Stay A While

Last month M and I went on holiday, a very different holiday to what we’re accustom.  I’ll explain: A couple years ago we did a three week, six city tour of Eastern Europe that we organized ourselves.  The tour included Prague, Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna and Cesky Krumlov (in the Czech Republic). We visited these cities in the dead of winter and although cold, bitter cold at times, each had their own charm.  Traveling in the winter when there are fewer tourists and everything from airfare to accommodations are less expensive was a great experience.  Unlike in the U.S., locals in this part of the world don’t hibernate in the winter; outdoor cafes were busy day and night as were restaurants and public areas.  My guess is that homes and apartments are small, money is tight so people congregate in public places for their entertainment.

Christmas Market

The outdoor cafes are what really got me.  They had propane heaters to keep you warm on top and heavy blankets to warm your legs.  I must say there’s something romantic, and a bit adventurous for Americans, to sit outside when the temperatures are below freezing (often well below freezing!) drinking steaming hot chocolate during the day and savoring a glass of wine at night. (Eastern Europeans are big smokers so choose your outdoor table carefully to avoid the second hand smoke).

Of the cities we visited Budapest was our all around favorite for several reasons.  One, it’s a beautiful city, almost as beautiful as Paris.  We visited fascinating museums; ate some excellent (and inexpensive) meals; indulged in decadent hot chocolate and pastries as good as any in Paris or other parts of Western Europe; toured beautiful churches; we were captivated by the architecture, a mix of old and modern, Neo-Gothic to Soviet era; toured the Jewish Quarter and learned the history of Jews in Hungary; we were educated in the terrorism that has plagued Hungary for hundreds of years by neighboring countries, each taking bites of land and freedom from the Hungarian people; and of course we visited the popular public baths which was a blast.  I could go on about the night life, the ‘ruin’ bars, the excellent public transportation…there was just a charm to the city and people and we didn’t have enough time to relish it all.  After three nights in Budapest we both yearned to return sometime soon for an extended stay.

Szimpla Kert Ruin Bar

The opportunity to do so came sooner than we imagined.  In the spring of 2017 I received an alert about a British Air sale from Atlanta to Budapest for $365 each round trip (you read that right; $365 each round trip).  We immediately decided we’d be crazy not to take advantage of this amazing offer so we booked that day (sale was for travel in October and November of this year).  This time we were going to spend two weeks in Budapest, plenty of time to immerse ourselves in all Budapest had to offer.  With an extended stay we decided an AirBnB would be a perfect choice, and knowing the city layout from our previous stay  we could make an informed choice of location.  Again, what a bargain; fourteen nights in a studio apartment, centrally located for $550, under $40 a night!

While I’d love to give a travelogue describing all the things we did over those fourteen days and nights, it would probably be boring; it’s easy to list the ‘things’ you do on holiday but difficult to describe the ‘essence’.  The experience of visiting one place for an extended time is so different from rushing from city to city, trying to cram in as much as possible in a short time, no matter how well you organize your schedule.  You really have the opportunity to live life like the locals.  You get to know the shop keepers, the wait staff in restaurants, the folks at the local coffee shop and patisserie.  You can tour a museum in the morning and walk the streets in the afternoon, maybe sit at a cafe for an hour or two conversing with the locals.  It’s just relaxing and a great way to learn the essence of a place, warts and all.

Hero’s Square

While we saw and did much, we didn’t cover a lot of ground like we normally do while vacationing.  And that was the idea of the trip; live like a local, get to know what it’s like to live in a place.  The first few days we were in Budapest we’d walk into a restaurant and were greeted in English, like we had a tattoo on our forehead that said ‘American’.  By the end of our stay we’d walk into a restaurant and were greeted in Hungarian, a sure sign we were one with the local culture.

I know not everyone has the luxury of an extended stay like we had in Budapest.  Heck, we may never have the opportunity again with all the places we want to visit (the more we travel the longer our wish list of places to visit).  But, maybe next time you can take a couple weeks off, think about an extended stay in just one location.  Doesn’t have to be overseas; could be a city a hundred miles away or across the country.  Stay a while, get to know the people and place….it’s an experience you won’t soon forget!

