Tuesday, September 8, 2009

2009 Travel Log: Budapest and Vienna

Or adventures with a GPS.

This vacation started with a promising vow: to finish our packing the weekend before our departure. It’s true we managed to gather everything on Saturday and send the clothes that needed cleaning to the washing machine, but somehow from there to actually make it into the suitcases on Friday at midnight we were still packing.

The difference from our previous vacations abroad was that this time it wasn’t just the four of us, we were travelling with my cousin’s family, two adults and two kids my brother’s age. To make the writing easier from now on my cousin=MC, her husband=CH, her son=CS, her daughter=CD, and little brother=LB. As usual no real names will be used. Let’s get on with the story…

Saturday, 22th of August

- our plan to start the journey as early as possible didn’t quite work; at 9:30 the boys were still in the parking lot cleaning out the car and washing the windows.

- at about 10 AM we were just about ready to leave.

- I had copied and printed routes for us to follow for the entire circuit and brought the papers with us but no one cared to look over them.

- after weeks of discussions and consultations with friends regarding the matter of acquiring a good but not too expensive GPS, they had settled for borrowing one from a friend. The last moment they had realized the charger inside the car wasn’t working and had to take it back to the garage, after just bringing it out, but that’s a small detail.

- so they had a new toy and were eager to use it. I don’t know what setting they chose, but it became obvious it was a different route than the one we had talked about at home. I didn’t say anything, I let them have their fun trusting Dad’s lifelong travel experience.

- we ended up following a route that went Iasi – Tg. Frumos – Pascani – Gura Humorului – Campulung Moldovenesc - Vatra Dornei – Bistrita – Dej - Zalau – Alesd – Oradea.

- I was familiar with the scenery up to Vatra Dornei as I had stayed at “Casa Alba” there for a weekend two years ago, and froze to death in the middle of the summer.

- lovely landscape, nice to visit but not to actually live there, not for me anyway.

- landscape still pretty after Vatra Dornei though different, flatter and less green.

- Bistrita was nice, although we didn’t go as far as downtown, I liked the trees separating the two lines of the road. We saw lots of wedding processions since the wedding season had just started again, one in particular was led by a formation of bikers and LB got a kick out of it. The road was closed due to some repair work and as we were paying attention to the GPS we got lost for a bit and had to take a large detour.

- we stopped the car next to a big willow tree and took a short break to eat and rest for a bit while listening to a fishing & cooking festival on the local radio station. On the other side of the road there was an unfinished house, no painting, windows or doors, but it had a nice location. There seem to be many houses in the process of being built all over the place.

- the real adventure started between Zalau and Alesd when we entered a country road full of holes, and I mean hole next to the hole and next to another hole in a way that made them impossible to be avoided. We drove on that road for like 10 mins, hoping it wasn’t going to last long, and then it entered the forest. Imagine a mix between Twilight and Wrong Turn, shudders, and the four of us jumping inside the car like Mexican beans. We encountered a lady leading a cow and we stopped to ask if the road was that bad all the way and she said, “Yes, up to Alesd,” with a Hungarian accent. We asked how long that was and she replied, “30 kms.” So we drove all 30 kms, it took us a whole hour and later we agreed that was the point where we should have turned back and look for another road. It was getting dark and more or less joking we contemplated the possibility of getting stuck and spend the night in the woods, as we had passed by a car that had apparently broken down and all the passengers were fussing around it. We came to the conclusion that there would be no danger as no wild animals could be around, they had nothing to eat and even them had better sense than to use that stupid road. No GPS has been cursed as many times as ours, I can promise you that.

- it was completely dark when we finally arrived to Oradea, close to 10 PM. We saw nothing of the city and went straight to the boarding house where we had reserved a room.

On the Internet it was called Pensiunea Z but the locals knew it as Pensiunea Bass so we almost missed it. The room was on the ground floor as requested but the owner had forgotten to tell us there was half a flight of stairs to get to the main entrance, and we had to carry all our baggage up. The room was clean, two single beds next to each other and one bunk bed, it had a TV and its own bathroom and there was a fridge available on the corridor. The only problem was that since it had been a hot day it was suffocating inside the room, and with the windows opening towards the walls of another building it felt like there was not enough air to breathe.

