Central Europe: Epilogue 2.0

I can’t believe it’s been a month since I got back. 

My re-entry back into rainy Toronto wasn’t as humdrum as I hoped. I was stuck at the airport for an extra hour and a half because I gave my parents the wrong arrival time. And Thanks to one supposedly efficient German airline (I’m looking at you, Lufthansa), my luggage was stuck in Manchester for three days.

But when I got home, man, was I EVER glad to have my first hot shower on North American soil. 

Much like my return from Spain last year, the travel bug has got me in a headlock. I’m restless, but not nearly as cranky as I was previously.

It could have something to do with how short this trip was. It might also have something to do with the last-minute planning on my part and the tour’s hit-the-ground-running, frenetic pace.

Make no mistake. I met a lot of cool people during my trip, a few of whom I’ve been keeping in touch with. I saw a lot of places I probably wouldn’t have gotten to in my lifetime, had I not taken on this itinerary. And I was pleasantly surprised by a few of the places I visited. I definitely would like to return one day.

But I have to say, I don’t like flitting around like that- at least in Europe. I like going at my own pace, spending at least two or three days in a city, rather than only a day and a half. I like marinating in my surroundings, if you will. Yes, I can now say I’ve been to these places. But in my heart, I know I haven’t truly been. Know what I mean?

I haven’t had a whole lot of down-time since I returned. I’ve been back at work for exactly a month now. And I’ve got the usual things on the brain. What I’m going to do about my current job situation … My living situation … 

And with the bank stamp barely dry on the enormous VISA bill I just paid, I’m already thinking about my next trip. I don’t even know if it’ll come to fruition, but if I can make it happen, I know of two things:

(1) It will be on a continent other than Europe. (Unless I somehow make big enough bucks to make a short stop somewhere on the way home.)

(2) I would like to go next spring – sometime around March or April … time and finances permitting.

If there was only a way to bank enough days in lieu and and work save enough cash to make it happen …

 Guess I’ll have to wait and see, won’t I ?

Meandering in Munich

Munich, August 8th.

You know the feeling where you’re simultaneously exhausted and just killing time until you board the plane the following day … and melancholy because you know the end of your trip (and vacation) is right around the corner?

I feel that today. I especially dread my attitude when I return to work. After Spain last year, I was cranky for at least five weeks. I’m really not looking forward to seeing that woman in the mirror on Monday morning. 

It’s cloudy outside, cooler than it’s been the entire trip, and has been raining sporadically. It almost matches my frame of mind this morning.

I eat breakfast, send Kelly an e-mail about meeting up with her briefly (she has to pay back some money I lent her the previous day), and then I hurry and get myself on a free walking tour leaving from the hostel shortly.

The tour guide is an exuberant dude from Texas, wearing suede lederhosen (no joke), who takes us from the hostel to Marienplatz via the metro. Once there, we become part of an even larger group, which is then whittled down according to language.

The tour begins in earnest with another tour guide, an Australian girl holding a can of Red Bull in one hand and gesturing with the other, yelling in an already husky voice so we all can hear. We actually get to witness the movements of the Glockenspiel (pictured at right. It’s a bit anti-climatic, since (a) I’ve already read in my guide and heard from trip leader Carla what happens and (b) the “chimes” that sound and play during the “show” aren’t even real – they’re pre-recorded, ’cause the real bells don’t even work … or were they removed? I don’t remember).

We move away from the square, past various buildings, while the Aussie guide continues. Less than 10 minutes later, the enormous group separates into three smaller groups, and I’m back in the group with our Texan guide. Between the bursts of rain, he’s quite informative and is kind of funny where it counts, and serious where he needs to be.

I meet two young guys on the tour who are also from my hostel: James, works for a mortgage company in Newmarket; Ben is from Cambridge, and may be either in school or just finished.

The tour ends, after which I tip the tour guide (heavily) and make my way back to Marienplatz (James and Ben in tow) to try and catch Kelly. That plan doesn’t work – I give up the search after about five minutes and return to the hostel with the guys.

