A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: lsto90

Budapest

Budapest was the absolute best. Yes, I rhymed on purpose. The food, architecture, people, and city in and of itself were amazing! Three days was plenty of time to see all of the highlights, and I would have happily spent more time there.

We arrived late at night in Budapest where I found the first thing I loved about Budapest- the efficient taxi cab stand at the airport. You walk up to the stand and tell them your destination. They print out a receipt with your address and tell you which cab number to get in. They also provide you an estimated fare. The cabs drive up, and you jump in the one with your number on it, hand the driver the receipt, and sit back. So efficient! Plus, our cab driver was the nicest guy and tried to give us tourist tips about Budapest in broken English.

We stayed at the Danubius Astoria Hotel. While the furnishings were a little outdated, the hotel was fantastic. We were upgraded to a deluxe room which was very spacious for two people. The concierge was nice and helpful, especially when booking us early morning cabs to the airport for our departure. The hotel was centrally located, right by a metro station and a 10 -20 minute walk to all of the hot spots. A+ for location. Like all of Budapest buildings, the architecture was amazing at our hotel. All the buildings in Budapest are grandiose with a Parisian/Viennese feel to them. Budapest is dubbed the Paris of the East; however, Hungarians will tell you that they are not Eastern Europe! They are in Central Europe.

Day 1 started with Buda Bike tour which was actually a bike tour of Pest. Budapest is actually two cities separated by the Danube. Buda is the posh side situated on the hills where the castle and Saint Matthias church are located. Pest is the more happening side with hotels and restaurants. Plus, it is flat- perfect for a bike tour! Our guide was a French girl who was very sweet; however, she didn’t provide much historical insight into the city. She did inform us that Hungary became a nation in 896, and most of the ornate buildings like the Parliament were built for the millennial celebration in 1896. So most of the big landmark buildings are 96 meters high or have something with 96 included in its design. Also, Hungary is bordered by 7 countries, so 7 plays a symbolic role in their architecture too. Our guide took us to a cool outdoor bar in the city park. We were on the tour with two Canadians and two Californians, and we started talking about refugees. Our guide informed us that Hungary has accepted very few refugees. The government posts propaganda discouraging accepting refugees. She said the flyers she has seen say that terrorist attacks in other nations happen because they let refugees in. I found this very surprising since Hungary has had a history with being the victims of discrimination.

I received the best compliment from the Canadians on our tour. They asked if I cycle a lot because my push/pull pedal technique was excellent. I responded honestly that I ride infrequently, but I was so happy my technique was good. Must be all those years of watching Le Tour de France on TV….

The tour started and ended at St. Stephen’s Church. We walked about 20 minutes over the Chain Bridge to Buda. The Chain Bridge was the first permanent bridge connecting Buda and Pest. Once we arrived in Buda, we had to climb up a hill to the castle. Our first stop was lunch to try some Hungarian goulash (beef stew) which was delicious. Also, Hungarians love their lemonade which is not super sweet like American lemonade. I love lemonade, so therefore, I love Hungary. We went to the Hospital in the Rock Museum. You must take a guided tour which starts every hour on the hour. Hospital in the Rock was founded in the 1930s in the caves underneath the Buda Castle. It was built in preparation for the second war world, and it was under the protection of the Red Cross, meaning it served people from both side of the conflict. Unfortunately, the hospital loss access to water during the war and was severely overcrowded, so a lot of people died from infection. The hospital closed after WW2 and was reopened during the Hungarian revolution against the Soviets in 1956. Afterward, it remained open and also turned into a nuclear bunker.

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After the tour, we went to Fishermans Bastion which is a scenic overlook on the Buda side. You can pay to go to an upper level of the Fishermans Bastion, or you can take advantage of the free lower level which offers a great panorama view of the Danube and Pest. We then paid to go into Matthias Church which was well worth the 1,500 HUF. Anna and I both agree that our favorite church is St. Mary’s Church in Krakow. It is painted in bright beautiful colors and elaborately decorated, unlike the gothic stone churches in the rest of Europe that we have visited. Matthias Church was a close runner up. It was also brightly painted, and it had an interesting exhibit in it. Plus, it has brightly colored tiles on its roof, just like St. Stephen’s Church in Vienna which Anna and I both loved.

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After the church, we went to Faust Wine Cellar in the Hilton Hotel in Buda. My sister and friend had recommended we make reservations here because it is a tiny room with seating for approximately 20 people. We paid 5,900 HUF for 6 wine tastings, a full glass of wine, and 3 cheese scones. It was delicious, and it was a great way to learn about the various wine regions in Hungary. Honestly, I didn’t know Hungary had such a wine scene until I visited the cellar. The wines were all very dry and good, and they make one very sweet Muscat wine that I do not recommend.
After our wine tasting, we made the trek back to Pest where we walked along the Danube for 30 minutes to our dinner destination of Kisakkuk. We sat outside in the perfect weather (it was 70 degrees and sunny all day and a little cooler at night—a nice break from Texas heat!). The meal was delicious, and we ended it with cake. I got a sponge cake that was soaked in some sort of liqueur with chocolate on top. It was the perfect way to end day one in Budapest.

