Backpacker’s Diaries – The Hike along the Lakeshore

14th September 2018

Waking up to another breathtakingly mesmerising sunrise, I was slightly disappointed to leave Interlaken soon. The past couple of days had been the most eventful, and I really wished I had the luxury of more time. I had only about six hours until my Flixbus to Munich, and I intended to make every second count.

The night before, I had reached the Villa pretty drained after a long day of exploration. “No point in continuously overexerting yourself” Rafael advised as I pondered over my last few hours in Switzerland. “Take it easy before the travel – if you like nature I know just the thing you will enjoy” he said, while suggesting me to take a bus to Iseltwald village, followed by a hike to the Giessbach Falls.

Coming back to my last morning in Interlaken, I decided to take it really easy and enjoy the sumptuous breakfast buffet (certainly the best breakfast spread I had seen during my trip). Considering the long walk that lay ahead I decided to stuff myself. Having multiple Nutella sandwiches never felt guilt-free before (and the blueberry yoghurt demanded that I help myself to multiple servings). To save time later in the day, I decided to complete the check-out formalities and lock my belongings before I left for my mini-adventure (which in hindsight proved to be a really smart choice).

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Walk from Backpackers Villa Sonnenhof to Casino Kursaal

I waited in front of Casino Kursaal for my 10am bus to Iseltwald. It was pretty fascinating to see that the pets were welcome on public transport as well – the dog curled up under my neighbour’s seat looked just adorable. With the privilege of the window seat, most of my time was spent gazing at the beautiful vista outside (which ended up deepening my newfound love for Interlaken with every passing second). Almost thirty minutes of an eventful journey later I disembarked at Iseltwald, more than excited to begin my solo hike. Everything about the day had me smiling – right from the kind hospitability of the Swiss to their attitude in general. The amount of enthusiasm people have towards maintaining a healthy lifestyle is just admirable – and not just the people, the pets seem to enjoy it as well!

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Iseltwald Village

Everything about the tiny village appealed to me – right from the breezy fresh air to the Swiss architecture of the houses to the perfectly manicured lawns replete with lawn ornaments.

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Iseltwald. The tiny flower bushes liven up the already beautiful Swiss architecture!

The balconies lined with tiny flowering bushes kicked the aesthetic beauty up a notch. The wide trail at the end of the village marked the beginning of my hike.

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Starting point of the hike

It was just a normal forest trail – a walking lane under the canopy of trees, rocky at some places and muddy at the others.

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A welcome break from monotony of the trail… rock-tunnel!

The mini rock-tunnels, wooden bridges and occasional sight of mushrooms acted as a welcome break to the monotony of the hike.

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Here are the mushrooms I spoke about

I loved the idea of putting up rock and wooden benches en route (for some reason I could visualize my mom sitting there enjoying the view and capturing its splendor on her canvas).

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And that’s the bridge with the crystal blue glacial lake in the background…

The thing that set it apart from the usual forest hikes was that the entire trail was along the shore of the lake Brienz. The bright crystal blue hue of the lake was certainly the cherry on the cake.

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A glimpse of the trail….

The picturesqueness of the place accompanied by the slight wind chill was certainly an experience to relish. I realized that the route was somewhat popular among the local population there some of them were even riding their bicycles on the trail.

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My trail was full of surprises – got a taste of Swiss hospitality yet again! 

Having begun my journey a little later than I should have, I was concerned if I would have enough time to complete the hike. With my bus to Munich departing at around 3.30pm I reckoned I had a little over 2.5 hours. I planned to return to the Villa an hour before my bus and grab some lunch on the way. Slightly concerned about the situation, I decided to speed up as much as I could (at one point I was almost sprinting) and ended up breathless after a while. I ended up reducing the pace a bit after ensuring that I had more than enough time on my hands.

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First look of the waterfall after an hour worth of hiking. The fruits of labour are really sweet!

My heartbeat raced a bit as the sound of gushing water grew louder. Tracing my route along the course of the falls, I walked up the slope until I was as close to the falls as I could be.

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And that’s Giessbach Falls… in all its glory!

Standing inches away from the strong force of the water, I was awed by the feeling of droplets splashing onto my face. The deafening roar of the falls and the misty droplets instantly made me forget my tiredness.

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Would certainly have hiked to the point where the couple is standing if I had the luxury of time…

Having some time, I just sat by the waterfalls allowing myself to get completely lost in its beauty for a solid twenty minutes. Post that I began walking down to the point where the waterfalls met the lake (which coincidentally was one of the stops of the ferry ride back to Iseltwald). Passing by the Grandhotel Giessbach, I caught a glimpse of the Funicular during my descent.

