Posts Tagged With: Europe Travel

Budapest: Loin Cloths and Spare Bedrooms

Spring and autumn are some of the best times to travel in Europe. Tourist crowds are gone leaving the great European cities vibrant and full of locals. This is very true for Stockholm, a city that basically shuts down in the summer time when most Stockholmers are traveling to place they’re sure will have sun or relaxing in their summer home out in the Swedish countryside. If you want to feel the real “vibe” of a city in Europe, come on the shoulder seasons.

Budapest from Castle Hill

Buda Castle

So with a weekend open in the beginning of October, I decided to take a solo trip to the capital of Hungary, Budapest. This city has been on my radar for many years as one of the must see destinations in Europe. Hungary has a long and impressive history with a significant “dark period” under Soviet control. In 1989 when the USSR disbanded, Budapest was a city that rivaled Vienna in beauty but had been put through the communist ringer for over 40 years. As an American and long-term resident of Europe, countries caught in the middle of post WWII have always interested me.

Budapest has come a long way since 1989 and has managed to revive its charm while living with some “left overs” of the communist era. Over a three day period I wore myself out with my Budapest travel guide trying to soak up all the city had to offer. I visited most of the major sights: Basilica of St Stephen, Castle Hill, Parliament Building, Grand Market Hall and I even saw Ronald Reagan. I also had two very unique experiences in the Rudas thermal baths and trying AirBnB as my option for accommodations.

Liberty Bridge

Yummy Sausage

Budapest is well known for its thermal baths located throughout the city. Some are elegantly decorated; some are like amusement parks for families. The Ruda Baths are recognized for their history with a concrete dome dating from the 16th century when Budapest was under Turkish occupation. I like to think of myself as a pretty open guy who is willing to try new things. With that mind-set, you can often find yourself in very peculiar situations and especially so when travelling abroad. So, I decided to try the Ruda baths as it supposedly offers the most “traditional” bath experience in the city (I’m usually a sucker for traditional). Upon entering the baths, each man (women are not allowed) is given a “loin cloth,” a wrist band a locker number. Two of those items are pretty self-explanatory. And the third, well that’s where things got interesting…. Men in the baths are asked not to go naked but everyone is required to wear a piece of cloth that makes you feel like a Roman in the times of César. The loin cloth is basically a napkin with a string that goes around your waste – Business in the front, “party” in the rear. So, I changed into my outfit and entered the main bath complex which is a huge room under a gigantic dome. About 100 men were soaking in various temperature baths around the room and the protocol is to start with cooler baths and work your way up. So, as the rule following guy I am, I started on the left side of the room and worked counter clockwise entering the five different baths with the last one being 42 degrees Celsius (107 Fahrenheit).

Rudas Bath

Now after you’ve done this for about thirty minutes your body feels like a boiled egg waiting for that plunge of cold water relief. To help you with that, big wooden buckets are perched around the room. You walk up, pull the string and get drenched by five gallons of ice cold water that makes you want to scream like a girl, but you can’t because your surround by a bunch of guys wearing loin cloths. Ah yes, back to the loin cloths. It’s pretty odd being in a room with a bunch of guys whose bare backsides are in plain view where ever you look. Even more strange for me was the Russian, Hungarian, German languages being spoken around me with no English speakers with in ear shot. This was a locals place and I guess one would question whether this would be the best place to strike up a conversation trying to make friends anyway… I chose the “quite option” and enjoyed my one hour soaking time and departed Rudas bath with a just one of many memorable experiences from Budapest.

Another first for me on this trip to Budapest was using the AirBnB online service that connects travels to people who rent out rooms in their homes to make a little extra money. This offers a unique and inexpensive way to truly live like a local which I try to make a hallmark of all my travels. The other great part is the money goes too directly to people of the city, not international hotel chains. My AirBnB experience was “interesting” in that I stayed with an Italian family that lives in Budapest part of the year and Rome the other. I used my room as you would any hotel, spending most of my time out sightseeing and staying in the room to sleep and get cleaned up. I would highly recommend this for those adventurous travels who really want to get the “feel of the place.”

Street Performer

In the end Budapest was all that I hoped it would be – Interesting history, fantastic food and unforgettable cultural experiences. In our modern world, cities and people are becoming more and more homogeneous. Budapest has all the makings of a city continuing down the path of ultra-tourism similar to Prague. KFC’s, Full English Breakfast, knock-off Louis Vuitton, and Zara’s on every other street corner. I think I even saw a Starbucks which amazes me because their coffee sucks compared to everyone other option in Europe but I digress… Budapest is a great city and I hope to return to experience it’s old world elegance mixed with moden charm.

