Vienna / Budapest 2007
At the crack of dawn we rise and get to Sea-Tac airport in plenty of time to catch our 6am flight to WA DC aboard Austrian Airlines where we will transfer for the long transcontinental into Vienna. We will arrive one day earlier than most of the other delegates to the International Association of Mouth and Foot Painting Artists 50th Anniversary convention. It has been ten years since we were in Vienna. The 40th Anniversary was a magnificent affair with an exhibition in the Rathaus Government building and another wonderful exhibition of our “Paintings of Peace”. At that time, in early April it was quite cold and even snowed one day. This time the weather is superb, warm enough for shirtsleeves and more people on the streets. Last time we took a memorable side trip to Prague after the convention. This time we’ll see Budapest.
We watch a couple movies on private screens from our business class seats en route, Happy Feet and Dreamgirls. We read a bit and also try to catch some rest if not exactly sleep. Anne seems to be refreshed but by the time we have arrived in Vienna and made our transportation connection to the Hotel she requires a further nap. Unfortunately, our room is not ready and we take a stroll around the Ringstrasse while waiting for our room to be readied. When we finally enter our quarters we discover that the bed is very low and we are glad to have an inflatable mattress with us. Anne manages to get me into bed for a couple hours but I’m unable to sleep and only become more tired. We are determined to get out and enjoy some of the warm afternoon. We make our way to St. Stephan’s Cathedral. The beautifully ornate façade is matched by wonderful images within and even the crowds do not diminish the solemn atmosphere. We continue up the pedestrian only avenue and window shop with the gentry and see street musicians, mimes and break-dancers. A local establishment, the Leupold, offers a delightful meal of chicken breast with white asparagus and we sample the first of what will undoubtedly be many glasses of Austrian wine. We hope to get up early and shop for items in the flea market tomorrow morning so assail our pillows for a decent night’s sleep for a change.
It’s terrific to see old friends Peter and Lucy and Grant and Jennie from New Zealand. All is ready. We know the way to the market and enjoy the gradually warming day as we pass delicious smelling pastry shops and gelaterias along the way. When we arrive at the public market we are assaulted by the fragrances emanating from the various stalls and the crush of locals renders the going difficult. We bypass a few of the more congested aisles and arrive at the flea market area. 80% of the offerings are junk and I’m hoping to see the Schiele collection at the Leopold Museum as soon as possible. Anne finds a few items to recreate her altar, a statue of St. Anthony, a white cloth and a vase. We later get a beautiful candle at the Leopold and pluck a flower from the planter outside the hotel. The Leopold collection is quite comprehensive in various Austrian painters and the Klimt and Schiele works are outstanding. It is my first encounter with their works in depth and I’m deeply impressed by their accomplishment. Other painters I am only tangentially aware of and it’s thrilling to see how masterful and powerful these expressionists can be. We take a break in the museum café and are under-whelmed by the meal but are sufficiently nourished for our next cultural plunge.
A delightful walk along one of the parks leads to the Albertina, newly remodeled since our last time here. I am a little disappointed that the masterpieces of their drawing collection are represented by facsimiles. The special exhibit is on the Beidermeier style and although I fail to appreciate the bourgeois taste of the practitioners there’s little denying that the craftsmen who fashioned the furniture, silver and even the paintings were a talented lot. The Albertina is where our exhibition is taking place and we see the hall where in a few days’ time we will be feted in style and I will demonstrate my painting. Anne has been gracious to be so willing to visit these museums and I hope to study the main museum in depth tomorrow. We return to the hotel the way we came from it and begin seeing and visiting with the other delegates. There are a few greyer hairs and some sad stories regarding the health of a few members and we are reminded how this group is like a big family and how when one hurts we all do. We receive our packet of material and the books are so abundant that the group presents them to us in a backpack emblazoned with the VDMFK patch. After more visiting we repair to our room, write a bit of these notes and surrender to sleep.
The annual Vienna marathon takes place today and the streets are blocked off to traffic. Fortunately the Kunsthistorisches Museum is open so we walk the several blocks along the Ringstrasse along with many thousands of runners who are congregating in front of the Hofburg Palace in preparation for the run. As per usual I have not slept well the night before and will rely on caffeine to get me through the day. Consequently my temper is a little short but Anne understands that this is no ordinary museum and it might be my only chance to tour the impressive collection. We have arrived somewhat early and have time to hide one of my pins. In a crack at the base of the monument to Queen Theresa I find a perfect spot and have Anne cover it with a small stone. We enter through a special entrance; pay our admission and immediately head toward the Italian rooms where Titian is displayed in glory. Raphael, Caravaggio, and the other giants occupy the walls with superb examples of their genius. Surprisingly, there are only a few French painters represented, Poussin being the most illustrious and some extraordinary works by Velazquez of the royal family of Phillip II. After a coffee break we continue through the German, Flemish and Dutch rooms. There are 3 Rembrandt self-portraits, one magnificent self-portrait by Rubens along with an entire room of altarpieces. Another room is completely devoted to Bruegel’s wonderful work.
