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AMAPrima Black Sea Voyage Live Blog/Review Sept 2014

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We leave today for our Black Sea Voyage on AMAPrima. (always leaving house sitters behind with our animals;)) We are traveling from Budapest to Bucharest, with a post stay in Istanbul.

 

Much thanks to all who have responded here with super advice to all of our questions! We've learned where to go, with which guides, what camera gear to take, what to wear, where to stay and how to handle our money/tipping from folks who have been before! Thanks especially to caviargirl, bobalink, h2Ostar, Alexandra, Sippican, KLRDucks, (Greg off line) and more of you I'm sure I should have remembered!!!!

 

In order to pay it forward we will be doing some live blogging from the road, with DH's photos and some thoughts from me on our own website (which is independent- no sales/advertising of anything) it's easier to load photos and access than CC from the road with hotel and ship internet. I won't do a comprehensive review and may not able to respond to comments and questions on the road- after all, it's a vacation first and I want to enjoy as much time experiencing it as I can...but we welcome you to leave them for when we return and then I promise to do a more comprehensive review both on our blog and here on Cruise Critic and answer any questions I can!

 

Please bookmark the blog if you are interested in the "live" portion...and check back here in October when we return for the CC review.

 

 

http://www.goseeittravel.com/travel-beyond/

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Hope you have a great trip. I am so envious, this is something on my list of things to do, and will look forward to reading your reviews.

 

I'd like to visit "places less travelled" as this itinerary seems to do, so maybe next year. We haven't yet taken a river cruise, we're only quite new to cruising with 2 on the Paul Gauguin.

 

I know you have a real flair for communicating and that makes for great enjoyment for those that "travel with you"......:)

 

All the best, and safe and happy travels to you and your husband.

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Have a fabulous trip and I look forward to experiencing it with you, virtually!
Thanks I love reading reviews and live blogs so Im happy to do one!

 

Hope you have a great trip. I am so envious, this is something on my list of things to do, and will look forward to reading your reviews.

 

I'd like to visit "places less travelled" as this itinerary seems to do, so maybe next year. We haven't yet taken a river cruise, we're only quite new to cruising with 2 on the Paul Gauguin.

 

I know you have a real flair for communicating and that makes for great enjoyment for those that "travel with you"......:)

 

All the best, and safe and happy travels to you and your husband.

 

We loved PG, and so far this trip is shaping up to be a similar level of service!

I hope you get a chance to try a river cruise, Im looking forward to our first!

 

 

Right now we are working out how to "shift" our biorhythms so we will be ready for dinner and bed when we arrive in Budapest...Im thinking that means not sleeping too long on the flight, waking up and having "lunch" rather than breakfast and then getting dinner once arrive in Budapest. If I can prop my eyes with toothpicks to stay up till 10 PM Hungarian time, Im hopeful we will be bright eyed and bushy tailed for our first tour with Magdi Pelech on Sunday morning!:D

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Oh, what fun you will have! Safe travels and enjoy every new experience. I will look forward to "traveling along" with you!

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Thanks I love reading reviews and live blogs so Im happy to do one!

We loved PG, and so far this trip is shaping up to be a similar level of service!

I hope you get a chance to try a river cruise, Im looking forward to our first!

 

Right now we are working out how to "shift" our biorhythms so we will be ready for dinner and bed when we arrive in Budapest...Im thinking that means not sleeping too long on the flight, waking up and having "lunch" rather than breakfast and then getting dinner once arrive in Budapest. If I can prop my eyes with toothpicks to stay up till 10 PM Hungarian time, Im hopeful we will be bright eyed and bushy tailed for our first tour with Magdi Pelech on Sunday morning!:D

 

PG is on our bucket list - hoping for 2016.

 

I can never sleep much on a plane. We are generally in Europe 2x a year and have learned that what works for us is to keep moving once we arrive. If we are lucky enough to be able to check into our room on arrival, we take a hot shower and put on fresh clothes and then hit the streets. We have dinner about 7pm and are in bed by 10.

 

It takes me a few days to adapt as I am always up without an alarm by 5am at home. On the boat, myself and other early risers are have a coffee and watching the scenery at 5 or so. If it is light enough and we are docked, I use that time to get out and do a few early morning miles to kick start my day.

 

If I have not mentioned it previously, we loved our dinner at Cafe Bouchon in Budapest. It was one of the best meals on our trip.

 

Travel safe!

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I've got a similar itinerary booked for next year on Grand Circle so am looking forward to all your reports...have read all you've posted so far and am enjoying it a lot! Thanks for taking the time....

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Thanks for all your kind words! We've added a couple more blog posts of our first day! Budapest looked beautiful from the Marriott last night and we are heading out today to explore!

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We will be in Budapest in December. Giving us a wonderful preview of what is in store. Thank you!

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We boarded about hour and 1/2 ago- very easy and friendly! Well, maybe we took the wrong way to drop off our luggage, but that will haut make for a funny story! ;) AMA Prima is rafted with the AMA Sonata and another AMA sister ship. Seeing three together is funny, since they are exactly alike, it feels like one giant ship docked!

 

After passing through the Sonata, we dropped our luggage at 11 and went right back out to explore Budapest some more. We've been here 3 days so we had some things in mind to do; we walked one block from the ship to the Vaci Utca, where there are lots of souvenir shops and cafes designed for tourists. At the end of the the road, we came to the large Central Market, where we had planned to meet our In Laws again at noon. We shopped, noshed and took photos at the market- a nice mix of tourists (and not a few tour groups from the River Ships) and locals doing their shopping. My husband stalked one lady who was driving hard bargains at her favorite shops; though the shop keeper greeted her, they looked grim and did lots of head shaking before she finally made her purchase!

