Archive for the 'Couchsurfing' Category

Budapest

This was possibly my most anticipated trip. I became fascinated with Budapest a few years ago after seeing it on a property development programme, of all things. It took four and a half hours to reach on the train from Linz, and I arrived at night so I was pretty exhausted by the time I set foot in the city. I was picked up at the station by Tressa, a cheerful, upbeat girl from Colorado, who is studying in Budapest for a semester. Since she had a lot of work and exams to prepare for, I only really saw her when I came back in the evenings, so during the day I was navigating and experiencing the city all by myself.

I must admit, the first thing that came to mind when I got off the train was, ‘Wow, this screams Eastern Europe’. I know how prejudiced that sounds, but it looked exactly how it is often stereotyped to look – very outdated and slightly worse for wear. I also felt really disorientated – I had no idea where I should be going as I couldn’t even guess what the signs said.

You see, Hungarian is a unique, ancient language, thought to have originated in Western Siberia. Therefore, it is related to no Indo-European one, meaning that for example if you were an English speaker, you’d have more luck understanding Sanskrit than Hungarian. Moreover, it’s considered one of the world’s hardest languages, due to its extremely complex grammar (which is another of the roots of my fascination, actually). But it does turn out that, interestingly, Hungarian is a regionally recognised language in Austria! Vienna is called Bécs

Anyway, Tressa’s place, not far from the main station in Pest (the side of the city east of the Danube), was very cosy and had many of the features that I had seen in that TV programme – for example, there was a lovely stained glass window in the kitchen. The blocks of flats in Budapest are very often centred around a courtyard, like so:

And the lobbies of even very average-priced buildings can look very fancy indeed. This one had a beautiful tiled floor which I unfortunately didn’t manage to do justice:

The most stressful aspect of the trip was, no doubt, when I was accused of riding the underground with an invalid ticket. I feel I should tell this story in full to make people aware!

At the top of each escalator going down to the trains, there are conductors whom you have to show your ticket. I had bought a 24-hour one about two hours prior to this incident. I was stopped, and although I kept explaining that my ticket was valid, I kept being told I was wrong and was just treated like a complete idiot. I was told I needed to pay an 8000 forint fine (about 30 euros), but I didn’t have this money on my person. The conductor took my passport and made a note of its details, and gave me 10 minutes to get some cash out. I was really panicking and thought, ‘$%*^, I am really in for it now’. I got out a wodge of money and zoomed back. Upon my return, I was surprised to find that the conductor apologised to me because she had misread the date on my ticket. Hmmm.

So that was a massive relief in the end, but at the time it was a nightmare. Even if you’re travelling between EU states, you should take your passport with you wherever you go – contrary to what I’d thought before – because I dread to think what trouble I could have got into if I hadn’t had mine, not least because I was in a very unfamiliar country.

Hungarian forint

But the rest of my day in Budapest was great. The downside was that I had to rush everything a bit and cram it in – annoyingly, the only train ticket I had been allowed to purchase was one that let me arrive on Thursday evening but leave on Saturday lunchtime.

On Friday morning I walked by the Danube and got some gorgeous views of Buda (the western side):

Unfortunately, I never set foot on Buda, even though it is home to some of the most famed and beautiful sights the city has to offer, such as the architecture left over from the days of the Ottoman Empire. I hear there is a castle from which you can get a view of all of Budapest. Definitely next time!

Pest is the more modern side. It is home to the Hungarian government, plus the main shopping streets. It is also much bigger than Buda, and much easier to access due to its abundance of public transport.

‘Shoes On The Danube Promenade’ – a chilling memorial to the Hungarian Jews who were ordered to take off their shoes and were then shot into the river in 1944.

Parliament Building

Hungarian Post

Sign to an underground station

This is the type of building that, inexplicably, I’d love to live in.

Ah, yes. Let me tell you about the wonderful lunch I enjoyed.

