A Travellerspoint blog

Seaside to Sarajevo

Lake Balaton is definitely a summer destination I whispered to myself as I strolled through the wooden business huts near Balatonlelle train station, each one with its windows, doors and hatches locked-shut, and had been for some time. Flags curled in the wind, leaves scuttled across the ground and the air vacuous with the absence of human frivolity, some places are made for people and without them, those places feel very strange indeed, like walking through a funfair after closing. The sun shone unobstructed from the canvas blue sky, but this was December, there were no tourists, or holidaying Hungarians to expend their purses and bring this town to life with their antics and city-earned wages until Springtime. The boats bobbed gently in the mooring, the whites and blues becoming one continuous body of nautical swaying. A dozen fishermen lined the rocky outcrop, which extended into the lake like a tiny finger. One of them saying something to me in hope of an agreeing response, the way we do when we express our superficial thoughts on our surroundings. 'Ah, English....OK'. That was enough to end his fervour. I sat on the sand lining the shore, it was an industrial grey sand that hinted at man's influence. A single swan fluttered its wings and moved off into the distance. The soft turquoise of the water met with the sky on the far side of the lake where faded hills defined the horizon. This was to be my last full day in Hungary, I had been blessed with favourable weather and a stillness to the air that brought a calm reassurance to an uncertain afternoon.
I had arrived in Balatonlelle earlier that day expecting to receive some help from information, but then realising that too was out of commission for the winter months. I had stepped into the only drinking hole that hinted at some human activity and got talking to a man at the bar, he was in his fifties and wore a purple puffer jacket and beige cords. He lifted a shot glass to his mouth, swallowed half of it's whisky-coloured contents and turned to face me 'is there something I can help you with?' he offered, 'yes, thank you, well, I was hoping to find a room for the night from the information place'
'It is closed in the winter, so you want a room, just you?' the German lilt in his voice conflicting with obvious Hungarian influences.
'Yep, just me' I said.
Three minutes of conversation unfolded between himself and the barmaid, he took out his mobile phone and held up a finger, 'moment'.
'OK, no problem'
He made a call, speaking in Hungarian then hung up, slid his phone back into his pocket and spoke to the barmaid again, she began writing something down on a piece of paper that she tore from a large notebook on the till. He took it from her, folded it and prompted me to follow him into the street, leaving his two drinks gathering condensation on the wooden bar.
I followed him across the tracks, we stopped and stood on the side of the road, 'ah, normally you could get a taxi from here, but I don't know where it has gone, you wouldn't have to pay, it's not far, how can I tell you?' He paused a moment while gathering the directions in his mind. 'It's OK I can walk, what is it? Ten minutes?'
'No, not even that, maybe four minutes, it's cheap like you wanted, ten Euros, it's OK?'
'Yes, yes, that's fine, thank you.' He gave me the directions, handed me the piece of paper which had the address written on it, 'show that to anyone and you will find it, they are waiting for you.' I shook his hand and began walking.

'Nümmer zwölf, Nümmer zwölf' I said to myself walking up to the gate of the un-numbered house between ten and fourteen. A small Highland terrier barked its way up to my ankles, the lady stepped out of the house and spoke in German, shooing the dog away from my heels 'Jenny! Oi! Jenny! Hey!' She waved her hand and beckoned me to follow her back up the street to what must have been house number four or six, she knocked on the door and spoke with the lady inside, a small child played at their feet. I assumed she didn't have any room for me and was asking a neighbour to put me up. Every other house in this quaint road advertised Apartmente und Zimmer Frei. The lady left and I was now at the mercy of this new stranger, she spoke, again in German, and then handed a piece of paper to me with the number 10,000 on it. My eyes widened. I then politely refused and left knowing there were twenty other doors I could knock on. 'Hello' she said and turned and went inside. I was going to have to become accustomed to the use of the word hello as a form of farewell. Very strange.

'Where to go, where to go? Ten thousand! No way lady' I muttered to myself, walking up the gentle hill of the tree-lined street. I walked in and out of several gardens which had Zimmer Frei hanging from a sheet metal or wooden sign at the gate, to no avail, or just to no answer. I walked through the gate and into the garden of a pink house with hanging plants and a wooden staircase leading up to the front door. An old lady answered after a time that suggested she was less than mobile or just busy. She was small in stature and slightly rotund, her grey hair framed a face that didn't smile, but didn't scorn either. 'Haben sie ein zimmer frei?' I asked. 'Err, ja, ein tag?' she said looking up at me through her convex spectacles and then shifted around as if unprepared,. 'Ja, ein nacht, wieviel kostet es?' I asked. She brushed aside my question on the price, welcoming me inside to see the room. The house was filled with the smell of traditional home cooking. I trod carefully, shoes removed, up the steep solid wood stairs trying not to knock any of the hanging trinkets from the walls on the way up. She opened the bedroom door and gestured for me to step inside. The room had a modest flowery chandelier of green and gold hanging from the centre of the ceiling, surrounded by a decorative coving, the walls laden with impressive oil paintings. Old, but practical furniture lined the skirting, a dark wood cabinet with more ornamental pieces placed on top stood opposite the firm double bed. 'Wieviel kostet es?' I insisted, ensuring I didn't get too comfortable before knowing the price. She looked down in concentration and drew a 1 and a 5 in the palm of her hand with her finger. 'OK, so funfsehn...Euro?' I asked, asserting my ability with the German numerical system and hoping her response would not be 'nein...thousand forint.' She nodded, 'ja funfsehn Euro.'
'OK, das ist güt, funfsehn Euro, danke.' And with that she shifted off from whence she came into the downstairs kitchen, leaving me wishing it might be a batch of fairy cakes for unexpected guests that she was busy cooking.
Having seen the lake from the train earlier that morning I remember wishing that I had extra time to relax here as I stared out upon its still waters. However, having been to the lonely promenade that afternoon I felt one day would be enough, tomorrow I would be catching an overnight train from Budapest to Sarajevo, Bosnia. I was sure that would bring some surprises.

'Would you like?....' the young lady said offering me a snack from a packet of pink wafer biscuits. 'Oh, no thanks... thank you' I said, slightly regretting not taking one. It was an auto response that interjected without due consideration and one that left me with the same feeling many times before when being offered food. Although I didn't actually fancy a wafer biscuit I thought that to accept one would, on the one hand, be polite, and on the other, be a good way to connect and start a conversation. From the moment that Zsófia walked into the train cabin I knew, and I told her this in our subsequent conversation, that she was going to be an interesting person, someone approachable and without the normal social boundaries you might expect of a young twenty-something.
'OK, so see you at 8', she hung up the phone and crossed her legs, her black patterned tights accentuating the gentle curves of her calves. I seized the opportunity, having witnessed that she at least spoke a little English. 'So, does the train arrive in Zagreb at 8?'
'M-hmm, m-hmm'. She had her mouth full with some kind of snack, if I were to judge her based on what I saw her eating in that cabin, I would say she liked her comfort food.

We sat in silence for a while and she spoke again, 'So are you....going to be....playing, some kind of....concert?' The hint of a smile at the beginning of her sentence had grown to a full crescendo by the end of it. She pointed at my guitar on the luggage rack above our heads. 'Oh no, I just travel with it, if I get lonely then at least I can play-- it's my travel companion' I said, goading a small dose of sympathetic laughter, I got a smile instead. 'So are you coming from Budapest?' she asked. I listed the other places I has passed though in Hungary, each one bringing a smile of appreciation that I had ventured outside of Budapest. 'Oh Kőszeg, yes it is nice, I come from a place close to there.'
'Oh really? I liked Kőszeg very much' I said with genuine tones, I did like that town, it was a good size to explore, it had a charming centre with preserved history and the people were pleasant and civilised. Every place you go to has a picture attached to it, maybe it was something you did, or something you saw, and it didn't have to be anything significant, this was always something that fascinated me about the mind and how it grabbed one mental image and put that at the front of the pack like a joker in a fresh deck of cards. If you were to say the name Kőszeg to me, my memory would recall the night I had I spent walking the town square and around the bastion. It was dark and foreboding, but I fell for its night lighting and tranquillity. The lucid image of the street-lit tower reflecting from the still puddles on the pathway and the spindly tree branches backed by white moonlight play like a slide show in the theatre of my mind.

'So you're not actually going to Zagreb?' she asked. 'No, I'm passing through and taking a connecting train to Sarajevo.'
'Are you visiting someone in Zagreb?'
'Yes, I'm visiting a friend there' she said. I thought it polite not to probe.
We spoke for a while about culture and Europe, Sophie was sharp. Delivering her verdict on the things we spoke of with considered poise and all the while staring at the seat opposite. She spoke to the other side of the cabin while she searched her mind for the cognitive flavour that made her persona so intriguing. When I spoke she turned and looked me in the eye with a radiant open stare that said give me your best, and upon her reply she gave me her side profile time after time, plucking advanced English from her learned background, and with deft conclusion.
'How do people in continental Europe see the British? Do you see us part of Europe, or not really?' I asked.
'Well, you are part of Europe yes, of course. How do British people feel about it?'
'I feel like a part of the whole, there are some people feel segregated from the continent in a way, but then others....well, I think that Europeans.....' her eyebrows raised and her head cocked back, she gave a knowing smile and retorted with a Sherlock Holmes level of investigative wit. 'Ah, so.....now, you see, it is interesting what you just said...you said...' her head tilted to the side a little and her lips curved, 'you think that Europeans', so it is clear how you feel, you don't associate yourself with the rest of Europe as you might think.' My mind kicked into survival mode. 'Well...you, I think...' I had no real answer, I had to acknowledge her point and I conceded. 'OK, you may be right, well spotted. I do think though that the language barrier is one that could contribute, if you look on the map Britain is here...' I raised one finger, 'and to the East you have several languages that we don't really understand' my hand swayed to the right. 'Then to the West, you have Ireland and then the U.S' my left hand gestured a brisk transatlantic crossing. 'And well, they all speak English.' I knew my point was weak.
'So do you relate more closely with the Americans?'
'Actually, not really, I think we are more European in behaviour, but...' I struggled to follow-on and my argument died. I now knew she was a fox, positively cunning and aware of implications in philosophy.
We talked about artistry, creativity, her background as a sculptor. I could feel the level of conversation delve to a sub-colloquial layer, and I became the snake to her waving flute, her charms embedded in the caves of her esoteric intellect.

'I hope I don't miss my connection, this train is running a little late.' I said. She pondered for a moment to find the right words. 'If we were in Hungary I would...let you stay at mine, but...it's, difficult, this is my friend's place, here...you know.' I thanked her for the offer, thinking to myself how different people were here, and that as British citizens maybe we do have a lot of catching up to do in social openness. For the first time I remember thinking quite clearly that I didn't want to go home, I longed for this kind of altruism. A magnanimity that connects like glue every like-minded individual to a web of acceptance.

I remember watching Zsófia as she embraced her male friend on the platform, the diffusive sentiments radiated from their warm greeting, and with eyes of tender assurances she wished me safe travels.

I stepped off the train at my destination. I had no Bosnian money and no bearings. I was in Sarajevo, an Olympic city that struggled through bloody massacre and bore the pock-marked holes to prove it. In the darkness the mountains peered over the city like a rising beast from an urban sea. The glint of rural life sparkling from the hills, each one a beacon of defiance against the bitter cold and hostility of days gone by.

So, taxi it was then. My wits awoke from their lazy haze on the night train and rammed the forefront of my brain like a challenged street dog. 'Do you have a meter?' I asked the middle-aged driver. He pointed to the centre-console, and drove on towards my destination. A battered red VW pulled out in front of us and forced the driver to stamp on the brakes. I checked my seatbelt and joked 'well...his car is old, he doesn't care'.
'Crazy...old driver' he said repeating the word in the wrong context. His words spoken with a local tint that sounded more Russian than anything else. I stepped out of the car and approached the ATM, my concerns now surrounding my bag in his boot. I looked over my shoulder ready to spot the first sign of him moving off into the darkness of unfamiliar streets with my belongings in tow. With every second my ears pinned closer to the few sounds around me, searching for the screech of tyres. But steadfastly he waited and I returned with new trust as well as crisp banknotes. The taxi climbed a steep road that passed through a cemetery of white obelisk gravestones and the arch of a gateway into the altitude beyond. Haris Youth Hostel stood raised above the city on a small local road. He plucked my bag from the boot and then placed an apple in my hand that he took from a shallow box of fruit in his car. 'Thank you, thank you very much, hvala.' I said in surprise, he smiled as he reached to close the boot. I had arrived in my first unplanned destination and felt good about the decision already, an apple given in kindness, a gesture of simplicity that said Welcome to Sarajevo.

