A Travellerspoint blog

Vienna

you could probably spend a year just visiting museums here

sunny 12 °C

If you ever plan on visiting Vienna, keep this in mind: you need a whole day for each museum you decide to visit. A whole day. I'm not kidding. Yesterday we spent all day in the Technisches Museum (I think that means Technology Museum). It had a lot of hands-on exhibits where you pressed buttons and moved weights and such. There was a soundproof chamber where you could go and scream and it told you how many decibels your scream was (I enjoyed this - 106 db). What really impressed me was that with every exhibit, they explained a little bit about it in socio-economic terms as well as scientific ones, and didn't leave anything out. If a technology had been used as a racist tool by the Nazis, that was included. Gender roles in the history and advertising of the technology on display was included. There was even a history of coffee in the museum coffee shop, and it talked about class segregation and how women were excluded from the first coffee shops. There was a "Macht Musik" exhibit with concert rooms, a production room and rooms for you to dance and play rock instruments and African drums. One room was covered in pink plush and featured listening stations with items in glass cases that had been used by the pop stars whose music was playing, items like old bras and junk food wrappers. The information on the wall asked you to question this - why were these people famous? Why should we care if that hamburger wrapper belonged to 50 Cent? What's the big deal?

Today I had grand illusions - I thought we could visit the Kunsthistorisches Museum (the Museum of Art History) AND go over to see Hundertwasserhaus. Hah! We got into the picture gallery with originals by Raphael and Peter Bruegel the Elder, and there was no way it was going to be a short stop. So that was basically all we did today. The Art History Museum also had a huge Ancient Egyptian section, a huge Ancient Roman section, a huge Ancient Greek section... Needless to say we didn't make it out of there before 4pm. Hundertwasser will have to be tomorrow, before the Blue Man Group show.

The only problem with spending all day in a museum is that you end up eating lunch in the museum cafe, and it isn't the cheapest. We're staying in a hostel with super kitchen facilities, though, so we've been able to save some money on breakfast and dinner.

Posted by arwyn 10:55 Archived in Austria Comments (0)

Easy, but not simple

The convolutions of transit ticketing in Budapest

sunny 10 °C

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Public transportation in Budapest is fantastic. There are no less than three underground metro lines (and they're working on a fourth), there are buses and trams going pretty much anywhere and everywhere aboveground, and there are even two suburban commuter train lines (the HEV) that link up with the metro. Wherever you need to go in Budapest, it won't take long and it won't cost very much - that is, if you can figure out which station you need to get off at and which ticket you need to purchase. First of all, there's the "short section" metro ticket. This costs just under $1.50 in Canadian terms. If you read the back of the ticket carefully, it says that it is only valid for half an hour, or three stops on the metro. Three stops? There is no way anyone would ever be able to keep track of how many stops you'd gone, unless they followed you for the entire duration of your trip. The tickets are strips of paper that you stick in an automatic ticket validating machine before you get on the metro trains (or once you're on the HEV trains and buses). This machine bites a chunk out of the end of the ticket and stamps the date and time on it. So I suppose someone could catch you with a short section ticket that had been validated more than half an hour ago, but the three stops thing seems a bit ludicrous.

The next option is the regular ticket. This still costs less than $2, and is valid for as many metro stops as you want. I believe you can also switch metro lines on this ticket but I'm not certain about that. Anyway, if you want to get on the HEV or the bus you have to buy another one of these each time you switch forms of transport, unless you've bought a "transfer ticket." The transfer ticket costs a bit more - something like $3.50 or $4. In the small print on the back it says:

"Valid for one trip with one change on BKV Zrt. buses, trams, metro, underground, trolleybuses, cogwheel railway on the whole length of the lines but on HEV suburban railway lines only within the administrative boundaries of Budapest. It is valid on the night service network too. Besides change it does not entitle you for interruption of the trip or for return trip. The ticket has to be validated twice when you start your trip at one end and when you change at the other end, with the exception of changes between metro lines (metro lines 1, 2, 3). When validated with stamping machines it is valid for 90 minutes (on night services for 110 minutes), within this for 60 minutes after second validation. When the second validation takes place at the entrance of a metro station, it is valid for 60 minutes even if the whole trip exceeds 90 minutes. When the second validation takes place on the night service it is valid for additional 110 minutes."

