Italy and the End, for now…

16 September 2012

We’d stayed in Budapest much longer than originally intended, for the simple reason that it was brilliant! However, we had to make our way to our final destination in North Italy – Sëlva di Val Gardena. The train journey was long and there was a bus to get at the end of it, so we decided to split our journey halfway in Salzburg. Unfortunately the hostel there turned out to be consummately awful, my favourite thing about it was writing a scathing review for Hostelbookers. I don’t think there is a way to directly link, but it’s somewhere among the others, some of which are bafflingly positive. We didn’t really do anything in Salzburg except traipse from the station to the hostel and back, so I can’t really say anything except that it’s rather expensive.

Once that leg of the journey was over, after several windy buses along sheer cliff faces, we arrived in Sëlva. We had a great time there, fitting in a lot of mountain trekking along with the usual gastronomic odysseys that you will be bored of reading about if you’ve seen my earlier articles. There were a lot of peaceful hillsides with very relaxed-looking and bell-wearing cows tinkling along. The views are spectacular and the air clean and refreshing. It was an invigorating and relaxing place to finish our trip.

A precariously parked Land Rover

They get a lot more interested when you open your backpack

Interrailing with Lucy was a great experience and I really want to do it again as soon as possible. It was refreshing to get out of the UK for an extended period. I liked not being aware of anything going on at home, though I am a bit addicted to online news and must admit I did peek. The almost constant sunshine helped a lot too. It was interesting seeing the little differences between every country, and feeling more European than British for probably the first time. It was embarrassing being so incompetent when it comes to languages, I should try to learn some more before going next time. I do not think I will ever be conversant in Hungarian or Slovak though.

A typically rainy Gatwick airport greeted us after a reasonably short flight from Innsbruck (a fantastically small airport with no multi-mile walks to get in and out). That was unfortunately the end of our Interrailing, for now…


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Budapest Part 2

2 September 2012

A lot of people had told us about the famous Budapest spa houses so we felt we just had to go and try one out. We opted for Széchenyi, which was a 15 minute metro ride away and offered about six indoor and outdoor pools. There was a hot (38C) outdoor pool where we managed to play a game of chess after the old men miraculously left one of the boards unclaimed. More excitingly however, there was a slightly cooler pool which had a sort of whirlpool enclosed by walls in the middle. Periodically it got going and was soon crammed with humans of all sizes. There was a delightful lack of health and safety with seemingly only one lifeguard for all three outdoor pools. He was texting when I walked past. We both managed to get horrendous sunburn, I keep telling myself I should rethink my cavalier attitude towards UV radiation.

This has nothing to do with the article, but I didn't take any photos after the walking tour so it will have to do

Afterwards we decided to get a Hungarian snack, Lángos, which is a sort of deep fried bread. It was alright, but tasted so greasy that I could practically feel the acne breaking out as I ate it. Having also had some dreadful fast food for lunch, we were looking forward to a free Hungarian cooked meal in the hostel. Anticipation turned to slight dismay when the free meal turned out to be Lángos. The situation was salvaged by eating half an orange each for health considerations. We met people around the table and decided to go on a bar crawl together. The first bar we went to was a bit nondescript but enhanced greatly by free alcohol.

Next however, we went to Szimpla, which was pretty damn cool. It is a ‘ruin bar’, which means it is in an old Soviet-era building complete with rickety furniture and crumbling concrete walls. There was also bizarrely a woman selling raw carrots which they say help to soak up the alcohol. After, we went to what could be described as a ‘ruin club’ set at the top of an old department store building. It had a rooftop bar where you could stay to watch the sunrise. At about 4:15 we got too tired and went home though, wusses.

