Visiting the Netherlands: Amersfort and Delft

Another impressive thing in the Netherlands were old towns and canals. Even though cities have mainly modern buildings (at least that was our experience), in some cities the old town is well preserved in the center of the city. We visited two such old city centers: Amersfort and Delft. You can find here everything what you picture Holland would be: canals and cobblestone streets lined with narrow old houses. We naturally took a boat tour on the canals – it’s a good way to make sightseeing fun for the kids. Here are some pictures of Amersfort:

Amersfoort1Amersfoort2

Delft is famous for the Delft Blue china produced in town which has characteristic blue decorations. It also has a very nice historic downtown. We visited the main square with the New Church (Nieuwe Kerk) and the City Hall (Stadhuis).

Delft has an important place in dutch history. The founder of the royal family, Willem van Oranje (William of Orange), was assassinated in Delft in 1584. At the time the Netherlands was fighting for its independence from Spanish occupation and Willem of Oranje was the leader of the movement. His body was laid to rest in the Nieuwe Kerk and since then numerous royals from the House of Orange has been buried here. I thought it was funny how the brochure that we got in the church gave a detailed description of what the Dutch did to the assassin, named Balthasar Gerard. Upon further reading I learned that indeed he was tortured and killed brutally, ‘even by the standards of the time’. I guess you don’t cross the Dutch!

Tim, Daniel and Panka walked up to the tower of the church (many hundreds of steps up) where you can have a nice view of the city. The picture of the Stadhuis was taken from atop the Nieuw Kerk.

Delft1Delft2Delft3

Visiting the Netherlands: Trains and Bikes

Tim’s mom and dad imigrated from the Netherlands and visit there regulary. So this year we spent 10 days with them in Nunspeet, a small village in the middle of the country.

One of the most impressive things in the Netherlands was the transportation – specifically, the train system and the frequent use of bikes. We ditched the car on this trip and used trains and bikes for all of our transportation. We visited a couple of old towns (Delft, Amersfort, post on these trips upcoming…) by train, and there were always frequently running trains and convenient connections for wherever we went. Dora’s favorite was the double decker train.

When moving within the town, bike is the most convenient form of transportation.  Tim’s aunt, Tante Iet, lives in Nunspeet so we borrowed her and her neighbor’s bike to move around town. Panka loved to ride on the back of Oma’s (Grandma in Dutch) bike. There are many bikers, old and young, traveling through the village (it helps that Holland if very flat).  Check out the extensive bike rack that each train station comes with! Also, our base, Nunspeet, is a favored vacation spot among the Dutch and had lot of winding bike paths through the surrounding forests. We rented bikes for two days and did some short bike trips with the kids.

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bikerack

Skiing in the Alps

Alps mergeAfter all of our struggles, we managed to get two wonderful days of skiing at Semmering in the Alps. The original plan was to travel Thursday afternoon, ski on Friday and Saturday, and then return on Sunday.  As it was, we managed to ski all of Saturday and most of Sunday before returning (uneventfully) to Budapest.

As usual, Dora aced the accommodations portion of the trip.  We had a nice apartment, about 30 minutes from the ski resort on top of St. Corona, one of the neighboring peaks. Below you can see the sunrise that greeted us Sunday morning, as well as a peasant home we passed en route to the slopes.
sunrise mergeAustria castle

The weather was perfect for skiing — just around 0 °C — not to cold but not so warm that the snow melts and gets slushy. The slopes themselves had a Family semmering1000 m elevation, so things got a bit chilly near the top.  On Sunday, the weather was a bit hazy, and as we took the second lift to the very top we realized that we were entering a cloud.  The kids were pretty amazed, especially when they realized that clouds aren’t actually made of some fluffy cotton.

Hot csoki

Panka enjoys her hot chocolate

 

 

A goal of Dora’s has been to get the kids to ski and to enjoy skiing.  In that respect, the trip was a big success.  There were some nice, easier slopes that the kids enjoyed a lot.  Daniel is the more technical skier, while Panka is a bit of a daredevil.  Toward the end of the trip, the kids took to referring to Dora as “granny”, since she always took her time and was behind us. Here’s a short video of the kids skiing at the end of the trip:

 

 

Skiing on M1?

