Lukatch Newsletter

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

Location: Budapest, Hungary

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

Saturday, September 05, 2015

The Iceman Cometh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best regards, Siggi.
Hotel Metropolitan”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Try it ----- you’ll like it.

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Warsaw Weekend Whirl

Well, what the heck, I’d never been to Warsaw, and it was on my list of second-tier cities to visit this year, so I decided now was the time. Just a brief jaunt, Thursday afternoon through Monday evening, just enough time to wander the restored Old Town and see a couple of museums and hit a few of the vodka bars. I checked in with Expedia, found a good deal on a flight plus hotel, and away I went.

I arrived at Warsaw’s Chopin Airport around 2:30 PM on Thursday, July 30. I could have taken a bus to the city center, but a taxi was only around $12, so what the heck, I splurged on a comfortable, air-conditioned ride to town. And the air con was welcome, as the temp was hovering around 80 degrees F or so. The taxi dropped me off right in front of King Zygmunt III’s column, in the middle of Plac Zamkowy, or Castle Square, a large open space at the southern entrance to the Old Town area. Now, you have to keep in mind that Warsaw was pretty much reduced to rubble during WWII, so everything I saw in this main area was a reconstruction. It was a beautiful job and I can only hope Warsaw originally looked this good.

My hotel, the Castle Inn, was just across the cobblestoned square, maybe 100 meters. I made the crossing quickly and easily, with my wheeled suitcase bouncing jauntily along behind me, and checked in the same way. The Castle Inn is a great place to stay in Warsaw, perfect location, nice ambience, friendly and welcoming staff and small but clean rooms. Only one minor drawback: my room was on the second floor (three flights of stairs) and there was no lift. I tried to keep my visits to my room to a minimum during my stay.

Anyway, I unpacked quickly and headed out on my orientation tour. Out the hotel and a quick right turn brought me to Swietojanska ulica (street); I won’t put the accent marks on the Polish letters as they would just confuse you and besides, I’m not sure my keyboard has the Polish language. It was now around 3:30 and I had missed lunch, so I found the Bazylisek, one of the great Old Town Market Square terrace restaurants, and settled in. The hot day definitely called for a beer, so I chose a local one, Tyskie. Cold and frothy, aaahhh. Lunch was a humungous schnitzel that really did almost cover the entire large plate; of course, it was only ¼ inch thick, so eminently eatable. It was accompanied by some nice bread and spreads and some sauerkraut, so I needn’t have worried about going away hungry. I was even too hungry to take a photo of my meal, but I remembered to do so for other meals to come. At the end of the meal was a complimentary shot of a local digestif liqueur, called (pardon my phonetic spelling) “Vishnooka” and produced locally only by this restaurant, which was actually pretty tasty. I was happy.

I paid for my meal with my debit card, which seemed to be the currency of preference in Warsaw, as I saw almost everyone using their credit and debit cards, so I was right at home with the rest of the travelers. It was now time to check out my surroundings. The Old Town Market Square was fairly crowded with tourists. It was also hot, but there was a rather stiff breeze blowing to cool things down. I strolled around Old Town and New Town, Castle Square, and the main street of Krakowskie Przedmiescie down to Lazienkie Park, around 3.5 kilometers away. I only walked about 1.5 kilometers, which was plenty for me that afternoon.

I found most of the pubs and clubs on my list and even happened upon a karaoke bar; I’d be back to that later. On the eastern side of Old Town, overlooking the Vistula River, was a nice little lookout point where I sat for a few minutes to admire the view and contemplate my navel. I checked my tourist map to see where I was and found I was checking out the view from, and I am quoting from the map information, “The Manure Mountain.” Hmmm. That was enough to start me high-stepping on my way again, looking for an evening libation.
The Old Town Market Square was coming alive by this time and I had a couple of local beers (Kastelan and Okocim) and sat on one of the benches and listened to some live accordion music. It suddenly dawned on me that I hate accordion music, so I headed off to a better venue, preferably someplace air-conditioned. The Shamrock Irish Pub suited me just fine, and another cold beer went down just right.

During my get-acquainted wanderings I had happened upon a Jazz Club, just one street from my hotel, so it was there I returned that night. It was piano night, one guy running through his repertoire of old favorites with a jazzy style. I sampled the local Wyborowka Pure Rye Vodka along with some light snacks and enjoyed the music until it was time to call it a night. I still had three more full days and nights to enjoy Warsaw.

Friday morning I was up with the sun, which shone brightly into my only window and right onto my bed. I think it was planned that way. At any rate, I was up early to go to the Warsaw Rising Museum, which I was told opened at 9 AM. I had to take a tram several stops, then walk a couple of hundred meters, until I found Grzybowska ulica, which I could only pronounce after at least three beers. Since Warsaw is surprisingly easy to navigate, I quickly found the large dark-red-brick building and entered the main gate The guard thereon kindly informed me the Museum opened at 10 AM, special hours for July and August. Naturally.

So, I could stand there and stare at the guard for an hour, which would probably have made him somewhat nervous, or I could sashay across the street where, fortunately and conveniently, there was the Restauracja #JaK VIP. Super. And they were open and they served breakfast. I found a table on the terrace and had a nice meal of scrambled eggs with chives, bacon, toast and orange juice for about $14 US. It seemed high until I remembered my similar breakfast in Rome for 25 euros ($28). So I enjoyed my morning repast and sat in the sun and killed 45 minutes. I returned across the street at 9:45 to find a line waiting to get into the Museum and, after shuffling forward a bit at a time, I finally made it inside by about 9:30 or so.

A little background: The Warsaw Uprising was a World War II operation by the Polish Resistance Home Army to liberate Warsaw from Nazi Germany. The Uprising was timed to coincide with the Russian Army’s approach from the eastern suburbs of the city and the simultaneous retreat of the German forces. The Soviet advance, however, stopped short, enabling the Germans to regroup and demolish the city while defeating the Polish resistance, which fought for 63 days with little outside support. The Uprising was the largest single military effort taken by any European resistance movement during World War II. It began on August 1, 1944.

The Museum is crammed with information, exhibits, films, photos, text and anything and everything of interest concerning this Rising. My initial impression when I entered was, “Too Much Information!” It was Information Overload. To see all the pictures, read all the texts (which were very hard to read in the darkened interior), check out all the exhibits, watch all the films and explore all the dark corners of the Museum would have taken me at least a week of nonstop looking and reading. It was just too much. And when that much information is thrown at a person, the overload of input numbs the mind and results in a severely lessened impact of the event(s) than what was intended. In short, I just couldn’t feel much of the despair and horror that the Museum obviously wanted me to feel, as I just couldn’t take it all in. If I had had a week to look at everything, maybe then, but as it was I spent maybe 90 minutes and then had to leave. With so much information and resources, it could have been done better and more effectively.

I caught a tram back to the Old Town and decided I needed a mid-morning break. I found a sweet shop on the main street (Krakowskie Przedmiescie, hereafter referred to as KP) named E. Wedel and ordered a bittersweet hot chocolate with orange and ginger. It was a definite pick-me-up. When those flavors hit my mouth, every taste bud I had erupted and flooded my mouth with Thank-You juices. Truly amazing.

I spent the afternoon walking around KP and environs. Since I happened by the University of Warsaw, I thought I’d save myself some Quest Day time, so I asked at the Information Desk about their student store. I was informed that there is no student store at the university, and that any logo items I wanted I would have to buy online. Well, Scheisse! How high-tech and boring. Where’s the fun in shopping if you can’t fondle the sweatshirts and try on the caps? Sorry, Morgan, looks like you’ll have to strike Warsaw off your university t-shirt list.

