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Budapest, Hungary – Europe Day 34 – June 30

We got up early today, had a quick breakfast, and caught the train into Egers, a small town outside of Budapest, that’s known for its wine caves. The town itself was nothing special for us, but apparently its the mecca of Hungarian history, with school groups making pilgrimages there daily. Hungary’s Alamo is there, where a small group of Hungarians, vastly outnumbered, held off an attacking army. We took a cab from the town center to the wine caves region of Eger. It was a bizarre little place, like a wine tasting amusement park, as Rob described it.

There was a little row of doors and storefronts etched into the cliff face with each one offering a different wine tasting. The first one was basically a small cafe and nothing special. We paid about fifty cents each for a glass of wine. The second place involved walking down some stone steps into a full-on cave. Rob and I were the only two customers and the woman working was ecstatic to see us. We each tried about 5 half glasses, apparently, they don’t do taster glasses here, lucky us. Rob and I bought a bottle, and everything included it was about $5 each. The next place we found we almost walked past, unlike the rest, it wasn’t a store or a cafe. It was just a pair of green steel doors leading into the cliff face, guarded by a fat Hungarian in sweatpants. We pantomimed if we could come in. He mimed back yes and we entered. Inside there were no tables or benches, cheeses or pictures of Hungary, just a dozen barrels of wine, aging in this mysterious cave. Our host used a giant pipette to siphon out two glasses of wine straight from the barrel. This is by far the most authentic wine experience I’ve ever had.

Our third stop was another cafe type place. We each had six half glasses here and it didn’t cost us a penny.The last place was a storefront, with the cave behind it. The owner also ran a local vineyard with the help of his three beautiful daughters. This seems like the setup to a joke, but it isn’t. The wine was good, the owner gave us a pamphlet and didn’t charge us and we left.

Overall, it was a great day. Rob and I napped for the two hours it took to get back to Budapest. We got to the hostel in time to catch a bunch of people going out to Morrison’s a bar downtown, based on how much fun we had last night, we had to go.

We took the tram to the bar, and who should I find drinking absinthe in front of the bar? It was Cooper from the other night. He joined our group and we all went in for drinks, dancing, and traditional Hungarian spirits. The bar was awesome. It was 5 stories. You walked in onto an open courtyard with several alcoves off of it, some with bars and others with dance areas. There were two floors above the courtyard with more bars and a fancier atmosphere. I never went up. Beneath the courtyard was a basement level playing house music and below that another basement that I also didn’t go down to. I found out about half these floors afterward. Rob and I spent most of the night talking with Cooper and these two girls from Budapest that work for “Carning” I think. The company makes glass for iPhones, and they worked in accounting. At the end of the night, Rob and I walked back to the hostel to get some sleep so we could catch our train to Zagreb at 6am.

Budapest, Hungary – Europe Day 33 – June 29

Waking up at Carpe Noctem Vitae, our hostel, was like waking up at Celebration Station again, my house in Gainesville. There were empty cups left and right and people passed out on the floor and couches everywhere. I saw one guy passed out on a couch with his money belt still on and a bottle of beer in his jeans pocket. Rick Steves would be proud. One guy woke up as I was making coffee and we chatted for a bit. It turns out he works for the hostel, but not the hostel we were at. Last night he had walked back to the wrong hostel and passed out. His boss, who owns both hostels, found him at our hostel and just laughed. Sounds like a good boss.

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Hostel Wakeup

I walked out onto the verandah to drink my coffee and struck up a conversation with a guy named Max from UF who had graduated from UF the same time I had. It turns out he was friends with Gabby and Sunny and knew my sister Kiana. Small world.

Rob and I got up and out pretty early, around 9ish. We got breakfast pastries for $1 each and caught the bus to Budapest’s Castle Hill. The hill is home to numerous monuments, including the former Palace, which is now an art museum. From the art museum, you could look out over all of Budapest and watch the Danube River snake through it.

Wine Not?

After the art museum, Rob and I walked to the Royal Wine Cellar for a wine tasting. The cellar is a network of tunnels and cellars connected together under the city. We sampled 5 wines. We paid for three, but Rob knows more about wine than anyone I’ve ever met and the waiters were eager to impress Rob with Hungarian wine.

Hours later, we stumbled out of the wine cellar into Castle Hill once again, looking at Cathedrals and standing before the magnificence of Budapest below us, before catching the bus back to the hostel. Our next stop of the day was at the Hungarian baths that Budapest is so famous for. Budapest itself is built on top of a bed oh hot springs and the springs naturally supply the water to the baths. Anyways, Rob and I put on our swimsuits and caught the subway across town, apparently, a lot of people do this as there weren’t too many people staring at the people in swimsuits.

Bath Time

After we paid for the baths, the receptionist behind the counter gave us an electronic wristband to get through the turnstile and into the locker room. Our bands corresponded with a locker and we put our bags down before heading into the baths. The whole complex is just like one giant public swimming pool with families, teenagers, and old people swimming around, all clothed. The baths also offer several different saunas, heated pools, whirlpools, and ice baths.