I check my e-mail and find out Kelly’s leaving for Innsbruck (Austria) later in the afternoon. I manage to get down to the central train station – Hauptbahnhof – and meet her on the platform of the train she’s boarding. She arrives about two minutes before her train’s scheduled to leave, runs up the platform, dumps the money in my hand and keeps on going. (‘Bye, Kelly.)

After, I wander around. I just walk and walk and walk. Eventually, my stomach in knots from hunger, I find a café where I have a latte (not my first choice, since I don’t drink coffee, but I’m too hungry to change my mind) and a small sandwich, while I write my postcards and play catch-up writing in my travel journal to pass some time.

Then it’s back to walking around and around. I buy a couple more small souvenirs, including yet another plate for my Crazy Plate Collection. (I know you think I’m either crazy or an old woman stuck in the body of a young woman who should know better, but I don’t care – I love my plates of the world, so suck it.) I see the same classical music buskers from two days ago and stop to listen one more time. I even buy one of their CDs (15 Euro, which is crazy expensive, but I don’t care, ’cause it’s my last day), and just keep killing time and snapping pictures until I’m too tired to walk anywhere else.  

In my hostel room, I quietly write and write down as many thoughts from the previous several days as I can remember, until I can no longer write without the light of a lamp.

Heading downstairs after in search of something to eat, I run into James, who suggests the place across the street – which turns out to be a beer hall, and part of a huge beer brewery. How apt … And how packed.

I enter the front door of the beer hall, take one look at the people waiting for seats and another at the scores of dozens of people seated, and walk right out, heading straight for the metro going to Hauptbahnhof station.

I know the European foodie experience is about eating ANYTHING BUT than North American-based fast-food. But at this juncture, with so few hours remaining and my stomach grumbling and gurgling, I give an imaginary, misanthropic finger to cultural experience for the third time (I had McDonald’s the night I returned from Füssen – the shame!) in favour of a Burger King.

Back at the hostel, I pull up a seat at one of the empty cafeteria-styled tables, and just mow down on a Whopper and fries with mayo and ketchup and syrupy, non-fizzy Pepsi, while I watch the CNN International reports about the conflict in Georgia and former American presidential candidate John Edwards’ extramarital affair (sad, and also anti-climatic). Ben appears as if out of thin air, and he sits nearby and chats while I eat and watch.

I hit the hay somewhere around midnight, my backpacks – large and small – just about packed with my possessions. The window’s slightly open, allowing whatever breeze might be in the air to waft in.

As I lay there, I can hear the faint strains and bass of Latin music from some nearby club. But I’m too tired – and pre-occupied with my return trip home – to care.

The Train to Füssen

August 7th …

I don’t have to get up early, but I do anyway, to see Lauren off. It’ll be quite strange having a whole room to myself, albeit for only a few more hours. I’m most nervous about finding my way over to my next hostel – my brain’s been on auto-pilot for the last 10 days.

As my acquaintances assemble by the front door, a young couple apparently tries taking a taxi van meant for my mates.  From what I can tell, the taxi driver basically yells at them to get out of the van; they do so quite reluctantly. The driver proceeds to get out of the van, has some choice words with the guy, and gives him a shove (I suspect the dude said something not-so-nice to him). The woman – wearing something more appropriate for a club than for outside a hotel at 7:20 a.m. – tries defusing the situation. But Taxi Guy’s clearly incensed. Somehow the situation dissipates.

After saying goodbye to Lauren and my other tour-mates, I rub my eyes and figure out what to do with myself.  

I change, shower, check the internet terminal to see if it’s free – tour-mate Kelly from New Zealand (one of the few remaining) is checking work e-mails and trying to find accommodation for the next night. I wait a little while longer, then check out what’s for breakfast in the “dining room.” I opt instead to return to my room and scrounge around in my backpack for a strategically-packed granola bar (one of many).

