Lukatch Newsletter

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

Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Now I travel extensively, and have been to more than 62 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on I have made friends from all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met, past, present and future.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

I Wonder of There's an Old Zealand?

Winter was upon us yet again and I needed some warm weather to tide me over until spring. I’d pretty much visited nearly every visitable place in southern Europe, the Middle East and Africa during previous winters, so I bit the bullet and planned a long trip to farther climes. With two stops and long layovers, plus a 12-hour time zone change, it would be a total of 36 hours travel time, but I was hoping the end result would be worth it. I was off to New Zealand.

New Zealand, where the Maoris still practice the haka, where the All Blacks rugby team dominates world rugby and where men are men and sheep are nervous. But it would be springtime and I’d be warm; or at least warmer than Budapest’s several degrees below freezing at the beginning of December.

A really horrible zero-dark-thirty flight, leaving Budapest at 6:30 in the still-dark morning of December 1, 2015, got me to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport a couple of hours later. Plenty of time to clear Passport Control as I left the Schengen Zone, then a relaxing (!) 11-hour-plus flight to Guangzhou, China. I watched three forgettable movies and got virtually no sleep. Since I had no visa to visit China, I was unable to exit the Transfer Lounge (and I use the term “lounge” in its loosest sense), so I spent my eight-hour layover uncomfortably ensconced on a hard metal chair, squirming and shifting to find the least uncomfortable position until my plane was called for the final leg of my flight. Once again, no sleep.

Then another 11-hour-plus flight direct to Auckland, where I arrived at 6:30 on the morning of Thursday, December 3, 2015. Worst part of this leg? Chna Southern Airlines was showing the same movies as on my previous flight! Eleven hours and not a single new movie. Even so, no sleep was available. Tired? You betcha! I was unable to sleep on this leg either, so I arrived in a state of extreme awakeness (is that a word?). But at least I was warm. Temps were around 20 degrees Celsius, or 70 degrees F, and I shucked off my winter coat and walked out into the sunshine.

I exchanged a small amount of money at the airport to get by until I could get a better rate in town, then caught the SkyBus from the airport to Queen Street, Auckland’s major downtown shopping street. The SkyBus into town was waiting at the curb outside the Arrivals section and as I boarded its onboard audio system played “Gonna Be a Bright, Bright Sunshiny Day.” Not a bad omen with which to start my visit. I got off 45 minutes later at the stop only four short blocks from my hotel – upon rounding the corner, however, I did notice that they were all uphill blocks. Oh, joy. Onward and upward.

Trudged up the hilly streets and one flight of steep stairs of the Hotel Albion and found the Reception desk. Since check-in time wasn’t until 2 PM, I had some time to kill. I left my suitcase at the hotel and went out to explore downtown Auckland and get some breakfast. First stop: the Tourist Information place at the Sky Tower, which, luckily, was just down the street from my hotel. Good planning. As I walked down the street toward the Sky Tower, what did I notice on the opposite corner but….are you ready for this?....sitting down?....holding onto yourself?....DENNY’S! OMG, a Denny’s. I hadn’t eaten at a Denny’s for at least 20 years. Their breakfasts are legendary (remember the Grand Slam Breakfast?), and I knew that’s where I’d be heading after my tourinform stop.

So I spent some time with the tourist info lady and ended up booking just one tour, the Waitomo and Rotorua Full Day Geothermal Deluxe Tour. It seemed to cover all the bases over its 12-hour time frame, so what the heck, I was in. I scheduled it for the following Monday, December 7, so I’d have the weekend to catch up on my time zone crossings. And now: breakfast!

Denny’s breakfast was every bit as terribly wonderful as I remembered from days gone by: two eggs, sausage, bacon (New Zealand bacon, not that fake North America version), mushrooms, fried tomatoes, hash browns (OMG! Hash browns!) and whole grain toast, with a side of OJ. It was all I could do to eat with a knife and fork and stop myself from just shoving all that glorious American food (aside from the mushrooms and tomatoes) into my mouth. I took my time and savored every tasty bit of it.

So then it was time for my standard orientation walk around Auckland’s downtown and harbor areas. Everything down there was easily walkable, from the wharf (I was only about 10 minutes away) to the University of Auckland (another ten minutes, but up a very steep hill), Queen Street (five minutes), ferry terminals (ten minutes), etc. I checked out the restaurants and bars I had discovered on Trip Advisor and also noted the ferry times and charges down at the harbor. It was a good wake-up walk and helped clear my head of the long flight muzziness and flying tube claustrophobia.
I returned to the hotel around 1 PM and found my room was ready. The Albion Hotel of Auckland is one of those faded dowagers of the international hotel scene. It’s probably rated a two-star hotel at best, clean and neat, but somewhat shaggy around the edges; it’s definitely for the budget traveler. But the bathroom was (pretty) clean and sanitary, the bed was comfortable, the small room had a flat-screen TV, a fridge and a nook in which to hang clothes, and that was it. But I’m never picky as long as it’s comfortable and the bugs aren’t scampering out of the bathroom drain all day and night. Besides, the Albion has character, probably my primary requirement when traveling. It oozed character out of every cracked baseboard and frayed carpet edge. I was satisfied.

I knew I needed to clean up after my journey, but figured a hot shower and a cold beer would put me down for the count, so I only did half of the pair (you get to figure out which half). I did manage to take a brief nap and then hustled down to the hotel’s nice old-fashioned bar for that cold beer along with a lovely seafood platter. I hung around talking to the locals for a while, but still needed to catch up on my lost sleep, so decided it would be an early night.

After yet another tour of downtown on Friday morning, December 4, I caught a ferry to Devonport Island, just 20 minutes away. Devonport has some great views back to Auckland and a pleasant, quiet park and shopping area for locals and tourists to get away from the hustle of the main city (Auckland is too small to have bustle). Did some wandering and shopping and stopped in at the Hotel Esplanade, right across from the ferry dock, for a morning snack of bagel, bacon, cream cheese, fried tomato, avocado and tea.
Ferried back to town mid-afternoon and made my way up Queen Street to Wellesley, the cross street for my hotel, four blocks away to the right. To the left, Wellesley went alarmingly uphill to the University of Auckland and I figured, what the heck, I’m here, may as well see what the Uni has to offer. Well, its offer included a potential heart attack. The damn hill was so steep I should have thought to bring along some spiked climbing boots, pitons and rope. I can only hope my daughter appreciates the lengths (and widths and breadths and depths) to which I go to search out her souvenirs. But at least I figured I lost a quart or so of water on my climb.

After a brief visit to my hotel, another shower and a short nap, I found the Shakespeare Hotel and Restaurant a few blocks away (everything was just a few blocks away from my hotel, a fact I appreciated more with every hill I went up and down). This place is a beautiful old-fashioned establishment with a terrace overlooking the street, and it was there I parked myself and went through dinner of a couple of really good craft beers and a plate of fish and chips. The Christmas holiday lights and decorations came on as the evening faded into night around 9 PM or so; in Budapest this time of year it’s dark at 4 PM.
The Albion Hotel’s bar was hosting a local Xmas party when I returned, but I managed to slip in for a drink before heading out to Father Ted’s Irish Bar for another. Father Ted’s had live music that night, but not until 11 PM and my jet was still lagging, so I chose to miss it this time. I thought maybe I’d catch the live music I’d seen advertised at the Shakespeare Bar, but, when I got back there, the music was already over! Well, Hell, can’t catch a break. The Xmas party revelers had mostly left the Albion’s Bar by the time I returned, so one more pint for the short climb to my room and I called it a night.

Saturday dawned sunny and clear, and I decided a nice ferry ride to Waiheke Island for some wine tasting was in order. The ferry crossing only took around 45 minutes, a perfect time to spend on the sea, with the sun shining and the breeze in one’s hair and the sea smooth as glass. Upon arrival at the Waiheke Island wharf, I asked the Tourist Info desk for directions to the nearest winery to which I could walk. The young lady advised me to follow the paved road “a ways,” take the first right turn and then walk “a while” further, after which I’d see a sign for the Cable Bay winery, just another “short walk.”

Hmmm, OK, I’d try it and see what happened. Well, it was the Morning Stroll from Hell. First of all, it was all uphill. The initial leg must have been at least one kilometer long, or about 2/3 of a mile. No sidewalks, cars driving on the wrong side of the road, and the only sign of civilization a parking lot about halfway up the hill, manned by a friendly old geezer who talked to everyone who walked that trail, probably because he was lonely and bored. Finally got to that far-off right-hand turn at the top of the hill, made the turn and found myself confronted with another uphill climb. Whew. Trudged up that hill for another kilometer and finally, finally found that Cable Bay Winery sign, pointing off downhill to the right with not a winery in sight. Maybe 200 meters downhill there was a driveway on the left of the road that led to a parking lot back up the hill and there, there was that damn winery. Boy, their wine better be the best in the world after all that trekking. The whole walk took me the better part of 90 minutes.

Anticlimactically, the wine was OK, nothing special. I tasted five types of their latest wines for $10, but didn’t buy any of them. By that time lunch was definitely in order, so I settled down in the winery’s spacious dining area, with wrap-around windows overlooking a large expanse of green lawn and blue sea, for some red wine and a surprisingly good chorizo and cheese pizza, with the thinnest crust ever; so thin I was surprised it could hold up the sauce and cheese and chorizo, although the chorizo was also the thinnest-sliced topping ever. Although I usually drink beer with pizza, when in Waiheke…
Anyway, the day was beautiful and the view across the back lawn and sea was inspiring. I relaxed and enjoyed my lunch and thought about a nice nap on one of the beanbag chairs scattered around the lawn, but then found myself wanting to get back to the city again; country trekking was just not my glass of wine.

My friendly waiter told me how to take the short cut back way to the wharf, which cut my total walking time by maybe 2/3. Yes, it was steeper and just a grassy trail through the trees and forest, but it was much better than my initial adventure and it was downhill, after all, so I was surprised and pleased to get back to the harbor area so quickly. A ferry was just about to leave, so I caught it and soaked up some more sun on the cruise back to Auckland.

