Lukatch Newsletter

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

Location: Budapest, Hungary

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

Friday, April 08, 2016

Peroni Rules in Puglia

This time the dart I threw at my map of the world landed on: Bari, down on the southeast coast in the boot heel of Italy, on the Adriatic Sea, in the Italian province of Puglia. Well, why not? Winter still had a slight grip on Budapest and I could use some sunshine, so off I went. Friday, April 1, a mid-morning flight to Zurich that left 15 minutes late (and I only had a 45-minute turn-around time!) where, once again, my connecting gate was in the farthest reaches of hell and I had to hoof it to make my connection. My stubby legs were a’pumpin and a’chuggin’ as I hustled down to Gate 82, which I reached as the plane was boarding. Huff and puff!

Got to Bari airport around 2:15 PM and took the train into Bari’s Central Station, from where I caught a taxi the short distance to my hotel. As usual, I threw my suitcase on my bed, dashed some water on my face and headed out on my initial exploration of another new town. I was staying at the Piazza Garibaldi end of the Corso Vittorio Emanuelle, which ran all the way down to the harbor area, a nice 15-20-minute stroll in the warmish early spring weather. I nosed into the Old Town, figuring I’d explore in more detail the following day; walked around the harbor area and, since the sun was now over the yardarm, decided drinks and a late-afternoon snack were in order. Silly me! I’d forgotten about the strange Italian restaurant and bar opening hours; after a brief lunchtime (usually 12-3 PM), everything closed until six or seven PM, when the restaurants opened up again for early diners. Crap! No drinks until seven. Sigh.
I walked back to my hotel, unpacked, cleaned up a touch more, dawdled a little and finally took another slow stroll back to the Old Town, where I found vini e cucina, a small restaurant I’d read about that had no menu; you just took whatever the proprietor decided he wanted to serve that night. Beer was the first order of the evening and I enjoyed my initial Peroni. This light Italian beer is to Bari what Guinness is to Dublin. It is usually served in 0.33L bottles and costs anywhere from one euro to 3.5 euros, depending on where you’re drinking, in a harbor-side bar or a fancy upscale dining establishment. It was cold and smooth and went down just right.

Then the food started to arrive: prosciutto (thin-sliced ham and pork), cheese slices, aubergine and cucumbers in heavy olive oil, some sort of hard-cooked potatoes (like hash browns), a rice-and-potato salad with mussels, and a nice little beefsteak with lettuce. Accompanied by three Peronis, this basic but filling meal satisfied my needs for the night. A brief stop at the Karlsbrau Birreiria on the way home for yet one or two more Peronis (it really is a good beer) and it was a pleasant night after all.

Saturday morning was hazy sunshine with temps in the mid-50s F (around 12 degrees Celsius). I greeted the new day and headed out to see a bit more of Bari. I walked probably half of the Old Town, getting wonderfully lost in the maze of streets, some marked, some not, but only a few shown on my official tourist map of Bari. It was great. Lots of churches (the Catholic church has a definite lock on this small town), winding streets, small “cortes,” which are actually tiny little courts with no exit, laundry hanging from balconies everywhere, small snack shops starting to open for the workers. The Piazza Maritime central square was still fairly quiet, with its columns and wide spaces and old weather-beaten lion which was used to punish local lawbreakers (not quite sure how; I think the miscreants had to sit astride the lion while the townspeople pelted them with raw fish and epithets).
I settled on one of the Piazza restaurants open for breakfast and had something called a Maxi toast, or crudo, which consists of toast (obviously), a slice of prosciutto (ham), a slice of cheese and tomatoes, washed down with a glass of tea. The day was hot and partially sunny, but the shaded streets of the Old Town were cool and inviting, so I lingered and strolled and soaked up the atmosphere.

Around 11:30 or so I decided to see if El Chinguito was open. I’d found this place on the Internet and had walked by it the previous evening, but it was closed at that time. Turned out it’s a tiny little bar located at the end of a harbor promontory, where the fishermen bring their small boats and sell their day’s catches straight out of the sea. The bar does a booming business, with old men sitting around makeshift tables playing their never-ending games of cards, young bucks swilling beer and crooning “Ciao, Bella” to any and all female passers-by, fishermen selling their fresh catches, tourists snapping pics of everything in sight and travelers like me inhaling the ambiance. I had two or three of those great 0.33L Peroni beers, which only cost one euro at El Chinguito, and I hung around and people watched all the interesting local characters until all the fish was sold and the card games were over and the bar was closing. Then I strolled back to the hotel for a siesta.
Saturday night, the big night in Bari and a night I set out to remember. And remember it I did, although not quite for the reasons I was anticipating. If there is ever an award for having bad experiences happen to someone at the most inconvenient times possible, I should be right up there with the final contenders. In the past, my apartment’s shower drain backed up on a Friday night and I was unable to get a plumber until Monday morning; the day before I was to leave for a week in Paris in a private house which I was offered free of charge I had a heart attack; and tonight when I…..well, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Common lore is that bad things also happen in threes, and I sure scored a hat trick that night. My first stop was to be at Joy’s Irish Pub, which I’d also found in the net. It was a couple of miles from the Old Town so I took a taxi. Joy’s internet site said the pub opened at 7 PM, like many of the other bars in the area, so I arranged to arrive around 7:15, to give them time to cool the Guinness and tune up the band. I walked in the front door of a really tiny pub (the only one smaller I’d ever seen was the one in Dublin advertising itself as “The Tiniest Pub in Dublin,” where you had to turn sideways to enter the front door and actually had to stand outside the door to the toilet to use it – and hope your aim was good that night!) and was told by the waitress that they opened at 8 PM. Well, scheisse! Strike one.

