Interrupting My Travels …

Just a message to those of you stopping by my blog …

I just found out I’ll be losing my Internet as of September 1st (tomorrow or today, depending on when you’re reading this), so the rest of my back-dated travel entries might be a bit delayed and sporadic in getting put up onto the site. It’s hopefully just temporary, for at least the next two weeks or so.

I’ll try and write when I can – chances are I might post occasionally about what’s currently happening in the meantime. And there unfortunately won’t be pictures until I get Internet access again.

In the meantime, if you’ve just stumbled across this and don’t know what’s going on – read my previous entries so far on my recent vacation. Or re-read them again – they may not have had pictures when you first read them. Just start from the bottom and work your way up.

Thanks for stopping by!

Bratislava and Vienna By Day

It’s yet another early start on the road, but this time the bus ride isn’t as long. Our group is also smaller. We’ve shrunk by about nine people, my tour roommate Angela being among them – she takes off for Romania first thing in the morning.

Our first destination of the day is a two-hour stop (if that) in Bratislava.

There’s not a whole lot to see in town. The castle’s closed for construction, but we manage to snap some pictures of the nice views. The buildings in the old town are pretty and colourful, as they’ve been in all the places we’ve been so far.

We stop for lunch. Most of us opt for a Konopizza – that’s right, pizza in a cone. (I thought it was something unique to Bratislava. Turns out it’s Italian – I just checked. Hmmph.) Afterwards, in the blazing August heat, we go to one of the squares to buy some souvenirs. I get a cute little plate for my collection back home.

Then it’s pretty much back on the bus and onwards – to Vienna.

Vienna ends up being the city I like the most, which surprises even me. Considering the precedent set by Prague and Budapest, I haven’t held any high expectations. But it steals the show. I can’t quite put my finger on why. It could be because of the beautiful sculptures, and sculpted buildings. It’s CLEAN. It’s just … different.

The city scores its first point with me when we go to Schönbrunn Palace. We never enter the palace, but we explore the gardens, which are expansive and absolutely beautiful.

Trimmed lawns. Pretty flowers planted in neat little patterns and hanging off trellises. Lush, green, manicured trees, a lot of which comprise the maze and labyrinth. The sculptures which line the sides. The enormous Neptune Fountain. And at the very top of the park, the Gloriette, which allows tourists a breaktaking view of Vienna from far away. There’s even a zoo towards the back, but we don’t have  enough time to explore it.

Lauren and I snap pictures at the fountain, as well as behind it. We make it as far up as the Gloriette, before we have to turn around and get back to the bus.

When we check into our hotel, we actually get a few hours to ourselves. To chill. Or shower. Or nap. It feels strange, given our crazy schedule so far.

And I really like our hotel. The size of the room’s decent. Even though there is no air-con, there are huge windows. We’re facing the courtyard, so we can see (and hear) some of our tour-mates.  There’s a TV with an actual remote. The size of the bathroom is decent. And if you have any questions, you can ask the staff, because they’re bilingual. AND they’re NICE.

What a novelty! 

If I had any qualms about spending money in Vienna because of the expense, they have dissipated. Given all the currencies and mental conversions I’ve dealt with in the past week, I don’t care. I’m just happy to be dealing with money I understand.

We have a very nice dinner in the dining room. Then our tour guide Carla proposes the outing for the evening: a trip to Prater Amusement Park.

In my currently relaxed state, I’m not exactly keen on the idea. Because who travels 6000 kilometres away from home to go to an amusement park?

But it’s actually quite fun once we get there! I ride the Reisenrad (which is essentially an old Ferris wheel, or wooden, 110-year-old version of the London Eye, whichever descriptor you prefer), the swings, and this crazy gravitational ride called “Extasy” which plays loud German dance music and whips you around and upside down for about three minutes. I don’t have whiplash, but the ride is enough to scramble my brain. And on inspecting myself the next day, I think the ride may have caused some temporary marks on my skin. I have a very red, thumb-size bruise under my arm, just behind my armpit that lasts for several days (I think it was there for about a week!).

But back to the hotel to wind down and get some shut-eye. A full day of Vienna – including a classical music concert – awaits.

On The Way To The Gellért

So a funny thing happened when I took the metro in Budapest …

To rewind: American tour-mate Randy and I leave our sightseeing posse mid-afternoon to make a stop at the hotel and hoof it over to the Gellért before the pool shuts for the evening.

We enter the metro at Kossuth Lajos tér. Randy spots an automated ticket machine. I think, Great! I don’t have to worry about dealing with people!

Um, not so great.

Randy has enough change for his ticket, which costs about 220 Hungarian forint (0.94 Euro, or $1.46 CAD). I, however, only have a 5,000-forint note (about $33 CAD) – and the machine doesn’t take bills of that size. Plus I don’t have enough coinage. So I have to deal with a ticket person.

Sigh.

I walk over to the ticket booth. I can barely see the woman behind the glass, because apparently Budapest Metro feels it’s necessary to use the kind of opaque glass seen in police interrogation rooms. So I’m squinting and trying to ask her for a ticket.

