Friends

I Rode a Horse!

Finally. I am 34 years old, grew up in a fairly rural area and I even went to summer camp, yet somehow I have managed to live my whole life without ever having ridden a horse. No more, my friends. What better place to try my hand at equestrian sports than Argentina, home to gauchos and ranches galore? Okay, so I didn’t rope any bulls or gallop through a field of cattle, but I had a fantastic time nonetheless.

Our lovely hotel in Maipu, Tikay Killa, arranged for Phil and I, plus three other guests (our new friends Dan, Lyn and Sophie) to experience the countryside in a whole new way. We threw down our bikes and mounted horses instead. I was a bit nervous, but very excited to ride a horse for the first time. Cesar, our guide, offered me a helmet since I was a fledgling rider, but I declined feeling quite confident in my abilities. With a bit of an assist from Cesar, I mounted Esperamiento, my horse. I got a 30 second lesson in riding–“Pull back to stop, pull right to go right, and left to go left.” Sounds simple enough. We were off!

In fact, it was that simple. Cesar’s horses were well-trained and listened to everything. After getting used to the feeling of being bumped around and realizing I wasn’t going to fall off, I began to relax and enjoy the countryside. Our ride began on a back road, complete with cars, dogs and kids playing. This was great practice in navigating the horses into single file lines and even stopping when necessary. Thankfully, we soon turned off the road and onto a dirt track which wound through a nearby vineyard. I was taking my time, allowing my horse to walk and still getting the hang of how hard to yank on the reins when I needed him to stop eating snacking on the surrounding grapevines. On the contrary, Phil was in his element. It isn’t as though he has tons of equestrian experience, but he had his horse, Noche, trotting and almost to a full gallop before I could say “yee-haw.” Smiles filled our faces as we traversed the vineyard.

We didn’t stay on this dirt trail forever, however. I expected fairly easy terrain, and all in all it was. But Cesar wanted to make sure we got our money’s worth. We walked up a rocky slope to get a beautiful view of the vines below, but it was going down the slope that seemed a bit more treacherous. Luckily our horses were sure-footed and didn’t slip a bit. Once at the bottom of the hill, we headed toward the Mendoza river. I assumed we would ride along it, but instead we crossed it! Only 1-2 feet deep at the point of crossing, our horses easily managed through the water and up the bank on the other side. Sophie, who got stuck with the hungry horse, had to urge hers on a bit more because he constantly wanted to stop for snacks and a drink. I understand how that feels–it was hot out there and those horses were working hard. We crossed back over the river several times, trekked through the mud and wound our way through tall brush. It was a blast! I am so glad we didn’t simply stick to the dirt road–in retrospect that would have been much less fun. Feeling very confident in both my abilities and those of my horse, I began to bring him to a trot as we headed back to the stable. I didn’t mind going fast, but man it hurts a lot more to be bounced at those speeds, so the trotting didn’t last long. After riding for about two hours, dismounting Esperamiento was a welcome relief to my aching legs. Despite the minor joint and muscle pain, I had a wonderful time and will definitely try my hand at horseback riding again in the future.

Lyn has to sit on the floor of the backseat to make room for all five of us. Luckily, she’s flexible like Gumby.

This being our last day in Mendoza, we couldn’t leave without going to one more winery. The five of us got into a taxi (Lyn sitting on the floor in the backseat) and headed to Carinae, a small winery run by French couple Brigitte and Phillipe. Besides running a winery, this couple loves astronomy and sometimes hosts star gazing alongside the wine tasting. They have several different options for tastings, all named after an astronomical object. Not offering any views through the telescope today, we focused on the wine instead. We were each able to try five different varieties. I’m not sure if it was because I was warm from riding in the sun, or just because this is becoming a new favorite, but their Torrontes was the most delicious I tasted. This wine is such a wonderful surprise for those who often find white wines to be too sweet. When you smell a Torrontes, it is very sweet and sometimes flowery. But, there is a reason why it is called the “lying grape.” When you taste it, the sweetness is understated and instead it is a bit tart with a dry finish. I have loved trying this variety at many of the vineyards we have visited, but Carinae’s version is my favorite. We bought a bottle for the group, one for back at the lodge and yet another for Phil and I to take on the road. Yum!

