Monthly Archives: February 2012

in the motherland

We’ve arrived in Prague!  I’m woefully behind on my travel-blogging, and the fact that our apartment doesn’t have WiFi is slightly troublesome.  Stay tuned for the end of our travels in Budapest and whatever we’ve done in Prague so far. 🙂

fun with sarah

Sarah’s here!

Sarah just got off a plane

She’s a stronger woman than I, because when I got into town, I immediately wanted to nap.  She opted to stay awake, so we stopped at the Tesco to get more forralt bor stuffs (it’s seriously becoming an addiction), and went to the apartment to make the wine and drop off her bags.

If drinking forralt bor every day is wrong, I don't want to be right.

The wine went into the thermos, and we took the thermos to Margit Island to enjoy the afternoon sunshine (and the unbelievable 50°F).  We didn’t get time to explore the Island really, since there was wine and sun to be enjoyed, but we did see the Centennial Monument.

The Centennial Monument

Wine and sunshine, as it turns out, do not mix well with jet-lag, so in an effort to keep our companion alive and with us, we moved on to our lunch destination: Marxim Pizzeria.

Having been to Statue Park and the Terror House, I found myself hesitant to fully enjoy Marxim at first.  I mean, everything I’d experienced up til this point solidified in my head the idea that Communism wasn’t funny.  And it wasn’t.  But I can appreciate dark humor and camp as much as anyone, so in short order I checked my guilt at the door.  And thank heavens, because this place is hilarious.

For one thing, the booths are lined with chicken fencing and barbed wire.

Working for the state of inebriation

Then there were the menus.

Not pictured: my selection, "Gagarin's Favourite", with smoked cheese and broccoli. (Just guess which one Jim ordered)

And then there’s just the overall aesthetic of the place.

And finally, there was the pizza, although in the throes of our revelry I completely forgot to take pictures of it.  But it was delicious.  And, true to the spirit of the place, we all shared.

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Fat Thursday

This is a story about the greatest holiday I’ve ever experienced abroad: Fat Thursday.

It was something we’d read about on multiple travel websites, and knew we wanted to explore when the time came.  Before feeding our bellies, however, we wanted to feed our minds.  We decided that meant a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, which involved a trip on the Metro 1 (yellow), the oldest line in Budapest’s underground transport system and the second-oldest underground transport in the world (after the Tube in London).  Riding it, with the jovial musical interludes that play on arrival at any stop as well as the flashing lights and loud buzzing sounds that occur as the doors close, feels a bit like riding a skeeball machine through town.  Definitely an experience.

Coming up from the Hősök tere station, we finally got to see Heroes’ Square.

Heroes' Square

We agreed to give it a longer look after we partook in some fine arts, and headed into the Museum.  It costs 1800 Ft per person to get into the permanent exhibit (we opted to skip Mummies Uncovered), but the woman at the counter only charged us for one admission.  Upon further review, it seems that 50% admission is given to European citizens under the age of 26, which means that a) our language skills don’t immediately betray us as Americans, and b) we look younger than 26.  Woo!

We happened into the Museum just as a free tour (in English!) was beginning, but we could only manage to stay with the tour for the first few paintings before we felt the need to venture on our own.  We meandered for a few hours, exchanging opinions on different works of art (Monet vs. Gauguin, why people pre-Renaissance couldn’t paint a decent pair of boobs, etc), before we felt we’d seen everything and were ready to get some fresh air.  We were also starting to get hungry at this point, which brings us to Fat Thursday.

so hungry...

Fat Thursday is similar to Mardi Gras, wherein leftover food from the Carnival season is feasted upon in anticipation of the fasting that will take place during Lent.  It exists in many countries throughout Europe, but the Hungarians go the extra mile by involving the Board of Tourism and offering 50% off your final bill at an extensive list of participating restaurants.  Jim had a copy of the list stored in his phone, which we consulted as we wandered through the city.  We had neglected to make reservations, so we crossed our fingers and hoped for fortune to smile upon us.  Our first stop was the First Strudel House of Pest.

We were seated, after a few moments of confusion, at a two-seat table right next to the man who makes the strudels.  In fact, he was probably three feet away from us, if not closer, and separated only by a piece of glass.

