Archive for September, 2010

Tom’s European Vacation (Part 6): Bucharest

September 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Arriving at Gara De Nord the first thing one notices is that we’re back in Latin Land! Yes, after my baffled head scratching and sign language in previous countries since Belgium I’m in a land where ‘Gara de Nord’ is clearly understandable to me. Phew!

That, unfortunately, was where the similarity ended. Actually, that’s not entirely true. The written word is very similar, seemingly a strange mix of French, Italian and Spanish. TheDSC01999 spoken word might be too if you’re not quietly falling in love with the girl who’s serving you food in MacDonalds. OK, ok, I admit it – I had a MacDonalds in Romania, in the station – I was hungry.

Now, Bucharest is a funny old place, there’s not much one can say about it other than the fact that it’s Grand – in a proper Yorkshire type way. The streets are grand, the buildings are grand. Everything, in the parlance of a southerner is big.

It would be wonderful if I could tell you that I started to integrate into society and get a feel DSC01998

for the way of ‘Romania’ – but in all honesty it just seemed strangely closed. As if everyone had their own private business to get on with and I wasn’t that welcome.

(To the left is a photo of The Peoples Palace built by the self confessed ‘Genius of the Carpathians’, Nicolae Ceausescu – the dictator of Romania until circa Christmas day 1989 when they shot him. I say it was built by him, rather, it was built by the people whilst they starved as a consequence of the build project. So big I couldn’t fit it all in.)

Using my trustee Europe on a shoe-string manual I sought refuge in an Irish bar to see if I DSC02002could find someone who might enlighten me as to how things work in Romania.

Many beers were had and much fun – although I didn’t learn too much other than the Irish can drink as well in Romania as they can in any other part of the world! Oh, and Romanian girls are gorgeous – at least the ones I saw. How I got back to the hotel that night is still a bit of a blur, but I made it all the same.

Strangest moment – receiving a phone call from an agent offering me work. When asked, ‘Is it a good time to talk’ – i.e. are you at a customer site, I had to reply, “No, actually I’m in Bucharest”. Silence & much confusion.


Tom’s European Vacation (Part 5): Budapest, Hungary

September 30, 2010 Leave a comment

OK, I admit it – I needed to say Budapest, HUNGARY in the title as for some inexplicable reason I thought my next stop was Romania – which would be foolhardy as it would require me to navigate my way across Hungary in the first place. Fortunately for me the train knew where it was headed and I needn’t have been that concerned about getting lost.

Map picture

VERY IMPORTANT: Two things that most travellers should avoid – first: protest marches, second: arriving in a strange town in the middle of the night without having booked accommodation. For my next trick I will now describe how I managed to experience both simultaneously.DSC01962

I’m not entirely sure at exactly what time I arrived in Budapest – my mind was pre-occupied with more serious matters, such as, “What are the full lyrics to that song in My Fair Lady with the word Budapest in it”. So, whilst mindlessly singing along to myself a la boy out of ‘About a Boy’, I grabbed a tram over to some darkened street somewhere on the west side of the Danube (seen that thing three times now, Vienna and Bratislava, I’m sure it’s following me) and eventually, after some map consultation, came to the conclusion that the closed unlit door with no answer was the hostel I had in mind to stay at. Bugger. I checked with a couple of shady looking locals nearby, who confirmed absolutely nothing other than the fact that Hungarian lessons should have been sought before the trip. Double bugger.

Needless to say it was about 11:30pm that I eventually found an internet cafe in which I could sit and research which hotel I might like to stay in. Four star at least – I was not in a good mood. Damn that My Fair Lady song.DSC01960

The following day the mists of confusion cleared and I booked myself into a rather famous resort that I had seen on the telly. Yes, Michael Palin had stayed here – I was, surely, in good company. So in true Palinesque style I give you the hotel blurb (sorry Michael, it was a cheap shot): Built in wonderful Art Nouveau-style and opened in 1918, the impressive Gellért hotel shares the building with the world-famous Gellért Spa, which is accessible for free.

And indeed it was free – fortunately for me there was even a way to get from my room to the spa without going outside (thus allowing one to move between the two in a robe). I, like Michael, experienced the thrill of travelling in a tiny elevator with an ‘assistant’ at the ‘controls’ and simply having no idea what sort of conversation one should make. Best keep quiet.

