July 14, 2019

Buda castle

Dateline: Budapest, Hungary.

They made me get off the boat this morning as I had not paid for the next two weeks where the MS Esprit continues down the Danube all the way to the Black Sea. I’m planning on the river cruise down the lower Danube at some point, but doing the two trips back to back would likely be a little much. Two to three weeks is about as much as I can afford to be away at the moment without some sort of major life catastrophe taking a hand and I’ve had quite enough of those lately.

I took a quick cab ride up castle hill to the Castle Hilton Budapest which will be my home for the next three nights, allowing me to do a little more exploring of the city and start taking myself out of River Cruise rhythms before heading back to the usual grind. The hotel is right next door to the cathedral, next to the fisherman’s bastion. It’s built into the remains of an old monastery with a new wing of Soviet brutalistic architecture rather unfortunately facing the river. It’s directly across from the parliament building and, being up on the hill, has one of the best views in town. However, as I am not a gazillionaire and am paying for the stay with Hilton points, I am not in one of the nice rooms with a view. I’m on the opposite side of the building with a lovely view of the taxi stand and the building across the street.

Castle hill – Fisherman’s bastion and cathedral

As it was only 9 AM, my room wasn’t ready so I dropped off the luggage and spent some time exploring castle hill. I went to the Buda palace, now the Hungarian art museum and spent a couple of hours with the collection. The permanent collection is mainly 19th century genre painting, often featuring a Hapsburg or two repelling a howling Ottoman horde. This museum is dedicated to Hungarian fine arts. The masters from other countries are in the Fine art museum which I’ll get to later this week. They were having a special exhibition on the origins of Surrealism from 1919-1929 with a number of representative works and some of the experimental films Luis Bunel and Man Ray did during that period. The clip from Un Chien D’Andalou did not include THAT scene. I was rather taken with L’age d’or which I had certainly heard about over the years but had never actually seen footage from.

Danube shoe sculpture

Then it was down the hill via a cute little turn of the last century funicular and a walk across the Chain Bridge to the Danube promenade. This included a sobering moment with the famous shoe sculpture (a series of bronze shoes in 1940s style, all different as if people had just stepped out of them. It’s a memorial to the Jews and others murdered by the collaborationist Arrow death squads who were shot on the Danube promenade and then thrown into the waters to get rid of the body. This led me to the Parliament building itself, even more impressive close up. Then back through the shopping district to the basilica of St Stephen. At this point, it started to rain so I repaired to a cafe for a while, waiting for it to pass. Eventually it did, so I made my way back up Castle Hill for a nap.

After a snooze, out for some dinner and a little poking through the stores up here on the hill although the selection isn’t much. All the real shopping is on the other side of the river. Per my pedometer, it worked out to about eleven miles today so my legs and feet are a bit sore.With the intermittent thunderstorms all day (very Deep South), the sunset was lovely and I repaired back to the room afterward. I’m busy watching Hollywood Rom Coms dubbed into Hungarian. I don’t know if the language barrier is helping or harming them.

July 13, 2019

Hungarian Parliament – Budapest

Dateline: Budapest, Hungary

I woke up this morning to find us still cruising down the Danube. The terrain had changed to flat agricultural land with occasional villas on the river bank or at a distance across the fields. I had my usual oatmeal breakfast and went up on deck with my rain gear as we had had intermittent thundershowers all morning. The dwellings began to grow thicker on the embankments, showing we were heading into a metropolitan area and then we rounded a curve in the river and, appearing out of the mists were the sights of Budapest, dominated by the huge neogothic dome and spires of the Hungarian parliament. The appearance of that building through the rain showers will always stay with me it was simply breathtaking.

Half an hour later, we were tied up on the riverbank in Budapest and we were herded aboard our buses for our introductory tour of the city. Budapest is the conflation of two ancient cities, Buda on the hilly west bank of the Danube and Pest on the flat east bank. We started with a look see at Pest then crossed the river to Buda for a stop at the cathedral and the hill overlooks of the town. I think I’ve added another European city to my list of favorites. Every where you look there’s another stunning view or amazing piece of pre-war Art Nouveau architecture. I could spend days just strolling the boulevards and eating in the cafes pretending that Georg and Amalia are at the next table before returning to Maracek’s.

