Backpacker’s Diaries – Walking Through History

5th September 2018

The beautiful Prague morning was bright and practically inviting me to go out and explore. As my eyes scanned for the Sandeman’s trademark red umbrella near Old Town, the memories of the past 24 hours filled my mind.

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Breakfast @ Avenue Cafe, Budapest

The beautiful rainy morning, the early breakfast at Avenue Café in Budapest, bidding bye to Jos and Julia (who were the sweetest roomies ever), and the journey to the airport filled my mind. The Ryanair experience had been eventful to say the least – I learnt the hard way that Ryanair charges a LOT for airport check-in and printing the boarding pass at the airport (more often than not, it is a multiple of the price one pays for the ticket).

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Vaclav Havel International Airport, Prague

That being said, I was blown away by the kindness and the helping nature of the people in both Budapest and Prague. The evening had been far more eventful, with a self-guided tour (more like wandering around actually) of the not-so-crowded Prague Castle before I returned to my room under the stars at Hostel Franz Kafka.

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My room at the Hostel Franz Kafka – white does make the other colors pop!

I met a couple of nice people who would share the room with me – my Romanian roommate Medeea, and Chinese roommate Sun (who had just come in from Austria for a day).

 

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Old Town Square

Coming back to the beautifully bright Prague morning, Sun and I found ourselves waiting for the free walking tour to begin among a sea of tourists. After being divided into two groups, we found ourselves allocated to a young energetic tour guide named Sarah. Our tour began with a brief introduction session at the Old Town Square, after which she showed us that Prague was a melting pot for different architectural styles – Gothic, Viennese and Baroque to name a few.

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Confluence of different architectural styles

She mentioned that Prague was a paradise for filmmakers – they could be in many places at the same time without moving much at all – buildings with different styles of architecture stood literally next to each other. We joked that Prague made teleportation possible – it gave us the ability to travel to a multitude of places in a matter of mere seconds!

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Sarah and her beloved King Charles!

“Look out for King Charles if you lose track” Sarah beckoned, pulling out a puppet and holding it up while explaining how King Charles IV had been the prime reason why Prague is what it is today.

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Tyn Church – the birthplace of King Charles IV

Having purchased the city from his father, he worked hard to expand Prague’s boundaries and make it one of the most prosperous cities in Europe at the time. Sarah knew that most of us weren’t inclined towards history and hence tried to make the tour interactive and slipped in nuggets of factoids while explaining about different places and their historical significance.

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Image of the One-Horned-Sheep

“Look carefully,” she said while pointing to a building nearby, “the oldest thing on the building, centuries old and yet understood by everyone.” Pointing to an image of the one-horned sheep, she explained that 13th century Prague comprised mostly of illiterate peasants who found an ingenious method to communicate addresses – the images of animals. Interestingly quite a few buildings in the Old Town Square still had the images of animals on them.

The free walking tour turned out to be a walk through Prague’s history – from the 13th century to the present. We discussed the evolution of Christianity in Prague, the corruption and greed that consumed the Church (to the extent that people paid the Church for pardoning their sins ahead of time) and the role of reformatory thinkers like Jan Hus in moulding Prague’s history. It is fascinating how the nature of problems plaguing societies is similar even after centuries – we have more to learn from our history than we can possibly imagine. Speaking of Jan Hus, it was astounding to realize the impact of tiny things shaping an entire country’s future. Being a priest fluent in German and Latin he chose to preach to the peasants in Czech, which was their local language. We discussed his torturous death (being burnt at the stake, having his heart ripped out and bones broken with clubs before his ashes were thrown into the river) and how it inspired a generation of revolutionary reformers who led the Hussite wars against the Church. I was not surprised to find that modern day Czech are not religious – approximately 79% of the Czechs don’t declare their religion or identify themselves as atheists.

 

Our journey on foot brought us to the Estates Theatre, which had hosted Mozart post his departure from Vienna. In stark contrast to its reception in Vienna (where he wasn’t received well after struggling for six long years), his composition “The Marriage of Figaro” was welcomed with a 30-minute standing ovation in Prague. I guess sometimes new beginnings are all that we need, and that starting afresh may actually turn out to be pretty fruitful.

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Apple Strudel @ Zephyr, Prague

We proceeded to the Zephyr, which was a delightful restaurant with really hospitable staff. Heeding Sarah’s advice I chose the apple strudel, which turned out to be seriously delicious – the chunks of apple gave the dessert a great texture, and the sweetness wasn’t overpowering. The best part the cream served on the side balanced the dish and made it feel more than satisfactory.

The Jewish Quarter was one of the last places on our tour. Sarah mentioned that place was essentially a ghetto between the Old Town Square and the Vltava River, and over centuries the Jews were forced to settle in that tiny area. With time the ghetto grew more and more crowded and the living conditions worsened as Jews poured in from different places like Germany and Austria. The ghetto underwent a number of structural changes, during which many of the buildings were flattened, the roads widened and the entire area got a massive facelift. Today the place is the home to the crème-de-la-crème and is called Parizska Street.

