Europe. Hungary. Budapest: Terror and depressing ballet

Wednesday, October, 18th, 2006

We went to visit the "Museum of Terror" today in Pest. The focus of this museum was Hungary's history with communism and the terrible things that happened to its citizens during the "reign of terror". The museum had a very spooky feel to it, as soon as you entered there was this very loud, catchy music playing that went with these video images of war, torture and despair. The museum was very well laid-out and easy to follow and in every room there were photocopied readings to accompany what you saw. The museum was definitely a shock, it's weird how we can live in oblivion of terrible things that happen overseas. History classes in Canada are a lot different from those in Hungary, I don't remember anyone having a sympathetic view towards Hungary. I guess that's what happens when you don't get the FULL story, only a distorted view. The museum was very educational and eye-opening. In the basement you were able to go into the prison cells used to keep those who were opposed to communism and you could even see where the people were killed. That area had an eery feeling about it as well, it gave me goosebumps.

In the evening we went to see the ballet at the Operahaus. We discovered that we were underdressed and got a few stares but we saw a few others who were in the same boat as us so it made us feelt better. And if anyone had been making snooty comments about us we couldn't have understood them anyway. The ballet itself was more confusing than we had anticipated. We thought that we were being smart in picking something without words so that we could easily understand what was going on... unfortunately it was a rather complicated ballet and we needed the help of a program to explain the basic plot. The plot was pretty depressing (and based on a real story): an unhappy royal marriage, prince with many mistresses & prostitutes, prince is feeling melancholy & gets new young mistress, they threaten each other with a gun but make love afterwards, prince almost kills the king accidentally, prince kills gun-wielding mistress and then himself. Odd story. The dancing was beautiful though. There was an amusing character in the ballet who was the prince's ex-lover and kept trying to win him back after he was married, she was so persistent and when he kept refusing she found him a new young girl to be his mistress. How nice of her.

Oh and to go with our "inappropriate" attire for the ballet, Tyler also filled up our water bottle in the bathroom at the operahouse. Aren't we classy? :)

-Jenny and Tyler, the picture of classiness

Europe. Hungary. Budapest: Aloofness gets the girl

Tuesday, October, 17th, 2006

We decided to spend today walking about Pest (the area across the Danube) and eventually go try to get ballet tickets for the next night since we weren't able to get through on the phone or the internet. It was quite hectic getting over to Pest since I (Jenny) was leading the way and dind't realize that I led us right onto a HIGHWAY!!!! It was crazy, the cars were SO close to us. We tried crossing to the other side but with 4 lanes it was tricky (and I'm naturally nervous about crossing non-busy roads). Tyler and I ended up on opposite sides of the highway because of my cowardice. It was a very stressful situation but everything worked out all right. I learned my lesson about following the "pretty path" (we had been following the river)... there is always a catch!

We walked to St. Istvan's Square and saw St. Stephen's Cathedral at the centre of the square. It was very fancy. There was a young girl in front of the church selling tickets to a Folk Festival that night and she convinced us to go see it. We wanted to take in some more Hungarian culture. Tyler was thrown for a loop though because the tickets in the front rows were the cheapest and the ones in the back were the most expensive, it just defied all logic. We're pretty sure that we were scammed in some way but the tickets weren't super expensive so it's okay, just odd.

We ate dinner at a restaurant near the church where the Folk Festival was being held. The waiter actually understood us when we ordered tap water (that was a first). Tyler's pasta was very good & filling whereas my "turkey stew" was really turkey with gravy... falsely labelled on the menu. If you go to Hungary remember that "stew = gravy".

The folk Festival was really cool, it mainly revolved about 2 groups of Hungarian dancers. The guys did the more complicated foot banging/tap dancing and the girls got hurled around and made "yip"s on occasion. There was one dancer who kind of looked like the actor Adrien Brody and he was so serious he wouldn't make eye contact with any of the girls who were his dancing partner and all the girls were just trying to catch his eye. I think his aloofness made them all want him. :)

-Jenny and Tyler, cultured by the Hungarian folks

Europe. Hungary. Budapest: The kindness of Hungarians

Monday, October, 16th, 2006

We ate breakfast on the train this morning with the two older ladies in our train compartment. Both were quite chatty and though not perfectly fluent in English, they were able to converse with us smoothly (much better than if we had tried to speak Hungarian, which we don't know a word of). One of the ladies (whose name we later learned was Marie) had several experiences with "Canadiana" as her daughter had been courted by one of us. She described how it had been a long 4 year relationship (filled with dancing) but it did not last. She also talked about her job which was as a felt artist, her entire family all work with it. It looks a lot like wool in its natural form and they make hats, carpets, stuffed animals, etc.

