Tag Archives: Hungary

Sail-Away on Viking Tor

Jane is ready to Sail Away!

Jane is ready to Sail Away!

TRAVEL THERE: DRAMATIC DEPARTURE FROM BUDAPEST, HUNGARY

After our shore excursion to the Szchenyi Thermal Baths we were transported back to the Viking Tor on one of Viking’s buses.  Transforming myself from a well-pruned spa goer to an elegant river cruiser was somewhat of a challenge, but I made it.

6:15, Time to Party

Each day the Viking Daily would let us know the day’s schedule.  Cocktail Hour always began at 5:30, but since they served us more wine than we should’ve been drinking at dinner, we didn’t join the die-hards ordering martinis and whiskey neat.  However, on the night of the Budapest Sail-Away, the Viking Daily announced “A Toast to Our Guests” and since that usually means champagne, we made sure to be there.  I love champagne.

We found our new cruise buddies in the Lounge.  They’d also been to the baths that afternoon.  We settled into a section with enough seats for six of us and then helped ourselves to the flutes of champagne passing by us on trays.  Our Captain was from Bratislava and while he could speak English, none of us could understand it.  I bet he hates having to do that.

Our Gang around the dinner table

Our Gang around the dinner table

Soon the Welcome Toast was over, but fresh flutes kept coming around.  Next on the agenda was the Daily Briefing.  Program Director Daniel was fluent in English and excellent at charging up the crowd for rave reviews about the day’s activities.  Then he’d fill us in on what the next day would hold, along with any logistical details we needed to know.  By seven we were released to the Restaurant.

Sail-Away on the Sun-Deck

On the evening before, Bill and I had taken a stroll along and across the Danube.  We’d seen just how dramatic the landscape looked with the major buildings all lit up and we were excited to see what it would look like from the middle of the Danube aboard our longship.  Theoretically, there was commentary being given, but what I remember was a lot of laughter and a good dose of exclamations as the dramatic vista passed before us.

1B Pano Parli (2)

We’d started the evening with a champagne toast, drank our fill of wine at dinner and then were given shots of schnapps up on the Sundeck to celebrate the Sail Away.  Definitely a case of alcoholic overload.

I assure you there was plenty to oooh and aaah about.  Budapest is a lovely city and after dark it is an absolute wonder.  With perhaps the exception of a light show at Luxor,  Budapest gleaming in the night is one of the most spectacular evening scenes I’ve ever viewed.  If you decide to take this cruise, be sure to start in Budapest.  Viking runs it both ways, but there is no way a Sail Away in Passau could compare with Budapest.

I’ll leave you with some photos of the Sail Away.  Plan on coming back next week for Bratislava.

 

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Szechenyi Baths in Budapest Hungary

1B Hill (59)

Buda Plague Statue – Castle Hill

TRAVEL THERE: TAKING THE WATERS WITH THE HUNGARIANS

Much too soon, IMHO, it was time to leave Castle Hill.  Bill (bless his heart), who does most of my photography, was just getting warmed up.  On the way up the hill he’d scouted out all sorts of lovely photo opportunities, but suddenly we were late for the bus.

Time for Lunch

Never tell Bill he doesn’t have time for something.  He’ll prove you wrong.  It was only the first full day of the cruise and I didn’t want to get a reputation for always being the last one back on the bus.  “You won’t have anytime for pictures,” I warned him, so he took a whole bunch.  Confession:  I wanted him to take the pictures and I wanted him to hurry, so I used a little travel psychology on him.

Back down at the bus, we weren’t the very last to board, but almost.  Warning: Your bus will leave you if you are late coming back from Castle Hill.  Budapest severely limits the number of buses allowed on the hill at any one time.  They monitor the comings and going of the buses and only give them a small window of time to actually be on the hill.  While an occasional infraction yields only a stiff fine, repeated offenses can bar you from the hill altogether.  Therefore, your bus will not pick you up in exactly the same place it let you off, because once you’re off, they’re high-tailing it off the hill.  They come back and get you, but don’t linger in the shops getting a souvenir for granny or you might be hoofing it back to the boat.  Not that bad of a walk, but you might miss lunch.

