A Travelogue

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Brrr!

Yikes. I sure missed my scarf today and could have used a sweater too. The sunny morning promised a balmy day, but no sooner had we passed the point of no return on our way to the Charles Bridge than sterling silver sky wiped out the sun. The wind came up and stirred the street debris, whipping leaves and litter around our feet. It was miserably cold. But by the time we reached Charles Bridge the sun managed to poke out again and suddenly it was hot. Much of the rest of the day was spent zipping and unzipping my jacket.




Charles Bridge has 30 statues, many kiosks and even street musicians. Each statue tells a story and while they don't look remotely alike, they make me think of our totem poles. Both of them are created not just as art, but to help the storyteller relate history down through generations in the absence of a written language. At least that's what I think.

Then we climbed the hill to the palace and 207 - count 'em - stairs to the palace. *gasp* It left me breathless for two reasons. The other was the view of Prague laid out below us in spectacular colour: pale golden buildings topped with steeply pitched scarlet roofs.



In the distance a peculiar bubbly grey wall caught our eye so we sought it out later. It's called the Dripstone Wall and looks like a collection of dripping leaves. But on closer inspection you can see frogs and snakes and grotesquely formed faces hidden in its recesses.




Church at the palace.



It was a long and tiring day. This tourist stuff is really hard work!

Guitar Concert


Jazz notes livened up our dinner just prior to attending the upcoming guitar concert. We had barely enough time to eat, but managed to get through the potato soup, goulash and ice cream to the accompanying music of a delightful jazz trio. Well, for some it would be more delightful than others. I'm not a great fan of jazz, but I do appreciate live music in a restaurant. Even if it's jazz.



The musical mood followed us across the street to the intimate venue of a small chapel in the St. Giles Church. Czech guitar duo Jana and Petr Bierhanzl performed selections from Vivaldi and Paganini as well as from lesser known composers (at least to me). We were a small but appreciative crowd, though I would have apprciated a few more well-known selections.

On the walk home we chose to follow the river so we could see the castles and cathedrals lit up at night. Gorgeous, if a little chilly. Even the swans glowed as they drifted through the lights. Alas, our camera doesn't take great night shots, but this will give you some idea.



PS: despite the comparatively low cost of our budget hotel (~$100 per night) we do have WiFi, which delights me no end! Consequently I've been able to post photos, finally.

Sirens, sirens everywhere

This is a city of sirens. Daily, nighly, hourly. We haven't seen any accidents but there must be a lot of them. Often we see the blue flashing ambulance lights when we're out walking, without sirens, but there must be a reason their lights are on. It's strange. We did see cars speeding down the darkened roads last night on our way back from the Charles Bridge so maybe the drivers are bad, but we really haven't seen any other evidence of it.

Lots of doggie poo on the sidewalks despite the sign:


But then, dogs can't read.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Jewish Quarter

We walked past Franz Kafka's House and into the Jewish Quarter. The cemetery here is Europe's oldest Jewish burial ground with the oldest grave dating back to 1439. Bodies here had to be buried vertically and so close together the tombstones nearly touch. I could almost hear the whispers of the dead. Ancient secrets swirling on the air as we walked by.

Buried here isRabbi Low, who used mud from the Vltava River to fashion the legendary Golem, a clay monster, to protect Prague's Jews. The legend is that it protected the residents from the danger of mean-spirited Catholics outside the walls of the Jewish ghetto.

Nearby is the theatre where Mozart premiered his opera don Giovanni. This strange looking monument was erected to commemorate the event though in my opinion it's more suited to the cemetery above.

Art Nouveau Municipal House and Astronomical Clock



This is one of Prague's most photographed cultural and historical monuments, so we figured millions of people can't be wrong and we photographed it too. They hold frequent concerts inside but they were on the pricey side - nearly $100 each. Instead, we're going to attend a guitar concert this evening in a small church close to the river.

Our walk took us past the Powder Tower so named because after it became obsolete as a gate into the Old Town, is was recommissioned as a gunpowder storehouse.



Then we came to my favourite part of the walk, the Astronomical Clock. Try as I might, I couldn't figure it out. On the hour a mechanical parade of saints rotates through two open windows above the clock. Since we chanced upon the clock at 11:45, we decided to wait and then splurged and paid $12 for two glasses of coke so we could sit and watch. The crowd was huge. I can't imagine what it's like in summer.


The skelton you see is mechanical and pulls a string which rings the bell on the hour.





Hans, ever thinking of his upcoming Walk, hiked up to the top of the tower, probably 175'. I guarded our $12 cokes down below. Apparently there's quite a panoramic view from up there, but I'm happy to just admire the photos otherwise I fear the blackout spots in front of my eyes would obliterate the view.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Dahlia Inn, Prague



Our little boutique hotel is great. Lovely room and for the first time, WiFi in the room. Yes!! Life is good (but the good life is better.)

