Travels With Myself

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

Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Now I travel extensively, and have been to more than 65 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 hopefully in the future.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

It Really is "The Happy Isle"

I can count on one hand – and have fingers left over – the number of places in the world I’ve visited and later returned to, and this idyllic island in the Mediterranean is definitely one of them. After due consideration as to where to spend my summer vacation, I decided I just had to go back to Alghero, Sardinia, again. Such a fantastic place. People, food, drinks, weather, atmosphere, beaches, this place has it all. And I needed to experience it for yet another week this summer.

Third week of July, 2016. I packed up my suitcase with swim trunks, tank tops, sandals, Hawaiian-style shirts for my evening dining on the city wall and I was ready to go. The only Alitalia flight from Budapest was still in the evening, connecting through Rome and arriving in Alghero at 10:30 PM. So once more I arranged with my hotel to pick me up at the airport. I was ready for my summer beach holiday.

The weather would be perfect for this time of year: 90 degrees during the daytime (30 degrees Celsius) and high 60s at night (20 C). A friend of mine who’d been to Sardinia last year after my visit told me about a great day trip to Corsica; an hour or two on a bus to the northern port city of Porto Teresa, then another hour across the Med to the fortress city of Bonifacio. I was ready for that. Also, last year I’d passed on another day trip by bus to the little town of Bosa, south of Alghero, so I hoped to remedy that situation this year. All in, all, I was ready for another fantastic week in Sardinia.

The only negative this year would be the loss of my newfound friends at the Alghero City Hotel. It turned out that bartender Tomaso, plus Server Antonio and Receptionist Alessandra (husband and wife team), had all departed for greener pastures. I was sorely disappointed when I found out, as I’d looked forward to seeing them all again. I only hoped their replacements were as friendly and welcoming. I guess I’d find out soon enough. My pickup was ready and waiting for me at the airport and the Alghero City Hotel still stood invitingly when I arrived. Easy check-in and in bed by 1 AM. Of course, before hitting the sack I had to set my watch for Mediterranean time, where the minute hand actually slows down and takes two minutes to go what was formerly four minutes. You know how things are much slower in the Med.

Friday morning I was up and out early. First stop: the tour agency with which I was booking my day trip to Bonifacio, Corsica. They still hadn’t confirmed the trip, as they required a minimum of ten people, and I was the only one booked so far. I was to check back with them later that day to see if the trip was on. After a stop at the central bus station in town to get schedules for Bosa and the airport, it was time for the beach. I only stayed a couple of hours this time, as that waster was cold! An iceberg must have melted farther out in the sea.

A late lunch of calamari and fries at the Taverna Catalan, along with a few Ichnusa local beers. A light rain had started earlier, so any further beach time was out for the day. Then, when I checked back with the tour agency, it turned out they had booked 12 people for the Corsica jaunt, so it was on! Cool! I also made a reservation for that night’s dinner at my “old buddy” Gianni’s place near my hotel, Dietro il Carcere (literally, “Behind the Prison”). Gianni actually remembered me from my previous year’s visits, and seemed happy to welcome me back.

Before my dinner at 8 that night, I stopped in at the Hotel Catalunya’s Sky Bar for cocktails and a great view of the city and harbor. My waitress, Erzsébet, got me a mean Mai Tai from bartender extraordinaire Pasqualino, a friend of Gianni’s. When my lovely young server told me her name, I asked her, “Magyar?” And it turned out, of course, she was Hungarian. They’re everywhere!

I whiled away the time soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying the views and the drinks. Sardinia is such a great place to relax and just let all the cares of the world flow away. The people there are so happy and contented and easy-going. As I sat there contemplating life and my navel, I recalled snatches of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem Ulysses I had read long ago:

“…Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world…
… for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset…..
…It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.”

The "happy isles" refers to the Islands of the Blessed, a place where big-time Greek heroes like Achilles enjoyed perpetual summer after they died. We might say Heaven. While the Happy Isles were supposedly in the Atlantic Ocean west of the Pillars of Hercules, I now firmly believe that the primary Happy Isle is none other than Sardinia.

This particular little bit of heaven is in the Mediterranean Sea, located just west of the Italian mainland and in between Corsica to the north and Sicily to the south. From the instant you arrive and begin to soak up the ambiance and feel the Sardinian lifestyle slowly begin to seep into your consciousness, this happy isle grabs hold of you and dares you ever to leave its warm embrace. I had settled in comfortably and was already snuggled safely in the island’s charms.

Dinner with Gianni was, as always, fantastic. His tiny place only has around 12 tables or so, although for special guests he can trot out another table and take over more of the sidewalk or street. That night I opted for a light meal of Fregula, a sort of large cous-cous-style pasta balls covered with the local seafood.
White wine and a dessert of seadas (remember those from my 2015 descriptions?) meant a night well-spent. Gianni even topped me off with a glass or three of mirto, the local digestif.

Saturday’s day-long “tour” was to start with a pickup at the agency’s office at 6:30 AM. Yucchh! As it turned out, it wasn’t a tour in the strict sense of the word. What I paid the agency 25 euros (about $27 US) for was two bus rides of two hours each, to and from the Port of St. Teresa Gallura on the northern end of Sardinia. There the “tour agency’s” part ended. We were pointed in the direction of the ticket office for the Moby Ferry Line and had to pay a separate fee of about $55 US for the ferry ride to and from Bonifacio, Corsica. No tour guide, no assistance, no group rates, no nothing “extra.” And no other costs included.

