Friday, October 11, 2013

If It's Thursday, It Must Be Bulgaria

The Bulgarian Countryside
I have to say that Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria were places I never gave much thought to visiting until this trip.  None of the three are really tourist destinations, which probably means that they’re great places to visit, right?

The countrysides of Romania and Bulgaria are very pretty.  Lots and lots of trees, sunflower and corn fields, cows and sheep.  Lots and lots of sheep.  No.  Really.  Lots and lots of sheep.  Most of the farms we passed looked well-kept
and reasonably prosperous.  Occasionally, we’d pass through some small town, and they generally looked relatively prosperous, although we did see several places that were pretty run-down and ramshackle.

See? Sheep!
Every tour guide we had in Hungary, Romania, or Bulgaria had very disparaging remarks to make about the contributions of the Soviets to the built culture in their area.  I suppose that if you like buildings with personality, color, or interesting forms then Soviet architecture is something of an eyesore.  However, if you appreciate grey cement and utilitarian forms then Soviet architecture is still something of an eyesore.  Soviet buildings are great lurking hulks and often occur in large blocks as if the builders thought that if one concrete monstrosity was good, fifty ought to be better.  According to Magdi (our Hungarian guide), the buildings were terrible places to live, with non-functioning heating, unreliable water and sewer systems and undependable electricity.  Sounds like a worker’s paradise to me!

Why do I mention this?  Well, as we rolled through the countryside, the pastoral scenery would occasionally be interrupted by cement grotesqueries.  Factories, especially, remain standing, although most look like they hadn’t been in use since the day the Wall fell.  Many times, we spotted what must’ve been guard towers, a chilling sight indeed.  Were they prisons?  Factory security?  We never found out.  The crumbling remains of the Soviet Empire 

His Office
Her Office
Our first stop for the day was in Veliko Tarnovo.  We visited a traditional Bulgarian house first.  It would have been a farmhouse that housed a fairly large family, and had all the comforts a house in the 17th century could have.  A well, a special room for the man of the house to conduct business, a special room for the lady of the house to do her work (we call it the kitchen), a room set aside for the women to visit and weave and sew.  The piece de resistance was the special room set aside for new mothers and their infants.  It actually looked really nice.  I probably wouldn’t have left.  

Rob met a four-legged friend

After the house visit, we rode into town and visited a statue to the heroes of the Bulgarian people.  Even though the statue predates the Soviets, it has all the hallmarks of Soviet heroic art:  Enormousness, ugliness and grand heroic poses for the figures.  After that, we visited an absolutely beautiful 500 year old Orthodox chapel with many of the original frescoes and icons still intact.  Even though I’m not terribly religious (or religious at all, for that matter), it’s hard not be moved by the obvious love that was invested in the paintings and icons.  Unless you’re Elizabeth.  She declared as we were leaving the church that “At home, we call those comic strips.”  Really?  

We visited Veliko Tarnovo’s old town and I found a lovely little charm for my collection, made by the gentleman who sold it to me.  He kept apologizing for his lack of English, but he still spoke 100% more English than we did Bulgarian.

Our almost final stop for the day was in Kazanlak and the Valley of Roses and Thracian Tombs.  Apparently, they grow roses for rose oil to be used in perfumes and cosmetics.  No, they don’t grow Thracians for cosmetics, too.  The landscape in this part of Bulgaria is dotted with tumuli, or huge man-made burial mounds built for Thracian kings in about 2,500 BC.  We toured the one tomb that the Bulgarian government has opened and it was spectacular.  They have left the original grave goods in situ (many of them solid gold), which made it easier to imagine what it must have looked like the day the grave was sealed.  We visited a shop where they sold rose oil products and Rob got some rose Turkish Delight (Bulgarian Delight?).  The final visit for the day was to a breathtakingly beautiful Russian Orthodox church that is the final resting place for 12,000 Bulgarian and Russian soldiers who fought against, who else, the Ottomans at the Battles of Shipka Pass.  The day was cloudless and the sky was an incredible shade of blue which only made the golden domes of the church sparkle and glimmer more.  
Orthodox church memorial.

