Speeding through Palaces

Slovakia, Austria, and Hungary

Slovakia Bratislava on the Danube

We have been to Europe before but we did not really get the chance to visit the Mediterranean part much, especially the areas around the Adriatic and Aegean seas. We intended to use this trip to cover these areas and also see the so-called 'new Europe', namely the countries created from the former Yugoslavia, plus a couple of other nearby countries. All together we covered 9 countries: Austria, Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia, Slovenia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Albania, and Greece. It took us 6 weeks to visit all these places. We would do this trip on our own, as Estrella did a lot of research beforehand. This meant we would look for transportation and accommodation on our own as we went along. By the end, we did manage to see a lot of amazing sights and met some wonderful people.

September 9, Sunday - Bratislava, Slovakia  Old Town Hall, Bratislava

We left Toronto late afternoon on an Air Canada flight to Munich and from there we took a short connecting flight to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Slovakia is used to be part of Czechoslovakia. It became an independent republic on January 1st, 1993. While waiting at the Munich airport for the connecting flight, we got to look around that airport a bit. It looks very modern and big, made of glass and steel everywhere. One amazing thing about this airport was at the lounge area for waiting passengers, they provided free newspapers in various languages and also free coffee and tea. I have not seen other airports with such nice amenities.

The flight to Bratislava was on a small regional Bombardier jet. We were bused to the plane and because it was a small plane without much room in the overhead bins, so even the carry-ons had to be checked before we climbed the steps to get in the plane. Once we arrived at Bratislava Airport, we got a map and then caught a local bus to go to our hotel. Estrella had already figured out what bus to take beforehand. The hotel where we stayed was a high-rise one and part of a university dormitory complex. The hotel had a bar downstairs called Havana. There is also a small cafeteria that served very basic sandwiches. In the same building there is a conference center upstairs with meeting rooms for university conventions. Many visiting scholars would stay the same place we did.

Even though this was our first day in Europe, we did not suffer from jet-lag too much. We had no problem staying awake at all. After checking in, we headed to the station to get our train tickets to Vienna. Because Vienna is only two hours away by train, we decided to visit Vienna again. The last time we went to Vienna was more than 20 years ago, so I figured maybe it was time to see it again when it is so close. Apparently Vienna and Bratislava have the shortest distance between two capitals in Europe. For some reason which, I could not figure out, the round trip ticket is cheaper than one way. So even though we asked for a one way ticket, the lady sold us round-trip ones instead. It was very nice of her.

From the bus station, we headed into the main part of the town, which is next to the river Danube. There are also a couple of boats docked there more or less permanently and which serve as hotels. They call themselves botels, as opposed to motel. Some of the Danube River cruises would make a stop here for sightseeing. While we were there, we saw a large tour group returning to their boat after touring the city. The European river cruise ships are usually only 2 stories high so that they could go underneath all the bridges along the river. The main part of town looks pretty traditionally European, with trams running efficiently along major streets, just like what you see in some movies filmed in Europe. But the main attraction is almost always the Old Town. Here you find narrow pedestrian-only streets, palaces, city hall, museums, and squares, lined with outdoor cafes. The main square is very nice with benches for visitors to sit down and relax. There we saw groups of tourists from various countries.

September 10, Monday - Bratislava  View from St. Michael's Tower

We only did a quick walk around the old town late yesterday so today we went back to take a better look. There were a lot more tourists this time. Leading to the old town are several gates that one needs to go through. Beside one of the gates, there is a tall tower that houses a small museum. We went up to the top to take some photos of the whole place. There were also some unusual bronze sculptures scattered on the sidewalks that people might even overlook. One was a hole in the ground with this bronze person trying to climb out.

Among numerous restaurants there, there was a Chinese one and a couple of Cuban restaurants as well. But we wanted to try the local cooking. We found an outdoor restaurant in the main square that served goose, one of the local traditional dishes. It was a special platter for two with two big goose legs, complemented with purple cabbage and goose liver. It was very delicious. Of course dinning in such nice surrounding made it even more enjoyable.

