Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Travel by Numbers

or, Planes, Trains and Automobiles.

You know what is really annoying? When you meet a traveller, and all he can do is brag about how many countries he visited on his last trip*, or how long his last trip was** or how many continents he's been to.***

So, instead of bragging about those usual things, I thought I'd share the number and variety of vehicles we travelled on over the last seven months. While we were travelling, I kept a running list. And here it is!

Number of Times Sarah and I Rode of Different Vehicles
In descending order. (Not counting taxis)

Day Bus: 23
Public & Local Bus: 22
Tuk Tuk/Auto-Rickshaw: 20
Commercial plane: 19
Tram/Subway/Light Rail: 15
Tour Bus: 13
Night Bus: 11
Train: 10
Ferry: 9
Airport Shuttle: 8
Gondola & Funicular: 7
Motor Boat: 5
Moped: 5
Row Boat: 5
Motatu: 4
Cyclo: 4
Hitchhiking: 3
Safari Jeep: 2
Falucca: 2
Tour Boat: 2
Kayak: 2
Rikki: 2
Small plane: 1
Aqua Taxi: 1
Camel: 1
Elephant: 1
Ostrich: 1 (Tyler only)

# of Days Driving the Spaceship: 20
# of Days Driving a Rental Car: 20
# of Days Riding on the back of a motorcycle in Vietnam: 5
# of Days on a Turkish Yacht: 4
# of Days Riding in a 4x4 truck listening to Chicha Disco Boliviano: 3
# of Days Riding in a 4x4 truck driven by teenage boys across the Himalayas: 2

As you can see, it was a long crazy haul. Honestly, I thought we would have ridden on more trains, but -sadly- their day seems to have passed in most parts of the world. Most forms of transportation were a treat... but I'll be happy if I never have to ride another bus again.

* 17 countries.
** 210 days.
*** 6 continents... I'm lookin' at you Antarctica!

Friday, September 21, 2007

Time to Come Home

A couple signs that you're ready to come home from travelling:

You'd rather skip a meal than find yet another restaurant to eat in except for your husbands (valid) complaints about wasting away.

You land in Munich and want more than almost anything to spend your last day in bed watching bad movies in English.

You fly through Madrid and are relieved rather than sad that you don't have a chance to check it out before moving on.

So in almost every way I was ready for home. But I was still really sad to see it all come to an end. When we left to start this adventure, I expected to have some mixed emotions upon departing, a little sadness or anxiety to go along with the excitement. But as soon as we got to the airport, I was only excited. Coming home has been a different story, with relief coupled with more ambivalence and sadness than I anticipated.

Because we spent the last two weeks working our way through Eastern to ever more Western Europe, I haven't experienced the strong feelings of culture shock that I would have expected after India or Southeast Asia or Africa. Rather, I've felt more in limbo land than anything, coming home to see off my brother-in-law and his wife for their move to LA and living with my in-laws while we wait to find a place to live.

A dear friend of mine travelled around South America for five months. When I met her, she didn't say much about it. Then once she mentioned she had slides from the trip. It was maybe a year later that we got the show. Now that we've done this trip, I better understand how it's something that in many ways is hard to share effectively. And we're still processing a lot of it and how we've changed because of it. My best answer when asked "So how was it?" is "Really great." True, but not very revealing, I suppose. I can rattle a few favorite countries (always in the plural and then with the caveat that we loved them all), and I know that many of the best experiences everywhere were times we really got to interact with people who lived there and opened up their lives to us, like staying with the Maasai family and taking the motorcycle tour in Vietnam. But I still have a lot of moments when even I'm in awe of all our experiences when something comes up, like when I could't see a doctor in Pushkar because someone had been gored by a bull in the market that morning. Or seeing a lion eating a zebra only 8 feet away.

As you can probably tell from this scattershot entry, my thoughts are a bit scattered on the matter. But it's good to be back, and we'll continue to share more about being home.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Beer Hall Push

As you might be guessing, Sarah and I have made it back to the States safe and sound. Since then, we've been busy getting caught up with friends and family, and generally just getting used to "normal life" again (in my case, "normal" loosely means "being a 31 year old, unemployeed, married male, living at his parents house").

But, since my internal clock is still way off from local time, everyone else is asleep right now, while I am wide awake. So, I thought I'd take this opportunity to get the blog caught up on our last day or so of travel.

