Budapest to Croatia

We decided to go to the market again for our last morning in Budapest. That meant getting up at the crack of dawn so we could be there around when it opened at 6am. I wasn’t happy to get up so early, but I liked seeing the market without a bunch of tourists around. We walked around a bit, and went to the grocery in the basement to buy a bunch of paprika to take home with us (better prices than on the main floor).

We had breakfast at the hotel again, then got on the metro to go to the train station. We had noticed train personnel checking people’s passes at entry and exit points previously. They’re serious about catching cheaters. The tickets need to be self-validated at the entry. Turns out we were validating the wrong end, so we got held up a bit getting that sorted out. After we changed trains, we were leaving to go up to the train station, and we had our tickets checked again – whoops, we should have had another ticket for the transfer, but they didn’t seem too worried about it and let us pass. Coincidentally, we left a book with our extra tickets at the hotel, so we had the tickets, we just didn’t think we’d need them.

We got to the train station with plenty of time to spare for our 8:25am train. No convenient night train available to Ljubljana. No matter, we had a big first-class compartment to ourselves so we could spread our stuff out, nap, and plan a bit for the rest of the trip. We knew we had one floater night in the trip, but we used it in Prague, and knowing we were going to be driving the length of Croatia twice, we needed to have a plan.

Around noon, we realized there was no food on the train. There was a snack cart that went by in the morning, but it was no longer anywhere to be found. We had to go through passport check twice, because we passed through Croatia on our way to Slovenia.

Another snack cart finally came through at 3:30pm and we got the attendant to change some US dollars to Euros for us – we had no Croatian money, no Slovenian money. Just Hungarian Forints. We got a semi-soggy sandwich and chips, at least enough to hold us over.

We saw some beautiful scenery on the way to Ljubljana, especially through Slovenia. Train travel is really the way to go. Once we arrived in Ljubljana, we wandered around a bit trying to find the Hertz office – made more difficult because we had no map, and there was a bunch of road construction going on. We finally found it, a couple of blocks from the train station, and we were soon on our way south, into Croatia.

Our first planned destination was Plitvice National Park. We didn’t think we could make it there before dark (our train arrived a half hour late), so we decided to go south until it got dark, then find a place to stay. Getting out of Ljubljana and on to the highway was simple. The toll roads are big and wide and we were able to use our credit card to pay the tolls.

We eventually ended up off of the expressway, and on a two-lane road that wound its way through villages in Slovenia and Croatia. Again, the Slovenian scenery is just really gorgeous. Everything is extremely green. We enjoyed seeing the villages. No problems getting through border control (our third border crossing of the day).

Once it started getting dark, we found ourselves in Karlovac. We found a hotel right away (with an available room and a parking spot for us), so we were happy. Not the best place, but a place to fall asleep. We got settled and went looking for a hotel on the river that supposedly has excellent food, but it was dark and we didn’t know where we were going, so we just popped into a place that looked busy (Restoran Pod Starimi Kovovi at Radiceva 8 i 10).

The restaurant was odd. Lots of locals gathered around big tables, and the room we were in was brightly lit. There was a conference room next door and there were a bunch of people sitting around a table watching someone give a presentation. We finally figured it out once we looked at Larry’s menu – it was a High School of Commerce and Catering.

We ordered, and the food was good (and cheap). Larry’s salmon steak, potatoes, chard and tomato soup were better than my sole with a creamy shrimp sauce, but the tomato salad was really good. Larry had a Karlovacko beer, make locally.

We walked around a bit and tried to scout out a place to run the next morning. The town has an interesting star-shaped greenbelt at the center, with a path, so we figured that would be a good place. Our Frommer’s book also said the path by the river is popular – if only we could find the river.

Budapest, Day One

After leaving Budapest, we settled in for a night on the train. The trains stop quite a bit and last time I woke up every time we stopped. Not this time – we both slept really, really well. We had to wake up twice for border control, since we passed through Slovakia. Our passports are filling up with those choo-choo train stamps.

We arrived in Budapest at 9:30 in the morning, and easily found the metro station. We bought tickets for the day so we didn´t have to deal with it anymore. Actually, we meant to buy two Budapest Cards, which give discounts at museums, etc., but it turns out it´s fine that we didn´t.