The Strudel Man is in the background, and that's as far away as he ever got from us.

We had originally intended to eat here, but the feeling we got from the staff was that we were just ahead of the Fat Thursday dinner rush, who presumably had the foresight to make reservations, so we opted for coffees and strudel in an effort to be quick.  Besides, being a mere few feet away from the Strudel Man as he worked had a disconcerting, zoo-like quality to it, and eating a full meal would’ve felt… uncomfortable.  So we settled our bill (two coffees and two strudels for US $3.50) and moved on.

Strudel Man does make a damn good strudel

After departing, we wandered in the general direction of home, aware of places that were participating in Fat Thursday but not really getting our hopes up about being able to participate ourselves.  Luckily, we happened by a cafeteria-style Indian place, Ganga, that was offering a full vegetarian dinner for US $3.50 in celebration of the “holiday”.

Three cheers for Fat Thursday!

Full of coffee, strudel, and now Indian food, we walked back to the apartment in a gustatory euphoria, glad to have been able to partake in such a glorious tradition.

THE STORY OF THE DARING LAUNDROMAT ESCAPE:                                                                         

One of the things I learned while packing for a six-week adventure is that it is absolutely ludicrous to attempt to pack six weeks’ worth of things to wear, which means that doing laundry, and hence finding a laundromat, is imperative.  Google informed us that there was a laundromat near-ish our apartment, which was fully outfitted with high-capacity washers and dryers, vending machines, coffee, internet, and a play place for children.  It closes at 10pm.  We finally had all our things gathered and were ready to leave by 9pm, which didn’t leave a lot of time in which to get it all done, but we figured we could at least get the stuff washed and deal with air-drying it or something later on.  We made some forralt bor, threw it in a thermos, and were on our way.

The laundromat was very hip and funky, and totally unmanned.  We put our load in, set the washer to its task, and settled in with our mugs of wine.  After the wash, we purchased ten minutes of drying time.  At this point, closing time was nigh, and we knew it, but we carried on.  As our ten minutes of dry time winded down, suddenly the front door (and, incidentally, the only door) made a very loud locking sound.  Jim and I exchanged glances, then said, “….Nahhhh.”

The dryer wouldn’t let us buy more time, it being 10pm at this point, so we started emptying our damp things into our bag.  Then the lights went out, and so did the internet kiosk (although the radio, for whatever reason, remained on).  We got the hint and packed faster.  Finally we were suited up and ready to leave, and went to do so… and the door wouldn’t open.  We pulled and pulled.  Nothing.  We were in a laundromat, in near-total darkness, with Hungarian radio playing overhead, and we couldn’t get out.

While Jim set to inspecting the mechanism of the door lock and how it might be taken apart, I went over to the play area and noticed a latch on the window.  One weak pull (mine) and one strong pull (Jim’s) and it swung wide open.  Freedom!  We hopped out the window, pausing in dismay at the realization that there was no way to close the window behind us, but ultimately deciding that it was the laundromat’s fault for locking us in.  We walked back home, mugs of wine still in hand, giggling hysterically at what had just happened and hugely relieved that we didn’t have to sleep on a laundromat couch and subsist on vending machine food.

Next post: Sarah’s here!

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sarah’s here!

We just fetched Miss Sarah from the airport, and we’ve gotten back to the apartment.  Forralt bor is on the make while we decide what to do with the afternoon.

Yesterday was Fat Thursday and Jim and I did some legitimate touring, so I’ll have pics and stories (including our heroic after-hours escape from an unmanned laundromat) coming soon.

half-hearted wanderings

Part of me is glad that, if we were going to have to be sick for any segment of this trip, it’s while we’re in the city we’ve previously visited.  On the other hand, our half-hearted wanderings don’t make for very interesting travel-blogging.  But we still try.

I hadn’t gotten to sleep until nearly 5am Monday, and so I slept in until about 11:30am.  My one order of business was to make it to a music store and get a microphone cable, since I’d meant to bring mine from the U.S. but cleverly grabbed a 1/4″ cable by mistake.  After some Google Map research, I decided the most likely place to have what I needed was Tajti-Music, near our old stomping grounds on Károly Körút.  Another preliminary search showed that the Hungarian phrase for “microphone cable” is “mikrofon kábel”.  Score!

