At Night

Enjoying Mar Del Plata

Choosing to come to Mar Del Plata as an end to our trip around the world was a fantastic idea.  We have enjoyed our time relaxing, doing some “re-entry” work, and literally taking long walks along the beach.  No, we aren’t placing a singles ad or anything, but the coastline here stretches for miles and it is wonderful that we have time to simply walk.  Like many other beach towns, there are dozens of runners, roller bladers, power walkers and skaters moving about and enjoying the sunshine and ocean breeze.  The beach is noticeably busier on the weekends and the atmosphere is charged with energy and excitement.

Determined to take advantage of the awesome apartment where we are staying, we wandered half way across town to find a better grocery store in order to make dinner for ourselves.  Though this Toledo store is the same brand as the other, its much more expansive aisles and wider selection made this one far superior.  We could actually identify vegetables through the mud caked on them, unlike our previous Toledo visit.  The floors were also level, allowing us to let go of our cart without it racing to the other end of the store and crashing into a wall.  What a refreshing change!  We bought all the fixins for a truly delicious homemade dinner.  Once preparations began, we found ourselves faced with a challenge.  Now, bear in mind we have cooked using a gas stove and oven for years–this is what we are used to.  Also know that our Air BnB host, Carlos, demonstrated how to use the oven on the first day we arrived.  None of that made any difference.  On this stove, the pilot light for the oven has to bit lit manually using a match.  Simple enough, but we had the hardest time finding the right combination.  Light the match, push in the dial, spin until you hear the gas release, then release and set the temperature.  Each time we tried the last step, the flame disappeared.  In fact, every time I had the stupid thing lit, the flame would die if I made any moves with the dial.  I wasn’t too keen on sitting with my hand on the dial for the entire time and not only did my frustration began to build, but my fear that we were going to blow up this apartment in our efforts.  Phil took over and had similar issues.  Match after match, we lit the flame to see it almost immediately die out.  As soon as we were about to change the menu from oven-roasted carrots to sautéed carrots, Phil saved the day and figured it out.  It took us at least 15 matches and I’m not sure we’ll be able to do it again, but at least we were able to roast those carrots and enjoy a delicious homemade dinner.

After dinner, Phil was excited to check out the casino.  I was feeling much more comfy and cozy inside and managed to talk him into staying home and just hanging on the couch.  As Phil mentioned in his last post, one thing we have been doing is watching a fair amount of television, which we haven’t done much of on the whole trip. Now, almost every channel we get has the shows dubbed over in Spanish, but there are a few reliable channels that merely have Spanish subtitles and we can actually watch the programming.  We don’t really get many typical American networks–no NBC, CBS, or ABC.  We do get FOX, but it is some different version and of course there is AXN, with its endless episodes of CSI: Miami, Criminal Minds and Castle.  However, even with our limited choices, we have managed to discover 2 new shows which we think are part of the new fall schedule (though we aren’t sure, because here they were shown on Cinemax).  These shows are Arrow and Revolution.  Both on in marathon format (though Revolution was only 2 episodes), we watched from pilot to current episode and really enjoyed them both.  Are they high quality shows?  Maybe, but we have been starved for such television, and it was fun to indulge and watch for hours.  There is a 75% chance we won’t ever watch these once we return to the States, but I’m glad we caught them here.

We should have known. It doesn’t even look fun or inviting from the outside.

After much begging, pleading and arm twisting, we finally found ourselves at the Casino Central the following day.  Okay, so maybe Phil and I love casinos and we have found it interesting to see some of the differences between the ones we are used to in Las Vegas and those around the world. Set in an old hotel, this casino was said to be a fun time and the best of a few of these establishments in Mar Del Plata.  It may be the best one, but think our standards might be too high.  As we walked in, I got the distinct feeling that we were in an old hotel convention floor which is hosting a casino night.  All the games were concentrated in one area with the corners and edges of the room largely empty.  There isn’t much different from one slot machine to another, although we did see one of our Vegas favorites called Milked Money that involved racing cows and more fun.  However,  when we played electronic roulette, we couldn’t determine how to cash out our winnings.  We hit all the buttons and read the whole screen (in Spanish), but no ticket printed.  Finally we asked the attendant and he showed us this ridiculously obscure multi-step process of cashing out.  Great, at least it was possible to actually get the money out.  We weren’t ready to leave, so I went to put the ticket back in the machine and keep playing, but unlike most casinos, the tickets can’t be used at cash in this electronic game.  Argh, what a pain.  Finally, we settled in an played for a bit.  The minimum bet was 1 peso, which is a little less than 25 US cents, so we weren’t exactly risking our life savings, just having some fun.  Once we ran out of pesos, we headed for the door.  The only thing this trip to the casino really did was give us the itch to go back to Las Vegas.

