Saturday, June 20, 2015

A Gray Day in Budapest

A Budapest Bird at Castle Hill
I don't mind a little rain as long as I can keep my camera dry. Water fell out of the sky in one form or another almost constantly on our Budapest day. It rained for our city tour, it was off-the-charts humid at the horse farm, and it misted in the evening as the Viking Prestige sailed past the illuminated buildings. So take a look at the photos I shot while I explain them, and click on the video for some Hungarian-flavored music!

The City Tour took us by air-conditioned coach (AKA bus) to the old part of the city. Did you know that Budapest was originally two cities named Buda and Pest? Now that they are joined by bridges it made sense to combine them and call the two together Budapest, but they still retain some of their former personalities. Buda is the older part and features the Castle District at the top of a hill overlooking the Danube River. We toured Matthias Church (AKA Church of Our Lady) with its colorful ceramic tile roof and impressive interior paint job. This church is known as Hungary's most often rebuilt church, and that is kind of a metaphor for Hungary itself. Over the centuries this country has been taken over repeatedly by nearby countries or tribes, and the Hungarians we met (including our funny guide Otto) made jokes about this history.

The ceramic tile roof of Matthias Church. That black spire is called the Black Falcon.

Back to Matthias Church: the first church here was built in 1015. There were fires, invading Turks, Gothic architects, Romanesque architects, and the last Hungarian King Charles IV and his wife Zita were crowned here in 1916. The most recent rebuild was after World War II because the Germans and Soviets used the church as a stable for their horses and a garage for their tanks. There's no evidence of that episode now.

Interior shot of Matthias Church
Another Matthias Church interior
The site I was most looking forward to from my pre-trip research was the Fishermen's Bastion. The local fishermen's guild in the nineteenth century was responsible for looking after this part of Castle Hill. They built this bastion which looks like a sandcastle between 1895 and 1902. The seven spires represent the seven Hungarian tribe leaders who conquered this land. These days the Fishermen's Bastion is a cool place to visit to get a great view of the Danube River and the Pest part of the city.
Part of the Fishermen's Bastion with the statue of King St. Stephen
View from the Fishermen's Bastion
The marble steps in front of the Fishermen's Bastion
Another part of the Fishermen's Bastion
Budapest's many-spired Parliament Building (from the bus)
Our motor coach took us back over the Danube to the Pest side where the sites were a little bit more modern. We walked along Vaci Street, closed to vehicular traffic and lined with shops, cafes, and restaurants.
Of course I went in there!
One of many interesting restaurants
I was impressed by Budapest's manhole covers.

We walked over to Heroes Square (1896) which functions as a Hungarian history lesson in statues. The tall monument structure is the National Heroes Monument to the Unknown Soldier, and the other statues (between the columns) are important figures in Hungarian history over the centuries. Other statues represent Work, Welfare, War, Peace, Knowledge, and Glory.
Half of Heroes Square
Close-up of horses in Heroes Square because horses are important to the Hungarians.
In the afternoon (yes, all the above was from the morning City Tour), we took a bus ride out to Lazar Equestrian Park to see some Lipizzaner and Nonius horses run around a muddy track. This was a great show! The park is owned by two championship riders who are brothers, Vilmos and Zoltán Lázár. After the show, we got to walk through the Lipizzaner stables and the brothers' trophy room. The show was thrilling, watching the riders and horses perform stunts and just look fantastic. I doubt my photos will do it justice.

He wasn't really using the whip on the horse--the whips make a cracking noise that the horses respond to.

Oxen move slow.
These five moved fast with that rider standing on the back two--one foot on each.

After the horse experience, we were delivered back to our ship for dinner and then our farewell to Budapest from the rainy sundeck. Take a look at these last photos of Parliament all lit up for us!

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The Prague Blog

Touring Prague
 Prague was our last destination, a three-day extension, on our splendidly fantastic river cruise on the Danube. It's the freshest in my mind, so I figured I'd start my city blogs with the "City of 100 Spires." If you know your geography, you know that Prague is not on the Danube River, it is about four hours by bus away from our last Danube destination (Passau, Germany). If you know your music history, you know that the Danube doesn't bisect the city, the Vltava River does. Some Bedrich Smetana might be appropriate here--this is his musical depiction of that river, part of a larger work dedicated to his homeland (Ma Vlast). (It's easy to get confused: the Czech name for the river and this movement is Vltava and the German name is Die Moldau.) By the way, the building shown in the beginning of the video is the Municipal House, and inside there is a hall named for Smetana. It was a few steps away from our hotel.

