A Travellerspoint blog

June 2016

Born to be Wild!

Day 38 and 39 Zagreb to Pula

sunny 28 °C

Get your motor runnin'
Head out on the highway
Looking for adventure
In whatever comes our way

- Steppenwolf

Today was all about picking up the car, getting out of Zagreb and driving to Pula in a manual left hand drive car and driving on the right without a scratch, 250 km's away. We are in our Road Trip with no firm plans" phase of our holiday. We walked to the car rental and pick up our super machine.....brand new Ford Festiva with 6 km on the clock. Maps-Me app at the ready, we head for Pula and we were "looking for adventure, in what ever comes our way"!

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Off we went, Jen perfectly navigated us out of the city and we hit the highway, feeling quite pleased without ourselves. And stop, crap, toll gate and no Croatian Kuna and we did not organise automatic tolls. With a tricky manoeuvre, we had to do a U-Turn and found a shopping centre to get some cash. Okay back on the highway and we were off, take 2. We discover though that the toll gate is the entry gate where you only collect a ticket and can pay when you pass through another zone, or exit later on. Oh well. By the end of the trip we're experts at the process.

We were on the A1 and it is a great road - quite new and our civil engineers back home would be very impressed.. Speed limit is 130 km / hr but in reality the locals treat this as a guide, whizzing past me at something more like 150 km / hr or more. Me, I was happy with our Buzz Box revving the crap out of itself at 120 km / hr and letting the BMWs and Audis fly passed me.

We arrived in Pula, our apartment was in a great location, a "Lovely" apartment and Valter, our host, greeted us with a bottle of home made honey schnapps.
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We are quite chuffed with our location, about 50 metres from restaurants, icecream cart at the door which makes Jen happy.

Croatia plays Spain, so we head out for dinner and to watch the game.

It was one of those perfect holiday moments, sitting in a restaurant taking in the atmosphere, friendly waiter with a blankie for Jen as a cool air comes off the water, watching the sunset while the town kids play football in the square.
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We had a delicious fresh fish and seafood dinner that was amazing - eat bite was sensational. At half time we headed down to the "Forum" to catch the second half along with 2000+ Croatians all dressed in red and white checks. The score was 1-1 and a great game. The atmosphere was huge! When the Croatian keeper saved a penalty and the crowd went nuts - beers sprayed in the air, flares and firecrackers. Croatia only needed to draw, and the crowd was happy with that, but with two minutes to go Croatia scored a magnificent goal and the Square erupted with beer, flares, fire crackers, cheering and dancing, ecstatic with their win. Great fun and luckily Croatia won. If they had lost it might have got ugly!

Next day we are back on the tourist trail. After getting our bearings with the nifty scale model, and went to the Colosseum - conveniently 400 metres from our Apartment.
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I had visited 30 years ago and when Jen first saw it she could not believe the size. Amazing piece of architecture and the second biggest Colosseum in the world. Jen and I wandered around and inside and Jen took some fantastic photos. It was a place where we could feel the history, both standing in the middle of the arena, where gladiators battled to death and many many many innocent souls were lost for the entertainment of those that would have occupied the galleries above.

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The Arena is now often used for Rock Concerts and a stage was being erected. We not sure if the HSSE inspector was having the day off or existed at all...
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After local pastries and coffee with an okay view,
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we wandered around the cobble stone streets, quaint narrow lane-ways, through the now quiet Forum,
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Up to the small Roman amphitheatre and to the look out.

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears

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Our apartment is about two doors from the chimney structure. We wander the waterfront, marvelling at the clarity of the water. Tonight we decide to have fish for dinner.
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(fortunately these guys were safe)
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It was nice not having too many tourists around but we knew this won't last as Florence and Rome will be over run with tourists.

Tonight we have a date with the European Cup. We donned our Hungarian soccer shirts on and made our way down to the square to watch Hungary vs. Portugal game.

Happy Hour is rather good...
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We found a restaurant with a TV and devoured a great meal and put down 0.5 l jugs of beer. It was a great game at 3 all and this meant Hungary moved into the next phase. well done Magyars!

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After the game, being so close, we could take some very special night photos of the Colosseum, the shiploaders on the dock that are lit up at night in a clever light display and walk along the waterfront..

