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Budapest

This trip was all about doing things we’ve never done before. Going to countries and cities we’ve never seen, discovering new cultures and languarages. This was, by far, the furthest from our comfort zone. In past trips we either knew English was abundant enough that we’d have no trouble whatsoever (Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Netherlands), or the main language was one that at least one of Tisha or I had some training in: France (me), Germany (Tisha), Russia (Tisha), Belgium (French in the parts we visited), Switzerland (German). But aside from Vienna (where German is spoken), this was going to be new territory. People generally speak a little English, but you’ll find some who really don’t, or are as self conscious about their English as I am about my attempts to mangle their language. But we got by just fine.

In any country we’ve visited, you can typically get by with only English, but if you have a phrasebook or dictionary for the times there’s too much of a barrier (or to help you decode a menu), and just make it a point to learn the courtesies and pleasantries, you’ll get by just fine. Czech and Slovak are similar languages, but not the same. Thank you in Czeck is pronounced “DRAH-koo-yeh” (where the DR is more of a dzr sound with a rolled r). In Slovak, it’s “DRAH-koo-yem”. But “please” in both is “PRO-seem.”

But, Hungarian? Throw all that out the window. The Hungarian language is nothing like its neighbors. Its closest relative, for some reason, is Finnish, but even those are only distantly related. Hungarian “thank you” is “KUR-sur-nerm”. “Please” is “KAY-rem”. So just when I’d gotten used to saying “dobry-den” for hello/good-day in Czech and Slovak, in Hungarian we switch to “YO-na-poht”.
You get used to it after a day or so, but it’s disconcerting to switch so frequently. Thankfully, by the time we hit Austria, I could fall into my little bit of survival German pretty easily, having been in German-speaking countries a few times. “Bitte” and “Danke” are like second nature. “Grüss gott” is a bit different that “Guten Tag”, but is easy enough. But I’m getting ahead of myself, at this point in the tale, we’re in Hungary, so on with that.

After another delightful breakfast with our Bratislava hosts, we made our way to the train station for our train to Budapest. Not too long a ride, just under three hours. Upon arriving in Budapest, the weather was not any different than what we’d faced most of this trip – rain, drizzle, and occasionally fog. We met our charming host at our flat in the city after a short bus ride. He gave us plenty of tips and recommendations, then left us to our own devices, se we strode off to discover the area.

We walked the main shopping drag near the apartment (Andrássy út), often called the Champs-Élysées of Budapest. Very pretty, very pricey. We got to check out yet another Christmas market, and ride a big overpriced Ferris wheel (much like we did in Paris last year). Our post-supper activities were limited to another attempt at shoe repair by me, some much needed laundry thanks to a machine in the flat, and a frustrating attempt to stream the Packers game on my tablet (that was ultimately successful, but we fell asleep before the game ended).

The next day, it rained, so we relegated ourselves to indoor activities. Up until now, the rain has been sprinkles or drizzle, but this day was outright raining to the point we had to break out the umbrella. We went to Matthias church over on the Buda side up the hill, which was quite impressive. But the rain did in my last attempt at shoe repair, and I knew I was fighting a losing battle. My feet were soaking wet and cold, so off to the mall we went, back to the Pest side of things. We found a Tesco, and I bought a pair of sneakers and some dry socks (my feet were soaking by this point). After changing into dry shoes and socks (which felt *sooo good*), I tossed my water-logged shoes into the trash, and after a bite to eat we made our way back to Buda to do the Hungarian House of Wine. Turns out the place was inexplicably closed, possible for good. So we figured we’d try the wine cellar across the street at Hilton. Alas, they were closed for holiday. Sigh. I will not let this get me down. We took the bus/metro back to Franz Liszt square (where we were staying), and had a lovely chicken paprikash dinner, and some grog. Yum.

Our last full day in Budapest proved to be a rainy day again, so we took off to do the parliament tour, then the fine arts museum. We were going to try to do a river cruise, but the weather just wasn’t going to make that worthwhile, so instead we found a charming little cat cafe to go hang out at before supper. This place had five or six cats with free reign over 3 floors of the place. Some would come to hang out with you, some would let you come pet them. We stayed for a coffee (for Tisha) and a couple of beers (for me), and unwound surrounded by cute kitties.

