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The Dinosaur Goes to Texas/New York/The Danube

Posted by marshal on June 16, 2016 in Dinologs |

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Day One (sort of)

And the adventure started.  Mike, our ride to the airport, took us a way we had never gone before, but said it would cut out a lot of traffic. Unfortunately, a traffic light had gone out after he came to get us, and we had a delay… still no problem.  However, once we got to Tropicana Road, we found that there were new traffic cones closing down the inside lane.  Still no problem.  The signage at the airport was a little misleading, but we eventually found our way to terminal 3 with loads of time to spare.   We went through TSA with no hold ups until we got on the other side to reassemble ourselves; then there was a problem.  Patsy had set her passport down at the end of one of the baskets used to pass stuff through the TSA screening.  The passport was almost the same color as the bin liner, so when we got over to the benches, she didn’t see her passport.  Now we had a problem, especially since we would be leaving the country in a week and a half, with no time to order a new passport.

 

Now people have much to say about TSA, most of it not complementary, but two TSA people went through all the stacks of bins until the young lady helping us, spotted it.  Problem over, situation back to normal.

 

This does not sound like much of adventure until you understand that Patsy is the organized one in the family.  I spend most of my time looking and acting like an unmade bed.  If the organized one falters, the center collapses and we are doomed! Doomed I tell you, doomed… well maybe that’s a little overboard, but not by much.

 

We made it to the airport in plenty of time, in fact in m-o-o-o-r-r-e than enough time.  We were supposed to leave at 11:30, but there was an announcement that our departure was delayed due to a mechanical problem.  Just the sort of thing one wants to hear.  Anyway, after two hours, we boarded the plane, got comfortable, and waited as we taxied toward the runway.  There we sat while the airline attendant explained about the seatbelts and the air masks, etc.  Funny thing, the attendant went through all the motions while an upbeat jingle sang about what she was showing us.  It was like being in a multi-million-dollar elevator, but with seats.

 

After we learned to stay buckled up during turbulence and snapped our fingers to the catchy line about how the air mask would drop down, the captain came on the intercom and told us that the problem was indeed not fixed, and that we would go back to the terminal just as soon as they could find an entry.  Our flight was cancelled!  Bummer, although not as much a bummer as hearing the same announcement mid-way in the flight.

 

The folks at Virgin Airlines were cool and offered to put us up at Alexis Park Suites.  We decided to take then up on the deal because it would be too confusing asking someone to come pick us up at the airport, take us back home where we would have to displace Tara, our house sitter, and then have someone drive us back to the airport.

 

One consolation to all this is that we heard they had a tornado warning for Dallas, with hailstones even.  Lucky us.

 

Virgin America put us up at Alexis Park Suites and gave us meal vouchers.  Dinner was okay, nothing to write home about, but I saw ‘Beer Can Chicken’ on the list and ordered that.  Beer can chicken is prepared by shoving an open can of beer up the appropriate orifice of a whole chicken and popping it into the oven.  I have always thought it would be fun to try this, but I never have.  As I was falling asleep later on, I wondered if you could get one of those great big cans of Foster’s or Sapporo and perch a turkey on top of the can, but I could not figure out how to get the bird and beer can in our oven at home; there would not be enough room.  There must be some way of doing this though, the photo opportunity alone would be worth the effort.

 

Day Two

We got our motel reservation in Dallas taken care of but had to go through a lot of hassle to change our car rental at the airport.  I finally got that taken care of, hopefully.  We will find out should we ever reach Dallas.

 

We woke up to a very rainy day, but being in Las Vegas, we knew it wouldn’t last… sure. (Note: the weather report has us socked in for the entire day.) The storm was what Patsy’s cousin calls a frog strangler, rain so heavy and so fast that the frogs can’t get out of its way.  I don’t quite believe that, but then again, what do I know about frogs?

 

I got a text message on my phone that our flight would be delayed for an hour and wondered if that an omen.  Would we end up being cancelled again?

 

Even so, we went to the airport on faith that we would actually go this time.  As it turned out, our faith was rewarded, and we left… an hour later than we were supposed to, but we left.  Right at first, I was worried because a couple of technicians flew with us and they kept opening things and peering into them. I hoped it wasn’t anything critical, such as a computer going out, or snakes in the luggage compartment (I never saw the movie, but maybe it could happen).  As it turned out, the on-board entertainment system did not work, and that was why the technicians.

 

The flight was pleasant with very little turbulence, which was unexpected, because it was cloudy all the way to Dallas.  Patsy and I weren’t sure what to do about lunch, so we ate something at the airport.  Little did we realize they would feed us on the plane.  When it came time for the meal, we were stuffed and passed, but we did take the dessert – something called the Eton Mess.  It was a dish of lemon curd, clotted cream, a few slices of fruit, and a topping of what I thought was compressed powdered sugar.  Our flight attendant, Mark, introduced me to a new treat – chocolate chip cookies and jasmine tea.  These are best consumed at 30,000 feet in the air.

 

As I said before, the flight was more or less uneventful, which was okay with me.  I don’t like eventful flights.

 

We met Morgan and Sandee, our son and his wife, at the airport.  They had picked up a car earlier and so we were on our way.  Once again, the drive was uneventful, and again, that was okay with me.  We did stop and have a bite at a place called Zoe’s, which was a Mediterranean sort of place with a slight Texas twist.  The hummus was made with hot sauce, not paprika.

 

We stayed with Patsy’s cousin Ron and his wife Monica.  Their house was lovely, and backs up to a greenbelt, which explained what we saw from the air.  Apparently, Texas has a lot of greenbelt areas.  As we were coming into Dallas, we saw whole areas of woods (I don’t want to say forest, because that brings up other images) mixed in with the houses.  Right at first, I thought there were just a lot of golf courses in Dallas, but if all the wooded areas were courses, every man, woman and child, including homeless people, would have to play golf to justify the number of them.

 

Even with all the travel and fuss, we were still wound up, so we spent several hours talking and drinking wine until we decided it was time to get to bed.  Naturally, I couldn’t sleep, but somehow or other, it was 2:00 in the morning, and then it was 8:00.  Strange how things like that happen.

 

Day Three

We started off the morning with a great breakfast of scrambled eggs with chives, English muffins covered with sausage and cheese (see recipe below), and fresh fruit.  About the time I felt like things could not get any better, Monica produced a tray of freshly baked cinnamon rolls.  I fear my diet is out the window (yeah, like I’ve ever been on one of those).

 

After breakfast, we went to the Lindon B. Johnson Library.  I have to confess I was an anti-war student during his time as president. I was less than enthusiastic about Johnson, but looking back at all the things he accomplished, like Medicare or the Voting Rights Act, I have changed my mind.  I always thought he just completed things Kennedy started, but learning about the things he felt passionate about, in retrospect, I think he was probably one of our greatest presidents.  I will probably read more about him after we get back home.

 

We took a long drive through Austin, around to a BBQ spot down by the Colorado River.  This is not the same river we know in Nevada, Utah and Arizona, but it still shares the name.  We had a barbecue lunch, I had pulled brisket tacos.  by this time, I had consumed more calories than I normally would for an entire day, and we still had dinner to look forward to.  Oh my.

 

We went to Mt. Bonnell after lunch.  This is one of the highest points around Austin, in fact you get a great panoramic view of the city from the top.  Two things I found really great about the walk up to the top of Bonnell were the smiling faces of so many different kinds of people on the trail, young and old, men and women, grandparents and young people with lemon colored hair, and all sorts of races.  The smiles, the joy, that was what I found so great!  This was America!

 

Oh the second thing that was really great?  I didn’t trip on my way back down the path

 

Heading back to Ron and Monica’s house, we went through Austin and passed fields of wildflowers.  Monica said that Lady Bird Johnson was instrumental in reestablishing the wild flowers here in Texas.

 

Monica’s Muffins

2 pkgs English muffins (6 count each)

2 sticks softened but not melted margarine or butter

2 jars Old English Sharp Cheddar spread

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

dash salt

1-pound hot Jimmy Dean sausage (or Owen)

 

directions

 

Cook crumbled sausage until well done.  Drain on paper and cool.  Blend margarine, cheese and spices, the add sausage.  Place slit muffins on cookie sheet and spread with filling.  Bake in 400 deg. oven for 10 to 15 minutes.  Note: you can freeze these after spreading the muffins with the sausage mixture.  Just put the cookie sheets in the freezer until the muffins are frozen, then pop them into a Ziploc bag and they will keep for good long while.  You don’t have to thaw them to bake, just put them into the 400 deg. oven until they are nice and bubbly.

 

Day Four

This was a transitional day.  When we woke up, it had rained in the night, so things were cool and fresh.  Monica fed us some great breakfast burritos, fresh fruit, and of course cinnamon rolls (does this woman never stop?).  We took our time getting out of the house so that the rush hour traffic into Austin would be over by the time we left.

 

Ron and Monica live in an area that backs up to a greenbelt.  Apparently there are some caves with a rare insect living in them, and so the greenbelt cannot be developed.  When we look out the back door, what we see are Live Oak Trees, tall grasses, and here and there a cactus plant.  This morning, there were five deer resting in the trees behind the house. They were so close that I could have hit one of them with a rock were I so inclined (and if I didn’t throw like a girl).  Monica said that she thinks the does are pregnant and getting ready to drop fawns.  She also said that the deer in the greenbelt behind their house like to have their young near the houses, maybe as a way to protect them against coyotes. Anyway, the scene was very… what?  Should I say pastoral?   I can’t say bucolic because that refers to cows, and I think I would have been less than impressed if there were five cows in the grass behind the house.  Maybe I’ll leave it at pastoral, but whatever, it was nice to watch the deer lying down in the grass that close to the house.

 

We drove into Austin, which was a pleasant twenty-five-minute drive, and found our motel.  I believe this is the Texas Hill Country we have heard much about, a land of rolling hills covered with grass and wild flowers with stands of Live Oaks.  The country is a lot like northern California during a time of good weather.  These low hills would be good horse country because we didn’t see much to obstruct a running horse except for the occasional stream.

 

We understood that Lady Bird Johnson was instrumental in reviving the wild flowers, so applause to her.  Ron told us that this had been a dry period for them.  If so, the recent rains must have done a marvelous job, because it was green, green, green.

 

After we checked into our motel, we drove over to the Metro station and bought tickets for the Metro train and headed into downtown.  We walked around scoping things out and then had lunch at a small coffee shop before heading back.  We planned to do somethings the next day, especially since it will be the only one we will have to explore Austin before we head to San Antonio.

 

The Metro train is a sleek thing and very clean.  There are hooks on one side of the coach, where bicycle riders can hang their bikes while they ride.  I don’t know how new these trains are, but they are the cleanest we have seen in any of the places we have used trains.

 

Austin seemed to be an off-beat place.  We might have found ourselves in a gay part of town, but nothing overt, that is to say there were no cross-dressing queens out directing traffic, just people walking around, holding hands and being people.  The bulletin board in the coffee shop where we had lunch also made us think we were in the gay area; one poster advertised a Queen’s Soiree, while there were others advertising various events and openings.

 

When we went to the coffee shop and when we came back, we passed a busker on the sidewalk and both times he was hunched over next to a one-man band set-up that was covered with messages like “God is love,” and so forth.  He was eating something, so maybe he was taking a lunch break.  I hoped he would be playing on the next day, because I sort of like one man bands.  Don’t ask me why, because I also think they are corny, but there is something about them that I just enjoy.

 

Day Five

This was our day to see Austin.  We went up to the capitol and looked around.  If you have never been to Texas, the state capitol looks sort of like the Capital Building in Washington D.C., but it’s a lot smaller and tan colored rather than white.  There is a statue on top of the dome, much like the statue on top of the Capitol.  Here in Texas, it is a woman holding a star rather than the Capitol Building Statue of Freedom, who holds a wreath in her left hand and has her right hand resting on the hilt of a sword.  A surveyor’s theodolite (that thing surveyors look through that looks like a spy glass on a tripod), is set up so you can see the statue’s face.  I didn’t look through it, but Morgan did and he said that she looks surprised.

 

We passed the one-man band set-up again, and he still wasn’t plying, so maybe he was waiting until night time, when tourists would be out looking for fun.  The only busker we saw was a man who played the trumpet almost well, sitting in a doorway, but that was it. We did see some other fun things though, like a sign in front of a bar that said you can’t buy happiness, but you can buy wine, and that’s almost the same thing.

 

Like most cities that have been around for a while, Austin has a mixture of original buildings and modern ones.  We took pictures of some of the old buildings and one very tall new one that looked like an ice sculpture a clock in the middle of it.  Most of the older buildings were built with limestone, however there were also some brick mixed in there as well.  As expected, the more modern buildings used a lot of glass, I tried to take pictures of both types and will have them up shortly.

 

Meanwhile, we enjoyed a lunch at The Driskill 1886 Cafe.  I had a small salad as part of a soup-and-salad combination (see recipe below); the salad was paired up with a lovely cheddar soup.  Of course, there had to be a beer to go along with all this, so I chose a Convict Hill Stout (yes, I know I should have chosen something lighter, but I wasn’t in the mood for an IPA or a Hefe, which were the other two choices of local brews).  The stout was a nice dark color, almost like black coffee, with tones of espresso and chocolate.  So, all in all, I came from what I thought was going to be a light meal, to one that left me feeling replete.  I fear this whole vacation is going to be “replete.”

 

Salad ingredients: greens, shredded cotija (a Mexican cheese similar to feta), pepita (pumpkin seeds), roasted corn, roasted poblano peppers, bits of chicken and bacon, all dressed with a buttermilk cilantro pesto… whew, it almost wore me out listing the ingredients.

 

Dressing Ingredients

1/2 cup buttermilk

1/4 cup fat-free plain Greek yogurt

1/4 cup light mayonnaise

1/4 cup fin

4 teaspoons prepared basil pesto

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

 

Directions

 

In a medium bowl, whisk together all ingredients. Chill, covered, for at least 2 hours or up to 24 hours.

 

1886 Cafe and Bakery Cheese Soup

Driskill Hotel, Austin

1/4 cup butter

1/2 cup onion, minced

1/2 cup carrot, minced

1/2 cup celery, minced

1/4 cup flour

1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

4 cups chicken stock

4 cups milk

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1 pound grated Velveeta or mild cheddar

1 teaspoon dried parsley

1 dash cayenne or to taste

1 dash paprika or to taste

1 teaspoon salt or to taste

1 teaspoon white pepper or to taste

 

Melt butter in a heavy saucepan. Over medium-high heat, sauté the onions, carrots, and celery until translucent and tender, about 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in flour and cornstarch. Cook about 3 to 5 more minutes. Add stock and milk gradually, blending until smooth, and reduce by 1/4. Do not allow to boil at any point. Add baking soda and cheese and stir until melted and thickened, about 10 minutes. Add parsley, cayenne, and paprika. Keep soup warm over very low heat or in a double boiler if not using immediately. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serves 6 to 8.

 

See more at: http://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/1886-cafe-and-bakery-cheese-soup/#sthash.R07KhZNH.dpuf

 

Day Six

We started out for San Antonio, but first we waited for a while to let traffic thin out (Yes, Virginia, they do have L.A. type rush hour traffic in Texas).  By waiting, we were able to sail down to San Antonio with little to no problems, except for the changing speed limits, of course.  No speed limit was less than 60 mph, but often the limit was 75 or 80.

 

I always thought long horn cattle were something of a rarity until I saw on television, a herd being pushed to high ground in Huston during the recent storms.  So you can imagine my surprise when we saw eight or nine of these things in a field along the route.  Imagine also my surprise when we realized that the long horns were just models!  Is nothing sacred?  The statues were very realistic looking, especially with the tall grass around their feet, but when we realized that none of them had moved a muscle, we decided they were just statues… of course they could have all been stoned or something, but I don’t think cattle do that sort of thing

 

At any rate, we got to San Antonio with no problems and were able to check into our motel right away.  I have to digress here for a moment.  For some reason, I made reservations with the Red Roof Plus motel.  My reason must have been that the Red Roof was so near the Alamo and the River Walk, because the room was clean and the bed was comfortable, but there wasn’t a closet.  The only plus we saw was the staff who were always friendly and helpful.  Breakfast was not included in the fare, not even a continental one, although they did have a machine you could buy breakfast stuff from and then pop the whatever in the microwave.  We even had to pay for parking.  My reasoning was lost in time since I made the reservations back in February, but I don’t plan to stay in a Red Roof again.  Now, back to the narrative.

 

Since we arrived early enough, we went over to see the Alamo.  We learned a great deal about what prompted the battle for Texas independence in the first place.  It was apparently a struggle between a Federalist form of government and a Centrist, almost a state’s rights sort of thing.  Santa Ana overthrew the Federalists and took command of the government, which did not sit well with the Texicans (I hope I got that word right).

 

On the way to the Alamo, we passed an old hotel that had a couple of really cool chimeras tucked up above one window.  A chimera is a grotesque figure used for decorations. Some people think of them as being gargoyles, but they don’t have a drainpipe in their throats which is what makes a carved monster a gargoyle.

 

Now, on to the Alamo.  Texans take this place V-E-R-Y seriously.  I don’t know how places like Boston (site of the Boston Massacre) or Yorktown (as in Battle of) deal with their past, but you really cannot mess with Texas when it comes to the Alamo.  There is a garden area behind the mission called the Shrine of the Alamo.  I always associate the word “shrine” with a holy spot, and I’m not sure what was back there, it could have been the graves of the defenders, but I don’t know.  Like I said, Texans are very serious about their history.

 

The Alamo site is surrounded by a wall, so while I was thinking it was just the mission itself (the basilica), actually the Alamo is a large precinct.  Once you enter the site, there are two cannons mounted by the walk.  These are the first of many big guns one finds along the way.  During the fight, this whole precinct was a battle area, with cannon emplacements at every corner and strategic point.

 

The landscaping is very dense, with mature trees that were transplanted to beautify the place.  Flowers, cycads, and shrubs were everywhere.  The site is lovely; Texans seem to do dense landscaping very well.

 

In front of the mission itself, there is a plaque marking where Davie Crockett died, and a brass line that represents where Colonel William Travis drew a line in the sand and told the men that whoever would fight with him should step over the line, while anyone who did not want to do that could leave.  What none of them knew was that General Santa Ana had already given orders that no prisoners would be taken. Anyway, I think most of us have seen movies about the battle and how the defenders resisted to the last man.  An interesting thing was that some of the wives who had been in the mission, were allowed to leave after the battle. They were the ones who told about the fighting.

 

The mission basilica is a small affair, with limestone walls that have twisted pillars carved into them on either side of the main doors, and alcoves between the sets of pillars that look as though they might have once held statues of saints.  As far as missions go, it is not the most impressive one we’ve seen.

 

Jim Bowie of the knife fame had been sent to dismantle the Alamo, but realized he didn’t have the resources to remove all the cannon, so he and Travis decided they would stick it out here.  The Alamo seemed ideal because it does have thick walls, and the Mexican Army had already turned the place into a fortress of sorts years earlier for protection against Indian attacks.

 

There are also things to look at like an old well, the museum in the area known as the Long Barrack (there is even a Tennessee Long Rifle that was presented to Fess Parker on display), and the cannons, lots and lots of cannons.

 

Across the street and down a way is a huge orange/pink sculpture that I understood came from France, but I also heard came from Mexico.  Anyway, this is a four or five story flowing sculpture that rises up on two square columns and twists around at the top.  It is supposed to symbolize affection but I could see it also being an invitation to ‘get knotted, of course that’s just my sense of humor.

 

After visiting the Alamo, we went down to the River Walk.  This is really a cool place.  Imagine a river kept in a concrete channel, and surrounded by restaurants, shops and hotels The river is actually the San Antonio River, but the original river was nothing like what is there now.  Pictures of how it was before being channeled show what looked like a large creek.  However, when heavy rains came, the river overflowed its banks and became destructive. 50 people died during one of the floods and so they had to take measures to control the river. Now with dams and other flood control measures, the River Walk is very safe.

 

I think the river is about twenty or thirty feet across, but there are sidewalks and gardens all along the edge. One has to walk down stairs to get into a man-made valley, at least two stories deep, where the river meanders through.   The main part of the river has a current, but even the side branch where the tour barges load up is kept moving so there is not an insect problem.  There are ducks living on the river, and I took pictures of a heron and a cormorant (a sure sign that fish live in the water), but otherwise, the main bird down there is the pigeon.  Big surprise.  Signs ask people not to feed the animals, but that doesn’t affect what the birds themselves think.

 

We ate lunch at a place called Maria Mia.  While we were there, a couple got up from the table in front of us.  The man and woman had not even reached the entry to the restaurant when a flock of pigeons descended on the table, fighting over the scraps left behind.  The bus staff all carry spray bottles to drive the birds off so they can clean the tables.  It took several squirts to quell this feeding frenzy.  I believe it could have been hazardous to try to clean the table without using squirt bottles, the birds were that determined.

 

After lunch, we went up to a place called Villita, a place that sits above the River Walk and looks like an older town or village (Villita, Spanish for small town).  The houses are well kept and have all been converted to shops and galleries.  Patsy found a tee-shirt she really liked and bought that.  After walking around for a while, we went back to our motel.  That night, we went back to the River Walk for dinner. This is a real party place, with lots of colored umbrellas by the river side, and a whole lot of places selling drinks along the way.

 

We had dinner at a place called Michelino, right next to the Blue Agave (guess what their specialty item was there).  The meal was very good, but nothing out of the ordinary.  I had chicken breast stuffed with mushrooms, spinach, and cheese.  The menu said that the chicken was lightly breaded, but if it were any more breaded I would have had to use a kitchen knife to cut it; still it was very tasty.

