12th September: Train to Vienna, 12:56
=====Eek! Haven’t updated in an age; not so much from being super-busy than from not having a table/my journal to hand. Not much major news to update on. We’re currently on the train, which is sitting in Budapest Keleti station, and enjoying for the last time the irresistably jaunty announcement jingles they play in the station. Whoever composed them clearly has a love of old school video games, and is also a genius – it’s impossible not to be cheered by them.
=====So, major day-by-day update…
SATURDAY EVENING: Went to a very cheap Polish restaurant in the Old Town with two of the mardiest-looking waitresses known to man; admittedly my attempts to subtly decant water from the huge bottle we’d bought from the mini-mart into the glass of water I’d already drained probably made me look shifty, thus incurring their passive-aggressive wrath. Despite their sour expressions, the food was nice – the roast potatoes with garlic butter weren’t as good as I’d hoped they’d be, but the meat pierogi (another good Countdown word) were very tasty. Really enjoying Eastern European cuisine.
=====Still reeling from the kitschy ‘rustic’ decor of the place, we headed for an internet cafe so I could gorge myself on the delights of the World Wide Web and Emily could upload her photos. Little else of any consequence occurred that evening, except for a ridiculous sense of personal achievement gained by managing to get a huge bottle of fizzy water (yuk) down to a state of drinkable stillness through a great deal of endurance and perseverance (ie jiggling it constantly with the lid off).
SUNDAY: Took the opportunity to have my laziest day in a while by sleeping in til 11, reading fan mail (not an exaggeration – had a very sweet message from an Irish superfan, which I was very touched by) and eventually packing my bag, though not before taking a picture of the entirely unexplainable picture of a horse’s head on the bathroom wall.
=====Emily meanwhile was at the Human Body exhibition, featuring plastinated (no, me neither) bodies, which she came to the conclusion were East Asian judging by their height and, er, ‘length’. When she returned, we headed for the grassy verge by the river to bask in the still glorious weather for several hours, before getting Telepizza from down the road and finding cheap water and sweets to spend our last few (emphasis on few) zlotys. The water was imperative as our delightfully sociable Chinese roommates in Prague had, as a thoughtful leaving present, given me her cold, and my throat was beginning to take on a touch of feeling cheese-grated, while my nose was doing its best Niagara Falls impersonation.
=====Stuck for things to do, and not in the mood to explore the city – we felt we’d exhausted its daytime pleasures – we cracked out the hostel’s jigsaw (which later transpired to be of Budapest). After some initial struggle, we made it to 90% completion. It was in vain: our obsessive personalities were not obsessive enough to convince us that finishing the jigsaw was more important than catching the night train (though it was a close call). And catch it we did, after a tense tram ride to the station spent fearing a fine for not buying a ticket (we couldn’t afford it and were still yet to see a ticket machine).
=====I can confirm that sleeping on the bottom bunk of a night train is preferable to sleeping at the top. There were pros and cons to both (more luggage space at the top, but more effort to get it up there; less fear of the bunk above you collapsing at the top, but also more fear of falling out) but ease of bathroom access, the provision of a table on which to balance essentials and increased comfort of the bed itself meant that the bottom won out overall.
=====That said, I slept better on the top bunk to Krakow than on the bottom bunk from it, primarily due to my cold. Over the course of the day it had morphed from the beginnings of one, with a slight sore throat, to a full-on can’t-breathe-unless-I’ve-blown-my-nose-hideously-loudly, good-God-my-throat-is-raw killer cold, to Emily’s horror. She was petrified of catching it, but being in a claustrophobic room which was essentially hosting a game of Sardines, she didn’t have much choice in the matter.
=====Sleeping was fractious, fragmented and generally ineffective as far as making me feel better was concerned, especially since I woke up every time we violently thudded into a station (with the exception of Bratislava – meaning I can’t even tenuously count myself as having visited Slovakia. Damn!).
=====Thank god the train had a lot of paper towels, or we may all have drowned in my ocean of nasal mucus.