Tomb of Thracian King

Tumuli: man-made mounds that are tombs
The train crew had asked us to not go to bed after dinner as we had to present our shining faces at the Turkish border.  They estimated that we’d cross the border at about 1130PM, so we all just stayed up in the bar car and tried not to listen to Piano Man.  Until Nigel decided to sing along.  Loudly.  Off key.  Off beat.  I couldn’t help but think of him as a prototype Rowan Atkinson used for Mr. Bean.  It really was that bad.  When we reached the border and lined up to have our passports stamped, Nige was at the head of the line, and as he leaned into the border guard’s cage and said loudly and slowly (as  if speaking to a deaf imbecile) “THANK YOU.  THANK YOU VERY MUCH.  THANK YOU VERY, VERY MUCH” I knew my supposition had to have been correct.  

Off to bed for us and one more sleepless night on the train.

Tomorrow: Istanbul, not Constantinople.  

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

We Ain't on The Orient Express, Anymore!

The interior of our cabin.  Someone should
learn how to use a camera.
After we got settled in our very nice cabin, Robert, the operations director, came around to tell us how things work.  Watch the temperature of the water in the shower, he counseled, as previous guests have been known to leave it turned up.  Don’t dress too fancy for dinner, this is all about being comfortable.  There are 22 guests, so there’s only one seating for dinner.    Anything you need, ask Andrea.  First stop in an hour and a half.

I guess neither one of us really gave much thought as to the excursions, so the fact that there were considerable chunks of time when we were off the train came as a bit of a surprise.  Our first excursion was to a horse

farm to watch some Hungarian horses do their things.  The train stopped in the middle of a field to let us off, and we were met by two horse-drawn wagons there to transport us to the farm.  We were greeted at the farm with glasses of Pahlinka, an apricot brandy, which I have to say is pretty tasty and not sweet.

The Donkey Whisperer
We got to see the riders, dressed in local costume herd horses and demonstrate some of the riding skills that they would have used back in the day.  One of the things they riders were very good at was using their bullwhips, and part of the fun is to let the audience try to knock a bottle off a fence post using the whip.  I was the first one to try, and I did hit the bottle.  Just not very hard. Rob even rode one of the horses, the only member of the gang to be that brave.
Modeling a Hungarian Cowboy Hat 

After about an hour (and a trip to the gift shop, because what would a stop be without a gift shop?) we headed back to the field to meet the train.  Well, to wait for the train.  It had to move so that other trains could go past (What?  Ours isn’t the most important train on the tracks?), and it took some time to return.  Quite a bit of time, as it turned out, much to the chagrin of the train staff.  It did finally come back to get us, and we set off for the next destination: Kecskemet (“Keshkameet”, for those of you following along at home.)  Kecskemet is a medium-sized town in central Hungary.  It’s not very touristy, and the afternoon we were t

here, I’m reasonably certain we were the only tourists around.  The main square is home to the City Hall (Art Nouveau, Hungarian style), another gorgeous Art Noveau building that is the Youth Hall, a church and other assorted public structures.  One of the coolest things I saw was a bronze model of the town square for the blind, complete with Braille explanations of the buildings on the square.
Model of City Center

Back on the train, and time for cocktails and dinner.  The bar car is open anytime there are passengers aboard, so it wound up being quite the social gathering place.  What was not so cool was the Piano Man.  Yes, he plays anytime there are people in the bar car, but that doesn’t mean he does it well.  In fact, he does not.  He had cd’s of his music for sale, but I’m pretty sure he has never actually sold any.  At first, I thought maybe he was experimenting with the music, but once we started to pay attention, we realized that he really wasn’t very good.  Then, it became a musical version of a train wreck:  once you started listening, you couldn’t stop waiting for the next muffed notes.  

Eventually, it was time to turn in and attempt sleep.  Not so easy when your bed is lurching around, stopping and starting.  Neither one of us slept very well, but oh, well.  Sleep is for when you are home, right?

Tomorrow:  Romania and Vlad Dracul

Meet the Cast!

