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Trip Report Pre and Post Cruise in Prague and Budapest

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This is an account of a visit to Prague, which was arranged by AMA Waterways as a pre-cruise visit before we sailed down the Danube from Nuremburg to Budapest, and our visit to Budapest at the end of the cruise. Although I have been traveling for more than 40 years, this was my first visit to both Prague and Budapest. My companion, a former colleague with whom I have traveled numerous times, like me, had left her husband at home, was also making her first visit to these cities. Before this trip I had read a number of those posts devoted to the question of whether to visit Prague or Budapest, and having been to both, I have an answer. You will find my thoughts on that question at the end of the trip report.

October 22, 2010

I began my trip journal while we were en route to Genev from Newark, where we would catch a flight to Prague. It was October 22, and I knew from checking the weather before I left home that it would be cold in Prague, so cold that I needed either a down coat or a raincoat and a set of wool and fleece layers. Since showers were also in many of the daily forecasts, I opted for layers, but while sitting on the plane, I was already unhappy with my decision; while the layers would be handy for changeable weather, they were a hassle to keep track of and to carry around… I wondered if I had all four layers that I brought onto the plane with me and hoped I would remember to retrieve them and not drop something. (No matter how clever I think I am about packing, I always rue my decisions once underway and this trip would prove to be no exception!)

Prague – October 22, 2010 (Evening)

Our brief visit to the airport in Geneva turned out to be uneventful, but a little annoying. First, we bought water after going through security (again!) and found that the Swiss airport vendors are gouging tourists even worse than the folks at Newark! It cost 2.8 euros, or approximately four US dollars to buy a small bottle of water – outrageous even allowing for the weak dollar! To compound the highway (jetway?) robbery, no matter what currency you use to pay, they give you change in little useless Swiss coins. On the plus side, the bathrooms were nifty – very techno and environmentally friendly with two kinds of flushes and automatic doors and pretty much automatic sinks, too. Of course the bathroom was also very clean.

My seatmate on the Swiss flight to Prague was a Czech woman returning from a work-week in Geneva, where she is employed by an American firm. She was reading an English language film magazine and told me that we might run into Brad and Angelina in Prague (never happened and funnily enough we were told they were also in Budapest, but we didn’t see them there, either). She also informed me that she studies English as much as she can, and plans to live in the U.S. for a while. After we landed, I asked her how to pronounce the name of the airport, and she said “it doesn’t have a name… it’s just called the airport since there’s only one.” I assured her that it had a name beginning with “R” and then she remembered that it did have a name and pronounced it, “Ruzyne”. The flight was quite good and we were very impressed that this 10:10 a.m. flight had a lunch service with excellent Brie and Tomato sandwiches and drinks. Later they offered us another sandwich, since they had extras, and we were well fed by the time we landed.

I had reserved a ride to the hotel with the Prague Shuttle Service after reading the recommendations on the Living Prague website, by filling out a form with contact and flight information on the website and then received a confirmation email from Chris, who runs the company. He was great about responding to my email questions and assuring me that we could pay in dollars or euros if we needed to. Scott , who was easily found, since he was waiting exactly where Chris said he would be, with a sign with my name on it, picked us up.

Scott was the perfect person to introduce us to Prague. A Californian, who wandered around Europe until he arrived in Prague and fell in love, first with the city and then with his wife, he proved to be helpful, pleasant, easy-going, and a great cheerleader for his adopted city. First he showed us where the ATM was located so we could get some local currency, and then he helped us with our luggage as we walked out to the car. As he drove us into town, he gave us lots of helpful information, some sightseeing tips, restaurant and pub recommendations, and pointed out the sights along the way.

We were fortunate to have arrived on a gorgeous sunny autumn day and exclaimed with delight as we admired the scenery. The leaves were every shade of orange, yellow, red, and green and glistened in the bright sunshine. We commented on the cold weather (the forecast had indicated high’s only in the 40’s for the next several days) and Scott told us some “old guy” had predicted that this would be the coldest winter in Prague in 1000 years, which we thought was an impressive prediction. Given the forecast, for snow showers the night before we arrived, and the need for sweaters, coats, gloves, and scarves (all of which we brought, on October 22, his prediction seemed plausible. Scott dropped us off at the Intercontinental Hotel, and assured us that AMA had provided us with a perfect location for our visit.

Our accommodations, a standard room with a river view on the third floor, was ready for early check-in (which was, of course, terrific!), and we dropped off the bags and put a few things away before heading out. Because it was so beautiful out, we opted to take a walk before napping (the days when we could go without a nap after only a few hours of sleep in coach on an overnight flight were in the distant past!) I should note that check-in was pleasant and efficient. The room has everything you can think of, and both the bedroom and bathroom were very well stocked with all the amenities one would expect. The view was of the river and some woods on the far side (some have written of great Castle Hill views, but they must have been much higher up and farther down the hall to the left from our room.) We both enjoyed the beds with soft comforters and lots of pillows. Two days running I forgot to ask about the orthopedic pillow (listed somewhere among the amenities), which sounded like one I should request, but I kept forgetting about it until it was too late. Pleased with the room, we headed out, stopping at the AMA desk in the lobby to meet Pilar Gil (or Pili as she calls herself) from Argentina who now lives in Germany. She is our AMA Cruise Manager and informed us that she was expecting 60 people at the hotel and 130 on the ship, which is almost full capacity (the ship holds 148 passengers). We are officially participating in a three-day Pre-Cruise visit to Prague, which includes the hotel with breakfast each day, a city tour to take place on the morning of the second day, several optional tours, (which we declined since they involve a trip to the Terezin Concentration Camp Memorial in the afternoon and a Folklore Dinner Show in the evening), and the transfer by bus from Prague to the ship in Nuremburg on the following day. While at the hotel, the AMA desk will be staffed by either Pili or one of the local Prague guides most of the time so we can ask questions and use their advice in planning our free time.

