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CAPITALIZING ON THE CAPITALS: Central Europe

CAPITALIZING ON THE CAPITALS: Central Europe

Old Oct 5th, 2015, 07:17 AM
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CAPITALIZING ON THE CAPITALS: Central Europe

TRIP BACKGROUND:

Our trip to the Alps’ region in August-September of 2014 spurred our interest in visiting some countries in Central Europe this year. Last year, beginning in scenic Berchtesgarten, Bavaria, where Hitler had his second seat of command planning all the terror of the Nazis, we learned so much more about the insidiousness of that regime. In traveling through the Salzkamergut, the lake region south of Salzburg, we visited Bad Ischl where Franz Josef and his wife Elizabeth, “Sisi”, of the famous Hapsburg Empire, spent their summers in a sumptuous villa, and where he signed the edict of war which began World War I.

As we moved through the dramatic Dolomites of Italy, expecting to hear Italian, we began to witness more about the reach of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, with its vestiges reflected in the German language, customs, architecture, and cuisine which remain so long after the break-up of the “empire” following World War I. We saw traces of that mighty Empire extending into Switzerland, where several mountain roads had been constructed by the Austrians. From previous travels to France, Spain, Italy, etc., we had learned that the tentacles of the Hapsburg Empire reached far and wide. Learning more about these time periods, plus the extent of the Nazi regime and the Soviet domination, and the effects on the countries we would visit, motivated us to travel to Central Europe. Traveling through all the gorgeous beauty of the Alps stimulated a lot of historical questions.
We began this TR intending it to be brief, but as we got into it, we found that there were too many experiences for brevity. The report serves as a memory of our trip, and we hope that some others will find it of interest.

We normally plan our own travel, as we like the freedom and independence it provides. If we’re visiting more than one area, we prefer driving. Train transportation is not our thing, unless it’s just for a short excursion or a day trip. Compared to our trip of 2014 where had a rental car and were traveling through dramatic scenery, we knew that this trip to Central Europe wasn’t so much for natural beauty, as for a traveling history lesson, with exploration of beautiful cities, and learning about their backgrounds and cultures. Our intention was to visit the capitals and just get a flavor for the countries.

As we began to work on plans, we soon realized that this involved more complexities (and time) than we realized. One big obstacle was language: Hungarian, Polish, Czech . . . very different and having no relation to other languages. A rental car would present several difficulties: among them reading road signs, driving/parking in big cities. While in our local AAA office for something totally unrelated, one employee asked if we had any travel plans on the horizon, and when we mentioned Central Europe, suggested that they had a tour which covered most of what we wanted.

We are not “tour people". We discussed what we thought might be the pros and cons, and decided that, for this trip, it might be worth giving a try to a tour. We chose to travel with “Insight Vacations”, recommended by AAA. The trip would begin in Vienna, a city which we have visited only briefly in the past, and travel to Budapest, Hungary, Cracow & Warsaw, Poland, Berlin, Germany, and Prague and Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic.

At the conclusion of our report, we’ll detail the experiences of the tour. But for now, we’ll just say that, in general, we felt that it was a good decision for visiting this area of Europe. Maybe we just lucked out, but the tour director was excellent, the “coach” driver was terrific, the coach itself was very comfortable, the hotels were good and well-located, and we felt fortunate to have a generally compatible group of people. We did not feel constrained to always stick with the group, and were able to enjoy time on our own in each location.

So here we go sharing 2 ½ weeks of our travel. We hope that some will come along for the adventure.


TUESDAY, WEDNESDAY, September 1- 2, 2015
Travel Travails; Evening in Vienna, Austria

Our travel plans seemed good in that we could leave our home at noon on the 1st of September, allowing us to arrive 3 hours early for international travel: a direct flight from Cincinnati to Paris. Our only concern was the short time to make connections in Paris (CDG); however, the travel agent had already booked the tickets, and it would have been costly to change. So we decided to deal with it. We found out as much as we could about CDG Terminals, even having maps and directions. Fodorites were very helpful. Our luggage would be checked straight through to Vienna, so we focused on making our carry-on stuff very compact so we could get through CDG as quickly as possible.

We booked Premium Economy seats for the 8 1/2 hour flight, hoping that these provide more leg room, and be closer to the front of the plane for de-boarding. We tried to sleep, but were able only to rest, at best. Overall, it was an uneventful flight.

We touched down a few minutes early, but that is not the end of the story. Paris airport is HUGE, and it took 15 minutes+ just to taxi to the gate. It was now September 2nd and we were in the Paris Airport. (Unfortunately, we didn't have time to stay in one of our fav cities!)

Our worry did work to the negative side as our flight into Charles De Gaulle Airport allowed only 55 minutes from arrival at Terminal 2E (M Hall, which is the farthest walk), go through immigration, and make it to Terminal 2F for our flight to Vienna. After de-planing, the issue was to make the long walk as fast as possible to immigration, only to join a long line waiting to go through passport control for the entry into the EU country, part of the “Schengen Area”. We rushed, but there was no avoiding that line at Immigration. Our appeal to a supervisor was of no avail, as she said many people in the line had close connections. After finally passing immigration, we walked as fast as we could to Terminal F, without mowing people down, missing our connection by a hair.

Utterly disappointed, we learned that we needed to find our way to desk 25A to get our tickets changed for a later flight. The Air France agent was very friendly. However, the next flight out to Vienna, at 10 AM, was full, so the earliest flight we could get was 1:30! So a long wait!

The terminals in CDG have long halls between them and the gates within the terminals are lined with tons of shops, mostly high-end, making the stretch between gates very long. (Note the repetition of "long" when describing CDG). There are few areas for a casual bite to eat. We found a Chez Paul and purchased several croissants and a couple of coffees. Finding seats was a challenge, but we were invited by a friendly guy Peter to join him. A highlight of the day was talking with Peter, a Swede, who was returning home after working in Central Africa. Over breakfast, we enjoyed a great discussion.

