Travels With Myself

A Personalized Periodic Update, just for my family and friends, of the Ongoing Adventures of Your Favorite World Traveler

Location: Budapest, Hungary

After nearly 30 years in the financial industry in the US (mostly California and New Mexico), I decided it was time for my second life. I sold my house, sold my car, sold all my furniture, took a TEFL course and moved to Budapest to teach Business English to the business people of Hungary. Amazing mid-life change! I taught for about eight years, then pretty much retired. Since then I have traveled extensively, and have been to nearly 75 countries. I have had six books published, mostly about my travels - see my author's page on I have made friends all over the world. Becoming an expat is the best move I ever made and I plan to continue my travels indefinitely. Come join me on this blog and enjoy the places I've been and the people I've met in the past and present and hopefully will meet in the future.

Friday, March 16, 2018

Hangin' Out in the Persian Gulf

SUN, I need SUN! I got back to Budapest mid-January to below-freezing temperatures and it was all I could do to go to the corner pub for a beer. Too damn cold! I couldn’t wait until spring, hunkering down in my flat and shivering the days and nights away. I had to find some warm sunshine long before old Mr. Sol showed his springtime heat here in Hungary. But where to go for another 6-7 days? I toyed with Lanzarotte for a while, but getting there proved to be just that much too difficult, so I bagged on that possibility. I searched and searched and checked my maps and suddenly, there it was: Doha, Qatar, another Gulf state and one I’d never been to. Warmth, heat, sunshine: YES!

So I made my reservations for early March; I could last out February, with only 28 days, and then I’d be back in the lovely sunny days and warm nights of the Persian Gulf. I was ready! At least I thought I could last out February; then the last week of the month Budapest got hit with temps down to -12 C (or 8 F). Brrr. I wrapped up in all of my winter clothes and sat shivering in my flat until the afternoon of March 5, when I could finally ditch the cold and head for the sun.

Caught a late flight to Istanbul, quick changeover (luckily, this time my connecting gate was only a five-minute speed-walk from my arrival gate) and another 4.5 hours to Doha, landing around 5:30 on the morning of March 6. Debarked from the plane, cleared Passport Control (no need to shell out money for a visa at Immigration Control, as none was required, unlike what the Internet sites said), picked up my bag (whew, made it again!) and walked out to look for my driver. Since my hotel, the Kingsgate, offered an airport pickup service, I had previously decided the early-morning arrival was worth it. And there was my name on the driver’s signboard!

As we walked out to his car, I was reminded once again of that old proverb: “Be careful what you wish for --- you might get it!” In my case, I wished for sunshine and heat to chase away winter’s freezing temps, and Boy, did I ever get it! Temperature in Doha was 30 degrees Celsius when I arrived, or about 85 degrees Fahrenheit. The sweat began trickling down my neck and back as we walked the short distance to the car, and I could hardly wait to get inside and turn on the air conditioner.

According to the tourist brochures, for most of its history Doha was a poor, tiny fishing village dependent on pearl diving, and was regarded as a sleepy backwater until as recently as the early 1990s. Following the accession of Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani as Emir in 1995, Qatar quickly began to modernize, and Doha is now taking huge strides to catch up with other nearby Gulf states Dubai and Abu Dhabi. The city is very much a work-in-progress, with a rapidly growing skyline and new buildings sprouting up almost like mushrooms.

The vast majority of the country's population resides in the capital city, Doha, which is astonishingly diverse; in fact, only 20% of the residents are native Qataris. Although Arabic is Qatar's official language, English is by default the lingua franca, as the majority of the city's worker expats do not speak Arabic, including most shopkeepers and service providers, and most Qataris speak English to communicate with the numerous migrant workers who work for them. Doha is also now one of the fastest-growing cities in the world, as workers continue to pour in to help build the developing economy. In fact, my driver was from Sri Lanka.

Check-in at the hotel Kingsgate was easy and efficient; zip, zam, zoom and I was in my room, changing out of my winter clothes and into sandals and shorts again. I also got an upgraded room, with a kitchenette but without a chair. My sixth-floor view consisted of the next-door sand-colored slums and rundown shacks, and there was even a brownish, Los Angeles-like layer of haze on the horizon. I later learned this was actually a layer of sand kicked up by the prevailing breezes and pretty much always hanging in the air. Too, bad, the views would otherwise be clear and clean and desert-sparkling.

My reservation included breakfast, but even though the hotel stretched a point for me by allowing me an early check-in, I had to wait for my breakfast until the following day. BUT – you know me by now, right, Dear Reader? Yep, always researched and prepared. I headed out of the hotel, stepping around the locals in their long dirty robes and headdresses who seemed to linger on every street corner while the expats do all the work.

But the very first word that sprang to mind as I strolled down the dusty streets was: CONSTRUCTION! Buildings going up all over town. Cranes and workers and wheelbarrows and dump trucks and hard hats and dust and sand everywhere. And the noise! Apparently, Doha was frantically scurrying to get ready for the 2022 Football (soccer) World Cup to be held in its environs. New hotels, new buildings, new metro, new streets, damn near new everything was being built to showcase Doha to the world in just four short years. I hope they made it, as they sure were putting enough effort into it.

Meanwhile, I was on my way to Ric’s Kountry Kitchen, just a short 20-minute walk the opposite side of my hotel from the souk, but boasting (on their website, anyway) the best breakfast in Doha. And was it ever! It was almost Denny’s Grand Slam. Their menu included all sorts of egg dishes, beef sausage (no pork in Arabic countries), hash brown potatoes, real manly American pancakes (not those effete little crepes one finds throughout Europe and North Africa), beans (for the English tourist), Texas Toast (twice as thick as regular toast) and a host of other down-home goodies one rarely finds when traveling in the Middle East. There were even Mexican dishes on the menu and a non-stop glass of lemonade packed with ice, which was sorely needed even after my brief walk from the hotel.

Anyway, I gorged on this sumptuous repast, smiling all the while, as the air conditioner reminded me I was back in the good old summertime. As I prepared to leave, my waitress asked me if I’d like to take a large lemonade with me, as there was no extra charge. I seriously considered it, but dragging that big cup around with me until I polished it off seemed like too much effort, so I passed. Of course, 20 minutes later I wished I had that cold, refreshing drink with me as I sweltered in the blazing Qatari sunshine.
OK, off to see the Corniche. Doha’s Corniche is quite a bit larger than the one in Muttrah, Oman. I had originally thought of walking the entire length of the curved promenade walkway, but seven kilometers is just a touch far for me these days – especially wearing sandals. It was enough just walking along the Corniche the length of two traffic signals. That little jaunt and a left turn got me to the Souk Waqif, where I spent much of my time in Doha.

Walking from Ric’s to the Corniche was a touch over one kilometer. I wanted to walk along the seaside promenade, but, naturally, it was fenced off due to an ongoing renovation. I was not happy. Then it was another full kilometer down to the souk. Whew! I hadn’t even been in Doha for three hours and already I was whipped.

But I was at the souk! I engaged in my favorite pastime of “souking,” i.e., wandering the byways and back aisles of these wonderful old Middle East markets, checking out the wares, fondling the pashmina scarves, looking for souvenirs for family and friends and trying to remember where the stalls were that I wanted to revisit. I barely made a dent in the Souk Waqif at that time, but it was sufficient to notice that the vendors weren’t anywhere near as pushy as those in Oman. Theirs was more the soft sell technique, none of this rushing at you and grabbing your hand. A pleasant change.

I made a reservation for that night at Damasca One, a Syrian restaurant that promised great food alongside an “amazing” sword dancing show and Syrian music. I was hooked. I hoped it was as good as it sounded. As I strolled through the major streets of the souk, I also noticed an unoccupied Turkish Ice Cream stand. Turkish Ice Cream?! OMG – I can’t stand it! The BEST ice cream in the entire WORLD! I’d be back that night for a taste.

The sun was beating down on me and sweat was pouring out of me – but that’s what I cane for, right? Right! Albeit, I was still tired from lack of sleep, so I took a page from the local handbook, when everyone closed shop between noon and 4 PM to beat the heat in the hottest part of the day, and I wavered back to the hotel through the construction zone for a shower and a nap.

I was out again with the evening crowd, checking out those places I had researched on the Internet. There was no place to sit and have a long, cold beer or a cocktail of any kind, as alcohol is not allowed other than in the four- and five-star hotels, but an ice-cold lemonade went down almost as well, accompanied by some mezze, Middle East tapas.

