Monday, May 27, 2013

Good morning from Budapest!  I write from the kitchen of our fifth "Soviet high-rise" accommodation, which we are quite used to at this point.  Ghastly from the outside, the enormous Communist-era block housing in which we have stayed in Croatia, Berlin, Czech Republic, Slovakia and now Hungary has been tidy and well-equipped on the inside, with residents in each of these locations quick to help us make sense of the unclear addresses and varying building-entry systems.  When viewing our accommodation websites, our three priorities are wifi, kitchen, and washing machine (which can usually be obtained for a grand total of 20 to 30 USD per night- sweet deal!).  Anything else is icing on the cake!

Today is our first real "sleep-in" day in a couple of weeks, as we have generally been switching accommodation every day or two as we cruise through central and eastern Europe.  It is now that we realize how short four months in Europe truly is, particularly when you are traveling by land and sea, and trying to get a sampling of so many countries.

Although Budapest awaits for us to explore, my thoughts remain in our fascination with eastern Europe.  A region I learned little about in school and didn't bother to read much about as an adult, it has been a wonderful surprise to discover this down-to-earth, culturally dynamic area and its resilient, hardworking, humble and humorous populace which, in large part, possesses a kindness of spirit that truly surpasses our expectations of human decency.  From the Hungarian gentleman who stopped his car and got out to offer assistance in finding our accommodation to the fish market full of women in Croatia who advised us regarding which of the local catch would produce the best soup, we have been inspired by their genuine hospitality.

Since we only spent 30 hours in Bratislava, it is perhaps one of the easier destinations for me to present in this post.  Please enjoy the following photos of our first glimpse of Slovakia, a country we fully intend to revisit.

After an exhausting hike through town loaded down with our backpacks, we finally made it out for an evening stroll over one of Bratislava's several bridges, which offered a lovely view of the Bratislava Castle, which has existed in one form or another since the Stone Age and was recently rebuilt in the 1950s after it burned down.

A panorama from the castle the next day.  The Danube is such a winding, leisurely river that is a charmingly tame contrast to the wild, raging rapids of our homeland.  I would love to kayak in it....

A classic Bratislava contrast: dingy Soviet building on the left, polished House of Justice on the right.

The UFO restaurant, at one end of the main bridge that leads to Austria.

I didn't mean to snap this photo from this angle; I was just trying to get a clandestine pic of the public transportation.  However, I couldn't leave it out once I saw it....

One of the charmingly unmanicured old Bratislava buildings.

A newer design.

A beautiful, bright, understated church that seems to mesh well with the mellow spiritual vibe of the region, if that makes any sense....

One of the five bridal photo shoots we saw that day.

Bratislava Castle during the day, framed by the Slovakian and EU flags.

Customers at the Slovak Food Festival (which we stumbled upon on our way down from the castle) were treated to some traditional Slovak music, which sounds a little like Mexican banda if you don't listen too closely.


More of that charming, understated architecture.

One of the abandoned buildings in Bratislava.

Across the street was this church, which looked puffy and reminded me of a gingerbread house.

Another two bridal photo shoots.

After a long soak in a Turkish bath here in Budapest, I am ready to hit the sack, so ciao for now.  Peace out, readers :)

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Random Fish Eyes Sent to You from Bratislava

Sitting at the Bratislava bus station with time to kill before heading to Budapest, I just found this blog post on our computer and realized I had never shared it.  These are a few “fish eye” photos from Harold’s water and dust-proof sports camera, which is amazing for self-portraits and group shots.  It is a bit random that these are snaps of France and Spain and we have since covered several other destinations, but if there is one descriptor for this trip, it is “random”!  When traveling, I believe one generally has to choose between covering a lot of ground and thoroughly exploring a few places.  In the past, we have tended towards the latter, which is part what makes dotting from place to place so interesting and fulfilling for us.  I do apologize if seeing a lot of disorganized photos makes your head spin, but keep in mind that it does reflect the chaotic, fragmented nature of my thoughts after covering so much territory in three months :)


 This is the Palacio Real in Madrid.  When I lived in Barcelona in 2004-2005, I never explored Madrid.  If I had, I might have moved there!  Who knows, but I can safely say that we are both in love with it!  The immaculate, polished buildings and public spaces help to generate income through tourism, and the discounted prices on cultural events and sights make the current economic crisis more bearable for Spaniards.  In the face of a severe recession, Spanish residents continue to live life to the fullest, while taking advantage of the many “recession specials” available at hair salons, clothing stores, restaurants, movie theaters and the like.


The garden in front of the Palacio Real.  We had just arrived in Madrid via bus in the early morning, hence the double backpack Harold is wearing.  Our budget hotel check-in time was a few hours away, so as we are wont to do, we carried our bags around while sightseeing.  We are not the world’s lightest packers, so it is an intense workout….


 We got rid of our luggage- ah!!  Strolling around Madrid’s Plaza del Sol with a friend we met in Morocco.  I believe Madrid should be a very top European travel destination, as there is so much life to observe, and the populace tends to be dynamic, pleasant, fun-loving and inspiring in its resilience, when you consider the tumultuousness of Spain’s history.


