I used to go right out and start touring after an overnight flight. Now that I am old my first stop in Vienna was a long nap at Hotel Daniel, a post-modern hip kind of place with minimalist design, a great breakfast and a big glass shower.
It's cool and raining when I head out in the afternoon and pop on a tram for a short ride to the center of town where the stately opera house brought back memories.
It's been 42 years since I studied (sort of) in Vienna at a long closed Stanford overseas campus just down the street from the opera and the look hasn't changed much. I pick up a program at the magnificent opera house thinking I'd buy a ticket for something but then remember I don't like opera.
There is a long line at the Hotel Sacher for a famous Sachertorte so I pop around the corner to Cafe Mozart (he's a big deal here) and have a Mozart-torte which is equally yummy (it has a touch of pistachio) along with hot chocolate (with whipped cream of course.)
Paid a nostalgic visit to the building where I lived and went to school in 1972, which has now been converted into a very cool music museum. The courtyard where we used to drop water balloons from our dorm room windows is still there but now has a roof over it.
Couldn't find the little hole in the wall we used to visit for Wiener Schnitzel but the young lady at the museum (who enjoyed the water balloon story) recommended “Huth" nearby which had some fine schnitzel and some exceptional potato salad (the key is the bacon.)
I passed a shop advertising a "Fuss Massage" but think they are offering to massage feet, not me.
My hotel is next door to the Belvedere Palace, one of your finer homesteads, so began my next day with a walk through its extensive gardens as the weather turned nice.
Passed a big fountain and World War II memorial (though I fear other than the Von Trapps they were all on the other side.)
Rode a tram to the end of the line and a quiet little neighborhood called Nussdorf and took a stroll along the Danube.
Back in town visited a 14th century church that has a full-sized copy of Da Vinci's Last Supper commissioned by Napoleon ("If the Pope has one, I want one!")
From Vienna's biggest church St Stephens it was a short walk on upscale shopping streets to Demel, the city’s most famous chocolate shop (fine pastries since 1786.)
Paused for a drink at a cafe in the courtyard of the Hapsburg Palace built back when this was the center of a big empire.
Skipped the museum with the royal silverware but stopped in the small globe museum, a fascinating collection. One from 1645 shows California as an island -- possibly just ahead of its time. The same ticket got me into the one room Esperanto museum where I learned the language designed to unify all people (an effort that collapsed with World War I) was invented in Bialystok, Poland which of course also brought us delicious rolls.
That was not the oddest museum I visited. That honor goes to the Third Man Museum, open just four hours a week to show an amazing private collection by a man obsessed with the suspense film starring Orson Welles set in post-war Vienna. It also documents a period in Austrian history not much talked about elsewhere including the bombing of Vienna and the ten year post-war occupation.
Needing a break from walking I took a tram, subway and bus out to Vienna's biggest health complex on the outskirts of town.
A water wonderland with pools, a giant water slide, hot waterfalls, massage, jacuzzis and a separate adult indoor and outdoor sauna area where bathing suits are strictly verboten. One pool had warm saltwater with music coming from underwater speakers you could only hear when you floated. I ended up staying all day.
All the buses, trams, subways and trains allow dogs and work on the honor system. I never saw one but apparently once in a while a police officer will come on and check and if you don't have the right ticket or pass you get shot (or maybe it's just a fine.)
Popped into a little neighborhood place for schnitzel and had homemade elderberry soda. Quite refreshing. The radio was playing oldies -- ours not theirs.
Went to a concert by the Vienna Boy's Choir at their new concert hall. They sang a wide variety of songs in half a dozen languages and have voices like angels and I'm glad they don't castrate them anymore.
In Paris you have to see the Mona Lisa and in Vienna it's The Kiss by Klimpt. It's a larger painting than I thought and there were lots of other Klimpts and even a Van Gogh.
There is a museum at the house Freud lived in but I figure if I went there people would just ask me how I felt about being there and it would all get too complicated.
Wandered through the Nachtsmarkt, a large outdoor food market trying samples and stopping for some excellent ravioli in a truffle pesto sauce with some "Sturm" the "new wine." It's half-fermented grape juice and isn't terribly good.
An odd note: remember those foldable Razor scooters all the kids used to ride? They are all over Vienna and at least half are being ridden by adults.
Billy Joel wasn't in town so I went to a Mozart concert. The string quartet played beautifully in a small round salon where Mozart himself used to play in 1781 when he lived upstairs.
Continuing my Central European jaunt I took a train from Vienna to Prague which was seriously communist during a brief visit I made in 1972. On that trip the train stopped at the border of what was then Czechoslovakia where heavily armed soldiers checked our papers and forced one of my classmates to cut his long hair on the spot to match his passport photo. Now with the EU there is in effect no border at all.
The central square is almost too perfect with its soaring towers, amazing buildings, astronomical clock from the 1500's complete with a moving parade of saints and a skeleton ringing the bell on the hour, cobblestone streets, entertainers in period costumes and tons of tourists riding Segways. I kind of expected to hear "It's a small world" playing. But Disney-like or not it is a striking place with shops offering beautiful glass works and great chocolate (not necessarily in that order.)
I'm staying just outside the old city gate in a hundred year old Art Deco hotel whose rooms were recently updated (though someone needs to tell Europeans no one wants to sleep in twin beds.) They have their own currency here, the Czech Crown, but most shops and restaurants also accept Euros and list prices in both. For some odd reason the downtown is filled with shops offering Thai massage.
The hotel breakfast buffet is extensive, with champaign to add some sparkle to my juice, ham, bacon, breads, mushrooms, eggs, cheesecake and of course many sausages.
Took a wonderful three hour free walking tour (tips accepted) with a young Czech woman who grew up in Australia. The architecture in the old city is truly remarkable, you just stare at every building. The Jewish section was particularly moving with the oldest Synagogue in Europe but very few Jews left here to use it.
