Monthly Archives: February 2015

Heads-Up: My “perfect” river cruise jacket is on sale until March 2, 2015

Nope, I get nothing–no remuneration, no commission, not even a “thank you”–from ScottEVest for this, but it’s a pretty amazingly low price (40 percent off) for the Sterling Jacket for Women which I found so darn perfect for my river cruise in Europe last summer.

I’m on their email list and it came through today–the sale is good for just a few days and the caveat is that there are no returns (but maybe you could exchange for a different size, I dunno…call ’em and find out).

The jacket’s on sale for $90. Wow! I wish they’d had that deal last year when I bought mine… Here’s the link to their site.

I loved this jacket for so many reasons on my river cruise (see here for details) and I’m definitely taking it on my upcoming Viking Star (Viking’s new “oceans” division) cruise of the Baltic in June!

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Eleven hours and 30 minutes is even *longer* in a plane…returning back home

Subtitle: I got to see Greenland!!!

Flying from Los Angeles International Airport to Europe (to Frankfurt, then a hop to Amsterdam) was wearying (see my earlier post). For some reason I had it in my head that the “jet stream” made it a quicker flight coming back.

My head was wrong. It was longer by 50 minutes. (And what is that mysterious “jet stream” travelers speak of so knowingly, anyway? What is streaming up there? Faster air that your pilot can only catch heading west to east? Is it like a big hitchiking thumb in the sky and your pilot hops aboard??? Can you tell I’m a bit fuzzled from the flight still?)

This time around, Mom and I didn’t have assigned seats for either our Budapest to Frankfurt or Frankfurt to LAX flights. That meant it was time to hover at a wifi site 24 hours out to snag two seats together (and hopefully not near the bathrooms where the queues of sidestepping, wiggling passengers can impede on your floor space). It was raining in Budapest the morning before our flight so we did some housekeeping tasks at the hotel room and enjoyed a leisurely morning waiting for the check-in time. I snagged two seats together on both flights (for the long one, up over the wing—darn, views aren’t so good there), one window, one middle. Mom said she’d take the middle and make friends (or at least co-exist peacefully) with the unknown passenger on her left. We downloaded our boarding passes on to our iPhones (that way we didn’t have to worry about printing paper passes) and anticipated no problems with our flights. So much for plans.

Did you know Frankfurt is a really big airport? Really big. Our arriving “local” flight required us to board a bus out on the tarmac and be shuttled into the terminal for a long trek to the international area. Tip: Leave yourself enough time if you’ve got a plane switch in Frankfurt.

When we checked in at Budapest (more on airports later) we were dismayed to discover that our seat assignment for that long flight had changed; mom was now in the middle seat in the row behind me. Arriving at Frankfurt, we stood in two lines at Lufthansa service centers (they’d been unable to make the switch in Budapest) and then were directed to try to switch at the gate instead.

The gate agent checked the seating plan and suggested that the person beside mom’s window seat was traveling alone and would likely just switch with me when we got on the plane. Okay; that’s what we’d thought of, too, but we were wanting to do this “right” and had hoped for an “official” switch.

I tell you all this to explain why I wasn’t totally on top of things and relaxed to face an 11-1/2 hour flight. In short, I wasn’t my really ready and usually (!) prepared self.

I’d barely had time to visit the bathroom and here I was, lining up to spend my day in a long metal tube with hundreds of strangers.

This flight took us from 2:05 pm local Frankfurt time to a landing in LAX at 4:40 pm. Not bad, only two hours to get clear across the globe. Oh, wait, there was that time difference thing…

We boarded the 747. Okay, I know these big planes have a whole bunch of first class seats (some upstairs) as well as business seats. As a lowly coach passenger we’re only allowed a peek at some of these elite areas as we board. I look longingly at the almost flat seating, just two across. And there are even rosebuds in vases in first class! So this is how the other half lives (or at least flies), huh?

Instead of roses, at our seats we find a plastic-wrapped blankie and another bag containing earphones. Almost as good as a red rosebud…almost. And you can’t really listen to the in-flight audio portion with a flower so we’re doing just fine.

