****DISCLAIMER: THIS PAGE IS A WORK IN PROGRESS****
***DISCLAIMER: THIS PAGE IS STILL A WORK IN PROGRESS, BUT NOW ONLY PHOTOS ARE MISSING***
Two-thousand fifteen marked my international travel revival.
Thanks to a random dude I chatted with on a plane (I think to or from Atlanta), I discovered the wonders of G Adventures as he was perusing a G magazine on the flight. G Adventures is an adventure travel company that specializes in small group travel throughout the world. This trip was booked through them, and was called the Venice to Budapest Express. My goofy travel companion and I opted to fly in a few days early, beginning our trip in Florence, Italy. Thank you, KLM for ferrying us across the pond. We also stayed a day extra, ending in Budapest, Hungary. G provides travelers with a CEO (Chief Experience Officer) during the excursion. Our quirky, friendly and fun loving CEO was Adina. Adina who shared a story that has resulted in us randomly yelling “NEIN!” at each other. Nein, which means NO in German which is also Adina’s first language. She regaled us with a story of a time she was traveling with another German speaking friend. A bartender inquired whether said friend would like another drink, to which the friend responded with “NEIN!” In return, the unsuspecting bartender provided them with NINE additional drinks. Silly English speaking barkeep. Adina periodically scolded us by yelling, “Nein, nein, nein…” whenever we said or did something particularly goofy or stupid. As you can imagine, that happened a lot.
The Europe excursion began in Florence, Italy. The tiny airport and lack of security was shocking to two security-conscious Americans. We strode straight off of the plane into what appeared to be an airport terminal. Expecting customs, or at least the European form of TSA, we continued striding straight out of the terminal and out to a cab stand-type area. Where’s security…? Once over our confusion, we hailed a cabbie. The gentleman dropped us off near our hotel, but the semi-secluded entrance was a challenge to find. Once inside, the unique building was interesting to navigate, very maze-like with not so level floors.
Our upgraded room was a loft… the bed on the main level with tall windows and a huge room, and the bathroom upstairs in the loft. The room, unfortunately, backed to an alley with a less-than-desirable view. At least overlooking a wall allowed for sprinting sparsely-clothed upstairs to the bathroom without worrying about pulling the curtains closed. The compensate for that view, the parlor of the hotel overlooked Piazza della Signoria. Free Wifi and great for people watching!
During our stay, we found a particularly appealing restaurant. More than one meal was consumed there… Il Porcospino. Our hearty, friendly waiter definitely had something to do with our returns… that, plus the food, mixed with the people watching, since it featured outdoor seating on a less touristy street, made it ideal to experience what Florence had to offer. Also watching vehicles and pedestrians fight it out for who had the right-of-way was rather entertaining. Hint: the metal machine always wins.
We wandered the streets of Florence for hours during the day, including finding a treasure hidden amongst the dirty city blocks… Giardino di Boboli. This park spanned 11 acres, and offered breathtaking views of Florence. An art feature at the time of our trip consisted of numerous human-like forms in strange positions strategically placed throughout the park. I quickly learned you are not to sit atop these statues, which came in round and block form. While straddling one (yes, I meant that to sounds dirty), a rent-a-security-guard yelled at me. Granted, I could not understand but a couple of words she said, I managed to put two-and-two together to ascertain I should dismount the statue at once.
Other photos displaying the beauty of Florence during our daytime strolls….
In a country known for its wine, one cannot spend a night out without experiencing some of the fermented goodness. We played a game of barhopping one night, which concluded in skipping down the dark streets of Florence in our booze-addled state. A single photo commemorated that night – a fuzzy moon behind a Florence street. Arrivederci, Florence!
Next stop… Venice.
One of many trains on this trip took us to Venice, the car-free island of a city. Day one consisted of hiking up 5 flights of stairs to our room with the suitcases we quickly grew to despise.
Once settled, the exploring began. We stopped for a meal at a nearby restaurant with outdoor seating – more people watching commenced. Our restaurant choice was along a main drag, Rio Tera Lista di Spagna, which offered foot traffic a-plenty coming from both the train station and one of the few bridges that actually crosses the Grand Canal. I very often wonder how certain people can look at themselves in the mirror after dressing, and they think, “I look good in this,” and exit their homes. We were the winners of that dressing game that evening.