With so little sleep and still a big reception in the evening we pass on the decorative material and coin collection and exit into the warm sunshine for a short walk back to the Plaza. We take a 3-hour nap before dinner. The English-speaking artists meet in one of the banquet rooms and we share a table with artists from New Zealand. How we can possibly eat all the food that will be presented to us is a mystery that I will do my best to uncover. A closed circuit presentation by our director welcomes us and describes the week’s activities. We are directed to be punctual for our rendezvous at the buses as we’re on a tight time frame to accommodate all the members. It’s exciting to renew friendships and the smiles on the faces of the delegates demonstrate how glad we are to be together again. My sleep patterns are disrupted and as much as I would like to stay up late and visit we bid good night and are in our room by 10:00. I have a little time to review our materials before bed and am amazed that our schedule is so full and am glad that we made the effort to visit the art museums.
Our early bus ride takes us a short distance to an opulent hall within the majestic Hofburg Palace. We enjoy camaraderie with the other artists while preparations are made to the audio-visual requirements. We have our translation devices and assume our seats towards the front of the gilded space. Special dignitaries receive us with grace and toast our accomplishments. Invited speakers give us a hearty welcome and elucidate various aspects of art, disability and determination. We are entertained by a fine series of classical music numbers by a live orchestra followed by a fine film produced by the Association in honor of the 50th Anniversary and I am pleased to be featured painting and smiling at various events. A sit-down lunch follows and we visit with administrators from New Zealand and with Alberto Alverez, our friend from Argentina and meet his wife Yolanda. A sumptuous meal adds a few extra calories to my waistline and it may take awhile to get back to my regular weight by the time our trip is concluded. Since our hotel is close and the weather is mild we stroll back rather than endure the crowded buses. I had intended to stay up and write postcards but the lack of sleep the previous night has caught up to me and I ask Anne to lay me down in bed for a short nap before the evening’s festivities.
Rather than load aboard the buses we enjoy a short walk along the pedestrian boulevard in front of St. Stephan’s Cathedral and are the first artists to arrive at the Albertina. Tables are arranged in the sunny courtyard and we relax, enjoy each other’s company and appreciate the beautiful surroundings. Vienna is such a gorgeous city and everywhere you turn you see extravagant architecture and stylish fashions. Where most cities with significant architecture that rely on past glories to impress visitors seem dated and passé the buildings here are integrated into city life in a very real and contemporary way. After the delegates arrive and we visit in the waning afternoon the doors are soon open to us and we enter the extraordinary exhibition space. I have been requested to be one of the demonstrating artists and search for an appropriate table to set up my materials and begin painting a scene of a woman standing in a window with a large flower box before her. Guests begin to swell the space and servers begin to distribute delicious hor dourves but I am devoted to create an image that the visitors will appreciate and am interviewed by media representatives while working. Simona from Italy is also demonstrating her foot painting and has a large crowd entranced by her abilities. Once I have a satisfactory painting nearly complete I feel free to take a break and tour the collection of art. It is particularly nice to see that the Association has chosen many new paintings to display and my contributions are 2 Venetian scenes that I painted a couple years ago. The food going around is sensational, curry soup, risotto, even sirloin medallions are terrific and we decide to have our dinner here rather than the buffet that will be offered later at the hotel.
It is delightful to be surrounded by the wonderful creations and most enjoyable to visit with old friends and meet new artists. Those who are attending their first convention must be awestruck at the quality of the event. The crowds begin to thin out and I have just enough time to put the finishing touches on my painting that Anne recognizes as herself in the window. Mr. Massberger comes by to inspect my progress and seems pleased at my effort. I do a brief portrait of a young visitor before closing up my gear and am glad to exit into the cool evening. The buildings are lit dramatically and the moon overhead is nearly full. We catch one of the last buses and are very pleased to have this part of the convention behind us. It has been a remarkable day and one that our Association will long remember with pride.
Thankfully, I have a good night’s sleep and am well rested for our excursion to the countryside and trip up the Danube. We wolf down some breakfast and are the last aboard our bus. I enjoy a pleasant visit with Justice May from South Africa while the city scenery quickly gives way to green fields dotted by various crops. Exquisite churches with ornate domes appear and after an hour or so we pull into Melk. We had been here during our previous visit and have a pretty good idea how enjoyable our cruise will be. Grant and Jennie from New Zealand join us at an upper deck table and we enjoy conversation, endless glasses of regional beer and wine and marvel at the beautiful scenery and historic towns along the way. Eventually we arrive at Krems where we sample the local apricot schnapps that tastes similar to grappa as we disembark. All of a sudden I don’t seem to notice the chill so much. A local ethnic dance group entertains us at dockside and then leads us through town to a large hall where we are welcomed by the mayor and continue eating and drinking traditional fare.
We enjoy our company with Grant, Jennie, Robert and Kathy from the U.S. and the Swiss publisher. It is so nice to be able to speak English with the Europeans and I wish that I had more linguistic abilities. Anne shares her knowledge of Italian and I’m glad she’s able to communicate directly with President Bonamini. We are stuffed and ready to reload the buses for the ride back to Vienna. I hang my head and rest a bit and then continue my conversation with Robert about art, teaching and miscellaneous cultural diversions. Back at the hotel as I write these notes I examine my bulging waistline and will skip dinner again this evening.