Once back at the lodge, we popped the bottle of wine, sipped and enjoyed our last hour together. All heading our separate ways, we were thankful for having met one another and sharing in two great days together. After an exchange of contact information and big hugs, we said goodbye to Maipu. The trip to this small part of the Mendoza wine route is exactly what we had hoped it would be. We couldn’t be happier with this part of our trip.

–Brooke

Doesn’t she look like a natural? Watch out Clint Eastwood, this girl’s your next Western star!

The ride was beautiful with flowers in bloom everywhere.

The wines available at the Carinae tasting. Delicious!

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Categories: Argentina, Diversions, Friends, Mendoza, Surprises, Tours, Unusual Experiences, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Delicious Wine with New Friends

After a day of laying around, reading, sleeping and being doubled over in pain, I awoke on Saturday feeling like an almost normal human being.  We were finally ready to have the day we had been envisioning upon planning our visit to Mendoza–a day entirely dedicated to visiting wineries and drinking different, delicious wines.

We laid out a plan to visit at least 4 different wineries and engage in both tours and tastings.  To our delight, our new friends from Tikay Killa, Lyn and Dan joined us for the entire day.  To begin, we had to find a way to the winery (or bodega as they are called here).  Obviously drinking and driving is a big concern here and police are on the lookout everywhere.  We don’t have a car anyway, so that wasn’t really an option.  For this reason, tourists are encouraged to either take taxis or ride bicycles from winery to winery.  Going for the more cost effective and fun method of transport, we chose bikes.  Luckily, our lodge has a few on hand making rental a breeze.  We set out for our first stop of the day–Mevi, a small winery with an amazing view.  None too keen on drinking red wine in the heat, instead we imbibed in the whites and roses as we lounged on their sunny terrace which overlooks the vineyards and has stunning views of the Andes Mountains in the distance.  We sipped Chardonnay, Torrontes, Malbec Rosado and various other wines.  After an eight kilometer bike ride in the Argentinian heat, these cool, refreshing varieties helped recharge our batteries so we could continue on our way.

Only three kilometers further, Familia Di Tommaso was the next vineyard on our list.  Rather than just drinking, we first took a tour of this small, family run bodega which is the oldest in Maipu.  They showed us the old cement tanks which were formally used to ferment and age the wine.  More modern systems have been put in place, so these are now used as wine cellars for the bottles they produce.  Like many of the wineries in this region, their gem can be found in their Malbec Reserva.  Aged in oak for 12 months, this wine has a robust flavor which impressed us all.  We immediately ordered a bottle to accompany lunch aside the vineyard.  Something which makes the wines here even more special is that they do not export or sell to grocery stores.  This family’s produce can only be bought here at the bodega.  Unfortunately, they don’t make ordering a case of wine very easy since they don’t take credit cards and don’t ship directly from the winery.  Dan was especially disappointed, but with the help of Elena at our lodge he was able to work it out.  At lunch, we were joined by a couple from Holland who we met on the tour.  I don’t know if it is the wine or just travelers to this region in general, but we have met such wonderful, like-minded people on this visit.  Everyone is traveling anywhere from 3 weeks to 3 months and no one looks at us like we’re crazy when we tell them about our trip around the world.  Building friendships with people from around the world has been a major added benefit of this trip that I didn’t anticipate beforehand.

After visiting these very small wineries, we were in for a huge difference with Trapiche, easily the largest vineyard in Maipu and also a part of the largest winery in Argentina.  Here we met up with Sophie, our other new friend who was also staying at Tikay Killa.  We toured this monstrous winery, learning about its long history.  The building we were in has been dedicated as historically significant, therefore retains its original characteristics.  Though it has been refurbished and modernized, the original structure still stands including the huge tanks which are still used to ferment the wine.  This winery originally belonged to a different family who built in this location due to its proximity to the railroad.  In fact, they even have a “pool” where they could ferment 5 million liters of wine at one time! Considering some small wineries we visited only produce about 19,000 liters a year, this number had our jaws on the ground.  The idea was that all the wine from this one pool could be the entire stock loaded onto one train.  This pool is no longer used because, as you might imagine, it is difficult to control the quality and consistency of the wine when creating it on that scale.   The tour ended with a taste of 3 different wines and although they were delicious, we all agreed the smaller Di Tommassi family winery we visited earlier was superior.

