Traveling With A Starbucks Card

Starbucks is becoming as ubiquitous as McDonalds around the world. We have become accustomed to looking for these outlets as we travel. While we are not huge fans you can expect a consistent coffee offering along with free WiFi from Starbucks as you travel.

We just got home from Europe and we just jumped to conclusions about using our Starbucks Gold Card in Europe from our experience on previous trips. Several years ago we cautiously started using a Starbucks card to purchase coffee in various cities. Over time we came to expect it to work everywhere.

While traveling in Australia and Ireland we were very surprised at how the process worked. After paying with the balance on our card we would get a receipt that showed the amount used in local currency along with the card balance expressed in Dollars and local currency.

After this trip a correction is in order. We were in Hungary, Austria and Germany and our card wouldn’t work at all. Checking the Starbucks web site we found the following statement:

Starbucks Cards activated in any of the participating countries can be used to make purchases and be reloaded in any other participating country. Starbucks Cards must first be activated by loading money onto the card in the country of purchase before being used internationally. The participating countries are; UK, USA, Canada, Australia, Hong Kong, Mexico, and the Republic of Ireland.

I guessed we jumped to conclusions based on too small a sampling. The good news is the coffee was what we expected and the WiFi is still free.


Getting Around Budapest

Budapest is a remarkable, beautiful and large city with the Danube River running thru the middle of it. Along the river in the central city are four major bridges. Starting from the north at the southern tip of Margit Island is Margit Bridge.

Nightscene Hungarian Parliament Building
Hungarian Parliament Building

Margit hid or Margaret Bridge is a bridge carrying trams, cars and pedestrians connecting Buda and Pest along with access to Margaret Island. It was designed by French engineer Ernest Goüin and built by the construction company Maison Ernest Goüin et Cie. between 1872 and 1876. Margaret Bridge was the second permanent bridge in Budapest.

Next is the Széchenyi Chain Bridge. Designed by the English engineer William Tierney Clark and built by the Scottish engineer Adam Clark, it was the first permanent bridge across the Danube in Hungary. It was opened in 1849.

Next is Elisabeth Bridge (Hungarian: Erzsébet híd) is the third newest bridge of Budapest. The bridge is situated at the narrowest part of the Danube in the Budapest area, spanning only 290 m. It is named after Elisabeth of Bavaria, a popular queen and empress but often referred to by locals as the “White Bridge”.

Going south the fourth bridge is Szabadság híd (in English it means Liberty Bridge or Freedom Bridge. It was originally named Ferenc József híd (Franz Joseph Bridge). At its two ends are two public squares, Gellért tér, at the foot of Gellért Hill, next to the Gellért Spa and Fővám tér at the Great Market Hall. Built as part of the Millennium World Exhibition at the end of the 19th century, the bridge features art nouveau design and mythological sculptures.

Station on the Budapest subway
Station on the Budapest subway

Navigating the city by surface streets can be confusing with neighborhood streets seeming laid out like a maze. Many areas have very few streets that are laid out in a square grid pattern but rather seem to zig zag back and forth. For this reason even trying to use a compass heading can be frustrating if you are walking. If you are walking to destinations we recommend using a detailed map or cell phone navigation. Fortunately major tram routes and subways trace prominent paths thru the city easily found at major intersections.

Budapest has a very efficient and inexpensive metropolitan transit system. The best option if you are going to be spending a couple of days in this city, is to get a Metro “day pass” which averages about $6.00 per person per day or less and is available in one, two and three day passes. A day pass operates on a 24-hour cycle so if you buy one at 10:00 am it can be used until 10:00 am the next day. You can purchase them from vending machines but our recommendation is to purchase them from a manned ticket window open during business hours at most major stations. These are usually at major street intersections where you will find there are stairs going underground that are often also the best way to cross large city streets. While an amazing number of Hungarians know a passing amount of English, signage is another story in this city. Finding good signage in English is actually very rare in Budapest. Beside being able to talk to an agent about purchasing the best pass for your needs, they will also give you a complete set of pocket maps with some information brochures in English that are not available at the machines. The metro system is based on individual tickets based on tapping onto trams and busses. If you buy a day pass you do not need to tap on or off the various transports but simply have the passes with you. The truth is that after three or four days of riding rapid transit, nobody ever asked to see our pass.

