Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Hungary Games

Just like District 12 and the Hunger Games, so too are the Hungary Games.  Whatever, we got to shoot a bow and arrow and felt like Katniss Everdeen for a minute.

A few weeks ago my friend, Molly, wrote me an email and said "Let's go on a trip.  Do you want to go to Budapest?"  And I said "No, not really."  Then we started comparing ticket prices and length of travel and Budapest became the least cost, shortest travel time alternative and thus, tickets were purchased, hotel room booked and research began. 

We flew on Wizz Air, highly heckled because of their pink and purple (both the brightest version of those colors) color scheme.  "No real airline picks those colors."  Wizz flys mostly to small, crappy airports in parts of Eastern Europe that you haven't heard of.  Maybe you have, but I hadn't.  Wizz, like Ryan Air, Easy Jet and the other budget European airlines is a crapshoot of crazy, involving jamming of bodies onto buses, running down the runway once the bus stops and elbow jabbing old ladies in the face to get a seat.  And, at the Budapest Airport on the way back, a pack of 6 very large Hungarians who tore open their Duty Free Palinka (which is the Hungarian version, except more delicious, of grappa - which for you who don't know what grappa is, it's like fire water that is made from the stems and skins of grapes after they were first used to make wine.  You drink it after dinner, exhale fire and feel the warmth go into your belly while you try not to vomit in front of the waiter.  It's a fun game, for sure!) and downed the entire 750 mL bottle before getting on the plane.  That stuff's 80 proof.  They drank it in under 10 minutes.  Holy crap.  I clapped.  They judged.  But seriously, damn. 

But we got there.  One cab ride later (involving a significant amount of secret searching for the exchange rate app on my iPhone - "How much is 7,600 HUF???  Is that a lot???  It sounds like a lot..."), we rolled up into the Boscolo Autograph Collection Hotel.  It was one of the fanciest hotels I have been inside.  Ok, go ahead and judge, I don't stay at fancy hotels all that often.  So in walk Molly and I, mouths gaping open, attracting flies, to this crystal palace filled with hydrangeas in elaborate vases, the most attractive doormen known to Eastern Europe and chandeliers like crazy.  "We should make sure this is the right hotel before we get too excited," I whispered out of the side of my mouth to Molly.  When I asked, the very hot doorman smiled [swoon] and reassured me that we were in the right place.   [Swoons]

[Enter Lynne's battle with awkward showering #492]  I booked through Orbitz.  I shouldn't have.  Molly and I walked into this massive, super modern hotel room and again, our mouths dropped.  But for one tiny, itsy bitsy problem: super modern hotel rooms in Europe think that also requires them to have an all-glass shower in the middle of the room with no door.  I wish I could say that we are graceful people (sorry Molly, I'm lumping you in with me on this one) but we just aren't.  We had to come to agreed upon areas of the room that required your back to the shower while the other was in there and then ended up getting the entire bathroom soaking wet because there was no stinking door on the shower!  Come on, Europe!  Put doors on your showers!  People need that!  Or put a drain in the middle of the floor.  Or don't make your floors marble.  I mean, it's like the perfect storm of dangerous bathing situations, and I can do that all on my own, as the sheer number of posts labeled "Awkward Bathing Situations" would lead one to believe.

And we were off!  The day before we left, I bought tickets to the Budapest Opera House for their evening show of some random ballet.  The tickets were 1,200 HUF a piece and I was nervous at first that this would be too expensive.  Well, with the conversion rate, that's roughly $5 to see a ballet in a world renowned opera house.  During intermission, over a $1 glass of wine (#winning), we discussed the plot.  "So, is that guy supposed to be Satan?"  About half way through act 2, we gave up.  "Why is he in a wheelchair?"  It got complicated.  But people danced in spandex and looked really beautiful. 

Budapest cafes are possibly the most adorable in the world for one reason: they have blankets at all of their outdoor tables.  It is the most adorable thing I've ever seen and I was obliged at each location to put the thing on, whether I was cold or not, because seriously???  What kind of place has outdoor blankets?  Adorable places.  When I open my perfect pub, which will be called Prim & Proper, it will have outdoor blankets.  And people will say "Do you want to go grab a drink at that adorable pub with blankets?"  The answer is yes.

