Travel Writer & Author

Category: Blog

Hungary Blog


Dec.1-7, 2008

We were waiting in the van while our driver, Attila (yes, like the Hun) collected our press packs from inside the Danubius Heath Spa Resort Sarvar, Hungary. Jan, one of the three travel agents with whom I was traveling, remarked from the front seat: “Watch that guy, he’s moving the ladder without getting off it.” I looked up from my Blackberry and sure enough, a burly, grey hair fellow in a puffy winter jacket was hanging Christmas lights around the front portico while balanced on a narrow, wooden step ladder. Unlike the stainless steel ones that Bob used, this ladder was a simple pair of wooden triangles connected by skinny rungs; it was missing the flat cross bar at the top and, in fact, the long sides extended far higher than the last rung. The worker wiggled across the driveway like a circus performer on stilts performing with a long string of lights in hand. He stopped, fastened the multicolored connector every sixteen inches or so and restarted his wiggle-walk maneuver on down the driveway to the next spot and the next.

I can’t say why I started giggling; the movement just touched my funny bone. I felt like I was watching a contestant participating in David Letterman’s Stupid Human Tricks and giggle I did, spontaneously, and it felt good.

Bob had been gone for six months and nine days (but who’s counting?) and, except for some late-night political humor–thanks to TIVO and Letterman, Leno and my favorite, Jon Stewart, giggles were a rarity. This outburst reminded me of Carrie, in Sex in the City, the movie. Like me, she was certain that she’d never laugh again, but her friend assured her: “When you see something funny, really funny, you’ll laugh.” She did and, so did I.

I didn’t travel to Budapest in search of my smile, though it’s a great pleasure to find it even for a short while. I accepted Ruthanne’s assignment to research and write an article (for Travel Agent) about Hungarian health resort spas in and around Budapest in part because I am forever curious about what the next spa is like and in part because I was grateful for the work. Ruthanne had been good enough to send me to St Moritz (heaven on a mountain top and we also got to spend a day at Villa d’Este) and Bordeaux (which I loved) not to mention Napa and San Diego spas and more. While Bob was ill, I had to turn down her invitations and assignments, so I really appreciate that she is still inviting me.

Actually, traveling to Budapest was good for me because it was a bit of a stretch to go somewhere where I didn’t know the language (or very much about the history and culture). Although I flew alone and had to change in Vienna (someday, I’m going to say, non-stop or non- go!) there was a promise of a driver at the other end, plus a host so it really wasn’t much of a challenge.

It was, however, different on a variety of levels. The driver wasn’t actually waiting for me at the terminal, but he had left a message at the information booth that he had been there and had to leave to pick up the others and that I should wait. Knowing that (and having enough cash in pocket to take a cab to the hotel IF I had to, eliminated that stress). When Attila arrived, he took me to the van where I met three travel agents all of us invited on a FAM (familiarization trip) to check out Danubius hotels, not just the three we stayed out, but three others outside the city and about four additional ones in Budapest.

I usually travel with other travel writers and the occasional editor, so one of the valuable experiences on press trips is the opportunity to talk shop, even to connect with a new editor. I met women who became good friends on press trips: Susan in Florence, Barbara in Bermuda, Connie in Phoenix, Carla at the Montage and Patti in Kenmare. Each of them have enhanced my world in various ways and been the mainstay of my travel writing career.

As food/travel writers, we are usually treated like VIPs, though on those occasions when there are rose petals strewn on my table, I feel as if I’m in the realm of Royalty. Travel agents, on the other hand—or at least this trio of agents—aren’t treated to such rarified moments, in spite of the fact that they actually send paying clients to the venues.

This particular group of strangers was really an eye-opener and quite different from being with typical, sophisticated and spoiled travel writers.

Judy, the most elegant, refined and well-traveled 76 year-old, is based in Westchester where she works part time in an upscale agency, after selling her own company. The two other women were home based travel agents—one from New Jersey and one from Brooklyn—with clients from modest means whom they helped travel back to Eastern Europe. Each had lived in Latvia, where one was raised, both had emigrated to the US as adults and both spoke Russian, the language they were taught in school, and were very familiar with Hungarian culture and cuisine. Our young host, a Ukrainian tour operator for Tradesco–which specializes in Central and Eastern Europe– lives in Florida and had just become a citizen in time to vote for Obama. She had met a Russian on the internet and had moved to the states to marry him. Because they all were familiar with the foods and spoke Russian, the language they had each been taught in school, they were able to share culture information with us although they frequently lapsed off into prolonged whispered conversations, leaving Jan and I no clue as to what they were discussing.