The train, waiting for us at Nyugati Station.
Detail of the roof of Nyugati, showing
Eiffel's signature lacy ironwork.
We had to be up early as we had to be at the train station by 10.  Tomas, our landlord had called a cab for us and he met us at the apartment to collect the keys.  The cabdriver arrived a half hour early, so we found ourselves navigating around Nyugati Station, looking for the “Royal Waiting Room,” where we were to meet the train staff and our traveling companions.  We finally had to ask a policeman and he pointed us in the right direction.  Turns out we beat the train staff to the station. Fun Fact:  Nyugati station was designed and built by the Eiffel Company.  Yes.  That Eiffel.

We all met in the aforementioned Royal Waiting Room, and if you have been reading any of this blog, you probably will drop dead from surprise when I tell you that the area was originally given to the one and only Sissi.  I can’t seem to get away from this woman!  It would seem that Her Holiness and her inbred Hapsburg husband couldn’t wait on the platform with their subjects, so the RWR was a gift to Sissi and Franz Joseph from their grateful and adoring subjects.  Today, it’s a tattered shadow of its former splendor, but it was still beautiful.

This was our introduction to our BTF’s (Best Train Friends) and now, I shall introduce them to you:

The Texans:  a youngish middle aged couple from Dallas, both UT grads.  This we learned in the first 60 seconds.  He was a corpulent attorney and she apparently had been an attorney until motherhood.  Motherhood seems to have made her too busy to hit the Clairol because she had vividly red hair and grey roots.  After introductions, they pretty much kept to themselves for most of the trip.

Andrea:  our Train Director.  Definitely not Julie from the “Loveboat.”  Andrea is Hungarian, and pretty much runs the excursions and just about anything else that’s needed. Fun and interesting to talk to, but always making sure that everything was running smoothly.

Robert:  Operations Director.  Sounds and looks like Jeremy Clarkson  from Top Gear.  Hilarious, but always watching everything.

The Rosses:  A lovely, older Aussie couple we met at dinner the first night.  Gaynor, Ross’ wife, became my instant friend when she discovered that I take Rob as seriously as she takes Ross.  Plus, a little bit of gossip is always fun. Ross is a retired judge and they have traveled all over the world, so they always had fascinating and fun stories.  Our dinner companions.

The Snotty British Spinster:  of indeterminate age, SBS is a throwback to a bygone era when the sun never set on the British Empire and the brown people should be grateful for the largesse of the British Crown.  

The Other SIngle Woman: Another Brit, she seemed to have been a friend of SBS, although we aren’t certain if they knew each other before or became thick as thieves when they met on the train. 

Christopher and Elizabeth:  they used their proper names even when speaking to each other.  Christopher is an orthopedist and is looking forward to coming to a conference in New Orleans soon.  Elizabeth (Gaynor says she speaks like she has marbles in her mouth) isn’t sure that New Orleans would be very interesting.  One less tourist probably wouldn’t be noticed by the New Orleaneans.  Elizabeth seems to be in nearly every one of my photos of the trip, FYI.

Howard and Mrs. Howard:  Howard, with a partner, owns the train.  Mrs. seems to do the backend stuff and only does one or two trips a year.  A proper British lady, she was very nice and quite supportive of her husband’s toys.  A nice couple and a really good team, from what we saw.

Nigel and Pilar:  Pilar seemed to be a perfectly lovely Spanish woman, married to Nigel.  Nigel went to Oxford, a fact we learned within a couple of seconds of meeting him.  He did say that he didn’t do sport, but he did participate in some choral societies and an a cappella group.  (Remember that fact.  It becomes salient later in our tale.)

There were a couple of other couples, but we didn’t really get to know them and they did stick together.

Next:  We Discover That We Aren’t on the Orient Express

The Hand of the King

St. Stephen's Basilica
Tuesday, we were on our own.  Magdi had given us a really good overview of Budapest so we had a really good idea about what we wanted to see and where to acquire the requisite trinkets needed.  Because of Camera Fail 1 and 2, we wanted to go back and take some photos that we missed the day before, so retracing some of our steps from yesterday was top of the agenda.  We had gone back to the cool Art Nouveau building and St. Stephen’s after we left Magdi, but the church was closed by the time we got there, even though it wasn’t closing time.  The priest/doorkeeper wasn’t terribly forthcoming with an explanation, so we just gave up.  
Art Nouveau building
(The Hungarian Treasury Dept.)

