Saturday, May 14, 2011

Getting lost in Vienna and Budapest

I need to figure out how I can continue with the academic calendar. I will miss winter, spring and summer breaks too much. On top of that, this year I got two spring breaks! For my first spring break I traveled to several different countries. For the first part of break I went to Vienna and Budapest with my co-worker, and friend, Jan. Getting to Vienna was easy. It necessitated a layover in Barcelona, but we managed to get there without any major problems. Once we landed we took a shuttle to one of the main train stations and our hostel was just around the corner. I was surprised with how nice it was. I tend to like smaller hostel because the staff is typical nicer and they have more personality. This hostel, however, resembled many of the things I like about smaller ones, but it was still quite large. The staff was incredibly helpful and it was clean! That’s always a major plus. Our flight got in pretty late to Vienna and the downside to that was having to make our beds in the dark. The only two that were left in our four-person room were the top bunks, so we tried our darnedest to quietly make our beds in the dark.

Friday morning we got up and had breakfast in the hostel. They had peanut butter! After breakfast we took the metro to Schonbrunn palace. It had once belonged to the Habsburgs and Mozart played there as a child. Sadly, those are the only details I remember. It was beautiful, but once you’ve seen one palace I feel as if you’ve kind of seen them all. After exploring the palace we went outside to look at the gardens and the surrounding grounds. We climbed up the hill to the get a good view of the city.

Our next destination was Freud’s house. We could find it on our map, but had a hard time actually locating it. I suppose the fact that our map only had major streets contributed to that problem. We found ourselves walking around pretty aimlessly and working up an appetite! We stopped at this strange little restaurant for a bite. We weren’t really sure what we had ordered and left some decisions up to the waiter, but it was good and a funny experience.

I was particularly excited for the Freud museum because my great-great grandma grew up right across the street. According to her Freud was “even crazy back then.” I’m not sure how long she lived there. I know at a fairly young age she immigrated to the U.S. It was very cool to relive my history and see where she grew up. The door to the apartment building was open, so I even got to take a quick look in the lobby. I have a feeling it didn’t look too different from when she lived there.

The Freud museum itself was very disappointing. It talked very little about his work. At the beginning we were handed a thick packet, which had notes on every item in the museum. It ranged from his antique collection to various certificates, pretty boring if you ask me. From the museum we wanted to head to the center of town. We were really interested in seeing an opera so we figured we would try and find some tickets. We found the main drag, but had a hard time locating the opera house. There was one large building, which we walked around, but for some reason we were convinced it wasn’t the opera house. Feeling defeated we asked a woman walking her dogs for directions. Turns out that large building was indeed the opera house. Oops. This was only the first of many times we asked for directions while standing right in front of our desired location. We found a guy selling tickets out front. He brought us back to the store he worked for because I was nervous he might be selling fake tickets. They were real, just very overpriced. Since the opera was sold out we didn’t have a choice. As they say in Spanish, vale la pena. It’s worth it. After purchasing our tickets we wanted to get a quick bite before the opera. We found a cute little coffee house and noshed on some pretzels.

The opera we saw, or perhaps listened to would be more appropriate, was Tosca. I say listened to instead of saw because our seats were in the nosebleed section and I could only see about 1/3 of the stage. For some reason the entire opera seemed to be choreographed on the remaining 2/3 of the stage, so I couldn’t see anything. It was a bummer, but you go to the opera for the music, not the acting. I’m a little glad we were in the nosebleed section because we were incredibly underdressed. Therefore, sitting with the other rift raft (or travelers) we fit in a little better. It was a long day so after the show we went back to the hostel to catch up on some much needed sleep!

The following day we made our way to the Naschmarkt (flea market.) It was divided into several sections. In one area there are hundreds of restaurants and stores selling food products. If you make your way in the other direction you hit permanent fruit and vegetable stands. Continuing in that same direction there are collapsible flower stands. The following section is full of touristy items. The last part is only there on Sunday and it’s the flea market part. Boy did they have an odd assortment of things! We saw antique jewelry, furniture, torah coverings and then plain old junk; there were lots of naked barbies, used remotes and oddly enough a large collection of American license plates. Jan bought a cute little glass egg. As tempting as the naked barbies were, I went away without making any purchases.

After thoroughly exploring the flea market we walked back in the direction of the restaurants and ate at a Japanese place for lunch. Asian food yet again! It hit the spot. While we were traveling Jan was reading a collection of short stories about funny experiences people have had traveling. While discussing the stories we accidentally did exactly what one of them was talking about. One of the waitresses approached our table and I asked for the check. She didn’t understand what I said so what did I do? I repeated it again and louder. It was exactly what one of the stories was talking about. What do you do when traveling when someone doesn’t understand you? You do what everyone does—repeat it! Luckily, in this case the international symbol for the check worked its magic.