We took the metro to the stop near the hotel (Kalvin-Haz), and found it very easily. Great location – right near the big Market Hall! It´s also the largest hotel so far – several floors, an elevator and a big room with a bathtub and hairdryer. We booked ahead of time, while we were in Krakow, so we didn’t have to worry about finding a place to stay.

We showered and went straight off to the Market Hall. It´s one of the cleanest markets we´ve seen anywhere. There´s a basement with a supermarket and most of the fish and pickled vegetable vendors. Street level is meats and chicken and baked goods (and spices, lots of paprika). Upstairs is linens and other consumer goods along with the food. I had a langos, which is a disk of fried dough, topped with cheese and something creamy. Yum. Larry had a cherry strudel.

We made our way to the Jewish Quarter, in search of more healing chicken soup for lunch. Larry had a place picked out (Kádár Étkezde, at VII. Klauzál tér 9) and we found it packed with locals. We had matzo ball soup, and málna szörp, a delicious raspbery soda. Larry had stewed beans with thick, salty ham on top (called solet). After lunch we strolled around a bit, checked out the Jewish Cemetery, then jumped on the metro again to go to the baths.

We decided to go to Széchnyi Baths, which is more popular with locals. It’s a big, yellow domed buiding in the middle of one of the parks. All types of people were there – big, small, old, young, tourists and locals. We had studied the process beforehand so we wouldn’t be totally confused. We bought our tickets – for three hours, the standard time to buy. We rented a changing cabin and changed into our swimsuits – the attendant locked the cabin (actually more like a closet) for us so we could leave our things there.

The facility is a big buiding with an inner courtyard. Outside, in the courtyard, we found three pools – one larger pool just for swimming, and two smaller pools that are warmer. One was warmer than the other. The temperatures are posted. There are also fountains and jets, and everyone just sits around in the pool. People were playing chess and backgammon.

We hung out in the hotter pool for a while, then went to the cooler one. Then we went inside, where we found a series of pools at different temperatures. Most of the inside of the building surrounding the courtyard is pools. We moved from pool to pool, sampling the temperatures. It was very relaxing. Afterwards, we laid out on the concrete and relaxed for a while, and let our swimsuits dry out.

After the baths we were really sleepy. Once we got back to the hotel, I settled in for my daily three-hour nap. Larry slept less, but he still napped.

After the nap, we went out in search of food. We ended up at Soul Cafe, on Ráday Utca – kind of a restaurant row. Fewer tourists than the big pedestrian mall. I had a salad with arugula and parmesan and tomatoes (yum) and Larry had chicken paprika with noodles, which was also very good.

After dinner, it was bedtime. A long, full day. It’s so easy to get to sleep here.

Krakow, Day One

We slept most of the night on the train, except for the main stop at around 2:30 am for customs. Actually, I woke up for every stop. Overall, it was comfortable and we both liked sleeping on the train. During the customs check, we waited at the stop and had the conductor bring us some tea. I was starting to get sick – sore throat, congestion, cough. I almost always get sick when I travel, but usually it’s not until I get back. I was so worn down in the week leading to the trip, though, that the germs won out this time. The tea helped.

The trip was uneventful. The train was very prompt and arrived in Krakow at 5:44am. Early! We didn’t have a hotel reservation and had to wait for the tourist office to open. First, we bought our reservation for the train going from Krakow to Budapest. The train system is really easy, especially with a rail pass.

We decided not to store our luggage, since we packed pretty light and have wheeled suitcases. We wandered through town for quite a while. The streets are narrow and the town is easy to navigate. Lots of cobblestone, very clean, and it was great to see the city early in the morning with no one around. We didn’t find anywhere open for breakfast, but we started looking for a place to stay. No one had availability! We checked five or six places. There was a little place that was really interesting, but they only had one night available. Finally, the tourist office opened at 9, and we were first in line. The tourist office wasn’t super helpful, but at least they found one place that had a room for us the first night. We figured we could book the other place for the second night.

I noticed one other place in our guidebook we hadn’t checked, so we didn’t have the TI office hold a room for us – we headed in that direction, with plans to stop in at Globetroter to see if they had a room. Success! Only a suite, but it was still cheap. And a pretty good location, within the Old Town walls. They held on to our luggage and told us to come back at 2.

