We boarded a train for the Czech Republic and stopped an hour and a half in at the adorable city of Brno.  Located in the Czech state of Moravia, it’s the second largest city in the country. We only had a few hours, so we had a coffee and went straight to Freedom Square and wandered through the markets, bought the most delicious raspberries I have ever had, and walked up to the Cathedral of Sts. Peter and Paul, first built in the 12th century for St. Peter; St. Paul was added in the 1600s.  It’s the highest structure in the city.  There were laminated pages in 10 languages you could borrow to read the history of the cathedral.

Brno’s medieval castle is now home to the city museum and St. James Church has a crypt and ossuary thanks to medieval plague and cholera epidemics and later the Thirty Years’ War and various Swedish sieges (seriously, read the link).  Sadly, the ossuary is closed on Mondays, which is too bad because it would have given the kids discussion topics (and bad dreams?) for years to come.  We all shared some sorbet – currant and grapefruit/sage – and walked back to the train station to head to Prague.  It’s a city we’ll come back to for sure.

And I wonder what sort of Thanksgiving cocktail I can dream up with grapefruit and sage …



Vienna 2

Peter turned 5 August 25.  He wasn’t so sure about this whole travelling-on-his-birthday-thing, where would the cake be (hello, we’re in Vienna), what about presents, what about a party? We promised it would be a great day that he would love.  He chose to swim at the hotel and then go to the Vienna Zoo, which is ranked top in Europe. Lucky for Peter’s parents, the zoo is on the grounds of the Schonbrunn, which was the Habsburg summer palace. Mozart gave his first concert here at 6 years old.  It was built in the 1600s and modelled after Versailles; the zoo was the menagerie.  It was a great zoo – probably the size of Denver’s, but they packed way more animals in there (not yucky though).  Their big attraction is the 1 year old giant panda twins.  They were napping outside, so we got to see them even if they were just laying there. The penguins were, as always, a delight, and every tourist in front of the ring-tailed lemurs either said “King Julien!” or sang “I like to move it move it.”  After 4 hours at the zoo, we exited by spending 2 more hours in the gardens, fountains and tree mazes of the Schonbrunn grounds. Maria Theresa had 16 children – Marie Antoinette (nee Maria Antonia) was one of them – and we talked about how much fun 16 siblings could have in this backyard.  That evening we had a great dinner near our hotel at the apex of the Burgring and the Opernring – this restaurant served veal or pork or chicken schnitzel and it had free foosball.  Our server, Paula from Venice, brought Peter a huge waffle with ice cream and five candles.  Peter left with a full belly, a kiss from a pretty Italian girl and a new little tiger lovey named Tyrone or Ranger or Cutie Fluffy. Michael missed the singing and the candles because he was accidentally trapped in the bathroom, but he screamed so loud (safety training from Daddy) that Demetri heard him.

We spent time at the Belvedere, another palace turned museum.  The Belvedere houses Gustav Klimt’s “Kiss” and other Klimt works, on top of many other beautiful paintings and sculptures.  The kids were totally fried and toured out, so we also boarded a bus to see other parts of the city we realized we might not walk to – definitely a good choice. Thanks to Vienna Unwrapped, we found a terrific ‘hot dog’ stand near the Albertina and twice enjoyed dinner and beer there sitting on a fountain ledge. One day, Demetri took the kids swimming at the hotel and did some yoga with them, then he went to the Naschmarkt and a cafes. While they were swimming, I toured churches and the national library and the kids and I went to the Natural History Museum – yet another palace turned museum so pretty it wouldn’t matter if the building was empty – and saw dioramas of dogs, cats, sharks, alligators, birds, dinosaurs.  Our last evening was spent at zum Schwartzen Kameel, a café and restaurant that’s existed since 1618.  The food was terrific and the restaurant and bar were gorgeous. Campari made 999 bottles of their liqueur for the Black Camel (special label) and some of very rare ones are in storage. Sadly we had to settle for Aperol spritzes, because only the bartender can make Campari drinks, and they don’t work Sundays.

In total we spent 5 nights in beautiful Vienna & could have spent many more. There is a ton to do, it’s very kid friendly with many parks and great public transportation that can serve as a sightseeing tool if kids are tired, the food is lovely and the buildings are gorgeous. Everyone speaks English, but I had a chance to practice my German and brush up on my Habsburgs and Holy Roman Empire a bit here. It reminded me how much I loved Mr. Reynolds’ European History class.



