Sunday, January 24, 2016

Budapest, Hungary

We travelled to Budapest from Prague via train, my preferred way of travel. Trains take much longer than a flight but are a more comfortable way to get from one place to another. You just show up a few minutes before the train departs and hop on. The train also does not give me the same headaches and cramps as a plane and offers a more spacious and scenic experience. There is nothing like going down to the dining car and enjoying a freshly made espresso and taking advantage of the free wifi. From the news one might expect that the train experience would be difficult, but as always the media often only shows one angle. The train was safe, comfortable, affordable and the stations in both cities were terrific. We took the metro from the Budapest train station and then a 1km walk to our airbnb, a quaint loft apartment in a historic building in the city centre. The first night we had an exciting trip to do laundry a 24 hour laundromat, which even provided wifi!

The second bath we tired was Gellert Baths, on the other side of the river from our central accommodations. We walked there and again agreed to meet in the central indoor pool that we both could see when we entered. I must stay that the halls are a maze and it took a me a long while to find the central pool again. The Gellert Baths are stunningly beautiful with an Art Nouveau style. The outdoor pool is much smaller than Szechenyi but we enjoyed it as well.

Next up was the Rudas Baths. We walked to the Baths, also across the river from our accommodations, but via a different bridge, and when we arrived there was a long line up and no further patrons were being admitted. After waiting awhile we decided we'd wake up early and try again another day. The following day, after being jolted awake by an unfamiliar alarm clock, as I was now quite used to waking when the mood struck me, we bundled up for the cold, early morning, 1.5 km walk. Once we arrived there was a large number of people milling about in the waiting area and no one selling tickets. We waited around perplexed until I asked a local person what was going on. It seems that there was an electrical problem and that it could be hours before it was fixed (they were still waiting for an electrician to even arrive). So we trudged back across the cold bridge to re-group at our flat. Did I mentioned this was all pre-coffee? The lesson; the early bird does not always get a birdbath. So we decided that Rudas was not meant to be and for our final trip to the Baths we went back to Szechenyi and had another great soak. I would certainly recommend checking out the various baths in Budapest for a interesting and fun experience. Apparently they also have late night disco parties at some baths but we decided that might be too interesting.

We spent New Year's Eve enjoying the outdoor energy, checking out the Christmas markets and the impromptu street fireworks. Teens and young adults put on their own fireworks all over the central squares. The streets were lively with everyone enjoying the evening. We had intended on spending part of the evening at the offbeat attraction, the Cat Cafe, however they were closed for the festivities. We did get to the cafe on another day and it was well worth it. There are ten formally homeless cats that lounge around the premises, spoiled with seemingly unlimited houses, beds, perches, climbing trees and hiding spots. The friendly cats wandered around to customers for a pet. There are strict rules of not picking up the cats or feeding them. I have never seen such a spoiled and content group of felines! It was nice spot to have an espresso and get int some cat therapy.

Our to do list included exploring the cities thermal baths. We attempted to try three different baths and succeeded with two. For the first experience we decided on the Szechenyi Baths, a large and popular destination. Upon arrival it is pretty straightforward to purchase tickets and head to the locker rooms, were your admission wrist band operates a locker. However, it is rather chaotic inside and a bit of a maze to find your way in and out. More than one gentleman wandered into the ladies change room and judging by the embarrassment I don't think it was intentional. The complex boasts 18 pools of which 15 are spring fed. We had agreed to meet in the outdoor thermal pool, however there was two large, very full pools. After J chased down my look alike he finally located me in the pool I believe we had agreed to meet in. Interestingly, bathing caps are not required in any thermal pools but it you attempt to enter the outdoor lap pool with out one the staff will descend upon you immediately. In fact it seemed to be their primary job. We wandered around the interior pools trying each one out, and they varied in size and temperature. We preferred the the outdoor thermal pool, and spent the majority of the time there. It was very relaxing, warm and full of diverse tourists and locals. There was even a stone chess table with men playing a game. My big lesson from he experience would be to bring flip flops as the floors are pretty dingy from the multiple shoes. As well, as a Canadian I pride myself on my hardiness in dealing with the cold weather, and would not have been that bothered by the chilly walk outside to the pool, except for the ice melt salt burning into the soles of my feet. So again, bring flip flops.