Tram stop on the Route 4 line

One exception to that was one day we bought a train ticket for an hour trip out to Slovakia which offered a partial discount off the price if we had an active transit pass. The conductor on the train did want to see our metro pass to confirm that we were entitled to the reduced train fare.

Metropolitan transit in Budapest has three primary systems. They are subways, buses and the street trams. The easiest to navigate are the surface trams which are clearly marked on maps by their routes. They also have the advantage of being operated at street level where you can see where you are.

As a visitor think about Budapest as being divided up into several areas of interest. First the city is divided by the Danube River. The east side of the river is the old city of Buda with most areas of interest located within a mile of the river. Much of this terrain is steeply inclined up to the fortifications, the castle and Matthias Church and the old city. There is also a funicular that goes up to the castle level from near the Fisherman’s Bastion.

The west side of the river is the old city of Pest and includes most of the large commercial areas and additional major attractions. Some major sights include St. Stephen’s Basilica, The Hungarian Parliament Building, Hero’s Square as well as a number of major museums and galleries.

There are two primary tram lines designated 4 and 6 inside the central city that cross the river at the Margit bridge and the Erzebet Bridge. These two lines are major routes for people to use going to work and shopping and can get busy at times. Along these routes are the Central Train Station, the Market Hall, the New York Cafe and the Octagon intersection. From Octagon you can switch to the #1 subway line to get to Hero’s Square, the National Museum and or toward the river to the Opera House and a popular restaurant neighborhood.

There is an intersection of tram routes 4 and 6 with the #4 subway line at Jozsef Krt and Rakoczi Ut where you can switch routes and take the subway toward the Danube..

The easiest way we found to use the trams and subways is to know the map location where you get on and count the number of stops to where you are going, Understanding the Hungarian tram and subway announcements is often difficult and reading stop locations can be a challenge. Also station names at the various stations in the subway are poorly marked. For example boarding a west bound subway at the Octagon station and wanting to get off at Heroes Square to visit the gardens simply count five station stops.

After just a couple of trips you will easily get the hang of the system. Rush hour is also an interesting time on the trams. When the doors open on a packed full tram you will quickly realize that the crowd behind you believes there is plenty of room for a number of additional riders inside. You may be reluctant to push in but the next thing you know you are right there, packed into the car that you thought you wouldn’t fit into. Don’t worry most everyone is friendly and accommodating. Also if you aren’t sure where you are ask for help. We rarely found anyone that couldn’t understand some English and were happy to help.

A Hotdog in Vienna

Street Food Is Sometimes A Good Option

We became”pen pals” with an Austrian couple after cruising with them a while back. In one of many e-mail exchanges, we told them we would be visiting Vienna which prompted them to send us a list of things to do while there. High on the list was a hot dog stand behind the State Opera House. Being too intriguing to pass up, as soon as we got into the center of Vienna, with cell phone in hand to navigate, we headed off in search of Bitzingers, the famous hotdog stand.

Arriving shortly after noon there was a line already formed. The customer directly in front of us was a member of the Polizei, the Austrian police. He provided inspiration for our selection choice as the proprietor was filling a carry away bag with a large number of different varieties of hot dogs/sausages/toppings.

Being unable to read the German menu, when it was our turn we very simply asked for two hot dogs, one plain and one with mustard. The preparation process involves having an end sliced, at an angle from what can best be described as a small baguette. The baguette is than pushed down on a stainless spike to make a hole for the hotdog. A squirt of mustard goes into the hole followed by a really good hotdog and than wrapped by a square of foil.

Simple, fast and remarkably tasty. Sometimes following the advice of locals is the best bet. Later while walking around Vienna we passed a couple of other Bitzingers stands, so this isn’t a one-off operation. However, most new visitors to this city are drown to the city center with its palaces, museums, cathedrals and blocks of shops and cafes so knowing the downtown location of Bitzingers could come in handy. It is right behind the State Opera House which is an easy landmark to navigate towards. Also within a few blocks of the Opera House quick a search on your phone with Google Maps should provide a precise directions.

Tales of the Lionheart

Ruins of Durnstein Castle sit above the Danube

Sailing Up The Danube

In Europe I am like a kid in a candy store. I do love history and here it comes at you from every direction. Two days ago we were on a boat west of Vienna on the Danube and glided past the ruins of Durnstein Castle.

In western legends there are a number of romantic tales that reference historic events and are notable because of spinoff stories that remain in literature and legend to this day. Few are as significant to English history as the tales of Richard the Lion Heart in the twelfth century.

