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It was late October. Not high season – July and August. Not shoulder season – September and early October. Not Christmas market season – December. Almost November. It should have been the off season. Seven years earlier it had been the off season, but this time Vienna was packed. In the center at least, inside the Ringstrasse, the wide encircling avenue that had replaced the city walls in 1857, the place was heaving with humanity. The crowds were so bad I had difficulty finding my hotel.

It was my third visit. In 2004 I had stayed in a pension out near the Westbahnhof. In 2007 I had moved inside the Ringstrasse, staying at Pension Nossek on the Graben, in the middle of the action. I had been sorry when I just missed booking into the Nossek again, but when I saw the crowds I was glad to be staying only just inside the ring road, across from the Opera House. Plus, I was still limping, and I was closer to public transport than I would have been at the Nossek. The trams and buses were a short limp away, as was the entrance to the metro, although the platforms were a long trek underground.

The cafe situation turned out better, too. I did go back to the Griensteidl, which had been my favorite hangout in 2007, but it just didn’t have the same feel. Instead I transferred my affections to the Cafe Mozart, reasonably close to my comfortable base at the Opera Suites (although the Griensteidl does a better Esterhazy torte). Very popular in the afternoon, the Mozart quietened down in the evening, and the food was fine.

Detail of the pulpit in the cathedral

Detail of the pulpit in the cathedral

Given the crowds, I was happy that I had already seen the marquee sights, and devoted most of my time to somewhat quirky museums. I did revisit the cathedral, Stephansdom , but found that most people were unwilling to pay the admission fee to get past the ropes into the body of the church. I paid the fee and collected an audio guide, and had plenty of space to admire the carvings. I revisited the MAK as well, the Applied Arts Museum, for lunch in the restaurant as well as for the collection.

Dragons in the Asian exhibition at the MAK

Dragons in the Asian exhibition at the MAK

Art Nouveau in the permanent collection at the MAK

Art Nouveau in the permanent collection at the MAK

October 26th is Austrian National Day, remembering the declaration of permanent neutrality after the withdrawal of the troops that had occupied the country at the end of WWII. A number of museums had free admission, and lots of people took advantage of it. I had thought I had arrived early at the Leopold, but I had quite a wait to get in.  I enjoyed the top foor and some Klimts before lucking into a seat in the very crowded cafe for lunch. The Gaudi exhibition at the nearby Architecture Museum occupied a chunk of the afternoon.

Model of Gaudi's Sacrada Familia

Model of Gaudi’s Sacrada Familia

The next day I went further afield to the Hundertwasser, a truly unique establishment that fully justified the rather long limp involved in getting there, and, what with lunch in the cafe, and the temporary photography exhibition on the top floors, took up most of the day. It is hard to describe the Hundertwasser, the product of one man’s eclectic view of the world and our place in it. He was an architect, whose buildings are like no others. He was an artist, whose paintings are full of color and movement. He was a non-conformist and an environmentalist. You need to go see his work for yourself.

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My last day featured the Hofmobiliendepot, the Imperial Furniture Collection, in the morning and the Globe Museum in the afternoon. The Hofburg and the Schoenbrunn are, of course, a lot flashier than the furniture repository, but the repository is full of items that might once have been found in them. As an aficionado of decorative and applied arts museums, I had a great time, both in the rooms lined with chairs, or lamps, or prie-dieux, and in the “rooms” decorated as they would have been at different periods of the Hapsburg empire.  I was also delighted with the Globe Museum, with both terrestrial and celestial globes, currently including the world’s oldest, from 1536 (on loan).

