Free Day in Budapest October 7

facades on Szondi Utcasee the lady in the window? Ahh, our free day lies before us with only our own agenda to think of. Perfect. Even though the morning dawned with a bit of a cloudy sky, the temperature was till warm enough that it wouldn’t interfere with our plans to walk the city and go to the baths. I knew before we came on this trip that Budapest was famous for its healing waters and beautiful public baths.

One of the reasons I enjoy group tours is that I can get a taste of the culture and the history of the people through the conversation of the tour guide.  Our group guide Lorena is a charming woman, but her insight into the country is at the level of a Wiki search.  She would offer a few tidbits but they weren’t at all connected.  Our local tour guide Bernice had even less to offer, with some history and dates and names but no personal stories to flesh it all out.  I really missed that.

walking along Szondi Utca  GoAhead Tours offers the usual tour support, including luggage management (a really nice plus), transportation between airports and hotels, a few meals, and back-up trouble shooting if you really need it. The other thing that Go Ahead offers are group tours for a price.  Usually the price is quite high for the convenience of what you get.  It is similar to those excursions on cruise ships that can be so expensive. In Budapest, one of the “optional” tours was a day long cruise of the Danube and lunch in some remote estate with wine of course.  With so few days in the city, I didn’t want to waste our time floating along the river looking at scenery.  I wanted to walk the streets and look at buildings and signs and sit in street cafes and watch the people.

Free Day in Budapest 10-7-2012 2-15-55 AM The other big thing I wanted to do in Budapest was experience the amazing thermal waters.  Because of its location on limestone there are more than 100 thermal springs that feed the city’s famous bathhouses.  The water emerges at 35 to 76 degrees C and was the source of a flourishing spa culture in the Roman Age. Buda and Pest were occupied by the Ottoman’s from 1541 to 1686 and the Turkish bathhouses prospered.  Many of the spas of today are traditional Turkish baths.  The spa list is long, but after reading about several, including the famous Gellert Baths, I knew that the beautiful Szechenyi Spa in City Park was the place I wanted to visit on this Sunday in Budapest

Melody and I slept in a bit and then had a leisurely breakfast with another couple, Joan and Frank from southern California, at the hotel buffet.  We really enjoyed them throughout the trip. Sometimes the group dynamics of these tours can get a bit crazy, but this group was great. People were friendly and we could move from one couple or group of friends to another, sharing conversation and time with different people at different times.  Melody was especially popular since she was the resident iPhone, Skype, and Wireless access guru for several folks. 

almost 6 miles according to googleWe fired up the iPad for walking directions to city park and decided that taking the Szondi Utca (street) would be a great route to give us a taste of a different kind of downtown city neighborhood.  The skies were a bit overcast and it was coolish, but not raining, and walking along Terez Korut in the daylight was fun. Things were still quiet on this Sunday morning, but the difference in energy between the main road and Szondi Utca was dramatic.  The road narrowed and the buildings were older, with crumbling facades and black encrusted sandstone faces. It was just under 2 miles to the park where the baths were located.

view from the terrace  at the Szechenyi Baths The Szechenyi Bath was built in 1909 in City Park, and is the largest spa in Europe.  It is a huge complex with gorgeous architecture, 3 outdoor pools, several saunas and steam rooms, and indoor spring fed pools of varying temperatures. Outside the entrance we bought cheap little Hungarian flip flops and then walked into one of the more amazing experiences of our trip.  On entry, we paid our 3400 florints (about $14.90) and were given little plastic watches that were used to lock and unlock our rented “cabin” which was just a small changing room.  It was nice to have a private place to dress and a safe space to store our belongings while we were in the baths.

Melody under the fountain  at the Szechenyi Baths We stayed there for hours, at least 4 I think, but I lost track of time.  We slipped into the big pools first and thrilled at the warm water and views of all the baroque architecture and statuary.  We also thrilled at some of the beautiful people and were happy to see lots of not beautiful people as well.  Just as in the pictures, there were old men playing chess on big chess boards right in the water.  We then went into the inside pools and wandered from building to building trying out each of the pools in turn.  Of course, the cold pool was really cold after all that nice hot water, but once I got in it made my skin tingle when I got back out and into the hot water.  So invigorating.  I had to really work hard at convincing Melody she could do it, but once in she loved it too.

