Vacances de Février Part 2- Prague, Vienna, and Budapest

“Not all those who wander are lost.” –J.R.R. Tolkien

I love this quote, probably because I love to wander.  If you know me, you know I love to explore and seek new things just for the sake of it.  You probably also know that I let my mind wander a lot (AKA I space out).  On this trip, we did a lot of wandering.  Another long post guys: get ready.

I arrived in Prague in the middle of a snowstorm.  Somehow I made my way to the hostel and met up with Doug.  There was a group of Americans, a couple British girls, and a small group from Singapore in our room.  Wandering around the hostel, we also met a group of Germans who study in the Netherlands and ended up talking to them for a while.  They had some very strong opinions on the French, which mostly revolved around a stereotype that they steal.  That was one I had never heard before…

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We got Czech sausages from a street vendor for dinner, and then went to a coffee bar.  It was interesting because smoking is allowed inside in the Czech Republic, so there were people smoking at the table next to us.  There were also a lot of people with their dogs.  Back at the hostel we met some more Americans and hung out with them for a bit before going to bed.  Unfortunately, the group of Americans in our room were quite stereotypical—kids who came to Prague just to party and woke us up when they got back at 4:30, having no consideration for the others in the room.  They also ate at KFC and McDonalds for their stay in Prague…

Our first mission the next day was to find a hat for Doug, which proved to be impossible.  It was snowing a lot, but none of the stores had typical winter hats.  We decided to ignore the snow and try to find the Jewish museum.  After getting lost and wandering, we eventually found it, only to find it was closed.  Nearby, however, was a bakery called The Bakeshop, which had delicious food and is apparently very well-known in Prague.  Our next stop was the Communism Museum, which proved to be difficult to find as well.  Eventually we found it.  It is a tiny museum on the second floor of a building between a McDonalds and a casino, and is mostly pictures and writing.  It was interesting, but I’m not convinced it was entirely worth it.

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The next day was our rest day.  We had a much needed laundry break and slept in.  In the afternoon, we did the free walking tour, which turned out to be really interesting.  Our tour guide was from York and had fallen in love with Prague and decided to stay on a whim, something which was difficult for us to comprehend.  He took us to the famous astronomical clock, down by the river, around the Jewish quarter, to Wenceslas Square, and to the Opera House, which is the only remaining building that Mozart played in.  He also told us that if there is someone who has been alive since 1917 and who has always lived in Prague, they have lived in eight different countries!

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The next day we succeeded in seeing the Jewish museum.  It is actually spread out over six different sights, three of which we saw.  The Spanish Synagogue was really ornate and beautiful, and was probably my favorite synagogue so far.  We couldn’t take pictures inside, but it is something you must see if you’re in Prague.  The next synagogue we saw had all the names of the victims of the concentration camp Teresin as well as their date of birth and death.  It was big and empty, which had a powerful effect.  Upstairs was an exhibit of children’s drawings and doodles from the camp that had been saved by the woman who organized it.  They were very moving, and mostly about things like family, friends, and travel rather than death and destruction.

Next we went to the Charles Bridge, which stretches across the river and has statues of saints going along it.  We walked about halfway across before going back to the hostel to meet Alex.  When she got there, we walked back across the river to the castle, which is on a big hill and is basically a city in itself.  The St. Vitus Cathedral is a large gothic cathedral in the center.  Unfortunately we arrived right as the museum was closing, so we walked around the castle-town a bit before heading down for some coffee and cake.  On the way back we crossed the Charles bridge to look at the Dancing  House, which is just a neat piece of architecture.  It is cool, but not too impressive.

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For dinner we went to the Beer Factory, which is just a restaurant where you can pour your own beer from a tap at the table and then you pay based on how much you poured.  We each ordered a traditional Czech meal, which turned out to be a lot of food.  Alex and I got a selection of dumplings with cabbage and half a duck.  Doug got a pork knee, which came with vegetables and bread.  Needless to say, we were stuffed after.

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The next morning we got on a bright and early 6:38am train to Vienna.  We dropped off our stuff at our hostel—another Wombats hostel—and went to meet Rachel, who is studying abroad in Vienna.  After a bit of confusion and some horrible map-reading (which happened a lot this holiday), we finally found her at the grand Operhaus.  She took us to lunch at a nearby restaurant where we had a nice three-course meal of soup, pork with vegetables, and a chocolate-filled cake in crème.  It was delicious, and fairly cheap!

