Sunday, 30 March 2008

Budapest - Part 2

The next day we took the historic M1 Metro line to Hösök Tere (Hero's Square) and walked through Városliget (City Park) to the Szechenyi fürdö (thermal baths), where we spent a couple of hours leaping from one hot bath to another and walked away feeling relaxed but in dire need of a drink of cold water and a liberal application of moisturiser.

After a cleansing shower back at our hotel room, we headed back in the direction of the Danube in search of a bite to eat and stumbled through some of the street markets that had sprung up over the weekend. In actual fact our timing for visiting Budapest was very good, coinciding with the Budapest Spring Festival, resulting in markets such as these with excellent local food and crafts (and even demonstrations of the local music and dancing).

We continued to the river and headed towards the impressive Országház (Parliament House), the largest building in Europe when it was completed in 1905 but perpetually blackened from polution since it was built with porous limestone.

Behind the Parliament building is the Néprajzi Múzeum (Cultural Museum), which we wandered through learning about the costumes and traditions of the local people. Like our experience at the National museum, we again walked away feeling as through the Hungarians have had a pretty tough time of it.

Since we had planned to visit Castle Hill at night to see the city lights, we then crossed the Danube and headed back South towards the Budavári Sikló (Funicular) which we would catch to the top.

Along the way there was plenty of impressive views across the river.

Last but not least we walked around to the Halászbástya (Fisherman's Bastion) to compare the views from there.

We didn't stay too long, knowing we would be coming back the next day during daylight, and hot-footed it back to our hotel, stopping along the way at the Markets for some delicious grilled chicken with paprika (yeah, it's a Hungarian word, apparently) and potatos.

Budapest - Part 1

We woke up to find it grey and rainy in the morning, and while it wasn't actually snowing, it was very cold. We grabbed ourselves an umbrella and headed out for a quick breakfast. Knowing nothing about Hungarian cuisine, I had scrambled eggs with ham and Linda had black forest cake.

First stop was the Nagycsamok (Central Markets) where we had our first tast of local food, lángos, (an oily doughy thing with cream and cheese on it) and browsed the local crafts on sale.

Then we wandered up to the nearby Nemzeti Múzeum (National Museum) where we tried to actually learn something about the history this foreign country we had arrived in. It turns out Hungary has had a somewhat unfortunate history, allying with the Austrians and Russians at exactly the wrong junctures in time (I wont embarrass myself by pretending to be an expert in Hungarian History).

That night we headed out for dinner at Menza restaurant, which is a very nice modern restaurant with enough of a repulation that meant there was quite a long waiting list. Somehow we got a table, due to some strange arrangement with our hotel, and examined the menu. I think I got a bit more lucky with my choices than Linda, who somehow ended up with a cheesy bread roll in a cheesy sauce for starters (the rest of the meal was very good), and we left the restaurant completely stuffed and in need of a digestive walk.

We walked down to the Duna (Danube River) by way of the Szent István Bazilika (St. Stephen's Basilica) and took photos of the famous Széchenyi Lánchíd (Chain Bridge) and Vár (Buda Palace) before succuming to the cold and heading back to our hotel.

Budapest - Prologue

Last December, when I choose the weekend for our trip to Budapest, I thought I was being really clever. I picked a weekend at the end of March, when Spring should be starting to take hold, and with one of the days being the 23rd, which was relevant to Linda's Birthday (for which this was a present). Also it was about as far ahead as was possible to book a flight via Easyjet.

It wasn't until I went to book my holidays in our vacation system at work, when I requested Friday and Monday off and it showed zero days of leave consumed, that I realised I had booked the trip on Easter weekend. This discovery resulted in some panic, as I had no idea what Easter in Budapest would be like; and whether I should have possibly have chosen somewhere more ostentatiously religious such as, I don't know, Italy?

Anyway I did a bit of quick research and determined that not everything would be shut, and indeed Budapest would have at least some Easter-oriented traditions, so decided I did not need to cancel all my flight and hotel bookings and start again from scratch. Then it was then just a matter of 3 months anxious waiting for the actual trip to see if it would be a disaster or not.

Finally it was the end of March and we were due to head off. I had heard there was some cold weather heading for Switzerland, and when we got on the train to Geneva there was snow all over the ground and it had obviously been snowing heavily during the day. Easyjet is not the most reliable of airlines at the best of times and the snow storms inevitably delayed our departure; went spent our time shuffling from seat to seat and eating dodgy airport food.

We'd read all sorts of advisories about Budapest - that we were sure to get ripped off as soon as we arrived - but actually we got ourselves some local currency and a cheap taxi to the hotel with very little fuss. In any case by the time we got to the hotel I was a little fazed by the whole travel process and I think I upset the check-in guy when I absent-mindedly failed to acknowledge that our room had been upgraded. Anyway I guess it's important to set low expectations with the staff from the very beginning.

After the requisite time exploring the hotel room, peering out our window at the view (Linda reminds me it was even snowing when we arrived!) and checking the prices for the bar fridge, we took to bed in preparation for an early start our first day in Budapest!

Friday, 14 March 2008

Skating in Vevey

At the start of winter they set up an ice-skating rink in the main square of Vevey, and every time we walked past it we kept saying that we should have a go.

It was meant to finish up at the start of March but it got an 'extended season' so we figured we better get around to it before it finally closed up shop.

I think it is safe to say we are not natural ice-skaters; even with all my rollerblading experience the ice still seems quite strange and difficult to get used to.

