Thursday, November 27, 2014

Hungry for Thanksgiving in Budapest

Planning a trip to Europe?  Let us know, and we're pretty likely to hop in the car and join you on your adventure (is there an echo on this blog?).  When Arish (who worked with Kristin at Dow Lohnes) sent word that he would be in Budapest and Vienna for Thanksgiving, we still didn't know what our plans would be for the holiday.  After some debate over whether we'd travel back to the states or someplace else for turkey day, we opted to crash Arish's trip.

Hungarian Parliament Building

Instead of watching the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade, we joined Arish, his friends Meredith and Jeff, and their munchkin Parker (who was an amazing little traveler) on Thursday.  To begin our sightseeing, we headed up to the castle district (a UNESCO world heritage site) on the Buda side of Budapest by funicular.   
Chain Bridge is the most prominent of the 14 bridges connecting Buda to Pest across the Danube

We spent some time checking out the views from Fishermen's Bastion and Matyas (Matthias) Church.  Despite the cold, the historic buildings and great views made for some fun sightseeing.  
Stop for a snack and hot beverage, and it will be nighttime when you emerge.
Matthias Church was built in the 14th century and is one of many buildings along the Danube that are lit beautifully at night, which comes early this time of year.

Behind the church is the Halászbástya (Fisherman's Bastion) overlooking the river.  It was built around 1900 as a terrace to enjoy the views over Pest up and down the river and was named after the stretch of the city wall that fisherman were charged with defending in the Middle Ages.  It's even more impressive when you consider all of this was rebuilt after the 50-day Siege of Budapest at the end of WWII.  German and Soviet troops fought hard and destroyed most of the original infrastructure while the 800,000 citizens were trapped in town without much food or other provisions.

Fisherman's Bastion and the back side of Matthias Church

The Parliament building was even more beautiful when lit up at night

We checked out the palace area and then it was time to head back to the apartment Arish et al. had rented for our Thanksgiving feast.

There isn't much Turkey to be found in Hungry so instead we stuffed ourselves on Greek food.  Yum.

We hit the ground running on Friday to make sure we caught some more traditional Budapest sights -- Black Friday sales.  Luckily most of our day was spent wandering around the Christmas market that was spread throughout the city.

Matt made sure to hang with some colorful locals and check out the beverage options at the Christmas bar.
Matt made some new friends.

We found Arish and headed over to the The Great Market Hall for some more shopping time.  It was full of interesting foods and souvenirs that made for some good Christmas present shopping.

Q:  How long does it take 3 men to open a puzzle box.  A:  Way longer than you think.
And then more sightseeing.
St. Stephen's beautiful on the inside as it is on the outside

The next morning we hopped in the car and headed to Vienna ... where we picked up Arish at the airport (long story).  And headed to another Christmas market.

Karlskirche (St. Charles's Church) with a makeshift petting zoo as part of the Christmas market

Waiting in line for huge donut things.  Might not me the first time in line for the gentleman on the right.


Thanks for letting us crash your holiday Arish!  

Friday, October 24, 2014

Trabaja Las Vegas

The only thing Kristin seems to love more than seeing new places is showing me places she has been and I haven't.  When the opportunity arose at work for me to spend a couple of weeks in Las Vegas, she had her passport in hand and was ready to go too.  It was her fourth trip but this would be pretty different than the typical long-weekend of gambling and buffets.

Germany is green and densely populated...Nevada is not.
We were fortunate to not have any trouble with the flights and only one stop in Chicago.  Flying west is great because it just feels like a long day that you get to relax and catch up on movies while someone brings you food and drinks.

Airport slot machine!  Apparently you need to put money in it to win (or lose) anything.

My first impressions were mixed.  The strip was full of lights, people, and activity but very little of the glamor that I had hoped for.  For every snazzy casino, there were 10 chain restaurants; for every nicely dressed person, there were 10 groups of silly drunks; and for every classy show that was advertised, there were 100 people handing out ads for peep shows or escort services.

Paris!  A little bit different than our trip to the real French one a few months later.

