Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Since then I have traveled extensively, and have been to nearly 75 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on I have made friends all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met in the past and present and hopefully will meet in the future.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

The Rain in Bahrain Stays Mainly in...Spain!

Don’t we live in a wonderful age? If the weather gets too cold, we just hop on a plane and go somewhere warm! Which is what I did again this winter.

Readers please note: I am SERIOUSLY running out of places to visit that excite me. Especially places to go in the winter to get warm after braving the chilly Budapest winds and sub-zero temps. Been to all the great venues on my List. Well, almost. One or two left that could be OK. So this early winter I found out about Bahrain, that little island in the Persian Gulf. Actually, it’s a kingdom in its own right, tucked in between Saudi Arabia and Qatar (which I visited in early 2018).

Online resources say Bahrain is “an oasis of social liberalism – or at least Western-friendly moderation – among the Muslim countries of the region. It's popular with travelers for its authentic ‘Arabness’, but without the strict application of Islamic law upon its non-Muslim minority.” Boy, did THAT turn out to be true!

Bahrain (pronounced ‘Bacch-rain’, as if you’re clearing your throat; failure to at least attempt this pronunciation will only get you stared at by locals who will adamantly refuse to understand the sheepish “Baa-rain” pronunciation) is the smallest country in GCC (mainly, the Arabian Peninsula countries), but “its more relaxed culture has also made it a social and shopping mecca (so to speak), which has helped it develop a fairly cosmopolitan middle class not found in neighboring countries with just a rich elite and subsistence-level masses.”

So there!

Anyway, I decided it would be a nice place to visit over the Xmas holiday, so I wouldn’t have to sit in my tiny (but cozy) Budapest flat all alone, without a Christmas tree or presents (even a lump of coal would have been appreciated) or even an egg nog. OK, I don’t really do that, but it is a fact that Budapest is dead, dead, dead on Xmas Day and December 26, with pretty much everything closed, as everyone stays home with their families. I often try and travel around then to countries that don’t celebrate Xmas, which makes it much more fun. (I once celebrated Xmas with other expats at the MASH Bar in Tel Aviv – More Alcohol Served Here!). And here I go again, back to the Middle East. Where it’s warm – hot – and I can enjoy walking around in shorts and taking cruises in the Persian Gulf and wandering the wonderful souks and finding some great new hammam and generally enjoying the warm weather and interesting ambiance of the area.

My flight left at a civilized hour on December 20, 1:30 in the afternoon. I had a three-hour layover in Istanbul in the evening, and got to Bahrain a little after midnight. Oh, joy. My hotel didn’t offer an airport pickup at that time of night, so I caught a taxi instead. Luckily, my room reservation included my arrival night, so I could tuck in for a few hours sleep before heading out to savor the warmth of the Middle East.

I was booked in at the Oriental Palace Hotel, just a hijab’s throw from the main souk in Manama, Bahrain’s main city. The taxi ride was about 15 minutes and got me to the hotel around 2 o’clock in the morning. Check-in was quick and easy and I was unpacked and asleep by 2:30 AM. Had a nice six hours sleep and, with a shower and buffet breakfast in the hotel, was ready to explore another new city in my 74th country. The hotel’s breakfast was a touch disappointing, as there was no bacon or pork sausage or other meat of any kind. Some veggie samosa were nice, hard-boiled eggs, a few skimpy fruits and veggies and not much else. Ah, well, it damped down my hunger pangs until lunchtime.

The three-star Oriental Palace Hotel is located in the middle of town, about a five-minute walk to the main Manama souk and former entry gate to the area from the then-nearby sea. I reveled in the 21-degree-Celsius heat and sunshine as I wandered the old souk area. Found the Intercontinental hotel nearby, where the Elements Bar is supposed to have karaoke. Mainly I just soaked up the heat.
Lunchtime found me near the Gold Souk and the Diggers Bar and Night Club in the nearby Delmon Hotel. I’d researched this bar before coming and its description included the information that it was a good place for “single male expats.” Now, it was not so long ago I’d have interpreted that phrase as meaning it was a fun bar in which to drink, maybe play some pool, watch some sports, socialize with other expats and, probably, meet some interesting local ladies.

These days, of course, the secret code probably meant it was a hangout for pretty young men who only enjoyed each other’s company. Well, what the heck, I thought I’d take a shot. The bar, actually a night club, with a stage at one end, was dark and cozy, like all bars should be. Good wait staff and only a few male customers during the lunch hour. I looked around carefully to see if there were any of those pretty young men about when, lo and behold, what did my rapidly-adjusting-to-the-dark eyes see but groups of young women in tight skirts and low-cut blouses. Oriental/Asian women, Young. Friendly. OK, definitely not a pretty boys’ bar.
Two of the young women immediately accosted me at the bar and started a friendly conversation. Unlike other such bars around the world, they didn’t ask me to buy them a drink. Their come-on line, after the initial conversational gambits were out of the way (“Where you from? You work Saudi? How long you here?”) was even more direct: “You finish drink come back my place.”

In the middle of the day? Well, let me finish my drink and go find some lunch and maybe I’ll return later in the evening and we can chat some more. But no $20 beers for you, my sweet! The girls were pleasant and attractive, but not pushy; if anything, they were incredibly patient. Even though their prey didn’t seem to show much interest, they hung around long enough to ensure they wouldn’t be engaged for the next few hours, then they moved quietly away to another potential customer.

And thus it was I discovered why the westerners and other Persian Gulf State locals come to Bahrain: booze and young, pretty Asian Ladies of Negotiable Virtue. Can’t find them in the other states, so Bahrain set itself up as the fun and loose place to relax from home-state morals. Plus, you can still smoke indoors.

I resumed my orientation stroll around the area and found a Hardee’s for lunch. I didn’t realize Hardee’s still existed, much less that there would be one in Bahrain. Good burgers.
Since I hadn’t arrived at my hotel until after 2 AM this morning (Friday, December 21), a nap was in order to replenish my seriously depleted store of energy. I was up and about by 7 PM, however, and decided, what the heck, let’s see what Diggers looks like at night. Well, it was the same only with more young Asian ladies and more expats. Prices were good, so I hung around a while, drinking Kilkenny beer and having some pretty tasty quesadillas at the bar. The hard rock band started around 9 PM and, as hard and loud as they were, for whatever reason this night they weren’t too loud, which means I’m not yet too old. Whew!

During the first part of the evening I made ‘friends’ with a few of the young ladies: Ming Ming and Lei Lei and Ling Ling all chatted me up, hanging around like cats after the mouse, just in case I might be fair game. I loved their names and was waiting to meet Do Do and Ka Ka and Bang Bang. After a while, they all got the message that this night was just for bar socializing and they left me alone. It turned into a good relaxing, albeit loud, night after all

On Saturday I realized why Bahrain is not a popular tourist destination spot for people not from the Middle East: there really isn’t a lot to see and do here. And finding any tourist help is really difficult. I knew that on Friday, which is the Arabic world’s Sunday, the Tourist Information Office would be closed, which it was, but I didn’t expect it be closed on Saturday and Sunday, too, but it turned out it also was (despite the signs outside their door saying they were open those days). So, no tourist information about local tours. There was no Hop On Hop Off bus company in town, so that was out. In desperation, I finally found a tourist travel agency where the agent was kind enough to help me out.
I booked a three-hour tour with a private driver for 45 Bahraini Dinar (about $120 US!), but it was the only game in town, so what the heck; that’s what those little plastic cards are for. And actually it was a pretty good tour with a really nice local driver, Mahmud (pronounced ‘Mach-mood), with the little throat clearing sound for the ‘ch’). We went to the old Bahrain fort and wandered through it for a while. Then drove and walked around the old town and old houses in the area. Machmud lived in this area and knew everyone. He even got me a piece of local Arabic bread
filled with cheese and backed in those old ovens where you slap the large round bread dough onto the side of the oven until it cooks. Kind of like a gigantic piece of naan. Accompanied by some hot milky Arabic tea, it was a nice treat.
And that was pretty much it for the Manama tour. See, not a lot to bring in the tourists, if you don’t want to drink alcohol in a dark bar and go home with young Asian ladies. But it was a lovely sunny, warm day and I wasn’t freezing my butt off in Budapest, so I sat back and enjoyed the tour.

Another afternoon nap was in order, as most things in the Arabic world close down between one and five PM for their own siesta. I checked out a couple of other local places, JJ’s Irish Pub and the Sherlock Holmes Bar, both of which were overpriced and crawling with a rather more upscale expat clientele and their Oriental female limpet mines. The music was OK at each one and the food quite tasty, but it was obvious that the real reason for their existence was to supply the expats and other Middle East visitors with what they really wanted: Sodom and Gomorrah. Since I’ve been to both of those places over the years in other countries, this time I was merely an observer and whiled away the hours enjoying the beer and music and snacks. And even at night it was warm.
Sunday would be Mall Day. Shopping malls are big in the Middle East and attract lots of the wealthy cruise ship visitors and the few other tourists who enjoy the warm and sunny ambiance – like me. Anyway, Bahrain has several major malls and I chose the Center City Mall for today. After a taxi ride to the outskirts of Manama, looking for a special gift, I hit the Center City Mall late morning. It’s a big sucker. I wandered and walked and strolled and picked up a couple of things, but generally it was just another mall filled with the same stores one sees everywhere. I did get to have lunch at PF Chang’s, however, so that made up for most anything: hot and sour soup, wok-charred beef and rice; aaahhh.

