Thursday, July 11, 2019

Ain't Europe Grand (Tour) with Chryss and George (Day 5)

Sure, it's harder to feel you're connecting with the places you're visiting when you're eating on a ship and not in some off the beaten track find of a bistro. Sure sometimes you are spending mere hours ashore. Sure you don't get to talk to many of the "natives," as it were, beyond tour guides and shopkeepers, who have their own reasons to present their locations they way they want (to get you to tip, to get you to buy). But, your "hotel," which moves with you every night so you don't have to pack up (unless...well, we'll get there), sits in the middle of many of the most wonderful places. So, perhaps, you can rest on your bed and have the photo above be your view. Such Viking magic might be one of the reasons we were as much entranced by Budapest as any of our stops.

Panoramic, if a Bit Too Much by Bus, Budapest

We take the included shore excursion this morning to get a good overview, pun intended, as you shall see. The first third of the tour is mostly just busing about Pest, past sites like the House of Terror, an unassuming facade that hides the rooms where both the Nazi and Soviet occupiers performed many of their worst deeds on the local populace. Brutality seems so banal sometimes.

But then there's happier things, too, like Heroes Square and the art museums that flank it, including the Hall of Art that had some David Lynch show going on we didn't get to see, alas. We don't even get out to walk around, it's all just the bus doing loops around a grand square. (Spot the photographer's reflection in the bus window.)

And then the outside of the permanent circus (no, we didn't transport to DC and the White House silly).

Much more dramatically, there was the Great Synagogue, which made it through World War II somehow, and is the largest synagogue in Europe. I only wish we could have toured the interior.

We crossed the Danube into Buda, and riverside got this great view back across the Chain Bridge, with its lions in all their regal glory.

Here's the view almost exactly the other way, towards the Fishermen's Bastion and Matyas Church (we'll be up there soon). You can't have a bad view no matter where you look, that's Budapest.

A-Foot, At Last

The bus drivers, winding through the narrow streets as smoothly if they were driving bikes down boulevards, drop us all off at the hilltop so we can do more touring by foot. We still don't get to see everything that interests a weirdo like me, including this Houdini Museum that reminds me his name was Ehrich Weiss originally, his dad was a rabbi, and he was born in Hungary.

We do get to get much closer to very old buildings--if I recall properly, this is 15th century or so, just like most of the houses in California. (We had two earthquakes in two days last week. That anything stands here for long is incredible.)

There's even a museum that spells itself mvsevm, as if it had been reading my poems. If you haven't, The First Night We Thought the World Would End is available at SB bookstores and on Amazon.

We do get to tour inside Matyas Church, one of those buildings with a wild history, from being converted to a mosque by occupying Turks to having its roof destroyed in WW II...and not restored for several decades. But my god it's beautiful. Or maybe I should say everyone's god. Gothic on the outside, but then gussied up the most in the late 1800s, so there's lots of Art Nouveau, and then the more modern, checkered roof that looks old. Quite a place.

To top it off (haha), there's the view from the Romanesque Fishermen's Bastion, all up and down the Danube. Which, alas, is not blue. Sort of muddy and quick. Not in waltz time at all.

Radio Buddies

That afternoon we get to do something probably no one else on this Viking cruise (or maybe any?) has done--meet up with a friend I did radio with back in the early 1980s. This is not part of any tour. I knew Steve Stec in Baltimore in our WJHU days, and at best we'd last seen each other when I got to Baltimore semi-frequently in the late 80s when I lived in Pennsy. He's been in Europe for some time, working at Central European University, consulting on environmental law all over the globe, doing cool things. And marrying the very lovely and kind Izabella, who ends up chauffeuring Chryss and I back and forth from Budapest to their home in Szentendre, about 22 km away, but that's suburban slow driving. And we sort of invited ourselves to her house without notice, too. Thank you for your kindness and patience and graciousness, Izabella!

It was a relaxing afternoon getting to catch up 20+ years at the Barati Stec house on a scenic hillside looking back towards the Danube. Plus both good wine and elderflower syrup infused water from their own trees. How nice not only to meet again but also to get to see a bit of what it's like to live someplace and not just cruise through it.

Eating Morning, Noon and Night

Note I haven't mentioned food yet, as I've decided it deserves its own little section. All the chowing down we did was on the boat except for a quick coffee-pastry break near Buda castle on the walking tour. Don't assume we're just lazy, though, for the food on the boat consistently pleased. For instance, pretty much any morning at breakfast you had, as just one of your options, little fish plates like these you could enjoy.

And then lunch there was always some pasta a chef would serve for you along with a buffet line of different delights, like this day's salad laced with duck confit (good, but I was stilled ruined for duck after Prague's perfection), there close to the Bitburg, which was the house beer btw.

