Croatia

September 30, 2007 at 6:58 pm | Posted in Croatia | 1 Comment

August 26 – September 8 14 days.

The six hour train ride to Zagreb from Budapest turned out to be easy. We sat in a six seat compartment with two other adults so Peter and I were a bit worried about how we would be able to keep the boys calm and engaged in such small quarters, however, some snacks, homework, ipods and some conversation about the passing scenery helped pass the time. We arrived in Zagreb at the train station and this was our first time having to figure out where we were going to sleep. We called a few places listed in our guidebook and, surprisingly, they were booked or expensive. We didn’t want to stay outside of the center because we were only staying one night and wanted to walk to all of the nearby sites. We settled on a Sheraton. It was luxury compared to the prior two places. We didn’t feel we had earned luxury yet, but, we indulged anyway. We gathered up our packs and walked the 5 blocks to the hotel. Zagreb has a tourist center and we were pleasantly surprised on how European it was and appealing. We strolled up a pedestrian street and had a fantastic meal recommended in a guidebook.

We rented a car and headed north to a scenic town recommended in our guidebook. We easily took to the highway and followed the winding roads to Kumrovec. There was a open air museum of village life in the early days complete with thatched roof home, vibrant gardens and farms. The villages were reminiscent of Tuscany with clustered houses surrounding a main church on the crest of the hill and cascades of olives and grapes linking one town to another. Street signs were scant but we made our way through across the region taking it all in. The hills were so serpentine that we needed to stop and relieve a bout of car sickness with some fresh air beneath the trees while picnicking on grapes, apricots, yogurt and popcorn from a local market.

While the boys slept, we hauled down the highway towards the region of Istria. With no place to stay, we pulled in around 6:00pm and went to the Tourist Information Office which specialized in apartments. Within 5 minutes, we had an apartment, dropped off our bags and after some sign language with the owner, we made our way to a promenade that followed the coastline towards the resort town of Opatija. We had a lovely dinner while listening to a Croatian jazz quartet singing american tunes. The color of the water and the dusk sky were merged and enveloped the restaurant. We walked about a mile home along the same promenade. We hung our laundry outside one of the festoons of clotheslines that decorate all of the towns but suffocated a bit indoors as it was not until a few days later that we learned that the strange looking rectangle near the ceiling was an air conditioner and it wasn’t until a few days after that we realized that you don’t turn it on by trying to reach the buttons with a broom handle. All air conditioners are controlled with a come with a remote in your room.Istria turned out to be wonderful. We left our first apartment the next day and headed down the coast towards Pula at the southern tip of the penninsula. Pula had fantastic examples of roman ruins including a nearly intact amphitheater. The boys were fascinated by tales of gladiators unlucky criminals and explanations as to why a life sentence in jail is much nicer than having to face the lions. After exploring the medieval streets, we headed to lovely Rovinj – Laura’s favorite.

