Monday, September 26, 2005

Sampling Nightlife from Budapest to Ljubljana

Budapest - Pecs - Barcs - Zagreb - Ljubljana

Dobro Den!


So, Budapest. Second time I’ve visited this gloriously beautiful city, and the second time I have attempted to locate the real nightlife but failed miserably! It seems there are two types of nightlife places, the decoy tourist clubs with shocking music and no atmosphere, or the "hidden in backstreets with no signage" local joints, another world
that us tourists can never be part of.

Oh well, at least I got to take some great night shots of Budapest from top of the citadella, one of the best panoramic nightshots I’ve ever seen.

Anyway, deciding that Budapest was not showing me its Hungarian cultural side*, I decided to catch the next train to a town south of Hungary called Pecs.

* Due to the fact that it has become a tragic tourist trap that Prague, Krakow, Tallinn and the Croatian coast has become, and also being an international city where I found more Chinese restaurants than actual authentic Hungarian cuisine, the Hungarian cuisine naturally being "touristified" for tourist's benefit. Ha, funny how I detest tourists even though I am one myself. And of course it’s a hierarchy system of who you can look down with a "I am better and wiser than thou" attitude.

Here it is;


First, at the bottom of the hierarchy, its the tour groups, usually led by a pink umbrella or something stupid with a very short guideperson attached. Worst thing about them is when you want to look at a museum piece or enter a room, and they block the whole place up! Middle aged American tourgroups are the worst, with "aw my gawd" exchanges and the stupid things they say. Stop me before I become too vitriolic!

Then the eurorail/interrail pass users who only hop from one big city to the next, sometimes staying for a night before hopping on the next train to the next town (the Japanese are notorious for this insanity! In Sarajevo I met two Japanese who arrived that afternoon, who quickly saw the town, then next morning caught a train to Belgrade, to catch another train to Sofia later that day! I think for them it's about collecting passport stamps to show off back at home).

Then tourists like me, relying on public transport and hoping from town to town at random. We usually hate being called tourists, preferring the more mysterious "traveller" term. Of course, the longer we travel, the more sagious and higher up the hierarchy we are (as well as more arrogant). Seniority in a group of travellers is also dictated not on age, height or race, but by how long you've travelled. "So, How long have you been travelling for James?" "Oh, only about over two years" I say matter of factly. "Wow that's a long time!" they exclaim as I sniff pretentiously. The guy in the corner says "Really, I’ve been going for five!" The attention switches to him and I’ve suddenly become insignificant.

Then, those crazy people (usually the Germans) who just walk or hitch hike or bike ride from village to village from one end of the continent to the end of another (Europe to Asia or Africa for example). These people also usually smell.

Finally, the arrogant expats who tell you that "a week in a city is just passing through, you have to live in the city for a couple of years to really know it."(which is untrue, I’ve lived in Melbourne all my life and don't know that much about it!).

Anyway, I digress...

On arrival, I took out my increasingly unreliable Lonely Planet guide and sought out a hotel that seems to offer dorm beds which would save me money. Of course, I discover from the cute receptionist (me and hostel receptionists, its a terrible addiction I know) that they stopped having them 3 years ago! Stupid LP. Anyway, while trying to discuss possible discount rates for a single room and a date (just kidding! Really!), two English blokes walked in, with the same intention (finding a dorm bed AND chatting up the receptionist). Anyway, a quick exchange of standard traveller "where you from, how long you're staying etc" banter, pooled forces, and voila, we ended up sharing a 3 bed room for a price of a standard dorm bed. Phew!

Pecs is quite a pleasant town, but unfortunately there really is not much to see apart from the stunning 4 towered Romanesque cathedral and historical Synagogue. The atmosphere felt alot distinctly more Hungarian as there were hardly a tourist to be seen, less English spoken, and actual Hungarian meals (Though the bloody Brits insisted
on a Mexican meal the first night there.)

Oh, and did finally go to a local discotheque outside the city centre, but it wasn’t really any different to other discotheques I’ve been to around Europe. Oh well. Naturally did my standard get drunk and dance on the podium or pole dance thing I really should stop doing for sake of dignity.

After a few days I decided it was time to leave Hungary and re-enter Croatia. So, farewelled my Brit friends and, going against receptionist advice, decided to take the more macho unreliable and difficult route via bus instead of the more direct train (because I couldn’t be bothered waking up 15 minutes earlier!)


