Travels With Myself

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

Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Since then I have traveled extensively, and have been to nearly 75 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on I have made friends 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 in the past and present and hopefully will meet in the future.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Vaya Con Cerveca

I’ll start this last week early, with my Saturday trip to Tangiers, as that was the culmination of my travels. On May 16 I caught a very early bus to Algeciras, on the Mediterranean coast. I was worried about how to get to the port in time to catch a ferry to Tangiers, but my worries came to naught when I watched the bus pull into the bus station, which was located at the ferry port! I hopped off the bus, walked the 45 seconds to the ticket office, bought my ferry ticket, and walked onto the hydrofoil ferry for Tangiers. Piece of cake. A two-hour journey across the Straits of Gibraltar and I was in Morocco again, this time at a rather dirty and crowded port city. I had booked the Hotel Tanjah Flandria hotel for two nights, but one would have been enough. I had booked this hotel mainly because it advertised a rooftop swimming pool, and I envisioned several hours of lazing around in the Moroccan sunshine. Alas, it was not to be; the pool was closed for renovations. Bummer. Another well-planned trip foiled by the diabolical renovators.
Anyway, I found and walked around the souks and the Medina and the old city. I saw the Kasbah (I kept waiting to hear Charles Boyer’s voice echoing from a nearby café saying, “Come wiz me to zee Kasbah”). Plus, wonder of wonders, when I turned on Moroccan television, who should greet me (and in English yet) but The Blues Brothers. Incredible. Dinner at the hotel was overpriced, but okay.
The next day I did more wandering in the souks, and headed for the huge beach which is near the port. It had to be at least 300 meters wide and a mile long. But dirty, you know? Camels festooned the area, waiting for unwary tourist riders (of which I was not one). While I was having lunch overlooking the beach, I even saw one local lad walk out a ways on the beach, drop to his knees and then obviously urinate in the sand. Hmmm, good thing I wore only my high-top walking shoes and not sandals.
At least in the Medina I found a neat leather shoulder bag and during my two-night stay I stuffed as much couscous into my face as I could stand. Yummy.
One prominent feature of the Arabic countries I have visited is that the men gather at tables lined up along a restaurant wall where they talk and smoke water pipes and drink tea, basically just lazing away the day doing nothing. Apparently, this is the modern-day equivalent of sitting outside their tents sharpening their knives and waiting for the next attack, while the women do everything else to keep the community going. No wonder they still just have to look over their shoulder to see the Stone Age.
Two nights in Tangiers were more than enough. On Monday morning I caught another early ferry to what I thought would be Algecrias, preparatory to finding my way to Gibraltar. It turned out the ferry took about 90 minutes to get to Tarifa, a closer port city in southern Spain, where we had to board a bus for the 30-minute trip to Algeciras and the bus terminal at the port. Interesting logistics. Once there, I found out a taxi to Gibraltar would only run me 24 euros, so I thought, what the hell, and cabbed over to The Frontier, which is what the entrance to The Rock is called.
My original plans had been to spend the day in Gibraltar, seeing as much as I could during that short stay, then bus back to Seville that evening. So upon arrival I did the cable car tour up to the top of The Rock. While there I saw the Barbary apes at play. One of them jumped onto the shoulder of a poor tourist who was carrying his frightened small daughter; I also watched as another ape, upon spying a bag of crisps peeking out of the backpack of an English tourist, leaped onto the railing next to her, reached in her backpack, grabbed the bag and ripped it open with his teeth. Aggressive little buggers. The view from the top of Gibraltar is, of course, spectacular.
Upon reaching the bottom again, I planned to walk back to The Frontier along Main Street, have lunch along the way, then catch a bus back to Seville. Well, Gibraltar was just too cool. Okay, it’s like being in Oxford, but I liked it. I had a great fish and chips lunch and the shop owner recommended a hotel for me to stay the night if I was so inclined. My incline was working, and I did. The Canon was one of the few one-star hotels I have ever stayed in anywhere, but the tiny rooms were clean and the bathrooms down the hall were generally unoccupied, so it was satisfactory.
I found Pusser’s Landing, a great restaurant and bar in the marina, and downed several rum concoctions: a Pain Killer, Rum Punch, Reef Juice, Jamaican Me Crazy and Grog. Hell, I may even have had a Boat Drink in there somewhere. A good lazy afternoon. I bought a couple of Pusser’s shirts and had dinner of conch chowder and conch fritters. Mmmm, love that conch (pronounced “conk”), which I had only previously found in the Bahamas, at another Pusser’s, amazingly enough. And to make my day, it turned out the bartendress was Hungarian, so it was almost like being home, but with more sunshine and cool breezes. The next day, after a big English breakfast, I caught the 11 AM bus back to Seville.
For the rest of my final week in Spain I just relaxed. I walked around, ate sparingly and got more sun. Thursday night was my final karaoke night at Flaherty’s, and I was known as a regular by this time. I did several oldies, alone and accompanied by local women.
Late in the evening I was sitting at the bar, contemplating whether to sing again or head back to the flat, when a young, tall, blonde, very attractive Dutch girl came over and introduced herself to me. Now, it’s been a very long time since anything like that happened to me, and I must admit I was somewhat taken aback. Luisa and I chatted for awhile, and over the music and noise I thought she mentioned something about seeing her hotel. I agreed, and we chatted some more, then she said she and her friends had to get something to eat. Disappointment, naturally, but I thought we then arranged to meet the next evening. Needless to say, it never happened. Another potential adventure lost. Ah, well, I gave her my card, so who knows?
And finally, all too quickly, it was over. On May 24 I flew to Lisbon then home to Budapest around 8 PM. I entered my flat, tanned and sweaty and happy, to find my carpet gone, my plants moved out onto the balcony and all of my stuff and furniture moved around. There were also a number of still-wet towels drying on my drying rack in the living room. What the hell? I looked around and then looked up and what do you know? A large chunk of my ceiling plaster had apparently come unglued and fallen and covered my flat with dust and debris. Luckily, it had all been cleaned up by my landlords, but still. The chunk came out right where I usually sit to watch TV. Maybe things aren’t so bad after all.
So, that was my month in Spain. Good adventures, a nice relaxing time away from Budapest, new people, great food, welcoming sea breezes and a nice culture. But expensive, Gang, quite expensive.
Okay, one final note. Two days after I got back our InterNations Group had a gathering at a local Indian restaurant. I was able to hook up with many friends I hadn’t seen in while (obviously), and the evening progressed nicely, with the beer flowing and the samosa being consumed. All of a sudden I felt a small group gathered behind me. I turned around and they were all wearing red t-shirts with a really bad picture of me on them, and the caption “Everything is Gary’s fault!”
It was my welcome home present. They even had a t-shirt for me, which I donned then and there, taking off my Hawaiian shirt to the whistles and clapping of many of the other guests (a few diehards looked embarrassedly away, but I figured they didn’t know what they were missing, so to hell with them). A really nice gesture to mark my return to Hungary. Good friends – how could I ever leave here? You can see the photo on Facebook.
All for now, Readers. Take care, write me sometime, and watch this space for future events. Next trip: Montenegro.

