You can get to Lake Bled on the train or bus but the train drops you about 6 miles from town where you have to catch a local bus. We’ve never had much luck with local buses so we took the out of town bus straight from Ljubljana to Lake Bled. The bus ride to Bled was as nice as any bus ride but at least the scenery was nice. We were headed into the Julian Alps which are considered to be as nice as their Austrian and Swiss neighbors. In usual bus fashion we spent most of our time driving along little backroads and stopping at tiny villages that don’t even warrant a dot on the map. We did find one very pretty town but the name escapes me so I’ll need to look on a Michelin map to see it’s name. It had houses built along the very steep banks of a river and was nice to look at. We arrived at the Bled bus stop a little over an hour later. I’ve always talked up the Let’s Go guides since the France one was excellent and the Italy one is pretty good too. The reason I mention this is the section on Croatia and Slovenia of the Let’s Go Eastern Europe had to have been written by a girl. I’m sure I’ll get backlash from saying that but the directions couldn’t have been conjured up by any logical human being. We got off the bus and the guide told us to go up the hill to the center. All of the other tourists were going down the hill and since I know a few things about physics (like the fact that water runs downhill) we choose to go down with the other tourists and we get to the lake. Maybe the “Center” is up the hill but I’m pretty sure most people have come for the lake.
Eastern Europe - 2006 (26)
In order to get to Plitvice we need to catch the 6:15 train to Zagreb then a bus to Plitvice. The original plan was to go to Dubrovnik then Split then Plitvice and only after doing that move on to Ljubljana. Because of ferry schedules we couldn’t do that so we backtracked. The train to Zagreb is 2.5 hrs then we walked to the bus station and after eating more burek took a 2.5 hr bus ride to Plitvice. Six hours later we arrived in the middle of the woods. We headed for the buildings in search of a toilet for Piper. After answering natures call we preceded to the ticket booth where we paid and headed for a boat that would take us across the lake. If you’ve never heard of Plitvice you need to get out more. It’s a park with 16 lakes in it all at drastically different elevations. This means there are waterfalls and cascades everywhere. When I say everywhere I mean EVERYWHERE!. Imagine Niagra falls divided up and spread over a 1000 acres or more and you get the idea. In order to navigate this natural phenomenon there are boardwalks that lead you around the lakes and falls. Sometimes there’s no other place to put the boardwalks but over the falls themselves. I brought three batteries for my camera but as of this point in my vacation two were dead so I was being very careful about what I took my camera out for.
Eight-thirty came way too early but we managed to get up and get on the bus. An hour later we were at the Postojna where we were going to tour the largest cave system in Europe. We arrive and because we’re a little thick headed we follow the Let’s Go guide again walk past the building it mentions to a square and take a left to get to the caves. Note that it doesn’t actually tell us which square or the name of the street to follow. At this point I’m 99% sure a girl wrote it because a guy would never expect you to read his mind when you were wondering which street to take. We follow the directions to a tee and walk for 30 minutes. A passerby points in the direction that we came when I showed him the name of the caves. We head back to find another square to take a left at. I ask for directions at a Tourist Info center and they tell us to turn right and walk along the street until you get to the square then turn left. That first part seems to be vital. After fallowing the second set of directions we arrive at what seems to be Disneyland with a huge parking lot and a billion tourist busses.
We got up at 7am so we could make our 8:30 train to Budapest. We were bummed that we couldn’t go to the Saturday craft market along the river nor could we buy all of our handmade wooden spoons but it was going to take 8 hrs to get to Budapest so we needed to leave early. We dropped our keys into the landlords letterbox and off to the train station we go. We decided to double check our tickets to see exactly when we needed to be there and they said 7:40! It was now 8:00 which means we would have been early if the train was actually leaving at 8:30. Since we’d missed the train and had already turned our keys in we decided to go to the train station anyway to see when the next one was leaving for Budapest. Another complexity was the issue of getting our apartment. Apartments are more work in a lot of ways because there is no reception desk so you have to set up a meeting time so you can get your keys. Our guy was meeting us at 3:30. We now knew we couldn’t make it by then so we needed to contact him and hope he responds before we leave. We checked the Internet access point in the train station and because it was Saturday it was closed. I go to the ticket window to see when the next train was and the ticket lady said 13:20 so we had about 5 hrs to burn. There is a left luggage facility in the train station and for 2 Euros we were bagless for the rest of the day.