Our next stop was the Austrian Gallery. It holds the largest collection of Klimt’s work. His famous painting, “The Kiss” is there. Aside from that, a few of his other pieces and their very small collection of impressionist art it was a little lackluster. I was very glad we got to see “The Kiss,” though. After the museum we walked to St. Stephen’s Cathedral and climbed all 343 stairs to the top. The top of the tower had gorgeous views of the entire city. We went inside the cathedral, too. I’m afraid most of the cathedrals I’ve visited fall into the same category as the palaces. Once you’ve seen several they all kind of blur together. After all that stair climbing (and descending) we did the next best logical move: gelato. I think I may be abusing the “I’m on vacation” phrase. Jan wanted to go to mass at St. Stephen’s and as tempting as that was I decided I’d meet her back at the hostel. I had foolishly forgotten the transportation pass I’d purchased and I didn’t want to risk being caught so I decided to walk. Let me just say it looked a lot closer on the map. I had made a mistake of not bringing great walking shoes with me so my feet were in pain to begin with. What I thought wouldn’t be longer than a 30-minute walk ended up being just over 50 minutes. I guess it pays off to remember your bus card.

For dinner we tried this wonderful place the hostel recommended. I tried wiener schnitzel for the first time. I wouldn’t write home about it, but I was glad to have tried it in its birthplace. It was another early night because the next morning we had to be up bright and early to head to Budapest!

The bus times to Budapest weren’t exactly ideal, which meant getting up at 5:30am to catch a 7am bus. We took the metro to get the bus. We had assumed it we’d be picking the bus up at a bus station, but it was more like Megabus with random stops on the side of the road. After walking around the entire metro stop and asking a woman who didn’t speak English for directions we found the bus! To make matters interesting we were dropped off in the middle of nowhere in Budapest. Luckily, it was by a metro station. We couldn’t figure out what stop it was, so we literally just got on the train. Luckily it was in the direction we needed. We had been warned that very few people spoke English in Budapest so we were worried about getting lost and needing to ask for directions. Jan had directions from the hostel on how to get there and once we figured out where we were it didn’t take long.

Briana went to Budapest after our study abroad program and raved about the hostel she stayed at. We decided to give it a try and ended up being very pleased with the recommendation. Unlike our hostel in Vienna, this one was tiny. I think it slept a maximum of 28 people. It was super cozy and the staff was amazing. After we checked in we wanted to get the local currency (forints) and start our Hungarian adventure. It was a Sunday so all banks and currency conversion places were closed. That left ATMs as our only option. Supposedly you get a better rate with those anyway. I’m not sure if that factors in the ridiculous $5 foreign transaction fee Fifth Third slaps on, though. The forint to dollar calculation was pretty confusing. While we were there the rate was 184 forints= $1. It involved a little rounding, but we ended up using 200 forints= 1 euro to help us with our calculations. We quickly found out math is neither of our strong suits when we tried to withdraw money. We were trying to take out about $100. We got a little confused with the zeros and Jan tried taking out $1,000. Thank goodness her bank doesn’t allow withdraws that large. When that didn’t work I tried writing out the math and realized our mistake.

For lunch we went to a great place called the Hummus Bar. I can’t wait to go back home and have hummus! Spain’s lack of edible food is astounding. After enjoying our hummus and falafel we went on a walking tour of Budapest. It was really interesting. One thing that resonated with me is all of the economic challenges Hungry is facing. Our tour guide said that this is causing a severe brain drain, where many of Hungary’s intellects are leaving the country for research positions in other places. The tour took us all over the center of the Pest side and over the Chain Bridge to the Buda side. It’s really a charming city.

After the tour we briefly headed back to the hostel before heading out for dinner. A woman recommended a restaurant called Koleves. We figured we’d give it a try. I was ecstatic to get there and find out that they had matzo ball soup! Let me tell you, it made my week. It was a cute little place. Halfway through our meal a couple brought their dog into the restaurant (I guess their version of the FDA is a little more lax…) and it entertained all of the patrons for a while. It was really cute and everyone wanted to pet it.

That night I met a Belgium guy named Jonathan at the hostel. He overheard me skyping with my parents about the matzo ball soup and said his parents were upset he was traveling during Passover. I didn’t realize there were many (or any) Jewish people in Belgium. I was amazed with how good his English was. After living in Spain for so long I always think Europeans have challenges with second languages and English. It’s very refreshing every time we travel when I’m reminded it’s just a problem here in Spain. I’ve really been flabbergasted with how well people speak English! It’s truly unbelievable. I’ve met so many people who barely have accents. It shows how far Spain has to go. On a similar note though, it’s a reminder of how few people can speak second languages in the U.S. We’re very lucky that English is the business and common language throughout the world, but I still think it’s important for schools in the U.S. to start improving their foreign language departments.