 

Our son Morgan’s hair started to turn grey when he was 16, and he has since developed a lot of grey in his moustache.  When our waiter brought the check he asked if we were brothers. I immediately said yes, but that I was the younger of the two.  Well, the light was not all that bright where we sat, so he bought it.  He looked long and hard at the two of us though before I started to laugh and told him the truth.

 

I mentioned that earlier in the day, pigeons bombed the table next to us.  Tonight at Michelino, we were visited by a duck and a drake.  They were not bothered by people walking around them, so I figured they have done this before.

 

The next day would be our big day in San Antonio and we were going to pack as much into it as we could.  We have been eating so much, we skipped breakfast and just grabbed some coffee and a Danish, then headed back to the River Walk.  Birds adapt to us humans, sometimes even to the point of distain; witness pigeons in a grocery store parking lot.

 

We strolled around for a bit and then took a boat trip on the river.  This was a nice break for us, especially since my feet were getting tired.  Our guide was a young man who told us a lot about the river and what had been done to make it part of a flood control plan.  He said that the water was only four feet deep; if anyone fell in, they should just stand up and walk out.  Fat chance of my doing anything like that, I mean I’m not sure I could hike a water soaked leg four feet up a concrete bank. He is the one who told us about the fish and crawdads in the river right after I got the picture of the heron.

 

The Walk is really nice in the day time, what with all the trees and flowers.  I saw several people just sitting on some of the many benches scattered around, enjoying the peace and quiet.  At night, the place turns into party central. That’s when all the lights come on and the colored umbrellas and paper/plastic flowers are in their prime.

 

We had gone back to the Alamo gift shop to see if there were and tchotchkes we could not live without, and then back to the River Walk for lunch.  The food was good, of course all the food we had along the River Walk was good, but nothing memorable.

 

After lunch, we took a horse drawn wagon ride around town.  Our driver named Dave took us in to one of the older parts of San Antonio, where there were some very nice old houses.  We pointed out to him that many of them had a light blue color on the porch ceilings. This color was called Haint Blue when we were in Charleston, and is supposed to keep you house free from Haints (ghosts) and some insects.  I don’t know if it works or not, but again, I never saw a ghost while we were in Charleston.  (Side note: I have been told that you can order Haint Blue from Sherman Williams.  I don’t know if this is true, but it’s a nice story)

 

We stopped back at the motel for a bit to drop off things we had purchased and to refresh ourselves, then headed back to the Walk for dinner.  The night life was in full swing by the time we got back.  We saw a sign pointing the way to a place called the Lonesome Dove, which we hoped was a cafe.  As Larry McMurtry fans, we thought it would be cool to eat there.  However, on the way down there, we ran across a group of what could have been senior ladies dressed in gaudy flared skirts and decorated with flashing lights, dancing around to the very loud beat of several drummers.  The drummers, all senior men, were dressed in white pants and red Hawaiian shirts.  There was a dental convention in town and I suspect that was what the drummers and the dancing ladies were all about.

 

It was hard to find a place to eat, but that’s the way it is when there is a convention in town.  We finally strolled into a place called Rio Cantina.  I had a plate of mixed enchiladas and a 210 Ale from Busted Sandal Brewing Company. The ale was nice and light with a good head which worked down into a lace that stayed until most of the ale was gone.  It went well with the enchiladas.

 

Day Seven

We were on the road to Dallas again the next morning because we all had to fly out the next day.  I had one of my “a-ha” moments when we were about half way to Dallas.  It seems as though the closer you get to San Antonio, the more Mexican oriented the food, but the closer you get to Dallas, the more barbecue places you see and the less Mexican.  Interesting.  Oh, and we saw the fake long-horns again, and they still hadn’t moved.

 

This about the end of the Texas part of our adventure, but there is one more thing I have to mention.  We had dinner that night in a place called “Bombshells,” a sports bar sort of place that has aspirations to be another Hooters.  There were way too many scantily clad waitresses, most of whom hung around with each other talking and laughing.  The burgers had names like “Gung-Ho” and other military sounding names.  I had a burger that I misunderstood what they were talking about.  It said that the burger was between two toasted cheese and bacon sandwiches.  Now logic told me that they would not have full toasted cheese and bacon sandwiches on either side of the burger, but logic lied.  That is exactly what it was; the bread was Texas toast sized on top of everything else.  I stripped off most of the extra bread and kept the bacon and the burger but that was probably enough to clog an artery anyway.

 

So, that pretty well sums up the Texas portion of our adventure.   The next installment will be about New York City.

 

New York, New York

Day One

We got to our hotel in Koreatown and found our room.  For those of you who have followed the Logs for a while, you may remember that the hotel we use is squashed between buildings that house Korean BBQs, Asian food places, and oddly enough, what I think are Vietnamese French bakeries.  The reason why I think they are Vietnamese is that the French had nothing to do with Korea and the Chinese didn’t seem to have much affection for the French when we were there last year, so that left the Vietnamese.  The bakery goods are definitely French in character, with baguettes, croissants, and all manner of other good things.

They fed us pretty well on Virgin America Airlines so we weren’t very hungry.  Instead of going out to dinner, we went up to the fourteenth floor bar for a glass of wine and a beer (Patsy had the wine, I had the beer, we did not mix them together).  The motel backs up to the Empire State Building.  From the upstairs bar, it just looks like another apartment or building because we cannot see past the first level of floors.  When we were here the first time, we asked the bartender where the Empire State Building was and he just pointed up. We weren’t impressed then until we went out the next morning and found he was telling us the truth.

The ESB has several setbacks if you will, lower blocks that then are topped off with a floor or viewing area before the next block of floors, narrower than the ones just before, climb higher.  On this particular night, we could see part of the mast and antenna on top of the building but else past that first block of floors.  The mast and antenna had red and yellow lights pulsing upward; I have no idea why, nor do I know if this is a regular thing.  We will go back up to the bar to find out, in the name of accuracy of course.

Day Two

The big event for today was a Broadway play called “Something Rotten,” a musical about the Bottom Brothers who are overshadowed by the ‘rock-star’ of the day, William Shakespeare. I’m not going to give the whole thing away, but at some point, the playwright brother writes a musical based on the Black Plague, and then one based on “Omlette.”  Needless to say this is a funny play

We took the subway up to Time Square and walked to the theater.  We wanted to have lunch before we went to the see the play, so we stopped in at a place called “Carmine’s.”  Our waiter, Ivan, told us not to eat too much of the bread on the table because the portions were big.  We ordered a family style (one dish we could share) Mixed Pasta, the specialty for the day.  When Ivan brought us our food, we realized we were about four people short of having enough to eat all that was on the tray.  We had spinach ravioli, Manicotti, lasagna, and my own favorite, Spaghetti Bolognese.  We ate as much as we could but since we were headed to the theater there was no way we could take a doggy bag with us.  I hope someone got to finish off the plate, because otherwise it would be a real waste.

 

I understood there was a rash of people at Time Square, wearing nothing more than thongs and body paint, ready to pose for a snapshot with tourists. I had seen some pictures of a couple of lovely young ladies who were painted up to look like Wonder Woman, but didn’t see anything like that at all… no matter how hard I looked.  I think the whole thing was just a scam.

Anyway, we walked back to the subway after the play and got back to the motel in good order.  On the way, we picked up a couple of Chinese style buns – the kind with the stretchy casing; Patsy had the pork bun while I had chicken curry. After the size lunch we had, that was enough for dinner.

I should say something about walking in New York.  It is a very walkable city, offering so much to look at as you pass.  The only way I can describe the foot traffic is that it is competitive, relentless, and much like Brownian Movement of particles but without the collisions.  We experienced the same sort of thing in India and in China and it seems to work.  There are even people who walk down the street looking at their phones and not at the other pedestrians, and yet who make it down the street without running into other people.  I sure couldn’t do that, I tend to trip over things like bumps in the sidewalk, driveway dips, dogs lying across the pavement, you know, the things other people never notice.

 

Day Three

Today we were consummate tourists, complete with a camera hanging from my neck.  We decided to take a tour around the harbor to see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.  Somehow or another, I thought we were going to have a chance to get off the boat at the statue and look around, but once I saw how many people were on the boat, and how many people were already on the island and how the lines visitors stretched out around the base, I realized that was not going to happen.

We close to both Ellis Island and the statue, along with at least 500 Asian who were on the boat with us and who all wanted the same picture at the same time I did… ok, maybe not that many, but there were a lot.

After we got back to the terminal, we walked down to Bowling Green Park and then to the museum across the street.  By this time the wind had picked up and I got a pretty shot of tulips bending.  The museum featured exhibits of Native American Art.  We did not know it at the time, but it was apparently the Museum of Native American Art and Archives.

I took a picture of a statue next to the banner announcing the exhibit, depicting a European looking woman sheltering some figures wearing feather head-dresses.  There seemed to be some irony in the woman sheltering the figures behind her, considering the role of Europeans in the lives of American Indians. Actually though, I think the statue just copied the statues at the base of the Albert Memorial in London, where the people of the world are all sheltered by allegorical female figures.

Dinner that night was at one of the Vietnamese places.  We had small, flaky flatbread sandwiches and creampuffs the size of Big Macs.  Yum.

 

Day Four

This would be our last day in New York.  We would head out to Vienna by way of Istanbul the next morning.  We decided to go looking for Greenwich Village and SoHo because we had run into those places in literature and we wanted to put place images to the names.  We almost went to Bleecker Street however we decided to skip any sorrows today (sorry you Rod McKuen fans, but there it is).

 

We made our way to Washington Square Park and then walked around the area.  Nothing really jumped out at us while we were there.  I mean there were the rows of houses, the trees on the sidewalks and most of the same things we had seen uptown.  The buildings were not as tall, but that was about it.

As expected, there was a statue of George Washington at the front of the park.  Patsy and I sat on a bench for a while and realized there was another smaller statue facing the street in front of us.  I said I thought it might be Billie Washington, George’s ne’er-do-well brother.  Instead it turned out to be the Marquis Lafayette.  Oh well, so much for guessing.

 

We had lunch at a place called the Halal Guys, and had what they called a Gyro bowl, which was pretty much what would go into a gyro but chopped with a couple of slices of pita bread.  The man behind the counter, one of the Halal Guys, asked if we wanted hot sauce on our bowls, and we said yes.  He warned us that it was hot.  When we tasted it, the sauce was mostly habaneros, but not as hot as some of the sauces we have had.  The cashier behind the counter was laughing at us right at first, but when I identified the pepper, she started laughing with us.

Once upon a time, we had a hot sauce that was murder, and I was suffering.  I took a drink of sweet tea to cut the heat, knowing full well that sort of thing doesn’t do any good, it just puts the pain off for as long as the water or whatever is in your mouth.  Suddenly, the sauce didn’t hurt as much, so I tried an experiment: take some of the sauce on a nacho and feel the heat, then sip the tea and feel the heat drop.  It worked.  Since then I have learned that sugary drinks cut the effects of peppers.  At the Halal Guys, we were drinking sweet drinks that did the trick with the habaneros

After satisfying ourselves that there was nothing outstanding about Greenwich Village, and that probably what we were looking for had disappeared sometime in the last century, we headed home. However, there was a sculpture of some sort on the face of a building, a round, clock faced sort of thing with a beam of gold shooting out of the center toward the bottom.  I asked several people what the sculpture represented but nobody had an answer.  There was a counter next to it, adding up to a very large number.  I suspect the counter was of the earth’s growing population, so maybe the sculpture was to warn us that time is about up and we should be hoarding gold or something.  I mean, nobody else knew what the sculpture was, so we were free to apply our own interpretation.

Dinner that night was at the Belgian Beer Cafe.  This is the kind of dark wood and glass that attracts business people to stop by after work.  Beer was the main attraction, naturally, and there were several different kinds of glasses for the beers.  I have no idea what beers went with what glasses, other than my beer came in a heavy glass much like a Manhattan glass but larger.  My beer was a Hoegaarden Witbeir, a wheat ale with a slight orange flavor with a coriander overtone.

Patsy had a Yellow-Fin Tuna salad, with large slices of the fish, lightly braised.  We made a joke about the greens being shiny side up kale, because we once read a recipe that said to use only the shiny sided kale, as if there is such a thing. I had a seared scallop about the size of a hockey puck with a dash of light flavored pesto on top of it.  The vegetables were miniature ramps (members of the onion family) with purple cauliflower, small mushrooms and a touch of black truffle sauce.  I do not have the recipe for tis, nor do I plan to try to make this at home.

For dessert, Patsy had a Belgian waffle covered with strawberries and chocolate, and topped off with whipped cream.  My dessert was an apple crepe.  The crepe had a lemon taste to it, and was topped off with a scoop of ice cream and a dollop of whipped cream on top of that.  Again, while they are fairly straight forward, I do not plan to make either of these desserts at home.

Of all the pictures I have taken on this trip so far, the one that I should have gotten but didn’t was of a sidewalk vendor. These folks have everything from pushcarts on steroids to things that look like they should be mounted on a truck bed.  The vendors sell breakfast stuff, hot dogs and sausages, full meals in some cases (both regular and veggie), and let’s not forget the tee shirts, sunglasses, $25.00 Cartier watches, et cetera.   You name it and someone has a cart/stand/box selling it.  I wanted to try to get a picture of one of these setups right before we left or at least one of these sidewalk entrepreneurs, but it was too late.  We had to move on the airport for our flight to Vienna.

 

Off to Vienna

Since we were going by Turkish Airlines, we had to pass through Istanbul in the same way that if you fly American Airlines, you will pass through Dallas/ft. Worth at some time or other. I have always been interested in Istanbul and hoped I could see something of the city out the airport windows.

It took us nine and a half hours to reach Istanbul from New York.  We had a two-hour layover before we headed out to Vienna.  Since we got there at night, we didn’t see anything except for lights so the only thing I can tell you about the place is that it looks a lot like any other airport.

By the time we landed, we were trying to maintain some sense of normality while being hampered by a lack of sleep.  We had not rested the night before because we were worried about oversleeping and missing the airport shuttle.  Now we were in a foreign country, feeling a little rocky from almost nineteen hours without reasonable sleep, just some uneasy dozing on the flight.  We were not sure when we were supposed to take our meds and we had other concerns on our minds so I can’t report anything more.  At least we had aisle seats on the airplane and did not have to crawl over other people to stretch our legs.

We knew nothing about Turkish Airlines before and were not sure what to expect.  We were pleasantly surprised because even though we were in steerage, there was ample legroom, entertainment, and they even gave us warm towels and free booze.  We ate far too much but what can you do?   We were just sitting there with nothing else going on anyway, they brought us food, we ate.

 

I watched a movie called The Woman in the Van, starring Maggie Smith, which was billed as a “mostly true” story.  But other than that, I dozed, got up to walk occasionally, and tried not to think about what it meant to be flying way too far above the ground with an outside temperature that Jack London could appreciate when he was in Alaska. The monitor on the screen said that the temperature was a balmy -58 degrees; London said that you could tell when it was below -70 because when you spit, it would freeze before it hit the ground.  I don’t know what would happen at a mere -58 and I wasn’t likely to find out.

Day One

We eventually got to Vienna and had a leisurely drive through the city to our boat, the Little Prince, or Der Kleine Prinz.

The rest of the day was billed as leisure time, but we took the opportunity for a nap.

Our craft was named Der Kleine Prinz (the Little Prince) and was a long and narrow boat.  If you have seen any commercials for Viking River Cruises (and who hasn’t), the Prinz is like one of those boats only smaller.  The cabins all have a window overlooking the river or the dock, depending on whether we were sailing or tied up for a land tour.  This meant that often one did not walk around au-naturale with the curtains open.  The Prinz was built in the late 1950s in East Germany, and we had read some reviews that mentioned the age of the vessel, but even so, it was in good repair and comfortable.

Our cabin had twin beds, two small closets, and a tiny bathroom that included a shower with no enclosure to it for me to step into when I got up at night to attend an old man’s needs.  I got the hang of avoiding the shower after the second or third time I missed the turn toward the porcelain objective and stepped on the non-slip pad.

Let me tell you right now, the Danube was not blue, it was more of an olive green color in the daylight. I think the reason why is that the river has a strong current, therefore carries a lot of silt, so it could never look blue.  That said, our guide told us that the word ‘blue’ also refers to being drunk, and that maybe Strauss had that in mind when he wrote the waltz. I would go along with that suggestion.

The Danube is the second longest river in Europe, but don’t ask me which is the longest.  It is quite broad and carries a lot of shipping traffic as well as tourist boats.  Where there are not picturesque cities and towns, the river is bordered by forests.

Day Two

After breakfast, we had a bus tour of the Vienna.  Patsy and I were sufficiently recovered so that we looked forward to seeing this city so much associated with Mozart.

During the tour our guide spoke to us over little receiver/earphone devices. They were a great help and allowed me to hear what was being said even when I dawdled behind the group to take a picture.  Patsy didn’t care for them because they would not stay hooked over her ear.

Vienna was like a Baroque pastry, with all the decorations and embellishments one expects when the word Baroque is mentioned.  The Theaters and museums were of the Baroque style (think Greek looking buildings with pillars) while much of the downtown was probably Beaux Art (think banks with carved wreathes of flowers or of laurel leaves with faces looking down from around the window and doorways).  Naked bodies lounging on the buildings or holding up something were pretty common too, more than you could shake a stick at.  If you are a Terry Prachett fan, you might remember that constable Knobby Knobbs said you can tell a naked statue is art rather than something embarrassing because there were urns nearby.  Well, there weren’t all that many urns around, but there were a lot of stone canopies and other things to be held up, so maybe those took the place of urns.

There was a great deal of grey color because so many of the buildings were stone, but there were also trees along the boulevard that soften what might otherwise be a hardscape.

A lot of the aforementioned figures on the buildings and in fountains were naked ladies and I came to the realization that ideal Baroque, Beaux Art and indeed Art Nouveau women packed an extra fifteen to twenty pounds over what we like to think are “ideal women” today.

Not all the architecture was of the 19th century however.  Some buildings were destroyed during the Second World War and replacements were thrown up in a hurry.  Many of these newer structures were in areas governed by the Soviets and are mud-fence ugly.  On the other hand, some replacements showed an interest in trying something new. For instance, we saw one building that had a sloping glass front.  We thought that was an odd shape until our guide pointed out that the name of the company owning the building started with a “q.”  When seen from the side, the building had a ‘q’ shape to it.  Good thing the company name didn’t start with a ‘z.’

During the late 19th century or possibly the early 20th, an artist named Friendreichs Hundertwasser was asked to provide some ideas to improve parts of town.  He came up with a bright color palette for some apartment buildings with clever tilework for interesting touches.  Hundertwasser thought that everyone had the right to a window they could lean out of and scrape away the paint as far as they could reach, then paint whatever color or design they wished.

Vienna incinerates their trash, and Hundertwasser designed the facility for them.  So now the smokestack of the incinerator looks like a multi-colored lollipop or something from the Watts Towers.

We took a tour of the Schonbrunn Palace that afternoon (Baroque).  Schonbrunn was the summer home of the Hapsburgs, based on the palace at Versailles, but on a smaller scale because the ruling family had to cut corners to save money.  In fact, our guide said that the Emperor wanted to redesign the palace, but that would be expensive. Instead, he made the architect the Royal Architect, which was a plum appointment at the time, and then ordered him to redesign the place.  One saves money as one can.

A little bit of interest, the entryway of the porte-cochere is paved with blocks of hard wood so that the horses and carriages would not make so much noise when they pulled up.  The wood blocks are still in good shape.

Inside, the mirror rooms in the palace were white and gold in the Baroque style (almost Rococo {like Baroque after too much Schnapps}), plus some Chinoiserie (Chinese style) rooms.  There was one room dedicated to a “Royal Bed,” that looked bigger than a king-sized bed, with curtains and a carved headboard.  However, this was not used for sleeping, just for the presentation of new-born royal babies.

While the palace was used by other members of the Hapsburg family, Schonbrunn is most often associated with Empress Maria Theresa.  She was a powerful woman, and even though she was married and had sixteen children in a twenty-year period, she kept the power and did not permit her husband, Francis Stephen, to take over her authority.  In fact, there is a painting of the royal family with the empress, about six or eight kids, and Francis Stephen.  The artist shows the husband resting his arm on a chair, pointing a finger toward Marie-Theresa while she has her right hand raised with her index finger pointed toward herself.  No question who wore the pants in that family. The portrait was painted while the Empress was carrying a daughter who would in time be named Marie Antoinette.

After visiting the palace, we returned to the ship for dinner.  That night, we attended a concert at the Auersberg Palace/Borse/Arsenal Hall (don’t ask me what Borse means or why the palace should be listed as Arsenal Hall) put on by local musicians.  The hall (Arsenal Hall perhaps) for the performance was a small one, probably for about four or five hundred people tops.  Even though the walls were marble and the ceiling was high, the sound was excellent.  There were many oval windows set high in the walls and a decorative frieze ran below them showing, for some reason, a lot of wrestlers.  There were also many faux marble pillars that projected from the walls at intervals.  All these things seemed to be enough to break up the echoes that would have otherwise made this small space unusable.

While a baritone sang a song in German, I had a sudden realization that once upon a time this room had been filled with Nazi officers and their wives.  It made sense because this facility has been in use since the nineteenth century and the Nazis ruled Vienna during the war.  There is no particular point to my saying this, it was just an odd thought that went through my mind at the time.