I slide my 5,000-forint note onto the sliding stainless steel plate. The lady swivels the plate onto her side of the glass, takes my cash, and then swivels the plate back to me, presenting me with a ticket and a bunch of coins.

As I’m walking away from the ticket booth, I slow down to check the change in my hand.

Wa-aaait a minute …

I stay right where I am and count it twice before realizing the woman has only given me 280 forint ($1.86 CAD) … and is holding on to my other 4,500 forint (almost $30 CAD).

I turn right back ’round, approach the booth, and say, “‘Scuse me, please – I paid 220 forint, and I only got 220 forint ba – ”

The woman puts the missing bills on the plate, swivels it my way, and is like, “Okay, okay, bye-bye.”

“She totally tried to rip you off,” Randy remarks as we  go down the elevator. “And she was watching you, too. Good job. If you hadn’t have checked …” 

“I KNOW,” I say, really annoyed that she’d tried that shit on me. I can’t believe it … and I want justice. But I have to settle for getting belatedly my money back. 

Riding the metro on the way to the Gellért, though, is another story.

We enter at Blaha Lujza tér station and buy our tickets from one of the machines. It isn’t until we validate the tickets and ride the escalator downstairs that Randy realizes our mistake: we only bought 220-forint tickets, which you can only use on one metro line. If you have to change metro lines, you need to buy a ticket for 270 forints. 

Randy apologizes, saying it’s his fault; I say, “No worries. You couldn’t have known that.”

The only solution: ride to the transfer point – Deák Ferenc tér – and simply buy another ticket.

We get off the train, go down another escalator, and walk to the nearest ticket machine.

It only takes coins.

Randy doesn’t have any change. I don’t have enough change. And there’s no other machine or even a ticket booth.

D’oh.

“What’re we going to do?” I ask.

Randy looks at the validation machines, and looks back at me. 

“I dunno, ” says Randy. “Do we take a chance?”

“I dunno about this … ” I say, looking at the validation machines, then back at him.

In the end, we head right past the validation machines and then down the escalator.

This makes me nervous. As someone who rides the subway in Toronto, the last thing I’d ever want to do is incur a fine of any sort. (Fare evasion on the TTC, for example, will cost $345 when the by-law is approved this week.)

I remember the little handout we get from Carla earlier in our trip, which says that it’s a 1,500-forint fine (about $9.92 CAD) for travelling around without the proper ticket. So I’m trying to rationalize things by thinking, Maybe we won’t get caught … and if we do, maybe it won’t be so bad … 

Waiting for the train, I take my backpack off, hold it in my hands, and look straight ahead. I already feel like a TV show criminal.

Randy spots a Budapest Metro lady on the platform and tells me as such; we move farther along the platform. The train arrives a couple moments later and we board.

As we pass the stops one by one, the fear of having my ticket checked subsides, and is replaced by relief. Which is then replaced by a little cockiness. We’re just bending the rules a bit, I think smugly. Besides, that woman at the ticket booth tried to RIP ME OFF. I’m getting some subway justice.

That justice, as it turns out, is short-lived. As my ex-pat friend Martin would later explain, the Budapest Metro folks tend to check certain stops more frequently than others. In any case, anyone who gets caught isn’t spared from a fine, especially residents.

So the feeling of getting away scot-free lasts from the train, mid-way up the escalator – right about the moment when Randy and I look up and see the two middle-aged ladies in blue Budapest Metro shirts, standing at the top of the escalator.

Shitshitshit-le-shit.

We look at each other and know we’re so very SCREWED. Our only defence at this point is to play as dumb as possible and hope, at the last possible minute, they wouldn’t ask for our tickets.

Fat. Chance.

Randy gets the lady on the left; I get the lady on the right.

She asks for my ticket, which I produce (and cringe as she checks it). She motions to me that it’s the wrong ticket (to which I respond by wearing my “dumb” face) and she gestures to me to step to the side.

She asks if I speak German or English (I obviously choose the latter). She asks me how long I am in Budapest for; I tell her, “One day. We leave tomorrow.”

In her fragmented English – and I’m sure Randy’s getting the exact same spiel – she tells me about the one-day ticket one can purchase, which can be used on whatever metro line one takes; one can even transfer to other metro lines, if one chooses.

Then she looks down at her cell phone (which maybe she wants me to think is her magical “ticket fine calculator”), looks up at me and tells me I have to pay 6,000 forints (about 25 Euros, or almost $40 CAD).

“Six thousand forint?” I repeat a bit incredulously. Gulp. I fish around in my wallet and show her I only have 4,500 forint.

The woman pauses a moment, then says, “Okay, okay … give me 30 Euro, then.”

Same problem – I only have a 20 Euro bill.

That’s when opportunity presented itself.

She looks over to her co-worker, who is talking to Randy, looks back at me and says:

“Are you …” and makes the international waving-finger symbol for “together”.

I think I understand what she’s getting at, but I doubt myself.

“What?” I ask, confused.

