Thursday, October 06, 2011

Budapest - more dumplings and communism!

When I was a kid, for a brief time I had a stamp collection. You could order stamps by mail, and there was some kind of book where you organized them. The only thing I remembered about this stamp collection was that I had an abundance of stamps from "Magyar Posta". I had no idea where that was. My parents didn't know either. Half of my stamps were from Magyar Posta, which sounded like a very exotic place, but it would have been nice to have some VARIETY of stamps. Then I gave up the stamp collection and probably went outside to climb a tree. I completely forgot about this until yesterday when I saw a truck that said "Magyar Posta (Hungary postal service)". OMG, I thought. Magyar is another name for Hungary. I finally made it to Magyar Posta!

After a train ride with in a car with a man who smelled like onions, I arrived back in Budapest and moved closer to the center of Pest, near a beautiful Basilica (above). Here is the view out my window:

What started as a marathon trip has really turned out to be "Sara's dumpling and communism tour". I don't know when I turned into such a history buff. I just can't get enough communism stories. You heard me ramble on and on about the Berlin wall. As my first order of business, I went on the communism walking tour. It was absolutely fascinating! Led by a woman named Aggy and an older man named Zoltar, they pointed out things around Pest that were left from the communist years, such as this locked, underground bunker:

Aggy grew up during "happy communism", or "communism lite". Prices were regulated by the state, and salaries were very equal. (but unfair because doctors and ordinary workers made near the same salaries - which led to resentment and laziness). However, when in your own home, you could do as you wished. Religion could be practiced quietly and privately. There was coca cola and MTV. But also state regulated, educational television (which both Aggy and Zoltar raved about). Here is the Magyar TV station:

Communism was horribly strict in Hungary until the 1956 uprising. It gradually got better and better for people through the 60s, 70s and 80s. People still couldn't travel, though except to OTHER communist countries. They made travel to Vietnam and Cuba very cheap for people. I loved hearing their personal stories about growing up here. Aggy went on vacation with her family to the Black sea. Train tickets were really cheap for everyone. But going to western Europe was only possible for a very small section of the population. It was easier to travel to, say, Vietnam or North Korea than to Rome or Vienna.

Western goods were sold, but not in huge abundance. And prices were regulated so that everyone could afford the same things, which led to shortages. They seemed a little wistful for the old TV programs, cars and prices. Like David told me in Cesky Krumlov - when communism ended, it was a very tough adjustment for senior citizens. I asked them about advertising after 1990. I got the answer I expected.

Budapest has a lot of homeless people who fell through the cracks after 1990. To get good care in a hospital today still requires a little bribery. Bribery is still a hidden part of the culture left over from the communist years.

Here is a soviet statue, which they cannot knock down because Russia still takes care of Hungary's military. But everyone wants it gone. It keeps getting defaced, so they had to build a fence around it. Aggy pointed out plain clothes policemen to us, hanging around the statue.

And what a coinidence, Russia built that statue to face the American embassy. Another coincidence, The United States built a statue of Ronald Reagan behind the soviet statue. Hmmm! I was the only American (there were a lot of South Americans and a few Australians) on the tour and was put on the spot a few times. There's your president! Zoltar said.

A statue of Nagy, Hungarian hero, who lead the 1956 uprising.

Here is an example of a modern business on the first floor, and a decayed second floor with bullet holes in it:

Alcohol was very cheap during the communist years. Going to work drunk was generally OK. They wanted to keep people happy and content. Here is a bar that still caters to the old workers, a dive. With crazy cheap prices.

Aggie told us about the communist architecture. People still live in the block apartment buildings outside of town. Originally, poorer people could have separate apartments but share a kitchen and bathroom. With the new block apartments (that look like CHA housing), they built VERY small kitchens and no common areas. The communists didn't want people to linger in kitchens with their friends and gossip. They also built this horrifically ugly building across from the basilica, that was just slightly longer - to show people that something could be bigger than the church. It was very symbolically placed. It's a real eyesore among the beautiful buildings in the square. And will be torn down in three years. Thank goodness. It is butt-ugly!

