Travels With Myself

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

Name:
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 amazon.com. 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.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

O' Man -- OMAN!

Winter came again this year to Budapest, as it always does, and I dug out my heavy coat and hat to wear when just going to the corner store for supplies. I really am getting to dislike winter more and more as my body grows older. And so, as I try to do every year about this time, I spun my world globe and closed my eyes and threw my dart and, after recovering my dart from the bathroom door five times, finally found it stuck in Oman, just south of Dubai and with a headland sticking out into the Arabian Sea (now the Sea of Oman, courtesy of royal proclamation by Oman’s ruler Sultan Qaboos – pronounced the same as the name of the very last car on a train). Oman it shall be!

This time my best deal was on Emirates Airlines, which I’ve never flown before. Emirates is supposed to be one of the best airlines in the world, so we shall see. My flight and connecting times were not all I could have hoped for, but one must pay the price for winter sun. On the afternoon of January 9, 2018, I took off for my winter holiday. Got to Dubai around 11:30 that night local time and, since I had arranged for a hotel for my nine-hour layover, I was whisked away by a shuttle bus some 20 minutes or so from the airport. Got checked in, had a nightcap, and caught a few hours of sleep before my connecting flight the next morning.

I arrived back at the airport around 5:30, three hours before my flight, but since I had to go through passport control and security again, I thought it best to be a touch early. Since the airport was crowded even at that hour, I was glad I arrived early. Besides, I could have breakfast in the airport, which I did at a boulangerie – a nice Spanish omelet and OJ. I wandered the vast array of shops, open even at that early hour, window-shopped, failed to buy a raffle ticket for a Ferrari, browsed, read one of my Kindle books and finally caught my 8 AM flight for Muscat, Oman,

The plane landed in Oman at 9:30 AM on Wednesday, January 10. My hotel was in Mutrah, which is a 25-minute taxi ride from the airport. I changed some money, got my visa, cleared passport control, got my suitcase, found a taxi and headed out to see what my 71st country looked like. I immediately saw it was different from Dubai.

I drove through the newest part of Muscat, Oman’s capital city, filled with lots of white buildings: mosques, opera house, hotels, offices, commercial, more mosques, etc. The day was hazy sunshine, but at least it was warm, say about 75 F (20 C). One interesting observation: there were no skyscrapers, like in next-door Dubai. The city seemed to be ringed with low mountains and there was lots of sand and barren rocky desert between buildings and streets. Beautiful new highway, lots of nice new cars (no oil-burners here!) and, off to my left, the Sea of Oman. Oh, yeah!

Muscat has apparently been inhabited since around 1000 BCE; today it is the capital of the Sultanate of Oman and is home to a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society. Muscat is actually divided into four separate areas: New Muscat, between the airport and the coastal hills to the southeast; Mutrah, where the port welcomes cruise ships and the Corniche promenade draws visitors from everywhere; Old Muscat, southwest of Mutrah, where the Sultan lives and has his administrative offices and a couple of old forts; and Ruwi, which I guess you’d call the commercial center, tucked into the hills just west of the midpoint between New Muscat and Mutrah.

My online guide book says that, “Compared to flashy Emirati neighbours like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the capital of Oman is a breath of fresh, sea air. Muscat is famous for dazzling souks and superb seafood, but its terrain brings the biggest thrills. This port city on the Gulf of Oman is backed by the arid Hajar mountains, meaning you can trek deserts at dawn, spot dolphins at sundown, and enjoy plenty of effusive Omani hospitality in between.”

And was I ever ready to start enjoying that warm Omani winter weather, just 23 degrees of latitude above the equator. I checked into the Naseem Hotel, located right on Mutrah’s famous Corniche, a semi-circular promenade around a small bay, filled with sights and sounds of the Middle East: restaurants, souvenir sellers, travel agents, mosques, a wonderfully busy souk and several banks. I strolled the Corniche often during my visit and never tired of it.

I shed my winter duds with a passion, getting into what would be my outfit for the next eight days: sandals, shorts and polo shirt. I was ready to soak up all that sunshine and vitamin D, which would then let me put up with another month or two of Budapest winter.
The Naseem Hotel would rate about 2-3 stars in most guidebooks (although, suspiciously, there was a plaque next to the Reception Area which contained only one star; hmmm) and was certainly adequate for my needs. My initial room had no view but, since the toilet tank had a slight leak, I was switched to another similar-sized room which did, indeed, have that great view of the port and cruise ships. I was a happy camper. The hotel has four stories and is somewhat older and rather plain, but, at 20 rials a night (about 44 euros or $50 US), who was I to complain? The staff were all exceedingly friendly, foreign workers from India, Malaysia, Pakistan, etc, imported to do the daily work the Omanis couldn’t be bothered with. The staff even managed to book my tours for me.

Breakfast every day was a simple but filling affair: for two rials, I got juice, yoghurt, tea or coffee, toast, two eggs and accessories, a cheap and easy way to start the day.
I busted out the side door and hustled down to the Corniche and faced the sun and, for a few minutes, just stood there with my face upraised, soaking in all that desert and coastal warmth and vitamin D and lovely heat. Aaaahhh, heaven.

I walked up the Corniche and found a small open restaurant, Al Raffee, notable for its being open between 1 PM and 4 PM, which most other restaurants in the Middle East are not. I opted for Szechwan squid, garlic naan and a soft drink; no beer or other alcohol available almost anywhere, except restaurants in the larger tourist hotels. I watched the other diners, mostly local men wearing the traditional floor-length white robes called dishdasha and a strange looking little hand-embroidered cloth cap called a kuma, as they gathered in small groups and ate from a common bowl or plate, scraping up the rice and shoveling it into their mouth, using only their right hand. If you don’t already know why they only eat with their right hand, send me a PM and I’ll tell you.

After lunch I ambled over to the Mutrah souk, just down the Corniche. I love these precursors of the modern-day Shopping Mall, crammed with small shops equally crammed with all sorts of wonderful things I can’t live without: Bedouin scarves, brass animals and bells, colorful exotic clothes and pretty much anything else you might need or want. As usual in these types of places, I got the feeling the souk merchants had been advised that I would be in the neighborhood and to get ready for me. As I walked the cramped corridors between stalls and shops, I could see the little vacuum hoses creeping out of the doorways and into my pockets to SUCK ALL OF MY MONEY OUT!
I’m such a sucker for these places and the merchants must all be able to spot me coming three corridors away, as they all want to press on me their amazing goods: those little embroidered caps (didn’t buy any; where would I wear them in Budapest?), silk scarves (OK, bought one), perfumes, spices, Oman t-shirts, Arabian Nights slippers, you name it, they had it. The merchants here weren’t as aggressive as those in Egypt or Morocco, but they still want to sell you something. I was able to wear out two of my favorite Arabic words: ‘la, shukran!’ (No, thanks).

It was a nice first run-through, and both the sellers and I knew I’d be back.

Lack of sleep the previous night forced me back to my hotel for a brief nap, and then I was once again up and about. Had a light dinner on one of the Corniche terrace restaurants (shawarma and 7-Up), then strolled even farther down the Corniche to see what I had to look forward to during future strolls. It was an early first night in Oman.

Had an early Thursday morning breakfast at the hotel and headed back to the souk, which was where the first stop for The Big Bus hop-on-Hop-off tour was located. Every time I see this tour bus company around the world, I’m always reminded of the disaster-spoof movie The Big Bus, about an atomic-powered bus hauling passengers across the US. Never made it big, but a cult film in its own right; see it if you can.

The two-hour round trip bus tour, with 8 or 10 stops (depending on the day), cost 29 Omani rial, or about 66 euro ($76 US). Not cheap; the same tour in Budapest, with more stops, is only about $40 US. But, what the heck, I like these bus tours as a way to get acclimated and to see the big sights and also to see the sights I will want to visit again later on foot. So, I did one complete loop of all the sights and stops, staying on the bus for the time being. The tour took us through Ruwi, the commercial center of Muscat, then over to New Muscat and the beach area. Next it was a long drive back to Old Muscat and Oman’s Parliament and the Al Bustan Palace, before swinging back up the coast to Mutrah.
During the second loop, I alighted at the Shatti al Qurum beach area, near the Intercontinental Hotel in New Muscat. The beach was virtually empty for miles, which surprised me, as I thought there would be people out enjoying the winter sun – like me. Ah, well, I kicked some sand and decided lunch was in order. I chose the BBQ Nation restaurant, just off the beach, as they had a nice terrace and friendly staff. The Mixed Seafood Sizzling Platter, with squid, fish and prawns, looked like the way to go, so I did. I once again soaked up that great winter sunshine and was pleased to see my sizzling platter actually sizzling when it was delivered to me. I got ready to dig in when every fly and sand flea in Oman attacked my plate; I suppose they liked the sizzling seafood also. It was so bad I had to move inside, thus depriving myself of my reason for being in Oman in the first place. Ah, well, such is life.
But the food was good and I only had to ask for my mint tea five times before my American accent penetrated the waiter’s uncertainty. The joys of worldwide travel in a changing global environment.