And now we find we have come to our last full day of the trip.  True, we don’t leave until Tuesday, but that we mostly be spent traveling.  So, we will continue to soak up the sun, reflect on this amazing journey and prepare to establish ourselves back into the world of work, family and friends.  It may surprise you to hear that this is actually something we are really looking forward to. But first, we will enjoy Mar Del Plata–the beach, the sun, the seafood–for just a little while longer.

–Brooke

The bigger, better grocery store also has these crazy peanuts we ate at a restaurant. They are battered and fried. And delicious!

During the high season, it is almost impossible to find a spot on the beach. That won’t happen until late December and January.

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Categories: Argentina, At Night, Casino, City Visits, Destinations, Differences, Mar Del Plata, Reflections, Relaxing, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Last Impressions of Buenos Aires

We’re wrapping up our time in Buenos Aires and getting ready to head out to the Argentine countryside as our trip around the world enters November. November? That amazes and delights me. Have we really been traveling for that long? The calendar does not lie. Our first stop after Buenos Aires is the popular wine region of Mendoza. We’re not entirely sure what we’ll get up to in Mendoza and nearby Maipu, but rest assured that it includes drinking lots of wine. With any luck, well also get Brooke riding a horse for the first time in her life. Man, plans that can be best described as a few days of drinking wine in Argentina is the epitome of why we decided to embark on this RTW adventure in the first place. From Mendoza we may take a bus west to Chile or just had directly to the beach in Mar Del Plata.

Wherever we end up, I’m having no trouble getting behind this lovely spring weather. Our Spanish is holding up okay around the Buenos Aires. When people ask us where we’re from and after we respond “Nuevo York, Estados Unidos” we’ve been getting a lot of comments and questions about Sandy. Our friends and family in New York and the Northeast have been on our mind and in our thoughts over the last few days. It’s been nice that coverage of the storm has been widely available down here. Judging by social media and e-mail, luckily it looks like everyone we know made it through the storm of the century okay. So, good news there.

We only managed to kick around a few neighborhoods during our time in Buenos Aires, but it was interesting to see the stark differences in an area like San Telmo compared to that of an area such as Palermo. We spent our first two days in San Telmo at a quirky but lovely hotel called the Ayres Porteno Tango Hotel. Complete with life-size mannequins of Argentine greats such as Eva Peron (it’s hard to convey how much they love this woman), Diego Mardona and Carlos Gardel.  Like many buildings in the neighborhoods, the hotel was likely once a grand, old 19th century mansion broken up and converted into a small hotel after an outbreak of Yellow Fever. San Telmo was made up of beautiful doors and facades scattered across a sort of beat up, mostly unremarkable neighborhood. The notable exception were some playhouses and hidden dinner spots. However, you also get the impression that there are some real gems hidden behind these outer walls.

Balconies and homes typical of San Telmo

We also spent time staying at the awesome Tango Lodge  in the Palermo section of town. We discovered the cute storefronts and cafes of the fancy upscale neighborhood of Palermo Viejo. Graffiti and homelessness found in other areas was replaced by quirky and stylish high end shops with outdoor street fairs and vendors on the weekends. Palermo, which has become incredibly popular in recent years, has been subdivided by real estate developers into Palermo Soho, Palermo Hollywood and more. The area is packed with cute stores selling everything from Tango Shoes to designer toddler t-shirts. While I have a slightly better overall impression of Buenos Aires than Brooke does, I do agree that I would have liked the city even more if we began our stay in Palermo. That being said, I’m glad that we stayed in and explored both areas. No matter where we were, it was hard to ignore the native love for Dulce De Leche. I’m pretty sure a healthy heaping of Dulce De Leche factored into just about every breakfast we had. One change I would suggest to the government of Buenos Aires is that I might not hurt to add cross walk lights for pedestrians on all FOUR corners of an intersection. When you only have walk/don’t walk signs on two corners, it can make it incredibly confusing for those determining when the safe time is to cross the street. Just a suggestion.

