Category Archives: food

Budapest At Last

With our arrival into Budapest, the city in which our six-week journey began, came the sad notion that in three days it’d all be over and I’d be heading back to the U.S.

Our train rolled into the station at about 8:20am.  The same station that had been chilly and dusted with snow when last we saw it was now warm and dry, bathed in the morning light of spring.  It’s amazing the difference four weeks can make.

The first order of business was to get to our flat.  Our last Budapest apartment had been on the north end of Pest, near Margit Island, and I was hoping to be near there again to revisit our old stomping grounds.  This new place, while still in Pest, was a little further south.  I was just a tiny bit disappointed by this news until we got there and saw that it was directly on the Danube, across from Gellért Hill.

I could definitely get used to leaving my apartment and looking at the Danube every morning.

Opening the door to this every day? Yes please.

We were shown inside by the Russian landlord, who spoke as little English as we did Russian (or Hungarian, for that matter).  Somehow the language barrier was overcome, he bid us good day, and we were left to settle in to our new, albeit extremely temporary, abode.

Budapest, hayyyyy!!

After a round of showers, we hit the streets.  Jim had to see about a Hungarian SIM card for his phone (since he’d be staying another week or so after I’d leave), so he went to do that and I wandered the little street fair happening nearby.  The little row of stalls was book-ended by kürtőskalács stands that I wisely resisted (for reasons I’ll explain later).

Jim finished up his SIM card business and joined me in my wandering.  We stopped at our beloved Hummus Bar for falafel sandwiches, and ate them on a park bench in the sunshine, and then wandered some more.  Technically I’d now been to Budapest three times, and yet this was the first time I got to experience it in something other than bitter winter cold.  Appropriately enough, I was just beginning to revel in this realization when we wandered straight into the Budapest Spring Festival.

Complete with music!

What made this an even more amazing happenstance discovery was the fact that this was the very square upon which we stumbled back in December 2005, when we were exhausted, famished, and frozen to the bone.  We had walked fruitless miles in search of a Mongolian BBQ place in Buda only to be turned away, and by the time we crossed the river we were in extremely sad shape.  Turned the corner and– surprise!– a Christmas festival was going full-swing.  The air was alive with music and the smell of delicious food being cooked on grills in mass quantities.  It was the most fortuitous, magical thing.  Now, we got to repeat the experience of stumbling unawares onto a seasonal festival, on the very same square, but in lighter spirits and with better weather.  Full circle!

The Spring Festival egg, symbolizing the fertility of the season. Anyone can draw on it!

We heartily partook in some local delicacies…

…and politely declined some others.

At this point in the day, we’d already exhausted our second and third winds, and decided to walk the short distance back to the flat, rest up a bit, and return to the fair for dinner.  Rest we did– we slept on until dark.  Consequently, when we finally awoke neither of us felt like going out, but we also didn’t have any food at home.  If we wanted to eat, we couldn’t avoid leaving the flat.

So we walked back to the fair.  It was a gorgeous evening, only requiring a light jacket, and off in the western sky, the moon’s forecasted dalliance with Jupiter and Venus was taking shape.

The cosmic ballet goes on…

The difference between the daytime festival and the nighttime one was palpable.  The daytime festival had a relaxed feel, with musing tourists casually scoping out peasant shirts and jewelry to the inviting sounds of Hungarian folk music.  The nighttime festival’s vibe was louder and edgier, and the folk music was replaced with something a little more mainstream (think American hits from the ’80s & ’90s but sung in Hungarian).  Ordering food was downright chaotic.  You wait in one of several lines and a cook asks you what you want.  You say all the things– or, you shout them, because there are twenty cooks and they’re all taking orders and everyone is shouting.   Once they get your order, they put it all on a plate and set it next to the cashier, amid the dozens of other plates belonging to the people loosely aligned in front of you.  Because things are moving so quickly, plates get grabbed out of turn all the time.  Add a language barrier to the mix and it’s mayhem.  The guy in front of me was Italian and ordering for himself and the four other members of his family.  He got some of his plates, but some had gotten grabbed by other cashiers and had to be remade.  Then he tried to pay in euro when the stand only accepted forint.  And he didn’t speak Hungarian and they didn’t speak Italian and neither party spoke much English.  Eventually they directed him to an ATM and he left, suitably apologetic, to go fetch the correct currency.  I took my plate and paid without incident, relieved beyond words to be done with the whole experience.