I also looked for Morgan’s Bar, which I’d found on the internet, but it seemed to have disappeared. Long walk for not much result except sore feet. I did have a nice lunch of pelmeni at a local Bierhalle. The day was cool with scattered sunshine as I dragged my poor, tired feet back to the hotel.

Friday night in Warsaw’s Old Town. A happenin’ place. I was ready. First, a cold and tasty Abbott’s ale at Molly Malone’s Irish pub on KP. I was looking forward to meeting people at the bar, but it turned out I was alone – at 7 PM on a Friday. OK, onward and upward. I walked down the street to the “Irlandzki Pub” for a local Zywiec beer. (BTW: If you can’t pronounce these Polish words, neither could I; there were a lot of suppressed laughs when I tried to order something in Polish). Again, almost no one in the bar. I hoped for a snack from their Oriental kitchen, but the bartender saw me peeking at the menu and waved me off, saying, “no kitchen, only chicken wings.” See? It IS me!

So let’s see what else I can find. Gotta be some action somewhere. I headed back to the Shamrock Pub for a kebab plate and a Carlsberg. This pub is located in one of the few cellars to survive the war and it looks it. Lots of character, red brick and small rooms and tunnel-like walkways. Dinner was good, but the hard rock band that started up was just too much for me. I know, I know, “If the music’s too loud, you’re too old.” Guess I must be getting there.

So, it seemed a good time to try the Senator Pub and see if there was a karaoke crowd. Not much. A couple of young ladies sang and a guy who was quite good. The “DJ” played an accompanying guitar to most of the songs, which was nice. I did a couple of my old favorite rock n’ roll standbys, and chatted with a group of young Ukrainian tourists, and, after waiting for more people to show up, I finally called it a night. Guess I visited the wrong places for Friday Night Fun in Warsaw.

Saturday morning I took a leisurely walk to the Copernicus Science Center, on the banks of the Vistula River. It’s a fascinating place, with exhibits and hands-on scientific fun for all ages. I whiled away a couple of happy hours playing the games and testing my skills against seven-year-old kids; I won about half of the tests. Another lunch of pierogi along KP, listening to a group of young Poles singing and playing instruments. I also noticed quite a few people dressed in camouflage smocks with Polish flag armbands and carrying weapons scurrying about the streets. I wondered what it could be when it finally dawned on me.
Today was August First, the 71st anniversary of the Warsaw Rising! And the Poles remember their Rising with a patriotic fervor second to none. They were everywhere in their uniforms, re-enacting scenes from the Rising, marching, singing, stomping on swastika-decorated flags, putting candles and flowers on all the local Rising shrines and generally acting as if it was they who were throwing off the Nazi yoke. I spent the lunch hour huddled on various terraces with my beer and hoping no one would mistake me for a German.
As I drank my beer I also studied my map of Warsaw to see what else I could visit during my stay. I happened to notice that there was something called the Museum of the History of Jewish People in Poland. OK, that might be interesting. I’d read all of Leon Uris’s books and I thought a little more history of Jews in Poland might be in order, so I hiked over to the Museum; it was huge. A gigantic modern building with a fantastic display covering the history of Jews in Poland – as promised. The history covered 1,000 years of Jewish presence in Poland and was done tastefully and without the clutter and overabundance of information at the Warsaw Rising Museum. I spent a couple of enthralled hours there and left knowing much more than when I entered. It was a long walk back to my hotel and I was pleasantly tired.

Since it was Saturday evening and the anniversary of the Warsaw Rising, I decided a splurge was in order. Once again on the Old Town Market Square, I wandered among the terrace restaurants looking for just the right something for dinner. And there it was! At a place called Latem, with tablecloths and just that little extra touch of class to distinguish it from the other eateries. I settled in and checked out the menu. My repast that night consisted of: a shot of ice-cold Orkisz vodka; a glass of red Chilean wine, a perfect cut of sirloin steak with small potatoes and asparagus wrapped in bacon. The weather was still sunny and warm, but with a nice breeze.
The menu described my Orkisz vodka thusly: “made from one of the most expensive and most valuable raw materials in the world, an unusual strain of wheat – spelt wheat (whatever the heck that is), cultivated on eco-friendly terms.” After that heady buildup I should have expected it would be less than amazing – which it was – not bad, but not special. I still prefer Russian vodka.

Anyway, the meal itself was excellent and I even decided on dessert. The menu had ‘cheesecake with chocolate topping’ and I placed my order, only to hear from the waiter - ready for it? – you know what’s coming, right? – “Sorry, we don’t have that.” One day a waiter will tell me that at just the wrong time and I’ll punch him out and then go after the manager. I am so tired of ordering items clearly displayed on the menu and then being told they don’t have them. Tell me beforehand, it’s OK, I don’t care, but don’t make me get my taste buds all ready for a sweet treat and then disappoint me. I really hate that, and if the restaurant hadn’t already added an automatic 10% tip I wouldn’t have left anything.

OK, rant over. I had the chocolate cake with ice cream instead and it was delicious – but it wasn’t cheesecake topped with chocolate. A chilled shot of a Polish liqueur with an unpronounceable name finished me off just right. Another stroll through the darkened streets, another relaxing time spent watching the buskers and I was happy to call it a night.
Sunday, August 2, and I had no real plans for the day, so I took a morning walk along the riverside up to the Multimedia Fountain Park at the castle grounds, which was cooling and sparkling in the early-morning sun. Up the hill to the New Town Square and a long, lazy, yummy breakfast at Fret@Porter, on yet another terrace, listening to the birds sing and watching the Warsaw Rising Re-enacters march down the street in perfect military order. Almost made me want to kick a few Germans.

As I checked my expanded map for the nth time, to see if there was anything I had missed of importance, I chanced upon some familiar street names: Stawki Street, Franciskanska Street and even Mila Street. Hmmm, all mentioned in a book by Leon Uris titled Mila 18, about the Warsaw ghetto during WWII. And just behind the Jewish Museum, I spied on my map a small icon designated Umschlagplatz. I knew that one, too. It was the place where the Germans assembled all the Jews they had rounded up prior to shipping them out to the camps. I’d have to see these places.
So it was two tram rides to the area around Stawki Street and Dzika Street, where I did find the Umschlaplatz, a minimal monument, shaped to resemble a railroad car, memorializing the 300,000 Polish Jews shipped from this spot. Even in the sunshine more than 70 years later it was still a chilling site. I walked back toward the tram and realized I only had to go a short distance to find Mila Street, so I thought maybe there is still a Mila 18 along there. And there was. Of course, the building and its surroundings look nothing like they did back in the 1940s; now there are trees and shrubs and grass and it’s all so banal. But it’s still there. I wondered if there were any deep cellars still undiscovered by past renovators. A thoughtful morning in Warsaw.
A late lunch of kebabs at Przy Danuja restaurant on the Old Town square, along with a couple of badly-needed beers, set me for the afternoon and another stroll up and down as-yet unexplored streets. And then it was cocktail time. I chose one of the many restaurant/bars along KP, this one near Castle Square, called Restauracja Warszawa. It has a small balcony on the first floor to which I immediately gravitated, ordering a pina colada to start the evening off right. I had the waiter take a pic of me (I thought!) with Castle Square in the background, but it didn’t come out (and, of course, I didn’t check it; how hard can it be to press down on a small camera button?), so I can’t show you all how much fun I was having; you’ll just have to imagine it.
I headed across Castle Square for dinner at Przy Zamku (one day I’ll have to find out what ‘Przy’ means), where I once again indulged myself (Hey! I’m on vacation, right?!). This time it was a shot of ice-cold Wyborowka vodka, red wine and wild boar with potato pancakes and ‘fruits of the forest’ (I recognized mushrooms and onions, at least). Dinner was a wonderful, casual affair, watching buskers doing their things and Chopin’s music playing in the background and the Castle clock chiming the quarter hour and the waiter continuing to bring me all sorts of food and drink. Life is good.

