Thursday, December 29, 2011

Hotel Review: Mercure Budapest Duna

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We stayed in a "river view" room with a balcony. The room itself was small-ish, but decent by European standards, and having the balcony was great. Unfortunately, the bathroom consistently smelt like urine :-/ And some friends who traveled with us (but had a separate room) had a room that was not river-view and it was much smaller than our room.

Front desk staff was polite, though they weren't the best with information - they didn't know the English names of some pretty major sights, for one. Also, they were supposed to send out postcards for me and I'm pretty sure they forgot about them for quite some time, as no one received the post cards until at least a month after we handed them over to the man working the desk.

Breakfast was terrible and unless it's automatically included, I don't suggest adding it.

Though the hotel is very close to a tram/bus station it is not close to much else, and said tram station is very seedy. I imagine that if you paid a little more you could find a hotel with a MUCH better location.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Eurotrip 2011, Day 11 Part 2: Last night with Contiki :(

Now, I have to be completely honest. Unlike on my first Contiki tour, when my sister and I hung out with the group constantly, Steve and the Natalies and I were "ditchas" on this trip. As in we were constantly ditching the group to do our own thing, and when we did go out with them a few times we were always some of the first to bow out. Sad to say, we weren't even the oldest people on the tour. But I'll eventually do a full on review of this tour as a whole and I'll get into why we were "ditchas" more when I do. For now, just know that on our last night we felt bad and decided that we would enjoy the final included dinner - a river cruise on the Danube - and then go wherever Kiwi Katie insisted on taking us.

This meant one last ride on the bus, and of course a shot of Steve, myself and the Natalies in our usual seats!

We boarded the boat and they talked to us about the food and drinks - it was a buffet, and every table had a bottle of white wine and a bottle of red included. Can't beat that! Then we started our cruise and as we floated through the city we enjoyed what was definitely the best included meal of the trip.

Yes, the wine might have helped.

I have to say that not only was the food good (and the included wine was a plus! yeah, I'm going to beat that dead horse) but the cruise itself was an awesome way to end our tour. Budapest is gorgeous by night and we even got to chat with our tourmates a bit. Probably more than we had for the past 10-ish days. Oops.

When the cruise was over, Kiwi Katie led us to a club where we paid about $10 per person (I say $10 because I don't recall how many florints it was) for admission, but that admission included three drinks...if you had them before 11 PM. As it was already about 10:30 and there aren't any silly one drink per person laws in Budapest, you know how I rolled.
Triple Beerage
This bar/club was actually pretty decent, which says a lot because most of the places Kiwi Katie had previously suggested/taken us to were questionable at best. The funny part was that this place had numerous floors as well...but thankfully it wasn't quite as ridiculous as the club in Prague ;)

There was a big center courtyard and the balconies looking down on the courtyard were the upper floors of the bar; there was also a basement where they were playing dance music. The basement area was a bit sketchy (I am forever at a loss as to why people insist on putting bars and clubs in the basements of buildings) but by the time we made our way down there we'd had enough to drink that it didn't matter ;)
Coral is the color for this Contiki tour! haha
The Natalies and I with Brandy and one of the Aussie pilots that was on our tour
One last picture of the "ditchas" :(
It was about 3 AM before we finally called it a night and took a taxi back to the hotel, where we cracked open a bottle of brandy that the Natalies had brought from the Netherlands and sipped on it as we tried to stay awake. Sadly, the Natalies had an earlier flight than us and eventually they had to go back...which left Steve and I to pass out until they came banging on our door to say goodbye. It was a tearful one for sure...especially as none of us was even going home! The Natalies were off to Italy, Steve and I to France, and thus ended our Contiki adventure together.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Eurotrip 2011, Day 11: Budapest Highlights

It was an early early morning for us in Budapest, because it was really our only morning there and I wanted to experience the city's famous baths! We chose Szechenyi, the largest medicinal baths in Europe. The complex is fed by two thermal springs and was built in 1913 in the Neo-baroque style. I was able to get one shot on my camera before we donned our suits and spent a good two hours enjoying the baths :)

To be honest I didn't feel different or amazing after our morning at the baths, but it was a really different, cool experience. There was a mix of tourists and locals there and it was clean, at least :) The best part was definitely the crazy whirlpool in the outdoor courtyard! It brought Steve and I back to our childhoods when we would gather our friends and run around in circles in our above-ground pools to create the same spinning effect.