After that day, the journey began… I use the term journey in a less than typical fashion. The trip itself was an excursion… that night in Venice became a journey in and of itself. More on that later. Venice is a gorgeous city…
Anyone that has ever been to Venice knows the maze the city is. Winding streets with buildings towering on each side. They can tend to look the same. We started the night at a restaurant called Ostaria Boccadora. The glasses were locally made, the food was unique (in a good way), and the people-watching was in full force. We decided to take a stroll post-meal to walk off the pasta and wine. It started out harmless and directionally straightforward enough. However, my directionally-challenged counterpart swiftly changed our trajectory. That’s a nice way of saying he go us LOST. I had my useless cellular device with me, which oh so nicely tracked our steps, but did not provide us with adequate directions. We passed the same creepy looking, graffiti covered building multiple times, and found an edge of the city. I wasn’t about to swim back. Finally, we came upon another American group that thankfully had a GPS, courtesy of their car rental agency, that safely navigated us back to the civilized portion of Venice. In total, my phone informed me we walked a staggering 14.3 miles that night. Please note: I was wearing heels that entire time. Until, I ended up barefoot.
The next day, we met up with the G Adventures tour group. The first meal was on one of the many rivers adjacent to the Jewish Ghetto (aka. Jewish District). Meal was good, company was what you would expect from 12 people meeting for the first time. These people would be our travel partners for the next couple weeks. They were quirky, all very different, talkative, and friendly. After dinner, a few of us headed farther into Venice for drinks. Those drinks consisted of a wine-based cocktail called a Spritz, suggested by Adina. Spritz drinks were neon orange in color and served in a wine glass.
Post drinkage, he and I headed to Saint Marc’s Square, which was wonderfully empty at night. At least we didn’t get lost during that trek.
We wandered Venice some more, before departing for Ljubanjia, Slovenia by van.
Slovenia ended up being the highlight of the trip. Our first stop, being the capital of the country, Ljubanjia (pronounced LOO-BON-YA). This short break included a meal at Gostilna Sokol, because who doesn’t like brats and beer?! Stomachs pleasantly plump, we concluded the stop with a jaunt through the city. He and I hiked up the hill to the castle above (a fairly steep endeavor to a less-than-unique castle). The quaint city would make my would-like-to-return list. From there, we headed to Bled.
Bled… a small, quaint town nestled around a lake with an 11th century castle atop a cliff surrounded by a snow-capped mountains. What isn’t to like? This town quickly became the favorite. Instead of taking the orientation tour, we did the six mile run around the perimeter of the lake. The run started with cloud-filled skies, but gradually became sunny as the run progressed. Beautiful views astound from every corner of the lake. A small island sits in the middle of the lake. A quick paddle to the island reveals Pilgrimage Church.
To skip to the good part… The hike up to Bled Castle was phenomenal. It began down near the lake and wound up the hill before entering the grounds. Old cobblestone pathways lead you to the top, where a restaurant, chapel and store were perched atop a cliff overlooking the lake and town below. The views were like nothing else we’d seen… breathtaking. We enjoyed a glass of wine on the patio enjoying the glorious view, before descending. Once back to lake-level, we initially intended to walk to the gorge, but could not quite find the way. We ended up walking the outskirts and villages of Bled – beautiful in their own right.
Canyoning… best idea ever. Canyoning with Canyoning Bob… The less-than-jovial, but energetic, oddball that lead us, 4 Germans and 2 Australians through the canyons of Bled. Basic idea… ride into the mountains in a beat to hell old van with your new friends, hike a mountain, repel/leap into a canyon. Why the hell not? The Germans attached a GoPro to their helmets, filming the day’s activities. Stupendous!
I believe the highlight of the many jumps was when my travel companion froze atop one of the jumps, staring down at the four of us that had already made the plunge, and may as well have pouted like a small child. Eventually, after MUCH coaxing, he fearfully jumped eyes closed into the cavern below. Hilarious. The final jump was a ~30 foot drop into a wide pool. Standing on a cliff edge, we leapt into the aqua pool below. From there, we floated down the river and back to the van. Post canyoning… lunch near the lake.
