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Caving, bathing and partying in Budapest

Posted: 2006-09-02 13:03:32, Categories: Travel, Hungary, 752 words (permalink)

A truck spreading soap-suds on the crowd in the Budapest parade In Budapest I skipped a few museums and went for some activities instead. The first one of them was a trip to Matyas-hegyi cave under the hills of Buda. It was a labyrinth of tunnels in the limestone. My earlier visits to caves on this trip often consisted of walking behind a guide who turned on the lights in different chambers and pointed to stalagtites. The Matyas cave didn't shine in the number of stalagtites but the tour was much more fun. It was still a guided tour but in a small group with our own lights, climbing and crawling through narrow passages for two and a half hours.

The best part was in the end when we were already coming back towards the entrance. Following the suggestion of our guide we turned off our lights to stand in the dark for a while. However, our group wanted to continue forwards without the lights to experience caving blind. It was quite interesting. After a while I had impressions of vaguely seeing some of the walls but several times it failed — I couldn't fully trust my vision. And in any case it was completely impossible to see anything of the other members of the group even if we were just centimeters apart. The guide knew the cave quite well: he only took the wrong turn very shortly once while navigating without light.

Budapest is also home of a couple of famous thermal baths. I went to check out Szechenyi Fürdö. It was a huge building filled with different baths, most of them inside but some big pools outside too. As a Japanese onsen fan I would have preferred still some slightly hotter pools (the warmest one in Szechenyi was 38°C). They also didn't have a clue on how to build saunas. A few free hints: you don't warm up a sauna using metal electric heaters with no rocks to throw water on, you don't use dark-coloured ceramic tiles to cover the floor and leaving an opening under the door or next to it would help in air circulation. Nevertheless, the bath was worth going to, and the impressive almost 100 year old building contributed to the athmosphere.

My funniest day in the city was Saturday Aug 26th, when the Budapest Parade was held. The idea of such parades is to load a number of big trucks with sound equipment and drive them slowly along a big street closed from traffic while the crowd around is dancing and having fun. The Budapest event was smaller than Love Parade in Berlin but still one of the biggest in Europe. Year 2005 estimate was 600 000 people attending. I don't know the estimate for this year, but the number of trucks playing music was 34. It was a lot of people but not too many: there was still enough space to dance and move around.

The parade wanted to diverge from the original Love Parade idea and not only be a techno music event. Thus there was a samba dance show (which I missed) and many trucks playing disco hits rather than trance or other purely electronic tunes. Still, the one gathering the most enthusiastic crowd behind was a techno truck. Another particularly good one was the last of the lot which was equipped with a big soap-suds cannon. It was fun to dance under the white rain, see the picture. Most of the people, however, had come just to stand by and watch the procession, only a small percentage really joined it in any way. There was also less eye candy in creative costumes than in some other parades I've been to. The Street Parade in Zurich in 1999 was the best in that respect.

The afterparty of the Budapest parade featured plenty of DJs plus a couple of live acts of international fame and I had fun there too. A pleasant surprise in this age of increasingly paranoid security checks and stupid regulations was the lack of any in the afterparty. There wasn't any queue to get in, nobody wanted to go through my pockets or even my backpack at the entrance, and taking photos in the event was permitted.

The best part of traditional sightseeing in Budapest was a walk from the top of Gellert hill to castle hill and further to Moskva Ter in the evening. The view of the city lights over the Danube river was fascinating. Now I'm already in North-Eastern Hungary, enjoying the last days in the EU before crossing the border to Romania.

Blog software upgraded

Posted: 2006-08-29 02:18:49, Categories: General, 143 words (permalink)

In an effort to get rid of a nasty bug which forces me to use dirty tricks when posting to my blog I just upgraded the blog software to the latest version. Unfortunately it didn't fix the bug (which seems to be somehow related to the set of software running at my web host, because I cannot reproduce it on my own computer) but brought a few other small improvements.

