Hungary

Tuesday, May 31

Budapest train stationWe arrived in Budapest late yesterday afternoon. When you’ve been on the road for a month, you tend to lose track of days, dates, etc. and we somehow wound up here a day early for our hotel reservation. That wasn’t a problem, but it would have been nice to spend an extra day in lovely Bratislava.

  • We weren’t even off the train when a gypsy cab driver tried to put the hard sell on us.
  • The train station we arrived at was designed by Gustav Eifel. It is most impressive and quite obviously a work of the Frenchman. The main hall has been recently restored and it is stunning. We turned left down one of the several side-rooms and I found the first of many of what I consider to be the “Budapest dichotomies.” The amazing hall joined with a filthy, dank side-room. This seems quite the norm.
  • Had dinner at a place recommended by The Lonely Planet guide and the hotel. Food was a 5 on a scale of 10—just sort of blah. Cliental was about 30% indigenous folks, 50% Americans and 20% visitors from other locals, ergo tourist trap. Good piano player, though.
  • Walked from Pest to Buda via the Margarit Bridge. This would normally be a marvelous stroll with incredible views of the castle and other buildings to the south. The bridge however is being renovated. The south walkway was completely closed and the north walkway, normally some ten to twelve meters wide had been reduced to a narrow, fenced-in shoot. With two-way traffic of pedestrians, bike and skate-boarders it was a little cramped and exciting. River sights were nontheless spectacular.

Let’s hear it for Mr. Clean Jeans

Aloha Friday Morning, May 27

Wash dayDragging a suitcase full of dirty clothing, we’re off via metro and tram to the laundry center. At this moment, just about all the clothing we brought along is tumbling in the dryer and it’s a sartorially splendid sight. I have on a pair of jams and an STS-132 t-shirt while Laurel’s sporting the swimsuit and cover-up she brought for the hot baths in Budapest.

More to follow (I’m running out of battery)

Will they have any of those plump little sausages in a can?

Tuesday, May 24th

Judging by the station signs, I’d say we’ve just crossed into Austria on our way to Vienna (Wien). Gone are the Ceskys and in are the haufs and burgs.

Hotel Konvice, our home for Monday evening, was set in a beautiful 16th century building and with but six rooms it was wonderfully cozy. Most of the floors in our room showed a bit of slant and creaked with each step. By contrast, the bath was done in a contemporary marble tile with the latest fixtures.

As for Cesky Krumlov, it was indeed beautiful, but we spent a lot of time getting to and from it and it was a very tourist-intense location. The big draw was its castle built on the side of a hill and overlooking the town and the encircling Vltava River.

First choice for dinner was roast pork and roast duck each served with cabbage, but as healthful luck would have it, they were out. We settled for two very healthy bowls of garlic soup, a serving of carrots with horseradish a vegetable salad with beets, sauerkraut, cucumbers, peppers, tomatoes and carrots topped with a bit of Roquefort cheese. Decidedly low fat, low protein and just what we needed.

Go early, avoid the crowds.

One of the reasons this trip was planned to begin in early May was because we’d hoped to avoid some of the crowds associated with summer tourist season. The success of that logic has been less than stellar.  It’s is true that we’ve run into very few U.S. travelers, but every place we’ve been has been packed with visitors from the EU and the Far East. I believe the one small error in my logic was that your average Euro working bee gets at least four weeks of vacation a year AND they use it. This whole idea of busting your hump 80 hours a week so your mega-wealthy CEO can get another 2 mil bonus and forgoing time off because you need to cover all that work those two other people who got  laid off used to do has just not caught on here. Judging by the breakfast assembly at the Hotel Möveinpick, our Praha home, I doubt there can be anyone left in China.

On the subject of the Möveinpick, the hotel’s motto is “Seriously Dedicated. Passionately Swiss.” I’m not too sure the statements travel quite as well as they’d hoped. First of all, when I hear ‘Swiss’ I tend to think of “highly regimented for no particular reason,” but maybe it’s just me. In addition, the joint’s rated four stars and I’ll buy that if you’re using an eight star scale. The bottle of Evian in the room with a €7.00 price tag on it kind of sealed the non-giddy deal for me.

