Travels With Myself

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

Name:
Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Now I travel extensively, and have been to more than 65 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on amazon.com. I have made friends from all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met, past, present and hopefully in the future.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Little Sunshine, Please!


Damn, it was cold in Budapest this winter. Down around freezing during the day and well below at night (minus 16 degrees Celsius, or around zero degrees Fahrenheit). And it wasn’t just a cold snap or two, no, it lasted for a month or so, and that’s just too long for my poor old bones to brave the winter’s icy cold. Hungary even set a new record low in the north of the country: -28.1 C! That is cold! I was hunkered down in my cozy little flat waiting for spring, when I decided I really needed to go find a touch of sunshine. But where to go? I’d been pretty much everywhere around the Med. I looked in my travel guides and checked my maps and scanned the Internet’s lists of possible places to go in the winter and found --- Palermo! Sicily! Hadn’t been to Sicily since my New Year’s Eve trip to Catania, lo those many years ago, and then only to the east coast. So, what the heck, why not check out the northwest coast?

I hustled onto my favorite travel website, Expedia, and checked out the deals and found a really great one, flight plus hotel for four nights only $475 US. And at a four-star hotel, too! Such a deal! I grabbed it and waited patiently for the middle of February, when I was scheduled to go. The flight times offered by Expedia were not as great as in the past, but what the heck, they were cheap. So I opted for the Alitalia flight leaving Budapest at 5:30 PM on Thursday, February 16, 2017, connecting through Rome and arriving at Palermo airport around 10 PM that same night. Too late to take the downtown bus for the 35-kilometer trip to my hotel in mid-town Palermo, so I had the hotel pick me up instead; a minor charge for the convenience.

The Grand Hotel des Palmes is one of those stately, luxurious old-fashioned hotels with bellhops and columns and professional staff that one can still find in some places around the world. It is one of the oldest and best-known hotels in Palermo; in fact, Richard Wagner stayed here in the winter of 1881-2, where he completed his opera Parsifal. Isn’t that interesting?

My check-in was effortless (since I had already paid for my room through Expedia). When a Front escorted me to my room, I discovered I had been upgraded from a Standard room to a Superior room as befit my status as an Expedia VIP. I hadn’t realized I had achieved this status, but, after all the trips I’ve booked through Expedia, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Plus, there was also a complimentary bottle of wine waiting for me. I could get used to this type of accommodation.

Anyway, it was rather late by this time, so I quickly unpacked and checked out the room’s amenities. Turned out the bathroom sink stopper was jammed so the sink wouldn’t drain; also, I couldn’t figure out how to turn the TV on (remote controls are all the same and yet very different) and the damn room safe’s instructions were confusing to the point where I couldn’t get it closed. A quick call to the Reception Desk took care of everything and I settled in for the night with BBC News and my bottle of red wine and began to plan out my weekend in Palermo.

The last time I was in Sicily I stayed in Catania in a flat occupied by the mother of one of my Albuquerque friends, who was teaching at the Naval Air Station nearby. It was winter, so I took some day trips around the area, to Taormina, Syracuse and Agrigento, all of which reeked with history and antiquity. I also managed to ski Mt. Etna; while lava flows down its eastern flank, its northern slope is a ski area. Go figure. Since I was there over New Year’s Eve, I was also able to spend the evening celebrating with a bunch of the US military folks from the naval air station; I hadn’t seen so many cowboy hats and boots since I left New Mexico.

But this time would be different. It would only be a long weekend, but I planned to soak up as much of that great Sicilian sun as I could find and to eat as much of that great Sicilian food as I could stuff in my face. And so, Friday morning, February 17, 2017, after a somewhat disappointing buffet breakfast in a beautiful old ornate ballroom in the hotel, I stepped onto the streets of Palermo. I had found what looked to be a good orientation walking tour of the city on the internet, so set out to find the starting point. My path led from my hotel on via Roma to the Teatro Massimo, one street over.

Movie fans will recall that this setting was the climactic scene in Godfather III, where Sophie Coppola, playing Michael Corleone’s daughter, gets shot and killed (and deservedly so, I might add, in punishment for her execrable performance in that movie and probably, with some foresight, for her directorial debut soon thereafter for Lost in Translation, a movie which proved her directorial skills were certainly on a par with her acting skills).

I walked behind the Teatro Massimo and through lots of narrow, winding back streets and fish markets to emerge, finally near the Porta Nuova, or New Gate, which offered one of the old entrances into the city. From there I began my actual walking tour. The tour took me up both sides of Corso Vittorio Emanuelle, one of the main streets of the Old Town area. I was instructed to veer left and right, up this street and down that one, up a short flight of steps and across a park or two in order to see all of the amazing sights along this route: Palazzo del Normanni (an 11th century Arab-built fortress), the Villa Bonnano park and on to the Duomo, which is Palermo’s main cathedral.

I continued on, gazing in reverent awe at the imposing edifices built along the way, until arriving at the Piazza Bologni, a small square bathed in the warm Sicilian sun, and decided a brief stop was indicated at one of the terrace cafes in the square. I chose the first café, sat down and ordered the dish which is served at every single dining establishment throughout Sicily: Canolo, a crusty sweet cone filled with cream and topped with fruits. It is the dish for which Sicily is known all over the world and I was ready to try one.

Naturally, The Lukatch Curse was alive and well. When I placed my order with the young waiter, he said, “Oh, we don’t have that.” If I’d have had my lupara I’d have cut him down without mercy and then demolished his crummy little café. HOW could they not have Sicily’s national dish? You would think I’d be prepared for these moments of culinary disappointment by now, but Nooooo, I still believe that items shown on a restaurant’s menu will be on offer and awaiting my order. Of course, I still believe in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, too.

The young waiter must have sensed my disappointment and my desire to strangle him to within an inch of his life (or maybe it was a centimeter, here in Italy), as he quickly stepped back from the expression on my face. I knew it was pointless to waste my breath, so I took a deep breath and surged up from my chair so suddenly the waiter stepped back even further and more quickly and knocked over a passing Carnevale reveler dressed in the costume of a Doge of Venice.

Without apologies on either side, I stepped over to the next café on the square, I Cucci, and, before even sitting down, asked this waiter if they had canoli; when he said, “Of course, it is the national dish of Sicily, and there is a law that every single restaurant in the country must serve this dish,” I sat down and ordered it, still somewhat steamed from my previous encounter. I made that quintessentially Italian gesture to the youth at the first cafe, flipping my thumb off my upper teeth, while muttering, "Ey. Fongoole!" Whatever that means.

Anyway, anti-climactically, the canolo was great and I whiled away a nice restful period in the warm Sicilian sun, recovering from my morning’s excursion and resting up for my next foray along the walking tour route. I continued up Corso Vittorio Emanuelle to the Quattro Canti, or Four Corners, one of the landmark intersections in Palermo. Each of the buildings on the corners is decorated with several levels of statuary and is a popular gathering place for residents. There were still quite a few places to see along the walking tour route, but I decided to leave them for Saturday. Instead, I took off up the Via Roma toward my hotel, still enjoying the warmth and sunshine of Palermo. I checked out the vucciria flea market area, which would be transformed the next day into a bustling hive of great values – or so I hoped.