Anyway there was a wild storm raging outside, and the sun kept peaking through the clouds over the choppy lake making for a very dramatic setting.

We finished up just in time before a group of helmet-clad children to come onto the rink, no doubt to do a better job of skating than us. Anyway, for us the important thing is we got on and gave it a go!

Thursday, 6 March 2008

Les Diablerets

The other day I spotted an ad in craigslist for some second hand skis. I arranged to meet with the very nice man who was running the nestle seniors ski club and who was selling the skis belonging to some workers who had been relocated outside of Switzerland.

The deal was almost too good to be true - located in Vevey, they were the right size, in excellent condition, and he even had some matching boots that by some miracle fit my feet (ski boots are notoriously difficult to fit).

We asked if he also had some skis for Linda, which he did, and which were in even better condition than my ones, although unfortunately no matching boots for Linda (we bought them separately). Anyway, we were now suddenly and unexpectedly the proud owners of a full set of ski gear and therefore had to go skiing!

A friend at work recommended Les Diablerets since it has been quite warm recently and Les Diablerets is quite high altitude, while still relatively close to Vevey. Anyway I had always wanted to go there because there is also a lift to Glacier 3000 - unsurprisingly, a glacier at 3000m altitude.

We made our way there by train, queued to have our ski bindings adjusted at a rental shop (internet advice for adjusting bindings is: "take them to a professional"), and hit the slopes!

Okay so the snow was a bit slushy (definitely spring skiing) but the cover was good and the slopes were about right for Linda to find her skiers legs. Unfortunately Glacier 3000 was closed because of the wind at that altitude. On the plus side, the views over the mountain range were amazing, it was sunny and warm, and where we were there was no wind at all!

Tuesday, 4 March 2008

Val d'Anniviers

A few times now Linda has gone off to various parts of Switzerland on her own, usually for some job-related activity. So far she has visited to Moudon, Bern, Geneva, Leukerbad, and I guess one or two other places. The other weekend, however, Linda was tied up with work and so it was my turn to have a solo adventure.

In my French class we had been shown a picture of Val d'Anniviers, near Sierre in Valais (just up the road from where we live, really). I didn't really know anything about the place but covering it in French class seemed like as good a reason as any to visit it.

I jumped on a train to Sierre, and then caught a postbus along the steeply winding road up the valley to Chandalin. From there I caught a lift to the top of the mountain, and then climbed on foot to the top of the nearest hill, which was bare of snow after some warm weather.

The view from the top was amazing. There was no clouds, no wind, and it was warm enough that I managed to get by in a t-shirt. I had a little picnic and took plenty of photos of the view before walking slowly down again.

Eventually I made my way back down into the town and caught another bus to Grimentz. I was disappointed that I couldn't catch the lift up the mountain because it was getting too late, but anyway I had gone to Grimentz because the town is meant to be one of the most picturesque in the valley, rather than for the mountains.

I walked around the town admiring the old challets with their burned-black wooden frames and strange, elevated floors. It would be an amazing place to come in the depths of winter, with snow covering everything, but I'm sure in summer it would be equally as attractive a town.

Soon enough it was time to start heading home and I climbed on another postbus to Sierre. It was getting dark but I thought I should have a look at Sierre before going home, which generally gets ignored as an access hub for the valleys, so I tried to locate a couple of the Chateaux mentioned in my guidebook. I found them, without a map and in the half-light of dusk, and they certainly improved my impression of the town. Inevitably, I ended up taking a cross-country bolt in the dark through some private vineyards in order to make my train home.

It was certainly a fun adventure but, of course, less fulfiling than it might have been, without Linda to share it with.

Saturday, 1 March 2008

Basler Fasnacht - The Rest

Since it has taken me a couple of weeks to post just our first day in Basel, I am now massively behind in my blogging so I will cut to the chase in this post.

Due to the cumulative effect of our our pre-dawn adventures in the town and the red wine at dinner the night before, Monday got off to a slow start. We had a late breakfast with our generous hosts and then took our little car to the hostel where we were going to spend the second night.

We took some time to wander through the town where the pace had picked up from the night before and the orderly marching was replaced by a rowdy procession with band music and confetti, sweets and, for some reason, oranges being thrown around.

We got ourselves nicely lost a few times but the old town of Basel is quite small anyway it is fun to get lost sometimes.

In the evening we went out with Linda's friends to an Italian restaurant in a very nice part of Basel they are thinking of moving to, filled with tudor-style houses. By the time we got back to the hostel we were well and truly ready for bed. There were a few tense moments while a family with small children turned up in the room next door but fortunately the noise levels dropped quickly and we dropped off to sleep.

The next day was a bit more of the same, only more so because more shops and sights were open (Monday was a public holiday). We did some more walking about the town watching the antics of the processions (amazing they can keep it up for days on end) and visited the Munster cathedral, where we climbed up the tower to look down on the city and the lanterns that had lit up the town on Monday morning.

Eventually it was time to go, and we made our way back to our car past still more masked revelers.

We took a slower road home, via Solothurn, which is a very nice little town with some good chocolate (as though there is a shortage of good chocolate in Switzerland).

On reflecting on the time, I guess I was surprised that the celebrations were so relentless, but also impenetrable as the masks and the language barrier kept you away from understanding the event or the people. It was a spectacle, to be sure, but next year I think we may travel to Lucerne where their celebrations have more of a reputation for inclusiveness.

Lots more of my photos from Basel can be found here.