Enjoying Five European Countries, May 2014

by Dom Nozzi

Ann and I can hardly believe it. We are with friends in Boulder on Tuesday, April 29th, and will be getting on a plane the next morning. Our first stop is in Rochester NY, where we will join my family in celebrating my mom’s 80th birthday (I have used ancestry.com to create a family tree book as a gift for her). After a few days there, we fly to Amsterdam in The Netherlands, then on to Hungary, Czech Republic, Croatia, and Montenegro.

We are excited in anticipation of what will surely be an unforgettable trip to five nations we have never visited before.

It is May 5th. I have survived a nasty, mercifully short-lived stomach virus I contracted in Rochester (which included a fortunately unrealized fear that I’d be nauseous for seven hours in a plane over the Atlantic Ocean). We are on a noticeably quiet train taking us from the Amsterdam airport to the Centraal Station in Old Town Amsterdam. The architecture we see from our train window transitions. First, in the newer, outlying part of Amsterdam, we are given unpleasant views of the almost invariably unlovable modernist architecture of boxes and glass cubes. We know we have arrived in Old Amsterdam when we start noticing the change in architecture toward the timelessly lovable, ornately classic architectural styles of buildings built over 80 years ago.

The older architecture is such a nice change. What a tragedy for what we have built in modern times, however.

In our too-brief couple of days in Amsterdam, we are astounded by the overwhelming amount of charming streets, canals and architecture – as well as the great food — in the town center neighborhoods that surround our Air B & B hotel.

Bicycling, of course, is seemingly engaged in happily by all demographic groups: very young through very old, businessmen and women in suits, elegant ladies in high heels and dresses, very poor through very wealthy. Over the course of our first day, I notice a great many women singing as they bicycle. It is obvious that bicycling is a great way to feel happy.Amsterdam May 2014 (26)

We make the excellent decision to rent bikes and join the thousands of happy Amsterdamers bicycling through their lovely city.

In the late afternoon of our first day, we serendipitously bicycle to a canal bridge where thousands have gathered to enjoy a concert by a symphony orchestra which is performing on a stage floating on the canal at Hermitage.

In our two days in the city, we have an absolute blast bicycling in what amounts to a ballet of bicycling. So many bicyclists that we feel as if we are joining a flowing river of bicyclists. Scooters, cars, and bicyclists are weaving and darting in a dizzying number of directions at intersections – almost without care or worry, as they somehow safely avoid each other. Indeed, during our time in the city, despite this seemingly chaotic mixing on streets, we don’t witness even a single minor fender bender or crash. Safety is truly in numbers. The ballet induces joyful riding without crashing. Check out this video I shot of one intersection I came upon while bicycling in Amsterdam.

A colleague of mine – urban design consultant Victor Dover – has cited his admiration for a street in Amsterdam called Tweede Tuindwarsstraat in his Street Design book. We eventually bicycle to the street and confirm its wonderful, vibrant nature. We join many others in happily eating gelato at an ice cream shop on the street after I’ve shot several photos of the architecture and street dimensions.

Over the course of our 2014 journey in the five European nations, we are relieved to find that most everyone speaks English. I feel shame that like most Americans, I do not, by contrast, speak more than my native language.

As Rick Steves points out in his tour guide for Amsterdam, we notice that many who reside in this city are relatively tall, attractive, and seemingly healthy. Is this any wonder, given how much bicycling (and walking) occurs in Amsterdam?

The next day, May 6th, I set off on my own. I arrive at the festive Leisplein Square, where so much seems to happen in this city. Here one finds the Stadsschouwburg Theatre, a great many restaurants, and lots of lingering people.

I also walk Kalverstraat, the famed pedestrian street in Amsterdam (which seemed a bit antiseptic to me in comparison to the delightful, vibrant rough edges I find elsewhere in the city), the well-known Spui Square, and the extremely popular Dam Square. The walk on this morning also brought me to Anne Frank’s house, and the Flower Market. One of the most interesting (amusing?) things I experienced (as both an observer and a user) was a tiny, simple, low-cost public men’s urinal. The device was a small, green, sheet metal wrap that allowed males to pee very quickly and with just enough privacy (which wasn’t much!) to avoid any embarrassment. A brilliant idea.

