europe of the east

Ancient tunnels ring
With wind on stone, and beers sing,
With kings on the throne.

Okay, so I didn't actually cheers with any royalty this week.

I did, though, go on vacation.  ;)

A long time ago, in a distant land (by which I mean "Poland," if you subscribe to the rumours of such a place), I was on a train from Oświęcim to Kraków.  I met a few kids from Croatia and we socialised.  Later, one of them (Igor Canadi) and I became friends on Facebook.  It was fine; one of those encounters that's nice to remember on occasion.

Almost a year later, I find myself with a week of vacation and am pointed to an ingenious $30 flight from Geneva to Split, which is in southern Croatia.  Igor lives in Zagreb, which is a 5-hour, $30 bus ride away.  He says it's okay if I stay with him, and that he'll even show me around.  The flight back home is poorly timed... but, lo!  A flight from Budapest to Geneva at a reasonable time is just another $30!  What a deal, kids.  I go.

Patrick, my former roommate in the Llama School, is in the process of his own grand Europe tour: a hitchhiking, dumpster-diving, sleeping-in-parks whirlwind from Geneva to Zagreb and back.  Not my thing, but to each his own.  Anyway, cheap flights are convenient for everyone!  Not to mention that the fact that I have an accomplice ensures that my mom won't have a heart attack every time she thinks about me.  :)  Hi, Mom.

Adventure, go!

We land in Split, which is an adorable town most of the way down the Croatian coastline.  It's about 19h40 when our plane touches down, so it's getting... well, dark.  We did a poor job on our bus research: the next reasonable bus to Zagreb doesn't leave until 23h30 and doesn't arrive until about 5h30.  But that's okay!  This is a city I'd never been to before, either, and the chance to eat some Dalmatian food (the Dalmatian Islands are right there!  RIGHT THERE!!) and adjust to the crazy-looking local language is something I jump at.  We smell the Adriatic Sea and walk along the harbour.  I think the last time I smelled salt water was my summer at Google, which is more than a year and a half ago now.  It's very refreshing!

We had some pizza at a local pizzeria (of note: the "American pizza" at this restaurant featured French fries and bacon as toppings) and searched out some Croatian beer to tide us over for the bus ride.  A couple days prior, in Geneva, I had stumbled across a beer called Ožujsko that claimed to be Croatian.  We were warned sternly against this beer during our time in Split.  "If you want beer, the red one!" cried the shopkeeper woman as we reached for the yellow cans we recognised.  Karlovačko was the correct drink around these parts.  So we drank some and sat on a park bench by the water for a while, watching crazy teenagers walk by.

The bus ride was looooooong, but I slept.  When we disembarked in Zagreb, I was totally confused about time and day and verging on sick (I guess it was allergies of some variety... dammit, Geneva!), plus my phone has been out of credit for weeks (I can still receive calls in Geneva, which is enough..) and Patrick's ran out when his parents called from the States (since I thought you could receive calls for free anywhere... shiiiii-...), so it was 6am on a Sunday morning when we happened to bump into a fellow sitting at a bus stop who let us use his phone to call Igor and get picked up.  Igor'd been out at a birthday party until we called him, so... we all slept until afternoon.

In the succeeding days, I learned a lot about Zagreb and Croatia in general.  Another of Igor's friends had a friend in town, so he played tourguide for a day and showed off the Old Town (both of them: Zagreb was two cities for a long time), his university, the Coffee Street (more on that later), and the government seats, as well as an amazing view of the skyline from a hill just outside town.  There were also some rusty cars and old buildings to poke around in.  He gave pointers on other things to do around town, including visiting Zagreb's lake (Jarun), sitting around drinking coffee, moving to another café and drinking more coffee, going to the Naïve Art museum, finding another coffee somewhere, and hanging out with him and his Uni friends.  We played poker (I killed), watched English movies subtitled in Croatian (egad, cannot read!), went to a local student bar, and tried our luck at a casino.

We also learned not to drink Karlovačko.  Ever.  Ožujsko is the only way to go in Zagreb. It's brewed there.

Croatia is super laid back, and even according to Croatians, everyone there is lazy.  The cafés were always full of people dreamily watching the world go by.  It wasn't a bad lazy, though... it was... nice.  :)  A meandering through the botanical gardens, a nap on a hill in a city park, a picnic, a trip to the lake, some coffee here or there... I loved it.  And all the Croatians I spoke to were super friendly and kind.  I sort of expected "Eastern Europe" when I visited, but Zagreb at least was really westernized, and everyone spoke English and was eager to help a lost American girl.