Bright but not very early the next day, we endeavoured to go to the Terror Museum, which showcases the brutality of the World War II Nazi-collaborating regime and the communist government afterwards. It was pretty gruelling in places, with detailed video descriptions of hanging for example, but very interesting and educational. We got back to the hostel and fell asleep on the couch where I believe we got photographed. Our time in ‘Njoy Budapest’ had run out, but we decided to move to ‘Hostel Goodmo’ instead of going to Croatia, since the trip would have taken too damn long (18 hours). Luckily we arrived in time for their weekly free meal, some sort of stew of onions, potatoes and sausages brewed in a big cauldron. It was very hearty and just what we needed. We went back to Szimpla but didn’t go any further this time, as next day we were going caving!

In the morning though we went to the Palatinus __water park, it was a great start to the day and had a potentially whiplash-inducing slide at about a 70° incline, with no surly lifeguards at the top of course like in British water parks. We lounged about for a bit but then had to rush off to get to the meeting point for the caving trip. After quite a long bus ride, we got to the Duna-Ipoly National Park. We got on some overalls and helmets with torches, and went down to an entrance to the Pál-völgyi cave system with ten other people and our guide. Neither of us had ever done caving before, but it turned out to be a great experience. We spent 2.5 hours at depths of up to 50m and variously had to crawl, slide on our backs, shift along on our stomachs and climb slippery clay covered rocks. Along the way we got to see some fossilised seashells and learn that caving is a lot more physically intensive than it sounds. The guide from the company we did it with spoke excellent English and was obviously very experienced in dealing with people getting stuck etc. – the tour was actually designed for people who had never done caving before.

A view from the Buda side of the river, the Margaret island on the left holds the Palatinus water park

The evening held some very well deserved seafood paella (yes I’m back to talking about food already), which had at least five different species in it, very tasty. We went up to the rooftop bar of Hostel Goodmo and had a few farewell drinks with our new friends, we were leaving in the afternoon of the next day. In the morning I suggested we go to the central market, but ten minutes later remembered I hate shopping, so after making some avocado and speck sandwiches it was off to the station.


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Budapest Part 1

2 September 2012

Budapest Keleti-Pu station was busy and a bit grotty at first glance. It didn’t improve when we queued up to be told that we were in the wrong queue (happens every time) and had to buy bus tickets from the sweet shop! A rattling bus ride put us near our hostel ‘Njoy Budapest’, close to Astoria metro station. We went out to the nearby Bali Café where I had an enormous ‘Bali Chicken’ which was a scrumptious chicken schnitzel covered in sour cream, champignons and mozzarella. The hostel had a massive TV and DVDs, and we laboured through about a third of Avatar before falling asleep.

Next day we missed the start of the morning walking tour due to my dubious directional skills. We did a bit of wondering and stopped at the worst café in Central Europe (‘Anna Café’) where we got horrendously overcharged for a weak lemonade and slapped with a compulsory 15% service charge mentioned in small print on the menu. The only satisfaction was paying with a 20,000 Hungarian Forint note (about €72) and shrugging at the suggestion we might have smaller change (we did). Sneaking into Burger King toilets was the way forward from now on.

The Shiny Horse

We joined the afternoon walking tour with Zoltan (who said his name translates to ‘Sultan’). I have probably missed out several marks on the letters, there are 44 of them in the Hungarian alphabet. First, we learned that Budapest takes its name from the two sides of the city which are called Buda and Pest, separated by the river. Most of the city is on the Pest side (pronounced ‘pesht’) and he slightly bitterly dubbed the Buda side the rich side. After we walked across we saw what he meant, it looked more like Bruges than anywhere else with a lot of medieval cobbling going on. There was an amusing horse statue with shiny balls though. Local students used to touch them for good luck before some sort of city council grouches banned climbing on the statue.

We were also furnished with some useful information on Hungarian idiosyncrasies. If you give a waiter money in a restaurant and say thank you (‘kosunum’) without first waiting for the change you are saying ‘keep the change’! There was also a crash course in Hungarian humour, which Zoltan ruefully admitted is not exactly side-splitting. One of the favourites was rather long-winded: after World War I, Hungary had to cede territory on all its borders. The gist of the joke was that Hungary was the only place in the world in which you could cross the border and stay in the same country. Rest assured it has not lost much in the retelling.

