v Praze

PART ONE

Soooo… Prague.

I’ve started writing about it a dozen times by now, and for some reason I’ve found it exceptionally difficult.  Since time’s a-wasting, I’ve decided to abandon over-thinking and just start writing.

The train ride from Budapest to Prague took about 7 hours, through Hungary, Slovakia, and into the Czech Republic.  We passed dilapidated castles on faraway hilltops, sailed through tiny towns we’ll probably never see again, and mused at the differences we were noticing in the language.  I would later learn that the Czech alphabet contains 42 letters, 8 of which have a háček (ˇ); the most fearsome of these, I would come to find, is the “Ř”.  But at the time, still completely unfamiliar with the many ways in which Czech differs from Hungarian, we deemed all the háček letters “angry”, since the symbol calls to mind a furrowed brow.

We made it into Prague just as dusk was settling into night.  The first order of business was to figure out the exchange rate, and we discovered that we’d be working with much smaller numbers here than in Budapest, which was a relief in some ways but a little confusing at first.  The second order of business was to buy tickets for the tram to the apartment.  We had originally intended to meet our landlady at 7pm, but ended up getting there closer to 7:45pm.  When we got off at our stop, a girl asked, “Hallo, are you looking for an apartment?” and at first I thought she was soliciting.  In fact, she was the landlady.  Immediately after we made that connection, Conor, a friend of ours who’s living in Prague, came around the corner.  He’d been waiting for us as well, since we also told him 7pm.  The landlady walked us all up to the apartment, showed us around briefly, and was gone, leaving us to marvel at what we would eventually deem the Cupcake Palace.

Pink walls and gilded curtains. Yummy!

This is our room. Note the Flying-Spaghetti-Monster light fixture.

Once we were settled, Conor took us to The Hanging Coffee for our first meal, which was a harbinger of meals to come: lovingly prepared, delicious, heavy as all hell, and always with beer.  The name of the place comes from a custom wherein a customer buys two cups of coffee, but only drinks one; the second is left “hanging” for someone else who may not have the means to buy coffee for themselves.  I like that.

After dinner, we walked past the John Lennon Wall.  I took a couple pictures, but it was pretty dark out.  I’ll try to get some more when the light is better.

The Lennon Wall is interesting because, during the days of Communism, it would be continually painted over by the authorities, only to have Lennon/Beatles quotes and flowery graffiti repainted on it the next day.

In my life, I loved them all...

After that, we went out to drink beer and play pinball, which would become a pretty common occurrence during our time here.  Stayed out really late drinking beer, among other things.

The next day, the combination of a big day of travel and a long night of revelry meant we slept in in a big way.  That day was very low-key, and we enjoyed some down-time in the Cupcake Palace, observing our surroundings.  We live in a small neighborhood at the foot of Vyšehrad Castle, across the street from a little church and a restaurant that serves Czech comfort food in intimidating portions.  There’s also a grocery store a couple blocks down the rail line, which we visited so as not to have to eat out every meal (which would almost certainly kill us).

I still don't know the name of this church, but Pod Slavínem is on the right.

The Gothic spires belong to the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, at Vyšehrad Castle. I love our neighborhood.

The third day, Sarah and Jim and I ventured out to see the tourist-packed sights of Old Town.  I don’t generally enjoy tourists, though I am often one myself.  Tourists move through main thoroughfares in large numbers at infuriatingly glacial paces.  They cause tacky souvenir shops to sprout up in their wake by the dozen, each one bumping its own selection of bass-heavy American pop music and offering the same exact stuff as all the others.  And, worst of all, tourists make the beer more expensive.  However, one must learn to deal with tourists if one is to get to see things like this:

The Astronomical Clock in Old Town Square, built in 1410.

The Church of Our Lady Before Týn, initially built in the 14th century.

Around the perimeter of the square, vendors sell sausages and pastries and various crafts.  There was one place that Sarah was ordered by a friend of hers to patronize: a stand selling the Czech version of kürtőskalács.

Sarah is in the red coat, and this picture is proof that she did as she was told.

The trdelník is smaller than its Hungarian counterpart, but admittedly more delicious.  It comes in just one flavor, versus the Hungarian four or five.  We shared it amongst ourselves and enjoyed it thoroughly, and then got a few cups of svařák (the Czech version of forralt bor) to drink while we continued walking around.