Here’s the pictures Bill took on the way back to the bus and down the hill to the ship.

1B Spa (5) Time for a Dip

My primary source of information for Budapest was Rick Steves.  He firmly convinced me there was no reason to go to Budapest at all, if you didn’t plan to enjoy one of the Thermal Baths and if you only had time for one Thermal bath, then you had to go to the Szechenyi Baths.  Viking graciously provides an optional shore excursion which takes passengers to a Thermal Bath, but they keep the information about which Thermal Bath very close to their vest.  I could not, for the life of me, find any information about it on any brochure, video or webpage.  My travel agent wasn’t able to get anything either and she even called her Viking rep.  Seems they don’t publish this information in case they decide they want to change up their thermal bath shore excursion locations.  Gee guys, thanks for the anxiety!

I will tell you that Viking took me to the Szechenyi Baths for our Budapest Thermal Bath Excursion, but don’t blame me if you end up at Ruda or Gellert Spas.  If you end up at one of those, be angry.  Be very angry, because there is only one Szchenyi Bath House and you want to go there.

The Viking Tor primes you for the shore excursion with fluffy towels and robes in stateroom when you come back from the City Tour.  They also provide you with a swim cap, because you are not allowed to enter some of the pools without one.

At the spa, you will have access to a changing room and locker.  From the changing rooms you’ll go to the baths, all eighteen of them.  Why eighteen?  Well, some are inside, some are outside.  Some are hot, some are cold and others are merely tepid.  Some have jets and fountains, some don’t.  Some have particular minerals, some have others.  Some are for swimming, others are for soaking.

Bill and I spent the lion’s share of our time in two of the three outdoor pools.  One of the outdoor pools is strictly for swimming laps and it’s where you’ll need the swim cap.  We didn’t go there.  We lollygagged in the other two pools with hundreds of our new Hungarian friends.  Even if you think this sounds icky, you should give it a try.  We loved it!  We did check out the indoor pools but much preferred the outdoor experience.

The Szechenyi Baths are a lot of fun, but they are also gorgeous.  Once we’d gotten prune-y from all the bathing, we got dressed and Bill started taking pictures.  Enjoy!  Then come back next week for the Budapest Sail Away.  It was spectacular!

 

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Across the River, Thru the Tunnel and Up Castle Hill

Enjoying the sights on Buda's Castle Hill

Enjoying the sights on Buda’s Castle Hill

TRAVEL THERE: THE BUDA PART OF THE BUDAPEST CITY TOUR

With Heroes Square and Andrassy Boulevard under our travel belt, next on the must-see list was Castle Hill.  A couple hours before lunch is not enough time to see it, but that’s what we had, so we went with it.  Castle Hill is every much as touristy as Heroes Square, but the visitors seem a lot more European and there were no sweater ladies.

Matthias Church

The bus parked and we were led to the top of the hill by our apologetic guide.  We waited a few minutes outside Matthias Church while tickets were procured by our underdog tour leader and then made our way into the church.

WOW, just WOW!

The outside of the church was glorious and the deep blue sky didn’t hurt one iota, but once we walked inside the church, we were awestruck.

Matthias Church

Matthias Church

While the actual church building has only been around for about 800 years, a lot of history has happened up there.  Last week I mentioned the Magyars.  Well, they were basically marauding barbarians who made Budapest their winter camp around around 867.  Somewhere in the late 900’s the old Magyar king, Geza, noticed Christian forces were taking over Europe.  Never one to miss a trick, he decided his son, Vajk, should join the up-and-coming religion.

And here’s where the legends start.  At about the same time Geza was planning the strategic step of turning Vajk into St. Stephen, Hungary’s first Christian king, the pope dreamed the Magyars were about to convert and had a gold and silver crown tricked out with the popular gemstones of the day and sent it to Budapest with his blessings.  However, reliefs on the statue outside the church illustrate the pope showing up with the crown himself for the coronation, so you get to choose what you think happened.

Hapsburg Banners

Hapsburg Banners

And speaking of the Hapsburgs, there are some very dingy banners hanging from the columns of the church.  I was all for replacing them, until I heard they’d been up there since old Konig und Kaiser Franz Joseph’s coronation in 1867.  So much for my idea of improvement!

