Budapest, and the good and bad points of tour groups

Gustav Eiffel -- he of tower fame -- designed this bridge over the Danube in Budapest. On the tour boat, they said it had been designed by

Gustav Eiffel — he of tower fame — designed this bridge over the Danube in Budapest. On the tour boat, they said it had been designed by “a frenchman.”

We are in Budapest on the final day of our trip. The official tour ended a couple of days ago. We chose to stay on here for four days in what Outdoor Adventure Travel (OAT) refers to as a “post-trip extension.” It means that our hotel and travel costs were included, but we aren’t part of a tour group any more. One other couple from the trip also came on to Budapest, and we had a local guide who took us on two walking tours – one of Buda, the hilly old town above the Danube, and one of the 19th and 20th Century “new” town of Pest on the other side.

I don’t know that I have any new insights about Budapest. It is a

Subway station on Budapest's 1896-era

Subway station on Budapest’s 1896-era “Millennium Line.”

fascinating city, still emerging from years under communism. Much of Pest was destroyed during the war, and the Hungarians are busy rebuilding it to look like its Austro-Hungarian past. You can see ugly communist-era concrete buildings next to Art Nouveau exuberance. I reminded our local guide that we in the U.S. had managed to put up some pretty ugly public buildings in the 50’s as well, and we don’t have the communists to blame it on. I’d put up the King County Administration building against

anything they have here.

That being said, there are some real architectural marvels. Budapest is larger than Vienna and is very spread out. We have used every type of conveyance available – subway, trolley, bus – to get around. Vienna has a walkable old city center, inside the Ringstrasse. Here, you need public transportation, but it’s cheap and easy to use. The subway we rode on was built for the 1896 exposition, and it shows its shabby age. But it’s still fast and efficient, and the stations are beautiful. The trolley I rode on has to be pre-war, but there were some newer ones as well. The language is undecipherable, but English is

spoken everywhere. Hungary is in the European Union but not on the Euro. It’s currency, the florint, is just about as obscure as the

language. At 280 (or so) florints to the dollar, we had to keep doing the math to figure out what we were spending on lunch.

Millennium Line rail car.

Millennium Line rail car.

As promised, though, I do want to comment a little about guided tours. Now that I have been on one, I am an expert, right. (Pat’s been on more, so she is chiming in as well.) There are plusses and minuses.

On the positive side, I don’t see how we could have pulled off a trip like this that included tours of the cities on the Adriatic, Mostar and Sarajevo in Bosnia, and the capitals of Zagreb and Ljubljana, without some significant logistical headaches. I enjoyed not having to negotiate a rental car and find a place to park it. In almost every case, we had very knowledgeable and forthcoming local guides who could talk with expertise about the culture, history

Paprika in the central market.

Paprika in the central market.

and politics of their areas. On this trip, most of our stays were three nights each, so we didn’t have to pack and repack every day. I think I learned far more than I would have on my own.

Also, we enjoyed our traveling partners. We were in a group of 16, which is quite manageable. Most of them were older than Pat and me, and some had been on a number of tours. All were well-traveled, and, mostly, they were in great shape. It is nice to have someone to talk to in English, other than each other.

St. Mattias Church

St. Mattias Church

On the negative side, we did some stuff I would just as soon have skipped, and we ate some meals that were mediocre, at best. If I had been smart, I would have spent a free day seeing more of Zagreb than going with the group to see the Croatian countryside and Tito’s birthplace. If you have the chance, skip Tito’s birthplace. Our “farewell dinner” in Ljubljana was awful and embarrassing.

I don’t think you need a tour group to see a big European capital. However, I would look into getting a local guide for the first day to get oriented. And I like spending more time in cities than the tours usually provide – time to hang out and read the paper. Also, if you have time, you can book an apartment or a condo for a short stay, which is preferable to a hotel. But to cover a lot of ground and not worry about details, the tour was really worthwhile. I would do it again in more-remote places, but probably not in Western Europe.

In Budapest, for example, because we had a little extra time, Patty was able to visit the old Turkish baths, and I was able to veer off the common tourist path to the gritty area behind the Dohany Street Synagogue – second largest in Europe. It had a number of pop-up bars and restaurants in vacant areas between buildings and made us feel like real Europeans to be there.

Bauhaus design from between the world wars.

Bauhaus design from between the world wars. is going on one of its dormant periods – between trips. We are not sure when it will come back to life, but we are talking about next year. I will let you know.

Ljubljana and Zagreb: provincial capitals now destinations in their own right

Colonade and bridge in Ljubljana.

Colonade and bridge in Ljubljana.

Looking at the photo above, you might think we were approaching the Rialto bridge in Venice. But this view of a mini-Rialto is from one of the tour boats which travel along the river in Ljubljana, the capital city of Slovenia. It is among the several downtown bridges and dozens of buildings designed by Joze Plecnik, whose mark on Ljubljana –

Ljubljana city center.

