Exploring

Meeting literary ghosts in Edinburgh Pubs

It is hard to believe that the calendar today reads October 20th. I’m somewhat amazed because that must mean that Brooke I have now been traveling from the middle of summer to the middle of fall and now we’re knee deep in Scotland. I’ve said it before, but it bares repeating – this has been one hell of a trip. The day often concludes with so many reflections, reactions and impressions that it usually ends up being way too much for a single blog post. I’m left instead with copious notes scribbled on pieces of paper stuffed in my pocket, and later, in my suitcase. However, as long as I continue to find myself in interesting places learning interesting things, I think there is room to share a bit of what I picked up. During an unintended wayward bus ride today we learned that the popular American clothing store TJ Maxx is called TK Maxx in the United Kingdom. We learned today that the Scottish menu items “Neeps” are turnips. While looking at old gramophones during a visit to the National Museum of Scotland we learned that the name of music provider “HMV”stands for “His Master’s Voice” – an allusion to the image of the loyal puppy with his head in the record player speaker. And we learned on an exceptional Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour, that the correct pronunciation of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic is “Jeek-yl” and Hyde.

Our time in Edinburgh continues to treat us well. We’re enjoying each day, despite the fact that we’ve still got gray skies as far as the eye can see. The sun glasses we packed are as useless as a coffee pot made of chocolate, but not much to do about that other than to resolve never to actually move here. Even the realistic locals won’t offer any encouragement about the forecast. (“But it’s really nice here in August, right?” “No, it still rains an ungodly amount.”) The real talk of the town isn’t the weather, but the upcoming 2014 referendum vote for true Scottish independence from the UK. That should make for a couple of interesting years. We love the walkability of Edinburgh and had a chance to stretch our legs all over town today. In preparation for the forthcoming cold of the Highlands and adding a whole new dimension to my wardrobe, we both bought used jackets and I purchased a pair of jeans from a used-clothing charity store. Jeans! Sweet Gravy on a platter, denim pants! I had packed none for the trip and now they feel…hmm…heavenly is not the right word, but it will do. A long journey like this has a way of making you feel a bit run down sometimes, but in the last three days I’ve gotten an overdue haircut, laundered all of my clothes and now some snazzy new (to me) wares. It really, really makes a difference in how you feel.

Check out stylish Brooke- new jacket and all!

After shopping, self-guided sight seeing and some delicious lunchtime pies (one with steak and gravy, the other with meat and onion), we took a quick spin through the National Museum of Scotland. We went partially because it looked interesting and partially because, well, it was free. The museum is giant and packed with well curated displays.  It also offers a surprising number of dining options. But at this point, with the sheer number of museums we’ve seen since New Zealand, our bar to be impressed has been raised quite high. We definitely liked what we saw especially concerning the Scottish history over the last 400 years. Although it is a bit embarrassing to visit the museum’s Scottish Sports Hall of Fame, celebrating 50 native athletes and their achievement in the fields of boxing, rowing, football, racing, golf and more, and find you’re familiar with approximately zero of the names. Not a one. After traipsing around the museum for a while, fatigue gave in and we headed back to the apartment. Well, that was the plan. Unfortunately, it was remarkably easy to confuse bus #49 with bus #42 and we received an unintended tour of greater Edinburgh. Not a bad thing, actually. It’s kind of fun getting safely lost when you’ve got no where to be and there is no additional cost (we were on a day-long bus pass). Plus, it is no where near the first time we’ve gotten on the wrong bus. With a little patience and time, two must-have qualities on a trip like this, Brooke and I always manage to end up where we need to be.

I would kill for this to be my nieghborhood barBut the peak of our day came just after 7:30 PM when we started our journey on the Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour. While we didn’t know exactly what to expect, what came next exceeded any possible expectations! Part historical tour, part pub crawl and part performance art, this was a lively, informative and colorful way to spend a few hours in Edinburgh. And this is the perfect city for such a tour – with so many bars that date back 300 and 400 years, there is bound to be some amazing stories just waiting to be told. We made stops all across town at the Beehive, The Jolly Judge, Ensign Ewart and Kennilworth. We were entertained by stories and history on Scottish greats such as Stevenson, Walter Scott, Robert Byrnes and more. We heard some sensational tales like the one of craftsman Deacon Brody who built the gallows that would later be used to hang him. Being sucked into the middle of all this history with a Guinness in my hand, there was no where else on Earth I wanted to be. We want to rave about this tour to the far corners of the globe. It’s a must for anyone who enjoys literature, compelling local history, bars and/or beer! If you’re lucky, you’ll end up with Simon and Dewi as your hosts and guides.