They showed us a tourism book for Budapest of photos that was published in the 1960s, for publication in the west. It was all UGLY communist architecture and showed none of the beautiful historic buildings of Budapest. This is the image they wanted to project to the world.

After the walking tour, I went to an old jewish restaurant I found in Lonely Planet. It was a bit of a walk, but the paprikash was phenomenal. The owner came over to talk to me. I went out for streudel and a little night-time walk around my hotel and basilica. It remided me a little bit of Italy - people lingering around a fountain drinking wine from the fancy wine bar next door.

In the dungeon with Russians - Eger, Hungary

I had originally planned on seeing some smaller Czech towns south of Prague and slowly making my way to Vienna. Logistially, this wasn't going to work because ALL roads lead back to Prague and I was completely finished with that city. I bought a ticket to Budapest, thinking I could hop off in Bratislava if I got tired of being on the train. So I boarded the train that morning not knowing where I would end up that night, which is kind of fun. This is why I prefer to plan ahead, but not TOO much. What if I get tired of some town and feel like going somewhere else? Hungary suddenly sounded much more fun, and three weeks ago it wasn't part of the plan.

In the Czech replublic, I saw a lot of pets on public transportation. Here is some girl taking her cat on a seven hour train ride:

Honey cake on the train!

After I decided to go all the way to Budapest, I called a small guesthouse that got good reviews on tripadvisor. Tripadvisor is so helpful when I travel! I arrived to find two fussy but very friendly older men running a small hotel on the second floor of a grand, crumbling building. The staircase looked just like the one in single white female. It was a beautiful building that was a little ragged yet very atmospheric, but the guesthouse was very hip (and cheap!) Here is my cool chandelier over my bed:

Before I checked in, I got a lecture about the toilet. The message came loud and clear - don't break it. Don't put too much toilet paper in. Don't flush anything EXCEPT toilet paper. I got my key, and one more reminder to not flush any dental floss in the toilet. Because I was a female, and they were two men, they danced around the "feminine hygene products" topic which was funny but you could tell one of them wanted to say it. Here is the sign above my toilet, which I did not break:

I walked around the neighborhood and liked Budapest immediately. The train station is really rustic and dirty. The underground metro looked like it was from 1800. It was really old and squeaky and the doors don't shut properly. Downtown Budapest was full of cafes, beautiful old buildings and places to linger for hours. I tried to sort out my feelings about Prague. Prague is pretty too, but something about it just wasn't as inviting. There were so many casinos, bachelor parties, bars and tourists. But I can't blame a city for having too many tourists because I'm a tourist myself. Prague is like a girl who had a bad boyfriend for 40 years and is now on a bender. You want to tell her to just chill out and take a yoga class or something. Budapest seemed a little more dignified, a bit more like Paris. But still, nothing like Paris. I can't really make judgements like that about Prague or Budapest because I really don't know much about either city. Those are just my first impressions. I was EXHAUSTED, though. (and my cold and cough will not go away!) Big cities in general were just losing their appeal. I decided to spend one quick night in Budapest, hop on the train two hours to a small town I had read about in Hungarian wine country, then come back and properly tackle Budapest. This would mean I only have one night (at the end) in Vienna. That's OK. All of the sudden, Hungary just seemed right.

I had a nice dinner at a place the hotel owners recommended. It was fabulous. Everyone is eating outside because it's about 70 degrees during the day.

Train to Eger

After two hours, I arrived in a little village. I followed two students from Hong Kong to a bus and we figured out how to get downtown. One woman walked me to the hotel I had in mind. The fresh air in Eger was nice. The hotel was full of antiques and I had a little attic room that overlooked a little outdoor cafe and cobblestone street.

I had 24 hours. Enough time to see a castle and go to the little wine cellars on the outskirts of town.

The Eger castle is an important part of Hungarian history. They defeated the Turks here in 1552. The women played a big part in the legend - they helped the fight by splasing hot oil on the invaders. Good idea! This area makes a red wine called "bulls blood". Supposedly the Hungarians were able to fight the Turks because they were drinking the blood of bulls. The little wine cellar road is called "valley of the beautiful women".