While crossing the Charles Bridge, we heard the unmistakable sound of a hot jazz band playing “Blueberry Hill,” and were stopped in our tracks by these guys.

I found my thrill...

They’re called Jazz No Problem, and they were knocking it out of the park.  Something about hot jazz being played on a bridge by a bunch of middle-aged Czech guys went straight to my heart like an arrow, and I was in love.  It probably has something to do with the fact that they are seriously good; the clarinet player in particular caught my ear, in a similar way to the harmonica player of Mojo Workings.  And I’ve decided that I absolutely must build a washboard set-up like the one they were using, complete with wire whisks.

We crossed the bridge and heard a couple guys playing Bob Dylan songs underneath, so we followed the sound.  They were pretty good, but we kept walking, because it had been hours at this point and the sun was starting to go down.  We passed a park that featured some giant black baby statues in mid-crawl; what made them particularly creepy was the fact that they all had indented rectangles where their faces should be.  We took pictures, but they all turned out way dark, so I’ll spare you the weirdness.  I learned that there’s a radio tower on the east side of town that features the same creepy babies climbing up it.  I’m not really sure what the creepy baby thing is about.  Oh well.

On our way to cross the Vltava river to get back home, we spotted a “farm store”, featuring produce that was a lot better-looking than the sadness we’d picked up at the local grocery store the day before, so we went a little crazy.  Broccoli!  Red peppers!  Zucchini!  Cucumber!  Pickles, feta cheese, garlic-stuffed olives, etc. etc. etc.  We’d only been in Prague a few days at this point and already the importance of vegetables was irrevocably impressed upon us.

Made it back to the Cupcake Palace to watch a Russian movie which we soon found out had no subtitle options.  We decided to watch it anyway, and devised our own plot, which can be summed up by the phrase “Uncle Grandpa Baller Gangster Fight Vacation”.

I love it here.

PART TWO

One of our next wandering missions was to explore our neighboring castle.  Conor had already taken us up to Prague Castle, which was gorgeous and majestic but ultimately packed with tourists.  He had mentioned his preference for Vyšehrad for the exact reason that it was a lot more laid-back, which sounded great to us.  Before we went to the castle, we wanted to find breakfast, and so we headed up a hill to the east of the Cupcake Palace in search of Passe Partout, which sounded like a promising spot.  However, once we crested the hill, and walked to the spot where it should’ve been, we discovered that it had been replaced by some upscale-looking bistro place that none of us was particularly enthused about patronizing.  Looking around the square, we found Café ZanziBar, scoped out their menu, and decided to go in.

After a satisfying meal, it was time to make our way to Vyšehrad.

I don't know what this is but I liked it.

This made me feel like I was on a religious pilgrimage 500 years ago.

It’s actually a little ridiculous how close our apartment is to the castle, and now that I’ve been made familiar with the compound, I’ve realized that we can actually see part of the wall from our window.  Once we got to the top, the view was amazing.

All of Prague, with Prague Castle in the distance.

Me and Jim admiring the view.

We wandered around the perimeter, taking pictures of various structures, most of which are centuries older than the current iteration of our home country, which is always a staggering thought.

St. Martin's Rotunda, the oldest building in all of Prague (circa 1100). Wrap your head around THAT.

At the southern end of the compound, there was a little museum that cost 50Kz (around US $3) to enter.  We paid and went in, and were confronted by a millenium’s worth of history of our immediate surroundings.  Vyšehrad has many myths surrounding it, some involving Vratislav I, the first King of Bohemia.  King Charles, for whom the famous bridge is named, was also a prominent figure in the stories told.  There were artifacts encased in glass that predated Columbus’s arrival to the Americas.  I was awe-struck.

From there, we went to the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, the glorious Gothic spires of which can be seen from our bedroom.  We could enter the lobby, but, as with St. Vitus at Prague Castle, there was an entrance fee to see the rest of it. (According to Conor, this hasn’t always been the case, but I’m not surprised that it ended up being so; a nominal fee, times a ga-million people per day, ends up being quite a lot of money, and why give history away for free when there’s money to be made?)

The Church of Sts. Peter and Paul.

