Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Budapest: Splendor on the Danube

Budapest was truly a sight to behold as we approached it down river from the North. Most of the passengers on the MS AmaCerto were up on the Sun Deck snapping photos and admiring the landscape as we passed the neo-Gothic Parliament Building, Fisherman’s Bastion, the Royal Palace, the Chain Bridge and Gellert Hill.

As soon as we arrived at the dock, we were whisked away on a whirlwind tour of Budapest. The highlight of the tour was the view of the city from Fisherman’s Bastion and strolling around the Great Market Hall. I spent at least a couple of hours wandering through the rows of stalls where vendors were selling groceries, paprika, sausage, lace, clothing, beer kegs, leather goods, crafts for people of all ages, etc. I noticed that many locals were shopping here so this market wasn’t just a tourist trap. In fact, it was the Pike Place Market of Budapest! Steve, Sandi, Bill and I found a restaurant on the upper floor called Fakanal Ettermi where we had a very tasty veal stew and gnocchi washed down with a beer. Thank God one of the tour guides gave us a good tip about what to order otherwise we would probably still be there trying to decide.

Our guide on this tour was more talkative than most on current affairs and population trends. She told us the unemployment rate in Hungary is 12%. I was surprised to learn that Hungary has a growing and prosperous relationship with China and that it is relatively easy for Chinese citizens to immigrate to Hungary in spite of the high unemployment rate. A lot of Dutch and Germans retire in Hungary because of the Euro’s favorable exchange rate against the Hungarian Forint. Many empty flats in Budapest are owned by Israelis. In spite of the fact that over 450,000 Hungarian Jews died in concentration camps during World War II, Budapest today has the highest number of Jewish citizens per capita of any European city.

Our guide allowed that the three types of people Hungarians hate most are soccer players, politicians and real estate agents. And the reason is …….they make too much money!

I have done a lot of cruising in my time but I have to say that the night cruise around Budapest (Illuminations Cruise) was one of the most spectacular and will be forever etched in my memory. The buildings and monuments along the Danube are beautiful by day but are absolutely breathtaking at night when they are all lit up. The Illuminations Cruise along with Doug & Connie Cameron’s 50th anniversary celebration in the dining room was a wonderful way to end our cruise which I had the pleasure of sharing with my dear friends. To Doug, Connie, Sandi, Bill, Colin and Manio --- thanks for the memories!

More pictures of Budapest

Monday, October 29, 2012

Vienna: The Grand City of Music and Coffee Houses

Since Vienna has more concert stages and coffee houses than any city in the world, I was bound and determined to attend a concert and enjoy a coffee and pastry in the short time I was there.

We went to The Vienna Bourse (Vienna’s former Stock Exchange Building) to hear the Vienna Residence Orchestra play music from Mozart and Strauss, two of Vienna’s favorite former inhabitants. We were lucky to get a front row seat which was close enough to watch the fingers of the lead musician dance on her violin. On this particular evening, there were 10 musicians performing and it was a real joy to listen to them. In addition to the music, we had the pleasure of hearing singers perform Papageno-Papagena, a duet from The Magic Flute and Cherubino’s aria, “Non So Piu,” from The Marriage of Figaro. And, a couple of dancers waltzed in harmony to The Blue Danube.

One of the pieces began with the concertmaster asking a couple of the musicians to play the triangle. After expressing her disappointment with them because they didn’t quite get the beat, she asked a woman from the audience to come up on stage to give it a try. I was amazed at how eagerly the woman got with the program. She played the triangle until the end of the piece and then took a bow. Was she perhaps thinking of a career change in the back of her mind?

I had read that the Vienna Residence Orchestra was known for bringing great pieces of classical music to a wider audience that wouldn’t normally go to classical concerts. Judging by this performance, I would say they are succeeding.

Before arriving in Vienna and largely due to the movie Amadeus, I knew more about the life of Mozart than I did of Strauss. But after listening to our tour guide, it seems that Johann Strauss was a very handsome man who had a lot of female admirers and many of these ladies wanted a lock of his thick curly black hair. Fearing that he would go bald if he gave in to these pleas, Strauss adopted a black poodle and proceeded to give his fan club curls off his poodle’s back.

The next day, after admiring the grandeur of Vienna’s monumental buildings, our group of eight was ready to indulge in a Viennese pastry at the Café Mozart, located next door to the Hotel Sacher. Although there were many luscious looking desserts with names like Schokomousse-Törtchen (Chocolate mousse tartlet) and Apple strudel 'Hofbackstube,' I couldn’t resist ordering the Sacher Torte, a classic Austrian cake invented by Franz Sacher for Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, a famous Austrian politician.

The Sacher Torte consists of two layers of dense, not overly sweet chocolate dough with a thin layer of apricot jam in the middle and dark chocolate icing on the sides and top. Although I don’t normally eat whipped cream with anything, it is an absolute must with the Sacher Torte because the cake is too dry without it. Although I enjoyed it, I don’t think it would ever become one of my favorites even if I lived in Vienna. It just doesn’t compare to the Melting Chocolate Soufflé
offered at Roy’s.

More photos of Vienna.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Cruising on the MS AmaCerto: The Main-Danube Canal and the Wachau Valley

Two of my favorite cruising experiences on the MS AmaCerto were the Main-Danube Canal and the Wachau Valley.

Completed in 1992, the Main-Danube Canal is an engineering feat that allows traffic to flow between the North Sea and the Black Sea, a distance of 2,200 miles that connects 15 countries. The canal itself is 106 miles long and runs from Bamberg on the Main River to Kelheim on the Danube River. Although the canal has a total of 16 locks, we cruised through only 10 of them since we began our river cruise in Nuremberg. Our charming Cruise Director, Cheri Coll, told us that it costs €1,400 for the AmaCerto to go through the canal.