Tonight I’d decided on visiting the Elements night club in the Intercontinental Hotel, just a few minutes away from the Bar al Bahrain Gate. I even dressed nicely, as they had a dress code. Probably to keep the usually-grubby expats and Saudi oil workers away. That’s OK; once in a while I can clean up for an occasion. At least I didn’t have to wear a tie.

Suffice it to say that the Elements night club, along with the Downtown bar in the same hotel, were both dead and dull on a Sunday night. A few desert sheikhs at the bar, probably waiting for some Asian companions (I could have told them where to go for that), a couple of small parties of what appeared to be locals, and one lone American expat at the bar slugging down some Czech beer and indulging in some bar snacks – moi! I lasted through the first set of the two bands in each club, then called it a night. I debated wandering over to Diggers, but decided just to see what the nighttime souks had to offer. Again, just enjoying the nice weather.

Monday, December 24, Xmas Eve. Time to see if I could find a good local hammam (Turkish bath) and get myself clean, massaged and refreshed. I was hoping the Tourist Information Office would finally be open, so checked them out first. Turned out it’s a tourist cultural information office, i.e., if you want to know about the Bahrainian culture, it’s a great place to visit; but if you’re looking for assistance, maps, recommendations, tours, etc, give it a big PASS – it is completely worthless for all standard tourists. Bahrain is definitely not a tourist-friendly town (with obvious exceptions, as noted above).

What to do, what to do? OK, the other day I had noticed the Intercontinental Hotel had a Concierge Desk, so I hoped maybe they could help me, even if I wasn’t a guest of theirs. They were pleasantness and helpfulness personified. At one point I had three guys trying to find me a hammam, which was tough for them because they didn’t even know the word! Hammam! They’re all over the Middle East and North Africa. Turkish baths. Nope, not known in Bahrain. Until finally one of the guys had a brainstorm after I described what I was looking for, and he said, “Ah, maybe you want Moroccan bath!” Yes, yes, I’d take it! I’d done the Moroccan hammam in Morocco and would be satisfied with that.

The guys found the name and address of the place they thought I wanted and even called them up to make an appointment for me. If I can ever afford it, I’ll stay at the Intercontinental Hotel one day. Wonderful staff. They wrote out the name, address and phone number of the place for me to show to a taxi driver, and I was off and running.

It was now early afternoon and my taxi driver, after going into a holding pattern in the neighborhood of the hammam, finally called them and was able to locate their place; we weren’t that far away after all. The La Coupe Men’s Sauna and Moroccan Bath is a small two-story storefront establishment with all the necessary rooms and furniture for the hammam experience. Over the period of a couple of hours, I had a wonderful massage, scrub down with loofa, steam room and wash down, performed by Ali. It was great. And only 31 Bahraini Dinar, about $85 US, a real bargain, especially since it is apparently the only hammam in town (not counting the big mainline hotel spa facilities, which is a whole different level). And the manager had even called my taxi back to come pick me up!

Overall I found Bahrain a friendly, happy atmosphere, eager to help tourists in many ways and eager to have conversations with foreigners who didn’t work in Saudi. So many of the local workers spoke English. When asked where I was from, I told everyone I lived in Hungary, and got the old, bad response, “So, are you hungry?” I figured they’d never met anyone from Hungary before, so cut them all some slack. But they were all so nice and welcoming. You know the only jerk I met there? An Irishman from Cork. Everyone else was a pleasure to talk to and deal with.

After my hammam experience I was wasted and ready for a nap, but I was also hungry (I must live in Hungary!), so I stopped off in the Manama souk on the way back to the hotel for a yummy Bahrainian lunch in the La Porta restaurant. Tricia from the Philippines suggested a tapas-style spread, called mezzeh in the Middle East, consisting of small separate servings of spicy falafel, a thick veggie dip, shakshuka and Arabic lemonade. Yummy, and just enough to satisfy my hunger and see me off to my nap.
Back at my hotel, I wrote out my postcards and took a shower and finally hit the sack for a brief nap. I wanted to get over to JJ’s again that night for their karaoke. I hit the pillow and next thing I knew it was 6 o’clock in the morning! Damn, that hammam must have really wiped me out. Of course, my irregular sleeping habits while traveling sometimes play havoc with my regular schedule and once in a while I crash for longer than usual, to make up for my missed sleep. This was one of those times. Ah, well, next time.

I took it easy on Tuesday morning, Christmas Day, as I would be heading back to Diggers in the early afternoon for a gigantic Xmas Dinner for which I had signed up a couple of days previously. It promised to be a fun day, with lots of good food – turkey, dressing, potatoes, veggies, seafood starters, desserts, etc. The price even included two regular drinks. I wondered if the Asian contingent would be in evidence, eating and drinking and cajoling expats in silly-looking Santa hats to come back to their place after dinner. I couldn’t wait to find out.
Aaahh, Christmas Day in Bahrain. At the Diggers night club, the food was laid out in a spectacular display, turkey, other meats, hot casserole dishes filled with side dishes, starters of seafood and fowl, trays of desserts, a veritable cornucopia of culinary delights. I was ready to indulge. And yes, the young Asian ladies were gathered in their groups, ready and waiting to swoop down on the stuffed revelers and cajole them back to their lairs. What a great country. I had my two included drinks at the bar and piled a plate high with goodies. The tables were filling up with other expats and especially with unaccompanied young Asian ladies, so there wasn’t a whole lot of room left at which to sit and eat. No matter, my perch at the bar was more than adequate. Bartenders Lewis, Alam and Vipin took care of me as I chomped and masticated and stuffed my face with holiday gluttony. Xmas dinner – gotta love it.
I was accosted several times, but held out to see if anyone named Bang Bang would show up. Alas, my wait was in vain. After a while, the girls realized who would and wouldn’t be interested in them, so they didn’t bother the ones who just wanted to be left alone to eat and drink. Food first, girls later. The same hard rock band came on around 3 PM with their crashing, loud, smashing versions of the holiday favorites. I just love trying to enjoy my turkey and trimmings accompanied by Avril Lavigne’s screeching version of ‘Here Comes Santa Claus.’ Today, unfortunately, I must have been too old, as the music was definitely too loud.
But I persevered and had another helping of food and listened to the band and drank my holiday drinks and generally just chilled out, getting my money’s worth of everything. Well, almost everything. By 9 PM I was glazed over and decided to call it a night. A good Xmas Day. Thanks Diggers, for such an entertaining holiday bash.

Wednesday was my final day in Bahrain, as my red-eye flight was to leave at 2 AM Thursday, which meant I’d have to be at the airport by around 11 o’clock or so Wednesday night. I had no plans for my last day, so after taking a nice long stroll after breakfast, I decided to visit the Seef Mall, which I hadn’t yet seen. I could have saved myself the visit. Nothing much better than the City Center Mall. But it killed a couple of hours. Nap and reading and TV movies took care of the remainder of my day and evening, and I caught a taxi to the airport to await my flight. Everything was on time, no surprises, thank goodness, so my winter escape ended peacefully and quietly. I slept most of the way back to Budapest, rousing myself just enough to make my connection in Istanbul. We hit Budapest at 8:30 in the morning of December 27, right on time. I pulled on a heavier shirt and jacket and braved the zero degrees Celsius weather to take the airport bus home.

Another fun and interesting adventure. Maybe at another time and place those little Chinese girls could have tempted me; maybe I’d return to Bahrain someday and see. Until then, to all a Happy New Year.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

G'Day Gdansk!

OK, that would work much better if I were Australian, but what the heck, I’ve been to Australia, so IMHO that counts. Regular readers will always cut me a touch of literary leeway.

So – where to go next? My downstairs neighbors had visited Gdansk in 2017 and thought I might like it, so what the heck, here I go. Gdansk is a Polish port city on the Baltic, called Danzig by the Germans. The long weekend of September 13-17, 2018, seemed ideal and I made my flight and hotel reservations accordingly. I chose a hotel right in the center of Old Town, the Blue Buddy-Hard Rock apartment hotel, situated above the Hard Rock Café on Gdansk’s main square, Dlugi Targ. Can’t get much better than that.

My LOT Airlines flight left Budapest on Thursday, Sep 13, around 10 o’clock in the morning, an easy time to fly. A two-hour-plus layover in Warsaw (arrived Gate 46, departed Gate 4!) and I arrived in Gdansk around 2:30 PM. Easy peezy. I had made arrangements with my hotel to pick me up at the airport, which was easier than taking a taxi or public transportation, so why not. Took about 25 minutes to get into town and my check-in also went off without a hitch.

The entry to my flat was on a side street next to the Hard Rock Café. I was met by Kuba, who gave me the keys and showed me around. The rear of the building and stairwell were not well-maintained, but the flat was modern and beautiful. One bedroom, kitchen, bathroom living room – very nice. There was even an electric guitar hanging in the living room, in case I woke up in the middle of the night and felt the need to jam. As always, I dumped my suitcase and clothes in my room and went out to explore another first-time city.

