Lukatch Newsletter

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

Location: Budapest, Hungary


Wednesday, June 10, 2015

"Veni, Vidi, Vali"

With apologies to my long-ago high school Latin teacher, Miss Williams, probably now gone to that great Coliseum in the sky; the title above is as close as I can come to “I Came, I Saw, I Left.”

My grandkids are finally old enough to be left with friends and family for a while, so my daughter Morgan and her husband Tony decided to take a real vacation this year. Tony’s ancestry is Italian, so they planned a whirlwind trip of northern Italy, touching base at Milan, Venice, Florence and Rome. I’ll always jump at the chance to visit Rome, so I decided to enhance the final weekend of their trip and meet them there. They arrived in Rome midday on Thursday, June 4, and I booked my flight to arrive Friday June 5 around noon. Their plans were then to leave for home early morning on Sunday, June 7, taking the train back to Milan to catch their flight to LA, while I’d stay over one more day and return to Budapest on Monday, June 8.

Which is actually a good thing, as my old friends and neighbors from New Mexico, Dean and Yvette Stoor, along with their son Evan, arrive in Budapest on Tuesday, June 9, for three full days. Whew! Evan will be in Central Europe performing with his university’s choir, and afterwards the family will do some touring in Czech Republic and Germany and wind up here before returning home. I haven’t seen them since I left New Mexico in 1999, so it will be a great reunion. I’ve already planned an excursion through many of the local pubs and will even give Evan a chance to do some karaoke late one night.

Anyway, Rome! Even a fast weekend in Rome gives me a chance to eat and drink all of that great Italian food and wine and beer and limoncello, so how could I pass it up? I answer my own question: I can’t. The first part of M&T’s trip included brief stays in Milan (to see The Last Supper, the Duomo and the Vittorio Emmanuelle Shopping Center), another brief stay in Venice, rent a car and drive to Florence for an afternoon (too brief, but at least they saw it), another drive into the Tuscan countryside and an overnight in Sienna, and a final battle with the drivers in Rome itself. Whew, fast but good.

My 90-minute flight from Budapest deposited me at Fiumicino Airport near Rome, where I caught the train into the Roma Termini train station and walked the ten minutes to the Hotel Texas, where Morgan and Tony had also booked. They were out running around town, so I took my standard orientation stroll (not needed so much this time, but it’s always a pleasure to walk almost anywhere in Rome). I had a nice seafood salad at Suggestum Café on the Via Veneto for lunch; good food, but absolutely swimming in olive oil. I was back at the hotel to meet the kids at 5 PM; it turned out they were waiting for me at a nearby café, George Byron’s, with cocktails and munchies. Great way to start the weekend.

Digression: The Hotel Texas is located on the third floor of an older building around the corner from the Piazza Republica. Not a lot of rooms, nice clean shiny marble hallway, minimal reception area and very basic rooms. Clean but small and lacking most amenities, including pictures on the walls, TV, minibar, air conditioning, telephone, shampoo and dresser. My room had a small bed, nightstand, small table and chair and a fan, but the carpet looked new. The bathroom is tiny tiny, with toilet and bidet and a curtained-off shower area almost large enough for me to turn around in, but also looked brand new. So, yes, it is a small place and very basic, but for the price and location it was certainly adequate. What raised it to a much higher rating is the staff, who were some of the most welcoming, friendly, chatty, helpful people I have met anywhere. I recommend the Hotel Texas for singles on a budget.

Anyway, after a couple of cocktails at Byron’s, we headed out for the place I wanted to take Morgan and Tony for dinner, a 20-minute walk which ended at the top of the Spanish Steps. They were both surprised and thrilled, as they hadn’t done that landmark yet. We drank and ate at Il Palazzetto wine bar, where I had dined when I was last in Rome in 2010. Still a great place overlooking the Spanish Steps.

As the evening cooled off and the sun went down, we walked a ways to a place I had found on the internet, the Talent Club, which was supposed to have karaoke. It may have, but since it was closed we never found out. Damn! And I really wanted Morgan to sing Summer Nights with me. Ah, well, next time.

M&T had booked their Vatican and Sistine Chapel Tours for Saturday morning, starting at 9 AM and 11:30 AM respectively. We took the metro to the Vatican area and had a nice breakfast nearby: three orders of scrambled eggs with bacon, toast, two large coffees for them and an OJ for me. 72 euro. Welcome to Roma Expensivo.
Anyway, while Morgan and Tony did their tours, I wandered around the general area, had a snack or two, checked out the nearby Castel Sant’Angelo on the Tiber River and generally just soaked up the atmosphere of Rome. When they finished their tours, we taxied over to the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, site of a medieval palazzo once occupied by the Knights Templar, about whom Morgan has always had a fixation.
It was way past lunchtime, so I took them to the Piazza Navona, another wonderful large plaza where one can dine and people-watch. We had drinks and an amazing meal at the Caffe Nettuno, a seafood place where we could watch the tourists being hustled by the local souvenir sellers. And there were a lot of them. In fact, they followed us around Rome, always pushing us to buy their junk jewelry, selfie sticks, and other tourist crap. Of course, Morgan did succumb and picked up a flattened round wooden device which, when the handle was raised, popped up three small bowls for holding candy, nuts, etc. It’s a nice piece and she bargained for it like a Bedouin trader.

More leisurely strolling to the Pantheon for more drinks, then a walk back to the Piazza Barberini, past the Trevi Fountain renovation (no water this time!), checking out the sights and sounds, and ending up on the Via Veneto again at the Suggestum Café for a light dinner of pizza and drinks. Since M&T had to leave early the following morning, we decided to call it a night. I managed to drag myself out of bed around 6:30 AM to see them off; it was a short visit, but since I see them so rarely it’s always nice to be able to hang out with them.

Sunday was rather anticlimactic. M&T had some unused tour bus tickets, so I took the buses around Rome and mingled with the other tourists. By 11:30 AM the buses were packed to the rafters, standing room only and, as the outside temp was hovering around 90 degrees Fahrenheit, you can imagine what it was like inside, not to mention on the uncovered upper level of the bus. I didn’t last too long. I made it back to the Piazza Navona for another fantastic lunch at Café Nettuno. The waiters remembered me and even recommended some dishes; I chose the salami and cheese plate appetizer, which was to die for. Washed down with a couple of Peroni beers, it was just the right snack for a hot summer afternoon in Rome.

I hid from the afternoon heat until around 6 Pm, then wandered down to the George Byron café. Since it was still hot, it seemed the perfect time for a frozen pina colada, and, by Bog, it did hit the spot! I even had two of them, along with appetizers of Bresaola Rucola and parmigiana (dried salt beef with cheese, lemon, etc). If you’re ever in the neighborhood, this minuscule little café is on the corner of Via Firenze and Via Nazionale, in case anyone is interested. The main course was scallops with roasted potatoes and a nice white wine. Dessert – and I just HAD to have some – was Trufo Piano (truffles on vanilla ice cream) and a nicely chilled limoncello. Ever wonder why there are no thin older Italians?

Monday was a traveling day. Up early, train back to the airport and the 90-minute flight to Budapest. I knew the weekend would live long in my memory when the Air Host announced the Captain Pilot’s name: Attila Lukacs (pronounced like my name). Can’t ask for a better omen.