So, I caught a bus from Pecs to Barcs, a town in the border, believing naively that naturally there has to be many buses that go across the border into Croatia, where from there I could catch more frequent buses to the capital Zagreb. Boy was I wrong about that.

I was dropped off somewhere resembling the center of this village border town and was told some instructions in unintelligible Hungarian where to catch what later turned out to be an ghost bus. So, deciding that the bus was definitely not coming after an hour waiting, I ask an old lady for assistance. This started a chain reaction in the village, where I was passed from person to person like a bad penny while they discussed and debated how to get to Croatia. Soon, I had a crowd of locals around me, solving this perplexing problem. Finally, the gist I got was that I had to go to the bus station 2km down the road, cause frankly, they didn't have a clue! Oh well, at least I got them out of their morning routine.

So, walked to the bus station, while many people rode past in bikes staring at me as they passed (they love their bikes there, no one seems to walk in the town, they should change the name Barcs to Bikes! Bad joke). I got to the bus station to find out that my ghost bus actually does exist, but the 9am one I was planning to catch does not run anymore, the next and only bus across the border leaves at 4pm. But the good news is that it goes all the way to Zagreb. Great. Now, the only thing was what on earth was I going to do in this tiny town till 4pm? (it was currently 10am).

Ah, the sound of the Slavic tongue, one of my favourite languages. For some reason I find it not too difficult to learn once you get the hang of it. And the people from the former Yugoslavia are lovely, it’s a shame they are all nationalistic and hate one another (Croats hate Slovenians and Serbians).

Zagreb is a capital city that hasn’t lost its cultural charm, mainly because most people have no interest in visiting the place (the locals think the same). But it is a lovely chilled out city, with many events, such as the Red Bull BMX Marketplace Race, and the World Corporate Games, which took place while I was there.

One great thing about Zagreb was the size of their pizzas! Order a medium and you can feed an entire army! Never seen or ordered a large (jumbo) but I’m sure one could solve the problem with world hunger today!

The nightlife is excellent, though you have to seek locals to tell you the good places. Croatians I have discovered seem to be quite mellow and chilled out, but get them completely intoxicated and they become party animals! Many times you'd see me being dragged by them (literally) to the dance floor, and to other clubs nearby. Heck, I was
even piggybacked to one club from the bar by some guy as a show of admiration (can't remember what for, I think it was for being Vietnamese or something, I was drunk also )

In one of the bars I went to, I met one of the most interesting characters on my travels. He was an old funny Croatian guy who had just came out of the insane asylum that afternoon (seriously, no joke), with the mannerisms of Robin Williams, Jim Carrey and Gerard Depardieu. Couldn't stop laughing at his antics all night!

I'm currently in a prison converted into a hostel (apparently) in Ljubljana, Slovenia, with lack of sleep due to yesterday partying in Zagreb. I've heard good things about Ljubljana. Having said that, it's starting to rain...

Friday, September 23, 2005

Rural Romania

Suceava - Humor - Voronets - Moldovita - Suceavita – Sighetu Maramureti - Sapanta - Budapest - Pecs - Zagreb

Jo napot kivanok! (Hungarian for hello, quite difficult a language)

European Heaven:
-English Police
-German Mechanic
-French Chef
-Italian Lover
-Swiss Government

European Hell:
-English Chef
-German Police
-French Mechanic
-Italian Government
-Swiss Lover

Left Brasov after going bear watching, which involved driving up and down the street littered with garbage bins, the boundary between civilisation and the forest. Eventually we saw what we were waiting for; dogs barking announced the arrival of a mother and four cubs who were looking to scavenge the bins for food. Unfortunately, the bears became frightened and ran off when dogs came running out barking, and everyone’s flash photography went off.

Spent the night in a corn field in the middle of remote Romania with a New Zealand girl under the full harvest moon and the stars. Quite romantic really. We actually first met in the hostel in Sibiu, which Iulia pointed out I was flirting with (I really wasn't - It was annoying how Iulia would not leave her horrible boyfriend for me (Romanians are very apathetic, tending to put up with what they're used to), yet treated me in a way as if i were hers.) It was unexpected to bump into her in Suceava, which is a rural town in the Moldavian region north east of Romania.