Ljubljana city center.

and whose contributions in Prague, Vienna and other Central European capitals – are a real point of pride in this beautiful little city.

Pat and I are spending three days in Ljubljana as part of our guided tour through the countries of the former Yugoslavia. Slovenia is our last stop on the tour, before a few days on our own in Budapest. I was particularly looking forward to seeing the old provincial capitals of Ljubljana and Zagreb, Croatia.

Here, as in the other stops on our journey, the breakup of the former Yugoslavia is a

Ljubljana's castle overlooking the town.

Ljubljana’s castle overlooking the town.

persistent topic. Slovenia was the first to leave the federation. As the closest of the six nations to Austria and Germany, and furthest from Serbia, there was no resistance. It is tiny – only 2 million. And the capital is a small city of 280,000. It’s proximity also made it the most highly industrialized and most prosperous of the Balkan countries. Also, it never was bombed during World War II and was maintained mostly as a Nazi concentration camp.

The result is a beautiful and elegant town. Walking along the river, especially at night, looks like a small Paris. The many art nouveau buildings could have been moved here from Vienna. The town is spotless, with workers constantly picking up scraps here and there. There are no cars in the downtown area, although you have to be on the lookout for bicycles whizzing by. However, there’s a free electric bus for older people or people with packages. It’s also cheap by Western European standards. We thoroughly enjoyed three days here. Our tour group did a day trip one day, which Pat and I skipped to spend more time downtown.

Earlier, we’d visited Zagreb, Croatia, which shares the Austro-Hungarian heritage and has some grand architecture as well. It is a much bigger city – 800,000 – and is busier.

This square, in Zagreb, outside the historic church and parliament, is where independence was declared, and where popes and presidents speak.

This square, in Zagreb, outside the historic church and parliament, is where independence was declared, and where popes and presidents speak.

But it, too, has a great medieval upper town and many museums, galleries, restaurants, parks, farmer’s markets, outdoor cafes.

In both places, the tour company, Outdoor Adventure Travel (OAT), supplied local guides for an initial walking tour, in addition to the guide who is assigned permanently to accompany us. These orientation tours were essential, but I don’t think you have to be on a big tour to enjoy them. There appear to be plenty of opportunities to go on city tours.

In Zagreb, we were not yet savvy enough to know when to stay with the group and when to go off our own. We went with our group on a day tour of the Croatian countryside, including a visit to Tito’s birthplace. Yawn. I would much rather have spent another day in Zagreb seeing another museum or two and hanging out in the cafes. Our three days there, as a result, left me wanting to come back.

Austro-Hungarian grandeur in Zagreb.

Austro-Hungarian grandeur in Zagreb.

We enjoyed both of these cities. They are not going to replace Vienna or Paris in size or scope, but they are great places to visit. And I would not hesitate to go to either of them on my own, book a hotel in the old city center, and stay for several days. English is almost universal. Food is cheap. Pat said that if she were still working, she’d be shopping for clothes because the fashion here is so attractive.

We are off tomorrow for Budapest for four days, then we return home. We’ll plan to do a post about Budapest, although it has been visited enough by others that I am not sure we will provide any new insights. And, finally, we’ll try to make a good recommendation of tours versus independent travel.

And now it’s time for something completely different

This is from Pat:

Drying vegetables along our rooms -- former stables.

Drying vegetables along our rooms — former stables.

One thing I like about our tour company,

Outdoor Adventure Travel (OAT), is that they include slices of everyday life in the countries they visit. Usually this comes in the way of home-hosted meals.

David and I are touring in the Balkan Countries, and our trip included an overnight stay at a small working farm in Karanac, a remote village in Eastern Croatia. As we traveled through the countryside to Karanac, which is north of Sarajevo and the

now-Serbian-dominated part of Bosnia, we viewed numerous homes that had been damaged in the war. Many had been abandoned.

But it became very different as we crossed into Croatia and arrived at a small farm, where owners Denis, his wife, Goca, and son, Steven, greeted us warmly. We were met with a welcome drink they called plum brandy (known alternatively as moonshine or slivovitz) and homemade donuts. The donuts were warm and wonderful with

Many of the exterior walls in the area are stenciled like this on the side of our farmhouse.

Many of the exterior walls in the area are stenciled like this on the side of our farmhouse.

homemade preserves on top. The moonshine was mostly left in the glasses. Everywhere we travel we are greeted with the local version of this moonshine made with whatever fruit is readily available, pears,

cherries, honey, apples etc. The only version we found drinkable was the one made with honey.

Our rooms at this small working farm were in converted, renovated stables — no hay included. Each was well-equipped and had a bathroom and shower. David was down with some kind of a stomach bug so we put him to bed for the evening. The group headed off on foot to a local restaurant for food and music. The village was beautiful and clean with colorful houses most decorated with rolled-on stencil designs.

