Wednesday, September 30, 2009

9/29 - 9/30: All roads lead to Fehergyarmat

For the past two days, we have been travelling to and from the two towns in far Eastern Hungary where my great-grandparents were born. The excursion has been exhilarating and exhausting -- both physically and mentally. I will sort through the notes Olga and I took and write up the full details at some point in the near future.

In the meantime, here are some possibly interesting statistics about the past 48 hours:
  • transit connections:  5 trains, 3 buses, 2 car rides
  • photographs taken:  204
  • ice creams eaten:  0
  • number of cemetaries visited:  2
  • injuries incurred:  3 (scrape, pricks, abrasion)
  • rail station name that makes olga smile (or laugh hysterically when repeated):  keleti pu
  • major random acts of kindness received:  4
  • transportation and lodging cost for two people:  about $147
  • number of town mayors met:  2
  • hours slept:  13 per person + snoozing
  • favorite new food:  cream of quince soup
  • Hungarian words learned:  15
  • being awaken by rooster:  priceless

Monday, September 28, 2009

9/28: Waiter, there is too much pepper on my paprikas

Started the day meandering through some very untouristy streets in search of a real local experience. Didn't get into any adventures, but it's always nice to see parts of town that aren't in the guidebook.

Walked across the Szabadság (Liberty) bridge over the Danube. It's a great 100+ year old chain-type bridge, and as you approach the Buda side, you see a breathtaking waterfall on Gellért hill. This tempted us to visit the Gellért mineral baths, but decided to hold out until back in Pest.

Hiked up the back of Castle Hill - there are no signs from this side, so we wandered around a bit. The views of the Danube, Pest side, and the rest of Buda are beyond description (sorry!).

Stumbled upon a self-guided tour of wine cellars that were used under and around the castle over the past millenia. The information is interesting but overkill, the wax figures are a bit cheesy, but the cavernous cellars -- including some flooded with water -- that have been connected and snake under the castle area are amazing! The people who built and maintain the museum don't really seem to care much about the cellars themselves, but they are fascinating to burrow through.

Rode the funicular down the mountain and walked through Buda a bit on the way to the Metro. Had dinner at the Claro Bisztro on Raday Ut. This narrow street is several blocks long, packed with about 100 restaurants that are mostly inhabited by Budapestians. The padlizsánkrém (eggplant spread) with veggies and toast was spectacular. The chicken paprikas (pronounced POP-ree-kash, I think) with German Spätzle was great and the carp soup was okie-dokie.

Headed over to the City Park just in time to make it to the Széchenyi thermal baths. This is a big highlight of our trip so far, not to be missed. There is a cool outdoor lap pool, a warm bath/pool for playing that has a current that will shuttle you around a portion of the pool, and a hot bath/pool with high-powered jets that will hit you with hot mineral water at any part of your body you can aim at it. We have been traveling at breakneck pace and this is something we needed desperately.

At the end of the day, I noticed that we had made money. We have more Hungarian Forints in our pockets now than we took out of the ATM yesterday morning. Somewhere along the line, somebody must've given us incorrect change by a huge amount. This is so contrary to our experience in Prague where we were consistently short-changed during numerous purchases -- way more than should occur in a two day period -- and those are just the instances we noticed!

Olga's blogpost from Budapest day 2:

9/27: Budapest here we come

Stepped off the overnight train from Prague to Budapest at almost 9am and no worse for wear. We slept well and enjoyed the mostly quiet ride -- as opposed to the ride from Krakow to Prague that was a little too short and the station loudspeakers were a bit too loud to be able to sleep sound[less]ly.

Dropped off the bags at the hotel and started wandering aimlessly around Pest. It's easy to meander about and try to get lost / discover new areas in Budapest, unlike Prague where everything is small and jam-packed with souvenir shops and Coffee Heaven chain cafes. Passed by the Great Synagogue -- second largest in the world -- noticed that it would be opening in a half hour (10am), so we had breakfast at a cafe across the street. We were munching and watching several waves of crowds flock to the Synagogue, queue up, and then eventually disperse together, wait a minute, and then the cycle would repeat. After several cycles of this, I walked back to the Synagogue to see what's happening. Ran into a friendly congregation member who explained that the synagogue is closed to tours because of the upcoming Yom Kippur Holy Day, but that we should return tonight to partake in the evening services.

Continued walking around Pest a bit and then took the Metro subway to the Holocaust Memorial Center. Enjoyed the subway ride, they seem to be using Soviet-made subways from the 1960s - exactly the same at in St. Petersburg.

