Our Elderhostel in Poland, Prague, and Budapest

... good times abound -- except at Heathrow

by Dr. Donald Morrison, MHS '49

July 3 – 22, 2007:

This is the saga of our latest Elderhostel experience. It is a “saga” in the sense that all unfolded perfectly until we left the Budapest airport gate to take off for London – Heathrow. If the tour description seems dull and prosaic, jump ahead to the ending.

We arranged to fly out of Boston and return so that we could attend our brother-in-law Gordon Brockway’s 80th birthday celebration on July 21 in North Conway, NH. So, we arrived at the Hilton Airport hotel at Logan at 11 p.m. on July 2, with the intention of using long-term parking about a mile away the next day. The next morning the bell captain offered to meet the long-term rate on a cash basis. We accepted his offer, or rather, he agreed to ours, with the qualification, “You drive a hard bargain.” It is amazing what’s available in a true market economy.

Our flight to Heathrow was smooth, followed by the usual lengthy bus transfer from one terminal to another. A coach to our hotel was waiting for us in Warsaw. Our local guide would be Dr. Maria Johann of Warsaw University. That afternoon we had a brief bus tour of the city, and some time in the evening to begin to recover from jet lag.

The 36 participants were a diverse, interesting, and friendly group. Our leader, Mary Jane Crotty, lives in Kennebunkport, Maine, and we enjoyed swapping stories about that region. Don Baker, retired from various parts of AT&T and its “babies,” said he had served in the military at 5th and Chestnut, Philadelphia. When I asked what service was there, we found out we were both veterans of the USPHS Commissioned Corps, he as sanitary engineer, I as assistant sanitarian (i. e., statistician). Don’s wife Linda served on the Concord, MA Planning Board. Jack, a retired physicist at Lawrence Livermore Labs, had studied quantum mechanics under J. Robert Oppenheimer before the war at Berkeley. When I asked of Oppenheimer’s style in class, Jack replied, “ARROGANT!” Ty, a physician and football coach from Pocatello, Idaho played at USC with O. J. Simpson. Several of the group were retired teachers: Jim O’Brien taught shop in the Chicago area; Richard Healy taught history in Connecticut, and served as town Fire Marshal in retirement. Others had ancestral roots in Poland or adjacent countries.

Grave of Father Jerzy Popieluszko, the "Solidarity priest," murdered by security police in 1984

The next morning began with lectures on Polish history and the Catholic church under communism and in the transition to democracy. We visited St. Stanislaw Kostka Church, the parish of the Solidarity priest Father Jerzy Popieluszko, until he was murdered by the security police in 1984. Afterward we visited Wilanow Palace, the summer residence of King Jan III Sobieski. The afternoon was free. In the evening we heard a spectacular Chopin piano recital (pronounced locally as “Shoppin”).

Friday morning we heard a lecture on Polish economic and social problems by Dr. Maria Johann. We left by coach for the Chopin family home. Afterward for lunch we stopped at a cottage on the grounds of the ruined Lowicz castle. The proprietors have plans for excavations and archeological digs at the castle site. We visited the Lowicz Regional Museum, and then a remarkable display of mechanically animated figures depicting festivals, a country wedding, and other processions. We returned to the Lowicz castle cottage for dinner, accompanied by a regional folk music concert and a demonstration of decorative paper cutting.

Part of the Elderhostel group at the gate of the Auschwitz extermination camp

Saturday morning we left by coach for Krakow. We stopped at the Jasna Gora Monastery at Czestochowa to view the Black Madonna painting. Most of the afternoon was spent at the Auschwitz and Birkenau extermination camps outside of Krakow. The exhibits were horrific.

Sunday morning at our hotel in Krakow we heard a lecture on the Jews in Poland before and after WW II by Robert Gadek of the Jewish Cultural Festival. Afterward we explored the Market Square and enjoyed tea at an outdoor café. In the afternoon we had a walking tour of St. Mary’s church, the Town Hall Tower, and the castle and cathedral on Wawel Hill. Dinner was in the Kazimierz district, once a separate Jewish town within Krakow. During dinner we had a Klezmer music concert. I understand Klezmer is the kind of music used as the scores of the 1930s cartoon movies, e.g., “Loony Tunes.”

