A Quick Visit to Vienna and Austria

(These events took place in September while we were on a Riverboat tour.)  

Central Vienna

 

With the Danube closed due to a broken lock, our vessel was moored in the middle of nowhere. Our visit to Vienna would  again have to be done by bus.  We were advised to pack for one, possibly two, nights.

Yesterday had not been a good day but things started improving as soon as we got on the bus to Vienna. It was a much better bus than the day before. The air conditioning actually worked and there was enough room between the seats! And the journey was on a proper highway!

 

These liquid eyes belong to one of the famous Lipizzan Stallions.

Vienna (or Wien as the Austrians spell it) is lovely! I wish we had more time there to explore!  (In fact, at the end of the cruise many people chose Vienna as their highlight). First we went to lunch at the Restaurant Griechenbeisl, which has been in business since, get this: 1447! We were following in the eating shadows of Schubert, Strauss and even Mark Twain! Having just spent a week and a half in Hungary, it was ironic that we were served goulash! Actually, it was more like the stew with paprika that we are used to back home, not the soup “golas” that is the original Hungarian style. It was lovely! Beautifully slow cooked beef, nice hearty gravy.

This statue symbolizes the hard battle against the Black Death

The service was a bit slow but only because the poor waiters had to carry all of our big groups’ dishes up and down the spiral staircase. Not easy! Near the end, part of our group from other rooms were leaving, but we hadn’t had our dessert yet – and since it was Sachre Tort (super chocolate layered cake) there was no way we were leaving. No worries, they held the walking tour and we got our delectable cake!

We decided early that Vienna is on our “We-shall-return list,” so even though we battled crowds and did the “interrupted standing” that large walking tours become, we still had a thoroughly enjoyable time in the city. We had an excellent, informative guide who made all the sights interesting.  The architecture in Vienna is beautiful.

Our accommodation that night was the Imperial Riding School Renaissance Vienna Hotel, and it was lovely! Except that it only had wifi in the lobby (unless you wanted to pay through the nose) but the beds were very comfy and the pillows… Oh those pillows!!!  Leaning onto them was like falling into a cloud! 

 

Belvedere Palace

 

A good night’s sleep sure helps one’s perspective! The next morning after a very good breakfast, we went on our own for a stroll around the area. Most things weren’t open yet (we had hoped for the Botanic Gardens but they didn’t open until 10 and our bus left at 11) but we did find Belvedere Palace with amazing grounds and even more interesting statues and fountains. 

This is the castle where Richard the Lionheart was held captive for (pardon, I have to say it) a king’s ransom.

 

In between Vienna and Melk we passed through the Wacchau. (Pronounced Vack-how with a clear-your-throat sound in the middle). This was a lovely area, with ruins (including the castle where Richard the Lion Hearted was held captive), rough hillsides, and lots of grapevines and apricot trees squished into every arable corner. We have decided that when we go back to visit Vienna, we shall find ourselves a place to stay in either Durnstein or Weissenkirchen.

 

Taken from our bus window: We all cheer as we pass our ship chugging up the Danube.

While we were on the bus after lunch, driving alongside the Danube, we had a wonderful sight! Our river boat!! The Emerald Star! It was chugging along the river! It had made it through the broken lock and this was a sure sign that we would be joining it in Melk. Jubilation! Celebration! Victory dances! (At least as wild a victory dance as you can make while seatbelted into a bus seat). Now we knew we were indeed going to be back on the ship that night instead of spending yet one more day on the road.

Top of the Stairs leading down to Melk Abbey

 

Next stop was Melk Abbey/Monastery. It was a place of contrasts and I am sure we would have enjoyed it more if it had been a brighter day. The lovely views were pretty socked in and the colours muted. Still, the buildings were full of intrigue and the actual abbey? – jaw droppingly beautiful! Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed inside so you will just have to imagine the dripping gold, the vaulted ceilings, the lofty pillars, and the intense colours. Maybe there are some images on Google? Oh! There are! Get thee to Google! 