From Nuremberg to the Continental Divide, we experienced three of the deepest locks at 81 feet. We crossed the Continental Divide at 1,332 feet over the Swabian Alps during Happy Hour, snapped photos of the Watershed Monument and celebrated with a Blue Danube cocktail (sparkling wine with a bluish tint). The Danube isn’t really blue, but it wouldn’t be nearly as appealing to drink a greenish-brown cocktail! With all of the congratulatory clinking of glasses going on that evening, you would have thought we had just reached the summit of Mt. Rainier.

Lest you think that our lock experience ended at the end of the Main-Danube Canal in Kelheim, think again. After Kelheim, we sailed through 16 locks over the course of five days and nights on our way to Budapest. I remember waking suddenly to a grinding sound during one of those nights only to discover that we were in the middle of a lock.

The Wachau Valley is truly stunning. I enjoyed sitting on the Sun Deck in the crisp afternoon air soaking up the sun and listening to Cheri’s interesting commentary about wine, life in Austria and legends of days gone by.

Over 3,500 acres of terraced vineyards abound throughout the valley and in Spitz, the Tausendeimerberg (Thousand Bottles Mountain) can produce 1,000 bottles of wine in a good year. The Wachau Valley is best known for its world-class Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners and the three classification levels for Wachau wine include Steinfeder for wines up to 11.5% alcohol by volume, Federspiel for wines between 11.5–12.5% and Smaragd for wines with a minimum of 12.5%. After hearing Cheri talk so much about wine and the fact that few Wachau Valley wines are exported, I was disappointed that we didn’t have the opportunity to take a tour and do some wine tasting at a local winery. Although we didn’t visit any wineries in Austria, our servers on the MS AmaCerto served us many fine Austrian wines over dinner.

Above the vineyards loomed some impressive castles. I was most fascinated by the tale Cheri told about Kuenringerburg Castle in Dürnstein, where Richard the Lionheart was held captive in 1192 by Leopold V during the Third Crusade. According to legend, Richard the Lionheart’s faithful minstrel Blondel found him in Dürnstein by singing outside every castle until he came to Kuenringerburg and heard Richard join the chorus. The captive was released after the payment of 23,000 kg of silver. Could this legend be the result of indulging in too much Wachau Valley wine?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Three Scintillating Days in Prague

Before we embarked on our river cruise down the Danube, Doug and Connie Cameron, Colin and Manio Radford, Sandi Klebe and Bill Trulock, and Steve and I spent three scintillating days in Prague. Since I hadn’t done much traveling in Eastern Europe, I didn’t know whether I would encounter dour old people unhappy with their lot in life like those in St. Petersburg, Russia or the warm and welcoming folks that smiled at us on the streets of Tallinn in Estonia.

From the friendly and informative driver from Prague Airport Transfers who picked us up at the Prague Airport to the entertainers on Old Town Square, the people of Prague have a zest for life and have clearly embraced the Velvet Revolution of 1989. As one of our guides told us, “the only people who prefer Communism are those who don’t like to work.” The people will tell you that as the Rolling Stones were rolling in to Prague in August 1990 for a concert, the Soviets tanks were rolling out. In July 1991, the tank representing a Monument to Soviet Tank Crews was painted pink by an art student named David Černý and now sits at the Military Technical Museum Lešany about 20 kilometers south of Prague.

Prague is known as the city of a hundred spires and I immediately knew why after losing count of the churches I had seen. I think Doug Cameron managed to capture 15 of the spires in one brilliant photograph.

During our tours, I learned that the Czech Republic has the highest beer consumption in the world. So I made a point of washing down the heavy meat dishes and dumplings with a Pilsner Urquell instead of a glass of red wine. The only exception to that was at the Eureka Restaurant where the act of pouring wine from a vessel with a very long neck was truly an art. I was so fascinated by it that I chose wine over beer but ultimately decided that Czech cuisine is best accompanied by a beer. The waiter told me that it takes one year to learn how to pour wine from this vessel; you have to correctly aim at the glass and then know when to stop pouring.

We enjoyed a fun-filled evening at the Eureka Restaurant which featured Czech music, dance and folklore. One of the Czech dancers chose me out of a crowd of 100 to dance with him. I’m a lousy dance partner because I prefer to do my own thing but I had just enough to drink to go with the flow and not fall down. Eventually there were about 12 members of the audience involved in this dancing exercise and most of us couldn’t stop laughing.

Prague Castle is the largest and most impressive castle I’ve ever seen. You could spend a month in Prague and still not see all of the palaces, churches, residences and gardens located within the castle complex. The highlight of my visit to Prague Castle was a tour of the Lobkowicz Palace, the only privately owned building in the castle. The audio tour was narrated by William Lobkowicz, who brilliantly relays his family’s proud, aristocratic 600-year history. I was particularly captivated by the story of his grandfather, Maximilian Lobkowicz, who fled Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia in 1939 to settle in London. Shortly thereafter, the Nazis confiscated of all of the family’s properties. Although the properties were returned to the family in 1945, they were confiscated yet again by the Communists in 1948. As a young middle-class American, William came to Prague in 1990 to claim his family’s former lands and castles. Today, he and his family have dedicated their lives to restoring the family’s cultural heritage and making the Lobkowicz Collections a living history for people to experience.

Although the Czech people have endured a difficult journey during most of the 20th century, they have eagerly embraced their new found freedoms. Besides being a beautiful city filled with many historical marvels, Prague is a bustling modern city and an upbeat and inspiring place to spend three days.

More pictures of Prague.