Short of the hotel I found a small gelateria and had lunch: arancino and soft drink. Arancino is a rice ball, filled with meat and veggies and then breaded and fried. Yummy. I wanted to catch the puppet show over near the Catedrale at 5:30, so, showered and rested, I splurged on a taxi to the area, only to find that there were only two customers for the show, which was then cancelled due to lack of interest. Well, Hell! No pupi (Italian for puppet) for Gary! I enjoyed a quick Moretti beer in a small café next to the Duomo, then decided to look for the Café Internazionale, which I had found on Trip Advisor and which seemed like it might be a fun place to start my evening. My maps didn’t always have the streets marked and it was tough going for a while there, as I slithered down alleyways and poked around corners onto streets which did not contain a single street name sign anywhere. Finally, I gave up and asked a couple of locals where the damn street was I was looking for, and it turned out it was the street I was on. How about that? Palermo has to be the worst city for street signage ever.

I walked down the deserted street, crumbling buildings, peeling paint, trash everywhere (nothing new in Palermo, where the entire city is a giant trash receptacle) and finally found the very faint number “37” scrawled on an abandoned doorway. There was a large board over the entrance to what used to be Club Internazionale. See? I knew this would turn out badly.

So, it was past my usual dinnertime and I was hungry. I strolled back along via Roma and had a nice dinner at the Gran Café de San Domenico, in the shadow of the church of the same name. I wanted something spectacularly Sicilian to start, so I ordered a Bellini. You guessed it: “Oh, we don’t have the proper ingredients for a Bellini, but we can use vodka instead, if that is alright with you?”

It was most definitely NOT alright with me. I considered leaving, but my feet hurt, so I ordered a margarita instead, which wasn’t too bad. Dinner began with some antipasto, followed by a first course of spaghetti Bolognese and then escaloped meat, along with a nice red wine. A nice limoncello topped it all off. The streets were blocked off from vehicular traffic and so were full of people, probably celebrating Carnevale, as many kids had bags of confetti which they threw over everyone they met. I dodged and weaved and they never laid a glove – or a piece of confetti – on me.

I searched everywhere on my trek back to the hotel for a nice bar for an after-dinner drink and maybe some light
conversation with a local or two, but there was none to be found. Apparently, Sicily doesn’t have bars like we in the west know them. They have cafes and wine bars (really just wine cafés) and restaurants and gelaterias, but no places to sit on a comfy bar stool and exchange pleasantries with other bar-goers. So, Sicilians really have no social centers per se, as sitting at a small coffee table with a couple of other people all night really doesn’t lend itself to mingling. Maybe if they had more bars where people could talk over their problems they’d have fewer shootings.

Saturday was to be a busy morning. After another fair buffet breakfast, I found a taxi to take me to the Catacombes di Cappuccini, a place where skeletons, still wrapped in their burial clothes, were on display in coffins and hung up on hooks on the walls. My driver, Francesco, hustled me into a “deal”: he would take me to the catacombs, wait for me while I went inside, then drive us up to Monreale to view the other great local catedrale and take a panoramic pic or two, then bring me back to the vucciria flea market – and all this for only 80 euro.

Hmmm. Somehow, while he made his spiel, I thought the drive between sights would be longer and farther, so I hemmed and hawed and finally said OK. I should have bargained. First, off to the catacombs, near the Porta Nuova. It was everything it was advertised to be, and all for only a three euro entry fee. Gruesome hardly describes it. If you’re really interested in what it looks like, Google it and you’ll see photos. Rich and famous people are entombed here: military, government, entertainment, nobles, priests and there’s even a corner for children and “virgenes.” Real skeletons, many with jaws hanging agape or with skulls otherwise crumbled down into jaws. Smelled musty and death-like, too; in fact, I imagine I can still smell it. I walked all the corridors for about 20 minutes, then needed fresh air badly. Not for the faint-hearted.

Francesco was waiting for me and we took off for the ‘long’ drive to Monreale, “Royal Mountain.” Turned out it was about 15 minutes uphill, if that. I checked out the catedrale, which was impressive, but generally looked like all the other catedrales around town (although its altar pieces were supposedly all solid gold). A brief stroll around the town square, then Francesco took two photos of me at the viewing spot overlooking Palermo and the Mediterranean; since it was a cloudy day, the pics aren’t all that great, but what the heck.

A 15-minute drive back to town and over to vucciria flea market and finis! First he took me for a ride then he took me for 80 euro. Suckered again. When will I ever learn? And to top it all off, the “flea market” was a total bust. It was supposed to be several blocks of antiques and other wonders usually found at such places; instead, it was partially a food market and about 50 feet of tables with trashy treasures and that was it. Hope dies eternal.
I decided to finish my walking tour, which I had interrupted the previous day, so I wandered back to the Four Corners. Just around one of the corners is the Piazza Pretoria, with its beautiful, but controversial, fountain, adorned with nude statues and monsters. Outraged churchgoers called it the Fountain of Shame. Personally, I thought it was pretty cool.

More wandering down side streets and ogling more churches – funny how the more churches you see the more they all start to look the same. I did finally come upon the Palazzo Mirto, once owned by a Sicilian nobleman. At least this palazzo is open to the public so I got a tour (for six euro!), which was nicely done, although one of the interior guards persisted in following me around through the rooms, probably hoping to catch me in the act of trying to smuggle a chamber pot out under my vest. Sorry, amico, not today.

I ended up at the Piazza Marina, next to one of the small harbors, with more palazzos and parks. It was a very long walking tour after all and I still had to get back to my hotel. I did so by walking up the seaside promenade and turning in at the Via Cavour, looking for lunch. I finally stopped in a small café for an arancino and soda, cheap but filling, after which I made it back to my hotel and collapsed in my upgraded superior room’s bed for a nice, upgraded nap, preparatory to what would probably be yet another futile search for some exciting nightlife.

Saturday night found the again-blocked-off streets alive with wanderers and strollers and revelers, throwing confetti around like…..well, like confetti. I walked around the corner to view the Politeama,
another grand theater building. It’s square was filled with people, so I darted down a side street to check out the shops. Finding absolutely nothing I couldn’t live without, I wandered back around the hotel again until I found the Il Mirto la Rosa restaurant. This would be a wine night, so I ordered a carafe of one of the local white wines to go with my dinner. The restaurant had several specials, in addition to their regular menu; these specials consisted of anywhere from three-to-six courses at varying prices. It looked like such a good deal I took it, having the bruschetta, pasta and escalope meat dishes. Not bad. The place only had a couple of other diners when I walked in, but by the time I finished it was packed. Service was slow, but that’s the Sicilian way, taking one’s time while enjoying one’s meal. I would have passed on dessert, but they had a dark chocolate mousse on the menu with a side shot of rum mastelum. Very nice.

Sunday morning found me with the beginnings of another cold. Damn! I just recovered from one before leaving for Palermo, and now here was another one, attacking me from the rear. I chewed my way through breakfast, then found a nearby stop for the Free Bus that went all over the old town area of Palermo. I had found out about this bus from the Tourist Information ladies yesterday and thought I’d give it a try; it sure beat walking. I took the bus over to the Porta Nuova again and went looking for the San Giovanni degli Eremiti, a monument on my walking tour that I just couldn’t find when on foot. That rarely happens to me, so I was somewhat frustrated at the time.