Subsequently I blew all the money I had saved on the spa treatment immediately afterwards in the cafe. Brandy, cakes and tea were had before venturing out to see the world.

DSC01981There’s an awful lot to see in Budapest and I was a lone traveller on foot – so I set out to cover as much as I could and to see where my feet would take me.

I briefly visited the House of Terror Museum (see image to left). This house was used by both the communist and Nazi regimes as a place of torture. Within is documented some of the more disconcerting goings on during the occupation of these regimes within Hungary. You can see on the outside of the building (pictured left) candles along the ledge – above each is a small photograph of an ‘enemy of the state’ who either died in No 60 Andrássy Street or went missing after a dawn arrest.DSC01988

Further down the same street is the Heroes’ Square (beautifully pictured to the right, if I could be so immodest for a moment). On either side of it the Museum of Fine Arts and the Palace of Arts – neither of which I could get into as it was already dark.  …and yes, I’m sure they do have electric lighting – by ‘dark’ I intended you to infer that they were closed already.

The heroes in this instance are the ‘tribal chiefs’ (who led the Magyars to conquest the Carpathian Basin – see more here – History of Budapest).

In fact there’s so much to see in Budapest (opera houses, beautiful parks, churches, Buda Castle/Palace in the top picture – oh and click any photo to see more, cave systems, a total of 80 geothermal springs <BREATHE>, the world’s largest thermal water cave system, four world heritage sites and it is, apparently, the 7th most idyllic European place to live) that I simply haven’t got the inclination to bore you with all the detail – suffice to say, I should have bought a flat there and moved.

DSC01958Oh yes, the protest march – it was a Monday (if I recall correctly) and, as I walked aimlessly down the streets that morning wondering why there was no traffic, no public transport and no people, I was suddenly met by a very orderly group of people coming the other way. I started to wonder if I had any distinguishing features to suggest that my opposing movement was simply a geographical one and not a political one. Thankfully everyone smiled and nodded at me as they went about their business (whatever it was) and as quickly as they had appeared they vanished up a side street (all several hundred of them) and were gone. Most odd – I felt quite alone after that.

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Tom’s European Vacation (Part 4): Bratislava

September 30, 2010 Leave a comment

Well I was bored with Vienna so decided one morning to explain to my hostelry that I felt it was time to move on – ‘there’s so little to do’, I commented and was given a stern look.

The bus station somewhere in the ‘East End’ of Vienna advertised journeys to Bratislava, Slovakia – well, why not, I thought. It seemed pointless not to give it a go and I had overdosed on culture already so was looking for something a little less refined. Not that Bratislava is a little less refined, it was the deserted state of the bus depot with it’s deserted DSC01950and seemingly pointless underground caverns, shady characters and tumbleweed newspapers that started me thinking I was in for something ‘different’. Vienna to Bratislava by bus a route so rarely taken that the buses themselves had deserted the station and setup shop in a nearby car park with a port-a-cabin for an office.

So, blending in with others who were taking the route, I did my best to look dishevelled and pissed off with my situation – I knew those Theatre Studies days would come in handy. I looked surprised at how costly the journey was (others had already complained) – I think it was around three euros or so. I dug out some chewing gum and sat staring at the floor of theDSC01937 port-a-cabin for an hour or so whilst the bus driver went to get himself some lunch before the return journey.

Eventually we were on our way – it felt like a school trip, zipping past scenery I had never seen before and so many wind farms you just wouldn’t believe. Eventually we arrived in Bratislava. The place was packed as can be seen by the picture opposite. Man handling the crowds in front of me I battled my way to the main square.

It was truly deserted. Even the pigeons were unsure about landing. I started imagining that I was being DSC01938loured into a cunning trap, or that the child catcher would appear at any moment and remind me that I was already in my thirties and there was really nothing to worry about on his score.

The cafes were delightful, the buildings were gorgeous (in the old town) and the strange bronze sculpted men that appeared out of various man holes were an amusing curiosity for the few tourists that happened upon them.

There’s a stronghold of some sort over looking the city with some wonderful views of the mostly low rise buildings sprawling out below. It was one of those places in which you could imagine retiring, opening a small cafe in which you would sit and read the newspaper all day long and sneer at DSC01945the odd customer if they got in the way of you doing nothing. Beautiful.