It didn’t matter because I was entranced with the pastel painted buildings in the small towns Heviz and Sarvar and appreciated the beauty of Budapest, the palaces, the beautifully decorated St. Mathews, the opera, the grand synagogue, the gracious boulevards and tree-lined Champs Elysees-like, Andrassy Avenue. There’s something about the Belle Epoque and Art Deco 19th and 20th century aesthetic, the Castle, the Parliament that are just so appealing. Drinking coffee in Café Gerbeaud, a patisserie with warm wood paneling and high painted ceilings adorned with gold leaf is as memorable, in Budapest, as it is at Angelina’s in Paris.

And, the spa culture was something that was totally and completely comfortable to me. In Hungary, the swim, sauna and Thalasso medical treatment lifestyle—where thermal springs prevail–is very similar to what I’d experienced in Israel, in France and even at Spa’Deus in Italy. Christina Newburgh, whom I loved and adored, hired mostly Hungarians to work in Italy, not only because she’s Hungarian and could communicate with them but also because they are hard workers, who cooked the foods she loved, appreciated the spa mentality and—not such a minor point—appreciated low pay, at least by American standards.

(As I edit this, in April, 2017, I realize how much a giggle means and how much each travel experience has influenced my enhanced life. )

FERRY: Cinque Terra, Italy

From time to time, a ferry ride can lead to a serendipitous day, which was my experience in Italy, once. Even at the time, we realized it was easily the best happenstance among all the terrific times we shared on three, week-long Mediterranean cruises on the WindSurf, a small sailing ship that Bob especially loved (because the captain refused to turn on the engine unless or until there was virtually NO wind on the sea.)

We arrived in Porto Venere, a town with which I was completely unfamiliar and where we decided to just play it by ear for a day on shore. When we arrived at the dock, I noticed the names of the five teeny towns that are perched along the steep cliffs of the Cinque Terre –Riomaggiore, Monterosso, Manarola, Corniglia, Vernazza—posted on a sign that seemed to lead to a ferryboat terminal. I was familiar with the names and had learned that they were recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, only because when I took a trip on the Orient Express from Venice to London, we had passed through these exquisite points of land perched atop the Mediterranean. My colleague who had visited there insisted that these tiny villages were among the most beautiful and romantic places in the world.


We bought round-trip ferry tickets and climbed aboard the ferry, where we sat near an exquisite, fantasy-provoking, Italian man who told us that he lived in Portofino and was taking his (aged) father out for the day; we managed to mention New York and though I was sputtering a bit of Italian and Spanish, we really didn’t have a language in common.


At the first stop, Bob and I walked to the front of the ferry and mounted the narrow gang plank that the crew had pushed out from the bow until it was long enough to reach and rest (precariously) on a rock. Once on land, we followed a few others and climbed steps carved into the rocks, forever, it seemed, (I can’t possibly know how many steps) up to a teeny tiny town. We wandered a bit in Riomaggiore, and then followed a skinny, curvaceous seafront path that curved along the outer edge of the cliff leading to the next town. It was actually a difficult walk because small aggressive groups of people—and I did recognize their language—pushed through people to the extent that it wouldn’t have been a shock if someone they shoved had landed over the edge and on the rocks below us.


When we arrived at Vernazza, we heard someone yelling, “Hey, New York, andiamo,” and we looked up to see our new-found ferry-friend calling down from high above us, at the edge of a terrace of a tower topping a medieval castle. Somehow, his father, who I had thought to be aged, had climbed all that distance to the top. We joined them and their friends and shared a three-hour lunch, drinking local wines and eating seafood and pasta dishes at Belforte, in a castle built in the 1500’s. In spite of the difficulty of speaking part-Italian/part-Spanish and part- English, we had a great afternoon. During lunch, we called our daughter, the Italophile and told her where we were and asked what wine she’d like us to buy. Who knew that Vernazza was her favorite!