What we learned in these “touch-of-life” visits:

Grandma's paprika

Grandma’s paprika

— We ate lots of what they call “grandma cooking,” which includes stuffed peppers and cabbage and mashed potatoes. If Grandma is your host she isn’t happy until you have eaten more than enough.

— Meats and other dishes are often flavored with an abundance of paprika powder (sweet or hot) made from local peppers. Peppers are called paprika as well as the powder we call paprika . . . confusing

— Many people outside the cities have family gardens where they have

Making Langosh for breakfast

Making Langosh for breakfast

fruit trees, raise vegetables, chickens, geese and sometimes turkeys. The often use this to barter or sell at local market to receive cheese and milk from neighbor farms. The farms are neat and tidy. We saw no garbage or trash lying around. I am not sure what they do with their trash in the countryside.

— At Breakfast you usually are offered smoked meat, something like prosciuto, soft mild cheeses, tomatoes, cucumbers and local breads. In our farm stay our hostess had us help to make a deep-fried, puffy bread called longosh for our breakfast — eaten with homemade jams and jellies. And as our guide Djuka would say: “And that is the way how we do it.”

— We spoke to one small dairy farmer who complained about how

Rabbit friend not food.

Rabbit friend not food.

difficult it is to do business with the many inspections and regulations imposed by the European Union. She and her husband have about 20 milk cows and are struggling to survive as a small dairy, and the impression we got is that the husband’s outside work as a veterinarian and hers as a greeter and tour guide were helping make ends meet. Asked why she continues, she said she likes it in her community, is close to her parents, her children get a good education. It reminded me a little of the people we met in Sarajevo who said times were better under the “Old Yugoslovia” and Tito’s rule. I think this is part of the transition of

Our hosts, Goca and Dennis

Our hosts, Goca and Dennis

the economy. In Zagreb we heard that Tito is not always revered. In fact, the president had his bust removed from it’s official placement and sent to the village where he was born.   Our guide clarified that rule under Tito was “communism lite.”

The historic parts of the trip are interesting of course, but these added visits to the homes of middle-class people really make it valuable for me.

Sarajevo: Exciting and resilient, but still struggling.

Former Sarajevo city hall. The area was known as

Former Sarajevo city hall. The area was known as “sniper’s alley” during the siege, and it is near the spot where the Serbian nationalist, Princip, assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand and helped touch off World War I.

Under Tito in the old Yugoslavia, the citizens of Sarajevo had to be very careful what they said. Now, freedom of speech is well-established, but some of the people we talked to long for the “good” old days.

Of course, we can’t claim wide experience: we speak no Serbo-Croatian, and the folks we have met on this trip were selected by the tour company, but our tour guides and dinner hosts in Sarajevo have been unequivocal in their criticism of the current government and a lack of optimism that things will get better without a major change of the constitution.

This home guarded the entrance to the tunnel used to smuggle weapons and other items through the siege of Sarajevo.

This home guarded the entrance to the tunnel used to smuggle weapons and other items through the siege of Sarajevo.

Most people in the U.S. remember Sarajevo for two things: the 1984 winter Olympics, which was a celebration of the city’s peaceful blending of Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Muslim heritage; and the 1990’s war when the former Yugoslavia split into six countries: Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo. That peaceful blend was mostly a facade.

On this tour, we are seeing Croatia, Montengro, Slovenia and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Our principal tour guide is very careful not to pick sides in what was one of the most inhumane periods imaginable. There were some Croats who were plenty nasty, but when you look at the

list of those tried for war crimes in the Hague, the names – led by Slobodan Milosevic – are Serbian. Slovenia left the Yugoslav union first, without fighting because it was too far from Serbia for the Serbs to do much about it. Croatia’s split from Serbia was much longer and nastier, but there is little argument that Bosnia got the worst of it – particularly Sarajevo. The four-year siege of Sarajevo was longer than Stalingrad.

In the aftermath, Bosnia is one country split into Catholic, Orthodox and Muslim areas. It is much more

The tunnel into Sarajevo.

The tunnel into Sarajevo.

separated ethnically than before the war. Each group has its own president and its own members of the parliament. In a country of 4 million, they have Europe’s largest parliament because there are three of everything. The three presidents each preside for eight months, then rotate. And according to the folks we talked to, Bosnia will not be able to make any progress until that system changes, because the entrenched politician are doing fine. It’s just the people who are suffering. Bosnia is now the poorest country in Europe. The fighting is over, but issues remain unresolved.

The height of Bosnian Muslim fashion.

The height of Bosnian Muslim fashion.

As you walk around Sarejevo, you can see many buildings that are restored or under restoration. But many other still show the holes from four years of shelling. The war is a constant item of discussion. We had a dinner at the home of a teacher who maintained that times were

Sarajevo's busy market.

Sarajevo’s busy market.

better under Tito’s communism. We have heard repeatedly that although they did not have the freedom to criticize the regime, they had jobs. Sarajevo was a major manufacturing center before the breakup of communist Yugoslavia, and now many of those plants are not functioning. Bosnia hardly is unique in the loss of manufacturing jobs, but it has not replaced them with other work like the more prosperous countries of the European Union. Young people get a free education but can’t find work; many move on to Northern Europe.