We rise very early and scarf down a few bites before loading onto the buses and drive across the Danube and skirt a large amusement park to the meeting hall for day one of the business portion of our convention. After welcomes from the administration we get down to the agenda and work through the various points. Just before we break for the day Felix reads a long and heartfelt testimonial about his respect for our group and his hopes for the future. We are adjourned for the day and exit to an adjoining hall for lunch. Normally I don’t drink beer until the warmth of summer requires refreshment but the tasty beverage here is something special. I down a couple glasses before re-boarding one of the minivans and we are soon back at the hotel. While most of the other delegates enjoy a well-deserved rest we must do what we can to secure transportation to Budapest. I am not particular how we get there and am concerned only as to how easy it will be for Anne. We discuss the options with the concierge and he directs us to a nearby travel agency for specifics. I am unable to get to the 2nd floor office so bide my time outside and soak up the afternoon sun while Anne attends to our concerns. Nearly an hour goes by before she reappears with a discouraging look on her face and relates her frustration with the lack of accommodation.
We haven’t given up our plan to travel by train but the options aren’t encouraging. I desire to tour a nearby Kunstforum Art Museum that is hosting an exhibition on the subject of Eros and I am hoping it will distract Anne from our troubles. In the same exhibit space where last time we enjoyed a marvelous show of paintings by W.M. Turner we now are provoked by suggestive works by Picasso, Degas, Schiele, Von Stuck, Bellmer, Bonnard and many others. The artworks are humorous, titillating, fascinating and grotesque and had we been in a more receptive mood it would certainly have stimulated our desires. As it is we rush our appreciation in order to return to the hotel and explain our dilemma to the administration who offer suggestions and promise to explore possibilities for us. We are somewhat relieved and are certain that if a way is to be found that they will know of it. We have just enough time to freshen up in our rooms before loading on to the buses for the long drive to the Shobruun Palace for the evening’s festivities. As our buses enter the ornate gates and we get our first view of the elegant yellow façade we see an imperial brass band form and treat our group to a series of traditional marching tunes that sets an impressive mood. Wait staff in powdered wigs and historic costumes offer us champagne and hor dourves on silver platters as we enter the inner courtyard and enjoy the spectacular views of the majestic grounds. It is a little cool in the open air so we secure one of the few low tables and visit with delegates while preparations for dinner continue.
Everyone is dressed in their finery and it’s not difficult to imagine the opulent celebrations that have been going on in this space for centuries. We are ushered to the Orangerie, a special hall with chandeliers, ceiling murals and wall sized mirrors that showcase the faded grandeur that was the Hapsburg Empire. A stage is set with a grand piano and its apparent that we will be serenaded by a series of classical performances. We find a seat close by that will give us an unobstructed view of the performers and are joined by Robert, Kathy and several of the Asian delegates. Veal seems to be on nearly every meal and we suspend our reservations about eating meat that has been so cruelly produced and will make amends in the days ahead. Applause greets 2 performers who take the stage. An Asian pianist and a violinist begin warming up and it soon becomes apparent that this will not be a regular performance of Mozart, Beethoven or Schubert. Although the performers are indeed classically trained and could no doubt be welcome in any symphony orchestra they are comedians. They tease each other, torture some classical compositions and generally cause a riot with their instruments. The program runs quite long and by the time we exit, load the buses and get back to our rooms it is past midnight and we are glad that our morning routine will be brief the next morning.
It seems that we have barely closed our eyes but we are awake, dressed appropriately and grab a quick bite before getting on the buses for a return to the meeting hall for day 2 of the business section of our convention. Rules govern the description of the proceedings and even our attendants are forbidden to accompany us during this portion of the meeting. We re-elect board members and our financial advisor and smiles and flowers are much in evidence. Endless comments, congratulations and questions surrounding various motions are addressed and satisfied before we adjourn for lunch. We sit with 2 senior publishers and discuss business practices and U.S. politics over lunch. Once back at the hotel we again engage the concierge about our Budapest plans. The train is still a possibility but it’s nice to know that renting a car is an easy alternative and can be secured at the last minute if necessary.
We walk across the street from the hotel and purchase a terrific etching of old Vienna by Luigi Kasimir before returning to our room where I’m renewed by a hot cup of coffee and detail these notes while Anne catches a nap. She had gone shopping while I was in my meeting and bought a black jacket and toiletry items. Our evening’s activities include dinner back at our exhibition space at the Albertina. This time we are happy to load onto the bus and are soon whisked away through the narrow streets and deposited at our exhibition. It is nice to tour the show without the crowds and we’re able to examine the wonderful paintings leisurely. After a while we are directed to the opulent staterooms where dinner will be served. We share a table with Tom and Lucy from the UK, Simona and her folks and Lucca, a new member from Rome. Works by Rubens, Schiele and Greuze adorn the walls and we enjoy each other’s company and are lavishly entertained by Tom’s quick wit and hilarious sense of humor. I scratch my nose and pop a blood vessel and start gushing blood. It’s quite embarrassing and I’m only able to stem the flow with a spot band-aid that Lucy happens to have with her. Much wine is consumed and washes down the superb meal. We have now finished the majority of our congress and have one final event to look forward to, the farewell gala.
