Archive for November, 2010

Budapest (Hungary)

Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

August 20, 2010 (Friday) – August 24, 2010 (Tuesday):

It was bound to happen. Six months traveling, we were bound to coincide with the visited country’s national holidays. The irony is, we left for this trip on July 4th from the US, which was America’s Independence Day. But leaving in the morning on that day, we missed all the holiday festivities (i.e., fireworks). As it were, while we were in Belgium, we coincided with their National (Independence) Day (July 21). But fell asleep in our hotel room before the fireworks display started. And now, while we were in Budapest, we coincided with their National (Independence) Day (August 20). I think someone is trying to send us a hint and really wants us to watch fireworks this year. So who are we to fight fate. After dinner, we took a stroll along the Danube and watched as fireworks exploded above all along the river. I’d say it was probably a better fireworks show than the one in Cerritos would have been.

Budapest has definitely trumped all the other cities we’ve visited thus far on this trip as our favorite. We loved Scotland for its preserved historic buildings and architecture throughout the city, especially the castle situated atop the hill overlooking the city below. Well, Budapest has all that, plus the added bonus of the might Danube River running through. I can see why people have referred to Budapest as the Paris of Eastern Europe. We came to Budapest without any expectations and not knowing much about Budapest other than it is a major hub for airlines, and after four and a half days in Budapest, we fell in love with the city. The city still has a historic medieval feel, decent (and cheap) food and drinks, vibrant nightlife.

Speaking of Budapest’s nightlife, which we were really didn’t partake in, but kids (high school kids / young adults….I guess they’re kids to us) would pack liquor stores / convenience stores and stock up on drinks, then walk over to the many public parks throughout the city and drink/eat/hang out, while DJs would set up outdoors in the parks and spin loud music into the wee hours. We noticed that the first night and thought that maybe it was just some special rave because of the holiday, but no, we noticed it on several of the other nights too. Very interesting culture.

Our first full day in Budapest was quite packed. We started the day early (nowadays on this trip, early means getting out of the hotel around 10am…though I have to say, Miriam does still wake up around 7am, while I still go to sleep around 3am). We headed off to the Great Market Hall to grab food from the local food stalls, as well as peruse the various knickknacks Hungarian culture had to offer. Paprika. That’s what Hungary is famous for apparently. There was paprika hanging from almost every stall as well as various flavors of paprika powder being sold from almost every vendor. We abstained, and resisted the temptation to buy any. Although, Miriam did find this cute wooden Hungarian container to use for storing salts on the table. Of course, me being the skeptical bargain shopper thought we should wait before buying; afterall, this was only our first full day in Budapest, we might find a better bargain / more selection elsewhere if we wait. We didn’t. Miriam didn’t get to buy it. I’m sure/hope she’ll forgive me one of these days…

As for the rest of the busy day’s activities, we wandered across the Liberty Bridge to St. Gellert Hill, where atop the hill stood the Liberty Statue. Standing at the foot of the hill and spying the seemingly laborious steep steps amid the sweltering heat, we opted the Liberty Statue would best be appreciated from afar at ground/river-level. So instead, we hopped on to the next tram and headed towards the Parliament building, arguably one of Budapest’s most recognized buildings, looks kind of like the British parliament building but with a little Ottoman flair.

And of course as luck would have it, all the tickets to visit inside the Parliament building were given out for the day, presumably swiped by the hordes of tour groups waiting outside selling tour packages of the Parliament building. Wonderful. But I guess what could possibly be so interesting about seeing the inside of a government building. So having bailed on the Liberty Statue and failed on visiting the inside of the Parliament building, the next logical step in our grand quest of touring Budapest was naturally, to go get some ice cream and dessert. So we hopped on the trusty tram (public transportation in Budapest is quite convenient, might I inject here), and headed to Gerbeaud, where we got cake and coffee. With our fill of caffeine and sugar, we were ready for the second leg of the day, visiting City Park, Hero’s Square, the timewheel and walking down Audressy, a lovely tree-lined boulevard home to embassies and estate houses. (Sounds like a lot of activity for one afternoon, but they are all relatively in the same vicinity). Making our way down Audressy, in the direction back to our hotel, we stopped off for dinner at M. Restaurant, a lovely and quaint street-side restaurant serving affordable good food. Back in the hotel room, I spent the evening updating the blog and posted the Amsterdam entry (yup, about a whole month behind). Wish all my days on this trip were as productive, but alas, they are not. At any rate, that was our day sightseeing around Pest. Yeah, I didn’t know either before coming here, but one part of the city is called Buda, and the other, Pest. Hence Budapest. Either quite clever city planners/namers, or really lazy ones. (I live in Cerri, but my friend lives in Tos).

