Howard Hian

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The historic rivers of Europe, starting with the Rhine in the north and ending with the Danube in the south, form centuries-old trade routes connecting many great cities. Two of my favorites, Amsterdam and Budapest, are joined by these waterways. Both have their own unique history, culture and great art, but are inexorably linked, even now, by the long shadow of the Holocaust and the brutal occupation of the Nazi era. Here is a quick guide to both cities.

 

 

Amsterdam: Background

Are you in Holland or the Netherlands? Actually, both. Netherlands is the country and Holland is the region. Holland is located on the western coast of the Netherlands and there are two regions, North and South Holland. Amsterdam is in North Holland and is the capitol of the country.
Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport (www.schiphol.com) was recently voted the best airport in Europe by the British magazine, Business Traveler. Whether you arrive or depart from Schipol Airport, leave time to shop and sightsee. There are numerous first rate stores and restaurants and the prices are not outrageous, as is the case at most airports. The Rijksmuseum actually has an annex there. There is also a casino that features more than 100 slot machines and table games, including roulette and blackjack.

 

In Amsterdam, there are 750,000 people and 600,000 bikes. Because of its small size, it’s an easy city to walk around, but beware of the bicyclists. They are not pedestrian friendly. The city is twelve feet under sea level, with 22 locks holding out the North Sea. There are 1,600 bridges crossing more than 100 canals, with 3,000 houseboats dotting the waters.

 

 

On the Ground and in the Water

It takes only 20 minutes from the airport to get to the center of Amsterdam and there are many transportation choices readily available. Taxis are expensive, but the light rail system runs from the airport into town and is cheap. Connexxion is a reasonably priced van service that will take you directly to your hotel.
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Public Transportation in Amsterdam

Even if you spend three days sightseeing, you won’t be able to get to all of the museums. The Rijksmuseum, Rembrandt and Van Gogh Museums will keep you very busy. The ghost of World War II still hangs over Amsterdam, as best seen through the eyes of Anne Frank at her family home. Close to one million people per year visit to learn or re-learn the details of the tragic story.

 

There are 28 public parks in Amsterdam. Stroll through Vondel Park, the largest and most popular park in the city. Walk to the Floating Gardens market; it is a wonderland of flowers, fruits and plants displayed beautifully on houseboats bobbing on the canal.
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A Stall at the Floating Gardens

The character of this water-bound city is connected to the canals, so take a cruise to get a feel for the lifestyle. “Love for sale.” OK, I admit that my wife and I walked through the Red Light district. We saw row after row of mostly young women, scantily dressed and displayed in storefront windows. It’s an eye opener (and eye full). Prostitution is legal and carefully controlled. Marijuana and hash are sold in coffee houses all around town. You’re definitely not in Kansas, Toto.

 

 

Where to Stay, Eat and Get Information

My wife and I stayed at the new Hotel Movenpick City Centre. It is located on the water’s edge, next to the passenger terminal, within walking distance to the old center of Amsterdam and Central Station and adjacent to the Dutch Concert Hall, Muziekgebouw. It is four-star rated but has many five-star features, including complimentary computer use. The Movenpick is a non-smoking hotel that includes a lavish breakfast in the price. The staff is most accommodating and friendly. Note: Rates are usually cheaper on the weekends. Go to their website, www.movenpick-hotels.com and click on Amsterdam.

 

Try the Belgium fries (frites) sold by street vendors. They are a national obsession. One has a choice of peanut sauce, mayonnaise or ketchup as condiments. Stop by the centrally located Albert Heijn supermarket for local produce, gifts, snacks, lunch, bottled water, wine and/or chocolates.
The Visitor Bureau’s website (www.holland.com) is easy to navigate and very helpful. For savings including museum admissions, free public transportation, canal cruising and restaurants, consider buying the I amsterdam card. Also, pick up a copy of Amsterdam Weekly to see what is going on in town. Note: English is the second language so getting around is easy.

 

 

Budapest

Background: Budapest is known as the “Pearl of the Danube.” It is Hungary’s capital and actually three cities separated by the Danube, but connected by six bridges. The three parts are made up of the Buda Hills and the Old City on the west bank and Pest on the east side. The city population is approximately two million; twice as many people live on the Pest side. There are ten million people in the entire country, which is about the size of Indiana. The language is difficult and, strangely, is closer to Finnish in origin than any other European dialect. Like Amsterdam, the memory of World War II still lingers in Budapest. Through most of the war, Hungarian Jewry was relatively safe. That changed in the last nine months of the war, when over 600,000 Jews were deported and murdered by the Nazis. On the riverfront, a moving bronze sculpture marks the spot where children, women and men were shot and dumped into the Danube.
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A Tribute to the Murdered Jews of Budapest