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Pula was a great first stop and that night we also decided to throw our original plans out the door and head down the coastal road towards Zadar. Ah the beauty of travelling on your own, make the plans as we go.

Posted by tszeitli 22:49 Archived in Croatia Tagged football adventure driving car seafood roman_ruins tolls european_cup Comments (3)

Family that Lives Far Away But Always Close to Our Hearts

Day 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37 Veszprém

sunny 25 °C

After a lovely first night so warmly embraced by family and fed until we almost popped (and Hungary won!), we spent a truly special six days in Veszprém - time that was way beyond anything we could have expected or had hoped for, and will always cherish.
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My Mum was born in Szengál, a town close to Veszprém (an hour and a half by train, south west of Budapest) where my relatives all now live. It was a wonderful feeling to drive down the same driveway to familiar sights from when I was here the first time as a skinny 11 year old in 1972 or as a curly haired (still skinny) backpacker in 1985 sporting a very impressive Dennis Lillie moustache!

My first cousins, Láci and Váli, brother and sister, live as neighbours with their families, back to back, with a path joining the two homes beneath cherry trees laden with delicious ruby fruit.

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My Aunty Esti lives close, only 6 doors up the street.
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We stayed with Láci and his partner Éva.
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We were treated to visits to Lake Balaton,
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the castle at Sumeg,
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the castle and old part of Veszprem,
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Tihany, Kesenthy and Herend.

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Herend is famous for its fine porcelain factory, an enduring industry in the area, operating since 1826 and is one of the world's largest ceramic factories. Both Váli and her daughter Váli have worked there, helping to craft the beautiful fine porcelain. We were treated to a wonderful tour by the artists, showing us how they create the pieces, from filling moulds with porcelain, forming the figures, cutwork, glazing, painting and decorating.

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My Mum has many many beautiful Herend figurines and tableware - even I was responsible for bringing a few magnificent Herend figurines to Australia in 1972 - smuggled out of the country under the noses of Soviet Customs Officers in a purpose built oversized overcoat - who would suspect a skinny little kid sneaking national treasures out under their noses! Mum loves them all, treating each one as if it is a treasured pet. Jen and I even possess a couple of special pieces, gifted by Mum for our wedding. The factory and museum tour was amazing and we saw a number of pieces that are sitting in my Mum's loungeroom. Each piece is individually crafted and painted so are quite the collectors items. I bought Jen a brooch and Váli and Váli bought here a pendant, a treasured memento.

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These Harlequins are about three feet tall and are collectors items, retailing for about $20,000.

We also visited thermal hot water springs at Hévíz. Being Aussie, when presented with a large body of water in which to swim and appropriately attired in swimming costumes, naturally, Jen and I - swam. Gleefully swimming around the entire lake. Apparently however, "swimming" is not the done thing. Hévíz has therapeutic qualities and is high in many compounds including sulphur with medicinal, healing, restorative and preventative properties. Accordingly, older Hungarians afflicted with the usual aches and pains of ageing, often with the prescription of their GP (enabling them a discounted entry fee) soak in the lake.
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Most Hungarians can't swim so they all float about in the water with their rubber pool noodles - not really doing anything, elaborate hairstyles are safe as not a splash of water is created, and even very little conversation. It seems Jen and I caused some consternation amongst the locals as we free-stroked our way around. We believe complaints may have been raised as the resident lifeguard was sent over to hover over us to calm us down - and communications over the two-way about those "Englishpeople" [in Hungarian] was fairly self evident.

The sulphur turned our silver rings the most amazing burnished gold colour!
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The food was amazing and Jen loved the traditional home cooking delicacies Váli, Váli, Láci and Éva kept bringing out for us. Each meal I had was like stepping back in time with memories of my childhood and my Mum's cooking - even breakfast was a trip down memory lane
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Things like: letcho, langos, fish soup, palacsinta, kolbasz, fresh bread, fresh cherries off the tree, paprika chicken with nokedli, gulyás soup, chicken soup, meat soup, egg soup, cherry strudel, walnut strudel, Apple strudel, shredded cabbage soup. I even had tripe! Each dinner meal would also start with either a shot of Parlinka or Unicom, both were to kick start the digestive system and aid in good health, or so everyone tells us.
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Jen and I concocted our lunch one day unsupervised from Hungarian leftovers out of the fridge. The family was incredulous about what we did and how ridiculous it was. It tasted good to us! Food is a great passion of everyone - particularly keeping true to the traditions. Everyone is a great cook.