We have signed up for a tour of historic coffee houses and meet the others in the lobby at 9am. The weather is overcast and considerably cooler and we make use of our jackets for the first time. A strolling tour of the area is highlighted by our knowledgeable guide’s running commentary about the city’s history and how coffee, (Turkish soup) became associated with the city. Apparently, a spy who aided in the defeat of the Turks was paid with a large supply of coffee beans left behind by the enemy when their 2 month long siege had failed and he set to work to introduce the population to the drink. Our guide points out remnants of the old town fortifications and one of Beethoven’s houses along the way. We continue along and learn other aspects of Viennese history and end up at the Café Central. The courtyard is in Moorish style and we wrap up our tour with mélange and hot chocolate with sweets with Kevin and Emma from New Zealand. Australian Chris Peardon joins Anne and me on a walking tour and we first visit the deeply moving interior of St. Michael’s church. The dark interior is illuminated dramatically with candlelight and sunshine streaming through narrow windows. We next head towards the Music Museum and enjoy the second floor interactive exhibits and sit through a couple tunes on a video of classical numbers conducted by Zubin Mehta. When we return to the elevator to ascend to the next level we learn that the lift is broken and a technician is on the way. After some time he comes and I am apprehensive about being stranded on an upper floor so I descend to the lobby courtyard and listen to a young pianist and a song by young schoolgirls while Anne and Chris tour the remaining exhibitions.
The displays are very comprehensive and an entire day could have been pleasantly spent among the exhibits but they are sympathetic to my desire to see some art and meet me to continue our walk. Chris then decides to return to the hotel and Anne is grudgingly willing to head towards the Belvedere Palace where I can see the masterpieces by Klimt and Schiele and others. It is a fair hike to the park surrounding the Belvedere and we take a wrong turn and are hung up in the lower portion. Our view towards the palace reveals an extremely steep ramp and it’s obvious that another way is required. After exiting and walking back around the way we’ve come with no guarantee of access I am unwilling to test Anne’s patience further and suggest we try again tomorrow even though the weather forecast calls for change. We need to prepare for the evening’s gala and try for a bus but an accessible fails to appear after several minutes so we begin our descent down the pedestrian strasse. A hot dog wrap gives us needed nourishment along the way and before too long we are back at the hotel and dressed in our finery. Anne looks stunning in her royal blue velvet dress with beaded collar and my new white dress shirt is accented with monogrammed sleeve and gold cufflinks we got at the flea market when we first arrived. Properly attired we meet in the lobby and are soon aboard buses and cross-town towards the state opera house. We linger with delegates and Anne presents many gifts to new and old friends.
We sit in prime spots with other Americans and some Swiss delegates in order to enjoy the symphony orchestra that will perform after dinner. The meal is sumptuous as expected though Anne doesn’t eat much of her meat. I consume my regular portion and wash it down with delicious Austrian red wine. The musicians appear onstage and begin warming up in the staggeringly beautiful hall lit by chandeliers and gilded throughout. After an opening number, director Moosleithner rises to the podium and delivers a heartfelt speech full of thanks and congratulations. His team has performed beautifully and if any difficulties have arisen throughout our celebration they have been addressed and corrected with professionalism and due care. The remainder of the program is highlighted by delightful arias sung by leading stars of the Viennese cultural galaxy and though the music and language are foreign to our ears we enjoy the performances immensely. Sadly, we begin our farewells to our many friends but we all look forward to our next time together. How the group will surpass this extravagant celebration will be a terrific challenge but somehow I think they will up to the task. It is raining as we leave the hall and we hope that it doesn’t continue for our next adventure in Budapest. It has been a remarkable time in every way and we feel blessed to be a part of such a magnificent organization.
Anne doesn’t get much sleep and we are obligated to rise early yet again for our excursion to the Lipizzaner riding school. We grab some cheese and rolls from the breakfast buffet for an afternoon snack and will try again to see the Belvedere. It is much cooler and it is beginning to drizzle as we exit the hotel and board the buses. A short drive takes us to the riding school where our group enters the beautiful hall and takes seats just in front of the royal box. Exquisite white animals and their dignified riders trot, walk, bow and strut the interior grounds with muscular grace but after a short while the proceedings are rather redundant and I yearn to pursue other sights. The afternoon group has congregated outdoors and we bid hellos as we pass on our way towards the Belvedere. It’s drizzling but not too bad and it appears as though we will be fine for the mile or so we must walk. As we cross the Operring Anne tips me back to negotiate the curb and I come down on an uneven drainage cover, catch my front wheel and it strips the tire away from the rim. When last this occurred in New York it was a simple matter of popping it back in place. This time however we are completely unable to remedy the situation. A very nicely dressed gentleman lends assistance and a policeman also struggles to reattach the tire. Even with the help of cream from a corner café we are unable to slip the tire back on and we are reduced to limping into the café and call the hotel for the Malteser crew to bail us out. They arrive in no time but are equally rebuffed at repairing the situation.
