Hungary

Julie Tam & Saqib Siddik, Danube River cruise, Budapest, Hungary

Julie Tam & Saqib Siddik, Danube River cruise, Budapest, Hungary

We departed Croatia and successfully went through the border control to enter the fifth of six countries we visited on our European tour this summer — Hungary. I never knew the food would be so good…

Danube River, Budapest, Hungary

Danube River, Budapest, Hungary

Budapest

Citadella Restaurant, Budapest, Hungary

Citadella Restaurant, Budapest, Hungary

Budapest used to be divided into two cities — Buda and Pest — one on each bank of the famous Danube River. On our first night, we dined at a former prison along the Danube, Citadella Restaurant. The Hungarian Gypsy Orchestra played while Hungarian dancers entertained us over a meal with obvious Asian influences from the country’s ancestry — curry-inspired sauces and spicy Goulash soup. The meal was divine: the chicken ever so tender and the flavors just right. After dinner, we looked out over the beautiful nighttime skyline and snapped the above photo at sunset.

We stayed at the Danubius Hotel on Margaret Island in the Danube River. The next morning, a local guide took us on a bus and walking tour of the city, where we saw the fancy entrance to the Zoo & Botanical Garden, Heroes’ Square, opera house, Matthias Church, Fisherman’s Bastion overlooking the river, Parliament building, and St. Stephen’s Cathedral. We drove across the Chain Bridge several times. It’s the most famous bridge in Budapest with a pair of tongue-less lions at the end, as you drive through a lovely roundabout adorned with flowers and a grand arch.

We spent the afternoon on a Danube River cruise, which took us past such landmarks as the royal palace, Margaret Bridge, Elizabeth Bridge, a monastery, and Gellert Hotel.

Matthias Church, Budapest, Hungary

Matthias Church, Budapest, Hungary

Fisherman's Bastion, Budapest, Hungary

Fisherman's Bastion, Budapest, Hungary

Croatia

The fourth of six countries I toured earlier this summer was Croatia. As with the other five countries, I gave myself a crash course about them using encyclopedias and the U.S. State Department website.

Plitvice National Park, Croatia
Plitvice National Park, Croatia

Plitvice

Plitvice National Park, Croatia
Plitvice National Park, Croatia

We left Slovenia by tour bus and entered Croatia through a border control checkpoint. A Customs & Immigration official came on board to check everyone’s passports because Croatia isn’t part of the European Union. After getting the green light to go through, we spotted evidence of the Croatian War of Independence (1991-95) throughout Plitvice. Bullet holes remained in the concrete facades of buildings, including homes. We stayed at Hotel Jezero in Plitvice National Park — listed as one of the world’s most beautiful places. Our tour guide told us that after the war, the government had to remove landmines from the park, which is heavily trafficked by tourists from around the world.

We spent four hours the next morning walking through only a small portion of the enormous park that’s about 115 square miles and home to 16 lakes and many waterfalls. The tallest waterfall in Croatia is the Veliki Slap. The water was blue in some areas, green in others, but always so clear that you could see the bottom of the lakes, even in deeper parts. We took a couple of boat rides and marveled at all the plant and animal life, from pleasant ducks to well-fed fish to colorful butterflies.

We had only one day in the inland part of Croatia, so I’ll need to go back to see the coastal areas which are beautiful in their own right and represent the Mediterranean shipping heritage and modern industry.

Plitvice National Park, Croatia
Plitvice National Park, Croatia

The third of six countries on our European summer tour…

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Ljubljana, Slovenia

Slovenia

view of homes, mountains outside our Hotel Ribno, Bled, Slovenia

view of homes, mountains outside our Hotel Ribno, Bled, Slovenia

Bled
We departed Austria and approached the border control to Slovenia, which was through an 8-kilometer-long tunnel on the other side of a majestic mountain range — a grand entrance into a picturesque country that was part of the former Yugoslavia. Our tour bus winded through the peaceful countryside, pristine lakes, and breathtaking mountainous scenery.

