The lake appeared outside the window of my rickety old train much sooner than I had expected. We chugged to a slow stop with brakes protesting and my anxiety rose when I spotted a sign for Balatonalmádi. I was on my way to Lake Balaton in western Hungary but it was just 2.5 hours into the four-hour trip; surely this could not be my stop already. Frantically, I questioned fellow passengers, looking for someone who spoke English. “Is this Lake Balaton?” I asked, time and again. Heads nodded. Yes, yes, and yes. Just as I was about to jump off the train a young man stopped me. “This is Lake Balaton, but what town are you going to?” I suddenly remembered that I had booked passage to the town of Révfülöp, though the name of the lake is what had stuck in my head. Relieved, I returned to my seat and, lacking announcements in the carriage, watched for town names each time we squealed into another station. We rattled slowly down the northern shore past Alsóörs, Csopak, Balatonarács, Balatonfüred, Tihany, Balatonudvari, Balatonakali, and several unidentified stops. An hour and a half after I had first spotted the lake, a conductor appeared to alert me that Révfülöp was the next stop. The entire time, the seafoam green lake had rippled peacefully just beyond the tracks.
I later learned that Lake Balaton, 48 miles in length and nearly nine miles wide in places, is the largest lake in Central Europe, however I was more astounded by its color than its size. Balaton shimmers a soft seafoam green at its edges, morphs to an exquisite turquoise a short distance offshore, and stretches toward the horizon in bands of aqua, jade, and ultramarine. The lake we know today as Balaton was formed when the large inland sea that once covered this area of western Hungary receded, leaving an arid plain that was eroded by strong northern winds. Subsequent faulting caused the land to subside even more and by the Pleistocene era the Zala River had flooded the shallow depression, creating a fresh water lake that averages less than 20 feet deep. The color of the water, and the silky feel of it on the skin, is due to this shallow depth and the thick layer of calcium and magnesium rich sediments that lies at its bottom. Read More
As a travel writer specializing in culture, I’m often asked how I tap into the culture of the destinations I visit. I must admit to having a secret weapon – well maybe two secret weapons. First, I will talk to anyone. But I have to find an opportunity to open a conversation, which leads me to tactic number two. I literally haunt coffee shops and cafes.
As my visit to Budapest neared, I was excited to learn that the city has one of the most impressive cafe cultures in the world. By the beginning of the 20th century, more than than 400 coffee houses (kávéház) were attracting writers, painters, musicians, philosophers, and actors who gathered daily to sip espresso and discuss politics. More importantly, these poor artists found sustenance in the form of cheap food, free paper and ink, and a warm refuge from rented rooms they could not afford to heat during the brutal Hungarian winters. It is said that entire books were written in these coffee houses. Many of the original cafes were destroyed during World War II and the remainder, seen as a breeding ground for political dissidents, were closed down during the communist era, but since the 1989 revolution quite a few have been restored to their former glory.
Determined to discover this alternative culture, early one morning I met a guide from Budapest Underguide for their Delicatessen Tour. My guide for the day, Bogáta, wasted no time, waltzing me into the New York Kávéház. Reputed to be the most beautiful of all the cafes, it was such a popular spot that writer Ferenc Molnár is said to have tossed the key to its front door into the Danube in an effort to keep it open around-the-clock. I could understand why; what writer wouldn’t want to spend his days and nights spinning words beneath the obscenely opulent gold-leaf decor that spread before me? Read More
I lugged my backpack and suitcase up the steep metal steps of the train in Bratislava, Slovakia and collapsed into my seat. Two and a half months earlier I had arrived in England after an unusually long winter stay in the States, during which I got precious little exercise. I was out of shape and nursing a bad hip and knee, but London beckoned. Never one for moderation, I walked for eight hours on day one. The following morning I was in agony and for the next month I battled pain and soreness that had me limping and struggling to climb steps.
After England I joined a Morocco tour that challenged my patience and sanity, then spent a whirlwind three days in Paris before hopping a plane to Prague, which was a severe disappointment. Poznan, a delightful town in Western Poland, raised my hopes, but four days later I was in Bratislava, where the people were just as cold and uncaring as they had been in Prague. So far, my travels in Eastern Europe had been one big challenge that left me exhausted. So I sat back in my first-class seat, grateful for an air conditioned car that offered wifi and electrical plug, and hoped for the best as I rolled toward Budapest, Hungary.
