Floating Down the Danube
Prague to Budapest December 2010
or how was I to know it would be a record snow-driven cold that month?
Day 1: Air France takes off two hours late, due to late arrival of plane from France as a result of heavy snow fall in Paris. To give the airline credit, they've already made a new follow-on flight to Prague for us and give us each a $5 voucher to buy a drink in the terminal to pass the time. Finally we board. AAA battery in my noise-canceling earphones dies, but a friendly seatmate, a sociology student at UCLA, loans me his.
Day 2: Czech Republic is in the European Community so we only have to go through immigration once. Taxi fare from Airport to Red Chair Hotel is $500 Kroner (20 Euros), but we have neither Euros nor Kroner on hand; fortunately, receptionist at Hotel pays driver.
Acting on recommendation from the receptionist, we walk to restaurant several blocks away only to learn they a) don't take credit cards, b) don't have any tables free. 2nd restaurant we find on our own takes cards, but doesn't have tables. It's Friday night in Prague and everyone is out on the town walking down the middle of the snow and ice-covered road whenever crowded off the sidewalks. Zillions of independent coffee houses with not a Starbucks in sight. A black light theater and a marionette opera beckon. We eat finally at a 3rd beer hall style restaurant after a slight wait for a table: half a duck, red cabbage, sauerkraut, and some near-inedible bread dumplings. And beer or course. Dorothy downs two steins. I am surprised—not that we find the restaurants, for we are not at all hesitant about showing passing strangers our crumpled map, on one occasion when we were standing outside the place we were looking for—but that we find our way back to the hotel.
Twin beds at the hotel! Ideal for twins, perhaps, but not for couples. Beds are short sheeted. Still, we sleep the night through.
Day 3. We wake at eight, seemingly recovered from the flight. Copious tasty breakfast--paté a treat. We walk across Charles Bridge and up to the Castle searching constantly for ATM along the way or a place we can change US$ for Czech Kroner. The change places all practice deception—hidden commissions, exchange rates unlike the ones posted. One woman refuses to return our US money. I holler, “Police, politsa.” We get our money back. On our walk we are besieged by solicitors offering to sell us tickets to any number of afternoon concerts in a cathedral featuring Mozart, Smetana, Albinoni, and Dvorak.
Mulled wine and hot chocolate are for sale everywhere (for about E2). Milling tourists surround us, though this is winter. We don't venture inside Castle; come down by a different way than we went up. See wonderful toy museum that spans the last two centuries. And encounter an impromptu snowball fight in the park below.
Cross bridge higher up the river with a view of the Charles Bridge we crossed originally. Find ourselves in the Jewish quarter. Signs point to existence of former synagogues, but we don't actually see any—later aboard ship, we learn we missed an architectural treat.
Having visited an ATM, we lunch inexpensively at cafe that rejected us the day before—pork chop with onions and chicken stuffed with cheese. Skip dessert.
We head for railway terminal via outdoor market with pretzels, street food. Steer toward Venchelaus square, go astray and walk through Tower. Walk and walk till we find terminal. Are told to return next day as fare to Passau will be cheaper then. Take different way back, buy hot chestnuts and halava in Xmas Market, and find our Red Chair Hotel. Exhausted from walk, we forgo night on the town—black light theater, marionette opera, stay in hotel, watch DVD but only sleep fitfully in hour-long stretches.
Day 4: Up at 7:30; quick half-breakfast, we build sandwiches to take with us on train. Dropped from taxi, we find ourselves in the old station, a part new to us, but porter leads us to ticket window. There we are sold an inexpensive ticket that later proves good only as far as Regensburg. Sign says train will be 10 minutes late. Ten minutes later, sign reads 20 minutes late and so it goes till the 40 minute mark, when delays proceed 5 minutes at a time to 55 minutes late. Train is divided into compartments. We share with three non-English speaking Czech college students. I turn down heat.
Naturally, we miss our connection in Regensburg. Just as well for we learn we must buy a further ticket. We wait an hour for the new connection (it’s direct to Passau, hurray) which, naturally, is a further half hour late. We do have time for a beer (refreshing and inexpensive) and to pay 0.5E to waiter for loan of key to restroom.
Our new train ( which goes as far as Vienna) is filled; we sit coach style across aisle from one another. Dorothy falls asleep.
When we arrive in Passau, it’s snowing. Our ship is docked a one-mile cab ride from the train station. Time for a shower in our spacious stateroom, then dinner with wonderful table company.
Day 5. I sleep till 6:30 am CET; Dorothy till 8. Huge breakfast. 3 minute cruise up river to new pier. A walking tour of Passau in the cold. We are both under dressed. See too much of a church led by an overly devout guide followed by an exhibition of gingerbread making over the centuries with a tasting and hot mulled wine included. A regret: We did not eat the tasty pastries on display.
Day 6. An hour long bus ride from Linz, Austria, our first stop on the cruise, takes us to a resort hotel overlooking an ice-covered lake amid snow-covered mountains.
Ideal spot for a honeymoon.
An hour more and we are in Salzburg. Tour guide takes us to the gardens where they filmed Sound of Music,
Then we cross the river to tour a Cathedral and an outdoor market. I buy a cheese wurst that comes with horse radish and hot mustard.
Tour over, our feet are like icicles, Dorothy and I head for the elevators that carry us up to the Modern Art Museum and a view of the river valley and town below. We spend the afternoon touring the museum and walking along the parapet. The works on display don't quite match the wonder of the Max Ernst exhibition I viewed in September. Then we catch the bus for the long, long ride home through heavy traffic.