Struggling through our documents, we needed to find the phone number to call, in order to notify our transport in Vienna that we’d be arriving on a later flight. With Peter’s help, and phone, we contacted the AAA office to arrange a later pick-up. Lots of other people missed their connections. Some expressed palpable anger. We became resigned to missing our first day in Vienna by our later arrival. And a 5+ hour wait in CDG!

Finally, it was time to board; however, it was announced that the flight to Vienna had a 45 minute delay. So more waiting. Boarding involved a trek down multiple steps and onto a bus of people squeezed sardine-like, being driven around the expanse of CDG terminals, and then finally climbing stairs to board the Airbus 320 with 3x3 seating. We were seated in different locations for the 2 hour flight.

The flight time passed more quickly for Margie as she had a delightful seatmate: a girl who lived in Vienna, had just graduated high school, and who spoke impeccable English. “Good teachers”, she said. She shared a lot of info about her city, and other details about life in Austria. She was excited about beginning her studies at the University which she happily explained were free.

Upon arrival at baggage in Vienna, we discovered that one of our two bags was missing; unfortunately Margie’s! Then more time was wasted as we waited in line at the lost baggage to submit a claim. That task accomplished, we searched, to no avail, for that transport with our name on a sign. What to do?

Plan B: A stop at the Info desk quickly got Tom interested in catching a CAT (City Austria Train) for 12 euros each to get to Stadt, the square near our hotel. Margie grudgingly went along, remembering that to catch trains often requires going down stairs several levels and walking long halls. Amazing that Tom hoisted his 50 lb. luggage up and down the stairs of the station, and up the steps in the train, considering the fatiguing day! The train ride into the city didn’t allow for much viewing of the surroundings, as it was part in tunnels and part with concrete walls on each side of the track. But, considering that we were arriving at the main rush hour in a big city, the train did get us to our destination within 15 minutes.

After exiting the train, more walking, walking, down halls and up more stairs to reach the first floor level. We crossed through a mall and onto a square. Then it was, thankfully, only another two blocks or so to our Hilton Hotel. Finally, we arrived!!! But without Margie’s luggage!

The Hilton lobby was very welcoming. Check-in was easy. We graciously accepted the offer of a toothbrush from the receptionist, although we had such, and that was the least of our concerns. Fortunately, Margie had two days’ worth of shirts; however, most of our needed supplies were in her bag. Oh well! “Make the best of it”, we thought. It was a nice hotel, and, after getting settled in our room, we headed out to dinner. Unfortunately, it had begun to rain. Of course, the umbrellas and rain jackets were in Margie’s luggage! So we popped into the little shop next door and picked up a rain poncho for Margie.

There were many little sidewalk cafes around the Hilton, but they quickly closed as the rain continued. A restaurant which appealed to us was an Italian place. Vapiano, about two blocks away. A unique concept: all fresh pasta of your choice, including the sauces, made-to-order as you watched, pizza of all kinds, salads, drinks, desserts. We shared a small mista salad and bolognese sauce with fusilli and a couple “vom Fass” (draught) beers. Vapiano’s also had a unique concept for paying. Upon entering, you were given a plastic “credit card”, and as you approached each station, you just placed that card on an electronic strip and an employee entered the charge. The total charges on the card were then submitted to the cashier for payment as you exited
.
Vapiano’s was very crowded, but Margie spotted a little table as two ladies were leaving. Sitting next to us were a very friendly local lady, Gaby, and her daughter, who kept us alive via discussions over her yearly Greek Islands’ vacation and her New York visit. Her daughter will attend the university (free) next year hoping to be a primary education teacher. Gaby seemed eager to offer information about Vienna, and highly recommended Stadtwirt Restaurant, a local place a few blocks away, for good wiener schnitzel. Gaby even gave us her cell phone number in case we wanted help in Vienna. She and her daughter were among the first of the many friendly, helpful people we would meet. We knew we would visit Gaby’s restaurant recommendation tomorrow evening.

The rain had slowed to a drizzle as we walked the couple blocks back to the Hilton and turned in about 10 pm. The bed felt great after that travel day filled with frustrations, but ending happily with our experience in Vapiano’s.

We had purposely planned two extra nights in Vienna, hoping to take a daytrip to the Wachau Valley before joining the tour. But the travel delay and lost luggage would cause us to change those plans.



THURSDAY, Sept. 3, 2015 VIENNA EXPLORATION DAY

We set the alarm for 6:30 to practice for group tour endurance. The included breakfast buffet, in the main Hilton dining room, was a fabulous spread, including an omelette station and outstanding pastries, fruits, etc., etc., everything that one might want. Today was to be our full-day trip to the Wachau Valley with a visit to the monastery at Melk, perched high above the Danube, and a cruise on a section of the Danube, thought by many to be one of the most beautiful areas of that river. However, not having the previous day to explore Vienna as we had planned, and having anxiety about Margie’s missing luggage, we decided to stay in Vienna city proper. Awakening to cloudy skies further helped us forego our plans for a day-trip to the Wachau Valley, although the clouds lifted and it turned out to be a beautiful day.

We decided to get an overview of central Vienna on the Hop On, Hop Off bus, which included an English language audio guide. Today we were going for “easy”. We could purchase tickets in our hotel, and the boarding spot was right across the street. Margie could forget about her lost luggage, in hopes that, by the end of the day, it would arrive at the hotel.

Our day focused on the “Ringstrasse”, the 190 foot wide boulevard, arcing three miles around the city’s core, lined with many trees and grand buildings. In the 1860’s, the Hapsburg Emperor, Franz Josef, had the city’s medieval wall, which surrounded the inner city, torn down, and had it replaced with this boulevard. The bus proved to be a convenient way to delve right into the exploration of Vienna, one of Europe’s grandest cities of the past, as well as a vibrant city today.

We enjoyed seeing so many of the beautiful buildings, and exited at several points, one being just across the Danube Canal (Donaukanal), constructed to prevent flooding from the Danube River. There were many cafes and kiosks in this area, but we chose to take a popular walking street, Rottenturm Strasse, up to the massive St. Stephen Cathedral. The street was lined with coffee shops and stores; the walk took us quite some time.