We stayed overnight at Hotel Ribno in Bled, situated in a scenic, wooded area and complete with tennis courts and a restaurant with balcony seating. After dinner there, we took a walk down the paved roads and gravel paths through a nearby neighborhood. The homes were simpler than the ones in Germany but had the similar dark wood trim and rectangular flower pots hanging from every window sill. In the air was the intoxicating aroma of what smelled like lavender and tea leaves. The sun set on the rolling hills and our magical evening.

view of Ljubljana from Ljubljanski Grad, Slovenia

view of Ljubljana from Ljubljanski Grad, Slovenia

Ljubljana
The capital of Slovenia, Ljubljana, is a sea of orange rooftops and mostly uniform architecture. We took a cable car (known there as a funicular) up to the top of a hill where the castle Ljubljanski Grad sits, providing an overhead view of the city skyline. Down below are several elegant bridges, including the Dragon Bridge and Triple Bridge (three bridges side by side). In the area is a mix of historic buildings and statues as well as modern retail establishments, like H&M.

Postojna
I’ve been to plenty of caves, including the longest and largest ones in the U.S. and other countries. I thought the Postojnska Jama Cave in Postojna was the most impressive one. We took a long train ride deep into the cave and then took a walking tour. The cave has beautiful lighting that enhances the stalactite and stalagmite formations. Human fish (fish with human-like skin) reside in the cave. At the end of the tour is the cave’s “concert hall,” which is a large, open space with good acoustics for singing.

Julie at Triple Bridge, Ljubljana, Slovenia

Julie at Triple Bridge, Ljubljana, Slovenia

We continue our journey through the six countries in Europe I toured them this summer. Country #2…

Austria

shops in St. Wolfgang, Austria

shops in St. Wolfgang, Austria

Mirabell Gardens with fortress in distance, Salzburg, Austria

Mirabell Gardens with fortress in distance, Salzburg, Austria

Dürrnberg
After crossing the border from Germany, we arrived in the city of salt mines, Dürrnberg, where we toured a mine no longer in operation because it had become not economically worthwhile. Inside, we took a train ride to go deep into the mine, a boat ride to go even deeper, and a walking tour to see all the aspects of production. The highlight was sliding down two long, wooden slides the miners once used to get further underground.

Salzburg
Nearby, Salzburg (which means “salt castle”) was probably my favorite city on our European tour — so much beauty and historical significance. It’s a photographer’s dream — historic squares with architecturally beautiful buildings on all sides and small corridors that lead to adjacent squares. It’s an arrangement not found in modern cities with more open concepts. In one such medieval square with a cathedral and other structures, we saw quite a juxtaposition — modern art in the form of a giant golden globe and an unidentified man standing on top, as well as a chess board with human-sized pieces. Horse-drawn carriages were present there and in most of the other cities on this tour.  Salzburg is so lovely, it was used to film many scenes of the film The Sound of Music, some of which we toured, including Mirabell Palace and Gardens (where Maria and the Von Trapp children sang “Do Re Mi”), a concert hall where the Vienna Philharmonics play (and where the “Edelweiss” song was sung in the movie), and a large fountain (where Maria danced and sang “I Have Confidence”).

Mozart's birthplace, Salzburg, Austria

Mozart's birthplace, Salzburg, Austria

We also walked through the graveyard that was reconstructed in Hollywood for the scene where the Von Trapp family hid from the Nazi Germans near the end of the film. Not far away is the house where famous composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born (Gerburtshaus) and another house near the Salt River where he later lived. Haus für Mozart is the concert hall built about 400 years ago for performances of Mozart’s operas; the building used to house horse stables for the prince-archbishop. In the nearby promenade, we found most shops closed on that Sunday because many Roman Catholics observe the Sabbath. Along that path are original buildings and signs, including one building that displayed two  sets of numbers: 1286 (the year it was built) and 2009 (the year it was renovated). Towering over all this is the castle where controversial Archbishop St. Wolfgang lived. The gastronomical highlight of this city was Fürst, a historic coffee shop and bakery that makes handmade Mozart chocolates wrapped in silver foil. (The gold foil-wrapped ones are mass produced.) After a morning stop for cake and Mozart chocolate balls, we headed to Zum Eulenspiegel, a 680-year-old restaurant on the second floor of a business. We had beef stroganoff and spinach dumplings for lunch.

