Saturday, August 19, 2017

River Boat Life

I neglected to mention in my last post that my travel hiccups seem to be following me. 

Somewhere between packing up and checking out of my hotel, dropping my luggage at the Tauck hotel, and my cabin, both my black windbreaker and my beloved blue Alaskan hoodie sweatshirt have disappeared. You might ask me "Sherita, didn't you lock your suitcase?"  No. I could not, because if you recall, someone at the airlines BROKE IT OFF!!  Sigh. It just wears you out. 

Anyway, I can't prove it, but my gut feeling is that housekeeping stole the items from me at my first hotel. And no, I did not leave those two things behind. I distinctly recall stuffing my windbreaker into my backpack thinking to myself, "it's gonna be wrinkled", even while my lazy voice whispered to me "so what, the wrinkles will fall out".

Well. Enough of that. Let's move on to life on the river. 

There is a definite schedule and rhythm to a river cruise. Each morning, for early risers, coffee and tea and some croissants are available in the little bistro at the back of the boat. There's s nice machine that will spit out espresso, Americano and Cappuccino. 

If you're not an early riser or want to wait for real food, the dining room opens around 7:30. It's a buffet offering the usual suspects - yogurts, dry cereals, fruits, muffins, lox, cheese, bacon, baked beans, sausage and horrible runny scrambled eggs. Thankfully though, there's a nice cook who will make you eggs any way you desire. He makes good omelettes too. He will also flip some pancakes or cook a small waffle. 

After breakfast, we normally have, by this time, arrived at our "port" for the day. Sometimes though, it's a port stop in the afternoon. 

Since all tours are included in the cost of the cruise, all one needs to decide is which tour they're going on, or if they want to go off on their own. Most ports only offer one guided tour, but it's offered as leisure walkers, regular walkers, or introductory tours only. 

The tour guides are local to the port we are visiting. They have all been quite good so far. One guide was a little scatter-brained but he still knew his stuff and readily answered questions. 

Our visits in ports (they're not really ports, per de, they are towns located on the river. But for simplicity I call them ports) are usually only several hours long and then the boat moves on. I'm not used to this. Im used to getting off the ship first thing in the morning and being gone all day long, or overnighting. This half day thing tends to make me feel rushed. However, someone pointed out to me that if we stayed all day in a town, the itinerary of places we visit would be much smaller. The boat needs to keep moving. 

And then there's the subject of the 68 locks we have to travel through. And you don't just slow down and then toddle through a lock. You need a reservation. And then if you're early you have to tie up or idle somewhere until it's your turn. And then being in the lock itself is very time consuming. You float in, maybe tie to one side, stop the engines, and then wait while the doors behind you shut, and the water either rises or falls to match the water on the other side of the forward gates. Sometimes it takes a few minutes but most of the time it takes a good half hour. The whole process can eat up a lot of "river" time. And frankly, after about 8 of them I was "locked" out. I call it ANAL. Ack, No, Another Lock. 

Okay, so back to the schedule. If we're in port in the morning, we are back for lunch, but then sometimes we get to have a lunch or a snack and wine or beer tasting around the lunch hour, then go back on board. 

But lunch on the boat is a buffet with hot foods. A meat, a fish, and the cook usually carved some roast or makes a pasta. There's a small salad bar. Sodas, tea, lemonade, beer and wine are also served. 

In the afternoons, if we've been in town in the morning, there's some sort of lecture or local entertainment to amuse us, in the big lounge. If we're in town in the afternoon then the activity takes place in the morning. It's usually pretty good, even if the advertised subject doesn't sound interesting. I try to go. 

At the end of the day, its cocktail hour in the lounge and sometime during this hour we get the daily briefing for the next day. One of our three Tauck Directors gives this. The written version of the briefing appears in our staterooms that evening. Here's a tip - take a photo of it with your phone or camera. It comes in real handy the next day when you're in town and can't find the paper copy. 

Then it's time for dinner. Dinner is a sit down, order from a menu, be served, meal. It's open seating so you can sit with who ever you like (or don't like and get stuck with anyway). 

After dinner there's piano music in the lounge but some nights there's also games or other social activities. You can participate or not. Totally stress-free decision making. 

Along with the daily briefing, a one pager description of your upcoming port is given. It's s nice little summary of the town you will visit and why it's important or what is interesting and noteworthy about it. I will rely on these heavily when making future posts about the towns we're seeing, because honestly, they all tend to blur a bit after a few days. 

Your stateroom is cleaned twice per day. Bed is made, Towels changed out, bathroom cleaned. At night, your bed is turned down, curtains are drawn closed, and a chocolate candy is sitting on your pillow. In my case, my attendant also takes Snort from the windowsill and puts him on "his" side of the bed. Sweet touch!!

You're given a card that you use to get into your stateroom as well as getting on and off the boat. They present it to you in a little brown leather case. I hope we get to keep the case. The cool thing is that you can keep the card in the case all the time because the electronic eye can read through it. 

