10-10-2012 7-41-06 PM After a considerable wait for our bill, Melody finally said, “Mom, you just go on up to the room and I’ll hang around here to pay.”  We were both much too tired to even care what the meal cost, much less figure it out from Euros to USDollars, but I finally did discover when I got my credit card bill it came to a bit more than $80.  A deal at any price since it didn’t require going out when we were just plain worn out.

We both loved a lot about Vienna, but both of us were ready for the next stage of our trip.  Tomorrow we travel to Prague!

I am still processing photos for this day and will put in links this evening if you are interested.  Come back and check later.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Tour Day in Vienna ends with a Police Escort October 9

morning sunrise from the hotel room window The sunrise this morning was gorgeous.  More so because of all the clouds, I am sure, and it was clear that our day ahead might be a bit dreary. After a long night of being pretty darn sick, even with the medicine, and the frustration of trying repeatedly to get the WiFi to work, I wasn’t feeling very happy. Our breakfast buffet downstairs in the dining room was huge and very crowded, but the breakfast was good.  I still found some good yogurt and muesli and there were lots of fruits and pastries available.  I tried one, but it wasn’t that exciting, not like the croissants in the much less fancy hotel in Budapest.

Stuff I learned on this trip: If you have two people traveling with 2 SLR’s, 2 iPhones, and one iPad to process it all, the photos will become very close to unmanageable.  If I ever go to Europe again, the SLR will stay home and I will use a nifty point and shoot.  Even with the SLR, my photos this time are still more about content than the kind of quality I can get with the SLR over a point and shoot.  The weight isn’t worth it to me unless I am going to someplace that is incredibly scenic and I actually have the time to take some serious photos. But back to the day at hand.

commuting to Vienna across the Danube It is dreary, overcast, and the temperature feels a bit chilly today.  I decided to wear a jacket and my warm sweater, and carry just one stick instead of two, but then thought better of that idea. I also am wearing my Cotton Carrier for the camera, but by the end of the long days, I feel like I am in a straight jacket!  Still, I couldn’t manage it any other way, since it gets incredibly heavy around the neck and over the shoulder doesn’t work at all.  I love my Cotton Carrier.

Tour Day in Vienna 10-8-2012 11-32-24 PM After breakfast we met downstairs for our morning bus tour with another new local guide, a snarky and completely entertaining man named Gearhart. He has a bit of an “attitude” I would say about the socialist government of Austria, and told some really funny stories. He had an interesting perspective on the local culture and I loved his humor.  Some of the women on the trip later made the comment that he was more focused on being “cute” than on imparting information, but I didn’t agree at all.  I learned so much from him about the history of Vienna in relation to the rest of Eastern Europe. He stated specifically that Vienna is what it is today because the United States made the decision to save Vienna from the Soviets. Vienna was on the very edge of the Iron Curtain, and according to Gearhart, the rest of Europe didn’t care much about the little city out there in the east.  Even though Vienna had to be rebuilt after the war, there was a huge difference in what happened to Vienna compared to what happened in Budapest and Prague, and he attributed that directly to the United States and its intervention.

commuting to Vienna from Danube City, with St Stephens Cathedral dominating the skyline As we rode across the Danube toward the city, we could see the spire of St Stephen’s dominating the skyline.  The central part of Vienna is a large circle with the church at the center and surrounded by the Ringstrasse, a large beautiful boulevard that circles the city.  He encouraged us to use the Metro, and to walk the city because it was almost impossible to get lost.  Look for the church, walk the opposite direction to the Ringstrasse, and you know where you are.  Our bus did quite a tour of the city, impaired now and then by one of the hundreds of horse drawn carriages filled with tourists, and gave us the opportunity to see where we might want to go later in the afternoon in our free time.

