Chris Dodds

Technologist & Writer

Central Europe - Day 9 - Burgers & Wine

The Hungarian forint is not in high demand outside of Hungary, as evidenced by the 10,000 forint bills being spit out by the ATM. The 30,000 forints I receive are equal to roughly $107 US. Knowing they will be nearly impossible to exchange later, I do my best to spend them all.

Even with its weak currency, Budapest is experiencing a renaissance. The old buildings in the center of Pest have been restored and there are new construction projects underway on nearly every block. The new and old have yet to fully mesh, and the transition between modern retail/commercial, and centuries old apartments is slightly jarring.

The rebuilt city squares are filled with statues, flowers, fountains, and pools. Also, Starbucks.

We walk along the Danube. It is less clear here than in Vienna with a stronger green tint. Buda stairs down on us from across the water.

Yachts full of geriatrics are anchored at the river's edge. Young stewards carry luggage and push wheelchairs. Viking's public TV ads appear to be money well spent.

Further down the river we encounter the "Shoes on the Danube Bank", a memorial to Hungarian Jews killed by a fascist militia. There are surprisingly few tourists and those present are quiet and respectful. The sunshine and lack of clouds feels inappropriate.

We walk to the Hungarian parliament building and then into the mid-rise shade of the nearby consulates and boarding houses. I have no frame of reference for the Hungarian language but pick out the Hungarian Intellectual Property office on one the side streets. For some reason its sign is in English.

It is mid-afternoon and we are hungry. The nearest restaurant to the hotel is a spectacularly kitsch take on an American burger joint. Burger Jake's is blaring country music and the burgers coming off the grill are the size of hubcaps. There seems to be an even split between locals and tourists.

The salads and fish & chips look the least ridiculous of the menu items so I order both and take them back to our hotel room.

At 5PM, taxis arrive to take us across the river to Buda for a wine tasting in the basement of a hotel, which is much nicer than it sounds. The sommelier presents us with well-rehearsed dad jokes and the history of each wine. I have never been a fan of wine, but everything presented is very good. I get wine now.

I sit on the corner of the table and talk to two of the Australian men, asking about the perception of Americans in Australian (and vice versa). The feedback is generally positive, with a bit of perplexition around America's gun culture. I smile sadly and nod my head.

"Do you ever worry about some person shooting you?"

"Not really, but I don't know if that's because of numbness or denial."

I try to answer honestly when asked about the American perception of Australia.

"We are almost entirely self-involved. Past Crocodile Dundee and kangaroos, most Americans don't have any perception of Australia. Or anywhere else for that matter. We have to purposfully seek out the world's news if we want to be exposed to it.

The U.S. actually is a great place to live, and I think the good outweighs the bad. It's just like anywhere though. If you have a choice to pick where you live, you have to decide which bucket of bullshit you're more OK dealing with. Everywhere has problems."

The sommelier offers us the Hungarian variant of plum brandy before we head back across the river for dinner. It is smoother than the slivovice I had in Český Krumlov.

It is our final group dinner and we eat what I think is the best food of the trip. Sous vide duck, cabbage pasta, goulash, goat cheese, beef marrow, pork knuckle - all of it delicious.

There are toasts and we inadvertently make our guide cry as we express our fondness for her. She has been excellent.

I compliment the Australians on how positive they have been and how the general lack of complaint made the trip much better than it could have been.

For someone who generally operates on the premise of "prove why I shouldn't hate you", I am sad to say goodbye to the group. Walking away from the restaurant, we pause on a narrow island in the middle of a street to hug and shake hands.

"... and the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day."

Central Europe - Day 8 - Cake & Statues

Second breakfast is sachertorte at the Demel Bakery. We sit outside watching people from all over the world pass by. My iced Turkish coffee is 1000% superior to any of the hotel coffee we've had on the trip. We tour the Sisi Museum in the Hapsburg Palace. It is moderately interesting but somewhat spoiled by visitors clogging the corridors as they stop and listen to electronic audio guides. I again struggle to not crush children and small Japanese men.

The exterior of the palace is far more interesting. Its entrance is surrounded by sculptures that I wish I had for my house. Maybe that can be a weekend project. Sculpting can't be that hard, right?

We visit the crypt of the imperial family. The air is cool and pleasant, a welcome reprieve from the rapidly warming streets. There are dozens of intricately designed sarcophaguses, the newest are less than a decade old, others go back centuries. Nothing is macabre, only calming.

Capuchin monks maintain the site, and upon learning this I can't stop thinking about little capuchin monkeys running around in robes, sweeping up and dusting.

