Saturday, August 29, 2009

Photos from Vienna and Dubrovnik

Vienna's Mix: Old (St Stephen's Cathedral) and New (glass offices)



Central Lawn of Schonbrunn Palace (the forest on either side is just the begining of the grounds)


The Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna


The Palace from far away


Vienna wins for prettiest Cappuchino


Us on Dubrovnik's wall


"Little Fried Fish"


Dubrovnik's old town streets, shiny from hundreds of years of traffic.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Dubrovnik

McKay:
We arrived in Dubrovnik by plane from Bratislava (an hour train ride from Vienna), rode a bus to town, checked into our sobe (a rented room in someone’s home and THE way to stay in Croatia), and walked the city wall. Dubrovnik is like a modern small town 500 years ago, if that makes sense. If you’ve been to any Italian small towns, this is similar. - old buildings, beautiful scenery, all woven into tiny secretive streets. The wall affords great views of the old city, surrounding hillsides, and the Adriatic. *Sigh* I love the ocean. I love the way it smells, even when it’s mixed with all those other seaside smells! After our walk, we went for refreshment at the bar that is very highly recommended by all tourist scources - Buca. Very difficult to find (unless you already know where it is) one enters through a hole in the wall of the city (the name means “hole in the wall”) out to tables balanced on jutting platforms overlooking the Adriatic. This scenic spot is easily top of my list for places to have a drink! There’s no way I can describe precisely how perfect this spot is – you will just have to go there yourself! It’s the best!

After the sun set (yea, I watched the sun set over the Adriatic on the Croatian coast yesterday!) we went for dinner at a recommended restaurant in the market square and found ourselves waiting in a line for a table (with the cafes surrounding this one showing empty tables) so we figured it would be good and continued our wait. We were well rewarded! The octopus salad was a lot like a bruschetta with fresh, flavorful tomatoes and a perfect mix of spices. My mussels (best ones I’d had since Ireland!!) were splendid! I love mussels and was so pleased to taste these stellar specimens. I think maybe mussels are better in rocky clear water? Rob ordered the “fried little fish” at the server’s conformation that they were very fresh and very good. She turned out to be precisely right and the fish turned out to be sardines! I’d never had sardines before. These were so tasty! You ate the whole fish and they reminded me slightly of eating a plate of French fries. Both meals were excellent and very filling and we both had a bit leftover. We loved this place and have decided to wait in future restaurant lines.

For dessert, we topped our wonderful meal with cones of gelato. YUM! Dubrovnik has good gelato! The last night of the summer concert festival was that evening so we strolled around to the side of the cathedral and watched the backs of the symphony’s cellists and base players with the other non-VIPs; non-ticket-holders “cheap seat” style. Perfect.

This morning, we absorbed Dubrovnik a little more and this afternoon, we’re on a bus to Split to see Roman ruins and stay overnight along our trek across the long coastal country of Croatia. Rob and I have chosen the left side of the bus for it s breath-taking over-the-cliff sea views and now I’m picking up too much of a glare to continue writing. (You’re pretty much caught up anyway). Later.

Vienna

Mckay:
We left Sopron early (again) and took a 9-ish train to Vienna. Already relatively certain I would fall madly in love with Vienna, I was excited to finally confirm my expectations. It’s a lot more modern than I expected with clean, efficient, and extremely well-marked public transportation (SO refreshingly wonderful!) Our room in Vienna was lovely with high ceilings, wood floors, and an informative hostess. Consistently, though, we are reminded that Europeans don’t like queen-sized beds (but favor two twins pushed together) and take showers in tiny phone booths. It’s just different. The weather in Vienna was lovely (we’d been rained on and chilled yesterday) and we took our first few hours in Vienna to tour the Art Museum. Rob and I saw some great Renaissance pieces, Italian and northern ones (ones I’m less familiar with, but growing to like), and I picked up a poster of one of my favorite paintings.

After the art museum, we walked and rode trams to some of Vienna’s sights: the Opera House, City Hall (where I was ecstatic to dine on some perfect Chinese noodles!), and St. Stephen’s Cathedral. We thought we would get some Vienna cake that evening, but were dismayed to find that our desired destinations closed at 8, along with many others.

A note on the international food market in front of City Hall. This is where I got those amazing noodles. Rob and I walked up and down all the booths to find exactly what we wanted. Each booth represented a different food ethnicity. Rob followed his nose (and is usually rewarded for such behavior) and ordered what he thought was from a big stewing pot of Mediterranean meaty goodness. It turns out that he ordered a salad. Rob almost cried. Of course, it wasn’t just a salad. It had potatoes, and thinly sliced chorizo (which Rob said tasted like liking a horse). Knowing he “made his own bed,” he slept in it and ate most of the salad but finished off my noodles.

The next day, we got to the Schonnbrunn Palace just when it opened (a brilliant touring suggestion for anyone!) and toured the rooms and halls with hardly any other people! We looked later and saw the halls teeming shoulder to shoulder with lines like Disney World. We win at touring.

The rest of the morning, we toured the palace grounds and gazed amazedly at the sculptured gardening and different idea of “far” in those times before metros and cars. The Palace was the country getaway, taking about half a day to get there from the city center. It took us about 15 minutes on a metro.

For lunch, we hit a great outdoor café and finally got our Vienna cakes. They were wonderful! Light, moist, flavorful, fancy, and perfect with a cappuccino. The rest of the day we filled with shopping and touring any last-minute sights around the ring of the city center. While I was shopping, Rob had been smelling a sausage stand so we dinner-ed there and could not have been more pleased! Rob let me taste his (I was holding out for cake) and I decided he would have to get another one because I would be eating this one. It was basically a large pig-in-a-blanket, but it was also so much more. Mmmm. Next stop: Croatia!

