Aug201209

Up early so we could grab some breakfast, then we had to stroll out the front door and meet our tour guide in front of Burger King at 9am.  I had booked us in a cooking class months prior to leaving for Europe.  I have a slight passion for cooking…those that know me, I take a lot of cooking classes when I can.  This was going to be one of the highlights of the trip for me.  I wanted the full blown experience so I paid for the whole shebang.  VIP status…with taxi pick up at the hotel, the tour of the Great Market Hall, Hungarian Cookbook, bottle of Wine and an apron.  I definitely recommend doing something like this while in Budapest, it was the most amazing experience ever.  Chefparade Cooking School is a must do.

Of course, not knowing where our hotel was located and not knowing where the Great Market Hall was located…a taxi pick up was the best way to go.  However, we discovered the night before that our hotel was directly across the street from the Great Market Hall.  If we did get a taxi pick-up, it would have taken 3 times as long to get there with all the one -way streets…so I told them we didn’t need the pick up.

We were standing in front of the Burger King to meet the tour guide.  The only other couple on the tour was a brother and sister from New York.  They were youngsters, fresh out of high school and on their way to college.  Their parents signed them up for the cooking class.  They made for some great conversation for sure…he told us all about this epic adventure he had just been on to Israel to learn all about their Jewish heritage.  It sounded so amazing and enlightening, no doubt a life changing adventure.

Once we were all there, we ventured across the street to check out the Great Market Hall.

Our guide was fantastic.  We toured the hall, checked out all the stalls selling their wares.  The top floor was all crafts and stuff as well as the food court area, the main floor was salamis, spices, veggies, etc…and the lower floor was fish and a grocery store.  It was amazing the food in the food court, as well as the fact that it was 9am and there were tons of people drinking beer and schnapps already.  She gave us a history lesson about the building and Budapest itself.  The tour lasted about 45 minutes and then we were off to the cooking school by cab.  The weather in Budapest was so hot…we are talking 40+ degrees and we were about to enter a building and cook…literally, with the ovens on…it was so hot.

I don’t even know what to say about the class.  It was the MOST fun.  We prepared a 3 course meal…starting with Sausage and Potato Soup…YUM!  Followed by the main course of Chicken Paprika…YUM!  and finished with a chocolate and vanilla sponge cake….YUM!

It quickly became a competition between the couples and whose was better.  According to the professionals…our Chicken Paprika was the best tasting but looked bad.  The other couple had the better looking consistency…but ours rocked the flavour.

She would assign tasks to each of us and each time she would look over at Rob…he was lacking in production.  So she asked him…”What is with the issue over here?”  SO funny…that became our favourite saying for the rest of the day.  The boys were drinking beer after beer since it was included…why not?

We finished cooking and sat down to enjoy our meal.  She served up some Hungarian pickles with the meal…since most Hungarian dishes are very heavy and rich with spices like Paprika…they eat a lot of pickles with their meals as it helps with the digestion.  We also enjoyed some Hungarian white wine which was some of the best white wine I have ever tasted.  We definitely took home a bottle of this, which is currently chilling in my fridge begging to be opened.

Then we walked back to the hotel after the class to drop off all the goods and continue walking around Budapest.  The temperature is now well above 40 and especially in the direct sun.  Once we got back to the hotel, we waved good bye to our cooking partners and enjoyed the air conditioned room for a few minutes.

I had found a self guided tour of the Jewish Ghetto in Budapest, so that was our next adventure.  We followed the route and walked through the old Jewish Ghetto of World War II.

The area consisted of several blocks of the old Jewish quarter which included the 2 main synagogues of the city, the Neolog Dohány Street Synagogue and Orthodox Kazinczy Street Synagogue. The ghetto was created on 1944 November 29 and was surrounded by a high fence and stone wall that was guarded so that contraband could not be sneaked in, and people could not get out.   As with other ghettos that had been set up in other parts of Nazi-occupied Europe the area was completely cut off from the outside world: no food was allowed in, rubbish and waste were not collected, the dead lay on the streets and piled up in the bombed-out store fronts and the buildings were overcrowded, leading to the spread of diseases such as typhoid. More than half of those that were forced into the ghetto in 1944 were sent to concentration camps, starting almost immediately from the establishment of the ghetto… – Wikipedia

After all the walking, cooking and heat…we were getting pretty tired. So we took it easy for the rest of the day. Finishing off a great day with a GREAT dinner and a couple final beers for the day.

Then we called it a night and turned in.

