Lukatch Newsletter

Your Very Own Periodic Update of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite Hungary Resident and World Traveler

Name:
Location: Budapest, Hungary

Mr. Cool!

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Alexander is Still GREAT!

After my brief interlude in Mohacs, I stayed busy until my next trip, scheduled for late March. The Six Nations Rugby Tournament ran its course, with Ireland taking the prize, and about time. My dear old friends Monica and Reggie Edgerton were in town, Reg to attend a conference and Monica to see how much Budapest has changed since their last visit in 1983. Unfortunately, an injured foot slowed her down somewhat, but I did manage to help them hit some of the highlights of our fair city, such as the Hot Jazz Band and Piaf’s late-night venue, along with some good Hungarian food (Jokai bableves at the For Sale pub).
Budapest’s spring this year was really busting out all over, with the completion and opening of Metro 4 (after only 20 years in construction, it opened March 28 with two free days of travel; naturally, I was out of town; still have that great timing), the opening of Castle Hill’s refurbished Old Bazaar, the opening of Parliament Square again after more construction and the appearance on the scene of the new bubis – city bicycles which can be rented for a minimal amount of money and left at locked stands all over town. Budapest – the International City, voted Best Tourist Destination in the world by Conde Nast travelers and Most Welcoming City in Europe by those tourists who, I suppose, were welcomed nicely to the city.
The weather was unseasonably warm for March and we all reveled in it.
And then it was Off to Skopje, Macedonia, for the long weekend of March 27-31. I survived my Very Early Flight – had to be at the airport at 6 AM! - Yucchh!! A brief stopover in Vienna, then a 90 minute flight to arrive in Skopje around noon. My prearranged hotel taxi found me at the airport and delivered me safely and quickly to the Hotel City Central International around 2 PM, right in the center of town and located on the top (2nd) floor of the main shopping center, just off the main square. Great location.
As I was checking into my eight-room hotel, a tall young man was also at the front desk. I realized I had seen him at the Vienna airport, boarding the same flight as mine. He also recognized me and started chatting. Turned out he was Serbian, living in Austria, and also traveling on his own. Anyway, as always, I chatted briefly with Irina, one of the three young Macedonian receptionists I would meet, then checked into my small but clean room and headed out for my standard orientation walk around the main part of Skopje.
As I approached the main square, with its gigantic statue of Alexander the Great on horseback, I was struck by the massive size of the surrounding buildings and other statues. Turned out my classical education wasn’t wasted after all, as I remembered the name of Alexander’s horse: Bucephalus. The museums and government buildings lining the north side of the Vardar river are massive, with huge, thick columns and tall facades and imposing fronts lunging over the riverside. The many statues are also immense, yet seem comfortable and welcoming all the same.
I strolled through the main square and crossed the famous Stone Bridge to the left bank of the river. I kept on walking to the entrance of the Old Bazaar, where who should I encounter but Milos, my Serbian buddy from the hotel. He joined me on my exploratory walk and, from that point until he left on Sunday, he seemed to adopt me as a surrogate father and traveling companion. He joined me for lunch in the Old Bazaar at Destan, a well-known local restaurant that serves only three dishes: the tasty local salad, Shopska (sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, covered with shredded cheese), the local version of kebabs (a plate of five or ten finger-sized meat rolls with side dishes of onions, peppers and wonderful local bread), and a hearty bean soup. Keep it simple and they will come. Topped off with a Skopsko Macedonian beer, it was yummy.
Milos surprised me by paying for my lunch, but he was insistent and, what the heck, it made him happy, so why not? Lunch with beer for both of us was only around 5 euro, so it was a great bargain. We continued exploring the Old Bazaar for another hour or so, checking out the main streets and veering off into the little side alleys and narrow streets as the spirit moved us. We checked out the places we would like to revisit during a more in-depth exploration the following day or two, then headed back across the river and walked along the restaurant- and bar-studded riverfront area off the main square. Lo and behold, we found St. Pat’s Irish pub, which occasioned a stop for a Guinness – I paid for this one, even though Milos seemed slightly upset that I wouldn’t let him keep on paying. Fair is fair, after all.
During our walk I found out that Milos was only 20 years old and worked in a young men’s fashion shop in Linz, Austria, and often took weekend trips to nearby countries. I could relate to that, and it was sort of fun having a ready-made traveling companion for a change. Plus, he was a passionate traveler, always looking to score with the young women and ready for a beer or a plieviscka (sp?). I figured maybe some of his luck might rub off on me; no such luck, of course, but one never knows, do one?
After a brief nap, I was ready to wander out again and, when I did so, found Milos in the hotel’s miniscule lobby, chatting up yet another attractive young receptionist. He suggested we go for pizza in the shopping center, so what the heck, why not? Again, he insisted on paying for the slices of pizza we got, and I let him, figuring I’d pay him back at another time. We had another Guinness or two at the Irish pub, on me.
I was a touch tired from the long day, and it was still raining off and on, so decided to call it a night. In my room again, I checked to see if there were any English-language channels on TV and it turned out there were! Several, in fact, one of which was The History Channel. Damn! I could easily have stayed in my room all weekend just to watch the History Channel. I watched it till late Thursday night, then finally fell into the waiting arms of Morpheus.
Friday dawned bright and sunny and warm. After a continental breakfast at the hotel, I picked up some postcard stamps at a nearby post office branch and decided I was ready to climb the hill to see the Kale Fortress which dominates the northern skyline of Skopje. I huffed and I puffed and I rested and I climbed and I finally reached the entrance to the fortress, where I found a hand-printed sign that read, “Fortress is closed for visitors.” Well, wasn’t I the happy traveler? Scheisse! I rested for a few minutes and enjoyed the view from the hilltop. Then I slashed the tires of all of the cars in the parking lot and wended my way back down to the bazaar.
I spent the rest of the morning just meandering again, checking out places I’d found on the Internet and wanted to visit again later, like the Old Town Brewery and the Daut Pasha Hammam, now a local museum. Lunch was another yummy kebab plate at another Destan restaurant located just off the main square; the Balkans are definitely a meat-eater’s delight.
Around 6 pm, happy hour time, I tried to creep quietly past Milos’s room, but there he was again in the lobby, munching on some nuts he’d bought and hitting on the third lovely young receptionist. The guy was definitely a hound. So we ambled back across the Stone Bridge, through the Old Bazaar and I retraced my earlier steps to the Old Town Brewery, where we had a couple of beers and sat next to the warmth of an open fire inside the covered area. The nights were still chilly and the fire was a welcome friend. Unfortunately, as usual I had started out too early and the place was pretty empty of other patrons, so we decided to head back to St. Pat’s and have a beer or two while waiting for the music to start.
We sat at a table next to a middle-aged English couple from Belfast and had a nice conversation with them. I had to be careful when describing my trips around Ireland; for instance, when I told them I’d been to Derry, they immediately corrected me to “Londonderry.” When the woman told me she was from the Shankill Road area of Belfast, I decided not to tell her it was one of the scariest places I’d walked on the Emerald Isle. But they were nice enough for all that and Milos and I spent a pleasant time in the cozy pub, chatting and drinking our Guinness.
I soon found myself alone again, as Milos was eager to find a place to eat some plieviscka and then resume his chat-up with at least one of the receptionists. I had a light snack at the bar and sat through the first set of music by a young guitar-playing woman singing popular songs. It was Friday night and even around 11 PM the pub was still pretty quiet, so I wandered away for a stroll and another early night. When I got back to the hotel, sure enough, there was Milos hitting on Monika! Gotta give him points for perseverance.
Saturday started out slow, but turned into a fun day with a late-night ending (and about damn time, too!). As I was starting my morning walk to find a nearby (I thought) massage sanctuary, I once again found Milos hanging around the lobby waiting for me, so we trudged off together.
Turned out to be a much longer walk than I had anticipated, but we found the place and returned to the hotel in time for our 11 AM appointment with a hotel taxi driver to take us halfway up Mt. Vodno, where we could catch the cable car to the top. That was a nice couple of hours, a ride up and down in a four-person cable car and a brief wander around the windy top of the mountain, with its gigantic (what else but?) cross made of interwoven iron struts. The entire vista of the Skopje Valley was laid out before us, and the sunny but breezy day made the visit all the more interesting.
Back to the Macedonian Gate for lunch of plieviscka, which is really just a large hamburger with tomato, lettuce and onions in a large bun. The difference between this and a regular old American hamburger, however, is that the plieviscka is served in a large paper cone, then topped with a heap of French fries (chips for my English friends) slathered with catsup; since the entire package comes in that paper cone, it cannot be set down on a plate (or table) – you just have to hold it with one hand while eating with the other. When the fries are gone, you can then eat the burger, using the cone as a holder. It sounds awkward and uncomfortable, which it is, but I managed to get through everything and must say it was tasty and definitely a unique dining experience. But I would have preferred to intermix my burger and fries instead of eating all the fires first and then the burger. Ah, well, then it wouldn’t be a plieskavica.
Back to the hotel to rest up for the evening’s entertainment – Irish music at St. Pat’s – I was surprised when the receptionist gave me back the postcards I had asked her to mail for me earlier. It seems she was unable to perform such a simple task, since the post office apparently separated their mail into registered and non-registered and the poor girl couldn’t determine which I wanted. I’d have to go back to the post office on Monday morning before I left and physically hand my postcards to one of the post office employees for mailing. Interesting place, Macedonia.
Alright, Saturday Night and ready to rock and roll. Milos and I (Mutt and Jeff, by this time, as he was at least 6’1”) made our way back to the Irish pub around 7 PM and found seats at the bar to await the singer. As is my wont in Irish bars, I got into a conversation with Marty, a Canadian gent nearby, who was in Skopje on business. He was then joined by Tim, a very large and friendly Englishman who owns a winery in the area (Tim fit in really well with all of the other large statues and buildings in Skopje). A few other locals came and went during the evening and the singing started after several beers. The Irish singer, Joe, finished his gig and joined us, at which point the Jameson’s started to flow rather freely. Milos headed out around 10 PM, as he had to get ready for his 11 PM pickup to go to the airport. Too bad, as he missed it when Tim gave Marty and me a bottle of his very own hand-grown wine from his vineyard. I can’t wait to taste it. I floated into the hotel around 2 AM – which was suddenly 3 AM, as it was time for the clocks to change for Daylight Saving Time. A good night in downtown Skopje.
Sunday was surprisingly quiet and a touch lonely without my buddy Milos. Although I am used to traveling alone, it was kind of nice to have a companion for those few days. I missed him and hope he gets in touch someday. Anyway, the sun was even brighter on Sunday, and I took a final day’s walk around the Old Bazaar again, picking up a few gifts for family and friends, having a chocolate crepe at a small French bistro and just enjoying relaxing in the sun on the main square. After a late afternoon snack of a hot dog buttie (hot dog on a large bun covered with the inevitable French fries) and a short nap. I headed back to the riverfront restaurants for dinner. Ran into Marty along the way, and found Tim and Joe at St. Pat’s, but was in the mood for a steak that night and found it at the Bella Vista restaurant overlooking the river and huge buildings on the other side. Good steak, veggies and potatoes, a fitting final dinner for my visit.
Monday morning it was off to the airport – after I successfully handed in my postcards at the post office – to catch my noon plane to Vienna, then change for Budapest, where I arrived around 6 PM to more good weather. Skopje may not be a prime attraction in the world of international tourism, but it was certainly a fun little city with enough entertainment to attract a traveler for a long weekend of good food, good sights and good company. I could go back.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Goodbye Winter, Hello Spring!