After our last entry, Sarah and I grabbed our bags and hopped onto a night train to Munich. Because we were getting tight on funds, we opted to just do standard seats, as opposed to a sleeper cabin. But, the ride still went surprisingly smoothly, since the train carriage was less than half full and we were able to spread out a bit and at least pretend to sleep.

Still, when we arrived in Munich about 11 hours later, we were beat tired. Luckily, Sarah had reserved us a room at a nearby hostel. Unfortunately, we couldn't check in until 2pm. So, to pass the time, we dropped off our bags in their luggage storage, had some breakfast and signed up for the free walking tour they held each day at 11pm.

Our walking tour guide, Ozzie, ended up being one of the best tour guides we'd encountered over the last seven months. As he described himself, he was "the lone choclate chip in this sea of cream." While most of his family was black, his grandfather had been German ("Imagine being an interracial couple in 1920's German. That had to be a good time."), and so while he had grown up in Canada, he now resided in Munich.

But, the true thing that set him apart from other tour guides we'd had was that, as he led us through town, he not only pointed out historical and culturally important sights, but actually managed to weave everything together into a narrative that covered the last 100 years or so of German history. And, specifically, used the Beer Hall Putsch to tie the history of the city together and explain Munich's roll in the Nazi party's rise to power.

These two towers were some of the very few things to survive the war. The Frauenkirche is the largest church in Munich.

The entire tour was fascinating and affecting for several reasons. After the war, very little of Munich remained standing. So, when they rebuilt the city, they deliberately tried to recreate how it looked before hand. But, in doing so, they not only effectively white-washed over the effects of the war, but also removed much of the signs of the cities roll in the creation of the Nazi Party. There are monuments to the war scattered throughout the city, but most of small and hidden under the visitors feet.

The Opera House. When the original opera house was burning down, the firefighters tried to get beer from the neighboring beer hall to use to put out the fire. The people in the beerhall refused. So, the new opera house was built using money raised from taxing beer.

With the tour over, Sarah and I made our way to the city park to check out one of the few things not ocvered in the tour: The surfing wave. At the edge of the park is a section of river where the current forms a perpetual wave that surfs visit from miles around to try. Needless to say that it was surreal to watch a surfer ride the wave, surrounded by the park and all of Munich.

A surfer rides the wave.

Next, we climbed the 300+ steps of a church tower to get a wonderful panorama of the city around us.

The final city of our trip... Munich!

Us in Munich!

After that, we turned our attention to what is possibly Munich's most important feature: Beer. Bravaria (the region in which Munich sits) is one of the world's leading beer producers, and the average Bavarian drinks 1.5 liters of beer a day. So, if Sarah and I had any chance of keeping up with the locals, it was time to hit the beer halls.

A normal sized beer in Munich: 0.5 liters.

First we checked out a smaller beer garden, that our guide had recommended. It had no particular significance, but he maintained it was his favorite, so it seemed like a good place to start. After a couple of glasses each, and some large pretzels, we happily made our way back to our room to check in.

A small beer at our hostel: 0.2 liters.

After checking into our room, and grabbing another small beer at our hostel, Sarah, myself and an Australian traveller who shared our hostel dorm room head out to get dinner and hit another beer hall: The Hofbraeuhaus - which, at three stories tall, is the largest beerhall in Munich.

Unfortunately, by the time we got there, the beer hall was already packed with drunken Germans, so the only table we could find was in the far corner of the beer hall. But soon things were made better when we had our liter sized mugs of beer and large meat-based meals in front of us.

A large beer at the Hofbraeuhaus: 1 liter!

Pork knuckle! A standard meal at the Hofbreauhaus.


Sadly, while the beer and food proved to be great, and the ambiance was perfect, the company started to grow a little tiring. While Sarah and I were hoping to celebrate our last night on the trip, our Aussie companion seemed more interested in talking about the legal policies of Switzerland. So, it wasn't long before we decided to call it a night. Which was probably for the best, since we had to catch our flight at 8am... which meant we were getting up 4:30.

So, climbing into bed at about 11pm, Sarah and I hopped to get at least a decent nights rest. Unfortuantely, life had different plans, since around midnight, two more girls rather loudly checked into our hostel dorm. But, instead of going to sleep themselves, they went back out to hit the town. So, at 3am, they were back in the room, stumbling around and talking loudly. As I lay there, two thoughts kept going through my mind:

1) Why can't they just turn off the lights and go to sleep!
2) They are going to hate life when Sarha and I get up in an hour and a half and start packing our bags to go.

Clearly, seven months on the road has made me a more compassionate person.