Spanish Interlude, Weeks 2 and 3

Vamos a la Playa! On Monday, May 4, I bussed to Cadiz, just over 90 minutes south of Seville and right on the Mediterranean coast. I did the bus tour of the town, then walked around checking out the cathedral and beaches, which were extremely nice and clean and not crowded at all. Powder sand, soft and fluffy. After a lunchtime snack, I bussed down to the Playa Victoria beach and rested for a couple of hours in the sun and surf. A pretty town, but not a lot to see, so I came back to Seville around six, waited until 8 when the restaurants re-opened, had some sushi at a nearby Japanese place.
The next two days I spent setting up my Tangier hotel and Gibraltar tour, checking the Tangier ferry schedules and walking a lot. I also did a couple of museum visits: the Archivos de las Indias, a museum dedicated to Spain’s activities in the New World, which was actually fairly interesting; and the Belles Artes museum. I pre-purchased my bus tickets for Cordoba and checked out the local shopping streets. And guess what? I finally found my navy blue Blazer! After nearly four years of searching, El Corte Ingles actually had one in my exact size. No alterations needed. Finally! I even found an English-language bookstore, so I was able to replenish my stock. I had a pretty good Tex-Mex burgers and fries at the Texas Lone Star Bar near the Giralda, where I also met a nice young couple from Sydney with whom I watched an exciting Chelsea-Barcelona football match, which Barceloina won with a tying goal in the 93rd minute of penalty time. Wow!
On May 7 it was back on the bus again, this time to Cordoba. Did another 90-minute tour of the city and walked along the river, but there is really not a lot to see in this isolated city in otherwise beautiful country. For the remainder of the week I did my relaxing walks and ate and drank too much down by the riverside.

