Sunday, August 31, 2014

We've been to Vienna .... twice!!!

What a very lovely day!!! Having finally taken responsibility for ourselves, we eschewed the organized bus tours of Vienna, had a late morning coffee on the almost deserted ship (the buses took them all away early because the crew were working flat out to re-load all the supplies ... quite a business!) and headed out (alone!!!!  just us!!!) in the consistent rain for the Metro. Being old hands at the Vienna public transport system we bought a couple of "Senior's Farten tickets" and went for the Upper Belvedere.
This is one of the museums that we didn't manage to get to when we were staying in Vienna and we were absolutely blown away by it!! For a start it is in an amazing palace with exquisite grounds  - even though we were walking in persistent rain the view was magnificent. We were mainly going to see Klimt's "The Kiss", his most famous work, to complete our experience of the Leopold museum last week. As well as a really insightful collection documenting Austrian art over the centuries the number and quality of paintings by Klimt and Schiele were truly extraordinary and quite breathtaking! It was a definite highlight  which was topped off by some magnificently restored early church panels - most of the ones in situ have been pillaged by the various invaders, but these were great!
A small lunch together in the museum and a wander in the now lighter rain down into the main town in hunt of some Weiner Werkstatte led us to a couple of lovely shops where we unloaded some Euros on some precious mementos! We wandered home mid-afternoon for a beer and a chance for Mick to try out the electric bikes before the excursion tomorrow. After a little rest and a shower we snaffled one of the single tables (aka "romantic") in the dining room so that we could continue out together space. This is really lovely and we are enjoying so much time with each other in such a relaxed environment!

Dancing upstairs with the eponymous Randy and a single malt for the girl completed a very, very lovely day.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

"Rollin',rollin' down the river" - our first full day cruising!!

Today was our first full day on the river - we just roll along quietly with no effort or struggle. It certainly is the life of the idle rich - will I eat, drink, watch, sleep, perambulate or none of the above!!!

It is certainly most restful and an ideal way to wander through a place like Europe with minimal effort - we are not sure that we could do it for a long time but, for now, it is being lapped up!! Elaine was a bit crook today (we find that occasionally a little bit too much fish can bring on a bad headache  :)  .. it obviously had nothing to do with what she drank the night before!!) It was a good day to just lie in bed looking out the window as we wandered easily upstream towards Vienna all day. We trundled through Bratislava and a little place called Hainburg (just after we came back into Austria) before sliding into our Vienna berth around five ..... very much a 2CH "easy watching" day".

As many of you know Mick was up early to watch us go through the first huge lock at Gabcikovo. This is a hydroelectrc/ river control project in Slovakia (in conjunction with Hungary) that was built in the 1980s. Its scale is huge and makes you appreciate the lack of political vision in our country ... this is what you call infrastructure guys!! Mick was first on deck at 5:30 much to the amusement of the crew members, of course, "why get up to watch a lock?" The boat was lifted up at least 15 metres - it was like sailling up the Nepean from Penrith to Warragamba and then being lifted gently up to the water level in the dam to continue onto the lake. Great fun!!!

The distraction for the masses tonight is a concert by the "Imperial Vienna Orchestra" at the Lichenstein Palace in Vienna, we had early dinner, dressed up and headed out in the coaches for an 8 pm start. This was obviously "just for the tourists" and was a bit like going to Curzon Hall for a group of musicians from Macquarie Uni .... but I'm getting snobby!!!! Some bits of it were quite good and, lets be real, we are in Vienna hearing Mozart and Strauss!!! The patrons lapped it up and it was well-presented .... we didn't think it quite merited the (almost) complete standing ovation but it was fun and a nice night out together!!!

As we start to get into stride with this tour we are taking more control. Today, in Vienna, we are just going to have a day on our own .... we realise that we just do not like buses so we are switching into our own gear rather than join in one of the organised tours ...... another day together in Vienna, how sweet!!!

Friday, August 29, 2014

We are sailing ..... errr cruising!!

Well we're sailing ... err make that cruising! It is early morning again (Mick is up to watch the ship go through a huge lock!) and we have settled in well! We are getting the sense that there is room for us to just do what we want to and that lessens that "RSL feeling" quite a lot!