Tomorrow, we’re taking off on a three day tour with the much beloved Rabbie’s Trail Burners. One nice thing about having so much time in one country is that we can venture away from the big cities and into the countryside.  We are both looking forward to visiting the famed and romanticized Highlands and getting away from the hustle of city life for a while.

-Phil

Hanging at Edinburgh Castle

A look at the stone streets of Edinburgh

Categories: Beer, Europe, Exploring, Reflections, Scotland, Self Guided Tours, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Discovering Family History in Scotland

Hello once again from Scotland! Today we enjoyed one final day in Glamorous Glasgow before forging onward to Edinburgh, the highlands and other points north. Our ten day visit to Scotland is going to end up being the longest we’ve spent in one country since our time in Japan way back in August. It’s shaping up to be an awesome country visit…provided that it doesn’t continue to rain every single day that we’re here. I’m starting to think Scotland might be a lousy country if you’re an avid biker or dedicated long distance runner. On the plus side, we’ve already accomplished the impossible and found a pub that serves food past 7:30 PM. The highlight of the day, however, was digging into a bit of genealogy in the nearby town of Blantyre.

With the maternal family name Donaldson, I’ve always known of family roots in Scotland. I have a hunch that I’m a natural prodigy at both the caber toss and hammer throw. However, it wasn’t until my mom recently pointed out that distant family was from the Glasgow area that I ever really give it much thought. But since the small, former mill-town of Blantyre is only about a twenty-five minute train ride from Glasgow (and I do love a good train ride), Brooke and I decided it was worth the visit. Here is where it gets interesting: my great-great grandfather was born in the same tenement block as legendary Scottish missionary/explorer David Livingstone. All of the other housing and remains of the mill are long gone, but in 1929, “Shuttle Row” was saved and turned into a museum. Er, a museum honoring Livingstone, not my family. What are the odds?

A ten minute walk from the train station brought us to the David Livingstone Center – a small complex of green spaces, visitor centers, gardens and the museum itself. The white, simple, 225-year building is incredibly well preserved. And, for a building that served as living space for twenty-four families, incredibly small! Before long, we were touring and exploring Shuttle Row. If we’re in the right place, my great-great grandfather was born right here in 1810 with Livingstone born in a neighboring room three years later in 1813. Both spent their childhood working hard hours at the mill for 12+ hours a day and attended school at night. Not surprisingly, both were long gone by the time they were in their 20’s. Livingstone ended up navigating and surveying Africa for the next 30 years only to return to England twice and my great-great-grandfather ended up in the considerably less exciting Patterson, NJ. One of the rooms of the museum had a room set up exactly like Livingstone (and presumably my distant family) lived. It was really hard to wrap my head around how small these quarters were! One medium sized room housed a family of nine!

Overall, it was a very cool moment. It’s not every day that you get to to visit the very building where your great-great grandfather was born. Especially as an American where most family roots beyond a few generations are overseas. And it’s an amazing set of circumstances that I was able to do it! Mark it down as another first for this sensational trip.

The David Livingstone center itself is a comprehensive, impressive museum about a rather impressive, dedicated and intense man. Given Livingstone’s rough beginnings, it makes his story even more impressive. The building has been turned into a series of exhibits detailing his beginnings, education, journey to Africa, famous meeting with Stanley and more. It was complete with sizeable collections of his own belongings and correspondence. He had an intensity that led him to explore the unknown continent of Africa until he died, but it also came with some pitfalls such as exposing half of his party and wife to a deadly malaria outbreak. Fun Fact #1: Livingstone was the first European to come across the waterfalls that he named Victoria Falls, but that was one of only two discoveries that he rechristened with an English name. Need more? Fun Fact #2: Within his first three years in Africa, Livingstone was mauled by a Lion in an attack that almost killed him and cost him full use of his arm. There is an intense, giant statue out front documenting this particular crazy event.

After our trip to Blantyre, we grabbed a seat on the inexpensive MegaBus and took the 90 minute ride from Glasgow to Edinburgh. Brooke and I have become champs when it comes to navigating transportation. At this point, we really feel that there is no hurdle we can’t tackle and no riddle we can’t crack. It helps when everything is English, but it can still get tricky when you show up at the ticket window and they say all tickets need to be bought online. Hey, team work makes the dream work! After snagging some WiFi in a nearby cafe, we bought tickets and were on our way to Edinburgh. Even though it was raining, we could instantly see that Edinburgh is going to be a very different town from Glasglow. Gargantuan Edinburgh Castle on the hill is quite the welcoming beacon and only one of several sights that make your jaw drop slightly and get the pulse racing for a chance to explore it all!