Another highlight was the Ludwig Museum for contemporary art. The museum itself is in a very interesting building. The exhibits were terrific and included european and international artworks. I discovered a new favourite artist; Laszlo Lakner, a native of Budapest. After much hype, we also decided to visit the House of Terror Museum. It contains exhibits related to the fascist communist dictatorial regimes in 20th-century Hungary and is also a memorial to the victims of these regimes, including those detained, interrogated, tortured or killed in the building." (source: The museum had some interesting elements such as intense music and lighting and artistic displays. Unfortunately, it lacked a cohesive flow and did not pull the viewer in. There was a lack of interpretive signage. For example you could pickup a written explanation in different sections that was often quite long but did not connect to the display well. They instead seemed to give a lengthy history lesson versus engagement. In one part you walk through a maze that appears to be bars of soap with no explanation. There was the option of a recorded guided tour but they were out of the headsets, and I believe an exhibit should be able to stand on its own with out such a guide. In fact we never use the guides. We have previously visited some very profound and emotional sites including the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp memorial in Berlin, that did a much better job connecting with the viewer. Within in Budapest a profound exhibit was the simple memorial on the banks of the Danube river. Shoes on the Danube Bank is a memorial in Budapest, Hungary. Conceived by film director Can Togay, he created it on the east bank of the Danube River with sculptor Gyula Pauer to honor the Jews who were killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest during World War II. They were ordered to take off their shoes, and were shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried away. It represents their shoes left behind on the bank." (source: The bank is lined with cast metal shoes of all sizes symbolizing the men, women and children murdered.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Prague, Czech Republic

Prague is a picturesque city with stunning, intact, heritage architecture. As with all our travels we like to flaneur; taking in the sights, sounds, and even smells of the urban life as we wander the streets, and Prague is an especially nice place to do this. In addition to the architecture, there are many parks, squares, benches, and public art to enjoy. We came to Prague with only a few items planned on our itinerary; vegan food and contemporary Art; we were not disappointed with either.

Our Prague stay started with arriving via a short flight from Amsterdam, which we had spent two nights in to break up the travel (on our way out of Europe we spend a week in Amsterdam). We normally take the metro to our accommodations but the Airbnb host offered to arrange a taxi for a reasonable fee. Our Airbnb was wonderfully located next to metro and tram stops, shops, and vegan friendly dining. We love Airbnb as it allows us to pick a place based on price, location, amenities, sights, lively neighbourhood etc so I always opt for a property in a central area, near metros, and vegan friendly dining (the happycow veg dining directly helps with this). The other benefit is it almost always cheaper than a hotel and since we opt for apartments, they are larger and have a kitchen as well.

As mentioned already, just wandering the streets you will stumble upon countless historic buildings and interesting architecture, including a great number of grand churches. We explored several of the recommended sites including Old Town Square, the astronomical clock, Charles pedestrian bridge, Dancing House and the castle. We also spent time window shopping the antique stores and enjoying the open air Christmas markets selling trinkets, and food, decorated with lights and festive displays. We also went to the Kolbenova flea market, best described as a garage sale crossed with liquidation world, a gun show and a butcher. This interesting article captures some of the experience; The Ultimate Guide To Kolbenova In Prague, Europe’s Weirdest Flea Market.

We explored some terrific museums including the fantastic Brave New World exhibit at Dox Museum. It was a little further from the centre but worth the trip. A well curated exhibit in a great space. We also enjoyed the Andy Warhol, Salvador Dali and local contemporary artworks on display at the Gallery of Art Prague. The National Technical Museum has an extremely large and varied collection including a particle accelerator, vehicles, vintage household technology, toys, chemistry, printing, mining, astronomy, time measurement etc etc. We spent several hours exploring the exhibits and cold have easily spent several more. We also stopped into the small but informative Museum of Communism.

An unexpected museum we stumbled upon was the Apple Museum and it was amazing! The museum is dedicated to the history of the Apple computer company and Steve Jobs. There is an expansive and amazing display of vintage Apple products including the original Apple 1 computer. The entire space is bright, well thought out and a great experience. Some unique aspects include Steven's food Cafe - vegetarian raw (all vegan except honey) featuring foods Steven liked, Integrated USB chargers in Cafe to recharge your iPhone/iPod, wifi, and iPad based Internet terminals. The experience was enhanced with some of Steve's favourite music playing in the lobby and Cafe, the voice over if Steve Job's commencement speech in the exhibit, apple air freshener, Macintosh Apple tree in the courtyard and super cool, and sleek subterranean bathrooms. The museum was an expected highlight of our visit to Prague. When travelling you never know what you'll find!

For Prague photos see:

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