“Italy will never be a normal country. Because Italy is Italy. If we were a normal country, we wouldn’t have Rome. We wouldn’t have Florence. We wouldn’t have the marvel that is Venice.”
-Matteo Renzi, Prime Minister of Italy…
While it’s nice to speak at least a few words of the language used where you are traveling, sometimes the signs just say it all!
Cruising on the Danube river in Budapest past the stunning parliament building is a special treat both day and night. Did you know that the Danube flows over 1700 miles passing through 10 countries on its way to the Black Sea? You can travel almost all of it on an amazing river cruise. How much time do you have? 1 week? 2 weeks? More? Let us know and we can design the perfect trip for you.
It’s up and at ’em today with a goal of seeing as much as possible. First stop St. Stephen’s Basilica. Located in a very nice area, the church is surrounded by many shops and cafés so after the visit you might want to grab a bite to eat or a glass of wine and enjoy the square.
St. Stephen’s is dedicated to the Hungary’s king who was the founder of the Hungarian State. Construction started in 1851 but the church was not dedicated until 1905. During WWII, the church roof, towers and external walls were badly damaged however visitors today will find that even the beautiful mosaics have been successfully restored. Like many churches & Basilica’s in Europe, St. Stephan’s has it’s precious relic. Here (in the chapel) you will find the mummified hand of the church’s patron saint, the first king of Hungary. I’ve seen quite a few mummified parts in my travels but no matter how many, I can’t quite get over the concept – and yes, in every church I do seek them out….go figure!
If you are ambitious (we were not) you can walk up the 364 steps to the cupula for a panoramic view of the city, or do it the easy way and take one of the 2 elevators – either way, its worth the effort on a clear day.
Next stop on our whirlwind tour is Buda Castle. We took public transportation for an easy jog over to that part of town. Located on what is referred to as Castle Hill, the 18th century Buda castle is a 200 room palace built to protect from Mongol and Tartar attacks. The castle was quite damaged in World War II however today many parts of it have been restored and now house the Hungarian National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum. The entire complex is designated a Unesco World Heritage Site and it is worth taking the time to explore.
Take the historic funicular up to the top and be sure to marvel at the views from the top. Stay for a changing of the guards ceremony and be sure to throw a penny in the fountain. While we were exploring a festival was being set up in the castle square and we are glad we hung around until the stalls began to open. This was by far the best Hungarian food ever! The cabbage roll was to die for, the grilled chicken was moist and tasty and sausage….well with a cold Hungarian brew, what could have been better??
Onward we went – in search of one of the “most scenic tram rides in Europe”. AKA Tram #2, on the Pest side of the river is according to National Geographic, one of the most scenic trams in the world but I think we missed its beauty. Don’t get me wrong, out the river side of the tram there were some very pretty sights – when you could see them. However, the tram is crowded and used for local transportation so if you can get a seat on the scenic side you are lucky…heck that is if you can get a seat at all!
Now a word about this and other trams/public transportation options in Budapest. You must buy a ticket and you MUST validate it upon entering the tram. We bought a 10 pack and got on. One of us validated and the other 2 did not, as our main goal was seeking out a seat. Well it seems that the one who validated did not actually validate the ticket itself but rather the ticket cover….and folks that doesn’t count when the tram police step on board and check your tickets. Let’s just say that the 1 Euro tram ride ticket became about a $35 per person fine – yep, even though we had attempted to validate according to the nice lady checking tickets, we had done so incorrectly and it simply didn’t count! You see, she doesn’t “make the rules, she just follows them” thank you very much and pay on the spot! It did not matter that we had some 8 unused tickets that she could have easily stamped …nope….tourist hand over the money! And so we did….but here is the good news (according to her), we could now ride the tram the rest of the day for free! Well we rode it all right, to where we found a wonderful little wine bar to toast our contribution to Budapest tourism!
All in a days fun…and something to talk about for a long time to come!
Starting in Budapest, Hungary, we made our way down the Danube River on the Uniworld SS Maria Theresa and oh what a time we had.
We arrived in Budapest a few days earlier and checked into the Boscolo Budapest Autograph Collection Hotel aka the New York Palace Hotel. This city center hotel is truly an extraordinary experience where historic combines with contemporary comfort. Marble bathrooms, plush bedding, silk wallpaper and Murano chandeliers make you feel as though you are royalty.
The service is fantastic and a visit to the world-famous New York Café located within the hotel is a must do.
Although tired, we grabbed a bite to eat while we waited for rooms to be ready and then our first stop of the trip was the famous natural hot spring baths. It was a short stroll from the hotel to the underground that took us right to the baths.
