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.