Lukatch Newsletter

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

Name:
Location: Budapest, Hungary

Teachrman!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

I Finally Make It To Sevens Heaven

Rugby aficionados will understand the above reference. Only one city in the world is known for its Rugby Sevens tournament; yep, that city is….Hong Kong, site of my most recent adventure tour. (BTW - for those unfamiliar with this special form of rugby, it basically takes a standard rugby match and shortens everything, i.e., seven players instead of 15, seven-minute halves, etc.)
Anyway, the Chinese restaurants in Budapest are only fair, and I was really craving some good Chinese food, so I decided to go find some – in Hong Kong. After all, November is early summer there and winter was approaching Hungary, so a jaunt to the sunshine, plus some real authentic Chinese food, was irresistible.
Of course, I had made my flight and hotel reservations before all the Hong Kong demonstrations began in early October; I was so pleased to see Murphy was still watching out for me. I’d probably arrive and have to settle for a tent on Nathan Road in Mongkok, one of the premier shopping districts of Kowloon, Hong Kong’s northern appendage.
I chose a small guest house in the Tsim Sha Tsui area of Kowloon, at the southern end of Nathan Road. My tiny “hotel” was located in a large complex of five tall (16-story) apartment-hotel buildings called Chungking Mansions. An acquaintance of mine who was the former police chief of Hong Kong, and who now lives in Australia, was in Budapest for the summer, so I was able to ask him about my choices. When I told him where I was staying, he just shook his head sadly and told me he hoped I enjoyed crowds and hustlers and Indian food stalls and being accosted by hookers. I responded that that was why I traveled.
Anyway, I made my standard preparations: I packed appropriately for the weather (a check of the weather channel revealed it was to be in the mid-70s during the day and low 60s at night, a nice change from Budapest’s impinging winter winds), ensured my toiletries and numerous meds were all present and accounted for and topped up my Kindle (sounds dirty doesn’t it? “Hey, Honey, how’d ya like to top up my Kindle?”) with several new and old favorite books to read on the plane and while crossing Victoria Harbor on the Star Ferry.
My flight was long but relatively easy: took off around 4:30 PM on Thursday, November 6, for a five-hour flight from Budapest to Doha (Qatar), then a two-hour layover and off for another seven-hour flight to Hong Kong. Piece of cake. I ate and watched a movie or two and read my books and even managed a few hours’ sleep on the final leg. Arrived at Lantau Island airport around 2:30 PM on Friday, November 7; the temperature in Hong Kong was around 25 degrees Celsius (75 degrees Fahrenheit); the humidity was 87%.
I found the Tourist Information booth at the airport and got the information and products I needed to begin my Hong Kong adventure. I managed to change some money, picked up an Octopus Public Transport Card and found my way to a local bus that dropped me off right in front of my hotel. Easy as pie.
I entered the main entrance to the Chungking Mansions five-building block, hustling my way past the Indian touts and other hustlers in the main floor lobby area, which was crammed, crammed, full of shops and booths selling everything from electronics to snacks to clothes to jewelry to bedroom slippers. I stared straight ahead, employing the Camel Look I had learned from Mustafa in Egypt; head up and back, look straight ahead and down my nose at the floor in front of me, turning my head neither left nor right, and not even deigning to acknowledge the screaming, shouting, grasping, sellers on all sides. I had learned my lesson from a master.
I asked at the Information Desk for directions to Block E. I turned right, turned left and there was my elevator, with the various guest houses noted on a sign for each floor. Each block has two elevators/lifts – one for the even-numbered floors and one for the odd-numbered floors. There was often a wait to use the lifts, going up and coming down. I stood in a short line and after watching the lift go up and down a couple of times, I was able to enter and take it to the 12th floor and there was Flat E1, the Golden Maple Leaf Guest House.
(An excerpt from the Golden Maple Leaf Guest House’s website: “For muscular men and slim women with long legs, please choose rooms with double bed for one person accommodation or give us an advanced notice.” As far as I was concerned, the slim women with long legs could leave their contact details for me at the front desk.)
Anyway, my room was as tiny as I had seen advertised. The bed took up most of the space (although it was on tall legs, so there was plenty of room underneath it to store suitcases, shoes and stray children). The bathroom was the size of a closet and contained a tiny sink, toilet, bathroom tissue dispenser and a hot water heater with attached shower hose. The entire bathroom was the shower. But it was all newly-refurbished and it was clean and neat and Leisha, the owner, was friendly and helpful; I rarely asked for more in my hotel rooms. I quickly changed into shorts and a polo shirt and headed back outside to take my standard orientation tour (no pun intended).
It was still raining lightly when I finally got down to the ground floor, but never let it be said your favorite intrepid traveler was deterred by a heavy dew, so off I went in search of dinner – or a late lunch, if you prefer. I found a nearby restaurant touted by a beturbanned Indian gentleman sporting a great mogul moustache, beard and turban; I couldn’t resist his come-on, so went in and had dinner: spicy beef with mushrooms and peppers and a Tsing Tao beer – a good start to my visit. It was my initial introduction to Hong Kong food prices, and it wasn’t cheap: a total of $92 Hong Kong dollars (HKD). To convert to US dollars, merely divide by 8; so pretty much a standard European price for a standard meal.
And so on to my after dinner walk. First impressions of Hong Kong: it is crowded! So many people. Chinese and Indian hustlers looking to sell all the men a handmade suit; local massage girls; guys hawking ‘copy watches’ and iphones and all sorts of other electronics. These hawkers are ubiquitous but not truly annoying; they don’t chase you down the street as they do in other countries, and if you just ignore them, no problem, they leave you alone after an initial attempt to get you to buy something. So I put on my Camel Look and engaged my Stumble Upon Automatic Detection Radar and wandered around the busy early nighttime streets of Kowloon’s Tsim Sha Tsui district. And pretty soon – sooner than you might expect – I did, in fact, stumble upon a small pub just a couple of streets from my hotel: Ned Kelly’s Last Stand, an obviously Australian-owned bar and restaurant which was likely to offer the sort of evening’s entertainment for which I was looking. (Ned Kelly was an infamous Aussie outlaw way back when; you can look him up on the Internet).
I pushed open the front door and was immediately assailed by the sounds of a live jazz band and happy punters. Home! Ned Kelly’s has a very tiny bar area in the rear, which only seats 2-3 people; the remainder of the front of the small pub is taken up with booths and tables spread out in front of a tiered bandstand area, which holds the six-piece band. They played mostly Dixieland jazz, swing and pop music from the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s; my kind of place. At nine o’clock on a Friday night, there were no full booths available, but this is the sort of place that, if there is a spare stool at any of the tables or booths, you just commandeer that spare seat immediately and join the group already there. I sat with a French family recently transferred to Hong Kong; papa was in nuclear energy.
My choice of drink for this first of many nights I spent at Ned Kelly’s was Tetley’s beer, and I’m afraid I imbibed too many of them during the week. I soaked up the atmosphere along with the beers, talked sparingly to the French family (they didn’t have much English and my French is unfortunately limited to “Voulez vou couchez avec moi?”), but we were also joined by Kevin from England who was in town for the cycle races, so it all worked out in the end. The band mentioned they’d be having a jam session on Sunday evening, so I knew I’d be around again. I wandered off around midnight, a very happy and jet-lagged camper.
Saturday started off with breakfast at McDonald’s and then a jaunt down to the Star Ferry Pier, site of the world-famous Star Ferry (what else?), which I rode (free, no less, as a Senior Octopus Card holder) across Victoria Harbor and then had a long walk around the Central District of Hong Kong.