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Jewish Cemetery

One of the most interesting aspects of the Jewish Quarters was the cemetery. As the land available was very limited the cemetery expanded vertically instead of horizontally, with mortal remains being buried in levels. It is estimated that the cemetery now has 11-12 levels of mortal remains and is the final resting place of about 100,000 people.

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Stolpersteine, or Stumbling Stones – a tribute to the victims of Holocaust, created by artist Gunter Demnig. He has installed over 67000 of these concrete cubes with brass plates in 22 countries across Europe, at victims’ last known place of residence or work

To be honest, the discussion we had in the Jewish Quarter is definitely something I will remember for a very long time. The atrocities that they suffered over centuries, especially during Holocaust, was just heartbreaking. I strongly believe that humans are inherently good nature and kind, and hence couldn’t (and still can’t) understand how someone could be so cruel against members of their own species. Had I more time left in Czech, I would have visited the Terezin Concentration Camp and Kutna Hora for sure.

On a parting note, Sarah shared a few more interesting nuggets about Prague. Being conveniently ignored by the Red Army, Czechoslovakia was liberated from the Nazis by the general population. Between 1918 and 2018, the Czech have witnessed 9 changes in the regime. The last regime change was the Velvet Revolution of 1989, which was a non-violent transition of power led by students.

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Sarah and King Charles with a backdrop of the Prague Castle

The three hours I spent on the walking tour were certainly something I will cherish for a long time. I guess going on a guided tour of the city helps people understand the city and connect to it on a deeper level than they would otherwise have. A blend of history, culture, architecture, language and food, the walking tour is an experience I would certainly recommend visiting Prague. If you do plan to go to Prague in the near future, here is the link to Sandeman’s Tours.

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Backpacker’s Diaries – Walks to Remember

3rd September

I opened my eyes to the bright morning staring me in my face. Replete with life and action, the last couple of days had breezed away like a dream. With just a little over 24 hours left in the Hungarian capital, I wanted to take it easy and just let the feeling sink in. I chose to relax and take it easy, even if it meant missing out a few of the places on my list.

I guess my laziness got the better of me – by the time I left my hostel room it was past breakfast time. Having survived on mom’s theplas for the past couple of days I wanted to try out something new. Keeping in mind my walking tour Susie’s advice the day before, I decided to visit Budapest city market. Really hungry, I was looking forward to a brunch-y place. My heart sank at the sight of long queues at McDonalds there, and I finally walked into MyCanteen.

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MyCanteen

I soon realized that being a vegetarian teetotaller in Europe was not exactly helping my case – the only options I had in the canteen were pumpkin soup, breaded and fried mozzarella, and boiled vegetables.

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Breaded Mozarella, Boiled Veggies and Pumpkin Soup – the saviour of vegetarian teetotalers!

Although I usually am one of the biggest advocates of cheese, my heart sank a bit at the thought of having only that for lunch. However, I was more than satisfied with the portion sizes – the food kept me going until well in the evening.

Celebrating the last few hours of my stay, I ended up buying a few souvenirs (basically fridge magnets) at the marketplace. I roamed around for a bit before heading back to the hostel. The most interesting place to me was the Great Market Hall.

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Great Market Hall

The building was bright and beautiful, and had its roof decorated with colourful ceramic tiles, on the lines of Matthias Church. Thanks to my inability to comprehend or read Hungarian, I mistook the market hall for a church (and didn’t realize it until much later, after I reached my hostel).

 

The plan for the remainder of the afternoon was to hike up to the Gellert Hill and get a panoramic view of the city. This was one thing I didn’t want to miss – I had seen the Liberty Statue during the Boat Cruise and really wanted to check it out.

The hike to the Gellert Hill was probably the highlight of the afternoon. Google Maps proved to be a real saviour in my case – it saved me a ton of time with the route and the bus timings. Fortunately for me, the pleasant weather added to the beauty of the mini-hike. The fact that it was a Monday ensured that the place wasn’t really crowded either. The Liberty Statue is situated at the top of the Gellert Hill.

It is the statue of a lady holding up a palm leaf, built by the Soviets after World War II to commemorate the ouster of Nazis from Hungary. Personally, I felt that the name itself was ironic – the Soviets went on to occupy Hungary for more than forty years after the World War II! Gellert Hill is also the home to the Gellert Thermal Baths, one of the famous thermal spa baths in Budapest (which I unfortunately couldn’t visit owing to lack of time).

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The view from the Gellert Hill was definitely worth the hike. The panoramic view of the city is just stunning – one can see all the bridges that connect the Buda side of the city to the Pest side. I liked the Chain Bridge the most. The lions looked majestic even from a distance. I spent quite some at the monument lost in the beauty of the panoramic view.

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View from Gellert Hill

The contrast in the different halves of the city was evident – the youthfully lively Pest, as opposed to the calm, serene and classy Buda. Come to think of it, the city is the definition of coming-of-age – the bridges connect the brightness and exuberance of youth to the classiness of adulthood.

 

I wanted my last evening in the first country I visited alone to be special – the plan was to spend it walking through the Andrassy Avenue and watching the sunset at Hosok Tere (Heroes’ Square). The boulevard is lined with trees and is the home to beautiful historic buildings – the perfect place for a lazy evening walk.