Gdansk’s first claim to fame was its membership in the Hanseatic League as an important Baltic port on the crossroads of North East and Central Europe. World War II was actually ignited by a dispute over the control of the city and by the end of the war the city lay almost completely in ruins. Like Warsaw, however, most of the old buildings have been painstakingly restored or rebuilt.

Gdańsk is most well-known in modern times as the birthplace of Solidarity, led by the charismatic leader, Lech Wałęsa; it was the labor and democracy movement that helped bring down the Communist government in Poland, which marked the beginning of the end of the Cold War.

I kept all this history in mind as I wandered out onto the main square of Long Street. So over- powering! Lots of beautiful slender buildings re-done in the old style of architecture, with spires and peaks and statues and everything either repainted vibrant colors or decorated with various types of scrollwork. Absolutely stunning.
All along the main street called, appropriately enough, Long Street (Dluga Targ), the reconstructed buildings (98% of which were destroyed during WWII) are used as restaurants, amber stores, shops and cafes. There are no entrance doors on this side of the buildings; the entries are all on the rear side of the edifices – or would those be called the front? Not sure, but, anyway, nothing to mar the surfaces facing Long Street.

I walked down to the Green Gate, just 75 meters away, and through its arches, to find the Motlawa River, flanked by old buildings and new ones under construction, all leaning over the river bank and eager for new buyers to spend their money propping up the economy of Gdansk. Lots of character. I crossed the river to the Wyspa Spichrzów, or Island of Granaries, grabbed a snack on the island and then crossed back to my side, where I found the Cathead Pub with a terrace on the river. A nice beer was sorely needed by this time, and I enjoyed the peaceful ambiance, even with the hordes of tourists flocking the streets and river banks.

Then I walked the length of cobblestoned Long Street, all the way down to the opposite end and the Golden Gate. Gdansk simply oozes, secretes, exudes charm and character. Buildings, colors, architecture, carvings, statues, all have that old-time look and feel. I took a side street to the parallel Piwna Street and managed another beer at the Amber Pub. Everything was just so picturesque and photogenic, I couldn’t stop taking pictures. In fact, I took around 250 shots in just 3 ½ days. Most of the buildings were only four or five stories tall and they nearly all had a porch sticking out from the street side. Each building had a loooong metal drainpipe coming down from the roof and emptying into a long trough carved out of cement and ending in a spout carved into the shape of an animal or person or whatever. A unique arrangement.

I popped back to my flat (only two flights of stairs, no lift!) and got my light jacket to guard against the encroaching chill. I tried the Scottish pub just around the corner, but, other than the national flag on the wall, it was as Scottish as Hong Kong. The sumo-sized bartender was friendly, but there was no Belhaven Best beer and no music there on a Thursday night, so I moved on. I checked out the nearby Red Light Pub, but, again, other than the red lights, there was nothing special about it. I tried to have dinner at Jack’s, but the waitress sat me down and promptly forgot about me, so I hoofed on over to Hard Rock. At least we know what we’re getting there.

Well, sort of. I must admit, this Hard Rock was not particularly outstanding. The wait staff, while friendly, were very slow and not accommodating – they sat me in a blast from the air conditioner, and I had to move twice. The food was only Cool! After a rather bland meal of Twisted Mac, I decided on an early night and turned the corner to the entrance to my flat area. Suddenly I heard the distinct sounds of karaoke. Yep, there was a karaoke pub right there! I scurried inside and checked out their song list, and it was pretty terrible, which means it didn’t have any of my favorite karaoke songs. Disappointed! Time to catch some Zs and prepare for three days of heavy walking.
Friday morning, cloudy and cool, saw me walking farther down the riverside to see the iconic Crane, a gigantic crane that used to lift all sorts of things out of the ships that docked here from abroad. The Hansa League sponsored some energetic traders and they spread out all over the world to find their goods and bring them back to the Baltic. And a lot of them were removed from their ships by this crane. Excellent.

My destination this morning was the World War II Museum, about a 20-25-minute walk from Long Street. It was an easy stroll and I got to see what was happening along the riverbank, mainly tourist boats, old pirate ships for the real tourists, big metal cranes, restaurants getting ready to open (usually at ten AM). I found the museum easily enough, and it is an impressive structure, like a gigantic leaning block with its underside made of reflective glass. I had a light snack at the café inside and then took the self-guided tour.
Well, sports fans, I’ll tell you, I’ve been to quite a few museums dealing with World Wars I and II and they pretty much blur together after a while. Don’t get me wrong, they are done extremely well and are very informative and try really hard to give the viewer the true hard nasty bloody facts of war, and they do succeed in that. This museum had some bloodier and grosser exhibits than others I’d seen, but, all in all, it was still an anti-war museum. I spent about two hours inside, going through many of the exhibits in details, skimming over others. In the end, I didn’t learn anything new. It was the same old message: War is hell. Avoid it. If you don’t, you’ll be sorry.

I emerged into a hazy sunshine and walked back to the river embankment, where I had lunch at Republika. I arrived there a few minutes before 1 PM; my pirate cruise was scheduled to start at 2 PM, so I figured I had plenty of time for lunch. Silly rabbit! The national soup of Poland looked good, so I ordered that.

OK, all of my faithful followers, you know what comes next, right? Right? Come on, say it with me….. “Oh, we don’t have that!” The smiling young woman with braces on her teeth seemed almost gleeful when she told me that. I wanted to stab her with the salt shaker. But I remained (mostly) calm and ordered the chicken wings. It then took her nearly ten minutes to bring my lemonade and fifteen minutes later she finally brought me my lunch. It was now 1:25 PM. My boat was right in front of the terrace where I was about to have lunch, but I knew I’d have to get on board quickly to get a good seat – or any seat at all.

I scarfed my wings as quickly as I dared and chugged down my lemonade and looked around for Braces Girl to get my check. Nowhere to be seen. Five minutes – seven minutes. I finally chased her down inside the restaurant and hovered over her until I got my check. There was space on the check for a tip. I mentioned this to her and told her the only tip she’d get was “Don’t read Trip Advisor next week!” Crummy service.
I did get on my boat and did get one of the last seats on the foredeck and took it easy for the next 90 minutes, cruising the Motlawa River all the way down to where it runs into the Baltic Sea at Westerplatte, where there was another WWII monument. The day was warm and the sun was shining and the breeze was refreshing and the mostly Scandinavian and German tourists weren’t too awfully annoying and I got to see the shipyards a little closer and that was interesting, so the afternoon turned out OK after all.

After my cruise, I walked Mariacka street, the Old Town’s premier street for amber shops, a lovely tree-lined, cozy, cobbled, porched, stooped street reeking of ambiance and amber. Later I stopped at the Sphinx restaurant on the main square for another of those great amber beers before catching my afternoon rest.

I thought I’d look for the Bruderschaft restaurant for dinner, but, once I found it, realized it was a bar only – no food. Next door was the Rekawiczka restaurant, however, which served up a lovely wild boar with a mushroom risotto and glazed beets. Yum. After dinner I waited for their live music to start at 8:30, as advertised on their sandwich board out front, but by 9 PM no music. I did hear some live guitar sounds coming from across the street, so wandered over to the San Marco restaurant, just in time to catch the last ten minutes or so of the two guitar players as I sipped my Sambuca in the cool Baltic night.
Saturday was a sleep-in, as the museum I wanted to visit didn’t open until 10 AM. I walked down Long Street to the Golden Gate and through its arches to find a bus and tram stop. I caught the Number 8 tram for only two stops and got off at the Solidarity Museum. The European Solidarity Centre (Polish: Europejskie Centrum Solidarności) is a museum and library devoted to the history of Solidarity, the Polish trade union and civil resistance movement, and, by extension, to other opposition movements of Communist Eastern Europe. Solidarity played a major part in the fall of Communism in Europe, but now it’s pretty much a thing of the past. However, its museum is pretty fancy.

Entrance is through the old shipyard gates and then on into the huge museum itself. The history of Polish resistance to Communism is traced in every detail and, interesting though it was, I sort of skimmed through the last part. Museums just tire me out. One hour was enough to spend in this 3-4 hour monument. I caught the tram back to the Golden Gate and found the Hop On Hop Off bus tour almost ready to leave, so I hopped on – as one does.

The narrator was a fun Norwegian who made up for the fact that the tour itself was not that great. I suppose it was mainly because I had already seen 90% of the sights the tour visited. Plus, of course, the tour stopped for 15 minutes at – guess where? – yep, the Solidarity Museum! It would have been a better deal if I hadn’t already seen all those sights.

After disembarking, I walked back toward the center of Old Town, passing by the Shakespeare Theater. This building is a long, black edifice without windows but with a sliding roof for those hot summer night performances. It resembled nothing more to me than a gigantic Black Hole, sucking in all light around it. Strange choice for a theater.

It was late for lunch, but I persevered and walked through the Green Gate and across the bridge to the Wyspa Spichrzów, (Island of Granaries). Only a few years ago this island was in ruins and therefore strictly off limits and no one was allowed on it; now it’s a hub of new flat construction, restaurants, marinas, pubs and a gigantic Ferris wheel. The Gdansk Eye?
Anyway, I also crossed the river on the opposite side of the island and found the Hotel Gdansk, which incorporated the Brovarnia Brewery in its innards. Very nice beer (Zioto Browarnia Jasne) and a light lunch of meat dumplings with Kashubian plum sauce and forest mushrooms. Afterwards, a brief afternoon rest was called for.