Tour Day in Vienna 10-8-2012 11-33-54 PM First on the tour was the Hundred Waters House. We emerged from the bus to a long wall of tourist shops filled with inexpensive goods that Gearhart dissed with one of his snarky remarks.  We all laughed, but I did notice that on the way back to the bus, many of us were buying some of those inexpensive goods, including a truly lovely scarf that Melody found.  Cheap is not always a bad thing! Hundertwasser House is down a pedestrian mall and is hard to even describe.  If you are interested in environmental buildings and a true greenie and creative artist, read about Hundertwasser. Quoting from Wiki:

“Hundertwasser's original and unruly artistic vision expressed itself in pictorial art, environmentalism, philosophy, and design of facades, postage stamps, flags, and clothing (among other areas). The common themes in his work utilised bright colours, organic forms, a reconciliation of humans with nature, and a strong individualism, rejecting straight lines”.

The Gardens at Schonbrunn Our next stop on the tour was the summer residence of Maria Theresa (Theresia in some texts), the
Schonbrunn Palace. Schonbrunn is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and is supposedly the most visited site in Austria. Owned by the Habsburgs for centuries, following the downfall of the monarchy in 1918 it became the property of the Austrian government. A bit of trivia ~ John F Kennedy and Nikita Krushchev met here in 1961.

Tour Day in Vienna 10-9-2012 2-29-030 Even though we were arriving early in the day, the tour groups were already gathering in the courtyard in front of the palace for their entry times.  Our guides were all paranoid about being at the gate at exactly the right minute for our entrance.  I guess it is another time when it was OK to have guides to deal with all this.

The Gardens at Schonbrunn Styled to imitate Versailles, the house is imposing and somewhat sterile from the front entrance. Once inside, however, it was breathtaking.  Of course, we were not allowed to take ANY photos at all, not a single one of the interior, since of course they want to sell their expensive picture books in the gift shop.  We didn’t buy any.  The tour was accompanied by reams of information about the Habsburgs and about the Empress Maria Theresa, who was an incredible ruler who had great armies and knew how to use them to control a very large part of the world.  She did all this while having 16, yes 16 babies!  It was important to these royal families to reproduce, since they had unhealthy children that often died and passing on the monarchy was of utmost importance.

Tour Day in Vienna 10-9-2012 1-33-26 AM Another little tidbit.  If someone was called “The Good”, instead of “The Great” or “The Strong”, it probably meant that they were sickly and would die fairly young.  These families repeatedly married first cousins to keep the royal blood pure.  Epilepsy was a severe problem in the family and grew worse over the centuries.

Once we finished the tour of the interior of the house, we were given just half an hour to find our way back outside to the gardens. There was a lot to see here, and once again, our timing was much too short.  Melody walked as fast as she could all the way to the sculpture at the far end of the garden while I tried to have enough time to appreciate the perfectly symmetrical hedges and trees and take some photos.  Even in the overcast light, the gardens were beautiful.

The Gardens at Schonbrunn Our guide again mentioned that all these sites are actually owned by the Austrian government, including the famous Opera House, and there are more than 60 different operas performed there in a year.  You can come for a week and see a different opera every single night.  Of course, this is all paid for by the state, meaning the people’s taxes, and Gearhart made another snarky comment about thinking that maybe the government could make do with 40 different operas per year instead of 60.  He told us that children aren’t very popular in Vienna, and people also hate to pay taxes, and the cost of living is very high.  Somehow the equation doesn’t add up and he wonders just how long Austria can continue the way it is going with no children coming up to pay the taxes to support all this government supported “stuff”. It was interesting to hear.

Tour Day in Vienna 10-9-2012 4-13-42 AM Our tour part of the day ended in the center of town at the great cathedral of St Stephens. As we toured these cathedrals, it became more and more clear that a Cathedral here is most often a very large cemetery, with chapels filled with crypts and graves beneath the stones in the floors.The group returned to the hotel for the afternoon, but we chose to stay downtown, and Ellen and Roger decided to stay with us.  Melody wanted to see the catacombs beneath the great St Stephen’s Cathedral, and we found the group tour was beginning within the hour.  It gave us just enough time to walk around the square a bit and marvel at the architecture.

