Sights in Europe

This rambling聽features a bunch of ‘favorite’ European sights聽that is entirely based on today’s mood (and then basically pulling a name out of a hat if we couldn’t decide) and our current state of melting in ~85+ degree heat and 90% humidity. Anything that reminds us of a cold day probably got moved up subconsciously. And of course, our experiences were colored because some places were under renovation while others were too crowded to make our experience feel worth the admission cost.

Best Art Museum:聽National Art Museum of Catalunya (MNAC) in Barcelona. This was the only museum we visited multiple times because Saturday afternoons are free. 馃檪 The palatial building聽has art-filled wings and frescoed domes. It dominates a hillside above Venetian-styled towers, waterfalls and fountains. MNAC’s collection is incredible – 13th century altarpieces (with聽mayhem-causing demons or saints boiling away in pots), Art Deco stained glass and advertising posters, sketches of the Spanish Civil War’s destruction, works by El Greco, Rubens, Goya…

Favorite Mode of Transit: Seaplane from Split to Dubrovnik. Head to Split’s picturesque harbor, sip on drinks聽waterside, board聽to find there are only 3 passengers, enjoy gorgeous mountain and island views all the way down the coast. A 45-minute jaunt and the chance the shoreline slip by is much preferable to a 4+ hour bus ride featuring two bonus border crossings.

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MNAC, Croatian peninsula, view from Dubrovnik’s walls.

Best City for Drinking Outside: Budapest. This city takes summer drinking to a new level. Mix聽cheap beer, lots of public space, great transit and voila! Some parks have stands selling alcohol, but it is more common to bring your own. Time of day doesn’t particularly matter, though nights are better, especially聽if you come across聽live music or a soccer match screening. Fisherman’s Bastion and the pedestrian-only Liberty Bridge provide some great views and enough drinking space for everyone.

Most Impressive City Walls: Dubrovnik. Game of Thrones is filmed there for a reason. Several cities we visited had walls in the past, but Dubrovnik’s are complete and you can walk all the way around them, exploring towers and the intimidating Lovrijeniac Fortress across a small bay. The blue Adriatic and the tightly packed Old Town fill the views.

Happiest Palace: Pena Palace in Sintra, Portugal. Move over, Neuschwanstein. Not only is the Pena Palace more brightly colored, it was actually lived in. The interior聽is just as cheerful as the outside with fountains and tiles. The grounds are pretty as well, with rambling trails, live black swans, and carefully planned views.

Favorite Old Town: Tallinn. Small, surrounded by towers, full of church spires, pastel colored buildings, and a pretty hill to climb. Yes, restaurants and souvenir poods dominate. We ignored those and focused on the cuteness, small parks, and quieter streets. Note: we avoided the high season, weekends, and cruise tour groups.

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Pena Palace, library at Mafra, Trinity College Library.

Library Nearest My Vision of Heaven: Trinity College Library, Dublin. One of about three places that looked like their Instagram images, no photoshopping required. Thousands of books, richly colored wood, gorgeous bindings. Large crowds detracted a bit. It isn’t a very wide room since the sides are cordoned off, but at least we could stay as long as we wanted to try to soak it in.聽The library at Portugal’s Palace of Mafra gets an honorable mention because it is equally beautiful, with far fewer visitors. The downside there is not being able to walk as far into it to get a sense of the scale. But the huge cross-shaped hall is gorgeous marblework聽worthy of a such an impressive royal residence.

Most Interesting Non-Art Museum: Village Museum, Bucharest. Outside in a city park, the Village Museum let us tour the Romanian countryside without leaving Bucharest. Dozens of old buildings – homes, churches, barns, windmills have been preserved, and turned into a living history museum. Lots of love has gone into furnishing the homes and keeping the carved gates and painted details. It was fun even in a storm (we sheltered in a wine press). The wide variety of structures showcased the different traditional styles from around Romania.

