Eastern Europe

Final Reflections on Dubrovnik

Hello from Munich! Land of glockenspiels, ratskellars, lederhosen and haufbrau houses. We’ve closed the door on Dubrovnik and we’re ready to explore this German city, but before all that, we thought just one more post on our last beautiful stop was needed. Partially because we’ve gotten a handful of e-mails and comments asking about Dubrovnik and partially because we took so many quality pictures, many of them are worth passing along.

Between daily stops at our new favorite bar and long dinners, we certainly tried to make the most of our time in Dubrovnik. We managed to make our way over to Fort Lovrijenac situated just across from the more well-known Old City. The 16th century fort was mostly empty of other visitors (the half-awake guard told us many are deterred by the steps needed to climb up to the fort) so the four of us had the place to ourselves along with a small handful other intrepid explorers. Much like Old City, the Fort was in immaculate shape and you’re encouraged to walk all over it. In fact, we decided that the fort rivaled the city wall tour in views, appeal and general awesomeness. It helped our budget that our ticket for the wall tour also let us into the fort. Each corner, much like Dubrovnik as a whole, brought another angle with another tremendous view. Running around, we felt like protectors of the city, scanning the ocean for any possible enemy ships. All we found was a small, party sailboat; not really worth breaking out the hot oil and cannons.

Later in the day, we took the Dubrovnik Cable Car,or funicular if you’re feeling European and fancy, to the top of Mt. Srd. The ride was only about three and a half minutes long, but the reward at the top was the ability to feel like you’re above it all. As a bonus, we were there just as the sun set over the city and the sea. It was a magical, serene and perhaps even spiritual moment. Not every day you get a sunset like that and one of the best I’ve seen on the trip. Even cooler when you have some friends to share it with.

We ran into a little bit of rain along the way, but somehow it only made the city look better. I know we’re wearing our love for Dubrovnik on our sleeve, but it was a little bit of a thrill every time we crossed the gates back into Old City. At one point, John proclaimed his disbelief at what a white, glimmering city Dubrovnik is. And Jack said we had unlimited, Mediterranean bliss.  After three days, we were still seeing new parts of the city. We suggest you book your flights down to this part of the world now. Actually, on second thought…don’t. We kind of want to keep this gem just to ourselves.

-Phil

Feel free to click to enlarge any of the pictures to get the full effect…

Church for Old City

Check out Dubrovnik In Detail!

Another amazing shot of Dubrovnik

High above it all

What a way to end a day

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Categories: Churches, City Visits, Croatia, Eastern Europe | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments

Near Perfection

I've got my flippy-floppies on.Visiting Dubrovnik has been near perfection.  I know that sounds a bit extreme, but it is true.  This paradise in the Adriatic Sea has been relaxing, beautiful and affordable.  Although often mobbed by cruise passengers during the day, being here during the off season has thinned the crowds and made this an idyllic experience.

Look at that shoreI would have been truly happy just sitting on the terrace looking out at the passing boats, kayakers and swimmers, but there are plenty of activities to occupy our time away from the apartment.  Having already walked the city’s walls and explored much of what is housed inside Old Town, we thought today we should venture out onto the water.  Dubrovnik has a plethora of water activities, including snorkeling, scuba diving, sea kayaking and island hopping tours.  Because we have very little time here, we didn’t want to spend the whole day dedicated to one activity such as a three island tour, so we opted for a 50-minute cruise along the shore of Dubrovnik which also goes around a nearby island turned national park.  It seems each time we turn a corner or get another perspective on the city, the views are even more beautiful.  As we cruised the shoreline, we glimpsed people taking a dip in the sea or enjoying a drink at bars just outside the city walls.  Sailing around the island, we saw caves begging for exploration and natural private shelves in the rock where people could sunbathe wearing nothing but a little SPF.  We neared the shore and spotted a group of kayakers jumping from a cliff into the beautiful blue water.  All around us people radiated happiness and relaxation.  After spending ten days constantly on the go in Turkey, our friends Jack and Jon were thrilled to end their vacation in this way.

The beach in the rocks – only accessible by kayak and complete with cliff divers!

Scattered among the rocks, you can see our bar.

After sailing the high seas, we decided we couldn’t let our last day pass without heading to our favorite bar one more time.  As a bar (drinks, service, music), Cafe Bar Bard is relatively average, really.  Nothing out of the ordinary.  And yet this is probably the most extraordinary bar I’ve been to.  Chairs settle on rocks, while people lay around in swimsuits, occasionally jumping in for a swim.  However, it is the view which makes this place so wonderful.  Save a few boats and a nearby island, there is nothing but wide-open sea as far as the eye can see.  As it turned darker with clouds, Jon kept taking photo after photo amazed at how the sky kept changing its shape and form, each time a bit more beautiful.

