Danube Bend and Vienna, Austria
During these two days, I ventured outside of Budapest. I wanted to see some more of Hungary, outside the city, and I very much wanted to set foot in Austria and experience Vienna. So, I signed up for two day trips. Guided day trips. Yes. Sigh. I usually steer clear of anything that remotely smells of “guided group tours,” but I wanted to make the most of my short time in unfamiliar areas and the easiest way to make sure I didn’t waste my own time figuring things out was to trust a knowledgeable guide to do it all for me.
There were pluses and minuses to the guided tour thing. The winning “plus” was none of my own time spent coordinating train times and routes and figuring out how to get where and what to do there, and amassing maps and plans. Pick up and drop off was at my hotel. I also got to meet and spend time getting to know some fellow travelers who also signed up for the trips. Three continents were represented– on Tuesday’s trip there were travelers from Turkey, Israel, Italy, Holland, England and several others also from the States, including an older couple also from New York, who I really enjoyed chatting with. (Shocker, I know– I go halfway around the world and end up chatting away with fellow New Yorkers. They were about my parent’s age and widely traveled and really fun to talk to. They kept saying to me that I’ll end up telling my friends I was on a trip with old people. Which I guess is what I’m doing! Being a solo traveler though, it was nice to meet up with them throughout my week and touch base.)
But the thing about guided tours, is that you have to trust that the tour guide is like-minded and will take you to places you’ll be interested in and would have chosen. Or even better– introduce you to someplace you’d never have found on your own. That was not completely the case with my experience on these two day trips, which is where the minuses start to pile up. Plus, you have to allow for the pace of a group, as opposed to what might be your own faster or slower pace. So, compromise is an inevitable part of group travel.
Danube Bend, Day 5
On Tuesday, the trip was headed north to a highly regarded and historically important region of Hungary called the Danube Bend. We visited three towns of important significance: Ezstergom, Visegrad and Szentendre. However, when I say “visited three towns” that was not actually the case as there was little to no exploring done of Ezstergom or Visegrad, just a visit to a famous site at each location. And while we did wander around Szentendre, too much time was spent on tourist trap souvenier shopping areas and too little free time given to wander at will to our own styles. I hate tourist trap sites and shops as I don’t consider that any real way to experience a location. I like to wander at will, go off the main tourist streets a bit and most importantly SIT AND HAVE A FREAKING DRINK OR TWO. Coffee, beer, wine… whatever. That, my friends, is how you take the pulse of a place. At least, that’s how I like to do it. There was no time to do that on this day trip.
The Ezstergom basilica is truly remarkable. It is the seat of the Catholic church in Hungary and behind its altar has the largest painting in the world painted on one canvas.
The basilica was beautiful, but the most exciting part, to me, was that just across the river was Slovakia. I was this close to Slovakia!
The castle at Visegrad dates back to 1009 and was the royal seat of Hungary in 1325 before the official royal residence was moved to Buda in the following century. I’m a sucker for castles — always have been. Most of this one is reconstructed though, as it was destroyed by the Turks in the 1500s, fell to ruin, and then was actually completely covered by earth. Excavation started to occur in the 1930s.
Szentendre was a cute little town. Definitely touristy, but thankfully also quaint and picturesque.
So, all in all, the interesting group of travelers, the beauty of the Danube Bend, the interesting and very distinctive architecture dotting the countryside, the history that I took in at the various places, and the beautiful local Hungarian artisan pottery that I found OFF THE MAIN TOURIST DRAG in Szentendre made it all worth it. The end of that day’s trip was to go back to the city via a peaceful hour long boat trip on the Danube. So, ok, various annoyances aside, the trip was nice.
Vienna, Austria, Day 6
Wednesday, I woke up even earlier than the day before’s 8:30 am departure, for a 7am departure to… Vienna, Austria!!!! I was one of 5 people signed up for this trip. Same tour guide, the New Yorker couple I mentioned, and the Turkish couple. First of all, I am hugely impressed with myself for choosing to spend two days of my vacation getting up earlier than I would in my real daily life. I usually love sleep more than just about anything else– but apparently not more than travel!
Vienna (Wien) is a 2 ½ hour drive from Budapest. I was looking forward to a quiet bus ride of reading, enjoying the countryside and maybe some dozing. First wrench in the plan was that the tour guide was driving us in his car, not a small bus, since we were just a small group. Oy. That meant I was stuck sitting up front and having to react to nonstop chatter and nonstop pointing out of inane sites from the highway. Our tour guide did not appreciate the value of quiet and contemplative introspection. I am not at my best at 7am– no, let’s be honest and say I’m at my worst. My nerves were shot by the time we arrived, after 3 hours (b/c yes, we passed 30 minutes at a freaking rest stop) of being told the history of Tesco (the English supermarket chain who’s factory we happened to pass), shown the factories of various soap makers, various electronics and car manufacturers. I gotta say, other than the giant windmill fields, the Hungarian highways and the corporate entities that run along side it, are much the same as any other place in the world and I truly, dear God, could not care less about any of those damn plants, factories, corporate headquarters or whatever the freaking heck is there. At least not that early in the morning. And not for 3 hours. I spent the entire drive dodging the guide’s frantic pointing hand being waved in front of my face and thinking to myself that this was a mistake. I should have taken the damn train to Vienna and done it myself. But too late for that. So, I told myself not to think of this as a wasted precious day, but to make the best of it. And those windmills? They were pretty darn awesome. And huge! I’d only seen pictures before, so to drive down a highway lined with field after field of them, was pretty cool.