Next I stroll the obligatory Red Light District, which was highly entertaining. On very narrow alleys, a large number of sizeable studio windows feature a scantily-clad prostitute – a great many of whom did whatever they could to draw me into their “office.” Most all of them winked, vigorously beckoned me to walk in, or mouthed a welcome to me. I was quite impressed by the fact that a large percentage of them were highly attractive. Had I any interest in using their services (I’ve never been tempted at all throughout my life, for the record), this would certainly be a place I would make a “purchase.” One such alley contained a number of young males who seemed not very happy when I shot a photo of them and the alley.

Later, Ann excitedly informs me that she has boldly asked an artist she had met earlier in the day (who pointed out to her in passing that he had a small boat) to give her a tour of the Amsterdam canals. Surprisingly, he was happy to agree to do that (and later expressed surprise to us that she was so forward about asking). He gives us a fabulous, leisurely guided tour (coupled with his many thoughts about Amsterdam and politics) of the Amsterdam canals at dusk. Our “fee”? We are to provide a picnic meal, which we are of course more than happy to do. The tour was an excellent way to see town center Amsterdam (including another amusing pass through the Red Light District), and the lights at night showed how romantic the city can be (even more so than it already is in daylight). He even provides wine for the three-hour trip.

We start the next day by stepping into a bakery for a superb breakfast sandwich, and a chocolate croissant (Ann feasts on them throughout the trip). We step into a nearby cheese shop and are extremely impressed by the vast quantities of cheese on display – including, of course, Edam cheese, which the Dutch are known for. It is our farewell to Amsterdam.

Here are the photos I shot while in Amsterdam.

We fly to Budapest. Our first stop is the very enjoyable, charming Castle Hill, where our lodging is located. We go to the Royal Palace and the over-the-top ornate Matthias Church. Crossing the Chain Bridge brings us to Pest (Buda is west of the river). Here we find Vaci, which some call the best pedestrian street in the world (I would rate it a 7 out of 10). The architecture is stupendous. The public library, for example, is a beauty that any city would be proud of. We also visit the Synagogue, the gorgeous Budapest Opera House, and Franz Liszt Square.

Budapest is known as a city with perhaps the most impressive collection of natural hot baths in the world (who knew?). The main reason Ann has added Budapest to our itinerary is to enjoy the baths here, and she is not disappointed. We visit Szechenyi Baths (via the Budapest metro subway), which contains an amazing labyrinth of a seemingly endless number of heated baths, saunas, and steam rooms. Visiting these baths ends up being a highly enjoyable experience for us on this day. Ann later concludes that Budapest is now her favorite city in the world.Ann at Szechenyi Baths Budapest May 2014

As I am to notice in the other four nations we visit, a great many of the women in Budapest are highly attractive.

The next day, we walk the “long” way to Pest from our across-the-river hotel over the bridge north of Chain Bridge. We pass by the impressive Hungarian Parliament building on our way to Szabadsag Ter (Liberty Square). Here we find the controversial Soviet monument of liberation (often defaced), and visit the “Great Market” – which is loaded with sellers selling a vast array of goods (although a surprising lack of food diversity).

We buy a loaf of rustic black Hungarian bread, and Hungarian cheese. I can’t resist sampling the Hungarian vino, so I buy a red Hungarian wine for $990 Forints (the Hungarian currency, which is equivalent to about five US dollars). That night, we picnic on the steps of the Royal Palace. Our vantage point gives us an impressively panoramic view of the Danube River and the Budapest skyline lit up at night (including the Parliament Building and the Chain Bridge – both of which are superb when lit up). It is the night before the Hungarian Prime Minister is to be crowned for his second term of office on these very palatial grounds.

Here are the photos I shot while in Budapest.

First thing on the following day, we are on a train through the Hungarian countryside. We had wanted to use a train each time we went from city to city (or nation to nation), but were surprised to learn that they are not only much slower than planes, but more expensive. Our train crosses through a portion of Slovekia. Along the way, we see vast acreages of agricultural fields that are brilliantly bright yellow. Later, we learn that this is the “corn” of Hungary. Huge government subsidies seek to promote the production of rapeseed as a way to create more energy independence through bio-diesel. The Hungarian countryside we pass through reminds me very much of my boyhood home region in upstate New York.