Day 2 started with a tour of Parliament. The Parliament is the third largest in Europe (the first is London, and second is Bucharest). It is 96 meters high, since it was built for the millennial year. We bought our tickets online in advance for the 45 minute guided tour. The interior was very ornately decorated, as is every building in Budapest. After the tour, we climbed the tower at St. Stephen’s Basilica for a view of Buda. Anna and I agreed that the viewing platform was one of the most spacious we have seen in Europe, perfect for taking photos without a tourist running into you. The tower had a nominal admission fee, and the church itself was free to visit. The church was colorful and ornate, similar to Matthias Church. Our next stop was the Kazinczy Street Orthodox Synagogue. It is a small synagogue, brightly painted in blue that was used as a horse stable in WW2. They offer free shawls for girls to cover their shoulders. We wandered around the Jewish quarter and stopped at Karavan for lunch. Karavan is a food truck park. One truck served langos which is Hungarian fry bread topped with cheese and other toppings. They tasted a like a less sweet version of a funnel cake.

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Afterward, we ventured to Buda to visit Gellert Baths. Hungarians love their thermal baths. There are a few in Budapest, and we chose Gellert because it was closer to our hotel. Plus, the art nouveau style of the complex looked cooler than the other major bath in the city. The baths were built in the early 1900s and only closed once when a pipe burst. It stayed open during the entire WW2 although it suffered damage from the war. The complex has 5 indoor thermal pools ranging from 33 – 40 degrees Celsius. There is an indoor swimming pool used for water aerobics, water polo, and swimming. There is an outdoor thermal pool and an outdoor wave pool. In the outdoor area, there is a snack bar, and inside, there are masseuses. We tried out all the indoor thermal pools and liked the hottest pool the best, but it was too hot to stay into long. We then went to the wave pool to cool off. Pro tip: your admission includes a locker, but you can upgrade for about $6 to a cabin which is a private changing room. If one person in your group upgrades to a cabin, you can take turns using it and store your bags in the changing rooms. They are plenty big enough to store multiple bags.

After the baths, we stopped at Central Market Hall which is a giant market selling food and other items. There are some food stalls on the second floor. We walked through quickly and opted to grab cake and lemonade at Amber’s Café. Hungarians love cake. I even saw them eating cake at 10 am. I love cake, so I love Hungary. We tried the dobo cake which is a Hungarian sponge cake with chocolate buttercream and topped with caramel. It was the perfect afternoon snack.

We then headed to Szimpla Kert which was one of the first ruin pubs in the city. In 2004, the owners of Szimpla Kert bought rundown homes and factories that were set for demolition. They turned it into a quirky bar. There is a large open-air portion of the bar since the roof is missing. Then there is a maze of indoor rooms and bars that are fun to explore. The furniture is mismatched, and there are eclectic decorations throughout, including a gnome hanging from a swing, a convertible with a table and seating inside, and a pommel horse. Also, they randomly sell carrot sticks as a snack. Every time the lady asked a tourist if they wanted to buy a carrot stick, the tourist asked a thousand questions to see if it was a joke. It turns out it is not a joke. They simply serve carrot sticks. Szimpla Kert started a trend when it opened. People bought other “ruins” and turned them into ruin pubs around the city.

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After drinks, we ate at Kazimir Bistro and stopped at Karavan again for dessert. I got a cinnamon trdelnik which is a spit cake. It is made by rolling dough on a stick and grilling it to create a spiral cake. They are also called “chimney cakes” since they look like chimneys.

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Day 3 started with a day trip to Szentendre which is one of the towns on the Danube Bend (curve of the Danube that is north of Budapest). I accidentally bought us month long passes for the HEV suburban railroad, so Anna and I can travel from Budapest to Szentendre for an entire month if only we lived in Budapest. The price of the ticket seemed really expensive, but I didn’t question it since I know nothing about Hungarian transit prices.

The train took about 45 minutes from the Batthyany metro station on the Buda side. We arrived before 9 am in the tiny little town, and most everything was closed. We found a bakery and got coffee and poppy seed crescents while waiting for the town to wake up. We first visited the Marzipan Museum which luckily only cost $2. The Marzipan Museum did not teach us anything about Marzipan, but our $2 admission got us a sample of marzipan and a chance to see many marzipan figures. It reminded me of a wax museum, especially the life size marzipan replicas of Michael Jackson and Princess Diana. Also, the Marzipan Museum had a clean bathroom, so it was well worth our $2.

We then visited the National Wine Museum. Luckily, this “museum” was free, so we were not disappointed when we discovered the exhibit was simply a restaurant’s wine cellar with some poster boards with maps of the Hungarian wine region on them. We later returned to the National Wine Museum restaurant for an amazing lunch. I highly recommend their roasted chicken salad.

We wandered around the town, visited the Christmas Museum which is really just a Christmas decorations shop, saw the Danube River which looked like the Neches River in my hometown, tried to visit the church but refused to pay a 700 HUF admission fee, and stopped at every souvenir shops. The souvenir shops primarily sold hand painted pottery, hand-embroidered pillow cases and table cloths, lavender sachets and soaps, paprika, and wine. Of course, we got suckered into buying some souvenirs. Before we headed back to Budapest, we stopped at one of the million gelato shops in the town. We had seen people eating gelato since 10 am, so we finally caved and got some for our train ride home.

