Monday, August 6, 2012

Budapest - July 20, 2012

Parliament. If you squint, it looks kind
of like Westminster Palace. 

Sarah says before we got there, she pictured Budapest as this exotic city with buildings with odd towers - almost medieval or Middle Eastern. She was a bit intimidated and unsure what to expect. It's not - it's actually fairly westernized. The currency is non-Euro and low-value (220 to the dollar), and the language is completely unrelated to any language spoken to the west, but the architecture is solidly European and most people speak enough English that communication isn't difficult.

Sunset picnic overlooking the city.
The big draw in this city is the baths. There are a whole bunch of natural hot springs under the city, so when the city was under occupation by the Turks in the 17th and 18th centuries they built a lot of big bathing areas in their fashion. More were built later as well, continuing the tradition. We went to the biggest one, Szechenyi, and were blown away. There were easily 15 different indoor pools and a few giant outdoor ones, all different temperatures from shock pools to hot tubs. Even one of the giant outdoor pools was 34 degrees - what an experience lying in that one, in the sun, watching people play chess on the edge. We spent 5 hours in the pools.

Lock your love to this rack and throw
the key in the Danube to make it last.
Some things defy explanation.
We've found by this point that a great way to meet people is to do a walking tour of the city the first day we're there. Most places have a free one that runs on tips, and you get a condensed history lesson along with interesting stories about some of the famous sights of each city. We actually met a girl from Vancouver on the tour in Budapest and it turned out she even went to university with my sister! Small world. We ended up going out to a club with her and some people from her hostel, and there we randomly ran into a couple that we'd met a week previously on a pub crawl in Prague. What a strange day...

We had four nights here, and spent most of the time walking around, eating ghoulash and chocolate-covered cheese bars, seeing the city and meeting the people. Next, onto Croatia.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Vienna - July 17, 2012

This post is actually about a week old, but we've been busy and wifi is hard to come by in Croatia.

Cathedral at night in the city center

Vienna is simply magnificent. It's very stately and proud of its long standing history as  the capital of the Hapsburg empire, and later the Austro-Hungarian empire. Palaces, opera  houses, and museums litter the downtown streets, and the architecture is all very stately. Every time you turn a corner there's a 200-year-old fountain in front of you.

Sarah wants a pet otter.
We spent four nights here, in a nice hotel just outside of the downtown core for 65 euros a  night. The first was probably the best. We wandered around downtown, found a pool bar where we had a drink and played an hour of 8 ball, then had gelato, wandered into the Vienna Film Festival where they were playing Phantom of the Opera on a building-sized screen (in German of course), then had an amazing hot dog creation which is a bratwurst stuffed into a bun that's sealed on one end so the mustard doesn't leak out.

Shoenbrunn Palace
We certainly saw why Vienna always ranks as the most livable city in the world. The metro  system is second to none - you can go from anywhere to anywhere trivially and quickly.  Prices are good, not much more expensive than home. Everything seems very well designed, and it's the little things that you notice. A garbage can is never more than 20 meters away. The metro shows you how many minutes until your train arrives. Streets are clearly labelled for walking, biking, or driving. The pedestrian-only streets were just buzzing with people all day.

Need two hands to take a self shot with a DSLR...
We didn't get to see as much of the city as we'd have liked because we were sick for these  few days, but we visited the Shoenbrunn Palace and Zoo over a couple days, and the Natural  History Museum where we spent an hour staring at the precise differences between various  kinds of rocks. I know, I know, but we had a good time. 

Then we took a 7 hour train to Budapest... :)

Friday, July 13, 2012

Prague - July 13, 2012

Getting here was tough... 14 hours of this.
Prague is not what I expected. I had the image of a crazy party town, with clubs going  until all hours of the night and beer flowing everywhere. While it certainly has that side to it (and we definitely partook), what really stood out for us was the culture and history.

Holy absinthe selection Batman!
Cool ropework ceiling!
Prague is old. It was barely touched during the war so most of it is still standing. Many  of the buildings around town date from the 17th and 18th centuries, and examples of Gothic  and Baroque architecture abound. The old town square has a cathedral that was started in  1360 and a giant 30-foot-high astrological clock that was high-tech in the mid 1400s. You can see layers of stone flaking off the sides of buildings and crumbling in the cobblestone streets. It evokes a certain...insignificance, standing there and thinking that half of the  buildings you can see were used by people going about their daily 16th century lives. You can feel the layers of history oozing out of the streets. Recent buildings abut ancient  ones and have cutouts so as not to cover up old sculptures or inscriptions.

The two towers of Our Lady Before Tyn
Everything is overly ornate. Railings are gilded in gold, doorways have heads or vines carved into the stonework, balconies are resting on the shoulders of people carved into the  walls. Statues line the tops of all the significant structures. The insides of the cathedrals are something else - I felt almost overwhelmed with the weightiness of St. Vitus' Cathedral in Prague Castle that was begun in 1344.

The people are friendly and we never once felt unsafe wandering around, even late at night after our pub crawl (and David got THE BEST BURRITO EVER from a hole-in-the-wall Mexican place at 2:30am to boot). Most people, especially younger ones, speak English fluently and switch  without a second thought as soon as we say "Hello" instead of "Ahoy" (Czech).