Sports Team with the Most Rabid Fans: Hadjuk Soccer Club from Split. Our hosts warned us that if we were ever harassed in a bar or on the street to just say “Volimo Hajduk” (“We love Hajduk!” – we never had to, everyone was really kind). Graffiti with the name Hajduk and their red-and-white checker colors was EVERYWHERE – sidewalks, buses, underpasses, huge murals on buildings. They have their own branded chocolate, liquor, snacks. Every kid must own at least one jersey. Even in Dubrovnik, Hajduk reigned.

Coincidental Event We Didn’t Plan to See But Enjoyed the Most: Red Bull Air Race, Budapest. Ok, so the weather was terrible, practices were cancelled, events cut short, and we didn’t get to see them fly under the bridge (a thing they convince the planes to do!). And it was still an incredible display of reflexes and flying planes stupidly close to water and between buildings in the center of a city with thousands of people cheering on either side of the river.

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Village Museum, Red Bull Air Race, tombs at Cemiterio dos Prazeres, La Sagrada Familia.

Creepiest Cemetery: Cemiterio dos Prazeres, Lisbon.聽Ghosts clearly come out at night. Above ground tomb, with doors of broken glass, let the lace curtains covering the coffins flutter in the wind. Few people, but cats in surprising places watching you.

Church Putting All Others to Shame: La Sagrada Familia, Barcelona.聽La Sagrada Familia is otherwordly. It stands alone, strikingly different from any other church we saw. 聽Inside, the white stone canvas swirls with rainbows of colored light streaming through the stained glass. Statuary covers the exterior, the side portraying the Crucifixion is in violent relief, the opposite showing Creation is decadent with natural scenery. It is expensive, the priciest building we entered, but worth it – even with the thousand other people. While waiting to enter you can even watch the ongoing construction, and dream about what it will look like when finished.

Favorite Museum Artwork: Discovering the Body聽of King Louis II by Bertalan Szekely.聽It’s a weird choice, but in person it is impressive and some parts are so realistic that it took me a while to convince myself the canvas was flat.

Most Heartwrenching聽Memorial: Auschwitz I and Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. The preserved concentration, forced labor, and death camp complex is a sobering memorial to human suffering and powerful warning about the evils humans will commit. Crowds detract a bit initially, but聽it was easy to begin to ignore them and turn inward to try to understand the horrors that happened there. Auschwitz I was on a too-human scale, its brick buildings reminded me of college dorms. But of course, inside are the exhibits of human hair, items confiscated from the victims. It’s awful. My stomach churned for hours remembering that people tortured, murdered, starved so many. Auschwitz-Birkenau’s vastness magnifies the horrors of Auschwitz I. Everyone should visit to confront the world’s failure to stop the Holocaust and the ongoing need to keep it from recurring.

Historical Artifact We Should Have Learned about In School but Didn’t: Romania’s Steel Crown.聽King Carol I asked for a crown of steel made from cannons captured by soldiers fighting for Romania’s independence. He wanted to remember their sacrifice.

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Fortress at Omis, Romania’s royal crown, book fountain, gas canisters at Auschwitz.

Cheapest Deal: Castles during Croatia’s off season.聽 They often charge at least a small admission fee. But in April, some days no one will be at the ticket booth and the castles will still be open (can’t blame them for wanting to hike up if no tourists seem to be in town). 馃檪 Happened at Omis and on Hvar.

Cutest Public Artwork: Book Fountain in Budapest.聽Water makes it look like the book’s pages are turning. It’s cute. The end.

Prettiest Hiking: Plitvice Lakes, Croatia.聽We visited during the off-season and avoided the worst crowds, and it was peaceful and pretty. Boardwalks weave around the waterfalls and under the trees; it’s a perfect way to spend at least an afternoon.