Here is a lady with her bucket of hot, boiling oil. Take that, Turks!

After wandering around the castle for an hour, I went down some steps and found a locked gate. I peeked inside. It looked like the best dungeon ever! It was a hot day and I enjoyed standing there on the cool dungeon stairs. A sign said "enter only when accompanied by an official tour". Wouldn't it be great if a tour group came along right now? I thought. On cue, a bunch of people speaking some language I couldn't place came down the stairs and opened the door.

Of course I followed them in and tried to blend in. But it was hard to blend in with this crowd. I understood nothing they were saying. The tour guide acknowledged me and let me know that I could stay and it was no problem. The dungeon was really fun. There were (I think) torture devices and hidden passageways. But just as interesting was this group. I couldn't figure them out. There were two very effeminite and affectionate older men, one with a shaved forehead, as if his hair grew down too far and he wanted to tame it - and very expensive, hip glasses. There was a young guy in a bright orange disco shirt. There was an older lady in a skirt with big polar bears on it. There was a man who looked like his name was Igor. And two old grandmas with grey buns. Speaking some language I couldn't place. Igor came up to me and spoke english, translating a few things for me which was very nice. They were Russians! I was further confused when one of the older men came over to polar bear and gave her a flirty squeeze. I knew you might want to see the skirt:

They couldn't have been nicer. We spent some time in the dungeon together and then the door was unlocked and I set out to find the wine street. Here is my hotel:

I took a taxi to the wine cellars, where I found MORE Russians , several plastic tables and and old, shirtless man running around. It was like the village in "Borat". You know for me, it all comes back to Borat!

A series of little houses and each had a little cavern attached. These were mom and pop wineries, and nobody spoke English. I was only charged money twice and spent a total of 2 dollars. Some of the wine was actually good. I'd say about 50% of it was decent. The bulls blood was good. They had some very floral-tasting whites, too. I barely knew what any of it was because it was mostly in Hungarian.

My favorite winery was a sweet grandma who had wine in giant test tubes. Some people bought wine and took it home in plastic soda bottles! It was VERY local and home-grown. I got a lot of confused stares, because I was alone and wasn't Polish or Russian. I did meet some nice people, though. We communicated through pictures and hand signals. I didn't drink too much because I didn't really know where I was, and it was only 4PM. With the exception of Oktoberfest, I really hate drinking alcohol during the day. It just makes me tired and crabby.

There were no taxis or trolleys so I just made the 20 minute walk back into town. It was a really fun experience!

I was on a mission to find good chicken paprikash. Mission accomplished!

After dinner, I took a little stoll around the square. Eger has a beautiful church. It was nice to be in the country for a day. Tomorrow, back to Budapest!

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Prague: Castle-challenged!

To those of you who visited Prague 15 or even 10 years ago, I applaud you. I wish I had been smart enough to do so. I think it may have been better back then. I'm going to come out and say it - I don't LOVE Prague. It's OK. The history is interesting. The buildings are lovely. I think the town has sold itself out for entertainment a little bit. But after only two full days, what do I really know? It's just my snap judgement.

After the brewery tour in Cesky Krumlov, I got a taxi driver to take me to the bus stop. I was pleased that he was playing Deep Purple's "smoke on the water" at a very loud volume. With assigned seats, who was across the aisle from me on the bus but Daniel from the shuttle! We laughed at the coincidence and caught up on the last few days. The bus had free headphones and music. Two channels were available. Celine Dion type songs in Czech or really bad rock in English and Czech. There were also free gossip magazines with topless ladies in them. We had a few laughs over the absurdity of the bus ride and fell asleep. In Prague, we figured out the metro and went our separate ways.

My hotel was very old school with a hard bed. I was happy with the bed and the location. Kimberley, Steph and their mom were staying across town and we made plans to meet the next morning. Downstairs from my hotel was a very cool wine bar with many choices of Czech wine!