St. Gilgen to St. Wolfgang
After taking a boat ride along Lake Wolfgang from St. Gilgen to St. Wolfgang, we took a stroll through the winding streets and shops of the latter lovely small town. The views of the lake were serene and picturesque.

Lake Wolfgang, St. Wolfgang, Austria

Lake Wolfgang, St. Wolfgang, Austria

Julie at Mozart Concert, Golden Hall, Vienna, Austria

Julie Tam at Mozart Concert, Golden Hall, Vienna, Austria

Vienna
After traveling to three other countries, we returned to Austria and enjoyed dinner in Vienna and a Mozart concert at Golden Hall, aptly named because of its golden interior finishings. Unlike most theaters in the U.S., the house lights were kept on the entire time and there was no stage curtain. Orchestra members dressed like Mozart and opera singers just walked on and off stage in full view of the audience. The elegant concert hall touts having the best acoustics in Vienna, where opera and classical music are still popular, unlike in many parts of the world. The next day, we visited the Schönbrunn Palace (summer palace) and flower garden, plus the winter palace. Statues honoring the country’s most famous former residents, including composers Mozart and Johann Strauss. I found myself in heaven at Café Mozart, open since 1794. The pictures of dozens of cakes on a display poster outside drew me in, only to find a long list of soda drinks that I’d never heard of (for me) and coffee drinks (for my husband and mom). We had a small lunch with non-alcoholic drinks and two pastries (Mozart Tort and Trüffel Tort), and it cost us $90! (That’s U.S. dollars, not Euros.) But it was absolutely worth it because the food was exquisite, from the salad to the Viennese potato soup. The fried chicken was thinly breaded and low in fat, unlike the fatty, greasy, thick-battered fried chicken found in America. The steak sandwich was delicate and nicely presented. If I were to eat as much in the U.S. as I ate in Europe, I would surely gain weight, but to my pleasant surprise, I gained not a single pound from this 12-day trip. We finished off our day by wandering down the Pedestrian Walk. In contrast to the historic aspects of Vienna, you can see modern buildings across the Danube River.

Vienna Philharmonics concert hall where "Edelweiss" song was sung in "The Sound of Music", Austria

Vienna Philharmonics concert hall where "Edelweiss" song was sung in "The Sound of Music", Austria

I returned earlier this month from an amazing, whirlwind 12-day trip to Europe — mostly Eastern Europe. I had traveled to Western Europe (England, France, Switzerland, Italy, Vatican) back in 1999, so it was time to tour six more countries as part of a package deal with my husband and mom: Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, and Czech Republic. Over the coming weeks, I will write about each of them, starting with our first stop, Germany, famous for its wienerschnitzel.

castle & homes along Rhine River

castle & homes along Rhine River

Germany

Frankfurt

Frankfurt, Germany: old and new

Frankfurt, Germany: old and new

We landed in Frankfurt, the capital of Germany — the only country on our tour other than Austria (where German also is spoken) where I actually knew a little bit of the language, which I remembered from one semester of German in sixth grade. Like in many parts of Europe, pigeons in search of food on brick paths were a common sight in the historic area that’s home to St. Paul’s Church. With the not-too-distant backdrop of the modern skyline, Germans gathered outside to celebrate a Roman Catholic holiday, St. John the Baptist Day, complete with a choir, ceremonial rituals, and prayer. Memorials and statues to remember the Holocaust were ever-present throughout the outdoor squares. It was expensive to make purchases in countries within the European Union because the American dollar is weak. 1 Euro = approx. $1.50.