I hung around the harbor for a while, watching the giant cruise ships dock, then checked out more of the shops for souvenirs for friends and family. A brief nap to continue fighting that darn old jet lag and I was up and about and ready for dinner. I was hungry after my morning’s exercise so decided to try the nearby Mexican restaurant that had a sign outside saying “Try a burrito bigger than your head.” Well, maybe I wasn’t quite that hungry. As it turned out, the burrito was quite good, nice spices, a touch too much cilantro (Hey! It was a California burrito!), but nicely filling. Washed down with a couple of Pacifico beers, I was content and all was right with the world.

I did manage to catch the live music at Father Ted’s that night, a duo who sang popular and Irish music, which rounded out the night on a positive note. I thought of looking for a karaoke place, but was disabused when I was told that they do the Japanese type of karaoke in Auckland, where a group of people rent a room in a karaoke café and they all sing to each other. In other words, no public karaoke. What fun is that? Especially when one has no group. So I passed on that aspect of my trip this time. Ah, well, the New Zealanders don’t what they missed by not hearing “Great Balls of Fire.”

Sunday was supposed to be cloudy and rainy all day, so I thought it would be a good day to do the Hop On Hop Off (HOHO) bus tour around town. I could check out the museums and other interesting indoor sights and thus stay warm and dry, while at the same time garner some of New Zealand’s history. The first bus pickup near me was at 9:45 AM, so I had plenty of time for another yummy American breakfast at Denny’s. So good, so good. I caught my bus and the first big stop was the Auckland Museum, high on a hill overlooking the city. It was a stop where the red line bus I was on intersected with the other blue line route, so I could change lines, catch the blue line stuff, then get back on the red line and have lunch along the way. What a plan.

As I alighted at the Museum and prepared to find the blue line stop nearby, I noticed a sign in front of the main doors indicating a Maori cultural performance would be held in about 30 minutes. Hmm, could be a good deal. In addition, I could check out the rest of the museum. My luck was holding. The show itself consisted of depictions of the Maori arrival on the New Zealand islands, which the Maoris named Aotearoa, which means Land of the Long White Cloud. The show was performed by several Maori men and women, acting out their ancestors’ histories and also demonstrating some of the Maori dances and warrior practice routines with sticks, gourds, etc. Very interesting and they were really good at it. As always (from what I learned later), the show ended with a demonstration of the Haka.
According to the official brochure, “the haka is a traditional ancestral war cry, dance, or challenge from the Māori people. It is a posture dance performed by a group, with vigorous movements and stamping of the feet with rhythmically shouted accompaniment. War haka were originally performed by warriors before a battle, proclaiming their strength and prowess in order to intimidate the opposition, but haka are also performed for various other reasons, i.e., for welcoming distinguished guests, or to acknowledge great achievements, occasions or funerals. Kapa haka performance groups are very common in schools.

“The New Zealand All Blacks rugby teams' practice of performing a haka before their international matches has made the haka more widely known around the world. The tradition began with the 1888–89 New Zealand Native football team tour and has been carried on by the New Zealand rugby team since 1905.”

After the show I snacked on some sticky date pudding and wandered through the museum long enough to get some good general information on the history of Maori and Anglo cultures in New Zealand. I then caught the blue line HOHO route, which turned out to stop at several gardens, the Eden park rugby stadium, the Auckland zoo and not a lot else. It took about an hour and dropped us off back at the museum, where I caught another red line bus to the next stop in Parnell Village. This neighborhood is a quaint area filled with gingerbread houses and cozy tea shops and restaurants and cafes. My stomach was rumbling by then so I found the Di Maria Italian restaurant and scarfed down some really excellent seafood chowder for a light lunch.

It was getting on toward late afternoon by this time, so I completed the red line tour and ended up back at the Sky Tower near my hotel. It seemed like the perfect time to ascend the tower and check out the views from atop, so I did just that. And it was fantastic up there. I was offered the chance to do a Sky Jump (bungy jump off the tower) and a Sky Walk (walk around the edge of the outside of one of the tower’s ledges – strapped on, of course!), but passed on both of them; maybe in my next life.

A brief cleanup and shower and an even briefer nap and I was ready for the evening’s entertainment. It would be an early night as I had to be up at 6 o’clock for following morning for my all-day tour of more interesting things to see and do. Tonight felt like another New Zealand specialty, so I opted for the lamb at Tony’s Steak and Seafood restaurant near my hotel. A couple of pints of Speight’s Gold beer, some oyster appetizers and the lamb with veggies filled a cavernous dinner opening in my schedule. The restaurant’s music tape included a wide variety of songs, from That’ll Be the Day to Universal Soldier; interesting selections. Anyway, the food was great and I lingered just long enough to digest it all with an after-dinner limoncello, then it was off to the hotel and an early nod-off.

Monday, December 7, 2015, up at 6 AM – yucchh! Quick shower, pick up a BBQ bun on the way to my Sky Tower pickup point for the tour, and the tour bus arrived at 6:50 AM as promised. Grayline Tours are usually punctual. Picked up a few more tour members and waited for a couple of late arrivals (Japanese, of course); we were then issued our morning snack and it was off to the wilds of Middle New Zealand. After a really boring two-and-a-half-hour bus trip, during which our driver/guide demonstrated his incredibly detailed and crushingly dull knowledge of all sorts of worthless information about New Zealand and the sights we would see today in a monotone that would have put even Madonna into a stupor, we arrived at the Waitomo Cave. (Luckily, there was a toilet on board the bus for those of us who couldn’t wait the two hours to find a bathroom.) This cave is famous for its glowworm population and is carefully guarded by the National Trust, or someone equally important.

We entered the cave at the top, in the middle of a hill in the middle of a forest or jungle, whichever you prefer; it was more like a jungle to me. Our guide, who was the great-granddaughter of the Maori tribesman who first explored this cave back in the late 1800s, took us through the various caverns, filled with stalagmites and stalactites, which were still dripping. If I’d have stood under one of those dripping stalactites for, oh, say, 10,000 years, I’d have become a stalactite myself. I chose to move on.

We moved deeper into the caverns, checking out the formations and ooo-ing and aahh-ing at everything. When we reached the big open-space, high-ceilinged area called the Cathedral, our guide told us we could sing a song there and it would echo throughout the caves. I came within a hairs-breadth of bursting into Blue Suede Shoes, but contained myself just in time. Bog knows how the poor glowworms would have reacted to Elvis.

We descended even deeper into the caverns and then boarded a large rowboat for a trip on the underground river, through the glowworms’ primary lair. The little guys were scatted all over the cave ceiling and it was a wondrous sight to behold. We were admonished not to light a light or take a picture or, in fact, to utter a sound, as the tiny worms were quite sensitive to pretty much any stimulus at all. We finally exited the cave after about ten minutes and were on our way again. Apparently, the national treasures of New Zealand are not quite up there with the pyramids of Giza.

It was another two-hour ride to the Agrodome, a working sheep and cattle farm in the hinterlands. Here we were treated to a sheep-shearing demonstration and a nice ride around the farm to pet the sheep and cows and deer and even feed the little alpacas. Been there, done that. We then bussed through some lovely gardens and dropped some of our tour group off at pickup points for the Polynesian Spa and the Hobbiton, a movie-created site of the Hobbit village for Lord of the Rings (I passed on that one also as I’m not partial to small people with large furry feet). We would pick them up later.

Our next stop was the Maori Cultural Village, at which we saw a hot-water geyser (which erupted for 20 minutes every hour), a pool of boiling mud (that was a real interest-holder), a couple of fumaroles and a real, live New Zealand kiwi bird. (Actually, we just walked through the kiwi bird’s domicile building, during which time he never appeared, so we never got to see him; the crowd was crushed).

But our big event was the Maori Dance Show, which, it turned out, was just a bigger performance that the one I’d seen at the museum – with one exception. There must have been a thousand people in the large hall to watch the dancers on stage. The male and female dancers went through several of the dances again and, as their finale, the men performed the haka. One new twist: after this haka, the Maoris, descendants of original Maori warriors, urged several male members of the audience to join them on stage to learn the haka. I needed no urging, and leaped up on the stage. I grunted and war-cried and beat my chest with the best of them. Yes, sports fans, I was instructed in the general moves for the haka and am now a full-fledged Maori haka sort-of demonstrator. The next time the New Zealand rugby All Blacks do their haka, I can join in.

And so, bruised, battered and worn out from all the excitement, we boarded the bus again for our three-hour drive back to Auckland. Interesting sights and a long day on the bus; think all that is worth the $200 US it cost? OK, we did get a box lunch and another snack, so maybe…

We got back around 8 PM and, after another shower to wash off the sheep wool and glowworm dust and Maori war paint and spatters of boiling mud, it was over to the Brothers Microbrewery for some more of that great craft beer. After a few pints, I decided dinner could be another snack, so ordered up a plate of meatballs and fries – I ate so well when in New Zealand! Bushed by 11 PM, I hit the sack in anticipation of my last two days in town.

Tuesday morning I took a local bus to the Karangahape Road district for some local shopping. I wandered the area for a few hours, but was unable to find anything interesting in this somewhat low-rent part of town. I did have a very nice lamb samosa for breakfast at one of the small Indian stands on the road, which sort of made up for not finding the things I was looking for. Around lunchtime I took another bus back to the harbor area and wandered parts of it I hadn’t seen previously. I ended up at Shakespeare Café for the lunch special of steak and fries and two more beers. My system was screaming for vegetables, but I crushed down its pleas and went on stuffing my face with everything bad for me.

In the afternoon I decided to do Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Aquarium, which specialized in its penguin colony, so I avoided much of the light rain and heavier winds that rushed through Auckland that day. Dinner found me walking to another nearby place, the Grand Harbor Chinese Restaurant, as I had been craving some good Chinese food for several days. And this place fit the bill. It was great! I had a lovely fried squid appetizer followed by Szechuan Lamb (what else in New Zealand?), rice and some Tsing Tao beer. To die for! Spiced just right, the lamb dish should be the envy of lesser local restaurants all over the country.

When I arrived back at my hotel the bar was having its weekly quiz night. I stopped in for a pint and listened to the questions, but it was too New Zealand oriented for me (I had no idea of the name of the first Maori king), so I hied off to bed.

Wednesday was my last day in town, and, since my flight didn’t leave until 11 o’clock that night, I took full advantage of the time remaining. I surged out of my hotel after storing my bag and rushed down to Denny’s for my last big American breakfast – eggs benedict. Mmmm. I then hustled down to the harbor area for a last turn around the shops I’d missed previously. I was amazed to find out there were so many. I also never thought I’d find what I wanted so late in the game, but, as usual, Fate was kind to me and I found them all in the first two stores I visited.