After stopping by a bat cave and a lonely church who’s claim to fame was that it contained six mummified christians (we serve the needs of all passengers), we arrived in Rovijn. Our route was dictated by what sounded nice in the guidebooks but the guidebooks never really prepare you for how lovely someplace is in real life. Unfortunately, everyone else thought so, too, and it was hard to find a place. This time we could not find the the tourist office but, we got lucky by being persistant with someone with some knowledge who took pity on us (Laura always brought one of the boys when asking for hotel availability) and found a hotel within walking distince to the town. The town kept unfolding as turned every corner until it opened up to a stunning harbor with cafes, umbrellas, lights, music, stars, strolling couples, bicycles, boats and food cooking. Overlooking the harbor was the belltower and church and the medieval town bathed in moonlight. We couldn’t believe that this part of the world was not more known to us before now but it was certainly known to a variety of European vacationers because the place was bustling – in a good and lively way. We felt like we had just crashed a private party and we felt very welcomed. The next two days we explored the hilltowns on our way to Plitvice National Park. It took most of the day to drive there so the ipods came in handy and we stopped to write our postcards and do schoolwork at a local village. There are three major hotels in the park and we must have got the last room because we paid for it! But, it was a big room with a lovely room and the boys were excited to have so much space to move all of the furniture around and create a fort and a restaurant before bedtime. The next morning we headed out for a 5 mile hike along the aquamarine-colored lakes that gradually cascade down a staircase of rock creating hundreds of waterfalls. You walk along boardwalks the whole way with your mouth agape at the beauty of it all. We took a truck to the highest end (we got to sit in the cab with the truck driver) and walked all day. There were lots of people but most were doing an abbreviated walk. We couldn’t believe how may folks were in heels “hiking” the boardwalks. The Europeans always look good. We were sure we were the only Americans for 300 miles around because we hadn’t run into any yet in Croatia.The boys found walking sticks at the beginning of the hike and they ended up keeping the walking sticks from August 31 until September 21. These sticks went in taxis, buses, hotels, restaurants, and ferries. The went from Croatia, through Greece and Turkey. They were practically like pets to us towards the end when we couldn’t take them on the plane. There were tears everywhere and it was too late to check them since our plane was already boarding when they were confiscated at the x-ray machine. We told the boys that they will go back into the earth and will probably reappear within something else they find along their adventure (Oliver is convinced that a wooden top he bought in Turkey is made from his walking stick, so everyone is happy again).

We visited Trogir, Split and the islands of Hvar and Korcula then onto famous Dubrovnik over the next week. We ended up spending 14 days in Croatia because we loved it and we had our own wheels for most of the time and were wanting to explore every nook and cranny. We dropped the car in Split and took ferries to the islands. Trogir and Split were focused on the castles and walled palaces while Hvar and Korcula were about being laid back and sitting at cafes most of the day, mailing packages, swimming, and this is where we got some good internet cafe time. It was in Korcula that we met up with some folks from an english-speaking country for the first time since we left. We chatted with them until we got our fill while the boys turned the deck furniture into a fort and took turns balancing ashtrays on the empty umbrella stand (they still haven’t touched their toys).

In Croatia, and other places, when you arrive somewhere (port, train station, bus station), folks are clambering at the end of the gangplank waving signs advertising rooms – “cheap”, “pretty”, “water views”, “close to town”, “free shuttle”. In Dubrovnik we decided to give it a whirl (prior to this we called places in our book or booked through an agency). This 70 year old woman was tenacious enough to gain my attention and showed me pictures of her place. We followed her for about 5 blocks (she spoke some english) and we kept asking “Is it close yet”, “Is it private?” (she didn’t understand the word private), “4 beds, right?”, “300 kuna, right”. We finally got to the apartment which was homely but clean (sort of) and decorated as typical Croatian city dwellers decorate. We said, “O.K” (who’s going to walk back to the port now with all of our packs) and then a young couple come walking out of one of the bedrooms (it was a 3 bedroom). We said, “Who are you?” He said, “We are renting one of the bedrooms.” Interesting that she didn’t understand the word private. In the end, they were a nice couple and they were leaving in the morning. We never even saw them after that and each bedroom had a lock. We used the suprise to negotiate a better deal and learned going forward that you must learn these words when you get to a country: Hello, Thank you and Private. The place was cheap and the boys had fun playing with the salad spinner in the sink in the kitchenette and they used other kitchen utensils to whip us up some bottlecap soup with fresh bottlecaps collected along our trails which had been safely stored in their pockets. Yum.

Everything about Croatia was satisfying to all of us: the coastal towns, the hiking, the white limestone coast set against the blue Adriatic, the bat caves, the mummies, the ferries, the wine, the castles, the pizza and the cobblestone pathways and the natural beauty. We were all truly sad to leave and we highly recommend Croatia as a family destination. The boys were most impacted by the roman ruins of Pula and Plitvice National Park. The walled city of Dubrovnik would impress anyone despite the crowds. They were also impressed by all of the fruit that grows in people’s backyards that we would buy at the fruit store in Marblehead including kiwi, pomegranates, limes and figs.

We booked our ferry tickets to get to Greece and left Dubrovnik after lunch to begin our next adventure.