Today was a great day. After all, what’s the point of an amazing Round The World trip if you can’t take the time to take a small side trip to explore some family history. That and sleeping in. We might sleep in a bit tomorrow because we’re on a big trip and we can. Ahhhhh….

-Phil

Categories: Exploring, Family, Museums, Rail, Reflections, Scotland, Trains | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Glasgow, Scotland

GlasgowWhen we told people we would be heading to Glasgow, almost all of them asked, “Will you got to Edinburgh?”  Time after time people told us there isn’t much to do in Glasgow and we shouldn’t spend too much time here.  After spending the day exploring this city, we are so chock-full of things we want to do that we are considering extending our stay one more day.  Filled with great food and culture, Glasgow appears to be a wonderful city with tons for us to see and do.

We began our day the way anyone should while in Scotland–with a traditional breakfast. Pulled in by the sign that said “Scottish Breakfast £2.99”, we sat down in Wetherspoons.  I went for the breakfast wrap, but Phil is in full Scottish mode and ordered the Traditional Breakfast.  When his plate came, it was a feast of all things protein:  fried egg, fried sausage, bacon, and beans on toast.  Figuring this to be the perfect way to start our day in Scotland, we cleared our plates and then headed into the city.

As you have seen if you’ve read other blog posts, we really enjoy the Hop-on/Hop-off City Sightseeing bus tours.  Doing this upon arrival to a new city really helps to understand the layout and what it has to offer.  In the past, we have always had the pre-recorded tours.  This allows for greater flexibility as the tours can be given in several different languages.  This company also has that option, but the bus we got on had a live tour guide.  It didn’t take us long to realize how much better a live tour is than a pre-recorded one.  Having grown up in Glasgow, this gentleman could speak to the way things were when he was a boy compared to today.  He kept us updated on current events regarding construction projects and city news.  Most importantly, he was much more entertaining than a recording.  His dry sense of humor had us questioning a few times whether he was joking or not.  On the tour, we explored the city’s centre, west end and river front.  We were unaware of Glasgow’s rich ship building history and learned that the town still engages in this trade today.

After the tour, we stopped for a warm bowl of soup to warm us up because let me tell you–it is cold here.  Maybe 45 degrees today, everyone seemed cheered that at least the sun was shining.  Our tour guide joked that we were all baking in the hot sun at the top of the bus and added that maybe the sun would come out again in another 3 years.  In fact, all day we heard joke after joke about the gray, rainy, cold weather which is commonplace here.  We realize we might be very lucky to be graced by sunshine today and we should enjoy it while we can. (The weather for the rest of the week looks like a lot of rain.)  Once sufficiently warmed by some sweet corn chowder, we ventured back into the cold only briefly to head to the City Chambers, the headquarters of Glasgow’s City Council.  This beautiful old building is situated in the center of the city, just off George Square.  When we heard they offered free tours of the interior, we figured it would be a great way to learn a little bit more about the city’s history.  The building was completed in 1888 and is a display of decadence and wealth.  It has two staircases, the white and the black, so named for the material which was used in building them.  In days of old, only the wealthy nobility and royals were allowed to use the white marble staircase.  The other was reserved for servants and working class visitors. On our tour we visited the banquet hall, the council chamber and the art gallery, where each Lord Provost throughout history has a portrait hanging.  All in all, our tour was really interesting and a good start in helping us to understand the Scottish brogue (I swear, sometimes it sounds like a totally foreign language).