With no alternative we struggle aboard the van and are back at the hotel where I linger in the lobby in a borrowed chair and visit with friends while my wheel is taken to the repair shop. It doesn’t take long and they’re even able to clean a huge wad of hair from the axle. I am so relieved to be mobile again that I’m not too disappointed at missing the Belvedere and even have a worthy substitute within walking distance. The Lichtenstein Collection is located 10 minutes from the hotel and has the most magnificent collection of Rubens this side of the Louvre. When we were in Vaduz I remember being disappointed to not see this collection on account of time constraints. Now it is here, housed in a palatial setting and glorious to behold. I am especially pleased to see numerous oil sketches and the marvelous portraits of his children. Rubens now seems a close friend after scrutinizing so many of his personal paintings and the other masters are represented by wonderful works including Archimboldo, Raphael and Van Dyke. We purchase a few cards in the gift shop and stop at a grocery store on the way back for food and wine to enjoy on the train to Budapest tomorrow.
We’re able to freshen up and Anne begins packing. We will leave a majority of our luggage here in Vienna and only take necessities with us. Our evening is a memorable one. There are still many delegates who haven’t left and we all load aboard buses and drive across the river to the amusement park and get out at a huge restaurant, the Schweitzerhaus. We are barely off the bus when we are handed glasses of beer and shots of schnapps. By the time we are at our dining tables we are suitably lit and spend the next few hours in celebratory conversation, song and are presented enormous platters of meat, potatoes and peppers. We eat until we’re ready to burst and get a doggie bag to supplement our food for the trip tomorrow. Singing continues aboard the buses back to the hotel and the rain gets heavier but no one seems to mind. We will keep our fingers crossed that the weather will not hinder our Budapest experience but as always we will Go with the flow.
We are packed and as ready as we can be for the next phase of our European adventure. We will leave the bulk of our luggage in Vienna while we head east on the train to Budapest. At breakfast we say goodbyes to our friends, many of who are nursing hangovers from the previous night’s partying. The weather is rainy but not cold and we will hope to have improvement as the day progresses. Even though our train won’t be leaving until 1 pm I am rather anxious to get to the station in order to guarantee that accommodations for my chair are resolved. Final farewells all around and it is always bittersweet knowing health issues will affect many members by the time the next convention rolls around and a lingering suspicion that we may not see some people again. It’s also a point of speculation as to where the next convention will be. We can’t imagine that this celebration can be surpassed but wherever it will be it will be memorable for sure. We load aboard a minivan and are soon at the train station and check in with the information office. We wait for directions to the platform and I win a game of cribbage, (my first win in 6 games) with a decisive 20-point hand. Our first major challenge is addressed when it’s time to load. The doorways to the car are too narrow and I will be obliged to sit in the area between the cars for the 3-hour ride. Every time someone accesses the other car and opens the doors a roar rips through my ears. Placards obscure the dirty windows and my view of the countryside is impeded but there is really not much to see beyond farmland and modest buildings.
I spend most of my time reading the Budapest tour guide and sharing a sandwich lunch with Anne. Our apprehensions regarding the necessary connections are relieved the moment we pull into the station in Budapest. Our guide, Balazs, a member of the Calvary Ministry that Margo Johnson has helped arrange is there with a driver and we are soon in a van and drive a short distance to our well-appointed apartment. We check the necessary appliances and dump the bags. Balasz assists in describing the neighborhood as we take to the street and walk past the exquisite opera house toward a major intersection. We are able to get some local currency and acquire some foodstuffs at a local market. It is dinnertime and Balasz recommends a nearby Turkish café. The food is pretty awful and we both hope that the meals improve but we are glad to have makings for a picnic lunch tomorrow. Even though it’s not late Anne and I are rather exhausted and are glad to return to the apartment and after making arrangements to meet with Belazs on Tuesday for a trip to Buda and the Hungarian Art Museum we say goodnight and take to our bed. It’s a tight fit and a bright security light just outside our window illuminates our bedroom in daytime hues. I manage to get to sleep easy enough until around 3am when a group of teenagers on the street below start arguing and the shouting goes on interminably. Anne’s having a harder time sleeping and finally takes to one of the couches and gets enough rest to manage the next day’s walking tour.
It’s a little cool and from what I can make out from the BBC weather forecast I feel we need to be prepared for anything and suggest we carry our jackets. This turns out to be unnecessary as it turns out to be gorgeous all day and I even strip down to a t-shirt after awhile. I also wear my gloves in an effort to keep my hands cleaner. Anne has put together sandwiches from our pig-out the other night and we’re ready to find our way around town. Our general plan is to head towards the Vaci Utca, the long pedestrian area that parallels the Danube and features hundreds of shops, galleries and cafes. We negotiate the streets and rely on dead reckoning as much as the tour book and are amazed at the fabulous architecture along the way. A beautifully ornate church offers a peacefully reflective moment before we locate the Vaci Utca that at this early hour is mercifully light of people. Anne needs some sunglasses and our first purchase of the day is a stylish wrap around amber set. I soon find a small etching of a street scene with a steeple in the background. Before long we are at one end of the avenue and enter the massive Central Market. The bright colors and distinctive smells remind us of Pike Place Market and the layout is impressive with groceries on the lower floor and handcrafts and restaurants above. Anne buys some linen coasters and some paprika sets and I get a nice box with a Russian icon painted on it. We spend a fair amount of time among the stalls and I nearly buy a bottle of absinthe.