Today I learned that pigs do fly in the Czech Republic. They have pork sparrows on the menu. Yup, that's what it said. I ordered them and the waitress volunteered that "they're new." "Pardon?" I asked. She explained they were new today and I asked if this was the first time they were on the menu. "No", she replied. "But they're not from yesterday or the day before." Aaah, I thought. They're not leftovers. Yumm. Ordered them since they were "new" and they looked like ordinary pork bits, not sparrows at all.

Had a glass of $2 wine which tasted like, well, $2. The bottle of Perrier cost nearly $3.

Misc reflections on Vienna

Blue skies, nothing but blue skies, from now on.

Yes!!

Today, the day we're leaving for Prague there's clear blue sky and the forecast is 20. Luckily, then blue skies followed us all the way to Prague and it was a glorious 18 when we arrived this afternoon.

To backtrack slightly, I must admit that the subway system i Vienna rocks. Getting from our hotel to the train station took 2 lines and yet it was only minutes to get here. Minutes, I say. The public transit systm is simply grand.

Still haven't recovered from the prices here. Two cokes at the train station cost over $5.

If only airplane seats were as wide and comfortable as these train seats. The drop down table from the seat back ahead of me is so far forward I have to lean to reach it. Really, the comfort of train travel here is just fabulous, and the stations are always in the heart of town vs. airports which are so far away.

The clackety-clack that accompanied us as we left Budapest for Vienna was noticeably absent today as we headed for Prague. What does that mean? Aah. I just learned it means we're on continuously welded rail. It's smooth and totally noiseless.

We passed rows of long, matchstick shaped felds of sunflowers, corn, something green and low, and pale dirt fields already harvested and plowed under. Colourful pastle farmhouses dot the ends like heads on a match.

Two sniffer dogs and 6 armed handlers boarded in Brno, Cz. One dog was interested in my ripe cheese sandwich but evidently gave no other alert to his handler.

Vienna's back streets

On our last day in Vienna we decided to focus our promenade on Vienna's less travelled but still interesting back streets.

One interesting cathedral is the 14th century Church of St. Mary. Restricted by the narrowness of the medieval streets around it the church's unusual floor plan is only 30 feet wide. It has only one width of pews down the center, yet the rest of the church is as gothically elaborate as any other we've seen.




















There's a most unusual clock spanning a narrow street in the city's oldest marketplace. The clock was used in an important scene from the film The Third Man and if you're a movie buff, you might remember it.




This whole area, the old market - which used to be the location of the public gallows way back when and up to the 1700's, has been preserved. The streets are narrow and tight and if there were no cars around, you'd feel as if you had stepped back in time.




There was an old smitty located here and you can still see a replica of some of his work. This elaborate key hung outside the shop.




And finally, a more modern touch. I think it's self explanatory.

Naushmarkt in Vienna

This is a great market!



You can find everything here from spice to sausages, handicrafts to hot lunches. We spent a couple of hours just wandering around absorbing the sights and smells. However, because this market has operated continuously at this space for ove 100 years, the water and power and no longer sufficient for its needs. Sometime in 2009 they need to upgrade and during that time the market has to move.

Here's a young man playing the HANG, a weired flying saucer like object that makes the sweetest sound, almost like a harp. He's one of the many street musicians we paid because they gave us so much pleasure with their music.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Thermal Baths in Debrecen

The water looked like strong tea. But there was no sulphur smell.

Since we wer visiting the termal baths on a weekdaz, our group of 4 was the youngest bz nearly 2 decades. Evidently people from all over Europe come to this area of Hungary which is bursting with mineral baths and over time, it has become a major industry.

The water was pleasantly hot and though we were outside, there was a covered area providing some shade so it was quite comfortable. At first the water felt verz soft, almost oily when rubbed between your fingers. Latr I noticed my skin felt silky for hours, but eventually, alas, it reerted to its former, um, less silky texture.

Inside were other pools, all clearly marked as to temperature. Out outside pool was 36-38. There was a cold plunge pool at 15-17 into which I entered quite tentatively after the heat became too much. The swimming pool was 28-30, at first quite warm but quickly became vry comfortable.

Lounge chairs outside indicate many people come and spend the day here, and they can do so year round. Janos says he came in the winter with Zsolt and they spent 4 hours in the outside pool. Then they went to the movies and fell asleep.

Keleti Train Station in Budapest

I know I skip around but hey, it's easier this way.

Good thing Janos dropped us off early at Keleti. Krisztina met us and guided us through the antiquated station.

The wait process was very slow. It took 15 minutes ton inquir our way to the right ticket area, and this was with K's help. Then take a number. Took another 20 minutes to get our Eurailpass validated and that gave me an opportunity to look around.

We were facing wickets that looked like they came from a Charles Dickens novel. Old, wrought iron grilles behind which sat the clerks. The ceiling didn't look too stable with all the supports...