 Madrid is pretty cheap compared to most Western European cities, but it is still cheaper (and sometimes tastier!) to dine-in; here we are enjoying German beer with a homemade paella while trying to recover from a nasty cold.  We were staying with a local Madrid couple who advertised a room on a popular hospitality website.  This website has been indispensable to us during this trip, saving us oodles of money and providing truly restful, homelike accommodation along with a glimpse of the area’s lifestyle usually not provided by your typical hotel.  If you are interested to know about any of the websites, equipment or resources we have used on this trip, feel free to shoot me an email.


 You will see several photos of Madrid’s Crystal Palace on this blog.  It is part of the Parque del Gran Retiro, our favorite park on this trip so far.  It is huge and boasts a lot of activity, street performing, unique fountains and architecture.  I have decided that Stanley Park in our home of Vancouver, British Columbia urgently needs a Crystal Palace to provide the illusion of being outdoors when the weather is wet and chilly.


Another shot, for good measure. 


 Another angle.


Here we are inside.  We were not supposed to sit on those colored circles in the background because, as we were surprised to find out, they constituted an exhibit by a Japanese artist.

 Some of the tile on the outside of the Crystal Palace.

Here we are- guess where?


Moving on from the Crystal Palace, this large man-made pond is in Parque del Gran Retiro in front of a monument to King Albert IX.  People considered it large enough for kayaking and canoeing, and of course strolling around and eating ice cream or picnicking nearby.


Still in Parque del Gran Retiro, in front of the Argentine Lane- there are different lanes named after various Latin American countries.


Crossing a bridge over the river, close to our apartment in Madrid.  There is a lot of original street art in Madrid, which we may have actually enjoyed more than the world-class museums :)


The Arco del Trinfo in Madrid.  You may notice that H and I switched hats- I think we were getting a bit bored with our travel wardrobe.


Here we have moved on to Bilbao to stay with a family friend we had never met, but wow, are we glad we finally did!  Monica was an amazing hostess, super intelligent and simply delightful to talk to.  The weather was a bit misty and chilly, but we didn’t mind, since it reminded us of home (in the Pacific Northwest).  Here we are in front of the cathedral in the historic center of Bilbao, another uber-polished Spanish city with a sky-high unemployment rate :(


Bilbao’s Puente Colgante is a world heritage site that provides an awesome view of the surrounding area and illustrates how the wealthy and working class neighborhoods were historically divided by the river (I will shed further light on this in subsequent posts).


Here we are a bit bedraggled as we arrive in Paris after an overnight bus from Bilbao.  We generally travel by bus, since it tends to be much cheaper than the train, can provide great scenery and overnight accommodation, and can be booked at the last minute.  Comfort levels vary from acceptable to luxurious, as was the case on our recent bus from Prague to Bratislava, Slovakia, which provided a personal entertainment system, refreshments and a travel attendant!


 Here we are in front of the Louvre.  We never went in.  Whaaaaat is up with that, you may ask.  It is just too much museum.  When I went to Paris in the 90s with my family, I had the privilege of entering and viewing the Egyptian portion.  For this trip, a few smaller museums were enough for us, especially since the weather was awesome and created an outdoor museum of sorts, setting off the beautiful architecture and detailing on the buildings, and illuminating the flowers in the park landscaping.


Goofing off while my dear friend Marya (with whom I attended the University of Oregon) and her husband, Pierre, looked up our next stop on our walking tour of Paris.


The top floor of the stunning Printemps department store in Paris, which provided an amazing enough view of the city for us to forego the Eiffel Tower.  Also a WTF move, right?  But we found plenty to do instead, and enjoyed having the extra 40 euros in our pockets :)

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

On the edge of the earth, or so it appears :)  With our friend Monica in Bilbao, Spain.

Here we sample Belgian beers under the guidance of our delightful friends Gwen, Anna and Melanie, who hosted us during our stay in Brussels.

Our visit to the East Side Gallery at the Berlin Wall was unforgettable.  This once desolate, terrifying area is now an energetic landscape filled with sunbathers and picnickers, set to an open-air soundtrack of unbeatable Berlin techno music.  Above, Harold and I push the wall down (in the wrong direction!) while Mia and Patrick chat in the background.  The four of us met up for an extremely last-minute, whirlwind visit to Berlin, an eight-hour drive for each of us, with them cruising in from Tubingen, Germany and us rumbling on down from Amsterdam.

Madrid has some amazing art museums, and we had the privilege of visiting both the Reina Sofia and the Prado free of charge :)  Partially due to the economic crisis, museums are frequently open to the public, which helps make Madrid one of Europe's most budget-friendly destinations (at the moment).  The above photo showcases Harold's impressive photo editing skills and captures our appreciation of an apocalyptic piece at the Reina Sofia Museum of Art.

Here a snap, there a snap, everywhere a snap-snap....

As we sit, drinking Czech beer and eating goulash in the kitchen of our Prague lodging while listening to salsa music, I have decided I am in more of a "photo mood" than a writing mood, and so I will proceed to share some sundry pics we have taken during the past month in Bilbao, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam, Berlin and Prague.  Here we are in Paris on the bridge leading to Napoleon's residence and the Louvre.