Entering SE Europe and the backpacker's Mecca
07/24/2014 - 07/26/2014 80 °F
After my overnight train from Granada to Barcelona, I had a precious 10 hours in the wonderful city of Barcelona before I had my flight to Budapest. After careful debate, I set my sights on Montserrat, one of the sights outside of Barcelona that I hadn’t managed to squeeze in before. Though I wouldn’t have time to do the full extent of hiking available there, I decided that half a loaf was better than none at all, and hopped on a train, loaded down with my heavy packs. Montserrat, meaning “Saw Mountain”, was a place holy to Catalonia, both in a religious and cultural sense. The mountains overlook a small town, rich with culture, and also houses a large and magestic monastery up in these tall mountains. I took care of my two primary objections right away by finding hiking maps at the tourism office and spoke to a kind gentleman at one of the hotels in the area, who agreed to let me stow my large pack in their luggage room for the day. Knowing that I only had a few hours, I set off hiking at once, with water and apples in my pack to sustain me along the way, forgoing the beautiful monastery buildings for the natural beauties held by the mountains.
The pictures really speak for themselves, showing the jagged, “saw-like” mountains that gave the area its name. The hiking was laborious (most tourists choosing instead to take the cable cars up and down the mountain) but rewarding with a good mix of religious and natural viewpoints to stop at along the way. With a little more time, I would have liked to hike to the housing extension of the monastery complex set even higher up in the mountains, but I hadn’t missed any land or air transportation departure on my trip yet (stupid Finnish ferry), and I intended on keeping that going.
That's the monastery complex you can see, partway up the mountain
Monastery again in the background
Tough to see, but right near the center is the extension of the monastery that I didn't have time to hike to
What time is it? SHIRTLESS O'CLOCK
And the money shot - looking over the whole valley. Here you can see how high up the monastery itself is
After racing back down the hill, I found myself with enough time to duck into the main monastery building before catching my train back to Barcelona. A couple hours later, I was on my way to Budapest, and a corner of the continent that I had been anxiously anticipating.
Inside the main monastery building:
As I had told to anyone that would listen, I had been looking forward to SE Europe my entire trip. Priding myself as a fearless adventurer, I recognized that as far as foreign destinations go, Western and Central Europe is about as tame and safe as it gets. While that may have been a great comfort to my mother, I was almost disappointed in myself that I wasn’t stepping further out of my comfort zone and visiting more raw, authentic, and potentially difficult areas of the world. SE Europe, for me, represented at least a small step in that direction. An area that was largely communist until the 90s, SE Europe in general hasn’t seen the tourism or relative prosperity that is on display throughout much of the rest of Europe, at least in the big cities. In general, this meant that these countries were typically more difficult to travel thru, especially for a mono-lingual American such as myself, but also could help round out my view of Europe, by showing me some areas that were still in a state of recovery from not-so-distant wars or dramatic governmental changes.
After talking with enough travelers, I knew that the majority of that previous paragraph did not apply to Budapest. Hailed as a Mecca for young backpackers, Budapest’s reputation among European travelers is that of a city on the cusp of a tourism explosion. Similar to Prague 5-10 years ago, it has begun gathering attention and praise from the international community, but is still cheap and not over-crowded with tourists yet. The change that I saw between Prague on this trip and when I first visited 5 years ago was dramatic, particularly in the density of tourists roaming its streets. To me, this meant that now is the time to visit Budapest and capitalize on all the beauty and culture that it has before it gets overrun. Adding to this was that I had heard from countless travelers in hostels all over the place, that Budapest was their favorite destination, particularly because of the wild and raucous nightlife.
Budapest was also the start of a 2+ week stretch where I’d be ditching my independent status and actually traveling with others for a change. In Budapest, I was meeting Ruby, a friend of mine from Madison, and her cousin, Joel. The main purpose for their European trip was to attend the wedding of Ruby’s cousin, Joel’s sister, in Romania. I would also be going to the wedding, so I only had 1.5 days in Budapest to get my first taste of the city. This wasn’t a problem for me because I knew I’d be coming back to Budapest with my parents right at the tail end of my trip.