OK, I was hungry so I walked down the street to a small pizza parlor and ordered a pepperoni pizza and a Peroni. As I was drinking my beer and chewing thoughtfully (and slowly) on my very good pizza, to make the time go by more slowly, I bit down on something hard and thought it was a bit of gristle, so I spit it out. It looked like part of a tooth. Hmmm. I finished my pizza and beer and started back to Joy’s Pub, exploring my teeth for imbedded bits of pizza, when I noticed a gap between two of my teeth. Holy Novocaine, Batman, what I had spit out was part of my tooth. Luckily, it turned out to be a very old filling and there was no pain involved in my loss. I hoped it would remain painless, as I wouldn’t be able to get to my dentist until Tuesday morning. Sigh. Strike Two.

I got back to Joy’s and ordered one of their interesting draft beers; they had Tennent’s Super, Kilkenny and Guinness, so I had one of each. As I sat at the bar making light conversation with a very attractive bartendress, I noticed the customers began to consist of families, i.e., parents and little kids – hordes of little kids. In an Irish bar on a Saturday night. What was this? Angelina (the bartendress) told me it was some sort of kiddie awards night, with coloring contests, puzzles, etc., and the neighborhood bars would be full of children until late in the evening. Well, HELL!

I was looking forward to some convivial bar chat with locals and some mild flirting with the bartendresses and some lively music, not listening to the screechy voices of crowds of young children. I like kids too, but a pub is not the place for them at night. I had my three beers and asked the bar manager to call me a taxi and went back to the Karlsbrau Bar near my hotel, which was also filled with kids, this time young teens, whose coloring books had faded into their memories and who were intent only on filling in their present spaces with the opposite gender. Two more beers without an adult bar clientele in sight and it was back to the hotel. My big Saturday night in Bari. Well, at least I got my three bad things out of the way for a while. Strike three and “Yer outta there!”)

Sunday was another day. Continental breakfast at my hotel: cold cuts of meat, cheese slices, juice and other stuff I chose not to eat. Filling, but not satisfying. I thought a Best Western Executive would have a better breakfast buffet. Anyway, more walking and exploring, peeked into the huge fort near my hotel, the Normanno Svevo, built in the 12th century, strolled down by the fish market and harbor area again, walked the Old Town walls around the “point,” stopped off at El Chiringuito again for more Peroni as the sun bore down upon me, watched a 5K race for a very short while and ended up back at the Piazza Ferrarese central square for an early lunch of wonderful Italian antipasti.

Sunday afternoon was spent going out aways and down the seaside to other unexplored areas, just taking in the warm Italian ambiance. Before the restaurants open again in the evening, there is nothing to do and almost nowhere to get anything to eat or drink. Dead time! I killed it with colorful walks and enjoying the sunshine and maybe even a siesta.

Around 6:30 I ventured out hoping to find something open, and was rewarded at Piazza Maritime with the Bar Citta Vecchia, a “cocktelleria” offering all sorts of fun drinks. I stuck with Peroni and watched the strollers go by on an early Sunday evening. There were lots of people out, too, and quite a few with young parents with babies and toddlers and young children. Obviously family night in Bari.

Dinner that night was at a highly recommended restaurant hidden away in the Old Town, La Uascezze. It really was hard to find, although it was literally just a few steps away from the Piazza Maritime. Fortunately, there were inconspicuous signs to guide me and I finally found it, a really funky old-style place with red-checked tablecloths, brick walls and uneven stone floors. My table was actually an old sewing machine table. There were strings of garlic hanging on the walls, probably to keep the vampires away (I didn’t see any, so it must have worked). Lots of local color.

The menu was only in Italian and, as my menu knowledge consisted mainly of spaghetti and Peroni, I gave in and asked the head waiter for help. He recommended a tasting menu, which I find more and more often in my travels and which I have come to enjoy, as I was able to sample bits and bites of many of the local favorites. Tonight I had: prosciutto (thin-sliced meats), two different white cheeses (ricotta and mozzarella), fresh-baked bread, big charred mushrooms, a big slice of something that resembled and tasted like quiche, several huge mussels in tomato sauce and bacon-wrapped warm cheese sticks. An after-dinner limoncello and I was a happy camper.

And so it was Monday, April 4, my last full day in Bari. My plane didn’t leave until late afternoon, so I still had most of the day to finish seeing whatever I had missed and doing whatever shopping I still had to do. And, of course, eat more of that wonderful seafood. After my morning constitutional I found one of the restaurants on the main square open for business – more or less. Turned out I could have a beer and an appetizer, but lunch would not be served for another 30 minutes. Strange customs. But the appetizer was octopus salad (octopus with potatoes) and a Peroni red beer this time. Very nice.