Anyway, we got out on the sea around 10 AM for the 45-minute cruise to Corsica. I had been to the northeast corner of this little island to the little city of Bastia a few years ago, and had also traveled overland to Ajaccio, birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte, but had never been to this southern extreme of the island. We entered a sheltered harbor which was packed with luxury yachts and gigantic sailing craft of all kinds. A lot of money berthed there. When we disembarked it was a steep hike to the castle overlooking the harbor and sea; wussies could take a taxi, but I toughed it out and hiked uphill with many of the crowd – slowly, to be sure, but I did get there in the end.
The castle district consisted of narrow streets and shops and restaurants and tourist bazaars. There was almost no shade up there, and that Corsican sun was hot. When I arrived at the top, I was sweaty and thirsty and in dire need of something cold to drink. Luckily, they had those icy flavored drinks, sort of like an American Slushy. It was wonderful, and I took it slowly so as not to get one of the dreaded “brain freezes.”

I strolled around a while, absorbing the atmosphere, then settled in for an anchovy pizza at one of the local restaurants, accompanied by a couple of nicely-chilled beers. The remainder of the afternoon was sent just strolling and enjoying the ambiance. I didn’t even buy of the tatty tourist crap, a rarity for me.

The ferry left on its return trip at 5 PM, so I made sure I was there early enough to have my ticket checked and my passport validated. (Yes, even though we only crossed from one EU country to another, we still had to have our passports checked). We arrived back at Porto St. Teresa Gallura around 6 PM and boarded our mini-bus for the 2.5 hour trip back to Alghero. It was uneventful, which is just the way we like those kinds of trips.

Back in Alghero around 8:30, I walked along the Promenade at the beachfront and had a light dinner at one of the seaside restaurants: lasagna, Aperol spritz and seadas was just right. I was trying hard to keep my calorie intake to a minimum. An after-dinner stroll through the Old Town allowed me to make my dinner reservations for later in the week at Trattoria Romani and Mabrouk. OK, so my calorie intake would suffer slightly; I wasn’t going to pass up any of those great Sardinian/Catalan dishes if I could help it. I’d skimp on breakfast and lunch, if need be.

And Sunday it rained! All friggin’ day!! But it was my junior quest day, so I borrowed an umbrella from the hotel and went in search of my previous-year’s friends. I found two of them, husband and wife Alessa and Antonio, working at the Hotel Riviera, along the main beachfront Promenade and, wonder of wonders --- they remembered me! It was great to see them again and I promised to stay at their new hotel when and if I returned to Sardinia. Unfortunately, I never did get to hook up with bartender Tomaso – maybe next time.

The remainder of the day was spent watching TV and reading and listening to the on-again-off-again rain and the thunder and lightning; bummer.
The rain stopped in the late afternoon, so I took a pre-dinner stroll around the old town and along the rampart walls before heading for Trattoria Romani and my dinner of porchetto (roasted pork). I started with some oven-baked cheese (formaggio), then to the main course accompanied by white wine and veggies. The porchetto was perfect again, tender pork meat and crunchy skin crackling. Yummy. A limoncello topped it off and I was once again a happy camper.

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday were sunny and hot and all were my beach days. I roasted in the sun and swam in the cool surf from morning till afternoon, relaxing and feeling the heat soak into my bones. I had lounge chairs at La Marina and was able to read a little, doze a little, people-watch a little and generally just have a good time.
Lunches were at Maracaibo’s little beachfront snack and bar stand and another pizzeria nearby. Monday’s evening was cocktails at Piazza Sulis and dinner at Movida, along the city wall overlooking the harbor, where I had dined the previous year. A nice octopus salad and a small steak with mushrooms and an Aperol spritz were perfect.

Tuesday was, of course, my second-annual feast at Mabrouk. No menu, just a four-course tasting dinner (although I counted seven different dishes, so make of that what you will). My courses were:
½ liter of local white wine
Starters of shrimp, monkfish, dogfish and seafood salad;
Pasta with meat, covered by a zucchini and cheese sauce
Small pasta shells with tomato sauce
Seafood augusta (rice, clams, mussels, etc)
Shrimp and calamari (as opposed to a full baked fish)
Chocolate cake
Mirto digestif

And all that for only 41 euros (about $45 US). Probably pay $200 for that meal in London or Paris.
Wednesday evening I stopped at the Sky Bar again for cocktails and views and brief chats with my Hungarian waitress, then it was down the street to Gianni’s again for my final meal in Alghero. Gianni was as effusively welcoming as ever; no wonder his diners return again and again. He was only serving dinners this month, but every night was fully booked out. He actually had to “sneak” me in at 8 PM before the customers who had reserved my table for 9:30 PM arrived. I was finished with my last mirto by 9:27. Dinner was another great octopus salad and steak, wine and seadas for dessert. I said my final goodbyes to Gianni and his staff and waddled back to the hotel.

As you can tell, I once again didn’t make it down to Bosa on the bus. The rain scuttled my schedule, but maybe next time around. We shall see.

Thursday’s departure was painless. Local bus to the airport (1.5 euro!), late plane to Rome, connect with another late flight on Alitalia to Budapest, airport bus and metro to Kalvin Ter and a short walk home through a light rain. Will I return next year? Never can tell. I may need to revisit the Happy Isle just to touch base. I could happily die there.

Thursday, June 09, 2016

You Went to Bosni Hershey – where?

Come on, it’s easy. Ready?

Bauz – knee – uh……Her – tseg – oh – vee – nuh.

See? Piece of cake. And yes, I added another new country to my list, Bosnia Herzegovina, down in the Balkans, southern Europe. A friend recently told me Sarajevo was a pretty interesting place to visit so, what the heck, why not? It was an easy flight: Budapest to Vienna to Sarajevo, couple of hours flight time, and bim, bam, boom I was at the tiny Sarajevo airport around 2:30 PM on Thursday June 2. I had arranged to be picked up and driven to the Hotel President, right on the banks of the Miljacka River at the beginning of the Old Town area, so my visit began without a single hitch.

