Archive | March 2011

Mount Sinai

Sunrise

I climbed Mount Sinai. All 2,285 metres of it.

And it nearly killed me.

Mount Sinai is believed to be the mountain that Moses climbed when God gave him the Ten Commandments. He climbed it alone, and stayed there for 40 days and nights.

I climbed it overnight with six other travellers, a Bedouin guide and Minah, our chain-smoking tour guide from Embah Safari.

After a two-hour drive into the desert, we started walking at 1am. The landscape looked almost alien, lit grey by the moon, so bright that it could have been a floodlight. The route was dotted by stone houses inhabited by Bedouin – the floors were carpeted and blankets were draped along the walls, some of them less traditional than you’d expect (one had Looney Tunes mattresses lining its roof). The houses act like little convenience stores for tourists, each holding about 30 cans of coke, 10 bottles of juice, 10 cups of instant noodles and an assortment of chocolate bars.

Most of the climb wasn’t too bad – we took a gently sloping path and frequently stopped in these houses. What was difficult was that this meant we didn’t rest anywhere for long enough to have a nap, and I’d been up since 6:30 the previous morning and had done two yoga classes before the journey.

But I was okay.

It was the last half-hour that got me. There are four paths up Mount Sinai. One of them is a stairway of nearly 4,000 steps. We needed to take the last 750.

The steps are pieces of uncarved stone that were put into the mountain side by a monk. They are not even. There is no railing. And some of them are a little loose.

Our altitude increasing more swiftly than ever before, it wasn’t long before I started puffing. A little later my legs started to ache and, when we made out final stop before the summit, I was feeling awful. Weak, shaky and my empty stomach heaving, I didn’t know if I could make the last 100 steps, and I was scared that I’d fall on the way down.

But I made it!

At 5:45 (4 hours and 45 minutes of climbing, including stops, and I’d been up for 23 hours and 15 minutes) we reached the summit. And I felt so sick that I couldn’t enjoy my triumph. Why couldn’t Moses have climbed a different mountain?!

Luckily I quickly stated to feel better, and had a front-row seat for the sunrise.

When we arrived there was a band of yellow across the horizon – a second horizon created by the fog that morning. Through the mist the mountains seemed indistinct and elastic, like waves in the darkness.

Soon we could see the sun through the fog – first just a pink crescent, then a ball rising as the deep blue of the night sky receded.

Then the sun broke through the haze. It was blinding, the circumference of its rays expanding and it reached into the sky. It rose slowly, yawning and stretching as it woke, and a French couple next to me commented that, although it had a charm of its own, it wasn’t the Alps.

Going down was much easier, and I chatted to Minah happily as the new sun bathed the mountains in a golden light. White fog curled around the mountains like tendrils of smoke, and it swallowed us up as we descended.  Engulfed by the vapour, it was like we were in a crystal ball before the future materialises.

At the foot of the mountain is Saint Catherine’s Monastery, which opens at 9am (we were at the front of the line, there nearly an hour before it opened). The monastery looked beautiful, with bricks the same colours of the mountains, small archways that led to different buildings and tranquil gardens enclosed in courtyards.

I just wish we could have seen more – the only parts open to the public are some of the gardens, the Chapel of the Burning Bush, and the courtyard with the Burning Bush and the Well of Moses (you can also see the Museum of Holy Icons, but you needed to pay extra for it and it wasn’t in my budget).

The Well of Moses is an underground spring that supplies the monastery with water and is said to sit on the spot where Moses met his future wife, Zipporah. According to the monks, it never dries up.

The monastery also houses a bush believed to be the Burning Bush – yes, the one from the Bible when God first speaks to Moses. The bush comes from the rose family called Rubus Sanctus and is extremely long-lived. The Chapel of the Burning Bush was built over the roots of the bush, and the fortress-like basilica was built around the chapel in 542 AD by Emperor Justinian I to protect the monks and the chapel from Bedouin marauders.

I’m glad I went – not because I’m religious, but because Mount Sinai and the monastery are such culturally and historically significant places.

That being said, I will never climb that mountain again.

Mt Sinai views

Mt Sinai views

Saint Catherine's Monastery

Saint Catherine's Monastery - the Bell Tower

Moses Well

Burning Bush

 

Saint Catherine's Monastery

Dahab – yoga holiday

Coral Coast Hotel

At £290 (plus flights), this yoga holiday was definitely the most expensive part of my holiday and, if I had have known what would happen with Bénédicte then I probably wouldn’t have booked it.

