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.

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………..

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Food and Drinsk in Minsk

(No – it’s not a misspelling, just my warped sense of humor)

One of the last countries in Central/Eastern Europe which I had not visited was Belarus. Why not? Well, as a former Soviet appendage, I would have had to get a visa to travel there, which is a pain in the neck, not to mention rather expensive. So I put Belarus on my back burner to see what turned up. And then, in 2017, the Belarussian government relaxed its visa rules so that people from 80 countries around the world could visit Belarus visa-free for five days. All a tourist had to have was a valid passport (got that), 25 euros per day (no problem) and an insurance policy in case of sickness (I could buy that at the Minsk airport before entering the country for about $7 US).

So -- YES! I was ready! I gathered my passport and money together and bought my ticket for a long weekend stay in Minsk, the capital and largest city of Belarus and also the capital of the Commonwealth of Independent States (an alliance of 12 of the former republics of the former Soviet Union). I checked the weather report and at first glance it looked good, so booked my hotel – an old converted monastery called Monastyrski – and got out my weekend carry-on travel case and got ready to go to Minsk.

Although Minsk itself was somewhat of a mystery, I had heard that the women of Minsk were among the most beautiful in the world, so that I had to see for myself. My flight on Thursday, May 3, would be with LOT Polish Airlines and would take me from Budapest to Warsaw, where I’d catch my connecting flight to Minsk, arriving around two o’clock in the afternoon. Although my hotel offered an airport pickup service, it was rather pricey, so I decided a standard taxi into the city center, about 40 kilometers from the airport, would suffice. Another great weekend adventure was about to unfold.

I began my travel day of Thursday, May 3, with yet another infamous Budapest “No Got ‘Em.” Checked in at the airport and went looking for a breakfast burger at Burger King. It was the height of the breakfast hour, hordes of hungry travelers looking for the main item on the breakfast menu. I ordered mine and the response from the dough-faced person behind the counter was – you guessed it – “Oh, we don’t have that.” Aaarrgghh!! If I could have gotten even a Swiss army knife through Security I would have plunged it into her black heart. Out of the best-selling item on their breakfast menu; incredible.

Anyway, it was one hour to Warsaw, 40 minutes to clear Passport Control and change planes (which I made in the nick of time) and another 90 minutes to Minsk. Suddenly things were going just a touch too easy. Found the “Obligatory Health Insurance” booth just before Passport Control at the Minsk airport and bought my health insurance for 6 euro. Passport Control was a breeze, although my guy did examine my passport with a lighted jeweler’s loop – never seen that before. I found the exit, changed some money and found the tourist booth, around 3 PM or so, where the young lady arranged a car to take me to my hotel. Only 30 BYN (Belarussian rubles), or about $15US.

My driver took his time, getting me to the neighborhood of my hotel at 4:15 PM. I say neighborhood, because my hotel, a converted Bernardine monastery, was located in a car-free area containing at least five churches, which I immediately dubbed ‘Temple Square.’ He dropped me off in front of a guard post and motioned with his arm toward the portaled entry, about 50 meters away, as if to say, “Ok, Tourist, this is as far as I go; your hotel is somewhere in there. Good luck.” Needless to say, his tip was stillborn.

So, I entered the sacred area through a low-arched gateway and wandered around for a while, looking for my hotel. I did finally find it, behind another fenced and gated wall. Oh, by the way, did I mention the temperature was 31 degrees Celsius? That’s around 87 degrees Fahrenheit, for my American readers. Friggin’ hot! Fortunately, I had chosen well once again, as when I was finally able to find a door to get me inside, I found the Monastyrsky Hotel was wonderfully cool and dark, with long, arched, moody hallways, hung with dimly-lighted chandeliers. Very atmospheric.
My room was also monastic in feel if not in accoutrements. Heavy dark wood furniture, Persian-style rugs, windows with wood shutters; I felt like I should be attending matins every morning. The room did, of course, boast a safe, mini-bar fridge, flat-screen TV, modern shower and bathroom area, in-room phone and air-conditioner controls I never could figure out. But the room remained cool during my entire visit, so I was happy.
OK, time to see what central Minsk was like.

From Wiki travel: “Situated on the Svislač and Niamiha rivers, from 1919-1991 Minsk (Belarusian: Мінск, Russian: Минск - the capital and largest city of the Republic of Belarus with a population of about two million people – the same as Budapest!) was the capital of the former Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic. The city was 80% destroyed during World War II and was rebuilt in the 1950s to the liking of Stalin. Large, Soviet-bloc style buildings make up a large portion of the heart of the city. For this reason, Minsk is a wonderful place to visit for those interested in the Soviet Union, although English is rarely spoken and tourism is not a priority in Minsk.

“For a long time after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, Minsk (and Belarus, in general) had the reputation of a Soviet experience park among its very few tourists. This stereotype, however, has started losing its relevance; Minsk now offers reliable and affordable public transport, plentiful hotels, convenient banking, as well as shopping and dining experiences that international tourists will find familiar. The quality and number of sightseeing opportunities have improved remarkably, too. Those who want to see the Soviet past in action, should venture further afield in Belarus and consider specialist tours.”

I was a slow three-minute walk from a lovely curve in the Svislach River, which flows through the city, and in which, my trusty Wikipedia internet site proclaimed, there were multitudes of bars and restaurants in a small area along Ulitsa Zybitskaya. Mr. Wiki was right again, and I almost immediately found my first destination: The Mad Rabbit bar, where a long, cold, frosty, frothy one-liter Belarussian beer went down just famously. Aaaahhh; home again.

My body temperature having returned to near normal, I decided to check out another bar I’d read about, but could hardly believe, which was only 10 meters away: the Calvin Coolidge bar. I had found a Herbert Hoover street in Warsaw, Poland, but had never before come across a European street named after one of the USA’s least-known presidents (his popularity rating was just below that of James K. Polk). Was there some sort of family relationship? Was his original name Calvin Coolidgeskaya? Did he once own a Russian wolfhound? One of the waiters told me the owner was just a big fan of the Roaring Twenties and decided to immortalize his bar by naming it after the person who was president during that time. Oh. Well, OK, then.
By this time I’d passed the desire for beer and had headed into cocktail hour. My waiter took care of me with a special rum drink, plenty of ice and lots of interesting and subtle other flavors. Maybe this place was home. I could easily have remained there for many happy hours, but decided to keep wandering so as to get my orientation for future meanderings. I next found the Bar Duck, another recommended watering hole on Wikipedia, but they weren’t open yet and besides, even when they did open, it turned out the only beer they bar offered was – believe it or not – Corona! Onward and Upward!

