Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Vacation Coda: Stranded in Frankfurt

Well, this isn't how I expected my vacation to end. I'm stranded in a Holiday Inn Express outside Frankfurt, Germany. Hopefull, Lufthansa willing, I will be home tonight about 22 hours late.

I dont think I've ever had any problems on the "outbound" side of my vacations, but this is the second year in a row I've had a "missed connection" induced delay to my return. Last year, it was because of the volcano in Iceland whose name looked like someone's cat walked across their keyboard. This year, it was labor problems at Lufthansa. The rumor was that it was a "work to rule" slowdown -- a form of labor action where the employees rigidly and extremely follow the letter of the rules, crippling the business. As a result, my plane was an hour late in leaving Budapest. Coincidentally, that was the length of my scheduled layover in Frankfurt after one of the flight legs got shifted after I bought my ticket. But the plane had to circle somewhere in Germany for quite awhile and it was nearly two hours late in getting to the gate ni Frankfurt. The flight to Vancouver (with the connection from YVR to LAS) was long gone. I had to wait in a four-hour long line to get rebooked on a flight today, with a plane change in Denver.

At least Lufthansa put us up in a hotel, albeit a Holiday Inn Express somewhere near the airport well outside Frankfurt. They gave us meal vouchers worth 20 euro, which paid for a nice dinner at an Italian restaurant near the hotel, the Ristorante Tommasini. I had both a tall beer and a digestif, a Vecchio Amoro del Capo which was awesomely good. And the dinner was surprisingly good, as I had no expectations for German-Italian food, which I guess would be the Holy Roman Empire.

The hotel was OK.

I loved the shower. Nice water pressure, and you could specifically set the water temperature, instead of guessing somewhere along a dial. Those Germans. They're all about the cleanliness.

Hopefully I will get out of Frankfurt today. Off to the airport to find out.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Last Night in Budapest

My last night in Budapest. Tomorrow morning I fly back to the real world of Las Vegas, Nevada USA.

I was on the Buda side of the river and I planned to eat dinner at the Csalogany 26 Etterem, but it was closed for Monday. So I headed up to the part of town formerly known as Moskzva ter. (They changed the name from translates to "Moscow Square" a few months back, but, with me being Pennsylvanian and all, I like to call things by the name they used to have.) I had dinner at the St. Jupat, known for its huge massive mega-portions (in other words, American-sized) of Hungarian food.

They were out of the beef tenderloin dish done "Budapest style" that ordered last year, so I had to get something else:

I can't recall the description, but this was basically Hungarian pot roast. It was beef and potatos, topped with a thick slab of bacon. Except for the bacon, it would not be too different from what you would get at the Village Pub on Pot Roast Tuesday. It was good. And heavy. But the side order of home-made pickles was most excellent, especially the pickled bell pepper stuffed with shredded cabbage.

I took the long way back to my hotel. I stopped off to see the world-reknowned Gerbaud, one of the fanciest coffee shops in the world. It is very well-known for its cakes and pastries, more so than its coffee.

It was closed for the night. Parliament. Csagolny 26. Gerbaud. All closed. I guess this means that it's time to get back to Las Vegas and back to work. And, with that, this Prague-Bratislava-Eger-Budapest Vacation 2011 blog is closed for the season.

Rudas Baths

After all that walking around, it was time for a soak and a massage at the Rudas. Curiously, the large statue of St. Gellert on the Buda Hills overlooking the Danube is right near the Rudas and not the Gellert which actually bears his name.

St. Gellert was brought to Hungary from Venice. He was martyred by the then-heathen locals in 1046. By being placed in a barrel with spikes in it and rolled down the hill that now bears his name. Not even Texas will go that far in its executions. (Not enough hills.)

And just on the other side of the bridge is the most "Turkish" of the public thermal baths in Budapest: the Rudas. It has the domed roof and the octagonal main pool with only little shafts of light coming into the bathing area through holes in the dome.

You come in through the lobby and then it's "no pictures allowed" territory. You pay for everything before entering, including the massage, and you are given a "wristwatch" looking device that records what you've paid for, and what changing cabin has been assigned to you. The wristwatch is even the key that unlocks the lock on the changing cabin. Very high tech for what is otherwise such a 16th Century environment. I had one of those Hungarian soap-and-water massages, where you lie on a table and the masseur soaps you down limb by limb. It's not deep tissue, although the masseur did use a lot of knuckle on my quads, hams, back, and (productively painful) my feet. But it's a little more vigorous than a Swedish type massage. It's all so Hungarian.

An Encounter with a Great American

Not this statue.