And they fit all of that onto half of one side of a piece of orange paper about 2cm x 10cm. The other half of that side has the same thing in Hungarian, and the other side of the ticket tells you what type of ticket it is, and has space for validation. Luckily you can also buy a 24-hour ticket, and a 72-hour ticket, which give you free access to any and all trips within those hours, and we also saw a "family pass" option (don't know how that one works). In fact, when using the automatic ticket dispensers, I saw an option for a "pet ticket." If you need to bring your doggie or kittie somewhere, you can, as long as you hang onto it at all times and buy a pet ticket for it. We did, in fact, see some small pet dogs riding the metro in their owners' arms. There must be some kind of annual or at least monthly pass option if you know what to ask for, because I can't imagine everyone buying all those complicated tickets every day. Also, most people appeared not to be buying or validating anything, and they had to have had something to show the controllers at the entrance to the metro. I never once saw anyone checking tickets on an actual train or bus, though. We rode the HEV for free a couple of times before we bought our 72-hour passes, because the station we got on at didn't even have anywhere to buy tickets on our side of the tracks.

I'm sure all these complicated ticketing options make sense to Hungarians, just like getting into Szechenyi Bath makes sense to them (you pay a different amount depending on how long you'll stay, whether you want a locker or a cabin, what day of the week it is, etc.). Once you've read all the options twice, it's perfectly easy. I'm sure Hungarian is perfectly easy as well, once you understand it. But I don't think I'm going to be learning any Hungarian any time soon. Every second letter has some kind of accent or umlaut over it, which changes how you say it, and "S" is pronounced "sh," unless it has a "Z" after it, etc etc. I think "G" is silent except in certain combinations, but I'm not sure. Words like "ügyfélszolgálat" are just a bit much for me. In fact, even the Budapest Zoo is large and convoluted. At the entrance we thought it would just be a small place and weren't sure if it was worth the price of admission. It was huge, and kind of labyrinthine, in that you'd go into a building, walk around, and come out another door on another side where everything looked different. Turns out you do need the map they give you with the ticket! I have mixed feelings about zoos in general, but the bactrian camels were so big and furry and exciting that I lost all sense of morals and just stared at them with my mouth open. Even more incredible was the fact that visitors were allowed to feed them (or were feeding them, and there were no signs saying not to do so). Apples, carrots, dried leaves, all sucked out of eager hands by giant fuzzy lips. I saw a man throw a banana to a siamang, too, and that tailless black gibbon reached out one long arm, caught it in mid-air and gobbled it up.

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We've been in Budapest for four days, and there's no way we've seen and done even half of what we could see and do. However, it turns out that there is a concert in Munich on Nov. 10th that needs to be attended, so it sounds like we're heading for Vienna now...

Posted by arwyn 22:50 Archived in Hungary Tagged budapest Comments (2)

Poenari Fortress

Romanian roads don't leave much room for error

sunny 8 °C

Our visit to Poenari Fortress in Transylvania was definitely worth writing about. First of all, it was organized by the girl who seemed to be running the hostel we were staying at singlehandedly (she looked about 18, but was probably 20). She said she had a friend with a car who was a good guy and would drive us out there, and we would each pay him 40 Euros. She also told us that there was another guy staying at the hostel who wanted to go, but not by himself, so if we went he would be able to afford to go as well. Okay, well, Poenari Fortress was actually a hide-out of Vlad Tepes (Vlad the Impaler, a.k.a. "Dracula"), so we said yes. She told us we'd have to leave by 8am the next day because it's a long way to Poenari from Brasov, and she kept telling us we'd have to eat lunch in the car because of the time factor, and we'd be gone all day, especially if we also wanted to see Bran Castle and the Rasnov Fortress (both closer to Brasov than Poenari).

