Sunday, September 29, 2013

Budapest - A city with multiple layers

Our final destination in our East European Trip. It was quite a fascinating place. There were a few things about this place that has imbibed Budapest in our memory.

After enjoying so much natural beauty in Vienna, Melk and Krems, stepping down from the train onto Budapest Central Station was the most disappointing moment of our East European trip. It wasn't a big surprise for my husband, for it was his second time there. But for me, I HATED IT! It was very similar to our railway stations in India, literally; crowded, noisy and dirty.

Note: So to all the people who crib that India is so dirty (this group included me, until I was enlightened here, Prague and at Stockholm), please make a point to travel to either Prague, Budapest or even Stockholm on a weekend in the summers. Do travel in their metro, walk to the various squares where people gather, you might be amazed by the way people party at night, but you might also get the opportunity to see something very different from what you might have expected. To accentuate that feeling, you should get up early the next day (saturday or sunday morning) and see how the place looks. One Saturday night I was so grossed out, I wouldn't sit in the metro, in a place like Stockholm and so decided to stand in one corner of the train to avoid "Beer" spills and "Vomit" :P which was flowing forward and backward every time the metro would stop and start! :D Anyways, that is a different story, more about Stockholm later. And in Prague/Budapest, the streets were littered with Beer cans, Pizza boxes, broken glass and of course "vomit". The point I wanted to make was, a place being dirty is more to do with us, the crowd, than with the country as such!


Note on the above NOTE: 
You also get to see one thing on Saturday/Sunday mornings which you don't see here in India and which we can crib about! Dozens of City Counsel workers cleaning up the entire city, every street, every square, every metro. The metro in the morning is back to it sparkling clean state, ready to be puked on in the evening! And this act of getting the city cleaned for its people is more to do with the Country than with the people! So people who crib about India being dirty, go right ahead and crib about this, I will join you too! :D
Anyways, getting back to Budapest... The minute we stepped out from the central station, the view we had was that of huge barricades, cranes digging, dusty atmosphere and more crowd. Tourists were a little more cautious of their belongings, more homeless people around but the over all entropy level was higher.  It could also be, because of the fact that it was a Friday and people were unwinding and getting ready for the weekend.

Oh! Forgot to mention about the local Tourist Information Center, which I generally talk proudly about. Here they were snobs. They seemed extremely irritated seeing too many tourists asking for help and to top it they did not have city maps so they gave us an hop-on-hop-off map. Thanks to our Lonely Planet Guide book we didn't need to depend on the green line map to find our hotel.

And this was the first layer of the City - crowded, noisy, dirty and dusty! 

We stayed in a place called Leo Panzio. It was right in front of the Ferenciek tere metro station (how cool is that!) and it was a very warm and comfortable place. The photographs above were taken from our room. After checking in, we decided to step out for lunch and started walking.

The second layer of Budapest - welcome to party land!! 

Something that was very prominent in Budapest were the open markets, a shoppers paradise and if that doesn't interest you, you can always buy a Virgin Mojito (you get different flavors of it and in Budapest you can also get the spiked Mojito! Yeah there is stall which sells mojito :D - This is "Hint 1" why Budapest is a party land) and sip on it while watching people at the market square shopping and bargaining. From here we walked to an Irish Pub Cafe and had our lunch. My vegetarian lunch was quite interesting, it had potato wedges, fried cheese and fried mushroom caps all with a cheese dip and the funny part... it came with plain boiled rice! But that was my first rice meal in 10 days and I was quite excited to see it (:P Typical South Indian), but the ironic part was, I couldn't finish it. But it was an enjoyable meal as always... long... relaxed... talking random nothings under the sun with my husband. After lunch, we decided to head out and see the infamous thermal baths of Budapest. Since we were in two minds whether to get into the bath or not, I did not carry my camera. But then once we got there, saw that the place was too crowded so just had a look at it from the outside and went towards the Freedom Square and then got back.

Travel Tip: Budapest has a very good metro, tram and bus system. We can get travel cards for 24 hours or more and it can be used in the metro, tram as well as the bus. 

We then decided to walk to St. Stephen's Cathedral, but decided to take a detour and go back to the market place and get ourselves a mojito. 

Frame 1 Scene 2
Sipping our Mojito, we walked towards St Stephens Cathedral Square; on our way we crossed street performers, kids skating at the park, a group of Hungarians singing "Hare Rama Hare Krishna" Bhajans (awesome right!). They were about 10 of them, harmonium, tabla, and the small cymbals that we use in our Bhajans. They saw us and asked us to join them too, we politely refused but continued watching them for some time. It was quite a nice feeling to see your culture being adapted so far away from home. It was like walking through a fair! We ended up at St Stephens Cathedral Square, just to realize that the party was just starting. 