Down the final bits of tourism here in Budapest. My plan for the day was to take an English language tour of Budapest's incredibl beautiful, ornate Hungarian Parliament Building. I wanted to do that tour when I was in Budapest last year, but there were no English language tours available when I was here. So that was high of my agenda for this visit. I got on the red line of the Metro for Kossuth Lajos ter. Why there is this statue of a man and a dog in the middle of the subway station, I do not know. When you emerge from the underground at this stop, you walk out and immediately there is one of the world's great legislative buildings:

Only I wasn't going in. No English language tours today. Thwarted again! Oh well. Maybe next year. But there was something else I wanted to see in nearby Szabadsag, or "Freedom Square."

To get there, I had to walk past the statue of Imre Nagy, a communist reformer who was deposed in the 1956 Soviet re-invasion. A film crew of some sort was filming something or other around Mr. Nagy.

He did not seem to mind. I was looking for a Great American who I had heard could be found here in Szabadsag. This is a large plaza that contains the quite controversial Memorial to the Soviet Red Army in honor of their liberation of Budapest from the Nazis in WWII:

This is one of the last bits of communist-era statuary still standing in downtown Budapest. I don't see any sign of the man right around the memorial, so I walked down the plaza.

Nice fountain at the end of the plaza, but where is he? I finally ask two police officers who speak enough English and they walked me right over to him.

Ronald Wilson Reagan! The 40th President of the United States of America.

The Hungarian government erected the statue honoring President Reagan in honor of the role he played in ending the scourge of communism and bringing down the Iron Curtain.

When I was photographing the statue, a group of American tourists came up and a woman asked me if that was Ronald Reagan. I said yes. She went back to her group and made some comment along the lines of, "I'm still waiting for trickle-down to work." I had to defend President Reagan's honor! So I shot back, "Thirty years of prosperity isn't a bad record." There you go again.

It is a popular photo spot.

Popular with a lot of tourists. I mean, who doesn't want to get their photo taken with President Reagan.

And that concludes the tourism portion of the vacation. After that, I took a tram down the Danube to the Elizabeth Bridge to hit one last thermal bath: the Rudas.

Great Market Hall

This is the last day of Big Vacation 2011. And that means it is my last day in Budapest. And that means it is time to go souvenir shopping in the Great Market Hall.

The produce section looks and smells great.

Not every stall has everything (but every booth seems to sell "paprika." Not the spice (although there is a lot of that being sold at the various booths). "Paprika" is just the Magyar word for "bell pepper."

The meats are plentiful and, unlike the delicious aromas wafting from the produce stalls, there are no odors emanating from the meat sections, which I presume is due to very fast product turnover.

The local shopping is on the ground floor. Tourist tchochkes and the restaurants are up on the mezzanine. It was lunch hour, the restaurants (lunch counters, actually) were extremely mobbed, and I had just eaten a massive and late breakfast, so I wasn't hungry. But, note to self for my next visit to Budapest, this looks like the place to go for cheap lunch food. One last look at the meat counter and it's time for my next destination o' the day:

Mmmmmm. Meat. The "Mmmmmm" above specifically excludes the blood sausage and the liver sausages that I saw for sale at a number of mear counters. Maybe they're good, but I don't intend to find out.

DInner at the Soul Cafe

Dinner at the Soul Cafe on Raday utca, not far from my hotel. I had a dish described as "chicken roasted in bacon with roasted apricots and potato dumplings." Roasted in bacon? Mmmmm. Sounds intriguing. The dish was very good. The "roasted in bacon" simply meant wrapped in bacon while being roasted, which is good enough in my book. The bed of apricots went well with the chicken, as chicken and apricots play well together. And we rarely get or eat fresh apricots in the states, as it seems to exist here mostly as a dried fruit or as a jam. The potato dumplings were more like puffy mini-dinner rolls rather than a spaetzle.

The Soul Cafe was a nice, small restaurant (less than 20 tables) on trendy Raday utca. And you know I'm all about eating trendy! Raday utca is billed in the tour guides as the street where trendy, hip Budapesters go to eat trendy hip food away from the tourist hordes who discovered their previously-trendy hip digs at Liszt Ference Square. In actuality, Raday utca is where trendy hip tourists go to eat in a place where they can think they've escaped the tourist horde at the previously-trendy hip digs at Liszt Ference Square. You know it's not for Budapesters when most people in there are speaking the English.

No big. My food was good. For dessert, I had a glass of Tokaji Aszú 3 Puttonyos, a white dessert wine made from rotten grapes. "3 puttonyos" is the third of five levels of increasing quality. "5 Puttonyos" is the "if you have to ask you can't afford" grade.