After switching our luggage from our previous night’s hotel to our new Air BnB stay, we went looking for our first pint of the day.  We discovered The Grove, an old man bar if ever there was one.  With horse racing on the TV screen and talk of the Scotland v. Belgium football game tomorrow, it was a great place for a drink.  Phil opted for a Guinness while I tried a Belhaven, all for a mere £5.  At this price, I imagine we’ll be back here again tomorrow! From here, we went to a place called Neighborhood Bar to take advantage of their 2-for-1 deal on dinner.  Then, we headed to the famed King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut for some live music.  We haven’t really caught too many live shows on the trip yet, and King Tut’s is known for having all kinds of different bands each night of the week. (Their claim to fame is being the bar where Oasis was discovered.)  The lineup tonight consisted of bands we have never heard of, but that is half the fun of going to a show like this anyway.  The first act, Jonny Jack, was a young rock band.  Well rehearsed, they played together tightly, but their music wasn’t terribly original.  The lead singer’s voice reminded us of Rob Thomas from his Matchbox 20 days.  Next was a solo artist named Luke Sital-Singh, who played slow, sad songs on his guitar that would have been perfect if we were terribly depressed.  His voice was great, but the songs started to all sound the same after a while.  The headlining act, Fossil Collective, seems to have been around a while since they definitely had some regular fans there to catch the show.  Following the footsteps of many other modern bands, they have a multi-vocal, full harmonic sound along with their many guitars.  They sound a bit similar to Grizzly Bear with a voice like My Morning Jacket.

But the gem of the night was Cherry Grove.  We knew we were in for a treat when they began setting up their stage.  Instruments include your basic keyboard and guitar, but then they also had a violin, harp and accordion.  These incredibly talented musicians played a great set.  Sometimes with vocals, sometimes only instruments, they modernized traditional music and instruments in a creative and innovative way.  They seemed to genuinely have fun on stage, and you got the sense that they probably all met at a music conservatory because they have mastered their instruments.  They were releasing their first EP tonight, and it was clear to see that much of the audience came to see them.  The show would have been worth it even if Cherry Grove was the only band we saw.

King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut has a midnight curfew to respect their neighbors, so once the bands were done we walked home, huddled together to keep warm.  We are so pleased with our first day in Glasgow and we can’t wait for all that we have in store for tomorrow.  We will do a nice variety of museums, exploration, and sport.  As long as we don’t freeze first!

–Brooke

Beautiful view of the Clyde River.

Phil in the City Chambers.

Brooke always wants to be in charge.

One Lord Provost chose to have his portrait done by an artist with a very unique style. It is very intriguing.

Categories: Bars, Beer, City Visits, Destinations, Diversions, Eating, Europe, Exploring, Landmarks, Music, Scotland, Tours | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

One Month to Go

We have officially hit the “One Month Left” mark on our round the world trip. It is amazing how fast the whole thing has gone! It seems like we only just began except that we have seen and experienced so much. It is hard to believe we have a whole month more left to see and do. Now that we have been on the road for a while, whenever we meet people or even talk to friends and family back home, we get many of the same questions. We thought we’d address some of those here for all of you. Here are some of our Frequently Asked Questions:

Lovely Wellington

1. What has been your favorite place?

This is a toughy. Favorite for what reason? The people? The food? Favorite as a place I’d like to visit again or as in a place I could see myself living? If you have been reading lately, then you know that Dubrovnik, Croatia certainly gets top billing when it comes to scenery. And if you’ve spoken to us, you know that Hanoi, Vietnam is a strong contender due to its vibrant nature and the ways it is vastly different from our own lives back home. However, if we had to choose and overall favorite, a place where we could see ourselves living, that has delicious food and beer, a place with friendly locals: Copenhagen, Denmark (with Wellington, New Zealand a close second). A surprise, right? It is an all around cool city and we wish we could have spent a little more time there. (I could go for one of those delicious hotdogs right now!) Although after a few days in Munich, it could easily fit the same bill. The truth is, there are just so many great places out there, it is hard to choose!

2. Have you been able to stick to your budget?

Absolutely. And not at all. It really depends on the region and the day. When we began our trip, we sat down and created a budget for each region we would be visiting. We have a daily budget and a separate one for nightly accommodations and transportation. We spent a lot of time on this, but really it was all a best guess. We came in under budget for our time in New Zealand and slightly over budget for our time in Japan. Not too bad. We were basically right on budget for Southeast Asia and the Cruise. Then we got to Europe. We found in Europe we easily stayed on budget with accommodations (we allowed $65/night), but our daily budget ($70/day) often was not enough and we found ourselves going over our allotted budget each day (I know this sounds like a lot, but keep in mind it is for 2 people and includes everything from museum tickets to pay toilets). This was especially true when we were with our friends both in Budapest and Dubrovnik. For them, they are on short vacation and they have a different mentality towards spending. Looking back, we should have budgeted more for these sections and thought of them more like a vacation from our trip. We allowed ourselves more for the UK ($90/night, $120/day) and hope we might be able to make some of the overage back while we’re here. The most important thing is that we are very conscious of our spending. I write down everything we purchase in my phone and then transfer it into a notebook where we can tally up the totals. This consciousness is very helpful and much advised for anyone on a trip like this because it is amazing how fast the spending adds up.