The memorial has an exhaustive database for looking up people from Hungary who perished in the Holocaust. It can search by deceased name, parents' names, birthdate, birth town, town deported from, etc. We ran a number of searches based on our family tree but didn't come up with any solid leads (email me if you would like to discuss this in more detail).

We ate lunch like kings of the Austro-Hungarian empire at the Magic Music bar/restaurant: cold strawberry cream soup (eaten as an appetizer, although it was super sweet and yummy), beef Gulyás (our first goulash this trip, although it was available in every country we have visited), saski salad (Hungarian salad similar to Greek), and two glasses of Hungarian wine: all for less than $20 USD inclusive. I could learn to live like this!

Took in a performance of the operett "Csárdáskirálynő" (Gypsy Princess). Enjoyed the music, dancing, and physical humor, but the wordplay was totally lost on me. Olga got a lot out of it by reading the German captions. Would like to see it again in any language I know (preferably English).

Checked into the hotel and changed into nicer clothes (first time this trip). Headed back to the synagogue for services. Rick Steves says "Budapest was built as the head of a much larger empire than it currently governs. [The] city today feels a bit too grandiose for the capital of a small country." Sadly, this is exactly how I would describe the Great Synagogue, built in the 19th century in the Moorish style, designed for a community of Jews much larger than survives today. On Yom Kippur, when the temple should be packed elbow-to-elbow and there should be standing room only, the grand room felt hollow. The "High Holiday Jews", the foreign tourists, and the regulars were all there, and still the place was almost half empty. The congregation had "converted" to Reform Judaism sometime back -- and as a result it seemed that the prayers were entirely in Hungarian. I only recognized what sounded like a maximum of 5 Hebrew words at the end of one of the prayers. It was a completely different experience than what I was imagining. Wandered unsupervised through the bowels of the old building, it is a magnificent structure. Paid homage at the metallic tree of life -- it seems to be in the shape of a weeping willow. Olga says it looks like a Palm (or Psalm) tree. Each of the leaves have the names of Hungarians who perished in the Holocaust. The tree itself is on hallowed ground as the yard behind the synagogue was once a mass grave created by the Nazis. This is a good way to start the Day of Atonement - hopefully tomorrow will be more upbeat.

We have met many friendly locals and fellow tourists on this trip. To meet some of them, please visit Olga's blog:

Sunday, September 27, 2009

9/26: Czech please!

For our last day in Prague, we started off with a farewell lunch at our U Medvidku hotel/brewery. Enjoyed small glasses of the house-made Oldgott barique (half dark beer) with pork neck and bread dumplings - yum! Olga is really getting into the Czech spirit of things, taking one for the beer tasting team.

Visited the Museum of Czech Cubism, which had recently moved into one of only a couple of Cubist buildings in Prague. I was not personally moved by the art, but the history of the building itself is fascinating - check it out:

Finally made it out of the (very) touristy areas and started walking around greater Prague. Meandered over to Frank Gehry's Tančící dům (Dancing House). Being fans of Gehry's work, we were sad to see a big sign saying the building is private and there is no public entrance. But low and behold, around the corner is another sign saying you can have free entrance to the roof if you buy the "cocktail of the day" at Celeste Bar. Well, you don't have to tell me twice! The view from the top is magnificent - you can see to the ends of the earth from up there, it is an indescribably beautiful view of Prague. You'll just have to go see it for yourself!

From there, we crossed over to the Little Quarter to ride the funicular up to the top of the mountain. We were in a bit of a crunch, but we had just enough time to smell the roses (literally) in the mountaintop rose garden. There is something special about those aging Soviet Bloc funiculars - the cars and station interior design seem to be identical to the funicular in Kiev -- somebody should do a full dissertation on this.

Back on the ground, we managed to find the John Lennon wall, which Prague residents had been lovingly graffitiing since the 1980s as a peaceful protest of the politics du jour.

Then we headed on hear the Praga Sinfonietta playing Czech classical/romantic music by Smetana and Dvořák. It seems that when the Czech Philharmonic and the Prague Symfonicky are on break, they have a mini-Symphony that fills in. It was nice to hear the native Czech music in this grand setting (Prague Municipal House), and conducted by one of the few women conductors.

After dinner of Slovakian food -- veal cutlet and potato pancakes filled with ham -- headed back the U Medvidku hotel/brewery one last time for a final-final farewell and one last of the X33 strongest beer in the world. Tried to order the beer float, but the kitchen had just closed. Better luck next time! Picked up our bags and headed towards the train station.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

9/25: Good morning Prague!

