Impressions

So I just completed my third day in Norway and have some initial impressions to share! The country itself is beautiful with stunning sights, clean air, convenience, a well executed public transportation system and no crime. Keep in mind that I come from the hustle and bustle of the Bay Area, a rich area (arguably the most desired place to live, where every resident is convinced it’s well worth the cost) where people check off checkboxes as they achieve ‘success’ and only put in enough effort to minimally sustain all of our relationships.

These are not meant to be controversial, although some may come off as mildly offensive.

Norwegian women are more aggressive than the men. I’ve also been told that Norwegian men are cheap and will even force you to split the bill even on coffee dates. Hm….maybe it has something to do with the fact that you can’t find a decent cup of drip coffee in the city for under 30 NOK ($4.57 USD)!

Which brings me to my second point. Norway is expensive. Like….ridiculously expensive. A crap sandwich with a thin layer of mystery meat from 7-11 will cost you 49 NOK ($7.47 USD). Subway is the only affordable option. Medium McDonald fries cost $3.81. A coke will set you back $3+. Think cooking for yourself is cheaper? Think again! The grocery store prices are just as insane. I saved money by eating two 7-11 sandwiches on Day 1. Day 2 consisted of a meal from Mickey D’s for lunch and a traditional Norwegian dinner my amazing airbnb host made for me!

So this isn’t really an observation rather than a fact shares by Ms.Airbnb hostess but apparently Norwegians are verrrryyyy open about hooking up whenever and wherever they feel the urge! Bar bathrooms are at the top of the list!

Huge age gaps in dating are more socially accepted.

Old Norwegian men are incredibly impatient and grumpy. I imagined them to be jolly.

Norwegians get in to work late and leave early! This is quite the breath of fresh air….an entire nation of people who have figured out the key to work/life balance? We need to bring this to the States! Typical hours are 9am to 4pm…..I’ll take it!!!!

They walk everywhere and are very active. No one is overweight.

They are incredibly helpful. I can’t even count how many times someone asked me “May I help you?” without being prompted! Unheard of in the Bay Area! I even had randos offer me tips on how to save money (buy the one hour pass vs the direct fare and buy them from the convenience store vs the driver)

They suck at directions. Holy crap, it’s not even a hard city to navigate – yet they can even manage to make ‘continue straight’ into a convoluted, impossible-to-follow set of instructions.

They don’t crowd. They understand personal space and actually stand at an acceptable distance behind you while in a line.

They eat a lot of fish and chicken. Beef is usually in hamburger (minced) form.

Potatoes boiled in cream may be one of the tastiest creations ever.

The NSB (train) claims to offer free wifi with a tourist guest login. A helpful attendant gave me the credentials and when they didn’t work he said he’d never seen that before and to ask the conductor. Conductor dude came by, gave me a confused look and claimed that they were having problems THAT DAY. An honest local told me that he takes the train everyday and the wifi has never ever worked! Apparently it’s some kind of (false) advertising gimmick to convince people to take the train over flying! So shady. Thankfully that four hour train ride this morning offered some breathtaking scenery!

They are infatuated with the concept of a selfie stick. I can’t even tell you how many people took a pic of me, taking a pic of myself.

It’s wet and the rain is unpredictable.

Norwegians are hearty, despite their largely slender builds. At 40 degrees F, and a strong windchill, I bundled myself up in two jackets, thermal gear, and a warm hat and scarves while they tramped around in shorts. Brrr….

Many potatoes meet their demise here.

That’s enough of my observations for one day! I made the journey from Oslo to Flam this morning and saw some of the most jaw-dropping New Zealand-esque landscapes along the way. I’ll make a pic post soon to give you a glimpse of what I’ve seen so far.

Here’s a teaser. I tried to take a pic with ‘angry boy’ in Vigeland Sculpture Park and ended up….missing the full capture.

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Whoops!!!!

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Packing list for a month in Europe!

The procrastinator in me wanted to leave this until the very last minute but I came across an extremely helpful post that talked some sense into me.  Key takeaways include:

1) Don’t Wait to Pack ’til the last minute. You will end up packing more than you need.