A gentle rain had been falling all day and into the night.  We fell asleep to the sound of the rain, and only woke up a couple of times when I thought there was thunder, although that could have been my snoring.  There was also the sound of the boat passing along the river that sounded like someone was draining a bathtub, but except for that and the aforementioned thunder, there was little to disturb our sleep

Day Three

We sailed to Bratislava during the night.  Bratislava is in Slovakia, which was once part of Czechoslovakia until the breakup of the nation. Our tour guide told us the reason for the breakup was that there were people who wanted power, and since there could only be one prime minister in a country, the answer was to make two countries.  She said the division was made without a referendum to the people even though the country was a democracy.  It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

 

A nice tree lined walking mall also held several stalls selling knick-knacks and snack items (one even specialized in honey and honey related products).  There were also loads of coffee shops and cafes under the trees and it would have been nice to sit there, but our time was limited and so we just looked and enjoyed the scene.  As we would learn along the tour, hanging around coffee shops is common here in the Baltics, our guide referred to this as a coffee culture.

Some of the walks in the mall were made of black and white blocks that formed curving patterns under the trees, making the scene even more interesting.  I should mention that in many of the cities we would visit had this same kind of walk made up of two-inch thick stone blocks.  While they were nice to look at, we also had to watch out for missing blocks or ones that were not level with the rest; it would have been easy to twist an ankle and ruin the walking parts of our vacation.

Brataslava was full of older buildings, but also had newer ones built after World War Two.  Some of the older buildings had cannon balls in the walls, dating from when Napoleon laid siege to the town.  During the siege, he used artillery as part of the offense and many of the buildings still had cannon balls embedded in them after the battle.

Our local guide told us that at some point, there was a tax break for those who kept the balls in place and just repaired the building around them.  She said that after a while, cannon balls started to appear where they hadn’t been seen before.  She pointed out one house that had such an embellishment and told us that it would have been impossible for the cannon ball to have come from Napoleon’s artillery because it was about 180 degrees away from the front lines of the siege.  I guess it could have been a ricochet, but probably not.

Speaking of interesting, there was a plaque on one of the houses, showing a man with a red hood over his head.  Our guide told us this was the traditional home of the town executioner.  It seemed to me that if you were going to advertise that this was where the executioner lived, why did he need the hood?

Further down the street was another oddity; a house where there were chimeras (those things again) over the doorway.   This was once a place where an alchemist lived and these were supposed to be portraits of the demons that helped the alchemist do his work.

We visited St. Martin’s Cathedral, a 14th Century Gothic church.  The cathedral was made of buff-colored sandstone, with the usual allotment of saint statues and allegorical animals that any self-respecting cathedral should have.  I especially liked the figures of dragons around the entry, but did not see a St. George anywhere near them and wondered why.

I found several examples of the Green Man in the main entry way of the church.  The Green Man is a decorative element from the Middle Ages, and is one of my favorite things to look for in churches from that time.   The figure is most often a face, but sometimes the rest of the body as well, combining humanfeatures with foliage (there were also green animals, but these were rare).  No one ever wrote down why they carved these on all sorts of places in cathedrals and so no one knows much about them now.  They must have made sense at the time, because everything in a cathedral was supposed to instruct the illiterate church goer.

There is a theory that the Green Man might have been a pagan symbol and that some of the stonemasons might have been closet pagans (assuming stonemasons had closets), but again, who knows.

Now back to the cathedral.  Sandstone is not as durable as limestone or brick, the other common building materials in this part of the world, which means that it needed extra care.   There were scaffolds on part of the church used in cleaning to clean the walls and to make any necessary repairs.  In fact, scaffolds were usually raised on some part of every cathedral and most of the public buildings that we saw in every city we have visited so far.

During the time of the Soviet occupation, nothing was done to clean up the air or the environment; soot stained the walls of all the buildings.  Now that Slovakians are free, the government is working to restore things, but it takes time.  I don’t know that the government was in charge of cleaning St. Martin, but considering its importance to tourism, it might have been.

A large white fortress sat on the hill overlooking the town.  We were in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains which means there were a lot of hillocks.  There were a lot of uphill streets we had to climb. The fortress was a big square pile, one of those places where the Hapsburgs lived. I think Princess Elizabeth was the most notable person who lived there, she who was called Cissy, and who in modern times has been compared to Princess Diane because she was very popular with the people.

The gates in front of the fortress had displays of different kinds of arms and armor on pedestals that covered a range from Roman armor with swords and shields through to a helmet dressed with a turban (the Turks, don’t you know) and ending up with a broad brimmed hat trimmed with feathers and perched over a simple breastplate. The Turkish armor and the broad hatted one also sit above cannons and guns.

An interesting thing: there are two matching walls with gates set on either side of the courtyard in front of the fortress; the armor displays sit on top of the walls.  What is funny is that the left set of gates allow entry from the town to the courtyard where the coaches and carriages would arrive, while there is just a drop-off behind the right set of gates.  Of course you cannot tell this just by looking, but those gates are unusable.  The Baroque mindset liked balance and so there had to be a second wall with gates even if they didn’t do anything.

 

We passed a funny, I was going to say statue, but since it was lying on the sidewalk, I called it ‘street art.’  The object in question was of a man, full sized and cast in bronze, crawling out of a manhole in the pavement. There was a street sign above it saying “men at work,” but the locals say that the character isn’t working at all, just looked up ladies’ dresses.

 

Brataslava was one of our briefest visit, because we were only there for half a day.  When we returned to the ship there was a wine tasting scheduled to entertain us while sailing to Budapest.  It had been cloudy all morning and we had a bit of rain.  However, in the afternoon, the sun came out, although banks of grey clouds were off in the distance.  A group of swans were swimming along the shore as light glittered off the river.  There is some sort of poplar tree in bloom so that bits of what looks like cotton were floating in the breeze.  The combination of the grey clouds in the distance, the swans, the sun glinting off the water and the bits of drifting cotton made it feel as though we were sailing in a dream.  Of course it could have been the wine as well.

 

Day Four

 

We woke up in Budapest Hungary.  This is one of the most Baroque cities that we have seen so far, maybe not more so than Vienna, but the effect is more bunched together.

One of the main attractions is the Square of Heroes, which has a great concert hall and a museum on either sides.  In the center of the square, there is a tall column topped by a victory figure, with statues of early Hungarian heroes gathered around its base.  At the back of the square are two curved arcades with more life-sized statues of famous Hungarians, including St. Steven, the first Christian king of the Magyar.  Allegorical figures of peace and war stand on top of the arcades.  The square is not as large as Tienamin Square in Beijing, but it is just as impressive in its own way.  (Side note: both squares have had tanks in them at one time or another.)

We had an afternoon excursion through Pest, then over the Elizabeth Bridge (yes, Princess Cissy, who will appear again at some point in this narrative), and up the hills into Buda.  The two parts of the city are divided by the Danube River.  Seven bridges crossed the river, all of which were destroyed during the Second World War.  The Elizabeth Bridge has been the only one restored to its original appearance.

We had a great view of the city including the impressive Baroque parliament building across the river in Pest.  (A snide observation: words don’t always have the same meaning in different languages, but doesn’t Pest seem to be an appropriate place for a parliament?)

 

That night we enjoyed a concert by the Hungarian State Folklore Ensemble.  The performances included music and authentic dances from across Hungary. The musicians included two hammered dulcimers, each about the size of a baby grand piano.  During a solo by one of the dulcimer players, all the lights on stage and in the theater were turned off, but he continued to play without missing a beat.  If you have never seen a hammered dulcimer, picture the stringboard of a piano exposed and played by striking the strings with long, thin wands.  I have never played one of these things although I have known people who have, and it seems to me that you would need at least a little visual clue as to where things were.  But what do I know; the soloist was so sure of himself that he finished the piece without seeing the strings.

On the way back to our boat, the local guide took us through the city, around the Square, across the Elizabeth Bridge, and into the hills overlooking Buda. The view was lovely and would have been even more exciting if we had been warned ahead of time that we would make this drive.  A water closet would have greatly improved the adventure, still it was lovely.

 

Day Five

We had some time to go back to the city before the afternoon’s events.  One of the events we could not miss, of course, was lunch. They feed us quite well and we will have much penance to perform once we are home.  In China, we had a young lady who was our ship-board waitress and took care of us; I called her our “Coffee Goddess.”  On the Little Prince, the role was filled by a waiter named Sava (our “Coffee God”) and a bartender named Kristina (our “Beer Goddess”), both of whom made our days go smoothly.  Kristina helped me out with the on-board computer; it had several odd keys that had accent marks over some letters, while familiar things such as the ‘at’ sign were in different places on the keyboard.

 

After our over-indulgence, that was our lunch, we drove out to the Lazar Lovas Puszta horse breeding farm where we were greeted with small glasses of brandy and bite sized cakes like empanadas.  We watched a performance by the Czikos (Hungarian Cowboys) and their horses. The Czikos were dressed in blue skirts that hung down past the tops of their tall boots, black vests, and a round hat with a curled brim that looked like a cross between a Stetson and a tri-cornered hat. When the cowboys were up on their horses, the skirts acted like chaps, also they looked kind of cool.

 

We’ve seen some amazing things with Mexican rodeos, but this was something else again.  First of all, the cowboys all carried whips which they kept cracking around the horses.  Horses are notoriously skittish and yet they were not upset by the almost continuous snapping noise.

 

The cowboys made all their horses bow to the crowd, kneel, and eventually lie down on their sides.  The announcer told us that the cowboys used to sleep on their horses, at which time one of them stretched out on his recumbent mount; the horse did not even roll its eyes.  Another cowboy had his horse sit up on its haunches.  He then pulled one of the horse’s legs forward and sat on it as a chair.  This really surprised me because I think horses are very protective of their legs.

Another horseman came galloping down the field and shot arrows into a target as he rode past.  All the arrows were within an eight-inch circle.  I was impressed because I couldn’t put several arrows into that kind of cluster unless I stood in front of the target and inserted them manually.

 

Our guide on the bus told us that the cowboys did not use saddles because they had to be able to ride away quickly if attacked.  The archer had definitely stood up when he shot, and I had seen the rest of the cowboys using stirrups so I figured I had misunderstood the guide.  But what we saw when the horses were standing up again, was that the riders had a large oval-shaped piece of leather with stirrups attached, but without a framework or cinches.  Each rider threw the piece of leather over the horses’ backs, grabbed a bit of mane, and swung up as though mounting bareback.  Their feet slipped into the stirrups and they were riding off almost immediately.

 

The show continued with various displays of horsemanship.  At one point, a woman representing Princess Cissy (yup it’s her again.  Apparently she was known as an excellent horsewoman), came riding out with a sidesaddle and did various maneuvers with her horse, including standing with all four hooves on a narrow beam.

 

After the show, we took a ride around the farm on an oxen drawn cart and then visited some farm animals in their pens.  One of the interesting animals we saw was a goat with long curly horns.  Normally goats are friendly animals, enjoying a scratch under their chin, but not these.  Their main purpose in life seemed to be biting the hand nearest them.

There were the usual suspects when you visit what was essentially a petting zoo.  We saw Giant Checkered Rabbits (about the size of a beagle), more of the chickens with the feathery legs, and a sow with her piglets.  I don’t know how many of us have seen a sow up-close, but it was easy to see she didn’t have a great temper.

After the show, we made our way back to the boat, once again going around the Square of Heroes.  Because of the compact nature of Pest, it was hard to get around without passing the Square.

 

Day Six

 

We docked in Mohac, Hungary and took a tour into the town of Pecs (pronounced pesh or posh, or someplace in between).  I don’t have much of an ear for language), a place that has been inhabited since the 2nd Century.  Our guide for the day told us that a famous battle was fought near here when the Ottoman Turks were on their way to Vienna.  We were only there for half a day, but we bought some chocolates and had gelato cones.  While those were nice, they were not the highlight of the morning, which would be the cathedral.

We visited the local cathedral and saw the palace of the Archbishop.  (Side note:  although there was an archbishop there, the coat of arms over the doorway were of a cardinal.  Who knows, maybe the top dog in the area was both.)

We had a short organ recital in one of the most ornate churches/cathedrals you could imagine. Everything was highly decorated, and I had a feeling that if you stood too long in one place, you might get a coat of paint or gold leaf.

The town was occupied by the Ottoman Turks for about a hundred and fifty years, during which time they used the cathedral as a storehouse, a stable for horses and otherwise left it to fall into disrepair.  Over the century and a half or so, after the Ottomans were driven out, the church has been restored to its former glory.  It is almost overwhelming in its ornateness.  There were frescos on the walls, the ceiling, and any place that could be reached.  Even under the church where the bishops were entombed was highly decorated.  I have a photograph of saints over the stairway leading down to the crypt.

Along with the tombs of former archbishops, there were also some very detailed bronze models of the cathedral, about the size of something you could set on a coffee table.  These were for blind visitors to feel what the outside of the church looked like. There was no way they could have represented the frescoes in relief, but I thought that was rather a cool idea anyway.

After the organ recital, we were supposed to see the Roman catacombs (I know this is dumb, but I feel like I need to say all catacombs are underground.  These had a glass ceiling over them, and a walkway so that we could look down into them).  They weren’t open to us this day and we went down into the town instead.

Between the cathedral and Széchenyi Square, there was a large building with a huge green dome. This used to be the mosque of Gázi Kászim pasa.  We didn’t go inside, but my first thought was that any decorations would have been things like calligraphy or geometric designs, since Muslims generally do not favor representations of living things.  I forgot that this was now a Catholic church and would have been as highly decorated as the cathedral.  Oh well, we were getting overwhelmed by all the art work and wonderful buildings anyway, so missing out on one did not matter that much.

The outside walls of the mosque/church were dressed stone, pierced with windows that had colored brick arches over them.  The building sat at an angle to the square in front of it because it was oriented toward Mecca. (That last bit may also not have been necessary, but I thought I should mention it.)

Further into the town, Patsy and I walked past a theater that had two fountains in front of it as well as a swirling black and white plaza made of two-inch thick blocks.  One of the figures resting above a fountain was of a Pierrot figure (clown) who held a tragedy mask, while the figure at the other fountain was of a Pierrette (clownette) holding a comedy mask.  In Dublin there is a statue of a woman at a fountain representing the River Shannon; the Irish call her the Floozy with the Jacuzzi.  We decided the Pierrette was Pecs’s Floozy.

We had some time before we were due back, and I wanted to find a restroom.  There was a coffee shop right next to the square; I went in there to see if they would have pity on me.  The barista spoke good if not idiomatic English.  When I asked if I could use the facility, he gave a sigh and shrug, like he couldn’t turn away an old guy, then gestured up the staircase with his chin.  I pulled out what was one dollar in the local currency and handed it to him.  For that I got an “Is good,” and a big smile.

After returning to the boat, we sailed on to Serbia.  Right before dinner, our guide Andy gave us a talk on the history of the Balkans, starting with the Ottoman Turk invasion, through the German and Italian occupations, the wars in the 1990s and in to the current state of affairs.  This was most enlightening, and I don’t see how anything gets resolved in this region.  I mean it seems they have long memories and tend to hold centuries long grudges, even if they do hold them while drinking coffee.

Day Seven

This would be a rather mixed day, because we started out in Vukovar, Croatia but would end our day in Novi Sad, Serbia.  Here is where the mixture started.

Our morning tour would take us to the church and monastery of Saints Phillip and James.  But when we entered Vukovar, one of the first things we saw was a building that looked like it had been blown to hell, and as it turned out, had been.  When the Serbs invaded in 1991, the town’s people defended themselves for eighty-seven days with whatever weapons they could get.  The fighting was street by street and house by house.  As we walked through the town, we saw some buildings that were repaired and looked as though they had never been touched while others, often sharing a wall, were still full of bullet holes and shrapnel damage.

We passed a shoe store/factory outlet of a company called Borovo, that used to employ some 23,000 workers, but now has less than 1,000.  Our guide encouraged us to look at the store and buy some shoes if we could.  She told us that unemployment here was running over 40 per cent.

The cathedralwhere we were headed sat on top of a hill that our guide referred to as the Vukovar Alps because the town is pretty much flat except for this small hill.  As we started up the hill, we passed some buildings on one side of the street that had been repaired and now housed small shops.  The upper floors on these were painted in pastel colors and were supported by stubby pillars.  All in all, the effect was more Caribbean than Baltics.  However, the buildings across the street from these were in the same style, but were still torn up with bullet holes and shrapnel gouges.  The two sides of the street presented a before-and-after picture of what this downtown area looked like, depending on when you saw it.

Just past these places, there was a building that used to be a pharmacy before the fighting. It was too damaged to use now, but the owner obviously planned to rebuild sometime. In the meanwhile, he filled the windows with flower boxes of geraniums which he kept watered so that they are fresh and beautiful.  How can you keep determination like that down?

We visited the cathedral, which has now been restored.  It is a Jesuit monastery and church; the Serbs who attacked the town were Orthodox.  Our guide told us that the Yugoslav Army had fallen apart and that the units doing the fighting were militias and that they were much better equipped and organized that the townspeople.  They expected to roll through the town easily, but the vigorous defense of Vukovar enraged them.  Their answer to the defiance was to destroy as much of the town as they could, and since he cathedral was Roman Catholic, when they left, they blew up the church.

As part of our tour, we were going to watch a film about the defense of Vukovar. On the way to the theater, we passed a small plaza holding one of the old bells, with a huge hole in one side.  This was an artifact from when the church was blown up.  In contrast, a peacock sat on top of the bell (almost an allegory of war and peace).  Further along, we walked through a garden area where large photographs of the destruction were on display and we could see the extent of the damage.

The film we saw was a short one, but it showed people fighting for their town and the mass graves that were left after the Serb militia moved out.  We wondered how people could do that to one another, especially considering that Tito had these diverse countries working together as one nation for fifty years.  One of our guides answered the question by saying that Tito died without naming an heir, but had set up a coalition to run the country instead.  It apparently did not take long for things to go to hell in a handbasket, which is the usual course for coalitions.

On the way back to the ship we passed a wall that had all the bullet holes and shrapnel gouges we had seen throughout the town.  There was a window in the wall, that is to say where a window had been, and behind the wall was a small children’s carnival.  I snapped a picture of a carousel awning through a missing window; it seemed to symbolize what we had seen during our tour.

When we were on board again we sailed down the river to a to a named Novi Sad which is in Serbia.

Novi Sad had the requisite fortress on the hill, the house with a cannon ball imbedded in it, and some lovely baroque buildings and pedestrian malls.

I hope I’m not boring readers with all those buildings, malls, and fortresses.  It’s just that the Balkans seem to have been at war since the Romans stomped through here and maybe even before that.  It is a vicious circle: unwelcome visitors create a need for a fortress, a fortress annoys the visitors enough to tear things apart.  After they leave, the local residents try to rebuild again, preparing for the next bunch of louts who pass through.

Outside Nova Sad, we visited an Orthodox monastery where we were able to listen to some of the chanting going on.  We were allowed inside the church but were not allowed to take pictures.  The entry to the monastery was through a small red building with a dome and a couple of mosaics on either side of the doors.  This gatehouse was large enough by itself for a small church.

Behind the gatehouse was a lovely park that was kept up by volunteer labor. Normally, a monastery is self-sufficient, growing its own food and keeping up with whatever work needed to be done. However, only six monks live there right now, and since the park was quite large, and so was the church, that was not enough to keep up with all that had to be done.

After visiting the monastery, we went to Sremski Karlovci, a small community about 8 km away, and in the wine producing region of Serbia.  The country was green and the low hillsides were planted with crops where there were not vineyards.  We saw small hamlets tucked in the folds of the hills, with the occasional church spire rising up.  The typical church has a tall spire rising from an onion shaped base (it seems this onion or pear shaped dome belonged to the Baroque era of architecture, there’s just no getting away from that term).

Our next stop was at the winery and bee-keeping center of the Zivanovic family where we had a chance to taste both their wines and honeys.  First though, we had a short talk given by one of the brothers, about their honey production and wine making.  Apparently, their great grandfather (I think this was right) had been diagnosed with tuberculosis and given one or two years to live.  He became interested in bees and started to raise them as something to do before he died.  The bees somehow or other kept him alive and he even recovered from the disease.

Something that I did not know was that in past times, the bee keeper had to kill off the bees in the hive to harvest the honey (I took a picture of the old fashioned kind of bee hive).  However, the ancestor of these brothers decided that he could not kill the bees that seemed to help him live.  Meanwhile, there were a couple of gentlemen who came from England, and who had developed removable frame so that the honey could be harvested without damaging the bees.  The ancestor adopted this technique, and as a whimsy, built a large hive that looked like a cathedral, even to a clock in the tower.  I also have a picture of that.

After the short talk, we went down into the cave where they stored and aged the wine in huge barrels.  The walls were lightly covered with mold and our host told us that was a good thing.  Over time, some wine leaks out of the barrelsthrough the wood’s natural pores, intensifying the flavors of the wine left inside.  The wine that is lost is called ‘the angel’s share,’ by the way, and happens with any wooden barrel aging process.  The lost wine is the reason for the mold on the walls.

Our host then took us over to a hall where we tasted the various wines the family makes.  Along with the wines, they also make a brandy that could possibly be used to power a Formula One car; tasty but, shall we say challenging.  I talked one of our party, a lovely person named Wendy, into shooting the brandy right back like tequila.  If you look through my photos you will see her.  She is the one who looks like she may never breathe again.

So, you can see what I mean by the day being mixed.  We started off the day by being reminded of the civil war and ended it with a pleasant wine tasting.

I am going to digress yet again.  This whole area and all these countries that make it up are curious.  They have so many of the same stories, the centuries of occupation by the Turks, the wars and destruction that has taken place so many times, and yet they also share a peaceful side as well.  There is a lot of Baroque architecture in every city we have visited, probably because so much was destroyed while fighting against the Ottoman Turks, and much of the rebuilding took place during the Baroque period (1590 to 1750 +).  Also, every one of the cities we have visited shares a coffee house culture.  People sit outside talking and sipping coffee, making business deals and sipping coffee, plotting political manoeuvers and sipping coffee, falling in love or planning a break-up and sipping coffee.  With all this commonality, one wonders why the Baltic countries have had so much strife that led to wars between them, and yet there it is.

