We'd originally signed up for a guided group tour. But as it turned out, nobody else signed up for the week we did. So we chose the self-guided option. We were initially apprehensive since neither of us speak German or Hungarian. However, all the apprehension was unnecessary. The self-guided option was grand! We had the freedom to do what we wanted on our own timetable and the benefits of pre-planned hotels, routes, and luggage transfers. We could pick our own departure times each day, skip lunches when we weren't hungry, and take detours when the urge struck.
As for the language issues, it wasn't a problem very often. Both Austrians and Hungarians are quite accommodating to English speakers. Western Hungary tends toward German for its non-Hungarian default. The closer we got to Budapest, the more English there was to be found. The only times the language was truly an issue was when we were lost, and that only happened a couple of times.
I'm going to blog each day with photos and text, dated for the actual days of the trip. But here's the overview:
September 4: This was supposed to be our travel departure day: Burlington to Washington Dulles to Vienna. Instead we spent it all in BTV due to mechanical issues with the airplane. We were rerouted, but the flight never left BTV. We ended up sleeping at home and trying again the next day. Not fun.
September 5: Departure day! Our new route was Burlington to Chicago to Frankfurt to Vienna. All the connections worked and were on time. But it was a long and grueling travel day. Being on United instead of Austrian meant no free alcohol and really bad food.
September 6: Arrival in Vienna. Jet lag. Naps. Sightseeing.
September 7 and 8: Fun times in Vienna.
September 9: Vienna to Hainburg (51.4 km/32 miles) - beautiful cycling along the Danube in a nature preserve
September 10: Hainburg to Bratislava to Mosonmagyaróvár (60.4 km/ 37.7 miles) - sightseeing in Bratislava, long afternoon of cycling
September 11: Mosonmagyaróvár to Györ (44.4 km/27.8 miles) - Györ was very charming once we found our hotel!
September 12: Györ to Tata (76.25 km/47.6 miles) - lakeside dining
September 13: Tata to Esztergom (57 km/35.5 miles) - hills and chills
September 14: Esztergom to Szentendre to Budapest (83 km/53 miles) - long day cycling in the cold, wind, and rain; ferry boondoggle; arrival in Budapest without getting lost!
September 15 - 17: Budapest sightseeing and evenings with friends. Stamp museum! Wine festival!
September 18: Train to Vienna.
September 19: Homeward bound: Vienna to Washington Dulles to Burlington.
We'd been to Vienna before, and it was as delightful as the other trip. It's a city full of richness and diversions that cannot be seen in just a few days. We always leave wanting more time there, which is better than leaving feeling bored already. (Incidentally, the user pic for this post is of us from the first Vienna trip back in 2006.)
Budapest was a delight. It has a very Parisian feel to it: Urban, high energy, youthful, lots of interesting things going on. At the same time, it is also a bit run down, disorganized, and poor-feeling. That mix, for us, meant that there were lots of things to see and do, and none of it very expensive. The wine scene there is vibrant, varied, and mostly unavailable in US markets. We ran out of time before we could fully explore the museum and shopping options. And, yes, we left wanting more time there. Again, a good thing!
If you want to see every picture we took (minus the really bad ones), they're all here without any descriptions; but they are all in chronological order.
The flight to Frankfurt was on United. I cannot recommend United for trans-Atlantic flight. It's cramped in economy; the food sucks; they make you pay for alcoholic beverages. They accomplished the main goal: Getting us and our bags to Europe. But there's nothing else to recommend about it. The dinner food was inedible. The breakfast was a small bowl of unripe fruit pieces and a "croissant" that was really a wet smashed crescent roll.
We had made good use of the food vouchers: We had a big breakfast at the Skinny Pancake at BTV. Then Bruce found a place in ORD that had cheese plates to go, so he got one of those. Then we quickly wolfed down hot dogs wrapped in pretzel bread to use the last certificate. After the horrible meal on United, we happily devoured the cheese plate. I comfortably ignored the horrible airplane breakfast.
I've only been to Germany in airports. I need to remedy that some day. I also seem to only be in FRA in the wee hours of the morning, so that airport always has a surreal feel for me. Our return trips route through Munich mostly, so that airport seems less fuzzy to me. We found our last airplane and made it to Vienna nearly exactly on time.
We claimed our luggage, bought our Vienna cards (for three days of public transportation and museum discounts), and our discounted CAT tickets (for the train into town). The CAT is clean, fast, and comfortable. From there, we caught the subway and navigated the streets to our hotel fairly easily.
