Museums

And the Winner Is…(Part 1)

Our time abroad may be finished, but the Luggage Tags blog is not! On our flight yesterday, Brooke and I realized that we still have boatloads to say about our once in a life time trip. We plan to post on our budget for the trip, reflections on returning home, how we would have packed differently and more. We’re proud that we managed to update the blog almost daily while we were abroad, but as we realign our life, posts may appear a bit less frequently. If this still sounds like your bag of chips, we hope that you’ll stick around and continue the voyage with us for a bit longer! – PK  

Throughout our trip around the world, we have experienced stays in more hotels than we count, ate at more restaurants that we can remember, and need an abacus to add up all the train rides, bar visits and stops at museums. We thought it might be fun to look back through on all of our experiences and present our findings on the best of the best. So, below are Luggage Tag RTW Awards! It was tough to narrow down the Creme de La Creme, but we did our best below:

Luggage Tags  RTW Awards!
Best Bar/Pub– Lord Nelson Bar, (Copenhagen) – A bar for locals located smack dab in the middle of an incredibly touristy area of Copenhagen. Unassuming, unsuspecting and easy to miss. Glad we found it because we had an absolute blast while visiting. The incredibly friendly and knowledgeable bartenders allowed us to sample just about every beer they had. The bar boasted an impressive collection of unique craft beers from around the area and friendly locals. It was just our speed. Honorable mention goes to Cafe Bar Bard in the Old City of Dubrovnik: While it is quieter and has a limited menu, it is right on the Adriatic with the best view any watering hole could hope for.

Best Museum–Te Papa – The National Museum of New Zealand (Wellington)  We visited tons of sensational museums on our travels so that makes this a hard one. But Te Papa was the biggest and the best. The museum is incredible interactive and expansive. The exhibits about New Zealand are diverse and modernized. You can visit without a guide and it’s still awesome. As you might expect, English was spotty or secondary in many museums we saw. The best part about Te Papa? Admission is completely free. Honorable mention here goes to the small but impressive Nikola Telsa Museum in Serbia and their passionate staff and also to the the quirky, effectively informative History Museum of Estonia in Tallinn.

Best Hotel Stay- Hanoi Moment (Hanoi)  Wow, what a hotel! The staff seemed to spend every minute knocking themselves out to assist you. Wine and fruit was waiting for us in the room when we checked in, the room itself was comfortable, large and chock full amenities including a laptop. It was all a real respite from the humidity and hustle of Hanoi. Plus they serve an amazing breakfast. And for all this luxury, the price was astoundingly low. The list of nominees for best hotel list was a bit shorter because mixed up hotel stays with nights through Air B ‘n B, hostels and more along the way. Honorable mention goes to Le Meriden in Budapest (but since the room was through hotel points, we can’t rank against cost) and The Lennox Hotel in Buenos Aires.

Best Airport- Changi Singapore Airport (Singapore)  With an amazing kinetic art sculpture, this airport makes an immediate impression on visitors.  Beyond that, it is new, clean and has a lot to offer.  On a long layover, passengers can visit a swimming pool to get some exercise or relax between flights.  We also loved that the security lines were at the gate when you board the plane rather than in the front of the airport with all other passengers.  There is also tons of shopping because, after all, it is Singapore. It is a big airport that seems to do it all well.  Honorable mention goes to the Amsterdam Airport.  We were just there on a lay over for a few hours, but with a casino, museum and massage center,  it seemed pretty great just walking through.

Best Meal –Dinner at Lubimoto (Sofia). – Man, what a meal! Run by a trio of brothers, a dinner at Lubimoto allowed us to sit outside and pace ourselves over a nice long meal. One of the brothers had spent considerable time in America and doubled as our host (so much more than a waiter) for the evening. We finally relented and began the meal like Bulgarians do -with Rakia! From there, we enjoyed another local staple that’s become a fast favorite and a daily must of ours: A shopska salad. After that, our host brought us two made-to-order entrees that were out of this world.  One pork dish and one chicken dish that I would only shame if I attempted to describe the deliciousness. A couple of pints of Staropramen and a dessert made of cake and pecan ice cream (compliments of our host) rounded out the evening. And the final bill left us wondering if the printer was broken or someone sliced off a few zeros. Great stuff, but not an isolated incident in Sofia.Honorable mentions go to Ocho Cepas steak house in Mendoza, Ippudo Ramen in Kyoto and endless number of Hot Dog carts in Copenhagen!