The toilts cost 80 Ft, about 50 cents. The hook and eye holding the door had a bent hook and consequently it kept slipping out of the eye. Lovely. The tank was so high on the wall you couldn't reach the lever so they conveniently tied a piece of coarse brown twine from it so you could flush.

But it could have been worse. No toilet at all.

There was a fairly large open area, hugh in fact. And empty. Adjacent to this vacant hall was the toilet, a bank, and seating for 24 people. Hah.

Miscellaneous Observations in Vienna

Many areas have very wide sidewalks. One half will be in a reddish cobblestone, the other half in plain asphalt or concrete. Interestingly, the cobblestone portion is the bike route and the plain side for pedestrians instead of the other way around.

On our way into town this morning, Hans spotted a young man with a bright green mohawk across the street. "Oh, he's a Brit," said Hans. "How can you tell? From his green hair?" "No. From the British flag hanging from his ass."

Stairs leading down to the subways are marked with the letters and numbers of the line, so you know if this is the entry to the right one. We're on the U3 line, though we've rarely taken it since everything is so close. As we passed one, Hans said, "Look, U2. There will be a concert here later."

St. Peter's Church: a gorgeous building from the outside, so we decided to go in and look around. It was very, very ornate but what made it worthwhile was the organ concert. The music filled the vast church and the organist played so sweetly it brought tears to my eyes.

The pedestrian malls downtown have high end designer stores on both sides of the street and are very crowded. We're definitely not the only tourists here.

Vienna's Fine Arts Academy

At the Fine Arts Academy the artistic dreams of a zoung 18 year old Adolf Hitler were dashed in 1907 and 1908 when he twice failed to gain admission to what was at the time the ultimate arbiter of the nation's artistic taste. The building didn't look like much, however, nearby is the Secession, a hugely controversial building in 1898. Its gilded dome caused its detractors to refer to it as "The Gilded Cabbage". In front of the building as a statue of a fairly corpulent Marc Anthony sitting in a chariot pulled by lions. Evidently this statue was intended for a major museum but somehow, it ended up here instead.





Egg Splats on the Sidewalks


These curious, bright yellow blobs highly visible here and there on the sidewalks contain interesting historical notes about what took place on this site in early days. That's how we learned why Marc Anthony's statue was sitting in the middle of the sidewalk.

Van Gogh


Following lunch, we decided to take in the Van Gogh exhibit at the Albertina. We walked past a statue of Goethe, brooding in a bronze chair and eerily bald without the requisite pigeon roosting on his head.

Along the pedestrian walkway there's a series of Hollywood style stars imbedded in the walkways.



At the Albertina the sticker shock was much more palatable, only €22.50 including Hans' senior's discount and a pair of audiophones.



Did you know Van Gogh often made copies of his paintings from Paris and Arles to send to his brother? And that he really wanted to be a minister and do humanitarian work? That's why so many of his drawings and paintings reflect the ordinary peasant at work, because he wanted them to be able to identify with the image should they be able to buy one.










Here's a statue of Mozart with a gorgeous treble clef made from red flowers.

Rotary in Wien

The Wien Rotary Club meets Thursday noon at the ornate and impeccable Bristol hotel, which reigns alongside the Sacher as one of the grandes dames of Viennese hotels.

We made our way over through one of the manz underground passageways that link the downtown. It's a lot easier and safer than trying to coss the roaring traffic of the ring as an unarmed pedestrian.

Lunch was delicious, as we expected after we recovered from the sticker shock of €50, coffee not included. Everyone we spoke with had excellent English though I trotted out my German now and again, mostly to fish for compliments. Satisfied, I lapsed back to English.

Vienna

There's more to come on Debrcen, but having just spent the last 2 days in Vienna, I'm working backwards. By the way, forgive typos - keyboards are a bit different and now I'm on a public terminal with not as much time.

So, where to start with Vienna? It couldn't have been easier to get to our hotel. The subway was just meters from the train station and the stop is right before our hotel. I mean, right before it. Maybe 5 steps. Perfect! And the bonus is that our hotel, the Marienhilf Hotel and Pension, is on the very popular and busy Marienhilf Strasse, a bustling, busy street filled with shops and people. And we're onlz 15 minutes' walk from the city's heart.

"Would zou like tickets to the symphony tonight? Last pair," said the student dressed in period costume and waving a pair of tickets at us.

"No" I demurred. "This is onlz our first stop. We have to look around first and decide what we want to do."

"What could be better than spending an evening in the palace listning to the symphonz orchestra?"

Admittedly, not much. But we didn't buy the tickets at €56 each and by the time evening rolled around we were so footsore and weary I was grateful to just slump into bed.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Debrecen Rotary


Got our first taste of a completely foreign speaking club.

First we were met by Bela, Hungary's Youth Exchange ooordinator who spoke excellent English and told us a bit about their club. They created a second district, 1911, last year and D K Lee was there for their charter night. There are only 1000 members in 42 clubs but they are quite active with YEX with 50 students being exchanged annually in Hungary.

