Trams, Trains, Buses and Cars

Today is set to be a long day of travel.  L O N G.

From Eger, we board a local bus to Debrecen two and a half hours away.  Debrecen is Hungary’s second largest city.  After spending a couple of hours to stop for lunch and stock up on snacks, we hop aboard the train into Romania.  The carriages are quite comfortable for the journey.  The most valuable thing in my luggage at this point of the trip is my IPOD.  I could not have done without it today, the way it simply turned hours and hours into minutes and a good nap.  #travellersbestfriend.

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Arriving into Romania, we pull alongside another train.  Heads hanging out the window of our train, and noticing the shattered glass in the windows (bullet holes?), it’s at this point we realise how close we are to the Ukraine.  At the border, the Hungarian guards grumpily stamp us out of their country, while the Romanian guards cheerfully welcome us on in with big smiles and a happy voice while they stamp us into their country.  Not what I was expecting for some reason.  Though to be honest, I have no idea what to expect of Romania full stop.  I mean, I have some pre-conceived notions, no doubt obtained from the media over the years – and probably not an altogether bright picture.  But I’ll keep it to myself and see what unfolds.  Especially seeing as this is now Marco’s country and he is clearly excited to show it to us.

At the end of the train ride, it’s another two and a half hours by private minivan transport to a town called Vadu Izei in the Maramures region of Romania.  We drive up into, down around and through the Carpathian mountains, all the time the sky darkening around us.  Images of wolves and Dracula come to mind – yes really.  It seems we are driving forever before we finally arrive in Vadu Izei, greated by our host for the next couple of days, Ramona.

It’s been such a long (and boring) day so I am hitting the hay to wake up fresh and early because I can’t wait til tomorrow to see where it is we have ended up!

Bull’s Blood

After a late start, during which I attempt to do some blogging (not very successfully), we leave our hotel in Budapest and head for Keleti Railway Station, via a trolley bus.  Recently renovated, the interior of the station is quite stunning.  It is the largest of three train stations in Budapest and was considered the most modern in Europe when it was constructed back in 1884.  We are told to be careful of our belongings the station is a kind of hang out for homeless and refugees at present (PS. In the week or so following our departure, thousands of refugees flooded the station in an attempt to board trains out of Hungary into Germany.).

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This is the first time since our meeting night that we are all together as a group.  Marco paces back and forward between us and the departures board, eagerly announcing the departure platform we are required to use.  Eight minutes before the train departs, he finds out it is Platform 2, which is a ten minute walk away.  We grab our bags and haul on out, as fast as our heavily laden bodies can carry us, and arrive at the train with what now appears to be plenty of time because it seems they are fixing the train someone.  You gotta laugh.

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The beautifully preserved Baroque town of Eger is about a three hour train ride from Budapest and is surrounded by ranges of hills and lush greenery.  Must be all that rain.

Arriving in Eger, our accommodation is a bunch of apartments, which seems a strange choice given we are only here one night.  And, much to the disdain of some members of our group, we are spread out between two buildings on either side of town!

Marco leads us on a walk through the streets to the main town of Eger, pointing out buildings and other points of interest along the way, and then we are on our own for a few hours.  There’s a few things to see, but I feel this is a town I would like to just sit and observe given the limited amount of time we are here – Marg (also from Melbourne) agrees and we take a seat to order some lunch.  The main part of Eger is Dobo Square, and this is surrounded by restaurants, shops and the like.  The centrepiece of Dobo Square is a water playground with jets of water sporadically spouting water into the air, which children and adults alike seem to enjoy playing in.  One lady, misjudging her timing, ended up with a very wet patch when she stood over the top of one.  Though I was definitely not laughing as I watched from a restaurant nearby, sipping my beer.  Definitely not laughing.  Well maybe just a little bit.

Perhaps one of the best things about Eger is the ice cream, which was simply irresistible.  Beautiful and creamy, my ice cream was the richest chocolate you ever tasted, accompanied by a beautiful vanilla ice cream with pieces of apricot through it.  Just divine, even if the weather is miserable.  Licking my way through my ice cream I note that the sky is darkening over, and with last night’s soaking still fresh in mind, we decide it could be a good time to head back to the apartment.

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Back at the apartment we sit on the balcony overlooking the town skyline watching the clouds roll in and the lightning start up.  It doesn’t bode well for the evening ahead.  Hopefully Marco has organised a trail of taxi’s to get us to where we need to be tonight.

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Traditionally, the Hungarians were nomads.  They were believed to have moved to the Carpathian basin from somewhere near the Ural Mountains somewhere around 895 and initially agriculture was not their thing.  Once they got the hang of it though, they started producing some of the world’s best wines.

In fact in March this year, Hungary had unprecedented success at the Vinalies Internationales international wine competition.  Held in France, 3,575 of the world’s finest wines were entered into the competition, 65 of which were produced in Hungary.  Of these 65, 9 won a gold medal and 11 won a silver medal.  A 2011 bottle of Szekszard winery red ‘Gorogszo’ won first place for the reds – a first for Hungary.  And probably a blow to France and Italy I would say.

Tokaji is probably the most well known wine outside Hungary, though not in the form we generally know it, which is in the sweet, velvety dessert wine form.  Tokaj is actually the name of a region in the north east of Hungary and Tokoji Aszu was the drink of choice from Louise XIV through to Beethoven.