Boppard

flowers in windows: common sight (Boppard, Germany)

flowers in windows: common sight (Boppard, Germany)

We ate lunch the first day in the town of Boppard along the Rhine River. Loreley Restaurant served traditional German pork knuckle, fresh fish, sauerkraut, a salty vegetable soup, dark beer, and Spezi (an interesting mix of Coca-Cola and Fanta). Germans eat big, hearty meals that tend to err on the salty side. In the adjacent souvenir store, we saw an array of steel products, which Germany is known for. After lunch we took a cruise down a stretch of the Rhine River with the most castles, including Rheinfels Castle and another impressive medieval fortress (that’s now a restaurant) dating back to the 1300s, high on hilltops with civilian homes in the valleys below. Throughout Germany, and even in all the other five countries we visited, homes, businesses, and churches were always decorated with rectangular pots hanging from window sills and balconies holding colorful flowers in full bloom. Most open land we saw was not wasted but covered in rows of crops.

Würzburg
Now famous for being the home of 2011 NBA champion and MVP, Dirk Nowitzki of my now-home team, the Dallas Mavericks, Würzburg is also home to the Residenz, the former residence of the prince-bishops. The lovely city of about 130,000 people was rebuilt largely by women after many men were killed or taken prisoner of war during World War II. St. Fredericus is among several statues gracing the Main River that runs through the city. A lot of locals walk their neatly groomed dogs and drive small cars (unlike in Texas, where SUVs and large trucks rule the roads). People in Europe also like to bike and walk. Obesity is rare. We went inside St. Maria’s Chapel, which was adorned with red trim and a gold statue at its peak. Dom St. Kilian is another cathedral we visited — with many more ahead of us. We ate lunch at Dean & David, a cafe just outside the Farmers Market with the ever-popular outdoor seating found all over Europe. On our way to Munich, our tour bus stopped at a rest stop, where like in many European cities, you had to pay to use the toilets. In this case, the price was 70 cents Euro, but the return was not only nice, clean bathroom facilities but also a coupon for 50 cents Euro off of any purchase in the convenient store or cafeteria. We found this business model in other cities along our route too.

pay toilets

pay toilets

Munich
In the state of Bavaria, Munich is the headquarters of BMW (Bavarian Motor Works). The city also hosted the Olympics in 1972. Munich City Hall (the newer one built in the 1800s) showcases a performance on the hour of its Glockenspiel (clock tower), where life-sized “puppets” re-enact historical scenes, including dancing at feasts and knocking off opponents in fights. Around the corner is the Residenz Museum, which was being renovated while we were there. Interestingly, instead of just having a bunch of construction equipment everywhere, a temporary facade with an image of the building was placed in front of the actual building to cover up the construction mess and show passersby what the building looked like — helpful for tourists. Also in the vicinity was München Dom (a.k.a. Metropolitan Church of Our Lady), a cathedral also being worked on and known for the “Devil’s footprint” on the stair steps inside.

Füssen

Neuschwanstein Castle, Füssen, Germany

Neuschwanstein Castle, Füssen, Germany

The most picturesque of the cities we visited, Füssen is near the border to Austria and home to beautiful castles, the most famous of which is Neuschwanstein Castle, former home of troubled King Ludwig II, whose cause of death remains a mystery. An inspiration for Disney‘s Sleeping Beauty castle, it sits atop a high rock (essentially, a tall hill) in a fairytale alpine setting. The king’s earlier home was the nearby Hohenschwangau Castle. We accessed both via scenic walking trails and bridges. The king definitely had an imagination in designing the Neuschwanstein Castle, complete with a play cave inside.

From there we ventured into Austria and later, on to the four other countries on our tour. We ultimately returned to Frankfurt on the final night of our 12-day trip before departing for home. But before we get to “goodbye,” stay tuned next week for my blog entry on Austria, the country I found to be the most beautiful overall, among the six on this trip.