 

After the Market - we took the tram to St Stephens Basilica to ascend to the dome. After taking on a birds eye view of the city we had just spent 2 days hoofing around, we descended (we cheated and bought the lift ticket!) and stopped for gelato right on the square. We made our way back to the tram and at exactly 3 we arrived at the reception desk. We were given our key, gave them our passports and a staff member showed us to our room. We filled out some paper work and returned it to the desk for our first 3 days of tours.

 

I can't wait to share all the photos and details with you...after unpacking, we took lots of photos around the ship while it was utterly empty, and when I get back I will be sure to post them all:D I am putting a few up on my blog, hoping to put up a few as a farewell to the Goulash City today before muster drill!

 

So far everyone is friendly and the ship is beautiful!

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Wonderful cruise! We just arrived in Istanbul yesterday (we took the fly option with 4 other travelers, the other 122 will arrive by bus at 5 tonight after a stay in Bulgaria last night. I'm recommending flying because we had a wonderful afternoon exploring the Istiklal Street within easy walking distance from the IC.

 

The cruise was so well organized. Our tour manager Matias was too notch! I'm astounded that he could manage logistics so smoothly in such a still developing place when it comes to tourism. He's a master!

Our tour guides were all excellent - each one shared very personal stories of their own experiences in their countries as well as important historic and cultural information.

There are a lot bus trips, but it would be difficult on his itinerary to do it any other way, and nearly impossible (short of back packing) to do it on your own again, logistics are all handled! But nearly every afternoon there were bike tours for those of us who needed to stretch and get active after a long bus ride. If you plan to use bikes I would let AMA know your interest before you leave. We had more takers than bikes for the first tours until Matias arranged for the guides to bring rentals to cover the overflow. Because the biking was a big part of this trip for us; we were first to his desk! But I think if they hear from more people ahead they would know to have more bikes for the very first tour. The bike tours were also excellent.

Food well- so good the bikes did nothing to prevent the expansion of my waistline !!!

 

Not much reporting while on the cruise; Internet was effective most places but slow for photos- I used my time to stay connected to family and didn't get on CC. I have been updating my periodically Witt photos and commentary- linked in my signature!

 

We've taken loads of photos and I will have a full photo review when we return!

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One of the BEST trip blogs EVER!!! Loved the photos and the narrative and learned a few things I didn't learn on MY Budapest to Black Sea in June! I did post one comment on one of your pictures, which are gorgeous, I understand DH's dilemma since I'm the photographer in our house! Budapest is one of my favorite world cities, although the list keeps growing, and the food is amazing. I think our ship was docked on the same cracked up piece of pavement and in our defense, I think most of us who advised the ships were docked within walking distance of the sights were thinking of walking to places AFTER boarding and not toting your luggage TO the ship! :D:D That was a fun story and I'm glad you both made it safely with all your lugggage....honestly, I don't think I would have made it! Safe home and I can't wait to read more.

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Hi, Kathy,

I am really enjoying your Blog and truly appreciate all the time and energy it takes to write this and kudos to your DH for his great photographs. I am having a hard time finding the website Travel Beyond. Can you please post a Link on your blog website since it is not allowed on this forum. Thanks for all your help. ;)

Donna

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One of the BEST trip blogs EVER!!! Loved the photos and the narrative and learned a few things I didn't learn on MY Budapest to Black Sea in June! I did post one comment on one of your pictures, which are gorgeous, I understand DH's dilemma since I'm the photographer in our house! Budapest is one of my favorite world cities, although the list keeps growing, and the food is amazing. I think our ship was docked on the same cracked up piece of pavement and in our defense, I think most of us who advised the ships were docked within walking distance of the sights were thinking of walking to places AFTER boarding and not toting your luggage TO the ship! :D:D That was a fun story and I'm glad you both made it safely with all your lugggage....honestly, I don't think I would have made it! Safe home and I can't wait to read more.

Much thanks! I just added a new post tonight, all about the markets! I'm sure you enjoyed them too,

Hi, Kathy,

I am really enjoying your Blog and truly appreciate all the time and energy it takes to write this and kudos to your DH for his great photographs. I am having a hard time finding the website Travel Beyond. Can you please post a Link on your blog website since it is not allowed on this forum. Thanks for all your help. ;)

Donna

Thanks Donna! Will do!

 

I will be home tomorrow, it will take a week for Jeff to process all his pictures, then I'll post more details and photos here of the whole trip! Thanks to everyone who followed along on the live portion. It's tough to give a lot of photos and details and enjoy a vacation at the same time...but I've enjoyed sharing some of the stories in real time! I have so many more, and Jeffs photos tell them better than I can! Here's to a continued conversation!

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Well, after a long cramped flight in Turkish Air, we arrived home last evening. We forced ourselves to stay up till 9, but of course I'm up at 5! At least I'll be ready for Monday morning with no problem!

My husband has been downloading the photos and it will take a while to get through them all! I promise to have more details and photos soon!

 

We had a sad event at the end of our AMA trip; about 128 of us went on to Istanbul, (8 flew and 120 on the bus via Plovdiv) and on our second to last night a lady passed away in her hotel room over night. She and her friend were traveling together from Canada; her husband and children still in Canada. There were two large tour groups from Canada, but they were in their own. Her friend said she was only in her early 70s. Both ladies had joined in all the tours, but several of us had noticed that she was struggling a bit at the end of the trip. It's a terrible sad thng and I feel so badly for her family and her friend who was with her. It's so difficult to know on these busy itineraries if one is just tired, or truly ill. Of course we all felt awful; with so few passengers, you really do feel like a community by the end of the trip.