Great Market Hall – Budapest

I had chicken paprikash for lunch (what else) and then wandered through some of the markets on the Pest side of the river. I could have stayed out all evening but it is the last night on board the MS Esprit so I figured I better show up for dinner so it was back to the ship for cocktails, a long leisurely dinner with shipboard acquaintances and too much wine, and then karaoke night in the lounge. (I sang Don’t Tell Mama which I figured would at least make people laugh). I’m going to miss shipboard life. The leisurely pace, the nice people (both fellow passengers and staff). The company I am traveling with, Tauck, does not advertise (unlike Viking) and gets its clientele by word of mouth and travel agent recommendation. It keeps them from having too many ugly Americans (if you know what I mean) on board. Everyone has been very congenial.

Tomorrow I leave the ship, but not Budapest. I’ve booked three nights at the Hilton next door to the cathedral up on the hill on the Buda side of the river. What will I do with my three days in Hungary? I’ll make it up as I go along. The city feels fairly carefree and I’m going to try to take it’s pulse as I am well aware of Viktor Orban and his push towards authoritarian rule and fascism. This may be somewhat difficult given my complete lack of Hungarian language skills. German and English seem to be spoken on the streets fairly frequently and I have some of the former and quite a lot of the latter so that should tell me a bit about what’s going on.

No particular stories are coming to mind tonight. I’ll see if Budapest, the occasional czardas, or a dip in a Turkish bath actually built by the Ottoman Turks jogs something loose later this week.

July 12, 2019

Bratislava, Slovakia

Dateline: Bratislava, Slovakia

We left Vienna about breakfast time this morning and started the forty mile trip to Bratislava. For the first time in two weeks, the weather was left than perfect with rain showers all morning. It was a rather nice change watching the rain squalls drop their fat little drops into the Danube. It made me feel rather sleepy: gray and rainy days often do. So, I kept nodding off in the lounge while I was trying to do scene study on Choir Boy. I don’t have the lines yet, but I am starting to find the shapes of scenes and character moments.

We arrived in Bratislava around lunch time. It was my first time in a former Soviet bloc nation and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I had some vague expectations of drab architecture and women in babushkas but Bratislava is a dynamic modern city. Even if the country is somewhat behind on the development curve, the city is doing very well due to its proximity to Vienna and its much lower labor costs. All sorts of multinational firms have moved in and the city is busy upgrading itself and trying to restore its prewar appearance. It has the feel of a gentrifying US industrial city that is being reborn. It’s the closest feeling place to Birmingham so far.

Bratislava old town

The old town is a mix of Renaissance era gothic and baroque and full of winding little cobblestone streets. The historic buildings are all either refurbished or in the process of being redone and there are significant government programs to return property to private ownership and to restore property rights confiscated under Soviet rule. The one thing they haven’t been able to fix yet is the motorway running across the front porch of the cathedral (a particularly petty punishment in response to the failed revolution of 1968). The Soviets put in a new bridge across the Danube and demolished the Jewish quarter and nearly took out the cathedral for the access road.

The usual walking tour, including the bishop’s palace (with a superb collection of 16th century English tapestries that were apparently found rolled up behind a wall when a recent renovation was done. The rain ceased about ten minutes after we started and it was very nice the rest of the day. Then some cafe time, a little shopping, and a nice dinner. I skipped the castle as I didn’t feel like the 700 steps up the hill. There’s one thing about Europe – like my old house, no stair master necessary. The castle is a modern restoration. The original burned in 1811 and was a ruin until a few decades ago.