I finally landed at U Ratushy for dinner overlooking Temple Square (NB: it probably really isn’t called that, but with so many churches in a car-free environment, it just sounded good to me. So – Temple Square it is!). I went back to the local beer, Lidskoe Premium, to accompany my lamb sausage, which was tasteful and filling. After dinner, I wandered down to Bar Row (u. Zubitskaya) again and found a place called Malt and Hops, where I enjoyed a Harp at their bar. Finally, what I really needed was a good night’s sleep in an air-conditioned room, so I trudged uphill again to Monastyrski and a well-deserved dive into the arms of Morpheus.

Friday dawned sunny and bright and I was, amazingly enough, up with the sun. This was to be my self-guided walking tour day. After an adequate but uninspired hotel breakfast (possibly based on what those monks used to put up with), I walked a long block to find one of the two metro lines in Minsk. I had a Google map of where I wanted to go: the metro station closest to the main railway station, which was the starting point for my walk. I bought my token and entered the area between the red and blue lines and from there just could not determine where I had to go. My map listed its major points of interest in English and I thought the railway station was an obvious landmark, but it seemed several local Minskians just couldn’t figure out where I wanted to go. I finally corralled a youngish man who looked at my map and told me it was just one stop away on the blue line at the Ploschad Lienina station. Piece of cake. I was there in two minutes.
I wandered the maze beneath the railway station, directed by signs to somewhere I hoped would be recognizable, and finally emerged above ground in the station’s main hall. I walked out the front doors and across the street were the Minsk Gates, two tall, bulky apartment or office towers that did, indeed, appear to lead the wary visitors toward the city center. From there, even I could follow the map. The first major sight was Independence Square, constructed to celebrate Byelorussia’s 1945 membership in the UN. Impressive, as all such Russian-style monuments always are. Next to the square is the Red Church, another impressive landmark, although I didn’t get to see too much of it as it was pretty much covered in scaffolding. I really think many of the cities I choose to visit plan their renovations upon receiving word that I would be visiting their fair city. Incredible.

I continued my stroll up one of the city’s main streets, Praspyekt Nyezalyezhnastsi, which I didn’t even attempt to pronounce, to myself or anyone else of whom I had to ask directions. I stopped at the main post office to buy a postcard and send it off to my California family; I can only hope it gets there. I wandered by the former KGB headquarters building and eventually found myself back at the metro station at which I had started. Cool. From there, I took a short-cut through a park toward the river, which would eventually lead me to Gorky Park. I was sweating profusely, however, in the 30-degree heat, so decided a morning snack with a long, cool drink was in order.

Just on the corner before Gorky Park, and across from the national Minsk circus building, was a Union Coffee shop, just opening. I parked myself at one of the outdoor tables and ordered a large lemonade with a lot of ice, along with a small bottle of water and more ice. In addition, the menu featured crepes mascarpone, which sounded like a nice mid-morning treat. I was leery of ordering one, fearful I would get the dreaded, “Oh, we don’t have that,” response, but, lo and behold, they did have it, for which I was eternally grateful.

My waitress brought me two glasses of lemonade, which was apparently their only way to serve a large glass. OK, no problem. I drained the first glass in about two seconds flat, let out a big smile, and attacked my mascarpone (banana-filled crepes) while slowly sipping the second lemonade. I’d save the water for dessert.

I also thought I could save the remainder of my walking tour for Saturday morning, as the heat was getting miserable. I walked back to my hotel, but before relaxing in its coolness, I checked with the receptionist about a place I had seen advertised earlier that day and to which I might want to go. She found it for me on the internet and I immediately went out to look for a taxi, as it was quite a ways out of the city center.
As I was standing on the corner, broiling in the blazing heat, sweat running down my body in salty rivulets and overflowing my hiking boots to form a puddle on the sidewalk, a young waiter at the coffee shop next to me appeared by my side as if by magic, offering me a plastic cup filled with ice water. How about that?! It’s the little things like that that make international travel so rewarding. No matter what else good or not so happened to me during my stay, I’ll always remember that thoughtful act by that kind young man.

I finally found a taxi and ran my errand and got back to the hotel in time for lunch. It felt like a light lunch day, so I chose the terrace of Planeta Pizza, overlooking Temple Square. A small (20 cm) pizza was just the ticket, along with one of those refreshing Minskite beers. So I had both. Since it was a Friday, I was even fortunate enough to be entertained during lunch by choir practice from the church across the square. Or maybe it was just a tape. Anyway, pizza and beer always go better with baroque medieval chanting. After lunch, some air-conditioned relaxation was in order to better prepare myself for dinner.

I had an early dinner at a small Italian place along the boulevard called Perfetto. Yummy seafood fettucine plate, with all sorts of goodies. Afterwards, a stop at a nearby Cinnabon rounded me out just right. I was ready to WOW the Minskarian club crowd with some classic karaoke. But alas, it was not to be.

I’d found a couple of karaoke clubs on the internet and decided I’d try the one that looked the best: Jelsomino’s. It was a longish walk from the restaurant and I arrived around 8:15, just after the doors opened. As I walked up to the entrance, I noted the “greeters”: a hulking Neanderthal in a suit and tie sitting behind a podium, a young woman in slinky black dress and a young man in black slacks, black vest and white shirt, no tie. Uh, oh. It looked like I wouldn’t be getting in tonight.

I’d hit this situation in Tbilisi, Georgia, the previous year. It seems that some of the eastern European night spots like to maintain an upscale façade, probably so they can charge more for drinks and so scruffy Americans like me won’t bring down the atmosphere. Therefore, they require appropriate attire for gentlemen and ladies who wish to use their facilities. I doubted my cargo pants and hiking boots would meet their requirements. Naturally, the “greeters” rarely speak any English and therefore are unable to explain about the dress code. In fact, they have only been taught one word to turn away potential customers who don’t fit their profile. And so, as I approached the entrance, the hulking Neanderthal looked at me and grunted out his single English word: “Closed!”

Obviously, they weren’t closed, and I knew the score, but decided I needed a little bit of fun before retreating gracefully, especially since I wouldn’t be singing there tonight. So I engaged the unholy trio in a short-lived dialogue, which was fun for me but not so much for them; at least the young man, Vasily, had limited English.

