Monday, March 23, 2009
In many ways it way just as I imagined: winding canals, a slightly disturbing obsession with cheese and giant Dutchmen and women on a murderous mission to flatten unassuming stoned tourists with their bicycles.
Throw in Anne Frank's old house and Eastern European prostitutes beckoning from windows and you're almost there. Almost, but not quite.
The three of us took the 6am flight Dublin to Amsterdam, arriving in time for a sausage and chips breakfast and a wander around the city centre, jumping from shop to shop to avoid the misty rain.
3 days was a nice amount of time to see all the main sites while still having time to get lost in the cobbled streets and many canals. We checked out the Amsterdam Dungeon, Anne Frank's House, The Sex Museum and some bars and coffeeshops in between. The Van Gogh museum was a definite highlight, with an impressively large collection of his paintings.
The Red Light District was a bizzare experience, and, during the day time, more disturbing than I imagined. I was expecting a few windows with prostitutes, mainly for intoxicated tourists, but it was a much larger and more efficient operation which was operating in full swing at lunchtime on a Sunday. We were warned not to take photos, with stories of the large, rather well aged sex workers beating culprits with sex toys successfully putting us off.
It's a pricey place, with a 1/2 litre (the 'extra large' size in Dutch terms) glass of beer setting you back €5, with very little variety in beer types. The museums will all cost you, and the hostels aren't cheap.
In a city with otherwise quite bland food, the hot dogs deserve an honourable mention, with one of the largest topping selections I have ever seen including many sauces, pickles, fresh vegetables and crisps.
It's a strange mix of the pretty, quaint and colourful with a seedy side. It's somehow laid back and buzzing at the same time, and is full of alternative little boutiques and markets selling tulips, vinyls, cheese, quirky clothing and garage junk.
It was a beautifully sunny final day in the city, and as we had seen the main sites we spent it wandering around and somehow wishing we could stay longer to do very little. It's easy to see how people get stuck there, throwing in their clean hair and jeans for hemp pants and dreadlocks. It was time to leave...
Sunday, March 08, 2009
After a long day at work, a 1 hour bus ride to the airport, the Dublin- Gatwick flight, a train then a tube ride later I was finally in London. It was near midnight by the time we got a long dreamed-of curry in Soho then back to Acton.
I had seen most of the tourist sites on my last visit to London, so it was great to just wander around on Saturday.We also had a fantastic lunch with a view from the Oxo tower. Saturday night was the party at the Proud Bar & Gallery in Camden, with live band a horse stable rooms, and it was great to meet all of Sam's friends, most of which he had met traveling in random places around the world, and who had come from across Europe for the party.
Sunday was a day of more great food and markets. Brick Lane was the highlight, with it's long line of Indian restaurants and markets. We also made it to Speakers corner, where an eclectic mix of the eccentric and insane united to reveal to London their secrets to the meaning of life. Suffice to say, I didn't become a fundamentalist Christian, British nationalist or free-hugs hippie, although I did ponder the idea of taking to the soap box myself and seeing if anyone would join my self-invented cult, which I am still working on.
London's a world in a city and I'm looking forward to living there. As long as I never become one of those Kiwi/Australian/Canadians who spend their nights at the Australian chain bars, getting nostalgic over Pineapple Lumps and Vegemite...
Friday, March 06, 2009
What stands out most about Hungary is its hospitality, with the beautifully cheesy irony that you will never be hungry in Hungary (Contrary to local claims that ‘hungry-Hungary’ jokes are overused and not amusing, it is quite clear that they are=) ). From the moment I arrived I was fed food and endless shots of homemade palinka (a strong brandy made from fruits, similar to schnapps).
I was thoroughly educated in the benefits of palinka, as related to me by my friend’s parents: a shot to prepare for the meal; a shot to compliment the meal; a shot to finish the meal; a shot to help the digestion; a shot to aid sleep; a shot to warm one up; and, my all time favourite, the breakfast shot, to wake one up. It’s good for your health, apparently. I also got to try some interesting dishes, all good: rabbit stew with macaroni and sour cream; the strangely addictive duck fat on bread with salt and spicy paprika powder; and, of course, Goulash.
From Tata we took a trip to the very Soviet looking Tatabanya, a town dominated by grey apartment blocks. It boasts a brilliant giant bird statue though, which looks out over the town.
On the way to Budapest, we took a road trip along the Danube to some towns well worth visiting:
Ezstergom- Ezstergom, the very beautiful former capital and one of the oldest towns in Hungary. Ezstergom has a fascinating history based on its many battles and invasions, and has a stunning basilica (the largest in Hungary).
Visegrad- most famous for its ancient hill-top castle, the remnants of the summer palace of King Matthias. Thankfully not a taxing climb to the top, which gives a stunning view over the Danube.
Szentendre- is a very pretty and arty barqoue town close to Budapest.
I arrived in Budapest on New Year’s Eve. Budapest is a top city, and I was lucky enough to see it with locals. The two sides of the city, Buda and Pest, are split by the Danube river. It’s a city packed with history, culture and nightlife. It’s also very cheap by European standards. New Year’s Eve began with a trip to the horse races, and ended with a house party. I was given a ghetto tour the next day, to see the ‘underside of Budapest’. With endless grey apartment blocks and the overwhelming presence of dog faeces, I almost felt like I was in North Dublin.