Great dinner tonight. Three item pumpkin appetizer precedes the venison.
Day 7. The town of Mielk sits at the foot of an enormous Benedictine abbey. We tour the Abby’s Museum--indoors!, learn that Benedictines emphasize work and listening for God over prayer. Enormous library spans five centuries.
An infinite staircase
walk back through town where we purchase warm boots for Dorothy and boot
liners for me. Drink mulled wine (mixture of red and white, rum, oj, and
Find a wurst stand in the forest and in the solitude, the two of us enjoy our second cheese wurst with hot mustard.
We don’t venture outdoors that day a second time; stay aboard and enjoy a strudel making demonstration as we cruise down the river in the daylight for the first time. Definitely the high light of our trip.
Dinners and dining companions continue to be five star and first rate. Presentation matches the quality of the food
The picture window in our cabin is large enough for Dorothy to sit in and ideal for taking photographs as we float by hillside vineyards
Day 8. We begin the day with two made-to-order breakfasts. Then it's a bus tour of central Vienna.
A short walking tour ends in front of Demels. Inside our table faces pastry chefs in action. We snack on two hot chocolates (mine laced with chili), Sachertorte and apple strudel (17.4 E plus tip).
Back to the ship for lunch; at 3pm, we venture out again on the free shuttle to the town center. Here a street market attracts hundreds of school children, who drink mulled wine from Xmas cups and eat large crisps of thin sweet pastry. After taking several photos of trees filled with giant ornaments, we take the last seats on the 4pm shuttle back to the ship displacing several angry passengers who must now wait till 5pm.
Day 9: A far-too early start on a guided walking tour of Bratslavia in the intense cold. We board a toonerville trolley, its windows frost covered, the outside barely visible and listen to a guide tell us what one might see if one might see. After mulled wine and a sour cherry strudel with poppy seeds, our shivering fingers barely able to grip the warm pastry, we return as quickly as we can to the ship. Just as well, as we left the camera back in our cabin. But here are some photos due to Vlado:
Afternoon is spent in our cabin, our buns atop the heater vent watching the passing scene as our ship floats down the Danube to Budapest.
We thaw out just in time for the farewell dinner which features march of the waiters and baked alaska, plus a tray of chocolate delicacies at each table. Two of us get to split chocolates for six.
Day 10. Dorothy stays in bed after we reach Budapest and refuses to go on bus tour. Shame, for the cities, Pest and Buda are both extraordinarily beautiful. To be honest, I turn down the roughing it walking tour to stay the bus.
Pest has multiple statue filled parks. Buda, the pricey part of town, offers fantastic views from the Battlements. Dine in a local restaurant next to a table filled with leggy Russian models on poppy-seed strudel and homemade hot chocolates for E5.
In the afternoon, Dorothy and I board a bus that takes us out into the Hungarian countryside to a 20-minute exhibition of trick riding.
Day 11. We disembark. Are hoping that tomorrow all airports will be open. But not today. We reach Castle Hotel at 10:30 and they let us into our room! We walk around castle district past the military museum, briefly visit an art gallery and sculpture garden; artist likes to pose face mask in an extended hand.
Alas, Dorothy loses all our maps along the way including map to restaurant. We find an alternative on line, but after a week of gourmet meals, do we really want to spend that much? Receptionist points us to the Metro a ten-minute walk away. We take the metro three stops to the Christmas market. Definitely peasant food of all kinds including huge potato latkas covered with sour cream and chives, long cylinders of cinnamon flavored bread turning on spits, rooster testicle stew. We dine on mulled wine, sausage—a long one, sauerkraut and bread.
Day 12. Departure of our Air France plane from Budapest has been delayed till noon, so we get to sleep in till nine, rather than 5am. At airport, we stand in two wrong lines. In the last of these, we are about to be handed our gate passes only to have these whipped away from us. First, we must arrange for a new flight from Paris. We stand in a long, long line for two hours. Would have been three but lady from second line comes to look for us. We are offered a choice of flying to Rome that afternoon and then on to LAX via JFK the next day. Or of staying overnight in Budapest at Air France expense and then to Rome the next day.
Alas, they lied. We are not to return to Budapest. Instead we are stuck out in the boonies near the airport overnight with the only edible food to be procured from a nearby discount grocery. Things could be worse; they offered to have us fly Alitalia.
Day 13: This worthless hotel does not call us at 5am as promised. Thankfully, I have insomnia. Nor is the taxi waiting for us. It took off leaving all five passengers (including the pair who did get a wake-up call) stranded. The hotel has a shuttle! We check in but get gate passes only for our flight to Rome. In Rome, eight delta employees—only two of whom actually function as workerbees run about aimlessly as we wait in line for two hours to get our passes. (One person takes our passports; a second functionary hands them back.) The monotony is broken by a busty Italian-American who loses her purse (she had lost her cool an hour before) as we transfer from one gate to another. Will the same scene be repeated in New York where we must take yet another flight. Of course not. Here an American Airlines computer dispenses the gate passes in seconds.
We're going home business class! But just before we board the third plan of our 27 hour day, they take the passes away and move us to steerage, where no-frills American wants $7 for food and $7 more for a blanket. Oh, how we long for the food, attention, and early arrival of the AirFrance from Paris to LAX we were scheduled for originally.
We arrive home at 1:30 am in the pouring rain. A shower, our own bed, we cuddle and fall asleep.