And that’s all she wrote for Budapest. We’ll be back, if only to see the beautiful city without the clouds and the rain. Next entry I’ll sum up our wonderful Vienna visit. Until then, jó éjszakát!

Bratislava

As I sit here at the end of our third night in Vienna, I think about two things. One is that I am way too immature to avoid making tons of wiener jokes every time I see it written down, and the other was how much fun our short stay in Bratislava was.

Well, before I talk about Bratislava, I’ll tell a short story. Leading up to when we would be leaving, I noticed my shoes were making a squishy sound when I walked in puddles or they got wet. I ignored it, because I’m an idiot. The day before we left I noticed I’d worn holes in the bottom of the soles. I did *not* want to be breaking in a new pair of shoes for a 2 week vacation that would involve walking miles every day, so I bought some shoe repair goop and took a decent attempt at waterproofing the soles to last until I got back. I loved these shoes. They were super comfortable and I used them for last year’s vacation just fine.

By day 2 in Prague, I could tell the job wasn’t holding up, so I got some more goop from a shoe repair place down the street form our flat and made another attempt at repair that night. It held up *okay*, but by the time we hit Bratislava it was going downhill fast. So that’s where we pick up the journey.

We left the flat early in the morning and made our way to the train station to catch our 4+ hour train ride to Bratislava. Finding our host in Bratislava was easy and went exactly as planned. I’d mentioned earlier how we were doing Airbnb stays exclusively this trip, and I tend to prefer to find a place where we can rent a whole apartment. However, for this trip, since we were only staying a couple of nights, an interesting opportunity arose. We found a host who was renting a room with its own bathroom in a nice modern apartment in Bratislava, but we would be sharing the apartment with her, her husband, and her kitty named Pif.

So, despite this place being a 5th floor walkup (which is to say 6th floor for us North Americans), how could we turn down staying with a kittycat? We’re glad we did. Ingrid and Stephan were excellent hosts and spoiled us rotten. They treat it like a real Bed and Breakfast, so we got the whole treatment with coffee and a *wonderful* homemade tiramisu when we arrived. Breakfast every morning was a lovely continental breakfast with delicious coffee (and when she learned I had a cold, she made me some excellent ginger tea). We couldn’t have felt more welcome, and their kitty was super cute and adorable (and very much wanted to be in our room all the time).

During our brief stay in this tiny city, we got out and explored a nearby shopping center, saw the Church of St. Elisabeth (Blue Church), visited a couple of Christmas markets (of course), had more hot mead, punch, walked through an old cemetery, explored the old town, and bought some insoles for my shoes in an attempt to keep my feet dry, since they had now graduated from making squishy noises to simply taking on water. And it was raining more frequently. The insoles gave some minor relief, but I was not optimistic.

Oh, and we saw a hockey game.

I want to talk about that hockey game – it was amazing. It was a small arena (by NHL standards), with a hockey capacity of around 10,000 people. But this crowd was amazing, and it was infectious. I was so into this team winning, and I had never heard of them before we started planning this trip. They had a small section in one of the ends (nearest our seats, actually) that was standing room only, and had a fan-made cheering section. People with drums, flags, leading chants. This was a team that was flirting with last place at the time, but these fans were super into the game. And, my fellow Blackhawks fans who see games at United Center will appreciate this, they kept their butts in the seats while the puck was in play! Nobody sitting on their phone talking to people and getting up, blocking views without regard to what’s happening on the ice. Everybody waited until the breaks in play to do anything. And there weren’t so many breaks in play, either. Maybe one TV timeout per period, tops.

Here’s a video of what it sounds like during play — you can barely hear the official audio and sounds since the crowd chants are so loud: http://youtu.be/711TxOZF4HY.

It was a great game, we saw a penalty shot, it went to overtime, it went to a shootout, and Slovan won. I had the seats in the corner for around €17 (tickets ranged from €12 for standing room to €22 for the best seats which were sold out when I tried to buy them). I felt like I was at a playoff game, and we both had a ton of fun. I highly recommend it.