I don’t have evidence for this, but I have trouble believing that people were better off under Tito. I think there may be a nostalgia for a simpler time – certainly for a time before many people lost their homes and livelihoods. Our first tour guide, in Dubrovnik, was a 10-year-old in Mostar during the war. He was injured by a grenade, and his family lost their home but managed to survive. Our main tour guide – a small boy in Montenegro at the time – didn’t see or hear from his father for six months because he was serving in the Yugoslav army. There seem to be plenty of stories like this.

Austria-Hungarian architecture next to Communist realism.

Austria-Hungarian architecture next to Communist realism.

Sarajevo has beautiful old buildings that look like an Austria-Hungarian capital, but rows of ugly, Soviet-style, concrete apartment buildings and plenty of evidence of the war with shelled and damaged structures yet to be repaired. It is an amazing place to visit.

It’s important to know your limits

Dubrovnik from the aerial tram above the city.

Dubrovnik from the aerial tram above the city.

We have an unwritten rule against two art museums in one day, but I have found that I can do two medieval, walled cities, in two days, in 90-degree weather.

Pat and I are on a tour of the Balkan countries of the former Yugoslavia with a group called Outdoor Adventure Travel (OAT.) I am being careful in this blog not to claim as my own work or knowledge the details passed on by the tour’s excellent guides, so I will try to restrict the subject matter a little and not cheat. Because this is my first guided tour, I want to talk a

The route for our trip.

The route for our trip.

little bit about tours in general and whether other folks might like them – as opposed to traveling independently, as we have always done in the past. I am not sufficiently experienced to evaluate OAT tours versus those by other groups, but I hope by the end of this blogging experience to make some worthwhile comments on tours in general.

The group is small – 16 – and many of them have been on OAT tours in the past. One couple has been on nine. One other thing I can tell you about tours – as opposed to independent travel – we are working harder than we might have otherwise. Thursday began at 8:20 a.m., and yesterday at 7:45 a.m. It was in the 90’s both days, but you can’t just give up and go back to

The island of St. George at the entrance to Kotor Bay.

The island of St. George at the entrance to Kotor Bay.

the hotel pool if you get too hot and tired. I also can tell you first-hand that some of our colleagues are unbelievably fit. There is a couple from Long Island, N.Y. who have been married for 67 years. I heard the male half say that he is 91, and they are hiking the rest of us out of our socks.

The first full day of our tour was in the old walled city of Dubrovnik – a republic for centuries until conquered by Napoleon in 1806. The old town was shelled heavily during the wars in the 1990’s over the split-up of Yugoslavia, but as a UNESCO world-heritage site, it received some significant financial help to restore buildings. There is a map at the entry gates that shows the vast number of buildings which were damaged, but it was difficult for me to tell that as we walked around. The city was jammed with people, and this is mid-September; our tour guide said it is nothing compared to July and August.

12th Century Catholic cathedral and basilica in Kotor.

12th Century Catholic cathedral and basilica in Kotor.

If I were coming here again, I would wait a couple of weeks until early October. It’s plenty touristy, but I don’t think that takes away from the beauty of the setting and architecture. And, completely unexpected, we saw an amazing Salvador Dali exhibit at one of the galleries. Kind of a contrast with the 14th-16th Century construction right outside. One day in the old city is enough, but there are beaches and one-day tours available for people who want to enjoy the Dalmatian coast. I don’t think you need a tour group to see Dubrovnik.

The second day we traveled to Kotor, Montenegro, via another amazing little town, Perast. Kotor is on a beautiful bay, with limestone mountains immediately rising outside of town. It was not as crowded as Dubrovnik, and the attendant in the 12th Century cathedral and basilica told Pat it was a “peace day.” He meant that it was a day without cruise ships. Our guide told us they had ruled against building a bridge across the bay because of the need to get cruise ships through. So the route is a winding road with beautiful views, or a car ferry with beautiful views. Tough choice.

12th Century, pocket-sized, orthodox church below the Kotor mountains.

12th Century, pocket-sized, orthodox church below the Kotor mountains.

While Dubrovnik was an independent city-state from the middle ages, Kotor was part of the Venetian Republic. Interestingly, they were on opposite sides in the last war – Dubrovnik as part of Croatia and Montenegro allied with Serbia. The next post will explore the war issues and its aftermath in more detail. (I suppose that will keep people from reading further, huh?)

Again, amazing history and architecture, protected by UNESCO, and clearly worth our day. The question is, would Pat and I have done this on our own? Sure, we would now, knowing what it’s like. But Kotor wasn’t on my original list, and getting there and back from Dubrovnik was easy on the tour bus but complicated on your own. So the tradeoff is the convenience of the tour versus the freedom to come and go as you wish. It’s definitely worth a day trip from Dubrovnik. Montenegro has an international airline and international flights — there are no non-international flights because the country is too small for that — so I could see just coming here and spending some time on the beaches as well.