Finally, we were returned to our vessel. We were greeted by the crew and the stay-behind passengers like long-lost friends! It felt like we had been away for ages and it sure felt good to be “home!”

The Wanderers in front of Melk Abbey

 

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Just One of Those Days

Bratislava, Slovakia

Travelling through the countryside of Slovakia

 

I post this to let you know that not every travel day is full of sunshine and flowers.  

It was just one of those days. A lot of little things went wrong. When you put it in perspective it wasn’t all that bad. Just not what you hope from an expensive vacation.

The day before, when we came back to the River Boat after our farewell stroll and wine lunch in Budapest, we learned that there had been an accident farther up stream.  A ship had run into the sides of a lock and traffic up and down the whole river was shut down for repairs.  

That night, Jim did not sleep very well. Just one of those things. Unfortunately, unlike those of us women who have to deal with sleepless nights, he isn’t good at compensating for lack of REM and wears his grumpiness on his sleeve. (When Jim read this, he immediately grumped, “I do not!”  Point taken.)

 

With river traffic moored all up and down the Danube, sites were at a premium. We docked… um… here.

We woke up in the morning to discover the lock was still not fixed. So, with river traffic moored all up and down the Danube at virtually any available site, we ended up docked in the middle of nowhere. Our view? The wall of another ship and beyond that an old Hungarian bunker. We later learned that the nearest village was named (when translated) Mosquito.  I kid you not!  However, the staff had scrambled and arranged buses to our next location: Bratislava in Slovakia. A two hour drive when you add in the necessary 10 minute washroom stop. 

We grabbed an early breakfast and rushed out to the bus. We did have the option of staying put, and some people did that, but, as I said, we were in the middle of nowhere. Besides, Slovakia was destined to be number 27 on the list of countries we have visited since I retired. We had to go!

When I was a child, I was prone to carsickness.  I’m not too bad on bus rides any more… if we are on the highway. However, as I said, we were in the middle of nowhere.

Downtown Bratislava. Everyone, except the tourists, is at home for the national holiday.

Even the bus drivers didn’t know how to find us! (Witness the fact that on the way back, our bus did the old trick of going around a round-about twice! Actually, he did it so he could jockey positions with the bus behind us because that driver did know the way.) That meant most of the trip was over urpy, curvy and bumpy roads.

The only buses the staff had been able to book at such short notice were rather old and tight.  Jim got chapped knees because his skin rubbed against the rough fabric of the seat in front.  The air conditioning, what there was of it, was in a single stream, aimed directly at my neck.  Thus, even though it was sweltering, I had to wear a sweater around my neck.

On the way to Bratislava, our guide informed us today was a national holiday in Slovakia, so all the shops would be closed. No souvenir shopping for us.  (Can you hear Jim sighing with relief?)  Also, tomorrow is to be a Summit Meeting for senior European Union officials so security is at max.

Remember that washroom break? Since nothing was open, we ended up at a gas station. This meant one (count it, one!) unisex toilet for all 43 on-the-elderly-side people. As you can imagine, our ten minute break took a lot longer than 10 minutes! 

 

Security is tight because of the upcoming Summit Meeting for delegates of the European Union.

Since we got into Bratislava a bit late our guided tour (with the largest group our guide has ever had) had to be shortened. Then we were given ½ hour free time. Thank goodness for Rick Steves! We knew exactly where we wanted to go. Then it was back on to the bus. Another urpy ride to our lunch stop.

Lunch was a perfect comedy of errors. First, Jim and I would rather have stayed in the town for an interesting lunch but had to stick with the bus. Second, after the bus ride, my stomach was less than enthusiastic. Third, the restaurant had not expected as many people to show up, so they were understaffed and couldn’t get anymore because of the national holiday. They had the food pre-cooked but previously frozen. And by the time the food finally came to the table, it was still cold… You should have seen the look on our friend’s face when he “stole” one of his wife’s potatoes and popped it in his mouth… the potato was raw!  The staff, who would rather have been at home enjoying a holiday with their families, was even more annoyed at having to serve a bus load of ungrateful tourists!

