Exploring Budapest

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Budapest, Hungary is a place I’ve always wanted to see, but it wasn’t until recently that I had the chance to explore this beautiful city in the heart of Central and Eastern Europe.  We began our European Christmas markets tour in Budapest, but we didn’t limit our sightseeing to only the Christmas markets.  We made sure to see as much of the city as we could in the three days we were there.

Because my history classes in school didn’t touch on much of Central and Eastern European history, I had no idea of the tumultuous and fractured past of this country.  Parts of Hungary and Budapest specifically, have been a part of different empires throughout history because the land is so centrally located, and therefore it has been metaphorically yanked back and forth and ripped apart on a number of occasions.  Budapest was once a part of the Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires, and although Hungary wasn’t officially a part of the Soviet Union, the government strings at the time were controlled by the USSR.  The city of Budapest is made up of what was once 2 separate cities “Buda” and “Pest,” split down the middle by the Danube River, and these areas of the city are still referred to as such – though it is considered one city now.

Highlights

  • Parliament Building: This was one of my favorite parts of Budapest.  It is one of Europe’s oldest legislative buildings, and it’s location on the shores of the Danube give it an incredibly powerful and impressive presence in the skyline.  You can tour the inside, and from what I understand, it’s best to get your tickets online ahead of time (which is what we did).  You can print them at home, and once you’re there, you don’t have to worry about purchasing tickets or not being able to get in because all of the tours are full.  Tours, which are about an hour long, are provided in various languages, and each language has their own time and assigned group.  The only catch is that you must be there in time for your tour to start.  We nearly missed our tour because we were running a bit behind schedule, and we literally had to run to make it on time. Once you arrive at the visitor’s center, even with a ticket, you still have to go through security, but it’s a relatively simple process.  While on your tour, you get to see the main hall, the assembly hall, and even the Holy Crown of Hungary. If you have a chance to cross the river into Buda, it’s worth seeing the Parliament building in all its splendor from the other side of the river.
  • Self-Guided Walking Tour: As with most of our European travels, we venture into the city with the advice of the guidebook author Rick Steves.  He always has a self-guided walking tour that allows you to explore the highlights, notice and understand some of the statues around the city, pop into museums and churches you want to see, and he takes you off the beaten path to see some of the less touristy areas of a city. By doing this, we always put in a lot of miles walking the streets, so this isn’t always for the faint of heart. His Pest walking tour (he has a separate one for Buda) took us through the massive open area in front of the Parliament building in which there are a number of interesting statues including one of Ferenc II Rakoczi on a horse, the Hungarian poet Attila Jozsef, the Hungarian politician Imre Nagy positioned so as to keep a watchful eye on the Hungarian government, and “Shoes on the Danube” – a moving memorial to the Hungarian Jews murdered on the banks of the Danube. budapest-8
  • St. Stephen’s Basilica: This basilica was a stone’s throw from the place we stayed (we could see its dome from our patio), and it was conveniently the location of one of the many Christmas markets we visited on our trip.  This Roman Catholic Basilica is named for Hungary’s first king, Stephen, and the interior of the basilica is impressive with it’s many varying colors of marble columns and ornate altar pieces.
  • Matthias Church & Fisherman’s Bastion: This Roman Catholic Church was one of the few locations we had time to visit in Buda, but it was well worth the trip across the river.  We got there via an easy trip by public transportation, and the church as well as the Fisherman’s Bastion on the same grounds provided a beautiful (albeit cold) way to spend an afternoon.
  • Chain BridgeThis suspension bridge over the Danube River links the 2 parts of Budapest – Buda and Pest, and though I expected the name of the bridge to be derived from a bunch of chains hanging on the bridge similar to bridges that have tons of locks hanging on them (I’m not sure why I thought that), it actually gets its name from the chain links from which the bridge is constructed. It’s a beautiful bridge, and it was considered an engineering marvel in its day.  It’s worth a quick walking trip over the bridge, if you have a chance.budapest-61
  • Central Market Hall: This giant warehouse turned indoor market is the home of tons of meat, produce, and trinket stands, as well as my favorite grocery store in the States – Aldi.  We decided to spend some time wandering through the stalls as it gave us an opportunity to do some souvenir shopping while taking a quick respite from the cold. On the ground floor, you can find all manner of food – from meat and produce to stalls selling the paprika Hungary is famous for (from my understanding, it’s a key ingredient in Hungarian goulash). You can climb the stairs to the second floor to find any kind of Budapest or Hungary souvenir.  Classy or kitschy, you name it, it was there.  There were shops selling chess boards, Christmas ornaments, aprons, hats, shot glasses, scarves, bags, etc. If you’re looking for a particular souvenir, this is a good place to look.