But back to Budapest...the following day we walked to the parliament building. The building is very similar to the Houses of Parliament in London. Supposedly the architected studied there, but to spite the Brits he designed the Hungarian parliament to be slightly larger. The day we walked by there were several very strange protests going on. Some groups had signs, but we weren’t able to decode them. It looked like one group had to do with veterans. I have no idea why the other group was there. It was a large group of over 100 people standing on the backside of the building by the river. It looked like they were praying and protesting. There were several people filming the event, but it didn’t look like they were from the news. We were very confused. During our trip to Budapest the head of the UN was visiting. Additionally, Hungary was the leader of the EU at the time. We figured the protests/prays might have something to do with that.

Our next stop was St. Stephan’s Basilica. It was very pretty, but you know my feelings about cathedrals. After the basilica, lunch and a quick stop at the opera house we went on a communist tour of the city. It was fascinating. Our tour guide had grown up in Budapest and Sweden and was able to tell us about what she remembered about growing up under a communist regime. I really enjoyed the tour! One of the stops was outside of an old bus station that has since been converted into a restaurant. She said when it was built many people were upset because it resembled a bus station in Chicago and that represented the free world, which was clearly bad. I can’t say I recognized the building, but I enjoyed the Chicago shout out! Our tour ended in a bar where we were able to sit down and wade through a ton of propaganda from the time period. Our guide had books, postcards, games, passports, etc. I thought that the passports were particularly interesting. Hungarian citizens either had red or blue passports. One of the colors meant you couldn’t leave the country. They other allowed you to travel outside of Hungary. Hearing all of her stories made me realize how lucky we are today to have all of the freedoms and liberties that we do. Her stories were so startling that they were hard to believe.

After the tour ended we walked to the synagogue. It’s the largest in all of Europe and the second largest in the world. Unfortunately, it was closed for Passover! I was very disappointed. I tried to ask the guards if I could at least go for services, but they said no. I’m not sure if they fully understood my question, even with the help of a Canadian translator, but the answer regardless was no. If I ever return to Budapest it will be my first stop.

For dinner we tried a restaurant a girl on our communist tour recommended. She raved about it so we figured we had to try it out. Sadly, it was pretty bad. Come to think of it, the girl was in grad school in Spain and the food at this restaurant was still leaps and bounds ahead of Spain’s food. It just goes to show everything is relative.

From dinner we walked all the way to the Buda part of town. It was over a half an hour walk. We wanted to climb the hill to see Pest lit up at night. We walked about 1/6 of the way up the stairs, got creeped out on the wooded path, ran back down and walked all the way back to the hostel. Needless to say, we never got to see Pest lit up at night. I’ll add that to my things to do next time I’m in Budapest.

Tuesday was our last full day in Budapest. We hadn’t really budgeted our time very well and we kept adding more things to our agenda, which meant we didn’t have a lot of time to cover a lot of ground. Our first stop was the Széchenyi Baths. It was built in 1913. There are about 15 different baths ranging in temperature. Three are outside. We happened to be there on a beautiful day, so it was very nice to sit outside and relax in the baths (with 300 of my closest friends.) There were a fair amount of tourists, but there were also a lot of locals. From what we heard, a lot of older people have monthly passes and spend their free time there. Getting to the baths was a similar experience to a lot of the monuments we visited in Vienna and Budapest. We were right in front of it when we asked for directions. We also had some trouble getting out of the locker room to find the actual baths! It confirmed how few people spoke English. Despite the fact that it’s a pretty large tourist attraction all of the signs were just in Hungarian, which wasn’t very helpful. There was one pool that had a current in it, forcing you to swim with it in a counterclockwise circle around the edge. We spent some time in the steam, too, but it was really hot so we were unable to stay for long. While we didn’t spend very long in the steam we did spend a lot of time outside. Not having any sunscreen allowed me to tan (or burn) much faster than I had wanted. I’m glad I got rid of my winter white, though. Neither of us wanted to leave the baths, but we had so much to do.

We quickly dropped our bathing suits off at the hostel and took the metro to our next stop. We went to the central market, which had a mix of stands selling food, fast food stands and touristy vendors. It’s in a beautiful old building that used to be a train station. Briana recommended that we tried the langos, so we scoured the place to try and find it. Langos (pronounced lan-go-sh) is deep fried dough with various toppings. Just ask a Spaniard, it’s healthy! For lunch we spilt a langos with a ton of different veggies. It was quite the rip off. They had a display with the one we ordered. When they rang up the langos and two diet cokes came to the equivalent of 15 euros! Turns out the langos we ordered wasn’t on the menu with the reasonably priced items (ranging from about 3-5 euros.) Ours was the tourist trap where they charged you per ingredient. Well, you live and you learn. We couldn’t pass up getting dessert langos. I opted for mine with powdered sugar and Jan got nutella.