(click photo for slideshow)

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Budapest

September 23, 2007 at 5:47 pm | Posted in Hungary | Leave a comment

Budapest August 22-26

We left Paris after three days and flew to our next destination, Budapest, Hungary. We headed to the airport for our second of twenty planned flights. This flight was with Malev, a Hungarian company and one of the airlines within the Oneworld alliance that we were flying with. A two hour flight got us in right after lunch. Paris and Budapest were the only places we had booked lodging in in advance online before leaving Marblehead so our taxi whisked us straight to the Radio Inn (strange name). We picked the Radio Inn because it was able to accommodate 4 people at a reasonable price. Still, small name lodging usually doesn’t have a lot written about it online so it is always a surprise, of sorts, to see what we end up with. After driving past drab streets, billboards and communist-era rectangular bland buildings, we had turned onto a beautiful tree-lined boulevard which was an oasis in the middle of the city.

Our Hungarian apartment was clean, sparse but quite functional and roomy – a normal-sized 2 bedroom apartment that you would live in. It was not someplace we would book for a vacation but this was a gentle reminder that we were not on vacation and that cleanliness and function were priorities, not decor nor amenities. We soon discovered the best amenity was that it included a wash basin and a drying rack! We could do all of our laundry in two loads rather than 3 garments at a time in a bathroom sink. What luxury! Laura was happy.

One of Budapest’s main attractions is its lovely waterfront. We headed out to navigate the subway system to go the five stops to the river. Each subway station in Budapest has two people on duty that just stand there and make sure you are stamping your ticket and to offer assistance. After some serious sign language, we finally understood that for the subways in Budapest, you purchase your ticket and then time-stamp it in a machine. You can ride with that ticket for 30 minutes. They don’t check the times on your ticket when you get on the subway but there is a hefty fine if you get caught. The most remarkable thing about the subways was that each station was gleaming. Peter felt like they were straight out of Disneyworld. The box office was made of lovely pine and there were other pine cupboards and racks around the small stations. The walls were all tile with elaboarate tiles for station names and the top of each support column had ornate scrolling. You could eat off of the floor.

The stop we got off had a playground right there and the boys made a beeline for it. Not as elaborate as Paris playgrounds but they found it exciting none-the-less. We made our way to the waterfront and learned some lessons along the way like not to buy your deoderant in a pharmacy because you will pay $12.00 for it – you must buy it in a supermarket for $1.50. A liter of water at the waterfront was $3.00 yet it was .75 at the market near our hotel. Always shop at the market.

At the waterfront, there were stationary restaurant boats that afforded a great view of the famous Budapest scenery – palace on the hill, Chain Bridge across the river and the cafes lining the promenade. Dinner was Hungarian Goulash and Wiener Schnitzel. Wine was cheap (cheaper than the water) and good. The sun set as we ate and the scene became illuminated for 360 degrees around.

Day 2

We needed to hunt down some breakfast. We found a kiosk with pastries and, again using sign language, tried to find a pastry without anything strange in it for the boys. Try saying “jelly” in sign language! We ended up with plain. Oliver took a bite and said, “This tastes like, like….nothing.” It did. Oh well, it wasn’t Paris but still an adventure. We made our way to the post office (Posta) to mail some postcards and homemade birthday cards (we brought colored pencils and construction paper) and headed to the hilltop palaces. We were not always able to catch up on any history of the area. You would think we would have so much time on buses, planes, and hotels to read but we do not. The boys rarely sit still and when they are not imitating the lastest unusual sounds, they are asking questions like, “Do mosquitoes have bones?” or “If there was a spiral staircase up to the sun, would you get very dizzy going up?” or “When there is a battle, do the bad guys want to die?” These answers take a lot of time to contemplate and beyond that, we are usually navigating the map or guides or perfecting our sign-language. By the time we hit the sheets, we are exhausted. We wake up and do it all again.