I return back downstairs to see if the terminal’s free, and run into Randy coming downstairs with his belongings. He’s going to his next hotel – a Hilton, no less – and then plans to take the train to the south of Bavaria. Apparently there are two castles, one of which belonged to King Ludwig II and was featured in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang – and he bought a tour ticket to see both.

I voice an interest in also wanting to go; he says if Kelly (who’s still on the Internet) and I want to go with him, he’s going to catch a train at 9:51 a.m. from the central train station to Füssen, Germany, which is the nearest stop to the castles.

We hurriedly agree to meet and he takes off.

Upon discussing further, Kelly and I decide not to rush, since both of us still have to figure out where our respective accommodations are. And besides, haven’t we already spent 10 days rushing from place to place?

We leave together sometime after 9 a.m., the sun already beating down on us. We find the metro, and take some time figuring out our respective routes, as well as what time later trains leave for Füssen, then split up, promising to e-mail each other about when to meet up.

I reach my hostel surprisingly quickly, only to find out the room won’t be ready until 3 p.m. I store my bag in the luggage room in the basement, then wait for a free internet terminal and e-mail Kelly. We were going to try and board the 10:51 train; we agree instead to meet by the train ticket booths by 11:15 so we can catch the 11:51 train.

I kill some time in the main lobby before walking over to the metro, and taking it to the main station (I get there early). I pick a spot and I wait. And wait. And wait.

At 11:46, when I debate whether to go by myself or go back to the hostel, Kelly shows up. We bolt for the train station.

Trying to figure out what tickets to buy from the automated machines is stressful, as we don’t understand the system, and we have about four minutes to buy our tickets, and board the train. But how Kelly figures it out for us to board with about two minutes to spare, is still beyond me.

Once we stop panting from all the running, we settle in for the trip. Kelly was nice enough to get lunch for both of us – something resembling pizza or pizza-bread; whatever – at this point, I don’t care – and some lovely pastries.

We take in the scenery and try and get whatever breeze we can, as the train car is boiling hot.

Here’s where a seemingly simple trip gets complicated. We both fall asleep because we’re so tired. We’re awoken by the man checking tickets, who says first in German, then in English, “Last stop.”

Bleary-eyed, we get off the train and wander around … only to discover we didn’t go to Füssen. We have, in fact, have ended up in the town of Memmingen, the western-most town in the state of Bavaria, which sits near the border with the state of Baden-Württemberg

Of course, we don’t know any of this until we go to the station’s ticket office, where the man at the desk shows us Memmingen on a small map. He also informs us we should have transferred roughly an hour east of where we are, in the town of Buchloe. I’m slightly annoyed, but soon smiling and shaking my head with Kelly at our misadventure. We grab some pop and pastry, and then walk back to Memmingen station to wait another 40 minutes for the train going in the opposite direction.

We reach Füssen three and half hours later, taking in the scenery – and finally getting a fantastic view of the mountains as we pull into the station. We wait for the bus, then decide to cab it to the ticket information centre for Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein castles. We can still see the former, but the latter will be closed by the time we get there. So we get tickets for Hohenschwangau Castle and then decide to go the whole hog and take a horse-drawn carriage to the base of the castle.

The tour itself was only okay, but the inside – all the ornate fixtures and decorations – was ridiculous. It’s too bad I couldn’t take any pictures. Even if I did, they probably wouldn’t have done it justice.

By the end of the tour, it’s started raining a bit. We take a chance and walk over to the other castle to get a look. It takes about 40 minutes, and I’m not kidding when I say it’s a bit of a climb – the way up is steeper than what we’ve been used to during the trip. But just being out in the fresh air, taking in where we are, makes the walk well-worth it.

We then decide to cap off our visit by walking up and around to Marienbrücke (Mary’s Bridge), from which you get the best views of Neuschwanstein Castle.

The upward hike takes another half-hour or so. The bridge itself when we get to it, is ridiculously high. And for two women of the Commonwealth who are skittish about heights, that’s a big friggin’ deal.