It is not only the natural beauty that entrances visitors to Dubrovnik.  The city itself has white marble streets and buildings making it seem like something from a movie set or a painting.  The marble literally sparkles at night and we all wonder if it secretly gets buffed when no one is around. It certainly has marks of age and wear from pedestrians trampling on it for centuries, but considering the age of the construction, it is remarkable how well it has held its beauty.  The perfect setting for any wedding, we were not surprised when we saw two wedding couples  getting photos and celebrating their nuptials.  Our Air BnB host, Boris, informed us that  getting married in Dubrovnik has become quite popular and people come from all over the world to say “I do” in this beautiful place.  Of course, this has not always been the case.  Boris also shared stories about the war in 1991 when Croatia was attacked by the Yugoslav People’s Army.  He was here in Dubrovnik during a three month siege with no water, electricity or other resources. Boris watched the Old Town get bombed and saw the fortress at the top of the hill be destroyed.  The same fortress where, just last night, we watched a gorgeous sunset.  He spoke of this time with lingering amazement and recalled foraging the town gardens for food and spending $40 for 2 eggs to give his mother so she would not starve.  Knowing Dubrovnik was actively engaged in war 20 years ago makes it even more remarkable that it has restored itself to a beautiful marvel.

For our final night, we wanted to have a slow evening filled with wine, food and friends.  After getting kicked out of one restaurant because we were only going to order drinks, we combed through the menus trying to ignore the barrage of “barkers” trying to entice us to eat in their establishment.  We finally chose one and started our evening.  After finishing a bottle of wine, we decided on some appetizers.  The friendly staff and tempting food at the next table convinced us to stay for dinner rather than moving on to another option.  We are glad we did.  The food was good, not great, but the atmosphere was warm and inviting.  Our server brought us delicious bread with “Dalmatian” Sauce which is not made from cute, spotted dogs but  rather a combination of olive oil, parsley and garlic.  Yum.  We were even offered blankets as the evening chilled and the rain began to set in.  A nice long meal with drinks and dishes slowly being served in a great setting. All in all, it was a perfect end to a perfect day in this perfect city.

Now we must say goodbye to our friends as they head back home to real life.  It was really wonderful to spend time with Jack; it was like having a little piece of home here with us in Croatia.  Tomorrow, we board our return flight to Zagreb then grab the overnight train to Munich, Germany.  Time is moving so quickly and we are trying to savor every moment.  Luckily, we have no shortage of beautiful photographs to help us recall our experiences here and elsewhere.

–Brooke

Jack enjoying his wine over our last dinner in Dubrovnik

A look at the gleaming marble of the old city at night. Beautiful!

One of our views of Old Town. Yeah, this might be going on the cover of our Round The World photo book!

Categories: City Visits, Croatia, Destinations, Eastern Europe, Eating, Friends, Reflections, Relaxing, Surprises, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Sour Goodbyes and Gorgeous Hellos

St. Stehpen's at nightAt the crack of 4:30am, we woke up to get ready for our 6am train from Budapest to Zagreb, Croatia.  From there, we took a very short flight on Croatian Airlines to the coastal town, Dubrovnik.  Because today was primarily a travel day, we don’t have a lot to tell you.  However, I would like to share one good story and one lovely moment.

Whenever we leave a city, we try to have as little leftover cash as possible.  We have found it sometimes difficult to exchange certain currencies and so much is lost in the exchange that we’d rather spend it.  We’ve had mixed success in this endeavor, but in Budapest we did quite well–only 500 Hungarian forint in coins left.  That’s only about $2.25 so we felt it was a success.  However, we realized that is about 140 forint shy of the amount required for the metro ride we would be taking from the Hotel to the train station.  Phil was willing to risk it and go without a ticket, and even though I felt a little uneasy, I agreed.  (I should tell you that earlier in the week, Gina and Phil made fun of me relentlessly for being a “rule follower” and buying a metro ticket when they didn’t.  Phil said he was willing to risk it because he thought it was only about an $8.00 fine if we got caught.)  In this case, Phil figured since it was 5:30am on a Saturday and we were only going three stops we would be fine.  Although I didn’t love the idea of cheating the system, I agreed Phil was probably right and we boarded the arriving train sans ticket.

