Lukatch Newsletter

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

Name:
Location: Budapest, Hungary

Mr. Cool!

Wednesday, 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.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Goodbye Winter, Hello Spring!

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

Friday, January 24, 2014

VAMOS A LA PLAYA!

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

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

You Say Lvov, and I Say Lviv...

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