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Vienna, Budapest and Prague

CZECH REPUBLIC | Sunday, 25 May 2008 | Views [801] | Comments [2]

Hi all from a veeeeery lazy few days back "home" in Rockhammar (in Sweden).  We have enjoyed a few days of much needed rest and doing almost nothing after flying back in from Paris last night.  This post has taken a few days to write because the couch and Swedish reality TV keep calling me, and there's quite a lot of travel to report on.  So I think I might split it into some smaller, more managable chunks that will be easier to write and to read.

Once again, a HUGE tack to Agnete and Anders for hosting us on this trip.  We found it slightly amusing that the day after we got back, they left their idyllic small town away-from-it-all-with-only-the-sound-of-the-birds house in the Swedish countryside for their own little even more away-from-it-all-with-only-the-sound-of-the-birds getaway cottage on a mountaintop in the even more remote Swedish countryside for a bit of relaxation (-:  This worked out well, because the only thing Emma and I wanted to do for the next couple of days was sleep and watch TV (I can't believe Russia won the Eurovision with their epileptic violinist and bathtub figure-skater, check out Bosnia-Hetzegovina for my favourite entry).

OK, last post left off in Vienna, so let's start there.  We probably ended up not giving Vienna sufficient time after our late morning, so it's a little unfair to comment on.  We walked to a gallery built by and housing the work of Friedenrich Hundertwasser, who is a bit like Gaudi meets Michael Leunig with a lot of hippie thrown in.  The building was designed by Mr H himself and is a fun building with uneven floors (H considers flat floors to repress human creativity - not sure if OH&S reps would agree) and cool mosaics and different building materials all over the place.  I guess he's trying to get people back to nature and the unevenness of the cave floor or something.  Anyway, you can look him up on Wikipedia if you'd like to know more, we thought his stuff was cool, especially his idea for a new New Zealand flag (he spent a lot of time there). 

After that we walked into town and got a meal (more goulash, love the stuff) and by then it was time to head to the Schnaps factory for a tour, a tasting and (once we were a bit sozzled) a chance to buy some schnapps and merc.  Then while some from the tour went to a classical music concert (though many were wondering why "belly dancers" might be on the bill after our tour leader's kiwi accented description) we went to the statue park and drank some beer in front of the statue of one of the Strausses (he had a violin and was made of gold if anyone knows which one he might be).  Pleasant enough evening except after we walked to see the building with the light display (cool effects, not sure if it's worth the carbon) we hopped the Number 2 tram to go around the inner ring road back towards the hotel.  Unfortunately, after wondering for 10min why we hadn't passed the Parliament House yet, a helpful Austrian evesdropper kindly informed us that the Number 2 tram that spends all day going around the inner city in a loop, had suddenly become the Number 43 and we were heading away from the city in the wrong direction for the hotel.  You'd think you'd be safe on something that runs on fixed rails wouldn't you?  Anyway, we hopped on the tram going the other way and cabbed it to the hotel at 11pm, so much for the early night.  End of Vienna.  Nice enough town, can't say it really had anything particularly special to recommend it, but like I said we didn't give it much of a chance.

I should also mention the Austrian toilets (this paragraph really is going where you think it is so skip on to Budapest if you'd prefer).  Anyone who has been to a non-hole-in-the-floor Asian toilet knows that they like to fill them to the brim with water for that satisfying splashback experience.  The Vienese like to build them backwards with the outlet way up the front, allowing for a long shelf for the remains of last night's dinner to sit for inspection before the flush.  Yeah, it's quite gross and not at all what one would expect from a city famous for the refined things in life.  As one fellow traveller put it when I said I should get a photo "I don't need a photo, it's seared into my memory forever".

Then it was on to Budapest.  This took 25% longer than it might have since, although Hungary has lovely wide, flat, modern freeways, they make busses do 80kph on them.  Anyway, we finally got to a grand city of buildings and bridges overlooking the Danube, and some nice wide boulevards running away from it.  At the end of one is Heroes Square, celebrating the great rulers of Hungary's past, from St Stephen to the Hapsburgs.  In the middle is a cool statue of 7 Magyar chieftains on horseback representing the 7 tribes that settled in modern Hungary from central Asia.  As our guide Csaba (pronounced Chobba) told us what a few of the leaders did, I wondered if the spirits of a few of them would be a bit miffed after, having risen to power and ruled a country in such a way as to warrant their inclusion of the 14 most important people in Hungary for the past 1000 years, a tour guide says of their statue "don't worry about that guy, but the NEXT statue is of..."