Main square, Bratislava

I’ve bought a couple of teddy bears from various destinations. Those who have been to one of my holiday open houses will know why. It’s not quite the same without the two of us, but the bear tradition will live on. Most of my other purchases have been postcards. I’ve also bought some little prints and watercolors of some of the towns I’ve passed through and I’ll have those framed and added to the walls at home after I get back. The last thing I’ve been collecting has been copies of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone in various languages. Tommy was a huge Potter fan and was working on some of his European languages using translations so I’ve decided to add to the collection. I can make out some general sense in Slovak but I can’t figure out how to pronounce any of it.

We’re now steaming down the Danube. I can hear thunder outside but I’m nice and warm; Casablanca is on the television and all is right for the moment. Buadpest tomorrow, disembarkation the next day, then a couple of free days to explore before returning to the usual workaday.

July 11, 2019

Vienna, Austria

Dateline: Vienna, Austria –

The ship spent both last night and tonight tied up to the Danube docks so we could all have a full day to explore Vienna. I have been here before and am well aware that it takes a lot more than a day to see a city of some three million people and centuries of history. Fortunately, I have been here before so there was plenty of been there, done that in my planning out my day and I didn’t try to squeeze everything in. I think what I need to do with some of my favorite cities such as Vienna and Barcelona and London, is just get a round trip ticket and a hotel room for ten days or so and just immerse myself. I was looking at the first week of November for a vacation, but I just got a call from an attorney and they’ve scheduled a trial I need to testify at right in the middle of that week. They’ve already switched dates and canceled on me a couple of times so I fully expect to do that again. I’ll schedule the week off, perhaps, and make it a staycation or a jaunt to Chicago or NYC instead.

Schonbrunn Palace

After breakfast, on the bus for a driving tour of central Vienna, mainly involving the famous Ringstrasse with all the gorgeous 19th century buildings. Franz Joseph may not have been the wisest of rulers, but he knew how to let his city planners and architects transform medieval Vienna into a city of wide boulevards, imposing public buildings and art nouveau apartment houses. The bus ended up in the southwest end of the city at Maria Theresa’s summer palace, Schonbrun, which is the Austrian answer to Versailles. Last time I was here, I remember going to Schonbrun, the famous yellow color of the palace, the baroque gardens, but nothing of the palace interior. Maybe I didn’t go in. It’s been 35 years. Anyway, did the interior tour this time through the state apartments, mainly laid out by Maria Theresa but redecorated and rejiggered a few times by her successors. Most of imperial Vienna seems to have gotten stuck in the 1870s and 1880s when the Emperess Elizabeth, or Sisi as she was known, reigned supreme. She seems to have head the last word on decor and fashion but I’m not always certain as to her taste.

Vermeer’s The Art of Painting

The bus brought us back in to central Vienna and dropped us at the art museum and basically said you have until 8 am tomorrow – have fun. I went looking for an opera or theater production to go to but everything seems to be on summer hiatus as they all prepare for the Salzburg festival. So, I went to the art museums (which contains one of my favorite works of visual art – Vermeer’s The Art of Painting) as well as most of the Breugels you’ve ever heard of. It runs high to Reubens, who is not my favorite, but there are a couple of good Caravaggios to make up for it. I skipped the Natural History Museum. Been there. And headed for the Hofburg instead and took a look at the crown jewels (included with my art museum ticket). I did not tour Sisi’s apartments. I do remember those from my last trip and thought their Victorian excesses need not be seen more than once in a lifetime.

The Hofburg – Central Vienna

Then it was down through the main shopping district for some window shopping. I went into Armani and Versace – I always do, but could find nothing worth the exorbitant price tags. I ended up at the cathedral, yet another huge gothic edifice. The last time I was in Vienna, I was here over a Sunday so I went to mass at the cathedral. I figured I should see one in action. I went to the traditional Latin service rather than the German (as thanks to four years of high school Latin, I understand it rather better than my two quarters of college German lets me understand it). It was magnificent with the pomp and pageantry and the organ and a full symphony orchestra playing the musical passages. If you’re ever in a European cathedral town on a Sunday, by all means go.

After dinner in a cafe and some people watching, I struck out for the Prater and did a couple of things I haven’t done in decades, such as walking down the midway eating cotton candy. I also went on a couple of rides including a spook house. They’ve become much more technologically advanced since my youth with some very good mechanical and make up effects but the point is still to give girl teens an excuse to scream and cling on to their dates when things go ‘Boo’. It happens in Austria as well as the US.