But part of me is glad that I didn’t know in advance, because the break was wonderful.

Coral Coast Hotel

Eighteen of us stayed at a hotel on the beach called Coral Coast and did yoga in a studio where you could hear the waves break on the sand. The hotel was lovely but what made staying there incredible was the staff – I’ve never felt so welcome, or taken care of before. Every morning when our rooms were cleaned, our pyjamas were folded under our pillows (my roommate, Michelle, went as far as to say that she thought hers had been ironed) and our towels were folded into works of art – one day a rose, the next a swan, then an elephant, a heart, a fertility symbol and a lizard!

Towel origami – apparently the cleaner spends so much time on the towels that he sometimes doesn’t get around to cleaning.

The days went like this –

7:00-7:40 – unguided meditation

8:00-10:00 – Scaravelli yoga and meditation

10:00-11:00 – breakfast buffet! Fruit salad, yoghurt, bread, pancakes, cucumber, tomatoes, feta, boiled eggs, omelettes/scrambled eggs, falafel and more

11:00-5:00 – free time. I usually spent this walking around Dahab, reading or lounging about in one of the hammocks on the beach

5:00-6:30 – Scaravelli yoga and meditation

6:30 onwards – free time

It was so relaxing – at the first meditation I started panicking – how could I stay in one place for seven days with nothing to do?! I was going to get bored. I could have been using this time to travel somewhere else!

By the end of the week I found my mind starting to still. Michelle, the yoga teacher was wonderful. I felt my flexibility was coming back and, with two desert trips, I felt like I’d used my time there well.

Being with the same group for the whole week also created a sense of community – on our last night we had a 80th birthday celebration for Judy, whose birthday was on April 27th (that morning her towels were folded into a tiered cake, decorated with flower petals), in Coral Coast’s Bedouin tent on the beach and shared the most amazing cake (sponge with berry and cream frosting, a jellied berry filling and a chocolate brownie base, decorated with fresh strawberries). It was the perfect way to end the week and, when I reached Lisbon yesterday, I was a bit sorry to be back in a hostel.

Bedouin Tent

Ali Baba

Dahab was quite small – about a ten minute walk along the beach from Coral Coast you reach a touristy area of shops and restaurants on the beach with thatch roofs where people stand out the front of each door trying to persuade you to come inside. I ended up getting free bottles of water (really necessary in the heat) every time I sat down with one man to talk about his fiancée, and I got into a ritual of giving another man two kisses every time I walked past.

The best restaurant we visited was Ali Baba – with a main we were given free starters and a free fruit salad for desert (a standard deal in the area) and we sat on the water, under a roof strewn with fairy lights. The service was wonderful, and at the end of the meal the waiters brought over a large brass bowl with halved limes resting on a central landing. One by one we lifted our hands over the bowl to have lime juice squirted over them, and then had the juice washed off with warm water poured from a long-spouted brass jug.

Unfortunately there wasn’t much to Dahab outside of this area – immediately behind the beach front the landscape is almost desolate, with abandoned construction sites stretching into the desert. But it’s a nice place to go for trips into the desert, snorkelling, diving and general chilling out.

Istanbul – sights

The Hagia Sophia

Inaugurated in 360CE (though the current version was built nearly 200 years later) the Hagia Sophia was originally a church, and then was converted into a mosque, before becoming the modern-day museum. After it became a mosque in 1453, it was a model for many other mosques in the same style, including the Blue Mosque and the Süleymaniye Mosque.

The last time I saw the Hagia Sophia they were doing some renovations, so it was covered in scaffolding and I couldn’t really see what all the fuss was about, and I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to go back. However, as it’s a ‘must see’ in Istanbul, I obligingly went along with Madeline, Tom and Amir, smiling like a parent taking her child to the zoo for the first time.

Then I entered, and I was the one who gasped. It was breathtaking.

Lights hang from the ceiling on wire frames shaped like flowers, bathing the colossal central nave in a golden glow. Large black disks decorate the pillars on the second level, each inscribed in gold with the names of Allah, the Prophet Muhammad, the first four caliphs and the two grandchildren of Muhammad. Without meaning to, I broke away from the others as I tried to inhale the essence of the building, my eyes as wide as a child’s and my heart beating furiously. At several moments I was moved to tears – when I saw the gold religious mosaics on the upper gallery, when I wandered through the quieter, cooler stone corridors, and when I looked back towards the entrance from the opposite end of the mosque, I was overwhelmed by the Hagia Sophia’s size.