Jim joined me with a couple of Sopranis, which I’d developed a fondness for, and we ate our food and drank our beer and tapped our toes to the Hungarian lyrics of “Tainted Love”.  It was different, but it was fun.

On the way home, we felt a feeling that we hadn’t had since Prague: the feeling of Oh my God, what did we eat and why did we eat so much of it??  It turns out that we had officially crossed the threshold into a land where there is such a thing as too much sausage and potatoes.  Up until this point, I had excused our indulgences with a wave of my hand and a “When in Rome…”, but now it was becoming apparent that we were going to die in Rome if we didn’t knock it off.

*          *          *

The next morning, I woke up and walked around our neighborhood in search of coffee.  I found a cafe on Vací Ut that served Segofredo, but not very well.  Resigned, I took the coffees and reported back to our flat.  Jim had been keeping up a job this entire time and needed to spend a portion of the day dedicated to work.  I decided that I would work, too; I grabbed my ukulele and headed back to Vací to do some busking.

Vací Ut is the posh shopping street, just inland from the Danube on the Pest side.  Toward the southern end, the H&Ms and the New Yorkers fade into cafes and restaurants.  I picked an empty storefront (my usual M.O., since people seem less likely to mind) and set up camp.  As I launched into “Dear Prudence”, I recalled my Polish tour guide friend who reminded me that the Polish were a sad people and wanted sad songs.  I hoped that Hungary was a little less morose.

One thing I love about busking, more than anything, is watching people.  As I was singing one song, two bro-ish dudes were passing by and one feigned kicking my tip jar over.  In my head, I made a mental note of them (“Beware the bro in the blue shirt”), and they walked on and disappeared into the crowd.  An hour or so later, they returned, and I kept my eye on Blue Shirt Bro in case he wanted to kick and not miss this time.  Instead, he threw some money in the jar.  Instant redemption.

Another great moment involved an Indian man and his maybe 5-year-old little boy.  They walked past me slowly, and the little boy stopped directly in front of me and just stared, awestruck.  His father, unaware, kept walking.  After 20 paces or so, dad realized his son had fallen behind and called for him.  The boy turned toward his dad, with exasperation all over his face, and gestured toward me as if to say, “Dad, clearly I am busy watching this.”  This happened three times before the dad had to walk over and take his son by the hand to lead him away.

At one point, a Hungarian couple approached me, because the man was curious to know what I was playing.  His English was on par with my Hungarian, so there was a lot of gesturing involved.  He ultimately ended up calling the ukulele my “kicsi guitar”; “kicsi” being Hungarian for “little”.  I’ve lovingly referred to my uke as such ever since.

As daylight was beginning to fade, I was beginning to fade as well.  Just about the time I was thinking of packing it in, two girls came and sat down to listen.  Well, I thought, I’ve got to keep going now.  So I kept playing, in between talking with them.  One of the girls was from Germany, and she bought a CD.

After another half hour or so, I packed it in.  Dusk was coaxing the streetlights awake, and Jim was at a cafe nearby awaiting my arrival.  I grabbed up my things and made my way to him.  We had a beer to celebrate our productive day, and then went home so I could count my winnings.

Ka-ching!

*          *          *

The next morning, we got up and out of the flat in search of breakfast.  It was my last day in Budapest– my last day in all of Europe– and we wanted to spend it doing some Budapest-y things we’d never done before.  First item of the day was to be breakfast, which we ultimately couldn’t find.  So we wound up back at the Spring Festival, eyeing up the kürtőskalács that I had resisted earlier.  The reason?  Each one was easily a pound of pastry.  After some deliberation, we opted to split one, and in retrospect it’s ridiculous that we even had to think about it.

SERIOUSLY.

We couldn’t finish it so I put it in my bag for later.  The plan after that was to bum around the festival for a couple hours, and then hike up Gellért Hill, see what that was like, and make the hike back down to the Gellért Spa just in time for their prices to go down.