And so we come to my last full day in Warsaw, Monday, August 3rd – Quest Day. My plane didn’t leave until 6:30 PM, so I had virtually all day to complete my tasks. This would be a tough one, however. As I already mentioned, the University of Warsaw doesn’t have a real, live bookstore, so I couldn’t pick up the gift now expected by my daughter Morgan. I could only check around the shops again and hope for the best; I doubted I’d find what I wanted, but then, one never knows, do one?

As for her husband Tony’s gift, I had no idea where to go, until the previous night when I was in one of the souvenir shops and spotted one of the salespeople wearing a Harley Davidson Mexico shirt. I asked him where I could find the Warsaw version of his shirt, and he actually gave me the name and street address of the Harley dealer in town (the only time I’ve seen an iphone useful). So, bright and early Monday morning I stopped by the Tourist Information Office in Old Town Square and the very helpful (but unsmiling) woman gave me maps and bus routes and tram numbers and everything I’d need to get to where I wanted to go.

Turned out it was out in the far hinterlands, a looong bus ride away. I fueled up with a nice three-egg breakfast, scrambled with sausage, chives and onions, and then caught the bus to the PKP Kolo stop, where I alighted with some trepidation. But I followed my hand-drawn map faithfully, and only got lost twice and I finally found Liberator HD of Warsaw. And did they have what I wanted? Well, Dear Reader – and Tony – you’ll have to wait until I send my next CARE package to southern California to find out. I know the suspense is killing you, but tough toenails. Suffice it to say that even when there is a Harley store where I travel, I can’t always find the exact product I’m looking for.
I’d finished my programs in Warsaw and took it easy the rest of the afternoon, until I finally caught a local bus back to the airport (only cost about $1 as compared to the $12 for a taxi when I arrived). The one-hour flight was easy-peezy and I was back in Budapest by 8 PM and home by 9 o’clock. Another successful jaunt into the wilds of Europe, and I emerged hale and hearty and ready to rest up for my next adventure – which is coming up in only three weeks.

Only three more weeks to battle the intense heat wave sweeping Europe and I’m off for much cooler climes. Watch this space for more adventures, sit on your porch and sip a long, cool mint julep and keep your powder dry. Until that time.

Saturday, July 04, 2015

The Med's Best-Kept Secret

Specifically, the city of Alghero, on the northwest corner of the Mediterranean’s second-largest Island, behind Sicily and ahead of Crete

I mentioned to my English friend Duncan that I would be taking a trip to Sardinia and, naturally (for him), he asked me, “Is that where sardines come from?”

“Sorry, Duncan,” I replied, “but the name Sardinia derives from the pre-Roman noun “sard-, romanised as sardus (feminine sarda). The name apparently had a religious connotation, suggested from its additional use as the adjective for the ancient Sardinian mythological hero-god Sardus Pater (Sardinian Father), as well as being the stem of the adjective "sardonic". Sardinia was called Sandàlion (Σανδάλιον in Greek, meaning ‘sandal’).”

Thus did I retain my title as King of Worthless Information.

And so it was, on a cloudy, rainy afternoon in Budapest, I emplaned once again to set off for what I hoped would be yet another spectacular adventure, this time on the “tiny” island of Sardinia, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea. It is supposed to have great seafood and beaches, which was my main reason for going there. That, and the fact that I’d never been there before.

My early-evening flight from Budapest transferred me through Rome and landed me at the Alghero airport around 10:30 PM on Tuesday, June 23, 2015. I had arranged with my hotel for a taxi to meet me, as the buses stopped running shortly after my arrival and I doubted I’d have time to catch one.

I paid the taxi driver (25 euro) and included a two-euro tip, at which he expressed surprise and great pleasure, which surprised me. I should have known from that little event that this would be a different visit. Anyway, I was welcomed at the Alghero City Hotel around midnight by Alessandra at Reception, tired and sweaty and bedraggled. It had only been two brief flights from Budapest, but I did have to run through Rome’s Fiumicino airport to make my connection due to a late take-off by Alitalia, so I was hungry and thirsty and, as I mentioned, sweaty.

After doing a quick unpack in my room, I headed back downstairs to the hotel bar, where I found Tomaso, Algherian Bartender Extraordinaire, waiting for me (actually, waiting for anyone) to enliven his otherwise rather boring night. It turned out the hotel’s guests didn’t patronize the bar when they returned from their wanderings, so poor Tomaso was left to watch Italian basketball games on TV. Being a bar guy myself, I kept in mind the first rule of arrival in a new city: Always make friends with the bartender. And so I did.

Tomaso offered me a local beer, Ichnusa, and it went down just the way it was supposed to. There was even a bowl of crisps (potato chips to my American readers) to accompany my drink, a practice I found at all of the bars I visited during the coming week. Very nice. But just that one beer did me in, and I started for my room when Tomaso made himself a friend for life by stopping me and giving me a bowl of sausage and cheese snacks, as I had told him I hadn’t had dinner. It promised to be a good week.

The Alghero City Hotel is a fairly new building, located about a ten-minute walk from the Old Town and a 15-minute walk from the local beach area, just two short blocks up from the seafront promenade. Perfect. It bills itself as a four-star hotel, but I’d say a solid three stars would be more accurate. My room was certainly adequate, clean and neat, small flat-screen TV, desk and armoire, and a somewhat narrow, smallish bed. I think my cot in the Army may have been bigger. But it was a comfortable room, with a balcony, but no view to speak of, and I settled right in.

Wednesday, June 24, my first full day in Alghero, and, after a very nice buffet breakfast at the hotel, overseen by two people who would also become friends, Laura and Antonio, I was off on my orientation tour of the city. I checked in with the Tourist Information office at the edge of Old Town, then started wandering the cobblestone streets of this beautiful, charming old Mediterranean city. I was able to find most of the bars and restaurants on my list of places to visit. I stopped for a tiramisu and Planter’s Punch around 11 AM at the Trattoria Cavour, near the Piazza Sulis, at the southern end of the Old Town area, right on the side of the sea wall.
I picked up a beach towel and beach bag and then had a light lunch of Ichnusa beer and a wonderful grilled squid (a HUGE grilled squid!) at a small trattoria near my hotel, the Dietro il Carcere, where, it turned out, I returned during my stay for other meals. The proprietor, Gianni, and his wife Franca, were so friendly and welcoming I immediately felt at home. Gianni even introduced me to the digestif called Mirto, which is the Sardinian equivalent of limoncello; very nice.
My hotel was about a 10-12 minute walk from the Old Town, so after a brief afternoon siesta I walked back when the shops and bars and restaurants opened up again around 6 PM. I stopped in at the Jamaica Inn and had a really tasty Bellini, made from scratch; none of those bottled drinks for Alghero bars. Dinner on my first night in Alghero was at Macchiavello, situated along the sea wall where I could eat and drink and watch the sun go down. The meal was, overall, one of the best I have ever had anywhere in the world, considering the ambiance, service, quality of food, diversity of dishes and price. OK, it wasn’t cheap, but, BOY!, was it worth it.