Dinner that night was at La Pampa Argentinian steak house, where I sat outside next to one of those tubular flame contraptions that keep you warm in the chilly night air. I ordered the sirloin steak and, to be healthy, a side of broccoli. OK, now, can you see the Greek Chorus forming behind me? Ready? All together: “Oh, we don’t have that.” Sigh. At least they had green beans instead, so I could get my veggie input for the day. A nice red wine complemented the meat. An after-dinner wander found me turning a corner onto a street concert, with beach lounge chairs spread out on the street and happy, relaxed Poles enjoying the free orchestra and singer. I joined in (the audience, not the singer) and rested while the music flowed around us.

I must have then stopped at five places looking for a dessert, chocolate or cake or mousse or something sweet, and nobody had anything! Ten o’clock on a Saturday night and everyone seemed to be out of dessert. In a last, desperate gamble, I checked in at the Sphinx restaurant and, lo and behold, they actually had at least one dessert left – mine! Chocolate Mousse with whipped cream accompanied by a heated Hennessey. My night ended on a happy note.

My final G’day in Gdansk was mainly spent walking the neighborhoods I’d missed previously and looking for special restaurants and pubs. I had breakfast at a very small café way off the beaten path: scrambled eggs, toast, bacon, tomato and juice. It was a dark grey and cloudy day and somewhat breezy, not conducive to summertime strolls. However, the atmosphere and ambiance still had a positive effect on me, so I continued to look for those special little streets and nooks and crannies that so often pop up in these old European towns. I even picked up some souvenirs, which I hadn’t intended, and had my picture put on a post card for mailing.
I chose the Pierogarnia on Piwna street for my last lunch. There are several of these little pierogi places around town and I was eager to try them. I went for the “Glutton’s Choice” of eight pierogies (dumplings), or two each of the following: Traditional (pork meat with crunchy pork); Hunter (self-minced boar meat with juniper berries and pork rinds); Kashubian Style (goose meat with dried pear and apple and dried plum sauce with a hint of whiskey); and the Peasant Style (baked black pudding with fried onions and crunchy pork rinds). The portion size was just right and I left the diner fully satisfied.

I walked off my lunch for a couple of hours then repaired to my flat for siesta time. I had noticed the Lebanese köfte on the menu of the Sphinx restaurant and that sounded like a good dinner. I should have known: be careful of the restaurants on the main tourist street. The food, as it turned out, was quite good, but the service that night was not. I started with a cocktail and went on to the köfte: beef rolls with Arabic rice, grilled veggies and spicy harissa sauce. I went with the recommended Monterio Tempranillo wine as an accompaniment. The veggies were hot but the meat and rice were only warm. My waiter disappeared after serving my food and I had to chase him down to get my check. At least his poor service spared me from having to leave a tip.

And, finally, Monday: Leaving Day. A mid-morning Full English Breakfast at the Hard Rock Café and my driver picked me up around 11 AM. Turned out my flight from Gdansk was 30 minutes late and from Warsaw (arrive Gate 45, depart Gate 5) one hour late! But at least I got home safe and sound after all that. Another interesting weekend in a really beautiful little gem of a city. Check it out – you’ll like it.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

The Jewel of The Med Keeps Calling me Back

WOW! My fourth visit to Sardinia. I must really love this place. Actually --- I do! I thought about my summer beach holiday and decided I really couldn’t do any better than Alghero, Sardinia, Italy. So, what the heck. I messaged my friend Alessia at the Hotel Riviera, just one block off the Lido beach area in Alghero, asking about best time to visit. We agreed on the end of July, their high season and, even though it is usually more expensive than other times, she was kind enough to offer me a lovely 25% discount off the standard room price (including breakfast). It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.

So all I had to do was book a flight through Expedia, as usual. When I searched the flights, the one that appeared best (despite a 6:30 AM flight leaving Alghero) was a whopping $1000 US! Damn! Ah, well, I figured it must be Alitalia’s high season also, so I bit the bullet and signed up. Hey – it’s only money, after all.


I sweated through the July heat in Budapest until my flight the late morning of Thursday, July 19, 2018. I checked in at Budapest airport and requested an aisle seat, as usual. My boarding pass said Seat 2C. Hmmm, 2C? That’s in the Business or First Class section of the plane. I checked my boarding pass again and, sure enough, it said “Business Class.” I never book Business Class – too expensive and not needed on these short flights anyway. How did that happen? Damn! Well, guess I was stuck with it now, so might as well make the most of it. Maybe it would be fun after all, like the time I flew First Class when on an audit for my former financial employer.

So I settled in to a nice, wide comfy seat and the plane took off and when we reached our cruising altitude, the stewardess appeared and drew the curtains between Business Class and the Hoi Polloi in the rear. You know all those stories you’ve heard about what goes on in Business Class when the curtains are drawn? It’s so much better than that. However, as soon as the curtains closed, the co-pilot appeared and swore us all to secrecy as to what was going to happen for the next 90 minutes or so of our flight. We were not to divulge anything we saw or felt or smelled or handled or heard or tasted under penalty of never being able to fly Business Class again. The airline had our personal info from our ticket booking and could find us anytime they wanted. We were agog at this occurrence, as we never anticipated anything like it. This was so incredibly COOL.

And so, dear disappointed reader, sorry, but I can’t tell you about anything that went on during that flight. I can, however, tell you it’s a good thing I had a change of clothes in my carry-on bag. Whew! I can’t wait to save up for another Business Class booking.

I changed planes in Rome and got to Alghero around 6:30 PM and caught a taxi to the hotel. Alessia was off until Saturday, but she had left instructions with the other Receptionist, Giusy, to take care of me, and so it was another easy check-in. I’m not sure what I was expecting exactly, but I knew the hotel was in a beach area so thought it would probably have a beach feel to it.

I didn’t take too much time to inspect my room – not that there was much anyway. Very narrow and basic, but it did have a nice balcony overlooking a construction site and, farther away, the sea. I turned on the aircon full blast, unpacked quickly, changed into shorts and light shirt and went out to see if anything had changed on the Lido Beach area since my last visit in 2016.
I checked out nearby restaurant/bar Santa Cruz, to see if Tommaso was working that night, but he was off until the next day. So I strolled down the beach to Maracaibo tiny beach bar for a couple of long, cold drinks to start my visit off right. On the way back to the hotel, I stopped in at Bohan, a local Japanese pizza place. Interesting mix. A couple of Sardinian Ichnusa beers went down well along with some sushi and tempura. Then I inspected my hotel.

The Hotel Riviera is an older building, needing some refurbishment on the outside but obviously recently remodeled on the inside. Shining tile floors, new paint on the walls, upgraded bathroom fixtures, including a shower module that stuck out from one wall almost to the other wall, making it rather difficult to get by to the small toilet and bidet area behind it; my paunch barely made it and I knew if I ate too much I was in danger of not making it at all.

It’s a three-star place with a nice pool, indoor and outdoor bars (never used while I was there; must have been a somewhat boring clientele). Even with my discount it was pricey, but the main draw for the hotel was obviously proximity to the beach. There were lots of pizza places nearby, along with beach sunbed and umbrella rentals. But the room had all I needed so no worries there: TV, single bed, wardrobe, desk, chair, suitcase stand, good aircon, wall safe and balcony. I was satisfied. The breakfast buffet was overseen by Alessia’s husband Antonio, another old bud from their former hotel.

My first full day, Friday, July 20, I headed down to breakfast to see what was up. And there, fixing made-to-order eggs for early diners, was my old bud Antonio, Alessia’s husband and another of the crew I’d met several years ago. He greeted me with cheek kisses and I felt I was home again. I made my way into town to take care of a couple of admin things, including getting a weekly bus pass so I wouldn’t have to walk to and from the city every day; I knew my nights would be somewhat alcohol-fueled and I didn’t want to face those long walks back to the hotel. I ran into Gianni on the way, owner of Dietro il Carcere, another restaurant I’d frequented in the past, and he was also happy to welcome me back. It was like old home week. I made dinner reservations for the following day, eager to be back.

I decided an afternoon at the hotel’s pool was in order, just to get me into the Sardinian lifestyle of slow time, so back I went and spent the rest of the day lounging and dipping in the pool to counteract the terrific heat of the day – around 90F (35C) most of the time I was there. Of course, there was usually a nice cool onshore breeze to help counteract the heat, and my room’s aircon took care of the rest.
Late afternoon I walked the short two blocks to the Santa Cruz restaurant to see if my other old bud Tommaso was working that night, which he was, but I hardly recognized him. He’d dropped 20 kilos and shaved his head and grown a scruffy beard and I was amazed to see him, but he recognized me right off, even after three years, and was happy to greet me and to welcome me back. I had a drink with him and then bused into town to have another long drink at the Café Gilbert Ferret in the center of town and then wandered up to find dinner along the Bastioni Marco Polo, the old fort rampart overlooking the Med.