So we walked there, went in, and found what I needed.  My tiny victory of the day was saying “mikrofon kábel” with such stunning accuracy that the man behind the counter answered back with a lengthy stream of Hungarian.  The blank stare I offered in response tipped him off to the fact that I had no idea what he had just said, which somewhat diminished my tiny victory, but without missing a beat he simply repeated what he’d said in English, which was to ask me what length I needed.  The rest of the transaction proceeded without incident, and in minutes we were ready for the next destination, which was– what else?– coffee.

Jim knew where he wanted to go, and led me down some adorable side streets to get there.  Before long, we came to a café that had some top-notch signs.

Donuts + rum. every. damn. day.

Speaks for itself, really.

As it turns out, this place with the awesome advertisements, Cafe Gerlóczy, was the exact place Jim was taking me to.  The signage belies the swank factor of the interior, which was decorated with marble and plants and lots of dark wood.  We sat down and took a look at the menu.  Jim went with the “tea menu”, which inexplicably involved no tea– rather, it was a choice of hot or cold chocolate, accompanied by pistachio cake and some kind of cream sauce.  I snapped a pic of his hot chocolate but the cake was gone before I could document it (I did get a bite, though– finom!).

Commence diabetic coma.

I went with a less indulgent pairing: café latte and a macaron.  I’ve been hearing the virtues of proper French macarons extolled with increasing frequency over the last few months, and once I saw that I had the opportunity to try one, I couldn’t say no.  Merci à Dieu that I didn’t, because it arrived on my latté saucer like a shy little ruby-encrusted secret.  How enchanting.

Enchantée, mon chèr.

After we were sufficiently indulged, it was time to walk a bit more.  We decided to hoof it over to Andrássy Út, Budapest’s biggest avenue and a World Heritage site.  My original intention was to walk to the end and see Heroes’ Square and City Park, but the avenue is quite long and so we never made it that far.  We did, however, take a gander at the lobby of the Opera House.

If the price list is to be believed, the lowest-tier opera ticket costs about US $2.50. We may have to see an opera while we're here.

After that, we continued on.  A few more blocks down the way, we came across a familiar site.

Terror House. Enough said.

Behold the Terror House, located at the former headquarters of the Hungarian Nazi (Arrow Cross) party, as well as the Soviet secret police. We won’t be going there this time; we’ve already been once before, and once was enough for me.  The museum is a palpable retelling of the horrors of the back-to-back Nazi and Communist occupations (they don’t call it Terror House for nothing), including a refurbished Soviet state car, the likes of which would be used to “disappear” dissenters in midnight raids, as well as a Soviet tank in the lobby.  Next to the tank stands a multi-story mural of all the faces that disappeared during the occupations.  The museum tour ends with the triumphant exit of the last Communist from Hungary in 1991, but that only comes after rooms and rooms of desperation and despair.  If you’ve never been, I highly recommend it– but plan to do something light-hearted and fun afterwards, because it is a bit of a mind-f*ck.

Once we passed the Terror House, we both decided it was time to head to the grocery store for more forralt bor makings, and then back to the apartment for dinner.  Soup and hot wine does wonders for the sick traveler, after all.  On the way home, I saw this sign, which summed up my feelings at that moment:


yeah. 🙂

That’s all for now!  Hopefully my next post will involve the words, “I’ve stopped coughing!”.  Cross your fingers.


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castle hill

It’s just after 9am.  As I write this, Django Reinhardt is playing on our alarm clock, and I am waiting for our adorable little percolator to make me an individually-sized cup of coffee.

oh god give it to me...

Such has become our morning routine: I get up, turn on some lights, make some coffee, and start in on my various writings, while Jim intermittently rises to snooze our Django alarm.  This will continue for the next hour or so.

Since Friday, I’ve started feeling a little under-the-weather as well, though not nearly to the extent that Jim has.  So far, all I’ve had to complain about is what I’ve diagnosed via Internet as mild bronchitis (slight burning in the bronchial tubes, light but occasionally painful cough).  This hasn’t helped us improve upon our departure time, as you might imagine, but we still manage to get out. Yesterday, we decided on an afternoon walk to Castle Hill.

