Gerry’s Journal: Our 40th Anniversary President’s Tour in Hungary & Slovakia

Guests have recently embarked on our 2011 President’s Tour to Hungary & Slovakia: The Best of the Danube. Travelers have been joined by special guests, Gregg Marston, VBT President, and John Freidin, VBT’s founder. Additionally, the group will be traveling with husband and wife, and two of VBT’s longest running associates, Gerry Slager and Janet Chill. Gerry has been kind enough to take some notes along the way, and to provide us with some insights into the trip. Part 1 of his experience is below.

My wife, Janet, and I have left our Vermont home to begin our VBT trip to Hungary & Slovakia: The Best of the Danube. It’s a gift given to us by VBT President, Gregg Marston, for our combined years of service to VBT—60 years total. We decided as long as we were going to travel that far from home, we would take advantage of the Pre- trip extension to Bratislava and the Post- trip extension, to stay longer in Budapest.

VBT arranged everything for us as usual, just like they do for all their guests. We had no worries. After reading the travel documents, sent to us by VBT, we set of for the airport on Friday afternoon. Everything went smoothly with our connecting flights and when we arrived in Vienna, our VBT representative was there waiting to take us to our first hotel on our Pre- Trip extension to Bratislava. All I can say is, “WOW!” about the Hotel Arcadia and the location is fantastic: right in the center of old town. We learned that it was the first 5 star hotel built in Bratislava, and it shows.

We happened to arrive in Bratislava in the midst of a National Folk Festival and crafts show. On just our first night in Slovakia, we were able to stay up and see a fabulous outdoor Folk Music and dance performance, with participants in their native costumes. With all our needs met for an excellent first day of travel, we found some dark beer and we went to sleep in our beautiful room.

Day Two of our vacation began after a great night sleep and a very satisfying buffet breakfast of yogurt, fresh fruits, cereals, meats and cheeses, eggs, pastries and excellent coffee! Janet and I met a few more folks from the tour and then we started out to explore more of the Bratislava Crafts and Folk Art Festival which was just minutes from our hotel.

Words can’t come close to explaining the wonderful crafts we saw in addition to the many demonstrations performed by the artists themselves. We saw everything from blacksmiths, pottery, and decorative eggs to woodworking, instrument making, leatherworking, jewelry-making, and weaving. We even saw an artist crafting bobbin lace. Janet spent some time learning about the process from the local artisan.

While exploring another part of the old city we stumbled upon a Thai massage studio which we could not resist. After a light dinner and our favorite local beer, Zlaty Bazant Dark, we watched another colorful performance by regional singers and dancers in traditional dress. To finish my day I relaxed in the Jacuzzi in the hotel’s Spa. It was the perfect ending to a perfect day.

Day three began a bit ambiguously, with no specific plans in mind. After meeting a few fellow travelers this morning at breakfast, we decided to join them for a 3 hour barge trip on the Danube River to the Castle Devin. It left at 10 am and returned at 1 pm, so the timing was perfect to have lunch and still have time to explore the last of the old city.

On the way back to the hotel, we met a very interesting local who pointed out the house that the henchmen from centuries ago lived in. Also, we saw another dance and musical performance which was heavily influenced by Roma culture.

Later that evening, at Gregg’s welcome reception, we met the rest of the group that we will be traveling with. It was great fun meeting each other and finding out how many times we all have traveled with VBT. Guests’ experiences ranged from a couple of vacations to Frank, who has traveled with VBT 20 times. In fact, I have been his leader three times in the past and Janet and I both had him as a guest in Holland almost 20 years ago! It’s always good to see old friends.

After a glass of wine and few toasts from Gregg, we were introduced to John Freidin. John founded VBT back in 1971, and owned it for 12 years. His presence, along with Gregg’s, on this 40th Anniversary President’s tour made it even more of a special vacation. After all, John’s the reason that I began at VBT, and Gregg is one of the reasons that I’ve stayed these many years.


Festival of La Mercè

Every year, in late September, the city of Barcelona erupts celebrating the Festival of La Mercè, the city’s largest official holiday. Though the actual feast day of La Mercé is September 24, festivities begin a few days before the feast and generally extend until the 25th or 26th of September.

The holiday was initially organized in the 19th century to celebrate the Virgin of La Mercè, Barcelona’s Patron Saint. Legend states, that the Virgin of La Mercè first appeared in the 13th century to inspire an order of monks to defend the city, and later in 1687 she returned to save Barcelona from a locust plague. Centuries later, the feast day was officially acknowledged by the Papacy, and in 1871, the first official festival of La Mercè took place. In 1902, the event adopted its modern format, and some of the most famous features of the celebration were introduced.

The Castells is a genuinely astounding portion of La Mercè. A crowd of thousands will pack into Placa de Jaume to watch as castellers—castle makers—stand upon one another to build up human towers. The towers are comprised of three parts, a pinya (base) a tronc (trunk), and the pom de dalt (crown of the castle). The castle is only considered crowned after a child ascends the monument and salutes the crowd at the top. Castells are raised in various forms and sizes, but each assembly is a wonder to watch.

Gigantes, or the Giants Parade, is another well-loved mainstay of La Mercè. Giant statues of kings and queens make there way through the city, dancing to traditional music, and delighting the crowds. The giants often represent many of Barcelona’s neighborhoods, and are well-supported as they parade along the city’s streets.

Perhaps the most exciting feature of La Mercè is the Correfoc, or “fire-run.” Beginning at dusk, groups of individuals portraying dragons, devils, and other monsters run through the streets setting off bangers, sparklers, and fireworks. One of the few fire-runs that take place each year in Barcelona, the Correfoc is an annual crowd favorite.

These highlights of La Mercè have long since been ingrained in Barcelona’s history. Yet, with thousands of events taking place in a multitude of outdoor venues at each annual festival, La Mercè is truly an event worth experiencing for yourself. Join VBT on our Spain: Under the Andalusian Sky vacation and take part in Barcelona’s latest and largest summer celebration.