It is now again possible to leave comments on the posts, but I will need to approve the comments before they get published. The reason for that is to prevent comment spam (there was a lot of it when it was fully open), not censorship. Otherwise, not much should have changed. If you notice that something is broken, please drop me an email and I'll try to fix it as soon as possible.

A taste of luxury

Posted: 2006-08-27 15:39:40, Categories: Travel, Slovakia, Austria, 592 words (permalink)

Breakfast buffet at the Crowne Plaza hotel, BratislavaUsually I don't have problems choosing what to have for breakfast. Most often I eat some bread, cheese, youghurt, vegetables and fruits I've bought the previous day, accompanied with tea which I can prepare using my gas cooker when camping or by boiling water in the kitchen if I'm staying at a hostel. When staying in pensions or private homes I've had several breakfasts prepared for me as well, in most cases either some ready-made sandwiches or bread with a choice of cheese, cold meat products and vegetables.

In Crowne Plaza Bratislava you could point out which ingredients you'd like for an omelette specially made for you, and proceed to fill your plate from an abundant selection of bread, pastries, cheese, meat, fish, cereal, vegetables, fresh fruit, puddings, you name it. If you wanted to start your morning with a glass of sparkling wine — sure, it was included — or maybe you'd go for the more usual selection of fruit juices, coffees and teas for drinks. The picture on the right shows a part of the breakfast buffet.

The three night stay in Crowne Plaza was with my mother and two brothers; my father was too busy with his work and couldn't come. We spent in total six days together, splitting the time evenly between Vienna and Bratislava. We don't usually go for the very top end accommodation and our hotel in Vienna was more modest, but in Bratislava it ended up so as a result of some other hotels being full and my family finding an acceptable price on the Internet for the more luxurious option.

The higher standard of the rooms and especially the breakfast buffet was the largest materialistic difference to my usual days when traveling. We naturally also had good dinners together in restaurants, perhaps slightly more classy ones than I mostly go to, but even when traveling alone I quite often go to a restaurant for a nice three course meal with drinks. One of my basic guidelines in both cheap and more expensive countries is to spend more money rather on food than accommodation.

The main thing during that week was naturally to meet my family members, but we also did a lot of sightseeing in Vienna and Bratislava. I've met several other travellers who didn't like Bratislava much, but I found it quite nice. For me the compactness the old town and relatively small size of the city in general (compared to many other European capitals) was appealing rather than limiting. It was also worth going a little bit out of the center to see the Devin castle, not so much for the castle but for the spectacular setting on top of a hill overlooking the Danube river.

In Vienna I didn't feel like getting a good grip of the city in three days. We went to see some magnificent buildings, like the Opera house and Schönbrunn castle, both from the outside and inside, but they remained separate and superficial experiences for me. We spent quite a few hours every day walking around in the city but I still cannot easily name a favorite spot or area there. I would probably find some if I stayed longer but the city just didn't open up immediately for someone who is not a big classical music and opera fan. One special positive thing which I must mention as a cyclist is that Vienna had a very nice city bike system. I didn't try it but both the network of pick-up/drop-off points and the bikes looked good.

Cycling with the Ecotopia Biketour

Posted: 2006-08-16 02:02:12, Categories: Travel, Slovakia, Ecology, Cycling, 623 words (permalink)

In the evening of August 3rd I joined a group of about 30 cyclists which formed the Ecotopia Biketour. The tour is one way of traveling to the yearly Ecotopia gathering but for many participants the biketour is more important than the actual gathering. Many join only for a part of the tour, but those who do the whole of it spend about 3 months together.

Arto bikes for freedom,
Arto bikes for joy,
Arto's got a special feeling,
so let's bike with him
and sing this song
all the biketour long,
as our wheels fly
to Ecotopia, to Ecotopia, to Ecotopia.

That's how new members were welcomed into the group around the evening campfire. It was a nice and warm welcome, accompanied with a guitar. Accommodation was usually camping, occasionally staying at schools or similar, so there was normally a campfire every night. The fire was also used for cooking meals for the group. And as you might already guess from the theme, it was vegetarian food.

