The Wadden Sea – Weekly Travel Photo & Product Review

The Black Sun – it almost sounds ominous doesn’t it? If you’re a small worm, grasshopper, or fruit tree around south-western Jutland in fall, I suppose it is.  But, for the rest of us, it describes a stunning bird migration which is one of those you’ve-gotta-see-it-to-appreciate-it experiences. While photos like these or video like this may help convey some of the wonder of the Black Sun – the annual migration of more than 14 million starlings – it’s only when you’ve seen the birds in person, heard their chatter, and the incredible whooshing sound of their wings as they move in unison, that you get real insights into why the Black Sun is special.

How does that relate to this week’s photo? It was the main reason that drew me to the historic Danish town of Ribe in southern Jutland.  And, while I was drawn to Ribe to see the Black Sun, I soon fell in love with the city itself, often hailed as Denmark’s oldest, is historic, charming and home to beautiful doors, wonderful architecture, and lovely people.  It also serves as the home-base for an exploration of the Wadden Sea or “Vadehavet” National Park and UNESCO World Heritage Site which is immediately in/around/outside of the town.

Autumn In Jutland – Weekly Travel Photo

There is a special window each year. A window of time ever so fleeting and hard to track. It is never the same day, week, or month. Ever in flux it varies from valley to glen, coast to fjord. In places like Arizona it is nearly non-existent except in the high country and yet in Denmark the amber hues of fall and rich colds of autumn gradually spread across the landscape like a freshly fallen layer of snow.

Budapest’s Royal and Regal Palaces and Castles

Around Buda Castle on Castle Hill

Hundreds of years of history, empire, wealth and culture shape the now unified sister cities of Buda and Pest. In my previous post, A traveler’s journal: meandering Budapest’s Streets, I took you through some of the city’s more off-beat, religious and cultural attractions. In this post let’s dive into some of the city’s better known and more visible attractions.

Around Buda Castle on Castle Hill

Buda Castle & Palace

While not what you might typically consider when thinking of a traditional castle, Buda Castle and the Castle Hill/Castle District is actually a small city in its own right located on top of one of the plateaus overlooking the Danube.  The Castle and Royal Palace cover the southern end of the hill and are composed of a sprawling mixture of fortified walls, large palatial buildings, beautiful fountains, and royal monuments.   While the current incarnation is much more modern, regional royalty have been using the hill since the mid-1200s with the first royal residence built somewhere around 1260 AD.

The Buda Palace and Castle

It wasn’t until 150 years later that the oldest sections of the current castle (now little more than the foundations of an old Castle Keep) were constructed.  In the early 1400s King Sigismund, the Holy Roman Emperor at the time, made significant additions to the Palace as befitted the city’s role as the heart of the Holy Roman Empire.  In addition to enhancing the palatial sections Sigismund also made major enhancements to the castle’s defensive walls and apparatus.  Later kings, including Mathias Corvinus and Vladislaus II continued to expand the palace over the next hundred or so years. The Ottoman army conquered the Kingdom of Hungary in 1526.   Over the following century the Ottomans occupied Buda and fended off a number of Habsburg sieges until the Siege of 1686 which did extensive damage. This led to the Habsburgs taking control of the city.  Unfortunately, the siege destroyed the majority of the medieval palace, the remainder of which was temporarily neglected, while repairs were made to the fortifications.

Buda Castle in Budapest Hungary

More recently a series of baroque palaces were constructed starting in the early 1700s.  Many of these were damaged by wars and large fires – though each of these left its mark on the castle and palatial layout of the area.  Eventually the palace was re-built in the mid-1800s before being heavily renovated around the turn of the century.  Small tweaks were made until WWII when the castle was ravaged by the war and faced extensive damage.   Fascinatingly the re-building which took place in the 50s and 60s gave us the hybrid structure that we now see.  A mixture of the castle and places as they existed across history.