The hike up was lovely.  The woods were giddy with springtime, all chirping birds and buzzing insects, with the sun dancing playfully behind the budding trees.

Spring is here!

St. Gellért, for whom the hill is named, is credited with bringing Christianity to Hungary.

The view from the hill.

We made it to the top without too much effort, although the consequences of all that sausage-and-potato livin’ was making itself known.  It felt good to walk up a hill.  Of course, it helps when the top of the hill has this:

The Liberty Monument was erected in 1947 to commemorate the defeat of the Nazis by the Soviets. Originally a Soviet soldier stood at the base of it, but after the fall of Communism, the soldier was removed and taken to Statue Park.

The top of Gellért Hill was populated with kissy-faced teenagers and tourist groups, all lolling about together in the lazy sunshine.  We perused the souvenir shops (I was eyeing up Hungarian folk dresses for my infant niece, which I ultimately decided against) and we contemplated buying admission into the Citadel until we checked the time and decided it was time to head down the hill to the Spa instead.

The view on the way down. The cross is the Cave Church, which we visited with Sarah.

Since gravity was working with us this time, we ended up making it to the bottom of the hill way sooner than expected.  The prices drop at 5pm, and we still had twenty minutes to kill.  The Spa is part of the Gellért Hotel, which also features a cafe, so the logical decision was to grab a coffee and sit on the patio.  For some reason, we couldn’t sit on the patio, so we sat inside a dining room that was decidedly Cupcake-Palace-esque, all pink with gold accents everywhere.  I ordered a cream pastry, which I’d wanted to do ever since Jim ordered one at Ruszwurm.

Eating healthy is for suckers.

Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about the cafe, besides the pastry, was the piano player.  An older gentleman with graying hair, he was clearly used to the high-tea set who pay little attention to the ambient music, and he was very clearly enjoying himself nonetheless.  I was entertained by his patent amusement, and once he noticed me noticing, he would wink or cock an overly theatrical eyebrow in my direction every so often.  Occasionally I would recognize the tune (“Piano Man” by Billy Joel was one of them) and I’d start singing along in between bites of pastry; this would elicit a head nod or a fleeting smile.  After a few tunes, we had finished our afternoon snack and got up to make our way to the spa.  The piano man nodded to us as we walked past him to exit.  He never said a word.

We headed into the hotel lobby, and went to buy spa tickets.  Jim had practiced what to say in Hungarian, which the lady at the desk answered with more Hungarian, which we answered with blank stares (this was actually a really common problem everywhere we went; in an attempt to speak the local language, we were often mistaken as native speakers.  The actual native speakers would become aware of this after talking for a couple minutes and watching our faces go blank, and they’d have to answer us in English anyway, which was what we set out to avoid in the first place.  Best-laid plans and all that…. but I digress).  After the lady explained in English that the spa would be closing early today, we were handed our entry bracelets, which looked like watches with no faces.  The bracelets allowed you to enter the turnstyle into the locker rooms, and they were also the key to your locker, which I absolutely could not figure out until some kind German girls showed me how to get it to work.

The baths were pleasant.  We stayed mostly in the thermal bath, although occasionally, just for perspective, I’d run into the cool effervescent baths for a quick moment.  It was nice to take it easy on my last day, and nicer still to be able to cross off “Gellért Baths” on our list of Things We’ve Done In Budapest.

After we dried up and headed out, we had an hour or so before our dinner reservation, so we strolled across the river, passing the last of the kürtőskalács between us.  Dinner was going to be interesting.  Remember Fat Thursday?  Well, Budapest was at it again.  In honor of Restaurant Week (seriously, I love the Hungarians), a whole list of restaurants was offering a fixed-price three-course meal for the US equivalent of $15.  Most of the restaurants from Fat Thursday were again represented during Restaurant Week, so we were eager to get a second chance to try one out.  We settled on Kárpátia, based on three criteria:

  1. It was the kind of stuffy, upscale place we would never go to, especially if we had to pay full price.
  2. It promised authentic Hungarian fare, accompanied by live gypsy music.
  3. I really liked the name.

