Posted By on November 20, 2013

I really didn’t expect that long of a lapse before moving on to Prague. I’m not sure where my hesitation is coming from. Probably because I loved Prague so much and that after Prague is Munich and then it’s the end. And I’m still sad about being home from the vacation; I’m going to be even sadder to have no more excuse to relive it here.

Anyway! Last we left off, we were spending our last day and night in Vienna. The next morning, we had an early train to Prague. The Prague train was longer than the one from Budapest to Vienna. But, thankfully for us, not crowded at all. So between the three of us, we had 2 cars to ourselves and we slept. For five hours. It was glorious until Alli was waking me up by shouting “we just slept for five hours straight!” Like this was a bad thing.

Our hotel in Prague was nice and close to the train station, so we just walked to the hotel. After checking in and changing into non-stinky train clothes, we went to grab something to eat near the hotel.

The hotel was in the major touristy area, so a lot of the restaurants were kind of theatrical and pricey. We found a place that seemed just like a café and ate outside to take in the scenery.

Did you know that Prague is known for an awesome delicacy of fried cheese? It’s like mozzarella sticks, but bigger and usually cheddar or something else. Regardless, it is AMAZING. And I ate as much of it as I could.

After a late lunch, we wanted to check out the Museum of Communism. It is a small, self-guided museum above a McDonald’s, but I thought it was really fascinating. It was interesting to hear the history of Communism in Prague and to know that had the American troops gotten to Prague one day sooner, their entire history would have changed and they wouldn’t have fallen under the Russian regime.

After that we headed to Old Town Square because we had plans to go on a Beer Tour. Prague is known for its beer, specifically home of Pilsner Urquell. We figured this would be a great way to see some local pubs and get drunk at the same time! WIN!

This was an amazing tour! Our guide, Josephina, was awesome. She was young and knew all the fun, cool spots. We started off at Lokal, which was a Pilsner bar only. It actually gets the Pilsner right from the source, so there was no extra processing and/or additives. It was so smooth and delicious.

After Lokal, we went to the Prague Beer Museum. I can get behind any city that has a beer museum. This place had a huge menu and like 100 beers on tap. So we asked our guide to pick out a flight for us. They were all pretty good. And by this time, we were feeling pretty, pretty, pretty good.

Next up was another local brewery place. It was Pivnice Stupartska. I only know this because I took a photo of it.

I also remember we ordered fried cheese here and it was delicious!

Our final stop was the Vodka Propaganda Bar. This place was really cool, I thought. It was dark and clubby, but the walls were plastered with all the old Communist propaganda posters.

After that, our tour was officially over. But we loved our guide so much (and I friended her on Facebook!) that we asked her for fun places to go and if she wanted to come with us. She said she actually had never really wanted to hang out with a group after a tour, but we were a lot of fun.

We went to some bar and met some of her friends. After that, she told us about a cool party on the outside of town. We thought it sounded cool, so we took a cab out to some club. It wasn’t really close to downtown.

There was a cover charge and it was a PARTAY inside! The place was packed and it was loud and we were the oldest by about 10 years! I wish we had stayed for a drink, but we didn’t, so we got in a cab and went back to the hotel.

After some more street food (what is a European vacation without ending a night with street food?), we called it a night and decided we needed to rest up for day two in Praha.

Next up: the sights of Prague, including ghost tours!

The Hills Are Alive…And Burning My Lungs

Posted By on November 6, 2013

On our only full day in Vienna, we did a wine tasting and bike tour of the Wachau Valley outside of Vienna. Going into the trip, this was the one thing I wanted to do. I could take or leave any of the other things we did, but this! This I wanted to do!

And we were not disappointed. Hands down this was probably my favorite part of the whole trip, even though it required actual physical movement and exercise.

We actually almost didn’t even make it. We were running late and didn’t have the time allowed for the subway. So we tried to hail a cab, which proved to be damn near impossible on the busy Vienna streets. We finally saw one dropping off a lady across the street and ran the cab down and forced it to take us to our meeting point.

It was really fine, actually. They build in a lot of buffer time with these tours. We had time to check in and get some water and take a photo before we even took our walk over to the subway to go to the train station.

