Dec 30, 2015

Europe, again! :-)

Earlier this year, in September, I had the opportunity to make another trip to Europe. This time, it was with a girl-friend, and for 12 days, and we were headed towards the Central Europe – Czech, Austria, Slovakia and Hungary, to be precise.

Central Europe
From top left corner, in clock-wise direction - Tribute to the lives lost in Stalin's rule at Devin Castle, Bratislava; Heroes Square in Vienna; Prague castle at night; Heroes Square in Budapest

This was something we planned very well, and yet wasn’t a trip that was planned to the last minute. This was something like a backpacking, but wasn’t exactly backpacking in the true sense. We knew exactly where we were sleeping every night. That was the only thing that was planned. Every evening, we’d both sit in our room and decide a list on what we wanted to do the next day – a rough set of places to see, things to do , food to eat, photographs/locations to shoot etc. We didn’t always finish the list, and we were okay with that. We prioritized every day, and the first priority was for us to laze around and have fun.
Sure, we did a lot of walking, almost 10 km everyday, and we almost exclusively used public transport, and didn’t really depend on Google to help us while on the move. That meant, we had to talk to the locals to get our directions. We had to figure out where they ate so we’d get the best food at the most affordable prices, since we had decided to make the trip on a budget. We had limited space in our bags, so we weren’t really buying everything we wanted.

During my first Europe trip , which was to Greece (exactly two years prior to this one), the husband and I discovered that we’d see the real culture and understand a bit of the local life only if we moved beyond the capital city of the country. In Greece, it was Hydra, Delphi and Chania that showed us how life on each island could be like.
Similarly, we travelled to places other than the capital city in each of these countries, except Hungary.

We took a day trip to Cesky Budejovic, which is where the first Budweiser was born and to Cesky Krumlov, a pretty castle town, while in Prague. These two places were so in contrast with each other, yet were so Czech, that we felt like we were in fairyland! Discovery of the beauty called Apple Cider, another discovery that suitcases with rolling wheels is a bad idea on cobbled streets, pleasant surprise at the abundance of Indian food in a foreign land none of which we tasted, getting lost in the beauty while during the walk towards the Lennon Wall and reading all the graffiti on this wall, a short trip to the Prague Central Library, known to be one of the most beautiful libraries in the world and in general, telling each other just how beautiful this city is – a few things Prague will be remembered by.

Sitting in the first class compartment in a train that might've been featured SRK and Kajol in DDLJ and sipping on juice and eating snacks is something we'd never forget, and we got to do that on our train from Prague to Vienna. While in Vienna, we had originally planned to do a trip to Salzburg. But owing the Syrian refugee situation, the trains towards Germany had been cancelled, so we changed it to some day trips. We took a day trip to Krems, the wine country in the Wachau valley, a UNESCO heritage site. To say that this is beautiful would be an understatement. I felt closest to nature in Krems, and for a while, all we did was to sit by the Danube at the foot of a castle door. Vienna is home to some beautiful museums, we were told, and being totally non-museum people, we gave them all a miss. We found walks in the city, people watching during train rides, talking to the guides around the St.Stephen’s Cathedral and catching the trams to the end of the city more alluring than museums. My friend is an architect, so we checked out some really cool modern architecture in the universities there, walking around like students and eating in their budget cafeterias. Buying cheap wine and drinking it in the hotel room, eating very yummy vegetarian pizza made by an Egyptian cook in a Turkish pizza place, eating food in fancy river cruises, walking in between the lanes of the NaschMarkt and striking up conversations on SRK vs Salman Khan and singing Bollywood songs with Turkish shop owners there, being hit on very elegantly by the handsome Viennese men and politely refusing their advances while gloating, missing umpteen trains/trams and spending hours in cafes by the stations drinking coffee and laughing how goofy we are – these are just a few things we did while in Vienna.

We then headed to Bratislava, Slovakia. All the guide books and sites suggest that the day trip from Vienna to Bratislava is enough, but trust me, you should stay in this city at least one night to know what a beauty it is. Architecturally, this is no wonder. But culture is abundant here. The art installations in various street corners, the castles, the small alleys , the various cafes and the waiters refusing the tip – this city was a revelation. Since we had, by then, realized what fun it is to explore outside the city, we took a bus ride to the Devin Castle, which is on the confluence of the rivers Danube and Moravia, is an a Stone Age Castle. Also on these banks stands a tribute to all the 400 lives lost in Stalin’s rule when he shot them dead. Striking up conversations with clueless tourists like us because locals do not really speak a lot of English and hence cannot help us with directions, refusing the help of locals who want to walk us to our destinations – few things we will remember Bratislava with.

Our next destination was Budapest. Hungary was one country where we didn’t plan any trips outside Budapest, and the weather there told us it was the right thing to do. It poured during all three days we spent in Budapest. The streets of Budapest remind you of a not so clean part in Bombay, and made me feel for a while that even Hyderabad is more litter-free than this city. So imagine how it would be when it rained. We stayed largely indoors because of this, but this didn’t stop us from admiring the castles built in Baroque style, and the beautiful riverside on either side of Buda and Pest. This is also where I think I got some of my best evening shots. Lots of rain, brilliant buildings, good food, standing by the banks of Danube and singing Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam with the Chain Bridge behind us – few things Budapest will be remembered by, in this trip.