Then again, the spectacle of it all was still alluring.  I couldn't help myself from taking pictures of many of the sites that were so familiar after watching movies like The Hangover and Ocean's Eleven.

Not the newest hotel on the strip.

I wanted to see two shows during our visit and the first was Penn & Teller.  I have always been impressed with their acts on TV and enjoyed stories written about them (like this one).  They seem like a quintessential Las Vegas act that I would probably not have another chance to see in my life.  For all of these reasons, Kristin and I, as well as some of my coworkers, headed across the interstate to the Rio and saw this dynamic duo.  Their tricks were as amazing as I had hoped, even after seeing a few on TV and having read about others.  These two truly have made a mastery of illusion.  The only downside for me was Penn got even more preachy than I had expected.  I appreciate the humor of a pocket-sized metal Bill of Rights that will trip the airport security but he wove his views into nearly every narrative.  That being said, they clearly love what they do and it impressed me that they still put plenty of effort into it after so many years.  I was blown away that at the end of the performance they came out to the lobby to take pictures and sign autographs with every single fan that was willing to wait in line for 20 or so minutes.  

Why wait in line when you can just take pictures with the sign?

The second thing I wanted to see was a Cirque du Soleil performance.   One of their traveling shows had visited DC but I had always waited to see them in Vegas.  While we were there, five shows were concurrently going on.  I don't have much interest in Michael Jackson or The Beatles so "The One" and "Love" were out.  "Ka" had recently had a performer die so the grand finale was a video instead of the live performance...also out.  "Zumanity" is "the first adult-themed Cirque du Soleil show" so not really one I wanted to see with coworkers.  And that left "O".  The show just blew me away. From start to finish it was chalk full of things I still can't believe humans can do, especially synchronized so well and on a stage, in the air, and in the pool that covered most of the stage most of the time. The performance was incredible and more amazing than any act I have ever seen.  It was the magic I was hoping to find in Vegas. 

Speaking of spectacles, our one day off work was the Saturday after Halloween so we got to cut loose that night and enjoy the town. Our first stop was Downtown Container Park, (Zappos founder) Tony Hsieh's attempt to incubate small businesses in the forgotten downtown part of Vegas a few miles north of The Strip. It is full of shipping containers converted into businesses offering low rent and high traffic to budding entrepreneurs. Some are restaurants or bakeries, some boutiques, and others art galleries.  It's all a couple of blocks down Fremont Street from the former center of town, still hosting the likes of the Golden Nugget and Binion's casinos. 

After some much better BBQ than we can find in Germany, we checked out the parade that was staging on Fremont Street and included amazing art like this guy:

It gets even warmer in Vegas when this thing breathes fire.

Fremont street itself has done a lot to continue to attract crowds, including a cool pedestrian mall with LED ceiling.  As you can imagine, everything was pretty packed for Halloween and we saw lots of crazy costumes. The group favorite was a homemade Inspector Gadget complete with red revolving light on his hat and a robotic arm extending out holding a magnifying glass.

Most people had cool costumes.  We went as uptight lawyer and well-dressed engineer.

The problem with the old casinos is their ceilings are lower and ventilation systems aren't great, so they get thick with cigarette smoke. Kristin is not a fan.  After enough of downtown, we headed back to the strip and checked out the Luxor. While old by The Strip standards, I still thought it was a pretty cool concept, though incredibly inefficient to have all of the hotel rooms built into the edge of the pyramid, leaving the inside open. After a fun night (maybe a little too fun for the guy that got a yard of banana daiquiri in the group), we retired to the hotel and looked forward to the much needed day off. 

I'm not sure I want to take an elevator anywhere in the Luxor.  That would be weird.

It was wonderful to not to have to report to work at 6:30 the next morning and instead get to enjoy breakfast with Kristin. After a few errands, we struck out toward the Hoover Dam because Vegas Vacation made the damn dam look pretty cool. First we did some walking along the path that was built to bring supplies from the nearest train tracks to the dam site during construction. There were several signs along the way to explain the incredible feat it took to design and build. It followed the shore of Lake Mead so we also got a feel for the reason the dam was built, though being a cloudy November day there wasn't much activity on the water. Wikipedia tells me it's the largest water reservoir in the U.S., so that's fun.  