We were staying at the K&K Hotel Maria Theresia. We'd previously stayed at the K&K in Paris and dined at the K&K in Salzburg. The K&K hotels are all quite similar, so one does give up a bit of local flavor. But they are clean, comfortable, spacious rooms; great locations; excellent multilingual service; and have fantastic breakfasts. Our room had a balcony! I highly recommend any of the K&K Hotels. As an added bonus, when we let them know that our travel plans were delayed by one day, they didn't charge us for that night.
After we settled in, we went to Stephansplatz and walked around, reacquainting ourselves with the sights, sounds, and smells of Vienna.
We were hungry, but had to wait for things to open since it wasn't even noon yet. Then we had our traditional "first lunch in Vienna" (traditional in that we did it the time we were here once before) at Figlmüller. Pro tip: Order only one schnitzel for two people. Why didn't we remember this from the first trip? It's bigger than the plate!
After lunch we went back to the hotel and took a long nap, trying to feel human again. Then a hot shower and back to Stephensplatz for evening strolling and people-watching. We had drinks at Loos American Bar, where we sat outside and enjoyed soaking up the mix of locals and tourists. The bar itself is interesting architecture, every detail designed by Adolf Loos, but they don't welcome gawkers. Go have a drink!
We wandered around a bit more and were feeling jet-laggy, so we opted for another repeat for dinner: Zum Weissen Rauchfangkehrer (The White Chimney Sweep). We enjoyed our meal here the last trip and this one was also quite good. I thought it was mostly a tourist crowd, but later found out that it is quite popular with the locals, especially for lunch. It's definitely fine dining and not cheap, but definitely recommended. (It turned out that this was the most expensive meal of our trip!) We started with tasty soups: B had yellow paprika and I had a chilled cress one. B had braised pork cheeks that tasted very much like fresh ham. I had trout fillets with white beans and root puree. Both dishes had pumpkinseed oil garnish, which we remembered from last time.
We shared a cherry strudel for dessert and then navigated their rather large catalog of schnapps. We finally chose an unusual flavor that was "a kind of flower". Later on, I researched and found out it was Zirbe (Swiss Stone Pine). The schnapps was dry, aromatic, and a bit spicy. We wondered where we might buy a bottle to take home and they offered to sell us one of theirs! Since we had a long journey ahead of us, we figured we'd see if we still wanted it when we returned to Vienna at the end of our trip. (We ended up finding other interesting Hungarian things and didn't buy any Zirbe schnapps.)
We made it back to our hotel without any trouble and slept for hours and hours.
We did our usual routine to the airport: We drove over and dropped me and the luggage off. Bruce drove home and walked back over to the airport. That way we don't have to drag bags on the 1.25 miles but we also don't have to pay for parking or a taxi. I'm much better at waiting than Bruce is, so he usually gets the walking part. (When it's a shorter trip, we'll both just walk and carry our bags.) This system is probably the only real benefit to living so close to the airport.
Our original route was BTV to IAD (Dulles) on United, and then IAD to VIE (Vienna) on Austrian. That's about as direct as one can possibly get from BTV to VIE.
The plane was late coming in from IAD. It was very late. It didn't arrive until well after our IAD to Vienna flight departed. The BTV United people were trying to be helpful, but really, they mishandled a lot of things. First off, the woman at the gate didn't ever call for help or back-up. She spent huge amounts of time rescheduling people and made those with later connections miss theirs. Bruce ended up going down to the ticket counter and getting us a new plan, however it was based on the assumption that the BTV to IAD flight would eventually go.
We watched the plane come in, very late. We watched mechanics check it out. We watched our luggage sit by the plane and not get loaded. Then we watched the luggage truck drive away from the plane. That flight, the last one out of BTV by that time, was canceled.
We had to reschedule for the next day. And our original most-direct plan was all sold out. So we ended up with BTV to ORD (Chicago) to FRA (Frankfurt) to VIE, with only the FRA to VIE being on Austrian (more on why this matters in tomorrow's post). There was a district manager-in-training at the United counter who had helped Bruce with rescheduling earlier in the day, who was helpful and pleasant. However, on the whole, I can't say that United folks handled it very well. We could have been rescheduled quickly when the IAD flight was late and made a connection somewhere (Chicago and Newark flights all left while we were in waiting-mode). They also didn't offer much in the way of compensation except for the nice gent giving us lots of food vouchers.