I killed the rest of the morning and afternoon just lazing around the harbor, watching the ships sail in and sitting on the dock of the bay, channeling Otis Redding. A yummy crab cocktail at The Crab Shack in the harbor area and a last cocktail at the Lenin Bar overlooking the wharf and it was time to head for the airport. I got there about three hours before my flight and found I could check in immediately. When I did, I found, to my surprise, that my itinerary had been changed. Instead of Auckland-Guangzhou-Moscow-Budapest, it would now be Auckland-Guangzhou-Urumchi-Moscow-Budapest. What’s up with that? There was no change or delay in the total time aloft, but I’d have one extra stop. Oh, well, as long as I got home I was OK. Just hope my bag managed to keep up with me.

As it happened, everything worked out just fine. I slept on all of my legs, but was surprised when I had to clear Passport Control in China and Russia; I thought Transfer Passengers were spared that extra step.

The worst stop was Moscow; after leaving my flight I checked in with the Aeroflot Transfer Desk and got my boarding pass for the new airline and was told they would begin boarding in 20 minutes and that my gate was 20 minutes away. Hmm, not amused. So I hustled and bustled and scampered and almost ran the entire way. It must have been a quarter of a mile away. It was the last gate in Terminal F at Sheremetyevo Airport. It was so far away I thought it might not actually still be in Russia. Boarding started at 8:25 PM and I got to the gate at 8:23 PM, out of breath and wheezing and coughing and generally a very unhappy camper. And they didn’t even serve vodka on the flight.

So, home again to winter’s gales after spending most of my trip in shorts and polo shirts. Still, good to be “home.” And my suitcase came whistling happily down the baggage carousel, festooned with all sorts of new and colorful transfer tags. But here! Next trip? Who knows? My list of closer destinations continues to shrink, especially for the winter months. But watch this space for more updates as and when. Happy holidays to all and to all a Good Night.

Saturday, September 05, 2015

The Iceman Cometh

And now for something completely different. It was time again to step out of my comfort zone and see what another part of the world held for me. Plus, I was really tired of all that damn 100-degree heat in Budapest and I needed to cool down. So, what better place to cool down than…..Iceland!

And they don’t call it Iceland for nothing! Brrr! When I left Budapest it was around 90 degrees F (30 C); the temperature when I arrived in Reykjavík was 50 F (10 C), but with that nasty, stinging wind coming off the Arctic Ocean, it must have been down below 5 C (40 F). Brrr!

So, my jaunts to the so-called “second-tier” tourist destination cities would now include a visit to Reykjavík, Iceland, touted in the tourist websites as the tenth-friendliest place to visit in the world. I just hoped the people were warmer than the wind!

My Air Berlin flights from Budapest were easy and fairly quick. Just 90 minutes to Berlin, then 3 ½ hours to Iceland, arriving at the Keflavík airport at midnight on Thursday, August 27, 2015. I had signed up online for a pickup by the Grayline bus company, and they were there and waiting for me. As I spotted my suitcase on the carousel, I once again felt a little frisson of excitement and relief; I never really know if my checked bag will actually arrive at my destination with me, so I’m always happy and just a touch surprised to see it.

Anyway, I found the Grayline booth just across from the baggage claim exit, traded in my voucher for a bus ticket and went outside to find my bus. The wind blew me across the parking lot and a uniformed gentleman shouted, “Grayline?” at me. He loaded my suitcase into the baggage compartment and I climbed aboard the warm bus. Just a short while later we headed out for the 50 kilometer (33 miles) drive to Reykjavík; it was now around 1:30 in the morning of Friday, August 28.

The 45-minute trip was uneventful and I even managed to nod off for a short nap. When we pulled in to the Grayline bus terminal, we then had to transfer our bags to a minibus for final transport to our hotels. It was still cold and windy and there was even a light rain to help me re-acclimate from 90 degrees down to 40 degrees. So, I finally got to my hotel closing in on 3 AM,

I had received the following email response from my hotel when I inquired about my late/early arrival:

“Hi. When you arrive at the hotel, just press the code "9040" and the door will open for you. On the front desk there will be an envelope with your name on it and including the key to your room.

Best regards, Siggi.
Hotel Metropolitan”

Needless to say, I was a touch apprehensive about finding everything as described, but I figured the worst that could happen was I’d have to spend the remainder of the night huddled on the front stoop of the hotel. As it turned out, all was in order. Grayline dropped me off right in front of my hotel’s rather basic façade; I punched in the code and, before I could say “Open, Sesame,” the front door buzzed open. There on the reception desk was an envelope with my name on it and containing the key to my room on the fourth floor (the quiet floor, I had been advised on Trip Advisor). I took the lift (thank Bog there was one!) to my floor, opened the door to my rather basic but obviously snug room, unpacked quickly and fell into bed to get whatever sleep I could before having to be up and about later that morning.

After an intense and deep four hours sleep, I rolled out of bed at 7 AM on Friday morning, still August 28, eager to start my exploration of yet another interesting city. My room was, as noted, very basic, but it was clean and neat and warm and there was no mold in the tiny bathroom and the TV worked and that’s all I’ve ever asked of a hotel room in my travels (and which I haven’t always found). I showered and strode out to face the day. A sign above my hotel’s reception desk said they were able to make reservations for all of the tours around Iceland. I therefore saved myself some exploration time by making an immediate reservation for the Golden Circle Tour, one of the recommended highlights of any visit to Iceland.

I also asked about a reservation for a tour to The Blue Lagoon, but, of course, that was the only tour my hotel couldn’t do. I’d have to visit the Tourist Information Office for that. And on to Reykjavik! I walked the three minutes down to the main town square, picked up a bagel at one of the convenience stores and sauntered over to the Tourist Office. It was now about 8:45 AM. I was able to make my Blue Lagoon reservation and found out I could change money at the local banks, which opened at 9 AM, which I did. It turned out pretty much everybody uses their credit and debit cards for just about all purchases, but I always like to have some cash on hand, just in case, so I changed 200 euro at the bank; little did I know how fast that would go.

Armed with cash and plastic cards, and dressed in my winter ski shell, jeans, warm socks, hiking boots and a long-sleeved pullover, I began my initial walkabout of Reykjavík. The main part of Reykjavík is not very big and can easily be walked in a day or so, including exploration of most of the interesting side streets. My first stop was at the Grayline office on Hafnarstraeti, on the way to the main shopping street, to arrange for my pickup and transfer to the airport upon leaving. No problem. Just around the corner I passed one of the most-recommended hot dog stands in town, to which I’d return later (and I did, several times) and there was also a nice view of the harbor. As I walked across the small square in front of the Grayline office, I noticed a column covered with posters, one of which was an advertisement for The Penis Museum. Ooo, I’d have to add that to my list of things to see.

A quick left turn onto Bankstraeti and up a short hill to where the street turned into Laugavegur street. (Ed Note: Please don’t ask me to pronounce any of these street names; even when the locals said them I was confused). Anyway, this is the main shopping street in Reykjavík and I wandered its length for a good hour or two, checking the shops, restaurants and pubs I’d like to return to later. I found the Prikid, oldest café in the city (opened in 1951 – WOW!), the Kiki Queer Bar (Icelanders tell it like it is), the Chuck Norris Bar and the Lebowski bar. On one side street was the Ob La Di Ob La Da karaoke bar, to which I hoped I could find my way back. I walked back along Tryggvagata street next to the waterfront and found the Icelandic Fish and Chips restaurant, whose specialty was – you guessed it – fish and chips. Always go with the house favorite, so I did; it was good and tasty, washed down with a Gull beer (pronounced ‘Goot’), but, although fresh-caught that day, not the best I’ve ever had; that is still reserved for a small chippy stand in Dublin, near Christchurch cathedral.

The afternoon was more exploring and sightseeing and just wandering the town and soaking up the ambiance, including the Hallskrimkirkja (huge local church).
The weather was still somewhat cold, 50 degrees F, but it was also nicely bracing and a pleasant change from Budapest’s 90-degree heat. And soon enough the sun was over the yardarm (I just knew it was) and I headed to the Micro Bar near the start of Austurstraeti, just off the main town square, beating against the wind in the now-40-degree evening. This was one of the places recommended by Trip Advisor contributors as having really good craft beers, and it is located in one of the downtown hotels as their bar.

I chose the five-beer taster set for 20 euro (they had a 10-beer set, but I didn’t think I was ready for that), which is something every craft beer bar should have. The beers were all tasty and interesting and went down nicely after a hard day of walking the streets. I had an IPA and a stout and something called “Lava” beer (which was as thick as non-Guinness drinkers always think Guinness is), plus one other light beer. But my favorite of all of them was the Noröan Kaldi, a very nice amber-colored beer, of which I had to have a couple more regular-size glasses before leaving. It should be noted here that all of these wonderful microbrewery beers were at least 5.5% alcohol, so I staggered away feeling no pain. Onward and Upward!
Happy hour was still in full swing as I turned into The English Pub, just 30 meters down the street. They also have their very own craft beer called Boli, which was almost as good as my previous pint. An order of chicken wings helped absorb some of the alcohol and, since it was still pretty early for the regular Friday night crowd, I had a chance to talk to one of the friendly bartendresses, Gudrun (hope that’s spelled correctly). She was a real sweetheart and made this and my return visits to her pub special occasions.

At one point in the evening another young lady joined me at the bar. She was traveling with her husband and a group of friends and as we exchanged life stories it turned out Diana was from Creve Coeur (St. Louis), Missouri – where I lived long ago. Amazing. I stayed until the band cranked up around 9:30 and they were so buttock-clenchingly bad I just couldn’t stay too much longer, no matter the draw of pretty bartendresses or American tourists. Besides, I had a morning pickup for my first tour of the country and didn’t want to oversleep.

On my way back to the hotel around 11 PM I figured it was time to try one of the famous hot dogs for which Reykjavík is so well-known. There was a stand on my way and it was the perfect nighttime finisher to an evening at the pub. Icelandic hot dogs also contain lamb, which does make a difference, and of course one must order one with everything: mustard, chopped onions, crunchy roasted onions, ketchup and remoulade. Mmmm – yummy.