Anyhow, about two hours later, we were on the tram to the airport. And, two hours after that, we were boarding our first of three flights homeward. And, twenty two hours later, we were back at SeaTac airport, hugging my parents and gathering our overwiehgt backpacks from baggage claim. Safe. Sound. And state-side.

Us, back at my parents, later that evening. Tired, but happy to be home!

Monday, September 10, 2007

Bug bites and baths

The previous day, as we walked around Margaret Island, I noticed that Sarah had a couple of red bug-bite like welts on her forehead. I asked about them, and she pointed out that she had a few more on her arms. Later that evening, we looked at them some more, and decided that she was probably having an allergic reaction to something. Maybe the detergent that had been used to clean her clothes last time had caused the reaction.

Then, surprisingly, the next morning she had a few more bites. To make matters worse, I had a couple on my back, and a dusting of them on my arm. If they were an allergic reaction it would be odd for both of us to have it. So, of course I start to pretend I'm a Doctor. My diagnosis: Bed bugs.

Bed bugs are one of the Boogey-Men (or, rather, Boogey-Bugs) of the budget traveller's world. Supposedly common in dirt-bag hotels, they are the type of thing that is easy to catch and difficult to get rid of. Our theory was that we'd got them from the hostel we'd spent the first night, and carried them with us to the new one.

Dutifully, the girls who worked at our new hostel stripped our bed of linen. And then washed all of our laundry for us. In the meantime, Sarah and I made the rounds to the pharmacy to pick up anti-itch cream, and then hit the internet cafe to do "research" on beg bugs (see link above for the extent of our research). Then, returning to our room, we went through our bags from top to bottoms looking for "bug signs."

In the end, it probably wasn't bed bugs. Fleas from Darko? Maybe. Rogue mosquitoes? Possibly. Anyhow, two days later, we've had no additional bites; and the ones we did have are now all but faded away.

Still, between that and acquiring train tickets, that day was pretty much written off. We did manage to have a nice dinner in a tiny restaurant lined street, but beyond that the day was sadly a loss.

This brings up a quick annecdote about Budapest:

As we left the Internet cafe that day, we pulled out a little pocket map to try to get our bearing really quick. As we did, an old lady spotted us and came across the street. "Hungarian? German?" She asked, wondering if we knew either language.

"Klein Deutsch. Sehr klein." I responded, trying to recall my High School German.

She seemed to be lost, and wanted to look at our map. We showed it to her, and in broken German, I started pointing out streets to her. She, in turn, pointed at streets and named them off, nearly repeating what I had said.

Then, she asked about our hostel. I presumed that maybe she was looking for a place to stay, so I said what our hostel was, but explained it was very cheap and for backpackers.

She then repeated the directions on how to get to our hostel. And, also in broken German, began taking about what a big and confusing city Budapest is. I agreed. Trying to be helpful, Sarah ducked back into the internet cafe and grabbed another copy of the free pocket street map we had. She handed it to the woman, who seemed confused and tried to give it to us.

Eventually, she shrugged, took the map. Wishing us a good day, she turned and made her way back down the street. Only then did I realize: She wasn't asking us for directions... she thought we were lost, and was trying to give us directions.

And, that is Budapest in nutshell.

Anyhow, the following morning, we didn't have any additional bug bites, so we decided to "turn this town around." So, packing our day pack with towels and bathing suits, we made our way to one of Budapests many famous public baths.

As Sarah observed: "Its a good thing that the Ottoman's invaded Hungary, and not- say- the British. Or else there wouldn't be all these wonderful baths." The city of Budapest sits on top of hundreds of natural thermal springs. And, many of them have been turned into giant public bathhouses, with purportedly medicinal and theraputic value.

So, we made our way up the famous Andrassy Street to where the Szechenyi Baths are located in Varosliget Park. On the way, we were able to stop and check out several notable sights in the area, such as Heroes Square and the Statue of Anonymous.

Some of the incredible, but run-down buildings that line Andrassy street.

Some of the statues that are part of the giant Heroes Square Monument.

The statue of Anonymous. It was actually hard to get a photo of him because other people kept climbing onto his lap to get their picture taken.

The baths themselves are located in a massive Neo-Baroque complex. They are built on top of the deepest and hottest hot springs, and are probably the most famous baths in Budapest.

Paying our entry fee, we made our way into the locker room, where we were given a small closet to change into our bathing suits. After that, we were set free to explore the wide range of pools and saunas the baths offered. Each pool was at a different tempurature, including several large outdoor pools which also included fountains, swuirling jets and other features.