View of Pest from National Gallery of Art (Buda)

Eating Our Way Across Eastern Europe

“The best routes are the ones you haven’t ridden. … Turn down lanes you’ve long seen but never traveled. Get lost once or twice, then double back to where you started and try again. Live like this and you come to see unknown territory not as threatening, but as intriguing.”
–Mark Remy

IMG_1016
Margaret and her giant schnitzel

The above quote is our philosophy when it comes to travel, especially when it has to do with food; Peter, as we’re exiting a patisserie; ‘oh wait, I think I see another patisserie up the street’, Margaret; ‘where? where?’.

It’s this philosophy that took us to Schnitzelwirt, a Vienna restaurant frequented mostly by locals.  Their specialty is, obviously, Wiener Schnitzel (a very thin, breaded and pan fried cutlet made from veal).  Not being much of a meat eater meant Margaret would be the one to try this traditional dish, and it was quite a dish.  Served on a large plate that barely contained its girth, this was one big schnitzel!  Add to this a side of sauerkraut and creamy beets, you’ve got a recipe for a slow walk back to our hotel.

In Krakow we found another restaurant, and although a bit touristy, it served an equally giant and delicious Wiener Schnitzel.  But this restaurant also offered other giant items on its menu, in this case beer.  Everywhere we visited in Eastern Europe had excellent beer and this Krakow restaurant didn’t disappoint.  The beer was light in color but with a full bodied taste.  We ordered two, the small one for me.  Now it may look small comIMG_2127pared to the beer on the right, but mine was about 16  ounIMG_2128ces.  The big one was a full liter of beer, that’s over 32 ounces…..and yes, she finished the whole thing (took a while).  Talk about a slow walk back to our hotel!

One of our great pleasures while traveling in Europe are the plentiful casual cafes that seem to be on every block of every city we visit.  The great feature of these cafes is popping in for a quick coffee or drink any time of the day.  You can stand at the bar or take one of the small cafe tables.  One of the best characteristics of these establishments is the laid back atmosphere; sit and enjoy as long as you like.  And unlike most restaurants in the states the noise level is low allowing for real conversation to happen.  We’d pop into a cafe at least a couple times a day, and considering the cold temperatures we sampled many cups of rich, creamy hot chocolate, usually along with a shared pastry or slice of cake.IMG_2019  The photo on the right is from the Kafka Cafe off the Old Town Square in Prague.  Crazy expensive prices due to the location, but that didn’t really matter; the hot chocolate with a shot of Bailey’s was just what the weatherman ordered.  And there were other hot chocolates on this trip, so many that it became a quest to find the best in town.  On our first full day in Prague (New Year’s day) we were walking toward the Prague Palace where we spotted a tiny cafe on the ground floor of a large building.  Sign out front just said ‘Hot Chocolate With Rum’.  The place was tiny; no tables, just enough room for about four people.  But the owner prepared a mean hot chocolate made with steamed milk from one of those huge espresso/cappuccino machines found at every cafe, bar, restaurant and gas station in Europe.  Even though this hot chocolate was served in a paper cup it was still one of the best we sampled in three weeks.  And whipped creaIMG_2106m? always real, never canned!

I could go on and on about our meals in the Czech Republic, Austria, Hungary, Poland (where generous dinners including a bottle of wine totaled only thirty-five to forty US dollars….easily $125 in Atlanta); the traditional Polish sour soup that helped Margaret relieve the symptoms of her cold; the cheese platter while listening to a  jazz quartet on Prague’s Jazz Boat cruise; the lunch in Budapest at a restaurant that’s been serving coffee, hot chocolate and amazing desserts for generations (we walked out of there buzzed on a sugar high….it was awesome!); the fantastic pierogi’s stuffed with a variety of delicious fillings we indulged in all over Poland  (I loved the goose meat stuffing….ate a giant plate of them); the roast duck in Prague and Warsaw was lean and tender; in several countries the beet root side dish consisting of tender shredded beets cooked to a creamy consistency (if you like beets you’ll love beet root); Mediterranean delights such as humus, marinated salads, baba ghanoush (eggplant dip) and pita at Hamsa Cafe in Krakow’s Jewish Quarter; the Sacher Tort at the cafe in the famous Sacher Hotel in Vienna; where does it end?!?

