Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Kent - 21 September 2008

Kent Oust HouseWe have visited Chiddingstone a number of times as it is a very pretty little village in Kent and on each occasion we have wondered what was behind the gate at the end of the street. The gate allows access to Chiddingstone Castle so today we decided to fill that gap in our knowledge.

Chiddingstone CastleIt is not a real castle, just a castlefied country house and it holds the collection of Denys Bower which includes an amazing array of Japanese art treasures and military pieces including a number of suits of armour.
Titsey House
Titsey HouseFrom there we went to Titsey House, once the family home of the Greshams. They came to London and made their fortunes in the Tudor period as mercers and two of the brothers became Lord Mayor.

Titsey HouseHowever, the most famous Gresham was their cousin who founded the London Stock Exchange and adorned it with the golden grasshopper from his family crest and a golden grasshopper adorns the LSE to this day.

London Open House Weekend - 20 September 2008

Canning PassageOnce again the London Open House Weekend has rolled around and once again it was wonderful weather for it. This year we, again, missed out on tickets to Mansion House so concentrated on the Kensington area.

Linley Sambourne House had timed tickets so we were there fairly early to ensure we got tickets and while we were waiting for our Kyoto Garden, Holland Park12-noon tour slot to come round we went to our other choice, Leighton House Museum.

Leighton House was the home of the 19th C painter Fredrick (later Lord) Leighton and is a little slice of Moroccan fantasy plonked into west London. The Arab Hall is quite stunning and although very reminiscent of Moorish architecture and design had failed in one small detail, there are animals and birds in some of the tiles decorating the room, something that is strictly forbidden in Islamic art and design.

View from the Roof GardensAs well as many of his own works there are other contemporary art works as well as a gallery area that was hosting show by a modern Moroccan artist. His works were very unusual and quite captivating.

From the exotic we went to the homely as we visited Linely Sambourne House, the Victorian home of a quite different artist, a Punch cartoonist. The house is basically unchanged from the furnishings and d├ęcor of the late Victorian era and it has survived through three generations from that time because, as our guide Flamingos 6 floors upexplained, there has never been ‘another wife’ living here. The sons never married and it was passed on down to a grandniece.

As the Kensington Roof Gardens were also open to the public we had another look at them and the two flamingos that live in a stream 6 floors up in West London.

Coupled with a walk around the Kensington area, it was a beautiful late summer day.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Budapest 'Must-do' - 14 September 2008

There are two things that the visitor to Budapest must do: Take the waters and take the cake. There is an abundance of choice for the first option as there are a number of thermal baths in and around the city. Szechenyi bathsWe finally settled on Szechenyi as it was reputedly the smartest and cleanest as well as the largest such spa in Europe. There was one other factor, the weather forecast: All week we had been threatened with rain for our last day and the Szechenyi baths were accessible by the M1 Metro line almost door to door, thus minimising our exposure to the rain. As it happened, although the temperature plunged to 15C, the rain never came so we could fully enjoy the outdoor as well as the indoor pools. We counted 15 pools, all of which we tried except the very coldest, an 18C plunge pool. There was a wide range of temperatures available, up to 40C as well as steam and dry-heat sauna rooms that ranged from 40C up to 75C (we lasted 5 minutes!).

Szechenyi bathsThe whole complex is very bright and clean and the helpful staff made it easy to understand the in-house processes from the walk through changing rooms to the lockers and the refund you get if you leave within 3 hours of your arrival.

Gerbeaud's by nightTaking the metro all the way back to the centre of town deposited us very neatly at Gerbeaud's; an institution in Budapest since 1858. Naturally one pays over the odds for their coffee and cake but it is one of those things one has to do. We had some local currency left so attempted to settle our bill with 1/3 cash and 2/3 credit card but they would not oblige and were quite truculent about it; they will not survive another 150 years with poor customer service!

Out and about - 13 September 2008

Millenary MonumentA lovely 2.5 km stroll from our lodgings along Andrassy street, a boulevard lined with impressive buildings, takes you to City Park; home of the Millenary Monument, various galleries and one of the city's thermal baths. We returnred on the M1 Metro line, the oldest underground line in Europe.

Because we had managed all the towns on the Danube Bend in one day rather than the two we had planned, we effectively had created a spare day. Godollo was easily accessed via the Metro and the HEV suburban line and was, according to the guide book written by someone who had never been there, an attractive Baroque town. A royal palace was situated there so we decided to make the trip.

Royal MansionThe palace was a 'private home' that was purchased and used as a Hungarian retreat by Elisabeth, wife of Franz Joseph and Queen of Austria. After being used as barracks during the communist era it is now well into a programme of renovation. The colours of the fabrics used for draperies, wall coverings and upholstery were simply stunning.

