Sunday, July 10, 2016

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in Budapest


So Budapest has been both the best part of my trip so far and the worst!

Reasons I Loved Budapest

1.  Great company on my overnight train from Kraków. I shared a beer and some great chat with Christis and her boyfriend Adam from Manchester and Nura from India. I was kept awake a bit by six skowser lads in the cabin next to us who were drinking and singing until the wee hours. But they actually were really good singers and their renditions of American Pie, Eleanor Rigby and other favourites kept me waiting for more. Important rule: if you are going to drink and keep everyone up on an overnight train, you better at least be able to carry a tune!

2.  Excellent free walking tour with Norbert!  We visited all of the highlights of the Pest and Buda districts all while given an excellent and entertaining narrative by our guide. He even escorted a few of us back to a cafeteria where he said the tour guides and workers in the area eat and the food was authentic Hungarian.  I am sure this is actually a place owned by the tour company or they at least get a kickback but I did really enjoy the food. Being basic cafeteria style, you are able to see everything and just was all so tempting that I ended up ordering two dishes...stuffed cabbage and a Hungarian mushroom goulash with dumplings. Yummy!   

Side Note: dumplings is the go to word in so many countries but means totally different things in different languages. In China, it is a large doughy bread ball stuffed with all sorts of tasty things; in Poland it is Pierogies; in Hungary it is little drops of dough which seem to have been boiled. I am interested to explore the wide world of dumplings even more!

                                                               Laura and Kieran

3.  I met Kieran and Laura who were both studying law at Western in London, Ontario and doing internships with the WHO in Geneva.  Well Laura was but I'm not sure what Kieran was up to exactly but something lawish I believe! They are in Europe for three months and are taking the opportunity to do as many weekend getaways as possible. We met on the walking tour and spent the day together discussing the state of world politics, best European places to travel and where to drink in Budapest! I spent the afternoon at  Széchenyi Medicinal Bath with these two and had a great laugh. They invited me to join them that evening for a few shots at some of Budapest's famous Ruin Bars (yep, bars located in the ruins of buildings leftover from some of Hungary's struggles). Unfortunately, I was too tuckered from shopping for a camera to meet them!  My beat memory of Budapest will be when Kieran broke the metro ticket machine with a load of people standing behind us. Kieran hit the help button but the voice at the other end wasn't exactly helpful and we were stuck there apologizing to a growing group of would be metro travellers!

                                                  Why Isn't Thhis Giving Me. Ticket!

4.  Excellent, inexpensive and easy to navigate Metro system. I bought a twenty four hour pass for roughly $8 Can (1600 HUF, I think) and I made very good use of that bad boy!  Fun Fact: Budapest is home to the oldest underground metro line in Continental Europe.

5.  Széchenyi Medicinal Bath  - This hot spring baths is a fantastic place to unwind, rest and relax after several days of walking and touring. The building itself is quite old and boasts endless rooms of hot spas, saunas and massage rooms while the centre is a huge pool area with three different large pools, a restaurant, stalls to purchase beer and other drinks, and a large space with very comfortable loungers. The pools and spas are fed from the natural hot springs which apparently lie beneath Budapest and are thought to have healing qualities. This is a hugely popular spot for locals as well as tourists and can be quite crowded, and even a little smelly, but it is definitely a must visit! (Cost 4700 HUF or $22 Can)

6.  Beautiful scenery, old buildings and architecture!

                                                              Charles Bridge

Reasons I Hated Budapest

1.  I learned that my LifeProof iPhone case wasn't really lifeproof when I forgot I had it tucked in my bathing suit and took a full dip in the naturally warmed waters of the Schenyi baths. This one is totally my fault and isn't at all a reflection on Budapest but unfortunately the loss of my phone and all of the photos taken on my trip thus far did put a damper on the day (pun intended!)

2.  When Hungary finally gained autonomy from Russia in 1990, Budapest became the go to place for young, hip travellers but also western investors. Twenty five years later it is a magnate for the those seeking a place to party and drink, so by as early as 9pm the streets of the Old Town and other popular sectors are jammed with scantily dressed twenty something girls and very loud young men.

3.  In a few short years Budapest has become a major tourist destination with the overpriced restaurants, tacky souvenirs and crowds that come with that honour. As usual, if the traveller seeks a more "authentic" Hungarian experience it would need to be somewhere other than Budapest!

                          St. Stephen's Church (his right hand is a holy relic on display here)


Saturday, July 9, 2016

Salt Mines of Wieliczka - Don't Bother!

I honestly do not understand why so many travel blogs recommend a visit to the Wielliczka Salt Mines.

I made it back to Kraków from Auschwitz by 3 pm so I figured I would have enough time to fit in a visit to the World Unesco Heritage site. I understand that they are quite large and were first used in the 13th century, and I do concede that the underground church is quite nice but let's be honest here...