I shared a table with a couple from Prague. I just wrote in my journal and we would talk every now and then. We toasted and I told them that I liked dumplings. The woman got excited and told me that some favorite dish of hers with dumplings was served at the Imperial hotel, and showed me where it was. I had been exploring and it was about 10PM so I went straight there for a late dinner. It was delicious! Very ornate hotel dining room. I love that a person who lives here gave me the idea. I just showed the waiter what she wrote and said "I want that". Little did I know that I would have the same dish every day in Prague - meat, sauce and dumplings. I really think they eat this meal here more than anything else. But this one was the best!

The next morning I went to the extremely fragrant and nauseating breakfast buffet in a basement. There was a pineapple hog in the house. And no, it wasn't me. As soon as an employee carefully put out about 12 slices of fresh pineapple for the 10 or so of us, a man who got to the table first piled 6 or 7 slices on his plate. I took my ONE slice and several people were left sad and pineapple-less. At this buffet there was also laughing cow cheese with bacon in it, which I have never seen in the US. Feeling a little sick, I walked over to the Charles bridge and over to the castle to meet the Stedmans. Prague has HOARDS of tourists. HOARDS. The bridge was so crowded it was just moving with people. It was hard to get photos without 50 people in them. Prague is pretty, but it has nothing over Paris or Florence. I don't drink absinthe or hard liquor so I had no interest in going out at night to anything other than a cozy wine bar or beer place. Bachelor parties and all kinds of people come here.

Our texts went something like this:

I'm at the base of the castle, I think. But I don't see a castle.
We are climbing a hill. Are you near? Do you see a castle?
I think I see a castle but I don't know. Everything in Europe looks like a castle.
are you near a landmark?
Do you see the castle? I don't see it yet.

Here I am with Kimberley and Steph, at the castle. But we never saw an actual castle. I think it's just a government building that they took a very big stretch in calling a castle. Being from England, the Stedders family knows a castle when they see one, and being from America, I confuse everything with a castle. So we just went out for coffee and cake.

Old Czech cake - another thing I ordered without knowing what it was first. It wasn't bad!

My cold is coming back. My cough is still kind of bad. And my foot still hurts from the marathon. K and S made plans to go clubbing near my hotel. I couldn't summon the energy. I slept for a much needed 12 hours. K and S weren't the only ones out in Prague last night. In the morning, I shreiked when I opened the door and found a man curled up outside. I kind of stepped over him and used the computer in the hallway. I heard him rustle around, he muttered something and staggered upstairs. Apparently he came home and went to the wrong floor, just falling asleep in front of MY door. I know, I regret taking a photo. Sorry. I should have!

I couldn't stomach my hotel breakfast again so I went to Mc Donald's. It always tastes good when I'm sick. I never eat it otherwise! Plus, I thought it was a very fitting breakfast before the Museum of Communism!

Have you ever seen a better museum logo? I can't think of one!

Lots of great history. It was upstairs in a creaky building and people were smoking. They smoke everywhere here. I hate that. One of the interesting exhibits was about sports - they focused sports toward combat-type activities.

Shopping under communism!

They also spent YEARS making a huge statue devoted to Stalin in Prague. Dignitaries from all over came to the unveiling. It was just enormous. But torn down in 1962.

I also watched an interesting 20 minute video that outlined the history of Prague throughout the communist years. It made me kind of sad. Lots of footage of the 1989 student protests. It had even more meaning after talking to David the other night in Cesky Krumlov.

I moved hotels to a place farther away, but cheaper and very hip. I have mastered the subway system by now so I can really get anywhere quickly. K and S have moved on to Dubrovnik and I have one more night here before I go to Budapest tomorrow. I know nothing about Budapest. That's my plan for tonight - read about my next location!

Go home tourists! There are too many of you here!!

Saturday, October 01, 2011

Medieval times in Cesky Krumlov

I am an obsessive trip planner. I love researching vacations! I knew that I would want to find a nice, quiet place to recover from the marathon and Oktoberfest. I knew that my entire body would hate me. I read about Cesky Krumlov, in the southern Czech republic and knew that would be my spot!