Coolest factoid from the tour: the Rolling Stones came to play soon after Communism fell and Mick Jagger told Czech President Havel his castle was so pretty it should be lit at night. Havel said he had higher priorities so the band paid for the lighting system that still illuminates the castle.
Though Sarah Bernhardt was once the most famous and beautiful actress in the world I went to the Sarah Bernhardt Restaurant because it has great reviews and is a five minute walk from my hotel.
They had me at "hello." The decor and service were elegant and when I asked for tap rather than bottled water an ice cold pitcher came with lemon in it. Went with a local sparkling Chardonnay, scallops wrapped in pancetta and a beautifully prepared local trout with roasted potatoes that were light and yummy and some puréed vegetables with mint I shouldn't have liked but did. Finished off with a rich chocolate cake and a solid chocolate spoon to eat the pistachio ice cream and was happy to whip out 1,400 of their little crown things (about $65.)
Took a second long walking tour, this time to the castle (the largest in Europe) which was very informative including a lot of history, mostly about the Czechs being conquered by just about everyone. Even the Swedes once sacked Prague! I then sat at a cafe high up on castle hill with incredible views and sipped hot chocolate.
After a little rest at my hotel (I'm old) I headed for dinner to Sansho, a highly acclaimed Asian-influenced restaurant. (Fun fact: There is a big Vietnamese population in Prague because in the bad communist time Vietnam would pay for weapons from Czechoslovakia with workers instead of cash and they stayed.)
Sansho has no menu and no choices. They serve six courses and just bring them. It will cost a thousand crowns ($50) "more or less" says the waiter. A glass of the quite nice Moravian wine is extra. First course salmon sashimi. If I don't think about it not being cooked it's delicious. A pitcher of water on the table has cucumber and mint in it. Little clams are next in a wonderful ginger broth with hot garlic bread. Then tea smoked trout with mango slaw. Awesome. As was the soft shell crab "slider" on a steamed Chinese bun with a very mild wasabi cream.
Crisp pork belly in a hoisin sauce with ice cold watermelon chunks was like a slice of heaven, as were the short ribs off the bone served with crisped nan style bread, rice and papaya slaw. Desert was the only option and being stuffed by then I went with a half portion of hot chocolate chip cookies with vanilla, toffee peanut butter ice cream.
When the bill came it charged a la' carte prices for each item they served me but it was just about what the waiter estimated and at that price a steal. If I ever live in Prague, this is where I will eat.
Friday is pouring rain and this gothic city has a dark and brooding look. A perfect day to head to the Franz Kafka museum. It is literally and figuratively dark, disturbing and eerie and a really great little museum. In sharp contrast in the courtyard outside is Prague's most famous lighthearted sculpture showing two naked men peeing into a shallow pool shaped like Czechoslovakia. Their spouts, so to speak, move side to side.
Speaking of penises, another famous oft-photographed sculpture here is of a naked boy near the castle. The story is the Communist leaders made the sculptor take the penis off and during the democratic exuberance of the Prague Spring it was put back on and now people rub it for good luck (or at least that's what they tell the tourists. )
I returned to the Jewish section to go inside the very beautiful Spanish Synagogue and broke up the rainy walk back with three cafe stops.
Time to say goodbye to this beautiful and somewhat complex city and I fly Tarom (Motto: "Come Fly The Airline You've Never Heard Of!") to Bucharest .
I am excited to visit Romania for ten days. It is one of my ancestral homelands though I was a little concerned about my welcome in the land of vampires since I have wiped out a lot of zombies playing on my I-Phone. But I don't think the better dressed un-dead will hold that against me.
Prices are much lower here and one could see that as a chance to save money but that's boring. Instead for the same price as hotels in Vienna and Prague I'm in a large suite at the luxurious Époque hotel with a nice spa.
Down the street is a big park with rowboats on the lake, playgrounds and scads of families enjoying a warm Sunday afternoon. I lingered.
I can't really say Bucharest is a pretty city but it has its charms. I'm not looking for long lost relatives (I'm pretty sure there aren't any) but an awful lot of the people here look like they could be. The currency is the Lei and one is worth around 30 cents. Easing my way into Romanian cuisine I buy ice cream in the park. It's very good and only two Lei a scoop. Move on to giant soft pretzels which are very popular and come with a variety of seeds. Most guide sites recommend against trying to use the convoluted transit system and taxis are very cheap (as long as you are careful to stick with the big companies instead of the crooked ones.) I don't think I had a single taxi fare over $4.
I don't usually eat dinner at my own hotel but its French restaurant is ranked number three in the city on Trip Advisor and it is right at the bottom of the elevator. The soundtrack (heavy on Abba) was odd but the bread is hot and delicious, the French onion soup exactly the way it should be and the sea bass filets on risotto outstanding. There will be plenty of time for Romanian food later. One local dish I'm not so sure about is sliced solidified pork fat with onions.
I haven't done a full survey but it appears everyone over the age of six smokes.
Tried out the subway and managed to get where I wanted to go. But the stations and even the cars felt a little oppressive, just a tad big brother-ish not only because there were a lot of police (some with muzzled dogs) but the design and lack of decoration and the way people are acting. It hasn't really been that long since people here lived under a very repressive dictatorship and it may take a while for the remnants to disappear. Smiling at people seems to scare them. (Later in smaller cities and villages people were much more relaxed, friendly and trusting.) One result of freedom is an explosion of pubs in the old town, dozens on just one street and oddly a lot of hookah bars too. There's a big street art scene (what some people call graffiti) and a lot of repair work everywhere but many more buildings, sidewalks and streets are in dire need of it.
Took a three hour free walking tour and it was entertaining and enlightening. We saw a statue of Vlad the Impaler, who impaled 20,000 Ottoman prisoners with sharp sticks inserted up the bottom end and out the top and mounted them on the road as a deterrent. His tough tactics helped protect his people but he still got a lot of bad press. He of course later was turned into the fictional Dracula which has been a huge boon for Romanian tourism especially in Transylvania (where I head in a few days after stocking up on garlic.)