Back to Kowloon and another nice walk to the China Ferry Terminal, where I would catch the ferry to Macau on Monday. The terminal is located on Canton Road, which is lined – and I do mean ‘lined’ – with every luxury store and brand name known to people who can afford them: Rolex, Armani, Balenciaga, Van Cleef and Arpels, Tiffany, etc, etc. Many of the foyers of these stores had a stand containing throwaway plastic sheaths for the water-spotted umbrellas of their patrons – to keep those nasty water stains off of the luxury floors, don’tcha know? Several of the stores were guarded by suspicious-looking Chinese gentlemen carrying shotguns. Tough street.
After a brief lunch on the run at an Indian street stall, I hiked up to the Avenue of the Stars, which is at the end of Nathan Road, about 100 meters from my hotel. I walked the famous promenade with all the other tourists and admired the views looking across Victoria Harbor to Hong Kong’s well-known skyline. In preparation for my initial perusal of the Temple Street Night Market, I took the MTR (Metro) to Jordan Road and, on the way to the market, discovered May’s Hot and Spicy House, a small restaurant off on a side street.
Well, it was just outstanding. It’s the only restaurant I have ever eaten in that has every single item on the menu followed by a spicy chili indicator - one, two or three chilis. May advised me to go with the one-chili dishes and I’m glad I did, as even that one-chili pepper steak with veggies was enough to scorch my taste buds. Luckily I accompanied my dinner with a Tsing Tao beer (or two) to help cut the heat, or I probably would have sweated out a quart of liquid.
The Temple Street Night Market is highly recommended for souvenir hunters to Hong Kong as THE place to go at night. And it was amazing, three pedestrian-only streets lined on both sides with booths selling every kind of tourist tat imaginable. I loved it. And yes, I did manage to pick up the majority of my Xmas gifts for family and friends, most of which are still unique to Hong Kong. I spent a couple of hours wandering happily among the booths and being hustled by the vendors. Here, at least, the prices were pretty good, and got even better as I bargained them down to a point where everyone was happy with the result. Wait ‘til everyone sees what they’re getting for Xmas!
After all that sweaty shopping and bargaining I felt the need for another beer or three, so it was back to Ned Kelly’s for more music and alcohol. This time I was seated next to a Norwegian ship’s officer in charge of the ship’s electronic systems. Cool guy. He also told me about another nearby pub, Delaney’s, which was actually just around the corner and only about 30 meters from my hotel. I stopped by there on my way home, only to discover they were showing the international rugby match between England and New Zealand. I managed to catch the second half when I found a stool next to James from Sydney. After several Kilkennys, I staggered the few feet to Chungking Mansions and managed to catch the lift without having to wait. Lucky for me.
Slept in Sunday and, since the sun was out briefly, I thought it would be a nice day to go up the Peak Tram. I took the MTR to Central and walked about ten minutes to the starting point of the tram. As I rounded the corner where the line usually begins, I saw the line guide ropes were only about halfway filled; not too bad, about a ten minute wait and I’d be up. I started toward the entryway, when a guard motioned me across the street – to the other part of the line, which must have contained about a hundred people or so and would be at least an hour’s wait, if not more. I figured the Peak could wait until another day, so I continued my acclimatization walk around Central for a while, then caught the MTR to the Diamond Hill stop, got off, had lunch in a noodle shop and walked the fifty meters or so to the Chi Lin Nunnery.
The Nunnery was a peaceful place, full of low trees and pools and Buddhist shrines, none of which allowed photos. I checked it all out then went across the street to the Nan Lian Gardens, another oasis of calm in the middle of the city. The afternoon passed quietly.
On Sundays Delaney’s Irish Pub and Restaurant offered a special roast beef dinner, complete with Yorkshire pudding, vegetables, potatoes and a drink. There were only two other couples in the place when I went for an early meal, so it was quiet and the service was speedy. Love those Sunday English dinners.
The jam session at Ned Kelly’s started around 6:30, which is about when I arrived. This time I was seated at a booth with people from the UK and also with Jan from Denmark. Jan, it turned out, was the liaison person between the local Danish seamen’s Church and Ned Kelly’s, as the supplier of the special Turkish Pepper bon-bons imported from Denmark used to make a drink called a North Sea Oil. This drink consists of stuffing around 20 of the chocolate bon-bons into a half-full bottle of vodka and letting the mixture steep overnight. The next day the mixture was put into the freezer and, when ordered as a shot, taken out, shaken (not stirred) and put into a shot glass for instantaneous consumption. Interesting taste, sort of licorice, but not bad. Jan and I had several that night, with Tetley’s chasers for me. Always fun to find a new taste treat in my travels.
Anyway, this jam session is held only once a month and I was lucky enough to be there for the November session. The original six-piece combo is supplemented by ten or so other local musicians who play in other bands around town, and the entire ensemble goes off on the Big Band sounds from the 1930s and’40s. Outstanding! It was yet another wonderful night in Hong Kong at one of its best watering holes and music venues. I stayed until the session ended around 11 PM, then hit the sack for my early start the following day.
OMG, up at 6:30 to shower and shave and walk up Canton Road to the China Ferry Terminal and hit the watery trail for the 60-minute cruise to Macau. I was able to catch the 7:30 ferry, although the cheap seats were sold out so I took the Super Duper Amazing Luxury Seats (Really! That’s what they’re called! And they were only around $35 US) and settled in for the ride. No mingling with the hoi polloi for this traveler! It was still cloudy so nothing much to see as I whiled away the time, read a book and ate the complimentary breakfast snack that came with my ticket. The seats were like Business Class on an airliner, complete with magazines and barf bags. Of course, the air conditioning was turned on High, so I damn near froze on the crossing.
Upon arrival at the ferry terminal, I sought out the Tourist Information Desk and was so pleased to find it closed. I should have known it was a portent of things to come. Anyway, I managed to find a bus that supposedly went near the main part of Macau’s Old Town, and hopped on to see where I wound up. Asking a fellow passenger about my stop, I was told I had just passed it, but could easily walk back. Great. Anyway, I did end up at Largo do Senado (Senado Square) just before 9 AM; at least the Tourinform office there was open.
As it turned out, Macau was a complete and utter waste of time and money. If you ever visit Hong Kong and someone says you should go to Macau for a day or two, DO NOT GO! Unless, of course, you’re going for the casinos and gambling, that’s a different story. I hit all of the recommended tourist spots and believe me when I say they are all something less than spectacular. In fact, they are something less than average.
Senado Square was small and dismal, and I quickly left it on my way to the ruins of St. Paul’s, which, it turned out, is merely the remaining façade of an old church.
No big deal. I started up the hill and stairs to the adjoining Fortress do Monte, but the hike defeated me and I passed. At least I got a nice egg tart on the way back to the central square. Another bus took me to the A Ma Temple, which is just another Buddhist temple in the southern part of Macau. Again, no big deal.
And that was it. Nothing else to see or do if you’re not there for the casinos. I had lunch – finally – at a nice little Portuguese restaurant, Alorcha, where I had some veggie samosa, beef steak with egg and chips, a potent red wine and caramel pudding. I walked around for a bit, then decided to head back to the port, where I whiled away several hours reading. My ferry returned me to civilization by 6 PM. What a wasted day.
An unsatisfying dinner of “mixed vegetables” (it was just kale) rounded out my bad day. I strolled the Avenue of the Stars for a while then hit the sheets. I figured tomorrow had to be better. Such a shame; I was really looking forward to visiting Macau (my 60th country – well, it’s a Special Administrative Region and is listed separately, along with Hong Kong, on the list of Countries of the World, so I figure they both count on my List of Countries Visited).