We were invited to tell a little about our club, which I did and we exchanged the usual banners. That was the end of the English portion but I was pleased that our host, Janos, was able to at least understand the gist of the meeting.

It was quite long. They had a pre meeting from 5:31 to 6.30 which we weren't invited to attend but asked to wait in the hotel's lobby. Since it was undoubtedlz conducted in Hungarian this was just as well. Bela came for us at 6:30 and we joined the group, including their young exchange student Sarah from New York. At 8:00 we asked Bela if it was okay to leave and he led us out.

The meeting was very different. I don't know if they sing their anthem or do anything else but after a presentation by Bela, the president did all the talking.

So, that was our introduction to Hungarian Rotary.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Legend of the Tree


Close to the church is an African tree, a licium, that's over 150 years old. Zita, our translator, told us the legend.

150 or more years ago a Catholic priest and Protestant minister were having a discussion about their two religions.

"Protestantism will never become a real religion," said the priest. "There's no possible way for this to happen."

"Indeed it will" argued the minister as he emphatically outlined the reasons why Protestantism would not only become a religion, but flourish and dominate the Catholic way.

"That's as likely to happen as this branch turning into a tree," pronounced the Priest, waving his hand at the African branch held in the Minister's hand.

With that, the Minister stuck the branch into the ground where it rooted and lives to this day.

Debrecen, the Calvinist Rome

There are an astounding 8 universities, ov er 50 secondary schools and even more elementary schools in Debrecen. This in a modest city of 2öö,ööö. It's astounding. The medical campus at Debrecen University is considered to be one of the best teaching hospitals in Europe and attracts students from all over the world. The teaching is all in English though most professors are Hungarian.

The librarz at Debrecen University has 5 million books. Not surprisingly, it's the second largest in Hungary. I'm just astonished that it's not the largest.

The city itself was cut from the forest and much of the forest still surrounds the city. Within its center a large part of the forest remains intact but was beautified with walkways and ponds to create a peaceful inner sanctum.

On a less historical note, we saw gardeners planting pansies today - September 22. It just seems late to be putting in bedding plants but Janos tells us that they are still expecting a decent month of Indian Summer. Evidently it will start Wednesday after we leave. The weather has been quite cool, around 10 degrees. but Janos and Zsuzsa insist that it's unusually cold. Just the week before we came it was 35. Hah! I bet they tell that to all the tourists.

There's a huge yellow church with twin cupolas that dominates the town square. Inside is a chair that was used in 1849 by Kossuth as he read out the Declaration of Independence to the people. Being so centrally located and with an amenable climate, Hungary has often been targeted by invaders. Back in the years leading up to the 17th century Hungary was dominated by the Turks for 150 years and yet, they remain proud to have resisted the conversion the Islam. In fact they believe their continued faith in Christianity through Moorish and later Communist occupation enabled the rest of Europe to remain largely Christian.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

"Life is good, but the good life is better"


"Life is good, but the good life is better."

Zsolt shared his philosophy with me as we were soaking in the hotel's warm grotto.

The grotto meanders through a semi-circle and has 5 or 6 niches with either benches or lounges that bubble automatically and randomly. The Andrassy Kuria is a new hotel only open since March, but located as it is in the heart of the Tokaj hlls, it's immensely popular.

The lighting is subdued and flattering. There are no mirrors in the Wellness Center, which confirms my belief that it was designed by a woman.



The swimming pool invites you into its cool waters with twin showers on either side. A huge screen suspended at the far end shows films, though there is no sound. There's a bubbling hot tub and several exotic showers. I tried them all.

The Rain Forest sends soft jets of warm water at you from every direction, completely drenching you while accompanying this deluge with birdsong.

The Adventure Shower has a series of jets in 3 heights. The lowest hits zou with a blast of cold water, the middle row is warm and the top row is hot. Then one or another one cuts out randomly.

And how very civilized. Our lavish room comes with a corkscrew.

Late night in the thermal pool

It was a cool evening so we strolled from our pretty little cottages to the thermal pool. The night darkens quickly here and by 7:00 it's pitch black. The pool grounds were ringed in soft orange lights. The little used swimming pools was invitinglz lit from below. The thermal pool was dark but you could still see the rising mist silhouetted against the lights.

Janos thoughtfully brought our wine glasses to the pool and there we sat, reviewing our day, making plans for the next, and enjoying the pleasure of a rich red as our bodies soaked in the heat.

Tokaj

The Tokaj Wine Region was insribed on UNESCO's World Heritage List as a historic cultural landscape. And Tokaji is not just sweet wines, although thez are justly famous for this incredibly delicious, honeyed wine.

In the previous centuries, crowned heads and rulers of vast empires served and consumed Aszú, the golden beverage of Tokaj. But the area of Tokaj is not just about sweet wines.