Then back to the ship. Pushing 20,000 steps today so I’m tired and going to bed early. We leave for Bratislava in the morning.

July 10, 2019

Melk Abbey

Dateline: Vienna, Austria

It’s been a long and eventful day, culminating with a very nice evening in one of my three favorite European cities (the other two being London and Barcelona). I forgot to set my alarm this morning, so I overslept by a significant amount and woke up ten minutes before I was supposed to be in the foyer to meet the group. I was not an intern for nothing, I made it with several minutes to spare. We were docked in the small town of Melk, Austria. I knew nothing about Melk, other than the character Adso of Melk from The Name of the Rose. (I read the novel in college – everyone did in the mid 80s and I remember going to see the film on a date with Teresa Mosteller back during med school days.). Adso is the Christian Slater part, a role that exists so William of Baskerville can talk to him and provide the reader/audience with all of the necessary exposition. From that, I expected Melk to be another cramped medieval town with an abbey. I was wrong.

Melk is like a miniature version of Passau (which itself isn’t so large). All baroque buildings (replacing earlier medieval and gothic structures) and dominated by an enormous baroque fantasia of an abbey and church perched on a crag high above the town. (It is a bit of climb to reach it). The abbot in the early 18th century had all the original buildings pulled down as old fashioned and created his new monument to god in the new style. The edifice remains a working monastery and abbey with a community of thirty some monks (none in evidence) who still administer the building, grounds and surrounding parishes whose primary income now comes from tourism. There is also an active middle/high school on the premises with more than 900 students. They were also not in evidence. I assume they were on summer break.

The library at Melk abbey

The tour of the abbey and grounds included a museum portion. (Not very exciting – the usual reliquaries, monstrances, croziers and medieval paintings of saints and madonnas), a stunning library (which took me back to The Name of the Rose again), and the church itself with more marble, gilded cherubs, frescoes ceilings, and other rococo touches than you could shake a stick at. The gardens adjoining, also perched on the crag above the Danube valley, were also lovely and ranged from a baroque formal garden with clipped topiary to delicately arranged wild gardens of tamed forest and beds of shade plants with meandering gravel paths. Lovely views out over the countryside as well. Very reminiscent of the opening helicopter shots in the credits sequence of The Sound of Music.

Back down the hill and back on the boat. (There really isn’t anything else in Melk but the abbey) and off we steamed into the Wachau valley of the Danube. It’s a place where the river cuts through the foothills of the Alps so fairly steep mountains hem in the river with little villages clining to the few places they can be built. One of them is Willendorf (as in Venus of) so it’s been occupied for about 30,000 years. Lots of terraced vineyards and orchards clinging to the sides of hills. The major products appear to be wine and apricots.

Durnstein – Wachau Valley

After leaving the Wachau, the scenery became much less interesting, wider plains with various levels of agriculture, occasionally broken by a riverside industrial plant so I took a nap until it was time to dress for dinner. We docked just outside of Vienna and were told to put on our best for a Viennese night out. We were bussed into downtown Vienna to an address just off the Hofburg, across the street from the Kaiser Josefplatz called the Palais Palavicini. It’s an 18th century nobleman’s house, still occupied by the family, but they let out the formal rooms for events so up the grand staircase to a lovely 18th century banquet hall for dinner with live music, singers, dancers from the Staatsoper ballet on a summer side gig, and far too much wine and champagne. It was really quite lovely (and not the kind of thing one expects from this sort of tour – but Tauck tries to do things up right) but the night was a bit warm and there is a distinct lack of central air in 18th century town residences.

