Archive for November, 2011

25
Nov
11

a fools guide

I’ve wrote a number of times during this blogs life that I’m not a huge fan of the guidebook. There’s something quite condescending about being told by Lonely Planet or the Rough Guide writers what you ‘must do’ or ‘must see’ whilst in a country or a city. They usually include obvious tips such as a visit to the Eifel Tower if you are in Paris or that curry is a must eat whilst in India. Basically it’s the inclusion of the damn right obvious things to do whilst visiting a new place that annoys me. Anyone with half a brain cell has heard of France’s number one attraction and that eating spicy delicacies whilst in India is a done thing.

When you have stepped foot in thirty odd countries buying a guidebook for each country or territory is an expensive thing to do at £15 a time. Usually I just book a hotel with good reviews on location, accessibility and confirmation a lively nightlife scene is nearby before letting the rest take care of itself. Sure, if I’m visiting somewhere I know is not renowned for being touristy I will take the plunge and purchase a guidebook. But for this trip involving four major European tourist friendly cities I didn’t see the need. Besides with Fred in tow, complete with his marvellous sense of direction, even a map isn’t always required.

Bratislava was so small you couldn’t fail in your attempts to find the so called ‘must see’ attractions before stumbling upon numerous cheap, atmospheric bars. But on first inspections in both Vienna and now Budapest we both agreed that a guidebook would have aided us greatly in finding the livelier parts of town. Take Vienna for instance, we found plenty of bars and pubs that seemed to be all much of a muchness – middle class Austrians drinking overpriced pilsner beers in pretty characterless watering holes. A quick look online soon pointed us to ‘dirtcheap.com’ Vienna and we stumbled happily into ‘Landsknech’ which was a bar that will go down in the memory bank as one of the best nights on this mini trip. On our first night in Budapest we naturally assumed all the nightlife would be down by the Danube. After an hour’s walk in sub-zero temperatures we gave up on our search and retired back to the hotel feeling slightly disappointed with what the Pest part of Budapest had to offer. Again, checking online at a travel website we soon realised that the one area in our part of town we hadn’t looked round was notorious for those charming, stay in the memory style pubs we had been looking for. Perhaps a guidebook has the clue in the title; a ‘guide’ book is what it is, no more or no less. Maybe I should embrace it more? After all it would certainly stop redundant freezing cold winter walks through Central Europe’s elite cities!

I’m making this week sound like a booze cruise (or a booze train trip) so I better let you know what else has been going on besides drinking copious amounts of our new favourite drop ‘Borsodi’ whilst in Hungary’s capital.

Our train from Bratislava to Budapest was delayed for more than two hours so we ended up catching the next scheduled train as opposed to our original timed train which, incidentally, had still yet to pull in on the adjacent platform when we finally pulled out of Slovakia’s capital. I’m not sure the 13.54 ever did get in…..The arrival at Budapest train station was again like something out of a film set. The tannoy was overawing in an almost Soviet manner. I’d imagine the station hasn’t changed since the day it was erected such was the dated feel to the place.

Budapest was a much more attractive city by night. On our long, cold, fruitless walk looking for something resembling an old town drinking scene we had the fortune of walking along the banks of the Danube long after the sun went down. Hungary’s capital is very beautiful by night; the recently developed castle hill area and grand National Museum located high above the river were stunning pieces to view after nightfall from the other side of the river. The Parliament building located round the corner from our hotel was an almighty structure, again lit up magnificently at night.

Budapest is actually named after two ancient cities, Buda and Pest – both separated by the mighty Danube. Makes sense I guess. By day the city felt like it could do with a lick of paint and a clean-up. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t an ugly city by any means. It certainly wasn’t an eyesore like parts of Calcutta or Jakarta – some of the architecture was superb. It just felt a little dated. We were also discussing the lack of greenery in the Pest in particular, especially when viewed from the top of castle hill, home to, you guessed it – Budapest castle.

Eating here was dirt cheap – our favourite eatery was almost soup kitchen meets student pub in character. The table cloths, walls and chairs were a nasty green colour and the cheap crockery made an awful echoing sound with every cutlery meets plate situation. This didn’t detract from the awesome nature of the food dished up alongside Budapest students that ate alongside us, with their vouchers and all.
Back to the drinking scene (didn’t take long did it?) and I can happily report the findings of a bar called ‘Café Haverok’ that served Borsodi in pint draught form for the bargain price of 280 Forint (about 75p) This was a tiny bar in the Jewish quarter, just opposite the synagogue. Its landlady was almost Peggy Mitchell-esqe with her bleach blond hair and layers of make-up. The bar was home to a couple of old boys sharing cigarettes in between played cards and supping cheap booze whilst the landlady herself was busy making jam sandwiches for an even older guy who seemed to around for the company as opposed the booze. It was a cracking find, not suggested in the Lonely Planet – unlike the ‘Instant’ nightclub that wanted 200 Forint each to hang up our coats that was suggested by the backpackers bible as being a ‘must do’.

