The Danube Waltz Part 2

Vienna!

The very name breathes images of waltzes and white horses, of ball gowns and chandeliers.

The Danube wetlands

But we spent a very different kind of afternoon, paddling an inflatable raft through a backwater channel in the wetland of Danube-Auen National Park, an hour east of city center. Assisting us were another married couple, these two from Minneapolis, our driver-guide and a park ranger with Danube-Auen. She knew the area well, and when we saw digging and burrowing marks on the muddy banks, she could tell which were from beaver and which from wild boar.

Danube channel

Halfway up the channel, a summer shower soaked us all, then blew off to the east, and we all dried out in the warm sun that replaced it. We spotted Europe’s version of a Great Egret, a Common Sandpiper, a few Gray Heron, Common Wood Pigeon and Eurasian Blue Tits. What a fascinating way to see another side of the famous river.

Cafe mocha and creme cake

But don’t get us wrong. We had spent the morning on a walking tour that ended at Vienna’s own St. Stephens Cathedral, the church of Empress Maria Theresa, her 16 children and her 64 grandchildren. The empress spent her life making sure her progeny married well. Unfortunately, her most famous, Marie Antoinette, lost her head in Paris. We stopped at a sidewalk café a few blocks away, sipped café mochas and shared a crème cake.

Good wine, not so good music

And just to make it a full day in Vienna, we joined other passengers on a bus to the famed Grinzing district for a Heurigen evening at Weingut Wolff Winery. That’s the day when the locals sample the new vintage of wine. And do they sample it. We saw a beautiful winery up close, but we felt that it got a little out of hand, with members of the staff pouring glass after glass, we didn’t know what except that they were either red or white. There were plenty of snacks, sausage and cheese, bread and pretzels, too. And the two older guys playing fiddle and accordion might have sampled a little less through the evening. Their playing definitely got a little sloppy as the night wore on.

I Love Bratislava

During the night, the Legend sailed the short distance east to a different country, a different capital, a different language. We woke up Friday morning in Bratislava, capital of Slovakia, where Slovak, not German is the language of choice. Before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Slovakia was the eastern half of Czechoslovakia, now divided peacefully into two countries in 1993, by what some call the Velvet Divorce. With more than five million people, many of them well-educated, Slovakia needed an industry, and along came the automobile. Since 2007, the country has been the producer of the largest number of cars per capita, with Volkswagen, Audi, Kia, Land Rover, Citroen and Peugeot adding to the mix. The charming old town of Bratislava and its riverwalk  were definitely worth seeing. We would have liked to see more, but we had to be back on board before eleven.

Mute Swan

Sometimes it can get busy on a river cruise, and today is extra full of changes. It’s still morning and we’re  leaving for Budapest, the capital of Hungary and a big, beautiful city. We spend some time in our stateroom in the afternoon, happily with its big wall of windows. Laurel spots a flock of Mute Swans swimming along with the ship right below our window. The swans are wild, but plentiful all along the Danube, especially in Germany and western Austria.

Hilton Budapest Castle district

The Legend arrives in Budapest at about 10:30 pm. We’ll spend Saturday with a city tour, and in the evening, the ship will host stars of the Hungarian Opera. We’ve booked two extra days in Budapest, staying at the Hilton Budapest, a modern hotel two blocks north of the cathedral on Cathedral Hill. The Hilton is a remarkable hotel, having gotten approval from the city to build the hotel on and around a 13th century Dominican monastery. As you go through the various rooms, pieces of the ancient structure are exposed, creating a real feeling of history.

Vic with Dávid Laposa

But before we check into the hotel, we leave our floating home at seven in the morning to meet Dávid Laposa, our guide for the day. As many of you know, whenever we travel, Laurel and I try to find time to do some birding, since we know it’s likely that we haven’t seen a lot of the local birds. But I’ll let Laurel tell you about it.

White Stork nest

“Vic and I birded the area outside Budapest on July 21st, 2019. Vic set up the trip with Hungarian
birdwatching.com

in the US, prior to our Viking cruise, and it was a snap! Our English-speaking guide, Dávid Laposa, met us at the dock. Our first stop not far outside Budapest was to take a look at a White Stork nest alongside the road. Dávid continued our journey, stopping at various sites he was obviously familiar with, or whenever he spotted a particularly interesting bird. Which was often! We were especially delighted to see not one, but two, Great Bustards. Dávid told us we were very lucky to see them. Next we stopped at a fish farming/hunting area covered with large lakes and marshes, where we ate the nice lunch prepared by Dávid. He remarkably was able to identify from a considerable distance several species of waterfowl.