 

I must say though that our tour manager and AMA were wonderful. Matayas spent all day managing the situation and her travel companion, who was of course shocked, was being very well supported. If something awful happens it's good to know that the people running the tour stand ready and able to help. Also, Matatyas had two helpers in Turkey, so the rest of the days program went off without a hitch to the other guests, although understandably, we were all a bit saddened.

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We had a similar experience on our first Christmas market trip with Vantage. A gentleman had been complaining of not feeling well and would not see a doctor--even tho he was begged by his wife and friends. As we were going in to dinner he collapsed and died at the hospital. The staff was so supportive. We had flow over on the same flight as this group of 3 couples. His wife never returned to the boat and their friends packed for her and one of them stayed with her overnite. It amazed us how well the staff reacted to the situation. They gathered us in the lounge, explained the situation and asked to remember the family in our own way. You really don't expect things like this to happen on a "vacation trip".

 

Your blog is sooooo good. Thanks and thanks for the one on the Galapagos--took many notes for our trip two years ago. Pat

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We had a similar experience on our first Christmas market trip with Vantage. A gentleman had been complaining of not feeling well and would not see a doctor--even tho he was begged by his wife and friends. As we were going in to dinner he collapsed and died at the hospital. The staff was so supportive. We had flow over on the same flight as this group of 3 couples. His wife never returned to the boat and their friends packed for her and one of them stayed with her overnite. It amazed us how well the staff reacted to the situation. They gathered us in the lounge, explained the situation and asked to remember the family in our own way. You really don't expect things like this to happen on a "vacation trip".

 

Your blog is sooooo good. Thanks and thanks for the one on the Galapagos--took many notes for our trip two years ago. Pat

Thanks Pat! This was my very first time blogging live...and I need all the encouragement I can get! I did enjoy the live blogging even though it's a little different the a trip report, I wanted to capture the emotion and essence of the topic and of course the best part are my husbands photos, without them, it would be nothing! I'm glad my Galapagos review was helpful. I know I save the details of others reports for the same reasons, many many travel logistics have been made easier thanks to others reports (except maybe for us GETTING to the ship on this trip;))

 

I have heard on large cruises someone dies or become gravely on almost every trip, and it think the numbers would bear that out with 2-6 k people in the 50-90 age range over any given week, even if they all stayed home! I'm sure it's a logistical challenge for the travel providers, but they do seem prepared for the event.

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I have heard on large cruises someone dies or become gravely on almost every trip, and it think the numbers would bear that out with 2-6 k people in the 50-90 age range over any given week, even if they all stayed home! I'm sure it's a logistical challenge for the travel providers, but they do seem prepared for the event.

 

It happened to us twice in our travels. Once in Greece at the Parthenon the first day....it's a tough climb from the parking lot to the top and one of the men didn't make it, although fortunately he was still in the parking lot, which made rescue response faster and easier. Since most of us had already reached the top, we didn't know about it until we returned to the bus and then our TM explained that the gentlemen had a heart attack and was in the hospital in Athens and would be returning home as soon as they deemed him safe for travel. The other time was on Celebrity when we were doing Panama Canal. We have no idea what happened, only know because we were sitting on our balcony when a helicopter appeared and someone was taken off the ship. We heard later through the grapevine that someone had fallen and broken a leg, but we don't know whether it was passenger or crew. In direct contrast, if anyone noticed that I steer people away from American Cruise Lines, here's an example of what a poorly managed company does when there's an emergency: we were on the ACL Queen of the West (Lewis & Clark cruise). One of the women we hung out with fell going to her room (she was 90, but looked and acted 65) while we were in port. She was very lucky and only had a large but serious cut on her arm. Her friend went to the purser's office and asked for a band-aid and was told "we don't have any", so she asked for the first-aid kit and was told "we don't have any" so she asked for a taxi to take her friend to an emergency room because by this time several of us had told her you need stitches, and they said it would take over an hour for a taxi, you're better off walking to the hospital, it's up the hill and turn right! So she and her friend walked up the hill and turned right and went into the first drug store they saw to get band-aids and directions to a walk in clinic. The pharmacist took one look at her arm, drove her to the hospital where she had 8 stitches and then drove her back to the ship with a filled Rx and box of band-aids, none of which he charged her for.

Edited by Hydrokitty

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I have heard on large cruises someone dies or become gravely on almost every trip, and it think the numbers would bear that out with 2-6 k people in the 50-90 age range over any given week, even if they all stayed home! I'm sure it's a logistical challenge for the travel providers, but they do seem prepared for the event.

 

It happened to us twice in our travels. Once in Greece at the Parthenon the first day....it's a tough climb from the parking lot to the top and one of the men didn't make it, although fortunately he was still in the parking lot, which made rescue response faster and easier. Since most of us had already reached the top, we didn't know about it until we returned to the bus and then our TM explained that the gentlemen had a heart attack and was in the hospital in Athens and would be returning home as soon as they deemed him safe for travel. The other time was on Celebrity when we were doing Panama Canal. We have no idea what happened, only know because we were sitting on our balcony when a helicopter appeared and someone was taken off the ship. We heard later through the grapevine that someone had fallen and broken a leg, but we don't know whether it was passenger or crew. In direct contrast, if anyone noticed that I steer people away from American Cruise Lines, here's an example of what a poorly managed company does when there's an emergency: we were on the ACL Queen of the West (Lewis & Clark cruise). One of the women we hung out with fell going to her room (she was 90, but looked and acted 65) while we were in port. She was very lucky and only had a large but serious cut on her arm. Her friend went to the purser's office and asked for a band-aid and was told "we don't have any", so she asked for the first-aid kit and was told "we don't have any" so she asked for a taxi to take her friend to an emergency room because by this time several of us had told her you need stitches, and they said it would take over an hour for a taxi, you're better off walking to the hospital, it's up the hill and turn right! So she and her friend walked up the hill and turned right and went into the first drug store they saw to get band-aids and directions to a walk in clinic. The pharmacist took one look at her arm, drove her to the hospital where she had 8 stitches and then drove her back to the ship with a filled Rx and box of band-aids, none of which he charged her for.