Rob:
They say Vienna is like Paris without the French. I’ve never been to Paris but I really like Vienna. The people are kind, the city is beautiful with a great mix of old and new, and who needs the Eifel Tower anyway (Cobraaa!) This was the home of the Hapsburgs when they weren’t in Prague hiding from the Ottomans. These are the guys that ruled about half the continent for 600 years and lost it all in WW I. Needless to say they had cash. If you can think of a way to Bling something they have done it. Their palace in the country rivals Versailles with a minimum 150 acres of forest and lawns for grounds. The inside of the palace would make the most extravagant rappers blush with envy. They also had two other large palaces in the city which were equally lavish, with smaller grounds. I can’t even fathom the amount of money this takes. One of the longest sitting Emperors was Josef Franz, seeing the people’s need for rights and the beheading of some of his relatives in the French Revolution, he became a very frugal and hard working ruler. The people liked the change and they felt more included in the government.

Vienna is not a late night town. Our previous attempt to get cake had been shut down by the early closing of EVERYTHING. We figured it was Sunday night; that makes sense. Monday evening after the “hot dog” in the square we planned on another round of cake. Again! Everything in the main square shuts down at 8PM. So lame.

We had about an hour in Bratislava, Slovakia, before we had to be at the airport. We decided to take a tram downtown and see a little of the town and then catch the bus to the airport. To our dismay once we got to the town we couldn’t find the bus stop for our bus; 25 other buses but not ours. It went by but didn’t stop. Anyone who spoke English either didn’t know or didn’t care how to help us. There was a driver for a different line who spoke no English who tried to help but could not understand. When we broke down and asked what a good price for a taxi was, his eyes lit up, “Taxi, there, there, is taxi” and proceeded to show us where the taxi was. We knew where the taxi was already and just paid one to take us to the airport. It was an adventure.

Food

The “best restaurant in the world” certainly lives up to its name. Formerly, I compared a lot of great food to the Driskill in Austin under Chef David Bull – “this is amazing, but it isn’t as good as the Driskill.” Now, my comparison will sound like, “but it isn’t as good as the Gundel.” It was truly amazing and shall now be the standard by which I shall measure all other food.
I ordered the tasting menu (I’ve always wanted to!) and Rob ordered another tasting menu. We began our courses with goose liver (which admittedly, I thought I wouldn’t like) and it was superb! Who knew goose liver tasted so good? The Hungarians. It tasted a little like fois gras (duck liver) and mine was done with a lightly sweet and a little fruity layering paired with a muscat wine (mmm, tasty!). Rob’s was a little more robust with a smoky flavor and a less sweet wine.
They used mostly local Hungarian wines.

The first course was listed as
McKay:
Goose Liver Torte with Sour Cherry Balm and in Tokaji marinated dried Apricot-Cranberry Ragout

Rob:
Tokaji Aszu-flavored Goose Liver Pate stuffed with Golden Raisins, paired with Brioche and Red Paprika Jam

The second course was

McKay: Tomato Soup with Celery Oil, Vodka and Parmesan Chips. I feel now that I have finally tasted tomato soup. For a comparison, it tasted similar to the Campbell’s tomato soup, but also as different as the tiny overflow of water down a steep hill is from the pounding magnificence of the Iguazu Falls – both waterfalls, but one substantially more so.

Rob: Home-made Pea Soup with buttered noodles. It was like a light broth. Tasty with you-know, veggies and noodles in the bottom. I think som pea soups can be heavy and it wasn’t. It was very good.

McKay: Pan-roasted Tiger Prawn served with Vegetable Blini, White Wine-Garlic Sauce and slowly baked Paprika Cubes. Good texture, light dish. The garlic sauce and paprika cubes (like roasted red peppers) gave this a pleasantly spicy taste while still being delicate with the taster’s palette. Also, blinis were served at our wedding! They are small pancakes, but much more.

Rob: Pan-fried Filet of Balaton Fogash with Vegetable Batons. Those veggie things looked like Lincoln logs stacked. Cooked very well and to the right consistency. The fish wa very good. A tad drier than I like it, but good. Not as good as the prawns, though.

McKay: Home-made Goat Cheese Sorbet. Yea, I was really curious too! How do they do sorbet (which is normally sweet) with goat cheese (which is normally, well, goat cheese)? With help from heavenly taste angels! That’s how! Oh. My. This may very well be the best thing I have ever tasted. Ever. Period. It was indeed sweet, but light, with a slight lemon tone, all with a smooth, creamy goat cheese undertone. I LOVE goat cheese sorbet and WILL try to reproduce this. Best thing. Ever.

McKay: Grilled Veal and Beef Filet with Green Asparagus and Bernaise Sauce. Of course this was good. Filet and Veal are always good. The texture was excellent and the dish was certainly above average, but being from Texas and a family of meat-lovers, I’ve had some pretty good meat in my time. I only write so little about this course because the other courses were so outstanding that this one pales in comparison.

Rob: Crisp-baked Duck Breast and Drumstick Mikszath Style served with parslied Mushroom Pudding and Cherry Sauce. Rob wins at main dish. It was crispy and flaky like a pastry on the outside and soft and juicy on the insdie like a Sunday roast. It was perfect. It ranks number two of my best meals ever.