I started with a carafe of white wine and some fried cod fish balls, then moved to the Fregula with lobster. Fregula is sort of a Sardinian pasta, shaped in very small balls, like a larger couscous. The lobster was good as far as it went, but apparently Sardinian lobsters are not in the same category as their giant cousins, the Maine lobsters. Rather small and only a few bites, but still quite yummy. The Fregula (pasta) was prepared in squid ink, which sounds strange, but tasted delicious – and my teeth only turned black for a few minutes. Dessert was another new treat for me – seadas, sort of a flattened sopapilla filled with soft pecorino cheese and drizzled with honey. To die for!
A shot of chilled limoncello as the sun set over the hills across the bay topped off a perfect dining experience. The Bastioni Marco Polo is the top of the sea wall of the old town’s fortifications. It is the place where people go to see and be seen and to eat and drink and watch the sun go down. The ladies take some pains to look just right for an evening out, although many of the men still clung to their shorts and t-shirts. The waiters gather in groups along the wall in front of their restaurants to anticipate their diners’ every need. (BTW – what does one call a group of waiters? A clutch? No. A bunch? Nope. Ah HA – a Serving of Waiters. Got it!).

As all travelers know, we love to discover new places, new friends, new foods and drinks. My recent travels had taken me to Casablanca, Verona, Cesky Krumlov and Rome, and all were wonderful in their own way; but dining along the sea wall in Alghero, sipping wine and eating some of the best food anywhere, watching the sun set – well, that will steal your heart away.

I took the long way around to the hotel after dinner and arrived as Tomaso was tuning in to another Italian basketball game. He was happy to see me (he was probably happy to see anyone) and eagerly poured me another nightcap of limoncello – or maybe two, he treated me to so many shots that week. I finally succumbed to post-prandial lethargy and sank into the arms of Morpheus.

Thursday was Excursion Day, an all-day cruise aboard the Andrea Padre dive boat. After my usual breakfast buffet, I headed down to the marina around 9:30 for our 10 AM departure; naturally, we were 25 minutes late leaving due to several inconsiderate latecomers. I’d have left them flat after 10:05 AM, but guess that’s why I don’t run an excursion business. Anyway, we got out onto the open water, towing a couple of inflatable rafts used for diving, and we cruised across the bay to the Capo Caccia cliffs, sheer granite walls that rose more than 600 feet into the sky. I had thought entry to the famous Neptune’s Grotto was included in the trip, but it turned out, since the entry fee was extra, we wouldn’t be seeing the stalactites and stalagmites after all. Ah, well, it was a nice day on the sea.
We cruised around a while and then finally settled on what looked to be a nice swim area in a cove near a rocky beach. The water was cool and refreshing and I swam to shore and back a couple of times, at last coming to rest on the boat again. Lucky for me, too, as the next two swimmers to come back on board had been hit with jellyfish whips, stung rather sharply. We hadn’t been warned there might be hazards in the area, which I thought rather callous of the boat crew, but one of them applied some lotion to the stings and kept saying, “no problem, no problem.” I guess he was afraid of a lawsuit.

Lunch was served around 2 PM. A starter of sausage and cheese squares, first course of pasta with one tiny piece of nearly inedible crab or lobster (hard to tell what it was), wine, mussels (most of which opened easily and were edible), and a dessert slice of watermelon, along with a shot of mirto. The meal was filling but unimpressive.

More swimming and we returned to the marina around 6 PM. After a quick shower at the hotel, it was back to Old Town for drinks and dinner. This night I stopped again at the Jamaica Inn for several of their wonderful cocktails, and ended up having some chicken wings and fries as a dinnertime snack that took care of me for the evening. Another stroll around the town and marina and it was back to the hotel bar. This time I found a Swedish woman sitting on the terrace and had a nice chat with her before she had to turn in.

Friday was beach day. The nearest beach to Alghero is the Lido Beach, just a 15- minute walk from my hotel. As I walked along the apartment-building and hotel-studded promenade, I realized there were no big major hotel chains along here (Hilton, Marriott, Kempinski, etc) and that none of the buildings were over five stories tall. What a nice surprise; no major tourist inroads yet into this still-pristine area. In addition, although I did see a sign pointing to a McDonald’s, I never did see the Mickey-D itself, another blessing; none of those nasty American fast-food restaurants in Alghero.
I got to the beach around 9 AM and staked out my claim to an orange umbrella and lounge chair; most of the chairs at the La Marina “private” beach area were still unoccupied, so I guess the Germans hadn’t gotten there first. I sunned and read and dipped in the Med and generally took it easy on the beach. The beach was moderately clean and the water was nice, coolly refreshing, so the morning passed easily. Lunchtime saw me walk up to the promenade, where I had a sandwich and cocktail at Maracaibo and looked out at the beach and sea. Very relaxing.

The sun was hot during my visit, anywhere from 25-30 degrees Celsius, but the almost continuous breeze (the Mistral) kept the island cool and dry at all times. Very tropical. I passed the afternoon in my lounge chair and in the sea, enjoying every minute.

And then it was time again for my pre-dinner libations, this time at a small terrace bar near the Piazza Sulis at the southern end of Alghero. A nice Planter’s Punch hit the spot. Tonight’s dinner plan was for some of Sardinia’s world-renown porcetto, or suckling pig, what we in the states refer to as pulled pork. I found the spot mentioned in Trip Advisor, Trattoria Lo Romani and quickly scarfed a table for dinner. The restaurant was deserted when I arrived, but filled up within the next 30 minutes, so it was a good thing I got there when I did.

Along with my suckling pig I had a small salad and ½ bottle of Sardinian Cannonau red wine. Dessert was, once again, that scrump-diddly-umptious seadas, along with another shot of mirto. If you think I was staggering by this time, you may be right, as I wended my swerving way back to the hotel. I don’t know if it was the weather, altitude (or lack thereof), strength of the drinks or difference in food, but it seemed during my stay in Alghero that one or two drinks was all I could take before I had a nice buzz on. I never get that way after such a small intake, but this time the alcohol sure affected me more than ever before. Maybe it was the Mistral.

Anyway, another mirto (or maybe two) with Tomaso and it was out for the count.

Digression: While my best-ever single meal is still probably the dinner I had at Palkin in St. Petersburg, Russia, for all-around culinary ambiance, flavor and diversity, I now believe that Alghero has moved into the top spot. The food in this northwestern Sardinian city simply has to be experienced to be believed. It is a magnificent blend of Italian and Catalan dishes. The tastes are sharp and colorful, the dishes presented in ways pleasing to the eye and the service and prices are enough to justify my new opinion. The only comparison I can make is to New Orleans, Louisiana, USA, in that both places serve food that is unique to their area and, while attempts are made to copy it elsewhere, one can really only get the true fare at its home base. In brief (and when have I ever been?), Sardinian cuisine just keeps you coming back for more and more and never disappoints. Salute and Bon Apetit.

I had read on the Internet about a flea market held the last Saturday of each month in the Piazza Civica of Alghero and, since I’m a souk and bazaar addict, was happy I would be in town for this event. I breakfasted and walked down to the Piazza early so as not to miss anything and, as it turned out, I missed everything, because there was no flea market. And, of course, no one to ask about it that early in the morning, so I was SOL again. I had originally planned my Hop On Hop Off bus tour for Sunday, but, since I was now at loose ends, decided I’d do it today. So, came 10 AM and the bus rolled into sight, I was there waiting for it near the marina.

