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.

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!