I walked past the catedrale and found the little café I Cucci in the Piazza Bologni. The young waiter remembered me and seemed pleased I had returned. I had a light snack of chocolate croissant and soft drink and once again warmed myself in the Sicilian sun. The streets were closed off to vehicular traffic again on this Sunday, so the crowds were out shopping and eating gelato and generally just walking around, the same as I was doing. It was such a nice day for a stroll and the weather was still pretty warm, so I was happy not to be in the cold of Budapest for at least this one more day. After a clean-up, I had dinner at a quite good Japanese restaurant near the hotel: tempura, gyoza and sushi along with some Italian beer. Due to my cold and stuffiness, I retired early, along with some cold pills I hoped would help.

Monday was a traveling day. Up at 6 AM (yucchh!), hotel car to the airport, plane for Rome left at 10:30 and, after a three-hour layover in Rome, another 90 minutes in the air and I was back in Budapest – and it was cold! Brrr. At least minus three Celsius. Caught the airport bus and then metro home and was pleased to find I had forgotten to turn my heat down when I was away, so my flat was cozy warm. Unpacked, popped around the corner for some Chinese fast food, popped a couple more cold pills and it was Bedtime for Bonzo.
Not one of my more adventurous or spectacular weekends, but a good break from the chills of Hungary. Now I can last until springtime. Only six weeks until my next jaunt – you’re gonna LOVE this one! Until then, Happy Carnevale to all!

Thursday, December 15, 2016

'NOROC!"

Congratulations! You have just learned your first word in Moldovan: “Cheers!” It’s a word I find useful everywhere I travel, as all I have to do is go into a bar anywhere in the world, order a beer, raise my glass to anyone sitting at the bar with me and say “Cheers!” in the local language, and I’ve made a new friend. And that’s the way it was in Chisinau, Moldova. Pronounced, “Kee–shee–know,” this capital city of the poorest country in Europe is also one of the most welcoming. Moldova is a former Soviet republic, squeezed into a tiny area between Ukraine and Romania. With a population of around 790,000 out of the 3.7 million in the country as a whole, this small eastern European city (Chişinău – in Russian Kishinyov; in Ukrainian Kishiniv; and in something else Kiszyniow) – doesn’t really have much to recommend it to tourists; a few museums, some cathedrals, a nice park or two, some big government buildings. But when the sun goes down, the city’s nightlife takes on a whole new turn.

So, let’s start at the beginning. Thursday, December 8, 2016, I left Budapest for Warsaw, then transferred to Chisinau, arriving around 5 PM on a dark, not-too-cold winter evening. Got a taxi from the airport to my hotel in the center of town for only 5 euro – such a deal! Checked in easily (all prepaid through Expedia) and it was out on the town to see what I could find for Happy Hour and dinner. As it turned out, there were three restaurant/bars within 20 meters of my hotel, so my choices were close and varied. I chose the Robin Pub, as I’d read about it on Trip Advisor and it sounded like a fun place. And it was!
I walked across the cobblestone street and entered the pub’s warmth. It’s an olde-English style place, lots of dark wood and brass and even a reindeer head hanging on one wall. I had a couple of Chisinau beers and some caviar-filled crepes as an appetizer and then headed up the street to the Old Bus restaurant. Another interesting place. Dinner was in order, so I chose the veal medallions with side dishes, along with another great local beer. It was very tasty, but not quite hot enough, although still enjoyable. Back across the street again to Beraria Chisinau bar/restaurant/music club for an after-dinner beer and some tunes from a local DJ. By this time it appeared Chisinau might turn out to be an OK place to visit and I was ready for whatever the weekend might hold.
Friday morning dawned grey and cloudy, but not that cold. After a nice breakfast at the restaurant adjacent to the hotel, I set out to see Chisinau. I walked the nearby city park, with its church and steeple, and then headed down Stefan cei Mare, the main street of town. I walked about one kilometer looking for shops, flea markets, souvenir booths, etc. Not a whole lot there – at least, that I could see. I walked back uptown along Bucuresti strada to find the night spots I’d researched: Déjà Vu, Eli Peli, etc. And I found them all, after some searching, so I knew how to get back to them at night.

I looked forward to lunch at the York pub, maybe some roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, but it was not to be; the York Pub opened at 4 PM. But nearby was a place called La Placinte, a popular local chain that served all sorts of interesting goodies, so I settled in there for a warm lunch away from the cold outdoors. I had three separate rolls of chicken and pork, rolled in fried dough, plus a drink, for about $2.50 US. Chisinau may actually have Budapest beat when it comes to prices.

After lunch, another stroll along the main and adjacent streets, looking for various parks, monuments, statues, arches of triumph, cathedrals and museums. Found them all and the afternoon eased by. But I did make it back to the much-anticipated York Pub by 5 PM, only to find that, once again, my anticipation far exceeded the actual event. Yep, the York pub was a small downstairs bar, no real food and catered to the local hookah smokers. The damn place was full of water pipe smoke, cloudy and foggy. I downed one small beer quickly and headed out for more salubrious climes.
The Carlsberg Pub was near all of the other night spots I wanted to visit later, so I stopped in for, what else, a Carlsberg and carpaccio appetizer. Friendly people and a comfortable atmosphere in this small pub helped while away the happy hours until the other places opened, usually either 9 or 10 PM. I found the Military Pub first, but it didn’t open until 10 PM, so I vowed to return (which, of course, I never did). Next was Eli Peli Karaoke Club, which was deserted the first time I checked then started to fill up around 10 PM or so. I hung out and watched the Chisinauians (is that a word?) start their evening’s festivities. I drank my beer and looked on as a few brave souls sang some local songs, in Romanian and Russian, then decided to give the party a jolt and hit them with Great Balls of Fire. Well, they loved it!

It seems that every time I sing this song at any karaoke club anywhere in the world, no matter what songs have come before or what the audience is doing, they all jump up and dance. Such is the enduring power of American rock and roll. The evening progressed from there, with more songs and some of the English speakers even buying me beer and tequila shots. I was a hit in Moldova. I didn’t find out until my third song that we had to pay to sing! Damn, shades of Tokyo! OK, it was only a dollar per song, but still – they should have paid us for the entertainment. All in all, it was a fun group, and I left around 1 AM reluctantly, but I had to walk back to the hotel along very uneven sidewalks and cobblestones. Made it safely and fell into bed, satisfied that I had survived yet another successful Friday night at the pubs.
Saturday was another walking tour of Chisinau, this time to see the Parliament building and the President’s rather unassuming house on a residential side street and more parks and statues. I whiled and walked away the morning and had a light lunch at a small eatery until my afternoon pickup for my tour of the world-famous Cricova Winery, of which, of course, I had never heard. The Cricova Winery stores its Moldovan wines in more than 100 kilometers of tunnels beneath the Moldovan hills, about 15 kilometers from Chisinau. Electric carts are used to get around to visit the huge tuns of wine and the many thousands of barrels (called “barriques” in Moldovan) in the vast underground wine city. There are also five tasting rooms for visitors and tours. In addition, the complex houses a huge collection (20,000 bottles?) of special and rare wines, including some from Herman Goering’s collection. There are also unique wines from other countries. There is one wine in the collection, Jerusalem de Paste (Easter Jerusalem), that was produced from a single lot in 1902.

