Monday, May 27, 2013

Zu viele Haare...

Monday, May 6, 2013

Back from an intense trip - and an even more exhaustive overnight bus ride, I got back to Leipzig around 6am. I got some genuine sleep before class that afternoon. It was a rather typical Monday - class and too much time on Facebook.

Someone with big hair blocked the last few words on the Powerpoint slide.

The day was uneventful until the evening as I was meeting friends for a beer. The lights on my bike went out a few days prior, so I asked myself if it was worth the risk of a fine. Many friends of mine have rode their bikes at night without any issues - of course, I would be that one-in-a-million winner...I made it about 500 yards before I was stopped by a shaded figure who introduced himself as a Traffic Security Officer. I saw the police vehicle about 20-30 feet away and realized I rode ride into a bike checkpoint. I knew I was screwed, and the officer did as well. Aggravated with the situation, the officer was skeptical of my ID, and when I mentioned I was American, he really didn't want to believe me. He grew frustrated when I asked him to explain in other words what I did not understand - he couldn't seem to find any other words, even in German.

He dumbed it down with a strict tone stating, "You're going to have to pay a fine. Do you have 20 euros on you?" Well straight from Argentina, I thought he was looking for a bribe. I had a few follow-up questions to make sure this incident would not cause a larger headache. He explained that I had the option to pay on the spot or go to an office and pay later. When I was assured that I would get a receipt, I wanted this to be behind me. I paid my dues and had to walk with my bike to the bar. I did not bother pushing my luck as I walked home, again with my bike by my side. And 3 weeks after I've shared the experience with friends, everyone has functioning bicycle lights for safe nighttime riding.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

In hopes of a brighter and restful Tuesday, I started off with brunch with Sara (former AFS from Italy) and Tsampika (from Greece). It has become our Tuesday tradition - everyone brings a little something and we enjoy the company, food, and conversation. Sara provided me with some advice for fixing my bike lights - finally some order for this already hectic week!

Brunch at Sara's place

I made my way to the Radgeber, or bike repair shop recommended by Sara. It was then after waiting for well over a half hour that I discovered that I would have to repair the lights myself. That is like asking a blind mouse to paint the Mona Lisa: it would require a miracle. I headed out the door when they explained that I would do the repairs but under the guidance of the bike professions. HALLEUJAH! It was quite the learning experience, and I'm grateful for learning something new from the entire debacle. 

Proud of myself, I then faced my next challenge - "healthy" food shopping for two. I would describe myself like a lost child as I wandered the aisles with too many options to fathom. My typical diet of pasta and grilled cheese would not suffice my visitor, Wiebke from the TCNJ/Frankfurt exchange. Although I built up the anticipation in myself, it wasn't really a big deal...just another encouraging moment that it's okay to try new food combinations.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The day was spectacularly beautiful as I sat in lecture from 9am to 5pm. The pot of gold at the end of this rainbow was a free beer at Moritz Bastei - the student club next to the main campus. From there I had dinner with Benni, as I anxiously awaited the arrival of Wiebke (my friend from the TCNJ International House). Despite some delays with the bus, she arrived safe and sound. Although it was three months since our last reunion, we picked up like it was yesterday. Those late night conversations are something that I have so dearly missed.

Free Beer at Moritz Bastei

I will continue with more about Wiebke's visit in the next blog post. I apologize for the delay - May has been very busy with visits, school, and life in general. In fact, I will be heading off to Berlin to pick up my dear friend, Ashleigh from NJ, at the airport in just a few hours. I promise to do my best with the updates, but until then, I hope you all live the dream!

Liebe Grüße,

Bratislava, Slovakia: in der Wirklichkeit

Sunday, May 5, 2013

In Vienna to catch some ZZZ’s, morning arrived quickly as it was time to go to Bratislava. This capital city of Slovakia is located down the Danube River and is just a swim, boat ride, or train ride away across the Austrian border. I opted for the convenience and affordability of the train.