As things sometimes go in life, Tuesday was a nearly perfect day, in direct contrast to Monday. Up fairly early, I took the MTR to Central Station, then found the Central Bus Terminus and took the express bus to Stanley, a small former port town at the southern end of Hong Kong Island. It was about an hour’s drive through hills and country roads and trees and narrow cliffside roads. The bus dropped us off at the top of the Stanley Street Market and I walked down into the center of the town.
Well, it was excellent. The marketplace was just large enough so I could find all the souvenirs and goodies I hadn’t found in Kowloon or Hong Kong. The people were friendlier and more laid back and the prices were even better (and I could still bargain). I wended my way through the booths along with the other tourists out for the day. Although there were people in the town, it wasn’t nearly as crowded as the Hong Kong city markets, so we all had space to breathe and room to maneuver. I loved every minute of it.
With my purchases in hand (including a really nice Hong Kong rugby jersey), I walked down the short, but colorful, oceanside promenade, complete with restaurants and pubs. I passed on the large Irish pub and a little farther on found my home away from home: The Smuggler’s Inn, a small bar festooned with the leavings of previous visitors: the walls and ceilings were covered with business cards, paper money in small denominations, expired driver’s licenses, photos taken in the bar and elsewhere and lots of handwritten notes from the many travelers who had stopped in for a pint. It reminded me of the For Sale Pub here in Budapest, and I felt immediately comfortable.
I ordered a late breakfast from Mary Lou, the Phillipina bartendress, and enjoyed every bite as we chatted about the goings-on in Stanley. Turned out they weren’t much, but I didn’t care, I was there to relax away from the madding crowd. Chuck Berry accompanied my meal on the jukebox and all was right with the world. I hiked down to the waterfront and the old Stanley Pier, which had been transported from the Hong Kong docks many years ago and set up again in Stanley. It was another cloudy day, but the temperature was in the mid-20s Celsius (high 70s F) and I just ambled and strolled and sauntered all over the place. I even sent my daughter Morgan a postcard from Stanley.
Around 4 PM I decided the sun was close enough to being over the yardarm and made myself comfortable at the bar of the Smuggler’s Inn. It was Tetley’s Time! I pinned my business card at the top of a column near the bar and felt good knowing I was once again represented in one of the world’s best bars. The only other customer in the place turned out to be a ferryboat captain from Southhampton, England, named Richard. We socialized away the evening and night and before we knew it it was time to catch a bus back to Hong Kong. We bid a fond farewell to Mary Lou and entrusted our lives to Fireball Kwan, our intrepid bus driver. The trip that took one hour during the day took only about 35 minutes in the dark of night. Richard and I were on the front row of the upper deck and saw every single tree branch and blind curve hurtling toward us with surprising speed.
Safe and sound back in Hong Kong, we took the MTR over to Kowloon and decided on a nightcap at Ned Kelly’s, which Richard hadn’t yet visited. We left the bar around 11 PM or so and I shuffled back to my hotel, content with having spent as close to a perfect day as I was likely to have.
On Wednesday I decided to try the Peak Tram again, so arrived at the jumping off point around 9 AM and, lo and behold, there were only about 10 people in line this time and no one across the street. I rode the tram to the top and exited, eager to see the views and inhale the air and revel in the peace and quiet --- and found myself in one of the tattiest shopping compounds since the Temple Street Night Market. I fought my way through the glut of tacky little souvenir booths and burst out into the Peak’s main terrace and found myself facing --- another shopping mall! On top of Victoria Peak! Talk about carrying crass commercialism way past its limits!
Sure, the views were good, even though it was a cloudy day, and the air was nice and the terraces were lovely in the morning haze, but --- a shopping mall? And not just any shopping mall, one containing high-end brand names and several luxury stores; as if these same stores down below in the city couldn’t suck out enough money from all of the tourists, there had to be even more of them on the Peak. Sigh.
My shoulders slumped with the futility of it all, of trying to get away from such a single-minded consumer mentality even for a few minutes. It was 9:30 in the morning, and not a single full restaurant, of the many available, was open on the Peak, so I had to wait until 10 o’clock to even feed myself. I had hoped for a snack bar and I had found a wide selection of choices. I wandered around looking at the views, which were getting better as the fog cleared, then settled on a dim sum restaurant for my breakfast. Very nice, and even the large insects seemed to approve of my choice, as several of them walked by my table and waved their feelers at me as I ate.
I had my photo taken with a wax character of Bruce Lee (which advertised Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum at the top of the Peak for only $200 Hong Kong dollars a pop) and trammed back down to Central. I walked the rest of the morning away, checking out Hollywood Road and the Man Mo Temple and the bar area of Lan Kwai Fong (much tackier in the cold grey light of day) and the mid-levels escalator (they call it a ‘travelator’). I checked out the Ladies. Market back in Kowloon and strolled over to see the tent city set up by the demonstrators about whom I had worried so much after I had booked my tickets. And I still couldn’t find some of the items I specifically came here to find in the street markets; amazing!
I finally succumbed to my body’s demands and had a nice steak for lunch at the Outback Steak House near my hotel. The price for a nice 8-ounce steak was very reasonable, which is not the case in Budapest, so I thought I’d indulge myself. The afternoon darkened into early evening as I continued my street explorations of Kowloon Park and Connaught Road. You really have to see Hong Kong to believe how so many shops and restaurants and stores can be crammed into such a small space. Of course, people live and work in gigantic skyscrapers, many as high as 50 stories or more. I kept looking up at these amazing buildings and was glad that my flat in Budapest was only on the 4th floor.
I ran into my ferry captain buddy Richard as I was looking for a place to have dinner later in the evening, and we promised to meet up at Ned Kelly’s later on; I was becoming a real regular there. After a light repast of satay chicken, rice and tea I hit Ned's for music around 9 PM and stayed until the band’s final set around 11:30. Once again, I was drawn into conversation with several locals and even got invited to another bar on Friday night.
My visit was winding down to its final days by this time. On Thursday I did more explorations around the Central Hong Kong area, including taking the mid-levels escalator all the way up. I whiled away the day walking and sightseeing around town, including Wan Chai and Causeway Bay and Happy Valley; no rugby matches while I was in Hong Kong, but at least I got to see the famous Rugby Sevens grounds. Had a nice lunch of dim sum again after finding out my favorite hot and spicy house was closed during the day, but mostly just wandered around town. I was at the Star Ferry Terminal by 8 PM to catch the early Pulse Light Show with the rest of the tourists and the few locals who hadn’t already seen it, which was fun and interesting.
Friday, my last full day in Hong Kong, was Quest Day. I always set aside at least half of one day of my visits to strange and exotic places to search for two special gifts for my daughter and her husband Tony. I try to find the local university bookstore to see if they have their t-shirts on sale, as Morgan likes those. And, of course, although they are getting harder find these days, I still check out cities for a Harley Davidson store so I can get Tony a local Harley shirt. And Friday was no exception.
I rode the MTR and then the bus into the hills to the west of Hong Kong and found the University of Hong Kong (HKU). It’s HUGE, but I persevered and followed their maps and asked a few people and was taken pity on by a passing English teacher, of all people, and finally found the visitor’s center. Retracing my steps, I returned to Central and walked along Gloucester Road looking for the local Harley store, which I found without too much trouble. To see if I actually did find the gifts I was looking for, you’ll have to ask Tony and Morgan, but at least it was another fun Quest Day.
Some final shopping in the afternoon and then dinner again at May’s Hot and Spicy House, this time the Pepper Cayenne Chicken (this dish had two spicy symbols next to it on the menu!); mmmm, good, but had to have two beers to go with it. For my last night, it was once again back to Ned Kelly’s for more great music. This time I was seated with Dave from Dallas, who also owned a factory in Miskolc, Hungary! The world just keeps on getting smaller. A late night snack of calamari and a few Tetley’s, and all was once again copacetic. I said a final farewell to my new waitress friends and told them I’d return when possible.
Saturday and Sunday were, of course, travel days. Hit the Hong Kong airport in the early afternoon, leaving plenty of time to check in and clear the various obstacles (screening, customs, passport control, etc). The city continued to live up to its well-earned reputation as the Mecca of Consumerism; the Hong Kong airport is more like a huge shopping mall with planes and runways attached. Yep, all the big name luxury stores were present and accounted for, just to suck that last tourist dollar out of you before you leave forever. My plane left on time at 6:30 PM and arrived in Doha nearly 9 hours later. A few hours’ sleep in Doha airport’s Family Quiet Room and off again at 7:30 AM local time, arriving in Budapest at nearly 11 AM local time. Whew – long trip.
So, Intrepid Readers, there’s my Hong Kong adventure. I turned the heat on in my flat when I got home, unpacked quickly, went out shopping for food and finally caught up on my lost sleep for the next day or two. All for now, have a great holiday season and watch this space for new adventures in 2015.
Suggestions as to where I should visit next are appreciated, as I’m running out of places I want to see.











