Tuesday, October 16, 2007


Ok, I’m back from Hungary. Our group made the trek to Budapest on Wednesday. We met that morning at 7:00 (meaning 5 AM wakeup) and jumped on the bus. We arrived in Budapest at about noonish. First order of business was to feed ourselves. We found an ATM, withdrew 10,000 Florints (Sure is fun to deal in thousands) and stopped to get some authentic Hungarian cuisine. Pizza! Actually, it was decent pizza. Four tasty cheeses, olives and corn. Different but good. The nicest part was that we noticed immediately that things were actually reasonably priced. Hallalujah! We paid 349 Florints for a slice of pizza, which is 1.4 Euros or $1.90. The same slice in Vienna would have been 3 Euro, $4. After this we met up with a tour guide and started a tour through Budapest. The city is actually two cities, Buda and Pest that have sort of grown together with a river, the Danube, down the middle. There are some really pretty bridges across the river but it certainly doesn’t help the transportation infrastructure. We saw some interesting things on the tour. I bought a Hungarian cookbook with recipes for pork feet stew and roast wild boar and cool stuff like that. When the tour ended we were on our own for the rest of the day. Allyson and I headed up the hill near our hotel with the Hungarian fortress and palace on it. We hung out up there for most of the evening, watching the sunset, taking pictures and getting really cold. Turns out this fall thing involves getting cold again. Blast. Speaking of fall, there are loads and loads of trees in Budapest and they were all changing colors. Magnificent! I was caught totally off guard by the beauty of Budapest. One of the prettiest cities I’ve seen in Europe and that’s saying a lot from a great world traveler like myself! Anyway, we eventually got a little too cold and headed down the hill. On the way down we met a new little friend. Allyson pointed out a nasty little rat in the path but on closer inspection we found that it wasn’t a rat at all. A hedgehog! I love hedgehogs! You may not know, but it is my goal to own a hedgehog someday. Great pets. We took a few pictures of the hedgehog, walked across the beautiful chain bridge and looked for hot chocolate somewhere. Finally we stopped at an English pub (Yeah. In Hungary.) and had some. Honestly, it was more like whipped hot milk with a little chocolate added. Not what I was expecting but tasty in it’s own way.

The next day we met up with our tour guide for the rest of the tour. We went to the jewish quarter of Budapest, stopping in the second largest synagogue in the world. It was really cool. Interestingly, the synagogue was designed by a man that did cathedrals, so it’s almost exactly like a catholic cathedral. The guide pointed out lots of features (altars, organs, pulpits) that have zero use in a synagogue but are still there. Quite funny. Rebekah, Allyson and I headed out after the tour and stopped for soup. Good soup. These Hungarians know how to cook. Their food is much spicier and heartier than their more “European” counterparts to the west. We walked down the Hungarian equivalent to the Champs Elysees in Paris called Andrassy. A beautiful tree-lined avenue leading to the square of heroes with statues and museums. Let me tell you, there were people making out all over the place! People say Paris and Venice are bad, but Hungary beats them in a heartbeat. PDAs everywhere! It got kind of ridiculous sometimes.

There was a great little market that we found in the middle of town. I was content looking around at the stalls and some of the cool woodwork but then I found the ties. Oh, the ties. There was a tie stand with incredibly beautiful ugly polyester ties for a euro a piece. I, of course, immediately went crazy looking through the goods and selected the 10 best ties to purchase. Simply lovely. That basically made me the happiest person on earth.

Hungary has a fairly recently built parliament building that’s pretty famous for its interior, so we decided to try and get in for a tour on Friday. Unfortunately, it’s extremely popular with my arch-nemeses, the tour bus people. We didn’t get in. RRRRRR….dang those fanny-pack toting, white sneaker wearing, chubby tour bus people! They really come in two brands. The overbearing, clueless Americans that make us embarrassed to speak English and the perky, picture happy Japanese types. Honestly, I’m not sure if there’s anyone left in the country of Japan. It seems that they’re all on tour. Gah!

As we walked the city, we stopped at the train station designed by Eiffel (of tower fame) and found a marvelous bakery. There are a lot of bakeries in Europe, but it’s actually kind of rare to find one that bakes it’s own unique bread. Always a treasured find! Near the bakery was a kids’ playground with a zipline. Oh the joy and happiness! We jumped on, weighing the thing down until it was about half an inch off the ground and pretended we were 6 again. Finally we wound up on the island in the middle of the Danube between Buda and Pest. The island was covered with trees changing colors, massive fountains choreographed to opera and ruins of old buildings and, of course, people making out on every available surface. Photo ops everywhere!

