Friday, October 23, 2015

I say Buda you say Pest

I'm a little behind on my tales of Budapest and it just comes down to shear laziness. I've spent the last four days in heavenly Santorini and just decided to soak it all in and not sit in front of the laptop too much. More on my Grecian detour in another post, for now Budapest.

While in London I spent quite a while wandering and reading in the amazing Stanford's Travel Bookstore. I could have been there all day but after an hour and a half I figured I'd spent enough time for one afternoon. While there I picked up pocket sized Lonely Planet books for both Prague and Budapest. These turned out to be great and best of all not bulky to be carrying around. They obviously didn't have all of the detail but enough of the major must-dos and some good other suggestions of walks and whatnot. After the few days in Prague I put that one away and moved on to Budapest. Seeing as I had done no reading up on what to do while there I figured my seven hour train ride from Prague would more than suffice.

I was originally going to spend five nights and four days in Budapest but the weather wasn't great and I was itching for some warmer temperatures. So in the end I cut it short by a day but still got to see a good amount of the city and didn't have to cram too much in each of the three days. The grey skies, patches of rain, and cool temperatures lent itself more to picking a few things to see and then enjoying some time in one of the fancy old cafes that are all over the city. Definitely some of the fanciest locations for an afternoon coffee - New York Cafe at the Boscolo Hotel and the Cafe in the Alexandra Bookshop were beautiful old spaces. The coffee is unnecessarily expensive, but you're paying for the fancy experience.

All of the photos from the three days are here.

Budapest's Castle area with Matthias church and the Fisherman's Bastion are fantastic and have great views looking across the river from the Buda side to Pest and the massive Parliament building that sits just across. The detail and paintings on the inside of St Matthias church, and numerous others, was beautiful. Floor to ceiling there was something to look at and admire.

The Old Synagogue in the Jewish quarter is stunning. I think I went in more synagogues over the week between Budapest and Prague than churches for once. Definitely shows that I was in a different part of Europe and for me quite fascinating since the last time I was in a synagogue was probably someone's Bar or Bat Mitzvah in 7th grade and certainly at that time I was not interested in looking around an admiring the space. I would have been more interested in when the party was starting!!

The Parliament in Budapest is a stunner of a building. It's got so many spires, details, and is just massive along the river front. In addition to admiring the outside I also did one of the tours to get to see the inside - for me it was totally not worth the money at all. It might have been the day that I did it on (they said it was unusually busy with actual activities within the building) but it was less than 30 minutes and two of the main things we didn't get to see. I was quite disappointed to not see the grand entry staircase which is supposed to be fantastic. It was also incredibly disorganized to begin with and trying to figure out where to be and what group to follow and attempt to listen to didn't lead to a good starting impression. Oh well!

Just down from the Parliament building along the water is a memorial called 'Shoes on the Danube'. It is simple pairs of shoes along the river bank as a memorial to Jews who were executed there but told to remove their shoes before being shot and then their bodies falling into the water. Seeing something as simple as shoes and of all sizes, men's, women's and children's makes for a memorable site.

One very small museum that I did seek out was the Miksa Roth House. Miksa Roth was a well known stained glass and mosaic maker in Budapest in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The house that he and his family lived in before the war is now a small museum and best of all they have a number of his pieces on display and then a rotating temporary collection. Looking up close at the stained glass and seeing not just the glass work but also the painting that he did over the glass to provide the details was amazing. I've seen a lot of stained glass throughout the various churches and what not but seeing it up close was quite different.

Last but not least I couldn't leave Budapest without taking in the local culture of Turkish style baths. There are numerous ones throughout the city and based on my research they range from feeling like a water park to much smaller traditional spaces. I was going to go to one of the larger ones, mostly to take in the architecture and see what they were all about, but I ultimately decided to head to a smaller one - not to mention that it was like half the price. Kiraly Baths was definitely no frills and seemed to be mostly locals (read seniors!) enjoying an afternoon of relaxation. There were numerous pools of varying temperatures, including a freezing cold dip(!), steam room and sauna. You just pop between them as you like. It was quite relaxing for my last afternoon there just before I then got an hour long Thai foot massage. I couldn't resist that either given that it was quite cheap - not Thailand cheap but way better than SF prices for the quality that I got!

