I mentioned before that the size of these river boats is very much dictated by the locks. There are 68 locks between Budapest and Amsterdam. Going from Budapest, the locks raise the boat. The lowest rise is 8.4 metres, but in the Main-Danube canal three of the locks EACH take the ship down 27.4m. That happens after we cross over the European watershed, where the rivers flow into the Atlantic instead of The Black Sea or the Mediterranean. The smallest locks on the canal are 12m wide and 144m long. The Amavenita is 11.4m wide and 135m long, which is a pretty cosy fit. The vessel has 3 decks, with a sundeck and the wheelhouse. All the fittings on the top deck – including the wheelhouse – can be lowered to allow the ship to slide under the low bridges.
The history of the Main-Danube canal is fascinating. Read all about it here. Cherie brought a guest speaker on board to tell us all about it. (Guests come and go at locks – we had entertainment every evening, but I haven’t said much about it because it’s not my thing.) Anyway, history shows that the first person to think it might be a good idea to join the Main and the Danube was – Charlemagne! It took another thousand years before the project was finally finished and although commercial traffic hasn’t been boosted all that much, riverboat cruising has. Which I think has rescued many of the charming little villages we visited. Here’s a series of pictures showing the Amavenita going through the Eibach lock – one of high ones.
The canal also crosses over roads
And here’s a look at one of the really low bridges. Captain Zoltan is in the lowered wheelhouse, with his head sticking out of a hole in the roof. Look under thge central bridge support.
Nuremberg is famous these days as the starting point for the Nazis. The bus tour took us to a couple of the only surviving arenas. We were told it would have cost too much to demolish them, so they remain, mouldering like ancient temples in an urban jungle. Pity the allied bombers didn’t finish them off as they did to so much of the city. You can see these places aren’t maintained. The Germans are ashamed of them and don’t want them to become Meccas for the neo-Nazis.
Zeppelin fields where the Nazi party conducted some of their largest displays used to have columns in the Greek or Roman style but they were removed so there was no vestige of beauty left. Hitler used to appear on that platform in the middle.
One fascinating snippet was that after Rudolf Hess, the loony Nazi who flew to Scotland, finally died in Spandau prison in the ’90’s, his body was buried in his home village. But it became a rallying point for the neo-Nazis since everybody else’s body was burned and the ashes scattered. So they dug him up and threw his remains into the Atlantic.
We also drove past the courthouse where the Nuremberg trials were conducted, a building in the distance. Nazi Germany was my field of study at university. A lot of things came flooding back. I just hope we haven’t forgotten all the lessons of the past.
Nuremberg’s history goes back much, much further than the 1920’s. The last bus stop was a very brief visit to the castle. The gates close at 4pm and the staff quite literally shooed us out of there. “Ve are closink at 4. Raus! Raus!”
Most of Nuremberg was flattened during the war. As with so many of these old cities, the Germans decided to rebuild. Today Nuremberg has a medieval centre just like the pre-war one. You have to admire them for that. The market stalls in the town square were a fascinating kaleidoscope of food and the shops were busy everywhere. Love the cathedral against the deep blue sky.
Hey ho. Back to the boat. Next stop is Bamberg.
This morning we made it to Regensburg. And that meant the worries over the height (or lack thereof) of the river were over. However, the vagaries of the Main-Danube lay ahead, with a very different problem. Instead of water under the keel, the captain had to make sure the ship didn’t ride too high. Some of the bridges from here on are low – very low. So while the passengers were off seeing the sights of Regensburg, the ship’s crew were busy replenishing that 200,000 litres of water that had been released at Linz.
On the way we passed an interesting building in the mist high up on the bank. It looks a bit like the Parthenon. It’s called Walhalla and you can read about it here. It honours Germans from all walks of life. I expect it won’t surprise you to learn it was conceived by Crown Prince Ludwig, who later became King Ludwig of Bavaria and is remembered for extravagant architecture like Neuschwanstein castle. (The one Disney used as the template for his fairytale castle.
Regensburg is another pretty little German riverside town with – wait for it – a cathedral. No castle, as it happens. The Amavenita tied up at the bank a mere stroll from the town itself. Pete and I eschewed the walking tour and headed off on our own, anxious to try the delicacies at Germany’s oldest sausage kitchen. Perched on the river bank just near the old stone bridge, the little shop dates back to 1135, when workers were building the cathedral. Move over Maccas. The Germans did fast food long ago. You order sausage in a roll with or without sauerkraut and mustard. The snags are about the size of a middle finger and cooked on a grill so they get that smokey barbecue flavour. You get two sausages in a roll. Yummo. And we got there before the others because they went on the tour.
