All that is holy in Budapest.

It is as surprising to me as it may be to you that of all the places we visited during our tour, it is the city of Budapest that pops up most often in my post-trip daydreams. Budapest was never even remotely on my bucket list, but now I am continually plotting schemes to return there. The plot generally involves a fantasy of magically finding an apartment to let above the posh shops on elegant Andrássy Avenue and leisurely wandering this beautiful city for weeks and weeks and weeks…

Leisurely was not exactly the by-word for this visit, however. As neophytes departing our river boat we were armed with only the most scant knowledge of the city. Oh, it’s two cities you say? There is Buda, rising majestically on that massive knuckle of a hill above the west bank of the Danube, and then there is Pest fanning out on the flat to the east. Geographically, it reminded me a bit of Prague. But it is different from Prague, somehow. In my memories, it is somehow more airy and graceful. Much as I adore Prague, and long to stand again on the Charles Bridge, it is Budapest that most captured my heart.

After our tour of the Central Market, we boarded the Tauck buses for a precipitous climb up the hill. Our destination was the magnificent Matthias Church, perched alongside the famed Fisherman’s Bastion in Buda’s Castle District. The original church was built back in 1015, but was somehow lost to history. The current building was raised in the 14th century and restored in the 19th century. A church is a church is a church after you’ve been touring awhile, but this one is special, and memorable for the details that remind us that it was used as a mosque for some time after the Turkish conquest of Budapest in 1526.

This was our one and only rainy day of the whole trip – after touring the church we took refuge under the canopy of a nearby outdoor café. The CE pronounced the coffee to be as heavenly as the spires of Matthias.

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Also heavenly was the view of Pest below from the Fisherman’s Bastion:

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We rumbled back down the hill to visit Hungarian Parliament, which is as sacred to its countrymen as any church:

 

A few blocks from Parliament is the Ministry of Agriculture, where our guide proudly showed us the bullet holes in the wall from the Bloody Thursday uprising of 1956 when the Hungarians revolted courageously, albeit in vain, against Communist rule.

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There was Liberty Square and its somber memorial of WWII German occupation:

And the Dohány Street Synagogue, viewed today as a poignant reminder of the Holocaust. We were surprised to learn that the familiar names of actor Tony Curtis and make-up doyenne Estée Lauder were instrumental in funding the synagogue’s post WWII restoration.

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For me the most heart-wrenching reminder of the Holocaust was the Shoes on the Danube memorial to the Jews executed on the Danube’s bank in 1944 and 1945 by the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party. We walked extra miles on one of our precious days in Budapest to see this and it was worth every step.

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As we wandered the city on our own, we were surprised to encounter a statue of John Calvin, or — as he is known in Hungary — Kálvin János, next to the Kálvin Square Reformed Church:

 

And then, we happened upon the imposing St. Stephen’s Basilica in the midst of a glorious organ concert:

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Of course, everyone worships a bit differently – and among the most sacred experiences we had was a memorable lunch at the venerable Café Kör. The restaurant’s unprepossessing exterior and cash-only policy protects it somewhat from the tourist hordes, but the simple yet satisfying cuisine can’t be beat. The menu is humbly presented on a white board:

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And once the waiter decided we were temperamentally attuned to their liking, and with sufficient Hungarian forints in our pockets,

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he steered us toward a strudel for dessert that now haunts those Budapestian daydreams of mine. I’ve never, ever tasted anything called a strudel that came close to this:

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I’m sure we didn’t experience all that was holy in Budapest, but it was a good start!

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Good morning, Budapest!

In Germany, it is the Donau, in Slovakia, Dunaj. Hungarians call it the Duna. Napoleon called it the “king of the rivers of Europe”. We know it as the Danube, and just as we felt we had just begun to relax into dreamily meandering its serpentine curves through Germany, Austria and Slovakia, reality intruded. We had hardly boarded back onto the ship in Bratislava when the next day’s itinerary was delivered, reminding us to pack up our bags and don’t forget the passports! What? The dream was coming to an end.