While the palace was an interesting trip, the town was a total disappointment so we headed back to town and walked across the river and climbed the hill to the Citadel for a wonderful last view over Buda, Pest and the Blue Danube dividing the two.
The Danube and Budapest from the Citadel

Remembering the past - 12 September 2008

Holocaust Memorial
Jewish SynagogueThe second largest Jewish Synagogue in world is in central Budapest and, built in a Moorish style, is quite a magnificent building. The stainless steel weeping willow tree in the grounds is a holocaust memorial with each leaf inscribed with the name of a victim.

From there it is a short walk to the Grand Market down by Elisabeth bridge where we feasted our eyes only before making Grand Marketour way back to our very centrally located lodgings.

When the communists were finally overthrown, some far-sighted city father decided that the numerous monuments dotted around Budapest glorifying the Stalinist era and the glorious workers' state should not simply be scrapped so a representative collection of Memento Parkthem was assembled in Memento Park. This lies southwest of the centre just outside the city limits so is a bit of a hassle to access. There are tourist tours that go once per day for 3950 HUF but if you make your own way there it costs 2440 HUF.

The park includes a Trabant and some authentic footage from films used to train 'agents' to spy and inform on their fellow citizens including how to secrete your Super-8 camera in your handbag and how to best position it to carry out your covert surveillance.
Memento Park Memento Park

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Danube Bend - 11 September 2008

SzentendreThe 'official' Danube tourist boat trips have optional excursions to look at the sights on the Danube Bend; our cheapie homespun Danube trip had us whistle straight past these spots at 65 kph so we had to make our own arrangements to get back to these towns.

EsztergomWe began the day with a trip in a modern spacious comfortable air-conditioned train from Budapest to Esztergom where there is a Basilica that is far too big and grand for the smallish town where it sits on the hilltop overlooking an S-bend in the Danube. The painting over the altar is supposedly the largest painting on a single canvas and is a copy of Titian's Assumption.

SzentendreFor a small fee, one can climb the 413 steps to the walkway around the cupola for an absolutely stunning view of the Danube and the surrounding area. Having walked around the outside of the cupola, we were about to descend when the attendant at the top beckoned us to follow through a fenced-off area. He took us halfway round the cupola, demonstrating the amazing echoes on the way. At the halfway point, he indicated that we should stay while he returned to the other side. SzentendreHe then treated us to our own private demonstration of the amazing acoustics in the space between the internal dome of the Basilica and the external roof of the cupola. Apart from worrying that this delay might mean that we would miss the hourly bus to our next stop, it was rather a special treat.

We raced back down the hill and realised that we did not have time to make it back to the bus station. We saw a bus with the correct name on its destination board and asked the driver. SzentendreHe indicated that we were to wait on the other side of the street for the bus that would take us to Visegrad, so we duly did.

The bus came and drove straight past the bus stop. Seeing our consternation, a friendly local indicated that the correct bus stop was a further 100m up the road so we raced after the bus. Fortunately the traffic lights were against the bus and in our favour and there was a horde of people waiting so we had no bother catching the old rickety totally overcrowded hot and steamy bus.

Eventually the crowd on the bus thinned and we could get a seat as we followed the Danube round to Visegrad. We left the bus there and slogged up the 350m climb to the fortress on the hill overlooking another S-bend. The views from the top did compensate, although the payment to visit the castle is not really worth it. However, no payment, no view.

SzentendreAfter slithering down the more direct path to the road via St Stephen's Tower we waited for the next bus to arrive. Neither the path from the town or the path from St Stephen's Tower qualify for any better status than 'rough tramping tracks requiring sturdy boots'; Szentendrewe had our sandals and although both paths had been streams very recently following overnight rain, we made the round trip without incident.

Our last stop was the totally delightful town of Szentendre. Its pedestrianised centre is very twee and after exploring thoroughly we enjoyed a truly memorable Budapest by nightmeal at the Elisabeth restaurant in the square. Night had fallen as we made our way to the station at the end of the suburban HEV train line for our ride back to Budapest, leaving us a short stroll along the Danube to enjoy the city by night.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Budapest - 10 September 2008

Building on Castle HillWe wandered across the chain-link bridge and rode the funicular to the top of the Palace hill. Chainlink BridgeThe area around the palace was off-limits unless you wanted to buy a ticket to the wine festival that began later in the morning. We decided to explore the rest of the Castle Hill area; now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Fisherman's Bastionand it was great to wander along streets lined with beautiful buildings. We particularly enjoyed the Fisherman's Bastion, a medieval looking viewing platform, which was actually only built in 1905.