We arrived with our reservation confirmation in hand (because without it, you don’t get the prix-fixe– they’re sneaky like that).  We were sat in what I presume was the Restaurant Week section, where the view to the music was obstructed by the pillars that separated us from the rest of the place.  No matter.  We ordered beers and perused the menu.  I had a little crisis because the main course I wanted (trout caught from Lake Balaton, with vegetable pearls in a cream sauce) came with an appetizer that featured veal.

Now, here’s the deal.  I’d never eaten veal before, and already knew I objected to the eating of baby animals who never had a chance to have a real life.  But I ordered it anyway.  Part of me was like, “You should try everything once before you decide you hate it”, and who knew– maybe I’d realize it was unbelievably delicious and the widespread eating of veal would suddenly make sense to me.  I secretly knew that wouldn’t happen, but whatever.  I ordered it anyway.

When it came out, it was presented with a steaming side of shame.  I tried it, and it was good, but not good like “I-would-kill-all-baby-animals-if-they-were-this-delicious” good.  And the shame kind of ruined it for me.  Growing up in Wisconsin, I’d seen little calves tied up in their dog kennels, forced to do nothing so their muscles remain tender enough to make it in the veal market.  So there you have it, the first and last time I’ll ever eat veal.

Moving on to the trout with vegetable pearls, which was what I was truly after:

Right?  YUM.

While we ate, the gypsies were going from table to table, taking requests.  Someone requested the habanera from Carmen, someone else requested the Blue Danube.  At one point, Jim leaned over and said, “You see what they’re doing, right?”

The gypsies would play the requested song, and then wait at the table for a tip.  This, for whatever reason, made me feel really awkward.  Perhaps it was because I suddenly felt like prey; once they spotted you and came to your table, you were obligated to suggest a song, and then obligated to pay for it.  I just wanted to enjoy my last night in town, with my boyfriend, and no social obligations.  Besides, I couldn’t for the life of me decide what song I would request.  Consequently, we tried to make ourselves as invisible as possible, and it worked.  We finished our meal, paid our bill, and left without incident.

So Kárpátia wasn’t the greatest.  It was good, though, and that was enough.  And, like Gellért Spa, we could now cross it off our list.

We ambled back to our flat, looked at the planetary conjunction, headed inside.  I finished up my packing and we stayed up way too late, because neither of us wanted it to be over.

*          *          *

The next morning, I would have to get up at 5:15am in order to catch the metro that would take me to the bus that would take me to the airport.  Jim would accompany me until check-in, and then he’d stay behind in Budapest for another week, before moving on to Milan.

Leaving is never easy, and leaving your love behind is harder still.  As the plane took off from Ferihegy Airport, I could see the Danube from my window, and the monuments and buildings of central Budapest.  I found Gellért Hill, and thus the approximate location of our flat.  I saw all the places that were so huge in my memory, now just tiny toy replicas below.  Jim’s down there somewhere, I thought, as I settled in for the short ride to London.

I suffered the same harrowing misfortunes coming back through Heathrow as I did the first time around, but this time, because of a baggage issue, I actually had to clear customs in order to re-claim my carry-on (that is a really long story involving a lot of hysterical crying on the part of yours truly, so we’ll skip it for now).  The bright side of that, besides the fact that I made my connection even after having to claim entry into and out of the UK, is that I got an extra stamp in my passport.  Hooray!!

*          *          *

And there you have it.  Six weeks of wandering (and eating and drinking) through central and eastern Europe.  It was an amazing experience, unlike anything I’ve ever done before, and I couldn’t have done it without the support of my life-partner-in-crime, my parents, my sister and bro-in-law, all the wonderful people who came to my going-away house concert, and the awesome folks we connected with once we were abroad.  This is your story as much as mine, so thank you.  For everything. 🙂

Until the next adventure, this is Ramble On, signing off-

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Do Widzenia, Kraków

We came back from Oświęcim in surprisingly high spirits.  Jim supposed that to some degree we were incapable of fully experiencing the horrors we had just seen; or perhaps we were subconsciously steeling ourselves against the tremendous sadness.  Whatever the reason, it was a pleasant surprise.  We decided to dine that night at a vegetarian restaurant in Kazimierz called Momo Bar, but they were closed when we arrived, so we walked around the corner to Manzana.