I got back from Tenerife to find Budapest in the grip of cold, nasty, rainy weather. I had turned the heat off in my flat while I was away, and it took a full day before I could move from my bed to the bathroom without removing my overcoat. For the next six weeks or so I just huddled inside and avoided the cold. I did manage to make it to the annual Burns supper at the Caledonia Pub this year. I also attended a sad funeral for one of Budapest’s longest-running Irish bars, Beckett’s. They were forced to close after 20 years due to local politics, lease problems, etc.
As I sat at the bar, drinking my local beer – they had run out of Guinness hours before I arrived - the place filled up and I couldn’t help but reminisce about my first few years in Budapest, which I mostly spent propping up the bar at Beckett’s. Images kept flashing before my eyes, unbidden, but strong and clear nonetheless: Tesco Tim, Helene from Norway, Friday night bands and dance parties, Stuart singing with his band, Keith Andrew’s three daughters singing with their band (The Andrews Sisters!), lots of Guinness, my very first visit to this bar (when I tried out my newly-learned Hungarian only to find out that the bartenders were from Sweden and didn’t speak Hungarian!), Norwegian medical students, strange urinals, rugby matches and a general atmosphere of fun and happiness I was surprised to find in Central Europe.
At that time I lived only two blocks away from Beckett’s and it was the best place in town for many years. Then, as things happen, the town changed and more and more theme bars opened in Budapest and the crowds started drifting away from Beckett’s to other venues. We can only hope Beckett’s managers will try and find a new location and open another great Irish bar, still needed in town.
The Six Nations rugby kicked off on February 1st, and filled up several weekends through the middle of March. There were a couple of karaoke nights at the Janis Pub, some birthday dinners and finally it was March and time to go to Mohács.
On March 2, Sunday, one of my acquaintances in the Irish Hungarian Business Circle set up a day trip to the town of Mohács (Mo–hatch), in southern Hungary, to visit the Busójárás festival. This festival is held each year at the end of the Carnival season ("Farsang"), with its final day the day before Ash Wednesday. The celebration features Busós (people wearing traditional masks) and includes folk music, masquerading, parades and dancing. Busójárás (literally, “Busó-walking” and pronounced ‘boo-sho-yahr-ahsh’) lasts six days and is followed by the Kisfarsang (Little Farsang) carnival, with the biggest celebration, Farsang vasárnap (Farsang Sunday) on the seventh Sunday before Easter Sunday. Whew! The celebration then ends with the Farsangtemetés (the Burial of Farsang) on the following Tuesday (Shrove Tuesday, or Mardi Gras).
According to the most popular legend, people from Mohács fled the town to live in the nearby swamps and woods to avoid Ottoman (Turkish) troops. One night an old man appeared and told the refugees to make scary masks and then go back to the town and make lots of noise, thus scaring the Turkish troops away. Apparently the Turks were easily spooked. In an older, less popular story, the busós are scaring away not the Turks, but Winter itself. For anyone interested in the history and traditions surrounding this festival, there is plenty of information on the Internet.
Whatever the legend, this annual celebration brings people from all over Hungary and Croatia to party and to celebrate the end of Old Man Winter with a humungous bonfire, burning a large straw man and saying goodbye to the nasty weather and welcoming spring and fertility back to the world.
We left Budapest around 8 AM and drove south for a couple of hours. Our first stop was the battlefield in Mohács, a memorial to the brave Hungarians who were defeated by the Turks in 1526. Hungarians have long memories.
Then it was on to the town of Mohács itself and the End-of-Winter Festival. Our group of fifteen hardy revelers, mostly expats, set off into the center of town and I was quickly separated from the rest, going my own way, as usual. I spent the day following the crowds to the various event sites, like the Crossing of the Danube in Large Ferry Boats, the Sinking of Old Man Winter’s Coffin in the river and, of course, at the very end, the Burning of the Straw Man to say goodbye to Old Man Winter.
The busós were out in force all day, adults and kids. They circulated among the crowds of people, teaming up on the women and engaging them in a sort of dual hug in which they jumped up and down with the poor girl trapped in between them. Some busós carried large wooden phallic symbols around with them, the better to tease the women. Naturally, all of these activities relate to ancient fertility rites, celebrating the coming of spring. The women took it in stride – at least the ones who had been there before – and everyone had a jolly old time. To ensure an even better growing season (for crops and babies), the busós also threw flour on the head of some young women, who were, as you might imagine, thrilled to be singled out for such an honor.
Anyway, I strolled and wandered and ate (sausages, freshly-made mini-donuts, a large, thick tortilla sandwich filled with meat and cheese and sour cream and all sorts of other low-cal goodies) and drank (beer, wine, palinka, more beer, a little more wine and just a touch more beer) and joined the happy crowd taking pictures of the busós and the bonfire and whatever else I could find that looked interesting. It’s one of those events at which you just can’t stop taking pictures, there’s so much to see and do.
After the sinking of Old Man Winter’s coffin in the middle of the Danube, we all walked back to the main square and had another beer or two and watched as the straw man was set up at the top of the funeral pyre and set ablaze. And did he ever burn! Wonderful. A fitting sendoff to winter – and we can but hope spring is not too far behind.
The bonfire died down a little before 6 PM, so I started wending my way back toward where we were to meet our van and driver and guide István at 7 PM. I’d spotted a nice cozy little bar on the main street when we first arrived in town, and figured I could while away the next hour or so with a couple of beers for the road. Since it started to rain, my idea seemed even better. I found the bar, The Public House, and walked in the door and found 11 of my 15 tour group already sheltering from the rain and quaffing their beers and wine. Great minds still think alike. We left a voicemail message for István, telling him we might be a little late. Around 7:15 or so he sent an emissary to find us and herd us back to the van, as our driver wanted to get home. Since it had been a stellar day, we hustled back without too much prodding.
We still had another couple of hours of drive time before getting home, and Mary Murphy, Organizer Extraordinaire, decided we should maintain our already high level of alcohol-induced revelry, so she had us playing games and singing most of the way home. It was a truly fun and entertaining day and we all thanked István profusely for his arranging it. Hope we can do another trip sometime in the near future.
And for me? Watch this space for my next adventure: Skopje, Macedonia. Blog should appear early April. Ta Ta For Now!

Friday, January 24, 2014

VAMOS A LA PLAYA!