After a short subway ride, we made it out to a train station that was going to take us to our bikes. The train ride was about an hour or two, and uneventful. Except for the three people sitting behind us, who were annoying as fuck. They were like 20 and in the midst of traveling across the world for a year and not only did their voices grate on my nerves, I was also extremely jealous.

I should point out here that I cannot tell you the last time I rode a bike that was not a stationary one in a gym. High school? Maybe college? Bottom line: A long, long time ago.

I wasn’t that worried about it. I mean, that saying has to have a bit of truth to it, right? That was until I got on the bike, weighed down by a heavy backpack on my back that was throwing off my equilibrium, and I was very, very worried about how I was going to bike for the next several hours.

I almost fell off right at the beginning. It was a giant group of us, all trying to get moving and there were some curbs and turns and I almost ate it. This was one of many times I was grateful for my long legs. It makes falling off a bike a lot harder when you can just touch the ground with your feet while still sitting on the bike.

I finally got my bearings and we were off. And it was the most beautiful scenery I had ever seen. The hills and the mountains right near the Danube River were majestic and so, so pretty.

Our first stop was at Domane Wachau. The Wachau Valley is known for their white wines, particularly their sweet wines like Riesling. We tried several wines at this place and they were all really good. I would have loved to buy a bottle, if I had known how to get it home. I really should have bought some of those wine bags for my suitcase.

After that stop, I handed the backpack off to Alli, thankfully. It was a hell of a lot easier to ride without it. We strapped it into her basket to make it a little easier for her. And then we were on our way, winding our way through the vineyards, trying grapes off the vine, and heading to a town for lunch.

Lunch was in this adorable little town where the youngest building was from like the 1600s. Lunch was good and we had some cocktails with lunch, which probably wasn’t the best idea, since we were still riding bikes for like 5 more hours. But thankfully, this stop included time to walk around the town. It also included a chocolate and liqueur tasting at a little shop.

Everything in this town was apricot flavored. We tried apricot mustard (so good! I actually bought some! And I hate fruit in all things!), an apricot liqueur and some apricot chocolate. They also sold anything and everything made with apricots – soaps, lotions, you name it!

And then we were off again! This part of the tour had some amazing views and then we went down this hill and wheeee! This is a piece of cake! I could ride a bike all the livelong day!

Oh, hahahahaha, self! That downhill part was the ONLY downhill part! There were then a lot of giant hills on this part of the ride. And poor Alli had to lug that backpack! We finally huffed and puffed our way to the next stop, a wine tavern. And where was this wine tavern? AT THE TOP OF A GIANT HILL THAT REQUIRED ONE THOUSAND STEPS TO GET TO!

Alli smartly threw the backpack at me halfway up, because she was probably ready to ditch it all at that point. But it gave us such a dewy, fresh look in photos. Dewy = sweaty.

At this point, I didn’t even want wine. I wanted a car and a gallon of water. But the views? WORTH IT!

I made someone take a photo of me in my best “The Hills are Alive” Sound of Music reenactment. It wasn’t the same, but it works. It was the closest I was ever going to get to any of the Von Trapps and sexy Christopher Plummer.

After this stop was more riding and then we got to the river. We were taking a self-propelled ferry across the Danube to the other side to continue the tour. So we actually made it on the Danube in both Budapest and Vienna!

The rest of the trip was through apple orchards and other parts of the winery. At this point, we were apparently running a bit late. We had a few slow people on the tour that all but died after the hills and slowed us down. Normally it is OK, but we had tickets for a train back to Vienna at a certain time.

We made it, barely. There was quite a bit of running (my turn with the backpack, of course) to make it to the train on time, but we made it. Thank God! But even if we hadn’t, there was another train in an hour, so we would have been fine. And probably less sweaty.

After the tour, we got back to the hotel and got ready to spend our last night in Vienna. We actually found a really good Italian place near our hotel for dinner. It was a nice break from all the goulash and meat.

Melissa went back to the room after dinner, so Alli and I wandered around the city that night. We went past the oldest church in Vienna, which was beautiful all lit up.