Thursday, September 11, 2014

Save the Wales!

Time for another long weekend trip, but where to go, where to go? The field is narrowing substantially, as I’ve been so many places I hardly know where to go next. OK, so I closed my eyes and threw my dart at the world map on the wall and the dart landed in….Wales! Interesting. I’ve never been to Wales, so what the heck, why not?
Off on September 3 on KLM’s Big Blue Bird, transferred trough Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport (without any problems this time) and landed at Cardiff International Airport around 4 PM. The owner of the B&B where I would be staying had written me the easiest way to get to their place: take the cheap airport shuttle bus to a nearby train station, hop on the train to the Grangetown station (just before Cardiff’s Central Station), walk out on the street, turn right then right again, and walk about 200 meters and there you have it, Bob’s your uncle.
Piece of cake. Caught the shuttle bus to the “train station”, which was actually a platform at the edge of a small town where the little (three cars) train stopped, rode it to the Grangetown Station (another little platform on the edge of Cardiff) and followed the directions to the Ty Rosa B&B on Clive Street. Clive Street is a longish street of terrace houses, or what Americans would call Row Houses, sort of like attached condominiums, of the typically narrow English floor plan. The neighborhood was somewhat ill-maintained (i.e., trash in the streets and on the sidewalks, untrimmed shrubs, unpainted buildings, etc), although Ty Rosa was nicely painted and kept up.
I checked in and was escorted to my room by Paul, one of the owners, which was in the Annexe building across the street. My room was one of three on the first floor that shared a small foyer along with a shared bathroom. Hmm, could be dicey. At least my room was a small but clean and tidy bedroom with a kitchen area, complete with fridge, oven, microwave, sinks, pots, pans and dishware. If it weren’t for the toilet/bath being a common facility with two other rooms, I could live there quite nicely.
After checking in and cleaning up, I caught the bus (stops right outside my door) into central Cardiff for a quick look-around. I walked from the Central Bus Station over to St. Mary’s Street, the main pedestrian street in town. Lots of restaurants, stores and pubs. As I ambled I stopped at The Cottage Pub for a Brains Smooth beer (the local favorite; Brains is to Wales as Guinness is to Ireland). When I got to Cardiff Castle, at the head of St. Mary’s street, I found the entire park in which the castle is located was closed off by a high metal security fence and guarded by police and regular army troops with automatic weapons.
What the heck!? Well, obviously, I hadn’t done quite enough homework this time. Seems NATO was holding a conference at Cardiff Castle, with various heads of state from around Europe and the west, including America’s Shame, Obama. The castle would be closed off until all the VIPs left, which was luckily scheduled for the coming Friday. Whew – I would get to see the castle after all, although its temporary closing would affect my other carefully planned itineraries.
So it was back to the pubs. Stopped at the oldest pub in Cardiff, Dempsey’s, for a Brains Gold, then the Urban Tap House for a lovely local ale. As I was walking back down St. Mary’s Street I heard some familiar music and stopped to check out The Borough, a funky little pub featuring, guess what? Yep, you got it – karaoke! Home!! After several more Brains I gave the crowd of Welsh singers, all of whom were far better than Yours Truly, Great Balls of Fire. It seems very few people in karaoke bars ever sing the oldies, so I was a hit with the locals, one of whom even bought me another beer. All was right with the world. I caught the bus to Clive Street in anticipation of a big Thursday.
Since I still couldn’t get into the Cardiff Castle on Thursday, the final day of the big NATO Conference, I decided on a big breakfast instead. Found a place called Pillars on Queen Street in central Cardiff that had a great deal: seven items of your choice for only 3 pounds! Amazing. And really good and filling. I explored more of the city center for a while, then decided to take the Millennium Stadium tour to see where the Welsh play rugby.
The tour lasted 90 minutes and we visited all of the important areas of the stadium. I sat in the player’s seat in the Press Room to practice answering post-game questions from reporters and even got to visit the players’ dressing room, which was clean and neat and quite different from the dressing rooms of American football players. We checked out the private apartments, rented to companies and individuals for around 75,000 dollars a year. Our final stop was the VIP box area, which the Queen of England uses whenever she gets the sudden urge to watch the Welsh play rugby; I even sat in her very own chair, so next time you see the Queen at Millennium Stadium, you may take comfort as you realize I also sat where she’s sitting.
Most of the central Cardiff streets were closed off to vehicular traffic due to the conference, and as a result many of the shops and stores and restaurants were also closed due to lack of tourist access and therefore lack of business. Not a lot of happy merchants in Cardiff when I was there. I spent the remainder of the day just soaking up the local flavors and colors, had a snack here and there (found a Krispy Kreme donut shop! OMG!!), stopped for a pint at a few of the open bars and pubs. Dinner was at The Miller and Carter Steakhouse, as I was in the mood for some good Welsh beef, and it was just as yummy as advertised. A couple of more pints at the Great Western Railway bar and at the Zero Degrees microbrewery and that was it for a quiet Thursday night in Cardiff.
As I was making my rounds of the pubs, I noticed some peculiarities in many of them; there were no barstools and no foot railings. I suppose the lack of barstools is to keep the patrons from using them as weapons, but foot railings help prop up the more inebriated customers, so I was at a loss to explain this lack.
Friday was a trip to St. Fagan’s National History Museum, located about a 20-minute bus ride from Cardiff. St. Fagan’s is a large-ish village of Welsh and English buildings, stores, shops and other structures which had been moved from various parts of Wales and the UK. There was even a St. Fagan’s castle, which was beautifully laid out with well-kept grounds and even some ponds to add that pastoral feeling.
I wandered around the grounds for three hours or so, taking it all in: the old pig sty, church, tollhouse, cockpit, general store, urinal, smithy, cobbler, etc. Of course, many of the exhibits were not operating for some reason, so I didn’t get to shoe my horse or buy a pack of Player’s cigarettes, but it was still a fun wander. And the weather was perfect, no rain or clouds, which made the day even better. St. Fagan’s castle was also a treat, beautiful old polished dark wood and furniture, it really conveyed a sense of how the rich lived way back when. Well worth a visit.