The overnight train coughed us out in Prague at just about 7am. No option for snooze, just one //phooey// and we were off and running. It was nice to be in the city in the early morning for our initial observation of the town before the infesting species of americanus souveniricus and russianus touristicus swarmed the region. Our first day was fairly typical, here are a few of the highlights for anybody who has never been to Prague (yet):

Started off at the old Astronomical Clock in the Old Town Square. Besides its unique and creative use of the word "clock", there is also a mechanical skeleton who wakes up every hour to pull on the string that rings the bell, a live bugler plays from the top of the tower, and when it's all done the rooster crows what sounds like a trumpet got flattened by a truck. It's all very amusing!

After a pitstop for what I believe they are calling Turkish Ice Cream (with sesame seeds!!), we signed up for a 4-hour walking tour, which was just right. Walked all around the grounds of the Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral -- both which will be closed tomorrow because the pope is coming -- everyone up there was in a mad frenzy!!

Continued the tour and passed what appears to be a monument to the never-there-when-you-need-it toilet (or so it seemed), and another hot air balloon -- this time it was tied to the Vitava River. What is it with Eastern Europeans launching hot air balloons tied to riverbanks?

Re-entered the old town by crossing the Charles Bridge, which was built in 1342 and is presently (still?) under renovation. This is a great place to view the touristicus in this prime environs. Photographs are being snapped, caricatures are being sketched, statues are being rubbed for luck, overpriced golems are being purchased, pockets are being picked (literally and metaphorically), defenestrations are being reenacted.

Mostly kidding the defenestration reenactment (although maybe now somebody will take the idea). Our walking tour guide defined defenestration as the act of throwing somebody out a window in Prague -- this is an important part of Czech history. John of Nepomuk was thrown off the (then brand new) Charles Bridge in the 14th century for refusing to tell the King the confessed secrets of the Queen. Czech Protestant nobles threw two Austrian Catholic officials out of a window in 1618, starting the 30-year war. And if we're not careful, the timing is ripe for this very thing to happen again to some unlucky tourist!

The tour ended in the Jewish Quarter, the former ghetto and then Nazi-imposed ghetto and then razed/newest construction in town. These exhibits will also be closed tomorrow -- not in deference to the visiting Pope -- but due to Shabbat. Now this part of town is part luxury shopping (think Swarovski, Prada, Omega) and part Jewish museums and synagogues. There are synagogues that appear to be working and those that are permanent museums. The Pinkas synagogue is particularly moving - listed on the walls are the names of 77,297 Czech Jews perished in WWII. Apparently, in 1968 they discovered a water leak in the basement that was threatening the foundation of this synagogue. While attempting to fortify it, the Soviet say this as their opportunity to shutdown the exhibit and paint over the walls, which is how it stayed until 1990. During the 20th century, the Czech Jews really went out of the frying pan and into the fire, so to speak. The 200-year-old Spanish synagogue is also quite nice, with its beautiful Moorish (Sephardic?) design. It's moving to look at, even if you are exhausted from reading all of the exhibits.

We had a fun dinner at a cafeteria for locals, Restaurace u Provaznice. You point to the item you want - everything is labeled in Czech and hidden under a very thick sauce, so it was almost impossible to determine what was what. For example, I noticed a hovězí zampion (mushroom) and a hovězí guláš (goulash), so I figured hovězí is beef. When ordering salads and fruit dumplings, they will pile anything on a plate if you merely eyeball it, so be careful what you look at. Olga has an amusing story about what she picked, please see

We continued this jam-packed day with a Marionette version of Mozart's Don Giovanni opera. The opera seemed to be prerecorded and, as a result, the "live" marionettes could sometimes do comedy playing off the immortal "static" opera. There was a fair amount of implied debauchery and violence -- enough to be very funny but not over the top. The children in the audience seemed to enjoy it very much. They continuously kept breaking through the fourth wall, at one point a golem broke through the set, and then towards the end a puppetmaster got tired and came on stage to speed things up. All in all, it was a great show.

Headed to our hotel (Pension u Medvidku) to check in and "Czech out". The hotel was also a functioning brewery since 1466, then became a beer hall for the next several centuries, then added a hotel, and in the last few years added on a tiny brewery again. Full-circle! They claim to have the strongest beer in the world: their X33 brew. We tried this and also their Oldgott, a "half-dark lager". The X33 is deceptively sweet and tasty -- Olga and I both give it two mugs way up. We'll heed the warning on the X33 glass "Don't drink it alone". No worries -- if you start drinking it alone, you may not end up that way in the end.

9/24: Good night Krakow!