There are many hot mineral bath options in Budapest but we chose to visit Szechenyi Baths. Szechenyi is the largest in Budapest with 15 indoor baths and 3 grand outdoor options. Each pool has a different temperature, our favorite was outdoors pool because of the size and temperature. It was the warmest and together with the sunshine it revitalized our bodies, minds and spirits after that long overseas flight. Onsite, one can also take advantage of steam and sauna cabins, massage therapies and even a beer spa! We rented a cabin which afforded us a private change area and a place to store our things. This experience is highly recommended on your next trip to Budapest, there is just something about floating around in deliciously warm water while surrounded by a Neo-baroque palace!
Feeling refreshed we headed back to the hotel knowing dinner and bedtime were just a few hours away. Tomorrow was to be a full day of sightseeing….stay tuned!
Sometimes the most unknown cities and towns along an itinerary can hold wonderful surprises. A few years ago, we took a river boat cruise from Paris to Normandy. We chose it because of the wonderful history associated with the itinerary and of course because it was an easy fly in and out of Paris. It was so wonderful in fact that we are scheduled to do it again in 2019.
Now prior to that first trip I had never heard of the town of Honfleur and I didn’t research much about it either. So, when we arrived in port I was understandably overwhelmed by the quaint beauty of this little port town. The harbor was filled with boats, the buildings around the port were brightly colored and it just felt homey. Maybe that sounds a bit corny but the town was something right out of a picture. As a matter of fact, come to find out Honfleur was painted by many famous artists like Boudin and Monet. Certainly, this is a photographer’s mecca!
We took a guided tour of the town and the standout thing to see was of course, the church. I must laugh when I write that because if you knew my husband, you would know that we have been in thousands of churches around the globe. All I can say is, well, It’s his thing. I’m pretty sure we have at least 2 zillion (okay maybe not quite) photos of every church wall, gargoyle, crypt, bell tower……etc. in Europe. So, as I said, of course the highlight for him was…the church. Sainte Catherine’s church, is a bit different from many we’ve visited, ornate in a simple sort of way and certainly not plastered with oodles of ornate gold. Nope, it is simply the largest church in France that has been made from wood and it has a separate bell tower just opposite the church entry, above the bell ringers house. Guests to Honfleur can visit the church for free! Let’s face it, can’t get better than that.
Now if you were an astute reader you know the church was Paul’s thing….so what flipped my lid in Honfleur? I already told you the port setting itself was amazing to look at but there was one thing that really caught my eye. As we were wandering the streets…there it was…in the window of a little shop…. the purse of my dreams. Now I’m not a girly girl, and I typically buy a purse only when the last one is too embarrassing to carry. But this beauty was something I just had to have…and yes, I paid through the nose for it and I didn’t care. And lest you think purses are my thing…guess again (hint, look at the purse). So, there it was, in the window of the little shop in Honfleur, France and I had to have it!
You see, sometimes little stops along the itinerary deliver such wonderful surprises and make the whole trip something you’ll remember. You just never know until you go…. happy travels!
The palace of Versailles, located just outside Paris and listed as a World Heritage Site, was the seat of the government of Louis XIV. This marvelous palace and gardens should certainly be on your must see list while in France. The big question however is how to see it?
Well to answer that question, first consider that the Palace contains 2,300 room and more than 3 million people visit annually. Then consider your motivation for visiting, are you a wanderer who enjoys the sites without too much detail or are you a history buff where the story is important.
There are so many options to choose from – anywhere from going it alone with your audio guide (comes with the admission ticket) to a private guided tour. When choosing also consider what parts of the palace will be included (Palace, Estate of Trianon, Gardens and Parks, Musical Fountain Show and Musical Gardens and/or the Coach Gallery) in relationship to how much time you want to spend.
Here are a few tips that will make your visit more pleasurable.
Now for my personal (any travel professional) opinion, take a tour that offers skip the line and a small group format and access to the secret rooms – it will be well worth the money!
Whenever you go, enjoy your visit, it is a marvelous Palace. Au revior for now.
What first pops into your mind when you hear San Sebastián, Spain? Is it the beautiful seaside beach or maybe the wonderful restaurant opportunities within this Basque city? These two things after all are what why scores of people flock to visit this region of Spain – I mean just think about a day at the beach followed by an evening of the pintxos (small tapas like food available at almost every bar in San Sebastian) or dining at one of the 16 Michelin Star restaurants. That alone makes me want to go back!
Ah, but have you heard about the gastronomic clubs or societies? In San Sebastian, these gastronomic clubs have been around since the 1800’s and today there are approximately 119 in existence in the city (over 600 in the entire Basque region). These clubs were initially established as a place of refuge for men – a place for them to socialize and cook away from the women at home who were the “boss”. Today, many of the clubs are still men only and it is not uncommon to find clubs with over 100 members.
To visit, you must have an invitation or be brought by a member. Well visit I must – I just had to see what they were all about! In September, I visited San Sebastián and made it a point to book a visit to Los Corcones gastronomic club. This club has a professional chef (all clubs cook together, but not all have a member who is an actual chef) so I knew I was in for a treat.
