austria, hungary, and slovakia oh my!

i’m a terrible blogger. it’s true. last year in china, i had so much time on my hands. plus, it seems like weird shit was just a common occurrence in the prc. here in ireland, well, there is a lot of weird shit, too, but it’s less obvious, more understated weird shit.

the trip to austria and hungary and slovakia was amazing. (warning, this is long)

AUSTRIA
in austria, i stayed with claudia, a fellow anji-er that i got to be friends with last year. believe me, a year together in anji will turn anybody into friends… but luckily claudia is an amazing person and loads of fun. it was a bit strange to see her “out of context”… we had spent so many odd, lonely nights getting drunk and making crepes with chinese ingredients and smoking cigarettes in the anji school, talking about all the things back home we missed. and suddenly, there she was, standing on the train platform in amstetten to greet me. talk about out of context.

i flew into salzburg and spent two days there. the thing was, it turns out that the day after halloween is all saints day, a fact i’m sure i’d always sort of vaguely known in some remote part of my trivia brain. however, in austria, all saints day is a proper bank holiday, and i happened to be flying in on that very day, which meant that salzburg was more or less a ghost town. but it was beautiful anyway, with autumn in full bloom – leaves in huge, golden piles around the parks, shadowy early evenings setting in over classical stone churches. pretty much exactly what you expect mozart’s hometown to look like at the beginning of november. there was an unfortunate vomiting incident in the hostel during the night (not me, but a very very sad drunken australian), but otherwise i loved salzburg.

claudia lives halfway between salzburg and vienna, smack in the middle of northern central austria, in what is known as upper austria. she drove me (drove!) to vienna, where we stayed two nights with her very best friend and company in an amazing flat on the northwest side of the city. vienna was unspeakably beautiful and i fell in love there instantly, with the waning autumn and winter being ushered in by the setting up of christmas markets and holiday lights over karntnerstrasse. even full of tourists, the hofburg was beautiful and not overstated in it’s grandiose. the morning was monopolised at the spanish riding school, where i managed to get a last-minute ticket to the morning exercises (though missed out on the tour of the stables, as it was all booked). don’t get me wrong, these exercises are definitely staged for the audience – baroque viennese music is played and the riders are fully dressed in the SRS riding school attire. but the horses aren’t faultless and neither are the riders, and it was amazing to see that even the world’s finest horsemen have their bad days. my favorite part of the morning was the very end of the performance (after most of the less horsey-minded audience-goers lost their patience and left), when the riders brought out the youngsters, many still black or dark grey in youth… bright eyed and swat-tailed… nickering and spooking when illegal camera flashes glinted off the huge crystal chandeliers that hang above the school.

the rest of the austria trip was chilling with claudia in and around her hometown. we took one day to drive up and down the danube, stopping at castle ruins and heurigen (wine pubs run by individual family wineries). it was perfect, if not a little cold… one of the highlights was poking around a little village above which sits a castle ruin where, legend has it, king richard the lionheart was held prisoner and fought a hungry lion in the torture chamber, hence the nickname that stuck with him throughout history. i also spent one day wandering around linz, where claudia works, and got to meet her sister!

basically, i loved austria. the food was fantastic… claudia cooked and/or ordered me all manner of beautiful, heavy wintery foods like wienerschnitzel (this is NOT a hotdog people), würstel, leberkäse, and knödel… along with lovely austrian lagers… it was all a bit too good.

pictures of austria:

austria

HUNGARY

when i say hungary, i mean budapest. i didn’t go anywhere else. time and money didn’t permit. it’s not far to get from vienna to budapest by train – only about 2.5 hours, and also not terribly expensive, considering you are crossing national boundaries. in addition to loving austria, i LOVED budapest. definitely did not spend enough time there, and it seems like a city i could live in if i really wanted to. it’s this fascinating combination of old and new, east and west. for those of you that don’t know much about budapest (as i certainly didn’t before i went), it’s broken into two halves by the danube river – one side is called buda (the old side where the government palaces are located) and one is called pest (the newer side where the fancy shopping districts are, etc). i stayed on the pest side in a fantastic little hostel located on the 3rd floor of a corner apartment building. the lofty ceilings and massive baroque windows were worth the walk from the other side of town.

i did a lot of cool things during the few days in budapest… met some girls from norway, a guy from england and another from australia… meandered through the palace (which is set on a hill overlooking the whole city) and down through the old parts of buda, walked around the hungarian parliament (one of the most fantastically ornate buildings i’ve ever seen in my life), ate goulash and indian food, and sampled hungarian wine. but, by far the most amazing thing i did in budapest was try a turkish bath house. now, there are a LOT of bath houses in budapest because the city is situated along a fault line with natural mineral springs. i wasn’t really sure which one to try… so i just opted for the one that seemed cheap and easy-to-find. sometimes being a cheap, poor student has it’s benefits, because i’m quite sure i never would have found this place if it weren’t for those factors.