In the morning in Budapest there was a bus tour organized and we were going to the "Nuclear Bunker, Hospital in the Rock" which we didn't go to earlier knowing that it was coming up. The young guide was excellent and we found that we came to understand further some aspects of Hungarian life - they have done it tough here! The views over the city from the highest hill in Buda was lovely but there was a bit too much sitting in the bus for us as we had to drop the "Hot Springs" people off first. Going to the "Hospital in the Rock" as part of a tour group also stretched us a little as some of the people find the moving around a bit more difficult ... ve vant to be alone!!!! The "hospital" is a system of limestone caves that have been developed as a protected network of rooms deep enderground. It operated in WW2, during the 1956 uprising and was further developed as a nuclear bunker by the Soviets. It isn't something you would want to go to twice but on a number of levels was interesting! Perhaps the biggest awareness is of the difficulties of life over many years in this lovely place.

After lunch, which Mick found a little overwhelming, we decided to go for a walk to an island in the river that we had not visited. This time together was much better and the island was a lovely green park space where lots of families and young people were enjoying the sunshine - there was a cool fountain that squirted water in time with Strauss' "Blue Danube" and other hits, it was actually really good! We were back in time to "sail" and it was good to begin moving down the river and getting used to the whole process. The evening meal, the "Captain's Welcome Dinner" was a la carte rather than the buffet. We chose to sit on a single table and really much prefer that. It's not that we are anti-social (and we do chat with people when we sit near them!) it is just that we like our time together and aren't looking to make lifelong friends on this trip! The food and the wine are excellent  and so well prepared and presented. Sitting at our table was just like being in a very, very good restaurant and we had a lovely evening indeed - most pleasant! We came upstairs for dancing around 10:15 and carrid on for quite an enjoyable time ... Mick wants to get up early for the first lock! 

Thursday, August 28, 2014

"All Aboard" if not actually "Anchors Aweigh"!

Well here we are actually on board the "Scenic Diamond" on the Danube in Budapest! We were asked to gather at the Marriott by 3 pm for "embarkation" so we did some easy wandering around town in the morning as Kevin had agreed for us to leave our bags in the flat which was great. We bussed it to Heroes Square and wandeered around the delightful park and a rather folorn "Castle" before catching the UNESCO heritage listed Metro ( perhaps the first in the world) back to the centre. We visitedd the Markets and which were bustling and filled with a lot better fruit than Mick had seen the day before - it was good to see but the quality still wasn't like other EU countries! Swinging home via the "shoes on the river bank" we gathered our bags and trundled to the Marriott.

Almost immediately we had that feeling "has this really been such a good idea"!!!  There are lots of "old people" around, surely that isn't our demographic!! We sat and read until we were called to the buses which took us on a twenty minute run down the river a little where the boat was tied up. Being the first evening we gathered earlier than is usual with dinner, buffet style, and very tasty (with lots of vegetables!!!) before gathering in the lounge for the safety talk and a general orientation for the next day. Drinks are "complimentary" so the room was loosening up a little (there are lots of Canadians, a few Brits and us Aussies - still not sure just how many but the Canuks dominate in more ways than one!!) There was an excellent performance of traditional Hungarian music and dancing during which Mick had a recurrence of the"has this been such a good idea" feeling and, just for a few moments, felt like he was trapped on a floating Fairfield RSL Saturday night!!!! 

We took our drinks (our own teapot) back to the excellent cabin where we settled much more easily into this being a good thing to do!!! Each cabin has its own balcony so you can get away from the cheery crowd when you want to! It seems incredible that this has been almost a year in the planning as we first approached the Travel Agent in Septembe 2013 and this leg, from Budpest to Prague became the pin around which all the rest revolved - including Mick's diagnosis  ..... Mick is always an "inverted snob", feeling uncomfortable with things like people making the bed or treating you like the landed gentry so hopefully he can relax and simply enjoy this time together. The boat stays in Budpest until tomorrow evening and we moved up and parked off the Pariliament buildings for the night.... It is really lovely! 
Happy cruising!!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

No strawberries here; "taking the waters" and a "pumping ruin bar"!!!

Looking for a lilttle fruit for breakfast gave a small but sobering insight into the realities of a small post-Communist country. None of the fruit on display would have been displayed in a fruit shop in Sydney! All the fruit (with the exception of the bananas, was spotted and marked and the vegetable section had limp staples and little variety - this was a small supermarket with lots of other goods, a fine shop not at all run down. The food in the cafes etc is excellent, if a trifle stodgy, but the selection for ordinary people is certainly limited - and as our guide explained yesterday, the people are used to this after the many "grey" years of Communism!

 Having decided to "take the waters" we headed off by tram for the St. Gellert Baths - there are lots of bathhouses in Budapest but we chose this one because of the Art Deco style for which it is renowned, we weren't disappointed!! We had a lovely day! It is an interesting pastime watching all the body shapes that belong to this human existence. We moved around from hot to cold to sauna to lunch on the terrace and around again! You could see how the idle rich fell for such experiences so many years ago! Some of the designs are simply scrumptious and most certainly add to the whole experience.