On the Ground and in the Water

Once again, three days are not enough to see everything. Walk the riverfront of the historic Danube to the classic Chain Bridge which was completed in 1849. Spend time wandering around Vaci Street, a pedestrian-only shopping area that is also the banking center of Budapest. Take a guided bus tour to see the Parliament Building, the Castle District, Fisherman’s Bastion and the Citadel. Visit the Hungarian National Museum, the RoyalPalace, the Millennium Monument and Hero’s Square. In Pest, you will find the Parliament building, the Jewish Quarter and the “Great Synagogue,” the largest in Europe still in use. The arts are rolled into a terrific venue, under one roof, at the new Palace of the Arts, which anchors a dramatic urban redevelopment in Budapest. The impressive lobby is shared by three main venues: the Ludwig Museum, the National Concert Hall and the Festival Theatre. All feature state of the art, high quality acoustics and comfortable seating. The concerts, movies, plays, ballet and art exhibits can accommodate up to 4,500 people. There are snack bars, a restaurant, an Internet café, a gift store and bookshop for shopping or just browsing.
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The Danube and Budapest

There are 123 thermal springs in the city. Every day, 70 million liters of thermal water bubble throughout Budapest. Gellert Hall is the largest and best known of the spas and it is worth a trip. One can select from a vast array of spa features. There are thermal baths, saunas, a swimming pool and a solarium; beauty treatments plus dental and medical services are also available. Get in the water!

 

 

Where to Stay, Eat and Get Information

We stayed at the 165 room Art’otel (www.artotels.com) which pays homage to the arts by way of American artist Donald Sultan. The hotel is comparable to a one man show of his works with over six hundred pieces on display throughout the public areas and in every guest room. It is very guest friendly, features state of the art technology and offers an extraordinary buffet breakfast that is included in the rate. Their signature restaurant, Chelsea, serves an eclectic array of international, Mediterranean, Asian and regional food. The hotel is a 10 minute walk from the World Heritage Site Buda Castle and three blocks from the metro station. Hint: request a room overlooking the Danube for a panoramic view of the city and the famous bridges of Budapest.
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View from the Art’Otel

Eat at the historic Gerbeaud Haz. Established in 1884, it features a beautiful restaurant located in a covered courtyard, plus a beer house and a confectionery café. World class chocolate is made on the premises and their pastries are legendary. All around town, coffee houses and inexpensive outdoor food kiosks abound. Visit the Central Market Square which was built in 1896. It is the perfect place to pick up a snack, cheese, locally grown fruits and vegetables, gifts, salami and/or kolbas, world famous Hungarian paprika and, of course, Tokay wine. It also offers a great opportunity to people watch.
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Paprika Stall in the Central Market

Contact the Hungarian Tourist Bureau (www.gotohungary.com) for trip information and ideas. Consider buying the Budapest Card from the Tourism Office for savings that include museum admissions and restaurants (www.budapestinfo.hu). They also offer the free Budapest City Guide. Pick up a free copy of Where (www.wherebudapest.com.bu) or Key to Budapest (www.keytobudapest.com) for listings of activities. There is excellent public transportation that includes subway, trolley and buses. Take “company” cabs not private ones; they are regulated and safer. The minibus shuttles to the airport are frequent and inexpensive. Budapest’s Ferihagy International Airport is tourist friendly and easy to navigate.

 

 

Travel Hints to Make Your Vacation Easier

DK Publishing produces outstanding, beautifully detailed travel books that include maps, hotel and restaurant information, attractions, things to see and places to visit. They are excellent planning tools. Their guides to Budapest and Amsterdam were trip essentials and, afterwards, looked great on our bookshelf. They can be ordered online at www.dk.com.
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Essential Travel Books from DK Publishing

Arrive early to all of the museums to miss the crowds and purchase tickets. Rent headsets; they will be your educational, electronic guide. Internet cafes abound in both cities and are relatively inexpensive. In Amsterdam, the Euro is used and the Florint is the currency of choice in Budapest, although they will accept Euros. Upon departure you will, most likely, be stuck with the coins of the country you are visiting, and banks won’t exchange them for U.S. dollars. Here’s a suggestion: have fun shopping in the airport. My experience is that most of the shops will be happy to take your leftover change even if it totals a bit less than the full retail value of candy bars and/or souvenirs.

 

Someone recently told me that there were two types of luggage, lost and carry-on. Fact: more bags were lost by the airlines in 2007 than in any other year. Keep your bags close by and pack lightly. My Boundary Day Pack by Eagle Creek (www.eaglecreek.com), complemented by their award winning Hovercraft 22 inch roll-on, allowed me to travel throughout these two great cities without ever checking through my belongings.

