Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Budapest Interlude

A four-day jaunt to Budapest.  The Hungarian capital had been one destination in our plan to travel by rail to Eastern Europe after leaving Paris.  But carrying heavier luggage, we opted for a month in Vienna after an apartment in Verona proved so expensive.  We had been to Budapest before.  We spent one day here while on a Danube cruise, and Penny came back for a couple of days when she and her mother took a different cruise on that fabled river.  Cruise ship stops are what they are, but they can't really do justice to so many places.  We had always wanted to come back and see more.

Penny found a 19 euro fare on OBB (Austrian railways) for each leg of a round trip from Vienna.  That is such a good price that we could hardly afford not to go.  Reasoning like that can lead to so much trouble, can it not?  But it didn't.  We stayed in a B&B called Budapest Rooms, where Balasz was one of the nicest hosts we have met in any of our travels.  It is easy to understand why he gets such glowing recommendations on tripadvisor.com.

Our train left Wien Meidling station on time and arrived at Budapest Keleti a little behind schedule.  We had paid a few extra euros to reserve seats, but they were occupied when we boarded.  Those passengers weren't about to move, and seemed quite annoyed that we would ask for our seats.  As there were open seats elsewhere in the car, we decided not to make a scene and sat elsewhere.  In a similar situation on the Dublin-Belfast train, they moved out graciously.  Not on this one!

As we were traveling light and the B&B was little more than a mile from the station, we walked directly there. We decided we would not buy any public transit passes because everything that we wanted to see was so close, and this was a good decision.  Unlike the case in Vienna, they would not have paid for themselves.  Afterward, we also learned that Budapest has a significant problem with gypsy cabs gouging tourists.  Again, not a problem for us because we never took a cab anywhere.

Budapest consists of Buda on the right bank of the Danube and Pest on the left.  It is the capital of Hungary, as it was the capital of the Kingdom of Hungary in the Austro-Hungarian Empire before the post-World War One peace conferences broke that polyglot polity into linguistic-based states.  It was also at one time the northwestern-most city permanently under Turkish rule.  Hungarians are a unique people and their capital reflects that, but at the same time Budapest seems a very cosmopolitan city.  The janissaries are gone, but you can get a very nice kebab almost anywhere.  Or a Big Mac, should you want one.

It is a stately city, and it looks in many ways like Vienna.  Not surprising when you think about it.  Hungarian food is good, but tends to run toward meat and starches like most places in Central Europe.  Restaurants accept Euros as well as Hungarian florints (HUFs) but they use an exchange rate that is very favorable to themselves.  It is probably worth it to get HUFs from an ATM, but try to gauge it so you don't have many left when it is time for you to leave.

They don't seem to have heard that smoking kills.  Cigarettes everywhere, without regard to the health or sensibilities of anyone.  So be aware of that when you get here.

Our short visit ended without incident and we returned to the Budapest Keleti station.  There was no problem with our seats this time.  In the next pair of seats were two Americans with open tickets.  They had been brought from their hotel and "helped" into their seats by porters of some sort, who refused a tip in Euro coins. They insisted on paper money, and the gentlemen didn't have any note smaller than a ten.  So they gave it to him.  That is a fourteen dollar tip.  There does seem to be a tendency to fleece tourists as brazenly as I have seen anywhere.  But even with that, Budapest is a great city to visit.

One of many commemorations of the 1956 uprising against Communist rule and Soviet occupation.
The Hungarian Parliament building sits on the left bank of the Danube.
The Dohany utca (Street) synagogue is the second largest in the world, after New York's Temple Emanuel.
Looking across the Danube to the Pest side.

The royal palace at night on the Buda side.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Vienna, Vienna, City of Dreams

So goes a song from the 1920s.  One of those songs that becomes a sort of municipal anthem, at least in the eyes of outsiders.  Maybe for Viennese too, but I don't know.  It is a fabulous song.  Many sopranos and tenors include it on their aria anthology records.  Oh wait, I just dated myself. CDs?   Still not there, I know I know I know!  Whatever!  Andre Rieu has it on one of his CDs too.

The train arrived on time at the Westbahnhof, and we got a cab to the arranged flat.  Mr. Toad's Wild Ride!  I haven't had one like that since Hong kong in 1970, or earlier in Japan as a kid.  That was just the beginning.  We met the flat rental guy as scheduled.  The flat was not available because a gas line had burst and the building was under repair.  The agent had arranged for us to stay nearby in a larger flat that belongs to a friend of his.  That was good, because he could have returned our deposit with an apology that there was nothing he could do.