Stephansdom, as the cathedral is called, is Austria’s finest Gothic cathedral. Austria’s population is said to be over 90% Roman Catholic, and St. Stephen Cathedral is the national church. It’s one of Vienna’s most prominent landmarks, with its spire dominating the city. The original construction of the cathedral dates back to 1147, and was Romanesque in style. Over the years, it has had several renovations, with Gothic additions. After having suffered severe damage from World War II, it has had ongoing repair.

The cathedral has so many impressive features, both inside and out. And there is so much history connected with it. Mozart was married there, and his funeral was there also, as was Emperor Franz Josef’s. We spent a good hour taking in the features of the interior; so much interesting detail that it would take hours to appreciate. Among many features, we were particularly struck by the many altars, and the ornate Gothic pulpit. carved from three blocks of sandstone, with a spiral staircase winding up to the lectern. The sides of the staircase have carvings of four church fathers, form the
support structure for the stairs.

St. Stephen Cathedral, surrounded by a huge square, dominate the city center. We found a quaint lunch spot facing Stephansdom at Café D’Europa. What do you eat for lunch in Austria? Bernerwirstel, plus “vom Fass”. Lots of “people watching” as this area seems to be a hub for visitors.
Having enjoyed the interior of the cathedral, while having lunch we could enjoy the exterior, which was equally stunning. We especially admired the colorful mosaic tiles on the roof, arranged in intricate patterns. Interesting that part of the design is an eagle, supposedly the symbol of the Hapsburgs.

We did some window shopping in the many stores surrounding the cathedral area, and in keeping with Austrian tradition, later made a stop for cappuccinos at a coffee house: Gutenberg Café.
From Stephansdom, we headed to the neo-Renaissance Opera House, which attracts music lovers from around the world.

As Paris had attracted many artists, Vienna was a hub for composers: among them, Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, Brahms, Vivaldi, and of course, Strauss. As we would witness in our ongoing travels, many buildings of architectural beauty, such as opera houses, museums, houses of Parliament, etc., were destroyed or heavily damaged by bombings in World War II, and have since been re-built. Such was also the case with the Vienna Opera House. Admiring the exterior beauty of the Opera House, we could only imagine the beauty of the interior with its sumptuous halls and grand staircase. Unfortunately, we were not able to catch a tour and had to satisfy ourselves with pictures.

Feeling ready for an afternoon break, we headed to the famous Hotel Sacher, famous for their Sacher Torte. We were fortunate to get an outside table, and enjoy that most popular dessert while viewing another side of the Opera House. Sacher Torte, a tasty chocolate cake, with a layer of fruit, and chocolate icing, topped with whipped cream and a chocolate wafer, (truly decadent!,) originated at this old but prestigious Hotel Sacher. Coupled with cappuccinos, this stop was perfect. Following this, we did visit the first floor of the beautiful hotel.

Our first day in Vienna included a lot of imbibing of the atmosphere of this wonderful city, a needed relief from the hectic rush and frustration of yesterday. We had eyed the Hofsburg Palace Complex as one area for exploration tomorrow.

After a bit more meandering, we headed back to our hotel, arriving about 6. And a big relief! Margie’s luggage had been found and was safely in our room! This made her day! To think of spending hours the following day doing extensive shopping was not our idea of enjoying Vienna. And it would have been nearly impossible to replace all the various and sundry items needed for travel. So we were happy campers! After a little freshening up, we were ready for dinner.

Following the recommendation of Gaby, whom we had met last evening in Vapiano’s, we walked the few blocks to Stadtwirt Restaurant and had a tasty meal of wiener schnitzel. The veal was tender, the potatoes were great, as was the beer and wine. And how could we not end the meal with apfel strudel and cappuccino? The owner knew Gaby and treated us well, with a big discount for eating at her recommended spot. The atmosphere of the restaurant was very pleasant. It seemed like the diners were mostly locals. We were back at our hotel about 10 pm. Good day!


FRIDAY, September 4, 2015 2nd Day in VIENNA

Up at 6:40 and down to the dining room for a repeat omelette breakfast. Today it is crowded with lots of travelers.

This is our last chance to enjoy Vienna before meeting up with the tour at 5:30. We wanted to explore a little of the “outer ring”, so we used our remaining time with the HO-HO bus for that venture. The travel time was about an hour, but a convenient way to venture farther to the outskirts of the city.

We saw the United Nations’ building having 4000 employees here in Vienna. We passed their large amusement park with a gambling casino, concert venue, typical rides and a Ferris wheel, etc. We were told that it preceded Las Vegas. Who knows? These were part of Vienna’s largest park, Prater. A large part of it included grassy areas along the Danube Canal where many citizens enjoy biking, jogging, picnicking etc.

We crossed the real Danube River, with a fee boats moored along the shore and several smaller ships cruising. Near the river was the very large Art Nouveau St. Francis of Assisi Basilica, built between 1898 and 1910, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the reign of Franz Josef I. We were told that it is the parish of the English speaking Vienna community. It is just one of many, many churches in Vienna.

Although the outer ring doesn’t contain the number of architecturally beautiful structures of the so-called “inner ring”, it was interesting to witness the city in its full context. We enjoyed seeing the Danube River, 1777 miles long, which extends from the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea, and borders ten European countries. We were interested in the color of this mighty river, so romanticized by Johann Strauss, and witness for ourselves that the color isn’t blue, but a brownish-green, like our rivers in the US Midwest. But Strauss’ music is wonderful, and we do love “The Blue Danube” waltz!

Having satisfied our curiosity regarding the outskirts of Vienna, we returned to the Palace Museum Square where the central focus was a huge monument to Maria Theresa, the most important Hapsburg figure in the 1700’s Empire. She not only had 16 children, but married her children into other royal families to expand the Empire. Among other achievements, she instituted many building projects, promoted financial and educational reforms, and greatly increased the strength of the military: all of which helped extend the reach of the Hapsburgs. Very interesting to note that Maria Theresa didn’t have a real title. It was her husband Francis I who had the titles, but Maria Theresa executed the real powers of his positions. Nothing new about the idea of a competent woman leader!!!