The weather was a touch hazy that day, but would probably clear up in the afternoon. In fact, all during my stay the weather was wonderful. The bus tour goes around the bay and ends up at the Capo Caccia cliffs, then comes back. No major sights or sites, but a nice trip through the Sardinian countryside and along the northwestern coastline. I thought briefly about hopping off at the cliffs and taking in Neptune’s Grotto, but to get to it one must descend 657 steps; that wasn’t so much of a concern as the fact that I’d have to ascend those same steps for the return trip. After a six-second consideration, I passed.

I wanted to hop off somewhere, maybe at one of the beaches up the coast, but it was a one-hour wait for the next bus, so I had to choose carefully. Our hostess suggested the Spiaggia Mugoni (Mugoni Beach), where I could hang out in the sand, take a dip or two in the sea, get some lunch (it was then around 11:30) and then rejoin the tour on a later bus. Cool, I’m all for that.

So I was dropped off in the middle of nowhere at a T-junction, fields and bushes and trees surrounding the area. Hmmm. OK, I walked a few minutes down the side road and actually found a parking lot for the beach area. I wandered into the trees and found a barbecue pit and terrace, along with a snack stand for munchies and drinks. I approached the lady at the barbecue pit and asked her if they were serving yet; she replied, “No, we start serving at 1 PM.” Hmmm, 90 minutes away. Not good.

But OK, I could still have a cold drink and snack. The snack stand had a sign saying “Cocktails – Mojito, Daiquiri, Caipirinha, Gin/Tonic.” I was ready. I ordered a caipirinha from the young man, who replied, “Oh, we don’t have cocktails.” I motioned to the sign with a questioning look at him, but he merely stared bovinely back without comment. Sigh. Here it was again, signs offering products which were not, in fact, available. It is me, right?

I settled for a soda and strolled along the beach area, which, I quickly found, was roped off so as to charge an entry fee. Well, Scheisse! Strike three. I finished my soda, sat in the shade for a while and walked back out to the road to wait for the next tour bus, due at 12:15 PM. My beach afternoon was a complete bust, but at least I got to take a nice pee by the roadside.

We arrived back at the marina around 1 PM, and I immediately walked across the street to one of the local trattorias lining the marina promenade. A yummy crab salad and white wine, followed by one of those amazing seadas, topped me off quite nicely and I walked back to the hotel to escape the heat of the day.

Before dinner on this Saturday night I had my caipirinha after all on the terrace of the Café Gilbert in the Centro Storico (historic central district). I chatted briefly with an English couple who had just arrived a few short hours previously, had a pina colada and strolled the sea wall to build my appetite for what I was certain would be another amazing feast in Alghero. This time I chose Movida, overlooking the marina. Upon opening their menu, I read, “The minimum of two persons, which may seem unpleasant, is a rule based on experience to assume the success of the dish and service.” Fortunately, the dishes to which this interesting warning applied were not those in which I was interested that night. I grabbed a table next to the marina sea wall walkway and settled in.

My ½ bottle of white wine arrived quickly, followed by my appetizer of Sardinian cagolas (sea snails), interesting, but definitely an acquired taste. The main course was veal scallopine with a small salad, followed by a tasty seadas for dessert. A small mirto liqueur finished me off nicely. Passersby strolling along the sea wall occasionally watched me eat and drink; once in a while I purposely slurped my wine, just to give them a thrill.

Sunday was another beach day, spent at the Lido. I baked and broiled in the hot Sardinian sun, but was always cooled off by the ever-present cooling onshore breeze, so the 30-degree-Celsius temperature was easily bearable. Plus, occasional dips in the sea helped. I had lunch of sausage and cheese snacks at one of the beach cafes, then got ready for my dinner at Mabrouk.

I had read about this great place on Trip Advisor where everyone who ate there raved about it, so I had to give it a try. I starved myself all day. During the meal, I avoided bread and tried desperately to pace myself. Dinner was a 12-course tasting menu of local food and drink, and by the time I finished I was ready to be rolled back to my hotel. But damn, it was worth it!

Their standard tasting menu is whatever the catch of the day has been, plus whatever the chef decides to cook. No menus, and a set price for the entire meal. First, they serve four antipasti dishes (octopus with potato; stingray; monkfish and sardines), quickly followed by a plate of mussels. Usually the mussels would be followed by the pasta dishes. They start with a mixed seafood risotto (crab, mussels, clams, prawns), followed by a Sardinian pasta with a fish ragu, and finally a squid ink pasta with a Sardinian cheese. By this point most diners would have already begun groaning, but the best was yet to come, in the form of three fish courses: prawns in a garlic butter sauce, fried calamari and then a whole sea bream (with potatoes)!!!!

I knew I’d never make it through the last fish course, so I pre-ordered the aragosta della catalane, which is the local specialty – rock lobster! My lobster took the place of the pasta dishes and the fish courses and was nice, but somewhat skimpy on the meat. In retrospect, I should have gotten the standard tasting menu and passed on the lobster. I’d have been more filled up, but much happier.

And then, just as my eyes rolled back in my head and I began to slowly slide off my chair and under the table, I was asked to choose from a variety of desserts to round out the meal (and my stomach!). The choice was tough, between watermelon, profiteroles and other sweet goodies; I succumbed and nodded at the crème brule cake which, needless to say at this point, was incredible. Included in the set price was a nice carafe of house wine, which left me waddling back to my hotel along the Algherian cobblestone streets! All of this for just 50 euros! It is an incredible value for the price due to the quality, freshness and quantity of the food. And Mabrouk is still generally unspoilt by tourists, which makes it even more appealing.

Monday, my final day in Alghero, was, as is my usual practice, shopping day, for gifts and souvenirs and any other shiny gew-gaw which might catch my eye. I spent the morning looking for fun things for family and friends, wandering the tiny narrow streets of the Old Town and peering in the tiny little shops. I found pretty much everything I wanted during the morning, and a few more things besides, so decided to hit the beach in the afternoon to top up my tan. A nice way to finish off my daytime activities.

And my last night’s dinner was back at Dietro il Carcere, that quaint, tiny little trattoria in the shadow of the former prison walls. Gianni and his wife Franca welcomed me back with open arms and a shot of mirto. We dined al fresco, at tables set on the sidewalk and in the street. Dinner was fregula with seafood (mostly mussels and clams), made lovingly by a local chef. I stuck with the good Sardinian wine and, after a dessert of Catalan Cream, had my ubiquitous shot of mirto, with yet one more ‘forced’ on me by Gianni. The warm Mediterranean light spilled over all of the diners like honey. Another fantastic meal.

And back at the hotel, my buddies bartender Tomaso and breakfast staffer Antonio were waiting for me with farewell shots of limoncello. How could I refuse? I couldn’t. Tomaso, who took such good care of me curing my visit, didn’t even want to accept a gratuity from me, which was my only way of thanking him for being more than just a bartender, but I won out in the end. Both Tomaso and Antonio gave me manly abrazos and cheek kisses on parting; when European men say farewell to another man with cheek kisses, you know you’ve been accepted. It’s a nice feeling. It really felt like I was part of their family and for the first time in many years I actively considered returning next summer for another visit. We shall see.

June 30 was my return flight to Budapest, and it was a standard day of getting to the airport for my noon flight (this time I took the airport bus, for only 1.50 euro, as compared to the 25-euro taxi ride), hopping my one-hour (late again!) flight to Rome, quick scamper to my connecting gate, 90-minute flight to Budapest, 45 minutes on the bus and metro and home again around 7 PM.

And now? Well, I really can’t wait to get back to Alghero. Great place, Great weather. Amazing food. Welcoming, friendly people who accepted me into their families with warmth and gusto. Alghero, Sardinia………I could die there.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

"Veni, Vidi, Vali"

With apologies to my long-ago high school Latin teacher, Miss Williams, probably now gone to that great Coliseum in the sky; the title above is as close as I can come to “I Came, I Saw, I Left.”