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I had arrived in Vienna at the Westbahnhof, comfortably ensconced in a first class seat on a Railjet, Austria’s high speed train. Leaving Vienna in 2007, I had hobbled down the Graben in the rain to take the metro and a tram to Sudbahnhof to catch a train to Graz. This time I was still taking a train to Graz, but I took a tram to Meidling to board it as Vienna had demolished the Sudbahnhof

October 19 – 25, 2014: I thought of this as the “going back” trip. It’s true that when it came to Romania i was only going back to the country – all the places i visited there were new – but there would only be three new places after that. Budapest was definitely not new, this was my fourth visit. Unfortunately, it was my second visit with a bad ankle, and the weather wasn’t very welcoming. On the plus side, I was staying next door to the lovely little apartment I had enjoyed on my third visit, in another offering from the same outfit. I had first visited Budapest in 2004, finding the city an intriguing mix of renovated, semi-renovated and decidedly un-renovated buildings, with not very many tourists around. There are still areas in need of renovation, but there also many, many more tourists, possibly because of the increasing popularity of river cruises. Since I had already visited the main tourist sites, this wasn’t much of a problem for me, but don’t visit with the expectation that you will be off the tourist trail.

I mostly encountered my fellow tourists on the trams and the metro, and at the Central Market. Having visited the market twice before, and taken all the photos I needed, I was back there for shopping, not souvenirs. My apartment had a full kitchen, and I saved both my feet and my wallet by eating several meals at “home”. The copious information in the apartment included recommendations for food shopping, and I also picked the stalls with the longest lines of locals.

Central market: food stalls

Central market: food stalls

Central market: souvenirs

Central market: souvenirs

Budapest has been called “the City of Spas” for its thermal baths, which are reputed to be good for your joints, among other things. My apartment came with a “spa bag” containing nice big bath towels, and I took my bad ankle (although not my camera) to both the outdoor Szechenyi baths (in sunshine) and the indoor Gellert baths (in the rain). On balance, even though the Gellert baths occupy an Art Nouveau building, I prefer the Szechenyi, although I might have found the Gellert less confusing and claustrophobic if it hadn’t been under renovation. While I wouldn’t say that soaking my feet cured my bad ankle, it did seem a little better.

Unlike Vienna, which turns its back on the Danube, Budapest showcases its river frontage. Several attractive (if rebuilt) bridges span the water, photo-worthy buildings line both banks, and both bridges and buildings are flood-lit at night. Besides riding tram number two up and down the bank on the Pest side, I took an evening cruise. The views were as stellar as I remembered, but I could cheerfully have throttled the wretched kid who made hideous noises almost the entire time.

I can’t visit Budapest without walking the length of Andrassy ut., no matter how unhappy my feet. This time, along with a lot more pedestrians, there seemed to be a lot more traffic. I intended to revisit the beautiful Book Cafe the guide for my Art Nouveau tour had recommended on my last visit, but needed my Android phone to discover that it was at number 39, not 28. I am not a big fan of cell phones, but unlimited low speed data (courtesy of T-Mobile) and the maps app may convert me. While the Book Cafe is still beautiful, there were rather too many people stopping in to take photographs for my taste, and the Central Cafe, closer to my apartment, has been reinstated as my favorite Budapest cafe.

Andrassy ut., number 39

Andrassy ut., number 39

When I reached the far end of Andrassy ut. I hoped to revisit the Zelnik István Southeast Asian Gold Museum, newly opened when I was there in 2011, but found it temporarily closed. Instead, I visited the Hopp Ferenc across the street, which had a quite good exhibition on China. I also paid a first visit to the National History Museum, which had a well-presented section on pre-history to the middle ages,. I learnt about a number of tribes that were new to me and admired a collection of Scythian gold. A close up look at the Vajdahunyard Castle in the Varosliget area beyond Heroes Square wasn’t worth the limp. It’s better from a distance.