MONDAY: This lack of sleep made me into a grumpy arse when we arrived into Budapest – so grumpy I could only just appreciate the jingles. On finding that Hungarian buses are just as impossible to buy tickets for as Polish ones are, we yet again had to worry about being fined for not possessing a ticket (or, more accurately, for not possessing the arcane Eastern European knowledge of where to buy a ticket when there’s no provision for the sensible thing, ie buying a ticket at the front of the bus/tram). We got away with it again, but our sins were punished through the weather: a dry day at Keleti station suddenly transformed into a vicious rainstorm by the time we got off the bus, one stop further away than intended, in fabric shoes not best suited to the volatile weather.
=====A short, bad-tempered walk later and we were out of the weather’s caprices, and into a hostel with the most cliched hippy decor. The fact it was called Shantee House should have been a clue to its pretensions of free love, peace and vogue spirituality, but still the books about trekking in Tibet, Indian throws and beards/dreads (so many beards/dreads!) came as a surprise. I rather liked it though; it was bright orange, had stairs painted the colours of the rainbow, and a relaxed vibe that put us at ease where the slightly intense guy running our Polish hostel had unnerved me slightly. While the bright colours didn’t redeem the 3 hour wait to access our rooms, we had WiFi and books to pass the time – I got halfway through Emma, while Emily is soldiering through Les Mis.
=====When we finally made it into the room, it was time for a nap. Unfortunately, a shameless Australian girl and her hostel acquaintance of one day decided that being in a room with three people besides themselves was no deterrent to fornication, and indulged their primal urges there and then. Had I been more inured to listening to other people’s copulation, I may have been impressed that they’d managed to successfully negotiate the dimensions of the narrow single top bunk, but little did they know that the heavy breathing, creaking bed frame and sounds of unzipping travelling across the room were resulting in me losing my ‘listening to other people copulating’ginity. Thank God I slept through some of it – but sadly not all of it.
=====Emily had the good sense to flee as soon as the telling kissing noises began. Feeling like Hugh Grant in the cupboard in Four Weddings And A Funeral, I felt supremely awkward walking across the room to use the bathroom, especially on identifying the offending bunk courtesy of seeing a guy on his haunches with a blanket over him. Even me loudly padding about did not interrupt the act of coitus, but it wasn’t long before zipping was heard again, and my ears were free of violation once more. The girl sleeping (/pretending to be sleeping?) on the bottom bunk of that same bed, however, wins the ‘Most To Be Pitied’ award.
=====Emily went for a wander by herself while I slept, read and checked the Internet, before deciding to head to Buda Castle to meet her – though her going on a tour of a hospital in a rock gave me an hour to kill. On chatting to the offending Australian copulator, I ended up heading into town with her. We went searching for a place to buy tram tickets while she regaled me with tales of her copulating misdeeds from the night before (a churchyard was privy to those indiscretions), surprisingly frank about it all. Unable to find a ticket office, we stopped a native passer-by who, happily, was fluent in English. He had the oddest accent I’ve ever heard: predominantly Bolton, but with flecks of regional accents from all over the UK, as well as a hint of Kiwi.
=====Martzy, as he introduced himself, was a Hungarian student of Economics at the country’s best university for the subject. He was very friendly, directing us to the ticket office and ordering our tickets in his native tongue, making our lives immeasurably easier, before boarding the same tram as us so he could go to a lecture. He spoke of a corrupt government and politics that were driving his age group out of the country due to jobs being scarce and pensions unlikely in the future – it sounded a sad state of affairs.
=====By the time we arrived at the requisite tram stop, I was required at Buda Castle instead of the centre of Pest (Pest is the right hand side of the Danube, Buda is the left hand side), so bid the Aussie farewell before hopping back on a tram and returning the way I’d come. Getting off at the first stop in Buda, I was immediately accosted by a Hungarian woman begging for money so she could afford to feed her 6 children. Mindful of our attempts to be charitable in Berlin, I lied that I had no money, before heading off deep in the throes of guilt with only Julianna Barwick’s new album, Nepenthe, to stave it off. The album’s ethereality fitted a scene dominated by dreamlike white clouds and grand old buildings.