After the baths, we returned to the hotel for showers before heading out to lunch and sightsee. It was my last chance to impress Steve and the Natalies with another guidebook-chosen restaurant, and this time I picked Alfoldi at Kecskemeti ut 4. Known for their famous paprika scones, we also seriously enjoyed our meal as a whole.

Between the four of us we tried everything from the stuffed cabbage to the paprika chicken to a pork dish, and all of it was delicious - particularly the paprika chicken. It was a fairly affordable meal as well, and we were served by the owner himself! Definitely an enjoyable lunch and a restaurant I would recommend to anyone visiting Budapest.

After lunch we decided to make our way to Budapest Castle. We entered through the Vienna Gate and walked up Fortuna u. in hopes of finding the guidebook-suggested Hungarian House of Wines.

We did finally find the Hungarian House of Wines, which is located on Fortuna u. not far from Matthias Church. If you blink you could walk right by it, but thankfully we didn't because it really was an awesome experience! You enter at street level and head down into the wine cellar, where the walls are lined with alcoves stocked with bottles and bottles of Hungarian wines.

The tasting area is at one end of the wine cellar, and the day that we visited there was only one employee working. We waited about 10 minutes while he finished up with some customers who were purchasing wine, and then he helped us choose some tastings. He was really great about allowing us to split two separate tastings (each with 4 or more wines) between the four of us, and at the end we decided to try the local bitter spirit, Matheus.


Now, these aren't the greatest pictures but they at least show my reaction to the Matheus ;)

Stuff was disgusting. I mean...awful. Just...don't. Ever. Trust me.

The only negative thing about the Hungarian House of Wines is that we were there for a long time. Too long, in fact. Though in the end the other things I really wanted to experience in the castle - the labyrinths and the Matthias Church - were closed anyway :-/ So we just walked by the cathedral and headed down the road to catch a glimpse of the royal castle itself.
Matthias Church
Monument in Holy Trinity Square
Paprikas!
Approaching the Royal Castle
The Royal Castle
Although we didn't have time to go inside the castle, we did wander to the wall and got to see some great views of the city down below!
Great views of the city below from the Royal Palace end of Budapest Castle

We thought about taking the tram down the hill, but it was expensive! We found a wide winding path instead, and the descent wasn't bad at all. At the bottom we walked across the infamous Chain Bridge, which first opened in 1849 and was known at the time as one of the modern world's engineering wonders. It was also the first permanent bridge to cross the Danube in Budapest.
Steve on the Chain Bridge
When we reached the other side of the bridge, lo and behold...our Contiki bus was sitting in a parking lot by the river! We headed down the stairs and asked our driver to take a picture of the four of us with the bus...for memory's sake, of course :)

Our last stop for the day was Parliament. We couldn't go inside, but the building is so beautiful and so famous that we had to at least check it out. It was a short walk from the Chain Bridge and well worth it, too!
Budapest's famous Parliament building
Monument to the 1956 uprising
From Parliament we took a tram back to our hotel, thankfully without having to change lines :) We knew we would be partying away our last night of the tour and stopped at a...well, for lack of a better word it was a "packy" (a.k.a. New England lingo for package store, where you can get wine and beer AND liquor)...in the tram station across the road from our hotel!
Yay, wine and beer from a subway/tram station packy!
Next up: our last dinner with the tour...in fact, our last night with the tour...and you know we sent it out in style!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Eurotrip 2011, Day 10: Vienna to Budapest via Bratislava

The tenth day of our Eurotrip was also the day we would board our Contiki bus for our last long ride, this time from Vienna to Budapest. On the way we were stopping in Bratislava, Slovakia for lunch, which was mainly cool because it meant adding another country to my list :) Unfortunately we'd had a bit of a late night and a lot of schnapps and beer, so it was a slow morning - and when we arrived in Bratislava it was nearly ninety degrees. Normally heat doesn't much bother me, but the sun was just beating down on us that day and it didn't make for the most comfortable afternoon.
Bratislava's "UFO" bridge
We were dropped off by the bus and Kiwi Katie walked us into the center of Bratislava.
One of Bratislava's quirky statues, "Man at Work"
Fountain in the square
 From there we were given about two hours of free time to explore and get some food, so after doing a bit of souvenir shopping at some of the little booths set up in the town square, Steve and I and the Natalies decided to hike up the hill to Bratislava Castle. We didn't have enough time to really explore the castle grounds, but we were able to sit and have a good lunch...and some Kufola!
Bratislava Castle