The Blue Mosque

The only mosque in the world with six minarets, the Blue Mosque is one of the most beautiful things I saw in Istanbul, and I wish I had a photo that did it justice. Its name comes from the blue tiles that decorate the interior, which form intricate patterns around the arched stained-glass windows. Apparently more than 20,000 tiles line the interior, and rings and rings of lights hang from the ceiling in bell-shaped cups of glass.

Unlike the Hagia Sophia, this is still an operational mosque, which means that you need to remove your shoes in the courtyard before entering (though they weren’t that strict about women covering their hair), and you also aren’t allowed in at prayer times. However, there are tourists rushing in and out almost constantly, snapping photos as they balance the plastic bags carrying their shoes on their wrists. I really wish some of them would have been more reverent – I felt a bit like they were letting the mosque down.

Topkapi Palace

After buying my ticket for Topkapi Palace, I stopped to take a photo of the gate.

A man approached me. “Would you like a tour in English?”

“No thank you, it’s too expensive for me,” I said.

“But it’s free for you!” he exclaimed.

A slow smile spread across my face as I asked, “why?”

He shrugged, “because you’re a beautiful girl, and it’s always nice to have a beautiful girl on the tour.”

Half-an-hour later, when he had found a Swiss couple who wanted a tour, I tagged along for free! We entered the first courtyard, and he took us to a model of the palace and began telling us about its history. I didn’t hear much, though, because a school group of about fifty children came up and started calling out “hello!”

“Hello!” I replied with a smile.

One girl introduced herself and asked my name.

“My name’s Jolie.”

“Where are you from?”

“Australia!”

They giggled amongst themselves and the girl lifted her camera in question. I nodded and we had our picture taken. Suddenly there were fifty cameras out! I stood next to child after child, unsure about which camera to look at, and hoping that the cosmetic-free shots would look decent.

“Jolie,” the tour guide called as he moved away.

 

After four more snaps I untangled myself from the group and rejoined the tour. I could finally enjoy the palace – though I kept a safe distance from all children thenceforth.

Although the tour was interesting, I really preferred wandering around alone. One thing I did learn was that in Islam, simplicity is considered to be beautiful, so most Islamic architecture is very simple. However, in the 18th century, European styles came into fashion, so the palace now has many French-style embellishments that were added in that period. He also said that Islamic architecture is always asymmetrical – as only Allah is perfect, they didn’t build symmetrical buildings. This means that many doors are off centre, with a different number of columns on each side and quite often the columns are in different colours. And this is something you can see everywhere – the Hagia Sophia was originally a church, so is quite symmetrical, but when the four minarets were added, three of them matched and one of them didn’t. The Blue Mosque is also an example with the six minarets containing different numbers of galleries (I think four have three galleries and two have two, but couldn’t find anything online to confirm this).

So the palace is very simple (in comparison to European palaces) and beautiful. Divided into a number of courtyards with large gardens, it’s very soothing and open and feels a world away from the city. Because many of the palace buildings are surrounded by colonnades, they don’t intrude on the gardens, but seem very airy. And the walls of the final courtyard extend out to the water, affording wide views across the Bosphorus.

Some of the buildings house museums, or items from the treasury (including the second largest diamond in the world), or porcelains or the Sultans’ kaftans, while others are furnished as they would have been when people lived in the palace.

The Basilica Cistern

The Basilica Cistern is an underground cavern of 9,800m2 capable of holding 800,000m3 of water. Rows and rows of stone pillars run up and down its length, all 336 of them 9m high and 4.9m apart. People walk over the water on raised wooden walkways. The only lighting is from the bottom of the pillars, which were lit by amber lights shining up from their feet – they illuminate the sides of the pillars and reflect against the water. It’s really magical.

Süleymaniye Mosque

I stumbled onto Süleymaniye Mosque by accident. Having gotten a bit turned around between the Spice Market and the Grand Bazaar, I found the second largest mosque in Istanbul when I was trying to get back to the hostel. The Süleymaniye Mosque was designed as a complex consisting of the mosque, a hospital, a primary school, four Qur’an schools, a medical college, a school for the learning of hadith (narrations about the words and deeds of the Prophet Muhammad), a public kitchen, a road-side inn and a hamam.

I feel so privileged that I was able to see it – with cream walls, red carpet and little arched windows, it’s completely different to the cool, cellar-like stone of the Hagia Sophia, and the mosaic tiles of the Blue Mosque. Excluding the warm floral designs on the central dome, and the small signs in Arabic, the only decorations were red or blue strips around the arches between the pillars. The simplicity only drew attention to its size, so big that the rings of lights hanging in the centre of the mosque seemed like a solar system.