Up for an early breakfast at the hotel and I was picked up on time by Grayline Tours for the Golden Circle Tour. This bus tour would last 7-8 hours and take in many of the fascinating geological sights of the country. Our first stop in the countryside was unscheduled, due to a road rally taking place on our route, about which Grayline had not been informed. The 45-minute delay gave us the opportunity to stretch our not-yet-cramped bus legs and to take some photos of a vast wasteland bisected by one of the geothermal water pipes cutting across the land. Reprints available upon request.

Onward and upward. Our next scheduled stop, after passing by one of the geothermal plants (Iceland is heated by very hot water pumped up from way beneath the surface, at the magma level, and piped across country to the cities), was in the Pingavallan National Park, which, in addition to its natural volcanic beauty, also contains the rifts where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet and are pulled apart by a few centimeters each year. We went on a brief nature hike in this area and actually stood at the edge of the American tectonic plate, shadowed by tall cliffs formed by the drop in the surrounding landscape. Eerie.

This park was also the gathering place for many years of the Icelandic people and their Parliament, way back when. It also included a fresh-water pool formed by small waterfalls where witches were drowned; since the pool was so shallow, the convicted witches had to be encased in a bag and held underwater. Nice people, the Vikings. The Icelanders love this place and bestow upon it a special loyalty and reverence.
Next stop was the Gullfoss (pronounced: Goot-fawss), meaning Golden Falls; a truly magnificent 70-meter waterfall, complete with rainbow in the mist. We had to walk down a series of steps to get to the falls, where it was windy and cold and the spray from the falls actually formed small icicles on my jacket. Brrr! Going back up was tougher, but at least we got to have a quick lunch in the Visitors Center. And by the way, off in the distance we could see one of the Icelandic glaciers, a sight of awe for even the most jaded eyes.
Off again through the Haukadalur Valley to see the geyser Strokkur and its surrounding smaller openings in the earth that vent steam year-round. Another amazing landscape, and I did get a shot of a geyser erupting, which it does about every eight minutes or so. As a point of interest, this eruption is called a geysir and is the geyser from which all others on the planet are named. Our final stop was at the Skaholt church, the very first church in the country and one which was used as another gathering place for many centuries. The last stop was supposed to be a tour of the largest geothermal plant in Iceland, but, due to our unscheduled stop early in the tour, the plant was closed when we arrived, so we had to miss it.

So the big tour bus dropped most of us off near the downtown main square. I walked back to my hotel, cleaned up a bit and headed out for the nearby Krua Thai restaurant, a very small family-run Thai-food place at the harbor. Well, it was just wonderful, some of the best Thai food ever. I went with the lamb and veggies (Pad Ped), rice and a local beer, only 21 euros. After dinner, a short walk brought me once again to The English Pub, where Gudrun was waiting for me with another Boli beer (no charge! What do I do to deserve such kindnesses?). Saturday night in Reykjavík is, as in most other cities and towns in the world, a major night out for most locals and, of course, tourists. A group of (I think) Spaniards next to me at the bar were taking multiple turns with the drinks Spinning Wheel (at 2000 kroner a pop, about 15 euros for each spin). They lost more than they won, but when they did win it was either “8 beers” or a “meter of beer” so they were happy. At one point they had so many beers in front of them that they were giving them away, unable to drink them all; and yes, I was the pleased and humble recipient of one of those beers. Always pays to sit at the bar.

And so, after my 21-euro dinner I spent no more money on beer, which I figured was a successful evening. The live music this night was much better, a duo of brother and sister, guitar-player and singer, so I stayed to hear them. However, I also had another early pickup the following morning for my next tour, so decided to call it a night around 11 again. A by-now-mandatory hot dog on the way to the hotel and I was set for the night.

Sunday was my trip to The Blue Lagoon, another of the highly-recommended sights of Iceland. In fact, it is touted as one of the 25 wonders of the modern world. Hmmm. Once again I was picked up at my hotel by a minibus and then transferred to a Big Bus for the actual trip of about 45 minutes. Now, The Blue Lagoon appears on most of the travel posters for Iceland and is highly praised as a not-to-be-missed attraction. First of all, it costs 50 euros (about $45 US) entry fee, not counting the bus ride, a costly sum for any attraction. Then, if you haven’t brought your own towel, bathing suit, flip-flops, etc., there is an extra charge to rent all of these things. I had booked my entry ticket through the tour company, as I was advised it is the only way to go, since tickets might be sold out when I arrived.

I showed my ticket to the ticket-taker and got my bracelet for the day (which includes a built-in microchip), which allowed me into the main locker room area, allowed me to obtain and lock a locker and even order food and drink at the outdoor bar in the lagoon (to be paid for upon departure). After a complete shower (sans bathing suit, which I had brought), I wrapped my towel (which I had brought) around my neck, slipped on my flip-flops (which I had brought) and walked outside to the main lagoon area. Keep in mind that just 20 minutes previously I was dressed in jeans, hiking boots with wool socks, long-sleeved pullover and winter jacket. Now I was dressed in virtually nothing.

I hung up my towel and scurried my way as quickly as possible to the Lagoon steps, grabbed the support bars and slipped my way down into the milky-colored warm/hot water. The Blue Lagoon is a lava-rock-lined gigantic hot springs, a geothermal spa, fed by water heated at the magma level and cooled until it is bearable at the surface. Temperatures in this swimming and bathing area average around 100 degrees Fahrenheit (say 38 degrees Celsius).
In addition to just standing around in the water, there are few things to keep visitors minimally busy. First of all, The Blue Lagoon is immense; it’s huge; it could accommodate a whole lot of people. During my visit, the locker room areas seemed very crowded, but the Lagoon itself was sparsely populated. There are little nooks and crannies that you can explore or sit in, carved out shallow pools surrounded by a waterfall, steam room, sauna and a quiet sitting area with a pool bar in the center of it all. In short, a well-done tourist trap. My entry fee didn’t allow me a free drink and I passed on applying the white mud mask (I’d done the black mud at the Dead Sea, and that was plenty for me), so I only stayed in the water for about 90 minutes, more than sufficient time to get nicely wrinkled and covered with all those healthy minerals. And that was enough. (BTW – There is an extra charge for the white mud, but if you wander over to an isolated spot in the lagoon, you can find deposits of this stuff and apply it for free; yet another tourist ripoff).

I guess my expectations were high, and when they fell short of what I expected I ended up somewhat disappointed. For families or groups, it’s probably a lot of fun, but for a single wader, there’s not much to do except stand around. To quote another traveler in another situation, “The (Blue Lagoon) is worth going to see, but it’s not worth seeing.” Aside from its setting, you’d do better to swim in one of the many other thermal pools around Reykjavík. But, it’s like the Eiffel Tower: you should see it once and then don’t have to bother with it ever after.

Once again I was dropped off near the downtown area, as the large tourist buses cannot navigate the small streets of Reykjavík, and the minibuses only pick you up at your hotel, they don’t drop you off there. So I walked the short distance back to my hotel, took a long soapy shower with plenty of hair conditioner (those Blue Lagoon minerals are tough on hair) and walked over to the harbor again to have a late lunch at Saegrifinn, a seafood restaurant. Wonderful lobster soup and fresh bread, just right for an after-Lagoon experience. A brief nap and I was ready for Sunday night in Reykjavík.

I decided to splurge on a typical tasting dinner at the Tapas Barinn restaurant, which offered a seven-course meal of medium-sized tapas dishes for an exorbitant price. But what the heck, I probably wouldn’t ever be back to Iceland, so why not? (I use this justification a lot for spending large amounts of money when I travel). Turned out it was well worth the money. We started with a shot of the infamous Icelandic spirit Brennivin, sort of like schnapps. Then came the following dishes:

Smoked puffin with blueberry “Brennivin” sauce (the puffin bird is a species of Auk that lives in the North Atlantic area);
Minkie whale with cranberry sauce (tasted sort of like steak);
Icelandic sea-trout with peppers/salsa (Mmmm);
Lobster tails baked in garlic (Double-Mmmm);
Pan-fried blue Ling with lobster sauce (don’t know what a Ling is, but it sure was tasty);
Grilled Icelandic lamb Samfaina (OMG!);
Dessert – white chocolate Skyr mousse with passion coulis (whatever it was, it was delicious!).

The food was amazing and the service was fast and pleasant; one tapas after another was brought, perfectly prepared and presented. With a glass or two of white wine, it was a wonderful meal; I could easily choose this place to dine as my last meal before I die. It was one of my supreme dining experiences.

It was still fairly early (by Icelandic standards, anyway), so I took a brief stroll around the harbor and main town square areas. No need for a night time hot dog this time, so I turned in early.

Monday was another more detailed exploration day, hitting some of the sights I’d missed on Friday and looking at things a little closer than my initial inspections. I decided on a local breakfast at “Reykjavík’s oldest café,” Prikid, founded in 1951. Damn! I’m older than that! It’s at the start of Laugavegur street, gateway to shopper’s paradise. Anyway, the service was speedy and the food was tasty, consisting of two fried eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, fried tomato and, with a glass of orange juice, only set me back 21 euros. Not quite as expensive as Rome, but pretty damn close.

As it was now after 9:30, and the shops usually didn’t open until 10, I started my long walk down Laugavegur street to the very end, where it crosses Snorrabraut street. There, just across the intersection, was my destination for the morning: The Icelandic Phallological Museum, referred to locally as The Penis Museum. This one-of-a-kind museum contains a collection of more than 200 penises and penile parts (!) belonging to all of the land and sea mammals found in Iceland. There are no human specimens yet, but gift tokens have been received for three future specimens, presumably after their owners expire (Ed. Note: Google Jonah Falcon, but be prepared for a pretty scary sight – or possibly a really exciting sight, for my female readers). At first I thought the museum would be open to Members Only, but was pleased to note that, for a reasonable fee, the general public was also admitted. After my tour of the often-astonishing exhibits, I thought long and hard about buying my son-in-law a gift of a multi-colored penis and scrotum sheath, but common sense prevailed and I settled for a refrigerator magnet. I’m sure my daughter will be pleased at the substitution.