A week ago we went for our big ski trip to the Alps.  While Hungary lacks any large mountains, the eastern edge of the Alps in Austria are just a 3 hour drive away from Budapest.  Or so we thought.  As we were preparing for the trip, Dora’s Dad warned us that a snowstorm was passing through Europe and the forecast didn’t look good for the western part of Hungary.  Naturally, we paid little heed to his advice; he’s usually nervous whenever we go on big trips and has given similar warnings before.

As expected, the snow began to fall as we set out on highway M1 (Thursday, 2:30 PM).  About 30 miles into the trip, the snow began to pick up even more, and the traffic slowed accordingly.  Eventually, we hit a long stretch of stop-and-go traffic, undoubtedly due to an accident up ahead.  Then finally, at 6:30 PM, as we were still less than 60 miles into our trip, the stop-and-go turned into a just plain stop.  As we sat and waited, I put the parking break on and turned off the engine.  As time passed, the possibility that we might not move again became more and more of a reality, and we began to make plans for the evening.  The apartment in Austria needed to be contacted as we would not be arriving as planned (forturnately, Dora’s dad is fluent in German and called for us, since they spoke neither English or Hungarian at the apartment).  Everyone bundled up — fortunately we were dressed for skiing so everyone had plenty of warm clothes available.  Panka and Daniel M1 linewere a bit apprehensive at first (Matthew was safely at home with Dora’s mom, fortunately), but we convinced them that there were plenty of other people around us stuck in exactly the same situation and there were no other alternatives (do you really want to walk out there?).  Turning back was never a possibility, as the Hungarian highways don’t have any turnarounds built into them, and besides the opposing traffic back to Budapest slowed to a stop a few hours after we did.

And so it was.  All night we sat there, and it continued to snow and the wind continued to blow.  We all managed to get some sleep (the kids are more adaptable than the adults, fortunately).  We had 3/4 of a tank of fuel, so we idled the engine every couple of hours to pump a bit of heat into the car.

M1snow2The next morning we awoke with the rising sun.  It was no longer snowing and slowly people began to emerge from the cars and mill around.  From atop the neighboring fuel tanker truck, I was able to get a view of the surroundings — traffic (and snow) piled up, both lanes in both directions, as far as the eye could see.  The hourly news on the radio confirmed this — thousands vehicles stranded on the Hungarian roadways, with the most serious situation on M1 near Győr (our location).

At any given time, the roadways contain an interesting cross-section of the population, and this occasion was no different.  Stranded along with us were other cars and tractor trailor trucks carrying young and old, from a variety of countries (primarily Hungary, Austria, and Slovakia, but also several others) with different languages.  People were traveling for different purposes, with widely varying levels of preparedness.  We were among the most fortunate: access to plenty of warm clothes, food and water, and a full tank of fuel.  Ahead of us was a young Austrian businessman, just trying to make his way home and without any food or water.  Next to him, a young couple with thin jackets and no gloves, along with a small dog than needed to be taken out every couple of hours.  Ahead of them was a family that ran out of fuel overnight.

Information and rumors spread through the stranded travelers.  We were told that the preschool in the neighboring village of Nagyszentjános was open, heated, and had hot tea available.  The exit was a little over a kilometer up the road and there would be vehicles that would take you from there.  There was a rest stop McDonalds a couple of kilometers back that some toward on foot — the local trucker behind us said it was actually 6 kilometers.  We later learned that, not surprisingly, there wasn’t any food left to be purchased there.  Soon villagers from Nagyszentjános were walking amongst the

Food distribution

Food distribution

vehicles, gauging how much food and help was needed.  We were relieved to see some fireman walking down to survey the situation, but later learned that they were only walking because their truck had gotten stuck, and besides they had no food until one of our neighboring cars gave them some.  And everywhere people wondered when it was that we would leave; the prevailing opinion (and confirmed by several “authorities”) was that we would be there another night.

Through the midday, the wind died down and the temperatures became bearable, so the family spent some time out of the car.  Dora borrowed a shovel from the trucker behind us and she and I took turns shoveling the area around are vehicle, imagining that if everyone M1 ski2around did the same we could be free sooner.  Our skiing adventure seemed in jeopardy, so we put the rented skis on Daniel and Panka and had them ski down the small embankment along the side of the road (vertical drop < 2m), much to the amusement of the other stranded travelers. We took a walk up the road and realized that the situation up there was worse; ~100m ahead the highway travelled adjacent to an open field and snow had drifted to a height of over 1 m across the highway.  Interestingly, there wasn’t really that much snow that had fallen, but with the high winds and the “snow fence” created by stopped traffic it all seemed to be concentrated right on the highway.

