Thursday, April 26, 2012

Budapest- Part Zwei

Budapest never really crossed my mind before our weekend there. When I remembered that it's in Hungary, I immediately thought, "Okay, goulash. I know about Hungary." The goulash doesn't disappoint but an unexpected treat is the wine. There are 22 wine regions in Hungary and we decided to sample a few of their outputs at the House of Hungarian Wines.

Upon arrival at the unsuspecting entrance, we noticed a large 'CLOSED' sign on the door. We were incredibly disappointed and we stood on the sidewalk scratching our heads and wondering why it would be closed at 2pm on a Saturday. As an afterthought, my husband slightly pushed the door and it opened. We shrugged our shoulders and tiptoed inside, hoping that our luck had just changed. We stood at the counter for a moment and began to think that maybe it really was closed and they just forgot to lock the door. 

We heard a cough from the back and suddenly a young man appeared. He looked surprised to see us as he wiped some crumbs (remnants of a quick lunch) from the corners of his mouth. 

"Oh, hello..." he said.
"Hi!" we cheerily replied. "We know the sign says you're closed, but the door was open so we just came in... hope that's okay."
"Uhhh, sure. You want to tasting some wine?" he asked.
"Well, yes. If that's possible."
"Okay, okay, I see. Well... is it just you two in your party? You have no friends?"
"Right. Just us. We don't have friends," we replied uncertainly.
"Okay, okay, well, here is an offer of our tastings. You choose and we will go."

We chose to taste five wines: two whites, two reds, and a rose. Once our selection was made, he led us down to a cellar and sat us at a bistro table. He was young, excited, and knowledgeable about Hungarian wines. Throughout the course of our tasting he told us that his family operates a small winery outside of Budapest. In fact, he is attending school to learn how to be a winemaker so he can one day turn the small operation into a thriving business.

I was impressed with all of the wines. We were even able to join a small tour group as our sommelier showed us around the cellar. The House stocks around 700 different wines. Wine safes are also provided for private collectors to safeguard their booty. Perhaps one day, in the far future, we can rent a safe to stock our expensive, worldly collection of wine... but until then, just a visit to the House of Hungarian Wines will satiate us. The rose wine we sampled was the best I've ever tasted. 

Matyas Church was next on our list of Things to See. The exterior of the church is astounding. Its roof is decorated with multicolored glazed tiles and the stained glass windows are beautiful. We paid 10 Euros to go inside and unfortunately we were disappointed because the church is currently undergoing restoration. What wasn't closed off was covered in plastic sheeting and various power tools and buckets of cleaning fluids were scattered over the floors. We went through a 'museum' that was probably set up to justify charging spectators 5 Euros to walk through a construction zone. There were some interesting reliquaries but if we had it to do again, we would have been satisfied just gazing at the exterior.

After stopping for a quick snack and more delicious Hungarian coffee (this time with homemade cinnamon syrup!), we took our tour from the top of the city to its depths. The Labyrinth of Buda Castle is a 1,000-yard section of the dungeons and caves that run beneath Castle Hill. Our tour was self-guided and we were the only ones in the labyrinth. It was much spookier than the Valkenburg Caves. 

Dimly-lit arrows are tacked onto the walls and if you happen to miss one of them, you will find yourself at a crossroads, inky blackness enveloping you in every direction. In some places, you are crouched over completely because the space is so low. Cold water drips from the walls and ceiling in one section. Since we were the only tourists inside, I began imagining us turning down a wrong path or falling into an ancient well. Twice, as if on cue, we heard a scraping noise and a caretaker/cave dweller emerged from a dark tunnel, pushing a wheelbarrow. He didn't acknowledge us as we quickly moved aside and watched him pass back into the nether regions of the caves. Scenes from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom began to flash through my mind. I 
conjured up the sound of distant, thudding drums and images of secret sacrificial rituals taking place in a dungeon somewhere. I asked my husband if he thought my suspicions could be true. His expression was incredulous and he slightly rolled his eyes before continuing through the maze. I think I have an over-active imagination.

Finally we saw the exit ahead and I was grateful that we made it back above ground to safety. No kidnappings or rituals for us, thank goodness!