September 11, Tuesday - Bratislava  St. Michael's Tower, Bratislava

This morning it rained quite a bit. But as planned, we headed to the Devin castle, a medieval ruin at the edge of town. We took a local bus going thru all the small villages that were situated along the Danube. Using a local bus allows us to observe the locals getting on and off, and the villages where they live. We got off at one of the villages and could see the castle but we were not sure how to get there. While Estrella was asking for the directions from a man working at the outside of a house, who unfortunately could not quite speak English, we heard a voice in English from an apartment window to tell us to take a short cut, by going through a narrow alley between two buildings. That saved us some walking. I always appreciate these helpful people who is not shy about offering help to people in need. In this case, we just heard his voice and did not get the chance to see him or thank him. We got to the castle at 9:30 and were too early. The gate was still locked. It would not open until half an hour later. Then this guy, an attendant, showed up. We recognized he was on the same bus that we took from town to here. Since we got there before him, I could not help wondering if it was possible that he did not know about this short cut that we took. Most likely he just went to do some errands before showing up for work.

Devin Castle on the Danube

The castle is on a small hill at an intersection of two rivers. One is the famous Danube. The castle was mostly ruins with some stone walls still standing and several rooms restored. A couple of them were made into small museums showing the history, and containing artifacts found around the castle. It was raining a bit but a castle tower provides a nice view of the countryside and of course the muddy-yellow Danube. Apparently, you could even see Vienna from here but we really could not tell which is which. By the time, we were waiting for the bus to go back it was pouring rain, one local lady who could speak bit of English told us she had been to Canada.

In the afternoon, after the rain stopped, we visited the much newer Bratislava Castle in town. It required a bit of walking to go up its hill. There we found some government buildings and a big restaurant terrace. The restaurant was closed but the terrace provided a panoramic view of the city across the Danube. The major tall structure one sees is the new suspension bridge over the river. It is called Novi Most. Novi means new and Most means bridge. It has a big round sausage shape observation deck and restaurant sitting on top of the main and only pillar. It looks very modern and alien. You could also see the river boats and cruise ships going back and forth along the river. After staying on the terrace for a while, we headed over to the castle.

This Bratislava Castle also has a terrace which provides similar view. There was a toy-like train that we did not notice before. It took tourists to various points of interests, saving them some walking. The castle itself was turned into a museum. If you did not go to the museum, the only place you could go is the middle courtyard. (Outer bailey.) After going around the castle, we headed back to the town. According to the map, there are a couple of attractions further away from the river towards the modern part of the city located up the hill, so we followed the map to check them out. One place we stopped was the presidential residence. At the front there is a metal fence and a small square between the building and the fence. There were a bunch of tourists and locals hanging around outside the fence. We could see in the square a couple hundred guards all lined up and going through the ceremony of lowering a flag and raising a different one. A few minutes later, there was this military band marching in. We suspected there could be some important dignitary coming to visit the place.

As we expected, a motorcade, complete with motorcycle escorts, arrived with two big black limousines. The host came out from the mansion, probably the head of the country, to greet the visitor. And together they inspected the honor guards while the military band played the welcoming music. An official photographer was running around, taking pictures of the whole ceremony. After the inspection, the group went inside the building and the guards marched around to the back. Curious, we went around to the back and saw the parking lot behind the building with several buses to take the guards and bands away. Beyond the parking lot, there was a nice park that people could go and visit. It was a bit surprising that they let people into the park. For security reason, it might not be a good idea to let people wander around what is essentially the backyard of the presidential residence.


September 12, Wednesday - Vienna, Austria

This morning we got on the train and headed to Vienna, which is known as Wien in German. It always puzzles me why someone would want to come up with an English name for a European city. That creates more confusion more than anything else. We arrived at the Westbahnhof (Oustbahnhof?) train station. From the train station, we took a short tram ride to our hotel, called Hotel Kolbeck. It was located at the end of a pedestrian shopping street next to an indoor shopping mall. The front desk gave us some useful information about Vienna, such as which subway station to use. He told us we could take a tram numbered '1' or '2', both which goes in a big circle around the city center core and lets you see a lot of major attractions. Of course, Estrella already knew about this. After checking in, we headed to the subway. The entrance is at the middle of the pedestrian street. We bought a subway pass that allowed us to travel on trams and subway unlimited. Once in downtown, we had no problem finding trams 1 and 2. One goes one way and one goes the opposite direction. The whole cycle takes about half an hour. From the tram, we saw the Opera House, the city hall known as the Rathaus, and a big building with two steeples which we thought was St Stephen's but it was not, it was the Hofburg, Vienna's Imperial palace and today a museum.