The weather was kind of cruddy (Thanks, Joel, for the bumbershoot.  It came in quite handy.) but we trudged on anyway.  It was our last day in Budapest, so we knew we wanted to see some things.  We got in to the Great Synagogue and toured it with an English-speaking guide, despite having caused another English-speaking guide some consternation because we tried to join his tour and he wasn’t the one we should have been with.  The Great Synagogue is quite beautiful, even if it does have some Christian elements (Kneelers?  A Catholic-style pulpit?).  Outside the main sanctuary, there's a lovely memorial garden to the Hungarian victims of the Holocaust and to those Righteous People who tried to help, including a very simple memorial for Raul Wallenberg.We went down the street to the Rombach Street Synagogue, now decrepit, defunct and no longer used.  It was easy to see how beautiful and inspiring it must have been, and was a good counterpoint to the grandeur of the Great Synagogue.  
Interior of Great Synagogue

Before we left the apartment, both of us had double-double checked our cameras so we knew we had plenty of memory and battery for our ultimate goal:  St. Stephen’s Basilica.  The building is really beautiful and the interior is adorned with all manner of churchly beauty. The real wonder in this church is who is the main figure on the altar.  Tell me, when was the last time you saw any Christian church that didn’t have some representation of Jesus on the altar?  Never, right?  This altar has a figure of St. Stephen where Jesus usually is.  How do we know it’s St. Stephen?  A couple of clues helped:  One, he wasn’t standing right in the middle where Jesus usually is, so it has to be someone else.  Two, he’s wearing Medieval garb, not Jesus-clothes.  Three, he is wearing a crown with a little bent cross on top.  That’s pretty much the giveaway:  his crown, purportedly, had a very hard life before it found a home in the Parliament building and the cross on top is slightly askew.  

The Hand of the King
It turns out, though, that St. Stephen’s crown isn’t the only thing of his that time was not gentle with.  It seems that after his death, he was buried in some town, whose name escapes me and I probably couldn’t pronounce anyway.  At some point, when the town was about to be invaded by Huns or some such nasties, the poor Stephen was disinterred and sent off to some place safe.  Most of him, anyway.  One of the guards chopped off part of his right arm and hid it away for safekeeping. (Ed. Note:  Who does that sort of thing?  That just kicks up the EWWWW factor!)  Later, they reburied One-Handed Stephen, the hand reappeared and is now safely ensconced in a side chapel of the Basilica.  A couple of forints will not only help preserve the integrity of the Hand of the King they buy enough electricity to turn on a dim bulb above the casket so that the ghoulish hordes can take photos.  Count us among the ghouls.

We did have some trinkets to buy, so off we went to the Covered Market.  It dates to the Middle Ages, and really is a fun place to shop.  It is HUGE!  it makes the Pike Place Market look like a farm stand.  

Magdi had said that the center stalls are more touristy and that the locals shop in the side aisles and that would be the only place she would go for paprika.  


Since it was our last night in town, we decided to have dinner at a restaurant
around the corner, one recommended by Rick Steves.  It was a cozy little Hungarian restaurant, complete with a harpist.  It was a lovely evening, and the food was outstanding.  

Budapest is a charming, wonderful place.  The Budapesters (?) take a tremendous pride in their home and their culture and both of us really loved our short little glimpse into what life is like in the Hungarian capital.
Raul Wallenberg memorial

Tomorrow:  The Danube Express

Budapest 1/2

Budapest, Day One/Two

Sorry.  We’ve been on the train and there’s not a whisper of access, so these next postings will be much after the fact.

We took a Eurorail train fromVienna to Budapest without event. Our arrival in Budapest was a bit dodgy, as the station, Kaleti Station, is about the seediest and most rough looking place I think I’ve ever been.  It’s the only place in Europe, so far, that I really felt like I needed to be super alert to all the surroundings, especially since we arrived with our suitcases and carry-ons, therefore marking us as tourists.  Add to that the fact that not one word of the Hungarian language made any sense at all to us so signs were pretty useless to us and verbal communication with the folks in the station seemed pretty impossible.