One more beer and 30 minutes later I was able to order the main course: frutti di mare spaghetti, i.e., spaghetti with squid, shrimp, crayfish, clans (sic), oil, garlic, tomatoes, parsley and pepper, accompanied by yet another Peroni Red. Sounds great, right? Well, it was tasty, but the squid was unrecognizable, there was only one anemic crayfish and 3-4 unshelled clams, but lots of tiny shrimp. Value received was not the best at this place, but I was hungry and it was nice in the Italian sun, so what the heck.

Got back to the hotel around 2 PM, read for a while and caught my airport bus just across the street at 3:30 (4 euro as compared to a taxi for 25 euro). At the airport around 4, checked in 4:30, cleared Security and headed for the nearest restroom – which was being cleaned. Now, I’ve never mentioned this previously, probably because I doubted anyone would be interested, but I would say at least 50% of the time I get through airport Security and need to use the restroom the nearest one is being cleaned. Really. It happens so often that statistically I must be an anomaly. I figure the check-in person must alert the cleaning crew so the cleaners can get in there and block off the restroom from needful passengers – especially me! Aaarrgghhh!

Anyway, my flight actually left on time; I had a nice light sushi dinner in Munich and arrived in Budapest at 11 PM, caught a mini-bus and got home around midnight. I was greeted by the sight of my newly-installed extra-special double-glazed plastic-framed hermetically-sealed windows, which had been installed while I was away, looked over by my downstairs neighbors and landlords. Hope my next winter heating bills go down. I hit the sack right away as I knew I’d have to be up early to head for the dentist to have my broken tooth fixed. (Turned out one of my 50-year-old fillings had finally loosened and popped out, taking part of my tooth with it. My beautiful young dentist informed me that amalgam fillings haven’t been used since before she was born. Thank you, Kriszta.).

So, another brief but good weekend. Home for most of April, then off to visit a friend in Geneva for another even briefer weekend. Watch this space for more great blogging and have a fantastic spring.

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

A Great Winter Getaway

Hmm, let’s see: February temperature in Budapest: 36 degrees Fahrenheit. Temperature in Cartagena, Colombia: 89 degrees Fahrenheit. No real difficulty in choosing then, is there? None for me, at any rate. Yep, time to exit the wool-hat-and-scarf winter of Hungary and enter the sunny, warm, beach-going climes of South America.

After so many years of traveling and visiting new and exotic places, it’s gotten harder and harder for me to find interesting new places to visit, winter or summer. It is both wonderful and terrible to have to admit I have visited almost every place on earth I have ever wanted to see, from my earliest days as a reader of worldwide adventures; I’m now at 65 countries and counting. Plus, of course, I’ve also been to many, many more sights and sites I never imagined I ever would or could visit, places like: Lenin’s tomb in Red Square, Moscow; the Forbidden City and Mao Tse Tung’s tomb in Beijing, China; Skara Brae in the Orkney Islands; the Hypogeum in Malta; Newgrange in Ireland; Gobekli Tepe and Ephesus in Turkey; a tiger sanctuary in Thailand; Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa; the small Lithuanian town where my paternal grandmother was born.

Lots and lots of amazing, fascinating, incredible places, so many on my previously long, long list of places to visit, so many more added as I went along. And so, finally, I am almost out of new places to visit, at least, places that interest me and that I want to see and explore. There are many apparently fantastic places that I could visit in the world, but most of them have never made my list, probably because they just plain don’t interest me. At any rate, I’ll keep reducing my list by seeing those places I do want to see and will just have to deal with what else there is to see in the world when I cross off the final destination from my list.

Until then, I’m down to second-tier cities as yet uncrowded and unfound by the tourist hordes. And so, checking out warm inviting places to visit in the dead of winter, I came upon Cartagena, on the northwest coast of Colombia, South America. South America is one of those continents that really doesn’t do a lot for me. The closest I’ve ever come was a visit to Panama in the mid-1990s, one of the very few places on earth I did not like. I hear it’s changed a lot and is much better now, but back then it was just not a good place to be.

And South America? Everyone I know who has been to Macchu Picchu raved about it, but it leaves me cold. Rio de Janeiro – Americans need a visa to visit, which means more hoops to jump through and more money to be paid out in entry fees; Buenos Aires – eh. But Cartagena appeared on a 2016 list of interesting second-tier cities that deserve a look-see, and it’s warm and sunny, so why not. I left my winter clothes behind and caught the big bird for exotic climes.

(NB: During the time I was waiting to visit, the Zika virus appeared in South America and especially in Colombia as a possible deterrent to travelers, especially pregnant women. Intrepid adventurer that I am, however, I did not let it deter me.)