Brooke in Hong Kong

3. Are you still having fun or are you ready to go home?

We are definitely still having fun and enjoying every single day. However, now that we are one month away from going home, we have started thinking about real life just a little bit more. Not too much, just a bit. There is a lot we miss about home like cooking for ourselves each night and having access to all of our things–clothes, pillows, my hair straightener. We also look forward to being in one place for longer than three days. And oh, a guaranteed good bed and shower each day! But man, there is so much to see and do everywhere we go, how could we not have fun? Each day brings new surprises and we are looking forward to savoring every bit of the last month. But when we get on that plane to head back to the States in November, we’ll be ready.

Hanging out in Belgrade

4. Have you gotten sick of one another?

Before leaving, my dad kept joking that he only hoped Phil and I would come back married. Of course, he was exaggerating, but not too much. Another friend wondered if we were worried about spending so much time together to the point where we might get sick of each other. Because so many people voiced similar concerns, we planned on having one day a week where we spent the day apart. We are happy to be travelling around the world, but it certainly isn’t worth risking our relationship. Surprisingly (or maybe not), we haven’t really needed these planned days apart. We haven’t gotten sick of each other yet. Sure, there are times of frustration and we take 20 minutes to go our own way and meet back up. But generally, that is enough. We really like hanging out with each other and are interested in a lot of the same things. We are so happy with how it has worked out and think it definitely bodes well for our future.

The doors are quite big in Kyoto, Japan

5. What else do you have left?

After sharing all the things we have done already, people always want to know what is left to do. So, we are currently in Glasgow, Scotland where we will be for a few days. After this, we head to Edinburgh then a tour of the Highlands. We will say goodbye to this part of the world and fly south to our final destination: Argentina. Arriving in Buenos Aires, we will spend almost 3 weeks travelling around Argentina and perhaps even make a visit to Chile. Then, on November 14 we arrive back in Cincinnati, Ohio to the warm hugs and kisses of family and friends.

Hopefully, this has answered some questions you may have been having, or at least given you some interesting insight into how we feel about the trip. If there are any other questions, just ask. We are more than happy to share. Now, I must go explore Glasgow! Perhaps a dram of whiskey to get me started!

–Brooke

Categories: Budget, Doccuments, Exploring, Family, Finances, Homesick, Random Thoughts, Reflections, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 6 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

Belgrade, Serbia–A Wonderful Surprise!

When planning our trip, we did not know exactly which cities we’d be visiting.  We had our flights and a basic plan, but we did not map out specifics in order to allow ourselves flexibility.  If you had asked us before we started whether or not we would visit Serbia, our answer would have been, “You never know, but probably not.”  Now, here we are, thrilled to be in the heart of Serbia: Belgrade.

Belgrade has a lot to offer, so we decided to start our day at the Nicola Tesla Museum.  Going into this, Phil knew a lot more about Tesla than I did.  In fact, if you had asked me who Tesla was, I might have made vague reference to a crappy band who covered the song “Signs.”  As it turns out, Nicola Tesla’s inventions changed the course of human history and we all use his technology daily.  In case you are like me and don’t know who he is, Tesla is best known for inventing the alternating current (AC) electrical system.  You may have heard of the Tesla Coil, his most well known invention which is integral to the AC system.  Nicola Tesla was born in Serbia, and here in Belgrade they have a museum dedicated to celebrating his work and his contributions to human history.

The Tesla Museum was a fun, interactive and incredibly informative experience.  We were given a tour by a young woman who just graduated with a degree in electrical engineering.  Her passion and knowledge for the topic shone through in her presentation of the material. The one floor museum situated in a beautiful old 19th century home was as much about Tesla as it was about his inventions. We learned that Tesla was a legitimate genius level inventor who could never be accused of thinking small. His inventions ranged from Hydroelectricity to a theorhetical global communications array that was never completed. Especially cool was the interactive exhibits like the giant Tesla Coil and a reproduction of the world’s first remote control toy boat that was showcased in Central Park in the early 1900’s. What really helped make the museum, or any museum for that matter, is that the guides were certified experts on the subject matter and sincerely passionate about all things Tesla. After our visit, our head was swimming with fascinating facts and information about Tesla. It is truly a sensational museum!