After a seat switch (thank you, 19K), Mom and I nestle down in our seats and prepare for the hours (and hours, and…well, you get the message) ahead. I have my “comfort” items close at hand and we begin washing down the table (both sides), arms and audio/video controls with our HandiWipes. No, I’m not sure it does anything really to kill germs but it smells like “clean” to me and makes me feel better about becoming very close to stranger-touched surfaces for the next 11 hours.

We take off and, for a while, are able to watch the ground beneath us (I really like those two onboard camera views from the nose of the plane as well as the GPS map). Then clouds roll beneath us in a carpet of white and the view disappears. Lufthansa attendants serve us a “light” lunch (always choose the meal containing mashed potatoes on Lufthansa, the mashed potatoes are great!) and we slip into flight oblivion.

Heading west and leaving at mid-day, our jet chased the sun across the earth as we skittered along in the ever-bright sky. The wide wing of the 747 outside my window added to the brightness reflected inside so I slide the shade down. As on the flight to Europe, my goal is sleep. Again, though, it eludes me. I write a few posts about our cruise, read a bit and then check on the GPS on the seatback screen in front of me. Over seven hours left…I watch “Up in the Air” and that chews up one hour and eleven minutes. I stretch sideways and try to doze once again. I am absolutely positive the little white “No Jet Lag” homeopathic tablets I’m faithfully chewing every two hours are simply Tic-Tacs in disguise. But I keep popping them out of their tinfoil beds and chewing them on schedule.

The plane is quiet, even the four-year-old little guy in the middle seats across the aisle has settled into a nap. Then I become aware of a gentle tipping of the plane, dipping the right wing down. We straighten then tip again. Huh? We’re somewhere in the middle of the flight…nothing here to turn anywhere for…but this is more of a soft nudge downward to the right. I crack open the window shade.

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Look what I saw peeping over the wing!

And I gasp! It’s Greenland.

Greenland is down there below us clear and shining in the sun and the captain is giving us passengers who are still alert the chance to see it.

Oh. My. Gracious.

Greenland.

I can’t stop smiling. See, I really like maps—I’ve loved ’em all my life. And, as a kid growing up in the USA, our maps always showed that seemingly-huge continent of Greenland clutching the eastern side of the map past the Atlantic and creeping up toward the North Pole. And the mysterious name, “Greenland.” Every map I ever pored over showed the continent as a white-painted entity. Just white, like maybe it was not really a continent at all but a huge ice chunk kinda shaped like Africa (I was a kid imagining this, okay; give me a little slack).

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See why I gasped?

And now it was beneath me.

Unmistakeable. Huge. Pierced with icy-blue rivers choked with glaciers above. And white. Very white.

I wake up Mom. I want to wake up the whole plane. Based on Mom’s reaction, I’m guessing my fellow passengers probably wouldn’t be overly thrilled with a wake-up call for a Greenland sighting, either. (Confession: Mom smiled—that’s what moms do with their children, you know—and told me she was happy I was happy seeing Greenland. Fair enough.)

The pilot kept the plane tilted and, even though that broad 747 wing was a bit in the way, I plastered my head on the plexiglass window (yes, we’ll just ignore the thought of the germs there, waiting to pounce on my face) and stared. And smiled.

A flight that’s over 11 hours? Suddenly it seemed all worthwhile. After all, I’d seen Greenland, and time in a metal tube was a very small price to pay.

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See, it really was Greenland.

 

 

[Follow up: I spoke with a flight attendant as we disembarked and told her to thank the pilot for tilting to provide the view of Greenland. She smiled: “I’m glad you noticed. It’s not often as clear as that and the pilot wanted passengers to have a good view.”]

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Budapest on our own

Note: This is the “on our own” account of what we did post-cruise in Budapest. For tips and info on the Budapest experience as part of the Viking cruise see: Viking with Budapest and my account of a night-time arrival in Budapest on Viking (you won’t need the nighttime “see the lights” extra excursion).

 

I’m no big-time traveler, but, of all the places I’d been on this trip, Budapest felt the most “foreign” to me.