Buda Castle in Budapest Hungary

Without learning the history behind the castle and palace you would never suspect that it had such a turbulent and destructive past.  The modern buildings look pristine, well-preserved, historical and beautiful.  As I strolled along its cobblestone streets, through large heavily-worked gates, and from open courtyard to courtyard, I felt as though I was walking through a fairy-tale palace. All it took was a little imagination, closing my eyes, and a thought to strip away the cars and tourists… to trade them for romanticized visions of formal events attended by beautiful people in regal evening attire arriving in carriages, accompanied by the delightful rhythm of a Viennese waltz drifting to my ears from one of the building’s many ballrooms.

CopenhagenDinner-0529

During my visit the kiss of fall was visible everywhere.  Even the light had a soft amber hue to it, which only served to set off and accentuate the golden leaves and deep red hues of the numerous hedges, trees, and vines that stand, lean, and crawl across the castle walls.

Buda Castle in Budapest Hungary

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for cats, so perhaps it is no surprise that one of my favorite decorations around the palatial grounds were the guardian lions.  Beautifully carved in a style I love, these regal stone creatures stand guard throughout Budapest. However, of all of the lion statues in the city – those on the Chain Bridge, etc. – the lions around Buda Castle are my favorite.

Buda Castle in Budapest Hungary

Unfortunately, due to time limitations we didn’t make it into the interior of the Castle, which apparently boasts a number of impressive rooms and displays in the Budapest History Museum, situated in one of the Castle’s wings.  It’s definitely something I’d love to return to the city to see, as the history of Budapest and to some degree Buda Castle has played such an influential role in the shaping of our modern world.

Fisherman's Bastion in Budapest

Fisherman’s Bastion & Mathhias Church

Located on Castle Hill, Fisherman’s Bastion is a fortification built and finished in 1902 that overlooks the Danube immediately beside Matthias Church. The series of seven towers were designed to represent the seven tribes that initially settled the Carpathian Basis around 900 AD.

View From Fisherman's Bastion in Budapest

The bastion boasts a unique architecture that feels distinctly Hungarian, but also borrows from more eastern inspirations and manages to pull off the appearance of a defensive structure while maintaining an almost ornamental feel. This comes largely from the large archways and pointed domes that decorate the bastion. It’s somewhat odd and arguably ill-fitting name makes significantly more sense in context. Historically, the Fisherman’s Guild had the replaced and manned section of the Bastion’s walls though I don’t believe they were involved with their defense by the time the walls were re-built and dedicated.

View From Fisherman's Bastion in Budapest

These days the Bastion’s main draw and purpose is as a partial cafe and scenic overlook. The walls of the Bastion offer a spectacular view out over the Danube and Pest side of the river. It’s also one of the best locations to view Hungary’s ornate Parliament Building, which features a Gothic Revival style.

Fisherman's Bastion in Budapest

Visitors to the Bastion will also note a large regal statue of Stephen the 1st of Hungary mounted on a horse which depicts him as a saint. It is placed on top of a large carved marble monument. For visitors interested in one of the best views in Budapest, I’d suggest exploring Castle Hill during the day and then planning on winding down the visit right around sunset along the Fisherman’s Bastion.

Around Buda Castle on Castle Hill

The third structure of note in the immediate area is Mathias Church. An impressive Gothic structure that dates back to the latter part of the 14th century. It replaced its Romanesque predecessor built more than 400 years earlier. During the Ottoman period, the church was used as a mosque before being re-claimed as a cathedral after Christian’s re-possession of the city in 1686. More recently, towards the end of the 19th century, the building was renovated with several more modern aspects added, such as the ornate tile work on the roof.

Around Buda Castle on Castle Hill

The Cathedral is one of the most easily recognizable and prominent buildings located within the Castle Hill District. It is an easily recognizable landmark visible from just about everywhere in Budapest. It features a mixture of art in the form of the Ecclesiastical Art Museum and serves as home to replicas of the Hungarian royal jewels and a variety of other sacred relics.