Dinner out in Vienna

Bus back to the ship, a digestif and ready for bed. I don’t have a story tonight, but rather a rumination. As we were driving the not very interesting highway into Vienna with my usual empty seat beside me (I’m the only person in the group travelling alone), I was wondering what Steve or Tommy might have made of the trip. Tommy and I had been talking about a Rhine Danube cruise together for a year or so before he died but we could never get the timing to work out with his three varied jobs and their odd calendars. He would have liked the ship and the pace of the trip as it would have been fine with his respiratory and orthopedic issues. He would have had acerbic comments on the food and on some of the entertainments offered (as those were both areas of expertise). I think he would have enjoyed learning more about German and Austrian culture but would have stopped sight seeing about the third Gothic cathedral. He was never a big sight seer. He was much more about the people to people piece of traveling. I probably could have parked him in an apartment in Amsterdam or Budapest for two weeks and then met up with him after the trip and he would have been happy going to the local shops and cafes and getting to know the locals and their routines. Steve, on the other hand, would have been bouncing out of bed every morning raring to go and ready to see something new. He would also have been incredibly frustrated at the lack of English language signage. (‘How am I supposed to read that?’ would have come from his lips about ten times a day). We’re in a part of Europe where most people speak some English but he would still have been miffed at their lack of an American accent. Steve and I never got the chance to travel abroad other than Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. I am both sad and grateful for this. On his bad days, he could elevate the ugly American stereotype into George Carlinesque poetry and guess who would have gotten the brunt. Eventually I’ll find a new travelling companion of some sort (applications are open – I’m thinking the big 2020 trip will be in April). In the meantime, I can keep myself reasonable company.

July 9, 2019

Passau, Germany

Dateline: Passau, Germany and Northern Austria

I woke up this morning to find the boat tied up quayside in the lovely little university town of Passau, just over the border from Austria, located where the Danube meets two major tributaries, the Inn and the Ilz. As it was 7 AM and we weren’t due to arrive in town until after 9 AM, we obviously made good time last night, A lot of other river boats made good time too as we were tied up three abreast at the docks. We weren’t going to be in town very long so I decided to skip the formal guided tour and set out exploring on my own.

The main part of the town is basically built on a sandbar between the Danube and Inn rivers. The Romans, who originally settled the area, had wisely not placed their city their due to the propensity to flood, but later, during the Holy Roman Empire, they had better flood control systems and people moved off the high ground and onto the river plain. There was a flourishing medieval town for hundreds of years that grew quite rich from the river trading routes. The local pooh-bah, an archbishop I believe, decided that the gothic architecture of the middle ages was far too old fashioned for someone of his wealth and stature. A mysterious fire then happened in the mid 1600s leveling pretty much everything and when it came time to rebuild, they went for baroque. The central city on its spit of land is a jewelbox of baroque architectural styles, all painted various candy pastels and culminating the cathedral whose baroque lines and rococo interior must be seen to be believed.

It didn’t take me more than a few hours to explore town (it’s not very big). I happened upon a large used book store which occupied me for a while. I bought a couple of prints. I can read a little German so I perused, picking out words here and there and bought two books about the structure, politics, and art of the German Kabarett (which will be useful for a couple of upcoing projects. I’ll have to get Diane McNaron to do some translating.

Organ – Passau cathedral

At noon, the cathedral had an organ concert showing off their enormous organ system (actually five interlocked organs playable from a single console , nearly 18,000 pipes and ranks in the nave, both transepts and the ceiling. When everything is going at once, it’s very much surround sound. The concert started with Tocotta and Fugue in D minor by Bach (of course) and included a few other pieces as well. Then it was back to the ship for yet another sausage lunch and then one more last walk before weighing anchor and heading into Austria.

The little towns along the river all look like shots from the title sequence to the Sound of Music as we continue to glide by and run through the occasional lock, down stream this time. Our entertainment tonight was a piano/violin/cello trio playing three centuries of Austrian music. They weren’t very good (and I wasn’t about to tell them that Edelweiss is about as Austrian as Chevrolet). I’d had a third cocktail so someone convinced me to sing with the lounge pianist (a very nice Australian lady named Margie). I think I made it through Night and Day.

And so to bed. First Austrian stop in the morning. No story tonight. Too tired.