We had a lot of fun chatting with the ladies and when the train arrived in Budapest we left the train and were struck by what will likely be the biggest surprise of the trip... Marie, who had been met at the train station by her daughter Anna, offered to let us stay at her place for free. our book had mentioned scams so we were skeptical, plus we had actually made reservations for a hostel (for only the second time on our trip). Despite both of these facts, Marie and Anna seemed genuinely kind so we agreed to accept their kind offer. They even bought metro tickets for us since it's more expensive to get money at the train station. They were just insanely nice, especially for only knowing them for a couple of hours. They made us lunch and tea and we chatted with them in their very nice appartment, it was the Buda part of Budapest, which is much nicer and had a huge castle nearby. It was amazing! They also announced that they were going to their house in the country so we got to have their appartment to ourselves. How crazy is that? They were so trusting. I think that Tyler won them over with his personality, he's quite the charmer. :)

Their kindness really made Budapest one of the highlights of our trip, we had so much fun there. They had such a cool history as well. Marie and her husband work exclusively with felt and have written 30 books with both historical and technical content. We couldn't read any of them but we got to look at the pictures. There are international conferences held on the topic as well and they always go to them. They were one of the fairytale-like families... nice, generous, smart, industrious and we were lucky enough to meet them. :)

We spent the day walking about Buda and went to visit the castle. You get a great view of the city from up there. We wandered through the city and observed Hungarian culture. Meeting Marie and Anna made us feel very welcome in the city. We've also found that felafels and kebabs are the cheapest food in every country in Europe and Hungary was no exception (plus they were delicious). The only bad part of the free appartment we were staying in was that they had no hot water so we had to heat pots of water in order to take a bath but it wasn't so bad. You can't complain when you don't have to pay for anything. They also had this fun board game called "Catan" which we passed the night playing, it was so much fun. I had beginner's luck on my side. :)

-Jenny and Tyler, overwhelmed by kind Hungarians

Europe. Germany. Aachen: On our way to Budapest

Sunday, October, 15th, 2006

Today was not very exciting, we spent the day walking around Aachen killing time before we had to catch our overnight train to Budapest. We discovered that calling home from private call centre places is a much better deal than buying calling cards. We called our parents and I finally got a hold of my mom, we've had the worst timing for when we call home. Lots of answering machine messages. :P But it was great to hear her voice and chat.

We eventually got on our overnight train to Budapest which we shared with 2 older ladies. We were originally assigned the two bottom bunks in the train compartment but since we're younger and sprier we offered to climb onto the top bunks and trade with them. They were very grateful and in awe of how easily we could climb up the ladder, it felt really good to be young. We have it so easy we don't even notice it. We chit-chatted with the ladies and had a pleasant evening.

-Jenny and Tyler, not-so-exciting

Europe. Germany. Aachen: On our way to Budapest

Sunday, October, 15th, 2006

Today was not very exciting, we spent the day walking around Aachen killing time before we had to catch our overnight train to Budapest. We discovered that calling home from private call centre places is a much better deal than buying calling cards. We called our parents and I finally got a hold of my mom, we've had the worst timing for when we call home. Lots of answering machine messages. :P But it was great to hear her voice and chat.

We eventually got on our overnight train to Budapest which we shared with 2 older ladies. We were originally assigned the two bottom bunks in the train compartment but since we're younger and sprier we offered to climb onto the top bunks and trade with them. They were very grateful and in awe of how easily we could climb up the ladder, it felt really good to be young. We have it so easy we don't even notice it. We chit-chatted with the ladies and had a pleasant evening.

-Jenny and Tyler, not-so-exciting

Europe . Germany . Aachen: Watch out for the sour cream!!!!!