It was just as energetic and romantic as I remembered, and I was able to get a table easily, as it was too early for most Sardinian diners (7 PM). I nice carpaccio salad with fried aubergine and white wine hit the spot. And, of course, a finishing touch of seadas. Afterwards, I strolled the city, which was awash in tourists, mostly mainland Italians who took their summer vacation here. There was very little breeze that night, and the heat was sweltering. I caught the last Beach Bus home around 10:30 with a humungous crowd and dripped my way to my air-conditioned room.
My pool day was so nice I decided to stretch it to the beach, only one short block away from the hotel. It was a Saturday, which meant there would be locals and tourists flocking to the sand and surf. I managed to procure an umbrella and sunbed and spent the rest of the day being lazy. I dipped in and out of the Med, cooling off as needed. I was amazed to see so many waders up to their thighs in the cooling waters while talking on or playing with their damn cell phones. How sad.

I had a strange Megadog for lunch, but without mustard, which the server at the small beach food stand had apparently never heard of; he offered me either ketchup or mayo. Yucchh. I finally got to hook up with Alessia back at the hotel and also signed up for one of the local island tours on Tuesday, to see sights I’d missed in my earlier visits.
After my air-cooled nap, it was off to town again, first to stop at the Café Hopera for a tall cool drink or two, plus an early appetizer of prosciutto ham and melon. Yum. I also found a new store in town, Cannabis Square, that looked quite interesting. I almost bought some things there to bring home, but passed just in case. And it's a good thing I did, as there was a sniffer dog at the Budapest airport! Then it was off to Gianni’s wonderful little sidewalk/street restaurant, in the shadow of the former Alghero prison, for a soul-satisfying dinner of seafood fregulas. I smiled all the way through it and on into my after-dinner drink of mirto. It really did feel like I was home again.

Sunday was another pool day. I told you this was a beach holiday and I’d be spending a lot of time either at the pool or the beach. It was just so nice relaxing in the Mediterranean sunshine and going for swims and dips in the sea or the pool. Nothing to do, no deadlines to meet (not that I have that many nowadays anyway), no place to be at a certain time – just doing whatever I want whenever I want. Cool.
So that evening I walked down to Ramblas restaurant, just across from Maracaibo on the beach. It looked like a nice place and every restaurant I’d tried in Alghero served such wonderful food, why not? A couple of Ichnusa beers and a nice El Diablo pizza (black olives, tomato, salami, mozzarella, spicy oil and chili sauce) hit the spot. It was a really tasty pizza and I enjoyed every bit of it going down. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy it quite so much coming back up later that night. I was up and down with a bad stomach most of the night. I have no idea what could have caused this episode of food poisoning, but there it was. Nasty. I gave the chambermaid 20 euros to clean my bathroom; not a pretty sight.

When I told my friends about my episode at Ramblas, they all made ‘that face’ and shook their head and muttered, “aahh, Ramblas,” in that way people do when you’ve done something bad. Well, how was I supposed to know? Anyway, before choosing another place for dinner, I always checked in with them to see if there was something I should know. Fortunately, no more bad stomach nights this trip.

Monday was, as you might imagine, a bust. Although I quit barfing in the late morning, I was weak and tired all day, so spent it in bed, catching up on my sleep and letting my poor battered body rest up. Besides, I wanted to be up and about the next day for my tour. Feeling much more chipper the next morning, I was up and ready to go before breakfast. I had a very light meal. Camomile tea, some great stomach powder that Alessia had on hand for just such occasions, dry toast, cheese (to help bind) and I walked over to the pickup point a couple of blocks away. The bus was on time, 8:30, and we were away, around 25 hardy souls looking to discover some of Sardinia’s secrets that would entertain and enthrall us.
First off was a one-hour drive down the coast to the tiny city of Bosa, supposed to be a favorite tourist destination. We should have known what the tour would be like when we made our only stop on the way down, on the cliffs overlooking ….. the sea!. Which was shrouded in mist farther out, so, really, not a major sea view after all. Really wasn’t even worth the leg-stretch.

We had been allotted a three-hour stay in Bosa, which was about two-and-a-half hours too long. Really, nothing to see there. Even the castle ruins high on a hill were closed. The one Old Town cobblestone street was touristy and rather blah, but I did manage a nice spaghetti carbonara lunch at a terrace restaurant. I mainly found some shady spots on the main square and relaxed my ravaged stomach.

On the road again at 1 PM, we drove a roundabout and back-road route to Nuraghe, one of the sites of ancient, prehistoric Sardinia. At least this was interesting. The site we saw was out in the middle of nowhere. It had one remaining stone tower (of the original four), surrounded by what was left of the outer walls, which we could walk into and climb the inside steps to the top.
This site is the main type of ancient megalithic edifice found in Sardinia, developed between 1900 and 730 BCE. It’s the symbol of Sardinia and its distinctive culture, the Nuragic civilization. More than 7000 nuraghes have been found, out of a possible 10,000.

No one really knows what the function of the nuraghes was, as no written records were left by the builders. They could have been rulers' residences, military strongholds, meeting halls, religious temples, ordinary dwellings, massage parlors, houses of negotiable virtue, shoe stores or a combination of any of these things. They might have been something between a "status symbol" and a "passive defense" building, i.e., a deterrent for possible enemies.

Nuraghes could also have been the "national" symbol of the Nuragic peoples. Nuraghes may have just connoted wealth or power, or they may have been an indication that a site had its owners. In short, as noted above, no one really knows what they were for. But the one we entered was definitely worth seeing.

After our inspection of the old tower, we panted over to our air-conditioned bus and turned our vents on “High.” Then it was off to the tiny mountaintop town of Monteleone (“Lion’s Mountain”). The road up to the top is so steep we had to go through a series of five serious switchbacks, of which our driver made only three without having to back up. Once there, we visited a unique enterprise, where women made costume ‘jewelry’ out of unleavened bread. Really fascinating designs for necklaces, tiaras, pins and brooches, earrings, etc.
There are always only three women involved in each part of the process – no one known why, but it apparently has always been so. Maybe because in ancient times the number ‘3’ had sacred connotations? Again, no one knows. But it was an interesting stop to visit a place and an activity not found elsewhere. I love that sort of stuff. We also got a tasty biscuit (we’d call it a cookie) and a shot of mirto, always a pleasure.

It had been a long day and we wended our way back to Alghero, arriving around 6 PM. My stomach seemed to be recovering and, on the advice of Alessia, I decided to settle it even more with some red meat. Yum. So it was dinner at Santa Cruz on the beach, where Tommaso is one of the bartenders. He made me a couple of lovely cocktails and his kitchen prepared a beautiful steak, just right, along with some steak fries and a dessert of seadas.

In case I haven’t raved about this amazing dish before, seada is a Sardinian dessert prepared by deep-frying a large semolina dumpling with a filling of soured Pecorino cheese and lemon peel in olive oil or lard; it is then served covered with honey (which is how I take mine) or sugar. Just to be sure my stomach was working properly, I took another pack of Alessia’s powder before bed.

Wednesday morning was a half-shopping day in town, then back to the hotel’s pool and a lazy afternoon in the sun and water. I tried a couple of local (i.e., easy walking distance) restaurants for dinner, but either they were restaurants with a full bar that didn’t serve cocktails or a bar that served cocktails but no full dinners. Hmmm, strange. Tommaso’s place advertised itself as a bar/restaurant, so I guess that’s why it served both.

Anyway, I wound up at Les Arenes for a nice little steak and veggies, with some of the house red wine (not great) and, of course, my seadas. The place was packed, literally, full of families and couples and groups and one single old man. The veggies I ordered turned out to be slices of grilled aubergine, not a mix as I had hoped for. Apparently Les Arenes is so popular because of its one-meter pizza, as most of the groups and families seemed to order it (or its sister dish, the one-half-meter pizza). Probably 1/3 of a meter wide, it came on a long board so the entire family or group or whatever could dig in from all sides at the same time. Even after my unfortunate bout with the pizza at Ramblas, I wished I was in a large group so I could have had some of that loooong pizza. Maybe next time.

Thursday, another light breakfast and a nice day at the beach with the crowds of mainland Italian tourists and their families. Great weather, hot sand, skimpy bikinis, a few monokinis, way too many Speedos and the cool Mediterranean Sea just a few steps away. I could grow to like this lifestyle. I caught the 6 Pm Beach Bus to town and made my reservations for Saturday’s dinner at Mirador along the Bastioni Marco Polo. My dinner reservation that night at Gianni’s place wasn’t till 8 PM, so I stopped off at the Café Latino overlooking the harbor for a couple of cocktails, accompanied by some munchies: pizza bites, fried tortillas and cheese puffs. NB: my rum punch here was 9.5 euro; in the center of town it was 6 euro. Hmmm.

The place filled up quickly and, as I was at a table for four, I invited a middle-aged couple looking for seats to join me. Gabriele and his wife were from Rome and he was with Johnson and Johnson, and we had a nice chat while they sucked down their cocktails. He even offered to pay for mine, an unexpected pleasure. Such a great, friendly place. Why don’t I live here? (NB: If I had the money, I would!)

Then it was another fantabulous dinner at Gianni’s place; can’t get enough of that great Sardinian food. This time it was the grilled steak entrecote with potatoes rosemario, as I was still a touch leery of the seafood. A walk home along the Lido rounded out the day nicely.