We have enjoyed the flat immensely.  Like the building in Paris, there is no elevator.  But, we are only up two flights of stairs instead of six!  Yay!  And the internet connection here works very, very well.  So it has worked out very well so far.  The supermarket isn't far away, and so we did our move-in-and-live-here thing.

After Paris, we had planned to hop on and off trains around central and eastern Europe, as far away as Istanbul.  But we abandoned that plan because we have too much luggage and no place to keep the excess.  We had thought to go to Italy, but we couldn't find a reasonably priced place.

So we chose Vienna, and have not been disappointed.  I love classical music, and also Viennese operetta.  Those kinds of lighter pieces only appear once, if at all, in a typical American opera season.  So it has been a treat to come to the one place in the world where there is still a season of operetta at the Volksoper.  We went to see Die Fledermaus and Vienna Blood by Johann Strauss, Jr., and The Merry Widow by Franz Lehar.  We had a marvelous time.  Penny actually enjoyed The Merry Widow.  I really appreciate her arranging all this, and being such a good sport about going along to things that I am really the one who likes it. Back in San Diego, she used to find me opera dates.  Those were friends whose spouses liked opera as much as Penny does.  That is to say...not so much!

Getting around has been easier than in Paris.  We are close to the Margaretengurtel U-Bahn station.  (Metro station.)  We priced it out and decided to buy a monthly pass that gives unlimited use within the central zone.  It has been quite liberating in a way.  I have been doing daily walks for exercise, and have chosen different places and parks along the U-Bahn lines.

Vienna is a very stately city, and quite pretty.  There are many parks, and the pace seems a little slower here than in Paris.  The language barrier is about the same as it was in Paris.  You can engage your surroundings, but only to a point.  I know some German, most of it coming from war movies or from opera librettos.  I have not had occasion to use some of those lines.  "What did you say, old witch?"  does not often come in handy.  Neither does "I am the Imperial and Royal Commissioner Count Lodovico Carnero."  But it's okay!  We get along.

They don't jaywalk against the traffic lights much here, and people do seem a bit more brusque in the stores.  We are glad we came.  We have planned a four-day jaunt to Budapest.  Penny found discounted round-trip fares on OBB, the Austrian railway line.

We know a couple of people here.  Dina Schorr was on the Antarctica cruise, and has just reported here for her first post as an American diplomat.  Philippe Spiegel is a relative of Karina von Baer, and we first met him in Chile.  He is a rising young opera singer.  A very talented man, and I am sure that one day we will be able to say that we know the guy on the album cover.  Oh wait, I just dated myself again!  Whatever!

Here are some photos of different things:
Schonbrunn Palace was the imperial family's summer palace in Vienna.
Fountain in the Schonbrunn Palace gardens.
The Prater is a Vienna landmark.
This is is the famous Riesenrad in Vienna's Prater park.Calling Mr. Welles!  Orson Welles!  Orson Welles!  Your transit visas are available for pickup inside the piano! (Nothing like mixing your movie references?)
In the Stadtpark, statues commemorate famous composers associated with Vienna.  This one is of Johann Strauss, Jr., the Waltz King.  It is temporarily moved from its normal setting which is under refurbishment.

Along the Margaretengurtel near Bruno Kreisky Park.
Night view from our flat's window on Schonbrunnnerstrasse.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Frankfurt to Vienna on Deutsche Bahn

We had booked tickets on line for ICE21, running from Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof to Wiener Westbahnhof.  This train left very early in the morning, but we chose it because we would not have to change trains at all.  Getting to Vienna with all our luggage was much easier as a result of our getting up and going early.

The train was a Deutsche Bahn one, and the cars were very new.  It was a great ride.  It went as fast as 140 km/hr, so not as fast as the Spanish AVE or the French TGV.

If you book a ticket on line with DB, then you will have to show the conductor your printed ticket and the credit card that you used to buy it.  This is different than the TGV from Paris-Est to Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof, where we had to present the printed tickets (purchased on line) and our passports.

Riesling in the Rheingau

Have you ever noticed how often our themes relate to wine?  A couple of years ago, we went to France and split our time between Burgundy and the Champagne regions.  We headed to the Bordeaux area the time after that.  When we had to cancel out of Italy because the Icelandic lava cloud shut down the Barcelona airport, we had been headed to the Orvieto region of Tuscany.