Perhaps the banners wouldn’t look quite so dingy if they weren’t surrounded by blazing color in every direction.  Every inch (and I mean every inch) of this beautiful interior is either gold or painted in intricate patterns.  It’s like a sampler of bargello needlepoint on steroids.

Life in the Matthias Church has not been all crowns and banners.  For awhile some of the various armies passing through used it as a barracks and stable.  I’m sure that endeared them to the population.  Then the Communists found out they could make some coin by opening it up as a tourist attraction, so they allowed the Hungarians to return it to its former and current glory – and it is glorious.

After the official tour was over we wandered around the church.  Even at the risk of sounding redundant, I’d like to repeat that this church is spectacular and you should check out every nook and cranny they will allow you into.

St. Istvan and Fisherman’s Bastion

St. Stephen's Monument and The Fisherman's Bastion

St. Stephen’s Monument and The Fisherman’s Bastion

1896 is an important year in Hungary.  Budapest was in its glory days and someone noticed it was the 1000th anniversary of the Magyar’s arrival, so the city went on a campaign of “Magyarization” and self-aggrandizement.  Not only did they virtually rebuild the city in grand style, but Hungarian became the official language and many other Magyar-honoring endeavors were undertaken.  Part of this was a fluffing up of St. Matthias Church, but they also built Heroes Square, the Fisherman’s Bastion and they erected the St. Istvan (Stephen) monument.

Since Istvan was the first Christian King of Hungary, the whole St. Stephen thing is easy to understand.  The Fisherman’s Bastion requires a little more explanation.  In Magyar times, when someone decided to attack Buda and/or Pest, the people of the area were pressed into military service.  It so happens that what eventually became Castle Hill was in the district where the local fishermen docked their boats.  So while the people of Budapest were honoring their Magyar ancestors, they built a double-decker rampart with seven pointy towers (one tower for each of the Magyar tribes) and dubbed it in honor of those fisherman of the past.

Fisherman’s Bastion is, by far, the best vantage point from which to admire the spectacular Parliament Building, along with the rest of the Pest portion of the two-part city.  We took lots of pictures, so please enjoy them and come back next week for a dip in the Szechenyi Baths.

 

 

 

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Let the Shore Excursions Begin

1B heros (14)TRAVEL HERE:  THE PEST PART OF OUR BUDAPEST CITY TOUR

Budapest, Hungary deserves several days on any itinerary, but Viking only gave me the better part of two days, so I had to make the most of every minute.  While I wanted to don my walking shoes and start exploring the city, I dutifully boarded the Viking bus and went on the City Tour included in my cruise.  I can tell you this, if I can ever manage to do it, I am going back to Budapest! 

Andrassy Ut 

Our guide for this tour was overly humble about his city.  He found it appalling that while a city as grand as Budapest was virtually bereft of victories, they chose to call one of their primary tourist attractions Heroes Square.  My research had given me a little different view of it.

The seven Magyars tribes had shown up in Budapest about 896 and terrorized Europe for over a hundred years.  Then they protected the Holy Roman Empire from the Tatars and Turks for several centuries, until in 1867 the Hapsburgs created the Austro-Hungarian Empire, acknowledging they needed the Hungarians in order to keep their empire intact.  During the second half of the 19th Century, Hungary came into its own and for a while was the rock star of Europe.  When the World Wars came along, Hungary was dealt a difficult hand, but I really didn’t understand our guides underdog attitude.

Still, as we made our way along Andrassy ut, the main boulevard of Pest (pronounced Pescht), our underdog-leaning guide apologized his way past a number of spectacular sites.  Rick Steves calls Andrassy ut “the Champs-Elysees and Broadway rolled into one.”

My favorite sight along Andrassy ut was the Opera House.  During the Austro-Hungarian portion of Budapest’s history, the Holy Roman Emperor might have been Emperor everywhere else, but he was only the King of Hungary.  Good old Koing und Kaiser Franz Joseph agreed the city needed an Opera House (What else was he supposed to do for fun when he was in Budapest?), so he provided half the funds needed for the building of the theater, with one teeny tiny stipulation.  The opera house in Budapest had to be smaller than his opera house at home in Vienna.  The architect followed the letter of this stipulation, if not the spirit of it.  In every way except size, the Hungarian State Opera House is supposed to be very much grander than its sister theater in Vienna.  Bully for Budapest!