As is my wont, I checked into the hotel and hit the tourist office just down the street to see what was happening. What was happening was the nearby Sarajevo Brewery, just a five-minute walk on the other side of the river, slightly uphill. I was hungry and thirsty so I made the short trek and found --- WOW! A great brewery with an even greater gigantic restaurant/pub/bar/music club. I was impressed, and even more so when I tasted that wonderful fresh-brewed beer, made right there behind the restaurant. Several of those little beauties, accompanied by some Bosnian sausages with chips and I was a happy camper once again. And yet another surprise: When the bill arrived I was really happy; I think Sarajevo might actually be less expensive than Budapest, a status I hadn’t yet found in Europe; my lunch, three 0.33 Litre beers and the meal, all cost a grand total of 12 Bosnian Marks, or about 6 euro (around $6 US). And now it was time to explore a little.
I walked the Old Town area in general, just to get a feel for this part of the city. There was a light rain, but nothing serious, so I was able to cover much of the ground near the hotel. The River Miljacka runs right through the center of town, so I walked across the Latinsky Most, the bridge next to which Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sophie were assassinated in 1914, thus kick-starting World War I. I found the old caravanserais and the new hotels; I marked the bullet holes in some of the buildings, still unrepaired from the 1992-1995 war and I noted the proximity of the houses of worship of the four major religions – Christian, Muslim, Orthodox and Jewish. It seems the Bosnians are generally quite tolerant of each other’s religions, something not always found in this area.

After a clean-up, I was back at the Sarajevo Brewery for a late dinner and some local music, performed by the brewery’s own traditional Bosnian band. There was a fiddler, guitar, accordion and a guy playing some sort of small drums. They were fun and happy and entertaining, and the place was more crowded than it was at lunchtime. I had the Mediterranean cutlet with veggies and fries and, of course, more of that great beer. I even sang along with the band in Bosnian – I can do that after several beers.
Fortunately, the place has very high ceilings, so the smoke from the indoor cigarette smokers wasn’t too annoying. Yes, smoking inside is still allowed in this non-EU country, but most people didn’t seem to be heavy smokers, and I sat outside a lot, so it wasn’t too bad. In fact, many of the locals seemed to prefer smoking their hookahs (water pipes), which was much better for us clean-air folks.

Friday, June 4, dawned bright and clear and sunny and I was ready for a more in-depth tour of the city. I chose a circular, weaving route around and through the Old Town and downtown areas. Checked out the Miljacka River (still there), walked the main square (Serbilj), saw the Clock Tower (“SAVE the clock tower!”), peeked in at the university (was surprised at what I found there), cruised by the churches and mosques and ended up waaay down at the City Center shopping mall.

Took the tram back to the hotel. (NB: The old, beat-up trams were retired by the Czech Republic years ago, then donated to BH after the 1992-95 war to help the city get back on its feet again; the trams are old and somewhat rusty and quite basic inside and out, but they work and that’s what matters; plus, they have character!). Couldn’t find any shops selling that great Turkish ice cream, so had one of the national dishes of BH on the Serbilj Square, cevap – little sausage-shaped meat sticks in a pita bread, with potatoes, sour cream, onions and lemonade. I really wanted a baklava for dessert, but the Lukatch Curse was alive and well in Sarajevo; when I asked for baklava, the waiter said, “Oh, we don’t have that.” Sigh. So I settled for something called a jabukovaca, a rolled filo dough stuffed with apples. Not bad, tasty in fact, but not baklava.

Strolled through the old converted caravanserai, now a small shopping bazaar, not anywhere near as big or grand as the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul; guess we can call this one the Not-So-Grand Bazaar; it was nice, but a touch too modern for me. After a brief rest and clean-up, I trammed down to the US Embassy at the other end of town to meet up with old Budapest Bud Dave, now stationed in Sarajevo. Turned out there was a going-away party at the Marine House, so I got to have several Samuel Adams beers before we left. Dave’s lovely wife Eva was also there, with their four-year-old daughter Lina, whom I’d never met, so it was a really good reunion. I even met one of the USAID accounting managers who also knew our old friend Sandra, from Budapest. Small world.

Dave and I then wandered off for dinner at a new place called the Burger Bar, offering gourmet hamburgers, sort of like many other places of that type around Europe these days. Good burgers. On the way back to my hotel I finally noticed a baklava café, so got to have my favorite dessert after all. As is often the case, it was anti-climactic – Turkish baklava is not made with honey, like the Greek, so I was left filled but unsatisfied; story of my life.
Thus came Saturday. This was my Big Tour Day, arranged with Nermin, tour guide extraordinaire, through my Budapest downstairs friends and neighbors Robert and Marie, who had gone with Nermin the previous year. We had a full day planned, so I met him at the restaurant next to my hotel at 7:15 AM and, after a glass of Turkish tea, we started out. We walked the Old Town area, much as I had done the previous day, but this time with Nermin’s narrative, telling me about the buildings and history. We walked through the Morica Han, another old caravanserai, did the City Hall, checked out the House of Spite (where I would lunch later during my stay) and covered all the interesting sights of downtown Sarajevo. We drove and walked through a couple of city parks, then did the famous Tunnel Tour, going through the exhibition of the 800-meter tunnel that was dug during the 1992-95 war, under the airport, to ferry supplies and weapons in and people out of besieged Sarajevo. We even got to go through a 21-meter portion of the original tunnel, and could imagine what it must have been like to travel the entire 800 meters, carrying food or water, or maybe a small child. Fascinating and poignant, hard to do, but a testament to the strength and determination of the Bosnian people.