We arrive by train in Prague, and on our way to our hotel we stop at what is obviously a local beer hall filled with boisterous, blue collar locals happily drinking pilsner beer. Like the other local beer hall we sample later in Prague, this place is choking with cigarette smoke. It would be my first-ever experience where every single patron (about 40 in the second beer hall) was chain smoking like a chimney. Overall, my assessment of the Czech version of a dark beer is that at least that particular beer is mediocre.

My walk he next morning gives me an unusual experience for town center Prague, as the annual Prague marathon is being run this morning, and there are runners and running booths everywhere. I come upon Nerudova Street, cross the fantastic, pedestrian-only St Charles Bridge, the Tyn Church, the Church of St Nicholas, the Old Town Hall (including the Astronomical Clock), Bethlehem Chapel, the Estate Theatre, the Powder Tower, the Municipal House, and the Church of St James. I am overwhelmed by the beautiful architecture of the buildings in the town center, and cannot stop taking photos.Charles Bridge Prague May 2014 (5)

That night, we are, in effect, robbed by a restaurant we visit for dinner. There is no other way of putting it than to say it was a HUGE rip-off scam operation. Name of the restaurant is “Mystic.” Avoid this place at all costs (although we were to later learn that the place changes its name often – apparently because it strives to avoid losing customers who might see bad reviews). We ask for tap water and are given priced bottled water. Little do we know that the cheap, paper-thin potato chips (about 5 chips) set in a bowl on each table will later cost us three dollars. A mediocre salad cost Ann $13. The waitress brings out a main dish without the cranberry sauce on the menu, so comes back with a bowl of awful creamed berries in a tasteless white cream. To economize, we order only one main dish that we share. We are also hit with the surprise of a large, hidden “service” charge. Total bill: $70 (had each of us ordered a dinner, it would have cost almost $150. When we complain about the terrible, rip-off nature of the meal and ask the waitress if we can speak to the manager, she informs us that the manager will not be there that night or the following night. We then get a sob story from her informing us that if we leave without paying (as we threaten to do), she will be forced to pay the bill herself. Later that night, we learn that the Internet is filled with criticism of the place. One called it a “criminal rip-off.”

Overall, the “Mystic” restaurant offered the worst meal experience I ever had, and, ironically, the most expensive.

In the morning, I walk the west side of the river, and find it almost as impressive as the famous town center of Prague.

Here are the photos I shot while in Prague.

We fly to Split, Croatia from Prague airport. Split has a very Caribbean, tropical ambience. Our first experience is to tour the astonishing Diocletian’s Palace (built by a Roman emperor as a retirement residence – and who was terrified of being assassinated). We stumble upon a pair of acoustic guitar players serenading a crowd at the ancient Peristyle Square. They play a melody of famous American popular songs. Check out this video I shot of the performance.

After the performance, we dine on a very tasty seafood risotto and a tuna steak dinner. I finish the night with a draft pint of dark Czech beer (this time a bit better) at a local pub.

I walk more of Diocletian’s Place first thing the next morning, explore the old neighborhood west of the palace, and circumnavigate Marjan Park further to the west. The park provides great views of Split, the Adriatic sea, and many coastal villages.

Ann opts to have us be given a walking tour by a historian. He informs us of many interesting historical facts about the palace and emperor. We learn, for example, that the main entrance to the palace essentially operates as a human mouse trap. Invaders would naively rush through the open gate and find themselves stopped by a closed gate inside a circular “foyer” area. The gate they rushed through would quickly be sealed shut, and archers would then proceed to fire arrows at the trapped men. It would be like shooting fish in a barrel.Peristyle Square Split Croatia May 2014 (2)

Here are the photos I shot while in Split, Croatia.

