Tag Archives: traveling

EUROPE 2011: Budapest, Hungary


Author Pat Krapf in Budapest HungarySplit Airport TerminalThe following morning we arrived at the bus station to catch a ride to the Split Airport. The day started on an amusing note. When we handed our bus tickets to the driver, I was surprised to see the same man who had taken us on a detour to somewhere in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I didn’t think to ask him, “Where were we in Herzegovina?” However, I did ask about our route to the airport, and he laughed. Nonstop, he assured me: bus station directly to the airport. But it proved only a partial truth; we made two stops to pick up some associates of his, but other than that, the trip was uneventful.

Giant apple in split airportI’ve been in my share of airports, and while some can be interesting and/or fun for one reason or another (the food or shops, for example), I was literally blown away by the modern architecture of the Split Airport. And never while waiting for a flight to depart have I felt the compunction to wander an airport to snap pictures, but that’s precisely what I did. Modern and stunning can’t even capture its originality, so I’ve posted photos of the airport in this blog. The giant bronze apple was in the upstairs restaurant. The photo of the airport entrance was taken by Ballota, a local photographer.

Split AirportBefore we boarded our flight from Split to Munich, I spent my remaining kunas, the currency of Croatia, on chocolates, then settled into my seat onboard the commuter jet for the fifty-five-minute flight. We had a rather lengthy layover in Munich, so we ate a late lunch at the airport, a surprisingly good meal of filet, roasted potatoes, grilled vegetables, and strudel for dessert.

We arrived late in Budapest, 10:30 p.m., but had prearranged transportation from the airport directly to the Sofitel Hotel. The Parliament buildings on the hill and the bridges aglow in yellow light was a magnificent scene, picture perfect. Only a light dusting of snow would have made the setting more magical, and coming from someone who detests the cold like me, that’s admitting a lot. I couldn’t wait for morning and the chance to explore. To say I fell immediately in love with Budapest was an understatement.

Hero's SquareOur first order of business on our first full day was to tackle the lavish buffet breakfast set out by the hotel. During our meal, we mapped out our ambitious plans for the day. Walking was high on the agenda, so we followed our familiar regimen of collecting water bottles, sunscreen, cameras, and anything else we thought we might want or need for the morning’s excursion.

First on our sightseeing list was Heroes Square, which was quite a hike from our hotel, but the warm yet overcast day proved ideal for working off the big breakfast we had just consumed. Once we were on Andrássy Avenue, the main boulevard, it was a straight walk to the square.

Budapest Hungary Terror MuseumAs we drew near a stark blue-gray building, we were drawn to it out of curiosity. Standing in front of the structure, we noticed its black awning with cutout letters that formed the word “TERROR.” Almost ominously, the sun peeked out, and the word was projected on the walls of the building, which turned out to be Budapest’s House of Terror. During World War II, after Hungary allied itself with Germany, it was overtaken by Hungary’s Arrow Cross Nazi party. The members practically exterminated Budapest’s Jews. Countless victims were interrogated, imprisoned, and tortured in the basement cells of the building, which is why it has such significance as a site of terror and is now a museum. On the exterior of the building at street level is a long line of plaques commemorating the victims. Seeing photos of the dead was powerfully moving, disturbing, and sobering. We continued on in silence.

Heroes Square, Budapest’s largest public square, was created in 1896 to mark the one thousandth anniversary of the country’s birth. The main attraction is the Millennium Monument, completed in 1929. It honors the Magyar tribes that founded the country. The tall central column is topped with a statue of Archangel Gabriel holding a crown and the double cross of Christianity. Behind the monument on both sides are two curved colonnades, each with six pillars. Between the pillars are statues of famous Hungarian kings and important Hungarian historic figures. Constructed during the reign of the Habsburgs, the spaces between the colonnades were intended for statues of royals but were used instead for statues of freedom fighters following World War II. On top of the colonnades were statues symbolic of knowledge, glory, war, peace, work, and welfare.

Budapest Hungary Vajdahunyad Castle FrontFrom Heroes Square we proceeded on to Vajdahunyad Castle, also built in 1896 as part of the Millennial Exhibition. The castle’s design incorporates several architectural styles copied from landmark buildings from across the Kingdom of Hungary, especially the Hunyadi Castle in Transylvania, (now in Romania). Depicted are the styles of the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque periods. Originally built of cardboard and wood, because of its popularity it was rebuilt in stone and brick from 1904–1908. Today the castle houses the Museum of Hungarian Agriculture.

Budapest Hungary Vajdahunyad Castle SideI snapped quite a few photos of the castle, because it will be featured in a future Darcy McClain thriller. After my short photo shoot, we paused in the courtyard to photograph the statue of Anonymous, the nameless medieval chronicler to King Béla. Which King Béla is uncertain, as there were four with this name.