Not unlike our visits to Banya 5 in Seattle, Sarah and I quickly settled into a routine: Sit in a steam room and sweat, plunge breifly into a cold water pool, relax for a while in a hot pool, and repeat. Leaving the baths about to hours later, we felt like neithe rof us had a mucle left in our bodies.

Outside, we bought large cheese pretzels and some water, which we enjoyed on a park bench. The day was summer and bright with a brisk, yet playful, breeze; and we were both feeling much better than we had the previous day.

Stopping to drop off our wet suits at our apartment, we grabbed a quick bite to eat at a pub, and then made our way to the National Museum. They were having an exhibit on the Mongol invasion of Hungary, and we thought it would be a good way to get our heads around some of the countries history.

After learning about the Mongol invasions (which involved a lot of lines like "their swords would not thirst for blood that night"), we made a quick tour of another section featuring artifacts from the last hundred years of Hungarian history. Unfortunately, we only had a short time left before the Museum closed, so we rushed through it, viewed the Coronation Mantle and made our exit.

Since that would be the end of our last full day in Budapest, we decided to end the day on a good note, and enjoy a fancy meal. Oddly, on the day we'd arrive, the man working at our hostel had recommended the restaurant to us. But, when we'd peaked through the windows that first day, we realized that he must have missed our request that restaurant be "cheap." But, on our final night in Budapest, we figured we could treat ourselves.

Sadly, while the ambiance was nice, the food wasn't the best we'd had. Still, it made for an enjoyable evening, and after dinner we stopped by a pub for a beer and glass of Unicum (the national liqour).

This morning, we got up, packed and checked out of our hostel. Our train will depart at 8:30pm, so we had the day to do some last sightseeing. Catching the metro up to Castle Hill, we went inside St. Mattias Cathedral. The outsides are currently being renovated, so they're not much to look at, but the interior is filled with deep red and green Art Nouveau painting.

The outside of the church was covered in scaffolding, but the inside was still impressive.

After that, we wandered down the quaint and quiet Lord's Street, before ducking into the Labyrinth. In addition to providing the wonderful thermal baths, the underwater springs have carved a network of tunnels beneath Budapest. These tunnels have been used at various times for everything from bunkers to cellars. Sarah and I paid our admission and wandered around the networks of tunnels which make up the Labyrinth.

Many of the tunnels have been turned into various artistic interpretive pieces. And, whicl some (like the Test Your Courage Tunnel) are effective, others (featuring reproductions of cave painting from other parts of Europe, for example) are just distracting.

After reemerging into the daylight, we made our way down off Castle Hill, and across the Danube. We stopped breifly at Budapest's largest synagogue (the second largest in the world), and took a look at the Holocaust Memorial. During WWII, 600,000 Hungarian Jews were killed in the Holocaust. The memorial is a large metal weeping willow tree. Each of its leaves is engraved with the name of someone who lost their life in the Holocaust. As we made our way back to the street, Sarah and I agreed it was surprisingly moving and affecting.

The Holocaust Memorial outside the synagogue.

After that, we made our way to the Internet cafe... which brings us to here and now. This will probably be our last entry on Strange and Benevolent before we return to the States. Tonight, we board a train to Munich, where we will spend one day before flying home. It's been a long and amazing ride (not to mention and strange and benevolent one), and we can hardly beleive that it is already almost over.

But, that said, this definitely isn't our last entry here. Hopefully, after we get back, we'll bring everyone up to speed on how our last day went, as well as our trip home. In addition, we both want to do some post-trip entries covering everything from how it feels to be home again, what we have (or haven't) learned and even talking about our packing choices and how we'd do things different if we did them again.

Thanks everyone for your support over the last seven months, and we look forward to seeing and talking to many of you when we get home! Seattle, here we come!

Margaret Island, Markets and More

After putting our hostel hunt to bed and spending a good evening tasting Hungarian wines, Tyler and I dropped off our bags and prepared for a day of Budapest sightseeing. We decided to tackle a few of the must-dos on our sightseeing list: Margaret Island, the Central Market Hall, and try out one of the baths in town. So we dropped off our bags at our new hostel and hopped on a street tram to get to the island.

Now, this is a little of an aside, but one thing that sometimes frustrates me when travelling is experiencing good mass transit options...because we don't have it at home. In Budapest, you've got three metro lines running out from the city center, tram lines that run in circles around the city, buses, trains, and fast trains for people getting out to suburbs. I can't help but think that if it can be done here, there's no good reason for Seattle to keep dragging it's feet. And Seattle just can't be a great city with traffic congestion and lacking multiple options for moving people around.

