Mar 18, 2013

Budapest, Hungry - March 2013

What can I say about Budapest...........well, 1st they pronounce it Budapesht & 2nd it's two cities - Buda on one side of the river (in the hills) & Pest on the other side.  It has beautiful buildings & bridges.  This country has been destroyed & rebuilt over & over (Stalin, Hitler, Attila the Hun, Russia - seems like everyone has tried to rule there).  So there is a mishmash of styles - Andrassy Avenue was fashioned after the Champs Elysees. The parliment building was made to look like London's.  I saw Russian style block apartment buildings. I saw Vienna, Prague, London, Paris, St Petersburg - all mixed up into one.  The people seem nice, everyone speaks English - I felt very comfortable walking around, shopping & dining on my own.  The food was good - flavorful but not spicy.  I loved the goulash soup & Hungarian stew.  They use a lot of paprika - hot, mild, sweet, spicy.  I also saw a lot of poppyseed dishes on the menu - mostly desserts (ice cream, cake etc..).  Unfortunately, I was to full from all the goulash to try dessert :)

We stayed at the Andrassy Hotel - evidently Mikhail Gorbachev was known to stay there.  It's a great hotel with a good location.  The breakfast was decent.  The 1st day we did a walking tour of the city, I definitely think this is the best way to really discover a city.  We stopped for a late lunch at Gerbeaud Cafe - Empress Sissi was known to eat here whenever she was in Budapest.  It's was beautiful & food was great!  That night we ate at Menza - another place with really good food.  I tried the local white wine & it sweet, smooth, nice :)

The 2nd day we started with a bus tour through the city.  Then we went to the highest peak so we could get the best views & pictures.  We continued on to Fisherman's Bastion, St. Mattias's Church, hero's square & St. Stephens Basilica.  Something interesting about St. Stephens Basilica - is that they have St. Stephen's right hand (mummified) on display.  I think he was the 1st christian king who died in 1038. I have to say for a guy who died so long ago - his had is in pretty good shape (I know a little creepy).  Another stop was a museum of monuments & statues.  It's about 30 minutes outside of town & basically it's a field with old monuments & statues.  Whenever a new ruler came in - they would take the old ones down & put up new ones.  Instead of destroying them - they put them in the field outside of town.  The one of Stalin didn't fare well - they pretty much toppled him, all that was left was his boots.