So, that’s the Reader’s Digest version of our visit to Bratislava. It, like Prague, is another place I can see myself going back to, especially since it’s so close and convenient to Vienna.

Next up, I’ll recount our stay in Budapest, wherein we learn that the most picturesque cities can suffer from a coldness that creeps into your soul and unceasing rains that creep into your soles. But, it was still a great city!

Dobrú noc!

Trip Update: Prague

I’ve been pretty quiet on this trip aside from the sporadic facebook or twitter update. That’s mainly been due to the fact that I don’t like writing anything of substance on an on-screen keyboard, and unlike last year I did not bring my bluetooth keyboard with me in an effort to keep things as minimal and light as possible. Mission accomplished, BTW, this is the lightest I’ve traveled. The bag with everything I’m wearing/using fits comfortably on my back and into the overhead bin of any plane. And I can wear it for hours without issue.

I write this from Vienna, where the apartment we’re staying in happened to have a USB keyboard that I could plug into my tablet, so I’ll happily chug away the next couple of nights before bed providing some minimal details and pictures. I like to do this to help me remember what I’ve done, to. We travel for the experiences, so it’s best to commit them to memory. I’ve tried to keep the minutiae to a minimum. So, let’s begin with the first city on our trip, Prague.

We arrived in Vienna after a night of flying, and had a couple of hours to kill before our afternoon train to Prague left for Vienna, so we wandered around the area near the train station and grabbed a quick lunch. This actually worked out well for us, since it turns out the apartment we were staying in during the last part of our trip is *right there*, so the familiarity with the neighborhood helped us find it. But that’s the later part of the journey, and we’re not there yet. And thus, back to Prague.

Our train ride was long (4.5 hours) but relaxing. I had directions on how to find our Prague apartment from our host (we’re almost exclusively staying at places found on Airbnb.com for this trip with only one night of hotel stay immediately preceding our flight home). Unfortunately, as has come to be the norm on our travels, not everything went according to plan. The directions would have been perfect, if not for construction making the tram take a different route and us getting off about 1 kilometer away from where we wanted to be.

I also had the wrong phone number saved for our host, so I couldn’t call him. I had no data service here, and couldn’t find a place with wifi, so we asked around for directions. The English of the people I asked or help was only marginally better than my Czeck (which was limited to please and thank you, at this point), but we got close. Our host called my phone when we were late (about 30 minutes past when we were expected) and he realized the construction messed us up, but he got us back on track and walked to meet us and walk us back to the apartment.

With that snafu out of the way, we were set. The next morning, I spent a little time trying to get a data SIM working in my wireless modem, but it was not working out and I decided that wifi was ubiquitous enough in that city we could get by without it. It worked out pretty well, too. We decided to employ that strategy almost universally.

Over the next few days, we did a bunch of sightseeing, though I don’t have a lot of photos to show off because it was really pretty dreary most of the trip and didn’t lend itself well to photographs. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed being there, but it just wasn’t generally something that my little digital camera was going to make worth looking at. I look forward to visiting when it’s not rainy.

Our adventures include:

* walking from new town to the castle quarter via Charles bridge. (many walks across the bridge, as our apartment was almost adjacent. It’s quite pretty.)
* climbing the hill to the top where the Prague castle is, checking out the church and other sights at the castle.
* visiting many a Christmas market, and having many a delicious hot wine (or other similar hot, alcoholic drink).
* riding funicular to Petrin, and climbing the 299 stairs up their mini Eiffel Tower
* discovering a local treat called honey cake (medovnik)
* touring the astronomical clock tower
* touring the museum of medieval art
* discovering people bring their dogs into restaurants with them, and having some surprising (and cute) dining companions at a delicious Thai place.
* walking the Havelska market
* visiting the Communism Museum
* visiting the tiny Mucha Museum (which I really enjoyed)
* walking through Jewish quarter
* having soooo many pilsners.

Oh, and I caught a cold. Not enough to keep me down, just enough to be an annoyance. But, boy, am I glad I packed my decongestant nose spray “just in case”. My recollections from past trips were that the cold meds over here are just not very effective for me.