Around 9 PM I wandered over to Damasca One to see what the dinner show held in store for me. Turned out it wasn’t much. I had a grilled halloumi cheese appetizer, and Mains of lovely sliced lamb meat pie, washed down with tea. I sat in a nearly empty large dining room and watched the “show” – a middle-aged, Arabic-featured man twirling and dancing around with some long knives (or short sabers) for a few minutes before he took a break. What a letdown. I paid my bill and hurried out to find the Turkish Ice Cream stand, which was now open. I watched delightedly as the server did his ice-cream-cone tricks with a couple of little kids until my impatience overcame me and I shoved the annoying kids out of my way and requested my ice cream cone. (OK, I didn’t really do that, but I wanted to! Such is the pull of Turkish Ice Cream)

I got my very own cone with a triple scoop of vanilla ice cream on top and wandered away with a beatific look on my face and peace in my soul, licking and chewing that amazing concoction for all it was worth. No scoffing out there – if you haven’t had it, you won’t believe it, but if you ever do have a chance to partake, don’t miss it. Ben and Jerry’s just can’t even be mentioned in the same breath.

Wednesday I decided to take the Doha Bus Hop On Hop Off tour of the city. I’d seen a Trip Advisor report that the tour wasn’t worth the 180 Qatari Rials it cost (about 35 euro, or $40 US), so wasn’t sure about the value, but once I talked to the young ticket seller (from the Philippines), I changed my mind. No, the value wasn’t there for a one-day ticket, but for the 180 QR I got two days worth of trips plus the night tour, plus free water. So that’s three tours for 180 QR, or 60 QR per tour, a much better deal. I took it.

There were only two buses in the company, so there was always at least a one-hour wait between buses, not a big deal. That first day I stayed on the bus for the full two-hour tour. We went all the way around the Corniche to the City Center, saw the outskirts of Katara Village and drove through The Pearl area of shops and housing. The second sweep I got off at the City Center Mall to see if it was worth it; for me, not. I had a really bad Mongolian BBQ lunch, but a really good counterfeit Cinnabon as I watched the locals try to ice skate on the indoor rink.

We arrived back at the souk around 4:30, so I thought I could get one of my standard errands out of the way. I caught a taxi (driver from Pakistan) to my destination on the outskirts of Doha, then came back to the souk. Dinner was some sort of chicken pasta at Al Refaa, one of the few locally-owned fast-food buffet restaurants on one of the souk’s main streets. I sat next to a white-robed sheik as the outdoor ceiling fans whirred overhead, pushing the hot air around but not really cooling anything off; it was still at least 28 degrees Celsius. But I got to people-watch and take a leisurely repast as the sun went down and the shoppers and diners came out. I made an after-dinner swing through the Bird Souk and found the Falcon Souk for a next-day visit. The Camel Souk and Horse Souk would have to wait for another day. But another Turkish Ice Cream finished me off for this day.

I decided Thursday would be my first beach day. I was informed the first Doha Bus was scheduled to leave from the souk stop at 9 AM, so if I caught that bus I’d be at Katara Village by 10 AM and would have several good hours of beach time. Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men…..still going aft aglay.

I got to the Doha Bus stop at 8:45 AM – you know me, always early! The attendant informed me the bus would be “a little late;” which turned out to be around 25 minutes. So the bus showed up at 9:25 AM – packed with mostly middle-aged Frenchmen and their overweight wives and several kids. In other Hop On Hop Off bus tours I have done around the world, the company has attendants waiting at the major stops to sell tickets before passengers board the bus, so as not to slow down the schedule. In Doha, it doesn’t work like that. Ticket sellers await at only the two major stops on the route. After new passengers get on at current and previous stops, without ticketing, the attendant gets on at the major stops and collects fares (usually by credit card, a slow process) from all new passengers. So it was at this stop.

BUT – then some of the French wives noticed they were charged individual instead of family rates, which were quite a bit higher, so the attendant had to go back through all of them and redo their charges. Sigh. More than one hour late, around 10:15 AM, we finally took off. What a bunch of inefficient dipsticks.

We finally got to Katara Village around 11:30 AM, thus cutting my beach time way down. I was not a happy camper. Brochures for this attraction state that Katara Village is “an innovative interpretation of the region’s architectural heritage….with purpose-built impressive theatres, galleries and performance venues which stage a lively year-round programme of concerts, shows and exhibitions. Visitors can also find other recreational attractions, including top class restaurants offering a variety of cuisines, and a spacious, well-maintained public beach with water sports. Visitors can take a night time stroll along the promenade, with its expansive views of Doha’s skyline, as well as a rich array of seaside food stalls and markets.”
Well, sort of. In fact, the entire “village” was only about 80% complete. They were still putting the finishing touches on it when I was there and the park was virtually empty of visitors. The Doha Bus dropped me off near the north end of the village and I wandered through the partially finished construction down to the promenade and beach area, to Beach Entry Stand No. 18, only to find a guard there who informed me that the beach was closed. I refrained from killing him when he went on to say that he thought the beach around Entry Gate 5 might be open. I started to walk the long, long path across an unshaded open brick-lined area when I noticed some golf carts making the same journey. I flagged one down and, sure enough, they were there for free transport of visitors. A much easier and faster trip.

Got to Gate 5, where the guard informed me the beach was open! Alright! He pointed me toward the changing facilities across the road and also told me that when off the beach I had to cover my shoulders and that even on the beach Speedo swimming trunks for men weren’t allowed. My Battle Smile kicked in and I asked him if it was OK for me to wear a Speedo swimming cap. He seemed confused. I asked about my Speedo beach sandals. He was nonplused. My Speedo sunglasses? How about my Speedo beach condoms, specially treated to be waterproof? I wandered away to change my clothes, leaving him with mouth agape as he rapidly paged through his book of inane beach rules. Not much else to do at a beach in Qatar except stand on the sand and wade out waist-deep into the water, while not wearing anything from Speedo. No fun allowed anywhere. But at least the Persian Gulf was cool and refreshing.

I spent the next few hours just relaxing on the beach, taking the occasional dip in the cool, clear green water of the Persian Gulf and just enjoying the warmth and sunshine. So nice after winter’s cold breath back in Budapest. Around 2 PM or so I walked back to the changing room, remembering to cover my shoulders with my towel. A quick shower to get the sand and salt off, flag down one of those golf carts driven by yet another expat and end up back near the Doha bus stop at the Al Bisana restaurant. Lunch was hummus and meat, after which I caught one of the last of the Hop On Hop Off Doha buses back to the souk and headed off to my hotel for a quick afternoon nap before sampling the pleasures of the night.
This night I chose the Argan Moroccan restaurant, complete with tagine dishes served by a lovely young woman named Aigul from Kazakhstan. The seafood pastille went down just right and Aigul even talked me into an after-dinner refreshment of local tea, while relaxing on one of the sofas in the center space of the restaurant. I do so love the dining experiences in the Middle East. A quick swing by the Turkish Ice Cream stand for a dessert treat and a slow walk back through the construction sites to my hotel. Tomorrow would be a busy day.

I had arranged through my hotel for a full day out in the Qatari desert with the Arabian Adventure Group. I breakfasted early and was waiting in the lobby when my driver, Waseem (from Pakistan) pulled up in his gigantic Chevy Suburban around 9 AM. (Author’s Note: I was amazed that the three-star hotel I stayed in actually changed their hot breakfast buffet dishes every day, so I always had something different to eatin the morning. Many four- and five-star hotels I’ve stayed in didn’t offer such a variety. The small hotel restaurant even offered cloth napkins and ready-made omelets).

We headed out across the totally flat and sandy desert on amazingly good highways. The Middle East sheikhs put a lot of their oil money to good use, fixing up their infrastructures and making life easy for their natives. We drove through Al Wakra and Meirshaba to an area called Sealine, which is a staging area for the many desert adventure tours coming from Doha. We stopped for around 20 minutes or so while Waseem let some air out of the Suburban’s tires, the better to have the big vehicle grip the loose desert sand on the dunes. I also had a chance to sip some sugary tea to help maintain my hydration, while watching the young female tourists opt for camel rides a short distance into the dunes and back. And then we were off!
It was just me and Waseem, and he drove the dunes like a magician. He drove along the dune crests and he sideslipped down the sides of the dunes. He was a good driver and obviously knew what he was doing as, even though there were several steep dips and some white-knuckle chills, he was always in complete control of his vehicle. We probably drove the dunes for 20-30 minutes until finally coming to a stop at a crest overlooking the inland sea. We stopped along with other adventurers for a photo op and, for the other bashers that day (a group of a local company’s Indian and Nepalese workers out for a fun day of bonding), some horseplay in the sand.
I got a couple of photos before the lens cover fell off my Nikon Coolpix; the camera still worked, but was now open to even more incursions of that fine desert sand drifting into its inner parts. I’d have to be careful from now on. We took off again over dunes and some salt flats until we arrived at a high point overlooking the Saudia Arabian border. Another quick photo op and off to the Arabian Adventure Tour’s campsite, located right on the Persian Gulf. The site was complete with tents and outdoor tables and beach chairs and a mess hall, toilets, showers, etc.