My grandkids are finally old enough to be left with friends and family for a while, so my daughter Morgan and her husband Tony decided to take a real vacation this year. Tony’s ancestry is Italian, so they planned a whirlwind trip of northern Italy, touching base at Milan, Venice, Florence and Rome. I’ll always jump at the chance to visit Rome, so I decided to enhance the final weekend of their trip and meet them there. They arrived in Rome midday on Thursday, June 4, and I booked my flight to arrive Friday June 5 around noon. Their plans were then to leave for home early morning on Sunday, June 7, taking the train back to Milan to catch their flight to LA, while I’d stay over one more day and return to Budapest on Monday, June 8.

Which is actually a good thing, as my old friends and neighbors from New Mexico, Dean and Yvette Stoor, along with their son Evan, arrive in Budapest on Tuesday, June 9, for three full days. Whew! Evan will be in Central Europe performing with his university’s choir, and afterwards the family will do some touring in Czech Republic and Germany and wind up here before returning home. I haven’t seen them since I left New Mexico in 1999, so it will be a great reunion. I’ve already planned an excursion through many of the local pubs and will even give Evan a chance to do some karaoke late one night.

Anyway, Rome! Even a fast weekend in Rome gives me a chance to eat and drink all of that great Italian food and wine and beer and limoncello, so how could I pass it up? I answer my own question: I can’t. The first part of M&T’s trip included brief stays in Milan (to see The Last Supper, the Duomo and the Vittorio Emmanuelle Shopping Center), another brief stay in Venice, rent a car and drive to Florence for an afternoon (too brief, but at least they saw it), another drive into the Tuscan countryside and an overnight in Sienna, and a final battle with the drivers in Rome itself. Whew, fast but good.

My 90-minute flight from Budapest deposited me at Fiumicino Airport near Rome, where I caught the train into the Roma Termini train station and walked the ten minutes to the Hotel Texas, where Morgan and Tony had also booked. They were out running around town, so I took my standard orientation stroll (not needed so much this time, but it’s always a pleasure to walk almost anywhere in Rome). I had a nice seafood salad at Suggestum Café on the Via Veneto for lunch; good food, but absolutely swimming in olive oil. I was back at the hotel to meet the kids at 5 PM; it turned out they were waiting for me at a nearby café, George Byron’s, with cocktails and munchies. Great way to start the weekend.

Digression: The Hotel Texas is located on the third floor of an older building around the corner from the Piazza Republica. Not a lot of rooms, nice clean shiny marble hallway, minimal reception area and very basic rooms. Clean but small and lacking most amenities, including pictures on the walls, TV, minibar, air conditioning, telephone, shampoo and dresser. My room had a small bed, nightstand, small table and chair and a fan, but the carpet looked new. The bathroom is tiny tiny, with toilet and bidet and a curtained-off shower area almost large enough for me to turn around in, but also looked brand new. So, yes, it is a small place and very basic, but for the price and location it was certainly adequate. What raised it to a much higher rating is the staff, who were some of the most welcoming, friendly, chatty, helpful people I have met anywhere. I recommend the Hotel Texas for singles on a budget.

Anyway, after a couple of cocktails at Byron’s, we headed out for the place I wanted to take Morgan and Tony for dinner, a 20-minute walk which ended at the top of the Spanish Steps. They were both surprised and thrilled, as they hadn’t done that landmark yet. We drank and ate at Il Palazzetto wine bar, where I had dined when I was last in Rome in 2010. Still a great place overlooking the Spanish Steps.

As the evening cooled off and the sun went down, we walked a ways to a place I had found on the internet, the Talent Club, which was supposed to have karaoke. It may have, but since it was closed we never found out. Damn! And I really wanted Morgan to sing Summer Nights with me. Ah, well, next time.

M&T had booked their Vatican and Sistine Chapel Tours for Saturday morning, starting at 9 AM and 11:30 AM respectively. We took the metro to the Vatican area and had a nice breakfast nearby: three orders of scrambled eggs with bacon, toast, two large coffees for them and an OJ for me. 72 euro. Welcome to Roma Expensivo.
Anyway, while Morgan and Tony did their tours, I wandered around the general area, had a snack or two, checked out the nearby Castel Sant’Angelo on the Tiber River and generally just soaked up the atmosphere of Rome. When they finished their tours, we taxied over to the Piazza dei Cavalieri di Malta, site of a medieval palazzo once occupied by the Knights Templar, about whom Morgan has always had a fixation.
It was way past lunchtime, so I took them to the Piazza Navona, another wonderful large plaza where one can dine and people-watch. We had drinks and an amazing meal at the Caffe Nettuno, a seafood place where we could watch the tourists being hustled by the local souvenir sellers. And there were a lot of them. In fact, they followed us around Rome, always pushing us to buy their junk jewelry, selfie sticks, and other tourist crap. Of course, Morgan did succumb and picked up a flattened round wooden device which, when the handle was raised, popped up three small bowls for holding candy, nuts, etc. It’s a nice piece and she bargained for it like a Bedouin trader.

More leisurely strolling to the Pantheon for more drinks, then a walk back to the Piazza Barberini, past the Trevi Fountain renovation (no water this time!), checking out the sights and sounds, and ending up on the Via Veneto again at the Suggestum Café for a light dinner of pizza and drinks. Since M&T had to leave early the following morning, we decided to call it a night. I managed to drag myself out of bed around 6:30 AM to see them off; it was a short visit, but since I see them so rarely it’s always nice to be able to hang out with them.

Sunday was rather anticlimactic. M&T had some unused tour bus tickets, so I took the buses around Rome and mingled with the other tourists. By 11:30 AM the buses were packed to the rafters, standing room only and, as the outside temp was hovering around 90 degrees Fahrenheit, you can imagine what it was like inside, not to mention on the uncovered upper level of the bus. I didn’t last too long. I made it back to the Piazza Navona for another fantastic lunch at Café Nettuno. The waiters remembered me and even recommended some dishes; I chose the salami and cheese plate appetizer, which was to die for. Washed down with a couple of Peroni beers, it was just the right snack for a hot summer afternoon in Rome.

I hid from the afternoon heat until around 6 Pm, then wandered down to the George Byron café. Since it was still hot, it seemed the perfect time for a frozen pina colada, and, by Bog, it did hit the spot! I even had two of them, along with appetizers of Bresaola Rucola and parmigiana (dried salt beef with cheese, lemon, etc). If you’re ever in the neighborhood, this minuscule little café is on the corner of Via Firenze and Via Nazionale, in case anyone is interested. The main course was scallops with roasted potatoes and a nice white wine. Dessert – and I just HAD to have some – was Trufo Piano (truffles on vanilla ice cream) and a nicely chilled limoncello. Ever wonder why there are no thin older Italians?

Monday was a traveling day. Up early, train back to the airport and the 90-minute flight to Budapest. I knew the weekend would live long in my memory when the Air Host announced the Captain Pilot’s name: Attila Lukacs (pronounced like my name). Can’t ask for a better omen.

So, happy readers, another weekend under the bridge. Great time, great food, wonderful to see the kids and always amazing to be in Rome. And in just a couple of weeks it’s off to Sardinia for a beach holiday. Watch this space for more blog and pics soon thereafter. Until then, Happy Summer Solstice to all and to all a Good Night!

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Czech This Out!