Old Town

Next to Municipal House is the Powder Tower, built in the 1400s to house gunpowder.
The Powder Tower
Municipal House and the Powder Tower are considered to be in New Town, but just on the other side of them is the Old Town where we find the mammoth Gothic Tyn Church which was Catholic, then Hussite, and then Catholic again. Construction of this church began in 1365.
Tyn Church
It's difficult to get a good picture of this church because buildings stand right in front of it. I'm standing in Old Town Square to take the shot of Tyn Church, and it was lightly raining at that moment. Rain is not always a bad thing: as long as your photographic gear is protected, interesting shots are possible!

Old Town Square with the Tyn Church and a different tour group
Another view of Old Town Square...with bubbles!
The most famous attraction on the square, and possibly in all of Prague, is the 15th-century Astronomical Clock. This thing marks every hour with a grandiose show of chimes and a parade of twelve apostles inside the little windows above the clock. Please note also that the sun and moon revolve around the earth here, and Prague is the center of the earth. The zodiac signs were added in the 19th century.

Oh yeah, I took a video of the clock, too, at 10:00am. Look for the Apostles moving past the two windows under the arch.

 The writer Franz Kafka was born practically in the shadow of the clock, and lived in Prague most of his life. His birthplace is now a cafe bearing his name, but the building is not original.
Cafe Kafka gets ready for business
Rott House nearby is the location of the printing press which printed the first Bible in Czech in the 15th century.
U. Rott House

Charles Bridge

The Charles Bridge traverses the Vltava River and brings us to the other side of Prague. It was the city's only bridge for 400 years. Built in the 14th century, the bridge originally had no statues. The imperial Hapsburg family had many religious statues built in an attempt to re-convert Czechs to Catholicism in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Bridge statue with St Vitus Cathedral
This is a sample of the activity on the Charles Bridge
The Vltava River from the Charles Bridge
Charles IV, for whom the bridge is named

Prague Castle

Eventually, our group wound its way over hilly cobblestone streets to Prague Castle. This is actually a megalopolis of smaller palaces, houses, and the imposing St. Vitus Cathedral, built over the centuries around Castle Square.
Castle Square

From a distance, and you saw it from a distance in some of the Charles Bridge shots above, it looks like one giant castle, spooky at night. Franz Kafka's novel, The Castle, is thought to have been inspired by the spooky nighttime castle. Our group cruised through Castle Square, inside the main gate where we saw the guards change, and briefly stopped in St. Vitus Cathedral. We were headed to Lobkowicz Palace for a tour which I blogged about on my Music Monday with Margaret blog here: (Check it out!) Back to Prague Castle, visitors may buy a ticket to tour some of the buildings, and see more of St. Vitus than just the free zone just before the nave as we did. This cathedral is very important to Czech Catholics as many of their local saints and kings are entombed here. The stained glass windows are impressive, but the one most visitors crane their necks to see was created by Czech artist Alphonse Mucha. Without a ticket, though, we can only see about half of it:
Alphonse Mucha window
St. Vitus Cathedral Rose Window


One of our tour guides told us a funny story about a couple returning home from a Viking River Cruise of the Danube. The man went into his study and began to write, "ABC...ABC..." The woman asked him what he was doing, and he explained that he was writing about what he saw on their trip. This made no sense to the woman until he explained: "Another Bloody Church, Another Bloody Castle..."
Ha. Ha.

But maybe you are interested in shopping opportunities in Prague. What does one typically buy there?
Garnets are popular, and reportedly inexpensive. (I was tempted, but I didn't.)
Czech crystal. (I didn't.)
Marionettes! (I didn't.)
Pencils? (I didn't.)
These pastry cylinders with chocolate syrup inside. (I did!)
These pastries had no name from what I could tell except for "Bavarian Treat," and they were sold all over town. They are baked in long tubes on metal cylinders and cut down to about six inches for the customer. The chocolate is spread inside just before you eat it and the thing is still warm and fragrant.
Here they are cooking.
If you go to Prague, it is this sign that you have to look for:


In case you want to read more about Prague, I have two suggestions for you beyond the usual tour guides. Look for Prague: A Traveler's Literary Companion, edited by Paul Wilson (Whereabouts Press, 1995), for stories about Prague from the best Czech writers. I was reading this one on the tour bus, and fellow travelers were intrigued. I found Prague in Black and Gold by Peter Demetz (Penguin, 1997) in the Prague Airport. It focuses on Prague's history.

