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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The Food Review of Europe

We’ve moved back to聽the Americas for the foreseeable future, leaving fall and winter behind. Sorry Europe, it’s time for some beaches in Mexico and Latin American culture. Coming snow and chill aside, I’m going to miss all the countries we visited in Europe. I thought it might be fun to do a recap of the best things we saw and ate and some of the oddities we noticed. New blogs will be light this month聽as we are staying in a beach town and well… basically going to the beach every day. This post is all about the food and drink in eight countries we visited in Europe, starting with the best food from each place.

  • In Lisbon, Portugal, egg tarts reign. Just all of them all the time; get them from Pasteis de Belem or literally any other bakery. How their eggs are so tasty is a mystery.聽Even the eggs we got at the store had richer yolks and seemed tastier than eggly possible.
  • Best meal in Barcelona is tapas, hands down. Away from the tourist streets they are much cheaper and about 483% better. Every possible combination of cheese, veggies, and meat is available. For a Euro, you can have a couple bites that taste like the equivalent of $40 meal. And usually there is a wide variety so it is perfect if someone wants hamburgers and another person wants fruit & cheese plates.
  • Ajvar is Croatia’s contribution to culinary heaven. A blend of peppers and eggplant, it fits聽between pasta sauce and salsa. Doesn’t sound too special, but it was my go-to topping for toast, eggs, chips, pasta, crackers, meat, or sometimes just by the spoonful by itself. Especially worth nothing when served on cevapi, a skinless sausage sandwich that may cause you to nearly ruin your shirt in your hurry to get it all in your face because YUM!聽I searched for ajvar聽in every European country we went to post-Croatia. (Romania has a similar food called zakusca, but it’s more soupy and forgettable.)
  • In Bucharest, Romania, the Caru’ cu Bere restaurant served up cheap lunch eats. We had superb sour kraut salad, polenta (with a rich topping of cheese, cream, and egg – it was the appetizer but basically became my main course), and tomato and cucumber salad.
  • Fish was the best bet聽in Ireland. There isn’t really any specific way to have it prepared as long as it’s fresh. Locals emphasized that Irish cuisine doesn’t have a ‘must-try’ dish. In fact, Dublin may have had the highest percentage of restaurants and shops聽focusing on cuisine from other cultures.
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    Horse and cous cous (Kevin whipped it up after a trip to the main market), egg tarts, winning chips.
  • Goulash soup was probably the highlight of Hungary. Full of meats, veggies, and paprika, it is warm and rich. It’s probably more聽suited to winter than summer, so we need to go back in a season when I can eat more of it. It’s definitely not the hamburgery noodles I grew up calling goulash. Also, in a possible tie,聽Hungary has聽deep fried potato donuts. These are exactly what they sound like: a mix of potato and donut dough, fried for a crispy outside and soft, warm inside. Though they are called donuts, they aren’t dessert, but another example of Hungary’s love of high-calorie goodness.
  • Poland claims victory on the pierogi front, naturally. I didn’t know there could be so many kinds. Duck, mushroom, salmon, and berries make excellent fillings though ruskie (cheese and potato) is the most traditional and is clearly the King of Pierogies. Done right, they are puffy, joyous food pillows that I would gleefully eat for every meal.
  • Estonia wins dessert. Never thought I would say that Estonia has the best (non-egg tart) pastries, but they pulled it off. We were just a block away from a bakery that served up supremely fluffy pastries with the richest, smoothest creamy cheese fillings and icings. And Kalev, the main brand of chocolate, makes some of the best anywhere in Europe. Sorry, Germany, Kinder doesn’t cut it anymore.
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Croatian peanut crisps, pierogies!!, Hungarian langosh, Estonian chips.