Me: “So - I can tell you aren’t really closed. When do you open again?”
Vasily: “We are closed.”
Me: “OK, so are you closed forever or will you open again sometime later tonight or tomorrow?”
Vasily: “We are closed.” (He must have been taking English lessons at the ‘I am Groot’ school)
Me: “So, is it because I don’t meet your dress code?”
Igor (Hulking Neanderthal): “Closed!”
Me: “You know, if you just tell me you have a dress code, or maybe have a discreet notice on your front door, it’s OK, I understand.”
Vasily: “You must have good shoes. We are closed.”
Me: “Ah HA! Now we’re getting somewhere. It’s my hiking boots, right?”
Anna (pretty girl in slinky black dress): “If you have good shoes, you can make sex with me. But not with hiking boots.”
Me (thinking fiercely, as all the shoe stores were closed by then): “Story of my life. Well, Anna, thanks anyway, maybe another time when I have good shoes. Vasily, I appreciate your understanding. Igor, you’ve been a real brick. (I may have mispronounced that last word slightly in my eagerness to find a shoe store that was still open). You’all have a good night and don’t take any wooden hiking boots.”
Vasily: “OK, bye bye.”
Igor: “Closed!”
Anna: “Vernis', kogda u tebya khoroshiye botinki. Mne nravitsya vypuklost' v vashikh shtanakh.”

OK, I’d messed with them enough, although I sure wished I’d had better shoes; that Anna was a definite babe. I could have sung You Can Leave Your Hat On just for her. As it was, The Incredible Hulk continued to practice his fearsome scowl, so I used my hiking boots for their intended purpose and boogied on down the road to see what else the night might hold for me.

I cruised the neighborhood bars in Temple Square again and had a cocktail at a couple of them, but the Friday night crowd gathering around the Square and its environs had grown to unmanageable proportions (for me, at least), and so, after another beer at the Malt and Hops bar, which was, once again, empty except for me, I decided maybe Friday wasn’t my night after all. I stopped at the hotel’s downstairs bar and billiard room for a nightcap and got into a conversation with a salesman from India, in town to talk to the locals about some sort of solar-powered roof tiles. One drink of the really good local vodka, Glubina, led to another and I was amazed the following morning to see I’d found my way back to my room through the maze of dimly-lit hallways. And no hangovers with the good stuff. Time for a shower and breakfast.

During all this time of eating and drinking and strolling and sightseeing, I was also checking out the local female population to see if what I had heard was true. Well, let me tell you – it was! Holy Wonder bra, Batman! The young women of Minsk were everything advertised and more. Almost all the young women have long, flowing hair, which they keep flipping and teasing and stroking until the young Belarussian men lie panting in their wake as they pass by. Of course, they dress as provocatively as custom and the law allow – which is pretty damned provocative! Clear-skinned, slender figures, long, tapering fingers, and that peculiarly Eastern European slant to their eyes that promises a thousand and one nights of intrigue and exhausting passions. Pardon me if I wax poetic, but they are Babes!
Saturday morning dawned bright and clear – and much colder. From a high of 31 Celsius on Friday evening, it was now 14 Celsius, about 58 degrees Fahrenheit. Brrr. Good thing I had brought a light jacket, which I now donned in preparation for my morning exploratory walk. This time I’d start with the Old Town section, or Trinity, as it was called locally. Then onto the Island of Tears and afterwards, well, we’d have to wait and see.

The Old Town was actually pretty empty on a Saturday morning in spring, so I was able to walk the tiny maze of streets with very little company. I checked out the architecture and the general feel of the area, which was quite nice and peaceful. Attached to this section by a somewhat shabby footbridge is the Isle of Tears, a small islet in the river, constructed as a memorial commemorating Soviet soldiers from Belarus who died in the decade-long war with Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989. The centerpiece of the islet is the chapel, with haunting figures of grieving mothers, sisters and widows at its base. A nearby fountain features the boy-like figure of an angel, rigged up to cry teardrops. My guidebook mentioned that when viewed up close, it would be obvious that a certain part of this statue’s anatomy is shinier than the rest. It seems there is a local tradition of newlyweds visiting war memorials on their wedding day; modern folk, however, believe that if the bride gropes this poor young lad’s privates, she’ll be guaranteed children. Naturally, I confined my viewing to photographs.

Having gorged myself on sights and sounds of this area, I walked back across the nearby bridge across the Svislach River and down Nemiga ulitsa, looking for the Brovar Rakovsky, the Rakovsky Brewery. My hotel receptionist had looked it up and told me it was on a side street, just past the Peter and Paul church. Well, between the main street and the side street, there is no actual street, per se, just a narrow passageway with steps leading up to the next level behind the tall buildings on Nemiga u.

I hesitated at first, then sort of warily climbed the steps and sure enough, there were streets behind the buildings. The first street I happened upon was Rakovsky Street, which I figured must have something to do with the brewery (Aaahh, those university Logic classes – still paying off). A short way down this street I asked a local waiter standing outside his restaurant smoking for the object of my search, and he pointed across the street and around a corner and told me I was almost there. I turned the corner and whaddaya know – the entire street was completely torn up and ripped apart. How happy did that make me? Not very. At any rate, the brewery actually did open its doors at noon and I scuttled inside to find another of those wonderful European brewhouses.

I love these places so much, I could die in them. They are part and parcel of the brewery itself, sporting large brew tanks and decorated like a huge bar, complete with stuffed bears and comfy chairs and lots of great food for the hungry drinkers. This place only has about eight of their own locally-brewed beers, and they were all excellent – well, at least the four I sampled. Needless to say, I stayed for snacks and lunch and several tasty beers.

I perused the menu, trying to decide on an initial beer snack before the main course. The menu was in Russian, with English translations, but the English didn’t always translate in a manner that told you what the dish you were reading about actually was. (Terrible sentence, but you get the idea). Anyway, one snack mentioned croutons fried in garlic; hmmm, sounded familiar. I checked the Russian spelling and found: “Гренки.” HEY! I know that word! Grenki! My all-time favorite beer snack. I waved frantically at my waitress and pointed to the word in the menu and said, “Grenki” as passionately as I could, hoping against hope that I wouldn’t get another of the “Oh, we don’t have that” responses.

Whew! They had it and it came and it was everything I could have wished for. Yum. Accompanied by an Irish red ale, it was damn near perfect. It was a filling snack, but I also ordered a light lunch, pelmenyi, or vareniki, if you prefer, meat-filled dumplings with sour cream on top. I was nicely satiated and at peace.