McKay: Floating Island Dessert with Raspberry Pearls. This one looked a little, well, odd. There were three large balls of foam (a little bigger and fluffier than big marshmellows) in a bowl. The server (with ceremony) poured a pitcher of cream into the bowl. Hmm. Okay. Rob wishes he took a video of my face because as the flavors registered, my face went from “hmm…” to “ooo” to “wow” to “holy tastebuds, Batman! This is amazing!” The texture was between a marshmellow and a soufflé – much like meringue. But the flavor was packed in that light pearl! It was like all the best parts of the ripest raspberry burst on your palate at once and remained there having a wild dancing party until the foam dissolved and you were left with a happy buzz. Further, the cream he poured was so much more! It was like the really good, melted, remaining part of the tastiest vanilla bean ice cream. I found no shame in spooning the succulent cream straight.

Rob: Classic Crepe a la Gundel. The name says it all. It was a wonderful really thin pancake served with a huge dollop of dark chololate sauce. It was a perfect end to a perfect meal.
My meal ended with a cappuccino and a little sadness that such a wonderful meal experience must end. But like they say… all good things… *sigh* I’ll still have the memories… and the constant noble foodie quest to one day find something even better.

Transportation Adventure

McKay:
Our day of Hungarian small towns was fast-paced to say the least. We awoke at our beautiful hotel at 5:15 and left on the train at 6. We arrived in Vesprem before anything opened and successfully took a bus then got directions to walk to the city center, all without speaking any Hungarian (nor they speaking any English – fun challenges!). We walked (carrying our packs) about 45 minutes around Vesprem and saw where the queen used to be crowned. Just as things were opening, we took the bus to Csopak where we got off at a stop that required a 30 minute walk that happily showed us some small town Hungarian living: yards, streets, some thatched roofs. We arrived at the train station (downhill from the bus yay!) and took another 10 minute walk to the beautiful lake, picnicked outside the fence (we had to pay to get in where we were, so we just sat outside the fence and looked), and then walked back to the train. Csopak reminded us of Panama City Beach because it’s all about the lake (crystal clear water) and is full of the wide range of bathing-suit-clad floaty-toting beach goers that flood Panama City.

We took the train to Sϋmeg where we (sick of carrying our packs) hid them in some bushes near the empty train station, prayed they’d be okay, and started our walk towards the center and the uphill medieval castle. We were lucky the church we wanted to see was open because the town was completely deserted. Eventually, we made it to the castle and found the townspeople. Apparently, Csopak puts on this medieval show every summer weekend for paying Hungarian tourists. We were thrilled with the novelty of the show we watched at the castle, however cheesy. Then, we toured the castle (one the few medieval style ones left) and then made our way down to watch the joust. A little pricey, we opted for the commoners’ view – standing in the bushes, peeking over the ledge with other cheapskates. The joust was entertaining, although no one aimed a lance or knocked anyone off, but rather threw axes at targets and lanced hanging rings.
Returning to the train station and ready to move on, we found our backpacks intact (thanks, Lord!) and waited for the train to Ukk. Now this is where the transportation adventure gets even more fun. They were doing construction on the area of train track we were on and were using buses to pick up the routes. The train that arrived for us was two trolley cars long. We were dropped at the Ukk train station and walked to the back to get on a bus (like a greyhound bus). We picked seats far away from the obnoxious children with frosted hair, annoying in any language. We could tell by his vulgar English-word t-shirt and the heavy metal music playing on the speakers that this bus driver didn’t mess around. As the bus wound its way through the tiny towns, children ran out to the street and waved and motioned for the driver to honk the horn, also fun in any language.

When we arrived at our transfer station, the train we rode was actually just ONE car. Teased by bigger trains, this little guy found fulfillment carrying weary travelers to connections through small Hungarian towns. The business-meaning bus driver picked up the conductor with the bus en route. The nicest conductor I have ever encountered, he made sure we got on the right train to Szambathely, practically walking with us to the door. I tried to send out positive vibes for our little train to arrive in this bigger station proud and with his ego intact, but I’m sure I detected some smirks from the high-speed trains.

Once in Szambathely, we stowed our packs (at a locker this time) and made our way through the horrible weather (it was dark, raining, and cold) to the medieval festival the town is famous for. This one is more like the Renaissance Fair in Texas than the cheesy show we saw in Sumeg. Starving, we ordered a gyro and a wonderful Hungarian pizza baked in a clay oven and ate them huddled under a building overhang. Weather being what it was and time being short (taking a train-bus-train is a little longer than one anticipates), we browsed some of the fair, got an amazing dessert (rolled, spiraled dough, cooked rotisserie style over coals to caramelize the sugar coating – heavenly!), and walked cold and wet back to the train station.

As we rode the train to our last (thankfully!) destination, my eyes were actually rebelling against me and closing without permission. By the time we arrived at our hotel at almost midnight, we were exhausted. Therefore, my information I printed about Sopron went unused except on our walk back to the train station in the morning as we turned and took a look at the firetower (one of the town’s attractions).

Our train to Vienna was restful to not be on my feet and we reached our hotel with no problems (and with the help of a very nice bus driver who, knowing what street I wanted) actually got out and pointed me down it. So nice! (but I certainly hope it isn’t because I look clueless!)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Pictures

A few Pictures of Budapest: Air Race Couse Air Race Winner Hotel Stairs Castle Hill at nightBrief snip of fireworks show View from castle hill. Small altar in the cave church The Public Baths Our dinner table at the Gundel

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Budapest

Rob:
Budapest is AWESOME! Granted the time we were there was the best time to be there but still. We did develop a love hate relationship with the city.

Hate: We arrived in the city and we needed Hungarian money and the ATM in the train station was out of cash. Because of a misconception I thought we had to pay cash, up-front, for our hotel which meant we needed to find some. The money changers in the train station were my only option in the station and I read the sign backwards. When it says “buy” it means you are buying their currency, not them buying yours. I got it reversed which is the worst possible exchange rate. Despite my wife’s intuition to go elsewhere I thought I was getting a good deal until it was too late. NEVER, EVER, change currency in the train station unless you have no choice and you use small amounts.

