Sunday, December 28, 2008

A Budapest Christmas

For the first time in my life, I spent Christmas apart from my parents. Although it was difficult to be working on the biggest family day of the year, I could imagine far worse situations to be in. I was fortunate enough to be with a terrific group of colleagues & friends and in the lovely city of Budapest no less!
There was a bit more leisure time this trip and I wisely spent it shopping! My friend Paddy was in need of some last minute presents so we spent the first night at the Westend City Centre mall. Nothing says holiday spirit like some frantic retail chaos… the Hungarians gave it their best, but I fear that nowhere else in the world is as materialistic around the holidays as Americans!
Our show opened Christmas Eve morning and much to our delight we found that the Christmas angels had worked hard through the night to bring us a decorated tree with not so good, but very traditional chocolate Christmas sweets on and under it (Hungarian tradition is that the kids go to sleep and awake to the tree from the angels in the morning).
The afternoon and evening were ours to enjoy so I walked to the Christmas market at Vörösmarty Square to have a look at the local crafts and foods. I was thoroughly impressed with the offerings, which were by far the best of any of the markets I had been to this season. My timing was unfortunate since everything was just about to close, but I had some time to enjoy the festivity and just as I arrived the flurries started, which really lifted my already holly-jolly spirits.
I spent Christmas Eve night with my work friends at the Marriott Hotel overlooking the Danube river and a beautiful view of Budapest castle. Of course nothing will ever compare to being home with loved ones on Christmas, but my Budapest Christmas wasn’t such a bad alternatives all things considered!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Prague, Czech Republic

Having the opportunity to visit this “gem of Eastern Europe” again was very exciting since my first trip was far too quick and long ago!
Almost as soon as I landed, I immediately remembered the funky, cool vibe I experienced during my first visit. This feeling can only be described as uniquely Czech…an old man horn band with giant flowers in their hats, an almost-comical looking nativity scene with oversized doll-like depiction of the holy family, or my personal favorite, the mechanical “Peeing Man” statues.
What I missed the first time around (because clearly my eyes were closed), was the overwhelming romanticism of this city. The gothic architecture blanketed in a mystical yet cozy fog with street car style trams and the Prague castle overlooking everything from the banks of the Vltava river gave an unmistakable feel of being right in the middle of a 1950s European spy movie.
Sadly work took up most of my time but I did have a chance to stroll along the Charles bridge and admire the dozens of incredible 18th century statues that line the sides. And although I’m still waiting for the payoff, I got in a good luck touch on the John of Nepomuk statue, the national saint of the Czech Republic who was thrown off that bridge for not revealing the queen’s confessions. Afterwards I walked over to have a look at the medieval astronomical clock, then on to the Old Town Square to check out, and by check out I mean eat my way around, the Christmas Market. Although there were many sweets to be had, the real treat of the market was the festive dancing we saw performed by some Czech teens in traditional costume.
My only complaint about this trip to Prague was that it was not long enough, but I will be back in the spring so I have a lot more exploring to look forward to!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Kosice, Slovakia

My first impression of Kosice was not very positive; the movie The Shining comes to mind when I think of how eerily quiet my hotel was both inside and out. I was immediately depressed thinking of spending the next three nights there, but
I willed myself to get a good nights sleep and give the place another shot in the morning. Things got off to a better start when I learned that I was actually just a short walk away from the centre and continued to improve when I actually started seeing how cute, quaint, and charming the city is. Although Kosice (pronounced Ko- Sheet- Say) is the second biggest city in Slovakia, the lack of major roadways, the gothic architecture, and general coziness of shops & restaurants – many in hidden alleyways and below street level in almost cave-like atmospheres – very much provided a village-type feel. I was especially excited to find a very festive Christmas market on the pedestrian road behind the Cathedral of St. Elizabeth (which might just be the first cathedral I've found named after a female saint!).
This Christmas Market had some local crafts, but was heavily focused on grilled meats, mulled-wine, and sweets. I was very tempted to try it all, especially the glu-wyn, but as I was on the clock I had to content myself with some puff-dough balls with powdered sugar and chocolate sauce instead.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