We awake Hungary (heh!) so I venture out to find food. Normally I have no problems remembering where I’ve been but the street names here are out of control. How about a city named Székesfehérvár? How would a person even begin to pronounce that? The spoken language here doesn’t sound like anything I’ve ever heard. When you year someone talking you feel like looking around for the Chinese person that was speaking. It doesn’t really sound like Chinese but it’s closer to that than anything western. Anyway I made a map so I could find my way back but it ended up not being a problem. Next year I’m going to plan our moves between cities mid week because it stinks to have your first day be Sunday because there aren’t any businesses open. Just to play it safe I went to Subway and got 4 meatball subs. Outside of our taxi driver and Csaba our landlord I’d not spoken to a Hungarian before. The girl behind the counter spoke excellent English. I didn’t know it then but this would be the norm for the rest of the trip. So for the first time since we’d left America we had American fast food. Hungary is a very different place but not so foreign as say Turkey is. There is such a mixture of things here that it’s almost impossible to categorize it. On about every fourth street corner you have an American fast food restaurant, British clothes store or some other western shop. In between you have Jewish churches, Muslim mosques and Turkish kabob shops. The language sounds like it’s Chinese and the people look like blond Italians. By the end of the first day it was very apparent that a week would not be enough to even scratch the surface of Budapest let alone Hungary. We started walking toward the Danube since that’s the only thing we’d heard of before and ran into Vaci street which looked friendly enough. Later after we knew better we started avoiding this street because of it’s tourist centric nature. Since we knew nothing of Hungarian food we ate at an Italian restaurant. The waitress spoke Italian, the projector was projecting Italian T.V. And all the signs on the wall were Italian. Apparently there are Italians in Budapest too. Later we find just about every kind of restaurant including Mexican. Any chance of categorizing Budapest or even understanding it start to look minuscule at best. The Italian food was pretty good and familiar to us. We pay 60,000 forints for lunch. Quick calculations will tell you we just paid $30 for lunch. Not bad but not what we were expecting of eastern Europe. So far we’d been getting away with $15 lunches and $20 dinners. This lunch was double what we’d budgeted.
Day two starts by us looking for food again. All I want is a good croissant and some nutella. France of course has by far the best. Italy’s croissants are passable in a pinch, croatias are similar to Italy’s and Slovenia’s are nothing but glorified dinner rolls with chocolate in them. I thought it couldn’t get worse but I guess no croissants would be worse which is exactly what I ended up with. There are no bakeries, boulangeries, pekarnas or bakeries by any other name here. Apparently Atilla the Baker (Atilla the Bun?) was preoccupied by other things when it came time to conquer Europe. I go one more day without croissants.
After breakfast we head for an island in the middle of the Danube. On the way we surprisingly become hungry so we stop at a Hungarian restaurant and Natalya gets her goulash. I have pasta in a mushroom and apricot sauce. It was a little odd but tasted good. We then ventured on to the island. Supposedly King Bella IV made a deal with God that said if Budapest survived the attacks from the Mongols the King would put is daughter Margit in the convent on the Island. Budapest did survive although in shambles so the King followed through with his promise and Margit lived there until her death in 1271. Her grave is in the center of the ruins of the convent on the island.
She was only 29 when she died. Since the beginning of the trip Piper has wanted to do two things, learn to swim and learn to ride a bike. She can almost float so the other front was attacked on Margit Island. Well, at least partly but it satisfied Piper’s never ending pleads. Her and I rented a bicycle built for two and Jade and Natalya had their own. The island is connected to Buda and Pest both by bridges on the south and north ends of it. It’s quite easy to walk to and buses go there as well. Most European cities have a large city park and this is Budapests.