Around Buda Castle on Castle Hill

One thing that really stood out for me about the Cathedral was its tile work. While many Gothic cathedrals feature copper or slate roofing, the 19th century renovation of the Cathedral replaced its more traditional designs with colorful and ornately patterned roof tiles. These caught and reflected the sun while adding an unusual level of character and personality to the building.

Buda Castle in Budapest Hungary

Castle Hill

While the Bastion and Cathedral are both technically part of the Castle Hill District, I want to make sure to take a few moments to talk about the area as a whole.  Stretching along the top of the plateau, the district is a mixture of hotels, museums, tourist shops, restaurants, and housing.  Despite its fairly touristy nature, the area still retains the feel of a smaller medieval town, likely due to the age of the buildings, cobblestone streets, and cramped quarters.  I felt I was walking through a small town and had to remind myself that I was standing in the heart of Hungary’s capital city.

Buda Castle in Budapest Hungary

The whole area is rich with history and derives most of its charm from the small details. Historical interiors glanced through windows, blooming flowerpots, street artists, old wrought-iron lamp posts, fountains and wonderful stone carving after carving.

Around Buda Castle on Castle Hill

For those up for a little walk, it’s also possible to leave the castle walls and explore the beautiful ring road which wraps along the back side of the hill. Built along a steep incline, we enjoyed the traditional architecture and beautiful tree-lined lane covered in fallen yellow leaves. There were also a number of steep staircases that careened down the side of the hill towards a large park at the base. While not as picture perfect or historically significant, we thoroughly enjoyed the walk along Castle Hill’s back side. One item worth noting, we passed a war hospital museum during the stroll which looked fascinating. Unfortunately, by the time we stumbled onto it they had already closed for the day.

Heroes Square in Budapest

Heroes Square & Vajdahunyad Castle

Located on the Pest side of the city, Heroes Square is a cultural center and gateway to one of the city’s largest sprawling parks. The Heroes Square is a large open space with a semi-circular monument and pillar.  On one side of the square you’ll find the Museum of Fine Arts. On the other you’ll encounter the Palace of Art.  Both buildings are beautiful and well worth a visit.   While the monument sits at the park side of the square, the world’s second oldest metro – the Millennium Underground – dead-ends at the park after traveling underneath Andrassy Avenue, an iconic tree-lined historic boulevard that serves as home to several other museums and embassies.

Vajdahunyad Castle in Budapest

The park behind Heroes Square serves as home to Vajdahunyad Castle. Despite possessing an incredibly difficult name to remember and pronounce, the castle has a picturesque quality to quickly make you forget any challenges you may have faced trying to find it.  It’s located in the heart of the City Park and is surrounded by a large moat.

Vajdahunyad Castle in Budapest

Despite an historical appearance, the castle is relatively new and was built between 1896 and 1908.  The design of the building is based heavily on Transylvania Castle in Romania, which you may recognize from vampire lore. Interestingly, the original building was built for the Millennial Exhibition and was little more than wood.  However, due to significant interest and the complex’s popularity, it was eventually rebuilt out of stone in its current incarnation.  In addition to strolling the complex and enjoying the beautiful buildings, water, and park’s lush vegetation, make sure that you pause at the statute of Anonymous.  While the history of Anonymous as a 12th century historian who documented ancient Hungarian history is fascinating, the statue itself is beautifully done and has a very unique feel.

Vajdahunyad Castle in Budapest

Despite touching on a few of the major buildings in Budapest, there are many others to see. You’ll note that I only briefly mentioned the Parliament Building in this post and my previous one on Budapest. Unfortunately, due to the weather and renovations I didn’t get many good shots of it. When I was there, they were celebrating Hungary’s Independence Day and large parts were off-limits.

One thing is for certain – Budapest is a fascinating city with an incredibly rich and storied past. When you visit, make sure to give yourself ample time to explore. The city has served as home to a number of vastly different cultures and empires over the years – from the ornate Ottoman empire to the stoic Soviet period. You’ll need at least a week to explore it properly and a comfortable pair of walking shoes.

Have a favorite place in Budapest? Make sure to share it with me. If I missed it this trip I’d love to make sure I see it when I find my way back to the city.

