Tuesday, June 28, 2016

"Onward! We Journey Forth!" (Honeymoon Edition, Pt. 2)

So, when we last we left our couple, they were enjoying relaxing days in the sunny streets of Prague. But the adventure was about to shift into high gear...

So, after the most pleasant puddle jump flight either of us have ever experienced, we landed in Hungary. Again, not much planning had been done up to this point, but shout out to P.A. and my other friends who have been to Budapest for their suggestions and ideas. The first night, after we got off the plane, we just sat in the hotel and laid our strategy. That is, after sampling the signature dish of Hungary, chicken paprikash. Believe me, if you like sour cream or paprika, Hungary is the place for you. Shout out to the Budapest City Break for creating a tourist map with splendid routes for self-guided walking tours of the city's sites - you da real MVP of this trip. 
Our well-used tourist map
Our first full day in Hungary, we realized we were on the Buda side and much of what we wanted to see was in Pest (Buda and Pest being the two sides of the city divided by the Danube River, and united by 6 bridges and a love for sour cream). Still, we took our first walk across the famous Chain Bridge and immediately were taken by the gorgeous buildings. Prague had a lot of great architecture, but Budapest celebrates its historic buildings and bridges and other infrastructure in a much more intense way. As Reptar put it, "Even their manhole covers are pretty!"

(Interesting fact about the Chain Bridge: According to legend, the architect who designed it proclaimed that if someone found a flaw with it, he would commit suicide. And of course, an intern - or whatever the 19th century equivalent of an architectural intern was - piped up and pointed out that the lions have no tongues. The architect didn't commit suicide...although he did die not long after. Also...apparently the lions do have tongues.) 

After crossing the bridge, we found the gorgeous Parliament building and its lovely gardens, and were introduced to the word lapidarium - "place where stone monuments and fragments of archaeological interest are exhibited." It's actually way more interesting than it sounds, and some of the history was actually quite engrossing. Well, for me, at least. Reptar deigned not to spend quite as much time examining the pieces.
Later we would walk Vaci Street and its many boutiques, merchants, and all other matter of shopping. As you can imagine, there aren't a whole lot of Indians in Budapest at any given time, so Reptar and I got a few stares here and there, but more importantly, we were magnets for restaurateurs and store employees looking to sell their wares. One girl walked up and immediately asked, "India?" We simply nodded, unsure of what else to say. 
"Oh, India, great! So for you...Saabon? Saabon?" She offered us two small translucent rectangular prisms, one bright blue and one bright yellow. We each picked one up and stared at each other, and then I asked the question that was on both of our minds.
"Do we eat it?"

"No!" the girl replied, "It's saabon!" At our continued blank stares, she finally understood. "So...I speak more Hindi than you both do?"
Turns out, saabon is the Hindi word for soap. She was selling us Dead Sea soap. Reptar loved the soap. It made her skin feel smooth and tingly. 

I hated it. Stupid dead sea soap. We actually took a detour so I could find a bathroom and wash it off my hands.

But it was made up for by going to St. Stephen's Basilica and witnessing one of their weekly organ concerts. I mean, I know I talked about cathedral concerts in Part 1 of this post, but I had no idea. I thought I knew how beautiful music could sound in a huge church. But the organist at St. Stephen's Basilica took his throne and blew the doors off the place. I think his rendition of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor actually punched me in the face. Or at least the ear drums. I was floored by the beauty of both the cathedral and the music.

Day 2 was...well, it was a pretty far walk. I've had to apologize and/or humorously confess to this a few times now, so I may as well state it here for the record: I kept telling Reptar (not falsely, as I was convinced of it myself), that we were walking about 2-3 miles a day, despite her protests. We later looked at it on Google Maps...we were walking close to 8-9 miles a day. So, as is bound to happen so many times in the near and far future, my wife was correct and I was not.
Of course, if she'd listened to my advice and worn sneakers instead of sandals, her feet, legs, and back would not have ached quite as much.

Anyway, we walked to the Balna, or "The Whale" - a uniquely-shaped shopping center with interesting restaurants and a delicious lamb burger in one of its restaurants. From there it was off to the Zwack Museum, where they distill the Hungarian answer to Jagermeister known as Unicum, as well as host the largest collection of mini-bottles of liquor (17,000!) in Central Europe. Fun fact: Peter Zwack once came to Buffalo as an ambassador - they have a letter of praise signed by Mayor Byron Brown, as well as Bills and Buffalo memorabilia in a display case. Pretty cool!