- Mom collapsed with exhaustion and was good for nothing for the rest of the day, while we ate something, watched a Dolph Lundgren movie that happened to be on, and then fell asleep.

Sunday, 23th of August:

- regardless of how tired and stiff we still felt, we were able to enjoy the hot water in the morning and eat some pastry from the shop next door.

- at 9 AM we manage to load the car and leave and soon we made it to the Hungarian border.

- as soon as we crossed the border it started to rain and it didn’t stop until we entered Budapest.

- the GPS messed up again and instead of taking us to the highway it led us through several pretty villages. One thing I liked was the way the villages spread on one side of the road and not like at home where the road passes right through the middle.

- we arrived to Budapest with half an hour delay and turned around in circles for a bit because several streets were closed for repairs and the GPS wasn’t aware of that.

- eventually we met MC & co. and arrived to our meeting point in front of the Astoria Hotel where the administrator of the apartment was waiting.

- the Diamond 2 apartment situated on Sip Utca consisted of one living room, two bedrooms, two bathrooms and a kitchen in the entrance hallway.

With only the necessary furniture existing it looked bigger than it really was, definitely big enough for our two families to live in it for three days. It was clean and fully functional, unlike the building that was very old and looked like it could fall apart any time soon. The elevator was making a dreadful noise each time the door was closing. Mom, Dad and I took one bedroom, MC and CH took the other one, and the kids were left to sleep in the living room on the couch and folding bed.

- we had a quickly fixed lunch and then we went out to explore our surroundings.

- we went on Vaci Utca, their famous pedestrian street, where MC bought a backpack for herself, then we crossed the Erszebet Bridge and went up North on the West side of the Danube.

- on the way we had to keep stopping and waiting for them to take photos, and with four cameras and one cell phone available that took some time. During one of those shooting stops CH put his wallet on the edge of the bridge and forgot it there. MC noticed it and quickly stashed it away without telling anyone. About a kilometer later we saw him jump up screaming “My wallet!” and running back. At first we didn’t quite understand what was going on, but then understood and seeing MC so calm we became suspicious. Mom was the only one agitated, insisting for them to call him back because he might have a heart attack. CH returned by himself a few seconds later caching up on our lack of agitation and everything ended up well. It was fun to watch him run away like that though.

- at the Margaret Bridge we stopped to watch the sunset and the Parliament turn pink in the last rays of sun, took lots of photos once the lights were turned on along the bridges and on the facades of the most important buildings.

- once we had enough we crossed the bridge and returned home walking on different streets.

Monday, 24th of August

- early in the morning the boys took the cars to a paid parking, apparently there’s no way to park for free in the city, or at least close to downtown.

- the day was reserved to visit the Buda part of the city.

- we started once again on Vaci Uta, until we got to the water and we crossed it on the Chains Bridge, the most famous of them all and decorated with the highest amount of lights at night.

- we debated using the cable railway to get to the castle up on the hill but decided against it, too short trip for that price, so we followed the stone paved alley instead.

- at the top we took a tour around Buda Castle. Being Monday just one of the museums was open and the ones that interested us were closed.

- we saw a small traditional work exhibition, liked the colorful knitted table pieces.

- on to St. Mathias’ church: the façade was covered being under repair, and the interior I found to be too busy with that mosque-like pattern.

- the Fishermen Bastion we saw only from the ground, then we passed by Hilton Hotel and the Military Museum on our way back.

- return to the Danube on Batthyany Utca with a stop to buy a varied selection of cakes.

- we ate them in the square in front of St. Anna’s church.

- St. Anna’s church made a good impression on me with the green painted walls, gold decorations and little painting compared to the over-crowded St. Mathias.

- stop at the supermarket next to the church for a bathroom visit. It was the first and the last time we paid to use a toilet.