We had dinner reservations for 8pm at the Pest Buda restaurant. If nothing else, its name is easily remembered. It was recommended in our guidebook and the concierge at the hotel seemed to approve when she made our reservations. Once again, we had a wonderful meal. I ordered fish stew to start. My entree was a chicken dish with paprika and egg noodles, and a side of cucumbers with creme fraiche. I love Hungarian food. It's rich and flavorful, and the accompaniment of Hungarian wine is the cherry on top. Pest Buda is a small family-owned restaurant. The staff are exceptional and our waiter was friendly and attentive. 

I didn't know much about Budapest before our vacation there. Now I'm anxious to learn everything about this beautiful city and I can't wait to return so we can drink Palinka (fruit wine), soak in the Turkish baths, eat more goulash, and visit some museums. We had only one full day in Budapest and I think we accomplished absolutely everything we could manage but a complete visit should be at least three or four days. 

I'm definitely 'Hungary' for more! Haha... I bet I'm the first to ever make that joke!

Matyas Church at Night

Monday, April 23, 2012

Budapest- Part I

We decided it was time for us to step our traveling up to the next level. We went to the Ryanair website and spent an hour clicking on available destinations from Maastricht and Eindhoven. Budapest was the logical choice because the flight left Friday afternoon and returned on Sunday. It was also economical, at 200 Euros round-trip for both of us. We booked the flights and then reserved our room at Lanchid 19, a reasonably-priced boutique hotel in an excellent location.

Before I gush over Budapest, I must mention how much we enjoyed flying Ryanair. We arrived at the airport with 2.5 hours to spare. We anticipated long lines, stringent security, and the general feeling of being rushed in the chaotic atmosphere that is characteristic of most airports.

Check-in was a breeze. We flashed our boarding passes and passports and were quickly on our way to security. Friendly airport employees were standing by to assist us, making the process efficient and surprisingly pleasant. I began removing my shoes before realizing it isn't even required. We went through the metal detector, grabbed our luggage, and walked two steps into the terminal. The entire process, from checking-in to passing through security, took about 15 minutes. We were amazed. Maybe we spent too much time at the Atlanta airport back home.

It was another hour and 15 minutes until boarding so we kicked up our heels and people-watched. We periodically checked the screen for our gate number and began worrying as our departure time neared and the gate still wasn't revealed. Finally the number popped up and we were (luckily) standing right in front of it. The crowd surged forward, in an orderly, European manner, and we all had our boarding passes and passports checked once more. Our plane arrived and even though it was a few minutes late, turnover was rapid. We were ushered onto the tarmac, marching by the disembarking passengers in single-file. It almost reminded me of the end of a high school football game when all of the players and coaches form a line, congratulating the winners and offering encouraging pats on the back to those in second place. I was really amused. I've never been to an airport where the passengers just walk right out to the jet casually. I kept looking around for security guards and unmarked police cars. All I saw were easygoing workers hauling luggage in carts. It was very relaxing.

Chain Bridge
The flight was smooth and even though we had a late start, we arrived only 10 minutes past-due. The Budapest airport was as small and friendly as Eindhoven's. We easily arranged for a mini-bus to take us to our hotel. It was 8:30 by the time we got onto the bus so our first impressions of the city were made in the dark. Once we reached the city center, the scenery became interesting. We were taken through tunnels and onto narrow streets flanked by beautiful buildings. Driving over the Chain Bridge was the best part. Our hotel was steps away from the bridge, on the Buda side of the Danube.

We were impressed with our reception at the hotel and our room was large, especially considering other hotels we've stayed in since we've been here. We dropped off our bags and set out to find a late dinner. We crossed over the bridge to the Pest side and settled in an outdoor cafe situated on the Vorosmarty Square. I ordered goulash since we were in Hungary and I wasn't disappointed. It was rich and flavored with a liberal dose of smoky paprika. Delicious!

After dinner we spent a little while walking around. It's difficult to get your bearings in a place you've only seen in the dark so we called it a night and went back to the hotel to get some sleep so we could wake up early on Saturday, our only full day in Budapest.

The weather was perfect, by the way. It was 62F with a slight, warmish breeze. We slept with our balcony door open on both nights and it never rained even though it was forecast for 80% on Saturday. Saturday started out overcast but the clouds parted in the afternoon and we basked in the sunlight for several hours. It was a nice change to leave our umbrellas behind as we toured the city.