It was nice to see people from all walks of life enjoy the evening with their pets or by themselves, sometimes on rollerblades or skateboards. I reached Hosok Tere a little before sunset. The monument is dedicated to the seven chieftains of the Magyars who founded Hungary. The statue of the archangel Gabriel holding the Hungarian Holy Crown tops the column in the centre.

I was left spellbound by the beauty of the monument. It felt really special standing in a place that hosted a number of significant historical events that shaped the Hungarian empire.  With some time on my hands, I stood photographing the monument while watching the darkness envelop the evening sky.

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In the process my eyes darted to the other people who had come to experience the monument – the guy with the brand-new DSLR who was experimenting with different angles and props for his photography class, the travelling couple who was very much in love and wanted to capture the perfect shot together, the cyclists who ditched their cycles and sat staring at the monument in awe, young parents who brought their enthusiastic toddlers out for an evening picnic; and finally a busload of Chinese tourists who appeared out of nowhere, snapped a ton of photos, and disappeared into thin air.

I began to walk back to my hostel as it began getting dark, and bumped into my roommate Jos on the way. Just like the one before, the rest of the evening was spent packing up, talking and discussing our lives, experiences and culture. The three of us – Jos, Julia and I, had planned to leave Hungary and continue on our respective journeys the following morning, with the hopes to meet again sometime soon.

Backpacker’s Diaries – Evening at the Promenade

2nd September 2018

The free walking tour lasted about 3 hours and ended at the Matthias Church in front of the Fisherman’s Bastion. The part I loved the most about the church was the colourful ceramic tiles on the roof – they left me spellbound for the better part of ten minutes. I decided to get back to my hostel room and rest for a bit before exploring a little more of Budapest. Having realized that I hadn’t availed my 72-hour unlimited travel card much, I began to look forward to opportunities to use it. My bus journey from the Buda side of the river to the hostel was delightful.

A couple of hours of rest later, I found myself tracing the path to the Nepfenyes Restaurant. I was looking forward to having a nice light meal and a dessert, and a vegan restaurant just the right place to try. I ended up reaching a little late – it was after lunch hour and they were almost done with the lunch service. I ended up ordering just the dessert, which was fried banana topped with crumbled walnuts in caramel. The dessert was an experience in itself – it felt too sweet at first, but I began to enjoy it more and more with every subsequent bite. To be honest, I am not a fan of caramel sauce (and I had never imagined a fried banana, leave alone with caramel!). However, there was something about this combination that seemed to work. I am really glad I gave it a shot.

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University Church

I ended up walking the streets for the next hour without any destination in mind. I found myself in front of the University Church while having a quick call with my parents. I was really intrigued by its bold colour scheme and the Baroque style of architecture.

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After walking around for a bit, I decided to begin exploiting my travel pass and travel in all different modes of transport I possibly could. I took the metro from Astoria to Deak Ferenc Ter, from where I changed to another metro line to Vorosmarty Ter.

The underground metro stations had me gaping in awe – three lines of metro ran one below the other, and one could see how the newer lines differed from the old ones. And the escalators were freakishly long.

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A trip in one direction was almost 3 minutes long and the design was such that it created an optical illusion, making me question the direction of gravity.

 

As I alighted the metro at Vorosmarty Ter, The weather was clear, the air windy, and the sun soothing. The Danube sounded cheerful, and the setting sun created an amazing backdrop for the Buda castle.

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Buda Castle in the Evening

 

The couple of statues I saw near the tram station were definitely something I would fondly remember for a while. The first one was called “The Little Princess.”

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It is the statue of a little girl sitting on the railings wearing a princess costume – her bathrobes were her mantle, and her crown was cut out of newspaper. Her innocence took me back to my childhood days, when the only thing I had to worry about was which game to play next. The next one I saw was a statue of a girl and her dog. At first, there seemed to be nothing remarkably great about it. However, the more I observed it, the more amazed I ended up being. Hint: it’s all about the eyes.

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I was drawn to the mischief and love in the dog’s eyes, which was reflected by the girl as well. Their eyes exuberated pure joy, and they appeared as if they were lost in the moment, and as though nothing else in the world mattered. It got me thinking about how we keep chasing things in life. We call them our goals and targets and work continuously towards them. How many times though do we actually enjoy the simplicity and mundaneness of the present – like lazily watching the sun set or the sparrows peck at something? I decided to take it easy for the remainder of the evening, and just have a long walk at the promenade.

My rather aimless journey on foot took me to the Shoes on the Danube Bank. It is a memorial on the eastern bank of the Danube to honour the people killed by fascist groups in Budapest during the World War II.

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Approximately 3500 people had been marched to the Danube and were shot after being ordered to take off their shoes. The strong current of the river carried their bodies away. I was sad and stumped – I couldn’t wrap my head around the idea that someone could have so much hatred in their hearts for so many people.

Slightly tired and definitely intoxicated by the beauty of the setting sun, I sat at the promenade watching the city come to life. The bustling humdrum slowly made way for relative silence.

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I experienced a weird sense of peace and calm as the daylight gave way to the darkness. It was the beginning of my vacation and there was nothing much to worry about. However, with my thoughts running free, the loneliness of the solo journey finally began to sink in. It struck me that I had a spectacular evening in front of me but nobody to share it with. Walking back to the hostel lost in thought, I realized that ultimately I was all I had got.