The woman repeats, “Are YOU …” and takes my hand and Randy’s, and holds them close together, as if she’s about to join us in holy matrimony.

Randy knows exactly what’s going on and is nodding empathically. I start half-nodding too – whatever will get us out of this mess. Especially if that lady likes Randy.

So instead of paying 6,000 forints each, I end up paying 20 Euros, plus 2,000 forints (which equals roughly 6,600 forints – 28 Euros or  $43 CAD) for the pair of us. Randy and I later do the math, and we figure the odd sum is actually the 6,000 forints I was originally going to pay, plus a nifty 600-forint “tip” the Budapest Metro lady generously took for her leniency.

So either way I lose to the metro. But at least the lady was nice. It could’ve been a lot worse. And now I have a fake husband for the rest of the trip.

So boys and girls, the morals of this story are:

(1) If you’re going to use the metro in Budapest, buy an all-day ticket.

(2) If you don’t want – or don’t think you need – an all-day ticket, then make sure you buy a fare that allows you to transfer onto different metro lines.

(3) If you don’t have the right fare and get caught, (a) pray you get a nice transit lady that reprimands you, (b) act dumb whenever possible and (c) if you’re with another person, pretend you’re married to get the fine reduced. 

Okay, so maybe not that last one. But now you know. You can’t say I didn’t warn you.

Heaven, Dinner and A Rooftop Bar

To simply say that I love the Gellért Spa is an understatement. It’s like saying Ron Burgundy loves scotch.

If I ever go to Budapest ever again, I’d go straight to the Gellért and only leave when I had to catch my plane – and then I’d cancel my flight. If I magically scored a job working in Budapest,  l’d be at the Gellért so often, I’d look like a California Raisin.

(Sadly, I didn’t take any pictures, because I didn’t want to lose my camera in the midst of my love affair with the thermal baths. So I snatched the following two photos from official tourist sites online.)

First stop: the outdoor wave pool. I spot tour-mate Will as I cross the pool deck. He’s been there for hours, as his sole goals for the day are to (a) sleep in late and (b) sunbathe by the pool for the entire day.

I ditch my towel on a deck chair and wade in. Refreshing. It’s just like Seville last year, except the pool’s 10 times bigger.

I get out and approach my deck chair to grab my towel and sit, when Will says, “Don’t miss the waves – they’re about to start.”

“How d’you know?” I ask.

” ‘Cause they just announced it,” he replies matter-of-factly. (Of course. Why question someone who’s been on the deck ALL DAY?)

Back in the pool a second time, I see both Randy and Surabh, Chris (one of the other fellow Canadians with our group), as well as Adam and Michelle, one of the Australian couples on our tour.

The waves subside, and we (minus Surabh) leave the pool to try and find the famous thermal baths.

We find the huge indoor pool with the beautiful columns (swiped picture at left). We also spot a small half-moon shaped pool with some people submerging themselves along the sides, which we try out.

The water’s much warmer; the skin on my legs prickles. Epsom salts? Sulphur? I can’t put my finger on it.

We sit on the submerged tile ledge against the wall of the pool. The warmth doesn’t really last, though – within about five minutes, it feels as if the water is getting cooler.

“This can’t be the thermal bath,” Randy says as we we’re sitting there. He has a point; I remember seeing signs for the men’s and women’s baths when we arrive earlier.

We get out and walk alongside the regular pool to investigate. While Michelle jumps into the pool, Randy walks to the end of the deck, and spots Surabh. I wander over to them, and Surabh explains you have to go through the respective changerooms to get to the baths. So I walk to the other changeroom, wend my way past the lockers and showers …

JACKPOT.

Two glorious half-moon shaped pools beckon. I drop my watch and towel, and submerge myself into what I discover is the hotter pool – it’s a cozy 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit). I sidle up to the underwater bench and just relaaaaax

I chat with an older lady already happily sitting in the water. Turns out she’s from Baltimore and just about to begin a boat tour which starts in Budapest. Her friend, who joins us about five minutes later, is also from Baltimore but was originally from Alabama, but married a Canadian and, until recently, had lived in Claremont, Ontario. Go figure.

Michelle eventually joins me, and we just hang out for a while. I briefly test out the other pool, which is supposedly 36 degrees Celsius (96.8 degrees Fahrenheit). It feels much cooler.

Michelle and I then leave the baths and try out the cold plunge pool (huhh! Sweet baby Moses! Freee-zing!), the steam room (the eculyptus stings my eyes), and then back into the plunge pool (still cold, but I’m not screaming).

Time’s ticking for me, so I head back to the wave pool. I see Randy, and we wait for the next round of waves. Just after it starts, I turn around to see this middle-aged woman clutching Randy’s arm. I figure she’s trying to maintain her balance and will eventually keep wading around. But she’s not letting go. So Randy has to help her get to the other side (if only to at least get his left wrist back.) 