I was getting sicker and sicker as the day went on. We found an excellent Internet Cafe (23/3 Rynek Glowny) (and spent some time there catching up on e-mail. Then we decided to use our guidebook to do a self-guided tour of the Royal Way – we did all of it except for Wawel Castle.

We saw the beautiful planty, which is a former moat surrounding the old city. It’s now a park. Most of the old wall around the city is gone. We walked down Florianska Street, the historic and tourist street of the city. St. Mary’s Church is right on the main market square, and it absolutely beautiful. Very ornate. We only stepped in, because they were in the middle of giving communion. A bugler plays from the tower every hour, and there a huge, three-part Gothic altarpiece that opens up every day at 11:45. People line up to see it.

The main market square is really neat. It’s huge, and bustling with people – tourists and locals alike. There are about 20 cafes along the perimeter. There are flower vendors that are there practically 24 hours a day. At the end of thesquare we saw a tiny church, St. Adalbert, the oldest church in Krakow. It was built in the 10th century. This square is one of the places the Poles gathered during Pope John Paul II’ sillness and death.

In the middle of the square is the Cloth Hall, a building housing shops – mostly souvenier shops. We moved on to see St. Francis’ Basilica, where Pope John Paul II was archbishop. A silver plate marks where he used to pray. The stained glass is really pretty in this church – one was modeled after Michaelangelo’s depiction of God in the Sistine Chapel.

Moving along the Royal Way, we passed a gazillion more churches. There are a LOT of churches here. We also walked along the street where many of the clergy live (the Pope also lived here at one time, before he was Pope).

We noticed a lot of kids out on the street – teenagers, mostly. The boys were all carrying fancy canes. Really weird.

We left the last part of the Royal Way, Wawel Castle, for a later time. It was getting close to check-in time, and we were dying for a hot shower and a nap. We chose one of the many Milk Bars in the city, Polskie Smaki (ul. Sw. Tomasza 5), which also happened to be right down the street from our hotel. It’s cafeteria style – go to the counter and order, and they give you some of your food there, and you get a number for the rest. We got tomato soup, turkey stuffed with mushrooms in a gravy, meat pierogis, fried red beetroot and potatoes for $6. The Polish government subsidizes the Milk Bars – a leftover from Communist days. And the food is really terrific. The turkey and the soup were our favorites. Oh, and the beets. Really good beets.

After lunch we went to the hotel and showered and napped until dinner. I was really hurting, in the full throes of my cold, and Larry was still fighting it off but was getting worn down a bit from it. We turned on the TV and found about 3 stations, including the Vatican channel. Everything in Polish, even the American programming. The dubbing is done by one guy (male AND female voices) in a Polish monotone.

Before dinner, we went out in search of a cookie shop we had read about on one of the travel message boards, Ciasteczek z Krakow (at ul. Stradomska 19). First, there are a LOT of bakeries and ice cream shops and cookie stores in this town. Seriously, about every few doors there’s another bakery. And they always seem to have customers. We found the cookie shop and ordered a whole bunch of cookies. By the pound, all small (two bites). It was less than a dollar, and they were super tasty.

We tried going to Pod Aniolami for dinner, which is supposed to be really good, but they were booked for the night. Instead, we had dinner just outside the Planty at Restauracja Jarema (plac Matejki 5). The food was pretty good. Larry had a Lithuanian Pork Chop – breaded with with cheese and mushrooms on top and potato dumplings, and I had turkey breast with a creamy sauce (of course) and apples, and a traditional Polish salad of cucumbers and sour cream. The food here is heavy and rich, to say the least. Larry had a beer he liked – Okacim.

We really enjoyed our first day in Krakow.

Prague, Day Two

We started the day off by dragging ourselves out of bed at 5:45 am for our long run that we were supposed to do over the weekend. All that beer and meat and dumplings wasn’t going to work itself off!

It was drizzling and overcast, but we had hats on and we like to pretend that we’re hard-core, so as we walked down the hill from the inn we decided on our run route – hit the path along the river (at the bottom of our hill), and go for 45 minutes (me) to an hour (Larry and then turn around). We decided to head away from town, since closer to town the path becomes cobblestone.