And now it’s photo time.
We left at sunset. Regensburg turned on a magnificent sunset, just for us. And here it is for you.
We were off to visit Salzburg! But not by boat, or even by bus. We’re back to Imperial opulence. The President of the USA has Airforce 1: Emperor Franz Joseph had the Majestic Imperator, a special train for carrying him and his entourage. The train has been restored (read all about it here), and we would be riding it to Salzburg, and from there on to Passau in Germany, where we’d get back on our riverboat which would cover the distance on the river while we were away.
As usual, we divided into factions and boarded a bus to take us to the Linz railway station, which was busy. It was important to keep that coloured lollipop in sight as we made our way via stairs, escalators and underpasses to the train. There were four carriages, one for each faction, and each one was quite different in décor and purpose. Staff offered us drinks (wine, tea, coffee) and little nibbles as we travelled through the countryside. They actually cooked croissants on the train – not microwaved. They were absolutely delicious, the best croissant I’ve ever eaten. Then we visited the other carriages to get a feel for the resplendent whole.
Unfortunately, the weather was foggy so we couldn’t see much outside until we reached a higher altitude. And there were the mountains. Our guide was already filling our heads with the sound of music. He claimed to be a die-hard fan and promised us snippets about locations etc from the 1964 movie. Oh joy. Apart from the Sound of Music, Salzburg’s biggest claim to fame is that Mozart was born here. I’ll leave you to read all about Salzburg here.
You’ll be surprised to learn that there are castles on crags and an old city with cobblestoned streets, and a row of horses and carriages offering scenic tours. It also has a lot of churches and their clocks are not quite in synch. We were on our walking tour at noon and the noise of all those bells was deafening.
I have to tell you that my very first teenage crush was Captain von Trapp in the Sound of Music. I was 13 or 14. But I’m a lot older now, and frankly, I couldn’t care less about where the movie was filmed, or the lane Maria danced up singing I have confidence in me. And I sure as hell wasn’t the only one. I don’t think it was just our guide, though. Everybody got the same spiel, so there must be some people in the world still obsessed with the film, and the tour guides are instructed to make it part of their patter. I will share one thing I thought was pretty funny. Remember at the end of the movie they all escape up into the mountains to get away from the Nazis? The guide pointed out if they’d kept going they would have ended up in Hitler’s backyard at Berchtesgaden. The reality was much more prosaic – they caught a train to Italy.
Our little gang of six had lunch in an olde worlde pub (sausages and sauerkraut for most of us) then wandered across the square to what was claimed to be the oldest restaurant in town for dessert. You can’t leave Austria without having apfel strudel, can you? This place had the weirdest setup for ordering. One waiter offered coffee, somebody else offered cakes – but they wanted paying separately, as if they were two franchises using the restaurant. The apfel strudel was disappointing, mainly because of the pastry, which was stodgy. Some things are simply better eaten fresh.
And then it was back to the train for the journey to Passau. To our surprise the platform where the train waited was being patrolled by a veritable phalanx of armed police. This wasn’t so much to make sure we left as to ensure nobody uninvited left with us. Austria has its share of people trying to reach Germany, and the train was taking us over the border. A small dose of World Reality even before the Paris massacre.
Train travel in the dark is boring, because you can’t see anything outside. But to wile away the hours a group of young performers in costume went from carriage to carriage singing arias from Mozart’s operettas. And there was wine and beer.
That narrow escape I mentioned? No that wasn’t the train. The water level in the Danube was dropping every day. Any boat needs enough water under its keel to keep moving and Captain Zoltan was a worried man. Just ahead was the part of the river where a ship was most likely to be trapped, so he made the decision to make a run for it. He jettisoned what he could – mainly 200,000 litres of fresh water – and headed up river. This meant that when we reached Passau in the train we had to transfer to coaches to the next port. As soon as we were all on board, the Amavenita set off again. I asked Cherie what would have happened if the ship had to stop. Sh said another ship would be brought into service further up the river, and we would all be transferred by bus. It sounded like a logistical nightmare to me, but she said it was always a contingency plan – and it worked. I’m glad we managed to avoid it, though. Mind you, it was close. During the night we were woken by the rattle of rocks on the hull. In parts of that dash upstream the Amavenita only had 15-25cm of water under her keel. The captain and his crew did a wonderful job.