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Waiting for my ride and chatting with a fellow tourist, I saw the ferry pull in.

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And there comes the Lotschberg, my ride for the afternoon to Iseltwald!

As I walked stepped into the Lotschberg, I realized that I had chosen a befitting end to Swiss leg of my journey. I was rather fortunate, as the ferry wasn’t very crowded and the weather was really pleasant for an afternoon.

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Titanic mood anyone? 

I would certainly recommend the ferry ride, as the 15-minute journey offered a view of the Brienz from a completely different perspective.

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The view!!! Felt like the clouds were closing in on us!

Although ecstatic for the amazing morning, I couldn’t help but feel slightly disappointed as my time in Switzerland and my backpacking trip drew to a close.

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Back to my starting point – Iseltwald! Just loved how I could drink straight out of the fountain, and how the bus back to Interlaken was waiting for us to jump in!

I really enjoyed every second I spent in Switzerland – right from the heartwarming Swiss hospitality to the enthralling landscape to the crystal blue glacial waters and fountains I could drink right out of without the least bit of worry. Special thanks to the Backpackers Villa Sonnenhof team for making my stay really enjoyable. I wish I had the opportunity of meeting Rafael again and thanking him before my departure. I hope I get the opportunity to visit Switzerland again in the near future (probably to go skydiving or checking out the Reichenbach Falls).

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Backpacker’s Diaries – The Treasures of the Alps

13th September 2018

The morning had been dreamlike – travelling in Eurail to the Top of Europe, frolicking in the snow, interacting with lovely people and finally enjoying amazing chocolate truffles. It was time to say goodbye to Jungfraujoch, which had me head over heels with Switzerland’s beauty. Thanks to my early bird ticket (which needed me to leave Jungfraujoch latest by 1.13pm) I learnt that I had more than enough time to explore other places on the way back to Interlaken.

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View from Jungfraubahn

The bright afternoon sun did justice to the picturesqueness of the Swiss Alps – I was just as lost in the beauty of the scenery as I was in the morning, if not more. I didn’t intend to spend much time in Kleine Scheidegg. However, as fate would have it, I bumped into my roommates from Lucerne and we ended up having a nice 20-minute long hike.

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My mini-hike at Kleine Scheidegg… and that’s my roomie from Lucerne!

The weather was perfect – it wasn’t very hot even though the sun was overhead, and the cool afternoon breeze added to the pleasantness of the afternoon. I sprinted from the hill as on seeing the bright yellow Wengernalpbahn approaching in the distance. Having skipped one train, I was reluctant to miss another as an ambitious plan for the day awaited me.

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When I saw the train pulling in… Rushed to the Bahnhof!

It took me a little bit of time to plan my journey once in Lauterbrunnen. The conductor in the 141 bus suggested me to check out the Schilthorn first. I found myself purchasing a ticket at the Stechelberg Station about 20 minutes later. To be honest I hadn’t done much research about Schilthorn – just the thought of an adventurous adrenaline-filled cable car journey had gotten me intrigued.

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Waiting for the Cable car ride at Stechelberg to begin…

The cable car journey to Schilthorn has multiple legs – and the journey gets more and more immersive with increase in altitude. The first leg is from Stechelberg to Gimmelwald, followed by a switch to Murren. The final leg of the journey to Schilthorn starts at Murren, with a change of cable car at the intermediate Birg station.

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And that’s one of the cable cars… frankly speaking, the journey to Schilthorn was the real adventure 

The cable car was an insanely captivating experience to be honest – there was room for about 50 passengers to stand at once, and the spectacle of the view elevated greatly with the altitude.

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And the view gets better with altitude…

The weather was pleasant at first, with a little drizzle as we left Stechelberg (here is the video). Temperature dropped from a comfortable 17-18 degrees to about 11 as we reached Birg and the rain had become a little stronger.

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The craziest part of the journey… the infinitely long 2 minutes with near-zero visibility… pure adrenaline if you ask me!

The journey from Birg to Schilthorn was the most intriguing part of the afternoon – the worsening weather coupled with zero visibility and rocking cable car sent adrenaline pumping through my veins, while eliciting worried glances and occasional screams from my co-passengers. Our heartrates finally normalized as we docked and alighted at Schilthorn.

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The weather seemed to clear a bit… only to become foggy again moments later…

My trip to Schilthorn was more-or-less impromptu, and I hadn’t really seen many reviews before visiting so as to avoid expectations.