Well that would explain your reluctance about ACL! I think how companies respond to problems really shows you the character of the company. It's always worth it to me to have good service and know that the company you are working with can be counted on.

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Well, Hubby has finished the photos and I have scanned all the paperwork, and I completed a long weekend college tour in Minnesota with our 17 yo, managed to get hubby's car towed to the Mini dealership, get him home and back out in my car, wrangled 5 two yo's through sand table and apple printing in my preschool class all morning, and I still have the energy to get started on my trip report and review...FINALLY!!

 

To start...I'll remind everyone that I did do some live blogging during the trip on my website...linked here:

 

http://http://www.goseeittravel.com/travel-blog/

 

If you are looking for more background, I included some info about why we chose this itinerary, packing, my DH's photo kit, and the blogging we were able to do on the road with the internet that was available (in the hotels it was excellent, on the river ship, on this itinerary, it was hit or miss) I will include some of the same photos from the live blog in the travelogue here, but I do also plan to post many more photos and some narrative there as well as here.

I love writing travelogue review...I like to share stories and have conversations with those who have been and those who are planning to go (or just hoping!) Cruise Critic is a great place for that exchange, as these are discussion forums, so I'm delighted to start this conversation with anyone who would like to jump in!! If you are the type of person looking for info and less back and forth...my website will be more photo heavy with more "just the facts", although I'd be delighted to have anyone comment there too and keep the conversation rolling!!

 

Here are some teaser photos!!

 

Budapest Danube dock #2: AMA Waterways river ships, including the AMAPrima (in the middle)

 

157755968.jpg

 

 

 

 

None of this would be possible without my photographer, best friend, hubby of 27 years and all around great travel companion, Jeff. He's generally camera shy...you will see him in photos looking concerned when he's handed off his camera that he's set it up incorrectly or you'll see him in photos I've taken surreptitiously of him taking photos:p

This one is Jeff 'chimping" the "take" at the Opera House in Budapest:

 

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A note about photos...I think Jeff takes some pretty terrific photos, but if you notice some that are, shall we say, less than terrific, you should assume that they are photos that I took with my iphone (such as all the panoramas) or photos I insisted on using despite the fact that they may not have otherwise made Jeff's quality control cut. In other words, blame the editor, not the photographer!!

 

 

 

 

Yours Truly, Kathy, in Budapest...with a statue of "Anonymous" near the Vajdahunyad castle in the City Park (Varosliget). This statue, completed in 1903 by Miklos Ligeti, was meant to memorialize an anonymous historian who wrote Hungary's early Magyar history. Legend tells that people who touch his pen (see, that's why the pen is so shiny!!) will gather some abilities to be a good writer and teller of history...it's my hope that this works, and that you will enjoy the telling of my trip over the next weeks (this is going to take a while!!)

 

157755930.jpg

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Why this itinerary (Black Sea Voyage) and why AMA?

 

Here is the map of the itinerary we sailed

 

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As you can see from the map, our trip embarked in Budapest, Hungary and traveled down the lower Danube River through Hungary, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania. Once in Romania, we flew to Istanbul Turkey for 4 nights. Although the river cruise lines offer packages to include pre and post hotel stays, we decided to make our own way to Budapest and spend 3 nights there on our own and join the AMA river ship on Sept 23rd.

 

My husbands sister and her husband (K&N) decided to join us in Budapest from their home in Great Britain. After our stay in Budapest, they traveled on west via train to Vienna and Prague (countries that are often included in the river cruise itineraries as pre or post stays, but we chose to save them for another trip) while we will embarked the river ship to sail East!

 

I go into our travel list and our justification of it in more detail on our website, but generally we decided we wanted to see this area of the world, the part of Europe that is just a little harder to get around on your own than Western Europe. We knew that river or ocean cruising is a good way to see places where tourist infra structure isn't as developed, since you've got your hotel floating with you. The convenience of not packing and unpacking every day leaves more time for enjoying your destination. While cruising usually isn't a great way to explore in depth, it's a great way to "sample" places and firm plans to return to favorites.

 

After our TA sent us a pile of brochures for various a River Cruises (based again on their knowledge of our wants and needs) we selected AMA cruise lines because of their focus on meeting the needs of more active, independent travelers. With on board bicycles, biking, active walker and gentle walker touring groups, and on board gyms, they seemed geared to meet the needs of active travelers like ourselves. All of the river cruise companies offered similar itineraries, and prices are similar with small differences in food quality levels or alcohol inclusions at meals or not.

 

We were delighted with our choice of AMA. The service and food on our river ship was absolutely top notch. the whole trip was incredibly well organized by Matyas, our tour manager, and for traveling to an area with developing tourist infrastructure was incredibly seamless! We did find there was an active group on board, though this doesn't always correlate with "young" (I want to be one of those people in 30 years ;)) Some of the younger folks had not had their "repairs" yet (knees etc) and were actually more limited mobility that some of our 70-80 yo biking pals! I'll have plenty more about AMA and our thoughts throughout the review and travelogue, but generally, we were very happy with AMA for this itinerary!