Friday – yep, another pool day. Love that Med sunshine and lazing around by the pool, dipping into the cool water as needed and getting more tan by the day. But in the evening it was back to town for a cocktail or two at Café Ferret and then it was Friday Night in Alghero, which this week meant the Birralguer: Craft Beer Festival! We got five 0.2L tasting cups for 12 euro, which seemed a bargain. There were also food stalls, and I finally succumbed to a “Giant Wurstel,” which turned out to be a regular hot dog on a bun with French fries piled on top. OK, so that’s a dish that takes some getting used to. But at least this time they had mustard!
My first two beer tastings were OK, a pils and a lager, but the third, an amber beer, had me use up the remainder of my tasting tickets. Good stuff. I shared a table with a young Italian couple and their kid and their dog Bongo, who kept sniffing around my wurstel. The rock band started up and actually made my bun vibrate (the one on the hot dog). When the singer, a guy with dreadlocks down to his ankles, came on, it was time for me to take my leave. You know what they say: ‘If the music’s too loud, you’re too old.’ Sigh.

I wended my way down the Lido through the tourist and local crowds, searching for a late-night sweet anything: seadas, chocolate éclair, anything. Nothing to be had, the food stands were working overtime and the crowds were insatiable. Well, Hell! I finally gave up and collapsed into bed in my lovely air-conditioned room, switched on the TV and found Animal House showing in English. Made my night.

Saturday, July 28 – yep, you guessed it – Pool Day! Nuff said. Took the bus that evening into town for dinner at Mirador overlooking the Med and that amazing Alghero sunset. I had to stop at the Catalunya Hotel’s Skybar first for a frozen daiquiri as I gazed out over the city and its harbor for one last time until my hoped-for next visit. I got to the restaurant around 8 PM, while the sun was still above the horizon and its heat was waning. I started off with an Aperol spritz along with my first course of stuffed ravioli.
The waiters along the Bastioni Marco Polo were the only people I ever saw hustling in Alghero, as most people moved with the slowness of Sardinian time, as if they were walking underwater. Those waiters moved! For my second course, I chose the Irish Picanha steak with ‘mushed potato’ and salad. I suppose it was bound to happen someday, but I sure never expected it to happen at such a popular and renowned restaurant: a bad meal. The meat was tough and stringy and chewy, the potatoes were cold and the ‘salad’ was just some greens and small sliced tomatoes along the side of the plate. Not impressive. The ravioli was Ok, but nothing to write home about.

Did someone alert the chefs that this dish was for the older foreign gentleman eating alone, so they could fob off an inferior cut of meat on him and he wouldn’t notice or complain? If so, wait till they read my upcoming Trip Advisor review. What a shame, how the mighty have fallen. I was so disappointed; Mirador is off my list. (Well, at least the seadas and mirto were good).

Sunday, July 29, my last day in Alghero – just had to spend it at the beach. A couple of regulars recognized me by this time and waved at me as I found my spot in the sand and staked out my area for the day. I really will miss the island ambiance and friendliness of these people, as I always do when I have to leave here. The sun burned me to a nice brown color and the sea seemed especially refreshing each time I dipped into it. Nothing like this in Budapest.
On my way to dinner that evening I talked Alessia and Antonio into some photos, so you can all see what great people they are. Unfortunately, the pool guy, Gianni, must have been sucking down too many mirtos, as every picture came out a touch blurry. Ah, well, you get the idea. Dinner was once again at Santa Cruz with Tommaso. It was early, as I had to get to bed early for my 3 AM wake-up call the next morning. I chose the lamb chops with potatoes; very nice. And, of course, some limoncello and my Last Seadas; boy, will I miss those!
And that was it – again! I said my farewells to Tommasso and Antonio and Alessia, receiving my cheek kisses from all three (should I tell them what those kisses are called in Hungarian?). I got my 3:00 AM wake-up call the following morning, trudged out to the taxi and got to the airport around 4 AM. Checked in at 5 AM for my 6:45 flight, no worries. My Business Class ticket still held up on the second leg from Rome to Budapest, and this time I knew enough to bring some extra olive oil and a bunch of handi-wipes.

Will I go back next year? I guess only time will tell. I did decide that as much as I love it in Alghero, I doubt if I could live there. I’d be bored stiff within a month and inside six months, with all that great food, I’d probably explode. But for a vacation? Just the right thing. Bye for now, see you all soon.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Invasion of the Pelletteras

So – it was either a safe and 'standard' vacation in Florida or an exciting jaunt to Central Europe for my California family: daughter Morgan, husband Tony and kids Samantha (14) and Nicholas (12). Fortunately – for all of us – they chose Budapest.

They planned for 12 days in Central Europe’s vacation capital and they made the most of every minute. After a looong flight from Los Angeles to London Heathrow, a fairly brief layover and another two-hour jaunt, they arrived in Budapest around 6:30 PM on Monday, May 28 – tired, thirsty and a touch bedraggled, but here nonetheless. And – will wonders never cease – dragging only one (1) suitcase each behind them! Last time Tony and Morgan came they pushed a luggage cart with three gigantic suitcases, capable of carrying a small elephant in each one. Guess Morgan took my advice about packing to heart: “Lay out everything you want to bring and then cut it in half.”

When Nicholas wheeled his suitcase out of the Arrival Gate, followed closely by Samantha, I barely recognized them (the kids, not the suitcases). It was the first time I’d seen the kids since my surprise visit to southern California in 2014; my, how they’ve changed. Also, it was the first time I’d seen Morgan and Tony since our weekend meeting in Rome in 2015.

Hugs and manly abrazos all around, and then it was a taxi to their Air BnB flat on Rákoczi Út, near the center of Budapest (after a brief stop at my flat to pick up all the gifts I had gotten them from my travels, so I wouldn’t have to drag them over on the bus). Very nice flat! Owner Zoli was there to meet us and to show everyone around, explaining the washing machine, lights, keys, balcony (that was an easy one), access codes, TV, etc. It was around 9 PM by this time and the family hadn’t eaten in a while, so we went around the corner to a small étterem for some pizza, sodas and beer (for the adults). They had been traveling for nearly a full 24 hours (with the time change), and it was decided an early bedtime for all would be the best thing for now. Tomorrow would start their full-time sightseeing visit to one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, if not the world.

In June, Budapest’s morning sky begins to brighten around 4:00 or so, with actual sunrise shortly before 5 AM. Coupled with an interrupted sleep rhythm due to the long flight, the family was all up and about very early. Breakfast, unpacking and getting ready for their first day in Hungary took up some time, but after that they just waited for me to show up. Of course, I was also up early with the sun, not my regular schedule either; early mornings are generally anathema to me, but for special occasions, well, I can brave the early light as well as anyone.

So I picked up the family around 8 AM and walked them down Rákoczi út, around my beautiful little neighborhood garden, Károlyi Kért (closed due to replanting the flowers), and into Egyetem Tér (University Square), which had been renovated since Morgan and Tony’s last visit in 2003. A quick stop at Starbuck’s for their morning caffeine jolt and we picked up my Dutch friend Robert at his flat below mine for his regular and my rare walk up Gellert Hill.

Yes, Robert is sickeningly fit and hale and hearty, retired at 63 and still going for long treks in Norway and bicycling from Budapest to Szentendre, about 30 kilometers (20 miles). I’m happy to make it to the market, about 200 meters from my flat.
Anyway, the weather was beautiful, the sun was shining, and I wanted the kids to get their first real overview of Budapest from a high vantage point, so Gellert Hill it was. Robert led the way, regaling the kids with stories of Budapest sights, his travels to India and, of course, base untruths about my activities around town. I admit to none of those.

Despite my long walks when I travel the world, I am not an accomplished mountain climber and so my progress up Gellert Hill, on the west side of the Danube, was somewhat slower than the rest of the group. Fortunately there were stops along the way for trampoline jumping, checking out the views and pointing and laughing at poor old Grandpa Gary as he trudged up that damn hill. But I made it, finally, huffing and puffing and slathering Deep Heat on my broken-down knees. So there.
Naturally, everyone was thrilled with the cityscape they saw from the top of Gellert Hill and digital memory cards had their work cut out for them to store all the pics taken. After oohing and aahing, we walked down the north side of the hill to Erzsébet Bridge and back across the Danube. Robert left us to have his own breakfast with his wife Marie and we walked down Vaci Utca, Budapest’s premier shopping and tourist street, toward Vőrősmarty Square. Just before the square, we stopped in at Cyrano’s restaurant for a late breakfast.

The Hungarian food was, of course, a revelation for the kids and they dug in with gusto. Nicholas opted for the gulyas leves (Goulash soup) and Samantha had risotto. The tourists were out in force and the liveliness and ambiance of this great shopping street seemed to energize most everyone. Not having seen Sam and Nick for four years, I was amazed at how much they’ve changed and grown, physically and in other ways. They and their parents were eager to experience this new adventure as fully as possible, and continued to ask me how to say things in Hungarian. The most popular - and most used – word they all learned was “Köszönőm,” which means “Thank you.” Within a few minutes they were all pronouncing it correctly and dazzling the local wait staffs with their knowledge. We walked down Vaci Utca again after lunch, but the kids were still adjusting to the time change and needed a quick afternoon nap. It was so ordered.