 

Day Eight

 

We sailed through the night to Belgrade.  After breakfast, we took a bus ride to the Kalemegdan Fortress.  This was a large fortification, pretty much intact, that was used by both the Turks and the Serbians at one point or another.  The moat in front of the fortress is now used for tennis courts and basketball courts, a much better use I think.

The fortress has been developed as a park so it is hard to see as a stronghold.  However, while tennis and basketball courts took over one part of the moat, there were cannons and tanks from the two world wars displayed, along with a museum of Medieval Torture Devices (which we skipped), in other parts.  As we entered, we noticed that the massive iron-sheathed doors had bullet holes in them… not a good sign at any time.

I had to laugh at the dogs in the park.  There are all sorts of signs saying that dogs must be on leashes, but there were half a dozen running around, not bothering anyone, just ignoring the signs.  The dogs had tags on their ears, so even though they seemed to be operating on their own, someone was keeping track of them.  Somebody must feed them because none of the dogs seemed to be in terrible shape.

From the fortress walls, we could see where the Sava River joined the Danube.  Looking down into the town, I should have gotten some pictures of the graffiti.  There was a great deal of tagging going on, but also some real muralists.  Our local guide said that graffiti wasn’t a problem when the Soviets occupied the town… because there was no paint.

We stopped at the world’s second largest Orthodox cathedral, St. Sava.  Belgrade had its own share of destruction, and apparently the cathedral that was here before was destroyed during the civil war.  We were allowed to take photographs inside the church because the reconstruction is not finished yet. We could see the structure of the building, the domes and so forth, and where the mosaics will one day be, but for now it was an impressively large, empty structure.  By the way, there was a statue of St. Sava in front of the cathedral and he looked like the kind of guy you would not want to cross.

As the tour progressed we saw more signs of the 1990s conflict, although none as blatant as those at Vukovar.  The economy was obviously better here, although our guide did not mention the unemployment rate.  Apparently since things were better here economy-wise, the damage got repaired faster.

Because Belgrade was on a hill, we could look over fences and down into some of the yards as we walked.  I saw one yard that had a couple of cars in it, one of which had vines growing over the tires and into the wheel wells and I thought that in the US, the car would have been up on blocks.  Perhaps they had a better use for concrete blocks here in Belgrade.

Our guide pointed out places where statues of Lenin used to stand and told us that instead of being melted down, they had been put into a basement somewhere, just in case they were needed again someday.  She said that Serbians were always careful.

What more can I tell you about Belgrade that I haven’t already said a dozen times about other cities. Most of the nicest buildings were Baroque as were most of the museums, and the parks had statues of people we had never heard of.  The city was green with lots of trees along the streets and in the parks.   We had some walking round time now and so we thought about things such as broken pavement that could lead to a twisted ankle, places to sit after determining how much an ice cream cone would cost, and whether the vendors would take Euros or dollars.  We were starting to get a little tired at this point.

That afternoon, we took a drive out into the country for what was billed as a Serbian Peasant Feast at a farm house.  We were greeted with bits of bread we dipped in salt (an old peasant custom) and small glasses of plum brandy that, again, you could have used to fuel a Formula One racecar.

The patriarch of the family gave us a welcoming speech which was translated by our guide, and then handed out more brandy while his sons and grandsons played music for us.  The musicians stood on the porch, well actually the doorway of the farmhouse, surrounded by old bits of equipment, barrels and other farm stuff, and played Serbian folk songs on guitars, a fiddle and bass, and a small six stringed instrument I could not identify.  One of our group, Regina, started dancing with one of the brothers and the party was on

I tried to get Wendy to shoot the brandy back like she did before, but she wasn’t having any of it this time.  I don’t know why she didn’t trust me.

The food was excellent and plentiful, and so was the wine and brandy.  Throughout dinner, the old man kept coming around with more of those small glasses, but I ducked out after the third one because I knew at some point I would have to walk back to the bus. I did not mention it before, but both the wine and brandy were produced here on the farm, as well as most of the food we ate.

After dinner we had a pleasant ride back to our boat.  It’s amazing how pleasant things can be after a great dinner with wine and brandy… lots of brandy. There were still banks of clouds in the distance, but it didn’t rain, it just looked moody.  Along the way, we saw fields thick with poppies, bright among the green of the grasses and made even brighter by the late afternoon light.

There was a folklore show on board the Prinz that night, with four men and four women dancers.  One set performed a dance and then another group of dancers took the stage while the first changed costumes.  The show started off with fairly simple dances, but by the time it was over, the men were doing Cossack style dances, the kind where they kicked out their legs as they squatted down, as well as dances that seemed to be challenges, like who could do the more strenuous dance.  It tired me out watching them, and they didn’t even seem to be sweating.

 

Day Nine

Today would be a quiet day on board ship as we sailed by the Golubac Fortress and in to Golubac Lake.  This is the entry into the Danube Gorge, called the Iron Gates, which is the narrowest stretch of the river.  We would pass through at least two locks on our way down to Vidin, Bulgaria.  I think there were two, but again, I was napping part of the time and could have missed a lock or two

The river appeared to be moving much slower than it had been in some places, which is odd.  The walls of the canyon were starting to get higher and the passage narrower, which should have made the water flow faster, but still it seemed slower; either way it is still not blue.

The Iron Gates were amazing.  The grey limestone cliffs towered over the river and were covered with trees and greenery wherever the jagged rocks gave them a foothold.  Roads ran along either side of the Danube which is now the border between Serbia and Romania (it hasn’t always been the border, but things change often around here). The roads appeared to be very near the water on both sides, maybe just a couple of yards above the river, but that could be just the way things looked.

Tunnels had been cut through the rock wherever the cliffs were too steep to cut a road.  Because of the scale of things, the tunnels seemed to be bigger somehow than they might be otherwise, but again, this could just have been an optical illusion sort of thing.

I saw what looked like fortress ruins, but they were sticking out of the water, so I figured they must have been some sort of water feature, such as old pump houses.  Further along, we saw farms with oddly shaped haystacks on the Romanian side of the river.  The stacks were shaped like bee hives, and so tall that I thought they could be something like shepherd huts.  In fact, I tried to use my camera as a telescope to see if there were doorways or windows in the stacks, but I could see nothing.  Our guide was the one who told me they were stacks.  Later on, we passed several farms and I was able to see these things up close. I suppose my confusion about what they were stemmed from the fact that farmers here also used the roller method of gathering hay.

Here were some things that passed between myself and our guide.

me:  What are those odd things that look like bee hives or hay stacks.

guide:  Those are hay stacks.

me:  What are those things that look like fortress ruins sticking out of the water?

guide:  Those are ruins of an old fortress.

I am nothing if not perceptive.

 

There was a small white monastery with golden domes perched on a bit of land that jutted into the river.  According to our guide, there are more monks living in this small monastery than there were in the larger one we visited outside Sremski Karlovci.  Since the building was right on the water, there were boats tied up to a dock below the church.  A road passed near the church but maybe some supplies were brought in by boat as well.  Either way, there certainly was not enough land to farm and even holy men need to eat sometime.

We passed a dock next to a towering limestone wall.  There were no stairs along the cliff face and no road that approached the place so there seemed to be no reason why there should be a dock there.  Once again I asked our guide Andy what that was all about.  He told me that there was a cave where people hid out from the Turks at one time or another during the three centuries of Ottoman rule.  I have no idea what would attract people to come here now, just as I have no idea how people got here to hide from the Turks in the first place, but there were two boats tied up to the dock as a third one sailed off while I watched.  Even though the attraction had historical value, I wonder what it was that would make people boat over there.

Speaking of historical value, we passed a place where the face of Decebalus, the last king of Dacia, had been carved into the face of the cliff.  This sculpture was maybe a couple of hundred feet tall and looked like something out of Lord of the Rings.  Decebalus fought three wars against the Romans until Emperor Trajan finally defeated him and absorbed the kingdom into the Roman Empire (Dacia 1, Romans 2).  He must have been respected by his people enough that they carved his face into the stone.  Unlike at Mt. Rushmore, the carvers didn’t have dynamite or power hammers to help with the sculpting either.

Further down the river, there was a Roman monument to a general, honoring him for building a road and a bridge across the Danube in one year’s time.  Romans were good at building roads and such and who knows, the road and bridge might have been part of the wars against Dacia.

We had one more lock to go through and this time I stayed on deck to watch the proceedings.  There was a lot of graffiti on the walls of the lock, which I thought was surprising, I mean who paints graffiti on the walls of a lock?

The graffiti had been brushed on, not a sprayed.  The letters were big and several of the messages were long.  I had a vision of someone walking along the deck of a boat, painting as it dropped down.  I could see the writer bending over to start the message and almost standing on tip-toes to finish the first line before bending over again to start the next one.

Day Ten

We docked at Vidin in Bulgaria for a tour of the Baba Vida Fortress (another fortress).  The first things we noticed were Roman sarcophaguses around this place, and an odd statue in the park.  The body of the figure is made of a rust colored stone, almost like jasper, but the arms, head and shoulders were bronze.  I’m not sure it worked for me but what the hey.

The Baba Vida fortress is one of the best preserved we have visited so far. It is the only entirely preserved medieval castle in the country and was built on the site of the Roman fortification, the Castell Bononia.  At one point you can even see some of the Roman foundations.  We were warned to watch our step because some of the cobblestones were slippery, and they were.  I guess the stones had been walked on for so long that they were polished by show soles.

The background for this fortress was almost like King Lear.  A 10th century Bulgarian boyar (Sort of like a Grand Duke) had three daughters.  As he was dying, he divided his land between the three.  Two of the daughters married louts, which made his third daughter, Vida, reject proposals and remain unmarried; she built this fortress instead (the name of the fortress means “Grandmother Vida.”)  How’s that for a story.  Wonder if Shakespeare heard it and used it as a basis for Lea, it sounds like something he would have done.  Anyway, back to the tour.

The fortress had two concentric curtain walls and about nine towers, three of them were their full medieval height, while most of the original battlements were also in good repair.  We saw some early carriages for cannons, although cannons would have been added long after the fortress was built.

After our tour, we went down in to the town.  We were told Vidin was the least expensive city we would visit (for ‘least expensive’ read most depressed).  Many of the town we have visited had a drain line down the middle of main streets to shunt rain water to the river. In Vidin, there were lots of holes in this drain line, and many of the streets were generally in poor shape as well.

While we were there, we saw groups of people dressed in native costumes parading down the street.  Each group carried a banner or a sign, I suppose announcing who they were, but I couldn’t read them.  Apparently there was some sort of festival going on and these folks were headed to the main park.

Patsy and I went to a mall to get some money changed so that we could tip the guide and the driver.  This would be a problem throughout the trip, because in some places they accepted Euros and in others they did not.  After we finished at the mall, we made our way to the park where we saw the folk groups dancing.  They were doing circle dances similar to some of the Greek dances we had seen before, or maybe the Hora.  We watched that for a while until it was time to go back to the boat.

On the way to out tie up, we passed a boat named Jane Austin, and I thought “Jane Austin on the Danube,” what a great name for a book, or maybe a rock and roll band.

 

On the Kleine Prinz, we sat in the lounge with some of our new friends, sipping wine and watching the sun go down.  I got some great shots of the sun setting over the Danube.

 

Day Eleven

The next morning would find us leaving our boat and heading to Bucharest to drop off our guide, Andy, who had been with us throughout the whole trip, but now he was heading home for a while before his next tour.  Several of our other tourists were headed off to other adventures and we were now much diminished, but we persevered.

Those of us who were left went on to a town called Brasov.  Along the way, we visited Peles Castle, a former summer residence of the Romanian Royal Family.

While we were there, the rain threatened to move in again, but had not started by the time we went into the castle.  I took a couple of pictures of the outside courtyard with my phone but not with my camera because the castle/museum charged ten dollars to take pictures inside.  Besides, all I had at this point were Euros and they did not accept them here.

There were very few bannisters or railings along the staircases, and there were signs asking people to not touch the walls, but I said they had a choice with me; either I occasionally touched something to keep my balance, or they got to clean up marks where I fell down the stairs (okay, I did not say this out loud, but I thought it).  I did compromise to this extent: if it were possible to reach the other side of the staircase (these things were broad) just in case I needed to make some sort of contact, I would limit how often I touched their walls.  I don’t think I spoiled any of their paintwork.

The castle was a riot of Renaissance grandeur, including painted walls, grand staircases, life sized statues, suits of armor, and mirrored hallways. There was one large room dedicated solely to various weapons, including match-lock and wheel-lock firearms, and Turkish rifles with mother-of-pearl inlays.

There were ceramic stoves in many of the rooms, and I have always liked seeing these because they are usually elegant.  The stoves in Peles were as tall as a man and usually had blue decorations on them, either scenes painted on them or blue tiles.  The stoves were fed and cleaned through a door in a servant’s hallway behind them so that the castle residents did not have to see the grubby parts of having a cozy room to sit in.

There was a ton of things to look at, and I probably could have shot a hundred pictures in the castle if I weren’t so cheap, but there it was.

After the tour, we stepped outside and found that the rain had come down hard but passed along, so we just walked through puddles instead of getting wet ourselves.   We were forced to drink inexpensive beers while waiting for our bus.  It was a hardship, but s I said, we were a stalwart bunch.

We continue on to Brasov, a medieval resort town set high in the Carpathian Mountains.  We would spend the next day and a half here, walking around and taking one more major tour.

There was a huge open plaza in the middle of the town, at one end of which was the main feature of Brasov, the Black Cathedral.  This was a large church that had originally been Roman Catholic, but became Lutheran after the Reformation movement.  The Black Cathedral was so called because it burnt down and its walls were… well, black.

Here are some highlights we saw in Brasov:  there was a tram that took people up to the top of a heavily forested mountain.  While the mountain was not too steep, there were signs that advised people to be careful because there were bears in the woods, hence the tramway.   So there were bears just on the other side of the city walls… how interesting.

Like every other place we have visited so far, there were some very nice coffee and pastry shops facing the plaza.  I visited one and sat down under an umbrella, enjoying the view.  Surprise, surprise, I walked out and found four or five of our fellow tourists sitting there doing the same thing.  I tell you this coffee culture is catching., and yet we did not see a single Starbucks any where

We saw our first ever store-front Orthodox church.  Like most of the businesses facing the plaza it was in a line of buildings sharing a wall, and was sandwiched between two shops.  However, the front of the church had the regulation icons and mosaic work, and even had a bookstore connected to it in the next shop.

We visited a regular Orthodox church (free standing) and the graveyard next to it afterwards.  Our guide explained that it was the custom to have many people buried in the same grave, and that sometimes, after a long period of time, the skeletons were dug up and moved to another location to make room for more of the family.

In the square outside the church and cemetery, there was a statue of a soldier, a monument to all the people who have died defending their country.  It was a brave thing, but unfortunately there was a pigeon sitting on top of the soldier’s helmet. I saw four other people besides myself taking pictures of the pigeon.  I realized that if one lives long enough, and does enough to warrant a statue, one will at some time or another, host pigeons and their ah, products.

 

Day Twelve

The next morning, we toured the old city walls around Brasov before our tour for the day.  Most of the original towers were still intact and were named after the guilds that built and maintained them, e.g. the Leatherworkers Guild built one of the towers and had to provide the manpower for the tower, plus the weaponry.

After walking around the walls, we made a quick stop at the Black Cathedral.  The cathedral was closed for the first day when we got to Brasov, but was open and we joined the queue to see the interior.  Some of the walls were still black, but that could be time and weather working on limestone, not just the ancient fire.  Even though the church was now Lutheran, it still had all the niches for saint statues on the outside piers, with some of the saint statues inside them, in fact there were a couple of the old statues on exhibit inside the church.

After our quick visit, we drove to the small town of Bran in Transylvania to visit…  (can we get a little mist rolling in here, and maybe some creaky sound effects?) – DRACULA’S CASTLE.

Okay, we are just talking about one of Vlad Tepes digs.  Tepes, known to his friends as Vlad the Impaler, was just a tough customer and not some supernatural freak like a vampire.  Vlad had a strong sense of right and wrong, and an uncomfortable way of proving it.  You didn’t want to be on the outs with this guy, ever.  Our guide explained the method he used to impale people, which made me shudder (I won’t go into detail).

Bran castle is in great shape, especially considering the amount of people who were going through it on this day, and probably every other day of the week except for Sundays.  Most of the interior walls were whitewashed, and again we were not supposed to touch them, so I kept my contacts to a minimum.

The castle had been a Teutonic Knights stronghold, built by them during the 1200s, but the stupid Mongols destroyed it thirty years later (See, this is why people can never have anything nice).  There was a display standing in one corner of the room, of the white wool garments like the ones worn by the knights, with the black cross embroidered on it.

As to Vlad, he did use the castle sometimes, but he was in and out of the place during the middle 1400s.  He was a wandering sort and didn’t make this his central place.

Believe it or not, after several “takings,” including the Communist Party and later on the Romanian government, the castle has now been returned to Archduke Dominic and his sisters Maria-Magdalena Holzhausen and Elisabeth Sandhofer.  They maintain it as a private museum, but with cooperation from the government.

I took lots of pictures in the castle, including some chests because I made several period chests once, and was fascinated by the ironwork and decorations on these real examples.

There were several smaller fireplaces throughout the castle, none of which were large enough to roast an ox; these were for comfort rather than display.  We did find one built into the wall with the clean-out door in the hallway similar to the ones we saw in Peles Castle.

After our visit, we had to pass by a series of souvenir shops, and of course we had to have a tee-shirt letting people know we had visited…  DRACULA’S CASTLE! (cue the thunder roll).

Here’s an interesting thought:  Bram Stocker was an Irishman; so why did he use a castle in Transylvania?  Suppose he had used an old castle somewhere in the middle of Ireland?  I mean they have a lot of old castles around, and of course a lot of mist.  Could you maybe see an Irish vampire smelling vaguely of Guinness and saying something like “Brace yourself Bridget, I’m about to bite your neck,” and with a brogue?

On the way back to Brasov, we passed one of the highest peaks in the Carpathians, and saw a cross on top of the mountain.  I don’t know if you can make that out, but along toward the end of my photograph string you might see pictures of a mountain and wonder what I was trying to see.

That night, we had yet another tour of a wine cellar, always a pleasure, followed by a traditional dinner.  They eat a lot of pork in this part of the country, which I found interesting, because they also raise a lot of sheep.  I would have expected more lamb chops or something but nope, it was mostly pork and chicken.  (I started to wonder what they did with all the sheep, but thought better of it)

We were entertained by two couples doing folk dances.  Each time, they would come out with another set of heavily embroidered shirts and dresses and leap around like teenagers.  During the last set, they pulled some of us from the table and had us join in the dancing.  They passed over me, I suspect because they thought I might have a heart attack if they made me jump around with them.  Ah, the joys of old age.

Day Thirteen

We arrived back in Bucharest.  Our hotel had a wine store and bar in the lobby, so we naturally gravitated to that.  It had started to rain again, and we had some thunder as well.  Several of our party braved the elements to go to a highly recommended restaurant several blocks away, but Patsy and I decided to stay put with our glasses of wine in the -n-house restaurant.

I ordered a hamburger and fries (yeah, I was trying to get used to American food again).   Patsy ordered a cheese tray, and I have to say the cheeses were good, she even let me taste one or two of them.

When my burger arrived, I found that they had only braised the outside of the meat and left the middle pink.  At first I thought maybe I should send it back for a little more cooking, but then I realized they also had Steak Tartare on the menu.  If they could safely hand out raw ground meat, I guessed they could also safely offer barely cooked meat, so I chowed down.  Because the burger was so juicy, my burger kept falling apart, but I managed to end it at last.  The fries were every bit as good as those I got at home.  Big surprise, did I think French Fries were an American invention?

The rain was intermittent through the night, and so was the lightning.  A couple of times during the night, there would be a lightning flash, causing the lights in the room and the television set to come on for a moment.  It was very freaky.

 

Day Thirteen

We were on our way again.  We would fly from Bucharest to Istanbul by Turkish Airlines, and then on to New York.  As usual, Turkish was exceptional.  After we took off on our short jump to Istanbul, the flight attendants came through the cabin, offering us refreshments.  I decided to try Raki, a Turkish alcoholic drink in the licorice family along with such other drinks like Ouzo, Absinthe and Anisette.  I didn’t find the drink as strong as some of these others and did not order it again, my curiosity being satisfied.

Again, they fed us too much, and again, I ate it because, well, it was there and I wasn’t doing anything anyway was I?  They gave us packages of sleep masks, ear plugs, and so forth, plus free earphones just in case we wanted to watch a movie or something.  Remember, this was all in steerage.  Lord only knows what the first class folks go, maybe free foot rubs or something.

We were moving west and had started out during the morning, so we never did lose the day light.  However, the airline did create an artificial night time by dimming all the lights for several hours.  Someplace in here, we should probably have taken our medications and such, but our sense of time was all screwed up.

Day Fourteen

This was actually an extension of Day Thirteen, but again, we were now in the United States, in a different time zone, and generally disoriented.  We were going to fly directly to home rather than stay another day in New York.  This was a bad idea, one that I will not repeat again in the future.

The trip was grand and I’m not going to spoil it by complaining.  All in all, it was something I would willingly do again, just with some changes.  Virgin America was a nice experience, Turkish Airlines gave us grand treatment, and Delta bombed.  What can you say?

