The day after Christmas, Connor and I loaded up a rental car and took off for the mountains and lochs of the Scottish Highlands. After a full day driving, we arrived near Lochgoilhead and settled into one of the best Airbnbs of the last couple years. Our hosts converted an old stable into a gorgeous eco tiny home (she is an architect) and it’s now a Grade II listed building. Fresh baked sourdough, a fire in the stove, piles of wool blankets, and a puppy named Pixie greeted us. We immediately regretted not booking the place for more than two nights. Continue reading “Scottish Highlands”
Our first adventure to Eastern Europe! We landed in Budapest, Hungary on Thursday, April 14 just before midnight and spent the next 3 days exploring Buda, Pest, and Óbuda, the three cities that united to form Budapest, capital of Hungary. Budapest has quite the list of World Heritage Sites and I think we actually made it to all of them, including riding the second-oldest metro line in the world.
We’re officially hooked on the free walking tours offered in many major European cities. They’re a great way to orient yourself in a new city and learn about your destination from a local. And, it’s a fabulous opportunity to snag some recommendations for off-the-beaten-track places. First thing Friday morning we joined one of Budapest’s walking tours which hit up most of the main landmarks and gave us an overview of the historical significance of each site. We also heard a bit about the impact of Communism in Budapest. Before this trip, I hadn’t realized that Hungary was fighting for independence through 1989.
Our first impression of the city was that certain areas were grittier than many of the polished places we’ve recently visited, thanks in part to the not so distant painful past. Bullet holes in buildings were common. I’m pretty sure our Airbnb in the Jewish District was at the center of some kind of traumatic siege. But, everything was much more affordable than Western Europe. 4 nights in this place cost similar to what we’ve paid for a single night in London. Warm weather + cheap beer/food/accommodation + gritty = college student/bachelor party/hipster heaven.
“Ruin bars” in the Jewish District are popular among the 20-something set but we didn’t end up visiting any… even walking by them is a bit overwhelming. The 7th district of Budapest was left empty and abandoned in the 40s after thousands of its Jewish inhabitants were deported during WWII. The area fell into serious disarray and has only recently started to revitalize, thanks in part to the hipster/bohemian ruin bars that started popping up in abandoned buildings in the 90s. They started as laid-back “take back our city” drinking dens and have since grown into a major tourist attraction. The bars are giant and maze-like, many outdoor, packed with people. Furnished with mismatched, discarded furniture and decorated with all sorts of abandoned items from inflatable clowns to old cars to someone’s paper mache rabbit collection, these places embody the resourcefulness, grit, and party heart of Budapest.
Also, the people walking into these bars look like CHILDREN due to the very low drinking age in Europe.
We were more interested in trying Hungarian wine and so one night we went to a great wine bar that I would wholeheartedly recommend called Doblo. I tried a Tokaji white wine and Connor had a Cabernet Franc, both recommended by the staff, and both very good. Hungarian food isn’t much to speak of, but we did have a fantastic dinner at a modern Hungarian restaurant called Mak. Great spot if you want a nicer dinner out.
One completely new experience was visiting a thermal bath. There are a lot of these in Budapest, each with its own history and set of rules, and we decided to try the Szechenyi Baths since someone recommended it and they allow women and men in the pools at the same time. We hopped on the historical M1 metro which was so cute, though definitely old and loud, and crossed our fingers that the baths wouldn’t be a super weird experience.
The inside is massive and we had no idea what we were doing. The signs were all in Hungarian and the only thing we could decipher were the signs posting the temperature of each pool (in Celsius. I hate Celsius. You can’t do the conversion in your head so it just seems mean). They each have different mineral levels, and we swam in 5 or so of the pools, and they were definitely mineral-y but I didn’t come out cured of anything so I’m not so sure about that part of the experience. We tried the sauna and it was so hot my eyeballs started shriveling as soon as we shut the door.