Despite that, the Vienna main train station is currently a labyrinth of construction. It was a stressful five minutes as I could not find a ticket machine nor the correct platform for Bratislava. I hastily searched for any sign of help – an information desk, a sign, but nothing. I ended up following an older couple with a pamphlet that said “Bratislava.” It turns out that one must leave the main train station, go into the abyss of construction before passing a bakery (the only sign of awake civilization on a Sunday morning), and THEN did I see a sign for the right platform. After finding the train, the trip was very comfortable.

Train ride from Austria into Slovakia

Bratislava did not get the hype that Vienna and Budapest received when I talked to others who have already been there. Some said it is a “nice day trip” where as I was even told not to bother wasting my time and money. My ultimate decision came down to two reasons: (1) I figured it couldn’t be too bad for just one day; and more importantly, (2) I wanted to add this country as #28 to the list of countries I’ve visited. Moreover, after Budapest, I was certain that films such as Euro Trip had contorted how I imagined Eastern Europe. Here is a clip from the movie that gave me my initial impression of Bratislava. It goes to show that some things one must see simply with their own eyes.

From overcast Vienna to sunny Slovakia, the day could not have been prettier. My first challenge was to find Tourist Information without a map or any sense of direction. I made a few detours but eventually arrived to be attended by the least helpful information guide, who I have yet to encounter. She gave me a brochure of things to see, but provided no suggestions or additional information. Rather disappointed, I wandered through the city center for a bit before finding a tour option and ultimately perusing the 60-page booklet (fortunately that was more informative than the employee).

Presidential Palace

Main Square/ Hlavné námestie

Schöne Náci on Sedlárska Street

The streets were colorful and quite clean

Satisfied in Slovakia

To see the most possible in Bratislava with little time, I took the “outer” city and castle tour in the quirkiest little train-like vehicle. Many got a hoot out of the tourists as we saw the main attractions. I was surrounded by a family of Slavic descent. I doubt that they understood that our visit time at the castle was only 15 minutes. After waiting another 8-10 minutes, the driver took off...I could not really understand what he said since I don't speak Slovak. Then for the final stretch of the tour, I had the vehicle to myself - it was then when I felt like the tourist attraction.

Castle Tour "Train"

Inverted Pyramid - Radio Station

UFO Bridge

View from Bratislava Castle

100 Steps to the Castle

Slovakian Flag

Castle in Bratislava

St. Martin's Cathedral

National Slovakian Opera

For lunch, I tried a Slovakian Goulash (Beef) with the local beer. It was tasty and a nice break to review my tour guide and set a plan for the rest of the day. 

The compact old city was a relaxed exploration as I sought the unique quirks and meandered the windy, narrow cobblestoned streets.
This "crown" symbol documents that royalty once walked there.

Bratislava on a beautiful, sleepy Sunday

St. Clare's Church

An artistic attempt.

Colorful Hungarian roofing in the Main Square

Michalská Street with the St. Michael's Gate (Tower in background)

Narrowest house in Central Europe on Michalská Street

Street art on the bridge near the St. Martin's Cathedral

Rubberneck (on Panská and Sedlárska Street)
This is the only statue in the world that sticks out of the pavement.

Along the Danube River

Primate's Palace

This day in Bratislava was simply magnificent. I think it was certainly worth the visit, but I think I saw everything possible in just a few hours. This "small" big city is full of European flair and quirky points of history. It was the cherry on top of this trip through 3 European capital cities in 6 days.

I returned to Vienna around dinnertime. I enjoyed one last causal conversation with Roxi and Nicki over a Slovakian beer. I then departed for Leipzig - an overnight trip that was worth the sleep I lost that evening. Had I traveled on Sunday during the day, I would have not made it to Bratislava.

Let's get back to Leipzig now!
Mit freundlichen Grüßen,

Friday, May 24, 2013

Hungary for Budapest!

Friday, May 3, 2013

If you ask me to describe Budapest in one word, I don't know if I could find one adequate word that encases the history, beauty, and hidden gems of Hungary's capital city: wickedly awesome? unexpectedly thrilling? Eastern Europe's hidden gem? Better yet, I'll just share my experience, while trying to keep the "Hungary" jokes to a minimum.