With my bath experience complete, successful massage, and full belly from hearty Hungarian dinners each night I was done with the cold weather and looking to trade my boots and coat for flipflops and tank tops. Off to Greece I headed - 36 hours in Athens and then 4 days in Santorini.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Lost in Prague

I normally consider myself to have a pretty good sense of direction and if I go somewhere once I usually remember fairly well how to both return back to my starting point and find it again later. Well, walking around certain parts of Prague threw all of that out the window! Any time I found myself in or near the Old Town section of the city it was totally dependent on Google maps and in most cases full on navigation mode. I did well with the multiple maps that I had but in the twisting winding streets and alleys of the Old Town I was SOL. One evening I was certain that I knew where I was going and it turned out to be completely the wrong way and I felt like I was walking in circles around the Astronomical clock forever. It's cool that it was the 605th birthday of the clock and all but I was hoping to get back to my hotel!

Also, one of the spots on my list to check out, Wenceslas Square, I didn't realize that for two days I'd been walking through it after leaving my hotel. It was totally underwhelming and one less sight to seek out :) The same was true when I wanted to check out the old building art as forms of identification prior to using numbers along Nerudova Street - I didn't realize I was on the actual street until I got to the end. I'll say in this case I was so distracted eating my delicious trdelnik that I couldn't see anything else. I had to backtrack up the street filled with people to take time to look up and see the various images above the doorways.

After three full days in Prague I think I did pretty well to see most of the sights and wander around the neighborhoods and took lots of pictures. There's still a few more things that I'd like to go back and see but for the first time I'd say I did OK. While I didn't have any rain, just chilly temperatures, I certainly did not have beautiful skies until Sunday (my last full day) and Monday morning before catching the train. But that was OK, I attempted to plan my sightseeing around getting clearer skies for nice elevated views across the city. I also attempted to get to major sights early in the day and I was semi-successful with that but I should have been even earlier. The crowds and tour groups at the castle were a bit much.

All of the pictures are here. Don't mind the dang spot appearing in a fair number of them, apparently there was something on the lens and Google photos doesn't let me really edit it out. Ugh!

The Jewish Quarter and Jewish Museum sights I did on my first day and found them all to be incredibly interesting. Seeing the synagogues, old cemetery (where apparently there are potentially 12 layers of bodies buried), Holocaust history and memorials was all very interesting. Walking through the Pinkas synagogue and looking at the almost 80,000 names of Jews killed during the Holocaust written on the walls and then the drawings from children done in the Terezin camp was quite somber. The interior of the Spanish Synagogue was stunning. I was going to go back there for a concert on one of the evenings but decided on another venue.

Prague Castle and the surrounding areas were packed with people but still fairly enjoyable. Even with all of the people I experienced I couldn't help but wonder what it's like in the height of Summer - eeeek! St Vitus cathedral was very reminiscent of Notre Dame with it's Gothic style and massive stained glass windows. This was probably my favorite sight, in addition to wandering the gardens, at the Castle. Golden Lane was very cute but so packed with people the charm was gone.

When I knew the sun was going to be out and the skies a bit clearer I sought out some viewpoints where I could overlook the city. Sunday was the sunny day so I started with heading right for the Charles Bridge and the Old Town Bridge Tower. Luckily I hadn't gotten there any earlier than I had because upon my arrival a few minutes after 10 I realized that it had only just opened at 10AM. Perfect timing, there was hardly anyone up at the top and not nearly the crowds of the afternoon along the bridge itself. Great views across the river to Prague Castle and over the rooftops of Old Town. Petrin Hill and its mini Eiffel Tower provided spectacular views over the city as well. The walk up the hill was quite pleasant and helped keep me warm when it was quite chilly. I attempted to stay off the main winding pathway once I realized that it was the main Segway route (more on those later!).

Funky and fun art is all around the city. I would love to go back and just try to take in as much of that as possible. I did see the statues of two guys peeing, one man hanging from a pole over the middle of the street, babies climbing the TV tower, and figures hanging beneath a bridge appearing to be flying over the water. Despite numerous Segway tour groups the Lennon Wall, with Beatles cover singer included, was one of my favorite sights. I love to see places where people are leaving notes, drawings, and graffiti to what has become art in it's own right.

And what is it about the Segway tours anyway? Can someone please enlighten me. I see them offered in pretty much every city (San Francisco included) but never have I actually seen so many people actually taking them. Seriously people?!?! I am curious to know whether or not it's a combined ticket with a club or some type of after party because the age group on them was usually quite young. I don't want to be on a Segway to begin with but certainly don't like to idea of being on one in a line of people down cobblestone streets.

Live music abounds throughout Prague. I discovered this quite quickly and thought that it would be a great thing to do one evening. I happened upon a music shop when I was in the Old Town square that had information about numerous different shows going on each night and a map of the various venues. Apparently this is how many of the churches make money - they have classical or otherwise music concerts a few nights a week and charge admission. I thought the Spanish Synagogue was so beautiful I thought about going to see a symphony concert there but I ultimately decided to go for a husband and wife guitar duo playing a small art gallery. Not quite the same setting but a mix of music, mostly Spanish and Flamenco but also some Bach, and a nice small crowd.  