As a point of interest for beer lovers, the three beers that internet reviews said I had to try at this brewery were:

Grashovaye (golden color, malt aftertaste, 3.7% alcohol)
Pilzenskoye (light and bitter, 4.2%)
Irish Red Ale (speaks for itself)

They were all amazing and I deemed the Rakovsky Brewery one of the high points of my visit.

That afternoon, the kids of Minsk were putting on a big show in the Temple Square courtyard on a gigantic stage, with loudpseakers and everything. I sat and enjoyed them for an hour or two, lots of fun, great music and some really talented teens. I’d have loved to join them in a karaoke night, but they were wearing hiking boots, so that was out.
And after the cooler day and a refreshing relaxation period in my hotel, I went out in search of more nightlife. This time I stopped in at the Kurilka Bar, just on the fringe of the Square, and sampled a Mai Tai prepared by an expert. Damn thing was so good and so strong, I wobbled out to locate some food before I embarrassed myself and hit the bar facedown. Plus, there were a couple of smokers in the bar, which they can still do in the former Soviet countries, and which I’m just not used to any longer.

The wind was still whipping through the streets and I decided to take the advice of one of the waiters I’d met and have dinner at my hotel, something I rarely do. I’d much rather be out and about, hanging out at bars, talking to strangers, ogling the women and furthering the cause of international relations. Well, let me tell you, my hotel serves up some scrumptious dishes. I can see why it’s so well-known and well-attended by the local wait staff.

I started off with a recommended shot of the local Byelorussian vodka, Glubina. YOWZA! Set you free! Polly want a cracker! Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead! So fantastic I even bought a bottle in Duty Free to bring back with me. A glass of nice Georgian wine complemented my beef tongue in a mushroom and wine sauce, layered over potato fritters. It was a standard local dish and one I’m so happy I tried. After dinner, I tried a brief walk but my legs didn’t want to work properly, so I succumbed to the siren’s call of my cozy monk’s cell. A short but good night.

I had no particular plans for Sunday, so decided on the spur of the moment to take the Minsk City Tour – if I could find the damn bus! The internet advertised this tour as a Hop On tour only – no hopping off. It was scheduled to last about 1 ½ to 2 hours and would take up my midday hours. I was an old pro on the Minsk metro by this time, having survived one trip, so I scooted over to the nearby metro station, bought my ticket, found the correct blue line and got on the right car going the right direction. Once again, it was only one stop to the railway station, where I popped up to street level in front of the main entrance. The weather was sunny again, but temp around 14 degrees Celsius, so somewhat cool and windy.

I found the bus parked in front of the KFC branch, ready to go. It left the station at 11 AM and we were back there by 12:30 PM or so. It was a good tour, slowing down to see 18 major sights around the city and some even several miles outside the city limits, like the National Library of Belarus and the Sport Palace. For 30 BYN (around $15 US), it was a nice relaxing tour.

I took the metro back to Temple Square and popped into the Bar Insomniac for lunch, not knowing what I’d find. What I found was one of the best beefsteaks I’d had in all my travels, cooked to perfection and lovingly served up. I was beginning to appreciate Minsk’s restaurants, as they offered really substantial, tasty, well-prepared meals, almost always professional service, usually good atmosphere and certainly acceptable prices. Can’t ask for anything more than that out of a dining-out experience. Plus their bar looked good, too, so I knew I’d be back later.

In the late afternoon I walked along the riverside promenade to take more pics of areas I’d missed previously, especially the views of couples enjoying the early summer sunshine and the pedal boats. One of the bells in one of the church towers let me know it was dinnertime, and I decided I was in the mood for spaghetti; why not? Back to Planeta Pizza overlooking the Square. I sat on the terrace, perused the menu and ordered an old standard: Spaghetti Bolognaise.

”Oh, we don’t have that.”

You have got to be frigging kidding me! Again with the “We don’t have that?” Either Murphy or one of the gods of Olympus has it in for me; how else to explain this constant lack of not only advertised dishes, but standard dishes, signature dishes, dishes it is a national crime NOT to have? By this time I never know whether to sigh in resignation or beat the waiter/tress over the head with the menu. This time I settled for quiet resignation and ordered the Spaghetti Carbonara. At least they had that! But it was no wonder to me that even the taste of this otherwise delicious dish was as ashes in my mouth. Even a beer and some grenkiy toast couldn’t assuage my quiet rage. Maybe some liquor could.
So I headed back to Bar Insomnia and my new favorite bartender, Egbert (I think that was his name; his nametag was too tiny to read). But he was an expert mixologist and proceeded to keep me entertained and just a little buzzed for several hours. He started with a Mai Tai, moved to an El Presidente and finished up with a Rum Cobbler. I was on a rum kick that night and enjoyed every one of those exotic libations. I finally left on unsteady legs and weaved my way around the corner and down the street to a place called Pushka, a really tiny little Mexican-themed bar. In fact, it was about as big as my flat in Budapest. But the bartenders were also very friendly and spoke English and made me a vodka drink with a sort of candy flavor; delish!

By this time the liquor had taken hold nicely, but fortunately I was only about 20 steps from the rear door to my hotel, which took me to the hotel’s restaurant and main-floor bar. Ah, what the heck, one more nightcap, maybe something sweet to really polish me off. A shot of Glubina vodka, some chocolate cake and a scoop of vanilla ice cream, just the ticket. I placed my order and looked at the waitress and knew, just knew, what was coming. “Vanilla ice cream? Oh, we don’t have that.”

So I took out my baseball bat and beat her to death with it. How the heck can you NOT have vanilla ice cream, as advertised? This time, in my anger and stupefaction, I drank two shots of Glubina vodka (it really is good), chewed my chocolate cake furiously and staggered off to bed.

Okay, Monday, May 7, last day in Minsk. Minsk is pretty much a three-day city, so I guess I’d seen almost everything there is to see. Except the Cat Museum, which I planned on seeing today. Had a late breakfast and strolled over to the Cat Museum around 10 AM, hoping it would be open by then. Nope, closed on Mondays. Thank you, O’ Great and Felinacious Bast. Guess I should have come by earlier.