MS Amavenita pushed off at 12:45 headed through the Wachau Valley for the town and historic monastery at Melk. We were blessed with another beautiful day and quite a few of us perched on the sundeck to drink in the scenery. I’d hoped for some autumn colour on this trip and I got it.
We arrived at Melk close to sundown. Melk has been a Benedictine Abbey since 1089 and because of its location and wealth it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. You can read about its history here. I didn’t take many pictures – photos were permitted but no flash. However, Pete’s tablet did a great job with the light, so I’ve added some of his shots. Even they don’t do the place justice. Everything gleams and glitters and glows.
The thing that always gets me in these places of worship is the over the top extravagance. The amount of money spent on these places is obscene. And the reason the monks had that money was that rich people thought they could buy themselves a place in heaven. For them, it was real – as real as booking a river cruise, I suppose. I studied Medieval European history at university, and one aspect of what I read came back to me with a vengeance. Some of the monks in these extremely wealthy orders broke away to set up a simpler life, where they could devote themselves to God. Here’s a link to the history of the Cistercian order, which broke away from the Benedictine abbey of Cluny in just such a way. This glittering place of worship at Melk is a graphic illustration of why the monks might want to return to a simple life, as dictated by Benedict himself.
The one thing I liked most about the abbey was the library. Sorry, no pictures allowed. Apparently this library was the inspiration for the library in Umberto Ecco’s The Name of the Rose. To quote the website: “The library of the Melk abbey consists of a total of twelve rooms containing about 1.888 manuscripts, 750 incunabula (printed works before 1500), 1700 works from the 16th, 4500 from the 17th, and 18.000 from the 18th century; together with the newer books, approximately 100.000 volumes in total. About 16.000 of these are found in this library room. They are organized by topics: beginning with editions of the Bible in row I, theology (rows II to VII), jurisprudence (row VIII), geography and astronomy (row VIIII), history (rows X to XV), and ending with the baroque lexica in row XVI.”
Melk abbey is a magnificent place, no doubt about it. But you may have noticed my heart speeds up to a different majesty. The flow of the river, the falling leaves, clouds, swans. To each his/her own, I guess.
The captain dropped the moorings in Vienna just before midnight and the following dawn saw the vessel safely tied up at the lovely little village of Durnstein. I was up early and watched the sunlight redden the rocks on the hillside, then the walls of the ruined castle above the town. Remember the story of Richard I (Lionheart) who was detained in a German castle on the way home from the Crusades? His loyal minstrel, Blondel, found where the king was incarcerated by playing Richard’s favourite songs at castles until one day Richard sang along. Or so the story goes. A respected historian told me that actually, Richard was gay and had a dalliance with his ‘captor’. Although they clear;y ended up having a lovers’ tiff, because the English had to pay a LOT of money to buy their king’s freedom.
And the point of the story is that’s the castle; that ruin on the hillside. It’s possible to climb up there and admire the view, but I passed. (Not as young as I used to be, and even less fit). And that’s something to note. River cruising might sound like a very leisurely type of holiday but that’s a matter of how you take it. We walked many kilometres every single day. Many of those kilometres were on cobbled streets. There were stairs, and steep slopes. Here at Durnstein the only part of the area that was flat was the pathway along the river. From there it was uphill all the way. It’s a choice, of course. We could have stayed on the boat, or kept to the path by the river and not gone up (and I do mean up) into the town. But we would have missed out.
We didn’t need a bus for this visit. Durnstein was a couple of hundred metres away, and we were issued with a map. Cherie told us that if we got lost at Durnstein there was no hope for us and we’d be confined to the ship for the rest of the trip.
Durnstein is known for wine and apricots. They make particularly fine apricot schnaps. I tasted a sample of an apricot liqueur in one of the village shops. Verra nice. Verra nice indeed.
This place was so picturesque I hardly knew what to do with myself. So I’ll shut up and let the pictures speak. Click here for part 2 – the Wachau Valley and Melk
For our second day at Vienna we were offered three choices:
- A visit to the Schoenbrunn palace
- A visit to the stables of the Spanish Riding School’s winter quarters
- A visit to Bratislava
I was pretty much over extravagant palaces before we started this tour. All that glitter, all that money spent on trinkets, baubles and status almost offends me. So Schoenbrunn was out. Much as I would have loved to go to the stables, I simply can’t. The effects on my health would have been devastating. So Bratislava it was.