So, happy readers, another weekend under the bridge. Great time, great food, wonderful to see the kids and always amazing to be in Rome. And in just a couple of weeks it’s off to Sardinia for a beach holiday. Watch this space for more blog and pics soon thereafter. Until then, Happy Summer Solstice to all and to all a Good Night!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Czech This Out!

As my once-extensive list of Places I Want to Visit continues to shrink to alarming levels, I’ve been searching the internet travel sites for other interesting places to go. One such town has appeared on several lists of Places You Never Knew Existed But That You Should Visit and, since it was just a relatively short distance by train, I decided to see what the attraction was.

About three hours south of Prague, down near the Austrian border, lies the castle city of Český Krumlov (pronounced ‘Chess-key Kroom-lohv’ which we will henceforth refer to as CK). This tiny gem is one of the Czech Republic’s finest medieval sites. Its Old Town is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, a maze of twisting alleys built around the extensive Český Krumlov castle. It’s easy to spend a full day (it’s so small that’s all you’ll really need) sauntering through narrow, crooked, cobblestone streets while soaking up the atmosphere of this impeccably preserved jewel of Central Europe. The peace and quiet is only broken by the soft rush of the Vltava River, popular with rafting enthusiasts, flowing through the town.

Based on my readings, it seemed as though this would be a nice weekend jaunt, so I hied myself down to the office of Hungary’s national train service, the MAV, and booked my trip. I’d leave Budapest at 7:00 AM, have a two-hour layover in Linz, Austria, entrain for another two-hour-plus journey and then transfer to a local bus service at České Budějovice (I’ll let you try and pronounce this one; from now on, I’ll just call it CB), and arrive in Český Krumlov around 5 o’clock the same afternoon of Thursday, April 23. Piece of strudel.

And it all went as planned. Well, sort of. My first of two nice relaxing train rides got me to Linz, Austria, where I had a two-hour layover. It was lunchtime, and was I ever excited to find a Leberkase stand in the railway station. I loved that stuff when I lived in Germany, and this time one of the offerings was made with chili. Scrumptious.

My next train got me to CB, where my official MAV printed itinerary said I was to change to a bus. What it didn’t say was that I first had to catch a small (two tiny cars) commuter train to the nearby town of Borsov, then hop a bus to CK. Luckily, I found a railroad employee who got me on the right paths after only one mad dash through the train platforms, dragging my bag behind me and screaming, “Wait! Wait!”

It was a cool and cloudy early spring afternoon as I exited the town’s train/bus station. I wasn’t in the mood for a two-kilometer walk just then, plus there was a light rain, so I caught the only taxi in sight to the Hotel Konvice, just off the Old Town’s main square. I was checked in (or should that be ‘Czeched in?’) by the receptionist, Lada, an incredibly helpful and welcoming, not to mention incredibly beautiful, young Czech woman. She took me around the corner to my room in the annex, and was it ever an unexpected surprise. It was HUGE! More like an apartment than a hotel room. It was a large open space, a sitting area with sofas at one end and a large bed at the other, and just empty space in between. There was even a kitchen. I could have held a Sock Hop there for my high school senior class. As I stood and stared at this amazing space, for one of the few times in my travels I wished I had a female companion with me; it was that kind of place.

Anyway, light rain notwithstanding, I popped my umbrella and was off on my standard orientation stroll. It was 5:30 PM and the first thing I wanted after all those train rides was one of those world-famous Czech beers. I spied a nearby bar across the town square and made a beeline for it, only to discover that the bars in CK open at 6 PM. What, was I back in Dubai? Damn! It’s the Czech Republic! World-class consumers of amazing beer. Smoking still allowed in bars and restaurants. And I couldn’t get a damn beer until six o’clock?! Well, Scheisse!

So, OK, rant over and I walked the wet streets and wandered down to the river and peeked in the windows of shops that closed at 5 PM; what did the locals do for that dead hour between closing their shop and beginning the evening’s drinking? Apparently just walk the streets like I did. Anyway, finally, five minutes til six and the Strojovna Music Pub opened its doors early. I rushed in, the only customer in the place, grabbed a barstool, got a menu and found a list of six great local Czech beers on tap. I ordered a Krusjovice and the barely-legal-aged bartender told me, “We don’t have any beers on tap.”
January in Casablanca, February and March in Budapest and now April in Czech-land, I keep getting this same sentence; is it me? Am I the Harbinger of Doom when I go to a pub or restaurant? (Actually, Doom Bar beer in Cardiff, Wales, was one of the best I’ve had in years). Or do they just take one look at me and say to themselves, “Here’s an old guy who really wants a beer; why don’t I fuck with him and tell him we don’t have any?” Barring the possibility that, when it comes to ordering food and drink, I am the world’s unluckiest person, I just can’t think of any other reason why this sort of thing HAPPENS TO ME ALL THE DAMN TIME!

I was pleased to see, however, that this bar had a policy of hiring the handicapped; obviously, the young bartender was born without a personality. Unsmiling, unwelcoming, unapologetic, pretty much one of the Undead, he then informed me they had only one type of bottled beer and he didn’t know if they would have draft beer the following evening. If I hadn’t been so thirsty, I’d have shot him and left. As it was, a Pilsener Urquelle washed away some of my tears.

Not wishing to leave any more of my Czech money there than I had to, I left after the one beer and continued my sojourn around town. CK’s main Old Town occupies the inside loop of a horseshoe bend in the Vltava River and is crammed with cobblestone streets and quaint old buildings. The castle overlooking the town was built in the 13th Century and many of the buildings are still from medieval times. It’s a pristine little town and just made for strolling hand-in-hand with a companion of the moment. Of course, all I wanted was to find a nice quiet bar and have some good Czech beer.

So, next on my Trip Advisor list was the Cikanska Jizba, or Gypsy Bar. It’s actually a restaurant, but they did have some nice tap beer. I wondered briefly what the wheelbarrow parked outside the front entrance was for, until I saw the bartender and his monster stomach nearly dragging on the ground. He turned out to be a genial type, much friendlier than the kid at Strojovna, so I decided to have dinner there also. Along with my Eggenberger beer I had a nice filet of beef in crème sauce with dumplings. Not a calorie in a carload. The only thing that kept me from enjoying my beer and meal fully was something I thought was nonexistent in Europe: smokers! In Czech Republic it is apparently still legal to smoke in public places. Power to the People!

The light rain was off and on, so after dinner I strolled over to the castle district and found the Zapa Bar, another Trip Advisor recommendation. I went in and approached the bar area when a waiter appeared suddenly and loomed over me and asked if he could help me. I told him I just wanted a drink at the bar, and he politely (and snarkily, I’m sure) informed me there was a private party at the bar that night.

Now I’m sure of it: it IS me after all!

If I order something that’s what they’ll be out of; if the cash register tape has to be changed, it will happen as I step up to be checked out; if I just want a simple drink at the bar, there will be a private party in my way. Incredible.

I gave up. I went back to my at-least-wonderful hotel room and pulled the duvet up over my head and went to sleep, hoping tomorrow would be a better day.

And lo and behold, in the cosmic scheme of things, it was! The early-morning sun peeked brightly into the tiny window above my bed and called me to the beautiful day that was to come. The rain had stopped and this day (and the next also) were perfect for exploring, walking, climbing, sipping, eating, drinking, photo-ing and all the other –ings I can think of.

