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 here

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!)

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.

Tour Day in Budapest October 6

Hero's Square On this, our first morning in Budapest, we woke early, no alarm needed. Both of us were excited to see what this great city might have to offer. Breakfast is included every day at our hotels, and this one was just fine. There were excellent croissants and wonderful European breads, some kind of yogurt fruit soup, muesli with all the fixings, fruit, very smelly sausages and hot hard boiled eggs, juice and fruit and many coffee style choices. I especially loved that yogurt fruit soup and had it every day.

morning light at Hero's Square Our bus call was for 8:30 and it really was just a way to get a feel for the city. A woman from Hungary was our local guide, but I wasn’t that impressed. I kept hoping to get more information about the people and the city, but instead her commentary was dry and boring. Her accent was difficult as well. I was disappointed at the rush rush speed of the morning tour. We traveled along the boulevard to Hero’s Square, lovely in the morning sunlight and surrounded mostly by tour busses. As we exited the bus, we were told “You have fifteen minutes here”. Hmm. She issued little pink listening devices with earphones that were supposed to make hearing her easier, but if you were more than ten feet away the static was unbearable. She gave us a bit of history of each of the monuments, and even though there was some sort of celebration going on, I still don’t have a good sense of what holiday is being celebrated.

inside the Hungarian Parliament building Fast photos, and back on the bus. Not impressed. I am glad we opted for a free afternoon and a full free day to ourselves tomorrow! Of course, the reason for the rush was so that we could make our 9:15 entry to Parliament. Nice to walk past the long lines of people without having to buy tickets or wait. There were soldiers at the entrance that looked so still we at first thought they were wax figures. Melody and I didn’t have a clue if taking photos was OK, and it was a bit scary to do so. I warned Melody but others were doing it and no one seemed to mind.

04 Parliament 10-6-2012 12-42-33 AM Once inside the building, we were led to the different halls, and finally to the crown room where the oldest crown in Europe is housed in a glass case surrounded by more guards. Now I have to say these guys were a lot more scary, and they were barking orders at people who got too close. One woman in our group got down on her knee to try to take a photo and the guard gruffly moved toward her with his gun and said “Get up, Get up!” Now why that was a problem, I have absolutely no clue!

We all squeezed into a tiny balcony overlooking the legislature hall for another few minutes before we were herded back into the main halls and funneled out into the bright sunshine. I suppose this rapid pace had nothing to do with our particular group because it seems that all groups were being herded around just as quickly. There were a LOT of tour groups there that morning.

05 Buda Castle 10-6-2012 2-42-30 AM Back to the bus for the ride across the river to Buda Castle in the “old” part of town. BudaPest is actually two cities that are separated by the Danube River, which was also once the limit of the Roman empire in this part of the world. There are rivers and then there are “Rivers”, and this is a big one. The history of the Danube in relation to human culture goes back into antiquity. The river travels through 9 countries and one of the delights of travel is taking a river cruise on the Danube in one of those Viking River Cruise Boats. (At least that is what I hear)

Somehow we expected Buda Castle to be an actual castle but it isn’t. It is a small area that was once enclosed within castle walls on a hill overlooking the river. The walls are still visible, but there isn’t a sign of a “castle” anywhere. Once again we were herded through the streets trying to hear Bernice’s comments through the static, and if she offered any explanation, I missed it.

beautiful Hungarian tiles on the roof of St Matthias At the top of the hills is the Matthias Church (not officially a cathedral), an imposing structure from the outside that wasn’t very impressive on the inside. Once again we entered without having to wait in line, and once again we were herded through the church fairly quickly. On our walk through the streets however, we did see some great little shops and were hoping that there might be some time later to explore. Imagine our surprise when she said “You have half an hour to be back at the bus”. Sheesh. I would imagine reading this you might wonder why in the world anyone would choose to go on a tour rather than going on their own. At this point, I was wondering the same thing!

capturing the view from Castle Hill Melody and I really wanted to stay on Castle Hill rather than being bussed back to Pest with the group. Looking across the river we could see that walking wasn’t an impossible thing and we told Lorena we planned to stay and get back on our own. A couple of people behind us were also interested in finding some other sights and decided to skip the bus as well. They had also heard of the hidden labyrinth under Buda Castle and this was one of Melody’s must do’s. Lorena pointed down the street and said, “It is right down there, and I think it might be open”

the Labryinth under Buda CastleHappy to see the bus leaving us, we wandered down the cobblestone narrow street with our new friends Ellen and Roger, and almost passed right by the tiny sign that said “Labyrinth”. There is some controversy surrounding this place and my daughter loves a hidden controversy. She had found out about it on the internet, with all the intrigue of a special place that has been taken over by the government, supposedly for tax issues, but more than likely just because they wanted it, hidden and closed, and only recently reopened.

We stepped into the cool cavern and walked a short distance only to be stopped by an iron door with a lock. Awwwwww…dang!. Unsure what to do, and feeling really frustrated, we were surprised to hear the voice of someone behind the door saying, “It’s unlocked, just push”. So began our fun little foray down into the old limestone caverns that were under the old Buda Castle long before humans were there, but were then carved out for sinister and not so sinister reasons.
door in Buda Castle
the Labryinth under Buda Castle  The caverns were used by the Romans for who knows what, and then in the tenth century they were used by King Matthias as a prison and torture chamber. The very Count Dracula himself was held in this place and tortured for 15 months. It definitely felt seriously creepy. The walls dripped with moisture and the air was dank and misty. The keepers of the place had some strange stuff in there, including wax figures dressed in French Renaissance clothing that seemed to have no relevance whatsoever. They also added to the creepiness with spooky music and blue lights. It actually made the place seem much less spooky to me because it was so dang campy. Still, seeing a place that has all sorts of hidden agendas is a bit creepy.