So we ran. It was absolutely beautiful. Not quite – the din of the freeway was constant. But still. The path eventually wound around a golf and country club and the landscape became a bit more suburban. The weather was perfect, and by the time we finished, it was blue skies.

We had breakfast at the inn, then left (later than we wanted, but oh well) for Prague Castle. We took the tram up to the castle – it’s up a big hill and we just did a long run, no way we wanted to walk up.

We just did a self-guided sort of tour using one of our guidebooks. We purchased a ticket to go inside the cathedral. We braved the 267 steps (on tired legs) and went up into the tower for an amazing view of Prague. We spent most of the morning there wandering around the castle. St. Vitus Cathedral was amazing. The tomb of St. Wenceslas is also here. The stained glass was breathtaking. We saw the Basilica of St. George and went down to the crypt where King George is buried, along with all his wives. There was a Medieval crane on the grounds with people on a giant hamster wheel lowering and raising the crane.

We ended our time at the castle with a stroll along the Golden Lane, a street of old buildings that originally housed goldsmiths. Now it’s full of shops, but they’re kind of interesting. Franz Kafka lived at #22 here. We skipped the Toy and Barbie Museum (big surpise, huh?).

We headed down the castle steps, and were glad that we didn’t decide to walk up that way. We went to the Lesser Side for lunch at U Maltezskych Rytiru (at Prokopska 10), but they were only serving salads and dessert. Instead, we went a few doors down to an authentic looking Spanish restaurant (El Centro, at Maltezske nam. 9) for an excellent meal of shrimp in garlic, garlic soup, chicken kebab and pan con tomate. I had a cocktail with Liqor 43 and orange juice – a sure sign of an authentic Spanish resaturant is if they serve Liqor 43. Upon leaving, we made reservations to go back to U Maltezskych Rytiru later that night.

After lunch, we went back to the inn for a nap. A long nap, as usual. After our nap, we took the tram back into town for dinner, which was in the cellar of the restaurant (which was a bit smelly). I had roasted duck breast – decent, but not as good as at Hostinec U Sadlu. Larry had wild boar – also good, with excellent homemade gnocchi. There were too many English-speaking (Brits and Americans) people in the restaurant, though. The meal was good – a bit upscale.

We walked back over the Charles Bridge to go back to the hotel. The bridge and castle were illuminated – very pretty. And that was the end of our second day in Prague.

Prague, Day One

Wow, Prague is a beautiful city. We had a long day exploring many parts of New Town, Old Town, the Lesser Town and the Jewish Quarter.

We got up around 8:30 and had a nice breakfast here at the guest house. Very European. Thinly sliced cheeses and meats (salami, ham), cucumbers, tomatoes, bread (good German brot), pastries. They also had mueslix and yogurt. We got up too late to be at the castle when it opens, so we sent Lenka an e-mail asking if she wanted to meet us for lunch or coffee later – she replied almost immediately and we set up a meet time and place.

We started off walking along the river, then eventually got on the metro for a short ride into the center of town. We’re close to the tram, but we didn’t have coins for tickets. We decided to look for the Havel Market. We did a lot of wandering around before we finally found it, but that was perfectly fine. We dropped by the Charles Bridge (ornately carved with multiple statues and TONS of tourists). We didn’t go across because there were so many people there. The view of the castle from the foot of the Charles was really nice, though. We want to go back in the evening and see everything all lit up. We saw a lot of film crews working in town (Lenka’s son, Dan, said later they’re filming the next James Bond–we didn’t see any stars though). Cobblestone walks, interesting shops, people out for walks, beautiful old buildings.

We eventually found our way to the Old Town Square, where we saw the astronomical clock do its thing (it’s 500 years old!) and then from there ended up in the main tourist zone. What a change from what we had seen of the city so far. We’re staying in a quiet residential neighborhood, and our city wanderings to this point were mostly tourist-free. There were hoardes of people all over, and big tour groups galore.

We finally found the market. It’s a relatively small open-air market with fruits and vegetables, homey food items and handicrafts. Then we decided to continue on to the Powder Tower so we wouldn’t be late meeting Lenka and her son, Dan. We found the spot and were early so we went up into the tower. Great views from the top, but I had to endure a very narrow curved stairwell to get there. I kept the claustrophobia at bay. :)

We came down off the tower and wandered over to the cafe next door and immediately found Lenka and Dan. Dan is 15 years old and lived in the U.K. for much of his life, so his English is excellent. He has a British accent. Lenka told us we would go to a favorite restaurant of hers, one that serves good traditional Czech food. Along the way, she filled us in on the history of some of the buildings and areas we passed.