No doubt that a lot of magnificent European classic buildings are located here. If you want to see the height of western civilization's architecture, this is the place to be. Most of these buildings are functioning offices or working museums, so most of time you could only admire them from outside.

In the Rathaus, we came upon an restaurant theater in the basement that served traditional Viennese food, and that presents three operettas or mini-operas from three different regions of Austria. At first, we were hoping to see a Viennese opera but unfortunately, all tickets were sold out. So I thought maybe we should try an operetta. I talked to the waiter and was told the shows that night were all sold out and I had to call in to make a reservation for a show next night. Actually, they are not the only operas and shows in town. Around the Hofburg palace there were other people dressed in traditional classical outfits trying to sell tickets to other concerts performed in various other palaces. We figured we could get our hotel front desk to help us make a reservation later.

Hofburg Palace, Wien

For sightseeing, the first stop we made was at the Hofburg. This is the main palace where the Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph (ruled 1848-1916) lived. We visited the royal residence, going through various living quarters. We saw a desk where the Emperor used to work and his bed which was rather small and unpretentious for a king. After that we went to the see the museum of the Empress Elizabeth, an Austrian queen and Franz's wife. She is affectionately known as "Sisi" to the Austrians,

The museum displays the fancy china used to serve the royal meals. We also saw some exercise equipment that Sisi used to maintain her figure. Apparently she was quite health-conscious and wanted to stay slim and trim. So she had to do her daily exercise. You would think every woman would enjoy being a queen but not her. She wanted the freedom to go anywhere. As a result, she did not exactly fulfill her duty as a wife to her husband or as a queen to the nation. Often she would rather run away from the palace. She even went to Corfu in Greece and built herself a palace there.

Behind the Hofburg is the new Museum's Quarter, where you can find the Leopold Museum. This new part was only added recently. The buildings here are not as grand or ornate as those on the palace grounds. There are several museums entered from the compound. For some reason, we chose the visit the art gallery just for the heck of it. The art gallery building is very modern and has a lot of nice rooms used to showcase paintings from various artists.

I am not a museum fan. As usual, I could not understand what is all the fuss about most of the paintings. Some of them looked pretty badly drawn and even worse than those hanging in my hotel room. One short bio talked about this artist who deliberately tried to paint his objects with as little resemblance as possible. For me, I could certainly easily do a painting without any semblance to the subject at all. For me all these paintings in the art gallery is a bit of joke.

After we went back to the hotel, we asked the front desk about an operetta. He said he knew nothing about it and was not sure whether he wanted to recommend one or not. Anyway, I asked him to go ahead and make a reservation for us. At night we went to the mall next to out hotel and had some Viennese coffee and pastries. The coffee and pastries were not cheap at all. Sometime it even cost more than a meal. The mall also had a big electronics store upstairs and a Chinese restaurant.

Vienna is very expensive in general but in term of street food, Vienna has some good vendors usually operating inside some kiosks at the major intersections, often next to subway station entrances. Their food ranged from your usual pizza slices, sharwama, to bratwurst sausage, or hot dogs, etc. The price was of course much more reasonable. We decided to try the hot dog one night and found they prepared it slightly different from other people. Their hotdog bun and sausage were about a foot long. The vendor pushed the soft bun length-wise into a metal rod which is the size of the sausage. Then he poured in the catsup and mustard into the cavity created by the metal rod. After that he dropped the sausage dog into the cavity. This pushed up the condiment at the bottom up to coat the sausage evenly. Preparing the sausage this way, all the stuff is inside the hotdog bun. Nothing dropped out to create a mess. It was such a neat idea. I wondered why nobody else did it this way.