I told you the ceiling was cool!
We spent four nights there. Some clubbing, lots of walking around taking pictures, and tons of eating and drinking. Pints of beer for 30 crowns ($1.5) and traditional czech goulash  with beef and dumplings for 110 meant most days we could eat a delicious dinner out for under $20.

We're on the train to Vienna right now as I type this (and posted now that we just checked into our hotel here). The rest of the trip is starting to take shape for us - it seems like the next stops will be Budapest, Split, then a ferry to  Ancona (Italy) and then maybe Rome, Venice, south France, Barcelona, Paris, ???. 5 weeks to go!

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Amsterdam - July 7, 2012

Three days ago we were sitting on a bed in Frankfurt. David was looking at hostel prices, Sarah was reading wikitravel Amsterdam, and suddenly she said "huh, 750,000 people in the city own 800,000 bikes." It's one thing to know that fact, but another to experience it. Everybody owns a bike, and bikes are stacked up against every visible post, tree, and wall 2 or 3 deep throughout the city. Every road has dedicated bike lanes and bike traffic signals. We watched a man in a suit hop off his bike, tie it to a post, grab his briefcase on his way into work.

Wednesday evening we wandered around the city, then drank beer on the edge of a canal, watching groups of people go by in little motorboats. Seems like that's the thing to do after work - get together with friends for dinner, drinks, and speeding around the canal system with music going. We were entertained with our drinks but still felt a bit envious of the Wednesday night karaoke groups on speedboats, dancing and singing with beer.

Thursday we did the museum thing and learned a ton about Van Gogh. Cool. I didn't know he produced serious art for only 6 or 7 years before he shot himself at the age of 37. Amsterdam has an entire museum dedicated to his life. Then we had a late lunch in Vondelpark in the middle of the city, lying next to a pond with a bottle of wine and some fresh fruit. We thought it would be fun to drink in the park since we can't really do that at home, and ended up feeling out of place being the only ones around us without a joint in hand. Ahh, Amsterdam.

Friday was a bike trip day. Renting bikes is obviously easy here, so for 25 euros we got a pair of them and rode east out of the city to a couple smaller towns, Muiden (MAO-den) and Weesp (veesp). Picked up dutch pastries and meat pies along the way for lunch, ate them on a grassy strip overlooking a smaller canal in Muiden, before visiting castles, forts, and windmills. The towns are close - only about 10km away with farmland in between, and they're like miniature versions of the city. Canals everywhere, but the buildings are shorter and closer together. It's funny, Muiden feels almost like a scale model of Amsterdam (with a cool castle in the background).

We've been going to a local coffee place every morning run by a hilarious guy named Pete. He says the only good coffee shop in Seattle is "Pete's coffee bar", so his shop is the Pete's coffee of Amsterdam. He sings to himself in Italian while making cappuccinos, and when I tried to pay after he made the coffee, he insisted I wait until we were finished - "This is a time to relax!" He's been in the local coffee business for as long as I've been alive.

<-- Pete

More to come from Amsterdam...

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Amsterdam - July 4, 2012

Amsterdam is awesome.

Frankfurt - July 3, 2012

On the way to Calgary, when
the plane wasn't full yet.
Frankfurt is a city of contrasts. Old brick buildings surround the main train station, with the skyline punctured by modern metal and glass skyscrapers. We made our way there from the airport by regional train without too much trouble; though, I had to puzzle out what kind of train ticket to buy from 6 different options labelled in German and figure out which station and platform to wait at from the wall-sized departure schedule, again labelled only in German.

View from the hostel room. Train station
is just around the corner.
We'd prebooked two nights in a hostel near the station. The room was small but had a private bathroom. It was clean and the place was run like a 5 star hotel. We walked in to a gleaming tiled lobby and professional uniformed staff manning the front desk 24/7, an extensive continental breakfast with linen tablecloths and freshly made cappuccinos. Not bad for 50 euros a night. We like it so much we booked another night there for the end of our trip.

Just a 13th century cathedral.
Monday night we wandered through the red light district near the central station. It's such a multicultural city - restaurants from China, Japan, Turkey, Iran, all kinds of European bakeries and delis and produce stands. People speaking half a dozen different languages all within earshot. We got cheap pizza and a $4 bottle of wine and went back to crash and adjust to the 9 hour time difference.
Mmm, french pastries...

Very narrow building!
Tuesday was the touring day. We walked 8 or 10km around the city, up to Bornheim which is an older district of Frankfurt. Lunch was chocolate croissants, pretzels, German pastries, and gelato. We saw a gothic cathedral used to crown the German emperors in the 16th and 17th centuries, and Romer square which used to be the medival town square. It was destroyed during WWII and rebuilt in the classic style. We also found a huge park in the middle of the city, with playgrounds and a waterpark. Tons of kids running around - I guess they have the summers off here too.
Happy hour - with Apfelwine, the local specialty.

Wednesday we get up early and hop on the 11:30 train to...hmm... how about Amsterdam! We'll be there for a few nights, maybe.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Vancouver - July 1, 2012

Sitting in YVR's international terminal; our flight leaves in an hour. It's still all a bit surreal. This trip has been a dream of ours for at least 6 years and we've been seriously planning this for over a year. We don't have a plan, just a backpack and a train pass.

Will post more from Frankfurt tomorrow when we recover from the jet lag.