Already a popular ruler, Richard answered the call of the Pope to free the Holy Land and make it available to Christian pilgrams. Richard marched off to the third crusade with a number of his trusted knights and soldiers.

Leaving England in the hands of his younger brother John, things didn’t go well at home. John set his sights on becoming the new sovereign of England and systematically replaced lords and knights with men loyal to him. As legend indicates he greatly increased taxes claiming they were needed to support the crusades while putting them to his own use. There are also historical indications that he attempted to later block the use of ransom to free his older brother.

One particular legend, that actually does not appear in literature for over two hundred years after the time of Richard the Lionheart, is that of Robin Hood. This legend grew out of a number of popular ballads regarding a highborn group of men that became outlaws in resistance to the rule of Prince John and in support of King Richard.

While many of these legends have little historical basis there was a historical crusader king known as Richard the Lionheart with a younger brother Prince John, who was imprisoned for a ransom in Austria.

At the end of the third crusade Richard the Lionheart left the Holy Land in October 1192. The Third Crusade had been only a partial success and, after three years of fighting the Saracens, the Christian warriors were depleted by disease, desertion and death in battle. Richard was one of the leaders of the Christian forces and negotiated a three-year truce with the great Muslim general Saladin, where the Christians were to keep a thin strip of land on the Mediterranean coast and several fortified strongholds, and Christian pilgrims were to be given safe passage to visit Holy sights in Jerusalem unmolested.

This agreement allowed King Richard to make plans to return to England, something that he badly needed to do. King Philip Augustus of France had been taking his holdings in Normandy, and his younger brother, Prince John had been steadily increasing his power in England, illegally taking and garrisoning castles with his own men and constantly undermining the authority of the officials put in place by King Richard to govern the country in his absence. King Richard stated he intended to return to the Holy Land, once he had settled matters in Europe and removed the threat to his throne from his brother, but events were to conspire against him.

King Richard I, the Lionheart had made many enemies during the Crusade. A French King Philip, once a close friend, now had designs on advancing his power by diminishing Richard’s authority and Duke Leopold of Austria, the leader of the German contingent of the crusaders had become a serious rival if not a sworn enemy. He had alienated Henry VI, the Austrian Holy Roman Emperor, by supporting King Tancred of Sicily against him. The Austrian Holy Roman Emperor controlled most of Germany, Hungary, Austria and much of the Italian peninsula, much of Portugal and Spain not in Muslim hands. Richard knew that he would have a problem getting home via land.

The whole story of Richard’s return is not entirely clear; the facts are fragmentary, and sometimes seem contradictory, but most scholars agree that Richard decided to attempt a clandestine eastern land route homeward. After sending his wife Berengaria by ship to Rome where she would be protected by the Pope, he took to the Adriatic and sailed north. The weather was bad, and after a couple of attempts Richard landed on the northern Adriatic coast at Aquileia, near Trieste in north-eastern Italy although some scholars suggest that this landing wasn’t planned and that he was shipwrecked there after bad weather. Either way that’s where the King found himself, on or about the 10th December 1192, ashore, with only a small contingent, and hundreds of miles to cross thru hostile territory.

Legend says Richard traveled as a Templar knight, and headed north into the heart of Europe, making for safe territory controlled by his brother-in-law Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony. However, after an icy, grueling journey on poor roads, the King was apprehended by men loyal to Duke Leopold of Austria. He is said to have given himself away by his demeanor at an inn in rural Austria. It was only a few days before Christmas, the weather was awful and the King was apparently sheltering in a road house a number of miles west of Vienna. Some stories suggest it was his companions’ practice of calling him ‘Sire’ that somehow gave away his royal identity.

Duke Leopold must have been delighted to have his great enemy the King of England in his clutches, and he promptly locked up Richard in Durnstein Castle, a stronghold on the Danube fifty miles to the west of Vienna. He also informed Henry VI, the Holy Roman Emperor, of his windfall, and a letter still exists from Henry VI to Philip Augustus of France, which has the Holy Roman Emperor gloating about the capture of this royal pilgrim. Seizing King Richard was technically an illegal act, as Pope Celestine III had decreed that knights who took part in the Crusade were not to be molested as they travelled to and from the Holy Land. Both Emperor Henry and Duke Leopold were later excommunicated by the Pope himself for Richard’s detention.