'I know a place, that sells cake...it's right around here somewhere,' I followed Pat's footsteps with the promise of more delectable Balkan cake selections. Pat was an Australian from the hostel who checked-in on the same day as me. He had taken a lift from an Englishman by the name of Andrew who had driven his Land Rover from Budapest and was also staying in the same dorm. 'Yeah it's just down this way, I was recommended it by a friend of mine'.
'Are you sure they sell cake?' I asked. 'Yeah' he said with rising intonation. 'They almost definitely sell cake.' Following behind me was Clark, an English RAF trainee helicopter pilot from North London. He was the only person staying at the hostel on the early morning of my arrival the day before. Clark kept his hands in the pockets of his black thermal kag, and his head down, but always contributing to the conversation with light humour and a high level of manners and politeness. The mercury was on the negative side of zero and snow was lining most horizontal surfaces in a light dusting, but of course my Thai thermometer/compass still showed 12 °C, incapable of detecting anything less than a brisk Thai winter. Having eaten dinner we'd quickly gotten into a habit of seeking out the speciality of Bosnian cuisine, desert. In the well-lit glass-fronted shops on every street sat cake shops that sold all the things the stomach could desire, but with unknown flavours that left you looking hard before making your selection. None of us had learned any Bosnian and so the labels meant nothing, however the light cream, deep browns and bright fruit colours that spread across the counter in edible format meant everything.
'Do you actually know where this place is Pat?'
'Yep, it's not far, I think I know where it is, and they might sell cake. I would have said his conviction weakened but for the fact his face gave away a cheeky scheme. 'So now it might sell cake?' I replied, feeling my stomach complain. 'Yeah, this place, it might sell cake.' His plan detectably approaching fruition based upon the aloofness of his replies. Clark and I diverted off into a sport shop to look for some carabiners. As we left again, Pat walked towards us. 'Did you find it?' asked Clark. 'Yeah, it just around there.' The air of suspicion rose to levels of mystery. 'Here it is' he said. 'Wow, look at that' I said either aloud or in my head, I can't remember I was so charmed by the unique exterior and by what I could make out on the other side of the glass.

The three of us walked inside and with smiles and open mouths headed towards the back of the narrow café. If there was one place in the world you could go to as a show home for the applications of woodwork, then this was it. The mosaic tiles graced the floor and led you inside, up one step to where the wood took over and covered a large percentage of the perceivable area. Every chair unique from the next and padded with old leather held down by brass studs. The solid wood table held a plethora of items beneath its glass top, a burgundy velvet place mat laced with gold stitching, banknotes and coins from around the world and a fake $1,000,000 bill with Barack Obama's grinning face in the middle of it. The next table was supported by an original Singer sewing machine. The walls were backed by huge arcing mirrors with a simple delicate design around the outer rim lit from behind in gold. The waitress moved about with a stereotypical French straight-faced arrogance that I myself had never seen in our European neighbours. It was both rude and seductive. She wore a mauve apron from the waist down and a red beret on top of her straight shoulder-length brunette hair.
'Do you do food here?' asked Pat. She waved her finger at him the way I imagine his Mother might have done in his childhood. I still don't know if Pat already knew what the answer to that question would be before he led us here, but we were staying. This place was very special.

We sipped beer and spirits, Pat rolled his tobacco, a distasteful brand he'd picked up locally and that which his nicotine craving had led him to begrudgingly smoke. Clark sat in wonder at the décor, as we all did. I looked down into my whisky at the remnants of something gritty beneath the last ice cube, 'don't look into the drink' said Pat, as if spouting a metaphor for life.
Every ledge, sill and shelf displayed ornaments of all tastes. A wood carved deer, a glossy Spanish matador, a running metal tap, permanently on, poured water into a brass jug placed in a decorative metal basin on the wall. The paintings had carved frames, even the till monitor and TV screens hid their modern lines with decorated outer edges. An orb glass container held sugar cubes, a pearlescent oyster shell for cigarette ash, a goldfish swam in a high-ball plain glass tank, he was the name sake of this wonderful place The Goldfish or in Bosnian Zlatna Ribica.
Staff changeover came and the blue sight of distant eyes under a red cashmere beret gave way to a young figure of womanly stature. We later came to know her as Nermina. She was, in all our eyes- a living oil painting, the lady in the café, an Edward Hopper masterpiece. Her flowing brown gypsy skirt to'd and fro'd like waves on a lake shore, her pale-blue classic soft cardigan the sky, and the silk of her perfect pale skin above the neckline the heavens. Her gentle features outlined the curves of a face that is impossible to forget, for millennia you could stare and not grow tired, her smoky eyes were the jewels set in the beauty of her subtle smile, teeth like perfectly carved ivory charms and lips of sweet rose honey. She wore a black open-top hat with a delicate wide lace brim, her brown-auburn hair brushed against her cheek in a fine motion accenting the subtleties of her royal grade satin skin. And in her poise she sold the image, she was the original painting displayed for all to admire but only one to own.

Seven and a half hours later we left Vlatna Ribica, it was a window through time which kept us drawn-in. During our many hours in that café we'd talked about film, music, literature and a Hungarian song called 'Gloomy Sunday' which had caused many people to commit suicide and was still banned by the BBC to this day. The writer of the song committed suicide, as did his wife, people leapt into the Danube holding the sheet music. One young boy heard a man humming the song in the street, then gave him all his money and jumped into the river, killing himself. Still it wasn't all gloomy, we'd spoken to a pretty Swiss banker, a Swedish-speaking Fin and a Spaniard called Emilio with Lennon spectacles and a magician's goatee who dressed as a fruit-man in the local mall. Nermina displayed a vivacious tenacity and personable playfulness. But I'm not sure this would have been everyone's scene, and as a certain Australian once said 'the difference between a shitty picture and a work of art is what's going on outside the frame.' That night, I never did get any cake.

Posted by kookie888 12:33 Archived in Bosnia And Herzegovina Comments (1)

Out of season

I decided at the last minute to catch a train to Eger. Eger was in the Eastern half of Hungary and as a wine region was known to produce some excellent reds, as well as being a generally pleasant place to be with a town full of admirable architecture. The trouble was, in Hungary not all the train stops have signs to tell you where you are. The misty weather just adds to the problem. 'Excuse me, you wanted Eger? It is the next stop' a man across the train said to me. I had asked the men he was sitting with previously about the order of stops, none of whom spoke any English, since he boarded from the last stop they'd obviously been talking about me. 'Oh, köszönöm, thank you' I said gratefully. I'd never have known, the one sign that denoted this place was well out of sight.

I stepped down to the the floor level platform, that wasn't really a platform, and walked in front of the train. You have to walk across the tracks in many places in Hungary, and it felt very strange. It's much the same as walking across a level crossing on a road, but I was sure this would not pass health and safety inspections back home. I heaved my bag off my shoulders onto a bench when a voice came from behind me. 'Szia, I have private room, TV, bed, very comfort, do you need?' I turned to see a little old lady with unnaturally dark hair, puffy green jacket and lipstick-stained teeth. At this point I didn't have anything booked. 'Umm, well, I don't know, it depends. How much?' I only knew of rooms in this town which cost upwards of 7000 HUF, about £24 a night.
'Three thousand, one night?' I pondered for a while, grappling with my bag in hope she might break the silence with an updated offer. She didn't. 'OK, yes I'll take it'. Two nights, it's OK?'

As we strolled along the tree-lined road she seemed happy, her elderly gait keeping the pace slow and steady. She pointed at her dog-eared map and then to a random feature in front of us as we walked, allowing me to get my bearings. 'Park, this is park, see'. We walked further. 'Here ist brook, see, brook. Shop-eh, yellow house, und dann I house-eh.' She spoke in mixed German and English, I replied with my excuse straight away 'mein Deutsch ist nicht gut', she took that as an invitation, sometimes giving up on English altogether and stringing long sentences of Deutsch together in hope I would understand anyway. 'Ich heiße Adam, und du?'
'Keti, my name, my grandchild Adam, same as you' and then she proceeded to tell me a dozen things about him. 'Mein grandchild, eh, study. Grandchild fünfzehn jahre alt. Eh, grandchild in Budapest, grandchild kommen hier'. I politely looked over at her and nodded, trying not to step in dog poo along the way. We seem to have gotten past those years in Britain when every time you cross a field you were destined to come home with a smelly shoe. Or maybe it was just the frequency with which we played in such places as children.

In the housing block I followed Keti up the stairs, red and white tiles covered the floor and semi-dead indoor spider plants featured across the windowsills. I was pleased to see that the apartment was more than adequate, it had a separate living quarters at the back. With an aged waddle she pointed out her room, the toilet and the kitchen, the rest of the flat was mine. I felt bad, but relieved to have landed some good fortune. I had no reason not to trust her. I checked for bloodstains and severed heads: there were none.

I looked around at the well-thumbed books on the shelves and noticed the parquet floor beneath my feet. White china figurines and random brass and copper-coloured ornaments sat on the shelves among the books. The 1970's furniture set the scene for a cosy little stay that I felt lucky to have found, or for it to have found me.
'Adam...' I heard myself being called from the other room, 'ja? Kommen' I replied. In she came holding a silver tray with a tiny red cup and saucer with gold trim, a small jar of lumpy sugar, which looked as though it'd had one too many wet spoons in it and a can of spray cream. 'Oh, danke shoen, thank you so much, sehr danke.' It always warmed my heart to receive unexpected hospitality. If only we did more for others without the need for thanks or a returned favour, I'd done this before for friends, although not often enough, and it always felt good. As long as you knew people were not taking you for granted, I believed it only has positive effects on your life. I slowly drank the espresso and left for a walk around. Eger was indeed a nice little town, it had some good bars and an extremely impressive church with gigantic grand pillars. But I didn't feel the need to wander far from the centre, the light in the sky faded, streetlights came on, cars passed and people walked on, goaded by the increasing chill in the Autumn air.

In the evening I ventured out to a bar I had seen which had a 15 foot wall inside painted in thick swathes of poster paint and in every colour they could possibly buy from the stockists. I sat at a table using the free WI-FI and my newly acquired netbook on which to type up my work. Various scraps of paper filled my pockets detailing my experiences, places I had been and people I had met. Bus tickets, pamphlets, receipts, they all made good notepaper on the go.
A tall man in a dark waistcoat hovered about on the audibly hollow wooden floor, his beard impressive and his clothes folksy. One other person sat at table next to me, his skinny form and tied-back hair hiding a more friendly personality than I had first judged. 'It is OK, if I smoke?' he asked.
'Yes, sure', I lied. I hated smoking in enclosed spaces, it was still legal here and annoyed me as I wasn't in a situation to wash my clothes after one use while on the road. He was a Hungarian student and possessed mediocre English, but managed to make his surprisingly humorous points heard with hand movements and clown-like facial expressions you might expect to see in a silent movie. He was a nice chap and we chatted for a time while musical instruments were being brought through the front door by four men. It was Friday night and it looked like a band would be playing. People of all ages began arriving, removing their coats and ordering drinks. 'I'm sorry sir, that table is reserved from eight o'clock' said the barman in an apologetic tone. I moved to another table. Five minutes later the barmaid threw down a 'Reserved' sign in front of me. I'd be standing in no time at this rate.

The 'band' was made up of five unlikely looking musicians. An ordinary looking man on drums, who looked like he'd just come from a business meeting, a balding chap with grey stubbly beard and submissive eyes on bass, on electric guitar an unattractive man dressed in bright green T-shirt, black waistcoat and square gold-rim glasses, halfway between down's syndrome and just plain ugly. The tall folksy fellow played the mouth organ and a young lad with a piece of paper and a microphone, presumably on vocals, who I'm convinced must have just made it here in time from his Jewish home-schooling class. But boy could they play the blues. The electric guitar was something of pure wonder, his fingers expertly mastered the Fender's fretboard and strings with speed and accuracy, every bluesy lick and chord sequence performed from muscle memory. What he lacked in good-looks, he more than made up for with musical aptitude. The night went on, the beers went down and somehow I stumbled home without too much trouble.

The freshness of the morning brought clarity to my still slightly-drunk head. I must be there now I thought as I walked up the road towards Eger's wine producing region of Szépasszonyvölg, which translates to 'Valley of the Beautiful Women'. Cellars dug into the surrounding earth hills gave the wine a distinctive aroma and palette. The first wine cellar in the horseshoe shaped road, I was to learn in about an hour's time, was absolutely the best. The dimly-lit entrance lead down a short dark concrete staircase, which reminded me of a pedestrianised cave descent. And that's more or less what this place was, a small cave with a rudimentary bar, a few tables and chairs and a friendly gypsy lady to welcome you inside. 'Please, take a seat' she said with open arms and a warm face, I expressed my interest in tasting a small glass of wine. A small wine here is 100ml, which is halfway between a small and a large wine back home, only here it cost less that 1 British pound. The walls were dimpled with a thousand weathered coins from around the world, I took a 2 cent Euro coin and pushed it into the soft black stonework, it wasn't my local currency, but it was all I had apart from Hungarian forint.