Stunning hilltop in budapestWe arrived at our stop without incident and thought we were in the clear.  Not so fast!  As we joined the line to board the ascending escalator, we noticed a large group of people checking tickets.  I blame the early hour and our surprise for our inability to think quickly and jump back on the train or avoid the inspectors in some other way.  So, when they asked for our ticket, I showed them a 24 hour pass we purchased 2 days before.  Knowing it wouldn’t work, I tried to blame it on a language misunderstanding between me and the original woman who sold us the ticket.  She wasn’t buying it.  She vehemently pointed to the 24-hour description of the ticket and the date so clearly written on top.  Knowing it was hopeless, I relented and asked how much we owed for the fine. She immediately responded, “8000 forint, per person.”  Sixteen-thousand forint total!  That was almost 80 bucks! What happened to the $8.00 ticket Phil expected?  Irritated and immediately regretting my decision to join with my rule-breaking husband, I asked if they would accept a credit card.  Of course, they did not.  She would have accepted euros, but we didn’t have that either.  So while Phil stayed trying to beg and fruitlessly plead with the ticket control agent, I sped up the two escalators and several steps to find the nearest ATM.  We paid, got a receipt and apologized (all the while Phil was still trying to convince her not to give us the ticket).  Walking away defeated, Phil felt terrible and completely responsible.  I’d like to blame him completely, but I’m a grown-up and I could have bought my own ticket if I really wanted to.  I just chose to go along with him this time. Next time I’ll think twice.  (On a side note, the only other people who did not have tickets were other tourists heading to the train.  Coincidence?  I think not!)

Dubrovnik by airAfter loving Budapest so much, the ticket incident left us with a sour departure, but it was our own fault and a hard lesson learned.  Luckily, we were able to shake it off and enjoy a lovely moment later in the day which I’d also like to share.  The Croatia Airlines plane ride from Zagreb to Dubrovnik is a short 40 minutes from take-off to touchdown.  All in all, it is less than an hour on the airplane.  Exhausted, we both fell asleep almost immediately.  Phil sleeps like a baby on planes, but it is more difficult for me and I wake up much more often.  As we were nearing Dubrovnik, I awoke to see beautiful mountains outside our window.  Feeling that we were descending, I woke Phil so he could enjoy the view before we landed.  It was spectacular.  All around we saw huge mountains and rolling hills.  The plane tipped its wings to make a turn and we saw the coast of the Adriatic Sea.  At seeing this beautiful sight, there was an audible gasp from the passengers on the plane.  The mountains and ocean seemed to extend all around us.  It was amazing, but we started to question where we would land.  Except for the water, there was no extended flat space in sight.  Luckily our pilot skillfully found the runway and landed us safely among the mountains.  Since Dubrovnik’s airport is quite small, we were not surprised when we exited the plane down the steps and onto the tarmac.  Once there, we were thrilled to be hit with the most gorgeous view from any airport we’ve been to.  Passengers immediately started snapping photos, trying to capture this picturesque landscape.  This lovely welcome ensured us that our time here would be wonderful.

Croatian Tarmac

Part of the awesome view from our terrace in Dubrovnik!

Now we enjoy discovering this beautiful seaside town and await the arrival of our friend, Jack.  We aren’t sure what we’ll do tomorrow because we don’t want to discover too much before Jack gets here.  I’m sure we’ll find something awesome to occupy our time.  Actually, I’d be perfectly  happy sitting on our terrace and staring out at the Adriatic Sea with a glass of wine all day long!

–Brooke

Categories: City Visits, Croatia, Customs, Destinations, Eastern Europe, Flights, Friends, Hungary, Landmarks, Rail, Surprises, Trains, Transportation, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 9 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’s Memento Park

Budapest continues to impress.  As we mentioned before, we wish we could spend more time here, realizing we cannot possible see and do everything on our list.  During our last full day with our friends, Gina and Tom, we managed to balance seeing some interesting sights with spending quality time together.  It was a really great day!

We began our morning by heading to Memento Park, the new home to communist-era statues which formerly filled the streets and city center of Budapest.  When the iron curtain fell, so did the many of the monuments which had been erected by the former dictatorship.  Great debate ensued among the people of the city about whether they should destroy these reminders of their terrorized history, or if they should use them as memorials of an important piece of their past.  They decided on the latter and created Memento Park.  Originally, we thought this would be a sort of “statue graveyard” for these communist era relics.  On the contrary, great thought and consideration was put into the design and organization of this museum.  I call it a museum, because that is a much more accurate term than park for this collection of sculptures.  Our tour guide led us between the statues, discussing their historic significance and their importance in perpetuating communist ideology.  Along with the standard statues of Lenin and Marx are the bronzed boots of Joseph Stalin.  His mammoth likeness was actually torn down by the people during the 1956 revolution against the Soviets.  Stalin’s statue was cut at the knees and torn into bits by the people.  All that remained on the pedestal were his boots, and although the revolution failed, the rest of his body was never replaced.  One statue we found particularly captivating was that of the “Liberating Soviet Soldier.” It stood atop a 7 meter high platform on a hill which overlooks the city.  Its mammoth size is intimidating, especially imagining it in its original environment.  This was also knocked down in the 1956 revolution, but unlike Stalin, this statue was quickly replaced with an exact replica in 1958.  After all, the city could not be left without the protection of this Soviet soldier!

