Back from the Czech Republic and Hungary

For Thanksgiving this year, TB and I decided to take Owen on his first international trip and make our first visit to Eastern Europe. We departed Seattle Saturday, November 21, flying Lufthansa to Prague via Frankfurt.

Map of Eastern Europe Sidebar:
Hungarians and Czechs would take offense to their countries being classified as “Eastern Europe” however, for my purposes, I consider everything east of Berlin and formerly under Communist rule Eastern Europe.

After the 10-hour flight from Seattle to Frankfurt, 3-hour layover and 1-hour flight to Prague we were all exhausted. Owen is still a great travel baby and several flight attendants and nearby passengers commented on how happy he was throughout both flights. He had smiles and lots of chattering for anyone who looked his way and slept about 5½ hours during the 10-hour leg. TB grabbed 2 hours of sleep but I stayed awake the entire time reading or pacing with Owen.

We spent most of Sunday in our hotel, Intercontinental Praha, recovering from some serious jetlag.

Prague

Monday through Wednesday we spent exploring Prague, the largest city and capital of the Czech Republic. It is also the best-preserved, large, European city after the destruction during World War II.

Prague
Panorama from Prague Castle, November 23, 2009, Prague, Czech Republic

Monday we walked along the River Vltava to the Charles Bridge. We spent the afternoon exploring the area around St. Nicholas Church and Prague Castle.

Prague Prague

Prague Prague

Tuesday we slept in and had a late breakfast at Bohemia Bagel café, a short walk from the hotel in Old Town. Wednesday we walked through and around Old Town exploring a ton of the city’s architecture and rubbing elbows with hundreds of locals and tourists.

Prague Prague Prague Prague

Thursday, Thanksgiving Day, we flew from Prague to Budapest via Munich. It was dark by the time we arrived at the Budapest airport and Owen was cranky from the day of travel and commotion. Unfortunately, we still had a 90-minute drive from Budapest to Eger, Hungary where we would be celebrating Thanksgiving with Owen’s Aunt Sally & Uncle Ben. It took about 20 minutes to pick up the rental car from Budget. I had to show my international driver’s license ($15 at AAA), buy a highway driving permit—€4 (or $6) from Budget—and rent a GPS—€14/day (!) from Budget. After 10 pages of paperwork and about 20 signatures, we had they keys to a manual Ford Focus and were on our way.

Owen had a meltdown en route to Eger, about 30 minutes into the trip, so we pulled off the expressway into a rest area to give him some time out of his car seat and to feed him. After about 20 minutes we were back on the expressway. A few minutes later, we hit the thickest fog either of us had ever experienced with only 20-30 feet of visibility. Driving in the dark, in a foreign country, with hard to read signs & street names, in soupy fog is not for the faint of heart. The GPS proved to be worth its weight in gold since we could not see any of the road signs until we were passing them.

We made it to Eger in 2 hours but spent a good hour or so searching for the Senator-Ház hotel. The GPS was useless because the local roads weren’t mapped. Asking for directions was fruitless because we speak no Hungarian and no one we encountered in that remote part of Hungary spoke English. We knew we were close but the darkness, fog, fatigue, lack of signage and twisty, narrow roads made it impossible to find. We parked and TB got out on foot. Meanwhile, I fired up my iPhone to see if I could locate a Wi-Fi hotspot. I found an open wireless connection, got on the Internet and called Sally & Ben (for free) using Skype—yes, there’s an app for that. They had been waiting for us for a couple hours and were worried something bad happened during our travels. We all were pleased and relieved to hear each other’s voices.

Their apartment is 5 minutes from where we parked so they were coming to get us and take us to the hotel. A short time later, TB arrived with one of the clerks from the hotel to guide us. Sally & Ben arrived a few moments later and, seeing we were in good hands, walked a block to meet us back at the hotel while we drove with the clerk. The hotel is literally right around the corner from where we were, buried within a square inaccessible to cars. We never would have found it had we stayed in the car. Score one for TB, the iPhone and Skype.