Strangely it put me in mind of the south of the Netherlands (Limburg) near Maastricht. Can’t quite put my finger on exactly why – perhaps I was simply relaxed enough there without the extreme hustle and bustle of Vienna that I had just experienced. Staying in a fine hotel (Hotel Marrol – please take a look) may have had something to do with it – tea and biscuits each morning with a paper and then a proper breakfast always makes one more amenable to new places, especially when contrasted with staying in a sweaty hostel room with six other people…


The restaurant was so good I have to confess to looking forward to going back there each evening to try something else. This place is definitely worth a visit, it was as if I was on holiday from touring for a couple of days.

Most frugal moment: negotiating for the sake of negotiation with a pleasant young man who was roasting Chestnuts. He probably thought I was insane as I tried to get my head round his pricing structure for a bag of nuts. Given that the most I was going to pay was around 60p, I’m not sure what all the fuss was about – it was nice to talk to someone though… <sniff> …how lonely I was.

Tom’s European Vacation (Part 3): Vienna

September 29, 2010 Leave a comment

A brief walk from the train brought me to the hostel of my choice – not such a good choice as itDSC01928 happened. Lovely inside but seemingly an hours walk from the centre of town – and as I was in a walking mood most mornings this is how long it took to get there…

Vienna itself? Bloody ‘bootiful’, as they say on old adverts for turkey breast. Honestly, though, as usual I only had a few days spare and wanted to take in an opera and move on – I was already hankering after something a little less European by this stage and wanted to get myself a little further South East.

I visited the Belvedere Palace to take in a bit of Gustav Klimt, The Kiss as it happened. Some old friend from years ago had expressed an interest in it, so I thought I’d see it in the flesh, as it were…  Surprisingly, despite my initial reservations (believing that naturalistic paintings would always out do any other kind) I was pleasantly surprised. It’s not bad and fairly interesting to look at for a few minutes… I’m sure many people would rugby tackle me to the ground and slap me to death shortly, but: Klimt’s work just doesn’t strike me as particularly ‘good’. Much of it is (as is pointed out by the Wiki pageLeopoldCarlMuller - MarketInCairo above) is influenced by church mosaics which lack the third dimension – lots of gold leaf (style), not that much content. Bless him, Gustav that is.

There were plenty of other paintings in there to keep me happy, however; you know – one’s that look like something real… It’s when you start to try to figure out where in the world they could still dress like that, shortly before realising that it’s a painting that you’re looking at. Of course the content has to be of interest too. This one of a Cairo Market by Leopold Carl Muller caught my eye – as did a few others. Take a look for yourself: Belvedere.

“The churches are lovely my dear”, is also something I might say to my grandchildren if I ever live that long… and the Opera was wonderful – although it was so long ago now I cannot remember which I saw! The building itself made one think one might be royalty. Which obviously one did for the evening.

I think if I was living in Vienna I’d be seeing classical music and the occasional opera weekly, the only thing I’d miss would be the beach in the summer.

Nothing particularly strange or weird to remember from this episode in my brief tour of Europe – it was Austria after all, there was ruthless efficiency all around the place. No time for jokes and japes here…

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Tom’s European Vacation (Part 2): Belgium to Vienna…

September 29, 2010 Leave a comment

After an interesting time in Paris it seemed rude not to continue on my way by train – so, with my trustee haversack on my back I set off for the Gare du Nord once more to catch a train to onward to Belgium where I had booked myself into some hostel or another (only about £15 a night). The DSC01866wonders of the internet – global travel without having to talk to anyone. (Surely not the point, I hear you say – but far more interesting to slip through without any real luggage and see how the locals treat you).

Belgium can be summed up very quickly:

  • Mussels & Beer
  • Chocolates
  • Lovely Square and back streets
  • Small boy peeing
  • …more Mussels and Beer…
    For some reason everywhere I went just looked better in sepia – as if I had gone back in time to the 40’s. Only spent a few days here – but on the whole it seemed like a pretty cool place to live. Chain stores were at a minimum and houses and bars lined streets in equal number making one feel that you really were in the midst of a town that hadn’t been planned by corporations but had organically (and at times chaotically) grown up over time.