As soon as I got into Budapest, you can't help but run into incredible sights:
I landed in Budapest at night and made it to the hostel where Ruby and Joel were waiting (napping) for me around 11 pm. Luckily, with Budapest’s reputation of a late-night wonderland, we thought this would be just right. We went out and got dinner - a delicious Hungarian goulash - and then headed out to check out some of the popular “Ruin Bars”. These ruin bars are a unique feature of Budapest’s nightlife scene - large open bars with courtyards that incorporated ancient ruins, in various states of disrepair, directly into the architecture and design of the bar. We visited a few of the more well-known ruin bars during our 2 nights in Budapest and they varied wildly in style and aesthetics. We started out at Simpla, the biggest and best of these bars according to multiple reports. Simpla’s design was my favorite, with multiple rooms adorned with a combination of grunge metal mechanical parts and retro electronic parts. They had rooms with chairs and couches, dance floors with walls filled with tube television sets, a large courtyard area, and at least 4 different bars. It was crowded with backpacking tourists from all over the globe and had a fun, energetic feel to it.
Terrible picture - apologies
The one thing we found surprising was that, as cool and fun as Simpla and other ruin bars were, it didn’t reflect the wild, party-all-night atmosphere that Budapest’s reputation had led me to expect. The first night we went out was Thursday, but then the bars were even more subdued the next night on Friday when we went out again. Though we had fun and Ruby and I found a few different places with some quality music to dance to (salsa!), our expectations of the city led us to be surprised and somewhat disappointed in what we found. I’m guessing that part of problem was not being at one of the big “party hostels” of which Budapest has many, so we didn’t have a large, wild, already drunk group to hit the bars with. I know from experience that being with the right hostel group can make any night legendary and pump up your opinion of the city. It should also be said that despite our disappointment that the nightlife wasn’t as wild as we had expected, that didn’t stop us from not getting to sleep until after 4:30 am both nights there.
After sleeping in later than intended, we eventually dragged ourselves out of bed and out the door to take advantage of the 1 full day that the 3 of us had in Budapest. Our first stop was the Hungarian History Museum, where we were heavily educated in the history of Hungary, which saw many different rulers, conflicts, and upheavals throughout the past 1000 years, similar to many countries in Europe. The museum was the best or worst that I've seen. Hungary apparently has a LOT of history involving wars, conquests, various rulers and ruling parties, and by the end I was pretty museum'd out for the moment.
Haven't you always wanted a suit of armor just chilling in your hallway?
I just liked the look of this
After that, we began the long trek to the Szechenyi Baths, the most famous of the infamous Turkish Baths found throughout Budapest. Along the route we saw the opera house and St Stephen’s Cathedral, which I found remarkably impressive, even after all of the large and beautiful cathedrals that I had seen throughout Europe. The architecture didn’t seem overly inspiring from the outside, but the inside was impressive, to put it lightly. St Stephen’s also had one of the more interesting artifacts that I had seen - the actual hand of St Stephen, which was cut off, preserved, and protected after his death. The preserved hand changed hands (sorry) several times during their periods of war, but it remained in good condition and is still on display inside the side chapel of the cathedral (not pictured).
The Budapest Opera House was the only other main site that we encountered along the walk to Szechenyi, located in the middle of a large city park.
Szechenyi was the oldest and the most famous of Budapest’s famous public baths. Filled with water from a nearby hot spring, Szechenyi contained various large baths, ranging from about 82* to 94* F - very comfortable for lounging about in the sun. There was 1 pool with a section for people to swim laps, but this being a popular tourist destination, most people were just relaxing. One cool spot was a circular semi-enclosed area in the middle of one of the pools. Every 20 minutes or so, the jets feeding the pool would rotate and blow water in a counter-clockwise direction, quickly creating a whirlpool that was surprisingly strong. It reminded me of the times years ago when 3 or 4 of us would work hard to turn the Jentzen’s outdoor pool into a whirlpool, but with the jets this current is MUCH stronger. At first I thought this feature was designed for kids, and perhaps it was, but it was incredible to see all of the “grown-ups” like me (read: grown up children) absolutely fascinated by being spun in this circle.