Love: As it turns out the hotel did not need cash up-front, they take it later or in Mastercard. The hotel was beautiful from the spiral stair case leading up and around the concierge desk to the room itself to the outstanding location. We dropped our stuff in the room as quick as possible and went to the Danube River. Budapest was hosting the Red Bull Air Race Championships in the center of the city. If you don’t know what they are, search google or youtube.com to find out. They are every bit as cool in person and more. Seeing those race planes flying low under the famous “Chain Bridge” at 350km/hr and then doing a high speed stunt course about 30 feet off the water was an experience I’ll never forget. The home town (Budapest) race hero, Peter “The Godfather” Besenyei, was unable to make it into the top 8 which was disappointing to the crowd but the USA took 1st and 3rd and we got to hear the “Star Spangled Banner” played super loud on Hungary’s National Birthday (like our 4th of July). HA USA! USA! USA! And there was a helicopter that could do backflips – wicked cool. In Budapest the people that attend the Air Races would attend NASCAR in the USA so we got to see the redneck side of Europe; with a pretzel, a 0.5l Löwenbrau in a can and going shirtless, we fit right in.

Love: August 20th, St. Istvan (Stephen) Day, is the Hungarian Independence Day and celebration of the most favorite King. The all day festival includes dancing, a huge birthday cake for the city and street activities and vendors as far as you can see. This year’s theme was: Medieval fair. We were able to have traditional Hungarian goulash, made in a huge cauldron, from a whole cow that they rotisserie roasted right there in the square. So good! We also had a piece of fry bread covered in sour cream, cottage cheese, spices and mozzarella. It tastes a lot like a pizza but the locals eat them everywhere and it was fantastic. The festival ends with fireworks along the Danube. It was the most amazing display of fireworks I have ever seen. There were fireworks launching from two bridges on either side of us, the mountain top to our left and the island just down the river to the right and from 10 stations in the center of the river, all in a 20 minute coordinated show. It was so cool and with Budapest’s castle hill as the back drop, wow!!

Hate: The French. We had a gorgeous spot picked out to watch the fireworks, secluded, roped off and behind the street vendor booths along the water. It was kind of off limits but we made quick friends with the security guard and he was fine with the two of us and a couple of his friends hanging out there. But then the French, from Paris (the worst kind), showed up and started dancing around, clowning, and making a big racket. The guards came back and told them to leave and the Frenchies faked only understanding French and wouldn’t go. The guards even tricked them into speaking English twice and with an, “A-ha you do understand me!”, they would snap back into playing dumb. The French refused to leave as long as we got to stay and when one guard went to get the cops the guard we had befriended motioned that we should probably leave, we did. Jerk French.

Love: Budapest is much larger than Prague and even though the map is the same size you quickly find it takes a lot longer to get from one place on the map to another. The public transport is very straight forward and easy to use so we made our way around mostly via tram, metro and bus. On the castle hill, one of the best vantage points to see the city, most, if not all, of the pay-venues are not worth the money. The gem for us was actually the small museum in the lower level of the Hilton. The hotel was built on top of the ruins of an old church and had to incorporate them into the design to get permission to build at all. We were the only ones there and it was very cool. If you go into the gift shop in the front of the hotel it is free and a quick right-left-down the steps; the café in the back of the hotel charges to go through their door, sneaky. The hotel bar up the stairs from the museum has a large window where the church entry used to be and it looks out to where the ruins of the alter area stand.

Hate: The Medieval Art Festival had over taken half the hill. You had to pay to get in and it effectively blocked every exit from the hill we tried, making us back track and walk down the way we came. We probably should have just paid to get in and saved time and enjoyed the setting

Love: The cave church. This chapel was bricked up by the Soviets but is now available again. The church in the cave is a beautiful change from the norm and with so few people and “enforced” silence it is extremely peaceful.

Hate: Up stairs of the great market hall. For the most part is a souvenir market where every other booth has the same stuff and won’t haggle the overpriced junk. There are some worthwhile goods but they are expensive also.

Love: The ground and basement of the great market hall. The ground floor houses a fantastic meat market and fresh fruit stands. Obviously if you have no kitchen then buying anything is limited but it is fun to browse. The basement has a modern grocery store which is best for dry goods, sodas, and their extensive Hungarian wine section, which is about half the price of the upper floors. The Egri Bikavér red wine is famous in the country; look for the bull on the label. There is also a fishmarket down stairs with many large tanks of live fish and a sushi house.

Love: The Baths in the park; minimum of two hours and worth missing some sightseeing.

Love: Taking my wife to the fancy dinner at “the world’s best restaurant”, the Gϋndel. It was very tasty and refined.

Hate: Early wake up to hop trains through Hungary.

Adventure: Budapest

McKay:

I love Budapest. I delight in beautiful dirty cities and Budapest is that – ancient yet historical subway system (first on the continent and still used), attractive sites ringed with swindling crooks preying on tourists, high prices and no-fun bartering in the souvenir market (guess enough people pay the marked prices), and great street food. Great street food is the mark of a city ripe with adventure.

