Buda Buda Buda Buda ‘round me everywhere - Budapest (Thursday & Friday)
Budapest: Thursday November 4th - Sunday November 7th
The Budapest saga began when on the Monday before I was to travel to Budapest I found out that all the possible bus lines I could take from Prague to Budapest on Friday were sold out in addition to the fact that on my return voyage, the only available bus was on Sunday night at 10:30 p.m. which would make my arrival back in Prague be around 6:30 a.m. This was going to be an interesting trip. I ended up booking a bus for Thursday afternoon that put me into Budapest at about 11 p.m. (7 hour bus ride) and because I was staying an extra night than planned, I quickly booked the first hostel I could find in Budapest that would allow me to book for only 1 night. On Friday, I was to meet up with Evan Meyer and Merrick Friedman (2 Betas) and 2 Kappa Alpha Theta (“Theta”) girls they were travelling with and stay with them at a Marriott for the remainder of the stay.
The bus ride was rather uneventful. When I arrived in Budapest, I made my way to the metro and began my short journey to Carpe Noctem Penthouse Hostel. This was the first metro that looked like it was still stuck in the communist era. The cars were dirty, the train was loud, and the people were foreboding. Anyways, I made it to the hostel in one piece and upon my arrival I was greeting by my Australian host, Dale. Dale immediately sat me down and informed me where the pub crawl that was organized by the hostel was located on a map, and when I responded that I wasn’t planning on going out, his response was, “Why did you book your stay at the biggest party hostel in Budapest then?” Whoops. Naturally, I would do this. Carpe Noctem was the highest rated hostel that would allow me to book for just 1 night (on hostelworld.com), so I really didn’t look into any details beyond that.
After we squared away the fact that I was indeed not going to begin a night of drinking at 12 a.m. (this wasn’t Barcelona, after all), Dale proceeded to give me an overly detailed and superfluous tour of the entire hostel, including pointing out to me where every possible shower I could use was located, how to label my food in the fridge, how to set up the Xbox to play guitar hero, and where he was staying himself. Again, it was 12 a.m. and I was only staying until 9 a.m. the next morning. Sweet Dale. Anyways, the hostel was pretty cool but the tour was soured by Dale, his constant effort to prove how cool he and the hostel was, and Dale’s sideburn’s which were so bushy and obnoxious the rivalled “Starburns” from the TV show community…
I managed to retire to my room, which was very nice, but was soon to realize why the hostel was a “party hostel” as loud and drunken guests returned from their evenings, flicked lights on, made noises, and then snored loudly. It was ok though because I was beat from the trip, so I did manage to fall asleep.
The next morning I awoke at 9 a.m. and was going to try to make the 10 minute metro ride to the Marriott to see if I could sneak in to the free continental breakfast they offered to their guests. Only one thing I had to do: check out and pay. This, however, required more time hanging out with Dale. Shit. After paying, I reluctantly accepted Dale’s offer to show me some cool sights and restaurants on a map in Budapest, thinking it couldn’t take more than 5 or 10 minutes which I had to spare. Wrong. Dale managed to go on for at least 30 minutes, pointing out every single possible thing I could fathom doing in the city, including excursions to wine vineyards and caves half-a-day’s trip away. And when he pointed out cool bars/pubs/clubs to check out and even tourist spots, his detailed accounts of his personal experiences at these locations all included how he was either really hammered or hooking up with a chick while he was at said location. Again, sweet Dale. I ended up escaping around 9:45 and didn’t make it to my continental breakfast.
Evan, Merrick and the crew showed up at 10:30, having taken a bus from Vienna earlier that morning. We checked in, checked out the room and our awesome view, and I flopped down on the bed which up to that point was the most comfortable bed I had laid on in Europe, hands down. Love the Marriott, thanks Theta girls. Anyways, after settling in, we ventured over to our first tourist spot, St. Stephen’s Basilica which was incredible inside and out. On the inside, the Basilica was probably the most ornate church, cathedral, or basilica I’ve seen in all of Europe - and I’ve seen a LOT since I’ve been across the pond. After snapping some photos on the inside, which by the way was actually allowed for a change, we began the climb to the top of the Basillica for some great views.
