Category Archives: Vacations

Describing vacations we’ve taken.

Singing at the Stephansdom – Waiting to Sing

Jim and I found that we could only handle 2 restaurant meals per day on this trip, because the food in Hungary, Austria, and the Czech Republic is so rich.  So after our nap on concert day, I walked down the Rennweg from the hotel to a small grocery store, Billa AG, to buy some bread and fruit for dinner.  The store was immaculate, the fruit was beautiful and ripe, and the lady behind the bakery counter spoke English.  I was extremely interested in what an Austrian grocery store looked like.  I’ve been in U.S. groceries that were much worse.

After dinner we walked up the Rennweg the other way to visit the Botanical Garden of the University of Vienna.  I took a few photos here which you can see at the site (click on the picture); this is the one I liked best:

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Singing at the Stephansdom – Rehearsal

Our first day in Vienna was very full.  Rehearsal was at 8:45 AM, which meant, be on the bus by 7:45 AM, and off to the cathedral.  Since we had a different orchestra in each location (all arranged by the tour company), we had to have an orchestra rehearsal in every location.

Since I was singing, I didn’t carry a camera around.  All the photos in this post come from a gallery on my husband’s photo site entitled Singing Vienna.  The link will bring up a slide show.  I’ve posted a minimum of videos here but there are numerous videos in the gallery if you want to listen.

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On to Vienna

The day after our successful concert in Budapest, we packed up, loaded the bus, and set off for Vienna.  This is how a performance tour works.  We had no agenda except to stop in Györ, a small town along the way, for lunch.  I remember a sunny, pleasant day.  The bus dropped us in the center of town, just across from the impressive town hall:

Town hall, Györ, Hungary

Town hall, Györ, Hungary

I’m not sure Györ was ready for 70 people who all wanted lunch at once.  Jim and I chose the restaurant in a hotel next to the bus stop.  We and I think one other couple were the only people in there.  The service was fast and pleasant, the food was good.  When we finished, we strolled down the plaza and found several tables of our friends at an indoor/outdoor restaurant, all complaining that they hadn’t been served yet.

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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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