I had to get to Hungary to catch my flight home, and Igor was heading that way for a programming contest he and a few of his peers had won a spot in.  The train from Zagreb to Budapest was just another (gasp!  the symmetry!) $30, which is totally reasonable.  Patrick decided to come, too, since he didn't have anything to do for a while and hadn't been satisfied with his last trip to Budapest.

Hungary basically spent several days kicking the shit out of me in various ways.  Well, every "really Hungarian" thing I tried did, anyway.  We'll start with the stuff that was pleasant first, though.

The hostel Patrick and I stayed in (Igor and his pals were being funded by their school, so they got a fancy place in a hotel) was ADORABLE.  AGHHHHHHH.  If you go to Budapest, STAY THERE.  It's just called Art Hostel.  It's basically a converted flat, and there are just 9 beds (5 in one room, 4 in the other), so it's not unreasonable to get to know other people staying there.

Budapest is almost absurdly gorgeous.  I am actually, in fact, shocked that more people don't go on and on about it: it's basically Paris, but everything is about 20% as expensive.  Maybe less.  We bought a 2L bottle of beer for about $1.50.  The buildings are old and stately, the bridges are sweeping and wonderful, and the culture can certainly be felt through the tourism.  There weren't, in fact, that many tourists.  It was amazing.

Most hilarious thing: Signs.  Especially signs about money.  The Hungarian currency is the forint (roughly 200 forints to a US dollar), and that is abbreviated ft.  This leads to amusing confusions, for instance when a taxi cab company advertises 150ft/km.  Hahahahah!

Things I really loved: the Parliament building (although we didn't make it inside... entry is only free for EU residents, which Patrick is not), the view from the Citadel (didn't go in, but from atop the hill there one can see everything on both sides of the beautiful blue Danube), the Budapest History Museum (Saturday is Student Day, so you can get in free!  Lots of the exhibits are only in Hungarian, but just having the chance to explore parts of the Royal Palace is great), the coffee (an adorable café about 100m south of the roundabout at the Budapest tunnel was my favourite place), the moustaches (amazing!), foosball (which is apparently "the sport" to play in Hungarian bars, and to which I was challenged during a stint in one), the cemetery (Budapest's cemetery is probably the creepiest I've ever been to.  It's basically situated in a forest, and seeing graves intermixed and overgrown with trees and vines and bushes is HELLA SCARY.), and the prices.  :)  I believe that for food, drinks, lodging, and entertainment, I spent south of $150 for 5 days, which is pretty damn okay.

So what's Hungarian that kicked my ass?  Well, what do you think of when you think of Hungary?  Traditional Hungarian liquor, goulash, and saunas, am I right?

On traditional Hungarian liquor: it's called Unicum, and it's the devil.  Patrick and I got tipped off that this was what was drunk around those parts, and so we each bought a half litre of the stuff.  Let me tell you that that's a terrible idea: it's 80 proof and it tastes like chewing on a cedar plank.  Of note: it is intended to be taken as a chilled shot after dinner as a digestif.  DO NOT DRINK IT LIKE WE DID.

On goulash: This is actually not what you think it is.  Goulash is a soup.  The real Hungarian thing is called pörkölt, and it's basically a pile of meat and fat mixed with some potato noodles.  I am a pansy little vegetarian girl in general, but I do like trying local cuisine when the opportunity presents itself, so I decided to go for this. As you may be able to imagine, the results were none too pleasant.  I did get through a whole bowl and keep it down, though, so I'm proud of that.  Of note: after eating this, it is super important to sit the hell still and drink a coffee or beer so that it can settle in your poor stomach.  I promise it helps.

On saunas: The last day in Budapest, we went to a Hungarian bath.  The complex was situated in a building that was of... well, schizophrenic architectural style.  Whatever, that's fine.  In the centre, there are two large pools: one regular swimming pool and one thermal bath.  This is nice.  There are also stands peddling freshly-squeezed orange juice for 250ft.  But, lo!  There are also labyrinths of baths inside to be swum in!  They range in temperature from 16 degrees (Celsius, or 60 degrees F) to 40 degrees (104 in F).  And.  Saunas.  The saunas ranged from 45 degrees (113 F) to 100 degrees (212 F).  That 100 degree sauna?  Kicked my ass.  All the way out the fucking door.  But just outside, there was an ice machine where people stood around and smeared ice on their bodies after emerging from the sweltering heat.  Did you know saunas smell like licorice?

p.s. all photos are in my new Picasa page: http://picasaweb.google.com/valkyrie.savage