St Stephens Cathedral A soft spoken young man gathered the tour group and began speaking in German.  UhOh.  Is this tour going to be all in German?  German has always seemed to me to be a somewhat harsh language, but his voice was musical, lyrical and soothing.  I didn’t care if it was German, or if I understood a word.  Then, he started speaking in lovely English, explaining to us softly that the beautiful copper pots surrounding us were filled with the entrails of the Habsburgs and some had the very special donation of a Habsburg heart which I guess all the cathedrals coveted.  The room  was quite tight and small.

As we moved deeper into the depths below the church, we heard stories of all the royalty entombed there, and then the stories of the plague and we found the bone rooms, where hundreds of dead plague victims were thrown because there was no time for burial.  Later the bones were stacked like firewood and as we looked into the room, it took a minute to realize that the walls were made of human bones.  To me it was interesting, to Melody it was devastating. She burst into tears and as we emerged from the church she said that all she could think of was that those people had lives and families and they were nothing more than bones in a wall.  Even with the photos and the exhibits at the House of Terror, I don’t think Melody has any idea of what she would see in the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.  She might have to get a bit older and a bit more jaded before she visits that place.

Tour Day in Vienna 10-9-2012 3-51-34 AM By the time we came out of the church, it was late afternoon, and we decided that Lorena’s suggestion of “a cawfee” in Vienna was a great idea.  The four of us found an outdoor cafe on the pedestrian mall, with nice big patio heaters going strong in the canopy above us.  I ordered an Irish Coffee and I must say I have never had one quite so strong!  And I am not talking about the coffee part! Roger had a Pilsner, and Melody a Viennese Cappucinno and Ellen had some kind of tall fruity thing that looked wonderful but cold!  We all tasted each other’s goodies, and Melody and I switched!

Tour Day in Vienna 10-9-2012 3-55-25 AM We are all tired, and this evening is a special extra tour (an extra fee of course) to the Prater Ferris Wheel and the hills west of Vienna for a special local dinner in the area where there are a lot of vineyards.  It was time to find the Metro, which was just a few feet away beneath us, figure out the tickets and the stamps, and be sure that we got off at the right stop on the other side of the Danube.  It was simple and fast, and within fifteen minutes we at the Metro exit just a couple of blocks from the hotel.

Tour Day in Vienna 10-9-2012 6-03-28 PM I knew that the Prater Ferris Wheel would be a delight and it was.  The Prater has a wonderful history, beginning in 1766, when Emperor Joseph II donated the area to the Viennese as a public center for leisure. We arrived at the magical evening hour when the light is just beginning to wane and you can see the lights of the wheel and the carousel even though it isn’t dark yet. The Prater Ferris Wheel was destroyed at the end of the war in 1945 but the city knew how important it was to the people and it was rebuilt in 1947. The ride only lasted 15 minutes, with the special dining car just below us and the view of the city in the distance.  I loved it. 

Tour Day in Vienna 10-9-2012 5-54-48 PM One of my favorite moments of all of Vienna was here when we were back on the ground at the base of the wheel.  There were people eating cotton candy, there was a “hammer” and people screaming, and the ferris wheel was turning above me.  Behind me were the bumper cars with kids yelling and all this was accompanied by music across the loudspeakers from the Vienna Waltzes.  Somehow bumper cars and symphony music just seemed so incredibly wonderful there in the park. 

Tour Day in Vienna 10-9-2012 5-53-42 PM Back on the bus for our tour to another part of Vienna, up a bit in the hills, to our restaurant for the evening. It was still cool and rainy, and the tourists that usually fill this small street were much fewer than during the summer months.  The restaurant was warm and friendly and there were local musicians singing and playing folk music.  Another large group of tourists were in the back room singing and dancing along with the band and having a great time.  I wondered how many local people actually frequented this restaurant, famous for its winery.

Tour Day in Vienna 10-9-2012 6-47-24 PM The dinner was family style with a couple of glasses of their wine and included salads of cucumbers and tomatoes and pickles, and then huge platters of roasted pork, ham, and roasted potatoes along with some amazing tasting sauerkraut with finely minced vegetables.  The glasses of wine were big pints, like beer, and by the end of the evening we were all feeling pretty warm and fuzzy.  The life stories started coming out again, and the jokes and laughter were raucous and fun.