We navigated to the apartment (in the Old Town of Pest) fine and met the landlord who was to give us a tour of the apartment and the keys.  Tomas (the LL) is a charming guy who very, very proudly showed us around the apartment.  It’s in a 200 year old building, but the space itself has just been renovated in the last four months.  It’s in Ikea Chic, and was very comfortable and pleasant.  It even had a little balcony overlooking two streets, a perfect place to sit with a glass of wine and to listen to the church bells of St. Ann’s, which was just a half block away.  Dinner was had at an overpriced touristy place, but we were tired and a bit turned around, so whatever.  At least it wasn’t a KFC/MickeyDee/BurgerKing, all three of which are on nearly every street corner.

Pest from Galetta Hill
 The next morning we met our tour guide, Magdi, and a driver.  We had hired her for a half day driving tour and a half day walking tour, and it was a really good way to see the town.  Since we had a car, she wanted to take us over to the Buda side of the Danube to show us the sights of the Citadel and Galetta Hill.  Buda is the older part of the city (the two sides and the old Roman town only merged into one city in 1870-something).  The Citadel is home to a statue
Entrance to the Cave Church
that commemorates the life and martyrdom of St. Galette, who ministered to the locals until the pagans took some exception, sealed him up in a barrel and rolled him down the hill, now named for him, to his death.  Magdi showed us a beautiful little cave church and the Hotel Galetta, which is home to one of the geo-thermal spas Budapest is famous for. With Magdi, we were all over the hill, from the Citadel itself, to the Royal Palaces (fun fact:  No royalty ever lived there but Sissi could have if she’d wanted to) to the Matyas Church, to the Medieval town where Vlad Dracul was once held prisoner for being an overly zealous fighter against the Turks.  Well, he probably was
St. Stephen
arrested for just being an asshole, but he did help fight the Turks.  More on him             in a later post.

On the way back to the apartment, we asked Magdi and the driver if they had any restaurant recommendations.  Magdi doesn’t really like to give recommendations, but the driver had some very definite ideas, especially once he learned that we preferred local food.  The driver suggested a place called Aldofi, saying they had the best local food around.
Oh, dear lord, was he right.  I had stuffed cabbage that completely fell apart on my fork and there was a sausage (you didn’t really think I would pass up sausage, did you?) that absolutely melted in my mouth.  A baked apple for dessert topped off a wonderful evening of street side dining.

Yup.  St. Stephen, again
The next morning, we met Magdi at 9 to begin our walking tour.  The woman is a bundle of energy, complimented by an almost encyclopedic knowledge of the history of Budapest and Hungary.  We were all over the central core of Pest.  She started off the tour taking us to a spot we had discovered the night before and had hoped to ask her about:  a little park across the street from the river.  We were curious because we had walked across some glass panels set into the sidewalk, which revealed what looked like the foundations of a couple of ancient buildings. Turns out, they were the remains of Contra Acquincum, a Roman village built to support and defend the more important village and fort of Acquincum, downriver on the Buda side (the old Roman town that was part of the unification of Buda and Pest).  As Magdi walked us through the little park she showed us how the park was incredibly cleverly designed.  Cut into the granite of the park square is a map of the Danube and there are little plaques along the river giving the location of the known Roman villages and forts, and including an outline of the currently known buildings in each village.  An incredibly clever way to illustrate two points:  here’s the ancient history of the river and the history is right underneath your feet.  

Map of the Danube
With Magdi, we walked over to Parliament, saw part of the Shoe Memorial (a memorial to those who were murdered on the banks of the Danube by the Nazis), a gorgeous Art Nouveau building, various other fun things and then St. Stephen’s Basilica (Sze. Istvan Bazilika in Hungarian).  St. Stephen was born one of the members of the pagan tribes who “settled” Hungary, and decided that the best way to keep the lands they had conquered was to convert and convert his people, too.  When Istvan died, his body was carted all over the place until he was finally laid to rest in some village whose name escapes me and I probably couldn’t spell anyway.  More on Istvan in the next post.

Just a note to all:  Murphy’s Law applies even in a foreign country.  I had forgotten to put the memory card back in my camera the night before, so I took no pictures.  Rob’s camera battery died about half way through the day, too, so most of the amazing photos  he took are just the stuff of memory.  Gotta love Mr. Murphy!  
Check out this cool interactive fountain!