After our bus/walking tour we had the afternoon free. I had decided to go to the spa.  Budapest is known for their thermal baths - the thermal springs were discovered back in 1879 & are supposed to be great for your health.   With this in mind - I booked a 30 minute aroma massage & built in extra time to soak in the pool.  I was told to spring for the cabin - so I did (the cabin is a place where you can change & leave your belongings).  Okay - do you feel a story coming we go. We (my friend & I)  I arrive at the spa & check in. One of the attendants said they would show us to our cabins - as we are walking there I notice some lockers on the left hand side.  Since I thought we were going to leave our purse in the cabin - I was wondering why we started slowing down. Yep - you guessed it, what looked like a locker was our cabins.  There was a bench inside but I'm not kidding you when you bent over to take your shoes off - you hit your butt on the door & your head on the wall.  Moving on - we are in a bathing suits & flip flops - we walk outside to the outdoor baths, it's about 1 degree celsius & we are walking around little snow mounds.  As I stand there - teeth chattering, I say to my friend - why are we doing this!  She says "it's a cultural experience, hurry up & let's get in the warm water".  We throw our flip flops & towels on a bench & jump in the water.  The water was warm (somehow I thought it would be hotter) - we saw a couple other people we knew & chatted for a while.  Then in the middle of the pool we saw a hot tub, surrounding the hot tub we saw a miniature lazy river.  Of coarse, we had to try that - it looked fun.  So we swam over & gently drifted in.  The lazy river turned out to be a raging cyclone - as I struggled to stay upright & laughing at myself in the process - I wondered how the heck am I going to get out.  The third time around (feeling like I'm in a Griswald movie - look kids Big Ben!) - I finally see my opening & jump/push as hard as I can.  The water spits me out - whew...I made it.  We had enough fun outside & decide to go inside (more baths in there), of coarse this takes about 10 minutes (because we don't want to get out because it's freezing).  We finally make a run for it - get inside, find another pool & jump in.  I assumed since we were visiting hot springs that all the pools would be hot - contrare, the pool we jumped happened to be a cold plunging pool :0   So, we jumped out of this one & continued on until we found another warm one.  We soak for a little bit - warming up until it's time to go get our massage.  Now - this is a huge place & we have no idea where we are going.  My friend & I are directionally challenged - so we asked someone to help us.   She leads us away from the pools to a maze of hallways - I'm starting to get nervous.  Have you ever seen a movie - where the girl gets kidnapped, they keep her drugged & put her in a nasty room & use her as a prostitute.  Now when the good guys, go to get the girl - they have to check all the rooms - as we were walking, this is what I was reminded of.  Doors, paint peeling, rusted bars on the top for air - I was thinking "oh dear God, please don't let her stop here".  I shouldn't of prayed that - because she didn't, she kept going.  As we entered the next room - there were 4 stalls, they looked like your bathroom from high school (grey wobbly metal - you can look over top & underneath).  The tiles at one time were pretty but now are cracked & chipped. As I open the door - I see a very scary looking lady, who points to the table.  Now at this point your thinking, run - turn around & run (but just like in the movies - I don't).  It takes me a second to realize she's not leaving for me to disrobe (there is no robe), she's not turning around - so I proceed to take off my swim top.  No way I'm taking off my bottoms - so wet from the pools. I lay down on a hard folding table, covered with a paper cloth.  There is no music - just the sound of a lady blowdrying her hair & some people laughing from the baths.  There is no candles, no aroma therapy & I think to myself -she is going to give me a shot & I'm going to wake up without my kidneys.  She starts by rubbing my calves for about 10 minutes, then works on my back for about 15 minutes & says finished and leaves (to be honest the massage - what little there was, was good).  I unclenched my hands, jumped off the table, threw on my top & pretty much ran out of there.  I found my friend & we left - as we were discussing our experience she said she got aroma therapy with hers (the scent, body odor  - nice!).  We decided that we would forget this ever happened & never bring it up again.

With that over - we rush back to join the others for dinner.  Tonight we are going to the New York Cafe.  It is magnificient!!  Wow - they pulled out all the stops on this one.  It looks like a museum, not a restaurant.  I needed a little comfort food & had pasta with mushrooms & white sauce - super yum!  With dinner finished we headed off to the river - where we were doing a night cruise down the Danube.  I have to say this was my favorite part of my trip!!  As pretty as Budapest is during the day - it is that much more at night!  Charming & breathtaking - although is was cold, I stood outside most of the time to get a better view & take pictures.

On our last day - we stopped into the Alexandra bookstore.  Not just any bookstore but another beautiful cafe!  We sat & had tea - it was wonderful!  From there we went to a little town about 40 minutes outside of town called Szentendre. It is a charming & quaint little town.  We saw a Serb Orthodox Church & then spent the afternoon shopping, I bought secret boxes for the girls. I took a picture of the man who was making them (basically you have to move pieces around like a puzzle to get inside the box). The girls loved them!!  Our last stop was a late lunch at a litter river front restaurant.  Again - with wonderful food (I had to Hungarian beef stew).

As my trip came to an end - I have to say I am glad I went to Budapest. It's like no place & every place I've been before.  

Jul 2, 2012

Tuscany, Itlay - March 2012

This is my 2nd trip with AWBS – we are visiting the region of Tuscany in Italy.  The places we planned to go were Florence, San Gimignano, Lucca & Chianti.