“Man at Work.” One of the most famous quirky statues in Bratislava.

 

The included visit with a Slovak family was actually very informative, especially for me because the hostess turned out to be a teacher of grade 1 to 4 kids. I learned a lot! The front of the house was deceptive. It was a plain facade almost touching the street… But! Then you walk about to the garden! What a beautiful yard! OMG what a view! We had tea and coffee and cake under an awning, looking out over the vast expanse of farm fields and hillside across the valley. So nice! Unfortunately, the talk was not the least bit interesting to Jim. (Told you he was grumpy). When we got back to the bus, it turned out our good friends had been randomly selected to be part of the group that went to a winery. Talk about a jealous Jim!

So it was back to the boat via urpy bus. We got back just five minutes before dinner at 7.   Oh! I forgot to mention, in the list of silly little things that bother you… When we got back to the room, we

Gotta love the decorative roof tiles!

discovered that Jim had accidentally hit the “Do not Disturb” button (right underneath the two to turn out the lights when you leave buttons) so the maid had not come in to clean our room and our laundry had not been done.  Sigh.

 Dinner was good… Once my stomach recovered!

But then we received more bad news. The lock was fixed BUT… Now, because of the aforementioned Summit Talk, no traffic was going to be allowed through Bratislava tomorrow (of any kind) AND because the canal had been compromised, they were facing the dreaded LOW WATER. No river traffic tomorrow (Friday) and probably Saturday too. So, to go to Vienna it was back on the buses tomorrow. 

 

Thus the end of “one of those days.” 

 At least I got to add another country to my list!

 

The rather unassuming front of our hostess’ house in Slovakia.

 

And yet from the back, the story is quite different: beautiful garden, excellent view, and the tomatoes were amazing.

 

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The Magic of Budapest at Night

 

Panorama of Budapest at Night. What a sight!

Looking for magic?  Go to Budapest at night!  Go for a stroll, tram ride, or (best of all) river cruise.  The city is transformed! 

 

At night, the Parliament buildings are even more jaw-droppingly beautiful.

Lights guild the the city.   All those fantastic, beautiful buildings are flooded with golden splendour while the more modern trappings fade into shadowy obscurity.  Monuments we had never noticed before suddenly stand out in brilliance against a darkened backdrop.  I can only say, “Wow!”  

Party on the Liberty Bridge

 

One Saturday we walked home over the Liberty Bridge.  This is a suspension bridge with broad metal bands forming the arcs.  Every night, young people climb up on the suspension arcs and while they watch the light, hoot and callout to every boat that drifts by underneath.  Being Saturday night it was a real party!

 

St. Stephen’s Cathedral and Fisherman’s Church

Several days later, when we joined our river cruise, we had a night cruise up and down the river through Budapest.  All those lights, all those beautiful buildings, even the headlights of the cars and busses seemed like magical fireflies. By the exclamations of “Amazing!” and the “oos” and “ahhs”, I wasn’t the only person to think so!  Remember when I said people line up on the bridges and call down to passing ships?  That night we got to be on the receiving end!  From the vantage point of the roof of a river boat, we hooted and called right back to the folks lining the bridges.  What a spectacular event to cap off our visit to Budapest!

Castle Hill and the Chain Bridge

 

 
 

 

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Budapest, First Impressions

The Parliament Buildings in Budapest

Budapest!  To me the name rings with exotic chimes of mystery.  It is a place only seen in spy thrillers or read about in adventure stories.

Budapest spans the Danube

 

Even as we drove in, our taxi driver proudly reamed off the names of the various sights I had only seen in pictures.  The lyrical way he said the words were so different from the poor halting phonetical way I had tried to sound them out.