During World War II people hid from the Nazis and the bombings. They also stored food and wine in the cool caverns during peaceful times (not many of those in Hungary). Our friends stayed behind to watch a movie offered in one of the caverns but Melody and I decided it was time to go forth and find lunch!

added some of Melody's chicken spaghetti to my gulyas chicken Emerging into the sunlight, we ended up right at a perfect little place that turned out to be the oldest standing building in Buda Castle and had an amazing meal on the terrace overlooking the town streets. I had a chicken paprika and Melody had some kind of spicy chicken spaghetti and they were both so dang good we were swooning.

OK, that is one bid bird! After lunch we walked back to the Fisherman’s Bastion and a little park where Melody succumbed to the photo opportunity guy with a giant golden eagle. It was worth every florint to her to hold that eagle and she said he weighed so much she could barely hold her arm up. Florints somehow seem like funny money, coming in bills representing thousands. At the moment, there are 227 florints to a US dollar, with most meals running between 1000 and 3000 florints.

cruises on the Danube We learned about florints the hard way at the ATM machine. I thought I would get about 50 US and put in my card. When the machine said what language I of course said “English”. Then up came the language and up came 50. My brain somehow thought they meant that the money was in English as well (Duh! I was tired!~) and I found myself with a handful of ten thousand florint notes and realized that I had taken out 227 dollars instead of 50 dollars. Whew! Lucky for me, our bus driver is Hungarian and I can keep at least part of that money for his tip without having to pay to have it exchanged into something else again.

afternoon walk home via the Chain Bridge The afternoon was waning and the beautiful sunlight would soon be behind the hills.  We didn’t particularly want to walk around Budapest alone in the dark and decided it was time to head back across the river.  But first we had to get off the hill and the best way to do this is via the funicular (an inclined railway up a cliff).  We still weren’t completely familiar with converting florints to dollars but it didn’t matter and we paid our money and enjoyed the short ride downhill.  With the brace and the walking sticks, I was doing fairly well, but my braking system was less then optimal and downhills were hard.

Just below Buda Castle is the Chain Bridge, classical beauty that crosses the Danube back to the Pest area of the city.  Walking the bridge was wonderful because of the lovely views of the river, but also for the opportunity to do some serious people watching.  It is a very popular place for bikers and walkers of all kinds. 

St Stephen's BasilicaOnce on the other side, it was just a short distance to St. Stephens Basilica, where the right hand of the very long dead saint is kept in a small chapel.  I am not Catholic, so relics are a bit foreign to me, but they seem to be a big part of the Catholic tradition in Europe. My Wiki search led me to discover that relics aren’t just a Catholic thing, but are an important aspect of some forms of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Shamanism as well as, and many other religions.We had to look up the difference between a Cathedral and Basilica, and a plain ole Church and learned that a Basilica is only designated as such by the Pope.  This is a fun link if you care to read about the difference “What is a Basilica and how is it Different from a Cathedral?”

In spite of our ignorance of these details, the basilica was breathtaking. I am quoting here:

the dome in St Stephens  “The church is named for Saint Stephen I of Hungary, the first King of Hungary (c. 975–1038), whose incorruptible right hand is housed in the reliquary and is considered the most important church building in Hungary, one of the most significant tourist attractions and the third highest building in Hungary.

Equal with the Hungarian Parliament Building, it is one of the two tallest buildings in Budapest at 96 metres (315 ft) – this equation symbolises that worldly and spiritual thinking have the same importance. According to current regulations there cannot be taller building in Budapest than 96 metres (315 ft).[1] It has a width of 55 metres (180 ft), and length of 87.4 metres (287 ft). It was completed in 1905 after 54 years of construction, according to the plans of Miklós Ybl, and was completed by József Kauser. Much of this delay can be attributed to the collapse of the dome in 1868 which required complete demolition of the completed works and rebuilding from the ground up.

map Our walk home from Buda Castle was just a little over 3 miles one way, perfect for a sunny afternoon.  We decided that dinner wasn’t necessary since our lunch had been substantial and delicious.  Settling in for the evening, checking out the TV stations, we found one English speaking station, CNN International Version, which seemed to have nothing of current interest going on.  The Hungarian stations were fun to watch and listen to, though, and we entertained ourselves a bit before deciding to try to get some rest. 

Of course I took a TON of photos, and if you are interested, you can see them here.

Next: Free Day in Budapest, the Szechenyi Bath House, Andrassy Boulevard, and the House of Terror


Three Days in Vienna

IMG_0095 Yes, it is still a teaser (Erin style) although unlike my last un-teaser-like teaser, it doesn’t have a bunch of rambling writing in it!  We spent three days in Vienna, and as you can see, I was still wearing the brace and carrying my trekking poles.  Vienna was basically a very big city, in the flatter part of Austria, and was expensive and …well…I’ll save that for the real blog.  Some things about Vienna we loved.

It is a city to explore if you have a lot of time and money and love high fashion, music, and art.  A favorite moment was the short ride on the Prater Ferris Wheel and learning about its historical significance to the city. 

I arrived home last night after more than 24 hours of traveling.  Jet lag is worse from east to west I think, and I am still all strange and spacy and exhausted.  Many photos to process and memories written on the iPad to capture.