Insanely great Ramen from Ippudo in Kyoto

Best “Bang for your Buck”– Vietnam. With a conversion rate of 22,500 Dong to the US Dollar, everything is incredibly affordable. There is a ton to see and plenty to spend money on from knock off bags to newly tailored suits and unique pieces of art.  In addition, there are endless wonderful, authentic restaurants, that serving  heaping portions with prices that make your make thing there is a misprint in the menu. Plus, visitors can easily stay at a Four-star hotel for $60 or less. Excluding accommodations, we’re pretty sure that travelers could do Hanoi on a mere $20 a day. A complete bargain for such a lively, friendly and different place.

Halong Bay in Vietnam

We’ve got six more that we want to share as we continue Part 2 tomorrow! Including Best Public Transportation, Best Non-Flight Transportation, Best Local Beer, Most Beautiful setting and, our favorite, Best Surprise. Drop us a line if there is anything you’d be interested in hearing what we thought was top notch. Trust me, when it comes to recommendations, feedback and opinions, we’ve got plenty of ammo!

-Brooke and Phil

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Categories: Bars, Beer, Best Of, Eating, Flights, Museums, Post Trip Reflections, Surprises, The End of our Trip, Transportation, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Sun Shines on Edinburgh

After a rainy arrival in Edinburgh yesterday, we were happy to see the sun shining bright this morning.  Sure, there were clouds looming in the distance–this is Scotland in October, after all.  Now that we are seeing it by the light of day, it is clear how different Edinburgh is from Glasgow.  It immediately feels older, more preserved and more traditional.  It also has beautiful views at every turn.  One minute we find ourselves peering over a bridge down to a beautiful park, the next we are staring up to hills lined with Gothic style buildings.  Wanting to take full advantage of this sunny-ish day, we made a list full of possible things to do and decided to start where any visit to this city should:  Edinburgh Castle.

Edinburgh Castle is impossible to miss.  It sits upon the highest point in the city, rising high for all to see.  Although we were told this is a “can’t miss” attraction, we were a bit turned off by the steep admission price of £14.50 per person.  That price makes it one of the most expensive attraction in town, and we questioned if this was the best use of our time and money.  After a little more research, we decided it was worth it and climbed the steep hill toward the entrance gate.  Visually striking, this castle is a labyrinth of twisting, turning cobblestone streets.  Upon entrance, we learned a short guided tour is included in the price of admission.  Already feeling the ticket was paying for itself, we stuck around to meet Gavin, an awesome and charismatic tour guide who gave us the basics of the castle grounds.  First covering the age of the castle, and the many different iterations it has gone through over the years, Gavin regaled us with stories of Scottish history as though he were performing a well-rehearsed play.  He took jabs at the British in all the appropriate places and spent a good five minutes railing Mel Gibson for his portrayal of William Wallace in Braveheart.  Actually, he landbasted almost every fact about this film including the title character.  Braveheart is actually the name given to Robert the Bruce, not William Wallace.  His passionate stance against the film is more a symptom of his love for Scottish history than his hatred of Mel Gibson (thought it’s a close call).  As we toured the castle grounds with Gavin, he explained that the castle is still used as a military base today.  Besides the few buildings still in use by the military, most of the remainder of the grounds have been turned into museum exhibits.  We visited the National War Museum, the Prisons of War exhibit, and the Honours of Scotland.  In this last exhibit, we viewed the history of the Scottish crown jewels–the sword, the scepter and the crown.  These are the oldest crown jewels in Europe and they sit beside the Stone of Destiny.  This stone has been used for centuries as the seat of the incoming king or queen at the moment of coronation.  It was stolen from Scotland over 700 years ago by the British and not returned until 1996.  Gavin is still a wee bit upset about this!

One of the highlights of the Edinburgh Castle was watching the One O’Clock Gun.  A tradition reaching back hundreds of years, the one o’clock time signal used to be done with a flag being hoisted in the air and then dropping exactly at one in the afternoon.  This helped railroad workers and ship’s captains to keep their times accurate before clocks were what they are today.  However, the weather in Edinburgh is not known for always being crystal clear and it wasn’t always possible for people to see the flag.  They incorporated the firing of a gun so the signal would be clear, even when the weather was bad.  Though no longer needed, the tradition continues every day at 1pm. Perched at the castle wall, a soldier comes out, loads the gun and fires off into the distance.  Surprisingly, there are a number of places around the world who still continue this tradition, including Ft. Henry in the United States.  One of the best parts of watching the gun fire is the gorgeous view from the spot where the gun sits.  We could see across the entire city, to the Firth of Forth and over to the island of Fife.  We were grateful it was a clear day.  Before we left the castle grounds, we made sure to head to St. Margaret’s Chapel, not only the oldest building on the grounds, but also the oldest in Edinburgh.  It was probably built around 1130 and it takes approximately 30 seconds to soak in the entire space.  Still, it was worth stopping in.  All in all, Edinburgh Castle was expensive, but worth the price of admission.  The guided tour was really wonderful, and we both feel like we have learned so much more about Scottish National History in this one visit than we did during our entire time in Glasgow.