Mind you, if I wasn’t violently allergic to horses I would have taken the fourth option – do my own thing and buy a ticket to the Spanish Riding School’s performance. I’ve seen them on telly, but it’s not the same, is it?
Anyway, off to Bratislava. All of us fitted easily on one bus, which took us back through the countryside to Bratislava, which we had actually passed on the way to Vienna. Squatting on both sides of the Danube, the city was called Pressburg until 1919, when the powers-that-be carved up Europe to suit themselves, and made sure those presumptuous Germans would never regain so much influence. So Bratislava, suitably renamed, became part of Czechoslovakia. Like all of these towns on the banks of the Danube, its history went much further back than that. A major Roman military city (Carnuntum)was established there. Our guide shared a little of its history with us. I would have loved to visit the ruins, some of which have been restored. But that wasn’t part of the program.
The coach took us on the usual city tour, stopping first at the castle strategically placed on a high promontory above the Danube. The castle saw its fair share of wars over the centuries. It was one of the few places that withstood the attacks of the Ottomans in the 13th century. Napoleon sacked it prior to the Peace of Pressburg, signed, of course, right here in Bratislava. It has been restored to its former glory (on the outside, anyway) and now presides over the most prestigious suburb in Bratislava. Our guide pointed out all the embassies as the bus made its way up the hill, and also pointed out where Alexander Dubcek, instigator of the “Prague Spring” in 1968, lived in his youth.
At the end of WW2 Bratislava was ‘liberated’ by Soviet troops. Like many other European cities devastated by war, this one needed affordable housing quickly. Under Stalin buildings were utilitarian and (let’s face it) ugly. Bratislava has its share of block after block of horrible housing, as well as this upside down pyramid thing to remind it of its Soviet past. Yes, this is a functional building. It’s used by the Slovak radio and includes a large theatre and recording studios. Here’s the info.
And of course there’s the old city, the medieval town with its narrow, cobblestoned streets, quaint shops and local food and wine. Our guide took us to a shop that specialises in old fashioned Slovak items. That was fun.
There are a number of fun statues in this town. We saw several at our first stop, the modern shopping mall where we had the obligatory toilet stop.
We found a T shirt at a souvenir shop in the main square, then it was back on the bus to return to the Amavenita. Most of the ship’s staff are from Eastern European countries. I shared our pictures with one of the stewards who comes from Bratislava. His eyes positively lit up when I wore my T shirt to dinner.
MS Amavenita cruised up the Danube overnight and we woke to a cold, misty morning that nevertheless gave notice of another lovely day. After cruising through countryside for a few more hours we tied up at our next destination.
Vienna. Capital of the Austro Hungarian Empire from 1806 until 1918. Born in war, and died in war but is remembered for its stunning architecture and for music. It was here that Beethoven lived, where Mozart and Strauss left their mark. And the home of Wiener schnitzel and apfel strudel.
If I were to summarise our visit to Vienna in a few words, it was all about wealth and culture. This was how the upper crust lived – although of course there’s much more to the city than that. Later in the tour we had a chance to look at the circumstances of the ordinary folk in the little towns along the rivers.
As usual, our tour started with a bus ride around the city, beginning with the fabulous Ringstrasse. The city walls were torn down in 1857 and the well-heeled took the chance to build their summer palaces on the ensuing open space close to the heart of Vienna. I have to confess that though I can admire the architecture, all that pomp and circumstance stuff leaves me cold. That wealth is built on the labour of others. However, more of that later.
Having admired the Ringstrasse we alighted from the buses for the obligatory walking tour of the old city. The oldest buildings stand in cobblestoned squares connected by narrow laneways, not accessible by a bus. Besides, you’d miss the detail you notice when walking. We had five groups – the usual red, blue, green and yellow factions for the more able-bodied, and another group tour director Cherie referred to as “gentle walkers” (pink). This was for the people who used walking aids like frames or sticks, those with a physical impediment, or maybe those not feeling the best that day. Joining that group was a choice made by each individual on each day. The tour would be less physically demanding – but on the other hand you wouldn’t see as much because access to the attractions would be modified to suit. One other option was always available – do your own thing. That’s tempting for introverts like me, but the tour guides provided interesting factoids as well as pointing out the major sites, so I found it was usually worth the cringeworthy business of following a lollipop-wielding local.