The lady brought a glass and placed it in front of me on the table, then emerged with a glass contraption which looked like it had come right out of one of my old science classes. It consisted of a twin bubble shape glass upper portion and a long glass tube leading down; her finger holding the open bottom. She then released her finger to create a small opening and the wine gushed out in a red arc right into the glass, she pulled back further until she was now more than a metre away from the glass on the table and still didn't spill a drop. The wine had been well and truly aerated and ready was for a taste. 'Woa', I couldn't but help but express my surprise when it hit the back on my throat, the spicy aroma lingered all the way down. 'Good?' She asked. I gave a polite 'Mmm' while I decided. It was certainly like nothing I had ever tasted. She handed me her modest business card, We play gipsy music on request it said. I resisted the urge to ask for more wine and music, knowing there were more cellars to see.

Every one of the other cellars was set in a totally different style to the first. These were traditional, but at the same time modern looking establishments that had more tables and brighter lighting, and they didn't go down below street level. I chose a couple more places and managed to get one glass of fine white wine for as little as 100 forints, about 35p. You could drink a lot here, but after seven pints last night, three glasses of wine was enough for today. This was a marvellous little place. Locals drove here to fill their plastic containers with their favoured brand and drive home again. But without touching a drop. The blood alcohol limit for driving here in Hungary was 0%. It was a good rule I thought.

'Adam....' I heard again from the other room. Keti walked in with another espresso in the same red china cup, on the same silver tray. This morning I would be leaving and she obviously thought I needed a boost. The 10:36am train was an hour away, so I took my time in gathering my things and sipping the last of my coffee. 'OK, köszönöm Keti, Viszlát ', I said. She'd been insisting for the last 2 days that I say goodbye in Hungarian each time I left the flat. She held up a hand as she pushed slowly at the door, going back to her life alone in that apartment. Maybe later she would visit the train station again to pick up more tourists.

I boarded the train, changed at Budapest and Szombathely and arrived in Kőszeg roughly 6 hours later. I'd chosen this town at random this morning from a fleeting recommendation a few days ago by Julia, the Budapest tour guide. She rattled of half a dozen towns while studying my map, when she handed the map back to me I circled what I thought she'd said. She seemed impressed that I would visit anywhere outside of Budapest. I related to that sentiment at the time she expressed it, it was such a shame to see the hoards of tourists in London that you knew would never venture outside the M25 motorway.

Kőszeg was positioned on the other side of Hungary, West of Budapest, I was unsure if it had any reasonably priced accommodation and I was about to find out. I had seen one map of Kőszeg's town plan and knew that the train station was South-East of the centre, so I shook the bubble in my compass and began walking, in the dark, in a North-Westerly direction. This wasn't right, the sign on the road had the town name Kőszeg with a red line through it, which means you are now leaving said town. I did the thing that my conscience always bugged me to do but that which I refused to do so often, I asked someone. I squeezed through the pub doors and approached the lady standing behind the bar 'do you speak English?', she gave me a look of fear, 'mmmm, no' and turned to speak to the chef, asking him something in Hungarian, he also seemed scared to converse in English, as if it were a vital test. 'OK, sprechen sie Deutsch?' I offered. 'Ja, OK', her face relieved. 'Wie komme ich am besten zum centrum bitte?' I asked, she began explaining, over-estimating my level of German. My slightly confused face prompted her to place a single finger on the table and map a simple path with finger strokes 'here, bridge....und dann....und......gehrade, OK?'
'OK, so rechts, bridge, und dann rechts, und geradeaus' I said in confirmation.
'OK, danke shoen' and I turned, carefully, so as not to knock anything over with my bag, as I so often did, and left, scraping my belongings on the narrow doors on the way out.

20 minutes later, after having seen very few people, I arrived in the beautiful centre. The old church rose grandly from the town square, characterful facades graced the shop fronts and the street lighting set the whole scene in a glow of sodium lamp orange. I was here to knock on some doors and ask for prices for a room, without a clue where these places were. For all I knew, there weren't any. I began to notice a few signs for Panzio, the Magyar Hungarian term for pension. I walked for a while, further from the centre, knowing the prices would be higher amongst this pretty scene.

Eventually I walked inside one entrance, the lady swung her handbag onto her shoulder and looked as though she might be leaving. Yet again, German was the only available source of communication. Had I accidentally walked across the border into Austria? I made a mental note that if I ever decided to travel the continent again, I would have to work on my German. It was spoken so widely in Europe, and if you knew your bitte schön's from your schweinhund's you stood a good chance of being understood by someone. 'Haben sie ein zimmer frei?' I asked.
'Für eine nacht?' she enquired. 'Ja, für eine nacht und für eine person bitte.'
'Acht tousend zwei hundert?' I blurted, and retracted with a grimace. The price was painful, about £27. 'OK, Ich gehe, und, in fünf oder zehn minuten, Ich komme.....maybe' I didn't know the word for maybe, but I think she got the point, I would go for a wander and see if I could find some place cheaper.

I charged down a dark avenue following a sign which promised Camping. I was sure a caravan or decrepit chalet would be less of a drain on my funds. I stood outside the house, gates locked, no sign of a bell and no activity inside. The street silent, but for the barking dogs in the houses opposite. I huffed, knowing I'd have to go back to the first place. I turned and walked the few minutes back down the road. I had already gotten some good bearings in this town and was sure it would stand me in good stead for the next couple of days. I walked back inside, glad to be in the warm again.

'Camping platz...ist geschlossen' I said to the lady, who by now was warming to me with my amateur attempts at her second language. 'Ja' she replied with a nod, which implied I could have told you that. During our bitty conversation I heard the word frühstück. I was pleased first of all that I remembered the word for breakfast, and pleased secondly because it was included. I consoled my wallet. The next morning I checked out and found an even nicer private room with kitchen and bathroom for less money. Every time I paid for anything that I thought was beyond my budget, I convinced myself that my future destinations on other continents would surely be cheaper and bring me back in line. Whether this would be the case or not, I was yet to find out.

I may as well have been in Deutchland as the next morning I was ordering a coffee in a small café. 'Ich möchte eine latte moccaccino bitte, wieviel kostet es?' I was getting the hang of this. 'Oh, drei hundert und sechszig, OK'
Kőszeg was known as Hungary's jewel box, it sat in the valley of the mountains, the Alps were not far from here. It was historically know for its wines and vineyards still operated in the vicinity. The great thing about Kőszeg was that by having a border-town role, it has managed to remain unaffected by destructive hands and most of its buildings are original creations that boast centuries of history. It also successfully defended itself via the castle, against the Northwards migration of the Ottomans. After a series of unsuccessful attacks the Ottoman troops left the outskirts of the town, supposedly at 11 o’clock on 30th August, 1532, consequently the church bells chime at 11 o'clock and have done since 1977.

That evening in the guesthouse I was beginning to wonder if anybody was staying upstairs. I walked out of my room and quietly tip-toed up the tiled stairway. The key was in the lock and the door ajar. I poked my head around the door, and saw nothing but empty chairs, 4 empty sofa beds and doors leading off into other rooms. I turned on the light. Wow, this was a big apartment with nobody in it, it had a breakfast table, a kitchen, a bathroom, a separate toilet, a double bedroom, 4 sofa beds and a twin bedroom. I knew that the landlady was staying at her home, which was far enough away that it warranted a trip in her car. I toyed with the idea of moving up here for the night. I'd better not I thought, in case she received some late arrivals from out of town. Instead I grabbed my guitar from downstairs and used the space to play a few songs.

Click to see: http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=212830091878&ref=mf

The apartment had such an empty feel about it that it felt almost haunted, as the wind blew against the window ledge and the odd car headlight shone through the net curtains I grew slightly uneasy, the doors to the bedrooms creaking and the whole place fell silent enough to hear the whisper of a ghost. I headed back down and closed the door with a firm grip.

I left Kőszeg not having seen anything but the town square and local streets, but it was a nice square and I felt good having come to a place that wasn't even in my guide book. At the train station the 10:30am train stood motionless, I walked across 3 tracks and boarded. I had bought my ticket to Szombathely from a clerk with the biggest moustache I had seen on an upper lip. Szombathely was the next major town in which I could buy an onward ticket towards Lake Balaton. I changed at Szombathely, asking the lady behind the window 'Which platform for Balatonlelle?', over-pronouncing the last syllable with an extra 'le' having been previously corrected for giving it a French 'lelle' sound. She made a phone call then held up four fingers. I only noticed after having completed a few journeys on Hungarian railways that the platform numbers were painted on the floor in Roman numerals after walking across each track. No wonder I didn't see them, I had been concentrating on not getting squished by a slow moving train.

The train stopped at a station I was not expecting and halted for a good while. I was growing suspicious that I was on the wrong train, if I was, then it would be the first time, and long overdue. I opened the doors and stepped into the next carriage asking the lady if this was the train to Balatonlelle or Nagykanizsa, which was the next change. She said something in Hungarian and shook her head, I knew I was on the wrong train. I hurriedly gathered my things and made my way into the station. It was confirmed... wrong bloody train. It was so easy to do.

I sat in the station minding my own business when a large man in scraggly clothes stopped in front of me, as a reflex I placed a sturdy grip on my laptop. He spoke in Hungarian and pointed to the guitar strapped onto the front of my backpack. 'Guitar!' he said, elatedly and with a big smile beneath his overgrown beard. He pointed to his bulging chest 'I harmonica!' I acknowledged his announcement by playing the air harmonica briefly with a smile 'ah, yes, you play the harmonica?' He offered a hand, his big sausage fingers and dirty fingernails appeared in front of my face as I sat there, I shook it, his hand was warm and engulfed mine like an insignificant collection of flesh and bones. He spoke again in Hungarian. 'Ah, so do you play here in...' I forgot where I was. He had no idea what I was saying, he shook my hand once more and walked on, the conversation apparently over.

An hour later I boarded another train, fully aware that I had now taken a different route and my connections would all be changed. An hour or so into the journey the train stopped. One of the two girls sitting across from me got up and said something that I didn't understand and therefore filtered-out. I didn't click at first that she was talking to me, her friend then spoke with a questioning face. 'Oh, umm, English?' I said. 'Ah, English...err, you err, komme' they both gestured with pointing fingers and waving hands as if to say come with us. They pointed again at my things and then I heard one of them say autobus, I got it, there was a bus replacement service operating from here. I followed the girls onto the bus. This journey was obviously not going to be straight-forward.

The bus ploughed through rain-soaked bumpy roads, cascades of water shooting out from under the wheels. Half of the huge windscreen was only semi-transparent, the other half opaque. I had absolutely no idea when to get off. One of the girls alighted, then at the next stop the other also. I was one of two people left on. Eventually we arrived at a train station, the name of which I fail to remember and I got onto the waiting train. Please God, let this be the right way. It was a silent prayer out of tiredness rather than worry. Having been to enough towns on this trip so far I was sure I could find somewhere to stay, even if it meant sleeping rough for a night. Station names drifted by the window without a hint of my destination- Bechegy, Balatongyőrők, Vonyarcvashegy, Alsógyenes. The list went on. Trees filled with large bird's nests like huge cotton balls passed by, when out of the left-hand window I noticed water. Apart from the odd lake, I had not seen a significant body of water on the trip so far in these land-locked countries. The air was misty and the rain came down hard, it was Lake Balaton, I knew I was close. The train stopped at Keszthely, I would have to change here. Keszthely sat on the South-Western tip of Lake Balaton and was a popular destination in the summer months. Lake Balaton itself was a gift to the Hungarians, as a land-locked nation they treasured its glistening waters. It was their sea.

Unfortunately it looked as though I had just missed my connection. It would be a further 2 hours until I could get another, by which time it would be dark, and I had no more hope of finding a place to stay in Balatonlelle than I did here in Keszthely. I donned my rucksack, pulled up my hood and braved the pouring rain. The long road leading to Keszthely town centre had as many dips and cracks as I remember just about anywhere in this part of Europe, consequently the puddles were unavoidable. Water flowed like a network of rivers down the pathway, and by this point my Czech shoes were actively soaking up any moisture around them. My socks squelched, but my spirits were not dampened. I was making this up as I went along, going with the flow, and it felt good.