this bathhouse was built in the 1540s. and i’m pretty sure the insides had not been cleaned since then. basically, i went inside and tried to make myself known to the woman at the ticket counter, who understood very little english. i speak no hungarian. there were also no signs in english (always a good sign). i was equipped with a bathing suit and flip flops and money enough… what i wasn’t equipped with was a towel. so… i had to “rent” a towel, finally making myself understood to the lady what i wanted by miming a towel drying motion on myself until she got it. i was led upstairs into a VERY old, dingy changing room that housed long rows of small changing stalls down each side. it was ladies only day, which meant i was immediately confronted by about 10 semi-obese old hungarian women wandering around stark naked and i suddenly felt VERY uncomfortable about the fact that i was covered up. strange. after “securely” locking my valuables and clothing in the “safe” changing stall, i went through several back corridors and down a darkened stairwell and found the baths.

as i said, i am pretty sure this bathhouse hadn’t been cleaned since the 1540s when the turks first opened it. no no no… it’s hot mineral water… it’s “self sterilizing.” the bathhouse is basically one large, circular domed room with two small side rooms – one containing a showering area and one containing a cold pool and sauna. the main pool was a large round pool in the middle, and there was an additional hot soak pool at 40 degrees centigrade off to one end. let me reiterate… this place was dank, dark… there was mold growing so thickly on the roof of this place that you could hardly glean any light trying to peek through the small lighting holes in the dome. the lamps situated around the length of the circular room were covered in mossy moldy greenish black goo. just as you found yourself relaxed in the pool, eyes closed, head leaned back against the side and drifting into relaxed bliss… a drip of moldy slimy dome-rain would descend from above and pelt you directly in the forehead, running in a slime trail down your scalp.

ok it wasn’t that bad. but this place had serious character, something i actively seek out in my travel adventures, although it always seems to find you at times when you’re just on about your merry way not LOOKING for odd things.

the bath was gorgeous and budapest was gorgeous too. when you walk down the street, you’ll one minute be passing a huge old stone building, something very eastern … abandoned and cracked windows with graffiti along one wall and a large gate overgrown with weeds… and right next to it will be a swanky wine bar with posh seats and low reddened lighting and jazz flowing into the street. it’s fucking brilliant.

pictures of hungary:

hungary

SLOVAK REPUBLIC

as a grand finale, i hopped another train to bratislava, capital of the slovak republic – just 2 hours from budapest and only a short 60 minutes from vienna. what can you say about bratislava? well, first of all, it does not have the best reputation. for one, those slasher teen horror movies “hostel” were set in bratislava. also, the city was the sight of another teen movie, “eurotrip” where the gang accidentally get on the wrong bus trying to arrive in berlin, and inadvertently end up in bratislava, terrified about being in the dreaded “eastern europe!!”

there isn’t MUCH in bratislava. i really convinced myself i might get there and find this great, eastern undiscovered gem… but no, there is really a reason no one has heard of bratislava. ain’t nuthin there. the city has it’s interesting charms… there is a nice, if not touristy, “old town” that has been well-restored. there is the danube (that freaking thing goes everywhere). and there are little side streets and places tourists don’t go, where you can get a sense of life as it is in a re-burgeoning ex-soviet capital. but it’s small and it’s relatively poor. and you can seriously walk the entire circumference of the city in less than an afternoon. which is precisely what i did.

photos of slovak republic:

slovak republic

LONDON

on the way back, i was already flying through london via ryanair, so i stopped off for a couple days and stayed with a friend of mine from dublin who is temporarily working in london at the moment. he has a sweet company apartment and graciously put me up (and put up with me) for a couple days. it’d been a good few years since i was in london last, so i spent the first day (before meeting aidan) wandering around… i sat for several hours in trafalgar square and just took pictures and people-watched… probably the best people-watching spot in the whole world (besides tiananmen square). the next day, we went to hyde park hoping to see some cool shit going on at speaker’s corner, but the best we got was some dude standing on a red lunchbox saying nothing at all. ah well. in the evening, i got to experience my first metal gig… the former members of black sabbath (minus ozzy) are now called heaven & hell… and aidan’s a metalhead so he dragged me along to see the show, which i was pleasantly surprised to really really enjoy.

photos of london:

london

HOME

after all that, you cannot imagine how i nearly wept when the plane landed in dublin and i arrived to my lovely little house on carlingford road. i am so happy to live in this amazing place. this cheese brought to you by megan the wanderer, who maybe wants to settle down for awhile. good lord.

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