(click photo for slideshow)

So we toured the palace and hilltop churches not completely knowing who lived in the palace and what important things happened at the site and how many churches existed before the present one and what important things St. Stephen did for Budapest but it all looked nice and it was a lovely hot day. The boys learned that people find things underground and display them in museums and that old things are very important to understand how life was long ago. They eagerly looked at the faces of all of the statues on display to see who looked nice and who looked mean and called us over in a frenzy whenever they found a statue of a child. We guessed at what some of the old iron tools were used for and while we consulted our guide for the next exhibit, the boys chased a beetle on the floor. We learned that Budapest had been oppressed for a long time and was still a bit sullen as a result but they have recovered well and have a lovely city. It was all good.

The boys explored an archeological site and bought a keychain and while Mom and Dad rested on the pews of the church, the boys looked for lost coins under them. Because we are always in churches, the boys are getting quite an education on religion. They ask a lot of why Jesus is on the cross and if he was in pain and why no one tried to help him down. They want to know who put him on the cross and why and whether the people that put him on the cross really wanted to do that. They want to know what the Roman king believed and what Jesus believed and why they were not the same. Since we forgot our pocket guide to answer all questions on all subjects, we were trying to remember enough details to explain these delicate subjects. What is telling though, is that by immersing yourselves into places repeatedly like churches, museums, internet cafes (not so often), hotels and restaurants they rise to the occasion and ask questions and look for similarities in other places. They may be playing hide and seek behind the columns, but they are taking it all in through osmosis.

Sometimes their interest takes different forms. Now reading menus at restaurants is a race to see who can discipher the language and find Wiener Schnitzel (which as been scrambled a bit by Henry and Oliver and they ask the waiter for Wiener Snitchel – it is so funny!) and we have to keep track at hotels on who got to press the elevator button the last time and whoever didn’t gets to unlock the door with the room key. They want to make sure each gets a subway ticket to timestamp in the machine and want to know if the other one got to keep a coin as change from the market.

At breakfast, lunch and dinner, the boys do their schoolwork. Mom has each subject spreadout on the Blackberry calendar so that all subjects get covered during the week. We do not do work on Sundays. So since meals take at least 1.5 hours for lunch and dinner, there is plenty of time to get some work in while waiting for our meal.

Day 3

We went to lovely Margaret Island which is an island in the middle of the river. It is a “central park” for Budapest. We found an internet cafe along the way with wifi but it took Laura 20 minutes to upload about 20 pictures and it was unreliable. Frustrating. On Margaret Island you can rent a surrey bike (4 wheels) and pedal around. It seemed like a very touristy thing to do but we did it anyway because it was far to get around and see it all. Within the middle were grand spa pools. We could only surmise that landlocked Hungary made up for its distance from the sea by creating these elaborate pools. Later we indulged. You put your things in a locker but you don’t get a key. A burly Hungarian woman gives you a code that is written on a blackboard inside of the locker. You take the code with you. So, when you return to locker 450 later, you have to make sure your code matches that on the inside to be sure it is really yours. Leaving our few worldly possessions (laptop, blackberry, passports) in a locker without a key was a bit unsettling but the pools were that enticing. Picture 3 football fields length of 8 different pools with varying fountains to swim under and around. The fountains gave the atmosphere a palatial feel rather than a waterpark.

The last day we wandered around the parks taking our time to let the boys run, jump and have no place to be. We’ve been trying to take it slow and just soak in the atmosphere rather than getting to all of the sights. One more look at the waterfront and one more gelato and we headed for the train station the next morning for Zagreb, Croatia.

Paris

September 18, 2007 at 1:07 pm | Posted in France | 4 Comments

We made it to Paris unscathed and with all of our possessions at 7:30 the next morning. Boys slept on the plane and we were happy that our full backpacks fit comfortably in the overhead compartments. We strolled off the plane to the train station. We had been to Paris before and it was a good thing because the first few days were quite clumsy and we were relieved we didn’t also have to cope with unfamiliar territory. The Paris hotel was one of two hotels that we booked before departure and it was beneficial to stay put for a few nights without having to pack back up again. We needed to get used to where all of our things were within our packs and stuff sacks. Getting out in the morning and getting changed at night took forever. Laura was reeling from the shock of leaving behind some forgotten items. Keeping our liquids separated and remembering what gadgets needed recharging became our new priorities.