My legs were already so sore from all the walking on cement and asphalt, I thought one more extended stroll wouldn’t matter, so I hiked through the middle of Reykjavík, around one of the central lakes, and found the University of Iceland. You know, gotta look for those university t-shirts for Morgan. She won’t know if I found one until the next CARE package arrives, so no fair giving anything away. Then it was back to town and the premier hot dog stand in the city, down by the harbor. The dogs were so good there I even had two of them. Yummy.

After an afternoon cleanup and rest, I checked out The Dubliner Pub for Happy Hour. They had Bori beer, a glass of 0.4 L, for 550 kroner, or about 4 euro ($5 US). Still awfully pricey. It was too quiet there for me that early, so I returned to the Micro Bar for another of their great craft beers, only 900 kroner for a pint. Argh! And then it was just down the street to The English Pub and an early-evening conversation with my friend Gudrun. I had planned yet another spectacular dinner for this evening, so I soon headed out to the Restaurant Reykjavík, just next to the Tourist Office off the main town square.

My choice for the evening was some of that amazing Icelandic free-range lamb, which has to be one of the best lamb offerings anywhere. I was in the mood for dessert that night, and, at the recommendation of my friendly waitress (they were all so friendly in Iceland!), I ordered the Chocolate Tart. Well, it was yet another fantabulous dish I encountered during my five-days in Iceland. A chocolate tart with flowing warm chocolate inside, garnished with blueberries and some patties of lime mousse covered with little sweet bits. I would have licked the plate if I hadn’t thought it gauche. I did make a point of filling out the restaurant’s Customer Feedback card and told them their Chocolate Tart was way too good to serve to the hoi polloi.
Monday night was supposed to be a good night at the Hurra Jazz Club, so I went over to see what was happening. A nice crowd in this small place, but the jazz on offer wasn’t my cup of tea, so I traced my by-now memorized path back to The English Pub to see what was on there. Another duo, not too bad. I got to see Gudrun one last time, as she was off the following day, so I got my goodbye hug and a promise to stay in touch; we shall see. Once again, I didn’t need a hot dog on my way home, which was both good and bad.

Tuesday, September 1 – my final day in Reykjavík. Again, no specific plans for the day, just some final shopping and probably more of that great food. Breakfast this time was at the Laundromat Café, where, if I had wished, I could have done a load of clothes while eating. Fortunately for the other customers, I didn’t so wish. With some time to kill, I decided to try the Hop On Hop Off bus tour around and outside of the city. Why not? It was an OK tour. I got to see Perlan, a mirror-facaded restaurant built on top of several hot water storage tanks overlooking the city. I checked out one of Reykjavík’s shopping malls (not much to see there) and ended my hour-long tour at the hot dog stand again. Addictive.

A touch more wandering and shopping, then back to Restaurant Reykjavík for another chocolate tart – I just couldn’t resist. Since I was to be picked up by Grayline tours around 8:30 PM for my transfer back to the airport, I had an early dinner of langoustine tails baked in garlic at Icelandic Fish and Chips. I knew I wouldn’t be getting any fresh seafood for a while, so thought I’d better stock up on my taste memories.

Everything else went as scheduled. Grayline showed up 15 minutes late, but they did show up, and I caught their big bus to Keflavík Airport. I was on the redeye back to Berlin, arriving at 6:30 AM on September 3, then another 90 minutes to Budapest, landing at 10 AM. Home – these days, home to thousands of illegal immigrants storming Keleti train station on their hopeful way to Germany. At least the weather was warm again; my wool socks started to itch something awful.

Iceland is a definite must-see destination for all of you travelers seeking something a touch different. Lots of backpackers and nature people on the island, along with a surprising number of tourists and travelers. Extremely friendly people, food to die for, and spectacular vistas, volcanoes, rifts, geysers, glaciers, et al. It seems these “second tier cities” are often quite a bit friendlier than the big impersonal metropolises like London, Rome, Athens, etc., resulting in a much more relaxed, comfortable, welcoming atmosphere.

Try it ----- you’ll like it.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Warsaw Weekend Whirl

Well, what the heck, I’d never been to Warsaw, and it was on my list of second-tier cities to visit this year, so I decided now was the time. Just a brief jaunt, Thursday afternoon through Monday evening, just enough time to wander the restored Old Town and see a couple of museums and hit a few of the vodka bars. I checked in with Expedia, found a good deal on a flight plus hotel, and away I went.

I arrived at Warsaw’s Chopin Airport around 2:30 PM on Thursday, July 30. I could have taken a bus to the city center, but a taxi was only around $12, so what the heck, I splurged on a comfortable, air-conditioned ride to town. And the air con was welcome, as the temp was hovering around 80 degrees F or so. The taxi dropped me off right in front of King Zygmunt III’s column, in the middle of Plac Zamkowy, or Castle Square, a large open space at the southern entrance to the Old Town area. Now, you have to keep in mind that Warsaw was pretty much reduced to rubble during WWII, so everything I saw in this main area was a reconstruction. It was a beautiful job and I can only hope Warsaw originally looked this good.

My hotel, the Castle Inn, was just across the cobblestoned square, maybe 100 meters. I made the crossing quickly and easily, with my wheeled suitcase bouncing jauntily along behind me, and checked in the same way. The Castle Inn is a great place to stay in Warsaw, perfect location, nice ambience, friendly and welcoming staff and small but clean rooms. Only one minor drawback: my room was on the second floor (three flights of stairs) and there was no lift. I tried to keep my visits to my room to a minimum during my stay.

Anyway, I unpacked quickly and headed out on my orientation tour. Out the hotel and a quick right turn brought me to Swietojanska ulica (street); I won’t put the accent marks on the Polish letters as they would just confuse you and besides, I’m not sure my keyboard has the Polish language. It was now around 3:30 and I had missed lunch, so I found the Bazylisek, one of the great Old Town Market Square terrace restaurants, and settled in. The hot day definitely called for a beer, so I chose a local one, Tyskie. Cold and frothy, aaahhh. Lunch was a humungous schnitzel that really did almost cover the entire large plate; of course, it was only ¼ inch thick, so eminently eatable. It was accompanied by some nice bread and spreads and some sauerkraut, so I needn’t have worried about going away hungry. I was even too hungry to take a photo of my meal, but I remembered to do so for other meals to come. At the end of the meal was a complimentary shot of a local digestif liqueur, called (pardon my phonetic spelling) “Vishnooka” and produced locally only by this restaurant, which was actually pretty tasty. I was happy.

I paid for my meal with my debit card, which seemed to be the currency of preference in Warsaw, as I saw almost everyone using their credit and debit cards, so I was right at home with the rest of the travelers. It was now time to check out my surroundings. The Old Town Market Square was fairly crowded with tourists. It was also hot, but there was a rather stiff breeze blowing to cool things down. I strolled around Old Town and New Town, Castle Square, and the main street of Krakowskie Przedmiescie down to Lazienkie Park, around 3.5 kilometers away. I only walked about 1.5 kilometers, which was plenty for me that afternoon.

I found most of the pubs and clubs on my list and even happened upon a karaoke bar; I’d be back to that later. On the eastern side of Old Town, overlooking the Vistula River, was a nice little lookout point where I sat for a few minutes to admire the view and contemplate my navel. I checked my tourist map to see where I was and found I was checking out the view from, and I am quoting from the map information, “The Manure Mountain.” Hmmm. That was enough to start me high-stepping on my way again, looking for an evening libation.
The Old Town Market Square was coming alive by this time and I had a couple of local beers (Kastelan and Okocim) and sat on one of the benches and listened to some live accordion music. It suddenly dawned on me that I hate accordion music, so I headed off to a better venue, preferably someplace air-conditioned. The Shamrock Irish Pub suited me just fine, and another cold beer went down just right.

During my get-acquainted wanderings I had happened upon a Jazz Club, just one street from my hotel, so it was there I returned that night. It was piano night, one guy running through his repertoire of old favorites with a jazzy style. I sampled the local Wyborowka Pure Rye Vodka along with some light snacks and enjoyed the music until it was time to call it a night. I still had three more full days and nights to enjoy Warsaw.

Friday morning I was up with the sun, which shone brightly into my only window and right onto my bed. I think it was planned that way. At any rate, I was up early to go to the Warsaw Rising Museum, which I was told opened at 9 AM. I had to take a tram several stops, then walk a couple of hundred meters, until I found Grzybowska ulica, which I could only pronounce after at least three beers. Since Warsaw is surprisingly easy to navigate, I quickly found the large dark-red-brick building and entered the main gate The guard thereon kindly informed me the Museum opened at 10 AM, special hours for July and August. Naturally.

So, I could stand there and stare at the guard for an hour, which would probably have made him somewhat nervous, or I could sashay across the street where, fortunately and conveniently, there was the Restauracja #JaK VIP. Super. And they were open and they served breakfast. I found a table on the terrace and had a nice meal of scrambled eggs with chives, bacon, toast and orange juice for about $14 US. It seemed high until I remembered my similar breakfast in Rome for 25 euros ($28). So I enjoyed my morning repast and sat in the sun and killed 45 minutes. I returned across the street at 9:45 to find a line waiting to get into the Museum and, after shuffling forward a bit at a time, I finally made it inside by about 9:30 or so.

A little background: The Warsaw Uprising was a World War II operation by the Polish Resistance Home Army to liberate Warsaw from Nazi Germany. The Uprising was timed to coincide with the Russian Army’s approach from the eastern suburbs of the city and the simultaneous retreat of the German forces. The Soviet advance, however, stopped short, enabling the Germans to regroup and demolish the city while defeating the Polish resistance, which fought for 63 days with little outside support. The Uprising was the largest single military effort taken by any European resistance movement during World War II. It began on August 1, 1944.

The Museum is crammed with information, exhibits, films, photos, text and anything and everything of interest concerning this Rising. My initial impression when I entered was, “Too Much Information!” It was Information Overload. To see all the pictures, read all the texts (which were very hard to read in the darkened interior), check out all the exhibits, watch all the films and explore all the dark corners of the Museum would have taken me at least a week of nonstop looking and reading. It was just too much. And when that much information is thrown at a person, the overload of input numbs the mind and results in a severely lessened impact of the event(s) than what was intended. In short, I just couldn’t feel much of the despair and horror that the Museum obviously wanted me to feel, as I just couldn’t take it all in. If I had had a week to look at everything, maybe then, but as it was I spent maybe 90 minutes and then had to leave. With so much information and resources, it could have been done better and more effectively.