2) PLEASE DON’T OVER PACK. This is one advice I really wish I would have listen to. You may think you need to bring more clothes, but honestly you don’t. Most likely you will only be in each city for a few days, then you’ll move on to the next city where no one knows you! If you’re concerned about wearing the same clothes in pictures, don’t be. Admittedly, I had the same concerns, but they quickly went away once I was traveling. People are more interested in where the picture was taken, then what clothes you were wearing.

3) The lighter your pack is, the more enjoyable your trip will be! I’m speaking from experience!  Pack light. Pack smart. And have a great trip!

With these three mantras in mind, I determined which accommodations provided access to a washing machine and how often I wanted to do laundry.  In order to give myself flexibility, I aimed for 5-7 days.

I started by reading these two blog posts, which I highly recommend.

Europe Packing List

Europe Packing Guide for Women

When picking out outfits, I took savvybackpacker’s advice and aimed for this: You should be able to blindly pull out any top and bottom from your bag and they should look good together. If you can’t do this then you should probably reconsider what you’ve chosen.

First, let’s start with the pack I decided to go with.  After hours of research, I decided to go with the Kelty Women’s Redwing 40-liter pack in Indigo.  I opted for this option because it has a front organizational pocket for all of your small items, convenient top and side pouches for easy access, and a main compartment that zips all the way to the base so you don’t have to dig out all of your items to reach the bottom.  It also has a great support system with waist and sternum straps, designed with a women’s-specific fit.  I already had The North Face Casmir 32 pack and the Kelty wins hands-down.

I ordered most of what I needed off of Amazon (including the Kelty pack).

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The picture above only represents a small portion of the items I fit into my pack.  If you’re curious about the whole list, here you are:

Clothing: (keep in mind that I have to pack for cold and warm weather!)

7 pairs underwear

2 bras

7 pairs socks

6 t-shirts (mostly quick-dry/moisture-wick)

2 long sleeve Uniqlo heat-tech shirts

2 tank tops

1 pair jeans (wear on plane)

1 pair shorts

1 moisture-wick yoga pants

1 thermal leggings

1 Uniqlo down jacket

1 Uniqlo down vest

1 North Face Venture Rain Jacket (wear on plane)

1 pair Nike Women’s Zoom Elite+ 6 (comfy walking shoes – wear on plane)

1 pair flip flops

Clothing Accessories:

Scarf

Sunglasses

Bikinis (2 sets) and a beach cover-up

Accessories:

Hikpro Ultralight Daypack

Packing cubes to maximize space and keep my clothes wrinkle-free (bought two kinds – Eagle Creek Travel Gear Pack-it Cube Set in Earth Green and the Sea to Summit Traveling Light Packing Cell in Pacific Blue)

Travelon plastic pill boxes

Spill proof pouch set (pack of 3)

Walkabout cable lock

Lens set for iPhone 5s

REI RFID clip stash (for credit cards)

Samsonite security waist belt (for holding cash, passport and rail passes)

4 port USB travel charger w/ interchangeable plugs (US, UK, EU, AU)

Ultra Portable Charger Battery Stick (doubles as a flashlight)

Selfie Stick (this one has a built in shutter right on the handle so you don’t have to fuss with a remote)

Micro USB and iPhone 5s charging cables

Platypus 1-liter Soft Bottle

Carabiners

iPad/iPhone 5s

Headphones

Toiletries/Necessities:

Earplugs

Feminine products

Makeup (concealer, powder, blush, eyeliner, brushes)

Lip balm

Q-tips (Almay makes some really amazing ‘make up eraser sticks‘ with built in oil-free liquid makeup remover)

Facial tissues

Face lotion

Shampoo/Conditioner/Soap

Hair brush

Toothbrush/Toothpaste/Floss

Wet Ones Antibacterial wipes

Bandages/Neosporin

Drugs (Ibuprofen, Excedrin, Low-Drowsy Dramamine for motion sickness)

3 Single-use packets of laundry detergent

Here’s what the packing process looked like:

Medium Sea to Summit packing cell holding 7 pairs of underwear and 7 pairs of socks (still have over 2/3 space remaining).