Later that night we went on a beautiful evening dinner cruise along the Danube. The food was delicious, the wine was lovely, the view was gorgeous. The one thing I would change is that we should have taken the 10 PM cruise - it's even prettier at night.
That's the single biggest difference between Prague and Budapest. Budapest has a significant nightlife. In Prague, there were a few restaurants and bars open late, including that jazz club we enjoyed on our last night there. And I'm sure there was more, too, but it seemed like by 10:00 PM or so, things were wrapping up. In Budapest, on the other hand, it seemed more like the lights were still up, people were still out in droves, and more was happening. Even the street musicians and buskers were out later (which is why I also own a CD from a Hungarian group...although it's mostly instrumental smooth rock covers of American songs, it's not bad).
On Day 3, we decided to stay on the Buda side of Budapest. The Castle District is truly beautiful, with its gorgeous scenery views and intensely beautiful architecture. The history seemed to flow out of each building and mountain. The biggest treat for two fledgling physicians was getting to see the Hospital in the Rock, an underground medical facility that served both as hospital and neutral sanctuary for victims of the war-ravaged and under-siege Budapest during WWII. Later we enjoyed the Museum of Military History (well, we raced through the exhibit because it seemed like they were basically closing each wing for the night right after we finished seeing it). We finished off the day by finding out that jazz clubs in Budapest fill to capacity much faster than clubs in Prague, but we enjoyed some amateur blues musicians instead and Reptar re-discovered that she is a major fan of tiramisu. Finally, again on P.A.'s advice, we headed to the Ruin Pub Szimplakert - unsure of what to expect on a Wednesday night, but instead finding a cool vibe, good beer, and some really intricate graffiti. 
On our last full day, we checked out the artsy district of Andrassy Avenue, finding the opera House and several rehearsal spaces that brought back pleasant memories of college when I played drums for modern dancers in similar rooms. The House of Terror Museum brought home (and brought it hard) the devastation the Nazi Party and the Soviet Regime caused to Hungarians. Heroes Square, City Park Lake, and Vajdahunyad Castle rounded out the trip, and then it was time to pack and collapse.

Notes on the trip home: Budapest airport was ridiculous. I have never seen a more disorganized check-in area. Rope lines are useful for a reason, Budapest Airport. Other than that, it was quite pleasant.
And how did we finish off our incredible honeymoon adventure?

We got home and, for our first meal in the USA, had Chipotle. It was delicious. NOM NOM.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

10 Days Off the Island (a.k.a Honeymoon Edition, Part 1)

"So...I'm married now. That's pretty cool." -Me, Tweeting 5/28/2016

I know it's lame to quote yourself, and ordinarily I would never do it...but that's still a pretty amazing thought to me. Fiancée Reptar has evolved into Wife Reptar, and if anything she looks more beautiful than before. Things are roughly the same as before...but something feels different.
But anyway, enough of the sentimental stuff. Or "senti", as my cousin (and Deacon at my wedding) Josh puts it. We took off for our honeymoon, a much-needed 10-day vacation to end my intern year and start Reptar's. After an 8-hour flight, Wife Reptar and I landed in Prague with the typical "Um...what do we do now?" expression on our faces. So...

We took a nap.

From the Charles Bridge
Later we explored some of the surrounding areas, and to show you how little research we had done prior to the trip, at one point we crossed a bridge with a ton of statues depicting various scenes of religious strife and major figures. It was crowded, nearly choked with tourists gawking at the statues, peddlers hawking their wares, and caricature artists creating hilarious art, all the way across. At the end of the walkway, Reptar turned and asked, "Joe, was that the Charles Bridge? The big tourist landmark everyone told us to check out?" As it turned out, it was. Almost missed the significance, there. 

We also immediately discovered the Czech Republic's rich artistic culture. Obviously the architecture is immediately breathtaking, as visible in any photo or painting of Prague. But beyond that, in nearly every cathedral or church or other other venue, almost nightly they have classical music performances. Have you ever heard Vivaldi or Dvorak as performed by string quartet+organ combo? Toss a rock in Prague and you can hit a performance. It's beautiful. More on music later.
We also realized that we had timed our trip perfectly with the Prague Fringe Festival! Amazing performers from all over Europe had arrived to show off their talents. The first night itself we caught a one-woman show of Richard III, one of my favorite Shakespearean plays. Soon to become one of Reptar's(?). Later in the week we would catch the hilarious improv group Men with Coconuts, as well as the Who Dares Twins, a musical stand-up act featuring two twin brothers, and at the end of the week we would be taken along on an acid trip in story form, simply titled "Tiger," and be read (disappointingly) by the Singing Psychic, an act which should really just be called "A British Woman Puts on an Eastern European Accent and Shows Off Her Singing Talent by Looking Up (In a Book) and Then Singing Top 40 Hits from the Week You Were Born."
The peeing statues