The light bulbs are being lit by the magnetic field created around the Tesla coil. Phil’s body is the conductor. Don’t get too close or you’ll get a shock!

After the Tesla Museum, we slowly wandered through the city toward the Belgrade Fortress.  Our eyes were filled with wonder at seeing bombed out buildings, still in crumbling ruins, adjacent to beautiful, historic structures.  The NATO bombings of Serbia, which took place over the course of almost 3 months in 1999, have left evidence almost everywhere you look in Belgrade.  At the same time, this city already feels more forward thinking, cosmopolitan and progressive than either Bucharest or Sofia.  We were expecting a sort of sadness…or at least the feeling that they were still trying to get back on their feet.  Not only are they standing on their own two legs, Belgrade is thriving.  There are cafes, corner stores and markets everywhere.  The streets are bustling with people and the nightlife here draws visitors from all over Europe.  There is a pulse and vitality that we haven’t felt in other Eastern European cities.  However, wages are still quite low and the younger population is dwindling as they leave to find jobs in other countries which are unavailable here.  The city seems to be growing, but it is not happening at a fast enough pace for to meet the demand of people in need of jobs.

We continued to walk along Knez Mihailova, a pedestrian only street which leads toward the fortress.  We happened upon a robotics exhibition and also discovered that Serbians love their popcorn like Romanians love their pretzels.  Finally, we made it to Kalamegdan Park, a huge park created on a plateau in front of the Belgrade Fortress.  Filled with people, the park is the best place to watch the sunset at the spot where the Danube and Sava Rivers converge.  It also houses several public art pieces, including a series of photographs of depicting gorgeous landscapes from each state in America.  We got a little misty at both the photograph of the Roebling Suspension Bridge in Cincinnati, Ohio and the view of the city from New York’s Central Park.  As we gazed out over the river, talking about all things past, present and future, we realized we are missing some small things about America.  This was punctuated by our discovery of several Buckeye Trees.  The characteristic seeds lay all over the ground, and I picked them up, dreaming of home and just wishing they were made of chocolate and peanut butter (a popular treat for Ohioans).

We finally found the fortress at the top of the park.  Originally built in the 1st Century A.D., it (of course) has been destroyed several times over the years.  This is somewhat surprising because the location is the highest spot around and one could easily see the advancing enemy coming in by river.  The current fortress has been turned largely into parkland, but also houses the Military Museum, an Entomology Museum and an Observatory.  Hunger spoke louder than our desire to see these exhibits, so we plan to head back there tomorrow.  As we strolled back through the park toward the tram, we realized that we have had yet another day of perfect weather.  With the exception of Brasov, Romania, Eastern Europe has been a meteorological utopia.

It had been such a lovely day, and we were excited to experience our first real Serbian meal.  After a recommendation from our Air B ‘n B host, we went to Orasac.  Our stomachs growled on the short walk to the restaurant, so we were psyched when we spotted the sign.  The man who greeted us warned that they were busy and it might take a while for the food.  We decided to stick it out since we were already there and didn’t really have a back-up plan.  In retrospect, we should have left when we had the chance.  Annoyed that we didn’t speak Serbian, the waiter was brash and rude.  We ordered “light domestic draft”, which is how the beer was described on the menu.  No brand.  No other option.  We think it was Lav, but we aren’t completely sure.  After being told the first 3 items we asked for were unavailable with a brusque “Ney,” we hastily ordered our meals.  Willing to overlook the bad service, dirty tablecloth and crumbs at the bottom of our beer glasses, we finally drew the line.  Phil cut into his chicken skewers and they were completely uncooked on the inside.  Bright pink.  Raw.  After the experience we had thus far, we decided it wasn’t worth it to try to explain or argue.  Instead we just showed it to the waiter and asked for the check.  The message was clear and we soon left unsatisfied.  We’ve had some really amazing meals in the last week, so I suppose we were due for a stinker.

Dinner aside, today was really wonderful.  We have such a positive impression of Belgrade and we are excited to explore it further tomorrow.  We are planning to explore the Military Museum, plus partake in a bike tour which sounds awesome.  We’ll let you know how it goes!

–Brooke

Wishing these Buckeyes were the sweet treats I love so much!

The fortress offers beautiful views of the Danube and the entire city of Belgrade.

 

Categories: City Visits, Diversions, Eastern Europe, Europe, Exploring, Homesick, Landmarks, Museums, Serbia, Surprises, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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