Back in Budapest, we visited the House of Terror Museum which chronicles the Nazi and Soviet occupation of Hungary. It is located at 60 Andrassy Street which was the headquarters of the Arrow Cross Party in 1944 and then the Soviet terror organizations from 1945 – 1956. The Arrow Cross Party was Hungary’s nationalistic pro-Nazi party that ruled the country until the Nazis invaded in 1944. Since the Arrow Cross Party was an ally of the Nazi party, they imposed discriminatory laws and executed minorities, but they evaded mass deportations and executions until the Nazis invaded in 1944. Tragically, 600,000 Hungarian Jews died in the Holocaust. One out of three people murdered at Auschwitz were Hungarian Jews. The Soviets took over Budapest after a 50 day long Siege of Budapest from December 1944 – February 1945 which then started another reign of terror lasting until 1991. The museum was very well-done. I recommend getting an audio guide if you don’t want to read pages of history in each room of the museum.

After the museum, we needed something to cheer ourselves up, so we went to New York Café which is in the Boscolo Hotel. It is called the New York Café because the building was originally built as the New York Life Insurance Company’s European headquarters in 1894. The café had an Eloise at the Plaza feel to it. It was elegantly decorated with frescoes on the very high ceilings and giant chandeliers. A string quartet was even playing when we arrived. We ordered our afternoon cake and lemonade and enjoyed the free Wifi until we wandered a few blocks over to Mazel Tov. Mazel Tov was a very cute, hipster restaurant with string lights canopying over the main dining area. 90% of the tables were reserved, so I would recommend reservations. Luckily, Anna and I went early and got a table in one of their courtyards. The chicken shawarma was amazing.
On our way back to the hotel, we observed that Dob Street in between Kazinczy and Rumbach is full of cutely decorated restaurants, bars, and cafes. It had a very Austin, Texas vibe, and the food looked and smelled amazing.

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Our route back to our hotel passed the Dohany Street Synagogue which is also known as the Great Synagogue which was luckily was open until 8 pm. Women must have covered shoulders and cannot wear shorts to enter the synagogue. They sell coverings for 300 HUF which look like the robes doctors wear in surgery. The synagogue is the second largest in the world. The synagogue offers free tours in various languages. We jumped on the tail end of the last English tour for the day and learned that the stained-glass windows were the originals. They were stored in the basement during WW2, protecting them from bombs that destroyed other parts of the complex. The synagogue was the heart of the Jewish ghetto where 70,000 people lived. The Nazis used the synagogue for radio transmission since there were high towers that they used to broadcast radio signals. The Nazis planned to destroy the synagogue, but 3 days before the scheduled demolition, the Soviets invaded, freeing the Jews who lived in it.

We headed back to the hotel since we both had early morning flights. In 3 days, we crossed all the major tourist sites off our Budapest to do list. Overall, we thought Budapest was a safe, clean, and elegant city. Plus, the food was delicious, the people were friendly, and the city was not overly crowded with tourists like other major European cities are in the summer. In summary, we definitely would recommend this city!

Posted by lsto90 20:41 Comments (0)

Le Tour de France

After a couple of long weekend trips in May (Las Vegas for a Hoover Dam tour, Cirque du Soleil shows, and a weekend full of wondering what draws people to Las Vegas because I would prefer never to go back; and Chicago to visit my friends Sam and Paul, experience a Cubs game, go to the Skydeck and Fields Museum, and taste the best deep dish pizza in Chicago at Pequods), I was ready for a longer trip.

In the fall, Le Tour de France (TDF) announced the Grand Depart (first stage) would be in Düsseldorf. My friend Anna (see 2013 euro trip blog: http://lsto90.travellerspoint.com/) moved to Dusseldorf in 2015 for a 3 year international rotation with KPMG. Growing up, I watched the TDF every July with my dad. I would wake up on weekend mornings to those two old British dudes providing commentary on Versus (previously HLN, later NBC Sports). Thus, the TDF has been on my bucket list for years.

The stars aligned that the TDF started in Düsseldorf, Anna could provide me free lodging in Düsseldorf, and it was over 4th of July weekend which meant I had a day off from work. Done and done. Booked a ticket, and here I am in Europe.

I arrived in Düsseldorf on Friday afternoon. Düsseldorf is in northwest Germany on the Rhine, near Belgium and Amsterdam. It's a big business hub, but it is not much of a tourist destination. We walked around the Alstadt (old town) which has cute cobblestone streets and old buildings. I met some of Anna's friends who work at a shop in the Alstadt, bought some TDF swag, and stopped at Uerige, one of the many local breweries. Dusseldorf is known for altbier which is a darker beer, kind of tasted like Shiner.

We ate dinner at Frankenheim (another brewery) where I got schnitzel (when in Germany, right?). Then we wandered around and passed one of my company's (Hines) new developments named Carlsquartier which looks like a fancy office building near the swanky shopping district.

Saturday, we drove 30 minutes to Cologne. The main attraction in Cologne is the giant cathedral built in the 1200s. It was rainy and cloudy all day, so I decided not to climb the bell tower. My view would have been of clouds which would not have been worth the exercise.

