2016

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January

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February

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March

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April

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May

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June

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July

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August

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September

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October

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November

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December

What an incredible year I’ve had!  Looking back at each month made me realize how unbelievable it’s all been.  It also made me realize how quickly time is going by.  How has it already been another year?  How?

Here’s to hoping for an amazing 2017 for us all!

A Tale of Two Countries: Ezstergom and Sturovo

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I wasn’t sure if I was doing the right thing when I planned for us to stop in the tiny town of Ezstergom between Budapest and Prague.  Part of me thought it might be too boring and uneventful and that we might regret not spending more time in one of the larger cities.  At the same time, I thought it might be nice to go somewhere a little more quiet and relaxing before jumping straight into another city.  I’m so glad I went with my gut because, for a second time, Hungary blew my mind with this little gem.  I’m learning more and more how important it is not to count out the little places.

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Ezstergom is a tiny, village-like town along the Danube bend, just north of Budapest.  In this place, I felt as if I got to experience the “real” Hungary, as there were no tourists in sight.  In fact, when we checked into our hotel, the owner seemed genuinely surprised that a couple of Americans were there to spend the night.  After dropping off our bags, we hurried off to see the Ezstergom Basilica, the town’s main attraction.  It was built as the seat of the Catholic Church and Ezstergom was actually the capital of Hungary from the 10th to the 13th century.  When we walked up to the old church and nearby castle, it felt like we were stepping back in time.  The medieval presence was strong inside the castle walls and the views from the hilltop were extraordinary.  We spent a good chunk of time just staring at all the beauty that surrounded us.

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With just a little daylight left, we decided to get to the second item on our list, which was one of our main motivations for coming to Ezstergom:  crossing the Maria Valeria Bridge. The bridge connects Ezstergom to the Slovakian city of Sturovo, without any need to stop for border control.  The idea of walking across a bridge from one country to another was just too alluring to pass up and turned out to be a lot of fun, if only in a kitschy sort of way.  The views of the giant basilica from the bridge weren’t bad either.  We stepped into Sturovo and walked around it a bit, but found that it lacked the charm that  Ezstergom had and quickly turned back around.  At the very least, we can now say that we’ve been to Slovakia.

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Once back on the Hungarian side, we stopped for a bite to eat and stumbled upon a fabulous cafe that had amazing desserts and  coffee.  We ordered some tarts filled with a delicious coffee cream and the “Ezstergom Coffee”, a small espresso served with a side of hot vanilla-infused milk.

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After a busy day of traveling and exploring, we settled back into our hotel to take advantage of the hotel’s spa room to soak in the Jacuzzi and relax in the sauna.  Although we only had one evening in Ezstergom, it was an evening well spent.  We dozed off, fully satisfied and ready for the next adventure.

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Budapest: The Greatest City You Never Hear About

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When I was first planning our trip through Central and Eastern Europe, I had anticipated wanting to allocate most of our time to Prague because it’s the city I’d heard the most about and just assumed it would have the most to do.  However, once I got around to doing some research for Budapest, I found myself adding more and more to the itinerary there because everything about it just seemed so intriguing.  It was a city that seemed to have everything: a tumultuous and fascinating history, marked by both grandeur and total destruction; incredible views from every angle; delicious cuisine; a vibrant urban scene; and most importantly, warm and inviting people.  It was hands down the best leg of our entire trip, but it left me wondering:  why aren’t more people talking about it?  In my experience, people are very quick to rave about Germany, Austria, Poland, and the Czech Republic, but hardly anyone breathes a word about Hungary.  If you are looking for a fabulous experience in Europe that won’t break the bank, this is it, my friends.  Budapest seriously blew my mind.

BudapestLift3Our adventure started out on the right foot when we saw just how much we had scored with our accommodation.  For the price of a cheap hotel (at least per US standards), we were able to get a very nice apartment with a kitchen, bathtub, and living room near the main metro stop.  Seriously…I almost wept tears of joy when I saw that tub.  I had not had a proper bath since I had left Emporia EIGHT months ago.  On top of that, the staff there were super friendly and helpful and gave us tons of recommendations for what to do and where to eat in the city.

BudapestGoulashOur first tastes of Hungarian cuisine left me thinking it was pretty unbelievable that all we know of their food is a bastardized version of goulash.  We ate at a restaurant specializing in Jewish cuisine that our hotel recommended and it was nothing short of amazing.  Everything we ate was a feast for the senses.  Spicy, flavorful, and interesting in all the right ways. Since it was vacation, we topped off our first night of freedom with some Hungarian wine and matzo cake.

BudapestBridge2After getting some much-needed rest, we were ready to get out and explore on our second day in Budapest.  It was freezing cold and snowing, but in my opinion, it made the whole city  even more magical.  The architecture in Budapest is absolutely stunning and pretty much every building looked like it could possibly be an important historical monument, especially when dusted with snowflakes.  We first stopped at sights such as St. Stephen’s Basilica and the Dohany Street Synagogue since they were close to our hotel, but we eventually made our way across the beautiful Chain Bridge so that we could go up to Buda Castle.