Playa de las Americas, that is. On the Canary Island of Tenerife, in the Atlantic Ocean, west of Morocco.
Isn’t this a wonderful age we live in? We can get instantaneous news as events unfold halfway around the world; we can talk to a friend on another continent using a small electronic instrument that fits in the palm of our hand; we can even end a sentence with a preposition and no one notices. And we can jump on an airplane and fly off from winter to summer in just a few hours. Which, of course, is what I did.
Winter, as usual, descended upon Budapest and I, as usual, did my standard initial hibernation routine to minimize its impact. I didn’t even come out when I reached my Biblical three-score-and-ten years in December, figuring it was best to continue to lay low. However, finally, on January 6, 2014, after a rather quiet interim since my last trip, I set out for the sunny climes of the Canary Islands, specifically Tenerife, more specifically Playa de las Americas, home of sun, sand and surf.
I left Budapest at 7 PM on Monday, January 6, and arrived in Tenerife around 2 PM Tuesday, January 7, after an overnight layover in Berlin. I had thought I could hang out in the Berlin airport until my flight left at 9:30 the following morning, but it was not to be. The airport actually closed for the night, so I had to find myself a hotel room nearby. Caught a local bus and got my room, slept a few hours and returned to the airport around 6 AM; and all for just 50 euros.
Anyway, the weather was warm and inviting when I got to Tenerife. No passport control, so I just waited calmly for my bag to pop out of the baggage control chute….and waited…and waited….and waited. A Swedish flight had arrived at the same time as mine, so their bags came off first and shoved ours out of the way. Finally, our bags began to arrive… and I waited….and waited. No bag yet. Suddenly, out of the blue, the airport’s staff made a bone-chilling announcement: around 400 kilograms of baggage had apparently been left in Berlin by our airline, so if our bag didn’t come down the chute at some point, we were to inform the airport office and they’d process our claim.
Oh, Joy. I had only the clothes I was wearing. I sweated and worried and started to get ready for the long wait involved in any bureaucracy processing anything, when someone announced that more bags were coming down the chute. I scurried over and, lo and behold, there came Borderline, my faithful suitcase. The Travel Gods were smiling on me again. I grabbed my case and headed outside into the 75-degree heat (23 Celsius). Found the local green Titsa bus and rode it into the center of Playa de Las Americas (hereinafter referred to as LA). After a nice eight-minute stroll, I was at my hotel.
I was booked into the Sol Tenerife, just on the edge of the LA section of Arona in the far southwestern tip of Tenerife. Two 11-story towers, separated from the beach by a privacy wall and fence, with an access gate for hotel guests. Two swimming pools. Immaculately-landscaped grounds, a spacious lobby and a Reception and Check-in area manned by only two hotel staff; and they ran their cute little Tenerifian butts off trying to get the arriving crowds checked in. I hadn’t seen such hard workers in any hotel in years, especially in Spain, where pretty much everything moves at a much slower pace. I would shortly learn, however, that everything in Tenerife was geared to the tourist and, consequently, everything was set up to process all activities with a maximum of speed and a minimum of waiting time.
I found my fourth-floor room and unpacked quickly, as always. Every room in this hotel had a sea view and a balcony with which to enjoy that view and the sunsets and sunrises. Another plus for the Sol Tenerife. The hotel also served a buffet breakfast that must have processed nearly one thousand people every morning, and they did it with style and panache, speed and efficiency. Food counters were replenished promptly and vacated tables were cleaned and reset so quickly it was doubtful anyone had to wait more than a minute or so to find a vacant table. Major kudos to the staff at this hotel. They did this incredibly fast and efficient work in a happy, smiling manner, always ready with an “Ola!” and a smile. The Sol Tenerife gets the Lukatch Seal of Approval. (NB: I do have one negative item to report – the Sol Tenerife hotel charges for the use of the in-room safe, rather a tacky thing to do in a four-star hotel. My charge was 16 euros for 11 nights.)
And so, showered and changed into shorts, sandals and a polo shirt, it was out into the early evening heat of Playa de Las Americas. This playground for everyone is bordered by Los Cristianos on the south and Adeje to the north. It is a city for tourists, filled with everything any tourist of any age could want. Shops include Versace and Armani down to the tackiest tourist walk-ins. Restaurants range from five-star to fish n’ chip stands, with international foods for every taste. Hotels, B&Bs and apartments for rent go from luxury to standard beach facilities. Entertainment goes from extravaganza shows down to karaoke at the local pubs, and watering holes from dimly-lighted piano bars to stag-party venues. Theme parks for the kiddies, island tours and cruises for the adults, scuba diving, parasailing, submarine rides, jet ski rentals, you name and they have it. It may just be the ultimate tourist destination.
And the Tenerifians do it up right. Tourism is their only industry, so all of the locals invest their best efforts in ensuring the tourists continue to flood in to the islands. Wait staff, cleaners, shopkeepers, bartenders, every service industry person you meet is smiling and happy and eager to help and to welcome you to their wonderful island getaway and to ensure you have the best time ever.
My hotel was a ten-minute walk from the major tourist areas of this part of the island, along a busy main street with wide sidewalks lined with restaurants, bars, shops and other temptations to entice the tourists. Or, one could get to the same places along an Oceanside strolling path, which, it seemed, most people did, including Yours Truly on my initial exploration of the area. With the sun shining brightly and the warm ocean breezes ruffling my hair, I was ready to experience the restful and relaxing enjoyment of Playa de Las Americas for the next 12 days.
I had a pint of John Smith at a sidewalk bar and, after searching in vain for one of the most-touted paella places in the area, I settled for a nice mixed paella plate at one of the many establishments offering them. Mmmm, seafood and meat paella, washed down with an Alhambra beer; a good way to start the evening. Naturally, I was accosted during my meal by the wandering vendors, selling sunglasses and fake Rolexes, but, seasoned traveler that I am, I was able to shake them off easily and quickly and to enjoy my meal despite the frequent interruptions.
After dinner I continued my orientation stroll, getting acquainted with the general area, stopping now and then to have a beer at yet another of the ubiquitous sidewalk and Oceanside bars and restaurants. I even sat through one set of Roy Orbison’s music presented by Gerry Attrick, “The Wrinkly Rocker,” on the oceanside strolling path; what more could I ask for? But since I was still somewhat groggy from my 19-hour trip, I headed back to my hotel for some much-needed sleep. Tomorrow would be another day (obviously).
I spent my first full day in Tenerife after breakfast hanging out by the hotel swimming pool, just sitting in the sun and relaxing and soaking up all that wonderful sunshine and heat. I needed it after my initial introduction to yet another Hungarian winter. But I was restless and needed some exercise, so once again I took a long walk to check out the area in daylight. Lunchtime found me back on the “Boardwalk” again, and I decided it was time for some tapas. The meals in Tenerife are not all that cheap; the base price for a dish is anywhere from 8-10 euro, and with drinks, starter, bread, dessert, etc., I rarely got away for less than 25 euro for dinner and 15 euro for lunch. But the food was so tasty and plentiful, it was worth every euro-cent.
Back to the pool for a rest and the beginning of my base suntan, a short nap, shower and shave and out on the town in the early evening. This time I walked all the way down to the ritzier part of LA for some Szechuan Chicken and a Tsing-Tao beer at the Oriental Garden. I also wanted to check out the “amazing” Dancing Waters fountain show at a nearby outdoor shopping mall that evening.
I guess most tourist spots these days have some sort of sound and light show or Dancing Fountains. The one in LA is performed every night to various types of music, spurting its jets of water in the air and having the fountains swaying to different-colored lights and music. I watched for about 15 minutes and wandered off. Not bad, but the ones in Dubai were much better.
The night’s entertainment doesn’t usually begin until 11 PM or so anywhere in town, so I joined the early drinkers at a couple of quiet, almost deserted places until I happened upon the Brewer’s Droop, somewhat hidden on a side street. Brewer’s Droop is one of those rowdy, energetic bars where you just know you’ll find a stag party of drunken Brits. This night the revelry had started early, with several large groups of tourists ready to have the karaoke spotlight shine on them before the show. And yes, folks, I did favor the crowd with “Great Balls of Fire;” I sort of have to by now. Around 11 PM, as advertised, The Blues Brothers appeared for an hour-long show of songs, patter, comedy and audience participation. A great start to my visit. One interesting note at the Brewer’s Droop: amid all of the singing and loud music, I noticed what had to be the bar’s black and white cat snuggled up on one of the benches along the wall, sleeping and oblivious to all that noise. Must be a tough cat.
I had read the weather reports before leaving Budapest and knew that rain was expected on Thursday, so I was resigned to it. Only problem: since LA is dedicated to having everything outdoors, there are no indoor venues for those occasional rainy days, like museums or even movie theaters. Not even an indoor swimming pool or spa. I did get a massage at the hotel, but otherwise just read one of the books I had bought on my Kindle. Oh, yes, I also registered for a following-day trip to several interesting places on the island. The tour was to include a visit to the highest point in Tenerife, Mt. Teide, and then on to other various points of interest, with a stop in Garachico for lunch (which I thought was included but it turned out it wasn’t). Anyway, the rain finally broke Thursday evening, and I was able to have a beer at the Gaelic Corner and then a pizza at El Americano next to my hotel.