Confirmation of it only being a ‘guide’book.
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Postscript – I’m posting this on the 25th November and realised it is one year ago to the day that England started their successful defence of the Ashes down under. For those of us lucky to have been present in Brisbane last year, then latterly the other four venues, I’d love to take this chance of thanking the England team for those brilliant memories they gave us in convict land! Not that any of them will read this but hey, who cares!! We won the Ashes!!!
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22
Nov
11

beer in bratislava

Sometimes you get a feeling the moment you arrive in a city that it is going to be pretty quiet. Arriving in Slovakia’s capital city on a freezing winter Monday morning was never going to be the time of the week where you rock up and think, ‘wow this place is where it is, there is so much happening here’. It was quieter than your average midweek day in Hereford High Town. And to be honest that was no bad thing.

We explored our second capital city inside a handful of days with no hassles or annoying Japanese or American tourists getting in the way of photos of the redeveloped castle on top of the hill. There were no annoying travellers banging on about this, that and the other in any of the many pubs or bars that we frequented in our twenty four hours in Bratislava. Perhaps Bratislava is always this quiet, given the lack of security at the President’s palace located next door to our hotel I’d suggest Monday morning or not, this is a capital city that is used to quiet times.

Our original (rough) plan was to catch the twin city fast boat between Vienna and Bratislava. When we turned up at the docks on the Danube in Austria’s capital it was pretty clear from the boats inactivity that they were shut up for the winter. Instead we took the 50 minute train journey for 14 Euros that linked the two capitals together. Apparently they are two of the closet capital cities in the world with just forty miles separating the two hubs. They train ride was pretty uneventful – think any train ride in the UK through flat fields and drab, misty weather. The highlight was undoubtedly boarding the train to see a baseball cladded gentlemen jump off to take a photo of the train – cue hysterical screams from his two (you guessed it) American daughters who thought their dear ‘Daddy’ was going to be left stranded in Vienna forever and ever. If that’s the drama he has to put up with at home then if I was him I’d of kept on walking, hoping the train would leave the panic ridden teens to toughen up or ‘chillax’ as Fred put it.

Wow, that was an old school Hereford Rich travel rant. I enjoyed that.

Anyway, after a short look round the castle and a walk through the compact old cobbled streets of the old town we decided it was beer o’clock. Bratislava has many things that Vienna did not – cheap, welcoming bars. Don’t get me wrong, Vienna had some very nice places to have an afternoon tipple; they just weren’t those warm, welcoming, cosy places you crave on the road, especially when it’s minus three outside. We consumed plenty of local beers at rock bottom prices, the cheapest being a pint of Zlaty for 1.40 Euro (£1.20) This was more like it on the beer front! Vienna was almost like being back in Australia at times with the high cost of ale. It might be viewed as typical Brit abroad, but when it’s so wintery outside there is nothing better than getting slowly drunk in one of these bars with such charm and character – especially on a Monday afternoon when the rest of the world is working.

If bars or coffee shops aren’t your thing then I’d suggest Bratislava in November is not a place for you. You can walk round the old town and its surrounds in no more than an hour. It was as small as it looked on the map. I enjoyed the twenty four hours I had in Slovakia and I have a feeling I’ll be back, even if it is a boozy stag weekend.

Especially at 1.40 Euro a pint!

21
Nov
11

the land of punsch

Or punch, as we know it back home. The best way to try and cure cold hand, nose and general face syndrome in freezing cold Vienna is to hang out at the many Christmas market or street vendor stores who sell sweet, warm cups of ‘punsch’ to willing travellers and locals. We think the main ingredient was gin, though whatever was mixed in with the fruity tonic was more often than not strong enough to give you the energy to tackle that latest stroll round the city.

And what a fine city Vienna is. Think ridiculously large and grand buildings. Think impressive churches and cathedrals. Think sausages. Everywhere you go, if people aren’t smoking (another keen pastime) then they are munching greedily on ‘wurst’.

It’s definitely the time of year to visit this part of world and not just so you can justify spending your Euro’s on warm alcoholic beverages. It just feels like it should be cold here. And it is cold, minus three this morning when we were trying not to look lost whilst searching for the temporary railway station that we finally located on the outskirts of town. With the build up to Christmas and the dozens of craft stalls littered inside the markets, I’m more than happy to be wrapping on several layers, scarf and gloves in Austria’s capital city as opposed to visiting in the summer months.