I would not consider myself to be spontaneous, but I added this segment of the trip to the plan only a day prior - with a night in a hostel and a bus, I was ready for an adventure. It was a three-hour bus ride from Vienna to Budapest (with a stop in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia). This was another update that Europe is much more compact than the American continents. Nonetheless, it gave me enough time to write a dozen postcards. 

In Budapest, I really had no idea what to expect. I heard good things from others, so I was hopeful and excited. The sun was shining, and I found my hostel by metro and then by foot with a notepad that I used to show the Hungarian street names; my chances of coming close to any form of understandable pronunciation were slim. (Another good travel tip from Aunt Nancy that I received before my first trip to Germany in 2008.) I settled in, got a map, bought an open train ticket back to Vienna for the following day, and then came the torrential downpour - so strong that I feared the fabric of my umbrella would be shredded by the pounding water.

Hostel in an old apartment building - cool, open-air courtyard

A bustling, sunny day when...
the heavens opened up.
(fortunately it rained only for less than a half hour!)

Despite the weather, I was ready for the Free Budapest Walking Tour. Whether I would end up swimming, showering, or strolling, Mother Nature would have to decide. We started on the Pest (pronunced "pe-sht") side, flatter and more pedestrian-friendly. Our guide, a local from Budapest, shared the history of the buildings, squares, and statues that outlasted the recent Communist government. She had an interactive demeanor to tell the stories and to share fun facts about the city (examples to come...) - through the continuous process of "golden eras" and invasions. Hungary had a bad run with invaders and the World Wars (supporting the losing side). 

(old) National Opera House
currently under construction to serve as a general concert hall

Little Princess Statue
Everyone who touches both knees will find their true love...and eventually return to Budapest. 
(I believe the Budapest part was a tourism-ploy by the guide.)

Erzsébet Square
Overall, a nice park with a fence of "locks of love" and this nicely, sculpted fountain

We continued onto the St. Stephen Basilica. This founder (Stephen) of Budapest was sent to convert the Hungarians from Paganism to Christianity; they locked him in a wood box filled with nails and threw him off the highest hill of the Buda side. Stephen's legacy of converters were more successful and experienced less brutal deaths than him, I imagine.
St. Stephen Basilica (96m high)

From the flat Pest side, we crossed the Chain Bridge over to the Buda side, more hilly with stunning views. We passed a few intricately designed buildings that were simply magnificent. The attention to detail combined with the representation of Hungary's history made this tour so very insightful.
Chain Bridge while looking at the Hapsburg Family Vacation Palace 
(The Hapsburgs were the monarchs of the Austria-Hungary Empire until after WWI)

Walking Tour Group

A block from the Chain Bridge, we began to climb the stairway to the Royal Palace, or Buda Castle. Technically a vacation home, it belonged to the Hapsburgs and is where they stayed when they came to Budapest. As impressive as the castle is, the views were even more breathtaking as I looked over the immensity of Budapest below.

Enjoying the view!

I thought this guard was a statue...until he spoke.

Entrance to Buda Castle

The backyard of the Palace

Me trying to imitate the Lion's pose - the sun was too bright to keep my eyes open for long.

From there, we arrived to our final stop: Matthias Church and the Fisherman's Bastion...simply spectacular! Our insightful guide was able to tie the history of Budapest and these building into a pretty little bow. Symbolic numbers such as 7 and 96 resurfaced and the views as the sun started to set only amazed me more as the hues and shadows slowly changed.

Fisherman's Bastion 
There are 7 towers, each one representative of the 7 founding, Hungarian tribes/migration groups

Matthias Church
Hungary is the only country in the world that produces these colorful roofs by a single company in southern Hungary.

View from the Fisherman's Bastion

Matt (Me) in front of the Matthias Church

Parliament Building
This building stands 96m high, just like the St. Stephen Basilica, to represent (1) 1896 as Hungary's year of gaining independence and (2) to show that church and government are equal.
During the Communist era, a 5m emblem was placed on the Parliament building to represent the unequal balance of power - this was quickly removed as the Soviet Union fell.

By this point, Budapest had already earned a spot in my TOP TEN of favorite cities. With two acquaintances from the tour (Dan from Wales and Ruth from Finnland), we wandered around the Fisherman's Bastion, the Matthias Church and Buda Castle before returning to the Pest side. 

