Thursday, May 14, 2009

Second Visitors: Krakow & Budapest

One day after we said good-bye to the Shwaluks, we flew to Krakow to meet our friends Jen and Dave Jupp. The Jupps had just finished visiting Vienna and Prague, and we joined them for the next leg of their trip: Krakow and Budapest.

The Eastern European countries have had a difficult time in recent history, first at the hand of the Nazis, then under Communism. They have done a remarkable job recovering from those days, and have become excellent tourist destinations. Budapest, for example, suffered severe damage during WWII and after. In the past twenty years they have reconstructed their major buildings and monuments, and now Budapest is a beautiful city, one of the best we have seen.

We visited several museums highlighting the region’s harrowing past. The most impacting, not surprisingly, was our visit to the Auschwitz Concentration Camps. It is an emotionally difficult place to see, but necessary on a trip to Poland. It puts into perspective how incredible that period in history was, and how ruthless the Nazis were.

We visited two museums in Budapest highlighting the Communist period in that country: the House of Terror and Statue Park. The former was pretty somber, while Statue Park was much more fun. It is an outdoor museum containing giant statues that ‘decorated’ Budapest during Communism. They reminded locals of who was in power, but the statues were also meant to empower the local, that is if they were model communist citizens (strong, relentless workers).

Not everything we did was full of gloom and misery; we managed to fit in plenty of fun activities as well. We toured a wonderful pharmacy museum in Krakow. I was sure it was going to be incredibly dull, but it far exceeded my expectations, and kept all four of us entertained. We enjoyed a relaxing few hours at the beautiful Szechenyl baths in Budapest. The locals love their thermal baths, and now I know why. They sure helped the two pregnant ladies’ swollen feet and achy backs. We didn’t go quite as far as join the locals in a game of chess in the pool, but we enjoyed this cultural experience nonetheless.

As for culinary adventures, Gilles and I ate enough perogies to sink a ship while in Krakow. We thoroughly enjoyed the bagel-like products that street vendors sold on every corner in Krakow. We thought we were done with cabbage in Poland, but it managed to find us again in Hungary. Dave and I enjoyed trying pickles and other pickled things in Budapest, that is until Dave received a strange looking plate containing several unidentifiable pickled products. And as always seems to happen in our travels with the Jupps, we were served a dish that was completely unlike what we thought we had ordered (we were expecting savory potato pancakes with sour cream, but got sweet crepes with jam and whipped cream!).

As always, we had a wonderful time traveling with the Jupps…where will our next trip take us?

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

First Visitors

We just returned from two weeks of traveling with friends from Calgary. The first couple we spent time with was Trent and Maureen Shwaluk. They visited Portugal and Spain for about two weeks before we picked them up in San Sebastian. They wanted to visit some French wine regions, so we took them to two of our favourite places: St Emilion in the Bordeaux wine region, and Provence.

Our main focus in St Emilion was to visit wine houses, referred to as Chateaux in the Bordeaux region. We got off to a good start by staying at a working Chateau that is also a bed and breakfast, so we didn’t have to stray too far for the first wine tasting. Of all the wine regions we have visited in France, St Emilion is the most welcoming to tourists. The tourist information office has a detailed list of vineyards offering tours, and the wine-makers provide enthusiastic tours. Their pride for their product really shines through. It was a great introduction to French wine for the Shwaluks.

With a car full of wine and luggage, we left St Emilion and headed to Provence. That region is famous for it’s sunny days, and we were not disappointed. It was a nice break from the gloomy days we had in St Emilion. Gilles and I love Provence, and I hope Trent and Maureen saw some of the beauty that makes it so special for us. We visited a few vineyards, did some olive oil tastings, had a picnic with food bought at a market, and visited some of the Roman sites in the region. All in all, a great trip.