Brooke checking out clothes at a shop in Palermo

We’ve found Buenos Aires to be a bit of an ironic name for this city. With unregulated emissions from both cars and an infinite number of city buses, the air in this metropolis is anything but good. In some areas, the city’s solution to congestion has been to build roads that are eight to twelve lanes wide which, surprise surprise, only generates more pollution and smog. One frustrating element of the city is that B.A. is too vast and spread out to be considered walkable and too poorly served by public transportation to be able to move from neighborhood to neighborhood quickly or easily. While buses criss cross the city, the Subte shuts down around the shockingly early hour of around 11:00 PM. This is both baffling and counter intuitive in a city where dinner often begins around 10:00 PM and bars are hopping till 4:00 AM. To be fair, the system starts up again around 5:00 AM and the fare to ride the relatively reliable system is only about fifty cents. And since Brooke and I have become mavens of Public Transportation during our travels, our new Kollineiser motto may be that there are no buses nor trains nor taxis we cannot conquer.

Brooke and I have fun on this trip. We really do. Many days are full, enjoyable, involved busy and memorable. Other days you just hang out or perhaps ride a bus for 14 hours and then plan to siesta for another three. Ah, it’s hard to believe that it’s officially winding down. But we’re going to make the most of our next few weeks! We still have a lot more of Argentina to see! As always, more tomorrow.

-Phil

Flowers for sale outside a giant Buenos Aires cemetary

Another picture of the colorful things you find in the Boca area of town!

This is Floralis Generica- a large, metal flower statue in the middle of one of BA’s most popular parks. Complete with gears, it is supposed to open at sunrise and close at sunset just like a real flower. Currently it is stuck in the open position.

This claim can be found on the marque of a popular convenience store across town. It left us wondering if the math regarding the number of hours in a day works differently in Buenos Aires.

Categories: Argentina, At Night, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Wine, Tango and Futbol Chat

As Phil stated in the previous post, we had quite a full day yesterday.  It seems some days we take it easy and do nothing of any consequence, then there are days where we are constantly on the go.  It actually works out pretty well and makes for some really great days.  After voting for president and navigating our way through the Buenos Aires bus station, we finally took part in what I most looking forward to while in Argentina–wine!

Thanks to Phil’s diligent research, he found Anuva Wines, a small business dedicated to helping people discover small South American wineries with a personal touch.  We found they offer tasting sessions twice daily in English, so we eagerly signed up.  The reviews raved about this experience with several people stating it was the best thing they did while in Buenos Aires.  They also bragged of the generous pours and refills, often rare at such tastings.  The reviews were spot on.  We arrived to the Anuva Wine Loft to be greeted by Cara, our hostess.  Along with four other visitors, she explained to us the process of tasting wine and the importance of using all the senses.  We looked.  We smelled.  But most importantly, we tasted.  Using all Argentinian wines, of course, she started us with a delicious sparkling white called “Hom”. We moved onto a Torrontes (my favorite white wine grape), and then onto the reds.  When I think of Argentinian wines, I always think red.  She introduced me to a new grape called Bonarda which has traditionally been used with blended wines, but has recently become more popular on its own.  She explained to us the importance of sun, temperature, rain and altitude in the wine industry.  With the Andes Mountains, Argentina has a the perfect conditions for certain grapes to grow, most especially Malbec.  This was easily my favorite wine of the tasting, probably because it is what I often choose to drink at home.  We were offered one more red blend, and they all came along with a different food pairing.  With each glass Cara offered insights and information…and refills if we so desired.  Yes and yes!  After we finished, the order forms came out.  Of course, we could buy all the wines we tasted (and then some).  We could choose to take them with us or have them shipped home.  Everyone immediately started filling out the form to have one or more cases sent home. After we had decided which 12 bottles to get, we put the order form away and figured it’s probably best not to make this kind of decision after drinking so much!  We settled for taking two bottles with us and we will order more online if we wish (when we are totally sober).