Dolmabahçe Palace

Built from 1843 to 1846, Dolmabahçe Palace is on the European side of Istanbul, and was the first European Palace built in the city.

Unlike Topkapi Palace, Dolmabahçe Palace was very ornate with fourteen tonnes of gold-leaf gilding the ceilings and countless chandeliers made of English crystal. The largest hall in the palace is stunning – with moulded pillars, beautifully painted walls and the largest Bohemian crystal chandelier in the world, weighing in at 4.5 tonnes. The central dome has been painted to look as though it is a part of another building, so it resembles stone arches that look out onto a garden or courtyard.

Unfortunately you could only see the palace as part of the tour, and you weren’t allowed to leave the group due to security concerns, so it often felt like we were being herded around like cattle. I much preferred Topkapi Palace, where I could roam as I pleased.

Istanbul

Blue Mosque - view from Hagia Sophia

This is my second trip to Istanbul.

My first was two years ago. Having just broken up with my first serious boyfriend, I spontaneously booked a trip to Istanbul to get away from London and to get him out of my mind.

Big mistake. Everywhere I turned, I saw things that he’d love and I wished that he was there. A couple of Turkish men offered to show me around and, when one of them commented that the Basilica Cistern was “very romantic”, I burst into tears.

I knew it was time to leave and, 25 hours after I landed, my return flight took off.

So I was really curious to see what Istanbul would be like without baggage.

It was amazing – I joined forces with three Americans (Madeline, Tom and Amir) from Cordial House Hostel and I spent the first day and a half with them in a state of euphoria. Because I’d been here before, everything was familiar, but it all seemed to be sparkling new.

The Blue Mosque was stunning, the Basilica Cistern was eerie and mysterious and the Hagia Sophia was so beautiful that I grew teary as I walked around the golden corridors.

Then I broke away from the Americans for a bit and started accepting offers of local hospitality – I sat down in carpet stores, souvenir shops, travel agencies and laundry back-rooms for apple tea and conversation. I saw Whirling Dervishes, ate seafood and went dancing with one local, and had a home-cooked dinner with another. I was given food samples, a pair of earrings and an evil eye pin for free.

And all of this was because I was open to these offers. I think so many tourists shut down when a local shows some genuine interest in them. All I had to do was accept, and I got to hear about people’s relatives in Australia, or what I should do before I left Istanbul. True, some of them were interested in more than a smile and a conversation, but they were all completely honourable when I refused.

I was staying in Sultanahmet, between the Blue Mosque and the Grand Bazaar. Sultanahmet is always what comes to mind when I dream of Istanbul – the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque mirror each other across a large garden area with curving paths for pedestrians and a fountain that is lit in different colours at night. It’s the perfect place to enjoy a two lira pastry from one of the nearby patisseries, and the mosques are an awe-inspiring sight at any time of day.

The Grand Bazaar is worth visiting once, but it’s not really my cup of tea. A covered maze of shops selling scarves, leather bags and jackets, jewellery, and trinkets for tourists, the vendors can be quite aggressive. Although it’s entertaining, it makes it difficult to window shop. And as it’s a popular tourist destination, you’ll be paying tourist prices.

However, if you venture onto the surrounding streets and head towards the Spice Market, the prices come down and the people are much less intense. I loved the Spice Market – stalls display pyramids of spices, tea leaves, dried fruit, nuts and Turkish delight and the vendors are happy for you to try before you buy.

Madeline and I got stuck tasting Turkish delight in Develi Baharat Spice Centre, and I left with a kilo of it – cubes of sugar-based Turkish delight dusted in icing sugar and coconut, and rolls of honey-based Turkish delight that they cut into cubes with scissors. There were two vendors working, one who spoke English and one who didn’t. Osman, the one who spoke English, battled with Madeline over prices for half-an-hour (I’m a pushover – give me free samples and you have me) while the other one insisted on calling us both Jennifer, no matter how many times we repeated our names. In the end, Madeline and Osman locked horns over one lira, and Osman said he would drop the price for a kiss on the cheek – I happily obliged.

The European part of Istanbul is across the river – when I crossed the Galata Bridge there were dozens of fishermen lined up on each side, with buckets containing their catches. I inhaled the scent of fresh fish, tickled that I could actually see where the ‘fresh fish’ I’d eaten the night before had come from. I took a short hike to the Galata Tower then walked to Taksim Square along Istklal Caddesi.