In the Museum Square Area surrounding the Maria Theresa monument, are two very impressive museums which we would like to have visited, but we had to pace ourselves. We definitely wanted to tour the Hofsburg Palace, the main home of the Hapsburgs. So we headed in that direction, across the busy Burgring Strasse, and were amazed as we entered the grand archway to view the sprawling, lavish complex of buildings of the Hofsburg Palace.

We paid the 12 euros to walk up the magnificent Emperor Staircase leading to the 19 lavish state and private rooms of Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Elizabeth, gorgeously appointed with lots of gold, crystal chandeliers, etc. One could witnesss not only the stately splendor of the Hapsburg monarchy, but get a glimpse into the personal lives of the occupants.

We found it fascinating was to learn more about Franz Josef’s wife, Elizabeth,“Sisi”, the controversial queen, who was from a Bavarian royal family. Apparently, in her childhood, her family had a great love for the outdoors, and she experienced happy times. Living in the palace, she suffered great loneliness and depression. A 19th century Princess Diana? In some ways.

One of the first rooms was devoted to pictures and information about Sisi’s early life. Sisi spent hours a day having her prized long hair fixed, and had exercise equipment to maintain her slim shape. She had a love for learning, especially Greek mythology. She read and wrote poetry. Included in the tour were dresses and jewels worn by Sisi, as well as writings and artwork of hers.

Sisi had fostered a love for Hungary and its people, living there for months at a time, and was responsible for encouraging the extension of the Hapsburg Empire into that country, creating the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This was especially interesting to us as we would be heading into Budapest tomorrow. In order to escape palace life, Sisi loved to travel, often incognito. While on a short trip to Geneva from Montreux, her life ended tragically as she was assassinated by an Italian anarchist who discovered her identity.

The visit provided interesting insight into the life of Franz Josef, who had had a stern upbringing. He kept a busy schedule, rising very early, often eating breakfast at this desk. He reserved certain times for receiving citizens and hearing their concerns, but always stood so as to move the people quickly. His days were spent with many meetings with representatives throughout the empire.

While this visit to the Hofsburg Palace was extremely interesting, after an hour and half of standing and listening to audiotape explanations, we were feeling hungry. Lunch was at nearby café consisting of another sausage, but with a fancy name and presentation, but the vom Fass beer was great. We had an enjoyable conversation with a Canadian couple from Toronto who were visiting their daughter and son-in-law, both musicians, living in Vienna.

Since this was the day that our tour was to begin, we had to be aware of time as we were to meet the group about 5:30. We walked around palace grounds for a bit more, interested in all the tents and bandstand being erected for a festival. We returned to the Hilton Hotel area by about 4:00, wanting to walk through the lovely Stadtpark, one of Vienna’s major parks, located directly across the street from our hotel.

Stadtpark is a world of gardens with many paved walks lined with benches, containing memorials to musicians throughout. A focal point at one end is a small lake with a fountain. Near it, we visited the impressive monument to Johann Strauss. Located on the outskirts of the park was the lovely Kursalon Palace, in which Strauss performed, and which has since entertained audiences with concerts and waltzes. We had enjoyed a concert there on a former visit several years back.

Following our walk in the park, we returned to the Hilton and freshened up for the 5:30 meeting of the tour group in the hotel lobby. We met Erin, our tour director, who gave initial tour information. We would have 38 people with 40 seats on the bus. Our luggage would be picked up outside our room each morning and transported to the coach, etc., etc.

We expected the initial meeting to be drinks and appetizers in the hotel lobby. Instead, we boarded the Insight Vacations coach, and traveled to the Café Restaurant Angarten, an updated hunting lodge, located in a large woods formerly used by the royalty for hunting. We had passed this woods as we did our excursion into the inner city. The lodge restaurant was quite nice. Food and drinks were good: chicken schnitzel, potatoes, soup, beer, wine, apfel strudel etc. Since this was our initial meeting with the group, we felt a bit uneasy. We enjoyed talking with Nick, a young tour director who was preparing to lead a tour. He had a lot of knowledge about the lead up to World War 1 which we enjoyed hearing.

Back to the Hilton about 8:30. Early rising tomorrow. Lots of packing after 3 days in Vienna. We have to be ready for a long day. On the agenda is a visit to the Schonbrunn Palace, the summer home of the Hapsburgs, followed by lunch in central Vienna and a little more time to enjoy the city. Then we’re off to Budapest, Hungary.

As we turned in for the night, we discussed the fact that we never intended to spend so much time in Vienna. However, we agreed that it is a beautiful city with much to enjoy, and we’re glad that we took the opportunity to explore some of it.
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Old Oct 5th, 2015, 08:30 AM
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Just a couple of notes.

Glad you enjoyed your tour but it really isn't necessary in thee countries.

While it is true that Hungarian is a unique language, Czech is slavic language related to Russian and other languages in that part of the world.

BUT the key point is that English is very widely spoken in all of the cities that you talked about. We have been to all of them, a couple several times, and never had any trouble not being fluent in the local languages - although we did learn the basic polite phrases. English is very widely spoken throughout Germany and Austria - towns of all sizes - and you can find someone to speak English in every place we visited in both Czech Republic and Hungary.
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Old Oct 5th, 2015, 08:54 AM
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Excited to read the rest of your report! Thank you for the thoroughness of it.
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Old Oct 5th, 2015, 02:07 PM
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Enjoying your report, Tom!
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Old Oct 5th, 2015, 08:41 PM
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It's always interesting to read impressions of my adopted city; looking forward to the rest of the report.

nytraveler, not to split hairs too much, but the Czech language is more closely related to the western slavic languages of Poland and Slovakia; eastern Slavic languages include Ukrainian and Russian, to which the Czech language is less so related. The Hungarian language is only unique in that it is not Indo-European (like other Central European languages); it is related to the Finnish language, as is the language of Estonia, all of them being Uralic. After four years of traveling around Central Europe, it is the language we still struggle with for basic phrases.