It was a lot of this. Highland soldiers and royalty. Over and over again.

Continuing our bit of Scottish History, we visited the National Portrait Gallery.  This free museum is filled with portraits and sculptures of all the famous folks of Scotland, from Bonnie Prince Charlie to Sean Connery.  Unfortunately, the galleries holding portraits of modern members of Scottish culture were closed to prepare for an upcoming exhibit.  So, we walked around viewing portrait after portrait of James the VI, James the VII, James Edward Stuart–there were lots of James’.  We both enjoy portraits, but after a while they all started running together and we were just about done with visiting museums.

With a sprinkle beginning to fall, we decided it was time to head to the grocery store.  It was finally time to take advantage of our wonderful Air BnB home and cook dinner for ourselves.  I can’t express the comfort we both felt in cruising the aisles of the grocery store for ingredients.  Our hostess is away for the duration of our stay, so we have her apartment to ourselves.  I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that it almost felt like being at home tonight.  A fire burning in the fireplace and rain falling outside, we warmed up by cooking a familiar dish, drinking a bottle of wine and watching my favorite Masterpiece Mystery series, Inspector Lewis. Neither of us has been homesick much on our trip, but this evening made us both long for the comforts of home.  We’ve already decided to cook tomorrow night, too, before heading out on a Literary Pub Tour.  We are really looking forward to it.  Cross your fingers that the rain stays at bay again tomorrow!

–Brooke

Yep, we’re in Scotland!

A view of Edinburgh and out to the Firth of Forth.

Phil meets a bagpiper.

Gorgeous views from the castle walls.

Categories: Budget, castles, City Visits, Destinations, Europe, Homesick, Landmarks, Museums, Relaxing, Scotland, Tours, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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

Let Glasgow Flourish!

Today marks our 101st post since we began the Luggage Tags blog back in June. We thought that was a nice little achievement worth noting. We’re proud that we’ve managed to blog almost every single day. Huzzah us!

Great buildings. Look up for stone cutting that's top notch!Hello again from Scotland! The weather outside is cold, wet and windy but that’s pretty much par for the course for Glasgow in October. It’s not hard to see why all the Scots we’ve met make so many jokes about their crappy weather. We’re currently hold up in a tremendous cafe called Artisan Roast near the university. A place like this can keep us cozy and warm while we plan our next steps over hot cups of long black and Ethiopian Chemex drip. Yeah, somewhere between Singapore and Copenhagen we became coffee aficionados. The coffee bean has become our unofficial sponsor and mandatory fuel for this trip. So far, we’re both really relishing our time in Scotland. I particularly dig the city’s motto: Let Glasgow Flourish. We packed it in yesterday with a stop to a famed city museum, grabbing tickets to a lunch time one-act play, and soaking up a football match over some traditional Scottish pub grub. A nice, full, if not tiring day in Scotland.

After knocking out some well-past-due laundry, our first stop of the day was a short trek down Argyle Street to visit the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. Much to our delight, Glasgow boasts a substantial number of historical buildings and museums that offer free admission, including the much cherished Kelvingrove. Given our budget, Brooke and I are definitely making good use of that. The Kelvingrove, opened as a city museum way back in 1901, is a beautiful, big, old structure that is fantastic just as a building in and of itself. You get the impression that some of the same money that built the City Chambers we visited yesterday was used to construct this place as well. We’ve seen our fair share of museums on this trip so far, but we’re going to go ahead and put the Kelvingrove in the top tier.