A Pennsylvania Thanksmas

Since I would not be coming home for Christmas this year, my family and I decided to use my Thanksgiving trip to create a hybrid holiday were we decorated the tree while watching the Macy’s parade, exchanged presents over our turkey dinners, and made yet another attempt at creating the perfect gingerbread house (third time really is a charm!) over pumpkin pie. It’s quite amazing how stress-free and enjoyable the holiday season can be when you have already bought and distributed your gifts a month before Christmas Day! All things considered, the first ever Suponcic Thanksmas turned out to be a great holiday, although it could have only been better if my brother was able to get home for it and – as is always the case – I had just a little more time to spend with family and friends.

Friday, November 21, 2008


I had been to Greece a few years ago on an island hopping vacation, but I was very excited to go back and finally visit the most famous tourist site in Athens that I had neglected to see on my first trip – the Acropolis, which I learned actually means “city on the edge.” For purposes of defense, ancient civilizations built the nucleus of their cities, the citadel, on higher ground hence the steep hike you have to take to see the iconic image everyone thinks of when you say “acropolis” -- the Parthenon, a temple to the Greek goddess Athena.
My hotel wasn’t too far and the weather was a very mild 65 degrees, so I walked there. On the way I saw many areas that I remembered exploring on my first visit, and I was immediately struck by how much slower the pace was without the tourist influx. The Acropolis complex was virtually empty by the time I got there so I was really able to take my time and look around at my leisure. On the way up to the Parthenon there are all sorts of ruins of old theaters, sculptures, cathedrals, etc. to look at, but of course none of that was anything compared to the temple itself. The view alone was magnificent but combined with the realization that I was standing in the same spot, and looking at the same structures, as ancient - as in 5 B.C. anciet - Grecians it was really something to behold.
This time around I felt I also got to see the true Athenian personality, and I have to say it wasn’t very welcoming! People were not as warm, friendly, or helpful as I remembered – everyone from the hotel staff to restaurant waiters had an air of no-nonsense abruptness about them. I guess the Athenian hospitality goes on hibernation for the winter.
The first night in town, we went out to fantastic Italian (go figure!) dinner with our local partners. Between wrapping up the day’s work and the horrendous Athens traffic it was already 10pm by the time we sat down to our meals. Apparently this was not uncommon for a regular Wednesday night because all throughout our meal people, some even with small children, were just being seated. Some were only getting their meals as we were enjoying our ouzo at midnight!
There is no doubt that Greece is definitely one of the more unique countries in Europe.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sinterklaas Day

Sinterklaas Day, or St. Nicholas Day, is a unqiue Dutch tradition. Sinterklaas is always dressed as the bishop he once was, but he isn't thought of religiously, instead as a kind, old man, whose feast day is observed by exchanging gifts and making good-natured fun of each other.
Sinterklaas lives in Spain and there spends most of the year recording the behavior of Dutch kids while his helper, Black called because of the chimney soot he gets on himself visiting homes...stocks up presents. In mid-November, "Sinterklaas season" kicks off when the patron saint of sailors, merchants, and of course, children, arrives to a harbor town in the Netherlands where he is greeted by the Mayor and all the townspeople and then he parades through the town on his white horse handing out gingerbread cookie treats to everyone.
In Amsterdam, Sinterklaas helpers -- the Black Piets -- repell from the walls of department stores!
Children leave carrots in their shoes for Sinterklaas's horse and when Black Piet visits, they get a small gift or some candy in exchange.
All gifts given on Sinterklaas Day must be wrapped in a creative way and have a poem for the recipient attached. The giver is supposed to remain anonymous as all presents technically come from Sinterklaas.
It's like an early Christmas Eve, as most people get out of work early and a big dinner is served with chocolate letters - the first initial of each person's name - marking their place setting.

