- Achraf, the wonderful local guide who seemed to know every third person on the street, who explained and answered every question, who knew the BEST restaurants, and who conducted every minute with a smile and care for my safety and happiness. He’s the real deal. Achraf can be reached on Facebook at Achraf’s Private Tours, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or by cellular at +212 6 68 90 75 39. Book this guy!
- The Hilton Tanger City Center, a lovely, modern five-star hotel that has taken care of everything regarding my comfort and sleep. Need train tickets? Ask Imad the Concierge. Need colder tonic water? Ask the gregarious and aim-to-please Jamal in the Executive Lounge. Need postcard stamps? Ask Imad the Concierge. Book this hotel!
- My superior chef at the cooking school.
- Le Saveur de Poisson. The best meal of 2019 so far, one of the most memorable meals in my life.
I usually don’t blog about my hotel stays, but this particular stay has been frustrating. I stayed at this hotel for three nights this week.
My usual writing here is happy and hopeful. Today, however, is a tale of semi-woe.
I’m a Diamond member of Hilton Honors. I travel enough that I can tell when hotel staff is not paying attention, or management apparently doesn’t care.
None of these transgressions are major, but taken together, they indicate that something is wrong at the Embassy Suites near Westport and The Plaza in Kansas City.
While the hotel is showing weary signs of needing a makeover in general, the details were what got me this time:
- A four millimeter chip in the top of a drinking cup, and a crack running another three centimeters down the side of the cup. Had I not spotted this, I would have messed up and bloodied my face.
- Sheer curtains falling off the track where they are mounted, and falling apart at the base of the hem. Not just fraying, but literally falling apart.
- A sink where the faucet leaks all over the flat surface where it’s mounted.
- A bedside lamp that is shorting out.
- Door handles literally falling apart on the armoire.
- Obvious signs of rusty leakage on the ceiling by the bedroom window.
- The single worst shower-head I’ve seen and felt in many years of being a loyal Hilton customer.
I’m on the premium floor, with ‘upgraded coffee amenities.’ On my second morning, I found that the K-cups were only flavored coffee or decaf. The two pods of black coffee I had used the previous morning had been replaced with decaf.
At least the bed was the usual Hilton-brand comfy, the pillows firm, the iron functioning. The responses to my frustrations (which I did share without making a scene) were swift, polite, and mollifying. Let me make that final point clearly: staff was apologetic and doing what they could on Christmas Day, and the day after, to fix the little details.
But my point is: these details matter in a higher-end Hilton property, and I should not have had any cause to even speak with hotel staff in the first place, had the details been tended to.
I had planned to stay here again next week, but I shan’t. Now I understand the favorable booking rates at this location.
An update on Wednesday evening:
The lamp, the fraying curtain, the faucet — all were fixed today.
But now the dust-ruffle on the bed is all ajar and sideways, and the cleaning crew left a long, very dark black hair on the floor of the shower room. It’s certainly not mine. It was stuck to the floor, so it got mopped over today.
My point here is not that I can be finicky, because lord knows I can, but that details matter, and I’m staying in what is supposed to be a higher-end hotel in the Hilton brand-list. Were I at Motel 6, I wouldn’t even be expecting things to be satisfactory at the level I do here. But brand loyalty and nearly $200 a night ought to be worth something!
Random photos from the trip, not yet published:
Dinner in Cambridge. BBQ chicken pizza. And a local G&T. (The BBQ sauce was very sweet.)
Breakfast in Vienna.
Vienna hotel room.
We don’t see Uzbekistan Airlines every day in the USA!
Red Square. Moscow.
The view from my flat in London.
The Moscow Hilton Leningradskaya is lovely.
As a Hilton Gold member, I got upgraded to a high floor.
Photos from my room will await a clearer day.
En route to Vienna, aboard an OBB Railjet.
I will maintain until the day I die that rail travel is the way to go. It’s civilized, quiet, and peaceful. And first-class in Europe is not only relatively inexpensive, it’s very comfortable.
So . . . Budapest . . . .