One afternoon we received a cooking tutorial on a few of our Hungarian favourites to make when we get home. Láci even sourced a Hungarian Cooking Book for us so we're all set to attempt to recreate the wonderful flavours at home, bring a little part of Hungary with us.

The real highlight was the special time with my relatives and extended family.

I spent time with my cousin Tündi and her mother Mimi Neni who I met the past two times I was Hungary and always had fond memories.
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We also met my other cousins and their family for the first time, Károly and Kornél.
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Károly and his wife, Lilla's darling daughter Janka, found a new play thing. Jen didn't speak Hungarian, Janka didn't speak English but delighted in saying Jen's full name, escorting her around the house all night, explaining the toys, counting, showing Jen the fish and so on.
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We visited the cemetery in Szengál where my grandparents, uncles and aunties now rest in peace.

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We saw the farm area where my mum and her siblings grew up, wandering along the creek where Mum and her sisters would play, including a game, throwing a shoe in at the top of the creek and chasing it down hill to the bridge.

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Jen did a fantastic job of conversing with my relatives - acquiring a few Hungarian words during our stay - mostly beverages and Yes and No. Jen was also able to extract a very comprehensive family tree covering about five generations. I cannot thank Jen enough for developing this and for how she so easily settled in, quickly becoming comfortable with my relatives. Also special thanks to my relatives for treating her so warmly and making her feel very much part of the family.
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I spent some special time with Aunty Esti who still has a spring in her step, looks after a beautiful garden and has a great zest for keeping busy.
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Her darling dog is a great companion.
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She also runs around at 100 m/ hr just like my Mum. It was great to spend time with Láci, Éva, Váli, Váli, Tamás, Boti and Laura.
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Even BB-8 dropped by.
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We chatted, joked, reminisced, shared photos, drank Parlinka, ate delicious food until our tummies almost exploded and enjoyed each others company.

A grand family dinner was arranged on the Saturday night bringing the whole family together, watching Hungary play Iceland, football in the back yard.
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Everyone, including Moxie, had a great time!
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It has been 30 years since I was here and I promise it won't be 30 years the next time I am back. Jen loved the way we were so warmly welcomed into their homes and for going out of their way, taking time out of busy lives for the 6 days.
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Sadly we said our goodbyes, took some photos with family identical to where I stood 46 and 30 years ago.
1972 and Now
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1972, 1985 and now
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I hope they come out to Australia one day so Jen and I can return their generosity and hospitality.

Our train got delayed for 20 minutes so we had some final time together, delaying our final goodbyes, at the train station. During the delay, Váli, Váli and Laura struck upon the idea to accompany us on the train to Szekesfaharvar, and have a day trip, so we extended the goodbyes for another hour, very sweet.
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We then made our way back to Budapest and caught an afternoon train to Zagreb to start our driving holiday in Croatia and Bosnia.

Köszönöm mindenkinek a mi idő Veszpremen.
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Posted by tszeitli 23:27 Archived in Hungary Tagged food history family special legacy generations Comments (4)