 

We had heard from several reviewers that this itinerary is a little different from other river cruise itineraries. This is our first so we have no comparison, but generally, folks reported that this itinerary was less "scenic", that the areas visited required bus rides of 45 mins - 1 hour, and that the docking town/city was very industrial looking (often without actually being operational) and often didn't offer much in the way of "things to do"(such as shopping, cafes etc found in Western Europe within walking distance of the river ships) with afternoon free time.

 

We went in expecting that, and really, some of those "developing area" concerns and recent history were exactly what we wanted to see, and we did! There were times when this was emotionally hard to see, such as seeing Vukovar, Croatia the same day as visiting Novi Sad, Serbia (combatants on opposite sides of the more recent Balkan conflicts) or the many sobering memorials to the Jews murdered in Hungary. This was very illustrative, but not what you'd call a rollicking good time. Seeing the challenges these areas still face and hearing about them directly from the excellent local guides, I felt was moving and often sobering, but very, very interesting! We did also see some lovely and quaint sights too, and all of the people in the countries we traveled to expressed a real desire to have tourist come to their countries, they really see it as one way out of very difficult economic times.

 

As I post day to day, I will be sharing what each port had to offer and readers can decide if they would find that interesting or not. A perfect example would be my two dear aunts...they have Danube cruise planned this spring that includes a pre tour in Poland at one of the concentration camps. One aunt is very interested to be reminded of that history, so as to not allow it to ever be repeated, while another aunt is skipping the pre tour because she feels she understands this history and cannot bear to face this on her vacation. I don't think either one has the wrong approach, but rather that they both have a clear idea of what is right for them! Hopefully, this review will help people decide for themselves!!

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157755816.jpg

 

We planned to travel to Budapest on our own. We used a flight specialist associated with our TA, and paid 50 dollars each for him to find us the same flight I had already researched...Turkish Air, which had recently started service to Istanbul direct from Boston. The flight we chose had a quick connection to Budapest (a 2 hour flight) I guess I will console myself with the fact that what I was really paying for was his expertise...he knew we would be able to find our way to the connection directly without needing to pass through customs or collect our bags, and since the connection was only 1 hour and 50 minutes, that was critical information to know. So in the end, we paid $100 for expertise and piece of mind!

 

If traveling to Turkey, US travelers (and I believe Canadians too) have to have an electronic visa. These are easily obtained before travel online at:

 

https://www.evisa.gov.tr/en/

 

After you've signed up you can print your visa, though it should be linked to your passport. I did carry a copy and was glad I did because mine was NOT linked and I needed to show my paper copy.

 

We arrived in Turkey with no troubles...Turkish Air was not terribly comfortable. We flew economy and were lucky to have 2 seats by ourselves on the side of the plane rather than 2 in the middle of the plane in a set of 4, but the seats are so incredibly close to each other from front to back, it is nearly impossible to get comfortable! For us, we decided this was our last "long haul" in coach...from now on we upgrade to business. Jeff is 6 foot 6 inches tall and we've saved a ton over the years flying coach...now that we are in the second half of our century of traveling, it's time to upgrade!

 

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As we arrived in Istanbul, it was exciting to see the city from the plane, and know that while our connection was short, we would have 4 days to explore the city at the end of our trip!

 

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If you'd like to read a humorous take on our flight and a photo of poor Jeff literally crammed in his seat, see our post "Thirteen words you don't want to hear immediately after take off" on our blog

 

http://www.goseeittravel.com/travel-blog/2014/9/20/13-words-you-do-not-want-to-hear-immediately-after-takeoff

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We arrived in Budapest at about 7 PM. We had arranged a transfer driver through our guide, Magdi Pelech (more on her in a future post!) He was waiting for us with a sign with our name on it. This cost us 35 euro for the transfer to the Marriott, which took about 20-25 minutes. We had read that one should be careful about cabs in Budapest, arranging them through the hotel or going to the official cab stand at the airport to avoid an unscrupulous driver. Since we were arriving later, we just wanted the piece of mind of having a driver waiting for us. Our relatives K and N arranged a specific cab at the airport based on the suggestion of the folks who rented them their flat, and that worked out just fine too!

 

We decided to stay at the Marriott, after much back and forth over where to stay. The Sofitel is the "pre cruise" hotel for AMA and they had a courtesy desk set up there. Viking had a courtesy desk set up at our Marriott. Jeff had recently been made "gold" status with Marriott, which allowed us to book a lesser room and be automatically upgraded to a better room, with a Danube View, free in room wifi, and access to the executive lounge. The lounge serves breakfast, snacks all day and "hors d oevres" and drinks in the evening hearty enough that I would call it a light dinner.

 

Also, the Marriott executive lounge offers a gorgeous deck overlooking the bridges and castle hill at night. Given that the non refundable "pre pay" in advance price for our room (154 euro wknd and 164 euro weekday) was less than the prices offered by AMA at the Sofitel, with the executive lounge amenities included, it was far cheaper for us to use our Marriott gold to upgrade the view and lounge amenities and pay for a basic room. For folks paying for lounge access, free wifi is included in the lounge, so you might not need to pay for wifi in your room.