This particular bath venue turns into a giant party with questionable activities in the evening, fueled by the on site bars and presumably the goodies in people’s backpacks. We had our own picnic up on a balcony that was labeled VIP (could this really have been the only English sign??). The weirdest thing about the whole place was that the outdoor pools were extremely warm and I felt like I couldn’t stay in for very long. Especially with the sun out. But it was very fun and relaxing and the Art Deco building was beautiful, and I would definitely do it again. Sorry, no pics of the inside since we locked up our belongings.
The area around the baths had quite a bit to see so we visited City Park, Heroes Square, Vajdahunyad Castle, and wrapped up the afternoon by walking down the UNESCO listed street Andrássy út. The House of Terror is located on Andrássy and while we didn’t go inside, we stopped to read some of the signs posted on the street. The building was headquarters for the Nazis and then the Russians and used to imprison, torture, and interrogate victims. Today the building is a museum and a memorial to victims.
Our final day we went to mass at St. Stephen’s Basilica then walked to Margaret Island. There was a half-marathon that morning in the area. (How fun would it be to do a race in a foreign city? I bet it’s a great way to see a new place.) The island was an important religious center back in the Middle Ages and today it’s mainly a getaway from bustling city life. A Dominican church and convent are now in ruins and after paying a quick visit we had a picnic on the river bank.
Budapest has commuter boats that zigzag up and down the Danube so instead of walking all the way back to the center of Pest we hopped on one of these. They’re much cheaper than the boat tours and dinner cruises that are all over the place, and it was really fun seeing the city from the water. We actually ended up with a free ride because the guy working on the boat looked at me blankly, like I wasn’t even there, when I asked about buying tickets.
We took the boat all the way south to a stop near Gellert Hill in Buda and then climbed the hill. At the top is the Freedom Statue, considered a symbol of the city, and old army barracks. The view was magnificent and worth the climb.
- Budapest is gorgeous and the least crowded place we’ve visited. If you can avoid the party scene, it’s a fun trip. You just have to look a little harder for the gems.
- There are markets everywhere and they seem to have the exact same booths at each market. Paprika is basically the same price everywhere.
- Hungarian street food isn’t that bad.
- I regret not trying Pálinka, a fruit brandy famous in the area that I’m sure I would have hated.
- Bring earplugs if you are staying in the Jewish District. We did and it saved us.
- Most people under 40 speak English, but if you learn hello and thank you Hungarians will be so so thrilled. A little effort goes a long way.
- Their currency is the Florint and while Euros are accepted most places, it’s better to use the local currency.
- Sitting on the Danube at night looking at the lights is gorgeous.
- My new favorite beverage is a Borsodi Friss Bodza. Only 1.5% ABV and comes in a variety of flavors including elderflower, grapefruit, lemon, orange… I only tried the first two and they were amazing.
- Free entertainment tip: sit on the Danube where the Viking River Cruises park and watch their dinner entertainment. We watched some local dancers jump and twirl in unison and it was hilarious. Especially without hearing the music.
A few months ago we nabbed insanely cheap flights to Dublin (under £40 for both of us, round-trip. Don’t hate me.) and spent last weekend exploring the little city. And it didn’t even rain! Miraculous!
First stop, Guinness Storehouse. Your visit is of the self-guided variety, and the building is shaped like a gigantic pint, guiding you upwards and steering you around the circular floors until you end up in a chic bar with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the city. Not a bad deal. The “exhibits” explain the brewing process, show off old brewing equipment and some of Arthur Guinness’ collections (including really cool old model boats), etc. One section covers the brand’s advertising throughout the years, which I thought was fun.
Some things were rather cheesy. Check out that electronic harp! We sampled the West Indies Porter, learned how to “properly” drink a Guinness with a mini pint (I’m still questioning the point of this exercise), and listened to a little Irish music.
Later, we checked out an excellent free walking tour of Dublin. We recently learned that many European cities have these free tours (tip your guide!), and Dublin’s had great reviews on TripAdvisor. The tour north of the River Liffey is at 3pm, south of the river is at 11am, and they also offer an evening beer/whiskey/Irish music adventure for 12 euro.