We’ve been to Budapest once before, in December 2005, for about four days, and we visited Castle Hill then as well.  It’s absolutely gorgeous, and full of things to see.  From the Pest side of the Danube (or Duna as it’s called here), you can see the Palace, the Gothic spire of St. Matthias Cathedral, and many other steeples and eminences, all majestically set into the hillside.  Since we weren’t really going to have time to do any in-depth exploring this time around, we decided to turn it into a reconnaissance mission for when Sarah arrives, since it’s one of those places any first-time visitor has to see.

The Royal Palace as seen from the Chain Bridge

Once we crossed the bridge, we had to decide if we were going to buy tickets for the Funicular (or, as we’ve affectionately dubbed it, the “Fun Car”) or ascend the hill on foot.  We decided we needed the exercise, so we proceeded on foot.  Ahead of us, a group of people making the same trek turned off the main trail and disappeared into a wall.  Naturally, we followed, and it turned out to be a shorter way to the top, lined with very interesting graffiti.

Found this on the shortcut to the top of the Hill

Once we got to the top, we were greeted by another bird: the Turul.  The Turul holds an important place in the origin myth of Hungary.  As legend has it, the bird appeared first to the wife of the leader of the nomadic Magyar people in a dream, wherein she was symbolically impregnated by it and a great river began to flow from her womb, signifying that she would bear a son who would father a long line of  great rulers.  The Turul also appeared in another dream, to another Magyar leader, in which it rescued his people from attack and instructed them to migrate to what would eventually become Hungary.  The Turul represents the will of God, and it sits on the Tree of Life and carries the Sword of Attila (thanks, Wikipedia!).

The Turul Statue at Castle Hill

Once atop the Hill, we began to search for a place to get coffee (this seems to be a recurring theme with us).  The first place we found was Korona Cukrászda, a pastry shop near the National Gallery.  We sat down near a picture window looking out at the Palace and began to peruse the menu.  One of the specials listed was Forralt Bor– hot wine.

Context: On our last trip to Budapest, we’d spent one of our days at Statue Park just outside of town, and returned at the end of the day famished and exhausted and in search of a Mongolian Barbeque restaurant that was highly touted in our Lonely Planet guide book.  We ended up getting mega-lost, finding the restaurant only after they’d stopped seating for the night, and so we made the long trek from Buda back to Pest in the lowest of spirits.  Upon crossing the river, hungry and dejected, we turned a corner and stumbled onto a Christmas festival full of music, delicious street food, and– best of all– forralt bor in mass quantities.  It was then that we first fell in love with it.  So of course we ordered it now, with a slice of sour cherry strudel alongside.

yum yum yum yum yum

The service here was a little lacking– our clean plate and empty glasses sat for a good while before getting cleared away, and then it was another considerable chunk of time before it occurred to anyone to bring us the bill– but the wine was near perfection, and the strudel wasn’t bad either.

At this point, it had grown dark, and we decided to make our way through the district, down the hill, and back to the Pest side of the river by way of a different bridge.  The Castle district is lined with cobblestones and every road is flanked by unbelievably quaint and picturesque rows of houses and storefronts.  Once we left the busier sections, and descended into the residential hillside, the only sound was that of our footsteps on the cobblestones.  We weren’t exactly sure how to navigate our way out, but we were on an adventure, after all.  Once at the bottom of the hill, we found the river, and the bridge we needed to cross.  And then we saw this.

Parliament building at night

Suffice to say that Budapest at night is unrivaled in its luminescent beauty.  There are so many historic structures, all of which are lit up like a Christmas tree as soon as darkness settles.  It makes for a lovely backdrop on an evening constitutional.  The view from the bridge we crossed to get back to our side of the river wasn’t bad either…

Parliament to the left, Castle Hill to the right, and the Chain Bridge over the Danube in between

Such was our Saturday.  Today is Sunday and I have no idea what we’re going to do.  Jim is finally awake and showering, which is a sure sign we’re going to be out by noon, but our only destination so far is coffee-related (what did I tell you?).  After that, it’s anybody’s guess.

Til next time! 🙂

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our first real day

A lot has happened since Wednesday.  Well… that’s kind of true.