Fortunately, we had one last evening to savor the river, with a sundeck reception as we passed through the locks at the Gabčikovo-Nagymaros Dam at sunset.

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It was with real affection that we had our last shipboard chats with the friends we had made during the cruise. We toasted the good fortune that we were one of the few boats to actually make the final leg to Budapest – the majestic Danube was so shallow due to drought that many cruisers were arriving Budapest by bus rather than boat. Here was our first glimpse of “the Paris of the East” early the next morning:

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Our by-now beloved tour directors made sure we didn’t have too much time to mourn our departure from the ship, gently prodding us to be on time for our visit to Budapest’s grand Central Market Hall. What an immense, amazing place!

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Accessibility check: yes, there were stairs!

On the upside, there was also plenty of Hungarian paprika. And the famous national brandy known as pálinka, which The New York Times has described as tasting “like rubbing alcohol with a hint of fruit.”

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Yes, we’d had to say goodbye to our boat, but it was a brand new day and we were in Budapest, with many more adventures in store. Leave it to Tauck to save the best for last…

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Bratislava, briefly.

Tourists don’t linger long in Bratislava, perhaps because its past woes seem to overshadow its present charms. Slovakia has endured a long history of insults: the most recent – and aesthetically displeasing – blows were inflicted by the Soviet Communists, preceded directly and unfortunately by the impact of the Nazis.

Before that, Bratislava was an unheralded addendum to the 1920 creation of Czechoslovakia after a long history under the thumb of Hungary and the Habsburgs.  Its name has varied with its fortunes: the Germans called it “Pressburg”, the Slovaks knew it as Prešprorok, for the Hungarians it was Pozsony, the Greeks called it Istropolis and long, long ago, the Romans christened it Posonium.

In fact, it’s not even quite settled whether Slovakia is East or West. Some historical purists claim that “East of Vienna, the Orient begins.” But Martin Sloboda, our knowledgeable, Bratislava-boosting on-ship presenter that morning insisted that Slovakia belongs to Central, not Eastern Europe. Wandering its old-town streets, we saw evidence of both:

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Slovakia has struggled for its hard-won identity and is greatly heartened by its recent economic boost as a member of the EU. But as Andrew Beattie says in The Danube: A Cultural History, “It will take decades for cities such as Bratislava to rid themselves of the visual blight inflicted by socialist city planners for whom functionality and cheapness were everything, while anything that could be seen as a nod towards an aesthetically pleasing environment in which people could live was frowned upon as dangerously bourgeois.”

There was the charming old town, and one lovely boulevard a few blocks from the river dotted with outdoor cafés; but beyond lay a distinctly unappealing jumble of Communist-era blocks looking as much as anything like the house of cards that period in history represented. Like every other guide we encountered on this trip, the one who shepherded us through the cobblestoned streets of old-town Bratislava spoke in hostile tones of Communism and what it did to Slovakia’s economy.  As for the 1993 “velvet divorce” of Slovakia and the Czech Republic – well, “it’s complicated”, but we were told “most people didn’t want it.”

We are simple creatures, though, and what we will remember of our few hours there was the oft-photographed sculpture that redefines “manhole cover”,

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the forbidding Communist-era Ludovit Stur statue,

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an excellent capuccino

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an introduction to “Bratislava rolls”,

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and the earnest tinge of patriotism we felt when we saw our flag waving outside the American embassy. Our brief experiences in these countries so recently and tragically trampled by the Soviets and the Nazis, we were reminded that freedom can never be taken for granted.

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We had a 3:00 p.m. “All Aboard” call, and soon we were underway again, the beautiful late September afternoon marred only by the awareness that we were heading toward our final port of call. We were sailing for Budapest!

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Vienna, redux.

We’d come full circle. Our trip had begun with a blurry, jet-lagged handful of days on our own in Vienna before meeting up with our Tauck tour in Prague. Now we were back, but this time under our professional tour guides’ professional purview, complete with coach, the ever-present Vox Boxes and a meticulously planned itinerary.