After the wine tasting, we had a short respite before going to our first tango lesson.  One of the reasons we chose our hotel, The Tango Suites, is because they offer complimentary tango lessons, at all skill levels, to their guests.  Tango is everywhere in Buenos Aires and we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to learn a little bit ourselves.  There were two teachers and six students.  We kicked off our shoes in order to move more fluidly across the floor.  We started merely by walking to the beat of the music, feeling the rhythm.  This wasn’t always easy–tango music changes often and there is not a strong back beat.  It was difficult to keep in time.  After we learned to walk, we paired up and walked with a partner.  No touching, just sensing one another’s movements.  We slowly graduated to touching arms, then embracing, then traditional dance posture.  We took turns leading each other and often changed partners.  There was quite a bit of stumbling, and not a little of stepping on toes, but it was great fun.  I would love to take another lesson, or maybe even a dance class where we learn lots of different dances.  I don’t think Phil had quite the same experience.  He seemed to enjoy the walking and the earlier steps of the lesson.  Once we got to the embrace and traditional dance posture, he got frustrated and I could tell he was ready to be done with it.  If I take future dance lessons, I’m pretty sure I’ll have to find a different partner.

Brooke with Dan, a freelance futbol writer in Argentina.

After we finished the tango, we hurried out of the hotel to meet up with Dan, a freelance writer who covers Argentinian futbol.  While Phil was attempting to procure tickets to a futbol match, he found Sam and Dan, two futbol writers.  When we couldn’t make the game happen, we opted instead to meet for a drink and talk about life in Buenos Aires.  Due to the crazy amounts of rain, Sam couldn’t make it, but we were able to meet up with Dan at a pub called Gibralter.  We chatted for a couple of hours about life in Argentina, futbol culture and the differences between the UK and South America.  Having lived here for 3 years, it was interesting to hear Dan’s perspective.  We always enjoy talking to locals and getting their take.  We spoke of the overwhelming homeless problem and he explained that compared to other big cities in South America, Buenos Aires is considered wealthy.  It is all relative, I suppose.  He also shared a few stories about attempted muggings on the street.  He was much braver than I would have been, standing up to these would be attackers and refusing to give them anything.  In both cases, they walked away.  This certainly made me look over my shoulder a bit more on our way back to the hotel.

We have had full and interesting days here in Buenos Aires, but I have to say, I am ready to go.  I don’t really like it here.  It is a really big city, very spread out and not very well served by the subway.  It seems to take 45 minutes to get anywhere.  Not only that, part of it just aren’t very nice.  It is dirty, with broken sidewalks, graffiti and trash everywhere.  And homelessness is rampant, even in the nicest areas.  I am very ready to get out of Buenos Aires and head to wine country, which is good because that is exactly what we are doing.  Fourteen-hour, overnight bus ride, here we come!

–Brooke

Just one example of the broken and busted sidewalks. i wish the was the exception, but it is the rule.

Brooke learns the tango…or at least learns to walk rhythmically.

Categories: Argentina, At Night, Bars, City Visits, Customs, Differences, Hotels, Reflections, Safety, Tango, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Continuing to Explore Buenos Aires

Greetings again from Buenos Aires! It took a day of resting, but we’ve both recovered from the lingering effects of a long couple days of travel. It’s easy to pick up a nasty case of jet lag and a general rundown feeling after traveling on three buses and two 8+ hour intercontinental flights. Now, we’re ready to hit the streets running! We started yesterday with an excellent, free walking tour of the downtown area of Buenos Aires. Our guide Virigina was animated, informative, opinionated (in a good way!) and lively. It’s not the first time we’ve stumbled across a free walking or biking tour that has been simply exceptional. Given Virginia’s enthusiasm, amount of information delivered and the fact that the tour was was entirely in English, the Free Buenos Aires Walking Tour was exponentially superior to the Tangol van tour we took the day before. Although central Buenos Aires is considerably sleepier on a Saturday, we still managed to enjoy the sites and cover a good chunk of the area on foot.

Virginia – our awesome Buenos Aires Free Walking Tour Guide!

The first thing we quickly learned on our tour is that Portenos – residents of Buenos Aires- absolutely love protests, marches and demonstrations. The protests are almost always peaceful and somewhat well organized, but they are also nearly non-stop. Brooke and I have already seen half a dozen different groups in action since our arrival and that doesn’t include the permanent encampment of Falkland Island War veterans rooted right next door to the Casa Rosada (the central government’s “Pink House”). We’re likely seeing more protests since our hotel is close to the city center, but were also told that as many as 20 loud, vocal gatherings like these happen each week. What are they protesting? It ranges, but just about every conceivable topic is covered. Yesterday, a large crew was gathering in remembrance of the two year anniversary of the death of former Argentinian President Nestor Kirchner. Given their propensity for protests and their insane devotion to football, I think that the next time Argentina wins (or loses) the World Cup, the only calm place to be around here is Uruguay. Speaking of football, there is a “Superclassic” match today between the city’s two top teams that is the biggest thing happening in town. Every television in town seems to be tuned to the game.