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The charming City Mouse-Country Mouse tale by Aesop tells the story of two cousins from very different neighborhoods who visit each other and, as a result, gain appreciation for their own homes. Aesop’s fables were first written in the mid-sixth century BCE. Not much is known about the author, but historians believe that he was a freed slave. His stories have served as moral lessons, delighting parents and children for over 2,500 years.
I was reminded of this engaging children’s story after a backyard visit, first to downtown San Diego (the city), and then to North County San Diego (the country). San Diego has grown to one of the largest cities in the United States; the county is diverse geographically and stretches from the Pacific Ocean to a desert-like environment at its eastern border.
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The first stop on our weekend was the rapidly changing, historic downtown city district known as the Gaslamp Quarter. The start of construction on the San Diego Padres Petco Park in 2000 was the catalyst for the dramatic growth. The surrounding neighborhood has become a vibrant place to live, work, and play. This is home to the city mouse in all of us.
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I’m a big fan of Kimpton Hotels and located smack dab in the middle of the Gaslamp Quarter action is their Solamar Hotel. We arrived in time for a hosted wine social, a Kimpton custom. The hotel, featuring a contemporary, sophisticated, yet tranquil style, opened in the Spring of 2005 and celebrates the art theme found within the area. The rooms are state-of-the-art and the designer décor takes into account the guest’s comfort. The in-room goodies include two line phones with data-ports and a flat screen TV connected to a DVD/CD player. The staff is very friendly and knowledgeable and provided us with several valuable “inside” sightseeing tips about the area.
On our first night in the city, we ate at Dakota Grill & Spirits. It is one of eleven Cohn Restaurants in San Diego. There is split level dining and an upstairs bar with live piano music. The menu features mesquite grilled steaks and seafood. After an early dinner, we attended the long running Triple Expresso at the Horton Grand Theater. It was great fun and it was obvious by the crowd reaction that many had seen the musical comedy before. We ended the evening with a nightcap back at the Solamar’s roof top poolside watering hole, Jbar. The outdoor seating and cabanas are comfortable and it is one of the most popular spots in downtown San Diego. According to their brochure, it is a “tropical, urban oasis.” That is an apt description.
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The next morning we wandered through the Gaslamp Quarter and window shopped all the condo projects springing up throughout the ballpark neighborhood. We were amazed at the transformation of this urban core from an unappealing inner city to an exciting and lively place to visit. That evening we “cocooned” and never left the hotel. After a splendid happy hour at the Solamar’s bar, we headed into the dining room, Jsix (named for its location on J Street and 6th). Kimpton Hotels, unlike most lodging companies, operate eclectic and interesting restaurants. Jsix is in that mold.

Early the next day, we headed a few blocks away to explore San Diego Bay’s waterfront. There are 11 miles of paved walkway, laid out for maximum enjoyment of the harbor and its views. Along the way we passed the shopping meccas of Horton Plaza and Seaport Village, then the cruise terminal, with two luxury ships awaiting their passengers, the mammoth USS Midway and the historic sailing ship, the Star of India. After our leisurely stroll, it was time to depart and turn to the next chapter of our backyard weekend, the country mouse portion of our getaway.
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Our “country home” for the next two days was the Rancho Bernardo Inn. Over the years, this full service resort has quietly become one of the finest hotels in the San Diego area. With 27 holes of golf, tennis, great food and a gracious, welcoming personality, RBI has rightfully earned its reputation. What we were also about to learn is that North County San Diego is a foodie’s delight; we found three outstanding restaurants during our stay. After check-in, our afternoon was spent reading and relaxing by one of the two pools. Fountains, meandering paths and lush landscaping add to the tranquil setting. Dinner that evening was at the award winning El Bizcocho Restaurant at the Rancho Bernardo Inn. Their brilliant chef de cuisine, Gavin Kaysen, recently won the Bocuse d’Or competition, ranking him as the top chef in the USA. We enjoyed a memorable dining experience. Our next morning was spent lounging poolside. Mid-afternoon we headed to the cozy spa for two treatments, a hot stone and a holistic massage. The special indulgence added to our already mellow mood. That evening we walked to Bernardo’s, arriving in time to enjoy their happy hour. The restaurant serves French California cuisine and is run by Bernard and Diana Mougel. This couple pays close attention to all the details. The result is excellent food and attentive service in a casual and friendly atmosphere. It was a perfect ending to a very relaxing day. On check out day, which included a long walk around the grounds of the resort, we went to lunch at the French Market Grille. The proprietor, an engaging Frenchman with the unlikely name of Patrick Halsewicz, turns out classically prepared seafood (the bouillabaisse is not to be missed) along with traditional French dishes with a California slant. This is affordable bistro food at its best.
We learned a lot about our hometown, San Diego, and enjoyed our backyard getaway during our long weekend. But, as in Aesop’s story, and like the City Mouse and the Country Mouse, we were happy to head home.