At 8am we were ready to go, but our driver was nowhere to be found. A few minutes later the hostel girl informed us that there was a "small accident" with the car, which the driver had been trying to fix late at night, and now he was tired and had slept in but was on his way, but we'd just have to go in a different car. This did not fill us with confidence. Further questioning elicited a reply of "No, not an accident like boom! Just a small problem with the car. Don't worry, he is good driver!" All right, then. When the driver arrived we were shown to a small, new-looking, four-door Chevrolet. It seemed okay - but on the driver's side the air bag (and thus the whole centre of the steering wheel) appeared to have been ripped out of the car. Our driver got in, we all introduced ourselves, and we started off down the road. So far, so good. However, our driver was having trouble switching gears - there were some jerks and some grindings, and he said "Damn! I want my car!" We went a bit further, the driver cursing the Chevrolet and nearly killing several pedestrians. Suddenly another car came too close and there was a small Bang! as the driver's side mirror was hit. This did not seem to bother our driver as much as the fact that he hated the Chevy he was driving. We went a bit further and then he said, "Damn! I'm getting my car!"

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So we drove back to the hostel and switched to his car, a two-door Opel from the mid 90s. The driving immediately became much smoother, although not slower or less scary for the pedestrians who had to jump out of the way. Finally we got out of town and started winding our way up into the hills. There were amazing views of steep slopes and old farmhouses, flocks of sheep, cows, haystacks and forests in the gold morning light. It was really beautiful - and the road was all hairpin turns (which the driver took at speeds I would never have dared) and sheer drops into the valley. We passed a horse and cart with a family who waved and smiled and didn't mind us taking their photograph. We stopped a few times to ask directions. Our driver had never been to Poenari Fortress before. It took us about four hours to get there. One section of the road was patched and full of potholes so deep we had to slow to a crawl to get over them. At first the driver didn't realize how bad the potholes were, and tried to keep up some speed. Then he got angry because of the potential damage to his car, and slapped his hat on the dashboard so hard that the buckle on it flew into the backseat and landed on my arm. At that point I thought he was going to order us all to get out and turn around and leave us by the side of the road - but we kept going and we did, at last, arrive at Poenari.

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For me, the main attraction of Poenari Fortress was that we had to climb about 1480 steps to get up to it. The fortress itself is mostly ruined - an earthquake centuries ago caused some of it to slide down the mountain, and what's left is a couple of towers and ramparts on top of a very steep hill. There's a caretaker who charges you 5 Romanian lei to get into the ruins once you've climbed all the stairs (divide by three for Canadian dollars) and a wooden outhouse should you need to use a toilet. And the view from up there was really spectacular, especially with all the trees on the hillsides turning red and gold and the sun glinting off the river winding through the valley far below. The driver walked up all the stairs and came to see the fortress with us. He told us he was 20 years old, and it was interesting to watch his mood change from foul to peaceful and maybe even happy over the course of the day. In the morning he cursed the Chevy, cursed the pedestrians for not getting out of the street fast enough, swore in both Romanian and English about the potholes and their effect on his car, and generally seemed to be having a terrible time. After the walk up to the fortress and more cigarettes and Coca-Cola, he talked passionately about the corruption of the Romanian government, how they did nothing for the people, how some things were better under communism (although he was really too young to have experienced much of that himself), and at one point said, "Life is shit. My salary (as a bartender) is enough for food for me, my mom and my sister. My mom has enough to pay the other bills, and that's it." He told us he made about 1000 Euros per year, and his car cost 1000 Euros, so he'd be paying it off for a while. We talked about the political systems in the United States, Romania and Canada, healthcare and how it worked (or didn't) in those countries, and other similarities and differences. He tried to convince us that Romania sucked, and we told him we wouldn't have come to visit it if it all sucked. All four of us talked about life all the way back, and towards the end of the trip, when I said I hoped his car hadn't sustained too much damage from the potholes, he said, "Ah, what does it matter? It's just a car. It's just a material thing." He sounded happier, and made some remarks about love and happiness and "in Romania, love is in the air." Later he told our hostel girl that he'd be happy to take tourists on trips like that again, but only if they were tourists like us. Jason says he thinks the driver just hadn't had any coffee in the morning, but by the afternoon had consumed enough sugar, caffeine and cigarettes to make a big difference to his mood.

