May 31, 2017: Hungary
Friends have been telling me for years what a wonderful, charming, historic, inexpensive and hospitable place Hungary is.
I went there last month.
They were right.
I started with Budapest,
which is actually two cities, separated by the Danube.
Buda is a fortress town perched on a hill upon the west side of the river.
Pest is the financial, political and cultural center spread out across the flat, east side of the river.
Budapest's Neo-Gothic Parliament Building, on the banks of the Danube
Matthias Church on Castle Hill in Buda
Hungary has a long and colorful history of being invaded from all directions:
Romans, Huns, Germanic tribes, Slovaks, Ottoman Turks and Habsburgs have all left their mark here.
Consequently, Hungary is an architectural treasure trove,
with Roman ruins, medieval town houses, baroque churches, neoclassical public buildings, and Art Nouveau bathhouses and schools.
Like everyone else who comes here,
I spent a few days wandering around Budapest awed by the stunning buildings.
Matthias Church − named for Hungary's most successful king − is a popular destination.
It sits on top of the hill overlooking Pest.
Due to a fault line shaping the Danube Valley,
more than 100 thermal springs come to the surface in Budapest.
From Roman times, these springs fed mineral baths.
Today, Budapest has about twenty public baths, from traditional Turkish baths to modern water parks.
Some of these public baths are like soaking in a hot tub inside a cathedral.
You can get a good massage at these places, too.
After a long day of site-seeing,
I enjoyed relaxing in the baths and getting a massage
before venturing out to eat and drink at one of Pest's ubiquitous sidewalk cafés.
Széchenyi Baths in Pest's City Park
Saint Stephen's Basilica
Pest is rich with culture at great prices:
Swan Lake at the Opera House for $24,
and a Bach+Mozart concert at the Basilica for $8.
Hearing Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor in such a gorgeous setting gave me goose bumps.
As the choir sang Mozart's Requiem, I counted 137 angels above me.
By the way,
a really good AirBnB apartment in Pest,
halfway between the Basilica and the Opera House.
When traveling, it's good to find clean, quiet, comfortable places to sleep at night.
Saint Stephen's Basilica interior
Central Hungary's countryside
Lake Balaton, seen from the overlook on the Tihany peninsula
Budapest has excellent public transportation.
But to see the rest of Hungary (and Croatia, too),
I rented a car.
Hungary and Croatia have good roads and beautiful countrysides.
My first stop was Lake Balaton,
the largest lake in continental Europe.
to book your stay at a stunning cottage overlooking the lake.
From the lake, I continued to Keszthely and Pécs.
These are both delightful towns with art museums, palaces, historic churches and delicious food everywhere.
The biggest difference between these country towns and Budapest is that there were no tourists.
It was nice to see "real" Hungary.
The 18th century Festetics Palace in Keszthely
Pécs’ main square with the Mosque Church in background
Mosque Church interior
From Hungary, it was an easy drive across the border to Zagreb, Croatia's capital.
Here is a tidy, attractive city with lots to see and do, as well as eat and drink.
Zagreb takes at least three days to explore fully.
I confess that I stayed here only one night.
To see the whole world in one lifetime, sometimes one has to keep moving.
The downtown area, in particular the Old Town,
is for pedestrians and electric trams only.
It was a pleasure to be able to walk through the cobblestone streets without having to compete for space with cars.
(I wish that more cities in the US would create pedestrian-only districts.)
Zagreb's Old Town is dominated by a twin-towered 13th century Gothic cathedral.
Outdoor art is everywhere.
Leafy parks are full of statues, fountains and flower beds.
Good restaurants are on every street.
Zagreb's Upper Town
Inside Split's Old City
Next, I drove to Split, Croatia's second largest city.
2000 years ago, this city was full of Roman merchants, nobles and soldiers.
Today, it's full of tourists.
The harbor in Split, with ferries to other points on the Dalmatian Coast
Fishing boats in Hvar's harbor
Finding free parking in Split was so difficult that once I found a place to put my rental car,
I left the car there for a week and continued my journey by boat.
Split is a convenient port for ferries up and down the Adriatic, as well as to Italy.
I sailed first to nearby Hvar, one of many incredibly picturesque islands on the Dalmatian Coast.
Hvar is a popular anchorage for the yachties
because of its perfect little bays,
idyllic restaurants and bars,
and white sandy beaches.
Okay, so what's so special about the Dalmatian coast?
hillsides covered with pine forests,
fields of lavender and rosemary.
The winters are mild and the summers are nothing but sunshine.
Ancient Greeks founded colonies here, making these settlements some of the oldest towns in Europe.
Many of the Dalmatian towns are fortified to protect against pirates and the Ottoman armies.
For centuries, the fishing villages supported themselves by building boats and making wine.
Today, they have the added income of
I used my time in Hvar to rest and plan onward travel.
Hvar is a great place to walk along the water's edge,
feel the history in the stones,
or watch the sun set.
Saint Stephen's Square, Hvar
Sailboats and crystal clear water in Hvar
A nice place to toast the sunset
Looking down on Dubrovnik and the Adriatic from Mount Srd
From Hvar I cruised to Dubrovnik, the "Pearl of the Adriatic."
How come nobody ever told me about this place?
(Actually, if I'd paid more attention to the news in 1991,
I'd have remembered that Dubrovnik was besieged by Serb and Montenegrin soldiers for seven months
and suffered significant damage from bombardment.
Thanks to restoration works in the 1990s and early 2000s,
Dubrovnik is once again one of the top tourist destinations in the Mediterranean.)
This is a beautiful medieval city full of fascinating history.
It caters to tourists with museums, restaurants, bars and souvenir shops everywhere.
It's not particularly cheap.
It wasn't too crowded in June,
but it's packed with tourists in July and August.
Whenever you can come here, this place is definitely worth seeing.
A visit to Dubrovnik isn't complete without doing the 2km walk around the top of the walls that surrounds the old city.
These walls are up to 6m (20ft) thick and 25m (80ft) high.
The views from the tops of the walls are spectacular.
The narrow alleys down below are a great place to get lost in.
I can see why Dubrovnik is a legendary tourist destination.
It has a great vibe,
lots of delightful things to see and do,
and great tourist services.
I found a superb AirBnB apartment
just outside the old city.
Contact the hosts Marilyn and Livio directly at
The main street in Dubrovnik's Old Town, known as the Stradun
View from Dubrovnik's city walls
Dubrovnik's harbor and waterfront
The plaza in Trogir
Split, Hvar and Dubrovnik aren't the only seaports along the Dalmatian Coast with
seaside promenades lined with bars, cafes and yachts,
the endless shimmer of the Adriatic.
After returning to Split,
I stumbled upon the town of Trogir.
Note the lack of tourists in the photo to the left.
For my next visit to the Dalmatian Coast,
I dream of sailing here by yacht and
anchoring for a few days up at every unknown fishing village along this coast.
I ended my roadtrip through Croatia at Plitvice National Park.
This seems to be where all of Croatia's waterfalls are gathered together.
It's an excruciatingly scenic place to take a hike.
Here, I had the added pleasure of meeting rural Croatians at an inn just outside the park entrance.
Dragista is an artist in the kitchen.
Neijo makes a killer plum vodka.
We had no language in common, but we communicated very well.
This new round of travels reminds me how thankful I am to have
to continue my quest to see the world.
Travel can be incredibly enriching.
To be able to see and know first-hand this beautiful planet and the people who live on it is a great blessing.
I'm thankful for this continued opportunity.
My hosts in Plitvice: Dragista and Neijo