Other food takeaways that surprised us:

  • Frozen veggies are tastier聽in Europe. There are Italian, Chinese, and Mexican mixes that taste as fresh as a salad. The flavors are intense – like the veggies just came out of the garden. And at $1-2 dollars a bag that would feed both of us for two or three meals, America can learn something.
  • Horse meat is really tasty. Seriously.
  • So is moose. It fits somewhere between prosciutto and beef jerky on the meat-flavor spectrum.
  • Portugal does the egg thing, but Spain must be the beneficiary of the actual chicken. Chicken in Spain tasted like a unique meat, not just a bland food needing lots of seasoning.
  • Duck is really cheap at Lidl in Hungary. And in Estonia. We shamelessly ate a lot of it.
  • We ate risottos in several countries and they are now probably a necessary part of my existence. The ones in Portugal were richer, more flavorful, and more gravy-like. At the Time Out Market near Lisbon’s waterfront, I had the best risotto of the whole trip with game hen and mushrooms. Ones in Hungary featured paprika, naturally.
  • Sushi is common in Estonia and is happy to blend local flavors and products. We even saw a full-color book of Estonian-Japanese fusion foods.
  • Peanut crisps (think Cheetos puffs with聽less corn and more legume) seemed to be the most popular snack in Croatia. They are addicting. Hrusk Crisps were my personal favorite. I now prefer them to cheese puffs, though I will admit that I got addicted to Latvian-produced nacho cheese balls in Estonia.
  • Thank Hungary for fair and festival food. They are masters of fried dough and carryable meat.

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    Baklava (it also comes in chocolate), various ajvars, milk sans refrigeration in Croatia.
  • Chip flavors vary by country –聽salsa, paprika, prosciutto, mushroom, hamburger, kebab, dill, steak. There are more traditional flavors as well, the cheeses, onions, sour creams. Missing were Doritos Cool Ranch and Fritos.
  • We had goose legs for the first time in Hungary. Better than turkey.
  • All of Europe is terrible at spicy foods. The only partial exception is Hungary, which corners the paprika market, but still only reaches a small percentage of what we got used to in Southeast Asia.
  • Dill doesn’t seem to exist in most places. It was only readily available in Estonia, presumably because they have salmon in large quantities. And salmon necessitates dill.
  • Peanut butter is an exotic rarity. While it can be found in some supermarkets, it is 2-5 times more expensive than in the U.S. and is often grittier and lacking spreadability. And often hiding out in the refrigerated section.
  • Europe loves cheese. The Iberian peninsula favors soft cheeses, while Romania northward seemed much more in love with hard, aged cheeses. Even so, finding appropriate cheese for nachos in Croatia was nearly impossible. Same goes for pre-shredded.
  • Most know Spain is famous for prosciutto, but Hungary and Poland should also be on the preserved-meat fan’s radar. Especially Poland. Though the Central Market in Budapest had a stall serving what might have been the best prosciutto of the trip.
  • Instant ramen is ubiquitous (college kids everywhere survive on that stuff), but Poland took it a step further and had beetroot borscht alongside the chicken and shrimp flavors. Sure enough, same cheap noodles, but this time with a spice packet that turned the soup bright reddish-purple. And yes, it was good.

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    Veggies with duck & lingonberry sauce – made by Kevin :), moose jerky, salmon, beet & herring salad, Eesti pastry.

Of course, drinks go with food:

  • Literally ALL THE WINE IN PORTUGAL IS GOOD. We drank 3 -or 4-Euro bottles almost exclusively and had no regrets.聽The best ports were pricier. We shared a single small聽glass of 30 year-old port that cost about $7US and was smooth and flavorful. If only we had enough for whole bottles of that stuff…
  • Alcohol in Spain was disappointing; perhaps it was overshadowed by Portugal’s. The wine was more expensive and not to our liking, and the beers were聽forgettable.
  • Croatian wine, especially a grape variety called plavac mali, was the best thing to drink. The best bottle (we splurged for our birthdays) was produced by聽Zlatan Otok. We’ve never seen Croatian wine anywhere else, even other European nations, much less in the U.S. We were told their industry was growing, so hopefully we’ll be able to find it in the future.
    • An aside on Macedonian wine: They made their way frequently into Croatian stores, and it turns out they also deserve to聽be better known. Some are even aged in amphorae, modern versions of the containers pulled up from shipwrecks. This makes for more earthy wines, and is a fun way to feel a little more connected to the region’s history.
  • Sweet red wines are Romania’s forte. Even wines listed as dry are not. Kevin wasn’t thrilled by this, but I took it as a sign to make wine my dessert.