We never did find out what the "small accident" that had led to the initial car swapping was. We suspect the hostel girl of making up stories because she thought we wouldn't be comfortable in the little two-door Opel. I suppose we would have had more room in the Chevrolet, but it seemed to be the car with the most problems. When we asked the driver about his car, he said it was fine and he had just bought it. In any case, it made the trip and everyone arrived intact. We stopped at Bran Castle on the way back into Brasov, but it had closed up for the night so we didn't go in - and no one mentioned anything about trying to go to Rasnov Fortress at that point. Later we had dinner with the American guy we'd shared the ride with, and we discovered that sometimes, if you hang around in a restaurant for long enough, the band stops playing bad covers of Western pop songs and starts in on the traditional Romanian stuff, and the Romanians take a break from smoking for some energetic dancing.

We're in Budapest now. We decided to leave Brasov the day before yesterday and ended up on another night train, and here we are in Hungary. We went on a walking tour that focused on the communist history of Budapest yesterday afternoon, and plan to explore downtown a bit more today.

Posted by arwyn 01:01 Archived in Romania Comments (1)

Rila to Romania on a Special Russian Train

Castles and hay-stacks and bears, oh my!

overcast 2 °C

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Religious icons for sale, near the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia. Similar icons were for sale outside the Rila Monastery.

A frescoed ceiling at the Rila Monastery

A frescoed ceiling at the Rila Monastery

The Rila Monastery was amazing. Inside the church is dark and smells of the beeswax candles everyone is lighting for various saints, and outside the domed veranda ceilings and walls are completely covered in frescoes. Inside the walls are covered in frescoes, too, but it's darker and they look less well-kept and you aren't allowed to take photos. Monks in black robes and warm-looking hats are occasionally seen wandering about through the throngs of tourists, and there are lots of signs informing you that you aren't allowed to go anywhere near the monks' living quarters.

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We ended up staying at the hotel Tsarev Vrah, 200m from the monastery. The view (above) from our nice big warm room was beautiful. It was definitely worth the 60 Bulagarian leva. I'm fairly certain that if we had knocked on some doors and spoken some Bulgarian we might have been able to stay in the guest dormitory of the monastery, but we didn't. I felt like it was best for people who were actually religious pilgrims to stay there anyway, and I really liked our hotel room.

We left the Rila Monastery by bus on Sunday afternoon. Sunday evening saw us at the Sofia central train station, reserving a sleeping compartment and negotiating with a tout who did in fact help us but who then demanded too much money for his informational services. Our train was Russian; we had tea in fancy Russian mugs; if we had not been woken up at 5:45am by our Russian train conductor we would have kept on going to Moscow. However, we got off in Bucuresti, the capital of Romania, and took another train to Brasov, where we are now hanging out in a hostel. Of course there was the 2am passport stamping when we left Bulgaria, and the 4am passport stamping when we got to the next station in Romania. In both cases, a uniformed official came onto the train, knocked on our door, took our passports, stamped them and brought them back. We didn't get as much sleep in our sleeping compartment as we had hoped.

The first thing I ate in Romania was soggy baklava from a fast-food joint at the Bucuresti train station, washed down with something pretending to be coffee. When we got off the train in Brasov three hours later (did I mention we spent 13 hours riding trains?), I had some kind of pepperoni and cabbage sandwich with lots of mayonnaise. I was so hungry at that point that it tasted absolutely delicious. After a nap at the hostel (where the dorm room actually seems to be colder than the outside air), we had soup and beer at a pub near the town square. The soup was good and hot and full of fatty pork - which in the case of the one I ordered, was not mentioned in the menu description. "Smoked bean and red onion" clearly means "full of pork and pork fat" in Romania! But I hope you aren't getting the wrong idea here - I enjoyed all of this food! I was hungry, and I was in Romania, where the roof-tops are very pointy and they still make hay-stacks. Imagine the quaint old-fashioned idea of a haystack with a shepherd asleep in the bottom of the pile, a hat over his face and a piece of straw hanging from his mouth. Now just take away the sleeping shepherd and you have Romanian hay-stacks. When I saw them out the window of the train I thought we had gone back in time.

Tomorrow: Dracula's Castle!