After the hike, and looking for some bait with Cousin Eddie, we drove to the dam and checked it out. $60 seemed a little steep for the guided tour so we just walked around and Kristin told me what she could remember from her tour 20 years before, and what she could find on google. 

I was surprised to find that the road across the dam just dead ends in Arizona after a small gift shop and some massive parking lots. The Pat Tillman memorial bridge now handles the highway traffic so the area is much better for pedestrians. And it allowed me to visit my 40th state. 

Matt's 40th state is totally bogus.  He barely was there.

The next day it was back to work and we continued through the week, finishing midday Friday. That afternoon there was a rehearsal for the weekend's air show at Nellis so we went to check it out. I was blown away that Kristin had never been to an air show before and amazed she shared my enjoyment watching the Thunderbirds as the main event. They are headquartered at Nellis so I think there must be additional pressure to put on a good show, which they did. It's easily mocked as a silly way to promote patriotism but I still enjoy and respect those pilots (and planes) do such cool maneuvers. Being out in the desert all but ensures great weather for it, and all of the smoke in the sky has come from the planes. 

I then got nerdy checking out some static displays and giving Kristin the company line about America's two fifth-generation jet fighters (F-22 and F-35), both built by Lockheed Martin. There were a few active and retired pilots showing their kids around the planes they flew. I hope they didn't mind how much eavesdropping we were doing because they know lots more than I ever will and have great stories!

Checking out the expensive equipment.
Knowing I would be so busy during the week, we decided to stay an extra weekend and relax a bit more before heading home. Kristin had been a real trooper living and working out of the hotel while I was up early and gone all day. On top of that, she was queasy with the early stages of pregnancy but it was still too early to tell my coworkers and get some sympathy, so she tried her best not to dry heave walking through smoky hotel lobbies and casinos. As a treat for her, we moved to the Bellagio and lucked out with a great room for the last couple of days. 

You have the music from the end of Ocean's Eleven going through your head?  Yup, so do I.

For our last day we again headed out of town to enjoy the outdoors, this time hiking in Red Rock Canyon, thanks to my friend Chad's recommendation. It was a beautiful day and fitting finale to the trip.

Liars.  There was no tortoise on the road at that moment.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Fun Times with Em and Mo (part 1, a little bit of Stuttgart and a Bunch of Italy)

Emily and Mo rounded out our string of back to back to back groups of visitors and we were thrilled to host them.  After getting over a bit of jet lag (and not taking my advice to sleep on the plane!), the four of us piled in the car and headed south for some sightseeing. Lichtenstein Castle, oddly enough not in the country of Lichtenstein, is a funny little castle perched precariously on a cliff in an area of southern Germany known as the Swabian Alps.   

Unfortunately, Kristin got a little "sleepy" on the tour so we actually left early and headed home.

Stuttgart is surrounded by farmland and parks, both of which have lots and lots of public trails through them that people use for walking, jogging, biking, and to generally enjoy being outside. Especially on Sundays when all of the shops are closed.  To do as the Germans do, we headed to the north side of town and strolled amongst the vineyards in Fellbach.  Some of the grapes were still ripe and ready for harvest while others had already been cut and the leaves were changing for fall.   All of it was fun to see, especially on such a beautiful day.

After finishing the walk with some hard-earned wine, it was time to get back to what Germans do best and go to Cannstatter Volksfest...which some might remember from blog post #1 when I first arrived in Stuttgart.  What a year it has been!!

One of the fun traditions...drink a little shot and put the bottle cap on your nose.  It totally makes sense about 3 liters of beer in.

It's tough to capture the excitement, silliness, and hijinks of the beer tents so I'll just say that we had a great time. 

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The next few days I had to actually go to work to make sure I still had a job, while Em and Mo toured around Stuttgart. But then we were off to Italy!

First stop was Verona, mostly because it was closer than driving all the way to Florence.  That night we had an awesome dinner to celebrate Mo's birthday and then the next morning we did a quick tour through the city, thanks to our trusty Rick Steves' guidebook.   