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    Full spectrum of Spanish wine (protip: the boxed wine is pretty terrible), Croatian plavac mali, Portuguese deliciousness.
  • Hungary’s best drinking was sweet white wines from the Tokaji region. Like Romania, lots of residual sugar.
  • It turns out Poland does make a little bit of wine, but they make much more beer and (SO MUCH!) vodka. Too many (really cheap) drinkable beers to name, but there is one vodka that stands out. Bisongrass vodka isn’t available in the US (it’s just a teeny聽bit toxic), but it is the best vodka either of us has had.
  • Redcurrant wine in Estonia. Berries take the place of grapes here;聽thank goodness they can be fermented and aged the same way. More like drinking syrup than alcohol, it is another example of their domination of desserts. Though kvass (beer made from fermented bread that tastes like toast), should get an honorary mention.

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    Tallin’s hard liquor, fruit wine, kvass, and more fruit wines. Poland’s lychee beer, and Hungarian corks.

Overall, the best countries for (grape) wine were 1. Portugal – a perfect blend of inexpesive and flavorful wines 2. Croatia – for their own unique grapes and the other Balkan countries that were represented, a little pricier but still lots of deals 3. Hungary has more sweeter wines and it matches well with their cuisine.

For beer, the rankings are mostly based on Kevin’s opinion. He appreciates beer more than I do, but the more we travel, the more I find ones I like. 1. Poland wins beer. It was cheap, there was a lot of it, and there was a wide variety. And all of it was good. Nothing randomly pulled off a shelf disappointed. They also are proud of a growing craft beer industry that has produced some interesting combinations. 2. Hungary snags second place because beer there is very cheap and usually of high quality. We did find a聽few duds, but for pennies a bottle, it is easy to experiment. 3. Estonia has a much bigger craft scene, so there is a lot of variety for a small country. Their overall cost of living means beer is pricier than any other European country we went to on this trip. But it is tasty and there is always something new to try.

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Polish beer cap collection, craft beers, Romanian wines.

Kevin gets to exclusively pick the favorites for harder liquor awarding first to: 1. Ireland for its smooth whisky. 2. Poland because they have all the vodka. Aisles and aisles of vodka. And all the locals love聽it. We saw an 80 year-old couple checking out at the store with chicken, three apples, a can of coffee, and about 8 bottles of vodka. Not sure if that is how they stand each other or their children or just because they are 80 and who gives? 3. Estonia has Vana Tallinn, which makes run-based liquors and some that have winter spices in the mix – cozy for the growing chill.

Europe takes alcohol seriously. Quality is important, but so is quantity… In Croatia and a few other places, wine often comes in 1 liter bottles (rather than the U.S.-standard .75 liter). And beer. Beer cans in Europe make the standard U.S. can look like a child’s toy. Mass produced聽beers also come in 1- and 2-liter bottles, because beer! In Estonia, Finns hop the ferry over to buy cheaper alcohol. Estonia obliges by providing 10-packs of vodka (aka the “Finn-pack”) at all stores near the ferry dock, as well as handcarts to make carrying it back easy.

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Yummy Hungarian Dreher Bak, Irish birds love beer, Irish whisky distillery, cork collection from Dubrovnik.

One of the interesting challenges was to try to find packaging with the most languages. The winner seemed to be a pizza box we got at Carrefour in Poland with full instructions and ingredient lists in 7 languages. (Two to four seemed to be about the average.) There was also a ketchup packet that had 11, but in almost every language the translation for ‘tomato ketchup’ is ‘tomato ketchup.’

In some cities, there are still wonderfully diverse markets showcasing local produce and meats. Some are considerably cheaper than stores for in-season produce, but others are tourist-focused and overcharge accordingly. Usually they are worth going to in either case.

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European markets. 馃檪

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that food has become a main part of our trip.聽We mostly ate at home, Kevin taking聽the opportunity to try new recipes (paella and ratatouille and fish), while using local ingredients. Unlike Thailand and Malaysia, eating out often in Europe would have drained our budget too fast, though I will say that doner kebab is cheap and yummy and very common. It was a little tough moving each month because we never knew what kitchen utensils we would end up with or how well our stove would work. Some of our favorite foods were ones we’ve had before but that had new twists or tasted completely different because of the quality of the ingredients. While we are happy to have moved on to a place where spicy food is again available and taco trucks are on many corners (namely ones by grocery store parking lots), Europe has so much more deliciousness to offer that we will have to head back… Even eight months was only enough time to get to a small portion of it all…

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…