Inside one of the buildings were also hot tub pools at various temperatures from 98* - 104*F or so. Also interestingly, many of these baths were labeled with a particular mineral that the water was filled with. A big thing that these natural hot springs all over the world are known for is being packed with natural minerals, which are supposedly great for your skin and health. Apparently, people can take there pick of what mineral they would like infused into their body. We tried a couple, concluded you couldn’t really tell the difference except that each pool definitely had a distinctive scent to it, mostly all very enjoyable.
We spent the majority of the day relaxing in the pools, keeping up a healthy cycle of relaxing, swimming, sunbathing, drinking, repeat. As the sun started to dip down towards the horizons, we headed out and made our way to Margit Bridge. This bridge, which we knew also connected up with a large island about halfway between Buda and Pest, was suggested to me by a lovely travel acquaintance named Kate, who I toured the Alhambra with in Granada. She told me that the bridge was simply the best place to drink some wine and look out over the lit-up city of Budapest, and in that description left out some of the best surprises that we found! She wasn’t lying about the views though:
Margit Bridge wasn’t exactly close to our hostel, or the baths, and so as we made our way thru the city, I stressed about how worth it the walk would be. This is one distinct difference between traveling solo and with others: when you’re alone you do exactly whatever YOU want to do and if it doesn’t work out as well as you hoped, no big deal. When you’re with others, there’s always compromise and different ideas of what to do, so the pressure and stress is much higher if something doesn’t work out as well. In the end, the only mistake about going to this bridge and this island is that we didn’t get there a bit sooner.
We bought a couple bottles of wine en route and were about to figure out the best place to open them when we heard the familiar THUMP THUMP THUMP of a base coming from the island. Drawn to it like bugs to light, we found ourselves approaching the beginnings of a rave in the midst of the forested island. We were obviously very intrigued, but after hearing that it would cost about 30 euros to get in, we decided to drink our wine and consider in. As we were walking away from the rave, more lights further in, moving dancing lights caught our eyes. Eager to plunge further down the rabbit hole, we headed that way.
As we approached this fountain of dancing colored lights, we also began to hear some music. As we got close, we realized that not only where they playing Avicii around the fountain, but that the water and lights were actually designed to dance in tune with the music. The effect was as pleasing and entertaining as I’ve ever seen in a joint concert of music, water, and lights. After Avicii finished up, there was a classical piece that showed the subtlety with which the fountain designers could use, with only a few spouts dancing together during the violin opening, and building as more instruments entered the mix.
Sadly, we had arrived just at the end of the last concert of the night, and after the classical piece, we were left with only a quiet, but beautiful fountain. Knowing that I was coming back to Budapest with my parents, I decided that we were definitely coming here and seeing a full show, but shhhh! its a secret! Unless they read this blog entry, which I told my mom NOT to do, haha. After finishing our wine, we walked around the island a bit more, finding a few more bars and clubs, but decided to head back towards the hostel and then back out to see more Ruin Bars. In this, we were again disappointed with the crowds and ridiculousness, especially for a Friday. Though we found some good dancing and Ruby and I were even complimented by being asked if we were Spanish while dancing salsa, it felt like a good night out in any old city, not the hard-to-believe all night craziness that I had been anticipating. Again, we got back to the hostel late and had only a brief nap before leaving for the train station, destined for Romania. Though my visit to Budapest was brief, it was enough to get me exceedingly excited to return in a month with my parents.
For now I’ve got to go and enjoy the waters of Croatia, where I am right now. Until the next installment: Romanian wedding!