I took the Big Bus back to Old Muscat and hopped off to walk around there for a while, which was interesting but quiet. I got back to the hotel and arranged my next day’s tour: a sea cruise. Alright. Receptionist Bashir called my room a few minutes later to tell me the sea cruise tour people had cancelled that tour for reasons unknown – probably because I wanted it. Anyway, I was able to arrange another tour to Nizwa and its famous souk, plus some other excursions into the mountains. No problem,

That night I checked out the Marina Hotel’s rooftop terrace for food and drinks, mainly beer, as they were allowed to serve alcohol. Two Scandia beers and some deep fried shrimp plus fries set me up nicely as I munched and drank and overlooked the Corniche and the Mutrah Marina in the fading twilight. The world was coming into focus again.
Next morning the hotel was kind enough to fix me an early breakfast, as Afdil (sp?) came to get me at 7:15. It would be an all-day trip to see interesting areas of Oman, including the famous Nizwa souk. We set off in his large white Toyota Landcruiser, which looked nothing like the old Landcruiser I had owned back in the 90s in Albuquerque. Nizwa was about 90 minutes away and when we arrived the souk was hopping. Afdil led me through all the various souks: animals (goats, sheep, chickens, cows, bulls, camels, etc), fruits and veggies, sweets (got some great matra halwah!), dates, spices, etc. I must have been a trader (or perhaps a buyer) in a previous life, as I love wandering these trading oases, talking with the merchants, petting a cow, tasting a sweet offering. Ancestors of the present-day merchants may have been in this very souk for the past thousand years; how great is that?

Anyway, we browsed the souks and then Afdil sent me on my private tour of the Nizwa fort (probably because there was an entrance fee), so I was able to wander around there for an hour or so, checking out the exhibits, having my photo taken by strangers (Hey! No selfie sticks for me!) and once again enjoying the old-world ambiance.
We left the souk and fort around noon and drove to the Jabal Akhdar, or Green Mountain, at 3000 meters above sea level. The area was filled with date tree parks and old abandoned mountain villages, like the Wadi Bani Habib. In a couple of places, the mountain roads we were on actually just ended, really, just stopped dead at a precipice, and turning around to come back was an adventure in itself. Now I knew why we had the four-wheel drive.

Once back on the main roads, we stopped for lunch at the El Neil Line roadside café, making it inside just before that busload of British tourists you always want to see in your wanderings pulled up and emptied its load into the diner. The mixed grill plate I wanted was, of course, not available until dinnertime, so I settled for what I thought would be an easy dish: Kung Pao Chicken. It took forever, and when it finally arrived it looked nothing like Kung Pao Chicken; instead, it appeared to be chunks of grilled chicken covered in BBQ sauce accompanied by a plate of rice. No peanuts, no Chinese flavoring, no Kung, no Pao. But it was food of a sort, and I was hungry, so what the heck. And you know what? It was just as bland as it looked.

Got back to the hotel around 5 PM where I showered and relaxed and then walked down the Corniche to the Kukrum Indian restaurant at the other end. Their menu had prices out of my range (and, let’s face it, one curry is pretty much just like another no matter what the cost), so it was another long walk back past my hotel to the Bait al Luban restaurant, next to the Marina Hotel. Turned out to be another high-priced place, but by that time I was really hungry, so bit the bullet (so to speak) and settled in. Beautiful mid-eastern décor, dim lighting, popular with the local men in their dishdashas and their accompanying wives in their head-to-toe black coverings, about as unfeminine a garment as possible (which is apparently the point).
Anyway, the food lived up to the restaurant. Started with a mixed grill (four skewers of different meats - chicken, lamb and beef) with a dipping sauce, followed by Mains of prawns in a coconut sauce with rice on the side. Even got some veggies on the other side, just to fool myself into thinking I was trying to stay healthy. Mint tea, followed by a date cheesecake and a slice of chocolate mousse, just so my veggies wouldn’t think they actually mattered.

The food in Oman was always good and plentiful (except for that darned pseudo-kung-pao chicken), always light and tasty and healthy and the lack of alcohol for most of my meals mattered not one whit. Prices were comparable to Europe – a good meal for around 10-15 euro. And after all, that’s one of the main reasons I travel.

Saturday was another relaxing day, spent walking along the Corniche to Riyam Park on the other side and down the main road, strolling, enjoying the sunshine and warmth. Sat in the park a while, read a book on my Kindle, bought a few souvenirs in the souk – the merchants were getting to know me by this time and greeted me as I browsed, but I kept up my Arabic language skills with lots of “La, shukran.” The vacuum hoses retreated poutingly.

Lunch was at the Chef A next to my hotel: garlic prawns, veggies, fries and - Holy Soft Drink, Batman – a Cherry Cola! Damn, I hadn’t seen one of those in years. Brought back memories of ’57 Chevys and sock hops. After a quick clean-up, it was time for my Twilight Cruise; I’d get out on the water somehow! I was picked up by the cruise people and whisked down the coast to the beautiful, picturesque marina I’d passed on the bus tour, where I and about 30 other tourists boarded a dhow for our evening’s excursion.

We cruised down the coast, past the old Portuguese forts and turned around at the approach to the port entry, just as the sun was setting. It was still warm at sea with a nice light breeze. The captain steered us right into the oncoming rollers, causing the dhow to bounce up and down, up and down with the waves. A few of the cruisers looked a touch green around the gills, but I knew the old sailor’s trick to avoid seasickness: always keep your eyes on the horizon, which never changes. So no matter how much bobbing and weaving the boat might do, your focus remains on a steady, non-moving line. It’s amazing what one picks up when crewing one of the America’s Cup racing yachts.
We returned to the marina around 6:30 or so and were taken back to our hotels. I immediately headed off for Al Boom and a Scandia beer or two on the rooftop terrace. I even got my same table overlooking the port and the same waiter, Mahduf, who had my beer in front of me even before I sat down. It’s nice to be remembered. I had the deep fried shrimp and fries again and was content to watch the lights along the Corniche as they reflected in the port waters.

(NB: I spent eight full days in Mutrah, Oman, and it seemed like a month. For some reason, time seems to slow down in the Middle East; it’s hot and the air is heavy and the people move slower and everything just seems to move at a more lethargic pace. It’s a relaxed atmosphere, an old country with jagged mountain peaks thrust up out of the earth. The present Sultan Qaboos, fourth in that dynastic line, seems to be a benevolent ruler and has raised the general standard of living significantly, while still retaining a centuries-old way of life. I found myself doing everything more slowly during my visit and found it a pleasant experience.)

Sunday in the Middle East is not like Sunday in the west; i.e., Arabic countries have their holy day on Friday instead. So Sunday is just like any other day in Oman. After breakfast at the hotel, I decided a visit to the Omani Avenues Mall was in order. What the heck, maybe they’d have something I couldn’t do without, plus afterwards I could walk over to the beach. So I caught a taxi at the Mutrah souk, and was lucky (!) enough to hook up with ‘Fireball’ Habib, Oman’s answer to a typical New York taxi driver. What a hustler.

Habib took me to the Mall and gave me his card in case I needed him for anything else – like a day trip to Wadi Shaab. I told him I’d let him know and set off to see what this famous Omani Mall held for me. As it turned out, not a whole lot. My biggest excitement was seeing an entire wall ad for Cinnabon, only to discover that Cinnabon was coming, but not yet there. Crushed! I walked over to the Sultan Qaboos mosque, realizing that in shorts and polo shirt I couldn’t get in, which was OK as I’d seen other big mosques elsewhere, most notably in Casablanca, but it was a nice stroll. Also spent an hour or two at the beach, just kicking back.