Home in the late afternoon before venturing out for the evening. A quick tram ride to the beautiful Synagogue and another venture into the Jewish Quarter from a different angle this time.  Using the "Tour girls" excellent map and suggestions we found Szimpla - a "ruin bar" with something of a reputation. It isa an exotice mix of spaces - bars, BBQ, performance stage, hooka

We learn quite a bit about Budapest

For our first full day in Budapest we decided to join a "Free Walking Tour" - we ended up actuallly doing two of these. The first one was a general orientation and history tour which moved us around the inner city (actually came right past our flat!!), across the chain bridge and up the hill to the Castle and church of St. Mattias. 

This was an excellent thing to do for our first morning as it took us to the significant vantage points while adding the insights of the Tour Leader - Annika was a literature graduate who also hopes to teach Hungarian as a second language, she was intelligent, amusing and very knowledgeable with a good way with people. 

We appreciated getting a background into this history of this country which has done it tough .. especially being on the losing side of a number of wars. The influence of the Hapsburgs, the losses of land after WW1, siding with the Nazis and eventually being invaded in WW2 and then being "saved" by the Russians who forgot to go home too! The repetitive destruction of the city means that the buildings are not nearly as old as we are used to seeing in Rome etc. The neo-classical facades (as in Vienna) come mainly from the last Hapsburg period around the beginning of the 20th century - the dome on St. Stephan's was only finished in 1989!! We were easily the oldest in the group (check out their Facebook page!) but felt quite at home. The views from the Palace and Church surrounds of Buda were truoly magnificent and the hill isn't nearly as steep as it looks!!

The second tour, in the afternoon, was the Communist one. Despite being something of a "progressive lecture" it proved to be equally fascinating. Sadly, I can't recall the second young woman's name but she was equally intelligent, committed and even more fiesty!! Her grandfather was a university lecturer and a member of the Communist Party and she spoke simply of her memories of growing up at the tail end of communism in Hungary - she had spoken with her grandfather often about his recollections. She was around Matt's age (33) so had clear childhood memories of a time which passed in around 1989. She was also strong on the realities of "post-communism" and reflected on the way our media dominated West is really not all that far removed from the realities of Soviet propaganda!!! Rupert Murdoch and Stalin are perhaps just different morphs of the same evil!! 

She lives in a Soviet era flat in the outer ring (aka "non-tourist") part of Budapest. 50 flats, very run down and trying to cope with the sudden loss of the "State" which, even if it was corrupt and moribund, actually looked after everything!! (How do you set up a "Body Corporate" in a land that depended on the State for everything - especially when the flats are extremely run down  and really need repalcing??) Her only chance of aquiring somewhere decent to live is via "inheritance". The inner-city (aka "tourist land") is increasingly being bought up by western investors pushing the locals (who earn only around (200 Euro a month) out of their own city ... invaded yet again - just different villians!!!

We compared "Soviet era" buildings with "what the West is buying"; we looked at  a very recent, controversial monument blaming Germany for the deaths of all the Jews in WW2 (any decent reflection realises that the Hungarian Black Arrows (aka local Nazis) was equally to blame!; and we saw Ronnie Regan's statue in the square with the last Soviet monument as a sort of comedic detente.

All in all a great and challenging day!! We finished off with a fine meal in the Jewish Quarter and some nice wine!!! 

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

We're not hungry, we're in Hungary!!

Sunday was a travel day but a pretty easy one! We bade farewell to Vienna with and easy morning in Gillian's airy flat (Gillian had gone to Scotland for the weekend but her daughter Abla was home from Japan). We walked to the tram (for a change and a different perspective) and rumbled around some more "ordinary" areas of Vienna for about an hour on our way to the larger train station.

Apart from a dash along the long, long platform in and icy rain shower, we caught the train easily and, despite a slightly cramped, crowded, backwards facing seat the trip here was fine and, as intended gave us the chance to see something of the countryside. It was quite flat (a very old river valley tends to be!), green with lots of wind farms and remote tiny villages. The woman adjacent to us was travelling with a little white dog on her seat and a cat in a travel box on the rack!!!

Budapest Keleti station was a blast from the Eastern European past! Very crowded, ancient with money changing spivs clutching wads of notes touting for business. Once you managed to get outside onto the more modern square with its accesses to the Metro and the street things looked up and it was easy enough to find a Bancomat, a very welcoming tourist office and get onto the Metro for the short trip to our flat. It was Sunday afternoon, bright, sunny and warm when we emerged from the Metro at Deac Ferenk ter and rumbled our bags across a lovely park with skateboarders, families and people enjoying the sun towards the neo-classical district we are to call home for a short few days!
  Outside the door of the flat, inside the building - dusty but cool!