The second is Bull’s Blood (Egri Bikaver), which Eger is home to.  In fact, Eger is home to some of the most famous vineyards in Eastern Europe.  And wine tasting is on our menu tonight – with a visit to the wine cellars of the seductively-named Valley of the Beautiful Women.  The cellars in Eger and built into the walls of the caves surrounding the town.  Heading down the stairs into the musty little cellar, we meet our host for the night.  Our wine tasting host – and though ‘tasting’ is probably not the right word to use, because there’s nothing ‘sample’ sized about our glasses of wine – is Beatrice.  You can tell she delights in her role of host, despite her lack of English, and she’s happy to see Marco again.

The pouring of the wine itself was interesting.  Beatrice held a long glass tube, with a glass bulb on the end, and using her finger to control the flow, poured the wine into our glasses.  We work our way through the whites and reds, accompanied by some cheeses and other snacks, chatting away and getting to know each other even more.  There’s a good little band playing in the corner of the cave and all is good with the world.

That is until one member of our party vomits on the table.  Luckily I am out of the room at the time, but when I return, the smell is undeniable.  It doesn’t seem to bother the ‘expeller’, as he returns to the table and continues his conversation, napkin placed over the offending mess.  He then leans across the table to introduce himself to another foreigner visiting the cellar ‘Hi, I’m ‘the expeller’ (not his real name) and I’m from Australia’.  CRINGE!  Myself and a few others can’t ignore the faux par or the smell and decide to call it a night, grabbing a taxi back to our apartment, still in disbelief about what just happened.  So there really is too much of a good thing….

Not Down, But Washed Out!

It seems there are a few things in common that both Hedy and I want to see today, so glad for some company, we head off together to see the Parliament Building (close up this time) and try to find the Shoes along the Danube.  Along the way, we come across what I can only describe as one of the most powerful memorials I have ever seem.  I recall one of the guys on our tour mentioning it last night and am glad that we have stumbled across it this morning.

The Memorial to the Victims of the German Invasion features an eagle (Nazi Germany) and the Archangel Gabriel (innocent Hungary).  The eagles foot is cuffed with a metal band showing 1944, being the year of invasion.  The memorial was erected under the cover of night in July 2014 due to its unpopularity from inception.  Critics believe the Hungarian government are attempting to absolve the Horthy regime (which was in power in Hungary at the time) of responsibility of the deaths of nearly one million Hungarians including two thirds of its Jewish population, by putting the blame solely on Nazi Germany.

Hungarian Government's Memorial to the Victims of the German Invasion
Hungarian Government’s Memorial to the Victims of the German Invasion

The people rioted at the scene and then began creating a memorial of their own, leaving personal items, rocks, flowers, photos – any reminder of a loved one no longer with them – as a more fitting tribute.  It’s heartbreaking to see little children’s shoes and teddy bears amongst the collection.

A signboard tells the story of the people’s memorial and the reasons why the government’s memorial has been received so badly by the people.

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The people’s memorial is simple but incredibly emotive – a barbed wire strand linked around the bollards lining the avenue.  Personal items hang off the wire, or stand silently against the bollards, rocks and candles surrounding them. The photos below speak for themselves.

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The government’s memorial has never been official unveiled.

It’s the building you seen in all advertisements for travel to Budapest, generally lit up at night.  The largest building in Hungary, the Parliament Building was inspired in part by London’s Westminster Palace and was the result of a design competition held in 1867.  Ornamented with gothic turrets and arches, it stretches gracefully along the banks of the Danube and is truly a sight to behold (worthy of a million photographs).  It took seventeen years to build, reaching completion in 1902.  Of course there have been a few design changes over the years, the most notable being the addition of a red star on top during communist times.  The star was removed in 1990.

Yet another tribute to Budapest’s war victims lines the Danube River – the Shoes by the Danube.  Bronze shoes, abandoned and left in disarray line the banks as a tragic reminder of those victims that were shot into the river by the Arrow Cross militiamen.  As mentioned in Berlin (at the Mauermusuem) and also at the memorial down the road, there was one man who played a powerful part in trying to save the lives of tens of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust – Raoul Wallenberg.  A Swedish architect, businessman, diplomat and humanitarian, he was recruited by the US War Refugee Board in June 1944 to travel to Hungary.  As a diplomat, he set about trying to save lives by issuing protective passports to the some of the 230,000 Jews remaining in Hungary at the time.  These passports prevented them from being deported and could sometimes even allow them exemption from having to wear the yellow Star of David badge.

He also rented out thirty odd buildings in Budapest and, hanging Swedish flags in front of the buildings (which were named things like “The Swedish Research Institute”), he housed nearly 10,000 people here.  He also stopped many a shooting, as mentioned in the memorial photos above.

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Wanting a happier ending to my day in Budapest, I say goodbye to Hedy and jump aboard the yellow tram, heading for the waterfront once more.  I still haven’t been over to explore the Buda side of the city.  For the uninitiated, Budapest is actually made up of two halves – Buda and Pest.  Well not really halves – approximately 1/3 is hilly Buda where you can find the castle district, and the rest is made up of flat Pest which is home to most of the housing, industrial and commercial areas.

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The Hungarians seem to love their sculptures and the waterfront is the place to find an amazing array of them.

Boarding a bus for my journey to the Buda side of town, the view in every direction is enjoyable.  Beautiful old buildings, trolley buses trundling along the streets, impressive cafes – Budapest has some of the most impressive architecture I’ve seen in Europe yet.  This spot below is where one of those massive sculptures from Memento Park would have stood in its day.

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It doesn’t take long to arrive over the bridge and into Buda.  Massive lions and gothic lampposts mark the entranceway to Szechenyi Bridge and on the other side a funicular heaves its way up the hill to the castle district.