July 8, 2019

The stone bridge across the Danube leading to Regensburg

Dateline: Regensburg, Germany and points east.

We crossed over from the Main-Danube canal into the Danube sometime when I was sleeping and made our first stop on that river at the town of Regensburg this morning. The Danube, despite Johan Strauss’s propaganda, is not a beautiful blue, not even this close to its source. It’s more of a muddy green/brown but as I have no intentions of swimming in it, that’s neither here nor there.

Regensburg dates back to Roman times and the cathedral is built on the site of an old Roman temple (pieces of which can still be seen in the crypt) and is another one of those small Germanic river ports that we have been calling at all week. I did not feel like another guided tour of the cathedral and old town (which seemed fairly indistinguishable from various other cathedrals and old towns we’ve been to this week) so I struck out on my own walking tour, leaving the old town behind to take a look at the more modern city outside the medieval walls. Not that different from the modern US city with plenty of handy Aldi grocery stores. There is a lovely greenbelt with walking paths surrounding the historic town so I walked along that as well. The one thing I noticed was no squirrels in the parks. I don’t know if there’s been a coordinated extermination campaign, they simply aren’t around or the species here are nocturnal. It was just a little odd.

Palace of Thurn and Taxis

I must admit I did poke my head into the cathedral (more interesting on the outside than the inside), wander the old town a bit (like most of the others, a pedestrian/bike friendly zone of shops and cafes), and finally caught up with the group as they were about to enter der schloss. The local palace is still a private residence, belonging to the princely family of Thurn and Taxis. As they more or less invented the modern postal system and had a monopoly on it for several centuries, they aren’t hurting for money. The dowager princess Gloria is in residence (she was not included on the tour) and her, son the Prince is off somewhere in Italy. The dowager is my age so I thought perhaps she could use a walker, but my German is probably not good enough to get by. The prince, unmarried, is a bit young for me at 36 but I could be talked into it. However, I am unlikely to be able to give him children and dynasty is important.

As for the palace, the newer parts (late 19th century), aren’t that interesting and the state rooms are not very good rococo (MNM would love it). It is a real working palace, continually hosting various events and it’s interesting to peep a bit behind the scenes. it’s also built out of the remnants of a medieval monastery and those pieces which date back more than a thousand years with Romanesque design and Gothic additions were much more interesting. Some of the monastic cloisters still exist and were much more interesting than the baroque fantasia upstairs.

Regensburg cathedral

Then, back through town and everyone on the bus. The ship had already headed downstream due to the threat of low water from Europe’s current heat wave. The water levels remain high enough for smooth sailing and we were only slightly inconvenienced when the tour company sent the wrong coordinates for the docking station to the bus drivers leading to a meandering tour of the German countryside while everything was sorted out. I helped the Australian-American family of five with their jigsaw in the lounge for a while and so to bed.

I think my first encounter with royal palaces was in 1984 when I made my first European trip. My first few stops were Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg and I don’t recall any palaces in those places – my first encounters were in France when I got to Paris. Like all good tourists, one of my first stops was the Louvre. This is before the IM Pei redesign and the pyramid. I paid my francs (pre Euros) and entered. I remember being very impressed by some of the larger rooms and galleries but also marveling at how cramped some of the rest of it felt. It also had the filthiest public toilet I think I’ve ever come across. I immediately exited and held it for several more hours. Several days later, it was time for Versailles. I lucked out and came on the one day a month that they turned on the fountains. They don’t do it more often then that as 17th century plumbing is somewhat delicate. As I wandered the grounds on a hot and humid July day, I wondered what it would have been like to have been outside in 17th and 18th century court dress and immediately understood why the fountains were so important. As for the palace itself, lovely but not to my taste and the famous hall of mirrors was much smaller than it had been in my imagination. As I continued through Europe, I went to more castles and palaces and ultimately had to marvel at just how ordinary some of them were. I think my favorite was the Danish Royal Palace from the 19th century whose name escapes me which struck me in terms of its contents and layout as a Victorian era garage sale. Give me a domestic space that looks lived in by real people and has a good HVAC system.