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Czeching out Central Europe: Prague, Budapest, and Romania

Czeching out Central Europe: Prague, Budapest, and Romania

Aug 12th, 2018, 05:23 PM
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Czeching out Central Europe: Prague, Budapest, and Romania

This does not begin well: a bad, overused pun and non-parallel construction just in the title. And to be honest, the trip didn't begin that well, either. But I do have to say that it went on to be a pretty awesome voyage of mini-discovery and massive amounts of charcuterie, so there's that.

Anyway, I don't usually go into flight details, but this one was...special. Direct flights from PHL to PRG just started, so I was delighted with my British Airways (fulfilled by American) projected flight of 8hr35. It wouldn't give me enough time in Prague, but at least I'd have four days. Well, after flying for about an hour and a half, the plane was diverted to JFK (longer runways, full fuel load) and made a careful landing (yay, it landed!) to the accompaniment of a full line-up of emergency vehicles. If you are conversant with the classic great movie Airplane you will understand that I was getting flashbacks: not only did the messages sound familiar, but the plane itself looked like it could be of 70's vintage. The AA folks offered us a hotel (over by LaGuardia) but were encouraging us just to stay at the airport as we'd have to be back by 5AM at the latest for our 7:00AM flight out.

I'm glad I took the hotel.
The flight out didn't leave until 3:30, which means I arrived in Prague on Friday morning, losing a day there.

I had contacted the staff at Botel Matylda to let them know I'd be late and they sent back a nicely commiserating email, just the start of really great service there. When I finally arrived in Prague, I took the bus to the train and then a tram to the botel: easy and cheap and direct, which is lovely. The Botel Boat Hotel Matylda - Boat Hotel Matylda is actually two boats, and the location worked really well for me in that it was a bit away from the Old Town but close enough to everything that it was easy to get around. The room was snug (it's a boat!) but quite comfortable, and the breakfast (and dinner) served by the restaurant boat was great.

I have to say that I fell in love with Prague pretty much straightaway, but actually I went to Kutna Hora for most of the first day, an easy train trip and then some walking (you get off at the first train stop in town for the ossuary, then walk/bus through for the other sites.) The ossuary is both completely mad and delicately beautiful, and I have to admit that I'd be happy to be a part of a chandelier like that once I shuffle off this mortal coil. The town itself is charming, and the eclair that I had for lunch added to the charm. I was waiting for my tour of the silver mine, an interesting and wee bit claustrophobic journey underground for which you're given white coats and protective helmets. I went into St. Barbara's church as well, making the acquaintance of some interesting carved figures, and found the Stone Fountain in my wanderings. It was a beautiful day, albeit a bit hot, but the town and surrounding countryside were gorgeous in the sunshine.

The train ride home was enlivened by the company of a young lady from Hong Kong who had been on the silver mine tour, and I got back to Botel Matylda in time for a late dinner at the Italian restaurant on the boat itself. It was quite tasty, but I have to admit that I was falling asleep quite literally during the serving of it! It was a good thing that I wasn't any further from my bed in the neighboring boat. Great sleeping on the river!
Amy is offline  
Aug 12th, 2018, 05:49 PM
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Nice start to your TR! Thanks! Looking forward to reading more. Prague is my favorite city.
joannyc is offline  
Aug 12th, 2018, 07:05 PM
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Thanks, joannyc! Prague is wonderful--so much texture and color and flavor, beautifully shabby in spots but with something to see around every corner. I really did fall in love fast, and I don't actually with too many cities. (I appreciate them, don't love them; Prague was different.)

The next day I had booked the Taste of Prague food tour: https://www.tasteofprague.com/ Oooooh, my. Jan was the guide, and we experienced food bliss in the form of fried cheese in an old-communist-style pub (Czechs drink an amazing amount of beer!); meat of tremendous flavor and texture; sandwiches; soup made of fire roasted potatoes (soooo good); more meat and probably more meat than that (my brother the carnivore would have been ecstatic) and some soups and sweets as well. It was a really interesting tour of the city with emphasis more on modern life than history, and the food served me for both lunch and dinner. I love me a good food tour, and this one was terrific. (Not cheap, but worth it.) The group was largish, maybe 16 or so?, but there wasn't any lag due to this; it was really well planned out and serviced in the various stops. Jan got us all pointed in the right direction for where we wanted to be in the afternoon, and as I already had my three day transport pass (yes, it's probably cheaper to buy individual tickets, but hey, the pass was cheap enough and a lot more convenient) I went to Wenceslas Square. Because of course I did; I had to sing all of the verses, no? "Hither page and stand by me, if thou knows't it telling..." You might be happy to know that I sang them in my head, though. The "square" is quite large and a lot around is under scaffolding, but there was quite a buzz of activity and some great buildings. I am hoping that it is still true that Marriott is reopening the Grand Hotel Europa by 2020; it's way too great of a building to be boarded up as it is now.