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Around the corner and up the hill, and the castle district is upon me.  Up here are the Fisherman’s Bastian, the Hospital in the Rock, the Palance, Matthias Church (which is 700 years old) and the pedestrianized Vaci Street.  And of course you can see over to the Pest side from here, including a great glimpse of my beloved Parliament Building (yes another photo!).  It’s a nice area to stroll around and relax in, perhaps stopping for a bite of lunch or a bout of souvenir shopping.

But the drops start.  Quite heavy drops, appearing in occasional bouts, before halfway down the hill the heavens open up and the rain sets in.  It’s hard to believe what was a fairly nice day, has now deteriorated into a downpour.  A good time to head back to the hotel.

After drying off and resting up a bit, a few of us girls (Marg, Deb, Leesa, Hedy and I) arrive in the lobby one by one, peering out the windows trying to decide what to do for dinner, but as there’s no restaurant in the hotel, we agree to brave the weather and head out to dinner together.  After about one minute of walking we are wet through.  The rain is coming in at all angles and raincoats and umbrella’s do nothing to curb it – there is a patch on my t-shirt that is dry, despite wearing a raincoat, and the top of my jeans are dry too – but that’s about it.  Finally we find a restaurant that is able to take us, though probably reluctantly when they notice how drenched we are.

After dinner, Hedy and I leave the group to try and make it to our evening illumination cruise.  Absolutely soaked through by now, there is hardly a taxi in site.  We can’t walk to the dock because we won’t make it in time and well, because we’d be even more saturated than we are now – if that’s possible.  We give up and decide to walk back to the hotel to dry off.  The lights are off in a lot of parts of town, and it’s eerie to walk past usually full pubs and clubs where the revellers are now sitting by the doorways and windows, drink still in hand, but in the pitch black.

I am so glad I’ve had the chance to come back and spend some time in Budapest.  I really have enjoyed the city as much as I thought I would, though I realise I have barely scraped the surface of it.  It definitely should be on the top of anyone’s list of places to visit in Europe and I would relish the chance to come back again should the chance present itself.  I can’t help laughing though – it seems quite fitting that my last evening in Budapest this time around, resembles the only evening I had in Budapest last year – a washout!

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A Glimpse of Hungary’s Terrifying Past

When I read about Memento Park in a poster on my last visit to Budapest, I was incredibly disappointed that I would miss out on visiting it.  I mean who wouldn’t be interested in strolling through a park of giant, concrete communist and cold war relics?  Straight to the top of the list for this trip then.

For 4900HUF (about A$25), you will be picked up from Deac Ferenc Square by a special direct bus transfer and taken to Memento Park (which is about 10km out of the city) – this also includes your entrance fee.  Well this is what usually happens, but today, although the guide is here, the bus does not arrive.  There are only three of us waiting to do the trip, so she ushers us into taxis instead.  For an extra 1200HUF per person, you can get a 40 minute long guided tour.  Of course, you can make your own way here too, but it does involve a few transport changes.

It’s not just a concrete jungle.  Call a commie?  Jump in a trabbie?  Learn how to insert a bug?  You can do all of these things at Memento Park – it’s hard to know where to start!

Inside the gate, you are greeted by 40 something massive concrete statues – heroic poses abound, there’s Lenin, Stalin’s boots and plenty of red army comrades.  Memento Park is clear to point out that this park is not dedicated to Communism, but to the fall of Communism.  The statues here were removed from the streets of Budapest and other places after the fall of communism in 1989.  Although these statues are out in the open, blue sky stretching behind them, standing in quiet solitude – it’s easy to imagine how imposing these statues would have been to see lined along the streets.  Kind of like someone watching you all the time, from wherever you were.

My last brush with a ‘trabbie’ was in Krakow last year when I got to drive (that’s a loose term) one on my Crazy Guides tour.  These little cars (Trabant meaning ‘satellite’ in German) were East Germany’s response to West Germany’s VW Beetle and if you were lucky enough to own one, you could ride around in this little low-maintenance, two-stroke piece of plastic, all day long.  Well until it broke down.  Which was quite a regular occurrence and which caused it to be the laughingstock of the era.  Luckily enough, the purpose of the Trabant was to create an economical, low maintenance, easy to repair vehicle, so most drivers became quite intimate with their ‘trabbies’.  There was no water pump, no radiator, no oil filter, no oil pump, no camshaft, no valves.  No timing belt, no distributor cap for ignition.  No fan belt and no thermostat.  The engine was so light it could be picked up by one person so you could pull it out and overhaul it yourself on your garage bench.

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Its production line ran from 1963 until 1990, which was quite incredible for this pollution-causing, ear-rattling little piece of machinery.  This one’s not for driving, but you can certainly squeeze in and have a look all over it.

There is a telephone booth where you can have a chat to Mao, Lenin or Che, but unfortunately it’s out of service today.

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They have some cool little souvenirs here – mugs, lighters, posters, fake communist passports and little tins containing the last breath of communism.  But each time I think of buying something, I also think about how I have to lug it around in my backpack for another three weeks, so no purchases today.

Outside the main gates you’ll find a barracks, which is split in two sections inside – one half dedicated the story of communism in Hungary and how Memento Park was established and the other a movie theatre showing documentaries on how to insert a bug, secret surveillance methods and how to recruit an agent.

Back in Budapest, Terror House is next on the list.

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Unfortunately you can’t take photos inside, which is a shame because it’s really well done.  As I was entering, I overhear several people saying how glad they were to have visited and what an impact is had on them.

