Thursday, 15 January 2015

The party bus is coming: Eastern Europe Festive Party Trek - Part 3

Friday, 26 December 2014
VIENNA - BRATISLAVA - BUDAPEST

Mind blown. We travelled across three different countries today. Three different countries. Austria to Slovakia for a casual lunch break and then on to Hungary. Simple. Let’s just have freaking lunch in Slovakia. No biggie.

We had been snow cursed up until this point. Everywhere we had been it was forecast to snow the day we were leaving. My excitement knew no bounds when I realised it was snowing outside our bus as we were driving our way into Bratislava. SNOW.

NB: Over the next few posts, I’m going to get very shouty about SNOW because I love SNOW.

Let me take a moment to explain to you why I love snow so much. Australia is a magnificent country and truly has the full plethora of climates; desert, tropical, hot, cold and snow. This last point came as a surprise to many of my new British acquaintances, usually accompanied by an exclamation of What? No it doesn’t. Oddly enough, I think I’d know.

So yes, it does snow in Australia, but it is not a country known for its fluffy white stuff. We have a little band on the right hand side that dumps a bit, and occasionally ice happens elsewhere. But we’re largely a hot place with desert, yes? Before this tour, I had seen snow twice in my life; once at Mt Hotham at Falls Creek in Australia and the other in Seattle, both on the ranch and at Mt Rainier. These were when I was 15 and 17 respectively. That’s over a decade ago - I suddenly feel very old.

Seeing snow falling and falling heavily outside the bus was magical. How can this fluffy white stuff fall from the sky? How is it made? Where does it come from? Why is icing sugar falling from the heavens and creating pillowy blankets covering the grass and the trees and the rooftops?

I sat with my nose pressed to the icy cold window for most of the journey and we made our way across the border into Bratislava, Slovakia. This was just a quick pit stop for some food and to stretch our legs. By now the sun was pouring down from the heavens and any semblance of snow had long vanished. Piling back on the bus (after I purchased a magnet, of course) we began the trek towards Budapest.

Carlos, our guide, had spoken at length about Budapest. Other friends too had heralded their love for this city. I now understand and long to be back exploring her streets and nightlife and cafes and culture. It was dusk as we crossed the Danube upon the Chain Bridge, which connected the city of Buda with the city of Pest (pronounced Pesht). The sun was aglow with pinks and oranges as a beautiful sunset took hold of the city before the city and Christmas lights took over. Completely breathtaking.

Sensational sunset that greeted us as we came into Budapest. This
is in Heroes Square

Tonight was to be our night to don our hats and party up and down the Danube. Why our hats? You see, there were actually two tour groups, one from Czech Republic to Krakow, and the other, travelling from Krakow to the Czech Republic. In Budapest was where we met, and their group was much larger than ours. To stand out from the crowd, we each fashioned some kind of headwear and settled down for a evening to party.

Hats and boats, winning combination

And party we did. Later, we were to be told that anything that went wrong, anything disgusting, anything raucous, any trouble that was caused was done so by someone wearing a hat. The evening began civil enough; a delicious 3 course dinner with wine. But then we discovered there was more wine. And bubbly wine. And unlimited wine. And an open bar. We started by going to the bar for a glass; by the end we were ordering by the bottle. We danced and spilled wine to the chorus of penalty champers! (whereupon one would have to skull the entire glass in a go), we raced out onto the deck to freeze our little tush's off in the presumably minus temperatures. But when you're wearing your wine warmer, your champagne coat or your beer blanket you are impervious to the cold.

Dinner smiles, before too much wine happened.

All too soon it was time to stumble off the boat. Some of us were more worse for wear than others (not naming any names, never fear) - I was actually remarkably standing and reasonably responsible. A few of us helped those who were slightly less capable and we got back to the hostel in one piece (with the taxi driver looking more towards the back of his taxi for fear of it being soiled than at the road). Most of us still had our party on and so we trekked back out again into the Budapest night life.

I've been dreading writing this part of the blog. Palinka happened (remember the Death Juice from the first day?) and then it was Saturday.