Creating New Memories in the Footsteps of the Past

Day 28, 29, 30, 31 Budapest

sunny 20 °C

Budapest is a chance to catch up with my cousin Marta, on my Dad's side. I also wanted to understand more about the Revolution in October 1956, and the events leading up to it which caused my Mum and Dad to leave Hungary in January 1957.
Jen visited Budapest 5 years ago and I was here 30 years ago. Jen had a miserable time on her one-day visit to Budapest so I was determined to endear Hungary to her this time.
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Marta did a marvellous job of arranging an apartment for us about 1 kilometre from the River, close to the Metro and historical sites. We adore the apartment, 200 years old and beautiful.
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The first day was totally non-tourist, having coffee, going to the shops, lunch. It was lovely spending time with Marta catching up on the past 5 years from when I last saw her in Brisbane.
The next day was the HopOnHopOff Bus. We did the loop, stopping at Gellért Hill with its famous Liberty Citadel at the top. It's a great outlook as you can see down both sides of the Danube River and over the Buda side.
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On the way up is a monument to Saint Gerard, a bishop, brought in by St Stephen in the first century to bring Christianity to the pagans. He didn't do very well and met an unfortunate end in 1046, after being bundled into a barrel by his "congregation" and rolled down Buda Hill into the Danube, never to be seen again.
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There is a monument to Erzsebét, namesake of the bridge, and Queen of Hungary.
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We made our way back via the Metro to Marta's apartment which is near the Ferenc Puskás Stadium. Named after the great Hungarian football striker from the 50's, my Father’s idol, is currently being rebuilt.
We were treated to a home cooked dinner with Marta's mother. A perfectly cooked traditional meal: húsleves (meat soup), crumbed pork, krumpli (potatos), uborkasaláta (cucumber salad) and finished with a dessert called diós pita (walnut pastry cake). We had a lovely time chatting and enjoying the hospitality.
Marta then drove us to Margrit Sziget (Margaret Island) for a sophisticated jazz concert by Stacey Kent at the Szabateri Szinpad – we felt very elite.
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The whole night was a great experience, walking around the parks on the Island and up the Tower on a beautiful evening. Marta was a magnificent host and we are most thankful for her looking after us.