The following days were spent walking around / sightseeing around Buda, Castle Hill, Grand Palace, Fisherman’s Bastion and St. Stephan Basilica. One of the more unique (to the trip, not unique in Budapest) was going to one of the many hot springs / mineral baths. Like Japanese onsens, these hot springs are created by natural mineral waters flowing up from mother earth, nourishing the very bodies honored to soak in such goodness…with the baths predominantly frequented by older people hoping to find some fountain of youth. Not normally accustomed to relaxing in public baths, I found the public baths (we went to Szechenyi bath) not at all too bad. If nothing else, it was a good experience. And fortunately, it wasn’t one of those nude public baths. The onsens in Japan, on the other hand…

To view more pictures from Budapest, visit the Photos.

Tokaj (Hungary)

Monday, November 22nd, 2010

August 18, 2010 (Wednesday) – August 20, 2010 (Friday):

Who’s Hungary for dessert wine!? We are! When we were planning our round-the-world trip, it didn’t initially occur to us to visit Tokaj, Hungary, home to one of our favorite dessert wine regions. It’s a city not always easily found on a map, and definitely not a metropolitan destination. But since we would be traveling on a eurail train pass through Europe, which allowed us up to 15 stops to most cities in Europe, why the heck not make a trip out to this rural Hungarian region and witness firsthand the birthplace of our beloved dessert wine.

Unfortunately, things almost didn’t turn out so. Leaving Zagreb, we were on a 5am (yes, a god-awful time of 5am) train departure to connect through Budapest, then onto Szerenc, then finally to Tarcal to arrive at 2:30pm, from there our hotel would pick us up and take us to the hotel. Simple, sound like a good plan. Not quite. Our 5am train didn’t arrive until 7:30am, which meant we were already over 2hours behind schedule. Once we finally got to Budapest, we of course missed our connecting train. No thanks to several unhelpful train ticket agents, we finally managed to figure out what trains we needed to take to get us to Szerenc, then onto Tarcal…by then a good five hours later than scheduled.

The train ride out to Tarcal was in and of itself quite an experience. Having hopped onto the train last minute with no reservation meant we would be standing a good portion of the way. But that wasn’t the worst part, these trains were not those modern bullet train-types with modern amenities, they were essentially communist-era transport trains. Although the train did have seats, we were relinquished to standing in the stairwell/entrance area of the car. The eastern European summer heat was beating down at a good 85 degrees with our only respite being the open windows of the train car. But that meant the deafening noise of the outside world passing by at 75mph to drown out your own thoughts. And even if you were lucky enough to formulate any thoughts to yourself, your concentration would be broken by the constant stench of cigarette smoke emanating from your fellow comrades stuck in the stable with you. .But hey, we’ll be sipping on sweet Tokaj wine in a just a few, let there be no complaining.