Where to See Books & Manuscripts Up Close: Chester Beatty Library, Dublin.聽The large libraries are beautiful in their own right, but only display a handful of books – they are all still on shelves. This museum focuses on individual books and has hundreds on display, all the way back to papyrus from ancient Egypt and fragments from the earliest copies of several books of the Bible.

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Plitvice Lakes, Chester Beatty Library, Suomenlinna Island.

Favorite Fortress for Exploring: Suomenlinna, Helsinki.聽A small series of islands in the Gulf of Finland have the preserved remains of a massive fort that guarded Helsinki’s harbor. The tunnels running through many ramparts and rocky waterfronts are open for exploring.

Stress-inducing Thing that was Fun Afterward: Driving in Romania.聽Driving laws in Romania appear to be suggestions. Roads are shared with speeding semis, horse-drawn carts, bicycles, cars pulling over for no reason. Everyone honks for everything. But the countryside is pretty, especially in the Transylvanian mountains.

City Walking that Doesn’t Suck: Barcelona’s Wide Boulevards.聽Outside the Gothic Quarter’s 聽tangled mess, sidewalks are huge, open, flat. The city is easy to navigate because just about every street is at a right angle.

Here are some other things grouped by city that I didn’t want to come up with individual paragraphs for:

Lisbon has a castle downtown! The ruined聽Carmo Monastery! The less ruined Jeronimos Monastery. Next door to the Pena Palace is the clamberable ruins of the聽Moorish Castle.

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Carving at Jeronimos Monastery, Carmo Monastery, Solin’s ruined amphitheater.

Barcelona’sMontjuic Castle聽has dark and checkered history, but beautiful views. Nearby, the聽Olympic Grounds聽are a great picnic/frisbee spot.

The damp of Diocletian’s palace basement聽in Split聽still shows how good Romans were at construction. Ruins at Solin聽add to that argument.聽Klis Fortress is also pretty but they clearly know people are coming due to GoT filming – the price keeps going up.

The shore path on the Babin Kuk side of Dubrovnik聽was more relaxing than ones nearer the Old Town. Ferrying聽out to聽Lokrum Island聽also avoided about 95% of the crowd and was a nice place聽to spend an afternoon being stalked by peacocks.

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Lokrum Island, Palace of the Parliament, Peles Castle.

Bucharest聽has a beautiful Orthodox church every few blocks. Towering over everything, the Palace of the Parliament is a primer in government waste. Two hours away in the mountains, Peles Castle proves that a country doesn’t have to have a royal family for very long before all the trappings show up.

In Dublin, the National Archaeology Museum聽and St. Patrick’s Cathedral聽聽were my other favorites. And the whole city recalls lots of great literature 馃檪 . Across the country, really just a few hours drive, are the Cliffs of Moher.聽Brave the wind and don’t get too close to the edge.

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Cliffs of Moher, inside St. Patrick’s, Dohany Street Synagogue.

Budapest is impressive all around. The quirky Pinball Museum聽is great for 5 hours until your wrists give out but the massive Szechenyi Thermal Baths聽can relieve all those arm cramps. A more sombre visit, the聽Dohany Street Synagogue聽is a reminder of how the Holocaust changed Hungary.

In addition to the Uprising Museum, the entire city of聽Warsaw聽is a WWII memorial. Walking聽anywhere you come upon plaques and statues commemorating events or people, letting you map out the destruction in your own neighborhood. In聽the suburbs, the Wilanow Palace serves as a reminder of the pre-WWII era.

Krakow聽crams a lot into a small space, which explains why it’s packed with tourists. The Franciscan Basilica聽is incredible. The park encircling the Old Town, the riverfront walk, or Kazimierz (the traditionally Jewish area) gets away from some聽of the horde. Further out, the now-parklike Plaszow Concentration Camp is Auschwitz’s lesser-known cousin that makes a thoughtful accompaniment to Oskar Schindler’s Factory.

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Wilanow, Krakow’s Franciscan Church, Lennusadam, Kadriorg Palace.