I taxied back to the Mutrah souk and had lunch on one of the fast food terraces: chicken tikka with fries. My lunch looked surprisingly like the Kung Pao chicken I’d had on my Nizwa trip and, in fact, tasted pretty much the same, too. Afternoon was another lazy day (I told you I came here for the relaxation and sunshine, right?) and at 6 PM I headed back to Al Boom for my nightly aperitif. Thus time I decided upon a pina colada, which seemed to go better with the sunset than just a beer. Dinner was golden fried squid, which also hit the spot.

Before turning in, I called Habib to let him know I was up for a trip to Wadi Habib the following day. He told me he’d pick me up around 9 AM. We’d see what the day held.

Wadi Shab, also spelled Wadi Shaab, is apparently quite a popular wadi (like along canyon) located in the Al Sharqiyah Region in Oman. It’s well-known to locals and expats, and people come here for the wild natural surroundings, to swim in the fresh water pools or just to have a barbecue. The main attraction of the wadi is the waterfall in the cave, which can be reached after a roughly 40 minute hike.

Habib failed to tell me about the 40-minute hike, for which I was unprepared. After the 90-minute drive, much of it along the southern coast, we arrived at the sea end of the wadi. We took a small old rowboat, fitted with an outboard motor, for about two minutes across a pool and alighted onto what would be The Trek area.

Folks, I must admit my trekking days are over and if I’d have known what was in store for me I wouldn’t have even bothered coming. I made it about 15 minutes over not-too-well-worn gravelly paths and rocky defiles and so much frigging natural beauty I was blasted. Besides, I’d left my Indiana Jones hat at home. It was also humid in the wadi, and I finally called a halt to Habib after slowing down more and more. Scraping my hand on a rock as I slipped off a small incline was the final straw. Sorry, Habib, back we go! Screw it. I could do without the natural sinkhole and waterfall in a cave, all of which I’d seen before in other places. These days my trekking consists of climbing the short set of stairs to the hotel terrace and being rewarded with a nice cold beer.

I had Habib drive me back to Mutrah and trekked from the taxi to one of the terrace restaurants along the Corniche for a nice lunch of chicken shawarma – that’s enough trekking for me for the next decade. A well-deserved shower and lazy afternoon nap in Riyam Park finished me off for the daylight hours. But several Scandia beers and some beef vindaloo and rice at Al Boom revived me enough to enjoy the rest of the evening.

By the way, in case you hadn’t noticed, there is really no night life in Muscat or Mutrah, at least what we in the west are used to. No pubs (because no alcohol!), no music, no hookah bars, no belly dancers (that I could find), no entertainment of any sort, at least in my area. Maybe in the big tourist hotels in Muscat, but certainly not in quiet, provincial Mutrah. So most nights I’d take a relaxing (there’s that word again!) after-dinner stroll along the Corniche and repair to my hotel room where I’d read a book or watch the only English-language TV channel I could find among the 860 other channels: CNN. Fortunately, I was able to reduce CNN’s blabbering nonentities to mere background noise, so wasn’t bothered too much by their inanities. All in all, I’d have rather watched Ishtar.

Anyway, I came to take it easy in the warm weather, and that’s what I did. Tuesday morning saw me roll out of bed at the crack of 7 to wander over to the nearby fish market and see what the locals did at that time of day. Turned out they bid on recent fish catches, which is just as exciting as it sounds. Ah, well, live and learn. After breakfast, it was back to the beach in Muscat for a day in the sun. I chose Al Qurum beach again, as it was pretty nearly always empty, plus it had several restaurants nearby. A nice relaxing day, even though the sea was filled with some sort of greenish algae, so swimming was pretty much out of the question.
After a cleanup, I watched the sun going down from the terrace of the Marina Hotel, accompanied by two new friends this time, Bavaria beers, which set off perfectly the fried shrimp and fries. (HEY! I can’t get fresh seafood in landlocked Hungary, so any time I’m anywhere near the sea, I scarf down all I can get – which is a lot).

Wednesday, January 17, was my last full day in Oman. My plane was to leave at 5 AM the following day, which meant I’d have to be at the airport around 2 AM to ensure an easy check in, passport control, security check, etc. So, what the heck, I decided on another beach day, the details of which I won’t bore you (not that there were many to begin with, sand being sand on every beach you’ve ever been on). A final dinner of king fish grill and three screwdrivers at Al Boom and I was set for an early night nap before heading out.

My taxi picked me up at 1 AM and delivered me safely to the airport in plenty of time to stand in line for Emirates Airlines check-in. No problems, everything went smoothly, which caused me to wonder what nasty surprises I’d have ahead. Amazingly enough, none; it was one of those rare trips when it all went right. I had a nice, but surprising, breakfast at the airport; the food court I stopped at had breakfast items, one of which I ordered, only to be told that they were only served in the morning. Hmmm. I casually showed the young Indian server my watch, indicated it was 3 o’clock in the morning, to which he replied that their morning didn’t start until 6 AM. I knew time moved more slowly here!

So I had a lovely beef burger and fries; not your standard breakfast, but it hit the spot nonetheless. We got away on time and I was able to manage the maze of gates and corridors and long walks through the Dubai airport easily and quickly. It was a 20-minute walk from where the transfer bus dropped us off to my gate, but I’m used to that by now. OK, these long walks are really my only present-day treks after all.

We boarded our Emirates flight and lo and behold, I found myself in the aisle seat (which I always request) of a three-seat row all alone! I had the entire row to myself on a five-plus hour flight. Cool. I spread out and enjoyed my air time, which seemed to go by faster than usual – maybe once we leave the Middle East time starts speeding up again.

Home to 3-degree Celsius Budapest late morning on Thursday, January 18, airport bus to Kalvin Ter, short walk dragging my by-now 17-kilo suitcase (I’d started off my trip with a bag weighing 11 kilos; y’all better appreciate those souvenirs!) and home to my not-too-cold flat. I’d turned the heat down to 15 Celsius while I was away, so it would warm up nicely over the next few hours with just a minor temp adjustment.

And there we have it, another successful mid-winter excursion to the sunshine and warmth. As I write this blog (January 21, 2018), there is a covering of snow on the rooftops of Budapest and the temp is down around -2 Celsius. I’ll be staying inside until spring.

Hope everyone’s holidays were happy and fun and safe. Watch this space for my next adventures, in the planning stages now. Happy New Year to you all.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

In Bruges



Ever since I saw the movie In Bruges, I wanted to visit Bruges, Belgium. Then, when I found out my Norwegian son, Eirik (who was our exchange student in Albuquerque) was now living in Ghent, I knew I’d have to make the trip. Ghent and Bruges are on a direct railway line from Brussels Airport, so I could fly in there, take the train direct to Bruges, spend a few days there and then entrain back to Ghent, spend a few days there and reconnect with Eirik, then back to Brussels Airport and home. Piece of cake.

And so, before the weather got too bad to enjoy the lovely little town of Bruges, I was off once again. I’d even have an extra bonus in that my landlords, Robert and Marie Kortenhorst, who live in Dublin, would also be in Bruges with friends during the same weekend I’d be there, so I wouldn’t have to eat all my meals alone.

The weather was still pleasant in Budapest when I set out that late summer (or early fall) day. My flight left at the sane hour of noon on Thursday, so I wouldn’t have to drag myself out of bed in the middle of the night. It was an easy two-hour flight courtesy of Brussels Airline and I was suddenly in Belgium. I followed the signs through the airport to the train station. I recalled I’d been in this train station once before, when an acquaintance of mine and I caught the TGV to Paris; 200 kilometers per hour and we were in Paris in about 90 minutes. Amazing. This time it would be a slower version, and we’d get to Bruges in about 90 minutes. No prob.

I bought my train ticket from a young woman at one of the ticket windows. I told her what I wanted and she asked me if I was over 65, thus earning my eternal gratitude. Seniors get a major discount on tickets here – 50%! Damn. Only cost me 11 euro to go from the Brussels airport to Bruges. Flattered and happy – a good start to my Belgian adventure.