(Unofficial running joke: Middle-aged women love Randy. He’s an assistant principal back in the States, so he explained early in the trip about how the PTA moms just love him at parent meetings. But it almost isn’t a joke during the trip – his last “admirer” was an older lady in Krakow who smiled at him all the way home on the bus.)

To fast-forward: I leave the pool, hurriedly change, and leave the Gellért (*sniff*) just in time to meet Martin – and then walk right past him as he’s coming in. Because we never asked each other what each of us looked like, nor whether we’d meet at the spa or the hotel, I assume he’s ’round the corner at the hotel. The lightbulb in my head goes off four minutes later, and I walk back to the spa, where he’s waiting outside the front doors. 

We walk back over the Liberty bridge and towards the area I’m supposed to meet the group for dinner. He then takes me over to Szent Istvan Bazilika  (St. Stephen’s Basilica, pictured at left), which is very beautiful from what little I can see. Unfortunately there’s a Sunday service, so we don’t stay long.

After about 90 minutes of walking and talking, we walk back to the street where the restaurant’s located. We run into three tour-mates – fellow Canadians from Vancouver – and chat while we wait time. At 7:30 p.m. – when the others are supposed to show up – we decide to go inside. Martin asks if he can join us for dinner; we have no problems with that.

Our tour guide Carla told – and warned us – of the huge schnitzel this place is known for. The schnitzel isn’t the ONLY thing that’s friggin’ ginormous. EVERYTHING is huge. I’m no slacker in the eating department, but I had such trouble finishing my meal, I’d be sure to be a Hungarian mother-in-law’s worst nightmare. (Well, that and the whole “not being European” thing.)

I order the chicken gulyás (goulash). I’m expecting a meal of similar size to the one in Prague.

I get a behemoth skillet with a mountain of something that remotely resembles gnocchi and a sea of sauce which is concealing not one, but three pieces of chicken.

I officially meet my Waterloo during dinner. And the two pints of Dreher beer I dumbly order before and after the meal do not help. I’m BLOATED.

The Vancouverites leave after dinner, but most of the group wants to go out, since nine tour-mates are ending their trips in Budapest.

Martin suggests this bar on the rooftop of a department store, which is supposed to be very cool. He warns us that it looks a bit sketchy (which it does). But after climbing four graffiti-ridden flights of stairs, it turns out he’s absolutely right. It’s humongous, with enough space for everyone. And the nice breeze and clear, starry night (the first I’ve seen – or paid attention to – since landing in Europe) make it a perfect night for drinking.

Before I know it, it’s the wee hours of the morning, and our group of 16 has shrunken to Martin, my fellow Canadian tour-mate Chrish, and myself. So we call it a night. Martin kindly walks us girls to the underpass at Blaha Lujza tér station, and we part ways.

What a calm, serene ending to what I thought would be such a frustrating leg of the trip.

Just when I start to change my mind about you, Budapest, I have to pack up and leave. Figures.

Sigh.

Under the Magyar Sun

Budapest, August 3.

I head out with my tour-mates Angela, Lauren and Randy –  along with a new addition to our group (Nic, who’s Australian) – to explore as much of Budapest as possible before I break from the group and make a beeline for the famous Gellért Baths. I’m giddy just thinking about it.

Our first stop is the Great Market Hall (Központi Vásárcsarnok or Nagycsarnok, pictured at left), on the way to the Liberty Bridge (Szabadság híd), which will take us over to the Buda side of Budapest.

The building’s pretty … unfortunately it’s closed because it’s Sunday. In fact, a lot of places are closed in Budapest on Sunday, which makes perfect sense in practical daily life. It just doesn’t make any sense for a tour company when plotting out a trip schedule for people who are going to want to shop. Sigh.

We cross the Liberty Bridge (technically not the bridge itself, since it’s under construction, but the pedestrian footpath), pass by the Gellért Hotel and keep walking. We see a huge cross at the top of the hill; when we go up the stairs, we discover what turns out to be the Gellért Hill Cave Church. The inside is dark, cool, and lovely. We’re not there for very long – within 10 minutes, we’re back out in the heat and humidity bearing down on us.

To describe the weather as hot is probably not accurate. It’s sweltering. I can actually hear  the sweat as I periodically wipe my forehead. And it’s probably just after 11:00 a.m. at this point.

We continue sweating, backpacks and t-shirts sticking to our backs, as we walk past the Széchenyi Chain Bridge over to the Budavári Sikló (Castle Hill Funicular) and take it up to the castle complex. We wander around and stumble across the Labyrinth of Buda Castle. It’s a much-welcomed break from the heat; we practically drain the (free!) water cooler near the entrance.

I think it’s kinda neat, all the winding tunnels and various pre-historic wall drawings and such. I quite like the wine fountain we come across (even though the wine is so fermented, it stinks to high heaven). Angela, on the other hand, isn’t as keen as the rest of us to look around, as she haaaates the dark. At one point, we go into this one labyrinth cave which is pitch-black, with nothing but the flashes from Nic’s camera to light our path. My chief concern is walking into things because of the lack of light. Angela is practically hyper-ventilating. But she – and we – make it out in one piece.

