Tag Archives: Danube

Day two: Still at Budapest

IMG_0955The 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.

Budapest by night

Budapest by night

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.

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The leaders of the 12 Magyar tribes which formed the earliest Hungarian region

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The beautiful parliament building

First we saw a little more of Pest and admired some of the statuary depicting the city’s history.

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The boxes above the main auditorium

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A tenor plays his lute and sings for us

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.

IMG_1081After 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.

IMG_1127Goodbye Budapest. Next stop would be Vienna.

Day one: Budapest

De-icing a plane at Helsinki airport

De-icing a plane at Helsinki airport

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.

A river boat on the Danube at Budapest

A river boat on the Danube at Budapest

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 view from our room

The view from our room

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!

What can I say? It's a shopping passage. But actually most of the shops were empty

What can I say? It’s a shopping passage. But actually most of the shops were empty

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.

Apparently the dude in the middle is a writer. The other folk? FIIK.

Apparently the dude in the middle is a writer. The other folk? FIIK.

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.

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Hungarian omelette – complete with a piece of red hot chili pepper. It was very nice.

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?

Somebody's home on the banks of the Danube

Somebody’s home on the banks of the Danube

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.