The next morning we went to Hõsök tere (Heroes Square).
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There we stopped at the local market selling Alma Retes (Apple Strudel) which tasted great (almost as good as Mum makes) with fresh pressed coffee.
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The food stalls also had whole pork on the spit, homemade salamis and freshly baked bread the size of a Fiat and displays of bottles of pickled vegetables. As well as stalls filled with the most amazing traditional sweet treats - I am in heaven. The smells were amazing.
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I was able to stop into a sports shop to buy a Hungarian national soccer shirt and a vintage Ferenc Puskás jersey circa 1953. Dad used to tell me grand stories about the superb Hungarian team of the 50's especially Puskás. He is an absolute legend amongst the soccer world and at the age of 4, I could name every player in the 1954 World Cup team.
We next did a “Communism” walking tour. The city is adorned with posters commemorating the 60th anniversary of the Revolution. It is poignant that I am here in Budapest at this milestone.
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The walk was sobering and poignant, as the guide explained what it was like living in Hungary from the 1945 to 1991 under the Soviet regime – she has a pragmatic view of the past, growing up in Budapest during 1970s. I was able to understand the world in which my parents lived until they left in January 1957.
The tour gave Jen and I a real insight into what Hungarian people had to endure. With the passage of time, our tour leader, who had a dry sense of humour, could tell her stories with light-heartedness and humour, but there are many painful and challenging reminders as we wandered around the city. She explained different areas of Communism, picking out key buildings and monuments of significance: the Socialist Realist architecture apartments, the Basilica and how religion was starved and stigmatised by the Soviets to lead people away from worship, the controversial German Occupation Memorial, erected in 2014 under cover of darkness on a Sunday morning with an inscription “Memorial to the victims of the German invasion”.
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Even before appreciating the public protest items posted in front of it, the monument immediately struck us as strange. Amid calls for it to be taken down, Prime Minister Orbán defends it as a monument to the victims of the Nazis, brushing off the criticism, saying it is “not a Holocaust memorial but a tribute to all the victims”.
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The controversial monument has divided Hungarians and angered Jewish people. Critics of the monument – which depicts Hungary as the Archangel Gabriel being attacked by a German imperial eagle – say it absolves the Hungarian state and Hungarians of their active role in sending some 450,000 Jews to their deaths during the occupation – not pointing fingers at the Germans, but rather at its own citizens for the pain and horrors inflicted on fellow human beings.
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Prime Minister Orbán is also facing criticism for closing a large portion of the historical vista on Buda Hill to construct a “Government House”, which is essentially a private residence. It would seem that new democracies are challenging.
We also visited one of the few surviving Soviet monuments, as most of them were removed after the dissolution of the USSR. This one marks the buried remains of Soviet Patriots who died defending the Union, and during the Soviet times would have been a constant reminder to the citizens of Hungary. What is tremendously interesting about this monument is that the site adjoins the Embassy of the United States. And on the other side, is a proud statue of Ronald Reagan. It is really quite comical how Ronald is looking towards the US Embassy with the Soviet monument in his line of sight.
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We took in Parliament House on the landside, having seen it glittering at night.
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The Square at the landside entrance of Parliament House is also significant as it was the location of protests in October 1956 where guns were fired, setting off a butterfly effect, causing lives to be lost, and citizens to attempt a revolution, which was ultimately, and heartbreakingly, unsuccessful as Soviet tanks moved in and overpowered the uprising, ensuring many more decades of Soviet control.
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Marta also spoilt us with dinner Jamie Oliver Budapest on top of Gellert Hill on the Buda side at Mathias Templom (Matthew’s Temple).
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After walking back down and along the Lancid Hid (Chain Bridge) we took a late night boat cruise. It was a beautiful night and the vista along the river with Parliament House, the bridges and all the lights on the castle, it is one of the best city views I have seen in my travels. Jen took some great photos.
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The last day was a walk along the Erzsebét Bridge and back up to the Palace revisiting my footsteps from days gone by. Jen and I hunted for a while and eventually found the exact spot, although the trees are larger now and obscured the view.
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We walked back over the Lancid Hid and across to Parliament House via a lunch break of Paprika Palacsinta (Hungarian Crepes).
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We had a final “farewell until next time” Unicom with Marta, thanking her for everything she had done for us, going out of her way to make our four days so special. She was a fantastic host and I hope she comes back to Australia again so I can repay her very kind and warm hospitality.
We then caught the train to Veszprém.
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As we trundled into the station in the late afternoon, my heart beamed as we were met by my cousins, Láci & Váli, in matching blue t-shirts, bouncing onto the platform with wide smiles, warmly greeting us and hustling our bags to the waiting car. I visited my Veszprém relatives in 1972 and 1985, so coming back was long overdue.
In a whirlwind of excited grins and rapid Hungarian, we were whisked home and plied with Parlinka, just in time for Hungary’s first game of the European Cup (after a 44-year absence) against Austria. FO4A8851.jpg
There are new relatives to meet. Váli’s daughter, Váli (who was a happy young girl when I last visited) is married to Tamás, who is kind and ensures we have plenty of fröccs (wine with soda water) and Parlinka or Unicum, and their wonderful kids, Boti and Laura. Váli cooked up a storm in the kitchen, sending in dish after dish of tasty treats. My senses are overloaded with wonderful memories of being a kid and my Mum’s cooking – I am overwhelmed. Hungary won as well 2-0! Jen sat there in amazement at the warmth and hospitality of my family, who I had not seen in 30 years and that she had only just met.
Our stay in Veszprém has started off on a huge high, it feels like yesterday that I last saw them. It was a night of stories and catching up for the past 30 years.
Also my Hungarian has passed with flying colours. Basically able to converse, understand what is being said, order food, catch the Metro and buy tickets. I know the next six days with family will be something I will cherish.

Posted by tszeitli 11:20 Archived in Hungary Tagged food budapest family hungary special communism memories childhood Comments (3)

Helsinki...tick!

Days 25, 26 and 27 Finland

semi-overcast 12 °C

When planning our trip, the flight from St Petersburg to Budapest was via Helsinki. We'd heard great things about Finland so rather than spend 2 hours, we thought we'd spend 2 days. It was an opportunity to see Helsinki and for me to tick off another Olympic site (Helsinki in 1952).

Immediate impressions of Helsinki, and in contrast to where we've been so far, is that is a thoroughly modern western city. Exceptionally helpful and friendly airport bus to the city, walk to the hotel through a lovely park and check into the most expensive hotel we had so far on our trip. The room turned out to be the smallest on our trip, and we soon realised Helsinki is not cheap. We made a quick trip to the local supermarket, spending a small fortune, for some bread, meat and beers to chill out for the evening. Jen is working her way through the national liquors so, having enjoyed our Vodka from Siberia, time to try Finnish Vodka - her Vodka & Orange is delicious.
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We saw a funny souvenir T-shirt suggesting that Finnish Reindeers drink Finlandia and then wee out Absolut.

