Budapest, eastern mysteries revealed

Budapaest, eastern mysteries revealed
A Youth Backpacker in Europe
Chapter IX Part I

City: Budapest
Country: Hungary
Currency: Hungarian Forint (1€=238Ft)

Travel dates: 11-14 January 2008
Hostel: Goat Hostel

Travel buddies: Egon, Rahma, Siddharth, Meghan

Caption: Charles Bridge.

Budapest didn't strike the mind during the initial planning of the winter trip. It was rather a last minute plan than a desired location for visit when a gap between Vienna and Munich has to be filled. However, the Budapest visit turned out to be greater than pleasurable, even under minimum planning.

One good thing about travelling in Eastern Europe is that it is relatively cheap compared to other parts of Europe, especially Western Europe. In Poland, it was a great shock which was of course welcome that the expenses could be so affordable. However, it was in Budapest that I truly enjoyed the value of Euros offers.

Perhaps the city does look a little too worn out and unorganised, perhaps there were just somehow a little too much construction going on during the winter time. But the lovely sunny weather in the winter week truly accentuated the enjoyment for tourists in Budapest. Though with slight snowfall, Budapest was simply too warm to be considered as winter by the time of my visit.

Staying in a recently setup hostel at one end of the city centre, it was astonishing to learn that I had no key access to my room, because rooms were not locked in the hostel in general. Though padlock was provided by the hostel owner, who happened to be an extremely kind and polite peerson that was also very informative, I felt a little uncomfortable leaving my belongings in the hostel when I was out for exploration.

Caption: Danube from bridge (left), and from Jubileumi Park (centre), and Charles Bridge.

It wasn't discrimination, but to my fellow travellers, it is very important to always keep an eye to your belongings, especially when travelling in Eastern Europe. But don't get me wrong. They may not as wealthy as people from the western part, but it was always so interesting to learn the excitement and enthusiasm and friendliness of people from this region. It someone was really picky, I can guarantee snobbishness is something you wouldn't fing within easterners.

Budapest was really a very beautiful city. Of course, the sunshine covering the entire visit was a great enjoyment booster. The every single bridge that crosses the Danu River has its own very distinctive design. And no matter which bridge you are standing on, you will always have the greatest scenery from the both sides of the river. Though the one just at the end of the street near to my hostel was under construction, I guess it offered the best view to the more historical part of Budapest.

Caption: A market (left) and Buda Castle from Jubileumi Park.

If you haven't known, Budapest is divided into two parts; Buda and Pest which is located at the right bank and left bank of Danu River respectively. Buda is the old side of the city, every monument erected at this end of the city has extremely high historical value. By having said that, it is clearly undrstood that the Pest side is the new city district, which of course offers less attractive destinations but more modern concrete structures. However, the age of these structures are comparatively older than modern structures as have seen in other capitals.

It took me one day and night to enjoy almost everything at the Buda side. Of course, this is only feasiblt if you minus very detailed museum visit. I started my day by ascending slowly to the top of Jubileumi Park, where Szabadságszobor (Liberation Monument) is located. This is the highest point of the Budapest city and from here, a mesmerising panoramic view over the entire city, especially the Pest side, will worth your risk of falling off the hill due to icy walking path.

From the Szabadságszobor, one can slowly explore the whole Buda side by walking along the approximately five kilometres tourist destinations along the hill. These include Citadella, Buzogánytorony, Budapest Historic Museum, Halászbástya (Firsheman's Bastion), and most importantly the Budai Vár (the Buda Castle) which is listed as one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Caption: Way leading to Fisherman's Bastion (left) and one of the building in Buda Castle.

It actually does take a very long time if all these points are to be scrutinised properly. but as a museum skipper, I glided through the Buda side pretty effortlessly within a day. Personally, by simply enjoying the uphill-downhill walk was truly relaxing enough.

However, I did step into not one, but three museums. It was during the time when I was in Buda Castle. Haven't been admitted to any restroom that day had mae my bladder reached its ultimate limit. Naively thinking that there should be a toilet in one of the buildings in this vast area surrounded by massive structures, I ended up entered nearly every single building but still failed to locate a toilet.