9/24: Good night Krakow!

We seem to have adjusted well to the time zone now as we slept in til 10am, just enough time to pack up before check-out time.

Caught a nice glimpse of a hot air balloon that seemed to be tied down to a dock on the Vistula River.

Walked through the stands in the Kazimierz Market Square - had the local staple of zapiekanki (Kazimierz style french bread pizza) for lunch - in the photo you'll see less than half - Olga and I shared one, but the locals were having an entire two-foot-long pizza all to themselves!

Walked by a bar/cafe that was in the theme of Singer sewing machines-- very cute.  I wonder what the connection is, was the company from Krakow?  Sounds like it could've been Jewish at one point (Zinger).

Visited the Jewish sites in the Kazimierz district: Visited the Remu'h Synagogue from 1553 which is currently under renovation -- the security guard was reading his "sex horoscope" -- and the accompanying old cemetery. Also visited the Old Synagogue -- the exhibits are mainly regarding Jewish life in general -- very few specifics to Krakow or Poland -- a bit stale and disappointing.

Toured the grounds of the Wawel Castle. Alas, there was no dragon to see as it had been slayed some millenia ago.

Walked around the University grounds and surrounding town (second oldest University in Europe). Plenty of fun little shops, young vibrant people hustling and bustling. We had a light dinner at a salad bar where you can order 2, 4, or 6 small salads (potato, beet, Greek, quiche, etc -- about 30 different kinds) piled onto a plate for just a couple bucks -- yum!!

Finally we picked up our bags and headed to the train station. Managed to use up the rest of our Polish PLN currency on coffee, ice cream, and some chocolates to go. The sleeping car of the train was super comfy, the purser was amazingly friendly. Started reading the guidebook and listening to podcasts to prepare for the Czech Republic. Attempted our first use of Czech words and greeted our train purser with "Ahoj!" (sounds like AH-hoy)

Thursday, September 24, 2009

9/23: Oświęcim i Kraków

The morning started with a rude 7am wake-up call - I'm not sure why we decided to start our excursion to Auschwitz so early - but we hit the ground running like Hanna Barbera cartoon characters. A day trip to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II Birkenau is a numbing experience, it's difficult to feel much after this.

The first camp was a former Polish army bunker that was converted to a work camp by the Nazis when they annexed this area of Poland. Here they systematically and scientifically experimented on the most efficient way to commit genocide. Once the most efficient methods were determined, they built the second camp to these precise specifications, centered around the rail lines leading straight into the gas chambers.

We headed back to Krakow in an attempt to regain our appetites, ending up at Arka Noego (Noah's Ark), a Jewish restaurant in the Kazimierz (Old Jewish district). I must admit that I felt guilty eating meat dishes there -- with there being only two of each species -- so we focused on aquatic and flying animals that I want to imagine didn't need Noah's help.

Luckily, their homemade gefilte fish was the best I had ever had (which doesn't say much), along with turkey shish kabob, Krupnik (Polish chicken/veggie/barley soup), and of course hot miodowe wino (honey wine). On our way out, we stopped by a piekarnia pastry shop for nalesznik, which are folded pancakes with custard inside -- yum!!

With very full tummies, we headed to the Main Market Square, where we had heard there would be a free orchestral concert. It turns out the Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra was playing with a local Klezmer band, which should've been a great show, except for some reason we couldn't keep our eyes open. It was a wonderful sleep though with fun background music.

After an hour of snoozing, we headed to Pod Wawelem, a fun Polish Hofbrau-type place at the foot of Royal Wawel Castle with local oompah bands, Polka dancing, greasy fatty foods, and lots to drink. Now full, exhausted, and well toasted, we decided to call it a day.

Olga's bloggerific:

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

9/21 and 9/22: Viva la Poland!

9/21: Warsaw continued

The breakfast buffet at the Jan III Sobieski hotel is quite extraordinary, every food a traveler from the US or Europe could desire. BTW while we're on the subject of hotel breakfasts, which continent is "continental" breakfast supposed to cater to? Perhaps one where the indiginous peoples are vegetarian, eating mostly wheat-based products and the occasional hard boiled egg.

After a marathon blogging session, we headed out to explore daytime Warsaw. The first stop, of course, was E. Wedel's famous chocolateria for their signature hot chocolate - it's literally just melted chocolate in a cup. Not too dissimilar from Mexican hot chocolate -- I wonder which came first :)

The Old Town was beckoning, and we heeded the call. It is a bit odd that, after WWII, the Polish and Soviets recreated the old town as it was in medievel times, peeling paint and all. It's a bit like the movie Batteries Not Included, minus the flying alien widgets. It's very nice if you have never been to Brussels or Koln or probably even Krakow, which is just 3 hours away from Warsaw. On the positive side, if they hadn't recreated the "Old Town", we'd be stuck with a grid of Soviet-style boxed apartment and office buildings, so it could be worse!