inside pools  at the Szechenyi Baths I know there were tourists there, but there were a lot of families and older kids (not many small ones), and it seemed that most of the language being spoken was Hungarian, not German or English as is the case where there are a lot of tourists.  It was a completely healing experience, not only spiritually and emotionally, but physically!  My knee was very happy about that whole thing after a couple of days of serious walking. We enjoyed our great lunch right there in the spa, having tomatoes and cucumbers with feta and some kind of phyllo pastry thingy with lots of veggies in it that was really good.  And of course, beer.  Good beer.  Beer is cheaper than water just about everywhere in Eastern Europe.

we find our way to our little rented cabin inside the Szechenyi Baths Thoroughly relaxed we went back to our little cabin, and started the trek home via Andrassy Ut, the main thoroughfare that runs from City Park and Hero’s Square all the way to the Danube River and Parliament.  Andrassy Way is lined with huge palatial homes that were once owned by the wealthy, but were confiscated by the Nazis, and then again during the Communist invasion, and then later turned into embassies.  Our plan was to walk all of Andrassy to take in the fancy designer shops closer to the river, but instead we found ourselves intrigued by something called the House of Terror.

Free Day in Budapest 10-7-2012 5-59-03 AM For the first time since arriving in Hungary, I began to understand how oppressed this nation has been and how awful its recent history. Over and over the Magyar people have been almost completely destroyed, only to rise again, still maintaining their culture and their language. The museum wasn’t anything like I expected.  It told in stark detail the history of the Nazis in Budapest, the killing of the Jews, the oppression of the Soviet Gulag that replaced the Nazis when the Germans lost the war.  It was sobering and troubling, but somehow I understood how the people seem to be unwilling to talk much about it.  I at first thought the House of Terror was some kind of torture museum, and I was totally uninterested.  I am so glad that we wandered past this sober building with the photos of dead Hungarians embedded all along the walls.  In front of the building was a huge sculpture of heavy iron chains and poetry celebrating the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. 

Internment camps in Hungary In spite of the horrendous story, when I researched more Hungarian history, I read that even though 400,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered in the holocaust, the people of Budapest managed to save more than 60 percent of its Jewish Community. It is encouraging to see the transformational change in Hungary and Budapest that has happened since then and even more so since its entrance into the European Union in 2004.  I am not quite sure of the politics, but even though both Hungary and the Czech Republic are part of the European Union, neither country has yet to adopt the Euro.

Free Day in Budapest 10-7-2012 6-08-57 AM Hungarian history is hard to track, and as much as I read, I had a hard time retaining it.  The first settlement was attributed to Celtic tribes and then during the first century AD the Romans built a fortification that eventually evolved into a town. The Huns were never associated with Hungary, in spite of the name.  The Magyar (Hungarian) pagan horse-riding tribes arrived in 986 AD and the Christian Kingdom of SZt. Istvan (St Stephan) was established in the year 1000. St Stephan is now a national symbol of the country and the thousand year old crown that we saw in the Parliament yesterday was actually used by him. The Mongols showed up in 1200 or so, and then King Matthias (not sure what he was or how he got there!) brought the renaissance to Hungary. 

memorials to many killed in the House of Terror Then in the mid 1500’s the Ottoman Empire showed up until the Habsburg Empire centered in Austria took over.  The Ottoman and Austrian cultures still are a major part of life in Hungary. Hungary was almost autonomous for a short time after the defeat of the Habsburgs in the mid 1800’s and Buda, Pest, and Obuda were unified and the official city of Budapest was created in 1873 under the Dual Monarchy of Austria-Hungary. Confused yet?  Whew! the cafe on Terez Korut I am exhausted trying to track this, and spent much of my time in Budapest trying to figure it out and haven’t even included the “dark ages” of  World War I, the Nazi regime, World War II, and the Communists!

Air raids and a three-month siege towards the end World War II resulted in the death of more than 38,000 civilians and nearly complete destruction of much of the city.  Is it no wonder that it is hard to get Hungarians to talk about their history? When I asked Bernice a question about the Communist Era and how it happened she was short and snippy with me, and I actually have no clue what she said. Somehow, though, understanding the history of a country helps me to understand the culture a bit, and to appreciate what I am seeing in a completely different way.  Hopefully my “short version” will stick and as I look back at my experiences in Hungary.

10-7-2012 Free Day in Budapest After the intense and somewhat depressing visit to the House of Terror, we felt a change in the weather coming and decided that it was time to head back toward the hotel rather than continuing along Andrassy Way to the high end district.  Instead we walked toward our hotel along the main east/west boulevard, past lots of little shops and cafes and chose one with nice tables outside where we could sit and people-watch. The cappuccino was outstanding and the pastries light and flaky. I have to say, I was totally spoiled by the coffees in Europe.  Yum!  We needed a little pick-up since I was getting a bit worn out and we still had our evening cruise waiting.

