a pipe dream come true
Have you ever dreamed of something but never really expected it to happen, but then miraculously (and thanks to a great deal of prioritizing, saving, helping hands and stars aligning) the opportunity presented itself? …But then when it happened it still seemed so unreal that you had to keep pinching yourself the entire time? That’s what it felt like when my dear friend Hayley, Air Force spouse, full time graduate student and mom of three came to visit me in Hungary for sixteen days! Of course I pulled out all the stops, cleared the calendar, made sure the kids were in good hands when mine were otherwise occupied, and made it happen! This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we milked for all it was worth!
Hayley and I had lots on the agenda, and even though this spring in Hungary and the surrounding region turned out to be unseasonably cold and wet, we didn’t let that stop us. Book-ending a week-long road trip through Italy were several day trips. The entire Italian adventure can be read about here. Now I will focus on our time in Hungary and Slovenia together…
I picked up my pal in Budapest, and after nearly an entire day of travel, she was pretty pooped. We relaxed the first evening to gear up for the next day. It was a full one!
lake balaton region
We didn’t waste any time hitting the road! We were lucky to get one solid day of sun so we wanted to take advantage of it. We had actually planned to do a hot air balloon ride (including Didi for her birthday) but that was cancelled due to wind. Instead we headed south to Lake Balaton just the two of us – and our first stop was the cute little town-on-a-hill Tihany. On the picturesque ride there we saw the *coolest* sight that I had never seen here in Hungary. We stopped for a quick photo op in Városlod overlooking the Bakonyi hills and as we were looking out over the valley, a massive herd of sheep crossed the road right behind us! It was a sight to behold indeed!
Tihany (pronounced “Tee-hahn”) is the sweetest little village laid out over a peninsula jutting out over Lake Balaton, the largest lake in Eastern Europe. Tihany is known for lavender fields and the Tihany Benedictine Abbey, a centerpiece of the peninsula, founded in the year 1055. It is historically connected to Pannonhalma, a place we planned to visit later on. We ate lunch at the my favorite look-out spot on the peninsula, Echo restaurant. It has the best views!
From Echo we made our way to Szigliget, a hilltop fortress ruin overlooking Lake Balaton on the western side. This is one of my “quintessential” favorite places to take visitors as it is a super cool fortress ruin on an old volcano, has amazing view of the lake, and terrific panoramic views of the entire (volcanic) hilly Badascony region of Hungary. Oh – not to mention the BEST gelato I’ve had in the country! Of course we were the only people there. Sound familiar? HA! That happens to us more often than not. We enjoyed delicious gelato, stopped to watch men actually thatching a brand new roof (incredible sight!) and took our time climbing around the walls, leery of the wind.
Szigliget is an historic area that was originally settled in the Neolithic age over 12,000 years ago, according to artifacts found in this area by archaeologists. Interestingly, this fortress was situated on an island until 1822 when the Hungarian government rearranged dams around Lake Balaton. This probably contributes to the incredibly rich soil used for farming and vast vineyards in the region. Church remnants on the hilltop were built in the 12th century. We appreciated reading the info plates along the castle walls (thankfully in Hungarian and English) that helped recreate what life was like during the Ottoman Empire.
After our visit to Szigliget the plan was to go eat at one of my favorite restaurants in Hungary – Villa Kabala – which is near Szigliget. Unfortunately it isn’t open Tuesdays or Wednesdays, so we were out of luck. We military spouses have learned to roll with a change in plans, so we shifted gears and headed to another popular place on another extinct volcano, Kreinbacher restaurant on Somló hill. At this point we would’ve been shocked to see a single other person…and of course we were the only ones in the restaurant that evening as well! We enjoyed a nice meal (not as nice as I had hoped, but certainly enjoyable) and headed back to Pápa after a full day of sightseeing and good eats!
Our next day was a day for ducks! So we made an “inside tour” day out of it and drove about 40 minutes away to Pannonhalma Archabbey. Unfortunately it was so wet the visibility was low (which is one of the special things about this place) so we couldn’t look out over the Abbey walls and take in the views of the countryside, but it also made for a relatively low tourism day and again, we had the place nearly to ourselves. [No outside photos – too wet!] This was the first time I was able to actually listen to the audio tour and really enjoyed learning more about this 1,000 year old Benedictine abbey that is still in operation today!
Perhaps the most impressive sight of this archabbey-on-a-hill is the library. The library itself was finished in the 1800’s but the books and materials within date back to before the inception of the Archabbey, in the year 996! When walking into this library, especially solo, it’s easy to understand how Belle felt in Beauty and the Beast! Wall to wall books, stories high, all artfully displayed in an ornamental building. It was mesmerizing! We especially enjoyed pointing out special finds in the display boxes, including the original charter of the Tihany Abbey (that we visited the day prior) from the year 1055. It is impressive that this place survived such a tumultuous time in Hungarian history!