This museum in Andrassy Street (Budapest’s main boulevard), commemorates the victim of both communism and the Nazi party (known as the Arrow Cross party) in Budapest.  In fact, the museum is housed in the former headquarters of these parties.  Hungary was overtaken by the Arrow Cross party towards the end of WWII as a result of trying to ally themselves with Hitler to save themselves.  Arrow Cross tried their best to decimate Budapest’s Jewish population, killing them in the streets or by tying several people together, shooting one of them and then throwing them in the Danube, where they would pull the rest of the people with them.  Hundreds were also executed in the basement of this building.

Then when the communists took over and made it their headquarters, this is where the secret police terrorized and executed anyone they suspected of being an enemy of the state.

It’s a powerful museum and if you want to know the whole history of Budapest, it’s definitely not to be missed.

I arrive back to my room to find it now co-habited.  Checking out the objects around the room from a distance, I try to work out the type of person my room mate could be.  When I spy the slippers, I think it must be an older woman, but I guess I’ll have to wait and see when she (I assume) arrives.

A knock on the door, and Hedy introduces herself with ‘…and I snore’.  I have to admit the prospect doesn’t thrill me and it’s exactly the reason I tried to book a single supplement.  It’s the same reason Hedy also tried to book one.  After the introductions are over, we start chatting about this and that, getting to know each other a bit and I actually think we are going to get along well.

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My new roommate for the next ten days, Hedy.

Soon enough it’s time to head down to the lobby.  After a couple of days discovering Budapest on my own, tonight my Intrepid journey from here through Romania and Bulgaria, into Istanbul, starts.  One by one, everyone starts to nervously gather in the lobby, wondering which of the people milling around might be on our tour.

Turns out four of us are from Melbourne (one from Geelong), two from the UK, two Americans (one of which is Hedy) and one from Perth (and funnily enough, the same suburb as I was from).  Our guide is Marco, born in the Netherlands but now living in Romania.  Formalities out-of-the-way, we head of to dinner at a local restaurant, which most of us attend.  We sit getting to know each other, where we are from, where we’ve been, where we are going.  Ideas are thrown around about what people might like to see tomorrow.  Tomorrow, we have another day to ourselves to explore Budapest before we depart on Tuesday for another Hungarian town called Eger – home to Bull’s Blood wine!

Going to Ruin

Those who have been following me since about this time last year will remember that I had one very rainy afternoon and evening in Budapest after my Intrepid tour through central Europe last September.  I loved the city straight away, despite the rain, and was disappointed at having such a limited amount of time here.  The feel of the city was gritty and a little overwhelming, but exciting at the same time and I had a real feeling that this would be the kind of city I would love to explore more.  I vowed to myself then that I would be back one day, but little did I think it would be so soon.  Pretty much the reason I chose the Intrepid Tour I’m about to embark on in a day or so’s time, was because it started in Budapest and would give me the excuse I was looking for to get back here.

So I have wasted no time at all getting out to explore this morning.  It’s still a little early, so the streets are fairly quiet – the best way to see what is normally a busy city.

I find myself at the Deac Ferenc Square and spying a ferris wheel, I decide to jump on for a birds eye view of the city.  It’s here I get my first glimpse at the beautiful Parliament Building.  This is the first of what I’m sure will be millions of photos of this gorgeous building which graces Budapest’s waterfront.

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Stepping off the ferris wheel, I decide to wander around and check out the promenade.  A yellow tram trundles by every now and again ferrying around tourists and locals alike.  It’s like a touch of Melbourne right here in Europe.  Boats are lined up along the Danube, some docked as restaurants or bars for later on in the day, others plying the tourist route up and down the river.  It’s one of the things I wish I had done last time I was here as the Danube looks so beautiful.

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So I board one of the boats and sit back to enjoy a bit of respite from the melting heat and enjoy the scenery.  It’s hard to know which side of the river to look at because both sides are dotted with beautiful buildings and things to see.  But I definitely know which side to look out when we approach the Parliament building – my first close up glimpse of what I now consider to be the most beautiful building in the world.  Big call, but I think it’s justified.

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My ferry arrives at Margaret Island and I have a couple of hours to check it out before the ferry does its return run back down the river.  A long footpath follows the water past tennis courts and running tracks and it takes about 10 minutes before I arrive at a clearing to see where all the action might be.  There are loads of people here enjoying their weekend, picknicking on the lawns, cooling their feet in the paddling pools and driving pedal cars around.  I grab a big cup of lemon fruit drink, with huge chunks of citrus fruit and icecubes floating around in it, and take a seat on the grass to cool down and see what everyone is up to.

There’s a little train that shuttles tourists from one side of the island to the other.  There’s a massive water feature in the middle of the park and not long after I notice it, the water starts spouting and dancing to the sounds of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman”.  Kitschy!  It’s kind of like what I’d imagine Sentosa Island in Singapore was like 20 or so years ago before it went attraction crazy.  If I had a little more time, I would have liked to jump on the train ride and perhaps take a swim, but I’ve got other things to do.

I’m excited about this afternoon and evening.  I’m joining Urban Adventures to do their Budapest Happy Hour tour.  I meet my guide, Natalie, outside the old protestant church in Deac Ferenc Square and with a stroke of luck, it turns out I am getting a personal tour because I am the only one here!  Natalie explains to me a bit about the Hungarian people and the history of Budapest, before we wander over to the old Jewish Ghetto to discover the coolest local hangouts.