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Large Sea to Summit packing cell holding 7 t-shirts, 2 long-sleeve shirts and a wool sweater (still 1/3 space remaining)

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Here’s what they look like, filled with all of the clothing items listed in my packing list:

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Fully packed bag, side and frontal view.  Notice that there’s still plenty of space left!  Mission accomplished!

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Large Sea To Summit packing cell fits perfectly into the base of the Kelty Redwing 40 bag:

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Medium Sea To Summit packing cell fits perfect on top of the large.  Eagle Creek Pack-it Quarter Cube fits perfectly to the right of the packing cell (perfect size for all toiletries).  On top of this pile, I added the medium sized spill proof pouch which holds my makeup and feminine products.

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Front organizational pocket for smaller items.  Includes a clip which is perfect for attaching my RFID clip stash.

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Top pocket holds my kleenex, sunglasses, first-aid kit and ‘drugs’:

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Uniqlo jacket and Uniqlo vest were stuffed into the side pockets on the pack.  The compression sacks that the ultra-light down jackets come with made them the perfect size to fit one in each pocket.

Here are some close-up pics of some of the merch:

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Here is the REALLY COOL foldable lightweight backpack from Hikpro:

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My pack is RIDICULOUSLY light for the number of items I have in it and I still have plenty of space to get me some souvenirs!  If there’s ONE item I recommend you buy out all of of these – it has to be the packing cells/cubes.  THEY ARE A GOD SEND!!!! You will be amazed by how much crap you can fit into each of them!

It was REALLY hard to edit down my list of items to just the essentials but if I can do it….anyone can!  Take the advice of the two bloggers I follow – PACK SMART AND PACK LIGHT!  Safe travels!

How I saved $550 on my upcoming trip…

Believe it or not, this is not a sponsored post nor is it part of some cleverly disguised referral program.  I was so WOW-ed by my credit card that I felt compelled to dedicate a post to singing it’s praises.

The search for this perfect credit card hatched from my need to resolve several key issues:

– Find an alternative to my Chase Freedom card (in terms of rewards) and to also supplement the embarrassing low credit limit authorized to my account (I should note that I was denied multiple times when requesting a limit increase)

– As mentioned previously, I WANT REWARDS (otherwise, I’d just use my debit card all the time).  Travel perks carry more weight than cash-back/merchandise

– No international fees (ABSOLUTELY CRUCIAL for a wanderlust)

– All my cards are Visa.  Ever try using your Visa to get cash in Canada?  You’ll stop by ATM after ATM to get denied over-and-over until you happen upon one owned by the Royal Bank of Canada.  Why?  Because apparently the ATM machines in non-US countries prefer Mastercard (aka EUROcard)

– $0-Low Annual Fee

I did a bunch of research in search of the perfect card, but it was the 40,000 mile sign-up bonus promised by the Barclaycard Arrival Plus card that really caught my eye?  The catch?  There isn’t one……REALLY!  All you need to do is spend $3K within the first 90 days.  Easy peasy, right?  Well, since I was approved before I started my intensive trip planning, the timing couldn’t have been better.

I’ll let the Barclaycard Arrival Plus homepage explain all the perks to you.  If you just want a quick summary of them, here ya go:

– 40,000 miles for spending $3K within the first 90 days

– 2 miles per $1 spent on EVERYTHING

– When you redeem miles, towards travel statement credits, you get 10% miles back

– $89 annual fee, waived for the first year

I know what you’re thinking – what does this mean in terms of dollars saved?  Let me break it down for you.

Within that 90 day period, I racked up a $5888 bill while using it as my primary card.  Remember that when I hit $3K, I banked 40K miles.

For every $1 I spent, I received 2 miles.  $5888 * 2 = 11776 miles + 40,000 free miles = 51,776 miles.

Unlike other credit cards, you don’t use the miles to book plane tickets.  Their online dashboard identifies all travel purchase expenses incurred over the last 120 days and allows you to redeem your miles for credit against those transactions.  2500 miles = $25, which is THE BEST points/miles to cash exchange rate I’ve seen.