Our first stop was to get a famous Sacher torte from the Hotel Sacher. (Spoiler alert: I had it the next day when it was probably a bit dried out, but it wasn’t that great.)

We tried to find an area of town that the guide from the previous day mentioned, but we just ran into a lot of dead ends. We ran into this sign a lot, which we decided told people they were not allowed to dance in the streets.

We couldn’t find anything that looked open (it was a Monday night) so we decided to go back to the 1516 Brewery, since we knew where it was and that we liked it. The place was PACKED! There was a soccer game on and it was a giant sausage fest. Minus the couple making out next to us at the bar, it was a good place.

I didn’t know Alli super well before this trip, but it was nice to have a night with her to just hang out, chat and get to know each other. We are bonded for life after going on this trip and I hope I get to travel with her again!

We smartly only stayed out until a little after midnight. Our train to Prague the next morning was early and we were getting picked up at the hotel in like 7 hours. Yay for being responsible adults!

Up next, what was probably my favorite city – Prague!

Rest of my Vienna photos are here.


Posted By on November 4, 2013

Somehow the fact that the German spelling of Vienna is the letters of wine transposed did not go unnoticed by me. Also, I couldn’t pronounce it correctly to save my life. My Chicago accent doesn’t lend itself to the harsh way Germans speak.

When we last left off, we had just finished our time in Budapest. On Sunday morning, we got up and took the subway to the train station and were on our way to Vienna.

The last Hungarian thing to do was try langos, which is like fried bread with cheese and sour cream on it. We had tried unsuccessfully to find it earlier on the trip. My stomach was not doing so hot in Budapest in general (I blame all the late night gyros), so I didn’t partake in it. Alli and Melissa did, and they said it was pretty good, but probably not the best, seeing as we got it in the train station.

Train stations in Europe always remind me of the movies. I think it is the open-airness to them. And it isn’t like being under a building or on the side of the road like it is in Chicago on our commuter rail.

The train to Vienna was uneventful. Surprising to no one, we slept most of the way. This was also the shortest train ride, at just about three hours. The train was comfy and clean.

Once we got to Vienna, we took a cab to our hotel. The cab driver was a giant douchebag and wouldn’t let my friend open the window. “It’s not good for me,” he said. It appears that Google Maps doesn’t interact with the Vienna transit, so the only options when I looked it up before the trip was walking or driving. Oddly enough, there is a great subway and street car system in Vienna. I just didn’t know how to navigate it until we got to the city.

Our hotel was a Pension hotel. It was……odd. I guess it’s like a nicer hostel? We had our own room and bathroom, but there wasn’t much in there. The keys were real keys. And there was a door to each floor that was locked. It was definitely safe, but was just different. But it was clean, so that’s all that mattered. And we were only there 2 nights.

We had a tour planned for the afternoon. It was a bus tour of the city and then a tour of Schonbrunn Palace. The tour was nice, but the bus was so comfy and we were in the front and the sun was warm and……you guessed it! We fell asleep! Vienna is such a beautiful city. The buildings are all amazing. I wish we had done a walking tour or another kind of tour because I have all these photos of these amazing buildings and I have no idea what they are.

After the bus tour, we got off at Schonbrunn Palace and took a tour of it. The place is amazing. It’s huge! And so, so pretty! It’s an old palace that was used by royalty back in the day. Now part of it is rented out as apartments. Can you imagine living here?

We learned the history about the Habsburgs and Maria Theresa, two names that came up A LOT on our tours in every country. (And in fact, I just finished this book and the first chapter starts with a Habsburg descendent in Schonbrunn Palace!) The only thing I really remembered was that Maria Theresa had like 13 kids. Someone else in the family had like 21 kids or something. They were fertile myrtles indeed.

After the tour, we had a bit of time to kill before we had to catch the bus back to the city center. So we stopped at the café and had some boozy coffee drinks. They were amazing. And that Mozart sure makes an awesome chocolate liqueur!

We got back to the hotel and got ready to go out for the evening. We didn’t really have definite plans, but needed to eat dinner and get some drinks. We found a café across the street that had really awful service. We were in the museum district of Vienna, which means lots of tourists. The people at this café did NOT like tourists, especially ones that didn’t speak German.