After our delightful experience with “Czech-Mex”, I was excited to try its Polish iteration.  Upon entering Manzana, I was immediately aware of how “Western” the attitude was here.  For one thing, the waitstaff was impeccably attentive, which was actually rather jarring after almost six weeks of the kind-but-distant European table service we’d gotten used to.  For another thing, the silverware was given to us rolled up in our napkins, instead of in a basket.  It’s the little things, I guess.

We started with an order of Mexican pierogis, which were deep-fried and served in a very pretty bucket.

Yum-o!

Since everyone seems to love the food pics, here’s the rest of what we had:

This was my vegetarian quesadilla. Ordinarily I try not to order things at restaurants that I can make pretty well at home, but I couldn’t say no to this one.

This is Jim’s goat cheese enchilada with salsa verde.  Note the fork shadow; I literally stopped him mid-bite to get the picture.

The next day in Kraków would be our last; we had tickets back to Budapest on a train that left at 10pm that night.  Originally I had wanted to take a day train because the route from Kraków to Budapest goes through the Carpathian mountains, which I really wanted to see.  However, upon closer review, the trains don’t go through the mountains at all– only the buses do.  A bus trip didn’t sound nearly as nice as a train trip, mountains or no.  Plus, as Jim rightly pointed out, a night train would save us the cost and hassle of trying to find an extra night’s accommodations.  So, night train it was.

We woke up the next morning, finished packing, and headed out of our flat one final time.  Our plan was to catch a tram back to the north side of the river, find a breakfast spot, and get to the train station wherein we would leave our bags while we wandered around for the rest of the day.

Spring had suddenly arrived in Poland, and the heavy down coat I’d been sporting for the last six weeks became completely unnecessary.  The city was alive with people enjoying the turn in the weather, and we decided an outdoor breakfast spot would be ideal.  As soon as we crossed into Kazimierz, we spotted Café Młynek.  It’s a bed-and-breakfast spot, but luckily the breakfast part is open to the public.  We sat our bags down and perused the menu: simple fare, perfect for breakfast al fresco.

Various cheeses, vegetables, bread, scrambled eggs, fresh-squeezed OJ, hot coffee…. the breakfast of champions.

After breakfast, we made it to the train station to deposit our bags in one of their storage lockers.  The plan was to visit an architecture exhibit at the Kraków Bunker of Art (hands-down the best name for a contemporary art museum ever).  Then Jim had to do some work and I decided to busk on the Old Town Square once again.

There’s my busking face again. St. Mary’s is behind me.

I did all right again.  This time, I took into account what the tour guide had said about the Polish being a sad people, and I tried to play as many sad songs as the ukulele could handle.  People leaned out their windows to hear me, and the folks going by in hansom cabs seemed to enjoy it, so that made me feel good.  After an hour or so, I decided to go meet up with Jim at Castor Coffee Club on the Square.  My throat was pretty sore and I had my heart set on ice cream.  Castor Coffee Club did not have ice cream, but they did have a killer mango smoothie, and after counting up the tiny Polish money I had earned, I had just enough to get one.

Tiny Polish money. The waitress was not amused.

From there, we decided we had to eat dinner at a traditional Polish restaurant; we’d avoided it thus far because of our experiences with traditional Czech food, but this would be our last chance.  Jim suggested Chimera, just on the other side of the Square from where we were.  Personally, I found the name horrifying, but the menu seemed all right, so we went.

Chimeras!

The restaurant was down a long set of stairs, in a cool and rustic cavern.  The aesthetic fit the meat-and-potatoes fare we were to be provided.  We started the meal off with a gorgonzola-stuffed pear.

Heaven on a plate.

As for main courses, I opted for grilled meat with grilled vegetables.  Jim went with a platter of various vegetarian dishes, though he did help me finish the meat that I couldn’t finish on my own.

Mine.

Jim’s.

After the meal, which looked pretty but (aside from the pear) was rather mediocre, we checked the time and decided it was time to head to the train station.  As you may recall, the train station is connected to the shopping mall, and the shopping mall houses what quickly became our favorite coffee shop in Kraków, called TriBeCa Coffee.  We still had some time to kill, so we stopped in for one last cup: flat white for me and Americano for Jim.