But back to the trip!  We spent all day Saturday on the most heavenly tour of my life.  I think back on it, much like the doormen at the Boscolo, and sigh frequently.  Taste Hungary is the most amazing company for tours.  We went on the Somlo (pronounced "shom-low") Region wine tour with Gabor, who had the most hearty, authentic laugh that convinced both Molly and I that we were, hands down, the funniest people on the face of the earth. 

Lynne: "Gabor, is that a grape?" 
Gabor: "Hahahahahahha" 
Lynne: Damn, I'm funny.

On the tour, we tasted about 1,000 wines and walked away with 28.6 KG of wine.  Holy cats.  That's a lot.  Our second winery, Spiegelberg, is owned by the Istvan, a slightly lecherous German who relocated to Hungary after working for both BMW and a movie theater.  Somehow, those skills translate into wine making gold because his wines were probably the best that I've had in Europe.  And I live in Italy.  From his crisp, mineral-rich whites to the stuffed cabbage that his girlfriend made over the flames of a campfire to the sweet farm dog named after his prize-winning grapes, Furmint, it was one of the most amazing days of my life.  No words, no photograph, no explanation can ever truly capture the serene, lovely, peaceful nature of that place.  We returned back to the city, our hearts full of the Hungarian countryside and yet already missing that idyllic, magical place.  Even now, I still feel a tinge of sadness to have left.

Budapest surpassed all expectations.  It was such a magical, wonderful trip.  I will hold it dearly with me as the years pass and remember my dear friend, Molly, our day in the heavenly countryside and a little dog named Furmint. 


Friday, May 11, 2012

A Sophisticated Weeked in Ravello, Well that was the plan...

We've made new friends, we've kept the old, we've tried to figure out who's silver and who's gold.  One thing remains: our friends love wine.  All of our friends, basically everywhere, are wino-s.  Maybe that's why we feel so at home with them, maybe that's why we always seem to be having too much fun, maybe wine's just delicious.  Regardless, we met up with our dear friends, Kim and Nathan and their dear friends, who are quickly becoming our dear friends, Brian and Gillian, for a trip to Ravello. 

When we got to Bella Napoli at the Indoc class where we were warned about being robbed, mugged in broad daylight, pick-pocketed, run off the road and then murdered, we were also told that Italy was great.  Listening to the first part, I feared for my life.  In the second part, once they finished explaining how we'd likely being knifed to death, they told us all about how great Italy is.  It was in this class that I first heard of Alberobello, which we visited a few weeks ago, and of the famous concerts in Ravello, which we just went to this weekend.  Ravello is like a town in the clouds.  It sits absurdly high above the Amalfi Coast, the road to get there both winding and sometimes terrifying.  We four, Kim, Nathan, Tom and I piled into our Honda Civic and off we went, up and down winding roads, playing Kim's Best of 1983 mix and making jokes about "pressed ham" (read: mooning cars on the Autostrada.  For the record: I would not allow Nathan to press ham on my windows.  Some things are sacred).

Ravello: It has probably the most beautiful views of the Amalfi Coast that you will find.  The cliffs and the sea, the rows upon rows of lemon trees, it's all so idyllic and lovely that it feels like a fantasy world.  We had lunch, one item being called "His Majesty the Sea" which, obviously we had to get.  Please, there's royalty involved.  His majesty would hate for us to leave him behind. 

Of interesting note: Best Western, the budget hotels of America, are amazingly swanky in Italy.  Capri, Ravello, heck, even Naples, have the most amazing Best Westerns!  I can recall openly mocking the one on Capri until I realized that the rooms were somewhere around 350 Euro a night off-season.  Humbly, I took my judgement back.  Our hotel in Ravello was once a paper mill, converted into a ridiculously gorgeous hotel with the most committed nautical theme I've ever seen.  It was also directly on the water, our room looking at nothing but the sea and the bathroom (you knew there would be a shower story in here) had a large window that looked directly into the neighboring house and the sun porch and lounge chairs of our hotel.  "Why hell, Asian tourists, enjoying a sunny morning.  Don't mind me, I'm just showering in full view of you.  I'd close the blinds or draw the curtains, but there aren't any."  No, no, it got uncomfortable and was, it's probably safe to say, the shortest shower of my life.

The main event and reason for our trip, was to see a piano and clarinet recital at the famous Villa Rufalo.  Beginning at 9:30 pm after a delicious meal, the concert involved absolutely no speaking.  No introductions, no notice about cell phones, no explanation of the pieces.  We all agreed that the pianist was phenomenal and that her clarinet counterpart could have used a bit more practice.  All the men also agreed that such an event was the perfect place to take a little nap. 