We’re ready for lunch and pull out our sandwiches after crossing the street and finding a shaded bench in a small park. A tall beer follows at a sidewalk café on the Vaci Utca and we enjoy watching the passing fashions on the shoppers who are now beginning to swarm the avenue. We enter several shops and Anne buys some potent liqueur but is unable to find a light shirt that she likes. At the far end of the walk we have a cappuccino at Budapest’s most famous coffee house, Gerbaud Cukraszda. The interior is inaccessible so we find the last shady seat and feel refreshed after resting a bit. From here we make our way to the riverside and head towards historic Chain Bridge. A fantastic view downriver is offered and we locate an exceptional spot to hide a pin. Anne sticks a pin under some electrical conduit on the Pest side of the enormous bridge support. Saint Stephan’s Basilica is only a few blocks away and I am hoping to view the magnificent interior and give Anne a rest from her efforts to get me around. There is a lot of construction going on and it’s difficult to locate the ramp to the entrance. We suffer a major disappointment when we finally reach the entrance and discover that the lift that takes us to the interior is inoperable and we have to be satisfied with admiring the exterior decoration. Our apartment is mercifully close by and after stopping at a grocery store for dinner fixings we retire to our room and Anne cooks a superb meal from our remaining leftovers. Though the evening is mild and we’ve heard that the city is lit dramatically at night we decide to stay in, go to bed early and save our energy for tomorrow’s excursion.
Anne walked her pretty little feet off today. Our plan was to go to the Hungarian National Gallery on top of the Buda escarpment and winging the remainder of the day. She prepares a modest but nourishing breakfast and as planned Balasz arrives around 9 am. He assists occasionally but mostly Anne negotiates curbs, corners and cross streets. The day has started out cool and cloudy and again we carry our jackets just in case of rain. We walk the few kilometers to the Chain Bridge, cross over and take the funicular to the top. The view is awesome but the cobblestones are a problem and after the horror of losing my tire in Vienna we are nervous and gingerly traverse the broken stones that pave the courtyard in front of the beautiful Sandor Palace on our way to Matyas Church. The church is an ancient structure that was once converted to a mosque following the occupation of Turks and the ornate tile floor and colorful designs testify to the mixed heritage. Scaffolding obstructs the carved tower but the glorious stained glass windows and richly decorated interior are glorious and unsurpassed by any church we’ve seen.
Balasz must leave us soon so after helping us to the entrance of the art museum we make arrangements to rendezvous tomorrow afternoon at the Museum of Fine Arts in the City Park. Anne and I spend the next few hours touring the fabulous collection of art by completely unknown artists. It actually makes for a most enjoyable time since we are not directed by personalities but by the quality of the work itself. There is surprisingly diverse assortment of styles from academic history painting and gothic statuary to modern Secessionist works. The portrait busts that are scattered throughout are also well worth remarking and all the artworks are enhanced by the extraordinary hilltop setting. From nearly every gallery the view out the windows is incredible. The multitude of domes, spires and ornate facades is breathtaking and after our lunch in the museum café the sun comes out brilliantly and renders the views exceptional. We share a decadent slice of chocolate cake and cappuccino before exiting in order to fortify us for a long hike to Margaret Island.
Anne manages to wheelbarrow me up a hefty incline to the funicular station and I get a couple squashed coins for my collection. An itinerant tour guide accosts us and our patience wears thin until we rudely leave him in mid-pitch. We traverse some serious traffic and try to stay close to the river in order to appreciate the view but the wind is stiff and blows grit and pollen into our eyes. One last struggle up a steep ramp onto the Margaret Bridge and we are at the park entrance. The large park is indeed the oasis of calm that our guidebook describes with fountains, monastery ruins and any number of gardens and meadows. We choose a paved jogging trail and walk nearly to the very end of the island. At the historic and elegant Margitsziget Grand Hotel we enjoy an early dinner alone in the hotel’s well-appointed café. Anne’s bright eyes and loving smile shows no hint of weariness that she must be feeling after the miles of pushing my wheelchair and we are both relieved that an accessible bus will be able to get us most of the way back to our apartment. We share an ice cream and buy a small bottle of absinthe on the way though I doubt I’ll drink any for quite some time. Anne does laundry and writes a few postcards while I write the day’s notes before a well-deserved night’s rest.