So I arrived in Bruges around 5 PM, which was just the time I’d hoped for. Taxis were almost nonexistent at the train station, but I finally managed to share one with a French woman who insisted she was in the nonexistent queue before me. We pulled up to her hotel and she paid the driver the entire 10 euro fare, leaving me to settle up anything else. The driver then pulled around the corner and there was my hotel! The Hans Memling Hotel, named after one of Bruges’s most well-known painters. I never did have to pay any more for the taxi ride, a fair trade for having to put up with a French woman, even for so brief a time.

On the reception desk that day was Maxim, a young Brugesian (Brugesite? Brugesarian?) of the more voluble sort, who gave me more info about the city in four minutes than any guidebook. He clued me in to several great pubs and restaurants and I was ready to go. As always, I dumped my suitcase in my nice little room and was off to see the city.

“Bruges (in Dutch: Brugge) is a town in Flanders, which is the northern part of Belgium. It’s noted as a quite cosmopolitan and bourgeois place, given its compact size. It is also widely touted as one of the best preserved pre-motorized cities in Europe and offers the kind of charms rarely available elsewhere. Bruges is a postcard-perfect stop on any tour of Europe.”
Yes, all of this guidebook hype is true, but what the books and Internet don’t tell you about Bruges is that it is one of the most touristy towns you’ll ever visit. I suppose it was the movie that did it, but literally every row of businesses on every street in the town center consists of: souvenir shops, chocolate shop, chocolate shop, souvenir shop, tiny restaurant, chocolate shop, tiny pub, chocolate shop, souvenir shop. Etc., etc., etc. I hadn’t seen so much tourist tat since Hong Kong.

But Bruges more than makes up for all the tourist places with its amazing buildings, architecture, art, cobblestone streets, and all-around beautiful ambiance. And that late afternoon light has to be seen to be believed.

My hotel was two short blocks from the main square, and I popped out from my side street into the wonder that is Bruges’ Market (Markt) Square. Words hardly do it justice, so I’ll just post a pic or two and let you decide when you’ll plan your visit.


After staring at everything in awestruck amazement for a while, and taking pictures of everything in sight, from every angle, it was time to seek out some of Bruges’ best pubs, so I checked my map and sidled down another side street to The Burg Square, maybe another 50 meters. And across from this smaller but no less impressive square I found Delaney’s Irish pub, glistening in the early evening dew and beckoning me from afar. I felt myself drawn in and straight up to the bar, where I ordered dinner of fish and chips and had the favorite local beer, Bruges Zot (only 6% alcohol as compared to my second beer, Jupiler, at 5%).
Next stop was the famous Druid’s Cellar, back across Market Square. Down a few steps and festooned with every sort of funky decoration one could imagine, dimly-lit and atmospheric, this was definitely my kind of bar. Owner and bartender Drew from Newcastle, UK, welcomed me to his humble establishment with a Steen Brugge Blond beer, followed by another Jupiler. I engaged in light conversation with Robert and Willi, two students back from studying in Ghent, along with a young woman seated at the bar next to me. Friendly people in Bruges pubs. On the way out I stopped at the men’s room and found the urinal was actually a small tuba (called, I think, a euphonium). It actually made a strange sound when I bestowed my blessing upon it. Another unique experience.

I was feeling no pain as I wandered on to my next pub, the Le Trappiste bar, just across from my hotel. I read the chalkboard beer menu and realized I had to be careful in choosing my libations for what would probably be the rest of the night, as most of the beers in this place were 6-9% alcohol, with one as high as 10.5%.

I was chatting with my bar neighbors Simon and his wife when who should walk in but my Budapest friends and neighbors Robert and Marie, accompanied by their Irish friends Gabe and Eileen. We’d been exchanging texts all evening, so they knew where I was and tracked me down. The evening picked up from there. Simon and his wife stayed for a while, then when they left I spotted Robert and Willi across the bar; only in Bruges a few hours and already I had bar friends. Anyway, my party (except for me!) finally lost their battles with Bacchus and wandered off to their hotel. I stayed for a while and met a guy from Atlanta who sat down next to me. But finally enough was enough.
I seem to recall motivating up the stairs to the street to see if I could get into my hotel, which was literally just across the street from the bar. The Hans Memling is one of those hotels without a Receptionist after 8 PM, so to get into the hotel you are furnished with a code for a keypad on the front door. It only took me three tries after attempting to read the code on the card I was given, as after each attempt I spoke loudly and clearly into the keypad, “Open Sesame,” but to no avail. The third time I gave up and put my glasses on to ensure I had the correct code and suddenly, with a Star Trek whoosh, the door opened and I was in! I presume I got upstairs OK, as the next thing I remember it was early morning and breakfast was calling me.

Friday morning. I grabbed a quick and expensive breakfast at a small cafe near my hotel, then took the 30-minute canal boat tour to see what Bruges had to offer from a riparian viewpoint. We cruised in and out of several canals, listening to the Captain’s commentary and enjoying the cloudy and cool day. I only got splashed once by another boat going the opposite direction. It was another good start to what I hoped would be another good day.

Upon returning to our dock, I decided to do my self-guided walking tour that I’d found on the Net. Setting out from Market Square, I strolled through Burg Square and up and down streets near the canals I’d just seen on my boat tour. Lots of fascinating neighborhoods in Bruges, quaint, picturesque, charming and a few other adjectives one might throw into the mix. I finally found myself down at the Halvemann Brewery, where I had a hearty lunch of Flemish Stew (tender beef cooked for several hours in a dark brown beer sauce), Belgian fries and Belgian beer.

I considered the brewery tour, but, having been on so many in the past, decided not to go this time, especially as the tour included climbing more than 100 steps to the top of the building. My one “free” beer at the end of the tour wasn’t worth that much effort. So I took my time and strolled casually back toward Market Square, checking out side streets, interesting buildings and courtyards and generally taking it easy as I explored different parts of Bruges.

By this time I’d realized Bruges was quite a bit more expensive than I’d thought it would be. Probably double Budapest prices in too many areas, other than, at first glance, beer. Only 4 euro or so for a standard beer. But a look at the standard beer glass revealed it was only 0.33L, not even a full half liter. Another rip-off, although one must consider that with most of the beers having an alcohol content well above 6%, maybe the smaller sizes weren’t so bad after all.

On the way back to my hotel, I noticed a restaurant/bar across the street that advertised “live music.” I wanted to make a reservation for that night, but was told they only had the live music on Sundays; plus, of course, the restaurant was fully booked for that night anyway. Sigh.
I met up with my friends at their B&B around six-ish and we all went over to the Druid’s Cellar for a pre-dinner drink. Drew was happy to see us and poured us all some of that good Belgian beer for our refreshment. We wandered around nearby looking for a likely restaurant that still had a table open, which was rather difficult to find, until we came to the end of St. Armindstraat to the Brugge-Link Tea Room, which happened to have a table for five just inside the front door. Eileen squeezed in front of another group of five Swedes and grabbed the table. I decided it was time for another of the Five Main Things one must eat and drink in Belgium: Mussels! Starting with an appetizer of escargot, I then had a pot of at least 75 of the little shelled beauties, along with fries and beer.

We staggered away down the street again, finding a local band playing Irish music and songs in front of the Druid’s Cellar, and listened to them for a while. Everyone else finally took off for their flat and I decided one more visit to Le Trappiste Bar was in order. It was heaving, as is apparently the case most nights. I climbed up on the only stool left at the bar, luckily next to a lovely young blonde woman, who turned out to be – are you ready for this? From St. Louis, Missouri (my long-ago birthplace in the US), a CPA working as an external auditor for a large accounting firm (I was an internal auditor for many years) and had recently been transferred to Amsterdam as an expat. We had a brief but intense chat and I gave her my business card, hoping maybe she’ll turn up in Budapest someday. One never knows, do one?

Saturday morning I tried the hotel’s buffet Continental breakfast and, for 9.50 euro (around $12 US), it was anything but a value. More ways to gouge the tourists. Anyway, I went looking for the weekend flea market and found exactly nothing. I really like those Saturday flea markets and was disappointed, to say the least. I thought there might be some bargains there. I did finally chance upon a mini-flea market along one of the canals, but it was pretty sparse and failed to yield up any gifts of note.

I stopped in briefly at the Friet Museum (Fries Museum!) and considered a tour to learn the difference between Belgian and French fries, but at 7 euro per head, decided I could just ask someone on the street (which, by the way, I did; it turns out French fires are fried once and Belgian fries are fried twice, a process which apparently results in some pretty nasty aftereffects, so best to stay away from the Belgian brand).