Friday, January 10, I was up at 6:30 AM (Yucchh!) in order to have breakfast and then walk to my pickup point near the hotel. The bus picked me up on time, around 8:15 AM, near my hotel and we took off on the first leg of our adventure. After we got out of town and on the coast road (make careful note of this timing!), our guide informed us that, due to the previous day’s rain, the roads at the top of Mt. Teide had iced over and were closed to tourist buses, so we would not be going to the top of the mountain. Did you get that? AFTER we were already on our way, and had no chance to reschedule our tour to see the natural wonder that was, after all, the PRIMARY PURPOSE of this tour, we were told we wouldn’t be seeing it. Talked about upset! Since there was nothing I could do at the time, I waited until I returned home to blast those idiots on Trip Advisor. I hope they go out of business next week.
Anyway, after fuming for a while, we all settled down to make what we could of the remainder of the trip, which, I must admit, was actually pretty good.
We got to the lava fields at the base of Mt. Teide, which were still snow-covered, then over to the small town of Icod, which boasted a really incredible Dragon Tree (supposedly 1,000 years old) and possibly the best rum I have ever tasted, both the honey-flavored and banana-flavored. I bought what I could carry. In addition, I even found some of the local Dragon’s Blood liqueur, which beat the stuff I had in New Orleans years ago by a country mile. Great stuff.
Down to Garachico at the Oceanside and a nice steak lunch. We had some time afterwards to walk around this little town, which was nicely picturesque, built, as it was, on the lava beds following an eruption of Mt. Teide some years back. Then it was up and up and up the sides of various mountains to Masca, an old Spanish village perched in the clouds, about 1,000 meters above sea level. The mountain road switchbacks were steep and narrow and basically terrifying; several people had to switch from window to inside seats, and at least one woman had her eyes closed so tightly I thought she might actually harm herself. But we made it out and over and down to the natural cliffs of Los Gigantes and finally back to the hotel around 6:30 PM. Whew!
I opted for a typical English dinner that night of fish and chips at a small chip shop on the strand next to The Bell English bar. Veddy British, don’t ya know? I caught a Johnny Cash clone at one of the nearby restaurants, and then headed out to see what the night held in store for me.
I wandered into Shenanigans around 10 PM or so after having noted it in my Internet search of things to do in Tenerife. Shenanigans’ is another high-energy bar and club, frequented mostly by Brits and featuring the “world-famous” Looney Tunes duo, two British musicians and comedians. More music, comedy and sing-alongs, which the crowd is heavily into and which we enjoyed and applauded all the way. I actually came back to this place a couple of times, the ambience was so good. The high spot that first night, for me, anyway, was the Looney Tunes rendition of one of their very own compositions, “The Germans Got The Sunbeds – Every Fookin’ One!”).
For those of my readers who have ever been to a hotel or resort with a swimming pool and which is popular with German tourists, you’ll understand this song. The crafty German tourists sneak out of their hotel rooms before daylight and drape their beach towels over the sunbeds/lounges by the pool, so as to reserve them for themselves when they finally come to the pool later in the morning; they want to be certain they have their very own lounge already waiting for them and not have to mix it up with the hoi polloi. Naturally, the well-traveled crowd responded enthusiastically; they’d obviously all been there. (NB: As a typical example of the exemplary service to be found all over Tenerife, the second time I returned to Shenanigans the bartender remembered my drink and set one down in front of me even before I ordered. Now that’s service!).
The song was clever and funny, and then the guys spoiled it by playing the Nazi Card, with raised-arm salutes, two-finger moustache, etc. The crowd loved it, but, of course, there wasn’t a German within shouting distance of the place. When the boys asked for requests, I toyed with the idea of asking for “Deutschland uber Alles,” but my well-developed sense of self-preservation kicked in nicely and I remained mute. And alive.
Saturday was a beach and pool day, soaking up the sun and relaxing. After my daily afternoon nap and shower, I found a nice little Indian food place, the Clay Oven, and had some of the best vindaloo ever, certainly beating out any of the Budapest Indian restaurants by a mile. I told the owner, “If I’m sweating, the food is hot enough.” And I was and it was. After dinner was a return to Shenanigans. This time they featured a Rod Stewart clone later in the evening, which was fun. These entertainers really do work hard for the tourists and I hope they are well-rewarded.
Sunday was another day to take advantage of the sunshine, and I did. Dinner was tapas at a nearby restaurant: garlic shrimp, albondigas and fried squid, yummy.
The Catamaran cruise I had booked for Monday came off well. It was a nice break in my usual lounging-around-the-pool days. The bus picked me up around 9:30 AM and drove all of us cruisers down to a nearby port where we boarded the F13 Catamaran, a big sucker with nets and heads and even a mini-bar. The day was just warming up and getting sunny and we all looked forward to our three-hour cruise. Our first stop took us to an area where the local pilot whales live year-round and we were able to catch a pod of these whales resting under the surface of the water, with just their fins showing. Cool. We cruised for a while, taking it easy, quaffing down the free drinks offered by the crew and soaking up the sun and ambience. We anchored for a short time near the coastline and those who wanted to do so could take a swim. Silly me, I decided to brave the waters and dove off the rear of the cat. A short dip in the testical-shriveling waters of the Atlantic Ocean was all I could take and I scrambled back on deck to a beer and a towel. Then it was back to port, just a nice relaxing cruise.
After yet another afternoon spent lolling around the pool, I cleaned up and walked across the street for my dinner and cabaret show evening at VIVO night club. I’d met one of the owners the previous night and he’d told me about this show so, for 25 euro, I thought, what the hell, and took a chance. All I knew was that it was a musical show of some sort, complete with dinner. Why not, what else did I have to do?
Well, it was fantastic. I got to the venue around 7PM for a complimentary glass of champagne, had my photo taken with the show’s two stars, Bitter and Twisted (really! Two large British guys in outrageous drag!) and we were seated for dinner by 7:30. I was with two English women at a table by ourselves, somewhat far in the back of the theater area, but it was a small enough venue that we could all see and enjoy the show easily. Dinner was three courses: soup or salad, chicken with veggies and potatoes and dessert. Drinks were not included in my price, although for another 10 euro I could have had an all-I-could-drink evening. I wasn’t in the mood for that, and as it turned out I only had a couple of beers during the night.
Then the show started. Bitter and Twisted put on a musical review that must be seen to be believed. The performance I saw was “Decades”, a musical romp from the 1950s through ‘90s. It was absolutely hilarious; I laughed so much and so hard it took three days for my facial muscles to get back to normal. The two guys (?) appeared in a myriad of the most jaw-dropping costumes – I wondered where they got them? – and lip-synched to the songs we all loved in the last half of the 20th century. For anyone who reads this and goes to Tenerife, it’s a show not to be missed.
Tuesday started out innocently enough, but would end in disaster. I took my by-now standard morning stroll around the area, checking out Monkey Beach and other parts of LA I hadn’t seen before. Sunning, lunchtime pizza, more sunning and I was ready for dinner. I’d done my homework on Trip Advisor and found what seemed to be the two best restaurants for paella in LA: La Gomera II and El Cedro. Since El Cedro was just down the street from my hotel, it was there I was headed for my second and, I hoped, best paella of my visit.
The evening was balmy, the service was fast and efficient. My seafood paella arrived within a reasonable time and was dished out to me at my table. Mmmm. As I worked my way through it, it seemed to me that the flavors were somewhat flat and not really what I expected; I guess anticipation does often exceed the actual event. Anyway, by the time I finished it I felt uncomfortably full. I paid and left and my walk back to the hotel was also difficult, as it felt as if I were the most bloated person on the planet. I actually felt like I had a huge inflated air bag sticking out in front of me.
Back at the hotel, I loosened all of my clothing and took it easy, reading for a while and then drifting off to sleep. I was awakened a short time later by stomach rumblings. Uh oh, I recognized those rumblings; the last time I’d had them was in India. Yep, FOOD POISONING! Bad shellfish, or something. Up all night, dinner coming back out of the appropriate orifices in stomach-clenching explosions. Not a good night.
Wednesday was a wash-out. Spent the day in bed, sleeping and recovering. Had some bland pasta that evening just to put something light in my poor overworked stomach, but otherwise it was just liquids to get rehydrated.
Thursday dawned bright and better. At least I’d caught up on my sleep and rested my stomach, so I was ready once again to face the world. Back to the hotel poolside and a day in the sun, reading and resting. Another light dinner, but no partying tonight. My stomach still wouldn’t take it.
Friday was my last full day in LA and I spent it slowly getting my strength back, walking around, doing some last-minute shopping, and finally just relaxing in the sun, nursing myself back to almost health. One last light dinner – how I missed all the great food I had come here for! – and it was back to pack and get ready to leave.
My plane didn’t leave until 7 PM on Saturday, so I had quite a lot of the day to kill. Breakfast, pack last-minute items, check-out by noon, hang around the pool for another few hours, catch the local bus to the airport and check-in for my flight around 5 PM. Once again, it was a 4.5-hour flight, to Cologne this time, arriving at 1 AM on Sunday, January 19. My connecting flight to Berlin didn’t leave until 9 AM, but at least the Cologne airport was open so I could catch some uncomfortable rest in the waiting area. Another flight to Berlin, another six-hour layover, and back home to Budapest around 6 PM on Sunday. I was beat, but, other than the food-poisoning episode, considered it another successful trip. What can I say: you pays your money and you takes your chances.
No major trip plans until late April, but one never knows, do one?