Castle

Vajdahunyard Castle

Despite my bad ankle, I had been enjoying Budapest, until the day my cell phone’s charger quit. No warning. One day it charged my phone, the next day it didn’t. Despite a plethora of electronic gizmos in the apartment, none of them fit my phone. At least, I thought, I knew where to get a replacement. I took the metro over to the big West End Mall and limped all the way to the back to the Media Mart where I had once bought a universal adapter. It was closed. For two days. For the National Holiday I had just missed in 2007. So I stopped by the Hilton Hotel which opened onto the Mall. They would have given me a charger if they had one, but none of the ones in their “lost and found” drawer fit. On the way back I tried the Marriott, behind my apartment, where I got a much chillier reception. I was sent to the business center, which had a charger that fit (and demonstrated it really was the charger and not my phone), but far from giving it to me, they wouldn’t even sell it. (I have had thoughts in the past about staying at that Marriott, as it has a wonderful location on the river, but not any more.) The next day I found an open T-Mobile store that unearthed a charger that fit. Of course, now I would need an adapter that took European plugs if I wanted to use the charger in the UK and the US…

Castle Hill

Castle Hill

October 16-19, 2014: While I was waiting to finally enter Szeged’s beautiful synagogue, I had plenty of time to take another look at buildings I had admired on my first visit. Naturally, I spent a fair amount of time enjoying Reok Palace, but I also revisited the town hall, the cathedral and several other buildings. The cathedral was having its foundation reinforced, its facade obscured by cranes, but I was still able to go inside, where I found a collection of remarkable painted animals. The expansive square in front of the cathedral was bordered by an arcade (very welcome in the rain) decorated with a series of memorial plaques. Given the weather, I paid rather more attention to them this time.

Reok Palace

Reok Palace

More Reok Palace

More Reok Palace

Inside the cathedral

Inside the cathedral

DSCN0128On my first visit, many places had been closed for the All Saints’ Day holiday, so besides the cathedral I took a look inside the Diocesan and Ferenc museums. The former housed a small collection, mostly copes and chalices, the latter was hosting a special Egyptian exhibition. The museum was so proud of the exhibition it had redecorated its front entrance. I confess I found the permanent collection more interesting. The town, I learned, had been famous in the past for the manufacture of slippers, rush weaving, knife making, wooden boat building and peppers. All of these were gone now, aside from the peppers – Szeged’s paprika is still sought after – and I also visited the Salami and Paprika Museum, which wasn’t really worth the trek to the edge of town.

Instead of a holiday, this time my visit coincided with a beer festival. Since I much prefer wine to beer, this wasn’t a big draw for me, especially in the rain. Instead of eating at the food stalls, I ate very well at my hotel. The one time I ate dinner elsewhere I was hit with the DCC scam. For those who haven’t encountered this, I should explain that it is an offer to charge your credit card in your own currency instead of the local currency. This is, of course, always at a disadvantageous (to you) exchange rate, and since I travel with credit cards that don’t charge a foreign conversion fee it is an especially a bad deal for me. Unfortunately, although the merchant is supposed to ask which way you want to pay, they often just go ahead and charge you in your own currency and then claim they can’t reverse the charge. In this case you should write on the charge slip that you decline DCC and dispute the charge with your card issuer. Sadly, this time I didn’t even realize I had been scammed until the next day.

After visiting the synagogue on my last morning in town I took the tram back to the train station. With a few minutes to wait before my train to Budapest, i was able to appreciate that the station was also worth a second look.

I'm not sure the lion approves of the change to the Feren Museum's front steps

I’m not sure the lion approves of the change to the Ferenc Museum’s front steps

Light fixture in the train station

Light fixture in the train station

The beer festival

The beer festival

I am, surprise, no longer in Romania, or Hungary. In fact, I made it home in the middle of December, and then spent a couple of weeks lying on the couch with a really bad cold. Between the cold, Christmas and the weather I got out of the habit of blogging. And then I started planning my next trip. I’m still planning (Europe again), but I am going to try to finish up the last trip before leaving! (Besides, today the alternative is doing my taxes.)