Over the course of the walking tour we were able to take in some of the Bueno Aires architecture which is a blend of Italian, Spanish and French influences. The city, which just celebrated its bicentennial, has tons of grand 19th century buildings and homes, many with grand balconies. Our tour led us through some of the small green spaces that are scattered throughout town with adjoining fountains which only function sporadically. BA even has its own, iconic towering “oblesico” monument built in the 1930’s that does a good impression of a mini Washington Monument.

Sadly, the Obelisk, like several of Bueno Aires’ old, grand moments and statues, is placed well behind fences. It’s a shame, but given the excessive graffiti found throughout the city and the number of homeless looking for a place to sleep, it’s clear why they are there. So far. we’re actually seeing more graffiti in Buenos Aires than we’ve seen in almost any other city. Everything from banks to subway cars to historic buildings are tagged. What makes the vandalism unique is that it is often comprised of phrases rather than images and it is almost always political in nature. Another way to protest? Perhaps, but it is ugly. Yesterday we saw a cross walk where even the white painted strips were hit. From city to city, we’ve seen so many otherwise nice buildings ruined by spray paint. About three percent of it is captivating, quality art, but the rest just makes a place look trashy. We’ve come to the conclusion that whomever invented spray paint should be strung up by their toes and whacked by pillows repeatedly.

Overall, it was a great tour of the area. Virgina even told us why the Pink House is painted pink. (Spoiler: no one really knows why). The tour did end on a bit of a uncomfortable note as a creepy, drooling homeless dude followed closely behind members of our tour group at the obelisk plaza. It’s hard to ignore the significant homeless and poverty issues prevalent throughout the city. Traffic and Congestion also seem to be a persistent issue all over town. In fact, we learned during our tour that due to the lousy traffic, the president flies into the city by helicopter every day from her house outside of town. Brooke then pointed out that she could just live in the city, but I seemed to be the only one to think that was a good idea.

After the tour, Brooke and I found ourselves meandering down one of the pedestrian streets looking for lunch. Along the way, we bypassed a surprisingly large number of Burger King’s and McDonald’s. In fact, I’ve been so seeing many Mickey D’s and BKs that I’m starting to think I’m seeing the same location twice. Later, we took the free tour of the Casa Rosada. Lovely building, but most of it was partitioned off since it’s a functional government building. We spent about 15 minutes trying our best to translate the biographies under the portraits for famous Central and South American leaders.

But enough sight seeing! Later last evening, the time had come do to what everyone who visits Argentina must do: Tango! Well, we’re not actually going to Tango (classes come later this week), but we did attend one of the iconic shows and dinners at El QuerandiEl Querandi – one of many old Tango Halls in the city. It was a great experience and a rare treat to have a nice, full night out. Over a tasty dinner of empanadas (I just can’t get enough empanadas), steak and flan, Brooke and I marveled that after all this time traveling, we still haven’t run out of things to talk about or gotten tired of each other’s company. I’d say that bodes well for our life together.

The show itself was entertaining and fun. A live four piece band walked us through the history of tango while the numbers alternated between traditional tango singers and impressive tango dancers. Taking in a dance performance isn’t usually on the top of my list, but these guys were good. We preferred the dancing to the singing, but it was a wonderful show all around. The meal came with a couple of bottles of wine which also were rather wonderful. We’re getting a head start on our guidebooks advice to enjoy at least one bottle of wine per day while in Argentina!

-Phil

Categories: Argentina, At Night, City Visits, Destinations, Tango, Tours, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Mummified Hand of a Saint and Hot Baths in Budapest!