It’s the 2nd time I’ve been to Florence and I fell in love with it this time. March is much colder but there are not as many people.  We started with a walking tour – the duomo (Santa Maria Del Fiore) is gorgeous!  The Bronze Baptistery doors are really cool!  We visited the Uffizi Gallery & Accademia. They have tons of Renaissance art & of course, the David. My favorite statues were of the unfinished slaves. Michelangelo used to go up into the mountains to pick out the marble, he said the marble spoke to him & he was letting out whatever was in there.  This piece he never finished (hence the slaves..because they were not free).  It was cool – it really looked like they were trying to escape.).  We saw Ospedale degli Innocenti (Hospital of the Innocents')--a place where moms could drop off their unwanted babies by putting them on a secret wheel in the opening of the wall. It dates from the 1400's, in the 1600’s bars were put in place so that only newborns would fit through and be left because too many babies were being abandoned this way.  Florence is beautiful & it has lovely bridges.  We walked across Ponte Vecciho (a bridge that dates back to 996) – it still hosts lots of merchants (high end now).  The food in Florence is amazing – I didn’t have one bad meal.  I did try rabbit, hare & ossobuco – I liked the ossobuco, the rabbit & hare were okay.   I have to mention that Italians drink wine with dinner & espresso after.  I ordered diet coke with dinner & hot tea after.  Which do you think is cheaper??  Wine/coffee – 5.00 and Diet coke/hot tea – 15.00. Every time I ordered the diet coke - the waiter would just shake his head in disappointment.        
San Gimignano is a small walled medieval town. I loved this place!  We had lunch in the center of town; in an outdoor café (gelato was amazing!). We climbed the stairs of the church tower – what a great view of the countryside from up there. There is good shopping with lots of pottery shops – wish I would have had more time here.

Lucca – is a walled city.  We were there over the weekend & there were lots of people out running, riding bikes & having picnics on the wall.  We climbed the Guinigi tower – there are lots of trees & a small garden at the top.  Again it was worth the hike – the views were gorgeous!  We saw Volto Santo di Lucca (The Holy Face of Lucca), it’s a corpus of a crucifix, located in the cathedral of San Martino. Medieval legends stated that it had been sculpted by Nicodemus (who assisted Joseph in depositing Christ in the tomb) and brought to Lucca in AD 742.  Puccini is from Lucca – they have statues & museums of him.  Some of the restaurants are named after his operas.  Also, Napoleon’s sister lived in Lucca – we saw the palace she lived in.
Chianti – is a wine region in Tuscany, the views are beautiful.  Rolling hills with vineyards everywhere – unfortunately rolling, windy roads in a bus, not so great – I would say half of the bus had motion sickness by the time we arrived.  I thankfully sat in the front seat ;)  We stopped at Castello D’Albola winery.  1st we did a tour, saw the property, the cellar & how the wine was made. Then we had a wine tasting with lots of prosciutto & bread in between.  Mmm – great way to end a trip!

Dubai, February 2012

After being in London for 8 months, I desperately needed to go someplace warm & sunny (that wasn’t more than a 7 hour plane ride away).   Evidently – Dubai was that place, so I packed up the family & off we went.  We stayed at the Atlantis on Palm Island.  The Palm Islands are artificial – they drew up a plan, they brought in rock & sand and voila a palm tree shaped island.   It’s very clean & very beautiful but you can feel that it’s not quite authentic.  The hotel is great (similar to the Atlantis in Bahamas, a little smaller & no casino) they have lots of restaurants & shops, an aquarium & a water park (not to mention a beach & pool).  Our favorite restaurant was Yogurt berry – where you could get a huge cup of fruit, topped with frozen yogurt (we had that for lunch a couple of times).  The aquarium is amazing – we went at different times throughout the week (some fish will only come out at night). We also did a back door tour – where they show you how everything is run & then let you feed the eels. Amber & John swam with the dolphins – one of them kissed Amber on the cheek.  John danced with another one. The waterpark is busy but fun - the kids wanted to go to every day. They have all sorts of slides, rides & wave pools.  The craziest slide is a 7 story slide that is pretty much straight down – John & the girls did it quite a few times but I passed (I did it once in the Bahamas when I was younger & once was enough for me). 

