Backpacking trip: Hungary

This is it, folks! The last leg of our backpacking adventure. After an easy 2 & something hour train ride from Vienna, we arrived in Pest. Another sweltering afternoon. Our apartment was clear across the city, so we took the metro and had to climb up what felt like a mountain to our place in Buda. Sidenote: You guys know I love renting apartments during travel, having that local experience, but this time, without air conditioning, I thought I was going to die.

Buda’s Castle Hill

We decided to check out the castle grounds first since they were near our apartment, practically a stone’s throw away. Such a lovely area! Beautiful cathedrals and other interesting buildings everywhere you turn.  W didn’t even pay for entrance into any of them, just marveling from the outside was enough. After a great meal near the water, we headed to Pest to check out the scene there.

Parliament

While more lively than residential Buda, it was still fairly calm compared to other bustling cities we has visited like Prague and Vienna.

That night was a quiet one on our terrace reading and drinking Hungarian wine.

Thursday led us to Nagycsarnok, a large food market in Pest. Where I bought, of all things, string cheese, whuddup. It was delicious. But we also loaded up on paprika and saffron, then had a nice lunch on the touristy yet pleasant Vaci street.

Szechenyi Thermal Baths

That afternoon, our lives changed. We went to the Szechenyi Thermal Baths. I’ve been to hamamms in Marrakech and Turkish baths in Istanbul, but this was totally different. This giant complex was built like a water park, with 18 different pools (3 of them outdoor), countless saunas and, that’s right, massage parlors. After almost two weeks of lugging around our packs, walking entire cities in sandals, this was a welcome (and much deserved) treat. For only €12, you can hang at the facility all day, dipping in different sulfur and mineral baths of varying temps (34-40 celsius), freezing plunge pools and saunas (45-65 celsius), laying out by the pools outside and just generally enjoying your life. Oh, and the massage was extra… Like a whopping €30 extra. Um, can I get 10? Back to back? Pun intended? While not super luxurious, it got the job done, although it had me wincing in pain from all the knots in my back.

We liked the baths so much we went back on Friday. Oops!

Ready for a night out in Budapest

Friday night was our last night of the trip. We thought we should attempt a big night out.  Headed to Pest and saw potential at Vaci street, so we searched for a place for dinner. We eventually settled on one with outdoor seating and tv’s so we could watch the Germany vs. Greece game (poor Greece) with wine and chicken paprikash. Afterward we headed to what we thought was the night scene, to not find it. Or perhaps find it too late? As we walked through the area, the clubs were empty, bars were calm, there wasn’t much going on. We ended up at a nice wine bar, but it wasn’t the rager we were expecting. When we decided to head  back to Buda, we had one problem. The metro stops running at 11:30 and it was now after midnight. I know, we’re such rebels. Problem was that the night buses were extremely confusing and with no one speaking English, we had difficulty finding where it stopped. Once we did, it was now after one and it had just left (of course) and wouldn’t be back for an hour. So, we bit the bullet and as much as I despise doing this while traveling… we took a cab. Defeated. But there was no way we were walking that late at night. Even once we got to Buda and were safely dropped off at the metro, we were stopped by police asking us why we were out and that we should go home. Hmm. At 2am on a friday night in any other city, there would be young people out everywhere. Not the case here.

The next day were our flights heading separate ways. What a great trip. Some quick takeaways from traveling in eastern Europe:

1. Never bother buying train tickets ahead of time. Buy them once you are in the city you are traveling from. Trust me, there will be a train to get you where you need to go. I bought tickets ahead of time, did not receive them before I left (print tickets was the only option on this rail line), had to re-buy all of them and now have to fight with the train company to refund me. Here’s hoping…
2. Never underestimate the power of a good map. And no, I don’t mean Google. I mean a real paper map. That is lightweight. And fits in your bag. Don’t haul around a Lonely Planet guidebook that weighs 5 pounds. …Like I did.
3. When renting apartments, check the actual walking distance to the big attractions. (This is where Google is helpful) Don’t rely on eye-balling it on a map. Some of our places were a good 30 minute hike on hilly streets from anything. That is not fun at midnight when you are tired.
4. If #3 is unavoidably or accidentally your situation, get to know the public transportation system right away. Like Nike, just do it, it’s never as bad or as confusing as it seems. You can always point to your map (see #2) to show the conductor where you need to go.
5. Eat the local food. Don’t be a wimp!