Luxembourg Gardens was where we wanted to spend the most time while in Paris and we secured a hotel nearby in Montparnasse. It is a bit tricky finding a room for four. Europe traditionally does not have many rooms with two doubles like in the States. We were lucky to land a cheap (by Paris standards) hotel with a double and a bunk. Last time we visited, we had to reserve two rooms each with two singles. We stayed in a local neighborhood with few tourists and started to live the Parisian lifestyle by going straight to our favorite creperie. Chocolate crepes for the boys and ham and cheese with extra pepper for Mom and Dad. We spent the drizzly morning in Luxembourg Gardens where the children’s activities are quintessential parisian. Unique playground activities, a carousel complete with sticks for snagging the brass rings, pony rides, hot chocolate vendors, and using wooden poles to steer the antique miniture sailboats across the duck pond. We returned later in the day for the daily 4:00 marionnette show – english not required to enjoy the antics performed on stage. Mom snoozed in the back due to jetlag.

When we would finally drag ourselves out of bed and out the door at 11:00am (another jetlag symptom), we walked for miles each day and into the late night since Paris is just as beautiful at night as the day (and we were wide awake). Day 1 we walked to Notre Dame, lit candles and studied the stories told in the stained glass, Day 2 we walked to Notre Dame again, past the Louvre and the Tuilerie gardens where we came upon a small carnival complete with ferris wheel about 8 stories high with endless views in all directions from the top. We continued walking into the night to the illuminated Eiffel Tower which sparkled with strobe lights each hour. Day 3 we walked through the Latin Quarter and the right bank. We didn’t rush to visit museums or stand on long lines to go to the top of the tower – we just wanted to stroll and ease into our new lifestyle. However, it didn’t seem like a new lifestyle, it seemed like we were simply on vacation and we indulged as if it were. We rarely bypassed the carousel seemingly on every block and gelato or hot chocolate sold on every corner. Our thoughts by the end of three days, “This was going to be easy. La! La! La!”

(click picture for slideshow)

Departure

September 16, 2007 at 2:47 pm | Posted in Marblehead | Leave a comment

On Saturday, August 18 at 3:00, the shuttle-van came to pick us up on schedule. Unfortunately, we were behind schedule. We had some cushion and had to ask him to come back in 30 minutes. The morning was a whirlwind of running around attempting to finish the 1000 things we wanted to finish but, alas, we had to leave some things behind or not be as prepared with some things as much as we wanted. Laura hadn’t fully learned how to use the laptop nor the Blackberry. Laura hadn’t transferred all of our important information into electronic form so she had to take a stack of papers with us. We didn’t finish getting our blog up and running. We hadn’t finished packing our house. However, we had everything we needed to leave and hopefully could figure things out along the way.

The children had been excited for weeks. We told them about our plans right before school ended so that they could share their thoughts with their friends and get encouragement from their teachers so they would further understand that the trip was something positive and special. With the help of books, maps, movies, discussion and a existing passion for adventure, the children were dying to go. Henry had been in tears several times yearning for the departure date (and chocolate crepes). The boys had been building pyramids with their legos and packing rope to climb Mt. Everest!

They knew they wouldn’t be able to have traditional birthdays so we planned a “Summertime Party” at the beach for all of their friends and having that to look forward to throughout the summer took the sting out of birthdays in a foreign land. The party was a great success and we look forward to birthday baklava for Oliver and a dip in the Ganges for Henry’s 7th!

We had already started our transformation a week ahead of leaving by living with much less than we were used to. Our closet contained only a few days worth of clothes, the toys and books were packed away and we were eating whatever was left in the pantry.Our neighbors were outside bidding us fairwell and after some departing photos, we jumped into the van and waved goodbye. It was then Laura realized she left the laptop and a camera bag on the lawn in the midst of the excitement. We stopped the van and collected our stuff and thought, “We’re doomed!” All we could do is move forward and hope for the best.

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