I wended my way through the crowded Old City, with a stop at the Apple Museum as our family has a long history of Macintosh; it's interesting and eclectic but a tad repetitive, of course. There was a lot to see and I even found the Lush (yes, it's British, but it's a little hobby of mine to find them wherever I go) and then wandered back to sunset from the bridge near the Botel. Being Saturday night the city was a bit noisy, as there does seem to be still some of the party tourism happening, and then of course there is all that beer...
Amy is offline  
Aug 12th, 2018, 07:31 PM
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Did you ever find out the cause of your aborted flight? Glad things worked out and you made it to Prague, albeit delayed. I too enjoyed my time in the city, although it's now 8 years ago. Looking forward to more.
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Aug 12th, 2018, 07:44 PM
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There were reports of everything from "hydraulics" to "bent wing", but what I do know is that, while they were talking about repair and back up in the same plane, we were on a different one for our eventual flight out. So whatever was wrong must have been not too good. I'm glad they didn't take it too far over the Atlantic!
Amy is offline  
Aug 13th, 2018, 01:12 AM
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One of my favourite reporters!

Never been to Prague, so new ground for me. For whatever reason, overnighting on a boat in the middle of the city sounds clever and a lot of fun.

I'll be checking back in to read your impressions of Romania and Budapest (a combination of which I have fond memories)
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Aug 13th, 2018, 03:16 AM
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Thanks, Cliff! You're the reason Romania was on my radar...although of course this year's trip was chosen by my students. But I was really happy they chose Romania!

I had decided to take a tour to Terezin as it seemed more practical. The tour company sent an email, however, saying that the tour wasn't on due to there not being sufficient people. So while I was sitting at breakfast the next morning, guess who shows up? Yup, the driver for the tour.

Terezin is, of course, sad and sobering; the town as a whole was part of the system, and there is a memorial museum in the old school. It was a work camp, but there was a great deal of illness/starvation involved, and it was from here that people were sent to the death camps. It's such an important reminder of how quickly things can escalate when those in authority forget their humanity and focus their power on those who are "others." It was originally a fortress, and served as a "model" camp for a Red Cross visit and a propaganda film. "Look what we've done to help protect the Jews!" Thousands died here due to the conditions--there were over ten times the number of people in the town than had been there previously--and the bodies were processed in the crematorium, but of course there wasn't the killing done as it was at places like Auschwitz. Nevertheless, this was an important cog in the Nazi killing machine and is a place of remembrance.

Never forget. That's become a cliche, almost, but so so important.
Amy is offline  
Aug 13th, 2018, 06:11 AM
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I'm enjoying your report (hard to resist singing Good King Wenceslas). We'll be following in your footsteps in a few weeks on a TOP tour. I'm surprised by the size of your group since they promise a max of 10. Looking forward to any recommendations you have for food, drink and sightseeing. Keep up the good work!
greytop13 is offline  
Aug 13th, 2018, 06:27 AM
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I'm another fan of Romania. Signing on.
thursdaysd is offline  
Aug 13th, 2018, 02:12 PM
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Greytop, it actually may not have been quite that many, but it was a largish group! Regardless, though, definitely well paced and well worth it.

An interlude for pictures seems to be in order: https://missalg.smugmug.com/Czech-Republic-2018/

Sunday afternoon I climbed up to Prague Castle, which is actually a complex with various buildings including a beautifully frescoed church and a small street with house museums including armor and, er, a bit of torture as well. It was quite hot but the views were stunning, and when I came back down to get my tram there was a very Instagrammable art installation on the old station across the street: the phrase "I will close my eyes and put my finger on the map" (in English) spelled out in yellow across the building.

Around sunset I went to Vysehrad, a fortress complex that was down the river on my side (opposite side of the castle.) Lovely views from there, as well, along with a few mosquitoes. Quite peaceful after the crowds at the Castle and on Charles Bridge!

One of my former students who just started working for the German National Bank emailed me to say that he would be in Prague Sunday night; we managed to meet up after his late arrival by train and had a wonderful walk down the river promenade and catch-up conversation. It's been quite a while since I've seen him so it was a great way to end my stay in Prague!

