Castillo San Marcos

Castillo San Marcos
13th-century castle, El Puerto de Santa Maria. That WAS our house to the left and behind the tree!

Monday, August 22, 2016

Croatia, Budapest, Vienna, and Home to Stuttgart

I had never ventured into the Eastern Block except for a quick trip to Prague in 1986, and our Middle Europe trip seemed my last chance to do so for a while.  Italian Switzerland nearly touches Croatia, and Hungarian Budapest lies just to the east.  Tia and Sasha were enthusiastic when they heard that Budapest’s is renowned for its thermal baths, so we planned to cross northern Croatia and the Plitvice Lakes area on our way to spa heaven.

Feeding the birds at our Venice stopover on the way to Croatia

As we drove through Italy towards the Adriatic, Venice appeared on the coast.  Venice!  Who could drive by and not be tempted to stop?  So we spent the afternoon walking the narrow streets to Piazza San Marco, enchanted yet again by this beautiful city.

Evening in Venice

Italian glory

We arrived at our hotel on the Adriatic in the coastal city of Lovran.  We had just the morning to indulge in a swim in its turquoise waters.

Overlooking the blue, blue Adriatic in 

I’d promised the girls lots more swimming at what looked like an enchanting teal-tinged series of lakes in northern Croatia, but alas, the Plitvice lakes environment is so fragile and the tourist hoards so vast that no swimming was allowed (even though a naughty Swedish family jumped in as we walked by, making us all jealous). 

Enticing waters just out of reach
We slogged through the over-the-top crowded trail after waiting in line for more than an hour to pay the entrance fee.  The waterfalls were beautiful, but hard to enjoy when packed in like sardines.  Not recommended, at least in August!

Oh, the crowds, the crowds!  Like a Croatian Nature Disneyland.

Then for three luxurious nights in Budapest.  I’d not told the girls that we were staying in a five-star hotel—our one big splurge on this vacation—and they pulled me away from the door of the Corinthia, sure that this could NEVER be something I’d booked!  But it was, and I did.  We lounged in fancy bathrobes and jacuzzied and indulged in the fancy teas. 

Royal Budapest Parliament
We splurged: the girls got chocolate massages, I got a honey massage and wrap, and Todd got something called a Java massage.  He looked wide-eyed and shell-shocked when I returned to the sitting room after my massage.  “Have you ever gotten a Java Massage?” he asked in an ominous whisper.  Turns out a Java massage is not for the faint-of-heart, involving multiple contortions and excruciating muscle-to-bone contact—not what Todd had expected.  “Why didn’t you tell her it hurt?” the girls asked Todd.  Selber Schuld (German for “own fault!”)—Todd didn’t want to seem the wimp.

What Todd imagined

What Todd got

Budapest is simply a gorgeous city.  An amalgam of two towns, Buda and Pest, on either side of the river Danube and connected by the world-famous Chain Bridge, the city is both old and fresh, quaint and young, picturesque and hip.   

The famous Chain Bridge connecting Buda and Pest

We walked the city for three days after going for our morning spa, then returned to our fancy hotel to hop in the Jacuzzi again before retiring to our plush rooms.  We found the best ice cream ever: salted carmel and a salted pistachio with nutella.  Needless to say, we went back three days in a row.


From Budapest we traveled on to meet Helene Von Dam in Vienna.  Helene is a longtime friend of my aunt Heide, and was Reagan’s personal secretary in both California and Washington, D.C., before returning to her native Austria as ambassador. 
Helene writes about being Ronald Reagan's personal secretary and assistant

Just as poised, gracious and elegant...she's amazing.

She took us on a whirlwind tour of the exquisite and grand downtown, depositing us at the Kursalon for a concert that included a little opera, a little ballet, a little symphony, and a little comedy in a small but gorgeous 19th-century gilded concert hall. 

Viennese entertainment
We returned to dinner on her rooftop deck, and after breakfast the next morning we visited the House of Music (everything you would want to know about Vienna’s famous classical musicians) and walked to the Hundertwasser house (a disappointing tourist trap), followed by dinner at the open-air film festival in front of Vienna’s town hall—a monster screen showing Swan Lake. 

Warm summer Viennese evening

Our time in Vienna was far too short, but Stuttgart called—my “home” town, where I’d lived nearly two years and home to my Kral family.  We passed through Bernau and visited my grandmother’s grave, and stopped for dinner in Augsburg with Renate and Rudi, my mother’s cousins, Augsburg being my mother’s birthplace.

Renate and Rudi took us to dinner at the Fuggerei, a unique community in the heart of Augsburg

In Stuttgart we had tea with Valerie, my “German” mother (even though she is English!) in Erdbeerweg 4, where I’d lived as a 16-year-old, and reconnected with Rainer (my German dad) and his wife Siggi.  

My German English Mama

Erdbeerweg 4 will always be home

We reminisced over old stories involving both my family and theirs.  And we squeezed in a brief visit with Rebecca and her family in Gundelsheim on the way back to Frankfurt airport.  (Rebecca lived with us for a week during feria.)

New friends
Goodbye, Stuttgart, goodbye Germany, goodbye Europe.  A fitting end to our time here!   Now back to Spain to pack and head off to our American adventure!

Saying goodbye to Europe

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