Spice Market

Istklal Caddesi

Karaköy Güllüoğlu

Asian side - market

This may seem obvious, being the European side and all, but I was shocked by how European it was! Istklal Caddesi is a long pedestrian shopping street full of brand-name shops in late 19th and early 20th century buildings with an old-fashioned tram running its length. On the way back I popped into Karaköy Güllüoğlu. This is like the Ladurée for Baklava – shiny walnut tables with gold bars and rows and rows of Baklava on display in shiny glass cabinets. I was served by an adorable boy with braces who selected 400g of Baklava for me, and also gave me an extra chocolate piece (mmm!) as a gift after I talked to him about kangaroos.

I also visited the Asian side of Istanbul, taking the 20 minute ferry from Eminönü to Kadiköy. Unfortunately I couldn’t get a map for the area, so didn’t really know what there was to see, but still enjoyed wandering around for a couple of hours. It was like a completely different city (though I couldn’t say which one) – large streets filled with modern shops selling clothes and accessories, and smaller streets with punk shops and some selling household goods like Tupperware and balls of wool. Near the water, there is a group of market streets selling fresh fish, fruit, vegetables and olives. What I liked about this section was my relative anonymity – having been in Istanbul for five days at this point, there were a number of men in Sultanahmet who knew me and would stop me in the street to talk. Although this was fun, it was nice to have a break from it all.

I think my favourite part will always be Sultanahmet, but the entire experience was exhilarating. If you get a chance, go to Istanbul.

Bucharest

Bucharest has no signs!

When I got off my train from Budapest at Gara de Nord, I looked for signs to the metro (also at Gara de Nord – don’t worry, I wasn’t expecting directions to some random station).

Nothing. There were signs for ticket sales (also inadequate – domestic and international sales are in two different halls and the signs don’t say which is which) and a few other things, but nothing that would help me.

Unfortunately my hesitation immediately made me a target for taxi drivers searching for a fare.

Unlike in Budapest, where a simple headshake was enough to dissuade the men chanting “taxi, taxi”, in Bucharest they started following me. I kept walking, saying “no” repeatedly until they wandered off. However, one persistent man wouldn’t budge, so I turned back to him to say that I was looking for the metro.

“You go to the centre of city? I can take you, very low,” he indicated a small price with his thumb and index finger.

“Smaller than the metro?” I asked.

“Very small.”

I shook my head.

“Okay – the metro is at the left,” he pointed to that side of the station.

I turned left but couldn’t see anything, so followed the footpath around the car park. Then . . . an M sign! Above a descending flight of stairs!

The metro also had no signs, and it was the same case when I returned to the surface – I knew which street I had to take to get to my hostel, but I came out at a big intersection with no signs. After about 10 minutes I found one – white and rusted with faded blue lettering and partially covered by the overhanging leaves of a tree, but it was the right street!

After being unable to find my next turn, I realised it was on the wrong side of the road and I was going the wrong way.

I eventually reached Happy Hostel and found the other extreme:

They were everywhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And check out the overuse of exclamation marks!!!!!

Finally settled in, I could see Bucharest. I visited The Palace of Parliament, The Village Museum and The Romanian Peasants’ Museum, as well as doing some general wandering.

Palace of the Parliament

Village Museum

The Palace of Parliament is worth a visit for its size alone – with a floor area of 360,000m2, it is the world’s largest administrative building for civilian use (the Pentagon is the largest administrative building for military use). It is also the world’s heaviest building and the world’s most expensive administrative building, with the costs of the structure estimated at USD4 billion in 2006. According to a Romanian guy on the train from Budapest, the communist government built this to send a message to the western world:

“Look what we did! Communism = awesomeness! You capitalists suck!”

Unfortunately the tour was a bit dry – it focussed on the facts and figures regarding the size and the architecture, whereas I wanted to learn about the gossip, conspiracies and politics.

Arc de Triompf

The Village Museum was a really relaxing way to spend a morning (though afternoons are said to be a bit hectic). Founded in 1936, since then buildings have been moved from rural Romania to this outdoor museum, so it’s like wandering around an eclectic Romanian village. The Peasants’ Museum was more traditional – artefacts from around the country on display, and scary women on guard to ensure you don’t touch or photograph anything.

 

Roman Athenaeum

In general, Bucharest felt unfinished to me. True, there are some lovely areas, where you can see why it was once known as “The Paris of the East” or “Little Paris”, but so much of it deteriorated under the Communist Party that those names are no longer accurate. Restorations have started taking place, but the work is slow and patchy, especially in the Old Town.