No, do not think that I didn't open my mouth and ask. Instead, it was the confusing answers given to my simple question that led me walking fro and back several times for a total distance of about 1.5 kilometres before I finally got a zero Forint admission ticket into the Budapesti Történeti Múzeum for the toilet inside. Yes, you read it correctly. I had got a very beautiful admission ticket to the museum, but only for the use of toilet. This of course had created a buzz among my travel mates. And the result was exactly what you would have anticipated; everyone got similar ticket in the end.

Caption: Fisherman's Bastion (left) and Matthias Church near it.

If you have a sweet tooth and really like marzipan, then you should visit the marzipan museum located right at the ground floor of Hilton Hotel, next to the Fisherman's Bastion. In there, you would be amazed by all the marzipan displays which definitely require supreme skill work and consume lengthy time before finish. It was just too bad that it was nearing its closing time by the time I reached there. Though not sharing the snobbish characteristic, Hungarians do have the same working attitude as its counterparts in the rest of Europe.

Night wasn't coming early as compared to previously visited cities. But a walk from Fisherman's Bastion back to my hostel at night, along the beautifully lit Danu River marked a remarkable conclusion of the whole walking day. Amazed by our walking ability, we embarked on a journey of no return. But of course, this is coming in the next post.

Caption: Parliament as seen from Buda side (left) and Danube at night.

Note: I will be travelling to Kalimantan, Indonesia next Tuesday for two months for internship. Since internet connection in Kalimantan is slow, and I will have less time, and posting here gave me huge trouble today, I anticipate updates will not come as frequent as current. Sorry.

Vienna, vaudeville of the world

Vienna, vaudeville of the world
A Youth Backpacker in Europe
Chapter VIII

City: Vienna
Country: Austria
Currency: Euro (€)
Travel dates: 9-10 January 2008
Hostel Stayed: Wombat Vienna
Travel buddies: Egon, Rahma, Siddharth, Stella, Meghan

Caption: Vienna Opera House.

Early in the morning, I was sitting in a rather vacant train leaving from Prague for Vienna. It was the starting city of the second half of my winter trip and officially, I entered into the euros zone. Having been confused with numerous currencies for the past half a month, it was really challenging to switch to euros. It is strange to state this since I am actually receiving scholarship in euros. Fortunately, the transition was a positive one as spending habit was closely monitored now.

Vienna, the capital of Austria, was really cold during winter. Perhaps this has to do with the fact that Austria is part of the Alps mountain range and therefore the altitude of the country is relatively high. Though my winter clothes were proven to be sufficiently trapping the body heat, walking long hour on streets was still something unbearable. However, the situation was definitely a lot more enjoyable than in Poland.

Personally, I don’t think visiting Prague and Vienna one after another was a good idea, because you might end up sharing the same count as me that Vienna was nothing impressive. Perhaps this is somewhat biased as Prague had really set a supreme standard and thus shadowed the charm of Vienna.

Caption: Life as backpacker is not glamorous, having kebab before opera (left) and interior of opera house.

Having enormous structures in a beautifully planned city, Vienna to me was simply neat and tidy. However, whether it has left a significant impression in my mind is definitely questionable. But this doesn’t mean that Vienna should be erased from the travel list, though I would strongly agree that there wasn’t much to experience in the capital.

Contradicting to the previous comment, one of my winter trip highlights was actually happened in Vienna. I bet you know that I am talking about watching opera.

Yes, opera is indeed a world renowned thingy in Vienna. I think despite the fact that most of the world’s famous opera shows are originated from Vienna, it is also because watching opera is not going to cost a fortune, but could be extremely cheap and surprisingly affordable. From my experience, it was only two euros, but standing at a still having complete view of stage corner, for two hours.

Caption: Okay, the top part was where I stood (left) and the opera house before performance.

However, it wasn’t really a real opera show where you get to see opera singers singing with their extremely high-pitch vocals. It was a ballet performance with live orchestra performance in the background, but located in front of the stage. The performance was brilliant. But even if you are not entering the opera house for opera, paying two euros for the interior of the building is worthy.