Really nothing left to do. I took a last stroll down by the river, said goodbye to the folks at the Mad Rabbit bar, waved goodbye to the bronze horses behind City Hall and killed a few hours until lunch, which I had at another restaurant overlooking the Square, Verszit Gorad (my spelling of this one is probably abominable). Good lunch, however; beef and mushrooms in a berry-based sauce with a side of fritters, a glass of Georgian red wine and a dessert sorbet. That would last me the rest of the day – maybe the rest of the week.
Anyway, I arranged for a hotel car to drive me to the airport, where I checked in easily. My flight back to Warsaw was a touch late, and when we landed I had just enough time to clear Passport Control back into the EU, then go through another security check and race down to my gate, at which I arrived as they started to board. Puffing and huffing and blowing and sweating – so nice of the airlines to give us so much time for our connecting flights.

And home again in Budapest. Another fun weekend under the belt. Country Number 73. Great food, gorgeous women (as advertised) and a really nice, clean, well-maintained city. I’m glad I finally made it there.

No further trips scheduled for a while. My daughter and her family will be visiting late May – early June, which will keep me busy as a tour guide. Been too long since we were all together, and I haven’t seen my grandkids since they were 10 (Samantha) and 8 (Nicholas). I did meet up with Morgan and Tony for a weekend in Rome in 2015, but it’s always a treat to catch up with the family.

So, another successful blog. Hope to collect all my blogs since 2009 into another book later this year, so watch for that on Until then, Happy Trails and May the Road Always Rise to Meet You.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Hangin' Out in the Persian Gulf

SUN, I need SUN! I got back to Budapest mid-January to below-freezing temperatures and it was all I could do to go to the corner pub for a beer. Too damn cold! I couldn’t wait until spring, hunkering down in my flat and shivering the days and nights away. I had to find some warm sunshine long before old Mr. Sol showed his springtime heat here in Hungary. But where to go for another 6-7 days? I toyed with Lanzarotte for a while, but getting there proved to be just that much too difficult, so I bagged on that possibility. I searched and searched and checked my maps and suddenly, there it was: Doha, Qatar, another Gulf state and one I’d never been to. Warmth, heat, sunshine: YES!

So I made my reservations for early March; I could last out February, with only 28 days, and then I’d be back in the lovely sunny days and warm nights of the Persian Gulf. I was ready! At least I thought I could last out February; then the last week of the month Budapest got hit with temps down to -12 C (or 8 F). Brrr. I wrapped up in all of my winter clothes and sat shivering in my flat until the afternoon of March 5, when I could finally ditch the cold and head for the sun.

Caught a late flight to Istanbul, quick changeover (luckily, this time my connecting gate was only a five-minute speed-walk from my arrival gate) and another 4.5 hours to Doha, landing around 5:30 on the morning of March 6. Debarked from the plane, cleared Passport Control (no need to shell out money for a visa at Immigration Control, as none was required, unlike what the Internet sites said), picked up my bag (whew, made it again!) and walked out to look for my driver. Since my hotel, the Kingsgate, offered an airport pickup service, I had previously decided the early-morning arrival was worth it. And there was my name on the driver’s signboard!

As we walked out to his car, I was reminded once again of that old proverb: “Be careful what you wish for --- you might get it!” In my case, I wished for sunshine and heat to chase away winter’s freezing temps, and Boy, did I ever get it! Temperature in Doha was 30 degrees Celsius when I arrived, or about 85 degrees Fahrenheit. The sweat began trickling down my neck and back as we walked the short distance to the car, and I could hardly wait to get inside and turn on the air conditioner.

According to the tourist brochures, for most of its history Doha was a poor, tiny fishing village dependent on pearl diving, and was regarded as a sleepy backwater until as recently as the early 1990s. Following the accession of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani as Emir in 1995, Qatar quickly began to modernize, and Doha is now taking huge strides to catch up with other nearby Gulf states Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The city is very much a work-in-progress, with a rapidly growing skyline and new buildings sprouting up almost like mushrooms.

The vast majority of the country's population resides in the capital city, Doha, which is astonishingly diverse; in fact, only 20% of the residents are native Qataris. Although Arabic is Qatar's official language, English is by default the lingua franca, as the majority of the city's worker expats do not speak Arabic, including most shopkeepers and service providers, and most Qataris speak English to communicate with the numerous migrant workers who work for them. Doha is also now one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, as workers continue to pour in to help build the developing economy. In fact, my driver was from Sri Lanka.

Check-in at the hotel Kingsgate was easy and efficient; zip, zam, zoom and I was in my room, changing out of my winter clothes and into sandals and shorts again. I also got an upgraded room, with a kitchenette but without a chair. My sixth-floor view consisted of the next-door sand-colored slums and rundown shacks, and there was even a brownish, Los Angeles-like layer of haze on the horizon. I later learned this was actually a layer of sand kicked up by the prevailing breezes and pretty much always hanging in the air. Too, bad, the views would otherwise be clear and clean and desert-sparkling.

My reservation included breakfast, but even though the hotel stretched a point for me by allowing me an early check-in, I had to wait for my breakfast until the following day. BUT – you know me by now, right, Dear Reader? Yep, always researched and prepared. I headed out of the hotel, stepping around the locals in their long dirty robes and headdresses who seemed to linger on every street corner while the expats do all the work.

But the very first word that sprang to mind as I strolled down the dusty streets was: CONSTRUCTION! Buildings going up all over town. Cranes and workers and wheelbarrows and dump trucks and hard hats and dust and sand everywhere. And the noise! Apparently, Doha was frantically scurrying to get ready for the 2022 Football (soccer) World Cup to be held in its environs. New hotels, new buildings, new metro, new streets, damn near new everything was being built to showcase Doha to the world in just four short years. I hope they made it, as they sure were putting enough effort into it.

Meanwhile, I was on my way to Ric’s Kountry Kitchen, just a short 20-minute walk the opposite side of my hotel from the souk, but boasting (on their website, anyway) the best breakfast in Doha. And was it ever! It was almost Denny’s Grand Slam. Their menu included all sorts of egg dishes, beef sausage (no pork in Arabic countries), hash brown potatoes, real manly American pancakes (not those effete little crepes one finds throughout Europe and North Africa), beans (for the English tourist), Texas Toast (twice as thick as regular toast) and a host of other down-home goodies one rarely finds when traveling in the Middle East. There were even Mexican dishes on the menu and a non-stop glass of lemonade packed with ice, which was sorely needed even after my brief walk from the hotel.