We set out to explore Parieska Street and the Old Town Square, an easy five minute walk from the hotel, which took much longer the first time, because we had to stop every few feet to take photographs of the gorgeous buildings (and even the sidewalks, which are inlaid with lovely designs). Two blocks from the hotel, we passed Josefov street where several of the main synagogues are located. Crowds of people and tour groups filled the narrow street. We planned to visit on Sunday, when the Jewish Sabbath ends. Finishing our stroll down down Parieska Street, we arrived at the Old Town Square for the first of what would be many visits.

The square was filled with horse-drawn carriages, the horses decked out in distinctive costumes, including ear warmers (yes, it was that cold!) patiently waiting with their drivers for customers. Vendors selling some trinkets, beverages, and various food items were arrayed around the square. Among the victuals for sale were huge sausages (we split one for an afternoon snack and found it to be quite tasty), haunches of pork available for slicing, crepes (palacinky) with various toppings, trnelnic with sugar, cinnamon, or nuts, (these are a form of doughnut), roasted meats on a spit, pretzels, sugared almonds, and candy. Somewhere in my online reading, I had picked up a recommendation to try the trnelnic, so I took a long, hard look at the options. Then I noticed a couple sharing one (it was quite large) and asked how they liked it. It turned out they were from Australia and immediately offered me a small piece to taste – such nice people! While it tasted good (like a doughnut!!), there didn’t seem to be anything unusual or extraordinary about it. Their generosity saved me from a waste of both money and calories, since I no longer needed to buy and eat one in order to see what the poster was raving about.

Continuing to thread our way among the tempting eating options, we wandered over for the first of several visits to the famous Astronomical Clock. Much praised, it turned out that this is a tourist attraction definitely worth seeing because it really is amazing for its composite sections and its pleasing aesthetics. Each hour on the hour, there is a little “performance” as the doors above the clock open and a set of mechanical figures move the minute hands to the hour. Then a herald appears atop the tower and trumpets the arrival of a new hour. Later in the weekend, we heard the trumpeter from the Old Town Square while standing on the Charles Bridge, whereupon another herald in the tower on the Castle side of the bridge emerged to repeat the trumpet performance. No doubt this represents the manner in which medieval folks kept time. Nowadays it seems a very easy gig for a trumpeter since his entire performance takes perhaps a few seconds each hour… not sure what he does for the rest of his time in the tower!

After walking around the Square and determining that it was a) a great tourist attraction b) very popular and crowded in late October (so it must be much more crowded in the summer!), and c) that it is indeed only a five minute walk from our hotel, we returned to the room and had a little rest before heading out for dinner. When we first arrived at the hotel, we touched base with the Concierge Desk and asked them to make us a reservation at Mlejnice for dinner, only to be told that they were completely booked for both Friday and Saturday nights… just our luck, to arrive on a Friday! We settled for Sunday at 6 p.m. Then we tried Kolkovna, with the same result, which made me, the restaurant researcher, very sad. Now I was at something of a loss as to where to go at the last minute for a low-priced Czech food option with lots of positive reviews. We asked the Concierge for a suggestion, and she gave us a restaurant near the hotel, which she thought would work. On our way back from the Square, we walked by the restaurant and took a look at the menu, which didn’t look great – not very large and much of it composed of Greek specialties. It would have been okay if we were in Greece, but we were in the Czech Republic and didn’t want to have our first meal in this place unless it was great food. We decided to walk by again at dinner time to see if it was crowded with happy diners. If not, we’d go elsewhere. With this plan in mind, we asked our local guide, named Lucy, seated at the AMA desk when we returned, for an alternative recommendation. She suggested “Pravda,” a restaurant we had passed on Parieska Street, which looked quite nice when we saw it and which seemed to have a full Czech menu and pleasant décor. Later, we checked both restaurants and found the Concierge-recommended place completely empty during the early dinner hour with a couple of sad-looking waiters in attendance. I felt sorry for them when I went in and explained that we had a change of plan and needed to cancel the reservation. Then we walked over to Pravda, found it partly full with people who seemed to be enjoying their meal, and went in for dinner.

Service was excellent and the meal began with promise when we were served an excellent salad. The entrees, one from the Czech specialty section of the menu, consisted of slices of roasted beef with cream sauce, potato dumplings and cranberry sauce, and the other, a roast chicken with rice and a Masala sauce looked good., but both meats were on the dry side and somewhat overcooked. We shared some strudel for dessert, and my companion had her usual glass of wine and I tried some Czech beer. On the way out, we met a woman dining by herself. I asked her whether she was eating Roast Duck, which also looked good, and she told me that it was delicious. We chatted for a few minutes, learned that we live in fairly close proximity at home, and wished her well since she was leaving in the morning to lead a tour in Spain and had been in Prague on a site visit for her company. Our dinner cost around 1300 Czk or, about $35 each.

Who knows, perhaps the place recommended by the Concierge would have been better or maybe I should have made a stronger case for my first choice, which was the duck. I also had some more expensive, highly recommended restaurants on my list, but my companion preferred to spend less. While I was fine with selecting bargain places and usually prefer them, in Prague, if our first two choices (Mlejnice and Kolkovna) aren’t available and you don’t want to travel to a neighborhood away from the center (where prices are bound to be much more reasonable) or eat in a beer hall type place, you might want to consider a more expensive option if you wish to dine in the center. I think I would do that next time and for sure, make reservations through the hotel before leaving home.

Exhausted from our short sleep the previous night, we went to bed early and slept well in the comfortable Intercontinental beds. We needed to be up early for our city tour on the next morning. Note: I am an almost religiously DIY traveler, and this tour with its regimented schedule and early start time was something of a shock to my system. Throughout this trip, I would need to balance my desire for a more relaxed schedule with later start times, with the benefits of the early start each day and the tremendous quality of the tours, which I certainly would not have wanted to miss.