Stopped into popular and crowded "Mama's" for a little lunch. How bad can a schnitzel be? Truly terrible. I stop after two bites. After walking a while on the city's main shopping street I see the biggest crowds are at a giant place with indoor and outdoor seating named McDonalds. Opt instead for a spot next door serving Moldavian food, having only the vaguest notion of where Moldavians live, much less what they eat. I start with a tall glass of Sangria which doesn't sound very Moldavian but hits the spot. Crisp pastries stuffed with meat served with sour cream are tasty and so were the French fries. The chocolate torte was great and the bill was $16. Long live Moldavia! (Okay I looked it up. Moldavia is an ethnic region part of which is in Romania, part in Ukraine and part in the small independent nation of Moldova, which some fear Putin may invade next.)
Walked to the enormous Palace of the Parliament planned by Ceausescu (a megalomaniac as well as a vicious dictator) to be the biggest government building in the world. He fell just short and the Pentagon is bigger (yay for us!) But inside it is less like the Pentagon than Versailles with all marble floors and walls, immense crystal chandeliers and incredible wood inlay. It is the biggest most lavish edifice ever built by Communists but Ceausescu was overthrown and executed before it was finished so no Communists ever used it. The Parliament meets here but the government also rents out space for conferences to try to defray expenses and much of the immense building is empty. I walked down the very wide boulevard Ceausescu wanted to be an exact copy of the Champs de Élysées, a clean and pleasant thoroughfare though most of the storefronts are empty. There is also a Bucharest copy of the Arc de Triumph. There was some serious Paris envy going on.
Dinner is at The Artist a very hip gourmet restaurant with a twist on the tasting menu. You can pick one of the things on the menu or order a "spoon" which is a very small portion of all of them. And they bring other little surprise dishes with unusual combinations of flavors presented in very dramatic ways. One dish was surrounded by lavender smoke and mushroom soup came in a test tube. They only offer Romanian wines and the waitress recommends a very nice one. Some of the dishes may go too far, my lobster bisque had a cold corn mousse floating in it and a few bits of popcorn on top -- but it was good. For my main course I had literally one tablespoon each of trout, turbot. shrimp, duck, pork and a little bowl of homemade turkey sausages in a truffle sauce. It sounds bizarre but a cucumber sorbet with fresh crushed basil was heavenly. Everything was delicious and I didn't leave hungry but I found it an odd way to eat and maybe just a bit too pretentious.
The next night's dinner couldn't have been more different. I had signed up through a fun little Australian company called Urban Adventures for a dinner at home with a Romanian family. They were a professional couple with an adorable two year old who like to travel and to meet people from other countries. It was a very interesting conversation and one goal they have is to improve the image of Romanians who they feel are looked down on especially by Western Europeans who think "we are all gypsies." (They don't like the more politically correct "Roma" or "Romani" because it sounds too much like "Romanian" and in fact has completely different origins.) One learning experience was entering one of hundreds of truly dismal-looking Communist era apartment buildings, going up a terrifying dark little elevator straight out of a Hitchcock movie and into a beautiful light-filled totally modern apartment with contemporary furniture and the latest electronics.
My five days in Bucharest was probably a little longer than it needed to be but tomorrow I head for Transylvania and figure I better be nimble so I get a massage at my hotel spa.
Eduard, my tour guide for the rest of Romania, picks me up at the hotel and we start driving from the flat plains around Bucharest north towards the Carpathian Mountains (and the vampires!)
He's in his late 50's, engaging and a tad rough around the edges driving primarily with his horn and screaming obscenities when slowed down by other drivers, pedestrians and the occasional dog, horse or cow. He tells me within the first few minutes he lived under the "f*ing communists" and doesn't much care for the current "f*ing socialist" government either.
About an hour out of Bucharest we start passing horse drawn wagons and roadside farm stands.
First stop is the very pretty mountain palace of the Romanian kings with beautiful rooms and stained glass windows. There were only four kings. The first was a wealthy and powerful German prince recruited in the mid 1800's to be King of the new unified country of Romania (he built the palace) and the last one is still alive in his nineties, well liked here and known for switching sides from Germany to the allies towards the end of World War II (better late than never.) Had lunch at a winery that has been making sparkling wine for over 120 years and it would have been rude not to drink all three varieties they poured for me.
Next the 14th century Bran Castle, more commonly known as Dracula's Castle, though the real-life Dracul family that my man Vlad the Impaler belonged to probably never lived there. But the castle is spooky looking and they sell a ton of tacky vampire souvenirs. Amazingly it is owned by an American woman whose a formerly exiled Romanian princess who got it back after communism fell.
I spent the night in Brasov which has a totally charming central square lined with cafes around a town hall from the 1400's and a fleet of pedal toy cars for kids to tool around in.
The Black Church is a huge gothic cathedral from the Middle Ages built by Germans who settled here and not long after Martin Luther did his thing they painted over the saints and made it a Lutheran church. But what makes it unique is it is decorated with hundreds of amazing antique Turkish rugs brought back by merchants who would travel to the Ottoman Empire for trade.
I don't remember much from high school physics but I do remember smoke rises making my non-smoking room on the top floor of a hotel filled with smokers pretty unpleasant. The smoke in every restaurant is starting to wear thin too.
On the road more horse drawn carts and lots of houses without running water (I see folks carrying water from a central well.) Stop at a fortified church which is quite interesting. It is a 600 year old church surrounded by high defensive walls with hundreds of little apartments built into the wall. When the Turks came and attacked, as they did from time to time, the villagers would all come inside the church walls and stay until the danger was past. On this day there was no sign of invaders so Eduard and I stopped and kicked a soccer ball around with a little boy.