I abluted and partook of the simple but adequate Continental breakfast at my hotel and then set out to see what I could see of CK. A morning trek to the castle district sounded about right, and it was just that. It was sunny but still a touch cool, but would warm up quickly to shorts weather. I strolled around the castle area, checked out the castle itself and wandered the side and back streets to see what I could see.

It was all so…….quaint. Picturesque even, maybe besting Verona in its photogenicity (new word I just made up). I found the pubs and restaurants I’d need later that day (after 6 PM!) and generally soaked up the sunshine and the ambience of CK. People smiled at me and I smiled back. It must be said that CK absolutely oozes, squeezes, bleeds, radiates, exudes charm. I finally had to look for a side street with some graffiti and badly-maintained buildings just to take a break from all that overpowering old-world charm.

I stopped in at Ye Olde Gingerbread House for some mid-morning sweets and had a nice chat with Katerina behind the counter, a lovely young Czech woman who was helping out a friend of hers who owned the shop. The sweetness extended to all levels.

Back across the Old Wooden Bridge and into the center of town I rambled, walking up and down each of the tiny streets, making sure I didn’t miss anything. Since it was early in the season, there weren’t too many tourists around yet, but many of those who were there were Asians. I guess Central Europe is all the rage in Asia these days and the package deals must be very good.

The city is clean and neat, no graffiti in the main tourist areas. It has been beautifully preserved architecturally and has a nice relaxed feel, perfect for ambling and window-shopping and sampling all sorts of treats. I spotted a Chinese restaurant on one side of the main square and, since our places in Budapest leave a bit to be desired for this type of cuisine, thought I’d try it out. Well, it was fantastic! Real Szechuan dishes, spicy enough to wake you up, but not so deadly as to kill your taste buds. Hot (i.e., spicy) Peking soup, Kung-Pao Chicken, rice and jasmine tea, and a great view onto the square; not a bad lunch.

The afternoon was filled with more rambling and wandering. CK really is a tiny little place and you can walk every single street (slowly) in the central area in probably three hours, looking in every store and reading every menu. But that’s what small towns like this are for, taking time out from busier pursuits and just breathing in the atmosphere of contentment. I noted places I’d revisit in detail the next day, like the Wax Museum, the Mirror Maze, the Gorila Rock Pub, the Egon Schiele Art Center, several palacinky shops (like the Hungarian palacsintazo), something called the Moldavite Museum, and others. Another nice afternoon, helped along by one of those chocolate palacsinta (in French: crepes).

Then it was Friday evening, Pub Night! I had my list from Trip Advisor and I knew, I knew, I’d find the perfect place tonight to while away the hours tasting different types of great Czech beers and munching on bar treats and listening to some live music. That’s what we did in Prague, and because CK is such a Czech Republic tourist mecca, I just knew that’s what we’d do here. My fantasies die a hard death.

I decided to begin my search in the castle district and work my way back to the center of town. First up was the Zapa Pub, hoping there was no private party tonight. Nope, no party, but also no beer on tap, only the ubiquitous Pilsener Urquelle and a strange Russian dark beer in bottles. Sigh. The evening was not off to a lively start. Trip Advisor Pub Number 2, Apotheke, just down the street, was almost as bad, having only the 0.4 litre Budweiser/Budvar on tap. It’s OK, not the same Bud Americans expect, but still not world-class.

Number 3 pub was Dobra Cajovna, which was supposed to have over 200 brands of beer. Turned out it had 90 types of tea. It’s now a teahouse. My hands were starting to shake and the veins in my neck were standing out.

Number 4, back in the town center, was old standby Sturojovna, again to see if maybe they had tap beer tonight. YES! They did. But it was only Krusovice, a good but hardly famous Czech beer. At least the pub had three lovely young female bartendresses, which helped alleviate my loss somewhat. Again, I was the only customer at the bar. Guess CK doesn’t attract a particularly vibrant weekend pub crowd.

Then it was time to check out the Katakomby establishment in the main square, which turned out to be a restaurant. Despite the tap having three different beers shown, there was actually only two beers on tap; yep, Pilsener Urquelle and a dark Kozel. I opted for the latter, which was flat and without bubbles. Dinner then consisted of a light appetizer plate and I was on the road again.

My choices were rapidly diminishing. Despite warnings from the Tourist Information woman, I decided to try the Gorila Rock Pub after all, taking my chances that it couldn’t be as bad as I was told. Wrong again, Kemo Sabe. It was a hard rock pub, filled with chain-smoking skinheads. But you know what? It did have the best selection of draft beers! Go figure. I had an amber Bernard which was very nice and helped salvage my expectations at the final stop of my night.

Saturday, Day Number 2 in CK, and another bright sunny fantastic day it was. Today would be attraction day, when I visited the local museums and other tourist draws that keep CK on top of the day trip excursions from Prague. First up was the Magical Mirror Maze. I got a deal – such a deal! – on a joint ticket for the Maze and the Wax Museum, so what the heck, why not. The Maze was like one of those old funhouses with tall mirrors everywhere so you’d bump into them as you tried to find your way through the labyrinth. It only lasted about five minutes so really wasn’t worth the time or effort, but for a small town it was apparently quite the thing to do.

The Wax Museum was better, containing lots of wax figures of old Czech merchants, workers, fishermen, priests, dukes, etc., plus wax figures of famous people like Mozart, Edward Berneys, Bill Clinton and Michael Jackson. Lots more, most of whom I’d never heard of, but, hey, it killed 20 minutes.

After all that work I needed a break, so found a table on the terrace of the nearby Monna Lisa café (yes, it is spelled like that) and had a cup of fantastic orange and cinnamon hot chocolate. Thick, rich, creamy, my spoon actually stood up in the center of the chocolate. I haven’t had such a great cup since St. Petersburg, Russia, and was pleased to sit and enjoy the morning sunshine and chocolate.

Next on my list of interesting places to visit in CK was the Eggenberg Brewery. I crossed the river again and found the side street marked on my map and walked down between high walls on each side of the street. Finally there was a gate with the name of the brewery above it, but the gate was locked and there was no noise coming out of beer being brewed, so I surmised I wouldn’t be taking the brewery tour that morning. I realize it’s early in tourist season, but with all the Asians in town I thought surely this site would be open. Once again, I thought wrong. As an extra added disappointment, the nearby monastery gardens were also closed due to construction. Sigh.

A brief respite on the bridge overlooking the castle moat, wherein dwelt several large brown bears for the Asians to gawk at. I stopped by to see Katerina again at the gingerbread shop and even picked up a few sweet goodies to help me on my way. Lunch was a pleasant affair at Lazebna restaurant on the riverside, soaking up the sun and a couple of Dudak beers, one of the best I had found in town. Temp must have been in the mid-70s (around 24 degrees Celsius) and I lolled back and enjoyed every moment.
Dinner was at Mastal restaurant on the main square. A very nice steaky (that’s what they advertise there) with a house red wine and I was set for the evening. I wandered out to the square and found a trio of Czech women serenading the sparse crowd with old Czech songs. They played the fiddle, small accordion and small harp, an interesting combination, but one which worked. One of the local drunks added some unwelcome flavor to the concert by dancing disjointedly around the women, but they laughingly ignored him and he finally passed out on a nearby bench.