Well it finally did end the day we returned home, got on the bathroom scale and went on a diet.  Was it worth the 4-5 pounds gained; absolutely!  Would I do it again; no doubt! Will Margaret once again tackle a giant schnitzel; I think so!

In conclusion I can say that indulging in great food is a pleasure, but only in comparison to the wonderful people you meet while traveling.  Food and travel is the great equalizer; we met and conversed with some of the finest people while dining; it’s something all cultures have in common, a love of food.  As the great chef Julia Child said;

“People who love to eat are always the best people”.

Dessert as art
Dessert as art
Beet Root
Beet root, sauerkraut and potato
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Traditional Polish sour soup
Sacher Torte
Sacher Torte
Delights from Hamsa Cafe
Delights from Hamsa Cafe
Pierogi
Pierogi

Fate? Luck? Divine Intervention?

I could have been born a squirrel in a tree in India in the year 1284….fate? luck? Divine Intervention? God’s will?  Or I could have been born in Hungary or Poland in 1924 and suffered through some terrible years.

In all probability someone born during the Age Of Enlightenment may have felt the same as we do today. How lucky to be born in a time of such advancement during which modern technology, as it was, made life so much easier than in past generations. The same could be said of people and societies throughout the time man has occupied earth.  And although we think we’re living in the greatest technological age, a hundred or two hundred or a thousand years from now people will look back and wonder how we were able to get by with such primitive technology.  But what of those born in a time when none of these advances mattered, where geography and politics were not so kind, where surviving from one day to the next is your full time job? 

These thoughts were on our minds as we toured Auschwitz and Birkenau, the notorious Nazi concentration death camps outside of Krakow where a million people were murdered.  These thoughts crossed our minds as we toured the Warsaw Uprising Museum which displays in graphic detail the total destruction of that city.  And it crossed our minds as we toured the purposefully claustrophobic galleries at Budapest’s Terror Museum, which graphically illustrates the deplorable living conditions, death and destruction its occupiers imposed on Hungarians, Hungarians who complain to this day that their government continues to deny their alliance with Germany in WWII, while that’s exactly what they did, to the detriment of its citizens.  How lucky we are to have been born in a country that has never been occupied by a more powerful neighbor nor attacked by hostile forces, that only wages war far from our shores, that allows us freedom to do as we please?  Do we consider this as we impatiently wait in traffic, angry that we may be late getting to Starbucks?

The history Margaret and I learned while traveling through Eastern Europe was definitely enlightening.  While we thoroughly enjoyed the culture and scenery, we were also profoundly moved by the tenacity of the locals we met.  For most, even though they personally didn’t live through the worst of times such as WWI and WWII or the holocaust, it was only a handful of years ago that Poland and Hungary were under Soviet rule, recent enough to have a clear memory of it.  It surprised us to learn of a recent phenomenon; young Poles learning from parents and grandparents that, although raised in the Christian faith, they are actually Jewish.  People denounced their religion in order to stay alive and are just now learning the truth, many returning to their original faith. 

But life goes on and we can only wish that we learn from history, and as humans not to commit the same mistakes.  Does it look like that today?  A resounding NO, but one can only hope that one day we will.  In the mean time Margaret and I will keep traveling, learning and experiencing cultures other than our own, and continue to be thankful we were born in a time and place where daily survival is not a full time job. 

I promise my next post won’t be so ‘heavy’.  Food and drink is always front and center when we travel (I gained five pounds on this trip) and Eastern Europe didn’t fail to deliver!  More on that soon….

 

Site of Birkenau crematorium
Memorial, Birkenau crematorium

 

To learn more about the experience of visiting a Nazi concentration camp click HERE for an excellent post by a good friend and journalist who visited a few years ago.