Surfacing from the Labyrinth, we continue wandering around the Buda Castle district until we come across a bunch of kiosks selling souvenirs and several knick-knacks. Yes! I can finally buy some stuff, having passed up the chance in Prague and Krakow because of my disdain for the pricing. After some deliberation (and borrowed forints from Nic, which I dutifully repay), I get myself a nice waterprint of the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, while Angela gets a really nicely lacquered “secret box” (the “secret” is figuring out how to open it), which the woman selling them offers to her for a bit of a discount. (How nice!)

We keep going, leaving the castle complex. We end up back on one of the bridges, and walk smack into some kind of festival. There are flower garlands hanging from above and there are food and trinket stands everywhere. We also run into a bunch of our Aussie tour-mates who’ve been wandering around the area.

At this juncture, Randy and I opt to break from the group if we’re going to get enough time to spend at the baths.  The plan is to return to the hotel so he can get his swimsuit and a towel – while I drop off my souvenirs and call my friend’s ex-pat friend (named Martin) – and then get over to the baths. He asks if I want to take the metro, to which I say yes without even having to think about it. I was dog tired from the heat.

We cross the bridge, walking along the sandy path towards the Parliament buildings. We stumble across (and pause briefly at) the Holocaust Memorial – iron casts of shoes to remember those who were shot into the Danube during World War II. It is said the victims were told to remove their shoes before they were shot.   

We walk past the Parliament buildings and find the metro, which we take to the stop closest to our hotel over in Pest. We then stop for McDonald’s (the first of several shame-filled fast-food stops during my trip) ’cause we’re both starving, then arrive at the hotel.

In my cool hotel room, I call Martin to touch base. We’re going to meet up at around 6 p.m. – after I’m done with the baths, but just before I meet up with the tour group for dinner. Fifteen minutes later, Randy and I depart for the metro.

It’s supposed to be an uneventful 15-minute subway ride, followed by a three-minute walk back across the Liberty Bridge. We end up being delayed by our run-in with a couple of public transit ticket-validation workers. (Keep reading my blog this week to find out what happens.) 

But in the end it’s all worth it. We finally arrive at the Gellért … the part of the trip I’ve waited almost an entire week for.

Next Stop: Budapest.

Looking back, Budapest was my second favourite city on this trip. But I wouldn’t have guessed it, the way the trip started …

The drive into Hungary is a bit sticky and a little angry.

“Sticky” because, as the bus is pulling away from our first rest stop of the trip – and we’re still in Poland at this point – I accidentally spill a bottle of Pepsi over part of my skirt, and the floor underneath my seat, narrowly missing another tour-mate’s belongings.

NOT. Pleasant.

(This also doesn’t help me shake my unofficial reputation amongst some of my travel-mates as the disorganized, spill-prone tourist. Yes, I am the comedy relief.)

“Angry”, because when we pull up to the next rest stop – just inside the Hungarian border – and one of my tour-mates, whose bladder is practically busting and HAS to use the facilities, is stopped by the angry Hungarian rest-stop owner, who comes out of the building yelling and waving and prevents her from going inside.

It seems our poor bus driver has parked in the “wrong” spot, prompting the owner to shout and whistle at him to move the bus. And, as it happens, the bathrooms aren’t located inside the rest stop, but at the side of the building. And they’re not in the best condition.

One of my other tour-mates later recalls getting yelled at by a supermarket cashier when we stop for lunch, because he tries to pay at the check-out with Euros, only to be sternly told, “No Euro!” When he insists he doesn’t have anything else to pay with (they take credit, as it turns out), she apparently gets really huffy with him.

At this point, I almost wonder if Hungarians should be re-named Angarians. So angry …

This is temporarily forgotten when we finally arrive in Budapest. We first stop at Hősök tere (Heroes’ Square in Hungarian) and snap some photos. Then it’s over to Halászbástya (Fisherman’s Bastion), which resembles probably any castle you’ve seen in a Disney movie. The building is pretty, as are the views.

We are finally driven to the hotel we’re staying at, on the Pest side of Budapest (and, unlike the previous two cities, relatively closer to points of interest). The triple room Lauren, Angela and I are staying in is huge. And the meal we have for dinner is, I think, pretty good (although from what I hear, the bartending staff needs to take a semester’s worth of classes in the hospitality department).

Soon, it’s time for a bit of a night outing. One group wants to find an internet café, some ice cream (a staple on this surprisingly hot trip) and maybe a nice drinking establishment. The other group wants to also find ice cream. But not just any ice cream. According to a tour-mate’s guide book, there’s a place called Butterfly, located up at Oktogon.

I end up going with the second group, thinking I can return to the hotel in enough time to (a) call a friend of a friend, a Canadian ex-pat working and living in Budapest, to make plans to meet up the next day and (b) catch up with the first group, since I want in on the internet café and the drinking.