We've had just one day on the cruise that has been "cruising only". While I'm woefully behind in my posts, I know that there will only be this one day. I enjoyed it but I heard others grumble about it. But if you know me, and have read my blog over the years, you know I love sea days. I count river days as the same. Nice. And never enough. 

The pictures are the final ones from Budapest when we visited Fishermans Bastion and Heroes Square. 

Friday, August 18, 2017

Nighttime in Budapest and Embarkation Day

So, after a long, hot and tiring day traipsing around the city, I walked back to my hotel and went straight to the bar. You might think, knowing me, that I'd order up a cocktail or a wine or beer - not so this time. I was thirsty for sugar and bubbles, so I ordered a Coke with a glass full of ice. Oh my gosh, I think it might have been the best Coke ever. 😀😀. In fact, it was so good I drained the glass in under a minute and ordered a second one.

Then the waitress brought over some snacks and I sat there for awhile, resting and munching and playing on my phone. All of a sudden I noticed it had gotten very dark outside. Too early for night time, I looked up and saw a flash of light and then heard that unmistakable sound of thunder. Oh crap. I don't like thunder and lightning. It scared the bejeezus out of me.

I made a beeline for my room, flew into the bed, grabbed Snort from my backpack and curled up and whimpered. Yep. Bad ass, super confident, nothing worries me Sherita, curled up in bed with her stuffed piggy crying like a baby. Sheesh. And here's the thing, this bloody storm went on for HOURS!!! It was not a passing thing. It moved in over the city and stayed there. And I was on the top floor of my hotel building with a big balcony. It was pouring down rain. At one point, a flash of lightning so bright hit very close and the thunder cracked at the same time and the walls shook, I swear. And car alarms started going off in the street below. I was sure I was a goner.

But I survived. I wanted to take a shower to wash the day's dirt and sweat off me but they say you shouldn't do that during one of these storms. I was texting with Jimmy in between my sobbing bouts and he told me. Of course, I didn't completely believe him so I googled it and sure enough - not recommended. A few hours later when the storm was a bit quieter I took a chance and opted for a quick hot shower. Clearly I survived. Ha!

Needless to say I stayed in that night. In fact, I never even had dinner - the two Cokes and snacks and storm-induced primal fear were more than enough to tide me over until the morning buffet.

Next morning was checkout time and transfer to the riverboat. The Tauck hotel was a few blocks away from mine so after checking out I walked to the other hotel, checked in with the Tauck rep and left my bags with them to be loaded onto the bus later.

I had until 2:30 to amuse myself. It was still sprinkling a bit outside but not enough to be a bother and the temperature was blissfully cool today so I went off to do some more touring. It was on that walk that I came across the statue of a man and his dog. I included that picture in my last post. It was a statue of Peter Falk, in his famous TV role as the rumpled detective Columbo, along with his trusted Bassett Hound.

It just seemed so random to come across a statue of an American television character just positioned on a quiet street corner. The street's name is Falk Miksa so there is some speculation that perhaps there is a family link but no one knows for sure and since Peter Falk has passed away we will never really know. Coming across this bronze statue made me so happy though. Peter Falk was probably my favorite actor and I even got to meet him briefly about 25 years ago, at a mall in Santa Monica, California. And we shared the same birth day and month. So there.

After my walk I returned to the hotel and soon enough we were boarding the coach and being whisked away to the river's edge and embarking on the Esprit.

With only ocean cruises and bigger ships as my frame of reference, I was a bit surprised at how small the ocean boat is on the inside even though it looked really big from the outside. Kind of weird, I know. Small but efficient. Everything is very pretty with a beautiful marble tiled entry floor (and dangerously slippery when your shoes are the slightest bit damp on the bottom), the main lounge where the bar, piano player and daily briefings are located is pretty and bright with lots of seating and small tables.

There are less than 100 passengers on board - the ship capacity is only 112. There are 3 passenger cabin decks. Mine was on deck 1 which is the lowest deck. No floor to ceiling windows or Juliet balconies down here partially below water level, but two nice windows for my viewing pleasure as long as I was standing up. The room was actually bigger than I expected but it's still quite small compared to an ocean ship's cabin. Small, but very well laid out and comfortable. Plenty of closet space, and the cabin also has a small fridge and a safe. A nice size flat screen TV is on the wall directly across from the bed. There's a Bow camera channel which I kept on a lot - it made me feel like I had a better overall view from my cabin.

My luggage was on the bed waiting for me to unpack, and after settling in we all gathered upstairs in the lounge for a get acquainted cocktail reception and our first daily briefing. After that, some exploring of the ship, a little rest, getting to know some passengers and then it was dinner time. We were overnighting here in Budapest so after dinner, when it was dark, I went out for a long walk along the river side. I wanted to see if I could get some decent shots of this pretty city at night. And a bonus was that it was a full moon!! With a better camera I probably could have taken some great photos but my trusty iPhone does an okay job for now.