Anyway, I gorged on this sumptuous repast, smiling all the while, as the air conditioner reminded me I was back in the good old summertime. As I prepared to leave, my waitress asked me if I’d like to take a large lemonade with me, as there was no extra charge. I seriously considered it, but dragging that big cup around with me until I polished it off seemed like too much effort, so I passed. Of course, 20 minutes later I wished I had that cold, refreshing drink with me as I sweltered in the blazing Qatari sunshine.
OK, off to see the Corniche. Doha’s Corniche is quite a bit larger than the one in Muttrah, Oman. I had originally thought of walking the entire length of the curved promenade walkway, but seven kilometers is just a touch far for me these days – especially wearing sandals. It was enough just walking along the Corniche the length of two traffic signals. That little jaunt and a left turn got me to the Souk Waqif, where I spent much of my time in Doha.

Walking from Ric’s to the Corniche was a touch over one kilometer. I wanted to walk along the seaside promenade, but, naturally, it was fenced off due to an ongoing renovation. I was not happy. Then it was another full kilometer down to the souk. Whew! I hadn’t even been in Doha for three hours and already I was whipped.

But I was at the souk! I engaged in my favorite pastime of “souking,” i.e., wandering the byways and back aisles of these wonderful old Middle East markets, checking out the wares, fondling the pashmina scarves, looking for souvenirs for family and friends and trying to remember where the stalls were that I wanted to revisit. I barely made a dent in the Souk Waqif at that time, but it was sufficient to notice that the vendors weren’t anywhere near as pushy as those in Oman. Theirs was more the soft sell technique, none of this rushing at you and grabbing your hand. A pleasant change.

I made a reservation for that night at Damasca One, a Syrian restaurant that promised great food alongside an “amazing” sword dancing show and Syrian music. I was hooked. I hoped it was as good as it sounded. As I strolled through the major streets of the souk, I also noticed an unoccupied Turkish Ice Cream stand. Turkish Ice Cream?! OMG – I can’t stand it! The BEST ice cream in the entire WORLD! I’d be back that night for a taste.

The sun was beating down on me and sweat was pouring out of me – but that’s what I cane for, right? Right! Albeit, I was still tired from lack of sleep, so I took a page from the local handbook, when everyone closed shop between noon and 4 PM to beat the heat in the hottest part of the day, and I wavered back to the hotel through the construction zone for a shower and a nap.

I was out again with the evening crowd, checking out those places I had researched on the Internet. There was no place to sit and have a long, cold beer or a cocktail of any kind, as alcohol is not allowed other than in the four- and five-star hotels, but an ice-cold lemonade went down almost as well, accompanied by some mezze, Middle East tapas.

Around 9 PM I wandered over to Damasca One to see what the dinner show held in store for me. Turned out it wasn’t much. I had a grilled halloumi cheese appetizer, and Mains of lovely sliced lamb meat pie, washed down with tea. I sat in a nearly empty large dining room and watched the “show” – a middle-aged, Arabic-featured man twirling and dancing around with some long knives (or short sabers) for a few minutes before he took a break. What a letdown. I paid my bill and hurried out to find the Turkish Ice Cream stand, which was now open. I watched delightedly as the server did his ice-cream-cone tricks with a couple of little kids until my impatience overcame me and I shoved the annoying kids out of my way and requested my ice cream cone. (OK, I didn’t really do that, but I wanted to! Such is the pull of Turkish Ice Cream)

I got my very own cone with a triple scoop of vanilla ice cream on top and wandered away with a beatific look on my face and peace in my soul, licking and chewing that amazing concoction for all it was worth. No scoffing out there – if you haven’t had it, you won’t believe it, but if you ever do have a chance to partake, don’t miss it. Ben and Jerry’s just can’t even be mentioned in the same breath.

Wednesday I decided to take the Doha Bus Hop On Hop Off tour of the city. I’d seen a Trip Advisor report that the tour wasn’t worth the 180 Qatari Rials it cost (about 35 euro, or $40 US), so wasn’t sure about the value, but once I talked to the young ticket seller (from the Philippines), I changed my mind. No, the value wasn’t there for a one-day ticket, but for the 180 QR I got two days worth of trips plus the night tour, plus free water. So that’s three tours for 180 QR, or 60 QR per tour, a much better deal. I took it.

There were only two buses in the company, so there was always at least a one-hour wait between buses, not a big deal. That first day I stayed on the bus for the full two-hour tour. We went all the way around the Corniche to the City Center, saw the outskirts of Katara Village and drove through The Pearl area of shops and housing. The second sweep I got off at the City Center Mall to see if it was worth it; for me, not. I had a really bad Mongolian BBQ lunch, but a really good counterfeit Cinnabon as I watched the locals try to ice skate on the indoor rink.

We arrived back at the souk around 4:30, so I thought I could get one of my standard errands out of the way. I caught a taxi (driver from Pakistan) to my destination on the outskirts of Doha, then came back to the souk. Dinner was some sort of chicken pasta at Al Refaa, one of the few locally-owned fast-food buffet restaurants on one of the souk’s main streets. I sat next to a white-robed sheik as the outdoor ceiling fans whirred overhead, pushing the hot air around but not really cooling anything off; it was still at least 28 degrees Celsius. But I got to people-watch and take a leisurely repast as the sun went down and the shoppers and diners came out. I made an after-dinner swing through the Bird Souk and found the Falcon Souk for a next-day visit. The Camel Souk and Horse Souk would have to wait for another day. But another Turkish Ice Cream finished me off for this day.

I decided Thursday would be my first beach day. I was informed the first Doha Bus was scheduled to leave from the souk stop at 9 AM, so if I caught that bus I’d be at Katara Village by 10 AM and would have several good hours of beach time. Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men…..still going aft aglay.

I got to the Doha Bus stop at 8:45 AM – you know me, always early! The attendant informed me the bus would be “a little late;” which turned out to be around 25 minutes. So the bus showed up at 9:25 AM – packed with mostly middle-aged Frenchmen and their overweight wives and several kids. In other Hop On Hop Off bus tours I have done around the world, the company has attendants waiting at the major stops to sell tickets before passengers board the bus, so as not to slow down the schedule. In Doha, it doesn’t work like that. Ticket sellers await at only the two major stops on the route. After new passengers get on at current and previous stops, without ticketing, the attendant gets on at the major stops and collects fares (usually by credit card, a slow process) from all new passengers. So it was at this stop.

BUT – then some of the French wives noticed they were charged individual instead of family rates, which were quite a bit higher, so the attendant had to go back through all of them and redo their charges. Sigh. More than one hour late, around 10:15 AM, we finally took off. What a bunch of inefficient dipsticks.

