Sunday, August 28, 2011

saturday in slovenia

it's hard to say how it happened. one day, we were gushing to each other about the unbelievably beautiful network of hiking trails in germany and austria, and the next thing you know we're sitting on top of a mountain in slovenia.

we knew we were headed south from austria and, while researching train routes and transportation, we came across a ton of information about hiking in the julian alps. turns out, the slovenes are just as passionate about hiking as the germans and austrians, complete with nordic trekking poles. "honey, would you like to hike through the julian alps?" "what makes them julian?"

well, here we are! a plexi-glass-blurred photo (taken from the cable car gondola) of the drava river valley that is home to maribor (elected the european culture capital of 2012, who knew?), from the mountain above town, doesn't do it a lot of justice but, trust us, it's stunning. soon, we were enjoying our first meal in slovenia: mushroom soup! we even got to use our new words, slovene for yes, no, please, thank you, beer, wine and, the most important, "where's the bathroom?" strange feeling when we realized "this morning, we were in austria. today we're 3000 ft above a beautiful slovenian valley."

getting here was a travel planning dream, connecting three modes of transport in two different languages. in one day we combined a bus, a train, a bus again and a gondola. that's right, a gondola! we left from graz, austria, where yesterday we jumped off the train from vienna. several people had said to us "you should go to graz." well, when the stop arrived, we looked at each other, nodded our heads and grabbed our luggage. in short, we LOVED the place. even though it was 90 degrees, we blissfully dropped off our bags, hiked the schlossberg hill, saw a much-loved turm (you gotta have a turm in europe, apparently), saw the town from above, ate great pumpkin breaded schnitzel and pumpkin soup. you may guess from this that pumpkin (kürbis) is graz's major export, and you'd be correct. the train ride was lined with pumpkins, corn, pumpkins, corn... easily some of the most gratifying twenty four hours we've spent so far.

which leads us to maribor, slovenia and a ski resort about three thousand feet above town at the end of some hiking trails that traverse the julian alps. i think i read that we could walk 300 miles on these trails to the adriatic coast. too bad we got these stupid roller bags or, by gum, we'd do it!  

main bus station, maribor slovenia (avtobusna postaja)
funny where a map will take you. time to hit the trails! we'll report back.
hiking trail map, poharje, maribor, slovenia

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

budapest: three days, three baths

you want to soak yourself blissful? then you must first pay with your patience.

although our visit to budapest spanned five days, we only had three full ones to fill and our number one priority was the thermal baths scattered across what is now our favorite city (i'm sure that will change with the next city we visit). we've read many times about the vexing check-in process to the different baths and considered it a rite of passage, one happily accepted by us. but, being the unbelievably intelligent creatures we know that we are, we also thought "come on, how hard could it be?" we were so wrong. michelle put it best when she turned to me and said "it's like your worst day at the DMV all conducted in an incomprehensible foreign language." throw in a hot and bothered cashier held over from the communist era and your visit is complete! and you haven't even as much looked at a tub of water yet.

each bath had a slightly different process but all had a huge board of prices (in hungarian, of course) offering baths (swimming, thermal), massages, medicinal treatments, lobotomies (our hungarian is quite sketchy) and the rental of bathing suits and towels. before we left vienna, michelle said "be sure not to forget your bathing suit." well, needless to say, i am now the proud owner of some very roomy, very used and very hungarian swimming trunks. all the baths now are using what's called the "proxy band," a small chip embedded in a wristwatch type thing that lets you in to certain areas, opens a locker (some work, some don't) or cabin (good luck figuring out which one you paid for) and identifies you across all the services offered. once past all of that, you're home free to soak away your issues and, trust me on this, you now need it. and it's worth every forint you have.

budapest is lucky enough to sit on a large number of mineral-rich thermal springs. there are two most commonly known baths in budapest to the western tourist, the szechenyi baths (see rick steves, everyone else has) and the gellert baths, the art-deco marvel at the foot of the liberty bridge. however, because of a fantastic tip from a friend of a friend (thanks sara!) we added the rudas baths to our list and placed it at the top. the main baths are under a domed, 450 year old ottoman structure with tiny star-shaped, stained glass-filled holes in the ceiling that cast shafts of shifting light into the main pool as the sun moves across the sky. we'd been walking all over berlin, some trails in bavaria and austria, and all over vienna, so by the time we hit the rudas baths we were ready to give ourselves over. yes, please! words can't describe just how charming we found this place. truly a great find.

szechenyi and gellert were completely different in vibe from rudas and from each other. szechenyi was a water play land with at least ten or twelve different temperature thermal pools inside, ranging from kind of hot to very cold, and three huge pools outside ranging from kind of warm to kind of warm. but the setting, my god the setting. first, the place is huge, and it's housed in a slightly crumbling and beautifully worn down neo-baroque, "sisi yellow" building. gellert is housed in an art deco hotel built between 1912 and 1918 (i think) and, although we thought the place was on the sillier end of the baths spectrum, we thoroughly enjoyed where we were. no complaints possible when you're surrounded by sumptuous architecture, over the top dramatic statues, men in loin cloths (not kidding, in the segregated men's section, those without bathing suits were given loin cloths and those who wore them, wore them proudly). 

are you going to budapest? go to these baths, go to all of them, you won't regret it. were we to rate them, rudas gets top billing for history, for the range of water temperature, for the mystique.

bonus photo: some badass magyars. arpad, considered the founder of the hungarian nation, and his six chieftains. these are the dudes that started it all.