Lunch at the Pieminister, which featured lots of different Welsh pies. I went with the steak and kidney pie, washed down with another Brains Smooth; I sat there with a smile on my face and a song in my heart. By this time, the NATO conference had started to move on and, although the giant metal fencing was still up, the street in front of the castle was now open to pedestrians, so I took a brief stroll along the front of the castle, just to see what was inside. Turned out it was lots of open space and a castle keep, which I decided to save for Saturday.
It was Happy Hour time again and I decided on a brief pub crawl before my main entertainment of the night. So it was pints of good Welsh beer and ale at Kitty Flynn’s Irish pub, The Old Arcade, The Borough (where I’d done my karaoke on Wednesday night), the Cottage Pub and The Goat Major pub. A good Happy Hour meander.
Dinnertime found me at the Jazz Café in the Sandringham Hotel, right on St. Mary’s Street in central Cardiff. I went for the sirloin steak with veggies and more of that Smooth Brains. The music that night was a Blues trio; the crowd was fairly light (still a lot of places closed), the food was good and the music was fun. There was a cool breeze blowing in from the street and the beer and blues were both smooth as I whiled away the evening hours. Life is good.
I got over to the bus station in what I thought was plenty of time for the last bus, but it turned out my watch had lost about 15 minutes so all the buses had left by the time I arrived. I was forced to take a taxi back to the hotel, a cost of 6 pounds vs. 1.80 pounds. Ah, well, life was still good, just a tad more expensive.
I had hoped to get out to Pontypridd for a rugby match on Saturday, but NATO screwed up my schedule, so I stayed in Cardiff to see the castle and Cardiff Bay. After another wonderful breakfast at Pillars, and some brief shopping for souvenirs and gifts (one of my English friends in Budapest asked me to buy him one of the rugby fan sheep hats, which he referred to as a “Lambo”), I finally made it to Cardiff Castle. Yes, the fence was still up, but it was being dismantled so we could once again tour the castle grounds. Interesting place, in which the castle keep is situated on a high hill in the middle of the castle grounds. Definitely worth a visit.
Then it was off for a planned Saturday afternoon and evening in Cardiff Bay, the harbor area of the city. After strolling the castle grounds and surrounding Bute Park, I caught the ferry on the River Taff for the 20-minute journey down the river to the harbor area. Cardiff Bay has cleaned up its harbor and enclosed it with a series of Barrage manmade embankments, which has turned the harbor into an inland lake. The harbor area itself is now awash with restaurants, pubs, shops, amusements and the Millennium Center, a huge multi-purpose building fit for conventions and other major gatherings. The seat of Welsh government is also in the harbor area, but the amusement center, known as Mermaid Quay (pronounced by the Welsh as “key”), attracts locals and tourists alike to the water.
My boat ride was enlivened by the presence of a local guide who gave me lots of good information about the formation of the harbor, its history and its present use. Upon arrival at the main dock area, I checked out some of the buildings and surrounding sights. I passed on the Dr. Who Experience, as the Time Lord was not in residence, but I did get to see a Dalek.
It being lunchtime, I headed to the Pearl of the Orient for some Cantonese food. Although not as spicy as Szechuan, Cantonese does have its own mix of flavors and aromas. I started with some steamed dim sum and then gorged on the Chilli Squid. A pot of tea helped settle lunch and I was happy again.
After a brief interlude in my B&B, I headed back to Mermaid Quay for Happy Hour, which I spent at a lovely little old pub called The Packet. Pubs in the UK are all so filled with character and history that pretty much any one you amble into will be an enjoyable experience. All one needs to do is stand at the bar and order a pint, say “Cheers” to your neighbor and you will immediately find a new companion; British pubs are social centers and people who frequent them are expected to enter into the natural scheme of things by joining in the conversations. I’ve passed many pleasant hours in British and Irish pubs and expect to pass many more.
Dinner was a tasty plate of meat and cheese tapas accompanied by some nice white wine. Afterwards I wandered over to The Glee Club, a local comedy club in Mermaid Quay that I had found on Trip Advisor. Despite several unfortunate previous evenings at British comedy clubs, I keep hoping the next one will be better. Of course, I keep finding my hopes cruelly dashed to earth, but it seems I just have to keep on trying. Tonight’s entertainment was to be no exception. Apparently, the language used by British comedians reflects their society in that they think that substituting coarseness and scatological words and phrases and references will be amusing to their audience and will take the place of actually having to be humorous. In most cases I have observed, the comedians seem to be correct and their offerings of crass and filthy language are well-received by the crowds.
Unfortunately, such is not the case with me. While certainly not a prude or averse to such language, I still believe there is a time and place for it; also, if used in an appropriate manner, it can be quite funny. Too bad these comedians don’t understand the same. Their language is crude and low-class, their sexual references better found in the gutter and their attempts at confusing the two with humor leave a more sophisticated audience completely unmoved.
I found The Glee Club’s emcee and three featured comedy acts pretty much the same as other British comedy performances I have witnessed. Some semblance of humor emerged here and there, as if the comedians hadn’t really intended them to be funny, but all in all it was another exercise in more profanity, less humor. Do I keep on trying? We shall see.
Sunday was my final full day in Cardiff. I arose late and showered (when the bathroom was free) and made my way into the city center to The Queen’s Vaults for their Sunday Carvery: roast beef, veggies, Yorkshire pudding with stuffing and a side of Brains. Big smile!
I scoured Cardiff again for those souvenir items I hadn’t yet found, like a real Welsh dragon belt buckle, which should be a best-selling item but was nowhere to be found. And I suppose I am the only person who sees the humor in a Save the Wales T-shirt, as they were also nonexistent. Ah, well, better luck at my next shopping venue. Dinner at The Prince of Wales and to bed.
Monday was check-out day, so I rose late again and checked out and had a late Welsh breakfast in town. After a final circuit of the city I set off for the airport in a local shuttle bus and killed some time there before my flight in the late afternoon. The flights home were uneventful, clearing again through Schiphol Airport and arriving in Budapest at 11 PM. A minibus home and I was safe again in the bosom of my cozy little flat near the Danube.
A good weekend among friendly people and good food and beer and nice weather and some interesting sights and sounds. Just the sort I like.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Candygram for Morgan!