Saturday, October 23, 2010 - Prague

We went to breakfast bright and early on Saturday and speculated about which people in the restaurant were part of our tour group. Breakfast, as advertised, was fairly extensive, although not as wonderful as some people have reported. There is a good assortment of fresh fruit and yogurts, various cold cereals, hot cereal, and all sorts of toppings including dried fruits and nuts. For the many Asian hotel guests and those non-Asians who like a varied breakfast, there were Asian beef stir fry dishes, noodles, soups and vegetables. There were all sorts of breads, croissants, rolls, and a great assortment of jams and marmalades in various fruit flavors. These could be spooned into little cups that looked like miniature ice cream cones – a clever way to carry the jams to the table.

There was a guy making eggs and omelets with assorted fixings for the omelets and there were also pancakes available. The fellow made lots of fried eggs and left them under a warming light that didn’t do much warming so both mornings that I ate eggs, they were cold. The alternative was to stand on a line and wait for him to make fresh eggs. The same dysfunctional heating system resulted in cold pancakes. Another problem was with the bacon – soft and greasy and not crisp and none of the “hot” food items were actually hot or even very warm… so the tomatoes, beans, sausage, and little potatoes were all lukewarm to cold. Servers did provide very good coffee, tea or hot chocolate (served in a lovely glass with whipped cream – one of my favorite breakfast treats when away from home in a cold climate!) We were happy with breakfast since it was included in our pre-cruise package, but I would have been dissatisfied if I had paid for it separately since it’s very expensive if it’s not included.

AMA does a great job of organizing every aspect of the trip. We were divided into two groups – green and red for the City Tour buses and then further sub-divided into “gentle” walkers and regular walkers. We were in the red group with Lucy as our guide. First we drove around the city and were shown some major sites such as highlights of the Nove Mesto (New Town) including Wenceslas Square and the “Dancing House of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers” designed by Frank Gehry, the old Cattle Market now Charles Square and the old Hay Market now the Namesti Republiky.. Then we were driven to the top of the Castle hill, where we saw what was once the world’s largest stadium, passed the Strahov Monastery, and were dropped off at the St. Vitus Church for the start of the walking tour. Those in the gentle group were driven down to the Old Town Square, while the rest of us went on the walking tour with Lucy.

Lucy gave us a lengthy history lesson, took us on a tour of the Church, and then led us on down past the other buildings associated with the Castle. Periodically we paused to examine a building or an inscription or ponder some aspect of Czech history. After leaving the Castle area, we continued walking down toward the Most Karlovy (Charles Bridge), passing by interesting shops, restaurants, and fascinating building facades (so fascinating that at one point I tripped and fell on the sidewalk – not the best way to introduce yourself to a group of strangers on the first day, but I was not the only one to do that!). As we approached the bridge, the photogenic qualities of the sightss on both sides increased. I ran from one side to the other, taking pictures of the Vlata River, the autumnal oranges, yellows, reds, and golds of the leaves, the portal to the bridge, and then the bridge statuary. With the sun shining and the spires of Prague lining both banks of the river, it was magical… okay, I admit it, I fell in love with Prague on that walking tour!

After the bridge, we strolled to the Old Town Square where Lucy explained the Astronomical Clock and we watched the hourly “show.” Back to the hotel, we stopped by the Concierge Desk to make another dinner reservation (this time built around a concert for which we had purchased tickets) and then went to the Duke’s Bar and Café in the hotel for a light lunch. I had a traditional Czech Kulajda Soup - potato, mushroom and cream soup with an egg. It had a chicken broth base and a lovely lemon flavor – delicious! Lunch came with the computer code for the day so I could go online for free using the hotel WIFI in the lobby (or so I hoped until my computer refused to cooperate although I did meet some very nice people from Chicago who were also using their computers in the lobby who tried to help me.)

After lunch we took the number 17 tram over to the Modern Art Museum… did I mention that I was traveling with an artist and art teacher, who never misses the opportunity to visit an art museum? Tickets for the tram could be purchased from the concierge desk and were only 18 Czech Koruna or Czk (about $.95). It cost us 120 Czk ($6.30) for the general exhibits and the special exhibit, on loan from the Batliner Collection and the Albertina Museum in Vienna, called “From Monet to Warhol.” Although it consisted of works by many famous artists, it was the ugliest collection of art I have ever seen in my life. It was almost as though the curator had chosen the most unaesthetic work of each artist. Even the Water Lilies Study was green and scummy – amazing to me since every Monet water lilies painting I have ever seen up to this point has been lovely! The introduction to the general collection explained how difficult it has been to collect art in the Czech Republic because of its Communistic past, so it was understandable that the general collections were sparse, but why the Batliner Collection pieces were so aesthetically displeasing, I have no idea. We could probably have spent this lovely afternoon exploring a much more beautiful part of Prague than the Modern Art Museum…. I had opted for a return to the Palace or the Monastery, but was out-voted and we never did get there the following day, so I guess I’ll just have to return to Prague soon.

We took the tram back to the hotel and then went to dinner. This was another concierge recommended restaurant called U Zlate Konvice, located in a cellar off the Old Town Square, which was almost mid-way to the concert at the Municipal Hall for which we had tickets. Their specialty was roasted meats and these were served in an ancient cellar, supposedly the oldest cellar in Prague. Service was excellent and we had a conversation with our very nice, sad waiter, who told us he was hoping to get out of the cellar, have a real life with a family, and get on a plane to the U.S. (perhaps this was his effort to get a larger tip or be adopted by one of us! I don’t know, but at any rate, he seemed unhappy with his job.) We ordered Roast Duck and Roast Lamb. They were served with risotto, and dumplings (having sampled what folks in Prague call “dumplings” the night before, we didn’t eat them this time...way too heavy and a surefire way to get indigestion!) We also had a good what the Czech call “Balkan Salad” (with Feta or similar cheese, cucumber and olive), and we would call a “Greek Salad,” which was even better than the salad from the previous night’s dinner. The meal cost approximately 600 Czk per person ($33) and was good, although not great.