As my once-extensive list of Places I Want to Visit continues to shrink to alarming levels, I’ve been searching the internet travel sites for other interesting places to go. One such town has appeared on several lists of Places You Never Knew Existed But That You Should Visit and, since it was just a relatively short distance by train, I decided to see what the attraction was.

About three hours south of Prague, down near the Austrian border, lies the castle city of Český Krumlov (pronounced ‘Chess-key Kroom-lohv’ which we will henceforth refer to as CK). This tiny gem is one of the Czech Republic’s finest medieval sites. Its Old Town is a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site, a maze of twisting alleys built around the extensive Český Krumlov castle. It’s easy to spend a full day (it’s so small that’s all you’ll really need) sauntering through narrow, crooked, cobblestone streets while soaking up the atmosphere of this impeccably preserved jewel of Central Europe. The peace and quiet is only broken by the soft rush of the Vltava River, popular with rafting enthusiasts, flowing through the town.

Based on my readings, it seemed as though this would be a nice weekend jaunt, so I hied myself down to the office of Hungary’s national train service, the MAV, and booked my trip. I’d leave Budapest at 7:00 AM, have a two-hour layover in Linz, Austria, entrain for another two-hour-plus journey and then transfer to a local bus service at České Budějovice (I’ll let you try and pronounce this one; from now on, I’ll just call it CB), and arrive in Český Krumlov around 5 o’clock the same afternoon of Thursday, April 23. Piece of strudel.

And it all went as planned. Well, sort of. My first of two nice relaxing train rides got me to Linz, Austria, where I had a two-hour layover. It was lunchtime, and was I ever excited to find a Leberkase stand in the railway station. I loved that stuff when I lived in Germany, and this time one of the offerings was made with chili. Scrumptious.

My next train got me to CB, where my official MAV printed itinerary said I was to change to a bus. What it didn’t say was that I first had to catch a small (two tiny cars) commuter train to the nearby town of Borsov, then hop a bus to CK. Luckily, I found a railroad employee who got me on the right paths after only one mad dash through the train platforms, dragging my bag behind me and screaming, “Wait! Wait!”

It was a cool and cloudy early spring afternoon as I exited the town’s train/bus station. I wasn’t in the mood for a two-kilometer walk just then, plus there was a light rain, so I caught the only taxi in sight to the Hotel Konvice, just off the Old Town’s main square. I was checked in (or should that be ‘Czeched in?’) by the receptionist, Lada, an incredibly helpful and welcoming, not to mention incredibly beautiful, young Czech woman. She took me around the corner to my room in the annex, and was it ever an unexpected surprise. It was HUGE! More like an apartment than a hotel room. It was a large open space, a sitting area with sofas at one end and a large bed at the other, and just empty space in between. There was even a kitchen. I could have held a Sock Hop there for my high school senior class. As I stood and stared at this amazing space, for one of the few times in my travels I wished I had a female companion with me; it was that kind of place.

Anyway, light rain notwithstanding, I popped my umbrella and was off on my standard orientation stroll. It was 5:30 PM and the first thing I wanted after all those train rides was one of those world-famous Czech beers. I spied a nearby bar across the town square and made a beeline for it, only to discover that the bars in CK open at 6 PM. What, was I back in Dubai? Damn! It’s the Czech Republic! World-class consumers of amazing beer. Smoking still allowed in bars and restaurants. And I couldn’t get a damn beer until six o’clock?! Well, Scheisse!

So, OK, rant over and I walked the wet streets and wandered down to the river and peeked in the windows of shops that closed at 5 PM; what did the locals do for that dead hour between closing their shop and beginning the evening’s drinking? Apparently just walk the streets like I did. Anyway, finally, five minutes til six and the Strojovna Music Pub opened its doors early. I rushed in, the only customer in the place, grabbed a barstool, got a menu and found a list of six great local Czech beers on tap. I ordered a Krusjovice and the barely-legal-aged bartender told me, “We don’t have any beers on tap.”
January in Casablanca, February and March in Budapest and now April in Czech-land, I keep getting this same sentence; is it me? Am I the Harbinger of Doom when I go to a pub or restaurant? (Actually, Doom Bar beer in Cardiff, Wales, was one of the best I’ve had in years). Or do they just take one look at me and say to themselves, “Here’s an old guy who really wants a beer; why don’t I fuck with him and tell him we don’t have any?” Barring the possibility that, when it comes to ordering food and drink, I am the world’s unluckiest person, I just can’t think of any other reason why this sort of thing HAPPENS TO ME ALL THE DAMN TIME!

I was pleased to see, however, that this bar had a policy of hiring the handicapped; obviously, the young bartender was born without a personality. Unsmiling, unwelcoming, unapologetic, pretty much one of the Undead, he then informed me they had only one type of bottled beer and he didn’t know if they would have draft beer the following evening. If I hadn’t been so thirsty, I’d have shot him and left. As it was, a Pilsener Urquelle washed away some of my tears.

Not wishing to leave any more of my Czech money there than I had to, I left after the one beer and continued my sojourn around town. CK’s main Old Town occupies the inside loop of a horseshoe bend in the Vltava River and is crammed with cobblestone streets and quaint old buildings. The castle overlooking the town was built in the 13th Century and many of the buildings are still from medieval times. It’s a pristine little town and just made for strolling hand-in-hand with a companion of the moment. Of course, all I wanted was to find a nice quiet bar and have some good Czech beer.

So, next on my Trip Advisor list was the Cikanska Jizba, or Gypsy Bar. It’s actually a restaurant, but they did have some nice tap beer. I wondered briefly what the wheelbarrow parked outside the front entrance was for, until I saw the bartender and his monster stomach nearly dragging on the ground. He turned out to be a genial type, much friendlier than the kid at Strojovna, so I decided to have dinner there also. Along with my Eggenberger beer I had a nice filet of beef in crème sauce with dumplings. Not a calorie in a carload. The only thing that kept me from enjoying my beer and meal fully was something I thought was nonexistent in Europe: smokers! In Czech Republic it is apparently still legal to smoke in public places. Power to the People!

The light rain was off and on, so after dinner I strolled over to the castle district and found the Zapa Bar, another Trip Advisor recommendation. I went in and approached the bar area when a waiter appeared suddenly and loomed over me and asked if he could help me. I told him I just wanted a drink at the bar, and he politely (and snarkily, I’m sure) informed me there was a private party at the bar that night.

Now I’m sure of it: it IS me after all!

If I order something that’s what they’ll be out of; if the cash register tape has to be changed, it will happen as I step up to be checked out; if I just want a simple drink at the bar, there will be a private party in my way. Incredible.

I gave up. I went back to my at-least-wonderful hotel room and pulled the duvet up over my head and went to sleep, hoping tomorrow would be a better day.

And lo and behold, in the cosmic scheme of things, it was! The early-morning sun peeked brightly into the tiny window above my bed and called me to the beautiful day that was to come. The rain had stopped and this day (and the next also) were perfect for exploring, walking, climbing, sipping, eating, drinking, photo-ing and all the other –ings I can think of.

I abluted and partook of the simple but adequate Continental breakfast at my hotel and then set out to see what I could see of CK. A morning trek to the castle district sounded about right, and it was just that. It was sunny but still a touch cool, but would warm up quickly to shorts weather. I strolled around the castle area, checked out the castle itself and wandered the side and back streets to see what I could see.

It was all so…….quaint. Picturesque even, maybe besting Verona in its photogenicity (new word I just made up). I found the pubs and restaurants I’d need later that day (after 6 PM!) and generally soaked up the sunshine and the ambience of CK. People smiled at me and I smiled back. It must be said that CK absolutely oozes, squeezes, bleeds, radiates, exudes charm. I finally had to look for a side street with some graffiti and badly-maintained buildings just to take a break from all that overpowering old-world charm.