That night we returned to the English Pub (hahahahahaha….in Hungary) and had some Hungarian cuisine. I was skeptical that an English Pub could have good food, but they proved me entirely wrong. We had catfish in Paprika sauce and a great dish with tenderloins, sausage and goose liver. Wasn’t even expensive! Miracles!

Saturday we climbed to the top of a hill just outside the city with a beautiful view. They have a “Lady of Liberty” statue on top of the hill that we climbed to and enjoyed the view of Budapest. Finally we met back up with our group and grabbed the bus back to Vienna. As you can see, Budapest exceeded my expectations in every way! Great city. Lovely people, gorgeous scenery, very modern and un-communist seeming. I would strongly suggest it to anyone spending time in Central Europe.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Pictures from Florence

Truffles! Huzzah!

Coolest little park ever

More coolest little park ever

Revenge of the coolest park ever
Allyson and our fresh Italian pomegranates

Streets of Florence

Allyson, impaled on a door
Oh, the bruschetta was lovely
Climbing on stuff, one of our favorite pastimes

The Florence skyline

Friday, October 5, 2007

Venetian adventures

So. Arrival in Venice. We walked off the train and it hit me as soon as I saw the boat taxies and bridges. This was it! The city itself! Unbelievable!
The bridges are great for sightseeing but not always the best for 32 students hauling luggage around. We clattered our way to the hotel. A few days before there had been a lot of flooding in Venice (nothing new there) that had flooded several of the rooms in our hotel. As such, one of them was unlivable and some of the students were going to need to be housed in different hotel. Well, seeing as there are only 4 guys in our group as opposed to 28 girls, it was decided that the guys would be expelled from the fun and sent to the other hotel. We grabbed our luggage and headed out into the dark with a map with random instructions to a place we’d never heard of. We arrived at the new hotel well enough and introduced ourselves to a guy that barely spoke English. The hotel was beautiful; a small, quaint place with lovely tea sets and upholstered chairs. The guy at the desk told us to wait for a few moments, no doubt to wait for out room to be ready. Eventually another younger guy walked into the hotel and made motions for us to follow him.


Where are we going?

What about the lovely little hotel? The upholstery! The tea sets! The quaintness! All of it faded away, abandoning us to the dark, rainy streets of Venice. The trudge continued. Two canals, three bridges and countless cobblestones later our guide turned into a darkened alley. “This is it” I thought, “we’re going to take part in our very own dramatic mafia-movie mugging!” Ok, so nothing happened. We were fine. We did, however, end up going into a small door that led to several rooms and a coffee machine. This was our hotel! No sign, no lobby, no host. Just a couple rooms and that sad li’l coffee machine. We were supposed to meet people from our group at about this time so we hurried up and dropped our stuff, grabbed our three different keys to get out (yeah, to get out) of our hotel and took off. The rain had started at this point and, of course, I was both to forgetful and too lazy to have my umbrella handy. So I got wet. At least I wasn’t sick or anything, right? Hahahahaha…

I went back to the hotel where our director was staying to let him know where we eventually ended up (Didn’t do a lot of good. He asked where our hotel was…no idea. He asked what it was called…no name. Tough conversation). I met up with a few of the girls and we went back into the deluge, still umbrella-less, looking for something to eat. Venice is a pricey town. Even the Italians think so! We found lots of restaurants that we could’ve mortgaged our organs to eat at and passed right by. We eventually found a great little cafeteria that served pasta. I had forgotten that pasta in Italy, even at the cheapest cafeteria, is going to be AWESOME. And it was. Amazing stuff, really. I went back, met the guys and we went back to our “hotel”.

The next morning I met up with Allyson and her termporary roommate, Ellen and we went out into the city. None of us had any particular agenda to the day, we just wanted to love our time in Venice. All three of us were in various stages of being sick, which led to a slower pace but we managed. I will tell you this right now. Vienna is EASILY the single most confusing city on the face of the planet. Loads of tiny roads, canals cutting everything up. Road signs and addresses don’t match, there aren’t any maps that contain more than 30% of the roads anyway. The roads wind, the disappear suddenly only to reappear 50 meters away on a perpendicular. I’ve never actually been lost in a city when I have a map but in Venice I was. Hopelessly lost. Finally! It was GREAT! It was a smidge on the rainy side, which dampened things a bit but actually worked well for taking pictures.