From Budapest, I headed back to Kiev to be with Jaro so we could celebrate our one year wedding anniversary together! I can’t believe it’s been a year. I can’t believe what a year it has been.

We’re now (finally!) back in Amsterdam. Looking forward to some down time with my husband and getting ready for our next (and final… for this first year abroad anyway) visitors – my childhood friends!

xxx

Advertisements

Backpacking trip: Austria & Slovakia

After eventful visits in Poland and Czech Republic, we took a sweet ass overnight train from Prague to Vienna, Austria. What a difference from the overnighter from Krakow to Prague. Something got mixed up in translation when I bought the tickets because we ended up with a private cabin in first class. With air conditioning! We even had a butler that brought us tea and coffee in the morning! What! Not even complaining about it. Not even a little bit.

Just a normal breakfast in Vienna, Austria

So we arrive in Vienna and gratefully, our apartment was ready for us after a short tram ride. We cleaned up and get out in the city by 9. Fueled up on a breakfast of croissants AND rolls (I mean, we are in Vienna) and started our strolling. Successfully navigated to the Hofburg Palace, which pretty much slapped us in the face from its sheer size. Like everything in Vienna, it was quite grand. We did the tour of the three museums inside, which took all morning. It was all worth it (even the boring china exhibit) for the fascinating display about Empress Sisi. Basically, she was a lady to be admired (despite a pesky cocaine habit). She loved exercising and hygiene, which was truly ahead of the times in that era, especially for women. Count me as a fan!

Stephansdom. Vienna, Austria

That afternoon, we – surprise – walked around the entire city. From the Hofburg Palace, to the – you guessed it – grand Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral), to the Danube waterfront, we did it all. In 35 degree heat. For you non-Celsius lovers, that’s around 90 Fahrenheit. Something I realized about Vienna quickly was how beautiful it would be in the winter. (And you know I generally dislike winter travel.) But imagine: Light snow. Softly lit street lamps. Tucking ourselves into a cozy cafe for coffee near a warm fireplace. Maybe even with a lounging cat nearby. Sounds romantic, right? That may seem lovely, but at the time, walking the streets, in sweltering heat, I thought my face was going to melt off like this guy.

By evening’s end, after a dinner of meat and cheese at a authentic heurigen (old wine cellar underground – and you know I love underground dining from my traveling in L’viv), we felt like we had gotten the gist of Vienna. Might have been quick, but hey, when Bratislava, Slovakia is a little over an hour away by train, you do what we did – you go to Slovakia!

The only English in the city.

So the next morning, we took a lovely train ride to Bratislava. Look at that warm welcome! But – Was there a tourist center in the train station (or anywhere in the city)? Nope. Any maps or directions posted? Nope. Any English? Other than the welcome sign (oddly), nope! While still super hot and completely left to our own devices, we were determined to make the best of it and try to see as much as possible.

Bratislava, Slovkia

Which isn’t much, thankfully. Bratislava is a small city sitting on the Danube, with a tiny historic center. From the train, we sweat our butts off trudging straight to the Bratislava Castle and took the tour. While not terribly informative or extensive, we did learn that it has burned down several times and most recently in 2011! Could still smell the fresh paint.

After trying some (okay) Slovakian beers, sitting in a cafe with soggy, mushy grass (inside!), we decided we had seen enough and headed back to Vienna. Dinner that might was hilariously gigantic ice cream desserts and… wine spritzers. Ha! Hey, when in Vienna…

Viennese dinner. Don’t mind if I do!

The next morning, we packed up and headed back to the train. Onward to Hungary!

Installment #4 about Budapest coming soon…

xxx

Backpacking trip: Czech Republic

After the emotional roll coaster that was our visit to Poland, we headed to Prague via overnight train from Krakow. When we were shown our cabin on the overnighter, we just laughed. It was (kindly) very, very vintage. And we had the top two boards of wood bunks in a cabin that (barely) fit six. We had to shimmy up there and once up, there was no coming down til morning. However small Marisa and I are, we could not even sit up straight. Popped some NyQuil and passed out immediately.