We actually had tried to grab a quick bite here before our bus tour. But we sat for about 10 minutes at a table and couldn’t get waited on. So we left. Why we thought we should go back is beyond me.

The food was actually fine. Just awful service and of course when we tried to pay with a card (with the Visa and Mastercard logo on the door!) we were told it was broken. Thank God for the ATM across the street since we all didn’t have enough Euros.

After dinner, we took a stroll down to the City Center. While we were there, we saw all the pretty buildings lit up. (Still don’t know what they are.) We also walked past the famous Opera House.

Apparently the Opera sells out in minutes and is one of the hardest tickets in town to get. But, they set up this giant Jumbotron outside the building and people just bring their chairs and sit there and watch it. We got there just in time to see the very end. It was pretty amazing. The band geek in me got the chills!

We ended up going to Kruger’s American Bar because we had read that Brad Pitt had been there and it was pretty famous. I learned that American bar tends to mean they have craft cocktails. Apparently you can’t get more than beer and wine at other bars in Vienna.

It was a neat place and they had a lot of liquor bottles.

After Kruger’s, we saw an Aussie bar and we checked it out. Did you know that there has been confusion between Australia and Austria for years? Like so much so, sales of certain things have suffered. So weird! There were all these signs that said “No kangaroos in Austria.” Which was funny when we were in an Australian bar.

We met this weird dude at the Aussie bar and he was very clearly married. But apparently outside the US, people don’t look for wedding rings. Because when we pointed out he was married, he was shocked how we knew. He then spent the rest of the night trying to hide his ring from us. Too late, buddy.

After the Aussie bar we went to this place called 1516 Brewery. I really liked this place. They had American football on the TVs and it was just a pub with good beer. Minus it being ridiculously smoke-filled, this was one of my favorite places on the trip.

After the brewery, we were all significantly buzzed, so we decided to head home. We had an early morning bike tour the next day, and we needed to be not hungover and awake. But not before we got sausages on the street from a food vendor. A night in Europe was not complete without street food.

Koszi, Budapest!

Posted By on October 30, 2013

I enjoy writing these recaps, I do, but because I know I’m so wordy, I also kind of dread them because just when I think “I can combine two days into one post!” then I spend a whole page talking about sitting in an airport.

But, I need to power through because there is so much left!

Our final full day in Budapest was spent on my least favorite part of the whole trip. Actually, the cramped, urine smelling train car from Prague to Munich was probably the worst part.

So for our last day, we did a Danube Bend day trip. We took a bus out to some outskirt cities on the Danube River. As you’ll remember from the last post, we were out really, really late on Friday night. And this excursion started really early in the morning. We were picked up at the hotel at 8:30 AM. Needless to say, after being out until almost 4 AM the night before, we were still pretty tired and hungover. (I forgot to brush my teeth!)

This trip involved a lot of time spent on a bus. So we slept. No, literally, we passed out in the back of the bus and were probably snoring before we even left Budapest.

We were also the youngest on the tour by at least 20 years.

After our first nap, we were in some town called Esztergom. I only am sure of this because a) that’s what the travel site says and b) I smartly took a photo of it.

So we stopped here by this bridge off the water. I’m sure there was more information about all of this and the town, but again…sleep. But this bridge connected Hungary to Slovakia. So, even though it was windy and cold (completely different than the weather in Budapest, of course, so I wasn’t properly dressed), we walked just far enough across the bridge to get into another country. So I crossed Slovakia off my list and made sure to tell people I went to five countries on my trip!

It was actually very pretty. The Danube sure is majestic, especially in these towns just a few hours outside Budapest.

Our other stop in this town was a church. A basilica. Our annoying tour guide must have earned money for every time she said the word basilica because I don’t ever want to hear that word again. Or see that church in Hungary.

We spent a lot of time at this church. It’s a pretty church, but I think even Jesus himself was bored of hearing about this place of worship by the time we got done there.

But I lit a candle for Gram, which had to make her pretty happy that a) I was actually in a church and b) that she could brag to all her friends in heaven that she had a candle lit for her in Hungary! Take that, Gram’s heaven ghost friends!