Saturday, October 14th, 2006

Our first full day in Aachen, Germany. So before leaving we made an executive decision not to get a HI card (Hostelling International), which gives a discount at some hostels. JugendgÀstehaus , the hostel in Aachen is the first hostel which required the card... not having it cost an extra 5 euros each, per night -- so far no regrets on our decision. Also the free breakfast turned out to be a very sweet deal so the extra 5 euros was nothing. We did manage to make a huge mistake at breakfast when we thought that this white, yogurt-looking mixture was yogurt and loaded our plates with it (I had even put fruit jam in it to make a fruit yogurt) and then discovered that it was in fact sour cream. So we had this huge portion of sour cream and nothing to eat it with (cereal? - no, toast? - no), when we handed out plates in we had to look down at the floor and walk away in a hurry to show our shameful wastefulness.

On our walk into town we discovered that our hostel was right beside a farmer's field that was full of cows. They were not impressed to see us but that didn't prevent us from trying to communicate with them only to be snubbed for grain. While we were walking a woman in a car stopped across the road from us and was gesturing like crazy and speaking fast German and pointing at us. We had no idea what was going on but after going in for a closer look at the hand gestures we discovered that we had dropped our jackets about 100 metres behind us near the streetlight. That was very kind of her to tell us, Germans are friendly.

We soon discovered that Aachen was pretty dead on Saturday mornings, there were very few people around. However we did stumble upon a nice and affordable chocolate store and picked up some interesting treats like spicy, chili flavoured chocolate. We also went and visited the Cathedral which was massive and had beautifully painted ceilings. We then wandered through the ritzy streets in the central part of the city and discovered some fun statues and fountains along the way. One fountain consisted of a bunch of toys/dolls and had live musicians beside it playing the accordion, another one was of a man with a rooster in his pants.

We ate dinner at a pub called "Labyrinth" and had our most memorable meal of the entire trip. It was called the "grosse grille platten" and it was huge and delicious, lots of grilled meat. The server laughed at us when we ordered it for only two people and we thought he was crazy, how big could it possibly be? And then when he brought it to the table we were amazed! We ate for two days afterwards, so yummy. We also tried beer at the pub and mine was the girliest beer you can ever imagine, it was called "bannannen vien" which had pureed banana mixed with beer and I got to drink it with a straw. It's very good for a non-beer drinker, I loved it. Tyler's beer was called "Drexler" and he enjoyed it but I bet he would have liked it more with a little banana in it.

-Jenny and Tyler, beer connosieurs

Europe . Switzerland . Geneva: Peeing at the Post

Friday, October, 13th, 2006

By this point in the journey we've acquired several trinkets and concluded that our initial provisions were in excess. Also, this is check-out day for Geneva. So, we figure we'll pack our bags, drope by the post office to send some stuff home, then catch a train out of town. Easy, eh? ...No. This is the setup for the mostly painful mail experience we've ever faced (and hopefully will ever face).

Step one, which was simply packing our bags and checking out of the hostel went smooth. We had a hardy Swiss breakfast. Bread, cereal, coffee, juice, milk... yum. Step next, was going to the post office. Our bags were heavy, but this made us more excited about shipping stuff home. Just before we arrive, my bladder lets me know that it's done with all the fluids I had for breakfast and is willing to get rid of them. No problemo -- the post office'll have some public washrooms. We enter the post office and find there's a ticket system: select an option on a machine, a ticket with a number pops out and then you watch a screen patiently until your number and a corresponding cashier number appear. There's a couple options on the ticket machine and we can't translate them... so we end up choosing randomly and take the ticket. Waiting. My bladder gives a couple more mild announcements. Our number appears, and the teller points out the boxes used for parcels. Cool. We get a box and package the stuff -- lots of duct tape. We get a new numbered ticket. Waiting. My bladder is somewhat unuse to coffee and it's telling me that it wants it gone. Piss-off bladder -- you'll wait your turn. Our number appears, and the teller gives us some paper to fill out and tells us the price: ~60 Swiss Francs (~40 Euros)... ouch. Oh, and cash only? Darn. We had expected the credit card to take the hit and didn't have enough cash available. My bladder tries to squeeze some coffee out... luckily it fails, but it certainly gets my attention. A quick search of the post office reveals that there are no toilets. Ok, here's the game plan: Tyler quests for "facilities" and Jenny gets money (via robbery, bank-o-mat, peddling, etc.), then meet back at the post office. Go team go. Tyler quickly finds a McDonalds, runs in (making sure not to make eye-contact with any employees), "facilitates", and runs out (I worked there for 3 years, so I don't feel guilty for not buying anything). Jenny's lost -- temporarily. Stupid Geneva has places and things that look like other place and things! But she's a smartie and recovers. Spotting an old person, she drop-kicks them and takes their purse. Sadly the purse lacked sufficient funds so ditches it and accesses a bank-o-mat, then and dashes back to the post office. Parcel sent. Backpacks lighter. Success.