Croatia: Zagreb & the Lakes and Waterfalls of Plitvicjka Jezera

Zagreb Market - Croatia

While beautiful, Croatia is still lacking a decent internet system. At least as far as I could tell. The connections that I did find were slow and the internet cafes were exceedingly expensive. As a result, it’s been a long while since my last update and I have a ton to catch up on. I’m currently hunkered down in an internet cafe in Florence waiting to connect with a friend. So hopefully, with a few hours to spare, I’ll be able to get caught up. At some points the post may wander a bit as its been a lot longer than I would have liked and some of the memories are not as fresh as I wish they were. I’m going to break Croatia into two posts. This one & one that will immediately follow it as I have a hunch they will be lengthy.

Zagreb Continued

After exploring the town I returned to the hostel where I relaxed for a while. During that time I socialized with one of the two owners. Our conversation roamed all over the place from the running of the hostel, the economic rebirth of the town, the war, women and travel. Eventually I mentioned that I was hungry and he was eager to show me a local eatery. He tossed up the good ol’ ‘Be back in 5’ sign and off we went through a light rain. The meal was from a small stand in a shopping center. It took a few minutes to get our food as there was a line eagerly waiting to place their orders. What we got was an odd mix between a hamburger and a gyro…or something of the sort. Tasty, different, filling… It hit the spot.

Zagreb - Coriatia

Upon returning to the hostel I relaxed a bit and met/formed a decent group to hit up the town that night. Our host recommended a few places to go to and we set off. Before long we found ourselves filing into a tiny bar that didn’t even have the space for a proper bar, but instead had an alcove full of the usual bar goodies. We piled in and began relaxing. Shortly there after three English men piled in. All in their 30s or so, it turned out they were down on loan by the British military from the Czech Republic and were working with the local police force and military to prepare Croatia for it’s estimated 2011 entrance into the EU. It turns out that while the interior borders of EU countries are very soft, they try very hard to keep a tough external border. To that end any new state joining has to significantly beef up its exterior border, which also means demolishing a lot of the crossover. From what I’ve heard and read, in preparation, countries like Croatia have to demolish many of the bridges into their non-EU neighbors in order to create more secure strong points of entry. I can only imagine the political and economic issues that causes. One of the guys in the group ended up hitting it off with one of the guys that was part of a larger group of local students in the bar. While not appropriate to share what started their conversation…our two groups ended up intermingling fairly quickly. It turned out that it had been a big student day and they were out celebrating. Most attended the local university and were studying art & media in some shape or form.

Zagreb Market - Croatia

Before long they grew restless and eager to move to a different bar. They picked us up in tow and we followed them to the other side of the square, down a side street and into another tiny basement bar. This one was mostly deserted which allowed us to all fit inside. At this point in time our group split up a bit, both the hostel and the local group were large enough, and the mixtures odd enough that we all found various sub groups we had more in common with. I ended up joining a small group at one of the tables. Three girls and one guy, who I at first had actually mistaken for a girl. They ended up being extremely friendly and a bit more down to earth than some of the others. One of the other hostelers, a tall Kiwi also joined us.

We got acquainted, ambled through conversation and drank for a bit before they got antsy and decided a club would be a fun idea. We touched based with the others from the hostel, then split off from the main group. The six of us made our way across the old town to a local nightclub. They got us in free, we looked around and left almost immediately after. The club itself would have been ok but it was packed. Not in a fun busy sort of way, but more like sardines in a tin, or perhaps even more accurately white fish in a smoker – as it was again a small basement club that allowed smoking which made it almost impossible to breathe. I continued talking to one of the girls that I was getting along with especially well – Diana was her name – as we wandered slowly back toward the center of town. We took some playful guff from the one Croatian guy in the group before eventually ending up back at the square. There one of the girls decided she was calling it a night which meant the rest were joining her and an end to the festivities. The mother hen collected her chicks (which unfortunately included Diana) and they started towards home leaving the Kiwi and I to figure out what we were going to do for the rest of the night as it was still early. As Diana trailed behind the others a bit she gave me an ALU (their University apparently) pin she’d been wearing from the days festivities. The Kiwi and I grabbed some food then retired back to the hostel and called it an early night. We had an early morning ahead of us.