My daughter Morgan had been working toward her Master’s degree in Education since the spring of 2013 and took her final class in May 2014. She was nearly finished and about to be rewarded for all that hard work and effort and time she put into her studies. It was an amazing accomplishment from this wife and mother of two who also held a full-time (or more!) job as a high-school English teacher. Where did she find the time?
In April 2014 she set up an Event on Facebook, letting everyone know she was having a gigantic blowout party to celebrate her achievement to come. I replied that I’d be there in spirit and hoped she and her family and friends would have a ball.
In the meantime, I contacted Robin, one of her friends and neighbors, whom I had met on my last visit to my daughter’s family back in 2011. I let her know I was thinking about surprising Morgan at her party, but I needed some basic logistics help.
Of course, I had to be sure Morgan would be in town, not only for her party, but for the week afterwards, as I planned to stay for only ten days or so. Without going into details, Robin and I worked it all out; she convinced Morgan to stay in town the week of July 6-13 for some girl-type activities. A few more areas to be settled and I was ready. Robin assured me Morgan and family would be home on July 4th, my planned arrival date. Robin also volunteered to pick me up at the airport and, since Morgan was entertaining other family members in her home, Robin generously offered to let me stay with her and her husband until the weekend was over, after which I could (hopefully!) stay with Morgan and her family. My surprise was coming together nice.
And so it was that, at the ungodly hour of 4:30 in the morning on July 4, 2014, I was picked up by the airport minibus and taken to Budapest’s airport for the looong flight ahead. I’d be transiting at Charles DeGaulle airport in Paris, then on to Seattle International and finally on Alaska Airlines to Ontario. I stocked up on Melatonin and was ready for my trip.
The flights were long, but relatively easy. Of course, my arrival and departure gates in Paris and Seattle were at the opposite ends of each airport, necessitating some rather long and hurried walks between the two gates. I arrived at Ontario airport right on time and there was Robin waiting outside the baggage claim area. Things were coming together nicely.
Until I started to unpack my bag in Robin’s motor home and noticed the lock was missing. Uh-oh! Baggage thieves? I had never had that happen before, and was surprised it should happen in the USA. I opened my bag to find my clothes in disarray, packages opened and even a bottle of medication opened and not fully closed again, causing a leak. Oh happy day! A printed form fell out of the suitcase. I picked it up to find it was a Notice of Baggage Inspection from the friendly folks at TSA. The notice read, in part: “The TSA is required by law to inspect all checked baggage.....If the TSA security officer was unable to open your bag for inspection because it was locked, the officer may (!) have been forced (!) to break the locks on your bag…TSA is not liable for damage to your locks resulting from this necessary security precaution.” And people wonder why I left the USA.
I really don’t want to live or travel in a society that has such little value for personal privacy as America’s. And before all the bleating begins from the worst inhabitants of today’s Obamanation, please note that my personal choice is: “I’ll accept the risks.” No amount of so-called ‘security’ is worth a single such invasion of privacy. Thank you, but I’ll remain in Europe.
Anyway, after I finished gnashing my teeth and unclenched my fists – and unpacked and refolded my clothes – I grabbed a quick shower, changed into shorts (it was 90 degrees F in the foothills) and prepared to surprise my daughter.
Everyone was gathered at Morgan’s house, which backed onto Robin’s property, so we rode around the block and got ourselves ready. I was holding a large box in front of me, decorated with Happy 4th of July paper. The box completely hid my upper body and head, so no one knew who was behind the box. I stood near the front door and waited for Robin to get Morgan to come out and see her surprise. Robin’s husband Joe was standing next to me and when Morgan came out to see what was up, he told me she was right in front of me.
I heard Morgan say, “Wow, looks like a really big surprise.” At which time I came out with, “HEY! I heard there’s a party around here!” Joe said Morgan looked like she almost, but not quite, recognized my voice. I dropped the box and said, “You know you can’t have a great party without me!”
It’s been very rare that I have rendered my daughter speechless; I think the last time was at her surprise 16th birthday party. Morgan had her hands in front of her mouth and her eyes were as wide as I’ve ever seen them, as if she couldn’t really believe who she saw standing there. She blinked a few times and said, querulously and with more than a little bit of shocked surprise, “Dad?” Then we got to hug a lot.
My surprise was complete. I greeted Tony and Samantha and Nicholas, accepted a cold beer and started to catch up with Morgan and family after my three-year absence. After several cold beers and lots of catching up, it was late at night and I’d been up for around 28 hours straight. I wandered back to Robin’s place and crashed in the motor home.
Saturday, July 5, was Party Day at the Pelletteras. I woke fairly early and did what I could to help set things up. It was a standard hot and sunny day in the foothills of the San Bernardino mountains, and kids were already in the pool. The main party began around 4 PM and included: an appearance by The Taco Guy and his associates, who made fresh tacos on-site; lots of food and drink (I stuck with cocktails all day and night, eschewing beer for the day); a live band starting around 9 PM, resulting in couples dancing, line dancing, singing along and general hanging around the back wall/bandstand;
an after-hours DJ (who was actually the math teacher at Morgan’s high school). It must have been around one AM or so when I hit the wall, as I don’t even remember getting to bed.
There were at least 75 people at the party, maybe even 100. I met a lot of Morgan’s neighbors and friends and even some of Tony’s large family I hadn’t met in the past. One neighbor was actually of Lithuanian heritage, and we discussed my recent trip there to search for ancestors. Small world.
The remainder of my visit was more good food, relaxation, lots of time in the pool and getting re-acquainted with the grandkids. I moved my stuff over to Morgan’s Sunday afternoon. Not wanting to cook anymore, the family (about 30 members - just the ‘immediate family’) hied over to the Spaghetti Factory for dinner. I was good and stayed on my new regimen with a shrimp salad.
Lazy days. I helped straighten the house on Monday, watched the kids at their swimming lessons at the local college pool, and even saw a Little League game Monday night. The Alta Loma team got trounced, but it was still a fun night out under the stars. After another day in the sun, Tuesday’s dinner was at Slater’s 50/50 Hamburger Heaven; my choice was the Flamin’ Hot burger, which it was; once again I was good and passed on the bun.
Wednesday was shopping day for me. Morgan and the kids and I went to a nearby mall where I found most of the items I wanted, so I was a happy camper. More lying around the pool and then it was time for ---- Game Night! It seems the neighborhood group of parents try to get together a couple of times a month to socialize, have a cocktail or two and play games. This night it was the Cards Against Humanity game, which I won’t try to explain, but suffice it to say it was a blast, especially after a pitcher or two of jungle juice made the rounds. Dinner was another great pot luck feast, which included arroncini made by Robin’s husband Joe; haven’t had that since Sicily. Lots of laughter and fun and general camaraderie. Morgan and Tony are fortunate to live in a neighborhood with so many couples around their age who have kids around my grandkids’ age; great support system for both parents and kids, like a large family. I can only imagine what the holidays are like.
My last three days included more lying around the pool to top up my already amazing suntan, and two fantastic dinners: Chinese and Sushi. The Chinese was at a small mom and pop restaurant in the area, and had me spinning the lazy susan continuously to get at the wonderful dishes: orange chicken, shredded pork with Szechuan sauce, egg foo yung, and many more. I was quiet for an hour or so, stuffing my face with all that tasty goodness which we don’t have in Budapest.
And the sushi bar was another treat, as we all sat at the bar and ordered our favorites. Morgan has raised her kids right, as nine-year-old Nicholas loves raw octopus. I never even ate a salad until I was 23 years old.
During the day we took in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, another sequel with good special effects and costumes, but generally just another sequel. Back at the house, on a lazy afternoon I heard some strange sounds from the fenced-in grassy area next to the pool and I peeked over the fence to find Tony’s large male tortoise busily fertilizing the eggs of one of the three females on the premises. Mr. Tortoise was actively grunting while he worked; I never even knew turtles made any sounds, much less a continuous grunt-grunt-grunt while in the throes of ecstasy. You learn something new every day. Later in the day I got to try out Tony's classic GTO: four-speed, V8 and cop-red paint job. Like being back in high school.
And that was pretty much the extent of my ten days in Southern California. It was great to see Morgan and Tony and the grandkids again and, although I would have liked to spend more time with them, I think my stay was just about right. I didn’t want to overstay what seemed to be an otherwise fantastic visit, so I headed out too early Sunday morning July 13th from Ontario airport to Salt Lake City, then to Paris (where I had a nine-hour layover!) and finally home to Budapest at 10:30 Monday night. A loooong trip, at the end of which I quickly unpacked (the TSA hadn’t cut my lock off this time) and crashed for ten hours of much-needed sleep.
So – impressions of the few places I managed to visit while in America? After reading all those Doomsday predictions on the Internet, I really didn’t know what to expect, and I must admit I was somewhat surprised at the normalcy of everything. Other than four-dollar-per-gallon gas and increased food prices, it all seemed pretty calm and serene, at least on the outside. I can only hope things were as good on the inside.
As I had also observed during my last visit in 2011, there are still a great many large, overweight people basking in the ever-present sunshine and cool breezes in the places I visited and the airports through which I transited. The supermarkets and stores still stock an abundance of everything; I’ve gotten used to the smaller stores in Budapest and was somewhat overwhelmed at the huge American stores with acres of food and stuff you can’t live without.
On the whole, however, I wouldn’t trade my happy life in Budapest for anything else. I’d like to see my family more often, and watch the kids as they grow up, so maybe another visit there – or maybe they can all come over here – and we’ll see what the future holds. For now, I think everyone agreed it was a successful surprise visit. I hope we can do it more often.