A little more wandering and exploring and it started to rain just lightly, but since it was lunchtime, I stopped in at a small Italian place for some spaghetti and vino. Hey! Comfort food! As I sat slurping up my pasta, the skies opened up and there was a thunderstorm outside, lasting at least 20 minutes. Good thing I was warm and cozy with my wine.

I headed out when the rain let up and explored a touch more, but it turned out there really wasn’t all that much to see in Bruges besides the main square and its immediate surrounding areas. I caught a few Zs in preparation for what I hoped would be another fun night out. Around six PM or so I headed back to Delaney’s and learned they had a live band that night; not Irish music, but what the heck. I sat at the bar with my newfound fantastic Belgian beers and talked with bar neighbors Simon and Paula from the UK. My group showed up around 10, which was when the music was to start.

The band was, to say the least, anticlimactic, as it was too loud and played lots of songs I’d never heard. Another beer or two and I was ready to make it an early night, so I headed back to my hotel around midnight. A good night but not a great one.

Sunday was checkout day in Bruges, so, after another unsatisfying breakfast at my hotel, I took a taxi to the train station around 10:30 AM and caught the next train to Ghent at 11, arriving around 11:30 (Hey! It’s only 40 kilometers away!).


IN GHENT

So it was upward and onward to the next major stop down the rail line: Ghent. As often happens, a place I choose to visit as sort of a secondary stop turns out to be much better than anticipated. My primary reason for visiting Ghent was to connect again with Eirik, our Norwegian exchange student when Morgan and I lived in Albuquerque. He’d visited me in Budapest a couple of times and I’d visited him in Oslo some years back, but it had been quite a few years since we’d been in the same city and it would be good to see him again. Actually, I had visited Sandnes, Norway, the previous year, which is where Eirik was from, even though he himself hadn’t been back for at least 15 years, after he’d moved to Oslo.

I called Eirik and he came to meet me at the station. We took a tram to the downtown area near the three major cathedrals and the confluence of the Scheldt and Leie rivers, both of which are pretty small. Eirik took me for lunch to one of his favorite places, Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, a funky little bar and restaurant right on the river, across from Gravensteen Castle. We sat in the bar area and had some great little snacks: cheese, sausage and liver pate, accompanied (for me, anyway) by a Klokke Roland beer. A really tasty amber beer, cold and refreshing, light and just right on a cool afternoon overlooking the Scheldt River. Of course, it was 11% alcohol, and the menu firmly stated there was a limit of three per customer. After drinking one, I could understand why; three would have put me on the floor.
As it was then around 3 PM, my hotel’s check-in time, Eirik walked me over to The House of Edward, a couple of blocks from the Vrijdag Markt square, another large open space ringed by restaurants and bars. I’d be visiting some of them later. When we reached the hotel, wonder of wonders, my pre-sent access code worked just fine and the outer door opened to admit us. My room was on what the hotel referred to as the Ground Floor, even though it was one flight up. I wondered what the bottom floor was called.
Even though there is no reception desk at this hotel, the day man, Frank, was on hand to help out if I needed anything. My door code also accessed my room, which meant all was in working order; based on my past encounters with high technology, I was just waiting for something to go wrong. My room was big and airy and light, with four almost-floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the parking lot of Edward Anseeleplein Square. A large queen-size bed took up a lot of room, covered with a thick, soft duvet. A medium-size round table, a small round table and two chairs completed the furniture, along with a flat-screen TV on the wall. Minimalism run amok.

The far wall opposite the bed was a long, black wall with no decoration. I found out why when I noticed the handles on the “wall,” which were attached to doors that opened up into several stalls for toilet, shelves, kitchen and shower. Very modern, convenient and efficient. The bathroom sink was to one side of the wall, right in front of one of the windows. The only way to achieve privacy was to pull down all of the blinds, which also sank the room into a sort of semi-dusk. But it was fun and different and interesting and I loved it.
Eirik took off and left me to my own devices. I unpacked quickly and went out for an orientation stroll. My first stop along the river was a cart selling Belgian waffles, which I quickly ordered – with chocolate sauce, natch. A light rain started to fall, so I hurried back to my hotel for an afternoon siesta.

Eirik called to meet him and his partner Veroniek at the Keizershof Restaurant in Vrijdagmarkt at 7 PM. We all arrived at the same time, to find out the restaurant was closed on Sunday night. Veroniek then took us across the river to the Patershol area and a long street filled with eating places. Most of them were fully booked, but we finally found a place that had a few seats left for us: t’Konninghuis. We chatted and drank some local wine and had dinner (I had the Wagyu burger along with an appetizer of Monks Balls – don’t ask! - and fried onion rings). It was a good, cozy evening, getting reacquainted and being brought up-to-date with Eirik and learning a little bit about his lovely partner Veroniek. Since they both had to work the next day, it was another fairly early night, although we did stop briefly on the way back at the really tiny local bar called Velohe, notable for its cramped interior due to all the old bicycles hanging from the ceiling.

Even with the blinds pulled down all the way, the early-morning light woke me up around 7 AM. I stretched and opened one eye first, then finally rolled out of that soft, soft bed and padded across the light blond wood floor to the first enclosed stall in my black wall. Soon thereafter, my morning ablutions complete, I headed out to see what I could see of Ghent.

First things first: breakfast! I crossed the river again and walked down the Patershol area toward the main part of town. I found a small café, t’verschli, in the Graslei district, near the river, serving various sizes and styles of morning meals. I chose the Americano breakfast, consisting of hot tea, OJ, and cheese and bacon on top of a Belgian waffle. Hmm, interesting. It turned out to be pretty good after all, and the thick waffle would definitely hold me until lunchtime. Plus, a touch of nostalgia: the waitress was wearing one of those old-time coin changers that American bus conductors used to have back in the 1950s, with which she made hard change as needed. How great is that?!
Then it was off again, down past the cathedrals and on into the university quarter, where I hoped to track down the university store and some of those T-shirts my daughter loves to have. Did I find them? Ask my daughter around Xmas time. A nice walk nonetheless. Back again to discover other interesting parts of Ghent of which, admittedly, there weren’t many. But the main part of town was old and interesting, with lots of baroque buildings and unique architecture. While many of the buildings had been cleaned and undergone minor renovations, most of them had been left in their original state, covered with the soot and grime of 8-9 centuries. Lots of character. I did manage to stop in at St. Bavo’s cathedral to see Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, one panel of which is still missing from WWII.

Once again in the Groentenmarkt area by the river Scheldt, it seemed a boat tour of the rivers and canals was in order. I was drawn in when I noticed the standard price for an adult was 7 euro, but seniors got a significant discount to 6.50 euro; such a deal! I soon realized the deal was so good because the tour, lasting 40 minutes, wasn’t anything to write home about. Really, all there is to Ghent is the downtown area around the meeting of the two rivers, the three large cathedrals and another square or two, but at least it’s nowhere near as touristy as Bruges. In fact, there was actually a dearth of souvenir shops and only a very few chocolate shops. A nice change from the in-your-face tourist feeling of Bruges. It was actually difficult to find any souvenirs in Ghent!
After my brief boat tour, I craved a cold drink, so stopped at the small Galgenhuis for refreshments, when who should come upon the scene but Robert and Marie and Gabe and Eileen. They’d just arrived on the train from Bruges and had taken the tram into town and were looking for lunch before their brief walk around town, after which they’d catch the train to Brussels Airport and home to Dublin. Another small world story.

Anyway, Galgenhuis was a snacks-only place, so Eileen marched us all off to a nearby real restaurant called Godot (I’ll skip the obvious jokes that I know you were waiting for). It was a touch pricey, but quite good; I had the seafood linguini, which was wonderful and chock full of seafood. An Orval beer was the crowning touch.

The group then hurried off to see what they could in the time they had remaining, and I went off to find my by-now-standard afternoon siesta. Evening saw me on a pub crawl of places I’d found on the internet and also ones recommended by Eirik and Veroniek. First off was Dulle Griet on the Vrijdagmarkt Square. This bar serves a special beer in one of those half-yards-of-beer tall test tube beakers, set into a wooden stand with handle. Apparently, many customers in past times made off with these “souvenirs,” so, to keep them from disappearing, anyone ordering one had to give up one shoe, which is placed in a basket and hauled to the ceiling. Return the empty glass and holder and get your shoe back. Cool.