After that, we wandered the cemetery, and were slightly surprised at how recent most of the graves were, considering how long this place has been here.  Sarah took some pics of some of the statues, except for one very unsettling one, which she refused to photograph because we became convinced it would follow us if she did.

This wasn't the one, don't worry.

Dinner that night was at a pizza restaurant we’d visited once before, and at this point we’ve become regulars (it’s tied with Pod Slavínem as the neighborhood place we’ve frequented most often).  The pizza is pretty outstanding, and they’ve got WiFi, which is always a plus since the one drawback about the Cupcake Palace is that it lacks internet access.

On to Jim’s birthday!

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szia budapest

SATURDAY

With Sarah in town, it felt like a little bit of Portland had made its way to Budapest.  That feeling was compounded when we woke up on Saturday with the undeniable urge to go to brunch and found Most Bistro.

PDX in Budapest

From the moment we walked in the door and saw the lobby walls papered with black-and-white images of audio cassette tapes, we knew we had found our people.  The tables were mismatched, the walls were covered with abstract works of art, and everyone in the place was sub-30 and very hipster-looking.  Bloody marys and mimosas were offered up alongside omelettes, eggs Benedict, and a list of indulgent French toast variations.  And the soundtrack upon our arrival was Gotan Project’s rendition of “Paris, Texas”, followed by a Clancy Brothers tune.  Hallelujah.

This is what I had.

After brunch, in true Portland spirit, the next item on the agenda was a gastronomical festival taking place at Erzsébet Square, called Gőzölgő.  There were various food items available, but given the fact that we just ate an enormous brunch, and given that we were still hugely addicted to the forralt bor, we opted to drink instead.

There’s hot wine in that mug

A couple mugs of forralt bor later, we decided we did have to indulge in one food item we found: Kürtőskalács, or chimney cakes.  If anyone reading this has seen my Pinterest page, you’ll recognize this pastry as something I decided early on that I needed to try.  Pastry dough is rolled into a long, thin rope, and then wrapped around a wooden spindle and roasted until the outside becomes brown.  Then it’s brushed with butter and rolled around in any number of coatings; on this occasion, we chose one vanilla and one cinnamon to split between the three of us.  And oh man, was it delicious!  The wooden spindle ensures that the inside of the pastry hovers on just the right side of under-done, which complements the crispy outer side extremely well.

As it turns out, after the brunch we had just come away from, two kürtőskalács between the three of us was something of a feat of strength, but we triumphed.  Feeling rather hedonistic at this point, we left the festival grounds to go for a walk, and made it about half a mile before we found a place to stop and have a beer.

The rest of the day continued on like so, with some walking and sight-seeing, and then stopping for beer or coffee.  We ended up walking through the tourist-trap part of Pest, which I’d recognized from our first trip because of the H&M– at that time, it was a familiar landmark to which I could desperately cling, but this time around I found myself annoyed at all the commerce going on around me.  We pressed on, heading south, to Central Kavéház for some Weiner Mélange and decadent pastries (which I neglected to photograph, but Sarah ordered a giant macaron that looked like a raspberry hamburger, for what that’s worth).  Dinner that night was at a place called Vörös Postakocsi, which promised more Fat Thursday prices but failed to deliver, and none of us was up to the task of challenging the bill in our extremely limited Hungarian.

SUNDAY

Sunday was a day of work for Jim, so Sarah and I decided to hit the town.  Originally we had hoped to see an opera, but when we went to the ticket office, the cheapest seats were around US $37.  Not outrageous, mind you, but a far cry from the US $2.50 we were aiming for.  So instead we decided to pub crawl our way back to the neighborhood in the hopes that Jim would be finished working by then.  The first place we stopped at was called B City Bar, where the walls were plastered with movie star memorabilia.  The featured work of art in the room where we sat was a rendition of the Last Supper, wherein Jesus was replaced by Brad Pitt, and the apostles were likes of Marilyn Monroe, Robert Deniro, Al Pacino, etc.

At some point we went from not having any idea where we were to arriving at the main drag where we knew exactly where we were and how to get home.  So, not yet ready to call it a day, we turned down a side street and headed away from the apartment.  We were looking for another pub, but we came to a tea house instead, and went inside.

We were greeted by the distinct and inviting aromas of nag champa incense mixed with various teas, and a giant mural of the Himalayan mountains on the far wall.  Apparently it was a special day, because the place was packed. We ordered the “Advent Tea” because its description contained the most Hungarian words I could understand (narancs, ananász, etc.), all of which sounded delicious.  And it was.