Highlights; the cellar dive bars, Hungary’s version of a Wild West saloon; general wanderings around the city, taking in the architecture, parks, castles and giant outdoor skating rink; paprika.
I left Budapest bruised, exhausted and with the longest running hangover of my life, but it was worth it.
Many thanks to all my hosts in Hungary, I’ll be back =)
Wednesday, March 04, 2009
After returning from the Baltic, my next stop was Gothenburg, Sweden's second biggest city.
It was great to catch up with my friend Lotta and to meet her boyfriend, Daniel. They were perfect hosts. Gothenburg (Göteborg) is a cosy, pretty city with canals winding through. I had a great time shopping, bar hopping and reviving my Swedish again. And I can't forget the Swedish hot dog: korv med mos, which is a hot dog with or without the bun with mashed potato and special Swedish spice. Definitely in my top 3 World Hot Dog list. (Guatemala is still #1.)
I spent Christmas with my niece and family in Dresden. It was great to see them all again, and to visit Dresden. Dresden is a breathtaking city, with a sufficiently alternative other side to make it artsy, edgy and interesting as well as beautiful. And I finally lived my dream of ice skating outside =) Christmas was a lovely time to be there, with its holiday markets, gluwein and roast goose.
Brno, Czech Republic
I took the train from Dresden- Brno. Since I've been to Prague, I wanted to see something else of the Czech republic, and I'm glad I did. Apart from a couple of Germans, I think I was the only tourist in the town. I have consistently found that the second cities are always worth seeing as they are usually cheaper, friendlier and somehow more 'real'. I saw the city on foot, wandering its cobbled streets, visiting the castle, churches and shops. The highlight was trying to order at the local Chinese restaurant, where they spoke mostly Mandarin, a little Czech and about 3 words of English. My body language was so appalling that it took about 3 minutes to ask for rice (although I have yet to come up with a successful 'rice' sign).
Vienna is beautiful, but expensive. It's a grand city, with stunning architecture and packed with culture. I didn't spend long enough here to get a real feel of the city past the endless Mozart paraphernalia.
I tried to see as much as I could by foot, ducking into cafe after cafe to prevent hypothermia. The market was a highlight.
Part III: Hungary.... coming soon
Tuesday, March 03, 2009
It's been a crazy few months since September... starting with a Baltic trip to Latvia and Estonia... then Gothenburg, Sweden for a friend's birthday... Christmas in Dresden with my niece + her family... Brno (Czech Rep) for the hell of it... onto Vienna for Mozart and schnitzel...then a very full time Hungary for the New Year, finishing up with London last weekend for Sam's 30th.
Here's a quick rundown of some images, thoughts and observations of it all, beginning with the Baltic. I took this trip at the end of October with 4 Hungarians and an endless supply of vodka. We rented a car and took in the sights of the region.
All roads lead back to Riga: this odd city was the start and end point of the trip, and unfortunately we didn't have time to see much else of Latvia than Riga. However, it's a city worth visiting for its art-nouveau architecture, dumpling buffets, Russian market and cheap vodka. The only place I have been when the hostels advertise tours to fire rocket launchers in World War 2 bunkers. Ethnic conflict between the Russians and Latvians is still rather raw, in a country which has suffered so many occupations they even have a museum dedicated to it. Downsides: its popularity as a stag party town. And Black Balsam, a horifficly bitter tar-like liquor, invented by Latvians to torture tourists. Pure evil.
The majority of the trip was spend in Estonia and included:
* Parnu- a Baltic sea esort town in Western Estonia. We only spent one night here and the weather was incredibly bad, but it's supposed to be beautiful in summer. My addiction to metal-tubed Baltic mustard began here.
* Tallinn. It was my second time in Tallinn and it was as beautiful as the first time. Built on the banks of the Gulf of Finland, it is one of the prettiest cities I have been, with cobbled streets, stunning Russian Orthodox cathedrals. The hometown of Patsy the stuffed Dutch cat and Vana Tallinn (the sweeter and better Baltic rival to Black Balsam). Also home to the worst hot dog I have tasted in my life: soggy bun, cucumber and mayonaise! My coat still bears the scars.
* Paldiski. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paldiski .... One of the most bizarre towns I have visited. A former Soviet submarine base, it was nicknamed the 'Soviet Pentagon' as it was the most important nuclear facility in the Soviet Union. So important that the whole town was sealed off until 1994. Driving through the town is an eerie experience. Many crumbling relics of the Soviet past remain, grey and decaying. The town has little else than a pizza restaurant and more grey Soviet apartment blocks. The town has starred in 2 of my favourite movies- Lilja 4 ever and Tarsk pa Tallinn.
* Narva. Narva lies right on the Estonia-Russia border, and it's population is almost 95% Russian speaking. Most of the signs are in Russian and the supermarkets sell vodka by the crate. Narva's castle is mirrored across the river (the border) on the Russian side by another castle. Worth checking out, if only for the giant Lenin statue.
We found a hostel in the nearby Narva- Joesuu, where we enjoyed a 3am sauna, Estonian style.
* Tartu. Estonia's famed university town, and the second largest city in the country. A very pretty, quaint town, with a fantastic hostel, Hostel Terviseks! It also houses the toy museum (better than it sounds) and the KGB cells museum, where you can track the history of occupation in Estonia. Tartu was definately a highlight of the trip.
Verdict: The Baltic is beautiful and bizarre all at once. I would like to see it again in summertime.