But after ranting about that mid-ride, Tyler and I stepped off the tram and made our way onto the island. Margaret Island lies in the center of the Danube, a bit north of the central part of the city, and was long a secluded bastion for monks, nuns and churches. It is named after Saint Margit, a daughter of King Bela IV who vowed to give his daughter to the Lord if he could hold off the Mongol invaders. He did hold them off, built a convent for his daughter who then took to the life and became a saint. Today, it is a green and tranquil place near the city, filled with gardens, some ruins, and pools. It also feels a bit like a Budapest version of Greenlake, as it's edges are a nice track, filled with runners and speed walkers getting a workout near the city.

Margaret Island in bloom

Budapest's Space Needle...or Water Tower

Mid-island, we came across the Water Tower, about the same vintage as the World's Fair in Seattle and bearing a bit of a resemblance to Seattle's main monument. Then we continued north to a very nice Japanese garden, complete with ponds with koi, turtles, and lovely statues.

Tyler in the Japanese Garden

Statue in the Japanese Garden

Getting hungry, we decided to leave the island and head to the mainland to get some food. After passing by a fountain that was now making coordinated movements with classical music, we climbed back on the tram (which conveninently seem to run about every two minutes) and went to Budapest's Central Market Hall. I was already intrigued having read about it in Eddybles, and I was anxious to stumble upon some inexpensive and delicious market food. So we found a huge warehouse into which at least two Pike Place Markets could live and wound our way around, my enjoyment tempered by the rumbling in my stomach. Finally, Tyler looked up and saw the food stalls were above us and calling my name with sausages, beer, and langos, a Hungarian fried bread traditionally served with sour cream and grated cheese (yes, very healthy). After chowing down, we went back to better appreciate the available goods. While we've been to many markets around the world, I'd have to say that this is the one to go to for meat. There were a plethora of stalls devoted solely to meat--sausages, goose, pork, beef, you name it. After a dessert of some warm strudel, we left the warm stalls of the market for the cold and windy streets.

Budapest's Central Market Hall

By now, it was cold, threatening rain and our feet were a bit weary, so we decided to go check into our new place for the night. And what a relief it was. While it cost more than we really wanted (or needed) to spend, we were happy to find we had our own little Hungarian flat for a few days. One nice thing about hostels in Budapest is that they mostly seem to be set within regular apartment or business buildings, with huge stone facades and central courtyards. Seeing a full size bathroom with a tub of our very own and a kitchen and a large living/bed room, we were pleased to spend a few days in relative luxury before heading home. So we decided to hold off on the baths one more day to have more time to appreciate them, enjoyed our little living space and then had a nice dinner at a cute little cafe just 15 minutes walk away.

Although we'd had a rocky start in Budapest, this was a pretty pleasant little day.

House of Hungarian Wine

We've been out of wine country for a little while. While there were wines in Turkey, we didn't explore them in the ways that we had in other parts of the world. So we came ready to experience the wines of Hungary, but with little prior knowledge to go on.

But the Hungarians were ready to help us out. For about $40, Tyler and I visited the House of Hungarian Wines, an establishment with the mission to represent wines from all 22 wine regions in the country and create greater awareness of Hungary's long wine history. For the entry fee, you get a map of how to progress through the cellar, a small souvenir wine glass, a packet of crackers, and a chance to try any of the open wines available.

One of the aisles in the House of Wine

Each region had a poster with a brief description of the region and varietals grown there and a sampling of wine, sometimes just one but up to four or five bottles. Needless to say, we tried a lot of wine, and my notes get less helpful as our tastings went on (though I did start with good intent, tasting only a small amount and moving on). We had a range of whites, reds, a few roses, and some dessert wines, though unfortunatley no sparkling was out for tasting. Mostly I tried to have tastes of varietals I'd never heard of before--and there were plenty of those. Here are a few highlights and observations:

We had a few tastes of a white varietal called Furmint. At first I thought I was being influenced by the name, but a few other tastes made me keep my first opinion--furmint tasted a bit minty/menthol. With an initial earthy nose and minerally taste, it was unusual but good. I'm not sure what I'd pair it with, but I'd be curious to try more.

Probably my new favorite Hungarian varietal, Kekfrankos is a red grape maybe a little like some pinot noirs, a lighter red with cherry flavors, velvetty, a little earthy or minerally, generally easy to drink. Another varietal I'll keep an eye out for was Kadarka. We only had one, but it was good enough that I put one of my little asterisks by it to remember I liked it, with some scrambled notes about earthy nose, a little spice, well-balanced and velvety.