Stayed in the "High Class Hostel" run by an energetic enterprising girl named Monika, famous in Lonely Planet. The hostel is just out of Suceava, in a little village surrounded by corn and maize fields, tractors, and hay stacks. Got addicted to her famous home cooking and stayed longer than planned. She gave me the last night and dinner there free because I stayed quite long. I'm going to do a revamp on her dreadful website in return, shouldn't take more than a day to fix up. She's also considering coming to Oz for the winter and I’ve invited her to stay with me in that case but I guess we'll wait and see...

Suceava isn't the most exciting city, there's an old fortress and a few churches. In fact the picturesque journey through the dramatic white cliffed forested Carpathians was more interesting. The main reason for being in Suceava was to see its famous painted monasteries of the Moldavian Bucovina region.

Monika drove us around the Moldavian region to visit the four main painted monasteries in the area. All of the monasteries were covered with painted Byzantine murals, the paint itself containing a substance scientists haven't
worked out how the paintings have remained so well preserved against the elements.

Humor is the smallest and predominantly red, and lacking a bell tower as it is a family monastery as opposed to the royal monasteries of the other 3.

Voronets is blue with a fascinating Judgement day mural containing a scroll of pagan Zodiac signs being rolled up by angels signalling the end of time.

Moldovita is yellow, and is the most picturesque and grand of the 4, with a well tended flower garden looked after by the nuns.

Finally, Suceavita, green, with a interesting mural of the ladder of virtues. All these monasteries inclosed within a fortress courtyard complete with towers, all located in some isolated part of the countryside (which isn't hard to find in Moldavia).

Maramures was pretty cool, a rural farming area, they still wear traditional dress, lots of horse drawn carriages, hay stacks scattered in the vast fields, and towns built completely out of wood. Hate to see what happens in case of fire. Here you can see farm animals who are able to walk themselves to the fields in the morning and return back to their homes at night, unassisted and unaccompanied. There's also a status thing about having over the top enormous intricately carved wooden gates in front of their houses.

Anyway, there were two reasons for visiting this remote northern area of Romania, to see the Merry Cemetery, and the see the old wooden churches famous in this region. The churches was as you expect; brown, made completely out of wood, several centuries old, with very steep wooden roofs to ensure snow does not collect and collapse the
roof in. All this usually surrounded by a beautiful peaceful cemetery.

The Merry Cemetery is a cemetery that is famous for it's colourful humorous tombstones depicting a scene of the persons life and death. There are ones showing the person in their trade, also several ones showing how the person died, such as in a car accident. This is part of the traditional Romanian way of laughing at their troubles, even death (though this is probably more older generation, the younger are just chronically depressed).

Anyway, I thought, do I go to Cluj, Oradea, or leave Romania for Budapest? Coin flips and convenient bus schedules and voila, finally made it out of 18th century Romania after a long bumpy overnight bus to Budapest, quite a change being in a big city after such a long stint in small villages and towns.

I've already been to Budapest and seen the sights, so I may just chill out and go to the clubs at night that I missed last time. I'll write about that next email.


Tuesday, September 13, 2005


Timisoara - Sibiu - Rasinov - Sighisoara - Cisnadie - Carta – Brasnov - Siniaia - Bran (Draculas Castle) - Rasnov


Romanian Sentence to Learn: Sint Dracula, Vreau satsi sug sangele!
(I'm Dracula, I want to suck your blood!)

Most tend to be very goth pale, with dark hair and eyes, and like to listen to scar punk/rock/heavy metal music (the young ones that is, and just like the Polish). They also are very good at English as they get English shows with Romanian subtitles, and tend to be chronically depressed, or just sad and melancholy, probably due to the poverty
they live in where they can't see any way out of their predicament. For example, a house would cost 100,000 euros in a town where the average salary is 150 euros a month!

They are however, a very friendly nation, since despite their poor conditions, would do all they can to ensure foreigners are comfortable. The couple I met after wandering in the dark after midnight on arrival to Timisoara walked a few kms with me to show me a cheap hotel, and also offered me to join them to a party the next day.

The next night, was invited by another young couple to their home for a home cooked dinner. Despite the dreary conditions their old little broken down apartment was in, it was cosy, and they even refused to let me buy them beers later on, continually buying me drinks instead. Amazing hospitality!

There are also Roma gypsies, distinguished by colourful free flowing cotton garments and dresses, long hair in plaits, and hands outstretched asking for money, even though most Roma are settled with stable jobs provided by the government, some even richer than the average person in Romania.