I caught a tram back to the Old Town and decided I needed a mid-morning break. I found a sweet shop on the main street (Krakowskie Przedmiescie, hereafter referred to as KP) named E. Wedel and ordered a bittersweet hot chocolate with orange and ginger. It was a definite pick-me-up. When those flavors hit my mouth, every taste bud I had erupted and flooded my mouth with Thank-You juices. Truly amazing.

I spent the afternoon walking around KP and environs. Since I happened by the University of Warsaw, I thought I’d save myself some Quest Day time, so I asked at the Information Desk about their student store. I was informed that there is no student store at the university, and that any logo items I wanted I would have to buy online. Well, Scheisse! How high-tech and boring. Where’s the fun in shopping if you can’t fondle the sweatshirts and try on the caps? Sorry, Morgan, looks like you’ll have to strike Warsaw off your university t-shirt list.

I also looked for Morgan’s Bar, which I’d found on the internet, but it seemed to have disappeared. Long walk for not much result except sore feet. I did have a nice lunch of pelmeni at a local Bierhalle. The day was cool with scattered sunshine as I dragged my poor, tired feet back to the hotel.

Friday night in Warsaw’s Old Town. A happenin’ place. I was ready. First, a cold and tasty Abbott’s ale at Molly Malone’s Irish pub on KP. I was looking forward to meeting people at the bar, but it turned out I was alone – at 7 PM on a Friday. OK, onward and upward. I walked down the street to the “Irlandzki Pub” for a local Zywiec beer. (BTW: If you can’t pronounce these Polish words, neither could I; there were a lot of suppressed laughs when I tried to order something in Polish). Again, almost no one in the bar. I hoped for a snack from their Oriental kitchen, but the bartender saw me peeking at the menu and waved me off, saying, “no kitchen, only chicken wings.” See? It IS me!

So let’s see what else I can find. Gotta be some action somewhere. I headed back to the Shamrock Pub for a kebab plate and a Carlsberg. This pub is located in one of the few cellars to survive the war and it looks it. Lots of character, red brick and small rooms and tunnel-like walkways. Dinner was good, but the hard rock band that started up was just too much for me. I know, I know, “If the music’s too loud, you’re too old.” Guess I must be getting there.

So, it seemed a good time to try the Senator Pub and see if there was a karaoke crowd. Not much. A couple of young ladies sang and a guy who was quite good. The “DJ” played an accompanying guitar to most of the songs, which was nice. I did a couple of my old favorite rock n’ roll standbys, and chatted with a group of young Ukrainian tourists, and, after waiting for more people to show up, I finally called it a night. Guess I visited the wrong places for Friday Night Fun in Warsaw.

Saturday morning I took a leisurely walk to the Copernicus Science Center, on the banks of the Vistula River. It’s a fascinating place, with exhibits and hands-on scientific fun for all ages. I whiled away a couple of happy hours playing the games and testing my skills against seven-year-old kids; I won about half of the tests. Another lunch of pierogi along KP, listening to a group of young Poles singing and playing instruments. I also noticed quite a few people dressed in camouflage smocks with Polish flag armbands and carrying weapons scurrying about the streets. I wondered what it could be when it finally dawned on me.
Today was August First, the 71st anniversary of the Warsaw Rising! And the Poles remember their Rising with a patriotic fervor second to none. They were everywhere in their uniforms, re-enacting scenes from the Rising, marching, singing, stomping on swastika-decorated flags, putting candles and flowers on all the local Rising shrines and generally acting as if it was they who were throwing off the Nazi yoke. I spent the lunch hour huddled on various terraces with my beer and hoping no one would mistake me for a German.
As I drank my beer I also studied my map of Warsaw to see what else I could visit during my stay. I happened to notice that there was something called the Museum of the History of Jewish People in Poland. OK, that might be interesting. I’d read all of Leon Uris’s books and I thought a little more history of Jews in Poland might be in order, so I hiked over to the Museum; it was huge. A gigantic modern building with a fantastic display covering the history of Jews in Poland – as promised. The history covered 1,000 years of Jewish presence in Poland and was done tastefully and without the clutter and overabundance of information at the Warsaw Rising Museum. I spent a couple of enthralled hours there and left knowing much more than when I entered. It was a long walk back to my hotel and I was pleasantly tired.

Since it was Saturday evening and the anniversary of the Warsaw Rising, I decided a splurge was in order. Once again on the Old Town Market Square, I wandered among the terrace restaurants looking for just the right something for dinner. And there it was! At a place called Latem, with tablecloths and just that little extra touch of class to distinguish it from the other eateries. I settled in and checked out the menu. My repast that night consisted of: a shot of ice-cold Orkisz vodka; a glass of red Chilean wine, a perfect cut of sirloin steak with small potatoes and asparagus wrapped in bacon. The weather was still sunny and warm, but with a nice breeze.
The menu described my Orkisz vodka thusly: “made from one of the most expensive and most valuable raw materials in the world, an unusual strain of wheat – spelt wheat (whatever the heck that is), cultivated on eco-friendly terms.” After that heady buildup I should have expected it would be less than amazing – which it was – not bad, but not special. I still prefer Russian vodka.

Anyway, the meal itself was excellent and I even decided on dessert. The menu had ‘cheesecake with chocolate topping’ and I placed my order, only to hear from the waiter - ready for it? – you know what’s coming, right? – “Sorry, we don’t have that.” One day a waiter will tell me that at just the wrong time and I’ll punch him out and then go after the manager. I am so tired of ordering items clearly displayed on the menu and then being told they don’t have them. Tell me beforehand, it’s OK, I don’t care, but don’t make me get my taste buds all ready for a sweet treat and then disappoint me. I really hate that, and if the restaurant hadn’t already added an automatic 10% tip I wouldn’t have left anything.

OK, rant over. I had the chocolate cake with ice cream instead and it was delicious – but it wasn’t cheesecake topped with chocolate. A chilled shot of a Polish liqueur with an unpronounceable name finished me off just right. Another stroll through the darkened streets, another relaxing time spent watching the buskers and I was happy to call it a night.
Sunday, August 2, and I had no real plans for the day, so I took a morning walk along the riverside up to the Multimedia Fountain Park at the castle grounds, which was cooling and sparkling in the early-morning sun. Up the hill to the New Town Square and a long, lazy, yummy breakfast at Fret@Porter, on yet another terrace, listening to the birds sing and watching the Warsaw Rising Re-enacters march down the street in perfect military order. Almost made me want to kick a few Germans.

As I checked my expanded map for the nth time, to see if there was anything I had missed of importance, I chanced upon some familiar street names: Stawki Street, Franciskanska Street and even Mila Street. Hmmm, all mentioned in a book by Leon Uris titled Mila 18, about the Warsaw ghetto during WWII. And just behind the Jewish Museum, I spied on my map a small icon designated Umschlagplatz. I knew that one, too. It was the place where the Germans assembled all the Jews they had rounded up prior to shipping them out to the camps. I’d have to see these places.
So it was two tram rides to the area around Stawki Street and Dzika Street, where I did find the Umschlaplatz, a minimal monument, shaped to resemble a railroad car, memorializing the 300,000 Polish Jews shipped from this spot. Even in the sunshine more than 70 years later it was still a chilling site. I walked back toward the tram and realized I only had to go a short distance to find Mila Street, so I thought maybe there is still a Mila 18 along there. And there was. Of course, the building and its surroundings look nothing like they did back in the 1940s; now there are trees and shrubs and grass and it’s all so banal. But it’s still there. I wondered if there were any deep cellars still undiscovered by past renovators. A thoughtful morning in Warsaw.
A late lunch of kebabs at Przy Danuja restaurant on the Old Town square, along with a couple of badly-needed beers, set me for the afternoon and another stroll up and down as-yet unexplored streets. And then it was cocktail time. I chose one of the many restaurant/bars along KP, this one near Castle Square, called Restauracja Warszawa. It has a small balcony on the first floor to which I immediately gravitated, ordering a pina colada to start the evening off right. I had the waiter take a pic of me (I thought!) with Castle Square in the background, but it didn’t come out (and, of course, I didn’t check it; how hard can it be to press down on a small camera button?), so I can’t show you all how much fun I was having; you’ll just have to imagine it.
I headed across Castle Square for dinner at Przy Zamku (one day I’ll have to find out what ‘Przy’ means), where I once again indulged myself (Hey! I’m on vacation, right?!). This time it was a shot of ice-cold Wyborowka vodka, red wine and wild boar with potato pancakes and ‘fruits of the forest’ (I recognized mushrooms and onions, at least). Dinner was a wonderful, casual affair, watching buskers doing their things and Chopin’s music playing in the background and the Castle clock chiming the quarter hour and the waiter continuing to bring me all sorts of food and drink. Life is good.

And so we come to my last full day in Warsaw, Monday, August 3rd – Quest Day. My plane didn’t leave until 6:30 PM, so I had virtually all day to complete my tasks. This would be a tough one, however. As I already mentioned, the University of Warsaw doesn’t have a real, live bookstore, so I couldn’t pick up the gift now expected by my daughter Morgan. I could only check around the shops again and hope for the best; I doubted I’d find what I wanted, but then, one never knows, do one?

As for her husband Tony’s gift, I had no idea where to go, until the previous night when I was in one of the souvenir shops and spotted one of the salespeople wearing a Harley Davidson Mexico shirt. I asked him where I could find the Warsaw version of his shirt, and he actually gave me the name and street address of the Harley dealer in town (the only time I’ve seen an iphone useful). So, bright and early Monday morning I stopped by the Tourist Information Office in Old Town Square and the very helpful (but unsmiling) woman gave me maps and bus routes and tram numbers and everything I’d need to get to where I wanted to go.