BEWARE – of the lazy river!  Picture this - Lauren & I are on a double raft.  John & Amber are on a double raft (in front of us).  We are lazily drifting down the river, every once in a while there will be a small rapid.  We are having fun, enjoying the sun –when we hit a rapid, no problem except at the bottom of the slide, right smack in the middle is a man, COMPLETELY stopped!  Nothing I could do – we hit him (BAM!), he went flying.  I went under his raft – and all I could think about was “oh my word, where is Lauren”.  I come up from under the raft like a roaring maniac – the raft goes flying, my sunglasses go flying.  The only thing I care about it finding my daughter.  I locate her – thankfully, a lady saw what happened & helped her get to John.  I hear the life guard yelling – I think he’s telling me where my sunglasses are (he keeps motioning down).  NOPE – he’s telling me I’ve fallen out of my top!  With as much dignity as a can muster (not much at this point) – I fix my top, grab my raft & swim over to my family.  Where John is laughing so hard he can barely talk. His words between gasps were “only you honey, only you”.
The weather was only bad for 1 day – when we had a sandstorm.  It was interesting – it looked like fog. We decided to go to the mall that day – they claim the largest in the world.  There is a skating rink, an aquarium, a movie theatre; sega is there with rides, tons of shops & restaurants.  We didn’t get to see it all – there were lots of American shops, we found Justice for girls & were in there for over 3 hours.

I had just watched Mission Impossible a couple months earlier - where Tom Cruise scales the outside of Burj Khalifa.  So we had to stop & see that – it’s currently the tallest building in the world.  The outside was impressive – we didn’t go to the top (we wouldn’t see much with the sandstorm).

The other big excursion we did was called Arabian nights.  We met up with 3 other couples we knew, they had kids the same age – so it was very fun for the girls!  We are driven out to the desert in big 4 X 4 vehicles.  We stop & take pictures with the camels & we see a falcon show.  We get back into the vehicle & do a little dune bashing – by dune bashing I mean racing up one side of a dune – pretty much jumping the top (you have to go pretty fast or you’ll get stuck on top – which happened to friends) & then fly down the other side – fish tailing & sliding. Oh my word – I was screaming!  The more I yelled, the more the driver laughed & the faster he went.  We are now in the middle of the desert, surrounded by sand dunes.  We stop & take pictures – it is like nothing I’ve ever seen.  I can’t even describe it – it’s so beautiful.  The kids are running up the dunes & sliding/tumbling down.  We watch the sunset – it’s magical!  From there we head out to a Bedouin camp – where the kids & John ride camels, hold falcons & climb more dunes.  The girls & I get henna tattoos - (which I think are like the ones in Hawaii that wash off after a week, when in reality – I will be sporting it at the formal event I’m attending in 3 weeks). The food is amazing – tapa’s 1st, then the main meal.  The kids loved the food too!  Following dinner there is a belly dancing show – I was not impressed (I like the hula dancers in Hawaii way more).  Then they turned out all the lights in camp – we could see all the stars & constellations (again – amazing!) It’s 10:00 pm & time to go back to the hotel – as we are walking to the vehicle, the driver looks concerned – we have a flat tire.  As everyone else leaves & we are standing in the middle of the desert, all alone – I get a tad nervous but our driver patches it up & we make it back.
The rest of the time we lay by the pool, went to the water park, played at the beach & just relaxed!  It was an amazing family vacation.  The girls have already requested to go back next year.