A mid-morning flight to Frankfurt, a brief layover, then a nearly 12-hour flight to Bogota, Colombia, where I had a three-hour layover. It was lucky I did, as I needed to change some money for my necessary taxi ride to the hotel once I arrived in Cartagena at 1 AM, when the cash exchanges probably weren’t open (actually, it turned out they were open, but I didn’t know that). I felt like a rich man afterwards, as the exchange rate is 3,450 Colombian pesos to one dollar; yep, to one dollar. Which means one hundred dollars equals 345,000 pesos. I changed 200 US dollars and ended up with just under three-quarters of a million pesos. Cool.

I also cleared Passport Control in Bogota and transferred to Avianca Airlines for the short domestic flight to my final destination. Naturally, my departure gate was the very last one in the Bogota airport, as far away from my arrival gate as possible and still be in Colombia. At least my plane was on time and I arrived in Cartagena in the wee hours of February 18. As always a touch apprehensive, I exuded a small amount of perspiration until I saw my bag lying happily on the baggage carousel; made it again.

Exiting the small Cartagenian airport was no problem and I went right to the taxi window outside the baggage claim area and got my voucher for the ride to my hotel: 10,500 pesos, or about $3 US. Excellent. I may have finally found a place that’s cheaper than Budapest. My taxi driver, Roberto “Rocket Man” Cardenas, whipped me through the deserted Cartagena streets and down the promenade next to the sea and through the Old Town walls and got me the approximately two miles to my hotel in about five minutes. During the daytime one can probably walk from the airport to the Old Town.

We found my hotel, the Casa Alejandria, with no problem and I checked in quickly with the night manager, unpacked in my air-conditioned, windowless room and crashed for the remainder of the night. Due to my travel naps, however, I was up and ready to hit the streets by 8 AM. I was out of my cool room and immediately walked into the heat and humidity of a Caribbean morning. I was in tank top and shorts and sandals, and I was still sweating; it was a far cry from winter in Budapest – thank goodness! I was looking forward to sweating off a few pounds.
I used the early morning hours, when most shops were still closed, to wander the streets, looking for the Tourist Information Booth (abandoned) on the Plaza de la Aduana, the main square in town, just behind the Clock Tower. I found a small snack stand already open and had my first empanada of the week. I also found the University of Cartagena and went looking for their student store, but they didn’t have one so, Morgan, no Uni t-shirt for you this time. Sorry.

I was still hungry an hour or so later so I stopped at another snack place and had a chorizo paisa con caramelized onions along with an Agua Panela, an amazingly refreshing drink of mixed juices; it was sort of brownish-colored, but tasted wonderful. I found that Cartagena had a Hop On hop Off bus tour of the city and environs, so signed up for the two-day special deal: 45,000 pesos ($13 US; I was getting to like Cartagena more all the time).

I rode the bus for about 90 minutes, checking out all the sights I would come back to the following day – or maybe even that afternoon. The big fortress, San Felipe, the commercial area of Bocagrande, the sea promenade, the new swinging Getsemanni area. They all looked like interesting places to explore on foot. I could hardly wait.

When the bus returned to its starting point near the Clock Tower, I was ready for a cold beer and lunch, so I stopped at The Clock Pub for both. A draft of Club Columbiana beer and a Tower Dog (giant hot dog with cheese and bacon and a side of fires) hit the spot. I also made immediate friends with the lone bartender at the time, Katarina, a lovely, dark-haired young Columbian woman with a ready smile and a friendly welcoming attitude. This English-themed pub would be my base during my visit, as it was one of the liveliest places in town and one where the staff and customers all spoke English. (NB: Cartagena is one of those places that wants tourists – cruise ships dock here regularly – but doesn’t want to have to cater to them to any great extent; as such, very, very few people here speak English. In addition, there are very, very few signs in English in addition to Spanish, so visitors better have at least Survival Spanish to get by.)

I thought a brief nap might be in order to catch up on my lost sleep, so returned to the hotel around 2 PM – and slept until 9 PM! Damn! I didn’t think I was that tired. Anyway, I leaped – OK, rolled – out of bed, showered (again) and headed out to see what Cartagenian nightlife had to offer. First stop – yep, you guessed it, The Clock Pub. I could find out where to go from there. I got there just as the band was shifting into High Gear and had more of that surprisingly good Columbian beer over the next couple of hours. I sat at the bar among the tourists in their fake Panama hats and shorts and just enjoyed the night and the music.

A light breakfast the following morning at Le Petit café: huevos rancheros with hot chocolate. The rancheros was good, the chocolate was not. I waited for the HOHO bus, which its schedule said was due around 9:30 AM, so I would get to the fortress San Felipe de Barajas around 10 AM and have more than an hour to wander around before the next HOHO bus showed up. Well, my best laid plans once again went aglay, as the bus was more than 30 minutes late, which meant my fortress time would be considerably shortened, unless I wanted to hang around there for the nearly three-hour lunch break taken by the HOHO drivers. Cartagena takes its siesta time seriously.
Anyway, after paying the 17,000 peso entry fee (about $5 US), I climbed the steep ramps up to the fortress proper. It was hot and a rather long way for my old legs, but I made it sweating and panting and breathing heavily. And, as it turned out, one hour was more than enough to see the fortress. The parts open to the public only required about 30 minutes or so to check out: the walls with cannon slits, the watchtowers, the very few inner chambers. The tourists weren’t exactly clamoring to get in this major sight, so I was able to get around easily and quickly. And quite honestly, it wasn’t all that great. Big, imposing, made entirely from local coral, it is also quite bland and dull. Nothing to see, really. Not worth the entry fee. But one of the city’s must-see attractions, so I saw it.

