June 2014 Travel Column

25 Years After the Fall of the Wall: Hungary

If you remember the Cold War, you may recall that the Iron Curtain that separated the Soviet Bloc of nations from Western Europe first cracked in Hungary, 25 years ago this summer. The Iron Curtain was both an ideology and series of physical barriers – including the famous Berlin Wall – that prevented free movement between the Soviet Bloc and the west.

Hungary began to dismantle the barbed wire fence along its border with neutral Austria as early as May 1989. Immediately, East Germans began traveling through Hungary to cross into Austria and on to West Germany. By September 10, the Hungarian government gave official permission for East Germans to use Hungary as a conduit to the west; in October, Hungary left the Soviet Bloc and established a democratic government. That November, the Berlin Wall began to be demolished as well.

It’s likely that people who traveled through Hungary to the west stopped for a while in Budapest, the stately capital city on the Danube. The river forms a natural border between the distinctive halves of the city, Buda and Pest. They are joined by a series of lovely bridges over the Danube.

On the west bank, hilly Buda features the Castle District. Buda Castle was a mainstay of the city’s defenses through dozens of sieges, from 13th century Mongol raids through the 1944-45 Russian siege. It’s a fascinating place to admire stunning Baroque architecture and learn about Hungary’s long and often turbulent history.

On the east bank, the more level Pest features long, tree-lined avenues like Andrássy Avenue, a UNESCO World Heritage site that extends from beautiful Heroes’ Square. Pest is home to many of Budapest’s museums, as well as trendy boutiques and cafes.

After a day of touring, visit a thermal spa for a therapeutic bath or massage. Then, have dinner in one of the many fine restaurants (Hungary’s flavorful cuisine offers much more than goulash). During warm weather, open-air beer gardens and dance floors seem to pop up all over the city.

Budapest is easy to reach by air, usually with a stop in London, Paris or Amsterdam. If you fly into London, you can also travel to Budapest via train. One of the most relaxing ways to reach Budapest is a river cruise along the Danube, which is a great way to see more of Hungary, too. To find your way to Budapest, talk with your travel professional.

The Star Spangled Banner at 200

Two hundred years ago, America was in the War of 1812 – sometimes called the Second War of Independence – against Great Britain. In September 1814, after burning much of Washington, D.C., the British moved up Chesapeake Bay to attack the port city of Baltimore. On September 13 and 14, British warships bombarded Fort McHenry, guardian of Baltimore’s harbor.

A Baltimore lawyer named Francis Scott Key watched the battle. When it ended on the morning of September 14, he was relieved to see the fort’s American flag – an enormous, 30 foot by 42 foot banner sewn by Baltimore flagmaker Mary Pickersgill – still flying over Fort McHenry. Key was inspired to write a poem, “The Defense of Fort M’Henry,” which later became the lyrics for America’s national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

That same flag, carefully preserved, is now on display at the Smithsonian Museum’s National Museum of American History in Washington. And, to honor the 200th anniversary of the battle, the flag and the national anthem, a group of seamstresses are hand-sewing a replica – just as large as the original – at the Maryland Historical Society in Baltimore.

Baltimore will celebrate Fort McHenry’s great victory of 1814 during a week-long “Star-Spangled Spectacular” festival, September 6-15. Tall ships in the harbor, flyovers by the Blue Angels, concerts, parades and fireworks will all be part of the fun, culminating in the raising of the replica flag and other special Defender’s Day ceremonies on September 14.

Fort McHenry is just a quick water-taxi ride from Baltimore’s beautiful Inner Harbor neighborhood, which is filled with places to visit. The attractions include museums, like the American Visionary Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Industry; historic ships, including the USS Constellation, the only Civil War-era ship still afloat; the National Aquarium, one of the largest in the world; Baltimore’s World Trade Center, which offers panoramic views of the city; and the Camden Yards Sports Complex, which includes Oriole Park and the birthplace of baseball legend Babe Ruth. There’s also a great collection of bars, clubs and restaurants at Power Plant Live!, an entertainment district just a block from the Inner Harbor.

To select a hotel in the Inner Harbor and plan other details of your visit – during the Star Spangled Spectacular or any time – talk with your travel professional.