We chose the north side tour because the time was more convenient. This year is the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising of 1916 and the tour gave a great overview of Ireland’s struggle for independence. Our guide was awesome and he talked quite a bit about the current state of Ireland and the UK… we were hanging on every word. Maybe because this whole Brexit business is illustrating just how different it really is over here… and because he was so forthcoming with information.
After dinner we had drinks at The Black Sheep, a bar owned by Galway Bay Brewery. A+ for beer options, A+ for Galway Bay Brewery, C for crazy factor. It was packed, and I felt very old. Also I was recovering from the flu, so I may have been a bit of a party pooper.
One of my favorite parts of our trip was visiting the Trinity College Library. We saw the Book of Kells and then the Long Room Library. It took my breath away, and I snapped entirely too many pictures. So, so gorgeous. Does anyone else ever experience the uncontrollable urge to touch all the books when they enter a place like this? There’s something magical and sacred about this room. Everyone can feel it. Even the high school students were voluntarily quiet.
We walked around Temple Bar area, just to say we did it, checked out Dublin’s Castle, St. Andrew’s Church, Christchurch Cathedral, and wandered through some great little shops in the Creative Quarter and on Drury Street. Industry and the Irish Design Shop were great for souvenir perusing. Powerscourt Centre also had great independent Irish shops, antiques, and an incredible looking bakery on its ground floor.
We had lunch at a great little cafe on Drury Street (above) and then checked out the Brazen Head, Ireland’s Oldest Pub.
Also, at some point during the trip, this happened:
This, my friends, shows a child being forced by his PARENTS to HOLD STILL while they FORCIBLY PLACE A BUNCH OF PIGEONS ONTO HIS BODY. What in hell is wrong with these people? The child was clearly under 5 years old and not into this at all. Disgusting. Also, I sincerely hope that crazy red-haired woman is a stranger, and not part of the plot to cover a child in pooping, diseased, nasto birds. I should have rescued him. Poor little guy.
Anyways, we checked out some AMAZING Irish music after dinner. I found the names of two tourist-free pubs that have live music most nights, both north of the river tucked away in little neighborhoods, and the one we checked out was such a gem. Definitely full of locals and as authentic as you could ask for.
When we arrived Sunday night there were already three fiddles, one accordion, and three dudes playing different instruments in the flute/Irish whistle family. The musicians’ ages ranged from probably 25 to 65.
Connor proclaimed one of the fiddle men “a wizard” so many times that I started thinking of him as Gandalf. An hour after we arrived, a classy little lady in her 70s showed up and was given a prime seat in the “musicians only” sitting area. She bobbed along with the music for awhile, and all of a sudden, she procured a fiddle from the corner and jumped right in! That made my night (unfortunately, she isn’t in the above picture).
Another woman hopped up at one point and started tap dancing. My mother pointed out it was probably Irish dancing, and I’m embarrassed to say that never occurred to me. I’m blaming it on the image of bouncy curls, high kicks, and crazy outfits that are promoted back home. This was the real deal and it was so fantastic!
Unfortunately, a cab was picking us up at 4:30am the next morning, so we had to leave. Right as a dude walked in with his bagpipes. BLAST!!! We just couldn’t stay.
Overall, super fun trip. We did a great job digging out some of the local Irish culture and avoiding the gimmicky nonsense, and we felt like two days was the right amount of time. We agreed that if we had one extra day we would check out a couple of their smaller museums (Dublin/Ireland literary museum sounded fab) and take another one of the walking tours or the beer/whiskey/music tour, but we don’t feel like we missed anything major. AND we had a great Airbnb, north of the River Liffey.
Most importantly, happy happy milestone birthday to my wonderful Irish husband!! I love you dearly. MWAH!
PS – Flickr album from the weekend is also up to date. You can find it here.