Monday, August 22, 2011

anniversary day

19 years ago today michelle and i moved in together, now here we are in budapest. it's an unbelievably good feeling. "honey, what would you like to do today?" "i'd like to float in some warm, thermal spring-fed pool nestled at the foot of a neo-baroque building." "well, then, that you shall do."

budapest has not disappointed one bit. first day included celebrations for the hungarian national holiday and within nine hours we saw an air show over the danube, witnessed the procession of the thousand year old, mummified hand of saint stephen (so they say), ate lamb knuckle with goulasch soup and watched fireworks over the river with millions of budapesters. EVERYONE was out and we were in the thick of it.

yesterday was, perhaps, one of the most charming experiences we've been lucky enough to have, a two and half hour soak in the wonderfully charming, ottoman era "rudas baths." sure, here's a photo but it barely conveys the mystique. after weeks of walking around old european cities, this was quite welcomed. in spite of the grumpy cashier.

today, great market hall, a float up the danube and a visit to szechenyi baths up in city park. then hungarian food and cheap beer and wine. what a great way to spend an anniversary.

hi everyone! thanks for being our family and friends.

Friday, August 19, 2011

tickets and tradition and hello budapest

that there is a small portion of what one accumulates during travel. ticket stubs. and a coaster. and some matches. stubs as reminders of everything that's filled one's days. museums, movies, cruise down the danube, swimming in the danube, beer gardens, rock concerts, classical concerts, silly-ass misrepresented collections of brueghel and reubens (don't ask), train tickets, metro tickets and... at the bottom, the new tickets for tomorrow. two round trip rail jet tickets from vienna to budapest. BUDAPEST!

we decided to head east a little further and finally, finally visit budapest. turns out, the day we chose is also hungary's independence celebration and boy, do these people celebrate. michelle's beside herself at the idea of seeing the "holy right procession," which is when they stroll around saint stephen square with the 1000 year old, mummified hand of saint stephen. we're not making that up.

got a cool little b&b for $50 a night up on castle hill overlooking the danube. can't get away from that river! anyone and everyone that's been to budapest, PLEASE tell us your favorite things to do. so, yeah, we'll report back.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

blew our budget on a bordello

well, we blew the daily budget last night but totally worth it. that may have cost us another day on the road but we don't care. gogol bordello at "live arena" on the outskirts of vienna, in the rain after three other bands, still made us dance and smile. what a great show. several times, with people all around us jumping up and down in the mud, draped in free ponchos handed out by the venue, rain pouring down, and a revolution fomenting on stage we looked at each other in wonder and said "oh my god, we're in vienna."

this is the other end of the spectrum from the stately museums, the grand boulevards and the dudes in the altstadt dressed as mozart trying to sell you tickets to some schmaltzy viennese classical concert. these were people intent on having a great time, regardless of weather. it's a former slaughterhouse taken over by activists years ago and now presents some of the coolest music around. great vibe. happy place to blow a budget.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

new friends, crazy transport, babushkas and the not so blue but more of a muted green-gray danube

the "blue" danube? not so much. breath-takingly beautiful? oh yeah.

well, thumbs up to strauss for an unbelievably popular song but the danube ain't blue. it is, however, unbelievably beautiful in a "am i actually floating on the danube in the middle of europe right now?" kind of way. every corner brings you to some new angle on some even older church, castle, schloss, vineyards for miles up the steepest terrain, sky forever and then, then it gets even better around the next bend.

well, if you dare, click here and remind yourself of the song you didn't know you knew. it may be a classic but be careful, the opening bit is one of those melodies you'll find yourself humming for days. better, i guess, than having 'you're so vain' stuck in your head. that's the worst!

we took a train to melk and toured the abbey, a benedictine stronghold for, oh i don't know, like hundreds of years. ok, established in 1089, to be exact, built on a cliff overlooking the danube and the setting for umberto eco's "the name of the rose." you can't help but be impressed. we approached it by car last week and by train this week and were equally wowed both times.