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Aug201208

Long story short…after more side roads, more old abandoned check points, one hell of a hail storm that forced people to stop on the highway under the nearest overpass for shelter, temperatures ranging from 35 –> 22 –> 35, sunflower fields that go on forever and ever, windmills that stretch as far as you can see, and a beautiful drive into Budapest…we arrived.  Now Rob and I agreed that if the GPS started to take us out of the city again…we would stop right away and I would ask someone where the hotel was…sure enough…the GPS was not on our side…so 5 minutes of driving in the city made of one-way streets, we stopped and I asked the nearest lady I could find.

And so we did.  We pulled over right away and I asked this lady walking down the street.  I asked her if she spoke English…she said a little bit…but do you speak German? I laughed and said no…do you speak Japanese? She laughed and said no…so I showed her the address I was looking for.  She was so friendly and helpful but didn’t know where this street was, so she asked the next guy walking by us.  They had about a minute conversation in Hungarian, then they spoke to me a little more.  As we were talking, someone else walks by and over heard the conversation and joined in to help.  WOW! What a concept, random people wanting to help…Vancouver could learn a little about this.  What does two minutes do to your day? I think we should all decide every morning when we get up to make it a goal to spend two minutes to help someone else today.  Could you imagine?

So after more conversation between the 4 of us…the first lady and the second man, continued on their way…and the last guy to join in to help, who spoke perfect English, came over to the car and reprogrammed the GPS for us…the accent over the O did it to us again.  And off we went to find the hotel.  Which turned out to be just down the street.

We checked into the hotel and had only an hour of street parking.  So we decided to go up to the hotel to relax for a bit before I had to move the car to the parkade which was down the street at another hotel.  The parkade for our hotel was full.

Our room was beautifully decorated and was all brand new since the hotel went through a serious renovation last year.  The Boutique Hotel Zara in Budapest was lovely.

I ventured out to find the parking lot.  Now Budapest is made up of a series of one-way streets, much like Vienna.  I had to make a series of rights, lefts, straight through to find the hotel…I followed the path as the conceirge suggested…but as I get to the last straight thru road…the sign looks like a don’t enter sign if you ask me…I am left with no choice but to go right.  Now, I am heading back to the hotel…so I tried it again.  Same thing…GRRRR.  ok, back to the hotel to ask what is up.  He insisted it was right…so I tried it again.  This time, there is a truck in front of me and he went straight through that road, so I said screw it, I am going too.  HAHA, turns out…the sign doesn’t mean don’t enter…it means, there is a one way street up ahead. DUH!  It only took me 60 minutes to figure that out.  So, I get to this other hotel and park the car…check the floor, wipe the sweat from my brow after parking in that spot and start to walk back to the hotel.

Now, it is getting late so we decide to just walk around the hood to check out where we are.  Turns out, that we are right across the street from the Great Market Hall which is amazing.  We have to meet our Cooking Class tour guide in front of The Great Market Hall tomorrow morning, so that couldn’t be more convenient.

Until tomorrow…our first full day in Budapest.  I can’t wait for it to start…

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Aug201207

The time came to depart the beautiful city of Vienna. (Wein) We decided that we would lunch in Bratislava, Slovakia on our way to Budapest, Hungary. Since Budapest was relatively close and we had to drive right by Bratislava anyway…we wanted to detour for a bit and check out another country. So we headed on our way to lunch in Slovakia…because in Europe…you can lunch in another country.

We knew two things before we left, we needed gas and we needed another Vingette for Slovakia. So after I maneuvered the car out of the crazy sardine like parkade and started on our way, there was a gas station just down the street from our hotel. So we stopped there to kill two birds with one stone. Unfortunately, once we filled up and asked the attendant about the Vingette, he informed us that you can only buy the vingette’s from gas stations on the Autobahn. So we programmed, Bratislava into the GPS and off we went. It was much easier navigating out of the city than it was getting there…but maybe that was because we already drove around the city multiple times trying to find the hotel…HAHA.

So, the GPS took us out onto the highway…hooray…off to a good start. Then all of the sudden, she wanted us to turn off the Autobahn. Reluctantly, we followed orders…the whole time repeating ourselves…”why are we listening to her?”. Once again, we find ourselves on the back streets of Austria, driving through the most rural countryside I have ever seen. Village after village after village…each village comprising of maybe a hand full of houses. After what seemed like forever I started to get worried about the Vignette situation. I wasn’t worried about getting lost, even though our GPS took us on the most outrageous routes, she always got us to our destination. My concern was the hefty fine warnings I read about…if you are caught without a valid Vingette, the fines can be hundreds of EUROS, and they are cash fines…ie. PAY NOW. As well, playing the dumb foreigner card was not an option according to everything I had read. Ignorance wasn’t going to be a good enough excuse.