Frame 2 Scene 2
People were getting together, walking around with beers in hand. One interesting incident which I remember well is of this one guy, who came in his cycle and sat next to us on the steps of the Cathedral watching the people around. This guy, sat for some time watching, then took out a cigarette, smoked for a while and then took out a goblet from his bag and then a bottle, poured himself a drink and sat there sipping it. There was a bachelor/bachelorette party happening one side, guys/girls were wearing weird wigs and shouting something. They played some games together for sometime and then went their separate ways to celebrate, probably all night. More people were gathering, slowly pouring in. Groups of people sitting around, catching up after their work. 

I still didn't have my camera but at the same time I didn't want to waste time walking back and forth. But then my husband sensed my discomfort and decided that we go and get the camera. And so we did exactly that... after so much talk I am now ready to put up some photographs! :-D
After getting the camera, we walked along the Danube River towards the Chain bridge and took night shots of the Budapest Castle on the Castle Hill and the Chain Bridge. Then walked along the Chain Bridge and took some more photos of Budapest at night. But being the lazy person that I am, I did not carry my tripod and as you can see all the night photographs are hand held ones (now this should explain why they are not very sharp)! 

After a nice dinner, we called it a night. The next day, the plan was to go to the Castle Hill and then to Obuda. Little did we know, the next layer of Budapest was waiting to be revealed to us! 

The next layer - historical roots! 
After breakfast at Leo Panzio, we took the metro to Varhegy and walked up towards the Castle Hill. One reaching the top of the hill, you know you have arrived with the well defined entrance. You get transported to a different world, a place whose history is so deep rooted. 
Entrance to the Castle Hill

National Archives Museum

From here, we walked towards the Holy Trinity and the Mattias Church. The best part of Castle Hill was it had splendid views of the city.

Travel Tip: 
The castle hill has splendid views and the evening lights of the city can be captured very well from here. I would suggest the best time to go here is in the evenings. A romantic walk along the cobbled streets, get your adrenaline pumping walking through the eerie labyrinth and then wrap up the evening with a nice dinner overlooking the river and the city! 

After capturing more stunning views of the city from the Fishermen's Bastion, we walked towards the Mattiah's Church. This 700 year old church is quite a sight. We weren't too keen on entering into the church so decided to walk around and take some photographs.

After walking around for a while we found something very interesting in the Lonely Planet City Guide of Budapest. It was about a Labyrinth, that lies beneath the Castle Hill. This cave and cellars was used during the World War II as a shelter as well as a hospital. The Turks also used it in the 16th Century for military purposes. In the 15th century the Labyrinth gave home to a prison and it's most famous prisoner Count Dracula, held in captivity by Hungarian King Matthias Corvinus. What an experience? A must-do in Budapest, in my opinion.

Tomb of Count Dracula

From the Labyrinth, we walked towards the Buda Castle and we have a new surprise waiting for us. There was a cultural folk fair being held at the Palace grounds. We were really lucky to experience something like that. An opportunity to get a peek into the lives of rural Hungarians and their livelihood, we felt quite humbled to be part of it.
We walked through the fair and back into the main city. 
View of Chain Bridge as we were waiting for the bus to go to Obuda

Our next stop was Obuda! The Roman Acquincum was the highlight of the Obuda or the Old Buda. These excavated ruins actually dates back to the second century. But I personally felt that the place did not get the importance it really should. Obuda is not that touristy and in Acquincum we found absolutely no one, other than some guy walking his dogs. It was sad to see a second century excavation receive so little importance.    

Laid back town of Obuda
Taken from the bus on the way to Obuda

We then took the bus back to Batthiány Square and took the metro to Great Synagogue in Dohány Street.

The synagogue was closed, but even otherwise we couldn't have gone inside since I was wearing a sleeveless shirt and did not have any cloth to cover my head and my husband was in shorts. But we did walk around to see the Holocaust Memorial and decided to try and get to the Holocaust Musuem.
Unfortunately, by the time we reached the museum had closed. Since we had a train to catch at 8:00pm, we decided to come back to the hotel and freshen up before checking out.

So that was Budapest, a city which parties hard, but underneath all that crowd and dust, its a city which was captured multiple times by the Romans and the Turks and many more... a city which has seen too many wars and lost too many lives... a city which now knows that you only get to live once!!!