2012-10-09 18.59.55 On our way home, our great bus driver Paul, somehow hit the wrong exit and ended up trapped with the big bus right at the entrance of a big parking garage.  UhOh!  Within a minute there was a car of mean looking policemen trying to figure out what he thought he was doing.  Lorena came to the rescue, leaned over Paul, and batted her big brown eyes at the policemen while she explained our predicament.  Those guys just melted, and gave us a police escort while Paul backed the big bus out to the freeway again.  Lorena laughed later, and in her imitable Argentinean accent said, “I know how to play blond when I need to!”

2012-10-09 20.52.53 I’ll close my story of this day with a little note I got from Jeanne after she read my last blog post about the Weiner Schnitzel.

2012-10-09 19.14.16 hey sue—i am with melody about the schnitzel!   i grew up on the stuff-- mom made it a lot, since she grew up with an austrian father. of course we loved saying WEENER! i have never really liked it. what is so special about flattened meat coated with bread and fried??? personally i think austrian food is terrible. ha ha ha. have eaten plenty of it and i have spent some time there too, visiting relatives and skiing. i do still love spaeztle though. and my grandpa used to make some really good things my mom called "peasant food". i think it was stuff dirt poor people would eat. one was called "ribble" and was basically old hot cereal fried in butter with sugar on top. the other was "kaiser shmaren" which means kings mess. we would save old bread ends in the freezer, then you tear it into bits, soak it in egg and fry it in butter and put sugar on top. kinda like french toast nuggets. and finally, "gruba" (no idea how to spell these things) which was a big chunk of fat, cut into bits, salted and broiled to make mini fat crispies. yum!

Photos from our first day in Vienna are posted online

Saturday, October 20, 2012

testing the blog feed

Seems as though a bunch of recent posts are not coming through on my blog feed so not showing up in the blog rolls. This is a test. I see that this post has shown up on the blog rolls of some of my favorite blogs, so in case you think I haven’t been posting, there are a couple recent posts you might want to read.  I have been missing your input a lot!

Travel to Vienna and drinking Wicks October 8

overlooking the village of Szentendre  After our rainy evening it was wonderful to wake again to sunny skies in Budapest.  Even though the actual distance to Vienna is only around 200 miles, our tour planned a leisurely day of travel to get there.  Leaving at 8am, our scheduled arrival in Vienna was after 4pm.  Instead of taking the fast highway directly between the big cities, we had the chance to travel the picturesque side roads along the Danube. Even with the rest stops, it was a very long day and with my cold giving me all sorts of grief I was completely and absolutely wiped our when we finally got to Vienna.

view from the bus of the roman ruins of Aquincum north of Budapest But early in the day things were still beautiful, and even before we completely left the north part of Budapest, called Obuda, we passed the Roman Ruins of Aquincum.  It was one of the things on Melody’s list that we didn’t manage to get to in our short stay, so all we have to show for it is a blurry photo as the bus passed by.  In retrospect, I am glad we got to see all three of these cities, but I do know that there is so very much we missed by only have a couple of real days in each one.  I think maybe two weeks in Budapest just might, only might, be enough to wander around that city and see it in a different way.  I would go back to Budapest in a heartbeat.  And Jeanne….who I know is actually reading this blog….yes!  You do have to get to Budapest.  It is a Jeanne kind of city. The Turkish influence makes it seem more like Istanbul, still my most favorite city in the world.

