Melk, a small town with big charm.

Melk is a small town in the Wachau Valley of Austria, located on the Danube river. It is a popular stop with river cruises due to the Benedictine Abbey located there.   The population isn’t much over 5,000 people but what it lacks in size it makes up for in character.  The first thing you will notice once you leave the lovely forested banks of the Danube is the imposing Melk Abbey, perched above the town and dominating the landscape.  Your river cruise will bus you up to the abbey to begin with and from there you can have a leisurely stroll down to the old town which is small, neat and full of charm.  When it is time to head back to the ship, it is a short walk from the old town and  over a bridge with beautiful views of the Abbey,  from there a short scenic stroll back to the dock.

We visited Melk for the second time on our last river cruise, we opted to just spend our time in town because we had already visited the Abbey on the previous trip.  We were told not to expect much to do because it was a Sunday and a holiday, but sometimes we are okay with strolling empty streets just taking in the architecture and small details.  This turned out to be one of the nicest days of our trip, a leisurely day in a beautiful Austrian town doing a little shopping, sipping on the most amazing hot apricot punch and meeting some friendly locals.

We were pleasantly surprised to find a few of the local shops open, including a pottery shop whose artisan was busy making pieces and a shop carrying some of the local apricot liqueur.  Somewhere along the way we were greeted by a very friendly local kitty who really wanted us to stay and socialize with her a bit, I am a total cat person so we obliged for a while.  Even though I am typically a go, go, go and see, see, see kind of traveler, one of the nice things about not having plans and just meandering is that you can take your time, relax and if you find something worth spending a few extra minutes on, you can.

We visited during the Christmas season and Melk has a small Christmas market in the historic town center, which we were afraid would not be open during our short stop.  After our stroll around the town we came back to the market to find the stalls opening.  I decided to get a cup of gluhwein but passed the Melk Tennis Club’s stall where I was asked if I would like to try apricot punch, I am glad that I agreed to,  I think it may be the best hot beverage available at any Christmas market.  I had already purchased two cups of punch and was telling all of our friends from the cruise about it, as they began to filter in from their abbey tour,  when I stumbled upon another friendly local, Horst.  He was a member of the tennis club and told me I was their best apricot punch saleswoman, he even offered to buy me another cup of punch and who am I to turn down an offer like that?  We enjoyed a nice chat over our punch, new friends were made and it was a nice and fitting ending to our short time in Melk.

 

 

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If Vienna during the Christmas holidays is not on your bucket list, it should be.

It is HOT, HOT, HOT here in Florida so I’m thinking, how about some Christmas in July?  Let’s make it one of my favorite cities at Christmastime, Vienna!  I just can’t even describe how incredibly beautiful the Christmas lights in Vienna are, how awe inspiring it is to walk along the Graben towards Stephansplatz under the giant, sparkling chandeliers while gazing around to all the varying light displays adorning the other streets we pass.  It is the most beautiful and festive display I believe I have ever witnessed.  A great way to visit Vienna and other cities along the Danube with festive markets, is on a river cruise, we visited with AmaWaterways, our favorite river cruise line.

 

 

In addition to the gorgeous Christmas lights on display there are multiple unique Christmas markets to visit.  I have not visited them all but I have visited several, each having it’s own distinctive feel, unique crafts and charm.

I’ll start with the largest, the Rathausplatz Christkindlmarkt, located in front of Vienna town hall, it is a large and at night a very crowded market with row upon row of booths selling everything from gluhwein and authentic handicrafts to Chinese made, mass market trinkets  (although they have cut down on the amount of stands hocking these wares.)  This market has quite a presence with the town hall lit in the background and the large Christmas light displays adorning the entrance.

 

 

A new market for me visiting this past Christmas and perhaps my favorite so far in Vienna, was the Karlsplatz Art Advent Christmas market.  It is a smaller and less crowded market with the beautiful Karlskirche as a backdrop. They had a stage set up for live music and many vendors selling delicious treats including raclette, which is a personal favorite of mine.  The quality of the items for sale here is very good overall, a lot of really nice and unique handicrafts.

 

 

The last two markets that I have visited are the market at Schonbrunn palace and the market at Maria Theresien-Platz, these are both smaller markets again with beautiful landmarks as the backdrop.  The Maria Theresien-Platz market also had a cool projection light show to add to the festive feel.

 

                            Schonbrunn Market

 

                            Maria Theresien-Platz

 

These are only the ones I have been fortunate enough to visit, there are others in this great city that I am sure are very worth the visit if you have time.