European Bee-eaters

Next, Dávid took us to an area with some European Bee-eater nest boxes, and a European Roller nesting colony, where we saw dozens of these birds, flying in and out of their holes they’d established in a sand bank. Our grand finale consisted of a visit to a Rook and Red-footed Falcon colony. Dávid explained to us that the Rooks nest in March-April, then the falcons reuse the nests. Here’s a link The Danube Waltz Birds to our total count for the trip, including those we saw with Dávid. Our total for the Kiskunság trip was 46 bird species (seen and heard) with most being life birds.
Great guide, Dávid, great time, us!”

On our last day in Budapest, we bought tickets to the Hop-on Hop-off Bus Tour because there were several places in the city we wanted to see.  (A word to the wise: When you buy tickets, make sure you know where the bus stops.) We looked at the map in our tourist guide and saw that number 7 stop was only about three blocks south. After walking and waiting at four or five stops, we reached the Buda Hill Funicular, which was mentioned in the brochure. Unfortunately, it wasn’t included in the tour, and we didn’t feel like spending more for it. A couple of blocks back a lot of people waited at a stop, and small buses from Castle Tours came and went, picking up a few at a time. Laurel talked to one of the drivers, and he told her to “go down the hill.”

So down we went. And what a hill. Flights and flights of stairs and inclines, a lot of it through lovely green woods. When we reached the bottom, we could see that we were at the upper end of a street of businesses, offices and restaurants, and ahead of us was the Buda end of the Chain Bridge. By the way, it’s really two cities, Buda on the west bank of the river and Pest (pronounced Pesht) on the east. The Hungarians are adamant about the pronunciation, because Pest reminds them of something historic they’d rather forget, the Black Plague.

Across the boulevard, we could see a bus stop with double-decker buses lined up, our double-decker buses. Our companies’ route never goes up Palace Hill. We walked across, and they checked our tickets and we got on a waiting bus. The bus pulled out and crossed the bridge into Pest. It drove for a few minutes and then started up a long hill. We learned that the monument at the top with the incredible city views is known as Heroes’ Square.

A pretty good Pilsner

Near the top of the hill, the bus stopped and we got off, and Laurel started walking up the hill to the viewpoint, but my morning of chasing the on-off had done in my legs, and I told her I’d wait for her. There was a terrace bar right there, and I ordered a Pilsner and sat down with relief. In about a half hour she returned, and we had a second beer while we waited for the next bus to arrive.

Meat, and lots of it

Back down in the city, we walked from the stop to the neo-gothic Central Market Hall, which Laurel had visited the day before. A fabulous market that dwarfs the Pike Place Market and challenges the Chelsea Market in New York, the ground floor is all edible, booths filled with vegetables, fruits, spices and meat, especially meat. Hungarians love meat, beyond anything else. Seafood is not a big deal in Budapest, but steaks, and chops and roasts alike all bring smiles to their faces. We were told that Hungarians never travel without their sausages.

Paprika in the Central Market

And if you’re going to add something to the meat, it’s paprika, hot, sweet, smoky—versions of paprika you and I have never heard of. Many of the booths in the market sell nothing but paprika. Up the broad marble stairs to the second floor, which is mainly for clothing—blouses, jackets, dirndls, hats and caps—rows of booths filled with Hungarian clothing. After Laurel said no to about five shirts and blouses, I told her I was beginning to get tired.

The everpresent Duna with its seven bridges

We left the market and crossed the broad square in front of it, found one of our buses and returned to the Buda side of the bridge. We crossed the boulevard and walked a few blocks south. An attractive bistro with outside tables and the interesting name of 1792 beckoned, and we sat down. Laurel ordered a mojito, and I asked for a Campari and soda. We sat on the broad parkway, looking out at the fabulous river and all that had been built around it and toasted Hungary one more time.

That evening, we enjoyed dinner at the hotel’s excellent restaurant, Lang. Caesar salad, pork schnitzel, warm potato salad, stuffed bell pepper, crème caramel, and a Janus Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley.

The next morning, we rode the shuttle for about an hour to Budapest’s airport and flew to Zurich, where we boarded an Airbus 350 for a non-stop flight to San Diego, arriving just a couple of hours after we left. Amazing what world travel can do. One of the best and most memorable vacations we’ve ever had. I know you’ll be reading about other river cruises from me.

Happy travels,

Vic and Laurel

Special Bonus! We tasted Austrian-style Potato Salad while on the ship and fell in love with it. Fortunately, the Executive Chef, Christian Seegatz, explained the basis for the recipe, and we now make it at home. Here’s a copy of it for you.Austrian Potato Salad Be sure to use Yukon Gold potatoes, the American version of what they use in Austria, and vegetable broth if you’re vegetarian. Enjoy!

 

 

 

 

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