After lunch, we walked around the Ringstrasse, the big street that surrounds the center of Vienna.  We saw the Hofburg Palace, and even snuck inside the National Library of Austria, which is located there.  It was fun to pretend like we belonged there, even though we had no idea where we were going when we were inside.  We also saw the cathedral, which has tiled roofs similar to those in Burgundy, and had a true Austrian coffee, which is more than just espresso.  I can’t help but rave about good coffee after going from Hattie’s to France!

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The next morning I started off with a run where I somehow ran a full circle around my hostel while thinking I was running in a fairly straight line.  While I didn’t make it to the gardens of the Hofburg palace, which was my intention, I did have a nice run near the St. Stephens Cathedral.  We walked through the Naschmarkt, which is a big market right outside our hostel.  It was mostly food, but was very extensive and really neat, especially if you aren’t used to big markets.  Later on, we went back and got food there for dinner, including kebabs, cheese, olives, and stuffed fig leaves.  Delicious!

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That was also the day we went to the Schönbrunn Palace, a large palace on the outskirts of Vienna.  It was very big and very pretty.  In our short tour, we saw many portraits of Austrian royalty, including Marie Antoinette, who became the queen of France, as well as large chandeliers, ornate rooms, and a gorgeous ballroom that looked out over the gardens (and which we probably spent 20 minutes sitting in and admiring).  We decided that we (especially Alex) could totally live there.

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After another coffee, we decided to see the Hundertwasserhaus, which is another interestingly designed building.  It wasn’t too exciting, but we decided to hop on the tram and see the park at the end of the tram.  It has a path which stretches the length of the park—13 miles—and which I would have loved to run on.  We then tried to get back on the tram we had just gotten off of, which got really awkward once we realized the tram stop was on the opposite side of the tracks and the tram driver was smoking a cigarette and laughing at us… I’m pretty sure he was laughing at us when we got back on a minute later too.  At least we provided someone with amusement…

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The next day we decided we needed to try Wiener schnitzel.  We met Rachel at a schnitzel place, and the portion sizes were HUGE!  After being so full, we needed to walk it off, so we headed to the Belvedere Palace and ended up walking a lot, as we missed the entrance to the gardens.  Eventually we found it (I’m starting to realize we spent a lot of time on this trip walking around trying to find things…).  The gardens were very long and beautiful, but bare.  I imagine they’d be quite nice in the summer.  We toured the castle, which was essentially a large art museum.  Once again, it had a nice ballroom.  We also saw some Monet and Manet paintings.  Afterwards, we had our final Viennese coffee before packing for our [once again] early morning.

Unfortunately, we did not sleep as well as we had hoped thanks to Jeff the Canadian, as he will henceforth be known.  He was another traveller in our room, and another person who had absolutely no courtesy for others.  Maybe it’s a North American thing?  Anyways, he woke us up at 4am when he came home.  I won’t get into the details, but it ended up with me yelling (Me? That’s how you know it was bad!) and a lack of sleep.  Jeff, you don’t do your Canadian heritage any justice.  You people are supposed to be nice!

We took a bus to Budapest, Hungary, our next stop, and arrived very confused at the metro station.  Not only was our current station not marked in the station itself, but we were confused as to how to get to the metro in the first place.  After figuring it out, we hopped on the rickety train car and headed to our hostel.

I have to be honest: our first impression of Budapest was not great.  There were piles of trash on the street, which just increased during our first day there (everything from doors to TVs to old clothes).  The buildings were dirty.  The people aggressively came up to us on the streets, trying to get us to come into their restaurants or their stores.  Eventually, however, it grew on us and turned out to be my favorite of the cities we visited.

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Our hostel was very nice.  The receptionist was very helpful, and we ended up in what was almost an apartment.  It had two bedrooms (for 7 people), a “kitchen” (which was really just a sink, some counter space, and cabinets), and a nice sitting area.  The receptionist informed us that it was indeed a special trash day which happens only once a year, so there wasn’t usually that much trash on the streets.  She also told us some nice places to go.

We ended up doing what we do best—just wandering around.  We had a traditional Hungarian lunch (peppers stuffed with minced meat) and went to the covered market, which was mostly food on the ground floor and mostly touristy stuff and Hungarian crafts, some of which I bought.  We also discovered that Hungary is famous for it’s paprika, which I didn’t know, so of course I bought some Hungarian paprika.