Drove through a series of villages dominated by ethnic Hungarians and pulled over at one of the little campers along the road where they were cooking up a very tasty snack. It looks like a hollowed out long loaf of bread and tastes like a combination of coffee cake and a churro. After a long drive through forests with brown bear (and presumably werewolves) we leave Transylvania and enter Moldavia.
Best English translation on a menu "stuff soup.”
In the Transylvanian villages the fences and gates have elaborate woodwork sometimes topped with bird houses. In Moldavia the houses and fences are all topped with decorative metal eaves.
End the day at a nice hotel in Piatro Neamt, a delightful little city.
Eduard also gives Jewish heritage tours and took me to an interesting all wooden Synagogue several hundred years old. There are still services at this temple but the congregants are mostly over 70 and they struggle to get the ten men needed for a minion to pray.
Next stop a monastery where several hundred nuns live amid gorgeous gardens and planters filled with more flowers on every balcony and doorway. The small orthodox church has beautiful frescos and is filled with people on a Sunday praying, lighting candles and filling plastic bottles with holy water from a big metal dispenser. We visit a little museum where a very friendly young nun shows us around and gives me a little knitted bracelet for good luck. I don't need to understand Romanian to know Eduard is flirting with her and my jaw dropped as we left when she gave him her cell phone number.
While most horse drawn carts carry potatoes, wood and other goods there are also carts covered in a cloth tent in which gypsy families live as they travel around. There are wealthy gypsies too whose houses are much more brightly colored than the others.
The reason to come to Bucovina in the farthest corner of Romania near Ukraine is to see the painted monasteries and the first and largest one is truly remarkable. Surrounded by a defensive wall the outside of the church built in the 1400's is entirely painted in colorful frescos with stories from the bible and after 600 years exposed to the weather look like they could have been painted yesterday. Top to bottom on all four sides it really is incredible. Inside more paintings cover every surface of the walls and ceilings.
Lunch is at a restaurant famous for its forest mushrooms. (Perfect time for the old joke : "Are the mushrooms in this forest edible?" "Yes, you can eat any of them, but some of them just once.")
After Eduard provides some very nice local raspberry brandy to drink in the garden, I'm spending the night in a spacious quiet room at Hildes, a totally charming small inn in Gura Humorului, which people call Humor for short.
Hilde, who has fruit trees and makes her own elderberry juice for breakfast says "no smoking" and means it!
There are a total of four of these painted monasteries and we saw the others the next morning. One fascinating section of wall shows judgement day and a close look reveals most of those going to hell were Muslims along with a scattering of Jews (both identified by their headwear.)
We take the scenic route back over the mountains to Transylvania through steep, narrow dramatic canyons with towering cliffs, rivers, lakes and the trees starting to change to fall colors.
After the mountains it is another few hours driving on rough roads in the rain with much swearing in Romanian to Sighisoara, a pretty town on a river that will be my last stop in Romania.
Vlad the Impaler (who even Republicans would agree was no wimp when it came to fighting Islamic extremists) was born here and “Dracula's house” and the torture museum are big draws.
That aside it has a wonderful small medieval walled city center high on a hill with intact towers and 15th century buildings and plazas.
The overnight train from the tiny station in Sighisoara, Romania to Budapest was very comfortable. I was alone in a double sleeper compartment with its own bathroom and shower (though oddly no towels.)
There were three locks on the door and since the State Department travel web site for Romania says there have been reports of robbery and assault on overnight trains, I lock them all. (Generally you shouldn't read those State Department reports or you would never leave home.) Things were fine until the Hungarian border police banged on my door at 4:30am wanting to see my passport, then came back an hour later to check it again. Guess they forgot they and Romania are in the EU and don't have to do that anymore.
Budapest is a beautiful lively city. Took a short walk around the neighborhood and saw a statue that looked awfully familiar. Ronald Reagan! No idea why the Gipper is here but everyone stops to take a picture with him. Less popular was a sculpture of Shakespeare, who I don't think was Hungarian either. Nagy Imre was a Hungarian leader who tried to free Hungary from the Russians in 1956 before they killed him and his is a thought provoking sculpture standing on a bridge his back to the memorial to Soviet soldiers who freed Hungary from the Nazis and looking toward the nearby parliament building.
I stop for lunch at Kispiac Bisztro and have an outstanding half a crisp roast duck with roast potatoes and freshly baked bread. The bill is 3,500 Forint, about $14.
Wander on some trams and subways around the city and I already love it. Meander along the Danube and cross from Pest to Buda for my first soak. Budapest has half a dozen famous hot springs pools and I hope to try as many as I can. Rudas is first, not fancy, not particularly customer friendly, marginally clean, very cheap but a true classic turkish bath built by the Ottomans in 1550. It has a big natural hot springs pool under a giant dome topped with tiny square skylights each with a different color glass, with fiercely hot steam and sauna rooms and a sheet to dry off with instead of a towel.
I walked across the beautiful cast iron Chain Bridge then took a cute funicular up to the top of Castle Hill where the views are spectacular. By the way they do serious lemonade here in a variety of flavors (raspberry, elderberry, mint) and the glass is chock full of cut up fruit.
Coolest tourist activity just behind the President's palace: archery! You can shoot regular bows, crossbows or throw spears. Could be a fun addition to the White House south lawn.
Walked around the wonderful castle hill neighborhood filled with amazing buildings, churches, old fortifications and a few too many tour buses (one is too many, I've become very anti-tourist in my touring.) Stopped at a cafe with the best view across the river where a trio with a wandering violinist was playing and had hot chocolate with hazelnut (the weather is a bit on the chilly side.)
My second soak was at Gellert, the Grande Dame of Budapest spas. Huge, ornate beaux arts interior (with an inordinate number of sculptures of naked cherubs) enormous ceilings and even a balcony over the main swimming pool. Customer service is non-existent but wander around long enough and you'll find where things are. Took many soaks and some steam and chatted with a few other tourists. It was more expensive and required a $16 deposit to rent a towel they seemed certain I wanted to steal. Swimming in the largest pool would have required renting and wearing a bathing cap but that is just a bridge too far.