The Chain Bridge (1849)

Budapest spans the Danube.  In fact, it used to be two cities, Buda and Pest, until the famous chain bridge united them in 1849.  

We have a lovely apartment on the Buda side, near Gellért Hill, overlooking the Liberty Bridge.  It is a busy area with so much of the hustle and bustle of any big city, but, in my opinion, more than its fair share of sirens!  We have been told Budapest is one of the safest cities in the world, and certainly we have seen nothing to make us feel nervous, but with all those police cars whipping past, you have to wonder!

The View from our Gellért Hill Apartment

 

My first impression of Budapest?  Spicy!  No, not the people, the food, especially the sausages!  And they are everywhere!  I have long said that you can tell a lot about what a culture holds dear by the things on the shelves in the local grocery store.  Near us is a little-larger-than-corner-store grocery and it carries the usual fare.  

Looking up toward Castle Hill and the Fisherman’s Bastion

What is unusual is that, as small as the store is, there is a special counter just for sausages, and a special employee to slice them.  Mind you, it makes sense, it is rather warm here! September and the temperature is still up to 30° Centigrade (about 85° Farenheit).  So the people would have had to invent ways to perserve their meat.    

And speaking of food, if you like your meals hearty and robust, this is the place to be!  Pork, chicken, veal and dumplings in all manner of stews and soups and, of course, paprika!

Budapest is a wonderful place to explore.  I have loved the views from Castle Hill and was blown away by the beauty of the Parliament Buildings.  I can’t wait to explore more of the city!

 

Looking over the Danube at Castle Hill in Buda, taken from Pest

 

 

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Santorini, A Sapphire and Snow-White Gem

Santorini really is as beautiful as they say!

Santorini really is as beautiful as they say!


This was one very busy donkey! He and his handler definitely had the Right-Of-Way.

It is almost impossible to believe but it is true.  Santorini really is as pretty as a postcard.  When you see the view for yourself, THE VIEW, the one made famous in so many postcards, calendars, and travel books, you can’t help but pinch yourself.  It’s real!

 

How to Keep Pirates at Bay: Build on the Clifftops!

 

Mind you, all that beauty does come at a price, getting up to the cities, Oia (the prettiest one, shown above) and Fira (pictured to the right) takes a lot of work.  There are only two docks accessible by the cruise ship’s tenders and even from there you have to make a choice.  Walk the trail with its 600 steps?  Take the gondola with its lengthy line ups?  Or brave the rather (pardon the obvious pun) mule headed donkeys?  Or take another boat which will take you to a bay with bus access?  We opted for the latter.  

 

White Washed Walls and Windmills. Perfectly Blue Sky.

The bus ride up the hill is amazing!  I didn’t know whether I was gasping at each view as it appeared or at the fact both ends of the bus seemed to be hanging over the edges of the hairpin curves!

Santorini is actually a series of islands that are formed from the caldera of a sunken volcano and the small, rather new island of the cone.  We are on the biggest piece.  The bus took us to the top most point and from there we could see all around.  I couldn’t get over the water!  It was the clearest, bluest ocean I have ever seen.  It felt like if you had just the right filter on your sunglasses, you could see clear to the bottomless depths!

 

View from the Santos Winery. Oia in the distance. Fira in the middle.

Guess what?  There are grapes grown on Santorini and we found them!  They are grown short, spreading right across the ground like ivy, to avoid the almost constant wind.  We had a lot of fun trying out the various blends at Santos Winery.  Again, the view was incredible, although I must admit that from a distance, those white-washed buildings of the towns splashed on the top of the cliffs do look a bit like giant bird droppings…

 

Even the waters of Santorini look like jewels!

 When we got to Oia (pronounced EE-yah) we were in for another surprise.  The bus had to park outside.  The whole city has no vehicle transportation inside the walls.  With all the steps, there aren’t even any of the scooters so common in the rest of Europe.  All of the restaurants and shops are serviced not by trucks but either hand pulled dollies or loaded donkeys.  Donkeys are extremely important here, so important in fact that the hundreds of steps are made long with narrow rises strictly for the benefit of a donkey’s gait rather than a human’s step.  Once you realize this, it starts to make sense why the above mentioned restaurants and shops are so expensive!  Not only does everything have to be shipped in to the island but it is then transported by labour intensive foot and hoof methods!