Technical difficulty

Monday, May 23

Today we’re on the way from Praha to Cesky Krumlov with a change of trains in Ceske Budejovice. About a half hour before reaching our connection point we were told the train was stopping for ‘technical reasons’ and we’d be boarding a bus to continue to the connecting train.  Board the bus we did, but there were three motor coaches for about five bus loads of travelers. Needless to say, the trip to Ceske Budejovice was a bit cramped and with the extra time it took to get everyone onboard, we missed our connection by a few minutes. Ergo, it’s cool the jets time for a couple of hours while we wait for the next train. The shortened train ride meant we didn’t have  time to finish our bottle of lunch wine, but that issue has been resolved with due dispatch in the station. The sausages coming out of the little snack bar here look most tempting, but I suspect my LDL count is nearing 300 so I will try to resist.

Ceske Krumlov is listed as one of the most beautiful cities in central Europe. We’re there but one night, so we’ll have to make the most of our time.

Later—

We finally made it to this, as advertised, very picturesque town. Beautiful yes, but so is Strasbourg, Brugge, Arle, etc, etc.  Actually, the town reminds me a bit of Brugge only with about as many Japanese tourists as Waikiki. I’m not sure how this little Ville got on the must see list in China and Japan, but it’s obviously a big hit.

Also found out there was a bus that left from near our Praha hotel that would have dropped us in the center of Cesky Krumlov, saving two cab rides and a couple of hours. C’est la vie.

‘dem bones, ‘dem bones, ‘dem dry bones

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Keeping on top of this blogging stuff is hard. Other than for sleeping, we just haven’t spent a lot of time in the hotel rooms Laurel so painstakingly researched. Today, however, has been a departure. Up after 7:30 and then down to breakfast we then spent a few hours doing admin/booking/computer stuff in the room. I did acquire a bottle of Czech sparkling wine from hotel restaurant—we’re not total savages.

On Saturday we hopped on the train to Kutná Hora, about an hour from Praha (Prague to the Yanks). The big tourist draws in Kutná Hora are the silver mines and the ossuary. We skipped the mines, but did take in the ossuary. To me, this collection of artwork built from skeletal remains, while quite fantastic, is more of an oddity than anything else. On the other hand, the town of Kutná Hora is a sort of mini-Prague and probably rivals it for inherent beauty and number and magnificence of its cathedrals.

For the evening, we returned to Praha and went in search of U zlatého tygra (Golden Tiger). This pub was once the favorite watering hole of Václav Havel and one of his mentors, writer Bohumil Hrabal. Particularly smoky, this is a one-stop education in Czech pub culture. Pilsner Urquell is the house brew. Havel and former U.S. president Bill Clinton joined Hrabal for a traditional Czech pub evening here during Clinton’s visit in 1994. We joined four German gents at a table directly below a photo of the aforementioned dignitaries and quickly noticed ‘tab’, a small slip of paper used by the waiters in these pubs to keep track of your purchase had somewhere over fifty dashes on it. The Germans explained their numbers had been larger earlier in the evening, but that’s still a lot of pivo. We bailed out at 4 marks, they were approaching sixty.

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International incidences

On our foreign travels we seem to create some sort of international incident on an almost daily basis. This is generally quite inadvertent and as a rule, we have no idea what we’ve done to create the situation. In Warsaw the other day we’d no sooner boarded a bus than a lady began speaking and gesturing to me in a quite emphatic manner and since my Polish is pretty much limited to pivo (beer) and Dziekuje (thank you) I was unsure of what she was trying to point out. I wasn’t sitting in a handicap seat; I wasn’t even sitting and I don’t think I’d bumped or stepped on anyone. As the doors were closing, she quickly exited the bus leaving me to wonder about my assumed transgression.

In Krakow on Monday as we approached a bus stop a lady barked at Laurel for a few seconds and then stomped off. Laurel interpreted the lady’s words as “that sure is a handsome guy you’re with.” I thought perhaps her meaning might be “not much of a bulge for a tall guy.”

By far the best incident thus far on this trip happened yesterday while changing trains in the tiny Polish town of Golkowice. While I waited on the platform with our bags, Laurel went to use the WC in the station.  She was gone longer than I’d expected and when she returned I soon found out what had transpired. We’d forgotten that in Poland it’s common for toilets to be attended and non-gratis. I was carrying all the Zlotys and upon her exiting the stall she was greeted by a man who grabbed her arm and was obviously requesting compensation for the use of his reportedly shabby, soiled facility. She displayed the insides of her empty pockets which set off a litany of words probably aren’t found in Polish text books.