We ferry to Korcula, an island famed for its wonderful waters and beaches and ancient architecture. A heavy thunderstorm hits on the first night. We are later to learn that this storm system causes major flooding in nearby Bosnia and Serbia, but we somehow don’t see any of this in our later bus crossing into those nations. Because of the rainy, surprisingly cold weather that greets us in Korcula (and is forecast for the next several days), we end our stay in Korcula and opt to go to Dubrovnik. Our brief stay in Korcula, however, gives us enough of a taste of this lovely island to tempt us to want to return.

Here are the photos I shot while in Korcula.

Our bus from Korcula to Dubrovnik is loaded onto a ferry to get us across the water to the mainland. The bus takes us through the Croatian countryside and along the coast. Both are gorgeous. We are rewarded with great views of the islands along the coast that dot the Adriatic sea. The region we pass through is rich with grape vineyards, wineries, olive orchards, fig treess, and oranges. The countryside and coastline have an appearance very much like the Amalfi Coast in Italy, including many treacherous hairpin turns on steep mountain roads. The drive is so scary that I start wondering if cars have plummeted off the cliff to the sure doom of the drivers. Sure enough, just as this thought crosses my mind, I look down to the bottom of the cliff and see a number of crumpled car carcasses.

Dubrovnik immediately signals to us that it is often inundated with tourists, as the port is crowded with cruise ships and the gateway jammed with tour buses. And for good reason. Dubrovnik is shockingly dripping with the charm that only ancient construction can provide.Old Town Dubrovnik May 2014 (3)

I should note here that many of the towns along the Croatian coast are so flooded with tourists that their economies have become distorted. Nearly all jobs are now tourism-related.

In Old Town Dubrovnik, I find alluring swimming holes behind the St John Fort, and immediately alert Ann about them. I hear a commotion of parading, singing, shouting young people who are setting off firecrackers, and learn later that this is the annual celebration of those graduating from school.

We visit the Rector’s Palace, and an amazing display of seafaring artifacts and history at the Maritime Museum. Like many other ancient quarters of towns we visit, old town Dubrovnik is graced with highly polished stone roads and walkways due to the centuries of being walked on by residents. I end the day by strolling along the top of the city fortification walls, which provided spectacular views of old town and the coastline, and had my shooting photos almost non-stop. We stop to enjoy two live music performances. One a band of men, and later a group of girls singing near our hotel.

During our four days in Dubrovnik, we learn why our hotel is called “La Musica.” While there, we were serenaded by lovely classical music played at a neighboring music school.

I opt to buy a van and walking tour of nearby Bay of Kotor and Budva, and my van sets off the next morning. Along the way, the driver points out that the nation we are driving to (Montenegro) is named because the mountains in the region appear black during heavy storms. Montenegro is also the most recent nation created in the world (2006).

Among the many noteworthy features of the Bay of Kotor is the fact that it is so well protected by a very narrow 58 Kotor May 2014waterway throat and surrounding mountains that it was the only community in the region that was not conquered by the mighty Turkish Empire. We also learn that the Bay contains the southernmost fjord in Europe.

Here are the photos I shot while touring Kotor and Budva.

Our final full day in Croatia is spent at the little-known seaside village of Cavtat. A 50-minute ferry ride from Dubrovnik Old Port takes us there. I experience my first-ever kayaking  and swimming in the Adriatic Sea. The water was chilly, but crystal clear.

My maiden kayak voyage on the Adriatic was on a relatively “tippy” kayak, and combined with the sea waves being “pushy,” I felt somewhat ill at ease (despite my many years as a kayaker). But while it felt disconcerting, it just added to the enjoyment of it all.

Here are the photos I shot while in Cavtat.

Our final dinner was a joyful discovery Ann made of the Lady Pi Pi restaurant, which sits perched at the highest point on the top of the old town Dubrovnik city walls. The restaurant, which is named after a female statue that crouches and “pees” into a ceramic bowl as a fountain, offers commanding views of Old Town, and is topped by attractive green grape vines.

Here are the photos I shot while touring Dubrovnik.

Overall, our three weeks touring five nations in Europe was highly pleasant and quite unforgettable. Ann repeatedly noted that she wants to either live in a number of the places we visited, or visit them over and over again.

 

 

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Categories: 2011-Present, Beyond North America, Miscellaneous | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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