Go upscale for dinner at Aszu, beautiful room with a piano player who played a lengthy medley from "Fiddler on the Roof." Enjoy a fine local wine, smoked trout salad and wild boar. It may have been wild in its time but on my plate it was tender enough to cut with a fork.
When I walked out of the restaurant I noticed a giant London Eye style ferris wheel in a park just down the street and took a ride to view the city at night with the castle, palaces, churches and bridges all beautifully lit.
I head out on a crisp autumn morning for a sightseeing cruise on the Danube. They offer commentary in 30 languages and happily I speak one of them. I learned Buda and Pest were separate cities and Buda is named for Atilla the Hun's brother. The nice one.
Popped into the ugliest building on either shore of the Danube, the Budapest Marriott just to use the bathroom (I'm an American, I can do that.) Passed the wonderfully named "Carpe Diem Bar." They have pole dancers. Sought out a recommended small family-run Italian restaurant (Italy isn't that far away) and had pasta with scampi in a pink cream sauce with coriander along with a salad with fresh mozzarella. Very good food and the complementary glass of champagne was a nice touch (and helps my aching shoulder no doubt.) I was too full to order desert but they brought some anyway, lemon sorbet and small pieces of dark and white chocolate with marzipan. They then brought some sweet desert wine and insisted I couldn't leave without drinking some limoncello. Worrying I might get bored they also brought me a GQ magazine with Kim Kardashian on the cover. When I left, the owner gave me a package of small chocolates in case I wanted desert later. I love this restaurant!
On a sunny Sunday morning when the Christians were all busy I went to check out the Jewish quarter. The "Great Synagogue" is the largest, most extravagant and beautiful I've ever seen. Room for thousands, stained glass windows and skylights, Moorish style towers, two giant balconies and an organ. And its own gift shop.
A peaceful memorial garden features a beautiful metal sculpture of a weeping tree of life each leaf with the name of a Hungarian holocaust victim, paid for by actor Tony Curtis, whose father came from Hungary.
Visiting Jewish sites in Central Europe is interesting and so many American Jews trace our heritage to this region but it is also depressing since being reminded of these large thriving communities is also to be reminded of what happened to them.
Wandering aimlessly I came next across the crowded Budapest Yoga Festival where they had lots of strange healthy foods, mats of many colors and women bending into improbable positions.
Continuing the ecumenical theme I went into St Stephen's Basilica an enormous cathedral decorated inside with exquisite red marble. A mass was just wrapping up so I also got to hear the organ. They had an elevator to a narrow balcony outside the highest dome with extraordinary 360 degree views of the city. Before hitting a few more prominent sites I popped into one of Budapest's oldest and most elegant cafes opposite the Opera House for a piece of delicious cake because man does not live by bread alone (though the breads and rolls here are really good.) It's the kind of place where well dressed old people with nothing to do wile away the hours. Except for the well dressed part, I fit in perfectly.
At Heroes Square, where the nation's history is commemorated in a series of grand statues and memorials, a 15 piece orchestra showed up in formal dress with a camera crew, chairs, a piano and a makeup artist. So I stayed and listened to them play. Nearby kids rollerbladed, Segways segwayed and tourists gathered as a small drone with a video camera flew overhead (no pesky FAA rules here.) With no apparent connection several hundred scruffy looking motorcycle riders circled the big plaza with a police escort. All in a day's touring.
On my sixth and last full day in Budapest I take my favorite kind of tour called "Bites and Sights" where a guide took five of us (three Australians, an American college student and yours truly) on a leisurely walk through back streets stopping often to taste local food and drink.
We started with a variety of sausages and salami (prepared with Paprika of course) and some extremely smoky cheese.
Then a fish restaurant where we try fried carp, silver carp paté and smoked catfish. All delicious. Then a stop at a chocolate shop where we taste then buy more.
A retro 60's theme bar in a pretty square outside the University law school is next for rose wine spritzers and an amazing collection of 60's toys, t-v's, radios and black and white photos of old communists. With the tour about to enter its fourth hour we skip one stop and head straight to the finale for goulash and strudel and I recognize the park with Reagan's statue at the end of the street so can find my way back from here.
And after a month in Central Europe it is time to go home and sit in my recliner.
POLAR BEARS IN CANADA 2015
I've seen black bears, grizzly bears and once pet a panda bear in China but now I am going off in search of polar bears in the wild. One of the best places to see them is near the small town of Churchill in the far north of Canada where for a few weeks in October and early November the bears gather waiting for the ice to freeze over on Hudson Bay.
I fly first to Winnipeg. I was playing a new game on my iPhone during the flight and the first few levels involve running away from bears. May not be the best choice but does remind me of an old joke: If you and your friend are being chased by a bear you don't have to outrun the bear you just have to run faster than your friend.
I'm met at the airport by a representative of Natural Habitat tours which will be taking care of me and making sure I don't get eaten by a bear.
Our group of 29, mostly Americans but with a scattering of Europeans, one couple from Australia and a lone Canadian, meets for a very fine dinner and spends the night at an historic hotel in Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba, which I think is an Indian name meaning " flat and cold." They are all experienced world travelers and some say they've saved years for this six day trip. On a per day basis it's certainly the most expensive I've taken. We are issued parkas and snow boots and the next morning we board a chartered plane for the two and a half hour flight to Churchill. No security, just get on the plane. Nice. Flying north over the great flat expanse there are so many lakes it looks like more water than land. California would be very jealous. There is no road to Churchill, it's right on the edge of the continent.
Landing in Churchill it was bitterly cold and snowing. We passed the polar bear jail where bears who wander into town are kept after they are trapped and drugged. Then they are taken well out of town and released to wait with the other bears for the ice to freeze.