After dinner, we walked over to the Municipal Hall for the concert, which was performed by a 60 member orchestra. No programs were distributed and there was open seating in the rear of the auditorium for the 900 Czk tickets, which were the ones we purchased.. Because there were no programs, I had no idea who conducted or who the soloist was while I was at the concert, but later I found the flier, displayed in the Concierge area of the hotel, which advertised the concert, and noticed it listed both names. So, for the record, Jacob Chi conducted and Ms. Haeyoung Song was the soloist for the Schumann. The program consisted of the Overture to the Marriage of Figaro, Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor op. 54, and the Dvorak Symphony, No 9 from the New World. We both enjoyed the concert and the opportunity to visit the Municipal Hall. (Note: There are many concerts in Prague each evening at various concert halls and churches as well as at the Palace in addition to the operas put on at several venues so there are many good choices for music at reasonable prices.)

The Municipal Hall has two auditoriums, and this concert was held in Smetana Hall, which is a lovely concert space. We were also glad to see the building and the area around the Powder Tower, where it is located, next to the Republisky Square. If we had more time in Prague, we would have returned here to explore this area in daylight including what appeared to be (scattered among the tourist places), a series of interesting shops in the streets between the Clock Tower Square and the Republisky.

Sunday, October 24, 2010 – Prague

Our main agenda item for Sunday was the self-guided tour of five synagogues and the cemetery of Josefov, the Jewish section of Prague. First we bought a comprehensive ticket for all the synagogues which are now musuems, including the Old-New Synagogue and the Cemetery. I also paid an extra 40 CZK for a photography permit, which turned out to be a gift to the people who maintain the properties, because when we got to the Cemetery, I discovered everyone taking photos in the cemetery and no one there checking for the permits. It is interesting to note that there are a variety of possible combination tickets which may be purchased for Josefov (and lots of people standing around the ticket booth pondering the options!) It seemed simpler to us to just buy the one for everything and then make our way from one synagogue to another until we had covered the entire area… that way we didn’t miss anything.

After we finished the tour by visiting the Spanish Synagogue, which is the most beautiful of the Synagogues, we had lunch at Kolkovna, just a short walk away. Since we couldn’t get there for dinner, I figured we might as well try it for lunch. We both ordered Goulash Soup, which was served in a mug with a huge pretzel. My companion suggested that I take the pretzel and use it to moisturize my face and hands because it was very greasy, but despite the joke, the pretzel was delicious. The goulash was tasty but lukewarm. (Up to this point I had not had anything I would describe as hot to eat on this trip despite the chilly temperatures outside.) Service was quick and pleasant, and the place was filled at almost mid-afternoon. With a big menu, reasonable prices, and friendly wait-staff, I can see why Kolkovna is so popular.

We walked back to the Charles Bridge along the Vlata River after lunch and retraced our route across the Bridge from the day before, but the magic was gone – no sun and with the clouds, it was much less lovely. Shopping on Sunday wasn’t satisfying either – many shops were closed although the vendors were out on the bridge and the touristic shops were open in full force.

Sunday night we finally had dinner at Mlejnice, my number one choice. Although we had been disappointed that we couldn’t eat there Friday or Saturday night, it actually made sense to cap off our visit to Prague with a meal here. If we had eaten here first, we would have found every other meal a let-down and spent our time comparing the other restaurants to this place, which sure enough, has better food and much cheaper prices. I always read this many rave reviews with a grain of salt, but in this case, they were entirely accurate.

Because the prices were so reasonable and everything looked so good, we over-ordered and then over-ate… it’s difficult to avoid doing that here! We shared a Balkan Salad, Pork Ribs, Chicken Stuffed with Spinach, Oven Baked Potatoes with Leeks, Mushrooms, and Cheese (they have about five or six potato choices and they all sound delicious!) Apple Strudel with Whipped Cream and Ice cream. With Mint tea, Iced Coffee (with whipped cream), a Bottle of Water, a Coke Light, and two glasses of house wine the check came to a total of 966 Czk for both of us. ($25 a person). Eva, our waitress was delightful – she provided very good service and spoke excellent English. All of the reviews for this place are accurate except for one point… that it’s difficult to find, but actually, it’s very easy. Kozna Street, where it is located, is a narrow, twisty alley between two streets leading away from the Square in the area of the Astronomical Clock. Just walk to Zelezna Street, (with your back to the clock, turn to the left and walk a block), turn right on Zelezna, turn right at the first right (Kozna Street) and you’ll see the restaurant after you walk around the curve (it’s on your left) after you pass the big pizza restaurant, which also looks quite popular,, based on the crowd. The restaurant is small – we witnessed two couples in a near collision as one made a bee-line from the door for an empty table while another moved into it from the smaller table where they had been sitting (and no doubt waiting for that one to open up). By getting there early, we had our pick of tables and were pleased with our location next to the window. Given our schedule for the next morning, we strolled back to the hotel after dinner, packed, and had a relatively early night.

The next portion of our trip was a bus ride across the Czech Republic via Karlovy Vary to the German border and then on to Nuremberg for our cruise on the AMA Waterway AMACELLO. (If you are interested, it's posted in the Cruise Section. We visited Regensburg and Passau Germany in addition to Nuremberg, and Linz and Vienna, Austria, before our arrival in Budapest. Here is the Budapest segment:

Sunday – Budapest October 31

8:30 was announced as the “sail- in” time for our arrival in Budapest and I wanted to be up early and out on deck to photograph the city from the river, which is a great way to arrive in this beautiful city! First there were bucolic early morning views of fields and woods and wavy Danubian patterns, (and amazingly, after days of looking every other color imaginable on this day the Danube appeared to be blue!) which were quite lovely. Then we went through a lock and under a series of bridges and signs of a city appeared. Pili urged us to come up to the top deck to view and photograph the spectacular buildings even though it was still quite misty. On the left was the Parliament., ahead were beautiful bridges, and on the right we had a great view of the Fishermens’ Bastion and the Hapsburg Royal Palace. Everything looked gorgeous in the morning light. It was cold up on deck, but worth it. By this point in the cruise, those of us who liked to photograph the scenery from the deck were always up on there, and so it was no surprise to see the same familiar faces, swathed in scarves, taking picture after picture.