We’ve slept well in spite of noise outdoors and the bright security light outside the window. Anne covered up the windows as best she could but that means the windows are slightly ajar and the early morning garbage trucks rumble and clang. We were planning on meeting with Balasz after touring the art collection at the Museum of Fine Arts but after breakfast and loading our gear we open the door and find a note from him explaining that he’s unable to get off work and will try to join us tomorrow. We are actually somewhat relieved as we will have no schedule to stick to today. Our plan stays on track and Anne is valiant in her ability to manage the curbs for the mile or so to the museum. The weather is much cooler and windy and we both put on jackets. There is no problem getting in a side elevator and again we are pleased to find that our admissions are complimentary. We pass the Egyptian and Greek wings and are escorted to the elevator that will take us to the European paintings. We begin with the early Flemish paintings and Gothic works and recognize individual paintings by Durer, Altdorfer and Bruegel among others. One painting by Bosch is a standout and I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many depictions of St. Stephan. There is a terrific bodegone by Velazquez and more El Grecos than anywhere outside Spain. There are many paintings familiar to me from history books, especially Sebastiano Ricci’s David and Bathsheba, Johann Liss’ Judith and Holophernes and a self-portrait by Giorgione. Anne has scouted out the café for lunch and is disappointed at the offerings in the basement café but discovers a special exhibit on art around 1900 and I’m blown away to see the nearly life-size Kiss of the Sphinx by Von Stuck and other marvelous works. I also tour a temporary exhibition of stamp art by contemporary artists that is clever but fails to impress me very much.
We are ready for a late lunch and hope that a café is nearby. The weather is still quite cool and we certainly won’t be dining al fresco. A very swank and historic restaurant, Gundel, is next to the museum but a look at their bill of fare is exorbitant and we nearly pass until Anne notices that a lunch special is offered and we decide to splurge a bit. Most of the lunch diners have eaten and we are nearly the only ones in the immaculate surroundings that feature original paintings, wood paneled pillars and an enormous bouquet of flowers in the center of the room. I use my napkin to protect the linen tablecloth more than my own clothes and am aghast at the prices. Anne inquires after the special and we both are mercifully relieved. She orders a beef dish that first comes with cauliflower soup and has a side dish of seasoned vegetables and spinach torte. My goose breast is fabulous with apricot cabbage and potatoes on the side. My appetizer of cervice is also wonderful and both our desserts equally so. Suitably nourished we next walk the short distance to the modest zoo and are glad that the school groups have departed for the day. There is a lot of construction in progress and cobblestones and some steep hills to manage but we enjoy the displays and though the small enclosures are confining to the animals it’s a surprise to see them up close. Of particular interest is the ape house and the intelligent creatures give us quite a show, looking at us squarely in the eyes, thumping on the glass and pissing at our faces.
Our walk back is pleasant enough and we enjoy the ornate buildings that appear to house some foreign embassies. We pick up a few groceries before returning to our apartment and have a light meal of salami, cheese, pickles and wine. I challenge Anne to a game of cribbage and she is well on her way to winning when she asks if I’d like a cup of mint tea. “Of course” I reply. She puts the heat on under a pan and deals another hand. We scrutinize our cards and begin our play when she looks up and shrieks. The burner she turned on high was under the plastic coffee pot instead of the pan and is melting all over the stovetop. Smoke envelopes the room and thankfully no alarms go off. We open windows and turn on fans and eventually the room clears but we will be obliged to buy a replacement tomorrow. Anne finishes the game and I avoid a skunk by a single point. We have been going to bed fairly early since the only things open are nightclubs and we’re happy to relax in our room and get rested for our last full day in Hungary.
Our last full day in Budapest begins easy enough. I had feared that it might take a couple hours for Anne to shop for a replacement coffee maker but she is gone barely 30 minutes and returns with a sleek black and silver model that is much better than the one that burned up the previous night. An Office Max store was just around the corner and it wasn’t too expensive. We’re hoping to pick up a gift for Patty and see a few sights that we’ve yet to see and I’m planning on crossing the Danube to examine the famous baths at the Gellert Hotel. We still have some last minute arranging to do for our transportation and after breakfast we take to the streets in search of a tourist information stand. It’s cloudy and the wind is up some but it’s not cold and we’re able to travel without our jackets. We know our way pretty well now and head towards Vaci Utca and the dozens of shops where we know we’ll find some gifts. They will have to be small since our luggage is already bursting at the seams. Anne spies a tourist office and pops in to make some calls and has the surprise of the trip. She hands a note to the staff person that has the number for Balasz on it and the person asks Are you Anne Wikstrom? It turns out that this is Adele, the lady who has arranged for our apartment and has been communicating with Anne via email for weeks! Details taken care of we now walk towards the riverside where we make reservations for dinner and our evening boat cruise. The day is warming up nicely.
We enter the Central Market for a light lunch of sausage, potatoes and a sauerkraut stuffed pepper. Anne strikes up a conversation with a young Russian girl eating beside us after hearing her speak English at the food stand. The Hungarians can’t really understand Russian very well so English becomes the common language. We talk of the merits and dangers of traveling in Russia and she assures us that St. Petersburg is very safe and we may yet go to see the Hermitage some time. We can’t decide on an appropriate gift for Patty but Anne does acquire a fine linen breadbasket for friends Kaz and Mich. We exit the market and walk across Liberty Bridge to the Buda side. It’s hilly right away and I’m reluctant to have Anne push me anywhere that isn’t absolutely necessary. A spectacular church is carved into the side of the hill and I encourage Anne to climb the short way to it on her own but she declines. We instead cross the street and enjoy refreshments at the open-air café of the Gellert. Classical piano music emanates from the interior and though there is a constant rumble of traffic we still enjoy a relaxed time gazing at the majestic Pest side with the buildings reflected on the Danube. There are still a few hours before our cruise and dinner so we stroll Vaci Utca and take a slightly alternate way back to the apartment where we begin to organize our things to ready for departure tomorrow.