Which way is better? If you’re in the “decidedly-averse-to-group-travel” category as we’d always been, well, of course, you’ll want to go it alone. We had a lovely (if sleep-deprived) time stumbling about the city on our own those first few days. But if, just if, you’re a person of a certain age and have become a bit weary of lugging your suitcases from city to city to city, you might be surprised to learn you won’t hate a tour.

“Oh, we’ve already seen Vienna” was the thought that sprang to mind. But right off the bat, our Tauck coach tour of the Ringstrasse provided sights we had not yet seen. First, a passing view of the lovely Jubilee Church, completed in 1913 and so named to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria.

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Then a glimpse of the Prater’s iconic ferris wheel, revered by devotees of The Third Man and Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise:

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The subsequent walking tour brought us back to some familiar sights – the Pestsäule, or Plague Column, on the Graben being one of them:

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and we opted out of the Naschmarkt tour since we’d toured it during our previous visit. Feeling a bit müde after all our touring, we also opted out of the afternoon visit to the Upper Belvedere Palace, which was a HUGE MISTAKE – it is a must-see for fans of Klimt. I will always regret that I passed on my opportunity to see The Kiss. Lesson learned: go see everything!

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We had decided to rest that afternoon because Tauck had a big night planned for us. “Dress up”, they said, for a special evening at the Palais Pallavicini! This was most definitely something we would not have experienced on our own – a beautiful Viennese feast, never-empty glasses of Grüner Veltliner, and entertainment by local musicians, singers and dancers. And yes, there was no avoiding it,  The Blue Danube Waltz was played…

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Next day we had a fabulous Tauck-sponsored tour of the Schönbrunn Palace, marred only by some elbow-poking from fellow tourists who looked suspiciously like those we encountered in Salzburg. The Schönbrunn is a very busy place that receives well over a million visitors annually..

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Then a bit of free time where we said our farewells to Vienna over a lovely lunch at Café Imperial…

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and then, it was time to move on.  We had a 3:00 p.m. “All Aboard” deadline for departure to our next stop… Auf Wiedersehen, Vienna!

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Dreamy Dürnstein.

On a successful trip, there’s always a moment or day that sifts into your memory to be instantly conjured up far into the future. You can be doing some sort of drudge chore (ahem, chicken-coop cleaning in my case!) and suddenly that golden moment appears like a gift:  I remember that! And you see it like you were there anew. On our Danube river cruise there were many such days, but one of my favorites was our visit to Austria’s Wachau Valley and the exquisite village of Dürnstein.

First memory moment that day was cruising silently through the morning fog from Linz and watching the sun rise over the Danube as we sipped lattes in our stateroom:

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There was a festive brunch that morning:

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and then we were reminded to take in the sights of the gloriously picturesque Wachau Valley as we headed toward Dürnstein:

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We were not the first to discover it. The Celts were planting grapes here in the fifth century, B.C. And the Romans, whose soldiers reportedly preferred to be paid in wine, cultivated some of the area’s first vineyards. Riesling and Grüner Veltliner are the best-known wines to come from the Wachau Valley.  In the twelfth century, Richard the Lionhearted, returning from the Third Crusade, spent a season here under ransom by Duke of Austria Leopold V. If I’m ever going to be in captivity, please, let it be in Dürnstein! It won’t be solitary confinement though – more than a million visitors come to this tiny town each year. Luckily, our time there was relaxed and uncrowded. It was a perfect day!

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After a walking tour, we peeked into the former Augustinian monastery:

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Its tower is a Dürnstein landmark.

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And offers the best views in town:

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If we are ever lucky enough to return, we’ll stay at the Hotel Sänger Blondel, where we found a magical shaded garden café after our tour.

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Because Tauck always thinks of something special, we were treated to a wine-tasting:

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If the grape is not your passion, the area is also famed for its marille – the prized apricots they add to their famed jams, stews and brandy:

An accessibility note: walking down the hill to the boat was much easier than walking up, for those of us with “issues”. All I can say is it was absolutely worth it – don’t miss Dürnstein – it is the stuff dreams are made of…

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Day Trip to Salzburg.

