Friday, May 6, 2011

Budapest II: Turkish Baths & Ballet

I had a late start this morning for the sole purpose how good my three-inch, scratchy hostel bed felt. No lie; I kept snoozing for what must've been two hours. Anyway, today I planned on staying on the Buda side for the entire day. I walked over to Castle Hill (itself an hour's task) and reclimbed the winding trails and staircases that we'd done yesterday on our walking tour. Once at the top, though, I had free rein to explore and take pictures on my own. None of the museums in the former royal palace were rated that highly by Frommer's, so I just walked around and took pictures in the palace complex. The real attraction on Castle Hill is the St. Matthias Church, this ancient little cathedral nestled in the medieval neighborhood atop Castle Hill. It's particularly renowned for its bright porcelain tile roof; it's geometric patterns have inspired similar roofs all over Budapest and beyond. Built centuries and centuries ago, it was the royal church used for coronations until Buda fell to the Turks in 1541 and it became a mosque until the Christians recaptured the city in 1686. The church was repainted on the inside with a bunch of great paintings depicting the Ottoman wars, which I thoroughly enjoyed. There's also a statue of the Virgin and Child in one of the chapels that has an interesting story behind it: after the conquest in 1541, the Muslims bricked up a wall in front of the statue during their modifications of the church to outfit it as a mosque. Over a hundred years later, as the Muslims defended Castle Hill from the Holy Alliance besieging it, a cannon impact so shook the church that the wall in front of the Virgin statue crumbling, revealing to the Muslim defenders a fantastic Christian statue that they interpreted as a miracle. Thinking the Christians had divine favor for their conquest, the Muslims panicked and abandoned their defenses, letting the Christians win a decisive victory and retake the city.

I digress with historical anecdotes once again. After taking my time exploring the Matthias Church and the Fisherman's Bastion outside (a decorative castle ramparts and towers that are more decorative than they are defensive), I went to a little cafe overlooking the Danube and Pest. I got a sweet menu of the day deal where, for like 18 bucks, I was able to get goulash soup, a paprika-drenched chicken breast, and strudel. The goulash and the chicken were both excellent Hungarian dishes. Post-lunch, I wandered down from Castle Hill and made my way south along the Danube (still on the Buda side) toward the Turkish Rudash baths.

Talk about a cultural experience. These baths are the second-oldest in Budapest, built by the Turks in the 1500s. As so, they are still very Turkish in their operations; bathing suits are not permitted and the sexes are strictly separated by days of the week. I checked in and they gave me a magnetic wristwatch, in order to access my locker, and a loincloth. Nice. I got changed, per se, (more like undressed) and made my way to the thermal baths. They were inside this big octagonal room with Roman vaults and a big dome in the center. In the same fashion as the 10th century caliphal baths I saw in Cordoba, the domed roof had rings of holes cut into the rock; holes shaped like stars of David (ironic) and covered with a colored stained glass. The result was this great selection of vibrant colors radiating down onto the pools. There was one big octagonal pool in the center and then smaller ones, all varying in temperature, in the corners. They went in order of 28, 30, 33, and 42 degrees Celsius. The big one in the center was probably somewhere in the 37 range. I had no idea, though, until I would actually get into one and then I'd see the tiny plaque with the temperature reading. The entire time, I was trying to pretend like I knew what I was doing, so when I got into a bath that was piping hot I had to mask my agony and pretend that that's what I wanted the entire time. Same thing when I'd then walk into an ice-cold bath and nearly scream. I knew from the caliphal baths in Cordoba that the order you're supposed to go in is from cold to hot, so once I figured out which baths were which I tried to do it as the Turks - and now Hungarians - do it. It just took a lot of patient observation of who went from what pool to what. It was a little bit weird, trying to keep tabs of all the old fat naked Hungarian men, but I was convinced I was going to learn the system! In side rooms, there were also hot rooms of various temperatures and steam rooms with different temperatures and aromas. When you came out of one of the hot rooms (usually they were very, very hot like 70 Celsius) you would walk into one of the shower stalls and pull this rope, tipping over a bucket of frigid water on you and scaring the hell out of your body. I think I almost went into shock a couple of times switching temperature like that, but it's what you're supposed to do! The whole essence of the baths is to get out your impurities and find relaxation. I didn't find relaxation going from icy to piping hot, although I did thoroughly enjoy floating in the pools of more moderate temperatures.