I caught the next HOHO bus to the Bocagrande commercial area of New Cartagena, lots of tall office buildings and beaches and businesses along the peninsula leading south from the Old Town area. Since it was around lunchtime, I found a seaside Palenquera and settled in at a terrace table overlooking the beachfront promenade. My waitress, Lisette, brought me beer and food, some sort of meat and veggies. She spoke no English, and my rudimentary Spanish just wasn’t quite making the grade. But we somehow managed to work out what I wanted – and what I was going to get.
I chatted with a couple of Americans at the next table, then took off for a stroll down the beach and through the shops along the promenade. It was quiet that day and the much-vaunted hustlers were apparently all at lunch during my amble. No one hustling me to buy their fake Panama hats or crummy little tourist bracelets of woven cloth or surreptitiously showing me small packets of white powder or green leaf. Not the furtive atmosphere I was informed existed throughout Cartagena. I was obviously misinformed, or else I looked so much like a clean-cut Americano that it wasn’t worth their time to hustle me. Damn! Anyway, it was hop on the HOHO bus back to the Clock Tower and my hotel for a cleanup and quick rest.

As in pretty much all of the seaside and oceanside towns I have been to throughout the world, one of the high points of each day is gathering along the water’s edge to watch the sunset, and Cartagena was no exception. I walked down the street my hotel was on all the way west to the old city walls, and there found a ramp up to the top of the wall, where there was a good-sized outdoor café called, appropriately enough, the Café del Mar. It was doing a bustling business this close to sunset, and I decided it was time for some Cartagenian rum, so indulged in a Planter’s Punch, which hit the spot. It was quite windy up there on the wall and there was a low cloud bank out at sea, so I never did get to see the actual sunset with its vaunted green flash, but the rum dulled my disappointment enough so that I really didn’t miss much at all. The sunset gathering on Mykonos was actually a lot better.

Dinner time, and I made my way back down the wonderful and colorful side streets to the Cevicheria Trattoria Donde Wippy, a big fancy name for a quaint little place serving the city’s specialty, ceviche. Ceviche is a mixed seafood dish that apparently originated in the coastal regions of South America. It’s usually made from fresh raw fish cured in citrus juices, like lemon or lime, and spiced with ají, or chili peppers. Mine was served cold, as is the custom and, while not a large serving, was just enough to satisfy my craving for seafood and wine.

By the way, Dear Readers, although very, very few Cartagenians speak English, I seemed to be getting by OK so far with my long-ago high school Spanish. Plus, of course, all those years in southern California and New Mexico. At least I could still order a cerveza and a hamburgesa con frites without appearing as a total borrachon. Mr. Heckle, my Spanish teacher lo those many years ago, would have been pleased at what I’d retained --- and disappointed at what I’d forgotten. However, even if I was fluent I doubt I would have been able to follow the local machine-gun-rapid Spanish of the natives.

Then it was over to The Clock Pub again for some nighttime beer and music. As is almost always the case when I visit foreign bars, I struck up a conversation with two guys next to me, American expat Sean and his Ecuadorean business partner Damien. Sean was feeling no pain by this time and he and Damien soon took off to see if any of the local Ladies of Negotiable Virtue might take their fancy – and, presumably, their money. When they left, their conversational place was taken by a young man from Brazil on my left who was also just passing through for a few days. He was having a great time and informed me that during his walk on the beach that day he was offered marijuana, cocaine, girls and guns. Well, Hell! All I was offered was a fake Panama hat.

He took off for more exotic climes and was replaced by John from Florida. We chatted for a while and rounded out the evening with one or two tequilas, I forget which. Since I woke up in my hotel room bed the following morning, I presume I made it back OK and without being accosted on the street by muggers. I didn’t have any money left anyway and my old watch wouldn’t attract even a hungry child.

Saturday was my day to walk the walls of the old town, starting at, I was informed by my guide book, the Clock Tower. So I had an early-morning snack-stand empanada, reserved my beach cruise for the following day at the dockside and went in search of the steps or ramps up to the wall. It took me a while to find them, as there was no apparent entry area near the Clock Tower, but I finally got up to where I wanted to go and began my circumlocution of the old town wall.

There was no shade up there and it was already nearing 90 degrees F, so I made it, oh, say, about 100 meters and decided that was enough wall-walking for the day. I descended and sought shade in one of the little side streets and found the Gokela snack shop where I treated myself to a roast beef wrap and lemonade with lots of ice. My tank top was soaked with sweat and I needed to cool off. I wandered away the afternoon in town, doing more shopping, having lunch and more lemonade at The Clock Pub, where I had a chance to talk with Katarina, as it wasn’t very busy, bought and wrote and mailed my post cards (wonder if they’ll actually get to their destinations?) and generally continued soaking in the atmosphere of Cartagena.