The picture’s kind of dark, but that’s a tiny mug of honey

After our relaxing tea session, a woman with a friendly face, who was perhaps near 50 if I had to guess, came up to our table.  She spoke a decent amount of English and asked us if we wouldn’t mind coming over to where her and her colleague were sitting.

“You see,” she said, “today is a very special day in this place, and we are offering re-energizing service to everyone.  But there is someone who has been sitting there a long time, and if you come with me, we can say ‘Oh, sorry, these girls would like to sit down now’ and maybe he will leave.”  Sarah and I looked at each other, nodded, and grabbed our coats to go be re-energized.

We were seated  back-to-back, and given energized water to drink.  The woman working on Sarah spoke no English whatsoever, so the first woman, whose name was Valerie, became the interpreter.  We chatted during the whole session, which involved a wand being waved in circles above each of our chakras; she asked if we were students and we said no, to which she reacted with some surprise since, as she put it, “Hungary is a small country and not a lot of people know it is here.”  She seemed extremely pleased that we were just there to visit, which pleased me in return.

As the session was drawing to a close, Valerie was summing up what the effects of the energizing process would be. “Tonight, if you are up at 3am, you will think of us!”

We thanked her and paid for our tea, and left to go back to the apartment, thoroughly charmed by our experience.  Our plan was to collect Jim and go to dinner.  After a brief internet search, our choice destination was the Old Man’s Music Pub, not only because of the menu but because they stream their live music online in real time.  We could hear that the band for the night, Mojo Workings, was just getting tuned up, so we refreshed ourselves and headed out.

The Old Man’s Music Pub is down in the basement of the building, and when we arrived, Mojo Workings was in full swing.  It’s a group comprised of three men– a rhythm guitarist, a lead guitarist, and a harmonica player– who all wear the same hats and who sing American blues with adorably thick Hungarian accents.  I was in love from the first moment I heard the harmonica.  One of the songs they performed, “Chevrolet”, has since become an integral part of the soundtrack of this trip.

Sadly, Mojo Workings packed it in before our food came, and a DJ took over.  We ended up hanging out there all night, and when it got to be 2:30am on our walk home and we were still in high spirits, I thought of Valerie and her colleague.

MONDAY

The bummy thing about staying up past 3am is that the next day is guaranteed to be a late one.  We didn’t wake up until almost noon, and our plan was to go to Castle Hill because it would be Sarah’s only chance to see it.  However, Most Bistro had re-awakened our brunch lust, so the first item on the agenda was food at Cafe Brios.  The food was good, so good in fact that we opted for breakfast dessert in the form of Nutella-stuffed French toast and fruit.  Finom.

From Cafe Brios, we headed down the river to the Chain Bridge, and did and saw many of the same things we did the first time.  The exception this time around was a stop at Ruszwurm, the oldest pastry shop in Budapest, and with good reason.

After our indulgent afternoon on Castle Hill, we decided to head south on the Buda side to the Cave Church, a Pauline establishment that was walled up during the Communist occupation.  Though I’m not religious by any stretch, I have an historical appreciation for the impact of religion on Western history, particularly as it pertains to wherever I am at the time.  Thus I found the Cave Church wildly fascinating, especially since it’s only been reopened for two decades, since the end of Communism.  There is a guided tour that leads you by headphone set through the caves, past a host of statues and relics, and gives you the story of each in delightful accented English.  By the time we finished the tour, it was dark outside.  We thanked the man who was handling admissions and souvenirs and headed back to our apartment, at the end of the day, for one last time.

Thus ended the Budapest portion of the trip (though I’ll be back at the end of the journey in order to fly back to the States).  We left the next morning, by train, to head to Prague.  I’m excited to get to know Prague, and visit the Czech Republic (or, as I’ve affectionately dubbed it, the Mother Country).  What I know right now is that Budapest has captured my heart; the people are friendly, and the city is magnificent without being heavily trod.  It’s a city to which I never thought I’d go a first time, but I find myself immensely thankful that circumstance allowed me to come again.

Szia Budapest!  Ahoj Prague!

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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:

happy

yeah. 🙂

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

Szia!

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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.

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