(NOTE: all of the above actions were executed with the equivalent of 4 babies strapped to our backs -- so we were sweaty and gross by the end of this... so sweaty... so gross).

Other things that happened:
  • we got train tickets to Aachen, Germany
  • we met an anglo-germano archivist on our first train
  • we (and about 20 other people) couldn't find a seat for 2 hours on the second train
  • usher #1 told us and our posse to find some seats up in 1st class where there was room
  • usher #2 told us leave the first set of 1st class seats we foraged (we had 2nd class tickets) despite the fact that the options were either: 1st class seat OR sit in the aisle...
  • usher #2 told us leave the second set of 1st class seats we had foraged...
  • we muttered angrily about the stupid usher #2 and praised the coolness of the cool usher #1
  • we found some 2nd class seats
  • we mutterered some more and then relaxed


-The Facilitator-

Europe . Switzerland . Geneva: Reformation, expensive food and soaking wet

Thursday, October, 12th, 2006

We were happy to find that our hostel, SYHA Hostel, was the most sterile place we have stayed in during our trip. It was soooo clean! And we got complimentary lockers to store our backpacks in and a free breakfast, so it was a pretty good deal.

We spent today walking around and enjoying the climate and each other´s company. We invented an advanced game of "catch" that took place on a teeter-totter and involved barehandedly cathing chestnuts thrown by the other person. My years of playing baseball gave me the slight advantage in catching but Tyler was the master of teeter and tottering.

We went to visit the Museum of the Reformation and I got to put my history degree to use. It felt really good to actually be a sort of tour guide and to feel like I actually know something. I could never be a teacher though because I went off on too many tangents, but of course Tyler didn´t complain. The museum was very cool and had a great way of explaining everything, very comprehensive. There were also some amusing dramatizations of conversations involving Luther, Calvin and company. Or maybe they were just amusing because I´m a history geek.... there´s no shame in that.

We got to climb up a lot of stairs to visit the church towers and have a nice view of the city. It was awkward going up and down the stairs though because there was only room for one person so you had to make sure that you didn´t hear anyone coming in the opposite direction before you started. Otherwise you got up close and personal with some strangers.

We also got to visit an Archaeological site underneath the church. It was made up of a bunch of platforms and walkways placed throughout the excavations. We also got free audioguides to accompany us because we´re students, a very good deal.

As lunch time rolled around we discovered that we were starving and in one of Europe´s most expensive cities. We had a very sparse, expensive lunch of tiny salads (potato and mixed veggie). They were about 10cm by 10cm square containers, not very filling but we refused to pay their ridiculous prices! Take that Geneva!

We went and took a closer look at the Jet D'Eau, in fact we went as close as possible and were rewarded with a drenching spray. We couldn´t get within touching distance of it though because it had a spiky gate guarding it. The spray was very powerful even from 10 feet away though, and the winds were very strong. We were wet and shivvery afterwards but it was worth it. :)

-Jenny and Tyler, loving the Jet-

Europe . Switzerland . Geneva: Land of fountains, chocolate and gold speckled roads

Wednesday, October, 11th, 2006

As per usual we decided not to call ahead and book a hostel in Geneva, and when we showed up at "City Hostel" we were informed that they were full. Luckily there was another hostel around the corner so we didn´t feel like complete fools. The hostel resembled a small apartment building and had laundry facilities and breakfast included, which pretty much means that it was a palace in our eyes. :)

There was a brief awkward moment in our assigned dorm room when we were putting sheets on our assigned beds. A very polite french man came in and looked at us and our beds with confusion. He asked what we had done with the stuff that had been on the beds. There hadn´t been anything on the beds when we entered... so we were confused and didn´t want him to think that we were thieves. Eventually we learned that the cleaning lady had brought their belongings to the front desk so they wouldn´t get stolen, so our names were cleared!