Having traveled through some rather small villages in Austria, CZ, and Hungary, I don't think I would say that it's possible to find someone who speaks English, either. We have found ourselves out in Tirol and Vorarlberg, and even closer to Vienna, having to muddle through in our American-German-with-Viennese accent. On occasion I'll go shopping in CZ at a Tesco just across the border, and I've yet to encounter a sales clerk or customer service person who speaks English, but many who speak German.
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Old Oct 5th, 2015, 08:49 PM
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Having been to all the places on your tour, I'm excited to follow along with you and get your perspective. Also interested to hear about your thoughts on Insight. We are looking to take a tour next year and Insight is one of the companies we are looking at.
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Old Oct 6th, 2015, 06:51 AM
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Thanks to all for following along! We appreciate your interest.

Later, we'll post a few individual replies. Right now, have to run.
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Old Oct 7th, 2015, 01:40 PM
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NYtraveler, thanks for your response. Re: a tour "really isn't necessary in these countries", our concern with the languages was one of safety; inability to read road signs,etc. And we had a couple of other reasons for deciding to go with the tour.

We'll be visiting your great city in early December! Looking forward to it!


Fourfortravel, glad to have you along on our journey. It's nice to get feedback from someone who lives/travels in these areas.

Bettyk, throughout our TR we'll have comments about Insight. Overall, we were very pleased. Thanks for your interest.

Passported and GinnyJo, it's always motivating to know that others are interested in our travel experiences, and are reading our TR. We're now finishing up Budapest and should post that part soon.
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Old Oct 7th, 2015, 02:16 PM
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I really like how you write, will definitely follow along to a part of Europe I haven't visited yet. And I am going to dig up your report on your trip from last year, as I have randomly become obsessed with the idea of visiting the Salzkammergut on some kind of Munich to Vienna trip.

Looking forward to Budapest and Cracow especially!
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Old Oct 7th, 2015, 02:23 PM
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Tom, I am enjoying your TR immensely! I finally went to Prague (somewhat disappointing) and Budapest, which I loved, two years ago so looking forward to hearing more about your travels.

My daughter and her husband are going to Vienna for their (belated) honeymoon and are really looking forward to it. They wanted something different in terms of a honeymoon destination and they both love history.
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Old Oct 7th, 2015, 04:02 PM
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Great TR, and also enjoy your style of writing.
Will probably read your next installments in Vienna, where I'll be going to tomorrow. But hopefully with less hassle than your trip as it will be only a 1hr non-stop flight for me
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Old Oct 7th, 2015, 04:24 PM
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Great stuff...makes us want to get back to Vienna , which we just have not seen enough of on our two brief trips there. Speaking of Sisi, Tracy was so interested in the story she bought a book about her when we returned home. Looking forward to more.

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Old Oct 7th, 2015, 07:26 PM
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Maitaitom, glad to see that you caught our TR. Interesting that Tracy was curious about Sisi also. Should get Budapest finished tomorrow. We'll watch for "Madrid"!

Inspiredexplorer, we had generally very good weather for our trip in 2014 except for the Salzkammergut. Hope you have better luck in that beautiful area.

Cowboy1968, glad you're following along. Have a great time in Vienna. Regarding our travel experiences, last year your advice on the Munich trains helped us have smooth travels. Thanks again.

LouisaH, thanks for your interest!
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Old Oct 8th, 2015, 12:52 AM
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Looking forward to more, Tom. Looks like an interesting trip.
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Old Oct 8th, 2015, 06:23 AM
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Adelaidean, we met a few really nice folks from your city on our trip. And. . .whatever we said about our "travel travails", we know that we have nothing to complain about when considering the long hours and connections you Aussies have to endure.

Thanks for following along!
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Old Oct 8th, 2015, 11:10 AM
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Loving your detailed and well written report.
I remember reading of your trip to Croatia and throughly enjoying that report.
I didn't see it if you've mentioned it yet so apologies in advance, but might you be posting a link to pictures ?

Saving the report up for times with a mug of coffee or a pot of tea.. so I can read uninterrupted.

Thanks Tom.
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Old Oct 8th, 2015, 11:33 AM
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SATURDAY, September 5, 2015

Morning: Vienna; Schonnbrunn Palace

Afternoon: Travel to Budapest, the “Pearl of the Danube”

Up at 5:45; luggage outside the door by 6:45. Breakfast is crowded, no time to wait for an omelette, but plenty of other choices.

Prompt 7:45 departure for Schonbrunn Palace, the first of many UNESCO World Heritage Sites we would visit on this trip. Our group was among the first arrivals. We were immediately met by a local tour guide, Claudia, and followed her lead through the extensive courtyard, up the stairs into the palace, and through the entrance area, with no wait. Our tour guide Erin presented the tickets for our group.


Today we would delve into a bit more of the lives of the Hapsburgs. Emperor Franz Josef, who began his rule at age 18, stayed in power until age 86. He would spend the last years of his life without his beloved Sisi, due to her untimely and tragic death. One could spend many months studying these figures and the history which surrounds them.

Schonnbrunn Palace, with its 1400 rooms, was the summer home of the Hapsburgs. It is said to rival Versailles.

We toured only a portion of the opulent royal apartments, filled with the gold and glitz that one might expect: elaborate furnishings, chandeliers, china and crystal in the dining room, etc. We spent about an hour with the guide, who proved to be an invaluable resource for explaining and answering questions.

Following the inside tour, we had about forty-five minutes on our own to enjoy the beautiful gardens, still highlighted with summer flowers. At home, just prior to leaving for this trip, we had viewed a concert on Public TV, which was conducted in the Schonbrunn Palace Gardens. It was interesting to actually be there and see that it looked the same. It felt like “déjà vu all over again” as Yogi would say.

Following our Schonbrunn Palace visit, we returned to the Vienna city center. During the drive, Claudia described the important sights and areas as we passed them. We felt that our previous two days in Vienna made this ride much more meaningful.

The coach dropped us off at Albertina Plaza, by the art museum of the same name. We decided to take the 20+ minute walk up the popular pedestrian street, Kartner Strasse, which is like an outdoor shopping mall. This would lead up to St. Stephen Square for one last look.

Hundreds of travelers, just like us, were milling around, window shopping, people watching, and drinking coffee at outdoor cafes. How many pictures must be taken? And those selfies… ugh! We enjoyed the time “on our own” from about 11 to 1:30, sipping cappuccinos overlooking St. Stephens, and taking a very leisurely walk back toward the area of our meeting point.

As we were heading in that direction, it began to sprinkle, so our thoughts of having lunch at an outdoor café vanished. Instead, we enjoyed a tasty meal at Rosenberg’s, a multi-level cafeteria with long counters of every type of food imaginable, and Gosser Beer.

At Rosenberg’s we met a worker, Matthew, a Canadian married to an Austrian girl. They now live in Vienna. Both of their grandfathers were Austrians who had somehow managed to get to Canada to escape the ravages of war. We enjoyed our conversation with Matthew, and wished that we had had more time to continue, as his Canadian background and experiences helped us to better understand Vienna and Austria through his eyes.

After a filling and delicious lunch, we walked to the outdoor Museum against War and Fascism which commemorates the terrible years of 1938-1945 when Austria was under the Nazi rule. The stones from the monument are from an infamous quarry at the Mauthausen Concentration Camp, not far from Vienna, where 100,000 prisoners died. A part of the monument represents the Jewish people who were murdered. 1/3rd of the 200,000 Jewish Viennese residents died in Nazi concentration camps.

The sight of this memorial, in the midst of this vibrant city, is a testament to the determination of the citizens to re-build, without forgetting the torturous past. And it’s only the beginning of a story of destruction and revitalization which we expected to experience as we traveled on to other countries which suffered under the Nazi and Soviet regimes.

As we departed Vienna, we felt sure that we would remember it as one of the major cultural cities of Europe, with an abundance of museums, churches, galleries, palaces, concert halls, and etc., many housed in architecturally outstanding buildings. In addition, Vienna has an abundance of parks, sporting arenas, restaurants and coffee houses. One regret was that we didn’t get to experience any of their “heurigens”. . . those popular wine-tasting establishments. We left Vienna with wonderful memories and ideas of what to explore if our travel plans ever include a return to this area.

When the time came to board the coach for Budapest, it was comforting to see that all of the group were punctual. For us, it was relaxing to leave the busy city without any concern for negotiating traffic or listening to the Garmin, or map reading. We just sat back, looked out the window and took in all the activity, confident in Tom our driver. With a good name like "Tom" how could one not be confident?

The scenery along the route to Budapest was not remarkable, as most of the terrain was flat. We had read that this area was known for some wine production. Our pre-trip reading also told us that we were traveling toward a beautiful city.

After an hour+, while still in Austria, we stopped for a restroom break. Immediately, memories of “pay restrooms” in Europe returned, always presenting the concern of having coins in the correct currency. (usually 1/2 euro). We hope our American businesses do not emulate this practice! McDonald’s seemed to be one of the few exceptions, and we would always look forward to finding a good ol’ Mickey D’s.

We were now only about 20 minutes from the Hungarian border. We had no problem crossing, and as we entered Hungary, Erin played the Hungarian national anthem.

Because of the recent large numbers of refugees from Syria who wanted to pass through Hungary and Austria, with the intention of reaching Germany, Austria had closed its border crossing the previous night. All traffic heading in the opposite direction to us, that is, northwest, was not allowed to enter into Austria from Hungary. Miles of traffic were stopped. Many people were out of their cars along the roadside. People were camping out: no food, no water, and no toilet facilities. A real humanitarian crisis seemed to be looming! This would only get worse and be a cause for worldwide concern. While traveling, we didn’t watch TV, but got our news from our phones. However, the tour director Erin kept us informed. Family and friends were e-mailing us to inquire whether this situation was affecting us. We assured them that it was not.

As we approached nearer to Budapest, the scenery did begin to get hillier. Erin introduced a few words in Hungarian. Although we had practiced a bit at home, the only two we remembered to use while there were “Jo’ Reggelt” for “Good Morning” and “Koszonom” for “Thank You”.

Some trivia and facts we had read before our trip:

Hungary is poorer than its neighbor, Austria. Even though it became a member of the European Union in 2004, it does not have a strong enough financial base to take part in the euro currency at this time. Their currency is the forint…thousands of them make one seem rich because about 3000 forints equal one Euro. Unemployment is about10%.

The fundamentals of the Hungarian language date back to the late 9th century. Its roots have some resemblance to Finnish, but over the years, it has been influenced by many cultures which have lived in the region. Some linguists describe the Hungarian language as “phenomenally unique”. We found it difficult to read and pronounce, although we knew from prior reading that many Hungarians, especially those in the tourist industry, speak English. Other than Hungary itself, the language is spoken only in a few pockets, mostly in Eastern Europe.

A synopsis of Hungarian history is difficult to come by. The country has had so many take-overs, and so many wars, that its history is extremely complicated. The World Wars caused great suffering and took an unimaginable toll on its people. The reign of the Hapsburgs, uniting Austria and Hungary as co-equal powers, was an intricate and most complicated feat. The Austro-Hungarian Empire lasted for 50 years, ending with World War I.

We knew that Budapest was really a combination of two cities: Buda and Pest, (which sounds like “Pesht”) and that it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But until arriving, we didn’t learn that the Buda side, perched on the hill on one side of the Danube River, (once its own city), is more expensive, and is considered to have more status than the city of Pest, which is across the river, and is mostly flat. But Pest is where most of the action is: hotels, restaurants, many main attractions, entertainment, etc. We also learned that there are 8 million residents in Hungary, 2 million of whom live in Budapest.


Now back from that digression:

As we neared Budapest, Tom, our coach driver, deftly negotiated the entry into the city and pulled right up to the front of the Sofitel, making it look easy! We were happy to be in Budapest, and staying at the Sofitel for the next two nights. The hotel was very nice, living up to the Sofitel reputation. And an extra bonus was having a view from our room. The location of the Sofitel was excellent, right beside the Danube Promenade and the famous Chain Bridge. (In Hungarian “Szechenyi”!) The yellow tram, line 2, frequently passed as its path ran parallel to the Danube, and the Buda hills provided a beautiful backdrop.