Friday, November 14, 2008


All I knew of Malta is that it is an island in between Italy and Africa, so it was quite a pleasent surprise when I heard I would be working there. One of the first things I learned is that this used to be a British colony so there are several English influences, such as driving on the left side of the road and English is the second national language.
I was excited by all the ocean views as we drove from the airport to my hotel, but I was surprised that all the buildings were the same bland, beige color. It was obvious that I wasn't really visting at the best time of year, the only tourists there were no less than 70 years old and there were several dreary storms. It was nice and warm overall though, and I could see that when it's sunny it is a very pretty place although I wouldn't exactly call it tropical.
The first morning, I took one of the iconic 1950s-style, yellow buses for 50 cents from my hotel in St. Julians to the capital city of Valletta, approximately 30 minutes away. It was interesting to see all the cathedrals on the ride and once in Valletta, and of courses all the long hilly streets from which you can see all the way down to the harbor. There wasn't a lot of time to see things on this trip, but I did manage the Church of St. Paul's Shipwreck, which dates from the 16th century and celebrates St. Paul's AD60 shipwreck in Malta, which lead to the introduction of Christianity to the Maltese. Inside the church are bones from the saint's wrist, and the column on which he was said to have been beheaded in Rome.
That evening I walked down to the Spinola Bay inlet and had my first taste of a traditional Maltese dish, rabbi in garlic. It wasn't too bad, but I didn't really appreciate having to eat it with my hands as the waitress instructed but when in Malta...
On my way to the airport the next day I got a glimpse of the very interesting Malta countryside and the 3000 year old city of Mdina. I didn't have the time to explore this trip, but I will definitely when I come back in January!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Helsinki (Finland) & Tallinn (Estonia)

Kopervos, my friend in Milan, and I decided to take a weekend trip together, so we looked at the map of Europe and selected our next destination, Helsinki, Finland. I had been very eager to visit Scandinava so I was so excited to finally be going. It was only early November but we were disappointed not to see snow considering how far north, and close to Russia (even moreso than when I visited Latvia) we were, but we certainly had the same cold to experience!
Our first stop was the main shopping strip on Pohjoisesplanadi. Our first discovery was the country's oldest department store, Stockmann, which had ever Finnish souvenir imaginable! We got completely lost admiring all the porcelin and woodcrafts. On the way to Kauppatori, the market square, where vendors sold fish, produce, fruits, and handicrafts such as reindeer antler bottle openers and all sorts of winter accessories, wool gloves, ponchos, fur hats, etc., we saw the mermaid statue fountain, Manta, which we read is commonly regarded as the symbol of Helsinki.
After the market, we went to Senaatintori, the central square that is modeled after Russia's St. Petersburg, to see the Tuomiokirkko (photo above), Lutheran cathedral, and famous Helsinki meeting point of the steps in front.
It wasn't yet noon and the city didn't seem to be offering much more for us -- I get the impression that Christmastime and summer are the best to visit Finland -- so we decided to check into the ferry we had heard about that went over to Estonia. We were thrilled to find that we were just in time for the afternoon service so we bought our tickets and set sail across the Gulf of Finland.

2 hours later we deboarded in the charming city of Tallinn. We only visited old town and the whole time it very much felt like we were in a medieval village.
We strolled the quaint, cobble stone streets looking at all the tourist shops and outdoor vendor stalls. Kopervos was looking at the wool ponchos, but quickly realized they weren't the form fitting type she was hoping for. We made our way to the city wall for views that reached way down to the harbor, saw the Russian Orthodox Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, and found the Olde Hansa restaurant the authentic period restaurant serving such interesting foods as bear, elk, and wild boar sausages with sauerkraut, forest berry, and horse radish cottage cheese, with beautiful medieval style live music setting just the right mood in this cozy restaurant.
Sunday in Helsinki was all about shopping, we spent the morning at the Arabia porcelin factory outlet where I picked up a set of beautiful iittala tea cups and saucers. We went back to Stockmann to pick up some of the intricate handicrafts we had seen the day before.
All in all it was a great weekend spent exploring some great places with a really great friend!