A couple final thoughts on Vienna: Our actual trip began in Vienna, which we saw on our own, and the tour began three days later in Dubrovnik. Two reasons: 1) We wanted to see Vienna, and 2) we also didn’t want to start the tour jet-lagged.

Vienna is so rich in history, music, art and architecture that you need more than a couple of days there. Personally, I can do one historic site and one museum in one day, or two historic sites, but not two art museums.

We made it to the Shonbrun Palace and the Leopold Museum, but not to the Belvedere. There were other museums in Vienna’s “Museum Quarter” that we did not even attempt. We heard a concert in the Palais Augsburg, where Mozart had both written and played music, and ate a Sacher torte – they call it Sacher Cake here – at the Sacher Hotel for which it is named. I think the city needs a week anyhow, not three days like we did.

The subway is very modern and easy to use, but it is of limited utility in the old town because of the few number of stops. It was a good way to get to Shonbrun. I suspect it is very good for getting to the outer areas.

It’s also an expensive city. We ate meals out but not at especially fancy places, and still managed to run up some good bills. It is comparable to Rome, I think, and perhaps not as pricey as London or Paris. We also found that they often charge to use the restroom at museums and other places. At the Museum Quarter, it was either 20 Eurocents or 50 Eurocents, depending on your intentions when you got inside – at least for men. If you go to a restaurant, you can use the restroom for free. Plan ahead.

Those Vienna sausages don’t tell the real story

This main shopping street in Vienna's old town shows the new use of classic buildings.

This main shopping street in Vienna’s old town shows the new use of classic buildings.

Pat and I are in staying in a small pensionne in Vienna’s old town, or Inner Stadt, an amazing mixture of neoclassic buildings with modern storefronts housing Mont Blanc, Tiffany, etc. It is the first leg of a long-awaited trip to Central Europe. There seem to be hot dog stands everywhere, with small children toting sausage sandwiches the size of baseball bats. Almost everyone speaks English, especially in the tourism business. We had a cab driver who did not, although he answered one question in Spanish and noted that he is a Habsburg, who also ruled Spain as well as Austria-Hungary at one point. But we also have found many of the denizens to be a little diffident – not overly friendly.

The "neoclassic" elevator to our pension.

The “neoclassic” elevator to our pension.

Vienna is the first stop on a three-week trip through the Balkans. That area had been on my personal list for a long time, and the real impetus for this trip came after a some reading about the era leading to, and the aftermath of, the first world war. It was on Pat’s list because it sounded exotic and beautiful.

In the 19th Century, the Austria-Hungarian Empire ruled millions of people of different ethnicities: German-speakers in Austria and the Magyars of Hungary, parts of what now includes Italy, Romania, Bulgaria and the Balkan countries. In the late 19th Century, they took over parts of Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina from the Ottoman Empire. It was in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, that a Serbian nationalist assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which lead to the war, itself. And in the aftermath, the areas that composed the Habsburg empire of Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and the Russian Empire all were changed forever.

I guess it’s easy to look back with a little nostalgia, especially when you think about the wars in the Middle East, the former Yugoslavia, and World War II itself, which all resulted in one way or another from the decisions made after the Great War. We are still living with some bad decisions in the Arab states. But reading about all this in Edmonds, while a great retirement hobby for me, isn’t the same as getting to see the sites up close.

These are not the Vienna sausages I remember from my youth.

These are not the Vienna sausages I remember from my youth.

So six months or so ago, we planned this trip with our close friends, the Bukeys. The starting place is Vienna, where we decided to spend a few days adjusting to the time change, then fly to Dubrovnik for the tour itself, which will go through Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia, ending in Budapest. The major part will be with a tour group, Outdoor Adventure Travel (OAT). I have always resisted tour groups, not wanting anyone to tell me what time to be on the bus, where to eat and when to get out of bed in the morning. But I was wary of planning the logistics myself of a trip this complicated. Pat has traveled with OAT in the past and really enjoyed the guide and the experience. So this is a little bit of an experiment for me.

Other things changed in the run-up to the trip. The Bukeys were unfortunately unable to come, and I went back to work at Woodland Park Zoo on a temporary basis. The zoo kindly agreed to put up with this three-week jaunt.

We had dinner in the outdoor cafe in the forefront of this Greek church, another example of the multicultural heritage here.

We had dinner in the outdoor cafe in the forefront of this Greek church, another example of the multicultural heritage here.

So that brings us to Vienna, which is a remarkable showplace of neoclassic architecture and one-time grandeur. Before World War I, Vienna was a pretty big deal. Crossroads of Central Europe, seat of the Habsburg dynasty, last bastion in Europe against periodic attacks by the Ottomans through the Middle Ages. I have heard it referred to as the “Paris of the East,” perhaps in reference to the way the city was modernized in the 19th Century. Of course I was fully prepared for this having once lived in Walla Walla, which some city fathers called the “Athens of the West.” I am unsure why.