A lovely drive through the nearby mountains, checking out the hotels and abandoned bobsled run, then it was off for the two-hour drive to Mostar. Along the way we stopped in Jablanica at the Kovacevic restaurant for some fresh-roasted lamb. And it was, as they always had 8-10 lambs roasting on the water-turned spits for hungry tourists. Truly a taste treat, and the setting, overlooking green hills and a blue mountain lake, couldn’t be beat. One of the few times I wished I had a female traveling companion.

Got to Mostar and headed right for the famous Mostar bridge. The original was destroyed during the 1990’s war, then rebuilt using much of the same original stone. It hangs about 25 meters above the Neretva River and is a tourist magnet. Really. The place was packed with tourists, most of them off nearby cruise ships docked at Dubrovnik. The surrounding Old Town is also quite enchanting, although so over-touristed it lost much of its charm to commercialism. Two local youths offered to dive off the bridge if paid enough, but no one paid them while I was there, so I never got to see the dives. Maybe next time.
We finished our day tour with a visit to the Dervish House in Baglavi and the nearby cave in the mountain, from which gushes forth one of the local rivers. Then a 40-minute drive to the Kravica waterfalls, which is really an amazing sight for this part of the world; five or six waterfalls (depending on how you count), set down in a gorge and emptying into a lake in which locals swim and boat in the summer months. A great end to a great day. And all for only 200 euros!

We got back to the hotel in Sarajevo around 10:30 PM, so it was definitely a full day. I was ready for bed, but the helpful young woman at Reception told me the night was still young and so, apparently, was I, and I should take advantage and go out and party, so I did. The bar quarter was absolutely heaving with young Bosnians intent on having a fun Saturday night. There was the City Bar, City Pub, City Lounge, Cheers, Murphy’s, Tesla, City Streets, City Life, City Titty – too many to count. Lots of young girls in tight skirts and really high heels, making them all six feet tall, except for some of the younger ones who looked about 15 in their tennis shoes. I couldn’t find any live music – guess it was Ramadan – but the recorded house music was so loud you had to shout into someone’s nose to be heard. Plus, most of the young women smoked, which is a major turnoff for us old non-smokers, as it’s like kissing an ashtray. Finally, I was the only male within three city blocks without black hair. Another sigh. A couple of beers and I called it a night.

Sunday morning was quiet, with some slow strolling after my previous active day. More sightseeing and lunch at the best bureka place in town, Sac, where I had the regular meat-filled bureka, sort of a rolled filo dough with meat inside. Yummy. I caught up on my sleep during the early afternoon, then taxied over to Dave and Eva’s place on a nearby hillside for a barbecue evening. The view from their communal rooftop is amazing, encompassing the entire valley and city and surrounding hills. Dave said they spend a lot of time up there. There were other guests from the US Embassy, including some who lived in the same complex. Lots of kids, too.

While I stuffed my face with cevap, Dave casually informed me that our buddy Matt, from Budapest lo those many years ago (he left in 2006), and who had been attending a wedding in Belgrade., had been able to get a flight into Sarajevo the following day, Monday, for one night, just to see us. Well, that really made my trip. Dave and Matt and Eva, friends and party goers from my heyday in Budapest. And here I thought Monday would be a restful day. Not a chance. Matt was staying at my hotel, so I’d meet him when he arrived and we’d contact Dave to see how and where we could all meet up.

The rain started around 8 PM or so, so the party broke up and I walked down the steep stone trail to the river and back to my hotel. Well, sort of; just a minor detour to the City Lounge for a nightcap, and then, finally that nice soft bed in the Hotel President.

Monday was Museum Day. I caught the Siege Museum, the Museum of the Assassination and the Sarajevo history museum. Overdosed on museums, but worth seeing. After some late-morning strolls between museums and along the river, I decided on lunch at The House of Spite, just across the river from city hall. What a great name; that song kept running through my mind: “Welcome to the House of Spite!” I’ll let you Google it for the history, but it’s definitely worth a look.. I had the Bosnian Tasting Plate that day, complete with meat, stuffed pepper, rice, stuffed cabbage and dolma. Washed down with a beer, it was perfect. The rain started up again and came down fairly consistently all during lunch, after which it stopped, which helped my final day’s explorations.

A brief afternoon rest and I was waiting in the lobby when Matt showed up around 4:30. Hadn’t changed a bit in the several years since we’d last met up. Still happy and jovial and enjoying life. He was hungry and thirsty, so we walked up the hill to the Sarajevo Brewery for some lunch for him and beer for us both. Dave and Eva and their daughter Lina joined us and it was another great reunion. Lina and Eva had to leave early, so the three of us boys took off for Dave’s local, the Famous Grouse Pub, on the street leading to the primary church in the downtown area. It was a tiny place, but had good beer and, of course, rakija. This last was served in little narrow-necked vases about three inches high; I had the honey-flavored brand and was happy with my choice, as it went down just right; not enough O’s in ‘smooth.’

We closed down that pub around 11 PM and Dave departed for home, while Matt and I decided to close down the City Pub with another beer or two. It was a good chance to catch up on our lives and discuss important things – as gents with a slight buzz always do. We solved the problems of the world that night, but, of course, forgot our solutions in the morning; it never fails.