For more images of my trip to Budapest, please visit www.ErikFunfar.com

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Petticoats, Great Seafood and Fun in the Sun – Welcome to Nazaré

From the arid rolling hills of Évora we headed west passing endless miles of cork plantations to the sea-side village of Nazaré. This charming little town has a perfect mix of local culture, great food and a bit of grit that I look for in my travels. We arrived in town with no reservations. Our hope was to score a cheap hotel room or quarto based on the city’s reputation for having a never-ending supply of rooms (maybe not in August). As we drove down the main boulevard towards the beach we stopped at a street corner and were scared to death by a lady who walked up and knocked loudly on our window and yelled “Quarto! You need a room!” Apparently the rumor was true. We ended up settling in the salty beach front Ribmar Hotel. Our authentic 1950’s room with four post wooden bed and balcony overlooking the sea was a whopping $30 per night. Very cool!

Hotel Ribmar (click for more images from Nazaré)

The food in Nazaré was nothing short of amazing; this place is a sea food lover’s paradise. We ate like kings and tried many new dishes and old favorites: Fresh sardines, sting ray, escargot, calamari, shellfish stew were just a few. We had pre-dinner port, house wine and after dinner port. Our version on the “Michelin experience” never cost more than $40 per meal – Now that’s what I call a good vacation.

Food in Nazaré (Click for funny video)

On our second day we awoke to what sounded like gun shots at 8 am. These loud bursts continued for about a half an hour which was just enough to pull us out of bed. As we got ready for the day, I swore I could hear a band playing in the distance. The sound grew louder and louder and I ran down stairs to catch a small parade. What was the celebration you ask? Good question – everyone we spoke with had no clue…

Morning Parade (Click for short video)

Women in Nazaré hold on to a fashion tradition known as the seven petticoats and skirts. I can honestly say that all local women in Nazaré dressed this way. Women wearing black are upholding the long tradition of Portuguese wives who have lost their husbands.

Women of Nazaré

Women of Nazaré (click for more images)

In total we spent three days in Nazaré exploring the village, soaking up the sun and try to get a glimpse of what it’s like to live in one of the most unique seaside villages I have ever visited.

Nazaré Portugal

Nazaré Portugal (click for more images)

Categories: Europe Travel, Portugal | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Évora: Romans Ruins and Famous Portuguese Cuisine

Évora is a hidden gem nestled in the foothills of the Alentejo region in eastern Portugal. The arid climate, endless miles of cork trees and robust red wine (like California Zinfandel) was a worthwhile detour on our way to Nazaré and Lisbon. For a little city, Evora seems to have it all: Roman history, great food and a fun culture of old and new.

Evora Roman Temple

Evora Roman Temple (click for more images)

Évora is a town of about 44,000 people with a big majority being college students. DUS and I both said it reminded us of San Luis Obispo in California or Lund in Sweden. Like these sister college towns, there is a large amount of young and old people with little residents in the 30 & 40ish range due to lack of industry. The ancient streets are lined with new age, H&M-esique clothing shops, coffee houses with studying students and retired farmers enjoying social time with friends and munching on the delicious Pão de rala.

Evora Street

Evora Street (click for more images)

During our visit, we took a great two hour walking tour that explained the Roman presence including the aqueduct and forum and the “Church of the Bones.” We stayed in a recently restored Baroness’s house called PENSÃO Residencial POLICARPO located with the ancient city wall of historic Evora. This cool old building has 20 different rooms decorated using local style giving it a very pleasant feel. We had a great view of the surrounding country side that awarded us with a beautiful sunrise. This region of Portugal is also famous for its fantastic regional dish, Carne de Porco Alentejana. The dish basically consists of pork with clams cooked in a stew served with fried potatoes. Portugal is mostly known for its fish, but I have to say that this was my favorite dish of our whole trip (and we ate amazing food the whole time). If you are ever in this part of the country, make sure to order Pork with Clams Alentejo Style and the house red – you will not be disappointed.

Pork and Clams Alentejo Style

Pork and Clams Alentejo Style (click for more images)

From Évora we headed further North, passed Lisbon to the village of Nazaré known as the Portuguese Coney Island.