Thanks for coming along with us to the Danube.  I hope you enjoyed the trip,

 

Day One (sort of)

And the adventure started.  Mike, our ride to the airport, took us a way we had never gone before, but said it would cut out a lot of traffic. Unfortunately, a traffic light had gone out after he came to get us, and we had a delay… still no problem.  However, once we got to Tropicana Road, we found that there were new traffic cones closing down the inside lane.  Still no problem.  The signage at the airport was a little misleading, but we eventually found our way to terminal 3 with loads of time to spare.   We went through TSA with no hold ups until we got on the other side to reassemble ourselves; then there was a problem.  Patsy had set her passport down at the end of one of the baskets used to pass stuff through the TSA screening.  The passport was almost the same color as the bin liner, so when we got over to the benches, she didn’t see her passport.  Now we had a problem, especially since we would be leaving the country in a week and a half, with no time to order a new passport.

 

Now people have much to say about TSA, most of it not complementary, but two TSA people went through all the stacks of bins until the young lady helping us, spotted it.  Problem over, situation back to normal.

 

This does not sound like much of adventure until you understand that Patsy is the organized one in the family.  I spend most of my time looking and acting like an unmade bed.  If the organized one falters, the center collapses and we are doomed! Doomed I tell you, doomed… well maybe that’s a little overboard, but not by much.

 

We made it to the airport in plenty of time, in fact in m-o-o-o-r-r-e than enough time.  We were supposed to leave at 11:30, but there was an announcement that our departure was delayed due to a mechanical problem.  Just the sort of thing one wants to hear.  Anyway, after two hours, we boarded the plane, got comfortable, and waited as we taxied toward the runway.  There we sat while the airline attendant explained about the seatbelts and the air masks, etc.  Funny thing, the attendant went through all the motions while an upbeat jingle sang about what she was showing us.  It was like being in a multi-million-dollar elevator, but with seats.

 

After we learned to stay buckled up during turbulence and snapped our fingers to the catchy line about how the air mask would drop down, the captain came on the intercom and told us that the problem was indeed not fixed, and that we would go back to the terminal just as soon as they could find an entry.  Our flight was cancelled!  Bummer, although not as much a bummer as hearing the same announcement mid-way in the flight.

 

The folks at Virgin Airlines were cool and offered to put us up at Alexis Park Suites.  We decided to take then up on the deal because it would be too confusing asking someone to come pick us up at the airport, take us back home where we would have to displace Tara, our house sitter, and then have someone drive us back to the airport.

 

One consolation to all this is that we heard they had a tornado warning for Dallas, with hailstones even.  Lucky us.

 

Virgin America put us up at Alexis Park Suites and gave us meal vouchers.  Dinner was okay, nothing to write home about, but I saw ‘Beer Can Chicken’ on the list and ordered that.  Beer can chicken is prepared by shoving an open can of beer up the appropriate orifice of a whole chicken and popping it into the oven.  I have always thought it would be fun to try this, but I never have.  As I was falling asleep later on, I wondered if you could get one of those great big cans of Foster’s or Sapporo and perch a turkey on top of the can, but I could not figure out how to get the bird and beer can in our oven at home; there would not be enough room.  There must be some way of doing this though, the photo opportunity alone would be worth the effort.

 

Day Two

We got our motel reservation in Dallas taken care of but had to go through a lot of hassle to change our car rental at the airport.  I finally got that taken care of, hopefully.  We will find out should we ever reach Dallas.

 

We woke up to a very rainy day, but being in Las Vegas, we knew it wouldn’t last… sure. (Note: the weather report has us socked in for the entire day.) The storm was what Patsy’s cousin calls a frog strangler, rain so heavy and so fast that the frogs can’t get out of its way.  I don’t quite believe that, but then again, what do I know about frogs?

 

I got a text message on my phone that our flight would be delayed for an hour and wondered if that an omen.  Would we end up being cancelled again?

 

Even so, we went to the airport on faith that we would actually go this time.  As it turned out, our faith was rewarded, and we left… an hour later than we were supposed to, but we left.  Right at first, I was worried because a couple of technicians flew with us and they kept opening things and peering into them. I hoped it wasn’t anything critical, such as a computer going out, or snakes in the luggage compartment (I never saw the movie, but maybe it could happen).  As it turned out, the on-board entertainment system did not work, and that was why the technicians.

 

The flight was pleasant with very little turbulence, which was unexpected, because it was cloudy all the way to Dallas.  Patsy and I weren’t sure what to do about lunch, so we ate something at the airport.  Little did we realize they would feed us on the plane.  When it came time for the meal, we were stuffed and passed, but we did take the dessert – something called the Eton Mess.  It was a dish of lemon curd, clotted cream, a few slices of fruit, and a topping of what I thought was compressed powdered sugar.  Our flight attendant, Mark, introduced me to a new treat – chocolate chip cookies and jasmine tea.  These are best consumed at 30,000 feet in the air.

 

As I said before, the flight was more or less uneventful, which was okay with me.  I don’t like eventful flights.

 

We met Morgan and Sandee, our son and his wife, at the airport.  They had picked up a car earlier and so we were on our way.  Once again, the drive was uneventful, and again, that was okay with me.  We did stop and have a bite at a place called Zoe’s, which was a Mediterranean sort of place with a slight Texas twist.  The hummus was made with hot sauce, not paprika.

 

We stayed with Patsy’s cousin Ron and his wife Monica.  Their house was lovely, and backs up to a greenbelt, which explained what we saw from the air.  Apparently, Texas has a lot of greenbelt areas.  As we were coming into Dallas, we saw whole areas of woods (I don’t want to say forest, because that brings up other images) mixed in with the houses.  Right at first, I thought there were just a lot of golf courses in Dallas, but if all the wooded areas were courses, every man, woman and child, including homeless people, would have to play golf to justify the number of them.

 

Even with all the travel and fuss, we were still wound up, so we spent several hours talking and drinking wine until we decided it was time to get to bed.  Naturally, I couldn’t sleep, but somehow or other, it was 2:00 in the morning, and then it was 8:00.  Strange how things like that happen.

 

Day Three

We started off the morning with a great breakfast of scrambled eggs with chives, English muffins covered with sausage and cheese (see recipe below), and fresh fruit.  About the time I felt like things could not get any better, Monica produced a tray of freshly baked cinnamon rolls.  I fear my diet is out the window (yeah, like I’ve ever been on one of those).

 

After breakfast, we went to the Lindon B. Johnson Library.  I have to confess I was an anti-war student during his time as president. I was less than enthusiastic about Johnson, but looking back at all the things he accomplished, like Medicare or the Voting Rights Act, I have changed my mind.  I always thought he just completed things Kennedy started, but learning about the things he felt passionate about, in retrospect, I think he was probably one of our greatest presidents.  I will probably read more about him after we get back home.

 

We took a long drive through Austin, around to a BBQ spot down by the Colorado River.  This is not the same river we know in Nevada, Utah and Arizona, but it still shares the name.  We had a barbecue lunch, I had pulled brisket tacos.  by this time, I had consumed more calories than I normally would for an entire day, and we still had dinner to look forward to.  Oh my.

 

We went to Mt. Bonnell after lunch.  This is one of the highest points around Austin, in fact you get a great panoramic view of the city from the top.  Two things I found really great about the walk up to the top of Bonnell were the smiling faces of so many different kinds of people on the trail, young and old, men and women, grandparents and young people with lemon colored hair, and all sorts of races.  The smiles, the joy, that was what I found so great!  This was America!

 

Oh the second thing that was really great?  I didn’t trip on my way back down the path

 

Heading back to Ron and Monica’s house, we went through Austin and passed fields of wildflowers.  Monica said that Lady Bird Johnson was instrumental in reestablishing the wild flowers here in Texas.

 

Monica’s Muffins

2 pkgs English muffins (6 count each)

2 sticks softened but not melted margarine or butter

2 jars Old English Sharp Cheddar spread

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper

1/2 teaspoon garlic powder

dash salt

1-pound hot Jimmy Dean sausage (or Owen)

 

directions

 

Cook crumbled sausage until well done.  Drain on paper and cool.  Blend margarine, cheese and spices, the add sausage.  Place slit muffins on cookie sheet and spread with filling.  Bake in 400 deg. oven for 10 to 15 minutes.  Note: you can freeze these after spreading the muffins with the sausage mixture.  Just put the cookie sheets in the freezer until the muffins are frozen, then pop them into a Ziploc bag and they will keep for good long while.  You don’t have to thaw them to bake, just put them into the 400 deg. oven until they are nice and bubbly.

 

Day Four

This was a transitional day.  When we woke up, it had rained in the night, so things were cool and fresh.  Monica fed us some great breakfast burritos, fresh fruit, and of course cinnamon rolls (does this woman never stop?).  We took our time getting out of the house so that the rush hour traffic into Austin would be over by the time we left.

 

Ron and Monica live in an area that backs up to a greenbelt.  Apparently there are some caves with a rare insect living in them, and so the greenbelt cannot be developed.  When we look out the back door, what we see are Live Oak Trees, tall grasses, and here and there a cactus plant.  This morning, there were five deer resting in the trees behind the house. They were so close that I could have hit one of them with a rock were I so inclined (and if I didn’t throw like a girl).  Monica said that she thinks the does are pregnant and getting ready to drop fawns.  She also said that the deer in the greenbelt behind their house like to have their young near the houses, maybe as a way to protect them against coyotes. Anyway, the scene was very… what?  Should I say pastoral?   I can’t say bucolic because that refers to cows, and I think I would have been less than impressed if there were five cows in the grass behind the house.  Maybe I’ll leave it at pastoral, but whatever, it was nice to watch the deer lying down in the grass that close to the house.

 

We drove into Austin, which was a pleasant twenty-five-minute drive, and found our motel.  I believe this is the Texas Hill Country we have heard much about, a land of rolling hills covered with grass and wild flowers with stands of Live Oaks.  The country is a lot like northern California during a time of good weather.  These low hills would be good horse country because we didn’t see much to obstruct a running horse except for the occasional stream.

 

We understood that Lady Bird Johnson was instrumental in reviving the wild flowers, so applause to her.  Ron told us that this had been a dry period for them.  If so, the recent rains must have done a marvelous job, because it was green, green, green.

 

After we checked into our motel, we drove over to the Metro station and bought tickets for the Metro train and headed into downtown.  We walked around scoping things out and then had lunch at a small coffee shop before heading back.  We planned to do somethings the next day, especially since it will be the only one we will have to explore Austin before we head to San Antonio.

 

The Metro train is a sleek thing and very clean.  There are hooks on one side of the coach, where bicycle riders can hang their bikes while they ride.  I don’t know how new these trains are, but they are the cleanest we have seen in any of the places we have used trains.

 

Austin seemed to be an off-beat place.  We might have found ourselves in a gay part of town, but nothing overt, that is to say there were no cross-dressing queens out directing traffic, just people walking around, holding hands and being people.  The bulletin board in the coffee shop where we had lunch also made us think we were in the gay area; one poster advertised a Queen’s Soiree, while there were others advertising various events and openings.

 

When we went to the coffee shop and when we came back, we passed a busker on the sidewalk and both times he was hunched over next to a one-man band set-up that was covered with messages like “God is love,” and so forth.  He was eating something, so maybe he was taking a lunch break.  I hoped he would be playing on the next day, because I sort of like one man bands.  Don’t ask me why, because I also think they are corny, but there is something about them that I just enjoy.

 

Day Five

This was our day to see Austin.  We went up to the capitol and looked around.  If you have never been to Texas, the state capitol looks sort of like the Capital Building in Washington D.C., but it’s a lot smaller and tan colored rather than white.  There is a statue on top of the dome, much like the statue on top of the Capitol.  Here in Texas, it is a woman holding a star rather than the Capitol Building Statue of Freedom, who holds a wreath in her left hand and has her right hand resting on the hilt of a sword.  A surveyor’s theodolite (that thing surveyors look through that looks like a spy glass on a tripod), is set up so you can see the statue’s face.  I didn’t look through it, but Morgan did and he said that she looks surprised.

 

We passed the one-man band set-up again, and he still wasn’t plying, so maybe he was waiting until night time, when tourists would be out looking for fun.  The only busker we saw was a man who played the trumpet almost well, sitting in a doorway, but that was it. We did see some other fun things though, like a sign in front of a bar that said you can’t buy happiness, but you can buy wine, and that’s almost the same thing.

 

Like most cities that have been around for a while, Austin has a mixture of original buildings and modern ones.  We took pictures of some of the old buildings and one very tall new one that looked like an ice sculpture a clock in the middle of it.  Most of the older buildings were built with limestone, however there were also some brick mixed in there as well.  As expected, the more modern buildings used a lot of glass, I tried to take pictures of both types and will have them up shortly.

 

Meanwhile, we enjoyed a lunch at The Driskill 1886 Cafe.  I had a small salad as part of a soup-and-salad combination (see recipe below); the salad was paired up with a lovely cheddar soup.  Of course, there had to be a beer to go along with all this, so I chose a Convict Hill Stout (yes, I know I should have chosen something lighter, but I wasn’t in the mood for an IPA or a Hefe, which were the other two choices of local brews).  The stout was a nice dark color, almost like black coffee, with tones of espresso and chocolate.  So, all in all, I came from what I thought was going to be a light meal, to one that left me feeling replete.  I fear this whole vacation is going to be “replete.”

 

Salad ingredients: greens, shredded cotija (a Mexican cheese similar to feta), pepita (pumpkin seeds), roasted corn, roasted poblano peppers, bits of chicken and bacon, all dressed with a buttermilk cilantro pesto… whew, it almost wore me out listing the ingredients.

 

Dressing Ingredients

1/2 cup buttermilk

1/4 cup fat-free plain Greek yogurt

1/4 cup light mayonnaise

1/4 cup fin

4 teaspoons prepared basil pesto

1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper

 

Directions

 

In a medium bowl, whisk together all ingredients. Chill, covered, for at least 2 hours or up to 24 hours.

 

1886 Cafe and Bakery Cheese Soup

Driskill Hotel, Austin

1/4 cup butter

1/2 cup onion, minced

1/2 cup carrot, minced

1/2 cup celery, minced

1/4 cup flour

1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

4 cups chicken stock

4 cups milk

1/4 teaspoon baking soda

1 pound grated Velveeta or mild cheddar

1 teaspoon dried parsley

1 dash cayenne or to taste

1 dash paprika or to taste

1 teaspoon salt or to taste

1 teaspoon white pepper or to taste

 

Melt butter in a heavy saucepan. Over medium-high heat, sauté the onions, carrots, and celery until translucent and tender, about 3 to 5 minutes. Stir in flour and cornstarch. Cook about 3 to 5 more minutes. Add stock and milk gradually, blending until smooth, and reduce by 1/4. Do not allow to boil at any point. Add baking soda and cheese and stir until melted and thickened, about 10 minutes. Add parsley, cayenne, and paprika. Keep soup warm over very low heat or in a double boiler if not using immediately. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serves 6 to 8.

 

See more at: http://www.texasmonthly.com/articles/1886-cafe-and-bakery-cheese-soup/#sthash.R07KhZNH.dpuf

 

Day Six

We started out for San Antonio, but first we waited for a while to let traffic thin out (Yes, Virginia, they do have L.A. type rush hour traffic in Texas).  By waiting, we were able to sail down to San Antonio with little to no problems, except for the changing speed limits, of course.  No speed limit was less than 60 mph, but often the limit was 75 or 80.

 

I always thought long horn cattle were something of a rarity until I saw on television, a herd being pushed to high ground in Huston during the recent storms.  So you can imagine my surprise when we saw eight or nine of these things in a field along the route.  Imagine also my surprise when we realized that the long horns were just models!  Is nothing sacred?  The statues were very realistic looking, especially with the tall grass around their feet, but when we realized that none of them had moved a muscle, we decided they were just statues… of course they could have all been stoned or something, but I don’t think cattle do that sort of thing

 

At any rate, we got to San Antonio with no problems and were able to check into our motel right away.  I have to digress here for a moment.  For some reason, I made reservations with the Red Roof Plus motel.  My reason must have been that the Red Roof was so near the Alamo and the River Walk, because the room was clean and the bed was comfortable, but there wasn’t a closet.  The only plus we saw was the staff who were always friendly and helpful.  Breakfast was not included in the fare, not even a continental one, although they did have a machine you could buy breakfast stuff from and then pop the whatever in the microwave.  We even had to pay for parking.  My reasoning was lost in time since I made the reservations back in February, but I don’t plan to stay in a Red Roof again.  Now, back to the narrative.

 

Since we arrived early enough, we went over to see the Alamo.  We learned a great deal about what prompted the battle for Texas independence in the first place.  It was apparently a struggle between a Federalist form of government and a Centrist, almost a state’s rights sort of thing.  Santa Ana overthrew the Federalists and took command of the government, which did not sit well with the Texicans (I hope I got that word right).

 

On the way to the Alamo, we passed an old hotel that had a couple of really cool chimeras tucked up above one window.  A chimera is a grotesque figure used for decorations. Some people think of them as being gargoyles, but they don’t have a drainpipe in their throats which is what makes a carved monster a gargoyle.

 

Now, on to the Alamo.  Texans take this place V-E-R-Y seriously.  I don’t know how places like Boston (site of the Boston Massacre) or Yorktown (as in Battle of) deal with their past, but you really cannot mess with Texas when it comes to the Alamo.  There is a garden area behind the mission called the Shrine of the Alamo.  I always associate the word “shrine” with a holy spot, and I’m not sure what was back there, it could have been the graves of the defenders, but I don’t know.  Like I said, Texans are very serious about their history.

 

The Alamo site is surrounded by a wall, so while I was thinking it was just the mission itself (the basilica), actually the Alamo is a large precinct.  Once you enter the site, there are two cannons mounted by the walk.  These are the first of many big guns one finds along the way.  During the fight, this whole precinct was a battle area, with cannon emplacements at every corner and strategic point.

 

The landscaping is very dense, with mature trees that were transplanted to beautify the place.  Flowers, cycads, and shrubs were everywhere.  The site is lovely; Texans seem to do dense landscaping very well.

 

In front of the mission itself, there is a plaque marking where Davie Crockett died, and a brass line that represents where Colonel William Travis drew a line in the sand and told the men that whoever would fight with him should step over the line, while anyone who did not want to do that could leave.  What none of them knew was that General Santa Ana had already given orders that no prisoners would be taken. Anyway, I think most of us have seen movies about the battle and how the defenders resisted to the last man.  An interesting thing was that some of the wives who had been in the mission, were allowed to leave after the battle. They were the ones who told about the fighting.

 

The mission basilica is a small affair, with limestone walls that have twisted pillars carved into them on either side of the main doors, and alcoves between the sets of pillars that look as though they might have once held statues of saints.  As far as missions go, it is not the most impressive one we’ve seen.

 

Jim Bowie of the knife fame had been sent to dismantle the Alamo, but realized he didn’t have the resources to remove all the cannon, so he and Travis decided they would stick it out here.  The Alamo seemed ideal because it does have thick walls, and the Mexican Army had already turned the place into a fortress of sorts years earlier for protection against Indian attacks.

 

There are also things to look at like an old well, the museum in the area known as the Long Barrack (there is even a Tennessee Long Rifle that was presented to Fess Parker on display), and the cannons, lots and lots of cannons.

 

Across the street and down a way is a huge orange/pink sculpture that I understood came from France, but I also heard came from Mexico.  Anyway, this is a four or five story flowing sculpture that rises up on two square columns and twists around at the top.  It is supposed to symbolize affection but I could see it also being an invitation to ‘get knotted, of course that’s just my sense of humor.

 

After visiting the Alamo, we went down to the River Walk.  This is really a cool place.  Imagine a river kept in a concrete channel, and surrounded by restaurants, shops and hotels The river is actually the San Antonio River, but the original river was nothing like what is there now.  Pictures of how it was before being channeled show what looked like a large creek.  However, when heavy rains came, the river overflowed its banks and became destructive. 50 people died during one of the floods and so they had to take measures to control the river. Now with dams and other flood control measures, the River Walk is very safe.

 

I think the river is about twenty or thirty feet across, but there are sidewalks and gardens all along the edge. One has to walk down stairs to get into a man-made valley, at least two stories deep, where the river meanders through.   The main part of the river has a current, but even the side branch where the tour barges load up is kept moving so there is not an insect problem.  There are ducks living on the river, and I took pictures of a heron and a cormorant (a sure sign that fish live in the water), but otherwise, the main bird down there is the pigeon.  Big surprise.  Signs ask people not to feed the animals, but that doesn’t affect what the birds themselves think.

 

We ate lunch at a place called Maria Mia.  While we were there, a couple got up from the table in front of us.  The man and woman had not even reached the entry to the restaurant when a flock of pigeons descended on the table, fighting over the scraps left behind.  The bus staff all carry spray bottles to drive the birds off so they can clean the tables.  It took several squirts to quell this feeding frenzy.  I believe it could have been hazardous to try to clean the table without using squirt bottles, the birds were that determined.

 

After lunch, we went up to a place called Villita, a place that sits above the River Walk and looks like an older town or village (Villita, Spanish for small town).  The houses are well kept and have all been converted to shops and galleries.  Patsy found a tee-shirt she really liked and bought that.  After walking around for a while, we went back to our motel.  That night, we went back to the River Walk for dinner. This is a real party place, with lots of colored umbrellas by the river side, and a whole lot of places selling drinks along the way.

 

We had dinner at a place called Michelino, right next to the Blue Agave (guess what their specialty item was there).  The meal was very good, but nothing out of the ordinary.  I had chicken breast stuffed with mushrooms, spinach, and cheese.  The menu said that the chicken was lightly breaded, but if it were any more breaded I would have had to use a kitchen knife to cut it; still it was very tasty.