New Zealand

Blue Pool, Taupo, New Zealand

Blue Pool, Taupo, New Zealand

In July 2004, before departing my then home in Tyler, TX for a New Zealand/Australia trip with my mom, I rented Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Knowing the film was shot in New Zealand and knowing we would go to some of the locations, I wanted to be able to recognize some of the scenery. A 3-hour movie of that genre was not my cup of tea. I kept falling asleep and having to rewind and replay. I got through the movie — though not fully awake — just in time to catch my flight. Qantas (our airline) managed to lose my garment bag with my nice, white, pinstriped pant-suit with jacket. I was not happy with their not being able to locate such an obvious item, even with my detailed description. A frustrating start but a picturesque journey through some of the world’s southernmost points ahead…

Auckland
New Zealand’s biggest city also has become one of my favorites — great food, city life, and fun water recreation. Known as the “City of Sails,” Auckland is located off Mission Bay — full of sailboats, of course. We looked down over the city from atop Mt. Eden. We shopped and dined on Parnell Street, saw homes of the wealthy on Pericot Drive, dined some more on Tamaki Drive (an international strip), and spent some time at Sky City on Queen Street. A tour took us to Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World and Auckland Museum.

Taupo
Perfectly manicured farmland and beautiful landscapes of serene pastels provide the backdrop of a drive through Taupo. The fantastical scenery goes on for miles and miles and miles. I’ve never seen anything like it. The city is home to the Waitomo Glowworm Caves and Waikato River, both of which we enjoyed. A Huka Jet Boat ride past Huka Falls on Lake Taupo completed our stay.

Matamata
To make my hours-long torture of watching Lord of the Rings worth it, we saw Hobbiton in Matamata, where part of the movie was filmed.

Rotorua
A Hangi (feast) and concert in Maori Village let us see how the indigenous Maori warriors of New Zealand live. In appearance and rituals, they’re similar to other tribal groups in other countries. We soaked ourselves in the geothermal hot springs and saw other unique natural features, including the Ngamokaiakoko Mud Pool, Pohutu Geyser, and Blue Pool. Then I got hands on at the Rainbow Farm farm show, feeding milk bottles to lambs and watching sheep herding and shearing.

Australia

kangaroo, Featherdale Wildlife Park, Canberra

Julie with a kangaroo, Featherdale Wildlife Park, Sydney, Australia

The parts of Australia I saw in New South Wales were a combination of sophisticated cities and the wild outback you see in movies.

Melbourne
Near the top of my favorite cities list, Melbourne is home to St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the mother church of the Catholic Archdiocese there. The city’s first settler is remembered with his namesake, Captain Cook’s Cottage and situated near a lush garden conservatory. It’s always interesting to see how the same war is memorialized around the world, as I saw with the World War II Monument overlooking Remembrance Garden. We also browsed through the elegant National Gallery of Victoria and The Arts Centre.

Phillip Island
No doubt one of the most unbelievable experiences I’ve ever had was the popular Penguin Parade on the coast of Phillip Island, situated on Western Port near Bass Strait. Sitting on a set of bleachers with other tourists and looking out onto the ocean was like staring off the edge of the earth. As the sun set on the horizon and the sky turned a steel blue-grey, small penguins, one by one, began emerging from the water. It was the end of another day, and they were swimming back to shore. They hopped onto the sandy beach and waddled past us and into their sleeping holes for the night. It was like a dream. And nature took my breath away.

Canberra

Three Sisters Rock, Canberra, Australia

Three Sisters Rock, Canberra, Australia

Australia’s capital of Canberra is a geometrically designed series of gardens that’s home to the Australian War Memorial and Parliament House. The beautiful Lake Burley Griffin and Mt. Ainslie are part of the city’s breathtaking scenery. From the Blue Mountains, you can step out onto Mary’s Lookout and see the Three Sisters Rock, which looks just like it sounds (a series of three rock formations). Atop the mountain, we got the chance to experience a taste of The Mountain Devil, the world’s steepest mountain ride. The path leading up to the top is lined with eucalyptus tree — a koala’s favorite. We saw the cute, cuddly marsupial at the Featherdale Wildlife Park, where I got to pet a wallaby and jump around with kangaroos all around me. We also saw other native animals, including Australian birds, penguins, wallaroos, wombats, a grey-headed flying fox (bat), and a Tasmanian Devil.