But back to the story of the ghetto first.  We are standing outside the Great Synagogue, which is currently the largest in Europe, and currently the second largest in the World.  It’s still used by Budapest’s Jewish community, now much smaller than the years before WWII.  The Emanuel Tree, a memorial partly funded by American-Hungarian actor Tony Curtis, is a stunning tribute to those Jewish lives lost and blossoms in the synagogue’s courtyard.  It’s a metal weeping willow tree, each of its leaves inscribed with the name of a life lost.

Our first stop is at a little bar called Doblo Wine Bar where we try a couple of different white wines with a snack of bread and an accompaniment called Liptauer – a kind of spread made from cheese with paprika and probably other things mixed in – quite nice.  Natalie explains the different wine regions of Hungary, as we sip on some fine examples. Doblo also do an amazing array of wine and palinka (I’ll talk about that a bit more soon) tastings so if you make it to Budapest drop by to Doblo Street and check them out.

Natalie points of a few things along the way – did you know it was a Hungarian that invented the Rubix Cube?  How about the story of Hungary’s famous footballer (which may mean soccer player – not a sports fan AT ALL, so I have no idea), Ferenc Puskas?

The coolest thing to do in Budapest of an evening is to head to a ruin pub.  Yep.  As it sounds, these are pubs located in various abandoned buildings around Budapest.  Some are ‘permanent’ and others operate seasonally more like a pop-up bar that you would see back in Melbourne.  The trend started about ten years ago, but the popularity hasn’t waned.  Generally, they are in large, former apartment buildings, with what would have been the apartments hollowed out to create a number of different bars, all decorated as oddly as their owners can imagine.   There are coloured lights everywhere, stuff hanging from the brightly coloured walls, and from the ceilings.

At an outdoor foodpark named Karavan, we chow down on a langos (one of my favourites from my last visit to Budapest).  Unlike a lot of our most favourite international foods which were not created in the countries we associate them with, it’s good to know that langos are actually a favourite snack amongst Hungarians, eaten regularly and at all times of the day.  And I can see why – they are just so delicious.  Ours tonight is a traditional variant with sour cream, garlic and cheese, but these days you can buy an amazing array of toppings limited only by the menu from which you are ordering.

Szimpla Kert (translated as Simple Garden) is a pioneer in the ruin pub scene, being Budapest’s first ruin pub when it opened in 2001.  It’s moved from its original location to its current home in Kazinczy Street, where you can watch some open air cinema, take a seat in a trabant or join a jam session.

Another local favourite is fröccs (pronounced ‘fruutch’), or wine spritzer.  Consisting of rose or white wine mixed with soda water, it’s the drink of choice for summertime.  A small fröccs is one part wine to 1 part soda, whilst a big fröccs is 2 parts wine, to 1 part soda.  Thought you’ll forgive me for forgetting the rest of the names of the venues I visit from this point forward.

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Before our last drink of the evening, Natalie guides me to a locked gate.  She enters a pin code, the gate swings open and we go inside.  At the end of the paved corridor, there is a courtyard, surrounded by apartments (now I know what is behind those doors I saw last night).  In hushed tones, we continue through another walkway until we reach a kind of paved yard.

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The back wall is a higgledy piggledy puzzle of different sized bricks.  This, is one of the last remaining parts of the ghetto wall.  A small plaque commemorates the area.

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Our last drink to top off the night is a local one known as Palinka, which tastes a little like petrol, or at least what you’d think petrol would taste like. It’s a traditional fruit brandy, sometimes flavoured with anything from almond to raspberry.  The word Palinka derives from the Slavonic word páliť, meaning ‘to burn’, which is exactly what it’ll do to your throat.  Oh, look, it’s not actually that bad, but you will definitely want to throw it back in one gulp and get it over with cause it’s about 40% proof.

The pub in which we are drinking has been overrun by a horde of bucks.  The very drunk English kind.  What I find strangest about this is that they are accompanied by two rather sober looking ladies.  Natalie explains to me that these are chaperones and that this is a big thing in Budapest – that groups of usually English bucks will hire a couple of chaperones for the evening to take them to some of Budapest’s best drinking holes and look after them.  In fact Natalie used to do this job herself for a few years and she even knows one of the chaperones this evening.  We are caught up in a conversation with the groom to be, who is some what waffling on about something that I already can’t recall.

We are having such a great evening that before we realise it, our tour has run over by about an hour and a half!  This has been an absolutely incredible evening.  I would never have found, let alone entered, any of these places on my own.  Egeszegedre Natalie!

Beatle Bug Escapes

I’ve got about half a day to check out some more of Berlin so I get up nice and early to start the day.   I arrive back in the area of Checkpoint Charlie and even though it’s fairly early in the morning, there’s still a crowd assembled.

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There are a lot of things to see and read in this area, remaining blocks of the wall stand boldly, amidst boards outlining the history of the wall.

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Mauermuseum Museum “For over 50 years the Wall Museum, founded in 1962 as a bastion of peace in freedom, has stood at the legendary Checkpoint Charlie border crossing, the geographical focal point of the Cold War, where the West-East divide began and ended.  The Wall – history and incidents.  Original objects from successful escapes under ground, over land and in the air.  World-wide non-violent struggle for human rights.”

The first exhibition opened in October 1962.  The large number of visitors encouraged them to procure larger premises and this current location was opened in 1963.  From here, through a small window, escape helpers could observe all movements at the border crossing; escapees were always welcome and supported, escape plans were worked out, and injustice in the GDR was always fought against.  Due to the museum’s friendly relations with escape helpers that were given hot-air balloons, escape cars, chairlifts and a small submarine.  They claim to be the first museum of international non-violent protest.