The 9 June (Day 26) was an early start with the weather back to a chilly 12 deg c and a short walk to a church on top of the nearby hill. This was followed by a walk through a beautiful park and lake to the Olympic Stadium. The ageing stadium is undergoing a total renovation but I still can add it to my list of Olympic cities visited.
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The entrance features a statue of one of the greatest Olympians, Paavo Nurmi - the Flying Finn. Debuting at the 1920 Olympics, he dominated middle and long distance running in the early 20th century. Nurmi set 22 official world records at distances between 1500 metres and 20 kilometres, and won nine gold and three silver medals in his twelve events in the Olympic Games. At his peak, Nurmi was undefeated at distances from 800 m upwards for 121 races. Throughout his 14-year career, he remained unbeaten in cross country events and the 10,000 m - absolute legend. I have fond memories of my Dad telling me about this amazing athlete.
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Again, given our short visit, HopOnHopOff bus is our mode of transport - and it about 4 x the cost of the same service in St Petersburg.
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We board from the Wintergarden

Helsinki and Finland is a relatively new country, having gained its own sovereignty in 1917. Sweden and Russia have fought over ownership of Finland for centuries. It was a part of Sweden from the 12th century until 1809, and then a Russian Grand Duchy until, following the Russian Revolution, the Finns declared independence on 6 December 1917. The Finns have a high regard for Tsar Alexander II of Russia (1855-1881 assassinated) who was also the Grand Duke of Finland. He made a number of reforms, giving Finland some freedoms and established judicial and legal structures, including abolition of capital punishment. An elaborate statute of Alexander II, erected in 1894 in the Senate Square features the Emperor giving a speech to the Parliament in 1863. Above the Square, leading up from an impressive staircase is Helsinki Cathedral flanked on either side by the Government Palace and the main building of the University of Helsinki.
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The city is a mixture of old and new buildings and has a modern feel - reminds me very much of Melbourne.

Finnish people are said to have a lot of "Sisu" which means guts and determination, particularly in spite of indomitable odds, with proud references in their history to holding out Soviet troops with an army 1/10th the size. They also love their saunas - apparently there are 3 million saunas in Finland, so with a population of 5.5 million, Finns boast that the entire population could be inside a sauna at the same time!

I speak Hungarian, and unfortunately, Hungarian is only spoken in Hungary, so not much use anywhere else in the World. However, before visiting Finland, I'd heard that Finnish and Hungarian have historical roots so are similar. I was therefore eager to hear the language and see if I could understand it. Unfortunately, I could not understand a word of it. Its a bit Scandinavian, and sounds a bit Hungarian. Its hard to describe, and my ears couldn't quite tune it in...as far as I could figure, it goes a bit like this...

Finland's geography meant large reserves of tar, which for many years was a large contributor to its economy. Finns love their tar and have a saying that "if tar, alcohol or sauna does not fix what ails you, then death is surely next".

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Around the main harbour there is a fantastic local market selling all manner of produce, souvenirs and food - even ice cream on a 10 degree day!
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The main thing that caught our attention at the market was the slabs of fresh whole salmon being cooked on BBQ style hot plates and the smell taking over the whole area. The decision was easy on where we were going to eat tonight.

We took one and a half hour harbour cruise. It was cold and windy but really interesting. The harbour has been a military port for pretty much the past 500 years, is a UNESCO national heritage area and was a Russian submarine port. It is also a port for the Northern Ocean Icebreakers - one aptly named "SISU".
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The Helsinki Zoo also occupied part of the coast line. We suspect everyone was tucked up warm inside.
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The voice over on the boat talked about the Finns loving going to the islands to swim and chill out on the beach. With the water temperature constantly below 18 deg, the weather in summertime at a max. of 20 deg and summer only lasting 2 months, I am thinking this is not quite the beach holiday place the we Aussie enjoy.
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We warm up after our boat trip with Coffee and feel like we could quite possibly be in Melbourne.
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The centre of town has Department Stores and I'm struck by the feeling that we're wandering down Burke Street or Collins Street.
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It is a beautiful city, and easy to get around.
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By this time we were getting hungry so back to the wharf and devoured some fresh cooked salmon and calamari.
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A stroll back to the hotel and we were pretty well satisfied with our Helsinki visit.