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

You Say Lvov, and I Say Lviv...

…and we’re both correct. This northwestern Ukrainian city has changed hands so often even the Ukrainians get confused sometimes. But even though it’s Lvóv in Russian, Lwów in Polish, Lemberg in German and Lemberik to the local Jewish population, I’ll stick with the present-day preference of Lviv in Ukrainian. Whew!
Things are tough these days in my world of travels. I’ve pretty much exhausted all the easy-to-get-to weekend trips within a long train journey or short plane ride of Budapest, and am now relegated to searching for those second-tier towns and cities I still haven’t visited. I found one in Lviv. As already noted exhaustively above, in whichever language you choose, Lviv is still Ukraine’s second-largest city (after Kiev) and, according to Lonely Planet, worth at least a weekend visit.
My trip began inauspiciously enough when I sauntered down to my nearby Budapest metro station at 6 AM to catch the train for the airport and found fire department and police cars everywhere, and the metro closed! Scheisse! Luckily, the emergency only extended five stations or so. I caught a bus that delivered me past the blocked stop and then resumed my metro ride and then bus ride to the airport.
The rest of the trip was easy. One hour to Warsaw and one hour to Lviv, a short taxi ride to my hotel and I was ready for adventure. This time I stayed in a small boutique hotel, about ½ mile from the center of town and right next to one of Lviv’s biggest tourist attractions: a cemetery. More on that later. For my initial foray I decided to walk into town, a jaunt of around 20-25 minutes or so, stopping to take photos along the way. This is an area of the Ukraine where the leaves turn all the bright colors of autumn: gold, red, yellow and blue. Actually, I think the blue ones were dipped in dye by local schoolkids to fool the tourists.
The map I got from the Tourinform Desk at the airport led me through Soborna Square and up Serbska Street to the center of Lviv, Rynok Square, the old market place and commercial gathering place for locals and tourists alike. It’s even a World Heritage Site. I grabbed a light snack of rice with prawns and beer and continued my explorations.
The day was cloudy, but the beauty and brightness of the local girls far outshown any less-than-perfect weather. Lviv’s Old Town is slowly, slowly being renovated. It still consists of unmaintained buildings, peeling paint and plaster, crumbled bricks, rotted wood and worn-out drains, but the city fathers have started taking steps to bring Lviv back to its former glory. I had another beer at the Korzo pub and explored a few more nooks and crannies before catching the tram back to my hotel. I cleaned up and had a pre-dinner drink at the hotel bar, discussing the evening’s entertainment possibilities with Andrei, my newest bartender friend. I considered a light bar snack, but all they had on their menu was something called “Lard with Garlic.” Having been confronted with such gastronomic excesses in Hungary, I decided to wait until I found a more appetizing snack in town.
I entrammed (is that a word?) for the central city, on one of Lviv’s wonderful period rattletrap trams, still serving after decades under Russian rule. I checked out a few more nightspots, had some vareniki (like pelmenyi) as a light supper, drank in the atmosphere for a while then decided to turn in early. Tomorrow would be another day. Obviously.
So, first full day in Lviv. Had a great breakfast at the hotel, then caught a local bus that took me on a route around the outer fringes of Old Town, where I got off near the Opera. Lest I forget to mention it, the cost of a tram or bus ride in Lviv, Ukraine, is 25 cents US; one of the best deals around. Anyway, the Lviv Opera House is located at the top of Svobody Prospekt, a two-lane thoroughfare divided by a strolling park complete with trees, grass, flowers, etc. Lovely boulevard. I took my time, walked the entire length of the Prospekt and then started exploring the side streets.
The weather was still cool and cloudy, so I did the unofficial walking tour of the city center and Old Town, checking out churches, museums (lots of both) and the narrow, medieval cobblestone streets radiating out from Rynok Square. On a whim I stopped in at The Magic Lantern coffee house for some hot chocolate; turned out it was some of the best I have ever tasted, made with amaretto and the thickest whipped cream ever. Yummy.
More walking and looking and just meandering. I found the Vernisazh open-air market and looked for some interesting souvenirs, but couldn’t find what I wanted – or anything worthwhile either. I really wanted a t-shirt that said, “I Lvove Lviv,” but I guess that was too creative for the locals. Once again, I was out of lvuck.
I continued my stroll through ancient city streets. As I rounded one corner I was surprisingly attacked by an eagle.
Talk about something being unexpected! he tried to carry off my arm, but I fed him a dead mouse I always keep in my pocket for such occasions (one never knows, do one?), and he nodded his thanks (well, it looked like that to me) and took off - literally.
It seemed there was something interesting around every corner and down every street; in the inner courtyard of the famous Armenian Cathedral, for example, is a restaurant called Mons Pius, which looked wonderful and to which I vowed to return for dinner before I left.
All that walking and picture-taking had made me hungry again, so I eeny-meenied and finally mo-ed on the Sacher-Masoch Restaurant, a theme place named after the infamous Lvivian of “masochism” fame. His bronze statue outside beckoned me into the red-and-black interior, and I hesitantly made my way inside to see what would happen.
The menu is a large book-like affair, complete with chain and lock. The general atmosphere was heavy and heady and reminiscent of a French bordello (…..ah, not that I’ve been in too many of them, you understand; just those two trips to Paris when…well, a story for another time.) Anyway, I sat by myself at a table near the entryway and enjoyed the background sounds of whips cracking and primal moans (think I’m kidding, don’t you?) And you should have seen what was showing on the in-house TV! (Hint: it wasn’t Manchester United vs. Arsenal).
I perused the menu, checking out the Hot Foreplay and the Intercourse offerings, passing on the bull’s testicles appetizer (Hey! I’ve had Rocky Mountain Oysters!), and settled for some snails. As I drank my beer and waited for my escargot, a large crowd of younger emo diners came in looking for a large table to accommodate them. I courteously moved to another smaller table so they could push together three tables and keep their group together. My reward came when I got to watch one of the girls eat her dessert (keep reading!).
Anyway, the food was only fair. The escargots were small and dried out and there was no butter or garlic in which to dip the rather stale bread. The parmesan mashed potatoes weren’t very hot, but the beef medallions were pretty good. But it isn’t for the food that one comes to the Sacher-Masoch Café. The emos were really getting into the spirit of the place by this time. One of the young ladies had found an unused whip and was plying it none-too-gently to the back of one of her male dining companions. Another young tattooed man asked for special treatment for one of the girls in his party; a waitress blindfolded the girl, whispered a few words in her ear, slipped some ice-cubes down her back and between her breasts, poured alcohol in her mouth, shook her head then hit her with a small whip. Hmmm - maybe old Sacher-Masoch was on to something here.
At the other end of the table, one of the young (and obviously uninformed) women had ordered a dessert, not knowing what it was. I believe it was called a “Yummy Orgasm.” To fully enjoy her creamy dessert, the young diner first had her hands tied behind her back and then had a blindfold placed over her eyes. A waiter steered her toward her taste treat. The young woman’s male friend sat in a chair holding the dessert on a plate in his lap. The young woman was guided to her knees and her head was gently but forcefully lowered to the plate to engulf what awaited her. It gave new meaning to ‘dining al fresco.’
I walked off my after-dinner Limoncello and, after another rattle-filled tram ride back to the cemetery, shared a couple of vodkas with Andrei and decided to call it a night and rest up for another day.
Friday dawned clear and sunny and warm! It was a perfect day to do the Wonder Train tour of the city. The tour took about an hour and we cruised by all of the major sights of the city, some of which I’d seen and some of which I hadn’t. The train never stopped, but just kept on trainin’ until we arrived back at Rynok Square. I wasn’t quite ready for lunch yet, so made a stop at the Vienna Coffee House for a snack. Turned out the main area of this Major “Must Visit” Tourist Attraction was fully booked for lunchtime gatherings and was unavailable to the common tourist. I was ignominiously sent around to the side wherein lay the Vienna Coffee House Hotel and Terrace, apparently a hangout for the less fortunate.
I sat at a terrace table and ordered a Sacher Torte; no relation to old Mr. Sacher-Masoch, but rather that famous mouth-watering delectable dessert designed at the Sacher Hotel in Vienna. The thought of the one I’d had there still makes me salivate, just like Pavlov’s dog. I ordered one here and, as usually seems to be the result these days, the anticipation once again exceeded the event. The Sacher Torte was dry and somewhat stale, but the accompanying thick, rich whipped cream almost made up for the lack.
Next on my list was the Lychakivsky Cemetery near my hotel, just to see what all the shouting was about. I paid my $2 entry fee and started my tour. The entire cemetery covers around 100 acres and has around 400,000 bodies interred therein. It’s built on hills filled with trees and pathways, and on this day the autumn sunlight streamed through the trees, highlighting the changing colors of the leaves as I walked.
The cemetery is filled with famous Ukrainians and Russians and, of course, I had never heard of a single one of them. My tour was not a long one. I cleaned up in the hotel and boarded my tram for an early dinner, this time at the Kumpel Beer Brewery on Mytna Square, right where the tram stopped near Old Town. It was around 6 PM by then, but the doorman/receptionist at Kumpel said there were no seats available. I looked around at the many empty tables and chairs and then turned back to him and asked him how long it would be until a place opened up; he told me five-to-ten minutes and I said, “No problem, I’ll wait.”
As I was waiting he offered me a free small beer to taste.
The catch was I had to get the tap to pour it. The tap was located in a small space, like in a coffee vending machine, located in the left-side rib cage of a bronze statue of a woman’s torso, from her lips to her upper thighs; unclothed, naturally. To get the beer to pour, you have to rub the woman’s large and bronzily-attractive breasts in a certain manner, while the other diners looked on and snickered at your discomfiture. I tried and tried, using all my widely-renowned massage skills, but I never could get the damn tap to open up. I fondled and stroked and petted and roiled and smoothed, all to no avail. Guess I’m better with the real thing.
I finally got my table in the downstairs area, with a lovely view of the toilet access doors. Guess they spotted me as a tourist after all. I ordered my Taster of the three microbrewed beers for which the Kumpel is famous, and was rewarded with a tasty trio of beers, one light, one amber and one red. They were all good, but I opted for a full pint of the amber to go with my dinner of pepper sausages, bread, red cabbage, sauerkraut and potato latkes. One nice gimmick here and in other restaurants in Lviv: each table has a Call Button which you can press when you want to summon your waiter. What a great idea! Why can’t every restaurant have these touches?
My dinner was another taste treat, which was getting to be a habit in Lviv. I could revisit the city just to try the restaurants I hadn’t been able to get to, as the food I did have was that good. The sausages and beer went well together and I was once again at peace with the world. I lingered for another beer, bought my obligatory t-shirt and sat with Andrei at the hotel, watching Ukraine play Poland in football. Ukraine won, 1-0, and Andrei was so happy he poured me a complimentary shot of homemade spirits; it tasted something like moonshine, but finished me off nicely and I was in bed fast asleep within minutes of hitting my room.
Saturday was my last full day in Lviv. It was cloudy again and rather cool, good walking weather, so I decided to visit the places on foot that I’d only cruised by previously in the Wonder Train. I did the Opera Passage shopping mall (way too ritzy for my plebeian tastes), then walked all the way down to Soborna Square via Doroshenko and Shevshenko streets with their upscale stores and parks in the middle of the divided streets. On Virmenska I entered the Armenian Cathedral again, checking out the passageways and arches.
As I circumnavigated Rynok Square yet again, I caught a sign that drew me in for lunch. It had a photo of a hamburger and text reading “I don’t like it,” along with a photo of a bowl of Ukrainian soup with its text of “I like borsch!” I was hooked. I had enjoyed the borsch I’d had in Kiev a few years earlier, so thought it would make a nice light lunch. I walked down the stairs to the main dining area of the Golden Boar restaurant, got my table, read the menu and pushed my Call Button for the waiter.
“I’ll have the Ukrainian borsch,” I proclaimed with ringing tones of the true borsch-lover. The waiter looked at me and said, “We don’t have that.” I damn near left right then. I only stayed so I could write my scathing review on Trip Advisor warning tourists to stay away from this place. They didn’t have their national dish! I’m speechless. I wanted to punch out the waiter, even though it’s not his fault. I wanted to run into the kitchen and bop the chef over the head with a serving ladle. I wanted to grab a whip at the Sacher-Masoch café and beat the owner of this bourgeois establishment with it soundly and roundly.
But I refrained from doing any of those satisfying activities. My Trip Advisor review would seal the restaurant’s fate forever. So I had a small plate of vareniki with prawns (stuffed dumplings). The accompanying dipping sauce was not the traditional sour cream, but was rather some sort of mayonnaise-based sauce that tasted suspiciously like Thousand Island salad dressing. I could hardly wait to get to the Trip Advisor page on my computer.
I was so upset I actually walked back to my hotel. I walked and rested and paced and mentally composed my horrid review for Trip Advisor, one I was certain would result in the closing of The Golden Boar for all eternity – or at least until they started serving Ukrainian borsch again, since it was advertised on the menu. After I calmed down I finally succumbed to the arms of Morpheus to help assuage my anger at not being able to order the national dish of Ukraine in one of its big tourist restaurants. Remember – The Golden Boar on Rynok Square in Lviv, Ukraine – DON’T GO THERE!
I awoke rested and ready once again to tackle the dining scene in downtown Lviv. My guidebook recommended so many appealing restaurants, it was difficult to decide which one I wanted for my final night’s splurge. There was a Jewish restaurant which had a menu without prices where you were expected to bargain for your meal (although they did offer a shot of homemade vodka). Then there was Mons Pius, that Olde English place in the courtyard of the Armenian Cathedral. Tough choice.
I wandered by the Jewish place and it was pretty well crowded even at 6PM. I strolled on to Mons Pius, which wasn’t nearly as crowded yet. I decided to have one of their homemade beers (very nice!) and, after perusing their menu, decided what the heck, I’d stay there and have a steak. And that was a great choice.
Mons Pius’s motto is “In Pivo Veritas,” instantly translatable by all beer and wine fans, to “In Beer We Trust.” My sentiments exactly. I was taken to a table in the main inside dining room, as it was a touch cool outside. This main room looks like an Olde English manor hall, complete with dark wood walls, tables and chairs, beamed ceiling, mullioned windows and discrete lighting – and all in the middle of the courtyard of an Armenian church. Who’d a’thunk it?
I made my menu choices quickly and easily: an order of garlic toast, a nice 300-gram rib eye steak and some fried veggies (just to be on the healthy side). I figured the garlic toast, which I envisioned as regular flat pieces of toasted bread with some nice garlic butter on the side, would whet my appetite for the meat dish to come.
Another surprise awaited me: when the “garlic toast” arrived, it was four thick six-inch-long sticks of fried black bread, accompanied by a creamy garlic dip. It was almost – I say, almost – like my all-time favorite pub appetizer from St. Petersburg – grenkiy! YES! I could feel my eyes widen at the sight as I actually became sexually excited at finding this marvelous taste treat so unexpectedly in a far-off corner of Ukraine.
I had to force myself to savor my “garlic toast,” as I dipped the sticks into the sauce and conveyed the result to my mouth with a shaking hand. It was so wonderful tears formed in my eyes. I must have been making my standard moaning and groaning yummy sounds, as I noticed other diners staring at me. I didn’t care. I was back in garlic heaven and intended to stay there as long as possible. I nearly cancelled my steak and substituted another five orders of garlic toast, but No, too much of a good thing, and all that. Suffice it to say I knew from the auspicious beginning that this would be a meal to remember.
And it was. My steak was perfectly cooked, and I lingered over it and my veggies and another beer, taking my time and enjoying every bite and sip. Night descended outside the windows as I cut and chomped and thoroughly demolished everything on my plates, all the while smiling inanely and probably moaning slightly. What else can I say? It was a perfect meal. And all for the reasonable cost of around $30 US. Such a deal.
I couldn’t improve on dinner, so I once again strolled back to my hotel, taking in the night air during my final moments in Lviv. I had a taxi pick me up the following day (Sunday) at noon, made it to the airport, checked in quickly and easily and endured my two flights back to Budapest. Clearing passport control and security at the Warsaw airport was so bad and so unnecessarily obstructive it nearly spoiled the end of a really nice long weekend, but I persevered and made it through. I was home in my cozy flat by 8 PM Sunday night. Another successful adventure tucked under my belt and faithfully recorded in my camera. Pix are on Facebook. Watch this space for upcoming travels, as winter is almost upon us and I’ll be needing some sunshine around the middle of December. Until then, dear Reader.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Riga -- Pearl of the Baltic