We finally got to Katara Village around 11:30 AM, thus cutting my beach time way down. I was not a happy camper. Brochures for this attraction state that Katara Village is “an innovative interpretation of the region’s architectural heritage….with purpose-built impressive theatres, galleries and performance venues which stage a lively year-round programme of concerts, shows and exhibitions. Visitors can also find other recreational attractions, including top class restaurants offering a variety of cuisines, and a spacious, well-maintained public beach with water sports. Visitors can take a night time stroll along the promenade, with its expansive views of Doha’s skyline, as well as a rich array of seaside food stalls and markets.”
Well, sort of. In fact, the entire “village” was only about 80% complete. They were still putting the finishing touches on it when I was there and the park was virtually empty of visitors. The Doha Bus dropped me off near the north end of the village and I wandered through the partially finished construction down to the promenade and beach area, to Beach Entry Stand No. 18, only to find a guard there who informed me that the beach was closed. I refrained from killing him when he went on to say that he thought the beach around Entry Gate 5 might be open. I started to walk the long, long path across an unshaded open brick-lined area when I noticed some golf carts making the same journey. I flagged one down and, sure enough, they were there for free transport of visitors. A much easier and faster trip.

Got to Gate 5, where the guard informed me the beach was open! Alright! He pointed me toward the changing facilities across the road and also told me that when off the beach I had to cover my shoulders and that even on the beach Speedo swimming trunks for men weren’t allowed. My Battle Smile kicked in and I asked him if it was OK for me to wear a Speedo swimming cap. He seemed confused. I asked about my Speedo beach sandals. He was nonplused. My Speedo sunglasses? How about my Speedo beach condoms, specially treated to be waterproof? I wandered away to change my clothes, leaving him with mouth agape as he rapidly paged through his book of inane beach rules. Not much else to do at a beach in Qatar except stand on the sand and wade out waist-deep into the water, while not wearing anything from Speedo. No fun allowed anywhere. But at least the Persian Gulf was cool and refreshing.

I spent the next few hours just relaxing on the beach, taking the occasional dip in the cool, clear green water of the Persian Gulf and just enjoying the warmth and sunshine. So nice after winter’s cold breath back in Budapest. Around 2 PM or so I walked back to the changing room, remembering to cover my shoulders with my towel. A quick shower to get the sand and salt off, flag down one of those golf carts driven by yet another expat and end up back near the Doha bus stop at the Al Bisana restaurant. Lunch was hummus and meat, after which I caught one of the last of the Hop On Hop Off Doha buses back to the souk and headed off to my hotel for a quick afternoon nap before sampling the pleasures of the night.
This night I chose the Argan Moroccan restaurant, complete with tagine dishes served by a lovely young woman named Aigul from Kazakhstan. The seafood pastille went down just right and Aigul even talked me into an after-dinner refreshment of local tea, while relaxing on one of the sofas in the center space of the restaurant. I do so love the dining experiences in the Middle East. A quick swing by the Turkish Ice Cream stand for a dessert treat and a slow walk back through the construction sites to my hotel. Tomorrow would be a busy day.

I had arranged through my hotel for a full day out in the Qatari desert with the Arabian Adventure Group. I breakfasted early and was waiting in the lobby when my driver, Waseem (from Pakistan) pulled up in his gigantic Chevy Suburban around 9 AM. (Author’s Note: I was amazed that the three-star hotel I stayed in actually changed their hot breakfast buffet dishes every day, so I always had something different to eatin the morning. Many four- and five-star hotels I’ve stayed in didn’t offer such a variety. The small hotel restaurant even offered cloth napkins and ready-made omelets).

We headed out across the totally flat and sandy desert on amazingly good highways. The Middle East sheikhs put a lot of their oil money to good use, fixing up their infrastructures and making life easy for their natives. We drove through Al Wakra and Meirshaba to an area called Sealine, which is a staging area for the many desert adventure tours coming from Doha. We stopped for around 20 minutes or so while Waseem let some air out of the Suburban’s tires, the better to have the big vehicle grip the loose desert sand on the dunes. I also had a chance to sip some sugary tea to help maintain my hydration, while watching the young female tourists opt for camel rides a short distance into the dunes and back. And then we were off!
It was just me and Waseem, and he drove the dunes like a magician. He drove along the dune crests and he sideslipped down the sides of the dunes. He was a good driver and obviously knew what he was doing as, even though there were several steep dips and some white-knuckle chills, he was always in complete control of his vehicle. We probably drove the dunes for 20-30 minutes until finally coming to a stop at a crest overlooking the inland sea. We stopped along with other adventurers for a photo op and, for the other bashers that day (a group of a local company’s Indian and Nepalese workers out for a fun day of bonding), some horseplay in the sand.
I got a couple of photos before the lens cover fell off my Nikon Coolpix; the camera still worked, but was now open to even more incursions of that fine desert sand drifting into its inner parts. I’d have to be careful from now on. We took off again over dunes and some salt flats until we arrived at a high point overlooking the Saudia Arabian border. Another quick photo op and off to the Arabian Adventure Tour’s campsite, located right on the Persian Gulf. The site was complete with tents and outdoor tables and beach chairs and a mess hall, toilets, showers, etc.

Waseem left me there for the remainder of the day, telling me he’d return around 5 PM to pick me up. And so, once again, I rested, swam in the Gulf, had a nice buffet lunch of various local specialties, topped up my bright-red suntan and generally relaxed. Waseem had warned me not to swim too far out from shore, as there may be sharks in the water. Visions of the movie Jaws popped into my head and my forays into the Gulf pretty much ended around waist deep. But, again, it was cool and refreshing and the sun was hot and I was just happy to be away from winter.

The company group I’d seen earlier were also dropped off at this camp and I had a chance to talk to them during a lull in their exhibiting boyish highjinks in the water (no worries about sharks for them!) and on the beach. It’s always good for me to meet and talk to people from so many countries around the globe, and I have also found that pretty much all of the people I meet are really interested to have a conversation with a real, live American, expat thought I might be. As long as I stay away from politics and religion, our talks always go OK. Another fun afternoon.
And sure enough, almost on the dot of 5 PM, Waseem showed up for our ride back to Doha. On our way back across the desert sands we encountered hundreds – maybe thousands – of weekend revelers out in the desert in their SUVs and dragging their dune buggies of all shapes and sizes. They were roaring up and down the steep dunes, camped out in their weekend tents, building fires, cooking lamb and generally having a great time in the sand dunes and salt flats. The staging area where we’d stopped on the way in was full of people inflating their tires to get back on the highways. We had ours done and bid a fond adieu to the desert at sunset.