My hiking boots were too awkward to tie and untie, so I passed on this beer, but did have a local Dulle Griet Blonde, which was just as yummy. Next up was the Trollenkelder (Troll Cellar), where I also had some cheese and sausage snacks along with my Jupiler beer. The oldest bar in Ghent was calling me, so I strolled through a light rain over to Den Turk, which had been there since 1228 CE. Their menu said “Jazz – Blues” which, to any normal bar habitué, implies live music. Nothing of the sort; it was all piped in recorded music. I really am getting tired of the false advertising I find in bars like this, that offer something to draw in the customers and then fail to deliver.
I returned to The House of Edward to relax and watch some TV news. It was, as usual, all bad, but I was entertained mightily by the ads for catheters. I watched the main ad guy absolutely beam over his choice of wonderful men’s catheters on offer from his company. I slept the sleep of the fully satisfied.

Tuesday morning I was out at 9 AM again, back to t’verschli for a bigger breakfast of croissant, OJ, tea, ham and cheese and a semi-hard-boiled egg – served in an egg cup! Been a while since I’d seen one of those. I took a few photos from St. Michael’s Bridge then walked over to Gravensteen Castle to see if it was worth the 8 euro (discounted to 7.50 euro for seniors). I did the tour, which wasn’t too bad, although I did have to climb all the way to the top up those narrow internal spiral staircases. Another walk around the area to check out the Missy Sippy Blues Club (once again, live music only once a month or so) and to indulge an afternoon snack of one of those yummy Belgian waffles with chocolate sauce. Way too good!

I met up with Eirik again Tuesday evening, although Veroniek had to work and couldn’t make it this time (she’s a psychologist, so her working hours have to correspond with her patients’ off-work hours). We finally had a meal at Keizershof Brasserie. I chose the meatballs with salad, fries and a Tongerlo beer. It was a nice night, cool and cloudy but without rain, and after dinner we walked back over to Velohe to see if the local crowd had shown up again. I guess Tuesday wasn’t their night, as it was pretty empty, but we did have a couple of beers to celebrate anyway.
Wednesday, October 4, was my last full day in Belgium and, since my plane didn’t leave until 9 PM, I had virtually the entire day to do and see anything I hadn’t already done and seen. Turned out there wasn’t really much. So I slept in until 10 AM or so, abluted and went looking for brunch. A steak sounded really good about that time, so I had my almost-midday meal at Brasserie Borluut, near St. Michael’s Bridge. Along with the ubiquitous Belgian fries, very nice. I walked around for a while dragging my small carry-on suitcase, but there really wasn’t anything else I wanted or needed to see.
So, around 2 PM I headed to the train station and caught a later train for Brussels Airport, arriving around 4 PM. Still five hours until my flight. But since I was with Brussels Air, part of the Lufthansa team, I could check in early, which I did. Thus having access to the airport shops and restaurants, I checked out the clothing and souvenir shops, stopped to see if the book stores had anything I needed, and finally had dinner at one of the small cafes near my gate. Read my book until flight time, and then it was off to Budapest, arriving around 10:45 PM. Hustled out to the airport bus and home by 11:30. Piece of cake.

Another fun travel adventure to be immortalized in this blog. No immediate plans for a next trip, but I can only hope it will be somewhere worthwhile and interesting. I’ll do my best. Until then, “Hasta la vista, Baby!”

Thursday, August 31, 2017

YEREVAN!



No, it’s not a Hungarian war cry. It’s the name of the capital city of Armenia. South of Georgia, West of Azerbaijan, East of Turkey and North of Iran - tiny little Armenia. The former Soviet Republic of Armenia is next to fall to the Lukatch Travel Mania (my 70th country!). Like Georgia, Armenia lies in the mountainous Caucasus region between Asia and Europe. It’s also famous for being the site of Mount Ararat, landing place of Noah’s Ark. After my excursion to Tbilisi, Georgia, this past April, how could I pass up Armenia?

Since Yerevan is in Eastern Europe, I couldn’t find a direct flight from Budapest and had to connect through Moscow, as I did when I went to Tbilisi. I left Budapest around 8:30 the evening of Thursday, August 24, changing planes in Moscow and arriving in Yerevan just before six o’clock in the morning of Friday, August 25. I’d made arrangements with my hotel, The Hotel Tufenkian (gotta love that name!) to have their driver pick me up at the airport.

He was there when I exited Passport Control and whisked me off to the hotel. The Tufenkian is located at the southeastern end of Republic Square, just next to a large park in which the local flea market is located: Vernissage. Check-in time was 3 PM, so I was a touch early. I had originally thought I’d store my bag and sightsee until check-in time, but I was sleepy and sweaty and decided I’d take the half-room rate and catch a couple of hours sleep and a shower instead. So I did and, feeling refreshed, had the hotel’s buffet breakfast around 9 AM and then walked out into the bright early-morning sunshine of Yerevan, Armenia.

From the Wikipedia Voyage website:

“The capital city of the Republic of Armenia, Yerevan is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. It dates back to the 8th century BC, when the fortress of Erebuni was built by King Argishti I. Its population is around three million people, and it lies less than 200 km south of Tbilisi, Georgia

“Yerevan is often pegged as the ‘Pink City’ because of the color of the stones used to build much of the city center, which is a compact area known as Kentron. This area, amongst others, has been greatly developed over the past decade, resulting in more restaurants, cafés, shops and hotels. Central Yerevan is a large circular area; the east half of the circle is enclosed by a green belt and the west half by a main thoroughfare. Republic Square is in the southeastern part of Yerevan.

“Armenia’s capital city is fast becoming a major tourist destination thanks to its numerous landmarks, extensive nightlife, great museums and lovely parks.”


Full of energy for the coming day, I headed out to my first stop: the local post office. Along the way I bought some postcards and then stamps, since I knew the post office wouldn’t be open on the weekend. Next, also probably closed on the weekend, I set off to find the University of Yerevan’s student store, to see if they had any t-shirts that would fit my daughter Morgan. Sorry, Morgan, a gimlet-eyed security guard informed me that there was no student store and no t-shirts. Better luck in Bruges next month.

After those two mandatory stops, it was off to explore a little bit of central Yerevan. The city is very walkable and not too hilly, so I enjoyed my stroll immensely. There are several very large and open squares offering inner-city vistas, but without any shade and, since the temps were in the high 80s (31 C) I felt like that proverbial egg frying on the pavement. Anyway, along about lunchtime I came upon a Georgian restaurant called, naturally enough, the Khinkali Gardens, so I stopped and had some….guess what? Yep, khinkali.
Along with a local Kilikija beer, it hit just the right spot. My waiter was from Lebanon originally and was pleased to have a conversation with a visiting American; leaving me with the admonition never to trust any Georgians, lunch was a bright spot.

I had booked one of Yerevan’s free walking tours, to start around 5 PM, so, what with the heat and my still sleep-deprived body, I figured a siesta would serve me well; plus my room was nicely air-conditioned. So, I headed back to the hotel Tufenkian for some afternoon delight (Hey! A mid-day nap and shower in air-conditioned comfort is usually the best afternoon delight I can expect at my age).

The hotel Tufenkian is one of those nice heritage hotels that seem to be springing up all over Europe. The outside facade of an old landmark building is preserved and the inner area is gutted and completely renovated to make a new, beautiful hotel. Tufenkian is just that. The inside is beautifully redone and is modern clean, bright and welcoming. And their staff are amazing, all English-speaking, helpful, friendly and eager to please. I often find this to be the case in Eastern Europe, which is why I am always excited to visit countries in this area.