I tried the Café del Mar again to see the sunset, but again there was that darn cloud bank, so after one beer I went back to town looking for a light dinner. I found the Monalisa bar and stopped for a beer and to order some food, one of their light snacks consisting of some chorizo sausages, fries and a small salad. Should have taken about 4 minutes to prepare, especially as I was the only one in the place. After 20 minutes of no food, several queries and no explanations, I polished off the last sip of beer and walked out. They will not get a good rating on Trip Advisor.

I headed for a safe haven where I knew the food would be good and would be served in a timely manner: the Hard Rock Café. I usually don’t go to these when I find one, but this night I just wanted things to go easier. I had a pulled pork sandwich and a couple of local beers and decided to call it a night. It has been my experience that a bad night is almost always followed by a good one, so I looked forward to tomorrow.

I was picked up at my hotel the next morning around 9 AM by a minibus driver and our small group of ten or so were off to see the Volcan Totumo, or Mud Volcano. I’d heard good things about this experience and was looking forward to seeing what it was. After a traffic blockage and detour, we finally got to the site around 11 AM or so. It was a high dirt mound in the middle of nowhere, really, nowhere. The dirt mound was barren and about 50 feet high, with a long staircase leading to the top, which was fenced off with stout wooden poles. We all went into one of the nearby buildings and shed our outer clothes, retaining our flip flops – except for me, as I hadn’t known to bring any. Good research on my part.
I walked barefoot across a small gravel and dirt parking area to the base of the staircase and climbed to the top with the other members of our group. Once there, I peered down over the inner fencing into a central interior space filled to about 40 feet with mud. Real, gooey, slimy, chocolate-colored, oozing mud. It looked great. I climbed down the inside wooden ladder and stepped into the mud. Remember, everyone was wearing only bathing suits, no shoes. And we were ready to get down and dirty (pun intended).

I slipped into the thin, silk-like mud and lay on my back while a young man gave me a mud massage. The only area of my body not covered in mud was my face, and I remedied that quickly by smearing mud on my forehead, cheeks, chin, etc; only my eyes and mouth were clear. It was like being five years old again and finding a great mud puddle in your back yard after a spring rain and diving in for all you’re worth. I was surprised to find I could float easily and effortlessly in the mud, sort of like floating in a much thicker Dead Sea. The mud was actually pretty cool in temperature and very soothing. It’s supposed to have therapeutic properties and be filled with lots of good chemicals and other healthy ingredients.

We were allowed to soak and frolic for about 15 minutes or so, then advised to climb out another mud-soaked and very slippery wood ladder. Took me a while, but I finally made it. Then it was down the outside steps to the parking lot, where we were told we had to go down by the river to rinse off. Well, the river was a small stream far off in the distance, but I could see other group members about 40 yards away being rinsed off by attendants. Not having any flip flops, I gingerly started toward them.

One of the snack shop owners had obviously been through this before and offered me a pair of her flip flops to make my journey easier, for which I thanked her profusely (and later tipped her 5000 pesos). I got down to the rinsing area and a nice elderly woman named Ilsa proceeded to dip a pan into a large barrel of water and then over me, over and over and over again, including down inside my bathing suit, until I was reasonably free of mud. I feared the residue under my fingernails would take at least a week and 17 showers to remove.

At last, more or less free of mud, I walked back up to the changing building and got my regular clothes back on. While we waited for the rest of our group, I had two cold beers and basked in the sun like an old dog. We then motored to a very small, poor village (hamlet? Wide spot in the road?) and had lunch under a large thatched-roof open-air terrace. Lunch was a whole fried fish that I think even the village cat had refused, with water and juice and some nice corn cakes. Two more beers helped settle everything nicely.

Upon my return to Cartagena, I headed for the shower as quickly as possible, healthy mud or no healthy mud. My shower floor was grey when I finished, despite the ministrations of Ilsa, and I have no doubts the housekeeper picked up my towel the next morning with a certain reluctance. But at least I was once again fairly clean. A brief nap readied me for the night.

I was in the mood for something fantastic for dinner that night (must have been all that healthy mud), so I wandered around looking for the steakhouse I had spotted earlier. Naturally, I forgot what street it was on but continued scouring the neighborhood until I happened on a place called Quebracho, with a large figure of a bull in front. Hmmm, could be good. I checked out the menu and sure enough, it fit the bill. In I went.

The restaurant was atmospheric to a fault, dimly-lighted and with real tablecloths and cloth napkins and heavy silverware. The headwaiter and my young lady waiter both spoke English – a real treat. They were both helpful in aiding my choices for the evening. I started with a beautiful frozen margarita, perfectly made. Aaaahhh. There were some bread and cracker snacks with yummy cheese spreads and I also ordered an appetizer of something called Argentine Pies, small sort of fried dim sum filled with various meat and chicken and veggie stuffings. Plus dipping sauce, of course. Yum.

And the main course, a really imposing hunk of tenderloin beef with a side of veggies. A glass of red wine topped it off. It’s good to be at the top of the food chain. No limoncello in Colombia, but a nice after-dinner Sambuca hit the spot. I’ve paid a lot more for a lot worse meals in many places in the world. And the price? For all of the above, 120,000 pesos. Sounds like a lot, right? Remember the exchange rate? So, total cost in US dollars was $35 – which included tip! I like Cartagena.