My counting skills have apparently begun to erode in my middle years; I keep coming up with a different number of countries I’ve visited, depending on the list I use and the maps I consult. Anyway, it appears Latvia is at least my 50th country and, at most, my 55th country. We’ll leave it at that for the time being and just say I’ve been to a lot of countries.
Anyway, it turns out Riga, Latvia, is a pretty cool place. It’s squeezed in between Lithuania to the south and Estonia to the north. I loved Tallinn, Estonia, when I was there a few years ago, and I can see why the Baltic States have such a great reputation. Classic architecture, mild climate in the summer, great meandering Old Town city streets, fantastic restaurants, excellent pubs and bars, all types of music, friendly people…..what more could one want?
After a relatively short flight from Budapest of a little over two hours, I arrived at the Riga airport around 6:30 PM. I caught a local bus from the airport to right near my hotel, which was on the edge of the Old Town District, just a soccer ball kick from the train and bus stations. Checked in easily to my basic, but adequate, room and headed out to see what Riga had to offer me. And it had a lot!
It was raining when I started out on my initial exploration of the city, but the downpour quickly passed and it was clean, wet streets and fresh air – something I’d been missing in the steambath that was Budapest for the past month or so. I easily found Paddy Whelan’s Irish Pub, just a three-minute walk from my hotel, where I had my first Guinness of this adventure. The pub was quiet and not very energetic, but it was early on a Thursday night, so I supposed it would pick up later.
I continued wending my way through the narrow cobblestone streets, through the Old Town center and Doma Square and finally happened upon my destination for dinner: The Kiploku Krogs, also known as The Garlic Café. It was wonderful. I opted for the appetizer plates: garlic tapas, escargot, garlic bread and a nice local dark beer. I definitely OGed (Over Garlic-ed) that night, but it was worth it. I polished off everything with gusto and left secure in the knowledge that no vampires would be bothering me for a while – or, probably, any pretty girls either.
I walked back through the center of old Riga and stumbled upon one of the several open-air terraces abounding in that area; this one contained the Rockabilly House, with a live band playing what you might expect from the name. Rockin’ and rollin’ in Riga! Another beer or two, some funky music and I was in love with Riga.
I had planned some activities for the following day, Friday, but, as usually happens, I went off on my own and found other things to do. I walked all over, through the New Town along one of the lovely canals, through some green and lush parks, around the Freedom Monument and on around the Old Town areas I’d missed the previous night. I saw St. Peter’s Basilica close up and caught the morning sun behind the House of Blackheads (obviously a place where no teenage boys ever go). I hit Pelmenyi XL for a lunch of, what else, pelmenyi, those little boiled dumplings stuffed with various fillings, a couple of pirogis and a drink, and all for only about $5 US – an amazingly cheap feast.
Riga is a great walking town, and I did most of it that day, including a stroll along the riverbank. I’d heard one of the best views in town was from the Skyline Bar at the top of the Radisson Blu hotel, so thought an evening drink up there would give my night a good start. It was a nice stroll to get there, then up to the 26th floor to the bar. Imagine my surprise when I was charged 2 Lat just to get into the bar (about $4 US). OK, I paid it anyway, then had my expensive vodka tonic and wandered around and checked out the view of Riga from several angles. Not bad. Of course, the cocktails ran from around $9 US to $16 US, so one would have to suffice for the time being.
I walked back to Old Town, looking for the next restaurant on my Internet-researched list, the Livonija. Turned out it was no more, an occurrence that happens all too often to me in my travels. Internet tourist sites aren’t updated frequently enough, so many of the places at which I want to eat and drink are no longer in existence. Sigh. The difficulties of traveling too often.
I settled for a nice big juicy burger at Moloney’s Irish Pub; good burger, but there was so much sauce the damn meat patties kept sliding out of the bun. Europeans tend to eat their burgers with knife and fork anyway, so not a problem for them, but we westerners are used to sandwiches, and like to pick up our burgers. A major cultural clash. I persevered, but with some slight sauce damage to my shorts and sandals.
I had “dessert” at La Belle Epoque bar nearby, billed as a French-style hangout with great apple pie shots. Well, sports fans, it was a teeny, tiny little cellar bar, frequented by college students and other budget-conscious travelers. I did have my apple pie shot, which was pretty good, but was disappointed at the complete lack of any sort of ambience in the place, and certainly no evocation of the Belle Epoque era in Paris. Another expectation crushed to earth.
Another session with the rockabilly folks and some late-night strolling through the buskers and street musicians, and that was it for my Friday.
Saturday was my stroll around the New Town area. I checked out the Central Market, which is actually what looks like four gigantic blimp hangars set side by side, each with a different food specialty plus, of course, souvenirs, clothes, kitchenware, etc. I briefly walked through the Stockmann Center nearby, a large Finnish store, then decided, well, why not, and did the Hop On/Hop Off bus tour for about an hour or so. I got to see parts of the city I probably wouldn’t have seen on foot, like the art deco street, more large parks and the other side of the Daugava River.
Lunch was Chinese at the Wok to Walk restaurant; basically a takeaway place, but I was able to sit and enjoy my noodles with beef and broccoli. A lazy afternoon followed by a fun evening. I decided it would be a bar night, so first checked on The Dubliner to see what it had to offer. It wasn’t much, a small crowd at the bar and the bartendress was more interested in being entertained by her new friends than in waiting on any newcomers, so I ambled on.
I found Donegan’s Pub just off Kalku street in the center of Old Town, which was much livelier, much friendlier, with smiling (and beautiful!) bartendresses and a fun crowd. I had a couple of local beers then decided a pizza was in order, so off I went again to the Town Square, where I had spotted a Can Can Pizza place. I sat down at an outside table and perused the menu. Hah! Just what I wanted: a small (20 or 22cm) pizza and a beer – just right. When I ordered my pizza, the waitress unsmilingly informed me, “Oh, we don’t have that, only the 30 cm pizzas.”
Is it me? Do I have something tattooed on my forehead that says, “Don’t give this guy what he orders?” In addition to places advertised on the internet which I then find are no longer in existence, I find this lack of items on the menu another too-common occurrence in my travels. And, quite honestly, I am getting tired of it. How much trouble would it be for wait staff to TELL me about the things they don’t have, rather than have me get all excited about a dish I really crave and then wait for me to order and then tell me they don’t have it? Talk about a way to spoil one’s dinner plans! (And as a final thought, how difficult would it be to take 2/3 of the 30-cm pizza dough and make up a 20 cm pizza? Customer service is still dead in Central Europe).
I made a move to snatch up my spoon and stab the offending waitress in the abdomen, but then thought, aaahh, hell, what for. I told her what I thought of her restaurant, and wandered away to find something better. Pelmenyi XL was, as always, jammed packed, with a line still out the door, so I settled on Donegan’s again, which I should have done in the first place. They had nice appetizer plates, which was all I really wanted, just a large snack to absorb the beer to come. I had the six-piece chicken nuggets, which turned out to be chicken strips, which was just perfect. I enjoyed my dinner and beers, then sauntered back to Town Hall Square to hear the ten-foot-tall opera singers perched on their gigantic dresses. Then off to hear the Latvian Blues Band, a little more Rockabilly House and finally back to Donegan’s in time to catch the live music. And you’ll never guess who was performing that night: Elvis!
Yes, The King is alive and well in Riga, Latvia. Of course, death has not treated Elvis very well; he’s shorter and skinnier (well, he did need to lose a few pounds) and has long scraggly brown hair and his voice isn’t as good as it was, but it was definitely him, still going strong, and even accompanied by a friend playing what looked like a trumpet on steroids, who was the perfect partner for the dead Elvis. What a treat!
I originally had no plans for Sunday, but then thought, well, why not take that Free Walking Tour I passed on Friday? So I did. I opted for the City Center Tour, outside of Old Town, and again was able to see more things that I usually would not have seen, including the building known as Stalin’s Birthday Cake and the trendy art nouveau buildings in the New Town quarter.
After the two-and-one-half-hour walking tour, I was due for lunch and a nap, so I had both. Since it was my last night in Riga, I decided to splurge on dinner. Near my hotel was a new restaurant called The Wind in The Willows (I won’t give you the Latvian name, as my keyboard doesn’t have those letters). It’s an outdoor terrace next to the rear of St. Peter’s, complete with a light jazz trio and, later in the evening, old Harold Lloyd movies shown on a giant screen (hmmm).
In line with my dining philosophy of trying new and local foods I can’t get in Budapest, I had the grilled quail with veggies, accompanied by a lovely Nahe Reisling (for those of you who don’t know my past, I lived next to the Nahe River in West Germany lo those many years ago). . For dessert it was a white chocolate cheesecake and a shot of limoncello. It wasn’t inexpensive, but it was worth every Lat.
So, fellow blog enthusiasts, that’s basically it for my trip to Riga. Monday I breakfasted early and was at the airport by 11 AM and back home in Budapest by around 3 PM. Safe! Riga is definitely a fun weekend getaway and I can chalk up another country on my ever-growing list of new countries I’ve visited.
I’ll be in Budapest for a month or two to get my residence permit renewed, but after that it will be Off Again to Who Knows Where. Watch this space for sequels. And to all a Good Night.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Slainte!