Early Monday morning I got my train for Budapest, about six hours. (And yeah, okay, I slept through a fair piece of it, but I did get to the dining car for some mediocre goat cheese dumplings and I did see the station at Bratislava; my TMobil merrily chirping that I had free texting in Slovakia, not that I needed it at that point.) There was some pleasantly green landscape and farms along the way, and I rolled into Budapest's North Station close to 3PM.
Amy is offline  
Aug 13th, 2018, 03:11 PM
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Following along, Amy. Your TRs are always worth reading.
elberko is offline  
Aug 14th, 2018, 03:23 AM
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I went with AirBnB for Budapest, mostly for the washing machine. When I'm toting my own luggage I like a washing machine available every now and then. The apartment was nice and spacious, but getting to it was a bit problematic: I'd arrived at North Station and couldn't find the tram that was meant to go right to it...came to find out that's because the street was torn up and the tram line being redone. (Things it would help to know ahead of time...) Anyway, a cab driver that I tried to hire told me just to walk it, so I did, but it was a bit of a hike in the hot sun, and when I got there I wasn't able to get in as the owner hadn't gotten my messages about the train. Sigh. Anyway, by the time I did finally get in there was pretty much just time to go out to the supermarket and put some laundry in. The apartment was on the very touristy Erzsebet street, in Pest; not a bad location, but one I wouldn't have chosen had I known about the transport issues.

The next day I decided to get my bearings through a walking tour and found my way to the meeting spot with just seconds to spare. The tour was really good, though, as I've found many of the "free" walking tours to be. Free Walking Tours - Daily tours in English - Tours en espańol Budapest is quite grand and shows its layers of history for sure; it put me in mind of Vienna (and Paris, too, to be honest, with the boulevards and big buildings.) I could have used more time there, of course, but at least I was able to get a good overview. Crossing over the Chain Bridge to the Buda side and seeing the Matthias church with its orange tiled roof was a highlight of the morning tour.

In the afternoon I made my way to the City Park. The Szechenyi Baths are there, but I spent my time wandering the park, sitting down by the water to have an ice cream, and just generally drinking in the sunshine. The "Victory Square" is there too, with quite an impressive pantheon of heroes.

I had taken the Metro, and saw (right next to me) what happens if you don't have your honor ticket properly stamped: you pay a fine on the spot of 8,000 forints (about $30 or so?). First time in many similar transport systems that I've actually seen this go down, to be honest. But I had my little validated Metro ticket so I held onto that with both hands.
Amy is offline  
Aug 15th, 2018, 08:32 PM
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So, halfway through Budapest, here are the pix: https://missalg.smugmug.com/Budapest-Hungary-2018/

The next morning I decided to join the same walking tour group for a walk through the Jewish Quarter. The main synagogue is beautiful and is open to visitors, but I didn't have time to go in. Theodore Herzl's residence was there, as well, and a "living tree" memorial. The tour itself was quite interesting and the guide didn't shrink from implicating Hungary in the enabling of the genocide. There are a few synagogues in the area, but now the Quarter is more known for its "ruins" bars and nightlife. The ruins bars use kitsch and vintage to decorate, and were originally started simply due to the availability of run-down places with lots of leftover stuff. There is also a lot of street art/murals in the area; in fact, they have a separate tour just for that.

After the tour I went to the big Central Market (the guide was very helpful in getting me oriented to get there) and wandered a bit through the impressive displays of meat, veg, and fruit. The upstairs is chockablock with souvenirs; I have to admit I got tchochtke fatigue pretty quickly. It's near the Green Bridge, one of the many that cross the Danube and connect Pest to Buda.

Lunch was a really good roasted duck/grilled Camembert salad at a sidewalk cafe: Magyar Ízek Magyar Háza - Budapest - Hivatalos oldal - Étlap, akciók - F?oldal The previous day I'd had the puffy fried dough with sour cream and cheese street food, so I thought I should be a bit more posh this time. I do have to say the atmosphere wasn't all that posh, unlike the Gerbeaud Confectionery that I tiptoed through. Quite lovely, but not in my budget for that day.

The day was warm and humid, which makes me less than ambitious sometimes, so in the afternoon I took the easy way out and went on yet another walking tour, this time the communist one. I had an interest due to the 1956 Revolution, and the tour was quite involving in its look at history, including the statue of Ronald Reagan, who is evidently quite popular due to his dealings with Gorbachev. There's a poignant monument of a bridge with a hero of the rebellion, Imre Nagy, facing toward the Houses of Parliament and away from the Russian memorial to the "hero Soviet soldiers." There's an even more poignant memorial nearby, the "Shoes on the Danube" installation, which honors those, about 3,500, who were shot by the Arrow Cross (Hungarian) fascists at the river's edge so that their bodies fell into the water and were carried away. There are sixty pair of iron shoes, very detailed and different from each other; it's so simple and moving.