Since I had a 6 AM wakeup the next morning, I decided a short stroll back to my hotel would do me for the night and turned in early.

Aaarrgghh!! Up at 6 AM to be at the docks at 7:30 to buy my ticket for the day cruise to Isla Rosario and Playa Blanca. The cruise finally left around 9:15; why do they tell us to be there so darn early? I was buckled into my (rather small) life vest along with the 49 other tourists out for a day on the water and at the beach. We were in a smallish speedboat, with a center aisle and rows of two seats on each side, with room in the bow and stern for a few more. I was in the bow, natch. The morning ride to the beaches was relaxing and uneventful, as we stopped along the way to check out some of the other island sights and even a reef or two. Our Captain gave us a running commentary, all in Spanish, of course, so I just enjoyed the ride.
We dropped off one batch of people at Playa Blanca and then proceeded on to the Oceanario Park on Isla Rosario, sort of like a cut-rate Marineland. If you’ve never been to a Marine Park before, or seen a dolphin show, it’s probably pretty good, but for those of us who have been going since we were kids, well, it was rather basic. Nice, but basic. We stayed in the area for an hour or so, then headed back to Playa Blanca for a couple of hours of beach time.

After lunch at the beach (included in the price), we had time to swim and sunbathe and relax. The sea was warm and inviting, but the tide was strong and heavy and it was difficult to just float near the shore. Farther out, of course, you’d soon be swept away to Panama. But it was a nice relaxing day at the beach. When we got ourselves on our boat again and life-jacketed, our Captain told everyone it would be best if we put all of our electronics, cameras, phones, watches, etc., in our bags and had them stored in the bow storage area, as rough seas were expected on the way back. Well, let me tell you…..

Cap stored our stuff, told us to hold on to something, started the boat and away we went. The sea was angry that day, my friends. High swells and deep troughs, and we hit every one of them. During the first half of our voyage home, we were up and down and in and out of a whole lot of interesting seascapes. Water swept over the bows, in heavy rain volume at first, then in wave after wave as we all got soaked, almost as if we’d been immersed in the water. It was definitely an E Ticket! (Disneyland reference).

It was so rough, in fact (although several of us had a ball!), that the woman next to me pulled out her plastic-bag-wrapped camera, shoved the camera back in her backpack and used the plastic bag as a barf bag. Yep, sick right next to me. How do I get so lucky? It was so rough that 2/3 of the way home we had to change boats because apparently Cap had broken ours. Cool. A perfect ending to an otherwise lazy day.

My hotel’s day manager was somewhat surprised to see me drag in, wet from cap to sandals, but with a big grin on my face. When he asked me how my day was, I just said, “Rock and roll!” After all that swaying and sliding and swooping, I only wanted something light for dinner, so decided on another ceviche at the Café Leon. Good enough to see me through until my two margaritas at the Clock Pub, where I chatted briefly with Katarina before heading off to the Land of Nod.

Tuesday, and my last full day and night in Cartagena. Nothing major planned for the day, so I headed out for breakfast at Prispri, a really nice little coffee shop near the Plaza Bolivar, where I was able to get some huevos rancheros and one of those great refreshing drinks. On the way there who should I run into but Damien from The Clock Pub, who greeted me like an old buddy. Amazing how that works, isn’t it? I pretty much killed the day checking out the sights and sites I hadn’t already seen, including walking around the newer Getsemanni area across the canal from the Old Town. I stopped by The Clock Pub again to have an afternoon margarita and to maybe see Katarina one more time, but she was off that day. The margarita was good, however.

For my last supper in Cartagena I chose Montesucro, another great steak place occupying a balcony overlooking the tree-filled Plaza Bolivar. The Plaza was alight that night, as I guess it is every night, with the sound of drums and flutes and other instruments accompanying a troup of various types of dancers. I couldn’t quite see the dancers through the trees, but the music was an interesting accompaniment for my dinner. I had a caipirinha and ordered an appetizer of fried plantains stuffed with pico de gallo, accompanied by guacamole and sour cream dips. Mmmm. For the main course I chose the Lomo Manchego, a sirloin steak stuffed with manchego cheese, just because it sounded good. And it was.

The hostess at Montesucro was kind enough to give me a free entry card to a nearby salsa club, Tucandula, which I immediately renamed Tucandoit. It was located on the Plaza de la Aduana, across from The Clock Pub – but then, wasn’t everything? Anyway, my last night, what the heck, I’d brave the hookers and hustlers and see what a real Cartagenian salsa club had to offer. I got there around 9 PM or so and the place wasn’t offering much; in fact, I was the only customer. I ordered a mango margarita and settled in at the bar to see what would happen. Not much, and after one more mango margarita I was ready to leave around 10:30 and call it an early night. As I got off my barstool ready to signal for my bill, a trio of young ladies walked in, dressed to salsa the night away. As it was so dim in the place I didn’t realize it until they walked by me that the last one of the three was --- Katarina! Wow! What a coincidence! I’d have to hang around a while now, just to see where the night might go.