Plitvice Lakes - Croatia

Plitvicjka Jazera – The Magic Canyon

The night before most of the others had decided upon going to a set of waterfalls located a ways outside of the city. Traveling as I do, I had seen a poster of them but was fairly oblivious. I figured it was one set of small falls that while pretty were not worth the trip. My plan was and had been to leave for Split and arrive mid afternoon – but as the others talked about it it turned out that the falls were on the way (you took the Split bus to get to them), highly recommended and some two hours south of the city (almost half way to Split). Since it was along my route and everyone spoke highly of them, I elected to make it an early morning and a long day with a 4 or 5 hour stop at the Falls before continuing on by bus the remaining three hours to Split.

Plitvice Lakes - Croatia

The morning was rough, I was feeling fairly decent but a few of the others were hurting. One had managed to pass out at/on the bar and the other had apparently (and quite comically) crawled out of the basement bar, curled up in a ball on the sidewalk and passed out. Both had been collected and made it home but were suffering the after affects. Up a bit early and energized I kicked everyone out of bed and we raced to get ready and make it to the bus station in time for our 8:45 bus. There were 5 of us in total. We got to the bus, got our tickets purchased and not a moment too soon.

Plitvice Lakes - Croatia

The bus pulled away and we were off on a new adventure. The morning was cloaked in dense fog as we made our way south. The fog lasted a good 45 minutes before it finally burned off. The drive itself was beautiful as we twisted through valleys, past vineyards and through autumn kissed trees. There were two things during the drive that truly stood out… The first was the spiderwebs in a number of the fields. These fields were that straw-gold color of dead, wet grass stalks. Within the grass the leftovers of an old crop stood up 2 or 3 feet. Stretched between these stalks were tight lightly woven spider webs perfectly formed, coated in a light dew. They caught the light and looked like giant snowflakes. The fields were covered in them and as we drove by the light caught them as if they were little stars shining out.

Plitvice Lakes - Croatia

The second thing about the drive that really stands out in my memory is a small town in a little canyon with a river running through it. It was perhaps, the most beautiful and picturesque village I’ve ever seen. For those of you who have seen the Lord of the Rings it was a mixture between Rivendel and Hobbiton. As we drove past it I very nearly jumped off the bus and had there been a proper stop near the city I might not have made it to the lakes for an hour or two at least. The water was a deep, crystal clear, turquoise blue.

Plitvice Lakes - Croatia

I cannot imagine how it deals with flood waters, but perched on the side of a hill as it was, there were small dammed areas everywhere as the water zig zagged its way down the side of the hill and through the village. It was like a tiny Venice with different architecture, quality water, surrounded by forest and waterfalls. Truly words escape me – I’ve never seen anything like it and I only saw it for the minute we drove over the bridge and past it. There were flowers, grass, the clearest, gorgeous blue water you’ve ever seen, picturesque houses, fall trees…if you don’t recall it or have not seen it google a photo of Rivendel…that’s as close as I can come to a description.

Plitvice Lakes - Croatia

Thirty or forty minutes later we arrived at our destination. We collected our bags and I set off immediately to find somewhere to stash my backpack while I did the tour. Luckily there was a baggage area where you could pay a small fee and leave your bag. That done we purchased our tickets and began our walk into the park which as it turns out is a UNESCO World Heritage site. After walking through the ticket area we turned a small corner and found ourselves on the edge of the canyon wall directly across from a huge waterfall.

Plitvice Lakes - Croatia

The waterfall was a massive white mass that crashed down over gray rocks covered in red and green moss framed by the yellows, golds and reds of the fall colors. At its base there was a mangled bit of rocks with lilly-like plants, moss, and water grass. From there the fork flowed down into the main river which wound its way through the bottom of the canyon.