 

Our son Morgan’s hair started to turn grey when he was 16, and he has since developed a lot of grey in his moustache.  When our waiter brought the check he asked if we were brothers. I immediately said yes, but that I was the younger of the two.  Well, the light was not all that bright where we sat, so he bought it.  He looked long and hard at the two of us though before I started to laugh and told him the truth.

 

I mentioned that earlier in the day, pigeons bombed the table next to us.  Tonight at Michelino, we were visited by a duck and a drake.  They were not bothered by people walking around them, so I figured they have done this before.

 

The next day would be our big day in San Antonio and we were going to pack as much into it as we could.  We have been eating so much, we skipped breakfast and just grabbed some coffee and a Danish, then headed back to the River Walk.  Birds adapt to us humans, sometimes even to the point of distain; witness pigeons in a grocery store parking lot.

 

We strolled around for a bit and then took a boat trip on the river.  This was a nice break for us, especially since my feet were getting tired.  Our guide was a young man who told us a lot about the river and what had been done to make it part of a flood control plan.  He said that the water was only four feet deep; if anyone fell in, they should just stand up and walk out.  Fat chance of my doing anything like that, I mean I’m not sure I could hike a water soaked leg four feet up a concrete bank. He is the one who told us about the fish and crawdads in the river right after I got the picture of the heron.

 

The Walk is really nice in the day time, what with all the trees and flowers.  I saw several people just sitting on some of the many benches scattered around, enjoying the peace and quiet.  At night, the place turns into party central. That’s when all the lights come on and the colored umbrellas and paper/plastic flowers are in their prime.

 

We had gone back to the Alamo gift shop to see if there were and tchotchkes we could not live without, and then back to the River Walk for lunch.  The food was good, of course all the food we had along the River Walk was good, but nothing memorable.

 

After lunch, we took a horse drawn wagon ride around town.  Our driver named Dave took us in to one of the older parts of San Antonio, where there were some very nice old houses.  We pointed out to him that many of them had a light blue color on the porch ceilings. This color was called Haint Blue when we were in Charleston, and is supposed to keep you house free from Haints (ghosts) and some insects.  I don’t know if it works or not, but again, I never saw a ghost while we were in Charleston.  (Side note: I have been told that you can order Haint Blue from Sherman Williams.  I don’t know if this is true, but it’s a nice story)

 

We stopped back at the motel for a bit to drop off things we had purchased and to refresh ourselves, then headed back to the Walk for dinner.  The night life was in full swing by the time we got back.  We saw a sign pointing the way to a place called the Lonesome Dove, which we hoped was a cafe.  As Larry McMurtry fans, we thought it would be cool to eat there.  However, on the way down there, we ran across a group of what could have been senior ladies dressed in gaudy flared skirts and decorated with flashing lights, dancing around to the very loud beat of several drummers.  The drummers, all senior men, were dressed in white pants and red Hawaiian shirts.  There was a dental convention in town and I suspect that was what the drummers and the dancing ladies were all about.

 

It was hard to find a place to eat, but that’s the way it is when there is a convention in town.  We finally strolled into a place called Rio Cantina.  I had a plate of mixed enchiladas and a 210 Ale from Busted Sandal Brewing Company. The ale was nice and light with a good head which worked down into a lace that stayed until most of the ale was gone.  It went well with the enchiladas.

 

Day Seven

We were on the road to Dallas again the next morning because we all had to fly out the next day.  I had one of my “a-ha” moments when we were about half way to Dallas.  It seems as though the closer you get to San Antonio, the more Mexican oriented the food, but the closer you get to Dallas, the more barbecue places you see and the less Mexican.  Interesting.  Oh, and we saw the fake long-horns again, and they still hadn’t moved.

 

This about the end of the Texas part of our adventure, but there is one more thing I have to mention.  We had dinner that night in a place called “Bombshells,” a sports bar sort of place that has aspirations to be another Hooters.  There were way too many scantily clad waitresses, most of whom hung around with each other talking and laughing.  The burgers had names like “Gung-Ho” and other military sounding names.  I had a burger that I misunderstood what they were talking about.  It said that the burger was between two toasted cheese and bacon sandwiches.  Now logic told me that they would not have full toasted cheese and bacon sandwiches on either side of the burger, but logic lied.  That is exactly what it was; the bread was Texas toast sized on top of everything else.  I stripped off most of the extra bread and kept the bacon and the burger but that was probably enough to clog an artery anyway.

 

So, that pretty well sums up the Texas portion of our adventure.   The next installment will be about New York City.

 

New York, New York

Day One

We got to our hotel in Koreatown and found our room.  For those of you who have followed the Logs for a while, you may remember that the hotel we use is squashed between buildings that house Korean BBQs, Asian food places, and oddly enough, what I think are Vietnamese French bakeries.  The reason why I think they are Vietnamese is that the French had nothing to do with Korea and the Chinese didn’t seem to have much affection for the French when we were there last year, so that left the Vietnamese.  The bakery goods are definitely French in character, with baguettes, croissants, and all manner of other good things.

They fed us pretty well on Virgin America Airlines so we weren’t very hungry.  Instead of going out to dinner, we went up to the fourteenth floor bar for a glass of wine and a beer (Patsy had the wine, I had the beer, we did not mix them together).  The motel backs up to the Empire State Building.  From the upstairs bar, it just looks like another apartment or building because we cannot see past the first level of floors.  When we were here the first time, we asked the bartender where the Empire State Building was and he just pointed up. We weren’t impressed then until we went out the next morning and found he was telling us the truth.

The ESB has several setbacks if you will, lower blocks that then are topped off with a floor or viewing area before the next block of floors, narrower than the ones just before, climb higher.  On this particular night, we could see part of the mast and antenna on top of the building but else past that first block of floors.  The mast and antenna had red and yellow lights pulsing upward; I have no idea why, nor do I know if this is a regular thing.  We will go back up to the bar to find out, in the name of accuracy of course.

Day Two

The big event for today was a Broadway play called “Something Rotten,” a musical about the Bottom Brothers who are overshadowed by the ‘rock-star’ of the day, William Shakespeare. I’m not going to give the whole thing away, but at some point, the playwright brother writes a musical based on the Black Plague, and then one based on “Omlette.”  Needless to say this is a funny play

We took the subway up to Time Square and walked to the theater.  We wanted to have lunch before we went to the see the play, so we stopped in at a place called “Carmine’s.”  Our waiter, Ivan, told us not to eat too much of the bread on the table because the portions were big.  We ordered a family style (one dish we could share) Mixed Pasta, the specialty for the day.  When Ivan brought us our food, we realized we were about four people short of having enough to eat all that was on the tray.  We had spinach ravioli, Manicotti, lasagna, and my own favorite, Spaghetti Bolognese.  We ate as much as we could but since we were headed to the theater there was no way we could take a doggy bag with us.  I hope someone got to finish off the plate, because otherwise it would be a real waste.

 

I understood there was a rash of people at Time Square, wearing nothing more than thongs and body paint, ready to pose for a snapshot with tourists. I had seen some pictures of a couple of lovely young ladies who were painted up to look like Wonder Woman, but didn’t see anything like that at all… no matter how hard I looked.  I think the whole thing was just a scam.

Anyway, we walked back to the subway after the play and got back to the motel in good order.  On the way, we picked up a couple of Chinese style buns – the kind with the stretchy casing; Patsy had the pork bun while I had chicken curry. After the size lunch we had, that was enough for dinner.

I should say something about walking in New York.  It is a very walkable city, offering so much to look at as you pass.  The only way I can describe the foot traffic is that it is competitive, relentless, and much like Brownian Movement of particles but without the collisions.  We experienced the same sort of thing in India and in China and it seems to work.  There are even people who walk down the street looking at their phones and not at the other pedestrians, and yet who make it down the street without running into other people.  I sure couldn’t do that, I tend to trip over things like bumps in the sidewalk, driveway dips, dogs lying across the pavement, you know, the things other people never notice.

 

Day Three

Today we were consummate tourists, complete with a camera hanging from my neck.  We decided to take a tour around the harbor to see the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island.  Somehow or another, I thought we were going to have a chance to get off the boat at the statue and look around, but once I saw how many people were on the boat, and how many people were already on the island and how the lines visitors stretched out around the base, I realized that was not going to happen.

We close to both Ellis Island and the statue, along with at least 500 Asian who were on the boat with us and who all wanted the same picture at the same time I did… ok, maybe not that many, but there were a lot.

After we got back to the terminal, we walked down to Bowling Green Park and then to the museum across the street.  By this time the wind had picked up and I got a pretty shot of tulips bending.  The museum featured exhibits of Native American Art.  We did not know it at the time, but it was apparently the Museum of Native American Art and Archives.

I took a picture of a statue next to the banner announcing the exhibit, depicting a European looking woman sheltering some figures wearing feather head-dresses.  There seemed to be some irony in the woman sheltering the figures behind her, considering the role of Europeans in the lives of American Indians. Actually though, I think the statue just copied the statues at the base of the Albert Memorial in London, where the people of the world are all sheltered by allegorical female figures.

Dinner that night was at one of the Vietnamese places.  We had small, flaky flatbread sandwiches and creampuffs the size of Big Macs.  Yum.

 

Day Four

This would be our last day in New York.  We would head out to Vienna by way of Istanbul the next morning.  We decided to go looking for Greenwich Village and SoHo because we had run into those places in literature and we wanted to put place images to the names.  We almost went to Bleecker Street however we decided to skip any sorrows today (sorry you Rod McKuen fans, but there it is).

 

We made our way to Washington Square Park and then walked around the area.  Nothing really jumped out at us while we were there.  I mean there were the rows of houses, the trees on the sidewalks and most of the same things we had seen uptown.  The buildings were not as tall, but that was about it.

As expected, there was a statue of George Washington at the front of the park.  Patsy and I sat on a bench for a while and realized there was another smaller statue facing the street in front of us.  I said I thought it might be Billie Washington, George’s ne’er-do-well brother.  Instead it turned out to be the Marquis Lafayette.  Oh well, so much for guessing.

 

We had lunch at a place called the Halal Guys, and had what they called a Gyro bowl, which was pretty much what would go into a gyro but chopped with a couple of slices of pita bread.  The man behind the counter, one of the Halal Guys, asked if we wanted hot sauce on our bowls, and we said yes.  He warned us that it was hot.  When we tasted it, the sauce was mostly habaneros, but not as hot as some of the sauces we have had.  The cashier behind the counter was laughing at us right at first, but when I identified the pepper, she started laughing with us.

Once upon a time, we had a hot sauce that was murder, and I was suffering.  I took a drink of sweet tea to cut the heat, knowing full well that sort of thing doesn’t do any good, it just puts the pain off for as long as the water or whatever is in your mouth.  Suddenly, the sauce didn’t hurt as much, so I tried an experiment: take some of the sauce on a nacho and feel the heat, then sip the tea and feel the heat drop.  It worked.  Since then I have learned that sugary drinks cut the effects of peppers.  At the Halal Guys, we were drinking sweet drinks that did the trick with the habaneros

After satisfying ourselves that there was nothing outstanding about Greenwich Village, and that probably what we were looking for had disappeared sometime in the last century, we headed home. However, there was a sculpture of some sort on the face of a building, a round, clock faced sort of thing with a beam of gold shooting out of the center toward the bottom.  I asked several people what the sculpture represented but nobody had an answer.  There was a counter next to it, adding up to a very large number.  I suspect the counter was of the earth’s growing population, so maybe the sculpture was to warn us that time is about up and we should be hoarding gold or something.  I mean, nobody else knew what the sculpture was, so we were free to apply our own interpretation.

Dinner that night was at the Belgian Beer Cafe.  This is the kind of dark wood and glass that attracts business people to stop by after work.  Beer was the main attraction, naturally, and there were several different kinds of glasses for the beers.  I have no idea what beers went with what glasses, other than my beer came in a heavy glass much like a Manhattan glass but larger.  My beer was a Hoegaarden Witbeir, a wheat ale with a slight orange flavor with a coriander overtone.

Patsy had a Yellow-Fin Tuna salad, with large slices of the fish, lightly braised.  We made a joke about the greens being shiny side up kale, because we once read a recipe that said to use only the shiny sided kale, as if there is such a thing. I had a seared scallop about the size of a hockey puck with a dash of light flavored pesto on top of it.  The vegetables were miniature ramps (members of the onion family) with purple cauliflower, small mushrooms and a touch of black truffle sauce.  I do not have the recipe for tis, nor do I plan to try to make this at home.

For dessert, Patsy had a Belgian waffle covered with strawberries and chocolate, and topped off with whipped cream.  My dessert was an apple crepe.  The crepe had a lemon taste to it, and was topped off with a scoop of ice cream and a dollop of whipped cream on top of that.  Again, while they are fairly straight forward, I do not plan to make either of these desserts at home.

Of all the pictures I have taken on this trip so far, the one that I should have gotten but didn’t was of a sidewalk vendor. These folks have everything from pushcarts on steroids to things that look like they should be mounted on a truck bed.  The vendors sell breakfast stuff, hot dogs and sausages, full meals in some cases (both regular and veggie), and let’s not forget the tee shirts, sunglasses, $25.00 Cartier watches, et cetera.   You name it and someone has a cart/stand/box selling it.  I wanted to try to get a picture of one of these setups right before we left or at least one of these sidewalk entrepreneurs, but it was too late.  We had to move on the airport for our flight to Vienna.

 

Off to Vienna

Since we were going by Turkish Airlines, we had to pass through Istanbul in the same way that if you fly American Airlines, you will pass through Dallas/ft. Worth at some time or other. I have always been interested in Istanbul and hoped I could see something of the city out the airport windows.

It took us nine and a half hours to reach Istanbul from New York.  We had a two-hour layover before we headed out to Vienna.  Since we got there at night, we didn’t see anything except for lights so the only thing I can tell you about the place is that it looks a lot like any other airport.

By the time we landed, we were trying to maintain some sense of normality while being hampered by a lack of sleep.  We had not rested the night before because we were worried about oversleeping and missing the airport shuttle.  Now we were in a foreign country, feeling a little rocky from almost nineteen hours without reasonable sleep, just some uneasy dozing on the flight.  We were not sure when we were supposed to take our meds and we had other concerns on our minds so I can’t report anything more.  At least we had aisle seats on the airplane and did not have to crawl over other people to stretch our legs.

We knew nothing about Turkish Airlines before and were not sure what to expect.  We were pleasantly surprised because even though we were in steerage, there was ample legroom, entertainment, and they even gave us warm towels and free booze.  We ate far too much but what can you do?   We were just sitting there with nothing else going on anyway, they brought us food, we ate.

 

I watched a movie called The Woman in the Van, starring Maggie Smith, which was billed as a “mostly true” story.  But other than that, I dozed, got up to walk occasionally, and tried not to think about what it meant to be flying way too far above the ground with an outside temperature that Jack London could appreciate when he was in Alaska. The monitor on the screen said that the temperature was a balmy -58 degrees; London said that you could tell when it was below -70 because when you spit, it would freeze before it hit the ground.  I don’t know what would happen at a mere -58 and I wasn’t likely to find out.

Day One

We eventually got to Vienna and had a leisurely drive through the city to our boat, the Little Prince, or Der Kleine Prinz.

The rest of the day was billed as leisure time, but we took the opportunity for a nap.

Our craft was named Der Kleine Prinz (the Little Prince) and was a long and narrow boat.  If you have seen any commercials for Viking River Cruises (and who hasn’t), the Prinz is like one of those boats only smaller.  The cabins all have a window overlooking the river or the dock, depending on whether we were sailing or tied up for a land tour.  This meant that often one did not walk around au-naturale with the curtains open.  The Prinz was built in the late 1950s in East Germany, and we had read some reviews that mentioned the age of the vessel, but even so, it was in good repair and comfortable.

Our cabin had twin beds, two small closets, and a tiny bathroom that included a shower with no enclosure to it for me to step into when I got up at night to attend an old man’s needs.  I got the hang of avoiding the shower after the second or third time I missed the turn toward the porcelain objective and stepped on the non-slip pad.

Let me tell you right now, the Danube was not blue, it was more of an olive green color in the daylight. I think the reason why is that the river has a strong current, therefore carries a lot of silt, so it could never look blue.  That said, our guide told us that the word ‘blue’ also refers to being drunk, and that maybe Strauss had that in mind when he wrote the waltz. I would go along with that suggestion.

The Danube is the second longest river in Europe, but don’t ask me which is the longest.  It is quite broad and carries a lot of shipping traffic as well as tourist boats.  Where there are not picturesque cities and towns, the river is bordered by forests.

Day Two

After breakfast, we had a bus tour of the Vienna.  Patsy and I were sufficiently recovered so that we looked forward to seeing this city so much associated with Mozart.

During the tour our guide spoke to us over little receiver/earphone devices. They were a great help and allowed me to hear what was being said even when I dawdled behind the group to take a picture.  Patsy didn’t care for them because they would not stay hooked over her ear.

Vienna was like a Baroque pastry, with all the decorations and embellishments one expects when the word Baroque is mentioned.  The Theaters and museums were of the Baroque style (think Greek looking buildings with pillars) while much of the downtown was probably Beaux Art (think banks with carved wreathes of flowers or of laurel leaves with faces looking down from around the window and doorways).  Naked bodies lounging on the buildings or holding up something were pretty common too, more than you could shake a stick at.  If you are a Terry Prachett fan, you might remember that constable Knobby Knobbs said you can tell a naked statue is art rather than something embarrassing because there were urns nearby.  Well, there weren’t all that many urns around, but there were a lot of stone canopies and other things to be held up, so maybe those took the place of urns.

There was a great deal of grey color because so many of the buildings were stone, but there were also trees along the boulevard that soften what might otherwise be a hardscape.

A lot of the aforementioned figures on the buildings and in fountains were naked ladies and I came to the realization that ideal Baroque, Beaux Art and indeed Art Nouveau women packed an extra fifteen to twenty pounds over what we like to think are “ideal women” today.

Not all the architecture was of the 19th century however.  Some buildings were destroyed during the Second World War and replacements were thrown up in a hurry.  Many of these newer structures were in areas governed by the Soviets and are mud-fence ugly.  On the other hand, some replacements showed an interest in trying something new. For instance, we saw one building that had a sloping glass front.  We thought that was an odd shape until our guide pointed out that the name of the company owning the building started with a “q.”  When seen from the side, the building had a ‘q’ shape to it.  Good thing the company name didn’t start with a ‘z.’

During the late 19th century or possibly the early 20th, an artist named Friendreichs Hundertwasser was asked to provide some ideas to improve parts of town.  He came up with a bright color palette for some apartment buildings with clever tilework for interesting touches.  Hundertwasser thought that everyone had the right to a window they could lean out of and scrape away the paint as far as they could reach, then paint whatever color or design they wished.

Vienna incinerates their trash, and Hundertwasser designed the facility for them.  So now the smokestack of the incinerator looks like a multi-colored lollipop or something from the Watts Towers.

We took a tour of the Schonbrunn Palace that afternoon (Baroque).  Schonbrunn was the summer home of the Hapsburgs, based on the palace at Versailles, but on a smaller scale because the ruling family had to cut corners to save money.  In fact, our guide said that the Emperor wanted to redesign the palace, but that would be expensive. Instead, he made the architect the Royal Architect, which was a plum appointment at the time, and then ordered him to redesign the place.  One saves money as one can.

A little bit of interest, the entryway of the porte-cochere is paved with blocks of hard wood so that the horses and carriages would not make so much noise when they pulled up.  The wood blocks are still in good shape.

Inside, the mirror rooms in the palace were white and gold in the Baroque style (almost Rococo {like Baroque after too much Schnapps}), plus some Chinoiserie (Chinese style) rooms.  There was one room dedicated to a “Royal Bed,” that looked bigger than a king-sized bed, with curtains and a carved headboard.  However, this was not used for sleeping, just for the presentation of new-born royal babies.

While the palace was used by other members of the Hapsburg family, Schonbrunn is most often associated with Empress Maria Theresa.  She was a powerful woman, and even though she was married and had sixteen children in a twenty-year period, she kept the power and did not permit her husband, Francis Stephen, to take over her authority.  In fact, there is a painting of the royal family with the empress, about six or eight kids, and Francis Stephen.  The artist shows the husband resting his arm on a chair, pointing a finger toward Marie-Theresa while she has her right hand raised with her index finger pointed toward herself.  No question who wore the pants in that family. The portrait was painted while the Empress was carrying a daughter who would in time be named Marie Antoinette.

After visiting the palace, we returned to the ship for dinner.  That night, we attended a concert at the Auersberg Palace/Borse/Arsenal Hall (don’t ask me what Borse means or why the palace should be listed as Arsenal Hall) put on by local musicians.  The hall (Arsenal Hall perhaps) for the performance was a small one, probably for about four or five hundred people tops.  Even though the walls were marble and the ceiling was high, the sound was excellent.  There were many oval windows set high in the walls and a decorative frieze ran below them showing, for some reason, a lot of wrestlers.  There were also many faux marble pillars that projected from the walls at intervals.  All these things seemed to be enough to break up the echoes that would have otherwise made this small space unusable.

While a baritone sang a song in German, I had a sudden realization that once upon a time this room had been filled with Nazi officers and their wives.  It made sense because this facility has been in use since the nineteenth century and the Nazis ruled Vienna during the war.  There is no particular point to my saying this, it was just an odd thought that went through my mind at the time.