a couple of hours of wandering the grounds, enjoying the view, looking at 700 year old manuscripts, ogling at the baroque church and the mind-bending library of books, listening in on german tour guides and playing the game "how many words did you get?" we can't converse in german, no way, or even complete sentences most of the time but each day brings more words that we DO understand. we then headed to the boat that would take us down river to krems. it may have been the most beautiful 22 miles we've ever seen. ok, we're traveling and everything looks beautiful, we get that. but still, the danube. go. seriously, go. you want history? check. you want beauty? check. you want the lulling serenity of a river? check.

one of the more gratifying things about traveling slow, aside from no alarm clocks, is the ability to meet people. to connect with someone that actually lives where we're visiting. we both worked in the san francisco bay area for years, a vacation destination for people from all over the world and while working downtown i always wanted to grab someone staring at a map and ask "can i help? i actually know this town." well, someone did that for us in vienna this week. granted, it wasn't a map but a menu, but it meant the same. we made a new friend, cosima, at a restaurant near our apartment. chatted a while, arranged to meet the next day and took the u-bahn out to the end of the line. cosima was kind enough to cook us a hearty stew, pump us full of austrian politics, mark up our map and take us to our first heuriger to drink fresh, and we mean fresh, young wine and smoke cigarettes until we were hoarse.

after being disappointed with the famous naschmarkt, touted as THE place to do some fresh vegetable and fruit buying a couple of years ago, and shopping there again this week, we longed to find a neighborhood market without the tourist vibe. and we did. the brunnenmarkt, another tip from cosima, was everything we needed. from the killer hummus to the odd hunks of meat to the knock-off jeans for sale and that wafting smell of good cooking. oh, and the dude with the banjo body bolted to a guitar neck playing tunes at the intersection. what WAS that thing?

as for that crazy transport? this is the first breakdown of the austrian railway system we've ever seen and it was a doozy. a one hour train ride became a 3.5 hour odyssey of two trains, two buses, two trams and one metro ride with a single-car train from krems to some bumfrik town where we were met by a dude in an orange vest who, in german mind you, with lots of body language (not easy for an austrian), swept us off the train and guided us to a white mini-van who drove us to the next podunk town where we were met by a larger bus that drove us to the tulln bahnhof where we took a train to the outskirts of vienna where we took the metro to a tram to a tram. between the podunk towns, when we had no idea where we were, a very nice austrian woman answered my plea of "does anyone here speak english?" don't worry, i was respectful. she helped get a couple of questions answered and afterward we had enough command of german to thank her kindly for her help. good times. zehr gute zeiten. (sorry, will. :))

Thursday, August 11, 2011

a little viennese culture

queen maria theresa

german lesson for the day. lächerlich: ridiculous. (just came across that in our handy german-english dictionary. you're welcome.)

great afternoon at the kunsthistorisches museum yesterday. a tremendous collection of art and history set in a huge, wonderful, italian renaissance, purpose-built space to present all the spoils collected by the hapsburgs. as soon as we walk in we're hit with that feeling of "oh, THIS is why we come to these great old cities. THIS is where we need to be at this very moment." now, let's hit the bathroom before we start.

zoom in, bottom right-hand corner, that's durer
rubens for wall after wall in this place. the entire east side of the first floor is flemish, dutch and german paintings and this place goes on. one great detail about this museum is the number of soft couches thoughtfully placed in front of some of the largest paintings. we could sit for much longer than we could stand in front of one and take our time absorbing it. settling down in a town for a few weeks, with no need for the planning or scheming about where to go next (yet), has allowed us to settle in and not feel the press of time. perfect museum attitude and it paid off in spades. we moseyed our way through the east side, through rubens, dürer (amazing guy and a bit of an egotist, painting himself into several scenes of his painting), cranach, holbein... then, museum feet and hunger.

after some sacherwurst and water over to the west side where we moseyed again through caravaggio, titian, valasquez... it just went on. no hurry, no schedule, art and history handed to us in an incredible setting. five hours later we spilled out front to be greeted again by queen maria theresa waving thank you and goodbye.

beer time! off to a bar tipped off to us by daniel and dan, tucked in behind stephansdom called santo spirito. a step down into comfy, tiny pub with nothing but classical music over the stereo. great little capper to an afternoon.

is that neil young?

we made a new friend last night at dinner, too, and are headed out to her place at the end of the subway line for lunch and some afternoon wine drinking at a heuriger. will get a peek at how some austrians actually live, some tips on where to go in her country and a new friend. all good things.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

autobahn, schmautobahn. berlin to vienna.

it was hard to leave berlin. why do we keep going there for only four or five days at a time? a very livable, visitable city in our opinion, with so much to do, see and absorb. ah well... no complaints, a trip down the autobahn over the course of a few days with vienna on the other end awaited us. you know what? we made it!