 

(Amenities associated with the lounge at the Marriott)

 

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Additionally, after sussing out the options to get to the river ship for embarkation, we learned that the AMA ships are generally docked closer to the Marriott that the Sofitel, and we planned to roll our bags directly to the pier which was between the Elizabeth Bridge (pictured) and the Liberty bridge on the Pest side. If you haven't read our blog yet, I will share how this turned out for us later...let's just say, some people can follow directions and others, well, we just forge our own path, or non path!

 

(view of the AMA ships docked just beyond the Elizabeth bridge from the Concierge lounge roof deck at the Marriott)

 

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For our first Budapest trip, Jeff really wanted access to this lounge deck. I think he really wanted it for photo ops but he sold me on it as a very romantic location to start our anniversary trip! I'd like to think his real motivation was romance, but as you can see from the photos we took the evening we arrived...it is a pretty spectacular view!!

 

(Castle Hill and the Royal Palace on the Buda side)

 

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(The Chain Bridge and Matyas Church and Fisherman's Bastion on the Buda side)

 

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For those interested...our room on the executive level, with a view of the Elizabeth Bridge and Gellert Hill in Buda

 

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After a long day and 1/2 flying we headed for bed, and anticipated meeting our family members in the AM and the 4 of us enjoying a full day touring with Magdi Pelech and our driver.

 

That's it for tonight! I'll pick up the thread tomorrow with lots of photos of our first full day in Budapest!!

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We had planned our pre cruise tours about 9 months in advance of sailing. We decided to see Budapest and Istanbul (our beginning and ending cities) with our own guides versus using the AMA included tours. The AMA 1/2 day bus and walking tour of Budapest didn't sound like enough time in Budapest for us which drove the decision to look for a private guide there.

 

If you'd like more details about our thoughts on private guides and tips about finding them...I've added a new blog post:

 

http://www.goseeittravel.com/travel-blog/2014/10/16/why-bother-with-a-local-guide

 

I started here on Cruise Critic and read several threads that recommended Andrea MacKay. When I reached out to her via email she responded promptly that she was booked but could set us up with a colleague. However, rather than risk not knowing who would be taking us, we preferred to book Magdi Pelech directly who was also reviewed well by a CC member who had Andrea MacKay connect them when Andrea was unavailable.

 

It turned out to be a great choice...

http://www.magdiprivatetours.com/

 

She was very responsive via email and we found her rates very reasonable, especially once we shared with another couple. Her rates were for van and driver for a full 8 hour day in Buda and out to the Communist Memento park and half day 4 hour walking tour in Pest. We worked with her to tailor our tour to exactly what we wanted to see and do. We paid for all our own entrance fees, transit expenses and meals and snacks for ourselves and her through out the day. I won't quote exact prices here, since they could change, vary depending on the size of your group, but the price for both of us for a day and 1/2 day of touring was approximately $225 USD, excluding tips (10% for Magdi and a smaller tip for the driver) our out of pocket entrance fees, transit and meals. In general, these expenses are far less in Hungary than in large US or Western European cities) Our guide only accepted Hungarian Forints, and we exchanged money to Forints during our time in Hungary. I'll have more "money details" in a future post.

 

Before meeting Magdi, we had breakfast and met Jeff's sister and her husband who had rented a flat within walking distance of St Stephens Basilica.

 

 

(at breakfast, hmmm, does this look like romance??)

 

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(a river ship heading up the Danube)

 

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(Jeff and his sister K meeting up)

 

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Magdi met us in the Marriott Lobby

 

(Magdi with our group at Gellert Hill)

 

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We were very happy with our tour with Magdi...we felt she was very knowledgeable, and she did a good job organizing our interests to ensure we avoided backtracking. She was good at trying pace our tour for our group, which was a challenge because of our last minute add of Jeff's sister who has difficulty with lots of walking. Magdi was great about finding a resting spot for her while the other 3 of us moved on to see a sight that required a bit more walking or climbing and then returned for her later. In retrospect, we probably didn't "rest" enough; by experiencing meals or coffee breaks during our tour. We did do those things "on our own", but felt to maximize the guide time, it would be better to tour with fewer stops during the hours we had Magdi (except for brief breaks and lunch on our full day) These challenges were not caused by Magdi, but rather by our desire to maximize her time and"rest" after we were done with our touring. We jokingly agreed with our relatives that more than 2 days trying to match each others pace would not work out well, but that our weekend together turned out to be a great time, and we were so happy we connected together in Budapest!

 

 

 

 

(Magdi knew when we needed a break- here at the end of a full day of touring)

 

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Edited by Familygoboston

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Gellert Hill and Monument (Buda)

 

Our tour started in the van across the bridge to Buda, headed over to Gellert Hill, where we walked around the summit.

 

The hill is home to the Statue of Liberty...this communist era monument, used to be the "Liberation" monument commemorating the Russian's "liberation" of Hungary from the German's after WWII. After the fall of Communism in 1989, it lost some of it's more militaristic pieces. See the empty pedestal in the front? A soldier statue was removed and now resides in the Memento Park with other Communist era monuments. It was rededicated to all of the people who have ever fought for the freedom of Hungary and the locals refer to it as their "statue of liberty".

 

(Liberty Monument)

 

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(If you collect UNESCO sites...this is one!)

 

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(There are several panels depicting the damage done by bombing during WWII, nearly all of Budapest has been "rebuilt"; in it's history Budapest has been sacked and destroyed many times, but each time, rebuilds!)

 

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(a view from Gellert Hill to the Chain Bridge)

 

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(a view of a river ship on the Danube)

 

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(a view to residential area)

 

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Gellert Hill Buda

Our next stop was the Cave Church built into the Gellert Hill. Magdi shared with us that this church was actually cemented closed and the monks sent away during the communist era; in fact she admitted she never knew it existed till after the fall of communism!