That this time of the year never really sets, sunset at 11pm, sunrise at 3am and a lingering twilight in between, just great for my sleeping habits!
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10 June (Day 27) we enjoyed a stroll around the park and the local historical market hall, Hakaniemi Market Hall that's been operating since 1917 and is still vibrant today - the smells were amazing, before back onto the airport bus and onto Helsinki airport. Helsinki airport is thoroughly modern with "chill out" pods and another area with funky couches and free wifi.
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We were pleased to be able to tick off Helsinki - great place, although expensive.

Arrival into Budapest was my chance to shine and to really immerse myself into speaking Hungarian, known to be one of the most hardest languages to speak. My cousin Marta met us at the apartment that she had set up for us which was located right in the heart of the tourist area. It was just your typical 200 year old place, 3 story block with a courtyard and a perfect feel that we could chill out in.
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After a welcome drink of Unicum, Marta took us to one of her favourite restaurants for dinner. And it was the Opening Night of European Cup - I'm looking forward to this! For the first time in 44 years, Hungary has qualified so the whole country is excited and we're in Europe for the tournament.

First impressions of Budapest aren't great. It seems to be a Boys Weekend kind of place. There were even guys blindfolded with ear plugs on the plane being taken to a surprise destination as part of their "Stag Weekend". On the weekends, it seems Budapest turns into one big night club, heaps of bars, drinking on the street, "Gentlemen's Clubs", "Thai Massage" places on every corner, men wearing dresses and wigs tackling cars - generally Boys Behaving Badly. Its as if Budapest town centre gets overrun by party goers on the weekend, it hides its grandeur and braces itself while the drunkards roam. Fortunately, once they leave over the course of Sunday and Monday, Beautiful Budapest shines once again with its architecture, romance, gourmet delights that I remember from my childhood and a place to soak up the atmosphere of one the most beautiful cities in the world. It is also a place that has a painful history and, whilst the scars are healing, there is still lingering sadness in places. My heart also knows that my parents endured the worst of times here, and made a fateful decision that they needed to leave.

But so far my Hungarian is holding up well!

Posted by tszeitli 14:02 Archived in Finland Tagged salmon olympics finland expensive cold modern tar Comments (3)

When did Renaissance Art become a Contact Sport?

Day 24 Hermitage and St Isaac's Cathedral

sunny 18 °C

Our plan for today was to visit the Hermitage, the winter palace and home of the Russian Tsars between 1763 and 1917.

We catch an early morning trolley bus to Nevsky Prospekt, where we get the feeling the locals are staring at us. We do look very smug with ourselves having figured out the public transport as well as looking like tourists! The Palace is now a museum of art work and all the rooms have been renovated back to their original glory. Very little of the furnishings from the 18th Century remains courtesy of age as well as a significant fire in 1837. Catherine II ordered construction and enhancement of the five buildings that make up the architectural ensemble of the State Hermitage Museum. She was quite the collector and seemed to have a penchant for collecting valuables - diamonds and artworks. She seemed to collect a lot of very generous gifts from a guy named Orlov - the Orlov Diamond about the size of a golf ball, the Orlov Dinner Service consisting of over 3000 silver and gold plated pieces and a magnificent horsedrawn carriage we saw in the Kremlin. Count Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov (1734–1783) was the favourite of Empress Catherine the Great of Russia who presumably fathered her son. He led the coup which overthrew Catherine's husband Peter III, and installed Catherine as Empress. It is understood, for some years, he was virtually co-ruler with her but his repeated infidelities and the enmity of Catherine's other advisers led to his fall from power.

Like the Kremlin, tickets and queueing is required. The weather is kinder today and brilliant blue sky illuminates the magnificent building.
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Once inside we checked our bags and cameras in the cloak room allowing us to experience the wonders of this place. We enter first to the Main Staircase and our mouths drop open and jaws hit the floor. It is MAGNIFICENT! Gold, marble, granite and art painted on the ceiling which is so perfect it looks dimensional.
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We are then attacked! Hoards of mostly Chinese, Korean and Indian tourists armed with selfie sticks surge into the serene and majestic spaces turning the artworks and architecture into a sport, seeing how many photos they can take - mainly selfies with duckface poses or taking photos without even looking or registering which Renaissance Master they are actually photographing. Jen nearly loses an eye when a tour leader directs her flag at a rare 15th century da Vinci, 16th century Caravaggio or 17th century Rubens while leading her flock of lemmings around the venue. They are loud, dressed in garish Russian Cossack and Soviet souvenir hats, yell at each other and generally swarm the place. Tom nearly drowned as a mob flooded the door as they eagerly moved on to the next room.