Some biketour cyclists dressed according to the theme flying just before arriving to EcotopiaOne surprise for me was that almost half of the tour participants came from Moldova, Armenia and Russia. One reason was that Ecotopia had been held in Moldova last year, another was an EU grant which helped them to pay for the visas and other costs. Otherwise, the costs of the tour, mainly food, were covered by passing a "magic hat" around. There was a guideline of paying a certain number of Ecos — which were converted to real money in a factor relative to the average income in your country of origin — but eventually you paid what you felt was right.

The Ecotopia gathering 2006 was held in Zajezova, a small village tucked between hills in rural Slovakian countryside. The community in Zajezova tries to live sustainably, doing a lot with hands instead of machines, recycling as much as possible, experimenting with alternative building techniques using clay and straw, and generally causing a low impact to the environment. Therefore it was a perfect place for the Ecotopia camp too.

The camp program consisted of workshops which ranged from discussions in a circle to self-defence skills and acrobatics, helping local people, helping with tasks in the camp, a very interesting tour in Zajezova and just having fun. There was music and dancing by the campfires every night — it was really the drummers and other musicians which kept me there for several days. :) On Friday Aug 11 evening there was a bigger party where participants from each country were expected to sing something. There was also one Finnish girl at the camp so we were two to perform "Pienet sammakot" to the enthusiastic audience.

The Ecotopia biketour was a nice experience and I made some friends which I'll surely meet in the future too. The best parts were singing around the evening campfire, common meals and other small surprises which can only be done in a group. The worst part were long discussions whether to continue cycling on a day previously allocated as a rest day or not. Fortunately the group did not strictly stick together during the actual cycling: there was an agreed destination where to sleep at the end of the day and people made their way there in small groups taking their time. However, it was still a large number of people with the pros and cons of being a group.

For long term travel I prefer more flexibility and freedom so now I'm again on my own way, posting this in Budapest. Next I'll make a side trip by train to Bratislava and Vienna to meet my family who are also coming there. After a week or so I plan to return to Budapest, spend a few more days in the city and then resume my bike tour from here.

Waterfalls in Slovakia

Posted: 2006-08-05 13:26:27, Categories: Travel, Slovakia, Cycling, 370 words (permalink)

A waterfall in the Piecky valley, Slovensky Raj national parkOn the last day of July I crossed the border from Poland to Slovakia. The two first days I spent still in the region of high Tatras. On the Slovak side of them I didn't go up to high altitudes, partly because the weather had turned cloudy, occasionally rainy. Instead I did just a short hike to see some waterfalls near Stary Smokovec.

After the Tatras I continued a bit further south to another national park called Slovensky Raj, which translates to Slovak Paradise. There the main attractions weren't alpine style views from high peaks but gorges which go through the forested valleys of less high mountains. There were steps and ladders places in the steeper places so one actually climbed up right next to the waterfalls.

On Wednesday morning I climbed up the Piecky valley which had been suggested to me by a Hospitality Club member living nearby. It was a magically beautiful place. I walked slowly along the stream on the bottom of the gorge, looking around, listening to the flow of water and occasional raindrops touching the leaves of the trees. Cloudy and slightly rainy weather didn't matter there, it actually made the experience even more special.

I spent the whole Wednesday and Thursday morning walking around in the park and seeing many magnificent places, including the Klastorisko and Sucha Bela gorges. Sucha Bela was the most famous one and offered the most dramatic rock formations, but somehow it didn't reach the subtle beauty of some other spots. Maybe it was just that there were so many more people in Sucha Bela, I don't know, but Piecky clearly remained my favorite spot, with Klastorisko gorge scoring second.

On Thursday evening I joined the Ecotopia biketour and spent a nice relaxed Friday with them in a small village called Brdarka. I had already contacted them before leaving Zakopane so we didn't meet just by accident. I actually decided to continue with them at least for one more day, probably until the Ecotopia gathering to which we'll arrive in a few days. After a couple of days of the gathering I plan to leave on my own way again. I will then write more about the biketour and Ecotopia.

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