At least we didn’t need to do a group huddle to hear what the guide was saying. Each of us had a headset which could be tuned into a device carried by the guide. That meant you could dawdle along some distance from the lollipop and still hear what was being said. Unless you got too close to another group’s guide, in which case you could find yourself tuning into the wrong group. So – keep your coloured lollipop in view.
The heart of the city is the square around St Stephan’s cathedral. We walked past the Albertina museum, the great library, and admired some of the green spaces. Everybody but me went down for a quick look at the stallions in the Spanish Riding School stables. The tour guide had the sense to ask if anyone was allergic to horses before he took the group down there, and I am – violently allergic. Even the smell of the carriage horses waiting to take tourists on a city tour was enough to have me backing off. Then there was free time. Pete and I went for a wander, checking out the souvenir shops for T shirts.
Art is a big thing in Vienna. We came across these sculptures on short term display. Apparently they depict a soldier and his horse taking a break (!). The little kid obviously enjoyed the encounter.
That evening some of the people on the tour faced a dilemma. APT had organised for us to attend a concert at the newly refurbished LiechtensteinPalace. (Yes, that Liechtenstein) But the Rugby World Cup final was on that very night – Oz versus the All Blacks. What to do, what to do. In the end, all but six attended the concert. The die-hards stayed on board the Amavenita and watched the Kiwis slaughter our boys. Yes, one of those was my Petey.
The Liechtenstein renovation wasn’t completely finished but the inner rooms where the concert was held were magnificent, as the pictures attest. The concert was fabulous. The chamber orchestra played well-known favourites from Strauss and Mozart, including a few choices from operettas sung by members of the palace company. I sat in the front row. There’s nothing quite so personal as being close enough to almost touch the performers. The thing that struck me was how much they enjoyed playing their music – possibly as much as we enjoyed listening to them. I should add that tickets to concerts are extremely expensive, so having this performance as part of the tour was a real cherry on top of the cake.
Then it was back to the boat to commiserate with the disappointed sports fans. Oh well. Had they really expected anything different?
The Amavenita is the latest of APT’s river ships. Our cabin turned out to be smaller than it looked in the brochures, but it was more than adequate, with glass doors out onto a tiny balcony where you can watch the river go by. We had a bed, side tables, a wardrobe and a large Mac computer which provided internet access, TV, movies and a bow cam. The ensuite was compact, but functional.
Having checked in and unpacked, we were summoned to the lounge for the pre-cruise briefing. It felt a lot like turning up for the first day at a new school where the only other person you know is sitting next to you. The Amavenita can carry 164 passengers. So late in the season, 137 passengers, the vast majority Australian, had signed up for a tour of duty. Looking around the lounge at the sea of unfamiliar faces, I was pleased that 27 berths were empty. I’m not a people person at the best of times.
The tour director wasted no time in taking centre stage. Cherie is an Australian, hailing from Newcastle, but she’s been an expat in Europe for many years. After briefly extolling the virtues of the trip and mentioning some of the highlights, she got straight into logistics. There were rules and we were expected to follow them. In particular, we had to pay attention to timing. If we were supposed to be back on board by (say) 6:30pm and we weren’t… maybe we could take a taxi to the next port? Whenever we went ashore we had to collect a leave pass from the reception desk, and hand it back when we returned. That way they could keep account of who was on board – and who wasn’t.
Cherie is a thoroughly competent and very nice lady and I’m sure every group she’s worked with did as we did – assigned her a nickname. Some of us called her the head mistress, others the governess. But it was good-natured and very Australian. The need for rules was obvious. The ship had daily targets as well as 68 locks to negotiate, and a bunch of holidaying adults isn’t all that different to a bunch of seven-year-olds.
Then it was time for our first meal on board, which meant sitting at a table with strangers. We were lucky. By sheer chance we shared a table with a couple from Brisbane and a couple from Karratha who were very much on our wavelength. Sandra and Colin, and Vicky and Bruce soon became our best buddies and we often hung out together. Needless to say some people we avoided and yes, there was the occasional bit of private bitchiness. See? Just like school.