The New synagogue, Szeged

The New Synagogue, Szeged

October 16-19, 2014: Szeged, in Hungary, is just across the border from Timisoara in Romania, but that doesn’t mean they are connected by a railway line. To get from one to the other I had to travel north back to Arad, cross the border, and then north again to finally switch to a southbound train in Bekescsaba. I would also need to get up early to make a 7:30 train – my reluctance to do so no doubt accounted for the fact that I set my alarm for 6:45 instead of 5:45. Luckily I woke up at 6:30 and was able to shower, dress, finish packing, cram some food into my mouth and still make my 7:05 taxi. Not a good omen, but things were going according to plan until we crossed the border, and the Hungarian ticket collector explained to me that the tracks were out south of Bekescsaba and I would have to switch to a bus for a few miles.

Well, OK, annoying but presumably manageable. Except that when I got off the train in Bekescsaba there were no signs pointing the way to the bus, no-one else seemed to be looking for it, and no-one I asked had any idea what I was talking about. When I finally tracked down the correct bus stop on the outer perimeter of the bus station the connecting bus had, of course, departed and I had to wait for the next one. Since I was still limping, crisscrossing the bus station in search of the elusive stop was particularly aggravating.
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Arriving in Szeged to find a comfortable modern tram waiting to take me into town, and that the hotel I had stayed at back in 2011 had not only given me the same room, but had opened a well-reviewed restaurant, did improve my outlook. I had loved Szeged on my first visit, and it boasts one of my favorite buildings anywhere, but I might not have returned if I had been able to visit the New Synagogue on that trip. Then it had been very firmly closed – looking abandoned, in fact – but friends had visited in the spring and been able to gain entry, and their photos were enticing.

So, Friday morning I limped across town to the synagogue, knowing it would be closed for the Sabbath the next day. Only to find that it was closed anyway for a Jewish holiday… I was beginning to feel that I was just not supposed to see inside this building.

Fortunately, I was staying in Szeged long enough to try for a third time, and I was finally able to enter the morning of the day I left. And even though the sanctuary was being transformed for an upcoming concert, it was well worth the effort. Besides admiring the beautiful sanctuary, I spent some time in the foyer with an exhibition on the Jewish presence in Shanghai during WWII. I had not known that a number of Jews had sought sanctuary there, and been kindly received by the Chinese. Although the Japanese occupiers had been less well-disposed, herding the Jews into a ghetto, at least they hadn’t tried to exterminate them.

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Oct 13-16, 2014: Timisoara surprised me, because I quite liked it. Of course, when I planned to visit, I expected to like it, but after Cluj and Oradea my expectations had been considerably lowered. Then, there was an unexpected hurdle in even getting there, a bad hotel, and to cap it off, two of the town’s three squares were undergoing a comprehensive renovation. So the fact that I still quite liked the place is actually high praise.

The transport problem was particularly annoying, as I could have avoided it, if the Deutsch Bahn website, which I have relied on for years for train timetables all over Europe, had not failed me. Truly, a stunning surprise, although it failed again, later in the trip, in Italy. This time, it told me that I could take a direct train from Oradea to Timisoara, but when I tried to buy a ticket for that train on arrival in Oradea, I learned that it only ran on the weekend! Therefore, I had to change trains in Arad, which I had no interest in seeing, and whose train station turned out to be in the midst of a major renovation of its own. I am sure it will be a great improvement when finished – pieces of the first escalator I had seen since Bucharest were being installed – but meanwhile only the outer reaches were functional.

The hotel I had booked, the Savoy, was convenient for the city center (although not for the train station), but seemed rather tired. Worse, the AC in my room wasn’t working. According to the front desk AC wasn’t working anywhere in the hotel, since they had switched to heat some weeks before. I should open the window…. Right. With the temperatures in the mid 20s and a south facing room, that was a lot of help. The one night I spent there, it took until 23:30 for the room to become habitable. The other central hotels were full, so I moved to a pleasant if dated Best Western out near the train station and learned the bus system.