I can’t end this without telling you about our return home.  We were scheduled to leave at 2:00 pm Sunday afternoon.  On Saturday night, about 11:00 pm – John & the girls are planning out their last morning at the waterpark.  John is sitting at the computer (checking email) – the girls & I are snuggling in for the night WHEN……….John says “Honey- I think our flight leaves in a couple hours”.  WHAT – our flight is at 2pm Sunday – NOPE, it’s 2:00 am not 2:00 pm (evidently, they use military time – 2:00 is 2am, 2:00pm would be 14:00 - opps!)  We called the airline, all other flights are full – okay, don’t panic…..we can still make it.  We have 2 ½ hours before our international flight leaves – all we have to do is change out of our jammies, pack, check out & drive to the airport.  Of course we are late & they don’t want to let us check in BUT thankful John is a fabulous sales person & gold with British Airways and they finally let us board.   We didn’t get our last morning at the waterpark & we didn’t get much sleep that night but John & the girls were good sports and we ended up with a free Sunday to catch up with everything.

Alsace Christmas Markets - December 2011

Christmas Markets – here we come!  This is my 1st time to the Christmas markets & I can’t wait! Also my 1st trip with AWBS (American Women Berkshire & Surrey).

Day 1 - We flew into Basel, Switzerland which is located at the meeting point of France & Germany (you can see all 3 countries at the same time).  Our 1st stop was Kayserberg, a small Alsatian town with timber framed buildings.  They were all decked out with Christmas decorations.  One interesting thing is that they have storks nesting on top of their buildings.  We spent most of the time shopping but did stop for lunch.  I went for the Flammekueche  - the menu wasn’t in English, so I kept my fingers crossed. I was rewarded with something that looked like pizza with no sauce.    I wish we would have had more time in Kayserberg – I would definitely go back.  Our next stop was Riquewihr, another tiny village with a 16th century vintner’s house.  I guess this region is known for its Riesling wine – we did a little wine tasting & a little shopping.  I bought some glass ornaments that were etched while I watched & waited – very cool!  After a long day, we jumped in the bus to head to Strasbourg, where we would be staying.  We had 7:30 pm reservations for dinner – unfortunately, we didn’t make those reservations. We are driving down the highway on the bus, having a good time – talking about all the goodies we just bought.  When all of a sudden the bus comes to a screeching halt – we had taken an exit & were going through an underpass BUT the bus did not fit!  The screeching noise was the hood of the bus getting jammed under the concrete bridge.  The bus driver yells “everyone out – don’t grab anything, just go!”, the top of the bus has the air conditioning unit & wiring – he was afraid it would start on fire.  So – out we go, into the very cold, very dark night and of course, it starts raining.   At 1st it was exciting – something to write about in our blogs but after 45 minutes of huddling together under the bridge, we decided this was lame.  Thankfully, after another 30 minutes another bus arrives to pick us up & take us to our hotel.   At this point, we had missed our dinner reservation.  Some of the ladies walked into town & grabbed a sandwich – I just called it a night.

Day 2 – We started with a walking tour of Strasbourg.  It’s an interesting place; it was French & then German & then French again.  So there are influences from both countries.  It was beautifully decorated, they even had Baccarat crystal chandeliers hanging between the streets.   We saw a Romanesque Gothic Cathedral built during the 12th – 15th centuries.  It’s pretty amazing! We stopped in to hear the choir sing – there are beautiful tapestries hanging along the walls.  It’s very cold inside & we don’t stay long.  Gutenberg lived in Strasbourg for some time, so there are some statues of him.  We stood in the courtyard of the Palace Rohan & heard about all the scandals that went on.    We spent the rest of the afternoon shopping – I bought gingerbread that was beautifully decorated & porcelain candle holders (dome shaped with Christmas scenes) & some Christmas tree napkin rings.  That night we went to dinner – I have no idea where.  They said it was a French restaurant but the person next to me had a plate of meat with a side of meat – looked German (just saying).  My favorite thing – Pretzel bread!  Oh my word – I could just eat that, it was so good!!  How have I never had this before – loved it!  I would go back just to eat this again J

Day 3 – We spend most of the morning in Colmar, it’s a beautiful place with picturesque houses & bridges.  Lots of shopping & food - I found a tea shop!  There is a gothic church there (St Martin’s) – it was built in the 1200’s.  I spent a lot of time wandering around & people watching – eating pretzels (that are so good!)  Our last stop before we left was Obernai – which sits at the foot of Mount Ste-Odile, it’s an old imperial city.  They had a live nativity set.  David our guide took a couple of us to the town hall where we got to taste a lot of different things.  It was a nice way to end our trip.