Negotiations for Richard’s release took the best part of a year, and after strenuous diplomatic efforts by Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine, a ransom that included 23 tons of silver, twice the domestic product of England at the time was agreed to. 12 tons went to Louis VI of France for facilitating the transfer and 11 tons to Leopold with the Richard being released in early February 1194.

Another legend that came out of this historical event is the story of Blondel. This legend relates to King Richard’s imprisonment in Europe, and his loyal friend Blondel, which was a nickname for anyone with blond hair at that time. The legend says that Blondel searched across Europe for his king and friend, playing his lute outside the walls of castles all over Germany in an attempt to find his lord. While singing a song under the walls of Durnstein Castle, a song he had written with King Richard during the Crusade, Blondel was rewarded by a familiar voice singing the second verse from a small cell in a tower high above him. The loyal trouvère had found his King.

Although this legend has many highly improbable elements, there really was a Blondel, a famous trouvère from Nestle in France who lived at the time of the Lionheart and, if he didn’t actually seek his King by playing music under castle walls in Austria, at least he has been immortalized with some twenty-five songs preserved in French museums and libraries.

Partly based on notes by Angus Donald, July 2011

Budapest 23 October 1956

The Passage of Sixty Plus Years

A Time That Hungary Remembers

We are in Budapest sitting in a restaurant and a young couple come in and sit at the table next to us. The young lady is rather attractive and from what I gather is speaking Hungarian to the waitress when she approaches. What strikes me as really odd is the young lady is wearing a white T-shirt with a picture of Vladimir Putin on the front.

A number of questions come to mind. Have the Hungarians forgiven the Russians for Communism and the conquest of their country following World War Two? Are they over the violent crack down when revolutionaries tried to win their freedom back ten years later? Do young people have no sense of history anymore?

I was pretty young and in elementary school at that time, but to this day it is my oldest remembrance of a real historical event. I remember vividly sitting in front of our small family black & white television watching tanks roll down city streets, machine gun fire raking buildings and Molotov cocktails bursting against the tanks. Commentators railed about recognizing a new government and claims by the Eisenhower administration that we were not in a position to engage the U.S.S.R. In that place at that time.

Years later I had a woman work for me named Tunde and she and her husband fled across the boarder into Austria in early November and eventually made their way to the United States. She had a number of stories about their neighborhood in Budapest and the street fighting and how terrified they were about the coming Soviet reprisals.

After dinner that night I was reading a magazine article about the coming anniversary of the Revolution, which is now a National holiday and how the heaviest street fighting had occurred in the Corvin area in a section called the “passage”. Less than three hours before, that is exactly where we sat as I thought about the young woman sitting next to us and that Putin T-shirt.

Corvin Passage 14 Oct 2018

I am not so sure how the Hungarians feel about the Russians today but if I had to describe “micro-aggressions” and “trigger-warnings” to someone, that might be an example. I am not sure why she wore that shirt there yesterday, maybe she is a radical socialist making a statement or perhaps she was being a young cultural revolutionary and maybe it is just fashionable to wear these new icons. Whatever the reason there is no way I can understand and it makes me very sad.

Since we have been posting things on the internet I am very conscious as to what I say. It has never been my intent to be political. I once made a mistake and posted something I thought was simply ironic but a number of people thought was overly neo-conservative and they told me so in no uncertain terms. At this point I am becoming concerned that there are a number of people on the web searching for any unintended slight or social misstep that gives them a reason to attack, while at the same time being very ignorant of the broader culturally careless opinions they hold.

Thank you for humoring me…


An old building on a street in the Corvin neighborhood shows a number of scars and the effects of old age…

Visiting Štúrovo On A Day Trip From Budapest

Esztergom looking up at “Castle Hill”

Štúrovo and Esztergom An Hour Out of Budapest

Walking into Esztergom

Maybe it was wanting to see some of the countryside or maybe it was adding another pin to our map but on Saturday morning we set off after several days in Budapest to visit Štúrovo, Slovakia.

Štúrovo is a town in Slovakia, situated on the River Danube. The town sits opposite the Hungarian city of Esztergom. The Mária Valéria bridge across the Danube was reconstructed and opened in 2001 joining the two towns once again after 57 years. The bridge was destroyed by fleeing Nazi’s in 1944 during World War II by detonating a truck load of explosives in the middle of the bridge.