I had debated with myself whether I should schedule something for the night after the family’s arrival, but Morgan thought it would be OK, so I did: flamenco night at Budapest’s most happening venue, Vicky Barcelona tapas bar in Gozsdu Udvar, the series of six interconnecting courtyards in the middle of the city, and now Budapest’s IN place to see and be seen. I picked up the family around 6 PM and we had just enough time to play a few arcade games on the way. Thanks to my bud Daniel, manager of VBs, we had great seats right up front near the dancing. Everyone had the tapas, which were as tasty and plentiful as always.
My English buddy Keith joined us for drinks and a light repast. He had met Morgan and Tony back in 2003. Morgan had seen a photo of Keith and me seated at VB’s bar and wanted one for herself, with all of us. She got it. The flamenco performance started around 8 PM and went on for a couple of hours. I’d warned Morgan that the nighttime activities I had planned would keep the kids up until at least 10 PM and maybe even later. Since they’re used to going to bed by 8 PM (!), it might be a challenge. And this first night, it was. They lasted through the first set of flamenco, accompanied by Spanish guitar, but by 9 PM they had pretty much hit their wall and were sacked out on their bench. Ah, well, at least they had dinner and got a taste of Spanish culture.

Wednesday, May 30, the kids were once again up at the crack of dawn and decided they couldn’t wait any longer to open all of their gifts from around the world. When I arrived at their flat, Nicholas played Santa and dug into the bags of stuff I had brought them. This time it was booty from Oman, Qatar and Minsk (Belarus). Plus, of course, I got to open my gifts from America. Alright! I won’t detail all of the gifts here, but everyone seemed to enjoy my selections for them. I’d even found Harley Davidson t-shirts for Tony in Doha (Qatar) and Minsk. I was rewarded with a bagful of t-shirts from Alta Loma High School, in addition to one from The Varsity in Atlanta (one of my old hangouts when I was in high school). But no corned beef hash! Bummer! I’m still waiting for one of the Hungarian supermarket chains to import it; patiently, I might add.

We walked down to Blaha Lujza Tér and caught the 4/6 tram to Margit Bridge, then walked down to Parliament Square, which has also changed drastically in the past 15 years. Morgan tried to reserve a tour of Parliament, but the English-language tours were booked until June 11th – three days after they were to leave Budapest. Damn!
We walked over to Freedom Square (Szabadság Tér) and enjoyed the scenery and park. The kids checked out the fountains and statues and we even stopped in at Bestsellers bookstore to say Hi to owner Tony, but he wasn’t in. I showed them the Basilica, due for a later visit, and we stopped for lunch at Monenegroi Gurman, one of the best places for meat in town. Unfortunately, Morgan doesn’t eat meat any longer, so she missed out on this amazing taste treat, but everyone else enjoyed their plieskavica.

After lunch I took the family behind the Basilica to the Cat Café, a fun venue not many tourists know about: a small café full of cats for people to stroke, play with, etc. You used to be able to feed them cat treats, but, judging from the size of some of the feline inhabitants, could no longer do so. Another brief afternoon relaxation period and I picked the family up again around 4 PM for our excursion to the hinterlands of Budapest and our dinner with some old friends.

I have known Mike and Ida Apted almost since I arrived in Budapest in 1999. When Morgan and Tony were here in 2003, Mike and Ida joined us at Fat Mo’s for dinner and to hear the Hot Jazz band, so they were ready to renew an old acquaintance. Our friends Robert and Marie were there also, so it was a good crowd for some of Ida’s amazing home cooking. After a social hour, we all settled in for dinner: gulyas leves, turo pancakes with cream and chocolate sauce, champagne, great ambiance and tasty desserts. Nicholas and Samantha still hadn’t quite shaken off their jet lag and managed to look for coins in the sofa cushions around 7:30 or so. It’s always fun to have an evening at the Apteds and this was no exception. Since the kids were still somewhat logy, we took a taxi back to their flat rather than ride the metro.

On Thursday it seemed the kids had gotten sufficient sleep to conquer their time change. I picked everyone up around 9:30 AM and we walked over to the nearby synagogue, the largest remaining one in Europe. The crowds were light and we managed to get tickets to do the self-guided tour. It really is an arresting sight inside and well worth seeing. We also did the outdoor cemetery and Holocaust Memorial in the rear garden, with a large metallic tree, called the Emanuel tree, with the names of Jews murdered during the Holocaust engraved on each of the leaves. Sobering to all.

Then it was over to St. Stephen’s Basilica, a short walk past Deák Ferenc Tér. The family took another self-guided tour inside the church, viewing The Relic (mummified hand of St. Stephen) and climbing the three million steps to the top of the dome for another panoramic view of Budapest. I wisely waited outside on a comfy bench, watching the young female tourists in their short-shorts amble by.

We had another fairly light lunch of pizza at Gian Mario’s Italian restaurant nearby, then everyone split for their standard afternoon relaxation period. We met back at my flat around 4:30 and walked downstairs for a Happy Hour with Robert and Marie and Robert’s sister Reinette and her husband Joss. Around 6:30, we caught the Number 2 tram along the Danube to Vigádo tér, where we found the Duna Corso terrace restaurant in the shadow of Duna Castle, across the river. It was dinner with the Hot Jazz Band as background, relaxing in a fantastic warm/cool evening in Budapest, right on the Danube. Doesn‘t get a lot better than that.
Cocktails, libamaj (liver) paté, various chicken dishes with noodles. Keith joined us once again, along with Jerry and Judy Robinson (he retired American, she semi-retired Hungarian). During the evening, our French friend Pierre also stopped by with his friend Eszter to say Hi. Then later who should show up but Robert and Marie and Reinette and Joss, although they had to park at another table. One final time (I hoped!), the kids crashed out too early in their seats – we’ll have to work on their party skills!

Friday was a late morning. When I picked up the family around 10 AM, it appeared the kids had finally, at last, actually recovered from their jet lag. We took the tram down to Margaret Bridge and did some mini-sightseeing, then headed over to the Mystique Escape Room. These games made their debut in Budapest a few years ago and quickly became popular all around Europe. The deal is, there are different theme rooms – Egyptian, Harry Potter, Time Machine, etc. – in which a small team of people – families, friends, etc. – are locked in. Scattered around the room are clues as to how to escape from their confinement. The team must search for the clues, helping each other figure out how to apply the clues and thus get out of the room. Hints are available from the overseers and the time limit is one hour; after that, if the team is still in the room, they are released in ignominy.

This activity was a gift from my Hungarian doctor to the family and they all seemed to enjoy it. I waited for them in a nearby coffeehouse while the escape went on. They actually did make it out within the time limit – with 90 seconds to spare! Not an easy quest, but hopefully it was fun for the entire family. We strolled down Andrassy Avenue and made our way back to their flat. Then it was 5:30 and we were all to gather at Seaman’s Bistro on the Belgrad Rakpart (riverside) for a Meet and Greet evening with old and new friends.
The family caught a bus across from their flat and met me at the bistro. People began showing up shortly thereafter. Several people who had met Morgan and Tony in 2003 came, as well as many of my friends made over the past years. Old bud Stuart McAlister came, Basel Tarcheh from Syria (a member of our Friday Happy Hour crowd), Jerry and Judy Robinson (never miss a party!) and Zsani who works with Stuart showed up with a bunch of her friends. My good friend and student Zsofi was there along with Robert and Marie. Probably a few more guests arrived without my sober knowledge, but the evening was deemed a success by all. And the kids managed to stay awake until nearly 10 PM!

Saturday I was able to arrange a Kids’ Day for, who else but, the kids! Keith and his son Anthony (14), along with another English friend Sanjay and his two kids, Justin (14) and Lia (12), met us at Palatinus Strand swimming complex on Margaret Island. We took tram and bus to get there and, while the day was spottily sunny and cloudy, kids and swimming pools are usually a pretty good combination. Once again, everyone appeared to have a great time.

The rain hit us around 5 PM, but we were on our way out anyway. Sanjay thought the family would enjoy one of Budapest’s more interesting restaurants: Sir Lancelot, one of those medieval-themed restaurants so popular a while back in the USA. Having been to them in the past (although never to Sir Lancelot’s), I was not enthusiastic, but what the heck, maybe the kids would like it after all. Sanjay called in a reservation and we arrived early and were escorted to our seats in the packed, long-hall cellar area to wait for Sanjay and his kids.

Well, it was wonderful! Dimly lit, medieval accoutrements all over the walls and ceilings, people at long tables and benches, raising their medieval mugs of mead (OK, it was probably beer) and shouting “Wassail!” It was silly and crude and just too much damn fun. Amazing I’d never been there before. The food was surprisingly reasonably priced and very good; I had the deer sirloin filet along with several beers. There was entertainment to boot: belly dancers, fire dancers, knights with swords, weight lifter, a medieval band – it was impossible not to grin and enjoy the ambiance. Even the kids stayed awake during the entire meal and show. Can’t wait to get back!
Sunday was another general sightseeing day. We took the metro to Batthyány tér on the Buda side of the Danube to get a great photo op of Budapest’s wonderfully baroque parliament building back across the Danube in Pest. Caught another tram to the foot of the Castle and took the funicular up the hillside to the main castle area. Strolled the castle and walked over to the castle district nearby, where we found The Labyrinth, another tourist attraction I’ve never done. It was time again to do something new. The kids loved it, as Budapest’s castle hill is honeycombed with tunnels and caves; plus, it was cool down there, giving a nice respite from the 85-degree heat (30 Celsius).