The food is often touted as one of the highlights of these tours – and with good reason. Wherever we were, the chefs tried to use local ingredients and local dishes, and match them with regional wine. I think there were only two or three times when I might have given the meals less than 8 out of 10 and one of those was in Amsterdam, where I know what the local food should taste like.
Anyway, back to the river. While we ate some excellent food and drank a glass or three of local wine, the ship headed up stream, out of Budapest, then sailed around Margaret Island and back down river so we could admire the spectacle of the city by night. Pardon the blurriness. I didn’t have a tripod and the ship was moving. And it was dark.
We stayed the night on the ship moored at Budapest. The following day we broke into four groups (red, yellow, blue and green – we all had a coloured card as well as our leave passes so we would remember which bus we were on) and boarded coaches for a sight-seeing tour of the city. Yes, I felt a bit of a prat following a guide holding up a coloured sign (red, green, blue or gold) with Amavenita written on it. But that was how it had to be.
First we saw a little more of Pest and admired some of the statuary depicting the city’s history.
Then we paid a brief visit to the wonderful opera house, partially financed by Emperor Franz Joseph. His stipulation was that the building could not be more opulent that his opera house in Vienna. In fact, Franz Joseph only attended one performance – the grand opening. However his wife, Elizabeth (nicknamed Sissy) liked Budapest and came here often. Although without the Emperor she could not use the Imperial box or rooms. (rolls eyes) The highlight of the visit was provided by a tenor who sang several songs from a balcony while we enjoyed a glass of bubbly.
After the opera we climbed back onto the buses and crossed the river to Buda. The palace surrounds on the top of the hill was packed. The weather was warm and the locals were jostling the tourists. Just as well it wasn’t the weekend. After a brief walking tour we were given time off to take a few pictures and mooch around. Pete and I found a shop in a park and ordered hot chocolate to drink. Maaate! This wasn’t Milo or Ovaltine. I reckon this was melted down chocolate with a generous squirt of cream on top. You drank it with a straw – but not for a few minutes because it was hot as hell. Seriously yummy, of course.
That done, we climbed back on the buses, which took us down to the Amavenita and we were off, upriver, admiring the stunning autumn scenery.
We woke up to a frosty Helsinki morning* and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the Hilton before venturing out to the airport for the flight to Budapest. The moon, just past the full, was setting in the western sky and a few planes were being de-iced on the tarmac. It wasn’t even November yet. What must it be like in January?
Nothing disrupted the schedule and the aircraft took off on time, giving us a view of Helsinki and surrounds. An awful lot of it seems to be water. It was two hours to Budapest. My biggest concern was getting to the hotel and changing my undies – and, let the truth be told, my outies as well. I think my jeans could have walked out without me.
After an uneventful flight which included a view of a riverboat on the Danube, we landed at Budapest’s clean, new airport. They have a great way of controlling cabs there. There’s a booth next to the taxi rank. You tell the clerk where you want to go, she tells you the fare and prints out a voucher which you give to the driver. Everybody knows what the fare will be, there’s no meter and the cabbie can’t take you around the houses, as happens in so many places. Thumbs up for that one.
The cabby was a nice guy, Budapest born and bred, who worked hard at speaking English. He told us a little about the twin city split by the Danube, with the heights of Buda on one bank and the plains of Pest on the other.
The Marriott was a short walk from where the river boats moored, and we had a great view from the room. I noticed the view after I’d showered and changed my clothes. Ah, the relief!
Budapest is a beautiful city with a long history which is reflected in its architecture. As the second city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire it boasts many spectacular palaces and public buildings, many along the banks of the river. The cobblestoned old town had large open spaces with lots of places to eat and drink. Local shops were interspersed with the usual global corporations – Starbucks (how can people drink that stuff), MacDonald’s, Burger King and the like. We wandered around, especially on the riverfront, enjoying a cool, sunny day. When I say ‘cool’ that means our Australian, subtropical interpretation. It probably got to around 15 – so something of an Indian summer for the locals. But the temperature dropped when the sun went down.
Despite the 5 degree temperature, Pete and I ventured out to the old town for dinner. We sat at one of the outdoor eateries (equipped with heaters) and watched a film crew at work in the square. The local soup was watery, but Pete enjoyed his pork knuckle complete with crackling, and I had a local variation of ravioli stuffed with soft cheese. It was nice, and filling.