Working our way back toward our lodge, we made our final visit to Finca Vina Maria, a tiny winery situated conveniently at the end of our street.  We barely arrived before their 5:30 pm closing time, but the woman was more than happy to share with us the history of the winery and a description of the wines they produce.  Rather than have a tasting, we decided to share a bottle of the Malbec while sitting outside under the shade of the huge sycamore tree.  Chatting about all things wine turned into chatting about all things life.  We learned more about each others jobs, families and travels.  Phil and I were surprised to find out a “jumper” means a “sweater” when spoken by a Brit, but be careful–a sweater is  not the same thing as a cardigan!  Dan conceded that Americans are probably more correct with some of our pronunciations of words, while Sophie staunchly believes since the Brits invented the language, they must be the ones who are right.  She does have a point!

After all this cycling, drinking and friendship, we knew we would be hungry later.  And, since we have all discovered how incredibly difficult it can be to find dinner after 5pm in Maipu (or at least nearby to our lodge), we decided to head to the grocery store and fend for ourselves.  It turned into a feast of tapas, perfect to go with the wine we had bought throughout the day.  Delicious cheese, ham, salami and bread filled our plates and the wine flowed freely.  Knowing we were all getting up to go horseback riding the next morning helped quell any desire to drink too much, and instead we spent the evening continuing to get to know one another, sharing stories and becoming friends.  Reflecting back on it all, I can’t think of a better way to spend a day!

–Brooke

Three of the many wines produced by Trapiche.

Dan, Lyn and Brooke riding bikes between winery visits.

Just place your glass on the wine you want and it appears as if by magic!

Vineyards as far as the eye can see. It’s pretty much like this everywhere in Maipu.

Categories: Argentina, Bars, Destinations, Diversions, Friends, Mendoza, Uncategorized, Wine | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Goodbye Highlands

Sadly, today was our third and final day in the Highlands of Scotland with Rabbie’s Tour.  It seems like twice an hour we turn to each other and say, “I’m so glad we decided to do this tour!”  We have learned so much and had an overall more rich experience because we did this with an expert.  Rabbie’s (or another tour of its kind) is definitely the way to go for anyone out there thinking of taking trip to the Highlands.

Our guide, Doug, telling us the legend of how the Cuillin Hills were formed.

The day greeted us with clear blue skies and loads of sunshine, something we aren’t terribly used to here in Scotland.  We began with a drive down from Portree into the heart of the Cuillin Hills.  There are two major parts of these, one is called the Red Cuillins and the other is the Black Cuillins.  Like everything in Scotland, there is a legend about why these hills look the way they do presently.  It is a bit too long and involved to share here, and I really couldn’t do it justice by trying to write it out anyway.  Suffice it to say, it had everything to do with a battle between an arrogant giant and an Amazonian woman, both too prideful to admit defeat to one another.  Of course they ultimately fell in love, but that is neither here nor there.  The rigidity of the top of the hills is said to be made from their hacking away at one another in battle.