So finally we came across a gas station/restaurant and we pulled over to ask someone. We went to the gas station, which was in working order, but the building was all closed up, so we walked over to the restaurant to see about getting some assistance in there. We literally stood at the front desk for 15 minutes, watching the sole waitress bust her butt in the restaurant that had no air conditioning, tons of patrons, and was clearly over 35 degrees. I truly felt for her…so we patiently waited and waited and waited. When all of the sudden, two customers stood up from their tables and approached the front. Low and behold, they were police officers…lucky lucky us. So I walked right up to them and said “do you speak English?” and one of them said a little. So we asked about the Vignette. They didn’t really know either…but they didn’t really know what we were talking about…so a couple minutes and a little game of charades later and they understood what we were asking for. (Maybe there was a chuckle here and there too) They made a phone call, then told us to keep on driving and we would see a sign that said Vignette. We were on the right track. Phew…back in the car and off we went.

Sure enough, a little way down the road we came to the Slovakian border. What a surreal experience that was…all the old Soviet check points were still standing, big abandoned black square buildings. We pull over and go into the restaurant/bar/tv room/internet cafe/vignette sales/smoking room to purchase our Vignette. Does she speak English? oh…good luck. So another game of charades, a quick transaction, a brief internet connection and we were officially in Slovakia and on our way to lunch somewhere in Bratislava.

Just to briefly speak about the border crossing here…All the Soviet check points & buildings are still intact…just abandoned now. Big, square and black empty buildings…It is both eery and amazing to be in this spot. I don’t know if anything major happened at the crossing we went through, but I know by the feeling of this place…there were hard times that were hard here.

Continuing on into town…the architecture seemed to be a polar opposite of what we had experienced up to this point in Europe. Everything was square with hard corners, it seemed like a different world. We drove around for a little while checking things out before we decided to just pull over at the next place we say that looked decent to eat at. Don’t get me wrong, the city has charm for sure…as you approach the city, you can see the huge Castle on the hill…as you drive over the bridge you cross under the UFO restuarant which is pretty cool. I believe that most of everything you need to see in Bratislava is in Old Town which we did not make it to.

After driving around for a bit, we had an uneasy feeling. I don’t know what it was…but I felt somewhat unsafe there. I can’t put a finger on what it was exactly that made me feel that way…I can be honest, I just don’t know. On average the people were very business like, business attire, clearly coming and going to work…so it certainly wasn’t that. Anyway, we drove by a pub called the Bastion Pub and decided to stop there for lunch.

We walked in and sat down.  When the waitress approached us, we asked her if she spoke English.  She shook her head in a frustrated way, put the menus on the table and walked away.  Rob and I looked at each and shrugged our shoulders…uh oh.  So we decided on what to drink and eat and we waited and waited and waited for her to NOT come back…she was serving everyone else in our area, but she wanted nothing to do with us.  Until finally, the bartender came over to us.  This clearly wasn’t his job, but I guess he was the only one who could speak a very small amount of English so she sent him over to help us.

The food arrived, and by far it was the best meal I had on the whole trip.  I don’t even know what it was exactly…it was sort of like a Chicken Cordon Blue, but it had Chorizzo Sausage in it with the ham and cheese…and the then it was crusted in this “to-die-for” crispy potato encasing.  OH MY WORD!  It was so good.  So good, that we needed to google how to say “Thank you” and “It was delicious” in Slovak.  When our waitress came back to the table to clear our plates, she said nothing, so we attempted to say the words the best we could.  Our accents must have been really really strong, or her lack of wanting to understand was really really strong, either way….we showed her the words and then she lightened up, smiled, laughed, and said “Thank you” in English.  WOW, she is warm.

Once we left there, we went in search for a Bike shop for Rob.  I wish I got pictures of the establishment but I didn’t so I will have to try to explain it the best I can.  If you can picture the worst projects in all of North America.  Just big block apartment buildings, questionable establishments on the ground floor…which almost appeared to be a sub level of the building, even though it was ground level.  We climbed the stairs to the “1st level” where there were lots of stores.  Then above that level, I can only image is housing, even though the whole building looks like it was once some sort of giant housing unit.  So into the bike shop we go…and inside it is very clean and full of high end bikes.  Totally not what we expected from the outside.  We only went for the sake of going to a bike shop in Slovakia.  Back on the road we go…

To Be Continued…

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