At the end of the trip, I decided that am definitely going back to Prague and Budapest, and this time with the husband in tow. For all the times we spoke about Kafka museum and Budapest , and going there together, I owe him that. :-)

Some thoughts I jotted down as soon as I returned from the trip -

Food

One of the first questions people ask me when I mention travel is how I find food, vegetarian, that too. I don't eat egg, chicken or fish, and vehemently dislike mushroom & corn, and tend to stay away from white flour/bread as much as I can. Given these preferences, it might sound almost impossible to find food in most places in Europe. This is true, but not to the extent that it posed a problem to me while traveling. I love salads, and the various non-stinky cheeses. I relax my no-white-flour rule a bit and eat pizza or pasta if I find and feel like it. I sometimes order side dishes as main dish (like the Brazilian lentils we ordered in Bratislava, which filled our stomach and gave us protein). Most of the times, all I do is to ask waiters for their vegetarian options, and they oblige. Europe is increasingly becoming vegetarian-friendly and the fact that not once did I have to miss a meal during these past 10 days or during my Greece trip a couple of years ago is a testimonial to this! In fact, looking back, I didn’t have to miss a meal due to not finding suitable food ever, on my travels so far. I always , always and always found food to eat.  In addition to the place being sensitive, I strongly believe that even we should be able to relax our rules a bit! That said, I do not eat in a restaurant which I feel isn't sensitive to vegetarians by principle. So far, in my limited travels, there haven't been a lot of these times! We noticed that Vienna was a vegetarian’s heaven with Falafel joints all over the city. Prague had good vegetarian options in the restaurants around the Old Jewish quarters. Bratislava is a city built for gourmet food and we discovered some interesting vegetarian food there. Budapest is where I lost all sense of schedule and ate at every time of the day, that was how awesome food there was. This was also where we discovered that Georgian cuisine was very similar to Indian food. And also got to eat some freshly baked bread in a small restaurant overlooking the Danube and the Hungarian Parliament, this food was heaven on a plate.  

People

One strong realization is that people are good, all over the world. Not once did we come upon a rude person (am willing to let the Falafel guy in Vienna go on this. I think he must've answered way too many info questions before he snapped at us yelling that he isn't Information!), and we noticed that most people go out of their way to help others, especially tourists.  An old man we approached in Bratislava wanted to come with us and guide us to our destination (the hotel), because he wasn't able to explain the directions due to his language barrier! Another old lady in Budapest apologized for not speaking English and asked us to follow her in the train so she could show us our train station. Many men in Hungary offered to carry our bags when they saw us lugging them on the steps of an old metro line. So we gathered that it all depends on how we all, and what homework we did before we asked for directions or info. We solely didn't depend on people and almost effectively used the maps given at our hotels, but there have been times when we needed to be bailed out and people did so, gladly.  And oh, either it's us or its the older Viennese men. They were all hot, and almost all were extremely fit, and had a great sense of humor, and are ready to strike up conversation with tourists like us. Though, in our experience, we didn't find a lot of help from folks in Hungary, we noticed that almost every Hungarian we spoke to had the genuine intention to help, but couldn't because of limited knowledge or language barrier. Prague is a place built for tourists. Its almost impossible to get lost there, thanks to very helpful directions all over. Even our hotel, which wasn’t even on the city map, and was reachable by a metro ride and a bus ride, a total of 30 min commute from the city center, could actually be considered accessible. The city is just splendidly beautiful in all respects. As for Bratislava, if I have to be honest, I’d say that you can give it a miss if you have been to Prague. But that applies only to the sight seeing aspect. Bratislava is a beautiful city, with no metro system, and the entire city being very well connected by an effective bus system. There are tonnes of street art and sculptures for those interested, and all sight-seeing can actually be done in one half of the day, if one chooses to. But soaking in the city, sitting in the cafes, walking around and everything ensured that even the 1.5 days we spent there memorable.


Souvenirs

As a principle, I don't buy show-pieces as souvenirs in any place I visit. We generally tend to get a piece of some utility which is local to the country we are visiting.

Like the Pythagoras mug we got in Delphi while in Greece, this time also, I picked up some local handmade ceramic flowers in Slovakia. I also almost always pick up jewelry in the city that I love. This time, I bought a handmade glass painted necklace set in Prague,and a semi-precious stone pendant in Budapest. And there is always the local food/drinks which I pick up for folks back home. Since I missed the husband almost every day whenever I ate something new in this trip, this trip was a bounty for him. I picked up tiny bottles of Apricot liqueur, Apricot rum and wine in Austria and Palinka and Tokaji wine from Hungary for him.

For family, fridge magnets and local church currency are a staple :)


Places

Almost all these cities have wonderful public transport systems, which we used effectively to commute. Hop-on-hop-off tours are a great way to see all the sights in a single day, and decide which ones you want to visit again for leisure. We followed this in all the places, and also took some side day trips which took us into the countryside. This gave us a glimpse of how locals live and see the non-tourist vegetation and scenes. I remember we did this in Greece also, and even in this trip, the side trips were in fact better than the main city trips in most cases.

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