My plan doesn’t work. It takes us about a half-hour just to walk up to Oktogon (and my companions aren’t exactly jazzed about their surroundings – which they describe as “dodgy” and “scary” – despite there being five of us travelling together. It’s really just kind of dingy). We look for Butterfly (and the long lineups that apparently accompany it), but to no avail. It also doesn’t help that none of us thought to get the address.

On the way back, we stop at the McDonald’s so a couple people can get something to eat. By the time we return to the hotel, the first group has long since left, and I have a pulsating headache, likely from the heat.

I call my friend’s friend, who answers and mentions that he was on his way out to meet friends, and if I wanted to join them. Me from 45 minutes ago might’ve been up to the challenge; Me with the headache (and no sense of direction) opts to pass and plans to call him tomorrow.  

So while group number one enjoys their time at the Old Man’s Pub, I have a quiet night in, involving hand-washed laundry and sleep.

Krakow, Concluded

Following Auschwitz, our group returns to Krakow to make the most of the time we have left.

One thing about groups and sightseeing: as much as I enjoyed the company of the people I was with on this tour, it sometimes seemed like decisions on what things to do and see, took a dog’s age. 

In the end, some of the group decides to make a break for the castle before it closes for the evening. The group I’m with – Angela, Lauren, Randy, Kelly (a Kiwi) and myself – head in the direction of town (and hopefully food and shade). The idea is also to head over to the Jewish Quarter (Kazimierz) to book reservations at this restaurant our tour guide Carla told us about.

Much like Prague, the sun is beating down. Although it doesn’t really feel as humid, I can feel the sweat start to form under my white tunic.

Kelly and I decide not to follow the others for a stand-up lunch and souvenir hunting, opting instead to try and find a sit-down place, and Kelly volunteers to go over to the restaurant in the Jewish Quarter afterwards to book a reservation.

We wander from street to street, with nothing popping out at us. We even ask a man – who we assume to be a local – if he could suggest a place to try. Although I don’t think it was the place he has in mind, we eventually find a quiet, empty indoor lounge-type place and just completely chill out for about an hour. So nice.

After lunch, we wander through the streets and end up in the Jewish Quarter, where we find the restaurant. While in the vicinity, we stop by a Jewish synagogue and the adjoining cemetery. On the way back, we run into Will, one of our tour-mates, who’s just chillin’ on a park bench.

We return to Rynek Główny Square and walk right into:

(a) Some sort of 10-day Poland-Ukraine-let’s-get-along concert/festival thing and

(b) A smallish ceremony right in front of St. Mary’s Basilica, marking the 64th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, complete with huge-ass tank, soldiers and choir singing patriotic songs.

The second thing would prove to later be a bit of an impediment when trying to round people up for dinner, as it obstructs our view. So in the end, the group of 20 we hope will go to the restaurant shrinks to a posse of eight.

Bah, no matter. The group of us that does go to the restaurant has a grand time. The waiter is very cute (in an entertaining way) and make us laugh throughout our meal. The tip we leave for him at the end of the meal is, I think, much deserved. (Of course, he loves us too, for obvious reasons.)

I have a matzo ball soup, followed by some carp, which is really good – especially since it’s the first time in about five days I’m eating something that’s not a meat or sausage product. A number of people order beet-root soup, which ends up tasting way better than the description suggests. It also makes me kind of regret ordering the matzo ball soup.

Not much else happens after dinner, other than me finally finding an Internet cafe and phoning home to put to rest whatever concerns my parents (by whom I mean my mother) may have, and my other tour-mates getting some ice cream.

It’s at this juncture that Kelly, Lauren, Angela and I elect to grab the bus and head back to the hotel.

Ah, Krakow public transit.

We walk all the way to the shopping complex, as directed on the Krakow city printout Carla gave us earlier to find our way back. We look on all the signs at the big bus stop sitting in the middle of the road. None match the bus we need to take.

Then we walk past the shopping complex, waaaay down to the far end to check. We end up at the back of what we guess is a metro station – and we meet a huge green dumpster. We quickly double back.

Heading past the shopping complex, Kelly (who twisted an ankle a few days prior, had developed blisters from all the walking, and is now limping) spots the bus in question, not pulling up to the bus stop island in the middle of the road, but on a side street, waaay on the other side of the road – from where we originally crossed.

I dunno how she does it, but Kelly manages to make the mad limp across the road, and gets the bus in time for us to pile on.

The driver also doesn’t speak English. So how we make it to our stop is beyond us.

But we manage to get off close to the hotel. Kind of. To get to the hotel – which is by a sizeable motorway – we have to walk up a dodgy pedestrian stairway with glass EVERYWHERE. (Keep in mind it’s now about 11 p.m. at night, and dark.) Then we basically cross the bridge (which thankfully has a sidewalk), and then back to the hotel.

Good grief.

I’m pretty relieved the rest of my evening is spent having an evening drink with some of my tour-mates on the Holiday Inn patio, ’cause I don’t think I can take any more excitement.

Besides, tomorrow will be a new day … in a new city.

Reflections on Auschwitz

I’m not entirely sure how to write this next post.

I feel as if I’m about to trivialize what I’ve seen.