As the day passed, we continued to ear our supplies: a loaf of bread, fruit, crackers and chocolate, along with Székelykáposzta (cabbage, Székely-style) for dinner (surprisingly good when cold). Night began to fall again and it appeared that the predictions were true and we would be there another night.  A final walk to large drifts ahead brough a glimmer of hope though; ahead lights were visible from a large frontloader furiously clearing the road.  In short order, officials came and instructed all the cars (no trucks) to get in a queue and be ready to go. Soon, at 7:30 PM, 25 hours after we stopped for good and 30 hours since we left Budapest, we were moving again.  All the cars traveled a narrow path cut through the drifts, winding along the side of the road and between tractor trailers.  After about 2 km, we were at the exit, were all traffic was directed toward the city of Győr using side roads.  Győr itself was packed with vehicles, all stranded and waiting to get on M1 toward Budapest (which still wasn’t moving).  But clearing M1 of vehicles was top priority, and there were lots of police directing traffic and keeping our line moving.  Eventually, we reentered the M1 highway northwest of Győr, this part was pristine without a speck of snow or ice.  The opposing direction was still lined for many kilometers with tractor trailers, which were no longer being diverted into Győr.  We called our accomodation in Austria to let them know that we were moving again and would be arriving between 10 and 11PM; they were very understanding and said they’d wait.

And so, just before 11 PM, over 32 hours after our start, we arrived at the village.  We couldn’t find the apartment, but the older woman that runs the apartment spotted us and direct us to our location.  Following a well-deserved night of sleep, we were excited and ready to hit the slopes, which I’ll talk about in my next post!

Here’s a video blog about our experience:

Exploring the Caves of Hungary

Sorry for the long delay between posts!  We’ve been doing some traveling and I’ve been busier than usual at work. The good news is that I have lots to share.  In addition to this post, I have some more great stories from the past weekend (for those who can’t wait, here is a teaser: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U1t3nS47RkU)

But before we get to that, I wanted to share our journey to the caves on the Eastern caves side of Hungary.  They are located in an area know as Aggtelek, adjacent to the border with Slovakia. In total, there are 26 km of caves, which can be accessed from several different points.  We did two separate tours starting from two different points.  It is even possible to take a 7 km/12 hr journey from one end to the other; for this you leave the “beaten path” and have to ford streams and need lamps, etc.  Maybe when the kids are older…

Our first tour started from the village fo Aggtelek and took us for a 1 hour tour through some of the more impressive rooms in the cave system, including the “concert hall” that you see below (yes, they reallly hold concerts here). Later in the afternoon, we took a 2 hour tour, concert hallstarting a point midway in the caves and travelling a couple of kilometers to the other end.  Since it is the “off-season” for the caves, we were the only ones on this tour and we had a really knowledgable and friendly tour guide. The kids really enjoyed seeing the hibernating bats hanging from the ceiling of the cave.

The caves of Aggtelek are really a wonderful and underappreciated part of the country.  Because the area is fairly isolated and not near and large metropolitan arFamily caveseas, it doesn’t get much hype.  Nonetheless, they’ve done a great job of developing the area (with some help from some joint EU grants they have with their Slovakian counterparts) for tourism.  For instance, we stayed at a great, new apartment house that is rented out by the Hungarian National Parks service; it wasn’t expensive and was the perfect place for us.  We were hoping to also do some hiking in the area, but the weather did not cooperate (fortunately, the weather in the caves is the same year-round).

On the trip back to Budapest, we stopped at yet another cave — Miskolctapolca. This cave experience is less scholarly than the others; inside these caves have been built an extensive set of miskolc tappools and baths.  Needless to say, the kids (and adults) had a great time swimming.  In particular, I enjoyed the warm baths on the upper level, but I was less thrilled about having to follow Matthew into the cooler baths!

 

Skiing with snow!

Pan merge

Earlier, I posted about Daniel and Panka’s adventures at ski school.  This weekend we were able to finally put their skills to the test at a nearby resort in Mátraszentistván.  Hungary isn’t exactly a mountainous country, so there aren’t a lot of great skiing options in the country (especially with the Alps beckoning nearby).  Still, Dora found a nice place in a hilly region east of Budapest called the Mátra, where we spent 2 half days on the slopes.

