Category Archives: Vacations

Describing vacations we’ve taken.

Performing in Budapest

On our second full day in Budapest, we had the morning off, then an afternoon rehearsal with orchestra, then 2 hours off for dinner, and then a performance.  The rehearsal and the performance were all in Matthias Church, on Buda Castle Hill, where the bus can’t go, so when we set out, we had to have our performance clothing with us, and carry it up the hill from where the bus dropped us off.  I mentioned in yesterday’s post that the bus was too big to fit in the medieval streets on Buda Castle Hill.  This also meant that we had to eat dinner on the hill.

Photos for this post are in the gallery More BudapestIf you’d like to enlarge any of the photos please go look at them there.

But about that morning off:  the Lion’s Garden Hotel was about a mile from Heroes’ Gate, and in the same area there’s Budapest City Park (with lake), the Vajdahunyad Castle (in the park), a huge mineral water bath (which we didn’t visit, sigh), and the Budapest Zoo and Botanical Garden.  We bought transit passes from the hotel and walked over to the main tram line to pick up a car. As we walked, I got the idea that the Lion’s Garden Hotel isn’t in the best neighborhood; the buildings were shabby, with some graffiti.  I remember passing one dingy little door with an inscription in Hungarian of which I only understood the English word “striptease”!

Here’s a view of the park and its lake.  We didn’t really explore the park much, as we wanted to see the Castle.

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Touring Budapest

The tour company (ACFEA, which specializes in tours for performing groups) kindly scheduled us nothing but an optional morning tour of Budapest on June 24, our first full day in Europe after 17 hours in transit.  Naturally, we all piled into the bus and went. The photos for this day’s tour are in the Budapest 2015 folder in the photo gallery.

There must be a rule about tours of Budapest – they all seem to start with a bus trip to Heroes’ Square.  Our trip in 2012 did, and so did this one, although the Lion’s Gate Hotel is only about a mile away.  Because I took large scale photos of Heroes’ Square in 2012, and because I was using a different camera, I confined myself this time to closeups of the big statues.  From my previous trip, here’s the big view of Heroes’ Square:

Heroes' Square, Budapest, from 2012 (it hasn't changed)

Heroes’ Square, Budapest, from 2012 (it hasn’t changed)

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Back to Budapest

When I left Budapest in 2012, I didn’t expect to return again a few years later, and certainly not to sing there.  But the Oakland Symphony Chorus, in which I’ve sung since January 2000, decided as a group to do an international performance tour in central Europe – beginning in Budapest.  It took us most of a year to organize it, and we ended up with about 70 people on the tour – 45 singers, and the balance were staff, friends, family members and other unspecified supporters. Here we are waiting at the gate:

Waiting in SFO for our plane

Waiting in SFO for our plane

All the photos I took on this trip are in the gallery Oakland Symphony Chorus 2015 Tour, which has 4 folders.  I spent a lot of time rehearsing and performing, during which I couldn’t take photos.  My husband Jim was the unofficial “trip photographer,” and his photos are in a gallery called Oakland Symphony Chorus European Tour June/July 2015. In addition to photos, he took videos of rehearsals and performances.  He took the photo above; obviously, since that’s me in the bottom right corner!

We left San Francisco International Airport on Monday, June 22, 2015, except for a few people who had flown ahead to do a little sightseeing.  The plane left around 3 PM, 50 minutes after its original takeoff time.  We’d been at the airport since 10:30 AM.

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About Locks

Locks are how boats go around waterfalls and rapids, and dams.  Locks are probably the oldest technology we dealt with on our Viking River Cruise.  They still work the way they did in the 14th century (in China, in the 11th century).

You have a chamber with a heavy gate at each end.  The water height at the 2 ends can differ by a couple of feet, or several tens of feet.  Your boat enters the gate at its water level; the gate closes; the lock keeper opens valves that let water pour in, or out, depending.  You sit there while the lock chamber fills, or empties.  When it matches the new water level, the other gate opens and you move on.  The water is entirely moved by gravity; there are no pumps.

Some locks can take several boats at once; some locks are so small they can only take one; and they all handle traffic going both upstream and downstream.  We had at least one major delay where the Embla was in a line behind several other boats at a small lock, and another where a boat got stuck in a lock.  There’s a lot of boat traffic on the Rhine-Main-Danube route, including cargo haulers, and it all goes through those locks. The Embla barely fit in some small locks – I can remember standing on the side balcony and reaching out to touch the lock wall with my hand.

There was some confusion over how many locks we went through.  My original notes say 68, and I’m not sure where I got that.  I Googled the question “how many locks are between Amsterdam and Budapest” and came up with an estimate, from a site on river cruises:

  • From Amsterdam to the Rhine, 1
  • On the Rhine itself, 12
  • On the Main, 34
  • On the Rhine-Main-Donau canal, 16
  • On the Danube, 16 that we went through (there are more downstream from Budapest)

That comes to 79 locks!

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Thoughts on the River Cruise

After 3 years (sigh) I finally finished writing up the Viking River Cruise we took in 2012, from Amsterdam to Budapest.  I enjoyed it thoroughly, but I have some comments on the experience that I’d like to share.