I took the train to Salzburg and had a mystery snack at Julius Meinl. I enjoy pointing to things on the menu and just taking a chance. This was a lump of pastry with dust on top:

I met Kimberley and her sister Steph (Stedders 2) in Salzburg for lunch. Our trips overlapped a bit. They drove with Carrie and Brian. I wasn't going to fit in a tiny european car so I took a nice, peaceful train ride. Goulash for lunch:

I waited for my shuttle to Cesky Krumlov in this spot forever. The shuttle never came, so I called them. My shuttle driver got in a car accident! He was OK but they had to send another shuttle for me that would take 4 additional hours.

I had time to meet Kimberley and Carrie for dinner, then got on the shuttle with an Aussie named Daniel. Daniel is from Darwin and works as a technical person at a radio station. We had a nice conversation about travel, work, the usual. We didnt get to the Czech republic until almost 11PM. It was dark and foggy. The border had an array of sinister stip clubs and casinos. We lurched and bumped along Cesky Krumlovs (sorry, cant figure out punctuation on this computer) cobblestone roads to my amazing 500 year old hotel. Antiques everywhere, worn stairs, a fake cathedral ceiling painted on the wall!

Cesky Krumlov was absolutely beautiful and peaceful. I had a Czech combo platter for lunch of all mystery items and took a walk up to the castle.

Every stairway looked like it was going into a medieval dungeon. Everything had so much atmosphere!

my hotel:

I sat outside and met an old Polish man named Stanislaw. He had to heat up his beer with a special heater because it was too cold for him. He barely spoke english so we had a conversation with my German translation book. Stan has relatives in Chicago, and a divorced son in Austria. He mimed "divorce" by angrily pretending to rip off a wedding ring and throw it. That made me laugh. He kept saying SADA YOU A VELY NICE WOMAN. VELY NICE!!

He showed me his polish crossword puzzle.

I had to do laundry so I went to the only laundromat in town, which had three machines and two of them out of order. My hotel knew of a secret laundromat in a basement down the street where I could do my own laundry. They gave me a key and directions. I did laundry in a hidden stone cellar by just guessing how the machines worked. I love doing laundry on vacation, hate it at home!

I came across a group of Asians amusing themselves by dressing up in medieval costumes, laughing and photographing eachother. They were wearing crowns and robes and posing and pretending to joust.

I decided to take a break from meat at a vegetarian restaurant. I ordered something random from the menu. It was like Czech macaroni and cheese. VELY NICE as the polish man would say.

I had the best waiter. It was closing time and David brought me a free mead (hot honey wine) because he heard me coughing. He sat down and we talked about what it was like for him to live in Prague in 1989. He said that November 1989 (he is 2 years younger than me) was the most amazing and happy time. I learned about what it was like for him to grow up there in the 70s and 80s. He is somewhat of a free spirit, travelling to Africa, Latin America, all over Asia. We talked about our respective travels and countries. David spoke perfect english because he was one of three exchange students from Prague in 1991 to Phoenix, Arizona. He also ran the Prague marathon once. It was the most fun evening of conversation and so nice to get to know someone from the Czech republic. Just makes me smile to think about it.

The next day I took a tour of the Eggenberg brewery. Yes, the girl that fell off a bench at Oktoberfest took a brewery tour two days later. I met a fun older couple from Ottawa, Rick and Susan.

Eggenberg beer sells mainly to Cesky Krumlov, and a little bit to Austria and Scandinavia. Its a very local product. The machines looked very 1950s.

some important chart about beer making:

After the tour, we got a free sample in the restaurant and I ordered some stuffed dumplings with smoked meats and sauerkraut. I let the Canadians taste some. It was so delicious. I told them that I was changing my name to Sara stuffed dumpling. Earlier I mentioned that my last name means umbrella in German. "you can be Sara Dumpling Umbrella!" said Rick.

That sounds great to me. I think I'll just stay in Cesky Krumlov, change my name to Sara Dumpling Umbrella and live happily ever after.