There are so many other wonderful things about Vienna, it is such a charming city.  I cannot imagine any better place to spend some time during the Christmas holiday season.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Szentendre, worth a visit if you have time.

Embarkation day for our cruise had arrived but we had a few plans, with our guide Gabriella, to take care of first.  We planned to make a half day visit to Szentendre with a stop at the Roman ruins of aquincum on the way.

The drive to Szentendre took us over the Danube to the Buda side and through parts of Budapest we otherwise might never have seen,  areas developed under the rule of communism with sprawling utilitarian housing blocks alongside modern department stores and with a spattering of some much, much older construction, the remnants of Roman occupation.  Gabriella explained some of the hardships of living in the sprawling communist structures, such as having very small living quarters and a centralized heating system, that was turned on and off by the government and of which you had no control over whatsoever.

The scattered Roman ruins we passed were once part of Aquincum, the capital of Roman occupied Hungary, which at the time was called Pannonia.  Hungary was under Roman rule from the 1st century BC to the 5th century AD.  Aquincum was a town of about 15,000 people and the main excavation site can be visited along with a museum, I was disappointed that it was not open the day we were there but we did stop to look at the excavated ruins from the street.

Once we were past Aquincum things started to get a bit more rural, we were leaving Budapest and the remaining drive to Szentendre was short, which makes it a great option for a half day trip.

Szentendre has been settled since Roman times but was destroyed in the Mongol and Ottoman invasions in the 15th and 16th centuries.  It was rebuilt in the 17th century so most of the historic buildings are in the Baroque style and it is really very pretty.   When we arrived we were dropped on the outskirts and walked to the main square, it was a leisurely stroll through the winding cobblestone streets with so many photo opportunities.

Once you get closer to the main square there are many interesting shops with local artists and Hungarian made goods.  We would explore this area but first we made the climb up to the Saint Janos church to take in it’s lofty views, on the way back down we met a couple of friendly and furry locals.

We made our way back to the town square for a look around and more importantly shopping and eating!  We hit the small Christmas market first and I decided to try a Hungarian pizza called Langallo, it was so good!  After that we spent the rest of our  limited time shopping and ended up with a pottery sculpture, a Hungarian leather handbag and Christmas ornaments made from handpainted eggs.

It was time to head back to Budapest, we had a ship to catch!  We walked down to the waterfront.  Szentendre lies on the Danube and the promenade along the river reminds you of somewhere in the south of France, which come to think of it a lot of the town reminded me of Southern France.

If you have a couple of days in Budapest and want to see something different, I highly recommend a trip to Szentendre.  I do hear that it gets very crowded in the summer with locals and tourists alike flocking there.

Ahhhhh Budapest… the city that positively glows! (part 2)

I left off on my previous post having just visited Buda Castle we took a walk around the cobblestone streets of Castle Hill, here is another place we could have spent so much more time and only skimmed the surface by not actually buying admission or taking tours of the various things to see here.  Next time…

A few of the things to see here aside from the Fisherman’s Bastion and the Matthias church are the Castle Labyrinth, a museum dedicated to Harry Houdini, the Hospital in the Rock and more.  I know the Matthias church and Fisherman’s Bastion is the big attractions here and what you always see in photos and you will be wondering why I don’t have photos.  This tour was to see things that would not be covered with our AmaWaterways tour and their tour covers these things so this part of Budapest will be revisited.

 

 

Our next stop was Gellert Hill and the Liberty Statue that can be seen prominently up on top.  According to Gabriella the locals call it the bottle opener and generally find it a tacky remainder from the communist era…I searched all over for a liberty statue bottle opener, after learning this bit of trivia but was unsuccessful, I think someone could make a nice profit on those!  More stunning panoramas were to be found up here and in one of them we got our first glimpse of the AmaSonata, the ship we would be boarding tomorrow.

 

 

While at Gellert Hill we visited the Cave Church followed by the Gallert Baths, for a quick peek and to have a light lunch in their cafe.  The Baths are just beautiful and as I mentioned before I want to try one of them when we visit again.  The views of the Danube and Pest are beautiful here even at the base of Gellert Hill.

 

 

So it’s winter and the days are short, it probably looks like it is getting late but there are still a few hours left in the tour and a few more things to see.  We headed to see parliament,  there we saw the bullet holes from the 1956 uprising and witnessed a spectacular sunset.  Nearby, we also saw the  very beautiful monument to Imre Nagy, the Hungarian Prime Minister during the 1956 revolution against the Soviet Union that ended with him being executed for treason.  We also saw the US embassy (which is surrounded by ugly fences these days) and the Weeping Willow holocaust monument at the Dohany Street Synagogue.  I even got to get my photo with President Ronald Reagan, well sadly, just a bronze statue erected in his honor.