The guided tour fascinated each of us and we left with a much greater understanding of Hungarian history and the nuances of life under a communist regime.  The museum also had an indoor photography exhibit chronicling the rise, reign and fall of communism throughout Eastern Europe.  This part of the museum featured training tapes of the secret police.  More than 100 training and feature films were produced between 1958 and 1988 which trained secret police in state defense methods.  In 2004, these tapes were edited into short documentaries showing the methods used to spy on “traitors”, and their recruitment methods.  I was particularly surprised to learn how many agents of the secret police were forced or blackmailed into service.  I could have easily sat and watched these films all day.  They offer insight into a part of history which was historically a great mystery.

When we finished with the museum, we headed back toward the city center. (The museum sits in the outskirts of the city to discourage lingering hostile sentiment and any temptation to vandalize the statues.)  While we searched for a certain Thai restaurant for lunch, we discovered Great Market, Budapest’s largest market selling all kinds of gourmet foods from meat to paprika to honey and everything in between.  They also had a huge selection of palinka, the potent drink we sampled earlier in the week.  No matter how hard we tried, we couldn’t convince Gina to invest in a bottle.  We didn’t even know this market existed before accidentally discovering it.  We window-shopped the wares for a while before heading down the Vaci u., the pedestrian shopping street which leads the way back to our hotel.  As with all big cities, wading through the cheap touristy souvenirs to find something of value is challenging.  We came up mostly empty handed, though there is a pottery shop I may head back to tomorrow.

Since it is our last night in Budapest together, we decided to get a delicious and traditional dinner at a nice restaurant.  Our hotel concierge recommended Rezkakas, a fine dining Hungarian restaurant not far from or hotel.  The combination of hearty food, Hungarian wine and wonderful friends made for a perfect evening.  Gina and Phil both started with a small bowl of goulash.  After all, what’s a trip to Hungary without goulash?  We discovered that contrary to the heavy, noodle-centric stew some of us are used to, goulash more closely resembles a beef vegetable soup and is suitable as an appetizer.  The entrees did not disappoint and we even had room for a little dessert!  After dinner we headed back to the hotel where we shared drinks, laughs and plans for our next international adventure together.  We are so pleased that Gina and Tom were able to come to Budapest, and we all agree we could not have chosen a better city for traveling together.

Now, Phil and I are back to being a twosome again, but not for long.  After one more day in Budapest and another day of travel, we will meet up with our friend, Jack, in Dubrovnik, Croatia.  We are looking forward to seeing him and hearing about the adventures he’s been having in Turkey.  Until then, we spend will spend our last day in Budapest doing nothing.  Or everything.  Whatever we want!

–Brooke

All that remains of Stalin’s statue–his boots.

Gina and Tom with Krtek, the European answer to Mickey Mouse.

Statue of liberating Soviet soldier shaking hands with a Hungarian man . Locals say the  Hungarian is using two hands so he doesn’t get his watch stolen.

Categories: City Visits, Destinations, Diversions, Eastern Europe, Eating, Exploring, Friends, Hungary, Museums, Surprises, Tours, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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

The Things We Carry

Main Serbian Train Depot

Historic Belgrade Train Station

Salutations from Budapest! As our travels enter October, Brooke and I are onto a new month and another new country. We landed in Hungary yesterday via an uneventful seven hour train ride from Belgrade to Budpaest. The easy going ride on the mostly-empty, mostly-modern train gave us time to visit the dining car and enjoy the passing scenery from giant windows (rural Hungary looks a lot like rural Indiana) during a comfortable ride. And at only 15 Euros a piece, riding the rails made for an inexpensive way to get north to Budapest. Speaking of the Euro, we find ourselves in yet another European country that is not using the Euro for its currency. How is this possible? Denmark, Finland, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia and now Hungary – all of them Non-Euro. With 17 countries using the Euro, we must be defying some serious odds here. Ah well, the Hungarian Forint will be just another conversion rate to learn and another set of colorful bills with faces of unknown politicians and local heroes to master. I counted whilst on the train; this is our 11th different currency (not counting any stops from our Baltic Seas Cruise) since we began our trip in New Zealand. Fun financial fact: three of those nations (Singapore, Hong Kong, and New Zealand) also call their monetary standard the dollar.