Travel to Vienna via Szentendre 10-8-2012 12-58-32 AM In less than an hour we were at the lovely village of Szentendre, just 13 miles north of Budapest.  The town is an extremely popular tourist destination, with most tours choosing to pour into the streets for a few hours of exploring. Called the “Wolf Castle” by the Romans, and influenced by a large Serbian community for a few centuries,  Szentendre has been an artist’s colony since the early 1900’s, and still is home to more than 100 working artists.  Much like Santa Fe, they proclaim about the “magical light” of this sweet little village on a rise overlooking the Danube.

workers in the village of Szentendre We wandered up the cobblestone streets, and I didn’t see sign one of a pharmacy, big on my list for the day.  I was getting sicker and sicker, and of course, since I don’t get colds, hadn’t brought anything with me for that sort of thing.  While the rest of the group went off to look at ‘stuff’, Lorena helped me find a pharmacy in an obscure part of town and helped translate with the pharmacist.  It was one of those moments when I really appreciated being on a tour. Lorena left me there to negotiate and I emerged from the shop armed with throat lozenges, a liquid something like Nyquil called “Wicks”, and some other sort of thing for my cold.  The “Wicks” provided endless entertainment for Melody and I for the next several days.  I would get goofy, and she would say, “Drink some more Wicks, Mom”.  As with most inside jokes, we laughed hysterically at something that probably isn’t all that funny, but I know we both treasure that memory.

climbing the stairs to the church courtyard in Szentendre I managed to get up the narrow stairs to the church courtyard with my knee brace and hiking poles, but I have to say that I was getting dang tired of dragging those things around.  I think most folks around me were also getting tired of me whapping them in the leg now and then.  It’s funny, but sometimes two sticks, a camera, and whatever else I wanted to do required more than the two hands I had available.  I had to rely on my other two hands, Melody’s, which were often in use as well.  It was tiresome for sure, but at least I got around and did most of what I wanted to do in spite of it all.  I surely did make me appreciate what folks with real disabilities have to deal with.  Whew!

kids in the church courtyard in Szentendre After an hour or so in the village, where Melody found presents for her family, we continued our idyllic drive along the countryside.  The landscape reminded both of us so much of the Willamette Valley in Oregon, with everything beautifully green, and lots of open countryside and vegetable farms on the rich river terrace soils. Occasionally we would pass though a tiny village, then a small town until we we reached the Austrian border crossing, now closed. 

It was interesting to see the architecture change as we traveled into Austria.  Even at a distance, the villages of Hungary had a certain “look” and Austrian villages had their own “look” as well.  The shapes of the church steeples in Austria were more rectangular and had less ornamentation than those in Hungary.

fields along the Danube in Hungary We knew that lunch was to be somewhere along the road in a “nice place to eat” according to Lorena.  I have to say we were somewhat appalled when we pulled into a freeway rest stop that could have easily been an ugly,  generic toll road parkway station in Florida. Once inside, however, we were pleasantly surprised to find a rather decent cafeteria style eatery with a lot of options for some really good food and a reasonable price.  We were finished with Hungarian florints and now had to adjust to Euros. 

Szentendre Getting your head wrapped around the exchange rate can be a bit of a pain.  We were still thinking in thousands and of course Euros are on the other side of our US dollar.  We were around 1.30 dollars per Euro when we were in Austria, but half the time when trying to convert mentally to figure out what we were paying we would get the equation mixed up and go the wrong way.  There are great exchange rate apps on iPhone, but of course I had my iPhone either off or in airplane mode because I wanted to be judicious about using up my 100 meg purchased for Europe at a hefty 25 bucks.  You know just how fast 100 meg can fly by??  It was surprising to me how many of my apps required internet access to operate, something I hadn’t thought of.

Travel to Vienna via Szentendre 10-8-2012 1-55-45 PMAfter our mid afternoon lunch, it was only another 90 minutes or so to our hotel in Vienna. As we approached the city, the landscape started to look more and more like any big city in the world, except Istanbul of course, with big freeways and overpasses and road signs and traffic.  There was air pollution as well and with my cold and the sleepiness induced by the "Wicks” I was never so glad to get to a hotel in my life. 

The HN Danube City was all glitz and slick with a black and white and chrome interior and snotty personnel at the desk.  We were assigned to our lovely room on the 7th floor with big windows that actually opened and had a gorgeous view to the south over the east side suburbs of Vienna near the Vienna International Center.  Sadly, when I booked this tour, the hotel choice was actually in Vienna proper, but over the intervening months, GoAhead decided to use a cheaper hotel that was out of town.  The good thing was that the very efficient and simple to use Metro station was just a block down the street from us so we were able to get back and forth to the city without too much effort.