Vienna 1

But first, the end of Budapest.  The City Park, also built for the millennium celebration, is home to the Szechenyi Baths, the city zoo & botanical garden, the Museum of Fine Arts. The east entrance is marked by Her Heroes’ Square, which is full Magyar chieftan statues and other important Hungarian leaders.  The playgrounds were new and clean, and right next to the big playground was a trampoline park … naturally we spent time at both. Then we walked to Gundel Restaurant (thank you Papou) and had a beautiful lunch in their café that backed to the zoo.

We boarded the 5:40 to Vienna.  Train travel is so darn civilized.  Seats are big, lots of leg room and outlets for charging.  Our train even had waiters bringing drinks and snacks.  In 2.5 short hours, we arrived at the Vienna Central Terminal and took a light rail type train to the Opera House, and walked two blocks to our hotel.  Demetri needed to get a jump on sleep, because once he starts café hopping and enjoying the Vienna mélange, he’s not going to sleep a wink.

We found Vienna Unwrapped, a super web site written by Vienna Native Barbara Cacao. Our first morning, we embarked on her old Vienna walk.  We saved going into the museums for another day – we can’t ‘attack’ cities the way we did pre-kids; touring with a 5 and 7 year old requires park stops for playgrounds and wrestling or café stops for drinks and sweets.  I won’t recount the walk – can’t do it better than Barbara does – but we sure loved her narration & directions.  I think we stopped in 4 cafes for coffee or a sweet or both.  Sacher torte might be Vienna’s most famous dessert – Chocolate with apricot jam.  Second famous is strudel – apple or cheese are the most common. But the café displays are all artful and gorgeous – colorful tarts, fruit layer cakes, chocolate layer cakes, rounded crème brulees with various sauces on top – each one is art.  I didn’t know until this trip that both coffee and puff pastry were ‘gifts’ the Ottomans left after their various sieges across Europe.  Europe sure made a fair amount of lemonade with those, eh?!

In the evening, we walked past the Parliament Building, the Rathaus, Burg Theater and then sitting in the Volksgarten on the Hofsburg Palace grounds.  (I should clarify that Demetri and I sat; Michael and Peter wrestled in the grass).  The garden is full of roses –shrubs and trees and it smells awesome.  Then we walked through the castle grounds to another park where we all laid down and listened to a kids book on tape.  We ended the day eating street food (sausage, mustard, beers) near our hotel.

These boys are troopers.


Budapest 2

We started our day at Cafe Central, which opened in 1887.  It’s a beautiful spot on a corner with lots to watch.  Many famous Hungarian authors and artists spent time here, and they encourage today’s patrons to write and share their creativity as well.  Michael was hard at work on a new chapter of “Captain Pancake” in between bites of Dobos Torte, an eight layer sponge cake with chocolate buttercream between each layer and a caramel ‘fan’ on top.

From there, we walked to the Central Market, the largest indoor market in the city.  It’s a big tourist destination, but it’s also filled with locals doing their shopping — produce, paprika, meats, cheese.  We bought a basket of fat juicy blackberries and and went upstairs for sausage and stuffed cabbage.  From there, we walked to a playground for a break and then ventured across Liberty Bridge to swim at the Gellert Baths.

In 1896, Budapest celebrated its millennium,  and much of the whole city was constructed for this massive celebration.  Liberty Bridge was one of these monuments, in addition to the Millennium Underground Railway, the second oldest underground railway in the world (after London).  Other attractions built for the anniversary include the City Park and the Grand Boulevard and the monuments in Heroes’ Square.  Historians note 1896 is when the city became a modern metropolis; certainly these construction projects are what formed the current image of Budapest.

Budapest is full of thermal springs — some date back to Roman times and some were built by Turks.  We visited Gellert Bath, just over Liberty Bridge, which has indoor and outdoor pools, an outdoor geothermal bath, two indoor geothermal baths and beautiful grounds and flowers surrounding it all. Gellert probably has the most tourists — we heard German, French, Italian, English, and American. (We’ve determined that ‘American’ really is a language all its own).

