Sunday, 28 October 2018

Three days in Budapest leaves me Hungary for more

Budapest is one of those cities I feel like I should have visited ages ago but just hadn't got round to. It's like that list of films everyone has that they haven't seen yet, but feel like they probably should have. For example, I've never seen Gremlins or Gone With The Wind... there, I've said it. Don't judge me.

I flew in from Copenhagen (after a three-day work trip there) and made my way to a slightly shabby but excellently located Airbnb right in the centre of Budapest, about five minutes walk from the Danube. Historically, Budapest is two cities merged into one, Buda on one side of the river and Pest on the other. Pest is where most of the action is for tourists, with St Stephen's Basilica, the Jewish district and all the best bars and restaurants.

It also has the Széchenyi thermal baths, the highlight of my visit. Around 30 or more pools of varying sizes and water temperatures, it's a wonderful way to spend a few hours in Budapest. I took the advice I was given to get there early (6am-10am) or late (6pm-10pm) to avoid the crowds in the busiest part of the day, and I was relaxing in one of the larger outdoor pools by 8.45am. Let's face it, I wasn't going to get there for 6am, this was a holiday after all.

On my first morning in the city I went full tourist and joined one of the free (but not really free because you tip the guide afterwards) walking tours. It's one of the best ways to orientate yourself in a new city, learn a bit of history about the place and spot some things to go back to later.

I was only there for three days and could easily have spent another day wandering about the city. But on the other hand it was enough to be left wanting to back again to check out the things I didn't have time for and eat some more tasty Hungarian Goulash.

Budapest's not a bad looking city at night, especially down by the Danube, with bridges and buildings on both side illuminated. This is Széchenyi Chain Bridge.

The Hungarian Parliament Building. The spotlights used to light up some of the buildings attract loads of bugs/moths, which in turn attracts a lot of birds who want to eat them. That's what all the white dots above the building in this photo are.

Standing in front of the Parliament Building.

Matthias Church, over on the Buda side of the river. Photo taken from the Fisherman's Bastion, one of the shortest tourist attractions I've ever paid for. A quick walk round a wall and you're done.

Can't remember where this was (somewhere on the Buda side of the river) but I liked the look of it.

Central Hall Market is busy but you can get some proper Hungarian Goulash in there for a few quid, as well as endless stalls selling paprika-related gifts. Hungarians love the paprika.

I tried out Airbnb 'experiences' and went to see the Secret Swing Concerts of Budapest, with a band that played swing jazz and a lot of Django Reinhardt. Would absolutely recommend if you're in Budapest on a Thursday night.

One of the outdoor pools at Széchenyi thermal baths. There are plenty of thermal baths to choose from in Budapest, and I heard the Gellert is good too, but this is the most famous one.

Another shot of the baths. It was warm and sunny when I was there but the baths are open all year round. It would be cool to go back again on a colder day and see the steam rising off the water.

Chimney cake - a Hungarian speciality. A long cone-shaped cake sprinkled with cinnamon.

The Liberty Statue was erected under Soviet rule in 1947, but when Hungary gained independence in 1989 the locals decided they wanted to keep it.

Shot of Budapest at night from the Liberty Statue's viewpoint, on the Buda side of the Danube.

Monday, 2 July 2018

Tickle my Baltics: A journey through Finland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

Two weeks, four countries, four capital cities and so many  delicious Baltic beers.

We started out in Helsinki, staying with Rob (thanks Rob!) for a few days. A fine city, especially at the end of a sunny May with super-long days to spend outdoors. One particular highlight was an all you can eat sushi buffet. I'd never put to the test how much sushi I can eat before and am happy to report it's quite a lot.   

After Helsinki, it was on to Tallinn, Estonia, by ferry. It only take a couple of hours and the ferry has a band playing slow waltzes and foxtrots which prompted a lot of the older passengers to take to the dancefloor.

I liked Tallinn a lot, it was probably my favourite of the cities we visited. As well as an Old Town you could happily spend a couple of days exploring it has a fun hipster district called Telliskivi, with some great places to eat. We also had a look round the Estonian Open Air Museum, a real must-see if you're a fan of Estonian rural history. I mean, who isn't? (Seriously though, it is worth a wander round.) 

A couple of days in Laheema National Park was next. Renting a car is fairly essential to properly explore Laheema as buses looked scarce and the park is huge and sprawling. Plus, driving on Estonian countryside roads is a lot more fun than British road because there are hardly any cars getting in the way slowing you down. The highlights of Laheema for us were Palmse Manor and a 15km hike through woods and along the coastline. 

Once we'd had enough greenery and fresh air, it was back to Tallinn to catch a coach to Riga. I liked Riga but on a Saturday night it has a strong stag/hen party vibe and does court those groups with a mixture of the good, bad and ugly of bars and pubs. Still, like Vilnius it has a picturesque Old Town and isn't short on places to explore beyond the more touristy areas. Such as Saulkrasti, a beachy getaway to the north.

Vilnius was our last stop on the trip through the Baltics, but with a couple of planned day trips out of the city. One was to Trakai, a large expanse of lakes and woodland with an amazing castle right in the middle that you can row your way out to (or just walk there over a few bridges). The other excursion was to Ukmerge (pronounced uk-mer-ge), a small city I'd never heard of but was a pilgrimage of sorts for Harriet, as her grandmother's family emigrated from there in the late 19th century. It's not somewhere you'd be likely to visit on a trip to Lithuania unless you had a reason to, but it had a certain charm of its own.

I'd say the end of May into June is a pretty great time to visit these four countries. It's warm but not overly hot; it's not high season for tourists yet and there are a lot of local festivals happening to celebrate the beginning of summer.

Onto the photos...