Decisions, decisions. With our ship docked at Linz, today the Tauckians had to decide between a tour to Salzburg or to Cesky Krumlov. Tough choice! We had solved it by planning a visit to Cesky Krumlov out of Prague so we wouldn’t miss out on this day in Salzburg.

20/20 hindsight, fwiw: Cesky Krumlov is not to be missed: the three-hour drive each way was arduous and meant losing a precious day in Prague; and thus, if I had it to do all over again, I might have skipped Salzburg. I know. I’m an irredeemable heretic. Wolfgang Amadeus, please forgive me.

Maybe it was just that point in the trip. Seems for me there’s always a day, usually at about mid-point in a journey, where an unbidden tinge of ennui creeps in and casts an ever-so-slight pall over my sense of adventure. Maybe I just kinda want to go home.  And this turned out to be that day.

It began with great promise – our drive to Salzburg would include a stop at a vista point for the exquisite Mondsee Lake. Unfortunately, every other cruise line’s river boat tour itinerary that day was hot on our heels and we played “dueling coaches” from beginning to end. One of my initial concerns about organized travel had been my aversion to the seemingly unavoidable “hive behavior” of tour groups. Tauck does a great job of splitting large groups into small ones so you never feel like part of a locust plague descending upon other tourists or townspeople. But not every tour operator does it like Tauck.

When we disembarked at the vista point, busload after busload of eager tourists from China traveling on a different line vied with us for the best or any view. And when I say vied, I mean jostled, elbowed, barked, and in general outbid us for a vantage point every time. As a tourist, it helps to have a different expectation of personal space than we do! Here is my most serene shot of the idyllic lake, with hundreds of other avid photographers conveniently cropped out of the picture:

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As our coach pulled up to the curb near the Mirabell Palace gardens, so did all our new friends, with apparently renewed zeal for their photographic quarry. Maybe they were fans of The Sound of Music, scenes of which were filmed on the garden steps. Or maybe they were having their own “off” day.  Whatever the reason, this was the one and only day of our tour that felt like an absolute crush of humanity. Seriously, Times Square would have seemed peaceful by comparison, although if one works hard at photo cropping, it can appear we had the place all to ourselves:

Of course, if we had skipped Salzburg, we would have missed out on Mozart’s birthplace:

And the Salzburg Cathedral:

And the Hohensalzburg Fortress, where you ride a funicular up the hill and are rewarded with a fabulous view of all those tourists in the town below (at least the ones who didn’t pour in the tram car along with you):

And the schnitzel…

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And, perhaps most importantly, the Mozartkugeln! Make sure you buy the “authentic” ones!

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Looking back on it now, okay, maybe I wouldn’t have wanted to miss Salzburg. The problem was, neither did anyone else. Maybe it was just the time of year or maybe it’s the time of man (Joni Mitchell is my Mozart…) Perhaps you’ll have a completely different experience if you go. I’ll just say that as we boarded our coach that afternoon to head back to the boat (with a few bags of Mozartkugeln in tow), it was with a small sigh of relief.

All cares melted away with a barbecue that evening on the sundeck of the M.S. Joy and a leisurely night time walk into Linz where we felt like the only tourists in town!

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Next post: Dürnstein and the Wachau Valley…

 

 

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Back on the boat: Is a river cruise for you?

I could talk about books forever (yeah, say some of you, you kind of did…) but now we can finally get back to the travelogue. Thanks to all the Tauckians for the thumbs ups – no more interruptions, I promise!

But let’s backtrack a bit: since we’d never been on a river cruise, we had some question marks in our minds about whether it was a good choice for us. In addition to the daunting concept of group travelwe had other questions about making this trip. And even though I spoke with our travel agent and with with Tauck representatives by phone, I had trouble getting definitive answers to my questions. Here are a few things I’d wish we’d known before we went:

How does a river cruise compare to an ocean cruise? Well, maybe like a house cat to a tiger, or a chapel to a cathedral. The spirit of the adventure is the same, but in a much, much smaller package. A hundred-plus-change passengers compared to thousands. One dining room – the Compass Rose – but a lovely one, indeed! There was also a separate bar and then of course the lively top Sundeck, where we whiled away many hours.