Waseem left me there for the remainder of the day, telling me he’d return around 5 PM to pick me up. And so, once again, I rested, swam in the Gulf, had a nice buffet lunch of various local specialties, topped up my bright-red suntan and generally relaxed. Waseem had warned me not to swim too far out from shore, as there may be sharks in the water. Visions of the movie Jaws popped into my head and my forays into the Gulf pretty much ended around waist deep. But, again, it was cool and refreshing and the sun was hot and I was just happy to be away from winter.

The company group I’d seen earlier were also dropped off at this camp and I had a chance to talk to them during a lull in their exhibiting boyish highjinks in the water (no worries about sharks for them!) and on the beach. It’s always good for me to meet and talk to people from so many countries around the globe, and I have also found that pretty much all of the people I meet are really interested to have a conversation with a real, live American, expat thought I might be. As long as I stay away from politics and religion, our talks always go OK. Another fun afternoon.
And sure enough, almost on the dot of 5 PM, Waseem showed up for our ride back to Doha. On our way back across the desert sands we encountered hundreds – maybe thousands – of weekend revelers out in the desert in their SUVs and dragging their dune buggies of all shapes and sizes. They were roaring up and down the steep dunes, camped out in their weekend tents, building fires, cooking lamb and generally having a great time in the sand dunes and salt flats. The staging area where we’d stopped on the way in was full of people inflating their tires to get back on the highways. We had ours done and bid a fond adieu to the desert at sunset.

We got to my hotel around 6:30 and I was due for a good long hot shower to get rid of all that desert sand. Another evening jaunt through the construction debris around the hotel and on the street to the souk and I was back where I wanted to be, browsing the stalls and bargaining with the vendors for their wares. Wondering about dinner, I paused in front of the Royal Tandoor Indian restaurant and was regaled by the young lady shilling for her place of the many and exotic foods I could find inside, so what the heck, Indian food it would be.

I scanned the menu and, although they had several dishes that looked good, including lobster vindaloo and lamb vindaloo, they didn’t have shrimp vindaloo, which I had suddenly fixed on as my dinner of choice. My young waitress (from Malaysia) scurried back to check with the chef and lo and behold, he could do it! I opted for an appetizer of chili fried shrimp, which would have gone great with a Tiger beer, but I had to settle for tea and some sort of mint fruit juice. The shrimp vindaloo main course was damn near perfect and I was once again in hog heaven during mealtime. Dessert was – you guessed it! – Turkish Ice Cream. Can’t get enough of that taste treat.

Saturday and Sunday were sort of extra days during which I hadn’t really planned anything specific. Saturday I slept in and didn’t have breakfast until 9 AM, late for me when traveling. I decided to check out the attractions I’d missed or only skimmed during the past few days, so first I walked over to the Al Khoot fort, near the souk. Naturally, it was being renovated so I was unable to go inside, but I took it in stride. Next, a short walk to the Clock Tower (“Saaave the Clock Tower!”) which was, well, a clock tower. It was next to one of the ubiquitous mosques in Doha, which I couldn’t enter as I was in shorts, but that was OK as I’d been in bigger and better mosques in the past, so no big deal.

I checked out the Falcon Souk in Souk Waqif, an area devoted to, as you might have guessed, falcons. The old sport of falconry is still practiced in Qatar and there is an obvious market for good birds. There’s even a falcon hospital to care for injured or sick birds. The outdoor horse souk was empty, as the horses were kept indoors during the heat of the day, but the camels were outside in their camel souk pen, chewing their cud and making strange noises.

I’d been active during most of my days in Qatar, but Saturday was especially hot, at 34 degrees Celsius in the unshaded streets and parks of Doha (that’s around 92 degrees Fahrenheit!), so today I decided to do as the locals did and close up shop between noon and four PM and spend those hours in a cool or air-conditioned environment. So I did, even getting a brief nap into the afternoon.
But around 5 PM I was out and about again. I walked down to the Al Corniche and the dhow jetty and found one of the dhows ready to head out for a 30-minute cruise across the bay to the city center area and back. Only 40 Qatari Rials (about 8 euro) and so, along with several families, including their kids, it was off in an ancient dhow with the cooling breeze wafting over us and sounds of strange music blasting from the speakers (has anyone ever heard the song I’m In Love With Your Body?)
One of the last restaurants I had researched was the Bandar Aden Yemeni restaurant at the edge of the souk, so tonight I headed over to see what Yemeni food was like. And it was pretty damn good. I sat outside, as always, and had something called a Salta, which was sort of a meat stew, consisting of meat, eggs, rice, cheese, potatoes and beef curry. It was served in a bowl and eaten with a spoon. It was also accompanied by the biggest piece of naan bread I have ever seen. I don’t even know how they cooked it. It must have been 15 inches, or almost 40 centimeters, in diameter. I polished off the Salta OK but only managed about half of the naan, as good as it was.

I was sitting alone at a table for four, tearing strips off my monster naan, when a middle-aged man asked if he could join me; sure, no problem. Turned out he was originally from Egypt, working locally as an architect, and had lived in LA for some years. Always fun to have a dining companion, and we had a nice chat during our dinner. I chose the Maasob Garden of Eden for dessert, which was apparently a distant kin to bread pudding, i.e., bananas, bread, honey, cheese and dates slathered with cream. A mint tea rounded it off nicely. I spent awhile after dinner wandering the souk again and listening to the live music played on several terraces, until my legs gave out and I staggered back to the hotel.

And then it was Sunday, my last full day in Doha. I’d done almost everything I wanted to do and seen everything I wanted to see, so it was essentially a free day. Mostly I just walked around on the Corniche, enjoying the heat and sunshine (it was 34 degrees Celsius again). I picked up a backpack to hold the extra souvenirs I’d bought that wouldn’t fit in my suitcase. I walked over to the Museum of Islamic Art, but found it somewhat boring, as Islam does not allow representations of people, animals, or other living creatures or things in its “art”. So, what’s left is basically just geometric scribbles, which really don’t hold one’s interest for very long. But at least it was cool inside.
While in the MIA I chatted with a pair of Indian expats in town for a short-term work contract; as always, they were pleased to talk with a real American. I watched the dhows for a while and finally walked back to the souk for lunch. I found a nice air conditioned place and had a really good pizza covered with all sorts of pizza toppings. I also decided on a pina colada “mocktail,” one of those fake cocktails without any alcohol. I told my waitress (from Malaysia) we would call it a Virgin Pina Colada; she giggled hysterically as she served me.

A brief nap and shower, some last-minute shopping and bargaining in the souk, a light dinner at a small locally-owned restaurant surrounded by men in white robes smoking their shisha pipes and, yes, one more Turkish ice cream cone before I strolled back to the hotel to pack. I had arranged a hotel car to take me to the airport around 9:30, hoping I could check in early and maybe have a late snack and some final browsing through the luxury shops on my way to Gate C20, at least a quarter-mile walk from Passport Control.

All was OK and my flight took off on time, about 2:30 AM. I changed planes at Istanbul again and found I had to go through another security check, the line for which must have held 500 people. It was slow going, but I have to admit the Turkish Border Control folks whisked us through as quickly as possible, which was good as I only had a one-hour connection time. By the time I got through Security and hustled down to my gate, my flight was boarding again, as it had on my outbound leg. Damn – just made it!

And so I was home again in Budapest at 8:30 Monday morning. The weather had even cooperated for a change and was around 50 degrees F (10 C), so my bus and metro rides home were easy peezy. I’d absorbed enough sunshine to last me until spring and I glowed with the good health of a nice base suntan. Another fun trip – and now 72 countries under my belt. Hope you enjoyed this blog and we’ll have to see what comes next. Until then, Happy Trails and May the Road Rise to Meet You.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

O' Man -- OMAN!

Winter came again this year to Budapest, as it always does, and I dug out my heavy coat and hat to wear when just going to the corner store for supplies. I really am getting to dislike winter more and more as my body grows older. And so, as I try to do every year about this time, I spun my world globe and closed my eyes and threw my dart and, after recovering my dart from the bathroom door five times, finally found it stuck in Oman, just south of Dubai and with a headland sticking out into the Arabian Sea (now the Sea of Oman, courtesy of royal proclamation by Oman’s ruler Sultan Qaboos – pronounced the same as the name of the very last car on a train). Oman it shall be!

This time my best deal was on Emirates Airlines, which I’ve never flown before. Emirates is supposed to be one of the best airlines in the world, so we shall see. My flight and connecting times were not all I could have hoped for, but one must pay the price for winter sun. On the afternoon of January 9, 2018, I took off for my winter holiday. Got to Dubai around 11:30 that night local time and, since I had arranged for a hotel for my nine-hour layover, I was whisked away by a shuttle bus some 20 minutes or so from the airport. Got checked in, had a nightcap, and caught a few hours of sleep before my connecting flight the next morning.