With one last day in Budapest, Brooke and I hit a couple of remaining “can’t misses” that were still on our list. One of those was a visit to the nearby St. Stephen’s Basilica. The Roman Catholic church is a prominent feature of the Budapest skyline and just around the corner from our hotel. It’s true, we’ve seen a bunch of churches so far throughout Europe. It’s almost hard not to; they are often the most stunning, old buildings in town and encourage visitors to swing by for free. Each of these cathedrals really has been worth checking out so far. In other words, we’re pacing ourselves with visits and we’re not nauseatingly tired of them yet.  St. Stephen’s stood out because it has one of the larger, more gilded domed interiors we’ve seen. The nave and transepts (oh, that’s right) are loaded with statues, paintings and lots of natural light. The church offered more of a tranquil, relaxing vibe than some of the darker Russian Orthodox complexes. We decided to spend a few forint on a 302 step climb up spiral staircases to the outside walkway that circles the dome. Our reward for the walk up? One of the best views of the city from what has to be the highest points on the Pest side. We walked a narrow platform around the edge of the dome which is actually much higher than the church itself; the dome is empty inside with the actual roof of the church peeking out a bit below. It was the perfect place to break out the camera and just enjoy this magnificent moment. And, yeah, we took the elevator back down.

Brooke and Phil On top of Budapest!

St. Stephen's Right Hand.All of that was really fantastic, but that’s not what made our visit to St. Stephen’s remarkable. Yesterday, if you had asked us about the strangest thing we’ve seen on the trip, it would have to be the enshrined, dead body of Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi. But after today, I think we have a strong contender to take that title: the mummified right hand of St. Stephen. Stephen, who died over a thousand years ago in 1038, was the first king of Hungary and, as you might imagine, kind of a big deal around Budapest. So, clearly, what better way to honor him than to display his hand in a ridiculously ornate, jewel encrusted carrying case located in a chapel that’s part of the basilica. To make things more interesting, you have to pay a church worker a couple of bucks to turn on the light in the case so that visitors can get a better look. Yup, that’s a shriveled, decomposing old hand and it is a prized possession of Hungary. We’re told that this kind of thing (finger of a nun, toe of a priest) can be found from time to time in European churches. Wow.

Many people told us that a trip to Hungary is not complete without a visit to the famous hot baths fueled by local hot springs. Since we’re not ones to argue with the masses, we made an evening trip out to the Szechenyi Baths. A quick metro ride on Europe’s older underground Subway system got us out there quickly. It was easy to follow the small crowd to the sprawling complex. These particular baths have been popular with locals and tourists for about a hundred years. The collection of yellow buildings at Szechenyi is, not surprisingly, just as lovely as anything else in Budapest. The main outdoor heated pool was closed, but there was a perfect spot waiting for us at one of the inside pools. Sitting around the edge of the shallow pool with water around a hot 102 degrees Fahrenheit, I found the time in the water relaxing, inspiring, reflective and fun. We had a similar experience in Rotorua, New Zealand. I’m not so sure about the supposed healing powers of the water, but nothing beats a good soak. We ended the night with a dinner at a local pub for British & American ex-pats and one, final lovely and romantic walk along the Danube and down the Chain Bridge. Just…perfect.

The Royal Palace on the “Buda” side at night. Man, I can’t believe my camera captured this. What a photogenic city!

So, as we pack our bags and snag some of the fine toiletries from the hotel bathroom, we put beautiful Budapest in our rear view mirror. Our whirlwind tour of Europe continues! We can place thumbtacks on our imaginary map of locales we’ve visited since early September: Denmark, sundry day-stops at four Baltic capitals, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and now Hungary. Where does the biggest adventure yet go from here? Our next stops include Croatia (Dubrovnik and Zagreb), Germany (Munich) and ten days in Scotland and England. Since it’s worked quite well for us so far, we’re traveling with only a loose outline and general idea of what we might want to do. Plan or not plan, our gut and experience tell us that it’s probably going to be pretty great. We welcome and encourage any suggestions, input or comments on what we should do in these place! Let us know! For now, we’re going to hop on a six hour train ride leaving beautiful Budapest behind and heading down to Croatia. New passport stamps await.

-Phil

Some of the amazing detail inside of Saint Stephen’s. We found these two statues particularly stunning.

Our farewell photos from Budapest!

The top of the dome at St. Stephen’s that we walked around! Look closely and you can see the walkway!

Categories: At Night, Churches, City Visits, Diversions, Eastern Europe, Europe, Exploring, Hungary, Relaxing, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Budapest with Friends!

Of all the legs of our trip, this is the one we have had planned furthest in advance.  Five full days in beautiful Budapest, Hungary.  Because our friends and travel partners, Gina and Tom, were meeting us here, we planned an arrival date and hotel long before anything else.  We have been looking forward to this for a long time and so far it is exceeding all our expectations.