I strolled down to the Gypsy Bar to see if they had music tonight and they did! It was two locals, one strumming a guitar (I think he only knew two chords) and repeating what sounded like boring lyrics over and over again (he was bad, but he was loud) and a partner pounding out the beat on some sort of small box. Interesting. But the beer was good and the crowd was very international. The large-stomached manager recognized me and smiled and kept bringing me beers, so I was happy to sit and enjoy the atmosphere. It got even better when Sean Connery came in wearing military fatigues.

And that was pretty much my weekend in CK. Sunday morning was the reverse of my arrival. I caught a rail bus at the train station to Borsov, then the little commuter train to CB, then on to Linz and back to Budapest, arriving around 7 PM. A little bit of anxiety about connections due to having to unexpectedly take the bus again (not shown on my MAV itinerary), but it all ended well. CK is a great weekend break, a romantic getaway for couples and a generally quiet, quaint place to relax and recharge. Definitely recommended.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

“In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…”

I just can’t seem to stay home too long these days without getting those itchy traveling feet. After Morocco in late January, I weathered the weather in Budapest, keeping warm in the pubs by watching rugby, quaffing Guinness, doing some karaoke now and then, dining out with friends (who ever dines out with enemies?), attending the Rembrandt exhibit in the Museum of Fine Art and all the other usual things one does in the winter in Hungary.
But it was time to hit the road again, to yet one more famous place I haven’t visited. This time it was Verona, Italy, setting for Shakespeare’s saga of Romeo and Juliet. Even though Old Will himself never visited Verona, I had no doubts the Veronese have made extensive tourist capital out of their relationship to one of The Bard’s best-known plays. I only needed a long weekend to see the sights in this small northern Italian city, located between Milan and Venice and easily reached by one large and one small airplane flight. I booked my flights and hotel and was once again ready to travel.
The best connecting flights I could find had me leaving Budapest at 7:00 AM on Thursday, March 19, which meant I had to be up at 4 AM for my trip to the airport. Yucchh. But, one does what one must, so I made it in time for my short flight to Rome, where I had a five-hour layover, then a jump on a small airplane, arriving in Verona around 3:30 in the afternoon. A bus to the central bus station and a brief, but exhilarating, 20-minute walk to B&B Verona 23 and I was ready to see the evening sights.
I found the B&B just about 20 meters from Juliet’s Tomb, on a side street of Verona named Via Pontiere. It was a clean, neat, well-maintained small B&B on the second floor of a newish apartment building. I was happy with my choice, even though there were two shared bathrooms (I rarely even saw anyone else in the place and never had a problem with the baths being occupied). The price seemed reasonable when I booked it: $36 a night for the first two nights, but $108 per night for the weekend; turned out there was a huge wine fest in town that weekend, which was why the prices changed for the worse. But still, it was Verona.
My B&B was only a ten-minute walk from the main square, Piazza Bra, one side of which is the Verona Arena (amphitheater). It’s surrounded by restaurants, bars, an uncountable number of pizzerias and more than a few gift shops.
So, around 5 PM I ventured forth into what I hoped would be another weekend adventure. The weather was sunny but cool, temps in the mid-50s (about 13 Celsius). I was ready for a Happy Hour, so I stopped at one of the outdoor restaurants along the Liston, Verona’s promenade along one side of the Piazza Bra. The chill evening air was cut by the heat lamps overlooking the tables, and I enjoyed my Nastro Azzuro beer while watching the locals and tourists walk by between me and the gigantic Roman amphitheater, called in Verona the Arena.
That one beer hit the spot and I ambled off up the main shopping street, Via Mazzini, to the Piazza del Erbe, which turned out to be the main action square in town, with souvenir vendors, more outdoor restaurants (with heat lamps), beautiful Roman statues, medieval building facades and so much charm and picturesque-ness you just wanted to shout out, “ENOUGH! NO MORE CHARM!”
OK, Verona really is amazing; it reminded me of Venice in that I couldn’t stop taking pictures. In fact, I took 230 snaps, and those were just of the things worth memorializing. Naturally, the souvenir booths had all of the stuff one finds in such places around the world, the exact same stuff – t-shirts, fake jewelry, shot glasses, fridge magnets, scarves, tourist crap – only this time with the word Verona emblazoned on everything.
And if you were wondering, Yes, Verona does milk the Romeo and Juliet story for all it’s worth – and more. There are Romeo and Juliet restaurants, Juliet Gelato stands, Romeo mens stores, the actual houses lived in by the Montagues and Capulets, Romeo baseball caps, Juliet (actually, Giulietta) aprons…and the tourists were eating it up with gigantic spoons. Brutal.
I needed another beer by this time, so a local brew was just the thing, a pretty good Italian amber beer, which I imbibed while resting at yet another terrace table in the Piazza Erbe. A snack of something sounded good, but the menus were mostly in Italian, so I had to guess at what I was ordering. I chose a piadina, which the waiter assured me I would enjoy, and I did; it was sort of like quesadillas and went down well with my beer.
Since I’d been up at 4 AM to catch my flight, I figured an early night was in order, as tomorrow would be a big walking day, so I hiked back to my B&B and turned.
Up at the crack of eight, a nice continental breakfast in the B&B, where I met some young Russian men on tour. I greeted them with my smattering of Russian, with which they were obviously impressed. We chatted awhile about travel; turned out they were from St. Petersburg, one of my all-time favorite cities in the world, so we had something in common. Then I was ready to tackle Verona.
The city of Verona straddles a dog-leg curve in the Adige (“Ah–DEE–jay”) River in northern Italy, lying generally between Milan and Venice. It’s a compact little city, and easily walkable in a few hours, which is what I set out to do on Friday morning. First stop, just half a block from my B&B: Giulietta’s Tomba (Yep, Juliet’s tomb).
Juliet’s tomb is actually in the Abbey of San Francesco, but Juliet is buried elsewhere. This is one of the few secrets of the city, as no one could (or would) tell me where she was. So the “tomb” consists of an empty sarcophagus in an old abbey; i.e., nothing special – but they still charge you to go in and look. Naturally.
Let the Milking Begin!
I cut over to the river and walked up its inner-city embankment. It was a beautiful early spring day, the sun was shining brightly (although beginning to go into its eclipse) and the weather was brisk and inviting. It was the beginning of another brief adventure, and all was right with the world.
I strolled along the riverside, taking some photos and just enjoying the morning. I turned left into what would become the Via Cappello, which leads to the Piazza Erbe, and which also happens to be the street on which Juliet’s family home is located. Since it was still early, the tourists weren’t yet out in force, so I decided to check out the Capulet’s house, which turned out to be a beautifully-preserved example of a 13th Century Italian house. And, of course, out in the courtyard is - The Balcony. Yep, that famous balcony.
Apparently, the power of Shakespeare’s vision still affects many people around the world. Every year hundreds of thousands of incurable romantics trek to Verona to see the balcony where Juliet stood while Romeo declared his love. Although originally characters in a poem by a local Italian author, it seems the Romeo and Juliet we know today were really were only figments of Shakespeare's imagination. This is the most powerful love story in western culture and we all want to live a little part of its dream - although not its tragic ending.
Juliet's house was owned by the family dell Capello (rather close to ‘Capulet,’ right?). Of course, there is a slight problem with the balcony itself; it was added in the 20th century. Not important to the hundreds of girls who visit it every year and step out onto it and gaze sighingly below, seeking their Romeo among the herd of tourists. The power of this place, taken in context with the story, is apparent for everyone to feel.
In the courtyard is a bronze sculpture of Juliet; local legend has it that it’s lucky to rub her right breast. Of course, everyone does, and the bronze patina has long been worn off to the shiny metal underneath. And, yes, naturally, I had to add my rubbing to the generations before me.
In addition, the city fathers (or whoever set up this extremely popular romantic tourist attraction), have allowed – nay, encouraged – visitors to leave love notes to Juliet; these notes are stuck on walls and doors in the entrance to the courtyard. Feel that milking motion getting faster? Oh, Wherefore art thou Romeo?
I continued on my way through the ever-increasing throngs of tourists, exiting the courtyard and turning right toward the Piazza Erbe. I headed right again toward the river, through the Piazza San Anastasia (another church), and over to the Ponte Pietra (Stone Bridge). I crossed over to see the old Roman amphitheater, the Teatro Roman, which was, of course, closed to visitors due to renovations. You’d think they would do the renovation outside of tourist season. Sigh.
OK, back across the river, around the river’s dogleg and down to the Duomo, yet another old cathedral, from where I continued down through more picturesque side streets and back into the Piazza Bra; time for lunch. Of the many restaurants and cafes along the Liston, I chose the one with the most welcoming and smiling and friendly waitress, the Café Emanuel.
I ate on the terrace in the shadow of the Arena, Verona’s amphitheater, not in as good a shape as the one in Rome, but not bad for all that. Plus, this one is actually used for various performances during the summer months; in fact, it was being prepped for the first show, due in April, during my visit.