But I think somehow, if I don’t write this, then I cannot make the case for why I think it is such a valuable experience, and a worthwhile day trip for anyone to make, if they can. 

So here it is:

The bus drives through Oświęcim, Poland about mid-morning, taking us not into the town itself, but to the site of the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum. On a day like today, one might expect the weather to be gloomy and cloudy, to match the occasion of our visit. It is, instead, sunny and quite warm.

We start in the main building of the museum on the grounds of the former Auschwitz camp, where we meet our guide and get our headsets so we can hear her talk throughout the tour.

As she takes us from room to room and exhibit to exhibit – housed in several different buildings – the guide explains how these poor people were taken from their homes and rounded up for the often-cramped trips to these camps … and how so many believed that they would be going to these places to work.

The enlarged pictures of the various camps up on the walls and the scenes of people arriving, as well as the glass cases with some of the administrative documents recovered, certainly help to paint a visual picture.

But it is the displays showing the mountains of belongings – pots and pans, eyeglasses, hairbrushes, suitcases with names clearly marked on them – that resonate with me.

Perhaps the one display that is still partially etched in my mind is the one with all the hair.

I mean, it was literally an enormous glass display taking up an entire wall, with nothing but a big hill of hair behind it, discoloured by time.

Among the mounds, I can still see braids of women and girls, whose heads were shaved by SS officers in preparation for their final, horrific destination.

Kitty-corner to this, by the entrance into the room in a smaller display, is the end product of some of that hair: a huge bolt of cloth. A couple of hairnets.

If one group of people hates another group of people so much that they make it their mission to completely wipe them off the face of the earth – and succeed in doing so with a segment of that despised population – why on EARTH would they want to keep around their remains?

And, from what the guide says, chances are many of the Germans who use this industrial cloth probably had no idea what it was made of.

This completely strikes me dumb.

Another thing that boggles my mind – and annoys me – is another tour group we encounter when we move upstairs to another floor within the building. They’re a group of Jewish people, possibly from Israel – the head of the group is speaking to them in Hebrew.

Some of them are snapping photos of the exhibits, despite the request from the museum that no photography is allowed, as a matter of respect.

The guide actually warns our group before we head upstairs that we would run into them. Even then, I can’t believe the amount of disrespect they show. The guide says they likely know about the rule, but choose not to pay attention to it.

Why? If any one of the million visitors making the trip to this site are expected to respect the rules, why don’t they? Do they feel they are exempt because of their religion? Do they maybe not feel affected by what they see, because perhaps they are not relatives or descendants of the poor people who suffered?

This irks me, because these are not extinct animals we’re talking about here – they’re human beings who we come to remember. But we move onward.

We see the pictures of various concentration camp prisoners which hang on the walls. To say the men and women look gaunt from their treatment is a huge understatement. The guide tells us to look at the pictures and women and see how they don’t even look like women in some of the photos – and it’s true.

We go into another room where there are enlarged photos of young women and children who suffered at the hands of Dr. Josef Mengele in disgusting “experiments”.

We move into other buildings where we see old prison cells and remains of standing cells where some people were kept – as many as four people in a tiny space.

We step outside and move towards the reconstruction of a wall where prisoners were executed. It is now a memorial, where flowers and votive candles are laid.

The guide recalls a story in which a family – husband, wife, two small children and an infant – stood stoicly as they were shot to death one by one.

As we leave the area, a number of us pick up stones for later on.

Just before we leave this site, we visit the only gas chamber and crematorium at the Auschwitz site. It’s also one of the smaller ones. It’s an almost-silent two-minute walk through.

Next, we’re taken to Birkenau, site of the prisoner barracks – and those infamous train tracks. We’re shown the sleeping barracks, and crude latrines, and told about the conditions. We see remnants of some of the brick barracks that were taken apart after Liberation. And we see the remains of the huge gas chambers and crematoriums, now a collapsed mass of brick and cement.

How anyone can deny the events that took place here, is truly beyond my comprehension. The proof is here, at this place. To fabricate something this horrific could not even be possible. To suggest that this could be, is completely pathetic on the part of the thinker.

Our tour ends in the blazing hot sun, by the monument to the prisoners who died. A number of us place our stones there, along with other already laid by earlier visitors.

As we walk back along the gravel towards the entrance, some of us wonder aloud. About why the Nazis, if they wanted to eliminate the Jews so badly, didn’t just do it right away, instead of prolonging the suffering. About how genocides are sadly still going on in parts of the world today, over and over again. About why we continue to let it happen. About how powerless some of us feel, knowing these things are still happening.

I am sure that millions of questions similar to ours float in the minds of visitors as they arrive and depart each day.

But perhaps one thing is certain: nothing really prepares you for the visit. And once you leave, you don’t forget.

Somewhere in my luggage, I hope, is a second small stone I collected from Auschwitz that day. It’s to remind me, when I feel like complaining that things in my life are not going the way they should, how fortunate I am to be where I am today. And also to never forget those who suffered.

On To Krakow

July 31.