Impressive greenhouse in the Kaisaniemi Botanic Garden, Helsinki

Helsinki Cathedral and its big green domes

Looks like the start of one of those "why isn't this hosepipe working" slapstick sketches. But with a cannon instead of a hosepipe. One of many cannons on Suomemlinna, a UNESCO World Heritage island off the coast of Helsinki.

One of the three monks Ambrosius, Bartholomeus, and Claudius in Tallinn. Look a bit like the Ringraiths in Lord of the Rings

The church in the main square of Tallinn's Old Town

We were in Tallinn during the festival Old Town Days, when they have lots of live performances popping up around the Old Town, like this chamber choir

 One of the stranger bits of the Old Town Days festival was the appearance of Joseph Stalin during a musical retelling of Estonia's history

I love slightly creepy animatronics, like these in the Estonian Open Air Museum near Tallinn. This scene was meant to be telling the story of how, in days of old, men in the countryside would try to impress the local women by telling them jokes and playing some music

The doorway of the House of the Blackheads in Tallinn. It was the former headquarters of the Brotherhood of Blackheads, a group of medieval travelling merchants

Inside Palmse Manor in Laheema National Park

Totally unplanned and casual rock-sunset pose

When we arrived at our AirBnB in Laheema National Park, we were greeted by some very loud barking from a very big dog who turned out to be a complete softy within 10 seconds of us getting out of the car
One of Estonia's best art galleries is hidden away in a small town on the coast in Laheema National Park. And this was one of my favourite paintings. It's certainly got a message

Onward to Riga in Latvia and Harriet is stood in front of the Three Brothers in Riga - three houses built 200 years apart, from the 15th to the 17th century

Inside the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum. All the lamps told stories of residents of Riga that lost their lives during WW2

The Brotherhood of the Blackheads also had an HQ in Riga back when they were trading their way round the Baltics, earning the big bucks

The beach at Saulkrasti. Really beautiful long stretch of sand about an hour north of Riga by train. We had pretty much nothing but warm sun up until the day we went to the beach, when a gale came out of nowhere and forced us into a retreat

As mentioned above, Baltic beer is excellent, and the brewery bar Labietis in Riga has plenty to try

Just outside Vilnius Cathedral, when a group of Hare Krishna came by singing and playing their drums and bells. Just out of shot, a nun was lurking nearby, keeping an eye on them. Probably wondering whether to call for backup in what would have been a street-fight worth watching

The 'Feast of Muses' on top of the Lithuanian National Drama Theatre
This statue of the Vilkmerge (wolfmaiden) wins the award for best statue in a random office car park. She's the emblem of Ukmerge, formerly known as Vilkmerge

Trakai Castle, about an hour from Vilnius. Well worth a day trip here, where you can rent a boat, pedalo or many other kinds of water-bound vessel
Working the guns hard on holiday

The immaculate gardens of the Presidential Palace, Vilnius

And a shot of Vilnius Cathedral and its adjacent bell tower to finish with. Thought you might like to see what it looks like without a menacing* gang of Hare Krishna in the foreground
(*Not very menacing at all)  

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Ola Portgual: A few days of exploring Lisbon and eating pastries

At the beginning of March when the 'Beast from the East' had frozen Britain to a standstill, we fled for a long weekend in Lisbon. I was hoping for a bit of winter sun, but instead exchanged the British ice and snow for Portuguese rain. Museums and plenty of indoor things it would be then.

I ate a lot of pastries in Lisbon, about which I have no regrets. It's the home of pastel de nata (custard tarts) so you're really just helping the economy by eating as many of them as you can. Make sure you check out the bakery Pasteis de Belém (famous in Portugal) for the finest pastel de nata you'll likely ever stuff your face with. Same secret recipe since 1837, finest ingredients, that sort of thing. I should have taken a photo of the baked goods but got distracted snapping some ducks nearby that didn't even make the blog. 

There are loads of good museums, galleries and other touristy places in Lisbon - we could definitely have done with another day or two. But it's also a cool place to just wander round and see where you end up. Probably even more so when it's not raining. I'm told Portugal is usually quite a sunny country.

So many buildings in Lisbon are covered in brightly coloured tiles. Wes Anderson should probably make a film here.

In the National Tile Museum - actually a much more interesting place than it sounds.

 Don't know what's going on with this flower beast-thing. Looks happy enough though.

 More sensible (and more impressive) tile display in church within the museum. Also, the museum's cafe does a brilliant baked apple.

Sheltering from the rain again - we went into the Money Museum where you can see what you would look like on an old Portuguese bank note. It kind of looks like I'm doing an impression of the MGM lion here.

 Lisbon's parliament, Sao Bento Palace. Home to many a dodgy politician, said our host Manuel.

The trams in Lisbon are pretty cool and do provide another place to shelter from the rain.

Walking through one of Lisbon's botanical gardens, shortly after devouring a couple of delicious pastel de nata.

 Ler Devagar bookshop - basically a hipster bookshop on an industrial estate in Lisbon that's been turned into a hub of trendy cafes, bars and shops. Liked it.

 The main reason I liked the bookshop so much was this guy giving tours on the top floor. He has built all sorts of weird and wonderful machinery and takes you round them all, telling you a story that doesn't make much sense.
 This botanical garden in Eduardo VII Park made me think of the raptors pen in Jurassic Park. I didn't see any raptors though.

Standard manly stance. (Wouldn't be a blog post without me posing next to/in front of/on top of something like an idiot.)

I'm not sure if fountains get much more phallic than this one at the top of Parque Eduardo VII but if they do, it's probably best they aren't put on public display. It even has water spurting out the top, which you can't see so well because of the cloudy background. Shame.