We arrived in Frankfurt where our friend Erika Lannefeld met us at the Hauptbahnhof. (Main train station.)  She kindly put us up in her apartment in Neu Isenberg and drove us around the area to see the sights.  The Rheingau is a center of Rhine wine production.  Riesling is what they make.  Some versions are sweeter and fruitier than others, but it is all good stuff.  I still prefer red wine.

Erika and her friend Klaus took us out on Saturday to the Rheingau.  We visited Kloster Eberbach, which is a former Cistercian monastery and now houses a school of enology.  Then we went to taste wine at Schloss Vollrads.  It was quite good.  Any guesses about what they had?  Let me see...I am thinking hard...wait, wait, I know!  Riesling!  We had a nice picnic by the river, and later a snack and a drink at Villa Gutenberg, which was open to the public for only a few days each year.  What do you think I drank at Villa Gutenberg?  Not Riesling.  They had a red wine choice for folks like myself.

The whole place is so picturesque.  You would probably like to see some pictures of such a picturesque place.  And I would like to share some with you.  Unfortunately, I forgot to bring the camera and so I don't have anything to offer.

The next day, we drove across the Rhine toward Kaiserslautern to visit Andreas Schick and his mother Monica.  We had a very nice visit with them.  We also visited Schloss Hambach and drove through towns like Bad Durkheim and Deidesheim.  This time, we remembered to bring the camera.

Schloss Hambach is a restored castle.  It is a historical monument to German democracy, and that makes it very important.  If you know anything about European history, then you will know that historical sites in Germany relating to democracy are few and far between because the old days weren't so good.  The area had been a politically independent bishopric and then the French showed up in 1797.  They took over for the bishop and implemented the Rights of Man, and Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite.  Bonaparte was defeated in 1815, and the area was given to the Kingdom of Bavaria.  By 1832, the residents had quite enough of Bavarian autocracy and they attempted a revolution to regain the rights that they had under the French.  The black, red, and gold banner appeared for the first time at Schloss Hambach.  The insurrection failed and the leaders were jailed.  The democracy thing took a lot longer to catch on in those parts...The Schloss proudly displayed a plaque honoring the democratic ideals of the Hambach rebels, and the museum notes that their declarations drew, among other sources, from the 1776 Virginia Declaration of Rights.  Another plaque celebrates German unity, and also European unity.  The German flag flies next to the French tricolor and the Polish flag.

Friday, September 2, 2011

We'll Always Have Paris

Last weekend was a highlight of our sojourn in Paris.  Claire Diou came for a visit.  She is Penny's surrogate daughter.  Claire stayed with us as a teenager in San Diego as a foreign exchange student, and then again on her own.  She is now Capitaine Claire Diou, French Army paratrooper, and veteran of several deployments to combat ("peacekeeping") situations in Africa.  She has just arrived from her post in the south of France for a staff course in Compiegne.  Seeing her again was truly marvelous.

We face with mixed feelings the end of our time in one of the world's greatest cities.  We could never get the television to work in our flat.  The internet connection ceased to work, and we had to piggyback on the unsecured wi-fi downstairs.  I had read stories about the French telecommunications system decades ago.  They were not complimentary, and emphasized how long it took to get a home telephone once you placed an order for one.  Months of waiting time.  Months.  Orange, the internet services provider, lived down to the reputation of French telecommunications systems, at least in our case.  Sometimes the piggyback wasn't available and our only communications connection was the 3G browser in our Kindles!

As I wrote in a recent post on this blog, there are problems with living here if you don't speak French or have a network of friends and contacts.  It can be a nicer place to visit than a place to live.  I am looking forward to our month in Vienna and especially to moving on from there to New York.  Yes, I do recognize and freely admit that I am getting a bit homesick.

Get this:  As we wheeled our luggage out to the Place des Abbesses to look for a taxi, an accordionist busking on the street played "La Vie En Rose."  Those guys are all over town and in the Metro, but more often they play Argentine tangos.  But for our departure, we lucked out and got an Edith Piaf classic.  :-)

Even with all that...Paris is still Paris, and hopefully always will be.  That famous song, "The Last Time I Saw Paris," complains that the city the singer once knew is no longer there.  I disagree with that.  Change is a constant factor of life, but certain essences survive.  We'll always have Paris.