I felt a bit bad that we couldn’t between our group name five famous Hungarians. Franz Liszt and Ernst Rubik (of the cube) were among them. My offering of Paul Erdős didn’t register (too much maths, computer science). Another great Hungarian joke was that all famous Hungarians were or are expats. The tour was sardonically amusing though and definitely recommended for getting a feel of the city and some recommendations about where to go (in an nutshell, avoid all touristy areas)


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Bratislava

25 August 2012

Bratislava was probably one of the less well known places we visited, but it was definitely worth it. It’s also a convenient stop off between Prague and Budapest. It was much less touristy than most places we’ve been, being quite quiet and small for a city. On the plus side it was also probably the cheapest place, with 0.5l of the Zlatý Bažant (Golden Pheasant) lager being about €1.50. We were lucky enough to be staying in the excellent Botel Marina, which is what it says on the tin: a hotel on a boat moored on the Danube.

Arriving late afternoon, we did some well deserved sleeping before heading to the ‘Krishna’ restaurant conveniently located on our boat. Indian restaurants seem to be scarce in mainland Europe but this one turned out to be nothing short of brilliant. The fish curry and butter naans were some of our favourites. As bonuses, it was very cheap and had a classically taciturn waiter.

Two men and a snail

On the first full day, we went to visit the historic town centre area which was pretty close by and featured some interesting market stalls, one selling very artfully carved fruits. There were also a lot of bronze statues dotted about in interesting poses which added a lot of character to the centre. For lunch we went to the alchemical restaurant and bar which serves good traditional type food and had very friendly staff. After a further reduction of the sleep debt we headed to the close-by Jasmin Chinese restaurant. Lucy ordered ‘Duck with Eight Treasures’ which was the house speciality. Amusingly for me and unfortunately for her, one of the treasures was most certainly some sort of cubed offal, possibly liver or heart. That aside though, the portions were huge and the food, while sometimes unidentifiable, was very nice.

We felt we had to do something other than eat in Bratislava, so the next day we rented some pretty posh trekking bikes for the very reasonable €9 per bike (5 hours) from ‘Bike Bratislava’. This characteristically (for us) took much longer to find than it should have. Once we managed to actually get them, we went back to the Danube waterfront and followed the (quite long) cycle path. On the way there were some imposing views, such as this one from under a bridge.

Lucy and a lion made of tyres

After an hour or so, despite my persistence that there would be something more exciting than suburbs around the next bend, we turned back. On the way back, we went to a rather ‘trendy’ looking café which was either a converted or current dance school, the drinks were great and the food decent. We headed back down the Danube and ended up in a very busy shopping centre complete with artificial beach. This turned out to not be very cycle friendly, so after a bit we returned the bikes and went back to Krishna’s for some sort of Royal Tandoori banquet (definitely get it if you go).

On our last day we visited the ‘Freja’ spa which had a sauna, pool and great jacuzzi. If you go in happy hours it’s quite cheap and definitely worth it. We also discovered that Slovaks do not go naked in saunas – the rough guide book did say they were characteristically reserved. We used Bratislava more as a rest stop than anything else, but I am sure there was a lot more to do that we did not take advantage of. One place we wanted to visit, the Novy Most restaurant/bar/UFO was just out of our price range, at €12 for soup plus a €3.50 student entrance fee! I did find some very amusing descriptions of stag-do packages in Bratislava on the tourism website though, so that might be worth a look. Next stop, Budapest!