Walking into town from the Savoy I crossed a bridge, and then could hardly believe my eyes. Timisoara’s Metropolitan Cathedral, rising out its surrounding trees, looks more like a fantasy castle. Or possibly a Saxon version of St. Basil’s in Moscow. Either way, it significantly improved my mood, which was further raised by the delightful promenade (really, not a square), Piata Victoriei.

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Piata Libertatii and Piata Unirii were also on my agenda, but were almost out of bounds for pedestrians because they were being resurfaced. So I spent quite a lot of time on Piata Victoriei, drinking coffee during daylight hours and something stronger in the evening, when the central fountain was bathed in colored lights.

I did do a little sightseeing. The citadel disappointed, having been over-renovated and now housing shops and cafes (maybe a preview of what Oradea’s will look like when finished). The Permanent Exhibition of the 1989 Revolution held my attention longer, once I finally found it. It was unsettling to see streets I had just walked disfigured by tanks, bullet holes and even dead bodies. I considered taking a bus out to the Banat Village Museum, but since I had started limping, rather badly, and had already seen the village museum at Sibiu, I passed. I figured the limp was due to a dip in the pavement I had encountered a few days previously. Of course, I often have foot trouble when I travel, but this time, instead of a side-to-side injury, it was front-to-back. Still meant I was limping, and made going downstairs difficult.

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Timisoara was my last stop in Romania, and I’m glad it was a good one, as on balance I had enjoyed my time in the country. Trains to my next destination, Szeged in Hungary, were not plentiful, and I needed to catch one at 7:30 unless I wanted to arrive in Szeged after dark. I planned to eat a quick breakfast and leave my hotel by taxi just after 7:00. So why, I wonder, did I set my alarm for 6:45 and not 5:45? An internal protest at getting up so early, perhaps?

Fortunately, another part of my subconscious woke me at 6:30, and since I had mostly packed the night before I was actually able to shower, dress, finish packing and eat something by the time my taxi arrived. Fifty minutes after leaving Timisoara I was back in Arad, but this time I got to stay on the train, although we did not go far before we stopped and spent another fifty minutes on passport and smuggling checks. Ten minutes later I was in Hungary.

I had seen no street art, aside from tagging, until I was almost out of Romania, but I finally saw a few examples in Timisoara.

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A Rest in Oradea

Oct 10-12, 2014: I went to Oradea to see Art Nouveau buildings, and I did indeed see some, although not quite where I had expected. However, I’m not sure the town was worth the hassle of getting there and away, and it certainly wasn’t worth the three nights I gave it. But they were comfortable nights….

I almost never stay in US chain hotels outside the US – I much prefer local places. But I just couldn’t resist the $50 a night deal that booking.com offered for the Doubletree by Hilton, even though it was a little further out of the center than I would have preferred. On the other hand, I had a great view of the river, when it wasn’t too hot to leave the curtains open. Was it a typical Doubletree? No idea, first time I stayed in one, but it seemed to be a standard intercontinental hotel – very clean, very comfortable, and totally generic. Although I did dock it a TA star because the AC wasn’t working when I checked in, and half the too small closet was taken up by a stand for the iron. My excellent rate didn’t include breakfast, and after one so-so buffet at an excessive (for Romania) 40 lei, I picked up supplies at a massive Carrefour sprawled behind a fancy mall three tram stops south of the center.

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My previously good opinion of the Romanian train system took a severe hit on the Cluj to Oradea leg. The train arrived at Cluj station early, and I was happy to board and find a seat. But then it didn’t leave. It just sat there. Inside, the passengers were getting hot. And still it didn’t leave. And we got hotter. We finally pulled out a whole fifty minutes late.