 

Cave Church

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(entrance)

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An interesting fact I discovered in Hungary is that many of the Catholic churches in Hungary are named for Mary; who is the Patron Saint of Hungary. But most of them are CALLED something else...such as the cave church or Matya's church (it's not named for St Matthew, but its a moniker for the church where King Matyas attended and was married (twice!) But it's actually the Parish Church of Our lady Mary.

 

If you want a nickle (Forint?) history...

This interesting relationship probably exists because in the first century, Arpad, the leader of one of 7 nomadic tribes, looked around and decided that if the Magyars didn't join all of their tribes and settle in one place, there wouldn't be any land left for them to come back to, because of all the internal fighting and invading armies of the time.

His grandson, King Istvan converted to Catholicism, allying with a powerful force at the time, the Church in Rome, and was eventually sainted for his efforts. Interestingly though, in an effort to encourage the conversions of the Magyars, Rome more or less let them build their churches as they wanted and there are some unusual sights in Catholic Churches throughout Hungary that one doesn't often see in other Roman Catholic Churches around the world! I'll point them out in photos for those of you interested!

 

(Our Lady- always forgiving that no one seems to remember the church is named for HER!)

 

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(Inside the Cave Church)

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Gellert Baths Buda

 

Our next stop...the Gellert baths...we did not partake the waters here, but did later at another bath after our tours. I'll have more details on our baths experience in that section!

 

(Here is a schematic of the hotel and baths, it's a beautiful modernist Secession style building!)

 

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(it's a building worth visiting even if you don't plan to soak!)

 

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(beautiful ceiling and tiles)

 

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(a patron prepares to take the waters)

 

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Edited by Familygoboston

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Memento Park

 

After touring Gellert Hill, we took the van about 15 minutes (no traffic on Sunday) out of town to the Memento Park. We were very interested in this part of Hungary's history. We chose this itinerary in part because it was the 25th anniversary of the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe. Having the opportunity to see some sights and more importantly connect with people who lived through this time was something we really wanted to do.

One thing about "touring" areas with difficult history, (whether it's a concentration camp in Poland, the killing fields in Cambodia, or slave cabins at Monticello) I think it's important to see things to understand the experience on a more personal level to prevent a repeat of these kinds of horrors in the future.

 

Unfortunately, the further we get from the date of terror, the less "affected" we are sometimes, it becomes a comical or light hearted approach that doesn't respect the victims of the terror. An example of this is all the attention around "Vlad the impaler" in Romania. That story is about a man who perpetrated the worst sort of horror, and yet, we are so far from it that often the tours are advertised in a light hearted way, as if it's "fun"; like a fictional vampire movie would be. But when its actual history that affected actual people, it is about the people who suffered, and just because they suffered a long time ago doesn't mean we should be making light of it. I feel this sort of touring always requires a respect for the people who were victims of the history, no matter how long ago it happened and should be approached that way; respectfully, with the hopes of understanding in order to prevent the history from repeating itself.

 

I found in general that the difficult histories of the places we toured on this trip were presented very respectfully, and most people visiting experienced them in a very respectful way. This was true of the Memento Park. After the the fall of communism, the Budapest City Council had to face the question of what to do with all these Communist monuments. Destroying them eliminates a part of history that deserves telling (and remembering), but leaving them in prominent places around town is a too painful reminder of the past for citizens.

 

(parenthetical story: our guide told us about how Budapest is often used to shoot period movies about WWII because it's inexpensive to shoot there and the city still looks much like Western Europe did in the mid 20th century! So you can imagine the outrage from commuters when a recent movie turned a main boulevard in Budapest into replica of the capital of the Third Reich over night!)

 

Memento Park is more than a warehouse of old statues, it's a carefully designed park meant to illustrate some of the realities of living under Communist rule.

 

One example is this photo of the entrance...it's supposed to look like an actual stout, brick building, but you can see, it's just a facade. Also, the central large entry gate is not functional; guests enter through the "side door".

 

Our guide Magdi explained that the "side door" is a concept common to those who grew up in Communist countries. She explained that often you could not get something done through regular channels, that in order to get it done you had to find a creative way around the rules or policies; a "side door", if you will. Her own side door story was about a review class she wanted to take in order to get into at top economics college. Because her parents were not state workers, she was on a very long wait list for the course. So she had a friend with no interest in economics, whose parents were state workers, sign up for the class and then pass along all the class materials to her, so she could review them, even if she couldn't take the course. This is just one example of a local guide sharing stories from their own lives that bring to life their experiences.

 

(The side door)

 

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Another thoughtful design placement of a statues. Here Lenin is put "off to the side"; while his soldiers who normally would be standing vertically day and night on the the frieze around his statue get to lie down for rest!.

 

(Lenin put aside and soldiers finally getting to lie down on the job!)

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Some of the statuary is meant to remind people of the propaganda- This is a Russian victim of the "counter revolution" (know known as the 1956 Uprising, which was brutally quashed by the Communists)

 

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Memento Park

 

Of course in even in a serious examination of history, there are some lighthearted moments, where you have to see the history with a wry sense of humor.

 

The Trabant is the only vehicle that was available available in most Communist countries and was always the "bad guy" in Bond movies and earned a deserved poor reputation with even the people who could afford to own one.

 

(the Trabant)

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(This is the Russian Soldier that was removed from the Liberation monument on Gellert Hill)

 

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What is she looking for??? And will it be to scale??