After the worst sleep of our lives, we arrived in Prague at 8am. Refreshed (not), we strapped on our somehow increasingly heavy packs and walked 30 minutes to our apartment. With check in not til 3 (sigh), we dropped our packs and ventured out still grimy from our hot, uncomfortable ride in.

Prague’s beauty

It’s no wonder Prague is such a international tourist destination. With it’s beautiful skyline, enchanting castle and cobbled streets, it has it all. Easily one of the most romantic cities I’ve seen. However, this comes at a cost. A very tourist heavy summer. While I’m used to tourists from my life in Amsterdam (half the city at any moment is one), this was outrageous. It seemed that every single person we saw was a tourist. I know the city can’t help it, but it truly takes away from its authenticity and charm. I don’t want to see a McDonald’s or Starbucks on every corner. I don’t want to be elbowed by a barking tour guide trying to drag 30 people across the Charles Bridge.

On the Charles Bridge

But maybe that’s just me.

We toured the lovely Prague Castle complex, poked our heads in several gorgeous cathedrals, got ourselves lost, got ourselves un-lost, and just had fun doing what you do in Prague – strolling. For our first dinner, we tried going to a place recommended by Lonely Planet, only to find that it’s no longer there. Figures. Ended up at a pub and had some local dishes that were surprisingly good. The beer helped too. Then we hurried back to the square to watch Ukraine vs. France. Sadly, Ukraine lost, but they still made us proud!

Lots of Ukraine fans in Prague’s historic square

Rose gardens

The next morning, we had a later start (needed the sleep!) and took a boat tour of the Vltava River. Then headed up the funicular to a nice hilltop park with great views of the city for a picnic lunch. After all the walking we had done already, we needed the break. Also, we then needed a fish pedicure (they are all the rage, you guys!). Despite being all the rage, it wasn’t as rewarding as I was hoping. It just tickled. And, as we were in the front window, we are now in countless photo albums of tourists who thought it was interesting, gross, cool, funny, whatever and took our picture. We made sure we smiled.

Dinner that night was al fresco at a little bistro on a quiet side street near the square. Couldn’t believe everything we had for €25 a piece! An appetizer, several glasses of wine, two entrees (I had rabbit, mmm) and homemade potato chips. One of the biggest perks about eastern Europe is how inexpensive everything is. You can’t beat the €1 beers or €1.50 (surprisingly good) wine! After dinner, we rolled over to the square again to watch Czech vs. Poland. These games really turned out to be great evening entertainment.

Inside the caves at Pilsner Urquell

For our last day in Czech, we decided to venture out of Prague to Pilsen, home of the famous Pilsner Urquell beer. Did you know that it was the world’s first original lager? Well I do now, because it was drilled into my head on the 90 minute brewery tour. We even met some dudes from America (a few from Chicago no less!) and had beers and pickled cheese with our new friends after the tour. Pilsen itself is a very cute teeny tiny town, great for a day escape from bustling Prague. Only an hour away by train through pretty countryside.

When we got back to Prague, we just had a quick dinner near the train station to fill up for our next overnight train ride.

Installment #3 on Austria and (oops) Slovakia next…

xxx

Backpacking trip: Poland

As you may have noticed from my handy countdown at right, I just went backpacking through Poland, Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary over two weeks in June. My partner in crime was my high school chum (yes, as in shark bait), Marisa.

Marisa & I at my wedding

We have traveled in Europe together before (2008 Barcelona/Madrid), road tripped across the U.S. (2010 Chicago to San Francisco) and pretty much know how to still get along after being around each other too long. We intentionally completely coincidentally timed this trip during the European Championship, which happens to be the exact time we were in Europe together in 2008. Then, we watched Spain win their title, in Spain (where Spaniards casually celebrated by climbing buildings and setting cars on fire). So, I guess it’s our thing. Four years from now, we’ll meet for Euro2016 in France. Not complaining.

Let’s begin at the beginning, shall we?