I asked our tour guide if anyone ever drank any of these rare wines, and she replied, with an astonished gasp, “Oh, no!” She also said most of these wines cannot even be drunk due to age, rot, etc. So I wondered, since wine is meant to be drunk and to make people happy, what is the purpose of keeping these wines if no one ever drinks them?

Anyway, our tour of around 20 thirsty folks from around the world boarded our tram and scooted off to the tunnels, checking out the long underground passages. We viewed the collection mentioned above and ended up at the Tasting Rooms, where we were treated to four of the winery’s ‘best’ wines; this tasting was included in our 55-euro visit. Immediately after our tasting, and before returning to the surface world, we were ushered into the ‘gift store,’ where we were allowed to purchase various wines and other souvenirs. Those crafty Moldovans weren’t born yesterday; they know that wine loosens tongues and wallets and that after imbibing several glasses, visitors are much more likely to buy a few bottles to take home. I succumbed and picked up a wonderful bottle of Zeus after-dinner wine, nectar on the tongue. I knew I’d have to check my carry-on suitcase to get the wine back home, but it was worth it.

I was in such a good mood after the tour and tasting that I asked my driver to drop me off at one of the local restaurants I’d intended to visit during the weekend, Vatra Neamului, just around the corner from the Déjà Vu music club. What an experience. It was a perfect dinner, from my welcome at the entrance by my waiter for the evening, Ruslan, all the way through to the complimentary homemade cherry vodka digestif. I was hungry, as I’d only had a light lunch hours ago, so started with an appetizer of chicken in cheese sauce, then went for the rabbit with side dishes of mashed potato and grated cheese with a startlingly-spicy red pepper. Yum! And accompanied by a lovely white wine (Purcari, but the restaurant didn’t offer Cricova!). Dessert was a pear in wine sauce with ice cream.

I was even honored by a dinner conversation with the shift manager, Svetlana, a beautiful Moldovan woman who had worked in the US for some years and spoke perfect English. I waddled out of the place and strolled blurrily back to my hotel. I could go back to Chisinau just to repeat this experience.

Sunday I was determined to find the central market that had eluded me on Friday, so I set out on Stefan cei Mare with a will and lo and behold, there it was, just off the main street, no signs or anything, and jammed – packed – seething – with weekend shoppers. Unfortunately, this central market is a commercial market, which means it has mainly household items, such as kitchen ware, electronics, clothes, shoes, coats, hats, bedding, etc. Basically no souvenirs. Bummer. I searched all over and fought the crowds with knees and elbows, but to no avail. No souvenirs,
However, I did get to have lunch at the Smokehouse BBQ nearby, which was a nice change. I had the pulled pork served on a bed of fries and covered with a fried egg and served in a clay pot. Wonderful. Since it was just after noon, I also ordered a mimosa – orange juice and champagne. What the heck, a day to splurge. Well, the waiter brought me a champagne glass and a pitcher – yep, a pitcher! – of mimosa. I managed half of it and then tried to find the exit. What a happy city.

A little more strolling among the holiday crowds and small amusement rides set up for the kids, around the Arch of Triumph (I never did find out what the triumph was), then an afternoon rest. I decided not to stray too far from the hotel for dinner, so walked across the street to the Robin Pub, where I had yet another amazing feed. Along with more Purcari rosé wine, I had veal in flaming brandy, accompanied by mushrooms and two small baked potatoes. The splurging continued after dinner with a dessert of crepes suzettes covered with more flaming oranges and brandy mascarpone. Topped off with a Sambuca, it was enough to see me through the night.
And Monday it was back to Budapest. Managed to sleep in and get to the airport early afternoon. Caught my flight to Vienna, then a four-hour layover and finally home around 10 PM. Chisinau may not be the most exciting city I’ve ever visited, but it was certainly one of the best culinary experiences in recent years. And the prices are still extremely reasonable.

So no more travels planned for a while, but will check my maps and see what’s available. I need to start saving up for my gigantic summer trip in 2017; more on that later.

Until then, Happy Holidays, Merry Xmas, Happy New Year, Safe Travels and Happy Trails to one and all. See you next year.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

KANPAI!



That’s ‘Cheers’ in Japanese, a word which is always good for meeting people in Tokyo pubs. Actually, I probably should have entitled this blog ‘Takasugimasu,’ which is Japanese for ‘That’s too expensive!). Damn, things cost a lot in Japan! Some things are worth it, some are not, and there are always some good deals if you know where to look or stumble upon them. But I get ahead of myself. And so, without further adieu, onward and upward to my latest adventure in the Land of the Rising Sun.

In general, the Orient is still not uppermost on my list of places to visit, but Expedia sent me a flight deal I just couldn’t pass up: Budapest to Tokyo and return on Qatar Airlines, a really nice airline, one stop, for just $541 US. Such a deal! So I had to take it. I decided on a ten-day visit, basing in Tokyo and taking day trips to other areas of the country. I had lots of input from people I know who used to live in Japan, so was heavily armed with things to do, places to go and people to meet. I picked and chose, noted and separated, and finally narrowed down the 1,001 things to see and do to a more manageable number. In preparation for my trip, I was even able to buy Japanese yen here in Budapest, so, after a two-month hiatus after my last trip to Sardinia in late July, I was ready to hit the road once again.

At least I had a decent departure time, 7 PM on Monday, October 3. The initial five-hour flight to Doha was easy, although my one-hour connecting time only left me enough time to hotfoot it the quarter-mile stretch of the Qatar Airport I had to traverse to get to my next flight; yes, the airlines are still putting my arrival and departure gates far enough apart that an Olympic sprinter would have a hard time making the connection. But make it I did, as the next flight was boarding, so I sweated and huffed and puffed and sank into my aisle seat for the 11-hour flight to Tokyo. I watched a couple of movies along the way and caught a couple of naps and generally just enjoyed the Qatar Airlines service and narrow seats. One particularly interesting warning flashed on their computer screens made me smile: “For your safety, please remain in your seat when praying on board.” Don’t want those prayer rugs cluttering up the aisles.

I arrived at Narita Airport around 6:30 on the evening of Tuesday, October 4 and, after clearing passport control and picking up my checked suitcase, found the airport’s bus limousine service desk. Bought my limo bus ticket (for only 2,000 yen, as compared to the 3,200 yen advertised – senior discount, don’tcha know? And the counter person actually volunteered this information, which would have never happened in Budapest!) and walked out into the amazingly humid night air to await my bus. Narita is around 65 kilometers from Tokyo, so the trip to a major metro station ‘near’ my hotel would take at least 90 minutes, maybe more, depending on traffic. The bus arrived on time and the curbside assistants loaded my bag, I got on my bus (“Happy Coach #16”), and the assistants bowed the bus away. (NB: The Japanese do a lot of bowing). These assistants had the name of their employer on the back of their shirts – Friendly Bus Company. It looked like my stay in Japan would be marked by smiles and friendliness all around.