The castle is surrounded by Városligeti Lake, a man-made lake used for boating in the summer and ice skating in the winter. Skating was once a favorite winter sport of the elite and is now a favorite pastime for all.

Budapest Hungary Robinson's RestaurantA little before noon, we wandered past the entrance to the Budapest Zoo but unfortunately did not have the time to stop in, as we had lunch reservations at Robinson Restaurant. The restaurant is on a small island on Városligeti Lake, a pleasant, relaxing setting. All of these sights, Heroes Square, Vajdahunyad Castle, Robinson Restaurant, the zoo, as well as other landmarks, are located in the city park area and are within easy walking distance of each other. Service at the restaurant was slower than anticipated, so when we finished our meal we wanted to return to the hotel as quickly as possible. On our way to the Robinson, I had spotted a sign for a subway and suggested we check this out.

In the midst of a language problem with the woman at the subway’s ticket office, and growing more frustrated every time she refused our money, we were approached by a young woman who asked if she could be of assistance. We explained our dilemma, as we saw it, and the young woman said something to the ticket taker. The older woman gave our Good Samaritan an exasperated look, snatched our forints from the young woman’s hand, and handed over two tickets along with some change. We thanked her and asked what had we done wrong. “Nothing. She wanted the exact price for the tickets because she is short on change. Stay on the train until the line terminates,” said our Good Samaritan as she boarded the subway. Next week, we explore more of Budapest’s greatest landmarks.

Next week: “Europe 2011: Budapest, Hungary – Part 2.”

EUROPE 2011: Split, Croatia

Split CroatiaWe arrived in Split at 5:00 p.m. Tired after the long ride, we gathered our bags and set out to find our hotel. Split’s main bus station is in the center of the city near the harbor and shares this strip with the car ferry terminal and the rail station, so it can be a busy location. Not to mention the small, eager groups of people hawking sobes, or apartments, for rent. But we had already reserved a room in a small hotel which, we soon discovered, was a bit of a walk from the bus station.

Map in one hand and his roller bag in the other, Dave led us from the station to the first intersection. Then we continued on, upward all the way, the hill growing steeper. Twice we flagged down locals to ask for directions, but both times the elderly women ignored us and went on their way. We didn’t take offense. After all, we were strangers who didn’t speak the language, so who knew what we wanted? When a young woman came toward us, we tried again. She said cheerfully, and in perfect English, that we were headed in the right direction. The small hotel, Villa Ana, was on our left and set back from the street, so we needed to be on the watch for a freestanding stone house.

Split Riva PromenadeFive minutes later, we found the driveway-lane to our hotel, checked in, and spread out in our spacious upstairs room that had a small terrace overlooking the front drive. We unpacked, then went back to town in search of food and a stroll along the Riva, the harbor.

The jaunt down the hill didn’t seem as long as the walk up, and soon we were on the waterfront’s promenade. The warm evening hummed with happy voices as couples and families weaved a path to or from the bars and restaurants that lined the Riva. We strolled from one end of the seaside promenade to the other, taking our time to decide where we wanted to eat.

We passed under the modern white lampposts and sunscreens that stretch the length of the walkway and chose a restaurant away from the harbor, the only one with seating available on this busy evening. We ate a light meal, savored a glass of a local wine, and people watched until bedtime beckoned.

Diocletian's Palace as it originally wasThe next day, we headed into the old town for our self-guided tour of Diocletian’s Palace, the ruins of the Roman emperor’s retirement palace, which sits in the heart of the town near the harbor and is the nucleus of Split even today. Diocletian grew up in Salona, a town inland from Split. At the time, Salona was the capital of the Roman province of Dalmatia. He worked his way up the Roman hierarchy until he became emperor and ruled for twenty years. However, he is best known for two legacies—one, dividing the empire into four splintered groups, which arguably caused the empire’s demise, and two, torturing and executing thousands of Christians.

Split Diocletian's PalaceThe massive palace, which dates to AD 295-305, was constructed of white limestone and marble from local quarries and divided into a luxury villa and a fortified town with two intersecting roads. The north-south street, cardo, links the Golden Gate, the main entrance to the palace, to the Brass Gate. The transverse road, decumanus, links the eastern gate, Silver Gate, to the western gate, Iron Gate. The northern half of the palace supposedly housed soldiers and servants and had other facilities. The southern half was the emperor’s apartments, both private and public, and religious buildings. The apartments formed a block along the seafront. At one time, over nine thousand people lived inside the palace walls.