Don’t forget that when you redeem, you get 10% of the miles back.

This is how this card helped me save $550 on my upcoming Europe Trip:

Started with 51,776 miles.  Looked through the Barclaycard travel transactions and found a $990 Eurail Global Pass charge (note: EVERY TRANSACTION related to my trip was eligible, including all airbnb charges).

Decided to redeem 50,000 miles towards this charge (leaving me with 6,776 miles in my account).  50,000/2500 = 20 x $25 = $500 statement reduction, making my $990 rail charge only $490.

Because I redeemed 50,000 miles, I banked 5,000 additional miles (6,776 + 5,000 = 11,776 miles in my account).  Decided to redeem these 5,000 miles towards one of my Switzerland hotel bookings ($50 statement credit.  Because I redeemed 5,000 miles, I banked an additional 500 more.

End result?  $550 saved and I still have 7,276 miles to play with.

I should also mention that Barclays approved me for a credit line nearly 4x my Chase Freedom card which means it officially addresses every single criteria I was demanding from my new card, and more.  Higher credit limit…..check!  Sweet travel rewards…..ABSOLUTELY!  No international fees?……Mastercard?……double check!  Low annual fee…..waived the first year which makes this a super sweet deal but the rewards make it well worth that $89 annual fee.  I can’t recommend this card enough and once they have a referral program, I will shamelessly promote the hell out of it even more.  Get it now.

A quick shout-out to a helpful resource

Have you ever tried to use Eurail or RailEurope to try to plan your train schedule, only to realize that it throws up errors just because you happen to enter an unavailable time (although there are several trains operating that day, perhaps one is even scheduled for 5 minutes before your specified time but the site isn’t smart enough to throw it at you as an alternative)?  After all, who knows the EXACT TIME they want to get on a train from City A to City B?  The whole point is that you need a resource to help you figure out if that route is feasible or practical, a task that RailEurope tries to take on but……doesn’t handle very elegantly.

For anyone trying to figure out their train schedule without having to go to individual rail operator sites (e.g. Scandinavian Rail, SBB, Circumvesuviana, etc.), you should check out Rome2Rio.  It aggregates all train and bus schedules and provides you various routes, with cost and duration of travel estimates.  Once you pick a route, you can click through to purchase directly from the local rail operator which makes the whole process a LOT cleaner.  It saves you time from having to research who the rail operator is and typically when you click through, the route is already pre-filled for you on the form.  If I didn’t use the site, I would have had to read through numerous blog posts on how to get from Sorrento (near Amalfi Coast) to Naples.  Thanks to Rome2Rio, I now know that the private operator, Circumvesuviana, services this area while the Naples to Rome leg is serviced by the main Italian outfit, Trenitalia.

So. Confusing.

Menaggio (Lake Como) to Vernazza (Cinque Terre) was easily the most difficult route to figure out.  I challenge you to do it without the help of this site.

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Take a $7 bus ride from Menaggio to Como Stazione-FS via the ASF Autolinee bus, then the Trenitalia train from Como S. Giovanni station to Milano Centrale.  Transfer trains from Milano Centrale to Monterosso and then transfer again to another Trenitalia train to Vernazza.

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Seriously, try to figure it out yourself using a site like RailEurope or….just Google it, in hopes of finding a TripAdvisor post that will add to your confusion by giving you dozens of bus/train/walking combinations.  Notice that this site even provides you with the time duration of each leg and provides an area where you can click through to purchase or check schedules directly.  This is a HUGE time savings and added convenience.  The UX and product people deserve healthy raises!

Ever try to get from Oslo to Flam because EVERYONE talks about that magnificent Flam Railway?  RailEurope, Eurail and Interail all rave about it but when you try to find the Oslo to Flam schedule, all three sites throw up errors.  Why?  Because you have to take ScandinavianRail from Oslo to Myrdal and the Flam Railway (Myrdal to Flam) is run by a private operator.  Trust me, if you don’t use this site, you’ll keep running into dead ends.