Like many other tourists, one question that lingered in my mind was whether I need a suit to get admitted into the opera house. This may sound exaggerating. But to say that this requirement is merely a printed custom on pamphlets is an understatement. Carefully put on the nicest clothes I have in my backpack, yes the somehow still wrinkle free pants and decent looking shirt which would be covered under nicer looking jacket, I braved myself to the opera house and passed the test.

There were certainly a lot of audiences coming to the opera with extravagant suits and crying-out-loud dress. But to make the whole opera thing more balanced, there was also a fair amount of backpackers, like myself, dressing decently casual. The main difference between the two groups was one booked their ticket earlier through various channels, and the other (the backpackers) bought their tickets by lining up at the nearly invisible side door ticket counter of the opera house. It is also very important to note that you have to be there earlier for the queue because two-euro tickets are limited.

Caption: Ballet performance (left) and merchandise in Mozart House. Basically everything with his head on sells.

Opera is certainly not the only cultural and artistic activity to do in Vienna. Mozart, one the most celebrated composers in the world, lived in Vienna for ten (or fourteen) years and therefore making a visit to his house a must. I am not sure how worthy it is to spend money on the expensively priced ticket just to walk the four-storey building located at a unnoticeable street in the middle of the town centre, which is quite near to the more eye-catching St. Stephen Cathedral that dominantly erected, because I didn’t go there.

However, a visit to the merchandise store located at the ground floor opened my eyes to learn about the commercialisation of the whole Mozart thingy. From the dazzling array of merchandise, either a Mozart mouse pad or a Mozart mug, or maybe a Mozart chocolate, it is really hard to avoid thinking that maybe to buy a piece of scarf with his music printed on top is more important than walking through the various chambers in the building.

Caption: Mozart house (left) and there he is, Mozart.

There are also two gigantic museums in the city centre of Vienna, namely the History of Art Museum and History of Science Museum. Yes, museums. However, you don’t really have to visit the interior. My suggestion would just to walk in the middle of the Maria-Theresien Platz to experience the fierceness of these two absolutely identical buildings at both sides of the park. But that’s also because I had really extremely limited time in Vienna. Who knows that you might end up being more culturally educated after visiting to the two museums?

I am not a museum fan. But I did pay a visit to another kind of museum, the Sisi Museum. It was not because it was a kill three birds (Imperial Apartments, Sisi Museum and Silver collection Museum) in one stone reason, it was mainly because the lethally cold weather. However, I think staying indoor wasn’t that helpful at that time as I still felt deadly cold. Perhaps all the silver collection retained coldness?

Caption: In front of National Library (left) and St. Stephen Cathedral.

But paying a visit to Sisi museum was worthy as the story of Sisi was then raised again during my visit to Munich. But I think I should leave it as it is now. Vienna is definitely a culturally rich capital. But it was also where I started to suffer the inundation of cultures. Luckily I was only staying for two days. Can’t imagine what I will do in the third day. Perhaps just a tram ride around the city?

Caption: Maria Theresien Platz and History of Art Museum.

Prague, fairy tale capital

Prague, fairy tale capital
A Youth Backpacker in Europe
Chapter VII

City: Prague
Country: Czech Republic
Currency: Czech Koruny (€1=24.5kr)
Travel dates: 5-8 January 2008
Travel buddies: Egon, Rahma, Siddharth, Stella, Meghan

Caption: Prague Castle at night.

Walking on any street in Prague, Jiann Chyuan couldn’t help but wonder where have all the Czech gone?

The idea was to take a night train from Krakow to Prague so that we can have a wake up coffee breakfast in one of the world’s most beautiful city. However, it was all drained down to a nasty toilet experience in a somehow unthinkably ugly train station in this one of the world’s most beautiful city.

Okay, toilet was indeed there. But if you were having emergency call to subscribe to the toilet service in train station, after refraining yourself from using the disgusting toilet on the train for one whole night, make sure you have exactly the amount of change for toilet admission. I bet you just don’t wish to run into different partly opened (or partly closed) stores and to ask tens of people for small coins for toilet admission.