The tourist information centre made a call on my behalf and arranged a night's stay for 3500 HUF in a private apartment around the corner, this was no more expensive than most hostels. I arrived drenched. My Czech jacket keeping most of the rain from my clothes underneath, but my lower half was another story. That night I cooked a meal you might expect a struggling student to eat on a daily basis, pasta was always a cheap and viable way to a hearty meal. From this point on I would self-cater more regularly. I'd had some great meals in Hungary and it was time to cook me some mediocre ones with cheap ingredients. Outside, the wind howelled and the rain bombarded any horizontal surface with a thump. This night, I would stay in and take comfort in the warmth. And so, with my dripping shoes raining down from atop the radiator, I drifted off to a restful slumber.

Posted by kookie888 15:50 Archived in Hungary Comments (0)

Hungarian steam

How can I smash this telephone to pieces without anyone noticing? I thought, giving evil eyes to anyone looking into the phone box at my reddening face. I had been trying to make a phone call with an international phone card, but with hopeless consequences. Please..enter..your..PIN.. said the robotic voice on the end of the line. 'I just entered my freakin' PIN code you piece of shit phone service wankers!!'
Now, before you judge me, let me explain. I could usually sit for hours in the company of someone I didn't like, I could take abuse without getting too angry, at least initially, and I could work out how to use most nonsensical electronic appliances, but phones, and in particular recorded phone messages and queueing systems made my blood boil. Please..dial..the..number, 'Argh! I dialled the number three times already you raving whore-bag!' Her pseudo-American accent seemed to be getting more and more smarmy each time she asked for the same thing. My feet shifted angrily in the limited space of the booth, my bag pushing against the swing door letting out the odd swear word into the morning crowd, *silence* '.......bastard............Mother..........you.........I'm gonna...........till it comes out the other end!' I smashed the receiver into the coin entry slot for stealing my hundred forint coin, and then another. I lifted the phone up to my ear to see if it was still working, the dial tone was as clear as ever. Something within me felt disappointed that I didn't even manage to cause a crackled buzz to the damn thing. I swung the door open, letting it slam loudly, morning commuters glanced over at the angry foreigner. The three other phones I tried netted me the same result, I took out my anger on each one with a swift knee or elbow.
I stormed down the street back towards the bookshop that sold me the phone card. A young man with tanned skin dressed in trendy clothes tried to stop me in my tracks 'excuse me, can you help me with one hundred forint?' he said with an urban tone. Today he was asking the wrong man at the wrong time 'NO, sorry' I said, with not even a hint of regretful patting of pretend empty pockets. I'd always felt the flicker of generosity towards beggars and often dropped money in an empty hand or cup on the pavement, but all too often walked by with the feeling that I couldn't change their fortune with the coins in my pocket. And in this way, I guess I became like everyone else on such matters, a sceptic, ready to distrust anyone who didn't have a permanent home.
Inside the shop as I stood there, the man clutched his first two fingers in the palm of his other hand, standing nervously behind the counter trying not to look me in the eye, instead hiding behind his glasses. I had been polite but insistent and began to feel quite bad as he seemed slightly worried I might tear his knitted jumper from his body. As it happens I left feeling even worse, I had found out the phone company were having temporary problems with their long distance service. I never did get to use that card in Hungary and it joined the €6 phone card from Slovakia that I stupidly bought a day before leaving its borders. I kept in mind I might trade them with other travellers heading in the opposite direction.
Today had been a rainy day, and Budapest's pavements were full of dips and cracks, which in the dark were almost impossible to spot. Walking back from Independence bridge the squelch of my socks put me in a bad mood, that's twice in one day. Didn't want to make a habit of this.
I sat up in bed reading a book I had acquired in the superb Red Bus second hand English book shop 2 doors down, when 2 new guests entered the dorm. A French couple, skinny man...fat lady. An unlikely duo and not too talkative. I took my opportunity to pop out for a coffee at a café by the river. I was generally willing to converse with anyone I shared a room with, and I did speak with the man at the breakfast table the next morning, but his wife spoke no English and my French was non-existent, so I felt no guilt in that case..
Café Kahwa looked like the ideal spot for a quiet drink and some scribbling on notepaper. The left hand wall of the small room had a line of sheesha pipes displayed there, maybe 20 or so. Turkish music played from the speakers and two waitresses lurked behind the bar. Budapest had, in addition to traditional thermal baths, Turkish baths, left here as a testament to the Ottoman presence. In 1526 the Ottomans defeated the Hungarian army and carved the country into three parts, the central part, which included Buda, controlled by the Ottomans exclusively. One of the girls came to my table, she had an appealing, if nondescript face. Her dark hair loosely tied back revealing large shiny skull & crossbones earrings. She wore a black long-sleeve top, tight black trousers and casual black trainers, 'cappuccino' was the only word spoken. I sat at one of only five small tables, a sixth table on a tiny mezzanine floor had two other people there. A sleepy Turkish-looking man dipped his head and slouched at the bar. I wrote some notes on a half-filled scrap of paper from my pocket and eventually began to wish for another day, this one had been a disappointment. Not even the offer of drugs and sex from a Roma lady dressed in a fur ensemble on the way back helped me change my mind. I was learning that Budapest was no innocent city.

The metro took me to within a minute's walking distance of Széchenyi baths. The thermal activity underneath Hungary made bathing in the sulphur-rich waters a much loved Magyar past time. Every sign inside, and there were hundreds of them, was in Hungarian. I didn't know if I was walking into a steam room, a toilet or the women's changing room. That was the excuse that I formed in my mind if the latter were to actually happen. The first bath was labelled at 36° C, I stepped in and gave an audible exhalation at the warmth. All around me old people skulked from one bath to another, their sagging costumes partially covering their wrinkly skin which hung from the bone like crumpled satin draped over a bamboo stick. I waded for a while some people got in and others got out, I watched through the light steam, soaked my senses and absorbed the warm sensation to the bone.
In the steam room I found some English speakers, one young American and a middle-aged Northerner from England. They were discussing politics and exchange rates. 'Well, the British are all for a single currency, as long as they call it the pound and put a picture of the Queen's head on it' said the Brit. I never did like sitting in steam rooms very much, the overwhelming heat fought with my natural senses to get out and take a deep breath away from the humidity. Stepping outside into a late November day from a 55° C sauna was, well... shocking. The British chap from the sauna was leaning against the ledge by the stairs which lead down to the outside baths, he stood up and began me asking a few questions about how I came to be here. He was balding and grey, a businessman and a thoroughly nice fellow. In that order. He continued and recommended the Kiraly Turkish baths in Buda. Kiraly baths had consecutive days of men only and women only, then allowing men and women together on Sundays. 'There's usually a bit of heavy petting going on in there, but don't let it put you off, it's probably the most authentic of all the baths here.'
'OK, well, as long as I don't get hassled by a hairy Turk, I might go, thanks.'
Outside, the full magnificence of the sun-yellow architecture kindled with the sunlight. Built in 1908, it was now full of Hungarians and foreigners in roughly equal measures. The smooth arcs ran down to grand pillars and green iron balconies wrapped around every window above ground floor. The steam danced on the surface of the hot water. The cold air in a constant battle with the hot spring, and the heat from the underground thermal activity continually warming the crisp air where the two met. The mist reminiscent of a Scottish morning over Loch Ness. Vague shapes of old figures wearing crinkled shower caps and men with neatly trimmed grey goatees filled the vicinity around me, families and children interspersed between. After an hour or so, I looked at my fingers. They were the most pruned I had ever seen them, and that includes Sunday bath time as a child, which sometimes lasted hours. I thought that maybe the people I assumed were just old and wrinkly had actually just been in here too long as well, perhaps confused by all the Hungarian signs. Weathered men played chess on a canvas board placed on a stone ledge, whilst marinating in the aqueous warmth . There comes a time when any good experience spirals down to the basic reference point from which all other experiences are judged, that reference point being normality, whatever that might be. And so, after over two hours in this grand setting I was definitely ready to get out, I was done, on both sides. I left the baths feeling light on my feet and with every bone and joint in my body refreshed. The temperature on the surface of my skin felt perfectly balanced to the last tenth of a degree, I felt cleansed, and very, very hungry.

A café on the same street as the hostel had caught my eye earlier that day, I strolled in through the door onto the large worn wooden floor space. Circular tables with fake marble tops, lightweight wooden chairs, no two of which matched perfectly. Domed sloping ceilings with solid rendered beams like the inside of a boat's hull, and with small dimly-lit round lights dotted throughout. Various cubist and Van Gough style paintings graced the walls, the majority of which seemed to concentrate on the many faces of the human race, a celebration of culture and a bright illustration of our contradistinct appearances. Every lamp shaped as curvaceously as an elegant wedding dress, only with old tassels hanging from their edges. The bar backed by a long mirror and every spirit one would expect to find, this was a great place to sit and write. I was beginning to feel the inspiration from the old monk's shiny pen.

Not wishing to downgrade my evening from my royal dip in the fantastic baths I dropped by the Budapest Opera house for an evening performance of the Nutcracker suite composed by the great Russian- Tchaikovsky. The Opera house itself looked great from the outside, but from the inside it was another level of magnificence. The stunning lobby blessed with marble pillar columns, fresco artwork, decorative trim and carved relief work covered every visible surface. I had my ticket already and made my way against the crowds up to the seating box. The usher showed me to my seat. I noticed that no one else seemed to be in this part of the theatre. I hadn't skimped on the ticket so my thoughts of ending up in a seat behind the stage didn't worry me too much. I could see it now, here you are sir, this is your seat, with any luck you might be able to see the back of their heads. It wasn't so, the box was regal, but then so was the whole building, it was by no means an indication of my social status. It was big enough to fit three chairs astride near the viewing ledge, but small enough to feel very private. 'Your seat will be this one' she said and pointed to the solo chair behind the other three. It was a three up, one behind formation and I was the loner at the back. I wanted to throw my ticket at her face.
I made myself comfortable. Across the theatre in an opposite booth a woman in a red dress stood in front of a full-length mirror, pausing for a moment in a lady-like pose at every angle. She leaned into her reflection and began applying lip liner with delicate poise. Pouting her lips she straightens up and slowly replaces her spectacles and then sweeps her shoulder-length hair with the back of her fingers. In the box below a Japanese girl perches her camera on the red velvet chaise longue and sits herself on the ledge ready for the delayed flash. The people, in general, were looking excited and were behaving in a way that only a venue such as this would extract from their hoity side. The ceiling impressively painted with a classical heaven scene, circling a huge gold chandelier high above the floor area. The prime seating position in the first tier opposite the stage, under a golden arch adorned with angelic figurines remained empty. Either no one important enough was in town, or no one was stupid enough to pay the exorbitant rates.
After contemplating my own seating options I thought well, there's no one in these seats, I'll just.., and as the thought showed its cheeky face three middle aged and smartly dressed English people walked into the booth. They sat and admired the view of the stage and the surrounding viewing levels. The orchestra began tuning up and a cacophony of string and brass notes rose to the upper stands. As the performance began I shifted silently forwards, so far that I was virtually spooning the lady in front. She didn't notice, and frankly I didn't care, I mean, how dare they sit in front of me and enjoy the view, having a good time. I had to look at the back of her cropped spindly hair and only if I contorted enough would a majority portion of the stage come into view. Nevertheless, I could appreciate most of what was going on. In the second half I resorted to sitting on the chair back, placing my feet on the seat and rising above all three of them, who's enjoying the view now, eh?
Although I enjoyed the performance, I was unsure how much of the period costume, the running about and the silent over-exaggerated gesturing I could take. With all due respect, Tchaikovsky obviously knew what he was doing with his music, but when the main ballerina took to the stage, the theatre may have well been silent. Her perfect figure exuded such grace and absolute beauty, her movements swift and precise, balanced on her toes she drifted seamlessly across the floor as if it wasn't there. Her achingly beautiful face radiated an expression which added a level of drama and professionalism that I had never seen before with my own eyes. Each of her placid hand movements drew me in further and further until all the space around her and stretching out to the limit of my periphery was nothing but a hazy void. I was reminded of a previous round the world trip, stopping off in the Pacific, on the Island of Rarotonga, which was the main landmass of The Cook Islands. Polynesian dancing, performed by tribally dressed men and women still resonates clearly in my memory. The women, who wore grass skirts and coconut bras moved with mesmerising sexuality. Subtle, but very sexual. The pivoting of the hips fanned out the grass in the skirt high enough to reveal more tropically-tanned thigh, but low enough not to give away the secrets beneath. Smooth, slender arms outstretched and bent at the elbow as if dancing a formal dance with an invisible partner. Palms facing out with gently curled fingers, each one offering a tender grasp, and it was in those fingers that your eyes became hypnotised. Helplessly devoured in mind and body, these were the powers of such exotic womankind on a red-blooded man. Today, was most definitely a good day.