Friday, June 5, 2015

On the Viking Ship (In the Danube River)

Budapest's Parliament Building from the Sun Deck in the Rain
My sister and I recently splurged on one of those river cruises you see advertised on TV, especially if you watch Downton Abbey. Before we left, and after we returned, the most often-asked questions were about the ship! Not the Danube's color (I was asked about that a lot), or the various destinations we visited. People seem fascinated by the idea of cruising on a river on one of those skinny, odd-looking boats. So, before I jump into my thousand photographs of the fantastic destinations we visited via the ship, let me tell you about the ship itself.

The first thing we notice about the ship was the efficiency of the staff. Everyone chipped in to help with embarkation and disembarkation. The maitre d' Vladimir showed us to our room and gave us a thorough orientation to its amenities. The chef Erik was rolling passenger luggage behind me as we left the ship. Soon we were introduced to all of the key personnel just in case we needed anything: the concierge, the chef, the hotel manager, the program director, the front desk guy, the housekeeping manager, the maitre d', and the sommelier. They always seemed to be around, in uniform, and extremely professional, and all but the program director came from countries on or near the Danube. Most meals were taken in the ship's restaurant where friendly waiters took good care of us. By the end of the week, Ronaldo knew to have my Coke Light waiting for me at lunch! It's nice to be pampered.

I'll tell you a little secret about my philosophy of blogging: I avoid writing anything negative about the places I visit. I'm no Pollyanna, but I don't see any reason to tell you about crappy lunches or bitter salespeople or filthy bathrooms. I just leave that stuff out. Keep that in mind while you read this blog about our river cruise experience, because I suspect that you might suspect that I'm candy-coating it. Nope. I have nothing negative to say. It was fabulous: well-organized, fun, unboring. If I'm not mentioning it here, it is not because it was sub-par---it is because I don't want to make this thing too long. If you have a question, ask me in the comments section!

We chose the Danube Waltz cruise, starting in Budapest and sailing upriver through Slovakia and Austria to Passau, Germany. From Passau, we jumped off the Viking ship and onto a Viking bus which drove for four hours through the German and Czech countryside where we would stay for three additional days in Prague. And by the way, there were no passport checks anywhere except the airports at the beginning and end.

You're wondering about the stateroom, I bet. We booked late and were lucky to have found a cancellation, mid-ship on the first floor. The room was bigger and more luxurious than we expected. It was all we needed because we were hardly there except for sleeping. Here are some views...

I know what you're thinking: on the commercial, they show rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows and sometimes verandas. Yup, those rooms were on the boat, too, and if you think you prefer one of those, please start saving now, and book early. They are on the second and third floors. Let me remind you, though, of the people on the Titanic (in the movie) who traveled in steerage. Didn't they have a lot more fun than the Snooty McSnootersons in the fancier rooms? I contend they did, up until the iceberg happened.

So, yeah, when I stood on tippy-toes to look out our rectangular porthole, the top of the Danube River was at my chin level. This would mean, when I was lying down I was under water. So all of you people to whom I said, "I'll be floating on the Danube at the end of May," I should have said, "I'll be floating IN the Danube at the end of May." (That may have given you the wrong idea though. Accuracy is sometimes troublesome.)
View of Bratislava's waterfront from our stateroom. The green Danube is just above the porthole frame.
We signed-up for as many optional excursions as we possibly could, and I'll be blogging about them in coming weeks. There was plenty to do when we were on the ship besides watching movie in the room. There were great views from the Sun Deck (the top level),
From the Sun Deck in the Wachau Valley
plus shuffleboard and giant Chess.

 One morning we were treated to a pastry demo by the chef, pastry chef, and two volunteers from the audience:
Rolling the strudel dough
Stretching the strudel dough
Adding the apple filling
Rolling the strudel with the extra tablecloth it had been created on

There was tea time.

One night while we were in Austria, the staff threw out the usual dinner protocol and threw an Austrian-themed party complete with Weiner Schnitzel, Sacher Torte, and strolling musicians. Some staff were in Lederhosen (or Dirndl), some in checkered shirts, but everyone was festive.

Sacher Torte: chocolate cake, chocolate frosting, apricot filling

Speaking of food, the ship desserts were fantastic. Here's a collage of some of them:

The desserts and other courses were presented in sensible portions, so one never felt too full or too naughty/guilty. With all of the uphill cobblestone walking we did almost every day, I'm sure we walked-off these innocent desserts. And the Chateaubriand. And the Deconstructed Beef Wellington. And the cheese plate.
This was interesting: sometimes the ship double-parks at the dock and you have to walk through other ships to get to land. Here I'm standing on the ramp between two Viking ships in Budapest:

One last thing: what do you suppose this sign means? It was posted on the railing around the skylight on the floor of the Sun Deck. I'm guessing it's warning me against climbing over the rail and stepping on the skylight, but I can't be sure.