I only had this one final night in Budapest, so even though it was threatening rain I took the rather creaky boat tour of the illuminated Danube. There are many of these boats, but each seems to have a different priority/concept; mine suited my purposes as it most resembled a ferry, not a party boat. It was a bit hard to find, though, and the lines for many of the boats were quite long. It's a beautiful sight, though, even in chilling rain and wind: the buildings and bridges are lit like fairyland (or, okay, Disney) and it is absolutely magical going up and down the river at that point. (The boat left at 10pm, so it was in full darkness.)

The next morning I got the to the train station--a different one than the one I came in to--where the bus to Sighetu, Maramures, Romania, was supposed to come in. As it happens, it comes in to a service station up the road from the station, so...thank you cab driver who knew that! Nobody at the train station had a clue (or cared, for that matter) and there were definitely no signs. It does seem like that little fact would be revealed when one buys a ticket, eh? But the mid-size bus was comfortable and the service station people were lovely in helping out as the bus actually arrived in a little parking lot beside the station. So, on to Romania!
Amy is offline  
Aug 18th, 2018, 01:17 AM
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Really enjoying this, Amy, haven’t been to any of these destinations, so glad you shared your photos, too.
Adelaidean is offline  
Aug 19th, 2018, 09:05 AM
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Fabulous report, Amy. Thank you. Glorious pictures, too. I'm ready to go back to Prague and Budapest. Very interested in your impressions of Romania.
Treesa is offline  
Aug 19th, 2018, 12:51 PM
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I am enjoying your report, Amy, particularly the section on the Hungarian uprising.
5alive is offline  
Aug 19th, 2018, 02:47 PM
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Thanks for reading along, everyone! Sorry for the delay; I just did another quick trip, but this one was just to Hollidaysburg, PA.

The little bus rode through a number of small towns and past lots of fields, including sunflowers--so that was great. The clouds were spectacular, actually, as well; lots of flat land so the sky was very visible. There was a little stop crossing the border for passport control, and then about six hours in we were in Baia Mare and switched to an even smaller bus to go on to SIghetu Marmatei (or Sighet for short.) Of course, I didn't know this switch was going to happen, but hey! When you're the last person left on the bus, you pretty much figure it out.

In Sighet I needed to get a taxi, but in order to pay the taxi I needed an ATM, so I combined the two by having the taxi driver stop at an ATM. I was only able to withdraw the equivalent of about $200, which remained consistent throughout the visit. (Yes, I had informed my bank, so...not sure why.) Since it was here that I had to pay a number of things in cash, this was a little glitch, but no big worries; there are a lot of ATMs, anyway. The taxi was to the village of Vadu Izei, where I was staying at Pension Ardelean. The Pension is a lovely warm place, where the hostess Ramona serves delightfully homey meals that are very much "farm to table" (without 2,000 miles of transport in between, that is to say. We all know that all food is farm to table.)

I began the next day--we're to a Friday, by the way!--with meeting my guide for three days, Teofil Ivanciuc. He's amazing. https://maramurestour.com/ This was my "splurge", albeit really not all that expensive for a 9 to 6 day of driving, guiding, introducing, teaching, and experiences. I knew that Maramures wasn't going to be terribly accessible by my usual methods, so I booked with Teo on the strength of his website. What did we do before teh Internetz?

We started that bright sunny day at a roadside market: adorable little pigs (yeah, pork is a large portion of the diet); horse carts in the parking area; the usual and unusual in textiles, household goods, and so forth. It was St. Elijah's day, so there weren't as many people working as usual, but the advantage was that a number of people were wearing traditional costumes, including an 86 year old gentleman with the nicest face and traditional foot gear. He told us that his wife had died and he had no children, but when Teo asked who took care of him, he simply smiled sweetly and pointed to heaven. Religion is a very, very strong influence in Romania, not just in the most rural parts, but it is so evident there. (And here's where I'll tell you a little secret: where much of what we did over the next few days would be pretty far removed for many Americans, I was having flashbacks to my childhood and church community: the woodworking craftsmen, the ladies in their skirts or dresses and scarves, the group preparing food by the short ton for a funeral the next day, the unquestioned acceptance of a stranger into their lives with a smile and warm welcome...it all felt very familiar.)