Tallinn’s聽St. Olaf church tower is a great way to view the Old Town and reveal a fear of heights. Tucked away in Kadriorg park is the impressive KUMU National Art Museum and the cute聽Kadriorg Palace (also housing art). The Lennusadam Seaplane Harbor has full sized boats and a submarine to explore

Again, these are the places that stuck out the most. Just about everything we saw was worth our time in some way or another. For every place we saw, there are more we heard about but didn’t get to. I suppose yet another reason to head back at some future point….

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Budapest, All Together Now

I’m going to fit the rest of Budapest in a single post so that I can move on to Poland(!!) next time. After four weeks in Hungary’s capital, we definitely understand the many people we’ve met who voted it their favorite European city.聽And although we did a lot, we barely scratched the surface of all the food and galleries and parks that are worth exploring.聽Here are some final聽greatest hits:

1. The most interactive museum award goes to the Pinball Museum, an arcade on steroids. We spent a whole evening there trying out games from the 1950s onward. There is a definite evolutionary arc that the machines follow: getting more complex and adding lights and sounds until they near seizure-inducing levels. My favorite were the Indiana Jones and Elvira machines that seemed to be kinder than others (at least I loss less playing those). Kevin liked the Apollo 13 game that was based on the mid-1990s movie – rather than the 1970 moon mission. Despite my losing streak, I think I improved my skills a least a little…

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Book fountain – the water mimics turning pages, the Pinball Museum

2. At a corner of Varosliget Park we stumbled on a memorial to the 1956 Revolution. Dozens of rusted pillars slowly merge to a shining point representing the accumulation of forces leading聽to a free Hungary. It is interactive as well… you can walk partway through the pillars until the gaps get too small to squeeze through. I’d be wary of heading here with small hide-and-seek prone children.

3.聽The same walk lead us to Kerepesi Cemetery. It is the resting place for Hungary’s rich & famous artists and luminaries.聽Some graves are clearly meant to be a reflection of the person’s importance聽and are topped with聽winged lions and Roman pillars. Unlike most cemeteries, it is spread out and feels more like a park than a graveyard. Some corners even have statues that are almost completely overgrown by brush and ivy.

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1956 Revolution Memorial, statuary at Kerepesi Cemetery

4. A tour of the Dohany Street Synagogue, also known as the Great Synagogue, took part of an afternoon. The largest in Europe, it has Christian influences and was built to blend into the surrounding city and even includes an organ. Destroyed during the World War II it was only fully restored during the 1990s. Now the interior is sumptuous and feels velvet-colored.

Much more sobering are the memorial gardens outside and discovering that the quiet, treed聽area is actually a mass grave. More than two聽thousand Jews murdered in Budapest’s Ghetto at the end of WWII are buried in the small space. A heartbreaking sculpture of a weeping willow has thousands of leaves etched with the names of even more Holocaust victims. Lest all hope be lost, there is also a memorial to Hungarians (and others, including 聽Swedish diplomat聽Raoul Wallenberg,聽who is my new hero)聽who risked and sacrificed their own lives saving other Jews from the same fate.

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Inside the Great Synagogue and in its memorial gardens.

 

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Weeping Willow Memorial at the Great Synagogue, park art, muraled museum insides.

5. Budapest’s best bookstore is probably聽Alexandra’s. In the back a cafe serves coffee that can be ordered in a form closer to an ice cream sundae (read: Danielle-approved) and which has one of the best ceilings in the city. And the live piano playing starts at 4pm. And there are two full floors of books downstairs (even the sought-after English-language section!). It was a perfect way to spend an afternoon hiding from rain.

6. A Danube River cruise is almost mandatory in Budapest. We went at night to see the buildings lit up and surrounded by flocks of birds searching for light-addled bugs. The tour boat was crowded – but free 馃檪 with credit card points – and at least there was wine. It is really entertaining to take photos of the river overlooks while you can see the people up there doing the same thing and using lots of flash.