The history of Scotland is steeped in legends of this kind, but occasionally there are true stories to go along with them.  In this case, Doug told us of a young gurkha from Nepal who visited the Highlands.  When he stopped in for an orange juice at a local pub he was ridiculed for not drinking whiskey.  He explained to the man that he was not in Scotland to drink, he was there to visit their beautiful hills.  The man replied with disbelief, “Hills?  Those are no hills, those are mountains.  It would take me all day to climb to the top and back down again.”  The man from India was amused and replied, “That is no mountain.  I could make it to the top and back in less than an hour.”  The Highlander believed this man to be a liar, trying to make a fool out of him, so the gurkha decided to show him.  He took off his shoes and socks and began running up the hill.  He made it up and back in 59 minutes.  Amazed the Highlander insisted they share a whiskey together.  As they sipped, a man from another clan walked in and when he was told about this amazing feat, he didn’t believe it for a minute.  The two Scots began to argue and it looked as though a fight was going to break out.  The gurkha, wanting to avoid a fight, jumped between them and said he would prove it.  Again, he took off his socks and shoes and ran up the hill and back down.  This time, it only took him 58 minutes!  This all took place in 1902, but years later the story inspired the locals to begin a race up this same hill.  The Glamaig Hill Race draws hundreds of runners each summer.  Of course, they run with shoes and socks, but the record time for this 4.5 mile, 2500 foot run is 44 minutes and 27 seconds.  We failed to get a picture of the hill.  To see what it looks like, click here. Pretty impressive!

There are tons of stories centered upon the Highlands, both truth and legend.  We were also told the story of the Sisters of Kintail.  To make a very long story short, these 5 sisters were waiting for 5 brothers who were supposed to come for them from Ireland.  They waited so long, their father was worried they would lose their beauty.  He enlisted the help of a seer, who turned them into mountains so they would be beautiful for all eternity.  And they really are spectacular.  In fact, this may be the most beautiful part we saw in the Highlands.  It certainly doesn’t hurt that the fall colors are in full effect, the sun was shining bright and the weather was wonderfully mild.  We have taken some amazing photos here in Scotland, but the ones looking out on the 5 Sisters of Kintail are my favorite.

The 5 Sisters of Kintail showing their eternal beauty.

We continued to wind our way down toward Edinburgh.  We made a quick stop to see some “Hairy Coos”.  These long-haired cows are everywhere, and they look so much different from the ones most of us are used to seeing at home that we decided it was worth a short photo stop.  We then made the obligatory stop in Loch Ness, where we were told of some strange and unusual happenings, but none of us was inspired enough to swim in the loch or even go on a boat ride trying to find Nessie.  Instead, we had a leisurely lunch with some new friends.  As I have already said, one of the best parts of Rabbie’s tours is the small group size.  We only had 14 people in our group, plus our guide, Doug.  This allowed for some great time with everyone and we met some really great people.  We found ourselves spending much of our time with Melissa and Crystal, two women from Minneapolis (though Crystal now lives in London).  We had tons in common and are all excited to have made new friends.  We are already toying with the idea of another trip together, or at least a meet-up in our respective home cities.

Melissa, Crystal, Phil and Brooke after dipping our heads under Bride’s Veil falls.

Alas, we had to say goodbye to the Highlands, goodbye to Crystal and Melissa, and goodbye to Doug and his myriad stories which lasted to the moment we arrived in Edinburgh.  We absolutely loved this tour and we are now considering finding something similar on our next stop in Argentina.  We have one more day in Scotland and we will be sad to leave it.  This 10 day country stop has certainly met and even exceeded our expectations.   We can certainly see ourselves coming back here someday.  Until then, slàinte mhath!

–Brooke

The “hairy coos” of the Highlands.

New friends enjoying drinks together in Portree.

These gorgeous views are everywhere across the Highlands.

Brooke tries Irn Bru, Scotland’s most popular soft drink. Tastes like cream soda with a splash of bubble gum. Very sugary!

Categories: City Visits, Destinations, Diversions, Exploring, Friends, Landmarks, Reflections, Scotland, Tours, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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

Delightful Dubrovnik

Croatian BeautyHello from Dubrovnik, Croatia! Our traveling crew has temporarily expanded to four once again. Brooke and I were joined by our good friend Jack from NYC and his buddy Jon. Both have been traveling in Turkey for the last 10 days and we had planned in advance a rendezvous in Croatia. And now we find ourselves soaking up Dubrovnik. This seaside town is packed so full of amazing beauties that I’m really at a loss of where to begin today. From walking over the ancient city walls to enjoying beers at a bar directly on the Adriatic to watching the sunset from the top of Mt. Srd, this gem of a place is simply sensational. In the short time we’ve been here so far, we’ve chalked up a number of incredible experiences. I know that this may sound like I’m being glib or just plain lazy, but words and photos can’t really do this place justice. To say that we have been swept off our feet by this city is an understatement.