Very true.

After our coffees, it was officially time to board our train.  This was to be my first experience in a proper sleeping car, and I was beyond excited.  The room was tiny, and the top bunk (which I claimed) was only accessible by ladder, a point that was lost on me until I realized how tricky it would be once the train started moving.  Live and learn, I guess.

Someone is ready for bed.  Or screaming to be let out of confinement.  One of the two.

Although we’d be sleeping while it happened, I was overjoyed to know that the train would be stopping in Prague and Vienna on its way to Budapest.  We rocked off to sleep shortly after the train left Kraków.  The alarm was set for 7:30am, and we’d be pulling into Budapest a little after 8am.  The trip was about to come full circle, a bittersweet realization.  On the one hand, I love Budapest so much and was so happy to go back; on the other, I was so not ready to go home and leave Europe and my love behind.  We still had three full days to spend reveling, though, so for now it was time to drift off to sleep while the train carried us around the mountains and back to Budapest.

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Kraków!

Kraków is the final city on my tour (save for a few bonus days in Budapest before I leave), and to be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I was fairly sure it wouldn’t be quite as well-trod as the more touristy areas of Prague, but aside from that, I was going in blind.  And I was kind of excited.

Our train pulled into the station after dark.  The Kraków station is attached to the mall (?), so we hauled our bags in to look for a place to catch a WiFi signal so that we could touch base with our hostess.  The opportunity presented itself as soon as we entered, in the form of Loża Cafe.  We sat our stuff down, and I got to speak my first words of Polish (dwa piwo, proszę) to a very understanding waitress.

Upon achieving Internet access, and mapping out our destination, a cloud was gathering on Jim’s brow. “I think this place is further out than I was expecting.”

As it turns out, it was deep, wayyyy deep in the suburbs.  It took us well over an hour on two different modes of transportation to get to the place; as we passed the time crammed into a tiny light rail car with four dozen other passengers, the stark reality of the situation became apparent.  Neither of us care for the suburbs in our daily lives, but especially when we’re trying to experience new major cities, living on the outskirts of town is horribly inconvenient.

Suffice to say, we got to the place, which was in a sprawling, nondescript apartment complex that could’ve been in any suburb anywhere.  We met our hostess, who was very nice.  We spent the night there, both tacitly aware that we had to get out of this arrangement as soon as possible.

The next day, we bailed on the suburbs and booked a room at the Aston Hostel, which was a seven-minute walk away from the Main Market Square.  Much, much better.

By the time we got settled in our new room, it was approaching the dinner hour, and so we headed out to Mamma Mia Trattoria.  Once we sat down, my eyes instantly fixed upon the smoked-salmon-and-avocado pizza (that also had rocket on it, because rocket is as ubiquitous throughout Europe as Ikea furniture, as it turns out), and try as I did to consider other offerings on the menu, my mind had already been made up.

Yum-o!

The service was great, and once again the waitstaff was exceptionally forgiving of our entry-level Polish skills.  (Thankfully, it’s similar to Czech in a lot of ways, so we at least had that working in our favor.)

The next day started with Irish breakfast.  I’ll just skip the backstory and get right to the picture.

Behold!

After a leisurely meal (because anything quicker than “leisurely” would have certainly resulted in cardiac arrest), we set out for Wawel Castle.  On the way, I got caught up looking at scarves and imported jewelry, and while I was indisposed, Jim went and did this.

It’s called “gorące czekolady”, which Jim had imagined to be hot chocolate, and I guess in a technical sense he was right.  It was hot, and it was definitely chocolate.  A 12-oz cup full of liquid chocolate.  When I found him outside holding it, I burst out laughing, it was that ridiculous.  In the end, what you see is about how much of it we managed to drink before handing it off to a homeless woman.

We walked the rest of the way down the street until we hit the castle.

A turret at Wawel Castle.

Wawel Cathedral.