Along the way, we passed a store called Kangaroo Klub that sells all Kangaroo-themed items: Kangol hats and Kangaroo-brand sneakers, (another) Kangaroo-brand wallets, things like that. It's super cute!

The former Nazi-enforced Jewish Ghetto seems fairly sizable, encompassing a relatively large area of the city, until you realize that 1 million jews from around Poland were forced to live there in tenements. Then ghetto (and the people living in it) was systematically burned down block by block. There is one remaining block of the original ghetto, one exterior ghetto wall, and one surviving synagogue -- all of which we visited. It's difficult to describe the experience, you have to see it for yourself.

After an aborted attempt to scale the Palace of Science and Culture (even the tallest building in Warsaw is subject to earlier closing times brought on by the change from summer to autumn), we had an authentic Polish dinner consisting of stuffed cabbage (cabbage, rice, meat, and gravy), 4 kinds of soups (beet borscht, cream borscht, sour borscht, and Zurak Polish sour soup), and 3 different types of pierogies (spinach, mushroom w/ buckwheat, meat). What a feast!
After dinner, we met up with our new friends Agata and Arthur to sample more Polish beers: this time, we sampled the slightly darker and richer Heban. Although they both understand English perfectly, Arthur prefers to speak in Polish to Agata and she translates. It was through this process that I heard Arthur use the word "Polak". I asked what that means, and he said "Polish people, obviously." I explained that in English, this is a derogatory word for Polish people. He was surprised and confused by this. I wonder how this came to be -- and where the American stereotype of Polish people came from too.

9/22 Leaving Warsaw, entering Krakow.

We are adjusting to European time, slowly. We haven't had much trouble staying awake or falling asleep, but sleeping in past 6am is another thing entirely. This morning we were awake before breakfast opened, so after catching up on emails, we headed down to the fitness center (Olga worked out, I jacuzzi'd and sauna'd). Then another breakfast that couldn't be beat followed by some minor running around: first to the Uprising Museum, only to discover it is closed on Tuesdays -- then to the Warszawa Centralna train station, through its maze of stalls looking for tickets, lunch-to-go, and to stock up on personal items. My only complaint is that this station is laid out very confusingly: you need to know the peron (platform) number, tor (track) number, and sektor (section) number for your train (and not confuse or reverse them with disasterous consequences).  This is not printed anywhere on the ticket, nor on timetables, nor on overhead train update signage, and the ticketbooth operators give incorrect information (we double-checked). Only a few minutes before our train left did we figure out we were on the wrong section of the wrong track in the wrong platform. A mad rush ensued, and we (barely) prevailed over Warszawa Centralna station.

Riding the rails from Warsaw to Krakow, it's impossible to not think about the people who were transported across these rail lines to concentration camps in Auschwitz and Treblinka. Of course, who can think about something like this when they serve free scooby doo juice boxes and scooby snacks for all travelers!?

We walked around Krakow most of the evening, passing through the ancient scenic Main Market Square. There is a bugler here (firemen take a break for bugling every hour) who plays a warning announcement to the inhabitants of Krakow that marauders are coming.

Legend has it that an eagle-eye bugler noticed an invading army and played a warning tune to the inhabitants of Krakow. But apparently this one time, an invading archer shot an arrow into the throat of the bugler, which cut off the tune in the middle. So now, every hour on the hour, the beginning of this tune is played by a live bugler (part-time fireman). What I noticed is that they play the beginning of it 3 times in a row on the hour, 30 seconds later, and 0 seconds after that -- each playing in different directions out of the tower. These marauders must've been very well organized to hit 3 separate buglers in the tower from 3 different angles -- perhaps it was the infamous magic arrow theory.

After tasting various vodkas and liqueurs being made in a little shop called Szambelan -- including one that is 140 proof -- and walking through a bit of Kazimierz (old Jewish district), eventually we stopped for an authentic Polish dinner in a mom and pop one-room restaurant. This was perhaps our best value on the trip so far. Many things we have seen are similar to US prices: Train tickets, concert tickets, CDs, most restaurant food. But some things are much, much less: street food, small batch vodka/liqueur, bus tickets, cafeteria food. More on this as it develops.

Please see Olga's unique take on today's events: