Ireland: October 2019- Part 3

Photo Cong

The peaceful little village of Cong

Day Seven:
We bid our driver, Barry, farewell as he continues north with some of the tour group, while the rest of us head out with a new driver, but not before many hugs and a group photo.

The west coast of the Atlantic is the home of Connemara, our first stop of the day. We’re intrigued by its rough coastline, mountains, lakes, tiny coves and fishing villages. Next, it’s on to the charming little village of Cong, made famous by John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in the film “The Quiet Man”. Though the film was made there back in 1952, the townsfolk speak of it as if it were yesterday and the small museum, statue and walking tour serve as daily reminders.

We stroll down the road to have a peek over the wall of the Ashford Castle, originally owned by the Guinness family and now a five-star hotel on a golf course, before heading back to Dublin.

As soon as we enter Hotel 7, we know we’ve made a good choice. The historic building, restored into a boutique hotel is elegant and stylish. We’re a bit soggy from the drizzle and eager to check in, but the manager apologizes and asks if he might first check in a group that has arrived at the same time as us. He offers us a complimentary cocktail of our choice, leads us to the bar and we’re immediately soothed by the crème color décor and the Ella Fitzgerald song playing softly in the background.

We dine at The Church, a deconsecrated 18th century church, and are lucky to get a front row seat. The Gothic architecture and large stained glass panels are a lovely back drop for the lively musicians and Irish step dancers. My feet are dancing under the table as I clap in time to the music and once in a while, remember to actually enjoy my meal.

Day Eight
I’ve been waiting to see the bog people this entire trip and am so excited that the day is finally here. We arrive at The National Museum of Archeology (free!) and head right to the “Kingship and Sacrifice” exhibit. The dramatic presentation houses each corpse laid out in its own darkened area. The men were killed and tossed into peat bogs almost four thousand years ago, yet they remain preserved due to the combination of the cold weather and oxygen. It is fascinating to observe the detail; skin, nails on their hands and feet and even their curly hair is still intact. Renowned experts were able to analyze their bodies and piece together details about their individual lives and their civilization.

After a cocktail at The Green Hen and a lively discussion about Dublin with the owner, we take our leave. The Celt Pub is an authentic Irish bar filled with its share of curmudgeons, but it is not here that we will be dining. We are told to walk through it, look for a door, then enter its sister establishment Le Bon Crubeen. The startling difference gives us an even better reception to the lovely brasserie that serves Irish fare with a French twist. We are not shy to try an appetizer portion of crubeen and actually enjoy the pigs feet that are boiled, battered and fried.

Day Nine
What better way to spend a rainy day than at an art museum. The National Gallery of Ireland, (also free) is an impressive building housing a vast collection of European art. We are able to point out places we’ve been by the scenery in the paintings. I am particularly taken with two paintings that share some intimate moments; one of a young man writing a letter and the next of a young woman reading his letter.

Photo Art Museum Dublin

As we enter, the painted staircase stops us in our tracks

“Downton Abbey” has just opened in theaters and we decide it would be a perfect afternoon to take in a movie. We meet two ladies who have arrived with champagne and scones and chat with them about the characters. Spontaneous applause erupts at the movie’s end and we excitedly discuss the movie under our umbrellas all the way down the street.

We’re early for our dinner reservation at Dolce Sicily, but they welcome us in out of the rain. Our table is in an upstairs room that overlooks the street. The Pinot Noir rids us of our chill, as we watch people outside skip over puddles and dodge oncoming umbrellas. We dine slowly, sharing our plates of Fritto Misto, chicken marsala and risotto with wild mushrooms. When we bring an error in our bill to our waiter’s attention, he thanks us with a complimentary Limoncello; just what we need to toast our last night together in Ireland.

What better way to end my Irish adventure than with a limerick:

After visiting bonny Ireland this year
I returned home with a yen for Guinness Beer

Tis the rainy weather they say
That leads you to the pub each day

A lasting souvenir of good cheer

Sláinte!

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

Author’s Note:
I would greatly appreciate your input; if you enjoyed this post, please scroll down and like it!

Ireland: September -October 2019- Part 2

Photo Bunratty Castle

Bunratty Castle, home of the Blarney Stone

Day Four: Annascuale
Dingle is a charming fishing village, but in the teaming rain, we can’t seem to see the picturesque spots featured in so many films and we don’t get to hear the locals conversing in their ancient language of Gaelic. Dingle is also famous for the most pubs in Ireland for a town of its size, so we resort to plan B and choose one. A hot bowl of soup and an Irish coffee hits the spot.

Fortunately, the rain subsides and we are able to take in the amazing views around Slea Head. Regarded as the most beautiful peninsula in the world by many photographic magazines, it is also the home of some of Ireland’s famed beaches.

As we head to our overnight destination, the small town of Annascuale, Barry surprises us with an invitation to The Randy Leprechaun for dinner and karaoke, compliments of Paddywagon Tours. Sitting together at long tables, the fun group all get to know each other over cocktails and dinner. Before I know it (and much to my surprise), the usually reserved Mr. Wiz* has us both up and performing Willie Nelson’s “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys!”

Day Five: Killarney
Our day begins with a horse and cart ride through Killarney National Park. It’s great to be able to view the mountains, lakes and waterfalls without getting muddy shoes. An added plus is our comedic driver, who sends us off with a smile on our faces and some new material. We are awed by the spectacular beauty of the Ring of Kerry. Part of the Wild Atlantic Way, the scenic drive around the Iveragh Peninsula boasts rugged coastlines and rural seaside villages and has an almost mystical feel. The Skellig Islands are famous for the filming of Star Wars, its meteorology station and a bit of meteorological humor: it is said that it rains there twice a week; once for three days and once for four.

The charming town of Waterville almost did not host its most famous guest. Back in the 1950s, Charlie Chaplin intended to go fly fishing there on the recommendation of his friend, Walt Disney. Disappointed there was no room at the Butler Arms Hotel, he drove away, only to be chased down by the hotel’s owner, who welcomed him graciously. For years after that, Chaplin and his family would visit yearly and the town’s annual festival still pays tribute to him.

Photo Charlie Chaplin

We settle into our lodging quickly, excited to explore Killarney before heading off for cocktails at The Laurels. We’ve been told not to miss Quinlan’s Seafood Bar and the fresh fish does not disappoint. We’re lucky to get a front row seat at the Danny Man Pub and can’t wait to hear some traditional Irish music. The gentleman who will be performing looks a bit stern as he begins to set up, but as he puts on his cap he almost magically transforms, crooning wonderful ballads and even teaching the audience a few.

Day Six: Galway
To smooch or not to smooch the Blarney Stone? While we originally thought it a bit too touristy, once we arrive at Bunratty Castle, we find the best way to explore this 15th century bastion is to head to its top. While there, we might as well give the old block of limestone a peck and hope for some eloquence to be bestowed on us. You kiss the stone upside down, so hoping that the staff that assists us in leaning back has had a good night’s sleep and that the antibacterial spray bottle used to clean the stone is full, we give it a go. We leave with yet another unique experience under our belts, but still wondering why anyone would purchase the expensive photos taken of you in that awkward position.

Next stop is the Cliffs of Moher. A part of the Wild Atlantic Way, the spectacular sea cliffs rise over 700 feet out of the Atlantic Ocean. We’re able to hike up to the many vistas and take in our surroundings. Our journey then takes us to Galway Bay with fabulous views of the Aran Islands and a chance meeting in a small town with Joe and his mountain goat Puck (named after “A Midsummer’s Night Dream”). We’re captivated by the stories about the hamlet of Lisdoonvarna, with its Fr. Ted Festival (hundreds are dressed as priests after a popular Irish television program) and its Matchmaking Festival that lasts four weeks!

Photo Puck

After a quick hotel check in, we head to downtown Galway. With its cobblestone streets and stone buildings, you can see why The New York Times named it “Ireland’s most charming city.” The bus stops at Eyre Square, a park in the city center, and in front of us regally stands Hotel Meyrick. We stop in for a cocktail and then decide on a change of pace for dinner. We choose Lime, a contemporary Asian restaurant. The service is impeccable, the decor is chic and the food delicious. After dinner, we walk along the river, as we relive another great day and try not to think about how many days it will be before we have to leave.

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

Author’s Note:
I would greatly appreciate your input; if you enjoyed this post, please scroll down and like it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ireland: September 2019- Part 1

Photo Temple Bar
Temple Bar

Make no mistake; it rains a lot here and now we understand why the locals tell us “…This is  why we drink so much!..‘’ There’s only one way to get rid of that damp, bone chilling feeling and it’s spelled P-U-B. Lucky for us all, that is also where many of the wonderful songs and stories that Ireland is famous for, originated. So, thank you, Guinness and Jameson for brewing and distilling us into a constant state of bliss. Rain, schmain; by the end of this trip, I’ll have a spring in my step, regardless of the weather, and will have to stop myself from saying “…Top of the morning!..” to everyone I pass on the street.

Day 1: Dublin
If Dublin were a shoe, it would be a toe tapping work boot tied with smiley face shoe laces. There’s nothing pretentious about this place; it’s not one of those stunning cities, but there’s a down-to-earth feeling that almost immediately makes you feel welcome. Dublin’s harsh history (think potato famine) prepared its people to be tough, proud and to find the joy in life and celebrate when you can.

We settle into the Maldron Hotel and we’re a bit underwhelmed; coming from Tigerlily in Edinburgh, which rocked our world, it’s a bit plain, but the great location and the young, eager- to-please staff seem to make up for it.

A lively discussion on where to have cocktails immediately follows, but the downpour outside results in a unanimous decision to stay put at the Maldron bar. It seems like a good night for a stick to the ribs dinner, so we head to The Chophouse and dine on sizzling steaks sourced from a local farm and served on wooden boards. If I lived here, I would be a lifetime member of the Beef Club, their foodie group.

Day 2: Dublin
The docent at St. Patrick’s Cathedral delights us with her anecdotes as we tour the imposing Gothic building founded in 1191. The largest church in Ireland, it is also the National Cathedral of the Church of Ireland. This year the church celebrates famous Irish author and one-time Dean of the Cathedral, Jonathan Swift’s 350th birthday.

The drizzle doesn’t dampen our spirits as we walk around the lively Temple Bar area. Even though it’s a tourist area of bars, restaurants and shops and known for being higher priced, it’s still a must see. We follow Big A* across the River Liffey Bridge to Oxmantown, get the last four stools in this small sandwich shop and chow down. This gives the guys a good base for their Jameson Distillery Tour, while JC* and I people watch over a pot of Irish tea at a nearby cafe. We can’t help but stop in to The Brazen Head, the oldest pub in Ireland dating back to 1198 and then stroll the grounds of Trinity College, the top ranked university in Ireland.

Is it five o’ clock already? It’s time for cocktails at The Bank on College Green, renovated back to its Victorian splendor. Having stopped in at each of the contenders earlier in the day, we choose Terra Madre for dinner. Heading down the stairs to a basement, the tiny restaurant that only seats 18 in mis-matched chairs, makes you feel as if you stopped in at an Italian home. With no time for small talk, the owner glides through the tables, stopping only to discuss the menu. We get lost in the descriptions (pasta made in the traditional way as the old ladies did, who lived in the village of Campofilone that overlooks the Adriatic coast), share so we get to taste more of everything and almost fall off our chairs; it’s that good.

Day 3: Waterford
We say goodbye to Big A*, who’s traveling to London to visit friends before going home. Mr. Wiz*, JC and I are heading out on a six day bus tour of Southern Ireland. Even though we have always preferred to plan our own itineraries, having to drive on the “wrong side” of the road convinced us that there’s a first time for everything.

After much research, we settle on Paddywagon Tours. With high ratings, moderate pricing and small groups, we like the fact that they attract a younger demographic. We’re on our own for dinner each night (breakfast is included), leaving us some freedom of choice. While accommodations are simple, staying at bed-and-breakfast inns gives us the chance to get acquainted with the locals.

The jolly group from all over the world starts to assemble and introductions are made; three groups of women celebrating their 40th birthdays, a young man in his late 20s who just moved to Ireland, two recent college graduates with their parents, couples in their 50s and small world; two women from Austin, Texas.

Everyone (especially the birthday girls) likes our driver, Barry, immediately. He is a tall, good looking guy in his late 30s and has a nice way about him, speaking just enough to enlighten us about his country, but also knowing when some quiet time is needed. As we drive out of Dublin, he mentions that the locals call the Obelisk near the River Liffey the “Stiffy on the Liffey.” Having warmed up the crowd, he asks if we know the difference between Scotts and the Irish; Scotts are Irish people that can’t swim and then mentions that he’s half Scottish and half Irish; he likes to drink, but doesn’t like to pay for it.

Photo Glendolough
So much to explore at Glendalough

We drive through the rolling countryside to the Wicklow Mountains and hike around the monastery ruins at Glendalough, Valley of the Two Lakes. It takes us a moment to realize that those are real reindeer just a few feet away and not animatronics. With only 34 of us on the bus, we are able to make quick on/off stops along the way and the first one is Hollywood (population 50). We learn that the iconic Hollywood sign actually originated here, when two brothers bought land in California and named it after their hometown. The medieval city of Kilkenny captivates us with its cobblestone streets and buildings that date back to the 12thcentury. We hang on every word, as our docent regales us with tales of the Butler family, proprietors of Kilkenny Castle.

Finally arriving in Waterford, Ireland’s oldest city, we dine at La Boheme. The husband and wife owners lovingly restored the arched ceilings, pewter bar and original flooring into a French restaurant full of old-world charm. We’re not sure if we preferred the duck breast with ginger and honey sauce or the rack of lamb, but we can agree that Day One on the bus with Barry and our new friends went quite well.

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

Author’s Note:
I would greatly appreciate your input; if you enjoyed this post, please scroll down and like it!

 

Edinburgh, Scotland: September 2019

Photo Ediburgh

Edinburgh Castle looms over the city

It’s love at first sight! If Edinburgh were a shoe, it would be a Manolo Blahnik jeweled pump. This beautiful city, built on seven hills, looks like a movie set, with its cobblestone streets and its charming stone buildings, each vying for attention with flowering plants cascading from their window boxes.

There’s a certain feeling of comfort that English is the spoken language here, even though that Scottish brogue sometimes makes you need to pay a wee bit more attention. We’re told that it’s a short walk from the train station to the hotel and we take in all the sights and sounds, remembering to look right, left, up and down as we cross each street. It’s still unsettling to us that cars are driving on the opposite side of the road; each taxi encounter is more like a rollercoaster ride.

Stepping into our hotel, Tigerlily, takes our breath away. I’m here for only two minutes and I already know that we will add it to our list of all-time favorites. The small lobby gives way to two bar/sitting areas that have “Alice in Wonderland” written all over them.

Photo Edinburgh Tigerlilly 2

 

 

Photo Edinburgh Tigerlilly 1

 

The stylishly, large guest rooms, attention to detail (glitter balls hanging in the stairwells?!) and all-around trendiness is intoxicating; now I understand what the true definition of bling really is.

Day One
We hear bagpipes playing in the distance, so how can we not have a cocktail at a place called Angels with Bagpipes? We sit outside the 17th century building located on the Royal Mile, a main thorofare, and people watch (note: kilts on men are very sexy). Big A* and I compare research and settle on dinner at L’ Escargot Blanc. A winner of many awards, but unpretentious, it advertises itself as “the best of Scotland with a French twist.” Known for its casserole entrees, brightly colored casserole dishes of all shapes and sizes playfully adorn shelves as pieces of art. I am so impressed with the crockery canister of cornichons and wood tongs served with my terrine appetizer that I eat way too many, but save room for the luscious lamb entree. There’s no way we can bypass our jazzy hotel bars and not stop in one for a nightcap; a scenario that will play out each night of our stay.

Day Two
We’re not surprised that the Tigerlily breakfast is so exceptional. As I sip the best tea that I’ve ever tasted, I take note of how I can make sure to try as many of the offerings as possible. Fortified, we head to Edinburgh Castle for our tour (tickets purchased ahead online). A historic military fortress, royal residence and prison, it looms over the city. Our tour guide passes out his business card and introduces himself as “Australian David” (the better to identify him on TripAdvisor with). Dressed in a kilt, his acting background comes in handy as he regales us with countless tales of intrigue, warfare and romance.

We enjoy a quick lunch at Oink. A small space with a few seats, we line up to choose our size of pulled pork sandwich, type of bread, stuffing and sauce. Our next stop is Leith, a historic port town, and I will not let the rain dampen my excitement to visit the Royal Yacht Britannia. It is said that the day it was decommissioned, Queen Elizabeth II (not known for her emotions) actually shed a tear. As it turns out, it’s not all that difficult to be a Royal; all you need is a yacht and the handshake, which I practice on every level of the ship.

Our rain hoods affect our peripheral vision, but not enough that we don’t see into the bar at The Kitchin and decide that cocktails are in order. Contemporary and sleek, we dry off to the sound of Ella Fitzgerald. Then, it’s back to Edinburgh and on to Michael Neave Kitchen for dinner. The décor is a contemporary mix of metal and wood and, Neave, one of Scotland’s top young chefs, introduces us to cod with chorizo risotto and venison and lamb, both with a slightly gamey flavor, alluding to the fact that it’s been sourced from local farms.

Day Three
The rain is relentless, so JC* and I decide to explore the art at the National Gallery of Scotland (free!), rather than accompany Mr. Wiz* and Big A* on their day trip to St. Andrews, known as “the home of golf.” Bypassing the bar where Prince William and Duchess Kate met (they both attended St. Andrew’s University), they head straight for St. Andrew’s Links. They find out that it is a public golf course and on non event days, anyone can stroll around it. As luck would have it, they spend the afternoon watching Rory Mcllroy and his dad play golf together. They are told that tomorrow will start a championship open, so entry will be restricted and ticket prices will be high.

JC, Google Maps and I make it to our meeting place, The Royal Oak. As we’re all sharing our day’s adventures, we notice three people from very different walks of life enter, pull out their instruments and just start playing. The bar is so small that our knees are almost touching the band members’ knees, so we try to not make any sudden movements and realize we can’t leave until their set is finished. We then head down a narrow alley way and multiple stone steps to The Devil’s Advocate for dinner. It’s housed in an old Victorian pump house and is lit by candlelight. We’re very adventurous and find that even animal innards (haggis and black pudding) and lamb neck filets pair well with pinot noir.

I’m sorry to say goodbye to Edinburgh and my dream of living at Tigerlilly, but there’s still one more nightcap and one more breakfast to look forward to before heading on to Dublin.

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

Author’s Note:
I would greatly appreciate your input; if you enjoyed this post, please scroll down and like it!

 

Glasgow, Scotland: September 2019

Photo Glasgow 1

Glasgow University

Glasgow is Gaelic for dear, green place. I open the plane shade as we are about to land and gasp. The craggy mountains are a splendid backdrop for the verdant patches that sparkle. JC* and I take one look at each other, smile, break into song with a quiet rendition of “Loch Lomond,” that old Scottish ballad, and receive a thumbs-up from Mr. Wiz*, while the family across the aisle claps softly:

“…You take the high road
And I’ll take the low road
And I’ll be in Scotland before you
For me and my true love will never meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond…”

We head to our hotel, excited to meet up with Big A*. The Fodors review was so complimentary that before booking the Carlton George, I checked to make sure that the reviewer’s last name wasn’t Carlton or George. All in all, it was a nice hotel in a great location, nothing exceptional. Due to the recent liquor issues in hotels, the complimentary decanters of gin, sherry and whiskey in our rooms go unopened, but the rooftop bar is a nice touch.

If Glasgow were a shoe, it would be a practical oxford in a daring color. What the city lacks in beauty, it makes up for with its edgy vibe. And then, there’s that sense of humor: someone has placed traffic cones on the heads of the elegant statues all around the city, a sign reads “…There are two seasons in Scotland: June and Winter…” and a Kentucky Fried Chicken ad asks “…What the cluck?..” I’m still giggling when we walk through a tunnel and painted on the wall it says “… Are ye dancing?..” and we pass Sweaty Betty, a women’s fitness apparel shop.

We explore Argyll Street, City Center, the West End and Glasgow Cathedral. Glasgow University enchants us; it’s very Hogwarts-like and we search for Harry Potter around every corner. We arrive just in time for an organ recital at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum and then learn about some of Scotland’s famous artists in a special exhibit.

We’re treated to a lovely view of the city at Citation, as we enjoy cocktails on its outdoor balcony. Even though we’re lucky to get the last table in the cobblestone courtyard at Sloan’s, a bar dating back to 1799, I make sure to check out its acid etched windows and mahogany staircase inside. We were so glad the hotel staff told us to check out the bar next door. We’d never seen anything like Waxy O’ Connors Pub. The waiter tells us that its design was the creation of the owner. We can’t imagine how he thought to combine six bars, multiple landings and nook and crannies over three floors in a gothic style that resembles a church and how the wait staff finds their way back to their customers.

Each morning at breakfast, we settle on our lunch choices. Catch wins us over with its luscious fish and chips and its navy and white nautical décor. Paesano impresses us by elevating pizza into an art form, its menu detailing how each imported ingredient was chosen and enlightening us about its wood fire oven, perfected over four generations.

Our culinary priorities set, by lunch time, we secure our dinner reservations, not wanting to miss out on any of the choices we’ve spent time researching. After dining at the Mussel Inn, we agree that, though delicious, we may have reached our mussel quota for the balance of the trip. Rogano’s elegant art deco décor sets the stage for their smoked fish chowder and lemon sole drenched in a brown butter sauce that I could have bathed in. The waiter tells us that we’re in good company (Henry Kissinger, Bob Dylan and Rod Stewart have also dined at table 16) and he will be sure to add the Thornton family to the list.

Now it’s on to Edinburgh! We head to the train, secure in the knowledge that we’ve successfully made the best of our short stay.

Photo Glasgow 2

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

Author’s Note:
I would greatly appreciate your input; if you enjoyed this post, please scroll down and like it!

 

Welcome to Randyland!

Photo Randyland 1

The real Randy or a cardboard cutout? I’m still not sure.

Randy Gilson prides himself on celebrating the insignificant. Little did he know that when he purchased a dilapidated house in Pittsburgh for $10,000 at an auction back in 1995, it would become known as one of America’s most colorful public landmarks and among the most photographed places on Instagram.

Growing up in a broken home, poor and sometimes homeless, he ignored the taunting of others and focused on working to create something out of nothing, both with his life and with his surroundings. Randy says that his struggles became his strengths; “…I taught myself to repurpose, reuse and recycle…” As a young boy, he would rummage through the trash and recondition toys he found, to the delight of his five siblings at Christmas.

He’d love to sneak over to the yards of his elderly neighbors and mow their overgrown lawns. Distressed by the garbage and abandoned homes in his neighborhood, he later started the Old Allegheny Garden Society. He purchased whiskey barrels, filled them with flowers and placed them along the streets. Neighbors started volunteering to assist him and his dream of creating a peoplehood (his term for connecting people together for a common goal) took shape. Over time, 800 barrels, 50 vegetable gardens and eight parks spruced up the area.

He gave his newly purchased, ramshackle house the “Randy touch,” gathering bricks from homes in the area being torn down and believing in their energy, each with a story of the lives they housed. He lovingly positioned his collections of recycled objects around the yard and invited passersby to come in, chat and peruse at no charge.

Today, Randyland is a whimsical expression of pure joy. Colorful murals line the walls of the outdoor art space. The psychedelic staircase leads to nowhere and is decorated with bright colored metal chairs seemingly suspended in air. Mannequin heads sit on a table next to a pile of sand and toys. The worry box provides pen and paper and invites you to write down your concerns, then drop them in the box. Souvenirs are displayed on the honor system, requesting the purchaser to place the money in a nearby lock box. Seating areas welcome all to stay awhile, take in the assemblage of oddities that encircle them and read the uplifting visitor comments left on the bulletin board from all over the world.

Photo Randyland 4

I’m guessing the telephone is for emergency situations?

On a lovely Saturday afternoon, my visit to Randyland was an eye-opening experience of wonder and delight. My love of anything quirky and my awe and reverence for anyone a bit eccentric merged into a feeling of pure bliss. As I left that haven of happiness, I had a big smile on my face and a spring in my step, hoping never to forget how one man had the ability to turn waste into wonder.

Photo Randyland 5

 

 

 

Budapest: Nov. 1 – 3, 2018

photo budapest

Parliament sparkles at night

It was my idea to take the train from Vienna to Budapest. The ride was under three hours and I thought we might enjoy the scenery. As it turned out, I fell asleep (as I usually do in any moving vehicle) and had to rely on *Mr. Wiz and *Big A for the descriptions of the small towns and countryside that we passed. The train station is jam-packed, so it was comforting to see that little sign, with our last name on it, held by the driver that was to take us to our hotel.

In all the times I’ve stayed at Hilton hotels, I have never experienced one like this. It seems as if the staff stands at attention and clicks their heels to welcome us, with military precision. They operate together as a well-oiled machine, providing impeccable service throughout the Budapest Hilton. The subdued colors and stylish furnishings give it an elegant, yet contemporary feel.

Budapest is one of the largest cities in Europe and Hungary’s capital. Because of the considerable damage left behind after World War, the city is much more modern than Prague. It’s also more sprawling, less touristy and is known for its vibe. Budapest is actually made up of two cities, Buda and Pest, which are separated by the Chain Bridge that spans the Danube River.

With not a moment to spare, we set off to explore. Because the sights are not all within walking distance, we rely on the good old on/off tourist bus, so as not to miss anything. We pass on the funicular and decide to walk up the steep path to Castle Hill to admire the views. The third largest building in the world with over 600 rooms, the commanding presence of the Parliament building is even more impressive when it’s lit up and sparkles at night. We stroll the luxurious grounds of Buda Castle, a palace complex built in 1265. The Matthias Church, dating back to 1015, misleads us with its neo-Gothic exterior and its mystical, exotic interior. Heroes’ Square is impressive, with its stately statues honoring important Hungarian leaders. The Great Market Hall is bustling and we make sure to buy some of the city’s famous paprika to take home.

As we stroll along the Danube, we notice that people are quiet as they approach the Bronze Shoe Memorial. Between 1944 – 1945, many people (most of them Jewish) were murdered along these banks. Before being shot and having their bodies fall into the Danube to be swept away, they were forced to remove their valuable shoes, so as not to waste them. The assorted sizes and styles of shoes that have been bronzed are placed as if the person has just stepped out of them. Whether one shoe was in front of the other or one is on its side, you get the feeling of motion and of realism. It is such an emotional and moving tribute.

It’s worth the wait to eat at Mazel Tov.  The contemporary Israeli restaurant is housed in an old warehouse that looks abandoned on the outside and is one of the city’s classier ruin bars. Derelict buildings circa World War II have become a tourist attraction when transformed into bars and restaurants all over Budapest. When we take a minute to look up from our tahini, hummus, chicken shawarma and homemade, hot pita bread served in a paper bag, we notice the vines hanging from two stories up and the glass ceiling; very cool.

The Hilton recommends a restaurant down the street and we lunch on shrimp, duck pate and goulash soup along with Hungarian wine at the Baltazár Wine Bar. When we learn that two sister restaurants are nearby, our dinner decisions are made. Pierrot Restaurant is housed in a 13thcentury bakery. The black and white photos that line the walls and the pianist playing softly in the corner convey an old-world elegance. We share tastes of the duck in puff pastry, beef tenderloin, venison loin and are starting to appreciate Hungarian wines. By the time we arrive at the 21 Restaurant, Mr. Wiz is well versed on local wines and has an interesting conversation with the manager. Together, they choose a bottle to compliment the rack of lamb, crispy duck and chicken paprikash, which is accompanied by homemade spätzle.

We cannot leave Budapest without visiting Szimpla Kert, the first ruin bar and now known as one of the world’s most famous bars. Created in an abandoned warehouse in the Jewish Quarter, It’s hard to describe; think of a giant, dark junk shop that serves liquor (in a good way). The DJ is housed in a glass room, music is blaring and people from all walks of life (babies in strollers to a senior citizen tour group and everyone in between) are either sitting down (on bar stools, in an old bathtub fitted with benches or inside the body of a car) or strolling around to view what looks like a Fellini movie on steroids.

Is it the entire room filled with old televisions featuring psychedelic patterns on the screens, the wide-eyed doll heads glaring at me from the wall-to-wall shelves or the knight in armor standing next to the six-foot ceramic rabbit amid a collection of old typewriters dangling upside down from the ceiling that will give me nightmares this evening (in a good way)?

Instead, I fall asleep with visions of tomorrow’s last sumptuous buffet breakfast in the lovely hotel dining room, complete with castle views out every window followed by a morning of last minute sightseeing before saying goodbye to Buda and Pest and heading home.

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

Vienna, Austria: Oct. 29 – Nov. 1, 2018

Photo Vienna

Schönbrunn Palace

It’s a short flight from Prague to Vienna and by the time we get settled in our seats, we are already there. It’s a good feeling when you arrive in a foreign airport and see that little sign with your last name on it, so, once again, we hire a driver sent from our hotel.

The Der Wilhelmshof Hotel is a unique, family run boutique hotel. Designed in collaboration with Viennese artists, their art is not just placed on the walls or on display, but actually becomes part of the décor. Our room has a contemporary mural painted on the wall behind the bed that playfully continues onto the wall sconces.

We enjoy a drink in the hotel bar, as the cheery cocktail waitress (she introduces herself as “Pauline from Poland”) and the concierge assist us in a restaurant selection for the evening. The decision is unanimous; Schweizerhaus is a landmark from the 1920s serving traditional cuisine in a beautiful beer garden. It’s a short walk through a lovely park and a carnival that’s in full swing. We’re seated at a long communal table next to a large Viennese family. We smile, say hello and when they hear that we are from Texas, they are fascinated and have many questions. They guide us through the menu and do not steer us wrong. The gigantic, crispy pork knuckle arrives on a large wooden platter along with a helping of wiener schnitzel (thin pan-fried, breaded pork cutlets) and a warm potato salad made with oil rather than mayonnaise. The ice cold beer tops off a perfect meal. We thank our new friends, who all line up to shake our hands when they leave.

While walking the city streets, we discover that there is a refined and artistic elegance to Vienna. The largest city in Austria, it’s the birthplace of Mozart and Beethoven and known for its many imperial palaces. We feel as if we are taking a step back in time when we visit Schönbrunn Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the former summer home of the Habsburg family.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral is considered the most important religious building in Vienna with its mix of Gothic and Romanesque architecture and magnificent spires dating back to the 1300s. Considered the “mother church” to Roman Catholics, it was built on an ancient cemetery dating back to Roman times.

There is no time to visit them all, so we let Mr. Wiz* choose which museum we will explore. He makes a good choice; the Albertina Museum. The magnificently furnished state rooms from the Habsburg Palace come alive when they are accompanied by narratives of its occupants. The dramatic black and white photographs chronicling everyday life in poor New York City neighborhoods in the 1930s by Helen Levitt startle us. The comprehensive exhibit of Claude Monet details his life, revealing little known accounts that give us new insight and on display were paintings we’ve never seen at any other museums.

Once again, all the restaurant research Big A* and I have done has paid off. The music is loud, the place is packed and the tables are communal at Miznon, an Israeli restaurant. We stand on line to order lunch, gawking hungrily at the open kitchen. Both the lamb and beef burgers served in pita bread have won raves, but it is the charred, spiced cauliflower that is the star of the show. Grilled and served whole, we pull it apart and dunk it into tahini, one of the sauces offered. At Ulrich, a hip, casual restaurant, we lunch on chorizo flatbread and smoked salmon and trout. We are lucky to secure a dinner reservation at an upstairs table with a city view at Lugeck. Sharing entrees seems like the right thing to do, so we can all taste the fried chicken, shrimp and goulash with homemade spaetzle.

We go to great lengths to plan just the right cocktail hours. Alfred Loos is known as one of the pioneers of modern architecture, so we had to experience Loos American Bar. Designed in 1908, the groundbreaking concept combines dark mirrors, low lighting, wood and onyx into the 290 square foot space and fools you into thinking it is surprisingly larger. With Ella Fitzgerald serenading us softly in the background we’re reminded that this is one of those few times that the word “swanky” is apropos.

Das Loft Bar is perched on the 18th floor of the Sofitel Vienna. It’s dark and moody. The ceiling is covered with what looks like flowing silk awash in a combination of colors. Blended with the 360-degree views of the city sparkling back at us, we can’t help but  snuggle into our seats, order another round of cocktails and make another toast to beautiful Vienna.

* Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About’ page

 

 

Prague, the Czech Republic – Oct. 27 – 29, 2018

Photo Prague

Leave it to those millennials; Big A* reminds us that we should take advantage of one of the perks of the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card he suggested we switch to and meet at the VIP lounge in Madrid’s airport. After warm welcomes all-around, we compare the research we’ve all done and start creating daily itineraries for our visit.

The capital and the largest city in the Czech Republic, Prague, is known as “The City of a Hundred Spires.” There is a fairy-tale like quality to the city; the buildings all look as if they have just been painted their pastel colors and the Baroque architecture makes you feel as if you are strolling through a European Disneyland.

Rather than navigate the language and worry about changing our euros into Czech Korunas at the airport (not the best exchange rate), we decide to take advantage of the hotel pickup service. We are reassured by the driver that English is taught in schools and is Prague’s second language. He points out some sights along the way and tells us proudly that tomorrow is the country’s 100th anniversary of its independence and we can look forward to parades, fireworks and many special events.

The Hotel Leonardo has a wonderful, Old World feel about it. The genteel staff seems as if they have been waiting just for us to arrive and surprises us with an upgrade to a junior suite. After a quick review of the city map and all its walkable sights, we thank them in Czech (“Dê Koji” pronounced “Dye-koo-yi”) and head out to explore.

The show must go on! The pouring rain does not stop us or the many events planned. We snuggle into our raincoats and conclude that it might be better to keep moving than to stand in a downpour to watch the parade and fireworks.

We can’t decide if we prefer the day or night view from the Charles Bridge, which connects Prague’s Old Town and Castle Districts. Rather than take the tram, we decide to take the steps all the way up to Prague Castle and St. Vitus’ Cathedral, stopping along the way to admire the views. The castle is a city within itself, named the largest castle complex in the world by the “Guinness Book of World Records.” We tour its main floors and make sure not to miss the spiral staircases that lead up to small collections of everything from a torture chamber to a lady’s boudoir. St. George’s Basilica is the oldest surviving church within the castle. Built in 920, it initially served as a burial ground for princes before being converted to workshops for art and music. The Jewish Quarter isn’t too far a walk and we’re anxious to see the medieval synagogue and the historical exhibitions in its cemetery.