Market Square, Krakow, Poland

Monday we visited the Wieliczka Salt Mine. This sounds uninteresting, but it was hardly so. We walked down innumerable stairs and passageways past exhibits, salt carvings and sculptures, chapels, and salt ponds. The mine workings extend back 700 years. In the afternoon we went to Zakopane, a sort of Polish Tyrolean village. The market place is the usual tourist trap, but we enjoyed the visit to the wood carver’s studio.

Tuesday morning we bade farewell to Dr. Johann, and left on the bus for Prague. The hotel was modern, with a nice dining room. Wednesday morning we had a lively lecture on Czech history and geography. Because of a rain shower we missed our chance to visit a famous library nearby. Our bus took us on a tour of the Lesser Town. We ended with a dinner cruise on the Vltava River, a very fine way to view a city. Thursday morning we had a lengthy bus trip to the glassworks at Nizbot. We watched the glassblowers at work fashioning all sorts of delicate vessels. The lack of safety precautions for anyone accustomed to OSHA regulations was shocking: Bare bellies, shorts, no safety glasses, etc. We heard a talk by the owner on the nationalization of the company by the Communists, and his purchase of it from the government after the “Velvet Revolution.” The sales shop saw a lot of activity, but we dropped any plans to buy a set of wine glasses when we found they didn’t do shipping. In the afternoon we toured the Old Town and the Jewish Ghetto, including the Synagogues and the cemetery.

Relief carving, Wieliczka Salt Mine

Friday we had a lecture at the Brevnov Monastery by a very gracious young Benedictine monk. After lunch at the monastery we visited Prague Castle. In the gift shop we met an American, the director of a new museum established by Prince William Lobkowicz in a palace once owned by his family (See the article “Americans in Prague” in the August 2007 issue of Smithsonian  magazine). Dinner was on our own. We found an outdoor place on the edge of the square that served a very good goulash. In the evening we a attended a puppet/marionette performance of the opera “Don Giovani.” This was considerably less than exciting, and we were glad to catch the tram back to our hotel.

Statue in Prague honoring Franz Kafka

Saturday morning we had a good lecture on the transformation of the Czech economy by a hotel and tour company owner who handled our travel arrangements in Prague. The afternoon was free, but not with sufficient time to visit the transit museum we had passed twice on our tours. Our farewell dinner was at the Bertramka Mozart Museum, with a concert by the Czech Wind Quintet afterward on the garden plaza. One member of the tour looked up at the grass slope behind the garden and said, “This is as close to heaven as it gets.”

On Sunday, July 15, we left early by coach for Budapest. This was an all-day journey through fairly level country. I saw one goods (freight) train containing new autos on open carriers. Graffiti vandalism may have caught on in Eastern Europe, but not rocking of auto carriers. Our last hotel was the smallest and plainest, but its meals were fine. Monday and Tuesday mornings we had lectures on the geography and history of Hungary, and its sociology and politics, respectively. We were encouraged to collect questions for an informal discussion with the speakers on Thursday morning. Monday afternoon we toured the cities by bus, including St. Matthias Cathedral and the view from the Gellert Hill. We ended with a dinner cruise on the Danube – another spectacular overview of the city.

Czech folk dancers following our dinner in Prague

Tuesday afternoon we walked through the Jewish Ghetto, visited the largest Synagogue in Europe, and the Jewish Museum of Budapest. After dinner in the hotel we attended an open-air concert by the Budapest Klezmer Band in the courtyard of the Hotel Hilton on the hill.

Wednesday we had an all-day excursion by bus to Esztergom on the Danube Bend. A high point in the morning was the guided tour of the paintings in the Christian Museum near the Basilica. Lunch was at a hunting lodge in Visegrad with a fine view of the Danube bend. After lunch we visited the restored farming museum village of Szentendre, followed by a shopping stop in the commercial part of Szentendre. Phyllis was able at last to find a meter-square table cloth. One husband returning to the bus exclaimed “BOY, am I GLAD we stopped AT THIS PLACE!” That seemed to describe the mood of most of the men on the trip.