Ireland in the Hot, Hot, Hot Summer of 2013

I figured I’d be getting away from Budapest’s fierce heat wave by heading for Dublin in July, only to find that Dublin was experiencing its worst (or best, if you’re a Dubliner) bout of summer sunshine in more than half a decade. I’d packed my rain jacket and long pants and hiking shoes, only to find I didn’t need any of them. But that’s OK, I’m not complaining. I loved every hot, sunny minute of it.
This was meant to be a Take-It-Easy trip. My landlords, Bog bless them, had kindly volunteered to let me stay in their 19th century Victorian terrace house in Rathmines, a Dublin suburb, for the three weeks during July when they would be in Austria and Hungary. Well, how could I possibly turn down their offer? In a word, I couldn’t. So it was off to Dublin for R&R, Guinness, local pubs and old friends. Always great to return to Ireland.
It was an easy bus ride from the Dublin airport to Rathmines, and the bus stopped just around the corner from Leinster Road. I only had about a 100-meter walk to my accommodation for the next three weeks. It’s a really beautiful restored three-story house, with a formal entry hall, a columned front doorway, old wooden floors, a brick façade and a cozy rear yard, full of trees and shrubs and even a newly-built tree house for the newest granddaughter. What a great place to stay.
My first full day in Dublin, Wednesday, July 3, I reacquainted myself with the center of the city. Rathmines is only about a 30-minute walk into Dublin center, but I usually took the buses into town; much easier, although not always as fast as walking, since the Dublin bus drivers tend to be rather slow and careful in their routes. Plus, they stop at nearly every bus stop and are caught by almost all the red lights, so getting into town often took around 25 minutes, not a lot better than walking.
Anyway, I walked around for a while, seeing if anything had changed around Trinity College, St. Stephen’s Green, Merrion Square, Dame Street, Grafton Street, Temple Bar and the Liffey River. After stocking up on groceries in Rathmines, I had a light dinner and headed out for nearby Rosie O’Grady’s pub for a Guinness and some local socializing. Turned out the locals there weren’t the most social crowd of Irish people I’d ever met, so it was an early first night for me.
The weather continued sunny and hot, amazing the locals. I journeyed to the main bus station and bought my ticket to visit Derry the following week, so I was all set for that. Some shopping and more strolling brought me to the early evening, when I was to meet one of my old Dublin friends, Francis, at Frank Ryan’s pub in Smithfield. Ryan’s was as boisterous and fun as I remembered from my last visit six years ago. They had a blues band that kept the energy level up, and the Guinness went down just right. I managed to pour myself into a taxi around midnight, and all was right with the world.
Friday was another relaxing day, with a short evening visit to Brogan’s pub on Dame Street. The owner, Ben, actually remembered me, even after being away for six years; I was impressed with his publican skills and stayed for another Guinness or two.
Saturday was rugby day. I met Francis and his son and a friend at Slattery’s on Capel Street to watch the British and Irish Lions massacre Australia’s national team. After the match I walked back to Meeting House Square in Temple Bar for the weekly food market of exotic dishes from around the world. Bought some habanero chiles to take home and scarfed down some oysters and Guinness for lunch. Mmmm. I had some unexpected time to kill waiting for the horde of Pro-Life marchers to finish their parade so the buses could resume their routes, but finally caught a bus back to the suburbs.
After a late breakfast and early lunch on Sunday, I headed for the Stag’s Head pub to check out the much-vaunted comedy show that night around 8 PM. It was a free show, with what I supposed were amateur local comedians. The show was held downstairs in a small meeting area, which was stiflingly hot and not air conditioned or even equipped with two or three fans, which would have alleviated some of the sweat-soaked discomfort. I made it through the first half of the show, through three comedians, two of whom were fair and the third of which was what I have come to recognize as a standard British or Irish comedy act, i.e., some mildly humorous attempts and jokes followed, when all else has failed, by crass and tasteless scatological references.
Obscenity, profanity and hard-core sexual language seem to have inundated comedy in the British Isles to the extent that one rarely hears anything else, and certainly rarely hears any comedians who are actually funny. I left after the first half. The Comedy Crunch management was not amused at my Trip Advisor review; too bad, I was unable to see what other attendees raved about, based on the show I attended.
Monday I had lunch with another old bud, Will, who is now at another local language school. His school was one of the many local language schools overcrowded with foreign students. I’d forgotten what summer in Dublin was like when 100,000 foreign teenagers come to town enrolled in the English language courses. It’s always fun wending one’s way through herds and hordes of Spanish and Italian and Polish and Russian teens wandering around town when classes are over.
Tuesday it was up early and take the bus over to the Central Bus Station to connect with my ride to Derry. It was an easy 3.5-hour trip with one brief stop. We arrived at the Derry bus station, right on the River Foyle, around 2 PM. I had printed out my trusty Google map so I was ready to go looking for my hotel. As it turned out, it was only about 200 meters away, a short walk along the river then turn left on a side street and Bang – Travelodge. Checked in quickly and efficiently and found my room.
The primary reason people stay in chain hotels is for the uniformity. We always know what we’re going to get. Every Hilton or Marriott or Travelodge in the world will have, we know, the same stuff: pleasant room, reasonable prices, bad pictures on the walls, clean bathrooms, mini bar, air conditioning in the hotter climes, room safes, good security. Well, almost all Travelodges have these things. But not, of course, the one in which I stayed in Derry.
The bathroom floor was wet from a leak in the heated towel rack; no ugly pictures on the walls – in fact, no wall decorations at all – just blank walls; no room safe, in which to store valuables while out carousing around town; no mini-bar with its selection of cold drinks for the hot, weary traveler; and, most important and disappointing, no frigging air conditioning during the hottest week of the year, with the temperature outside at 85 degrees. I was not amused. But I was hot and sweaty.
Okay, time to suck it up and make the best of it. Took a quick cold shower and changed into shorts. Did my best to secrete my passport (I thought I’d need it crossing the border from the Irish Republic into Northern Ireland, part of the UK, but turned out there wasn’t even a border post anywhere to be seen) and credit cards and other important documents I would usually have kept in the room safe. I made a quick stop at the Reception Desk to let the young woman know, in my best straight face, that my room air conditioner didn’t work. With an equally straight face, she informed me that none of their rooms had air conditioning, as it was often only hot for 10 days or so each year and it wasn’t really needed.
Except, of course, when I stayed there. Apparently, a sense of humor is not one of the Derry residents’ strong points.
So, out and about in Derry. Derry is now, according to Trip Advisor, the fourth-most-visited city in the world. Yep, that’s the entire world. I couldn’t wait to see why. My map showed everything I needed to see and know about the area. It looked like a long walk around town, but it was a really large-scale map and it turned out Derry is a really tiny place and the main part of town, complete with intact old castle walls, can easily be circumnavigated in about 45 minutes. A really nice little town, despite the Troubles in the 1970s, which the residents are still trying to get past.
Anyway, I walked to Waterloo Street to check out the pubs – first things first, naturally. I stopped at Pedar O’Donnell’s to inquire of the nightly pub crawl I had seen advertised on the internet, and the young bartender informed me he had never heard of such a thing. Even a couple of locals sitting at the bar had never heard of such a thing. Was I in the Twilight Zone? Hmm, better check back later to see what’s what.
I continued my get-acquainted journey around town, into the Old Town and Castle area, through the gates set into the walls. After stopping for a much-needed beer, I found the start of the Derry Walking Tour, this one conducted by Martin McCrossen, a local man in his 60s (?) who took our group around the Walls, pointing out historic places, especially the Bogside area with its wall murals commemorating Bloody Sunday back in 1971. Actually, there are still parts of the city with high fences, separating the factions and letting people know that the violence they are trying so hard to eradicate still lies just below the surface. A shame, as it’s a nice little town.
Another shower was in order, after which a short tour of more of the town’s pubs and a bite to eat. The accents of Northern Irish people are quite different from those in the south, and are rather difficult to understand. I constantly found myself saying, “Pardon?” or “Sorry” or looking blankly at the person speaking to me with a total lack of understanding of what s/he was trying to say. It got a little better if they spoke slowly, but when they speeded up I was lost. Fortunately, the word “Guinness” is easily understood by all parties, so at least I was never without sustenance.
Wednesday, my only full day in town, I started early. I walked over to the Bogside area, the better to see it close-up. It was a long way on my map, but only about an eight-minute walk from my hotel. Lots of interesting wall murals on the buildings in a quiet, peaceful setting of row houses and apartment blocks. You’d never know what had happened there if you weren’t familiar with the history.