Dinner meant another chance to sample the regional specialties, but also discovering one of the Tir's specialties was soup. Like this wild mushroom one with truffle cream to up the umami.

Then when in Hungary, one must goulash, no? So I did, the sauce piquant with paprika, the meat succulent and neither soggy nor overdone, always a danger with something like this cooked in sauce. That Israeli couscous style pasta they called tarhonya was a different, elegant touch, too. And who doesn't want a pickle on every dish. Seriously.

Chryss got to go full veggie for her choice, with a warming, pleasing warm potato and goat cheese tian in some hearty and rustic tomato sauce.

Then dessert was the somewhat puzzlingly named Somlói Galuska, given galuska means dumpling, and while this is a bit of a rolled ball, it's really a trifle, originally from around the town of Somlo. Think a mix of different sponge cakes--plain, walnut, chocolate--and then chocolate drizzled atop with some whipped cream. Lighter than you'd think (definitely not a dumpling) and crazy tasty.

Ship Ahoy Stuff

There was a Toast to Our Guests prior to dinner, complete with trays of sparkling wine and kir royales to imbibe as our fearless crew got introduced to us, especially Captain Rudy and Hotel Manager Claudia. While the passengers never have to dress up, the crew certainly liked to put on their full uniforms for ceremonies like these.

We sailed off at about 6 pm--thanks to Izabella for risking city traffic and getting us back to the boat on time!--which meant lots of lovely views for the rest of the evening, only a few of which I'll bore you with here in photo form. It really was sort of pinch-me stunning most of the time from the ship, as the views kept changing, too, and were rarely blighted and industrial. More likely they'd be some village that looked like a Hollywood set

or a sunset over more trees than we thought we'd see riverside. Lots of the banks were unpopulated and dramatically green green green, as befits a place where it actually rains.

And then it was worth going to the top open deck, where I got this panoramic shot of the ship, the Danube, the moon.

Go back and read Day 4 of Ain't Europe Grand (Tour)

Thursday, July 4, 2019

Ain't Europe Grand (Tour) with Chryss and George (Day 4)

Busing to Budapest

Not the most scenic shot, out a bus on a crummy weather morning, but that's our first view of the Danube with Bratislava in the bridge distance (we'll see that bridge again soon from a very different perspective). For today is on the road and then at last on the boat day. Viking does a great job of getting luxury buses--the seats don't just recline, they push out a bit side-to-side--so it's about as comfy as bus time can be. You even get a tour guide just for travel, so they keep you up-to-date with the schedule and the sites.

We drive two hours from Prague, take a snack break. That includes wonderfully site specific Pringles.

There might have been chocolate, too, the kind over wafers that I also somehow recall from my childhood, but did distant Slovak relatives really ship candy our way, to the land of sugar, the USA? My memory isn't the best. We drive two more hours to stop for lunch, now in Hungary--we just drive through Slovakia, land of my peoples, as if it were Delaware and you were a Jersey boy with Maryland on your mind. It's quick. So our stop is alongside the freeway in Hungary, what would be a truck stop in the the States, but going through the salad bar portion of the stop, I end up with a plate that looks like this:

Sometimes traveling makes you want to move, no? Two more hours and we have arrived.

Shed No Tir

That's the first glimpse of our ship the Tir (sorry for the pun), and it's sitting in a perfect berth right below one of Budapest's scenic sites, the Chain Bridge. Oh, did you know that Budapest is sort of a Minneapolis-St. Paul that decided, "Hey, our names are short, let's be one city?" Buda is the hilly historic side (across the river from our boat), while we're officially Pests (sorrier for the pun), in the more modern flat side. Of course everywhere modern and older mix like crazy, so that's an over-generalization, but how many words do you really want this blog to be? Still, plenty of chances to glimpse architectures like this side-by-side.

Or there's this juxtaposition, the joy of a gorgeous lamp and an eye to keep track of you watching said lamp.

Roger, Chryss and I head out for a bit of a sight-see prior to dinner, and take the obligatory selfie to prove it.

The boat is docked very close to Váci utca, Budapest's main business thoroughfare, so much of it is pedestrian mall. As pedestrians, we're all for it. You get to take in a lot of Art Nouveau along the way, and that's always grandiosely fine by me.

Once again, even the manhole covers are works of art. Once again I cause pedestrian traffic back-ups. Sorry you made your places to walk so darn pretty, Europe!

Our goal is the Central Market Hall, as we love old time markets--nothing seems to give you a sense of a place than to see the produce people produce. (I promise that sentence makes sense.) Not to mention the building itself is something--from the outside it's hard to tell if inside you will get to buy your grocery or board a train, which is fitting as it does transport you.