     

Food

We ate a number of meals at the Christmas markets because let’s face it, who can resist delicious fried bread (lángos), sausage, and mulled wine? But we had a few meals at actual restaurants, too.  Here are a couple of our favorites:

  • Ildikó Konyhája: This restaurant in Buda was recommended by one of our Hungarian friends who also lives at KAUST. She told us it is one of her favorite restaurants in Budapest, so we couldn’t pass it up! It was delicious, and I highly recommend it if you’re looking for a decently-priced restaurant with traditional Hungarian food.
  • Non-Hungarian Food: Next to our apartment was a trendy little restaurant that had three parts – a little coffee shop only open in the mornings, an Italian restaurant open in the evenings, and a burger restaurant also open in the evenings.  We actually ended up eating at all three places, and we went back to this place for breakfast every morning, I think.  It is certainly not a place to get traditional Hungarian food, but the prices were great, and the food was spectacular.

 

Where We Stayed

There were 5 of us traveling together, so we wanted to find accommodations in each city which would provide us with the most cost effective way to stay in comfortable locations and in the same place when possible.  In Budapest, we stayed in an apartment-style hotel which meant we could stay in one apartment for a great price.  The apartments were called 7seasons Apartments, and what made this incredibly helpful was the fact that unlike some apartments you rent from places like Airbnb, this had a front desk that was staffed 24/7 much like a hotel would.  We didn’t realize how helpful this would be until my mother-in-law’s luggage got delayed from their flight.  We didn’t have to sit around waiting for it to be delivered, and the staff of the 7seasons called to check on its status on a regular basis. Everyone was really helpful, the apartment was incredibly nice and modern, it was in a great location, and they even have a shuttle to and from the airport and train stations (for a comparable price to a taxi) which was really nice when we arrived in Budapest.  It gave us a peace of mind not to have to track down a taxi. We would certainly recommend this place to anyone going to Budapest.budapest-70

 

To see more photos from our time in Budapest, visit our Amazon album.  Have you been to Budapest? What was your favorite part?

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Snorkeling from KAUST

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When spending time in the Red Sea, Ashley and I usually prefer to scuba, but if you’re not a certified scuba diver, snorkeling is still a great way to explore the reefs. We’ve done some snorkeling off the coast north of KAUST before, but I was recently invited on a snorkeling trip from the KAUST boat. Here’s a bit about this other fun option we have on campus.

KAUST offers regularly scheduled snorkeling trips each weekend just like they do for scuba diving, and you can also rent the big boat or a smaller one to go out with a private group. All the trips include breakfast and lunch, and snorkeling equipment is provided if you don’t have your own. The snorkeling trips go to a shallower reef, Shark’s Cave, which is also a bit closer to KAUST. It’s a fun way to soak up some sun, and the best part about snorkeling is that pretty much anyone can do it!

Here are a few pictures from my snorkeling excursion. Enjoy!

A Day in Old Jeddah – “Al-Balad”

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A couple of weeks ago, I had the chance to spend the day in Old Jeddah, or Al-Balad. Al-Balad (literally “the Town” in English) is the historic, oldest part of Jeddah with roots that date back to the 7th century. Over hundreds of years, these winding streets developed as the city grew thanks to its strategic location on the Red Sea. Jeddah became the “Gateway to Mecca” as pilgrims Muslim pilgrims making their pilgrimage to Mecca would usually disembark in Jeddah before making their way 80 kilometers inland. In time, this made Jeddah a bustling seaport and multicultural center thanks to many pilgrims who decided to stick around.

The city grew, and the streets you can wander today reflect the architecture of the rich merchants who lived in the 1800s. The houses and buildings stand tall along narrow, winding alleys, and they’re often called the coral houses based on one of the unique construction materials – coral sourced from local reefs in the 1800s! While I wouldn’t condone building houses from coral today, as I much prefer to observe them underwater, it is fascinating when you happen upon some exposed coral or a seashell peeking out of a wall.

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Other interesting facts are that they’re tall to allow for cool breezes on the rooftops (it gets pretty hot around here after all), and the wooden shades from the second floor up are designed to allow people to look out, but not for others to be able to see in!

