Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Budapest: An EASTERn European Weekend

View of Pest and Parliament from the Fisherman's Bastion
Jon and I spent Easter weekend in the breathtakingly beautiful and vibrant city of Budapest. This destination has been on out list as a "must-see" for quite some time and we were thrilled to finally be able to visit this Eastern European jewel. By the end of our three-night stay, we had fallen in love with this city, which we both feel is one of the most beautiful in Europe. Of course, it did help that we had sunny skies and warm weather our entire stay. After arriving on Friday morning and checking into our hotel, we immediately dropped our bags and began exploring the city. First stop.... Buda!

Castle Hill: It's a Buda Thing

Although the city is officially known as Budapest, once there, everything is designated by Buda or Pest depending on what side of the Danube River you're referring to. Hilly Buda is dominated by Castle Hill, while flat Pest is the commercial heart of the city. We spent our first afternoon in Buda after hiking across the Chain Bridge, which opened in 1849 and was the first permanent dry link between Buda and Pest. 

Chain Bridge
Once at the top of the hill, we immediately were in awe of the gorgeous neo-gothic architecture of Matthias Church. A statue of St. Stephen, the first Christian King in Hungary who tamed the nomadic, pagan Magyars, looks on to the church.

Matthias Church

Directly across from the church lies the Fishermen's Bastion, a neo-romanesque fantasy rampart that offers beautiful views over the Danube to Pest. Its seven towers represent the seven Magyar tribes. One of the towers has been converted into a cafe, and provided the perfect afternoon refreshment with the most outstanding views. We spent our time practicing the pronunciation for the Hungarian word for cheers, Egeszegedre. We also learned that clinking glasses is a no-no, as it is believed that's what the Hapsburgs did after executing the revolutionaries of 1849.
Fishermen's Bastion

At the cafe in one of the towers of Fishermen's Bastion

Sipping a glass of Rose with an outstanding view below

Our afternoon exploring Castle Hill was all about taking the time to smell the roses. We enjoyed meandering down the cobbled medieval streets and stumbled upon a labyrinth of Buda Castle. These miles of caves burrowed under Castle Hill have been used for centuries, but now is a conceptual exhibit that traces human history. After returning above ground at the end of the labyrinth tour, we found ourselves descending below ground yet again into a wine cellar in the Hilton Hotel, which was built upon Dominican cloister ruins. We learned a great deal about the Hungarian wines including the famed "Bull's Blood" red wine, which was our favorite. During our wine-tasting, we enjoyed reading about the controversy of the Hilton Hotel and its construction in 1976, as the first plush Western hotel in town. Part of the controversy was the modern facade on one side of the hotel that is directly next to the historical Matthias church. However, fragments of the 13th-century Dominican cloister were incorporated into the structure of the hotel

Communist-era Trabants are still quite common on the streets of Budapest

Matthias church reflected in the glassy, modern Hilton Hotel
After our delightful afternoon in Buda, we crossed back over the Chain Bridge to Pest amidst a glorious sunset

Budapest by Bike

Our favorite way to tour a large European city is by bike and Budapest was no exception. We started our Saturday off right by participating in a 3-hour tour  of both Pest and Buda, with Yellow Zebra Bike Tours, and were able to see a ton. After meeting at their shop behind the majestic Hungarian State Opera House, we continued down the main boulevard of Pest, the Andrassy ut,  to Heroe's Square. After receiving a crash course in Hungarian history through the explanation of the many statues, we continued on to the lush City Park. Among other sites we saw on the tour included Parliament, the only remaining Soviet statue still standing in the city, and once again, the Castle Hill sites.
Heroe's Square

Our bike tour in front of Vajdahunyad Castle

As usual, Jon was the entertainer of our tour, wow-ing everyone with his many bike tricks

The Life Aquatic

Although the Danube is Budapest's most famous body of water, it's the therapeutic water spewed up daily by 100-odd hot springs that sets local and tourists hearts aflutter. There are over a dozen thermal baths in the city, and Szechenyi Baths is the best. Having lived in Wiesbaden, where thermal springs also abound, I was no stranger to a day at the bath, however, this gigantic complex was like none I'd ever seen. Inside is the thermal bath section with numerous pools each varying in different temperatures, as well as several saunas and steam rooms. Outside is the swimming pool area with three pools. We spent Easter evening here and enjoyed soaking in the water and letting the healthy minerals do their thing after two days and nights of being on the go non-stop!

Outside entrance to Szechenyi Baths
Swimming pool area of Szechenyi Baths. Yes, there were a LOT of speedos.
Seeing Red

Entrance to House of Terror
Reminders of the Soviet regime are relatively easy to find in Budapest. The House of Terror is a museum built in the former headquarters of the darkest sides of two different regimes, the Nazi and communist occupation. This museum exhibits propaganda posters, a re-created interrogation room, among many other displays, and video-taped interviews with victims, to portray the terror of this time of "double occupation" in Hungary's history. Afterward, we continued our red campaign, by having a beer break at Marxim - a communist kitsch pizzaria.

