Saturday, July 18, 2009

Budapest, Hungary

Budapest, the capital of Hungary, straddles the Danube River with hilly Buda on one side and flat Pest on the opposite side. The city is renowned for its history (as one of the major cities of the Austrian-Hungarian empire), thermal baths and goulash.

I visited Budapest during its hottest week--38°C and high humidity. The conditions were quite unbearable and thus I did not visit the thermal baths (I’ll have to come back in the winter for that). However, I did walk around, primarily staying close to the Danube. My highlights include the views of the neo-Gothic Parliament and Danube from Castle Hill; the neo-Romanesque Fisherman’s Bastion and the Cave Church below Gellert Hill.

I also got a chance to experience authentic Hungarian goulash. Goulash is found in many countries in Central and Eastern Europe, but the Hungarian version is a soup rather than a stew. However, it is still a hearty soup, filled with beef, potatoes, carrots and paprika.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Banksa Bystrica, Slovakia

Banska Bystrica is in the Low Tatras, a region of rolling hills and scenic countryside. The main reasons for visiting were to experience nature and to visit Roman’s aunt, uncle and cousins.

The town itself had little to see. Intriguing sights include a WWII-era plane, tanks, howitzers and a leaning clock tower. Much more memorable were the walks along the river and hikes amongst the hills.

The highlight was staying with Roman’s relatives. Similar to the Czech Republic, the hospitality was the best I have ever experienced. Not only did Roman’s aunt make sure we were never hungry (she cooked Slovakian goulash, a milder form of the Hungarian version) and Roman’s uncle made sure we had enough beer and wine, they even gave up their beds for us! They definitely served as role-model hosts.

Slavicin, Czech Republic

I got the rare opportunity to visit a Czech family in the countryside when Roman invited me home to see his parents. They live in Slavicin, a town in the eastern region of Moravia, by the border with Slovakia. This part of the Czech Republic was rustic. Slavicin was surrounded with lush hills and valleys. Animals such as cows, deer, chickens and cows were plentiful.

My stay in Slavicin was very relaxing. In the morning, Roman showed me the forest near his home where he frequently went to gather mushrooms growing up. I learned which wild mushrooms were edible and which were not.

The highlight had to be the hospitality that I received from Roman’s parents. Roman’s mother made sure I was not hungry. She cooked up a storm! This included vegetable soup, risotto, meat loaf with gravy, knedlik (dumplings) and kolac (sweet buns with jam and cheese). What’s amazing is that most of the veggies and fruit are grown in her garden, including cabbages, cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes and ligonberries!

Brno, Czech Republic

Brno, the Czech Republic’s second city, is not quite like Prague. Both cities have their architectural gems but Brno is definitely calmer and less touristy. In fact, from what I experienced, the city is not like a tourist center but rather a “normal” place to live. The highlight of my visit was hiking up to Spillbeck Castle and enjoying the views of the city.

Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic

Karlovy Vary, or Karlsbad in German, is the premier spa town in the Czech Republic. For centuries, people have been arriving here to take advantage of the remedying features of its thermal waters.

Roman and I came to town just as the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival was drawing to a close. This high-profile event showcases mainly European independent films.

We also walked around town, taking in the beautiful river and mountain views. As for the thermal waters, we were disappointed to learn that one needed a doctor’s note to use the spas. We did, however, see a jet stream of thermal water and taste some thermal water that everyone seemed to be bottling. The thermal water, by the way, tasted like rust (due to its high iron content).

Prague, Czech Republic

Prague is sometimes known as the “Paris of the east” and it’s not hard to see why. Gothic churches, Baroque theatres, Neo-classical monuments and Art Nouveau mansions rub shoulders with each other by the Vltava River. The landscape is dominated by the 13th century Charles Bridge, lined with statues of luminaries; and Prague Castle, a complex of buildings perched on a hill with St. Vitus Cathedral the most prominent structure.

I came to Prague to visit my friend Roman and to use this as a halfway “rest stop” of my trip across Europe. I had enough time to socialize with Roman and his roommate Mat and even to visit some neighborhoods and sights more than once.

One of my highlights had to be the varied architecture. Prague itself is like a school of architecture throughout the ages, from Romanesque all the way to contemporary. I enjoyed wandering down streets and admiring the ornate facades (e.g., statues, stucco). My favorite buildings include the Gothic St. Vitus Cathedral, the Neo-classical National Theatre and the contemporary Dancing Building.

I also spent some time discovering David Cerny’s sculptures throughout Prague. Cerny is know for controversial sculptures that are simply wacky. Examples include crawling babies on Zizkov Tower, the tallest TV tower in Prague; and a man riding an upside-down horse.

One interesting observation was that Prague is very Westernized. Prague is just like any other European capital. Vestiges of the communist era remain only in the subtlest forms, such as the refurbished communist apartment blocks, or panelaks.