When oil money started to flow in the country, the wealthy left Al-Balad for other parts of the growing city, and many of the structures were taken over by immigrants or left to decay. There has been a recent interest in restoring the neighborhood though, and a few years ago it received the designation as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Today when you wander through the streets, you’re met with a hodgepodge of homes, mosques, and small shops selling everything from thobes (traditional menswear) to incense and local crafts to jewelry. During the day the streets are pretty quiet, but by the time evening rolls around it can get extremely crowded, as it’s a popular place at night.

In my opinion, two of the most interesting places to explore are two of the old houses that you can go into. I’m honestly not sure the name of the first house, but the sign on the side has the instagram account @turath_athar on it :) This house is neat because a few years ago the family who used to live here decided to restore it to what it looked like when the oldest living family members were young. They hired a team to do informational interviews, and then restore the house complete with furnishings. It’s neat to walk in and see what a Saudi home would have looked like in the early 1900s before the influx of oil money. The first time we went, the owner was there, and it was amazing to hear the stories of how he was born and grew up in this home!

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The other house is the Al Naseef house, the central focal point of Al-Balad and a must see. It was a home owned by a powerful local family, and today it has been restored although it is empty inside except a few pictures on the bottom floor. Though spartan inside, what makes the Al Naseef House special today is its commanding view of the city from the rooftop. Standing atop the Al Naseef House as the call to prayer happens is unlike anything else. They say you can hear close to one hundred mosques from the roof, and as the call to prayer goes out from each one you’re enveloped in the sound. We were there for the call to prayer shortly after lunch, although I’ve heard the sunset one can be an even more eye opening experience. The Al Naseef House is open to the public in the evenings, so it’s definitely worth stopping in to see.

If you’re going from KAUST, the Government Affairs office typically offers guided tours once or twice a year, or you can take the weekly bus to Al-Balad and explore on your own! It’s an easy destination and a fun way to experience the city.

Gardening & Housekeeping at KAUST

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This is something I never thought I’d say: we have gardeners and housekeepers who help to take care of our house and yard.

This is an interesting phenomenon at KAUST that I’ve never experienced before, and I must say that it is one of the benefits of living here that will make it difficult to transition back to the normal (for me) world.  I recognize that there are people all over the world who have gardeners and cleaners on a regular basis and that’s normal for them, but it is certainly not a normal concept for me.

When we first arrived, I wasn’t too concerned with hiring housekeepers because I wasn’t working, and it didn’t make sense in my head to pay someone to do what I could easily do myself.  But within a few weeks of our arrival at KAUST, we scheduled our first gardening service because otherwise we’d have to purchase the tools necessary to maintain our backyard.  Not to mention, one of us would actually have to get outside and maintain the backyard, which isn’t too appealing when it’s hot outside.

It wasn’t until I started working this fall that we decided that it was worth it to have someone clean the house once a week.  Granted with two people, our house doesn’t get all that messy in one week (and I clean the kitchen and pick up around the house every night), but with a dog who sheds like crazy, after a week, his fur tends to take over the floor.  Therefore, we felt that it would be beneficial to take advantage of this service.  It’s nice to have people take care of the major cleaning that I don’t have to worry about anymore.

For both gardening and housekeeping services, you can schedule one off appointments when you need them or you can set up a regularly scheduled appointment.  Like I mentioned, we have housekeepers every week, but our gardeners only come every other week. What’s nice about a regular schedule is that the same people come to your house every time, so there is some consistency with the services. This is not complimentary, so there is a cost involved.  You’re probably thinking that this costs us an arm and a leg to do, but in reality (including tips we pay) for 2 weeks of services at an hour each (which includes 2 cleaning appointments and 1 gardening appointment) we pay about $50 USD.  This works out to be about $16 per service.  This is totally worth it, in my opinion.

The two guys who tend our yard take care of just our backyard (the front yard is cared for by a separate team included in our rent), and they cut the grass, weed eat, and generally care for all the plants that are growing there – our banana trees, loofa vines, trees, and all the other flowering plants we have.  Occasionally, they clean off the back patio with a hose, as well.

The cleaners spend an hour cleaning the house, and they vacuum and mop the floors, clean the toilets and sinks, dust, and clean the kitchen sink, counters, and do any dirty dishes laying around.  I cannot express to you how much time it saves me to have cleaners come for an hour each week.  I used to spend 2-3 hours simply sweeping and mopping the floor, and the two ladies who clean the house are able to get that done and more in just an hour’s time.