Prior to the site discovery, I thought I had to take the train from St. Moritz, Switzerland to Como, Italy (via Tirano). The problem with that is that no one who wants to stay in Lake Como actually stays in the city of Como (I picked Menaggio). Through this site, I found a bus ($30 one way ticket) that will take me directly from St. Moritz to Menaggio.

I highly recommend this site when doing all of your public transportation research in Europe.  I have noticed that price accuracy can be an issue so when figuring out Rail Pass vs. Tickets scenarios (a la my last post), you should click through and verify all prices.

Hope this helps clear up some route confusion.

Which rail pass should I buy?

This is a question that we all ask ourselves before heading to Europe.  Should we buy our pass here or there?  If we already have a pass, why must we still pay a Reservation Fee on longer/popular routes?  Based on my itinerary, does the Eurail Select Pass or Eurail Global Pass make more sense?  What if my travels are light in some countries but heavy in others……should I buy country specific passes for heavy travel and one-way tickets for light?  There are so many different ways you can slice it, I decided to analyze it the best way I know how………get my nerd on and calculate the different scenarios in Excel to determine the biggest cost-savings.

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This process took a crap-ton of work.  I toggled between multiple sites, verifying that the legs I needed to take all existed and transfers could easily be made.  I logged the cost of each trip and determined the average daily cost of using the pass based on day/price/coverage combinations.  Based on price alone, I immediately knew that country-specific passes wouldn’t work for me because even with the 50% discount promo, the Swiss pass is pricey.  I evaluated the 4-country Eurail Select Pass and included Budapest, Austria, Switzerland and Italy but Italy trains are cheap and the overnight train from Prague -> Zurich is easily 2x the cost of any of my other trips.  This made the Eurail Select Pass impractical for my travel plans.

This left only three contenders:  The 10 day pass (2 month expiration), the 15 day pass (2 month expiration) and the Eurail Global Pass with 23 days of continuous travel.  The process of determining which trips to use the rail pass vs. purchasing individual tickets is really simple.

Example: 10 Day Pass costs $725.  Every day I use the pass, the cost should exceed $72.50 to come out ahead.  Price out each trip and subtotal by day to determine which days the pass will be used and which days (when the cost doesn’t exceed $72.50), buying individual tickets will save you money.

The result?  10 Day Pass wins!  Why?  The 15 Day Pass would be a giant waste for me because I really only have 11 days that exceed the average daily cost of that pass ($55.60).  The only trip I flip from using the rail pass to an individual ticket is Lucerne -> Interlaken which is a $55 ticket.

Total cost for the ’10 Day Pass + Individual Tickets’ to accommodate my crazy itinerary?  $894.

That. is. insane.

Trains. are. expensive.

Good thing I’m going during the off season and those are actually DISCOUNTED rates (20% Eurail promo).  Now, onto booking reservations for the trains I absolutely cannot miss!  I’ve decided the easiest/cheapest way to do this is to only book reservations when I need to keep myself on schedule (e.g. there’s only one overnight train from Prague to Zurich on 10/27 and missing it is NOT an option).  Speaking of that overnight train, I will be pampering myself to a deluxe single compartment equipped with a real bed, private bathroom w/ shower, a glass of wine and breakfast-in-bed!

One week from now, I’ll be getting on that plane……..eeeeeekkkk sooooooo excited!!!!!!!!!

I’ll post my final itinerary, lodging summary and packing list next, so stay tuned!

Slowly, but surely…..

I’m making progress with the detailed itinerary planning.  Still not even close to being trip-ready but I’ve managed to work out the route, book the rest of my flights and buy my Eurail pass.

Have 36 days to spare for a Europe trip and want to see Oslo, Hungary, Austria, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Lake Como, Cinque Terre, Amalfi Coast, other bits of Italy and Sweden?  Then go ahead and steal my itinerary!

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Here are the flights I booked today:

Bergen -> Budapest on Scandinavian Airlines: $127.90

Rome -> Stockholm on Norwegian: $76

Stockholm -> OAK on Norwegian: $195 (Yep, I changed my return flight)

Total flight cost so far:

$582.90 (including my $184 OAK -> Oslo flight on Norwegian)

#winning

Rushed, but hopefully……doable?