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Since it was rainy, we vetoed the walking tour of Cologne and went to the Fragrance Museum. Yes, cologne (the perfume) was created in Cologne. Farina House was the first cologne producer, established in 1709. They didn't have an English tour, so we got a brief overview of cologne's history and smelled the original fragrance.

Then we headed to the Schokoladen Museum (Lindt chocolate museum). Anna and I visited a chocolate museum in Belgium and weren't impressed, but the Cologne museum was much better. It was in a nice new building on the Rhine. Admission included 3 pieces of chocolate. They had a full Lindt assembly line in the museum which reminded me of that episode of I Love Lucy where Lucy and Ethel work at a candy factory, can't wrap the candies quickly enough, and resort to eating them. The process is now all automated so no I Love Lucy moments.

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We grabbed pizza by the cathedral and had kolsch beer which Cologne is known for making. We returned to Düsseldorf , picking up Anna's friend en route, and made our way to the TDF route. There was a TDF festival going on with different sports demonstrations and free TDF signs and flags. One company was handing out gummy bears and rubber duckies. They ran out of rubber duckies, so I got a giant handful of Haribo gummy bears. I didn't complain.

The Grand Depart was a time trial. The 196 riders rode a 14 km route through the city averaging 16.5 minutes. They started 3 minutes apart, so it took a few hours. We watched about 1.5 hours of the time trial, and we quickly learned that the car following the rider had a sign with the rider's name and nationality on it which made it fun knowing who we were cheering for during the .25 seconds they rode pass us.

We grabbed coffee afterward, and then stumbled upon another part of the course where we saw Chris Froome, winner of the last three tours, zoom by before we headed to Sushi Shop for dinner. Fun fact: Düsseldorf has a high concentration of Japanese people. Many Japanese businesses have headquarters in Tokyo. In fact, at some point in the 1980s, the city declared they had the highest concentration of Japanese people outside of Japan. All of that to say, Düsseldorf has good Japanese food.

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We went to Berg Platz where we ate apple strudel at Schwan (another brewery), and then we listened to the band playing in the plaza as part of the TDF festivities. Anna said it takes a lot of alcohol for Germans to dance. The alcohol must have been flowing because everyone there was dancing.

Sunday, we went to Anna's church which was right off the stage 2 course. Stage 2 was a 203 km ride from Dusseldorf to Liege, Belgium. We waited a while, and then saw the 4 leaders (one was American Taylor Phinney) who had broken away speed by. A few minutes later, the peloton followed which was very cool to watch. We grabbed lunch and headed to the airport where the Eurowings employee asked if I own a gun since I am from Texas (answer: no). On to the next part of my trip: Budapest.

Posted by lsto90 15:22 Archived in Germany Comments (0)

Rockin' Memorial Day Weekend

In January, I decided I needed to plan a Memorial Day weekend vacation. I created an itinerary and then was faced with the question of “with whom would I like to travel?” It had been a few months since I had seen my group of college friends affectionately known as the “Girls Group Text.” I pitched the plan to them. Usually when we coordinate a trip, there is a lot of back and forth about which dates and times work best for everyone and which destination is most appealing. Surprisingly on that January day, 5 of the 6 members of the Girls Group Text had no conflicts with the proposed itinerary. Thus, we decided that Memorial Day weekend would be our friend trip of 2017.

Memorial Day finally rolled around, and we departed from our respective hometowns, arriving by 9 am in Phoenix, Arizona. The guy at the National rental car counter tried to convince us to upgrade our minivan to an SUV for barely any price increase. We were firm and rejected his offer. Who doesn’t love sliding doors, bucket seats, and the chance to pretend to be a soccer mom without having to be a mom? We loaded up our minivan which we later dubbed Mini Minnie (I’ll tell you that story later), and we headed north.

We drove 2.5 hours north to Flagstaff. Emerging from the barren dessert into the Coconino National Forest where Flagstaff if located was the first example of the varied landscape in Arizona. The Coconino National Forest is the largest contiguous Ponderosa Pine forest in the USA. Allegedly, Ponderosa Pine smells like vanilla. In our opinion, they smelled like pine as they should since they are pine trees. The weather in Flagstaff was chilly and delightful since Flagstaff is at approximately 7,000 feet of elevation.

We ate lunch at Tourist Home Urban Market which we deemed our favorite lunch of the trip. First of all, it is an adorably decorated restaurant. Secondly, the food was delicious. We all scarfed our food down with no regrets. Lastly, the baked goods are well worth the price and the calories! After lunch, we wandered around the cute downtown area on an unsuccessful quest to find Jenny a hat from one of the many outdoor retailers in the downtown.

We drove to the northern edge of the town to hike Fat Man’s Loop. The name alluded that an out of shape person could handle this trail. What the online reviews failed to mention was the elevation gains on the trail which were a little drastic for the 4 girls who live at very low elevation the other 360 days of the year. We leisurely hiked the loop in about an hour. We think they should rename the trail to Skinny Man’s Loop to clear up any confusion.

After the hike, we continued our journey north to Page which is 2 hours north of Flagstaff and about 15 minutes from the Utah border. Page is possibly the largest town in northern Arizona which is not saying much. We rented an Airbnb which turned out to be a double wide trailer. Albeit, it was the most charming and spacious, nicest double wide I have ever seen. Caveat: I have not seen the interior of any double wide trailers, so I am not an expert.