So, the sun was lower in the sky when I set out to meet my walking tour at 5 PM in front of the National History Museum on Republic Square, a three-minute walk from my hotel. The tour was conducted by a local named Vako; there were about 15 people in the group tour and we headed off to inspect Yerevan. Vako conducted the tour in English and he was very informative and fun, but, in order to fit in all the things he wanted to show his groups in the 2 ½-to-3 hours scheduled for the tour, he had to move the group at a good clip between sights. Unfortunately, my poor old legs didn’t relate well to his clip, and I only made about half the tour, preferring to amble along by myself, stopping whenever and wherever.
I eventually ended up at the Dargett Microbrewery, a large restaurant on the northwest edge of the main city’s circle. They had a large outdoor terrace, but, since it was air-conditioned inside, I chose to sit at the bar. They must have had 20 locally brewed microbeers on tap and, as a nice touch I’ve found generally common to microbreweries, they also had several tasters, which offered five 0.1L samples of several of their beers.
I chose my tasters carefully: Belle du Jour (a blond ale); Coney Island (American pale ale); Metamorphosis (Vienna lager); Vertigo (India pale ale); and 1984 (an oatmeal stout). They were all fresh and yummy, but I finally decided on a glass of the Vienna lager (it turned out a full glass, which I thought would be a pint, was actually 0.33L!). To offset the high alcohol content of the beers (from 5.5% and up), I had a Tarte Flambe, advertised as an Alsatian French artisanal flatbread, topped with spicy sausage (not very), roasted red peppers (small) and a white sauce. It was actually an “Armenian pizza” and it was satisfying without being particularly tasty.
I was nicely buzzed after my stay at Dargett and strolled back toward the hotel to take off a little of the fuzziness. I stopped at Republic Square to watch the Dancing Fountains for a while, which consisted of water fountains and sprays timed to accompany loud mostly-classical music. The square was packed, as this was obviously one of the major nightly attractions in Yerevan, a city lovely in its sights, but not widely-known for its divertissements. Nonetheless, the show was entertaining and melodic and the enthusiasm of the crowd was catching. My vision became much less blurred after taking in all of the dancing fountains and music of which I was capable at the time and I wandered the hundred meters back to my hotel for a nightcap.

The hotel dining room was still open at 10 PM and I decided I needed a luscious dessert: chocolate cake with a molten chocolate center. As a special dish, it required 20 minutes to prepare, but I was content to wait with my world-renowned Armenian cognac.
I presume most of the people reading this account of my visit to Yerevan are as unknowledgeable of Armenia as I was and so would not know that Armenian cognac is considered by many connoisseurs of same to be among the finest, if not the finest, cognacs in the world. Even Winston Churchill preferred it as his go-to nightcap. The hotel had a rather large list of local cognacs and my waiter guided me to the Akhtamer 10-year-old bottle. Well, it was aphrodisia. Nectar. It was the sun setting over a warm Mediterranean sea. It was the touch of a young woman’s lips promising a night of abandon. It was, in a word, in-frigging-credible! I wondered at the time how much of this amazing drink I could take home with me to Budapest. I hoped it was a lot.

So I savored my world-famous cognac and enjoyed my chocolate cake with molten interior at leisure and decided Armenia was a pretty good place to be.

Saturday, August 26. VERNISSAGE! Billed as one of the major attractions in Yerevan, this extensive flea market truly comes alive on the weekends. I love wandering the flea markets, souks, bazaars, swap meets, etc., everywhere I go in the world, looking for wondrous and strange and exotic items to give as gifts to family and friends and, of course, to keep for myself. Yerevan’s Vernissage is located in a park right across the street from my hotel, one of the primary reasons I chose this hotel. Guide books said this market is worth several hours of browsing and haggling and finding just the right gift for that someone who never knew s/he needed it. I was ready!

While there were merchants already set up by 9 AM, things didn’t really get heated until after 10 AM. I had a leisurely breakfast, sauntered across the street and began my search at the top of one row of tables, intending to go up and down until I could spend no more. Turned out three hours was just about right, what with the many vendors, the hot, hot sun and the need for a cold, cold beer. Got several Xmas presents for the family and a few others for special people, and I was ready for lunch. I dropped my goodies off at the hotel and walked over to Abovyan Street to a restaurant I’d found on the net called Vostan. It was known for its lamb, so naturally I tried some lamb kebabs and veggies. Very nice, but not world-class. But at least it was air-conditioned! And for the first half of my meal I was their only customer.

After a shower and brief catnap, I set out to find the Cascades, Yerevan’s major tiered fountain monument, higher than the Empire State building. I walked and walked and couldn’t find the damn thing! And it is huge! (Ed Note: My internet-printed Google map must have been creased funny, as it turned out I took the wrong street, just one street to the left of where I should have been, but there are so many trees in the area I couldn’t see where I needed to go. Not a problem, I’d try again tomorrow via taxi).
Then it was time for a Saturday pub crawl. I taxied over to the 007 Pub on Pushkin Street. It’s touted on Trip Advisor as a “Must See” pub in Yerevan, so, of course, I figured I “Must See” it. Well, as seems to be the case too often, I got there too early for the main action. It was just me and the bartender and one waitress. At least Varkez (sp?) was friendly and spoke English, so we had a nice chat while I tried some of the local beer, Kilikija. I asked him if Sean Connery had ever been there and he told me, “No, but George Clooney was here last year.” Okay, a poor substitute, but what the heck, one must make do with what one has.
I polished off a couple of 6% alcohol beers and a chicken shawarma snack (actually, just a chicken burrito). Varkez gave me a complimentary shot: half vodka and half apple juice, with a sprinkling of cinnamon on top. Yum.

Next it was the Liberty Pub, a short stroll away, which I needed to clear my head. This place, also a cellar pub, at least had some people in it, loud and boisterous and young. And it was also rather buggy. I tried one of the local bottled beers this time, Aleksandrapol. After pouring it into a glass, I noticed it had no bubbles at all, it was completely flat. The bottle’s expiration date was two weeks previously. I worried it until I couldn’t drink any more, then left to find a more congenial place that took better care of their wares.

This was the second night I tried to find the Iceberg Karaoke pub and for the second night I was unsuccessful. Don’t know where they hide the damn things, but they sure fooled me. Another brief stop at the Dancing Fountains (one can only take so much spouting colored water and classical music) and I headed once again to the sanctuary of my hotel for a late night baklava and cognac. Armenian cognac is truly marvelous; if you can find any in liquor stores near you, be sure and get some.
After my buffet breakfast Sunday morning, I taxied up to Victory Park on top of a tall hill on the north side of the city circle. It’s a large park, commemorating various military victories and complete with a statue of Mother Armenia. The statue looks suspiciously like that in Tbilisi of Mother Georgia, but who am I to judge? Lots of trees and shrubbery and even a childrens’ amusement park scattered throughout the park, but the park itself needs some TLC; for a national monument, it could be better maintained. I did enjoy the variou
s war machines in the park, however, like a Mig 15 and battle tanks. Defend Yerevan!

After a nice stroll through the park, I took the underpass across the road in search of the Cascades. I came out on top of a wide lookout area; I looked down but couldn’t see any cascades, and my lookout perch just sort of ended, outflung into space. But there were steps, so I followed them down, down, along a side road, over wooden planking and finally emerged at the very tip top of the Cascades! Mirabile dictu! This was a much nicer tiered series of steps and platforms, some with sculptures. It was all supposed to have water flowing and spouting down its length, but not the day I was there. Guess it was too hot.

Fortunately, inside the Cascades were an elevator (lift for my English friends) and a series of escalators to the bottom. The trip down was also dotted with various works of art, sculptures, etc, to give the riders something to look at. Finally at the bottom, I emerged out into a divided park complete with even more sculptures, one of which was the famous Smoking Woman. This black-stone marvel was a large woman lying on her stomach and smoking a cigarette. Now we know what the national pastime of Armenia is.
I was hot and thirsty by then and, as the divided park was lined on both sides by small cafes and restaurants, I decided it was time for a break from my morning’s labors. I am unable to tell you the name of the café I chose as it was always written in Armenian and even when it appeared to be in English was undecipherable. Something like “Returnius.” Anyway, the young waiter was pleasant and spoke English and was kind enough to bring me an entire pitcher of lemonade, which was about half-filled with ice. Definitely made me a happy camper. Along with an apple strudel with a small scoop of ice cream, it was the perfect mid-morning treat.
After the seemingly-long walk back to the hotel and a stop once again at the flea market, I decided lunch in an air-conditioned setting would be just the thing. My hotel’s menu was a good one and I chose the Mante and some meat Boereg. Mante is tiny little boat-shaped pastas, filled with meat and then browned. Very nice. Boereg is pastry shells also filled with meat and crisped. Accompanied by a nice house white wine, it hit the spot.