We entered through the Brass Gate, the most popular passageway for tourists, but also the most accessible entrance if you are coming from the Riva. This gate faces the harbor and is actually the back entrance to the palace. In Diocletian’s time, it probably served as both an escape route by boat and a port to drop off supplies, as the wall of the palace sat right on the water’s edge.

Split Diocletian's Palace with Pat KrapfIn the seventeenth century, a new defense system in the form of bastions was constructed around the palace to refortify the outer walls. The appearance of the present-day waterfront promenade dates to the early nineteenth century, when the water was pushed back so the seaside frontage could be extended and graveled in. Then, a series of houses were erected against the newly fortified walls, the new buildings reflecting the architecture of that period. Most have been well preserved.

From the Brass Gate, we descended to the labyrinths of cellars, now home to souvenir stands and art exhibits. We made a quick tour of the cellars, bypassed the shops for now, and mounted the stairs into Peristyle Square, the centerpiece of the palace, where we admired and photographed the red granite pillars brought from Egypt, where Diocletian spent many of his preretirement years.

Diocletian's Palace in Split Entry VestibuleLeaving the square, we climbed the stairs to the Entry Vestibule, the impressive grand entry to Diocletian’s living quarters. The hole in the ceiling was once covered with a dome. The acoustics inside the structure are perfect, which we soon found out as an all-male group of klapa singers serenaded us a cappella. We lingered for two tunes, then left to visit the Cathedral of St. Dominus. The current church was once Diocletian’s mausoleum. Before we moved on, we photographed the two-hundred-foot-tall bell tower that took three hundred years to complete.

Bishop Gregory of Nin at Diocletian's PalaceOur tour of the palace ended at the Golden Gate, the main entry to the grand palace. Just outside the gate we paused at the big statute of Bishop Gregory of Nin. People rub his toe for good luck, but only non-materialistic wishes will be granted, or so I was informed. The toe is now gold from constant rubbing.

After our palace tour, we took a coffee break on the Riva, in the shade of a large palm tree, and mapped out our plans for the afternoon. For orientation purposes, a large-scale steel cityscape of Split stands at the end of the promenade.

Fish market near Diocletian's PalaceOur first stop was the Green Market, a bustling, open-air market where you can buy fresh produce of all kinds, as well as household items, flowers, and even jewelry and clothing. We bought some fruit for lunch and proceeded to People’s Square, Pjaca to the locals.

From there, we walked along Marmontova, the main shopping area, until we came to Ribarnica, the fish market, where we were surprised by the large selection of freshly caught seafood. No, no flies—that’s because the smell permeating the local air is sulfur. During Roman times sulfur baths were popular for their curative powers. Bakery near Diocletian's PalaceWe peeked into a butcher shop but stayed much longer at a local bakery, where we bought dessert for that evening. If our stay in Split had been longer, I would definitely have opted to cook in than eat out. With the extensive selection and abundance of fresh food, the city was a cook’s dream.

Wire Door near Diocletian's PalaceThe rest of the day we meandered through Split’s maze of narrow, crooked backstreets, shopping for a few souvenirs and taking in the sights. On our walk back to the harbor, we wandered through the Ethnographic Museum, where I couldn’t resist pausing to photograph the “wire door”—where modern meets medieval.

With only fruit for lunch, our thoughts turned to an early dinner. We found exactly what we wanted at a restaurant near the Riva—a platter of grilled seafood and a bottle of Graševina from the Kutjevo wine region to accompany our meal. Sole-weary, we hiked the grade to our hotel and called it an early night. The next day we would catch a flight from Split to Budapest, Hungary.

Next week: “Europe 2011: Budapest, Hungary.”

EUROPE 2011: Dubrovnik to Split, Croatia

Dubrovnik F.Tudjman-BridgeEarly the next morning, I cranked in the pulley clothesline to retrieve our clean laundry, which had spent the night drying on the line that stretched from our apartment window to a stone wall on the opposite side of the alleyway. The fresh scent of lemon soap wafted toward me as I reeled in the garments, still flapping gently in a soft, morning breeze. Years ago, I had learned to pack hand-washable, quick-dry clothing, and such items certainly came in handy on long trips.

We packed, then went in search of a photo shop to print out our bus tickets, which were saved on our iPad, for the trip from Dubrovnik to Split. While we had made our travel plans, I asked Dave, “What about flying?” At the time, no flights existed between the two cities, which are approximately 150 miles apart. Train, perhaps? There was no train. Ferry? Great way to see the stunning Croatian islands if you have ten hours or more to spare. Car? This made no sense, as we planned to only travel one way, so it wasn’t worth the effort or expense to rent a vehicle. This left us with one alternative, and the most popular means of transportation for tourists and locals alike—the bus.

