This past holiday season, I went on a trip with three other volunteers: Megan (aka best-site-mate-ever), Kate, and Danielle. (Shoutout to Danielle for planning the whole thing, which was a Christmas miracle gift in itself.) We were out of Albania for two whole weeks, exploring and travelling and walking and eating and playing and getting lost in three gorgeous countries. But first, we had to get out of country.
In perhaps one of the best photos of the trip, Megan captures a candid moment between Kate and Mary while waiting for the airport "shuttle" (come on, I can't actually call it a shuttle when it's a hot pink Italian mini bus) to depart.
We made it to the airport! Be aware, however, that that is not a Christmas tree but a New Year's tree.
As the Oregon fan said, Sad Wisconsin Fan is Sad.
Thankfully, regardless of football rivalries, we still like each other. See: back rubs. Because our flight was late and because I'm pretty sure that it was only late because it was someone's coffee break.
Due our flight out of Tirana departing late, we missed our connection. We were stuck in the Vienna airport for a few hours, whereupon Megan and Kate celebrated being out of country for the first time in 9 months with real Austrian beer! Look at those excited faces! Also, there was the cutest puppy I've ever seen and we made fools of ourselves playing with it on the floor of the cafeteria.
(Also, side note: when you miss a flight, please, just be nice to the folks who have to try and make another connection for you. Because honestly? This may shock you, but they had nothing to do with you missing your flight in the first place. And they're trying to help you. So stop being an ass and acting like you're more important than the other fifty people in line and be thankful that in a foreign country, everyone speaks your language so you don't have to learn theirs. I think all four of us were actually cringing as we witnessed this, and wanted nothing more than to run up to the counter and apologize for all idiot Americans in the history of idiots in airports everywhere. But I digress.)
We finally made it out of Vienna to our final destination:
...at midnight. Which was totally fine, because we got to explore the city light beneath millions of Christmas lights in the brisk non-Mediterranean winter weather. Although I'm pretty sure I'm the only on who really enjoyed the latter.
And why go out of country if not to celebrate with
disgusting delicious American food? Guilty. None of us actually enjoy double cheeseburgers from McDonald's in the States, but those burgers were divine.
First morning out in the city! We stayed in a great hostel right downtown by the Christmas markets. Behind us (and in the pic above) is St. Stephen's Cathedral (which you'll see more of in a bit) but more importantly: STARBUCKS.
Artisan shops in the Christmas market, selling everything from those amazing fruit/cinnamon good-smelly things to hand-tooled slippers and purses. And chocolate.
In the midst of such a beautiful city, I must admit I was most taken with these fantastic food stalls in the markets. Every single surface was decorated with festive charm - so even though the lines were often 15 minutes long, at least you had a crap ton of beautiful stuff to stare at. (Getting a giant brat or a giant bread bowl of hot goulash at the end of the wait didn't hurt either.)
Some mulled wine, which smelled heavenly. I even - gasp! - tasted some when one batch was so sweet that the girls didn't think there was any alcohol in it. (Lol, there was. Oops.)
The first day we took an awesome walking tour through Buda and Pest with our guide, whose name was Rudolph (he and I bonded over our Christmas-themed names). The little chubby guy (not our guide) will allegedly give you good luck in love if you rub his belly or twirl his mustache. (The jury's still out on that one.)
St. Matthias Church on the Pest side, overlooking the Parliament building and the Danube. All the churches and cathedrals in that part of the world are topped with the most stunning designs in multi-colored ceramic tiles. Seriously gorgeous.
The Hungarian Parliament Building on the (beautiful blue) Danube. It's the second largest parliament building on the European continent.
Stopping for coffee and pastries to warm up after our walking tour. Budapest's poppy seed Christmas rolls are insanely good. And I need to find a recipe, because, dang.
Oh hey, look who we ran into! Another PCV! (Sorry for the awkward picture, James...) Our second night in the city we found a great little pub, and everyone else tried the raki of Hungary, palinka.
Palinka being much more enjoyable than raki, apparently.
I just need a second to give Danielle another shoutout, because she could understand the city. I have never in my life been so turned around in a city. I was completely unable to orient myself...to which the girls can attest, because it freaked me out and I complained about it constantly. (Sorry, girls.) But seriously, it threw me for a serious loop and I hated it. But Danielle had that city down!
Christmas Eve was my last day in Budapest (the other girls stayed a day longer while I went on ahead for The Best Christmas Present Ever), so Megan and I attended Midnight Mass at St. Stephen's.
Insanely full, but spectacular. Of course we couldn't understand the service, but the idea of celebrating Christmas in a storied old cathedral with hundreds of others was comforting and heartwarming. And then they ended the service with the Hallelujah Chorus, which of course I freaked out about and loved.
Merry Christmas morning (2AM)! Megan and I heading home after mass...where we got locked out of our hostel. Because the night guard fell asleep and the bell wasn't working. True story.
(Don't worry, we made enough noise to attract others inside who woke him. We were only outside 15 minutes, which was plenty enough time to make us go crazy, uncontrollably laughing at the absurdity of the situation. "Hey Megan, remember that Christmas in Budapest when we got locked out of our hostel at two in the morning?")
I was going to catch a 6AM train to go to my next stop (yes, an insane idea), but remember that whole part about me not being able to navigate in that da
mnng city? I kept ending up at the river - opposite of the direction I was supposed to go - and so I ended up crying on the side of some street at 5:50AM Christmas morning when I realized I would totally miss my train.
Regardless of all that, though (I caught another train at 9:30), Budapest is the city from the trip that I would totally live in. If only to get the directions down.
Thanks for a magical Christmas, Budapest!