Part of the Expressions Exhibit at KelingroveThe museum quickly impressed us with a diverse balance of fine art galleries, historical exhibits, zoological displays and more. Themed galleries spread over the different wings made the expansive museum accessible and easy to digest. We learned all about the local artists known as “The Glasgow Boys”, soaked up displays on the biggest and smallest features of animals around the world, and I got a particular kick out of the pristine collection of fierce looking 14th through 17th century armor. There were some notable oddities like the legendary, albeit somewhat disturbing, locally beloved 100 year-old stuffed Elephant named “Sir Roger” and the striking collection of floating fiberglass heads in the “Expressions” exhibit. The crown jewel of the museum is probably the moving, 1951 Dali crucifixion painting “Christ of St. John of the Cross”. Very cool, very different. We wish we had another hour or two to explore (and maybe enjoy an organ recital), but we had to hustle off to A Play, A Pie and A Pint!

After another short walk in the rain, we took in a show at an old converted church turned bar/club/theater/event space aptly named “A Play, A Pie and A Pint.” This is such a fantastic concept that it is begging to be introduced in the United States: A ticket costing ten pounds get you a traditional meat or cheese pie, a pint of your favorite drink (beer, wine, juice, etc) and a performance of a one-act play that changes every week. Genius! With daily shows, this is a fantastic way to spend any lunchtime. We managed to catch “Faith Fall” which showcases three actors in front of microphones performing a play about love, cancer and the devil on an empty set. The show itself was unique, thought provoking and quite good. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a stripped down, dialogue intense one-act play. There was a nice big crowd on hand nibbling away at pies and quiet sips of beer. As Brooke mentioned yesterday, Glasgow clearly has a remarkably strong dedication to the arts and culture. I have a feeling that when Glasgow was struggling with a seriously down economy a few years back, the town poured energy and money into establishing a strong arts scene. And it shows.

Bartender at Work!As with just about every city, we managed to take a ride on the city Subway (they are back to being called Subways instead of Metros). While each city has a slightly different set up, Glasgow’s limited system has surprisingly tiny trains that look like squished sausages. I felt like I was crammed into a torpedo and the bumpy ride almost gave us a case of whiplash! Definitely unique! Later that evening, we visited a pub to watch the National Scottish team take on Belgium in a World Cup qualifier. I’m a bit slow on the doings of international sports, but I’m still amazed that there are qualifying games for a World Cup tournament that’s almost two years away. Apparently this one was a “win or it’s over” scenario for the Scots even though qualifying games continue into 2013. Given the weak performance of the team thus far, the crowd at the pub already seemed partly resigned to a loss before the game even started. The 2-0 win by Belgium was less of a surprise than seeing “Haggis, Neeps and Tatties” as a meal option on the menu. By the way, among the endless taps of beer found at every bar here, Guinness has started offering handles with “Extra Cold Guinness” in which the beer comes out two degrees colder. Is it any better? Who knows, but chalk one up for beer marketing teams. We’ve had a busy, full day in Glasgow, but there is still more to see and do! Tomorrow, we’re going to take a short train ride to Blantyre to explore some of my family history.

-Phil

Brooke with pies, plays and pints

Part of the Excellent Armor Collection at Kelivngrove

It’s just a wee subway for the lads and lassies of Scotland!

Brooke Enjoying the Scottish Weather this morning

Categories: Bars, Beer, City Visits, Museums, Reflections, Scotland, Self Guided Tours, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 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

Goodbye Belgrade

Sadly, our time in Belgrade has come to a close.  Tomorrow morning we board a north-bound train for Budapest, Hungry and leave Serbia behind.  Today was filled mainly with strolling through the city, taking in some last sights, and reflecting on our time in this region of the world. Though we enjoyed previous Eastern European cities, we think that Belgrade is a city we would eagerly visit again.  In fact, we believe this would make a wonderful destination with a group of friends, and we are sure our crew could have an amazing time spending a week here together.

After having a delicious coffee at one of the numerous street cafes this morning, we found ourselves walking toward the riverfront.  We spotted an old building which looked as though some event was happening inside.  Upon closer inspection, we discovered it was an art museum.  Kind of.  This grand building originally housed the Belgrade Shareholder’s Society.  It hasn’t exactly been preserved, but enough detailed remnants of its architecture remain which makes imagining its original beauty fairly easy.  Currently, “Good Life” a modern art exhibition is featured within the myriad of rooms.  The entrance fee was nominal, so we walked through the exhibits, realizing for the umpteenth time that we are not fans of this type of existential modern art.  I try to appreciate what lies before me, but I find I’m often left scratching my head and saying, “Huh?” Like the photographs of gold fillings which the artist bought at an online auction.  Or the room with paper pigs hanging from the ceiling.  This was way over my head.  It didn’t take long for us to give each other the high sign and head for the door.