Our new friends escorted us to their wine shop, where the proprietor was charming and presented me with a cluster of melon-sized oranges with stems attached and which scented our cabin for the rest of the voyage.


Ah, ferry travel!


Long Island Ferry Fire Island Irvina Lew


These days, as a crew is busy rebuilding my backyard bulkhead, which was damaged during Super Storm Sandy, I spend more time than usual looking out my windows at the harbor front and beyond to the Robert Moses Bridge across the Great South Bay and the Fire Island Lighthouse. As I stare at the ferries that ply the waters that slap against–and occasionally over–that bulkhead, I realize that my exorbitant love of travel started on a ferry at this exact spot, before I was even ten years old.


As a kid at the Fourth Avenue elementary school, in Bay Shore, my classmate Rose Mary’s dad treated our entire class to an annual, end-of-year trip across the bay to spend a few hours on the beach in Fair Harbor, one of the charming little Fire Island communities that stretch between the bay and the ocean on the forty-mile stretch of sand that we call Fire Island. Captain Gus Pagel owned the Fair Harbor Ferry Company, then, and was my hero, because he introduced me to the magic that I felt then–and still feel–riding on a ferry.


Though I recall nothing about their beach house or playing in the sand or jumping the waves in the ocean, I clearly remember the joy of standing on the top deck, alone, savoring the sunshine and billowing clouds, staring at the buoys and clam boats and feeling—and smelling– the sea breeze. I particularly remember admiring the houses on the narrow point of land near the entry to the bay, where I’ve been living for almost forty years. Somewhere deep in my memory bank, that young girl was dreaming about living there.


What’s lasted is both joy and that enchanted sense of separation, that I first felt on a ferry. Among my recollections, there are the trips during my middle school (we called it Junior High), when I relished being grown up enough to ferry to the beach, alone, to visit my cousin Janie, in Ocean Beach. I was a pre-teen when I remember thinking that the thatched roof mansion on the bay, that we passed on the ferry from Sayville was a fairy tale cottage, on Girl Scout trips from Camp Edey, when we ferried to Cherry Grove, for camping trips on the beach. (Yes, we dug our own latrines in the sand. And no, there wasn’t a worry in the world, that we young girls were camping on the beach between two famous (and sometimes nudist) gay communities, Cherry Grove and Fire Island Pines.) And, I clearly recall the early morning chill on the ferry ride back to Bay Shore, after my friend Betty and I had missed the last ferry the night before the first day of our senior year and we slept on the beach. We managed to arrive at school, on time, but still wearing beach clothes instead of what we had planned for the occasion.


Throughout my adulthood, the ferry ride has regularly served as my personal escape hatch. During particularly stressful times, separation from the mainland relieved my anxiety along with the engines going into full gear beyond the marina. Once, during the turbulent season of national tragedies, I recall getting on a ferry shortly after Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated, In June 1968. I vividly remember breathing deeper and calming myself—long before I knew about meditation—with the fresh sea air in my face.


Watching the ferries pass by has been an intrinsic element in my everyday life since Bob, my late husband, and I bought this house. Even before we moved in, in 1979, I used to pick him up at the railroad station and we’d picnic on the back deck, just to watch the ferries and the sunset. After reconstructing the west and south windows to better capture the view, we decorated by positioning the bed in the middle of the bedroom and placing every desk, couch and chair carefully facing the waterfront vista. I still find pleasure, occasionally, waving back to someone on the top deck as they go by and driving to and from and waiting at the ferry terminal for the chance to spend a few minutes–or a meal–with my daughter and my granddaughters, who have a home there. If it’s a chore, it’s my favorite one. And, when I ferry to and from the beach, I always stand up from my favorite seat backing the wheelhouse as it approaches my home, which is somewhat hidden behind pine trees; these days, there’s usually a camera in hand.


These ferries, which were the starting point for a love of travel that has since extended to barges and riverboats, sailboats, motor yachts and cruise ships as well as trains, cars and planes, are not the only ones that I enjoy. Ferry trips have become a favorite form of transportation wherever I travel, and I plan to write about some of them, next.

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