Once again we were privileged to get a private tour and tasting where we experienced 8 wines ranging from a fairly dry Sauvignon Blanc to the heavenly Aszú. In fact the Sauvignon Blanc had me completely fooled. Its bouquet was more reminiscent of the sweet wines than a typical SB, a perfect example of how the soil influences the product. We also tasted a Furmint and Hárslevelű (harshleveloo), two more varieties that were new to us. Both varieties as well as the zellow muscat which grows here are suitable for botrytis, the noble mould that imparts the delicious flavour to the wines. In fact the walls of the cellars we toured and where they store their barrels are covered in noble rot. Sounds gross and smells weird but boy, it sure pays off in the wine.

I'm bringing home a bottle of the Azsú, the 6 basket type.



This is a picture of a wall of Tokaji wines.

Horse Show

Zsuzsa, Aliz, Zsolt
We were treated to an exhibition of superior Hungarian horsemanship.

Back in the day where there was much fighting, the horsemen had to train their horses not to shy and bolt when there was gunfire going off all around them . Hence the bullwhips. We watched a trio of horsemen ride around the covered corral cracking their whips as the horses galloped past us, throwing up little tufts of soil. Then the horses were instructed to lie flat on their sides, a position in which you rarely see horses. Their riders stood on the horses' flanks and continued to crack their whips. I really wanted to try it, but it wasn't offered. You could, however, ride one of the horses so Hans did. Zsuzsa and Aliz also went for a ride around the corral and that seemed to be very popular with the little 2 1/2 year old girl.


The saddles are very different in that first of all, they only weigh about 2 kilos, including stirrups. There are no straps. The saddle just sits on the horse and the stirrups hang down on either side. I'm still not sure how the horsemen mounted them without pulling the saddle down on one side.

The horses' final trick was to sit on their haunches like a dog. Never saw a horse do that before.

Mád, Hungary

We went to a Harvest Festival in Mád, Hugary, and it was great fun.

Mád is a small town but because they were in the vicinity of the winery we were visiting, and because they were celebrating a harvest festial, we detoured to see what it was all about.

It's about many kiosks, much Grappa-style drink, and a parade.

Here's a fellow cooking a vat of goulash but he has a small pot bubbling over an open fire, just to set the tone.

Mostly, it was little children in the parade and young girls twirling batons. Also the odd cross-dresser:



The groups would each stop at the same place where a car was parked, playing the appropriate music from a ghettoblaster. It was too cute. The kids were adorable mostly because they were so imperfect but they put their hearts into their performances. The marching band was actually quite good though they only knew one song, Tara ra boom deay. But they played it often and with great gusto.

St. Andrea Winery



Above: Hans, Lo, Juri and Zsolt.


The owner, winemaker and chief bottle washer is Juri, a client of Janos'. Consequently Janos had a little pull and arranged a private tour and tasting.

The evening was set with the right tone when Juri picked us up at the restaurant following a late lunch. It was 5:00 pm. The pleasant tour was highly instructional and Hans and I were blown away by Juri's excellent English and knowledge of obscure words like cooperage. Of course these words are specific to Juri's profession but even so, his English was outstanding.

Among the things we learned is, first and foremost, that Hungarian wines are more than just their famous sweet Tokaji. We tasted outstnding wines blended from grape varieties with which we were totally unfamiliar, like the Ferenchagy.

We also learned that they bottle 120,000 bottles annually, grow over 40 varities and produce 19 types of wine, all blends. We tasted nearly half their production - 4 white and 4 red. And these weren't the usual thimble sized taste. So to show my respect, I drank every drop. It would have been rude not to.

Their quality was reflected in the price. At the end of the tasting and before I even saw the price list, I said, "I'll take 2 of these, and..." and he stopped me.

"I'll bring the price list," he said.

"Why? Do you think I'll change my mind?"

"You might," he predicted accurately.

I still bought 2 of the ones I had planned, but as it turned out, my second favourite wine cost more than my favourite, so I picked something else. And since I can only bring one bottle home, these were strictly for consumption with our friends.

Their top red, Merengő, goes for $50.

Janos and Zsolt

Janos (pronounced Janosh) picked us up at Lisa's along with his good friend Szolt (pronounced with a soft G as in Zsa Zsa). Szolt speaks nearly perfect English and was our translator and delightful company. You can tell a person is comfortable in a language when they can joke in that tongue.

By the way, the Y and the Z are reversed on the Hungarian keyboard so if I don't notice, please substitute a y whenever you see a z. And here' the pronouncian guide:
S = sh
sz = s
zs = soft G as in Zsa Zsa

It was still rainy when we left Budapest and the rain followed us to Debrecen where Zsuzsa was waiting for us with a delicious dinner of roast duck that sent its fragrance throughout the condo. Despite the fact that we've eaten very well and very much here, we couldn't wait to dive in. It was as succulent as its fragrance promised. Janos helped with the dessert: thin crepes filled with ground hazlenuts, topped with a rich chocolate sauce and whipping cream. Mmmm Hans is already worried about the extra pounds he'll be carrying in his first few days on the Camino.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Parliament Buildings

You can't miss the neo-Gothic House of Parliament.

