CALL ME MABEY

Archive for the month “July, 2012”

Daytripping out of Budapest

On our last full day in Budapest, we were treated to a personal tour of the Danube bend. Daniel, our excellent guide, drove us 60 km north of Budapest to Esztergom, the former capital of Hungary from the 10th to 13th century. At the top of Castle hill we explored the neoclassical Basilica, which is the tallest building in Hungary and also the head of the nation’s Roman Catholic church. Impressive features include the pipe organ and relics of saint Marko Krizin and archbishop József Mindszenty.

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We then drove to Visegrád where I climbed over 300 steps to see the mountain castle. I got so warm that I melted the plastic nosepiece and frame of my sunglasses while they were on my face! The views of the Danube panorama were well worth it, across the river is Slovenia.

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Our last stop on the tour was Szentendre, (translated it is St. Andrew’s), a baroque city built on the medieval ruins. We took a nice walk throughout the shops and then walked the promenade along the river. We even stumbled upon a movie set where they were using cotton to make fake snow on rooftops and had decorated Christmas trees long that street.

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It was a hot day, but we really enjoyed the tour and would gladly recommend it to those visiting Budapest.

The ultimate way to relax

We decided early on in our planning for Budapest that we wanted to set aside one full day for relaxation. For me it was one of the best days of the trip. Of the many baths in Budapest we chose Gellért Thermal Baths. These baths were built in the art nouveau style in 1918, yet references can be found to healing waters on this site dating back to the 13th century. The thermal baths get their mineral rich water from the hot springs under the Gellért hill.

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The indoor effervescent swimming pool is cooler at 26°C while the indoor and outdoor thermal pools are 36 and 38°C. There is also an outdoor wave pool and sauna with cold dip. The grounds are beautiful, filled with lounge chairs for sunbathing. We spent over 6 hours and felt relaxed and refreshed upon our exit.

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Later that night, completely by chance we stumbled upon the most amazing sushi restaurant. Nobu Budapest is owned by celebrity chef Nobuyuki “Nobu” Matsuhisa, who is known for blending traditional Japanese dishes with Peruvian ingredients. We were very lucky they had a table available and before the meal ended we decided to make reservations for the following night. It was expensive, but it ranks in the top 3 of the best meals I’ve ever had.

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Hopping on and off in Budapest

We bought a 2 day pass for the giraffe line hop on hop off busses in Budapest. It was affordable and it also included a Danube river cruise. An added bonus was the free wifi because the Internet connection at our flat was not working on the first day. We caught the bus on Andrassy ut and took the red line all the way around. The most amazing view was from the Citadella, a former fortress that sits on the top of Gellert hill. The liberty statue looks down from here on the Daunbe, close to the Elizabeth Bridge.

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We got off the bus after a complete loop at the opening to City Park at the beautiful Heroes’ Square. The Hungarian version of the Voice was filming at the Palace of Arts on this square. The Millennium Memorial is situated in the middle of the square, complete with statues of the leaders of the seven tribes that founded Hungary in the 9th century.

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We walked back along Andrassy ut and had lunch at a cafe. We then took a tour of the Hungarian State Opera House. Not quite as lavish as the one in Paris, but beautiful all the same. The iron curtain on the stage is very impressive and was installed as an important fire safety element in the theatre.

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That evening we cruised on the Daube river. It was a warm night, and I left most of the picture taking to Alison as it was a long day. It was a beautiful way to wrap up another amazing day of sightseeing.

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Beautiful Budapest

After having rain showers follow us through most of our travels, we have finally found the sun in Budapest. Temperatures are in the high 20s to low 30s and I’m applying sunscreen hourly. Our flat is located close to the opera house and the famous Andrássy Avenue, where we found great shopping and restaurants. The Veuve Cliquot terrace at Callas restaurant was the perfect place to spend an afternoon relaxing.

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Our first evening we decided to take a walk down by the Danube river, see the Chain bridge and Parliament building. The sun was just starting to set and the light was beautiful. We walked across to the Buda side of city and then strolled back to the terrace at the Sofitel hotel for mojitos and a late supper. Sitting there chatting away, Anne spotted us and came to join us for the evening.

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The next few blog entires will be all about our bus tour, our relaxing day the the baths and our day trip outside of Budapest.