So after the tour there was a chance for Emma and I to go Swing dancing.  Unfortunately after cabbing it to the venue, we discovered it deserted (possibly because of the public holiday the next day).  Oh well, back to the hotel with a slightly amused cab driver following a tour of Budapests northern suburbs.  That night the included group dinner included a gypsy show that was fairly interesting, especially once we realised that the guy we had assumed was playing the piano (and quite well too), was in fact playing an instrument a bit like a cross between a zither and a xylophone, where he was striking strings with little hammers.  And with only two hammers he had convinced us that he was playing 10 fingered piano.  Also it was nice to see that Stephanie Edwards (sister of a friend, don't wrack your brains if you don't know her) has joined a gypsy dance troupe in Hungary - or at least someone who looks a lot like her has.

The next day Emma and I walked to the Gellert Baths.  Budapest has many natural hot springs and since pre-Roman times has been a place for people to come and enjoy a mineral bath (Csaba said something about it being the second most hot springy place in the world after New Zealand - though I'd thing Iceland might have something to say about that).  The Gellert Baths are among the oldest and swankiest in town, situated inside a fairly luxurious hotel.  So after we paid our 3000 florints each (about A$20 - Hungary is not yet on the Euro) we enjoyed a baffling ordeal trying to work out where to go in and find a locker and get changed.  Upon entry one is given a high tech microchipped card and a paper receipt.  One then has to walk randomly around some very long corridors past some very unhelpful and quite hefty Hungarian matrons to find out where the lockers are.  Then one had to realise that the high tech card was just for show and that it is the PAPER receipt that gets one a locker.  A common lament to be heard from English speakers in these halls was "But my partner has the receipt in the other changeroom".  Eventually we tapped into the secret underground English information service (provided by fellow English speakers who were leaving - and to which we would contribute on our way out) and got into out togs (we just found a toilet) and had our stuff "safely" stored in a locker (I say "safely" because on my return I presented my token with the number 40 on it to the locker room guy, who then asked me which locker I had, which I realised was nowhere near number 40 - no worries, he just opened a bunch of lockers for me until I found the one with my stuff in it) and jumped into the pool.  After the non-Hungarian-speaker hazing was over, the baths were really quite lovely.  The indoor pool was a very ornate affair with lovely statues and columns and mosaics around it.  The hot pool was about 35 degrees or so and then after a shoulder massage courtesy of a lion shaped fountain it was into the cold pool for a quick swim and a stand over the bubble jets.  Then we went outside to sit in the sun for a bit surrounded by more marble railings and purple flowers.  We discovered another hot and cold pool combo outside too, but it was only after we'd got changed that we discovered that the outdoor pool was a wave pool.  Shame, it looked like fun (update: Örebro has a wave pool so we'll have to go there instead).  On the way out we found out what the high tech card was for, if you leave before 2 hours you get 400 florints back, and if you leave before 4 hours you get 200 back.  There are all sorts of these baths in Budapest, most people on the tour went to the closest ones to the hotel in a park near the zoo.  From reports, it was about half the price and had a whirlpool, but wasn't as ornate and stylishly decorated inside - just so you can make an informed choice should you ever go to Budapest.  But you'd definitely have to go to at least one thermal bath there.

I should mention that we got to the Gellert Baths after a long walk along the Danube via Margaret Island.  Margaret Island is in the Danube and is a lovely big garden with sports fields, palace ruins, open lawns to relax and topless sunbathers lining each bank near the entrance.  It was a public holiday (Pentecost or Whitsunday or one of those sorts of post-Easter religious holidays) and so while the city centre was empty, the parks were full of relaxed Hungarians.  Emma and I hired a pedal car (sort of like two bikes welded together with a steering wheel, good fun but could have been higher geared) and had a quick hoon around.  Due to a currency miscalculation on my behalf it cost A$10 for the hour instead of A$1, but that brought it from ridiculously cheap to reasonable).  We also saw two 50-somethings going at it like a couple of teenagers on a park bench.  Spring was in the air in Budapest.