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Albufeira: The Portuguese Costa del Sol

My company held their annual retreat at the wonderful Sheraton Algarve Hotel in Albufeira, Portugal. This area is considered the most “touristy” part of the country and for good reason. The beautiful beach is lined with higher end resorts catering to mostly European tourists heading south to enjoy the sun. DUS joined me in Albufeira and we enjoyed four days of great dinners, spending time with work colleagues and enjoying the spring sun that eluded us in Scandinavia.

I’m proud to say that I won a company award called the “Leading Edge Award” for pioneering a new business offer around leadership development training based on business performance coaching.

Leading Edge Award

Leading Edge Award (click for more images)

We had a great time in Albufeira but I think I finally cemented my long believe that I am not a “resort” guy. I love spending time relaxing and doing nothing. I like the beach, reading books and general act of being somewhere to just chill. However, I need a little more in my travel. I need authenticity and to interact with the soul of a place.

Chillin' on the beach in Portugal

Chillin’ on the beach in Portugal (click for more images)

Having been to both the major “sun holiday” tourist areas in Europe, the Costa del Sol in Spain and Albufeira in Portugal, I can see why most adventure tourists steer clear from these areas. Their infrastructure and higher class of living is great, but they are sucked dry of all authenticity by catering to people who are looking to vacation in another without any of the natural things that come with being in another country: Authentic food, native language, local culture and the genuine “feeling” of another place. I struggle to understand why other European countries seem to colonize these areas in an attempt to make them a mirror image of their home countries. When we visited similar areas in Turkey, Spain, and Greece it makes me upset to see restaurants on every street corner flying the Union Jack and advertising “full English Breakfast” while blaring Phil Collins. Or going to “local” pubs where advertising English only menus and cricket on TV. Please don’t get me wrong, I’m all for capitalism. But from now on when we leave cold and dark Scandinavia, we will continue to seek out more authentic places like the other areas we visited in Portugal.

Categories: Europe Travel, Personal, Portugal | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Camping Europe: The Basics

Summer has arrived in Europe. To celebrate, I decided to write about an alternative way to see Europe, camping.

I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to camp throughout the western United States in some of the most beautiful place in the world. Camping in Europe is beautiful as well. But, the experience is starkly different than in the U.S.

Imagine yourself nestled below a magnificent mountain range. There’s a swiftly flowing snow melt river close by, a majestic waterfall in the distance and a French guy with is wife and three screaming kids two feet from you tent. This is camping in Europe. Large, spacious campsites like we’ve come to expect in the U.S. are replaced by privately owned “resorts” to use the word loosely. There are no fire pits, picnic tables, or BBQ’s. You get a space for your car, tent and that’s about it.

Campsite in Hallstatt, Austria (Click for more images)

Campsite in Hallstatt, Austria(Click for more images)

Aside from being packed in like Sardines, European campgrounds are great. All facilities I’ve have NICE hot showers, flush toilets, dish washing stations and electricity. Many have convenient stores, communal refrigerators and washing machines. A few have wireless internet, breakfast buffets and bars. One had a full-on water park!

Washroom in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland (Click for more images)

Washroom in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland (Click for more images)

Camping in Europe is a middle class activity, usually frequented by families, retirees, or foreign travelers. Most of our stays were quite (accept for the church bells) and comfortable. Camp sites are around $20 USD per night for car, tent and two people. Rates are determined by your “equipment” not by the site. The great thing is they rarely fill up: we spent two weeks car camping in peak travel season with NO RESERVATIONS!

The two absolutely essential items needed for caravaning Europe: 1) Camping Europe 2012 and 2) Portable GPS World Edition. This combo will keep you safe and sane while driving on unfamiliar roads in new places.

Camping in Europe is safe, clean and cheap. My completely bias (and honest) opinion is everyone should try touring Europe this way. It’s a totally different experience from the eurorail/hostel adventure. You are free to do what you please and can explore parts of the countryside that you would normally never see. On our two week trip last year, we never came across other Americas (or Swedes) which is honestly a good thing. You don’t travel half way around the world to hangout with your own, do you? So, plan a trip and do it; you’ll be glad you did.

Campground Entrance in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland (Click for more images)

Campground Entrance in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland (Click for more images)

Categories: Austria, Europe Travel, Germany, Switzerland | Tags: , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

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