September 13, Thursday - Vienna Typical Vienna café

The Austrian royal family also had a summer place called the Belvedere. This palace is not far away from our hotel. We could almost walk there but we decided to take the tram anyway. This palace has a nice big royal garden. After visiting the Belvedere, we headed to see the much bigger Schonbrunn Palace. On the way there we stopped at a supermarket to buy some sandwich for lunch. At the front door of the market, they have some loops on the wall for customers to park their dogs. What a cute idea.

Schonbrunn Palace is their other summer retreat, with a huge garden that rises gently at the back all the way to a hill top with a building called the Gloriette sitting there. Pretty much everyone headed up the hill. Inside Gloriette is a cafe with chairs both inside and outside. Of course from the top of the hill there is a fantastic view of the whole palace ground and the city itself.

Schonbrunn Palace, Wien Gloriette behind Schonbrunn Palace

Late afternoon, after seeing the Schonbrunn, we finally found time to check out the famous St. Stephen's Cathedral. St. Stephen's in Vienna has only a single steeple. The top part of the steeple was all wrapped up and under renovation. The problem with such old buildings is they tend to be under renovation all the time, either covered up or surrounded by scaffolding. In front of the church the square is pretty small, so it is nearly impossible to take a good picture of the whole building.

Around evening, we went back downtown to see the show we had booked in the basement restaurant at City Hall. The room was more like a big restaurant with a small stage for performance. We thought we might have to share tables. But we were given our own table for two. The place was full, totally packed with tourists. A large group was speaking Spanish. The meal had three courses and the operettas were performed in between courses. Before the meal started, there was 5 young ladies performing some classical music. One bad thing about their setup was they used extremely bright halogen lamps to shine on their sheet music. The lights, while small, were so bright that you could not possibly look at them for more than 2 seconds. The show consists of three operettas from Salzburg, Vienna and from ?xxxx?. There were 4 to 5 opera singers and two pairs of dancers. At one point, they were doing some Viennese waltz. The show was kind of fun to watch. But the food was really bland. The main course was some fairly tasteless pork chop. And the desert came from a big bowl of bread pudding. The meal was definitely a big flop. No wonder Austria is not exactly famous for their cooking. (You really want to say this, Dave?)

September 14, Friday - Budapest, Hungry

Since Vienna is a very expensive place, we could not afford to stay too long. After two days, we checked out and got on the train to head to our next stop, Budapest. Like most European trains, each car was divided into individual compartments. Each with 6 seats. There were two guys talking to each other in a language that we didn't recognize. Then there was this couple speaking in Spanish. Eventually we got to talk to the couple and found out they live in the Washington DC area and spoke fluent English. The guy was from Mexico and his wife from Belgium. We exchanged some travel stories before arriving in Budapest.

Budapest uses a currency called the Forint, and not the Euro. The first thing Estrella did was to exchange some money and to get a subway pass that would allow us unlimited travel for 6 days. Even though we would only be here for 5 days, it was still a good deal. In Budapest, we rented an apartment in an old building right downtown on the Buda side of the river.

Budapest is separated into two parts by the river; the flat part is called Pest and the hilly side is called Buda. We were to meet the rental agent around 1PM outside the building. The agent in this case is most likely the owner of the apartment. We took the subway to the street listed in the address. Initially we were waiting at the wrong place in a small square of the same name. Luckily we asked a young guy and he told us the actual street we wanted was one block behind. There we met the British owner, his Hungarian wife, and their little baby in a crib. The studio apartment is located in the ground floor of a very old and tall building. The building had a central courtyard. They designed it in such way so that the inside apartments at the back all have their windows facing the courtyard for light and air. I guess in such a big building without a court yard, the middle part would be completely dark. The small apartment consisted of two halves. The bigger side contained the bed and a sitting area while the other half consisted of a kitchen and bathroom. The shower stall was so small that you could barely turn around while standing inside.

The location is close to a major subway station called Octagon because it has 8 sides, due to several major streets intersecting there. Here you could find an Internet cafe, and fast food like Burger King and Subway. So everything was rather convenient. On one of the side streets, we found numerous outdoor cafes and restaurants, full of young and trendy people. This meant I would be able to enjoy one of my favorite activity, eating alfresco and watching passersby. Budapest has a famous street called Andrassy, which is one of the streets that cuts across Octagon. For some reason Andrassy was designated as an UNESCO site. Sure it has some old grand buildings and it is a nice street for sure but it is really no more than some other old European streets we saw elsewhere. So I was a bit disappointed about this street.