Santorini’s difficulties are also its strengths.  Its inaccessibility has meant it has been able to hang on to its beauty even into the modern age.

The old world flavour of Santorini still exists!

 

 

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Wanderers in Naples

Or: Bambinos in the Woods

San Franseco Di Paola

Today we explored a new to us city: Napoli.

For me it was a completely fresh experience especially since, I blush to admit, I haven’t been in Italy since 1982, and that was during one of those “If this is Tuesday, this must be Belgium” bus tours.

At first I was apprehensive because I speak hardly a word of Italian other than a few words gleaned from menus.  However, as with many European cities, English is the ubiquitous default language and everyone we came in contact with was more than happy to put up with our stuttering attempts to communicate.

A Typical Street Scene in Naples

 

However, I never really did get over my fear of Italian city traffic!  As we left the busy port, with its bewildering maze of construction and roaring trucks, I could see this would be a very easy city in which to get lost.  I was so glad we were walking, not driving.  At each corner, we were lucky if we could locate a street name, and then it took even longer to locate that street on the map.  If I were the navigator in a car, we would have been miles away before I figured out where were had been.  By that time we would be lost again.

I wonder what this shop sells? Lemons perhaps?

I wonder what this shop sells? Lemons perhaps?

However, being a pedestrian in Naples does come with its own dangers, particularly when crossing the street.  Looking for a crosswalk helps but that is still no guarantee that a car won’t cross dangerously close.  I suppose a crosswalk means if they hit you, it’s their fault.  Otherwise, pedestrians are fair game.

I am also afraid I misinterpreted the meaning of the little honk.  We were at one busy crosswalk with cars dashing to and fro when one car gave a gentle honk and I took that to mean, “Go ahead,” as it would in England.  I gave the driver a thank you wave and smile and strode right in front.  Luckily, he was aware enough of my touristic blunders and didn’t hit me.  As we went by other intersections, I soon realized the quick honk means, “Heads up, I’m coming through.”

And this one sells pasta. Lots and lots of pasta!

 

My favourite parts of Napoli were the narrow streets that were (mainly) free of vehicle traffic… Except for motorcycles and scooters, they were everywhere!  Every time scooters came to an intersection, they gave a warning hoot before scurrying through.  One woman’s horn must have been on the blink because she yelled at each corner!  Perhaps that is one reason why so many had faulty mufflers, having a loud vehicle become a safety feature!

Flags flutter below, Laundry flutters above.

 

The narrow streets are like canyons lined with balconies on either side.  The balconies in turn are lined with all manner of flapping laundry.  On the street level are the shops,and all are vying for your attention. Quickly you can see what is prized in Napoli: food, wine, lemons, pasta, shoes, clothes, tobacco, and mobile phones.  I loved the shop that had beautiful little landscapes made with cork wood bark.  

With all that traffic, all that honking, and all those people, you can well imagine that Napoli is a rather noisy city and you would be correct… Except in one place… Inside the Duomo.

The Duomo in Naples

 

This cathedral is an oasis of calm.  A sanctuary of peace.  A marble and gold haven of coolness.  The contrast between one side of the door and the other was so sudden, it was almost unbelievable.  It reminded me of the moment when you are snorkelling that you first put your head under the water.  Instantly you are surrounded by silence and in that silence you suddenly become aware of a whole new level of completely unexpected beauty. 

After being refreshed both physically and mentally, I was ready to charge out into the streets and brave the traffic with more vigour and, I hope, more savvy than before.  I am not ready to hit the streets like a local, however.  At one intersection I watched in awe as one fellow crossed a busy three lane street against the light, directly behind a police car.  To top it off, the fellow was smoking.  Apparently he likes to live life dangerously!