The temperature was climbing so we staying in most of the day and edited photos, wrote in our journals and goofed off. I wanted to get some night pictures of the Chain bridge and we were in the mood for Hungarian food so we ventured out after dark. Earlier in the week I noticed a very Paris like street not far from our apartment that had many restaurants on it so we decided to start there. After walking past the second or third place I realized I didn’t fit in because I didn’t have the cool clothes, the fancy glasses or the slicked back hair. Apparently this is where all the trendy cool people hang out and I define uncool and I’m usually not even aware of trends.
We moved on and ended up finding a place that I’ve walked by several times. Each time I go by restaurants I take a peak at the menus which are posted on the streets (the U.S. Has to start doing this..) and this one looked good. It had a paprika cream sauce that sounded tasty so we ate here. The cool thing about Budapest is you could find the most back alley eating place and the odds of them speaking English is still quite good. It’s much easier traveling here than in France. After a short wait we get one of the four tables on the sidewalk and attempt to order two Hungarian menus. The menu is similar to the French menu in that you get a salad, soup, starter, plate and dessert. Our waiter informed us that the Hungarian food isn’t suitable for children. So much for trying Hungarian food. He said he’d give me a couple of main dishes and a dessert for the same price. The menus were about 3700 which equates to around $17 for two people. I ended up ordering my chicken in Paprika cream sauce anyway which included a spatzel type of potato noodles, Natalya got duck liver, onions and baked apples. Piper and Jade had lemon and tuna pasta. All of it was pretty good and the total price was about $30 which I was happy about.
We met a couple of English lady’s that were in Budapest to get dental work done because it cost 1/3 what it does in London. If I lived in London I’d have a ticker on my desktop showing the cheapest plane tickets anywhere and I’d spend every weekend in strange cities. The Brits don’t know how lucky they are.
After dinner we decided to visit the famous Chain Bridge for some night photos. Budapest is a pretty nice looking city at night on the river. They’ve built all of their real large government and religions buildings along the water. The castle is overlooking the rest of Buda and the Danube. There are lights on the Chain bridge that they turn on at night which ensure you’re going to take pictures of it. I got quite a few decent pictures of the bridge and a few of it’s permanent residents the spiders.
There must be a wind that brings flys into the south side of the bridge because these spiders are very well fed. Some of them are a couple inches across. There’s a funicular that takes people up the side of the hill where the castle is during the day. It was not operating at night so we climbed some stairs to the top of the underpass to take pictures. Buda is interesting geographically. The castle walls are built on very narrow ridge overlooking the Danube and Pest. There wasn’t very much room for roads on the river side of the hill so they just tunneled under the hill and castle. You can drive across the Chain bridge and drive right under the castle. We found our way home only after stopping for some Gelato and went to bed. The gelato cones are small here but don’t cost more than about 60 cents so their cheap too.
Day four started out the same as day 3. Things are falling apart at work so I bought more Skype credits so I could call them. Seems the machines are coming unglued. They’ll be happy when I return I think.
I edited pictures and then we ventured out once again. This time we were in search of the Grand Market Hall to buy paprika. Hungarians use Paprika in everything so I wanted to get some real stuff not like the junk we get in supermarkets in the America. Paprika is a pepper that is used in it’s vegetable form as well as dried and ground up into powder. It comes in both sweet forms as well as hot forms. We tried to go to the Grand Market Hall earlier in the week but it was closed. We didn’t know what we would find but we still needed to find gifts for a few people and what better place to look than a Hungarian market? We’ve speculated on what the market used to be and everyone agreed it looked like an old train station.
Inside the market are old time photos and explanations so we find out it was always a market. It did have a railroad that came into it but only to deliver produce from the farmers. It was originally one of four markets in Budapest and has something like 10,000 meters of stall space. It felt a lot like the Musee Dorsay in Paris inside. There is unique ironwork railings everywhere. It was created in the late 1800’s which explains it’s extravagance. The communists never would have built something like this. Upstairs is a few eating places and bunches of tourist shops. Downstairs probably looks a lot like what it did 100 years ago with stalls selling meat, produce and of course paprika. We find a Hungarian cookbook here and eat some Hungarian food. The lady at the food counter threw salt over each shoulder every time I talked to here so maybe I was giving her bad spirits or something. The food was good even though we have no idea what it was. There was a goulash sort of thing that looked more like our goulash than the stuff we had earlier because it had noodles in it. We ate dinner for $9. I bought some gift paprika which comes with little burlap type bags and a spoon then I bought some for the kitchen.