The words there may be some heavy petting going on around you, but don't let it put you off, swirled in my mind, I was here, in a foreign land to accept unique experiences, to come out of the other side and say yep, I did that. Well, of one thing I was certain, I would go to the Turkish baths in Buda to admire the authenticity of the venue, not the hairy brutes with their mouths locked together. The Kiraly bath house didn't give much away at first, the building was OK, if mildly run-down, the changing rooms were civil and practical. As I walked up into the changing area I bumped into the same English man I had seen at Széchenyi baths, who recommended me to visit here. He'd obviously not had enough the first time. 'Ah, hello, you decided to give it a try then? Bad timing, I'm just leaving. I've had a massage, and oh, there's some serious cruising going on downstairs by the old men, so watch out. But don't worry there's a nice young Portuguese man wandering about somewhere you can chat to.' And with that, he left.

I took the memory card from my camera and along with my passport and bank cards wedged them underneath the bench in the changing booth and placed a cryptic note in my shoe, so that I would not forget them when I dressed to leave. I opened the door, a foreign voice proclaimed 'no, no trunks, no trunks, you must use...' the attendant walked into my changing booth and picked up a small white apron which came with the towel they gave me upon arrival and then pointed 'look...like this' his finger directed at a Mediterranean-looking man wearing the same garment, his hands proudly on his hips in a Greek God-like pose. I had seen the article, which comprised of a square piece of material and two long straps, while I was changing and assumed it was entirely optional, for those that wanted... easy access, to... things. 'Oh' I said, sharply, and with a begrudging look upon my face I totted back into the booth.
This thing was no bigger than an old fashioned pinny that you might expect a curly-haired housewife from the fifties to be wearing in a black and white TV commercial. It covered most of the way down to the knee and only the front half of your body. This felt very odd. I paused for a few moments in the booth, wearing nothing but a tea towel, and my innocent cheeks on display for all the world to see. I opened the door again. 'Yes! That's right...good' he chirped. I faced him front-on, locked the changing room door, then reluctantly swung round to walk off, knowing he was looking at my bare behind all the way to end of the corridor. I passed another worried looking man in his apron as I turned down into the staircase and I gave him a sympathetic glance of consolation. In the murky depths of the lower level two men sat soaking in a hot bath to my left which sunk down below floor level in the steam-filled room. An open doorway led into the main bath area. The outer perimeter dotted with overweight old men in their fifties and above, casually lounging in the natural springs. They looked up, I looked down and dipped one foot into the warm water, then gradually lowered myself in to neck-height.
I didn't know how this worked, no one seemed to be up to any mischief, only looking over occasionally at myself and others, I could handle this. What I didn't want to do was give an unwitting signal that I was here for some macho funny business. So all eye contact was a no-no. I put on my don't bother me face. Looking up, the central dome above the circular bath was not of a grand size but it was, as promised by the mysterious Englishman, extremely authentic. The room had a few dim bulbs, but it was mainly lit by sixty or so chiselled holes in the burgeoning ceiling, letting in shards of light from outside, each one creating a halo of ethereal luminescence. I stepped out of the bath and into the steam room, 3 men were sitting limp on the wooden slats, the whole place seemed to be quite reserved, I don't know what I was worried about.
After a few minutes 2 men wandered in. The first, bald-headed and in his mid forties, his appendix scar discoloured and clumsy. His face looked as if he'd had a career in boxing, but forgot to defend his head. The other, portly, with short curly black hair and a look of shameless and twisted carnal deeds upon his face. They clutched at each other and embraced as if attempting to eat something tasty off the other one's mouth. Their hands drifted downwards to the bare portion of their lower bodies. Oh, I thought, surprised at the audacity and lack of self-awareness. Or maybe that was the point. The tattoo of an ancient Queen's head writhed between the bald man's shoulder blades, she seemed to be winking at me. The others looked on with straight faces, I couldn't tell if they were enjoying the lewd display, I wasn't, so I got up and left.
I stepped into an empty pool, thinking I'd have some space to myself, first foot in...my face tensed in shock. This was the cold bath. With one foot already in, I couldn't go back. I'm gonna have to do this. I think 30 seconds was enough to prove my point before scurrying over to the hottest bath like a cold-blooded lizard in danger of losing the function to move.
Back in the main bath the glances seemed to be becoming more frequent so I took a deep breath and sunk below the water surface for a while. I'd always had a good ability to hold my breath for quite a long time, like my Father who would occasionally lay in bed, much to my Mother's vexation, and hold his breath for no apparent reason other than just to see how long he could manage. It seemed a fruitless thing to do, but who else could say they could stop breathing for over three minutes and live to tell the (odd) tale? I'd hit the three minutes and twenty mark on a couple of occasions before. After about a minute, I thought it best to open my eyes just in case a Hungarian sausage appeared in front of my face, the weak sulphur made my eyes sting and a minute later I slowly re-emerged like Rambo from a swamp.
The big curly-haired exhibitionist and his flat-faced companion minced over from the steam room and began playing a little competition which involved seeing how far they could get their tongues down each other's throat while in the main bath. Then in a scene not unlike something out of Cocktail, no pun intended, they drifted under the over-sized tap that poured water from, beneath the earth, I imagine, and continued to claw at each other in lust. It seemed like it was their ambition to 'get it on' in as many places as possible, not for the enjoyment but for some kind of check list. Public toilet- check! Broom cupboard- check! Turkish baths- check!
After a while the chubby fellow of the two waded over to my side of the pool and sat next to an old man. The man must have been in his sixties, maybe seventies, quite hefty and sporting a dashing moustache which made him look like the Colonel, or an embellished war veteran. The young man turned toward him and planted his face no more than 10cm from the old man's. Whispering something or other, each time the old man moved his face to look around in apparent discomfort the other chap followed his head movements like a hypnotist attempting to maintain eye contact at all times. I looked away out of awkwardness, and from the corner of my eye saw the young greasy chap kiss the old man in a sly move. What the?! The water began to ripple around the two of them as they continued talking. Doth my eyes deceive me? I thought. Or do these men appear to be partaking in hand-related activities beneath the surface in these communal waters? My head turned as my eyes closed in fear of seeing too much, immediately regretting putting my head under the water not 5 minutes before.
Two minutes later they both stepped out and walked over to the hot bath. I began to notice in the minutes that followed that certain men were sitting together, often one of them side-on to the other. Their upper arms swaying back and forth, hinting at what was going on beneath the glossy surface. Non-monogamous duos would drift to within touching distance of each other, do the dirty completely straight-faced and then drift away again. These men were not at ease with their sexuality at all. I looked over my shoulder, feeling mildly uncomfortable and saw the two men that had gotten out had not quite made it into the hot bath, but instead, standing on the stairs, the young man with his head between the old bombardier's legs. No way! That's just blatant, can't you just hide it like the others and we'll all pretend this isn't happening? I began to wonder how much longer I should stay, despite my initial thoughts it didn't bother me all that much, but it wasn't like I was about to hand out scorecards. It was a shame in a way because the bath house itself was as authentic and atmospheric as it gets.
'All these men, they are horny' said a voice next to me, it was the man from the changing rooms who had stood proud wearing the apron as a demonstration. 'Yeah, they certainly seem to be' I retorted. 'And, what do you think about that?' A momentary silence ensued while I mentally gathered my answer so as not to offend anyone as our voices were now the only sound in the room apart from the gushing of the large tap on the other side, plus the reverberation in this room was astounding. 'I'm not into it myself, but it doesn't bother me too much I suppose.'
'What...so you're not gay?' he asked in mild surprise. I wasn't offended, just look where I was. 'No, I'm not, I'm a tourist' I said, trying to be funny. He didn't laugh, but instead seemed to be collating various questions he planned on asking next. 'So, where are you from?'
'I'm from England, and you?.
'Oh, so you're the Portuguese man my friend was telling me about.'
'Who's that then?' he asked in curiosity, his bearded face showing a slight smile.
'Oh just someone I got chatting to at Széchenyi baths yesterday, I saw him again on the way in today and he said there was a pleasant Portuguese chap here that he'd been chatting to.'
'I know the guy, grey hair, Englishman'.
'That's the one, I don't really know him to be honest' I said, distancing myself from the association in case it seemed like a casual partnership.
'What's your name?'
'Adam, and yours?'
'Othello' he said pronouncing it with a hard 'th'. As he smiled I could see the light-refracted image of his hand glide towards me under the water, I shook it and retracted. 'Nice to meet you' he said. This was good, he didn't seem to be coming on to me so I allowed the conversation to flow. He told me about his holiday here from Portugal, he had unfortunately been in a motorcycle accident in his youth and crushed his lower vertebrae. Years of recovery and physiotherapy meant that places like this were a God-send to him and brought pain relief for a considerable time. It didn't take a genius to work out that he was probably gay, despite his non-camp demeanour. He just liked to talk expressively, and with his expert use of English, he did that very well indeed. His accent gave him away, but it also gave him an interesting quality as he spoke of matters of mind and spirit, of artistry and oneness. 'It is the people that make you an artist, not you. You yourself have no say in such a matter. You become an artist because the world says you are.' I agreed and mentally stored that one for later use.
'It's great to actually talk to someone and not just suck c---'
'Yeah, yeah, I bet, thanks Othello'. I said after a slight hesitation. What was I to say? It was, after all, a compliment.
After he told me about his artwork and how he'd been to several academies and then quit each one, he finished with a line of gleeful intent 'Adam, it was great talking to you, I'm off to see the boys', his eyes lit-up as he gestured with his head and he got up and walked across to the steam room. The other men in the bath looked over as if to say what? No jollies?
Back in the changing room, I put my foot in my shoe and felt the piece of paper I'd left in there, remembering my valuables were jammed under the bench. They were still there thankfully. Down in the lobby I could feel the female counter assistant's eyes judging me on the way out. This had been a unique experience, one that I didn't regret. I didn't even get molested, it's good to see the positives I thought, and took to the streets again, in the non-prostitute sense.

Posted by kookie888 01:09 Archived in Hungary Comments (1)

A tale of Budapest

I had been in this train cabin for some time, sitting diagonally opposite a young lady with long dark hair, slim physique and a face worthy of Miss World. The last few miles of train track were strewn with heavy graffiti, grey air and a mysterious end point which I knew nothing about.
'Do you speak English?' I asked politely. I got the same expression I usually received for this question which was a tensing of the eye sockets, a gentle sideways sway of the head back and forth and a slight- almost mouthed yes, a little, but this time with a wry smile and then those deep brown eyes looked at me with expectation. 'Do you know where I can get the metro from Keleti?' I gestured with my map of Pest and she came to sit beside me.
'It is not far, close to the station, also you can get the bus from outside the station entrance'. She pointed at my map with a single slender porcelain finger and confirmed the route I could take to get to the street I had highlighted.
'Ok, great, thanks' I said, wanting to continue the converstation as far as I could. She slowly returned to her seat. 'Do you live here in Budapest?' She looked at me with the same pursed smile, 'just 1 month'. 'Oh, ok, so where are you from?'
'Slovakia, I lived in Bratislava'.
'I thought Bratislava was an interesting place, do you like it here?' 'Yes, very much', I could tell her answer was sincere by the glow of life in her eyes. 'Yeah, I've heard good things about Budapest. I'm travelling around the world and I've been looking forward to coming here'
'So...where have you been?' I rattled off a list of places from my mind's map, connecting the dots as I went. Then added some more places I would visit after Hungary.
She gave her approval with another angelic upturn of her perfect lips. 'So are you studying in Budapest?' I asked, not wanting the conversation to burn out after my geographical name game.
'No, I work here',
'Don't you miss your family and friends back home?' I asked, wondering if that was too involved a question for a stranger to ask.
'Yes, I miss my family, but I go back every two weeks, so...'
'Ah well, that's good, you're doing something different'
The train slowed, indicating our imminent arrival, we gathered our things, and she watched with intrigue from the corner of her eye, presumably to see how I would manage my large backpack. I hauled my accuturements onto my person, one after the other. 'Ok, thanks for your help, it was nice to meet you', she responded softly and we walked towards the carriage door, my bags catching and scraping every surface of the narrow gangway. On the platform as I looked around to get my bearings, I just caught her turn and smile one last time and then walk towards the bright light of the exit, like an angel coming home.
This was a cavernous station with extremely high ceilings. It never did make sense to me, the practicality of such a design. Trains are only so tall. The plain concrete floors promised little, and new language on the signs for tickets, food and change said to me that I was in for a challenge.