=====Finding the route to the castle was not an issue; finding Emily, however, was a saga that Tolkein could have written a trilogy about and Peter Jackson could have adapted into a series of widely-acclaimed, Oscar-winning films. Attempting to get through the castle – now a set of museums as opposed to a seat of royalty – to the funicular railway station involved continually being thwarted by building works and dead ends. I eventually made it to her before her phone died, having nobly struggled through its 1% battery life for so long.
=====We passed the Hungarian equivalent of 10 Downing Street and found our way to St Matthias Church, which is probably the prettiest building I’ve ever seen: it’s not too grand or ornate, but is enough so to be striking. Prettiest of all is the Lego brick-like roof, in a variety of colours that contrasted surprisingly well with the white walls. After slavering over it for a little whiel, we admired the lovely view over the Danube from a viewing platform and took some silly pictures before heading back to the Tesco near the hostel to buy up their selection of ready meals.
=====Tragically, the Tesco was tiny and had little choice available – not convenient given Emily’s, erm, selective palate. A few tours of it convinced us that a) to my chagrin, the only soup available was a horrendous ‘stir in’ packet, which I bought in case my urge for soup to soothe my throat proved truly insurmountable (it wasn’t – nothing could induce me to try it), and b) nothing that Emily liked or wanted was available for a main meal. Staples such as pasta and rice were a non-starter (see: ‘selective palate’) , while we’d done pizza to death. The only remaining option was to buy some chicken legs and seasoning, and cook them in the hostel’s busy communal kitchen.
=====Being a fussy eater is clearly no hindrance to being a good cook, as Emily’s cooking skills came up trumps eventually (they took an age to cook), while I overcame my squeamishness towards cucumbers to masterfully slice the vegetables (pepper for me, cucumber for Emily). Flicking the hot chicken off the oven tray was upsettingly farcical, however, and some Belgian hostellees laughed at me. Bet they wouldn’t have fared any better if they’d tried to flick HOT CHICKEN DRUMSTICKS off a HOT TRAY WITHOUT BURNING THEIR FINGERS.
TUESDAY: We’d been planning to visit the Széchenyi Baths when in Budapest for some time, pencilling in Tuesday as the day for it. Our loooong walk there took us past Heroes’ Square, among other important-looking buildings, but was forced on a detour when a coughing fit so violent I started crying convinced us to get me to a pharmacy for some throat relief.
=====We spotted a tiny pharmacy across the street and tried to ask one of the cashiers if the box to her right was cough syrup, which is what it looked like. Not understanding us, she passed us over to her colleague who, deadpan, responded, “No, it’s urinary tract infection medicine”. Explains why ‘urinal’ was in the name, I suppose. Strangely enough we didn’t buy it.
=====Loaded up with lemon and honey Strepsils, paracetamol and cough syrup with a childproof cap so secure that it was also adultproof, we headed on to the baths, where our ticket (roughly £12) entitled us to access 16 baths/pools as well as a whole host of saunas. Our lockers, we discovered, were in the men’s section – only a problem when some old codger came in and started shouting “MEN (pointing at the ground beside him), WOMEN (pointing away)”. I tried to explain to Mr Grumpy (as I unaffectionately dubbed him) that my locker was there, but he was still being lairy, so I took the hint to flee.
=====The baths ranged from 18•C (a post-sauna dunking pool that was FECKING FREEZING) to 40•C (a nice hot bath temperature), from salty to minty, outdoor to indoor. It was my highlight of the trip so far – so incredibly relaxing. Our favourite pool was the 38•C minty pool, which smelled and looked pleasantly like Listerine; we slobbed about in it until our fingers wrinkled and we were almost asleep. Better to slob than exercise, though – our go in the aerobics pool got us evils from the locals after we tried to rollerskate on the floating weights.