My day ended on a much higher note – I met a couple of really interesting roommates back in the hostel. Jos was from Holland, and had been travelling for quite some time. Julia, on the other hand, was a Russian American with an iPhone X and some seriously sick photography skills. We stayed up for a while, chatting and discussing about everything under the sun – including the journey experienced, future travel plans, and culture. Until now, my hostel experience had been better than what I had expected – really friendly faces, interacting with different travellers and learning from their experiences and finally sharing a few of my own. As I lay in my bed that night waiting to fall asleep, I wondered what more the lovely city had in store for my last day.

Backpacker’s Diaries – An Espresso Shot of Budapest

2nd September 2018

I was jolted upright by the sound of the first alarm on my phone. Getting up after disabling all the subsequent ones, I rushed to get dressed and ready. I had signed up for a 3-round data mining championship with a couple of colleagues as my teammates, and the first round was an online aptitude test which had to be attempted simultaneously by all the teammates. I had booked the 12pm IST slot on 2nd September, strongly hoping that I would be able to get ready by 8am CEST on my second day in Hungary. I had coordinated with the hostel staff about my requirement well in advance and they had been more than helpful in ensuring that everything I needed was in place.

The plan worked pretty well, and after having attempted 60 questions in the next 45 minutes, I found myself ready to go out and explore. My cousin Rahul had suggested me a trip hack before I left for Europe – going on a free walking tour to get a dose of the history and culture of any new place I visited. Based on the experience, one can visit again the places they enjoyed, and thus plan the remainder of the trip. As it sounded like a good idea, I decided to give it a shot.

After munching on the packet of homemade theplas that mom had packed for me I began my journey to the Vorosmarty Ter, which was the starting point of the walking tour. I was drawn to a voice speaking Spanish quite audibly.

My assumption of that spot being the starting point was proved right, as the next thing I heard was “Well if you didn’t understand any part of that speech, I guess you are here for the tour in English.” A local guide named Zoltan walked up to each one of us and requested us to fill out a form to get started. His energy was really infectious – “Namaste!” he chimed, smiling excitedly as he read the form and explained the concept of a walking tour to the first-timers.

As quite a lot of people had turned up for the tour, we were split into groups and were assigned to different guides. This was when I met and chatted up with Putri, an Indonesian student who was almost the same age as me and had come to Europe for the summer term. She was studying International Relations and had just come in from Prague. We found ourselves to be in the same group and began our walking tour with our guide Susie.

I am intrigued by the concept of free walking tours – although working under organizations, the guides’ remuneration is entirely tip-based. This encourages them to tailor the tour as per the patrons’ tastes and incentivizes them to keep the tour really interactive and engaging. Our walk began with Susie telling us a bit about the city and handing us maps so that we could get an idea about the route we were going to take.

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Budapest Eye

As we walked to the Budapest Eye she explained that the city of Budapest is actually divided into two halves separated by the river Danube and brought together by eight bridges and that our journey would start in Pest and end in Buda. As she spoke of the river cruise I was reminded of the magical evening I had less than eighteen hours ago.

 

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Danubius Fountain

“There are two kinds of people in Budapest,” she jovially said “those who live in Buda and those who want to live in Buda” as we found our way to the Danubius Fountain from the Kempinski Hotel.

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St. Stephen’s Basilica

As we passed by the marketplace nearby, we discussed a little bit about the local cuisine. After seeing the St. Stephen’s Basilica we Stopped by the statue of the fat policeman. Susie mentioned about how people rub his belly for a satisfying meal and his hat for luck in love.

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Our tour guide Susie – with the statue of the Fat Policeman

Well, looking at his shiny tummy though, I am pretty convinced that food is love. Speaking of food, I learned about how paprika and sour cream are very important components of Hungarian cuisine. She suggested us to try out the local dishes such as the goulash and langos (which is a kind of fried dough) and to not miss out on the sweet treats such as the drum cake and the chimney cake either. For those willing to experiment, there were options such as the cherry soup available as well. She also spoke about how Hungarians love to party, and how every weeknight is as lively as a Saturday night. She encouraged even the non-drinkers to try and experience the ruin bars and taught us a few Hungarian phrases so as to sound polite. “Don’t leave Budapest without trying Palinka” she exclaimed while describing the local beverage which was made from fruits and had 30-70% alcohol content.

I found the walking tour to be a very novel way to experience history and culture – I would have enjoyed studying history in school, even more, had it been taught like this. Like India, Hungary has a really rich cultural heritage. Being close to the monuments was a really powerful and humbling experience, as I could physically reach out and touch the same monuments which have seen hundreds of years of history. For the next hour, I kept on wondering what the monuments would have said had they been able to speak.

Susie spoke at length about the Hungarian history. She touched upon topics such as native Hungarians being pagans, how Christianity had spread over time, how the country was founded by the Magyars, and how Hungary got its name from Attila the Hun. She had this uncanny ability to joke about serious things without being the least bit offensive. Touching upon relatively recent history she remarked how Hungary had a penchant for joining the losing side in wars. “World War I – they lost that. And nearly two decades later, they aligned with the Axis Powers because of the trade relations with Germany – and we all know how that worked out.”