I arrived back at the airport around 5:30, three hours before my flight, but since I had to go through passport control and security again, I thought it best to be a touch early. Since the airport was crowded even at that hour, I was glad I arrived early. Besides, I could have breakfast in the airport, which I did at a boulangerie – a nice Spanish omelet and OJ. I wandered the vast array of shops, open even at that early hour, window-shopped, failed to buy a raffle ticket for a Ferrari, browsed, read one of my Kindle books and finally caught my 8 AM flight for Muscat, Oman,

The plane landed in Oman at 9:30 AM on Wednesday, January 10. My hotel was in Mutrah, which is a 25-minute taxi ride from the airport. I changed some money, got my visa, cleared passport control, got my suitcase, found a taxi and headed out to see what my 71st country looked like. I immediately saw it was different from Dubai.

I drove through the newest part of Muscat, Oman’s capital city, filled with lots of white buildings: mosques, opera house, hotels, offices, commercial, more mosques, etc. The day was hazy sunshine, but at least it was warm, say about 75 F (20 C). One interesting observation: there were no skyscrapers, like in next-door Dubai. The city seemed to be ringed with low mountains and there was lots of sand and barren rocky desert between buildings and streets. Beautiful new highway, lots of nice new cars (no oil-burners here!) and, off to my left, the Sea of Oman. Oh, yeah!

Muscat has apparently been inhabited since around 1000 BCE; today it is the capital of the Sultanate of Oman and is home to a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society. Muscat is actually divided into four separate areas: New Muscat, between the airport and the coastal hills to the southeast; Mutrah, where the port welcomes cruise ships and the Corniche promenade draws visitors from everywhere; Old Muscat, southwest of Mutrah, where the Sultan lives and has his administrative offices and a couple of old forts; and Ruwi, which I guess you’d call the commercial center, tucked into the hills just west of the midpoint between New Muscat and Mutrah.

My online guide book says that, “Compared to flashy Emirati neighbours like Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the capital of Oman is a breath of fresh, sea air. Muscat is famous for dazzling souks and superb seafood, but its terrain brings the biggest thrills. This port city on the Gulf of Oman is backed by the arid Hajar mountains, meaning you can trek deserts at dawn, spot dolphins at sundown, and enjoy plenty of effusive Omani hospitality in between.”

And was I ever ready to start enjoying that warm Omani winter weather, just 23 degrees of latitude above the equator. I checked into the Naseem Hotel, located right on Mutrah’s famous Corniche, a semi-circular promenade around a small bay, filled with sights and sounds of the Middle East: restaurants, souvenir sellers, travel agents, mosques, a wonderfully busy souk and several banks. I strolled the Corniche often during my visit and never tired of it.

I shed my winter duds with a passion, getting into what would be my outfit for the next eight days: sandals, shorts and polo shirt. I was ready to soak up all that sunshine and vitamin D, which would then let me put up with another month or two of Budapest winter.
The Naseem Hotel would rate about 2-3 stars in most guidebooks (although, suspiciously, there was a plaque next to the Reception Area which contained only one star; hmmm) and was certainly adequate for my needs. My initial room had no view but, since the toilet tank had a slight leak, I was switched to another similar-sized room which did, indeed, have that great view of the port and cruise ships. I was a happy camper. The hotel has four stories and is somewhat older and rather plain, but, at 20 rials a night (about 44 euros or $50 US), who was I to complain? The staff were all exceedingly friendly, foreign workers from India, Malaysia, Pakistan, etc, imported to do the daily work the Omanis couldn’t be bothered with. The staff even managed to book my tours for me.

Breakfast every day was a simple but filling affair: for two rials, I got juice, yoghurt, tea or coffee, toast, two eggs and accessories, a cheap and easy way to start the day.
I busted out the side door and hustled down to the Corniche and faced the sun and, for a few minutes, just stood there with my face upraised, soaking in all that desert and coastal warmth and vitamin D and lovely heat. Aaaahhh, heaven.

I walked up the Corniche and found a small open restaurant, Al Raffee, notable for its being open between 1 PM and 4 PM, which most other restaurants in the Middle East are not. I opted for Szechwan squid, garlic naan and a soft drink; no beer or other alcohol available almost anywhere, except restaurants in the larger tourist hotels. I watched the other diners, mostly local men wearing the traditional floor-length white robes called dishdasha and a strange looking little hand-embroidered cloth cap called a kuma, as they gathered in small groups and ate from a common bowl or plate, scraping up the rice and shoveling it into their mouth, using only their right hand. If you don’t already know why they only eat with their right hand, send me a PM and I’ll tell you.

After lunch I ambled over to the Mutrah souk, just down the Corniche. I love these precursors of the modern-day Shopping Mall, crammed with small shops equally crammed with all sorts of wonderful things I can’t live without: Bedouin scarves, brass animals and bells, colorful exotic clothes and pretty much anything else you might need or want. As usual in these types of places, I got the feeling the souk merchants had been advised that I would be in the neighborhood and to get ready for me. As I walked the cramped corridors between stalls and shops, I could see the little vacuum hoses creeping out of the doorways and into my pockets to SUCK ALL OF MY MONEY OUT!
I’m such a sucker for these places and the merchants must all be able to spot me coming three corridors away, as they all want to press on me their amazing goods: those little embroidered caps (didn’t buy any; where would I wear them in Budapest?), silk scarves (OK, bought one), perfumes, spices, Oman t-shirts, Arabian Nights slippers, you name it, they had it. The merchants here weren’t as aggressive as those in Egypt or Morocco, but they still want to sell you something. I was able to wear out two of my favorite Arabic words: ‘la, shukran!’ (No, thanks).

It was a nice first run-through, and both the sellers and I knew I’d be back.

Lack of sleep the previous night forced me back to my hotel for a brief nap, and then I was once again up and about. Had a light dinner on one of the Corniche terrace restaurants (shawarma and 7-Up), then strolled even farther down the Corniche to see what I had to look forward to during future strolls. It was an early first night in Oman.

Had an early Thursday morning breakfast at the hotel and headed back to the souk, which was where the first stop for The Big Bus hop-on-Hop-off tour was located. Every time I see this tour bus company around the world, I’m always reminded of the disaster-spoof movie The Big Bus, about an atomic-powered bus hauling passengers across the US. Never made it big, but a cult film in its own right; see it if you can.

The two-hour round trip bus tour, with 8 or 10 stops (depending on the day), cost 29 Omani rial, or about 66 euro ($76 US). Not cheap; the same tour in Budapest, with more stops, is only about $40 US. But, what the heck, I like these bus tours as a way to get acclimated and to see the big sights and also to see the sights I will want to visit again later on foot. So, I did one complete loop of all the sights and stops, staying on the bus for the time being. The tour took us through Ruwi, the commercial center of Muscat, then over to New Muscat and the beach area. Next it was a long drive back to Old Muscat and Oman’s Parliament and the Al Bustan Palace, before swinging back up the coast to Mutrah.
During the second loop, I alighted at the Shatti al Qurum beach area, near the Intercontinental Hotel in New Muscat. The beach was virtually empty for miles, which surprised me, as I thought there would be people out enjoying the winter sun – like me. Ah, well, I kicked some sand and decided lunch was in order. I chose the BBQ Nation restaurant, just off the beach, as they had a nice terrace and friendly staff. The Mixed Seafood Sizzling Platter, with squid, fish and prawns, looked like the way to go, so I did. I once again soaked up that great winter sunshine and was pleased to see my sizzling platter actually sizzling when it was delivered to me. I got ready to dig in when every fly and sand flea in Oman attacked my plate; I suppose they liked the sizzling seafood also. It was so bad I had to move inside, thus depriving myself of my reason for being in Oman in the first place. Ah, well, such is life.
But the food was good and I only had to ask for my mint tea five times before my American accent penetrated the waiter’s uncertainty. The joys of worldwide travel in a changing global environment.

I took the Big Bus back to Old Muscat and hopped off to walk around there for a while, which was interesting but quiet. I got back to the hotel and arranged my next day’s tour: a sea cruise. Alright. Receptionist Bashir called my room a few minutes later to tell me the sea cruise tour people had cancelled that tour for reasons unknown – probably because I wanted it. Anyway, I was able to arrange another tour to Nizwa and its famous souk, plus some other excursions into the mountains. No problem,

That night I checked out the Marina Hotel’s rooftop terrace for food and drinks, mainly beer, as they were allowed to serve alcohol. Two Scandia beers and some deep fried shrimp plus fries set me up nicely as I munched and drank and overlooked the Corniche and the Mutrah Marina in the fading twilight. The world was coming into focus again.
Next morning the hotel was kind enough to fix me an early breakfast, as Afdil (sp?) came to get me at 7:15. It would be an all-day trip to see interesting areas of Oman, including the famous Nizwa souk. We set off in his large white Toyota Landcruiser, which looked nothing like the old Landcruiser I had owned back in the 90s in Albuquerque. Nizwa was about 90 minutes away and when we arrived the souk was hopping. Afdil led me through all the various souks: animals (goats, sheep, chickens, cows, bulls, camels, etc), fruits and veggies, sweets (got some great matra halwah!), dates, spices, etc. I must have been a trader (or perhaps a buyer) in a previous life, as I love wandering these trading oases, talking with the merchants, petting a cow, tasting a sweet offering. Ancestors of the present-day merchants may have been in this very souk for the past thousand years; how great is that?