The Hungarian wineries also made some really delicious Cabernet Francs, a grape that can be a little much on its own in the states and is usually used in red blends. But we tried two slightly expensive ones (that might be part of it) that had the usual mineral/stone flavor but in a drinkable way.

Enjoying Hungarian wines

Hungary is especially famed for wines from the Tokaji region, and we sampled a few of those as well. Early on, we had a Tokaji Harslevelu 2004 that was almost like a sparkling, with some light effervescence tasting a little like strawberry but with some buttery notes as well. Towards the end, when we were in the final groupings, we had a 2004 Furmint Tokaj. Not minty like the other Furmints we had tried, it did have some mineral tastes, a little herbiness/straw flavors, but not too thick or sweet. We followed that with a dry Tokaji, which was more like a dry sherry. It had a sweet and smoky nose but a very savory taste. Finally, we got to try a 2000 Aszu, the most famous of the Tokajis. Aszus are a sweet dessert wine made from wines that have rotted with a noble rot (botrytis) before being harvested. It had a good honey type flavor, not too thick or cloying, having some good acidity from making it be too much.

Overall, we had a few good finds and a good time finding them. Hopefully we'll be able to find some Hungarian wines when we return home as we just can't squeeze one more thing into our bags at this point!

When it rains...

After Sarah and I posted our last two entries, we had a couple of hours left before we had to catch the train to Budapest. So, we decided to grab a quick bite to eat, and then do a little bit of last minute sightseeing.

The skies were beautiful that afternoon... but ominous.

After eating, as we made our way to the First Romanian School, we noticed some clouds building over the nearby mountain sides. While circling the school, we felt the first drop or two of rain, and could see the occasional distant flash of lightning. Then, as we began the long walk back to our room, Sarah announced it was time to put on her rain jacket.

No sooner had we both pulled our jackets on, than it began to rain. Or, rather, the heavens opened and unleashed a downpour of near Biblical proportion. Unfortunately, while the rain jackets tried their hardest, we were about 40 minutes from our room... so by the time we reached there, we were soaked to the bone.

Back at our room, we had a little over a half hour to dry off, but looking out the window we noticed the rain had stopped as suddenly as it began, so we hoisted our backpacks and decided to head to the station.

But, the weather wasn't going to let us off that easy, and no sooner had we made it a couple blocks, than the torrent returned. This time, it was possibly raining even harder. The sky was a light purple strobelight of lightning, and the streets had standing water which reached up over our ankles.

We reached the trainstation but everything was drenched. Even the insides of our packs were getting wet. In hopes of being vaguely comfortable on the train, we took turns going to the bathrooms and switching into dryer clothes. But, even our dry clothes were fairly damp.

Shortly, we boarded our train and squeezed into our cabin with three other travellers. We had the top two bunks, which actually worked out for us, since it allowed us to spread out our wet clothes and bags on the top storage shelfs; before we curled up to try to get some sleep.

Me, sitting on my top bunk next to the pile of wet bags and clothes.

Sometime around three in the morning, the train crossed the boarder in Hungary. The immigration officers, in turn, came to our cabin to check and stamp our passports. In the bunk across from me, I could see Sarah somehow managing to sleep even while the immigration officer checked her passport; her eyes closed and her sleep mask pushed up onto her forehead.

Arriving that morning in Budapest, we quickly made our way through the trainstation and into Budapest's underground. Somewhat shocked, we realized that this was the first subway we had ridden on since Santiago. Following directions Sarah had copied down from a hostels website, we made our way there hoping they had gotten the requested we'd emailed them for a room.

Unfortunately, they hadn't. And, they were full. But the guy working the front desk directed us to another nearby hostel. This hostel had a room, but it was only available for one night. In addition, the bathroom on that floor was broken, so we'd have to hike upstairs to shower and whatnot, but at least we had a whole room to spread the contents of our still damp bags out.

Because we'd planned on spending several nights in Budapest, but because the hostel only had a room for one night, we had to turn around and start hostel hunting again for a new place for the following night.

After grabbing a quick bite to eat, we hit the town looking for a hostel. Unfortunately, two things quickly became apparent: 1) Most of the hostels we full. And 2) things were a lot more expensive than we'd hoped in Budapest.

Oh yeah, and it had started to downpour again.