Wednesday was spent cramming Hungarian pronunciation into our brains (“sz” = “s”, “s” = “sh”, and so on); then in the late afternoon hours we walked down the main drag to a restaurant called Lugas which was recommended to us by our landlord.  We spoke meekly to our server, laying on the “köszönöm”s once she picked up on the fact that we don’t speak a lick of Hungarian and spoke back to us in English.  We still ordered in Hungarian, which was where the pronunciation crash course came in real handy.  Stuffed cabbage for me, falafel and fried rice for Jim, and whopping pints of Soproni Ászok for both of us.  I didn’t take pictures, sadly, but I think we’ll go back there again, in which case I won’t be so delinquent in my travel blog duties.

Thursday was another lazy day.  We didn’t even make it outside during daylight hours.  Perhaps in recognition of this fact, our Thursday evening priority was to get to a WiFi-enabled café to plan out what to do on Friday so that we didn’t waste another day in our (admittedly adorable) apartment.  After another walk down the main drag, we saw a pizza joint with the WiFi symbol in the window, and decided that we might as well have dinner since we were there.  Dinner was buffalo caprese and pizza with anchovies & capers, since we were feeling adventurous and neither of us had ever had anchovies before.  I can’t speak for Jim, but for myself, once was enough.  They’re very salty.

Friday, we resolved to go to the Museum of Fine Arts, which meant getting out of the apartment by noon.  We made it out by 1pm (baby steps, people).  On our way to the museum, Jim announced that he was suddenly famished and that our planned post-museum lunch outing should be bumped ahead in the schedule.  There was an Indian place nearby, and I love me some Indian food, so that’s what we did.  The first order of business was beer.

Pilsner Urquell tastes better here.

Once the beer was present and accounted for, the real task began.  Budapest is lovely in that, of the restaurants we’ve visited so far, the menus all tend to be in at least four different languages.  Usually one of said languages is English, but the presence of French or Italian guarantees my ability to have some idea of what I’m going for.  I opted for the Vegetable Madras, and Jim went with Vegetable Korma, and they were both amazingly delicious.

We didn't think to take the picture before we'd eaten some of it... sorry.

While we ate, Jim looked up the hours for the museum, and discovered that on Fridays it closes at 2pm.  Since it was already after 3pm at this point, we had to devise a Plan B.  I’d mentioned earlier that I wanted to check out the Ethnographic Museum (because I am a sucker for folk history), and that was open until 6pm, so we headed there.  Bonus: it’s across the street from the Parliament building, one of Budapest’s most recognizable architectural icons (and a personal favorite of mine).

There are better views of it from the river, but it's gorgeous from anywhere.

The “lobby” of the museum is covered in marble, and rather dark, which gave it a sort of haunted feel.  We could hear echoes of voices and footsteps off in the distance somewhere, but could see no one.  The folk history portion was great: lots of examples of primitive tools, beautifully embroidered clothing, archival footage of traditional holiday celebrations, etc.  Additionally we saw exhibits of artifacts from the Amazon and Oceania, as well as rooms upon rooms of handmade rugs.  Definitely worth the 1400 HUF.

A trip to the Spar for mulled wine makings capped off the day.  We’d planned to make more soup for dinner, but the Indian food tided us over for the entire rest of the day, and so we settled into the apartment Friday evening and didn’t do much else.

Can’t wait to see what Saturday will bring! 😀

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Getting there…

The concert was a success. 😀

On Monday, I woke up without the usual nervousness I tend to feel on Travel Day.  I put all of my things in suitcases, drank a copious amount of coffee, visited with my cousin who came by with her son to wish me well, and loaded up the car.  Originally my mom was going to drive me down to O’Hare, but our friend Dianna offered to chauffeur us instead, and so it was.

After lunch at the Lake Forest Oasis, we arrived at O’Hare with two hours to spare.  Mom came with me to check in, and then we hugged and said our goodbyes, and then I was alone.

My first solo international flight.  Seven hours, left to my own devices.  I must admit I was a little nervous about that.