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Hungarian Academy of Sciences

Our last stop before we crossed the Chain Bridge over to the Buda side was the Hungarian Academy of Science, where we discussed the language a bit. It is really astonishing how central the role of language is in our lives – and how many opportunities people miss out on just because they aren’t able to communicate with the outside world. Hungary is the birthplace of many inventions and innovations across various fields – right from the Rubik’s Cube (I was intrigued to know that the inventor Mr.Rubik actually lives right across the river in Buda!) to the ball-point pen, the soft contact lens, the dynamo, and the automotive engine. However, most of these weren’t acknowledged as the Hungarian language is a challenge to learn and speak. It is an agglutinative language, and the combinations of prefixes and suffixes can lead to REALLY long words! It was used as the language of the aliens in one of the Hollywood movies!

Walking across the chain bridge was another experience I cherish deeply. The statues of rock lions guarding the entrance of the bridge reminded me of Aslan from the Chronicles of Narnia. It was really fascinating to know that the lions were installed in 1852 and their plinth at the Buda end contains the coat of arms of the royal family. Fortunately, the lions survived the Siege of Budapest, towards the end of which the chain bridge was destroyed by the Nazi officers.

I had fallen in love with Buda, and could finally understand why people wanted to live there. It was the diametric opposite of Pest – Buda was as classy as Pest was lively. It was graceful and dignified, hilly and green. The beauty of the situation was that the two halves of the city compliment and complete each other, although they seemed to be polar opposites.

The colourful and lively Matthias Church was my favourite by a long shot. The church was originally built in Romanesque style in the 11th century and was constructed in a Gothic style in the 14th century.

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A major reconstruction took place in the 19th century, during which the roof was covered by the famous colourful handmade Zsolnay ceramic tiles. Usually, blending different styles leads to confusion. However, in this case, the confluence of architectural styles just left me spellbound. I ended up staring at the church and the spires for the better part of ten minutes and snapped back to reality when Susie bade bye.

I am glad I took the free walking tour – there were a ton of things I would have either missed out on or would have overlooked otherwise, such as the tree dedicated to Michael Jackson in front of the Kempinski Hotel. Susie answered my unending questions and helped me with a number of things – like where to go shopping for souvenirs. She also suggested me Nepfenyes Restaurant for vegetarian food, where I ended up going later. I just loved how passionate and proud she was of her cultural heritage. Her sense of humour was pretty much on point too, and she kept the group engaged throughout the three-hour walk. If you plan to go to Europe, do try out the walking tours with young energetic guides to get a dose of the city. Here is the link for Budapest Free Walking Tour.

 

Backpacker’s Diaries – Cruising on the Danube

1st September 2018

 

“Two hours, twenty eight minutes and ten seconds at forty thousand feet” beamed the captain as we all settled in and buckled up. The chirpiness of his voice made me wonder if it was actually a red-eye flight, or if I was the only sleepyhead around. The entire experience was dreamy – it felt as though I was floating to my seat in the never-ending A380. I was blown away by the hospitality of the Emirates in the next hour. Having enjoyed their sumptuous breakfast, I spent the most of the flight catching up on my sleep.

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And… Hello Dubai!

My eyes opened as we touched down at DXB at 6am local time. “3 hour-long layover and 6 hour-long flight to go” I thought as I walked to the gates of the Dubai Airport. The place was as fancy as one could imagine – awe-inspiring, unrealistically humongous and to be honest the first place where I have seen a train service to ferry people WITHIN the airport. And the unlimited WiFi is a boon for those looking forward to a long layover.

With sleep still lingering in my eyes, I ended up having a tiny adventure of my own. I received a notification from the Emirates app asking me to be present at the boarding gates before 8.30am. Panic filled my mind as I realized that the time displayed by my phone was 8.25am and that I was at least 10 minutes away from my gate. Confusion took over soon after as I arrived at the gate and saw it closed (and no Emirates personnel at the gate either). I began to wonder how I lost so much time – the only way I would miss my flight would be if I blanked out for more than a couple of hours. It finally struck me that I had forgotten to account for the time difference between India and UAE – my phone was still set to the IST! I breathed a sigh of relief on learning that I had more than an hour remaining for my connecting flight.

 

The connecting flight experience to Budapest was as delightful as the earlier one. The only difference was that the dark night was replaced by the bright morning. Everything was pretty rosy until the Immigrations at Budapest. Stuck behind a flood of tourists, I found myself waiting for nearly an hour for the immigration process to complete.

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Deak Ferenc Ter… Finally!

It took me quite some time after that to get to Deak Ferenc Ter in the 100E bus after getting some currency exchanged and purchasing an unlimited travel card with a 3-day validity (A lesson learnt the hard way – the airport shuttle doesn’t accept the 3 day travel pass – I had to stand in queue again and purchase a separate ticket. Ended up spending 20 minutes more as I missed the bus). Walking into the Vodafone Store at the city centre, I realized that purchasing a local SIM card proved to be far cheaper than activating an international roaming plan. A 5GB 30-day plan cost me about 4500 HUF, which works out to be less than INR 1200 for 30 days and gave connectivity throughout Europe.