Friday, October 31, 2008

Riga, Latvia

The Baltic countries weren’t a high priority for personal travels so I was very excited to learn I’d get to visit both Latvia and Lithuania for work this winter. To get the planning underway I visited the city of Riga in Latvia. After adjusting to the much colder climate, I noticed how modern, clean, and overall really nice the city seemed. I got in early evening so the first night was just an early dinner, where I tried a local dish of potato pancake, with our partner Juris. We talked about Latvia’s proximity to Russia and the various influences it brings, as well as those of Germany and Poland who also occupied Latvia at different points throughout history – all of which could be detected in Juris’s very unique accent. He explained that Latvians were very proud of their independence and such symbols of that freedom like their currency, the Lat. He went on to tell me that while each Baltic country has it’s own language; to communicate between they will often speak Russian, which was a requirement of all school curriculums for many years. Today children are taught English, another sign of the fall of the iron curtain.
The next day after our morning meeting, I had some time to explore the Old Town and some of the sights. The first stop on this exploration was a ceremonial changing of the guard by the Freedom Monument, where during the Soviet years it was a crime, punishable with deportation to Siberia, for people to leave flowers at the base. Today it’s littered with offerings, another symbol of the Latvian people’s triumph over oppression.
Afterwards I strolled around the cobbled stone streets enjoying the medieval architecture, and stopped at one of the many pastry and coffee nooks throughout the city for a warm up. Once suitably refreshed with some honeyed pastry and cappuccino, I went by the street vendors selling amber jewelry, a gem the country has been well known for across Europe since the 12th century. I then ventured past the House of Black Magic, or House of Rigas Black Balsams, a potent local liquor, to my final destination, the shopping mall! Happy to report that during my retail therapy session, I acquired a pair of fur lined black leather boots that should keep my treasured feet nice and toasty all winter long. I contemplated crashing the fashion week party in my hotel’s bar as my last bit of fun in the Baltic's, but opted for an early bedtime instead due to lack of appropriate wardrobe…despite the brand new boots in my happy possession, that is!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Brugge – a chocolate covered, medieval city

It wasn’t until I moved to Amsterdam and the Colin Farrell movie came out that I had heard of Brugge (in Belgium). From what I gathered it is a romantic, medieval gem so I was very eager to make a weekend trek to see it for myself. Happily my teacher friends, being of likeminded interests in travel and new experiences, were also just as excited to go so off we went at the first available opportunity.
Although the crowded, rush hour train out of Amsterdam made for a bit of a frazzled start, the rest of the weekend went beautifully. Arriving just before 9pm, we meandered through the cobbled stone streets, while taking in the impeccably preserved medieval buildings and salivating over the chocolate store window displays on the way to our hotel. After dropping our stuff we headed out to a local restaurant, picked for it’s late hours and lax reservation policy. It quickly became clear that we had stumbled into Brugge’s best kept dining secrets. The owners, Jeron and Jo couldn’t have been any friendlier or attentive to us, and the food was phenomenal! We ordered oysters for a starter, which came right out of the tank before our very eyes, and our new friends also gave us complimentary cold meats to begin our meal. After hearing about the house specialty -- pepper steak from the very finest Frisian cows, 90% of which would be prepared tableside -- we were all sold. To conclude our lovely meal we had a sampler platter of various super sweet and highly caffeinated chocolates and bite sized desserts. I didn’t get much sleep that first night but it was truly all worth it!
The next morning we made our way towards the main city centers, the Markt and Burg squares, stopping only to gawk at the endless chocolate displays and to feed ourselves some coffee & Belgian waffles!
We worked off our breakfast by climbing the 366 steps of the 289’ tall Belfort where we were rewarded with stunning city views and a front row seat to the inner workings of the regularly chiming carillon. Our next stop was the Basilica of the Holy Blood, which gained its name from the relic it houses – a vial containing Christ’s blood that was brought to Belgium after the Crusades between 1150 and 1200. Unfortunately no photos were allowed, but I was able to lay my hands on the plexi-glass protective covering over the vial and say a little prayer for all my loved ones.
Having had our fill of the sites we decided to stop for lunch and enjoy some of Belgium’s other culinary triumphs – fries & beer! I ordered the Kwak Amber Ale that came served in a wooden frame while my friends went for some Belgium blondes and fruitier beers.
After lunch we continued our stroll by the very clean and wide canals, so much different than Amsterdam or Venice, and eventually made our way to Spegelaere Chocolaterie where we purchased lots of gifts and a nice sampling for ourselves. We enjoyed our snack at a very local bar/café with coffee and a strictly 50+ clientele. Off the main bar there was an open room where a room who very much resembled my mother stood ironing while just outside her window men relieved themselves in the urinals that were positioned just out front of the ladies room.
En route to dinner we stopped into a few pubs boasting menus of 400+ beers to sample more local brews, one named for the original “king of beer” – Cambrinus, a legendary king to whom people have accredited the invention of beer.
The highlights of Sunday included another amazing Belgian waffle for breakfast – chocolate & banana this time, mm mm good!, more chocolate shopping, and a giant vending machine in the Brussels train station where I bought a whole bottle of wine for 3 EUR!
Unfortunately our trip ended with the same annoying train frustrations as it began but Brugge being such an amazing, relaxing, and interesting place was definitely well worth the hassle!