The Hungarian language, otherwise known as Magyar has been sitting alone in central Europe surrounded by Slavic tongues and Cyrillic alphabets. It is derived from Asian sources due to the colonisation by an unknown Asian tribe in the Carpathian basin many centuries ago. The Hungarians, consequently put their family name before the given name when introducing themselves, as in Asian tradition. But the typical look of a Hungarian face was very much the European standard.
I looked around the station feeling relaxed and ready for adventure, dodging touts offering to change my money and trying to sell me a night's accommodation. I already had a bed waiting for me at Red Bus hostel. I had to arrange 5 nights to allow time for a parcel to arrive from back home. So, I was here for a while and in no rush to figure out how to get there. Without an idea of the system, or how to ask for anything at all I descended into the sub-surface Metro network from street level.
Budapest's metro system is the oldest on the continent, which obviously excludes London. Having worked a significant amount of time in the stations and tunnels of the London Underground, I can testify to their aged parts. Keleti metro station was the exact opposite of it's grander Brother Keleti train station. The miniature scale with low ceilings and small overall dimensions felt cramped but strangely cosy. Official artwork adorned the tiles and a well-kept appearance impressed. The unmistakable sound of an approaching train echoed from the tunnel mouth. And with a whoosh the most bedgraggled, rusty and communist looking hunk of metal ground to a halt. I stared at the rust holes, it looked like it had come right out of the 1970's, pop-riveted together on the go from random pieces of sheet metal. I stepped aboard into it's spacious uniform green interior and tried not to look foreign; I wasn't doing very well.
I must say however, the system is very efficient and doesn't hang about in any one place for too long, getting off? Then get off quick. I resurfaced at Astoria station, the location of the famous hotel and walked the wide streets to Red Bus hostel, a beautiful building with an inner courtyard, filled with rennovation materials, admittedly, but once inside the inner walls rose upwards in a square formation revealing a white sky above and Venitian iron balcony guards all the way around. Yet again, I had arrived during a very quiet time.

Budapest was a larger city than I expected, the streets were spacious and busy with cars and people flowing in all directions. Originally 2 main cities- Buda and Pest, they were joined in 1873 to form the city we know and love today. Pest- the vibrant, commercial part of the city and Buda- the hilly, sleepy, residential side hosting the castle. References to the alternative name Pestbuda can still be found in some old literature.
Homeless beggars littered the streets like discarded pets, hands held aloft, cupped, in hope of a few forint. Two percent of Hungary's population were of Roma descent and many of those were on the breadline. This was once a great nation of notable power as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Hungary was initially ruled in 1686 by the Habsburg family from their throne in Vienna, after their ejection of the Ottomans. In 1848 the Hugarians were unsuccessful in their attempt at revolution against their Austrian rulers. The Austrians, now slightly worried, built the lofty Citadella overlooking the city and installed 60 canons, all pointing down at the unruly Hungarians. A deal with the weakened Austrians in 1867 saw a dual monarchy formed, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had begun. A period of prosperity and rapid growth befell the Hungarians and Buda, Óbuda (Ancient Buda) and Pest became Budapest, the nation's capital. large_525.jpglarge_528.jpg
After WWI the Habsburg Empire diminished into nothing and Hungary was granted independance, albeit with two-thirds of their land stripped away for being on the losing side. Hungary is a much smaller form of what it once was. Joining Nazi Germany in WWII after being promised by Mr Hitler their land back was an even worse decision. The resident Jewish population was decimated by hundreds of thousands, carted off to Auschwitz, never to be seen again.
The Soviet's so-called 'liberation' of Hungary is still a sore point today. In 1945 after success in WWII the Soviets 'liberated' Hungary, and then just forgot to leave. Years of oppression and rapid nationalisation under a communist structure ignited a sense of indignation in the Hungarian consciousness and in 1956 what started as a peaceful student demonstration against the Hungarian communist party ended with Soviet bullets heading in the direction of the crowd, as a result, the Hungarian Revolution sparked. Russian tanks rolled into Budapest early the next morning and proceeded to fire into more demonstrating crowds the day after. During the dozen or so days of this uprising, an estimated 20,000 people were killed. Subsequently a further 20,000 were arrested, 2,000 were executed, including the Prime Minister Imre Nagy and a quarter of a million fled to Austria.
As the years progressed Hungary became more liberal and modern in its outlook. The year 1989 gave way to the official independence of Hungary from Soviet Russia and the Hungarian communist party. The political system changed in a heartbeat and today's Hungary now operates in the EU. So...the independence didn't last long then.
The award for best meal so far goes to a restaurant called Pesti Kisvenegiő in Pest. The sumptuous goose leg would have made Linda McCartney give up on vegetarianism, perfectly complimented by local Hungarian wine. Why have I never heard of Hungarian wine? It's decadent and extremely palatable. Mind you, so was the sponge sundae with cream and tasty chocolate sauce.
A few people previously had told me about free walking tours you could do in Europe's major cities. It was a tips-based service and since I was going to be here for a while I thought it might help to put some perspective on things. I waited outside Opera metro station and after a short time a young lady with fair-hair and snazzy long brown stripy socks rising up to the hem of her knee-length hot pants arrived and stood alone, in the same way someone stands in an empty lounge as the first arrival at a house party.
She reached into her bag and pulled out the laminated sign, 'are you here for the free tour?' she asked me with a very friendly facial expression. 'Yes, I am' I said, offering a confirmatory smile and pleased manner to extend my short reply and fill the initial silence. A hundred questions hovered in my mind, not one of which was clear or structured enough to verbalise, the more I thought say something else, the more I blanked. I stayed silent but approachable. I could tell she wanted to talk a little more. 'Where are you from?' she said, pivoting her body towards me to follow her words. 'England, and you?' I never expected an excited reply since we Brits were so common overseas. Back home, if someone had told me they were from Hungary, as she did, I would at least put a mild wow in there. I had received genuine wows before on a former trip to the USA, and had even been asked what language we speak in England by a group of American children, a suggested possibility being French. I remember being offended and amused at the same time.
Another tour hopeful strolled up to the two of us in light conversation. Colleen stood just above the five-foot mark, with tied-back red hair and South African accent. She was an English South African, which always struck me as a little odd hearing many of my friends back home describe them self as an English South African. It spoke nothing meaningful of the nationality of their parents, just that they abhorred speaking Afrikaans, which is the official language of the white population, resembling Dutch both lexicographically and tonally.
Julia, the guide, was a student. As soon as she said so my mind stirred in fear at the prospect of just how much money I would have to give at the end of this tour in order to quash my feelings of guilt that this poor student had to resort to walking tourists around the capital just to get by. What's more, she was now being spoken to by the oddest creature known to mankind, an eccentric German in sandals and baseball cap.
'Zis is a free tour? But you must be asking for somezing ja? You can tell me just how much you are wanting for zee tour?' The guy obviously had no idea about reading body language and social situations, a prime candidate for how to lose friends and alienate people, or he just didn't care. Peering from beneath his ill-fitting cap, his glossy lips and swirling eyes shot back and forth from me to Julia in an attempt to outwit one of us and reveal the bottom line of whatever it was he was getting at. 'No, it's free, but if you are happy with the tour then you can give a tip'. The man began to gesture with his curled upturned fingers, swaying back and forth a few inches from Julia's nose, 'but how much tips you are expecting? If you say it is free, zen I pay nussing ja? Nussing against you, but for me I don't want to pay, nussing against you'.
'Then you don't have to pay, but we rely on small tips to keep the project going, so it's up to you'. Her friendly smile never faltered. 'I'm sorry, nussing against you, but if I do zee tour and not pay nussing zen you will... (playfully gestures a kick to the backside) I'm sorry, ja, nussing against you', he laid a limp hand on Julia's upper arm and then swayed back again, his head now rolling in all directions with an awkward smile revealing his goofy teeth, but he never, for one second, let up on his point. My opinion of Julia and her politeness shot through the roof. This man was on the verge of being on the end of my right boot and she just smiled and stuck to her modest philosophy of take it or leave it, but I'll still be here tomorrow. After a few more jaunty hand movements and silly questions he left, much to our relief, and we walked North on Andrássy Utca, a World Heritage street.

Budapest's café house community was once a thriving part of daily life for writers, publishers and editors. Gathering en masse in a single street at adjacent cafés the writers would sip espresso and conjure their great works, walk over to their editor a few tables down and have a meeting with more coffee, publishers would join in and the whole team would have a jolly good time buzzing on the blood rush of caffeine-induced creativity. Now, just a few small cafés remained in this street and I never did get to write there.
Near Széchenyi baths a statue of a hooded man sat anonymously amongst the leafy grounds. The plaque literally read 'ANONYMVS'. He was a monk, but no one knew his name. In the 13th century he penned the first of Hungary's settlement history, and for such a good deed was granted the privilege of having his likeness carved and displayed in gratitude here in the capital. The statue had an aged green layer of weathering, but the pen grasped in his relaxed hand shone a royal yellow. The legend says that a writer in need of inspiration could touch the writing implement and receive ancient blessings of literary prowess, hence the shiny exterior of that part compared to the dullness of the rest of his cloak, the stroking hands over the years had kept the atmospheric dirt and microscopic greenery at bay. I held the pen, wishing for a commanding grasp of the English language in all its unyielding complexity.large_546.jpg550.jpg554.jpg561.jpg563.jpg

Finishing in the Christmas market, the sinful aroma of glorious fried sausages wafted over from a nearby stall. Pork was really beginning to become one of my favourite meats in Europe. Whether it was sliding off the bone, slow-cooked and tender or deep fried in masses of fatty oil, it was a daily pleasure that I knew I was going to miss back home. I pointed at the biggest, meanest looking sausage I could see behind the plexi-glass container, 'bread?' I said in request. The man looked at me like I'd just slapped his wife. 'Can I have it with bread?' I reiterated. From experience, the vendors at these festive stalls rarely spoke English, but I was sure the word for bread wouldn't be too foreign for him. Hungarian was really a language that I did not want to learn, even with the words printed in front of your eyes, an attempt at pronouncing them rarely resulted in you being understood. The different types of umlaut markings above the vowels could make a huge difference to the meaning of that word. For all I knew I could be telling people I wanted a soggy piece of road kill rather than a cheese pastry. Pointing quickly became my preferred method of ordering food. The man threw a slice of bread down on a plate and gave me the sausage with a pile of mustard on another. You see, perseverance. Then he announced in a pleased tone 'one thousand-four hundred forint!'
'What?! Are you freakin' kidding me?' Bread and a sausage for four and a half pounds. The smell filled my nostrils and my hunger pains dictated the reluctant handing over of the full amount. That was one expensive, but tasty snack. I scorned at the back of his head with every delectable mouthful.
The guide for the afternoon tour had a harmless but maniacal look in his eyes, his pointy nose and ever-smiling mouth confused us all and as he spoke various glances around the gathering crowd portrayed a worried vibe that this man was going to annoy us all. I, on the other hand was enjoying his awkward demeanour in fascination, this guy was going to be a real laugh, but I'm not sure the others agreed at this point.
I was impressed to see that the communists had commemorated F.D Roosevelt with a statue on the banks of the Danube in Pest. This was significant. Russians don't just commission the sculpting of an American leader on a whim. And the reason? Because they witnessed that President Roosevelt greeted his equals with a Russian-style kiss. The Russians were big on kissing as a form of greeting friends, family, strangers and acquaintances. So here, stood Roosevelt, a single American amongst many great Hungarians of note.
An innocent looking life-size statue of a young figure sat on the railing along the tram line. The sculptor used his own daughter for the piece, one evening as she was dressed in boys clothing to go to a fancy-dress gathering he modelled his artistry on her in a slouched perching position, and this statue in 1989 became the unlikely symbol for the Hungarian Independence of that year. A young nation, reborn in freedom and democracy.