 

Old Town Church

In the Old Town there are some beautiful streets that have been completely restored and house expensive cafés for tourists. Then there are some cafés that are sparkling new neighbouring the abandoned shells of former shops, or buildings where the ground floor has been renovated to accommodate a shop, but the upper levels are crumbling. Some of the roads have their centres gouged out and are bridged by wooden planks, and several cobblestoned streets are so deep in mud that you can’t see the stones under the tyre tracks. And there are piles of rubble everywhere.

In some ways, this adds to the charm – I followed an old Romanian man across an unstable boardwalk into an ancient church to listen to the singing on Friday afternoon. It was spell-binding – one man’s poignant yodel reverberated through the small church and onto the street, while the second man hummed in harmony. And I worried about getting mud on the floor.

I think Bucharest is a place I’d like to return to in a few years, once the restorations are complete. I’m looking forward to the finished product.

Banking in Paris – more drama

For some reason, BTL pays our final month and holiday pay by cheque.

This means that, if you are leaving the country the next day, you need to organise a bordereau de remise de cheque, which allows someone else to deposit the cheque for you. I organised this before I left (it’s basically a book of deposit slips that needs to be completed with the number of cheques being deposited and their value) and asked Imogen to deposit it. Both BNP and Renée at BTL told me that I needed to sign the back of the bordereau de remise de cheque, so signed about four in case there was a problem.

Because I hadn’t heard from Imogen, I assumed everything went through last week. Until today – I checked my bank balance (-€159.73) and the my phone, and I had a message from her:

I’m afraid your bank has refused the cheque because it’s not signed. . .

This makes no sense to me – the reason I needed someone else to deposit the cheque was because I wouldn’t be there at the time I received it, so how was I supposed to sign it?! Luckily I’m going back to Paris in April, so if I can’t organise anything now at least I know I can do it then. But what if I’d gone back to Australia immediately after I finished working? Wouldn’t I have been paid?

Unfortunately, I was expecting this money to come in last week, which means I’ve been spending the money that I had. So my bank balance is in the negatives, and I’m not sure how long BNP is going to allow me to continue to withdraw funds.

It might be time to give the ‘mummy and daddy bank’ a call.

 

Update:

BTL said they could post the cheque to me, and I could sign it and post it back to them. However, my hotel in Dahab, Egypt (my next destination) said that the cheque might not arrive before I left, so it looks like I’ll have to wait until April 5, when I’m back in Paris.

Cultural differences

I had the same experience when I arrived in and when I left Sofia.

A man approached me at the station, asking where I was going.

I said I was fine; I didn’t need help.

He then opened his jacket to show a yellow visibility vest with an ‘information’ logo stamped on it. “I’m train information – where you going?”

“Tram line 9,” I said hesitantly.

“Okay, I’ll take you,” he picked up my suitcase and carried it down the stairs. He chatted to me as we walked to the tram and I grinned at how nice and helpful he was.

He took me up to the platform. Then he asked me for money.

The same thing happened on the way out, except the man had a photo ID on a lanyard. The second time I was much more insistent about not needing help, but he walked ahead of me the entire time and by the time we reached the platform it seemed harmless to let him drag my suitcase.

Then he, too, asked for money.

At the time I was shocked and insulted – because of their uniforms, I assumed that they were salaried workers doing their jobs. I thought they were just doing me a favour and, when they asked me for money, I felt as though someone was trying to charge me for directions. Back home this would be completely unacceptable. And I didn’t even ask for help.

I also thought they should have said at the beginning that this was a paid service they were offering – leaving the money until the end felt dishonest to me.

In contrast, to them this was completely acceptable. Like a waiter expecting a tip for good service.

The second time I was slightly more prepared so, when he asked for money, I said, “excuse me?” with raised brows.

“Money, some leva or euros or Australian dollars?”*

“No,” I said firmly.

“But this is good advice I gave you,” he motioned to the train and to my ticket. “You have the train; you know you don’t need a seat reservation . . .”

“I already knew these things – I checked them twice. I didn’t need your help, I didn’t ask for your help, and you should have told me you were expecting money before helping me.” I explained. See? Perfectly reasonable.

“But I gave you good advice,” he argued. See? Perfectly reasonable.

I’m curious about what you think – what would be acceptable in your world?

Am I a spoilt, selfish brat who should have given them a few euros? Are they con-artists trying to take advantage of people who look like easy targets?

Or is it just a difference of culture?