Anyway, we browsed the souks and then Afdil sent me on my private tour of the Nizwa fort (probably because there was an entrance fee), so I was able to wander around there for an hour or so, checking out the exhibits, having my photo taken by strangers (Hey! No selfie sticks for me!) and once again enjoying the old-world ambiance.
We left the souk and fort around noon and drove to the Jabal Akhdar, or Green Mountain, at 3000 meters above sea level. The area was filled with date tree parks and old abandoned mountain villages, like the Wadi Bani Habib. In a couple of places, the mountain roads we were on actually just ended, really, just stopped dead at a precipice, and turning around to come back was an adventure in itself. Now I knew why we had the four-wheel drive.

Once back on the main roads, we stopped for lunch at the El Neil Line roadside café, making it inside just before that busload of British tourists you always want to see in your wanderings pulled up and emptied its load into the diner. The mixed grill plate I wanted was, of course, not available until dinnertime, so I settled for what I thought would be an easy dish: Kung Pao Chicken. It took forever, and when it finally arrived it looked nothing like Kung Pao Chicken; instead, it appeared to be chunks of grilled chicken covered in BBQ sauce accompanied by a plate of rice. No peanuts, no Chinese flavoring, no Kung, no Pao. But it was food of a sort, and I was hungry, so what the heck. And you know what? It was just as bland as it looked.

Got back to the hotel around 5 PM where I showered and relaxed and then walked down the Corniche to the Kukrum Indian restaurant at the other end. Their menu had prices out of my range (and, let’s face it, one curry is pretty much just like another no matter what the cost), so it was another long walk back past my hotel to the Bait al Luban restaurant, next to the Marina Hotel. Turned out to be another high-priced place, but by that time I was really hungry, so bit the bullet (so to speak) and settled in. Beautiful mid-eastern décor, dim lighting, popular with the local men in their dishdashas and their accompanying wives in their head-to-toe black coverings, about as unfeminine a garment as possible (which is apparently the point).
Anyway, the food lived up to the restaurant. Started with a mixed grill (four skewers of different meats - chicken, lamb and beef) with a dipping sauce, followed by Mains of prawns in a coconut sauce with rice on the side. Even got some veggies on the other side, just to fool myself into thinking I was trying to stay healthy. Mint tea, followed by a date cheesecake and a slice of chocolate mousse, just so my veggies wouldn’t think they actually mattered.

The food in Oman was always good and plentiful (except for that darned pseudo-kung-pao chicken), always light and tasty and healthy and the lack of alcohol for most of my meals mattered not one whit. Prices were comparable to Europe – a good meal for around 10-15 euro. And after all, that’s one of the main reasons I travel.

Saturday was another relaxing day, spent walking along the Corniche to Riyam Park on the other side and down the main road, strolling, enjoying the sunshine and warmth. Sat in the park a while, read a book on my Kindle, bought a few souvenirs in the souk – the merchants were getting to know me by this time and greeted me as I browsed, but I kept up my Arabic language skills with lots of “La, shukran.” The vacuum hoses retreated poutingly.

Lunch was at the Chef A next to my hotel: garlic prawns, veggies, fries and - Holy Soft Drink, Batman – a Cherry Cola! Damn, I hadn’t seen one of those in years. Brought back memories of ’57 Chevys and sock hops. After a quick clean-up, it was time for my Twilight Cruise; I’d get out on the water somehow! I was picked up by the cruise people and whisked down the coast to the beautiful, picturesque marina I’d passed on the bus tour, where I and about 30 other tourists boarded a dhow for our evening’s excursion.

We cruised down the coast, past the old Portuguese forts and turned around at the approach to the port entry, just as the sun was setting. It was still warm at sea with a nice light breeze. The captain steered us right into the oncoming rollers, causing the dhow to bounce up and down, up and down with the waves. A few of the cruisers looked a touch green around the gills, but I knew the old sailor’s trick to avoid seasickness: always keep your eyes on the horizon, which never changes. So no matter how much bobbing and weaving the boat might do, your focus remains on a steady, non-moving line. It’s amazing what one picks up when crewing one of the America’s Cup racing yachts.
We returned to the marina around 6:30 or so and were taken back to our hotels. I immediately headed off for Al Boom and a Scandia beer or two on the rooftop terrace. I even got my same table overlooking the port and the same waiter, Mahduf, who had my beer in front of me even before I sat down. It’s nice to be remembered. I had the deep fried shrimp and fries again and was content to watch the lights along the Corniche as they reflected in the port waters.

(NB: I spent eight full days in Mutrah, Oman, and it seemed like a month. For some reason, time seems to slow down in the Middle East; it’s hot and the air is heavy and the people move slower and everything just seems to move at a more lethargic pace. It’s a relaxed atmosphere, an old country with jagged mountain peaks thrust up out of the earth. The present Sultan Qaboos, fourth in that dynastic line, seems to be a benevolent ruler and has raised the general standard of living significantly, while still retaining a centuries-old way of life. I found myself doing everything more slowly during my visit and found it a pleasant experience.)

Sunday in the Middle East is not like Sunday in the west; i.e., Arabic countries have their holy day on Friday instead. So Sunday is just like any other day in Oman. After breakfast at the hotel, I decided a visit to the Omani Avenues Mall was in order. What the heck, maybe they’d have something I couldn’t do without, plus afterwards I could walk over to the beach. So I caught a taxi at the Mutrah souk, and was lucky (!) enough to hook up with ‘Fireball’ Habib, Oman’s answer to a typical New York taxi driver. What a hustler.

Habib took me to the Mall and gave me his card in case I needed him for anything else – like a day trip to Wadi Shaab. I told him I’d let him know and set off to see what this famous Omani Mall held for me. As it turned out, not a whole lot. My biggest excitement was seeing an entire wall ad for Cinnabon, only to discover that Cinnabon was coming, but not yet there. Crushed! I walked over to the Sultan Qaboos mosque, realizing that in shorts and polo shirt I couldn’t get in, which was OK as I’d seen other big mosques elsewhere, most notably in Casablanca, but it was a nice stroll. Also spent an hour or two at the beach, just kicking back.

I taxied back to the Mutrah souk and had lunch on one of the fast food terraces: chicken tikka with fries. My lunch looked surprisingly like the Kung Pao chicken I’d had on my Nizwa trip and, in fact, tasted pretty much the same, too. Afternoon was another lazy day (I told you I came here for the relaxation and sunshine, right?) and at 6 PM I headed back to Al Boom for my nightly aperitif. Thus time I decided upon a pina colada, which seemed to go better with the sunset than just a beer. Dinner was golden fried squid, which also hit the spot.

Before turning in, I called Habib to let him know I was up for a trip to Wadi Habib the following day. He told me he’d pick me up around 9 AM. We’d see what the day held.

Wadi Shab, also spelled Wadi Shaab, is apparently quite a popular wadi (like along canyon) located in the Al Sharqiyah Region in Oman. It’s well-known to locals and expats, and people come here for the wild natural surroundings, to swim in the fresh water pools or just to have a barbecue. The main attraction of the wadi is the waterfall in the cave, which can be reached after a roughly 40 minute hike.

Habib failed to tell me about the 40-minute hike, for which I was unprepared. After the 90-minute drive, much of it along the southern coast, we arrived at the sea end of the wadi. We took a small old rowboat, fitted with an outboard motor, for about two minutes across a pool and alighted onto what would be The Trek area.

Folks, I must admit my trekking days are over and if I’d have known what was in store for me I wouldn’t have even bothered coming. I made it about 15 minutes over not-too-well-worn gravelly paths and rocky defiles and so much frigging natural beauty I was blasted. Besides, I’d left my Indiana Jones hat at home. It was also humid in the wadi, and I finally called a halt to Habib after slowing down more and more. Scraping my hand on a rock as I slipped off a small incline was the final straw. Sorry, Habib, back we go! Screw it. I could do without the natural sinkhole and waterfall in a cave, all of which I’d seen before in other places. These days my trekking consists of climbing the short set of stairs to the hotel terrace and being rewarded with a nice cold beer.

