Archive for March, 2011

BUDAPEST!!! 8th-9th September PT2

After a quiet night in and a vague attempt to recover some lost sleep, I spend my second day in Budapest full of the desire of exploration.

Sadly the gravity guided cats and dogs put a sharp halt to this plan.

I instead chuck the old laptop on, have a chat with friends far afield throughout Europe.  On Face book I find my chat becomes active.  One English chap I’d met in Serbia by the name of James is online.

‘Where are u?’ he asks.

‘Budapest, where are you?’ I reply.

‘No way, I’m staying in hostel Grande! Where are you?’

A quick google search and I discover that hotel ‘Grande’ is a mere 500m from my hostel.  Freaky!

I head into town to grab my train ticket for the next day.  This turns out to be a lucky thing as the process for buying a ticket in Budapest is rather painful.

A well hidden ticket machine is your first port of call, then that ticket tells you how long you need to wait, then you can go up and buy your ticket.

Working this out with broken English and vague hand signals is interesting, especially when the first machine mentioned is in a different room behind a pillar.

Anyway I head back to Hostel ‘Grande’ and meet up with James and his mate Ryan. We have a good old chat before going to this ‘Zsimpla bar’.  It’s only about one block away so we go for a stroll.

I keep hearing about this place, it’s not really advertised to tourists, and even when you find it, the sign ‘Zsimpla bar’ is so tiny that you nearly miss in the dark alley.

Once you walk in however you know it’s worth the effort.

Here’s the picture:

An old two storey factory is abandoned.  So what do the Hungarians do? Turn it into a bar, of course!

The mix matched old lawn furniture, torn couches and cave like atmosphere on the bottom level strike you as soon as you walk in.

The local beer goes down well, at only about 1.50 euro per pint it’s surprisingly smooth.

Heading up a narrow flight of stairs, the second level is the main attraction.  You can look down at the bar folk one level down whilst you sit on your odd rusty seat and devour a 2Euro burger the size of your head!

Graffiti all over the walls, posters of a humouress nature gives this place –to put it lightly- an alternative feel.

We head back to the hostel ‘Grande’ for a drink.  To explain this place is to explain a certain part of Hungarian life.   Humour and fun.

Admittedly not two words you think of when you hear ‘Budapest’.

Firstly, ‘Grande’ is Spanish, so it’s taking on a humoures flair. IE this is clearly not Spain, but party like it is anyway.

Secondly, the fact that this one place has two bars says something else.

A Scottish lass I describe as colourful in tongue and offensive to the eye explains that she visited Budapest eight weeks ago and somehow can’t leave after accidently agreeing to work at the hostel whilst drunk.

I quickly discover the demographic is largely Australian with an odd kiwi and SAFA thrown in to the mix.

Ok, the night has begun, first call for the Jager train!

You line up about thirty glasses with Red Bull, balance a shot of Jagermeister on the edge of each glass and then shout something loud and unintelligible as you tap the first shot glass. 

Like Dominoes they collapse into the glasses and a wee baby jager bomb is born, if you have paid you step up and take one and slam it down.

I did not partake, it seemed unwise.  Going by the state of the participants later, it was a good call.

We head downstairs to the second underground bar.  Effectively a basement converted into a bar where they were holding an open mic night.

Various participants of different skills and quality partook, but as we stood at the back of the crowd the best act we saw was one of acrobatics. 

An Australian who worked at the hostel who had the rough appearance of Chewbacca hoped up onto a table which promptly collapsed sending him to the ground.

I was curiously proud to see that he managed to save most of his beer in typical Australian fashion.

After a night of raucous open mic-ing we are herded unceremoniously to a night club.  The Belgrade boys and I (that’s the nickname I gave to the two English lads because we met in Belgrade-Serbia.  Inventive aren’t I?) tag along.

At around 11pm we are taken to the main entrance of a nightclub smack bang in the middle of town.  You frankly wouldn’t even know it’s there except for the gathering crowds.

The Belgrade trio reunited!Now if you’re anything like me, when you think of a nightclub you think:

Long lines, cover charge, expensive drinks, noisy as hell, bad service, angry drunks, and oh yeah REALY NOISY!

So with that perception in mind you walk into the club, straight onto the dance floor.

What the hell is going on? You ask yourself.