There are two types of Gypsy, White Gypsies and Dark Gypsies. The White Gypsies are generally nice unless you do business with them. They are generally very rich, having made money begging outside of Romania, and lending money with 20% interest per month to other Romanians inside the country, yet never wash, and live in wooden huts
built outside the big house and luxury car they own. The Dark Gypsies are the ones who tend to be aggressive and have no culture.

Romanians seem to like Asians. Everywhere I go I get smiles, a wave or greeting yelled out in Romanian across the street... One guy went up to me in a club and said "Hey you Chinese? I love you guys!".

And lets not mention Ilana, the Romanian girl I met in a club whose every second word while we were together was "D'amour!"

The architecture in Romania is like nothing else you'd see anywhere else in Europe (almost). Romania is very diverse in it's architecture, each town seemingly having it's own style. In Timisoara you are confronted with colourful baroque buildings but with slightly distorted or bulged black roof tops and arch windows, some buildings almost
looking Gaudi-esque/Modernist even though they are centuries old.

Headed to Sibiu, a small town inside Transylvania. Here the buildings become a lot more unusual and distorted. "The houses have eyes!". This refers to the roofs that contain (usually) two tiny windows in the attic covered by a fold of roof tiling, giving the impression that the house has eyes, quite an eerie experience as this makes the houses seem alive with character. Yes, this is Transylvania, the land of myths and legends. In this land you'd see huge fields of tall corn stalks, morning mist that seems to linger and dissipate at random, and fortified Saxon villages with similar surreal architecture, black pinched pointy roofs and towers, the perfect setting for any gothic (Tim Burton directed?) film.

There are alot of wild dogs running about, which could be the inspiration for werewolves, more legendary than Dracula and Vampires.

Did day trips to some of the fortified church Saxon towns that are scattered about the region such as Cisnadie and Rasinov. These towns consisted of a church surrounded by fortified walls for defence – the rest of the town would be built around it.

The girls in Romania always seem to melt my heart with their beauty, their gentle disposition and sweet accented voice and their below the surface melancholy that makes me want to reach out and hug them!

Sighisoara is a beautiful (tourist) town, featuring the old walled town rising on a hill, complete with churches, cobbled streets and souvenir vendors around the area where Vlad Tepes (AKA Vlad the Impaler AKA Dracula) cheerful yellow house of his birth resides. The walls of the town feature several stone towers, each pertaining to
a particular trade guild (butchers, bakers, blacksmiths etc) of medieval times. There is also a scary looking covered long dark stairway leading to the "church on the hill" above the old town. The church is nothing special, but the German Cemetery with it's many worn marble tombstones, covered with moss and dry autumn leaves from the
trees amongst the graves, is extremely picturesque and for lack of a better word, romantic.

Did a day trip to Carta with Elena (hostel receptionist) on her day off work, which is a little village east of Sibiu. Here I saw White Gypsy houses, a picturesque ruined monastery with Saxon warrior graveyard, and a very fragile looking wooden bridge on verge of collapse, which we and her sister sat around talking and enjoying the views of the river and the Carpathian mountains beyond. Later we went to her grandmothers house there, where the house's bathroom was an outhouse behind the small house warmed up by ceramic wood furnaces you usually see in museums, grape vines, chickens and a huge vegetable and plum tree garden. Got some tuica (plum brandy) from a White Gypsy women who makes it in her backyard and enjoyed the sunset in a field while watching the horses and cows come home. Quite a unique wonderful experience.

Is a very touristy place in Transylvania, a town nestled between mountains, with beautiful coloured buildings and the famous "Black Church" which wasn't very black at all. Here I based myself while I did day trips to:

A more beautiful town than Brasnov, also a ski resort, where after going up 2000m in the cable car, one can enjoy glorious views of the Carpathian Transylvanian mountains. The highlight of Sinaia is it's multi spiked stunning Peles Palace, with it's over the top interior decoration of intricate wood carved doors and walls, silk carpets, ornate furnishings and paintings and mirrors... I've never seen so much detail before, a definite favourite palace of mine.

Was a little disappointing, since Dracula never actually set foot there. Still, it looks like a castle that could be vampirish, picturesquely situated over a cliff edge. It was also quite small and very touristy.

Rasnov is more beautiful and less touristy than Bran, a fortress town with ruins set on top of a hill through stones acting as steps through the forest. The views above extend to the plains of Transylvania below...

Tonight, bear watching, followed by heading up to the painted monasteries of Bucovina, north east of Romania.
La revederie!