Eastern Europe - 2006

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.

Margits Grave
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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Today it’s been thundering and it looks like it’s going to rain so we’ve put off Lake Bled and have decided to go to something called BTC City which is a monster Shopping Mall/water park. We take a city bus to what appears to be a factory outlet mall because most everything is seperated by store. It’s not a very pretty place and not well organised either. It looks like a developer bought some land and convinced a bunch of single stores to build on plots without much more thought going into it. Since I’ve been here I’ve been wanting to get some contact solution because I was almost out. We never seen eye care products in grocery stores so we visited the drug store. Nobody spoke english so I did charades to communicate that I had contacts and they pointed me to an eyeglasses store since they didn’t carry eye care products. Who ever heard of a drugstore not having contact solution? Anyway we go there and find a lady who speaks a bit of english. They do have saline and it’s only 15 Euros a bottle. Um, that’s about $20 a bottle for something I pay $5 at home for. I buy the smallest bottle. We also find a real grocery store and buy Jade some cereal. We lunch on Burek. I don’t think I’ve mentioned Burek before but it’s the Croatian/Slovenian fast food. It’s this heavy pastry with stuff in it like meat or cheese. They either come in a quiche looking pie or a sausage shaped tube that’s coiled up. It’s actually very good and very hearty. I couldn’t eat a whole burek and they cost about $2.50. I’m exhausted after only 1 hr of shopping so we buy some cantelope (melone) and honeydew (white melone) and return home. I met a nice girl at the bus stop who needed change. I asked her why some people spoke perfect english and some don’t know a single word. She explained that they choose either German or English in school so either they can speak Slovenian and German or Slovenian and English. If I haven’t mentioned this before Slovenian is not the same language as Croatian. Come to find out she’s from Brazil and speaks Portuguese, Slovenian, English and some Spanish and is in Slovenia studying to be a vet.

Our first day in Ljubljana started with me wandering down the street looking for the pekarna. Every country I visit I have to learn a new name for Boulangerie. In Croatia and Slovenia it’s called a Pekarna. I haven’t seen an equivalent to patisserie though. I’ll keep looking for that. Two blocks from our apartment is a Pekarna so I headed there first only to find it closed. It was early so I thought it just wasn’t open yet. I’d told Peter that I’d pay him today and he expected Euros so I went to where the Lets Go guide said there was a currency exchange only to find it closed too. We’ve been traveling for several weeks now and it’s really hard to keep the days straight. After walking down the street further I noticed that kavas (cafes) were the only thing open, it was then that I realized that it was Sunday. At this point colorful Art Nouveau buildings started to show up so I walked in their direction and ended up in Preseren square which is really a circle in the center of the city.

We landed in Zagreb the capital of Croatia. For a city with over 1 million people the airport is tiny. Apparently communists didn’t have any need to fly anywhere because the airport was about the size of your standard Greyhound station. We took a taxi to our hotel since I didn’t want to figure out the bus system. We stayed at the 4 points hotel which is one of those modern highrise hotels. I have a theory about them which is why I avoid them like the plague. The theory goes like this – the taller the building the more money they’ve made which equates to the more money you’ve lost. If they were giving you equal service to a smaller hotel they couldn’t afford to build a big building. This hotel proved my theory once again. I paid $225 for one night because there wasn’t any other places with rooms on short notice. This rate didn’t include breakfast. If we wanted to purchase the continental breakfast it would be 8 euros ea. That would be $41 total for juice and croissants! Yes the building is paid for. They had a full American breakfast with eggs for $60 total for all four of us. That is eggs, bacon, croissants and juice for $60. I kept the sixty dollars and we ate at a kebab place for $15. The walk to the city center was about 30 minutes and at first we weren’t very impressed with what appeared to be a large product of communist rule. Everywhere bland concrete buildings, simple parks and places for statues of communist rulers. I knew Zagreb was an old city but I didn’t know if the pre-communist buildings survived. 

Our host Doran took us to the bus station and I bought tickets to Dubrovnik. We’ve ridden this line before so we weren’t really looking forward to it. Last time Piper threw up for 4 hours so this time I medicated her. She lasted the entire trip without problems. It was long and hot on the bus to Dubrovnik. There was a couple from Belgium that we talked to quite a bit. They had a young baby and I didn’t envy them. The only other way to get to Dubrovnik was by ferry which takes 8 hrs. This would have gotten us into Dubrovnik too late so we chose the bus. Again we didn’t reserve a hotel beforehand and just relied on people offering us their homes. When we got off the bus we were practically attacked by 30 people wanting us to stay at their places. We found a two bedroom apartment about 10 minutes (see earlier note about everything being 10 minutes away) from old town and Lapad. It’s a really nice apartment with beautiful terraces. The view isn’t quite as nice as last year because someone built a big house in front of it but the apartment is nicer. We don’t get breakfast like last year so we went to the store in Lapad to get breakfast stuff.


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