Also, our hotel had a lot to do with my adoration of Budapest. It was perfect!! It had high ceilings, huge windows, views of trees in the little square, perfect draperies, nice wood floor, a fantastic bathroom with tile and fixtures that Rob and I want to use in a future bath one day. If it had a kitchen, I would decide to live there forever. The café on the ground floor served a great included breakfast as well. Plus, the service was really high class - nice, yet still edgy. Even the spiral staircase up four flights was wonderful because it was hewn stone with gold walls and a gorgeous stained glass skylight. I loved everything about the Gerloczy Hotel in Budapest!!
Our first day in Budapest, we went to the air races (I believe Rob will describe that in detail). We arrived as the semi-final round was starting and rushed up our recently-checked-in hotel stairs with Rob calling “C’MON!” back down to my awe-filled and huffing self. Heavy packs lifted, we hurried the four blocks or so the Danube to take in the awesomeness that was the Red Bull Air Races. It was really awesome!... and fun to learn that Europe has rednecks too.

We thoroughly enjoyed the festivities that surrounded St. Stephens Day! The day ended with the very best fireworks ever. I mean WOW! One couldn’t even take it all in at once. They came from 4 different locations with ones even coming off the river in fountain-like designs. Truly amazing.

The second day in Budapest, we saw the Castle Hill area, taking in the most popular sights. In the afternoon, we went to the baths at the suggestion of Rick (he says you can’t leave Budapest without experiencing them). We had our doubts, but not anymore! They are amazing! There’s three outdoor pools with fountains, jets, current pool areas, lots of entertainment. Indoors, there are countless pools, warm pools, hot pools, cold pools, ones with jets, saunas, light saunas, aromatherapy saunas, steam rooms, current pools, lounging pools, and I’m sure more I can’t remember. One could absolutely spend all day here and get a number of different massages (which we didn’t have time for). Relaxed and refreshed, we went back to the hotel to change for our dinner at the “best restaurant in the world.”

Friday, August 21, 2009

Gummis


Ode to Gummis
By McKay

Oh tasty gummi, how I do love thee.
Classic bears, sour worms, cola bottles, and pina coladas,
Your varieties know no end.
Your loving sweetness and vigorous flavors make me happy on my tongue.
Thank you for being in the world, little gummis.


A Haiku by Rob

Gummi candy, yum
I love your chewy sweetness
Sugar bomb high five.

Adventure: Prague

McKay: It is lovely sitting on a train… to gaze languidly at the passing scenery relaxed and relieved of any responsibility to watch for a bus stop or count metro stops. I love travelling by train.

Yesterday was another perfect day in Prague. We beat the tourist crowds again and got to see the first strike of the day by the astrological clock (really really neat!) and see the Jewish Quarter before being overrun with tour groups (notice Rob’s comparison photos from earlier). The synagogue with the names of Czech victims of the Hollocaust was very interesting and somber. The names are not only written on the walls with hometown, birth date, and last date known alive, but read aloud or sung softly over speakers.

One of my favorite exhibits in the Jewish Quarter was that of the art of the children of Tezerin. Tezerin was a camp near Prague, kind of a sending-off point to other concentration camps. The people there taught the children, held lectures, put on plays, and the like. It was stopped at first, allowed later, and eventually used as German propaganda to promote Tezerin as a wonderful getaway.

Other interesting sights were the Jewish cemetery with topsy-tuvy gravestones and the synagogues elucidating Jewish life and culture. We learned a lot of interesting things, thanks to the displays all being described in English as well as Czech.

We bought fruit and snacks at an outdoor market and had a picnic lunch in the Old Town. I got to shop a little (one of my favorite touring activities) and ended the afternoon with come gold bobby pins (so hot right now) and a new pashima.

Dinner was at a restaurant Rob scouted for its Czech food. We ordered the pig leg and won at food! Yum! The Germans we shared the table with told us they got McDonald’s earlier for dinner and were seriously regretting their decision as they averted their eyes away from our amazing and fragrant dinner. On a beverage note, I must find out what it is about Czech dark beer that makes me actually like it! It is so amazingly good! It has a taste like a smoky, tasty, smooth, dark peaty forest… so much better than regular beer (generally known not to be my favorite). After dinner, we walked to the river and looked at the castle lit up from far away then walked the Charles Bridge again before heading back to the hotel and sleep.

After another early morning, we left our keys at the desk to checkout (no one was up yet) and arrived at the train station in time to get two coffees and a pastry. WOW! So, Europeans really know how to do good pastries. This was a train station and it was AMAZING!!! Flaky, buttery, crisp.. everything one wants in a good pastry. Why have Americans let their food get so mediocre? Hopefully, this new movement toward locally grown food and “slow food” will help our tastebuds in America come alive again. Thank you, little brother, Chef Martin for your contribution to our tastebuds.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Europe II

McKay:

Oh my! We have done a lot! It seems like many days ago we were in Germany, yet we're only at our second European country. From Heppenheim, we drove to Heidlberg and walked the town and walked UP UP UP to the castle. Heidlberg is beautiful! I find Germany to be delightful, very clean, and very colorful. Views are breathtaking and I can't help but wonder whose fairy tale I have wandered into.



This was our rental car. Isn't it cute?



After Heidlberg, we returned the car to Frankfurt Hahn. That sounds so easy, doesn't it? Well, we severely underestimated the length of time it took to drive from lovely German hill towns to middle-of-nowhere Hahn. SEVERELY underestimated. Rob got his dream of driving James Bond style on the tiny hillside roads (uphill switchbacks galore!) and I got my dream of riding Bond-girl style in the seat with a handsome stud driver.