- since it was still early we crossed the bridge to visit Margrit Island. It’s like a huge park, with flowers, trees, a singing fountain, sport complexes, ruins, a memorial, a zoo, hotels, etc. I loved the trees, the fresh air and peaceful feeling. We made it up to the two hotels before it started to get dark and we had to go back. Later, reading the tourist guide we realized we missed the rose garden and the Japanese garden at least.

- our walk home passed by the Parliament, the back part looks very dirty and old, the Hungarian television and the theatre.

Tuesday, 25th of August

- we started in the morning with St. Stephen’s church; big and impressive, what I found disconcerting was the fact that the interior looked somehow too polished, like it was brand new, not something I’m used to find in churches. I loved the gold plated chandeliers.

- followed Andressy Ut to get to Central Park.

- in the Heroes Square we entered the Museum of Fine Arts.

and spent most part of the afternoon there, up to the closing time actually. Mom and I moved faster and succeeded to see all the exhibitions, unlike the others. I discovered I quite liked Turner’s work. I’m not happy with their policy of closing the museums and most stores at 6 PM, more time would be better. It was nice to be able to go to the bathroom for free though.

- while Mom and MC went to the baths in the park for an hour, the rest of us took photos in the Heroes Square and then waited on the border of a pond watching the ducks because LB had injured his legs and had difficulty walking.

- return home on a different route.

Wednesday, 26th of August

- LB was still injured so he stayed home.

- we went to see the market; it looked smaller than the one in Barcelona, only that it had an extra floor with clothes and other stuff upstairs; met two Romanians working there.

- the Synagogue was close and we went to visit that one too. A Romanian girl was at the info booth. I liked the cozy feeling of the interior, and the light bulbs, it gave me the impression of a restaurant/party hall.

- at this point we split, MC & co. went to visit the Parliament (it was closed) and look for catacombs, which no one was able to tell them where to find, so they returned to the apartment and played cards with LB. He’d spent the time sleeping, looking after the cute next door neighbor, and playing on the Internet. When I had booked the apartment I hadn’t asked for Internet access, but he’d been able to connect to a wireless network in the building so he was happy.

- meanwhile we were checking every sport store we could find looking for sport pants for him to help with his injury. It soon became clear that we needed a big department store so we headed for the West End mall next to the train station, quite a bit of a walk. It was a big mall, and the prices were big too, but at least we found what we needed and after touring fast the ground floor and first floor, towards evening we made it home with Hungarian beer and sausages. MC had brought ice cream and we had a feast.

- general conclusions after the first part of our trip: Budapest is a beautiful city, there are a lot of old buildings, many of them needing renovating. Many bicycles, and also many cigarette smokers. We learned a few Hungarian words: korut=boulevard, utca=street, ut=passage/path, ter=square, bejarat=entrance, zarva=closed, kiado=for rent, elado=for sale. LB started to speak with a Hungarian accent and said an “o istenem!” (oh my God) every other few words.

Thursday, 27th of August

- at MC’s suggestion we stopped in Eisenstadt on the way to Vienna. We had to delay our meeting with the guy from the agency that rented us the apartment, but it was well worth it.

- in Eisenstadt we visited Esterhazy Castle, a place where Haydn worked and lived and therefore aside from the actual castle, lovely concert room, there was also a Haydn exhibition.

- MC & co. stayed a little longer, but we had to run and get the key before the office closed at 4 PM.

- a couple of more phone calls later we made it to the agency’s office, this time the GPS took us straight to the destination with no mistakes, and we had it all solved in no time.

- the apartment was in a different district so we had to drive a bit longer to get there. We parked the car right in front of the building, hurried to take our luggage upstairs, and then the boys went to look for a place to park as we had been warned the parking situation was even worse than in Budapest and without a parking ticket you could easily get a fine.

- apartment Oper had one bedroom which we immediately took over, and one large living room separated from the kitchen by a bar.

- while waiting for them to return we unpacked and prepared lunch, found Mom’s red top that miraculously kept disappearing, and then waited some more.

- when we started to worry and called them they had been touring the entire district and the only parking they had been able to find cost them 35 EUR per day. Outrageous!