After a while, it was time for my massage that I'd ordered when I checked in. It was not so much of a massage like I would be used to as a muscle workdown. The guy said that I would feel better tomorrow, but it was going to hurt today. Haha. I spent 30 minutes getting my muscles pounded in by this guy's elbow, and then I went back for another hour of the bath circuit. By the time that I got showered, changed, and walked out the door I'd spent close to 3 hours there. Best $34 I've ever spent though! Walking out onto the bridge and crossing the Danube, the brisk wind just felt really good. I think that the impurity-ridding aspect really took place because I felt thoroughly re-energized. I had just enough time when I got back to the hostel to change into theatre clothes and head out through the Jewish quarter to Andrassy Boulevard and the Hungarian Royal Opera House.

I'd bought tickets the day before for Giselle, a French ballet being performed at the Opera house. I'd never been to a ballet before, so I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Having searched on the internet for the plot, however, I was informed as to what was going on since I couldn't read the Hungarian program. I was up in the third deck, in the cheap seats, but I rented a pair of binoculars (which I could've just as easily done without) and posted up there in the third row. I had a perfect view of the right half of the orchestra pit and was able to see the entire stage, which is more than most people with side boxes can. I ended up really really liking it, however. There's no language barrier when there's no language! Plus the dancers were really talented. Made for a very pleasant evening. Got a kebab on the way back to the hostel and then turned on Gladiator with a few people. As sleepy as I was after those relaxing baths and the opera, I can never say no to that movie. Overall great day!

Budapest I: City Introduction

I got to Budapest, as previously indicated, on the night train from Belgrade and thus got in really early. After a much-needed nap in my new hostel, I set out with some other travelers from my place on a walking tour of the city. I'd done a lot of research, so I was more than well-prepared to plow out on my own, but the hostel guy was insistent that it was the best walking tour of all time. I ended up regretting doing it, unfortunately, just because it used up 3 hours of solid tourist time and made me climb the big hill on the Buda side of the river that I was planning on doing in more detail the following day. Usually I take those walking tours for the little fun tidbits and stories about the city but they didn't do a whole lot of that. But oh well.

As soon as I ventured out on my own, I realized just how massive Budapest is, and probably why the walking tour covered so little even in 3 hours. Budapest is relatively new, per se, in that the combined city was only formed in 1872. Before that, it used to be three separate entities of Buda (the west side), Pest (the east side), and Obuda ("Old Buda" on the NW side). After the walking tour, I was set on going to take a 2:00 tour of Parliament. Around 1:25 I set off on what I thought was a little walk up the Danube. I was convinced that in 30 minutes, I could get up the Danube, across the St. Margaret Island bridge, and back down the Danube (I was inconveniently placed in the direct middle point between two bridges) to Parliament. Wrong. Budapest is absolutely massive. Come 2:00, I'm still hustling across the bridge. Luckily, however, when I arrived at Parliament at 2:15 there was a delayed English-speaking guided tour leaving precisely then. The Parliament tour was short but sweet, and although we didn't go through much of the huge building (2nd largest in the world only after Westminster) we saw the parliamentary meeting chamber and some of the grand entrance halls. There was also a huge octagonal hall that is the center of the symmetrical building, where surrounded by busts of the past Hungarian kings, the coronation jewels are kept. Hungary boasts the oldest coronation jewels still used today, with parts of the crown as old as 1031 (within 40 years of Hungary even coming to Europe). So that was pretty neat. Afterward, I couldn't really walk around the grounds taking pictures because of the security "threat" that would've created, but I nabbed a few. It looks very similar to Westminster in its Neo-Gothic architecture. Only, instead of gold, it's all white with red roofs.

By now, I was pretty hungry so I walked back south to the plaza in front of the St. Stephan's basilica, where we'd gone on the walking tour and where I noticed there were a whole lot of cafes and restaurants. I settled on this one place based on their prices and was pleasantly surprised; I got as my main dish what were described as "meat-filled pancakes," but in reality it was like a non-sweet crepe/enchilada material that was stuffed with goodness inside with a sour cream sour layered on top. Looked kind of nasty but tasted delicious. Apparently the Hungarian cuisine is just meat, sour cream, and paprika - but I like it so far.

Nothing is open, tourist-wise, in Budapest past 6, and already it was 4 o'clock and I was by St. Stephan's with no tourist destination within a reasonable walking distance. Thus, I opted to just check out the basilica, which took 30 or 45 minutes, and then find a cafe and read for a bit. At Frommer's suggestion, I walked down Vaci utca, one of the main shopping and people-watching streets, until I found a suitable place. I had dessert and coffee there but after an hour this cold wind from the Danube kicked in and I was scrambling for the bill to get moving again. After getting back to the hostel, I was pretty tired from the whole night train experience (even after a short nap) so I just unpacked and went to bed after watching parts of a movie in the common room. Good first day in Budapest, and I learned the lesson of how long it takes to get from A to B in this massive city.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Lazy Day in Belgrade & Night Train to Budapest