And so endeth the whirlwind first stop on our trip. Traveling from 6PM Saturday (Chicago time) to 10PM Sunday (Prague time), then Monday – Thursday taking in what we could. I’ll post some pics once they’re done uploading and link them here.

Next installment, Bratislava, featuring so many stairs, a cute kitty, some wonderful hosts, and an awesome hockey game.

Dobrou Noc!

Monday through Thursday, France and England

Monday was our last full day in France. We started out by visiting the Tapestry Museum in Bayeux, followed by the cathedral in town. Both very impressive sights to see if you’re in the area. The cathedral is simply breathtaking and enormous.

This took us to just about noon, at which point we hit the road to make our way to Calais, via a slight detour to visit the Newfoundland memorial near Beaumont-Hamel. This is a memorial set up to honor a regiment from Newfoundland, most of whom lost their lives in a catastrophic battle in WWI. Up until this, all the war-related visits we’d done were from WWII.

We *just* made it, getting there about 4:15 (it closes at 5), so we were just getting the last sunlight of the day as well. The memorial is beautiful, and it’s rather striking to walk through the trenches the soldiers fought in. There’s a visitor’s center with a good exhibit and lots of information that’s run by the Canadian government, and staffed by Canadian students working abroad.

Going there added about an hour to our driving, but it was worth it. We made it into Calais just around 7, and after a dinner in town we called it a night.

Tuesday, we did breakfast at the hotel, then dropped the car off at the ferry terminal. We checked in early enough we were able to take an earlier crossing than the one I’d booked — this worked out pretty well, since it prevented us from navigating the tube with our luggage during rush hour. As it is, by the time the ferry crossing to Dover and train from there to London was done, it was around 3:45 (we gained an hour in crossing from the continent as well). As it worked out, we got to our hotel just around suppertime. So after dropping our bags, we hit a pub for a pint, then hit a Wagamama for supper.

Wednesday we set out to do something we’d not yet done in London — see a play in London’s West End (the London equivalent of Broadway). We’d had our sights set on "Jeeves and Wooster in Absolute Nonsense", as it was starring Steven Mangan, someone whose work in the show "Episodes" we quite liked. Plus it was getting very good reviews. So we got our tickets for the matinee showing (very nice seats, 7 rows back, center). At this point, we discover Mangan was suffering from a bout of pneumonia and was limited to doing one show a day. This, no matinees. Crap.

That being said, his stand-in was fantastic, the rest of the cast (all two of them) were just spectacular, and we thought it was a very funny show and a great experience. Lots of fun. After the show, we hit one of our favorite pubs (Ye Olde Mitre) for a couple of pints.

Our Wednesday night activity was to visit the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park and do something neither of us had really done since we were both school age — go ice skating. What a blast! We wee both very cautious at first, but it came back to us. I managed the whole hour without once falling (woohoo!), and Tisha only fell once due to her being brave and trying to pick up something someone had dropped on the ice.

Thursday, we started the day by checking out the Selfridges department store and their Christmas displays. We met up with our friend Ben for lunch and beer at another of our favorite pubs, the Bree Louise. Great beers, great pies. Yummy.

After lunch, we braved a bit of a wind and rain onslaught and headed to the National Portrait Gallery. Finally, a quick dinner at a local pub was in order. We were nearby a place called the "Maple Leaf", a Canadian-themed pub. Canadian flags everywhere, hockey being shown on the TV (albeit a game from the start of the week), and Canadian beer (among other more traditional offerings). It was a neat experience.

Tomorrow’s our last day here. We’ll visit the Tate Britain gallery, hit another favorite pub, and play it by ear from then on. It’s been a busy couple of weeks.

Some photos from the above adventures:

https://www.dropbox.com/sc/qojq547tdj9k3np/QoiYSGXmPX

A handful of photos from a visit to the cathedral in Bayeux, and the Newfoundland memorial near Beaumont-Hamel.

https://www.dropbox.com/sc/vi3pqzm8bscmgnb/6rB8G7wGdz

Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, Normandy and Brittany

On Friday morning, we left Paris by train, making our way to Rennes where we would begin our driving journey.