House of Terror Museum

A Soviet tank and huge wall covered with portraits of the victims
Posing with Lenin
At Marxim - A pizzaria with communist memorabilia and kitsch

When regimes fall, so do their monuments. People couldn't wait to get rid of these reminders of their oppressors. Various statues were gathered throughout Budapest and placed in a park, Memento Park, outside the city. It is a fascinating place to discover the Red old days. Jon and Lenin doing his famous "hailing a cab" pose. 

Charging into the future with our Soviet comrade

Budapest by Night

Three days and three nights was simply not enough time to see all of Budapest, but we managed to see as much as possible by having both extremely full days AND nights. This was an incredible city for not only site-seeing during the day, but there was plenty of night-life to keep us occupied; from deciding on where to have dinner, to pub-hopping and a cruise down the Danube at night this city has something for everyone. Although we enjoyed each of our distinctly different nights out on the town, our one big night out began with a delicious dinner at Karpatia. We enjoyed delicious Hungarian and Transylvanian specialties with authentic live gypsy music. 

After dinner, we trekked to the A38 Hajo (boat) moored on the Buda side of the Danube. This decommissioned Ukrainian stone hauler from 1968 has been reinvented as a party venue where we got the night started. Later, we made our way back to Pest where we stumbled upon a bar we had to stop in, if only for its name......, "Paris, Texas. " 

A38 Hajo

Paris, Texas Bar
We ended the night at Janis Pub where we were delighted to see karaoke was on the menu. There was a group of Hungarians there singing who all knew each other... and us. After only signing up to sing a few minutes before, our name was called and it was time to sing our signature song, "Love Shack." I could tell the group was pleasantly surprised by our performance, and the main guy came over to chat with us. Turns out they are in a band that plays cover songs and he wanted to sing several songs with Jon as most of his friends don't know the American music he likes to sing. Jon was the hit of the party and we made fast friends. At the end of the night, we chose to sing a very cheesy, yet somewhat appropriate song, before we all parted ways. Arm in arm, the group of us gathered in a circle to belt out, "We are the World." One thing's for sure, I will never forget this memorable night out in Budapest!

Jon and some of our new Hungarian friends

Our last night in Budapest, we experienced the perfect finale to our Easter weekend. We cruised along the Danube and were able to see the city alight with its reflection glowing in the river below. It was truly a magical night and caused me to believe that Budapest by night, may be a contender for one of Europe's most beautiful cities. 
A view of the bridges of Budapest (Liberty, Elizabeth, and Chain)
Liberty bridge and Gellert Hill

Chain bridge and Buda Castle

Parliament on left, Chain bridge, and Buda Castle on right


View of Buda's Castle Hill

Chain bridge and Matthias Church

Chain bridge and Buda Castle

Chain bridge and Matthias church

One thing is certain, we will never forget this memorable and incredible weekend in Budapest!

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Year Four

Today, Cinco de Mayo, Jon and I celebrate the anniversary of our fourth year of marriage. Although we started dating 10 years ago, the years since our wedding have absolutely flown by and have been the most thrilling and amazing time of my life. I'm sure part of the blissfulness is due to our incredible opportunity to live in Europe for the past four years. Our first home together was our apartment in Wiesbaden, Germany. And although our official honeymoon was in Croatia, we've experienced countless trips together extending our honeymoon to our new home in Sittard, the Netherlands. We've been fortunate to travel to 16 countries together as husband and wife, each one a grand adventure.

As is tradition on our anniversary, we watched our wedding video, which captured the most beautiful, meaningful and incredible event imaginable. Each year the video brings me to tears as I listen to the heartfelt speeches and as we read our vows, but also from laughter at the hysterical dancing and video toasts. Of our four anniversaries, we've only shared two together on the actual date, and this year we are apart again. Perhaps for this reason I feel compelled to write about this special day in the Jon and Cat saga.

I remember the exact moment when Jon received his assignment for Germany. We were in West Texas in the David Mountains at Bloys Camp Meeting and he received a call on his cell phone. He told me the news and I immediately wrapped my arms around him and whispered in his ear... "don't leave me." It was no secret to my friends and family that it has been a life-long dream to live in Europe after my travels and study abroad time there. After learning Jon would be moving there, I knew it was destiny for me to go to. Plus, although we had mastered the long-distance relationship, a transcontinental relationship was a whole other challenge I wasn't sure I was up for. One month later, he proposed while we were riding horse-back on my family's ranch. It was so incredibly romantic and 8 months later we married there. Two weeks later we were living in Europe for what we thought would be 2 years, and yet four years later we're still here.

Living in Europe isn't always pure honeymoon delight, as many may think. Yes, we are able to travel to another country at the drop of a hat and take part in the many festivals and events that are unique to Europe, but there are many things we miss. Such as our families and friends and all those life events we constantly feel we miss out on. In many ways I feel this has allowed Jon and I to gain an intense closeness as we have become our own family unit, each other's travel partner, confidante and best friend. I have enjoyed every minute of this marriage with the most fun and positive man alive. Although I love the life we have now, I know I would love it just as much if we were living in middle America or anywhere else in the world. As long as we are together, our life will be full of love, happiness and plenty of adventures along the way. Happy Anniversary, Juan!