After getting settled in our hotel, we couldn’t resist a stroll along the Danube River Promenade, taking in the beautiful buildings across the river in Buda. We were free for a couple of hours to hang out in the city. Departure time for a Danube River Dinner and Cruise was 7:45.

Initially, we were going to book a cruise on our own, having read what a stunning stretch of the Danube this was, especially at night, when all the bridges and buildings were beautifully illuminated. However, we decided to go with the tour group, as by now we had gotten to know a few of the couples. The docks were a good 10 minutes ride down from our hotel, and the embankments were fairly dark. Traffic and parking were challenging along the dock area, but again, our driver maneuvered the coach with ease. There were several river cruise boats lined up, and the walk to the correct boat was made easy by just following the leader.

Upon entering the boat, we were shown to a dining room with a large Hungarian buffet table in the center and window tables for all. The tables were set with white table cloths, crystal and china. Wine was included with the meal. The buffet was a good spread: salads, cabbage rolls,(a Hungarian specialty), steak, pork, chicken, dumplings, etc., etc. Many choices! Wine a-plenty! Great desserts!

We shared a table with an Aussie couple, Robin and Bryan, whom we had met and liked a lot. They lived between Brisbane and Cairns, and we told them that we probably might have spotted their house on our flight from Sydney to Cairns!!! We enjoyed a stimulating discussion over dinner. How refreshing to enter into the world of a likable couple who grew up and live at the other end of our world, but who share common values. What a perk that traveling offers!

Following dinner, we spent the remainder of the evening on the upper deck enjoying the bright lights of the city and taking multiple photos. The five main bridges, along with the architecturally outstanding buildings lining each side, were a sight to behold. One of those bridges, painted white, was dedicated to Empress Elizabeth. We think that the Viking River Cruises’ TV ads feature the section of the Danube with the Parliament on the Pest side and the Royal Castle on the Buda side.

Following that great intro to beautiful Budapest, we returned to the Sofitel around 10 pm. The evening was so delightful that we walked along the water, enjoying the lights and people watching until around 11. Then “Good night!”

SUNDAY, Sept. 6, 2015 Budapest Exploration

Rising at 6:30, we had time to enjoy a leisurely breakfast in the attractive mezzanine restaurant. Afterward, we walked around the area of the Chain Bridge and explored more side streets, taking in the facades of many buildings. It was shaping up to be a beautiful day, and taking in the river activity along the Danube, and the hills of Buda, was a great way to begin.

Today we would have a local guide, Anita, who would lead us on a walking tour of some of the highlights of Budapest, beginning in Pest. We began with the beautiful Andrassy Ut Street), lined with trees and many elegant shops, bistros, and high-end hotels. There is a monument to Franz Liszt, the famous German composer with a Hungarian name, who spent his last five years in Budapest.

Andrassy Ut leads to Heroes’ Square and to the great park with fountains and lakes. We were especially impressed with Heroes Square, the largest and most symbolic square in Budapest, which contains the Millenium Monument erected in 1896, in celebration of the country’s 1000 year existence. At the top of a 118 foot-tall pillar is the Archangel Gabriel, with a crown in his outstretched hand. According to their legend, the angel appeared to Stephen in a dream and offered him the crown of Hungary. Statues of famous Hungarian leaders flank the colonnades of the monument. We appreciated Anita’s commentary. On each side of the wide square are several museums.

Hungary’s outstanding Parliament is the second largest in Europe, and is perfectly situated just above the road that runs along the embankment of the river. It is a real focal point in Budapest.

Another impressive site is the world’s second largest synagogue. Before World War II, 25% of Budapest was Jewish, However, Hungary lost nearly 600,000 Jews to the Holocaust at the hands of the Nazi Puppet Government, called the Arrow Cross. Efforts were made by many, including Catholic priests who secured false documents for Jews, but most Jews could not escape the vicious brutality and death from the Nazis.

We saw the House of Terror, the former headquarters of the diabolical Nazis, followed by the Communists, showing some of the torture and terror inflicted on the Hungarians. There were other sites or monuments conveying the unspeakable atrocities committed on the people of Hungary. Anita, who was very young during the days of Communism, told us a few stories. But, on this beautiful day, we did not feel up to visiting these depressing places. It was disturbing enough to hear about them!

Budapest has the world’s largest-known thermal cave system, comprising more than 170, and its bathhouses, which in themselves are architecturally interesting buildings, are very popular. Szechenyi is a popular bath near the Pest city center. Health is a big thing in Budapest, and the baths are considered very important for keeping/restoring it.

After a few hours in Pest, we moved on to Castle Hill in Buda, perched high above the Danube. Chain Bridge, near our hotel, is a popular pedestrian bridge, and after crossing it, one can take the long climb up the hill to Buda. Or, there is a funicular which can be accessed. But, in our case, we had the convenience of the tour coach nearby, so we stayed with Anita, the guide, and took the easy ride across the Danube and three-quarters of the way up the Buda hill.

After ascending the remainder of the hill, we enjoyed the main attractions in Buda: the Royal Palace, reconstructed on Castle Hill, the site of the coronation of Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Elizabeth, and housing a couple of museums; the multiple-spired Matthias Church, a landmark neo-Gothic church; and Fisherman’s Bastion, a neo-Romanesque rampart with seven towers which offers beautiful views over the Danube to Pest. In the Middle Ages, the fish market was just below Fishermens’ Bastion; hence its name. The gorgeous views of the city from the hilltop confirms why Budapest is often called “The Pearl of the Danube”.

Because it was Sunday, many sites were closed. Masses were being held at Matthias Church, whose official name is “Church of Our Lady”. The only way to gain entry was to have time to stay for an entire Mass and we did not have that advantage. However, the exterior, especially with its outstanding tiled-roof, was amazing, and we spent some time enjoying that.