We board our Polar Rover which looks like a tricked out Winnebago. It's very high off the ground, built to ride over ice and snow, across creeks and over boulders, with windows that open and a back open deck for picture taking.
The rule about keeping hands and feet inside the vehicles are a bit more serious on this trip and once we're on the rover on the way to our movable "lodge" parked where we hope the bears are our feet will not touch the ground for two days until we return to Churchill. Lots of animals, including other bears, can hurt you if you scare them or surprise them but polar bears are among the very few creatures that view humans as prey and will hunt us. They look at people and see lunch. So no petting the bears (and yes someone did ask.)
Two minutes out a snowy owl flew right in front of us. They are very big and majestic.
We are told sometimes polar bears come right up to the vehicles and put their paws up towards the people and it's nice to think they are curious about us but our guide says in reality they are trying to figure out how to have us for a meal.
Parked our rover at a pretty spot along Hudson Bay and had a hearty lunch of soup, salad, sandwiches and a brownie but no bears yet.
Personally I'd just throw some meat out the windows to attract the bears but this tour group is affiliated with the World Wildlife Fund and environmentalists are such sticklers about those things.
Stopped to watch an arctic fox, a beautiful, graceful and fearless animal no bigger than an average house cat. He was running incredibly fast around a frozen pond chasing lemmings. He's all white and the fastest animal in the Arctic and no polar bear can catch him.
As we approached the "lodge" a series of connected trailers on six foot wheels we saw our first polar bear. He was a big guy lazing on the other side of a small inlet. He raised his head a few times and looked in our direction but mostly was just kicking back. They are coming out of "walking hibernation" where they mostly sleep to preserve energy until they can go out on the ice and eat some seals. It's getting cold pretty fast and the guides expect some bears to start getting more active.
We watched him for a while before docking high above the ground with our lodge (since we can't be outside on the ground even for a minute).
It's no place for the claustrophobic, each room is about half the size of a small train berth, but with a window to watch for bears. There are a handful of well equipped bathrooms and showers, a lounge, dining room (with excellent food) and outdoor decks to look at bears. Altogether remarkably homey and comfortable considering where we are.
Had our first polar bear lecture. Turns out they evolved from grizzly bears, which are the same as brown bears and the two sometimes mate producing hybrid bears.
So why Churchill? Fresh water freezes before salt water so because of the flow of rivers Hudson Bay freezes here before anywhere else and the bears know that and are hungry and anxious to get out there and hunt.
It's because these thousand pound bears are so reliant on the ice to hunt the seals that sustain them all year long that they have become our canary in the coal mine for global warming and their numbers are diminishing.
Head to sleep to the sound of every other passenger through thin walls and doors and hang a "please disturb" sign on the door signifying that if the guides see the northern lights to come wake me up but it's cloudy outside so that's not likely.
The knock came at 3:30 am. The lights were out!
I threw on pants and grabbed my parka and we all crammed on to the small outdoor decks between the cars and there above us in a moonless sky were a million stars and the aurora borealis. It was like a giant wavy cloud snake stretching from the horizon to directly above our heads. It would stay a while then start moving, growing in some places and shrinking in others and seeming to dance around. Though photos of the northern lights show them green, to the naked eye it looked white to me with only the slightest hint of pink. Some others near me saw a little green but nothing like the colors the camera records. Back in bed in my warm little cubby hole I could still see remnants of it out my window before it faded and only the stars remained. I'd been in the northern latitudes before but this was the first time I'd seen the northern lights and it was truly magical.
Learn in the morning some people who watched the light show on a different deck also saw a polar bear walk right by the lodge. He then lay down a few hundred yards from the other one and both were standing up and looking around in the morning as I boarded the rover for another excursion.
The ride is very bumpy but we see three more bears and a bald eagle. The bears are lying down and resting so don't put on much of a show for us but are very cool nonetheless. They've all been a fair distance away so no bear selfies yet.
The polar bears live in a silent world and rarely make noise themselves. They like to sneak up on their prey.
Half the group stayed at the lodge and took their ride in the afternoon and boy were we jealous when we got back. Turned out the two bears sleeping nearby stood up and sparred a little then one came right up to the lodge and stood just below the deck and even peered into some of the bedroom windows.
After the sparring they were pals and slept next to each other as we watched from the windows and grabbed our cameras every time one of them looked up.
Spent the afternoon chatting and relaxing and watching our two nearby sleeping bears. After grabbing a pre-dinner cookie I settled down in the lounge with a book when someone spotted a bear far in the distance -- a female walking straight towards us. Grabbing cameras and binoculars we watched the bear get closer until it came right up to our lodge. It went up one side and down the other, sniffing the tires and sniffing us. We all ran from one end to the other following the bear which was now finally in selfie range. At one point it paused right under the metal grate of the deck I was standing on, close enough to touch. I didn't.
After posing for hundreds of pictures and deciding she wasn't going to be able to eat any of us, she ambled off.
The trip is less than 48 hours old and we couldn't ask for more of a close encounter with the polar bears.
I had just gotten into bed when word came of a second night in a row for the northern lights. Pretty amazing for this time of year. Threw on clothes (though not enough) and went out again but didn't last quite as long with the cold and could watch it a bit from my window after I got back into bed.
The bears are getting a lot more sleep than I am and I skip a 6:30am breakfast because that's just too darn early. But out the window I see my first arctic hare, a big white rabbit who likes cold weather.
We headed back to Churchill, a town of 700 people but stopped first for some dog sledding. We played with all the dogs who got very excited when it was time to run. We are right at the border of the boreal forest and the tundra and the dogs took us through a pretty stretch of evergreen forest.
The owner told us dog food (which like everything else here has to be sent by rail from Winnipeg) costs $100 for a forty pound bag. He mostly feeds his dogs things he hunts for -- seal, caribou and geese.
We visit the community center which is a single large heated complex with everything everyone needs in the winter: the school, hospital, city government, hockey rink, curling facility, gym, pool, bowling alley, play areas and a movie theater.