I had Habib drive me back to Mutrah and trekked from the taxi to one of the terrace restaurants along the Corniche for a nice lunch of chicken shawarma – that’s enough trekking for me for the next decade. A well-deserved shower and lazy afternoon nap in Riyam Park finished me off for the daylight hours. But several Scandia beers and some beef vindaloo and rice at Al Boom revived me enough to enjoy the rest of the evening.

By the way, in case you hadn’t noticed, there is really no night life in Muscat or Mutrah, at least what we in the west are used to. No pubs (because no alcohol!), no music, no hookah bars, no belly dancers (that I could find), no entertainment of any sort, at least in my area. Maybe in the big tourist hotels in Muscat, but certainly not in quiet, provincial Mutrah. So most nights I’d take a relaxing (there’s that word again!) after-dinner stroll along the Corniche and repair to my hotel room where I’d read a book or watch the only English-language TV channel I could find among the 860 other channels: CNN. Fortunately, I was able to reduce CNN’s blabbering nonentities to mere background noise, so wasn’t bothered too much by their inanities. All in all, I’d have rather watched Ishtar.

Anyway, I came to take it easy in the warm weather, and that’s what I did. Tuesday morning saw me roll out of bed at the crack of 7 to wander over to the nearby fish market and see what the locals did at that time of day. Turned out they bid on recent fish catches, which is just as exciting as it sounds. Ah, well, live and learn. After breakfast, it was back to the beach in Muscat for a day in the sun. I chose Al Qurum beach again, as it was pretty nearly always empty, plus it had several restaurants nearby. A nice relaxing day, even though the sea was filled with some sort of greenish algae, so swimming was pretty much out of the question.
After a cleanup, I watched the sun going down from the terrace of the Marina Hotel, accompanied by two new friends this time, Bavaria beers, which set off perfectly the fried shrimp and fries. (HEY! I can’t get fresh seafood in landlocked Hungary, so any time I’m anywhere near the sea, I scarf down all I can get – which is a lot).

Wednesday, January 17, was my last full day in Oman. My plane was to leave at 5 AM the following day, which meant I’d have to be at the airport around 2 AM to ensure an easy check in, passport control, security check, etc. So, what the heck, I decided on another beach day, the details of which I won’t bore you (not that there were many to begin with, sand being sand on every beach you’ve ever been on). A final dinner of king fish grill and three screwdrivers at Al Boom and I was set for an early night nap before heading out.

My taxi picked me up at 1 AM and delivered me safely to the airport in plenty of time to stand in line for Emirates Airlines check-in. No problems, everything went smoothly, which caused me to wonder what nasty surprises I’d have ahead. Amazingly enough, none; it was one of those rare trips when it all went right. I had a nice, but surprising, breakfast at the airport; the food court I stopped at had breakfast items, one of which I ordered, only to be told that they were only served in the morning. Hmmm. I casually showed the young Indian server my watch, indicated it was 3 o’clock in the morning, to which he replied that their morning didn’t start until 6 AM. I knew time moved more slowly here!

So I had a lovely beef burger and fries; not your standard breakfast, but it hit the spot nonetheless. We got away on time and I was able to manage the maze of gates and corridors and long walks through the Dubai airport easily and quickly. It was a 20-minute walk from where the transfer bus dropped us off to my gate, but I’m used to that by now. OK, these long walks are really my only present-day treks after all.

We boarded our Emirates flight and lo and behold, I found myself in the aisle seat (which I always request) of a three-seat row all alone! I had the entire row to myself on a five-plus hour flight. Cool. I spread out and enjoyed my air time, which seemed to go by faster than usual – maybe once we leave the Middle East time starts speeding up again.

Home to 3-degree Celsius Budapest late morning on Thursday, January 18, airport bus to Kalvin Ter, short walk dragging my by-now 17-kilo suitcase (I’d started off my trip with a bag weighing 11 kilos; y’all better appreciate those souvenirs!) and home to my not-too-cold flat. I’d turned the heat down to 15 Celsius while I was away, so it would warm up nicely over the next few hours with just a minor temp adjustment.

And there we have it, another successful mid-winter excursion to the sunshine and warmth. As I write this blog (January 21, 2018), there is a covering of snow on the rooftops of Budapest and the temp is down around -2 Celsius. I’ll be staying inside until spring.

Hope everyone’s holidays were happy and fun and safe. Watch this space for my next adventures, in the planning stages now. Happy New Year to you all.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

In Bruges

Ever since I saw the movie In Bruges, I wanted to visit Bruges, Belgium. Then, when I found out my Norwegian son, Eirik (who was our exchange student in Albuquerque) was now living in Ghent, I knew I’d have to make the trip. Ghent and Bruges are on a direct railway line from Brussels Airport, so I could fly in there, take the train direct to Bruges, spend a few days there and then entrain back to Ghent, spend a few days there and reconnect with Eirik, then back to Brussels Airport and home. Piece of cake.

And so, before the weather got too bad to enjoy the lovely little town of Bruges, I was off once again. I’d even have an extra bonus in that my landlords, Robert and Marie Kortenhorst, who live in Dublin, would also be in Bruges with friends during the same weekend I’d be there, so I wouldn’t have to eat all my meals alone.

The weather was still pleasant in Budapest when I set out that late summer (or early fall) day. My flight left at the sane hour of noon on Thursday, so I wouldn’t have to drag myself out of bed in the middle of the night. It was an easy two-hour flight courtesy of Brussels Airline and I was suddenly in Belgium. I followed the signs through the airport to the train station. I recalled I’d been in this train station once before, when an acquaintance of mine and I caught the TGV to Paris; 200 kilometers per hour and we were in Paris in about 90 minutes. Amazing. This time it would be a slower version, and we’d get to Bruges in about 90 minutes. No prob.

I bought my train ticket from a young woman at one of the ticket windows. I told her what I wanted and she asked me if I was over 65, thus earning my eternal gratitude. Seniors get a major discount on tickets here – 50%! Damn. Only cost me 11 euro to go from the Brussels airport to Bruges. Flattered and happy – a good start to my Belgian adventure.

So I arrived in Bruges around 5 PM, which was just the time I’d hoped for. Taxis were almost nonexistent at the train station, but I finally managed to share one with a French woman who insisted she was in the nonexistent queue before me. We pulled up to her hotel and she paid the driver the entire 10 euro fare, leaving me to settle up anything else. The driver then pulled around the corner and there was my hotel! The Hans Memling Hotel, named after one of Bruges’s most well-known painters. I never did have to pay any more for the taxi ride, a fair trade for having to put up with a French woman, even for so brief a time.

On the reception desk that day was Maxim, a young Brugesian (Brugesite? Brugesarian?) of the more voluble sort, who gave me more info about the city in four minutes than any guidebook. He clued me in to several great pubs and restaurants and I was ready to go. As always, I dumped my suitcase in my nice little room and was off to see the city.

“Bruges (in Dutch: Brugge) is a town in Flanders, which is the northern part of Belgium. It’s noted as a quite cosmopolitan and bourgeois place, given its compact size. It is also widely touted as one of the best preserved pre-motorized cities in Europe and offers the kind of charms rarely available elsewhere. Bruges is a postcard-perfect stop on any tour of Europe.”
Yes, all of this guidebook hype is true, but what the books and Internet don’t tell you about Bruges is that it is one of the most touristy towns you’ll ever visit. I suppose it was the movie that did it, but literally every row of businesses on every street in the town center consists of: souvenir shops, chocolate shop, chocolate shop, souvenir shop, tiny restaurant, chocolate shop, tiny pub, chocolate shop, souvenir shop. Etc., etc., etc. I hadn’t seen so much tourist tat since Hong Kong.

But Bruges more than makes up for all the tourist places with its amazing buildings, architecture, art, cobblestone streets, and all-around beautiful ambiance. And that late afternoon light has to be seen to be believed.

My hotel was two short blocks from the main square, and I popped out from my side street into the wonder that is Bruges’ Market (Markt) Square. Words hardly do it justice, so I’ll just post a pic or two and let you decide when you’ll plan your visit.

After staring at everything in awestruck amazement for a while, and taking pictures of everything in sight, from every angle, it was time to seek out some of Bruges’ best pubs, so I checked my map and sidled down another side street to The Burg Square, maybe another 50 meters. And across from this smaller but no less impressive square I found Delaney’s Irish pub, glistening in the early evening dew and beckoning me from afar. I felt myself drawn in and straight up to the bar, where I ordered dinner of fish and chips and had the favorite local beer, Bruges Zot (only 6% alcohol as compared to my second beer, Jupiler, at 5%).
Next stop was the famous Druid’s Cellar, back across Market Square. Down a few steps and festooned with every sort of funky decoration one could imagine, dimly-lit and atmospheric, this was definitely my kind of bar. Owner and bartender Drew from Newcastle, UK, welcomed me to his humble establishment with a Steen Brugge Blond beer, followed by another Jupiler. I engaged in light conversation with Robert and Willi, two students back from studying in Ghent, along with a young woman seated at the bar next to me. Friendly people in Bruges pubs. On the way out I stopped at the men’s room and found the urinal was actually a small tuba (called, I think, a euphonium). It actually made a strange sound when I bestowed my blessing upon it. Another unique experience.