Our hotel was in the Castle District. As much as we wanted to see every part of the city and most especially, the Turkish baths, we just didn't have time during this visit. The Pest side remains largely unexplored for us. It's where we had dinner Friday night and we also walked over to have breakfast there Saturday, but that was it. We will definitely be returning to Budapest to see this amazing city in its entirety.

Husband's Hungarian Breakfast
Speaking of breakfast, we chose the city's most famous cafe, Gerbeaud Cukraszda. It has been serving Hungarian coffee for over a hundred years. Waitress uniforms are pinafore dresses and the interior of the cafe is immaculately designed. Upon walking in, you face an ornate bar with gorgeous cakes filling display windows. Elegant chandeliers drop down from the ceiling in the dining area. It's like stepping back in time and it's wonderful. The coffee is as good as advertised and I'm not sure what type of jam we were served, but it's the best I've ever had.

We took lots of photos during our walk back over the bridge. Budapest is one of the most photogenic cities I've ever seen. I took almost 300 photos altogether! The total would have been even more but my battery was exhausted by the end of Saturday's dinner.

We were determined to try and see everything on offer in the Castle District. We trekked up steep steps and climbed gradually-sloping hills that rivaled anything you can hope to achieve on a Stairmaster. We finally reached the top and arrived at the Royal Palace. 

Dome of the Royal Palace
Matyas Fountain
Prince Eugene of Savoy

The Matyas Fountain was designed in 1904. Matyas was a Renaissance king and the fountain is based on a 19th century ballad. King Matyas was on a hunting expedition when he met Ilonka, a beautiful peasant girl who fell in love with him. She is beneath the columns on the right. The king was in a hunter's disguise and he's surrounded by other hunters and his hunting dogs. Ilonka didn't know his true identity until after she was deeply in love. Knowing that a king would never marry a peasant, Ilonka died of a broken heart. Tragic. 

The statue of Prince Eugene is also interesting. It was unveiled in 1900 and commemorates the battle of Zenta, a victory that was a turning point in the Turkish War. The figure cowering under the prince is a Turkish prisoner.

From the Royal Palace, we decided to follow the sounds of a mirthful marching band. We came upon the Hungarian military lining up around a square. We still aren't sure what we were watching. This scene reminded me of standing in front of City Hall during Carnaval in Maastricht. Lots of official-looking people doing official things, and lots of gawping tourists (us included) taking photos and whispering excitedly. After a few minutes of speculation, we were satisfied that the ceremony was going to last a long time and we were never going to be entirely sure what it meant so we moved on to an archery range. It was set up in a woodsy area and the experience was complete with an instructor dressed in medieval garb. Unfortunately, his Middle Ages cover was blown when I saw him talking on his cell phone. 

My husband paid for five shots and he wasn't too bad! If we ever find ourselves transported back in time, he will at least have a nice hobby.

Archery range with "Medieval" Instructor. You can't see it,
but his cell phone is clipped to his belt.
The day was young and there was much more to see and do. Over the next few hours, we went to a Hungarian wine tasting in Buda Castle, toured the Matyas Church, and went into the Labyrinth of Buda Castle.  

For now, I'll leave you with one of countless photos of beautiful Budapest.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

6 Months Already

Six months ago, we arrived in Germany bleary-eyed and jet-lagged. I remember feeling so foreign as we rode from the airport to our new home. All of the road signs were unfamiliar, other cars on the road seemed strange, and I wondered how we were ever going to become accustomed to all of the differences. Six months feels both long and short. Sometimes I feel as if we were boarding the plane in Atlanta just yesterday, and other times it seems like "before Germany" was a long time ago.

Upon our arrival (and even before), we were given lots of advice and some warnings. Looking back today, I find these pearls of wisdom amusing. 

"You will be miserable here the first six months. Everyone is and it's okay."
"Be prepared to gain 10 pounds immediately. It's the bread and cheese."
"Germans are unfriendly. Don't expect them to smile at you."
"You don't have to learn German. Everyone speaks English."

I can debunk all of the above. 

The amount of time one needs to adjust to moving to a different country is very specific to that person. As long as you don't lock yourself in your house, staring furtively out your windows at your "foreign" neighbors, you will get into the swing of things pretty fast. On a basic level, Americans and Germans (and Dutch and French and Belgians, etc.) are very similar. We all get haircuts. We all go to the grocery store. We all go out to dinner. Common ground is easy to find when you stop searching for differences.