- usually while I’m on vacation I don’t touch the PC, but this time I had to make an exception. The apartment came with free Internet access and since Dad had brought his laptop I spent the rest of the afternoon and evening looking for affordable parking places.

- in the evening they took the list I had made and the GPS, retrieved the car and went to check the parking places I had found. I stayed at the apartment armed with the phone and laptop and ready to give them more directions if needed. They returned with the metro after midnight, having left the car in a parking with 3 EUR per day in another district.

- we lost half a day of Vienna sightseeing.

Friday, 28th of August

- Mom and I congratulated ourselves for choosing the bedroom to sleep in. The living room was facing a busy street and when the window was open the noise was very loud, plus the heating system was beeping every half an hour. To compensate, the mattress in our room was not that great and it was too hot under the cover.

- we discovered just how long it took us to get from Wahringer to downtown: 45 mins. A bit too much considering that we aren’t early risers and we had to walk the same way in the evening to get home, but that’s the disadvantage of a cheaper apartment.

- our way passed by Volksopera.

- walk on Graben and to St. Stephan’s cathedral. MC & co. were already there and we met in Stephanplatz. We walked around St. Stephan’s but didn’t enter. The cathedral was nice, with a façade decorated with lots of sculpting work, and part of it was in badly need of renovation, which was being done, part of the tower being covered. Carriages pulled by horses were waiting on one side of the square and the smell of horse manure was overpowering.

- we discussed what to see next, we hadn’t made a schedule in advance, and agreed to go to Belvedere Castle.

- apparently they weren’t that used to walking so we had to take the metro to get there. Given that my only term to comparing it to was the one in Athens I can say I really liked it. And I loved the elevators.

- hot day, but I was the only one not complaining as I was wearing sunscreen. I have a tendency to get sunburns on my face and arms while on vacation and spending the entire day outside walking on the street, and this time for a change I didn’t forget to bring sunscreen.

- we did it a little backward and stopped at the souvenir shop before entering the castle. I liked a set of liqueur glasses painted with Klimt’s ladies on them. We were going to discover that Klimt’s work, and especially The Kiss, were featured just about everywhere. We wondered if they had it printed on toilette paper too.

- it was very amusing when the lady selling tickets asked how old I was and before I could speak Mom hurried and said 18 so we got a family ticket, which was cheaper.

- I loved Belvedere, though we only visited the upper part and the garden. I especially liked a Delacroix painting, although I’m not usually into flower paintings, and of course Klimt’s famous Kiss whose reproduction I have on the wall in the living room at home.

- stop at the Russian Heroism Memorial, it reminded me a little of the Heroes Square in Budapest, and a short rest on the bench to admire the fountain.

- passed by the French Embassy on the way to Karlskirche where we took the elevator to the top platform to get a panoramic view.

- from there we continued along the Ring and saw the Opera, the Parliament, the Rathaus (City Hall), and Burgtheater.

- the kids were getting hungry by then and since there was a food festival in front of the Rathaus they went to look for Viennese sausages because CD insisted she wanted some. They returned very disappointed reporting there was all kind of food one could imagine except for sausages. LB decided to pass on the food when he saw the prices estimating he could buy three kebabs for the same amount of money.

- so we stopped at a Billa supermarket and bought some sandwiches that we ate on a bench before going to St. Peter’s church to listen to an organ concert. The kids fell promptly asleep and the adults weren’t far from that either. We could only withstand it for half an hour before getting out. I can honestly say my ears don’t agree with such kind of music.

- MC wanted to go to Prater to the fairground and try the big wheel and they took LB with them.

- we walked on Graben and adjacent streets some more and then we started the long walk home. I liked the way the problem of stairs and ramps was solved on a steep street that was permanently closed to traffic.

Saturday, 29th of August

- as predicted it rained all morning and then random raindrops kept falling during the rest of the day.

- we slept in late and left the house shortly after noon when the rain seemed to have stopped. It was cold so I got the chance to wear my new red jacket I had bought just before leaving on vacation.

- tired after the previous day’s experience, we decided it would have been a shame not to take advantage of the metro given that there was a station right in front of our building.