My Fitbit told me I had walked 9.2 miles today. I slept well......

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Let's Go to Budapest!!

Well, time to say adieu to Edinburgh and catch a plane to Budapest, Hungary. I've never been to Hungary, and was really looking forward to my visit. 

Boarding the river boat on Monday afternoon, my plan was to arrive in Budapest on Saturday afternoon, settle in to the hotel, do a little walking about and then find a nice place for dinner. The plan for Sunday was to take a hop on hop off bus tour and visit some of the popular sites around the city. The cruise had a tour planned for us on Tuesday morning, so I intended to skip the places we were to tour then and concentrate on other highlights Sunday. 

My plan mostly worked. While I arrived in Budapest, my luggage did not! I ate up more than an hour of my afternoon standing in line waiting to file a lost luggage report. I couldn't go outside to let the Tauck rep know what was happening so of course I worried and fretted about that the whole time. 

Report filed, and assured that my suitcase would be found and delivered to my hotel within 24 hours, I exited the baggage claim area and found that my Tauck rep was still there waiting. Score an A+ for them! 

By the time I got to the hotel and checked in, it was early evening and I was hot, sweaty and tired. It was in the high 90's outside. Without much of a change of clothing available, I opted to order room service and call it a night. 

At 1:30 AM the front desk called me and said my luggage was here and did I want them to bring it up? I said yes of course, put on a robe and waited for the bellman to bring it. When he arrived with it he said something to me in Hungarian and pointed to the zippers on my bag. My lock was gone, replaced by a zip tie. He had a pair of scissors and indicated to me that he'd be happy to cut the zip tie off. Considering that was the only way I was going to be able to open my suitcase I said "yes please". 

By that time I was quite awake, so I opened it up to see if I could figure out why my lock had been taken off. My whole bag had been rifled through. Very upsetting. However, everything seemed to be there, just massively rearranged. I sighed and decided to go back to bed and deal with it in the morning. 

Sunday morning dawned and I awoke feeling rested, even with the middle of the night interruption. I dressed for the day, went to the included breakfast buffet downstairs, purchased my ticket for the hop on bus and headed out. 

I will say that doing the hop on bus is a really good way to acclimate yourself in a new city. First of all, you get a cool map with the city and the sights highlighted and the routes that the bus takes. They also have audio headsets that are available in a bunch of different languages which makes it easy to sit and listen while looking out at the city. Everyone is quiet!! The audio guide is very good at explaining the upcoming stop and why it is important, etc. 

I mapped out my plan at which stops I'd get off, what places I wanted to see, and I have to say, it worked out perfectly. The only lousy thing about the day was that it was almost 100 degrees. Soooo hot and muggy too. It didn't stop me from going and doing but it did make me tired and cranky. This is when it's good to be a solo traveler because no one has to put up with my crankiness. Haha!

I visited the Citadel with the Liberty statue, which commemorates those who lost their lives for freedom. It's on top of a tall hill on the Buda side and afforded fantastic views of the city and the Danube. 

I found the Buda side to be prettier and seemingly more relaxed. Lots of cafes, green hills and quieter traffic. The Castle is also on the Buda side. 

Separated by the Danube, the Pest side of Budapest is laid out in a logical grid but it is fast paced, heavy with cars and trams and buses and feels more like a busy and noisy city. The Parliament is located on this side, sitting right alongside the river, and you will also find Heroes Square, St. Stephens Cathedral, the Terror Museum, the Great Synagogue (2nd largest in the world), and the pedestrian shopping street and markets. And gobs of hotels and restaurants. 

I visited all of these places and enjoyed each of them. The architecture of the buildings and the history of this city was wonderful to explore and learn about. Budapest is a very picturesque city and I'd highly recommend it.  The only negative is that I didn't find the people to be all that friendly. No one seems to smile much. I would pass people in the street while walking and make eye contact and smile and they'd just completely ignore me. I'd speak to someone and ask if they spoke English and they'd answer "yes" but then would answer with a scowl. One young woman taking our tour tickets inside the Parliament Building kept rolling her eyes at everyone as they passed through her to have their ticket scanned. "Welcome to Hungary now go home" she seemed to want to say. Yikes!  I wanted to stick out my tongue at her but I was worried she might not let me in, so my manners won out and I behaved. 

Just outside the (gorgeous inside and out) Parliament Building (snotty ticket taker notwithstanding) is a memorial to the Jews of this city who were marched to the riverbank here, told to remove their shoes and then shot, their bodies then pushed into the river, during WW2. There used to be a very large Jewish population in Budapest, but the war changed all of that, decimating the population. The memorial represents their shoes left behind on the riverbank. It is both beautiful and heartbreaking, as you might imagine.