Peter and I are sitting in steamy hot water at an outdoor pool in Széchenyi Baths in Budapest. It’s a dreary gray November day in the 40s, and the air on our faces feels cold and fresh. But we’re toasty warm, immersed to our necks in medicinal waters along with hundreds of other bathers. Known as the Times Square of thermal baths, Széchenyi, one of nine places to “take the waters” in Budapest, has long been on my bucket list, so it’s a thrill to be here. And the water feels great!
After our fabulous river cruise on the Danube with Emerald Cruises, Peter and I have opted to stay three extra days in Budapest followed by a couple weeks in Northern Italy, Germany, and the Netherlands before returning stateside. Unlike most trips to Europe, this adventure isn’t scripted. We are making plans on the fly and discovering the freedom of changing our minds and going with the flow. Join us as we meander through new vistas, discover ancient ruins, taste delicious wine and food, and forget our cares for a while.
Old-World Vibe at Callas House and Restaurant in Budapest
Don’t Miss the Budapest Zoo & Széchenyi Baths
Staying longer in Budapest was a no-brainer. This city is rich in history and beauty, and we can’t wait to explore it further. I booked a cool hotel on the main boulevard called Callas House, and when we arrive, Marcel gives us a free upgrade to a spacious, elegant room with high ceilings, an Old-World vibe, and an excellent bed.
Buffet breakfast in the Callas Café features crusty breads, pastries, and savory dishes to fortify us for sightseeing. We’re blessed with a mild, sunny day, so we decide to spend the morning at the Budapest Zoo. Opened in 1866, the zoo is one of the oldest in the world and has cool Art Deco buildings and happy-looking animals from across the globe. In the afternoon we walk through the colorful indoor market and buy—what else?—smokey Hungarian paprika for friends back home. For dinner we opt for a Mexican restaurant, Tereza, close to our hotel, just because. My burrito bowl hits the spot with black beans, quinoa, veggies, guac, and spicy sour cream. Yum!
Day Two is cold and rainy, a perfect day for visiting a museum and the thermal baths. We decide to explore the Museum of Hungarian Agriculture located in a unique building complex named Vajdahunyad Castle. The castle architecture runs the gamut from Romanesque to Gothic, Renaissance to Baroque. I’m disappointed that some of the museum exhibits are closed, including the one about viticulture, but we enjoy viewing historic rifles and hunting accessories, as well as exquisite porcelain pieces, and a horse exhibit, which includes skeletons (!) of famous Hungarian racehorses.
The Széchenyi Baths are more fun. We try almost all of the 15 pools, both inside and outside. Some feel silky, others somewhat acidic. Many are almost unbearably hot, but it feels good to be toasty on a cold day. Included in your ticket are saunas and steam rooms, and for an affordable fee you can schedule a massage. Book the Beer Spa for a unique treat, and you and your pals can soak in beer-infused thermal water and drink cold brew from a handy tap. Cheers!
Our second night we dine in an authentic Hungarian restaurant. We walked by it the night before, and it looked trés chic: a café-style atmosphere with white tablecloths and a Paris-bistro ambiance. Turns out everything is excellent: creamy mushroom appetizer, goat cheese soufflé, duck leg confit, and pasta with spinach. A dreamy pudding with strawberries and toasted almonds is the perfect ending for our meal!
We left our car in Regensburg, where the cruise commenced, so we board a train in Budapest for an 8-hour ride across Europe back to Germany. We want to go south to Croatia, but rising coronavirus numbers mean we have to change our plans. Northern Italy it is! We zero in on the eastern area near Trieste, and I find an “agriturismo” lodging online that looks nice.
Tour the Grand Canal in a Vaporetto
Don’t Miss Palmanova and Aquiliea
First, we have to cross the Austrian Alps. After spending the night near Munich, we head south. It’s a partly cloudy day with a deep blue sky peeking through fluffy clouds. Peter and I take some smaller roads and wind through some of the most brilliant scenery we’ve ever seen, ending up in the Dolomites in Northern Italy.
Outdoor recreation is huge here with skiing in winter and hiking and cycling the rest of the year. Our road travels beside the Drava River, along which runs a 300-mile cycling route. A friend once told me she loved cycling in the Dolomites, and I envisioned lots of strenuous climbs up steep mountains. This trail is paved and mostly flat, passing through lush scenery and quaint villages. Now I get it and dream of returning to cycle here one day!
Our agriturismo apartment in Udine is a bit disappointing, so we stay just two nights instead of four. We explore nearby picturesque Italian towns including Palmanova, a star-shaped fort dating to the 1500s with concentric circles surrounding a grand square, where Peter and I sit one sunny afternoon, drinking wine and watching families promenade by.