Scenes from the Palinka and Sausage Festival

If you see the behind of the Turul Bird, you know you are in the Castle District of Budapest, site of the 2011 Palinka and Sausage Festival.

The castle grounds are a beautiful to celebrate the twin wonders of spiced meat and high-alcohol booze. You pay a small admission charge of 1000 forints (about $4.50) to enter the festival area. The admission charge includes a small tasting glass. You must purchase a debit card as all payments inside are made via this festival-issued debit card. Refunds are available at the festival exit for any unused portion of the card. For example, I got a refund of 50 forint (20 cents) for my un-drunken portion of the card.

Plenty of booths around the castle grounds. Here's one of a gentleman carving meat off a real animal leg (note the visible and still present hoof at the end of the leg).

Yes, meat really does come from animals.

This little pig is glad that he's just a decoration and not an actual live pig. Otherwise, that would've been his leg on the carving station.

Plenty of good seat available to eat your food and drink your booze.

Lots of different palinka companies had booths. You could pay a small fee (usually 300 forints, about a $1.30) for a small swig, or 400 forints (about $1.90) for a double. Palinka is a fruit schnapps with an alcohol content of between 40 and 50 percent. It can be made with apricot (the original), cherry, pear, plum, raspberry, or just about any other fruit. Interestingly, the Hungarian word for "apricot" is "barack." True story. So Hungarians must think our president's name is Apricot Obama.

I actually found the sausage section to be much more intimidating than booze section. Ordering a taste of palinka was simple. The sausages -- and knowing what meat was in which sausage -- was much more difficult. So, for food, I chose the freshly-fried potato chips, which were awesomely delicious. Note the palinka glass to the side (Obama-flavored since I'm a traditionalist), for washing down the delicious potato chips.

Hungarian National Museum

A rainy overcast morning meant that it was a good time for indoor sightseeing, so I visited the Hungarian National Museum. I got a 90-minute lesson in Hungarian history.

Major takeaway point: the Hungarians have still not gotten over the territorial losses that they suffered at the conclusion of World War I.

Background primer. Prior to World War I, Hungary was tethered to the Austrian Habsburgs via "dual monarchy." As such, Hungary fought WWI on the side of the Axis, the losers. As a result of the Versailles negotiations, the Treaty of Trianon cut off about two-thirds of Hungarian territory. Transylvania went to enlarge Romania. Slovakia was cut off and joined with the Habsburg-occupied Czech lands to form Czechoslovakia. Interior Croatia and the Vojvodina (now a constituent part of indepedent Serbia) were given to the newly frm Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, a.k.a. Yugoslavia. And bits and pieces were given to Ukraine and even Austria. (That last bit was clearly as injustice. Austria was the nation (far and away) most responsible for starting World War I, with their plan for a war of retribution against Serbia for a lone anarchist assassinating the heir to their throne in a land that was part of Austria-Hungary. Evil Habsburgs.) Hungary shrunk. Native-speaking Hungarians were now under the thumb of foreigh countries. And, 90+ years later, Hungary still has not gotten over it.

I had a great tour of very nice museum. (No flash photography inside, so no pictures to post.) It was nice to know more of the background of the historic figures whose names have become major streets all over Hungary. But after 90 minutes, it was time to end the museum tour.

After a nice walk through the museum, the weather had cleared. The sun was out. It was chilly, but pleasant enough in the sunlight. It was time for my next destination: the Palinka and Sausage Festival!

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Dinner at the Frank Zappa Caffe

I ate dinner at the Frank Zappa Caffe. I had no clue Frank was reknowned for his food and drink, but I do remember that he was sophisticated and surprisingly erudite, so why the heck not?

Interesting little pub. Some pictures of Mr. Zappa on the wall, but it wasn't a Hard Rock style memorabilia museum, by any means. Just someone who wanted to pay an homage to the late Mr. Zappa by naming hi cafe for the gentleman. I had the chicken ragout soup with tarragon (lots of tarragon) and a the cabbage roll with sour cream:

I didn't know sour cream and stuffed cabbage would play well together, but I decided to trust Mr. Zappa's sophistication as to culinary matters. It was quite good. It was very spicy, probably loaded with hot Hungarian paprika. The heat made the sour cream and welcome and necessary addition. There would be a jazz band playing that night. I stayed for a song, but then decided to explore the street festivities:

There was a beer festival going on in the blocks of this neighborhood. That's one of the great things about Budapest. Both times I've been here there is some sort of organized festival happening in the streets geared for the residents and not the tourists. It really adds to the atmosphere of the place. I had a locally-brewed amber from this stand that was quite tasty. 500 forint (about $2.25) for a 0.3l drink.