A gentle rain had been falling all day and into the night.  We fell asleep to the sound of the rain, and only woke up a couple of times when I thought there was thunder, although that could have been my snoring.  There was also the sound of the boat passing along the river that sounded like someone was draining a bathtub, but except for that and the aforementioned thunder, there was little to disturb our sleep

Day Three

We sailed to Bratislava during the night.  Bratislava is in Slovakia, which was once part of Czechoslovakia until the breakup of the nation. Our tour guide told us the reason for the breakup was that there were people who wanted power, and since there could only be one prime minister in a country, the answer was to make two countries.  She said the division was made without a referendum to the people even though the country was a democracy.  It makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

 

A nice tree lined walking mall also held several stalls selling knick-knacks and snack items (one even specialized in honey and honey related products).  There were also loads of coffee shops and cafes under the trees and it would have been nice to sit there, but our time was limited and so we just looked and enjoyed the scene.  As we would learn along the tour, hanging around coffee shops is common here in the Baltics, our guide referred to this as a coffee culture.

Some of the walks in the mall were made of black and white blocks that formed curving patterns under the trees, making the scene even more interesting.  I should mention that in many of the cities we would visit had this same kind of walk made up of two-inch thick stone blocks.  While they were nice to look at, we also had to watch out for missing blocks or ones that were not level with the rest; it would have been easy to twist an ankle and ruin the walking parts of our vacation.

Brataslava was full of older buildings, but also had newer ones built after World War Two.  Some of the older buildings had cannon balls in the walls, dating from when Napoleon laid siege to the town.  During the siege, he used artillery as part of the offense and many of the buildings still had cannon balls embedded in them after the battle.

Our local guide told us that at some point, there was a tax break for those who kept the balls in place and just repaired the building around them.  She said that after a while, cannon balls started to appear where they hadn’t been seen before.  She pointed out one house that had such an embellishment and told us that it would have been impossible for the cannon ball to have come from Napoleon’s artillery because it was about 180 degrees away from the front lines of the siege.  I guess it could have been a ricochet, but probably not.

Speaking of interesting, there was a plaque on one of the houses, showing a man with a red hood over his head.  Our guide told us this was the traditional home of the town executioner.  It seemed to me that if you were going to advertise that this was where the executioner lived, why did he need the hood?

Further down the street was another oddity; a house where there were chimeras (those things again) over the doorway.   This was once a place where an alchemist lived and these were supposed to be portraits of the demons that helped the alchemist do his work.

We visited St. Martin’s Cathedral, a 14th Century Gothic church.  The cathedral was made of buff-colored sandstone, with the usual allotment of saint statues and allegorical animals that any self-respecting cathedral should have.  I especially liked the figures of dragons around the entry, but did not see a St. George anywhere near them and wondered why.

I found several examples of the Green Man in the main entry way of the church.  The Green Man is a decorative element from the Middle Ages, and is one of my favorite things to look for in churches from that time.   The figure is most often a face, but sometimes the rest of the body as well, combining humanfeatures with foliage (there were also green animals, but these were rare).  No one ever wrote down why they carved these on all sorts of places in cathedrals and so no one knows much about them now.  They must have made sense at the time, because everything in a cathedral was supposed to instruct the illiterate church goer.

There is a theory that the Green Man might have been a pagan symbol and that some of the stonemasons might have been closet pagans (assuming stonemasons had closets), but again, who knows.

Now back to the cathedral.  Sandstone is not as durable as limestone or brick, the other common building materials in this part of the world, which means that it needed extra care.   There were scaffolds on part of the church used in cleaning to clean the walls and to make any necessary repairs.  In fact, scaffolds were usually raised on some part of every cathedral and most of the public buildings that we saw in every city we have visited so far.

During the time of the Soviet occupation, nothing was done to clean up the air or the environment; soot stained the walls of all the buildings.  Now that Slovakians are free, the government is working to restore things, but it takes time.  I don’t know that the government was in charge of cleaning St. Martin, but considering its importance to tourism, it might have been.

A large white fortress sat on the hill overlooking the town.  We were in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains which means there were a lot of hillocks.  There were a lot of uphill streets we had to climb. The fortress was a big square pile, one of those places where the Hapsburgs lived. I think Princess Elizabeth was the most notable person who lived there, she who was called Cissy, and who in modern times has been compared to Princess Diane because she was very popular with the people.

The gates in front of the fortress had displays of different kinds of arms and armor on pedestals that covered a range from Roman armor with swords and shields through to a helmet dressed with a turban (the Turks, don’t you know) and ending up with a broad brimmed hat trimmed with feathers and perched over a simple breastplate. The Turkish armor and the broad hatted one also sit above cannons and guns.

An interesting thing: there are two matching walls with gates set on either side of the courtyard in front of the fortress; the armor displays sit on top of the walls.  What is funny is that the left set of gates allow entry from the town to the courtyard where the coaches and carriages would arrive, while there is just a drop-off behind the right set of gates.  Of course you cannot tell this just by looking, but those gates are unusable.  The Baroque mindset liked balance and so there had to be a second wall with gates even if they didn’t do anything.

 

We passed a funny, I was going to say statue, but since it was lying on the sidewalk, I called it ‘street art.’  The object in question was of a man, full sized and cast in bronze, crawling out of a manhole in the pavement. There was a street sign above it saying “men at work,” but the locals say that the character isn’t working at all, just looked up ladies’ dresses.

 

Brataslava was one of our briefest visit, because we were only there for half a day.  When we returned to the ship there was a wine tasting scheduled to entertain us while sailing to Budapest.  It had been cloudy all morning and we had a bit of rain.  However, in the afternoon, the sun came out, although banks of grey clouds were off in the distance.  A group of swans were swimming along the shore as light glittered off the river.  There is some sort of poplar tree in bloom so that bits of what looks like cotton were floating in the breeze.  The combination of the grey clouds in the distance, the swans, the sun glinting off the water and the bits of drifting cotton made it feel as though we were sailing in a dream.  Of course it could have been the wine as well.

 

Day Four

 

We woke up in Budapest Hungary.  This is one of the most Baroque cities that we have seen so far, maybe not more so than Vienna, but the effect is more bunched together.

One of the main attractions is the Square of Heroes, which has a great concert hall and a museum on either sides.  In the center of the square, there is a tall column topped by a victory figure, with statues of early Hungarian heroes gathered around its base.  At the back of the square are two curved arcades with more life-sized statues of famous Hungarians, including St. Steven, the first Christian king of the Magyar.  Allegorical figures of peace and war stand on top of the arcades.  The square is not as large as Tienamin Square in Beijing, but it is just as impressive in its own way.  (Side note: both squares have had tanks in them at one time or another.)

We had an afternoon excursion through Pest, then over the Elizabeth Bridge (yes, Princess Cissy, who will appear again at some point in this narrative), and up the hills into Buda.  The two parts of the city are divided by the Danube River.  Seven bridges crossed the river, all of which were destroyed during the Second World War.  The Elizabeth Bridge has been the only one restored to its original appearance.

We had a great view of the city including the impressive Baroque parliament building across the river in Pest.  (A snide observation: words don’t always have the same meaning in different languages, but doesn’t Pest seem to be an appropriate place for a parliament?)

 

That night we enjoyed a concert by the Hungarian State Folklore Ensemble.  The performances included music and authentic dances from across Hungary. The musicians included two hammered dulcimers, each about the size of a baby grand piano.  During a solo by one of the dulcimer players, all the lights on stage and in the theater were turned off, but he continued to play without missing a beat.  If you have never seen a hammered dulcimer, picture the stringboard of a piano exposed and played by striking the strings with long, thin wands.  I have never played one of these things although I have known people who have, and it seems to me that you would need at least a little visual clue as to where things were.  But what do I know; the soloist was so sure of himself that he finished the piece without seeing the strings.

On the way back to our boat, the local guide took us through the city, around the Square, across the Elizabeth Bridge, and into the hills overlooking Buda. The view was lovely and would have been even more exciting if we had been warned ahead of time that we would make this drive.  A water closet would have greatly improved the adventure, still it was lovely.

 

Day Five

We had some time to go back to the city before the afternoon’s events.  One of the events we could not miss, of course, was lunch. They feed us quite well and we will have much penance to perform once we are home.  In China, we had a young lady who was our ship-board waitress and took care of us; I called her our “Coffee Goddess.”  On the Little Prince, the role was filled by a waiter named Sava (our “Coffee God”) and a bartender named Kristina (our “Beer Goddess”), both of whom made our days go smoothly.  Kristina helped me out with the on-board computer; it had several odd keys that had accent marks over some letters, while familiar things such as the ‘at’ sign were in different places on the keyboard.

 

After our over-indulgence, that was our lunch, we drove out to the Lazar Lovas Puszta horse breeding farm where we were greeted with small glasses of brandy and bite sized cakes like empanadas.  We watched a performance by the Czikos (Hungarian Cowboys) and their horses. The Czikos were dressed in blue skirts that hung down past the tops of their tall boots, black vests, and a round hat with a curled brim that looked like a cross between a Stetson and a tri-cornered hat. When the cowboys were up on their horses, the skirts acted like chaps, also they looked kind of cool.

 

We’ve seen some amazing things with Mexican rodeos, but this was something else again.  First of all, the cowboys all carried whips which they kept cracking around the horses.  Horses are notoriously skittish and yet they were not upset by the almost continuous snapping noise.

 

The cowboys made all their horses bow to the crowd, kneel, and eventually lie down on their sides.  The announcer told us that the cowboys used to sleep on their horses, at which time one of them stretched out on his recumbent mount; the horse did not even roll its eyes.  Another cowboy had his horse sit up on its haunches.  He then pulled one of the horse’s legs forward and sat on it as a chair.  This really surprised me because I think horses are very protective of their legs.

Another horseman came galloping down the field and shot arrows into a target as he rode past.  All the arrows were within an eight-inch circle.  I was impressed because I couldn’t put several arrows into that kind of cluster unless I stood in front of the target and inserted them manually.

 

Our guide on the bus told us that the cowboys did not use saddles because they had to be able to ride away quickly if attacked.  The archer had definitely stood up when he shot, and I had seen the rest of the cowboys using stirrups so I figured I had misunderstood the guide.  But what we saw when the horses were standing up again, was that the riders had a large oval-shaped piece of leather with stirrups attached, but without a framework or cinches.  Each rider threw the piece of leather over the horses’ backs, grabbed a bit of mane, and swung up as though mounting bareback.  Their feet slipped into the stirrups and they were riding off almost immediately.

 

The show continued with various displays of horsemanship.  At one point, a woman representing Princess Cissy (yup it’s her again.  Apparently she was known as an excellent horsewoman), came riding out with a sidesaddle and did various maneuvers with her horse, including standing with all four hooves on a narrow beam.

 

After the show, we took a ride around the farm on an oxen drawn cart and then visited some farm animals in their pens.  One of the interesting animals we saw was a goat with long curly horns.  Normally goats are friendly animals, enjoying a scratch under their chin, but not these.  Their main purpose in life seemed to be biting the hand nearest them.

There were the usual suspects when you visit what was essentially a petting zoo.  We saw Giant Checkered Rabbits (about the size of a beagle), more of the chickens with the feathery legs, and a sow with her piglets.  I don’t know how many of us have seen a sow up-close, but it was easy to see she didn’t have a great temper.

After the show, we made our way back to the boat, once again going around the Square of Heroes.  Because of the compact nature of Pest, it was hard to get around without passing the Square.

 

Day Six

 

We docked in Mohac, Hungary and took a tour into the town of Pecs (pronounced pesh or posh, or someplace in between).  I don’t have much of an ear for language), a place that has been inhabited since the 2nd Century.  Our guide for the day told us that a famous battle was fought near here when the Ottoman Turks were on their way to Vienna.  We were only there for half a day, but we bought some chocolates and had gelato cones.  While those were nice, they were not the highlight of the morning, which would be the cathedral.

We visited the local cathedral and saw the palace of the Archbishop.  (Side note:  although there was an archbishop there, the coat of arms over the doorway were of a cardinal.  Who knows, maybe the top dog in the area was both.)

We had a short organ recital in one of the most ornate churches/cathedrals you could imagine. Everything was highly decorated, and I had a feeling that if you stood too long in one place, you might get a coat of paint or gold leaf.

The town was occupied by the Ottoman Turks for about a hundred and fifty years, during which time they used the cathedral as a storehouse, a stable for horses and otherwise left it to fall into disrepair.  Over the century and a half or so, after the Ottomans were driven out, the church has been restored to its former glory.  It is almost overwhelming in its ornateness.  There were frescos on the walls, the ceiling, and any place that could be reached.  Even under the church where the bishops were entombed was highly decorated.  I have a photograph of saints over the stairway leading down to the crypt.

Along with the tombs of former archbishops, there were also some very detailed bronze models of the cathedral, about the size of something you could set on a coffee table.  These were for blind visitors to feel what the outside of the church looked like. There was no way they could have represented the frescoes in relief, but I thought that was rather a cool idea anyway.

After the organ recital, we were supposed to see the Roman catacombs (I know this is dumb, but I feel like I need to say all catacombs are underground.  These had a glass ceiling over them, and a walkway so that we could look down into them).  They weren’t open to us this day and we went down into the town instead.

Between the cathedral and Széchenyi Square, there was a large building with a huge green dome. This used to be the mosque of Gázi Kászim pasa.  We didn’t go inside, but my first thought was that any decorations would have been things like calligraphy or geometric designs, since Muslims generally do not favor representations of living things.  I forgot that this was now a Catholic church and would have been as highly decorated as the cathedral.  Oh well, we were getting overwhelmed by all the art work and wonderful buildings anyway, so missing out on one did not matter that much.

The outside walls of the mosque/church were dressed stone, pierced with windows that had colored brick arches over them.  The building sat at an angle to the square in front of it because it was oriented toward Mecca. (That last bit may also not have been necessary, but I thought I should mention it.)

Further into the town, Patsy and I walked past a theater that had two fountains in front of it as well as a swirling black and white plaza made of two-inch thick blocks.  One of the figures resting above a fountain was of a Pierrot figure (clown) who held a tragedy mask, while the figure at the other fountain was of a Pierrette (clownette) holding a comedy mask.  In Dublin there is a statue of a woman at a fountain representing the River Shannon; the Irish call her the Floozy with the Jacuzzi.  We decided the Pierrette was Pecs’s Floozy.

We had some time before we were due back, and I wanted to find a restroom.  There was a coffee shop right next to the square; I went in there to see if they would have pity on me.  The barista spoke good if not idiomatic English.  When I asked if I could use the facility, he gave a sigh and shrug, like he couldn’t turn away an old guy, then gestured up the staircase with his chin.  I pulled out what was one dollar in the local currency and handed it to him.  For that I got an “Is good,” and a big smile.

After returning to the boat, we sailed on to Serbia.  Right before dinner, our guide Andy gave us a talk on the history of the Balkans, starting with the Ottoman Turk invasion, through the German and Italian occupations, the wars in the 1990s and in to the current state of affairs.  This was most enlightening, and I don’t see how anything gets resolved in this region.  I mean it seems they have long memories and tend to hold centuries long grudges, even if they do hold them while drinking coffee.

Day Seven

This would be a rather mixed day, because we started out in Vukovar, Croatia but would end our day in Novi Sad, Serbia.  Here is where the mixture started.

Our morning tour would take us to the church and monastery of Saints Phillip and James.  But when we entered Vukovar, one of the first things we saw was a building that looked like it had been blown to hell, and as it turned out, had been.  When the Serbs invaded in 1991, the town’s people defended themselves for eighty-seven days with whatever weapons they could get.  The fighting was street by street and house by house.  As we walked through the town, we saw some buildings that were repaired and looked as though they had never been touched while others, often sharing a wall, were still full of bullet holes and shrapnel damage.

We passed a shoe store/factory outlet of a company called Borovo, that used to employ some 23,000 workers, but now has less than 1,000.  Our guide encouraged us to look at the store and buy some shoes if we could.  She told us that unemployment here was running over 40 per cent.

The cathedralwhere we were headed sat on top of a hill that our guide referred to as the Vukovar Alps because the town is pretty much flat except for this small hill.  As we started up the hill, we passed some buildings on one side of the street that had been repaired and now housed small shops.  The upper floors on these were painted in pastel colors and were supported by stubby pillars.  All in all, the effect was more Caribbean than Baltics.  However, the buildings across the street from these were in the same style, but were still torn up with bullet holes and shrapnel gouges.  The two sides of the street presented a before-and-after picture of what this downtown area looked like, depending on when you saw it.

Just past these places, there was a building that used to be a pharmacy before the fighting. It was too damaged to use now, but the owner obviously planned to rebuild sometime. In the meanwhile, he filled the windows with flower boxes of geraniums which he kept watered so that they are fresh and beautiful.  How can you keep determination like that down?

We visited the cathedral, which has now been restored.  It is a Jesuit monastery and church; the Serbs who attacked the town were Orthodox.  Our guide told us that the Yugoslav Army had fallen apart and that the units doing the fighting were militias and that they were much better equipped and organized that the townspeople.  They expected to roll through the town easily, but the vigorous defense of Vukovar enraged them.  Their answer to the defiance was to destroy as much of the town as they could, and since he cathedral was Roman Catholic, when they left, they blew up the church.

As part of our tour, we were going to watch a film about the defense of Vukovar. On the way to the theater, we passed a small plaza holding one of the old bells, with a huge hole in one side.  This was an artifact from when the church was blown up.  In contrast, a peacock sat on top of the bell (almost an allegory of war and peace).  Further along, we walked through a garden area where large photographs of the destruction were on display and we could see the extent of the damage.

The film we saw was a short one, but it showed people fighting for their town and the mass graves that were left after the Serb militia moved out.  We wondered how people could do that to one another, especially considering that Tito had these diverse countries working together as one nation for fifty years.  One of our guides answered the question by saying that Tito died without naming an heir, but had set up a coalition to run the country instead.  It apparently did not take long for things to go to hell in a handbasket, which is the usual course for coalitions.

On the way back to the ship we passed a wall that had all the bullet holes and shrapnel gouges we had seen throughout the town.  There was a window in the wall, that is to say where a window had been, and behind the wall was a small children’s carnival.  I snapped a picture of a carousel awning through a missing window; it seemed to symbolize what we had seen during our tour.

When we were on board again we sailed down the river to a to a named Novi Sad which is in Serbia.

Novi Sad had the requisite fortress on the hill, the house with a cannon ball imbedded in it, and some lovely baroque buildings and pedestrian malls.

I hope I’m not boring readers with all those buildings, malls, and fortresses.  It’s just that the Balkans seem to have been at war since the Romans stomped through here and maybe even before that.  It is a vicious circle: unwelcome visitors create a need for a fortress, a fortress annoys the visitors enough to tear things apart.  After they leave, the local residents try to rebuild again, preparing for the next bunch of louts who pass through.

Outside Nova Sad, we visited an Orthodox monastery where we were able to listen to some of the chanting going on.  We were allowed inside the church but were not allowed to take pictures.  The entry to the monastery was through a small red building with a dome and a couple of mosaics on either side of the doors.  This gatehouse was large enough by itself for a small church.

Behind the gatehouse was a lovely park that was kept up by volunteer labor. Normally, a monastery is self-sufficient, growing its own food and keeping up with whatever work needed to be done. However, only six monks live there right now, and since the park was quite large, and so was the church, that was not enough to keep up with all that had to be done.

After visiting the monastery, we went to Sremski Karlovci, a small community about 8 km away, and in the wine producing region of Serbia.  The country was green and the low hillsides were planted with crops where there were not vineyards.  We saw small hamlets tucked in the folds of the hills, with the occasional church spire rising up.  The typical church has a tall spire rising from an onion shaped base (it seems this onion or pear shaped dome belonged to the Baroque era of architecture, there’s just no getting away from that term).

Our next stop was at the winery and bee-keeping center of the Zivanovic family where we had a chance to taste both their wines and honeys.  First though, we had a short talk given by one of the brothers, about their honey production and wine making.  Apparently, their great grandfather (I think this was right) had been diagnosed with tuberculosis and given one or two years to live.  He became interested in bees and started to raise them as something to do before he died.  The bees somehow or other kept him alive and he even recovered from the disease.

Something that I did not know was that in past times, the bee keeper had to kill off the bees in the hive to harvest the honey (I took a picture of the old fashioned kind of bee hive).  However, the ancestor of these brothers decided that he could not kill the bees that seemed to help him live.  Meanwhile, there were a couple of gentlemen who came from England, and who had developed removable frame so that the honey could be harvested without damaging the bees.  The ancestor adopted this technique, and as a whimsy, built a large hive that looked like a cathedral, even to a clock in the tower.  I also have a picture of that.

After the short talk, we went down into the cave where they stored and aged the wine in huge barrels.  The walls were lightly covered with mold and our host told us that was a good thing.  Over time, some wine leaks out of the barrelsthrough the wood’s natural pores, intensifying the flavors of the wine left inside.  The wine that is lost is called ‘the angel’s share,’ by the way, and happens with any wooden barrel aging process.  The lost wine is the reason for the mold on the walls.

Our host then took us over to a hall where we tasted the various wines the family makes.  Along with the wines, they also make a brandy that could possibly be used to power a Formula One car; tasty but, shall we say challenging.  I talked one of our party, a lovely person named Wendy, into shooting the brandy right back like tequila.  If you look through my photos you will see her.  She is the one who looks like she may never breathe again.

So, you can see what I mean by the day being mixed.  We started off the day by being reminded of the civil war and ended it with a pleasant wine tasting.

I am going to digress yet again.  This whole area and all these countries that make it up are curious.  They have so many of the same stories, the centuries of occupation by the Turks, the wars and destruction that has taken place so many times, and yet they also share a peaceful side as well.  There is a lot of Baroque architecture in every city we have visited, probably because so much was destroyed while fighting against the Ottoman Turks, and much of the rebuilding took place during the Baroque period (1590 to 1750 +).  Also, every one of the cities we have visited shares a coffee house culture.  People sit outside talking and sipping coffee, making business deals and sipping coffee, plotting political manoeuvers and sipping coffee, falling in love or planning a break-up and sipping coffee.  With all this commonality, one wonders why the Baltic countries have had so much strife that led to wars between them, and yet there it is.

