Life is full of ironies. Once the Grand Circle Tour people converted our riverboat cruise to a bus tour, it stopped raining. The Danube River started to go down -- enough so that we actually got to cruise from Regensburg, where we'd been stranded, to Straubing -- just north of the railroad bridge which we still could not get under.
There, our 150 passengers made the switch to buses to continue. Our first stop was Melk Abbey, whose name raises images of a Norman stone pile atop a hill but is in fact a huge Baroque structure with a gilded church and chambers and a library of ancient tomes which is world-renowned. Simply breath-taking.
Vienna, or Wien as the Austrians call it, was next. We took a bus and walking tour but mostly saw exteriors. What exteriors, though! Especially the Hofburg (the former palace of the Emperor Franz Josef) and the Belvedere Palace. In the evening, we went to the Lichtenstein Palace for a concert of Mozart and Strauss -- the two musical giants of Vienna. Afterward, it was off to Grinsing, a village suburb famed for its wines. Each restaurant has its own wine and serves only that season's vintage. The food and musicians were mediocre, but after my second glass of the season's wine, I didn't much care.
I also stopped counting glasses.
Remarkably, I had no hangover the next morning -- but I noticed most of the people on our bus slept a lot on the dull ride to Slovakia.
Our destination, Bratislava, proved to be somewhat dreary and run-down after years of Communist rule. This was a disappointment to my wife Polly, whose Cerveny ancestors came from this area. Slovakia was a part of the Hungarian empire until after World War I when it became a part of Czechoslovakia. After World War II, it was run by Communists until 1989. In 1993, Slovakia broke away to become the Slovak Republic. As a result, it seems more like a 1960s country than 2002 -- with both ugly modern and picturesque ancient features.
The Grand Circle Tour people apparently didn't think too much of the city, either, as we only spent five hours there. Our bus driver had to bribe a Slovak guard with two bottles of Coca Cola to speed up our exit at the border, but then we got held up for 45 minutes on the Hungarian side. It was after dark before we reached the Hotel Taverna in the heart of downtown Budapest -- too late for any walking or shoppng.
We started the next morning with a tour of the Opera House and a brief vocal recital (more Mozart and Strauss). We were forced to wear cloth booties over our shoes and rushed along because there was a dress rehearsal with audience scheduled.
Budapest is really two cities -- Buda and Pest -- divided by the Danube (which is called the Duna here). We toured both cities by bus and on foot, trying to decipher the signs with little luck. Budapest has also suffered from decades of Communist rule, but it's making a remarkable comeback and hopes to join the European Union soon.
Buda is the Old Town with its Castle District and Matthias Church high on a ridge with a spectacular view of the river and the many bridges across the Duna. (It's also the namesake of the Buda on Route 40 up in Bureau County.)
Pest has its share of sights, too -- like a magnificent neoGothic Parliament building, St. Stephen's Basilica, and Europe's largest synogogue. The more we saw of the city, the more we liked it. Polly and I took in Hungarian folk dances at a little jewel of a theater in the Duna Paace, enjoyed the visiting Leningrad Symphony from our own box in the Opera House (no booties this visit!), and walked hand in hand along the river at night to see the lighted bridges and spotlighted structures on the heights of Buda.
Our tour also bussed to a small village called Lajosmizse for a horse show with wild riding and whip-snapping, a dinner, and a closing campfire under a starry sky. A ''Hungarian gypsy band'' of cymbalum and strings entertained us at dinner with such folk music as ''Somewhere Over the Rainbow'' and the theme from the TV mini-series ''North and South.'' Well, they sounded Hungarian to most of us after all the wine we drank. I had enough so that I was one of the first to join a gypsy Conga line dance.
On October 4, we said our farewells to the new acquaintances we'd made on our GCT tour. Some were headed for a tour extension in Prague -- which proved to be muddy and bedraggled after its August flooding and the recent September storms. Some were headed home. Polly and I, however, had our own plans: we were headed back to Vienna!
NEXT: LAST DELIGHTS AND OVERALL