We ran with our langos in hand to catch the beginning of the Jewish walking tour. It was really interesting. Our guide gave tours of the synagogue, so even though we weren’t able to go in I heard a lot about it. At the end of the tour he passed around a book that had photos of the inside, so I got a glimpse of what it looks like. We missed the tour guide’s introduction, but we caught his assistant’s bio. Her name was Shirley and she was born in Israel from Hungarian parents. She was really sweet and very pregnant. It was fun to walk around town and learn about all of the Jewish stops. At this point I can’t remember all of them, but I remember going to the synagogue, seeing some of the areas that used to be primarily Jewish and stopping outside of the mikveh.

After the tour we walked back to Hero’s park (the area near the baths) to get some photos. It was absolutely beautiful out. The sun was setting, which make for a gorgeous backdrop. On our walk back to the hostel we ran into my new friend Jonathan. We had wanted to pick up a bottle of wine for our dinner at the hostel that night and Jonathan had just come from a local wine store. According to virtually every Hungarian we met, Hungarian wine is very good and on par with many other countries who boast about having superb wine. The problem Hungary has is that they don’t have enough money to market their product, which leaves it largely unknown and undiscovered worldwide. The bottle that we got was great and it was a steal, too. It was equivalent to about 10 euros or 14 dollars. I’m going to miss being able to get a really good bottle of wine for cheap in Europe.

Once we had our wine we were ready for dinner. The hostel invited all of their guests for a traditional Hungarian meal. We popped several bottles of wine to get the party started. I cannot neglect to mention the homemade Hungarian specialty shot we also had. One was plenty for a lifetime. I’m pretty sure it was the catalyst to my upset stomach; however, the massive amounts of wine probably didn’t help either. Dinner consisted of bread and a delicious soup/stew. It was really fun to meet all of the people in the hostel. There were three other Americans who were studying abroad in Prague, two Mexicans studying in Europe, my Belgium friend and several Frenchies. Most of the staff from the hostel came for dinner, too. It was a really enjoyable night. After dinner we “had” to go out for a night on the town. We started at a little hole-in-the-wall joint close to the hostel. According to the hostel employee who brought us there, they had cheap drinks. From there we went to a ruin bar not too far away. It was a really fun night and now I feel like I’ve truly experienced Budapest. You haven’t lived until you’ve been out in Eastern Europe.

We got home very late that night. Jan had to catch a 7am bus to Prague. My flight wasn’t until later in the day, but I still needed to check out of the hostel by 11am. Jan woke me up at 6:15am when she was leaving. She went to the common room to print her bus ticket and realized she never got a confirmation. I encouraged her to go anyway. Sitting around and freaking out at the hostel wasn’t going to get her anywhere. At 7am I hear someone rustling next to my head. Jan had forgotten her passport in our locker. Luckily, she realized when she was half way there, so she didn’t make the whole trek. She obviously missed the bus and had to catch the next one. My travels went a little smoother. I stayed pretty close to the hostel that morning because that Hungarian moonshine wasn’t sitting so well. I tried to find a Holocaust memorial next to the Parliament building, but to no avail.

I was told that the cheapest (and fastest) way to the airport was by train. The train station wasn’t far from the hostel so I walked. Time was ticking, the line wasn’t moving and I wanted to get on the 12:38 train. I ran to the platform and got on the wrong train. In my defense, the train I was supposed to get on looked like it was closed off. I got on the train next my 12:38 one. Thank goodness it was still going to the airport. Also in my defense there were two British girls who were equally confused and got one the same train as me thinking it was the 12:38 one. I showed my ticket stub to a Hungarian woman on the train who assured me I was on the right train in rapid Hungarian. I kept saying I didn’t understand and shook my head, but she kept on going. She was very nice and grabbed me by the arm and told me when I needed to get off. She continued with the rapid Hungarian, not that I would have understood had she spoken slower, and pushed me off the train with some hand gestures telling me which way to go once we got to the stop. At that point in time I had given up on saying I didn’t understand and just kept nodding yes. When we got off the train I asked if the British girls had caught any of that. They said no and mentioned they thought I understood since I was shaking my head yes. Either way, we found the airport!

From Budapest I flew to Paris where I finally met up with my parents! Vienna and Budapest were great. Now I just have to look forward to hopefully making it back some day.

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