Interior of the largest synagogue in Europe, Budapest

We had been invited to dinner at the family home of Lilian, our son and daughter-in-law’s au pair from Budapest, so we were very concerned about our late arrival back at the hotel. We were relieved to find Claudia, Lilian’s sister, and her fiancé, Barna, waiting for us. Claudia’s English was excellent, and they drove us to her parents’ home, a very nice semi-detached house with a large and beautiful garden containing a dry stone wall built by her father. We had a delicious meal of goulash and dessert dumplings. Lilian and Claudia’s father Bela was retired from his original occupation, but still drove for a delivery company. Forty years ago he had been a speedboat racer, and won several championships in Hungary, the U. S., and world-wide. He shared magazine and news accounts of his races with us after dinner. We greatly appreciated the hospitality, and had a unique story to share with the other Elderhostelers when we returned.

Thursday morning we skipped the early trip to the food market, but enjoyed the question-and-answer session with our two speakers. After lunch we headed for the Budapest Zoo, across from the thermal spa where a couple of our group was heading with Hedi Adams, our on-site guide. The zoo was a little disappointing, with many exhibits closed or under renovation, and the ice cream vendors shutting down at 3:45.

Our farewell dinner was lavish and festive, and was followed by a Hungarian music and folk dance program. Unlike our previous ten Elderhosels, this one ended with a round of mutual hugging, for we would all miss the good friends we’d made on the trip.

We left at 9 Friday morning for the airport. Our departure around 12:30 was uneventful until we left the gate for the runway, and the captain learned we couldn’t be cleared for take-off because of severe rain storms at Heathrow. We remained in place for at least two hours with the engines idling. Finally we received clearance, but a flaps trouble light had come on, and the plane had to return to the gate for diagnosis by a mechanic. This consumed another two hours or more before we could be airborne. By then we realized we would miss our connection to Boston, although in actuality that flight had been canceled because of the storm.

We were assured en route that we would all be rebooked for the next afternoon, and at Heathrow we were sent to a queue to obtain hotel vouchers and rebooking information. After about an hour and a half we had the voucher and a British Airways (BA) number we must call for our rebooked flight. We knew the number would be nearly constantly busy, but no one told us the way to penetrate was to punch the “redial” button after each “busy” signal. We went to the designated bus stop for our hotel coach, where the attendant assured us no bus was scheduled. Fortunately, we persisted to wait, and a bus arrived to take us to a Hilton some 20 miles away.

The hotel restaurant was long-closed at 11 p.m., but the staff had graciously set up a soup and varied sandwiches station for us – our first meal since the light lunch on the plane. Phyllis called the rebooking number throughout the night, with no success. After breakfast we headed for an ATM at a supermarket, and a woman returning to Australia told us of the “redial” trick. That worked back at our room, and we found we were rebooked first class on a flight leaving in about 90 minutes. A fast taxi ride and some equally fast talk to get to the head of the departure line only led to the news that the gate had closed for the flight. We must go to the queue formed under two marquee tents beside the airport building.

We entered the first tent, and found the end of the triple line of patient and impeccably-behaved travelers of many nationalities. And so we stood for seven hours. Two torrential rain storms raged in the afternoon, and we gave thanks for the tent cover. The two Norwegian youths in front of us were able to rebook for Oslo by cell phone, and left. Suddenly at 5 p.m. a BA representative insisted we take a proffered chair. Did we really look that infirm? We stopped declining, and sat. Next the representative said quietly, “Come with me.” Again we resisted any privilege, but he prevailed, and we were led to the top of the line near the counter. “Just wait here,” he implored us. Presently an attendant came out from behind the counter and quietly told us we could be booked Business Class in the morning to New York or in late afternoon to Boston. We opted for Boston, and were given airport bus tickets and a voucher for the Park Inn at Heathrow.

The Park Inn and its fine dining buffet were a relaxing break after the uncertainties and queues of the past 20-plus hours. We settled in, called our son Steve to try to reserve a room for us at the Logan Hilton, and left after lunch the next day for the business class lounge in the airport. We enjoyed the lounge’s various perks, and had an easy flight back to Boston. There we found our three bags had not arrived. BA took our addresses in North Conway, NH and Wallingford, PA, and promised forwarding of the baggage – some day. We decided to continue to New Hampshire as planned. Norm and his family stayed an extra day for us, and Gordon Jr. and family stayed through lunch. One of our bags arrived at the Inn by courier on Wednesday morning as we were ready to head home. The other two came to our home by Fed Ex on the 31st – eleven days after checking them in Budapest. Unaccompanied baggage has a very low priority.

So, it was a very interesting trip. We learned a lot, especially in its last three days.

October 5, 2007

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