Apart from a few Art Nouveau buildings and one gently decaying arcade, the main excitement in town was a big festival occupying much of a nice central park (Oradea gets points for its parks). The helpful young woman in the T.I. office told me that it was a ten day affair, and it concluded my last day in town, with a solemn wreath laying ceremony at midday, and a massive fireworks display at midnight. I had taken a look at the food and souvenir stalls, and chosen to eat at my hotel instead, and if I hadn’t had the river view room I would have missed the fireworks entirely. As it was, I enjoyed a marvelous, grandstand view of a stellar display, in perfect comfort. I didn’t even get a crick in my neck.

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I did try to take a look at Oradea’s citadel, only to find that it was undergoing a major restoration. At least, I will be charitable and call it a restoration, but it looked more like they were building some kind of conference center inside the walls. Outside, a pretty park had already been completed.

Aside from the fireworks, the best part of my stay in Oradea was the massage I treated myself to at the hotel. Unlike the breakfast buffet, the price was reasonable for Romania, and the masseuse was reasonably skilled (not up to the wonderful woman I see at home, but she is exceptional). Afterwards I relaxed on a lounger overlooking the swimming pool with a cup of green tea.

The trek to Timisoara would undo much of the good the massage had done.

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Oct 8-9, 2014: The train connection from Targu Mures to Cluj-Napoca was no better than the connection from Sighisoara to Targu Mures, so I took the bus. The bus station turned out to be a long way south of the center, justifying my taxi, and the bus only cost 25 lei ($7.00 US). Waiting for it to show up, I talked with a woman from Manchester who had been using Sighisoara as a base, which I thought rather an odd choice.

Arrived at Cluj-Napoca’s train station I decided it was too hot to walk to my hotel, and since it proved to be uphill I was glad I had persevered in my search for a taxi driver who would use his meter. (In more expensive countries I walk or use public transport, but this taxi cost me all of $2.00 US!) I did walk to and from the town center, which took me a good ten to fifteen minutes, uphill one way. My hotel, the Escala, was trying hard to become the number one small hotel in all of Romania on Tripadvisor, It is currently number three, and it showed. My room was clean, comfortable and nicely decorated. The chairs weren’t the most comfortable, but the sitting areas downstairs, both indoors and out, more than made up for them. The owners were full of helpful information, too, which is how I wound up at the Botanical Garden, as I had forgotten that friends who visited in the spring had recommended it, and it was not listed in my guidebook.

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Of course, October was not the best time of year for gardens: the roses were clearly on their last legs, and the Japanese garden was inauthentically overgrown, but the dahlias were doing well, and I was very glad of the peace and quiet under the trees. Cluj turned out to be big, bustling and noisy, and not really offering enough sights to make up for it. The Ethnographic Museum would have been a bit of a disappointment even without the hideous noise made by the piano tuner in the main room. I may be virtually tone deaf, but even I could tell his services were needed! There was one room of costumed mannequins that kept me occupied for a while. The Minerological Museum was closed the days I was in town.

I did find a few interesting buildings to photograph, and a couple of reverential statues – one quite overpowering the cathedral behind it. The main square was largely occupied by the tents of a major book sale. This seemed to be part of a festival, but although my hosts assured me there would be music, every time I went through there were speeches instead. They were also enthusiastic about an early evening trek up the hill to the citadel to admire the view. I did not actually find the citadel, just a large hotel and a large cross, and I didn’t stay until dark because I wasn’t sure how much light there would be for getting down. The views weren’t bad, but didn’t justify the exercise or the strain on my aging knees.

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My hosts’ restaurant recommendations, on the other hand, worked well. The vegetarian restaurant, Samsana, at the bottom of their hill, served me excellent mushroom soup, although their take on falafel was bizarre. The Reata, suggested as serving authentic local food, was down a dark side street, but gave me a non-smoking table, reasonable mushrooms stuffed with sheep’s cheese, and very good venison stew, served in a small iron pot hanging over a votive candle. I dined one night at a packed place on the main square, Toulouse, on good duck salad, and enjoyed a conversation with a Swedish woman on a business trip at the next table.

Best hotel in Romania or not, I doubt I will return to Cluj-Napoca.

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