Can you feel the calm just looking at the inside of the Duomo?

 

 

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The Rain Forests of Central America

Or:  Getting Wet is Worth It!

Di and Jim Wanderer wedged between the buttresses of a forest giant.

On this cruise along the Western Caribbean, we stopped and explored two rainforests, one in Panama and the other in neighbouring Costa Rica.

I love the rainforest!  So many plants and animals to see and discover!  

Yes, it is hot and humid but not as oppressive as Columbia had been.  Besides, there was lots of shade and frequent rain showers to cool things off… or steam things up depending on your perspective.

Morph Butterflies: Brown when their wings are closed flash an almost impossibly bright blue when the wings are open.

 

In Panama our tour took us into the forest just beyond the famous Panama Canal.  It amazed me how quickly we appeared to be in the depths of the jungle.  Amazing iridescent blue butterflies, the size of our palms, flitted by in the green.  A paca (large rodent the size of a cat) skittered across the road in front of the van.  

Then the two toed sloth made his appearance.  He was just hanging around in a tree by the bridge, not bothering anyone but our sharp-eyed driver spotted him.  Two toed sloths, as their name suggests, has only two clawed toes on their front paws.  However,

A two-toed sloth deigns to open one eye to blear at us.

 
surprisingly, both two-toed and three-toed sloths have three toes on their hind paws.  Sloths apparently do indeed move very slowly and if they look rather stoned… it is because they probably are.  Their leaves of choice are narcotics.  They are nocturnal and eat all they can at night.  It takes them all day to sleep off their meals.  They stay in one tree for days until they have consumed all they can.  Then they climb down, relieve themselves, (If I had to wait almost a week before I could relieve myself, I’d be pretty relieved too!) and find a new tree. 

He just looks soooo comfortable!

 

Something else I did not know was that female sloths do most of the work when it comes to mating.  All the males have to do is hang about in their tree and whistle.  The females come… ah… running?  Unfortunately, the harpy eagle, one of the biggest eagles in the world, has figured this out and has learned to imitate the male’s whistle.  If any female is fooled and is attracted by the eagle’s whistle, she becomes an easy meal.

This howler monkey doesn’t give a hoot!

Later in a rain forest preserve, we all marvelled as lines of leaf-cutter ants, waving green flags formed continuously moving trails across our path.

Then there were the howler monkeys.  We heard them long before we spotted their swift moving black shapes.  You’ve all heard the sounds on documentaries, like rasping grunting pigs howling in rather than out.  To hear that sound in person… to listen to it echo like a ruckus choir in a cathedral… it was almost surreal.  Despite the heat and the humidity, I got chills.

A Rainbow Sided Tree Frog

 

A troupe of the more rare white faced monkeys presented themselves but only long enough to stare at us and think twice about crossing the road (which was more like a track) until later.  With the scuffle of leaves and the waving of branches, they melted back into the forest until we had returned to the van and driven off.

Jim zips through the canopy.

In Costa Rica we went to the Vagueris National Park.  Here we got to see one of those wonderful tree frogs, you know, the ones with the bright green skinny body and the bright red suction cup finger and toe tips?  Here we got to get closer to the trees and vegetation themselves, thanks to a canopy tram line that took you down the mountainside to a rain swollen waterfall.  

Here the rainforest truly lived up to its name.  Until now we have managed to be either in a van or under cover when the rains hit.  Not this time!  We got to experience a true warm downpour.  It was almost too hot for raingear but you quickly became as soaked as a washcloth without it.  

Believe it or not, the tree top tram was upstaged.  Our next event was a zipline right through the canopy.  Eleven lines!  Woohoo!

I can’t wait to get back to the rainforest again.  I’d love to explore it under the wing of a forest savvy grandmother who could tell me all about each plant and its uses.  Until then, the sound of howler monkeys will haunt my dreams.

 

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