Tuesday was Leaving Day. Early breakfast at the hotel, then Matt and I spent some more quality time chatting until my airport pickup showed up around 11:30. Off to the very small Sarajevo airport, flights to Vienna and then home to Budapest. Sarajevo is highly recommended for an interesting weekend; all the more so if you can connect with old friends and make a few new ones. Now it’s resting time until late July when it will be another beach holiday in the Mediterranean. Y’all take care and enjoy the summer.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Trolling in Norway

Spring had still not completely overtaken winter in Budapest, but I was assured by my dear long-term friend Helene that Norway was bursting with sunshine and warm breezes. So, OK, off to this country’s west coast, mainly the oil cities of Stavanger and Sandnes. For long-time devotees of my former hard-copy, snail-mail Lukatch Newsletter, you may recall that the exchange student my daughter and I hosted in 1986 was from Sandnes; too bad Eirik has moved to Ghent, so I won’t be able to see him this trip, but his moves might occasion another trip to visit him and also to see Brugge, both of them places on my List of Great Little Cities to See. More on that later.

I booked my departure flight more sensibly this time, leaving Budapest at 11:30 AM on Thursday, May 19. This time, instead of having to run to catch my connecting flight, I had a 2 ½-hour layover in Amsterdam. So here’s some good info re: Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport: if you happen to have a connection in the “B” Concourse, go to the little snack stand/bar next to Gate B16; they have great fried calamari and wonderful specialty beer, 6.5% alcohol, which will give you a very nice little buzz until your plane leaves. After my accommodating bartender Patrick foisted three of these little beauties on me, I seem to recall vaguely a strange American trying to get passing flyers to do the Macarena while riding on the moving sidewalk. Fortunately, my plane was called and I settled into (read: passed out) a comfy KLM seat and checked my eyelids for holes the entire rest of the trip.

I arrived at the Stavanger airport at 5:30 PM and there was Helene, waiting for me. Having exited so many airports alone over the years, I have now been greeted by friends at two consecutive arrivals; what a treat. I hopped into Helene’s cute little Renault electric car and away we went. It was my first time in one of these gems and I have to say I was impressed. Very quiet, no key to start up the system, and a rear-facing camera to guide you when moving in reverse and to tell you if you are out of line. Cool!

Helene and her husband Sten and their two daughters live on top of a hill in the general area of Sandnes, just a short drive from Stavanger. I met Helene when she and her other Norwegian friends and colleagues were wild and crazy medical students at Semmelweis University in Budapest, in the early 2000s. They’re now both settled down with kids and husbands and houses and doing good doctor work back home, but underneath it all I could still see those med students who danced on the tables at Beckett’s.

The hilltop was covered in either fog or low-hanging clouds, couldn’t tell which, but the view from their windows was only about 50 meters into the forest. Guess spring hadn’t quite arrived in Sandnes either. It’s a compact residential area up there in the clouds, however, with similar houses in the neighborhood, plus the kids’ schools, markets, trees and general quiet; must be all the electric cars. Two little blonde girls peeked out the doorway as we pulled into the driveway, Ragnhild (there’s a name to live up to!), who is six, and her sister Ingrid, 4. What a couple of cuties. Between them they probably had about three words of English, but we communicated just fine. We spent the evening at home, supping on Thai curry and maybe a few alcoholic concoctions and generally catching up on the years gone past. I’d met Sten briefly many years ago when he visited Budapest with Helene, but never had a chance to talk to him for very long, so it was good after all that time to be able to get to know him better. We stayed up talking until it finally got dark around 11 PM or so; it was, after all, nearly the time of the White Nights, where the sun hardly sets at all.

Friday dawned (as it were!) cloudy and rainy. I was bedded down in the bottom level of the three-level house and my windows faced almost east, so morning light visited me quite early. Helene had scheduled me for a fjord cruise that day, but the weather was so bad we decided to put it off until Monday, and hope for better weather. Breakfast with the family was continental style: salami, cheeses (lots of cheeses!), break bread (a Norwegian specialty, homemade by Helene before my arrival), fruits, juices, tea, etc. I was able again to have some of that great Norwegian goat cheese, which I dearly love; has the consistency of chocolate. And that break bread! Sort of a hard, flat biscuit, to be spread with jams, butter, cheeses, or whatever your taste buds desire; yummy.

The girls got off to school (Ragnhild walks the block or so with friends) and Helene off to work; she returned around noon and, since the rain had eased up, she took me on a tour of the surrounding area.
We went to Sola beach, which still had WWII bunkers perched on low-lying hillocks, along with tiny little summer houses for Norwegians lucky enough to be able to come to the shore for their vacations.
We also stopped by to see one of the ancient stone circles that abound in Norway, this one called “Domsteinane.” It was at least from the Iron Age and, you may think me crazy, but still seemed to exude a sense of power, although greatly diminished by time; weird.

We strolled through Sandnes’s downtown pedestrian shopping area, quaint and clean and not very busy on a Friday afternoon. The Norwegian economy had taken a beating recently, especially the oil industry, which employs most of the people in this part of the country, so there was a significantly high unemployment rate in general and, even for those who still had jobs, there just wasn’t a lot of disposable income after the high taxes. Difficult times for a lot of people.

That night was a barbecue feast with various meats, potatoes, salads, etc. Sten spent about an hour or so assembling the family’s new trampoline set for the kids; it seems the former trampoline had been unhooked from the grounding bars to mow the lawn, when a giant wind swept it away where it landed in the neighbors’ yard and virtually crumpled the entire thing (the trampoline, not the yard). The kids, with their friends, wore themselves out while we adults sucked down beer and gorged on barbecue. It was fun being back in a family atmosphere again after so many years away, and even the family cat seemed to enjoy my presence.