I was feeling no pain as I wandered on to my next pub, the Le Trappiste bar, just across from my hotel. I read the chalkboard beer menu and realized I had to be careful in choosing my libations for what would probably be the rest of the night, as most of the beers in this place were 6-9% alcohol, with one as high as 10.5%.

I was chatting with my bar neighbors Simon and his wife when who should walk in but my Budapest friends and neighbors Robert and Marie, accompanied by their Irish friends Gabe and Eileen. We’d been exchanging texts all evening, so they knew where I was and tracked me down. The evening picked up from there. Simon and his wife stayed for a while, then when they left I spotted Robert and Willi across the bar; only in Bruges a few hours and already I had bar friends. Anyway, my party (except for me!) finally lost their battles with Bacchus and wandered off to their hotel. I stayed for a while and met a guy from Atlanta who sat down next to me. But finally enough was enough.
I seem to recall motivating up the stairs to the street to see if I could get into my hotel, which was literally just across the street from the bar. The Hans Memling is one of those hotels without a Receptionist after 8 PM, so to get into the hotel you are furnished with a code for a keypad on the front door. It only took me three tries after attempting to read the code on the card I was given, as after each attempt I spoke loudly and clearly into the keypad, “Open Sesame,” but to no avail. The third time I gave up and put my glasses on to ensure I had the correct code and suddenly, with a Star Trek whoosh, the door opened and I was in! I presume I got upstairs OK, as the next thing I remember it was early morning and breakfast was calling me.

Friday morning. I grabbed a quick and expensive breakfast at a small cafe near my hotel, then took the 30-minute canal boat tour to see what Bruges had to offer from a riparian viewpoint. We cruised in and out of several canals, listening to the Captain’s commentary and enjoying the cloudy and cool day. I only got splashed once by another boat going the opposite direction. It was another good start to what I hoped would be another good day.

Upon returning to our dock, I decided to do my self-guided walking tour that I’d found on the Net. Setting out from Market Square, I strolled through Burg Square and up and down streets near the canals I’d just seen on my boat tour. Lots of fascinating neighborhoods in Bruges, quaint, picturesque, charming and a few other adjectives one might throw into the mix. I finally found myself down at the Halvemann Brewery, where I had a hearty lunch of Flemish Stew (tender beef cooked for several hours in a dark brown beer sauce), Belgian fries and Belgian beer.

I considered the brewery tour, but, having been on so many in the past, decided not to go this time, especially as the tour included climbing more than 100 steps to the top of the building. My one “free” beer at the end of the tour wasn’t worth that much effort. So I took my time and strolled casually back toward Market Square, checking out side streets, interesting buildings and courtyards and generally taking it easy as I explored different parts of Bruges.

By this time I’d realized Bruges was quite a bit more expensive than I’d thought it would be. Probably double Budapest prices in too many areas, other than, at first glance, beer. Only 4 euro or so for a standard beer. But a look at the standard beer glass revealed it was only 0.33L, not even a full half liter. Another rip-off, although one must consider that with most of the beers having an alcohol content well above 6%, maybe the smaller sizes weren’t so bad after all.

On the way back to my hotel, I noticed a restaurant/bar across the street that advertised “live music.” I wanted to make a reservation for that night, but was told they only had the live music on Sundays; plus, of course, the restaurant was fully booked for that night anyway. Sigh.
I met up with my friends at their B&B around six-ish and we all went over to the Druid’s Cellar for a pre-dinner drink. Drew was happy to see us and poured us all some of that good Belgian beer for our refreshment. We wandered around nearby looking for a likely restaurant that still had a table open, which was rather difficult to find, until we came to the end of St. Armindstraat to the Brugge-Link Tea Room, which happened to have a table for five just inside the front door. Eileen squeezed in front of another group of five Swedes and grabbed the table. I decided it was time for another of the Five Main Things one must eat and drink in Belgium: Mussels! Starting with an appetizer of escargot, I then had a pot of at least 75 of the little shelled beauties, along with fries and beer.

We staggered away down the street again, finding a local band playing Irish music and songs in front of the Druid’s Cellar, and listened to them for a while. Everyone else finally took off for their flat and I decided one more visit to Le Trappiste Bar was in order. It was heaving, as is apparently the case most nights. I climbed up on the only stool left at the bar, luckily next to a lovely young blonde woman, who turned out to be – are you ready for this? From St. Louis, Missouri (my long-ago birthplace in the US), a CPA working as an external auditor for a large accounting firm (I was an internal auditor for many years) and had recently been transferred to Amsterdam as an expat. We had a brief but intense chat and I gave her my business card, hoping maybe she’ll turn up in Budapest someday. One never knows, do one?

Saturday morning I tried the hotel’s buffet Continental breakfast and, for 9.50 euro (around $12 US), it was anything but a value. More ways to gouge the tourists. Anyway, I went looking for the weekend flea market and found exactly nothing. I really like those Saturday flea markets and was disappointed, to say the least. I thought there might be some bargains there. I did finally chance upon a mini-flea market along one of the canals, but it was pretty sparse and failed to yield up any gifts of note.

I stopped in briefly at the Friet Museum (Fries Museum!) and considered a tour to learn the difference between Belgian and French fries, but at 7 euro per head, decided I could just ask someone on the street (which, by the way, I did; it turns out French fires are fried once and Belgian fries are fried twice, a process which apparently results in some pretty nasty aftereffects, so best to stay away from the Belgian brand).

A little more wandering and exploring and it started to rain just lightly, but since it was lunchtime, I stopped in at a small Italian place for some spaghetti and vino. Hey! Comfort food! As I sat slurping up my pasta, the skies opened up and there was a thunderstorm outside, lasting at least 20 minutes. Good thing I was warm and cozy with my wine.

I headed out when the rain let up and explored a touch more, but it turned out there really wasn’t all that much to see in Bruges besides the main square and its immediate surrounding areas. I caught a few Zs in preparation for what I hoped would be another fun night out. Around six PM or so I headed back to Delaney’s and learned they had a live band that night; not Irish music, but what the heck. I sat at the bar with my newfound fantastic Belgian beers and talked with bar neighbors Simon and Paula from the UK. My group showed up around 10, which was when the music was to start.

The band was, to say the least, anticlimactic, as it was too loud and played lots of songs I’d never heard. Another beer or two and I was ready to make it an early night, so I headed back to my hotel around midnight. A good night but not a great one.

Sunday was checkout day in Bruges, so, after another unsatisfying breakfast at my hotel, I took a taxi to the train station around 10:30 AM and caught the next train to Ghent at 11, arriving around 11:30 (Hey! It’s only 40 kilometers away!).


So it was upward and onward to the next major stop down the rail line: Ghent. As often happens, a place I choose to visit as sort of a secondary stop turns out to be much better than anticipated. My primary reason for visiting Ghent was to connect again with Eirik, our Norwegian exchange student when Morgan and I lived in Albuquerque. He’d visited me in Budapest a couple of times and I’d visited him in Oslo some years back, but it had been quite a few years since we’d been in the same city and it would be good to see him again. Actually, I had visited Sandnes, Norway, the previous year, which is where Eirik was from, even though he himself hadn’t been back for at least 15 years, after he’d moved to Oslo.

I called Eirik and he came to meet me at the station. We took a tram to the downtown area near the three major cathedrals and the confluence of the Scheldt and Leie rivers, both of which are pretty small. Eirik took me for lunch to one of his favorite places, Het Waterhuis aan de Bierkant, a funky little bar and restaurant right on the river, across from Gravensteen Castle. We sat in the bar area and had some great little snacks: cheese, sausage and liver pate, accompanied (for me, anyway) by a Klokke Roland beer. A really tasty amber beer, cold and refreshing, light and just right on a cool afternoon overlooking the Scheldt River. Of course, it was 11% alcohol, and the menu firmly stated there was a limit of three per customer. After drinking one, I could understand why; three would have put me on the floor.
As it was then around 3 PM, my hotel’s check-in time, Eirik walked me over to The House of Edward, a couple of blocks from the Vrijdag Markt square, another large open space ringed by restaurants and bars. I’d be visiting some of them later. When we reached the hotel, wonder of wonders, my pre-sent access code worked just fine and the outer door opened to admit us. My room was on what the hotel referred to as the Ground Floor, even though it was one flight up. I wondered what the bottom floor was called.
Even though there is no reception desk at this hotel, the day man, Frank, was on hand to help out if I needed anything. My door code also accessed my room, which meant all was in working order; based on my past encounters with high technology, I was just waiting for something to go wrong. My room was big and airy and light, with four almost-floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the parking lot of Edward Anseeleplein Square. A large queen-size bed took up a lot of room, covered with a thick, soft duvet. A medium-size round table, a small round table and two chairs completed the furniture, along with a flat-screen TV on the wall. Minimalism run amok.