The Viennese early modernist has become a local industry.

The Viennese early modernist has become a local industry.

In any case, Vienna’s grandeur remains, but the political significance does not. Now Vienna is the capital of Austria only. At 1.8 million, it is smaller than Rome or Paris and half the size of Berlin. This year is the 150th anniversary of the Ringstrasse, or ring road around the old town, which the Emperor Franz Joseph began in the 1860’s and didn’t complete until just before the war. You can take a trolley ride around the circumference and see the great neoclassical edifices from the era, great museums and universities, a couple of churches and palaces, and great homes – many of which now are five-star hotels.

We have one more day here before departing for Dubrovnik and the beginning of the tour. I hope to keep up this blog during the trip. We’ll see.

Parlez vous? Oh, never mind

Two days each in Montreal and Quebec is really not enough.

But then we tend to say that wherever we visit, as there is always something else you want to do or see or a place that you have to skip because of a travel schedule.

Notre Dame in Montreal's old city

Notre Dame in Montreal’s old city

I had been eager to see these cities in Eastern Canada because of their roles in the history of the U.S. Of course, here, they think of them as important to the history of Canada and Quebec, but how much can you say about a culture with poutine as its signature culinary item.

Sure, they do have universal health care, reasonable banking laws, responsible gun ownership and the ability to go to college if you want to, but we tend to view historic events as they affect us and the U.S. dominance. Most recently, we grabbed the Quebec hockey team, the Nordiques, who are now the Colorado Avalanche. Of course, if Canada becomes our largest oil and gas supplier, they might start buying stuff back.

Montreal is a big modern city with a population of 1.6 million (3.6 in the metro area,) and is a major industrial hub, port on the St. Lawrence, home to Bombardier, etc. At one point it was the third largest city in North America. The final battle in the French and Indian War was the Siege of Montreal, although the more decisive battle was fought earlier on the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City. Part of our own ethnocentrism is to call it that – the French and Indian war –as in that’s who we and the British were fighting.

In Europe, it was the Seven Years War, and the combatants included England, Prussia, Portugal, France, Spain, Russia, Sweden, a number of German states and parts of India. There were plenty of plots: Spain, France and England were competing over trade and colonies; Austria and Prussia over influence in Central Europe. For us, it meant British dominance over France in North America, or we’d all be eating poutine today.

This Quebec church is now a library.

This Quebec church is now a library.

(Just a side note about the local food. I have always tried the local delicacy. I have eaten country ham in Virginia, scrapple in Pennsylvania (it’s awful,) devil crab in Tampa, soft-shell crab in Baltimore, lobster in Maine and beans in Boston. Just this trip, in Buffalo, I had Buffalo wings and Beef on “Wick.” In Montreal, we ate the famous smoked-meat sandwiches, which are similar to corned beef. But I couldn’t bring myself to indulge in poutine in Quebec. Bring a note from your cardiologist.)

It is pretty easy to walk around the old city in Montreal and the downtown area. We took a city tour that included the Olympic stadium area and parts of Mount Royal Park (an Olmsted park.) We took a cab to the Plateau area for dinner but did not get to the emerging Mile End neighborhood, which I had been told is the hipster capital of Canada, or to St. Joseph’s Oratorio.

We took the VIA Rail train from here to Quebec, a trip of a little over three hours. It is not super-fast, although we were passing cars on the freeway, and the porter said it can travel about 100 mph. This part of Eastern Canada looked to me like a cross between the Midwest and a little bit of New England. We were seeing cornfields as far north as two hours out of Montreal. The countryside is quite flat, and the towns were clean and neat but didn’t look prosperous. This time of year – mid-September – only a few of the leaves were turning. One of the guides said they can predict quite closely when the leaves will turn. It looked to me like we were a few weeks early.

We stayed in the historic old part of Quebec City, which is what I would recommend. It’s plenty hilly, and while it is easy to walk around the historic area, I think it would be inconvenient to be outside the walls.

Interior of the church/library.

Interior of the church/library.

I had expected to struggle more with the language. While most conversations here and in Montreal were in French, people switched to English immediately upon hearing my bad accent. Of course we were in tourist areas, but I did not find anyone who could not switch back and forth on the spot. Pat was told that people are required to be fluent in both languages to get a job. And kids who go to either French- or English-language school are taught the other language all through school as well.

The English-language papers were following closely the vote in Scotland over separation from England. They did not appear to be taking sides, but then I can’t tell you for sure what the French-language papers were saying.

Quebec City verges on cuteness. They have done a great job of preserving old colonial buildings – we ate dinner one night in restaurant that is in the oldest house in Quebec. But it is pretty touristy. Manageable in September, but I imagine it is pretty crowded in the summer. We took a walking tour offered by our hotel, and that was worthwhile.