One of the most amusing incidents did happen going to Tokaj (and it wasn’t the train ordeal). Once we arrived at the Tarcal train station (it was really more like a depot, than a station…something you would see out of an old wartime movie when the train would slowly approach the depot and through the windows of the train, you would spy soldiers standing guard armed with machine guns and a German shepherd). Anyway, once we arrived, we went to the street-side of the depot waiting for the hotel car to come pick us up. Tarcal is a small town in rural eastern Hungary, with the population of Hungarians probably close to 99.5%, and the other 0.5% being outside tourists, with Asians probably rarely ever visiting. So, as we were waiting for our ride, about half a block down the street to our left, we noticed a group of about six junior high / high school kids gathered together. We could hear them mumbling stuff to each other and giggling, obvious that they were looking at us and talking about us. After about a few minutes, two of the girls mustered enough courage to walk over to us and ask in their Hungarian broken-English, ” Do. you. speak…..English?” Then they giggled at each other proud to have made first contact with these humans with small eyes and black hair. To us, it was as if they’ve never seen Asians before, and have only read/heard about them from their textbooks. When we replied back in perfect English that we did in fact speak English, they continued to giggle some more and turn back to their friends who were all still standing half a block away at a safe distance, that yup, these foreign-looking beings are safe, and indeed do understand the English language. Then our car arrived, and we said goodbye to our two curious Hungarian ambassadors.

Finally, Tokaj wines. I was looking forward to our upcoming two-day binge-fest (so to speak) on Tokaj dessert wines. The hotel we were staying at, Grof Degenfeld, arranged all of our tours and tastings. The hotel itself also had a sprawling winery, which we would taste their wines on the last day. As for the following days’ activity, we started out with a morning visit to Chateau Dereszla winery. After a 30 minute tour of their cave, we had tastings of their library of wines, from lighter (and less sweet) furmint wines to edes szamorodni to various aszu wines. Nice and yummy, just like how we like our tokaj wines.

Afterwards, following lunch and a stroll through the town of Tokaj, we took the car to the second winery, Disznoko. Again we took a tour of their facility and learned about the process of making Tokaj aszu wines (i.e., that puttonyos are the traditional wooden “baskets” used to collect the grapes and the number of baskets of grapes used would determine the sweetness of the aszu wines, anywhere from 3 puttonyos up to 6 puttonyos).

Although it feels like we could never have enough Tokaj wines, spending two days in the Tokaj wine region we definitely had our decent share. Despite the (minor) ordeal we went through to get to Tokaj, the end result made up for the inconvenience. Now onto Budapest.  (And wouldn’t you know it, just so things would come full circle, of course our train leaving Tokaj was delayed two hours…)

To view more pictures from Tokaj, visit the Photos.

Zagreb (Croatia)

Sunday, November 21st, 2010

August 14, 2008 (Saturday) – August 18, 2010 (Wednesday):

I feel like I’m back in college.  Middle of the night, term paper just finished, ready to print, when BAM!  You lose all your work and every page is gone.  That is the Zagreb entry.  You are reading the bastardized version of what would have been my greatest piece of writing to date.  My previous entry on Zagreb, Croatia was epic.  It had beautiful prose, drama, comedy, romance and even a little historical satire mixed in.  The plot twists were riveting, as was the character and scene developments.  But alas, it has disappeared into the internet ether, never to be read by a human soul (other than myself).  So instead of that mastery of the english language, you get to read this piece of

In some twist of irony, it is quite appropriate that this entry about Zagreb is not the first choice of posting…just like the destination itself was not our first choice of visit in Croatia.  We would have much rather visited one of the coastal towns along the Adriatic Sea, ideally Dubrovnik.  But since we were traveling Europe via the eurail train pass, getting to Dubrovnik from Verona would have been too time-consuming.  And thus, we chose to go to Zagreb instead.

Going to Croatia and visiting the capital city of Zagreb is essentially like someone going to California and visiting the capital city of Sacramento.  Yes, Sacramento is the capital of California, and yes, you could probably find things to do to make the trip there worthwhile.  But honestly, you probably would rather want to be somewhere nicer like San Francisco or Los Angeles.  So having said that, we sought out to explore the city of Zagreb and all it had to offer.