 

Day Eight

 

We sailed through the night to Belgrade.  After breakfast, we took a bus ride to the Kalemegdan Fortress.  This was a large fortification, pretty much intact, that was used by both the Turks and the Serbians at one point or another.  The moat in front of the fortress is now used for tennis courts and basketball courts, a much better use I think.

The fortress has been developed as a park so it is hard to see as a stronghold.  However, while tennis and basketball courts took over one part of the moat, there were cannons and tanks from the two world wars displayed, along with a museum of Medieval Torture Devices (which we skipped), in other parts.  As we entered, we noticed that the massive iron-sheathed doors had bullet holes in them… not a good sign at any time.

I had to laugh at the dogs in the park.  There are all sorts of signs saying that dogs must be on leashes, but there were half a dozen running around, not bothering anyone, just ignoring the signs.  The dogs had tags on their ears, so even though they seemed to be operating on their own, someone was keeping track of them.  Somebody must feed them because none of the dogs seemed to be in terrible shape.

From the fortress walls, we could see where the Sava River joined the Danube.  Looking down into the town, I should have gotten some pictures of the graffiti.  There was a great deal of tagging going on, but also some real muralists.  Our local guide said that graffiti wasn’t a problem when the Soviets occupied the town… because there was no paint.

We stopped at the world’s second largest Orthodox cathedral, St. Sava.  Belgrade had its own share of destruction, and apparently the cathedral that was here before was destroyed during the civil war.  We were allowed to take photographs inside the church because the reconstruction is not finished yet. We could see the structure of the building, the domes and so forth, and where the mosaics will one day be, but for now it was an impressively large, empty structure.  By the way, there was a statue of St. Sava in front of the cathedral and he looked like the kind of guy you would not want to cross.

As the tour progressed we saw more signs of the 1990s conflict, although none as blatant as those at Vukovar.  The economy was obviously better here, although our guide did not mention the unemployment rate.  Apparently since things were better here economy-wise, the damage got repaired faster.

Because Belgrade was on a hill, we could look over fences and down into some of the yards as we walked.  I saw one yard that had a couple of cars in it, one of which had vines growing over the tires and into the wheel wells and I thought that in the US, the car would have been up on blocks.  Perhaps they had a better use for concrete blocks here in Belgrade.

Our guide pointed out places where statues of Lenin used to stand and told us that instead of being melted down, they had been put into a basement somewhere, just in case they were needed again someday.  She said that Serbians were always careful.

What more can I tell you about Belgrade that I haven’t already said a dozen times about other cities. Most of the nicest buildings were Baroque as were most of the museums, and the parks had statues of people we had never heard of.  The city was green with lots of trees along the streets and in the parks.   We had some walking round time now and so we thought about things such as broken pavement that could lead to a twisted ankle, places to sit after determining how much an ice cream cone would cost, and whether the vendors would take Euros or dollars.  We were starting to get a little tired at this point.

That afternoon, we took a drive out into the country for what was billed as a Serbian Peasant Feast at a farm house.  We were greeted with bits of bread we dipped in salt (an old peasant custom) and small glasses of plum brandy that, again, you could have used to fuel a Formula One racecar.

The patriarch of the family gave us a welcoming speech which was translated by our guide, and then handed out more brandy while his sons and grandsons played music for us.  The musicians stood on the porch, well actually the doorway of the farmhouse, surrounded by old bits of equipment, barrels and other farm stuff, and played Serbian folk songs on guitars, a fiddle and bass, and a small six stringed instrument I could not identify.  One of our group, Regina, started dancing with one of the brothers and the party was on

I tried to get Wendy to shoot the brandy back like she did before, but she wasn’t having any of it this time.  I don’t know why she didn’t trust me.

The food was excellent and plentiful, and so was the wine and brandy.  Throughout dinner, the old man kept coming around with more of those small glasses, but I ducked out after the third one because I knew at some point I would have to walk back to the bus. I did not mention it before, but both the wine and brandy were produced here on the farm, as well as most of the food we ate.

After dinner we had a pleasant ride back to our boat.  It’s amazing how pleasant things can be after a great dinner with wine and brandy… lots of brandy. There were still banks of clouds in the distance, but it didn’t rain, it just looked moody.  Along the way, we saw fields thick with poppies, bright among the green of the grasses and made even brighter by the late afternoon light.

There was a folklore show on board the Prinz that night, with four men and four women dancers.  One set performed a dance and then another group of dancers took the stage while the first changed costumes.  The show started off with fairly simple dances, but by the time it was over, the men were doing Cossack style dances, the kind where they kicked out their legs as they squatted down, as well as dances that seemed to be challenges, like who could do the more strenuous dance.  It tired me out watching them, and they didn’t even seem to be sweating.

 

Day Nine

Today would be a quiet day on board ship as we sailed by the Golubac Fortress and in to Golubac Lake.  This is the entry into the Danube Gorge, called the Iron Gates, which is the narrowest stretch of the river.  We would pass through at least two locks on our way down to Vidin, Bulgaria.  I think there were two, but again, I was napping part of the time and could have missed a lock or two

The river appeared to be moving much slower than it had been in some places, which is odd.  The walls of the canyon were starting to get higher and the passage narrower, which should have made the water flow faster, but still it seemed slower; either way it is still not blue.

The Iron Gates were amazing.  The grey limestone cliffs towered over the river and were covered with trees and greenery wherever the jagged rocks gave them a foothold.  Roads ran along either side of the Danube which is now the border between Serbia and Romania (it hasn’t always been the border, but things change often around here). The roads appeared to be very near the water on both sides, maybe just a couple of yards above the river, but that could be just the way things looked.

Tunnels had been cut through the rock wherever the cliffs were too steep to cut a road.  Because of the scale of things, the tunnels seemed to be bigger somehow than they might be otherwise, but again, this could just have been an optical illusion sort of thing.

I saw what looked like fortress ruins, but they were sticking out of the water, so I figured they must have been some sort of water feature, such as old pump houses.  Further along, we saw farms with oddly shaped haystacks on the Romanian side of the river.  The stacks were shaped like bee hives, and so tall that I thought they could be something like shepherd huts.  In fact, I tried to use my camera as a telescope to see if there were doorways or windows in the stacks, but I could see nothing.  Our guide was the one who told me they were stacks.  Later on, we passed several farms and I was able to see these things up close. I suppose my confusion about what they were stemmed from the fact that farmers here also used the roller method of gathering hay.

Here were some things that passed between myself and our guide.

me:  What are those odd things that look like bee hives or hay stacks.

guide:  Those are hay stacks.

me:  What are those things that look like fortress ruins sticking out of the water?

guide:  Those are ruins of an old fortress.

I am nothing if not perceptive.

 

There was a small white monastery with golden domes perched on a bit of land that jutted into the river.  According to our guide, there are more monks living in this small monastery than there were in the larger one we visited outside Sremski Karlovci.  Since the building was right on the water, there were boats tied up to a dock below the church.  A road passed near the church but maybe some supplies were brought in by boat as well.  Either way, there certainly was not enough land to farm and even holy men need to eat sometime.

We passed a dock next to a towering limestone wall.  There were no stairs along the cliff face and no road that approached the place so there seemed to be no reason why there should be a dock there.  Once again I asked our guide Andy what that was all about.  He told me that there was a cave where people hid out from the Turks at one time or another during the three centuries of Ottoman rule.  I have no idea what would attract people to come here now, just as I have no idea how people got here to hide from the Turks in the first place, but there were two boats tied up to the dock as a third one sailed off while I watched.  Even though the attraction had historical value, I wonder what it was that would make people boat over there.

Speaking of historical value, we passed a place where the face of Decebalus, the last king of Dacia, had been carved into the face of the cliff.  This sculpture was maybe a couple of hundred feet tall and looked like something out of Lord of the Rings.  Decebalus fought three wars against the Romans until Emperor Trajan finally defeated him and absorbed the kingdom into the Roman Empire (Dacia 1, Romans 2).  He must have been respected by his people enough that they carved his face into the stone.  Unlike at Mt. Rushmore, the carvers didn’t have dynamite or power hammers to help with the sculpting either.

Further down the river, there was a Roman monument to a general, honoring him for building a road and a bridge across the Danube in one year’s time.  Romans were good at building roads and such and who knows, the road and bridge might have been part of the wars against Dacia.

We had one more lock to go through and this time I stayed on deck to watch the proceedings.  There was a lot of graffiti on the walls of the lock, which I thought was surprising, I mean who paints graffiti on the walls of a lock?

The graffiti had been brushed on, not a sprayed.  The letters were big and several of the messages were long.  I had a vision of someone walking along the deck of a boat, painting as it dropped down.  I could see the writer bending over to start the message and almost standing on tip-toes to finish the first line before bending over again to start the next one.

Day Ten

We docked at Vidin in Bulgaria for a tour of the Baba Vida Fortress (another fortress).  The first things we noticed were Roman sarcophaguses around this place, and an odd statue in the park.  The body of the figure is made of a rust colored stone, almost like jasper, but the arms, head and shoulders were bronze.  I’m not sure it worked for me but what the hey.

The Baba Vida fortress is one of the best preserved we have visited so far. It is the only entirely preserved medieval castle in the country and was built on the site of the Roman fortification, the Castell Bononia.  At one point you can even see some of the Roman foundations.  We were warned to watch our step because some of the cobblestones were slippery, and they were.  I guess the stones had been walked on for so long that they were polished by show soles.

The background for this fortress was almost like King Lear.  A 10th century Bulgarian boyar (Sort of like a Grand Duke) had three daughters.  As he was dying, he divided his land between the three.  Two of the daughters married louts, which made his third daughter, Vida, reject proposals and remain unmarried; she built this fortress instead (the name of the fortress means “Grandmother Vida.”)  How’s that for a story.  Wonder if Shakespeare heard it and used it as a basis for Lea, it sounds like something he would have done.  Anyway, back to the tour.

The fortress had two concentric curtain walls and about nine towers, three of them were their full medieval height, while most of the original battlements were also in good repair.  We saw some early carriages for cannons, although cannons would have been added long after the fortress was built.

After our tour, we went down in to the town.  We were told Vidin was the least expensive city we would visit (for ‘least expensive’ read most depressed).  Many of the town we have visited had a drain line down the middle of main streets to shunt rain water to the river. In Vidin, there were lots of holes in this drain line, and many of the streets were generally in poor shape as well.

While we were there, we saw groups of people dressed in native costumes parading down the street.  Each group carried a banner or a sign, I suppose announcing who they were, but I couldn’t read them.  Apparently there was some sort of festival going on and these folks were headed to the main park.

Patsy and I went to a mall to get some money changed so that we could tip the guide and the driver.  This would be a problem throughout the trip, because in some places they accepted Euros and in others they did not.  After we finished at the mall, we made our way to the park where we saw the folk groups dancing.  They were doing circle dances similar to some of the Greek dances we had seen before, or maybe the Hora.  We watched that for a while until it was time to go back to the boat.

On the way to out tie up, we passed a boat named Jane Austin, and I thought “Jane Austin on the Danube,” what a great name for a book, or maybe a rock and roll band.

 

On the Kleine Prinz, we sat in the lounge with some of our new friends, sipping wine and watching the sun go down.  I got some great shots of the sun setting over the Danube.

 

Day Eleven

The next morning would find us leaving our boat and heading to Bucharest to drop off our guide, Andy, who had been with us throughout the whole trip, but now he was heading home for a while before his next tour.  Several of our other tourists were headed off to other adventures and we were now much diminished, but we persevered.

Those of us who were left went on to a town called Brasov.  Along the way, we visited Peles Castle, a former summer residence of the Romanian Royal Family.

While we were there, the rain threatened to move in again, but had not started by the time we went into the castle.  I took a couple of pictures of the outside courtyard with my phone but not with my camera because the castle/museum charged ten dollars to take pictures inside.  Besides, all I had at this point were Euros and they did not accept them here.

There were very few bannisters or railings along the staircases, and there were signs asking people to not touch the walls, but I said they had a choice with me; either I occasionally touched something to keep my balance, or they got to clean up marks where I fell down the stairs (okay, I did not say this out loud, but I thought it).  I did compromise to this extent: if it were possible to reach the other side of the staircase (these things were broad) just in case I needed to make some sort of contact, I would limit how often I touched their walls.  I don’t think I spoiled any of their paintwork.

The castle was a riot of Renaissance grandeur, including painted walls, grand staircases, life sized statues, suits of armor, and mirrored hallways. There was one large room dedicated solely to various weapons, including match-lock and wheel-lock firearms, and Turkish rifles with mother-of-pearl inlays.

There were ceramic stoves in many of the rooms, and I have always liked seeing these because they are usually elegant.  The stoves in Peles were as tall as a man and usually had blue decorations on them, either scenes painted on them or blue tiles.  The stoves were fed and cleaned through a door in a servant’s hallway behind them so that the castle residents did not have to see the grubby parts of having a cozy room to sit in.

There was a ton of things to look at, and I probably could have shot a hundred pictures in the castle if I weren’t so cheap, but there it was.

After the tour, we stepped outside and found that the rain had come down hard but passed along, so we just walked through puddles instead of getting wet ourselves.   We were forced to drink inexpensive beers while waiting for our bus.  It was a hardship, but s I said, we were a stalwart bunch.

We continue on to Brasov, a medieval resort town set high in the Carpathian Mountains.  We would spend the next day and a half here, walking around and taking one more major tour.

There was a huge open plaza in the middle of the town, at one end of which was the main feature of Brasov, the Black Cathedral.  This was a large church that had originally been Roman Catholic, but became Lutheran after the Reformation movement.  The Black Cathedral was so called because it burnt down and its walls were… well, black.

Here are some highlights we saw in Brasov:  there was a tram that took people up to the top of a heavily forested mountain.  While the mountain was not too steep, there were signs that advised people to be careful because there were bears in the woods, hence the tramway.   So there were bears just on the other side of the city walls… how interesting.

Like every other place we have visited so far, there were some very nice coffee and pastry shops facing the plaza.  I visited one and sat down under an umbrella, enjoying the view.  Surprise, surprise, I walked out and found four or five of our fellow tourists sitting there doing the same thing.  I tell you this coffee culture is catching., and yet we did not see a single Starbucks any where

We saw our first ever store-front Orthodox church.  Like most of the businesses facing the plaza it was in a line of buildings sharing a wall, and was sandwiched between two shops.  However, the front of the church had the regulation icons and mosaic work, and even had a bookstore connected to it in the next shop.

We visited a regular Orthodox church (free standing) and the graveyard next to it afterwards.  Our guide explained that it was the custom to have many people buried in the same grave, and that sometimes, after a long period of time, the skeletons were dug up and moved to another location to make room for more of the family.

In the square outside the church and cemetery, there was a statue of a soldier, a monument to all the people who have died defending their country.  It was a brave thing, but unfortunately there was a pigeon sitting on top of the soldier’s helmet. I saw four other people besides myself taking pictures of the pigeon.  I realized that if one lives long enough, and does enough to warrant a statue, one will at some time or another, host pigeons and their ah, products.

 

Day Twelve

The next morning, we toured the old city walls around Brasov before our tour for the day.  Most of the original towers were still intact and were named after the guilds that built and maintained them, e.g. the Leatherworkers Guild built one of the towers and had to provide the manpower for the tower, plus the weaponry.

After walking around the walls, we made a quick stop at the Black Cathedral.  The cathedral was closed for the first day when we got to Brasov, but was open and we joined the queue to see the interior.  Some of the walls were still black, but that could be time and weather working on limestone, not just the ancient fire.  Even though the church was now Lutheran, it still had all the niches for saint statues on the outside piers, with some of the saint statues inside them, in fact there were a couple of the old statues on exhibit inside the church.

After our quick visit, we drove to the small town of Bran in Transylvania to visit…  (can we get a little mist rolling in here, and maybe some creaky sound effects?) – DRACULA’S CASTLE.

Okay, we are just talking about one of Vlad Tepes digs.  Tepes, known to his friends as Vlad the Impaler, was just a tough customer and not some supernatural freak like a vampire.  Vlad had a strong sense of right and wrong, and an uncomfortable way of proving it.  You didn’t want to be on the outs with this guy, ever.  Our guide explained the method he used to impale people, which made me shudder (I won’t go into detail).

Bran castle is in great shape, especially considering the amount of people who were going through it on this day, and probably every other day of the week except for Sundays.  Most of the interior walls were whitewashed, and again we were not supposed to touch them, so I kept my contacts to a minimum.

The castle had been a Teutonic Knights stronghold, built by them during the 1200s, but the stupid Mongols destroyed it thirty years later (See, this is why people can never have anything nice).  There was a display standing in one corner of the room, of the white wool garments like the ones worn by the knights, with the black cross embroidered on it.

As to Vlad, he did use the castle sometimes, but he was in and out of the place during the middle 1400s.  He was a wandering sort and didn’t make this his central place.

Believe it or not, after several “takings,” including the Communist Party and later on the Romanian government, the castle has now been returned to Archduke Dominic and his sisters Maria-Magdalena Holzhausen and Elisabeth Sandhofer.  They maintain it as a private museum, but with cooperation from the government.

I took lots of pictures in the castle, including some chests because I made several period chests once, and was fascinated by the ironwork and decorations on these real examples.

There were several smaller fireplaces throughout the castle, none of which were large enough to roast an ox; these were for comfort rather than display.  We did find one built into the wall with the clean-out door in the hallway similar to the ones we saw in Peles Castle.

After our visit, we had to pass by a series of souvenir shops, and of course we had to have a tee-shirt letting people know we had visited…  DRACULA’S CASTLE! (cue the thunder roll).

Here’s an interesting thought:  Bram Stocker was an Irishman; so why did he use a castle in Transylvania?  Suppose he had used an old castle somewhere in the middle of Ireland?  I mean they have a lot of old castles around, and of course a lot of mist.  Could you maybe see an Irish vampire smelling vaguely of Guinness and saying something like “Brace yourself Bridget, I’m about to bite your neck,” and with a brogue?

On the way back to Brasov, we passed one of the highest peaks in the Carpathians, and saw a cross on top of the mountain.  I don’t know if you can make that out, but along toward the end of my photograph string you might see pictures of a mountain and wonder what I was trying to see.

That night, we had yet another tour of a wine cellar, always a pleasure, followed by a traditional dinner.  They eat a lot of pork in this part of the country, which I found interesting, because they also raise a lot of sheep.  I would have expected more lamb chops or something but nope, it was mostly pork and chicken.  (I started to wonder what they did with all the sheep, but thought better of it)

We were entertained by two couples doing folk dances.  Each time, they would come out with another set of heavily embroidered shirts and dresses and leap around like teenagers.  During the last set, they pulled some of us from the table and had us join in the dancing.  They passed over me, I suspect because they thought I might have a heart attack if they made me jump around with them.  Ah, the joys of old age.

Day Thirteen

We arrived back in Bucharest.  Our hotel had a wine store and bar in the lobby, so we naturally gravitated to that.  It had started to rain again, and we had some thunder as well.  Several of our party braved the elements to go to a highly recommended restaurant several blocks away, but Patsy and I decided to stay put with our glasses of wine in the -n-house restaurant.

I ordered a hamburger and fries (yeah, I was trying to get used to American food again).   Patsy ordered a cheese tray, and I have to say the cheeses were good, she even let me taste one or two of them.

When my burger arrived, I found that they had only braised the outside of the meat and left the middle pink.  At first I thought maybe I should send it back for a little more cooking, but then I realized they also had Steak Tartare on the menu.  If they could safely hand out raw ground meat, I guessed they could also safely offer barely cooked meat, so I chowed down.  Because the burger was so juicy, my burger kept falling apart, but I managed to end it at last.  The fries were every bit as good as those I got at home.  Big surprise, did I think French Fries were an American invention?

The rain was intermittent through the night, and so was the lightning.  A couple of times during the night, there would be a lightning flash, causing the lights in the room and the television set to come on for a moment.  It was very freaky.

 

Day Thirteen

We were on our way again.  We would fly from Bucharest to Istanbul by Turkish Airlines, and then on to New York.  As usual, Turkish was exceptional.  After we took off on our short jump to Istanbul, the flight attendants came through the cabin, offering us refreshments.  I decided to try Raki, a Turkish alcoholic drink in the licorice family along with such other drinks like Ouzo, Absinthe and Anisette.  I didn’t find the drink as strong as some of these others and did not order it again, my curiosity being satisfied.

Again, they fed us too much, and again, I ate it because, well, it was there and I wasn’t doing anything anyway was I?  They gave us packages of sleep masks, ear plugs, and so forth, plus free earphones just in case we wanted to watch a movie or something.  Remember, this was all in steerage.  Lord only knows what the first class folks go, maybe free foot rubs or something.

We were moving west and had started out during the morning, so we never did lose the day light.  However, the airline did create an artificial night time by dimming all the lights for several hours.  Someplace in here, we should probably have taken our medications and such, but our sense of time was all screwed up.

Day Fourteen

This was actually an extension of Day Thirteen, but again, we were now in the United States, in a different time zone, and generally disoriented.  We were going to fly directly to home rather than stay another day in New York.  This was a bad idea, one that I will not repeat again in the future.

The trip was grand and I’m not going to spoil it by complaining.  All in all, it was something I would willingly do again, just with some changes.  Virgin America was a nice experience, Turkish Airlines gave us grand treatment, and Delta bombed.  What can you say?

Thanks for coming along with us to the Danube.  I hope you enjoyed the trip, although I left out so much that if I had added in this log could have been much, much longer.

 

 

 

 

although I left out so much that if I had added in this log could have been much, much longer.

 

 

 

 

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