From Octagon, we walked down toward the river along Andrassy where most of the attractions are. The coffee houses here are just as famous as those Vienna. We came to the State Opera House, and one of these cafes, called Muvesz Kavehaz, is right across the street. We sat down and had some latté and cakes while giving our feet a rest. Here, if you are not sure what cake to order, you can go inside and check out the display to see which one you like first. The inside of these cafes are also pretty fancy too, with very nice decoration and full of character. As usual, we sat outdoors.

State Opera House, Budapest

After the coffee, we went to the Opera House to see if we can get some tickets. We managed to get two tickets, in a side balcony box next to the right side of the stage, for La Traviata next night. While the lobby was not very big, the walls and ceiling were certainly richly decorated with all kind of gold and red paint, something I would expect from a grand classic European opera house.

 St. Stephen's Basilica, Budapest

From the Opera House, we continued the walk toward the Danube River. The next major building we came to was Budapest's local St. Stephen's Cathedral. It is pretty big and impressive, both inside and outside, front and back. The city planner who built this cathedral had done a good job by keeping a big open square in front of it so even though the church has two tall steeples, one on each side, you are still able to take in the whole thing by going to the other end of the square.

Chain Bridge, Buda to Pest

After the Cathedral, we finally got to the Danube and saw the famous Chain Bridge. But getting to the bridge was a bit tricky because of the heavy traffic. The river bank itself has restaurants and outdoor cafes all along it. Our plan was to take the tram that runs parallel to the river. This tram ride is pretty short and takes about half an hour to go from one end to the other. From this ride we got to see all the major buildings along both sides of the river, including the famous Parliament building. After the ride, we used the Chain Bridge to cross the Danube. Obviously a lot of tourists were also doing the same thing as more than half of the people going across the bridge were busy stopping and taking pictures all the same time.

As usual, we rode the subway back to our apartment at the end of day. By the way, the subway system here was completely on an honor system. In other words, nobody checked you each time. Basically, you get your ticket at a newspaper kiosk and then you stamp it on a machine when you get on the ride to cancel it. However, quite often we did see inspectors checking for tickets at the entrance to the Octagon subway station. Interestingly, this stretch of subway in Budapest is the oldest one in Europe. From the interior of the Octagon station you could tell the decor is really old and the station itself is rather small.

September 15, Saturday - Buda and Pest

Today, we headed to the capitol hill on the Buda side. There was a tram that took us across the river to a bus terminal and from there we switched to a bus that took us to the castle hill. There are several attractions for visitors here. The first place we popped in to see was the Mathias Church. This church was pretty amazing inside because every square inch of the interior is painted and, as expected, it is full of history because at one point it was converted to a mosque when the Ottoman Turks took over that side of the country. Outside the Church, along the river is the Fishman's Bastion. You had to pay a bit to go to the top. From there you had a good view of the Danube and the city of Pest on the other side of the river. In a nearby garden, there was even a live band, playing to entertain visitors. The presidential residence is also located here. There was some anniversary celebration on that day so they allowed tourists to visit the residence for free. There was a line, but the queue was not very long. So we got in to see it for free. After that we went to the Palace, we could only walk around outside because it has been turned into a museum. Just like the Fishman's Bastion, it provides a nice view of the river.

At the Palace, there was a outdoor cafe that served goulash, the most famous Hungarian dish. For 5 Euros, you got a slice of pie and a bowl of goulash. It worked very well for a light lunch but the goulash was not particularly impressive.

After visiting the capitol hill, we walked toward another bridge crossing the Danube, the Elizabeth Bridge was built to honor a queen of Austria, Sisi. Because she pressed the Emperor to grant Hungary independent government, she was very popular with the Hungarian people. Near the bridge is the famous Gellart thermal bath, which also has a hotel. We went in to check the price and hours of operation so that we could visit it later. There is a citadel up on the hill with a huge statue. We were hoping to hike up but after 10 minutes or so we gave up as we realized it could be a long way to get up there.