We first went to the Schonbrunn Palace, which was huge and beautiful. It really was. But, and I do not say this to sound spoiled or travel weary, I’ve seen a lot of palaces. I enjoyed Schonbrunn and it is worth seeing its splendor, however, the crowds were large and it was a very rushed visit. So, I didn’t really get a feel for the place and what it must have been like in its time.
Then, and I kid you not, we piled into the car and drove 5 minutes more, got out of the car to see a plaque – a freaking plaque– of Stalin commemorating the place he lived for one month that he spent in Vienna. After that, we were taken to a jewelry store that sells crystal (an Austrian specialty, as I was told). But this was just a normal jewelry store full of expensive and tacky crystal jewelry and statuary that I’d never in a million years, even if I was rolling in money, spend time looking at. I was polite, but told the guide I had zero interest in shopping at that store and told him I’d meet them all outside. This is where I was sure that the guide and me did not have a like-minded view of how the day should be spent in Vienna.
We were than led around in what I started to refer, in my head, as the Austrian Death March. It was about two more hours of walking and seeing large and beautiful buildings which I could now tell you nothing about because they had no significance during the Death March. We kept asking when we’d stop for lunch and kept being told “a few more minutes.” Well, Attila’s (the guide) idea of a few more minutes and our idea were vastly different. We finally ended up at the restaurant that he had chosen around 2:30 or 3.
I was tired, hot, cranky, bitchy and hungry and about 5 minutes from a Shirley MacLaine style tantrum. Instead of “give my daughter her medicine” it was going to be “WHERE IS THE RESTAURANT? GET ME MY LUNCH NOW NOW NOW NOW NOW.” But I gotta give it to him, the lunch was fantastic, and the location, once finally reached, was exactly what I would have chosen. A small mom & pop style restaurant. The lunch will go down as one of the best lunches in the history of lunches. I decided, since I was in Austria, I was going to have all things Austrian. So, I had weinerschnitzel, beer and streudel. And in a desperate need of vegetables, I ordered a cucumber salad which turned out to be the best damn salad I’ve ever had in my life. The dressing on the beautifully ribboned cucumber slices included paprika. I never would have thought to do that, but it was fantastic. The conversation at the lunch table was fun and lively, even though the Turkish couple spoke very little English. It’s amazing what you can still communicate with hand gestures, smiles and intonation.
After lunch, the Death March was all set to resume, but there was a minor rebellion about 30 minutes into it. We expressed the desire to wander on our own, rather than a continued led walk. So, thank god, I finally got my desired time to wander Vienna. Unfortunately, we were in a highly touristy area– and a main touristy shopping road of which I’ve never understood the draw. Why on earth would I want to shop a street of stores that I could visit at home? Then again, I live in New York, so maybe travelers from more rural areas of the States, or world, would indeed find a shopping street such at that to be a huge draw.
Vienna was indeed a beautiful city, and my experience, I’m sure, is colored by my dissatisfaction with my tour, but… it had a colder, a more disinterested vibe than Budapest. Does that make sense? Vienna felt world weary and disinterested, whereas Budapest, from the moment I arrived, felt welcoming, like it was saying, “Welcome! Come! Enjoy!” Maybe the pace of the guided tour was making me the one that was world weary and disinterested, not Vienna… but I was so excited to visit the city, so if that’s the case, that’s a real shame. Regardless, it was a gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous city.
So. Two day recap:
Hindsight: Had I the chance to do it over again, I would only choose one guided tour, certainly not two days in a row of them. I do stand by my original premise that it saves time to have someone else set the travel plans up and take you from place to place. But this is not real traveling. This is not how an entire trip should be spent, if you truly want to figure out a place and experience it. This is… travel lite. And this flies in the face of my whole trip’s philosophy– because I specifically chose to travel alone, experience the place on my own and refuse to compromise with what anyone else wanted to do.
What’s done is done though, and I cannot take it back. So, I will take the good from the places I saw and the good people I traveled with and I will let go of the annoyances.
Final Tally: I set foot in a new country (Austria), set eyes on another never before seen country (Slovakia), had wienershnitzel– a food I’d never had before– had Austrian beer in Austria and acquired some beautiful Hungarian pottery. So, these two days will go down as a win, drawbacks and all. And quite a few firsts were achieved!