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This beetle bug was used to hide people whilst making runs across the border – you can see from the photo just behind the tyre where people were hidden.  Other ingenious ways of escape included the use of gliders, ziplines, tightropes and hot air balloons.  Sad to think about the depths to which desperate people went to escape to a better life.

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The above installation uses some of the original stones from the Budapest Ghetto.  The briefcase is a bronze cast of the one belonging to Raoul Wallenburg, a Swedish architect and businessman who was credited with saving the lives of thousands of Hungarian Jews.

This museum holds so much information, too much information for the short amount of time I have left today.  On my way out, I grab a copy of a book about escape attempts from Berlin (the eternal book buyer, no wonder my bags are always so heavy!) to read later.

Across the road from the museum and Checkpoint Charlie is a special exhibition called the Wall Panorama, and it doesn’t look busy, so that’s where I head next.  The Wall panorama is two rooms, the first of pictures by eyewitnesses and video screens.

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The second is the panorama room where you can experience the landscape of Berlin.  You can walk u to the top of a podium to take an all-surveying look at Berlin back in the days of the walls.  It’s a gloomy sight, as you could well imagine.

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While I’m in the neighbourhood, I reckon the Currywurst Museum is begging for a visit.  What’s that?  You don’t know what currywurst is?  Well, let me tell you!

Herta Heuwer is considered the Grand Dame of Currywurst.  Wanting to create something new out of limited post-war resources (we’re talking 1949), she was mucking around with some curry powder and sausages, and voila – the currywurst was born.  A pork sausage is boiled and then fried, cut into slices and seasoned with curry ketchup (made from spiced tomatoes) and then topped with curry powder.  There is another contender for the title of Grand Dame though, with Hamburg claiming Lena Brucker was actually the first to discover currywurst.  Whatever the truth of the matter, Currywurst is quintessentially Berlin.

This incredible little museum (voted one of the top 10 museums in Berlin, and there are a LOT) pays homage to the humble currywurst, taking you on an interactive sensory experience where you can literally view, listen, smell, taste (and even pretend to sell) the miracle that is currywurst.  With your ticket, you even get a currywurst sample.  If that’s not enough, kick back at the snack bar and order all the currywurst your heart desires.  Yum.

And my actual sample at the end, yummo!

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I have two places left on my list of things to do before time runs out – the first is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.  Again I have my cousins Chris and Sharon to thank for bringing this one to my attention.  There’s a small information board on the footpath which gives a small amount of history about the site’s previous use and how the memorial came about, but there’s no big sign announcing your arrival – you just know you are at the right place.  Completed in 2005, this public park (of sorts) designed by architect Peter Eisenman is a memorial to those Jews who were murdered throughout Europe during the Holocaust.  And it’s a striking memorial at that.  Pillars of differing heights float over a gradiated brick seabed.  Walking through these stagnated pillars, a range of emotions and images come to mind – one in particular (probably due to the books I’ve recently been reading on the deportation of Poles during the war) is the flashing glimpses of passing scenery viewed through the wooden planks of cattle trains.  Looking from the edge, it’s hard not to see the memorial as a kind of block cemetery filled with unmarked gravestones.  I have to snap myself out of the visions in order to come back to reality.  Sometimes the most powerful monuments say everything without saying anything.

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Not far down the road is my last stop is one of the most well known landmarks in Berlin, the Brandenburg Gate.  A massive columned gate which for many decades symbolised the separation of East and West Berlin, it now symbolises unity.  Built on the model of the Propylaeum of Athens’ Acropolis, it’s over 200 years old and usually the first sight on the list of most tourists to Berlin.  It’s a magnificent structure at 28 metres in height and 65.5 metres wide.  Originally only the royal family was permitted to walk through the main arch – everyone else was relegated to the outside gates.20150814_115337The area surrounding the gate is closed to traffic, so you can take your time browsing around and snapping selfies.

The airport bus arrives and on I hop, with my bag.  Despite having sent a box of stuff back home yesterday, it seems to have become heavier overnight.  After a couple of stops, an elderly lady gets on.  She looks at me, and though she speaks minimal English, she asks me if I’m Polish.  I’m taken aback by this conversation.  We have a sputtering conversation in which I manage to find out that she was Polish born and that she had come to Berlin during the war, married and stayed.  I tell her it’s my Father that is Polish.  Her stop arrives and she alights.  I’m left happily shocked by this encounter, language is not always the barrier we think it to be.  And it’s nice for someone else to identify with me as being Polish when I am currently on my own journey to identify and re-establish my heritage.

Berlin Airport is nothing special, especially the big shed where my Air Berlin flight is departing from, which is a shame cause I have arrived much earlier than necessary and now I’m left with nothing to do except read for the next couple of hours.

It’s getting late when I arrive in Budapest, the sun well and truly going down, dusk taking hold quickly.  The streets start to light up, and being a Friday night, the revellers are starting to appear.  I wish my driver a good night and check into my hotel before heading out for a quick wander around the streets, which are buzzing.  A quick stop at the local supermarket for bottled water and that’s me done for the day.  I’m really excited to be here again and looking forward to seeing what Budapest has to offer and whether I like it as much as I thought I would.

I wonder what’s behind these doors?….

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Lots to explore tomorrow!  Can’t wait.

Get that Knife away from my Sister’s Head!