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Was a river cruise for us? An ocean cruise is verboten for us since the CE suffers from Mal de Débarquement Syndrome. The “pitch and roll” of a big ship seems to be the catalyst for the ailment, which leaves one reeling for weeks, months or possibly forever after a cruise. Oddly, it’s not about finding one’s “sea legs” on the ship, but rather a dysfunction that prevents one from reacquainting with life back on land. The CE was told after our second ocean cruise and a months-long bout with nausea and vertigo that another cruise could leave him permanently impaired.

So it was with a bit of trepidation that we boarded the river boat. Would he be similarly affected? Truth be told, we were both a little queasy at first. I hadn’t even brought any sea-sickness medication with me and for a few hours would have traded a little piece of my soul for a vial of Dramamine. But my brain caught up fairly quickly and by Day Two, I was fine. The CE managed his prescribed potions and I’m happy to report that both during and after the cruise he was fine.

What’s it like onboard? Our room compared nicely with an ocean cruise staterooms. Lovely Molton Brown toiletries – no need to bring your soap and shampoo, but there were no cotton balls or swabs, and there was no magnifying make-up mirror, so ladies, you are on your own there.

We were on the Joy’s “Diamond Deck” which is the uppermost level of cabins, affording us a lovely view from our room – while the ship was cruising, that is. As novice river cruisers, we had not realized that while in port, we would almost always be “boxed in” on both sides by other boats mooring alongside us. Some days we had to close our balcony door because of diesel fumes or draw our drapes to avoid a too-close encounter with crew members from the adjacent ship staring right into our room. But the views from our floor-to-ceiling windows while we were en route almost made up for it:

 

Would we – newbies to a tour experience – be bored or feel claustrophobic on a small boat? Emphatically no! For one thing, Tauck keeps you busy with daily excursions. Secondly, there is a comfortable sense of community that develops among the fellow passengers – quite literally you are “all in the same boat” and it just kind of works.

My biggest concern pre-cruise was accessibility. Bad back, long boring story. I’m fine on flat land, but steps and inclines can be an issue. Would the stairs on the boat be a problem?

I’d also read that for some people, crossing the decks from one boat to another while “boxed in” in port could be an issue. No problems there for us, everything was flat and manageable. And yes, there are some stairs on the boat, but I found them quite manageable. Tauck makes it clear that they cannot accommodate wheelchair users but I did see a few people with canes who seemed to do just fine.

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What about the motor coaches?

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One of the great things about the snazzy Tauck motor coaches is that you are enthroned so high you can see everything! But that also means a few high steps to climb in and out of your coach. I was assured by an agent on the phone that there would be a step stool to help with that first particularly high step. But the intel was wrong. There was no step stool at any point during our trip. I was fine, but if the pitch of a bus step is a problem for anyone, it could be a deal-breaker for a tour.

Other accessibility issues to keep in mind are that part of Europe’s charm is cobblestoned streets and steps, steps and more steps. One can always opt out of an excursion, but keep in mind that there will be challenges.

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River cruising is not exactly an extreme sport. There might have been a few couples in their fifties and a smattering of adult children along for the ride with their families. Tauck provided more challenging options like bicycling excursions along the Danube for the more adventurous passengers. Most of our group were, I’d say, were active folks in their mid-sixties to late seventies. I was probably among the less spry members of the group, but luckily, I managed to keep up just fine.

So. Here we are now, happily back on the tour.

After a memorable day in Engelhartszell, we re-boarded the M.S. Joy and sailed for our next port of Linz. The weather was divine, although rumors abounded that many cruises were being re-routed due to the Danube’s low water levels this fall. It made us appreciate every moment on the boat!

Next week – our excursion to Salzburg.

 

 

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