Still rolling on.
The countdown was on; I had about a week left to kill, and I still wanted to visit another new country. The reasonable choice would probably have been Leichtenstein. Instead I figured why not head further from Frankfurt (where I was to fly out from) and go here:
It didn’t take me long to proclaim this place as one of my favourites. Strangely, I can’t really pin it down to anything in particular. It’s pretty old, often with bleak architecture as a reminder of the Soviet era, incredibly hot and deceptively large. And if you head to the western side of the Danube to Buda (the eastern side is Pest, no points for guessing how the name Budapest came about) you’ll have a lot of hills to contend with.
But for all those apparent down falls, it’s an exceptionally interesting place with more of a sense of that stereotypical, post-Soviet/Eastern European feel than the capitals of Estonia, Latvia and Ukraine, all lying much further East. Several buildings bear the scars of time, some pockmarked with bullet damage, and there is plenty of pre-1900’s architecture that is fairly unique to this region of Europe.
I decided to check out another one of those ‘free’ tours and must say I highly recommend it here too. There’s a lot of stuff you will easily miss, and a lot of stories you won’t hear about, if you don’t go on one of these. Corruption, bureaucracy, severed hand in the church, statue of a girl that looks like a boy, and the ottomans building a number of very impressive baths all feature in the stories you’ll hear.
One of my favourite stories from the tour was about the statue up on Gellért Hill. She was installed by the Soviets, but in the cleanup when the city decided to rid itself of all their statues, the people of Budapest apparently really liked the Liberation Monument and didn’t want to get rid of her. The solution: Cover her up with a sheet for 3 days, thereafter unveiling her as if she were a new installation. Good on em, I say.
The locals were also forthcoming with advice, with one walking up to me after I had purchased a train ticket, warning me that I must validate my ticket every time I get the train because, quite bluntly, the transit officers there are corrupt bastards and target tourists who may not know what to do. In fact I had several people offer this advice, so it’s apparently a big thing there.
There is just so much to see in Budapest, it’s mental. Originally only planning maybe three days, I wanted to extend it to five or six. Unfortunately, my ticket home was standby and some events were conspiring against me that meant I may literally be stuck in Europe for weeks, or face the option of having to buy a full fare ticket despite having only a couple hundred dollars to my name. In short, the original planned three days wound up being pretty much a day and a half, with about 24 hours of scrambling around trying to find the quickest and most cost effective way to Frankfurt.
I managed to squeeze in one last activity before my journey to Frankfurt, a trip to the Széchenyi Spa (pronounced ‘say jenny’). If there was one thing everyone before me had stressed about Budapest, it was “GO TO A DAMN TURKISH BATH, YOU FOOL!” So I did.
It’s terribly ornate, with huge pools and fountains, and then you enter those buildings and walk into the Narnia of spas. Oddly, the hot spring baths are on the outside and the cooler pools are indoors, although that makes a little more sense in the winter when they experience extreme cold.
The escape from Budapest and Europe was a mission, a bit of a race against the clock. I had to get up at stupid o’clock to catch a 10 hour train direct to Frankfurt, where I would then wait 5 hours for my flight… which I didn’t even know whether I could get on. Literally 10 minutes before the gate closed is when I was finally told I had a seat.
On to Singapore, any hope of getting a standby seat to Sydney was pretty much out the window. The next best option was Sydney via Perth. Again, it was only moments before boarding that I had any idea I was on the plane. It landed in Perth around 1am, which meant another 5 or 6 hours of sleeplessness and waiting around in airport terminals to get a flight back to Sydney. In the end it all worked out, but I hope not to have to do that ever again.
Sad to say, but Asia-Europe 2011 is done and dusted.