After a comfy train ride, we arrived in Rennes and hopped across the street to our hotel (Le Hôtel Bretagne), which really couldn’t be more convenient. We spent the afternoon walking around the historic old town section of the city, riding their single metro line to get there. (It’s really more like an airport automated tram than a subway, but it was cheap and convenient.)

The old own had a lot of charm. We wanted to check out the old church in town, but just about every entrance was filled with drunk hobos, so we opted to walk the streets instead. We ate lunch at a little kebab/sandwich place, and stopped at a nice bar with a good selection of Belgian beers. I had a Kasteel Brune, while Tisha had a faro. Both were excellent.

After our fill of window shopping and enjoying the old architecture, we headed back to our hotel to recharge, then hit a nearby cafe/restaurant for an excellent supper. The food and service were both top notch. I recommend Café Noir if you’re in the area.

Saturday morning after a continental breakfast at the hotel, we checked out and walked across the street to pick up the rental car. We got a little Seat Mii until Tuesday morning, which will be our chariot for the next few days. It’s a cute little car that’s fun to drive. With my phone and a wireless modem, we’re not going to get lost. Seriously. :)

It got us to our first stop without incident, Le Mont Saint-Michel. We visited this the first time we were in France, but the weather wasn’t very good and I was not enjoying the hill/stair climbing.

We had a great day for it, as the sun was shining, and the hill and stairs were no issue! Yay!

After enjoying the beautiful locale, we headed back to the car and drive north into Normandy. We decided to make Bayeux our base, and upon arriving into town, eventually found a hotel that was both open and had a room for the next two nights. I cannot day enough good things about this hotel. Le Hotel Mogador is simply an incredibly friendly and very reasonably priced place to stay. The continental breakfast is simple, but perfect. If you’re in the area, I highly recommend it.

Sunday, we were off to storm the beaches of Normandy. Our first stop was Juno Beach, the site of the Canadian-led part of the D-Day offensive. There’s a great museum there that was set up in 2003 by Canadian veterans. Following the museum, we walked to the beach itself, then drove to the nearby Canadian cemetery where the many casualties of that effort are buried. The cemetery is beautiful and worth a visit.

After a quick picnic lunch in the car, we drove to Arromanches to visit a couple more museums and see an important beach in the offensive. There’s a neat 360 degree theater with a movie that really sets the tone of what happened during the first 100 days of the invasion. You also get a great view of the beach and the remains of the temporary Port Winston, a port that was secretly built in England, towed across the channel, and was installed within days of D-Day.

There’s a museum dedicated to the landing and the building of the port. It’s simply amazing what they were able to accomplish, and it allowed the allies to get supplies and equipment to the front quickly.

We originally wanted to also visit Omaha Beach, but we were losing the sun by then (sunrise at 8:30, sunset at 5), so we drove back to town.

I really enjoyed this visit to the region. The country roads are a pleasure to drive, and the towns are just beautiful.

Tomorrow we check out and make our way to Calais with a detour to visit The Beaumont Hamel Newfoundland Memorial.

Pictures! Friday, Saturday: There’s a sideways pic in here I need to rotate.

Normandy. Panoramic pictures of the Juno Beach center and Port Winston, plus a photosphere of the Canadian cemetery that may or may not work in your browser.

Wednesday and Thursday in Paris

Wrapping up our stay in Paris, I noticed I forgot to tell a story that happened to us on our arrival to Paris.

I try not to be a gullible person, but I am often too trusting of strangers. It’s a failing of mine. It’s how I managed to get scammed out of $120 in NYC for counterfeit tickets to a hockey game. But that’s a horrible story, since it involved me being stupid and losing money. So I’ll tell about smart me.

Smart me is the one who travels abroad. Something about being in a city in a foreign (to me) country puts me on my guard, and I have an inherent distrust of most everyone. It doesn’t hurt that I’ve read enough guides and advice to remind of the fact that someone’s always looking to take tourists’ money, especially when they can abuse a language barrier.

A couple of years ago, for instance, I managed to avoid getting scammed by an overly aggressive taxi driver in Moscow, just by being inherently distrustful and assertive in saying no.

