We spent four years in and out of the United States, eating from street food vendors who have probably never even heard of the word "sanitation inspection," ordering from menus in countries where we don't speak the language, and eating pretty much everything under the sun. On top of that, Amara has been to India and Costa Rica. We thought we had stomachs of steel. Or, at least iron. Or, some other strong metal.
But, apparently four years of travel has nothing on two days at a local Atlanta daycare. The last two weeks have primarily consisted of one of the three of us groaning and moaning and wondering why the heck I threw out all our Cipro when we returned to the United States. Ugh.
The only positive side to all this is that, last weekend, we thoroughly disinfected and cleaned our entire house, from top to bottom, because I don't want to see this virus ever again. And, the thing about cleaning is that once I start cleaning, I keep cleaning. Which is how I found this video.
I don't know why I never posted this video. It's all edited, compiled, and ready to go. I can only assume that I forgot about it in the mammoth digital photography and video files that I've got stored on our backup drive.
I watched it over again and sat back and smiled. I mean, it's got lions. And lions cubs! Really cute lion cubs! And, a little bit of frisky mating! And lion cubs!
It's been three years since we've been in Namibia and I'm still in awe that we got to experience this wonderful place. So, here you go: lions resting (and a little bit of getting it on) at Etosha Reserve in Namibia.
It's been a while since we've done a giveaway on our blog which makes me sad because I love giving you guys free stuff from great companies. So, when
Go With Oh
contacted me to let me know about their new contests, I jumped at the chance to score you guys a free stay at one of their apartments. People, I love this company and you should, too.
I'll tell you more about why I think you should be using Go With Oh below but, if you're in a hurry, here's the scoop. There are three ways that you can win money to stay at a Go With Oh apartment in any of their ten European locations:
put in an entry on our site to win
toward one of their apartments - the entry form is below and there are LOTS of ways that you can enter
All of these
contests end on October 31, 2013
, so there are a lot of ways to win money in the next week.
A quick look at our Go With Oh Vienna apartment
Last year, we stayed with them for
three days in Venice
and for three days in Vienna. After a brief perusal through their website, I knew that we were going to love working with them.
You see, one of the strange things about traveling is that we never know
where we're going to live. When you buy a house or rent an apartment, ordinarily, you tour the place, you look around for lots of options, and you think about whether this is the exact spot you want to live. When we travel, on the other hand, we pick hotels or vacation homes based on often outdated pictures and web reviews. Until we get there, we never know exactly what we're going to get.
Sometimes, the new apartments work out really well. But, then again, there are the other times . . . . There were the two weeks in Prague where the bathroom continually filled with water. And the month in Istanbul with the kitchen that looked like it hadn't been cleaned in years: my mom and I got down onto our hands and knees to clean it to make it moderately liveable. There was the hostel in Lampang, Thailand, where I was afraid to sleep in the bed because of the thick stains all across the sheets and the flock of spiders living in the ceiling fan above the bed.
Go With Oh floorplan
So, what I loved about the Go With Oh site is that every single one of their properties has professional pictures and a to scale floorplan included, plus places for people to write in reviews. A floorplan! Professional pictures! I didn't have to pore through murky underexposed photos to figure out whether the kitchen had a microwave and an oven or run Google Map searches to determine whether there was a park nearby. At last, I had found a vacation rental site that actually provided all of the information I needed to make a completely informed decision about their apartment in one place. Revolutionary!
And, in both Vienna and Venice, our apartments almost perfectly matched the website description. (The only problem we had in Vienna was that the laundry machine did not work but there was a nearby laundromat with great facilities.)
Standing outside the apartment
We were very happy with our stays in both Vienna and Venice and I think you will be, too. If you're still with me, here are the three ways that you can win a voucher to stay at one of the Oh properties:
Let's get the obvious out of the way: Venice is gorgeous. Medieval and Renaissance facades crumble into narrow canals, bridges appear out of seemingly nowhere as if they were dreamed up by a manic architect, and shoulder-width streets face that majestic Grand Canal where candy cane striped gondoliers row their black boats.