So, while Bruce waited for finalized plans and our luggage, I walked home and got the car. We had no food in the house so we went to Guild & Co. for dinner. We didn't get to walk there because it was pouring rain by then. We gad a lovely evening; good food and the usual fun joking with the staff. And we got to sleep in our own bed.
I am glad that we didn't fly on an iffy plane; but, there were a lot of missed options that could have made it better. It was a long and frustrating Day 0.
It was a long day with lots of sitting, but all our flights were on time and relatively smooth. We had lunch in Chicago at the airport Chili's. Bleh.
Since we both had rolling suitcases, we just walked home from the airport. It was cloudy and chilly, upper 40's. We unpacked and caught up on things at home and managed not to adapt too much to the Eastern Time Zone. I ended up leaving my reading glasses (cheap ones) and glasses case (a good one) on the airplane.
All in all, it was a great trip! Vermont is much more spring-like compared to when we left, but it's still cold. Come on, spring!
We had fun! There are good views looking over the valley and the city of Palm Springs. It was a toasty 80º F, not too hot.
If you want to see all my pictures, they're here. It wasn't as pretty as the first time we hiked up there, but that year they'd had a "100-years rain" and the desert was blooming incredibly. (Which reminds me, that year we took a desert wildflower tour and we saw our guide from that outing hawking tours at the street fair. I guess he's still at it!)
After we got back to the hotel, we walked down to Fisherman's Market & Grill for oysters and fish tacos again (shrimp tacos for Bruce). We enjoyed some frozen yogurt before heading back for one more afternoon by the pool. Again I cowered in the shade and read (and napped a wee bit).
We showered for dinner and packed our bags to go home since our flight was so early the next morning.
Dinner was at Johannes Restaurant, Austrian cuisine. We'd eaten there a long time ago and were underwhelmed. We decided to give it another go. After we got settled at our table we looked over and saw two of the same gents from the group at Workshop Kitchen + Bar and Jake's! We had a good laugh together that we were all on the same schedule. They were going to be staying one more night and asked what they'd missed. We raved about Tinto and I hope they went and enjoyed it as much as we did.
Johannes was much as we remembered. The food was mixed, the service somewhat strange. I had all specials: Brussels sprouts salad with shrimp (excellent!) and roasted halibut (overcooked). Bruce had an endive salad and Wiener schnitzel (he said both were very good). The waitress poured our new wine into dirty glasses (not good). The apple strudel dessert was tasty but really small for the price.
We strolled back to the hotel, making our good-byes to the desert night.
We hung out at our hotel by the pool all morning. Bruce wanted to lounge, which is not his usual preference while on vacation. I enjoyed reading and watching the lizards that live in one of the trees on the property. There's a huge one and several smaller ones. And the birds! The mockingbirds are so busy fighting for the best singing spots and occasionally swooping in to eat a bug.
We had lunch at another favorite spot, Tyler's Burgers, which I think of as the quintessential SoCal burger spot. Very good, and very different from Woody's. We always get cheeseburgers, fries, and slaw. We enjoyed some hilarious people-watching here, including a table of four little old ladies who were VERY cheap. They were asking about the cost of everything and wanted separate checks (which Tyler's doesn't do). Their conversation was all about how the hot dog at Costco comes with a soda and the pizza doesn't. One woman emphatically exclaimed that she only made the mistake of ordering the pizza slice once. Now she would only get the hot dog because of the soda. "And it comes with one free refill!" I did so want to linger and watch them pay their check, but we were finished and there's always a queue.
We went back to our hotel to read and lounge. I cowered in the shade for much of the early afternoon and then basked in the pool.
Thursday nights they shut down a major chunk of Palm Canyon and have a street fair. It's every cliché about SoCal all rolled out into the street for everyone to see. It's great fun, but also very crowded.
After the fair, we went to another new-to-us spot, The Tropicale (note the website has awesome music, which might cause a party to break out at work, surf with caution!). How have we never been here before? The patio has gorgeous lighting, lush gardens, and a bustling crowd. The menu was crazy-huge and a total confusion of Cuban, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Polynesian, as well as American classics. Everything had a retro feel to it. It was "swanky" inside and out. Bruce had a crispy nori roll and then a Korean-style steak. I had shrimp and a shaved baby artichoke salad and then a Japanese miso-glazed salmon rice bowl. There was a huge amount of fish. For dessert, "mile high" chocolate cake. It was all very tasty and certainly worth another visit.
Today the resort had a large change-over of the guests and now the atmosphere is different. It's a younger, hipper crowd.