As it turned out, though, I had nothing to be nervous about.  Seven hours isn’t really all that long a time.  One movie (Kinky Boots), two music documentaries (Hugh Laurie: Down By The River; Queen: Days of Our Lives pt. I), a smattering of TV shows (none worth remembering), two meals (one with free wine!) and  a few twenty-minute snatches of unsatisfying rest dotted throughout, and suddenly we were descending into Heathrow Airport.

This is when things got exciting… or at least as exciting as layovers can possibly be.

I landed at 7am GMT and had 1h45 to make it to my connection.  I don’t know why, but less than 2h to make a connection is always dicey, and this one especially so: our plane landed at Terminal 5, and my connection was at Terminal 3.  No big deal– except that Terminal 3 might as well be a separate airport.  In order to get there, I had to follow the signs for All Flight Connections which was a labyrinthine path to a tram which went only to the far end of Terminal 5, at which point it was up two long escalators and down one short flight of stairs to a bus which took 10 minutes to traverse the expansive tarmac to Terminal 3, after which was a security checkpoint which meant waiting 15 minutes before taking off the coat/sweater/boots, unpacking the laptop, grabbing enough bins for everything, getting severely confused when the security guard referred to the bins as “trailers”, clearing security, and reassembling myself as quickly as possible.  Once sufficiently recombobulated, I resumed my epic journey.  Finding my flight on the TV screen, I was alarmed to see that its status was “CLOSING”.  Gate 24.  I started to jog.  Gates 1-42 were this way, so I followed the signs, turned a corner, and WHAM!  Suddenly I was in the middle of a shopping mall, staring at the food courts and the neon sign for Tiffany & Co.  I was momentarily stunned.  Where was I, and more importantly, where was my plane?  Shaking off my temporary disorientation, I turned another corner to find the hallway leading to Gate 24… except all I could see were gates 23 and 25.  A light jog down the automatic walkway finally delivered me to my gate, and I sat down in the terminal, relieved that I had made it.  Except there was no plane out the window; it was another bus.  We were delivered by several busloads to our plane, which we boarded by way of rolling staircase.  One hour and forty-five minutes, and I didn’t even have time to grab so much as a cup of coffee.

But the important thing is that I made my connection.  Plus I was actually able to get a little more sleep on this two-hour flight than I had on the seven-hour flight, and I deboarded in Budapest and cleared customs with nary an issue.

Jim came to fetch me.  The poor man was (and is) sick as a dog.  He led me to the bus which would take us to the Metro, which in turn delivered us to within a few blocks of our apartment.  We stopped for some sparkling water (a new obsession for both of us, which we discovered separately) and proceeded to the apartment, which is super cute.  After that, it was battling jet lag for me, and fighting off the plague for Jim.  We went to the local Spar to get instant soup and bread for dinner and spent the rest of the evening watching an episode of the BBC’s Sherlock, before drifting off to bed.

Now here we are, on our first full day in Budapest, and we’re just about ready to leave the apartment and venture off into the city… at 4pm.  Oh well.  After today, I’ll be less jet-lagged, and he’ll be less horrendously ill, so maybe we’ll be able to get out before noon.  Or maybe that’s hopelessly optimistic.  I guess we’ll see.


Time sure is a-flyin’.  I was trying to pack, but packing more than a couple days out always seems a little like shoveling mid-snowstorm: lots of energy expended that will ultimately end up achieving nothing.  So instead of packing, I’m now trying to clean my room and organize what’s staying behind.  Trouble is, what’s going and what’s staying are intermingled, so if I’m trying to clean, I can’t help but also pack.  So I’ve taken a time-out, to write in my travel blog.

I found out a few days ago that my best pal Sarah bought a ticket to come hang with us in Budapest, and then travel with us to Prague. Sarah is an exceptionally wonderful traveling companion.  When Jim was living in Buenos Aires a few years back, she and I flew down to visit him (and a few other friends who just happened to also be there).  We cracked jokes and sang songs the whole time.  We used to be roommates, which is how I was sort of able to tell that she’d be a good travel buddy.  She is fearless in new situations, and pretty much always has a good attitude, which are invaluable traits to possess in foreign and forever-changing surroundings.

I’m throwing a Going-Away House Concert tomorrow night, and there’s a lot of work to do on that front, which means I need to get this mother-f#(%@^ing packing done.