Parliament buildingsDropping back down to the river, we crossed the bridge again to visit Gerbeaud, the famous cake shop that has been a must-visit destination almost since it opened in 1858.

Back across the bridge we wandered up the "Buda" side of the Danube to the next bridge which allows access to Church on the Pest bankMargaret Island which we explored before crossing back to the "Pest" bank as far as the Parliament buildings. Just downstream from there is the place where, during WWII, Jews were executed on the bank of the Danube, but before they were shot, they had to take their shoes off; shoes being a valuable commodity at the time. Holocaust MemorialTo remember the atrocities, there are a number of bronze shoes on the riverbank, a poignant reminder that their owners have gone, never to return.

The Blue Danube - 9 September 2008

Having checked out of our very nice apartment in Bratislava we made our way to the "port" to wait for the hydrofoil to Budapest. In due course the Vocsok III from Leaving the only lockVienna arrived and we joined it for the rest of the trip to Budapest. If yesterday's trip seemed fast, it was nothing compared to the hydrofoil. They only seem to exist now in ex-communist countries and this one cruised at between 65 and 69kph all the way, apart from the time in the only lock on the river. This lock is probably the largest we have been in so far and certainly the greatest level change, approximately 25m.

Twins a-pairing on the banksThe Danube was certainly blue and the first touches of autumn were beginning to colour the trees on the banks as we raced downstream. There was not a lot to note as we travelled, the odd town or two, until we got to the famed "Danube Bend", a place were the Danube makes a fairly decided change from flowing east to flowing south. The two notable towns on the bend are Esztergom and Visegrad.

EsztergomFrom there it is a relatively short run into the centre of Budapest where we disembarked and set off to find the tourist office that had handled our booking and then the accommodation itself.

We had booked a room in a private apartment and were greeted by a lovely old couple who spoke as much English as we spoke Hungarian - none. They were a delight to stay with though, as were treated to home baking and fruit from what we suppose was their allotment. Her strudel, with their own apples, was better than any we purchased.

St Stephan's BasilicaAlthough the accommodation was ‘homely’ with some fairly odd-plumbing, the location was superb; we were about 100m from the only station that services all three Metro lines, a short walk to the square, the river and all the central sites and amenities.

Bratislava - 8 September 2008

Bratislava town squareThe 0900 sailing of the Twin City liner was cancelled so we were rebooked on the 1230 trip which gave us a very lazy start to the morning and a few hours less in the capital of Slovakia. Nevertheless we really enjoyed browsing around this very attractive old city; it appeared spacious, relaxed and not overly touristy as we wandered around the old town and climbed the hill to the castle.

Full Ahead for BratislavaThe river trip was anything but relaxed, from the moment the catamaran turned around after leaving the dock, it was "pedal to the metal" with the twin Kiwi Hamilton Jets pushing the boat up to cruising speed of 60 kph Hainburgeven though we were still in the side part of the Danube that flows through Vienna.

The only interest along the way were a couple of settlements where the river crossed the border between Austria and Slovakia, Hainburg on the southern bank and Devin on the northern, both with ruined fortifications on the skyline.

View from the CastleBratislava Castle from the Danube
Michael TowerThe Bratislava castle terrace overlooking the river affords view to Austria in the southwest and Hungary in the south as well as across the faceless blocks of apartments in the modern part of the city across the river.

If you are passing this way and want to sample the local cuisine then we recommend the Slovak Pub for good value food.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Waltzing around Vienna - 7 September 2008

VotivkircheAlthough we set off to walk the 4 km ring road that surrounds central Vienna we made so many side trips and diversions that our final route was more like a drunken figure 8 than a ring.

RathausStarting at the upstream end where the ring starts by the river we wandered past the Stock Exchange and the University until we got back to the museum quarter. Then we headed back through the Hofburg to find the Judenplatz and ParliamentRachel Whiteread's Holocaust memorial erected in 2000. The Austrians took nearly 50 years to admit their complicity in Hitler's atrocities and thus this memorial is one of the first in Austria. The inside-out library is both simple and striking.

BrugelFrom there we went to the downstream end of the ring and wandered back around to the museum quarter where we visited the Kunsthistorisches Museum to look at the largest collection of Brugel's in the world and one of only two sets of $1,000,00016th C tapestry cartoons in the world; the other is in the V&A in London and, by way of complete contrast, one of 5 Canadian $1,000.000 coins made in 2007 from 100kg of 99.999% pure gold.