The most famous sites in the Maramures region are the multitudes of wooden churches, all of them frescoed and carved and lovely, but definitely a bit small for some of the communities, hence the open-air service at one that we visited on a Sunday. Those who repair and rebuild these edifices are master craftsmen, and we visited a few of the workshops as well. Another craft involves masks made for the winter festival; these leather and woolen assemblages are also found in museums around the world, and the bearded mask maker who now lives in quiet melancholy in a big wooden house with an untamed yard has been to many different places in the world. One of the constants of Maramures is that many of the people who once lived there are living in other places: you find a lot of grandparents with grandchildren, but not so many 20 to 50 year olds. The various ladies who were out gathering hay (literally making hay while the sun shines, as it had been unnaturally rainy for the weeks previous to my stay) were generally 60 plus.

I'm not going to do a day by day rundown, as it's more about the overall region, but there were a few things that really stood out: the shepherd's campsite up in the hills, where the cheeses were hanging from the cart and the measuring stick for the milk was wooden and marked with lines rather than numbers; the memorial service after the church service, for someone who had been dead for seven years; the fair that brought local talent in with their costumes and singing and dancing, plus the food tents and entertainment; the lady who was sitting on her steps embroidering the most exquisite work I've ever seen. She went into the house to show us her daughter's blouse, made by the mother by hand over a long period of time--she said she worked slowly. And later I found out that she told Teofil that he would need to be quick if he wanted to interview her again (he writes books about craftspeople and had never met her before); she is dying of cancer. One would not have known that anything was wrong by her demeanor, but I felt like I was losing a friend I had just made.

There is so much more, but I'm going to stop here for a bit.
Amy is offline  
Aug 20th, 2018, 05:09 AM
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Really enjoying your report ( I always do). I admire the way you just take off on your own and explore.
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Aug 20th, 2018, 05:47 PM
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Thanks, schmerl! I have to say, along with Blanche DuBois, "Ah have always depended on the kindness of strangers." It was, as always, a little scary but awesome how kind most people are and how eager to help when you need to, for instance, catch a bus that doesn't actually have a proper stop or find your way in a brand new town.

Along with the wooden churches, including a complex of buildings that had one of the residences of the Bishop of Maramures, there was also the "Merry" Cemetery, so called due to its brightly colored crosses with paintings and sagas, some of them humorous, some just purely sad, and all of them comprising one of the biggest tourist sites of the region. (Personally I preferred the lovely old cemeteries beside the small churches, but the Merry Cemetery does make for an interesting contrast.)

We went to another market, this one more permanent, and sniffed the dried porcini mushrooms (mmmmmmmm, I really should have tried to bring them home) and saw the varieties of honey and the butcher shop and cheese stalls and flower sellers and...So colorful and such a wonderful way to shop, but as I was eating dinner at Pension Ardelean I really didn't need anything. Plus, we ate sun-warmed plums straight from the trees that grew beside some of those magnificent gates that Maramures is also known for. We even saw one of the gates being built in place; they can be tremendously expensive (like 10,000 Euro expensive) and need upkeep, but they are quite gorgeous. Another stop was at an ancient mill, one of which made felt fiber, the other flour (and there was a distillery, too, I'm pretty sure.) It was pretty lonely there and the owner of the property seemed to feel it, unlike the tall gentle shoemaker who seemed perfectly content with his leather and tools and dovecote. Another soul who seemed to enjoy his work was the village photographer of Breb, yet another whose work has been exhibited world-wide.

We also managed a visit to the Sighet Prison, now a memorial to victims of communism, which has a fascinating exhibit space and somber memorial outside. As well, we visited Elie Wiesel's serene childhood home...which was sadly and horribly vandalized about a week or so after I came home. The varying currents and crossover cultures of Romania make it very vibrant and fascinating, but there are some darker sides to that, as well. (There isn't much acceptance of the Roma, for instance, who were, in Romania, the last slaves of Europe. Originally from northern India, they managed to keep their skills, particularly in blacksmithing and music, and culture alive through some pretty harsh treatment over 500 years of time.)

Services on Sunday were a highlight, with lovely call-and-response singing. We went in to the balcony of a larger newer church, and were on the outskirts of an outdoor service at one of the 18th century wooden ones. It was there, as well, that the memorial service took place as a seven year commemoration. This was a contrast to the village hall the day before where the ladies were preparing the cabbage rolls and the widow brought us cake. Her husband had been 47, she said, smiling and teary-eyed. Forty-seven is too young; I know just a bit how she feels.

A fair with singers, dancers, and costumes from all the nearby regions finished off Sunday. Some of the performers were very good, some not so much, but it was all genuine and most enjoyable. The sun shone on all three days of Maramures touring, and I feel like I've only begun to describe a taste of what it was like. Pictures might possibly help: https://missalg.smugmug.com/Romania-2018/
Amy is offline  
Aug 20th, 2018, 05:49 PM
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Last edited by Amy; Aug 20th, 2018 at 05:52 PM.
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