Interestingly, my original entry on Zagreb wasn’t as harsh.  (Maybe I’m just bitter for losing all that work).  And in all honesty, Zagreb isn’t all that bad.  We spent that first day walking around town, and checking out two of their major structures, the Cathedral of Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary and St. Mark’s Church.  We really liked St. Mark’s Church and its unique colorful tile-designed roof.  The roof looks like something out of Super Mario Bros.  (Side note:  I wonder if someone, who is let’s say 10-15 years younger, is reading that reference understands that I’m referring to the original 8-bit Nintendo version of Super Mario Bros. and it blocky graphics and not the Nintendo64 or Nintendo Wii version with its more advanced graphics.  If not, then that reference really wouldn’t make any sense.  Man, have I already gotten to the point where there is a generational gap and I need to more specifically explain pop-culture references.  Sad.  So sad.)

Anyway, other than the churches, we also walked down Tkalciceva Street, with its wide selection of boutique stores, restaurants and bars.  We found a great bar, Medvedgrad Pub, that had decent food and a great happy hour with good microbrew beer.  One of the nice things about visiting Zagreb was its selection of varying Croation/Dalmatian food.  In particular was the prsut (purr-shoot), which is similar to the prosciutto of Italy, or jamon of Spain.  Another dish we like were the fried sardines.  Nothing fancy, just lightly fried and well-seasoned.

A few of the other sights we took in were:

– the Dolac Market – a farmer’s market where we could see the fresh local produce native to Croatia;

– Zagreb City Museum – we spent a good few hours there getting a historical context of the city and of Croatia.  It also had a nice exhibit on the two medieval areas of Zagreb: Kaptol, the seat of the Bishop (where the Cathedral now stands), and Gradec, the free town where tradesmen and artisans lived;

– Mirogoj Cemetery – a huge cemetery right outside Zagreb, with lots of orante tombstones and graveyards.  Wasn’t really worth the time going out there.

All in all, we had a decent time in Zagreb.  But next time we go to Croatia (hopefully), we’ll go to Dubrovnik…and I’ll hit save in my document.

To view more pictures from Zagreb, visit the Photos.

Seoul (Korea)

Sunday, November 21st, 2010

Frank has been delinquent with blog posts so I am skipping ahead to Korea for just this post.

September 14, 2010 (Tuesday) – September 27, 2010 (Monday):

For two whole weeks, for every lunch and dinner, we met with relatives of Frank’s and mine in Seoul.  This was detrimental to my plan to lose some weight before Hami’s wedding in October, but who can say no to delicious Korean food? Our meals included buffet at various hotels, hanjungsik (traditional Korean course meal), hwe (sashimi), grilled pig skin and chicken feet, ddukbokgi and many more… Although we hardly had any time to go off on our own to do some sightseeing around Seoul, we were very happy that we invested all our time there to meet and get to know our aunts/uncle/cousins/other relatives. Who knows…it may be another ten years before we come back to our motherland… and at which time, we may have a whole new set of faces to get to know.

Even though it had been more than ten years since I had last hung out with my relatives in Korea, it felt as if I had just seen them. For me, walking around in Korea and seeing familiar faces brought back many fond memories from living in Korea. I realized once again that blood is thicker than water. We thank all of our families in Korea for taking time out of their busy schedule to spend time with us and treating us so nicely. We thank Yoon-ah unni’s family especially for letting us stay with them for two weeks and making us feel at home! We will miss you all!

We often forgot to take pictures, but here are some pictures we remembered to take in Korea.

Verona and Venice (Italy)

Sunday, November 14th, 2010

August 7, 2010 (Saturday) – August 14, 2010 (Saturday):

In fair Verona, where we lay our scene…What to do here for a week??  Years ago, having gone to Florence, Rome and Tuscany…something new is now what we seek. (ok, that’s it with the “rhyming”).

Miriam’s been to Venice before, so instead of staying in someplace where either of us has already been, we stayed in fair Verona, a short 2-hour train ride from Venice, with the hopes to just relax for a week, in a B&B.  So Miriam found a nice B&B in Verona, just outside the main city center.

The B&B was great.  With only four rooms, which were not always occupied, it felt like we had the whole hillside villa to ourselves.  Breakfasts (consisting of croissants, sometimes prosciutto, yogurts, cereal, and fresh fruits) were served on the outside patio area, which our host, Marco, prepared graciously everyday.  On another side of the villa, there were additional patio seating where we could read and take care of trip planning, all the while enjoying a beautiful view of Verona.   At night, we would utilize the large dining area to continue to do more trip planning, while enjoying the bottles of wine we purchased from Germany and from our wine tasting trip in nearby Valpolicella (more on that later).   All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed our stay (especially the air conditioning), and the comfortable B&B a perfect escape from the wretched heat and humidity.