For breakfast this morning I had two Eggs Over Easy, Muesli, Juice, Hash Browns, Bacon, Toast, Jam and my usual Hot Chocolate. I have enjoyed breakfast on this ship every morning except for the one when I had the lukewarm waffles (and learned to avoid the “warmer!”)

After breakfast we went on our last city tour. We were with the red group, who toured with Andrea Hadas whose great, great something was a hussar who, according to Andrea, was so close to Maria Teresa that he may have fathered some of her children. Andrea proudly showed us his equestrian statue close to the Fisherman’s Bastion. We went back and forth between Buda and Pest to see city highlights, on and off the bus for this excellent tour which covered all the city’s major tourist attractions.

For the last lunch on board the theme was Hungarian and I enjoyed the Salad, Mussels, Cabbage Soup, Goulash, special Langos bread (a type of Hungarian deep fried flat bread served with sour cream, so no wonder I liked it!) and some ice cream for dessert.

Then there were a few free hours in Budapest, which was all the time available for those going home the next day. Pili told me about 90 % of the people on board were headed home so those who planned to stay on in the city were in a small minority. This really surprised me because Budapest is a great destination and surely needs more than one day! Both my companion and I worried that perhaps we wouldn’t have enough time to see the highlights in the three days we allotted, particularly since we’d discovered that the next day was a National Holiday on which almost everything would be closed! We decided there wasn’t enough time for a city activity since it was already 3:00 and we both needed to shower and wash our hair. (Daily schedules were packed with activities, and yet we also needed time for mundane tasks. Since we had to get up really early in order to view the city on arrival, today seemed to be one of those days when there just were not enough hours. Of course it was the last day, and that meant taking care of the cruise questionnaire and gratuities. I found that interesting. On these ships there is a single tip pool for everyone who works on the vessel with the exception of the Cruise Manager, who is tipped separately. She, alone of all the staff, is actually hired by AMA Waterways and moves from ship to ship. Everyone else is hired by a river ship staffing company to staff this vessel for AMA and they stay on the ship for the season. When you consider that many of the itineraries begin and/or end in cities with extensions, it makes sense that the managers would be scheduled differently than the ships, but it’s hard to imagine that they have to interact with different Captains and staffs on each of the ships with which they sail… quite interesting to me after all those ocean cruises. I know Pili made it appear “seamless” and I’m told that the others do it that way, too – quite a feat!

Entertainment from the “gipsies” as they were listed in the program) - a violin trio and dancers was scheduled for 6 p.m. and then there would be a Halloween dinner with the waiters and bar waitress transformed into vampires (pretty funny since they were mostly Romanian!) and a humorous menu with each item described in ghoulish and unappetizing terms (some people at our table insisted on ordering that way!). I ate Tomato Soup, Salad, Salmon over Sweet Potato, and Pumpkin Pie with Whipped Cream.

After dinner it was time for the “Illuminations Cruise” of the city. The Captain took the AMACELLO out for our final spin sailing up and down the river as Pili described the nighttime sights. I went up on deck and said some good-byes, missing some other people who headed back to their cabins to pack. I thought they were also headed up on deck, but they never made it up there, and so we didn’t get a chance to exchange farewells with several people. Although this was only a one-week cruise, and even with the Prague extension, we only spent ten days together, it felt much longer, The nature of the river cruise with its daily tours and briefings, close quarters, and open seating created real intimacy and positive feelings, and I liked that aspect very much. I just wish, in retrospect, that I’d been more organized in my leave-taking of the many new friends I made and not assumed that I’d keep on seeing them until the very end. So, if you are out there reading this and I didn’t say good-bye (or even if I did), please get in touch!

As usual, packing took more time than I expected. I always manage to bring too much and then accumulate more! As a result, I went to bed later than I had hoped – one of the biggest problems on this trip was that I constantly went to bed late and got up early, consequently getting too little sleep. I thought at the time that I’d need a vacation when I got home, but, of course, when I got home, there were piles of work to do.

Monday, Nov 1 – Budapest

We had ordered a taxi (yes, Pili took taxi orders from everyone on board for trips to the airport and the various hotels to which we were headed) to take us from the ship to the hotel at 9:30, which was pretty much when they wanted us off the boat. We got up as late as possible, put our suitcases in the hall since they wanted them out there one hour before departure, and went down for breakfast. Today I had eggs cooked to order by Walter, the chef. I asked him if he got lunch “off,” but he said they would prepare a light lunch for the new passengers. When we got on in Nuremburg, our first meal was dinner. These guys really don’t get time off and seem to work every day for the entire season until they go home in December… maybe I won’t apply for a River Cruise job after reconsideration!

Our 9:30 Taxi arrived at 9:15, and apparently even earlier for friends who also were supposed to have a 9:30 taxi, but who were gone when I went into the lounge to say goodbye (no problem as it turned out although at the time I was distressed to think we had not said goodbye.) Either the taxi company was in a hurry, or AMA was, because it seemed as though every taxi arrived before the requested time! As soon as the taxi arrived, the guys came to get the bags off the ship and knocked on the door to say our cab was waiting, so it was rush, rush and off we went.

We booked the cab with two of our regular companions, and shared the 20 Euro taxi charge, to the Le Meridien Hotel – a very easy transition! Pili booked the rides with a taxi company that took Euros since most of us hadn’t yet changed money in Hungary and had English-speaking drivers. We checked in just before 10 a.m. and were delighted to find that a room was ready for us - and a terrific room at that with a view of Elzebet Park and St. Stephens Cathedral.

The traditional furnishings included twin beds and night tables, a wall unit with television and mini-bar, a big desk and chair, an easy chair, and a suitcase rack (a second one was quickly found for us by our excellent bellman). The bathroom was excellent and included both a bathtub and a separate shower, which had very good water pressure. Robes were provided along with all sorts of lovely toiletries. There is a hair dryer located in the drawer of the bathroom vanity. Both the bathroom and the bedroom were quite spacious and were kept in perfect condition during our stay.