DaniPank2

Panka and Dani ready to ski!

I haven’t had a chance to watch kids during their ski lessons since I stay home to watch Matthew, so this outing was my first chance to see them on skis.  I was super impressed with their new skills.  They really look natural on the hill; firmly in control and starting to make turns very nicely as well.  We stuck mostly to the easy trail, but both of them tackled a more difficult medium grade slope during the trip.  Panka’s challenging experience came about mostly by accident.  The most difficult part for Panka was actually getting up the hill (no chair lifts, just surface lifts such as platter lifts or T-bar lifts that tow you up the hill), and on our first time up the biggest lift Panka fell off on the steep part.  This led to a mini adventure in which Dani continued up to the top of the hill, during which time I coaxed Panka down the steep slope and then frantically tried to explain the situation to the skilift operators in my broken Hungarian.  Panka did great on the steep trail and everything turned out fine — Daniel and I eventually reunited. Overall, it was a very successful weekend with beautiful snow-covered scenery; we look forward to future family ski outings!

Edinburgh with a Small Child

As I mentioned earlier, our trip to Edinburgh was with Matthew (age 2) in tow.  Because most of the main attractions in Edinburgh are more appealing to adults then children (the castle, Holyrood palace, etc), we were careful to pick out a couple of programs that would engage Matthew too.

SNM racecar

Matthew at National Museum of Scotland

One was an afternoon outing to the National Museum of Scotland. This museum has an extensive science and technology section with lots of hands-on exhibits.  Matthew especially liked the race cars.  There was even a Formula 1 race car simulator that you could drive.  Matthew and I tried it out; I controlled the pedals while he handled the steering.  Needless to say, we spent a lot of time crashing into walls.  Hopefully he does a little better when he turns 16.  The museum also had a nice exhibit about animals, as well as a room of activities for small children.  All in all, it was a nice place for Matthew to spend a couple of hours.

On the last day, we decided to spend the morning at a museum near the castle called Camera Obscura.  I wasn’t sold on the plan at first, since it really doesn’t have much to do with Scotland specifically, but we (Matthew included) all had a great time.  The museum was filled with optical illusions, 3D holograms, and other interesting exhibits and interactive games.  We especially liked walking through the dizzying vortex tunnel and trying to get through the mirror maze (where all the walls are mirrors).  At one point in the maze, Matthew got a bit panicked and sprinted face first into one of the mirrors.  It was also nice that we adults could take our time and look at lots of the pictures and exhibits, because each area seemed to have one interactive part that could occupy Matthew for an extended period of time.

What my students have often wanted: my head on a platter

What my students have often wanted: my head on a platter

Matthew and I "play" soccer on an interactive video floor

Matthew and I “play” soccer on an interactive video floor

Edinburgh Castle

During the first half of this week, Dora, Matthew, and I enjoyed 3 days in Edinburgh, Scotland (Daniel and Panka stayed behind for school with Dora’s mom).  Dora’s brother works in Edinburgh; fortunately for us he works in one of the city’s finest hotels, which means we could live in luxury at a reduced rate.  Much like our trip in Slovenia, our hotel room came with a prime view, in this case of the Edinburgh castle. 

Edinburgh Castle and cultural district as viewed from our hotel window

Edinburgh Castle and cultural district as viewed from our hotel window

On Tuesday, we visited the castle, which consists of a series of buildings, some of them

castle1

museums devoted to Scotland’s military history, others memorials and chapels.  Still other buildings harken back to the days when the castle served as home to Scotland’s royalty; you can even find the crown jewels of Scotland on display in one of the castle buildings.

castle memorial

War memorial at castle

One of our favorites was a set of rooms tucked underneath the castle, which formerly served as quarters for prisoners of war.  The rooms gave a feel for what it must have been like, and there were also some interesting stories about life in and escapes from the prison.

Kézilabda Meccs (Handball game)

A highlight for Daniel and I over the break was the chance to see the Hungarian national team play a handball match.  The team handball world championships will be held this month in Spain and the Hungarian team faced off against Serbia in a warm-up match in the nearby city of Veszprém.  Daniel and I (along with Dora’s dad) drove down to see the team and sport first-hand.