I don't understand the weight gain warning at all. First of all, the bread is great here. It's baked fresh daily and doesn't come in a plastic bag with an absurdly long shelf life. Secondly, any time we visit a new city for sightseeing, we are easily walking at least five miles. Couple that with your newfound hobby of bicycling and I predict that the numbers on your scale will drop rather than rise in 10-pound increments. You can't sabotage yourself here by stopping at a McDonald's or Arby's drive-thru every time the craving arises. And guess what? Those urges will stop quicker than you think and soon you won't be sad about missing those golden arches cluttering the skyline.

When I think of how to describe Germans, perhaps 'friendly' isn't the first word that springs to mind. I think Germans are discerning and remain undecided about others unless they are well-acquainted. In general, Americans are louder and more boisterous than the average German. Even though I have quieted my naturally resounding voice significantly since moving here, I still find myself louder than most Germans and when I feel them giving me the evil eye I silently repeat to myself, "I'm in a library, I'm in a library," to help me lower the volume. With that caveat out of the way, I have met lots of affable and sociable Germans. They don't always smile first but they are most certainly not robotic or unfeeling. There are friendly and unfriendly people anywhere you go. It's best not to make polarizing generalizations or you might never give yourself a chance to meet the friendly ones.

As far as the language barrier is concerned, I would say that yes, most people here do speak English. I find this to be overwhelmingly true in The Netherlands. Sometimes I come across an older German who has only a small repertoire of English vocabulary but I am constantly impressed and humbled by the fact that it seems like Americans are the only people in the world who know only their own language. I'm working on learning German because I think it would be incredibly sad to leave here in a few years without being able to confidently order in a restaurant, greet your neighbor, or have a pleasant exchange with a stranger.

Of course I miss my friends and family. I miss Florida weather and the ocean. But when it comes down to it, I love it here. I can be in another country in a five-minute bike ride. I can drink the best Belgian beer at the oldest pub in Belgium. I can set sail for a dinner cruise on the canals of Amsterdam. I've climbed atop castle ruins overlooking an ancient Dutch city. I've celebrated Carnivale in two different countries, just two days apart. I've met interesting and wonderful people and sipped wine with them at lovely outdoor cafes. Who could complain about the life I'm living? If you haven't adjusted in six months to all of this... well, shame on you.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012


I thought it was finally safe to say Spring is here but I'm sad to report that it's cold again! Temperatures dipped unexpectedly last week and the sun hid behind gloomy skies for several days. Yesterday it was sunny again and the temperatures went up to the mid-50's but this morning it's cold, damp, and dreary. Snow showers are forecast for Sunday!

Farewell, ice cream.
I'm disappointed in this turn of events. All of the chairs set up outside of cafes to celebrate warmer temperatures are empty now. We were having so much fun riding our bikes and eating homemade ice cream from a neighborhood cafe. I'm tired of wearing boots and jackets. The only consolation is that it doesn't get dark until much later now, but if the sun doesn't come out all day it's difficult to notice the difference.

I am attempting to learn German in earnest. I considered trying Dutch instead but decided that, for now, it's more practical to focus on German. In some ways, the languages are similar so if I learn German perhaps I can make educated guesses about Dutch. So far I've learned useful statements such as, "The horse is black and white," and, "I have a red ball." I've learned to ask, "Are you eating rice?" And I can definitely say, "Guten Tag" with some authority now. I'm paying more attention to passing conversations and sometimes I can understand the gist of what people are saying. They are never talking about horses or rice, incidentally.

In other news, I've committed to running a 5k in May. It seems like there are races here every weekend. Seeing all of these exceptionally fit Europeans happily sprinting through the countryside has inspired me to become one of them. My husband is already an avid runner so I have a good role model to follow. So far, training hasn't been very easy. I don't particularly like running so I'm just hoping that I don't finish last.

We have big plans for the weekend! Even though the weather forecast is dismal, I've lived here long enough to know that it could (hopefully) turn out sunny and beautiful even though it's cold and rainy today. After all, it was just two weeks ago that we were riding our bicycles through green fields, working up a sweat with the sun beating down on us.

Here's to hoping the weather will be like this again very soon!