Plitvice Lakes - Croatia

The water everywhere was a pristine blue that screamed out invitingly. We snapped some photos, took in the sights and then began to walk down toward the water. The whole path is brilliantly done, in place of an ugly winding cement path, they had selected a walkway of cut wood which created a tree house look that blended in perfectly to the natural beauty. The whole canyon is a series of lakes and waterfalls. If one wanted to walk the entire thing, even at a bisque pace, it would take a good 7-8 hours. The path we selected allowed us to see all but the highest falls in 5 or so.

Plitvice Lakes - Croatia

Some of the waterfalls, as was the case with the first main one, are large flowing masses that drop 20-100 feet. Some are small and crash down through the moss, lilies and grass en mass all along the small natural dams. The lakes themselves are not only crystal clear but a stunning light amethyst which allows you to see deep into their centers. The lakes also are heavily populated by large schools of what I think were whitefish. The fish are so familiar with people that they school in giant schools along the edge of the lake and behave a lot like goldfish.

Plitvice Lakes - Croatia

In and along the water everything is green…not just a simple shade of green…but the full width and breadth of the spectrum. In the water and the falls themselves the rocks are seldom visible. Instead they are almost all covered by fallen leaves, moss, lilies, water grass, or old pieces of trees covered in a whitish blanket of silt that reminds me of natural springs. As we wandered our way along the walkway we were surrounded by falling leaves. Eventually, we came to a fork in the path, one branch wound up and continued following the water – the other split off and worked its way up through an arch back toward the top of the canyon wall.

Plitvice Lakes - Croatia

We took the path on the left expecting to backtrack and eager to see the view it offered. It crossed over a finger of the lake which led into what looked like a small water grotto only accessible by boat or a good doggy paddle. We walked past it then wound up a little ways at which point we were faced by another fork. The right hand side consisted of large square blocks carved out the stone that were obviously meant to be steps…though they were more like square pillars of alternating heights that scaled the 15 foot stretch to a small cave. Legs pumping we made our way up and were dumped into a small cave that looked out over the way we came. A dead end, but well worth the climb.

Plitvice Lakes - Croatia

We retraced our steps and took the other fork which wound through what seemed like a small cave before zig-zagging its way up and out of the hole. We turned and looked down on the falls before returning down the way we had come and continuing to trace our way along the waters edge. Every second step seemed as if it were straight from a dream. I cannot even begin to imagine the wonder and awe that the first people to discover it must have felt. Because of the early hour, it being off season and mixed weather (it alternated between light sprinkles and mixed cloud cover) there were very few people out and about. If I’m able to upload some of the photos today you will notice the lack of people. It was a dream!

Plitvice Lakes - Croatia

I’m afraid that though I could ramble endlessly about the experience it would mostly just be repeating myself. So, to that end let me just say that Plitvicjka Jazera, is truly a natural wonder of the world.

Plitvice Lakes - Croatia

I boarded my bus later that afternoon and napped intermittently during the 3 hour ride to Split. The ride itself was gorgeous, Autumn has been my constant companion as I head south, but during that bus ride Winter began to catch up. The higher mountains (perhaps a thousand feet or so above where I had been) had received a light dusting of snow the night before and looked incredible. From there we descended toward the water and sea level. The hills and that part of the country were rugged, treeless and consisted of crumbling stone, small bushes and the occasional river. You could see the occasional footprint of war in abandoned, bombed out, or shot up buildings here and there. At one point with the sea before us and the snow dusted mountains behind us, the sun set. The sunset was a golden sapphire, a burning orb that set red fires across the landscape and clouds casting everything in a rosy hue. The mountains picking up a blue haze and cast in that pink light were incredible. I find it a bit funny to constantly refer to the Lord of the Rings as I travel, but the reality is that in many ways I feel a hobbit traversing a great and incredible world. While many of the scenes shot in the movie were enhanced with computer generation or digitally created, what I see and have experienced is the real, raw, authentic version.