***
Saturday, 27 December 2014
BUDAPEST

Saturday midday, to be exact. A cracker of a hangover and a missed breakfast later, a shamefaced Sasha ventured out for a 2.30pm walking tour of this gorgeous city. You know the kind of hangover I'm talking about. You pull on a sock. You take a little break. You slowly drag your shirt over your head. Need to rest for a minute. You walk around the room a couple of times to convince yourself you're fine before running to worship the Porcelain God. I knew I'd hate myself if I slept the day away so I mustered what energy I could and made my way out into the chill afternoon air, instantly feeling better for the cold.

It was one of those free walking tours and we were split into 3 smaller groups. Our guide was lovely, entertaining and interesting and so I really enjoyed wandering the city. "I'm here for the facts, mate." Sometimes I wandered off (as I have wont to do) to take photos, making sure I kept someone from the group in my line of sight. At one point, it became icy cold. I visibly shook with cold, lamenting that my hungover self didn't take the extra energy to throw on an additional layer of clothing. Two pairs of socks simply weren't enough. Soon, however, the sun descended completely and Budapest..simply..lit..up.

Crossing the Danube, just casually. Buda on the left,
Pest on the right

At dusk we crossed from the Pest side over the Chain bridge to the city of Buda and made our way up the stairs to the citadel at the top. The view, in a word, was breathtaking. Buildings, ablaze with a yellow glow lined the Danube, reflected perfectly in the midnight blue water. The Chain Bridge twinkled and I stopped to take in the sight before me.

Utterly stunning.

I was keeping an eye on the time. Tonight, we were to meet in the foyer of the hostel at 6.30pm to go to the thermal baths. With my hangover coupled with exhaustion, I could not wait to relax in the baths. Leaving the walking tour and the citadel in the Buda side of the city, I made my way back towards the hostel in Pest, whereupon I walked in almost entirely the wrong direction. Of course. I lost about half an hour of time and had to rush back to pack my bathers.

Yes, my bathers. It was minus something by this point, and I was packing my bathers.

The thermal baths. What to say. Freezing cold, chill air, shivering barely clad bodies running as fast as their little frozen legs and icy feet could take them to jump into hot and steaming naturally heated water. Utterly. Sublime. Perfect. At one point, a few of us decided to change pools to see what another was like. This was accompanied by many expletives, hands pressed tight under armpits and exclaimations of "Why did we get out of the water??"

Thermal baths, steam and snow

And then...it started snowing on us. Sitting in a piping hot outdoor pool being snowed on was one of the most incredible experiences I can think of. I squeed. SNOW. This also meant it was cold enough to form snow, so hopefully you can now imagine how cold it was running around in our bathers  and bare feet when we were out of the water.

Completely magical. Entirely relaxing. Exactly what we all needed at that particular point of the tour - a moment to stop. Relax. Take a breath. Sit back. Float. Reminisce. A lovely change of pace after the go-go-non-stop franticness of the previous few days.

Eventually it was time to say goodbye to the baths. A few of us were keen to head out to check out a recommended pub, but not before one last chance to have some delicious goulash. A quick recommendation from the hostel staff, and Harry, Simon and myself set off - in the SNOW - to find the best local goulash. I didn't even mind that we got a little lost as I was completely overwhelmed by the beautiful fluff falling from the sky.

After said deliciousness, we made out way to Szimpla Kert, an incredible ruinpub not far from our hostel. A ruinpub is a space that has been up-cycled, in this case from an abandoned warehouse with all interiors and decorations being recycled too: you can sit in a bathtub for your drinks, or watch a black and white movie from the backseat of a car.

Still battling my hangover and desperately unkeen to drink, I joined in with a group for a bit of shisha. We settled ourselves on the floor at the back of the pub (yep, you could just sit anywhere) and, cross legged, we passed the hooka backwards and forwards between us. Relaxed, we were still on a gentle buzz from such an incredible evening at the baths.

***

With a heavy heart and a promise to return, this was the end of our Budapest adventure. Budapest gently nudged Bruges aside to take top place to be my favourite place in Europe that I have visited so far. I must go back - I will go back.

xx

I will see you again, Budapest. Don't forget me.