We spot a big snowy owl and a red fox, which has a much bigger and furrier tail than our foxes, which they use to curl up and stay warm.
Since the polar bear season that brings tourists only lasts six weeks, they are trying to build a summer tourist season and do have a good draw. Each summer thousands of beluga whales swim up the Churchill River and are very friendly with people who come out to see them.
We check into a hotel for the next two nights. So much space! And wifi!
We're told not to walk away from the one main street because the traps set out to keep bears out of town are far from full proof.
After another top notch dinner we spend a delightful hour with the matriarch of a large family of mixed heritage Scottish and Cree, an Indian tribe, called First Nation people here. She has us in stitches with tales of her childhood.
After a slightly warmer day Monday (at least I think it's Monday) was cold with 50 mph winds as we board our rovers for a full day looking for bears. The wind chill hovers around zero. This is fall, in winter it gets to 40 below.
Spotted a bear walking in the distance and went briefly on the outside deck to see before my eyes started getting too cold. The bear found a low spot to get out of the wind and I can't say I blame him.
Lunch time in another spot and it was a tad unreal to be in our heated vehicle drinking hot soup looking out at a sleeping polar bear. The next day I took a morning walk on Churchill's one main street. I was the only person out walking and was not sure if it was because of the bitter cold or the fact that half a dozen polar bears were trapped trying to get into town just this week. Had a delicious chocolate pastry at a bakery run by a charming lady from Portugal who asked me if I ever saw Oprah to please ask her to come visit. Saw a few shops and kids out playing in the schoolyard surrounded by a very high bear-proof fence.
Then our group went to the Post Office where you can get a polar bear stamp in your passport (I passed) then on to the interesting little Eskimo museum filled with Inuit sculptures. They had some beautiful pieces for sale and I contributed to the local economy.
After lunch before heading to the airport for our flight back to Winnipeg came a wonderful bonus. Three bears captured trying to come into town were being freed from bear jail and we were going to watch. One gigantic bear and two smaller ones were wheeled out after being drugged and laid out on three separate nets on the ground. One began to move its head and was quickly given more sedative. Then the nets were hooked to a helicopter and we watched it lift them in a vertical stack and fly away with three nets hanging each below the other and each carrying a bear.
They are taken well out of town and before being released the area is checked by a ranger with a rifle for wolves since the bears would be easy prey before they wake up.
The next day I spent a few hours wandering Winnipeg before my flight home hanging at the Forks a very pretty area where the Red and Assimboine rivers meet just beyond the downtown train station.
Spent time in the human rights museum a beautiful modern building with great views from its tower and magnificent alabaster ramps connecting it's eight floors.
I learned a Canadian lawyer penned the first draft of the 1948 UN universal declaration of human rights a remarkable document that the rest of the museum amply demonstrates is ignored pretty much everywhere in the world. Interesting that a display on Canada accepting political refugees includes a section on American draft dodgers welcomed during the Vietnam War. And it puts Obamacare in a new perspective to see that the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka called for universal health care in India about 2200 years ago.
The day was sunny and cool and I had a nice lunch at a window table at Mon Ami Louis a unique restaurant located halfway across a pedestrian bridge with the dining room suspended over the river. They fry their french fries in duck fat. Magnifique!
CENTRAL EUROPE 2014
Arriving in Cartagena the airport taxi scene seemed almost as chaotic as it appeared in "Romancing the Stone" but now tourists have replaced the drug lords.
Check into Hotel Santa Clara, a beautiful place right in the heart of the wonderfully preserved old walled colonial city built in what had been a 17th century convent.
The hotel is gorgeous, has a pool and spa and world class restaurant but still gives every guest a letter saying prostitutes are not allowed in the rooms and sex with minors will be reported to authorities. Sex tourism is a problem but they could be a little more subtle.
There are also instructions on what to do if you are assaulted (give them your money!)
But I'm assured the old and charming city center is safe these days and no time during my week stay did I feel the least threatened or uncomfortable.
Decide to wander the old city Sunday morning and every street is filled with amazing colorful buildings of a bygone era. There is a line outside a government building, which seems odd for a Sunday and I later learn it's visiting day at the women's jail.
Skip breakfast at the hotel and run into a lady selling fresh fruit in a small plaza and she chops up a delicious assortment for 5,000 pesos ($1.90.)
The people are all friendly and after negotiating I buy a sombrero which not only keeps the baking sun out of my eyes but gives me temporary immunity from all the other sombrero hawkers. No way to avoid those selling cheap jewelry, T-shirts, paintings and offering tours and emeralds.
Popped into the Juan Valdez cafe. They sell coffee but I opt for a lemonade mango smoothy. Plus it's air conditioned, they have a bathroom , WIFI and can change a 50,000 peso bill.
The tourists seem to mostly be from Mexico and elsewhere in South America and most are taking pictures with their smartphones but happily I have yet to see a selfie stick.
Visited the Palacio of the Inquisition, a restored building where suspected heretics were tortured and tried before being executed in the plaza out front. There was a nice stretching rack, other torture implements and a guillotine, which had a popcorn vendor next to it, which may have been historically accurate.
Fun factoid: of all the inquisition trials held here, no one was ever found innocent.
The museum is free on Sundays which does have a certain evil logic to it.
I'm wearing a money belt under my clothes but don't think it's working out. I'm sweating so much in the tropical heat my money is soaking wet by the end of the day.
After a nice lunch of grouper in a sherry sauce I head back to my hotel to ring out my shirt, lay the bills out to dry and sit by the pool.
The hotel is across the street from the Gabriel Garcia Marquez house so I'm glad I downloaded one of his books to my kindle. My I-phone thinks I walked three and a half miles today. It tends to exaggerate but it's a good enough reason to linger by the pool until dinner.