I think a lot of it might be attributable to the language—both written and spoken. I’ve studied a bit of French and done a teeny bit of German (that’s if the cool DuoLingo app even counts!). I lived in the heartland of Mexico one summer. But none of those languages sound or look like Hungarian. I couldn’t even imagine how to pronounce the the words on street signs in Budapest—those letters simply didn’t “go” together in my language experience. I kept staring at them and trying to sound them out; no success.

So, when Mom and I disembarked from the Atla on our final day and traveled up the Castle hill to the Buda side where we’d be sleeping for two nights, I rather wondered what, in heaven’s name, we’d do for our extra days before heading back home. Not that there wasn’t plenty to see or admire—on both sides of the Danube, Budapest offers a wealth of museums, artwork and architecture. I think I just felt that I didn’t belong there.

Thankfully, with two activity-packed days now behind me, I can tell you that there’s more than enough to keep yourself busy in Budapest. But I never did shake off that “foreign” feel…

That building to the right of the church? It's the Hilton in the Castle District where Viking made our reservations.

That building to the left of the church? It’s the Hilton in the Castle District where Viking arranged for us to stay in Budapest.

Viking River Cruises arranged our post-cruise stay in Budapest and they put us up in the Hilton. Our room, on the fifth floor overlooking the Danube with the Fisherman’s Bastion in the foreground, was quite nice and the view was stupendous. It’s right in the midst of the Castle District and you could easily spend a couple “tourist days” just in this area.

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The crowds in Budapest were pretty big. I kept the “locks” on my PacSafe bag well-clasped to make it more difficult for any quick-fingered thieves.

The previous day I’d gone out with Gary and Marla on a “Let’s See What We Can Discover in Pest” tour (devised by Gary). No, he’d never been to Hungary before—at least I don’t think he had—but from previous off-ship adventures, he knew what kind of things Marla and I enjoyed seeing and he had an afternoon planned for us (Mom stayed back on the ship to finish up editing photos and enjoy a bit of quiet time).

We headed across the (very busy!) street from where the Atla was docked and headed into the city center. Some of this I’d seen on our earlier walking tour, but Gary quickly steered us on a different path—toward a multistory Ferris wheel, perched on a pocket of green in the midst of the city. As we meandered toward the attraction, though, we took a bypass through a busy plaza, crowded with revelers—Hungarians as well as tourists.

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Lots of flags were flying on the national holiday.

[As you might recall, we were visiting Budapest in the midst of their most patriotic holiday, hence all the crowds. I can only imagine being in Washington D.C. the week of Fourth of July…]

The plaza we walked through was lined with temporary booths featuring local foods as well as crafts. Hundreds of folks milled around, enjoying the summer sunshine. We sniffed happily at the various meats spitting and sizzling on deep grills which were devouring hefty logs as fuel. This was also the first time we saw the Kürtőskalács which seem to be a great treat in this region. A yeasty sweet dough is mixed up, rolled out into a long strip and then rolled on to a metal cone and grilled atop charcoal. When golden and crusty, the treat is slipped off the metal spit, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and bundled in a cone-shaped paper package to enjoy. Pull apart the dough and pop pieces into your mouth. Yummy!

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The Ferris Wheel was downtown on the Pest side of the Danube and offered great views. It cost about $7 US dollars (but you have to pay in forints, of course!).

Many craftsmen were selling leather and fur goods—including those puffy fur caps for women that just look so very Russian/Eastern European. Of course Marla and I had to try them on. They’re certainly warm and the fur feels so soft—but I can’t really imagine wearing one of them back home. Maybe somebody’d think I was an undercover Russian spy…or a woman with a really bad hair day…

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Me and President Reagan. I think the sculptor took a bit of artistic leeway in the height department.

Marla, Gary and I explored around the Pest side that afternoon—climbing up the tower at St. Stephen’s Basilica (named after the first Christian king of Hungary; his right hand is stored in the church’s reliquary and I understand it was going to be brought out and carried around during a special mass the next day; we missed that one, though), riding a really tall Ferris Wheel, seeing lots of statues (‘like the photo of me with President Ronald Reagan?) and even talking with a Ukrainian woman and a Russian woman we met by chance at the statue of Imre Nagy in Martyr’s Square. Nagy, the equivalent of the prime minister for Hungary, stood up against the Soviet takeover in 1956 but it didn’t end well for him. This contemplative statue was quite a backdrop for our discussion with the two women.