It was a beautiful morning to cross the Adige river and see the heart of the city

Founded in the 1st century B.C., the city center is a UNESCO world heritage site and has an incredible number of buildings that have lasted hundreds of years.  I don't know about anyone else, but it was exactly the old world charm I was hoping for on my first trip to Italy.

We were visiting on Saturday morning so of course there was a market in the Piazza delle Erbe.  The best find of the morning was delicious parfaits full of fresh fruit.

Some famous dude.

After a couple of hours, and a conscious decision to NOT see the balcony of Juliet Capulet, it was time to hit the road again.

Our next stop was the widely celebrated town of Florence.  The capital of Tuscany, the birthplace of the Renaissance, home to Michelangelo's David, and another UNESCO world heritage site.  Visiting in early October was supposed to help us avoid all of the frustrations you hear from people sightseeing in Europe during their summer vacation...primarily that cities, especially in Italy, are hot and crowded with tourists.  Unfortunately this is exactly what we found after fighting the crazy Italian traffic and desperately looking for a good lunch.

Duomo is Italian for cathedral so nearly every major town has one but this one is Florence is often known as The Duomo, or Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore for short.  It features the largest brick dome in the world and was finished in 1436.  While impressive and beautiful, it was also incredibly crowded so we just admired it from afar over a glass of wine.

That was enough of Florence so we grabbed some ice cream and headed to Siena.

While Florence is all about the art and history, Siena was all about the cuisine and wine.  The town is atop a hill, surrounded by a wall, and full of narrow alleys and wonderful shops that tourists love.

Few cars are allowed inside the city walls so it's nearly all pedestrians inside
The heart of the town is the Piazza Del Campo where tourists and locals can sit side by side and enjoy or ice cream or just relax (smoke), and watch the day turn into night.  Twice a year it transforms to host the Palio horse races, which draws tons of people out to cheer on the horses galloping around a track of imported dirt and jockeys struggling to hang on while riding bareback.  Each contrade, or ward of the city, is represented with a horse as well as with their colors and crest.

Siena also has a Duomo, which was designed to be the largest cathedral in the world.  Unfortunately, money ran out long before this could happen, but the scaled down version is still pretty impressive.  I really liked the stripes of white and green marble that gave it a unique look in addition to all of the other amazing intricacies that I have come to expect from major European cathedrals (but still really enjoy seeing!).

Even more amazing when you understand the scale

What better way to appreciate the heart of Tuscany than to learn more about the food and wine of the region?  Tripadvisor is a wonderful resource for finding suggestions and it again led us to a gem with the Tuscan Wine School.  We started and ended our education with wine in their shop and in between walked to several local merchants to hear about the history of what they offer...and then try some.  The tour (and all the food and wine) was fabulous.

Kristin was nice enough to share her wine ... but not her chocolate.

October was a wonderful time to visit

It was important to stick with your buddy and not get lost or distracted amongst the winding streets

My favorite stop was for the meats and cheeses, though I passed on a second serving of blood sausage.  We needed to wait for the bakery to make Kristin happy.

We even learned how to drink espresso like an Italian

A shout out to our friend Sarah D.B. for the great recommendation to visit Siena!  It was a wonderful place that I can't wait to visit again when we can spend more time exploring.

In an effort to see and enjoy as much as possible of Italy, we noticed the town of Pisa was on the way to our next destination so we decided to stop and check out their famous tower.  What we didn't realize is it's actually a part of a large Cathedral Square owned by the Catholic Church and acts as the bell tower for the adjacent cathedral, baptistry, and cemetery.  Despite the rough and dirty town outside of the walls, inside this area was a well manicured lawn and blindingly white marble structures showcasing more of the impressive Italian handiwork. We were also there late in the day so the sun was perfect for pictures and the crowds had subsided.

They couldn't resist.  I pretended to not know them.

This was a great first half to our Italian adventure but you're probably as tired of reading as I am of describing so we'll pick up our adventures of Cinque Terre in the next post.