On Monday, May 11,the beginning of Week Number Three, I took the 9:30 AM bus to Granada, arriving there around 1:15 PM. As we pulled into sight of the city, I was very surprised to see snow on the nearby Sierra Nevada mountains. I taxied to my hotel, since this time it was a long walk from the bus station. My hotel room was not quite as big as my bathroom in Budapest, but adequate for all that. Granada gives the impression of a busier city than Seville, but at least the tapas were served free with your meals. And there was a lot of graffiti around, which is a shame for the city which boasts the Alhambra, another World Heritage site. Anyway, after checking in, I caught another local bus to the Alhambra, which is perched on a hill overlooking the city. I got there before the official time for my tour, so I was able to do my own unguided tour of the gardens and palaces left by the Moors.
Lonely Planet says, “The Alhambra is simply breathtaking.” Well, Faithful Readers, I gotta tell you, I had no trouble retaining my breath. The gardens are well-trimmed and pretty (although the pools were scummy and green with algae), the flowers were sweet-smelling, several of the fountains were turned off or just plain didn’t work and the decorations, as previously commented upon re: Arabic “art,” were just repetitive squiggles. In short, it was okay, but nothing to write home about. I guess once you’ve seen the pyramids and Sphinx at sunset, and the Taj Mahal at sunrise, most other sights pale into insignificance.
I spent the night in Granada, and did another bus tour the next day, but there wasn’t really anything of interest to keep me there, so I headed back to Seville in the early afternoon. Again, I spent my time in Seville walking around the city, absorbing the sights and smells and sounds. I had snacks of chocolate and churros (plain fried dough, not the sugar-covered wonders I was used to in New Mexico) at the Café Duque, and even managed to do another karaoke evening at Flaherty’s. That night the pub held its Miss Flaherty contest, and I cheered on the lovely and pleasingly busty contestants along with the other testosterone-filled and slightly inebriated males. After six Guinnesses, it was time to head off.
(Ed. Note: by this time, I had been phoneless for two weeks, and until my hotel in Granada, I hadn’t seen an English-language newscast in all that time. No newspapers, either. And you know what? The world just kept right on spinning, even without me to help it along.) So now, one more week to go - let's drag it out as much as possible.