Yup, the European summer heat had finally found us.  After a month in Europe, we’ve mostly been greeted with mild climate and occasional rain.  But in Verona, the temperature would hover around 30-35 degrees Celsius (or 86-95 degrees F), not temperatures we would want to walk around all day in.  So luckily, we had a whole week to explore Verona.

My basic impression of Verona was….very Italy.  Small town, narrow streets, vibrant market squares.  Aside from the heat, walking around the town and taking in the surroundings was very enjoyable.  Reminded us about everything we love about Italy.  Much like Rome with its Coliseum, and Tuscany with its Duomo, Verona had its Arena — enormous structures situated in the thick of the city.   The Arena is an open-air coliseum, which during the summer months, is used to house the summer opera season.  Lucky for us, we’re in Verona….and it’s the summer. So, let’s watch an opera.  The opera we chose was Aida.  The Veronans?…Veronese?…Veronians?…let’s just call them Italians.   The Italians in Verona take their summer opera season seriously.   There are certain ways they like to enjoy their opera at the Arena.  For instance, many purchase the unreserved “seats” in the upper parts of the Arena.   I say “seats” because really you’re just purchasing an area in the upper parts of the Arena and sitting on the hard stone.  Knowing this, there are opportunistic vendors outside the Arena selling cushions, which we bought two of the inflatable variety.  Luckily we did, because not only did the cushion provide comfort from the hard stone, but also provided protection from the warm stone that had been baking all day in the hot weather.  Another fascinating practice the patrons of the unreserved section of the Arena do is to hold up candles throughout the beginning of the opera.  And when you’re in the upper sections, with the open air and the sky as a backdrop, it makes for a wonderful scene.

So that’s basically the most touristy thing we did in Verona.   Like I said, it was hot so we really didn’t want to walk around too much (and one day towards the end of the week, it actually poured, so we didn’t want to walk around too much then either).  Mainly we just did some light walking around the town and relaxed at the B&B.

As for day trips outside of Verona, we took a nice wine tour in the Valpolicella region to taste some Amarone wine, and also spent a day in Venice.

Without even knowing, Verona is quite close to the Amarone-producing wine region of Valpolicella.  We found a tour operator that gave semi-private wine tours of the region.  To me, next to Brunello and Barolo, Amarone wine comes a close third among favorite types Italian red wines.  After explaining the wine-making process of Amarone wines, the tour guide took us to the Campagnola and Brunelli wineries.  Two very different wineries in terms of size.  Both are family-owned and run, but Campagnola is much larger in scale to Brunelli.  Whereas Campagnola has a state-of-the-art assembly line production and bottling facility, Brunelli has a single (maybe two) production farmhouse.   But both wines were very good.  We bought a couple bottles and enjoyed them back at the B&B during the evenings.

As for Venice, it was my first time and Miriam’s second time there.   Having gone to Venice now, I must agree, it’s not really worth staying there . It’s probably better just visiting on a day-trip.  We got in most of the sights and did a walking tour around the city.  We found a restaurant (Do Spade) for dinner that served cichetti (Italian tapas).  We got there as it opened, and there was another couple, a Japanese couple, also waiting.  We got seated and then another small group of Japanese tourists arrived in the restaurant.  A few minutes later, another Japanese couple came in for dinner.  What’s going on?  We noticed a few of them had either a Japanese guidebook or some printout.   This restaurant must have been featured on some Japanese guide, because when we left after dinner (which the food was quite good by the way), all the patrons were Japanese except for probably two tables of Italians.  It was quite odd.

So that’s Verona (/Valpolicella/Venice). Next up, a 7am (12-hour) train ride to Zagreb, Croatia.

To view more pictures from Verona / Venice, visit the Photos.