 

* Note – I don’t look wealthy at the moment – my jeans are hanging off me, my suitcase is falling to pieces and everything is in need of a wash (especially after an unfortunate yoghurt explosion yesterday)

Ice cream

Streets, the ice-cream brand, seems to have a different name in every country. In the UK, it’s Walls. Other names include Algida, Eskimo, Frigo and Heartbrand.

But I think I’ve found a winner:

  • 2 heartbeats magic*

Congratulations Bulgaria :p

 

* Grammatical question of the day – what’s wrong with this phrase?

Budapest – House of Terror

A security guard nodded to me as I approached the House of Terror. The doors opened automatically and I stepped into a hall. Sombre music sent a thrill through me – in the few moments I was standing there, the three low notes seemed to permeate my skin. As I write this on the way to Bucharest, I can still hear the melody in the train’s rumbling.

After unsuccessfully trying to get a discount ticket (you need an ISIC card, not the Youth card – the full price was 1800 HUF), I was in.

The House of Terror is at 60 Andrassy Boulevard (a UNESCO listed street which leads from downtown Budapest to the Heroes’ Square), in the building that housed the headquarters of the Hungarian Nazis in 1944 and the communist terror organisations, the ÁVO and ÁVH between 1945 and 1956. During the communist occupation, the organisation outgrew the building and stretched over the entire block. The cells beneath the buildings were connected in a labyrinth of prison cells.

The museum started on the second floor and finished in the basement, each level forming a square around a model of a tank and three floors of black and white pictures of the communist and Nazi occupations’ victims. Several rooms followed this theme – black walls with silver text, black and white television screens, dim lighting and chilling music. There was a film showing the spread of German power across Central and Eastern Europe, and then the spread of the Soviet regime as the ominous music played – it was almost delicious, how well they fit together.

I loved the darkness – it drew me in with morbid fascination and I felt like I was holding my breath as I waited for what came next . . . and then I entered a room that was well-lit with a hardwood floor. I felt cheated – this was the House of Terror! What happened to all of my doom and gloom?!

Although it’s a great museum, and there were several more murky rooms ahead of me, I felt like the bright rooms broke the atmosphere, making it a less powerful experience.

Finishing in the basement was incredible, though. Concrete tunnels and prison cells have been accurately reconstructed below the building. Towards the end of the museum there were some video interviews with former prisoners. Two of them stayed with me: one was an old woman crying about why this had to happen to her, and saying that she had been living in fear ever since. The second was of a man who was tied up for two hours a day during his imprisonment next to some sort of heater/furnace. He said that he asked the guard to move him because his hand was burning, but the guard just laughed. Then (on the video) he uncrossed his fingers and I gasped – there were two fingers missing from his left hand.

The second last room is the Hall of Tears, which is hauntingly beautiful. Tall and slender black crosses stand in a dark room, each one with a light shining where the bars cross.

‘The terror’s former house demonstrates today that sacrifices brought in the name of freedom are never futile. From the fight against the two murderous regimes, the powers of freedom and independence have emerged victorious.’ Museum brochure

Budapest

Budapest was more expensive than I expected it would be. I’ve found that European countries that aren’t on the euro, and have such high exchange rates that you feel like a millionaire, are often cheaper. Hungary, or at least Budapest, wasn’t one of them.

One euro gets you 272 forint (HUF), but you go through it very quickly. On the first day I spent 10,870 HUF (about €40) – way over my budget. On my second day I was very good – 390 HUF (about €1.45). On my third day I gave up – how could I be in Budapest and not visit the Parliament, the House of Terror or the Opera? (I didn’t get to the Parliament – our schedules didn’t align – but the intention was there.) I also bought my ticket to Bucharest for 14,620 HUF (a seat, because I was too poor for a couchette), which meant that I spent €70.42 on day three. The budget was officially blown.

Sigh. Hopefully Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey are cheaper.

The thing is, whenever I wasn’t worrying about money my trip was so much better.

On my first day I was quite good – I knew the 72hr public transport ticket (3,850 HUF) would even out, and that I would only do the thermal baths once. It was only after buying food that I started to worry.

The second day was also good, but I found myself distracted as I started to get hungry, wondering whether I could really afford to buy something decent, and I found myself going up to expensive attractions and turning away.

Never one for self-deprivation, on the third day I was back.

But enough writing about money – let’s go onto Budapest!

I arrived at 9am on Tuesday and was greeted by Aurélien, Pierre from Warsaw’s friend. After dropping my things at his place, we walked around the city and he even let me sit in on one of his classes (he’s teaching French at a school in Budapest). I sat at one of the desks behind the students and, although he didn’t call on me, I think I could have kept up with the thirteen-year-olds.