Growing up I didn’t really know much about Poland.  I knew we had funny little folk costumes of garish red and green stripes, with peasant shirts and felt vests and ribbons and garlands of flowers for our heads, that there was different food at my Babcia’s (grandmother’s) house, and that my Babcia spoke a funny language – in fact even when she spoke English it still sounded funny: ‘please put in the light’ and ‘you have somesing on your mouse’ (translated to something on your mouth) always sent us into hysterics.

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So I can honestly say it’s been an absolutely fascinating experience researching this trip. I have devoured movies, documentaries, magazines and book after book, coming across amazing and unbelievable pieces of information day by day – these blog posts will probably be long because there’s just so much to say about this country. But I hope you will find it as fascinating as I do.

We were never taught to speak the Polish language apart from the odd word here and there and I don’t recall hearing stories about family. The contradictions of another language and strange customs were fraught with misunderstanding and, to a degree, fear of the different and unknown.

To be honest, as a young child, I mostly looked forward to visiting Babcia’s house because we were able to swing off the clothesline in the backyard and, if we were lucky, which was most of the time – there were lollies, especially the little fruit shaped jubes, all nicely boxed with a thin layer of paper covering the crystallised treasures from prying hands, awaiting us in the ‘sitting room’.

All my research, quite unexpectedly, made me pine for things lost and I began to feel as though a part of me had been missing all these years.  And slowly, as I read on, the pieces started forming a recognisable shape of my family before me and how I might have become who I am.

My grandmother’s family was from Warsaw.  My grandmother herself was visiting them in the countryside when war broke out, and she never went home.  From Warsaw they moved across Europe as displaced persons.  My father was born in Tehran, and then spent his early years in a migrant camp in Arusha, South Africa.  My Babcia and father boarded the General Langfitt bound for Fremantle and arrived in Cunderdin, to a community of Nissan huts, where they started their Australian life.  Australia was one of the only countries who welcomed single mothers with open arms.

Mum and Dad made their first ever trip to Poland several years back and let’s just say – it wasn’t on Mum’s list of favourite trips ever.  In Warsaw, they stayed with very kind and generous relatives who could speak only limited English (Mum speaks no Polish) and whom seemed to be apprehensive about letting them out of their sight.  Relatives who very kindly showed them the sights of Poland – mostly war memorials and sad relics of Warsaw’s past – but relatives that seemed, to my mother at least, to be fearful of something.  And then an angry little woman attendant in a public toilet shouted at her (in Polish) for not paying when she walked in – and I think that was it.  I can only imagine that the pieces of this puzzle came together to form a bleak picture of Dad’s family homeland.

It did make me recall an incident in my childhood – the inspiration for which became the title of this blog post – which I imagine summed up exactly how she felt.  At the time, my youngest sister would have been about four perhaps and, running around the house with my middle sister, collided with a wall or some other object.  I remember lots of tears and a huge lump starting to form on her forehead.  My Babcia was visiting at the time, and I remember her going into the kitchen in the flurry, searching through the drawers for a knife.  Procured knife in hand, she proceeded towards my sister’s forehead.  Hang on a minute, I thought, my nine year old eyes widening in fear – she’s going to cut the lump off her head. “Get that knife away from my sister’s head!” Panic, tears and screaming ensued as I begged my parents not to let her do this.  Yelling in two different languages filled the room. After several minutes, Dad finally revealed my Babcia’s intentions.  Turns out she only wanted to put the cool edge of the knife against the bump to help soothe it and make the swelling subside!

Unfortunately language and custom difficulties turned an innocent intention to a crazy situation and at our ages, it wasn’t something that we could just laugh off – it was another thing that made being Polish seem strange.

Now, from what I’ve heard, read and seen, I don’t get the picture that Poland is the cheeriest of places to visit – names such as the “Mausoleum of Struggle and Martyrdom” and the “Monument to those Fallen and Murdered in the East” don’t help.  But Poland has had a long history of battle to survive, having been invaded or having to fight for freedom 43 times between 1600 and 1945.  And at one point, Poland didn’t even exist when between 1772 -1795 it was divided up between Russia, Prussia and Austria and erased from the map!

“Cursed by its strategic location in eastern Europe, Poland had been invaded, sacked, and carved up many times, its borders ebbing and flowing; some village children learned five languages just to speak with neighbours.”

The Zookeeper’s Wife, by Diane Ackerman

In 1807 Poland was reborn as the Duchy of Warsaw under Napoleon Bonaparte, but his defeat in 1815 ended with Poland falling under Russian rule.  Not to mention what happened to Poland during World War II, when 85% of Warsaw (it changes depending on what book you are reading, but 85% is the lowest figure I saw) was raised to the ground under Hitler’s orders.

Needless to say, it’s been said that “Poland is a country half submerged in its heavily invaded past, fed by progress, but always partly in mourning.”

But you know I’ve always thought that it’s the things a country goes through that make it what it is.  So my goal for this trip is to take Poland for what she is, given her history (and most importantly my history), and insert some humour for good measure.

I arrive into Krakow from Budapest late, but I can see Mum standing at the arrival gate.  The airport is being remodelled, so it’s a bit of a tin shed, but seeing as I am travelling on the Schengen Visa, it’s awesome, cause I can just chat to Mum over the fence while I wait for my luggage.  I haven’t seen Mum and Dad for about three weeks now, because as I mentioned at the beginning of my trip, they have been making their way around other parts of Europe.