We swam around a bit and met some English people enjoying the baths, played chess against the Hungarian locals in the baths (locals get a black band instead of blue), and went to the sauna for a bit. This was by far the hottest sauna I have ever been in. The air was so hot it hurt to breathe. I lasted a couple minutes then had to go cool off in the ice bath.

After the baths, Rob and I got dinner downtown at a little cafe. We each had a filling meal of chicken and rice, only $4.50 each. The prices in Hungary are amazing. We made our way back to the hostel after dinner and got ready to go out on the town with the hostel’s pub crawl, which was free!

Bar None

The bars in Budapest are the coolest bars I’ve ever been to, hands down. Each bar was a bigger and better version than the last, and each one felt like The Atlantic in Gainesville, just improved slightly in every way. The first bar was fun, and about the same size and feel of the Atlantic. It was in a courtyard with a projector playing crazy brightly colored graphics on it while fun electro played in the background.We met a guy from Gainesville, named Cooper, who is now going to UCF. It turns out we knew a bunch of the same people from SDS, like Jessica, Tina, Skeet, and Richard. He and I chatted a bit and went our separate ways when the hostel crowd left.

The second bar was a bit larger and had a giant outdoor area with ping pong, pinball, several bars, and tons of chairs and tables under a vine-covered terrace where people talked and drank. Everywhere I went, I wanted to go back to and stay forever. I imagined the people back home I would bring here and the fun we would have on my next Europe trip.

The last bar was the coolest bar I’ve ever been to. As you walked up to it there were two giant doors that you walked around and into a smaller side entrance. Inside the bar was two stories with numerous balconies and catwalks on the second floor looking down onto the first floor. Separating the two floors was a latticework of vines and Christmas lights creating this neat semi-transparent layer between the two. On the first floor, there were tons of alcoves and little rooms off from the main area. The bar had several smaller bars and a pizza shop inside it as well.

After the last bar, we went out to a club, that I would not have known existed if it weren’t for the pub-crawl. After paying cover we walked up a long graffiti filled staircase into a dance hall pumping heavy bass and awesome techno into the crowd. I don’t know what I was listening to, but it sounded like a mix of Glitchmob and MGMT. Different parts of the club had murals of spirals across the floor, walls, and ceiling, and other rooms were entirely black with black lights to illuminate them.

Rob and I worked our way to the front by the DJ booth and danced til 2 then called it a night back at the hostel.

Vienna, Austria-Bratislava, Slovakia-Budapest, Hungary – Europe Day 32 – June 28

We woke up late and missed the early train to Bratislava. Hopefully not a trend we would be continuing. Fortunately for us, trains leave about every 30 minutes from Vienna to Bratislava. The two cities are trying to build a business corridor connecting commerce between Vienna and Slovakia.

Getting to Bratislava

It ended up being a later start to the day than we expected, but it wasn’t a dealbreaker. Rob and I checked out and walked down to Westbahnhof, the nearest train station. From there we transferred to the metro, then to a tram and finally ended up at another train station, where we went to Bratislava. Bottom line, Europe has entirely too many public transit options.

We arrived in, Bratislava, where we took a bus to another train station to drop our bags. I hope you’re noticing a trend here. Finally, with our trip over, we could explore the city. Bratislava is beautiful. I expected it, to some degree to be a seedy Eastern European city. Apparently, those don’t exist, or if so we haven’t gone far enough East yet.

The city reminded me of a nicer St. Petersburg(Florida), with cheaper prices and better weather. The women there are beautiful as well. Literally, every woman we saw in Bratislava could be a supermodel. The woman working the ticket counter, the bartender, the woman cleaning trash off the street, everyone. It was incredible. There were a lot of really nice cars there as well. We saw Lamborghinis, Porsches, and one Hummer, a car I hadn’t seen anywhere else in Europe so far.

New Shoes Who Dis?

The communist influence over the city had been painted over with a veneer of brightly colored paint and beautiful parks scattered around the city. I found a shoe store on the corner where I replaced my old pair of shoes. The pair I had been wearing had practically worn through to the bottom, and the Dr. Scholl’s I’d bought to prolong their life was now paper thin. I’d been through a lot in those shoes. I’d Skydived, climbed a mountain, walked all over Europe and the States, and canyoned in them at the start of this trip.

With my new shoes on, and my old pair ceremoniously thrown in the trashcan, Rob and I set out to get some pizza. This little courtyard pizza place did a 5 topping pizza for around 5 euro and another euro or so for a beer. Prices were great in Bratislava, heck everything was great in Bratislava.

While the city was nice, there wasn’t a lot to do there. Rick Steve’s suggested a day, I suggest an afternoon. After a couple hours, you get the gist of it. It’s a great place to live, but not to be a tourist or a sightseer.