It was a much bigger place than I envisaged. The underground metro system was a godsend, saving frostbite from kicking in after those standard adventurous walks around the main sites the city had to offer. We took a journey to Schönbrunn which was home to the emperor of Austria until the early 1900’s. Apparently this was one of Mozart’s favourite places to play a gig or two back in the day when classical music ruled. The palace’s gardens were massive, giving the chance to climb up a hill where you could see the whole of Vienna in a far clearer and impressive manner than the view from St Stephen’s Cathedral that we’d climbed the previous afternoon.

My other favourite part of Vienna has been the brilliant sized portions of food served up. Wiener schnitzel is becoming a favourite dish of mine. We stumbled upon a tiny bar called ‘Landsknecht’ in the cheap part of town where we feasted upon this local delicacy whilst surrounded by pissed up, very proud Austrians. Every song that played on the jukebox seemed to involve singing the words ‘We love Austria’ as loudly as possible…..nearly as good as the Barmy Army boys singing ‘Jerusalem’ after a long nights boozing! The bar had great character, sized similarly to a skittle alley with only a handful of tables. The chef (who looked like the local Peggy Mitchell) was soon seen joining in with the singing, drinking and dancing with the locals as soon as she’d done her work cooking our tea!

Sadly cheap bars have been at a premium here. We finally stumbled upon a bar yesterday afternoon which was exactly what we were looking for. It was the kind of place that obviously hadn’t had any work done to it since it opened. There were three or four old men happily sat doing the Sunday Crossword whilst supping a Zwickl or a Gösser beer and (as standard) having a fag. There was no pool table or quiz box to be found, only several board games including a chess board. Not having played chess since my defeat in the latter stages of the 1997 National Primary School Championships (I’m not sure it was called that but I’ll roll with it) I wasn’t expecting to beat my Oxford graduate opponent. An hour or so later I found myself celebrating a two nil victory!

Vienna was cool – as ever when I visit a new place I always say that the biggest compliment I could give a city is that I’d happily go back and recommend it as a place to visit. If only for the punsch…

19
Nov
11

guess who’s back, back again

A wise woman once said to me that I should feel very fortunate to have Europe on my doorstep. A remarkable fifty whole sovereign states all located within a three to four hour flight from any English airport. Living in Australia the only place she could get to in that time scale was neighbouring New Zealand.

It left me asking the question why is it that until now I’ve only visited nine of these ‘on my doorstep’ countries in my twenty five years on this planet? Even that count up is somewhat of a cheat by including the United Kingdom (where I of course live) and Germany and Belgium of which I’ve only visited thanks to cheeky trips courtesy of the Company I work for.

I guess there are a couple of obvious reasons. First of all the majority of my time I spend away from the UK involves spending my money watching the England cricket side. As no other nation plays test cricket in Europe it’s no surprise that my count hasn’t been helped by several trips to the Asian sub-continent and expensive tours to the glorious Caribbean. Any miserly annual leave left over from work has been used up on the odd city break here and there, but this still hasn’t ever given me adequate time to explore my home continent properly.

This was up until now. After eight months away from the world of blogging it is time Hereford Rich made a return. With no test matches scheduled until the New Year and already having treated my missus to a holiday in the Algarve this summer, I found myself in the rather brilliant position of having a week’s annual leave to treat myself to one of my favourite things in the world – travel for the sake of travel. I think I proved last year that I’m quite good at that, so why not give it another go closer to home; albeit for a much shorter time.
I’m still fitting shit loads in though. Four new countries in eight days to be precise!

It’s gonna’ be a great chance to have a look round Central Europe in the company of my good old travel buddy, Fred. We’ve shared time in some weird and diverse places in the world. From staring in awe at the beautiful Cambodian countryside to the humbling gas chamber experience of Auschwitz. We’ve shared food from the vendors dotted across the mesmeric ‘Djemaa el Fna’ in Marrakech to downing late night ‘Rigan Black Balsalm’ earlier this year in Latvia, chatting about all things life until the sun came up. For us both this will be an opportunity to feel like a proper backpacker again, even if it is over such a short time span.

We’re setting off in the knowledge that we only have a flight out to Vienna and a flight home from Prague. No internal transport has been booked; no real research has been carried out. All we know is the names of the hotels we are supposed to be at each night across our four European cities of choice and that we plan on an overnight train from Budapest to the Czech capital on the Thursday night.

I’m writing the final part of this chapter sat on the same train that I wrote ‘and now the end is near’ some fourteen months ago. It’s mindboggling to even comprehend all that has happened in that time so I’m not even going to bother! This time last year I was chilling on the wonderful isle of Gili Trawangan in Indonesia with a couple of cricket mates preparing for the Ashes tour, now I’m back on the road (or rail), backpack and all, ready for another adventure. It might only be a week but bring it on!




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