1B Heros (19) Hosok Tere (Heroes’s Square)

At the end of Andrassy ut is Heroes Square.  Though I had never heard of him before this trip, György Zala became one of my favorite sculptors.  The 14 sculptures populating Heroes Square were created by him and I think they are gorgeous.  In fact, the whole thing is gorgeous.  It certainly deserves to be seen by one and all, but I wish we’d had time to see more of the city park which surrounds the square, especially Szepmuveszeti Muzeum (Museum of Fine Arts).   It’s probably a good thing the museum has been closed since last year for renovation or I might have slipped away from the tour for a peek and never been heard from again.

While the Square is very beautiful and quite impressive it is very much a tourist trap.  You will see millions tour buses and you need to plan on being harassed by bevy of Hungarian ladies hawking sweaters that very much look as if they were made in China.  As you stroll around gaping at the impressive monuments, you will most likely bump into the other ten billion tourists (mostly American) who have also been dumped on the Square out of the tour buses.

While I didn’t get enough to time wander off from the tour, we were given plenty of time to explore the square.  Then we were herded back to the bus, shown a smidgen of the park and then whisked away to Castle Hill over in Buda.  I’ll be back next week to tell you about that, but in the meantime, enjoy the work of my new favorite sculptor.

 

 

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Getting Our Bearings in Budapest

Romantic Budapest

Romantic Budapest

TRAVEL THERE: OUR FIRST NIGHT ABOARD THE VIKING TOR

I always over-plan my trips, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  I enjoy the planning and sometimes a small tidbit I glean from studying my destination affords me the best moments of a trip, like in Oregon when we visited the Maryhill Museum and White River Falls.  This over-planning paid off in Budapest, too.

Welcome Aboard

As I boarded the Viking Tor I immediately noticed a big difference in River Cruising and Ocean Cruising.  I didn’t have to stand in line so a photographer could get a picture of me.  Though I do usually buy that embarkation photo, by the time they let me get that near the boat, I just want to go to my room.  On Viking I got a warm welcome, spent a few moments checking in and went to my room, where within minutes I had my luggage.  It was like observing a miracle!

1B Stroll (18)

Castle Hill from the Sundeck!

While a part of me wanted to get out there and start exploring Budapest, I knew the rest of my cruise would go better if I took time to unpack my bags and organize our stuff.  That accomplished we took a stroll around the ship to get our bearings.  Up on the Sun Deck I was once again struck by the remarkable parking spot Viking had scored on the Danube.

The Fun Begins

Dressing for dinner is one of my favorite things, whether I’m on a ship or not.  So it makes sense that I planned my outfits for dinners on the ship as carefully as I planned my shore excursions.  Though I’d spent most of two days getting to Budapest and several hours aboard the Tor, it was getting ready for that first dinner which made me feel as if we were finally on vacation.

A corner of the Lounge

A corner of the Lounge

About 6:15 we made our way to the Lounge.  It was on the same deck as our room and getting there only took moments.  Bartenders chatted with patrons and a pianist offered popular songs.  Soon the cruise director officially welcomed us aboard and gave us an overview of what to expect in days ahead.

Next came dinner.  From the moment we entered the chic dining room with it’s muted tones and cheerful staff we knew we were going to enjoy our meals on the Tor.  From the dining room’s large windows we were able to enjoy the hustle and bustle of Budapest while we ate three delicious courses, generously laced with wine.

Out on the Streets

Here’s where the over-planning came in handy.  Music and dancing were available in the Lounge after dinner, but Budapest was calling.  We picked up a shore card at the desk and crossed the gang plank.  I’m sure a spontaneous ramble through the dock environs would have been just fine, but I was able to suggest we take a look a Gresham Palace.  Rick Steves had alerted me to the venerable old palace’s juxtaposition to our docking place.  I knew all I had to do was cross Szechenyl ter (Square), which honored the man who had built the Szechenyl Chain Bridge (and many other Budapest sites), and I’d be in front of what was now a luxurious Four Seasons Hotel.  Bill loves to visit swanky hotels and I was dying to see the place where, according to legend, an aging actress held off developers for a number of years.  We hadn’t brought along a camera on our stroll, so Bill went back the next day and got these shots.