As you can see, this will be quite the adjustment when we return to our world where cleaners and gardeners are not the norm.

A European Christmas

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Before Christmas becomes a distant memory (and people start counting down the days until next year), I want to give a quick recap of our experience in cold, Christmasy Europe.  Cold weather…family…Christmas…food…shopping…mulled wine….what more could you ask for over the holidays?  Not much. We had the opportunity to meet up with part of our family for Christmas this year to explore the iconic European Christmas markets of Budapest, Salzburg, Vienna, and Prague. It was a cheerful, festive, and fattening way to spend the Christmas holidays. After spending last Christmas here at KAUST in an entirely different fashion, we decided to dive in and spend a few weeks fully immersed in Christmas cheer.

So, what’s all the hype?

European Christmas markets are seasonal, festive markets that open every year starting at the end of November or the beginning of December.  These markets are in major cities (sometimes several of them), as well as small towns.  All of the markets we went to were incredibly elaborate with intensely decorated wooden huts filled with goodies to eat and trinkets to buy.  These markets can be sprawling and extensive, covering an entire old town square, or they might line the quaint, narrow side streets of a hip, trendy part of town. There are lights, cute little stalls, great food, and some great people watching. Some of the markets have live Christmas music, and all of them have mulled wine.

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Though the goods sold at the markets may vary, it’s safe to assume you can find all manner of traditional Christmas goodies like ornaments, gingerbread, nutcrackers, and snow globes. Some of the larger markets tend to have things that are mass produced, but you can also find some really unique things along the way. Each city has unique items, as well.  For example, in Prague, there were a number of marionettes, and in Budapest there were small nativities inside of chestnut shells.

The Christmas markets are a social affair blended with shopping. Friends and families wander from booth to booth, conversing over soup in a bread-bowl, and generally enjoying the holiday season. The larger ones tend to be mainly tourists, but we went to a number of smaller markets where it was apparent that it was the place to meet friends after work.  It’s always nice to see the locals enjoying the activities in their neighborhood.

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Many of the Christmas markets have special events such as choirs, shows, or advent activities at certain times, so if these interest you, plan accordingly. We were in Salzburg on the evening of December 21st, when several dozen Krampus descended on the Christmas Market, which made for a very memorable evening.

Christmas markets vary in the dates they’re open and their hours as well. It’s important to plan ahead if you’re going right around Christmas as many markets close up shop as early as December 23rd, but others stay open through the New Year. We planned our trip beginning in Budapest, working our way to Prague in order to make sure we made it to the cities while their markets were still open.

Be sure to check out the big markets (they’re famous for a reason), but also take some time to get to the smaller ones. It’s always fun to head to the less touristy places to see how the locals celebrate the season, and if you plan it right, you might find yourself strolling through the hipster Christmas market of Vienna (my name, not theirs). Christmas Market Maps are easily accessible online for many cities like this one for Vienna, and this can help you as you’re planning out your Christmas market tours in conjunction with any other sightseeing you’re doing around a city.

As I mentioned, you can find all kinds of goodies to eat and buy, but one of the coolest keepsakes we purchased were the mulled wine mugs you could get at each Christmas market.  The person who thought of this idea is a genius!  At every market, there is a different mug that you essentially put a deposit on when you purchase the wine.  If you bring the mug back, you get your deposit back.  If you choose not to return the mug, that’s ok  – you get a mug and the shop gets your 2-3 EUR deposit.  There were so many fun ones, and it became our mission to collect them all.

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Some practical tips for you:

  • Dress warmly. It didn’t snow on us, but it was certainly cold enough to do so.  The individually wrapped hand warmers and multiple layers of socks were lifesavers!  Also, make sure you wear layers.  It helps to keep you warm, and in the event that you get really warm (in a museum, for example), you can remove a layer without too much trouble.
  • Keep your wallet and other important items in your front pockets or in bags that zip really well and then keep those in front of you.  The last thing you want is to have your trip ruined by pickpockets.
  • For any travel in Europe, we recommend our “buddy” Rick Steves!  I will post more in the future about the things we did and saw in each city aside from the Christmas markets, but I wanted to be sure to mention this guy and his travel guides.  I can’t write a post about Europe without mentioning him.