First off, the dance floor isn’t so packed you can’t move.  Secondly the music, whilst loud, isn’t that standard ear bleeding volume.

The music itself seems to vary between the twangs of Turkish style dance music to European house music.  I don’t recognise a single song all night.

Abolustely no clue what’s going on right now!

But the pissed-resistance or proverbial cherry on top (why cherries, I can think of way better things then cherries, like a good scotch…. Anyway) is the bar area.  Walk out the back and you see a joint that’s half beer garden, half construction sight.

Planks of wood and scaffolding adorn the walls (I don’t think it’s just clever decoration) and random bits of furniture allow you to sit and watch the dance floor antics in relative peace.  In fact the noise is so blocked off that it’s actually quieter than the average English pub on a Friday night (much quieter if a footy match is on).

But wait it gets better, what about the price of drinks?

A pint of local (yes a pint, out of the tap) is only about 450 Hungarian Forint!

What’s that you don’t know the conversion to Hungarian Forint off the top of your head? Goodness me!

That’s about 1.50 pound-A$2.

Yes that’s right, in a nightclub in Madrid I paid 8Euro for a Heineken 330ml bottle (horse piss), here I get a 500ml Pint for less than 2 Euro. 

Oh my I’m in heaven!

                                                                                                                               That’s not my pink hat… really!

Heading back into the nightclub, another unfamiliar tune is ‘twing twanging’ its way through your ears, the people are dancing and smiling.  It’s pure enjoyment on their faces.

  Only one incident of the standard ‘Hey don’t look at my girl, she’s not your girl she’s mine, you’re a dick, no you’re a dick *shove, Shove, death stare, death stare* occurred all night.

Apart from that, it was a night of revellers jumping arm in arm, smiling and pure joy is had by all.

At around 3am, the Belgrade trio is spent and as a final Turkish sounding whim wham of a beat follows us out the door we make a hasty retreat.

The two English chaps seem disoriented but somehow I manage to walk home and navigate us all to a kebab joint (1 euro kebabs!) and then get them back to their hostel before I call it a night at 4am.

By far one of the most enjoyable nights of my life.   Two very strong friendships secured, a cultural experience we’ll none of us soon forget, and a good laugh was innocently had by all.

*BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEP* What the hell was that… ah never mind.

As I was saying, Budapest stands as my favourite city in Europe and I can’t wait to get back there….

*Beep Beep Beep*.

Oh crap my alarm! I’ve got to get a train to Vienna and I should have left the hostel five minutes ago! Bugger!

To be continued…  

 

Crazy Hungarians... smiles allround!

BUDAPEST BABY!!!! 8th-9th September

What can I say about Budapest? Diverse, intriguing, complex, humorous, plentiful.  That perhaps scratches the surface.

I find myself exiting the historic train station at about 9am after an all nighter from Brasov in Romania.  It was a pleasant enough journey, but overnighters can kill ya.

I encounter the friendliest most helpful tourist centre who provides me with the appropriate metro maps and what nots.  I’m also offered accommodation by five different backpacker joints by the time I make my way to the underground.  ( a walk of only about forty metres)

The next adventure is in finding the hostel which I’d booked yesterday from Brasov.

I soon learn the dynamic of Budapest’s accommodation scene.  Basically, the city is full of small apartment buildings, usually about three or four stories high, over time the overcrowded yet well laid out city has seen these blocks get more and more cramped.

After the fall of the soviet empire, Hungary took full advantage of the new found freedom and began to embrace the west in liberal fashion.  These things did not happen overnight, but tourists slowly started to creep in and start spending their cash.

The Hungarians saw their chance and started scams to ring the foreigners dry before they knew what hit them.

The newly founded tourist board with the backing of new laws by the government stamped this out early in the century and now, business is booming.

With the demand of accommodation came the eventual supply, followed by oversupply.  There was no room to build specially made large scale hostels, instead adjacent apartments were purchased, a wall was knocked out and there u have it!

Hence my issue with finding my hostel.  It was, like hundreds of others, ambiguously jammed in a second or third story apartment building on a side street with little or no signage.

These buildings are almost exclusively coded and you need to hit the right buttons just to get into the inward facing interior before heading up stairs or grabbing the elevator up to the appropriate level and then hopefully spotting some signage there.