After dinner as we strolled around Pete noticed a statue and wondered who the fellow was. So he asked a couple of young women running a nearby food vending stall. Seems he was a writer. The central figure was surrounded by many smaller figures which looked very Soviet – sombre and grim. Pete went back and asked the girls about them, too. Characters from his books? Adoring fans? They looked at each other and shrugged. No idea. But they did smile.
We had intended to spend two nights in Budapest, but of course one of those was split between Hong Kong and Helsinki instead, so we had one more morning on our own before we joined our riverboat. Once again, we headed into the old town for breakfast. Budapest – like many European cities – doesn’t wake up early and most of the eateries were closed.
We found a menu on a billboard and while we were reading it a young woman who spoke excellent English approached us. Pete asked if the restaurant did poached eggs. She explained that no, they didn’t, because the food regulations to cook and serve poached eggs were so stiff it wasn’t worth the effort. They could do boiled eggs though, and she showed us a picture of a Hungarian omelette. That was good enough for us. We enjoyed a lovely meal in a beautiful, heritage listed building. Afterwards we found out that the restaurant (Cyrano’s) had a Michelin star. How about that?
Although Budapest is a beautiful city, it has its uglier side. We were warned to be wary of groups of young men. We noticed quite a few homeless people, too, some living in tents on the banks of the Danube. It starts to get to you after a while. We have so much, and they have so little. We walked through a tunnel under the main road and encountered a man who I guess was in his late forties sitting inside with a disposable cup in front of him. He didn’t say anything, didn’t try to attract our attention, but I caught his eye briefly and quickly looked away. I’d seen dignity, and pride, and hopeless acceptance in those eyes and it felt uncomfortable. I think Pete must have done the same, because we glanced at each other. Pete stopped, dug all his coins in the local currency out of his pocket, and went back to put the money in the cup. I nodded. That was good. We looked at each other again, and he went back with a 1,000 forint note. One Aussie dollar equals around 200 forints, and Hungary is moving to the Euro, so forints are worthless in any other country, and nobody wants to exchange them anymore. So it wasn’t a huge thing on our part, but it felt a little better.
We went back to our hotel, checked out and dragged our suitcases the 300 metres or so to where the Amavenita, our home for the next 15 days, was moored. The next part of our Great Adventure was about to start.
PS. If you’re wondering why we were in Helsinki, best read this first.
I’ve been on a river cruise. Up the Danube from Budapest, then via the Danube-Main canal into the Main, which flows into the Rhine, which empties into the North Sea, but has a canal to Amsterdam. It was fun and I took a lot of photos. But Budapest is not where the journey started. That was when we stepped out the door and locked it. You could call it a prequel, if you like. So… let’s go there.
Out the door onto the Dash 8 for the flight from home to Brisbane, and then onto a Qantas Airbus 330. It’s quite an aeroplane, newly refurbished and very comfy. The food was great and the inflight entertainment first class. I watched Jurassic World (nice effects, basically a remake of the original), Jupiter Ascending (didn’t do much for me story-wise – but yeah, nice SFX) and Despicable Me 2 (fun). Not bad, since I’m not a great movie watcher. And then we arrived at Hong Kong.
I’d never been to the new airport which replaced the unforgettable Kai Tek some years ago. No hair-raising ride between the sky scrapers in the shadow of the mountain. This was just another landing, on a man-made platform among the islands scattered around Honk Kong. But it isn’t just another airport. This place is H-U-G-E. And they have these helpful little signs on the moving walk ways. The mobile phone is everywhere.
We were here for 6 hours, due to leave for Helsinki on a Finnair flight at around midnight, so we kicked our heels in the lounge. A drink here, a nibble there. Read a bit more of the book. When a gate number finally appeared beside our flight at around 11pm, I felt a flood of relief. I hadn’t even noticed I’d been concerned. But it was gate 65 – a loooong way from the lounge we were sitting in. We decided it would be best to start walking, so Pete went for a last minute ablute. While he was away a Chinese gentleman approached me. Were we on the Finnair flight? Yes, we were. So sorry, flight delayed until 8am. Someone from Finnair will come to talk to you.
Well, shit. When Peter returned I told him the good news. Nobody from Finnair appeared, but the same man who’d spoken to me earlier collected all the flight’s passengers in the lounge and took us down to the transit counter – manned by one (1) little Chinese girl. It was now around 11:40 and there were at least ten other people already there, with more joining the end of the queue. This poor little girl had to either find space on another flight for the affected passengers, or give them an accommodation voucher. That’s something like 300 not very happy people. And not everyone was prepared to accept she was doing the best she could. One irate American stormed up the head of the queue and banged his fist on the counter. “This isn’t good enough. I’m a priority passenger!” When half the queue told him we were also priority Passengers (ie business class) he shut up and slunk off back to his place in the line.