IMG_2945 We were supposed to have free internet in our room, but of course we couldn’t get it to work at all.  There was no way to know that we had to pick up a number from the desk.  Melody went down to the lobby and finally found someone who would speak to her about it, but it took some doing.  We had to get a slip of paper from the desk that would allow us to sign onto something called SwissCom with a password that would expire randomly.  In addition, it was extremely slow at most times of the day when we were there. It made me miss the old lobby in Budapest!  At least I could actually do something even if I had to leave my room to do it. Do I sound grumpy?  Maybe I was, and maybe being as sick as I was colored my view of Vienna, but Melody felt the same way and she wasn’t sick at all. 

2012-10-08 18.19.41 We had an included dinner for the evening there at the hotel with our group which was quite nice.  Can I write “nice” in quotes?  After the round lushness of Budapest, everything here seemed to stiff and sterile and perfectly pretentious. Our server was a lovely young woman who would say gently in perfect English, “Am I allowed to take this plate?” The Wiener schnitzel was excellent with some simple side dish, an eeny but nice salad, and an included glass of wine. Of course we had to have schnitzel in Vienna, named for the city itself.  Vienna is actually Wien in German, and the “er” is the suffix that makes whatever follows belong to the noun.  So it is saying that the schnitzel if from Wien, or Vienna.  It seemed to be a specialty of the city, found everywhere, much like goulash in Hungary.  Melody secretly told me later, “How is that any different than chicken fried steak without the gravy?”

road trip from Budapest to Vienna, via Szentendre, following the Danube, and then on the main highway into Vienna After our meal, we fell exhausted into our quite comfy beds with the usual puffy soft cotton duvet covered down comforters.  Gotta love that European bed-making style of a fresh duvet on a down comforter with no top sheet.  I do that in our motorhome and it works just great.  Just shake that think like a sleeping bag and  you have a great bed.

If you want to see more photos of this travel day there a a few online here (not nearly as many as the previous days!)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Free Day in Budapest October 7

facades on Szondi Utcasee the lady in the window? Ahh, our free day lies before us with only our own agenda to think of. Perfect. Even though the morning dawned with a bit of a cloudy sky, the temperature was till warm enough that it wouldn't interfere with our plans to walk the city and go to the baths. I knew before we came on this trip that Budapest was famous for its healing waters and beautiful public baths.

One of the reasons I enjoy group tours is that I can get a taste of the culture and the history of the people through the conversation of the tour guide.  Our group guide Lorena is a charming woman, but her insight into the country is at the level of a Wiki search.  She would offer a few tidbits but they weren’t at all connected.  Our local tour guide Bernice had even less to offer, with some history and dates and names but no personal stories to flesh it all out.  I really missed that.

walking along Szondi Utca  GoAhead Tours offers the usual tour support, including luggage management (a really nice plus), transportation between airports and hotels, a few meals, and back-up trouble shooting if you really need it. The other thing that Go Ahead offers are group tours for a price.  Usually the price is quite high for the convenience of what you get.  It is similar to those excursions on cruise ships that can be so expensive. In Budapest, one of the “optional” tours was a day long cruise of the Danube and lunch in some remote estate with wine of course.  With so few days in the city, I didn’t want to waste our time floating along the river looking at scenery.  I wanted to walk the streets and look at buildings and signs and sit in street cafes and watch the people.