Walking:  Don’t do one of these cruises unless you can handle walking several miles a day over unpredictably rough ground, or if you have trouble walking distances in heat.  Some cities are well paved, some have cobblestones, and some places aren’t paved at all.  I wore a pedometer, and my records show I walked 3-4 miles most days, a few times more than 4.  One day in Amsterdam I walked almost 8 miles.  If this kind of walking daunts you, you should not take the walking tours – they’re optional, but if you don’t take them, you basically just sit on the boat.  If you do take the walking tours, don’t count on having a lot of free time to explore on your own.  On several occasions we had time to explore a place only because the boat was stuck in line at a lock and was late picking us up.

Weather:  Be prepared for hot, muggy weather.  The farther into the European continent you get, the hotter it gets in summer; the rivers we were on carry enough water to make the weather very humid but not enough to make it cool.  The interior cities can get into the 90s.  Of course, it could also be cool and rainy.  You never know.

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Last Stop Budapest

We left Bratislava in mid-afternoon, a deliberate choice so we could enter Budapest after sundown.  Our first stop was the last of the 79 locks on the trip, at the Gabčíkovo Dam, in Slovakia.  This was part of a huge joint flood control project between Hungary and Slovakia, over which both countries are suing in the International Court of Justice.  Meanwhile, there is this dam, and its lock, with probably the biggest rise of the trip.  I suspect it was more than 100 feet.  Below you can see the Embla in the lock, with quite a distance left to rise.

Lock in the Gabčíkovo Dam, Slovakia

Lock in the Gabčíkovo Dam, Slovakia

Unusually, the lock was wide enough for at least 2 riverboats abreast.  I’m not sure it would have taken 3 abreast.

Multiple boats in the Gabčíkovo Dam lock - Embla is on the right

Multiple boats in the Gabčíkovo Dam lock – Embla is on the right

We finally floated out onto the lake behind the dam, and on down the Danube.

All the photos in this post, and more, are in this photogallery on my SmugMug site.

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Bratislava

Our next stop after Vienna was Bratislava, capital of Slovakia. Frankly, I found Bratislava intimidating, because it was the first time I’d ever been in a country where the written language (on signs and so on) made no sense to me.  I understand enough German and French to get by; in Amsterdam the language was close enough to German for me to guess at meaning (don’t tell the Dutch that!); anybody who lives in California has some idea of Spanish.  But the Slavic languages are a mystery to me.  Fortunately everyone I really needed to talk to spoke English.

The earliest recorded town in this location was founded by Celtic tribes around 200 B.C.; when the Roman Empire expanded this far north, the town became part of the Limes Romanus, or the border of the Empire. The town has had at least four names over its history; the country has only been independent since the Velvet Divorce in 1993.

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St. Stephen’s, Vienna

Between tours we had some time to explore St. Stephen’s Cathedral.  The current form of the cathedral dates to the mid-14th century, a combination of the Romanesque and Gothic styles.  The first church on the site was consecrated in 1147.  The Wikipedia article has detail on the cathedral’s ring of bells, which is still in use, although we didn’t hear it.  I’ve been interested in church bells since reading Dorothy Sayers’ The Nine Tailors.  The Wikipedia article has much interesting information about the cathedral.

In some towns, the Dom or the church is up on a hill (so people can take refuge in it when the river floods).  I didn’t check the topo map for Vienna, but the Dom here is right downtown, in (of course) the Stephensplatz.  In fact it’s right across the square from some of the most modern architecture you can imagine:

St. Stephen's, Vienna

St. Stephen’s, Vienna

The bulgy glass edifice is Hans Hollein’s “Haas Haus.”  Wikipedia doesn’t have much on it, and neither did any of the tourist sites I found when I Googled it; it’s just a building.  It seems to have been built deliberately to reflect the Dom.

Notice the elaborate tile patterns on the Dom roof.  You’ll see it again in Budapest, where it’s even gaudier, when I get that tour posted.  I don’t know if that’s a Central European thing or what.  None of the other cathedrals had patterned tile roofs.  Notice also the three black gables with Gothic arches, on this side of the Dom below the tile roof.  Those are not black because they’re in shadow.  They’re black because they haven’t been cleaned yet, from seven hundred odd years of wood and coal smoke!  That’s what the scaffolding is all about, next to them.

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Driving Around Vienna

Well, not entirely – but a good deal of our “Vienna city walk” was done on a bus, hence the odd things that sometimes appear in my photos.  You’ll only see the ones I could reasonably salvage.  If you just want to go look at photos, you’ll find the Vienna gallery at this link.

The first thing we saw as we turned into town was the Church of St. Francis of Assisi, in Mexicoplatz:

St. Francis of Assisi Church, in Mexicoplatz

St. Francis of Assisi Church, in Mexicoplatz

Also known as the Kaiser Jubilee Church and the Mexicokirche, it was built around the turn of the 20th century to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, and consecrated in 1910.  I was interested because of the combination of church styles:  all those round arches are very Romanesque, and yet it has a handsome set of flying buttresses, usually associated with the later Gothic style.  The bus turned a corner, and we continued our tour.

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The Wachau Valley and Dürnstein

Having left Melk Abbey around noon, we sailed on down the Danube toward the Wachau Valley.  This was the first day we had had unfettered access to the soi-disant “sun deck,” and of course it was overcast, although by the time we set out the rain which had poured down on Melk had slacked off.  As usual, this post includes some but not all of the photos I took that afternoon; you can find more of them at the gallery Dürnstein and Wachau Valley.  You can also see larger versions of anything in the gallery.

on the Danube

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