Thursday, October 2, 2008

A Beatles and Beer Bike Birthday

Who would have guessed that turning 30 would be so much FUN?? My actual bday was pretty low key, started out with a pedicure Liverpool, England (where the first ever boy—band, The Beatles got their start) and ended with a lovely Thai dinner with friends in Amsterdam.
The celebration, however, was held on Saturday, and party we did in true Amsterdam style…drinking beer and riding a giant 19-person bike all over the city. To my delight the weather turned out amazing, more than one person said it was the nicest day of the year – a sign that my 30s will be very kind to me, I hope!
My good friend and adopted brother, Steven, was rightly selected to play the role of bartender, which meant no pedaling for him (got to love that Armstrong luck) but lots of excellent “karaoke” entertainment and attentive beverage service for the rest of us.
Straight off the bat we had 2 random British tourists jump on board -- good thing too because moving that monster was no easy feat so we needed all the pedal power we could get. Twenty minutes in we requested our first break, which is when I realized there was absolutely no way I could survive the day in my very new, very cute, but very, very, very HOT sweater so Heather & I ran off to the closest tourist shop and bought the funniest t-shirt I could find --- “Amsterdam, a weed smoker’s paradise” (don’t worry Mom, it was just for laughs!!).
Also during this pit stop we encountered the other beer bike, a group of Brits on a bachelor party weekend that set off when we did. We very much enjoyed “racing” them throughout the day, especially during the multiple occasions when they had to get off and push their bike over the canals.
At our second break we lost my boss Gerry and his wife Christina who had another party to get to, but we gained 4 Swiss tourists who only spoke French. They were good fun despite the one guys refusal to pedal because of a bad knee (to which I had to explain there were no free rides & beer on this bike, buddy) and the other guy’s scary obsession with Michael Jackson or “ze King of POP,” has he enthusiastically shouted out mid-ride.
At our third and final stop Jim finally started pedaling, Steven finally succeeded in luring some fresh faced, innocent Aussie tourists on board, and the group finally started to sing along with the DJ Super Toto playlist. The most classic moment of the day was just after we got back into motion; Steven solicited a hippy lady riding behind us for a beer, which she accepted without so much as even a pause in riding during the hand off.
I really couldn’t have asked for a better day, the weather was fantastic, the company – both known and random -- a lot of good fun, and the incredulous stares/laughs of the pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists, that had the bad fortune of being stuck in a traffic jam behind us, the biggest reward of all.
There is no doubt this was one of the most memorable and unique birthdays I have ever had – what on earth am I going to do for 31?
Please enjoy this short, but exceptionally entertaining video from inside the bike!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Labor Day in the South of Spain