After the church, we went to lunch. We had to ride some more in the bus along the river and go to another town to eat. We slept the whole way again.

We had lunch in a town called Visegrad. Apparently there is a castle there. We maybe would have seen it if we weren’t sleeping. That would have probably been much better than the church. I’ve seen churches. I don’t get to see a lot of castles.

Lunch was OK. Because we were the youngest and slept the whole time, it wasn’t like we were the friendliest and social. We ended up sitting with some Germans, which was fine with us because we didn’t want to have to make small talk. Said German couple was then referred to as Salty and Eskimo since the dude put a ton of salt on everything and the woman wore a parka.

The food was OK. It was some soup and some chicken. There was a bunch of musicians playing for us, for tips, and since lunch seemed over, we went outside to chill on the patio and take in the views.

Apparently this was the wrong thing to do. As we were standing at the bottom of the stairs, taking photos of the restaurant, our annoying guide, Helena, ran down the stairs, yelling to us. She screamed “Laaaaadddddiiieeeeees! You forgot your cake!”

We then told her it was OK. We didn’t want the cake. Instead of coming down to talk to us, she just then continued to scream at us. “Laaaaddddddiiiiiiieeeeesssss! It is delicious cake! It is chocolate! You forgot to eat your cake!!”

At this point, the cake actually sounded delicious, but we weren’t going to go running up the stairs after her for some cake that was probably mediocre, like the rest of lunch. So we went back on the bus. Probably to sleep some more.

The guide came back on the bus to let people know they owed money. We were confused, since lunch was provided in the tour. We thought maybe some others didn’t pay as part of their tour and had to settle up. So we just waited patiently.

That’s when Helena got on the microphone in the bus, the bus that had like maybe 30 people on it, to call us out. To let everyone and their mother on the bus and within a 50 mile radius that we owed money for our “red wine, red wine, Coke, espresso…..” until we cut her off and told her we’d pay it. And that we didn’t drink all that. (Lunch was paid for, drinks were extra.)

From that point on, we were not her favorites. And we did not like her. Then she kept pointing out that my friend and I were wearing dresses and that we must be so cold! I mean, I was chilly, but it was a maxi dress that is as comfortable as pajamas and it wasn’t freaking snowing! I wasn’t that cold. Fuck off, Helena!

After lunch there was another bus ride and then we ended up in a cute little town, right along the water, called Szentendre.

This was the best part of the day because we got to walk around the town by ourselves and just had to make it back to the boat at a certain time to head back to Budapest.

There were all sorts of cute shops and I made my decision here that the thing I would collect from each country was a Christmas ornament. Bonus! Szentendre has a Christmas store! After we walked around the little town and bought some stuff, we got on the boat and headed back to Budapest.

The boat ride was pretty uneventful. It was like a commuter boat, so there was no guide, not that there was much to see. It was pretty much nothing and then BAM! We were in Budapest and the familiar Parliament building was welcoming us home.

Hey kids! Look, another photo of Parliament from the river!

After we got back to the hotel, we rested a bit more, showered and got ready to go out. We had decided we were going to hit up the famous Budapest bath houses. I wasn’t sure I wanted to go in, seeing as it was cold and I didn’t bring a bathing suit, but we at least wanted to go and see if we could go in and take photos.

We went to the biggest one. It has 22 pools, indoor and outdoor. The place was magnificent. My biggest regret of the trip is that we didn’t go in one or several of these pools. I really wish we had done that. But I’m at least glad we got to see them. Hopefully some of the healing powers wore off on me.

By this point, we were all pretty beat. We decided to search for a place to eat, but by this time it was pretty late. We found a place close to the hotel that had pretty good food and had dinner and called it a night. We knew we needed to pack and get to bed because we had an early-ish train in the morning.

Next stop, Vienna and the hills that are alive with the sound of music!

The rest of my Budapest photos are here.

Hey Kids, Big Ben, Parliament!

Posted By on October 23, 2013

Sorry for the absence in continuing my vacation series. I was housesitting/cat-sitting for my friend last week and didn’t bring my laptop. Mostly because this cat hates me and no other cat has ever disliked me this much and I spent all my time forcing that cat to love me. (He still bites me when I try and pet him.)