We had a fantastic lunch at one of our very favorite Palm Springs establishments, Fisherman's Market & Grill. It's an unusual spot to be in the desert; it looks more like something from Cape Cod or Northern California. Anyway, we almost always eat the same stuff here every time: raw oysters and fish tacos. It's an amusing set-up: You check in at a hostess desk and they tell you what table number you're assigned to. Then you go through a line and order, telling them your table number. Then you go on a quest to find your table in one of various rooms and breezeways. Today they were very generous with the wine!
The food is fresh and unpretentious and utterly delicious. And, of course, the best hot sauce for fish tacos is Cholula, or as I lovingly call it, Cthulhu Sauce.
We spent the early afternoon at a different gay resort that's out of town. It's traditional for us to do this on Wednesdays since that is their half-price day-pass day. I will not link to it since it's NSFW and I probably shouldn't admit to going there anyway. Heh. We spent the late afternoon back at our hotel lounging, swimming, reading, and chatting.
Dinner was at Tinto, a short walk away from town through well-groomed flower-laden neighborhoods. The walk to and from was fragrant! We had to laugh because we asked about walking there and everyone said, "No!" Bruce scoped it out on one of his morning runs and said it was totally walkable.
Tinto is a Basque style restaurant, again something of a surprise to find in the desert of SoCal. It was far and away the best dinner we had this vacation. I brought home a marked-up menu so I could tell all the things we ate. I wasn't very good at remembering to take pictures (I usually am not so good at that when dining out. A lot of the food pix on here I snagged from Bruce's phone and/or Facebook feed.)
To start, we had jamon serrano, idiazabal cheese, marcona almonds, and fried padron peppers. Here's the only photo, and a lot of it is already eaten!
Then we moved on to some pintxos (think "tapas"). We had a duck montadito that was duck confit "sausage" wrapped in serrano ham. We had tuna tartare bocadillo (big eye tuna, pickled guindilla, chorizo aioli). We had a plate of pulpo that was as good as any we had in Barcelona (Spanish octopus, harissa, grilled lemon, crispy garbanzo). The white asparagus with black truffle, poached egg, bacon, and Parmesan cream was delicious. Bruce picked out some tasty wines to go with everything. We dined slowly and ordered in waves and it was a lovely evening.
The end of the meal was buñuelos (donuts, date jam, spiced honey, date-olive oil ice cream) and after that we had some delicious dessert sherry.
I highly recommend a visit to Tinto if you're ever in Palm Springs.
Overnight I woke up once and didn't know where I was. I wasn't scared, just confused. I had been dreaming of things at home, so maybe I was getting ready for the inevitable "vacation is over" event.
We did some shopping while walking to lunch. We found Woody's Burgers on Indian Canyon and tried it for the first time ever. Wow! So good! We sat at the counter and had an awesome old-school SoCal burger experience. The fries were tasty, both regular and sweet potato and they had really good slaw. The crowd was an interesting mix of rough straight guys and gays.
It was very much not a day for the pool so we went up to the high desert to shop at the outlets. It was really gusty wind up there and thick cloud cover. The temperature when we left Palm Springs was up to 75º and at the outlets it was 59º. We were a bit chilly!
By the time we got back to the hotel, it was near 70º and getting much windier. We walked into town and had cocktails at The Falls, which has in years past been one of our favorite bar spots (and it's a good spot for dinner as well). There weren't too many people at the bar, but then again, there weren't very many people in town, so it's hard to tell if it's still popular.
Our dinner reservations were for Jake's which is uptown, near last night's dinner, and a bit of a walk. Well, the walk was miserable with the whipping gusty wind. They don't have much indoor seating, so we were in the courtyard. Everyone coped with the wind very well, diners and servers alike. It turned out our table was in a pretty sheltered spot compared to some of the tables. The awnings kept snapping and it was all rather dramatic! Bruce held it all together though! (His eyes do look a bit watery in this picture.)
It was a great dinner. Bruce had shrimp tempura and then crispy striped sea bass done in an Asian style. I went for comfort food: wedge salad, then meatloaf with a sirracha ketchup, macaroni and cheese, and asparagus. They make HUGE multiple-layer cakes and have several different kinds each day. We settled on sharing a delicious Meyer lemon cake.
The gents beside of us, it turns out, were some of the same crowd from dinner the night before. We chatted a bit about our dining experience and they shared our opinion of it. In fact, they had been quite concerned at how slow our service was. We said that since we had drinks, it wasn't as bad as if we'd been waiting without. They asked me to take a photo for them and I had a little bit of trouble with the camera. One of them said, "You've got to push harder."