The sun was still shining, albeit somewhat subdued, due to the ever-encroaching eclipse, as I enjoyed my Soave Bolla wine and entrecote steak with veggies; I really am trying to stick with my Paleo diet. But then I had to have one of the justly-famous Veronese desserts; this time it was a panna cotta al caramello. I’ll leave it to your imagination to wonder about this afternoon delight.
After lunch I took the unescorted tour of the Arena. Actually, it was just walk inside and up and down the steps and watch the workmen prepare for the upcoming season; a wooden floor was being laid, chairs were being set up and the entire Arena was being made ready for the summer’s shows. Maybe someday I’ll come back and see a live performance here; one never knows, do one?
Afterwards, I walked around behind the Arena and looked for the Scottish pub I was told was there, but it didn’t exist. Hmmm. What I found out soon enough was that there is virtually no exciting nightlife in Verona: no pubs, no real bars, no music clubs, nothing but sitting around at the restaurants and “wine bars” (which are really just small cafes selling only specialty wines) and chatting until the wee hours.
So, as I strolled the streets I had time to think about what I was experiencing. Verona really is a picturesque, quaint, charming little city. It’s been designated a World Heritage Site, with its cobblestone streets and its links to Shakespeare’s plays. Lots of designer clothing stores and very touristy, but, amazingly enough, I didn’t spot a single internet café. The locals apparently take great pains to make themselves look casually elegant. The Veronese men are seemingly all tall and thin, with a four-day growth of heavy black stubble, short razor-cut hair, and dressed in the classic Italian style that makes so many female tourists check them out with an appraising eye.
And the women! Well, talk about studiedly casual elegance! Damn! Slender bodies, perfect hairdos, perfectly-fitting clothes that accentuate all of that feminine pulchritude, these women don’t merely walk down the street; they strut, they prance, they preen, they sashay. “Where others satisfy, they most make hungry.” Even carrying their veggies home from the market, they give new meaning to “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” I could watch them all day and night – and often did.
After such a heavy lunch, I decided dinner would be snacks, so I settled in at the Ippopotamo Café on the Liston with my Peroni Red beer and my Italian tapas plates of various goodies, the better to enjoy the passing scenery. When I sat down at my table, I went to move the stack of menus already there, only to be surprised to realize that it was just one huge menu; damn thing must have been two inches thick and weighed five pounds. Biggest menu I’ve ever seen. Anyway, it was Friday evening around 8 o’clock, and I was surprised to see all of the restaurants along the Liston were fairly empty – unlike the ones on the Piazza Erbe, which were packing them in by 6 PM. Interesting; people seemed to go for the smaller, busier, more action-filled square rather than the main tourist plaza.
And on to Saturday, March 21.
My second big day of exploring and walking Verona took me early on over to the Castelvecchio, a 14th Century castle located on the west side of Verona, overlooking the Adige River.
It was the home of the Scaligeri family, who also commissioned the baroque Arche Scaligeri, a major tomb of the lords of Verona, obviously, an important and wealthy lot. The day was cloudy and cool, but not crowded, at least for the moment. After checking out the inner courtyard of the Castel, I crossed the Ponte (bridge) Scaligeri and walked up the embankment to the next upriver bridge. Crossing back, I wended my way to the nearby San Zeno church, another interesting piece of 8th-9th Century architecture, which was closed off due to refurbishing. No chance to see the guidebook-touted triptych altarpiece, then. Another sigh.
Back again around the Castelvecchio, I chose at random a small café and had a pannicotte picante, which turned out to be a meat-and-cheese-filled pastry, sort of like a Cornish Pasty. Yummy. I still hadn’t been able to find Romeo’s house; apparently, it wasn’t as important as Juliet’s, at least not as a tourist attraction. But it was shown on my local city map and I was determined to give Romeo his due, so find it I would! (Interesting how writing about such a romantic city causes me to wax poetic).
Verona has signs posted discreetly for every other sight and site in town, but nothing for Romeo’s house. How could they give the other half of the famous pair such short shrift? Sexist pigs! Anyway, I wended and twisted and turned and watched for clues and finally – finally! – found one small sign that read, “Casa de Cagnolo Nogarola detto Romeo” – whatever the heck that means. I figured the translation was “Romeo lived here,” so, like it or not, that was the place I designated as Romeo’s humble abode. There was a large arched doorway next to the sign, and, on the opposite side, a stone plaque, covered – literally covered – with graffiti, which, although quite hard to read, seemed to be another quote from Shakespeare about our hero, Romeo. This was his house, I do so declare it to be! Found the little sucker!!
Evening found me again back at the Piazza Erbe, where there was an orchestra playing the Big Band sounds, to the delight of the nearby drinkers and diners. I listened for awhile, enjoying the evening air and the music, which I realized was sadly lacking around the city. They could have used more music to add to the ambience.
Dinner was at the Lady Verona restaurant, just a few steps away and smack in the middle of the Piazza Erbe. I had a scintillating white wine (two carafes, mind you!), the seafood fry and veggies. The terrace party was in full swing, the heat lamps were doing their job keeping out the evening chill and the diners kept rotating in and out of all the places along the square’s Restaurant Row. I was definitely in the mood for a limoncello, but thought I’d have it at the Ippopotamo Café on the Liston, where I hoped my favorite young waitress was on duty, but she had Saturday night off so I passed it by. I tried several other places on my way back to the B&B, but they either had no tables available (Hey! I just wanted a drink and a small dessert!) or they didn’t have any limoncello. What a disappointment! I thought it was an Italian law that every restaurant and bar in the entire country had to serve limoncello, which, after wine, must be the country’s national drink. Can you hear me sighing yet again?
Anyway, I found a small cafe next to my B&B where I chatted with some young ladies on vacation from the Canary Islands and managed to have a gratifyingly-tasty Sambuca (albeit without the coffee bean). The lack of a rousing nightlife left me without an evening anchor for my revelries, but at least it got me to bed early. Damn!
So – Sunday, March 22. My third day in Verona, which, I had discovered the previous night, was really only a two-day city. Hmm, what’s left to do? Well, not much, that’s what. Unless I wanted to visit each of the museums in town (which I didn’t), it was pretty much of an open day. The clouds continued to hang over the city and there was even some (very) light rain, so I ambled around haphazardly, exploring parts of the city previously unseen, taking random side streets and happening upon small, beautiful squares and statues and medieval doorways. It was a touch colder and somewhat windy, but still evocative for all that. One could almost feel Thibeault lurking around the next corner.
Lunchtime found me walking by a Chinese restaurant, and the day seemed to call for some spiciness, so in I went. Hot and sour soup, Szechuan Beef, rice and jasmine tea, just the thing to ward off the chill of a late spring afternoon in Verona. As I walked back across the Piazza Bra, I noticed the little town tourist train was in its station, ready to convey tourists around the city for a small fee. What the heck, I was tired of walking everywhere, so I took the half-hour journey in style (in this case, ‘style’ being relative, of course).
Those quaint, atmospheric cobblestone streets I had admired weren’t quite so wonderful when bouncing over them in a carriage apparently without shock absorbers, but it was still a nice ride and I enjoyed watching the buildings flow by and seeing the exhausted tourists trudging across the bridges and through the squares.
The Last Supper in Verona. All that walking really had worn me down, and I just didn’t feel like another trek of ten whole minutes back to the main square, so luckily I found a Mexican restaurant just up the street from my B&B. Mexicali, and it looked great. And on a Sunday evening, how crowded could it be? I walked in around 6:30 and was the only customer in the place; by 7 PM it was heaving! Heaving, I tell you! They served a Happy Hour buffet assortment of tapas and it seemed like every local in the city knew about it and flocked to the Sunday evening treat.
The place was packed! I was astonished. Even on Friday and Saturday evenings in the Piazza Erbe the restaurants weren’t this crowded. The ambience was warm and cozy, the prices reasonable, the munchies fun and the margaritas made me smile. They had 14 different kinds of margaritas, of which I sampled the Basil (hey, don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it; it was highly recommended by my Brazilian waiter), the Tommy’s (named after a San Francisco bar’s specialty) and the Classic (just because I wanted one more). I was tempted to go for one (or more) of the 38 different kinds of rum on the menu, but wisely passed in favor of the margaritas. Accompanied by an order of fresh, chunky guacamole, they were just the thing to kick off a Sunday evening in Verona.
Dinner was the carne asada, which I hadn’t had in way too long, with a small salad, in an oddly-shaped bowl; I wondered where I would rest my knife and fork between bites, but it turned out OK; I’ll leave you to wonder how. Dessert was the copa de reyes, sort of a chocolate pudding with whipped cream; Paleo diet be damned, I’m in Italy! And after all was eaten and drunk and enjoyed, I even got my limoncello – finally!
And so, faithful readers, that was my Weekend in Verona. Another fun time was had by all; well, anyway, at least by me. Monday morning I walked back to the main train/bus station and caught the aerobus back to the airport; a short flight to Rome, then 80 minutes back to Budapest and I was home by 6 PM. Another adventure safely tucked under my belt. If you have the chance, do a weekend in Verona – you’ll love it!