We got to my hotel around 6:30 and I was due for a good long hot shower to get rid of all that desert sand. Another evening jaunt through the construction debris around the hotel and on the street to the souk and I was back where I wanted to be, browsing the stalls and bargaining with the vendors for their wares. Wondering about dinner, I paused in front of the Royal Tandoor Indian restaurant and was regaled by the young lady shilling for her place of the many and exotic foods I could find inside, so what the heck, Indian food it would be.

I scanned the menu and, although they had several dishes that looked good, including lobster vindaloo and lamb vindaloo, they didn’t have shrimp vindaloo, which I had suddenly fixed on as my dinner of choice. My young waitress (from Malaysia) scurried back to check with the chef and lo and behold, he could do it! I opted for an appetizer of chili fried shrimp, which would have gone great with a Tiger beer, but I had to settle for tea and some sort of mint fruit juice. The shrimp vindaloo main course was damn near perfect and I was once again in hog heaven during mealtime. Dessert was – you guessed it! – Turkish Ice Cream. Can’t get enough of that taste treat.

Saturday and Sunday were sort of extra days during which I hadn’t really planned anything specific. Saturday I slept in and didn’t have breakfast until 9 AM, late for me when traveling. I decided to check out the attractions I’d missed or only skimmed during the past few days, so first I walked over to the Al Khoot fort, near the souk. Naturally, it was being renovated so I was unable to go inside, but I took it in stride. Next, a short walk to the Clock Tower (“Saaave the Clock Tower!”) which was, well, a clock tower. It was next to one of the ubiquitous mosques in Doha, which I couldn’t enter as I was in shorts, but that was OK as I’d been in bigger and better mosques in the past, so no big deal.

I checked out the Falcon Souk in Souk Waqif, an area devoted to, as you might have guessed, falcons. The old sport of falconry is still practiced in Qatar and there is an obvious market for good birds. There’s even a falcon hospital to care for injured or sick birds. The outdoor horse souk was empty, as the horses were kept indoors during the heat of the day, but the camels were outside in their camel souk pen, chewing their cud and making strange noises.

I’d been active during most of my days in Qatar, but Saturday was especially hot, at 34 degrees Celsius in the unshaded streets and parks of Doha (that’s around 92 degrees Fahrenheit!), so today I decided to do as the locals did and close up shop between noon and four PM and spend those hours in a cool or air-conditioned environment. So I did, even getting a brief nap into the afternoon.
But around 5 PM I was out and about again. I walked down to the Al Corniche and the dhow jetty and found one of the dhows ready to head out for a 30-minute cruise across the bay to the city center area and back. Only 40 Qatari Rials (about 8 euro) and so, along with several families, including their kids, it was off in an ancient dhow with the cooling breeze wafting over us and sounds of strange music blasting from the speakers (has anyone ever heard the song I’m In Love With Your Body?)
One of the last restaurants I had researched was the Bandar Aden Yemeni restaurant at the edge of the souk, so tonight I headed over to see what Yemeni food was like. And it was pretty damn good. I sat outside, as always, and had something called a Salta, which was sort of a meat stew, consisting of meat, eggs, rice, cheese, potatoes and beef curry. It was served in a bowl and eaten with a spoon. It was also accompanied by the biggest piece of naan bread I have ever seen. I don’t even know how they cooked it. It must have been 15 inches, or almost 40 centimeters, in diameter. I polished off the Salta OK but only managed about half of the naan, as good as it was.

I was sitting alone at a table for four, tearing strips off my monster naan, when a middle-aged man asked if he could join me; sure, no problem. Turned out he was originally from Egypt, working locally as an architect, and had lived in LA for some years. Always fun to have a dining companion, and we had a nice chat during our dinner. I chose the Maasob Garden of Eden for dessert, which was apparently a distant kin to bread pudding, i.e., bananas, bread, honey, cheese and dates slathered with cream. A mint tea rounded it off nicely. I spent awhile after dinner wandering the souk again and listening to the live music played on several terraces, until my legs gave out and I staggered back to the hotel.

And then it was Sunday, my last full day in Doha. I’d done almost everything I wanted to do and seen everything I wanted to see, so it was essentially a free day. Mostly I just walked around on the Corniche, enjoying the heat and sunshine (it was 34 degrees Celsius again). I picked up a backpack to hold the extra souvenirs I’d bought that wouldn’t fit in my suitcase. I walked over to the Museum of Islamic Art, but found it somewhat boring, as Islam does not allow representations of people, animals, or other living creatures or things in its “art”. So, what’s left is basically just geometric scribbles, which really don’t hold one’s interest for very long. But at least it was cool inside.
While in the MIA I chatted with a pair of Indian expats in town for a short-term work contract; as always, they were pleased to talk with a real American. I watched the dhows for a while and finally walked back to the souk for lunch. I found a nice air conditioned place and had a really good pizza covered with all sorts of pizza toppings. I also decided on a pina colada “mocktail,” one of those fake cocktails without any alcohol. I told my waitress (from Malaysia) we would call it a Virgin Pina Colada; she giggled hysterically as she served me.

A brief nap and shower, some last-minute shopping and bargaining in the souk, a light dinner at a small locally-owned restaurant surrounded by men in white robes smoking their shisha pipes and, yes, one more Turkish ice cream cone before I strolled back to the hotel to pack. I had arranged a hotel car to take me to the airport around 9:30, hoping I could check in early and maybe have a late snack and some final browsing through the luxury shops on my way to Gate C20, at least a quarter-mile walk from Passport Control.

All was OK and my flight took off on time, about 2:30 AM. I changed planes at Istanbul again and found I had to go through another security check, the line for which must have held 500 people. It was slow going, but I have to admit the Turkish Border Control folks whisked us through as quickly as possible, which was good as I only had a one-hour connection time. By the time I got through Security and hustled down to my gate, my flight was boarding again, as it had on my outbound leg. Damn – just made it!

And so I was home again in Budapest at 8:30 Monday morning. The weather had even cooperated for a change and was around 50 degrees F (10 C), so my bus and metro rides home were easy peezy. I’d absorbed enough sunshine to last me until spring and I glowed with the good health of a nice base suntan. Another fun trip – and now 72 countries under my belt. Hope you enjoyed this blog and we’ll have to see what comes next. Until then, Happy Trails and May the Road Rise to Meet You.