On our first full day in Edinburgh we walked up Arthur’s Seat, stared in wonder at the view, and explored Holyrood Park. I tried haggis for dinner that night and I think I’ll give it one more shot at a nicer restaurant before I write it off. The boys conducted their own city-wide pub crawl over the next few days, and I did my best to see as much as I could before I joined them around 5pm each day. The only pub I remember is called the Jolly Judge; teeny tiny with a fireplace and so cute. In my usual style, I tackled the city on foot and covered a good amount of ground.
I was amazed at the number of shops devoted to tweed and wool! By some crazy miracle I limited my purchases to under 5 items. And I not so secretly regret that I didn’t buy a wool blanked for every room in the house and for every person in my family. And the tweed coats! Swoon. You cannot find these things in America. 100% UK wool, made in Scotland, etc. etc. etc.
I tore myself away from the shops and spent some time at St. Mary’s Cathedral where I took entirely too many photos. The architecture is absolutely stunning. Connor and I toured Edinburgh Castle and saw the Royal Crown Jewels, old prison cells, the great hall where Mary Queen of Scots would entertain… I could have spent another hour or two exploring the castle, but after we watched the sunset over the city we had to get ready for Thanksgiving dinner.
Drum rollll: we had surf and turf. The fresh Scottish mussels were to die for! Probably the best mussels I’ve ever tasted. The rest of the meal was so-so, but luckily I gorged myself on mussels and came away happy. We went out in search of some folk music after dinner and ended up bumping into 8 or so American troops. How’s that for a Thanksgiving surprise?! We gave them our thanks for their service, naturally, and discovered they are all from Michigan (!??) and stationed in Italy. We chatted with them for the rest of the evening and did eventually find some music.
Oh look, this place says they have “live music.” Let’s go see.
No music playing inside. To girl behind the bar: Hello! Do you have live music tonight? Who will be playing?
… not helpful. Do we look or sound like we would know Simon? Simon turned out to be a non-folk guitarist who has never celebrated Christmas. And with that, we ended our time in Edinburgh and drove back to Birmingham the next morning.
Apologies for this tardy update on last weekend’s trip to Warwick.
On Saturday morning, we jumped on a train to Warwick and 25 minutes later we were exploring the streets of a little castle town. The River Avon runs through the heart of the city and past Warwick Castle, and if we go ever go back with visitors, we definitely want to rent a canoe or a giant swan paddle boat!
Warwick Castle was built by William the Conqueror in 1068 and later fortified with stone and restored in the 12th century. A local described the castle as “Disney-ified” and recommended making the 2 mile trek outside town to Kenilworth Castle, too. Add it to the list! I don’t know if I’ll ever grow tired of castles!
Warwick Castle had sword fighting, archery, jousting, random minstrel and bird shows… it was packed with little girls in princess dresses and boys wielding wooden swords. Can you imagine having a season pass to a castle instead of the local zoo? So cool. We climbed one of the towers and checked out the view, ate lunch in the peacock garden in front of a beautiful conservatory, and roamed the gardens and castle grounds.
Later, we went inside the Church of St. Mary which was partially destroyed in a 1694 fire and we also checked out St. John’s Museum. This building was seriously cool from the outside but I found the inside a bit dull. Some 900 years ago it was originally used as a hospital and over the years would become a private residence, a school, an office building for war efforts, and is now a museum dedicated to said war efforts. I sort of zoned out when I discovered it barely touched on WWII. The interior has been renovated so many times that few original features remained. So no pics of the inside.
Brief recap of this week:
- We had “Sunday lunch” with a couple friends in our new neighborhood. We can’t wait to move!!!!!!
- Connor rented a car yesterday and had a little driving adventure. He survived.
- We still don’t have access to pounds because bank security measures in the UK are INSANE. Total overkill.
- Penny dragged a used teabag out of the garbage and onto the bed, spreading cranberry bits all over the place.
- We have an appointment with “Mr. Bob” on Saturday to check out a car he is selling. If we can buy a car this weekend, we are heading to the Peak District for some hiking!
- Our first trip to London is in the works and yes, I plan to get in line at the ass crack (sorry Mom) to score tickets to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet. OMG HOW AMAZING WOULD THAT BE!? I can’t even.