Quebec is a modern city outside the walls and has industrial areas, some high tech and optics and universities. Total population is about half a million, but the old downtown area is quite compact. If we had a car, I would have explored outside the walls a bit more. But two days is two days.


Low bridge, everybody down.

Pat and I are on just a short trip, but since we are going to a couple of places that have been on my list for a long time, I thought it would be worth reviving the blog just briefly.

The focus of the trip was Pat’s high school reunion in Niagara Falls, N.Y. Her old high school has been torn down and replaced by a Wal-Mart, but that apparently did not deter the school spirit. I did not attend the events, but I tagged along on the trip in order to visit the Erie Canal and Eastern Canada.

A view east down the locks from Lockport toward Rochester and eventually Albany

A view east down the locks from Lockport toward Rochester and eventually Albany

I had wanted to see the Erie Canal for some time, and my interest went up when I read a great history of the canal, “The Wedding of the Waters: The Erie Canal and the Making of a Great Nation,” by Peter Bernstein. While that title may be a little grandiose, I don’t think many people are aware of the canal’s importance. By connecting the Great Lakes to the Hudson River, via a canal that connected Buffalo and Lake Erie to the Hudson at Albany, it opened up the Midwest to international trade, made industrial port cities out of Buffalo and Rochester, and turned New York City into the premier American port and center of commerce, leaving Philadelphia and Baltimore in its wake.

The canal travels more than 300 miles through a series of locks and has twice been widened since it opened in 1825. While it was an amazing engineering marvel at the time – and the first big, government-financed, public-works project in the U.S. – it was overtaken by the railroads in only a couple of decades.

The name “wedding of the waters” refers to the ceremony in which New York Gov. DeWitt Clinton took a bucket of water from Lake Erie, traveled the length of the canal and the Hudson, and dumped it in the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to that bit of early political theater, Clinton deserves significant credit for pushing the canal project and its state financing.

I had been particularly interested in a section of the canal in Lockport, N.Y., the county seat of Niagara County and, fortunately, only about 40 minutes from where Pat’s sister and brother-in-law live in Lewiston, N.Y. Pete Broderick, her brother-in-law, made the drive to Lewiston daily for 30-40 years when he served first as District Attorney then Supreme Court judge in Niagara County.

So while Pat was at her reunion, Pete and Pat’s sister Gretchen, her brother Marv and sister-in-law Janie took a two-hour cruise from the locks in Lockport. Originally, Lockport was famous because it had required five locks – the “flight of five” – to get the level of the canal up over the Niagara Escarpment to the level of Lake Erie at Buffalo. Now, just two locks are required, but the state of New York is in the process of restoring the original five locks. It is a very good tour, through the locks and a short ride on the canal. Other cities along the way have similar short cruises, and you can take a private boat the length of the canal if you are really interested. One of the guides told us the cost of taking a boat through Locks 34 and 35 in Lockport is about $8. He said a kayak would be free, although no one had done that yet.

We are leaving here for Montreal and Quebec – also well to the top of my list.

Headed west, toward Buffalo.

Headed west, toward Buffalo.

The exciting conclusion, and where are the pigs?

Back home in Edmonds. Time for the exciting conclusion: First off, a couple of thoughts in general about Ireland:

Pat's first Guiness

Pat’s first Guiness

— The people are remarkably friendly. More than we have experienced elsewhere. We had car issues twice, and people went out of their way to help us get going again when there was no advantage in it for them. Part of this may be that we speak a form of the same language, but I think there is more to it than that. — Renting a car is really expensive in Ireland. We’d been told that but didn’t appreciate it. The initial price we paid to reserve the car was less than half what we ended up paying. We paid extra for the maximum insurance, but it didn’t apply to either of the issues we had. (That’s probably not unique to Ireland.) I don’t have a solution to this if you want to travel to some of the smaller towns and rural areas, but it is worth preparing for.

— It is no secret that it is challenging to drive on the left and shift of the left, on narrow roads that are only 1-car wide. No solution for this – just a fact of life. (See above.) — I couldn’t find any pigs. We saw hundreds of fields full of sheep, and many herds of cows, but no pigs. Yet virtually every menu had bacon (Irish bacon is kind of like Canadian bacon), or pork sausages. And the Irish are fastidious about local

Rental deck chair in London's Green Park: 1 euro per hour.

Rental deck chair in London’s Green Park: 1 euro per hour.

sourcing. So where were the pigs? — Ireland is a very worthwhile destination: Dublin for history, culture and architecture; Belfast and Derry for a look at their recent history; the west and

the Antrim Coast for landscape and physical beauty. One tip that isn’t in the tourist books we saw: the city museum in the town of Tralee is an amazingly thorough and interesting view of Irish history, along with an entire floor that is a recreation of a medieval village. It is clearly worth a visit if you are in the area (it is near the Dingle peninsula.) And, finally,  a couple additional thoughts about travel and the blog: When Pat and I decided to go to Italy last fall, we had a couple of ideas about what we

We had to Google the names of these Irish delicacies sold on the street in Ennis.