Page’s culinary scene is not what attracts tourists to the area. We decided to dine at the #1 restaurant in Page per TripAdvisor. Likely, if you looked up top tourists traps on TripAdvisor, this place, Into the Grand, would show up as #1 on that list too. If Baby and her family from Dirty Dancing went to a Navajo reservation instead of a fancy family resort in Virginia, they would have had an Into the Grand type of event. Into the Grand is owned by a proud Page lifetime resident named Hoss. Due to the windy weather, we had to sit in the Grand Canyon Rafting Museum (at least, that is what Hoss is advertising the warehouse that stores old river rafts and features a painted mural of the Grand Canyon as). We had Navajo fry bread topped with our choice of meat and vegetables. Ryan, a local musician whom Hoss poached from a competing restaurant in town, serenaded us as we ate our fry bread. Truthfully, Ryan and the fry bread were awesome. I would pay money to listen to Ryan again.

At the end of the meal, Hoss surprised us by joining Ryan on stage to do a duet. Hoss is a man of many skills- a restaurateur, an entrepreneur, a museum curator, and a singer. After Hoss’ moment in the spotlight, he introduced Wally, a local member of the Navajo tribe. Wally kind of reminded me of Willy Nelson. He told us some long-winded stories and some interesting historical tidbits about the Navajo Nation. He also introduced all the Navajo dances that were performed for us. Well, I should clarify. The Navajo only perform their dances for ceremonial purposes. Thus, they performed dances from other tribes. The hoop dance was our favorite where two boys jumped in and out of five small hoops.

While we would have preferred the abbreviated history of the Navajo Nation, we did learn some fun facts. For instance, did you the Navajo have many names? They call themselves the Di’ne usually. Another fun fact: the Navajo follow Day Light Savings time, but Arizona does not. While driving in northern Arizona, you will go in and out of time zones within a few miles. As if time zones were not already confusing enough… At the end of the performance, Hoss invited people to come up and take pictures. He meant pictures of the dancers. Erin interpreted it as pictures with the dancers, so she bounded on up to the stage and stood in between the dancers for a photo opportunity. Meanwhile, the other tourists stared wondering why this girl was ruining their shot of the dancers.

Sun rises way too early in Arizona. We’re talking 5 am kind of early. We all woke up early and waited around for our Lower Antelope Canyon tour. Antelope Canyon was the primary reason for this trip. We had all seen pictures of it before, and we all wanted to see the slot canyon in person. You have to take a tour in order to enter the canyon since it is on Navajo property. The two main tour companies for the lower canyon are owned by a brother and a sister. Talk about sibling rivalry. Ignore the reviews because they do the exact same thing. So just go with whichever one is cheaper or has your available time. You can tour the lower or upper canyon or both. The lower canyon has a lot of steep ladders and stairs and of course some narrow passageways. We heard the upper canyon is a little bit easier to move through, so if you have mobility issues, maybe consider the upper canyon tour.

We went with Dixie Ellis’ Lower Antelope Canyon tour. We made reservations in advance, but we did not realize the tour does not actually start at the time of your reservation. That is the time you line up in the hot dessert sun to enter the canyon. We waited an hour in line. Luckily, it was not too warm yet, and we got to wait in the shade for part of it. The people in front of us were nice, and one lady reminded me of my mom especially when she chastised her adult children for not moving up quickly enough when the line moved.

Nike, our Navajo tour guide, led us through the canyon and pointed out various rock structures that look like animals, cartoons, and even Donald Trump. It took us 40 minutes to walk through the canyon. The tour companies keep you moving the entire time which hinders your group photo taking abilities, but we still got a good shot. Also, Jenny learned this lesson the hard way: beware of the low rock formations. It is easy to hit your head on them. Britney Spears shot her “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” music video here. I wonder how she got to spend so much time in the canyon without a tour guide moving her along.

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We grabbed lunch at the Rivers End Café before picking up our three kayak rentals. The two guys who worked at the rental company helped us strap them to the roof of the Mini Minnie. We took pictures of the set up and had them repeat the directions to ensure we understood. The last thing we wanted was a kayak catapulting off the top of our car into a neighboring car. The guys told us we could probably handle strapping them back on the car after we finished kayaking, and then one guy said, “but you are also 5 attractive young women who could easily sway some guys to assist you.” The same thought ran through all of our minds, and we knew without even speaking to each other that we were on the same page. We were bound and determined to defy this guy and strap the kayaks on the roof ourselves. Girl power.

We went to the Antelope Canyon launch ramp on Lake Powell. Lake Powell is one of the dammed lakes on the Colorado River (no, not the Colorado River in Texas. The Colorado River that runs through 5 states in the western part of the USA and into Mexico). Lake Powell is gorgeous and huge. It is 186 miles long and 25 miles wide. It was not very busy for Memorial Day Weekend at the Antelope Canyon launch ramp which was nice. We kayaked for a couple of hours and stopped to cliff jump at one point. We decided we would only jump off a cliff after a third-party person jumped off to ensure the water was deep enough. We found a mom and her two young sons jumping off some rocks that were about 15 feet high. They assured us the water was deep enough, and Sam volunteered as tribute and was the first from our group to jump. Next on deck was Megan. She was taking a little time to mentally prepare for her jump, so she let the little boy go in front of us. He smacked his butt on the water and started crying uncontrollably- just what Megan needed to boost her confidence before the jump. She decided to jump from a lower rock instead. I jumped from the higher one, and half way through the fall, I remembered I was afraid of heights and hate the feeling of free falling. So of course, I ended up doing it again despite my fears.

