Monday, November 30, 2015

Day 10: Czech list: Prague! Check!

Sunday, November 29

Mercedes Benz for a cab, not too shabby.
After spending our last full day and evening in Budapest, we finally got to our hotel around 10:30pm. As expected we were tired from all of the day’s excursions. We went to the business center and printed a few things we needed for Prague. All this time, for some reason, in my mind I had us leaving for Prague via Budapest’s Keleti station. So Nancy asked the front desk information how to get to Keleti via a taxi. Once I printed our itinerary, there was no “Keleti” word at all. I showed my printout to the front desk clerk, and he said, I was right, we weren’t leaving from Keleti. Instead, our bus to Prague leaves out of Nepliget. 

Oh man! So glad we checked. Once we got everything settled, we headed for our room, but instead of packing, Nancy fell asleep, while I wrote my Day 9 blog entry. By midnight, I decided to quit and sleep. Nancy, on the other hand, got her second wind, and she started to pack. Next thing you know, it was 4am, and we had to get up. We made it downstairs shortly before 5am, our cab driver was already outside waiting for us. The ride to Nepliget was quite short, roughly 15-20 minutes. Our bus departure time was at 6:15am.

To Prague by train or by bus?
Will gladly take Student Agency Express Bus...again!!
It's a good thing that we got to Nepliget bus station early. I had no idea where to go to wait for our bus. I wasn't exactly looking for a Greyhound bus, but it was a bus that I booked using a suggested website from one of the folks on TripAdvisor - Student Agency. I was told that no matter what we take, a bus or train, the travel time is pretty much the same (7-8 hours). The difference? There's free Wi-Fi if we were to take a bus. That was the deciding factor. The Student Agency bus also offered free drinks, free entertainment (music and movies). The total for this 1-way bus ride for the 2 of us was only $33 USD.

So back to Nepliget, I couldn't see any sign pointing to Student Agency, so naturally, I asked one of the guards. He asked me to follow him outside of the station and pointed across the street. The Student Agency buses do not leave from the bus station, but on marked spots outside of the station. It was a bit of a challenge looking for the sign outside, but Nancy and I followed our instincts and looked for the other visible sign - the crowd build up. Voila, that's where we found our yellow Student Agency bus. We checked in, and found our assigned seats very close to the driver.
Researched and blogged by en route to Prague

 Once on board, we were told that the Wi-Fi works best once we are in the Czech Republic. I was kinda bummed, BUT, it actually worked out. Nancy and I slept like a log from 6am until 10:30 am, that's when the bus took a 1/2 hour break at a gas station. After the break, I was already fully charged and started to write this blog. The internet was spotty in some areas, but it got better as we moved closer and closer to Prague. Overall, I was extremely delighted that we took a bus using Student Agency and would highly recommend it.

The bus arrived on time at 2:00pm at Praha Florenc bus station. I made arrangements for a private car service to take us from the station to our hotel. I was told to meet Donna, our driver, and she was waiting while she held a sign with my name right outside Burger King. She was very helpful, spoke English quite well, and gave us tips about our visit. We got to our hotel by 2:30pm. Thanks, Donna.

Welcome to Prague

Park Inn Prague
We finally made it to our next home, the Park Inn Prague. As I mentioned, this hotel stay is also at no cost to us due to using Club Carlson points we earned. First impression, the hotel looked new, and I was right, Matej (Matthew), the front desk receptionist, told us that the hotel was recently renovated six years ago. It used to to be a printing shop for newspapers. When we looked around, lots of blown up memorabilia of the old days prior to it becoming a hotel. Matej assigned us room 402, and we made our way to the elevator and then we stopped.....I said, wait a minute.

Ask and you shall receive
I wondered if I got an upgrade since Club Carlson Gold Members (which we are) get an upgrade. So I went back to the front desk, and asked if there was an upgrade available. After a few seconds, "how about a corner business suite with a 90-degree view of the Vltava River - the longest river in the Czech Republic?" Although he didn't have to sell the idea to me, the business suite was three times larger than the original room he gave me. Gladly, I accepted. To our sweet suite, we headed straight!