For some reason I don't really have a better interior shot than this one, mostly because I inhaled so much paprika, which is to Hungary what refrigerator magnets are to an American airport. There are a ridiculous amount of varieties beyond plain and smoked, too. Made us wish we could do some cooking.

We walk back and near the end get a bit closer to the Danube, even if rails are in the way. Oh, countries with mass transit that matters!

What is it about rivers and bridges that is instantly so photogenic? Perhaps because it's one of the few times we let nature be nature while we conquer nature? Simply put, nature and humans get to be at their best all at the same time. Go us.

Food Is More than Fine

I wasn't certain what to expect from the food on the Tir. I knew Viking got good marks, but I'm also the kind of person who doesn't feel like he's visited a place until he's eaten the food there, so the idea of eating on the ship all the time had me, at the outset, pretty skeptical.

I won't try to build any suspense, though. We couldn't have been happier with what Viking fed us. Above is the full dinner menu from the first evening. As you can see, the left side is standard, so you won't see it again--stuff you could easily land on if you missed America too badly. It also features the nightly wines. Page two is where I would spend my ordering attention, though, particularly at the top as each evening there were regional specialties. Notice sometime more of these would appear in the nightly dinner menu section, too. And nothing repeated. Not a huge amount of choice, but just enough. Things even worked well every night for pescatarian Chryss, despite the menu often not giving the leaf symbol for vegetarian to actual veggie dishes. Perhaps that was just a way to show each was printed for the day at hand (and therefore not perfectly proofread)?

We would often be able to order different things and at least share tastes, so that was great, and what we did for the appetizers this first night. Chryss got that Norwegian baby shrimp cocktail, which proved the seafood would be mighty fresh (one of the joys of a river cruise is the galley can get restocked pretty much daily), with lots of good celery and apple crunch. I had the Hungarian market salad, because it didn't sound like it would work sans the crispy pork crackling, even though they were always willing to de-meat a dish if they could for Chryss. Still, when it's so straightforward, one missing item can topple a simple balance. Very tasty and fresh. Plus, salad! Green bonus points in central Europe always a plus (we even felt that way about the celery in the shrimp).

For mains, I had to have some paprikash after all that paprika at the market. Even my Slovak mom made a paprikash. This chicken dish was piquant and pleasing and even better the breast was still quite tender, something that doesn't always happen when the focus is the sauce. Those creamy spätzle were a plus, too, just enough doughy, if that makes sense.

Chryss went with the fish, getting bonus shrimp in the deal but even better, a truly crispy skin on the perch.

It all went very well with the Gruner Veltliner from Winery Morwald. Morwald, in the Wachau Valley of Austria, is licensed to make Viking's house wines and they do a very solid job. The Gruner was all you'd want the varietal to be, just tart and green apple-licious, a perfect foil for somewhat richer foods.

And then, of course, dessert, which would become the weight gain bane of our existence, as we don't eat it much at home and suddenly were having it for lunch and dinner. I appreciated every slight incline I had to walk on this trip, I promise. At least we often shared sweets to lessen the caloric hit a bit. Here's something called Zserbo, a layer cake that was delicious without being overly sweet. Of course there's ice cream and chocolate sauce to help.

I Want To See the Bright Lights Tonight

As we finished dinner, the Tir took off on an evening Danube cruise for us, as we would be leaving the next evening too early to see the night-lit sights. That meant at first things were still just bathed in a sunset glow, like the ridiculously gorgeous Parliament building, which is Gothic in design but was built from 1885-1904. They just wanted Gothic, and can you blame them.

Alas, we never got inside, but that gives us a reason to go back (among many). Somehow it got dark fast, despite it being much further north than we're used to in Santa Barbara, or maybe I just edited a whole bunch of pictures or had my nose lost in Zserbo. But here's that Parliament Building all a-lit.

Then here's what became a sad view just a week or so after we sailed up the Danube, the Margit Bridge. It's heading under this bridge that the Viking Sigyn collided with the much smaller sight-seeing ship Mermaid, and 28 people were killed. Nothing close to that happened our night, but there certainly were a host of boats about, as how could they not be with the amazing views. Still, you don't have much room to get under these bridges if you're a long boat, so I can imagine how it went down (so to speak).

We were lucky to have a clear evening, too, if very crisp. The accident night was rain. Learn more if you care--it's an fascinating story of people wanting to make as much tourist money as possible and different levels of ships not communicating well.

But here's the Royal Palace

and the Elizabeth Bridge

and the Museum of Contemporary Art, so, of course, neon

and we pulled safely if totally agog from all the beauty back into our berth under the Chain Bridge.

Which, if you whisked aside the curtains in our stateroom, looked like this. Very clean windows and very sweet dreams indeed.

Go back to Day 3 of Ain't Europe Grand (Tour)

Go forward to Day 5 of Ain't Europe Grand (Tour)