My hostel Adagio 2.0 Basilica was one of a kind– in spite of being in the heart of a bustling city, it was quiet and peaceful. One wouldn’t really find it unless actually looking for it. I spent a good portion of fifteen minutes trying to locate my hostel. Google Maps showed it in the middle of the road, and made me wonder if the hostel was anything like Platform 9 3/4 in the Harry Potter series. I finally called up the receptionist who guided me to the opposite side of the road. I ended up liking the hostel a lot. The staff was really kind, and the receptionists patiently answered the million questions I asked them. The common kitchen area was pretty good – it was bright and airy and the window opened to the main road outside.

The hostel room had a balcony and was bright and spacious. It didn’t feel crammed even though it was a mixed dorm for 10 people. Speaking of rooms, Alex, Emily and Tom were the first roommates I met. They were university students from UK and had come to explore Budapest for the weekend. They arrived just an hour before I did and were really sweet and fun to be around. I took some time to understand their accent, and they took almost the same amount of time to pronounce my name right.

My master-planner cousin Akshay had strongly suggested me to experience the river cruise at sunset. Keeping his words in mind I had booked a sunset cruise from Viator which was to begin at 7.30pm (The sunset was supposed to be at 7.25pm). Keen on exploring the city a bit, I ended up walking there and reached almost an hour early. The cruise was a good choice, as it gave me the opportunity to admire the lovely sunset and see the city come to life as the darkness engulfed the skies. The ride started with a glass of orange juice as we began our journey from Dock 42 of Portum Lines towards Vorosmarty Ter.

The skies and the river were calm, giving us a breathtaking view of attractions close to the riverbank. I was in awe of the Hungarian Parliament Building and the Buda Castle – both looked so stunning with a backdrop of the evening skies. Every bridge connecting the Buda and Pest side of the city had its own story to tell. Each one was grander than the previous, and left everyone spellbound. I tried capturing the images on my camera but gave up soon after I realized that enjoying the moment was infinitely better than trying to capture it on a screen, and that the photos did absolutely no justice to the amazing story that the city tried to tell.

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Hungarian Parliament Building in the thunderstorm – doesn’t it look magical?

I thought that the cruise would give me a taste of the evening scenery and give an idea about what to look out for in the next couple of days. Little did I know that I would get a lot more than I expected – the rain started as a drizzle, comforting me a bit and adding fun to the experience. As the cruise progressed one could feel the tempest brewing. The thunderstorm (check out the video here) ruled the air for the last ten minutes of the cruise, as bolts of lightning lit up the sky and thunder boomed. The Danube River began to reflect the emotions of the skies above, rocking the boat hard. We sought shelter inside as the storm grew wilder.  Once at the docks, we waited a bit for the storm to calm down and thanked our stars for our safety.

The last adventure of the day followed soon after. I was not completely comfortable with the idea of drinking water that came straight out of a tap, and hence went to purchase water from a convenience store nearby. Purchasing a big bottle of water I went back to my room only to realize that it was sparkling water, which tasted weird even after the fizz ran out.  It was only the following day that I learnt a lesson that I would remember for the remainder of my stay – blue caps indicated still water.

Having traveled alone to an alien land for the first time, I knew that I would be facing these adventures (read: bloopers) and that I would need some time to adjust to the multitude of changes around me. However I am glad I took the risk and trusted my brother’s advice, especially about the boat cruise. It showed me a side of the city I probably wouldn’t have otherwise experienced, and left me craving for more. Intrigued, I decided to sign up for a free walking tour the following morning.

To know about my free walking tour experience in Budapest click here.

For a little about the local statues and the Danube Promenade, here is the link.

Click here to know about the Danube river cruise experience

Backpacker’s Diaries – The Beginning

1st September 2018, 12.10am

“Aankhon mein sapne liye ghar se hum chal to diye… Jaane yeh raahein ab le jaayengi kahaan” echoed Shaan’s voice in my head as my parents drove me to the international terminal of the Mumbai Airport. My thoughts drifted to a couple of years ago. It all began as a joke – my cousin Akshay asked me to come visit him in Germany and I had jokingly refused (the conversation did play out a bit like the initial scenes of DDLJ movie though). My interest was piqued after I learnt elementary German language and a bit about their culture in my final year at the university. Finally after completing a year at work and saving up a bit, I decided to see Europe for myself.

Memories of the past two months flooded my mind – the different phases I underwent flashed in front of my eyes. The first phase was planning for leave at work – my team being small in size and with quite a few of us planning our vacations at the same time, we had to ensure that there wasn’t any overlap. As a couple of others were planning a trip to Europe as well, I was not sure if I would actually follow through or just stop at the planning phase. Confusion and procrastination followed next. There were just too many places in too many countries that I wanted to cover in 2 weeks, and I couldn’t bring myself to remove any of them from my list.