So... Frankfurt Hahn is FAR! I don't know how they are allowed to put "Frankfurt" in the name, because it's not close to that metropolitan area at all... or any metropolitan area. But we arrived close to the due time of our rental car and turned it in with no hitches. Then, we just went through the airline genius system that is RyanAir. So, Rob thinks the guy who invented RyanAir is a genius, and I lean towards the side of agreement. I mean, it's completely brilliant to charge next to nothing for an airline ticket, but add on a $20 internet fee, $5 check in fee, $30 bag check fee, or $50 bag overweight fee and you've got yourself a profit! Top it off with the whole flight time taken up with snack carts, drink carts, and gift catalogs passing down the aisles for you to shell out some more euro. Genius.

We landed in Prague around 9 and took the bus to the metro station and the metro to our hotel (I love that Rob likes taking public transportation as much as I do!) Completely exhausted, we checked in and read up on Prague sights in Rick Steves before closing our eyes.

We had a perfect day in Prague! We rode the tram to the castle and arrived before it opened to beat the throngs of people Rick Steves promised us would be there. So, Europe has a lot of hills! A lot, people! I live in FLAT places and my legs and lungs have gotten a great workout lately!

Anyway, the Castle area was beautiful! We saw the cathedral and other associated sights. We lunched at a brewery next to the monastery and YUM! I tried the first dark beer I liked! It was SOOO good! It had a taste that reminded me of chocolate without the sweet. Tasty. Plus, our meal was excellent! Rob won at food (again!) by ordering the rabbit. WOW! Who knew bunnies were so delicious!



After lunch, we took in more views and tried to see everything at the top of the hill establishing a policy of trying to walk only downhill. It worked out. We saw all the sights we wanted to see in the Castle and Little Quarter areas of Prague and finished our day walking the Charles Bridge and supping on the water at another Rick Steves recommendation (sorry, Rick, you won Rob but I wasn't with you on the fish place - oh well).

The entire past few days had been rough on our feet, but at the end of yesterday, mine were threatening a mutiny. My little pep talks were waning, "Feet, I know you're tired, but we're counting on you. You are such good feet and we have always loved to walk places. Let's step it up a little longer, okay?" By the end of the day, I could not ignore the screaming feet because the legs had joined in and were creating a chorus of mermaid quality calling us to the comfort of the hotel room and the bed. After dinner, my mouth told Rob, yes, let's go see the castle lit up at night while the resting feet were caught off guard and only had a moment to say, "What? No!" We went because feet get outvoted. But in the end the whole body was thankful, especially the eyes, because the castle at night is magnificent!!!!! It easily ranks with my very favorite sights ever, matching last year's Iguazu Falls and Florence's Duomo.



Today was another day, but posting time has run out and I'll have to tell you later.

Rob:
Driving in Europe can be very frustrating at road interchanges. Unlike US highways which show direction of travel (US 69E vs. US 69W) Euro road signs point you to the next few towns along your route. As it turns out you may not know the next few towns along the way because your destination is 7 towns away. Since most rural biways aren't even numbered you may come to an intersection and spend the next minute combing your map for any town between you and your destination that happens to be listed on the arrows. The fact I had an excellent navigator (McKay) who learned quickly how to be two towns ahead of the car made driving way easier.

We arrived late on a rainy night in Prauge and were greeted by a gray and cold morning. The sun quickly came out and with the Europe standard, castle on a hill, the "brisk" walk/climb warmed us up pretty well. Sight seeing at the earliest possible hour is highly recomended as most important sights seem to contain only 6-9% of the people as only 2 hours later.


Note the fewer tourists in the piture above (8:30AM) versus the picture below (Noon)

Our second day in Prauge has been much more relaxing. We saw the Old Town square by 9AM and were off to the Jewish quarter. The Jewish quarter is a number of buildings where a vast collection of Jewish people's stuff was collected to be archived in the 1940's. It turns out that after Hitler had killed them all, this area of Prague was to be his "Museum of the Extinct Jewish Race"; at least we'd remember them. About 95% of the Jews that lived in Prague were exterminated including the ones who did the collecting/archiving of all the Nazi confiscated stuff. Luckily some survived as did all the stuff which is preserved in 6 different synagogs in the neighborhood. A ticket to see them all is expensive but worth it.

Afterwords, with our legs calling for relief, we made our way back to the hotel by way of the local farmers market, candy store and shopping mall. After several hours of resting we are ready to go back out for dinner and a little evening sights before our early morning train to Budapest.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Europe!!


Friday, 14 August

McKay:
We began our vacation Thursday when Rob got home from work by driving to Atlanta, but not before saying a peanut-butter filled goodbye to Gus, leaving him in the loving and capable hands of the Jestice family. On the way, we tried a McDonald’s mocha (both hot and cold) and decided that they really were better than Starbucks. Wow. Impressive, and kinda bittersweet (no one WANTS to like McDonald’s).
After sleeping only 4 hours in our airport hotel, we woke up and caught a very early shuttle to the airport and flew to DFW (one flight earlier than planned, thanks to Rob and an on-the-ball gate agent). Fun and spontaneous, Ken (Rob’s dad) was just getting in from flying and Cherry flew from Longview to meet us in the airport and we all went out to lunch in Southlake. Yeah, what other family could do that?

Well-fed and eye candy cravings satiated (visited Anthropologie, Ann Taylor, and Nine West Shoes), we returned to the airport and were thrilled to get into first class!! DU-UDE! First class is AH-mazing! Rob had told me stories about how the chairs swivel around and you have a whole cubicle to yourself. Truthfully, I only halfway believed him, but it’s TRUE! For dinner, Rob and I swiveled our chairs to face one another and had a little intimate 5 course dinner. Then, we watched movies on our personal screen and reclined our seats COMPLETELY FLAT to beds and slept!!
Saturday, 15 August

Today, once in Frankfurt, we took a train to Mainz, walked the sights of Mainz, shopped at a farmers market I’ve only seen in my dreams, picnicked on the Rhine eating cheese, berries, and bratwurst, ate some tasty schnitzel for dinner, and are deciding to retire early as the jetlag is catching up with us.