We inch arross the bridge, snap some pictures of the castle (which really is something in its own right), and go back across, trying NOT to look down. We go back on it a second time, since Kelly figures we can’t come ALL this way not to take pictures of ourselves on the bridge. (If I had a full bladder, I would’ve peed myself right there from sheer nervousness.)

We make the steep ascent back down, take a cab back to Füssen, where again, we cut it even closer trying to catch the train back to Munich. But make it we did, about three or so hours later.

Wow. What an adventure. But it’s almost over – one more day in Munich.

Some Mountains, Some Beer

August 6th.

Our drive to Salzburg is filled with the sounds of music. Literally.

Trip leader Carla throws in a few songs from The Sound of Music soundtrack to get us in the right frame of mind for our short stop in Salzburg (which is about an hour and 40 minutes long).

(As I learn later, some of the movie isn’t really filmed in Salzburg, but in nearby Salzkammergut, which is supposed to be very pretty. Ah well – perhaps next trip.)

Living back home in Canada, I’ve never been out west to see the Rockies. So it’s simultaneously breaktaking and disconcerting to see an enormous mountain range (albeit in the distance) for the first time with one’s own eyes, but on another continent. I try to snap as many photos as possible, because I think this will be my only chance. Unfortunately I get a lot of blurry shots with highway guardrails.

Off the bus in Salzburg, we stop off at Mirabell Gardens – which are lovely, but hard to truly love when compared to Schönbrunn. We then take a walk along the river, making sure not to drift over into the bike lane. Ever since hitting Hungary and Austria, I’ve had a hard time trying to keep to a part of the sidewalk that won’t piss off cyclists, but won’t put me in harm’s way. I’m still trying …

We then make our way through the narrow streets, past the Mozarthaus, and over to Stiftkirche St. Peter (or St. Peter’s Abbey Church, pictured at left). We stop briefly inside to take a look and take a couple photos. Then it’s out and around to the enormous cemetery, complete with fancy headstones and a waterwheel in the corner of the cemetery grounds.

There’s enough time for a group of us to grab lunch before getting on the bus. I have some pasta in a delicious cream sauce, and some kaiserschmarm for dessert.

Then, back on the road. We reach Munich sometime around 4 p.m. and check into our hotel. It certainly isn’t anything like our last hotel, but considering almost everyone’s leaving the next day, it’ll have to do.

As it happens, I’ve run out of toothpaste. I read the sign sitting on our table of what our hotel provides. Despite stating that the hotel could provide whatever “hygenic needs” we needed, it’s false advertising. I go down to the front desk to try out this “service”; I get a “Nein” from the Santa Claus lookalike in the loud Hawaiian shirt manning the desk when I gesticulate to ask whether or not they sell toothpaste. Lauren is kind enough to let me borrow some of hers, at least until she leaves. 

(Note to self: always carry a full-sized tube of toothpaste with you, unless you plan on using pea-sized portions. I had packed one, only to have my mom offer me a travel-sized tube. It’s never a good feeling to know you’re going to have to chew gum every day for two days before you leave.)

It’s back onto the bus for our last ride into town, our last orientation of a new place – and our last dinner together as a group.

We start off the mini-walking tour in Marienplatz – the centre of town and site of the famous Glockenspiel. We also briefly stop by the Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady) and hear the legend about the church’s architect and the devil and the footprint one can find upon entering the church.

Following orientation, we all elect to stop walking around and hit one of the most well-known beer halls, the Hofbräuhaus.

It’s loud and packed, and the oompah band is in full swing. We manage to find a table (translation: two long-ass benches) for 14 of us. And then the real fun begins.

We all order drinks. In my mind, I’m figuring it’s going to be the average beer-mugs-with-handles I’m so used to seeing back in Canada. Nope. Try one litre of Bavarian beer madness – at least that’s what I discover when I crack open the menu to select my drink. I take the plunge and order a Hofbräuhaus Original beer. I’m a little afraid because of (a) what it might taste like and (b) the prospect of downing an entire litre of beer and trying not to get sick.