We went out and wandered around the town, mainly trying to see the "Jet D'Eau" (otherwise known as "Tyler's beloved" as he was promised a million points if he went in it) which sprouts straight up in the air 140metres, it´s very impressive to see. It shoots up that high due to pressure and it is cold and painful to stand close to it but we did that on a different day. Anyway we found a catwalk that went over the lake and ended at a lighthouse, the area was swarming with birds and majestic swans who refused to put their bums up in the air for Tyler to take a picture (they sure have a lot of attitude).

We discovered a love for cheap, spicy gyros from "Al-Amirs" which was basically the only affordable place to eat in Geneva. They should call it "expensive city", but then they might not get as many tourists. You always hear that it´s really expensive but deep down you´re thinking "It can´t be THAT bad, they´re just exaggerating"... but you´d be wrong! It is a beautiful city though, the streets have a glitter to them, like you´re walking on streets speckled with swiss gold. Perhaps they have so much gold that they decided to put some of it in the streets, I wouldn´t be surprised if it was true.

We unintentionally entered the Red Light District, that was interesting.... Luckily no one propositioned us (the girls must have been too intimidated by my immense physique). The most we got was a helpful prostitute informed Tyler when he dropped his sweater, and I´m pretty sure that wasn´t a pick-up line, but you never know with those Swiss...

We also felt pretty smart when we were doing laundry even though we couldn´t read the instructions and just guessed, we did better than another couple in the hostel who flooded their machine with soap which drooled all over the floor. Also of note, the vending machines in Geneva are tricky and try their best to steal your money without giving you the precious Swiss chocolate. Luckily I was able to outsmart it and enjoyed my Swiss chocolate with a smug look on my face.

-Jenny the conqueror-

Europe . Italy . Florence: Failure to Flee

Tuesday, October 10th, 2006

The plan today was to see the Uffizi museum and the Jardins de Boboli, then take a night train to Geneva Switzerland. We had walked by both places earlier in the week and written them off as too expensive (€9.50 for the Uffizi and €8.00 for Jardins do Boboli [including several minor museums]), but we decided to suck-it-up for the sake of getting cultured.

The line-up for the Uffizi was pretty daunting. As soon as you get in line there is a little electronic sign giving you the approximate waiting time: 1 hour minimum, 2 hour maximum. Luckily we met a fellow Canuck in line, so we were able to pass the time a little easier. A linguistics major from Saskatchewan (whose name we can´t remember). Despite our guide book saying most places are safe for lone female travellers, she was only the second one we had encountered. Inside the Uffizi we found ourselves in what was probably the second best museum of the trip (the Louvre is the obvious first). It had a bunch of sculpture and painting (some restored, some not). A pretty nice temporary exhibit on Leonardo da Vinci that went into some explanations of why his work was interesting (everyone knows he´s talented, but it was cool to find out why he was memorable). Somewhere along the way we lost our Saskatchewan sister.

The Jardins de Boboli are best described as "big and beautiful". Lots of fountains, steps and sculpture. At the highest point you get a 360Âș panoramic view of Florence. We skipped the Porcelain Museum portion of our ticket, but checked out the Costume Museum and Art Museum. The costumes were pretty traditionally, but nice to look at. The art portion was mostly inlays (finely carved stones pieced together like a puzzle to form pictures -- a much more delicate and time consuming form of mosaic).

At the end of the day we discovered there was no space on the train to Geneva so we had to stay another day in Florence (NOTE: this was super annoying because we had paid €10 to store our bags at the train station for the day).

