Part 2: Operation Iraqi Freedom vacation - in Europe!Author: Ben Shakman (More Trip Reviews by Ben Shakman)
Date of Trip: March 2006
The view from the top is truly spectacular. You can easily make out all of the significant buildings in Buda and Pest and see most of the seven bridges that brought those two cities together into one. The castle area is also significant because it was the sight of the last battle in the area during WWII and there was one building in particular that looked like it had been the last bastion of the siege. It seemed as though if you put your hand on the wall and stretched out your fingers you would touch at least one bullet hole or other place where something impacted the stone wall, regardless of where you started. Guyla told us that over 100,000 soldiers occupied the hilltop in defensive positions and the Russians fought a bloody campaign to conquer the area. He also explained that all but one of the buildings had been rebuilt and that reconstruction was still not completed -- amazing considering the relative state of peace that has prevailed in the area for the last half-century.
We walked all over the castle hill area and also visited the St. Stephen's cathedral. He was the king who turned Hungary into a Christian country and his coronation was officiated over by an emissary sent by the Pope. The cathedral was amazing and the museum featured a reproduction of the crown he wore during his reign. The original is in the Parliament, but that building fell into the realm of an attraction that we did not have time to visit on this trip.
While walking around, we also saw something far more modern and very unique. Based on the small area and small streets on the hill, they have a converted golf cart that they use as a mail truck. According to the mailman who was driving it, there are only two such mail trucks in the Hungarian postal system and the other one was in a different city.
Our next stop was upriver about 30km at a small town right on the banks of the Danube. We found a neat little pizzeria and had a great lunch before continuing on to do a little shopping. I bought a painted wooden spoon to hang on the kitchen wall while Allison and Lizzy both wound up with embroidered Hungarian shirts. Charleen struck out, but her big souvenir of the trip was still about a week away.
Our next stop was at the castle where the Danube makes a significant bend -- hence the area is referred to as "Bend of the Danube" by the locals. We hiked up to the castle and happened across a man with a falcon who was letting tourists pose for pictures with the bird on their arm. Charleen put on the heavy leather glove and the bird hopped right over to her. She spent a few minutes petting the bird while I took pictures and shot a little bit of video of the scene.
We continued up the hill and explored each of the three main levels of the fortifications before reaching the inner part of the castle. The whole place was quite amazing and the displays they had constructed painted a picture of life in those days. Even more interesting was the story behind the castle -- it was the sight of a medieval summit meeting in 1335 between the kings of Hungary, the Czechs, and Slovakia. The significance of this treaty is that it normalized trade between these three people and established the rules for commerce between three different nations.
We finished the tour of the castle just as they were getting ready to close up for the night and then headed back to Guyla's house where his wife had prepared a fantastic and authentic Hungarian meal for us. We had a champagne toast and appetizers before continuing on to a homemade goulash that was fantastic. We also enjoyed a variety of sausages and fresh vegetables and a delicious Hungarian cake for dessert.
After dinner, Guyla took us to the citadel overlooking the town so that we could see Budapest at night. The city was beautiful! One of the most striking things we saw was the chain bridge. It was strung with lights and illuminates the river below with a gentle light -- very impressive to see.
Unfortunately, our time in Hungary was finished and we packed up so that we could leave in the morning.
March 29th (Day 12)
We drove in some typical big-city traffic until we were able to get on to the highway leading out of town. Our itinerary had us travelling to Crakow this day and it turned out to be a much longer drive than expected. We stopped for lunch at a Bodega, a small inn out in the Slovakian countryside, near Liptovske -- a ski area. Ordering was a bit dicey as no one in the place spoke English and my German was only sufficient to ensure that we got things that looked familiar for the family. I ordered something described as the specialty of the house and it turned out to be a sausage stuffed with breading and meat -- it was pretty good! The entire meal wound up costing us 13 Euros, or about $15. Not bad for a family of four. The kids, of course, made a Slovakian friend who they played with until she had to leave.
We pressed on towards Crakow and finally reached the outskirts of the city in the late afternoon. We called our appointed lodging place (Old Town Apartments) and asked for directions. They were unable to give us driving directions to their office even though it was supposedly located on a prominent street in the old town district. Instead of providing directions, they reiterated where they were located and suggested that we follow the signs -- only there were no signs. I finally lost my patience after about an hour and a half and had Charleen go in to a gift store to try to buy a map and ask for directions. It was almost an hour later when we finally found their office -- it was located on a street so small that it was virtually impassible. I stayed with the car while Charleen and the girls went in to secure our lodging for the evening.
It was about a half-hour later when they finally returned to the car with an address and some scribbled directions. We set off to try to find the place so that we could unload the car before taking it to some nebulous location to park it overnight. This search proved even more fruitless than the search for their office and it ended when I lost all patience after another hour of driving around. The closest we came to actually finding the damn place was when we were on a street with the same name, facing in the wrong direction, and several dozen building numbers away. We never did find the other part of the street that may (or may not) have actually included the building where we were supposed to stay. I pulled the plug on Crakow at that point and returned to the rental agency to give them their keys back and ask for a refund. Naturally, no one there had the authority to grant a refund so I insisted that they contact someone who did have the authority. This led to me being placed on the phone with their manager, who also did not have the authority to grant me a refund. I explained to them that they would be receiving a charge-back from my credit card company and also informed them that I would contact the web-based Polish tourism service that we booked through to explain our difficulties and recommend that they drop that service from their listings. We left Crakow about 5 hours after arriving, having seen nothing but their streets and with me as pissed as I ever got on the entire vacation. One side note -- the first business-type call that I made after landing in the US was to my credit card company to dispute the charge for that night in Crakow.
Our next day was to be in Warsaw and I decided that we would have a quick dinner somewhere on the road and just push through so that we could have a whole day to explore their capitol city. We wound up stopping at a McDonald's. I think that it is inevitable that all Americans who visit other countries for more than a few days wind up with at least one fast-food meal -- and this was ours. We were back on the road again in no time and wound up checking into a Hotel Gramada location at around 11 pm that evening. On the upside we were only about 90 minutes distant from Warsaw and that meant that we would be able to manage a full day there.
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