Many references to the name Elizabeth stem form the Hungarian reverence of the young daughter of the Duchess Ludovika of Bavaria. In 1853 Archduchess Sophie, who was the Habsburg Emperor's domineering mother became tired of her Son Franz Joseph's youthful non-commitment, and without his approval she chose Princess Helene, the sister of Elizabeth, as her Son's future bride. As the story goes, Franz Joseph didn't very much like Helene, and took a shine to the young Elizabeth instead. Mother was not pleased. After refusing to marry altogether he finally won Elizabeth's hand in marriage. Elizabeth had astounding beauty, grace, charm and an ability to influence her King in affairs of equality and generosity towards others. But, in usual style, her pesky Mother-in-law intruded in all aspects of Queen Elizabeth and King Franz Joseph's lives, even taking their daughters away and hinting with heartless words at the need for a son and heir to the Habsburg throne.
Ruling from Vienna in Austria with Franz Joseph, Elizabeth's heart was very much with the Hungarian people, and as one of her German biographers, Karl Tschuppik, wrote: "It was the first time that Elizabeth had met with men of character in Franz Joseph's realm, and she became acquainted with an aristocratic independence that scorned to hide its sentiments behind courtly forms of speech... She felt her innermost soul reach out in sympathy to the proud, steadfast people of this land..."
Franz Joseph's treatment of the Hungarians was generous and dignified, he allowed himself to be crowned by Count Gyula Andrássy, a much maligned rebel who's effigy had been hanged previously. All of this because of his wife's influential urge to bless this nation with an open hand of kindliness. She even learned Hungarian, and that, let me tell you, is a noble gesture. Finally giving the King a male heir to the Austrian throne, Elizabeth's power of influence grew ever stronger, and she left a deep impression in the hearts and minds of the Magyar people of Hungary.
Her travels across Europe took her far and wide, away from the politics of court functions, but Buda would forever be her adopted home. Even as a accomplished sailor she won through terrible gales and storms in search of her liberty, watching upon the gulls in their fanciful flight and dreaming of such freedom.
The following years were unkind to Queen Elizabeth. She lost her only son, Rudolph, to suicide, after that day she would wear only black for the rest of her life. Then within one year her Mother, Father and Sister had also died. The death of Count Gyula Andrássy in 1890, one of her closest friends in Hungary, dished a final blow and sealed her mourning as a permanent scar upon her face.
On June 8th in 1896, which was the millennium anniversary of the Coronation, at a state reception Queen Elizabeth sat in black with sorrowful eyes, everything about her dark with sombre expression. As her name was spoken, the entire room rose to rapturous applause, an applause that lasted for minutes. The love and gratitude of a thousand hands clapped and cheered to honour their guardian angel. Moved to tears, she gently wiped them with a lace handkerchief. Little did they know that this night was to be the final farewell of their beloved Queen. On September 9th 1898 she was assassinated by an Italian anarchist named Lucheni as she walked with her Hungarian lady of honour on the shores of Lake Geneva. The wound inflicted was so small, but crucially a fatal one, the knife penetrating the heart and causing her death. But not before she managed to walk for 15 minutes and board a ship, not realising her impending demise. It was an hour later that she died in hospital receiving her last rites. The news shook all of Hungary in realisation of their loss. Not a single house in Budapest was without a black flag, the city shrouded in mourning for their angelic Queen. I could tell on the face of Adam, our guide, that the Hungarians are proud of her even to this day.

A number of bridges cross the Danube in Budapest, each one with differing styles. Before their construction the Danube was only crossable by pontoon bridge for centuries. During the cold weather ice sheets would form on the surface and make crossing impossible, furthermore a complete freezing over of the water made the journey to the other side a breeze to all who came. The Széchenyi family, in particular the greatest Hungarian of all time Count István Széchenyi (1791-1860) had the idea of building the first permanent bridge over the Danube. Receiving news that his Father had fallen ill in Vienna, István rushed to the banks of the Danube only to realise the pontoon bridge was out of use due to the harsh winter conditions. So, while stranded on the Pest side of the river with no way of crossing for more than one week he vowed that no matter the cost, he would oversee the building of a bridge as a permanent way. Unfortunately his Father had died before István could make it to his bedside. While on a visit to England he saw the iron structure of Marlow suspension bridge over the Thames and new that this was the bridge he wanted back in his own City, only several times larger. He commissioned William Clark, an English engineer to draw up the plans and a Scot named Adam Clark to oversee the building project in 1842. Clark Ádám Tér (square) remains on the Buda side in memory of his contribution to the city and the uniting of Buda, Pest and Óbuda, which consequently resulted in times of prosperity.
Over 100 years later, the Germans destroyed the bridge in the siege of Budapest in 1945 to slow the advance of the Red army. Thankfully from 1947-1949 the bridge was reconstructed in its original form and is now accompanied by Independence bridge and Elizabeth bridge, among others. Adam Clark also facilitated the digging of a tunnel under castle hill at exactly the same length as the bridge (375m), giving rise to the story told to children that when it rains, they push the bridge inside the tunnel to protect it from the elements.
The bridge heads on both sides are guarded my two stone lions. Marschalko János, the boastful sculptor declared that if anyone could find imperfection in his creations that he would throw himself off the bridge into the Danube below. A young boy noticed that he had not carved out the tongues inside the lion's mouth and in desperation to save his pride Marschalko János spent considerable time at the zoo studying the animals and noticed that when a lion held its mouth in the same position as that of the sculptures, you could not see the tongue at all. With his ego restored, he advised the city of this fact and never did take the plunge. Other accounts say that he leaped to his death upon the boy's observations. Either way, the guy was obviously a jerk.

The two highest structures in Budapest stand at a fairly modest 96m. In remembrance of the important year of the country's recognised birth in 896 AD. The Parliament, apparently modelled on Westminster, London dominates the Pest side of the Danube and the Basilica of St István (Stephen) equals it in height. No other building is allowed to top these structures out of respect for what they represent. Budapest remains a large city in an outward direction, if not vertically. The castle area, at night, is one of the most magical I've seen yet, spires and fairytale lines of curvaceous design adorn a very special area of this special city.
Pedro, a Brazilian tourist in the group walked alongside me and proceeded to ask questions regarding the length and content of my trip. He was here for only a few days and with child-like fascination probed deeper into every aspect of my plans, in awe at the ambition of such a long departure from England. He called São Paulo his home and invited me to his place if ever I found myself close to his city. I considered it a kind offer and maybe one that was an insight into the hospitality and openness of the South American people, the continent which made up the last part of my trip.
As it turned out Adam, the guide, was inexplicably funny, in a nerdy kind of way. He was the type of person who just was. He had no facade, he hid none of his words in clouds of bravado or social nuances. These are the people we see on TV and are fascinated to watch, usually performing a terrible rendition of Hit me baby, one more time in front of scowling judges. Adam and Julia had been a credit to their city and I was as much thankful for meeting them as I was to learn something about their unique nation.
Colleen and I sat at a table in a bar that evening, legs tired from the miles of walking. Colleen while sipping on her strawberry daiquiri, reached into her purse and with a horrified look declared that she had mistakenly given Adam a 10,000 forint tip. This was about £35. After a while it is quite inevitable that you will hand over a wrong banknote while on a trip like this. From one country to the next the sea of impregnated colours and string of zeros on the notes swim around in your mind, determined to confuse you into losing a few hundred of something or a thousand of another currency. 'Oh shit, that was all my money, I meant to give a thousand, I thought it looked strange, the note is normally blue, but....oh!'
Luckily I had Adam's business card as I mentioned I was working on a book, he offered his number in case I needed any help in regards to the city. 'Oh, I can't....can I?'
'Look, just call him and say you made a mistake, it happens' I said trying to console her frantic, cursing mind. She pulled out her phone, gingerly dialled the numbers and with a furrowed brow explained to Adam in a high pitched sympathy-inducing tone just what she had done. We met Adam 10 minutes later across the square. The pain of taking money back from a tips-only service made me cringe inside, he must have thought he'd been blessed by an unprecedented show of generosity, but as I expected he was a complete gentleman about it, the same innocent smile gracing his face all the while. After walking Colleen back to her hostel, I marched back to my own and with every dragging step promised myself a day at the famous spa baths of Budapest awaited me soon. This was after all, the reason that so many come to this great city.

Posted by kookie888 17:59 Archived in Hungary Comments (1)

Pure Tatras

As the bus ascended to the higher altitudes I began to feel momentarily ill and wondered if it might be sudden altitude sickness, but then I realised we weren't that high up and that it must have been the tuna cheese pasta I ate last night.

Zdiar was briefly visited recently by Michael Palin on his 'New Europe' tour, in fact it was the only place in Slovakia that he did go. It was beautiful, all the houses were alpine style lodges, some with intricate pine carvings along the verandas, others were simply built from huge logs laid on top of one another until they reached roughly house height. They looked incredibly spacious and had that romantic winter look. You just knew each one had an open log fire inside and thick fur rugs to roll about on.

I walked up to the door of the Ginger Monkey hostel and rang the bell. I didn't have a bed reserved but within 5 minutes I had been fully briefed on the recycling policy, the kitchen policy, the washing policy, the meals policy, which was the warmest room in the house, the absence of a check-out time, the tea/coffee arrangements, introductions to the other guests and then to the team running the place in the owner's absence. There was Irish Ian, Israeli/Irish Sean, Australian Pru and Wally the dog. I think he spoke Slovak. So it all sounds a bit full-on right? Totally wrong! This place was heaven. It was a proper house with a homely house feel. The people were relaxed and funny and everyone looked like they had a ten ton weight lifted off their shoulders just from staying at such a chilled-out hostel. As I sat talking to Pru I had a looping rendition of 'Dear Prudence' by the Beatles going round in my head, which as one of my favourite Beatles tracks made it very difficult to concentrate on what she was saying. She was lively, friendly and overly explanatory about everything. But I liked her. Her defining characteristic was her proactivity. If you needed something done, you felt as though you could count on Pru.

Ian was a dry-humoured and well travelled barrel of laughs with a thick Irish brogue. His fair hair, rosy complexion and stern eyes gave nothing away. He was incredibly amiable and could probably make Hitler chuckle from the grave with his characteristic Irish sense of humour. Sean sat at the table, spoke only a little a first and with his eyes down, then up then down pulled out some one liners that bounced hilariously around the room, the two guys could throw out short, sharp conversational gold that made a chat about something stupid sound like a brilliantly written sitcom.

Out the window I could see a young female backpacker walk up the muddy lawn to the door. A bright face entered the room. Sarah was arriving from Zakopane, a mountainous town over the Polish border. She oozed class, pearly white teeth, pretty eyes and a great smile. She was personable and willing to immediately delve into conversation about herself whilst maintaining a dignified manner at all times. I listened closely to her dulcet voice. Her euphonious tones and educated discourse meant only one thing, she was Canadian. Sarah was from Vancouver, on the West Coast of Canada. From hearing her speak over the next hour or so I could tell she was conscientious, civilised and quite wise to life. Sarah and I chatted in the dorm room for a while afterwards. We talked about our travels, culture and our individual experiences. She was obviously a very outdoorsy person. Wholesome and open to all things natural, whether it be spending time hiking in the mountains or on the crazy Khao San Road in Bangkok. She did it all. We compared photos and I was pleased to see she had a great eye for a striking image.

Sean had told us earlier that day that most of the restaurants in the village were closed during the week and so they were offering to cook a large meal for everyone to share around the dinner table. At only 3 euros I couldn't resist. The other guests went in for it too and before long we were all gathered around the log table eating chili con carne and sharing stories. This was perfect, never before had I spent time in a hostel which had such good community spirit. The evening drifted by with beers, card games and good humour. This place won my heart on the first night. The folks that ran it were there for the love of travelling and meeting like-minded people, and the money of course, every traveller needed money.

Sarah and I were both keen on going on a forest walk and had agreed to go together the next day. I was pleasantly surprised to see that breakfast was free, so I stuffed my face with toast with chocolate spread, toast with jam and hard-boiled eggs. Simple, but it filled a hole. All chocoholics will know that the chocolate spread was especially important for energy, or this is what I told myself anyway. I had lost some weight already on this trip due to the copious amount of walking involved with exploring European cities, and I was about to do some more in a more rural setting. I was looking forward to it. Wally tagged along, and off we went to explore the woods.

Zdiar had been inhabited since the 16th century and had over 1,300 inhabitants. This was their back yard, and despite the cold weather, it was a special place to live. Numerous fallen trees blocked the trail, and so what started out as a walk turned into an obstacle course at times. Sarah and I seemed to be going at the same pace, an ideal hiking partner if ever I needed one. The mountains provided an idyllic backdrop at every clearing. The dead cow lying in the field on the way back only provided a macabre talking point. I thought we might milk it if we got thirsty but I had my water, and besides it was probably off. The distasteful thought of milking a dead cow stuck in my brain like a sharp splinter for most of the stroll back, I was thoroughly disgusted, but the 3 hour walk did the both us the world of good and Wally seemed to enjoy chasing rocks. Not a fun game that one.

5 travellers arrived in the hostel that afternoon. 4 Aussies and 1 Kiwi. I hope you're getting a clear picture of this travelling montage, the Australians are slowly taking over the world. The 5 young sprites met while volunteering in London. It seems that every young Australian either comes to or lives in London for a period of time. For many it's their adopted homeland. Up until the last few decades a popular Australian psyche was that 'home' was still the UK. Carving out a rather unique culture for themselves now though, aren't they? On previous trips to the Australian continent I had noticed the Kiwis were much more comfortable with their British heritage than Australians. I discussed with Sarah that it was possibly the same with Canadians versus Americans, although all these nations have their own identity to an extensive degree and are very multicultural these days.