Warsaw’s Old Town

Poland. Homeland to half of my genes. I was nostalgic before I even arrived. Marisa and I met in Warsaw since I was there with Jaro since he was there for work. Follow that? We stayed in city center and I’ll admit, at first I was unimpressed. From the domineering Stalin era “gift” (Palace of Culture & Science) to the horrendous traffic, to the chain stores to the grey weather, I wondered if I had set my expectations too high. Not to be discouraged, we headed out for dinner, were surprised by sweet & wonderful service, then scrambled to the Fan Zone to watch Ukraine vs. Sweden. Quite a tame crowd, friendly even, yet still really enjoyable. I saw people of different ethnicities exchanging pleasantries. Hand shakes. Smiles. Peace. When I heard about the violence and rioting happening elsewhere in Warsaw, I was in disbelief. We avoided it completely. Oh, and Ukraine won. (!!!)

Warsaw’s Fan Zone

The next day, we wandered over to the Old City and that was the Warsaw I was expecting. Beautiful and charming square surrounded by a castle and quaint buildings. The sun was even out. We enjoyed a huge feast in an outdoor patio for lunch for about 10 bucks, strolled around the waterfront and took in the pretty scene. Then that night we squeezed into the fan zone for the Poland vs. Russia game. In a word, it was INSANE. Tens of thousands of us were packed into the giant Fan Zone and there still wasn’t enough room. It was suffocating. But thrilling. With delicious perogis, €2 beers and the buzz of excitement, we were having a blast despite also fearing for our lives and trying not to get trampled. There is no sports event in the U.S. that comes close to this and it’s not even the final! Sorry, Superbowl. But seriously, it is actually really uplifting to be part of an event like this where everyone, from toddlers to grannies, have extreme national pride. Polish & Proud!

Krakow’s Castle

The following day, we headed to the train for our next destination – Krakow. After a 2.5 hour rickety, slightly smelly train ride, we arrived. And I thought Warsaw was charming. The city is like the size of my thumb. Everywhere you look, there are adorable cafes, pretty fountains and nice people. What a dream. You can walk everywhere in 20 minutes. We saw the historic castle, (unmemorable) cloth hall and (regrettably) the Underground Museum within the afternoon. Even wandered into a “English” pub with some fellow Dutchies to watch the Denmark vs. Portugal and Netherlands vs. Germany games. Traveler Tip: A great way to make friends while traveling is to bond over support for the same team. We made instant friends with some Dutchmen just by flashing my jersey! Even though my orange lost, we had a great time in the random hole-in-the-wall pub.

The next morning, slightly very hungover, we did something you just have to do when you are traveling in Poland. We visited Auschwitz & Birkenau. I have several reflections on the visit.

1. You see all the haunting things that you have read about, learned about in school and tried (not) to imagine. The cramped sleeping quarters. The ghostly gas chambers. The barbed wire. But then you see the things that you don’t necessarily expect. Like heaps of human hair shaved the heads of victims after they were gassed. Stacks of luggage with families’ names since they were told told they’d be retrieving them. Back braces. Prosthetic legs. Broken eyeglasses. And (worst) piles of baby shoes. As I write this, I can’t believe that I saw it with my own eyes. At the time, it was so overwhelming that I felt numb. Throughout the 3 hour tour, we were silent. Just shocked, horrified and sad. Embarrassed and ashamed of the human race for the unimaginable pain we can (and did) inflict on one another.

2. I did not take pictures. It was not appropriate to think I could retain the dignity of those who suffered with my photographs. I thought it cheapened the experience watching others do it. And don’t get me started on the girl posing with the train tracks in Birkenau.

3. There was a quote on a wall there that struck me:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” -George Santayana

I find that eerily true. In a way, it was good for me to visit. To remember. To reflect. To re-evaluate how I behave. Recognize that it could be kinder. Change. I have thought about the visit often in the weeks since I was there.  It truly leaves a lasting impression.

Promote love, not hate.

It started to pour as we finished our visit. Thunder and lightning. It was actually scary and we had to wait inside a sleeping cabin in Birkenau for it to pass (it didn’t). Tourists moaned putting on their rain jackets, popping open their umbrellas. Lacing up their waterproof boots. It just made it all the more real that people faced these conditions (and much worse) in thin cotton pajamas, with no choice.

We returned to Krakow and had a low key evening. Blame it on the rain. Blame it on our day’s activities. Heck, blame it on the hangover. We ate a hearty dinner of perogi and soup in the rainy square, getting ready for our first overnight train of the trip.

Installment #2 on the Czech Republic next…

xxx