The limo bus dropped me off at the south exit to the Shinjuku metro station and I was immediately engulfed in a swarm, a horde, a plethora of travelers and tourists trying to figure out where they were and how to get where they wanted to go. Knowledgeable traveler that I am, however, I came prepared in case the limo bus couldn’t take me to my hotel: I had an internet-printed location map for my hotel, to assist taxi drivers in finding it. I flagged down a taxi and showed him the map; he knew right where I wanted to go and I climbed in and we were off – to the wrong hotel! Yep, he’d read the map wrong. He corrected his GPS helper and we finally got to the right place.

Once at my hotel I learned one of the wonderful things about Japan: the total fare was 1450 yen (around $14.50 US, or 14 euro; to get the exchange rate in dollars and approximate euros, just divide the yen by 100), but, since the driver had taken me to the wrong hotel at first, he only asked for 1000 yen. Would this ever happen in Budapest? You can bet your taxi driver’s tire iron against the side of your head it would not!. My initial forays into Japan were going well.

I checked into the Tokyo Palace Hotel, just down the street from the Shin-Okubo metro station on the Yamanote Line (the metro line that circles central Tokyo). The room was small, but adequate, with a tiny bathroom and a lovely view of the building next door’s wall. Who cares? I’d be out most of the time anyway. And at least it was air conditioned, which was sorely needed in the Tokyo heat and humidity. I unpacked and hit the street in search of dinner and maybe a beer or two. And I found – OMG! – Yoshinoya Beef Bowl! I love this chain and hadn’t had one of their signature dishes since I’d left the US in 1999. I ordered one at the counter; complete with free pitchers of ice water nearby (if you want ice with your drink, you need to ask for it “onzarokku;.” think about it). It was my first culinary explosion in Japan and, unbeknownst to me, not to be my last.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016 – my first full day in Tokyo. Lots of admin things to take care of, like getting my metro smart card, visiting tourist agencies to arrange day trips, etc. After my 500- yen breakfast in the hotel, I got a single ticket to the next metro station, Shinjuku, which is a major stop and, after wandering around looking lost for a while, I finally found the ticket office where I could purchase my Suica Card and load it up with credit for the metro. No prob. There was a 500 yen deposit and I bought 1500 yen worth of credit to start me off, figuring I could replenish the card when needed.

Next was a nice stroll to the fairly-nearby Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building and one of the Tourinform offices. Although they don’t book the actual tours, they did give me information on a local agency that does. I also was able to make my online reservations for the Robot Restaurant and Show for that night, a must-see for all Tokyo visitors. Before leaving the building, I rode the elevator to the 45th floor and checked out the entire city of Tokyo and beyond, even managing to catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji in the distance.

I found the tourist agency recommended to me, and was informed there that they only spoke and handled tours in Japanese; hmmm, won’t do me much good. The nice lady did give me the name and location of another agency not too far away, so I checked them out after a rather long, sweaty walk – damn, but it was humid! Anyway, after a protracted computer search for my requested tours, the kind young woman at this new agency informed me that they did not have or book any of the tours I wanted in English for tourists. Hmmm again, it was beginning to look like Tokyo was not a very tourist-friendly place after all.

After a yummy late beef bowl lunch (I really love those beef bowls!) and my second shower of the day, I metroed back to the Kabukicho area in Shinjuku for a quick beer or two (Bass ale, if you must know, at 800 yen for a 0.33L draft – you figure it out!) at the Hub bar, after which I caught the show at Robot Restaurant. Well, sports fans, this show must be seen to be believed. I suppose it’s based on the Japanese sub-culture known as manga, as there are gigantic electronically-controlled robots and real people and robotic animals and dragons and all sorts of crazy things. It was about 90 minutes long and, at 8000 yen per head, was not cheap. It was full of lights and colors and noise and music and flash; my grandkids would have loved it.
After the incredibly loud and bright show, I headed over to the nearby Golden Gai shabby-but-fun area to see what all the Trip Advisor fuss was about. This small (four-short-square-block) enclave apparently sprang into being in the aftermath of WWII. It contains more than 300 teeny-tiny bars and shops and restaurants, with décor from the 1950s through modern day. Many places have a cover charge of 1000 yen (yep, $10 US!) and nearly all have barstool space or small tables for maybe 15 people or so. Definitely cozy.

I had a beer at the Death Metal bar (not usually my kind of place) and then, as I was strolling the small narrow alleyways in the area, was waved into a bar by a young Japanese man and woman sitting alone at the bar. The night picked up from there. I chatted with Kenko and Kamiko and with the bartendress, Keiko, for a while, until we were joined by two Spanish women, a Belgian couple and then two women and their male friend from Los Angeles. Lots of good conversation, several expensive beers and not an iphone in sight. Great evening.

I found out as I staggered back to the metro station that the metro closes at 11 PM and, since it was now after midnight, it looked like I might have to find an alternate way home. Tokyo taxis are also very expensive, but I was choiceless, so I hailed a taxi and showed the driver my Google Locator Map. We somehow got me to my hotel for only around 1000 yen, a bargain at twice the price, especially as the alternative was to crash in a doorway like a homeless person. It turned out the 7-11 in my neighborhood was still open, so I got a couple of char-sha-bao dumplings and a Gatorade and watched my only English-language TV channel in my room, CNN, and finally sacked out. A helluva start to my visit. I should have known it couldn’t last.

Thursday and I was determined to find a travel agency that could and would book me an English-language tour. Apparently, determination is not enough these days, as I failed miserably. Went to three other agencies in the Shinjuku area and none of them could help. I was crushed and defeated. No Kyoto. No Hakone. Kamakura? Well, we’d see. Since I was in the area, I thought at least I’d go check out Godzilla, on the 8th floor of one of the nearby hotels. I asked at the first floor reception desk and the woman there told me I could only see Godzilla if I was a guest of the hotel or had a meal in their restaurant. Well, SCHEISSE! What kind of friendly, welcoming tourist ambiance is that?!

I couldn’t even muster the energy to check out the local onsen (baths). I was so down and upset that I paid 3500 yen for the Hop On hop Off bus tour around the city. What a waste of time and money. The sights included a broadcasting tower and a couple of bridges and not much else. Where are all the cool sights in Tokyo? Guess you have to walk to them to find them. Bummer. Back to the hotel for a late afternoon shower and rest-up before looking for more nightlife.

I’d heard about What the Dicken’s pub near Ebisu Station metro stop, so rode down to check it out. Turned out it’s on the 4th floor of a medium tall and narrow building, a smallish bar with no windows, old scarred wood and lots of character. Live music started around 9 PM, but the band and venue were apparently not overly popular, at least on the night I was there. I had a couple of expensive beers (six euro for a small draft Bass ale; imported Corona and American Budweiser bottles were 800 yen; that’s $8 US or around 8 euro for a small bottle of beer. Wow! Fortunately, I don’t drink either of them, so was spared the overcharge) and listened to the blues band for a while, but the place had little or no energy, so I wandered off in time to catch the metro back to my stop.