A nice Full Irish Breakfast set me up for the day: two eggs, beans, mushrooms, sausages, bacon, black and white pudding, toast and tea. No need to eat again until dinner. I spent the rest of the day just walking around and getting the feel of the place. There’s the Peace Bridge, which people from all over come to walk across and, they hope, continue the peace that has settled on the area. The River Foyle is beautiful and big; one of the bridges across it is a quarter-mile long. The weather was still beautiful, hot and sunny, although this day there was a cooling breeze, so it was somewhat better than the previous day.
I did some strolling and some shopping and some more close-up sightseeing. After yet another shower, I managed a light dinner and then an evening of traditional Irish music at a local pub. Always there’s music in Ireland, everywhere, all the time. Great place to relax and enjoy yourself, which I did, to my immense satisfaction. I did make a short pilgrimage to Pedar O’Donnell’s before turning in for the night; I gave the young bartender with whom I had talked earlier a brochure advertising the pub crawl that started nightly at Pedar O’Donnell’s. He looked at it like it was a snake about to bite him, shook his head back and forth and exclaimed, in a truly shocked voice, “Sorry, Mate, I still don’t know of any such thing.” But, after all, Derry is the fourth most popular tourist destination in the world.
Another monster breakfast the next morning after which I decided that since Derry was so tiny, and since I had seen pretty much all there was to see, even though I hadn’t walked across the Peace Bridge, I could catch the early bus back to Dublin without missing anything exciting. So at 10:30 it was off again on the cross-country bus. I noticed as I boarded that there were at least three experienced supervisory drivers sitting behind the obviously inexperienced woman driver behind the wheel. Oh, good, a Trainee. I have never had much luck with Trainees, and only hoped this time would prove the exception; with so many long-term bus drivers in attendance, I felt safe enough to sit back and enjoy the trip. Murphy was smiling in the last row in the bus.
The first half of the trip was uneventful and as we drove through Monaghan town to the same brief rest stop we had visited on the trip up, I was rested and ready for a stretch. The driver turned into the parking lot and cut her turn a touch too close – BANG! She had run into the short retaining wall, crushing in the side of the bus. Ooops. She had killed the bus and, not incidentally, her chances of ever becoming a full-time bus driver.
The other supervisory drivers milled around for a while, then finally had us unload our gear and switch to another bus (with a new driver!) to continue our journey. We arrived in Dublin only an hour later than our scheduled arrival time, with thankfully no more incidents.
So, the next day was Friday, July, 12, and I would be in Dublin until the following Saturday, July 20. That week would generally be one of rest and relaxation, maybe a movie or two, a few visits to the pubs, some English-language television (don’t get that in Budapest), a little more shopping for things I can’t get at home, some reading, and a general, all-around take-it-easy week. No hurries, no worries. And that was pretty much what it was, with a couple of notable exceptions.
I did the Jeanie Johnston tall ship tour on the Liffey. This ship was a reproduction of the one which had transported more than 2,000 Irish immigrants to the United States after the famine in 1845. It was noted mainly for the fact that no one had ever died on it during any of its voyages, a singular accomplishment. Or an amazing stroke of luck, as you will.
Sunday, July 14, is my grandson Nicholas’s birthday. It also happens to be Bastille Day, a holiday celebrated by French people all over the world, with Dublin no exception. To start the evening’s festivities, I met Francis and several more old friends at Chez Max’s terrace restaurant on Dame Street for some wine and music and Gallic shrugs and hugs. It was the first time I had been able to connect with Joe, with whom I had stayed when I spent the summer of 2007 teaching for Fran’s language school, and his sister Jenny and their friend Elisabeth. Good to see them all and the evening would get even better as it progressed.
We moved the party to Chez Max’s bigger place on Baggott Street. There was an outdoor terrace in the rear, filled with Irish and French and one lone American. I was the only one who didn’t know the words to La Marseillaise, but I faked it by mouthing the word “Orange” over and over again, so it looked like I was singing along with the group. There was lots of beer and dancing and getting hugged by beautiful Irish women, so I was happy. Check out my Facebook pics for a few of the better scenes of debauchery.
The following night, Monday, Fran had promised me I could join him and his friends for one of the infamous Irish pub lock-ins back at Ryan’s. I showed up there around 10 PM and it was Good to Go! The deal is, Irish pubs have to stop serving and collecting money at 11:30 every night and have to close up and get rid of everyone lest they continue to have a good time and forget to show up for work the next day. To get around this unfair and arcane government edict, what some bars do is, just before 11:30 PM, collect enough money from each person for 3-4 (or more) beers, so there is never any more payment for drinks after 11:30. Then the doors are locked (figuratively speaking, of course), and the remaining patrons can drink and, incidentally, smoke, to their hearts’ content, or at least until the bartender has enough and finally throws everyone out, which he did to us around 2 AM.
Well, it was great. We played darts (I beat Fran twice, then got my butt kicked by Collum, the local champion). We played Killer Pool, where everyone chips in 2 euro and then each person gets a turn to sink a ball; three misses and you’re out, and last person standing gets the pot. Needless to say, I wasn’t even in the running during the two games we played.
With the rules relaxed, the Irish rebel spirit tends to surface and those who still do so decided it was OK to smoke in the bar. Kind of nice to be back in a smoke-filled room again, very nostalgic; real bars should always include a haze of cigarette smoke as an accompaniment to the drinking and socializing. Of course, I wouldn’t make a habit of it, but it was fun for one night.
One day in that last week I decided to do some final shopping. Bused over to the Guinness Storehouse and still couldn’t get in to their souvenir store to buy stuff without first buying a ticket to take the brewery tour. I’d done the tour in years past, so didn’t need to do it again, but there was no way they were going to just let me buy souvenirs without screwing me out of more money just to get in. Am still very disappointed with Arthur.
That same day I was really in the mood for Chinese food and had looked up the local restaurants on the internet before coming to town. I ambled over to the Imperial restaurant on Wicklow street, only to find a big “Closed Until Further Notice” sign in their window. Sigh. Why is it always me? I finally found the New Millennium Chinese restaurant at the top of Grafton street and settled in for some Szechuan chicken and rice. Well, it was undoubtedly, unequivocally the WORST Chinese food I have ever had anywhere. The Szechuan chicken was covered with a thick tomato-based sauce and the peppers that liven it up were – are you ready for this? – jalapeno peppers! It was surreal. I almost threw the dish back at the chef, but I was hungry and forced myself to down it all. But never go there if in Dublin – you’ll be as sorry as I was.
Fortunately, later in the week I happened on the Golden World Chinese restaurant on George’s Street, and it was great, so I had my Chinese food fix after all.
And then it was Friday, my last full day in Dublin. I cleaned up the house, packed up my stuff (barely making the Ryan Air weight limit for checked bags) and headed into town for an early dinner. I decided on one last Guinness at The Stag’s Head pub in the center of town, always a great venue on a Friday evening after work. Of course, Murphy was snickering in the background again. I got my Guinness and joined the other patrons outside where four or five bars form a T intersection of three streets. The joint was jumping, the craic was flowing and there was even a live band at one of the pubs.
I decided a final photo was also in order, so I asked a lovely young Irish woman to oblige me, which she did. We got to talking, her date (it was their first date) came back with more drinks, and I ended up talking with them all evening, until they finally left around 10 PM – when, by the way, it was still light out. Susan was a real doll, fun, great Irish lilt, happy and definitely feeling no pain. She’s on my Facebook Hall of Fame, being quite affectionate; I would have been more so in response, but it was her date taking the photo, so I thought maybe I should restrain myself. But it was hard. I did give her my card and entreat her to come visit me, but, of course, that only happens in the movies.
And that’s basically it for my three weeks in Ireland. Another good trip and, thanks to my landlords, one during which I didn’t have to spend money on accommodation, thus allowing me to visit the pubs more often and even buy a Trinity College sweatshirt. After my return to Budapest I didn’t get to settle down for several days, due to more visitors in town, but finally I had a chance to write this Blog Update so everyone can follow my continuing adventures.
Next trip? Who knows? I’d like to do a short trip in August, since I’ll have to be in Budapest during September and the first half of October to get my residence permit renewed. Of course, August is when everyone else in Europe goes on vacation – shop owners, merchants, pub managers, restaurant people – everyone, so too many places are closed then and not worth visiting. But hope springs eternal and we shall see. I’m still doing research on my family tree and may be able to visit one or more of the European cities/towns where my ancestors lived to look for more evidence of my predecessors. I’ll let you all know. Until then, have a great summer and watch this space for more exciting adventures of Yours Truly.