La Cevicheria comes highly recommended and has the advantage of being one block from my hotel. Bustling, friendly place with excessively nautical theme including a string of lighted green toy sea turtles. A picture of Anthony Bourdain on the wall is proof enough that this is the place to be. I'm hoping the ice with the bottled water is not from the tap.
The complimentary yucca chips with sour cream are tasty and the king prawns are the biggest I've ever seen. I've had smaller lobsters.
I was picked up at my hotel the next morning by Duran Duran. Not the British rock band but a local named Duran who runs a small family tour company highly rated on TripAdvisor.
It is a cooking and eating tour and a chance to spend a little time with a Colombian family.
A couple from California join me on the tour and we first went to the market. The market was crowded and dirty and very colorful as we bought shrimp, plantains, chicken and other ingredients for our lunch. I had some freshly squeezed passion fruit juice which was delicious.
We then went to Duran's house and helped his wife cook up a wonderful meal as we chatted with his three children. She showed us how to open the plantains with a sharp knife, slice and fry them then smash them thin between two boards then fry them again and add some salt. Shrimp and chicken in a creamy curry sauce was yummy. The kitchen has no microwave and no oven just two gas burners. There is no air conditioning, just a few electric fans. These are middle class people whose eldest son just graduated from college.
Cartagena was a favorite spot for pirates long before Carlos Escobar showed up. It was also a center of the slave trade and skin color comes in every shade. Some elements of Afro-Colombian culture and language survive in a few small villages.
So why are so many people here wearing and selling t-shirts advertising Emirates and Qatar Airlines which don't fly anywhere close? Turns out they are major sponsors of international soccer tournaments which everyone here watches on t-v.
After dark when it cools off a little is when the streets and plazas come alive with families, vendors and musicians. Street vendors offer shots of coffee (each variety in a different thermos) but I opt for wonderful fresh pineapple sliced by a fellow with a three foot knife. Popped into the Bank of Bogota and as I approached the ATM a lady asked me if I wanted to take money out and when I said yes advised me there was no money in the ATM. Kind of like Greece. The Banco de Colombia had money so I took out a modest 400,000. I'm finding all the nice restaurants take credit cards and add the tip.
Popped into the big Naval museum and though the information is only in Spanish it had some fun displays of model ships, pirates and a cool re-creation of a submarine control room.
The modern art museum was small but pleasant and stops in places with air conditioning are vital.
Went French for lunch at Montmartre with a nice fish and shrimp mouse and duck confit.
This afternoon it was time to check out the hotel spa which is quite marvelous. I had a chocolate and coffee body scrub followed by a 90 minute massage with hot and cold stones. With my muscles as loose as the scarecrow on the yellow brick road my masseuse then led me to a lounge chair for ice tea and fruit.
I recovered enough by dinner to seek out "Carmen" an excellent restaurant that fuses Asian and Colombian food and had some of the best roast pork I've ever eaten.
I don't normally do this but everything was so good I decided to tell the manager about a bad translation on the desert menu. A desert with a base of chocolate listed in Spanish as a "tierra" or earth was given the English translation of "chocolate soil.”
The next morning I leave the walls and go out in the other Cartagena, the bustling big city without tourists. Nice to be among energetic commerce none of it directed to selling me t-shirts.
After a while I let Google Maps guide me back to the familiar tourist center where I pop into an air conditioned shop for some nice croissants, one with cheese and the other with chocolate.
I've been hit with a painful bit of gout in my foot and the drugstore is happy to sell me anything they have without a prescription but it's not easy to figure out which drug to buy. With the help of the internet I find what I think is the right equivalent of the proper drug (manufactured by Bayer but with a different name) and they sell me four capsules. They work.
Wilting fast I head to Frenchie for lunch. No English spoken but crepes are an international language and I order one with salad and the juice of the day coconut-lemon which is incredibly refreshing.
Next morning I'm back with Duran Duran for a private tour of sites outside the old city.
First stop is a steep climb up to the fort, site of a major battle in 1741 in which the Spanish defeated a huge British invasion force, with substantial help from yellow fever and malaria which accounted for most of the casualties. Best factoid is that a contingent of soldiers from Virginia fought for the British commanded by George Washington's older half-brother Laurence. Second best factoid: the Spanish built an underwater wall (with slave labor) to block pirates and other evil-doers from sailing into the bay.
Next we visited La Popa monastery on the highest point over the city with great views. The striking church altar was moved from the abandoned monastery that now houses my hotel.
The "new city" features modern and very swanky high rise apartment buildings overlooking the beach, which is crowded but not terribly inviting with gray sand and an endless supply of vendors.
Duran also pointed out what he calls the "scandal hotel" where some of President Obama's secret service agents were caught entertaining young women practicing the oldest profession, which is legal here.
The next day I walk farther afield outside the old walled city where a little breeze off the bay made things a bit more comfortable and the price of a bottle of cold water drops by two-thirds.
Meander through the Gestamani neighborhood which is also chock full of beautifully restored colonial buildings with flower covered balconies until I run into Oh La La where I pop in for some wonderful fresh squeezed juice of a strange local fruit and some wifi.
Have lunch at a small hard to find spot La Cocina de Pepina run by a young man who learned English as an exchange student in east Texas. Wonderful very traditional food.
After a long walk back to my neighborhood I pop into KGB for some delicious ice cream. It is a bizarre theme bar/coffee shop decorated entirely with old soviet flags, posters and Lenin memorabilia with the staff dressed in soviet army uniforms. I can’t imagine why anyone would think that is a good idea.
I bid farewell to Colombia with breakfast in my hotel garden beginning with some mango juice and champagne followed by many fine courses of fruits, cheese, bacon, chicken, beef empanadas and a visit to the "niño buffet" where they had cupcakes and chocolate sauce.
Thought about packing some coffee in my suitcase to throw off the drug dogs but since I have no drugs I don't bother.
Flying back to America on July 4th and hope they let me in. I'll just tell them Donald Trump said it was ok.