Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Night on the Orient Express

Just one night- from Budapest to Bucharest. Jenny and I left Budapest around 7 PM and settled into our sleeper car for the 16 hour ride to Bucharest. While a little small, our room was quite comfortable- two skinny bunks, a little sink, and a window:

Before long we were happily munching away on apricots, bread, and cheese (which may have been spoiled...?), watching fields of sunflowers move past the window, all of which were pointed toward the setting sun. After dark, we locked all three locks on door and settled in for a movie with a bottle of Tokaji wine from Northeastern Hungary. Around 11 PM we were startled by someone rattling our door and shouting "PASSPORT!" After jumping up and handing a very unofficially-dressed man our passports, I was ordered to "SIT DOWN," (which I did quite promptly), at which point which he disappeared with our documents. Umm.

Luckily he returned about 2 minutes later and stomped to the next car as we passed through the city of Arad. Welcome to Romania.

The next morning we woke around 7 AM as the train passed through the rugged Carpathian mountains, and after a (terrible) cup of coffee, we were able to enjoy the view from our window.

We passed through a tunnel in the center of the range as we worked our way south from Brasov, continuing through windy valleys, and eventually out onto the broad flat plain surrounding Bucharest.

Around 10 AM we rolled into the Gara De Nord in stifling, dusty Bucharest, where we had four hours to spend before we had to go to the airport to catch our flight to Istanbul.

We spent that time walking around the city, a city still coming to grips with the abrupt introduction of capitalism after the fall of the Soviet Union and execution of Romania's dictatorial leader Nicolae Ceausescu, leading to sights like this one: an H&M store in a sea of brutalist Soviet architecture.

On our walk through the city we also had several glimpses of Ceausescu's Palace, the world's largest, heaviest, and most expensive administrative building, a building that required the demolition of nearly 1/5 of Bucharest to build! Here it's in the middle background:

And here's a side view:

After a delicious Turkish lunch (and a hint of things to come), we rushed back to the train station where we caught a train to the airport and left for Istanbul around 4 PM. Our time in Bucharest was brief, but a fascinating window into Bucharest, a city that felt far less touristy and Western than Budapest, which we had left the day before. I think Bucharest (and Romania) definitely warrants a closer inspection.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Head East Young Man!

We took the night train east from Munich, groggily arriving in Vienna (which certainly looked cool) around 5 AM and then Budapest, Hungary around 8:30 AM. Unfortunately, the day we left Munich was also the first day of summer vacation for German kids, so there was nary a bed to be had on the train and we "slept" upright in a passenger car, where were awoken every hour for ticket checks.

Luckily, after arriving in the somewhat grimy part of town, Budapest didn't disappoint for long. The view from our hotel room balcony:

Our first of two nights (and three days) in Budapest, we stayed at Lanchid 19, a trendy (or hideous depending on your perspective) designer hotel on the banks of the Danube. Budapest was actually two cities until the late 1800's, Buda on the north side of the river and Pest on the south, which were simply combined into Budapest. Our hotel was on the older, fortress-like side of the Danube in Buda, home to the old(er) city. After dropping our stuff we went in search of lunch and soon found an awesome locavore three-course lunch with wine for a steal: 4,770 forints! At 217 Hungarian forints to the dollar, it was one of the best deals on the trip. Unfortunately, rich Hungarian food, two hours of sleep, and 95 degree heat soon put us in a stupor and we stumbled through scenic old town in a haze. See Jenny succumbing to the heat here:

Luckily, a quick nap put us back in the mood for a walk around the old city, including the Matthias Church, 

the funicular railway,

the Lanchid Bridge, known as the Chain Bridge (and our hotel's namesake),

and the "Hospital in the Rock," a hospital dug into the Buda hill that served allied soldiers during the siege of the city in World War II, which appealed to my cave-philic personality.

Walking back down the Buda hill, we were pleased to see that Hungarian art has a sense of humor:

After grabbing bread, cheese, fruit, and wine for a picnic dinner on the Danube we got our first view of the Hungarian Parliament, a Death Star of a building, across the river in Pest. Magnificent indeed:

After dinner, we retreated to the hotel, where, being the party animals that we are, Jenny and I crashed by 9 PM.

Day 2 started with a hotel migration- with so many awesome (and relatively cheap) hotels in Budapest, Jenny and I couldn't merely stay in one place, so we packed up our stuff and rode the bus across the river to the Brody House in Pest. On our bus ride, we stopped in the middle of the road and waited for nearly ten minutes, when a tank suddenly came driving across the bridge forcing cars to swerve out of the way!!! I saw the camera about five seconds later and realized they were filming an action movie (British I think). Whew.

After our surprise delay on the bridge, we arrived at another one of the trip's highlights, the Brody House, a quirky hotel next to the Hungarian National Museum on the south side of the Danube. Here's a shot of the lobby,

and our door-themed room. A steal for $50!

Our first stop on the Pest side of the river was the Dohany Street Synagogue, an awe-inspiring Synagogue built in the 1850's in the Moorish Revival ( style. The Synagogue also has a Jewish cemetery and this beautiful monument to the 400,000 Hungarian Jews killed by the Nazis, a Jewish population that has never recovered in Hungary.