We knew this city would be a successful stop when we found ourselves with a list a mile long of things to see and do.  From castles to communist history, there is something here to please everyone.  In order to better know the city and its layout, we began the day with a hop-on/hop-off bus tour.  These have proven to be a great way to get an overview when first visiting a city, and this one did not disappoint.  It includes three different rides, one on a river boat tour, and is good for two days.  Today we cruised through the Pest section of town, admiring the architecture reminiscent of Paris.  Wide boulevards lined with trees and buildings dating back to the 1880’s make Budapest immediately more visually stunning than any city we’ve been to in a while.  While we haven’t toured any of these places yet, we drove past the Parliament Building, the Royal Palace, the Opera House, Hero’s Square, and Budapest’s famed baths.  We crossed the Danube over to Buda, the side of the city situated among beautiful rolling hills.  Here we stopped at the Citadel for a drink and amazing views.  Even on a cloudy day, the sweeping landscape down the river and over the city was spectacular.  Tourists were clamoring to take pictures, and Tom even proposed that this may be the best city view he has ever seen.  It really is pretty impressive.  The other Eastern European cities we’ve visited are not even in the same league with Budapest.  A comparison isn’t even fair.

Anticipating the impending rain, we jumped off the bus, headed for lunch, and did what we do best:  enjoyed time with some of our closest friends.  It is amazing how different it is to spend time as a group of four people for the entire day after being so long with just the two of us.  We feel so lucky that Gina and Tom were willing to leave their son at home (which wasn’t the original plan) and come join us on our trip.  They both have such a wonderful energy and spirit that being with them makes us feel like we are on vacation.  A vacation from our travels.  I know that sounds a bit strange, but its true.  To top it off, due to Tom’s bazillion hotel points and endless generosity, we are staying at Le Meridien, one of the nicest hotels in Budapest and certainly some of the best accommodations we will see on this trip.

As the night grew, so did the rain with the addition of lightning.  Beautiful weather is forecast for the rest of our time here, so we spent the evening catching up with our friends and planning the next few days in order to maximize our time here.  We all agree it is a pretty good problem when there is so much we wish to do and not enough time.  We’d much rather it be that way than the other way around!  A late lunch meant we weren’t terribly hungry, so we paid a visit to the local casino.  We all found it a bit strange that the table minimum is 500 HUF.  It sounds like so much, and losing 500 or 1000 HUF feels so painful, but in reality it is only $2.25 and $4.50 respectively.  That’s actually pretty cheap blackjack by most casino standards, which is why we were surprised when the drink Phil ordered (a White Russian) cost him 3100 HUF.  I’ll let you do the math yourself.  It’s ridiculous!  In fact, I think that drink brought bad mojo to the table because my luck immediately turned bad afterward.  Always gluttons for punishment, we played for a bit longer.  After chatting up some very friendly dealers and being creeped out by one overly friendly Danish guy, our hunger got the best of us and we called it quits to head to dinner.

Because we are planning a delicious Hungarian dinner for Thursday night, we settled for a cute Italian restaurant with a beautiful view of the Basilica of St. Stephen. We’ve been doing our best to eat the local cuisine in each city recently, so it felt good to dine at an Italian joint. They served up some tasty cocktails and homemade pasta that made us all happily full.  Tomorrow we plan to take a tour of Parliament and then visit the Memento Sculpture Park–the resting place of communist era statues.  In addition, we hope to make a visit to the thermal baths which we believe will be perfect after a long  day of sightseeing.  As we reflect on our day and the rest of our time yet to come in Budapest, Phil and I keep saying to one another, “I’m so glad we’re here with Gina and Tom.”  We love having these experiences, and they are made so much sweeter when shared with friends.

–Brooke

We arrived at the exact same time into the Budapest train station, making for a very happy, but old-timey reunion of friends!

Gina tries the local fruit brandy, palinka. It was worse than the rakia from Bulgaria and could probably fuel a 747 airplane.

A view of the Royal Palace across the river in Buda.

Our wonderful friends, Gina and Tom.

Categories: At Night, Casino, City Visits, Destinations, Diversions, Eastern Europe, Friends, Hungary, Tours, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Hanoi by Night

Masks for sale!As our travels continue in Vietnam, we’re quickly realizing that there is as much to do in the evening as there is in the day. Hanoi comes to life at night, but in a completely different way than Hong Kong or Tokyo. Instead of neon lights and tall lit buildings, you’ll see outdoor markets, bustle people and the light casting onto the street from stores and bars open late into the evening. We’ve managed to see a Water Puppet Show, have some amazing meals and even caught a ride on the back of one of Hanoi’s ubiquitous motorcycles.