=====The sauna experience was a mixed bag (for me – Emily’s foray in lasted seconds as her asthma would not permit it). A minty sauna cleared my nose and throat wonderfully – newsflash: HEALING BATHS ACTUALLY HEAL! – but being in the sauna with 9 very sweaty fat men was slightly alarming. However, it was the non-minty sauna I tried that was more of a concern; when I left it, my towel had disappeared! Attempts to find out if it had been handed in to the staff were misinterpreted, as they thought I was asking about towel rental. At least I didn’t have any valuables stolen.
=====5 hours were spent there relaxing, swimming and pretending to lech on old men – except the tables were turned when one old man leched on Emily, and there was no pretence about it. He was very fat, and using two of the handrails by the stairs to rhythmically bounce up and down. As we rose majestically out of the pool, he briefly glanced away from his bouncing to unmistakeably feast his eyes on Emily’s rear. Every time we wandered past the pool he was lurking, like a hungry, sexually voracious hippopotamus. I knew there and then that he was the man Emily was destined to marry – if only we’d got his phone number.
=====Such a brief but moving encounter could simply not be topped, so we found a nice little restaurant nearby. Emily blew her budget on duck breast steak, which fortunately agreed with her ‘sensitive palate’, while I continued my quest to sample as much local cuisine as possible by trying chicken paprikas. It was very nice, but the horrid tap water rather spoiled it.
=====The evening was spent at a ruin bar – literally a bar set in ruined buildings. It was huge and very busy; we brought Daniel, our Australian roommate, with us to meet Hannah – an American (DEFINITELY not a Kiwi) we’d met in Prague – and her hostellees. Though the baths had seemingly cured my cold, I was still wary of drinking as it makes my throat balloon when ill, so remained teetotal. This was unfortunate: while the bar was exceedingly cool – totally shabby, with squat toilets and rickety chairs to show how super-authentic it all was – the hostellees were not so interesting.
=====After briefly meeting so many people, you cease to care about where they’re from, where they’ve been, where they’re going – why should you, when you’ll probably never see them again? I chatted to a guy from London who was soon to join the Royal Navy. He was fine at first, teaching card games to me, Emily, Daniel, Hannah, a sassy Swiss guy, and his travel partner Jamie, nut after the joys of me winning Irish Snap and losing at Cheat had dried up, we had to talk again, and found we had no common ground. He didn’t like football, and his only view on Countdown was the objectively wrong one that Carol Vorderman should never have left (a view that I scorned and rebuffed with stats), while his interests of aviation (nope), the military (of which, as a pacifist, I am deeply suspicious), and World War II (which interests me, but there are large gaps in my knowledge of it) held little promise. Luckily he too was bored, and sloped off, allowing someone else to steal his seat.
=====We then made for the exit to move on to another bar: bored, tired and ill, I wasn’t keen on the idea but was even less keen on the idea of getting/paying for a taxi back to the hostel by myself, plus had FOMO. Somehow me, Emily, Daniel and Jamie became detached from the trail of people that Hannah led and, after a fruitless goosechase around local bars in the rain, we settled in the empty but hilariously named Irish pub ‘PUBlin’. This proved far preferable to being in a huge group and having to yell pleasantries over a group of obnoxiously rowdy Italians, as we had at the bar, and were able to discuss the important things like music and TV. Jamie lost credibility points when he asked if ‘Summer Of 69’ was by Guns ‘n’ Roses, but regained it by being impressed by meeting a real life octochamp. We eventually called it a night at 2, bringing a loooong day to a close.
WEDNESDAY: My love of lie-ins had been trolled by my cold, and Wednesday began as no exception, an 8am wake-up giving me an opportunity to finish Emma. This great exertion tired me out enough to sleep in til midday, at which point Emily and Daniel went caving, leaving me with most of the day to myself. I spent it at first responding to fanmail (one Twitter admirer taking the novel approach of anagramming ‘We should go on a date’ to woo me, by which I was deeply amused, and almost convinced by the effort) for several hours and chatting to one of my roommates, and then by exploring the city.
