Monday, October 27, 2008

September vacation - part 2

So, after a meager breakfast at “the lodge”, we got back in the car to head for Budapest. Mike suggested we visit the castle Visegrád along the way, since we could not check in at our hotel until early afternoon. This castle is a nice blend of preserved areas and reconstructed areas/museum. After the Mongol invasion, King Béla IV of Hungary and his wife had a new fort/castle constructed on the upper hill on the right bank of the Danube. This was built in the 1240-50s, near one that had been destroyed earlier. It has undergone some additions and changes since then, obviously.

From there, we drove into Budapest to check in at our hotel. Based on the previous day’s experience, we were not too confident but it turned out to be a decent hotel. It was clean, recently renovated, and in a good location. It was an Ibis hotel, which is a French chain (part of Accor) having hotels at reasonable prices all over Europe. You can check them out here. It was just a few minutes’ walk from Heroes Square, which is a large (the largest?) square in Budapest, and also near the large City Park with its many attractions (castle, museum, baths, zoo…). There is a subway stop nearby, which made the rest of the city easily accessible. I should say something here about the transit system in Budapest, because it is fantastic. Budapest’s network of public transport services includes buses, trolleybuses, trams, underground trains (Metró) and over ground suburban trains (HÉV). Buses, trams and trolleybuses run daily from 4.30 a.m. until 11.00 p.m, sometimes as frequently as two minutes apart. You don’t buy tickets from a conductor or a driver – you buy your ticket at a station and then you have it validated. A conductor or ticket agent can ask to see your ticket at any time, but I don’t think we actually saw anyone checking. You can buy a single ride ticket, or a ticket that is good for all methods of transport for a specific amount of time. It’s quite a good system. I didn’t see any paper maps of the transportation system available, but they are on every station wall and every train, bus, etc., and they are easy to read. But you can also go here for more information.
Also, traffic is pretty bad so I don’t recommend taking a taxi or driving, unless you have to.

Budapest is lovely: beautiful buildings, interesting history, good food*, good museums, nice people…we’ll definitely go back. *But don’t eat at the Ibis hotel. Breakfast was mostly edible, but dinner was not good—it just went straight from a package to a microwave to our plates. But considering that everything else in the area was booked for dinner, beggars can’t by choosy…. The night before, we ate a yummy dinner at a place called the Owl’s Nest. You should go there! It’s near the fine arts museum and city park, around the corner from its pricier cousin, Gundel.

We also dragged poor Ceil, who had a terrible headcold, out to the hinterlands for a food festival where Joe and I ate a potato pancake so huge and delicious it should be illegal. This festival is called the Etyek Kezes-lábos, or the Etyek Gastronomic Festival. It bills itself as a slow-food festival, and although we didn’t see evidence of that, the food on offer was good and so were the wines (if a bit overpriced).

I won’t add much more here. It’s better if you go to the flickr site, where you can see pictures and also some more comments, including information about a great tour we took in Budapest.

September vacation - part 1

So, now I will tell you a bit about our vacation. In Croatia, we decided to stay on the mainland. We had thought about going to one of the islands, but the ferry schedule in September requires you to get up at 5 a.m., and we decided that none of us would be up for that (in either sense of the phrase). So, after some online searching we booked an apartment in a private house in Promajna, on the Makarska Riviera (across from the tip of Hvar). The house was about 500 meters from the sea, just up on the hillside. The beaches are beautiful there—small pebbles for the most part with an easy walk into the sea; the water is pristine (but wear shoes), there are cute little bars and cafes right on the beach, with showers and cabanas are conveniently spaced along the length of it. Pine trees grow on the beach providing some natural shade and also make it look very different from what you think of when you imagine a beach – no run-of-the-mill palm trees here. And the big gray mountain, Biokovo, looms over that whole part of the coastline. When you are in the sea, you have a great view of the beach with the pine trees, a little white church up on the hillside, and Biokovo in the background contrasted against the blue sky…it’s really very pretty. I’d go back there again in a second. Well, in season anyway. I hear it’s harsh in the winter. The only unfortunate bits are:
A: the food was nothing to write home about, as they say. But it’s worth blogging about…for the purpose of complaining. With all of that seafood right on their doorstep, most restaurants should be a bit ashamed that they don’t offer more of a selection. But if you personally were going to buy fish in the morning off of the fishermen and cook it later that day, that would let you get around that problem. We seemed to have that getting up early problem, though, combined with the fact that it took us a few days to discover where you had to go to meet the fishermen. Oh well, another time. And the wine offering – same complaint. Good wine is made not very far away, and what they were serving in the restaurants was poor.
B: On the islands you have all of these postcard-perfect little towns, each with a main square where you can linger over coffee, surrounded by beautiful old buildings, or opposite the sea…unfortunately this area on the mainland is not all like that. Oh, there are cute little squares and such, but it’s more congested and feels large-scale tourist-y (big hotels, etc). But of course we expected this, and so with that in mind, I have to say it was not disappointing.