Vietnamese Water Puppets!Water Puppetry, a subject completely unknown to us, is apparently an ancient Vietnamese art form that dates back centuries. Conveniently enough, there is a Water Puppetry Theater located just a stone’s throw away from our hotel. Mix in a ticket price of just five bucks and it we couldn’t resist a visit. We place the 45-minute performance, with several shows an evening in front of a small crowd of mostly tourists, firmly under the very entertaining and very unique categories. I can’t remember the last time I took in a puppet show, but this is the first time I’ve seen one where dozens and dozens of custom-made puppets perform in and on top of a pool of water. Everything from dragons to young, umbrella-wielding maidens to hunters skip, shake and dance seamlessly around the pool while executing some complicated manuevers by unseen puppeteers. These people-behind-the-curtain twist and bend rods while knee-deep in water behind screens. The figures themselves are well decorated, fun and nimble. They move with ease and make use of the water. Each act is accompanied by musicians who sing and play various instruments just off stage. There was as much talent in the music as there was in the puppetry which is why it was Brooke’s favorite part of the evening. Sure, the whole performance was in Vietnamese but you get the general gist of each plot. Very cool to see, but also kind of glad it was less than an hour.

Hanoi's New Day RestaurantOne of the real highlights of Vietnam so far has been the cuisine. We’ve enjoyed two amazing meals at the New Day restaurant and the Quan An Ngon. Who needs a five star dining experience (a moist towlette will run you an extra twenty cents on the bill) when you have busy, friendly hotspots occupied by locals and tourists alike? Although the spacious Quan An Ngon was much larger and mostly outdoor, both restaurants were tasty, mind-boggingly inexpensive, delivered amazing service and felt about as authentic as you can get. At New Day, we were encouraged to swing through the kitchen so we could get a first hand look at dishes before we ordered. Menus included everything from various soups, fried pork and chicken dishes, barbecued anything, dumplings, noodles, glutenous rice balls. All delivered by waiters who smiled non-stop and were eager to practice their English. I’m not doing it justice, but each night, there has been something wonderful about these sensational dishes showing up in front of us. We never quite know what we’re going to get, but dinner has surpassed expectations each time.

Brooke and the mopedWe ended one of our nights with a unique experience. After witnessing the plethora of motorbikes zoom around Hanoi for the last few days, we were done being spectators and ready to see what a ride really felt like. Not quite brave (foolish?) enough to rent our own, we opted to let someone else drive. Once again, the incomparable staff at the Hanoi Moment hooked us up. Late in the evening, two of the staff took a break, conjured two spare helmets, and pulled their bikes around font and invited us to hop on the back. We spent the next 45 minutes getting a scenic tour of Hanoi and the experience of zipping through the busy streets among thousands of other bikes. To be fair, we’re pretty sure our guides went easy on the throttle for our sake. First of all, it is a lot less intimidating and a lot more fun being on a bike than to be in the street trying to dodge one. Since all of the motorbikes move at a manageable cruising speed, navigating, maneuvering and avoiding everything from pedestrians to other bikes seemed easy. It’s remarkable: you ride so close to the swarm of other bikes, that you almost have to resist the urge to reach out and grab ahold of any one of them. As a nice bonus, the cool breeze helped to counteract the oppressive humidity. After our ride, we arrived at one conclusion back at the hotel: these bikes are a damn enjoyable and efficient way to get around Hanoi.

We’re thoroughly enjoy the pulse of this different city. Hands down, Hanoi is unlike any place we’ve visited so far. Tomorrow? Ha Long Bay and getting a glimpse of the late Ho Chi Minh and, ah, how he looks today.

-Phil

Ending our first night with drinks at the Avalon’s roof top bar

Phil ready for a meal at Quon An Ngon! In Asia, we’ve found that parties of two are often seated with other random parties of two. And for some reason…you only get ONE menu no matter how large your group.

Another look at the full "stage" of the Water Puppet Theater. Check out the dragon "swimming" around!

Another look at the full “stage” of the Water Puppet Theater. Check out the dragon and bird “swimming” around!

Categories: At Night, City Visits, Diversions, Eating, Surprises, Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

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