Friday, June 13, 2014

I Heard Scandinavia Calling

The Wanderlust grabbed me by the throat and just wouldn’t let go! I returned from Lithuania fully energized and couldn’t sit still so I immediately booked another weekend trip for early June, this time to yet another city I hadn’t yet visited: Stockholm, Sweden. I had heard it offered some interesting sights and sounds, albeit quite expensive ones, but I had a contact there so decided why not? I had first met Mats back in 1986 when he was an exchange student in Albuquerque and had made friends with my Norwegian son/exchange student Erik. I hadn’t seen him since then, but we had somehow managed to stay in touch over the years, mostly through the wonders of Facebook. I was looking forward to a renewed acquaintance.
I arrived at Arlanda Airport, Sweden, around 7 PM on Thursday, June 5, 2014. It was an easy one-stop flight with KLM, an extremely efficient airline. Since Arlanda Airport is around 47 kilometers north of Stockholm, I opted to take the Arlanda Express train into the city. This train is one of those 200-kilometer-per-hour trains, and got me to Stockholm in 20 minutes. Whooosh!! Quick and easy. I had changed some euros at the airport and bought my (Pensioner) train ticket and had no sooner settled down in my seat than the train pulled into Stockholm’s Central Station. Damn! And for only 26 euro round trip. Such a deal – and almost the only good deal I would find during my visit. Stockholm is one expensive city.
Rather than splurge on a taxi, I decided to try and find a bus to take me over to the Gamla Stan (Old Town) area, which was really only about a one-kilometer walk. Naturally, all of the bus ticket offices were closed by this time, but I found that the convenience stores in the station also sold bus tickets, so I picked one up there. Now to find the bus stop. I quickly got turned around and finally asked a local on the street where the hell I was and how to find the correct bus to Gamla Stan. He was a really friendly and helpful Swede and actually walked me to the Metro and made sure I got on the right train for my one-stop ride (my ticket was good for any mode of public transport). I thanked him profusely when I got off and made my way up to street level. I oriented myself per the Google map I had printed out and walked the five minutes to my hotel, which was on the major Old Town shopping/pedestrian street, Vasterlanggatan.
The Lord Nelson is one of the Collector Hotels, a small oasis in the midst of all of the excitement and music and shops of Stockholm’s Old Town. What a great little hotel! Only six meters wide and the rooms were all furnished like cabins in a ship. The theme of the hotel was, of course, nautical English, with statues of Lord Nelson scattered here and there, sailing ship accessories along the walls and on window shelves, and lots of brass and glass and dark wood. Another fun choice.
By that time it was 8:30 PM and I was hungry and thirsty, so I walked out of the hotel, turned left for about 20 meters, another left and down a narrow street to Jazzpub Stampen. Dinner could wait, I needed a beer. There was a Dixieland band playing as I walked into what I thought from all the reviews I’d read would be a large hall with tables and chairs surrounding a spacious dance floor. I was expecting a much more formal place and was surprised to find Stampen is a really small pub with a raised stage at one end for the band(s).
There’s a long bar with tables and benches along the windows and a not-very-large middle area for dancing and/or mingling. The crowd was definitely older – not a lot of dark hair in that pub. And it was casual to the point of raggedy. I really had the impression from the Trip Advisor reviews I had read that it would be much more formal and somehow more upscale. I was disabused. But happy nonetheless, as I bellied up to the bar and ordered a local draft beer. Stockholm pubs have the fine art of tourist-screwing down to a science as the prices for value received pretty much overshadow the end results of happiness and joie de vivre one hopes to find in a fun, noisy pub. A 04.L draft beer, nothing special, was nearly seven (7) euro, or $10 US. Damn! Gonna be an expensive visit.
But the beer was cold and the music was loud and the crowd was friendly. I struck up a conversation with Swedish Leonard and was welcomed to the city with a resounding “Skol!”
I decided to check out some of the other places I’d researched, so walked just down the street about 40 meters to Wirstrom’s pub. I pried open the stuck-together menu pages there and finally found something for dinner that wouldn’t break me my first night in Stockholm: a plate of cold cuts (meats, cheeses and pickles). I also had a satisfying Samuel Adams beer (very popular in Stockholm), which cost more than my dinner.
Friday, June 6, my first full day in Stockholm, started off with a small, but adequate, continental breakfast at the hotel. On my way out I checked with the receptionist as to what was happening that day, only to find out it was Sweden’s National Day, which meant, of course, that most of the shops would be closed. Sigh. Why isn’t this information easily and obviously available when booking tickets? Well, at least the restaurants and bars would be open. I could save my shopping for another day.
I took an orientation walk across a couple of bridges, over to the Opera, back across two more bridges and around the Royal Palace. I strolled the cobblestone streets, found the Nobel Museum and squeezed down the narrowest alley in Stockholm. My Google Walking Tour map led me to all the interesting places in Old Town. The weather was cloudy but warm and I inhaled all of the fragrances and sights of this northern Scandinavian city as I walked and gazed and snapped photos.
Lunchtime, and my taste buds screamed for some Swedish meatballs, so I answered the call and had them, accompanied by mashed potatoes and lingonberries (whatever the heck they are). Satiated for the time being, I resumed my walk around Old Town, changed some more money (terrible rates, coupled with a 9.5% service commission charge! They should have had a sign in their window saying ‘Tourists Screwed Here.’). I needed an ice cream cone after that.
Since it was Friday early evening, my guidebooks had told me the place to go for a fun after-work special was Jazzpub Stampen again, so that’s where I headed, to have a beer (I could only afford one – at least I cut down on my beer intake while in Stockholm). There wasn’t a large crowd at that time, probably because of the National Day holiday, so I took off in search of food, which I found while sitting in a window seat at The Corner Bar. This time it was lövistek with bulgur, fries and beer.
Another stroll around the area looking for Friday night entertainment. The recommended Engelen restaurant, bar and night club had a cover band playing 50s and 60s rock, but they wanted a 12 euro entrance fee. No thanks, I’ll stick to the free bands. Wandering back along Stora Nygatan I was passing by O’Connell’s bar when I heard zydeco music issuing forth. I veered in and found, sure enough, a local band named Bayou, playing Cajun and Creole and zydeco and other popular songs from the Louisiana swamps, so I stayed and had a few beers. Ok, OK, I hear you, and YES, it was expensive, as I was enjoying Caffrey’s Irish beer at 7.5 euro a pop, but there comes a time in an evening when you just don’t care any more and figure what the heck, there’s always ATMs.
I stayed at O’Connell’s for a couple of hours then cruised by Stampen on my way back to the hotel. I would have stayed there longer, but I was singled out by one of the local Swedish drunks for a conversation he wouldn’t remember in the morning – or, probably, an hour from now – so I polished off my beer and headed back to Lord Nelson.
Saturday was my planned Hop On Hop Off bus tour of Stockholm, to include the world-famous Vasa Museum, of which I had never heard. I hopped on the bus at its Stop No. 4 near my hotel and was off to the races. The Vasa Museum was Stop No. 13, and I hopped off (as one does) and found the entrance to the gigantic building housing the Vasa.
For those of you who have never heard of it – like me – the Vasa was the biggest warship of its time, a huge, lavishly decorated sailing ship with two rows of cannon on each side. It was built in a Stockholm shipyard in the early 1600s. The Vasa was launched in August 1628. It slid down the ways, hit the water in the Stockholm harbor and sailed majestically away….for 1500 meters, at which point a stray gust of wind apparently took its sails and canted the ship to an angle where it could not remain upright. The Vasa sank in Stockholm harbor just minutes after setting sail on its maiden voyage.
The Vasa sat submerged in the mud for 333 years, at which time it was raised and cleaned up and removed to a museum worthy of the supreme effort to rescue this ship from final oblivion. The museum is huge and does an excellent job of portraying all aspects of the Vasa’s short existence. I spent a happy two hours there and could have stayed longer, but the sunny day was beckoning so I bid the Vasa a fond farewell and hopped back on my bus tour.
I completed the tour and saw the major sights of Stockholm. They were okay; a lot of big imposing buildings and royal residences and offices, a clean, bright city, happy people walking along the boulevards and lots of water. All in all, a nice, safe, rather bland city. Sort of like Geneva. Or Helsinki. I’m glad I visited it, but doubt if I’ll return.
I had a light lunch and spent the rest of the afternoon strolling around the Old Town. I had some really yummy Swedish ice cream (but still not as good as Turkey’s!) and I finally retired for a short nap after that grueling day. Dinnertime crept up on me and I was in the mood for another typical Swedish meal, so I had a lovely Taco Salad at one of Old Town’s faux-Mexican restaurants. Hey! It was only 8 euro, the best deal I could find. My funds were beginning to run low and I needed to watch my expenses for the remainder of my visit.
I wandered into Stampen for an hour or so of blues, then headed down to O’Connell’s again for some real traditional Irish music, always a good time. My newfound buddy Jed, the English bartender, was working that night again and took care of me at the bar while I sang along with the band. I managed to nurse a Guinness for longer than I should have, but Mr. Wallet was smiling when I left the bar.
Sunday, my last full day in Stockholm, and I was scheduled to meet up with my “Old Buddy” Mats. Sure enough, he appeared at my hotel around 10:30 and we reminisced and chatted for a while and then took off for the harbor area. After a stroll around the docks, we caught one of the two-hour boat tours that went around the lake and islands. It was a nice afternoon, the sun was out and we just sort of drifted with the tide. Mats pointed out some of the sights and added more details to the recorded guide.
After the tour, we walked up to the Modern Art Museum and had lunch. Since Mats had paid for the boat tour I picked up lunch. We each had the roast chicken leg with rice and beans and some sort of sauce and two soft drinks. Total cost: $46 US! And you wonder why I probably won’t return to Sweden.
We checked out a food fair in one of the nearby parks, then walked back to my hotel where I bid a fond farewell to Mats. It was fun seeing him again after all that time, and he promised to try and visit Budapest one of these days.
For my last night in Stockholm I thought I’d splurge a little bit and have a nice dinner in one of the many squares around the Old Town. I walked down Vasterlanggatan to Jarntorget (Iron Square, where all of the iron imported into Sweden used to be weighed and taxed) where I found yet another typical Swedish restaurant, the Taverna Bazaar. Turkish and Greek food. Gotta love it. Anyway, I was hustled (nicely) by one of the waitresses to come join them and, after looking at their menu and seeing they had saganaki, I was hooked.
I joined the dinner crowd at a small table set on the cobblestoned square and decided upon the saganaki appetizer (toasted cheese, usually brought flaming to your table, but I hadn’t had that since Santorini, and this time was no exception; it was tasty but not afire), the mixed meat plate with Greek salad and potatoes and a couple of Greek beers (Mythos, if you must know).
The food was good and tasty, the ambiance wonderful, the weather perfect, service was speedy and efficient and I couldn’t have asked for a better meal. And the whole thing only cost me $70 US! If I still had a car I would have had to give the restaurant my pink slip. Jeez, Stockholm’s expensive!
I took a nice after-dinner stroll, but since it was Sunday there was no music and all the clubs were closed, so I turned in early. Monday I walked from my hotel to the Central Station to catch the Arlanda Express back to the airport. On the way I stopped in at a vintage clothing store and, talking to the owner, found out she was originally from Georgia (the state, not the country) and had, in fact, attended the University of Georgia, one of my alma maters. Go Dawgs! Our small world continues to shrink.
And that was it for my weekend in Stockholm. It’s a pretty place, clean and shiny. The state controls the sale of liquor in its state stores, which hasn’t deterred many of the Swedes from continuing to abuse their alcohol. And as much as I enjoyed seeing the sights and meeting up with Mats again and trying the Swedish food and music clubs, I must admit the excessively high price of EVERYTHING really sort of put a damper on my visit. Too expensive, and I hate having to worry about what I’m spending. But I went through 500 euro (around $700 US!) in just four days and that’s just too much for a carefree weekend.
But I’m glad I saw Stockholm and can check it off my list. Besides, it was my 58th country. And now, on to the next adventure!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Looking for My Roots (Part 1)