Kufola is basically Slovakia's version of Coca Cola. Back when they were still Communist and not allowed to import coke, they decided to make their own. Of course...it's not the same. At all. I honestly didn't mind it and neither did Steve or Natalie C, but Natalie M was disgusted ;) Still, it's a cool thing to have tried considering the "history" of it.

We made our way back down from the castle to meet up with Kiwi Katie and the rest of the group, full of food but also hot and tired. We assumed that we would be boarding the bus, but noooo. Kiwi Katie apparently had to waste another hour dragging us around Bratislava! Seriously, we took the longest way possible around the city to get back to the bus and there was no prior warning that we would be sightseeing for so long after our free time for lunch. I was not a happy camper. Of course it was cool that we got to see a little more of the city, but again...a heads up on the plans would have been nice.
Medieval Gate in Bratislava
St. Martin's Cathedral, Bratislava
Bratislava Opera House
Finally, finally we were brought back to the bus...but as we pulled away from Bratislava and I began dreaming of a pre-dinner nap in our Budapest hotel, Kiwi Katie decided to actually tell us about her next big plan to keep me from some much-needed, not-on-a-bus relaxation time. It was a real treat, she insisted, because she was taking us to a museum that's closed on Mondays and it was apparently a must-see! All the while I'm sitting in my seat thinking I read an entire guidebook on Budapest and this was not one of the things I marked as a must-see.

The museum was the Terrorhaza, or House of Terror, and focuses on the fascist and communist dictatorial regimes that plagued Hungary in the 20th century. Kiwi Katie dropped us off there and gave us some ridiculous amount of time (seriously, like three hours!) to "explore". We could have wandered off and found some food, but after our big lunch in Bratislava we weren't hungry. So we got drinks at a Subway and decided to check out this supposed must-see.
Budapest House of Terror

Honestly...it is what it is and given the fact that we only had a day and a half in Budapest, I still don't think that the House of Terror was that much of a "must see". Not to mention the fact that once we had exchanged our money and bought our drinks, we still had over two hours in the museum and even walking as slow as humanly possible we didn't need but an hour and a half. If we'd had less time we wouldn't have dragged our feet as much and still would have seen plenty.

But we finally boarded our bus again and headed to our hotel. Though it was a bit out of the way - as in we certainly couldn't walk anywhere - and the nearby tram station was, well, shady, the hotel itself was nice enough. Steve and I even got a riverview room (for whatever reason) which was a lot bigger than the room the Natalies were sharing, and had a balcony! Plus some great views ;)
Views from our balcony at the Mercure Budapest Duna

By the time we got to the hotel, though, it was too late for any other sightseeing and we had to choose between finding dinner on our own, or riding the bus back into the center of the city with Kiwi Katie and some other tourmates. We chose the latter, but when we got off the bus expecting Kiwi Katie to tell us where to go she merely walked with us for a couple of blocks and then disappeared, saying she was going to meet a friend. Which is of course perfectly fine, but when she left us we asked which way we should go to find restaurants and she pointed up the street that we were already on.

And that was wrong, wrong, wrong. In fact we should have backtracked about a block and gone in a totally different direction, as we found out later, but suffice it to say we went the way she told us to go, walked aimlessly for a good 20 minutes without finding any sort of passable restaurants, finally veered off the main road and ended up eating dinner with the Natalies and four other people from our tour at a little Greek restaurant. Don't get me wrong, the dinner was perfectly fine, but nothing memorable...and had Kiwi Katie gave us proper directions we would have easily found ourselves in what is basically known as the "restaurant district" and had tons of awesome restaurants to choose from.