The weather Friday was beautiful and the views on top of St. Stephens were incredible. It was really cool to get our bearings from the beginning of our trip. It’s kind of funny - “Budapest” is seperated by the Danube River and there is literally a “Buda” side and a “Pest” side to the city. Together they are Budapest, obviously. Just was odd to realize and also to think if hey, what if there was a Phila and a Delphia side to Philly. Bizarre. Anyways after taking some amazing pictures of the city, we descended and ventured over to the Budapest synagogue in the Jewish Quarter which is the 2nd biggest synagogue in the world (biggest being in NYC, not Israel interestingly enough). Much like Prague, Budapest has a rich and extensive Jewish history, especially during the Holocaust, so it was an important landmark for Merrick and one of the Theta girls to see because they were both Jewish (and if you’re doing the math at home, that means gentiles outnumbered Jews on this trip…a rarity in my European travels which usually involves many people from Team Penn or Tulane). After checking out the outside of the synagogue we visited a Holocaust memorial very close by which was one of the most interesting I’ve seen in Europe. The memorial consisted of a brass or copper Willow tree in which every leaf displayed the name of a Hungarian Holocaust victim. It was very powerful to conceptualize the sheer number of Holocaust victims in terms of leaves on a tree.
After visiting this memorial, we decided to take a rather long walk to the Northern part of the city to visit a place called Margaret Island. We decided to walk along the Danube, which was beautiful in and of itself, and also saw some good sites along the way. The first was another Holocaust memorial which featured a myriad of empty shoes (in metal) littering the ledge of the walkway where there is a 15-foot drop off into the Danube. This memorial commemorates when the Nazis occupied Hungary and Budapest and literally marched the Jews to the edge of the Danube, told them to remove their shoes, and then shot them all - thier dead bodies falling into the river. Crazy.
We continued along the river and came to a point where Merrick, a.k.a. Mr. Derp (pledge name) could go down to the rocks safely and touch the Danube. Apparently in every city he has visited in Europe, he has had to touch the river that runs through it. Very Derpy thing to do.
The last site we saw on our journey to Margaret Island was the Parliament building which is simply the most impressive piece of architecture I have seen in all of Europe. It is ridiculous. It looks incredible at night, so I’ll post pictures of the building later on. We finally made it to Margaret Island where we decided to rent bikes and bomb around the island to take in the scenery and sites that ended up only really being worth seeing during the summer. It was ok though, because while Evan and I were biking back to the rental place, we took the shoreline path and got to see an incredible sunset.
We managed to figure out the tram system and luckily didn’t have to walk all the way back to the Marriott. When we got back, we rested for a while, and then went to the Hotel Hilton which was in the Buda castle for a wine tasting. Again, thank you Theta. We tried 6 wines for about $25 USD, my favroite being a creamy white wine from a vineyard in western Hungary. Who knew they brewed wine in Hungary? After a really great time actually enjoying our alcoholic beverages for a change, we went back to the hotel to get ready to go to a club called Studio which was highly recommended to us by other people who had visited Budapest. We cabbed to the club only to realize that Studio was closed. We decided to check out a club that was open right next to Studio called “Pink” instead. This club appeared normal at first, with a DJ, a few bars, a big dance floor, and an upstairs section for tables and bottle service. However, after a little bit, I began to realize there were a lot of guys and girls as well wearing high top Nikes, baggier-than-normal pants, track jackets, and those gloves that don’t have the fingers. This was only a little bizarre until the DJ stopped the music and two “crews” squared off in a dance off. At this exact moment, I was not around any of the others so I just stood to the side at the bar and watched from a distance as Bring It On Hungarian style played out before my eyes. I found Evan and the others and after a little while longer of being the only guy in the club wearing a button-down, we cabbed home and went to bed. First 24 hours in Budapest were in the books - crazzzy time.
The highlight of the Halloween weekend had to be walking behind Sam and Luke on Saturday afternoon on the busy Charles Bridge and just watching Sam lower his shoulder into this little asian girl as they walked by each other. She was literally knocked about 5 feet to the side after Plumer TRUCK STICKED her. It was hilarious. Right after I went up to Plumer and asked him what the hell that was all about, and he said that he had just been complaining to Luke that he is always the one to move his shoulder or move to the side when he passed people, and that he decided only moments before destroying this poor asian girl he wasn’t going to be the courteous one anymore. The girl was seriously stunned. In the wrong place at the wrong time I guess. Sam continued to walk without heeding to others, but none of his shoulder bangs were like that first one. Gotta love Plumes
This post will be brief because I want to catch up on the blog and post about other trips. So Halloween weekend (Fri. Oct. 29 - Sun. Oct. 31) was the first weekend I was in Prague since the weekend before Oktoberfest which was Sept. 24-26th. Needless to say, it was nice not to have to travel, keep track of a passport, deal with exchange rates, and sleep in the comforts of my own bed.