The waitress comes back with most of our drink orders, somehow managing to fit as many as four or five steins in each hand. The fact she does this without spilling it amazes me (and definitely makes me respect her much more).

As I slowly start trying to drink my beer, the waiter comes round and takes our orders. I settle on some Bavarian white sausage (which may look disgusting and possibly uncooked, but is actually quite nice) and a pretzel.

And herein lies the trick to drinking two beers at a time: eat the saltiest pretzel known to mankind. The salt makes your mouth dry, or at least coats your tongue with so much sodium that you have no choice BUT to drink more beer.

This isn’t so bad. The beer tastes way less bitter than I imagine, and I successfully drain my glass. My mistake may be in ordering a second litre. I’m nowhere near sick, but it’s only a matter of time before I’m peeing like a racehorse.

The meal over, we walk (or stumble a little bit) out of the hall and wander around, taking in some classical buskers, and finding a statue of Juliet. (We’re told, if you rub her breast – I think it’s her right one – you’ll be lucky in love. I’m waiting to see if this theory actually works.)

Once back at the hotel, it starts sinking in: it’s the end of the tour. My roommate Lauren heads for Rome the following morning. Others are heading back to London, the U.S., or Toronto. To my knowledge only I and possibly two other tour-mates – Randy and Surabh from the States – will remain a day or so longer.

But it will be the strangest feeling, after being surrounded by a couple dozen people for a week and a half, to be virtually alone for the next two days.

Vienna, Day 2

Picture in your mind a cloudy, periodically drizzling Vienna, August 5.

Our tour group is dropped off in the Ringstrasse – the centre-most district in Vienna – for a brief orientation/history lesson with Carla.

We pass by the Hofburg Imperial Palace and the Spanish Riding School (which is closed during the summer). Afterwards, we’re let loose until the group excursion in the afternoon.

I team up with Lauren and Robyn (from San Diego) and decide to first hit Stephansplatz (St. Stephen’s Cathedral, pictured at left), located smack in the actual centre of Vienna.

We look around and snap some obligatory photos. We then take a half-hour tour into the catacombs, deep in the bowels of the church. Our bilingual tour guide (whose enthusiasm makes him so cute, you just want to put him in your pocket and make him give you a city tour in German and English) shows us where 37 Habsburgs are buried (along with some of their internal organs), as well as the community boneyard.

Following the tour – by which time the sun has peeked out from behind the clouds and has started warming up the city – we three decide to poke around and do a little shopping. I decide to try and find a dress for the concert we’re attending later in the evening – after looking at my selection in wardrobe the day before, I decide I can do a bit better.

I manage to score some souvenirs for back some – some tea and a scarf for my mom, as well as a couple little magnets for my dad and my friend (with whom I was originally supposed to travel, but who couldn’t make it). And I do find a dress at the second H & M I went into that early afternoon. It’s not something I’d normally wear to a music concert, but what the hell.

At this point, we take a pastry break. We wander down the street into a pastry shop – which, as it turns out, happens to be Café Demel where Lauren has a strudel and a little cuppuccino, and Robyn and I each dig into a slice of chocolate truffle cake, with a nice tall glass of milk. Mmmmm-mmmm … I don’t want that piece of cake to end!

To walk off the rich pastry, we stroll on over to Vienna’s historic Schmetterlinghaus (Butterfly House), where we take a peek at the various types of pretty tropical butterflies flitting about freely, eating fruit, or resting on various trees and plants, in the huge replica rainforest inside a greenhouse. We don’t stay very long, only because it’s so much hotter than the pleasant weather we’ve been experiencing since arriving in Vienna.

We walk past the Österichsrat (Austrian Parliament Building), snapping pictures of the many statues covering the front of the building. Half of the Österichsrat was destroyed during World War II, according to one online blurb I’ve read, and apparently some of the artwork inside is being restored. The statue on a pedestal at the very front of the building is Athena, the goddess of truth.