From the moment I stepped off the train in the Hungarian capital, I sensed that this city was different. Weaving and dodging through throngs of pedestrians as I walked the five blocks to my rental apartment, I tried to hide my astonishment at the flamboyant architectural styles lining the broad avenues. Art Nouveau mingled with Secessionist, Art Deco, Romantic, Classic, and Neo-Classic buildings, some nicely restored and others crumbling, but all massive and fully in use. Intrigued, I dumped my Read More
I can’t say when I first learned of the Danube River. Perhaps a zealous geography teacher impressed the name in my adolescent mind. More likely, I read about it in one of the National Geographic magazines that were always stacked haphazardly in the front hall of my childhood home. Back then, the name evoked romance, history, and an endless parade of Romans, Ottomans and Austro-Hungarians following its braided and looped course across central Europe. Fifty years later, the mystique surrounding the word still held me in such sway that upon arriving in Bratislava, Slovakia I stepped off the bus and turned my back on the Old Town. First and foremost, the river beckoned.
Tamed within concrete embankments, the lazy gray-green Danube caught up in whorls beneath SNP Bridge, as if perturbed by the bizarre metal tower that anchors one end of the city’s main river crossing. Like the river, I was initially disturbed by the saucer-shaped disc, appropriately named the UFO Restaurant and observation deck, that balanced precariously on top of the tower’s concave metal legs. It seemed entirely out of place, something of an eyesore, until I realized that the river would take even aliens in stride, just as it had withstood the onslaught of countless conquering armies over the centuries. Read More
Every December I return to Chicago to spend the holidays with my family. After all the gifts are exchanged, the ridiculously huge dinners devoured, and only thing remaining in the tins of Christmas cookies are crumbs, I start looking around for new things to do in the Chicagoland area. Several years ago I read an article about Galos Salt Caves, an artificial cave lined with Crimean salt crystals that had opened on the north side of the city. The salt is is produced by allowing water from the Black Sea to flow into special pools, where it is slowly dried in the sun over four to five years. According to the Polish company that builds the caves around the world, the resultant salt crystals are a “delicate pink color like wings of a flamingo or young Cabernet wine. Big salt crystals shimmer like diamonds and have a delicate flowery smell.”
I was intrigued. I had read articles about health benefits derived from being at the seashore, where the crashing of waves on the shore creates a negatively ionized atmosphere thought to have a positive effect against free radicals, increase oxygen intake, elevate mood, and relieve stress. So why not a salt-lined cavern? Each year I vowed to check them out but I just never found the time. And then I was unexpectedly invited to Poznan, Poland. I was flipping through a tourism brochure, trying to decide how to spend in my last two days in Poznan when I spotted an ad for Galos Salt Caves. I’d always assumed the facility was built in Chicago because it is home to the world’s second largest population of Poles. But never in my wildest dreams did I imagine that I would travel halfway around the world to visit a salt cave in Poland.
Unable to resist, I headed there first thing the next morning. The attendant instructed me to remove my shoes and handed me a pair of footie socks to put on before entering the psychedelically lit cave. The attendant first instructed us to walk around on the large salt crystals that covered the floor, as they provided a good foot massage. After a minute or so, I settled into one of the chaise lounges set up in a semi-circle, Read More
Poland wasn’t even been a blip on my radar when I decided to wander around Eastern Europe this year. I knew I’d be visiting the Czech Republic, after which I intended to continue to Slovenia, Croatia, and points south, but when Prague turned into a giant disappointment I began to rethink my route. About the same time I received an email that invited me to visit Poznan, Poland. With no concrete plans holding me back I thought, “Why not?” Two days later I hopped onto the morning PolskiBus in Prague, changed to a train in Wroclaw, Poland, and rolled into Poznan later that same afternoon.
The following day began my acquaintance with this mid-size city that is the capital of Western Poland. A walking tour led through parks and past myriad memorials dedicated to the various uprisings that eventually led to the 1989 Velvet Revolution, a bloodless coup that resulted in Polish independence, and Citadel Park was a monument to World War II. But my history lesson really began when we stepped onto the small island in the center of the Warta River, which runs through the middle of Poznan. The Kingdom of Poland began on that very spot and the country’s first rulers were buried in Poznan’s 10th century cathedral, whose stately twin spires still rise over the island. Over the ensuing centuries Poznan was sacked by invaders, divided into separate duchies, destroyed by floods and fires, devastated by plague, and endured a series of wars and attendant military occupations that virtually destroyed the city.
With that history in mind, my expectations for the Old Town were decidedly low as we headed for the Old Market Square to watch the mechanical goats pop out of Poznan’s Town Hall clock tower at noon. We turned the final corner and my jaw dropped open in Read More