We crossed back to the Pest side using the Elizabeth Bridge. From the bridge, we could see more cruise ships on the river. One of the them named 'Avalon' was the one my friend took a couple of years ago. Once back on the Pest side, Budapest's Central Market is very close by but it was already closed and we could not get in.

At night, we dressed up a bit to attend the opera. Most of the patrons tended to go a bit formal to attend this kind of thing. One Japanese lady was even wearing a real kimono for the occasion. The interior of the opera house, just like the lobby, was richly decorated with gold and red design. It was certainly very impressive. It had four levels of seats. On the top one, there are even some standing only seats.

Our seats were in a private box on the second floor right next to the stage. By looking straight down, we can see the orchestra pit where the conductor and musicians getting ready to do the show. The box had 8 chairs. Four in front and four behind. Those in the second row seats would not be able to see anything at all.

One person showed up and we found out he was also from Toronto, associated with UT. As they say, it is a small world indeed. I did not expect to find another Torontonian to share our box. He was in Europe for a conference in Austria and decided to spend a few days in Budapest. He was a pretty chatty fellow and we ended up discussing quite a bit on the religion and history of Europe. One interesting thing we talked about was about the cheapest seat. He was told that the cheapest seat were not the standing-room-only one but one where you could only hear the music but could not see the stage. Came to think about it, the four seats behind us would meet the description.

Before the curtain raised, a local lady came to claim the fourth seat in the front row. And, not surprisingly, nobody came for the seats behind us. I am not an opera fan but I certainly do not mind the experience of attending one in a European capital. One tune they played was one of the famous ones that I recognized and heard before but had no idea what is the name.

September 16, Sunday - Budapest Famous Gerbeaud cafe.

One thing about Budapest is they have a lot of public squares, big and small. We visited one square where you can find the famous outdoor cafe Gerbeaud on the ground floor of a pretty and impressive white building. We took an outdoor table to enjoy the coffee and cakes. Sure it is nice to enjoy them but it is also quite pricy. Two cakes and two coffees cost almost 15 Euros. While enjoying the coffee, the patrons were entertained by live music provided by two gentlemen playing accordion and clarinet in the square. The square also connects to the pedestrian shopping street call Utca Vaci which is lined with stores, outdoor cafes, and classic old buildings. Certainly it is a lovely place to stroll and window shop and you do not have to worry about being run over by a car. That is why I always like pedestrian shopping streets.

Heroes Square, Budapest.

From here we went to Octagon Station and decide to walk up Andrassy to visit Heroes Square. While walking we came across the Museum of Terror. From what we heard it displayed the torturing devices used by the communists to punish the citizens. We decided to give it a pass. This way on Andrassy ends at Heroes Square. This place was built to honor all the Hungarian heroes from the past to the present. The figures are all very well done, especially those in the middle with horses. I believe every city should have a Heroes Square. On either side of the square is an art gallery and a museum, two very fine looking classical buildings. Behind Heroes Square is the city park with a small lake. There is also a group of buildings used to represent different styles of building architecture.

Szechenyi thermal bath.

Another nice building here is the Szechenyi thermal bath. This was the second bath that we wanted to visit. As mentioned earlier there is a square close by our apartment with a lot of trendy outdoor restaurants. For dinner we headed there to check out the place.

Budapest certainly has a lot of nice restaurants. One of the them is so trendy that they had a closed-circuit flat panel screen in the dining room so that the diners can watch their food being prepared. For us, our objective would be to find a real Hungarian restaurant that serves the genuine local food. After walking around a couple of times we chose the place that served both Hungarian food and international, or as they say 'fusion food'. Of course we sat outside by the sidewalk, like hundred of other extremely trendy locals. It was near evening and getting a bit cool to sit outside but that was not a problem at all. Almost all the outdoor restaurants had outdoor gas-fired heaters to keep you nice and warm.

Editor's note: Eating in sidewalk cafes isn't 'trendy' to Europeans. It's just the way they ordinarily live. It's only in North America and those places infected by the damaging 'cult of the car' where ordinary folk don't have such relaxing meal customs.