Despite humanity en mass, the architecture and opulence is mind-blowing.

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The, fairly self evidently named "Gold Room"
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The "Malachite Room", named because of the huge malachite pillars featured in its design. In the 1830s to 1840s, when the room was designed, Russia had discovered a large resource of malachite in its mines and was able to extract solid pieces for the columns. Despite the fire and ravages of time, this room is supposed to be as true to its original design.
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The St George Hall (Great Throne Room) dating to 1795. Whilst the floor as been replaced, the timber inlay is true to its original design, being the Russian Heraldic design, which is also mirrored in the detail on the ceiling.
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Boudoir of Alexandra Feodrovna, Empress during 1850s. This was her private drawing room, just off her bedroom, private bathroom. There is a door in the back right corner that leads to the Nursery.
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The "Golden Drawing Room"
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Peter the Great Hall, this is the smaller, less formal, throne room. The gilded silver throne was made in England and the painting behind the throne features Peter I with the goddess Minerva, Roman Goddess of Wisdom, whispering in his ear. The silver thread embroidered red velvet has been restored or replaced. There is an interesting section showing the process they went through to replicate and repair the furnishings in recent times. As they did, they discovered pins and old needles left behind by artists from centuries ago.
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Medieval German Armour
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We spent about 3 hours meandering through 15th to 18th century art by all the Masters. About three quarters of the way through we are just about overdosed on Renaissance art work. The architecture for each room is what amazed Jen and I and the explanations as to what each room was used for or symbolised was amazing. The size, the painted walls, the ceilings were spectacular. The photos speak for themselves. The enthusiasm of our fellow tourists began to wane - the look on the poor Indian Dad's face, moments after he'd sat down on the bench seat next to us, as a wave of respite settled over him, when, moments later, his tour leader excitedly announced that there was "another two magnificent pieces" in the next room that they "absolutely must see!"

The Hermitage is massive and, as they don't allow water bottles or food, its difficult to see it all in one visit. Once out of the Renaissance Art rooms (which are by far the majority), we wandered the décor areas depicting formal and informal chambers of the Tsars which was fascinating (and by now, most of the competitors had burned out and gone onto their next adventure, so it was much quieter by now).

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It was now late in the afternoon and a short walk to the St Isaac's Cathedral. Peter the Great was a "great" fan of Isaac Newton and arranged meetings with Mr Newton in London as a young Tsar. It is understood by this time, Newton had locked himself in the Tower of London and was in the process of losing his mind. Peter was fascinated and much of his decision making as leader was influenced by the intellectual. He established the Neptune Club about the same time as the mysterious Order of the Masonic Lodge. There were many parallels with this two secretive organisations.

Not surprisingly Peter the Great dedicated his main Cathedral to his respected intellectual mentor, nominating St Isaac for the main Russian Cathedral.
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The Cathedral is now a museum as well as a place of worship. Fourth largest in the World, behind St Peter's in Rome, St Paul's in London and Santa maria dei Fiori in Florence. Its exterior is supported by has 112 solid red granite columns, each carved out of a single piece, 17 m tall surrounding the cathedral, each weighing 114 tons.
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Inside the Cathedral are huge ceilings, massive art works and mosaics, domes and gold gilding everywhere you looked. As it was late, the cathedral closed the entrance and we could sit and enjoy the space as it gradually emptied. With nobody around, a quiet calmness came over the whole area and we had the Cathedral almost to ourselves.
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Our Russian visit draws to an end. We finished packing with some shots of vodka. We were very impressed and surprised with what we had seen. We highly recommend a trip to Russia: amazing sites, people warm and friendly, easy to travel around and a cultural smorgasbord. Helsinki here we come!

Posted by tszeitli 23:12 Archived in Russia Tagged hermitage culture public_transport cathedral russia renaissance_art selfie_sticks Comments (3)

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