Matthias Church from front

The rest of the day was quite lively - even though I was exhausted from the trip and tour. As Ruth returned to her hostel for dinner, Dan and I decided to try some real Hungarian Goulash - the trick is to find a place that spells Goulash in Hungarian, "Gulyás" (not in English to attract tourists).

I got the Goulash seasoned it with paprika (like everything else in Budapest). It provided a good kick because I put too much in the soup.


The final stop on the agenda was the Budapest nightlife, more specifically the Ruins Bars in the Jewish Quarter. It was just for a beer, but nevertheless this eclectic bar was pretty neat. Converted from an abandoned building, each corner had something unique - a dentist chair, movie theater seats, old cars, etc. Dan and I chatted in the movie section.

Szimpla Pub (Ruins Bar)

Dan and I chatted over beer and a "movie"

Saturday, May 4, 2013

After my introductory day through Budapest, I was on my own to see the rest of this incredible city. With a map and a plan (back to not-so-spontaneous Matt), I headed down the main Andrássy Avenue towards Heroes Square. The grandios buildings reminded me of the main avenues of Buenos Aires and Paris, minus the chaos. It was a beautiful day for a stroll and a meander through the main park in Budapest.
Vajdahunyad Castle, near Heroes Square

Beetle/Punch Buggy Paddleboat - you don't see those everyday.

Popular for their bath houses, this is a MUST when in Budapest. I did not come prepared with neither a towel nor swim suit. The cash deposit I would have had to pay was astronomically more than I withdrew for two days in Hungary. The glimpse I got on the inside was magnificent, but I doubt I could have truly relaxed - thinking of the other things I could be exploring, experiencing, etc. Swimming pools and saunas are nothing extraordinary to me anyways.

Entrance of the Thermal Bath House

Heroes Square

House of Terror
Originally, I thought this was a haunted house. Rather is it a Museum about the Nazi and Communist eras in Hungary. The building itself was the central office with the Soviet Union, with torture chambers and depressing jail cells. It was punch of reality that this city hides, but I shall only hope that this history does not repeat itself.

It was great and uplifting to meander down the streets that intrigued me - along this one, I found a cool Photography exhibition.

As I walked back down Andrássy Avenue, I passed by the Opera, went inside and up to the observatory deck in the St. Stephen Basilica, and slowly made my way to the Central Market Hall.
National Opera (the current one)

National Opera

Inside St. Stephen's Basilica

View from St. Stephen's Basilica

View of Budapest with the most intriguing roofs!

I tried this Hungarian specialty at the Central Market Hall - full of fruits, veggies, meats, and souvenirs for tourists.
Lángos - "frisbee-size flat salty dough with cheese, sour cream, and garlic juice" 
(Budapest Free Walking Tours Survival Guide)

Central Market Hall

Hungarian Flag

In my final few hours in Budapest, I really tried to soak up the views and the energy of this city that has so intrigued me through its architecture, its layout, its history, and its language. (Hungarian is considered to be the most difficult European language, and ranks 5th in the world. It is loosely related to Finnish and Estonian, but it does not have a linguistic relationship to the countries it borders.)
Green/Szabadság Bridge 
I think 'Green' is much easier for tourists to pronounce. I still don't know how the Hungarians contort their mouths and speaking muscles to produce such sounds!

View of the White Bridge, or Erzsébet Bridge

Budapest's Liberty Statue

500 Florins = ~$2 USD

Flower-shaped ice cream - a pleasant treat before my trip back to Vienna.

In the evening, I had to bid farewell to this hidden gem of Eastern Europe. I am so glad to have made it to Hungary (and even more grateful for such good weather!), and I would recommend it to anyone in a heartbeat. Budapest is culturally and historically intriguing, inexpensive, diverse, and filled with that "WOW" factor! I did my best to enjoy every moment of this adventure - I loved it so much, this first impression of Eastern Europe is one that I won't forget. Certainly a must for anyone that's Hungary from the travel bug (hahahah...very funny, Matt).

This adventure goes on, as there is one more country up my sleeve, before I return to Germany.

Bis dann,