We unpacked, rested for a bit, showered and headed back downstairs. We were able to get our transportation ticket directly from the hotel. The ticket was valid for all kinds of transportation - trams, metro (subway). The key thing that I read up on was the need to validate the newly purchased tickets - Subway: before entering the subway, buses and trams: right after getting on them.
Website pic of our corner suite

Off to see Prague
From the hotel, we made a quick right and walked down for a couple of blocks to the nearest tram stop at Vynto. The tram arrived, we validated our tickets in this yellow apparatus. After 4 stops (about a 10 minute ride), we made it to Staromestska, that was where the tram stopped. I remembered the map, and the place we were headed to was going away from the river (on our left side), therefore, we headed towards the right side. I followed my iPhone's Google Maps and we were eventually led to St. Michael's Monastery Baroque Hall. We had about 1 hour to kill before show time, and we didn't realize that we were at the Old Town Square, home to many ancient building and magnificent towers and churches. Surrounding the square were the following notable sights - the Old Town Hall Tower & Astronomical ClockTyn Church and St. Nicholas Church.

Old Town Winter Holiday Fair
We must've timed this vacation perfectly. Everywhere we went to during this trip back to Europe, there was always a winter holiday market. Prague's market boasted of loads of gastronomic proportions. We had to give the local food a try and opted for Old Prague Ham with cabbage potatoes
and bacon. It was quite deceiving because they posted the price by weight, but they served it huge portions. We, along with lots of tourists, received bigger portions than our minds had desired. Oh, well. I'm over it. Let that be a lesson-learned.....the ham was juicy and tender. There goes our very first meal in Prague.

The Best of World Musicals
While we were still in Budapest, I checked a few Prague websites and looked at upcoming events. Once I saw the listing for Star Night with The Best & Famous World Musicals, it was a no brainer. Sold. Unlike the Opera in Budapest, this show was quite intimate. It was held in the Baroque Hall of St. Michael's Monastery. There were no more than 100 seats. As we entered, we saw piano, a couple of harps and a slightly elevated stage. Nothing fancy here, until the performers walked in. It was not a full orchestra, just a lady who played the piano, and man who played the saxophone. 

There was one soloist. For about 1.5 hours, we were serenaded with a few holiday music, and then on to the best world musical songs. While the soloist sang 99% of the songs in English, it was her powerful rendition of Les Miserables' On My Own that caught my attention. It was sung in the Czech language. I've heard that song sung a gazillion times, and it was just as magnificent in Czech as it was in English. Brava! I wish I had recorded that song on video. Another great moment was listening to Miss Saigon's I Still Believe. It was not sung by the soprano, but it was a duet with piano and the sax. It was fantastic. There were no microphones, but the acoustics of the Baroque Hall made the sound hauntingly beautiful. That's it, that was our first night in Prague. Thanks for following.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Day 9: Thermal Bath. Outdoors. Snow. Seriously.

Saturday, November 28

Growing up, my Mama Flocer, my grandma who took care of me and my brother while our parents were at work, never allowed us to play in the rain. I saw my cousins and friends play in the rain, but not me. Well, that all changed today.

Gellert Bath
When I prepared for our return trip to Europe, I read up many TripAdvisor postings about Baths in Budapest. I thought, "seriously?" Especially in the heart of late Fall, early winter time, the last thing that came to my mind was to jump in a pool of water. Well, According to the website, VisitBudapest, "Budapest isn't called the 'City of Baths' for nothing. Hungary is a land of thermal springs, and Budapest remains the only capital city in the world that is rich in thermal waters with healing qualities. Budapest is also one of the few places where you can experience traditional Turkish baths dating back to 16th and 17th centuries." Therefore, it was inevitable that we just had to give it a try. We decided to go to Gellert Baths, a 5-10 minute bus ride from our hotel. Gellert and Szechenyi are the top 2 baths that draw lots of visitors. Szechenyi was a bit of a trek to get to, so we opted to go to Gellert Baths. 

I noticed that it was a little damp outside. The other days, while not sunny, didn't rain at all. Well, call me naive (I'm guilty since I grew up in Southern California), but I looked out and thought, "Hmmmm, that does not look like rain drops!" I was right, it was snowing out. Well, it wasn't a major snowstorm or anything, but it was snow, nonetheless. The more I started to wonder if it was a great idea to head to a thermal bath when it was snowing outside. What the heck, we went for it. But before going to Gellert's, we found a little bakery, Gellert Pekseg, and had a pastry to start our morning.