Andalucia - Land of 10,000 Churches

Alright! An entire month in Spain; or, to be more precise, Andalucia. Southern Spain. Well, why not? Nothing to keep me in Budapest these days other than friends and social gatherings. Time to go sightseeing again, only this time for a somewhat longer period. Get to know the cities and people, take it easy seeing everything instead of rushing through a short weekend visit. So, okay, southern Spain it is.
On the Internet I found a flat rental agency that found me what turned out to be a really nice bedroom in a shared apartment in Seville. The young couple living there were the owner’s younger brother and his girlfriend. Nice kids. Plus their small black cocker spaniel Jacko. We basically passed each other during the month, as we were each mostly out of the flat when the others were in. Easy living.
Anyway, the First Week. After an afternoon flight and a four-hour layover in Lisbon, I arrived in Seville around 12:15 in the morning of April 25. A helpful taxi driver took me to the flat I had rented for the month on Calle Florencio Quintero, just north and outside of the “ring road” that circles the main part of Seville. I met my landlord, and got settled in to my bedroom, which consisted of a bed, wardrobe, desk and chair. Space was available for me in the refrigerator and bathroom, but I had to bring my own towel.
The next day, Sunday, was Sort Out Day, when I figured out what was what and how things worked and got myself orientated. Armed with an Internet Map, I walked into the center of town. Naturally, it was raining. Happy holidays! Anyway, first thing to do was figure out the buses and pick up a bus pass, a bonobus, which got me ten rides for six euros, half the single-ride price. I bought my pass at a newsstand, or Prensa. Turned out my flat was only two short blocks from a bus stop. Excellent. The rain finally let up late morning, so I had an early snack, then caught the Hop On Hop Off bus tour to see where everything was.
After that, it was lunch in the Barrio Santa Cruz, a small area next to the Alcazar palace, filled with narrow winding streets, tourist shops and restaurants. I also visited the Tourist Information Center on Avenida Constitucion and got some good local maps and lots of information about the places I wanted to visit. Extremely helpful Tourist Info people; they even had maps and information about other cities in southern Spain.
I had some tapas and beer at Bar Giralda near the Cathedral – pulpos asado (octopus Galician style), langostinos al ajo (prawns with garlic sauce), pimientos asados langostinos (roast peppers and shrimp).
The next day, Monday, I did some early food shopping, to stock my minuscule larder for the coming days. I also still had some of my bus tour left, so took it again and got off at the Maria Luisa gardens and the Plaza Espana, both of which were beautiful. Got some stamps at the Correos for my mandatory postcards, and had lunch at Boston Burger – paella with seafood. Mmmm. Got lost in the Barrio Santa Cruz – which is easy, as it contains lots of nooks and crannies, hidden tiny plazas, tapas bars and shops. Supposedly the literary character Don Juan lived here. Also saw the Tabaclero, the tobacco factory which was the setting for Carmen. Had a snack and took my siesta around 3 PM, then went to Flaherty’s Irish pub for more tapas. This restaurant/pub was one of the few places that served food and tapas right through the siesta hours. Most places closed between 3 and 8 PM, so it’s difficult to find food for early diners. At any rate, I had some tasty prawns, garlic mushrooms, bread and cider.
The week continued with morning walks into town via a different route each day. One day I passed some Roman columns and then I visited the Torre de Oro (Tower of Gold). I also managed to purchase my bullfight tickets and toured the Bullring’s museum. Lunch was, naturally, more tapas and beer. Yummy. During this first week I was also looking for the guy I was told to find – Al – Al Cazar. Turned out it’s a palace and gardens in the heart of Seville. One day there was no afternoon line at the Alcazar palace, so I walked right in for my free tour – I’m a Pensionista!
It was nice, great gardens and interesting interiors. Of course, all the decorations were made by the Moors and the Muslim religion doesn’t allow the depiction of people or animals or any living things, so the decorations are all repetitive squiggles. Really boring, nothing to catch and hold the eye. After a late afternoon snack of tapas at Flaherty’s, I wandered over to the bull ring around 5:30 or so on Tuesday. Had a beer at a crowded pub just behind the bullring, then bought a seat cushion on the way in (which was sorely needed, as I found out).
The nearby bars were packed with drinking men, many of whom were outfitted in their Caballero and Gaucho costumes. They were accompanied by women decked out in their flamenco dresses for the Feria de Abril (April Fair). The Seville Plaza de Toros, the oldest bullring in the world, holds 13-14,000 people. I found my seat and put my cushion down, being careful to situate it directly over the number on the cement. As the ring filled up, an older man eased in next to me, looked down at my cushion and, as he babbled at me in his machine-gun Spanish, he assertively bent down and adjusted my cushion, moving it one inch toward me. How those people can talk so fast in that heat I’ll never know.
But I did find out why the bullring’s seating space is so tightly regulated by the fans: if you put twice as many sardines in a can as usual, that was what it was like sitting in that bullring. Talk about squashed together! Anyway, I made two new friends very quickly. I barely had room to raise my arms and take photos. Plus many of the men seemed to think it was macho at the bullfights to smoke cigars – yucchh! The fights themselves were okay that night, but there were too many bad bulls, and only one good matador out of the six fights, but it was still a fun experience. Everything finished around 9:30 PM, and I headed home as I was going on my first bus trip in the morning.
On Wednesday, April 29, I caught an early bus to Ronda, one of the White Cities. These cities are mostly built in the hills and are generally painted white. Ronda was no exception, except that, spanning the gap between the old and new parts of the city, it has a “new” bridge (built in the 18th century). The small city was mostly just pretty touristy. I looked in vain for the pub frequented by Miguel de Cervantes, but to no avail. I finally had lunch at a nice restaurant on a side street. I thought I may have sat in Cervantes’ chair, even though mine was decidedly plastic. Ah, well. I bussed back to Seville around 5:30.
The next day I checked out the Triana district, across the river from the main part of Seville. Then I followed some guidebook advice and went to the Casa Antonio for lunch, where I ordered the recommended dish of caracoles, which are teeny tiny little snails, the biggest of which were about the size of my thumbnail. I actually ate 155 of these minuscule snacks; yep, I counted them just to be sure. The restaurant, as does most of them in Seville, brought out a bread basket without my ordering, so naturally I presumed it was free. Silly me, nothing is free in Seville. They charged me for it, as did all of the other restaurants in town. Tacky. That night was karaoke night at Flaherty’s, so naturally I joined in, rocking and rolling with the oldies. Karaoke bars love new singers, so I was welcomed with open beer taps.
After the May 1 holiday, during which everything was closed, I managed to sort out my future Alhambra visit on the Internet and then did the Torre de Oro. It was only one euro, and the museum of old ships and paraphernalia was interesting, but the view from the top of this circular riverside tower made the climb worthwhile. I had another paella lunch near the Catedral, took my siesta, then headed off for my Famenco evening at El Tablao Arenal. Damn, those people work hard at their dancing and singing and guitar strumming. Sweat popped off their faces as they stomped and twirled around the stage, but it was curiously unmoving, at least for me. Just a lot of stomping and banging and noise. Guess I’ll never be Spanish.
May 3, Sunday, was a perfect day for the Arab Baths. After an early lunch of tapas, I headed off for my aromatherapy and massage and general sybarite’s delight at the well-hidden Arab Baths in central Seville. I love these places, and visit them wherever I can, and this one was no disappointment. Moody, soft lighting, warm/hot/cold pools, resting areas and a wonderful massage that left me tingly and relaxed. A great experience, leaving me rested and ready for the rest of my vacation.