And then I spent the last two days working outside, right when Chicago decided that fall was for pussies and skipped right to winter. That and I had to be outside starting at 6:30 AM, which is WAY before I even get up on a normal day. Needless to say, I was useless the last two evenings.

Anyway, where were we? Oh, yes! Budapest. Which, don’t call it Budapest. Pests are bad. It’s Budapesht. Which I only referred to it as when I was there, because otherwise as a non-Hungarian speaking American, it just makes me look douchey.

On the second day, we did the free walking tour. We actually only planned to catch the first part of it before we had a planned tour at Parliament in the afternoon. But the tour was really great, so we actually decided to cancel that tour and eat the $30 or whatever it was because we knew that whatever we saw on the Buda side was going to be way better than a tour of Parliament.

(We were right.)

The tour was great. I learned on this whole trip that I would rather do a walking tour over any kind of bus tour any day. You get to explore so much when you walk around.

It was also interesting to see, as our guide pointed out, what was left over from the Communist days. They have all these beautiful buildings that are old and historic. And then, right next to it would be the ugliest building known to man.

Apparently any unused space in town and the Russians would build these ugly, economical buildings with the cheapest supplies and with the least amount of money spent. These were usually apartments. There are so many places where these ugly buildings ruin such a beautiful location in Budapest.

After walking all around the Pesht side, we then crossed the famous Chain Bridge and then went over to walk up the hill to the Castle Hill District. Our guide told us there was a bus option, but that unless we were honestly disabled and could not walk, we were not to take it. There was also this tram option, but the lines were insanely long. Being young people, we decided we could make the trek up. I mean, Zoltan the guide told us it was just a measly 250 steps up! That’s easy!

It was a pretty walk, with amazing views, but that was a lot of steps and it was not the last time in Europe that I thought I would die from being so out of shape and was forced to tackle hills. Bonus being we look all dewy in the photos from ALL THE SWEAT.

After our tour ended, we got some suggestions for lunch and headed outside the city’s center to grab some authentic Hungarian cuisine. We took the subway and made it out to this cute little place called Paprika.

On the tour, Zoltan the Guide told us about some authentic Hungarian things that we must try. One was obviously goulash, but that the REAL stuff would be referred to gouyash on a menu. (Always look for the Y in it.) I thought that goulash was like stroganoff. It has noodles, right? Wrong. It’s like a meat stew and it is delicious. (I stupidly only tried a few bites in Hungary and then ate it in all the other countries, which was a mistake, because it was the best in Budapest.)

After lunch we raced back to town because we had tickets for a wine cruise on the Danube.

One of the things my friend Melissa was adamant about doing was going on a boat in every city. This was a good plan. And Budapest being the party town was more than happy to oblige. Not only did we go on the wine tasting cruise (seven Hungarian wines in an hour with beautiful views of from the Danube!), but we also went on a party boat cruise that evening.

In a lot of the things I read about Budapest, I heard that the views from the river at night were amazing. They were not lying. The views of the city are beautiful at all times when you’re on a boat, but at night, with everything lit up, it was so pretty!

On the cruise we met this adorable couple from Ireland, Kevin and Mary. They were newly dating and this was their first trip. They were fun and immediately pegged us as Americans before we even opened our mouths. I wanted to know why, since it seemed that everyone knew we were Americans from one look. He told us it was because of our “giant, American heads.” Ohhhhhkay……

After the cruise we went out to the real ruin bar, Szimpla, which is the most famous, and was definitely exactly what they told us about ruin bars. It has a hodgepodge of stuff and even has a car in the middle of it. We were all pretty hammered by the time the party boat ended and ended up taking a cab to the bar, which was exactly what everyone in Budapest tells you NOT to do. (We were fine, thankfully.)

The rest of the evening is pretty fuzzy. We were out until after 3 AM and stopped again at our gyro place around the corner from our hotel. (I never want to eat gyros again. My stomach was a mess for days after two late nights of gyros.)

Next post I will finish our time in Budapest and we will move on to Vienna!