After our lingering visit in the library we headed downstairs to the art gallery. There was a beautiful “Silence” themed exhibition that transcended language. We perused the lovely gift shop, then headed back down to the Viator – a restaurant “expressing the Benedictine commitment to hospitality in the language of gastronomy.” It has impressive architecture and a lovely seasonal menu. There are drink offerings straight from the Benedictine winery – for which we were sure to pick up a bottle to try later.
Our next day was spent relaxing and wandering around Pápa, letting Willow play on the playground at the square, getting our nails done and checking out my favorite coffee shop in town, HeloVelo! (Which we visited as often as possible during Hayley’s time here.) Hayley got her first good look at our little town and we talked endlessly about what it’s like to live here!
For lunch we checked out a brand new restaurant at the Esterhazy Castle in the city center called Zabhegyező Brasserie Bistro, a sister restaurant to Zabhegyező Gastro Lounge on the walking street. They have a set menu that changes daily, which is kind of fun. We were, of course, the only ones there! It was a beautiful day to enjoy Pápa.
We ended the day with a sunset climb of the nearest hill-ruin, Döbrönte, about 20 minutes from Pápa. It was a beautiful evening, albeit windy, and we saw a stork perched on top of one of the ruins! We also were impressed by the spirea in full bloom…
The following day marked the beginning of our epic, week-long “mom trip” to Italy. The trip itself is chronicled in a separate blog here [blog tbd]. There are just far too many amazing moments, places, foods and photos to possibly fit into one blog post so it deserves its own!
On our way back to Hungary from Italy we met up with the hubby and the kiddos in Slovenia. First, however, we got one last night as a mommy-duo in the Soča River Valley of Slovenia. This was perhaps the most highly-anticipated stop of the trip because we had reservations at a very, very special restaurant…Hiša Franko! Hayley is an uber-foodie and she was the brainchild of most of the food-inspired itinerary in Italy so it was such a treat to bring her to this world-renowned place. She had, of course, studied up on Ana Roš (who we met!) and all things Hiša Franko watching Chef’s Table on Netflix. Needless to say we had a blast … but the best part was that the experience led to more experiences! Read all about our dinner in my Hiša Franko review here.
During dinner, Hayley enjoyed the wine pairing (thanks to a gift from her cousin Lauren!), and throughout the evening she became increasingly impressed with the selection of Slovenian wines being served by our sommelier, Alen. They were all delicious – but one organic wine stood out, and we asked him where we could purchase bottles nearby. Alen proceeded to share his personal phone number and the phone number of the vintner so we could call him and stop in for a wine tasting the following day! Imagine! We felt like we hit the jackpot! Of course we added a stop at the Batič vineyards to our itinerary…how could we resist? This wine of the Vipava region of Slovenia is immaculate. It’s biodynamic, which means it’s made using only organic and earth-conscious methods. The wines are sulfite-free and taste positively clean, smooth and delicious! We couldn’t wait to try everything Batič had to offer.
The following day we awoke to a glorious morning! The entire valley was sunlit and green with blue skies. First we took a walk down over Napoleon’s Bridge again, then hiked halfway towards Slap Kozjak (waterfall) for a stunning view of the turquoise Soča river where the trickling waters of the Kozjak meet the Soča. Then we grabbed a quick cappuccino at Bar Planika and jumped in our “peppy” little (borrowed) Peugeot convertible with our mouths salivating for more of that Batič wine!
After the brisk morning hike, we made our way to the winery, just south of Kobarid in a small town called Šempas. We had messaged Miha Batič ahead of time to let him know we’d like to stop in, but unfortunately he was in Ljubljana for the day. He was so gracious and invited us anyway: “My parents are home, if you wish you can come! You are welcome. Cheers!” The lovely drive to Šempas was winding and followed the Italian border. We stopped a few times for photo ops, but didn’t want to be late for the wine tasting!
As it turned out, there was no such thing as “late.” We eventually found the Batič winery – not exactly where the address took us in google maps – and realized it’s not a big operation with a store and tasting area like other wineries we had visited.
Instead, we walked right up to the Batič family home and were greeted by the matriarch of the family, Palmira, who was incredibly gracious and invited us into her home. She sat us right down in her beautiful family dining room and immediately began serving us wines, bread, meats, cheeses and fresh sauteed morel mushrooms! YUM!
