Posts Tagged With: Budapest

And The Winner is….(Part 2)

Continuing on our post from yesterday, we’re reflecting back on our four month trip around the world and picking out some of our favorite stops and visits. Through a series of intense discussion, secret balloting and contemplative reflection, we’ve determined our top choices in a variety of categories. So, once again below are our Luggage Tag RTW Awards! It was a real challenge to hand out top honors, but here we go again with our remaining choices:

Luggage Tags  RTW Awards!

Best Public Transportation– Tokyo and throughout Japan–  This one was a no brainer. The rail system in Tokoyo and throughout Japan is efficient, clean reliable, modern and incredible expansive although not terribly inexpensive. With a system that includes the Tokyo Subway, Regional Rail and Long Distance Trains, there are hundreds and hundreds of stations and stops. A single train map usually does not do the job. One thing we love is that many of the train cars have unique options–there is a quiet car and an all female car on some trains for rush hour.  Announcements and signs are often given in three languages including English. If the trains weren’t enough to win us over, the passengers would be. As a rule, riders are incredibly polite. They even line up in an orderly way to board the most crowded train and rude behavior is rarely seen.  There really is no equal.

Best City-to-City Transportation  Once you place air travel in another category, we have a two way tie. The train ride from Zagreb to Munich finally fulfilled  expectations of what we had hoped for in a European train ride. Up to this point, our train rides in Eastern Europe had been on outdated trains, lackluster, and disappointing. Our overnight ride in a private sleeper to Germany was comfortable, state of the art and packed with amenities. We even had an attentive porter who brought us water and handled customs at the border. Phil spent a good chunk of the night excitedly peering out of the window watching the night landscape roll by rather than sleeping. And pulling into the massive Munich train station at dawn was a fun way to end the trip. The other winner is the bus ride from Buenos Aires to Mendoza. At first, memories of rides on Greyhound made us dread a 14-hour cross country bus ride. It turns out, it was probably more comfortable than sitting in our living room! Over sized seats that rival first class airplane seats mingled nicely with the service that included two meals, complimentary cheap wine, movies and even bingo, It all made for a great ride. If this kind of bus travel was more common in the United States, I think people might rethink their attitudes toward long haul bus rides! 

Best Local Beer– Munich  Shocking, I know. Since every country has their own national or local brew, we tried beer in every city we visited. But virtually all the beer we tried in Munich was simply better than the rest.  We particularly enjoyed the Hofbrau and Lowenbrau labels in all varieties, but they sure know how to do a Dunkel.  Strong and smooth.  Absolutely perfect with a pretzel and currywurst.  Yum!  We enjoyed beers all around the globe from the Quilmes in Argentina, to Carlsberg in Copenhagen and Asashi Ichiban in Japan, but few of them were particularly memorable.  We will give an honorable mention to some of the smaller breweries we tried in New Zealand and Bulgaria, but overall they paled in comparison to all beer in Munich.

There is no doubt – they make some really great beer in Munch

Most Beautiful Nature Setting- We have a split decision here. Actually, we have a no decision. This is likely the thing we get asked about the most. Brooke immediately said the Rila Mountains in Bulgaria, with the thick forest and rushing stream.  Phil was convinced it was the panoramic view from the top of Mt. Fuji.  But then, what about sunset in Dubrovnik or the view of the Adriatic?  The rock formations in HaLong Bay or the Waitomo Caves?  For that matter, what about all of New Zealand where they really earn the nickname of the “God Zone”? Honestly, we can’t even choose.

Bridal Veils in New Zealand

Most Beautiful City Setting- Budapest is tough to beat.  The architecture is absolutely beautiful. It has an old style, but in a classic sense, not like ruins which we saw in so many other Eastern European cities.  In addition, Budapest’s wide sidewalks lined with grand mansions and historic homes give the city a Parisian air.  Just around every corner was another stunning building. Toss in Buda Castle, Parliament and the Danube River as landmarks and it only gets better. What certainly stands out is that not a single building or monument is covered by spray paint.  How refreshing!  It is important to mention that we considered Edinburgh as the winner of this award, and it is a close second, but it has a grittiness (probably from all the rain and the fact that it is hundreds of years older) that Budapest is missing.

Budapest at night

Best Surprise–  Dubrovnik. We really didn’t know anything about Dubrovnik before arriving.  We learned that Croatia was part of the Serbian conflict, and we may have expected it to look more like Belgrade and Sofia.  Instead we found streets paved with marble and beautiful seaside views.  Wow and then some. The relaxed atmosphere, beautiful walk along the city walls and the historic nature of the entire city makes Dubrovnik the best surprise of the trip. Walking the city wall provided some of the best views and moments of the trip, hands down.

We could gush and ramble for hours about some of our favorite parts of our trip, but those are some of the  real highlights. As you might imagine, there are tons of categories we could have listed. Anything ranging from Best coffee, Best Weather, Best WiFi Availability, Best encounter with a local and more. But, we have to draw the line  somewhere. We also have our share of low lights (I’m looking at you, Belgrade restaurant who served us massively undercooked chicken kebabs), but we’ll save those for another day. So, if you have any questions about our “Best of” awards or if you have any additional categories you would want to see, just drop us a line and we’ll wax nostalgically about those as well!

–Brooke and Phil

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Categories: Beer, Best Of, City Visits, Exploring, Post Trip Reflections, Random Thoughts, Round The World Trip, Surprises, The End of our Trip, Trains, Transportation, Uncategorized, Unusual Experiences | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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

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

Beautiful Budapest!

Apologies for the delayed posting today! We try to get our new posts live every day by first thing in the morning, but sometimes our trip gets in the way! If you prefer to receive the updates via e-mail, feel free to click the link to the right to subscribe!