Some advice… if you EVER go canyoning and own a TOUGH camera (aka. waterproof and shockproof) take the fucker on the canyoning excursion!!!! At least the German’s provided me with the GoPro video!
On our final night in Bled, Adina introduced me to a beer, Kostritzer, that is made near her hometown. Dear small town that brews this beer… you are awesome. Sincerely, Whitney.
Bled, we will miss you… ZBOGOM! I have absolutely no idea how to pronounce that, but it means goodbye in Slovenian! Next stop… Austria.
SALZBURG & VIENNA, AUSTRIA
A train through the Alps took us to Austria. First stop… Salzburg. The orientation walk lead us through the city, including the shopping district and the main drag. Salzburg features a river running straight through the city. And it is yet another city with a castle. US cities should invest in castles! Fantastic tourist attractions.
A day trip to Germany was in store. The trip entailed taking a bus through the mountains, enroute to the destination in Berchtesgaden, Germany. We passed Hitler’s vacation home perched atop a mountain, the Eagle’s Nest – which was disliked by the Nazi due to his fear of heights – before arriving at our destination… touring salt mines, followed by beer and a pretzel in the neighboring town. What tasty beers and pretzels they were. Since we consumed delicious beer in the country, my table mates and I debated on whether or not that counted as a country visit to Germany.
Vienna was not what I was expecting. We stayed in a hostel-type hotel outside of the city. The subway ferried us into the city center, which was far more New York-esk than I was imagining. High priced stores lined the street, and don’t forget the Starbuck’s on every corner. Parks were thrown in the mix, and streets were insanely busy.
We did see a musical in Vienna… the building sparking much of the conversation. Cardboard cutouts of cherubs stabbing people adorned the ceiling, some naked some clothed. It was… unusual. The ceiling decorations distracted us from the musical, since I cannot, for the life of me, recall what the damned thing was about.
Our favorite establishment quickly became Mariahilferbräu, and our magnificent waitress, Daniela. Daniela brought us beer and pretzels on more than one occasion… she was always friendly and the food was always good.
Auf Weidersehen, Austria!
Yet another train transported us to Budapest, Hungary. Upon arrival, there was a bit of a disconnect with transportation to our next hotel. Adina, being the pro that she was, worked her magic, procuring us a ride to our hotel on the Pest side of Budapest.
We began our stroll with a stop at a small deli that makes Langos. Langos is a Hungarian dish (not a delicacy since it’s made of fried dough and cheese and there’s nothing delicate about it) consisting of deep fried dough that traditionally is served topped with sour creme, cheese, and your choice of meats. First of all, one cannot go wrong deep frying anything, and when you add cheese and ham or sausage, it’s even more delicious. It was basically a deep fried pizza. Winner.
Besides Venice, Budapest probably included the most walking of the trip. From the hotel, to St. Stephen’s Basilica, to Buda Castle, to the Parliament building, up/down/across the Danube, and all the way down through the main shopping district. For those of you who haven’t been to Budapest, that’s a lot of walking.
The final night with the entire group concluded with a delicious meal at a restaurant. I cannot seem to recall the name of it. But the food was good, as was the company, and the bill looked enormous. I still don’t understand Budapest’s currency.
A few of us opted to stay out a bit longer. Adina suggested Instant Bar…. I felt like Alice in Wonderland surrounded by bright colors and magical rabbits flying through the air. I am not kidding, there were rabbits adorning the ceiling and walls. Everything was bathed in neon lights, and the place was a maze of small rooms. Weirdest bar I’ve been to in quite some time. That must be what people on hallucinogens see when they’re high.
We stayed one extra night in Budapest before embarking on our journey home. We met up with Amanda, Frazier and Jess at the Pointer Pub. They were part of the original tour group. We sat out on the street, laughing, devouring pizza and drinking more beer. That night resulted in the following ridiculous photos…
Viszontlatasra! Again, I have absolutely no clue how to pronounce that, but it means goodbye in Hungarian. Definitely not a romance language.