Adventures with ampelmann in Berlin

Apologies for the delay in this post, our flat in Budapest is without wifi for the current time, so while this was written a few days ago, I’m only able to post it now from our hop on hop off bus tour in Budapest.

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I’ve been having a hard time processing everything I’ve experienced in Berlin. It’s the place that’s surprised me most on our travels. On a historic level it’s huge and I wanted to understand where I was visiting. The memorials and museums are numerous and I was understandably moved at both the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe Information Centre and the Museum at Checkpoint Charlie.

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We also wanted to experience the fun side of Berlin; the shops, restaurants and bars that have only existed in our lifetime. We had great meals and amazing drinks and enjoyed sitting on terraces and laughing together. I’ll cherish that memory of Berlin too.

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It rained on and off for the 3 days we were in Berlin and because we had to be so “stop and go” with our plans, that’s where the blog title comes from. Amplemann is the name of the figure on their crosswalk lights. It got to be quite the joke with us and when we found the Amplemann souvenir store, we went to town 🙂
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We also had a running joke about when I crossed the line where the Berlin wall used to be (it’s marked with cobblestones and in many cases metal plates with the dates), it would start to rain. I’m surprised by the quality of my pictures from the east gallery and the stelae of the Murdered Jews of Europe Memorial as the rain was coming down in buckets at those points in time.

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Happily the rain would stop within 15-20 minutes and we would be on our way again. The other factor that we’ve encountered is the large amount of construction going on in Europe. Whether it is restoring historic properties (like the Kaiser Wilhelm church, whose exterior was completely covered up), digging new metro lines, building sites and temporary walkways were very commonplace on our travels.
Budapest is the last stop on the trip. We are looking forward to warmer temperatures and further adventures.

A wharf, a statue and the order of the elephant

My absolute favourite spot in Copenhagen was Nyhavn, the colourful wharf that is a flurry of activity. Lined with restaurants, outdoor cafes, hotels and shops, it was busy both day and night and was the perfect spot to people watch. We spent time in this section of the city every day of our visit and it was the canal port of our boat tour. Even Danish author Hans Christian Andersen made his home here. At the end of Nyhavn is the Royal Danish Playhouse, from which there are great views of the Royal Danish Oprah House across the river.

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Further along the waterfront, we came across the Copenhagen International Sand Sculpture Festival. The sculptures were great and hard to believe they were just held together with water.

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The most recognizable sculpture in Copenhagen though, is the Little Mermaid. The 1913 sculpture sits at the edge of the harbour, modeled after the prima ballerina Ellen Price and the sculptor’s wife, Eline Eriksen. Droves of tour buses and countless canal boats visit this site each day.

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Another treat was visiting Amalienborg Palace and Rosenborg Castle. Amalienborg Palace is the winter one of the Danish royal family and even though we didn’t get a glimpse of Queen Margrethe II, we did enjoy the grounds and witnessed the changing of the Royal Life Guards.

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Rosenborg is a 17th century renaissance castle that was used a summer residence until the 19th century. It currently houses a museum of the Danish royal regalia, including the crown jewels and memorabilia of the Order of the Elephant, the highest order of Denmark, dating back to the 16th century. It was amazing to see so many decorative elephants used throughout the castle.

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Our final stop in Copenhagen was to a bakery for danishes!!! A tasty treat before we headed back to the apartment. Sadly Andrew flew back to Brussels for work this morning but Alison and I are continuing our adventures this week in Berlin.

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Nothing is rotten in the state of Denmark

Our flight to Copenhagen on Friday was very early and since we couldn’t check into our apartment until 4:15pm, most of that day was spent in cafes and on park benches as we still had to carry our luggage. After a well needed nap in the flat, we found a grocery store and picked up supplies for supper and our breakfasts. The champagne was in celebration of my 10 year anniversary with Stewart, and even though we were not together, we had a Skype chat later that night and we will celebrate when I get home at the end of the month.

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We decided to go on a hop on hop off bus tour the next day. It took a little over an hour to make the complete loop and gave you a sense of the neighborhoods in this beautiful city. Afterwards we walked down Strøget, the longest pedestrian shopping street in Europe. It is a real mix of high end stores, mid range and North American stores along with cafes, fast food outlets and souvenir shops. We went into sephora in Illum and had a great lunch at the Royal Cafe.