Towards the end of our East European Trip, catching trains had become quite an adventure. Most of the time, we would catch it with a few minutes to spare. This time I wanted to avoid such a situation, so we checked out by 7:00pm and also reached the station in time; was at our platform by 7:30pm and we had half an hour for the train to start. But you know what, Mr.Murphy loves to kick us in the arse (sorry for the curse word, but that was what it really was). There is this concept in Europe, apparently, that the same train would have compartments going to different destinations (:P its not a joke!). So our train from Budapest to Prague, also had compartments which were to go to Warsaw, Poland and to Berlin, Germany. They had quite strict checking of the tickets and the person who checked our tickets directed us wrongly and we were at the tail end of the the train, just to be sent back. We could not walk through the compartments since they were over flowing with people, so we had to get down and run back with our luggage. We had about 5 minutes and we had not yet found our compartment. We decided to climb back in, into the closest compartment only to realize that we could not get through to the next one and this one was going to Warsaw. So we had to get back down and run to a different compartment. 

We then made up our minds that it didn't matter where the train finally stops, its important to get into the train. We did have an East European Pass with one more day available for travel, which we could use. I consoled myself that, this was just an adventure and that it was okay for things to get out of order (I have a slight OCD problem :P) and that, where ever we are in Europe, we are going to be legally present so it really does not matter. But thankfully, the next compartment we got into was indeed part of the train which was going to Prague (WHEW!) and all we had to do now was to find our seats. By now the train had already started moving and by the time we found our seats, it was going in full speed! 

What a way to end our trip! The best part of life is we really don't know what is in store for us. But now that I know what happened, I can tell you, it wasn't the end of our trip yet! We didn't know then, that the train which was supposed to reach at 6:00am would reach at 4:00am or that we would put our luggage at the storage in the Railway station or that we would get the Metro Pass in Prague again and go around Prague. 

More about it in my next blog post - Prague in a Nutshell (3 hours walking tour of Prague)! 

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Danube River Valley Adventures - Vienna Trip (Part 2)

What do you think about cycling 40 kilometers in 3 hours, not in your country but in Austria, along the Danube River, through Vineyards, Apple Orchards, Pear Orchards and mountains all around you! 

You read it right! That is exactly what we did and that is exactly what this blog post is all about!

After our self-guided walking tour of Vienna the previous day, we decided to do something else. We had one full day to spend. Our options was either going to Bratislava, Slovakia or check out the country side near Vienna, a place called Melk. Rick Steves' "Vienna, Salzburg and Tirol" had information about both these places. It was either adding a tick to another country or a trip to another country side.

P.S: We were deciding all this in the morning after waking up at 9:00 am. We had the luxury to do this because of our East European Rail Pass which did not require us to make any reservation. All we had to do was find the appropriate train (either to Bratislava or to Melk) and get onto it.

So we decided to check out more about these 2 options over breakfast and a lot of the credit would go to my husband for making this happen. By the time I went to get ready, he had the complete train information checked out and duly noted on his blackberry. Every single detail, closest metro that would take us to the Central train station, time of the trains, platform details as well as the return train information, was noted. All we had to do over breakfast was to decide which way to go "EAST" (towards Bratislava) or "WEST" (towards Melk). We read more about Melk and reading Rick Steves description about the place was more than enough to convince us to go west! With breakfast done and our plan in place, our main target now was to get the metro to the central train station and get on the train to Melk. Getting the metro wasn't that difficult, but then pushing our way through the crowd and getting to the main station and finding the way to the platform was the crazy part. By the time we reached near the escalator to the platform, we had about 3 minutes to spare. With as much as 2 minutes to spare, we started running towards the train and the train wasn't in the position it was supposed to be. Online information said C-F on the platform was where the train would be but our train was in C alright but it ended in D itself and we weren't sure if it was the right one! Atleast I wasn't! After a panic exchange, (mostly me, asking more than once if it was the right train we were running towards), we decided to get in and go where ever it takes us. So with 1 minute to spare, we get into the train and ask our co-passengers if this was the train to Melk (just when the train started moving). Phew! It was!

After 50 minutes, we were in Melk. Melk as such, is a very beautiful place. Pretty much a quite and laid back place, people strolling or having a drink at the cafes. Its famous for its Abbey on rocky outcrop over looking the Danube River on one side and the town on the other. But we really didn't have much time to spend at Melk. Rick Steves had mentioned about Melk having places to rent bicycles and cycling along Danube River. We could either cycle all the way till Krems or cycle half way till Spitz and then take the ferry to Krems; and then take the train back to Vienna.