It's a massive structure hugging the Danube and while it looks even older, it's barely 100 years old. You can only go inside on a guided tour so we just walked around the grounds which are immaculate and filled with statues of Hungarian heroes. There is also a modern looking granite sculpture with an eternal flame. Elsewhere, a monument stands to commemorate the Hungarian uprising against Communism in 1956 which cost many lives. A tattered flag with a hole in the middle hangs by this monument. This is where the Hungarian people tore out the communist symbol in protest.

Caffe La Terra

This post is for foodophiles only. Following will be a detailed description of lunch to skip it if you don't like to read about food.

Hans had soup and salad. Soup was very tasty but looked like... soup.

The salad, however, was beautiful. Imagine a long, rectangular white plate divided in two. Each half is slightly scooped. One half had a centerpiece of cherry tomatoes and bocconcini in a balsamic sauce,sprinkled with chopped basil. The other side of the plate had a towering mixture of baby lettuce leaves of varieties that boggle the mind. Separating the two were long skinny soft breadsticks, as thin as a pencil only longer. Beautiful presentation, but enough about the salad.

I had salmon fillet sitting on a bed of spinach, sprinkled with pommegranate seeds, ultra thin slices of fried garlic, cashews, and sauteed wild mushrooms. This colourful boundy was surrounded by an orange sauce and served on a slender oval white platter. It delivered on its good looking promise by tasting as good as it looked.

Tea followed, and I chose fruit tea. It came in a tall porcelain mug with a lid. Under the lid and suspended from the cup rim was a ceramic sieve holding chopped dried fruit, which I let steep. A separate pot of honey came with a delicate wooden spiral for serving, and a lemon wedge. Beautiful and delicious.

St. Stephen's Basilica

Wow.

St Stephen's Basilican is Budapest's largest church and can seat 8,500 people! We went inside and though we didn't see it, apparently behind the main altar they house the extraordinary and gruesome holiy relic of Stephen's preserved right hand and parade it around town on St. Stephen's Day, August 20. Darn, we missed that.

They hold concerts here but the next one was on Tuesday evening and we had already booked dinner with our hosts and friends for that evening.

I know I'm repeating things here but when I first blog about something we saw, I'm in a hurry to get it down so I don't forget. Later, I come back with the details. Feel free to skip everything.

Coffee, ha ha

We had coffee along the Vaci, the pedestrian mall not far off the Danube, to rest my feet. The waiter asked, "Cafe Latte, cappucino, espresso, American?"

"I'd like American coffee, but not 1/2 a cup in a small cup and saucer."

"No no" he assured me. "We have long coffee."

"Okay then" I agreed suspiciously. "It's just that every other place where I ask for American coffee, I just get this tiny amount in a small cup."

Off he went. And returned with a small cup half full.

"That's not long coffee! In Canada when we get coffe, it comes in a cup this big" and I held my hands far apart to demonstrate a mug.

"Oooh," he replied, with a hint of understanding in his eyes. And sure enough, he came back with a mug filled with coffee. And hot milk on the side. Finally.

Museum in Budapest

We toured the palace, which includes a fabulous museum about Buda and Pest and how they came to be Budapest.

The City of Pest, like most medieval cities, was surrounded by a protective wall. The wall is long gone though some remnants still exist. The Inner City is divided into two parts: the busier northern half features luxury hotels along the Danube Promenade and boutiques and shops along the pedestrian-only Vaci Utca - much like Calgary's Stephen Avenue Mall.

Our next pleasant suprise came when Hans' entry fee was 1/2 of mine because he's over 62. This is the first time he's been offered a senior's discount.

One of the more unusual things we saw in the museum was a stand-up computer display featuring an open book with photographs. To turn the page, you simply slide your finger from the right side to the left,and a virtual page curls over and voila, the next page. It was so much fun I flipped through half the book!

Dohany Synagogue

Despite sore feet and aching legs (mine, Hans was just fine) we walked into the old Jewish Quarter and saw this fabulous synagogue which looks very Moorish. We read late that it's Byzantine and Euro0pe's largest synagogue and the world's second-largest. The whole area is very old with crumbling buildings and lots of garbage and the usual graffiti. Unfortunately, graffiti is everywhere as high as you can reach. I think the city figures they may as well ignore it since if they clean it, they're just providing a new clean surface for further graffiti.

Bus Drivers

The bus and tram drivers are isolated behind a solid plexiglass wall. I presume it's to protect them from the possibility of an attack from unruly passengers. But it might also be to protect us from having the driver hurl verbal abuse at us, like in Scotland.

Doh-g

Pronounce the "O" long, like in mole. Dohg.

That's how our hosts' little daughter, who's 1 1/2 years old, greets me when I walk in the door. I'm pretty sure it's not my looks cause I got my hair done just before we left Canada. At least, I hope it's not my looks!

