Posts Tagged With: Europe

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 with Friends!

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

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

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

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

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

–Brooke

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

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

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

Our wonderful friends, Gina and Tom.

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

The Cruising Life

In order for us to quit our jobs and travel the world for almost four months we had to be very budget conscious. We write down everything we spend, we set limits to our spending and shoot for cheap accommodations whenever possible. We have now embarked on the most luxurious part of our trip: a cruise! That’s right, we are currently sailing the Baltic Sea. Three square meals a day, anytime of day. Workout facilities. More activities and entertainment than you can imagine. But most importantly, this cruise has allowed us to unpack our bags and turn our stateroom into our home for the next nine days. Nine nights in the same bed–a king sized bed. We are thrilled!

WarnemündeOur cruise left from Copenhagen heading to our first stop, Warnemünde, Germany. Never heard of it? Neither has anyone else. It is a small seaside town which is popular with locals during the summer and caters to cruise ships which frequently dock there. It is approximately a three hour ride in each direction from Berlin by train, so some people on the ship went to the German capital for the day. While this sounds great, traveling that much makes for a very long day. After seeing that Frommer’s Travel Guide has less than two pages worth of material on Warnemünde, we decided to spend a very small bit of time scoping it out, and then take the regional rail to nearby Rostock.

As with so many cities in Europe, Rostock has a very old feeling to it. We didn’t know much about the town and figured we would discover things as we went. As soon as we got off the train we spotted an old church in the center of town. It was definitely our find of the day. St. Mary’s Church was built in the 1200’s. It is beautiful and grand, and the best part is that it is still in use today. At the entrance to the church they make it clear that it is not museum, but a place of worship. They were fine with people walking around and taking pictures. There was an exhibit about the life of Jews in Germany from 1933-1945. It was all in German, but we got the gist We were even able to listen in on an orchestra practicing for an upcoming concert. The music filled the church and provided the perfect background for us.

Astronomical Clock!However, the biggest draw to St. Mary’s Church is its giant astronomical clock. This clock does more than just tell the time of day, it also gives the day, month, year, moon phase, and zodiac sign. What more could you possibly need? Over 400 years old, this clock is still wound by hand each day. At noon each day there is a procession of the Apostles on the clock (sadly, we missed that). The current dial only goes to 2017, however they will be able to replace that when the time comes. The only thing that wasn’t accounted for when the clock was originally built was daylight savings time. Twice a year they have to account for this time change.

We wandered around Rostock a bit more, watched kids play in the fountain and absorbed all the sights, sounds and smells of this small town. When it was time to head back to the boat, we opted against taking the short train ride back to Warnemünde and instead we chose to take a ferry up the river. We soon realized the ride was a cross between a sight-seeing tour (all in German) and a booze cruise. Since we couldn’t figure out if the drinks were part of the ticket or not, we abstained. All the Germans on board seemed to be having a marvelous time, shouting at other boats and toasting to their own happiness. The ferry helped demonstrate what a busy port both Rostock and Warnemünde really are. There were tons of ships–not cruise boats, but ferry’s, cargo boats and even some decommissioned military vessels. It was a great way to see these two cities from a new perspective.

Our time in both Warnemünde and Rostock was limited, but we don’t feel too bad about it since we will be back in Germany later on in our trip. Actually, we were eager to get back to the boat and our life of luxury. We ate delicious food, did terribly at some very difficult trivia and played some $5.00 Blackjack. Because it was my birthday, the casino bought a round of drinks fo the whole table and gave me a $25.00 chip to bet. Sadly I lost that hand, but we were ahead in winnings quite a bit by the time we walked out, so that always makes it more fun.

We could definitely get used to this cruising lifestyle. Our room gets made up 2 or 3 times a day. The casino is never far away. There is wonderful entertainment: last night we listened to one of the onboard entertainers do a set of Neil Diamond covers. He’s so good! He really does sound like Neil Diamond, gravelly voice and all. Besides the entertainment, we find that we are simply having a blast! On the days when we are at sea, it is like mandatory relaxation. There is no pressure to make the most of our time or to see as much as we can. It has been a nice change of pace.

Our next stop is Tallin, Estonia and then we head on to St. Petersburg, Russia. We are incredibly excited about both of these stops and can’t wait to share them with you.

–Brooke

Categories: Budget, Casino, City Visits, Europe, Hotels, Relaxing, Self Guided Tours | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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