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The Royal Cafe is in a courtyard tucked away just off of Strøget and where they serve smushies, small Danish open faced sandwiches. Everything is served on porcelain from Royal Copenhagen, which has its own shop next door. I bought a blue and white tea cup as a souvenir.

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We walked through Christianshavn, which is very reminiscent of Amsterdam. We stopped at the Church of our Saviour to see the tower and then headed on into Vesterbro, along H. C. Andersen Blvd.

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Supper that night was amazing. On the recommendation of one of Andrew’s friends we got reservations at Nam Nam, the Singapore eatery opened by Danish celebrity chef Claus Meyer, who also co-owns Noma, voted the best restaurant in the world.

It’s only been open for 6 weeks and it is a foodie dream. Prices are very reasonable and they encourage you to share the dishes. We had pepper crayfish, shrimp spring rolls and flying cheese, followed by beef rendang, free range pork BBQ and onion rack of lamb. The drinks were so good too, a mango mixed drink followed by the best mojito ever made.

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As you can see we’re having a great time in Copenhagen. Next post will feature our boat tour and my favourite area, Nyhavn.

Madonna concert

We spent most of Thursday sleeping in, doing laundry, packing for the next 2 weeks and of course getting ready for the Madonna concert. I’ve always wanted to see her live and was unhappy when I saw that all the US/Canada concert dates were all in the fall, so this concert was what really got the ball rolling with this trip to visit Alison. She’s the one who secured the tickets and the experience certainly lived up to my expectations. We had wine to toast the occasion and then we caught the metro. I picked up a concert tee and program and we had pre show street waffles.

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There were about 40,000 in attendance at Roi Baudouin Stadium, which is partly open air and the stadium stands are covered. We had 4th row seats in the stadium. The opening act started shortly after 9pm, after they decided to cover the stage in carpet as the forecast was for rain showers.
A techno DJ Marin Solvteg was the opening act and he mixed a great selection of songs, both of Madonna and current radio favourites.

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This video gives you can idea of the stadium set up. At 0.07 sec pause the video. It shows a rectangular plastic cover for one of the video cameras, we were in the lower part of the stadium just to the left of that shelter. (note: I did not take any of these videos)

Waiting for the show to start

The show got underway shorty after 10pm. The opening had a heavy religious slant (monk like costumes, giant incense censer, bell tower and church projection) and she appeared silhouetted in a confession type pose. This shattered away, leaving her on a top platform and they went into Girls Gone Wild. Great energy for the opening number, she was really singing (although she had a lot of backup and most likely prerecorded support). She can keep up with her dancers and I loved the floor work sections. The stage had a number of vertical platforms and the lights and projections changed frequently for each number.

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(both of these photos are from madonnarama.com)

Revolver was next, followed by Gang Bang, both from the new album. Lots of guns and violence but that’s what the songs are about. The set for Gang Bang was cool, blood projections would spatter as each “lover” was shot and the girls dancing in Revolver reminded me of a spy/Charlie’s angles type routine.

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(these photos are also from madonnarama.com)

An updated Papa don’t preach was next followed by Hung Up (playing guitar) and then I don’t give a … which ended the set with her sinking into the stage for a costume change.

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(photo #2 and #3 are actually my photos, the others are from madonnarama.com)

The second set was awesome. They marched on stage with the cheerleader/majorette costumes and did a great mix of Express Yourself, which then went into a mash up of Gaga’s Born this Way, with a bunch of “she’s not me” thrown in before a drum line began and segued into Give Me All Your Luvin’ complete with drummers suspended from the rigging. Amazing energy and we were dancing the whole time.

Video of this section from Istanbul

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(both of these photos are from fastcocreate.com)

The next section was my absolute favourite and I expected it to be. It started with dancers with white masks which led into a series of finger snaps so I knew it was Vogue. This was also the best costume, Gautier designed homage to the cone bra corset over white silk shirt, black tie, pinstripe pants with silver pocket watch chain. Loved it, loved it, loved it. Dancers costumes were just right and I could have gone home after it was done. But candy shop, human nature and a slow version of like a virgin with an umbrella in the full out rain that was coming down at that point did not disappoint.

Video from this set

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(photo #3 is my own, photo #1 is from fastcocreate.com and the others are from madonnarama.com)

The show ended with full choir version of like a prayer followed by a neon party rock version of celebration. We were wet and tired out by that point but still dancing along.