To motivate myself to take the trip seriously I set a date for the Schengen visa interview. Then came the hours spent studying Google Maps, reading reviews on Booking.com and Hostelworld, monitoring flight ticket prices on a daily basis, putting together the unending list of documents for the Schengen Visa, discussing with (or should I call it annoying the hell out of) Akshay about the optimum itinerary, and pitching the final plan to my parents and convincing them to let me go by myself. It was supposed to be a bro-sis road trip for two weeks, but ultimately ended up being mostly a solo trip for most of the duration. With most of the things on my list checked off, one final hurdle remained – the forex. I was fortunate enough to have one of my managers planning his family trip to Europe around the same time – his advice and perceptiveness really helped me out a lot. I went with Thomas Cook’s One Currency Card as zero cross-conversion charges seemed like a pretty good deal.

Coming back to my impending journey, I would like to say that I had a long journey to look forward to – my Emirates flight to Dubai was to take off at 4.30am and reach Dubai 3 hours later. The next flight to Budapest would be 6 hours long, and after a 3-hour layover at the Dubai Airport. I had more than 4 hours to my flight and hoped that I wouldn’t fall asleep and miss it. We arrived at the T2 International Terminal of the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport in record time – I had never imagined Mumbai roads so empty at any time of the day! The international airport was pretty crowded even at this late hour. It never ceases to fascinate me – right from the tasteful peacock-feather inspired roof to the exhibits on the way to the gates, everything about it fills me with immense pride. There couldn’t be a better way of giving our guests a dose of our rich culture before they actually experience it.

Departure Gate T2 1

The speed at which the check-in, security check and immigration processes were completed completely awed me. In less than 30 minutes of setting foot in the terminal, I found myself in the duty free section making my way to the departure gate. The immigration officer was a sweet lady who was pretty baffled with my case, after getting to know that I had no family or friends in Hungary. A similar conversation ensued with a co-passenger less than hour later – I guess girls going on solo trips hasn’t become very common in India yet.

Departure Gate T2

Reaching hours before the scheduled departure, I got the opportunity to experience the silence at the departure gate before it got too crowded!

I found myself at the gate more with more than three hours to spare. After chatting with a buddy of mine who was already in Europe (and had coincidentally taken the same flight to Dubai a couple of weeks earlier), I knew that the first leg of my journey was going to be a real treat. It was in interesting experience – the beautiful dull lighting, the empty gates and the general lack of noise. There were just four or five of us at the time, and most of them were already asleep. Inspired by them, I plugged in my earphones. Shaan’s soulful voice echoed in my head as I drifted off to a short nap – “Manzil naee hai anjaana hai karwaan… chalna akele hai yahaan…”

 

For a little about the next part of my journey, here is the link

Conquering the Iron Fort – Lohagad Trek

The blazing humid Mumbai summers usually make people crave the monsoons. For a few months in the year the dark clouds fill the city skies and bless the place with amazing weather and showers. Although I try to avoid getting drenched at times, I love every moment of the monsoons – the colourful umbrellas, the hot pakoras, and the occasional splash of water. The best part of all is the effect on the places close to the city. Everything comes to life – the otherwise brown hills drape a million shades of green, and the fragrance of the earth adorns the air. The best thing a Mumbaikar could possibly do in such weather would be going on a trek to the nearby areas, even if it’s just for a day. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed.

My team at work was torn between the Lohagad Trek and the Rajmachi Trek. After a short vote, we decided to treat ourselves to the majesty of the Lohagad Fort. We had planned the day well – right from the Lonavala train tickets to the breakfast arrangements. For the half of the team living close to the Western Line, we had even pre-decided one particular local train to be boarded. This ensured that we all reached Dadar Station, which was the starting point of our trip, with a decent time buffer of about 30 minutes. Seeing the early hour of 6am being blessed with intermittent showers, we prayed that the rain would go a bit easy on us.

1. Railway Station

Beginning of the trek… @Dadar

We were to board the 6.50am Intercity Express. Having made the reservations in 3 separate bookings, we noticed that the seats were scattered but in the same coach. We spent a good chunk of the first hour (of our two hour journey) trying to swap seats so that entire team could sit together. By the time we completed that activity, we found ourselves at Thane, where the remainder of our team awaited us with steaming hot breakfast. I guess I can safely say that Mumbai runs in our veins – our breakfast comprised of Wada Pav, Kanda Poha and piping hot Chai!

I enjoyed every second of the train journey– our strategy of booking the non-A/C coach paid off. The scenery changed drastically as we passed Karjat. The dull concrete jungle made way for the bright natural one, and the cool breeze was filled with hilly freshness.

2. Bluff

The Poker-faces!

For the next hour we ended up playing Bluff with the deck of cards we had. The game turned out to be a lot more interesting than we thought. The game becomes increasingly challenging when eleven people share a single deck. Playing with people specializing in analytics kicks the difficulty a notch higher – so many hypotheses are being tested at the same time, while maintaining a really convincing poker face!

We were welcomed by heavy rains at the entrance of the Lonavala Railway Station at 9.15am. After giving it some thought, we decided to hire rickshaws to take us to the starting point of the trek, the Lohagadwadi village. The charges were fairly reasonable considering the terrain and the season. Thirty minutes and a bumpy road journey later, we found ourselves at the base of the hill. We prepaid a token amount to the proprietors of the Panchganga Restaurant at the start of the trek for our lunch, requesting them to have our meals ready by 3pm. Having lost a decent amount of time discussing about things we found ourselves almost an hour behind schedule.