Posted by arwyn 12:25 Archived in Romania Comments (4)

Sofia

previously known as Serdica, Triaditsa and Sredets.

sunny 5 °C

So far, Bulgaria's great! When we first arrived I was tired and the Cyrillic alphabet totally boggled my mind, and I wondered how we would ever be able to do anything in a country where we couldn't even read the street signs, let alone speak the slightest bit of the language. We wandered around the city centre, gawking at the gold onion domes of the Russian Church and the cathedral. We found the Tourist Info office with the help of some other travelers at our hostel and a map they passed on to us, and we got instructions on how to get to a couple of other places. Then we had a "Free Sofia Tour." There's a group of four people in the city who give free tours in their spare time, and you can give them a tip or donation at the end of the tour if you liked it. At 6pm we met our guide, Boyko, on a street corner downtown. We waited a few more minutes to see if anyone else would show up, but no one did, so we basically had a private tour. For two hours Boyko walked us around Sofia's "centrum" (in Turkey and Bulgaria that's what they call the centre or core of the city), pointing things out we would never have noticed on our own, and giving us a very knowledgeable and entertaining history of the city and its important landmarks. We learned that Sofia has been inhabited for a very long time, and every time the city does some excavation or other they end up finding Roman ruins or other important archaeological sites. We even saw the latest example - a new subway line, a new Roman ruin brought to light. Sofia is situated near some hot mineral spring water, and in the middle of town there are public water fountains where you can go and just fill up your water containers with the hot water and drink it when it cools down. It tastes good - clear and fresh, almost sweet. We learned that, despite fighting on the side of the Germans in the second world war, Bulgaria never sent its Jewish population to the death camps. By putting off ratifying that agreement with Germany, Bulgaria saved the lives of 50,000 people, according to Boyko. After the war, however, most of the Jews in Bulgaria left and went to Israel - but hey, they lived to do so.

After the tour was over, Boyko asked us what our plans were. We needed dinner; so did he. He made a couple of calls and we ended up at the most remarkable restaurant. Its name in Bulgarian, Manastirska Magernitsa, translates to "Monastery Kitchen." It's a restaurant where they have 161 dishes from 161 Bulgarian monasteries! The menu is about 35 pages long, with descriptions of how to make most of the dishes. Some of the items on the menu had hilarious names, too, like "Male Marrows Against Divorce." The food was very good. The rakiya (grape brandy) was very strong, and so was the complimentary cognac at the end of the meal! And the prices were reasonable (in Canadian terms). I think for Bulgaria it was something of a slightly more expensive restaurant, but dishes were about the equivalent of 10 or 12 Canadian dollars, which isn't that bad. It was a really great evening, all around. I'm trying not to talk about nothing but food all the time, but there were these cheese-and-garlic stuffed roasted peppers which were so delicious I feel they deserve at least one or two sentences. I don't know what they did to those peppers, but mmm! So good. Reverse engineering needed.

And it turns out that Cyrillic isn't that terrifying, once you realize you have to throw out what you think the letters are and accept that what looks like a "P" is actually an "R," etc. The word for "restaurant" looks like "pectopaht," but it is pronounced like "restaurant." I've been figuring it out and reading signs like mad and can find my way around downtown just fine. Interestingly, you can never tell who in the city will speak perfect English and who will give you a blank stare. We went into a cheap sub sandwich shop on a corner and the guy behind the counter ended up asking us which university in Canada we would recommend to him if he was going to do a Masters in Business Administration. I'm sure Boyko's English was better than mine, and even in some shoe stores in non-touristy areas I was able to ask for a size and try it on (sadly, my feet are too big for Bulgarian boots). But just when you think "Wow, everyone here is so good at English!" you walk into a cafe and the cashier starts trying to use food sign language, holding up different shapes of buns for you to choose from.

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Today we took a minibus to the South city limits and went for a hike up the slopes of Vitosha Mountain. The mixed deciduous forest (beech, birch, aspen and alder) on the lower slopes was absolutely stunning - golden fall colours, black tree trunks, emerald green mossy rocks. See photo above. I like Bulgaria. We're staying one more night (tonight) in Sofia, and then we are thinking of going South to the Rila Monastery. Apparently you can actually stay in rooms at the monastery, for about $15 USD per bed. We'll find out!

-Arwyn

Posted by arwyn 10:15 Archived in Bulgaria Comments (3)

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