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We kayaked back to the launch ramp for the real test of the day: strapping the kayaks to the roof. Guess what, silly men at the rental shop, we heaved those three kayaks on to the roof of the Mini Minnie and secured them in 10 minutes. Good work, girls! Yes, we made someone take a picture of us in front of the car with the kayaks strapped on to them. In my former life as an auditor, I learned you can never have too much documentation.

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The other main attraction in Page is Horseshoe Bend. Reviews said you park in the parking lot and just walk up a short hill to see Horseshoe Bend. We decided to visit at sunset, and we got there right as the sun was setting expecting a five minute jaunt up a hill. Always be skeptical of online reviews. That short walk to the top of the hill was only the first part of the journey to the bend. Then we walked about 20 minutes on a very sandy, slightly uphill path. Luckily, we still made it with daylight left to spare, unlike some of the tourists we saw running to catch the last rays of light later in the evening. It turns out that sunset is the most popular time of day to photograph Horseshoe Bend. I have never seen so many tripods in my life. They were all set up on flimsy edges of sandstone with the camera owner barely on the ledge as well, giving me anxiety. FYI there are no guardrails at Horseshoe Bend so if you bring a young kid with you, put them on a leash.

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We then headed to one of the other top 5 eating establishments in Page. We ate at State 48 Tavern which inspired us to confirm that Arizona was indeed the 48th state admitted to the USA. We learned that Page is notorious for slow service. We waited forever for food in an empty restaurant. We were all so tired after our full day and long dinner that we decided to forego finishing the puzzle we had started earlier in the day. This might have marked the first time we have ever decided to quit a puzzle.

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On day 3, we got ready early and stopped again at Horseshoe Bend to get better pictures. At 8 am, the place is nearly deserted which was perfect for us. We took our pictures, enjoyed the view, and we left an hour later, but first we stopped at the compost toilets. Miscreants must be visiting Horseshoe Bend because those bathrooms were disgusting. We drove 3.5 hours south through the muted dessert landscape of the north through the Coconino Forest and into the pink sandstone surrounding Sedona. Note, the drive took an extra hour because of awful traffic near Slide Rock State Park which is something I experienced the last time I drove from Flagstaff to Sedona on a weekend.

On our way down, we followed a miniature Winnebago which is nicknamed the Mini Winnie. The Mini Winnie was going slower than our desired speed, and since it was a two-lane road, we had very few opportunities to pass it. Eventually, Erin passed the Mini Winnie, and we thought we would never see it again. The Mini Winnie was the inspiration for the Mini Minnie name of our minivan. Two days later, Erin was in Tucson visiting her brother and saw a Mini Winnie on the road. They stopped at the same park, and Erin inquired the driver about his route. She confirmed this Mini Winnie was the one we followed. The next day, Erin spotted the Mini Winnie again but did not confront the driver again out of fear of being considered a stalker.

Our friend David texted us with a question for us. Our pictures of Antelope Canyon reminded him of the movie 127 Hours where a guy is pinned by a boulder and cuts his arm off to survive. His question to us was if we were all simultaneously pinned by a boulder, who would cut their arm off to free themselves and get the rest of us help. He expected us to simply respond with one of our names. Instead we over analyzed the question and came up with a list of factors to consider before making this decision. For instance, who has the highest pay out from their accidental death and dismemberment insurance? Where is each person’s arm pinned? If you must cut your arm off, you need to have enough arm to tie a tourniquet on so you don’t lose too much blood and can still seek help. Who is carrying a knife with them, and who can access that person’s knife from their position under the boulder? Whose non-dominant arm is pinned under the rock? Who would save us all but hold it over our heads for the rest of our lives? Wait, have we tried all of our cell phones yet? Jenny has Sprint which only worked in remote locations on our trip. Surely, she could call someone to save us. Later in the trip, Megan commented the she was so hungry she could eat her arm which made our final decision for us. Megan would volunteer to save the group.

We arrived in Sedona at lunch time and ate at the Pump House. Sam ordered a sandwich without cheese. A sandwich comes out, and the waiter tells us what it is. He says there is no cheese on it, so Sam took it. From miles away, we could see that there was a thick piece of melted cheddar cheese on this sandwich, but the guy swore there was no cheese on it. Lies. It was mid-afternoon, and Sedona is noticeably hotter than Page. We originally had plans to hike Devil’s Bridge or Cathedral Rock, two of the most popular trails in Sedona. Upon further review, we opted to go for an easier hike due to the weather and our personal fatigue. We went to Red Rock Crossing/Crescent Moon Ranch. We drove up to the park, and the ranger informed us we had just passed a line full of cars waiting to get into the fully occupied park. We looked behind us and saw only one car waiting to get in, but we decided to turn around and find another hike without a wait. Luckily, there are trailheads all over Sedona. However, cell phone service is spotty throughout so it is difficult to look up the hike before you start it. We chanced it and hiked part of the Scorpion and Pyramid trails. They ended up being an excellent choice because they offered great views of Sedona’s red rock.