Esztergom Station

If you are staying in Budapest the best way to visit the area is to catch a train to Esztergom. Take a train from the Budapest train station with a round trip ticket costing about $8 and the trip taking a little over one hour. The trains run at least every hour with busy periods more often. The Esztergom station is the end of the line. We walked from the station thru Esztergom to the Mária Valéria bridge but if you’re not up for a hike there is a tourist “train” that goes out to the Slovic side of the bridge.

The Bridge

When we got to the bridge there was heavy foot traffic going both ways across the bridge. A lot of people from the Hungarian side were going over to do there shopping so it must be better value on the Slovakian side. When we got into Štúrovo there was a huge open air market with lots of crafts and food. There were also a number of locations for music and we learned that the Slovakians have a tradition making and playing bagpipes. In Slovakia they are known as “gajdy” and what we heard was a completely different style and tempo than we have been used to hearing.

We spent some time shopping in the market and grabbing something in a cafe with the preferred money being the Euro. The market offered a lot of great local crafts and it was difficult to walk away without buying more than we could pack to carry home.

The Market in Štúrovo
A kiddie ride at the market


Crossing back over the bridge into Esztergom you get a great view of the “Castle Hill” and the cathedral that dominates the city. It is obvious from this that Esztergom was once an important city in Hungary.

“Castle Hill” overlooking the Danube

Historically Esztergom is one of the oldest towns in Hungary and was a thriving city in the Middle Ages. Archeological excavations have revealed that the Castle Hill has been inhabited since the end of the Ice Age 20,000 years ago. It was an important Celtic settlement in 350 BC and was later conquered by Rome.

At about 500 AD, Slavic peoples immigrated into the area. In the 9th century, the territory was mostly under Frankish control. In 960, the ruling prince of the Hungarians, Géza, chose Esztergom as his residence. His son, Vajk, who was later called Saint Stephen of Hungary, was born in his palace built on the Roman castrum on Castle Hill around 969-975.

The Hungarian prince’s residence was built on the northern side of the fortified hill. The center of the hill was occupied by a great basilica dedicated to St. Adalbert, who baptised St. Stephen. The Church of St. Adalbert was the seat of the archbishop of Esztergom, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in Hungary.

The Mária Valéria Bridge

St. Stephen’s coronation took place in Esztergom on Christmas Day 1000 AD. From that time to the beginning of the 13th century it served as the royal residence of the Hungarian kings until the Mongol siege in 1241.

The capital of Hungary was moved to Buda in 1354 and in 1873 the two cities of Buda and Pest were combined and Budapest became the capital.

A McDonalds in Budapest

In Praise of McDonalds

We are in Budapest this week at the beginning of a long planned trip across central Europe. I’m not sure what I was expecting in Budapest but it is much more than I had ever imagined. While things have been going slightly wrong since we left home with a few problems already forcing some changes in the weeks ahead we will just have to adapt.

With over 35,000 restaurants in over 100 countries, there are times when we travel McDonald’s can seem like a touch of home. While we prefer to eat local, sometimes familiarity, price and convenience win out. While the restaurant’s menu and appearance has a tendency to change based on the country there are always some common choices.

In Budapest, Hungary, one particular McDonald’s has actually become a destination itself. Located in the Western Railway Station (Nyugati Pályaudvar) that was designed by August de Serres and built by the Eiffel Company of Paris. The construction took three years and the iron structure was cast in Paris. Nyugati Pályaudvar was opened in 1877, 12 years before the Eiffel Company built the famous tower in Paris. Almost 150 years later the station has managed to retained its original style.

Over the years much of the iron structure has been replaced. On the right side of the terminal is the what has been called the most beautiful McDonalds in the world. This is one of the oldest fast food establishments behind the Iron Curtain, dating back to the Soviet occupation of Hungary. This McDonalds occupies a large multi-story space with ornate an colonial ceiling in the railway station complex and is a favorite with locals and tourists alike.

We visited around six on a Friday and the restaurant was packed. The lines moved quickly with attendants moving thru the lines taking orders on hand-held pads that printed out an order ticket. Our order priced out a little less than we would have paid back home and featured the usual fare. Placed on a balcony on the second floor was a MaCafe furnished with overstuffed sofas and chairs and staffed just to make coffee based drinks.

While we are not sure this is the most beautiful McDonalds in the world it is for sure the most beautiful we’ve ever visited.