The hotel seemed very empty (we arrived on a national holiday) and perhaps as a result, service was extraordinary – friendly and yet still highly professional, attentive to the nth degree. The folks who work here are outstanding and made us feel immediately at home. To be fair, even when it seemed much busier on Tuesday, service was still at a remarkably high level. I can’t remember any other large chain hotel where all the desk staff knew who I was (or certainly seemed to) every time I walked in the door! Kudos to Kristina Zsok, who booked our room for us (and was charming in our correspondence although we never got to actually meet), all the front desk folk, and especially Janos Horvath, who never failed to have a smile and a joke to enliven our day and Daniel, who was similarly cheerful and helpful, Zsolt Bogdany, Concierge Extraordinaire, who obtained seats for us in the center of the orchestra for the Verdi Requiem on Tuesday evening on short notice and also booked us a table for dinner at Café Kor, sold us subway tickets, and answered our innumerable questions, and also to the afternoon/evening Concierge, who had his share of questions to answer and transit tickets to sell us as well (and even ran down to the Metro to buy more for us when he ran out!).

The hotel is perfectly located right next to major tram lines, the Metro, and the pedestrian shopping street and only a few blocks from St. Stephens and Andrassy Boulevard as well as the Danube. Had we wanted to, we could have walked to the Opera House and many of the major sights and those farther afield were easily reached by either the tram or the Metro, both of which are inexpensive and extremely easy to use (just be sure to validate your ticket upon entering either mode of transportation!)

Although we didn’t eat breakfast (or any other meals) in the hotel, we did make use of the computers to check email each evening (internet if free with an Ethernet in the room or in the Business Center after regular business hours.) We also didn’t have time to use the swimming pool, although it is reported to be excellent.

I loved staying at this hotel and hope I’ll be able to return here again on another visit to this wonderful city. The accommodations of this hotel are first-rate, but it is the staff that makes it truly exceptional.

Knowing that it was All Saints Day, a National Holiday, we walked to the Jewish ghetto area and immediately found the big synagogue closed. Why it was closed on this Catholic holiday eluded me, but instead we did a self guided walk of the neighborhood, surveying several other synagogues and decaying buildings dating from before the Nazi era. I found it haunting… it made me feel as though I were back in the thirties or forties. The two friends we had missed at 9:25 on board ship were lunching across from the Synagogue and so, we said our goodbyes (not for the last time as it turned out).

After our walking tour, we had lunch at Café Gerloczy, which turned out to be a terrific lunch spot. It was a mild and sunny day, so we sat outside on the terrace with a heat lamp lending some extra warmth. We shared a large salad and each of us had a slice of quiche… very tasty since they bake their own crust and bread, and then shared a beautiful chocolate soufflé/sundae for dessert. Service was outstanding and we both wished we had more time in Budapest to sample another meal here.

We walked back to the hotel to pick up our bathing supplies and then found the Tram that would take us to the Gellert Baths. Because they are tearing up the street next to the hotel to put in another tram line (or Metro line, not sure which), we had to walk to the second stop to board the Tram. The Baths turned out to be quite an experience! This is one of those places where you just keep asking questions and follow directions because as a first-time visitor, you have no idea (at least we didn’t) exactly what to do or where to go. The entrance to the Baths is on the right side of the building (the tram exit is at the front). You go in, pay at a booth, get a wristband, and then (in our case) go to the entrance for ladies. There you go through a turnstile, and get sent upstairs to changing booths where you can leave your clothing in a locker. I brought a bathing suit, but my companion was under the belief that there would be some sort of apron she could wear and so brought nothing. They gave us a long sheet to wear over our suits (or in her case birthday suit). Flip flops are essential, too. Then you go downstairs. With a bathing suit, you can go out into the big swimming pool, but since she didn’t have one, we just went to the thermal bath in the women’s section. (This was, of course, as she expected.) There were two sides, but the water seemed to be about the same temperature in both. We thought one would be cool and one hot, but they were both warm. There were a couple of other women without bathing suits, but everyone else (maybe 30-40 people in all) had suits. We left our towels/togas and flip flops on benches and waded into the water, which supposedly comes from hot springs. It wasn’t exactly hot, but it was pleasantly warm and we found it relaxing to loll about for a while. There are also showers to get clean before and after using the baths, and it’s possible to pay for a massage, although we didn’t book any. Then we went back upstairs, changed into our clothes and left. By this time, it had gotten dark. We both had a good laugh, observing a gentleman in his hotel bathrobe and slippers, smoking a cigar on the sidewalk outside the entrance, as we departed… not a sight you see every day!

We didn’t have much of a wait for the tram. Just as we were about to get off, I said in English (of course) “the next stop is ours.” That caught the attention of an inspector (we were told later that they only seem to go after foreigners) who demanded to see our tickets just as we were getting ready to jump off. Fortunately we both had our tickets and had put them into the machine so he could see they were properly punched. Otherwise, we would have been charged with a sizeable fine.

After reading many excellent reviews and a few that said this restaurant had been resting on its laurels, we decided to have dinner at Café Kor and see for ourselves. When we arrived, we were offered several different tables and chose one next to a young couple. When they both took out cigarettes and began to smoke heavily with smoke wafting in our direction, I thought we had made a mistake, but then they offered help – I wondered out loud about the preparation of a dish, and the guy told me the answer with a British accent. It turned out that they were owners of two hostels and managed a third. This was their favorite restaurant and they were happy to help us get through the menu and make recommendations. I love meeting people in this serendipitous way! It was quite interesting to see Budapest through the eyes of these young British entrepreneurs who have adopted the city and love living there. We ended up having a great conversation and with their assistance, probably a better dinner than we would have chosen on our own.

