Eleven fifty-nine PM “my” time; 5:39 AM local time, descending into Paris. It was an easy flight except for no, or very little, sleep. But that was okay for I hoped to sleep on the next leg from Paris to Vienna.
I was traveling to join many former guests, as well as John Freidin, his partner Kathryn, and Gerry and Janet, on our 40th Anniversary President's Hungary & Slovakia: The Best of the Danube vacation. I was finding it hard to believe I would be cycling along the East European Danube the next day…a pretty unique destination. Having never been to this region of Eastern Europe, entering into it was exciting and intriguing.
The flight arrived in Vienna ahead of schedule, yet the transfer agent was already waiting at the arrival area, ready to whisk me off to Bratislava at 140 km per hour, through the corn fields and past the wind farms which are scattered throughout the countryside of the Danube Valley. My driver was the owner of the transfer company, and he told me his story: Now thirty-eight years old, he started his driving service three years earlier when he returned to Slovakia after eleven years of working for a hotel in London. His new business was crippled by the recent economic crisis and nearly went under. It is for this reason he is so grateful for the business that VBT brings to him in his time of need. It is comforting to know that we are helping create jobs and opportunities in the regions in which we travel. Hungary needs economic assistance, indeed.
From my arrival in Bratislava, to my departure six days later from Budapest, I became more and more infatuated and impressed with this part of Eastern Europe. The people are friendly, and I remain so curious about their lives during both the communist era and today. The architecture of this region is varied, with a mixture of renaissance, baroque Austro-Hungarian, and bland communist block buildings. The history is complex and rich, very rich.
I was greeted at The Arcadia Hotel with smiles and a helpful attitude from all the staff. I felt an immediate sense of belonging, so far from home. I thought of our guests and how this is just the way I want them to be treated everywhere we send them. With excitement, and after an espresso, I set out for an afternoon of walking through the city. Wandering through renovated neighborhoods I realized the majority of homes, behind this veil of renovation, were still in quite a state of disrepair having been neglected for fifty years. Working my way up the hill above the Danube, I came upon the Bratislava Castle where the view of the city, the far reaching landscape and the River Danube, is breathtaking. Originally built in the 9th century, the castle is an awesome rectangular structure set high above the Danube on one of the most strategic crossroads in Europe. It lies in a passage between the Carpathian Mountains to the east and the Alps to the west.
In the evening we hosted a reception for our 20 guests on tour. It was a wonderful opportunity for me to meet folks with whom I have previously traveled and for the guests to meet John and Kathryn, Janet and Gerry, and each other. Those who had arrived for the pre-trip extension were well rested; everyone else was running on fumes. John, Kathryn and I had a quick bite at a local eatery before catching the grand finale of the three-day festival of traditional music and dancing in the crowded square.
The first night on tour always seems to guarantee a good sleep. This night was no exception. I awoke the next morning, rested and in anticipation of our first day of cycling and of meeting Mat and Suzie. Everything from this point onward would be orchestrated like clockwork. These leaders, like our leaders all around the world, were dynamite. We adjusted bikes, had a route review conducted by Suzie, and then set off for our first day under a beautiful blue sky with comfortable air temperatures. The group was alive with excitement and really aligned around a good time. We passed a little pond and Gerry went for a swim; I thought it was courageous when, in fact, there was European scenery on the beaches (defined: naked). Without my glasses I missed it all. We stopped for lunch at a man-made white water canoe course where there were athletes from around the globe practicing for the world championship competition (an Olympic qualifier) three days later. It was quite an impressive group of men and women from so many corners of the world.
We continued on well-built bike paths, through villages and across fields of corn and sunflowers ready for harvest, to Hédervár and Héderváry the castle where we would spend the next two nights. Built in the 10th century it served as the home for an aristocratic family. It was ultimately taken by the State in the fall to communism during which it served as a school, an artist colony, and a hospital during WWII. Fortunately, a visionary man with a passion for his country and history later acquired the property, and it was renovated in authentic fashion to serve as a 16 bedroom traditional castle.
For our first night we had a welcome cocktail in the reception hall of the castle during which, in honor of our special guests and the 40th anniversary, we had a string quartet play. We dined in the massive dining room while the quartet continued to play in the hall. Everyone agreed that it was an enchanting and magical evening. After an appetizer choice of either goulash soup or cream of mushroom, we had a main course selection of fresh trout or chicken. It did not matter the choice for the food was all excellent. The evening was closed with a local aperitif of Palinka; Hungary's answer to Italy's grappa.