Eager to get our fill of religion for the day, our next stop was St. Stephen's Basilica, where we did the American thing, and climbed the tallest thing around to take in the city.

For dinner we headed out to Heroes' Square for some traditional Hungarian food, and while chicken liver isn't my thing, the Heroes' Square was worth the trip.

We ended our day with a ride on the world's fourth-oldest subway (sorry New York), which was absolutely sweltering and required a night walk along the banks of Danube to recover from. See the stupefying hot subway and the beautifully lit Buda Castle below:

Day 3 dawned hot- surprise (not)! We spent the day walking around Budapest, highlights of which included, a close-up of the Parliament building in all its glory:

And the tomb of Ottoman Dervish Gul Baba, ruler of the city when the Ottomans controlled it for roughly 150 years starting in 1541 at the height of their power. It was a shady retreat from the smoldering city.

And, it was a hint of things to come...

We spent the rest of the afternoon stocking up for our overnight train ride to Bucharest, Romania, and headed to the train station for our 7 PM departure.

A special thanks to our remote city guide, Ariana (Jared's sister who studied abroad in Budapest), who gave us the scoop on the best spots and told us how to properly pronounce the city (buda-pesht).

Onwards to the east (and south)!


Munich was merely a waypoint on our trip. A place to pass through on our way to other places- into Munich airport and then quickly on a train to the Alps; back into Munich and then on a midnight train going (anywhere?) to Budapest. But, Munich surprised us. We arrived around 2 PM and began a long stroll around the city, enjoying the parks on the Isar river. We even stumbled across some surfers- I didn't believe it either, but it's totally a thing. It even has its own wikipedia page:

After a dinner of pretzels, sausages, and beer at Lowenbrau beer hall, we had a few hours to kill, so we went for a walk. However, after 10 minutes we found a free Munich Symphony concert in one of the church plazas- a warm 70 degree summer evening with (did I mentioned free?) live symphony music- not too bad. Even the rain didn't bother us, and we were back at the station around 11:30 for our 12 AM departure to Budapest.

This all sounds lovely, "but where are the pictures?" you may ask. Unfortunately my memory card was full, so you'll have to take my word for it, Munich is awesome.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

A Stroll in the Alps - Part II

The next morning we woke up to this...

...our first view into the deep valley we had hiked parallel to the entire previous day on our way to the Kesseler Hutte. Wow.

We began hiking around 8 AM and quickly came to our first of several stream and snow crossings- sometimes we had bridges to help us cross, but other times we had to gingerly cross, looking down into the valley several thousand feet below.

After a couple of hours we got to a fixed-rope section, glued to the rocks above a deep gully...

...and then we began working our way up to our first pass, crossing several lengthy (and scary) snow fields- see my brave hiking buddy working her way across one of the snowfields here:

Eventually we made up to the top of the pass, around 9,000 feet where we got our first view of a huge glacier as well as our next hutte, the Greizer Hut (in the bottom right of the second photo).

Around 2 PM we arrived at what was our favorite hutte, where settled in with a Radler (a tasty mix of Sprite and beer) and some kaiserschmarrn, a funnel cake served with apple sauce- yum. After a nap we relaxed with our fellow travelers, who were generally European and older than us (and were quite interested in us young Californians). After a delicious dinner and some accordion music, we headed to bed early in preparation for our longest day. 

This hut had a nifty little lift to bring employees and supplies deep from the valley below, where our hike for the day first took us. Here's my intrepid hiking buddy just before we left:

An hour later we were at the bottom of the valley where we began our 3000 foot ascent with a ladder and the first of the 160+ switchbacks to the top!!!

Looking back at our ascent for the day:

After crossing the most substantial snow fields of the trip, we made it the top of the pass, around 10,000 feet, where a stiff wind and snow flurries chased us down the other side, to perhaps the scariest part of the trip:

After coaxing Jenny down the other side, we were soon back down below the snow line, looking past a beautiful alpine lake (unusually, the only one we encountered) to the massive, castle-like Berliner Hutte, the first hutte in the Zillertal Alps.

The Berliner Hutte, built in the 1880's by the Berlin Alpine Club for it's prime access to glaciers (less than 100 feet from the back door!), was now more than two miles from the base of the glaciers, the most shocking reminder of climate change we encountered on our trip- a story sadly related to travelers by old photos in the lobby showing the glaciers in their former glory.

Since this was our last night in the Alps we did a quick day hike to take in a last spectacular view...

 ...had dinner in the bustling dining room of the huge hut...

...and then hiked out in the rain the next day, past this (somewhat surprising) monument to the SS brigade that trained at the Berliner Hut in 1940, a reminder of the region's sordid history.

After five days and four nights, we hiked out in the pouring rain surprisingly clean (Yay for showers!) and well fed (Yay for sausage and beer!)! We caught the bus back to Mayrhofen and then onto  Munich, the subject of my next post.... Stay tuned!

And thank you Alps (and hiking buddy!)