The walk down the Danube was a nice one also, though it did turn out to be quite long.  As I said ealier, it's lined with some nice bridges (including one built by the same Eiffel that built a tower in Paris), a great neo-gothic parliament house and a palace on the hill on the Buda side (Budapest is a bit like Albury-Wadonga, Buda on the older, Roman conquered, hilly side and Pest on newer, flatter side the Romans didn't get to...or the other way around).

That night we wen out to dinner with another couple from the tour (Jo and Ilario, I think I might write a post about the Kumuka tour itself down the track).  After a nice dinner we thought we'd head down to the river and hop on a night cruise of the Danube.  It was 9:20 and Emma had a timetable for a cruiseboat that's last cruise was at 9:30.  So we hopped in a cab and showed the driver the card with the address and he sped off with his techno pumping (not bad techno).  When we pulled up to the address, Emma asked "Where do the boats go from?" to which he replied "Boats?  One second!" before dropping it into gear, dropping a nitrous tank in the engine and speeding down the alley and around the corner to land us right next to the ticket office at 9:29.  After giving him a nice tip we ran into the ticket office and bought out tickets (using borrowed euros from Ilario when we discovered we'd run out of florints) before running down the dock to the cashier's yells of "Left!" after Jo and Ilario had gone right and hopping onto the boat as it was leaving the dock.  Then we congratulated ourselves, cracked the complimentary half litre cans of Stella Artois and sat back to watch a gorgeous view of the grand buildings and bridges along the river lit up spectacularly, all to the audioguide that had been recorded by a bored Englishman, containing the great sentence "I'd now like to say one more sentence about the <insert building or bridge name that I've forgotten>."  On the way home we got ripped off by the last cab driver (the trip home cost 5000 florints while the two-stage trip in had cost about 1200 each stage - I only realised as we entered the hotel), which was a shame because the other 4 cab drivers we'd had in Budapest had been lovely, helpful, cheap and very honest.

Anyway, I'd now like to write one more sentence about Budapest.  The stories Csaba told us and the fact that some of the older buildings still have the bulletholes from the Soviet crushing of an independence movement in 1959(?) did start to bring home the awful nature of the Cold War when countries like Hungary and Czechoslovakia were dragged behind the Iron Curtain whether they like it or not by a Soviet Empire not a great deal differented from any other Empire in history by their supposed ideologicaly driven basis.  I hope it was worth it (the sentence not the Cold War, that was just a waste).

Next day we drove across Hungary, crossed a corner of Slovakia past Bratislava (though as our feet didn't touch the groung I'm not sure if we can claim to have been there) and into the Czech Republic.  First we crossed the flatter farmland of Moravia which, with its unpainted stone buildings, low steepled churches and vinyards looked like a slice of Italy had been transplanted. Then we crossed some low hills (and possibly a watershed from the Danube flowing rivers to the Baltic flowing rivers) into Bohemia.  The roads in Czech were probably the worst we encountered in an otherwise fairly well roaded continent, with those cement-joined roads making for fairly continuously bumpy travel (too bumpy to read a book comfortably).

The hotel was a long way out of town, but we metroed it in for a walking tour with the group.  Prague really is lovely (and doesn't it just know it).  With mediæval buildings and large squares, it's a bit like what Gamla Stan in Stockholm would be like if it had more room to spread out.  Wenceslas Square is a misnamed boulevard with a statue of everyone's favourite Xmas carol hero on his horse at one end (well my favourite anyway, except after a closer inspection of the lyrics one wonders what it actually was that he did that was so representative of christian charity - he sees a peasant, asks his page who he is and then takes a walk).  The Cold War is again evident in the small memorial to two students who self imolated in protest against the Soviet crushing of Czech attempts to live a bit more freely in 1968 (one sees a pattern emerging).

Then we walked through some lovely old fairytale alleys (past the Museum of Sex Machines - nice to see James Brown is well remembered, though I'm not sure what that contraption that looked a bit like a rubber chainsaw was doing in the foyer - Emma wouldn't let me go in and pay my respects) to the old square with its astronomical clock and carillion (about as disapointing as the Munich one, but shorter and with a cool skeleton that rang the bell) and a cool church at the other end that someone had built a row of (nice old) shops in front of.  Next we wend to Charles Bridge, an old cobblestone bridge with statues lining it and a great view of the castle.  This bridge is thankfully not lined with shops like the famous old ones in Florence (Ponte Vecchio) and Venice (Rialto) so one gets the great bridge experience of being in open space and looking at water, rather than being on just another (albeit slightly hillier) shop lined street (Mediæval civil engineers take note).