Sydney

Sydney Opera House, Sydney Harbor, Australia

Julie outside Sydney Opera House, Sydney Harbour, Australia

Similar to Hong Kong but on a much smaller scale, Sydney is also set on a harbor surrounded by skyscrapers: the Sydney Harbor, overlooked by a military base and the architectural beauty that is the Sydney Opera House and Bridge. The acoustics are spectacular, as I discovered when I got the opportunity to sing the Italian aria O Mio Babbino Caro in front of visitors there. You can see the magnificent skyline from the Royal Botanic Gardens and on board a harbor cruise. While out on the water, we saw Pied Piper, a suburb with the most expensive homes in Australia. We later took a stroll along the country’s most famous beach, Bondi Beach, off Bondi Bay, which spills out into the Tasman Sea. We spent part of the evening at Darling Harbour, a cool hangout with trendy shops and restaurants.

There’s so much more to Australia and New Zealand I want to see and experience, including the Great Barrier Reef and the South Island of NZ (we were only on the North Island). Another trip there is on the horizon.

California

Yosemite National Park

Yosemite National Park

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been to California throughout my life. With relatives and friends who live across the state, there’s always a reason to visit. As much as the golden state is portrayed in movies and entertainment shows, everyone knows it’s a naturally beautiful place with sun, surf, and sand and palm-tree-lined boulevards with majestic mountains in the distance. They also know it’s too expensive for most people to live comfortably, not to mention the risk of wildfires, mudslides, and earthquakes. Even Californians themselves sit on two opposite extremes: While there are admirable ones who are environmentally considerate, there are also unnecessarily narcissistic people who flaunt their beach bodies and fake tans.

SoCal

Hollywood Walk of Fame

Hollywood Walk of Fame: Michael Jackson's star

There are so many sizable cities in Southern California that you can drive from one to the next without having to pass through a lot of countryside. Los Angeles is a sprawling city, laid out kind of like Houston — far and wide — but with even worse traffic gridlock. The cultural diversity makes the greater L.A. area colorful and welcoming to all sorts of people. There’s a “town” for most major ethnicities, where you can get their food, groceries, clothing, and decorations. You can spend a fun evening in Anaheim‘s Downtown Disney — restaurants, shops, and entertainment venues all lit up and live performers in the outdoor courtyards. Endless beaches line the Pacific coast, so you can relax in San Diego or Huntington Beach or any other coastal city. The Santa Monica Pier offers amusements in the form of rides, restaurants, and retail. Enjoy the charming town square in Orange, where I visited my husband (then-boyfriend/fiancé) who was attending graduate school at Chapman University there and living in Garden Grove, home to Crystal Cathedral. Plenty of family fun can be had at Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood. Home to the Walk of Fame, Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, the sign in Hollywood Hills, Hollywood is just as you’d imagine it. In nearby Beverly Hills, you can take driving tours to see the stars’ mansions. Irvine is a safe, pretty community, which makes its property values sky high too. On one of my more recent trips to California, we got to sit in the audience during the taping of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno at NBC‘s Burbank studios.

Hearst Castle

Hearst Castle

Central Coast
Hearst Castle in San Simeon is definitely worth a tour. The beautiful Greek design is showcased from the indoor pools to the artistic sculptures.

Northern California
To me, SoCal is less serious and more about fun, but Northern California is more intellectual — home to Stanford University and the Silicon Valley. San Francisco has the richness and unique characteristics of an older city, from streetcars to the world’s crookedest street, Lombard Street. The Golden Gate Bridge and classy art museums add to its dreamy quality. The vast Yosemite National Park is best known for its waterfalls, but you can find all sorts of land forms in the wilderness.