I stopped in at Ye Olde Gingerbread House for some mid-morning sweets and had a nice chat with Katerina behind the counter, a lovely young Czech woman who was helping out a friend of hers who owned the shop. The sweetness extended to all levels.

Back across the Old Wooden Bridge and into the center of town I rambled, walking up and down each of the tiny streets, making sure I didn’t miss anything. Since it was early in the season, there weren’t too many tourists around yet, but many of those who were there were Asians. I guess Central Europe is all the rage in Asia these days and the package deals must be very good.

The city is clean and neat, no graffiti in the main tourist areas. It has been beautifully preserved architecturally and has a nice relaxed feel, perfect for ambling and window-shopping and sampling all sorts of treats. I spotted a Chinese restaurant on one side of the main square and, since our places in Budapest leave a bit to be desired for this type of cuisine, thought I’d try it out. Well, it was fantastic! Real Szechuan dishes, spicy enough to wake you up, but not so deadly as to kill your taste buds. Hot (i.e., spicy) Peking soup, Kung-Pao Chicken, rice and jasmine tea, and a great view onto the square; not a bad lunch.

The afternoon was filled with more rambling and wandering. CK really is a tiny little place and you can walk every single street (slowly) in the central area in probably three hours, looking in every store and reading every menu. But that’s what small towns like this are for, taking time out from busier pursuits and just breathing in the atmosphere of contentment. I noted places I’d revisit in detail the next day, like the Wax Museum, the Mirror Maze, the Gorila Rock Pub, the Egon Schiele Art Center, several palacinky shops (like the Hungarian palacsintazo), something called the Moldavite Museum, and others. Another nice afternoon, helped along by one of those chocolate palacsinta (in French: crepes).

Then it was Friday evening, Pub Night! I had my list from Trip Advisor and I knew, I knew, I’d find the perfect place tonight to while away the hours tasting different types of great Czech beers and munching on bar treats and listening to some live music. That’s what we did in Prague, and because CK is such a Czech Republic tourist mecca, I just knew that’s what we’d do here. My fantasies die a hard death.

I decided to begin my search in the castle district and work my way back to the center of town. First up was the Zapa Pub, hoping there was no private party tonight. Nope, no party, but also no beer on tap, only the ubiquitous Pilsener Urquelle and a strange Russian dark beer in bottles. Sigh. The evening was not off to a lively start. Trip Advisor Pub Number 2, Apotheke, just down the street, was almost as bad, having only the 0.4 litre Budweiser/Budvar on tap. It’s OK, not the same Bud Americans expect, but still not world-class.

Number 3 pub was Dobra Cajovna, which was supposed to have over 200 brands of beer. Turned out it had 90 types of tea. It’s now a teahouse. My hands were starting to shake and the veins in my neck were standing out.

Number 4, back in the town center, was old standby Sturojovna, again to see if maybe they had tap beer tonight. YES! They did. But it was only Krusovice, a good but hardly famous Czech beer. At least the pub had three lovely young female bartendresses, which helped alleviate my loss somewhat. Again, I was the only customer at the bar. Guess CK doesn’t attract a particularly vibrant weekend pub crowd.

Then it was time to check out the Katakomby establishment in the main square, which turned out to be a restaurant. Despite the tap having three different beers shown, there was actually only two beers on tap; yep, Pilsener Urquelle and a dark Kozel. I opted for the latter, which was flat and without bubbles. Dinner then consisted of a light appetizer plate and I was on the road again.

My choices were rapidly diminishing. Despite warnings from the Tourist Information woman, I decided to try the Gorila Rock Pub after all, taking my chances that it couldn’t be as bad as I was told. Wrong again, Kemo Sabe. It was a hard rock pub, filled with chain-smoking skinheads. But you know what? It did have the best selection of draft beers! Go figure. I had an amber Bernard which was very nice and helped salvage my expectations at the final stop of my night.

Saturday, Day Number 2 in CK, and another bright sunny fantastic day it was. Today would be attraction day, when I visited the local museums and other tourist draws that keep CK on top of the day trip excursions from Prague. First up was the Magical Mirror Maze. I got a deal – such a deal! – on a joint ticket for the Maze and the Wax Museum, so what the heck, why not. The Maze was like one of those old funhouses with tall mirrors everywhere so you’d bump into them as you tried to find your way through the labyrinth. It only lasted about five minutes so really wasn’t worth the time or effort, but for a small town it was apparently quite the thing to do.

The Wax Museum was better, containing lots of wax figures of old Czech merchants, workers, fishermen, priests, dukes, etc., plus wax figures of famous people like Mozart, Edward Berneys, Bill Clinton and Michael Jackson. Lots more, most of whom I’d never heard of, but, hey, it killed 20 minutes.

After all that work I needed a break, so found a table on the terrace of the nearby Monna Lisa café (yes, it is spelled like that) and had a cup of fantastic orange and cinnamon hot chocolate. Thick, rich, creamy, my spoon actually stood up in the center of the chocolate. I haven’t had such a great cup since St. Petersburg, Russia, and was pleased to sit and enjoy the morning sunshine and chocolate.

Next on my list of interesting places to visit in CK was the Eggenberg Brewery. I crossed the river again and found the side street marked on my map and walked down between high walls on each side of the street. Finally there was a gate with the name of the brewery above it, but the gate was locked and there was no noise coming out of beer being brewed, so I surmised I wouldn’t be taking the brewery tour that morning. I realize it’s early in tourist season, but with all the Asians in town I thought surely this site would be open. Once again, I thought wrong. As an extra added disappointment, the nearby monastery gardens were also closed due to construction. Sigh.

A brief respite on the bridge overlooking the castle moat, wherein dwelt several large brown bears for the Asians to gawk at. I stopped by to see Katerina again at the gingerbread shop and even picked up a few sweet goodies to help me on my way. Lunch was a pleasant affair at Lazebna restaurant on the riverside, soaking up the sun and a couple of Dudak beers, one of the best I had found in town. Temp must have been in the mid-70s (around 24 degrees Celsius) and I lolled back and enjoyed every moment.
Dinner was at Mastal restaurant on the main square. A very nice steaky (that’s what they advertise there) with a house red wine and I was set for the evening. I wandered out to the square and found a trio of Czech women serenading the sparse crowd with old Czech songs. They played the fiddle, small accordion and small harp, an interesting combination, but one which worked. One of the local drunks added some unwelcome flavor to the concert by dancing disjointedly around the women, but they laughingly ignored him and he finally passed out on a nearby bench.

I strolled down to the Gypsy Bar to see if they had music tonight and they did! It was two locals, one strumming a guitar (I think he only knew two chords) and repeating what sounded like boring lyrics over and over again (he was bad, but he was loud) and a partner pounding out the beat on some sort of small box. Interesting. But the beer was good and the crowd was very international. The large-stomached manager recognized me and smiled and kept bringing me beers, so I was happy to sit and enjoy the atmosphere. It got even better when Sean Connery came in wearing military fatigues.

And that was pretty much my weekend in CK. Sunday morning was the reverse of my arrival. I caught a rail bus at the train station to Borsov, then the little commuter train to CB, then on to Linz and back to Budapest, arriving around 7 PM. A little bit of anxiety about connections due to having to unexpectedly take the bus again (not shown on my MAV itinerary), but it all ended well. CK is a great weekend break, a romantic getaway for couples and a generally quiet, quaint place to relax and recharge. Definitely recommended.