At one point, as we trudged through the rainy streets, after being turned away by yet another hostel, a car raced by and slattered my legs with muddy water. Defeated, I let my shoulders drop and growled to Sarah: "I hate Budapest."

But, really, I don't. And, shortly after I announced my hatred from Budapest, than things started to turn around. The next hostel we checked out had a whole flat available for us to rent for the next couple of days. It was a little more than we'd planned on spending, but (like our place in Brasov)it had a private bathroom, a TV and a kitchen.

Our luck -and the weather- starts to turn around in Budapest.

Boistered by this victory, we decided to check out the House of Hungarian Wines! Now, at this point, I'll ask you to see Sarah's next entry where she'll breakdown for you all the wonderful Hungarian wines we got to experience; but, needless to say, as we wandered out of the House of Wines a couple hours later, we were both enjoying Budapest quite a bit more.

Now, at this point, we weren't sure if it was because of the wine, or if it was a real phenomenon but: Budapest transforms at nighttime. All the dirt and hussle of the big city seems to fade away and be replaxed by a wonderful array of quiet, narrow streets, relaxing park boulevards and expertly-illuminated classical architecture. So, making our way slowly home, Sarah and I enjoyed the city and stopped frequently to take pictures of whatever caught our fancy.

The same view as above, but at night.

The royal palace, at night.

A detail of the royal palace.

A tram passes inot a tunnel under us.

We rode the funiclur down off of Castle Hill and wandered across the Chain Bridge. After stopping for a late night meal (well, by our standards, all the travelling has made it so that our bedtime is sometime shortly after 9pm), we returned to our hostel and climbed into bed for a sound nights rest.

The Chain Bridge, one of the bridges which spans the Danube and links Buda to Pest.

Gresham Palace, which sits at one end of the Chain Bridge.

I love this picture of Sarah laughing on the Chain Bridge. It's a little dark on the computer I'm using... hopefully your computers monitor is brighter.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Romania in a Rush

In Plovdiv, we met two Portugese backpackers following a similar route to ours in Eastern Europe, but in less than half the time. They spent one afternoon in Plovdiv, were going to get off the train for a few hours to see Veliko Tornovo, then were off to fly through Romania, Hungary, Germany, the Netherlands then home. We did not envy their pace, and for most of this trip, I feel like we've had reasonably adequate time to at least see parts of the countries we've visited. But these last few stops have been undeniably rushed, probably Romania most of all, with only about two and a half days in Transylvania before heading to Budapest.

Once we finally got on the train outside Veliko Tornovo, we were pleasantly surprised to find a nice, cosy cabin all to ourselves. We stretched out, opened the window as pleased us, and had a nice ride to Bucharest, where we changed trains to reach our Romanian destination, Brasov. There, we struggled onto yet another train with our full packs, pressing people up against the windows as we searched in vain for a carriage with room...or at least with people who seemed vaguely friendly. After going through one car and starting through another, I'd had enough of that and pulled Tyler into the first car we saw with seats, with a woman and son sitting inside. Once we were pretty sure the seats weren't taken, we shoved our increasingly weighty packs overhead and settled in. The woman started talking to us in Romanian, as we smiled apologetically and said, "Sorry, English only." But she kept going. Then she said, "Brasov?" and I realized she was asking where we were getting off at, and we nodded. As much as the train has advantages over the bus, the one thing that I find nervewracking is determining when to get off. Some trains stop ever so briefly at certain stations, so if you're not ready and waiting at the doorway, you'll likely not make it. And there's never any official people around to ask. Fortunately, having the woman and her son know when we meant to disbark helped us relax a bit more.

As the train began moving, I was fiddling with the pesky curtain so I could look out past the walkway through the window at the countryside. At some point, though, my efforts pulled the curtain and rod off the doorway and into my lap. I sat a bit red-faced, then Tyler and I managed to re-connect it. I finally looked around at the others in our car (now including the husband) who were smiling in amusement. The husband said, "Romanian!" and we all laughed. Maybe Romania would be OK.

Finally, we disembarked. (After a few false alarms, of course. "Brasov?" we'd ask the young boy. "No, [Romanian city name], [Romanian city name], Brasov," he'd say confidently. It was at least comforting to ask a young boy rather than feeling rather childish asking other adults.) At first blush, I was a little non-plussed with our town of choice. We'd gone past many picturesque, quaint Transylvanian towns and--like many of our initial entrees into strange cities--this one seemed largely industrial and full of ugly, Communist-era structures. But we were here and now needed to find a room.