The first two pages in the menu listed Hungarian dishes. From there, I ordered a garlic soup and Estrella a goulash soup as appetizers and both were very good. The main course were veal and it was nicely presented and tasted good too. On the menu, there was a 'stuffed goose' organ dish. We were wondering what it was. Then a group of young tourists ordered one to try it. We figured they were tourists because they were talking English to the waiter but spoke a different language among themselves. I guess most of the tourists from non-English-speaking countries can speak some English and often have to use it to communicate with the locals. In Europe, with so many different languages, it is unrealistic to expect the waiter to learn all of them. No surprisingly many waiters may only manage to learn English aside from their own language.

September 17, Monday - Budapest

Today was our bath-hopping day. Buda and Pest is very famous for their natural thermal baths. The warm mineral waters contain chemicals that are supposed to have medicinal value. Soaking in a thermal bath is a pasttime that is enjoyed by both locals and tourists alike. There are a half dozen baths. Some are private and some are owned by the city. At one point, some baths had a policy to separate men and women but now all of them have gone coed. All the pools are available to everyone. We chose Gellert, a private one inside a hotel building, and Szechenyi, one run by the city.

The main part of Gellert is two big pools with two different temperature. Each one could probably accommodate about 50 people. It was a bit crowded. While in one of the pool, Estrella talked to a Turkish lady who lived in Shanghai with her husband. She told Estrella that she was learning Mandarin in order to communicate with her maid. In addition to the hot bath, it has two swimming pools, one indoor and one outdoor. Unfortunately these two pools were not filled with warm mineral water or heated. Estrella went in for a swim but I decided to give it pass. Interestingly Estrella managed to find a 10-florin bill floating somewhere in the pool.

The next bath house we visited was Szechenyi, located inside the park we visited before. This one only has a small indoor pool but the outside ones are huge. Not only they are big, they are also filled with hot spring water. So it was very nice to get into the water. You could try swimming a bit but most of the people were just happy soaking themselves. There were three big pools, but the middle one was being cleaned and so was closed. The two big ones on each side allowed plenty of room for everybody. Each of these pools can easily accommodate hundreds of people.

Of course, we tried both of these pools. One of the pools has a circular wall in the middle with an gap for an entrance. About 30 people could fit into it and once in a while the water jet along the wall would shoot water out in a circular direction so everybody inside would be forced to either float or walk inside this circular wall. Quite an interesting experience. Another thing is there are about 10 water jets that shoot water directly from the bottom of the pool. A lot of people would stand on top of these jets and let the water massage the feet, the legs and the back etc. Needless to say we like Szechenyi a lot more than Gellert.

September 18, Tuesday - Budapest

Outside Budapest, there are several small traditional Hungarian villages along the Danube that are very popular with tourists. There are even day tours to visit them. As usual, we took a local train to one called Szentendre. When we arrived at the village's train station, we found a local gyro stand so we had some for lunch. The interesting thing about the Hungarian gyro is they offered you a choice of sauces to put on the meat. You could choose a spicy hot sauce instead of mayonnaise. The hot sauce turned the gyro into a nice meal, because I like hot spicy food once in a while. Gyro is the equivalence of hamburger in this part of Europe so we ate gyro quite a bit during this trip. But none of the others are as tasty and memorable as the ones in Budapest.

Szentendre is a quaint village with small outdoor cafes and cobbled stone streets. The stores on this streets sold pretty little souvenirs to tourists. One store sold Marzipan, a popular Germen sugar pastry. We tried some and it was pretty good. Along the Danube the locals had built a 10-foot high wall along the bank. The obvious reason of doing this was to prevent flooding. If the river water rose, the village could be protected. But there is a big downside. That is that the people sitting in the outdoor cafes along the riverside could not see the river at all. Instead all they could see is this high wall. Yuk.

After visiting the village, we took the train back to Budapest. The train station has a 'McCafee' run by McDonald's. In additional to its regular food, like burger and fries, they also served fancy lattés, cappachinos etc. I had heard McDonald's is doing something like that but it is first time I actually saw one. Not far from the train station, we found a very big shopping mall called West End City Center with hundreds of upscale stores. We went in to do some window-shopping and check out the merchandise.

More pictures of the European 2008 trip.

Next day, on to Zagreb in Croatia.

Click NEXT to continue to the Balkan countries.

© Dave Cheng 2008