Turned out it was out in the far hinterlands, a looong bus ride away. I fueled up with a nice three-egg breakfast, scrambled with sausage, chives and onions, and then caught the bus to the PKP Kolo stop, where I alighted with some trepidation. But I followed my hand-drawn map faithfully, and only got lost twice and I finally found Liberator HD of Warsaw. And did they have what I wanted? Well, Dear Reader – and Tony – you’ll have to wait until I send my next CARE package to southern California to find out. I know the suspense is killing you, but tough toenails. Suffice it to say that even when there is a Harley store where I travel, I can’t always find the exact product I’m looking for.
I’d finished my programs in Warsaw and took it easy the rest of the afternoon, until I finally caught a local bus back to the airport (only cost about $1 as compared to the $12 for a taxi when I arrived). The one-hour flight was easy-peezy and I was back in Budapest by 8 PM and home by 9 o’clock. Another successful jaunt into the wilds of Europe, and I emerged hale and hearty and ready to rest up for my next adventure – which is coming up in only three weeks.

Only three more weeks to battle the intense heat wave sweeping Europe and I’m off for much cooler climes. Watch this space for more adventures, sit on your porch and sip a long, cool mint julep and keep your powder dry. Until that time.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

The Med's Best-Kept Secret

Specifically, the city of Alghero, on the northwest corner of the Mediterranean’s second-largest Island, behind Sicily and ahead of Crete

I mentioned to my English friend Duncan that I would be taking a trip to Sardinia and, naturally (for him), he asked me, “Is that where sardines come from?”

“Sorry, Duncan,” I replied, “but the name Sardinia derives from the pre-Roman noun “sard-, romanised as sardus (feminine sarda). The name apparently had a religious connotation, suggested from its additional use as the adjective for the ancient Sardinian mythological hero-god Sardus Pater (Sardinian Father), as well as being the stem of the adjective "sardonic". Sardinia was called Sandàlion (Σανδάλιον in Greek, meaning ‘sandal’).”

Thus did I retain my title as King of Worthless Information.

And so it was, on a cloudy, rainy afternoon in Budapest, I emplaned once again to set off for what I hoped would be yet another spectacular adventure, this time on the “tiny” island of Sardinia, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. It is supposed to have great seafood and beaches, which was my main reason for going there. That, and the fact that I’d never been there before.

My early-evening flight from Budapest transferred me through Rome and landed me at the Alghero airport around 10:30 PM on Tuesday, June 23, 2015. I had arranged with my hotel for a taxi to meet me, as the buses stopped running shortly after my arrival and I doubted I’d have time to catch one.

I paid the taxi driver (25 euro) and included a two-euro tip, at which he expressed surprise and great pleasure, which surprised me. I should have known from that little event that this would be a different visit. Anyway, I was welcomed at the Alghero City Hotel around midnight by Alessandra at Reception, tired and sweaty and bedraggled. It had only been two brief flights from Budapest, but I did have to run through Rome’s Fiumicino airport to make my connection due to a late take-off by Alitalia, so I was hungry and thirsty and, as I mentioned, sweaty.

After doing a quick unpack in my room, I headed back downstairs to the hotel bar, where I found Tomaso, Algherian Bartender Extraordinaire, waiting for me (actually, waiting for anyone) to enliven his otherwise rather boring night. It turned out the hotel’s guests didn’t patronize the bar when they returned from their wanderings, so poor Tomaso was left to watch Italian basketball games on TV. Being a bar guy myself, I kept in mind the first rule of arrival in a new city: Always make friends with the bartender. And so I did.

Tomaso offered me a local beer, Ichnusa, and it went down just the way it was supposed to. There was even a bowl of crisps (potato chips to my American readers) to accompany my drink, a practice I found at all of the bars I visited during the coming week. Very nice. But just that one beer did me in, and I started for my room when Tomaso made himself a friend for life by stopping me and giving me a bowl of sausage and cheese snacks, as I had told him I hadn’t had dinner. It promised to be a good week.

The Alghero City Hotel is a fairly new building, located about a ten-minute walk from the Old Town and a 15-minute walk from the local beach area, just two short blocks up from the seafront promenade. Perfect. It bills itself as a four-star hotel, but I’d say a solid three stars would be more accurate. My room was certainly adequate, clean and neat, small flat-screen TV, desk and armoire, and a somewhat narrow, smallish bed. I think my cot in the Army may have been bigger. But it was a comfortable room, with a balcony, but no view to speak of, and I settled right in.

Wednesday, June 24, my first full day in Alghero, and, after a very nice buffet breakfast at the hotel, overseen by two people who would also become friends, Laura and Antonio, I was off on my orientation tour of the city. I checked in with the Tourist Information office at the edge of Old Town, then started wandering the cobblestone streets of this beautiful, charming old Mediterranean city. I was able to find most of the bars and restaurants on my list of places to visit. I stopped for a tiramisu and Planter’s Punch around 11 AM at the Trattoria Cavour, near the Piazza Sulis, at the southern end of the Old Town area, right on the side of the sea wall.
I picked up a beach towel and beach bag and then had a light lunch of Ichnusa beer and a wonderful grilled squid (a HUGE grilled squid!) at a small trattoria near my hotel, the Dietro il Carcere, where, it turned out, I returned during my stay for other meals. The proprietor, Gianni, and his wife Franca, were so friendly and welcoming I immediately felt at home. Gianni even introduced me to the digestif called Mirto, which is the Sardinian equivalent of limoncello; very nice.
My hotel was about a 10-12 minute walk from the Old Town, so after a brief afternoon siesta I walked back when the shops and bars and restaurants opened up again around 6 PM. I stopped in at the Jamaica Inn and had a really tasty Bellini, made from scratch; none of those bottled drinks for Alghero bars. Dinner on my first night in Alghero was at Macchiavello, situated along the sea wall where I could eat and drink and watch the sun go down. The meal was, overall, one of the best I have ever had anywhere in the world, considering the ambiance, service, quality of food, diversity of dishes and price. OK, it wasn’t cheap, but, BOY!, was it worth it.

I started with a carafe of white wine and some fried cod fish balls, then moved to the Fregula with lobster. Fregula is sort of a Sardinian pasta, shaped in very small balls, like a larger couscous. The lobster was good as far as it went, but apparently Sardinian lobsters are not in the same category as their giant cousins, the Maine lobsters. Rather small and only a few bites, but still quite yummy. The Fregula (pasta) was prepared in squid ink, which sounds strange, but tasted delicious – and my teeth only turned black for a few minutes. Dessert was another new treat for me – seadas, sort of a flattened sopapilla filled with soft pecorino cheese and drizzled with honey. To die for!
A shot of chilled limoncello as the sun set over the hills across the bay topped off a perfect dining experience. The Bastioni Marco Polo is the top of the sea wall of the old town’s fortifications. It is the place where people go to see and be seen and to eat and drink and watch the sun go down. The ladies take some pains to look just right for an evening out, although many of the men still clung to their shorts and t-shirts. The waiters gather in groups along the wall in front of their restaurants to anticipate their diners’ every need. (BTW – what does one call a group of waiters? A clutch? No. A bunch? Nope. Ah HA – a Serving of Waiters. Got it!).

As all travelers know, we love to discover new places, new friends, new foods and drinks. My recent travels had taken me to Casablanca, Verona, Cesky Krumlov and Rome, and all were wonderful in their own way; but dining along the sea wall in Alghero, sipping wine and eating some of the best food anywhere, watching the sun set – well, that will steal your heart away.

I took the long way around to the hotel after dinner and arrived as Tomaso was tuning in to another Italian basketball game. He was happy to see me (he was probably happy to see anyone) and eagerly poured me another nightcap of limoncello – or maybe two, he treated me to so many shots that week. I finally succumbed to post-prandial lethargy and sank into the arms of Morpheus.

Thursday was Excursion Day, an all-day cruise aboard the Andrea Padre dive boat. After my usual breakfast buffet, I headed down to the marina around 9:30 for our 10 AM departure; naturally, we were 25 minutes late leaving due to several inconsiderate latecomers. I’d have left them flat after 10:05 AM, but guess that’s why I don’t run an excursion business. Anyway, we got out onto the open water, towing a couple of inflatable rafts used for diving, and we cruised across the bay to the Capo Caccia cliffs, sheer granite walls that rose more than 600 feet into the sky. I had thought entry to the famous Neptune’s Grotto was included in the trip, but it turned out, since the entry fee was extra, we wouldn’t be seeing the stalactites and stalagmites after all. Ah, well, it was a nice day on the sea.
We cruised around a while and then finally settled on what looked to be a nice swim area in a cove near a rocky beach. The water was cool and refreshing and I swam to shore and back a couple of times, at last coming to rest on the boat again. Lucky for me, too, as the next two swimmers to come back on board had been hit with jellyfish whips, stung rather sharply. We hadn’t been warned there might be hazards in the area, which I thought rather callous of the boat crew, but one of them applied some lotion to the stings and kept saying, “no problem, no problem.” I guess he was afraid of a lawsuit.

Lunch was served around 2 PM. A starter of sausage and cheese squares, first course of pasta with one tiny piece of nearly inedible crab or lobster (hard to tell what it was), wine, mussels (most of which opened easily and were edible), and a dessert slice of watermelon, along with a shot of mirto. The meal was filling but unimpressive.

More swimming and we returned to the marina around 6 PM. After a quick shower at the hotel, it was back to Old Town for drinks and dinner. This night I stopped again at the Jamaica Inn for several of their wonderful cocktails, and ended up having some chicken wings and fries as a dinnertime snack that took care of me for the evening. Another stroll around the town and marina and it was back to the hotel bar. This time I found a Swedish woman sitting on the terrace and had a nice chat with her before she had to turn in.

Friday was beach day. The nearest beach to Alghero is the Lido Beach, just a 15- minute walk from my hotel. As I walked along the apartment-building and hotel-studded promenade, I realized there were no big major hotel chains along here (Hilton, Marriott, Kempinski, etc) and that none of the buildings were over five stories tall. What a nice surprise; no major tourist inroads yet into this still-pristine area. In addition, although I did see a sign pointing to a McDonald’s, I never did see the Mickey-D itself, another blessing; none of those nasty American fast-food restaurants in Alghero.
I got to the beach around 9 AM and staked out my claim to an orange umbrella and lounge chair; most of the chairs at the La Marina “private” beach area were still unoccupied, so I guess the Germans hadn’t gotten there first. I sunned and read and dipped in the Med and generally took it easy on the beach. The beach was moderately clean and the water was nice, coolly refreshing, so the morning passed easily. Lunchtime saw me walk up to the promenade, where I had a sandwich and cocktail at Maracaibo and looked out at the beach and sea. Very relaxing.