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We checked into another Airbnb. This one was owned by Estella who is 93 years old and was formerly the post master in Sedona. We wished we could have met Estella because she looked adorable, but Estella lives in Scottsdale with her kids now. Estella’s place was yet another great Airbnb option. We ate at the Hudson which was our favorite dinner of the trip. It was delicious, and the service, unlike Page’s service, was impeccable. The Hudson has great views of the red rock, and reservations are highly recommended. If possible, request to sit on the patio. Unfortunately, we had to sit inside, but the restaurant has floor to ceiling windows so we could still enjoy the view. Tim, our waiter, was a clean-cut guy, but very soft spoken and seemed shy. I noticed his arms were covered in tattoos, including one that said, “established in 1988” and the whole time I wanted to confirm if that was his birth year but didn’t know the protocol for asking strangers about their tattoos.

After a dance party to pop punk music from the 2000s, we went to bed and woke up early to try Red Rock Crossing/Crescent Moon Ranch again. At 8 am, there is no wait to get in. We were very disappointed to find out that these hikes were paved sidewalks. It was more of a family recreational area than a hiking type of park. However, we did get a nice view of Cathedral Rock from the park, and we had time afterwards to stop at a random trailhead and do some more hiking. We hiked parts of Old Post Trail and Ramshead which had a dry river bed through it. We headed to Estella’s, showered, and then went to lunch at Hideaway House. Hideaway House has two levels of patios overlooking the beautiful red rocks. It was a great lunch time destination, and the service was great again. Sedona definitely caters to resort goers which probably explains the great service. Also, Hideaway House was the only place that carded us the entire trip. We started to come to terms with the fact that age 27 is when you look too old to be carded, but we were very pleased when the waitress requested to see our IDs.

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We walked around town for a little while before driving 2 hours to Phoenix. On our way into Phoenix, we stopped at Churn for ice cream since the ice cream in Sedona was ridiculously priced at $7 for one scoop. We returned the Mini Minnie which had developed an odd odor from our adventures and headed back to our respective hometowns. It was yet another rockin' friend trip (get it, because of all the Arizona rocks)!

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Posted by lsto90 21:08 Archived in USA Tagged arizona sedona page antelope_canyon horseshoe_bend Comments (0)

Tchau, Portugal!

We took a 3 hour train back to Lisbon on Friday. We arrived in the afternoon and hit up one of the many Easter markets for a meat and cheese plate to hold us over until dinner. Usually, people are amazed at how large the portions are in America. Portugal's portions are huge. This meat and cheese plate was advertised to feed two people. We could have served it as an appetizer at a party with ten other people. We ended our day in Lisbon with wandering around the historic Alfama neighborhood and dinner at Sacramento for a second time. Below are a few things we learned while in Portugal that we thought were noteworthy albeit random:

1. Signature required credit cards- I feel a little dumb that I am just now realizing why my credit card rarely has worked at automatic ticketing machines in Europe. Most Americans have credit cards that require a signature, whereas in Europe, they have pins similar to a debit card. At an automatic ticketing machine in a subway station, for instance, you most likely won't be able to use your credit card because there is no way to sign the receipt and return it to the station for their records. You must have a pin authorized debit or credit card or cash. We saw a lot of Americans struggling with this at the automatic ticket machines at Pena Palace, and that is when I had the "ah ha" moment and figured it out.

2. Couvert- At Portuguese restaurants, they will set down bread, olives, cheese, etc. at the beginning of the meal. This food is not complimentary. It is called the couvert and is usually around €3 a person. If you don't want it, don't touch it and tell the waiter to take it back.

3. Ginjinha- Portugal loves this local cherry liquor. They serve shots of it every where for a euro or two. Sometimes, you can order it in a chocolate shot glass. I personally didn't like it and thought it tasted like cherry and cinnamon.

4. Cork- Portugal is the largest producer of cork in the world. It produces about 50% of the world's cork. Cork can be expensive. For instance, nice wine corks for fancy bottles of port can cost a euro or more a piece.

5. Other foods- Portugal has amazing fresh fruit. Every morning, we had the best kiwis and melons for breakfast. They had orange and lemon trees everywhere. Also, Portugal had delicious fresh seafood. Their bachalau (cod) and octopus were my favorite. If you aren't a seafood fan, traditional Portuguese food always includes meats (veal was popular in Porto). They especially love their cured meats. Overall, their cuisine is delicious but simple. Meat or fish cooked with some olive oil served with rice or boiled or fried potatoes and a handful of other vegetables (cabbage, peppers, onions, etc.). A popular soup is calde verde which is cabbage and potato soup. I thought it was a little plain and needed some seasoning, but they aren't big into seasoning.

6. Porto- We preferred Porto to Lisbon. Both are relatively small and can be conquered in a day or two. Lisbon had more history related to the various invaders in the country over time, while in Porto, we learned more about the native Portuguese culture. We thought Porto seemed more vibrant. It was smaller and more colorful than Lisbon. I loved the river view, and while I didn't like port wine before this trip, I enjoyed learning about its rich history. It eventually grew on me.