One train trip and one cautious attack of a major intersection later I find (with some assistance from the locals) the right street.  The complete lack of sleep is making this all a bit hazy but I am nevertheless enthralled by the beauty of the city around me.

The architecture, the history, the tarnished beauty.  What a spectacle!

After spending a few weeks buried deeply in the Balkan nations of Macedonia, Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania one can often find themselves underwhelmed by the scale and spectacle of even those countries’ capital cities.  Indeed, as far as eye appeal is concerned, by Western European standards, they don’t stack up.  Only when delving deeper and scratching beneath the surface do you find their well disguised hidden attractions.  They seek not to be showy like the West, they simply-are.

So I am pleased to see now, a city laid out in front of me with some intrinsically stunning sights yet without the tirade of an overpriced artificial tourist hub. 

There is something about this place and it’s drawing me in.

I will over the next forty eight hours, come to learn just what this city has to offer.  It doesn’t show itself off, it simple enjoys the mixed history that has led to its current form.  In that way It is uniquely Eastern European.

I walk up and down a couple of streets before I spot a sign with my Hostel’s name plastered on it, in amongst dozens of other attention grabbing devices.

The ads for hostels are scattered throughout.  I enter the building but can’t get in to access the elevator.  I ascertain that it is the second floor that I seek, but have no way of getting in.

I find the number pad hidden further down the old cracked concrete wall, full of character.  I press the required buttons… Nothing happens.

I try it again, pressing a different ‘enter’ key.

Nothing doing. 

I seek assistance from one of the local stores perched in amongst the other rooms on the second floor.

It seems to be a clothes repair joint with an elderly lady sitting at her table working away at some random item.

She looks up with a cheery smile.  She looks me up and down and spies my backpack and unseasonal clothing.  Oh no a hated backpacker!

She starts rambling in Hungarian and ushers me out the door.

‘What was that about?’ I wonder to myself.

Now what?

Finally an angel appears… In the form of a mailman.  Opens the gate to the elevator to fill the residents PO boxes, I sneak in behind him and wander up to finally stand before my hostel!

A bit of a journey considering I’d not slept, no matter.  In the hour or so that I’d been in Budapest I was now very aware that something amazing was taking place before my eyes.

An underlying life and culture that you wanted, nay had to look for.  One night was not enough to discover this place, I could sense that already.

It’s now 10am and time for check in. 

I walk straight up to the desk to a cheery young chap and say:

‘Hi there, can I book an extra night please,”…

Within a half hour of arranging a second nights accommodation in Budapest I find myself at the old opera house awaiting the arrival of my free tour guide.  He’s been recommended by the helpful chap in the hostel.

I’m joined by a random assortment of about eight other tourists from all over Europe, I’m the only Australian.

The tour guide greets us quietly and succinctly. He is an older gentleman, perhaps in his late fifties with a dark complexion.

He explains that he is a history professor and runs these tours in his spare time. 

He then explains some basic history of Hungary in general and Budapest specifically.

Even the history of this place is intriguing. 

Hungary was constantly divided both figuratively and geographically.  Budapest itself is split in two by a huge river. Numerous bridges connect either side in grand fashion giving the city a look similar to that of Prague or Paris.  On one side, the mountain range caused by a tectonic plate collision houses the very impressive grand palace and castle Budapest.  The castle looks like something from a European Disney land as it gloriously looks down onto Parliament house.

Purposely built Parliament house, intended to be just six metres longer then it’s counterpart in London, it’s a true testament to the Hungarians desire to bring back their grand empire of the past.

This tectonic plate incident also explains all of the Turkish baths with fresh underground springs throughout the city.

Various conquerors over the years have left their mark.  The Turkish influence is perhaps even more resonant then the Austrian –German influence.  The architecture and Turkish baths speak volumes of the cities divided past.

More recently they unified with Austria to form the Austria-Hungary empire that for decades was one of the power houses of Europe.  They joined forces with the other powerhouse Germany for world war one.  After the armisist was signed in 1918 the empire was torn apart. 