Another communal meal, another set of beers and games and I was done. The fresh air had zapped my energy. I must eat a lot more chocolate spread tomorrow, I thought.

Today was bright and promised good things. Sarah had asked if she could join me on another walk. This time up to the Slovakian lakes, situated high up at the foot of the mountain range. It was a 5 hour hike in total up some fairly gradual slopes. What we didn't count on was the melted and refrozen snow which covered the path in the last kilometer. Up until that point we had been chatting away, walking alongside the fast-flowing river and admiring the views of the magnificent Tatras. The icy path demanded absolute focus. Were you to look up, or start talking about something other than how hard this was to walk on and you'd be slipping your way into a frantic arm-flailing contest before you could say uncle. In the middle of a 'moment' it was vital to catch your balance in a split second. Now, this reaction can look a little odd. I can only compare it to those times when you drop something, but barely before it leaves your hand you try to catch it, but instead of catching it you end up punching the object further away from you. If someone is standing there at the time, you look like you've just had a violent fit for no reason and thrown the thing in a bout of mysterious anger.

Both of us nearly bailed, several times. The closest to a complete flat liner was me sliding suddenly and spinning round in a rather impressive 180° manoeuvre towards Sarah behind me and staring her in the face as if to say "that was close". Any further and I'd have been down the bank and in the drink. Being wet in these conditions could have had serious consequences. As things stood, we could laugh about it. The first lake was sitting at the foot of the Tatras which rose nobly to the fickle sky. It was frozen over and had a large log cabin to the side. We went in, it was a restaurant. The isolation was insane. The family must be going nuts on their own out here. And how did they build it? I mused over these things as I sat eating the only thing suitable in these conditions, hot gulash and a bar of chocolate. We decided it was best to go back the way we came and not advance up to the second lake. If walking on icy slopes was fun on the way up, it was certainly interesting on the way down. The fact we made it back to the hostel without either one of us stacking it big time was a minor miracle. Incidentally, can you get minor miracles? Maybe Jesus turning water into... fizzy water, or something.

Looking for something less physical, today we would be going across the border into Poland to have a wander around Nowy Targ- literally meaning 'New Market'. The 5 of us piled into a car that I can only describe as 'being on its last legs'. Motoring in this area of the world required one thing before anything else, good tread on your tyres. We were on slicks. The engine kicked and burped, lunging us in a generally forward direction, Ian at the wheel clasping on tightly to keep the lively tracking in check. I noticed my door was not closed, I tried to open it and close it again but the handle came off in my hand, in the event of a small fire this would be really handy. Luckily we stopped at the bank which gave me an opportunity to ask someone to let me out so I could give it another go. Trundling down the road at a pace improbable of this French wreck, with our icy breath misting up the windscreen and Sarah in the front running a snapped-off wiper blade over the inside of the glass to allow forward vision, I made a mental note to buy socks and a hat, as I had lost mine on the hike yesterday, my hat, that is. I would have to be pretty careless to lose my socks on a trek.

First stall in the market entrance- socks. I wasn't falling for that one. I was shopping around thank you very much. Damn they sold a lot of socks! Socks, hats, coats, gloves and weird cheese that looked like bread. It was only when I bit into it that I realised it was so.Mmmm, this bread is a bit cheesy. I lost the guys several times in the crowd and decided to make my own way around to purchase my items. I didn't notice any difference with Polish people compared with Slovaks in this particular market. In all honesty, I wouldn't have been able to tell who I was looking at anyway, they were all ugly.

Later that night the majority of guests could be found sat around in the hostel lounge watching Lord of The Rings under a blanket and waiting for dinner to be cooked by the folks running the joint. I was beginning to confirm to myself that this was truly the best hostel I had ever stayed at, and I've stayed at a lot of hostels. It wasn't the warmest, it wasn't quite the prettiest, but Ian, Sean and Pru made it home for anyone who stepped through the door and that went a long way, the monkey poking out of the cuckoo clock every hour with a 'ooo ahh ahh' was just a bonus.

5 very tired guests barged through the front door. Four of the five down-unders joined by Chris who was the new English arrival returned from the cold, dark night after attempting the same Lake walk that Sarah and I had done the previous day. I was happy to learn that they all hit the deck at least three times each. A sense of pride washed over me, but now that I think about it, it might have been smugness.

When it came to checking out of The Ginger Monkey I found I was quite sad to be leaving not only a great establishment, but also a stunning region of Slovakia. But the show must go on. I ate breakfast with three new arrivals from Boston, Wyoming and California, add that to the other 2 Americans in our room and you have yourself enough Yankee swagger to start a saloon bar.

The doors to the bus slowly opened and I stepped aboard, the bus driver looked like all the other bus drivers I had seen on this trip, only this was the same driver that brought me here 4 days ago. Damn, I was starting to identify moustaches. "Poprad" I declared. Today, I would be catching a train from Poprad to Bratislava, the nation's capital.

In the lobby of Poprad-Tatry train station a young blonde woman sat talking on her phone, occasionally looking over and smiling a very dangerous smile. The type of smile a woman gives when she knows how devastating she can be to a man. After an hour of waiting for the clock to tick over, I walked down to the platform. The same young lady stood at the other end of the platform looking over every once in a while. She ambled over and stopped in front of me, glanced over my shoulder at some children's artwork displayed behind me, then looked at me with her piercing blue eyes, smiled again and exultantly strolled away with the clippety-clop of her knee high leather boots. No way was I following this woman into her carriage, she looked like a supermodel serial killer. Basic Instinct played in my mind and I boarded the other carriage.

First stop on the route was Strba, I very much enjoyed attempting the pronunciation with a massive rolling R. The key was to try it without looking slightly mental to the other passengers. The station man on the platform stood dressed in a sharp blue suit with a red peaked cap, he raised his lollipop sign and the train surged on. It was a 4 1/2 hour journey and I had some planning to do. The train passed mountains reminiscent of the Lake District in England. A calm lake stood in the foreground and a lone bird flew over the water, the whole scene painted in varying shades of pastel blue.

From a distance Bratislava looked well-graffitied and slightly industrial. For the last hour of the journey I watched in envy as two passengers in my cabin sat and ate a typical continental European lunch of bread, meat and cheese. I was absolutely starving and walked over to a hot food vendor and bought quite possibly the biggest burger I had ever seen made from tender pork meat in a gargantuan perfectly-cooked roll. I boarded the tram and made my way, not so directly, to Hostel Blues. I was recommended a stay here by Ian at The Ginger Monkey. It was certainly a professional place. It had class, which is not something you can say about 99% of hostels the world over.

The friendly girl at the reception began telling me about the rules and key card system. English was not her first language, but boy could she talk. She intricately explained just about every aspect of my stay, any possible occurrences, the orientation of the city and many many more things far less appropriate. I asked to stay an extra night and this seemed to justify a stream of unanswered verbal that went something like this, "so you gave me thirty euros, that's thirty euros there, you paid ten percent deposit online, so what that means is that you will pay the remaining ninety percent, but actually it also works out that for the second night you will pay the money owed for that night which will be 100% of the price because you did not pay a 10% deposit for that night, I'll just do this a second and, now, yes, ok so...thirty euros, here we are, that, plus that, equals that and that means that you owe this much, now I'll take your thirty euros, ok so, your change will be, mmmm, ok, here we go, you paid for two nights, here is your change, I'll just place that in your hand, it is leaving my hand right about now, now it is in your hand...." and so on it went. By the time I was allowed to leave with my bags I swear I had aged significantly.

Sitting down in the reception area later on I was totally disappointed that I had come all this way to Eastern Europe only to choose a hostel which had half a dozen of the most incongruous yobbos this side of Basildon town centre. The British can really be a bunch of lowly arseholes when they want to be and this lot were the archetypal travelling football scum on a stag weekend. It seemed an opinion that most British people would accede to that these type of mortals should just go abroad and never come back. I have no problem with rambunctiousness, but total disrespect and loud swearing in public places was unacceptable. The atmosphere was destroyed.

A nighttime walk around Bratislava's old centre revealed a hefty crowd of people out and about, generally congregating around Hlavne Nam for festive food and hot wine, the cold air dotted with the warm breath of a thousand people rising up like little chimneys. Children cavorted about, people smiled and spoke in unidentified tongues. The centre of the centre, as it were, was filled with wooden huts selling food, drink and wooden crafts of every kind, their roofs covered in red and white tarpaulin of a circus style. The atmosphere was amazing. The Christmas decorations were up all over the city and people were obviously feeling quite jolly. The mirthful smiles and jovial laughter skipped from one group to the next, everybody was happy spending this evening with family and friends. I felt happy for them. I took a moment to remember my family back home and how I hoped they were happy too.

The next morning I started out on a stroll. The church, the small streets and a few bookshops. One curious thing I did see on the corner of Panska and Rybarska brana streets was something called 'The Watcher'. It was a bronze statue inconspicuously peeping out from a fake manhole cover. Bratislava had several quirky statues hidden around the city, some of famous people from Slovkia's rich history, and some like The Watcher, just because. He has lost his head a couple of times due to careless drivers and so now has his own warning sign- 'Man at work'.

Bratislava castle looks fairly modern compared to the ones I had seen up until this point. The 'four poster bed' design and smooth walls belie its long history to the casual observer. It was ideally situated in the centre of Europe between the Carpathians and the Alps on a trade route and so castle hill has been inhabited for thousands of years. It sits above the Danube river and casts its dancing lights across the flowing tide in the evening. Bratislava is a city of bland communist practicality, beautiful bohemian buildings and unusual features that surprise you at every turn, if you're looking closely enough. The UFO bridge is one example. Any city that has a back catalogue of historical monuments and important cultural heritage and then proceeds to build a bridge with a restaurant and observation deck that looks like a giant flying saucer has to be visited. I wasn't expecting to like Bratislava, but in the short time I was here I really appreciated the atmosphere, architecture, and character of it's present verve. Bratislava was very much alive and well.

After my self city tour I walked back to the hostel with tired legs and chomping on a massive trdelnik pastry. I was busy rustling about in my locker when in came a new face. "Hey, how are you?" he asked. Before I could even get my bag to the floor he was shaking my hand and asking my name. Scott was from California and had all the confidence and easy-going attitude that made certain Americans so appealing to converse with. He had been studying in Florence and was here to meet a friend. Later that evening after his night out Scott came to chat to me in the hostel bar area. Even though he was relatively young he had the kind of maturity whereupon he showed genuine interest in people. He also had natural in-built manners that signalled a good upbringing. 'Yellow Submarine' came on the radio and I commented that it would be a great name for a themed hostel, Scott strongly concurred. I could see it now, a yellow front door with a clunky wheel locking mechanism. Every bunk bed could have a bedside lamp in the shape of a periscope and lots and lots of fish tanks about the place. I stored that thought in my brain in the 'Must do.....maybe' pile. By the time Westlife made it onto the radio it was time to retire for the evening, it's a conversation killer between two blokes. I don't care if you are 'flying without wings'.

A scruffy looking man boarded the tram the next morning and showed me some official looking ID, he was there to check tickets. This was the first time I had seen an inspector on board any form of public transport. Good job I was legit. I had 7 minutes left on my ticket and hoped I would arrive at the train station before it ticked over. In Eastern Europe once you get on the vehicle you have to poke your ticket into a little machine which validates it from that moment on. You see, the tickets here are time-based. You pre-pay for an amount of minutes/hours. If you haven't stamped it, prepare for a fine.

I walked up the stairs to platform 3 and as my foot touched the last step a lady at the top laid down on her back and started to punch and kick the air violently. Now, I had a big bag on my back, a small bag on my front, a coffee in one hand and a tuna baguette in the other. I assessed the situation very quickly and was slightly suspicious that it was a mental lashing out rather than a convulsion. I walked a couple of paces and looked back in case she had gotten any worse, or if she may have rolled near the track, prepared to help her if she looked hurt. She sat up and with the most bemused look on her face looked around and slowly collected her things. She picked up her bags and got onto the waiting train. How very odd that was, we all looked around at each other with wondering glances and carried on as normal.

Peering out the train window and seeing Slovakia for the last time, I thought to myself that it was a charming place. I recalled all my great experiences in this little country in the middle of Europe and how it had grown on me in such a short time. I suppose I had always thought about it as the Czech Republic's 'little Brother', at least economically. It had an endearing quality about it, along with some charming people, terrific mountains and most random of all they invented parachutes. Good on you Slovakia.

Posted by kookie888 11:39 Archived in Slovakia Comments (1)

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