The sign confused us at first–it is way too similar to the “No Smoking” signs we are used to.

We continued wandering and refocused on one of our priorities for the day–finding the perfect souvenir for our time in Belgrade.  We walked among stands which sell the traditional wares feeling completely uninspired.  It is important for us to find souvenirs that closely link with our experience in a city.  We want mementos, not just chatchkis to place on a shelf.  So, we thought about what would really speak to our time here.  As strange as it sounds, we settled on an ash tray!  We don’t smoke, nor do any of our friends, but smoking is everywhere here.  The first thing you get at a restaurant is not water or a menu or even a “hello”, it’s an ashtray.  Businesses don’t just have “No Smoking” signs, they also have “Smoking” signs which we found quite confusing early on.  In fact, cafes often sell cigarettes to their patrons who alternate eating their croissant with a puff of their cigarette.  For all of these reasons, an ashtray seemed like the perfect memento.

Laughing at our purchase we continued walking.  One aspect of Belgrade which has consistently entertained us is the amount of crazy small and ridiculously old cars which still cruise the streets.  I didn’t even know they still made the Yugo, but they are everywhere here!  And they are tiny.  We realize that Europeans drive small cars, especially when compared to Americans, but these are some of the smallest we’ve seen.  And really, it is the age that keeps surprising us.  Some of these must be 30 years old.  How they are not rusted out and falling apart is completely beyond us.  Phil thought these relics would be a great subject for a photo journalism project.

I’m not sure Phil would even fit in this thing!

After saying our farewells to Belgrade, it was time to head back to the apartment for the moment we have been waiting for since we arrived:  Sunday Football on ESPN America.  When we learned we would be able to watch live American professional football, we were ecstatic.  Although ESPN does not broadcast NFL games on Sundays in the U.S., they must have some agreement with Fox to show games abroad.  Our excitement in anticipation of watching football and eating a home cooked meal has been brimming all week.  After the requisite 2 hours of pre-game coverage, we watched the San Francisco 49ers embarrass the New York Jets by beating them 34-0.  At half-time of the game we went to the grocery store to be met with great disappointment–it was closed.  Closed?  It was only 8:15 pm, but we did not dismay.  We walked to another grocery down the street and it had closed at 3pm today!  Sometimes we forget that we aren’t in New York and stores close early, especially on Sundays.  Somewhat disappointed, we settled for a couple of sandwiches.  Seeing the score of the game when we arrived home immediately soothed our sadness.  We are now watching one of the late games–the Saints vs. the Packers, and if we can stay up until 2:30am, we can even catch the Sunday night game.

Late night football is likely not in the cards for me since we will be leaving for the train station at 6am.  We have been so surprised by Belgrade and would encourage travelers to include this as a “must” during any trip to Eastern Europe.  Tomorrow we head to Budapest, Hungary, the leg of the trip I have been most looking forward to because we will be meeting up with two of our closest friends, Gina and Tom.  We haven’t seen a familiar face (besides one another) in about 2 months and the thought of being with close friends is almost overwhelming.  I can’t wait!

–Brooke

A snafu with our tram ticket was cause for great concern. Ever since seeing the ticket checkers in Sofia, Phil is terrified of them!

When inflation was at its worst, Serbia had bills with a 50 billion dinar denomination! It is a Guinness World Record.

A final beer at ? Cafe. After arguments over its name, people now just refer to it as Question Mark Cafe.

Categories: Bars, City Visits, Diversions, Eastern Europe, Friends, Landmarks, Museums, Serbia, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Great times and full days in Serbia

Hello again from Belgrade! The Serbian capital continues to be a surprising gem of our trip. Particularly considering that we didn’t expect to even be in Belgrade as recently as two weeks ago. We keep harping on it, but the weather in Eastern Europe has been as close to perfect as you could ever want. In New Zealand and again in the Baltic states, we were a bit chilly and bundled up. Visiting Asia in August left us predictably sweaty and hot. But in Romania, Bulgaria and Serbia? Perfection.