We are as prepared as we can be and after a short while we again take to the streets and walk down Andrassy towards the river. People are sunning themselves in one of the many parks and we join the promenade, happy to have enjoyed such a marvelous time and glad that we didn’t schedule any other stops on our journey. We arrive at the restaurant, Dura Corso and almost immediately are met by Belasz. Since the waning sun is a delight and the wind has abated we change our inside table reservation to on outside where we enjoy a string quartet while talking and watching the sun set over the National Museum. Anne orders perch and Balasz has a chicken dish but I’m determined to have traditional goulash. When it arrives without the promised mushrooms Anne suggests I return it. I’m reluctant as I’d rather the chef doesn’t spit in it or cause us to be late for the cruise. It’s delicious anyway and we are well sated. The twilight is magical and it is wondrous to watch the lights come on the Chain Bridge and the buildings glow with their own illumination. Venus hangs bright in the nearly cloudless sky as we conclude our meal and begin walking the short but bumpy road to the cruise ship. Balasz and the crew negotiate a treacherous flight of steps and we’re soon sipping champagne and enjoying the passing scene. Our interpretive audio guide isn’t working so well so we’re happy to view the glorious spectacle sans interpretation. Since we had been retiring early this is our first look at the lights of Budapest and with the reflections off the water it is an exquisite sight.
We kiss as we pass under the Chain Bridge and cruise as far as Margaret Island. Balasz relates what he knows about Hungarian history and seems to be enjoying the ride as much as we do. We are very glad that he has been able to join us and we offer to sponsor him if ever he has the chance to come to the United States. He helps us up the steep steps after disembarking and steers cars away so that we can avoid the cobblestones and take to the street instead. We talk of faith, Christ’s message of love and I relate my near-death experience while walking back to the apartment and Anne shares her story of how we came to meet. We give him a donation for his church along with one of my pins and he surprises us with a bottle of special Hungarian wine (Bull's Blood) and a box of chocolate covered cherries. It has been a terrific time and we are pleased to have a new friend that has brought the country alive for us. It is nearly midnight when we take to our beds with the only reservations regarding how we’re going to fit everything else in our bags.
It’s hot! I’m kind of wishing we had a little more time to just lounge around the river and soak up the sun but we are off for Vienna today. Anne manages to get everything packed and we leave very little behind. My jeans are tight and it will be an effort to lose a little weight but I’m sure I’ll manage once we’re home. Our van is there right on time and we get our last looks of Budapest on our way to the train station. We are somewhat anxious when we arrive at the platform, as we don’t see any lift to assist me on board. Once our track is announced we approach 2 workmen and they escort me to our car and muscle me aboard. I had assumed that I would ride between the cars like I did coming to Budapest but am pleasantly surprised to be able to secure a spot reserved for bicycles in the 2nd class car. It’s very nice to see the sights I missed on the ride out and the bright sunshine gives us hope that the weather in Vienna will be nice also.
We pull into Vienna station around 4pm and have no problem getting off and connecting with our transportation back to the Vienna Plaza. The van will return in the early morning for our ride to the airport. Anne had requested a room with a roll-in shower but neither of us imagined that we would be staying our last night in the top-floor penthouse. The deluxe accommodations are a perfect culmination to a splendid journey and the smile on Anne’s face speaks volumes about prayers answered. Ten years ago we celebrated our last night in Vienna with dinner at the historic Vienna Inn. We remember the cold and the cobblestones and the dark interior. This time the weather is superb and we’re able to roll there easily and enjoy a terrific meal on the patio outside. A chain-smoking diner next to us is slightly annoying but doesn’t spoil our meal of venison with strawberry garnish. We share a traditional Sacher Torte for dessert and it is a fitting last treat for our adventure to old world Europe. Anne has rearranged our luggage and we’ll have our hands full with extra gear but we’re both psyched for the return home tomorrow and will manage I’m sure.
We both get plenty of rest and are as ready as we can be. The consierge has been very helpful to us and we enjoy pleasant conversation before the van arrives and drives us along the Danube one last time. At the airport I'm facilitated through customs and security and we spend some brief minutes having a snack in the member's lounge. My porters escort us aboard and I'm soon leafing through the video guide and selecting my movie choices. Bobby is excellent and the ending assassination scenes tear me up. The next is Notes on a Scandal with Kate Blanchett and Judi Dench. Also excellent but a little twisted. The last movie that I watched after our transfer in Washington D.C. is The Painted Veil, a Somerset Maughm story set amid cholera and nationalists in 1820's China.
Dulles Airport is always a trying ordeal and the international nature of our trip requires my wheelchair to get routed rather than meeting me at the gate. There are extra transfers and a porter has to push the entire length of the concourse but we arrive with a couple minutes to spare. Due to paperwork regarding a sink malfunction our departure is delayed almost an hour but eventually we're aloft. When finally we arrive in Seattle we've been up for 26 hours. Our home has seldom seemed sweeter and it feels incredible to have had a trip that we will always count as one of our very best. The Association outdid themselves in every way and provided us with memories lasting a lifetime.