    A couple of days here was enough for me otherwise my belly would have grown to the size of a baby elephant – onwards…  to,  hmmmm – looking at the train station destinations I was somewhat perplexed as to which way to go next. Vienna caught my eye so I tried that.

    I took a ‘sleeper’ to Vienna with my own cabin, which was decidedly comfortable, it also afforded me 4 hours to fill in Frankfurt. A bonus, a chance to see Frankfurt by night, perhaps. It was about 8pm when I arrived and I was due to leave before midnight so I grabbed some noodles, scoffed them down and was ready to explore. (By the way, Frankfurt station food is bloody good).
    Needless to say the same things apply in Frankfurt as they do in Paris – except more so. If it’s daytime when you arrive, there looks to be a lovely park a short taxi ride to the South of the station – check on Bing maps if you like. On the other hand if you just want to stretch your legs and know nothing about where you are or where you’re going, you can simply walk straight out of the station doors and across the street. You’ll find yourself in a very strange world of sex shops and bars within about two blocks of the place (pushpin in the North East). I didn’t stay long, retreating to the station in fear of being dragged into another bar (first time that’s happened). If you want details of the embarrassing conversation I had as I came to terms with the situation in which I found myself, ask me in person.

Back to the train, pronto, as they say… and onward to Vienna.

Weirdest moment: Hearing the words, “What would you like” and not knowing whether I was being offered a drink.

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Tom’s European Vacation (Part 1): Paris

September 28, 2010 Leave a comment

Years passed (or at least one did) and Europe beckoned…  By the way – for those that missed the previous posts, years didn’t just simply pass – as they often do; and I suppose they did in a way – but, to be more accurate, in this particular situation years passed between my previous exploits abroad and today – or rather the moment in which I decided to go to Europe. That was a moment – I remember it well; although not much happened at the particular moment…  perhaps I just went to a travel agent.


I was drawn to the continent – it beckoned with the long pointy part of Denmark; so I went to Paris. Nothing much grabbed my fancy at the outset; I booked a cheap hotel using the wonderful which furnished me with a seemingly very respectable hotel in the centre of Paris – a brief walk from Gare du Nord.

DSC00452Simple really – how could I go wrong, nice looking hotel near the station…  those that travel may already know the error of my ways (an error I managed to repeat all across Europe), but for those that have yet to be enlightened to the ‘raw facts’ with regard to travellers I will continue writing as the innocent that I am. So, there I was, in Paris – a brief walk, following my map printed from the website, thinking to myself:

“Travel is so easy today, one day I’m sitting at work booking a trip to Paris, the next I’m actually here…”DSC00449

The first sight I see? Obvious:

So – ok, it’s the famous Moulin Rouge nothing too worrying about that. Indeed it is still the den of inequity that it ever was – except now it’s all sanitised (I should think – I couldn’t actually afford the £80 entrance fee so continued onto my hotel). The hotel was pleasant enough and the area seemed comfortable – with restaurants and cafes strewn all over the place. Knowing, as I did, that the Basillica

was only a 10 minute walk away it seemed like I was in the heart of the tourist area…

DSC00517Which, perhaps I was. On the other hand perhaps I was close to the railway station and, therefore, not too far away from the very centre of the red light district. Having worked in Amsterdam years ago (I was a Software Engineer before you jump to any conclusions) my expectation of a red-light district is exactly that: lots and lots of red lights. A beacon to all who have lost their way, red lights and scantily clad women in windows – you know where you areDSC00497 in Amsterdam. In Paris, however, things are a little less obvious – you can just as simply walk through an old wooden doorway to find yourself in a beautifully old fashioned bar with excellent service as you can enter an establishment that seems almost to be a carbon copy except for the overly attentive female clientele – who, after some thought, you realise aren’t buying drinks.

So, in summary, even the catholic church overseeing the whole experience doesn’t stop any of it happening – but then ‘it’ isn’t illegal in France so the boundaries of right and wrong are blurred once more.

Favourite phrases: I need calcium. Must drink some more milk.

Best Memory: finally finding my hotel after I had been lost for some two or three hours in a series of streets that all looked the same. (Admittedly I relaxed for about an hour in a bar somewhere before returning, so it wasn’t quite as bad as I make out)…

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