There does seem to be a transportation theme in many, but certainly not all of our mishaps. One of my favorites from several years back was getting yelled at by a Paris Metro ticket vendor for buying a 5 franc billet with a 100 franc note. The bill was all I had and had if I’d had coins I would have used the damn machine!

As far as I know, we haven’t made any real jackass moves today, but the day is young. As I write this we,re on the Czech SuperCity Pendolino Express train gliding from Ostrava to Prague. The steward just brought us another Gambrinus Czech beer and the terrain is becoming more mountainous and dotted with cabins and chalets. Travel on!

Bye to Poland

Tuesday, May 17

It’s hard to write anything about Auschwitz that hasn’t already been written. The two things that probably got to me the most were the piles of children’s shoes in the first camp and the unimaginable vastness of the second camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

We traveled today by “Regular” or non-express train from Krakow to Ostrava in the Czech Republic. Regular trains stop in almost every village and I believe on a couple of occasions we paused briefly in someone’s backyard. Our first stop was in Oswiecim, the site of Auschwitz and then on to Ostrava, just across the border from Poland.

Ostrava, the third largest city in the republic, is probably not on anyone’s top ten travel destinations, but logistically it worked well for getting us to Prague on Wednesday. I haven’t stayed in a Mercure hotel in years, but this one is very new and quite lovely. 

Getting used to Czech money will be interesting. A US greenback will get you a bit over two and a half Polish Zloty; that same buck yields some 17 Czech Koruna so were carrying around some pretty big bills.  About a block from the hotel at a very local pizza place, 350 Koruna got us a couple bowls of tasty pasta and a ration of beer.

5-4-3-2-1-Back to the salt mine?

Monday, May 16

Being in Europe is fab, but for a good portion of today, my body was in Poland, but my heart was in Florida. Space Shuttle Endeavour  lifted off on its final mission and we were supposed to be there, but a launch delay combined with our travel plans made that impossible. We did however manage to watch the launch in HD video, albeit on an iPod in a WiFi zone, in a salt mine over a hundred meters below the earth’s surface having just finished touring the Wieliczka Salt Mine just outside of Krakow. The mine produced salt from the 13th century until 1996 and features an incredible labyrinth of chambers with some large enough to fly a hot air balloon in, but the big draw here is the collection of sculptures created by talented miners, in rock salt. The bas-relief wall carvings are fantastic, but very difficult to photograph. Except for some rather focused area lighting, the mine is of course dark and a photo flash pretty much washes out any contrast and the sculpting details. Ergo, the pictures suck.

From the bus returning us from Wieliczka, we connected with a tram to take us to Nova Huta, a communist era “planned community” built beginning in 1949. Today, the area is suppose to be far more inviting than it was in the years before the dissolve of the Soviet Union, but it certainly still retains a lot of  its Stalin-era drabness. We did find a delightful little restaurant that maintained a chunk of its pre-solidarity “warmth” and I finally got my stuffed cabbage rolls.

Tomorrow it’s off to the Czech Republic with stops at Auschwitz and Birkenau.

A castle in the rain

Sunday, 15 May

Wawel, atop the only significant hill in this rather planar portion of Poland, is the site of the Royal Castle and a cathedral and it was our first destination for this cool and rainy day. Wawel, like most castle complexes, developed over centuries and construction here began in 9th century.  For me, the highlights of Wawel were the armaments collection that I found far more impressive than that at The Tower of London and a walk through a section of the archeological excavation. I dig that dig stuff.

Stop 2 for the day was Schindler’s factory, but first a stop at Pod Wawelem, a pub known for huge portions of artery-clogging calories and liters of beer. Refueled, a quick cab ride took us to Oskar Schindler’s Enamel Factory, now a branch of the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków. The exhibit is an expansive display combining photos, multimedia and artifacts from the plant and we arrived a bit late to really take it all in. Even with our somewhat rushed visit, it was an impressive exhibition.

Laurel’s been fighting some sort of crud for the last few days, so after dinner in Kazimierz, Kraków’s Jewish community, we called it a day.

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