The next day nothing was open again, just like the day before, because of Communist 3-day labor day celebrations. I resolved to take my book to one of the outdoor cafes on the main pedestrian street, Prince Mikhail, and just take it easy. I had a nice low-key lunch and coffee there, before I strolled ever-so-slowly through the grounds of the Kalemegdan, the ruined Serbian/Ottoman/Austrian fortress that occupies the highest part of Belgrade and is now a great public park. I walked the walls and the grounds of the old fortress, a task that itself took a fair amount of time, before setting up camp on one of the walls dangling my legs over toward the Danube. It was a real pretty location, where the Danube - coming from Budapest, and before that the German Black Forest - meets the Sava - coming from Slovenia and Croatia - and makes a big island in the middle. Kayakers and people were out boating on the river, and from my high perch it was a good backdrop to reading. All sorts of people were taking their holiday in the Kalemegdan and were hanging out, drinking beers, having picnics, etc etc. It was one of those places, like the Tuilerie gardens in Paris, that I would always take my book to if it was in my home town.

I burnt hours there, since there was nothing better for me to do until my night train left Belgrade for Budapest. Speaking of which, I was a little bit anxious for my night train; a ton of people had told me about how cautious you have to be on a sleeper train because random people jump on when the train is stopped and prowl looking for easy theft. However, I lucked out big time in that the train was relatively empty, and although I'd paid for a bed in a room with two or three beds, I was the only person in it. I had the whole thing to myself and, more importantly, could just lock myself in and go to bed. Minus the two passport checks at the Serbian and Hungarian borders, I slept like a baby. Good thing I'd set my alarm, though, because the employee that promised to wake me up when we got to Budapest certainly did not do so. I woke up to my alarm as we were coasting into the station and I had to throw my belongings together, get dressed, and hop off. Found my way to my hostel, checked in, and then - seeing that it was only 5:30 am - settled down for a nap.

Belgrade: Bad Timing

After the smuggling adventure on the Balkan Express train from Sofia to Belgrade, I got into the capital of Serbia late, around 10:00pm, even after the one hour negative time change. So much for Eastern Europe's train efficiency matching that of Spain. I was pretty tired still, from my late night out clubbing in Sofia the night before (even though I slept the first four hours on the train), so I pretty much unpacked and went to bed that first night so that I could be fresh to tackle Belgrade in the morning.

When I woke up and talked to my hostel guy, however, I learned that my plans for Serbia were pretty much all for naught. Serbia still celebrates a heavy, three-day version of Labor Day that's leftover from the Communist era. Pretty much everything shuts down except for parks and churches, so no museums or anything of the sort was going to be open the entire time I was there. However, I thought that - only being there for two full days - I could just take it easy and have a legit vacation.

The hostel guy recommended a walking tour - something that was surprisingly still going on with the holiday - so I showed up for that. The tour was not all that impressive, in that the guide obviously didn't want to be working that day and showed next to zero enthusiasm for his city. However, two good things about the walking tour were that 1) it gave me some ideas of places to come back to and 2) met a group of five other people who were traveling and made for good conversation. I went with these three Brits and two Argentine girls - all young people - and we went to the Bohemian gypsy neighborhood, Skadarska, for beers. We enjoyed each other's company enough that we agreed after a few hours to break up for showers and then meet back up in Skadarska to find somewhere to eat dinner.

A few hours later, we met back up and settled on this traditional, multi-course Serbian restaurant that our guide had recommended (one of the few things he actually did). We all went in on a massive group platter thing, so that we could all try a bunch of different stuff. The waiter started us off with some more pre-dinner rakia brandy - just like in Bulgaria - that was too strong and nasty for me but drank my portion to be respectful. Next, he brought us out all these cold cuts and other Serbian appetizers, one of which was like a pastry stuffed with spinach and cream cheese (surprising but tasty). Lastly, because afterward we had no room for dessert, was this massive assortment of meats: chicken breasts, a lot of pork, a lot of sausage, and a huge platter of beef bones. He also brought bowls and bowls of delicious goulash, and oily potatoes, and garlic-drizzled peppers. Kind of like Bulgarian cuisine, Serbian cuisine was very simplistic but hearty and absolutely delicious.

The Argentine girls left after that to catch an overnight bus to Sarajevo, and the two Brits that were a couple went home and went to bed (they'd come on the night train from Budapest and had only arrived that morning). The last Brit and I went for some beers at a pub down the way, and then we made moves trying to find some of these clubs down by the Danube riverside. However, all of them were closed because of the holiday. We managed to ask the right person, however, for directions: a Serbian kid who'd graduated from the University of Hawaii and spoke excellent English; he took us out for the rest of the night and introduced us to all his friends. He even took us to the one club that was still open, apparently. So that's how the night ended up.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Smuggling Aboard the Balkan Express

So today, nothing on the agenda but the 9-hour train from Sofia to Belgrade, Serbia. Good as much, since it was pretty dreary and rainy throughout the whole region. I was accompanied by three Slovenians on their way home via Belgrade, so I wasn't completely alone navigating the confusing Soviet train station.