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Although the weather was pretty cloudy and foggy outside, I ended up enjoying the view. Schilthorn really did pique my interest a bit.

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Rather interesting welcome-party don’t you think?

I was really interested in checking out the panoramic revolving restaurant Piz Gloria though, which completes a 360 degree revolution in about 55 minutes.

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Piz Gloria – The revolving restaurant…

I wasn’t surprised to find out that the restaurant featured in the 1969 James Bond movie On Her Majesty’s Secret Service – the place is basically a shrine for James Bond fans.

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Simulated rides… just one part of the James Bond shrine!

Right from the restrooms for Bonds and Bond Girls to time-bomb-themed countdown timers showing the time remaining till the next cable car ride, everything about the place literally screamed James Bond!

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Usually people run away from dynamite sticks… especially when they are connected to timers

My journey back to Stechelberg was something I would have enjoyed more had the weather been pleasant. I would have definitely tried the cliff walk at Birg if the hailstorm had been a little kinder.

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As much as I enjoyed seeing the hail, I was disappointed as the weather was too bad for a cliff walk…

 

Having finally alighted the cable car at Stechelberg station, I decided to check out the second attraction in Lauterbrunnen – the Trummelbach Falls.

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Pure Power – Trummelbach

The part that makes the waterfall really interesting is that it alone drains the glacier defiles of Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau mountains, and that is the only glacier-waterfall in Europe which is inside a mountain yet accessible.

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Am I the only one or does anyone else see the skull of the Ghost Rider?

Carrying more than 20,200 tonnes of boulder detritus every year, one can safely say that the Trummelbach Falls pack a serious punch. It is a series of 10 waterfalls, which can be accessed either by walk or a tunnel-lift.

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The tunnel-lift mechanism

I particularly enjoyed the tunnel-lift experience as the dark, damp and cold lift was a stark contrast to the bright late-afternoon outside. Everything about the place was bewitching – the deafening loudness of 20,000 litres per second demanded my attention, and the nature’s wild rawness was beautiful beyond words.

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Just staring at the force of the water is enough for a dose of adrenaline…

Enthralled by its beauty I ended up getting almost drenched twice and realized that navigating the way inside could be a bit tricky – the dampness of the stairs made it really slippery in a few places. Nevertheless, the visit was every bit worth the effort – especially the force of the water and the amazing views outside.

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And then began my walk to Lauterbrunnen… as I had missed my bus

Having spent a little over an hour, I ended up missing my bus back to Lauterbrunnen Bahnhof and decided to walk instead of waiting for the next one (remembering Rafael’s suggestion back at the hostel). It turned out to be a memorable experience – the lush green plains and the occasional waterfalls appeared as though a jigsaw puzzle scenery just came to life.

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Not another soul on the roads for nearly  half hour…. yet I wasn’t the least bit worried…

I was literally the only person on the road for as far as my eyes could see, and the only company I had in the amazingly lovely weather was of cows, calves, and their jingling cowbells.

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And then there were cows, calves and their cowbells to give me company!

I am glad I chose to walk – I really enjoyed the beauty of the Staubbach Falls on the way to Lauterbrunnen station.

Arriving in Interlaken just in time for the sunset I decided to visit Harder Kulm. It out to be a really special experience– not only because I finally had the pleasure of the funicular ride, but also because I got another dose of the Swiss hospitality.

“Rush in – it seems I am waiting just for you!” joked the smiling motorman as I made my way to the bright red Harderbahn after purchasing the ticket. We chatted a bit as the funicular gained altitude.

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Walk to the view point 

A short walk brought me to a restaurant and the viewing point.

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That’s the restaurant in the background…lively music to compliment the evening

One can clearly see the crystal blue lakes Thun and Brienz on either sides of the town, and the alpine hills in the background.

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And that’s the tiny town of Interlaken – sandwiched between the Thun and Brienz lakes

The mesmerising beauty of Harder Kulm was such that the hour spent staring at the panoramic view felt as long as the snapping of fingers.

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And my day is finally complete…. with the glorious sunset! 15-hour-long finally draws to a close….

Personally I enjoyed every second of watching the sun disappear into the western side of the horizon.

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Would love to go to Interlaken again sometime in the future… and to Harder Kulm just for this spectacular view

Nothing else seemed to matter as I stood transfixed against the railing – it was almost like a trance. Finally reaching the hostel at 8pm, I decided to retire to my dorm earlier than usual – 15 adventure-packed hours had come to an end, with tiredness and sleeplessness finally catching up with me.

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.

Central Market Hall

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.

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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.

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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