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Alexandra’s Book Cafe, Parliament at night (insect-seeking birds barely visible).

7. I’ll end with the food: THE FOOD! AND THE WINE! Hungarian meals are hearty. Even their soups are a full meal. Lots of things are deep fried and full of butter and cheese and meat. Clearly this is where American fair food draws inspiration from: lets all thank for langos聽for inspiring elephant ears and funnel cake.

Cabbage rolls were my most unexpectedly enjoyed food, though it helped that the cabbage was tempered with a lot of rice, hamburger, and paprika. Paprika was in everything, by the way. Hungarians do spice better than most of Europe… our souvenir paprika is currently livening up our Polish meals.

And I adored聽the wine – especially the whites. It agreed with my taste buds – lots of sugary sweetness. And we could chill the bottles in the fridge to compensate for our lack of air conditioning.

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Yummy langos (I only remembered a photo partway through), brilliantly sweet Tokaji-region wine, well-lit bridges.

Just about the only thing I won’t miss is the humidity that made our ground floor apartment occasionally feel like it was trying to be the thermal baths… 聽And I will admit that the Polish zloty’s exchange rate of 4:1 is easier to wrap my head around than the Hungarian forint’s 285:1…

 

 

Buda and (some) Red Bull Racing!

Finally, a post about that mythical other side of the Danube, the Buda half聽of Budapest. A hillier part of the city with聽Fisherman’s Bastion, Matthias Church, and museums, we see it every time we are by the river, but we rarely take the bus all the way over. So when we do聽cross聽the Danube, we make sure to spend more than a couple聽hours there.

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Views of and from Fisherman’s Bastion.

Matthias Church is gorgeous聽inside聽and out, though we didn’t pay to enter. No ticket is needed to see the Gothic-ish exterior and colorful roof. Its church towers take up聽only a small part of Buda’s skyline. The massive Buda Castle, so large it holds multiple museums, and the National Library dominate and seem to crush the ground聽beneath them.

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Parliament at night and at dusk, the Matthias Church roof.

Fisherman’s Bastion and its seven towers sit right behind the Church. The lower terrace is always open, but during the day only a single tower is free to visitors. We climbed it, but rather than paying to see the main upper terrace, we checked out the lower levels and came back at night聽after ticket control headed home. Its far more romantic after dark anyway. Many tourists are gone and couples are out, as are violin and guitar buskers playing mixes from Titanic and Game of Thrones (you know, cheesy love songs). Public drinking聽is a national tradition so plenty of people are out with wine and beer and enjoying聽the view. Sadly, the grocery closed before we got a bottle of our own. Fortunately, we had been at the National Gallery’s Wine Wednesday, so at least we had a part of a drink (and some great art) behind us.

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Fisherman’s Bastion in one of the few night pics from my phone that turned out.

Last weekend we spent several hours outside in chilly, windblown rain to catch a few glimpses of聽Budapest’s Red Bull Air Race.聽We planned to go both Saturday and Sunday, only to have all of Saturday’s events cancelled. Fortunately, Plan B was visiting the Budapest History Museum, so at least we had a chance to dry off before bussing home. As a bonus, one exhibits was about the similar histories of Budapest and Krakow (where we are headed in three weeks) giving us some serious anticipation for our聽next stops聽in Poland.

Sunday our luck was slightly better – action聽was delayed, then moved up, then delayed again. Haphazard schedule, but planes were flying!聽The final round of 4 was cancelled but we saw most of the two semi-finals. Success! Best of all, there were probably fewer people there due to weather; after one delay we snagged a higher up spot in the park next to Parliament.

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Flying! and crowds (despite the weather) outside of Parliament).