The sun was hot during my visit, anywhere from 25-30 degrees Celsius, but the almost continuous breeze (the Mistral) kept the island cool and dry at all times. Very tropical. I passed the afternoon in my lounge chair and in the sea, enjoying every minute.

And then it was time again for my pre-dinner libations, this time at a small terrace bar near the Piazza Sulis at the southern end of Alghero. A nice Planter’s Punch hit the spot. Tonight’s dinner plan was for some of Sardinia’s world-renown porcetto, or suckling pig, what we in the states refer to as pulled pork. I found the spot mentioned in Trip Advisor, Trattoria Lo Romani and quickly scarfed a table for dinner. The restaurant was deserted when I arrived, but filled up within the next 30 minutes, so it was a good thing I got there when I did.

Along with my suckling pig I had a small salad and ½ bottle of Sardinian Cannonau red wine. Dessert was, once again, that scrump-diddly-umptious seadas, along with another shot of mirto. If you think I was staggering by this time, you may be right, as I wended my swerving way back to the hotel. I don’t know if it was the weather, altitude (or lack thereof), strength of the drinks or difference in food, but it seemed during my stay in Alghero that one or two drinks was all I could take before I had a nice buzz on. I never get that way after such a small intake, but this time the alcohol sure affected me more than ever before. Maybe it was the Mistral.

Anyway, another mirto (or maybe two) with Tomaso and it was out for the count.

Digression: While my best-ever single meal is still probably the dinner I had at Palkin in St. Petersburg, Russia, for all-around culinary ambiance, flavor and diversity, I now believe that Alghero has moved into the top spot. The food in this northwestern Sardinian city simply has to be experienced to be believed. It is a magnificent blend of Italian and Catalan dishes. The tastes are sharp and colorful, the dishes presented in ways pleasing to the eye and the service and prices are enough to justify my new opinion. The only comparison I can make is to New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, in that both places serve food that is unique to their area and, while attempts are made to copy it elsewhere, one can really only get the true fare at its home base. In brief (and when have I ever been?), Sardinian cuisine just keeps you coming back for more and more and never disappoints. Salute and Bon Apetit.

I had read on the Internet about a flea market held the last Saturday of each month in the Piazza Civica of Alghero and, since I’m a souk and bazaar addict, was happy I would be in town for this event. I breakfasted and walked down to the Piazza early so as not to miss anything and, as it turned out, I missed everything, because there was no flea market. And, of course, no one to ask about it that early in the morning, so I was SOL again. I had originally planned my Hop On Hop Off bus tour for Sunday, but, since I was now at loose ends, decided I’d do it today. So, came 10 AM and the bus rolled into sight, I was there waiting for it near the marina.

The weather was a touch hazy that day, but would probably clear up in the afternoon. In fact, all during my stay the weather was wonderful. The bus tour goes around the bay and ends up at the Capo Caccia cliffs, then comes back. No major sights or sites, but a nice trip through the Sardinian countryside and along the northwestern coastline. I thought briefly about hopping off at the cliffs and taking in Neptune’s Grotto, but to get to it one must descend 657 steps; that wasn’t so much of a concern as the fact that I’d have to ascend those same steps for the return trip. After a six-second consideration, I passed.

I wanted to hop off somewhere, maybe at one of the beaches up the coast, but it was a one-hour wait for the next bus, so I had to choose carefully. Our hostess suggested the Spiaggia Mugoni (Mugoni Beach), where I could hang out in the sand, take a dip or two in the sea, get some lunch (it was then around 11:30) and then rejoin the tour on a later bus. Cool, I’m all for that.

So I was dropped off in the middle of nowhere at a T-junction, fields and bushes and trees surrounding the area. Hmmm. OK, I walked a few minutes down the side road and actually found a parking lot for the beach area. I wandered into the trees and found a barbecue pit and terrace, along with a snack stand for munchies and drinks. I approached the lady at the barbecue pit and asked her if they were serving yet; she replied, “No, we start serving at 1 PM.” Hmmm, 90 minutes away. Not good.

But OK, I could still have a cold drink and snack. The snack stand had a sign saying “Cocktails – Mojito, Daiquiri, Caipirinha, Gin/Tonic.” I was ready. I ordered a caipirinha from the young man, who replied, “Oh, we don’t have cocktails.” I motioned to the sign with a questioning look at him, but he merely stared bovinely back without comment. Sigh. Here it was again, signs offering products which were not, in fact, available. It is me, right?

I settled for a soda and strolled along the beach area, which, I quickly found, was roped off so as to charge an entry fee. Well, Scheisse! Strike three. I finished my soda, sat in the shade for a while and walked back out to the road to wait for the next tour bus, due at 12:15 PM. My beach afternoon was a complete bust, but at least I got to take a nice pee by the roadside.

We arrived back at the marina around 1 PM, and I immediately walked across the street to one of the local trattorias lining the marina promenade. A yummy crab salad and white wine, followed by one of those amazing seadas, topped me off quite nicely and I walked back to the hotel to escape the heat of the day.

Before dinner on this Saturday night I had my caipirinha after all on the terrace of the Café Gilbert in the Centro Storico (historic central district). I chatted briefly with an English couple who had just arrived a few short hours previously, had a pina colada and strolled the sea wall to build my appetite for what I was certain would be another amazing feast in Alghero. This time I chose Movida, overlooking the marina. Upon opening their menu, I read, “The minimum of two persons, which may seem unpleasant, is a rule based on experience to assume the success of the dish and service.” Fortunately, the dishes to which this interesting warning applied were not those in which I was interested that night. I grabbed a table next to the marina sea wall walkway and settled in.

My ½ bottle of white wine arrived quickly, followed by my appetizer of Sardinian cagolas (sea snails), interesting, but definitely an acquired taste. The main course was veal scallopine with a small salad, followed by a tasty seadas for dessert. A small mirto liqueur finished me off nicely. Passersby strolling along the sea wall occasionally watched me eat and drink; once in a while I purposely slurped my wine, just to give them a thrill.

Sunday was another beach day, spent at the Lido. I baked and broiled in the hot Sardinian sun, but was always cooled off by the ever-present cooling onshore breeze, so the 30-degree-Celsius temperature was easily bearable. Plus, occasional dips in the sea helped. I had lunch of sausage and cheese snacks at one of the beach cafes, then got ready for my dinner at Mabrouk.

I had read about this great place on Trip Advisor where everyone who ate there raved about it, so I had to give it a try. I starved myself all day. During the meal, I avoided bread and tried desperately to pace myself. Dinner was a 12-course tasting menu of local food and drink, and by the time I finished I was ready to be rolled back to my hotel. But damn, it was worth it!

Their standard tasting menu is whatever the catch of the day has been, plus whatever the chef decides to cook. No menus, and a set price for the entire meal. First, they serve four antipasti dishes (octopus with potato; stingray; monkfish and sardines), quickly followed by a plate of mussels. Usually the mussels would be followed by the pasta dishes. They start with a mixed seafood risotto (crab, mussels, clams, prawns), followed by a Sardinian pasta with a fish ragu, and finally a squid ink pasta with a Sardinian cheese. By this point most diners would have already begun groaning, but the best was yet to come, in the form of three fish courses: prawns in a garlic butter sauce, fried calamari and then a whole sea bream (with potatoes)!!!!

I knew I’d never make it through the last fish course, so I pre-ordered the aragosta della catalane, which is the local specialty – rock lobster! My lobster took the place of the pasta dishes and the fish courses and was nice, but somewhat skimpy on the meat. In retrospect, I should have gotten the standard tasting menu and passed on the lobster. I’d have been more filled up, but much happier.

And then, just as my eyes rolled back in my head and I began to slowly slide off my chair and under the table, I was asked to choose from a variety of desserts to round out the meal (and my stomach!). The choice was tough, between watermelon, profiteroles and other sweet goodies; I succumbed and nodded at the crème brule cake which, needless to say at this point, was incredible. Included in the set price was a nice carafe of house wine, which left me waddling back to my hotel along the Algherian cobblestone streets! All of this for just 50 euros! It is an incredible value for the price due to the quality, freshness and quantity of the food. And Mabrouk is still generally unspoilt by tourists, which makes it even more appealing.

Monday, my final day in Alghero, was, as is my usual practice, shopping day, for gifts and souvenirs and any other shiny gew-gaw which might catch my eye. I spent the morning looking for fun things for family and friends, wandering the tiny narrow streets of the Old Town and peering in the tiny little shops. I found pretty much everything I wanted during the morning, and a few more things besides, so decided to hit the beach in the afternoon to top up my tan. A nice way to finish off my daytime activities.

And my last night’s dinner was back at Dietro il Carcere, that quaint, tiny little trattoria in the shadow of the former prison walls. Gianni and his wife Franca welcomed me back with open arms and a shot of mirto. We dined al fresco, at tables set on the sidewalk and in the street. Dinner was fregula with seafood (mostly mussels and clams), made lovingly by a local chef. I stuck with the good Sardinian wine and, after a dessert of Catalan Cream, had my ubiquitous shot of mirto, with yet one more ‘forced’ on me by Gianni. The warm Mediterranean light spilled over all of the diners like honey. Another fantastic meal.

And back at the hotel, my buddies bartender Tomaso and breakfast staffer Antonio were waiting for me with farewell shots of limoncello. How could I refuse? I couldn’t. Tomaso, who took such good care of me curing my visit, didn’t even want to accept a gratuity from me, which was my only way of thanking him for being more than just a bartender, but I won out in the end. Both Tomaso and Antonio gave me manly abrazos and cheek kisses on parting; when European men say farewell to another man with cheek kisses, you know you’ve been accepted. It’s a nice feeling. It really felt like I was part of their family and for the first time in many years I actively considered returning next summer for another visit. We shall see.

June 30 was my return flight to Budapest, and it was a standard day of getting to the airport for my noon flight (this time I took the airport bus, for only 1.50 euro, as compared to the 25-euro taxi ride), hopping my one-hour (late again!) flight to Rome, quick scamper to my connecting gate, 90-minute flight to Budapest, 45 minutes on the bus and metro and home again around 7 PM.

And now? Well, I really can’t wait to get back to Alghero. Great place, Great weather. Amazing food. Welcoming, friendly people who accepted me into their families with warmth and gusto. Alghero, Sardinia………I could die there.