Onofrio's Big Fountain Dubrovnik Croatia After a few challenging moments at the photo shop, when the owner couldn’t figure out how to print our tickets, he called in his young son, who was working in the back of the store. I turned to Dave and smiled. He, too, had a smile on his face, as did the owner. In five minutes flat, the son printed our tickets and left without saying a word.

En route back to our apartment, we detoured for breakfast. While waiting for our order to arrive, I immersed myself in one of our guidebooks. I skipped from reading about sights in Split to a blurb about the large fountain, which we had just passed on our way out of the Pile Gate. This giant, round structure is Big Onofrio’s Fountain. In the Middle Ages, Dubrovnik had a complicated aqueduct system that brought water from the mountains seven miles away to the city. The water ended up at the town’s biggest fountain before continuing through the town. This abundant supply of water and large salt reserves from the town of Ston, as well as the massive Rupe Granary, made independent Dubrovnik very siege resistant. The precious salt pans contributed to Dubrovnik’s wealth, and are still being worked today.

Finished with breakfast, we collected our bags at the apartment and headed to the Pile Gate. Outside the gate, we caught a taxi to the main bus terminal. We had reserved seats on an express bus from Dubrovnik to Split with a travel time of four and a half hours, or thereabouts. However, after an hour’s wait at the station, we were informed that the nonstop bus had broken down and we would have to take one that made “a few stops.”

Taking this minor issue in stride, we boarded the bus, dug out our cameras, and settled in for the ride—and a long one it would be, for a number of reasons. But the minute I spotted the Franjo Tuđman Bridge, a cable-stayed bridge at the western approach to Dubrovnik, near the Port of Gruž, I was so absorbed in the scenery I forgot about the drive ahead . . . for the time being.

Split Bus Ride and Ston Wall Unfortunately, on a bus trip you can’t stop whenever you’d like for a photo op, the first being the bridge. And, shooting through glass can certainly diminish the quality of your pictures. We tried to open them, but the windows wouldn’t budge.

The next photography opportunity came as we closed in on the outskirts of Ston, a small city on the peninsula of Pelješac. The town has the longest stone wall in Europe, second in the world to the Great Wall of China. The stone wall has forty towers and five fortresses, and stretches from one end of the peninsula to the other. It protected salt production from potential thieves and protected the town from potential attackers. If I had known about its existence before planning the trip, it would have been a must-see for me. Besides salt production, Pelješac is also famous for wine production. Californians, and most Americans, are probably familiar with the name Grgich Hills Estates, a winery in the Napa Valley region of California. Born in Desne, Croatia, Mike Grgich emigrated to the US in 1958. In 1976 he won the Judgment of Paris wine tasting with his chardonnay. At the time, he was the winemaker for Chateau Montelena. Ston is also known for oyster farming. The shells farmed along this coast are of the highest quality in the world due to the exceptionally clear seawater and the ideal weather conditions.

Farming in the valley in Bosnia and Herzegovina We hugged the coastline until we reached the Neum corridor in Bosnia and
Herzegovina, where the border control boarded to check passports or identification papers. When we handed over our passports, the guard said, “Americans,” then handed them back without even opening them. However, the Australian couple across the aisle wasn’t as fortunate. They had packed their passports in their luggage. The guards made them get off the bus, haul out their bags, and produce their identification. It took a good twenty minutes before we were on our way, but not in the right direction, as we soon observed. I turned to Dave and asked in a low voice, “Where are we going?” The moment I uttered the words, our driver announced he had mail to drop off and passengers to pick up at a bus stop “near here.”

We were a bit skeptical about this unexpected stop, but what else could we do except ride along and hope to reach Split before the end of the day? As we veered inland, the scenery changed from lush green with coastal views to a rocky terrain of what appeared to be limestone.

An hour inland, we pulled alongside a store similar to a 7-Eleven. Next to the mini-mart was the bus station. During the thirty-minute stop, we bought snacks and visited the bathroom. Then we collected four passengers. I saw no street or town signs, so I have no idea where we were in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Split, Croatia yellow tollway boothsBack on the road, our driver motored along a series of small back streets for about forty minutes until he sped onto the A-1. With nothing much to see scenery-wise, we napped. When we woke, the bus was climbing along a rather steep rise. Below stretched a verdant valley with water ditches channeled into the rich, dark earth. As an avid gardener, I was drawn by the fertile farmland. I snapped a few pictures and checked the time. We had been riding for five and a half hours. Surely, Split had to be nearby.

Thirty minutes later, I spotted something bright yellow looming in the distance. I’ve never been so happy to see a tollbooth in my entire life. We passed through the yellow tollway, and soon the rocky terrain around us gave way to the vibrant blue of the Adriatic coastline. We had arrived in the seaport of Split.

Next week: “Europe 2011: Split, Croatia.”