The whole atmosphere is quite Disneyfied and rather disappointing. The guides wear strict looking uniforms which must be strangling vital body parts causing enough discomfort to result in rather severe and unwelcoming attitudes.  The fellow  I had, did not crack a smile once and recited a memorized script in a completely monotone voice. I swear he was more robot than man and I was tempted to see if he had one of those windy controls coming out of his back. The tour consisted of his uninspired description of the history of the mine and a series of tacky models which he would animate briefly for a few seconds as we walked by. To top it off they saddled this one guide with a group of at least fifty.

After two hours of this torture we made it to a restaurant/tacky souvenir sort of area and were told that we could carry on to the museum or get an elevator to the top. Well I for one couldn't wait to get out of there but the guide disappeared, and a few of us tried to navigate our way to the elevator. We kept getting stopped by guards (disguised as guides) who would yell at us in Polish as they herded us to join a group with a guide that seemed to be speaking Russian! We tried to explain that we were with the English group but our little wind up man had somehow deserted us. It didn't seem to matter...he just kept yelling at us to follow this new group. Finally we made it to a tiny little elevator and managed to get out of there!

This tour was absolutely not worth the 89PLN they had the nerve to charge.  They even insist on an additional 10PLN for the privilege of taking photos! 

There are so many better, and more inexpensive things to do in Kraków that I think I would have given it a miss even if it were free!

Why You Should Visit Auschwitz

                      Sign Above the Entrance Gate at Auschwitz - Work Will Set You Free

My main destination for this trip was to visit Auschwitz and Birkenau. Many people asked me why I would want to visit the location of such a sad and tragic event - the murder of over one million people, most of whom were Jewish. I think it is important to remind ourselves of these horrific deeds that have been carried out in the name of religion, xenophobia or misguided national pride. Unfortunately, there are far too many examples of holocausts that have occuried even since the unthinkable events that took place at Auschwitz form 1941 - 1945. I am of the opinion that the current political climate of the world, unfortunately, seems to be repeating the mindset of politicians in the era leading up to WW II and the holocaust. When I listen to men such as Donald Trump, I feel that I am being transported back to 1933 listening to a fascist rally. Indeed, if you replace the word Muslim or refugee for Jewish in many of his speeches and you watch and listen to the reactions of his supporters, you could be listening to any speech given by Hitler in 1933 Germany.

Many people have questioned how such a wide scale, systematic near annihilation of a group of people could happen. The hatred and vitriol which led to this event was spread by fear and ignorance. The targeted group is accused of actions which somehow are hurting the "real" sons and daughters of the nation either through taking jobs, undermining the "true" culture, speaking a different language or committing horrendous crimes. It doesn't seem to matter if any of these claims are true or valid but only that they are repeated often and loudly so that the voting public has a cause to unite  behind someone who will fight against the enemy. Incendiary rhetoric which has become the norm in the polarized political climate of 2016 is creating a culture of fear and hatred which, I would argue, could quite possibly lead to tragedies such as the holocaust. 

Visiting places such as Auschwitz might help us to remember that awful things happen when we forget that real people - men, women, children - become the victims when we forget that we are all members of the human race despite differences in religion, skin colour or nationality. 

OK, lecture over....

Getting to Auszhwitz Museum

Although many opt for tours to the museum of Auschwitz, it is possible (and very inexpensive) to do it yourself. Make your way to the bus station in Kraków, located behind the train station. Go to the ticket booth and ask for the next bus to Auszhwitz Museum ( Oswiecin in Polish). The trip took about one hour and 15 minutes. I paid 12 Zloty ($4 Canadian) for a one way ticket and was dropped at the back entrance from which it is a short 100 metre walk to the main entrance. 

The museum is free but during the peak season individuals must join a group tour between the hours of 10 am and 3:30 pm and there is a cost. So if you want to avoid this you will need to time your arrival accordingly. I left Kraków on the 7:50 am train and made it to the entrance by 9:30 am. You still need to go to the white trailer booth and get a ticket but then you just go to the entrance where you will pass through a security check and walk right in.

The barracks are aligned in neat rows and as you walk along it is difficult to imagine that this was the scene of so much suffering. The buildings, however, have been converted into the repositories of the reminders that real people were housed, starved, beaten and killed within this compound. Since I arrived early I was able to walk through the buildings alone viewing photographs of victims, canisters of Zylon B poison, mounds of suitcases, glasses, brushes, shoes and most jarring, hair. 

A free shuttle bus will take you to nearby Birkenau or Auschwitz II where you will really feel the scope and horror of the events. The rail lines where transports were brought to the camp runs up the middle. Prisoners were sorted into groups with those to the left being taken directly to the chambers for immediate gassing - this included about 80% of the those who passed the gates. The remains of row upon row of barracks remain at this site as a jarring visual reminder of man's inhumanity to man.

To return to Kraków you need to take the free shuttle back to Auschwitz I and then go to the stand next to the snack hut. There is a schedule posted and busses depart every 45 minutes for a cost of 14 Zloty. My bus driver seemed to take the slow route and stop about every 5 minutes so this portion of the trip took about two hours.