We had a light lunch in the area then walked around St. Mátyás church and Fisherman’s Bastion for more great views of Budapest. A brief rest, then we met the dinner cruise group at the Duna Palota hotel and walked over to the Europa boat for our evening on the Danube. It was a two-hour cruise on one of the large boats that offers these special events. Buffet dinner, live music and sightseeing in that part of the Danube that runs through the middle of Budapest (which also happens to be a World Heritage site). Very good selection of typical Hungarian dishes and we all tried each of them, along with our “three free drinks:” welcoming flute of champagne and both still and fizzy water on the table. Tricky.
Anyway, it was a perfect evening, with nice breezes and one of our very rare startling sunsets over the castle. Kids and adults had a great time and everyone was glad we took the cruise. On the way back to the flat, I took the family into Szimpla Kert ruin pub, just across from where they were staying. Szimpla is the oldest ruin pub in Budapest, a true landmark of this type of entertainment. There were so many abandoned buildings in town that entrepreneurs would take them over, move in tables and chairs and bar paraphernalia and set up a really cheap pub. There are several in town and they all seem to attract crowds every night of the week. Despite being a major tourist draw, I’m afraid the family wasn’t impressed. Ah, well, different strokes, and all that.

Monday, June 4: The morning pickup was at my flat this time, around 10 AM. We took the tram across the river to Buda at the Gellert Hotel stop, then caught the 19 tram to Clark Ádám Tér, at the foot of the Buda Castle. This time we turned right instead of left, as Morgan wanted to walk the Chain Bridge, which we did. Another tram to Parliament on the Pest side and a short walk down to the Danube bank to the Monument of Shoes, to commemorate the Jews murdered here by the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party (Hungarian Nazis) during WWII. Another sobering remembrance.

Caught another bus to Heroes Square, at the end of Andrassy Út, and explored the Square, city park and the Vaydahunyad Castle (there’s always a castle!). Also checked out the Szechényi Baths, although no time to do them this go-round. A nice outdoor lunch at Nyereg restaurant in the park before another afternoon relaxation period. I picked everyone up around 5:30 and we walked over to the Karavan Food Court on Kazinczy utca for a light dinner. Didn’t want to eat too heavily before our karaoke night. Morgan had her langos and the kids each had something equally as light, but filling. I had a beer and a taste off everyone’s plate.

We walked over to Gozsdu Udvar and found the Blue Bird Café’s private karaoke rooms. We had booked an early time (7-10 PM) because I was told the kids could only stay until 10 PM. The rooms were all really nice and well-appointed, BUT none of them had any air-conditioning. Or ceiling fans. Or regular floor fans. Or anything resembling something to cool down the crowds of singers. We were switched to all three rooms, with no respite from the heat.
Nevertheless, we did have a good crowd for the night; 15-20 people came and went during the session, and it turned out we actually stayed until nearly 11 PM. Our singers turned up in droves: Zsofi (who sings the old standards), Stuart (new standards) and his wife Edit, Pierre (songs in French), Keith and Sanjay. Also, Zsani was there with her partner; Zsani amazed everyone with her really beautiful voice, sounding like Nina Simone and Janis Joplin. Samantha and Nicholas also sang early in the evening, a good start to their teen years as performers. Morgan and I did Summer Nights from Grease and even Tony joined Morgan with another song: it was Tony’s very first karaoke attempt and he acquitted himself well. Outstanding! Jerry and Judy Robinson showed up, as did our Russian friend Daria. So, even though we all lost a couple of kilos of water due to the heat, it was a good, fun-filled energetic night, with lots of singing and great ambiance. Another successful evening out in Budapest.

Tuesday was brunch with my doctor, Ildiko, who has been helping me out with my prescriptions since I arrived in Budapest. We meet every two months or so for brunch at her favorite local restaurant, Alessio, one of the best Italian restaurants in town. After all these years, we are both intimately acquainted with each other’s family. Dr. Ildiko knows all about Morgan and Tony and the kids, has seen pictures and has followed the kids childhood years. I, in turn, have met her son Marton, who is now a doctor practicing in Denmark. I was even at his wedding on the Europa boat a couple of years ago. Now it was time for my long-time friend Dr. Ildiko to meet my family. It’s an easy bus ride into one of the classier neighborhoods of Buda, so we all hopped on the Number 5 bus across the street from the family’s flat, crossed the Danube, and were there in about 20 minutes. We spent the next few hours talking and laughing and enjoying the great food and trading stories. Everyone got along famously as they all swapped stories and personal data.
We went through pastas and pizzas and seafood and chocolate tortes. It’s so great for me to be able to introduce so many of the favorite people in my life to each other and to see them get along so well.

During the early afternoon, Dr. Ildiko insisted Tony and Morgan try some of the local palinka (Hungary’s answer to schnapps). She poured us all four different types to see which they liked best. I may on occasion have one palinka a week before dinner, but four within one hour on a weekday afternoon? The trees were buzzing. At the end of our brunch, Dr. Ildiko gave Morgan and Tony a bottle of wine and one of palinka to take home. A great afternoon.

Everyone went to their respective flats for a rest. I got a text from Morgan around 6 PM saying the family wanted to take a night off from all the activity and just relax, which was also OK with me. Turned out they had dinner at a new place called Fuego, which they highly recommend.

I was then out of reserved things to do, so on Wednesday we took the HEV (intercity train) to Szentendre, a lovely little town about 30 kilometers up the Danube. We strolled the banks and streets, checked out the folk art and tourist tat, had a nice lunch at a terrace in the town square and generally took it easy. The family climbed up the hill in the town center on which stands a church, while I rested on a nice comfy bench with a cool drink. Szentendre is one of those quaint little towns that simply oozes charm and simply begs to have its tiny side streets explored. A few hours was enough. I had planned to take the boat back to Budapest as a treat for everyone, but, lo and behold, the river boats for this journey were not running in 2018. The entire year! Amazing. It was like ordering a dish in a restaurant and being told, “Oh, we don’t have that.” Just my luck.

Another afternoon rest and the family picked me up again. On our stroll around my neighborhood, we stopped in at the Zoo Café, just behind my flat, for some quality animal time. The Zoo Café goes the Cat Café one better, in that it has, in addition to its humungous cats, rabbits, lizards (actually, I think they were chameleons), snakes, birds (including toucans) and other exotic creatures. All of these animals can be taken out of their enclosures and handled, fondled, played with, petted, etc. Just no feeding, please. Naturally, the kids were enchanted and made good use of the rabbits, lizards and snakes. A nice interlude.

We had a light and late dinner at Bubba’s seafood place on Egyetem Tér, enjoying the night and the cool weather. More good food, more good company and chats with the kids.

And our last day together, Thursday, June 7. It was to be a shopping day, to gather gifts for friends and family and whatever souvenirs hadn’t already been found. We began early in the center of the city at Vőrősmarty Tér, but within an hour or so the rain started. We scurried from shop to shop, then settled in for a light and early lunch at Il Cucina restaurant while the rain hopefully passed us by. Which it did, eventually, and we got on with our wander down Vaci utca to the other end at the big indoor market, Vásárcsarnok. More shopping for folk arts and crafts and a final afternoon rest.
We met back at For Sale restaurant and Pub across from the Vásárcsarnok for dinner at 7 PM. I tried to get everyone to have the Jokai Bableves (best soup in town), but only Tony would go for it, while the others had other interesting dishes from the 150-item menu. It was all scrumptious and plates were cleaned. Samantha and Nicholas left their marks on the walls of this famous local place; all of For Sale’s walls are covered with business cards and other mementos from visitors from all over the world.

And then it was time to say goodbye until our next meeting. No telling when that will be, as kids will be busy now with school and racing and sports and their teen years. Tony will be busy with his work and Morgan with her work and 101 other volunteer activities (plus, she told me she’s considering going for her PhD! This kid never stops…Kid? Damn, she’s in her late 40s!). I hope to continue traveling, although not as much as in the past as there are so few places left in the world that I really want to visit – and how many people do you know who can make that claim? Anyway, we will all have our own lives to live and who knows when we’ll meet again?

The family walked me the two blocks to my flat, where we said our goodbyes, complete with hugs and backslaps and cheek kisses. I was so happy to have had this opportunity to see everyone before they get on with their lives. I hope our next gathering won’t be quite as long as this one. A really fantastic 12 days.

The family’s flight was around 7:30 on Friday morning (yucchh!), so they had to be at the airport by 5:30. I was sure everyone was dragging but was also sure Tony hustled them along. Later that morning I got this text from Morgan:

“The airport thing, not going as well as we had hoped, lol. At 330am when the alarm when tiff, I got a text saying that our flight had been delayed - 10 hours! So we weren’t going to make our connection flight in London. Ugh. So they put us on a Budapest to Philadelphia, then Philadelphia to LAX, arriving at about 9 ppm tonight. Budapest to Philly flight leaves at 1130 am; going thru customs now. Crazy. Apparently a flight that landed last night at this airport took a chunk out of the landing strip, so they ended up canceling a bunch of flights.”

And the adventure continues………..