One of favorite hobbies in Belgrade has been spending time in the inexpensive outdoor cafes between visits to museums and self-guided walking tours. There are endless amounts of cute cafes with abundant outdoor seating where curt, hurried waiters bring you an ashtray long before they bring you a napkin. And you know that long, slow meals are the order of things when the hostess warns you before you sit down that “the restaurant is closing in about two hours” and questions whether or not that will be enough time.  Thanks, but we’re not expecting another dozen people to join us. We should be able to wrap up dinner in under 120 minutes. And no matter where we go, we are always only handed a single menu for both of us. Perhaps the union of menu printers is on a long-term strike. We’ve enjoyed coffee drinks, lemonades and ice cold Staropramens (not all at the same time) all over the city. Yesterday, Brooke finally was able to enjoy the hot fudge brownie she’s been seeking since Estonia. Although we’re a bit befuddled that clerks, waiters and cashiers repeatedly do not have any change on purchases. And this is when we’re paying with the equivalent of a $10 bill. We get exasperated looks and shrugs when they can’t cough up some small Dinar. Quite strange.

On thing we’ve really enjoyed is the fact that the city has an elaborate network of sensational parks including Kalemegdan and Aja Ciganlika which have something for everyone. Kalemegdan has provied us overlooks of the scenic confluence of Danube and Sava Rivers and more uses of the world confluences than I’ve encountered in my life. One park had Cable Water Skiing. That was a first for us. Cable Water Skiing! Ah, I see something new, novel and interesting every single day on this adventure.

We started our day with a trip to the Belgrade Military Museum inside Kalemegdan park. The museum has a stellar and massive collection of swords, knives, guns and uniforms spanning hundreds of years, but not much history…nor many exhibits in English. After getting burned a couple of times, we’ve learned a good rule of thumb is to always ask at the ticket booth how much of the museum is in English before forking over your cash. However, the museum improved with several rooms dedicated to WWI and WWII with good chunks in English. One highlight and notably eerie exhibit was the blood stained outfit that the Serbian King Alexander was wearing in 1934 when he was assassinated in France. Yowza. We also learned that Serbia is the first country we’ve visited in Eastern Europe who did not align themselves with Germany during WWII and, while quickly succumbing to occupation, can boast an active war time underground resistance. The unfortunate result was a brutal bombing by the Germans in 1941 and then the Allies a few years later. The massive museum provided some interesting highlight, but I would argue that it was a bit too large.

The highlight of our day was a four hour bike ride through a company called “I Bike Belgrade.” A two-wheel tour that took us over a flat, scenic easy course with a pair of exceptional guides. It was nice to be on bikes and the ride was almost exclusively on bike lanes,  away from traffic.  Judging by the looks our group received, I think biking is a somewhat rare affair in Belgrade. The ride took us along the river, over to New Belgrade and back through the parks and waterfront. New Belgrade, built during the 1960’s, reminded us that no communist construction of the 20th century is ever going to win any awards for beauty. This was our kind of tour! An interesting way to see parts of the city that we never would have stumbled across otherwise. Combine that with knowledgable, easy going guides who give pertinent, interesting information at every turn. We learned that bombings from the 1999 Nato campaign were announced and targeted in advance. We learned that several bombed out buildings from ten years ago were left that way as a tourist attraction. We learned that communist leader Tito wanted to build a whole new Belgrade, so he filled in swamp land in the 1960’s. Brooke and I are innately curious about our new surroundings (to learn as much as we can has been one of the primary points of this whole trip), so it is wonderful when we find local people who love to talk about their own home city and answer all of our questions. Brooke loved chatting up our guide and getting the history of Belgrade and his opinions on regional politics.

The perfect shot from our night tourThe same company who organized our bike tour also has a “Nightlife Academy” which comes highly recommended.  Unfortunately, we were exhausted and thought a 4 hour pub crawl just might kill us.  Instead, we took a leisurely walk home, stopping for drinks and then separately for dinner.  Without realizing it, I essentially ordered a plate full of meat, and it seems almost impossible to order a meal here which isn’t 90% meat, 9% onion and 1% other.  Don’t get me wrong – the five different samples of pork, steak, chicken, lamb and sausage was delicious. I think tomorrow we will prepare a home-cooked vegetarian meal at the apartment where we are staying.  That will be a refreshing change!

-Phil

Home of the Military Museum

From our bike tour: this office building/apartment in New Belgrade was a coveted building in the 1980’s, now it’s a bit of an unoccupied eye sore.

As mentioned above, the blood stained clothes of a slain King from the Military Museum

Our reward for a long bike ride- the complimentary beer that comes with our tour! Bonus: this is the 200th photo of us with beer on our RTW Trip!

Categories: Bars, Beer, Differences, Eastern Europe, Eating, Museums, Self Guided Tours, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

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