- first a stop at the tourist information center in Albertinaplatz. We left with about a kilo of flyers that we never found the time to check. Then we entered a souvenirs shop and a perfume store when the rain allowed it.

- MC & co. were already at the Technisches Museum (it was close to their hotel), but we went to the MAK – Museum of Applied Arts. The website claimed the admission was free on Saturday and it didn’t lie.

- lots of interesting things, I particularly liked the chair exhibition.

- we stayed until closing time and by then the rain had stopped and the sky was beginning to clear up.

- MC suggested to go with them to Mariahilfer Strasse and then called right back to tell us all the stores were already closed and there was no point in going there.

- we walked some in the inner district, but technical difficulties forced us to retire early before dark.

- MC & co. came to visit us in the evening and although Mom had prepared dinner for everyone they had already eaten. The ice cream was from the Billa across the street and it was horrible.

Sunday, 30th of August

- fixed the problem in the morning.

- went to Kunsthistorishe Museum (Art History Museum). MC & co. were at Naturhistorishe Museum (Natural History Museum) but then came to join us.

- we started the tour the wrong way so we saw the Roman and Greek collections first and then the Egyptian and Eastern collections. LB loved the sarcophagi.

- we discovered quite a big collection of Romanian medals and dishes made of massive gold. Their origin source was written with very small letters.

- of course my favorite were the paintings collections at the second floor. I loved several of them and especially Rubens.

- once again we commented on how things were better organized here than in Budapest where one could easily miss a room because it looked like a maze and there were no signs.

- the museum closed a few minutes before the scheduled time so we missed to opportunity to see the Coin Cabinet and check its bathroom. We’d figured out that since we paid for entrance anyway, we could make good use of its other facilities as well and it had worked so far.

- next we took the metro to get to the other side of the Danube, at Vienna International Center.

- it was an area full of modern building so Dad was in heaven snapping pictures all the time.

- we went through the park, stopped at the tower, no, not to bungee jump but for them to see the city from above.

- on the way out we saw the buildings again with all the lights on.

- we took the metro to the station closest to MC’s hotel where we said goodbye because they were leaving in the morning.

- at home we celebrated LB’s name anniversary.

Monday, 31st of August

- because MC had already seen it during a previous visit to Vienna, we had reserved this day for Schonbrunn Palace.

- it was a different experience, in the sense that this time we didn’t get to see just art objects but full rooms preserved the way they were at the time when they were used by the inhabitants of the palace, Sisi, Maria-Therese, Napoleon, etc. We got tickets for the big tour and that meant a total of 40 rooms. I absolutely loved it.

- when we were done, Dad went by himself to take photos in a different district and we stayed to see the rest of that attractions.

- we took LB to the carriage museum and then through the park to the Zoo where we agreed to meet outside in half an hour.

- meantime Mom insisted for us to go up the hill and see the Glorietta. That was a hell of a walk.

- an hour and a half later LB still hadn’t showed up and Mom was beginning to panic. The zoo was much bigger than we had expected and there were two other exits she feared he might have used if he’d been his distracted self. We had no means to contact him, he’d taken Mom’s phone to take photos of the animals, so we had to page him through the zoo’s announcing system, twice. We saw many Romanians while waiting there.

- it was too late to go to Mariahilfer Strasse like we had initially intended so we had to make other plans.

- Dad came back and together we went to see The Hundertwasser House and Kunst House. I liked the first one better, it must have looked darn well in its glory days. The second one came out better in the pictures so maybe it was a light problem as it was getting dark.

- walk to the Danube, ate some pizza and then a longer walk downtown, including entering St. Stephan’s Cathedral. I was disappointed by the absence of paintings on the walls and ceiling and I lost interest to visit it during the day. We spotted a Swarovski store and put it on the list for the following day.

- late walk along the Ring to see the lit up buildings, Opera, The Parliament, and especially the Rathaus, which looked like a Christmas tree.

Tuesday, 1st of September

- there was one last museum on my list and I insisted to go see it.

- Dad walked us to the Hofburg, there was some sort of festival in the main yard, but he didn’t enter, he went to take photos somewhere else.