Jul 1, 2012

Provance, France May 2012

This was my 3rd trip with my AWBS friends.  We visited the region of Provence in France.  Our agenda included Aix, Arles, Le Baux, St Remy, Cassis, Avignon & Nimes.

Day 1 - We drove directly from the airport to Aix-en-Provence.  We did a guided walking tour, a little shopping (there was a market on the main street) & then had lunch (a quick gelato).  It’s a quaint place – with fountains & outdoor cafes.  Cezanne was born in Aix – there was a statue of him in the center of town.    Next we headed to Arles; we stayed at the Jules Cesar Hotel.  At one time it was a convent; our room was located in the cloister.  The rooms were clean & it’s in a good location.  We had dinner at the hotel restaurant – it was okay, they didn’t have mint tea L
Day 2 - We started with a tour of Arles – stopped at the Coliseum (which is still used today for bull fights); an old Roman theatre (which they still use); Eglise St Trophim – 1st we toured the old cloister, which was really cool - the pillars told a story.  Then we toured the church, which was a little creepy & dark.  They had an actual skull & bones and they also had lots of carved skull & bones.  We stopped by L’ Espace - the hospital Van Gogh was taken to after he cut off his ear (this is where he painted the courtyard of the hospital).   We also stopped by Café Van Gogh (where he painted the yellow café).  Then we drove to Les Baux – a dramatic fortress site (one of the 3 wise men, King Balthazar is claimed to have come from here).  I love Les Baux & would have liked to have spent more time here – I would definitely go back.  We toured the castle ruins – which are amazing! They had a catapult demonstration (with water balloons) – which was fun.  The views were breathtaking.  There were lots of shops; I found some really great pottery.  We had gelato again for lunch!  From here we stopped at St. Remy where we toured the psychiatric hospital that Van Gogh spent some time in.  We saw his room (very small & ugly with bars on the windows.  A disturbing & dark portrait of himself hung on his wall – he was a very disturbed person).  You could see the poppies he painted out his window.  The gardens were beautiful!  After a long day, we went back to Arles just in time for our 8:00 pm dinner reservation at  La Fee Gourmande. The restaurant is small & decorated with fairies but the food was very good!  My friend got a big bull steak – I tried it but wasn’t impressed. 

Day 3 – We spent a little time at the farmers market outside our hotel.  Then we drive to Nimes – to visit another Coliseum (which they still use for bull fights) & Maison Carree (one of the best preserved Roman Temples in the region).  From there we drove to Pont Du Gard (an ancient Roman aqueduct bridge).  This is beautiful & worth the stop – we hiked to the top for some great pictures!  Off again, we drove to Avignon to see Pont St Benezet (a famous bridge that people used to sing & dance under).  We sang – cheesy I know but we did.  We also toured the Palais du Papes (a medieval gothic palace the Popes used to live in).  Normally it’s empty but they were having a flower show while we were there – so there were roses everywhere & crazy dresses made of roses.  We had lunch (pizza) at a little outdoor café where it was warm & sunny.  After another long day we headed back to Arles to make our 8:00 pm dinner reservations at Chez Caro – the restaurant is small, the service & food are good.
Day 4 – We are supposed to drive to Cassis (a small picturesque fishing port) & take a boat cruise but the weather wasn’t cooperating – so instead we stopped at E Bodin winery (outside of Cassis) & did a wine tasting.  We met the owner & tasted lots of different wines.  I don’t love wine but it was fun to taste them & then spit it into a bucket!  Finally, we drove down to Cassis – did a quick walking tour & grabbed a sandwich before heading to the airport.  Cassis is very small but beautiful – it could be a set from a movie.