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Aboard the hop-on, hop-off bus.

Our cruise officially ended the next day (we said our goodbyes to all our new friends) and Mom and I were on our own to explore Budapest. We bought a “HOHO” bus ticket (hop on, hop off) and used it to tour the city on both sides of the river. It was only $24 each and, while we could have covered the same IMG_1926territory in public transport for less, this made it easier to see the sights of Budapest since we could just relax and ride around (and not have to worry about getting those tickets punched on those really balky validation machines on the trains).

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A parade featuring costumes from different regions of Eastern Europe.

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Hundreds of artisans selling their wares below, around and inside the castle.

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Even without a common language, we could understand the “story” of this folk dance.

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Did I mention that the Castle District is atop a hill? Yep, and we felt every step of it by late in the afternoon.

We spent much of our time enjoying the biggest “craft” fair I’ve ever even imagined—it’s called the Festival of Folk Arts and it featured items made throughout Eastern Europe. It covered the entire Castle grounds, from river level, snaking around the castle’s walls and up into the top courtyards. What fun things to ogle: I saw the most fetching green leather slippers with toes that turned up (again, not really sure where I’d wear ’em, but they looked like something out of a fairy tale and I really wanted to justify their purchase because I’m absolutely positive that wearing them would make magical things happen in my life), hand-forged knives, traditional painted ceramics, metal crafts and embroidery. No need to watch out for a “Made in China” sticker on these items: Everything is made by the artisans you purchase from. I bought the sweetest little felted and embroidered animals for the grandchildren and we watched folk dances of all sorts.

Lunch. 'Don't know what it was, but it tasted great!

Lunch. ‘Don’t know what it was, but it tasted great!

We ate from one of the grills in the castle’s courtyard; I just pointed at what looked tasty (and a lot of it did—but I passed on the grilled fish, complete with fins and eyeballs) and we sat down at a picnic table to enjoy the spicy fare. With a Coke!

There really were very few people who seemed to speak English here—but a fistful of forints spoke volumes when we wanted to buy things!

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We enjoyed dinner at this small restaurant near the hotel the first night. It was called the Pest-Buda Bistro. It wasn’t the one with the solemn server; that one was a different one that I don’t remember the name of…’Sorry!

And that brings up that “foreign” feeling again that overwhelmed me in Hungary. We were in the midst of pavilions packed with people but I couldn’t understand a single word that was said. It was like passing through a crowd un-noticed—I couldn’t read the signs, I couldn’t understand the language. I felt invisible—as if I was this little American bubble maneuvering through the flood of fairgoers. It was really an odd feeling and a bit unsettling; but we never felt it was “dangerous” in any way.

Rain threatened throughout our Budapest visit and it made good on its threats late on our last afternoon. We dove into a restaurant in the Castle District for dinner, carefully calculating how many forints we had remaining to spend before boarding our flight home the next day. Mom had a noodle/goulash type of meal while I ordered wild boar. The servers (all the servers we saw in Budapest were male) hovered over us with a solemn—and somewhat dark—look on his face as we ate our meal. We enjoyed it anyway.

After packing up that evening, we settled at the window of our room at the Hilton, crossing our fingers that the rain would let up for the much-anticipated annual national fireworks show on the banks of the Danube. And the clouds parted!

Okay, I grew up eight miles from Disneyland and the sound of fireworks exploding was our our Southern California clock at 9:30 pm every evening. But nothing prepared me for the fireworks show unfolding right outside our window. The iconic Fisherman’s Bastion framed the right edge of our view out to the Danube. Workers had spent the previous day positioning the fireworks devices on the Chain Bridge as well as the one north of it. More fireworks were positioned along the river’s banks. Amplified music and the voice of an announcer came through our window as the colors arched over the waterway, over Budapest’s well-lit buildings and into the sky above. Mom and I just looked at each other.

What a glorious finish to our (first? only? hmmm…who knows???) river cruise!

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