Hungary tried again to side with the Germans in World war two and when they surrendered to the allies six months before the end of the war they suffered two blows.  Firstly, the Germans invaded and the Jewish population suffered a horrible -albeit shorter than some countries- ordeal.  Then when the allies won the war, Hungary was further divided up leaving the tiny country they hold today. The cross cultural mix of a now broken empire breeds a uniquely strong nationalistic sense of patriotism.  Perhaps dangerously so.  The current power in government, the ‘nationalists’ are closely associated with the Nazi party’s ideals. 

Since then, Hungary spent over half a century under the rule of communist Russia.  The soviet influence couldn’t crush the spirit of these unique people and as my tour guide explains, Hungary suffered little relative to other soviet states.

One incident to the contrary is the 1950 uprising that saw tens of thousands of Hungarians killed when they rose up against their soviet oppressors.

As we walk through the city, large chunks of old building’s stone work houses bullet holes.  Fingerprints giving evidence to the carnage two generations ago.

Since then however the residents of Hungary and Budapest in particular managed to scrape out a relatively free existence from their soviet landlords.  Theatre of a political nature never contemplated in countries such as Poland and Yugoslavia were readily enjoyed by Budapest locals.  They had a rare ability to poke fun at themselves and at the world around them in their typically reserved demeanour.

Indeed such evidence can be readily found today twenty years after the country’s independence.  You can’t turn a corner without bumping into a small theatre, jazz, or poetry bar.

Most such establishments have large wooden doors that look like they’d have been at home in a medieval village.  The signs advertising the name of the business would be quite innocuous and would only give explanation in smaller print when you got closer to it.  The fine print about opening times, and the nature of the activities in side would be scrawled roughly across a wooden panel.

One such place is a most memorable bar called ‘zsimpla bar’, but I’ll get back to that later.

The uniqueness and grand design of the architecture is stunning, so unique.  As we walk through the streets I find myself drawn to the intricate beauty of the buildings and huge mosques.

Its closest relation to my experiences so far would be perhaps Paris with a touch of Prague.  However with a few signs of soviet influence (bullet holes, an occasional abandoned building) the place has a distinct character all its own.  And I love it.

Our guide takes us to one of the oldest department stores in Europe.  Over a hundred years old, the building was only reopened at the turn of the century after some mismanagement in years prior.  It held stores only up to the second floor, the top two stores showing signs of further development.  The first floor has a curious combination of a book/wine store. 

Our guide takes us up the escalator to the second level and into the most surprising sight of the day.  A wonderfully ornate café that wouldn’t be out of place in a catholic cathedral.  The walls from top to bottom are covered in an ornate tapestry of artwork, wonderful chandeliers dangle

Castle Budapest

from the ceiling.  The furniture is all large, rather comfortable leather lounges finishing off the look nicely.

Hmm this place will cost an arm and a leg me thinks!

I have a look at the menu.  A coffee costs only the equivalent of about 1 euro 30 or about A$1.5.  At a later date I’m lucky enough to sample a coffee and what they call a ‘real’ hot chocolate… One word to describe these drinks: WOW!

Next in the journey is the Jewish quarter.  This is where it gets full on.  As explained earlier, the Nazis had full control of Budapest for about six months.  By this stage of the war they were very efficient at inflicting persecution and genocide.  Sadly, the Hungarian Jews suffered.

Essentially the Nazis found a large quarter of the city, herded the Jews in and blocked it all off.  Stories of extreme poverty, run-down buildings with thirty people to a room were only the beginning.  On one side of the river, not far from the parliament house, a Jewish memorial stands.  A series of concrete blocks signifying the Jews that were herded to the river and with weights were sent to the bottom of the river.

A touching and absolutely incredible story that came from this however was a final chapter to this horrendous story that occurred a matter of a few weeks ago.

During one similar tour, two elderly women walked past each, heading in opposite directions.  The tour guide in question was ignoring them as standard pedestrian traffic and was instead painting an orrative picture to his group.

Suddenly he heard a cry and he turned to see the two women weeping and holding each other.

He enquired what the commotion was about, they explained:

The two women were kept together, as children, in the same concentration camp by the Nazis during the war.  Since their liberation in 1945 they’d not seen each other until now 2010.  They looked into each other’s eyes before the realisation hit them.  This all took place in front of the tour guide.  Chilling.

Parliment house

We near the end of the tour and our guide points out as we cross one of the many huge bridges linking the two river banks of Budapest, two large lion statues.