Time’s running short for us, so we hurriedly head over to the food courts near the city hall (Rathaus), gulping down some lunch, before scurrying back onto the bus.

Our next stop: the Schnaps Museum. We go on a half-hour tour of the building which houses the factory owned and run by Gerhard Fischer, which has been in his family for four generations. We start out in the old part of the museum, the “office” section which, if I recall, has all its original furniture, right down to the cash register. This part has been used in a few Hollywood films, according to Mr. Fischer.

Next, we pass through the halls, adorned with pictures of some of the various celebrities he – but moreso his son – have entertained in the building throughout the years. We then enter a room with various vats (I can only assume are for making or temporarily storing the schnaps – not “schnapps”
as we spell it here in North America), along with a table showcasing some of the many types of liqueur Fischer’s company makes. 

He runs down the varieties with his oddball sense of humour, which range from his award-winning butterscotch flavour (apparently because so many Aussies on tours previously asked him why he didn’t make one – so he did) to one known as Wiener Blut (Vienna Blood), nicknamed “Rocket Fuel” because of the taste. Apparently unlike the schnapps made here in North America, there’s not a whole lot of sugar in the schnapps made in Europe, if any at all.

The company also makes absinthe – not the hallucinogenic ones you hear about in movies (and which apparently may have contributed things like Van Gogh cutting his own ear off), but Bohemian absinthe similar to ones you might find in the Czech Republic.   

Then the fun part. We finish the tour and go into the store, where we taste some of the various flavours. I sample the butterscotch, hazelnut … and Rocket Fuel, which I think might actually burn a hole in my throat. Call me crazy, but I end up buying one, because I hear it’s really nice with orange juice. I also purchase some absinthe (because I missed my chance in Prague, and really, there’s no way I am coming home without any “exotic” liqueur).

Next, it’s back to the hotel. Lauren and I shower and change, but end up late for meeting the others, so we make it to the restaurant on our own, via the metro. (During the entire time I’m in Vienna, I make doubly and triply sure I buy the proper fare – after Budapest, I’m not taking ANY chances.)

Despite sweating a bullet or two, dinner is amazing. I have a lovely spinach and goat cheese soup, followed by possibly some of the best salmon on the planet, and topped off with a creamy white chocolate mousse for dessert. If there was any way to re-live that meal again, I gladly would.

After dinner, it’s upstairs into the concert hall, for a couple hours of classical music. The musical ensemble play some familiar pieces, as well as a couple I don’t recognize (which is good). Besides the musicians on stage, a few of the pieces are accompanied by dancers (which I find a wee bit distracting – I’m constantly wondering how they can dance about without knocking a musician in the face) and opera singers (much more suited, in my opinion).

This is followed by a half-hour intermission, complete with sparkling wine (and some gold-flecked schnaps Carla smuggles in – good job!), and then the remainder of the concert. Only one thing could probably make the concert an awesome one – if there aren’t so many RUDE PEOPLE in the room. All the talking and the snapping and videotaping of the concert as it’s on, is ridiculous! At one point, the man who is the “ringleader” of the musical ensemble actually turns and glares at people in the front rows, which to me speaks of the lack of manners in the room on this evening.

Again on my trip, I’m annoyed, but only briefly. Seriously, these people shouldn’t be coming to a show if they’re only coming to say they’ve been to a concert OR if they’re so bored they’re not going to SHUT THE HELL UP! I did not pay good money to hear people speak – that’s what cafés are for!

And the worst culprits? People some 20, 25 years or so older than ME. What’s UP with that? I should be the one requiring some discipline and restraint during cultural events, not them. And they were SO pushy, shoving past patrons just to get onto the outside balcony for their free drink during intermission. No joke. 

Aaaaanyway. We pile back into the bus after the concert, and are driven back to the hotel, where we stay and drink for the rest of our respective evenings.

Another city crossed off my list. And one more city closer to the end of my trip …

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.


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.


“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.


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 …


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.


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.