Afterwards we visited the Dohány Street Synagogue and Jewish museum (admission was 850 HUF with my Youth card). This is the first synagogue I’ve visited in my travels and, upon entering, I couldn’t help but exclaim “wow!”

Built in the 1850s, the vaulted ceilings of Europe’s largest (and the world’s second-largest) synagogue tower 43m high, with two levels of balconies on either side of the nave. Huge chandeliers hang from the centre of the ceiling and smaller ones hang over all three levels.

Next to the synagogue is a small graveyard – the bodies of Hungarian Jews were buried here in a mass grave, and people who knew some of the victims’ names put small tombstones in the garden. There is now also a small monument and a plaque on the back wall with a more complete list of names. If you continue behind the synagogue, there are three monuments to the Holocaust – a free-standing stained-glass window, a wall of little arched holes named for the victims filled with pebbles, and the Emmanuel Tree.

The Emmanuel Tree is a weeping willow made of stainless steel and silver, and was design to resemble an upside down menorah. The names of Hungarian Holocaust victims are engraved on 4000 of its leaves.

After Dohány Synagogue, we visited the thermal baths at Széchenyi Spa (prices start at 3,100 HUF). The spa’s walls enclose a large courtyard with two hot pools (34 ºC and 38ºC) and a swimming pool (28ºC) – on a chilly night, plumes of white steam flew into the air like fog, and being under the water was like being in front of the fire, wrapped in a doona with a hot chocolate in a storm. Inside there are several saunas, a cold-water pool, as well as several thermal mineral baths, each with different minerals and, consequently, different smells. After soaking in a mineral bath, Aurélien asked if I wanted to try a sauna (I’d previously said I loved them, and he said he hated them).

“Sure, but maybe the 60ºC one – I haven’t been in a sauna for a while.”

“No,” he shook his head. “The hottest!”

“Okay,” I quailed inwardly, “how hot is it?”

“80ºC.”

We hopped in with the intention of staying for ten minutes. After seven, Aurélien said he couldn’t take anymore and had to leave. I gratefully followed him out, relieved that I hadn’t been the one to back down. Afterwards we both agreed that it nearly killed us.

Unfortunately we had to go back outside to return to the locker rooms, and those thirty seconds across the freezing pavement in bare feet were unbelievably painful.

Over the next two days I was by myself and, along with general wandering around, I visited Buda Castle and its surrounds, the State Opera House, the City Park and the House of Terror (which I’ll write about in a separate post).

Buda Castle rests on a hill over Budapest and houses two museums, and there are three more in the district, though you don’t need to visit them to appreciate the area. I spent a few hours wandering through the streets and to each of the castle gates (one which looked like a wrought iron spider’s web with a crow resting on top), admiring the elegance of the castle as well as that of the green, yellow and white buildings in the surrounding area.

My favourite part was the Fishermans’ Bastion – the fortress protecting the castle, right behind Matthias Church. Constructed entirely in white stone, the bastion looks like something from a fantasy film. Walking through the white colonnades and looking out over Pest, I felt like a dragon could land on one of the towers at any moment and whisk me away.

The State Opera House (1,900 HUF with student/Youth card) is gorgeous with red carpets, green, pink and grey marble, frescoed ceilings based on Greek mythology, and gold-leaf. Although it was supposed to just contain Hungarian materials, it used timber from Croatia and marble from Italy as well (there is also fake-marble from Hungary, which is more expensive than the genuine stuff).

At the time of its construction, 1875-1884, the State of Hungary ran into financial difficulties, so most of the funding came from Habsburg Emperor Franz Josef. He gave the money on the condition that the completed Opera House would be smaller than the one in Vienna. With 1,200 seats it is about half the size of the Viennese Opera House, but twice as beautiful (according to the tour guide).

Apparently this Opera House has some of the best acoustics in the world – as the pillars on the auditorium’s balconies carry sculptures of angels holding instruments, the legend is that the angels join in the performance every night with their instruments.

At the end of Andrassy Boulevard, the City Park is worth a visit too. This is where Széchenyi Spa is located, along with Heroes’ Square, and Vajdahunyad Vára. Vajdahunyad Vára is a castle built for the 1898 world fair – it hosts an agricultural museum, but I just went to admire the buildings.

So Budapest was awesome, the budget was blown, and I’m going to try to behave myself in my next few destinations.