He explains that there are over one hundred such statues of various size around the city.  Why? The same reason the parliament house is six metres longer then the same building in London.  Ego.

The Hungarians once had a great empire, now it is but a shadow of its former self.

The lion represents the strength of an empire now long gone.  Some want it back.  Some will go to extreme lengths to make it happen.  The nationalists mentioned earlier are one such example.

The tour concludes and we thank our guide.  Truly one of the best tours in one of the best cities I’ve seen to date.  A history of mixed blessings, Budapest was not, and will never be a dull city…

Dracula’s backyard 5th-8th September

A quick cheap taxi ride from the train station and then some assistance from a local gets me to my hostel.

The owners are a lovely couple who can’t do enough for me during my stay.

Indeed I call upon the use of their computer as my wifi doesn’t work in Romania, strangely!

One word on Brasov: Amazing!

This place is like a medieval village perched among the alpine ranges of the Carpathian Mountains.

My time is split between firstly, running randomly into the hills, up to a lookout and soaking up the out of this world place I find myself in.

View of Brasov from the lookout

I avoid going too far as bears are known to get close to the area when hungry.

I take a day trip out to Draculas castle (yes he is real).  As near as I can tell, he was a medieval chap who had his own castle who wasn’t well liked by a heap of locals.  It is unclear but it seems he was assassinated by his troops on a standard patrol of the area.

Many years later, various stories started to pop up.  None are based on anything tangible, but over the two hundred years since his death… well we all know how the story goes.

My attempt to climb the biggest peak is thwarted by bad weather, but the town of Brasov supplies its own beauty and intrigue.  The evening finishes with a free concert in the main town square, consisting of classical and operatic performances.

It’s a beautiful and unique experience as I sit back and sip on a coffee and take in the sights and sounds of modern out of this world Romania.

It’s only a quick visit, three days in total as I head off to get my overnight train to Budapest.  However I have resolved to one day return to Brasov and allow much, much more time there to explore.  This has been my favourite place to date but sadly I must move on as I have only a little over a week to be in Munich for Oktoberfest.

If only I knew that my trip highlight was less than twenty four hours away.

Next stop BUDAPEST!

Just one of many buildings in Brasov.

Belgrade to Bucharest- 3rd-4th September

The birth of the Belgrade trio!

This one is short and sweet, basically a transit story.

After getting some minimal sleep in Skopje I leave first thing in the morning by bus to Belgrade, the capital of Serbia.

A long journey that gets me to the city by late afternoon.  I find my hostel without too much trouble (after some assistance from the locals) and meet my two roommates. Upon entering they’re still sleeping off their shenanigans from last night.

I’m soon to be acquainted with James and Ryan, two English students based in London.  Stay tuned for more on them later, but for now we just meet, have a chat and a quiet dinner.

It is oddly reminiscent of my time in Madrid when I was roaming around with three other lads.  There it was, ‘four beers, four steaks thanks.’

Here it was, ‘three beers, three mixed grills, hold the salad thanks.’

Done and Done!

Serbia seems an interesting place, but with only about twenty four hours to experience it, its not left much of an impression.

All I know of Serbia is it’s the heart of the former Yugoslavia, and many wars have hit this area over time.  Roaming the country is not recommended due to the unexploded mines throughout.

With this in mind, the next day I grab an overnight train (away from the mined roads!) and head for Bucharest, the capital of Romania.

The carriage looks very soviet-era.  It’s comfortable enough and is my home for the next twelve hours or so.

I’m joined by a stunningly attractive Romanian woman who speaks very good German and Spanish as well as her native tongue.  Sadly her English is lacking.  We talk for the hour or two that we share a carriage, fumbling our way through the language barrier.  As any traveller knows, this can be an exhausting exercise.

Soviet style carriage Mr Bond?

I have the carriage to myself except for the periodic intrusions by the ticket blokes who seem to wait for weary passengers to doze off before tearing the door open and yelling something in Serbian (and later Romanian).

I’m permanently disturbed by a group of locals who stagger in at about 4am.  As near as I can gather, they were out clubbing in a nearby town and were now commuting back to Bucharest.

We pull in at 6am, my next train is set to depart in less than an hour.

Bucharest, what a town, what a train station!

Next destination, Transylvania, Draculas back yard…