Jade wanted a watermelon even though we were staying about 30 minutes for the market and we’d have to carry it home. Natalya and Piper said they’d help carry it so we bought one and they carried it home. Watermelon is a fruit that I don’t fully understand. It’s 99 percent water but we pay by the pound for it. I want to pay by the pound for the stuff that isn’t water and just add my own. It would be cheaper that way. Tomorrow we plan on heading to the cog wheel train and the children’s train, that is if we get up early enough.
We spend the morning Skyping a friend. The plan was to ride all kinds of strange Budapest transportation options. Leg one would be the oldest subway in continental Europe, then a tram to the base of the cogwheel train which climbs to the top of the Buda hills (1500 ft) and lastly the children’s train which is a railroad run by kids ages 10-14. We go to the metro station and buy tickets for about a buck a piece, the same as anywhere. We attempt to start our journey on the metro but we find that line two is being renovated so we need to take a surface bus that runs the same route. What makes Budapest different is you have one ticket for all modes of transportation. Also you don’t give the bus driver or tram driver money or even your ticket, you validate it in a machine just like on a long distance train. This speeds up how fast buses and trams can pick up passengers because they only stop for a minute. Buses have three very large doors here too which allows people to get on using the back two doors. The bus shows up and we get on but can’t get the ticket validator to work. A unilingual Hungarian shows us how to punch holes in our ticket. Had he been able to speak English he probably would have told us not to worry about it. If you don’t validate your ticket it’s as good as not having a ticket which is a 2300 forint fine. Multiply that by four and I just paid $40 to ride a bus for a few minutes. No thanks, I’ll validate my ticket. We’re probably the only ones on the bus that does. The bus takes us to a tram stop. Budapest has buses, tram buses (electric buses that use the overhead wires to power them), trams and metros. It’s said there no matter where you are in the city public transportation is no more than 400 meters away. Riding the tram was uneventful and nothing new since we’ve ridden them in other cities. The tram takes us to a railway station where the cogwheel train stops. There is a small station there where we buy food and realize the 10,000 forint bill I had was actually a 1000. I’ve said it before but this money’s out of control. One thousand is $5 and 10,000 is $50. Quite a difference if you plan on living on it for the day. Piper and I leave to find an ATM and return just in time to catch the train.
We had planned on catching a train to a town I can’t pronounce let alone write to see a castle built by an architect over 40 years for his wife. That just sounded too romantic to pass up but time has run out and the time machine still isn’t working right (it only goes forward in time and takes 365 days to go one year) so we decide to stick around and see what we could. We also needed to pick up train or boat tickets to Prague. There is a street in Budapest that we call the Paris Street because it looks just like a boulevard in Paris. We started walking on this street away from the river to Hero’s square and the city park. There are so many places in Budapest that we just didn’t get to because we ran out of time that we need to come back and spend more time. This street is beautiful and I’d like to know more about it’s history. Closer to the river it’s lined with beautiful old buildings that are all restored. The House of Terror is on it which is the former residence of the Nazi and Soviet secret police. I really wanted to tour this museum but didn’t get to it. The section of the street further away (and closer to the city park and hero’s square) is lined with huge mansions that have also been restored. I want to know who lived in these houses as they’re quit amazing. Something I’ve mentioned about Budapest before is the number of unrestored buildings. For every beautifully restored mansion, museum or church there are 10 that haven’t been restored. I took a few pictures of them. One had a very nice Art Nouveau awning over the stairs and columns lining the front entrance. People stared at me for taking pictures of an old wreck. It will probably be taken down. I think it was at least 4000 sq ft.