From Gellert, which is at the bottom of the Buda hill side, we took a taxi up to Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church.  Fisherman’s Bastion was built as a viewing terrace also for the 1896 millennium.  It has monuments and statues of kings and saints, but most significant is what you can see while you’re up there — the beautiful Danube, the Parliament building, all of the bridges.  These walls are new, but from medieval times through the 18th century, there were thick castle walls here — which were often destroyed and rebuilt after sieges by Turks, Austrians, Nazis and Russians.  Matthias Church is officially named the Church of Our Lady — it’s catholic, and was named after King Matthias.  Several coronations and royal weddings were held here. Buda Hill is also home to the national art museum, the castle itself, an old Carmelite monastery and the national archives.  It is a lovely spot with pretty buildings and great views.

We ended our day back on the Pest side with dinner at a traditional Hungarian restaurant — chicken paprikash, Wiener schnitzel (ok, that might be more Austrian …) lemon chicken.  After a nine-mile day, we crashed fast.



Yes, you read it right.  Budapest, Hungary.  With 3 weeks until school starts, Demetri had the (great!) idea to do some European travel while we had a chunk of family time still left, so we started a central Europe tour on Sunday.

It’s a 2 hour flight from Athens to Budapest.  August 20 is the biggest national holiday of the year — it’s the Hungarian version of the 4th of July.  It’s also called St. Stephen’s Day, commemorating Stephen I, the first King of Hungary.  Celebrations started in the morning and continued all day long, ending with a massive fireworks display over the Danube.  We missed the festivities, including the free cake for everyone, a high mass at St. Stephen’s Basilica and the procession of St. Stephen’s mummified hand through parts of the city,  but we did make it to the fireworks on the river & they were absolutely beautiful.  Stopped for street food on our way back.

Budapest, you all probably know this, used to be 2 cities, Buda and Pest, with the river dividing them.  Buda is on a hill; Pest (say ‘pesht’) is flat.  Chain Bridge is the city’s oldest, and it connects the two sides.  We stayed on the Pest side, and set out Monday morning to wander the streets, finding playgrounds and parks along the way for kid breaks.  Andrassy Street is the main thoroughfare with high end shops, museums and apartments.  People say it’s the Fifth Avenue of Budapest; I think it looks more like Central Park West.  We toured the Opera House and the Miniversum, both on Andrassy Street.  The Opera House opened in 1884 and seats 1200 people.  It’s sort of U-shaped with a deep stage.  There’s a royal box, built for Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife, Sissi, though they only visited the opera together for half a performance.  Now, the royalty box is reserved only for the President, Prime Minister and speaker of the house.  Oh, and Madonna.  When you go into the royal box, you may not sit in the seats.

The miniversum is a giant mini-display — trains, tracks, cities, buildings.  Most of the Budapest scenes are from the communist era. It’s not very serious, though — and there are surprise mini figures along the way, like an AT-AT from Star Wars, some minions, a Thomas engine and the DeLorean from Back to the Future.  There were lots of buttons to push to make stuff happen. The boys had fun here.

On Mondays, there are free concerts at St. Stephen’s Basilica, where there is an enormous pipe organ, and where the mummified hand from yesterday’s procession permanently resides.  The church was completed in 1905, holds 8500 and is as tall as the Parliament building (the vertical ‘cap’ for the city), and has two towers with six bells. The bells are used very rarely — like three times a year.  August 20 is one of those days, so that made our visit special.  Because of the concert, the church was closed to the public … so we decided to attend the concert so we could see the church.  The ticket issuers asked us a few times if the boys could be silent (um, of course?) and reminded us we’d have to leave if they weren’t.  The music was a mix of classical pieces, all played by the pipe organ and a viocello (I think I’m spelling that right). Neither of the boys were pumped for this; as soon as the music started Peter snuggled on my lap and was asleep in 5 minutes. It lasted an hour so he got a nice little nap in, and when he woke up, he wiped drool from his cheek and said, “well that’s one way to be quiet!”

After the concert, we had an early dinner in a cafe in front of St. Stephen’s Basilica — mushroom salad, roasted cauliflower, lamb, and corn on the cob with roasted nuts on top.  And some great beer.

We crossed Chain Bridge, rode the funicular up the hill and wandered around Buda Castle for a bit, making our plans for the next day.