The compound was beautiful, but I’m going to be totally honest: at this point we were a little castle-and-cathedral’d out.  After a turn through the Wawel Cathedral, we debated that very point, with Jim steadfastly maintaining that he never wanted to set foot in one again, and me appreciating the historical significance of the castles and cathedrals as they pertain to wherever I am at the time, but largely agreeing that the cathedrals in particular are rather a “seen one, seen ’em all” kind of thing (the one exception, in my mind, is the Church of Our Lady of Victory in Prague, which houses the Infant Jesus, the story of which we found fascinating).

Once we’d come to terms with our opinions on castles and cathedrals, we moved on towards Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of town which sits on the bank of the Vistula  River.

The pedestrian bridge linking Kazimierz and Podgórze over the Vistula River.

I wasn’t yet aware of the history of the area, but I would soon find out that leading up to World War II, the Jews who lived in Kazimierz were forced across the river into Podgórze, where they awaited deportation to the concentration camps.  But all that in time.

Our third full day in Kraków was full of wonderful things.  First, we realized our hostel was a block away from Stary Kleparz, an open-air market packed with produce, clothing, bakery, various odds and ends (for example, we couldn’t find a plug adapter anywhere in Prague for less than US $30, and yet this market had dozens for about $.66)… really great stuff.  I highly recommend a stop here.

Stary Kleparz.

From there, we walked to the Main Market Square.  The street that our hostel is on leads directly to it, and when you enter, you come face-to-face with St. Mary’s Basilica.

St. Mary's Basilica

I think that, out of all the cathedrals and castles we’ve seen on this trip, St. Mary’s might be my favorite (perhaps because we never saw the inside).  I think what I really love about it, besides the stately way in which it presides over the Square, is the asymmetry of the towers; after the mirrored towers of Sts. Peter and Paul, St. Vitus, and Our Lady Before Týn, I found St. Mary’s to be a refreshing change of pace.  Perhaps most interestingly, every hour a trumpet signal (better known as hejnał mariaki, or Cracovian hymn) is played from the taller tower, and cuts short before it finishes.  According to local legend, this is in remembrance of a guard in the 13th century who sounded an alarm to warn of the impending attack on the city by the Tatars; he was allegedly shot in the throat by an arrow before he could finish the tune, which is why to this day the signal stops so abruptly.

If you wander around Old Town for more than five minutes, you’ll notice the plurality of kebab stands surrounding you.  We initially took notice to keep track of which ones serve falafel, but there was something else we started noticing signs for: zapiekanka.

Zapiekanka is a cheap (and, judging by how readily it can be found, very popular) street food item in Kraków.  You begin with a baguette, sliced in half length-wise.  Then you cover it with mushrooms and cheese.  Then you bake it, and once it’s baked, you pour ketchup on top.  Upon learning about it, we decided we had to try it at least once, and today was going to be the day.

This is for real.

I can’t speak for Jim, but as for me, one was enough.  One was more than enough, actually; those things are huge. 🙂

That’s all for now– more Kraków to come!!

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Killing Me Softly

Back in Prague, we stumbled off the train and headed for the Cupcake Palace and, more importantly, dinner.  It was nearing 9pm at this point, and we weren’t up to the task of sniffing out a new hidden gem, since that generally takes some time and we were hungry now.  So we went to Cartello Alto, the old fail-safe pizza place a block down the street from the Palace.  This was our third time there, and as usual, everything was top-notch.  I got a calzone the size of a small ironing board, Sarah had some cheesy pasta, and Jim opted for mushroom pizza.  And, also as usual, we consumed it all while watching glittery pop music videos on the overhead TV.  Laughed our way home and fell into carb-induced slumbers.

The next couple days in Prague would be our last, with Sarah heading back to the States on Monday and Jim and I leaving for Poland on Tuesday, so we resolved to spend our last few days eating and drinking as much as we possibly could (a dangerous pact to uphold in the Czech Republic).  Jim had to spend a little time working at first, which meant Sarah and I got to wander around and visit the Prague Beer Museum!

That's a lot of beers.

Since the Prague Beer Museum is really just a bar with a lot of taps, we decided to go with a sample tray and I, the dutiful girlfriend, took copious notes for Jim (the homebrewer)’s perusal.  I’ll spare you the mundane details, but the Merlin was delish, the Sweetheart tastes like candied sugar, and the IPA, which I was so excited for, lacked any floral hop character in favor of dry bitterness.  Serves me right for expecting a Northwest-style IPA in Europe, I suppose.