Friday would be my first shrine day, when I went looking for one of the most important and major shrines in Tokyo, the Meiji Shrine. I got off the metro at the Harajuku station, which also happened to be a major shopping area; maybe I could KTBWOS. The shrine itself was located in a huge park on the west side of Tokyo. I walked through the quiet, serene, green, tree-filled park, on its well-kept paths, to the main shrine area. There really isn’t much to the shrine itself, just a few traditional buildings surrounding a central courtyard, with the Meiji shrine off to one side. No photos allowed of the shrine and respectful attitude was required by several signs in the area. Also, at the entrance to the courtyard there is a raised well with small bamboo dippers for washing one’s hands before entering the sacred space. Interesting.
I wandered around for a while, noting the special areas where people left prayers or requests or poems, kind of like the Buddhist temples I’d seen in Nepal. While I was there a wedding procession appeared from the inner temple area, walking solemnly through the main space. It was a nice, reflexive time to spend just enjoying the solitude, even with so many tourists around. I did notice that the tourists were all very well-behaved, no shouting or running or other noise. Even more interesting.

I exited at the front gate of the shrine and crossed the metro tracks (BTW: nearly all of Tokyo’s metro trains are above ground!) to emerge at the start of the Harajuku shopping area, Omotesando Street. This long stretch of divided street, with trees along the sides and in the middle, is sort of like Budapest’s Andrassy Ut, filled with upscale stores and shops and restaurants and other interesting commercial enterprises. I hadn’t had breakfast yet and was looking for a restaurant I’d noticed on my Google map, called Eggs n’ Things. I had no preconceptions about this place, but it sounded like a good place for my first meal of the day. Since it was now almost noon, I was ready.

I found the restaurant down a side alley just past the first intersection on the main street. A two-level eatery, it specialized in breakfast dishes, and they had them all: omelets, all sorts of eggs, Eggs Benedict with various inclusions, Mexican eggs, pancakes, real corned beef hash, etc. A truly great egg place. Since it had been years for me, I ordered the corned beef hash with eggs over medium, potatoes, toast and orange juice. No pancakes – this time! When my order arrived and I dug into it, I started making those yummy noises of pleasure I seem to do when confronted with marvelous foods, the tastes of which are almost orgasmic in their pleasure. People at other tables stopped eating to watch and listen to me as I enjoyed my meal. I finally quieted down and let them get back to their own food, but I was definitely in foodie heaven in Tokyo. Budapest has nothing like this expertise with eggs n’things.

Satiated for the time being, I walked the length of Omotesando Street, checking out the shop windows and looking for souvenirs. Nothing caught my eye, but the stroll was a nice one, with temps around 20 degrees Celsius and humidity maybe around 70%. Hot but pleasant. Coming to the end of the street, I turned right onto another major, more commercial, street that would eventually take me down to the Shibuya area, another stop on my schedule. I checked out the United Nations University building for possible shirts for my daughter, but nothing there. I also visited the Aoyama Gakuin University campus, doubting that these colleges would have what I wanted. Did I find it? You’ll have to ask Morgan after the family open their Xmas box from Hungary.

Once down in the Shibuya area, I crossed under the metro tracks to the famous Shibuya Crossing, where pedestrian-striped crossing lanes cover the street corners at right angles and also diagonally. When the lights change, everyone crosses everywhere. It’s truly a madhouse, but no one ever seems to get injured. I did think a seller of t-shirts would do well there, however, with the slogan, “I Survived Shibuya Crossing.”

I was looking for the Hobgoblins pub, but got sidetracked into the Dubliner pub for a quick afternoon beer. Get this, my Irish friends: a small draft Yebisu (local) beer, 0.33L, was 500 yen, or about 5 euro; a ‘full’ pint (0.4L!) was around 10 euro. And you thought Dublin prices were high! (NB: Tokyo is the 5th most expensive city in the world). I did finally find Hobgoblins, located in another tall building; the only indication of its existence was a sign among many others on a vertical strip high up on the side of the building, very hard to spot unless you know what to look for. I’d be back to check out the inside later, as the bar didn’t open until 6 PM.

After my by-now standard afternoon shower and rest, I was back in the area for Happy Hour at Hobgoblins. They had a good draft selection, and I was pleased and surprised to find a Belhaven’s Twisted Thistle ale on tap. I could only afford one small beer at $8 US (a ‘pint’ at 0.473L was 10 euro), but I did have the jerked chicken platter at 1400 yen, paid for with my credit card, to which the bar added a 5% service charge. I had originally ordered the Sriracha Chicken Kebabs with side dishes from the menu on the bar, but the bartender informed me their chef didn’t come in until 9 PM and that “They didn’t have that.” See?! It IS me!!!

BTW - a small bottle of Hoegaarden Dutch beer or a small draft Guinness was 10 euro. At least the sky-high process kept my beer consumption way down.

I managed to find enough pocket change for one more beer and also chatted with the bartender about the evening’s entertainment. I had noticed a rather large group of people taking up the back half of the seating area; they were mostly fairly quiet, but there were a lot of them. When I asked the bartender about the possibility of live music that night, he told me there wouldn’t be any, and besides, it was rather pointless, since the large group of people in the back half of the bar were all deaf. I looked again and sure enough, lots of hand signals but no shouting to be heard. Unless, of course, you include waving your arms all around.

I lingered as long as I could, without live music or other travelers or locals willing and eager to engage in social conversations, then finally headed out to stroll the Shibuya area for a while. It was an amazingly quiet early Friday night, unlike Budapest, where the fun never stops on into the wee hours of the following morning. I was enjoying Tokyo, but couldn’t say much for its night life.

I decided Saturday would be my big shopping day. I had a list of things I wanted to buy and I was hoping Tokyo could provide me with them. I chose the Koenji district, as shown in various online guidebooks, as the best place for me to browse. I arrived around 9:30, just 30 minutes before I presumed the stores opened on the weekend, just as they did during the weekdays. I had enough time for a leisurely breakfast at Becks, in the metro station, then went in search of all the stores I had listed. There was still a light – and sometimes heavy – rain until noon, but I was determined to visit each and every shop and I’d be damned if a little water stopped me.

Naturally, shop hours posted on the doors indicated these shops don’t open until 11 AM, 12 PM, or 1 PM on Saturdays. Sigh. Murphy was chuckling in the background. I strolled through the rain and the fortunately covered arcade, looking in windows and still trying to locate the shops I wanted, until, at last, several of them opened. To make a long, ugly story short, none of the shops I visited had anything I wanted or was looking for – NONE! I wasted several hours browsing and then said to hell with it and went looking for the Harley Davidson store near the Hatagaya metro station. Did I find it? Was it open? Check with Tony late Xmas morning to find out.