Saturday morning did actually dawn, with the sun and lots of light, but it was only Mother Nature playing tricks on us again, as the clouds rolled in after an hour or two and it was back to Norwegian Normal. Like my previous visit to Lina and Tom in Geneva, Helene and Sten slept in on Saturday mornings as long as possible, until the kids demanded they get up and play. After a continental breakfast, with that great break bread, Helene and I picked up our friend AK (Anna Katrina) and her youngest son and headed out to explore more of the area. We found an Iron Age cave near the coastline (named “Svartehola” – the cave, not the coastline) and then three gigantic swords thrust into the rocky ground of a nearby bay as a reminder of a huge Viking battle on the spot many centuries ago. Even though it was still raining, we also explored a Stone Age farm, complete with longhouse, although it was locked so we couldn’t go in.

Lunch was down at the Stavanger port area, a great seafood pasta accompanied by a very good local beer. More driving around, a few stops to check out local sights, then it was time for fish and chips at home. A Netflix movie rounded out the night.

Sunday was another late rising day and, after a light breakfast, we were off to the Oil Museum, down at the Stavanger port area. Now, you may think to yourself (as I did), “Hmm, oil museum? How exciting can that be? And how can they have an entire museum devoted to oil?” Well, I have to tell you, it was fun and exciting and informative and generally an all-around cool experience. After the kids played on the “Old Oil and Ship Equipment Playground” outside the museum, we met AK and her family and we all entered the interactive world of Big Oil.

Oil has been Stavanger’s raison d’etre for many years now and this museum is the industry’s public relations arm. Indoor structures for the kids to climb on, big models of oil rigs and platforms and ships, escape and disaster exhibits, escape chutes for adults (Sten did one with Ingrid, albeit rather slowly), firefighting suits you could put on and in which you could have your picture taken, some really interesting films devoted to oil and its origins and lots of other stuff to give you a feel for what working on the big oil platforms is like. A very worthwhile and entertaining 2-3 hours.

Then we all repaired to AK’s home for a typical Norwegian dinner of baked salmon, cucumbers with sour cream, veggies and potatoes, juice, ice cream or strawberries with cream – in short, your typical low-cal feast. With Helene and Sten, AK and her husband Joar, six kids (I think; I sort of lost count), and the appearance of AK’s brother, wife and newborn son, it was quite a crowd. A really fun and relaxed family gathering, so typical of home-based parties in Norway, where prices in restaurants are so high and space so dear. It was a great day and I reveled in it all. Home around 8 PM to get the kids to bed. I relaxed on the sofa and next thing I knew I had been formally accepted into the household when the family cat jumped up on the sofa and settled in my lap. Excellent!

Monday started out cloudy and misty, but cleared up by the time I was on the fjord. Light continental breakfast, kids off to school, Helene off to work; Sten drove me down to the port area to catch my 10 AM fjord cruise boat. I’d packed my suitcase and put it in Helen’s car, as she would pick me up in the afternoon and drive me to the airport, hopefully not interrupting her day too badly. I grabbed a window seat inside the boat, as the weather was still rather chilly, and we were off.

For interested parties, we traversed the Hogsfjord and entered the Lysefjord, making stops here and there to pick up other passengers. The fjord is breathtaking when cruising down its middle, even in cloudy weather. We saw a few sights along the way, including the Jettegrytten (pothole) in a small bay, a small mountain cave, local mountain goats which the boat crew fed from stored stocks (since the goats do not appear to have a way out of their tiny enclave along the banks) and finally came to the Big Sight of the day. Pulpit Rock is that flat-topped rock 600 meters above the fjord and is the most photographed image of Norway seen in all the travel advertisements, hanging precariously out over the fjord with courageous climbers sitting on the rock, often on its edge, looking out into space and amazing views. Not for me; I was happy seeing Pulpit Rock from down below and felt no need to take the two-hour climb to its top. It really is waaaay up there!

Our final stop was the lovely Hengjane Waterfall, which the boat approached close enough to grab a bucket of fresh Norwegian mountain spring water we could all taste. I sipped mine slowly and savored the taste of…yep, fresh Norwegian mountain spring water.

It was about an hour or so back to Stavanger and we maneuvered in between two huge cruise ships to the tiny little dock area. I had enough time to have a lunch of fresh mussels at the Phineas Fogg’s Around the World in Eighty Days restaurant. Mussels and beer, yum, and the restaurant is a truly magnificent place, decorated in the 19th century style of London clubs and pubs and various stops around the world. I wish I could have had Sunday brunch of roast beef and Yorkshire Pudding. Maybe next time.

And so it was time to go. Helene picked me up and took me to the airport, where my KLM flight was only 45 minutes late due to weather problems in Amsterdam. Back to Budapest and home by midnight, a fairly easy trip. And so we draw the curtain on yet another adventure of Travelin’ Man, my fourth trip of 2016. Watch this space for more to come; ten more days and off to Bosnia-Herzegovina, so you’ll barely have time to digest this present trip before you’ll be ready for another blog.

Until soonest…..

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

In The Land of Switzer

In the year 1223 of the Common Era, a young itinerant baker and fledgling money changer named Johann Switzer was following a pass through the mountains of Mittel Europa when he suddenly rounded a corner to view before him an amazing vista: a lovely blue lake, ringed by majestic snow-capped mountains. He immediately delved into his backpack and came out with a small, but arrestingly painted, flag: red with a large white cross in the middle. He carried the flag just in case he ever had the idea of founding the Red Cross organization.

He planted the flag next to the invitingly sun-dappled lake and proclaimed to anyone within hearing distance (no one else had as yet found this lake, so he was quite alone, but he loved to hear himself shout, so that was OK too): “I hereby claim this land, this lake and these mountains as my property, in the name of the Almighty and King Francisco” (whoever he was; since there were no witnesses to this proclamation, we are forced to take Johann’s word for what he said). “I also hereby proclaim that this land shall be named ‘Switzer’s Land’ for now and all eternity.”