Back at the station, we boarded our train for Budapest and settled into our trip. The countryside was like that of another world. For the first time on my trip, I felt like I was in a truly foreign land. The landscape that swam around me was beautiful, but also desolate. There were rolling fields of grains and sunflowers, but also patches of nothing that stretched on for miles hugging the horizon. Occasionally we would pass a derelict building or some relic of the former Soviet occupation, an old mill or factory of some sort, a train station in ruins from a bygone era.

No Rest til Budapest

We stepped off the train station in Budapest into a beautiful station that seemed to grow right out of the steam era and surround us. Big metal scaffolding rose and arched over us meeting in the middle, enveloping us in its erector set architecture. There were little shops on either side selling kebabs, and other foods while men stood near every horizontal surface with a chessboard before them, ready to play.

The walk to the hostel was interesting, Budapest is a city trapped in a dichotomy. We passed scaffolding and sex shops, but also Gucci and Prada. Our hostel shared an entrance way with a sex shop selling all manner of wares, yet right across the street was a marble and glass building called the Grand Hotel.

A Cast of Characters

Through the sex shop and up to the penthouse level of the building, was our hostel. Occupying the top two stories of a building that could have been a South Beach Penthouse condo had it been decorated differently. Inside there were travelers of all sorts, European hippies, Australian backpackers, UF alum, former SDS members of mine. It was the winning card to an ethnographic bingo game. A game that Rob and I were only beginning to play.

We dropped our bags and made ourselves right at home, drinking vodka on the top floor verandah overlooking Budapest’s twilight skyline, sharing travel stories with our fellow hostelers. Later that night we joined the rest of the hostel in their Clue-themed club party downtown, costumed provided free by the hostel. The bar was filled with people dressed as their favorite Clue character, drinking spirits like water, falling off stools, and loudly singing karaoke from somewhere in the back. It was a carnival of hedonism, from which I had a front-row seat.

The bar had a clever quirk to it where it was priced like the stock market. As more people bought a certain drink, the priced increased. If no one bought a drink, that particular drink decreased in price. I thought about moving here and exploiting this system for all it was worth. After a long day of travel, Rob and I were beat pretty early. We walked back and called it a night around 2.

Vienna, Austria – Europe Day 31 – June 27

I woke up this morning and wandered down to the computers in the hostel common room, wondering how I was going to meet up with Rob that day. Rob was on one of the computers already. Problem solved. Rob and I caught up on our travel experiences, he told me about Krakow, and I told him about Florence and the music festival yesterday.

We made our way over to the nearest grocery store. The store had the Aldi logo, but it was called something else, Hauffe maybe, I can’t remember. Rob and I bought ham, jam, cheese, bread, and coke to chase the caramel vodka he’d bought in Krakow.

Back at the hostel, we made ham, jam, and cheese sandwiches. They were amazing, like miniature Monte Cristos. Rob asked if I wanted to try the vodka, it was noon and I was in Europe, of course, I did. The vodka coke went well with our sandwiches and provided a nice start to our day.

After breakfast, or more aptly lunch, Rob and I took the train to the city center. This time there were twice as many tourists, and half as many Mozarts, it was a disappointing ratio but made me question my sanity less. We saw Cathedrals with scaffolding, the Hapsburg Palace, and gardens, ate cake on the most expensive street in Vienna, visited Parliament, the Opera house, and Museum Quarter. It was a busy day in Vienna. Rob and I chose to end with finger sandwiches, wine tasting outside the city center, and pizza and beer at the Aussie bar by the hostel.

Rob and I left the bar around 11:30 so we would have time to catch our 8:30am train to Bratislava, Slovakia.

Vienna, Austria – Europe Day 30 – June 26

I woke up at the end of the line, Westbahnhof in Vienna, Austria. It was a quiet Sunday morning as I wandered from the station to my hostel, in the red light district. Vienna is such a nice and conservative place that I wouldn’t have known we were even in the red light district if I hadn’t seen it on Hostelworld.

I dropped my bags at the hostel and talked to the woman behind the counter. She gave me a map and explained that the second largest outdoor festival in the world was going on in Vienna that day and that it was second only to Carnivale. Friday there were 800,000 people there, and Saturday there were over 1 million people attending. Since it started at two, I decided to spend the morning walking around the city center.

I took the metro to Stephensplatz, Vienna’s center, where I wandered amongst churches and museums, dodging people dressed as Mozart trying to hand me fliers. It was a quiet and cloudy morning and aside from the many Mozarts, I was one of the only people in the city center. It was a surreal experience, walking amongst those Mozarts in the mist. I kept expecting to wake up back on the train with my iPod playing Mozart, but it never happened, or perhaps I’m still dreaming.

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I took the metro to an island in the middle of the Danube river, which runs through Vienna, and walked around the festival soaking up the atmosphere and enjoying a giant pretzel. It was an awesome festival with many stages playing everything from Folk to House music. The festival had extreme sports going on as well with BMX bikers, and people dressed as spiderman jumping off giant platforms into massive cushions. I was considering this “I’m dreaming” theory more and more. On the way back to the hostel, I stopped in at an Aussie travel bar for a drink before heading to bed.

Some Graffiti I saw in Vienna