The far wall opposite the bed was a long, black wall with no decoration. I found out why when I noticed the handles on the “wall,” which were attached to doors that opened up into several stalls for toilet, shelves, kitchen and shower. Very modern, convenient and efficient. The bathroom sink was to one side of the wall, right in front of one of the windows. The only way to achieve privacy was to pull down all of the blinds, which also sank the room into a sort of semi-dusk. But it was fun and different and interesting and I loved it.
Eirik took off and left me to my own devices. I unpacked quickly and went out for an orientation stroll. My first stop along the river was a cart selling Belgian waffles, which I quickly ordered – with chocolate sauce, natch. A light rain started to fall, so I hurried back to my hotel for an afternoon siesta.

Eirik called to meet him and his partner Veroniek at the Keizershof Restaurant in Vrijdagmarkt at 7 PM. We all arrived at the same time, to find out the restaurant was closed on Sunday night. Veroniek then took us across the river to the Patershol area and a long street filled with eating places. Most of them were fully booked, but we finally found a place that had a few seats left for us: t’Konninghuis. We chatted and drank some local wine and had dinner (I had the Wagyu burger along with an appetizer of Monks Balls – don’t ask! - and fried onion rings). It was a good, cozy evening, getting reacquainted and being brought up-to-date with Eirik and learning a little bit about his lovely partner Veroniek. Since they both had to work the next day, it was another fairly early night, although we did stop briefly on the way back at the really tiny local bar called Velohe, notable for its cramped interior due to all the old bicycles hanging from the ceiling.

Even with the blinds pulled down all the way, the early-morning light woke me up around 7 AM. I stretched and opened one eye first, then finally rolled out of that soft, soft bed and padded across the light blond wood floor to the first enclosed stall in my black wall. Soon thereafter, my morning ablutions complete, I headed out to see what I could see of Ghent.

First things first: breakfast! I crossed the river again and walked down the Patershol area toward the main part of town. I found a small café, t’verschli, in the Graslei district, near the river, serving various sizes and styles of morning meals. I chose the Americano breakfast, consisting of hot tea, OJ, and cheese and bacon on top of a Belgian waffle. Hmm, interesting. It turned out to be pretty good after all, and the thick waffle would definitely hold me until lunchtime. Plus, a touch of nostalgia: the waitress was wearing one of those old-time coin changers that American bus conductors used to have back in the 1950s, with which she made hard change as needed. How great is that?!
Then it was off again, down past the cathedrals and on into the university quarter, where I hoped to track down the university store and some of those T-shirts my daughter loves to have. Did I find them? Ask my daughter around Xmas time. A nice walk nonetheless. Back again to discover other interesting parts of Ghent of which, admittedly, there weren’t many. But the main part of town was old and interesting, with lots of baroque buildings and unique architecture. While many of the buildings had been cleaned and undergone minor renovations, most of them had been left in their original state, covered with the soot and grime of 8-9 centuries. Lots of character. I did manage to stop in at St. Bavo’s cathedral to see Jan van Eyck’s Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, one panel of which is still missing from WWII.

Once again in the Groentenmarkt area by the river Scheldt, it seemed a boat tour of the rivers and canals was in order. I was drawn in when I noticed the standard price for an adult was 7 euro, but seniors got a significant discount to 6.50 euro; such a deal! I soon realized the deal was so good because the tour, lasting 40 minutes, wasn’t anything to write home about. Really, all there is to Ghent is the downtown area around the meeting of the two rivers, the three large cathedrals and another square or two, but at least it’s nowhere near as touristy as Bruges. In fact, there was actually a dearth of souvenir shops and only a very few chocolate shops. A nice change from the in-your-face tourist feeling of Bruges. It was actually difficult to find any souvenirs in Ghent!
After my brief boat tour, I craved a cold drink, so stopped at the small Galgenhuis for refreshments, when who should come upon the scene but Robert and Marie and Gabe and Eileen. They’d just arrived on the train from Bruges and had taken the tram into town and were looking for lunch before their brief walk around town, after which they’d catch the train to Brussels Airport and home to Dublin. Another small world story.

Anyway, Galgenhuis was a snacks-only place, so Eileen marched us all off to a nearby real restaurant called Godot (I’ll skip the obvious jokes that I know you were waiting for). It was a touch pricey, but quite good; I had the seafood linguini, which was wonderful and chock full of seafood. An Orval beer was the crowning touch.

The group then hurried off to see what they could in the time they had remaining, and I went off to find my by-now-standard afternoon siesta. Evening saw me on a pub crawl of places I’d found on the internet and also ones recommended by Eirik and Veroniek. First off was Dulle Griet on the Vrijdagmarkt Square. This bar serves a special beer in one of those half-yards-of-beer tall test tube beakers, set into a wooden stand with handle. Apparently, many customers in past times made off with these “souvenirs,” so, to keep them from disappearing, anyone ordering one had to give up one shoe, which is placed in a basket and hauled to the ceiling. Return the empty glass and holder and get your shoe back. Cool.

My hiking boots were too awkward to tie and untie, so I passed on this beer, but did have a local Dulle Griet Blonde, which was just as yummy. Next up was the Trollenkelder (Troll Cellar), where I also had some cheese and sausage snacks along with my Jupiler beer. The oldest bar in Ghent was calling me, so I strolled through a light rain over to Den Turk, which had been there since 1228 CE. Their menu said “Jazz – Blues” which, to any normal bar habitué, implies live music. Nothing of the sort; it was all piped in recorded music. I really am getting tired of the false advertising I find in bars like this, that offer something to draw in the customers and then fail to deliver.
I returned to The House of Edward to relax and watch some TV news. It was, as usual, all bad, but I was entertained mightily by the ads for catheters. I watched the main ad guy absolutely beam over his choice of wonderful men’s catheters on offer from his company. I slept the sleep of the fully satisfied.

Tuesday morning I was out at 9 AM again, back to t’verschli for a bigger breakfast of croissant, OJ, tea, ham and cheese and a semi-hard-boiled egg – served in an egg cup! Been a while since I’d seen one of those. I took a few photos from St. Michael’s Bridge then walked over to Gravensteen Castle to see if it was worth the 8 euro (discounted to 7.50 euro for seniors). I did the tour, which wasn’t too bad, although I did have to climb all the way to the top up those narrow internal spiral staircases. Another walk around the area to check out the Missy Sippy Blues Club (once again, live music only once a month or so) and to indulge an afternoon snack of one of those yummy Belgian waffles with chocolate sauce. Way too good!

I met up with Eirik again Tuesday evening, although Veroniek had to work and couldn’t make it this time (she’s a psychologist, so her working hours have to correspond with her patients’ off-work hours). We finally had a meal at Keizershof Brasserie. I chose the meatballs with salad, fries and a Tongerlo beer. It was a nice night, cool and cloudy but without rain, and after dinner we walked back over to Velohe to see if the local crowd had shown up again. I guess Tuesday wasn’t their night, as it was pretty empty, but we did have a couple of beers to celebrate anyway.
Wednesday, October 4, was my last full day in Belgium and, since my plane didn’t leave until 9 PM, I had virtually the entire day to do and see anything I hadn’t already done and seen. Turned out there wasn’t really much. So I slept in until 10 AM or so, abluted and went looking for brunch. A steak sounded really good about that time, so I had my almost-midday meal at Brasserie Borluut, near St. Michael’s Bridge. Along with the ubiquitous Belgian fries, very nice. I walked around for a while dragging my small carry-on suitcase, but there really wasn’t anything else I wanted or needed to see.
So, around 2 PM I headed to the train station and caught a later train for Brussels Airport, arriving around 4 PM. Still five hours until my flight. But since I was with Brussels Air, part of the Lufthansa team, I could check in early, which I did. Thus having access to the airport shops and restaurants, I checked out the clothing and souvenir shops, stopped to see if the book stores had anything I needed, and finally had dinner at one of the small cafes near my gate. Read my book until flight time, and then it was off to Budapest, arriving around 10:45 PM. Hustled out to the airport bus and home by 11:30. Piece of cake.

Another fun travel adventure to be immortalized in this blog. No immediate plans for a next trip, but I can only hope it will be somewhere worthwhile and interesting. I’ll do my best. Until then, “Hasta la vista, Baby!”