gladly in vienna

we picked up our peugeot 207 at the berlin hauptbahnhof. we're thinking, "yeah, man, we're going to push this thing up to 150 mph on the autobahn and mix it up with the locals and their bmws and audis. zoom, out the garage and away we... crap, traffic. but every stop gave us the opportunity to whip out the german-english translation book and learn a ton of new words. some like "this road is closed," and we swear, one translated to "silly american, where do you think you're going so fast." *sigh* to the right is michelle's navigation "work space," a.k.a. her lap. glasses, map and directions. our translation book was never too far away.

turns out the autobahn is, well, a freeway. albeit, a freaking amazing freeway with flawless pavement, stunning scenery (as you head south into bavaria), ZOOMING cars and some of the finest rest stops this side of georgia, us of a. the germans give you a TON of information. it's almost overwhelming just how exactly you know where you are, what lane to use, what town is next, how far the next rest stop is... it's a masterful display of highway design. luckily, we studied this handy site before hitting the road. otherwise, it would have been "what the hell was that sign?! i think it was bright red, too! that's gotta be bad."

marienbrucke, passau
three nights on the road brought us through naila (franconian hiking nirvana, spitting distance from the czech border), passau (where the danube, the inn and ilz rivers all meet and, wow, is it beautiful) and gablitz (more hiking, this time in austria). each night, after hours of driving, it was a challenge to find places to stay. we stayed in some humble yet comfortable pensions with extremely nice and charming owners. we particularly enjoyed the nice old lady in sandals and socks in gablitz who, when handing me my passport back said "new jersey," with a huge smile. NO ONE says new jersey with a huge smile. she's also the woman who, when in our stilted german said "we understand only a little german," asked "what language do you speak?" we replied "english," and she replied "and?" um.

trail system in bavaria, outside naila
man, it's good to be back in vienna. within hours of returning the car (including a wrong way turn down a one-way street and pulling a u-turn on the ringstrasse) we dropped off our bags, found free-wifi while waiting for apartment to be cleaned, met our host, bought groceries and headed out to the rathaus for vienna's free open-air film festival. hard to capture the contrast of a mega screen propped up in front of a huge gothic building showing a modern dance performance from the netherlands to thousands of people. we rented an apartment for three weeks from barbara lenz, from whom we've rented in the past. we knew we could trust her, that her spaces were clean and safe and comfortable. it's tiny, but it's home.

ok, one more thing, but check this out. this may be the coolest feature of a car we've ever seen. well, butt warmers aside, of course. it's purely european-centric, with their tiny, tiny medieval streets. one admission, in the video i mistakenly referred to german engineering but this is a french car. sorry french people. like we said, driving all day and then searching for lodging is a tiring affair!

next up, the esperanto museum (and the museum of planned languages). that's right, we typed that. some secessionist architecture and some otto wagner and koloman moser history lessons and, over the next few weeks, some hiking in the wienerwald, some wine drinking in some heurigen and some more free movies in front of the rathaus.

Monday, August 1, 2011

have you met rick steves?

preatergarten beer garden, mitte
we didn't think we'd post again for another couple of days. really, how many times would you like to read about the beers we drank or a museum we saw? tons of people go to berlin, it's not THAT exotic but...

we met up with dan and daniel again, this time at a beer garden we had targeted a long time back, which just so happened to be up the street from where we were staying. ok, if you'd like to know, the beers were 'prater pils,' 'prater lager schwarz,' and 'jever pils.' dan is seated across from me (russ) with his back to the door and all he sees is me raising my hand, looking past him and saying loudly "hey rick! how are you? great to see you!" there's rick steves walking in with a friend of his we've seen in some travel episodes. he seemed so familiar.

daniel, rick, russ, dan
as i'm sure most of you know, rick steves has been putting together travel books (take note of the rick steves book he's holding in his right hand) about europe for years, as well as tv episodes and radio spots, most of which we've seen and heard on public television and radio station kqed in san francisco. his was the first guidebook we took with us to rome in 2005.

although i think i initially confused him with my overly familiar greeting, i also thought, "he gets this all the time, i'm sure." rick was kind enough to come over after a little while, introduce himself, say hello and ask about who we all were, where we're from and what's next on our agenda. we gushed over aufsturz (see previous post regarding "freaking great beer bar") which just so happens to be in his latest berlin guidebook. rick said he'd just flown in from switzerland and was extremely exhausted which was extra cool of him to take a moment and say hello.

anyway, really great meeting someone who has provided us so much useful information over the years. and rick, if you're reading this, great to meet you!

next up: vienna. tomorrow we pick up our car at the main train station in berlin and attempt to drive out of the city and head south. should be an interesting experience and since we have three days to do so, we hope to poke around some backroads. we can add driving in europe to our small list of driving in other countries which only includes israel and japan, both pretty complicated places to drive. we have a volkswagen polo rented with a stickshift and no gps unit. wish us luck!