Free Day in Budapest 10-7-2012 2-15-55 AM The other big thing I wanted to do in Budapest was experience the amazing thermal waters.  Because of its location on limestone there are more than 100 thermal springs that feed the city’s famous bathhouses.  The water emerges at 35 to 76 degrees C and was the source of a flourishing spa culture in the Roman Age. Buda and Pest were occupied by the Ottoman’s from 1541 to 1686 and the Turkish bathhouses prospered.  Many of the spas of today are traditional Turkish baths.  The spa list is long, but after reading about several, including the famous Gellert Baths, I knew that the beautiful Szechenyi Spa in City Park was the place I wanted to visit on this Sunday in Budapest

Melody and I slept in a bit and then had a leisurely breakfast with another couple, Joan and Frank from southern California, at the hotel buffet.  We really enjoyed them throughout the trip. Sometimes the group dynamics of these tours can get a bit crazy, but this group was great. People were friendly and we could move from one couple or group of friends to another, sharing conversation and time with different people at different times.  Melody was especially popular since she was the resident iPhone, Skype, and Wireless access guru for several folks. 

almost 6 miles according to googleWe fired up the iPad for walking directions to city park and decided that taking the Szondi Utca (street) would be a great route to give us a taste of a different kind of downtown city neighborhood.  The skies were a bit overcast and it was coolish, but not raining, and walking along Terez Korut in the daylight was fun. Things were still quiet on this Sunday morning, but the difference in energy between the main road and Szondi Utca was dramatic.  The road narrowed and the buildings were older, with crumbling facades and black encrusted sandstone faces. It was just under 2 miles to the park where the baths were located.

view from the terrace  at the Szechenyi Baths The Szechenyi Bath was built in 1909 in City Park, and is the largest spa in Europe.  It is a huge complex with gorgeous architecture, 3 outdoor pools, several saunas and steam rooms, and indoor spring fed pools of varying temperatures. Outside the entrance we bought cheap little Hungarian flip flops and then walked into one of the more amazing experiences of our trip.  On entry, we paid our 3400 florints (about $14.90) and were given little plastic watches that were used to lock and unlock our rented “cabin” which was just a small changing room.  It was nice to have a private place to dress and a safe space to store our belongings while we were in the baths.

Melody under the fountain  at the Szechenyi Baths We stayed there for hours, at least 4 I think, but I lost track of time.  We slipped into the big pools first and thrilled at the warm water and views of all the baroque architecture and statuary.  We also thrilled at some of the beautiful people and were happy to see lots of not beautiful people as well.  Just as in the pictures, there were old men playing chess on big chess boards right in the water.  We then went into the inside pools and wandered from building to building trying out each of the pools in turn.  Of course, the cold pool was really cold after all that nice hot water, but once I got in it made my skin tingle when I got back out and into the hot water.  So invigorating.  I had to really work hard at convincing Melody she could do it, but once in she loved it too.

inside pools  at the Szechenyi Baths I know there were tourists there, but there were a lot of families and older kids (not many small ones), and it seemed that most of the language being spoken was Hungarian, not German or English as is the case where there are a lot of tourists.  It was a completely healing experience, not only spiritually and emotionally, but physically!  My knee was very happy about that whole thing after a couple of days of serious walking. We enjoyed our great lunch right there in the spa, having tomatoes and cucumbers with feta and some kind of phyllo pastry thingy with lots of veggies in it that was really good.  And of course, beer.  Good beer.  Beer is cheaper than water just about everywhere in Eastern Europe.

we find our way to our little rented cabin inside the Szechenyi Baths Thoroughly relaxed we went back to our little cabin, and started the trek home via Andrassy Ut, the main thoroughfare that runs from City Park and Hero’s Square all the way to the Danube River and Parliament.  Andrassy Way is lined with huge palatial homes that were once owned by the wealthy, but were confiscated by the Nazis, and then again during the Communist invasion, and then later turned into embassies.  Our plan was to walk all of Andrassy to take in the fancy designer shops closer to the river, but instead we found ourselves intrigued by something called the House of Terror.

Free Day in Budapest 10-7-2012 5-59-03 AM For the first time since arriving in Hungary, I began to understand how oppressed this nation has been and how awful its recent history. Over and over the Magyar people have been almost completely destroyed, only to rise again, still maintaining their culture and their language. The museum wasn’t anything like I expected.  It told in stark detail the history of the Nazis in Budapest, the killing of the Jews, the oppression of the Soviet Gulag that replaced the Nazis when the Germans lost the war.  It was sobering and troubling, but somehow I understood how the people seem to be unwilling to talk much about it.  I at first thought the House of Terror was some kind of torture museum, and I was totally uninterested.  I am so glad that we wandered past this sober building with the photos of dead Hungarians embedded all along the walls.  In front of the building was a huge sculpture of heavy iron chains and poetry celebrating the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. 