Gellert's Baths is part of the Gellert hotel. We had to walk around the hotel to get to the baths. We opted for an entry fee plus a "cabin" - basically, a private changing room. We were shown which pools and baths were available, the temperature of the baths, and which ones were accessible for the day. There were quite a few thermal baths available, and we opted to try most of them in their varying temperatures. At first, we did a thermal bath musical chairs indoors. It wasn't a jacuzzi or anything like that. Instead, it's a big pool of medicinal, therapeutic warm/hot water. 
It was ironic to be wearing my Maui and Sons board shorts while it snowed lightly in Budapest

The main indoor pool
After enjoying the indoor baths, Nancy wanted to check out the outdoor bath. I looked at her and said, "seriously, it's snowing out?" She was serious! So we went outdoors. THE. BEST. DECISION. Here's a short clip on the light snowfall while we were in the outdoor bath.

The bigger outdoor pool was closed for the winter, but there was another pool that was available for our use. Why the best decision? It was so relaxing to be in a hot pool, where we saw the steam rose from the water, and then to do everything outside, watched the snow fall....that was an amazing experience, something Nancy and I will never forget.

Doner Kebab....again
We spent about a couple of hours at Gellert, and after our bath escapade, we took the bus back to our hotel. The bus stopped near the Batthyani Ter, we had an option to walk to our hotel or grab lunch. We went with the latter. We were quite Hungary and ordered Gyro, Greek Salad, Falafel, and a couple of desserts. It was a visual pleasure to look at the food that was given to us. We were very pleased with our lunch, all for close to $6 (including a soda). After lunch, we finally went back to our hotel, rested for a bit, charged our cell phones and headed out around 2:30pm back to the Pest side.

Greek Salad
Falafel pita

Szechenyi, Heroes Square
This was our last full day in Budapest and we wanted to explore a few more sights. After taking the train, we went to Szechenyi, the other popular bath in Budapest. It's bigger than Gellert's. There was a huge pool outside, and it was steaming hot, and while we didn't go in, we could see that the crowd was enjoying their time in this cold Saturday afternoon. 

 We also headed down to Heroes Square and took pictures outside the nearby Vayunhada Castle and other museums in the area.

For the rest of the evening, I decided to stroll around Oktogon area. There were lots of restaurants. The one recommended by someone from TripAdvisor, Hoppa Etterem, closed earlier today. So, we were on our own and decided which joint would catch our attention. As we strolled down, we also noticed Liszt Music Academy, a gorgeous solid building.

Frici Papa

After a few minutes, Nancy stopped at Frici Papa. It wasn't brightly lit from the outside, no big fancy signs, but what's the selling point here? The crowd! It was packed for an early Saturday evening. We went inside and opted to sit upstairs, and to no surprise, there were even more people upstairs. We ordered the beef goulash, fried pork rib, and for dessert, a pancake/crepe with cottage cheese & whip cream, & pureed chestnut and cream. plus for our drinks - Homemade Lemonade and Raspberry with syrup. It was as authentic as it could get. Nothing pretentious about this place. We ate all of that, after the conversion back to US dollars - around $11 total. This was not a fast food joint. This was a full-service restaurant. It was wonderful.

More Budapest please
On our way back to the hotel, I told Nancy that we should stop at Kossuth Lajos Ter (a train stop near the Parliament). We've never taken a good picture of us with the Parliament in the background, with the Buda Castle District, with the National Gallery, and with the Szechenyi Bridge. It was our last evening and it was our way of savoring our last evening here.

As we made our way to the hotel, we stopped for at Cafe Angelika and had one more dessert, Somloi cake and a fruit tea for Nancy. 

That was our Day 9 - thanks so much for following us.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Day 8: All Things Budapest - Cafes and Opera

It's now Friday, and if we were in California, we'd be among those who'd be braving the shopping events we once knew as Black Friday. Well, the thrill of Black Friday has succumbed to the power that is now known as Gray Thursday. Heavily discounted shopping has swept a lot of consumers away from the Thanksgiving dinner table in order to avail of the doorbusters on Gray Thursday. For this year, I only had a couple of items that I had in mind, and prior to flying to Europe, I had already enlisted my brother's assistance in getting my item/s for me. Ethan has been charged to make sure his Tito Jit was reminded.