Next we tried to go on the free Jewish walking tour, which was recommended to us by a girl at our hostel.  At 3:30pm we showed up at the meeting place—the fountain in the big square—only to see no one else there.  We waited around for a long time, talking a bit with an Argentinian and a Brazilian who also showed up for that tour, before eventually abandoning it for some coffee.  It wasn’t until the next day that we learned that we had read the flyer wrong (3:30 is the time for tours starting March 3rd, but until then it’s 2:30.  It was March 1st).

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We went to see St. Stephen’s Cathedral (there’s one here too!), which was very pretty and a very unique style.  It was the combined effort of three different architects in three different Baroque styles and in marble, so it was very unique and very pretty.  Afterwards we walked up Castle Hill and saw the outside of the Budapest castle, which interestingly enough has never housed royalty.  By the time we got to the top, the sun was mostly set, so it was a beautiful sight.  I definitely recommend the view from the top of the hill at night.  You can see for miles in either direction, whether you’re looking over the main part of town, Pest (pronounced pesht), or the hills of Buda.  The parliament building is also beautiful, right on the river and all lit up.

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We also walked down a bit to the Mathias church, which has the same tiled roofs as the cathedral in Vienna.  Outside is the Fisherman’s Bastion, which is essentially a number of towers and looks like part of Hogwarts.  It was definitely my favorite sight of the trip, especially considering I love being up high and looking out over cities.  It was breathtaking.

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The next day we did an early walking tour so as not to miss it.  Unfortunately, we went to the same exact places we had visited the day before.  Still, it was nice to hear information about it, and our tour guide was very nice.  We learned things about the culture, such as the fact that if you say “thank you” when you pay, you are essentially saying “keep the change,” and that it’s rude to leave a tip on the table.  Free walking tours are definitely worth it.

For lunch we went to the Jewish district, one of Budapest’s cheaper areas.  We saw the beautiful synagogue from the outside (it was Saturday, so it was closed), and stopped for lunch at a charming restaurant where I had some goulash (yum!).  Next, we headed back to the hostel to get our swimsuits.  Once again, the metro gave us trouble (apparently the one square where all the lines intersect has different entrances and exits for each line), but we eventually found our way to Heroes Square, a big square with museums on the sides and a park on the end.  We stopped for a quick coffee and cake before heading to the baths.

Hungarian baths are a product of the time that Hungary was controlled by Turkey.  The Szechenzy baths were in a huge building in the middle of the aforementioned park.  After changing, we explored the inside parts.  There are massages and therapeutic services available, but we stuck with the pools and the sauna.  Inside were a number of baths ranging from 16 degrees Celsius (60 degrees Fahrenheit) to about 40 degrees (104).  Some pools were medicinal.  Afterwards, we went into the pool outside.  There were two pools with fountains where people were lounging with a lap pool in the middle.  Despite the temperature being rather cold (probs around 40 degrees), the water was warm, and we were fine when in the water.  It made running to the inside part rather torturous though!  Still, it was a lot of fun, and definitely something I recommend.  The rooms were very nice, and the water looked cool with all the steam rising off of it.  It was a good last night in Budapest.

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The next morning we got a taxi (without much help from our new receptionist) to the airport and flew via Ryanair to Paris Beauvais, which is deceptive as Beauvais is in no way a suburb of Paris.  We crossed Paris, had some coffee, grabbed a baguette for lunch, and fought the swarms of people coming back from their holidays to get on the train first.  Luckily we were able to get seats and didn’t have to stand for the 4-hour train ride, and we were back in Chalon drinking tea at Kate’s by 8pm.  It was a fabulous and busy holiday, and I am looking forward to my last few months in France.

We’re already getting excited for our next holiday to Istanbul in Turkey, Barcelona in Spain, and Marrakech in Morocco.  If I thought Budapest was a different culture, I’m looking forward to eye-opening experiences next time!  For now, it’s back to Chalon, and it’s getting warm!  I plan on enjoying my last few weeks here, because really that’s all I have left.  Everyone at home—I miss you a ton.  I’ll be home soon, but until then I’m going to take advantage of my time here.  We’ve got Digoin, the half-marathon, Grenoble, and whatever we do for Easter weekend coming up, so stay tuned!

French word of the day: La soleil—it means the sun, which is out today J

Czech word of the day: Proseem –it means please, thank you, I’ll have, pardon, and a whole bunch of other things…

Hungarian word of the day: Siya/Hallo –Hello/Goodbye.  It’s backwards in Hungarian—siya (see ya) is hello and Hallo is goodbye!

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