It was really bizarre and confusing to me that I was rejected to enter the toilet just because, not me, but the service counter didn’t have change to my paper note. I mean for toilet’s sake, allow me to settle more important business first, please. And most importantly, the most important counter in a train station (I mean the toilet counter), has no one that speaks English. I couldn’t help but wondered would visiting Prague become a beautiful disaster?

Caption: Tourists at Stare Město (left) and Charles Bridge.

Luckily, after a whole week of gloomy snowy weather in Poland, Prague showered us with the longed sunshine. It was surprising that being so closed to Krakow, Prague was relatively dry and had no trail of snow at the time of visit. But of course, it was cheerful news to me. And staying in probably the cheapest and closest hostel from nearly every tourist destinations in city centre did really help sweeping away to unforgettable toilet experience.

However, there was only one question: Where have all the Czech gone?

Walking to the insanely popular Stare Město (Town Square), the only thing you would really like to see is the insanely famous town hall. However, what you would probably end up, similarly to my experience, was the equally insane tourist population.

Caption: Clock at Old Town Hall (left), a beautifully decorated building in the posh street (centre) and at the end of the street near Old Town Hall.

Standing at the square, if you were lucky not to tumble around while being pushed, you would definitely notice there is no Czech language, but a bowl full of mixed foreign languages salad. I honestly reckoned that if the flags of different tour guides were laid down, it would probably sufficient to cover the whole circumference of the square.

The square itself is humongous, but the number of tourists made it impossible even to just walk without brushing to anyone else. And mind you, it was winter! I was really losing the ability to imagine the crowd in summer when I was gasping at the crowds from the top floor of the old town hall, which I was so afraid that it would collapse due to the overloading of tourists.

What is the point? Prague is a city built for tourists.

Caption: Market with fruits and souvenirs near to Old Town Hall.

No matter where you go, no matter what you do, you will find tens of people walking the same way, tens of people doing the same thing. And by looking at different souvenir shops that sell the same “Czech it out!” t-shirt, you definitely would wish that you could ‘czech’ some Czech out.

However, I must give a bit of credits to Prague because it was really beautiful, even in winter time, even when slushy snow paid an unexpected (and unwanted) visit since the second day. The best way to appreciate the charm of the city was definitely from a spot where you can overlook at least three bridges across the Vltava River.

However, again, the challenge of visiting Prague was not to visit every corner by walking, it was about where you can find a spot to take a decent photo without the tourists’ background. This was especially true at the Charles Bridge, at the Prague Castle, at the Stare Město, at the Old Town Hall, at the National Theatre, at the Church of Our Lady, etc. Okay, it was everywhere.

Caption: Downhill to Prague Castle (left) and Prague Castle from other side of Vltava River.

Well, if I have successfully killed your desire to visit Prague, then I should apologise, because there were occasions when I was indeed able to enjoy myself wandered around the city without bumping into too many tourists. And one of these examples, the one I recognise as the most enjoyable experience, was a walk along the Vltava River. It was a nice two kilometres walk where there were swans and birds waiting for you to feed. And the experience of counting the number of bridges was simply relaxing, as there was no need to fight for space on the bridges.

Although it may be crowded, you simply could not miss the souvenirs market near to the Old Town Hall. It was a place where tourists were most willingly to churn out the cash for absurdly highly priced souvenirs. Of course, this included the “Czech me out!” t-shirt.

Caption: Cakes in an ice-cream shop near to Old Town Square (left) and the must try bread.

Food in Prague was however to my surprise slightly expensively priced. Perhaps for the same reason, Prague is simply a tourist city and tourists need to eat. The restaurant that we went in at the downhill of Prague Castle was having quite little portion in serving. But it was compensated with extremely lively atmosphere. I guess part of the money on the bill went to this. I forgot the name of a kind of bread that is rolled over a steel bar and is touched with caramelised sugar before being baked. But it is a must try.

Looking at the title of the post, I indeed didn’t mention anything about how life in Prague could be a fairy tale, mainly due to the beauty of the city. Why? I bet you have known the answer right now. Prague, a beautiful place filled with culture-rich buildings, but unfortunately, fairy tale no more, tourists? Plentiful.