And they even have a dancing building...

Thanks Prague for a lovely three and a half days with lovely sights, lots of walking and best of all cheap food and drink! Off to Budapest now via train with the latest installment in the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, The Girl in the Spider’s Web, book in hand thanks to the Gatwick airport. At some point I need to make a decision on the next move. My planned adventure to Istanbul and some Turkish beaches may be on hold til tensions (both local due to elections and given the proximity to Syria) and bombings settle down.  Probably should have bought that refundable ticket as I'm no Carrie Matthison.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Iceland's Fire & Ice

The latest country checked off the travel list is now Iceland. And when I say 'country' we did indeed see the full country. Before heading to Iceland I got questions from people as to why on earth I was going there. The response was that I kept hearing all about it - obviously the hot new place to be going so I needed to see what all the fuss was about - and it's home to that dang Eyjafjallajökull volcano that erupted in 2010 and stranded me in Dublin. Also, I'd seen some pretty awesome pictures and thought sure, why not.

Well, I can now say firsthand that you should definitely travel to Iceland - it's an incredible experience... the landscape of waterfalls, glaciers, mountains, lava fields, bubbling and steaming earth, and coast lines, along with friendly people (when you did actually see anyone), food that was much better than anticipated, and enough sheep, horses, cows, swans, reindeer, and goats to outnumber the population by many times over made for amazing sights. It's also a place deeply rooted in it's history, stories, and legends of both real and mystical mythical peoples. I'm now quite keen to begin reading some (or if I'm really ambitious, all) of the Icelandic sagas that we heard so much about. Additionally, when I think about places to go and things to see these days I'm not only searching out a specific city or country that I've never been to it's more the chance to see something that I've never seen in my life and might never see again. Two items that made the 'never seen before' list after being in Iceland - icebergs floating in a glacial lagoon and washed up on a black sand beach (amazing!) and aurora borealis (northern lights).

If you're thinking about Iceland do it soon - tourism has taken off there thanks curiosity following to the Eyjafjallajökull eruption and I think in a few years it may be quite a different country. With the exception of a few very touristy spots Iceland still feels raw and untouched. As more and more tourist come more roads will likely be paved, signs posted, and even places made off limits. Based on what we learned about the Icelandic culture this will not go over well - while individuals in Iceland may technically own land there's no such thing as trespassing so you're free to pretty much go and do as you please and they don't want to be told otherwise. Signage, lines on the road, etc appeared to be more of a suggestion than requirement.   

And when you go you've got to be flexible and bring your adventurous side. The weather changes ridiculously fast and can be quite different from one area to another so if you're willing to change directions and plans to follow the weather you'll have a much more enjoyable time. Also, driving away from Reykjavik and off the main roads is the best way to see things. It's gonna be a bumpy ride and potentially a long one so just buckle up and try not to hit every hole in the road.

All the pictures can be found here. Enjoy the photo journey through Iceland and it's changing weather!

The trip began with a quick pit-stop in Dublin for one night to pick up my travelling companion, Yvonne. There are direct flights between Iceland and Dublin a few days a week so we headed off on a Sunday afternoon with a return ten days later on the following Tuesday crack of dawn flight. Prior to my arrival in Dublin I'd done very little of the planning for what we might see and do for nine days due to the Mont Blanc trek - luckily Yvonne was much more on top of it! Also, thanks to a recommendation from a friend we were hooked up with a local tour guide who we planned to spend three days with. Best decision ever! Teitur made our trip fantastic and gave us much more confidence in our driving and what we could see and do for the few days that we were without him. 

We saw so much and drove almost 4000km over nine days that I can't even remember every location let alone every detail so I'll share the highlights. I want to create a map but Google Maps is being way to temperamental for me right now so it will suffice to say that we essentially drove the Ring Road (Route 1) from Reykjavik heading West to East along the South, then made our way up to the north and around counter clockwise adding in both the Westfjords and Snaefulness Peninsula.

Between Teitur's knowledge of anything and everything Icelandic and what we read in the process of going cover to cover through our Lonely Planet guides I definitely think we got to see and experience much of the best that Iceland has to offer. While I don't think I need to rush back I'd love to see it covered in snow with waterfalls frozen over and also be back earlier in the summer to get out into the mountains and hike.

Other than saying everything we saw was amazing here are the top 10...

1. Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon and beach - this spot was likely my absolute favorite. We actually went twice because the first time we saw it the afternoon was very grey but luckily the weather forecast looked like it might be clear first thing in the morning. We were only staying about 45 minutes away so we got up early drove back to the lagoon and got some amazing pictures.

2. Pinpointing a favorite waterfall is difficult - they're big, small, known, unknown, and everywhere - so here are a few that I very much enjoyed... Godafoss, Dynjandi, Gljúfrabúi, Seljalandsfoss

3. Snaefulness Peninsula - this is an area north of Reykjavik with a national park, cliffs along the coastline, a massive glacier, and apparently the most photographed mountain in Iceland. We didn't have great weather here but there were spots of sun and it was still beautiful.

4. Viking Village and beach near Stokksnes light house - a Icelandic film director built a Viking village to be used as a movie set but it's been delayed so this village is just sitting there in a field with mountains on one side and water on the other. Also the drive up the east coast from here to the town of Djupivogur was fabulous.

5. Hiking on the Svinafellsjokull glacier where Interstellar was filmed - We couldn't be in Iceland and not experience a glacier first hand. With crampons on and ice axes in hand Teitur took us for a wander on the Svinafellsjokull glacier. It was stunning and definitely looked like an alternate universe! Comparing this glacier hike to one I did in New Zealand this one definitely felt more rugged and natural. New Zealand's Fox Glacier was great but here in Iceland there were no pre-defined paths and set routes. And while there were tour groups coming and going it wasn't full of them.

6. Bubbling, steaming, and spewing earth near Myvtan and Krafla - while the stench of sulfur can be pretty nasty watching steam blowing from the ground and mud and water just boiling away is pretty cool. We saw a few different spots like this throughout the trip but this was the best. Just a thin rope and one or two signs keep tourists away from the ridiculously hot earth as you wander around.

With all this hot water of course comes the natural hot springs and hot tubs. We took advantage of a few along the way at night, but certainly not enough!!

7. Turf Huts - traditional Icelandic homes and buildings were made out of turf with grass roofs. We stayed in a turf hut one night when we were in the highlands and then later saw the amazing historical site of Glaumbaer with preserved huts.

8. Aurora Borealis - September isn't known as the best time to see the northern lights so I wasn't going into the trip with my hopes up. Though when Teitur told us that he'd seen an amazing night of lights at the end of August of course I was eager to see the same. We did get a little lucky on one night. They weren't super bright and I could only really see green but it was very clear that there was activity in the sky and it was dancing from side to side. When at midnight Teitur came running into our hut yelling 'Jessie, Yvonne, the lights' I slowly moved myself out of bed and put all my warm clothes on unconvinced that I wanted to get up - but I'm glad I did.

9. Fjords - Iceland is filled with fjords and they make for beautiful landscape with the land just dropping down into the water. In the East and West of the country we drove in and out of a few of them. The area of the Westfjords which is very sparsely populated and according to the Lonely Planet book only about 14% of tourists actually visit the area was beautiful. The weather wasn't great and we only had time to drive and explore one of the areas, but still totally worth it. We went to the Western most point of Iceland and also of Europe (if you're not counting the Azores) but it was so windy we didn't say out of the car for too long for fear of being blown over!

10. Animals are everywhere and many of them are very friendly - sheep, cows, goats, horses, reindeer, swans, arctic foxes, and birds of all kinds definitely outnumber people throughout Iceland. Sadly I missed seeing any puffins but that's OK, I saw enough images and pictures of them to make it seem like I saw them in person.

The Icelandic horses are beautiful curious creatures that come right up to you to see what's going on. We discovered that goats really enjoy Pringles, or I'm sure anything you're feeding them, sheep like to stand in the middle of the road and just stare at you as the car approaches before making a decision about which way to run, and swans are everywhere across the country because they (and many other birds) use Iceland as a breeding ground. Seeing a few swans swimming in a pond will no longer feel like a special sight after seeing so many in Iceland.

If you're wondering yes, we did do Reykjavik, the Golden Circle driving loop, and the Blue Lagoon but they didn't really make the top highlights. They're great if you just have a few days but there's so much more country to see. Reykjavik takes about 30 minutes to walk around and with a few sights you could make a half day or day of it. We really just used it as a starting point to get our bearings before heading off. The Blue Lagoon is certainly an experience and one that is recommended. It's like being in a factory with loads of tour buses, people with their selfie sticks, and even some wearing water wings in water that's not very deep. But we just put the face masks on like everyone else and just enjoyed it!

I could keep going on and on with more details and stories of the adventures and mishaps along the way but it's already gotten long so I'll stop for now. I'm making my way east through Europe for a bit before finding my way back to San Francisco in a few weeks.