Little Molly loves dogs and quite by chance we brought her a small stuffed doggie as a gift. I was the one to hand it to her and ever since, I've been "Dohg" when I come in, or even just when she catches my eye. She dimples and gives me a long look. "Dohg" she says. Sometimes I'm Dohggie, when she's feeling more affectionate.

Today I'm sitting next to her on the sofa and I asked her something. "No", she replied. When I did't react, she repeated it. "No." Still no reaction from me, so she switched to Hungarian. "Nem!"

Budapest City Rotary Meeting

We really lucked out here. The only English speaking Rotary Club in Budapest, and in fact in the whole region, is the one in the fabulous Kempinski Hotel in downtown Budapest. We joined them for lunch on Tuesday and it was delightful.

It's a small club, around 25 people and not all were there, but there were several guests: us, another Canadian from Campbell River whose club is currently hosting an exchange student from Debrecen, our next stop after Budapest. Also a Scot and an American from Florida.

For all you Rotarians reading this, the Budapest City dues are a whopping $300 per quarter. This also gives them their operating money and project funds mostly for local projects. Any fundraising they do is icing on the cake.

TRANSIT PASS
Our 3-day transit pass has been a godsend. We've used it on the trams, buses and subways and only on the subway do we have to show it. On other public transportation you must have a ticket to show if and when an inspector asks for it. Or else.

COVERED MARKET
We browsed through here, which is a huge market converted from an old, old train station. They must have had very tall trains since the roof was high enough for a 2-storey market with generous ceilings on both levels. The main floor has fresh fruits and veggies down one side, and meats down the other. Linding them in between are the sausage and cheese shops. Upstairs they have lovely local handicrafts and a few stand-up beer stops. We stopped for one and the owner noticed Hans' Rotary shirt. Turns out he's also a Rotarian but in one of the Hungarian speaking clubs, though his English was quite passable. He had banners from several of his previous Rotary visitors hanging in the bar but unfortunately, we didn't have an extra one with us since we had already given it at the lunch meeting.

LOCAL PEOPLE
Lots and lots of good looking Hungarian people everywhere! The men are often quite tall - many well over 6' and as well dressed as the women.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Rainy day Monday

We did all the usual touristy stuff today despite that fact that there was unrelenting rain all day. The umbrella I packed in the last minute helped, but Hans only had a baseball cap to keep him dry. It was woefully inadequate. So we warmed up by having coffee and dessert in the fabulous 4 Seasons Hotel which has been completely revamped in the last few years.

The prices reflect their upscale renovations.

But the desserts were exquisite. I struggled through the menu even though they had the English written menu.

"Come here, we have them all on display," he said, and led me to a glass counter where the selection was dazzling.

"What's this?" I asked, "and this" as I pointed to one after another. I wanted him to describe each one but after about 5 or 6 I decided I had better make a choice, though he was being very patient. "I'll have the mango and coconut with mixed berries" I finally said, pointing to a lovely deep yellow cylinder that had a few colourful, sassy berries perched on top.

A different waiter delivered my dessert plate, but it was the wrong one. "I'm sorry," I said apologetially, "this isn't the dessert I ordered."

"I'm very sorry," he replied. "Let me make it a gift to the gentleman." and he deposited the plate in front of Hans. So, we got a free $15 dessert. And the gentleman thoroughly enjoyed it.

"Suck my kiss"

I bet that caught your eye, didn't it?

You haven't lived till you've heard a 3 year old boy play his guitar, fling his silky blond hair and bellow out "suck my kiss" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I never heard it before and I'm sure I'll never hear its equal. It was delightful.

His parents put the blame squarely on their young nanny who not only teaches them Hungarian, but evidently is introducing them to music other than the typical nursery rhyme fare. Thankfully, the other children in the area only speak Hungarian and so remain blissfully ignorant. I have pictures coming.

Here we are!

We made it to Budapest! But more on that later.

However, first, Continental cancelled our fligthts due to the Hurrican in Houston. The good news is that they are refunding our money so, we went ahead and bought our third set of tickets to London, this time with Air Canada.

Spent a lovely night in Horley, about 5 minutes from Gatwick Airport, and enjoyed a meal of fish and chips at a little pub, sitting outside on wooden picnic tables. It was great except that of course all the outside people are smokers. Except us. *sigh* But the meal was terrific, the wine so so, and apparently the beer was great.

It's a very small-town atmosphere: main street, clusters of teens here and there chatting since on a Saturday night in Horley I don't think there's anything to do. The church bells chimed, but I doubt that was a real lure for the teens.

Typical brick semi-detached homes with charming and well tended front gardens. The smallest front yard we saw was the size of a single mattress but dad was out there with his 2 kids, each with trowel in hand, digging heartily and something. Yet they weren't to busy to say hello and greeted us warmly as we passed by. Do we have the look of tourists, or what?