So needless to say...at this point of the tour we were none too happy with Kiwi Katie. Which was a big part of why Steve, the Natalies and I decided to spend the entire next day on our own and only meet up with the tour group for our final night and last included dinner.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Hotel Review: Bellevue Hotel Vienna

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Contrary to other reviews I have read (on TripAdvisor), during our stay the front desk staff was perfectly nice and the restaurant staff (during breakfast) was rude. Upon arriving to breakfast and taking seats in the middle room (no one being there to greet or seat us) we started eating and were then approached and told we couldn't sit there. That's right, in the middle of our breakfast we had to get up and move!

Everything was clean and beds were as comfortable as one would expect, plus the room was quite large - however, the lighting in our room was terrible and the shower head far too low. Plus the TV - not that we planned on watching it much, but still - looked like something from my home 20 years ago.

As others have noted, the lift does not appear to be safe and once you get to your floor there is still a chance of having to take stairs to get to your room...not fun when you're lugging a 50 pound suitcase around.

All in all, this hotel was okay, but I guarantee there are better hotels in Vienna for a similar price.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Eurotrip 2011, Day 9 Part 2: Zum...Bermuda Triangle?

We began our second and final night in Vienna with dinner at another guidebook-recommended restaurant, not far from the Stephansplatz - Zum Bettelstudent at Johannesgasse 12. This dinner was as memorable - if not more so - than our dinner at Zur Letzten Instanz in Berlin. Part of this had to do with the fact that yes, the food was a bit, err, less traditional. But it also helped that Zum Bettelstudent also had its own beer, schnapps, and one heck of a great waiter!

We all ordered various dishes and while everything was delicious, the hits of the evening were the schnitzel (no surprises there, as schnitzel is of course an Austrian specialty) and the spinach dumplings.
Schnitzel at Zum Bettelstudent
And of course we all sampled some of the house beers and schnapps! While schnapps usually isn't my thing, it was definitely cool to have some here with our dinners - especially their house schnapps!
Enjoying our house beers
Now, I'm not complaining but it's a well-known fact that Europeans aren't exactly known for exemplary customer service - and waiters and waitresses are no exception. So I really have to give a shoutout to our waiter at Zum Bettelstudent! I wish I had thought to note his name because he really was great. He gave awesome suggestions, spoke very good English and even had a few laughs with us :)
Our waiter pretending to share Natalie's sangria
We definitely had a long, enjoyable dinner and from there decided to head out to the Bermuda Triangle! We had made the mistake of following blind suggestions in Prague (remember that 5 level club?) and refused to do it again. The Bermuda Triangle in Vienna is a large cobblestone area packed with so many different kinds of bars, lounges and clubs that we figured we couldn't go wrong ;) Unfortunately, we had to get there first. We walked up Johannesgasse to Karntner Strasse, took a right and headed through the Stephensplatz (where we were dropping off one of our dinner-goers, Brandy, who was meeting up with other people from the tour group). It was definitely a beautiful walk at night.
The Swarovski store we had visited earlier on Karntner Strasse
The Stephansdom at night
Before Brandy left us, though, we did run into a group of guys out on the town for a bachelor party. This was my first ever encounter with a European bachelor party - though it could be more of a central/eastern European custom to send their bachelors out on the town with a bunch of junk to sell or trade with unsuspecting fellow bar-goers. Thankfully these guys were pretty harmless and only wanted to trade bits and pieces, so after a few laughs we all went our separate ways.

Unfortunately, Kiwi Katie failed miserably when she gave us directions to the Bermuda Triangle. It's a sizable area but she somehow circled a bunch of streets on our map that were blocks and blocks away from the actual Bermuda Triangle. Which meant that by the time we finally found the actual area, our dinner buzz had worn off and we were hard pressed to suffer the smoke-filled bars of Vienna. Still, we certainly tried!
Our one and only Bermuda Triangle stop :-/
The Natalies didn't like this beer, but I thought it was decent
Our shots, which we think were actually just Malibu & pineapple/orange, ugh
We headed back to the hotel fairly early - as in, 1 AM - when we simply couldn't stand the smoke in the bar any longer. I can imagine that had we not hiked half of Vienna before finding the Bermuda Triangle, had we arrived with our dinner buzz still intact and had we found a less smoky bar, it would have been a much better experience. I'd actually check it out again in a heartbeat ;) But unfortunately, as I said - this was our last night in Vienna. One try was all we got. But I enjoyed Vienna enough that I hope to return there sooner rather than later.