 

A daylight shot of Vaci utca

A daylight shot of Vaci utca

From the Gresham Palace my research told me Vorosmarty ter was just steps away, which would connect us with Vaci utca, the primary shopping area for Budapest and a lively pedestrian mall.  Since it was late enough for the shops to all be closed, Bill was amenable to checking it out.  We loved it!  Elegantly dressed Hungarians strolled among the gorgeous buildings.  Food vendors and musicians entertained energetic patrons.  We definitely knew we weren’t in Dallas, because no one had on yoga pants or jeans.

Though we yearned to linger, we were also running out of steam, so we crossed over to Dunakorzo, the Danube Promenade.  We only enjoyed a few blocks of it, but as reported by others, this is a place to enjoy some of the best views of Budapest.  It is also populated by a number of charming statues, so keep your eyes open.

From Dunakorzo we returned to the Chain Bridge and took a stroll to the other side.  We were not alone.  Strolling the beautiful bridges across the Danube is a pastime enjoyed by tourists and natives alike.  After the bridge we headed back to the boat and went to bed.  The two days of travel put me to sleep immediately.

The evening sites along the river are marvelous to see, but I’m saving the rest of the nighttime pictures for the sail-way.  For now, enjoy some of the shots Bill got the next day as he took and afternoon stroll along the Danube.

 

 

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Welcome to Budapest!

Could it be that this was the most important thing I packed?

Could it be that this was the most important thing I packed?

TRAVEL THERE: OUT OF THE AIR AND INTO THE WATER

There wasn’t a jetway from the terminal to the plane in Frankfurt.  We boarded a bus.  While waiting for the bus to board I dug into my snack stash.  There was supposed to be a snack on the plane, but who knew what that would be or when we’d get it.  A few minutes later as I settled my belongings onto the plane, a lady asked me if we were on Viking’s Danube Waltz Cruise.  It was a little unnerving, but I acknowledged we were, in fact, Viking passengers en route.

1B Stroll (16)

Not our bus, but proof we were there!

Arriving in Budapest

I’ll admit I have arrival anxiety.  Perhaps if you’d traveled in Egypt for 19 days without your luggage you’d feel the same way.  We nervously watched the luggage carousels go around and around, hoping our luggage would eventually show up.  It did and we breezed through customs.

My next worry?  Would the Viking people find us?  I had followed their instructions, putting Viking luggage tags on my bags and adhering the big Viking sticker to my jacket.  Nothing like donning a few tourist alerts for any pickpockets or con men hanging about the airport.

It would have been impossible for me to miss the Viking staff.  As we escaped the secure section of the terminal everyone I saw had on a bright red t-shirt with the Viking logo and each one had a clipboard.  I found one who had our name on their clipboard and they corralled us into a corner.

From there, they loaded us and our luggage on a bus.  As the bus departed the airport we got our first real look at Budapest.  Except for an alphabet which looked more Russian than American (imagine that) the city seemed not so different from any other city with an international airport.

As we entered the older parts of the city I was so excited I could barely breathe.  Suddenly, I recognized everything around me – the Parliament building , the bridges, the Danube and the Viking Tor.  What’s more, the bus pulled into a parking lot right next to the famous Chain Bridge.  My dreams were coming true!  The scenes around me fleshed out all the research I had been doing in the months before the cruise.

Making Friends   

As we made our way through the logistical hoops, we had a few snippets of conversation with the lady who had asked me if we were Viking passengers back in Frankfurt.  Come to find out they were from one of my favorite places on earth, Oregon and they were traveling with another couple from that great state.

As we got to know them over the next eight days I discovered that it had been my snack stash which had ratted me out as a Viking passenger.  I’d tucked my snacks into the complimentary zippered bag Viking sent me with my tickets.  I loved everything about the cruise, but I confess, getting to know the Radcliffes and the Penkerts made the whole thing a lot more fun.

Come back next week!  We’ll take a romantic evening stroll along the Danube.

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