As is the case with most new cities I visit nowadays, I look up any good vegan/vegetarian restaurants that might be about. Napfényes Étterem had got flawless reviews, so I decided to go there. It was a bit out of the way, but totally worth it. I had a salad and a pizza made of spelt dough, soya cheese, pineapple and seitan cubes, it was amazing. As much as I’d have wanted to try out some of the vegan cakes that were on offer, I was absolutely stuffed. This is why I’d advise that you go on as empty a stomach as possible – and believe me, even if you are a meat eater, you want to go there! It is located in a charming little brick cellar. The staff are friendly and it was one of the only places in the city I found they could speak pretty decent English (I’d been getting by in German, which seems to be most people’s second language there). The seating is comfy, it’s well-priced, and there is lots of variety on the menu.

The entrance to the restaurant!

After that, I spent some time wandering around some back streets. It was nice enough, but this is the time I started to feel a little ill – I couldn’t stop sneezing, my whole face ached, my sandals were becoming very uncomfortable, and on top of this, the heat was unbearable. I suppose this is why I chose this point to indulge in some retail therapy. There were some cute little stores around the Astoria underground station – if you wander round they are pretty easy to find! My favourite purchase by far was this calculator watch:

It looks much better in person!

Because it had been a hot, exhausting day, I was keen to visit the thermal baths which are a unique feature of Budapest (another Ottoman relic). But I got there and they were just about to close which was so disappointing as I would have liked nothing better. So I came back to Tressa’s place – we’d been unable to properly hang out as she’d been in classes all day – and this is when things got worse. My eyes were beginning to swell up and I felt physically unable to do anything except go to bed. It was such a shame as I had been looking forward to seeing some of Budapest’s cafés and bars at night.

The next day, I had some time to squeeze in maybe one more activity before I got the train back to Linz. I went to Margaret Island, a mile-long island right in the middle of the river. I only had time to see the very tip of it, but it has some nice gardens and things like that on it. There is also an artificial beach, although personally I wouldn’t really like to dip my toes into the dirty old Danube:

Departures/arrivals at the train station, going to many countries: Germany, Czech Republic, Serbia, Romania…

Overall, I loved my trip to Budapest, despite feeling under the weather and not being able to stay nearly as long as I’d have liked to. I will most definitely be making an effort to come back and uncover more of its mystery, now that I know what I missed the first time. I have also certainly been inspired to travel further east into Europe, although this probably won’t be happening any time soon, sadly.

Graz

Just the day after I got back from Vienna in the evening, I got up at 5:30 and hopped a bus to Graz. I was able to do this because I had a couple of days off school due to a national holiday. I’d heard that Graz was a pretty cool city, but I didn’t know anyone there, so I decided to couchsurf, and once again I had a great experience.

The journey to Graz took about three hours, and it was hot, but the journey was salvaged by the beautiful scenery. When I got there, I went to where I was staying – the flat of Tom and Robert. They were both vegan, which made food absolutely no bone of contention (good pun, right?). I found out they’d be organising a show that night and the bands – Spraynard and Caves – would be staying at their place! I had already listened a bit to Spraynard, a US band, and Caves, from Bristol, were unknown to me. But their sets were absolutely great and made me a bit sad that such a scene was lacking in Linz, since it had been quite a while since I’d attended a “jumping around” show. Hanging out with the bands afterwards was also awesome. I don’t know, this whole stay just inspired me in a lot of ways, not least because such great food was provided! Before the show, there was a barbecue of vegan schnitzel which was absolutely heavenly; and then for breakfast, pancakes made of flour and soya milk, and various spreads and homemade breads.

As a city, Graz is lovely. The buildings are very pretty and probably the nicest in all of Austria. The atmosphere is very student-orientated and everyone seems to know everyone, and not in a bad way. There is a wonderful park in the middle. For these reasons, it reminded me of Ghent, in Belgium. I don’t think I wrote about visiting that city on here, but it’s in Flanders and it was so cool… if I had to live in Belgium again, I’d definitely want to live there!

This is inspired by a bridge in Paris where lovers/friends write their names on a lock and seal their relationship!

Inside Schlossberg, a mountain with a castle at the top! You had to take a lift inside the mountain to get up there, which was pretty cool.