Berlin, Germany

Berlin, capital of a unified Germany since 1999, is one of the planet’s most dynamic cities. This is the European Shanghai, where construction is always occurring. Berlin is the European city that is most able to preserve its history while also embracing the future head on.

Berlin is chic and cool. Just look at the Reichstag, the German Parliament building, with its Baroque façade and modern interior, topped by Norman Foster’s glass dome. Or gaze towards the Holocaust Memorial, with its uneven, solemn gray columns that create a maze for those wishing to cross it. Walk for a few minutes and one will arrive at the Baroque Brandenburg Gate, the symbol of Berlin. This is how amazing Berlin is; old and new, Communist and stylish, the city has it all!

With my friends Gabriela and Alex as my hosts and tour guides, I got an insider’s look at this thriving metropolis. We visited a typical “living room” bar in Prezlauer Berg, the city’s trendy district. We listened to music generated by Berlin-style music boxes. We relaxed by the city’s sand volleyball complex, soaking up some needed rays. We savored the most delicious doner on the planet--chicken, with veggies and goat cheese. And lastly, we enjoyed the best view of Berlin, on top of Viktoria Park, all the while drinking German beer.

Dresden, Germany

Dresden, the capital of the German state of Saxony, unfortunately suffered massive destruction due to bombings during the closing stages of WWII. Nevertheless, the restored Altestadt (old town) is a UNESCO world heritage site.

Highlights of Dresden include the baroque Zwinger, a royal courtyard that now houses a few museums. The Zwinger contains architectural gems such as the Crown Gate and the Nymph Fountain. Moreover, I enjoyed viewing the Procession of Princes, a porcelain wall that chronicles all the Saxon kings from the 12th to 19th centuries.

On a side note, Dresden was the first place where I visited a McCafe in Europe for the first time. McCafe is the upscale, chic part of McDonald’s that serves coffee and desserts. The McCafe I visited had couches, comfy chairs and even outdoor seating. The coffee was served in glasses and proper cutlery was used for serving tortes. I was impressed by all that I saw; even the regular McDonald’s has some chic café elements to it, such as modern-design chairs, wall décor and flat-screen TVs.

Vienna, Austria

Vienna is one of those cities where one visit simply isn’t enough. This historical city was the first place my good friend Rose and I visited during our month-long Europe trip five years ago.

My reason to visit Vienna was to get a good dose of musical and performing arts, specifically, the opera, Vienna Boys’ Choir and the Lipizzaner horses. I ended up attending a piano recital at the music university. Furthermore, CouchSurfer Ruth and I watched Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Staatsoper, standing for the entire opera (3 hours!). It was well worth it as the both the instrumental and vocal music and costumes were superb.

I also wanted to wander around the various neighborhoods of Vienna outside of the touristy Innere Stadt. I observed Baroque architecture all over. My highlights include seeing Hunderwasser’s modernist Kunsthaus Wien, Hunderwasser House and an incinerator. Furthermore, the views of Vienna, the hills and the vineyards from the Vienna Woods and Kahlenberg were breathtaking. On a side note, I got the opportunity to savor some wine and food at a Kahlenberg heurigen, which is a wine tavern. While sipping my white wine spritzer (wine with water), I got to enjoy a view of the vineyards (and that of rain and lightning after a few minutes).

The food and drink! I of course had to try the three most Viennese foods-- Wiener schnitzel (breaded fried pork cutlet), Sacher torte (chocolate cake with a hint of orange) and apfel strudel (apply pastry). I enjoyed these very much though I have to say if I ate schnitzel at least once a week, I would quickly become vegetarian!

Lastly, the public transportation in Vienna is one of the best in the world. Clean and efficient, the subway, buses, trams and suburban trains are seamlessly linked together. Detailed signs point one in the correct direction to where one can easily connect to another form of public transport.

Overall, I will definitely be back in Vienna, maybe even live there for a few months. This is a city full of cultural events, history and tradition. It is a quieter city, though this means that the crowds and chaos that inflict most major metropolises are missing.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Graz, Austria

Graz is the capital of Styria, the southeast province that is the “green heart of Austria”. Despite the fact that it rained quite a bit during my one day there, this is a town that I really enjoyed visiting.

I loved the fact that Graz was not too touristy (though it might have been the rain that kept them off the streets). Also, the town has juxtaposes both old and new architecture quite well. The old town consists of mostly red-roofed buildings and onion-domed churches. As for the new, two particular structures stand out--the Kunsthaus Graz and the Murinsel. The former is an art museum that is blob-shaped and thus dubbed the “alien”. The latter is a futuristic-looking island with a café and amphitheatre on it.

One particular highlight of my stay was the climb up the Schlossberg. On top of the hill, I could see both sides of Graz with the Mur River between them. The aforementioned buildings were also visible.

Lastly, my CS hosts Martin and Kathi made sure I was exposed to as much Austrian and Styrian food as possible. The main dish was a dessert called marilleknodel. This was a dumpling filled with apricot. Also, my hosts made me a salad with pumpkinseed oil, which is a local specialty.