We made short work of that...

The next day was particularly indulgent, which is really saying something in this town.  The three of us walked across the Vltava at an unfamiliar point, stopping at what we would soon deem a deeply disappointing breakfast spot (which shall remain nameless on the chance that they were just having an off day).  Its food and service were so glumly administered with such unsatisfying results that we ate, paid, and left to find another spot to fill what Jim called “the potato-shaped hole” in his heart.  We found a suitable spot in short order, and filled other holes in our hearts that were in the shape of beer and onion rings as well.

From there we continued north until we started recognizing landmarks, like the Church of the Infant of Prague.  We knew the Charles Bridge was near, so we headed towards it.  Apparently someone still had a potato hole in their heart because suddenly we were passing around a paper cone full of freshly-fried potato chips as we crossed the bridge.

Not content to stop there, we wandered into the Square and hit up the trdelník stand once more.

Mmmmm... trdelník....

Jim got a cup of hot punch, which did not pass the test, so we ditched it and went for the sure bet of hot wine.  Feeling tremendously hedonistic, we then headed for home and nap-time.

That night, we wanted to eat at a restaurant we found while coming down from Vysehrad: a Mexican restaurant called El Paisa.  The idea of Czech Mexican food (or “Czech-Mex” as we started to call it) was curiously irresistible and so we hiked back up the hill, found the restaurant, and sat down.

The server (host? owner?) greeted us immediately and asked if we spoke Czech, English, or Spanish.  Spanish!  I haven’t had a chance to speak Spanish since we were in Argentina four years ago, so I leapt at the opportunity, as did Jim (mind you, I hardly speak it, but I’m proficient enough in a restaurant setting).

The menu is not overly expansive, tacos being the main feature, but I did see one item that I had to order, for my mother’s sake.

That, my friends, is a heaping plate of nachos el pastor. And, because it's the Czech Republic, there's also bacon.

Incidentally, we also ordered the cilantro cream soup (partially visible behind the giant nacho plate) and it was simply out-of-this-world amazing.  On the chance that you find yourselves in this part of Prague, go to this restaurant and order it.  Assuming you’re the type who likes cilantro, it will change your life.

That night, we went back to MegaSportBar with Conor & Co., for more Street Basketball and pinball.  Our mojo wasn’t working so well this time around, and many of my rounds with Sarah devolved into hysterical giggle fits.  Oh well.

The next morning, we wanted to plan to get out to Kutná Hora to see the Bone Church, but we got a pretty late start.  Jim had some work to do, and I had some schoolwork to finish, so we had to find a breakfast spot that was close, fast, and with a reliable internet connection.  The quickest answer: Pod Slavínem.

I’ve mentioned “Pod Slav” in passing, but its epic Czech offerings really do deserve a more thorough description.  The first time we went there, I ordered a bacon omelette that was the size of a large pizza, with thick pieces of ham and a pile of cheese on top, and a generous bathing of olive oil throughout.  I couldn’t finish it, not even close.  Second time there, I went with ham and sauerkraut on a pile of homemade dumplings, maybe the size of a breadbox.  Couldn’t finish it.  This time, I learned my lesson.  Jim and I decided to split a potato pancake.  In case that doesn’t sound like much, this is what a Pod Slav potato pancake looks like.

That's at least 11 inches across.

We also decided to split a piece of apple strudel, but of course, because it’s this place, it was no mere piece of strudel.

There's strudel under there somewhere...

And for her part, Sarah went with svíčková (svitch-kova), which is braised beef served in some kind of orange sauce, topped with (what else?) whipped cream.

This is the half-portion.

It was after this meal that we decided we could no longer eat like the Czechs.  Our bodies were starting to reject even the idea of more meat/ cabbage/ potatoes/ pastries.  After a day trip to the Bone Church (more on that later), we celebrated Sarah’s last night in town at Maitrea, a vegetarian restaurant with incense burning and Enya playing in the background, lots of bamboo accents, trickling water features, and a general lightness in ambience that was very welcome after the ton of gastronomical bricks we’d been hit by over the last few days.

Up next: the Bone Church.

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