The weekend started when Sam Plumer and his buddy from Davidson, Luke Jenkins, arrived here in Prague on Friday morning after thier plane had been delayed the night before. I couldn’t believe what Sam looked like when I first saw him - such Eurotrash with a long gray pea coat and Burberry-looking scarf. What have the French done with him? Anyways after we got settled in at my apartment, I took Sam and Luke to the Palladium for some lunch and then the Vysherad Castle which is a little out of the way south of Prague. I figured it would be a good time to check out this castle because we probably wouldn’t have time to see it during the bustle and hussle of the weekend. When we returned from taking some amazing pictures of Southern Prague in autumn we returned to find Lucy and Lora in my room. My 4 guests had arrived. After hanging out and introducing the group, we all went to dinner at Kolkovna just on the corner down the street - my favorite restaurant in all of Prague. After a deliicious dinner at Kolkovna and after having ate my staple there - chicken and potato gnochhi - we retired back to my apartment to get ready for an evening on the town in Prague and also for Prahallomazoween.
Prahallomazoween was a a pre game that one of the SDT girls here in Prague, Rebecca Lomazow, always sets up with her brother because they have birthdays on the bookends of Halloween (usually it’s just Hallomazoween). Anyways the pre game was a really good time, with subsidized drinks thanks to Lomazow’s parents and basically everyone from Penn who was in Prague that weekend (a lot) and even the Tulane crowd made it to Vezenska. After Prahallomazoween had run its course, we took the party to Lucerna, a club that plays 80s and 90s music on Friday and Saturday nights. Always have a good time at Lucerna and I also always grab some smazeny syr (fried cheese) at the late night food stands in Wenseclas. On this occasion, I double fisted two on the way there and had another on the way home. What can I say they are really good.
We woke up on Saturday, grabbed some breakfast at Bake Shop ($$$$$$) and headed up to the Prague Castle to snap some good pictures of the city, St. Vitus cathedral, and each other I guess.
Prague looked beautiful on yet another beautiful autumn day up at the castle. We snapped some photos and lounged around the grounds, taking in the view and the sun.
We finally descended the castle hill into Mala Strana - “lesser town” - and then crossed the Vltava River on the Charles Bridge, the first and most famous bridge spanning the Vltava that connects Mala Strana to Stare Mesto (Old Town). After making a dinner reservation at a place called Hybernia that my Czech friend from the “Czech buddy” program recommended to me, we lounged around my apartment, watched some Modern Family, and got ready for dinner and then an outrageous night at “Bloodysexy Halloween” a party at the huge club SaSaZu sponsored by Erasmus Orgasmus Prague, the event coordinators for the European Erasmus students studying in Prague (there are a lot of them).
We made it to dinner and although the food was delicious, the beer was flat (what the hell?) and the food took more than AN HOUR to arrive at our table after ordering. It was ridiculous. After finally eating and picking up our spirits, we waltzed on back to the apartment to get ready for SaSaZu. Some of the Penn kids had arranged a table with bottle service for $50.00 for the night which all 5 of us agreed to buy in to. It took a while to get into the club and also to get the VIP wristbands to get into the club, but once we were in and settled at our table, the party began. What a good time it was - the craziest party and club I’d been to in Prague by far.
As you can see, none of us managed to find a costume - but we still looked good, wink wink..
After hanging out at our table with Team Penn and dancing on the dance floor with people in their outrageous Halloween costumes, Sam, Lucy, Lora and I all took a cab to Darlings (which took some serious convincing on me and Sam’s part) for Mr. Plumer’s first cabaret experience. He was impressed. The girls were grossed out, but who cares it was Halloween, it was Prague, and it was Europe…time to go a little crazy. Again the gang and I remained patrons, not participants.
After a rather long night, we retired and reunited with Luke who had gone after a girl who had a boyfriend and therefore had been shut down - poor guy. We all passed out and awoke on Sunday morning feeling a little groggy. We managed to get ourselves together and headed to the Palladium for breakfast which at that point in the day was pizza. After getting some water and food in our systems, I took the crew to the John Lennon wall which is a famous graffiti-covered wall with a bunch of John Lennon pictures, songs, and lyrics written all over the wall with people’s personal messages written in marker over them.
After visiting the wall my 4 guests ventured to see the Prague Dancing House which is a symbol of modern architecture in Prague while I retired to my man cave to study for my Economic Development in CEE midterm which was on Monday (yikes). After the gang returned from that, we went to eat at a great Italian restuarant called Pepe Nero and we approached by an extremely gregarious American named Gil who was studying in wouldn’t-you-know-it Antwerp, Belgium where the James Madison Business school sends their business students abroad. Alia is going to be studying in the same place as this kid on the same program next semester (they both go to JMU), so I was sure to play the name game with Gil but he didn’t know Alia or any of her friends. Oh well. The second JMU student I have run into in Europe (first was at Oktoberfest).
Well after dinner on Sunday night, the gang once again retired to my room to rest and relax while I tried to study for econ. Sam and Luke’s flight didn’t leave until 6 a.m. on Monday and Lora and Lucy’s flight left around 10 a.m.