That night I wanted to try one of the yakiniku restaurants, which advertised lots of meat. I found one near my hotel, place called Ting, and settled in at the counter for my experience. Turned out the yakiniku restaurants have small grills at your table or counter on which you can grill your own rather small portions of meat. Cool. Side dishes are ordered separately. I had two portions, one of beef loin and one of beef tongue, which I hadn’t had in years. I grilled them until they were just like I wanted them, then scarfed them down, accompanied by a beer or two. With the two beef dishes and two small beers, my bill came to 2700 yen! Wow! I wandered away, full of beef and beer and empty of wallet. I did look into a nearby shot bar, but they wanted a $30 cover charge (kaba chaji), so I passed. I was planning a long day trip on the morrow, so, after charging my metro card with 2000 yen at the 7-11 near my hotel, I turned in at a reasonable hour.

I was unable to find an English-language tour to see the Great Buddha in Kamakura, but noticed in my Tokyo Guidebook that I could take a metro train there, so early Sunday morning I headed over to Tokyo Station, the main railway spot in town, to check it out. I actually found the right train with little difficulty, and took the 90-minute ride, changing trains once I got to Kamakura for a short ride to the Buddha location. I walked down the main street of the small town at the end of which is a small park with the Great Buddha. It was raining lightly off and on, but I was not to be deterred. I’d probably never be back this way and wanted to see what I could of the major sights.

Well, let me tell you folks, that is one BIG Buddha.
He sits all alone in a clearing in the park and waits for people to drop by to say “Hi.”. Tourists abounded in the area, but not to excess. I spent some time contemplating the Big Guy and then decided he was worth going to see but not really worth seeing. At one point I joined a line to go inside the statue and climb up into its head, but there was a sign outside the entrance warning people that it was dark and slippery inside and to be careful. After due consideration, I decided this type of dark and slippery, inside the head of the Great Buddha, wasn’t my thing, so I headed back to the metro stop.

On the way I picked up a few souvenirs and then noticed an anomaly in Japan: a small ice cream shop advertising real Turkish ice cream. The proprietor was from Morocco and his wife was Turkish, and when I asked them they assured me their product was the real thing, that exact ice cream made in Turkey, the best ice cream in the whole wide world, in my humble opinion. So I had a cone, and it was real Turkish ice cream. Another culinary orgasm; my taste buds cheered and I was weak with pleasure.

I returned to the Tokyo Station and, when I clocked my card out of the exit terminal, I noticed the trip had cost me the 2000 yen I had put on my metro card the previous night. Well, I suppose it’s better than a $90 tour. I walked over to the Imperial Palace grounds, hoping to get in to see the palace, but found out tourists can only walk the grounds and entry to the palace is forbidden 363 days of the year. Yet another tourist-unfriendly rule.

Sunday night I returned to the Hub bar in Kabukicho for a couple of small Bass beers (at 500 yen each) and some pretty good fish and chips bites (at only $6, a better deal than the beer). There must have been 10,000 young people on the streets that night; I found out later that Monday was a school holiday, so the kids were out and about. I weaved and wended my way through the madding throngs and called it another early night.

On a cloudy and cool Monday morning I metroed down to the Tsukiji Fish Market, not, as you might have guessed, for the 5:30 AM tuna auction, a time which is way beyond my ability to recognize these days. Instead, I just wanted to see the area and have some fresh seafood. So, late morning I arrived near the kabuki theater and walked down to the fish market, wending my way again through the labyrinth of shops, small markets, seafood sellers, restaurants and souvenir shops, all crowded into an area the size of a postage stamp. During my foray into this tourist-packed space, I managed to munch on a dumpling and then found a sushi restaurant that wasn’t overflowing with hungry tourists. I sat at the upstairs counter with the other tourists and had a wonderful plate of fresh, fresh sushi, along with a pre-noon beer. Everyone in attendance, including the sushi chefs, was smiling and happy and full of energy and the sushi capped it all. Great time.

In the early afternoon I walked back to the Ginza shopping area, only to find the New York Police Band holding a parade down the main street. When they finally finished their march, I strolled the Ginza, checking out the upscale and luxury stores for anything I might need or want to pay exorbitant prices for. I must admit to a disappointment with this area, after so much hype over the years. It was just another concrete canyon filled with overpriced stores and badly-done displays. I didn’t stay long.

I did, however, catch one of the matinee kabuki shows at the big kabuki theater I had passed that morning. It was brief and fun and full of energy and leaps and arm-waving and shouting. I guess you have to be raised in it to appreciate it. Plus all the parts are played by men, not a particular draw for me. Ah, well, maybe in my next life.

That night I was back again in Kabukicho to find one of the many izakaya restaurants in the area. These are basically Japanese tapas bars serving food and drinks for reasonable prices – at last! I found what looked like a good one and entered the basement venue, full of noise and smoke and tapas. (Yes, in Japan it is still legal to smoke indoors at restaurants, bars, etc). I started with five tapas plates: octopus, pork cutlet, chicken meatballs, fried dumplings and tuna sushi; I passed on the pig ears and deep-fried chicken gristle. It was a filling and tasty meal and I can see why these places are so popular. Afterwards I strolled over to the Golden Gai and tried to find my friend Keiko, but was unable to remember which of the tiny bars I was in the previous night. I had several beers at other holes-in-the-wall, interacting with the owners and wandering tourists, which was enough for one night.

Tuesday was to be my day at one of the local onsen, the Japanese baths. I’d been looking forward to this experience for, oh, about 40 years, ever since I saw a photo of a young Marine on R&R from Vietnam relaxing in the Tokyo baths. And now, finally, it was my turn. The one I had chosen, and which was recommended by the tourist agency, was in the kabukicho district, near the Golden Gai area. It opened at 11 AM and I was outside, eagerly waiting to go in. I left my shoes in a locker in the outer area and went up to the reception desk to discuss the programs available with the young woman there.
She spoke perfect English, so there was no problem being understood. She told me what was on offer and I chose my program. Then she briefly went over those types of people who were not allowed in the baths, which included drunks, criminals, politicians and anyone with a tattoo. Tattoo? Anyone? Hmm, I have a couple of small tattoos, barely noticeable. I told her about them and she regretfully informed me that my 40-year wait to sample the onsen would not be satisfied at this time. I WAS BANNED FROM THE ONSEN! I couldn’t friggin’ believe it! What’s the big deal with tattoos? Damn, more and more people have them these days, so that means they are all also banned from the baths. Not a smart tourist-friendly move. Needless to say – but I’ll say it anyway – I was PISSED!

But there was no use arguing, the decision was final. No rackin’ frackin’ garbonzoed onsen for me. I put my shoes back on and shuffled out, my tail between my legs – metaphorically speaking, of course. I needed a lift after that discouraging non-experience, so I decided to have lunch at the hotel where the Godzilla head was displayed. OK, so I’d have to pay for the privilege of seeing the big guy, but what the heck, I had saved all that money by not being allowed in the baths.

I walked back to the Hotel Gracery, just a few blocks away. There was no one at the main floor reception desk, so I took the elevator to the 8th floor restaurant and hotel check-in reception area. Hmmm, no one at the restaurant check-in desk. I scurried quickly past and through a couple of doors to an outdoor terrace and there was Godzilla! Cool. Screw you, onsen people, I got in to see Godzilla anyway without paying a single yen. Actually, it was somewhat anti-climactic, but still worth the visit. I got back in the elevator for the trip down and was joined by a grandma, mother and young girl around 6-7 years old, all of them Asians. I noticed the mother gently shove the little girl toward me and the little girl then said, in perfect English, “Hello.” I responded with a “Hello” of my own and she asked me how I was. I said I was fine and thanked her and asked how she was. She was fine.