That being said, we have to admit that we were underwhelmed by the city on our first visit in 2007. Mainly, there were too many people everywhere. We were constantly bumping shoulders against tourists, eating pseudo-Italian fare, and wandering the streets searching for a tiny bit of authenticity among the legions of visitors and disgruntled locals. (Even this time around, every time we made our way into the main tourist zones, we found the locals acting very hostile toward tourists: someone screamed at Patrick on the vaporetto when Patrick bumped him with his backpack and then tried to apologize. We chalked it up to the overwhelming heat and general grumpiness that usually results in hot, crowded places.)
This time, we decided to do Venice differently and experience Venice like a local.
Go With Oh apartment in Venice
First off, we avoided hotels. We stayed in an
apartment in the Cannaregio area
, hosted by the lovely folks at
Go With Oh
: wow. We were impressed by the photos and especially the cool floor plan (seriously, if you've never checked out the Oh Apartment sites, you definitely should, because they use pro photos and floor plans which is SO helpful when choosing an accommodation online). But, the apartment was even better than expected with a huge ground floor, cute kitchen area, outdoor space, and a bedroom upstairs with remote controlled window shades. Swanky!
Us in the Cannaregio area
We avoided the main tourist neighborhoods. The apartment's location in the Cannaregio area (see the video above for more about this area) was ideal. Cannaregio is the northernmost district in Venice and the home of the St. Lucia train station and the old Jewish ghetto. From the 15th to 18th centuries, Venetian Jews were forced to live within the walls of the Jewish ghetto and were locked into the area at night. Today, the Jewish ghetto still has Jewish vestiges, with Kosher restaurants and temples scattered through the canals.
Gondolas hanging out in Venice
But, the Cannaregio is also a neighborhood, filled with local Venetians trying to escape the madness of the San Marco and Dorsoduro areas. Within a five minute walk of our apartment, we found three different green parks (one with a children's playground), hidden away from tourists but filled with locals soaking up the sun and green grass.
Piazza San Marco and buildings on the Grand Canal
We avoided the main tourist sites. We walked through Piazza San Marco but didn't go inside the famous cathedral and never took a gondola cruise, either.
Context Arte Veneziana walk
Instead, we stuck to lesser known churches and took the
Arte Veneziana Context Walk
of the Accademia, the underappreciated yet beautiful home of Venetian art. Erica, our Context docent, explained that, unlike tumultuous Rome and Florence, the stability of Venice actually set back its artistic innovations and the Renaissance never reached Venice. Nonetheless, by the 16th century, masters of Venetian art, such as Tintoretto and Titian emerged, who focused on darker colors and hues to separate their work from those of the neo-Renaissance painters.
Though there are many reasons to visit the Accademia, the best reason is to see Victori Carpaccio's mural based on the book called The Golden Age, which shows a romance story of a girl named Ursula. The meticulously detailed murals showcase 16th century Venice, replete with the Rialto Market filled with slaves and crowds of important Venetians in the Piazza San Marco. We were so pleased that we visited this gem of a museum, and especially with Erica who helped us understand the differences between northern Italian and southern Italian art.
Suggestions from readers for Venice restaurants and activities
And, we avoided guidebook or Tripadvisor recommendations for restaurants. Instead, we crowdsourced restaurant advice from our
and, boy, did they deliver!
Restaurant Gam Gam in Venice
Guido, the owner of Armonia Apartment, recommended
Ristorante Gam Gam
, in the Jewish Ghetto: This was our favorite restaurant in Venice, which served up unusual Venetian fare, with an Israeli/Middle Eastern twist. We particularly loved the fried artichokes and the eggplant stuffed with chickpeas.
@arttrav recommended the wine bar, Al Prosecco, in the tucked away Campo San Giacamo dell'Orio. The cheese plate and meats plate were simple and stunning and they offered a traditional ringed biscuit, that has been eaten in Venice since the 16th century. Of course, the prosecco is not to miss and I particularly enjoyed a dry rose prosecco.
@nickelmoon suggested that we try Aciugheta for their pizzas. We liked the pizzas but they weren't the best we tried in Italy --- though they did have a good crispy crust.