I snappily replied, "I've heard that already on this trip!"
They all burst into laughter and I got some great pictures of them looking very happy.
We discussed taking a cab back to the hotel, but went walking to look for one. Even though the wind made the walk cold and miserable, every time we saw a cab, we were that much closer to the hotel, and we ended up walking the whole way back. There was virtually nobody outside at the hotel.
One of my favorite weather comments was certainly true of today: "The wind, it blows."
This morning the gent who had been talking about the Coachella stuff overheard us mentioning that we were from Vermont. He came over and started chatting with us. (He was quite the talker.) It turned out that he went to college in Middlebury and then he set up a recording studio and lived in Vergennes in the 1970's. He had a lot of stories to tell. I found it fascinating to encounter this bit of Vermont history by the pool in Palm Springs.
We decided to walk down to the place we like that's south on Palm Canyon, El Mirasol. We just sat down when we read about the Boston Marathon bombings on our phones. So we followed the stories as best we could while we ate our guacamole and chicken mole. This is a good reliable spot and has a crowd of local regulars. They make good margaritas as well. But we were somber about the events in Boston.
We walked back up toward the hotel and walked through the dry riverbed and on a rec path back to the hotel. The flowers in people's yards were incredible. Beautiful roses! Cacti! We also saw lots of birds, including a roadrunner running on the road!
We turned on the news when we got back and caught ourselves up on the Boston events. Then we hung out by the pool, reading and chatting. There were some guys there from Boston who added more personal information from contacts at home. It was a little cooler and I got a bit chilly sitting in the shade.
We walked to dinner, which was pretty far up Palm Canyon Drive, at Workshop Kitchen + Bar. It was quite the "LA scene" there. It was crowded and obviously trendy. Even though we had a reservation, we had to wait quite a while. While waiting, we saw The Edge (from U2) come in and they made him wait too, so it wasn't like we were singled out. The bar staff seemed good at mixology, but were disorganized. Service seemed random and slow. We finally got seated at the long communal table in the middle, which was fine by us. The wait staff was also slow and disorganized and seemed to struggle with how to serve people seated at the communal table. The food was uneven. We had an octopus carpaccio that had been cooked sou vide; really good. The braised veal cheeks on white chocolate potatoes wasn't cooked long enough; it was too fatty and tough. The potatoes were tasty, but had a gummy texture and a "corn" taste. An asparagus medallion salad with lobster was extremely tasty. The final main plate of scallops on squid ink rice was mixed. The rice was good and flavorful - inky! The scallops were overcooked and too salty. We opted for no dessert since we were afraid it wouldn't be any good.
There was a giant statue of Marilyn Monroe in town while we were there.
The long walk back to the hotel made me sleepy!
Bruce was highly motivated to run every morning. That gave me some time to wake up and prepare to face the breakfast repartee.
We spent the day walking through town, reacquainting ourselves with the lay of the land. A lot of things are exactly the same as our last visit in 2008. And a lot of the new things fit in perfectly. The big mall in the middle of town is deserted and apparently going to be remodeled; but it gives that stretch a "ghost-town" aspect.
We had a fantastic (giant) lunch at Rio Azul, making up right away for our cannot-get-good-Mexican-in-Vermont plight. This was definitely the best Mexican food we had on the trip. (Note to those using this blog as travel recommendations, this is Rio Azul on the south end of town by the parking garage, not Azul on the north end of town that is attached to the gay bar.) We had big margaritas, guacamole, salsa, and enchiladas. Of course this necessitated a siesta!
We spent the late afternoon by the pool, me mostly in the shade or in the water. This is the view from the pool:
Actually, if you look the other direction, you can see the mountains.
InnDulge also hosts an evening happy hour. That's a fun time to get to know the other guests and enjoy an adult beverage. The gay repartee is much easier to handle in the evening.
For dinner, we went to an old favorite, Wang's In The Desert, a consistently good pan-Asian restaurant. We had a dim sum plate, lettuce wraps, green beans, beef and asparagus. And of course, Wang's makes big cocktails, a necessity in the desert! We had a lovely evening out, and a pleasant walk back to the hotel.
We hung out in the hot tub for a while and listened to the guys telling stories about the events at the Coachella music festival over the weekend (it was the first of two weekends of the festival).
(A note on this userpic: It's us in the pool at a different resort in Palm Springs in 2006.)