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(both of these photos are from fastcocreate.com)

The rest of the night was frustrating. On our way there, the signs in the metro indicated they would be running after the concert, past when the metro would normally stop. But even though we arrived to the metro before midnight, everything was closed. So we followed the crowd to some muddy parking lot (it was raining quite a bit at this point) and we tried another metro, which again was locked up too). Eventually we found a bus shelter and called Andrew who thankfully came to get us. It was exhausting as we had to be up just a few hours later for our flight to Copenhagen, but I’m glad that I went and all in all I had an amazing time.

Paris is always a good idea

I’m on the train back to Brussels and although I’m looking forward to the rest of the trip, I know I could have spent a month in Paris. It’s hard to describe but it certainly lived up to my expectations and despite a few inconsiderate individuals (who were all foreigners btw), I had an amazing time. I spoke French and felt quite comfortable doing so, in restaurants, museums, and stores. I found it much easier to understand than québécois French and they understood what I was saying, and I found myself rediscovering my vocabulary that was 17 years dormant. I’m sure my verbs were all messed up, but c’est la vie. I’m also using French in Belgium as I’m clueless in Flemish.

Instead of another 3 day play by play post, this one will be a highlight of the rest of our adventures. Thinking back on it all, the best part for me was visiting Palais Garnier – Opéra de Paris. Some people get emotional seeing the Eiffel tower or on a cruise on the Seine, but no I’m the one who had the tears running down her face at the foot of the opera staircase. We spent a good 2 hours touring the costume and set libraries, the golden grand foyer, exploring the interior and exterior balconies and eventually saw the orchestra as they were ending a tech rehearsal for the performance that evening. The chandelier surround, painted by Chagall, depicts scenes from operas by 14 composers. The gift shop yielded some very cherished souvenirs.

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We had some fun walking along Avenue des Champs-Élysées, window shopping and then spent some real time shopping at sephora. We also saw Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile, and the crazy round about traffic that seemed to make very little sense.

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Monday morning we explored Monmartre and found the Moulin Rouge and the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, which is the highest point of the city.

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I’m back in Brussels now and desperately need to get to bed so here are a few more pictures of the amazing places we visited and the great food we ate. Paris did not disappoint me in any way and I know I’ll be back to visit again.

Musée d’Orsay

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Our street

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Our view from the flat

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Eiffel Tower – day and night

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Paris Day 2 – Museum hopping

Our second day was filled with museum visits. We found a cafe to have our petit déjeuner and then we were off!

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Since our flat is so close, we visited the grounds of the Archives nationales specifically Hôtel de Soubise. The grounds were nice but of course the building was not open as it was Sunday morning.

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Our first stop was the Pompidou Centre, home to modern and contemporary art. What is so unique about the building isn’t just the art inside but the building design enabled the galleries to be enormous uncluttered spaces while all of the elevators, stairs, air and water ducts, and escalators are all outside in coloured and glass tubes. It was from the glassed in front escalators that I got my first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower and Sacre Coeur.

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While modern art really isn’t my thing, I did enjoy seeing works from Warhol, Picasso, Rothko and Matisse.

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For lunch, I had a new food: Alsatian flammekueche. A thin baked dough with which is covered with crème fraîche, thinly sliced onions and lardons. You could then add additional topping, which I opted for goat cheese and honey. Also had a glass of Gewurtztraminer 🙂

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The Louvre was stop #2 on our museum day and I must say that I was glad we opted for the museum pass. It gave us priority access, which is a separate entrance completely and there wasn’t a queue at all. Inside we only looked at 3 sections yet climbed what felt like a million stairs. We focused on Greek and Roman sculpture, and Italian paintings. My favourite was Venus de Milo and I thought the fuss and crowd around the Mona Lisa was more fun to see than the painting itself.

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We explored the grounds and walked along the Tuileries. Stopped for a water break and eventually made our way to museum #3: L’Orangerie. It is art gallery of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings, most famous for Monet’s eight water lilly murals. Pictures are not allowed inside this museum so I bought a few postcards.

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That evening we ate at a Moroccan restaurant. We both had tagine, a slow cooked stew, named for the earthenware pot in which it is cooked. Mine was chicken and pears and it was served with spiced bread. It was very dark, almost exclusively candlelit, so the pictures are a bit hard to see.

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Stay tuned for the next update where we journey to the top of Montmartre and visit Sacre Coeur.

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