(Very Abridged Version)
I said Hi to Katarina and she was as surprised as I was to find me there. She joined me at the bar and I bought her a drink and we chatted for a while, but then the music picked up and it was hard to talk and be heard so she asked me if I knew how to salsa. Well! I’d taken my last salsa class at the Budapest Tanc Centrum in 2000 and had strutted what little stuff I had in Seville and Barcelona, so I said, sure, let’s try it.

Our styles weren’t quite the same, but I managed to not actually fall on the floor, so guess I did OK. After a couple of rounds, she suggested we adjourn to the other bar downstairs for another drink, so of course I went along. I was salsa’ed out by then and ready for a drink and a rest. The downstairs bar was obviously for serious chatters, as it was even more dimly lighted than upstairs. Kati found us a quiet, rather dark corner booth and slid in next to me where she….

Our chatting got quieter after that and we even managed to….

Her drink was almost gone when she leaned forward and….

Time seemed to slow down then as we….

Finally she said she should return to her friends so she gave me….

We said a fond farewell and I weaved happily back to my hotel and crashed.

Wednesday was my real last day in Cartagena, as my plane left at 6:30 the following morning, which meant I had to be at the airport around 4:30, so up at 3:30 or so to get ready. I needed my beauty rest and would undoubtedly make this a really early night. Another great breakfast at Prispri of their special omelet and juice with dollar pancakes. The day was really hot and humid, sunny and bright, temp must have been hovering around 95 F. It reminded me of New Orleans in August, where you couldn’t walk down the street without popping into a store every few doors just to get cool. I decided to do the same and popped into the Gold Museum, not specifically to see the exhibits, but mainly just to feel the cool air conditioning. I did a repeat performance as often as possible during the day.

Lunch was a mazucado plate at a little tiny eatery called Sierva Maria, and it was like nothing I’d ever had before. My order was called La Mazorca Desgranada and was a mixture of shredded beef, papitas, salsa and other stuff I still can’t identify. But it was delicious. I think it cost me $3 US. While I was eating, two guys with whom I’d shared a table at breakfast came in and we chatted a while. Turned out they were originally from Cuba, now living in Miami. I opted for air con shops during the afternoon and a nice long shower before dinner. My last meal in Cartagena was a light dinner of fried shrimp at a local mid-level restaurant called Café Chippy Chippy (really!) and, with a frozen pina colada, hit the spot. I was in bed by 10 PM.

Thursday really early morning, February 25, up at 3 AM, taxi to the airport at 4, quick and easy check-in with Copa Airlines, ready to go through passport control which, unfortunately, didn’t open until 5 AM. Sigh. Who schedules these things? Anyway, got through there and went to the security inspection station, where a guard took my passport and exit papers and set them aside. Then a young woman commenced to tear my shoulder carry-on bag apart. She took out everything, smelled the plastic bag contents, popped the top on my meds, looked in every pocket and crevice and gave me the most detailed inspection I’d had since Kathmandu.

Afterward, I had to see another guard about my passport. This one asked me a few questions based on a form he had with my name on it (!), then put me through one of these x-ray machines, I guess to be sure I wasn’t smuggling a bag of cocaine I’d swallowed. Fortunately it didn’t show up so I was free to go. We took off on time and got to Panama City OK, although my connecting gate was once again at the opposite end of the airport from my arrival gate. Then it was a five-hour flight to Washington, DC, where I figured my three-hour layover would be plenty of time to do whatever I wanted, maybe some airport shopping. Silly me.

Once again, doing the Airport Dance in the US was the worst part of the trip. Never again will I fly to or through a US airport when I have checked a bag. This time I was a transit passenger, not even stopping in the US, and STILL those TSA scumbags broke into my suitcase and rummaged around. Then in Frankfurt when I checked into the Lufthansa Transit Desk I was given the wrong boarding pass and still had to suffer through my nine-hour layover. Big and Long Sigh.

Anyway, got home OK and had a fun time in Cartagena. Recommended for a long weekend trip for the snowbirds in the US and Canada. Y’all enjoy the remaining weeks of winter and watch this space for my nextploits. TTFN.

POST SCRIPT: A few Comments about Cartagena and Colombia

1. People seemed generally happy and most were smiling
2. Very, very few people speak any English at all, so bone up on your Spanish before you go.
3. Most signs, including menus, are in Spanish only. See #2 above.
4. Not a sign of a Zika mosquito anywhere. Think the media has overreacted again?
5. There are no foreign restaurants in Cartagena that I could find: Indian, Chinese, Thai, etc.
6. Colombians include corn in many of their dishes.
7. The street hustlers are everywhere, but are not generally intrusive.
8. Of all the many dangers I was warned about – drugs, pickpockets, muggers, etc. – I saw exactly: NONE!
9. Be prepared for heat and humidity and, on many days, winds.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

I Wonder of There's an Old Zealand?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, September 05, 2015

The Iceman Cometh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best regards, Siggi.
Hotel Metropolitan”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Try it ----- you’ll like it.