We stopped for the night in Nin on the way down, which was cute. The beaches were not nice (trash!), but there was a very good restaurant just across from that mini-cathedral they’ve got there, so we had a great dinner. And we also made a pit-stop in Trogir, which is a place we like very much. It’s got charm and beauty by the bucketful. It’s a must-see in the area.

By the time we left, after a week of absolutely gorgeous, hot, sunny weather, the tide was turning. A storm came through on our last night that left the entire area soggy and cold – it was about 20 degrees colder by the time we got back to Ljubljana! We were all freezing.

But we put up our umbrellas, put on our scarves and sweaters, and strolled around Ljubljana for the next couple of days. We also made a trip to Lake Bled, but were out of the car for only a few minutes when it started to rain (never mind that it was already blowing a gale and we were cold despite having worn lots of wooly things). Besides, you couldn’t see anything on account of the cloud cover. It’s a good thing that Lake Bled is on absolutely every tourist site or brochure even remotely connected with Slovenia, so that Joe and Ceil could see what it looks like under normal conditions.

After a few days’ rest and roaming around Ljubljana, the plan was to drive to Hungary. Joe and Ceil have a dear old friend, Mike, whom they hadn’t seen in 10+ years and we wanted to drive out to visit him. He lives about an hour north of Budapest. We spoke with him several times over the phone, and he was kind enough to give us directions (we hadn’t bothered to get a map of that part of Hungary—we figured we would just follow what he told us to do) and also to book a hotel room for us at a place near his house. Well. Those two small details sound so insignificant now, but in hindsight they prove we were a couple of morons. Let me explain the drive in brief. It should have taken about six hours to drive from Ljubljana to meet Mike in the small city of Esztergom. But the roads he sent us on were “highways” in name only. In fact they would be described more aptly as country roads. But the fact that they were small roads did not discourage the trucks from driving on them – it was one lumbering vehicle after another (all of them ahead of us!). And for sheer boredom, this ride can’t be beaten. It’s as flat as Kansas and equally riveting (nothing but crops on either side of the road). I would, however, go back there again if it were summertime. Why on earth?!? Because these crops are sunflowers. As far as the eye can see, there is field after field of sunflowers. I’ll bet it’s breathtaking. Unfortunately they were all brown and dried up by the time we drove through.

But I digress. We were supposed to meet Mike at Esztergom cathedral, in the parking lot, at about 1:30. But since we drove there by way of the wagon trail, we did not arrive at the cathedral until after 5:00. I should mention that Esztergom cathedral is absolutely, mid-bogglingly, eye-poppingly big. But the parking lot was deserted. And we hadn’t eaten all day, since we were supposed to meet Mike in Esztergom for lunch. Or perhaps dinner, given the late hour? So we skipped looking at the cathedral and then Mike met us in the parking lot. Hugs and hellos finished, Mike explained that we should follow him to his house, and then we would go right to the hotel where he had arranged for us to have dinner.

So. We stuff our stiff limbs back into the car and follow him. More single-lane roads. More dead sunflowers. We were all getting crankier by the minute. I think it took about six and a half years to get to Mike’s house, but my estimation may be off slightly. I was starving and things were hazy. But we finally got to his house, had a mini-tour, met his puppy, his niece, and then got back in the car. We drove through villages that looked as though they hadn’t changed much in 50 years (and probably won’t change much more in another 50). Then, driving on increasingly smaller roads, eventually we took a side road into the woods. We drove past several groups of small cabins (Ceil:“We’d better not be staying there!) and then to the end of the road. Then we turned down another smaller road and pulled up in front of what looked like a large lodge. Since there was nothing else in the area except trees, we figured that was the place. Sure enough, Mike got out of the car, and we went inside. He got us checked in and we went up to our rooms. They were freezing, and had no visible bed linens. We pointed this out to Mike, and he said that he would talk to the manager, and went with us to the dining room. They, thankfully, brought our dinner out right away, along with a much-needed bottle of wine. Dinner was a bit meager after not having eaten all day (just a chicken leg and a side of potatoes), but it was edible so it disappeared quickly. By this time it was about 7:30 or so. We wandered out to the bar area, but no one was there. Mike said that if we wanted something else we had better tell them now since they were closing for the night (!). We opted not to, with the selection being about as spare as dinner had been. We sat in semi-darkness in a small area next to the bar and chatted for a bit, but then Mike wanted to get on the road and drive home. So, there being nothing else to do, and it was getting late (8:00!) we figured we would go to our rooms. They were still freezing—apparently heat is not available in September. We asked for some more blankets, and the manager brought us each a blanket about the size and thickness of a tea towel. We figured this was going to be a long night in more ways than one.