The flat is wonderful!!! It is in and Art Deco building with 15ft ceilings (yes 15ft!) and is literally right on the main tourist mall (no traffic!) leading  from the river to the Cathedral. It is humongous and sparsely furnished but has everything we need and is very clean. Good shower, bed and "to die for" stone balcony overlooking the mall and the views - we'll be having a champagne or two out there and thinking of the peasants! There was a slight hiccup getting in as Kevin, our host, was late and took a littlele getting here but it was sorted pretty quickly!!
Took this on my way to get coffee .. two steps outside the door!

We headed out around 6 and caught our first glimpse of the beauty of this very compact and quite entrancing city. A stroll along the Danube (not too blue at this time of the year) and up into the Jewish Quarter to a bustling restaurant filled with (mainly young) tourists and locals where our basic needs (beer and food) were more than adequately met! It being quite easy to find your way around, we wandered home via a circuitous route through quite, well-lit streets. A red wine on the balcony and a comfortable bed .... life is sweet!

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Museum Day - Understanding more of Austria, the Vienna State Opera and Jazz Up Late!

With another warm inviting day before us and some more detailed knowledge of this city under our belt we thought some culture was called for so off to the museum quarter!!

The main, older city is well defined by the Ringstrasse - an hexagonal wide boulevarde that was built towards the end of the 19th Century (as indeed was most of what we can see as lots has been destroyed over the years by conflicts) - and the Museum Quarter is on one arm of this, quite close to everything else. The scale of these buildings is incredible as many of them were once Hapsburg palaces and they are simply overwhelming. There are a couple of new structures connected to the old palace stables (which are huge in themselves) and we were headed for one of these the Leopold Museum which is essentially one man's collection of art (bequeathed to the city) from the beginning of 1900 through to the sixties. His focus was on the early part of the 20th Century and the influential "Secession" movement (we had been fortunate to stumble across some of this in 2011 at the NGV when they held "Vienna: Art and Design" in 2011 ... we had really liked it, never thinking we would see more of the same here in its place of origin!). The large number of works by Schiele, Klimt and the exquisite household items from the Wiener Werkstatte, and insight into Otto Wagner and others were truly worth the visit. As with other countries, Austria is reflecting on the anniversary of the beginning of WW1, and there were several exhibits, both contemporary and historical, reflecting on this from an artistic perspective. We were humbled to realise that there was so much more to WW1 than our antipodean focus on the Western Front - the suffering over this way was was also horrific in scale and degree. Combined with the the resulting destruction of the cities, the breakup of their empire, the Depression of the 1930's and the rise of Fascism made for one hell of a difficult period in which to live. It was certainly quite wonderful to be able to spend some time comprehending some of this.

The museum, of course, took longer than we anticipated and we needed watering and feeding to sustain us and had a brief respite in the courtyard area watching small battery-operated boats in a fountain and the Viennese enjoying a sunny day - it is truly a lovely city! Rain was looming so were paid lip service to some of the other daunting buildings as we headed home for a shower before the evening's entertainment. You would have to live here for quite a while to even come close to all these places!

It rained very heavily, and for several hours, but thankfully were were safely home showering and resting and the rain had eased to a drizzle by the time we headed out to the "Staatsoper" (the State Opera Theatre) for a "Tourist Concert". The State Opera is closed for the summer and the Vienna Phil is in Salzburg for the festival so there isn't much on at the moment. We succumbed to the incessant invitations by the period dressed "Mozart lookalikes" who hawk these concerts at every venue. We were actually quite happy to go because it gave us a look inside the famous building and Gillian assured us that "the music won't be bad!". Mick is pretty sure that every tune is on the CD "Classics for Dad" set that he received for Father's Day some years ago but that didn't lessen the enthusiasm of the audience. It was very enjoyable with a soprano, an excellent tenor and a 30 strong choir who gave us the Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus" (don't quite know where that fitted into the Mozart and Strauss concert but who cares - it's a good tune!!!)

After the show we enjoyed coffee and torte at "Cafe Sacher" - one of "the" places to be seen (we must tell Sue and Ross 
that we have found somewhere to have coffee after the STC shows!) - it was delightful! A last stroll along the near deserted tourist strip (the rain had scattered them); a final sigh at the beauty of the floodlit cathedral and a diversion to "Jazzland" 
- "a Viennese institution" ... Lonely Planet - for some after-midnight swinging in a cavern that may well have been a bomb shelter in one of the wars. Home late but well satisfied and pleasantly weary!! Vale Vienna!!