Our second day of the trip was probably the most memorable, as it started off with us setting an alarm for 8:30 and not actually waking up until...1:00 PM. Whoops. Still, we wasted no time in getting lunch and then headed to the KGB Museum. If you're ever in Prague, I highly suggest this (thank you Foursquare app for suggesting it to us!). The owner is clearly waiting for Putin to call him and initiate a new Soviet Union by taking the Czech Republic back into Russian hands. He also may have a bit of a cocaine habit fueling his Russian pride. But he will give you an excellent and animated tour of his little museum, pointing out and demonstrating the function of various Russian weaponry, communications, and spy equipment and using it to provide historical context as he takes you through the history of the KGB from pre-WWI up to the end of WWII and beyond. The whole thing was really intriguing and educational (if biased)...but he was weird. 
The other great museum is that of Franz Kafka. If you have even a passing familiarity with his work, or any interest in a man whose writing shapes our interpretation both of life and of history, you should definitely go here. The creepy yet enticing exhibit takes you through his life and thinking process, and you really get a sense of knowing the man a tiny bit better (if only a tiny bit).
St. Vitus Cathedral

Reptar and I prided ourselves on not using the tour group thing and just discovering the city and its history on our own. But one tourist trap you absolutely should fall into is Prague Castle. The basic ticket package consists of the four main attractions - St. Vitus Cathedral, St. George's Basilica, Old Royal Palace, Golden Lane. I have never seen Reptar display as much wonderment as when we walked through the awe-inspiring St. Vitus Cathedral, with its brilliantly detailed stained-glass windows and its incredible architecture, and the sheer ethereal quality to the air that made you feel like you were truly in God's presence. Later, we would encounter the camaraderie of our profession in a cafe after the Castle. Reptar's American Medical Student Association sweatshirt prompted a pathologist and her reproductive endocrinologist husband to introduce themselves, wish us congratulations, and pass on both career and marital advice, as well as suggestions for leg 2 of our trip, Budapest. 

And they had Starbucks
Of course, no travel post would be complete without food. Czech food is heavy on the meats and carbs. Reptar and I quickly found our favorite dish to be goulash, a far cry from the pasta-and-ground beef combo of American goulash, but rather delicious chunks of spiced beef in a sauce reminiscent of (but not as flavorful or spicy as) an Indian curry, with bread dumplings that would have been tasty enough on their own. This can be found in any Czech restaurant, but our clear favorite was a quaint little mom-and-pop eatery in Old Town named U Modrého Hroznu. We might go back to Prague sometime just to eat at that place again.
The amazing hot chocolate
I drank a beer with every non-breakfast meal, which was pretty standard (the Pilsener was first brewed in the Czech Republic, so that's what is found pretty much everywhere - it would take some doing to find a good dark beer to suit my tastes). They appear to drink more beer than water (which comes only in bottles and costs extra) in Prague, much to Reptar's beer-aversive chagrin.
In the cafe with the two physicians we would encounter the terrific combination of Schnitzel+strudel, as well as Prague's infamous delicious spoon-required hot chocolate. Later we wandered through a wine festival with some of the best chocolate cheesecake I have ever encountered. But no trip to Prague is complete without the cinnamon sugar-coated dough spiral known as Trdelnik, now sometimes paired with flavored gelato for a truly delicious cold treat.
And, of course, it wouldn't be me without some music. In addition to the aforementioned classical music, the wine festival featured an impressive jazz quartet of guitar, accordion, banjo, and double bass, putting a delightful Eastern Europe spin on classics like "The Girl From Ipanema" and "On Green Dolphin Street." And on our last night we descended into one of the established jazz clubs in the area and took in the mighty Jan Kofenik and the GrooveKeepers, of whom I've never heard, but they were a tight little organ jazz quintet that brought the house down for their CD release party. That's right, I own a CD of a Czech jazz group now.

Overall, an amazing trip. And it's the only the first half! Now we're off to Budapest for the second leg. Maybe I'll let Reptar talk in the next post. Or at least talk about her a little more.

Yay, Trdelnik!