Eger

We got checked-in then made our way to Sally & Ben’s for Thanksgiving dinner. The food was delicious, one of the best Thanksgiving meals we have had. Considering it was prepared with two burners and no oven made it even more amazing. We had rotisserie chicken, pogácsa, mashed potatoes, green beans, pear salad and marbled cake with ice cream and chocolate syrup for dessert. We also got a chance to see their flat and get a feel for the way Hungarians live.

Eger Eger

During the day on Friday we explored the quaint town of Eger. Sally and Ben were great hosts and showed us all the key landmarks in the city, including Dobó tér (where our hotel is located), the minaret, the Basilica (second largest church in Hungary), and Eger Castle to name a few. We enjoyed cappuccino and tea at a local café and discovered our new favorite sweet snack, kürt?skalács [kur-TOOSH-ka-lots].

Eger Eger Eger

Friday evening, we were Ben’s guests at an American Corners Eger event at Eszterházy Károly College [ES-te-rozy kuh-ROLL-ee]—where Ben is a Fulbright Scholar—to expose native Hungarians to how Americans celebrate Thanksgiving. Everyone was welcoming, cordial and excited to see a Black American family. Owen stole the spotlight and we received several tips on places to visit from three women pursuing Masters of English degrees. Apparently Romania in the spring and Greece in the summer are must-do vacations.

Eger Eger

Friday night we had dinner at a local restaurant and experienced our first authentic Hungarian meal, Csirkepaprikás [CHEER-keh PAP-ree-kash], or Paprika Chicken.

On Saturday we checked out of our hotel and packed the small rental car with all our belongings along with Sally and Ben’s bags to make our way to Budapest, the largest city and capital of Hungary. Owen decided to have another episode in the car about 20 minutes into the hour-and-forty-minute drive. We eventually got the rental returned at the airport, hopped in taxis, and made our way to our respective hotels for short naps before meeting back up to explore Budapest.

Budapest

Budapest was formed in 1873 when two cities, Buda and Pest, were combined. Our hotel, Le Méridien Budapest, is located on the Pest side, east of the Danube river. We walked west across the Chain Bridge over to the Buda side to see the large castle on the hill up close.

Budapest Budapest

We happened across some outdoor, holiday festivities in a square near our hotel and purchased a couple kürt?skalácses as a late-night snack. Here are two photos of them being made.

Budapest Budapest 

Sunday we had a day full of exploring before Ben had to return to Eger to prepare to teach on Monday.

Budapest Budapest Budapest

Sally and Team Smith spent the rest of Sunday through Tuesday traipsing around Budapest visiting Hero’s Square, Széchenyi Fürd? [say-CHIN-yee FUR-doh], the popular thermal bath in Budapest and largest medicinal bath in Europe, and the market. Think of it as a warm, super-elaborate, indoor Jacuzzi & sauna with an expansive outdoor swimming pool. I highly recommend the 38°C/100°F pool outdoors in chilly November. It’s very nice.

Budapest Budapest Budapest

Prague and Budapest are as beautiful and vibrant as you may have heard and we had a great time exploring the cities, soaking in their deep histories and experiencing their distinct cultures.

Budapest
Panorama from Le Méridien, December 1, 2009, Budapest, Hungary

We left Budapest Tuesday and spent the night in Frankfurt so we could start the long haul day of travel back to Seattle rested and stress-free. The trip back was better than we could have ever imagined. The plane was pretty empty so we helped ourselves to the open seats across the aisle. We were again in the bulkhead row of business class and TB had reserved a bassinette. Owen had a comfortable place to sleep and lots of space to play when he was awake. On top of that we arrived 15 minutes early.

Flying home Flying home

This was our first “real” vacation since our babymoon in Cabo San Lucas a year ago and our first trip overseas since visiting Belgium in September 2008.

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