The next day, after the heavy winds of the previous day and the rainstorm that blew in overnight, we awoke to deep blue sky. This day we again rode along bike paths, through neat, quaint and quiet villages, wondering where everyone was, Mat and Suzie, tending to our every need. It was as if the towns were abandoned. All tidy and well-kept, yet no one around. At some homes there was a car in the driveway, other homes not. I frequently would see an elderly man or woman riding an old one- or three-speed bike with a basket on front, which enabled me to imagine the times of the past. Beside a pond, a few kilometers from the Danube, Suzie prepared an excellent picnic with wonderful local foods. Then we were off to spend the rest of the afternoon at the spa, a local, well-attended maze of thermal baths of varying temperatures, swimming pools, slides and games. I talked with a man whom I thought was in his early sixties...he was actually 83 and he credits a daily swim and thermal bath for his excellent health!
A brief ride back to our castle gave us time for a walk, a nap, or a beer. All opportunities were maximized. On this night we went to a local restaurant where the specialty was catfish soup or wild boar. The feedback was, you guessed it… excellent!
Another lovely day of cool, dry air greeted us as we departed the castle to travel to Ezstergom by way of Gyor, a medium-sized city with lovely buildings and lovely cafes on the plaza. The ride, again, was totally pleasant, cycling once more through sleepy villages. This pace allowed us to have nice conversations with one another, which is different from higher mileage rides. We had about 90 minutes in Gyor before our transfer bus arrived to take us to the strudel-making event. I used this time to walk around, to have a cup of coffee at a neighborhood cafe, and then to find a shop to cut my hair. While traveling I always try to get a haircut. I find it to be one of the best non-touristy cultural discoveries. I can always count on a great interaction when explaining that I only want a “little trim.” Try that in Hungarian! My “barber” was a lovely lady, with her friends all around her watching as she snipped. It was very fun and she did a terrific job. Sometimes, however, it does NOT work. Instead of a little trim, I got a full-blown crew cut in Stagia, Italy in the summer of 2004!
The bus transfer to Lovarda, where we would learn the art of strudel making, passed through the remote, industrial manufacturing town of Komarom. Here we could really see remnants of the communist era: many abandoned industrial buildings, vacant lots, multiple disused rail lines, and the communist motif emblazoned on the entry to the headquarters building. It was empty and dead where once hundreds of workers were “employed.” I was told that unemployment was nil, yet the “employed” merely went to work with nothing to do but sit around. Hence, the empty reality of today.
Strudel making is an art, yet totally doable; very fun and very delicious. We visited a family who dressed in traditional style and taught us to make this famous pastry. Then, while our strudels cooked in the brick oven, we were served a lovely lunch of hearty Hungarian goulash. Afterwards, of course, we ate our strudels for dessert!
A short distance later we arrived in Esztergom, where we unloaded bikes for an afternoon ride up a fabulous hill, then down and along the Danube back into Esztergom to our hotel Bazilika alatt Panzio, situated at the base of this massive historical building. A bit later than normal, we all dined in an outdoor cafe beside the hotel and celebrated Suzie's 29th birthday in traditional international form. Mat facilitated this surprise. Songs and cheers abounded, along with some dancing. Well done, Mat.
I departed the next morning to join another group back at the castle for a few days. I understand that the dancing and parties continued after I left…. But I was able to re-join the group three nights later at the Holiday Beach Hotel, a wonderful resort-style hotel located right on the banks of the Danube. I arrived early enough to explore and, in doing so, found a speedboat to take me into Budapest, a thrilling twenty minute ride. It was great to be on the water like everyone else had the day previous. I absolutely love spontaneous, local discovery.
I am proud of this Slovakia and Hungary tour, and our leaders, Mat and Suzie. They did a great job sharing their country and this destination to our guests; a destination that they might otherwise not visit. Traveling to Eastern Europe can be, for some folks, a somewhat intimidating prospect. But VBT makes it all possible. This is an outstanding tour that exposes such marvelous history of a geographically and politically complex region, and it represents the essence of a VBT vacation; it is easy, safe, and has excellent pace, discovery and choice.