So – does anyone know where Lithuania is? No, Bruce, not next to China. Sorry, Bill, not one of the Caribbean islands. Right on, Dean – it’s one of the Baltic States, in the north part of Central Europe, sandwiched in between Poland and Latvia. And it was there I set my sights for my next journey, this time with a reason other than just casual tourism. Lithuania is, as far as I have been able to determine, the ancestral home of my paternal grandmother, who was actually born there, and her ancestors, reaching back to at least the mid-18th Century. So, in a very real sense, this was to be a homecoming visit for me.
The country of my grandmother’s birth was never in doubt, but pinning down the city has been somewhat difficult. The Passenger List of the ship on which her family sailed for America in 1892 says they were from Paneveyzs, but more extensive research by second cousins I never knew I had seem to indicate the family was from Vilkija (or Wilkija). My plans were to try and visit the more likely of these small towns, actually barely more than villages, while basing in Vilnius. So, let’s see what happened.
But first – the days in between Macedonia and Lithuania were filled with spring madness in Budapest. During that time I did Verdi’s La Traviata at the opera with friends. It was sung in Italian, but had ‘subtitles’ on a screen over the stage - in Hungarian, of course - so I was unable to understand it in two languages. The Hungarian was so esoteric it was beyond me, although now and then a word or phrase I recognized did appear and, in fact, I was able to translate at the very end, “So, now, you killed your brother,” which brought it all home to me. Operas never have a happy ending.
A monthly meeting of the Irish Hungarian Business Circle, yet another social group to which I don’t belong, but manage to crash whenever they have a good program or free food, held a meeting at Jack Doyle’s Irish Pub, which included a tasting of Doyle’s spring menu items, some really good Irish music and some fun Irish poetry. It was well done, but I’m still searching for a really good Irish storyteller. Maybe one day.
Old buddy Mark Wills was in town from the states and we managed to hit a few bars and scarf down some Jokai bableves, which he had sorely missed. In fact, Mark misses Budapest so much he’s actually starting to make plans to move back here permanently in a year or so. Gotta love this place.
And so --- on to Lithuania.
My research was even more comprehensive for this trip, due to my family history search, but Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania, definitely fills the guidebooks and websites as a major party destination; lots of bars and pubs and tourist-friendly restaurants and activities. The city actively caters to stag and hen parties and to all sorts of tourist groups looking for a fun time in the Baltics. I could hardly wait to get to sample some of that interesting-sounding nightlife. And every article I read simply raved about the Lithuanian beer. It promised to be a homecoming in more than one sense of the word.
Once again, no direct flights since our Hungarian national airline went belly-up a few years ago, so this time I connected through Warsaw; all went well and I was deposited at the Vilnius end around 3 PM on Tuesday, May 6. A taxi arranged by the Amberton Hotel picked me up and I checked in around 20 minutes later. The Amberton is rated at four stars and, at first glance, it appeared to live up to its rating. Of course, Murphy was sitting in the lobby, laughing at me hysterically; little did I know. The hotel’s location was pretty near perfect: immediately across from Vilnius’s main square with its bell tower and cathedral, right in the heart of the city. A five-minute walk to the river Neris and 10-15 minutes from the Town Hall Square, surrounded by the major party and restaurant districts. A good start.
I found my large double room and unpacked quickly. As is my standard procedure, I checked everything in the room before going out on my orientation walk; and it was as well I did, as not only did the TV not work, I couldn’t get the in-room safe to work either. The hotel staff tried their best, but they couldn’t fix the problems, so when I returned from my initial jaunt I was switched to another (much smaller) single room. The TV worked this time, but not the safe – again. Plus, the heaters in the main room and bathroom didn’t work. Luckily, I was in a good mood, or I would have had to break someone’s legs. Back to the hotel shortly.
Since it was Tuesday, a work day, I immediately hustled over to the Lithuanian agency responsible for keeping records of families who had immigrated in times past. I was able to get some more information to follow up, and also some information on how to get to the tiny town of Vilkija, to see what I could find there. Before returning to the hotel, I decided it was way past time to try some of that highly-touted Lithuanian beer, so I stopped in at the Cozy Pub and Restaurant and, guided by my lovely young bartendress, chose a Kalnapalis Grand Select beer. Well, it was just wonderful, amber-colored, tasty and bubbly and full of life and joy. I know, but you had to be there. I could get used to Lithuanian beer.
I also stopped at the University Pub across the street for a Svyturys Extra beer and a small snack, after which I returned to the hotel to find nothing in my new room had been fixed. Hmmm. Finally, one of the young men working the Reception Desk looked at my room safe and figured out how to make it work; the problem was that the instruction card accompanying the room safe, in my room and, I presumed, in every other room in the hotel, was incomplete and did not give adequate instructions on how to make the safe(s) work! No wonder guests had so many problems with those darn safes; the instruction card was WRONG! That definitely called for another beer or two, so I hied back to the University Pub and settled in with my beer and mixed meat plate dinner to watch the Eurovision semi-finals. It turned into a pretty good first evening after all. (NB: I noticed a sign in the hotel’s elevator giving the name of the maintenance company that serviced the elevators; it was obviously a German-owned firm, going by the name of Schindler’s Lifts. Gotta love it)
Wednesday morning’s first stop was the Tourist Information Center, where I got some – you guessed it – tourist information. Specifically, music clubs, interesting sights and things to do and also how to take buses from Vilnius to tiny Vilkija. After a snack at a small café near the town hall, I caught the tourist bus for the Grand Tour of Vilnius. I decided not to take the “free” walking tour, as it was cloudy and windy and threatening rain, so I wanted to stay as comfortable as possible. It was, as most of these tours are, pretty good. We stopped a couple of times so we could get out and view things closer up, most notably the Saints Peter and Paul church. After the tour, I found my souvenir t-shirts at the University bookstore (after running the maze in the school’s labyrinthine passages), had some lunch and took a well-deserved nap.
The afternoon was filled with a walk along the river Neris and, due to the nasty weather, an early dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, La Cave, of French onion soup and beef stroganoff. I hit the sack early, to be ready for my even earlier start the following morning. I was going to find the first of my ancestral birthplaces.
And so, on Wednesday, May 8, 2014, I took the first step on a personal pilgrimage to locate the origins of one line of my family tree. A taxi to the main bus station at 6:30 AM where I immediately caught the bus to Kaunas, a medium-sized (for Lithuania, anyway) city about 100 kilometers west of Vilnius. In Kaunas, I had to find another bus – this time a minibus – to take me to Vilkija, but the process was surprisingly easy and quick, and I was on my way again inside ten minutes of my arrival. We cruised along through forested countryside and open grassland and planted fields in the cloudy and grey morning light. Vilkija was only 30 km or so from Kaunas, so I had to be on the lookout for the right stop. I was eagerly searching for a town square or other major landmark when the bus stopped at an almost bare intersection, surrounded by woods and scattered houses and not much else. Several people got off and I asked the driver, “Vilkija?” He nodded his head yes, so I squeezed out of the minibus; it took off and left me pretty much alone in the middle of --- nowhere.
Remember Cary Grant in the movie North by Northwest, when the bus lets him off in the middle of miles and miles of flat land and no houses or buildings in sight? Well, it wasn’t quite that bad, but it was damn close. But, Hey, I’m a college graduate and I’ve been to Australia; how hard could it be to find what I was looking for? Which was a 19th century Jewish cemetery, supposedly located in a nearby forest area. I shouldered my carrying bag and approached a small local pharmacy.
Naturally, very few people over the age of 40 in rural areas speak English, but, by smiling and gesturing and pantomiming dead people and using one of the few Lithuanian words I had learned (Zsido, for Jew) I made myself understood and was given some rather vague directions to go back up the main road I’d come in on and turn right. Hmmm, OK, I can start there. As I started up that empty road, I noticed a bus stop on the opposite side, in which there were a couple of young men. Young people often do have English skills, I had found to my delight, so I tried it out on one of them and, sure enough, his English was good enough to try and help me.
The first thing he told me was that, although he sort of knew how to get to the cemetery, it was hard to explain and I would probably never find it. But he gave it his best shot and, armed with directions like, “Go up some stairs and turn right,” and “then go down and around and left and into the woods,” I trudged off heroically, if not resignedly, to find my heritage.
Well, I walked up and down streets and hills for the next hour, and found nothing. Sweating and panting, I finally stopped a young woman walking down the street who actually spoke English. She got a friend of hers who worked in a nearby store and the friend explained how to get to the cemetery: “See that old unused factory building up there on the right? There is a path next to it. Take that path into the woods and through open spaces, always keeping to the right. When you come to a place where two paths cross, go straight and you will see the cemetery on the left.” OK, I can follow that. I thanked her and took off.
And after only one wrong turn, I found the cemetery. It consisted of headstones and vertical gravestones in the middle of a sort of clearing, surrounded by the woods and forest and with ground cover of greenery about six inches high. A melancholy place, quiet and green and lifeless.
I wandered around for a while, checking out the gravestones, getting my pants wet to my knees from the recent rain and morning dew, taking photos. Naturally, all of the writing was in Yiddish, so I couldn’t read anything. But this was the only cemetery in the area where my ancestors had come from, so the odds were that at least some of them might have been buried there.
I finally had enough of the spooky yet serene place and retraced my path and found the main road and the bus stop. I caught a bus back to Kaunas and then another mini bus to Vilnius, arriving around 1:45 PM. A long, busy morning. I decided to walk back to the hotel from the bus station, checking out some of the other sights along the way, like the Gates of Dawn and the Portobello Pub. Lunch was in order, so I had a burger at the Meat Lovers Pub, which went down just right.
Judging by the many brands of microbrewed/craft beer available, Lithuanians take their beer seriously, so it was off to one of the most popular microbreweries around town that I set my path that evening.
It was the Alus Microbrewery, also called the Prie Katedros, near the hotel, and a special tasting of their three beers brewed on the premises: light, honey and dark, all of which were smooth and perfect. I opted for a pint of the dark beer, which was 5.2% alcohol, with some beer snacks, including fried squid, onion rings, fried cheese and some of those truly astonishing bacon-wrapped-dried-plums I had had lo those many years ago in Belgrade. Maybe I really was Home Again!
The next few days I visited the remaining sights in my guidebook, including:
The KGB Museum of Genocide Victims (like Budapest’s House of Terror);
A trip up to the castle on the funicular railway;
The Portobello English-style pub for some Scottish ale and pint glasses filled to the brim;
A short stop at the Crazy Bull sports bar, only opened for two weeks and pretty much empty except for Yours Truly;
The Republic of Uzupis, a separate artists colony in one bend of the Vilnia river, with its own constitution and diverse way of life, like Montmarte in Paris or Christiania in Copenhagen;
Some nice Indian food at Sue’s Indian restaurant;
An evening watching the Eurovision finals with the Vilnian locals at the Brodevus Music pub;
An anticlimactic stroll through the weekend flea market, which was mostly used womens’ clothing;
A brief walk through the Vilnius ghetto;
And more of that great Lithuanian beer and food.
So it was another fun week-long visit to yet another new city. I was glad of the chance to start seeing some of the ancestral birthplaces (and possible death places). Vilnius is a lively, happy city and I’d welcome the chance to return, for the good-natured people and especially for that great Lithuanian beer. One never knows, do one?

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.