Trip to Central Europe - Slovakia and Hungary

Trip Start Apr 15, 2003
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Trip End Sep 01, 2011


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Tuesday, July 27, 2004

SLOVAKIA
To get from Krakow to Budapest is pretty much a straight shot southward -- at least on the map. In reality, we drove through (not literally, like in Switzerland) the Carpathian Mountains. It was very pretty, but very slow 2 lane roads. It seemed like we were always behind a truck going uphill at 2 mph. This just gave us more time to enjoy the view though. It was very pretty with beautiful green mountains and lots of happy yellow sunflower fields. The route was very rural and empty with very few towns.

Still, there was evidence of communist era buildings. Functional concrete houses and commercial buildings that were quite ugly except for the beautiful flower gardens that were planted all around them. There were also some funny little old "rowhouses" right next to the road that almost looked like stables except for the flowers and curtains in the windows. There was a castle in one town that we drove through. We stopped and considered whether to tour the castle and then realised that we didn't have any Slovakian money so kept on driving. At another town where we stopped to find a toilet there were still many Stalinistic sculptures in the small park in front of the town hall.

In retrospect, it would have been nice to spend a bit of time in Slovakia (more than the 7 hours driving through it), but we did enjoy the scenery and are thinking of going back to Bratislava on a future trip.

BUDAPEST, HUNGARY
We arrived in Budapest at dinner time and found a lovely restaurant which served local stews close to the hotel . Melanie had seafood stew, full of paprika, and Chris had boar stew. One thing about the food in this part of Europe -- every meal comes with sliced tomatoes, radishes, and cucumbers. Breakfast, lunch and dinner - they're always there. It was different, but nice. The food in Hungary was very cheap as well. We bought fantastic pastries in the train station filled with cinnamon and other aromatic spices for 25 cents each. Melanie had caviar sandwiches for lunch one day at $1.50 each. There are lots of lovely stews filled with sweet or hot paprika, vegetables and wild game. Yum, yum.

We really enjoyed Budapest. The weather was not great (some rain, heavy at times), but it's a city with good public transportation and good places to walk. Walking along the Danube river at night was stunning. The ornate bridges and buildings are all beautifully lit. It is possible to walk along the river for what seems like miles. Very romantic.

In addition to the "must see" sights, such as the Great Synagogue and Castle Hill, we also wandered through the postal museum and the zoo. The postal museum had funny little displays with minimal explanation, but was housed in a beautiful old mansion. At the zoo, in addition to the animals that we're used to seeing, they also had racoons. Did you know raccoons are only found in North America? The elephant house had a turret with a spiral staircase that we could climb to look out over the elephant's outdoor space and the remainder of the zoo.

Probably the most enjoyable thing about Budapest, however, is the baths. We went to the large public Szechenyi Baths. These were outdoors in the middle of a large park (some of the mineral baths were indoors too) with people (including us) just sitting on the edge enjoying the water. There were old men (and Chris) playing chess and kids staying under the fountains. much like the picture on this site. There was also a separate lap pool and a third "fun" pool that had waves and bubbles and other fun things. Hanging in the pools was the most relaxing thing we've done in a long time. Melanie thinks it would be heavenly to return to Budapest in the wintertime and stay at the Gellert Hotel where the ritzy indoor baths are and just soak the day away. See pictures here. Although it looks expensive, we were told there are some very inexpensive packages in winter -- and guests of the hotel get free unlimited use of the pools.

DANUBE BEND
After a couple of days in Budapest, we drove along a route known as "The Danube Bend". It follows the Danube through several small, pretty villages. The first is Szentendre, a cute touristy town with a nice riverfront, Serbian Orthodox churches and small winding hilly roads. The 2nd town, Visegrad, used to be the capital of Hungary. We enjoyed exploring the remains of the Citadel built on the hilltop overlooking the river. Built in 1259, it was destroyed by the Hapsburgs was completely lost until archaeologists uncovered the ruins in 1934. We also drove by the ruins of a Royal Palace there.

At the next town, Esztergom, we climbed to the outside of the cupula of the biggest church in Hungary. The Basilica was built in 1869, but includes a chapel from a church that stood at the same location in 1510. The Basilica dome alone is 330 feet tall! We spent some time walking around Esztergom and ate longos at a streetside stand - a local food that is basically fried dough with sour cream and cheese on top. Really yummy, but definitely not a healthy habit! We also walked across the new bridge to Sturovo, Slovakia. The original bridge was destroyed in World War II and rebuilt only recently. Before it was completed, there were no bridges crossing the Danube between Budapest and Bratislava, Slovakia. Although we had planned to drive the Danube Bend and head on to Vienna, we had spent so much time enjoying the scenery and the small towns that we spent the night in Gyor, Hungary, staying in a 250 year old restored Carmelite convent.

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