Each time Brooke and I move from country to county, we attempt to inventory, pack and repack. As we’ve covered on the blog before, trying to determine exactly what and how much to pack was one of our most daunting challenges during our trip prep. We repeatedly heard the motto “pack half as much stuff as you think you’ll need and twice as much money as you think you’ll need.” Sure, this is easy enough if your grandfather’s name is JP Morgan. But all in all, we feel very good about what we are (and, just importantly, what we are not) lugging around the world with us. Although, early on, we realized that we probably did pack a few superfluous extras. Our deck of playing cards has seen the light of day twice so far. I brought along juggling balls because….sigh…I planned to learn how to juggle. Our days have been packed with exploring and learning, so I could probably have left those ridiculous multi-colored balls at home. But there are two handy, electronic gadgets that we use every day and have been essential in our travels: our iPhones and our digital camera. At this point in the trip, I couldn’t imagine getting by without both of them.

Everything we need for the trip in four bags…

First things first regarding the iPhone: we do not have any type of cell phone service or plan. Verizon and AT&T were understanding enough to put both of our plans on hold until we get back to the United States. We’re using the phones as WiFi devices only. The phone calls that we do make are through an exceptional app called Local Phone which connects over WiFi. Local Phone allows us to dial just about anywhere for mere cents per minute. It’s odd, but I haven’t sent a text message since late July (and hopefully no one has tried to send me one). But even just on WiFi, our little Apple gizmos have been a valuable part of our traveling arsenal. We usually have little trouble getting online and the phones have allowed us to book rooms through the Hotels.com and the Air B’nB app, read reviews, map our route, set an alarm, research next steps and check e-mails while just waiting at the bus station or relaxing at an outdoor cafe.

Needed surgery for the iPhoneThe iPhone has been particularly handy when things go slightly awry, like a cancelled hotel reservation, and we both can scramble to get things set right. Brooke tracks our budget at every turn using the notepad and I play Penguin Airborne. Plus, the iPhone makes a wonderful back up camera along with a couple hundred of our favorite songs. I did run into a mini-disaster that left me in a state of panic and dismay last week. When the new iPhone operating system was put out there to correspond with the release of the famed iPhone 5, I attempted to upgrade my phone. Along the way, my iPhone went kaput and I was in the dark for three days. Luckily, a helpful, patient clerk at the “iStyle” store in Sofia allowed us to connect to a Mac and helped me reinstall the new software. Thanks to the Cloud, I didn’t lose a thing. Huzzah for the Cloud! Huzzah!

Our digital camera has been the other key piece of equipment. A once in a life time trip justifies buying a new camera. The camera is incredibly important because it is the best thing we have to really document this trip. While browsing models at the always amazing B&H in NYC, we had to make the decision between a fancy, high-tech SLR camera and a point & shoot. In the end, we chose to go with a high-end, well reviewed point and shoot: The Cannon Power Shoot S100. I’ve already taken more photos than I can count and have only managed to drop it twice. While I would really dig a big,fancy camera with a collection of lenses, the truth is that I don’t know an F-Stop from the F-train. I would look impressive with my camera, but it would have been for naught. The pocket size of the Canon means that I almost always have it on me. Someone once told us the best camera for the shot is the one that you have on you at the time.

One of the best photos we’ve taken on this trip. In Japan using the low light setting.

The camera works exceptionally well, shoots outstanding digital video and has some nifty settings like Handheld Nightscene, Slow motion film, vivid setting and more. I do wish that I was a master of some of the more advanced functions on the manual settings so I could really get the most out of some photo opportunities. Like creating a silhouette of Brooke in front of a Japanese garden. or catching the low-light moon rise over the Bucharest train station. But, in any case, I’ve gotten some amazing photos out of it so far

Another small piece of technology that Brooke said I should add this to this list is a simple but important one: Our ATM card. Being able to withdrawal the local currency day and night has been a huge assist. Even in remote places, we haven’t had any trouble finding cash machines and, not surprisingly, ATMs are kind of the same the world over. It’s meant not worrying about banks, travelers checks and visits to exchange windows only when dealing in left over cash. It’s these small pieces of technology that makes taking this kind of trip in 2012 certainly a lot easier than taking it in 1962. And of course, we also have the last essential component: a large bag full of chargers and world-wide plug adapters! Certainly this trip would be possible without any gadgets or gizmos, but for the sake of ease and sanity, they are a “must-have” for us.

-Phil

Categories: Cell Phones, Communication, Eastern Europe, Iphone Apps, Packing, Rail, Trains, Trip Prep, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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