Team handball doesn’t get a lot of attention in the US (an understatement), other than getting some coverage in the Olympics every fours years.  In Hungary (and much of Europe), it is quite a different story; the game is quite popular with fully professional leagues and televised matches (it is a similar case for water polo in Hungary). For those not familiar with the game, I offer this link to highlights of Hungary’s upset of favored powerhouse, Iceland (yes, Iceland) in the last Olympics as an introduction. In this game, Hungary trails by 1 in the final 10 seconds and concedes a penalty shot to Iceland.  Usually these things are automatic, but… well, watch the video. I feared for my mother-in-laws health when she watched the game this summer.

But I digress…Daniel was pretty excited about going to the match.  The day before the match we were at a music/craft festival and the kids made masks.  Daniel made his using the design of the Hungarian flag.  Here he is in his mask at the game (with the Hungarian squad warming up in the background).  You can see that Dora managed to get us pretty good seats (4th row near midcourt); since it was an exhibition they didn’t cost very much (~$10).

We also had a chance to see one of Hungary’s most famous sportsmen up close. Nagy László is Hungary’s best player (and one of the top 10 in the world): tall, athletic, and left-handed (all advantages in the sport).  Combined with his rugged good looks, he is easily one of the most recognized figures in the country.

As for the game itself, it was an entertaining match.  Both teams competed hard, in fact there was almost a fight in the second half when Nagy László tussled with one of the Serbian players. The game is very fast-paced with two 30-minute halves and almost no breaks.  Even after a goal (pretty frequently, the game ended with Hungary winning 36-31), the keeper usually quickly throws the ball to midcourt for a quick restart to try to catch the other team out of position. The game is pretty physical, the players in the middle are typically pretty big and push and grab a lot (sort of like post players in basketball).  The players all are pretty athletic — jumping high and releasing killer shots with accuracy. The goalies don’t often have a chance, but every now and then come up with an amazing save. Here are a couple of pictures from the game; I tried hard to get the perfect action shot — a player rising high and releasing a shot — but that’s pretty tough to do!

Hungarian defense tries to block the Serbian player's shot

Hungarian player jumps into restricted area for a shot

Nagy Laszlo bangs up against a Serbian defender

Athletic save attempt by Serbia's goalie

Sopron/Vienna

Last weekend we took another short trip, this time to Sopron, a small city on the west side of Hungary, and (briefly) to Vienna, Austria.  We stayed at a small panzio (almost like a bed and breakfast) in Sopron, and spent most of our time there.  The weather was bitter cold all weekend, but we did a good job of balancing indoor and outdoor activities.

The Fire Tower in Sopron

Sopron is a beautiful old city — the central downtown has narrow winding streets with some buildings dating from the 12th century. During the evenings, there was a Christmas market in the central square, so both night we braved the elements to enjoy some food and music (Dora even met up with one of her former high school classmates, who is a jazz musician that was performing).

   

 A highlight on Saturday was our visit to the Esterháza,  palace in the nearby village of Fertőd.  The palace was built in the mid-1700s and was one of several gigantic homes owned by the Esterházy family (a part of the palace can be seen in the panorama photo at the top).  They had some child-friendly holiday programs on the afternoon that we visited.  First was a very nice puppet show, which the kids liked a lot (Matthew even sat relatively still, despite bursting out in laughter periodically even though there wasn’t anything funny).  After that came a visit from, Mikulas!  In Hungary, Santa doesn’t visit the malls (at least not that I know of, though I don’t visit often), and he travels in style!

Mikulas walks to the palace

Mikulas arrives at palace

On Sunday, we drove to Vienna, less than an hour north from Sopron.  We navigated into and through the city and found a nice parking garage near the center.  We walked through the walking street to Stephensdom, a large cathedral with one of the tallest towers in the city. We (and many other tourists) entered the cathedral, trying hard not to disturb the ongoing mass.  We took an elevator to the top of one of the towers for a view of the city — the kids were not thrilled to step onto the wire grated floor of the lookout high above the city.
 After St. Stephendom, we wandered through more of the city, eventually arriving at one of Vienna’s famed Christmas markets.  It was a bit funny, we went to a similar market in Budapest and liked it a lot better.  However, the one in Budapest had very few Hungarian visitors (mostly tourists), while the Vienna market was packed with Hungarians.  Someone should tell them to save their money and shop at home.