View of Graz from the top

Riga, Dobele and Jurmala

This weekend, I went to Latvia. It was a part of Europe I’d considered visiting for quite a while for a couple of reasons:

1. Over the past few years in the UK there have been a lot of people immigrating from Latvia and some of its neighbouring countries, in order to earn better wages and to get a better quality of life. I wanted to experience some of their culture in the land it came from, especially since there is a lot of prejudice against them.

2. I’m just very interested in Russia in general, and back in the days when it was the Soviet Union, Latvia was one of the nations it occupied. Going to Russia is actually still quite tricky – you need a visa, flights are not in my current price range, and I’ve heard a lot that even in metropolitan areas not many people speak English (I’ve taken some Russian lessons before, but I’m still not really confident I could make myself understood over there). So, I wanted to see some of its influence elsewhere.

When I told people where I was going, a lot of them had no clue what I was talking about. So, here is a map:

(Sadly this is only one of the results you get when you type “where is latvia” into Google Images.)

My trip got off to a bit of a bad start. I had to pay in excess of 30 euros just to get from Liège to Charleroi Airport (a.k.a “Brussels South”… it’s about an hour away from Brussels), because I had forgotten my student train pass; and then I found out there was a bus strike, so I had to take a taxi! Also, the airport itself was probably one of the worst I’ve been to – but maybe I was just more annoyed than usual because I was already in a bad mood. The facilities were generally terrible, the building was of this weird narrow design which meant you could hardly move, I don’t know… basically, I’m just making a note never to travel from there again, which I probably won’t.

But I arrived in Riga, the capital of Latvia and indeed its only city, one time zone later. Without knowing a word of Latvian, I somehow got a bus to the street where, Zane, the girl I’d be staying with, lived (I found her on Couchsurfing). She lived on the 5th floor of a very old building which “homeless people and junkies” unofficially inhabited. On the inside, though, she had made it very cosy. I met her sister and best friend who she lived with, they were very nice people – and by the end of my stay, I felt like I’d got to know them all equally, even though I’d initially only contacted one.

We went to a bar where there was a Russian ska band playing and I tried some local beer – which was nice, and very, very, very cheap. In general, there were awesome places to go at night in Riga, even though I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you the names. A notable sight for me was a couple of prostitutes standing outside smoking and wearing Snuggies.

The next day, it was time to go to Dobele, a small town about an hour away from Riga. Zane was part of a choir and they were going to perform some traditional Latvian songs there. She had informed me of this, and said that if I wanted I could stay in Riga for the day, but I wanted to come along because really, when else was I going to have this experience?

I have to admit that going to Dobele felt a little bit like stepping into a time warp. It was very quiet, for a start. The weather was extremely gloomy. There was absolutely no hope of anyone speaking English – maybe German, at a push. For lunch, I went to a quiet café straight out of the 1980s, and had cabbage, potatoes and beans, as well as a black coffee. I took pleasure in the bleakness. In the town, there was also a ruined castle:

The concert was in the afternoon and it was very interesting. I was the only person in the whole room who was not Latvian, and therefore did not understand the speeches, introductions and songs. It was surreal. All along, I was thinking, “A week ago, how could I have foreseen myself doing this?”.

The next day, we took the train to Jurmala, a seaside town just outside Riga, still very popular with Russians. It was lovely. We took a walk out to see the Baltic Sea. However, as we walked along, a massive rainstorm ensued – and indeed, it started hailing. It was incredibly, incredibly cold. To make matters worse, we were trapped on the beach; luckily, we climbed through a gap in a fence so we could make our way back to the station. The station was one of the most grim and downright dodgy places I’ve been. Not only was I freezing, soaked through and needing the toilet at this point, but we were alone in there with some rather unsavoury looking characters. At one point one of them pulled out a knife, and the transport police walked past without blinking an eyelid.

Of course, by the time we got back, which was only about 16:00, it was dark, so I still hadn’t actually seen Riga by daylight. My flight home was at 14:00, so I needed to cram in some sightseeing the next morning. Here are some photographs I took from the brief walk that Zane took me on around the lovely Old Town:

Riga's three oldest buildings

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my trip. I honestly can’t recommend Couchsurfing enough for the lone traveller on a budget – you get to know such great people, you get opportunities and insights you may not have had otherwise, and another advantage is saving money. I would go there again, but in the summer, as my Siberian hailstorm story illustrates. And it was so cold, so bitterly, bitterly cold. I’m now very interested in the Baltic countries in general… I’m thinking a trip through Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia may be on the cards one day…

Concerts, Couchsurfing and Belgian Politics

As a contrast to all that negativity I described in that last post, I thought I would write about something good and exciting, just to reassure you that not everything is hopeless.