We began a dialogue that lasted perhaps 10 minutes, in the lift and then in the hotel lobby. Young Sta-she (I’m still not sure if I got her name right) and her family were visiting from Hong Kong, where they lived in Happy Valley, a place I had visited not too long ago. It was fun talking to her, as her mother and grandma didn’t speak English at all and I was pleased to connect with another traveler using a common language. A nice interlude.

On my way out of the hotel I stopped at the Krispy Kreme donut shop next door and was a very good boy, limiting myself to only two original glazed donuts. Another culinary explosion; I could get used to all the great food I was finding in Tokyo.

Continuing my quest for more and more wonderful food, I took the metro down to Shibuya and searched out the Genki Sushi shop for lunch, recommended to me by an acquaintance of mine who used to live in Tokyo. This may have been the best sushi place yet. It’s a high-tech approach to the genre. Orders are placed at each seat via a computer screen and the dish is delivered by low-speed monorail in front of each seat, on a high and low track. Drinks are brought by waitresses. You can order as much or little as you want and it all appears ready to eat at your seat. Excellent. I had seared albacore tuna with black pepper (twice, it was so good), regular tuna, minced tuna with green onions and chile, albacore tuna, salmon-flavored roll and a drink for 774 yen, or less than 8 euro. Such a deal!

A shopping stroll of the area after lunch yielded nothing new, so it was back to the hotel for shower and a quick rest. Tuesday night I decided to try and find Keiko again at Golden Gai. I was early, so stopped at Bar Champion for a beer or two. As I was slaking my initial thirst, a young Japanese woman walked up to the bar next to me and started chatting with me. I became fast friends with Yuka, who was in the publishing business and had just stopped off for a drink on her way home after work. We chatted away for a couple of hours and I even entered into the karaoke spirit and sang Blue Suede Shoes. Yuka sang her favorite song – in Japanese – and did it very nicely.
We were getting along swimmingly when several drunk, obnoxious, threatening, apparently homosexual Australians invaded the bar and spoiled the moment. Yuka left shortly thereafter and the Aussies, who had had several beers, decided to show their true colors by groping and annoying other customers – namely me. My British friends had informed me in days gone past when we encountered the same type of annoyances in Budapest that these sorts of people are called Three-Beer Queers. I sloughed off the worst of the fondling offenders and took off also. Such a shame, but I guess that’s what happens in areas like Golden Gai the world over.


Anyway, I gave Yuka my card and hoped she’d stay in touch. (NB: She did! I received an email from her when I checked my Yahoo account when I arrived home.). I stopped in Keiko’s place once again, and she still wasn’t there. I spent some time talking to an expat from Barcelona and his Japanese girlfriend, so the remainder of the night wasn’t a total loss. But I sure wish I could have gotten to know Yuka better.

Wednesday saw me metro down to Yebisu Gardens to see what that was all about. They had a brewery museum there and it turned out to be a fun day, with lots of shops and upscale restaurants. Yebisu Gardens is like an outdoor shopping mall, with trees and fountains and great places to stay and work and eat. I did the beer museum, which was fun, and had a couple of tastings; I couldn’t do the tour as it was only offered in Japanese, another Trip Advisor downcheck. I also found a Lawry’s Prime Rib there and since my last prime rib had been at the Lawry’s on La Cienega’s Restaurant Row in Beverly Hills some 35 years ago, I figured I was due again. And it was scrump-diddly-umptious! Salad and dessert bars, a perfectly prepared medium-rare prime rib, Yorkshire Pudding, creamed spinach, mashed potatoes, and a nice red wine, and only cost 4200 yen (that’s $42 for lunch!). But once again I was prostrate with culinary delight.

I seemed to be drawn back to Golden Gai most nights, so that’s where I found myself again on Wednesday night, parked outside Bar Champion, where I struck up a conversation with a Frenchman named Alex, who lived and worked in Tokyo. We chatted over a few beers, then I went to find some dinner before I once again skipped my evening meal in favor of a more hops-oriented repast. This time it was to the Black Hole yakiniku restaurant, with the same type of setup for grilling your own meat. On this occasion I sat in a booth and grilled some flank steak and veggies, accompanied by more beer. It was a nice lingering dinner. As I was strolling the area again afterwards, who should I run into in that sea of people but the three people I had talked with the other day, grandma, Mom and little Sta-she. Amazing. We chatted for a while but the crowds kept pushing us apart so we went our separate ways once again. Who knows I might see them yet again before I leave.

So, Thursday, my last full day in Tokyo. I had no specific plans for the day, but thought I might head over to Harajuku again for some breakfast at Eggs n’ Thing’s, then see if there were any great shopping streets in the area I had missed on my previous visit. Breakfast this time was a perfect Eggs Benedict, with a side of corned beef hash, which I knew I’d never find in Budapest. My taste buds were in heaven. Yum.

I walked Omotesando Street again, but nothing new caught my eye. Then I turned down a cross street and shortly was engulfed in the souvenir hotspots of the area. I found stuff for the entire family and even bought myself a Happi coat, with my name on the back in Japanese. I couldn’t seem to stop spending money! I’d walk down the street and vacuum hoses would snake out of the shops and suck money out of my pockets. Incredible! Anyway, it was a fitting final day, even if I still didn’t find all of the items I was hoping to buy.

My last dinner was at a local Chinese restaurant: chicken and red chillies, washed down with the inevitable Yebisu beer, spicy and good.

I checked out of the hotel late Friday morning and took my time getting to the airport. One stretch on the Yamanote Line to Nippori Station, then a 70-minute ride to Narita Airport, which took most of my remaining metro card credit – just as I’d planned it. When I arrived at the airport metro station, I cashed in my metro card and got nearly 1000 yen back. Damn near perfect. I futzed around the airport, checking the mostly-expensive shops to see if there were things I just couldn’t resist (there weren’t) and had a couple of light snacks while waiting for my plane. We took off on time for the 11-hour flight to Doha, during which, amazingly, I slept most of the way. A two-hour layover, which enable me to find my far-away gate without running this time, then a five-hour flight to Budapest and I was home – to a much cooler climate – 10 degrees Celsius. Murphy had to have one last snicker at me: my suitcase was almost the last one down the chute. I waited nearly 30 minutes to get my damn bag!

And that was Tokyo. An interesting experience, some highs, some lows, nowhere near as big a culture shock as I’d feared, but a lingering feeling of ambivalence overall. I’m glad I took advantage of the low-fare flight and I did enjoy everything I was able to do, but…

So, that’s it for yet another adventure. Enjoy the blog and Facebook photos, and watch this space for my next trip. Don’t know where it will be, but it has to be “…fun, fun, fun, ‘till my daddy takes the t-bird away.”

Bye for now….


Saturday, July 30, 2016

It Really is "The Happy Isle"



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 09, 2016

You Went to Bosni Hershey – where?


Come on, it’s easy. Ready?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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