After staying awake to call Sam and Luke a cab around 4 a.m. to take them to the airport I caught a snooze but then had to get up at 7:30 for my 8:20 czech class. I ended up making it through my Monday after really struggling on the econ exam. Lucy and Lora left without a problem, and I came home Monday afternoon and just crashed. Wow, what a weekend. Had a great time though and survived my exam…SUCCESS.
My visit to Auschwitz has probably been the most profound and poignant moments of my time here in Europe so far. Here are the details of my visit…
On Saturday morning, we all piled into our UPCES chartered bus and embarked on the hour-long ride to Auschwitz I and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. After catching a snooze, I awoke to the myriad of brick barracks of Auschwitz I on my right. We got off the bus and broke up into two groups for separate guided tours. Both tour groups were taken on a tour of many of the barracks with each barracks representing a different element of the Holocaust and Auschwitz’s role within that element. The tour snaked each group from room to room in the barracks’ and between each room were narrow hallways lined with pictures of victims. Much like the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C., this exhibition displayed the vast amount of items that were confiscated – from suitcases, to eye-glasses, to brushes, to shoes, to human hair. The shoes were the worst. They were displayed in such a massive heap and it really (unfortunately) helped me wrap my mind around just how many people died in these gas chambers of the Holocaust.
“Work will set you free”
Each barracks also had a different function during the Holocaust, and the tour showed barracks that were used to house women and also barracks that were used by Dr. Mendele and his doctors to conduct inhumane experiments on twins. We saw a barracks used to house political prisoners in particular, and in the basement of this barracks were literal chambers designed for starvation, suffocation, and torture – there were chambers designed so small that prisoners could only stand and not sit. These prisoners eventually collapsed of exhaustion and were then put to death. Prisoners lucky enough to meet a quick death by a firing squad were shot in a specific square between two of the barracks. The tour took us into this courtyard and we could see the wall they stood in front of before they faced their death. This wall was heavily decorated with flowers and candles in memorial.
On a lighter note, I once again had a bizarre tour guide. This woman didn’t really speak great English and when she spoke a sentence, no matter what she was saying, she ended her sentences by trailing off in a somber tone, as if to magnify the sadness of her words. This was fine when appropriate and helped establish a serious, reflective mood, but it was simply ridiculous when she was merely pointing out where a picture was in a room or that we should walk on the left in the hallways. By the end of the tour I was almost so infuriated with the tour guide’s tone and speech that I didn’t take in what she was actually saying.
Anyways, after the more comprehensive tour of Auschwitz I, we hoped on the bus and drove the 3 km to Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Auschwitz-Birkenau was constructed after the Wansee Conference in January, 1942 as part of Operation Reinhardt (named after Reinhardt Heydrich, the main architect of what we know as the Holocaust – the systematic industrial killing of millions of Jews in gas chambers). The extermination camps of Sobibor, Treblinka, and Chelmo were constructed or renovated along with Auschwitz-Birkenau after this conference in order to receive the millions of Jews that would be transported to the East to receive “special treatment.” Unlike Auschwitz I, Birkenau was construction to be an extermination camp, and is thus ten times bigger than Auschwitz I. When Jews talk of “surviving Auschwitz,” they are usually referring to surviving their time in Birkenau.
This map shows the difference in size between the two camps.
Auschwitz II-Birkenau was enormous. You literally could not see the boundaries of the camp from the center train tracks. The barracks in this camp were wooden, so only a few have been preserved and have survived, but in the wake of each destroyed barracks stands a brick chimney of which each barracks had two. In my pictures you can see the hundreds of chimneys going on and on into the hazy distance.
At Birkenau, we didn’t have a tour guide but I went into a sleeping-quarters barracks and a latrine barracks where prisoners were forced to defecate in inhumane and humiliating conditions. After getting a feel for the living quarters, I walked the half-mile along the train tracks to where two crematoriums and gas chambers once stood. Standing on those train tracks, looking at the panorama of chimneys and barbed wire, it really hit me just how tragic this place was. There was literally nowhere to go, nowhere to escape, and once Jews arrived in Birkenau, their fate was sealed. After viewing the grounds some more and soaking in the gravity and significance of the very place I was standing, I headed back to the bus. The most significant and profound moments of the visit were seeing the “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work will set you free) sign at Auschwitz I, the massive pile of shoes in one of the barracks at Auschwitz I, and standing on the train tracks at Auschwitz-Birkenau surrounded by symbols of despair and tragedy. Moments like those are part of the reason I chose to study in Central Europe where the Holocaust was carried out, so I was content in that regard. I was happy to have seen Auschwitz, but I doubt I will ever return.
Memorial stone found in the back of the camp grounds