After visiting a variety of European capitals from Bucharest to Budapest over the last few weeks, Dubrovnik was a departure for the size and scene of the town alone. But we didn’t fully know what we were getting into before arriving. I’ve never quite seen a place like Dubrovnik before in the sense that you have a small range of tall mountains which just roll almost right down into the sea. Along the way, the sloping hills are dotted with houses and roads. And at the bottom of these hills, beaches and harbors spit out directly into a bay dotted with islands. This area has geography that is unique and striking.

Delightful DubrovnikBut the real highlight is the historic, walled old city that sits directly between the foot of the mountains and the coast of the sea. We’re not talking some random, partial ruins of walls from an era past. No, this is a compact city of hundreds of building surrounded by a massive intact wall. The impact of it all is amazing. The old city makes for the perfect setting for a slow amble through the pedestrian only, marble streets allowing us to gawk and stare at each new storefront, set of stairs or building entrance. It would also make the perfect setting for the ultimate game of hide and seek, capture the flag or even paintball (if you don’t mind ruining the beautiful, clean walls). More accurately, the low roofs, sloping tiles and endless stairs are the perfect playground for cats. Which neatly explains the number of stray cats at every turn. We’re pretty sure that one cat made its way to Zagreb years ago and started saying to other feline friends, “Dude, you have got to check out this place down the coast.” Hey, better stray cats than stray dogs.

Old City, and the rest of the area, is apparently an incredibly popular vacation destination although it seems to be off the radar for many Americans like Brooke and me. The town does tend to get swallowed by cruise ship passengers during the mid-morning and afternoons. A waiter told us that a couple of years ago, Dubrovnik had a day in which nine cruise ships were docked at once. Apparently, the increasing number of visitors has caused some issues, but there seems to be plenty of bars, restaurants,shops, museums and room enough for all. However, given the sometime geriatric nature of cruise passengers, the endless steps scattered throughout the city could pose a challenge for anyone who can’t hang with hiking up 100-200 steps in a given afternoon.

Walking along the best part of DubrovnikAmong the “can’t miss” activities is forking over a few Croatian kuna to walk the entire circumference of the outside city wall that towers above the rest of the city center. It took the four of us a couple of hours to walk all the way around as we made sure to check out every nook and cranny along the way. The one-way walk around the wall, turrets and towers easily makes our list of one of the most beautiful sights on the trip so far. Talk about meeting and exceeding all expectations. Each new turn or set of stairs gave us another view and another angle to snap some photos (our cameras have gotten a lot of work over the last couple of days). Parts of the walls were built as far back as the 15th century but more recently the walls took a pounding during the Croatian War for Independence in the early 90’s. What’s even more remarkable is that while the old city endured three months of bombing virtually all of the damage has been replaced or repaired. In fact, our visit coincided with Croatia’s Independence Day (the same day as America’s Columbus Day), but aside from the sound of a distant marching band and some closed shops, you really would not have known today was a national holiday.

Sign found in the Old City leading us to the perfect barI’m not one for hyperbole or exaggeration, and maybe it’s the insanely perfect weather or full days, but I’m pretty sure that Dubrovnik is a strong contender for  being the most scenic, beautiful and awe-inspiring place  I’ve ever visited. Brooke would agree. Today was an excellent reminder of why we took this trip in the first place. Sometimes it’s all about trying your best to do what you want to be doing with your life. Who knows? You might find yourself at the perfect back drinking on the Adriatic.

-Phil

This is Happiness

Sights like this are common! Easy to spend hours just meandering and getting lost in old city.

Phil hanging out in Old City

Hands down, a bar with one of the most beautiful views in the world

The narrow streets behind the walls of Old City

Categories: Bars, City Visits, Croatia, Europe, Friends, Self Guided Tours, Surprises, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 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

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

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