Tuesday, February 03, 2015

Everybody Comes to Rick's

Winter was half over in Budapest and I needed some sunshine again, so I decided to look for that warm weather in that ‘little city’ (of seven million people!) on the Moroccan seacoast made famous by Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman: Casablanca. It was also a chance to visit an old friend and former student, my French buddy Gilles, and his lovely wife Sophie. Plus, another friend of my daughter Morgan also lives in Casablanca and teaches at the American School, so I’d get to hook up with her and her baby daughter. And, of course, I’d find some sunshine and get to go to Rick’s. All in all, sounded like a good week.
One catch raised its head almost immediately. I emailed Gilles to tell him of my visit and he wrote back that he and Sophie were in the process of moving back to France. Well, Hell! I finally come to visit and he probably won’t be there. Figures! Just goes to prove I still have that great
sense of timing. Anyway, Gilles said he may still be in town finishing up his work before his final transfer move, so I just may be able to see him. (NB: Nope. Gilles finished his work in Casablanca and relocated to France just 10 days before my arrival.)
Anyway, Friday, January 23, it was up at 6 AM and out to Budapest’s airport for a 10 AM Air France flight to Paris, hoping Charles de Gaulle airport was free and clear of Charlie Hebdo protestors. Luckily, after a minimal 2.5 hour layover, I was winging my way to Casablanca. (Another NB: the locals fondly call their capitol Casa, and so shall I for the rest of this narrative.)
Morgan’s friend Ivy made arrangements with her trusted taxi driver Mohammed to pick me up at the airport and, when I cleared passport control and Customs, there he was, holding a large sign saying, Mr. Gary. During the ride into town, he called Ivy and we set up a meet for the following morning at a coffee house in her district. Since it was Friday evening, it took us an hour and a half to get to my hotel near the main square, Place de Nations Unis. The usual drive without traffic took around 30 minutes. Traffic was horrendous, and made even more complicated by the slowness of the drivers and the uncaring pedestrians who crossed streets anywhere and any which way, ignoring oncoming cars and sauntering into lanes already filled with autos. A real New York traffic jam.
So, arrived at my hotel around 7:15 PM, threw my bag into my room and headed out for a first reccy of the main area of Casablanca. My hotel was perfectly located for walking adventures to the main sights and places of Casa. I was a mere three-minute walk from the Old Medina, maybe four minutes to the downtown train station, Gare de Casa Port, five minutes to streets filled with restaurants and bars and three minutes to the major tram line in town. Couldn’t ask for a better location.
I wandered for a while, getting the feel of the city, checking out the about-to-close Old Medina, dodging traffic around the main square, walking up and down nearby streets just to see where I was. I had a tasty dinner of chicken couscous at a small streetside diner and called it a night, knowing there would be an entire week of sightseeing and fun ahead.
Mohammed had told me that if I wanted to walk to the Twin Center, where I was to meet Ivy at 9:30 the following morning, it would be about 25 minutes or so. Piece of cake for an old city trekker, so I set out that early Saturday around 8:30, to give myself time to sightsee along the way. Well, the damn walk took me nearly one hour, even with stops for photo ops. I was panting and sweating when I arrived at the Twin Face restaurant, about three minutes before Ivy showed up. It seemed that Ivy had met my daughter Morgan through a mutual teacher friend in southern California and they had stayed in touch for the previous couple of years. We had a get-acquainted tea then headed out for breakfast at one of Ivy’s favorite nearby places, the Mood Café. Omelets with meat, orange juice, bread and some of that great super-sweetened Moroccan mint tea, which I lived on during the week to come. Great stuff, lots of sugar, perfect for the daily exercise of walking around in Morocco.
Ivy then gave me a quick walking tour of the Maarif and Gautier quarters near her flat, wandering through some of the local shopping areas. I also had a chance to meet Ivy’s seven-month-old daughter Addie, who must be the happiest baby in all of the African continent; she never stopped smiling and laughing, what a joy to be around. We made plans to meet up again on Monday evening for drinks and dinner and I caught one of the little red Petite Taxis back to my hotel, the Best Western Toubkal, a great place to stay in Casa. I continued my orientation walk around the central area, checking out the Marche Central, Rialto Cinema, La Bodega tapas restaurant and some of the bars and night clubs I had found on Trip Advisor, all for later reference and visits.
First impressions of Casa: Trashy. Dirty. Crowded. Old and not maintained well. And that’s without mentioning the pairs of soldiers armed with automatic weapons posted around the central district. But full of life. I could hardly wait to see the rest.
For my second full day in Casa, and my first real night, it was pretty much mandatory that I head for Rick’s Café, a three-minute drive along the waterfront from my hotel. Yep, it was designed to re-create Rick’s Café Americain, from the movie Casablanca. Rick’s is set in an old courtyard-style mansion built in the 1930s against the walls of the Old Medina. Founded by Ms. Kathy Kriger, a former American diplomat, in 2004, it definitely calls to mind Old Morocco. The restaurant/piano bar is filled with curved arches, a sculpted bar, balconies and balustrades and even brass lighting filtered through plants that cast amazing shadows on the walls. As I sat at the bar with my champagne cocktail, I just knew Ingrid Bergman would walk through the door any minute.
And, of course, Rick’s wouldn’t be the same without a piano player belting out the old pre-war songs. The piano player is Moroccan and does his stint nightly from 9 PM. As good as he is, aficionados of the original movie may be somewhat hesitant to request the only song anyone wants to hear at Rick’s; asking him to “Play it again, Mohammed,” just doesn’t have quite the right ring to it.
After several drinks, I finally tired of waiting for Ingrid and had an appetizer of Crab Louis, followed by a very nice filet mignon; as beautiful a cut of meat as it was, it was also the only minor disappointment of the night, as the chef obviously hasn’t yet come to grips with the nuances of rare, medium rare and medium. I asked for medium, but my steak was nearly raw in the middle and, even after sending it back for more cooking, found it was still medium rare inside. Ah, well, a small price to endure for the wonderful atmosphere of this legendary club.
I was feeling no pain as I left Rick’s to negotiate with the waiting taxi drivers for a ride back to my hotel, about ½ kilometer away, and which should have cost around 5 dirham (about $0.50 US), but which cost me 20 dirham to get there in the first place. One guy wanted 50 Dhm, but I was able to find a second driver who “settled” for 20 Dhm. Since I was in no shape to walk, I took him up on his offer.