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7. Fado- Fado is their traditional music. It is a sad lullaby played on guitar and sometimes accompanied by a singer. In Lisbon, many restaurants and bars in the Alfama district have nightly performances. We tried to attend a show in Porto, but they were running behind schedule and were 45 minutes late to start. Luckily, we caught some music in the Alfama on our last day. Lisbon and Porto both have a ton of musicians performing on the streets, and we were impressed by all of them.

8. Drinking straws- They love straws. They usually put two straws in every drink. They also keep the top part of the straw covered, so you know no one has put their hands all over your straw.

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9. Carhartt- In the USA, we think Carhartt is a great outdoor/industrial clothing brand. In Portugal, it is a trendy fashionable brand. The Carhartt stores did not feature the sturdy work clothing the brand sells in America. Instead it had men's fitted tee shirts with their logo on them and tight jeans.

10. Tourist season- Their high seasons for tourism starts in April when they experience the "Spanish invasion." The Spanish enjoy vacationing in Portugal for Easter. Now, we know why it was so crowded! However, April was a great time to visit. It was sunny, but in the shade, it was very comfortable and cool.

11. The people- Portuguese people are so nice and happy to help tourists! For the most part, they spoke English very well, so we never encountered any true language barriers.

Overall, we enjoyed Portugal. If the wine isn't enough to convince you to visit, maybe the food, people, relatively lower prices than the rest of Western Europe, and culture can entice you.

Posted by lsto90 16:42 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

A Day in the Douro

Thursday, we went on a tour of the Douro Valley. We opted for Douro Exclusive company because they only host tours for small groups of 7 people or less. I am still scarred from a Tuscany bus tour I took after college graduation, so small groups are preferable. We shared our tour with two other American couples, including Rick, a recent retiree from California who was living the retirement dream. I aspire to be Rick one day.

Marco, our Douro born and raised tour guide, started Douro Exclusive four years ago with his wife Ana. He informed us Douro Valley tourism only really started in the last five years because it was difficult to access, but then, they built a new highway making the drive from Porto to the valley only 1.5 hours. Ana and Marco know what they are doing. They have their logo monogrammed on shirts, outerwear, wine glasses, chocolate candies, local candies, ice chest, towels, everything. A+ in branding.

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Our first stop was at Quinta de Tourais which is a small winery producing 30,000 bottles of table wine each year. Fernando, the owner of the estate, explained the winery had been in his family for four generations. It is a class B winery. What does that mean? The almighty Instituto dos Vinho do Douro w Porto (IVDP) is located in Porto and is the PCAOB of the Douro wine and port world. Based on various criteria (vines, altitude, vine density, gradient, types of grape varieties planted, overall location of the vineyard, soil, microclimate, etc.), they rank the wineries in the Douro from A to F with A being the best. Each year, the IVDP determines which percentage of grapes each classification must sell to Port producers and which percentage they can keep to make their own wine. They also govern all aspects of port and Douro wine production. For instance, Fernando is not allowed to water his land. The land must be naturally watered by rainfall. Also, Fernando has to send the Institute samples of his wine before bottling and selling it. The IVDP ensures it meets their criteria, and then, they issue serial numbers for each bottle of wine. Sometimes, they do surprise inspections to ensure the winery is actually bottling and selling the same wine as the sample was.

Fernando let us sample one white and three reds. He also let us sample a vintage port that his neighboring winery produces. Fernando does not produce port to sell because the market is too hard for a little winery. However, he does produce port for his personal consumption and let us try a tawny straight from his barrel. He then pulled out an experimental white wine that he made. It was a very sweet white wine with the consistency of port, but it was not a fortified wine. It was delicious.

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The next stop was DOP restaurant where we sat on the deck along the Douro River. We had a three course meal and sample three more wines. Afterward, we went to Fonseca which is owned by the Taylor group. We tried 3 ports (an LBV, extra dry white, and ruby) before boarding a rabelo boat tour. The rabelos were the ancient boats used to transport wine to Porto. Now they just use big trucks that look like the ones we see transporting oil in Texas. Once you get to a certain part in the Douro, the land is all privately held or unexplored, and there are no public roads. The boat tour took us down the river to see the private land and to marvel at how steep the hills are that the vineyards are on. Harvesting the grapes at a 50% incline seems like the worst work out ever.

Afterward, we headed back to Porto. Marshall and I ate at Adega São Nicolao which was a popular spot near the river. We ate cod, veal, a salad, and an almond tart. We have learned that entrees here are meant to be shared. Portions are huge, but they cost as much as a single entree costs in America. Unfortunately, Marshall isn't a fish fan, and I prefer fish to meat. So every meal, we feel wasteful with all our leftovers.

After dinner, we experienced our sugar crash from all the port drinking and called it a night. In summary, if in Port, go on a Douro Valley tour. It is gorgeous, but beware of the sugar crash you will experience.

Also, the best year for Douro wines, including Port, was 2011, so buy Portuguese wines form 2011.

Posted by lsto90 10:33 Archived in Portugal Comments (0)

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