 

 

We also got to see the very controversial new memorial to the 1944 Nazi occupation of Hungary, many people (including our guide Gabriella) see it as falsely portraying Hungary as an innocent party to the holocaust, when they were allied with Germany during the war.

 

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On a more lighthearted note,  by now it is almost completely dark so we are heading back to the Pest side of the Danube to visit the Opera House, the Christmas Market at the Basilica and then a visit to a less touristy place, Gabriella’s favorite bookstore and a place she goes when she is not showing off her beautiful city.  The Opera House is just beautiful, ornate but with tile mosaic floors patterned after those found at the Roman ruins of Aquincum.

 

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Almost to the end of the day!  We parted ways with Gabriella until tomorrow, it was time for dinner at Rezkakas Bistro and some rest….well rest after a second visit to the Christmas markets, both at the basilica  and Vorosmarty Square and a walk along the Danube back to the Intercontinental.

Rezkakas Bistro is a short walk from the Intercontinental and had good food but it was pricey.

 

 

Budapest at night is breathtaking, the Christmas markets sparkle and the buildings along the Danube glow.

 

 

I will try to wrap up Budapest with one more post, we will see how that goes….

 

 

 

Ahhhhh Budapest… the city that positively glows! (part 1)

e20161204_071911Photo taken on our first morning in Budapest from our room at the Intercontinental.

We had arranged well in advance for two tours with Gabriella of Private tours Budapest, the first was a full day in Budapest with a van, the second (which I will elaborate on in another post) was a half day to the lovely town of Szentendre the morning of our embarkation on the AmaSonata.  The Budapest tour with Gabriella was to cover mainly things we would not see with Ama’s tour, that I will discuss in a later post.

I feel that I was too ambitious with my list of sites to visit, Budapest offers so much that you either need to spend a few days there or just pick a handful, of what you feel are the most important things, to see.  Gabriella was a terrific guide and did her best to accommodate our wishes but we ended up really seeing only the surface of things with not much detail, again this was my fault for being too ambitious…oh well, I guess this just means I will have to make another visit!

e20161204_083708You cannot beat this view!

After a somewhat expensive (but delicious!) breakfast at the hotel, we were met by Gabriella in the lobby of the Intercontinental and shown to the  van that would escort us around the city today.  From there we proceeded to our first stop, a visit one of the thermal baths that Budapest is so famous for, the Szechenyi thermal baths.  The drive through the Pest side of the city to reach Szechenyi took us past many beautiful buildings and structures such as Heroes Square.  We only took a look inside the baths and did not actually buy admission and go for a swim. We had initially planned to do this on our own but our time was so limited due to the flight delay and missing a half day that it just didn’t happen.  I also wanted to do the outdoor baths and maybe fear of going out in that kind of cold in a swimsuit played a part in the decision to save the baths for the next trip.

After visiting the thermal bath (next time I will get in!) we walked to Castle Vajdahunyad, a 19th century castle built for the Millennial exhibition to showcase Hungarian architecture of different historical periods, the grounds are very beautiful and it is here that you can find the statue Anonymous.  An added bonus was seeing the large outdoor skating rink that is it’s neighbor.

It was still morning and we had a very long list so once we were back onboard the van, we headed next to the House of Terror museum, which showcases the plight of the Hungarian people while under communist leadership and the atrocities that were bestowed upon them.  This is another of the stops where we merely scratched the surface as we did not have time to do the full admission tour of the museum. One thing I did learn at the House of Terror museum, besides the fact that people regularly disappeared in the middle of the night sometimes never to be seen again,  is that my birthday is a national holiday in Hungary (National Day) commemorating an uprising against the communists in 1956 and Hungary becoming a free republic in 1989.

Onward to our next stop,  did I mention that we had a lot of ground to cover?  We headed over the Danube to Buda (Budapest is actually one city formed from two, Buda and Pest) to visit Buda castle, try some Hungarian strudel (one of our group was brave enough to try the poppy seed strudel which, to be honest,  looked like mud) and watch the changing of the guards.  As with most of the landmarks on the Buda side, it came with stunning panoramic views over the Danube and Pest.

This seems like a good stopping point, I will pick up on the remainder of our day with Gabriella with my next blog post.  Stay Tuned!