BudapestMulledWineOnce we got there, we were greeted by spectacular views of the city and numerous stands selling mulled wine, in which we indulged.  It was so easy to spend hours up there, wandering the castle’s grounds, sipping on hot wine, and watching the snow fall over the beautiful city from every direction.

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We made our way back over to Pest to rest for a little bit and dry off before heading out on our next adventure:  Escape the Room!  Being the extremely  nerdy person that I am, I had been wanting to try an Escape the Room game for YEARS, so I was really stoked when I learned that one existed just a few buildings away from our hotel.  Budapest is very well known for these Escape Games (there are over a hundred of them in Budapest alone) and is often credited as being the city where they originated.  For about $15 a person, you can get locked into a room for an hour, desperately trying to solve all kinds of crazy puzzles with the ultimate goal of finding the key to get out.  Our theme was being locked in a prison cell and we had a BLAST! We actually didn’t solve it within the 60 minutes allotted, but since we were the last team for the day, they let us finish and we only went about 10 minutes over.  I’m so hooked now that I’ve been researching Escape the Room games in Istanbul and I’m hoping we can drag a few of our friends with us this time.

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Our third day in Budapest started out with something I had been missing terribly: breakfast!  Now don’t get me wrong – I love a good kahvalti – but Turkish breakfast is very repetitive and still just doesn’t fit in with what breakfast should be to me.  We found a great little breakfast joint that we loved so much we ate there again before we left, even though I generally don’t like to repeat restaurants when I’m traveling.  Most of the time, I honestly don’t miss pork that much, but when I saw bacon on the breakfast menu, my mouth started watering uncontrollably.  We went a little crazy, ordering bacon, sausages, fried eggs, grilled veggies, fresh fruit, toast with butter and jam…it was all cheap and it was all amazing.

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We decided to wander around the city a bit more and came upon a stand selling tickets for reasonably priced Danube River cruises, so we decided to go for it.  We were already on our way to the Great Central Market, so we figured we’d stop for our cruise on the way back.  Unfortunately, it was a very foggy and rainy day – so foggy that the boats couldn’t leave the docks.  We were bummed, but weren’t about to let it get us down, so we decided to go ahead and check out another thing that had been on our list:  the ruin pubs.

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The ruin pubs are mostly located in the Jewish District of the city, near where we were staying.  These neighborhoods took a major hit during World War II and continued to face a lot of poverty in subsequent decades.  The concept of the ruin pub – using an old, abandoned building as the base for an amazing quirky bar – has really revitalized these old neighborhoods and put the Jewish Quarter back on the map in Budapest.  I was surprised at just how great these bars were.  Normally, I’m not really into the whole bar scene just because I don’t always love spending my evenings in dimly lit rooms while obnoxious drunk people scream more than necessary.  The ruin pubs were not like that at all.  There was such an eccentric charm and ambiance to the mix of the old architectural details mixed with colorful lights, graffiti, and contemporary artwork.  The drinks were crazy cheap and the vibe of the whole place was very laid back and enjoyable.  I pretty much want to go back right now.

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On our last day, we wanted to check out the famed thermal baths at Szechenyi.  I have been a spa enthusiast ever since our trip to Iceland a couple of years ago, so I was pretty excited.  The thermal baths were lovely.  The beautifully-constructed bright yellow building was in perfect contrast with the blue waters and rolling steam.  My main complaint?  It was COLD!  It was already a very cold day outside, only made worse by the fact that I was wearing a swimsuit.  I had expected the thermal waters to be steamy and hot like they were at the Blue Lagoon, but they turned out to be sort of like lukewarm bath water.  Still, we managed to hang out there for a couple of hours purely because it was so beautiful and relaxing.

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We wandered around for a bit in the Szechenyi area, stopping by Heroes’ Square and peeking in at some old carnivals.  Then, we decided to head back over to the docks to *hopefully* (finally) use our Danube River cruise tickets.  We barely made it over in time, but we were pleased to see that there was hardly any fog in sight.  The cruise turned out to be beautiful as well as interesting and informative.  The architecture that lines the Danube on each side is not only gorgeous and impressive, but also imbued with (often very dark) history.  The whole thing was fascinating and inspiring, despite the cold.  The Hungarian Parliament building all lit up is not a sight I’ll soon forget.

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We finished off the cold evening with yet another perfect cup of coffee (Seriously…why is no one talking about the coffee scene in Budapest?  It’s incredible!) and honestly walked back to our hotel with heavy hearts.  It was SO HARD to leave Budapest! Most of the time when I visit a city, I’m ready to move on after a few days, but Budapest just left me wanting more.  I was so awestruck by the whole experience.  Even in the dead of winter, we had a fabulous trip.  I can’t imagine how great it probably is in nicer weather. Budapest has definitely not seen the last of me!

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