We study the dates on each plaque. Many of the deceased were less than a year old. There are many Ferdinands, Leopolds, Rudolphs, and Maximillians.

The Albertina is our favorite stop of the day. Their collection is impressive. They have Picasso, Munch, da Vinci, Monet, and countless others. Docents shuffle quietly through the visitors, gently steering children away from the priceless art.

The paintings are engaging, but I spend far more time wandering through the Lee Miller exhibit. Each of the tiny silver gelatin prints is evocative and slices apart my confidence as a photographer. I have so much to learn about light and shadow, composition and narrative.

We eat lunch in the Albertina's cafe and watch a group of American tourists get agitated because the waitress hasn't split their bill. Math is hard.

The U1 Red Line takes us to the banks of the Danube and we walk along the boardwalk until the heat drives us back to the subway station. Everyone along the river seems to have brought their personal hookah kit.

Given the people we have seen in speedos and bathing suits this trip, I will never again worry about looking good at the beach. Although fewer speedoed Viennese  are working in their gardens than the other cities we have visited.


In the evening, it takes a bit of searching to find a restaurant that is not serving schnitzel. The Hard Rock Cafe is vetoed by everyone, it's only redeeming quality is that it is cool inside.

The trip is winding down and we are struggling with not wanting it to end. Given the opportunity, I would live in Vienna and/or go on a never-ending tour with the Aussies, singing songs and making friends with the world.

"Here's to Chris! He's True Blue! He's a Piss Pot through and through. He's a Bastard so they say and he's not going to heaven, he went the other way! He's going down! down! down! down! down!..."

We re-pack and prepare for Hungary.

Central Europe - Day 7 - Sweat & Schnitzel

I wake up coughing. My throat has been destroyed by the second-hand smoke from last night. Breakfast is again lunch meat and hard boiled eggs, but I find the bread and jam hidden behind one of the food baskets. The jam is the friendliest employee at the hotel's restaurant.


Several in the group have acquired new luggage that comes close to overwhelming the trailer being pulled behind today's transport.

"This group has set a new record for most luggage."

We ride along a winding road through the Czech countryside and across the border into Austria. I buy cough drops at a convenience store when we stop for gas. Turns out, "Vicks" in German is "Wicks".

The area of Austria we drive through appears to be made entirely of farmland and windmills. If not anchored by the weight of the Alps, Austria might fly away.

Vienna looks rougher than expected, but as we approach the city center, the volume of lame graffiti fades. The U.S. beats Europe on quality of graffiti by a wide margin.

Our hotel is near Schwedenplatz in an area of town called Fleischmarkt, which appears to be related to 18th-century, Greek butchers and not prostitutes. We drop off our luggage and immediately launch into the town for an orientation walk.

Everyone is hungry and this seems to fluster our guide as she has not planned to take a food break until after the walk. We visit a nearby market where I shove lava-hot prawn rolls into my mouth as quickly as possible. Something in my DNA  drives me to never be the person who holds up the group.

Vienna's town center is packed with tourists, but somehow seems better equipped to handle it than Prague. Our guide points out various landmarks for us to return to later. The juxtaposition of advertising and museums throws me off and I find myself frustrated with the signage and storefronts, but Vienna is otherwise a magnificent city.

It has reached 100 degrees and we take that as a signal to go back to the hotel. There is no air-con in our room, but with both door and windows open, it is bearable. A maid wandering by takes pity on us and brings us a fan.

The EU is doing everything it can to combat anthropogenic climate change while the U.S. government sits on its hands. I refuse to complain about no A/C and acknowledge that I am ordinarily spoiled by what is to the rest of the world, a luxury.

Self-righteousness be damned.

Dinner is at a beer garden in the outer ring of Vienna. A gruff-looking, bear of a woman serves as our waitress. Carafes of white wine and sparkling water are littered onto our table and our order is condensed into combined sets of the two main dishes and two sides that the restaurant serves.

No one touches the sparkling water.


The schwein schnitzel fills the plate it is served on and is very good. Conversation is lively and my respect for our guide grows as she responds matter-o-factly to someone complaining about Europe not having air conditioning.

"Yes. It is Europe in the summer. Maybe your country should ratify the Kyoto Protocol."


The Australian end of the table has grown loud and our gruff waitress has asked us to quiet down so that the restaurant's neighbors do not complain. They have out-rowdied the Austrians and I am proud of them.

Take that, Arnold Schwarzenegger.




Copyright 2015 - Chris Dodds