Started our day in Buda - The National Gallery
Yesterday, we explored the Castle District located right above our hotel. We decided to start our day on the Buda side, and we took a bus towards National Gallery. We were able to hit 3 birds with one stone here by viewing the green Chain Bridge, riding the Funicular (a mountainside cable train ride), and the National Gallery. The grounds of the National Gallery allowed us to view the highlights of the other side, the Pest side. It was quite expansive, there were military guards and lots of tourists who visited the area.

Gellert Hill
After leaving the National Gallery, we decided to take another bus that took us further down on the Buda side. This time we went to Gellert. Budapest is known for its therapeutic thermal baths, and we wanted to check it out. Maybe we will give it a try before we leave on Sunday.

St Stephen's Basilica
From Gellert, we went to Deak Ferenc Ter, rested for a bit at Costa Coffee, and then we made our way to St. Stephen's Basilica, a huge church in Budapest. It's huge! It was towering over the buildings nearby.

 It's no wonder that it's one of the tallest buildings in Budapest at 315 ft.

Right after we left the basilica, we walked around the local street fair and had a traditional fondi and the thickest hot chocolate ever!

Boscolo Budapest - New York Cafe
Since we are in Europe, we wanted to do as many "local" things. So when I saw the words "New York Cafe" as a must-see cafe in Budapest, I ignored it. I mean, we've been to New York, and in my mind, what was the big deal about going to a cafe with a New York name attached to it? Since we were in the area, and had time to kill, fine! We took a tram towards the Boscolo Hotel. First of all, that should've given me a clue. The Boscolo group of Hotels are no ordinary hotels. They are part of Marriott's Autograph Collection. How did I know this? We've stayed in Boscolo Milano - a five-star hotel in Milan. The one in Milan was trendy. But when we got to the Boscolo Budapest, it was like walking in to the old Renaissance period.  It was museum of a hotel. New York Cafe was accessible right outside. According the Hungarian travel website, "It was a popular place among writers and editors, in fact, the most influential newspapers were edited here, upstairs in the gallery. After World War II, the once famous café fell into disrepair and it served as a sporting goods shop. Although the café reopened in 1954, under the name of Hungária, it wasn't until 2006 that the New York Café was restored to its original splendor."

We were seated and ordered, what else? Goulash and a dessert platter. The food was great, but it was all about the ambiance, the piano player, the beauty that is old European!

Our first opera, Madame Butterfly
Most of our friends know that we're no strangers when it comes to watching live theatre. Whether it's a show on Broadway, or a touring cast that travelled to Southern California, and even most recently, a show over in London's West End, if we could make it, we would be there and watch. The weeks leading up to our Europe trip, I didn't get a chance to book any shows in Budapest or Prague. It wasn't until Thursday when we decided to get tickets to the State Opera House.
I checked their website. We had to make a choice, The Nutcracker or Madame Butterfly. We've never seen The Nutcracker but decided to hold off, and we chose Madame Butterfly instead. We bought orchestra box seats.

We've never seen an opera. All I could think of was all these singers and their big voices, their vibrato resonating in my ears. We were also a bit skeptical since we weren't sure if there would be subtitles in English. Well, we got our answers. This was our takeaway from our first experience watching an opera:

a. Three Acts, instead of two, meaning there were 2 intermissions
b. No set changes
c. No big theatrical effects
d. Subtitles were in English, and I assume that the other language was Hungarian

It was an amazing experience. As much as I had an idea what the story was about, I have to give credit to the subtitles. That helped a LOT!!! The cast was stellar. There were no huge sound systems or speakers, it was pure sound magic. Nancy and I sat in Box 7, left side of the orchestra. We had a perfect view of the stage there were no scenes missed. The box had a capacity for six. As luck would have it, we were in a box with other Americans from Kentucky and Cupertino. Because of the 3 separate acts, the show that started at 7pm ended at 10:20pm. This will not be our last opera. I'm looking forward to going to another one in the future perhaps in LA or NY.

Hungary post-show
Since it was already 10:20pm, all we wanted to do was to make it back to our hotel. But we were a bit Hungary, and decided to find something closer to our hotel. Nancy suggested we try Doner's Kebab Express located right next to the Metro station close to our hotel. For under $6, we were able to order 2 kebabs which also included a soda for each of us. It was a perfect way to end our long day and evening in Beautypest, Budapest. Good night!