While strolling around Buda, we had to weave in and out among the crowds. We managed to check out some of many little shops and cafes. One highlight was the purchase of three small prints from an impressive teen-ager who said that his father was the artist. For us, these will be treasured reminders of Budapest. (Only 10 euros each.) We were happy that he accepted euros, and even gave change in euros, as we hadn’t had enough time to exchange our money to forints, the Hungarian currency.

While in Buda, which is considered the upscale residential area, we could observe remains of the Soviet domination. Gunshot holes were especially evident in one building. Apparently, the Soviets covered the decorative facades of many of the homes with concrete. Only later, when it was removed, did people discover the beautiful fronts of these buildings.

When descending the hill from Buda, we passed the Hospital in the Rock, an underground hospital constructed in one of the many caves under Budapest. This secret hospital was used by the Hungarians during World War II and the Nazi invasion, and then in 1956 when the Soviets took over. During the Cold War, it was kept as a nuclear bomb shelter. Wow! What history we were witnessing!

After our return to Pest, our first thought was lunch! It had been a long but fascinating exploration of Budapest. We walked along the little street leading to St. Stephen Church, another major landmark, and found a delightful restaurant for an authentic Hungarian lunch at Aurum Bistro. From our table, we had a straight-on view of St. Stephen Church and the square.

Our meal began with Hungarian goulash “soup”. Their goulash is different from the German and Austrian goulash which was more akin to a stew. The Hungarian goulash soup is filled with beef chunks, potatoes, and vegetables which is served with cut-up bread for dipping and some spice (no doubt containing paprika) to flavor the otherwise flat taste. The spice was good, but we learned quickly that “more is not better” as we made ours too spicy hot. Water was appreciated! Following the goulash, we split a pork “brasso”, like a tenderloin, served with more potatoes. They know how to prepare those small round roasted potatoes! Gasso beer hit the spot. The wait staff was very friendly and knew English very well. They seemed happy that we could say “Kosonom”.

Onward toward St. Stephen Church, dedicated to the man who in about 1000 AD, founded Hungary and was canonized by Pope Sylvester. The capacity of this cathedral is about 8500. The outstanding dome, along with the amount of beautiful marble throughout the interior, were, to us, the outstanding characteristics. As with many other significant buildings which we have seen, and would continue to see, St. Stephen Cathedral suffered major damage, including the collapse of the dome, and was re-built several times. It’s interesting to note that Franz Josef’s consecration Mass was in St. Stephen. The story is told that during the ceremony, he was observed looking up in fear that the dome might again collapse.

The coffee shops and cafes surrounding the beautiful square in front of St. Stephen seemed to be the perfect spot for cappuccinos. We spotted California Coffee, a self-serve shop, with comfortable outdoor seating. We relaxed, and enjoyed the picture-perfect day staring at the façade of St. Stephen Church and watching all the people in the square.

For our return to the Sofitel, we took a circuitous route, checking out a few other small side streets, passing a large outdoor market, and ending at the Chain Bridge where pedestrians and bike riders abounded. The weather was just too beautiful to forego a couple more pictures of the mighty Danube River and the beautiful attractions on the hills of Buda. The view of the St. Matthias church complex, the government building close to it, the imposing Royal Castle, and Fishermen’s’ Bastion would seem difficult to surpass.

For the evening, we would have dinner at Gundel’s, a very well-known restaurant in Pest. After freshening up, we boarded the coach at 7:45 and were off to dinner at this storied establishment. Upon arrival at Gundel's, the welcoming landscaping, with its subtle landscaping, and the attractive interior, seemed to support the description of the restaurant. A restaurant originated on the site of Gundel’s in 1894, with the Gundel family taking over in 1910. We learned that many famous, and maybe infamous, people had eaten at Gundel’s. There were photos on the wall of Putin, Henry Kissinger, King Carlos of Greece, Queen Elizabeth II, and Pope John Paul II, who had not eaten there, but had celebrated a Mass in nearby Heroes Square.

Upon entering Gundel's, we were immediately seated, as Erin had reservations for our small group. Following wine, our meal began with asparagus soup. Our chosen entrees were fish for Tom and paprika chicken for Margie, each served with their favorite boiled potatoes with butter, and a vegetable. For dessert, we had the Hungarian specialty crepe, “palacsinta”, which was filled with walnuts, raisins, and a touch of rum topped with chocolate syrup. Orchestra music entertained during dinner. When the violinist approached our table inviting us to make a request, we asked him if they knew “New York, New York”, and the musicians immediately obliged. That livened up the evening! It made the whole experience more enjoyable, and a fitting finale to our Budapest visit.

We were back at the Sofitel by 10:15, and hated to think about leaving this beautiful city, with so much more left unexplored. Again, the weather was so delightful that we couldn’t resist a stroll on the Danube Promenade. This would be our last chance to enjoy the illuminated view of all the grand buildings and bridges. But since tomorrow is an 8:30 departure for the drive through Slovakia to Krakow, Poland, we needed to get packed. So it was “Good Night” to the Danube River and the Chain Bridge.
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Old Oct 8th, 2015, 01:04 PM
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Love it! Budapest is one of our favorite European cities, and it's at the top of our re-visit list. Thanks for letting me re-live it a bit with your fabulous descriptions!
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Old Oct 9th, 2015, 12:42 AM
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yes, Tom, Adelaide is nice enough (check out our local beaches here)

https://flic.kr/s/aHskdoJteL

but, 13.5 hours to Dubai, 4 hrs layover, then 7.5 hr flight is horrendous in economy!!

Enjoying your report.
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Old Oct 9th, 2015, 06:23 AM
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So glad that you had a good time in Budapest. It is my favourite city in Central Europe, so much so that I've visited 4 times and can't wait to go back again. A beautiful city, accessible and inexpensive to enjoy. The people and food are wonderful and it is steeped in culture and history.

I'm very familiar with the places you visited and the area around the Sofitel, as well as all the beautiful bridges. There are many interesting areas easy to explore on foot. I usually stay at the Gellert Hotel which is on the hill, beside the citadel and in front of the Freedom Bridge (next one over from the Elisabet Bridge) which leads to the food market and hall and the pedestrian shopping area.

Thanks again for a great report. Looking forward to more.
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