Rob:
There are a few moments of first day hilarity. As McKay and I stepped onto our first European train we discover the infamously tricky glass doors which divide the train cars into sections. Granted McKay was first into the train so I didn’t have to actually use the door, but it was still a lot of fun to watch my lovely wife’s befuddlement. The doors slide into the wall and even though they have handles to pull them open or closed they are automatic and have a little yellow button imbedded in the handle which opens and closes the doors. McKay pulled and pulled and the door never opened until another passenger opened it from the other direction. The next door she started to pull on the handle. The nice German woman sitting beside the door was explaining to her how to work the door or so McKay thought. Turns out that the lady was trying to explain that the door was already open and what McKay thought was really clean glass was actually nothing but air and the next cabin. I couldn’t help myself - I just stood there giggling waiting to see what would happen. After a few seconds the lady “punched an invisible hole through the glass”. McKay saw the light and we continued our trip.

At Mainz we stepped out of the station and started looking for our hotel: where is the street… where is a map… where are we? I needed a frame of reference so we went looking for help. After 20 minutes McKay located an info booth and a map and we were on our way. This time when we walked out I was looking up and the first thing you see, front and center, the name of our hotel in seventeen-foot letters, “HAMMER HOTEL”. If this was Times Square, it would have been the Coke jumbotron.


Sunday, 16 August
Rob:
Today we grabbed a train from Mainz to Frankfurt. We got on one of the ICE bullet trains for international travel. When the lady checked our tickets it was pretty obvious we weren’t supposed to be on this train but because we were only going two stops she didn’t kick us off. Frankfurt is a pretty quiet town on Sunday (minus all the church bells). We put our bags in a locker at the train station and walked the city. The Germans know how to bring nature into their city. We walked along the Main River amid beautiful gardens and green fields. The old town center called Römburg was rebuilt in 1986 from the original 1418 plans, considering we flattened 95% of Frankfurt in WWII, it was cute. The cathedral kind of made it through the war with the walls and tower intact, but interior and roof burned. The pipe organ looks like it was built by a hot rod enthusiast, probably the most intimidating pipe organ I’ve ever seen. No shops are open on Sunday so we spent most of our time strolling in the wonderful parks that ring the city and window shopping. We had a leisurely lunch at the local street festival, enjoying Frankfurt’s signature apple wine, berries, bread, cheese and amazing cooked mushrooms from local vendors.

McKay: So Frankfurt is lovely. Its skyscrapers and busy streets infused with parks and serenity give it a very New York City feel. We trained it over from Mainz this morning after a lovely breakfast at our hotel where I successfully interpreted everything the hostess said – I got her to bring us coffee and everything until she asked us about “secht” which I did not know and which revealed that we spoke no German whatsoever and I had just been lucky in interpreting her up to this point. *sigh* So sad. “Secht” is champagne or sparkling water or something like that.
The language is so frustrating! If I’d realized we would be in a German-speaking country (Germany and Austria) for a total of almost a week, I DEFINITELY would have brushed up on German. As it was, my brain said, “Oh, we’re not in any one country for that long…” and I’d known too many Germans whose English was so good that they were just frustrated with my German. Still, I LOVE to at least start off my interactions speaking the native language. I WILL brush up!

Rob, however, just starts off speaking English and I KNOW I see, though briefly, a look of “Anglo-centric American… thinks everyone should speak his language” before they politely reply to him in English.

Renting a car went very well – we got a car that starts with an “S”. Unfamiliar with the brand, we still don’t know what car it is, but it’s nice. We followed our map out of Frankfurt and drove some smaller roads through the countryside on the way to Heppenheim. Rob is a very good driver, but I just couldn’t help being a little nervous as a passenger with someone having a little too much fun on the steep twisting country roads where, according to the sign I just saw, might not be allowed to drive on this road… umm… nevermind… just breathe… what a lovely view… down that steep hill… on this 2G turn… pretty colors… I love my wonderful husband… this is how every other car is driving… lovely view… just breathe. Really, it wasn’t that bad… mostly.

We had a sweet dinner in Heppenheim at a restaurant with tables on the balcony overlooking the cobblestone streets. Now we’re back in our hotel writing to you and will soon check our much neglected email.


Monday, August 10, 2009

Checkout Roulette

Today I went to the store for one item. One item that can only be found at the Super Wal-mart. When you make your way to the front of the store, you feel the race starting. You look over the competition and think, "I can get out of here in a hurry. I only have one item and I am paying cash." The checkout line shuffle is the most important aspect of finding the quickest way out of the store. You must analyze the items in your foe's cart and the number of people in each line. It turns out that I usually lose this game at Wal-Mart; I constantly underestimate the tediousness of other shoppers. Today was no exception. I was a royal loser in the speed lane out of the store. Let's recap.

I naturally gravitate to the self checkout line. The lines are short, I can swipe items myself, I have no produce, quick. So I have to say the concept of self checkout at the supermarket seems so good on paper but not the way real life works. I try to gauge the intelligence levels of those already in line. There are 4 lines.
Line 1: A middle-aged couple, the woman is hunched over the computer, the man is classic north-west Florida. Tan, shorts, monster truck T-shirt, beer company hat, mullet, and staring at me.
Line 2: A large woman and her screaming kid
Line 3: A family of 6 with way more than 20 items all gathered round the console trying to "help" each other run the machine.
Line 4: A woman in her mid-60s calmly moving her items from basket to bag.