What the hell. It wasn’t the clerk’s fault and she was doing the best she could. After a long wait, we got our hotel voucher and slouched off the to airport’s Hilton for what remained of the night. It was about 1:30 when we finally closed the door behind us, and we would have to be up at 5:30 for an 8am flight. We bet each other the plane wouldn’t leave at 8am, but if we were wrong…
It’s hardly necessary to say sleep wasn’t the best. We went back through security and checked the departure boards. Delayed until noon. Oh goody. We’d both won that bet. Need I say we had time to kill? As it happened the cheap nasty faux leather jacket I’d bought a couple of years ago for a trip to Europe had decided to disintegrate. The vinyl was flaking off the collar and back, looking decidedly tacky. So we went off to buy a replacement. I could have bought something in the designer label stores, but several thousand dollars for a coat I’d hardly ever wear at home didn’t quite cut the mustard. I now have another faux leather jacket made for Asians, not Europeans. Which is to say, it fits around my tummy but the arms are too long. The old one we gave to one of the attendants in the lounge. I’m hoping it has a new life somewhere, with maybe a new collar.
To our huge relief the Finnair jet took off more or less on time. We drank each other’s health in complimentrary champagne and settled in to read. But it wasn’t going to be quite so easy. The flight we were on was supposed to be a late night service. If that plane had left as scheduled, the cabin crew would have whipped around serving dinner, then collected the trays, as soon after takeoff as possible. Then we would turn in to sleep our way to Helsinki. The fact that this was actually a lunch time flight was completely ignored. The crew conducted the service as they would have at midnight and after they’d collected the trays they closed all the window blinds, FFS. And offered us breakfast for our arrival at Helsinki at around 4pm.
What the hell. We were just grateful to be on our way. And it seemed we’d be able to make Finnair’s evening flight to Budapest, which was due for takeoff a few minutes after we were expected to arrive. We were told they’d hold the flight for us. Someone would meet us on arrival and take us to the Budapest flight. Well, that sounded good.
Judging by the anxious faces clustered around the plane’s exit door after landing, it seemed we weren’t the only people wanting to get onto a connecting flight. No one met us on arrival, so we made a dash through immigration, where we encountered a po-faced Finn with no sense of humour. How long was I staying? he asked. I’m not, I replied, there’s a plane waiting for me, I’m in a hurry.
He looked down his nose at me, and spoke a little louder. “How long are you staying in Europe?”
Oh, fuck. “Um… 15 days.” That was the length of the cruise. Behind me, Peter said, “17 days.”
“Twenty days,” he snapped, shoving my passport back at me.
We ran, dodging past the amblers and the booze in duty free and skidded to a halt at a very empty gate 23. Fuck fuck fuckity fuck fuck.
The Finnair service counter is directly opposite gate 23. Like us, the nice Finnish ladies seemed to think the plane was waiting for us. We gestured behind us to the deserted gate. By now the fatalistic refrain of ‘it’s not their fault’ was wearing thin. Try as we might, the incompetence and lack of communication had become a force of its own which we had to work hard to suppress. We discovered that even if we’d made the flight, our luggage wouldn’t have. But still, it wasn’t their fault and they did what they could.
We were booked into a superior suite at the airport Hilton with vouchers for dinner and breakfast, and seats were booked on the next Budapest flight leaving around 9am next day. We emerged into a Helsinki evening to breathe fresh air for the first time since we entered the international terminal at Brisbane. And it was bloody cold. Pete refused to leave his credit card details at the check-in desk. He reckoned Finnair could stump up for any mini-bar entries. As it happened, we didn’t use the dinner voucher, just drank a couple of bottles of scotch and vodka and ate the cashew nuts in the minibar. I reckon Finnair got out of it cheap.
We rang reception for a couple of toothbrushes and a razor. I wished they had a pair of panties I could buy. Pete had had the brains to bring a spare pair of jocks, but he’d used them up at Hong Kong. We crawled into bed, grateful that we’d scheduled two nights in Budapest before the cruise. Otherwise we could have missed the boat.