Dinner was delicious. I ate Tomato Soup (served with floating pieces of cheese), Duck Breast with Tangerine sauce, and Cheese Pie (sweetened cottage cheese in a pie which tasted like a delicious cheese cake and my companion had another type of soup and Beef Goulash for her Entree. As is our custom, we shared dessert.) We were served by an excellent waitress named Irene. When we ordered the Cheese Pie (on our new friends recommendation, of course!), Irene managed to snag the last piece from the kitchen for us, much to the chagrin of some folks sitting at a table nearby who were disappointed to learn it was finished. The Daily Specials were listed on a chalk board and as we ate, more and more of them were erased from the board, so I would suggest getting to Café Kor earlier rather than later if you want to eat whatever is on the Board that day – specials go fast! After dinner, we strolled past the magnificent St. Stephens Cathedral, (which we planned to visit on the morrow) and back over to the Meridien. We stopped in the Business Center to check email, before heading to bed, thoroughly exhausted, as usual.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010 – Budapest

Since breakfast was not included in our room rate and was extremely expensive in the hotel, we strolled over to the famous Café Gerbeaud, just a block or two to the left of the hotel’s front door. This is a lovely place, where you can read about the history of its founders while you sip coffee and munch on a delectable piece of pastry, chosen from a large display counter. Not the least expensive place to dine in the neighborhood, it shouldn’t be missed and this was our one opportunity to have a bit to eat here. Once again, service was pleasant and efficient.

After eating, we walked back to the front of our hotel, and entered the Metro (so conveniently located right there!) for a short ride to Hero’s Square. We had our tickets (purchased from the Concierge Desk) and stuck them in the validation machine where not one, but two guards stand and watch you to make sure you are indeed validating your ticket! We noticed that this station (and every station we passed along the way) was very nicely decorated and extremely clean, as were the cars of the trains. Trains were frequent and quite excellent. Our destination was the Museum of Fine Arts, where we had noticed a large banner proclaiming a Klimt and the Secessionists exhibit while on the city tour. This exhibit was excellent and neatly tied together both the building with the gold cupola we had seen on the way to the Naschmarkt and the Klimt paintings we had seen at the Belvedere Palace with the Klimt and other Secessionist paintings we viewed in this museum. It almost seemed pre-destined that we should see this exhibit on our last day! After viewing the exhibit and another excellent exhibit of the paintings of Botero, we walked into the Museum Gift Shop, and there were our two shipboard friends (yes, again!) examining the excellent gift items. We exchanged more trip information (both happy with our hotels, our Gellert Baths experience, the museum, dinner, etc.) and laughed at how small Budapest must be if we could run into each other twice in two days.

Next we strolled back down Andrassy Boulevard, admiring the charming mansions erected by the city’s richest citizens during the last half of the nineteenth century. We were in search of a spot for lunch, glancing at menus posted outside cafes (clustered near the metro entrances) and checking my notes for recommended spots. After a few blocks, we arrived at the Andrassy Hotel, where its Baraka Restaurant had been recommended in one of our articles. Since I wanted to save my appetite for dinner, I ordered soup for lunch and was quite happy with the delicious Corn Soup they served, while my companion ordered a salad and enjoyed that, too. They have a small, but affordable lunch menu, which is much less expensive than the upscale version offered for dinner. (The gourmet tasting menu, which looks fabulous, is offered for 15,900 Hungarian Forints or about $74 before tax and tip). My soup, which came with bread, cost about $8. Who should also show up to eat here? You guessed it – our same two friends. Definitely on the same wave length, but alas, this was our last sighting of them for this trip, and who knows when we’ll see them again!

After lunch we headed back downtown to the Dohany Synagogue to view the interior, which we missed on All Saints Day, when it was unaccountably closed. Two minutes after I started taking pictures of the magnificent walls and ceiling, I looked up to discover my traveling companion sitting in a pew with the two friends who were also staying at our hotel, who were listening to a guide explain the history of the building. Thinking the docents (there were four or five groups seated around the Synagogue, each with a docent describing its history in a different language) were part of the admission ticket, I joined them and learned quite a bit while looking around. The tour then moved out to the Cemetery, where our excellent guide provided more information. Finally, she took us to the Museum and then asked us for our tickets. I thought she meant for the museum, so I took that out, but in fact, she meant for the tour – we had inadvertently joined a tour for which we hadn’t paid when we went to sit with our friends, who had motioned us over to sit with them. She shrugged her shoulders and said, “you were my guests,” which was certainly gracious of her since I suppose she could have marched us back to the ticket booth to pay (although I suspect it had closed by then).

I next wanted to stop at the Murano Glass shop in the hotel, called Millefiori, and also visit St. Stephens, but my companion was exhausted, so I was on my own. I enjoyed examining all the jewelry on display and chose a set to take home, while chatting with the friendly shop clerk. He told me he was studying jewelry making and was extremely helpful (in fact, he shortened the bracelet, which was way too long for me). You see, I had to get one last shopping experience in here! I then ran over to the Cathedral for probably one of the quickest visits anyone had ever made. I walked down both side aisles, took a number of photographs of the beautiful interior, examined the historical photo display on the way out, and strolled back down the steps and over to the hotel, glad that I hadn’t missed seeing it before our departure.

I hoped to pack before dinner since we would need to leave the hotel in the very early morning for our 7 a.m. flight to Munich. As usual, there wasn’t sufficient time, so we hurriedly changed, and dashed out to the Metro again to head for the Opera House. From there, our restaurant was about a three block walk. After first turning left when we reached Zichy Street , we quickly realized the numbers were going in the wrong direction, and reversed course to find Café Bouchon to the right. Located in the 6th district, which is now known as Budapest’s “Broadway,” (although it has quite a long way to go!), this place has great reviews. Many people describe it as “what Café Kor used to be.” Although I can’t speak to this, I can say that we loved our dinner at Café Bouchon. As virtually everyone notes, the owner, Lazlo, is incredibly helpful and totally flexible with his menu. My companion wanted to try the Blinis with Caviar and I wanted a different appetizer, so he simply gave her a much smaller portion at a lower price than the one listed on the menu so she could have a “taste.” I had the Tokaj Grape Salad with Camembert, Apple and Walnuts to start, and we both had the Knuckle of Lamb, which was fabulous. For dessert, we had an incredibly delicious dessert which was called “Dessert de Somlo” on the menu. This was a variation on a well-known Hungarian dessert, Somlói Galuska made by layering chocolate sponge cake with vanilla custard, raisins, walnuts, chocolate sauce, rum and a topping of whipped cream. In this case, mandarin oranges were used instead of raisins, and the bites of sponge cake, whipped cream, chocolate sauce, nuts, and oranges were heavenly. This dinner, which cost more than the one at Café Kor but was totally worth it, was outstanding and I would highly recommend a visit to Café Bouchon. In total, we each spent about $40 at this terrific restaurant.