A woman on the cruise recommended Aquileia, a city founded by the Romans in 181 B.C., now a World Heritage Site. The day we visit is sunny but chilly, and we have the Roman ruins practically to ourselves. Scattered throughout the town are remnants of defensive walls, baths, an amphitheater, and residences, reminiscent of a time when Aquileia was one of the richest and largest Roman cities.
For lunch we find a restaurant called Ristorante Nettuno located at a marina connected to a canal that leads to the Gulf of Trieste. It’s warm enough to sit outside, and we spend a long lunch watching boaters and dining on ultra-fresh seafood and sipping crisp local white wine. We’re the only tourists there, and we feel like we discovered a secret gem.
Venice is only a couple hours away, and Peter and I decide to spend a day in this lovely city, which we last visited in 1998 with our three sons. I find a Hilton Garden Express, just a 10-minute bus ride from the Grand Canal, and as soon as we arrive, we wonder why it’s taken us so long to return. What a magical city!
Peter suggests we take the water bus, or vaporetto, through the Grand Canal, a 60-minute cruise through the heart of Venice for just $9 each. We sit in the back of the “bus” and marvel at the Venetian architecture, the busy canals thronging with boats of all descriptions, including the ubiquitous gondolas, and the bewitching light that makes everything in Venice look like a painting.
We spend the day wandering around, stopping for lunch at an outdoor terrace, where I try the local specialty, bigoli pasta with lobster sauce, and Peter chooses turmeric tagliatelle with pumpkin sauce and roasted ricotta cheese. Divine—especially with a picturesque view of the Grand Canal. At sunset, we join the throngs of people taking selfies on the Rialto Bridge. It’s a party-like atmosphere: everyone’s tickled to be in Venice enjoying la bella cittá.
After dark we can’t bear to leave and sit for an hour in a café on one of the main pedestrian walkways and watch the well-dressed Italians and not so well-dressed tourists amble by, happily chatting or walking their dachshunds. One day is not enough, but we will be back!
Taste Kaltern’s Award-Winning Wines
Shop for German Health Products at Sanct Bernhard
It’s time to start working our way north, but first we make an important stop at a wine region south of Bolzano called Kaltern named after a local lake. Our friends in Germany, Grit and Jens, love the wine here and have asked us to pick some up for them. We spend the night in another agriturismo lodging. This one is much nicer: surrounded by vineyards and beautiful mountain views. The owner recommends an agriturismo restaurant, La Lanterna, where we dine on local fare: rabbit and polenta for me and spinach dumplings in a sage sauce for Peter—plus salads and veggies. We are stuffed!
Wine tasting before lunch? Sure, why not? We walk into Kaltern’s tasting room the next morning, and a tall, jovial fellow welcomes us with a booming voice, “You must be Peggy and Peter!” Grit has called Ivo, placed her order, and told him we’d be stopping by. Of course, I’m dying to taste this sought-after wine, and it is phenomenal.
Ivo tells me the wine region has perfect climate conditions: hot days and cold nights. I love the pinot noir, which is not typically my favorite, and Ivo says the grape grows well here since the breeze dries the vines even when it’s humid. A local grape called Sciava is the hallmark of the Kalterersee Classico Superiore, which won a Top 100 wine award out of 35,000 entries. At $16 per bottle, it’s worth it.
We hate to leave, but the Alps are waiting, and we have reservations in Germany that evening. After passing through more amazing scenery, we stay at Sanct Bernhard, a health-themed hotel with baths and wellness treatments. We don’t have time for therapies, unfortunately, but we do stop in their amazing retail store and buy all sorts of health-related products, way more than we should. I’ll never fit everything in my suitcase for the flight home!
Our last few nights we stay in a bungalow park in a small town in the Netherlands. Called Landal De Lommerbergen, it’s a vacation village with cute bungalows, an indoor swimming pool, restaurants, and lots of family activities. We stayed in parks like this when our kids were little, and I find myself remembering those precious moments when our kids were young and we were, too.
We visit nearby towns, including one where Peter, our sons, and I lived in 1997 during our experiment in ex-pat living. Seeing our old home, the candy store where we took the kids for a treat, and the tranquil park where I pushed my youngest in the stroller is bittersweet, years gone by like leaves in wind.
As we fly back across the ocean, I reflect on why travel matters so much to me. Life’s so busy that we forget who we are deep down. Travel helps us peel back the layers and get in touch with who we were, who we are, and who we want to be.