A rest in my air-con room and a shower finished off the afternoon, and then it was time for dinner. I had passed a place on Tumanyan street called The Black Bull, and noticed its menu was filled with good-looking steaks, so for my last night in Yerevan I deemed one was in order. I walked back up Abovyan street and found The Black Bull not too crowded. It was somewhat windy out, so I settled inside in a fairly cool dining room which also boasted a piano player. Exploring the menu, I decided on the flank steak. Rubbing my hands together in gleeful anticipation of my chosen treat, I ordered it from the waitress who then told me – ready for this? – sitting down? – you know what’s coming, right? – “Sorry, we don’t have that tonight.”

Aaarrgghh!!! It IS me after all! Everywhere I go! The restaurant gods must have it in for me, as this happens to me all the damn time – or so it seems. Is there a warning on a special secret Internet site for restaurants that tells them to disappoint me whenever I travel and order something I really want? So I sighed and refrained from smacking the waitress on her head with my menu and ordered the Chuck Tender which, I must admit, was quite large and tender and very tasty. But that’s not the point, is it? I had a side of veggies (I’m so good!) and white wine, but passed on dessert. An evening stroll around the squares completed my time in Yerevan and I decided to turn in early.

I checked out of the Tufenkian Hotel Monday late morning and had the hotel’s driver return me to the airport. I was ready for a fairly easy flight to Moscow and then another to Budapest. I couldn’t hear Murphy laughing hysterically in the background.

Just when you (and I!) thought I’d successfully completed yet another fulfilling weekend adventure, it turns out I spoke too soon and my story was not nearly over. Read on.

EPILOGUE

When I checked in at the Yerevan Aeroflot desk for my return flight to Budapest through Moscow, I specifically requested an aisle seat as close to the front of the plane as possible. I knew I only had a little over one hour to make my connecting flight in Moscow and I also knew that the standard Gate at Sheremetyevo Airport in Moscow for the flight to Budapest was Gate 58 – the very last Gate in Terminal F, so far from where we entered the airport that it was almost in Poland. I’d have to scurry and run and dodge and weave and hustle my bustle to make my connection. It was a long damn way.

In fact, signs posted at the gate where we entered the airport (Gate 1) announced it was a 25-minute walk to Gate 58. I suppose if I was the young OJ Simpson I could have made it in less time, but for my older legs and easily-out-of-breath lungs it was definitely a challenge. I’d made this connection in the past and let me tell you, without at least a two-hour window it was a close-run thing.

Anyway, the Aeroflot guy checked me in and gave me seat 11F – a window seat. I guessed all the aisle seats were filled, but at least I was near the front of the plane, able to hop out fairly quickly for a fast getaway. And of course it was a full flight and every seat in front of and next to me was filled, but OK, I was still near the front of the plane. And by the way, my second-leg boarding pass did, in fact, indicate my connecting gate in Moscow was Gate 58.

And so, with the smiles and laughter of Yerevan Passport Control’s happiest officer ringing in my ears, I cleared Security and cruised Duty Free to pick up one or two last items I just had to have.

So. The plane arrived in Moscow and parked on the tarmac. I thought we were at a docking bay in the terminal, but it turned out we had to board a bus for the journey. I scooted out of my window seat nearly as soon as the plane stopped and my seatmates rose and got out of the way. We all had to get to our connecting flights in a hurry, so we were all poised in our three-point sprinter’s stance, ready for the front door to open so we could run and jump and leap and hustle through the airport.

And we waited. And waited. No front door opening. What’s the problem? And we waited. Nothing. And then a passenger in front of me pointed to the rear of the plane to indicate they were disembarking through the rear door! I swear at that point I did hear Murphy’s laughter kick up a notch. Scheisse! Of course, it took twice as long to exit the plane that way, and the clock was ticking, but we made it and hustled again through a light rain onto an overcrowded airport bus, where running Muscovites pushed and shoved their way in front of me to get crammed onto the bus. Russian men are not the most well-mannered in the world. But at least I was on the bus, smashed against the crowd in front of me and the exit door behind me.

OK, so, on the bus, like a herd of cattle. When we reached the terminal we disembarked on my side of the bus, so when the doors opened I was popped out like a champagne cork. Backwards, of course. I whirled around and took off for my flight through the terminal(s). Without boring you as to my journey, I arrived at my gate (they’d switched it to Gate 50, so I didn’t have quite as far to go) at 5:20 for my 6 PM flight, just in time to catch the initial boarding call. Whew. Gasping and heaving and with sweat pouring off me, I handed my crumpled and sweat-stained boarding pass to the attendant and staggered onto the plane to find my seat: 26A, another window seat! At least this time the flight was almost empty and there was no one else in my row, so I had it all to myself. Not too bad.

An easy 2 ½-hour flight to Budapest, an easy disembarkation, a fairly quick clearance through Passport Control, but a longish wait for our bags to start down the conveyor belt. I did hear a faint chuckle from Murphy somewhere in the background, but ignored it; what could go wrong now?

I soon found out, as bag after bag dropped out onto the belt and none of them were mine. Finally, the last bag came out and the shutter came down and I still didn’t have my bag. Well, Double Scheisse! I found the Aeroflot desk and entered my information with the clerk so the airline could track down my bag and hopefully deliver it to me within a day or so. Nervous sweat and exhaustion were the order of the night, but I finally exited the airport to catch the new direct-to-Kalvin-Ter airport bus. There were quite a few people waiting for that bus, but I figured I had arrived in between buses, so no problem.

When I checked the Next Arrival sign, however, it was gaily repeating the message, “Bus 200E and Bus 100E do not service this platform due to road closures by police.”

Hah?! What was this? When I asked one of the BKV operators on site what was going on, he spat out the word, “Putin!” Turned out Mr. Putin was still in the area, which meant no vehicular traffic whatsoever into or out of the airport until he left. Roads closed by police. No buses, no mini-buses, no taxis, no private cars, no bicycles, no old ladies in wheelchairs….nothing with wheels was coming into or going out of the airport. Man, the Transportations gods really had it in for me that night!

OK, so I had to wait about 45 minutes until Mr. Putin’s plane left and I could finally see traffic moving in and out of the airport again, taxis and cars, etc. Finally, along came the Number 100 Airport Bus and I hopped aboard and rode it to Kalvin Ter, just a three-minute walk from my flat. Home! With nothing to unpack, I showered and hit the sheets.

The next morning my alarm went off at 7 AM and 15 minutes later all the power went off in my building. Did I do something to offend everyone? Incredible. Now I couldn’t work on my computer, iron any clothes, do laundry, watch TV, go shopping (as the elevator wouldn’t work and I’m on the fifth floor!), etc. So I settled in and read a book. Around noon the power came back on and I could finally use my PC. I checked my email and then made an online reservation for the coming weekend at a local ruin pub for myself and two old friends who would be visiting from the states. I also wrote my doctor to set up a brunch for the coming weekend, as it was time to have my prescriptions renewed; we met every couple of months for that and to catch up on each other’s life. Always a fun time.

Around 1 PM I got a call from Aeroflot that they’d deliver my suitcase between 3 and 7 PM; no problem, I’d be home. Checking my email again, I had one from my old friend Monica saying her husband had caught bronchitis and they’d gone back to the states and wouldn’t be visiting Budapest after all. Well, Scheisse, would nothing go right? So I cancelled my dinner reservation.

As I was ready to exit Yahoo Mail, another message came in from my doctor. This was a real doozy! She’d been visiting her son in Denmark and had fallen and broken her hip! She’d had an operation the previous weekend and was now in a Danish hospital, but she was supposed to return to Hungary the following weekend. She would then take up residence in a recuperation facility 80 kilometers from Budapest for several weeks. I knew it was bad for her, but, since we all almost always consider our own situation in light of what happens to others, I wondered how I’d be able to get my meds renewed. As of this writing, I still haven’t figured it out. Don’t know what happens if I can’t get my meds, several of which run out in two weeks, but it can’t be good.

And so, Dear Reader, I sit here typing my blog and wondering what the near future holds for me. There just couldn’t be any more crummy things lying in wait for me --- could there? I’ve been good, really I have. I help old girl scouts across the street and I always tip the bartender. I have another trip scheduled for the end of September and could only hope I’d be able to get my meds before I ran out and that nothing else went wrong.

So I’ve decided to get back in bed and pull the covers up over my head and just cower there until the black cloud that has hovered over my life for the past few days goes away. Until then, think good thoughts for me. Hasta la Vista, Babies!

Oh, yes, I did get my suitcase back!