Budapest Danube Cruise 10-7-2012 8-42-00 PMMelody and I are both trying to get picture on this dark rainy night with our iPhones from the boat on the Danube under the Chain Bridge The evening cruise on the Danube in the rain was something I won’t ever forget.  By the time we started walking the half mile or so to the piers the rain was coming down in full force. Our boat was just a nice size for a small dinner cruise, with a warm and lovely cabin protected from the rain.  During the classic Hungarian dinner we slowly made our way up and down the river past the incredibly lit Parliament buildings and under the illuminated bridges, all glistening in the rain.  Buda Castle shown on the hill above us, lit up like Christmas.  I can only imagine what Christmas would be like in this city with all the beautiful lights.  It was a fitting end to a wonderful day in one of the great cities of the world.

Many more photos from this lovely day in Budapest are online here.

August 7 Day 33 Irons Creek to Muncho Lake

on the road at dawn from Irons creekIn life sometimes there are good days. Sometimes there are really great days.  Then sometimes there are days that are written in golden memory, shining and brilliant for the rest of a lifetime.  This was just one of those days.  Since I woke this morning beside a creek in British Columbia, time seemed to crawl along in some sort of slow motion.  Every single moment of this perfect day was drawn out long and still, a gift I suppose from the land and the water and the skies, a gift so that I could savor it.

we are in and out of the fog along the Llaird RiverOur boondock site last night along Irons Creek was still in an area of road construction, so we thought it would be a good idea to get on the road early enough so we didn’t need to worry about falling in line with a pilot car.The skies were still light when I woke at 11:30, but by 1:30 when I again woke and checked for northern lights it was dark enough to see stars.  I haven’t seen stars since we left more than a month ago. It was 31 degrees when we opened the back blinds at 5:30 the only one we had closed during the long quiet night. After heating a pot of water for tea, we closed up the rig and were on the road before 6. 

whirlpool rapids on the Llaird River ValleyThe drama of the morning light was accentuated with mysteriously beautiful drifts of fog lying in the low lands along the Llaird River.  We drove for awhile looking for a nice level pullout to stop and cook Mo’s favorite Sunday morning treat, poached eggs on toast.  Then another stop for a walk down to the river to view the Whirlpool Canyon rapids was rewarding with cool fresh morning air and the roar of the river.

sloooooo wifi for five bucks but a cute little placeAt Coal Creek, there was a small café advertising WiFi, and I thought it might be a good place to try to upload the backlog of blog posts, but even with the $5. fee, I couldn’t manage more than a simple update post with no photos and a quick check of email and bank accounts.  That was really all that mattered anyway, the blog will be there when we are eventually.

another massive faceWithin minutes of leaving Coal Creek we encountered the first of many buffalo grazing along the highway.  Most folks traveling this route will see these buffalo, and they seem to congregate along the wide highway shoulders thick with grasses.  I wondered if they were native to this area or if they have been transplanted here by the BC Parks.  Of course, with no internet, I will have to find that out later. We enjoyed taking photos of the huge bulls with their massive heads and the little ones protected by their moms as they moved along with heads down, grazing. 

To Muncho Day 33_4315The reality of cars and wildlife hit home hard as we passed a dead buffalo beside the road, and saw her little one grazing alone along the highway.  Huge signs warn of buffalo in the area, but still many are killed.  In all, we saw at least 4 dozen buffalo, many bulls and many babies, so even with the sad moment it was encouraging to seem them. Later I found out that these are “wood bison” and that the herd was once completely decimated.  Only in the recent decades has the BC government protected them and the herd has grown to nearly 100 animals.

toward Llaird Hot SpringsThe wide road opened up before us, dropping down off the Yukon Plateau to the valley of the “mighty” Llaird River.  Yes, it is another mighty river, according to the Milepost. I do love the mighty rivers of the Yukon and British Columbia.  It’s a good word.

One of my important “todo” lists for this trip was a visit to Llaird River Hot Springs and it was less than 80 miles from our night camp to the provincial park.  At first I thought we might stop and camp here for the night, but then decided that it was worth the ten bucks to dip in the springs and then continue down the road to Muncho Lake, another big “todo” on my list and camp there.  I wanted to dip my kayak in those famous turquoise waters.