Going to shows of bands and artists I like is something I do pretty often. Maybe that’s why I’d been feeling so down – I need a good concert once in a while to reassure me that there is meaning in life. Just as I found out that I’d be in Belgium this semester, I started to look for things to go to. Bon Iver had announced a show in Brussels, and tickets were going to go on sale in a few days. I woke up to order them specially – noting that 10am in Belgium would be 9am in the UK – and I was very lucky, because within five minutes they were all sold out.

I’d kind of forgotten about it all until about a week before. I realised that I needed to find somewhere to stay the night, because it wasn’t certain there’d be trains going back to Liège after the show finished. All the hostels I checked out were expensive – if not too far away from the venue to contemplate walking alone to at night. I then remembered a website I’d heard about, called Couchsurfing. In a nutshell, it’s a network of travellers all around the world who are willing to open their homes to accommodate people for a night or two, who are visiting the city. It is completely safe, as members can vouch for other members and give references when they’ve met them. All it costs is company and conversation – I mean, I sure wouldn’t want to invite someone into my home without feeling like I could at least learn a little something about their lives.

I arrived in Brussels in the evening. Getting to my host’s house from the train station was not at all complicated, as I had feared. However, she was not there when I arrived, but had helpfully left a note outside the building saying that the key was with her neighbour.

The concert itself was fantastic, all that I would have hoped for from seeing Bon Iver. The audience seemed to consist almost exclusively of Flemish people – in fact, once I entered the venue, I don’t think I heard a word of French.

I came home and finally met my host – a middle-aged lady dedicated to green issues and socialism. I was very tired so went to bed. The cat kept coming into my room even when I shut the door – he would push it open with his paws! He wasn’t supposed to come in, as he wasn’t toilet trained. I must admit, I’d never thought my year abroad would come to standing up in my sleeping bag and whispering to a cat in French to get out…

The next day, my host and I had coffee, and she was able to teach me some things about Belgian politics. I did already know that the Wallonia (French) region was much poorer and had more unemployment problems than Flanders (Flemish). In the 19th century when Belgium was founded, the bourgeoisie were all French speakers, and the Flemish had little to no voting rights. Wallonia boomed industrially, while the more agriculturally-inclined Flanders lagged behind. However, during the Second World War, it was mainly Wallonia which was destroyed, leaving the economy in ruins – and despite many efforts, it still hasn’t really recovered over sixty years later.

However, I did not know that the situation was similar to the way Germany is bailing out Greece right now. Wallonians are keen to learn Dutch so that they can get jobs in a part of the country where they will earn more, but of course, the case is not vice versa; thus the two regions of Belgium are severely imbalanced. Not to mention that of course, there are a variety of parties in each language region, causing problems with efficient voting, and disputes about who should get which seat. This means that building up a government is very hard – I don’t know if I mentioned it before, but at the time I write this, this country has technically been in anarchy for 450 days.

It’s a very complicated issue, and I hope to learn more about it first-hand in my time here. But that’s the basics.

Coincidentally, in a newsagent later that morning, I found a French-language parody newspaper, similar to the British Private Eye, I guess. It made for a very interesting complement to the conversation we had; it was interesting that they could make fun of their identity crisis and political crisis.

One more thing. When I was waiting for the train to leave in Brussels, it said we’d be stopping in a place called Borgworm. We never did. By chance, I just found out now that a place we did stop in, signposted as Waremme, is called Borgworm in Dutch. I still can’t get over how drastically different some of the place names are. Here are a few more examples:

French: Mons
Dutch: Bergen

French: Lille (France)
Dutch: Rijsel

French: Jodoigne
Dutch: Geldenaken

So, before you come to Belgium make sure you look up the varying town names in the area, whether you’re driving, or using public transport!