Good day from Budapest! I can summarize my impressions of Budapest in just two words: Insanely Beautiful. Good Goulash, this is an outrageouly gorgeous city! You can see it from the wide avenues to the stunning buildings along the Danube like the Royal Palace, Parliament and Saint Stephen’s Basilica. I’m in awe of some of our almost fake looking photos; they appear a bit as if we’re at a professional studio and we’ve requested the “Amazing European Background.” Grand buildings as far as the eye can see. And almost everything is in great shape. Maybe Budapest has a good chunk of money at its disposal for upkeep. Maybe its easier to keep a city in top form when it’s a couple of hundred years old instead of a couple thousand. We’re not sure, but we do struggle with the question, how many sensational buildings, statues, monuments, hotels, bridges and more can one city have? Walking around and craning my neck upwards, I am pretty sure I would give my left pinky to live in some of these apartments.

Looks at the nifty smaller door!At this point, it’s almost a certainty that five days won’t be enough time to see what we want to see. I know we’ve repeated that rallying cry in many city stops, but we really mean it here. Every time we look around a bit, talk to someone else or read something new  in the tour books, we realize that we could spend another week here. To be fair, it doesn’t hurt that we’re staying at the oh-so-fabulous Le Meridien (thanks again, Tom) – an absurdly nice hotel with arguably the perfect location in Budapest. The quality of our accommodations have ranged wildly on our trip thus far. One night, we find ourselves in an overpriced and extremely sparse hotel in Hiroshima, Japan where one must push a button in the shower every thirty seconds to continue the water flow and another night we’re soaking up  the splendor of Le Meridien where we have a bathtub that could comfortably hold an infant whale. Adding to the high class ambience of the hotel is the robe-clad delegation of Lebanese ambassadors we see at breakfast every morning. For the record, they love the omelet station.

Play the Violin like the wind!Yesterday, we continued to tour around the Hungarian capital with Gina and Tom, our friends from back home. Along with all the sightseeing, we’ve enjoyed meals and drinks all across the city. Since it’s considered very bad form to clink glasses while toasting, we’ve been enjoying several silent cheers where glasses are lifted and we all say “Shhhhhh!”  It’s been such a blast that we’ve decided that we’re going to get matching sets of tattoos: Brooke & I will get some ink on our arms that says “Buda” while Gina & Tom will have a corresponding permanent set that says “Pest.”  Getting around has also been easy because English is incredibly prevalent, at least in the Belvaros section of town . However, the locals do have a bad habit of answering questions with a muttered jumble of “yes..no…whatever.” A bit irritating when trying to ask about a menu item at dinner or try to figure out when the next bus arrives. Speaking of food, I was surprised to learn that Paprika, of both the sweet and hot variety, is the ubiquitous spice that is the national pride of Hungary. Paprika is a part of endless dishes and often present on the table as a condiment. Also, for the first time in our travels, our tipping dilemma has been solved when dining out; the bill on every single meal so far has included a mandatory service fee or tip of 10% to 15%. That’s a first.

The House of Terror- When the light shines through the stenciled awning, the word Terror appears on two sides!

Yesterday morning, we took a trip to the House of Terror – a museum built in the building that housed the Secret Police during most of the Communist era. Brooke and I have found that we’re really interested in taking in first hand accounts of European history between, say, 1938 and the late 1960’s. We’ve seen some interesting exhibits and museums dealing with modern history (I’m pretty sure I’ve seen so many pictures of Stalin, I can draw him in my sleep now), but this museum has topped them all. The museum details everything from the Budapest’s double occupation of the 1940’s (Germany and then the Soviet Union) to the frightening tactics of the secret police during the Soviet Era. Well designed rooms really painted a picture of the fear, paranoia and nature of living in the communist state through the 1950’s. Fascinating and horrible. Especially in the basement rooms that housed the re-creation of cells designed to break spirits and bodies. The museum might have benefited a bit from a bit more English, but there were English handouts in each room which expounded on things like propaganda and trials of “traitors”.  All in all, it is very powerful and helps to expose all that was done in secret. “Terror” is about the right word.

Nifty. Kind of. During the afternoon, we took a trip over to the Buda side of the city located in the hills of the former Buda Castle sight. Buda Castle is long gone, but we visited the underground labyrinth where the reviews were mixed. I thought the winding, endless ancient caverns that have been used for generations were interesting and fun to explore, while Gina and Tom thought the caves were boring, gave very little info about the history of the caves, and empty save some poorly made wax figures. But Budapest visitors beware! The more we read, we’re learning that the award-winning, top attraction, amazing caves closed in July 2011 and we might have been a bit duped into visiting a fly-by-night company that set up shop in the old caverns. It’s tricky – after all, who expects two sets of caverns? Outside, however, the views from the Fisherman’s Bastion were once again, sensational (lesson of the day: learning what a bastion is). We opted to spend our money on some afternoon drinks rather than pay the admission to walk the top of the overlook. We were serenaded with a three piece classical band (who later hit us up to buy their CD) and nice fall weather. We knew that we were smack dab in a touristy center when we saw three sets of violinists scattered throughout the hill top. Lucky for us, our tickets on the hop-on hop-off tour bus gave us a ride back to the hotel along with some quality new information about the city. A free ride and a city guide. Good stuff.

We have so much more to see and explore! And a big bowl of goulash waiting for me at dinner tonight. What’s next on the agenda?  Hungarian baths, memento park and more!

-Phil

Categories: City Visits, Europe, Hotels, Hungary, Tours, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Budapest with Friends!

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

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

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

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

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

–Brooke

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

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

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

Our wonderful friends, Gina and Tom.

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

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