So, on Sunday afternoon as we wandered into the train station, my first mission was to get some transit tickets for our week in the city. I figured I’d try the automated machine first. These machines had an "English" button, so I could happily traverse its menus in my native tongue. I had just about determined that this machine did not dispense what I was looking for when a guy wearing a lanyard with some sort of SNCF (French rail company) markings on it asked if I needed assistance. I said I was looking for the 5 day Paris Visit pass. (Sidenote, this pass may not be the best value unless you plan to do a lot of hopping on and off buses and trains – get a 10 pack of single tickets called a carnet if you’re only going to ride once or twice a day.)

The guy starts pressing buttons on the machine, backing out of the English menus and into the French menus. Things don’t look quite right, but at this point I’m still kind of trusting his pseudo-credential of the lanyard and something with the SNCF logo on it inside the badge holder. I try my credit card to pay for the ticket, and (as I completely expected), it wouldn’t work. Automated machines here will only take a credit card if it has a chip and pin, and American credit cards, by and large, do not have that.

He was also expecting my card not to work, and said "I’ll buy it and you can pay me cash". I wave him off, but he quickly pulls out his H&M card (yes, the department store), sticks it in the slot, and acts like he’s successfully paid (even though the screen is showing the same error as when I tried to use my card). See, the language barrier would probably work on most, but having grown up in the Canadian school system, I’m actually minimally functional in French. Certainly enough to see this guy is bullshitting me, especially when he pulled out the little "ticket" from the machine and tried again to get me to pay him cash for it. The "ticket" was just a receipt showing the canceled transaction. He lost all credibility when he pointed at his lanyard and badge holder (which I was now convinced had a fold-up SNCF system map in it) and said "It’s okay, I work here!"

I told him I would go over to the counter and walked away. By the time I reached the counter 10 seconds later, he was gone from the area. Victory!

On with the trip details!

Wednesday was the Louvre.

That’s it. The entire day. That place is enormous. Wednesday is one of their late days when they’re open until almost 10PM. Did we ever take advantage of it. First, we hit the must-see masterpieces, such as the Venus de Milo (along with other Roman and Greek statues), and the Mona Lisa (in French, La Jaconde). We couldn’t see the Winged Victory of Samothrace as it was under restoration. A shame, I’d have liked to have seen that. Look it up on Wikipedia, it’s quite impressive.

After checking out the must-sees, and having a light lunch in their cafe, we embarked on a bit of an exploration, just trying to cram in the stuff that interested us as best we could. They have a great collection of Dutch paintings, including a number of Rembrandt works. We also checked out their impressive collection of Objets d’Art, along with the Napoleon III Apartments. These rooms are downright breathtaking. Finally, to finish up the day, we strolled through the collection of Egyptian antiquities.

All-in-all, a full and satisfying day. We finished it off with dinner at a cafe near the museum, then back to the apartment to do some laundry.

After a bit of a mishap/misunderstanding with the laundry in the apartment (it was supposed to be a washer/dryer, but that was being repaired and the replacement was a washer only), we got to bed fairly late and exhausted. Our plan was to try to do Versailles on Thursday.

Thursday came, and I was far too tired to get up early enough to make Versailles a worthwhile trip, so we put it on the list for next time, and decided a down day wouldn’t be a bad thing. We slept in a bit late, then just toured the city by bus and foot, walking through various neighborhoods and soaking it all in. It was actually a really great day, and I’m glad that’s how we spent it. We did lunch at a nice Italian cafe between the apartment and the Eiffel Tower. We checked out the shops in the Montmarte area, I picked up some wine for later in the trip, and we finished things off with a sushi dinner back in our home base neighborhood.

Tonight, we’ll pack up our things, and tomorrow morning it’s off to the train station for the next phase of our trip. We’ll catch a train to Rennes tomorrow, and spend the night there. Then Saturday we’ll pick up our rental car and spend the next three days driving around Normandy and the surrounding area. Our room in Rennes is booked for tomorrow night, our room in Calais is booked for Monday night. The other two nights are up to our whims. Should be fun!

And now… pictures!

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