Line 4, BINGO! As I walked up and a small line formed behind me I began to spy on the older woman. I took notice that the computer screen said, "Please wait for associate to assist you" and had said that for the last 4 items she had swiped. But she continued on her merry way, oblivious to the computer not doing anything. I stood behind her for this because it was still the shortest line and I assumed the Wal-Mart employee who watches over the self checkout would be along soon. After she tried to pay and continued tapping the credit card machine over and over like it would change our fate I looked up. There is a little red light blinking at the top of the machine to indicate the problem. I contemplate moving on to another line. I look at Line 1, red flashing light, still staring; Line 2, red flashing light, still crying; Line 3 green light, only through 5 of 69 items and still trying. Where is the Wal-mart employee? Don't know. I must abandon this line.

I go for the 10 items or less line with a cashier and after leap-frogging around I find the gem. One guy, items finished scanning, just paying and out. This is the racer's dream line. There is little to no time left in said transaction and the customer will be on his way. I step in line. Once again I fail. This guy is around 75, no teeth, and writing a check with a very unhelpful cashier. I don't fault him for writing a check, I mean come on, he's practically old enough to know the guys on our money; he doesn't want to get with the times anymore than I want to learn polka. This being said, he's probably written a few thousand checks and this probably isn't his first trip to Wal-Mart. Maybe the cashier was really slow but by the time he left all of my original lines had passed me by, leaving me with line choice remorse. After the guy with the check left, my cashier turned into a monument of efficiency. She scanned my item and took my cash in the amount of time it takes to say hello. Then with one hand she gave me my change and with the other she was already scanning the first of 17 cans of cat food the lady behind me was toting.

I'm not sure why I even bother with the self check at Wal-Mart; the whole point is speed but the lack of customer computer savvy and the fact that 3 of 5 purchases need an employee to validate your ID or something, has finally made it completely useless in my book. On a lighter note the self checkout at Winn-Dixie is fast, user friendly, and talks you through the process but doesn't make you wait until it's done talking for you to move on.

Europe Plan

So, we're going to Europe!!! WOO HOO!!

For those of you interested, here is our plan (and please don't judge us, we know we're not spending nearly enough time in many of our destinations, but we couldn't narrow our wants)

Thursday, the 13th, we drive to Atlanta for our early flight the next day.

14th - fly (hopefully) standby to Frankfurt via Dallas

15th - arrive in Frankfurt, visit Mainz (small German town)

16th - Heppenheim (small German town)

17th - Heidlburg (small German town), check in to Prague

18th - Prague

19th - Prague
20th - travel to Budapest
enjoy fireworks celebrating Hungarian holiday
attend AIR RACES (one of Rob's top ten things to do before he dies happens to be in Budapest when we're there!!)

21st - Budapest

22nd - travel to small towns in Hungary: Veszprem, Csopak, Sumeg, Sopron

23rd - Vienna (I am already relatively certain I will fall deeply in love with Vienna, but we shall see)

24th - Vienna

25th - Bratislava to Dubrovnik in Croatia (everyone's list of "must-sees" in Croatia contains Dubrovnik)

26th - Dubrovnik & Split (for interesting Roman architecture)

27th - travel to Plitvice Lakes (pretty national park with lovely water - really want to see this)

28th - see Plitvice Lakes, drive to Piran

29th - Piran (cute little beach town) & Rovinj (also cute little beach town with a festival this day!)

30th - Llubljana (lub-lee-AH-na) briefly & Lake Bled (to arrive by sunset)

31st - dinner at Das Leon on way to Klagenfurt airport. Fly to Frankfurt.
1st - fly out of Frankfurt back to Atlanta (hopefully)
We'll miss y'all, but we'll be back in September! Have a great summer wherever you are!
he he, spell check just went crazy with all the European towns!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Posh Spice

So yesterday, I had such a posh moment. I had just got out of my yoga class when I drove to the fancy grocery store to pick up fresh bread and veggies to make gazpacho. Then, I exited the store toting my fresh grocery items in my swanky envirosax grocery bag, got into my convertible Volvo and drove away hiding behind aviator sunglasses with my trendy long bob haircut blowing in the warm Florida breeze. Posh.
Nifty envirosax bags are the best! Plus, they roll up to fit in your purse or glovebox!


Thursday, August 6, 2009

Health Care

Single payer health care. Hmm. I haven't read the bill, nor done as much reading about it as my dear hubby, but I do know that the military health care system would give you a great taste of what it would be like. Here are some tidbits.

I am healthy and go in for my free yearly checkup appointment with my specified doctor at my specified appointment time. I proceed to directly to the pharmacy and wait a minimum of 45 minutes for them to fill my prescription, pay nothing, and leave.

My friend woke up with excruciating back pain one morning, called to get an appointment with her specified physician, and was told the next opening was 20 days from now. She waited a couple days (impressive) and finally called to get a list of approved alternative providers and got an appointment with one of them. This alternative provider recommended an MRI to truly find her problem and prescribed some pain medication (which she couldn't take because she was nursing... nor could she hold her baby while she was in this pain).

The military insurance told her they wouldn't approve an MRI until she saw one of their doctors. Oh, and the next doctor appointment is still next month. Don't you want the government to run our health care system?

If you're healthy, have endless amounts of time, or happen to jump through all the correct bureaucratic hoops in the correct bureaucratic order, then it's a really great system for which you pay nothing (or very little). If you're actually sick, need any kind of urgent care, or need a specialist of ANY kind, you're going to have an infuriating time.

My friend eventually got her MRI approved and they discovered one of those discs was unhappy, so she's slowly getting more mobile, but still can't take pain medication. Just in case you were wondering.