If you missed Part I of this post, click here!
Welcome to Uncharted Territory: Eastern Europe
Bratislava, Slovakia (1 night)
Our epic European road trip continues! Leaving Vienna behind, we were hardly on the freeway for 5 minutes before we crossed the border into Slovakia. Slovakia! That’s a new one. Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, is just down the Danube River from Vienna. In fact, Vienna, Bratislava, and Budapest (Hungary) are known as the “three sisters,” all located within a couple of hours of each other on the Danube. Bratislava is appropriately referred to as the “little sister.” Our hotel in Bratislava included a “salt cave,” which is possibly the strangest room I’ve ever been in. The floor consisted of thick salts, like rocky sand, the ceiling had stalactite-like formations and sparkling lights, and lounge chairs lined the dimmed room. It was supposed to be “relaxing” and you go in with your normal clothes on. So strange. ANYway…
I have a friend from Bratislava whom I met working a couple of summers at Sunnyside in Tahoe, and we got to meet up with her. She took us to a traditional Slovakian restaurant, where we tried local food and beer. Traditional Slovakian food is, apparently, not even very popular among Slovakians, so when it wasn’t our favorite, we didn’t feel bad. It is full of rich flavors. The special sheep cheese (literally called “special”), which has an overpowering flavor, was the one that threw me off the most. They love poppy seeds too, they are on almost everything. The restaurant was a beer hall that made its home in an old theater, a pretty impressive layout complete with balconies on the upper level. We never would have found it on our own, so we are grateful to my friend Lucia for the experience.
Bratislava is a small city, completely walkable, with squares, markets, narrow streets, and a number of bronze statues doing funny things. Because it runs along the Danube, it is a stop for many river cruises, something that sounds pretty intriguing to me, what a way to see this part of Europe. The language (Slovak) is sort of similar to Czech, not that that really helped us, but at least it made some sort of sense. Nothing like Hungarian, which we were about to experience for the first time. After just one night in Bratislava, we hopped in the car for the two-hour drive to Budapest!
Budapest, Hungary (2 nights)
Budapest (pronounced Buddhapesht), was originally two cities (Buda, and Pest) that eventually got combined into one after the creation of the bridge connecting the two sides across the Danube. We stayed in the Pest side, which is flatter and bigger, with more to see and do. Our apartment happened to be in a construction-littered part of downtown which made finding it and parking a HUGE process. That’s an understatement. More on that in a minute. There are a number of bridges crossing the river and impressive buildings and castles lining either side, making for an incredibly impressive entrance to the city at night, since everything was lit up. After we finally settled enough to drop our bags and go find food, we happened upon an alley, full of people and restaurants of cuisine from all over. I tried a beer called Soproni Demon, dark and delicious!
Our adventure to find our place, park (we asked no less than 3 locals if we parked in an okay spot), and finally get food took hours, so we decided to call it a night, but first went to check on where we had parked the car. Why? Because I had a feeling we should. What did we find? A BOOT! Not the kind you wear on your feet. I’m not even kidding, out of all the cars lining both sides of the street, they had picked Berta out of the crowd and put a boot on our tire! Oh NOOOOOOO, what the HECK do we do now? It was late, the people on the streets were gone, and here we were in a new city with one of the most unique languages on the planet, with a boot on our tire. Suddenly, there appeared a man not 5 feet from us – no idea where he came from – he didn’t seem to exist until that moment. He had a cell phone. In some sort of body language, we asked him to help us- there was a number on the ticket. He called the number, and then somehow relayed that someone was on their way to take off the boot and collect our money. He disappeared as quickly as he had materialized out of nowhere.
When the guys showed up, we tried English, we tried German, I even tried Spanish, do they speak ANYTHING we speak? Then one guy says parlez vous francais? What? French? Oh man, yes actually I speak some French. I was able to communicate with him enough to figure out that we had parked in a 10-meter-long morning loading zone. It wasn’t even morning yet! It didn’t matter. We had picked the only open spot on the street, and it was open for a reason, yet no one (not one of the 3 people we asked) seemed to be able to correctly read the sign on the sidewalk either. Oh, the joys of language barriers. Sixty euros later, we were boot-free (they aptly call them “spiders” in Hungary) and driving Berta down the street to a hotel parking garage where we paid 20 euros per day to park her. At the end of the day, a ticket was probably the best bad thing that could have happened. And I got to speak French, in Hungary.
Budapest provided more chances for us to participate in walking tours, so we did two of them. One was a Hungarian Bath Tour. If you didn’t know, Hungary is extremely proud of its extra special mineral-rich water and therefore is home to hundreds of baths. They say it’s not a tourist thing either, if you go first thing in the morning you will see 100-year-old Hungarians enjoying their daily bath routine, soaking in the minerals that keep them alive and healthy for so long. At the end of the tour, we entered the Szechenyi Bath, the first bath on the Pest side of the city, constructed in 1881. We counted something like 18 baths that we went in (different pools), not to mention steam rooms and saunas that burn, yikes! It was an adventure in itself, topped off with quite the surprise. Our last dip was in a big outdoor pool that had somewhat of a ring in the middle. Nate and I were in the ring setting up a photo while Daryl and Sabrina were out in the big section. Suddenly we were whisked away by a surprisingly strong current, what the heck?! We had time to grab the camera before being swept into a circular pattern within the ring. Apparently, we weren’t the only ones caught off guard. The ring had about 10 adults, all laughing and screaming like children in the current of this circle. It was so surprisingly fun, it definitely wins the highlight of the day award.
Our other walking tour crossed over into the Buda side where we saw the sights but mainly were entertained by our guide. We found out that Hungarian and Finnish are somehow connected via early settlers who split and settled in each place. Hungarian is super unique in that it functions with loads of prefixes and suffixes rather than separate words to make up phrases and sentences. For example, “elkelkadosztasitottalanitottatoe” means: you put less cabbage in that than you should have. Yep.
The Hungarians are an extremely proud people, especially of their beloved language which is apparently one of the hardest to learn in all the world. They boast the “first metro system in Europe” which is a lie because the London Tube was first, but since that is on an island, the Hungarians don’t count it. They also boast the world’s longest tramcar ride and Europe’s largest synagogue, among others (they love superlatives). Basically, you can never be sure if a Hungarian is making up stories or not, but they are so light-hearted that it’s just funny. If you ever get to Hungary, be sure to spend some time with the locals and you will see what I mean. Budapest is a beautiful city, and I would recommend going in the winter to take advantage of the biggest ice skating rink I’ve ever seen, under a castle, of course.
I didn’t realize I could fill up a whole post almost entirely with our experience in Budapest, but apparently, I have. I didn’t even mention the ruin bars either.
Watch this video to see what the inside of a ruin bar looks like.
Quite an interesting experience. I’m going to have to let this post go at this point, the reason being that the grand finale of this trip was SO impressive that I want to make sure it gets the attention it so deserves!