Because of the language barrier, at first we weren’t sure if we were in the right place or imposing on her. I mentioned to Hayely that it felt like we were the Griswolds from National Lampoon’s “European Vacation” when they arrived at the wrong cousins’ house in Germany but the strangers hosted them graciously anyway. HA! She understood that we had communicated with her son Miha, and eventually made it clear that we hadn’t pulled a Griswold mix-up so we were able to relax a little more and enjoy the wines. And BOY were they incredible! Although Miha would’ve been able to explain the origins and details of each wine in English for us, we didn’t mind and instead relied on our taste buds. We ended up trying all of their wines, including some that aren’t even for sale! These wines are all organic – grown and harvested biodynamically – and the taste is obvious! The colors and combinations were unlike any wines I had seen before. We had discovered a gem that we will definitely be returning to again! A big thank you to our gracious (and unsuspecting) host for giving us a truly memorable experience! (Of course we sent her a thank you note heehee…)
After a nice walk (and brainstorming ways Hayley could bring a case of wine back to the states with her safely), Palmira boxed up our wine and we were back on the road heading towards Radovljica in the Lake Bled region. We met up with the rest of the family at our favorite place to stay – “Apartments Jansa” – where a 3BR, 2 bath apartment that sleeps 12, with 2 balconies and a well stocked kitchen runs you about $120 per night. We recommend Apartments Jansa so highly! The hosts are incredibly knowledgeable and friendly and the accommodations are so spacious and well kept! Plus its only about an 8 minute drive to Lake Bled, and the town of Radovljica (pronounced “Ra-dolcha”) is well worth a visit too!
The weather was so nice on our first day in the Bled region that we went straight to Lake Bled to bop up to the castle and see the views, then walk around and find a nice place to eat. We had hoped to try dining at the castle but there was a wedding party that night and we weren’t on the ball with reservations. Instead we went to Sova, a restaurant we had good luck at before, and happens to mean “owl” in Slovenian! (Which, of course, makes our littlest traveler so happy!) We had reservations but didn’t need them. The place wasn’t busy this time of year (but can get packed in high season) and we sat upstairs overlooking Lake Bled. The waitstaff was incredibly friendly and accommodating – especially to the kiddos! We all enjoyed such a great meal that we would definitely recommend this place, too!
After dinner we hoofed it as far around the far side of Lake Bled as we could, knowing this would be the only time in our stay to get the “full monty” of views with the weather cooperating. We were all pretty tired, but it was well worth it! The little boats were being rowed out to to Bled Island, the big tours of people had dissipated, and the lighting over the lake was simply magical.
As much as we love Lake Bled, Lake Bohinj is very close to our hearts. It is hands down our favorite, and the place we dream of hanging out at on a warm summer day! We knew it wouldn’t have the maximum spellbinding effect on Hayley because the weather wasn’t exactly cooperating, but we made our way there nevertheless. Bohinj is about 30 minutes past Lake Bled, and it’s much more secluded and quiet. Surrounded by the Julian Alps of the Triglav National Park, in any weather conditions it can be an enchanting place. As we arrived, it was sprinkling on and off and was generally misty-looking out over the lake. We promised Beau he could practice his fly fishing and also told the kids they could play at their favorite log-playground before lunch so we threw on our rain coats and put our best feet forward!
Lunch was in Ukanc at Restaurant Ukanc, which we had been to 3 times before and didn’t disappoint. Well, this time it was pretty universally disappointing. HA! We were surprised by the quality of the food compared to before, and made the unanimous decision not to bother returning again. Everyone was pretty tired heading back to Radovljica after lunch that most of the car was napping and didn’t notice the skies were beginning to improve. The glassy lake below looked pretty incredible as it reflected the mountains and skies above!
We ended up just chilling the rest of the night. The kids played at a local playground nearby our apartment and we had a yummy charcuterie board, Batič wine and played Heads-up marathon-style! For the record, Didi is on point with these guessing games, and the hubby agreed that the wine is worth another trip to Šempas!
The following day we planned to head home to Pápa, but first we took one last morning stroll in Bled. We walked along the water, practicing our duck and goose sounds, then doubled back to try the original Bled Cream Cake (a must!) at Park Restaurant and Cafe. It has wonderful water views and plenty of seating – plus it was just recently renovated inside and is SO much nicer now! After that we snagged one last stop at our favorite bakery (Hitri Kruhek) on the way out of town for hazelnut croissants and vegetable pastries and also apparently got flashed for a speeding ticket – driving 41kph in a 30kph zone. Bummer! We didn’t find out about that one for 3 weeks as it’s all done digitally in Europe.
The lucky boys drove the convertible home to return to its generous owners. We sure enjoyed having it all through Italy!