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Prague

16 August 2012

Our arrival in Prague was heralded by the usual predicament of the ATM awarding us the highest value note it could – 2000 Czech Koruna (about €80). Needless to say this wasn’t great for ticket machines, so we had to pay at the desk who told us ‘ah you have the big money!’. After resolving this though, the metro turned out to be very fast and we soon arrived at the bottom of the steep hill to our hostel. We didn’t mind though, since it was pretty quiet and the streets were nice and cobbled. Before going to bed, we watched a bit of Olympic Weightlifting and talked to some English people who recommended pedal boating.

So next day we did so in a Swan Boat, no less. We had to steadfastly avoid drifting towards the weir which made the outing all the more exciting. In search of some Czech food on our street, Nerudova, we got a goulash (actually Hungarian) type soup with bready dumplings. It was very filling and just what we needed. It was a shame the wasps were so interested as they invariably instil panic in me and Lucy.

Lucy and a skeleton

In the afternoon we went to the museum of alchemy which had many peculiar and amusing things in jars up a tower with a spiral staircase. Afterwards we went to the alchemical bar and I made the mistake of ordering Grog, which is quite possibly the most foul drink in existence. Following profuse amounts of water to banish the taste, we went to the ‘Ghosts and Legends’ museum, which was included on the alchemy ticket. It proved to be quite ghostly, we walked past it four times and asked two people for (correct) directions before finding it. Unfortunately it was a bit underwhelming, consisting of too much writing and not enough scary papier mache figures.

We were only going to stay one night in Prague, but after looking in horror at how long it would take to get to Poland (about a 9 hour train minimum just to Krakow) we decided to save Poland for next time and booked into ‘Hostel Mango’ for another two nights. So on the third day we finally mustered up enough energy to go on a walking tour. Finding the one we originally wanted proved too difficult in the packed old town square. All the different guides have coloured umbrellas, and the one we chose was Keith, with a green umbrella. Like all the other tours we have been on this was tips-based. He proved to be the best and most friendly guide we’ve followed in any city.

I’ve noticed that cities can often appear quite faceless until you know some of the history, and nowhere else but Prague was this more apparent. Unfortunately, there are far too many tourists in certain parts of the city, especially the Charles Bridge. Even worse, there are innumerable shops selling tourist crap like ‘I <3 Prague’ t-shirts, tacky jewellery and other rubbish. Another blight on the city is the amount of graffiti. None of it is remotely artistic and the vandals have even daubed it on some of the more historic buildings.

A view from the Old Town Square

Once we’d started the tour however, I warmed considerably to Prague.  For example, we heard a story about Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi leader who occupied Bohemia and Moravia, the two constituent areas of the Czech Republic. He apparently liked the opera and frequently strolled around the Prague Opera House, which has a roof lined with statues of composers. Heydrich was outraged to learn that there was a statue of Mendellsohn, a Jewish composer, and ordered it to be removed. The Czech workmen detailed to this didn’t know what Mendellsohn looked like however, and neither did their Nazi guards. So they said ‘find the one with the biggest nose’. Duly that statue was destroyed, and only later did the Nazis realise that they had removed Richard Wagner, a German composer and Hitler’s favourite.

In the evening we went to the ‘Drunken Monkey’ bar crawl, which came recommended by Keith. It included 2.5 hours of all you can drink, which we took a bit too literally. It was good fun though, and I learned a new drinking game from some of the many Australians trawling Europe this summer. It’s called flip-cup, and involves two teams lining up at either side of a long table. Each person gets a plastic cup with a bit of beer in it. In turn from the end of the table, each player drinks and then places their cup upside down, partially on the edge of the table. Then you have to flip it so it lands upright before the next person can drink and carry on. It was great fun, and after the next couple of bars, a few fallings over, and some slurred instructions to taxi drivers later we got back to the hostel and either fell asleep or passed out.

In the morning we found the only English Breakfast in Prague, which turned out to be about £10. It was definitely worth it though to alleviate our hungover state. Unfortunately we failed to muster enough energy to go to the huge castle, so we will save it for next time. We caught an afternoon train to Bratislava.


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