We've been travelling largely guidebook-free since we arrived in Turkey. Mostly, it works out fine, since many hostels have guidebooks laying around for travellers' use and there are plenty of people to ask for advice. It's mostly inconvenient for first rolling into a town when you need a place to stay. But I'd read that many people met trains to offer hostels or housing, so we weren't too worried. Stepping off the train, a Romanian woman approached us. "Are you looking for information on a hostel or apartment? I have an apartment I rent. Here are pictures. I give you good advice, a city map. Here are comments from other travellers." After conferring with Tyler, we decided to go ahead with it. It seemed nice and we didn't have a lot of other options. It turned out to be a nice one-room apartment in a small complex the woman's family owned, only a 20 minute walk from the train station. But it didn't much improve my first impressions of Brasov, as it was still in the newer, decidedly un-quaint part of town. But we had a room for now, so we had a quick dinner, enjoyed some bad TV for the first time in a long time and called it a night.

The next day we decided to venture out and see some of the nearby sites: Bran Castle and a nearby fortress. Because we weren't in a hostel, Gina, the owner, gave us information on how to get there using public transport rather than trying to sell us a tour (a definite plus), so we took a bus to one station then a minibus to Bran.

Bran Castle has a reputation as being "Dracula's Castle," but the history doesn't hold up, despite all the tacky souvenirs with Dracula-inspired themes (and excuses to include scantily clad women in distress). At most, Vlad the Impaler spent a few nights in the dungeon. And it doesn't feel gloomy at all. In fact, with the white-washed walls and dark wood trim, it feels quite cosy, much more so than I would expect after seeing images of stony, cold castles from other parts of the world. We took the self-guided walk through the castle which has been restored to look as it would have during the beginning of the 20th century, when Queen Marie was in residence.

Bran castle--ignore the power lines

The inner courtyard of Bran castle from one angle

One of the many charming little nooks nestled in the castle walls

Inner part of castle from another angle

After wandering around the castle and then the grounds which included examples of traditional Romanian homes with very badly translated descriptions (many villages were noted as having a "tendancy towards waste"), we caught the minibus back towards Brasov but stopped first in Rasnov, another small town with an old 13th century fortress. After climbing the hill to reach the entrance, we found a restored medieval town. The fortress was only known to be conquered once, and it commands great views of the surrounding plain and Carpathian mountains. We went to the highest point for some lovely panoramic views, then wandered through the lanes and along the ramparts, glancing through the small windows that soldiers would have used for less peaceful means in other times. Then it was back down the hill and back to Brasov.

Rasnov, with the Saxon church below and the fortress on the hill

The outer wall of the fortress with the Carpathian Mountains in the background

Inside the fortress, which was mostly like being in a medieval walled town

View of some of the Carpathian Mountains from the fortress

Once in town, we arranged our onward tickets for Budapest, our next stop, and then finally decided to see the old part of Brasov. While Brasov had proved a convenient place to stop--directly on the rail line, easy access to other sites--I was still a little disappointed in the town itself. But within a 15 minute walk, my opinion started to evolve as we got past the newer part of town into the--finally, quaint!--old part of town. Like Plovdiv or Prague, the old part of Brasov is set around a large square, complete with church and pedestrian walkways lined with shops and restaurants. We headed for the Black Church first, knowing we'd only see it on the outside since we were past opening hours. Then we wandered down to find Rope Street, so called because it is one of the narrowest streets in Europe, less than 2 meters wide. Then we wandered around the darkening streets, charmed finally by the town we were staying in.

Rope Street at night. If you look closely, you'll see Tyler's silhouette reaching across the narrow lane.

A lane, the Black Church and a black cat at night in Brasov's old town

The Council building at night in the old town square

Because of our initial disappointment in Brasov, we had originally planned to head out today to another nearby village. But after our foray last night, we decided to give Brasov its due and see more of its sites. So we walked back into town today to see the Black Church, visit two of the four original watch towers of the city, and otherwise amble about before leaving Romania.

Black Tower, one of the four original watchtowers of the walled city of Brasov

Brasov's old town, with the Black Church in the foreground and the Council building and square behind

More Brasov old town, with the square

One of the old City Gates by the original wall around the city

It's unfortunate that we couldn't see more of Romania, but now we're on to Hungary to spend four or five days in Budapest, tasting wine, taking in a thermal bath, and wandering through another city. A week from now, we'll be somewhere, maybe over the Atlantic, on our way home. It's almost as hard to believe that as it was to think we had nearly seven months ahead of us when we were only one week into the trip.