Balancing out our sightseeing with equal amounts of culinary adventures is always a high priority. Prague is known as a beer mecca, so a stop for one at the Restaurant Pekla in the cellar of the Strahov monastery is a must. The underground cave with thick, stone walls dates back to the 12th century and is a welcome respite from the weather. Hard to pass up with our beers are the large, warm pretzels at Kolkovna and the homemade sausage at Lokal, two Czech breweries we also visit. Though we can’t decide if our Prague favorite is the onion soup, mussels, roast duck, goulash or steak frites, we agree that Café de Paris is our choice for the loveliest restaurant. A beautifully restored bell-èpoque café, it exudes elegance and sophistication; just the thing for three, soggy, hungry souls.

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.

Madrid, Spain: Oct. 23 – 26, 2018

Photo Madrid

The Royal Palace

Traveling with Mr. Wiz* is amazing. The last time we were in Madrid was eight years ago and yet he remembers every place we’ve been and how to get there as if it were yesterday. That said, we quickly plan our itinerary and set out, not wanting to waste a minute.

The bad news: The Royal Palace is not open to the public on its free day. The good news: there is a meeting with the German delegation and we are front and center to experience all the pomp and circumstance that is involved with a state visit: the changing of the guards, parade and musicians. Built in the 1700s, we marvel at the size of the structure (the largest building in Spain), which at one time housed the 3000 courtiers of King Felipe VXIII.

Retiro Park is just as we remembered it. One of the largest parks in Spain and a part of the Spanish monarchy until the late 19thcentury, it still seems to have a regal air about it, as its paths wind past sculptures, monuments, a serene lake and beautiful gardens.

We make sure we line up early for the free evening admission to the Prado National Museum. Being serenaded by Spanish guitar music from a local musician helps the time go by quickly. We spend the entire two hours admiring the detail within each painting and fascinated by the stories behind the people depicted.

History records show that tapas became popular in the Middle Ages in taverns that the lower classes frequented. The wine was served in jugs covered with a slice of bread to avoid spills. The word “tapas” evolved from the Spanish verb “tocar” (to cover) and tapas soon came to be known as the little morsels of food that are traditionally served with a drink.

The Mercado de San Miquel Public Market is now serving tapas, but when we arrive it is so crowded. The food at each stall looks amazing, but there is nowhere to sit and hardly anywhere to stand. We are afraid that we might accidently bite into someone’s tapas at this wall to wall giant cocktail party, so we opt to keep going.

Our exploring takes us to Terraza Cibeles, a lovely rooftop bar. The architectural elements of the neighboring buildings, the city views and the European techno music playing in the background makes us feel so hip. We pass on tapas after all and decide that we are still full from the delicious bocadillo (sandwich) we had for lunch at Bodega Vianda. With a seat on the second floor overlooking the city, we dined on jamón (cured ham produced in Spain and Portugal made from black Iberian pigs that is similar to prosciutto in look, but much tastier), sheep cheese and crusty bread; so simple, yet so delicious.

The Petit Palace Opera turned out to be a good choice. It’s a boutique hotel housed in a historic building, located near the main plazas, Puerta del Sol and Plaza Mayor (Madrid’s grandest plaza) and is within walking distance to most sights. Our Juliet balcony looks out over the pedestrian street, which is never without the throngs of people swarming in and out of the many stores and restaurants or watching one of the musicians, dancers or magicians performing.

I wish Mr. Wiz a Feliz Cumpleaños (Happy Birthday) and regale him with a poem that I have written in his honor:

It’s great being a 65’er
With all its wonderful perks

Senior discounts galore wherever you go
And cheaper health care that actually works

So, be adventurous, be happy and enjoy this wonderful stage
And most of all remember, to never act your age!

I surprise him with a lunch reservation at La Botin. According to “The Guinness Book of World Records,” it is the oldest continuously operating restaurant in the world (dating back to 1725) and is renowned for its roast sucking pig and lamb cooked over vine shoots in the huge charcoal oven that’s been there since opening day. My Spanish is better than I thought; the maître d’ honors my request to sit at Ernest Hemingway’s favorite table and even brings us a complimentary dessert. We dine slowly and savor each bite.

There are many flamenco shows in Madrid, but Cardamomo is the only one that has been sanctioned by The New York Times and it’s near our hotel. Atypical of most performances, the male dancer absolutely steals the show and we find ourselves shouting “…Ole!..” along with the rest of the audience. Note to self: Why did I stop taking flamenco lessons? Maybe it’s time to go back to dressing in my flamenco outfit and practicing the steps in my closet again?

An evening walk seems in order and what better way to end a perfect day than to scout out where our next and final dinner will be tomorrow evening. Having found La Sanabresa, a family run restaurant and a favorite of the locals, we sleep like babies, with visions of all of our favorite Spanish foods on the menu dancing in our heads.

 

*Who’s who? See “Cast of Characters” on the “About” page.