And thus it came to pass, and over time more newly-arriving wanderers and public accountants settled down by the lake and shortened the area’s name to Switzerland, and it has remained so to this day. How Geneva got its name is another story for another rainy day. Onward and upward.

I thought this year would be a good time to visit some old friends who now lived in places I hadn’t visited previously. So, for my first brief weekend trip, I contacted my friend Lina, originally from Greece, but also a world traveler, who now lives and works in Geneva, Switzerland. Not wanting to overstay my welcome, I figured to fly in on Friday and out again on Sunday evening, thus not interfering with her work. She and her partner Tom were kind enough to offer me the hospitality of their home for the two nights I’d be in town. So, why not?

As spring continued to creep ever-so-slowly down the Danube and across Budapest, I caught a 9:30 AM flight on Friday, April 29, to Frankfurt and then a very quick connecting flight to Geneva (for once I didn’t have to run to my connecting gate, which this time was only three gates from my arrival gate), arriving just after 1 PM. With the demise of Hungary’s national airline Malev, it is now quite difficult to find any direct flights to nearby European cities, so I’m resigned to most of the airlines servicing the places I want to go having at least one stop en route. Ah, well, life marches on.

Lina and Tom picked me up at the airport, as they both had that Friday off work. The day was sunny and beautiful (rare in Geneva, as we shall shortly discover) and we followed the road paralleling the lake, then on to Geneva’s only bridge across the lake and settled in for a lunch of lake fish and steaks at the Geneva Yacht Club. Not a bad introduction to the area, my first time here. There was a light breeze, the sun was shining, the sky was blue and the temp was in the low 60s (say, around 17 degrees Celsius); there were also hordes of hardy mosquitoes the size of dragonflies hovering around the terrace, where we were soaking up the sunshine and a wonderful local rosé wine. Fortunately, they were more interested in staying warm than in sinking their needles into us, so we were able to enjoy the meal in peace.

I hadn’t seen Lina since I last visited her and her now-ex in London way back in March 2005, so it was great to see her again. Even after two kids and more travels, she hasn’t aged a bit, still the lovely olive-skinned, black-haired Greek Aphrodite. She and Tom have now been together for a couple of years, sharing a large house in a beautiful, green, quiet section of Geneva with their five children (two hers, three his). All of the kids were visiting other parents for the weekend, so the house was unusually peaceful. After lunch, since the day was so beautiful and warm, we went downtown to Old Geneva and walked around, checking out the ambiance. A beer or two (Calvinus, a local amber beer – wow!) on the Place du Bourg de Four, the Old Town’s main square, at the café L’Clémence, topped off a perfect afternoon.
Tom and Lina had planned a quiet night at home for Friday, knowing Saturday would be action-packed, so we drove to their house and spent an hour or so preparing a pot-luck dinner: BBQ ribs and chicken (flavored with Tabasco’s Habanero sauce!), baked potatoes, various veggies and cold salad, mushrooms, avocados, etc. A nice evening at home where Lina and I could get caught up on happenings since our last meeting and where Tom and I could get better acquainted. We watched a movie (Bridge of Spies) off and on and, as the night deepened, we slowly sank off to bed.

With the kids away, I was able to pre-empt one of Tom’s son’s bedrooms in the basement level of their three-level house, which also contained another two bedrooms and separate bathroom. Lots of room for lots of children.

Also due to the weekend being sans children, mine hosts managed a Saturday morning lie-in, finally emerging around 11 o’clock or so. I had been up since eight, so everyone was well-rested for the rigors of the day ahead. We drove back down to Geneva proper, this time to the main shopping area, filled with luxury stores and restaurants. By the time we had strolled around in the light rain, we were ready for lunch; the problem was that almost all of the restaurants in town close between 2 PM and 7 PM, obviously taking their cue from next-door Italy.
Fortunately, there are two local eateries that do stay open during Siesta Time, and we chose the Italian pizza place, Molino, for yummy pizzas and beer (for me). Another brief walk around the area, a few errands to be taken care of, and a short stop at the Lord Nelson Microbrewery for some of their home-brewed beer. Tom and Lina had to return rental skis for one of Tom’s kids, so they took me into France (only a few kilometers away) and we did a sightseeing drive around the area, ringed with hills and mountains, while searching for the rental building. It really is a magnificent landscape.

Back to the house around 7 PM or so, a brief power nap, a light repast (pasta, leftover BBQ, salad and the ever-present beer) and we were ready to hit the hot spots of Saturday Night Geneva. First stop in the club, pub and restaurant district was a place I seem to recall was named Langolier Bistro – probably not the correct name, but subsequent events (and beers) clouded my memory of the earlier ones. Anyway, it’s a funky little expat hangout, lots of dark wood, vigas (ceiling beams), darkly lit, nice but crowded bar, tables, etc. My kind of place. Since the karaoke didn’t get going until at least 11 PM, we had drinks at this first stop and chatted with regulars, the owner, a pretty girl or two (at least in my fantasy world) and waited for the rain to stop. It never did quite, but we braved the elements and finally walked over to Glams Club, a big, raucous, nightclub sort of place, with a large stage, a karaoke DJ who also played the piano, beer at 12 Swiss francs a bottle and very, very few patrons as of yet. There were several regulars already in place and singing their hearts out, pretty much only French songs, which always seem to be either romantic or sad. But the singers were very good and, as always, I was slightly intimidated by such good voices. But then I figured, no one sings rock and roll like Americans, so what the heck, it’s Showtime!