Lunch was in a restaurant that was underground (a lot of cellar restaurants and bars in Prague). The restaurant is decorated to look like a dungeon so it has a lot of atmosphere. The extensive menu was all in Czech, so Lenka offered to order for us (Hostinec U Sadlu at Klimentska 2). We had dark beers (yum!), and then we shared huge platters of food – roasted duck and pork, spinach, 2 kinds of cabbage, and three different types of dumplings – bread, potato, and one other I’m not sure of. It definitely had bread in it. The dumplings are sliced and are great for sopping up the gravy that comes with the food. Everything was excellent, even the duck, which I usually don’t like. The cabbage is well-cooked and kind of sweet. I liked the potato dumplings best.

After lunch we said goodbye to Dan, who is a typical teenager that doesn’t want to spend the weekend hanging out with his mom. He was really nice and we were glad he joined us for lunch.

We then headed to the tourist area, and ended up in Old Town Square, where there was some sort of Medieval performance going on. There were a ton of people dressed in costume, handicrafts and street food for sale, and a lot of Czechs hanging around. Lenka bought us a sort of fried dough pancake with caraway seeds in it. Good, but kind of greasy.

We then made our way to the Jewish Quarter, which is where the Jews were forced to live (in Ghettos) up until the late 1800s. Now this area is very affluent and is a really beautiful part of the city. We saw synagogues and the Jewish cemetery. The cemetery is pretty small but there are over 20,000 bodies buried there, because the Jews weren’t permitted to bury their dead anywhere else. The result is that up to 12 bodies are buried vertically in each plot, and the headstones are shoved in wherever there’s room.

We were really impressed by Lenka’s knowledge of the city. I had been thinking about how, if a tourist came to the Bay Area, I wouldn’t know a fraction of the history of the area that Lenka knows about Prague. Well, no wonder! It turns out she spent some time as a tour guide, years ago. How fortunate that she ended up sitting next to us on the plane!

We then headed to the Lesser Side. Lesser Side (of the river) is really nice. Right on the other side of the Charles Bridge is an area with canals, islands, and there are nice shops and not too many tourists. There was a park with an exhibit of photographs depicting world-wide environmental-related subjects. We stopped for drinks (a reallly tasty Mojito for me, Irish Coffee for Lenka and yet another beer for Larry). The place we stopped is an upscale eclectic place, with comfy couches and a great ambiance. Really Bohemian with a sandy area, a Turkish Tent, and Mediterranean Lounge. It’s right around the corner from where Lenka works as an acupuncturist. We sat and chatted some more and then finally parted ways. Larry and I stayed a while longer, and as we were leaving, it started to rain.

It wasn’t really cold, just wet and kind of windy. We just kept walking – we wanted to go to the train station to get reservations for our train to Krakow on Tuesday night. We found the station, and luckily the agent spoke excellent English, so we now have a reservation in our own sleeper car and we know where to goTuesday night.

The bus station is one stop up on the Metro, so we went there next, to inquire about busses to Cesky Krumlov for Tuesday. We got schedule information but didn’t make a reservation. Turns out we need a reservation, so we’ll need to go back.

We took the Metro back to the hotel. I was falling asleep on the train, so as soon as we got back I laid down for a nap – it was 6:30pm. I fell asleep immediately, and we didn’t wake up until 9:30. Whoops, guess we still have jet lag.

We walked down the street to Restaurant Josefina (at Na Dlinach 5), recommended by Jan. The waiter didn’t speak very much English, but they had a menu in English. Larry had chicken breast fried in a potato pancake crust. And a beer (surprise!). I had pork tenderloin in a pepper crust and a creamy sauce, and we shared potato croquettes. Everything was good, and inexpensive. The waiter brought out white vermouth from the chef (chilled), as an apertif. Also surprisingly good.

Then back to the hotel and now here we are, finishing up our blog entries for the day at midnight. We’re going to try to do our long run in the morning…. we’ll see how that goes.