- inside we saw the Silver Collection, tons of dishes, glasses, cutlery, and candle holders, the Sisi Museum, and the Imperial apartments, about a dozen of rooms not as rich as in Schonbrunn.

- we took LB to visit Natural History Museum but it was closed. Ironically, we’d had a huge argument in the morning regarding who was going to take which phone so the baby wouldn’t pull another zoo.

- from there we went on Kartner Strasse to the Swarovski store where I got myself a “sparkle ring”. When it sparkled into the light it reminded me of the sculptures at the top of the buildings and I thought it would be a nice souvenir from Vienna. LB didn’t agree. I also liked some flowers with metal stem but those were too damn expensive. Mom was into butterflies, grrr.

- we finally made it to Mariahilfer Strasse where we finished our shopping for the friends at home and later met with Dad and walked some more.

- evening walk downtown, passed through Hofburg and one last look at the Opera before retiring for the night.

- regrets: we didn’t see a market and Musikverein, we didn’t enter the Opera, we wasted too much time in the morning before going out, with the metro and because of the rain.

- Vienna conclusions: I liked it better than Budapest, wish we had more days to visit or just walk in the streets. The metro is a tricky thing, while easy and convenient to use it eats up the time when you could be out there seeing things. I liked the buildings and the way they protected the sculptures at the top with nets to keep the birds away.

Wednesday, 2nd of September

- we packed our bags, the boys went to get the car and we made it out of the apartment before the cleaning lady arrived. That would be noon. I swear we’re not lazy, it must be a chemical unbalance or something.

- this time we chose the highway, although Dad and LB wanted to see more villages.

- rather boring, not mentioning hot, but such good roads!

- it all went well until the GPS messed up again. We were approaching Debrecen in Hungary and had been instructed to go straight ahead for another 30 km or so when M3 split into M3 and M35. Normally we stayed on M3 only to find ourselves driving on a road that didn’t even exist on the GPS’s map. We had to drive for another fifteen minutes to find an exit and then Dad and LB got their wish as we had to pass through several villages to get to the proper road.

- at the border we had to show our IDs, funny how only the Romanians asked that.

- it was dark when we entered Oradea, but Mom felt in the mood for cakes so we went downtown to look for a store still open. We found none.

- back to the pension Z, to the same room and the same sheets. Someone must really like those yellow sheets with blue and red roses.

- the shop next door was open and we did have some pastry for dessert.

- we concluded the night with yet another, bad, Dolph Lundgren movie.

Thursday, 3rd of September

- we weren’t about to trust the GPS with the Romanian roads after the last experience and we chose our own route, the one I had printed in preparation for our vacation.

- before leaving we took a ride around downtown to have an idea about how Oradea looks like. The Hungarian and Austrian influences can still be seen in the buildings’ looks.

- the road to Cluj was packed and we were missing the highway already.

- in Cluj we did the same thing and toured the center of the city. Not bad, similar to Oradea only at a bigger scale, but it wasn’t what I expected and I can’t say I liked it much.

- more busy traffic once we left, and dry landscape, up until close to Reghin.

- Reghin is a cute little town that I liked a lot. Mom got out and bought wonderful cakes from “The Snowdrop” pastry shop.

- outside of town we made a stop to eat.

- the rest of the drive, Toplita – Tg. Neamt – Pascani – Iasi, was pleasant enough, road less crowded, pavement not too bad, refreshing mountain scenery, in spite of all the twist and turns.

- it was fun to watch the moon rest on top of a mountain or fall abruptly behind.

- when we passed through Vanatori we thought about a friend whose family lived there. The castle was lit in the distance but we didn’t see much of it.

- at 10 PM we were arriving home with no speeding tickets, yay! No disasters were waiting for us, just the cat and she was less stressed than the other times when we had been away. Oh, I almost forgot, there was also cooked food left by the friend who had taken care of the cat and the house in our absence.

Final conclusion: this trip was a success, longer and less tiring than others, even with the days wasted in the car. We are seriously considering doing it again.

Next year… maybe Prague.

See you!


Mireille said...

I like that ring toooooo :)

Weird Vision said...