Joe and I started to head downstairs to get a few things from the car (warm clothing…) and just catch the managers/owners as they are locking up. Locking up behind themselves. LOCKING US IN. FOR THE NIGHT. Joe yelled after them as we rushed down the stairs, “Wait! I have to get something from my car!” Scowling, they came back in and grudgingly unlocked a side door so we could run out to the car and grab a few things. Then they locked us back in again and left.

But since the cat’s away…..we immediately raided the armoires in the cavernous hallway upstairs and Joe found some musty, but thick, blankets. We split these up between our rooms and decided to watch TV, which each room (surprisingly) had. It was only about a 12” set (Color!! Things were looking up!) but, alas, no remote, the colors were a strange technicolor orange, and there were only four channels (all Hungarian). But we’ve been well-trained by our years in Slovenia (our motto for most outings to anywhere not in a major tourist center: “Prepare to be disappointed!). So, I put on my scarf and went to sleep.

As usual, photos are on flickr.

Next entry: On to Budapest!

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Well, what do you know...

...there's something new here!

Hi! I guess I am realizing that I either have (or make) no time to update this blog. Sorry about that.

I have added pictures recently, though (on the flickr site). You can click on the last post and it will take you there.

There are some new pictures from the island Cres, in Croatia. At the end of June/beginning of July we went there with some of Joe’s students. One of them has an apartment there, and we stayed with her. The weather was perfect, the food was fantastic, and the company was great. We had a lot of fun and visited the really charming little village of Lubenica, we picked lots of wild herbs, and met some great people.

We also went for a weekend to Goriska Brda, which is the wine growing region in the western part of Slovenia. We went with another couple (Slovene) who, surprisingly, had not previously spent any real time in that area. I say “surprisingly” because they are really into wine, and this is the region where most of the good stuff comes from. And it’s gorgeous – rolling hills, the geometric patterns created by the lines of vines, fields of crops, the mountains in the distance – these all combine to make it one of the most beautiful places one can possibly visit. Our friends were impressed.

And there might be a few miscellaneous pictures from other times of this past summer. Everything is grouped by date.

We also had a visit from Joe and Ceil (hi! If you’re reading this..) which was a lot of work on their part, it being such a long trip, but it was really great to see them. We spent a week in Croatia (by the sea) and a few days in Ljubljana, and then in Budapest. I will write about that at another time, though. I promise. And as soon as I get pictures from Joe and Ceil, I will put them onto Flickr.

Right now I am back in the U.S. because I didn’t feel like I had had enough vacation after those three weeks I mentioned above, so I came here. Kidding, of course. Actually, I had to come and help resolve the current financial crisis. And to try to sell this bridge that has been in my family for years and years.

Seriously, I am here for my father’s knee surgery. Not in a surgical capacity (if you thought that, see previous offer for bridge).

In case you are not following this saga, in a nutshell, the infection that invaded my father’s body last spring (prompting my earlier trip here) took up residency in his artificial knee. Uninvited, of course. And as if that bit of house-squatting wasn’t enough, the infection’s little children decided the knee wasn’t posh enough for them. Too cramped? They wanted to get out of their hometown and spend a year backpacking through the circulatory system? (I hear it’s lovely in the spring) Who knows. Anyway, they emerged en masse, visiting the kidneys, the liver, all the hot spots…and, like so many teenagers on their first trip without their parents, wreaking general havoc along the way. They even invited their friend MRSA to join the party. So, the knee had to be removed. It was replaced with a very unfriendly piece of cement (which had been impregnated with antibiotics) which has been sitting in place of my father’s knee for the past two months. Now that it seems certain (knock wood) that the infection is completely gone, he is going back to the hospital to get his squeaky clean new knee. Because Michele had already taken off so much time from work to deal with all of the previous problems, we thought it was best if I came for this stint. So now we are just waiting for transport to RW Johnson, where he will be deposited into room 752 for this last leg of this journey (No pun intended. Well, maybe a little intended...) Then he will come back to the rehab center (where we are now) for physical therapy, and then back home at some point thereafter. I am sure it is going to be a painful recovery, but hopefully once it’s done, that’s the end of these troubles for him. On the positive side, he has lost LOTS of weight, and looks great!

Well, I will end here. I will post another update soon. Really. I have loads of time at the moment. You probably won’t even have time to read it all.

Ciao for now