While waiting to catch our shuttle from Gatwick White House to the airport, we chatted with another couple who had overnighted there.

" where are you from?" they asked.
Now normally I reply Canada, Alberta, Calgary, Red Deer, sort of working my way down until I see a glimmer of recognition light their eyes. This time I did it backwards.

"Red Deer, Alberta..." and I never got to Canada as they rushed me with open arms.

"Red Deer!" they said. "We just came from there."

"What?" Who goes to Red Deer?

Turns out they spent a few weeks touring the Rockies, Canmore and even Red Deer. The first question they asked was, "Where the hell is the Sears store? We looked everywhere." It's not big mystery. They moved from north to south but there seemed to be little point in telling them now.

And so ended our quickie trip to London and off to Budapest.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Travel Woes Galore

With Hurricane Ike scheduled to land in Houston at virtually the same time as us - on our way from Calgary-Houston-London Gatwick, we decided to try and fly out a day earlier. Since we booked that portion of our travel through expedia I phoned. To make a long story short, she was singularly unhelpful and said we could change the flights only if we paid $250 more each. Many harsh words were exchanged.

After this frustrating exchange I called Continental where the service went from night to day. She was so helpful I repeatedly asked, "And this won't cost me an extra dime?" "No," she replied with a smile in her voice. Amazing. What a pleasure to deal with someone who saw the logic in getting us out of Houston ahead of the hurricane. After all, the airline will likely have their hands full with irate passengers whose flights are cancelled or diverted on Saturday, so why not get rid of us and have one less couple to deal with? Makes perfect sense to me. Apparently not to Expedia. Jerks.

So, we leave Friday morning instead of Saturday and hopefully we'll avoid Ike altogether.

And so, we get to spend a day in London. Likely that will cost us the $500 we didn't spend with Expedia but, we don't have the stress of missing our flight to Budapest.

Life is good once again.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

The soap opera that passes for today's air travel.

The most frightening thing in travel today is not wondering whether your plane will actually leave on the scheduled day at or near the posted time, but whether it will fly at all. Think Zoom. Or, will it land at its scheduled airport?? Maybe yes, maybe no. Definitely no if you’re flying Continental.

It all started out okay. We were booked round trip on Zoom from Calgary to London, nonstop. Perfect. Zoom used to land in Gatwick so we chose a connecting flight from Gatwick to Budapest. That only made sense And when Hans finishes his 1007 kilometre walk in Spain, he’s flying Iberian Air from Madrid into Gatwick. No point travelling across London if you don’t have to. Especially since a cab ride from one airport to the other costs around 100 pounds.

Now Zoom’s defunct. But to avoid having to cancel and rebook all our connecting flights, we took the connection offered by Continental when we learned they flelw to Gatwick. Not bad, even if we have to fly via Houston with a 4 hour wait. And the flight now takes 18 hours instead of 9. But what can you do? Well, you can pray Hurricane Ike manages to avoid Houston on Saturday, September 13, though in fact it’s expected to land in Texas on that very day. Tough luck for us, you say? Indeed, but it gets worse.

We just heard from Continental that it’s cancelling all its flights out of Gatwick effective October 20. To be clear, I don't blame the people who work on the airplanes or for the airlines for the way they operate. These are problems that cannot be solved at the individual level, and possibly not at the country or planet level. This is inefficiency of galactic proportions, and a galactic solution may be required.

It’s possible my flight home is still safe since I fly on October 5. Then again, Zoom sent us a revised itinerary only 7 days before they pulled the plug. Hans, however, is definitely caught in the web and is currently frantically trying to find a way home on November 15.

I fear I may become one of the lost, stranded people doomed to wander a foreign airport and muttering unintelligible gibberish until they come and taser me.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

There was frost on the saddle and...

...frost on the ground.

Yikes. There's a definite chill in the air this morning. I'm sure if I stretch my hand outside and rub my fingers together the air will feel crunchy, as if it had millions of small ice particles hanging in it. The deck has a suspicious gleam to it. I'm going to hold that image in my head and laugh out loud as I pack my bathing suit for Budapest.

In other news, Hans found about 100 inch-long fish in the upper pond. They either went for a wild ride up the hose when they were very small fry, or else the eggs did. We've already brought about 100 babies into the house and set them up in their own Rubbermaid tank. Later we'll go fishing for the newbies and add them to the other little guys. Can't put them in with the big boys in the garage or they'll become food. But come spring, we'll have goldfish to give away since our pond really can't handle 200 fish.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Budapest, coming up

Despite the awkward travel coming up, we didn't once consider cacelling the whole trip. Well maybe I did, briefly. But we're going ahead full speed. Besides, the nights are getting cold here. We've had frost. In August. Shocking.

Budapest, on the other hand, is still pleasantly warm. Hot even, on some days. We've been reminded to bring our bathing suits as we're going to visit some spas. And wineries. Life could be worse.