It’s a tad rough this morning.

I get about 3 or 4 hours sleep after my late night out, and I’m up early to hurriedly pack my things. I’m not feeling so hot – but that’s my own fault.

Following breakfast, we leave the hotel just after 7:30 a.m. so our bus driver Anthony can get a leg up on the inter-country traffic. Our drive to Krakow will be approximately eight hours, with about three rest stops along the way.

I think I manage to get a half-hour nap before the bus makes its first stop, about 15 minutes in length. Then, back onto the bus.

Once back on the road, trip leader Carla pops in a movie related to our excursion to Auschwitz (happening the following day) – “Schindler’s List.” It’s the first time I actually have seen the movie, and I find it extremely really hard to watch. (Really, does anyone find this movie easy to watch? Probably not.)

Fast-forward about 6 hours … we finally reach Krakow.

Anthony drops us off in the old part of town, where Carla takes us on a brief orientation tour outside the outer perimeter of Wawel Castle. We then go into the old part of town, stopping briefly at the bright yellow former residence of Pope John Paul II when he was bishop of Krakow. (I spot the photo exhibition of Benedict II, which may or may not have been coincidentally placed in the building directly across the way.)

We wind our way through the streets before ending up in the Rynek Główny (or Main Market) Square, close to St. Mary’s Basilica.

After tooling around for a bit, we finally head to the hotel for a low-key evening. It’s a bit out of the way, but that doesn’t matter at all – it’s a brand-new Express by Holiday Inn. 

Upgrade!

The room is bigger, and there’s air-con. The only slight set-back is when Lauren goes to use the shower, only to discover the drain is clogged. Angela goes to reception and asks that houskeeping come and fix the problem. It isn’t all in vain – she gets to talk to a cute reception desk clerk.

Meanwhile, I attempt to call home for the first time in about three days using the free phone cards Carla gives all the travellers when they arrive for the tour. I try the pay phones in the lobby. Doesn’t work. I try using the phone in our room – several times. No dice.

I go to reception and explain my predicament to another (cute!) desk clerk, who tries the card for himself and tells me the card is no good. Oh well. Here’s hoping I can find an Internet cafe the next time we’re in town.

Our group sticks around the hotel for the night – we all have to rest up for a very important excursion which, I can now say, everyone should take at least once in their lifetime.

Prague, Continued

(If you’re completely lost reading this, scroll down to the previous post … )

Okay, so where was I? Oh yeah – Angela and I meet up with our group on the Charles Bridge and cross over to the other side for dinner.

Along the way, we stop in front of the nuttiest art installation/fountain, near of the Franz Kafka Museum. It’s of these two guys peeing into a small pool shaped like the Czech Republic. I guess when both guys actually work, they wiggle their bottoms – and hence their wee-wees – so that the “pee” makes patterns in the water. (Only one was working, though.)

To make things more interactive, people can send the word of their choice to an SMS number somewhere, which programs the guy(s) to spell out said word with “pee”. (One of our tour-mates tries this; it actually works.)

Next stop: the restaurant which, I must write now in hindsight, I am not completely impressed with. The waiter takes forever with our orders. I request the beef goulash and when I receive it, I’m looking for the beef. I’m not trying to be an elitist when it comes to trying new things. But I love my meat, and when I just get beef-flavoured gravy, I want some answers.

And after ALL this, Mr. Waiter Man has the bald-faced nerve to ask for a 10 per cent tip.

Seriously? SERIOUSLY.

We leave the restaurant and as we make our way through the streets, our group shrinks and shrinks – we seem to be losing track of our mates. By the time I stop for ice cream with two fellow Canadian girls (Akila and Chrish) and two American dudes (Will and Surabh), we’ve completely lost the rest of the gang.

From there, our small posse of five decide to chill out and have a drink on one of the patios in the square near the Astronomical Clock. Okay, I think as we sit there chatting. I can handle this. Nothing too out of control. And we’ll be back at the hotel in plenty of time so I can pack and sleep.

And that’s when a couple of the others decide that, since it’s our last night in Prague, we should check out a club – for a little bit. Uh. Oh. This is what I want to avoid. It’s creeping closer to midnight, and I really just want to go back to the hotel, pack my things and sleep.

But for those of you who actually know me, convincing me to go to any sort of party – even if I’m not sure if I want to – is about as hard as moulding Play-Doh. So off we go, and find a club that’s suggested in Surabh’s guidebook.

Well, going to the club for “a little bit” turns into a tequila shot and two beers … which equals about two hours longer than I expect. The DJ turns out some half-decent mixes, and I cannot say that I didn’t dance. Oh, but I did. And it was good.

By the time we catch the night tram and return to the hotel, it’s 2:15 a.m. And because I never spoke to my roommates before we split up earlier, poor Angela’s waiting up for me when I get in. I feel badly that I have her up late worrying about my whereabouts. She’s just glad I’m all right.

So all’s well that ends well … at least until I have to get up in about four hours’ time to leave for Krakow. Ohhhh – and that will most certainly suck.