Internment camps in Hungary In spite of the horrendous story, when I researched more Hungarian history, I read that even though 400,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered in the holocaust, the people of Budapest managed to save more than 60 percent of its Jewish Community. It is encouraging to see the transformational change in Hungary and Budapest that has happened since then and even more so since its entrance into the European Union in 2004.  I am not quite sure of the politics, but even though both Hungary and the Czech Republic are part of the European Union, neither country has yet to adopt the Euro.

Free Day in Budapest 10-7-2012 6-08-57 AM Hungarian history is hard to track, and as much as I read, I had a hard time retaining it.  The first settlement was attributed to Celtic tribes and then during the first century AD the Romans built a fortification that eventually evolved into a town. The Huns were never associated with Hungary, in spite of the name.  The Magyar (Hungarian) pagan horse-riding tribes arrived in 986 AD and the Christian Kingdom of SZt. Istvan (St Stephan) was established in the year 1000. St Stephan is now a national symbol of the country and the thousand year old crown that we saw in the Parliament yesterday was actually used by him. The Mongols showed up in 1200 or so, and then King Matthias (not sure what he was or how he got there!) brought the renaissance to Hungary. 

memorials to many killed in the House of Terror Then in the mid 1500’s the Ottoman Empire showed up until the Habsburg Empire centered in Austria took over.  The Ottoman and Austrian cultures still are a major part of life in Hungary. Hungary was almost autonomous for a short time after the defeat of the Habsburgs in the mid 1800’s and Buda, Pest, and Obuda were unified and the official city of Budapest was created in 1873 under the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. Confused yet?  Whew! the cafe on Terez Korut I am exhausted trying to track this, and spent much of my time in Budapest trying to figure it out and haven’t even included the “dark ages” of  World War I, the Nazi regime, World War II, and the Communists!

Air raids and a three-month siege towards the end World War II resulted in the death of more than 38,000 civilians and nearly complete destruction of much of the city.  Is it no wonder that it is hard to get Hungarians to talk about their history? When I asked Bernice a question about the Communist Era and how it happened she was short and snippy with me, and I actually have no clue what she said. Somehow, though, understanding the history of a country helps me to understand the culture a bit, and to appreciate what I am seeing in a completely different way.  Hopefully my “short version” will stick and as I look back at my experiences in Hungary.

10-7-2012 Free Day in Budapest After the intense and somewhat depressing visit to the House of Terror, we felt a change in the weather coming and decided that it was time to head back toward the hotel rather than continuing along Andrassy Way to the high end district.  Instead we walked toward our hotel along the main east/west boulevard, past lots of little shops and cafes and chose one with nice tables outside where we could sit and people-watch. The cappuccino was outstanding and the pastries light and flaky. I have to say, I was totally spoiled by the coffees in Europe.  Yum!  We needed a little pick-up since I was getting a bit worn out and we still had our evening cruise waiting.

Budapest Danube Cruise 10-7-2012 8-42-00 PMMelody and I are both trying to get picture on this dark rainy night with our iPhones from the boat on the Danube under the Chain Bridge The evening cruise on the Danube in the rain was something I won’t ever forget.  By the time we started walking the half mile or so to the piers the rain was coming down in full force. Our boat was just a nice size for a small dinner cruise, with a warm and lovely cabin protected from the rain.  During the classic Hungarian dinner we slowly made our way up and down the river past the incredibly lit Parliament buildings and under the illuminated bridges, all glistening in the rain.  Buda Castle shown on the hill above us, lit up like Christmas.  I can only imagine what Christmas would be like in this city with all the beautiful lights.  It was a fitting end to a wonderful day in one of the great cities of the world.

Many more photos from this lovely day in Budapest are online here.