=====I strolled about Pest for a while before deciding to walk up to the Parliament building along the river. By the time I was opposite St Matthias, it was dark; the sight of it along with the castle glowing in the dark across the river was possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. After some poetically-minded gazing, I set off for Parliament again, thwarted by building works. When we finally reconvened (all starving, the others exhausted), we slumped at a cheap Italian restaurant off the main shopping road, Vaci Utca, and engaged in hearty conversation. Topics of discussion included dickslapping, my arm being used as a doorstop post-taxidermy, and using a man’s skin as a coat (I had no jacket, and had been outside for 5 hours in the cold). Think we slightly alarmed Daniel, but he humoured us anyway.
=====Nothing much has happened since. Time to get off this Railjet train (easily the nicest train we’ve been on thus far, minus the shrieking noises when we leave stations) and find our hostel, the amusingly named Wombats, in Vienna – the Ultravox song named after which we had playing on a loop for an hour, until we realised that you CAN have too much of a good thing.
A hand-cramped Jen
13th September: Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera), 16:43
=====We are busy being deeply cultured at the opera! Admittedly by ‘at the opera’ I mean ‘nearly into our third hour of queuing for the cheap standing seats at the big opera house’, but in a few hours we’ll be watching Carmen like true opera buffs.
=====The adults in the queue seem to know that all the interrailers and tourists are blagging it, judging by their glares; a couple diagonally opposite us in the line keep surveying the groups of rowdy youths and fizing them with judgemental stares, while a woman with fierce painted-on eyebrows and a frosty expression just walked past us to reclaim her place, passing the journey by giving each person on her route a look of poisonous disdain. Only an old man with an absolute belter of a combover directly opposite us seems unfazed; he gives us weary half-smiles, clearly unaware that I took several pictures of said combover for posterity while he was sleeping.
=====In between scolding me for trying to create my own snazzy combover (a failure – I have too much hair 😦 ) and struggling through to the halfway point of Les Mis, Emily keeps singing “La la la” in a foreboding way and doing her ‘creepy ginger child smile’. It is deeply unnerving and means I can’t concentrate on reading Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier.
=====Uneventful rest of day yesterday, mostly due to Emily’s cold-induced lethargy. We explored the touristy central bit of the city, amazed by the unrelenting beauty of the architecture and occasionally getting confused as to our location. As if the lovely buildings weren’t enough, Vienna has sealed its place in my affections by having more considerate cyclists than elsewhere (read: fewer of them). The relative calm of the place gives us frequent recourse to shatter it by giving tuneful renditions of ‘Vienna’ and ‘Edelweiss’. Surprised we haven’t been arrested yet but then this seems like a city immune to crime, along with poverty, want and strife.
=====Its musical heritage is stamped everywhere, from huge statues of Mozart and Goethe to the men dressed as Mozart, preying on tourists to sign them up to see substandard operas and symphonies. We’d been warned that Vienna had only a child’s colouring-book prettiness and a musical past to offer, but so far this has sufficed.
=====Exploration was halted in favour of food, as we got the U-bahn back to Westbahnhof station and ate at a restaurant near the hostel, whose business cards featured pictures of a disembodied woman’s bust, seemingly clad in traditional Austrian garb. Took one so I could let lechers like my brother and Spanky ogle it – they’ll appreciate the view more than I will.
=====Well-rested after an early night, we set out for the restaurant again for a proper meal at lunchtime, before killing time as a Starbucks near the opera house. The employee who made my drink was very cute, though my attraction subsided rather when, having made my frappuchino, he chucked the straw rather violently at me. Oh blond Austrian Alexander who works at Starbucks, what could have been.
=====We’ve been queuing here ever since 8 – at first outside, in the cold but mercifully sheltered from torrential rain, and then inside. The wait seems to be over, though – time to buy some tickets, watch some opera and attempt to not have my eardrums perforated by 3 1/2 hours of shrill singing…
A not very combed-over Jen