Malta Marks 50 Years of Independence

About 50 miles south of Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea lie the sunwashed islands of Malta. First settled around 5200 BC, Malta has always been prized for its beauty and strategic location. A series of world powers – including Phoenicia, Rome and the Knights Hospitaller – ruled the islands from prehistoric times through 1814, when Malta became part of the British Empire. In 1964, Malta became one of the world’s smallest independent nations, and is now part of the European Union.

Just under 500,000 people live on Malta’s three inhabited islands – Malta, Gozo and tiny Comino – but three times that many visit each year, attracted by peaceful coves and beaches, limestone cliffs, a lovely climate and a relaxed lifestyle. There’s little precipitation from March through October, and even the winters are warm.

Despite its small size, Malta has nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites of cultural importance.  These include the Hypogeum of Paola, the world’s only known prehistoric underground temple; the city of Valetta; and seven megalithic temples, thought to be among the oldest free-standing structures in the world. Maltese legend holds that giants built the temples; research into exactly who built them, and for what purpose, is ongoing.

The city of Valetta contains an array of historic buildings, including some that date from the city’s 16th century founding by the Knights Hospitaller. Highlights include St. John’s Co-Cathedral, built soon after the Knights held off an invasion by the Ottoman Empire in 1565; the Grandmaster’s Palace, originally built for the Grand Master of the Knights but now home to the office of Malta’s President and House of Representatives; and the National Museum of Fine Arts, which dates from the 1570s but was rebuilt in the Rococo style in the 1760s.

Valetta’s wine bars and restaurants have menus that will feel familiar to fans of Italian cuisine, but have a unique Maltese twist. The national dish is fenek, or rabbit stew; bragioli (thin slices of beef stuffed with veal and herbs) and lampuki (also known as mahi mahi) are popular, too.

Malta has a variety of options for lodging, including converted farmhouses, villas with private pools, and hotels. On the luxury end of the spectrum, you can choose from more than a dozen five-star hotel and resort properties scattered across Valetta, the ancient city of Mdina, and the island of Gozo.

To start your plans for visiting this relaxed haven in the Mediterranean, ask your travel professional about Malta.

Satisfaction with Airport Security Improves

Satisfaction with airport security procedures has improved, according to a survey conducted by Travel Leaders. When asked about their satisfaction with airport security, 87.5% of 2,719 consumers surveyed said they are satisfied or neutral, up from 82% last year.

Travel Leaders also asked if the Transportation Security Administration’s Pre?™ expedited screening program makes a significant difference in security screening time. The majority of respondents, 62.7%, said they don’t know, which may be because 60% said they had not experienced expedited screening during the past year.

Membership in the Pre? program is a top recommendation for travelers who want to move through airport security more quickly. At reserved screening lanes in 118 U.S. airports, Pre? members can keep on their shoes, light outerwear and belts; keep laptops in their cases; and keep liquids/gels in their carry-on bags. Pre? membership is available to the customers of a growing list of airlines: Sun Country recently became the 11th airline in the program, joining Air Canada, Alaska Airlines, American, Delta, Hawaiian Airlines, JetBlue, Southwest, United, US Airways and Virgin America.

If you’re not a member of Pre?, ask your travel professional about joining the program. And, if you’re not part of the program, there are still lots of things you can do to smooth your path through airport security. Preparation is the key:

•Place your plastic bag of toiletries and other items in liquid or gel form, which you’ll need to put into a bin at the security checkpoint, in an accessible part of your carry-on bag. The same goes for your computer.

•If you plan to wear a belt with a metal buckle or large pieces of metal jewelry, consider packing them in your carry-on bag until you are through security – if you wear them and forget to put them in screening bins, it will hold you up. Also, if possible, wear shoes that slip off and on easily.

•Before entering the airport, check your pockets. Remove anything you find – spare change, tissues, your cell phone, car keys – and put them in your carry-on bag.

•Have you picture ID or passport and your boarding pass in hand as you approach the screening checkpoint. As soon as these items have been checked, put them back in your bag so they won’t be misplaced.

•If possible, choose a screening line with more people in business attire and fewer families with strollers and diaper bags. Put your liquids/gels, computer, jacket and shoes into bins on the conveyor belt, followed by your bag. Now, you’re ready to pass through a scanner and be on your way. Happy traveling!

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