Of course, I was a newbie and the locals didn’t know what to expect, but when I hit them with Great Balls of Fire, they sang along and danced in place and even applauded when it was over. A good start. The night progressed and more and more people came in, some other very good singers, men and women. I was able to do a few more old favorites – Blue Suede Shoes, etc – and then Lina insisted I sing Summer Nights with her. She dragged me onto the stage and did her very credible Olivia Newton-John impression and we were off and running. The crowd loved it. Tom and I were signed up to do Wild Thing, but D’Artagnan the DJ never called it; however, he did let me do Joe Cocker’s You Can Leave Your Hat On, so I was satisfied. The place really was a fun, happy, energetic karaoke club. The middle-aged male bartender also sang and laughed and mingled with the patrons, the DJ was here, there and everywhere, smiles abounded and a great time was had by all. It was everything a top-notch karaoke club should be.
By 2:30 in the morning, Tom and Lina were ready for the quiet and peace of their home. I’d had my brief nap and some Panadol, so could have gone on for another 5-10 minutes or so, but why overstay a good thing, so we headed out of Glams, another venue successfully invaded by the American and Greek contingent. That nice warm bed was a welcome sight.

Sunday was another rather late day. I was supposed to be up and ready to go by 9 AM, which I was, but it was another 90 minutes or so before my compatriots roused themselves and were ready to take me back to winter. When the kids are away, you get what sleep you can. I’d packed my suitcase, as we’d go straight to the airport from the mountains, and I had brought one of my winter ski shells, as I’d been warned about today’s jaunt. We drove about an hour south of Geneva to Chamonix and the Mont Blanc ski area, in the mountains of southern France. The higher we got, the colder it got and the more snow we saw still on the mountaintops and trees. We drove through the little mountain town of Chamonix straight to the ski area of Mont Blanc, which was having its end-of-season party to celebrate this final weekend of the ski resort’s opening. The parking lot was full as revelers crowded onto the cable cars and lifts to get to the top of the ski runs and hit the slopes.
We also took the cable car up. Tom had brought his snowboard in anticipation of at least a few runs down the mountain. When we reached the top of the ski area, it was under a white-out, as the clouds had descended over the mountain and visibility was limited to about 50 meters; not the best ski or party conditions. Most of the party-goers were sitting around in the warming hut area and on the cloud-shrouded terrace, drinking beer and wine and whatever other interesting concoctions they could order, waiting for the clouds to clear; I feared they’d wait a long time. Lina and I headed back down in the cable car, while Tom, determined to get in one run, snowboarded down and met us at a small café/restaurant at the bottom. That was also crowded and really didn’t offer more than snack-type food (pizza, burgers, etc), so we had one drink and then bagged the Mont Blanc idea and headed back into Chamonix for a more civilized meal.
We strolled through the small but pretty (quaint?) mountain ski village, with its very few shops still open, and found a restaurant named L’M, which I’m not sure I can pronounce in French or English. Anyway, they definitely had what we were after, what everyone who visits this mountainous region must have, either in France or Switzerland, a dish that is apparently mandatory (as in, required by law!) for all visitors: Cheese Fondue. I hadn’t even realized I craved it until Lina suggested it, then I couldn’t stop salivating.

Along with the also-mandatory French white wine, it was as fantastic as it sounds. Big chunks of crusty home-made bread skewered on long fondue forks and dipped into the bubbling cheese; I really tried not to appear too eager and to keep my hand from shaking as I propelled the cheese-dipped bread to my waiting maw, but I fear I was unsuccessful. It’s been a long time since I’ve had cheese fondue and I was determined to make the most of it.
Tom and I polished it off in a leisurely record time and he showed me something to do when you think the dish is finished. You turn off the flame and scrape the cheese that is “burned on” to the bottom of the fondue pot and make that your final bites; tangy, burned cheese residue, sort of like saganaki; a perfect finish to another perfect meal.

And then it was time to go. An all-too-brief weekend, but filled with great long-term friendships and new friends and that special ambiance that one only finds in a French restaurant or next to a Swiss lake with great company. We drove the hour back to Geneva, going through a border customs checkpoint (I keep forgetting that Switzerland is NOT part of the European Union!) and Tom and Lina dropped me at the airport a couple of hours before my flight. We said our goodbyes and they promised to try and visit Budapest in the late summer, so I hope it won’t be too long before our next meeting. A really special weekend.

But wait for it! My adventures weren’t quite over yet. Solo travel is so much fun, I never know what to expect around the next corner. I checked in and cleared Security easily (the bottle of habanero-flavored Tabasco sauce Tom had kindly given me even made it through, with only a strange look from one of the guards) and I settled in at my gate to await my flight. A woman across from me seemed uncertain as to whether she was in the right place and she obviously had only minimal English, so she showed me her boarding pass and I confirmed she was OK and this was the right gate for her flight to Frankfurt.

We started to chat and it turned out she was from Argentina and had been visiting friends in Geneva, but was anxious to get home (to her six sons and one daughter, I learned during our conversation) because she thought people in Switzerland were somewhat aloof and stand-offish and never talked to anyone (even taking into account the multitudes who played nonstop with their iphones). Anyway, we chatted away the waiting time, she in her very broken English and me in my long-ago high school Spanish; turned out she worked in the Admin section of a local school and danced and taught tango on the side, and it was with reluctance that I said goodbye to Margot Tasco, but we did promise to try to find each other on Facebook, so we shall see.

Home to Budapest around 10:30 PM after two easy flights – although it was business as usual with my connecting gate, which was two miles from my arrival gate and, with only a 40-minute layover, I once again had to hustle my poor abused old body from the entrance to Terminal One all the way to Gate A36. I think I sweated out that last glass of French wine and pretty much all of the fondue, but it was worth every drop of sweat and I couldn’t have asked for a better weekend.
All for now, next trip: the west coast of Norway in three weeks to visit more old friends. Watch this space for updates. And to all a Good Night.

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.