Arriving outside my hotel around 11:15 PM, I noticed the attached night club was open, with flashing lights and a half-asleep doorman. Should I go in and see the “Spectacle Show?” I knew, from sad past experiences, that if I did it would end badly. It always has. But, ever hopeful, I decided, what the heck, and eased down the red-carpeted stairs to my doom.
Bartender Rashid gave me a drinks menu and I noted there were four vodkas listed: Smirnoff, Stolichnaya, Moskovskaya and Absolut. Since I’d been drinking vodka earlier, I decided to stick with it. I asked Rashid for a Moskovskaya shot. He responded, “We don’t have that.”
Sigh. Here we go again. “It’s on your menu, right here, see?” “We don’t have that.”
I should have left immediately, I know that, you know that, we all friggin’ know that. Did I leave? I answer my own question: “No!” I extended my punishment for coming in here in the first place and, shaking my head slowly, I looked back at the menu again.
“OK, I’ll have a Stolichnaya,” I said. “We don’t have that.”
Rashid will never know how close he came to losing his life that night, as I seriously contemplated leaping over the bar and shoving the worthless menu down his worthless throat. He survived only because I’d see the movie Marrakech Express years ago and had no wish to spend time in a Moroccan prison.
But as I looked at Rashid I could see he was a touch nervous, as he took a step back from the bar, just in case. As the veins started popping out in my neck, I said, “Alright, seggfej, give me an Absolut.” (It was a good thing he didn’t understand the Hungarian word for ‘asshole’). He turned and grabbed a bottle from the shelf and poured me a shot in a tall glass, then opened a tonic water and set it in front of me. Had I asked for a vodka and tonic? At this point, it hardly mattered, so I took my vodka, poured in some tonic and waited for the show.
The doorman had told me the show would start at 11:30; it was now 11:27. This damn show better be good. I waited. 11:30. 11:40. 11:55. Midnight. 12:08. 12:20. 12:40. No show. No show. No show. Well, scheisse! My vodka was long gone and, I finally decided, it was long past time I was too. So I left. See? I told you it would turn out badly. Never again! (Until the next time, of course).
Sunday, January 25, Robert Burns’ birthday. I was up early, had a nice cheese omelet and some sweet mint tea at the Ramses café on the square, hailed a taxi and headed off to see the Hassan II mosque, third largest in the world. And it is huge! Space inside for 25,000 people, with room on the large square outside for another 85,000. I took the hour-long tour of the inside, and it was worth it.
It’s worth mentioning here that during my stay in Morocco, I never saw any problems between Moslems and others; no one beating up anyone, no Moslems spitting on tourists or haranguing skimpily-dressed foreign women, no anger at foreigners for depicting the prophet on a magazine cover. No problems at all. Everyone was extremely courteous and kind and welcoming and helpful when I asked for directions. No problems at all. Apparently, this is the kind side of Islam. Of course, the US isn’t bombing Morocco or killing Moroccan women and children, so that could have something to do with it. At any rate, no Moslem worries on the west coast of North Africa that I could see.
I taxied down to the Corniche area and walked along the seaside esplanade for a while, then decided it was time for a hammam visit. I hailed a taxi and asked for the Ziani Hammam. Now, one thing visitors to Casablanca must realize is that the taxi drivers, in their little red petite taxis, know almost nothing about their city: street addresses, buildings, landmarks, bathhouses, restaurants, etc. They barely know the major landmarks. So, it’s an adventure taking a taxi to an infrequently-visited site. My adventure included my driver stopping to ask about the location of the Ziani hammam at least four times. I was afraid we’d never get there, but at long last we did, and guess what? Yep, closed. They’d had a fire the previous month and were closed for renovation. At first I thought maybe my bartender of the previous night, Rashid, was also employed at the hammam, but dismissed that thought as ridiculous.
OK, back to the hotel. Maybe they could tell me where a good nearby hammam was. As it turned out, there was one in the hotel across the street, the Royal Mansour. I elevatored up to the 9th floor and found a really nice, clean Turkish bath. I opted for the sweat room (which I had all to myself), the scrub (with mud and a scrub mitt that pretty much tore all the skin off my body) and the massage.
As I had found in every previous Turkish bath/hammam I had been to, I expected to be issued a wrap-around sarong and to have an old man attend to my scrubbing and massaging needs. Things were a touch different here. No sarong, I was told to enter the steam room in my birthday suit. After 15-20 minutes of lovely sweating, a young (Moroccan?) woman came in and ushered me out to the marble-topped scrub bench. Then, still sans sarong or any other garment, she proceeded to rub me down with a mud mixture and scrub me off with the mitt – back and front. I’m too old to be embarrassed at such things, but I must admit it was a surprise.
After a shower to wash off the remaining mud and dry skin flakes, I had my wonderful oil massage in a candle-lit room, still buck naked. It was just a regular massage, back and front, in case you’re wondering, and quite relaxing. Definitely worth the rather expensive price.
To celebrate Burns’ birthday, I decided on Spanish food that night. Rabbie would have appreciated it. So it was off to La Bodega de Casablanca, just a short walk from my hotel. I arrived around 6 PM, figuring the bar would be open by then. Silly me. Due to the midday and evening closures around Morocco, many of the restaurants and bars were not open for three hours, usually from 4 PM to 7 PM; of course, it could also have been from 1 PM to 4 PM, but who’s counting?
Anyway, I had to wander the streets again for an hour or so, during which time I found the Taverne Normandie on one of the main streets nearby. It was small and unprepossessing, but I decided to have my first beer there; after all, how bad could it be? Well, you guessed it: pretty bad. Small, dark, smoky (everyone still smokes in Morocco – in bars, restaurants, offices, everywhere), a few locals watching a soccer match on TV. I asked for a beer and the owner, who must have been recently recruited from the street people brigade, showed me two bottles representing the brands of beer he had available. I chose the cleaner one (it was called Stork) and was understandably disappointed. It was watery and not even cool. Quick, get me out of here!
But I still had 45 minutes until La Bodega opened, so I suffered through the bad beer and bad bar snacks (some sort of beans) and the bad smoke and finally couldn’t take any more. I lurched out the door and headed back, to find, to my immense surprise, that La Bodega had opened early. I was happy. I sat at the bar and ordered a Carlsberg beer and some tapas (fried shrimp and meatballs). I sat sipping and munching contentedly, checking out the décor, which was Spanish bullfight posters, a large bull’s head over the bar and serapés spread around the tables. It was a traditionally darkened bar complete with candles and dim lighting. Home. They even had a downstairs bar area where there would be music after 10 PM. Cool.