-The Manchild-

P.S. We also bought souvenirs for ourselves in Florence: an over the shoulder bag for Tyler that is named "Victoria" and a brown, floppy hat for Jenny (she´s reliving her "Blossom" days)

Europe . Italy . Florence / Pisa: Leaning, Lasagna and Laffles (err, "waffles")

Monday, October 9th, 2006

We spent today in Pisa looking at things that lean. Well, really only the one thing leans... the rest just sort of stands at regular right angles. We had been led to believe this was not the case. According to our guide the Piazza dei Miracoli is supposed to be filled with things that are leaning. Lies (at least from what we observed). Nonetheless, the leaning tower of Pisa did have quite the lean and we were suitably impressed (though not impressed enough to pay more than €10 each to go inside -- damned expensive just to go inside some shoddy construct).

The rest of Piazza dei Miracoli was museums and cathedrals, which while interesting did not ignite a need to be visited. We almost wanted to visit the Museo delle Sinopie (Sinopias?) which houses preparatory drawing for frescoes, but it was closed for construction. So we looked for food and trinkets. We found food at this cafeteria style place. They served the cheesiest lasagna ever. It was delicious and even now the memory of it makes me salivate like someone who has been slurping novocaine. They also served some ok ravioli (I only mention it for completeness -- it could not compete with the lasagna. Sadly, I cannot remember the name of the restaurant, so it is unlikely you will ever enjoy the lasagna. Pity.

At the end of the Pisa excursion we returned to Florence, where we had waffles with gelato. Yummish.

We also visited the Ponte Vecchio, which is well know for it´s silver and goldsmiths. Lots of shiny things. Also, lot of men repeating the phrase "Si, bella," while their corresponding women cooed over the shinies (i.e., "yes, that´s nice... yes that´s nice..").



Europe . Italy . Florence: Museums galore... although we didn´t go in most of them

Sunday, October, 8th, 2006

Our first full day in Florence and we decided to explore the city. We walked by the Piazza Michaelangelo (which had an enormous statue of David in the centre of it and also had an amazing view of the city) and then we headed into the city centre. All the streets were nice and the traffic was much less crazy than in Rome. I took the role as navigator and managed not to get us TOO lost, only a little disoriented. WE went to visit the Museo Borghello which was basically a museum full of sculptures. Tyler was in heaven! The only bad part was that you weren´t allowed to take photos in most of the rooms. We don´t know why but Tyler managed to sneak in some. My favourite area was the courtyard, it was full of statues and included a bunch that were originally part of a giant fountain that was disassembled for some reason. We were actually permitted to take photos in the courtyard area so that may be part of the reason why it was my favourite.

We also went to visit the Duomo which we only saw from the outside but that was good enough for us. It had a neat green and white checkered appearance and was in the middle of being restored. Unlike a lot of the artworks in Italy, this one looked like the restoration would help it. All of the shops in the Duomo area were nice to look at and browse. It´s a great way to spend the day, just wandering around the city.

We tried to go to the Museo Uffizi, the most popular art gallery in Florence and also supposed to be one of the best. However, there was a huge line-up and the museum was only open for 2 or more hours and the price was around 12.50euros each so we decided to skip t that day. We though that we´d end our day by going to visit the Jardins de Boboli but our guide book mislead us because we thought that we could go visit JUST the gardens but that wasn´t the case. We had to buy a ticket for the gardens and the some museums which cost 8euros so we decided it wasn´t worth it wince we only had an hour and a half left until it was closed. The lesson we learned on this day was that you should always have the newest, updated version of your travel guide. Ours was from 2003 and has caused quite a few problems for us. :P

Our disappointment was washed away when we saw the piazza near the Uffizi museum. It had some of the most impressive statues of our entire trip,¨"The Rape of the Sabine" and "Perseus with the Gorgon´s Head" were among the coolest and most awesome statues that we have seen. We also added to our enjoyment by getting some delicious hot chocolate on our way to Ponte Vecchio (the bridge of silver and goldsmiths), it was like someone had steamed some milk and then added chunks of hot chocolate and stirred it all together. Liquid hot chocolate, tim hortons just can´t compare.

All in all it was a pretty tiring day just walking around the city. I can see how everyone falls in love with Florence. Tyler and I bought some groceries and ate dinner at a picnic table at our campsite. We had bought playing cards at a dollar store earlier that day so we invented some new rules to accommodate for these "different" cards (only had numbers 1-7, and the queens may have been men, we couldn´t tell).

-Jenny and Tyler, crazy card game masters