Our home for our stay in Krakow is a little place just off the old square, in the old town of Krakow (Stare Miasto), the Hotel Polski Pod Bialym Orlem, with a bit of character and surrounded by the old town’s defensive walls, next to St Florian’s gate.  The Florian gate is one of the best known Polish gothic towers.  First mentioned in 1307, it was built as part of a protective rampart around Krakow after the Tatar attack of 1241 which destroyed most of the city.  At the height of its existence the wall featured 47 watchtowers and 8 gates.

Opposite the hotel is the enchanting Czartoryski Dukes lane, with a statue of Mercury.  The hotel looks across to the medieval fortified city walls against which the artists of Krakow present their works.

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My room – yes we have separate rooms, because I like to sleep at night time and my parents like to snore (plus what if I run into that rich, young handsome Polish prince my Babcia was talking about me marrying!) – is very quaint.  Traditional folk rug on the floor, floral curtains which match my bedspread, carved wooden furniture and big windows you can open up to let in the fresh air.

An interesting fact to note is that the first floor in a building in Poland is regarded as zero.  So you need to press ‘1’ to go the 2nd floor when getting in an elevator.  Somewhat confusing – I hope the streets are easier to navigate!

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Our hotel is right in the mix of Krakow’s old town.  There’s so much to see and do here, apart from just wandering around and soaking up the atmosphere.  So we meander along the streets and make our first stop at the Cloth Hall, or Sukiennice. Originally built in the 13th century, expanded in the 14th century and re-modelled in the 16th century, it features food stalls, small shops, terrace cafes and flower stands – all surrounding a statue of Poland’s beloved writer/poet Adam Mickiewicz. From its very beginning in medieval times, it was a market hall and it is considered to be the world’s oldest shopping mall.

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Here you can buy Kracovian folk costumes, jewellery and other crafted objects and it’s apparently one of the places to pick up some amber. Most everyone returning from Poland brings back a piece of amber jewellery because that’s what Poland is, along with vodka and pierogis, known for.  This famous amber, which is fossilized tree resin, has been transported along the amber route from the Baltic Sea to the Adriatic Coast for over 1,000 years.

Moving along to fit in one last spot of sightseeing before the Polish night sky descends on us, we arrive at St Mary’s Basilica. From the tallest of its two towers, on the hour every hour, the bugle player plays the “Hejnal” (hey now).  According to legend, in 1241 as the Mongol invasion of Poland approached Krakow, a guard on the church tower sounded the alarm by playing the Hejnal and the city gates were closed before the city could be taken.  The bugler however was shot in the throat and did not complete the tune, which is why it now ends abruptly before completion.

We couldn’t actually see the trumpeter, the sound of his tune seemed to change with the wind, and we were running from one side of the church to the other trying to catch a glimpse without fail.  Thankfully we have a few more days to try and track down where the elusive trumpeter is hiding.

The square itself, is a lively place.  Young breakdancers, painted human statues, horse and carriages lining one side of the square and masses of pigeons.  As the sun goes down, hundred of candles illuminate the square, where diners tuck into their mostly oversized meals and relax with a glass of pivo (beer), blankets in lap to keep the cold at bay.

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I’m going to let the craziness continue by forcing my parents to dine at the Hard Rock Café tonight, which coincidentally sits right next door to St Mary’s.  This Hard Rock is home to the microphone Robert Plant used during an awards show in 1980, Billy Duffy’s (The Cult) 1960 Supro Val Trol guitar, Brian May’s butterfly shirt and Roy Obison’s blue and grey patent leather shoes.  But tonight I’ve got to say I’m here for the broccoli.  It’s been quite hard to find normal steamed vegetables on this trip and I now that I’ll find it here, accompanied by a good steak.  I know it’s not Polish, but sometimes you just got to do it.

After dinner, we pick ourselves a nicely plumaged horse and jump aboard the beautiful white carriage for a ride around the city.  It’s all very grand, listening to the clip clop of the horses hooves over the cobblestones, looking at the grand architecture of the streets and letting the excitement of being here soak in.

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I can’t believe I’ve finally arrived in Poland.  I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to the next week.  I hope you enjoy my journey too.

Are you that Hungary?

Unfortunately we arrived late into Budapest and it was raining.  Continuously raining.  All. After.  Noon.

Some of us collected together for a rather wet walk to the Central Market Hall.  The markets are HUGE!  There’s wonderful looking meats, cheeses, fruit, and lots and lots of paprika everywhere.  Upstairs are souvenir items such as traditional dress, Christmas decorations and table cloths.  Also upstairs is lunch, which is where we are heading.  Matt has been telling us about something we should try, called a langos.  It’s a deep fried flat bread made of dough, which you can then pile with any assortment of toppings you like – almost a kind of a pizza.  I just had mushrooms and cheese on mine, much to the disappointment of the stall holder – it’s clear people like their food big here.

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You should have seen the size of the hot dog one of the girls bought back – literally 30cm long and probably about 20cm across!  It was so big all she could do to eat it was to pull the filling out!

Tonight is our final night of the tour, as people head home or continue off towards other corners of the globe.  We have a nice little wine tasting in the cellar of the Hilton Hotel up at the Castle on the Buda side of town.

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Wine tasting is followed by dinner close to our hotel, where over mushroom cappuccinos, pork knuckles and giant schnitzels we reminisce over the tour and then say our goodbyes.

It’s been a flying visit to Central Europe, with not nearly enough time to see and do everything, but at least I’ve managed to make it here finally.  Travel to Europe always seemed an unattainable dream.  But I’ve made it.  I’d still love to see Russia – who knows, I’ve still got time.  But I’m so excited for my next week or so, where I’ll be meeting up with my parents in Poland.