It was refreshing to see that trekking has become trendy among youth nowadays – the couple of seasonal waterfalls towards the beginning of the trek were packed with college students. Making a mental note to visit the waterfalls later in the day we proceeded with our trek. The road to the fort is motorable, and we found a lot of people who took their vehicles right to the entrance of the fort. However, I would strongly recommend walking the entire route, and taking the trekkable route through the hill as opposed to the road.

Trek

Avoid the Road…. Take the Trek!

We tried to maintain speed but ended up stopping frequently to relish the amazing sights that our eyes feasted on. For a change, we welcomed getting drenched by the rain with all our hearts. The cool breeze was really refreshing. The clouds rising from the numerous waterfalls in the hills reminded me of the Seven Sisters Waterfalls in Cherrapunjee.

Our mouths watered at the sight of the numerous food stalls on the way serving hot Maggi noodles and roasted and spiced corn-on-the-cob (or as we call it… bhutta). Opening up a packet of dates and hard candy, we kept pushing each other ahead and ensured that we didn’t take too many breaks. By the time we reached the fort, we decided to stop for a bit. Slightly tired and definitely hungry, we ended up enjoying the roadside food a bit too much. We gorged on the freshly prepared food at the stalls – the pakoras, wada pav and boiled sweet corn.

 

The fort was just mesmerising. It was occupied by various dynasties in different points of time. However, it was under the Marathas for a while, and under the Mughal rule only for about 5 years. Everything about Lohagad amazed me. Right from the location (in the middle of the forest) to the architecture, size and scale, everything about it was glorious. One has to climb about 400 large steps to reach the top of the fort. The part that amazed me the most though is the way it was designed.

It was impenetrable – the tiniest of things about it were planned such that no attacking enemy could return alive. Tiny windows were designed for the archers to shoot arrows, and there were secret areas to pour hot oil on the assailants and burn them alive. Finally, the colossally heavy gates ensured that they would never reach the town above. Speaking of which, the four large gates – Ganesh Darwaja, Narayan Darwaja, Hanuman Darwaja and Maha Darwaja – are exquisite and really well preserved. Adorned with greenery, the beauty of the rock fort amplifies manifold.

Top2

The fort was filled with people of all age groups. It was especially heartening to see parents bring in their 4-5 year olds and enthusiastically encourage them to climb. Having not trekked for a while, I found the hike to the top a bit taxing. The rain, although soothing, made everything more slippery and added to the challenge. The pain endured was totally worth the effort though – every second was exhilarating. The cold air and the mist elevated the experience to another level altogether.

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When we reached the top the visibility was decent – we could see about 20 feet ahead of us, and caught occasional glimpses of the view below. 3 hours of effort culminated into something so mesmerizing that I wished that the time would just stop. The cool breeze, the mist and nature – it was an experience so powerful that made me for a second forget the chaos and noises of the hundred people around me. The trek was as rewarding as it was tiring – every bit worth the effort. To be honest I was extremely glad to have a team I could share that moment with – almost everyone felt the same way. In the brief hour before we began our descent, we explored the place a bit and tried to walk to the view point called the Scorpion’s tail. We retreated soon though, as the visibility was poor.

The walk back to the village at the base was much faster than anticipated. Although a bit tired, we were really motivated to reach the base village quickly. We had reservations for the train ride back home, and didn’t want to miss it. We reached Lohagadwadi just a little after 3pm, and finished our meal in record time after changing into our dry clothes in one of the houses nearby. The meal itself was a pretty interesting experience – it had been a while since we had authentic Maharashtrian cuisine and didn’t know exactly what to expect. The food tasted really delicious after the exhausting trek – I fondly remember the taste of the paneer subzi and the bhakri. The rickshaw ride to the railway station was fast as well. We fortunately didn’t experience any traffic jams en route.

Having had a pleasant train ride in the morning we expected something similar on the way back. We were in for a shock – the 4.30pm Deccan Express was more than jam packed with unreserved travellers – it was a miracle we all managed to get in. To add to the chaos, our seats were spread across different coaches, and we found it a challenge to retrieve our reservation details. Having said that, I am not the least bit disappointed with the experience. The trek gave us an opportunity to get to know each other better, push each other up the hill (quite literally), and experience the misty beauty and bounty of the monsoons. So sign me up for another one already!

Trip hacks: In case you are planning a monsoon trek sometime soon, here are a few things which should be on your checklist

  • Atleast 1 litre of water per person
  • Snack bars – you could carry even dates or hard candy for instant energy
  • Change of clothes
  • Towel
  • Plastic cover for damp clothes
  • Power bank – just in case. Sometimes the network is pretty weak.
  • ID proof – in case traveling by train
  • Windcheater or raincoat (definitely not an umbrella)
  • Lifesaver hack for occasional/first-time trekkers– pair of slippers. Feet tend to swell a bit after walking a lot. These are much easier to walk in later than another pair of sneakers
  • Sanitiser, in case you are a germaphobe

Additionally I would suggest wearing clothes which dry quickly, rather than jeans. Another thing I learnt the hard way – keep the extra set of clothes in the plastic cover, in case your bag isn’t waterproof.