Our plan was a little more crunched since we decided about such a day at 11:00 am,  reached Melk at 12:30 pm and had an Opera to attend to at 7:00 pm back in Vienna. Which means we need to get back to Vienna atleast by 6:00 pm so that we can freshen up and change from our more informal wear (shorts and t-shirt) and into a little less informal wear (jeans and t-shirt). Anyways, coming back to our plan, it meant we need to take the 5:00 pm train back to Vienna. So that meant getting to Krems by 5:00 pm. If anything in this plan goes wrong, our EUR 70 goes down the drain.

We did walk around Melk though, finding the Tourist Information Center to get information about the cycle rental and other information about the ferry etc. Walked through the lazy streets of Melk and took photographs of the Abbey from the outside due to time constraints.
We then headed towards the cycle rental shop. I suggested that we stock up with some water/juice and food en route and some sun screen since it was a very clear bright and sunny day! Once we got some food, we got our cycles. With a small photocopy map of the route, well pretty much that was our GPS, we set out to cycle through the beautiful Danube River Valley region.

This is how the magic started. There are no words that will do justice to the feeling we had as we cycled on a nice, clear, blue-sky, sunny day along the river.

That day being a religious holiday, we had the chance to get a glimpse of what life was at the Danube River Valley. There were a lot more people outside, cycle, walking,  playing with kids on the river bed, fishing, or kayaking.

Most of these photographs were taken while I was cycling! I had to, initially, I stopped to click a photograph but then there were too many people behind me who got obstructed because of it and weren't too happy. Yeah I know I was dumb to have stopped in the first place, but I was never going to get a chance like this in my life again, for all that I know. So decided to take it on the go and hoped they would come okay :D.

We cycled for 3 hours, took small breaks in between for a sip of water or a bite of the chocolate/cake and in some places stopped to take photographs. Most of the time we were along the River, the best part of this cycle tour was we didn't have to worry about traffic, cars, highways (we did have to cross the highway a few times but it was all clearly marked and the vehicles always I mean ALWAYS waits for the cyclists to cross. Of course, we should be sensible too. I can't just dash across the highway, but the minute the cars sees cyclists waiting they slow down for us. Many people reading the blog might think what is the big deal about it, but I am not used to seeing this, EVER! *Disbelief* - One time, even a truck stopped for us!!!) but there is proper cycle lane (whether along the river or along the highway). It is always there. So its completely safe, we saw a number of families, starting from the grand-mom/grand-dad (who might be around 70+), dad, mom, kids (sometimes as young as 4-5 years) to infants (haha.. no they were riding :P but generally, cycles come with infant strollers or seats which is attached to the father's/mother's cycle).
After about 2 hours of cycling, our terrain started changing once we crossed Spitz. We started moving away from the river (but it still gets good... wait for it :D), we start cycling through vineyards, apple orchards, pear orchards and small towns. Cafes nestled deep within the farms and the only way to get to them was either walking or cycle. Families getting together for a picnic, couples sitting on benches in the apple orchards, some men working in the vineyards. It was brilliant!
People waiting for the ferry to get to Spitz

Finally, around 4:30 pm we crossed the bridge to get to Krems. Our final destination! The below photograph was taken on the bridge as I was cycling. I wasn't going to stop this time again!
We didn't have a local map of Krems and we had half an hour to find the local TI, find the railway station, find the place where we can give the cycles back and get on to the 5:04 pm train to Vienna. Now the frame rate of our story starts going up, we peddle twice as fast, trying to find the local Tourist Information center just to find it closed. We decide to call them up, there was a poster with a telephone number. Thankfully, someone picked up and luck was on our side. They mentioned we could lock our cycles at the railway station itself. So now it came down to 19 minutes, to get to the railway station, lock the cycles and catch the train. By the time we locked up the cycles, it was 4:55pm and then the running beings... after cycling 40 kilometers... my only thought at that point was once we catch the train I can sit without moving for 1 hour... please let me catch the train! Found the platform (5:01 pm)...  saw the train... increased pace and got in at 5:02pm... 2 minutes to spare we are in the train. PHEW!!!!

Taken from the train... back to Vienna

Running wasn't finished for the day. The train journey was just a stop gap, to catch our breath. We still had to get back to the hotel, freshen up, take the metro, walk to Schonbrunn, get into the Opera.
The beauty of this day was... NOTHING WENT WRONG. Other than we 2 being the last ones to enter the opera and few people giving us the why-can't-you-young-folks-keep-time stares. But we didn't read too much into it since it was really dark!