We had only a couple of days left before Hayley’s solo European Tour came to a close. We made the most of it by enjoying HeloVelo a couple more times, pulling out Didi’s tooth, and having a nice lunch at Hotel Villa Classica. It was important to have a couple days of rest after 9 straight days of road tripping and 12 days of agendas. We had time to strategize her luggage weight situation and prepare for our day and overnight in Budapest before flying out.
In her time in Pápa, Hayley got to shop in Interspar, Lidl and Tesco. We had gelato too many times to remember and she got to try the famous kürtoskálacs, or “cinnamon chimneys” – a real treat! She learned that things here are generally cheaper than in the states – except gas which is way more expensive. She noted different fashions and was even saying a few Hungarian words by the time she left. I think she fell in love with the lavender lemonades and probably had her fill of fresh breads (even though they didn’t seem to bother her at first like bread in the states would)! I think Hayley would say that the time flew by, but it was certainly rich, eventful and felt like longer than 16 days. We covered so many deep conversation topics that we actually had a running checklist to help us keep everything straight! What I appreciated most is that Hayley is a natural in a multicultural setting. It’s fun to travel with a worldly friend who loves to learn, is comfortable with or without a plan, and can keep up with my long strides! Speaking of, we walked around a total of 60 miles and ended up driving over 1500 miles! We really covered a lot of ground!
Finally it was time for our last hurrah. It was as if the skies knew it and were crying about it (shut up, skies!) and we ended up with a pretty wet experience in Budapest. It prevented us from doing too much walking around – but on the plus side, I finally discovered “Bolt,” the Uber-esque taxi ap exclusively for the city! It works great and ends up being really reasonable price-wise. Anyway, we arrived in Budapest and had a few eateries in mind to try. Here is where we ended up on our progressive Budapest dining experience:
Brunch at Cirkusz (Circus). *Delicious* eggs Benedict, a unique version of pulled pork Benedict sans eggs. What a cute place! Very American-ish. Hit the spot for me…
A walk through Szimpla Kert (ruin bars). This was trippy! We had just eaten so instead of ordering anything, we used the bathrooms here and just crept around. I say crept because it had a pretty creepy feel, probably because it was such a dumpy day! Still, you could tell it was an artsy and cool place and probably had a much better vibe (less druggy-underground, more instagram-chic) when the timing is right!
Drinks and snacks at Mazel Tov. We were so lucky to have gotten in without a reservation, as this place is one everybody talks about! It has a beautiful atmosphere and a decent menu. It wasn’t mind-blowing but I can see how it is so popular! It was reliably good and it would be so fun to go back for a proper meal sometime.
After getting our fill, we drove down and parked near the Chain Bridge and walked to St. Stephen’s Basilica and made sure to snag a couple of cones of yummy Rose gelato. We toured through the basilica but were battling the wind and rain so decided to cut our tour on foot short in favor of settling into our dwelling for the night.
We checked into our comfortable apartment up by Városliget (City Park). This gave us a chance to regroup and prepare to walk to Széchenyi Thermal Baths! This is the most well-known bath house in Budapest, recognized around the world as the largest medicinal bath in Europe. There are 3 large outdoor and 15 indoor pools, all varying in temperatures, and plenty of steam rooms, saunas, and special rain showers to keep you occupied for hours! Besides enjoying our varying dips in the thermal pools, I think we both appreciated the neo-baroque architecture just as much!
After relaxing at the baths for a couple of hours we headed back to our hotel. We had worked up enough of an appetite to scope out a good dinner joint! We passed through Hero’s Square, on the walk back to the apartment…
It was an easy choice to head to the Jewish district and select from any number of amazing places to eat. We felt like Asian-fusion and selected Sáo Food & Bar for dinner and it was a very good choice. Great vibe, awesome menu, clean food, and delicious drinks!
After dinner we walked through the tastebud-tantalizing restaurants and past the Budapest Eye ferris wheel to see the lights of Budapest at night. Hayley was a really good sport, because at this point her tummy wasn’t too happy. Still she powered through! We walked past the well-lit Parliament building, up the river to see the “Shoes on the Danube” memorial , and got a good view of the entire Danube river with the Buda Castle and Fisherman’s Bastion in full glowy glory. At that point we called it quits and took a taxi back to our apartment. Hayley needed to rest up for a FULL day of travel back to the states!
I’m sure Hayley was excited to head home to her hubby and children…but we learned that no time or distance can separate true friends! We had such a great time – we laughed, cried, and broke records with uninterrupted quality mom conversations. It was something I will treasure forever! Thanks for making it happen and for all the memories! ‘Til we meet again…