After several beers and more tapas (chicken nuggets and garlic mushrooms this time), I checked out the live music for a while and then staggered back to my hotel, just in time to avoid the attached night club. Whew!
Monday dawned sunny and warm as I walked to Ramses for another cheese omelet and mint tea. I was joined for breakfast by my taxi driver from yesterday, who spotted me on the square and followed me into the diner. Maybe he thought I’d hire him for the day, but he was obviously unaware I don’t even wake up until after I’ve eaten. He sat with me all through the meal, even though I ignored him most of the time, and finally left when it became even more obvious I wasn’t interested in conversation or being driven somewhere.
I walked down to the Sacred Heart former church, now converted into a mosque, then back to the Old Medina for more browsing. Lunch at a nearby Chinese place and then taxied over to Ivy’s place around 5:30. We walked down the street to the Twin Center towers and ascended to the SkyBar, 28 floors above the city, with amazing views from every direction. A few drinks there, admiring the sunset, then over to Planet Sushi for – yep, sushi! Good stuff, and we ordered several types, but had to wash it all down with tea, as it was a non-alcoholic restaurant. Booo – I really could have used a cold beer by then.
Still not replete, we wandered over to Picasso, Ivy’s favorite dessert place, where we had the sampler tray of goodies too scrump-diddly-umptious to mention, lest you all go into a sugar seizure. Damn they were good! I got home early in anticipation of my train journey on the morrow.
Up at 7 AM, walked three minutes to the Casa Port train station and it was off to Rabat, about one hour north along the coast. It was an easy train ride in first class, more comfortable seats, and only cost around $10 US one way. I consulted my map upon arrival and found I had either a long walk or a short taxi ride to the Chellah Necropolis, containing the ruins of a former Roman city which had been converted into a Moslem necropolis in the 12th century. I love these old ruins and I wandered happily among them for more than an hour, touching the old stones and tracing the inscriptions and listening to the storks chatter. It seems this quiet place is a stork haven, as there were more than two million storks perched on the old stones and towers all around the ruins. Well, OK, maybe not quite that many, but it seemed like it when they were chittering to each other. Lots of nests way up high and I could even see the chicks when they stuck their heads up over the edge. Even Trajan had been there.
Checked that sight off, then taxied to the area along the riverside esplanade which boasts the tower of Hassan II and the tomb of Mohammed V. I saw them both, inside and out, then strolled down the esplanade and finally found an open restaurant, where I indulged in a tasty Forest Crepe (bacon, mushrooms, onion sauce spread on a delicious French pancake) as I watched the boats go by on the River Bou Regreg on their way to the Atlantic Ocean, just a kilometer or so away. I really do love to travel.
I started to leave, but glanced at the menu again and saw a sweet crepe, this time with caramelized pineapple and cocoa sauce. I was hooked. Just one, OK, just one, I couldn’t help myself, I’m a poor, weak, lonely traveler and exotic food is my undoing. Since it was called a Crepe Exotique, I had to have it. Damn it was good!
Alright, now I can waddle away and continue on down the esplanade to the Kasbah of the Udayas, where the hustlers are more plentiful than the pigeons, which is saying something. I shooed them away – hustlers and pigeons – and continued on to the Medina, which was OK, but nothing special. Some more strolling around the center of town and it was time to catch the train back to Casa. Another quiet hour, a short nap along the way and I was ready again to hit the nightlife. I had a Flack beer at Le Taverne du Dauphine and a nice dinner of tagine at a Moroccan place near the hotel. All was right with the world.
Wednesday was beach day. I caught the tram from the main square (Place de Nations Unis) all the way out to Ain Diab and the Corniche area of Casablanca’s main beach. It was a lovely sunny day (again; Ivy had kindly arranged for the weather to be great during my visit, which it was – the rain stopped the day before I arrived and started again the morning I left) and I took long walks up and down the Oceanside, whiling away the morning. Trammed back to the city center again and had a nice lunch at Romano’s restaurant.
Ivy and I had made arrangements for yet another night on the town, so I met her at her place around 6:30 and we taxied over to Rick’s for dinner. She had only been there once during the day so this was a nice treat for her. It was another fun night, complete with drinks (caipirinha for me, vodka martini for Ivy) and wine and good food. This time we shared an appetizer of goat cheese with figs salad (tasted much better than it sounds) and Ivy had the same steak I had ordered on my previous visit – and with the same results! Medium outside, raw in the middle. She also sent it back and it returned only a touch less rare inside, so, as I had also done previously, she buckled down and enjoyed it. My duck breast was perfect, and the Crème Brule and cheesecake we shared for dessert topped everything off just right. Rick’s even had Limoncini, a first cousin to Limoncello, which helped end the evening on a high note.
On Thursday, January 29, I had sort of planned to take the train down the coast to El Jadida, but decided not to bother, as there really wasn’t a whole lot to see there. So for the next two days I just sort of walked the city, seeing areas I hadn’t seen before, like Habbous for some shopping. Also checked out any goodies I might have missed in the Medina, bargaining for all I was worth, but coming away empty-handed; just nothing I really wanted for myself or as gifts for family and friends.
I filled the time lazing away, walking and eating and browsing and taking care of some internet business and generally just enjoying the warmer weather and sunshine. I was ready to head back to Budapest. Mohammed picked me up at 4:30 AM (yes, that’s 4:30 in the morning!) of Saturday, January 31st, and took me to the airport, where I caught my 7:30 AM flight to Paris. After a nine-hour layover, during which I hung around Charles de Gaulle airport since the weather was so nasty, in two more hours I was home. Once in my flat I immediately turned on the heat, which I had turned off when away, as it’s expensive to heat with gas in the winter. I tumbled into bed clothed in sweats and socks and waited for the flat to get warm again.
All in all, another good trip, meeting interesting people, having some exciting new foods and visiting great places. Stay tuned for my next trip in the spring, to I-have-no-idea-where. But it will undoubtedly be worthwhile.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

I Finally Make It To Sevens Heaven

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

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