Having heard so many good things about the Andalucia region (South of Spain), Jim & I decided to have ourselves a tourist weekend before heading on to our regional partner meetings.
Our arrival was non-eventful except that our luggage didn’t land with us. Being the experienced travelers we are, we took this snag in stride and headed off to check out the city. We knew about the afternoon “siesta” but had no idea just how serious it was! Seville was a ghost town at 4pm, all the shops were closed up and all the streets basically deserted. Thankfully our hotel was still functioning so we were able to get in our rooms and freshen up, before heading back out into the quiet streets to wait for the city to wake up again.
We walked to bar Gran Tino in the Plaza de la Alfalfa and although it didn’t have the interesting range of refreshments or great people watching that our guidebook promised, it did have sangria, which was all we really needed after a travel day with lost bags.
After the sangria had worked it’s magic we walked on to El Rinconcillo, the city’s oldest taberna (bar) and the place that invented the tapa. Since dinner time – 10pm in Spain – was still a long ways off we ordered some tapas of manchego cheese, chorizo sausage, and jamón (regional ham) that was sliced from the dried legs of meat hanging from the ceiling. Not the prettiest site, but it sure was tasty!
We had a dinner of seafood paella & delicious red wine just in front of La Giralda, a grand tower building in the late 1100s that is known as the symbol of Seville.
The next day we were still luggage-less so we went on a morning shopping spree for bad tourist outfits and toothpaste! We ran into our boss, Gerry and his wife, Christina, who were also taking advantage of some site-seeing opportunity before our meetings, and made a plan to meet up for dinner. The rest of the evening was pretty low key, Jim was extremely disappointed that no bull fights were going on, but I managed to persuade him that a flamenco show the next night would be just the right alternative.
Our third day in Seville, we finally made it to the major sites, and in our own clothes. The Real Alcazar, a beautiful, Moorish style (there are lots of Arabic influences in the region since South of Spain is so close to Morocco) palace, was our first stop and it did not disappoint. The architecture and detailed carvings throughout were just amazing. We went on to check out the Cathedral, the biggest highlight was getting to see Christopher Columbus’s magnificent crypt.
We had our fill of Seville after 3 days, so we decided to take a road trip to Granada to see the famed Alhambra, a huge complex of the best-preserved medieval palaces in the world and the most popular tourist attraction in Spain. We had no problems driving ourselves there but once in the city it was a little shaky. Stopped at a red light, we were hailed down by a uniformed man on a motorcycle, thinking it was the police we immediately tensed but all was well when we realized this guy was actually a Tourist Guide coming to help us. How he knew we were from out of town is a mystery!
After we had settled into the hotel we took off on foot to see for ourselves what the big fuss was about with the Alhambra. It’s too bad we didn’t realize there was a bus and instead took the mile hike up a mountainside, but once we got there it was absolutely incredible. It was like the Real Alcazar x10 and with some phenomenally beautiful and tranquil gardens with unbelievable views of the Sierra Nevada region.
The final day of our site seeing we took a morning walk to the Sacromonte Gypsy Caves that we had read about. We were so disappointed that we didn’t have the energy to go to them the night before, because it was clear that some very authentic nightlife (flamenco, singing, fiestas, etc.) goes on here. Although eerily quiet in the morning, it still presented some awesome views of the Alhambra.
Our drive to our meetings took us down the southern coast of the Spanish Mediterranean and offered even more breathtaking views of the mountains, ocean, Spanish villages, etc. We were very lucky to find a beach club restaurant right on the water to have our lunch, it provided just the right amount of relaxation before going back to work mode just a few hours later!