The air race is聽stunt flying on a roller coaster track. And in Budapest, its all done just a few feet off the river, between bridges and city buildings. Because of the unfavorable conditions, the famous under-the-bridge聽entry was scrapped, but all the twists, turns, and loops are still required. The pilots maneuver faster than I could possibly react to anything. Even pulling聽10 gs, they find the next gate. We could see some planes drifting with the wind, but no one hit a gate or missed their mark. Its Blue Angels level聽flying.

If you ever have a chance to see this in person: Go! I’d have happily watched it all day. It partially makes up for missing Seattle’s Seafair this year.

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Better in video or in-person form; a smoke trail gives some idea of how much weaving and swerving the planes do.

Also: potato donuts (deep fried potato balls) exist. I probably want to eat them for every meal?!

Pest

We’ve been loving our first two weeks in Budapest.聽Architecture, museums, and food are some of the best we’ve enjoyed. The city, which is constantly listed as one of the best in the world to live in, definitely deserves the titles. Much of what we’ve done so far has been on the Pest side of the river (Buda and Pest merged in 1873), so that is the area this post focuses on.

Just a 20 minute walk from our apartment is a massive park, Varosliget Napozoret. It contains a zoo, the Szechenyi Thermal Baths, lots of green space, museums, monuments and its very own castle, Vajdahunyad聽(and -according to Kevin – lots of Pokestops).

Rather than a medieval ruin, Vajdahunyad was built for an exhibition in the late 1800s as a mashup of different architectural styles. Kevin described it as looking like something Six Flags would cobble together to cover all the castley bases. It was planned to only last a few years and was first constructed with a wooden frame. People liked it so much, however, that it was rebuilt with stone. It’s right at home nestled between duck ponds and peddle boat rentals.

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Around Vajdahunyad Castle

One of my favorite things about Budapest is parks being treated like semi-beer gardens. There are usually stands selling drinks,聽ice cream, and snacks. On a nice afternoon, there might be dozens of groups of friends drinking quietly in the shade. Later in the evening, some turn into real beer gardens with music and food trucks. So much more relaxed than having a fenced-off聽section and intimidating ID checkers like in the states! Any big event brings out even larger crowds – we watched the France-Germany Euro 2016 match up with several hundred fans while drinking in a park near the Danube.

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Statue of Anonymus, a 12th century chronicler, Heroes’ Square, Vajdahunyad sprawling near the lake.

Speaking of the Danube, the river is not anywhere as blue as the song claims. More of a muddy gray-brown, its not as special looking as some bodies of water (I’m looking at you Blanca Lake). Still, having a river to create the perfect view of Budapest’s most iconic landmarks聽makes taking pictures easy.

Parliament dominates the Pest side of the river. It is the prettiest government meeting house I’ve seen. I don’t know if it makes politicians do a better job, but it probably can’t hurt. It looks a bit like lace, even though it takes up a city block.

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Looking down the Danube, Parliament

St. Stephen’s Basilica is another main landmark. The massive church took 54 years to build and was only finished in 1905. Like most important Catholic churches, its interior is covered in decoration, gilding, and richly colored stained glass. The dome is particularly gold-covered. We went near聽closing on a cloudy evening – I imagine it is much brighter on a sunny afternoon.

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St. Stephen’s Basilica

We’ve wandered along the river to see the bridges and the Shoes on the Danube memorial. Like many places in Europe, in Hungary Jews were systematically killed during World War II. In Budapest some of the massacres took places right on the banks of the river so the bodies would be washed away by the current.

The Central Market is only a block from the Danube and must hold a substantial portion of the world’s paprika. It is in basically every food here – goulash (the soup, not the noodley dish I grew up with), preserved meats, chips, hummus, cabbage rolls. It does seem to make everything better… they are clearly on to something…

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Central Market, Shoes on the Danube and one of many bridges.

We’ll be spending more time on the Buda side to see new sights and I’ll have better photos of that soon. We’re hoping the rain will hold off tomorrow so we can head over to the hills to watch the Red Bull Air Race. We were not so fortunate today…