 

 

 

 

There was some humor in this monument- our guide who was a young woman when Communism fell, used to meet her teen friends at this statue of Ostyapenko at the edge of town to hitchhike out to the countryside for picnics or concerts. Almost all Communist statuary shows an unidentifiable person, (usually a man) huge, vigorous, in a hurry and eager to work for the state. If we think about the reality of the Communist economy we can see this is more propaganda!

The running joke among those who remember it, is that this fellow should have been titled Coat Check Boy..."M'aam, you forgot your coat!"

 

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Royal Palace Castle District Buda

Our next stop was back to Castle Hill to look at the Royal Palace. We were unable to tour inside the palace because there was a chocolate festival going on, and we wanted to move on to see other things.

 

(A view of the Chain Bridge from near the funicular)

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(The funicular)

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(A chocolate festival at the Royal Palace)

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There are a bunch of vendors set up here where you can buy some crafts or foods. Our guide recommended trying the traditional funnel cake.

 

(a stop for traditional funnel cake!)

 

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Castle Hill Old Town Buda

 

After wandering around the top of the Castle Hill, we went to lunch in Old Buda. Old Buda is really a wonderful place to spend some time exploring, there are shops and restaurants and it is a pedestrian mall, so no worries about traffic!

 

Magdi recommended Pest-Buda, (Fortuna Utca 3) advertised as "Grandmas Kitchen with Love and Care"

 

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(a colorful, fun place for the "hens"; there was one for roosters too!)

 

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(menu- and clearly an example of one of Kathy's "bad" photos!)

 

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We tried a variety of dishes, sharing between us to sample several options. Of course the big hit was the goulash!

 

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Matyas Church Old Town Buda

 

This church has a fascinating history that mirrors the history of much of Budapest. Built in the mid 13th century, it had it's glory days when King Matyas was married there and celebrated Mass after his coronation. It was destroyed and converted to a mosque by the Ottoman Turks in the 15th and 16th centuries. In the 17th century it was rebuilt as a church in the baroque style, only to be damaged again in the middle of the 20th century by the German and Russian armies. Finally, more recently it has been restored and is a popular tourist attraction as well as a functioning parish!

 

(Matyas Church)

 

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(interior)

 

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(interior)

 

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(interior)

 

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You'll notice most Hungarian warriors are shown on horse back...they are legendary for their cavalry and skills on horse back. Its a tradition that is still appreciated today. The weekend we visited there was a huge horse race in the City Park in Pest!

 

(Statue of St Istvan in the square near the Fisherman's Bastion)

 

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After sitting for family photos on the Fisherman's Bastion overlooking the Parliament building and the Danube, we drove back to the Pest side via the Margaret Bridge, because I wanted to see where Margaret island was for a later visit. Once across the bridge in Pest, we were back on foot again to see the exterior of the Parliament Building. It was just about 3 PM, so we were able to witness this little production:

 

[YOUTUBE]eLJ5sEPFdSY[/YOUTUBE]

 

 

 

 

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While my SIL rested, Jeff, N and I walked with Magdi to the pest side of the Danube to see the Shoes on the Danube memorial to the Jews murdered on the Danube River during **** occupation. This is a very affecting memorial and it's clear it gets lots of visitors. I have a blog post about "A Monumental Day in Budapest" with more information and photos on our Go See It Travel blog

 

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Edited by Familygoboston

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Evening in Budapest

 

We walked a bit further on the Pest side into Liberty Square looking at some statues, buildings such as the Embassies and the Ronald Reagan statue. We returned K and N to their flat near St Istvan Square agreeing to meet Magdi there in the morning to tour St Stephen's Basilica and begin a 1/2 day walking tour of the Jewish Quarter, Andrassy Ut and Hero's Square and the City Park.

 

We also made plans to rest and freshen up at the Marriott and meet our relatives in St Stephen's Square for dinner at one of the many cafe restaurants and have dessert at Strudel House that Magdi pointed out to us during our walk.

 

(snacks and sunset at the executive lounge)

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A few hours later we met at St Stephen's Square for dinner at an Italian cafe called TG Piccolino (Alkotas Ut 53) It was our first chance to really catch up as family after a busy day touring with our guide and we enjoyed the wine and the food and the company!

 

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For dessert we tried to find the Strudel House again...there were 4 of us and a four way intersection where everyone in the group thought we should head in a different direction! (except yours truly- I never engage in surety about directions because I'm so bad at them!!) After trying and aborting a few options, after a lot of laughs, we finally wandered in the right direction, and found the Strudel House again! (1051 Budapest, Oktober 6.str.22.) This area is very lively and safe at night (with the usual precautions in any city) and we felt the prices were very reasonable compared to US or Western European cities. The food was excellent and we had no problem being monoglots, nearly all our waiters spoke plenty of English and menus were also printed in English.

 

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Even if you resist the strudel, you can enjoy the unique decor of this restaurant, with lots of old fashioned Hungarian kitchen items and an open kitchen where the strudel is made before your eyes!!

 

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(they have chocolate souffle)

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(and of course delicious strudel!!)

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Most "normal" people would call it a day... you may have noticed by now, that Jeff and I are not anywhere near normal on the spectrum! So we decided to ride the temporary Ferris wheel in Elizabeth Square during our walk back to our hotel!

 

Ferris wheel

 

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Particulars for tickets- you get three times around, there was a quite a queue most times we walked by during the day, but at that time of night, we had it nearly to oursleves!

 

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Jeff told me he wanted to ride because it was romantic

 

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but I think this tells another story :rolleyes:

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(St Stephens from the ferris wheel)

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