About 10 bottles of wine and a very late evening, ended abruptly by a patron miming that we were being too loud, we all met up for breakfast the next morning and took what is probably one of the more random photoshoots on the little stone landing for summer beach bathers.  Though the water was chilly and the rain began rolling in, we got some true gems that really captured the ridiculous, hilarious and fun-loving nature of our group.  Fun times had by all.  Naps required upon arriving home.

Next stop: Budapest!


Thursday, May 3, 2012

Finally Under the Tuscan Sun!

Before moving to Italy, I based my life decisions on the movie "Under the Tuscan Sun."  I figured that I'd befriend a couple of Polish immigrants, pick olives and drink a lot of wine.  Also, that I'd become that quirky American who wears fabulous dresses and gains the respect of her town for her sticktoitiveness (no, no, that's a real word.  Don't worry, I looked it up).  Alas, many of the plot details from that movie, including meeting a random Italian and having a wild night of passion (I mean, Tom probably wouldn't be so down on that plan), haven't happened.  No Polish fan club.  No cheering crowds of Italians, my co-workers aside, who appreciate my new-found ability to order half a kilo of chicken.  Come on!

But I digress... this weekend, we piled into our friend's, Molly and Deacon, Alfa Romeo and charged nobly onwards to Toscana!  The four hour drive north broken up with road trip games and conversations about just how many bottles of wine we'd be returning with.  Around 8pm, we arrived in Siena at the Villa Elda where we were staying.  We strolled the city streets, those old, rugged walls lined with horse tethers and decorative flags, until we reached Il Biondo, a fairly typical tourist trap that our front desk clerk had recommended.  Ok, so our first night's meal was a bit of a let-down.  But!  We finally ate some of the food that you think of back in the US as "Italian."  Ravioli?  Haven't really had it in Italy before.  Lasagna?  Haven't really had it in Italy before.  Tuscany, that's where they hide all of the Italian food that you know.  My ravioli had this creamy sauce, likely laced with crack, that I was obliged to practically lick from the plate.  It's shocking that our waiter judged us... wish I could put my finger on why...  weird....

Siena, like Rome, Venice and Sorrento in the summer, is not quite as Italian as we were thinking it would be.  Around nearly every corner you could hear that obviously American accent of some college student from Texas, their twang ringing in your ears.  In Naples, we make up about 50% of the Americans in our neighborhood.  The sight of my blonde hair is enough to have the waiters drawing straws for who has to put up with the Americans.  Or, when we went to get burgers the other night and every member of the waitstaff gathered around to listen to us try to order in Italian, snickering ever so quietly as we stumbled.  But Siena, they are ready for tourists.  Even on Sunday, the day when everything is normally buttoned up tightly, Siena was bustling. 

Based on the ridiculously high reviews on TripAdvisor, we booked a Chianti tour with a driver/tour guide for Saturday.  Through winding roads and scenic fields of wheat and wine, learning that Chianti Classico is a region and more destinguished than those little rafia wrapped grocery store wine in the US would lead you to believe.  Somewhere along the way, 2 cases of wine ended up in the back of the tour van.  Our tourguide was a little disinterested in our stories and would space out when he wasn't talking, but we hung out with real Canadians (so funny to hear them talking "aboot" things.  Oh Canada, you guys are adorable!) and a super nice couple from Raleigh.  It was great to have a bunch of cool people packed into our van for hours on end!

As previously mentioned, we spent Sunday shopping and shopping and shopping.  From my adorable yachting inspired wedges to the incredibly necessary olive-wood box with a built in cheese grater, I picked up all sorts of objects that Tom judging lugged around all day.  "Seriously, Lynne.  No more ceramics.  I can't look at another plate and still look interested."  "Seriously, Lynne, basta."  "Honey, I'm going to go get drunk."  Like our trip back from Cinque Terre, we stopped in to the town of Orvieto on the way back, the home of Pinochio.  He is super terrifying and would have filled my dreams with nightmares, so there are no pictures of that little devil.  BUT!  Orvieto and Siena both have green and white striped churches with amazingly intricate facades, so there are about 1,000 pictures of them on my computer.

This weekend, it's the symphony on the cliffs of Ravello on the Amalfi Coast.  I've been looking forward to this since we got here, so I'll be sure to let all y'all know how it is!

Ciao, Tutti!