@bhasday recommended that we pop into Harry's Bar where they invented peach bellinis to try out their signature drink. It's definitely overpriced --- 11 Euros for a bellini and 55 Euros for a plate of carpaccio (also invented at Harry's) --- but worth the stop in to drink at Hemingway's Venetian spot.
Venice at night
I won't say that Venice is our favorite Italian city but, after a few days spent visiting Venice as a local, we feel much warmer to this city than we did before.
Would we do it the same way?
Absolutely not! We would have spent at least two weeks in Budapest because we felt like we only got the barest glimpse of the city and we'd love to explore some of the outlying towns including the
Tokaji wine region
Our phenomenal meals at
: the spicy mushroom soup ranks in one of the best soups I've ever eaten (I want that recipe!) and they had the best chicken paprikash Patrick ate in Budapest.
Our meals at the highly lauded
. Ranked #2 on Tripadvisor, we had high hopes for this place, but it was simply awful. My porcini mushroom paprikash tasted like they had used years-old paprika and frozen porcinis and Patrick's beef goulash was oily and insipid.
The Exhibition Hall at the City Park; Vaci Street building; Oktogon subway station
The worst part of Budapest:
The subway stations. Perhaps we were expecting too much because we took the amazingly quaint and beautiful Line 1 (see picture) which runs from Heroes Square along Andrassy Avenue --- a remnant of the original subway built in 1896 for the Millennial Celebrations --- but the rest of the Budapest subway stations are dreary, boring, dark, and dirty. We wish that all of the subway lines in Budapest looked like Line 1 - they knew how to build subway stations in the 1890s!
Rick Steves' Budapest Guidebook.
We don't normally like Rick Steve's guidebooks but the apartment we were staying in had the book sitting on the shelf and we loved how the author incorporated Budapest's unique history into the sightseeing and planned walks.
The best deal:
Budapest is, by far, the cheapest major city we've visited in Europe and it's easy to have a five star meal for $60 USD.
The worst rip off
: Parking. Four Euros for half an hour. Ouch.
Best new experience
: Discovering the joys of
, the essential ingredient and flavor of Hungary, and
, a simply gorgeous dessert wine.
Worst new experience:
Being sick in one of the greatest cities in the world. We had to cut three days of sightseeing out of our already too-short 7 days in Budapest, meaning that we didn't get to soak in the Szechenyi baths, head over to Castle Hill, or book a ticket inside the Parliament, which is all the more reason we have to come back to Budapest.
The must see attraction
. This gorgeous, opulent building is well worth a visit.
Most overhyped attraction
Touted as an old Budapest cafe where authors and politicians have met since 1858, we expected grandeur and impressive desserts. Don't get me wrong; the desserts weren't bad but it was very expensive. It's only worth a visit if you don't mind shelling out $15 USD for a single dessert.
How welcoming and warm the people are in Budapest. We had read in guidebooks that Hungarians tend to be cold and standoffish but, perhaps because we had the dogs with us, we found them excited and enthusiastic about talking with us. We were staying in an apartment out of the main tourist area in front of the dog park at Szent Istvan Park and many times, people stopped to talk to us about our dogs (often in Hungarian while we nodded and smiled).
= the western part of the city, separated by the Danube, and now mostly a residential, hilly area of the city;
= the eastern part of the city and now primarily the hub of the city center and where younger people live
Japanese garden at Margaret Island
The big test, would we go back:
Absolutely, 100% yes. We considered going back to Hungary at the end of this trip but weren't able to work it out into our schedule. The cheap prices and high quality surprised us and we loved our time in the country.
And, next on the itinerary:
Immediately after Budapest, we drove through Romania into Bulgaria. We are now in Ivaylovgrad, Bulgaria, about 20 miles from Greece and 40 miles from Turkey. It's a gorgeous rural area where people still use donkey carts, drink water from local springs, and barely drive cars. But, next on the blog, I'll be writing about our amazing six weeks in Italy so be prepared for lots of talk on Italy yumminess.
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