Together with 3 friends, we met the chef and started our walk-through Mercado de la Bretxa, the 150 year old market that was bursting with sights and smells you can only imagine. Here Bendur, our chef went about choosing items that he would cook during our visit to his club. He shared samples of his favorite ham and other specialties as we shopped.
Then it was just a short walk until we arrived at what looked from the outside like any ordinary stone building – that was until he pointed out the club sign announcing our arrival. The Sociedad Cultural Musical Benefica “Los Corcones”, with its 2-blue fish logo (and yes this club even has a band!).
As he opened the door, I was immediately in love with the quaint set of rooms and old country style kitchen (but with some heavy-duty ovens) and checkerboard tableclothes. I could not wait for the gastronomical experience I was about to have. He put us to work preparing the plate of tapas and pintxos – oh did you think this was a sit and be served sort of visit – heck NO!
Up first was a sampling of Spanish cheese, olives, sausage and of course a sardine or two (enough food really for 20 people). When the sampling began, we sat around a table and talked about his club, the food and the traditions…and somehow the 4 of us polished off a majority of that food. We felt the pride he had for his country, his food and his club. Now this is the way to really experience another countries culture.
Just when we thought we could not eat or drink anymore and the real cooking began! We were served some traditional Basque seafood dishes and yes, I must say, they were tasty! This visit to a private gastronomical club was one of the best foodie experiences I have ever had. We left with a true understanding of the culture by way of not only the food but through the opportunity to dine with the chef. It was a truly amazing experience which I encourage you to try.
Being offered a “free” dining or beverage package seems to the be sign of the times today in ocean cruising bookings. Every cruise line has its own twist on the perks offered but these two are always in the mix of offerings.
So, which do you choose? You love to eat and…. okay you like to consume adult beverages too, thus the dilemma exists.
Now, my first recommendation is talk to your travel professional because all “free” perks are not created equally. For example, some lines charge service fees associated with their “free” while others do not. Most lines have a dollar limit to drinks available using the perk and the big difference is how they handle those drinks that hop over that limit. For example, let’s assume your drink limit is $13 but you really want to try that $16 martini. On some lines, you would pay only the $3 extra, on other lines you would not be able to use the beverage package and be charged the full $16. Note from one wine snob to another: Serious wine drinkers (those who won’t drink the house wine at a bar and who don’t drink much in the way of other alcohol) should think twice about the “free” beverage package because it isn’t likely to have wines that will make you happy. You, may want to consider choosing the free dining perk and then buying your own wine package.
Dining packages are no different, you really have to do the math regarding which perk will be best. Example: you are on a 7-day cruise, your perk is 3 nights in a specialty restaurant, on board credit, free wifi or the beverage package. What is the value of those 3 nights dining? Let’s say the price is $35 per visit to the specialty restaurant x 3 = $105 but the onboard credit is $150 per person…..which is better?
Remember a particular cruise line can only speak to and only wants to sell you their product, they cannot offer you a side by side comparison like a travel professional. We can help sort all that out and can search across all cruise lines for the best perk offering out there.
And on that note: Cheers and Bon Appétit
Tom Thumb, Green Thumb all I know is I’m all thumbs when it comes to gardening. In my house I have exactly 2 plants…that are still alive. I’ve been told it is impossible to kill a Christmas cactus…well I’ve just completed losing #4. Out back I have a “garden” and I use that term very loosely since we refer to it as the weed bed. So, I’d be the last person in the world you’d expect to want to visit the famous Keukenhof gardens in Holland. Yet somehow it was on my bucket list – go figure!
So, this spring we set off with a few great friends to visit the Netherlands (okay so we got the men to go because we included Belgium and you all know how good their beer is) and on the itinerary was a visit to the famous Keukenhof gardens. Keukenhof gardens is open only mid-March to Mid-May and our trip was timed right for the tulips to be in bloom. We had to decide, full day or half day visit….OMG, we did the full day and still did not see everything so if you are even in that quandary….go full day for sure.
Miles and miles of tulips (well 32 hectares to be exact), every shape and color you can imagine. Throw in some daffodils and hyacinth and you have a color mania of flowers. But it’s not all just flowers, there are activities in the park like boat rides, cycle paths, fun signs and wooden shoes to put your face and feet into for that ultimate photo op. Definitely climb the windmill to get a bird’s eye view of the vast tulip gardens. If you are taking the kids, then be sure to download the treasure hunt before you go.
Ah yes, a full day at Keukenhof gardens will inspire you…I promise. How do I know this you ask….well I left the gardens that day 300 or so tulip bulbs heavier (or shall I say $300 or so lighter since the tulips were to be shipped to the US in the fall). Yes, me the ultimate weed bed owner left the proud owner of lots of tulip bulbs without one single plan for what I’d do with them.
They arrived this fall and I am happy to say they are all planted into a brand new flower garden…now we just wait till spring. I’ll keep you posted but in the meantime, put Keukenhof gardens on your bucket list, you won’t be sorry. It was beautiful!