We stopped for breakfast at a little bakery and had a few pastries. Not bad at all. After this the morning was taken up in being lost. We saw churches, parks, monuments, beautiful buildings, mask shops, glass makers and everything in between. Where are they, one might ask? I haven’t the foggiest. Somewhere in Venice. Go get lost and I promise you’ll find them eventually.

Eventually our stomachs caught up to us and we really started to get hungry. I pulled out my trusty “Cheap Eats in Italy” book that had led us to many a fine restaurant on the trip and picked a few. Never found the first. Or the second. Or the third. I swear it was like the roads they were on never existed or if they did they were shifting in and out of reality, never staying in one place or going any particular direction. Finally after the third failure we gave up completely, meandered off into the city, resigned to our starvation and walked into the first restaurant we found. I looked at the menu and it said “Leon Bianco”. I’ll be durned. That was the third restaurant! We found it as soon as we stopped looking! We decided that Venice was teaching us a thing or two about navigating it’s streets. You’ll only find what you seek when you stop seeking it and let the city treat you to whatever it sees fit.

Best experience in Venice was St. Mark’s square. Big famous square with churches, flooding and pigeons. Hundreds and thousands of pigeons. So cool! We bought some of the birth-control laden bird food (supplied by the city government) and immediately were completely buried in birds. They come from EVERYWHERE! These birds are ravenous! It was hilarious! I had birds on my head, birds on my arms, birds on my shoulders, birds birds birds! Allyson had a friend that nested in her purse. I also had a dogpile at my feet with several layers of battling pigeons fighting it out for the precious seed. So funny!

Later in the afternoon we were on the boardwalk along the southern coast of the islands of Venice. It was beautiful. The ocean, the trees, the view. All of it was great. The weather had gotten sunny by this point and was ideal. We found a gelato shop and got their specialty, which was a slice of hazelnut-chocolate gelato in a cup with cream. So good! (BTW, for any smart-alecks out there making cracks about my pastry and gelato eating habits, I’ll have everyone know that I’ve dropped two belt holes since I’ve been in Europe. TWO. Take that.)

At this point Ellen was feeling a bit under the weather so we returned her to the hotel. Allyson and I grabbed some drawing materials, found a sweet little dock area with some boats and sketched for a while. The night was nice and the lighting perfect so it was nice to try some drawing. I’m not exactly Picasso. Basically I can’t really draw. But hey, I’ll keep trying! Allyson gave me some pointers and I ended up with some passable sketches. We were hungry so we searched the cheap eats book for a proper restaurant for our last night in Venice, decided on a place that was supposed to have good fish. They say that fish is the thing to eat in Venice. We grabbed our table along the canal and ate grilled salmon while freezing our noog’ms off. It was quite good! That was about it for the evening…

Saturday: last day in Italy. How sad! We did some more wandering saw some more stuff, ate large amounts of gelato and generally had a heck of a day. Last meal was tasty sandwiches.

We picked up a few souvenirs, dropped by a great Post Office and met back up with the group. The train back through the Italian alps was properly beautiful. At one point our director, his wife and my roommate David got off the train during a 30-minute stop to eat. The 30-minute stop immediately ended and the train left. Hahahahaha…they got left in some tiny town in Italy. We were a bit worried but I thought it was more funny than anything. Later they held the train and all of the people they had left behind were shuttled up to return to the train. Alls well that ends well, I suppose. We all made it back in one piece, utterly exhausted and ready for a little R&R.

I LOVED Italy. So great! If you’ve been there, you understand. If you haven’t, you’d better get going! We never rode a Gondola, which I slightly regret, but I suppose that gives me an excuse to go back someday. Someday soon.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

More belated pics

Pictures from our crazy cool trip to Halstatt!!!

Allyson, lookin' good in the doorway...

...and me
Freaky skull-pile-in-a-small-cemetery pictures

Sweet miner outfits for the salt mines
Lickin' the saltywall

These people have SWEET clothes

Our tasty Venison treat in Halstatt.

The Gastatte Zauner

Cool little bridge

The chessmaster

Here's Halstatt!

Heaven on earth? You decide.

Mauthausen. Not so pretty.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007


Here are some pictures from out trip to Schönbrunn Palace a few weeks ago. Better late than never, right?

Stephanie, Me, Emily and my roomie David

Pet the lovely tree!

Anne speaks Duck

The ducks don't really like me, however...

Beautiful gardens at the Palace

The group