Next we hit a cocktail bar to take advantage of the only thing that seemed to be cheaper here than in Australia - the booze, specifically the beer, of which one can get a pint of top quality Pilsner for about A$3.  The cocktail bar was in a terrific old vaulted cellar, complete with dancing girls (not sexual, more like gogo dancers busting some moves on a podium to Madonna, they were quite good too).  After a bit Emma and I took Ted (another member of the tour, an African American from California with a great positive attitude, who was turning "29" that night for about the 15th time) out for his birthday to a jazz club we'd seen a billboard for near the old square.  We went to another mediæval cellar to hear a cool quintet of guitar, keyboard/trumpet, sax/flute, drums and bass play the last few songs of their set, and then it was back to the cocktail club, where Emma and I lindybombed the (admittedly totally deserted) dancefloor.  A fun night was had by all (especially Ted).

Next day Emma and I went up to the castle and had a look around.  We didn't go in since it was a bit expensive and you could wander around the buildings for free.  It's apparently the biggest castle in the world, but the definition of castle must be a bit loose, since it's more a bunch of buildings on a hilltop, not the sort of battlement defended keep you might be thinking of.  The Wenceslas Cathedral was a bit of a highlight, with its copper spires (remember, copper outside means the gorgeous aqua blue that it corrodes to, not the shiny yellow metal), mosaics and that touch that quite a few northern churches had (Vienna, Budapest, Amsterdam) - cool geometric patterns made with different coloured roof tiles.  Apparently, the jewel encrusted altar was closed for repairs anyway, so all we missed for not paying $30 and lining up was the stained glass windows.  We then went down into a gully called Deer Ditch that was also nice, and quite deserted and peaceful.  There must have been some sort of political meeting in one part of the garden since when we were climbing a path out of the ditch we encountered a soldier in modern battle gear.  We motioned if it was OK to continue up the path and he motioned that it was fine, but when we got all the way to the top we encountered another ceremonial soldier who told us to go back.  Bastards.

Anyway, then we went back down the hill to the river and found lunch (eventually) and sat in a park on an island next to the bridge and relaxed for a bit, before walking across another bridge and parky island to the city again.  Emma bought an Art Nouveau print Tshirt from a shop selling all sorts of stuff by the Czech artist and major exponent of the movement Alfons Mucha.  You might recognise his work from some ads for perfume and Moet and Chandon wine from the early 20th century, with celebrations of women in flowy dresses.  Look it up, it's great. 

Finally we had dinner in a restaurant in the crypt of the Bethlehem Chapel, which was nice and not too expensive, but it was trendy modern Czech cuisine (I had a nice pork stirfry) when what I really wanted was another goulash and a cheap Czech beer.  Oh well, the price one pays for travelling with a vegetarian, you can't just pop into a cheap local joint and grab a daily special and eat what comes out.  After that it was back to the hotel and I managed to get all my loose coins changed into a note (for currency conversion later on) and that was the end of the spending.  The Top Hotel did compensate for being miles out of town by having huge rooms and a few cheap bars.

Next day it was back on the bus to Berlin, but since this is already a long post and we have to go into Örebro for a haircut and a bit of shopping, and because this has already taken me 3 days to write (slowly) I'll finish here and give Berlin its own post.  After all, it deserves it, it was the best city on the tour in our opinion.



Hi Michael and Emma, I am loving reading your enormously entertaining blog entries Michael. Your descriptions put us right there with you. Keep it up!
I didn't read your impressions of the Netherlands, or at least Amsterdam, but would love to hear them.
This is a great way to keep in touch and up to date with all your adventures, and you seem to be having a wonderful time. Best regards, Kathryn

  Kathryn Boersma May 29, 2008 11:37 AM


Hey, you know guys, i'll probably go to herräng week 2, but i'll try to stick around another day or two so we could say hi:D.
Jag pratade med en tjej (som jag alltid glömmer namnet på) nu precis, som känner er hon med, vi ska starta en gemensam kampanj för att få ner er:).

  Lovisa Jun 16, 2008 8:47 PM

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