To Muncho Day 33_4374We settled into a parking space and turned on the fan for the animals since Abby couldn’t go out on the hot springs trail.  They have a boardwalk that passes through hot mud flats and wetlands, through the forest, to the first pool.  The second pool is now closed due to an endangered animal that lives there.  There was construction going on, with a new dam being built, but somehow it still felt silent and calm around the pool. There were a few people around, most of whom seemed incredibly respectful of the special beauty of this place. 

To Muncho Day 33_4385I slipped into the mid zone of the pool, knowing that 126*F would definitely be too much for me at the source of the spring.  It was heaven, just pure heaven.  There is a bit of sulfur, but not too much, and there is every variation of temperature in the water, from bathtub comfortable at the lower end of the pool, to too hot for me to handle at the upper end.

To Muncho Day 33_4391 I marveled at the feeling of incredibly hot surface water, with cooler water at my feet.  Perfect for hitting that lower back spot without getting too hot!  Mo doesn’t like sulfur water so I swam alone while she rested on the benches. I’m not sure how long I stayed, but while I was in that water, nothing hurt, just nothing.  You know how it is when the years catch us, something somewhere always seems to be hurting.  Nothing hurt at all while I was in that pool, and as I sit here by the campfire tonight, still nothing hurts.  I could use one of those springs in my own yard!

Janet from Healy AlaskaOnce again I met an Alaskan willing to tell her whole story.  All it takes is a hello and a simple question, and they are off and running.  I met Janet, a woman who has homesteaded at Healy near Denali for 29 years.  She is driving back to the ‘lower 48” for the first time since then.  Her daughter is in Colorado and needs her.  She is afraid of dealing with the city, laughingly telling me that in all her time at Healy she only had to deal with one crazed bear.  She hates the idea of dirty snow and of paying for water.  But her daughter needs her.  She quit her two jobs and is going to Colorado.  She last dipped in the Llaird pools 29 years ago when it was all free, but promised herself this one stop on the Alaska Highway.

Muncho Lake from our campsiteNot far beyond Llaird Hot Springs the view opened up to the lovely blue water of Muncho Lake.  I think I expected it to be a bit more colorful thnt it looked at first because it has been touted so much in all the literature.  Still, it was a respectable blue with edges of turquoise and emerald in the shallows.  There is a campground listed in the Milepost at the southern end of the lake, with 15 rocky beach sites.  On the information map for the park, however, we saw another campground on the northern end and decided that might be more to our liking.

campsite 14 at Muncho LakePulling in to Macdonald Campground we found 15 beautiful sites, each with it’s own perfect small gravel beach, a table and a fire ring.  It was still early in the afternoon, and it was warm and clear.  We set up in our private, perfectly level gravel drycamp site, opened the awning to shelter our chairs against the afternoon sun, and looked forward to a long, quiet afternoon of beautiful views, gorgeous water, and peaceful quiet.

electric chain saw hooked up to the MoHo with the generator going!For the first time on this trip, Mo had a chance to plug in her little electric chain saw to cut up the pallet lying near our site in addition to a couple of downed dry spruce logs.  She discovered that with the generator going, the chain saw would only run on the outlet set up for the microwave, and run it did. We had enough wood for a great long fire after supper into the evening.

great campfireI can’t explain why one day might be more perfect than any other.  The litany sounds like any other day on the Alaska journey.  I know we have seen more spectacular scenery, done exciting things all along the route, traveled more dramatic paths.  But something about this day seemed golden, slow and perfect.  I sat in the lounge chair for a long time just looking up at the light filtering through the aspen leaves listening to the lap of water on the shore.

moonrise over Muncho LakeEarlier in the day I relaxed for a long time in a clear warm pool surrounded by green peacefulness, and later in the day I silently paddled along the shore of a perfect lake surrounded by perfect mountains.  We had a great home-cooked supper with simple chicken breasts, my favorite grated carrot and apple slaw, and some super sweet corn brought all the way from Medford Costco in our little freezer.  After supper I slipped out again onto the lake, and then while Mo relaxed with a book I took Abby for a walk along the shore.  I watched the moon low in the sky to the east and the long twilight as the sun set behind the high mountains to our west. 

I felt more quiet inside than I have on the entire trip, as if the accumulation of all the experience finally settled in to a deep place in my heart.  I guess that is why is was somehow the ‘perfect’ day for me on the Alaska Highway.sunset on Muncho Lake

CaptureMiles driven today: about 230

Road condition: beautiful roads most of the way with just a bit of construction here and there

The rest of the photos for this day of travel are linked here