I have rarely felt more like a foreigner than I did upon arrival yesterday at Budapest Keleti. My guide was nowhere to be seen. I spoke nothing of the language, having not even bothered to learn ‘excuse me’ or ‘may I speak English?’. The big issue is that I looked like everyone else, and was shy about being a tourist in a foreign city. You see, at least in China or Taiwan or Malaysia, one stands out as a foreigner. Here, I was just part of the crowd. A lost part of the crowd, of course, but still one of the throng.
So I watched for a while, then changed money (helped by the largest woman I’ve ever seen in a chair, the size of a refrigerator box, so large that her upper arms were nearly an extension of her shoulders, and she only flapped around with her forearms). And then I went to the taxi rank, where a driver told me the zoned price, and off we went.
The train station is in Pest, and the Castle District where I was staying in Buda. After a taxi scrumble on the horrid pavement of a large thoroughfare, we crossed the Danube and started the climb up the hill on switchbacks, driving by ancient fortifications as we did.
The Hilton Budapest is apparently the only hotel in the world inside an UNESCO World Heritage site. The hotel, built in the 70’s in the first big boom of new luxury hotels, incorporates an old Franciscan friary. The concept is great, and the execution pretty fine in a non-original sort of way. Pieces of the foundation are still in place, and elements of the Cloisters and the old arches of the nave are re-built to impart the outlines of what there once was.
(The train, now on the outskirts of Budapest, is passing by single-family homes with large garden plots out back. On this Saturday, I am seeing many men tilling their gardens.)
My window opened onto a view of the Danube. An amazing view of the Danube, with Parliament just across the river. This is why I booked this hotel.
And then my guide called. He had missed me at the train station, so he came to the hotel, and off we went.
I had asked Csaba (a tall, lanky former flight attendant with several university degrees to his credit) in advance to provide me a historical overview specifically focusing on churches and architecture. He planned a wonderful afternoon, starting with the Franciscan church at the hotel, continuing through the old ‘royal’ church of St. Matthias, right by the hotel, and then moving to Pest to end up with the main church, St. Stephen’s Basilica. Along the way we encountered tons of Turkish influence, the history of the Danube, Roman ruins, large public squares, shopping districts, and enough adorable children to populate a small planet. I learned a great deal from Csaba, who clearly brought his training as a teacher and in urban planning to the tourist experience.
Csaba had warned me that we would be walking, and walk we did. Aside from sitting down in three churches, and taking a short break for a beer, we were on the go the whole time. So, it’s no wonder today that my right leg is tired from schlepping the boot, and that my left leg and hip are sore the walking. I had trouble getting out of bed this morning, so weary and worn was I.
Having skipped lunch yesterday, I was grateful for dinnertime. Csaba had recommended a restaurant near the hotel, but I found their menu too much of a haut experience, so I walked down the cobblestones (since cobblestones there were, everywhere), to a place named the Black Raven. When I sat down on the front patio, I was the only customer. By the time I left, the place was full.
And for good reason. I started with goulash (a soup in Magyar terms), and wanted so to bottle the aroma and remember it forever. Then the main course was the meal of the trip, a plate of bacon-wrapped veal medallions and pan-roasted potatoes with ham and a bit of sweet onion. I was in omnivore heaven. The cool weather, the view of ancient stuccoed buildings, the mélange of languages I heard walking by – all conspired to make this one of the most Romantic solo meals I’ve ever had.
Then the Gypsy band arrived. The leader saw me entranced with the sound and walked over to play specifically for me (angling for a tip, of course, which I gratefully offered). They played me the Brahms “Hungarian Dance No. 5” – the famous G-minor one that everyone will recognize – and Strauss’ “Blue Danube” waltz. Most curious, though, was a ridiculous rendition of “The Phantom of the Opera” from the musical by Lloyd Webber. That was a bit jarring.
Setting off in search of dessert, walking in the twilight, I found the restaurant overlooking the Danube already closed, so I took photos and people-watched, then went to the hotel for dessert. Exhausted and happy, I fell into bed at 10 p.m., seeing at the last the Parliament building bathed in floodlights and giving the British Parliament a run for its money.
My Budapest adventure now over, I’m headed back to Vienna for one last evening, and a concert at the Musikverein this evening.
I have arrived in Budapest. And I can’t begin to describe how beautiful the view from hotel window is. I’m in the Castle District, with a full-on, uninhibited, breathtaking view of the Danube.
More later. I have to go be a tourist.