We had to Google the names of these Irish delicacies sold on the street in Ennis.

might accomplish with a travel blog: We wanted to write about the places we visited, of course, but I also had in the back of my mind that we also could write about the changes and attitudes that accompany a different way of living our lives, without the need to get up and to work every day. After more than 40 years (each) of a daily work routine, how would we approach our lives without the need to do that? What would replace it when we weren’t traveling? How would we get along with each other when we were spending that much more time together – or at least at the same address? Many people were very kind about the blog and said how much they had

enjoyed it. A few of them may have been telling the truth – you never know. But the blog really only accomplished the first, and easiest, part. We really enjoyed the trip, and we had a good time writing about and photographing the places we visited, and commenting on some of the Italian peculiarities. I am sure many people have taken to heart Pat’s advice about Prosecco and occasional pedicures. We didn’t come to any great revelations about how to spend the rest of our lives – other than that travel would be a big part of it. This was particularly evident when the posts ended kind of abruptly – without anything to really bring the trip to a close. So, this year, as we were planning a trip to England and Ireland, and decided to revive the blog, I wanted to come up with a more cogent conclusion, even if I didn’t have any new revelations on the big questions of what we’ll do next in our lives. Travel clearly will continue to be a focus. My priorities now include (in no particular order) the Baltics (Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania;) Central Europe, maybe including a trip down the Danube; the Balkans including the Adriatic Coast; Turkey. I know Pat wants to see Turkey and Morocco, and she recently said she’d like to see some South American jungles and Costa Rica, but when I asked where she wants to go next, she said she’s not ready yet to plan another big trip. We have quickly settled back into our routine here. I have a couple of public affairs clients and would like a few more – to be able to work about half time. Maybe the great secret of what to do next will hit me. If so, I will send another post.

First communion parade from the church in Kenmare.

First communion parade from the church in Kenmare.

Old and “new” in Southwest Ireland

Skellig MIchael. The route in front of you is the one the monk's used.

Skellig MIchael. The route in front of you is the one the monk’s used.

Southwest Ireland, where we are staying for this week, is home to a number of

Monastery on Skellig Michael

Monastery on Skellig Michael

Neolithic monuments, as well as a few “newer” edifices.

From the ring of Kerry, the route around the Kerry Peninsula, Pat and our friends visited Skellig Michael, which rises 700 feet out of the ocean. The monastic ruins there are dated to the 6th Century.

Here’s her report:

Skellig Michael, a remote hunk of rock about 7 miles from the nearest port. Took us two hours on a trawler to arrive at the dock, which is only assessable in calm seas. A hike UP approximately 600 steps with steep dropoffs along the way and no

Horny resident of Skellig Michael

Horny resident of Skellig Michael

guardrails was hair-raising. The prize at the top was a centuries old monastery, which consisted of a series of beehive huts perched 700 feet above the ocean. This settlement had been occupied by about 15 monks the community surviving one way or another for 500 years. We were lucky to be there during puffin nesting season, which made the trip all the more memorable.

Also from Kerry, we saw this prehistoric ring fort, Staigue Fort, built sometime between 500 B.C.E. and 300 B.C.E. without the aid of mortar or cement. While there is some disagreement about the specific use of forts like this one – there are others on the Ring of Kerry and on the Beara Peninsula – one thought is that a wealthier family could hold up in the fort as protection against raiding hunter gatherers who hadn’t gotten

Ring fort on the ring of Kerry

Ring fort on the ring of Kerry

the message yet about settling down to farm crops and domesticate animals. And this area of Ireland is rich in copper, essentially to making bronze tools, which would have been helpful in shaping stones like these.

The area also is home to a number of stone circles. There is one a few hundred yards from our front door here in Kenmare, and we saw another on the Beara Peninsula.

To the more modern:

I played golf on the Ring of Kerry course, which affords beautiful views of Kenmare Bay and a rough so deep that it apparently hasn’t been cut since Oliver Cromwell played here in a foursome with James II. My playing partner, Jimmy Leake, and I, both had to buy extra balls at the turn because we had lost so many in the rough – which starts immediately off the fairway. The course sells packages of used balls, 7 for about 7 Euros, and it occurred to me that they have found an extra revenue source.

Pat and our friends used Ireland’s only cable car to travel from the tip of the Beara Peninsula to Dursey Island. Having braved the

Cable car to Dursey. I passed.

Cable car to Dursey. I passed.

rope bridge on the Antrim Coast– see our earlier post – I felt secure enough in my masculinity to stay on the safe side and watch the cable car from high ground. It only takes 15 minutes each way, of course that doesn’t count the times – like yesterday – when the operator decided to cut out of his shift early and head for tea. Pat and the others were left to wait on the island side until his relief showed up.