After dinner we walked over to the Hungarian State Opera House for the Verdi Requiem. Although I would have loved to have seen an opera here, the program on our only night when the House was open, was the Requiem, and this was a great finale to our visit. The names of the soloists were unfamiliar to me, but seemingly much loved by the audience and the soloists, orchestra and chorus were all seated on the stage, filling every available space. I can’t imagine how they stage grand operas on such a small stage (I’ve been spoiled by decades at the Met where there is enough room for entire armies if necessary. At any rate, I loved the Opera House, loved the performance, and was completely mesmerized by the rhythmic clapping at the end (described in a review of another orchestra as captivating rhythmic applause in unison. At first the applause was spontaneous and sounded as audiences normally do, but then suddenly it happened in unison. Fascinated, I had to google this phenomenon and here is what I found:

"This synchronized clapping is called 'iron' applause in Hungarian," he says. "There was a time when an iron curtain would descend after a performance between the stage and the audience, which would clap rhythmically to induce the conductor or actors to appear in front of the curtain, through a little door at its center." … They all know that they're trying to synchronize,"

In Hungary and other countries of Eastern Europe, an audience expresses appreciation for a good performance by the strength and nature of its applause. The initial thunder often turns into synchronized clapping, which has a well-defined pattern: strong incoherent clapping at the outset is followed by a relatively sudden synchronization process, after which everybody claps simultaneously and periodically.

After the performance, we retrieved my companion’s coat quickly and easily (everyone with a coat must check it – I suppose because the seats are very closely packed together in the theater although I have read that it’s simply proper etiquette here), walked down to the Metro right in front of the building, and almost immediately caught a train back to our hotel. It reminded me of the hundreds of times I did the exact same thing after leaving Lincoln Center and taking the #1 train back uptown… very easy! We finished packing and tried to get a few hours sleep before our 3:30 a.m. wake up call. We had settled our hotel bill and ordered a taxi the night before to save as much time as possible.

As others have reported, the Meridien has an arrangement with a cab company and the cab was waiting for us when we came down at 4:15 a.m. We learned when checking the night before that the fare has gone up, and it cost us 5500 Forints (about $27) to get to the airport. Because the guys at the desk were concerned about road construction, they advised an hour to get to the airport, but because I had seen travel times as short as 20 minutes and it was so early in the morning, we ordered the cab for 4:15 and, of course, we arrived there in about 20 minutes – early enough to stand in line waiting for the Lufthansa staff to arrive and start processing departures. Once they arrived at 5, the process was quick and easy and we were soon at the gate, awaiting our departure on the 7 a.m. flight to Munich, where we were to connect with a flight back to Newark.

On the plane, where breakfast was served, I had a nice conversation with a friendly Hungarian guy on his way back to Munich where he is on assignment for his company. He told me a) it rained all summer in Budapest and we really lucked out on the weather, which he characterized as “Indian Summer” (not quite that warm, but excellent for early November!) and b) He loved NY when he was there on his honeymoon last year (en route to Maui!). The transfer from the Lufthansa flight to the Continental flight at Munich was far from optimal– not my favorite airport experience! For a start, we were late getting in and we only had a one hour and five minutes between flights if the flight had been on time. Then, there was nobody to direct us and poor signage so although we wanted to stay in the transit area and avoid leaving and having to go through security again, sure enough, we all walked out and had to go back through after leaving the bus that dropped us off who knows where. Lost on the arrivals level, we had to go back through security, and stand in line at the information desk to find our flight, then hurry to the gate. Once on the wide-bodied Continental flight, things improved, however. I was seated on the aisle in the middle section next to a lovely woman from Houston, and we chatted for a while after I had a nap (and another meal.) Back at Newark, it was hard to believe it was only 1:30 in the afternoon! Can you guess what I did next? I went home and slept until the next day!

This was a wonderful trip. I finally got to two cities I had long wanted to visit. They didn’t disappoint – I loved both Prague and Budapest and would like to return to both. I thoroughly enjoyed the river cruise experience and the AMACELLO. While I’ll never lose my love for ocean cruising (and am now up to 30!), I have a special place in my heart for the Danube and found the river ports to be interesting and lovely. I re-discovered Vienna and liked it much more than I did in 1973, when I last visited. Last but not least, we were fortunate to travel with a great group of people on the AMACELLO – interesting, well traveled, cheerful, gracious, bright, and unfailingly great company. We enjoyed being with them and would be glad to travel in such company again.

So, Prague or Budapest? What a question! Well if time is very limited, I would pick Prague because it's more contained and you can see a lot in less time. If you have time, of course you should do both because they are both fabulous destinations, but truth to tell, there is so much more to Budapest. It's not just that there's more major sights to see. It's also that there's so much more to do. I could spend days there going to the museums, concerts and baths (there are many more than the one we visited which was on my list and happened to be open on a public holiday because it was in a hotel.) Based on limited experience I would have to say that there is better eating in Budapest if you want to eat the local cuisine and do it close to your hotel at reasonable prices. Budapest is more of a real city... a city that has been conquered time and again and yet, it's still there... still magnificent. The Dohany Street Synagogue is fabulous and is still a synagogue, not a museum (although it has a museum next door). The entire ghetto is haunting in Budapest. You feel as though you are back in the thirties. The shoe memorial on the banks of the Danube is so real and so painful that I couldn't bear to go and be there although I did see it from the bus. So, although I was in each city for approximately the same amount of time, and I loved being in both places, you can see that the one that moved me the most was clearly Budapest. I liked the people in both cities, both cities are filled with fascinating history and beautiful sights, so if possible, go to both. I plan to return to both in the near future.

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