I’ve started putting together a more detailed itinerary this morning and have already decided to extend my trip!  For the time being, I’m planning to be back on 11/17 although something tells me that this may be extended again once I’m there!

I’m also happy to announce that I will have an AWESOME travel companion for part of the trip.  Her identity will be revealed later!

Here is the first draft of my itinerary:

10/13: Flight from SFO -> Oslo

10/14: Land in Oslo

10/14-10/15: Oslo (10/16 Day Train from Oslo -> Myrdal then Flam Railway from Myrdal -> Flam)

10/16-10/17: Flam (10/18 Day Train from Flam -> Bergen)

10/18-10/20: Voss (Day Trip) + Bergen (10/20 Day Flight from Bergen -> Budapest)

10/20-10/22: Budapest (10/23 Day Train from Budapest -> Vienna)

10/23-10/24: Vienna (10/24 Evening Train from Vienna -> Prague)

10/25-10/27: Prague (10/27 Overnight Train from Prague -> Zurich)

10/28-10/29: Zurich (Day trips to Appenzell + Stein Am Rhein)

10/30: Interlaken

10/31-11/1: Zermatt

11/2: Glacier Express Train from Zermatt -> St. Moritz

11/3: Bernina Express Train from St. Moritz -> Tirano -> Varenna (Lake Como)

11/3-11/5: Lake Como (Day Train from Lake Como -> Cinque Terre)

11/6-11/8: Cinque Terre

11/9-11/11: Amalfi Coast

11/12: Day Train from Amalfi -> Rome

11/13: Flight from Rome -> Stockholm

11/14-11/17: Stockholm (Will spend at least one night in Stockholm Archipelago)

11/17: Flight from Stockholm -> SFO

It’s a jam-packed schedule but believe it or not, this is the EDITED version!  I wanted to squeeze in some Southern Germany and more of Northern Italy but there simply isn’t enough time!

For accommodations, I’m trying to stay under an average of $60 USD per night.  This is actually proving to be quite challenging in places where I’ll be traveling alone.  Your buying power goes up significantly when you can share a double at an average of $120 per night.  In my early 20’s, I probably would have picked the hostel route – rent a bunk in a shared dormitory, lock my belongings to a bed frame and hope for the best!  Now that I’m in my early 30’s and way more spoiled than my decade-younger self, I have the following requirements:

– Wifi availability (so I can update my blog and relieve my parents of any worry)

– Washer/Dryer (not a requirement for EVERY accommodation, but having one every few days will be crucial for staying fresh with the light packing)

– Private room, when traveling alone

– Private bed, when traveling with my secret travel buddy (I’m a terribly light sleeper and I can’t share)

Most of the accommodations I’m booking are through airbnb!  Budapest and Prague are inexpensive so in those cities, I can rent an entire apartment in a prime walkable location for $50/night.  Other cities in Switzerland, Norway and the resorts along the Italian Riviera – I simply won’t get as lucky and will need to splurge occasionally.

Here is a preview of two of the accommodations I’ve booked already:

Flam, Norway: $150/night (one of my splurges!)

https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/3797537

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Yes, that is the view from the backyard and I get a whole two-bedroom cabin to myself.  The property is located along the Sognefjord, across the water from Flam in Slinde, Norway.  The rental comes with free usage of a little motorboat to fish or explore the fjord!

Budapest, Hungary: $50/night

https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/1185887

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That’s an a charming, cozy, South-looking, one-bedroom apartment is in the very-very center of Budapest, in the landmark Madach-House.  It has astonishing views over downtown Budapest, the Gellert Hill and the Citadella, which you can enjoy without even getting out of bed!  The whole place to myself, fast wifi, a washer and dryer, and the ability to walk to every fancy bathhouse I want to go……what more could I ask for?

By the way, here are some pics of a typical bathhouse in Budapest.

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Apparently, some of the bath houses even convert to CLUBBING BATHS at night!!!!!!

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Counting down the days…..