The train system here couldn't be farther from Spain, haha. We are riding in these WW2-era trains, that aren't reliably on time, where no one abides by their assigned seat, pedal-operated trap-door toilet, etc etc. It wasn't as run down as the train from Cairo to Luxor we took last spring break, but it was close.

However, I was in for a funny an interesting surprise; all the other people in my cabin, along with numerous others throughout the train, were professional smugglers! They go to Bulgaria with cheap Serbian cigarettes, sell them, and on the return journey come back laden with cheap Bulgarian sunglasses and shoes. We were in the cabin with literally a three-generation network of smuggling. This old woman was running the whole enterprise, and her son and granddaughter - around high school age - were taking orders from her. One of the Slovenians, a girl named Melita, was sitting next to me and relayed these people's conversations to me after they'd left the train en route. But the first hour worth of the train ride, they were packaging these sunglasses and shoes and wrapping them together in packing tape and then stowing them around the cabin. Once the customs officers came and swiped everyone's passports at the Serbian border, though, they were able to operate "in the open," per se. At one point, they asked if Melita and I would get up from our seats for a moment. When we did, they pulled the seats off and removed the bulk of their smuggling booty: tubs and tubs of goat cheese!! Hahah. Exceptionally cheap in Bulgaria, apparently it can be pawned off as nicer stuff in Serbia and sold for a high price. It was just hilarious because of how many tubs there were - maybe twenty or thirty of those buckets that you can buy cookie dough in back in the States. They blatantly gave the station people some Euros when they disembarked somewhere in Serbia, and that was that. Haha - a little up close taste of the corruption and bribery that's the main reason Serbia isn't allowed to join the E.U. for.

Once those people left after the Serbian border crossing, Melita and I had the cabin to ourselves and we were able to put our feet up and sleep for a bit. Overall, it wasn't nearly as bad a train travel experience as Frommer's implied it was good to be. Plus, we all learned a valuable lesson: don't buy goat cheese out of unlabeled white buckets in Serbia; it's not as high quality stuff as you might believe! Ha.

Sofia, Bulgaria Pt. III

Harkening back to our group trips last spring, I decided this morning to do the hostel's free walking tour. After two days of walking around the city, I figured that I would have already seen most of the sites, but usually on those things the guide tells you a bunch of quirky stories and little nuggets of history that you couldn't find on Wikipedia. At the hostel beforehand, I met this 25 year old guy that went to the University of Wisconsin, so we had some common ground and ended up sticking together for the majority of the day.

The walking tour was good and finally gave me a reliable opportunity to ask people to take pictures of me and the sites - praise Jesus! No more spewing it broken Slavic trying to get a local to snap one of me: try your hand at "Suhzahlyavam - Ne razbeeram Bulgarski; govoreete lee Angliski?" and see how that goes.

After the tour, I milled around with the Wisconsin guy, Mike, in the flea market outside the big St. Alexander Nevski cathedral. I wanted to buy an Orthodox religious icon or two as interesting art pieces for my - knock on wood - future library room, especially since so many of my books are on medieval history and I have a three-part map of the Byzantine Empire already. Althogh there were countless options, I don't really have any connection to any Saints, so I just got a nice wooden painted portrait of Christ. Also, for their connection to history, I got a second icon featuring St. Cyril and St. Methodius, the two Byzantines sent to Bulgaria to come up with an alphabet for the Slavs (Cyrillic) in order to accelerate their conversion to Christianity and promote the Orthodox church there. All the pieces this guy had are copies of icons in monasteries or churches somewhere around Bulgaria - not that I'd seen the originals however. But, in sharp contrast to the $200somethingplus I paid for my big Arabic painting in Cairo, I was able to get these two pieces for 40 euros; an excellent bargain and further proof of Bulgaria's fantastic price disparity. No wonder its top tourist destination for Europeans right now.

Mike and I grabbed some lunch on one of Sofia's biggest shopping streets and then hopped in a cab to go to the suburb of Boyana, where the National History Museum is. They had a pretty good collection of Thracian, Roman, and medieval Bulgarian stuff and it made for a good hour and a half worth of exploring. After that, we just went back tithe hostel. I had the free spaghetti dinner again, and then we went out to a club with some Brits and New Zealand guys also staying at Hostel Mostel.