Would You Believe, Surprise Festival #5

The show I saw in Sibiu was a dance piece by a group from Hungary; I thought it was fantastic, so full of energy and seemed to confront some interesting ideas on relationships.  Also staying at the hostel was a guy who was volunteering for the festival.  I asked him some details about how he got involved and I will admit, I’m tempted to come back next year and volunteer…  I really love what they’ve got going on here.  And I absolutely love the hostel.  The owners are wonderful people who made me feel right at home.

I was a little sad to leave Sibiu, but Brasov beckons.  I took a free walking tour here, saw some points of interest – some city towers, the smallest road in Europe (or something like that), the black church and the huge mock-hollywood ‘BRASOV’ sign.  Today I went to see Bran castle and Rasnov citadel with an Aussie couple from my hostel.  I’m kinda glad I had someone to go with because the buses got us a little confused and lost at one point but we made it!  I was expecting more from Bran castle, I paid for an audio guide which mostly told us what was on the signs around the castle.  It was also all nicely whitewashed and sparsely decorated so lacked some atmosphere…

The utterly exhausting hike up to Rasnov citadel was well worth it for beautiful views of the surrounding mountains.

So festival #5 happens to be an urban art festival.  That runs only during the 3 days that I am here.  How is that for timing eh?  There are skateboarders, graffiti artists working on big wooden boards in the town square and there is music and theatre too.  Brilliant!

Brasov - People in the main square and black church

Brasov - People in the main square

Surprise Festival #3 and #4

After having spent a lovely weekend in the chilled Pecs – soaking in the local nightlife, drinks and highly decorated roofs with my friend who decided to come along for a short jolly – I headed into Romania.

First stop Cluj Napoca, where there happened to be a city celebration that fortnight.  There were lots of folk bands and guests and markets,  it was great!  I intended to spend only one night there but thought it worth staying for a proper look at the city, having spend my first hours in Cluj at the festival.  I went with another guy staying at the hostel and we couldn’t understand much of what was going on during the speeches given by the bands but we heard lots of blah blah Cluj (cue cheering) blah blah blah Cluj (more cheering)… and so on.  So felt we knew enough to know when to cheer…

Fortunately Cluj is a fairly small city so could reach all the highlights in one day –  the botanical gardens, the tailor tower (part of the old city wall), the citadel, a crazy little pharmacy museum.

I left Cluj in the direction of  Sibiu.  I say direction because I really didn’t know which train I was catching where because I was getting loads of  conflicting information from websites and train timetables.  I got shooed onto a train with an over-familiar creepy train conductor (I was so glad when I switched trains) and managed, with creepy train conductor, to figure out the route of where the hell I was meant to be going.  And before you say, I did ask at the front desk but they said, um the next train is.. Oh god! now!  go go go! so leapt on without a plan.

I got let off at a station in the middle of nowhere.  I climbed down the train and jumped onto the gravel beneath.  I walked to the ‘platform’ (some concrete slabs) and was told to get the train behind me.  Again no platform to speak of so the train door started at about waist height.  I lugged my bag on and clambered up after it.  I felt sorry for the little old ladies I saw having to do this too…  The train passed through fields, the landscape was so beautiful, really green and tumbling hills that last forever.  We stopped at stations that had a sign, a rusting hut and a farm next to it.  I got the feeling this was a very local train.  Especially when some farm workers got on with a bucket of paint and a scythe.

Eventually made it to Sibiu and discovered festival #4 – an up and coming well respected theatre festival.  I saw some street performance, some music and a one woman show about her cycling journey across the Middle East.  There are performers from all over the world here to perform, how exciting!  Today I’m hoping to catch some more street theatre music and a dance performance.  On that note, the festivities will be starting again soon so I had better go!

The Hungarian Steves and The Altered Plan

The Hungarian Steves –

When I first arrived in Budapest, fresh off the train, lost and penniless, a man who worked at a local hostel asked if I needed a place to stay.  I said no, I had booked a place but please point me in the direction of the metro.  So he obligingly did and off I went.  Bugger, I have no local currency for a ticket.  So I went back to the station thinking I would find an atm.  No atm.  Fine, I will walk.  Wait, where are all the maps?  Argh! The hostel guy sees me being rubbish and asks if I need help.  I tell him my situation and he directs me to an atm.  We chat along the way and as I am about to head back off to the metro, finally with local currency, he asks if I want to grab a beer from the shop below the station.  A brief thought tells me that I am a stranger here, he knows I have just drawn out money and we are going underground.  But I get a good vibe from him so go with my instinct.  We have a beer and a chat (he introduces himself as Steve) and I am glad of this opportunity, however, yes, I am aware of how dodgy this could have been!  We talked about places to go in Budapest, a bit about the people he meets through his work.  I think this was the end of a long quiet shift for him so I think he was glad of the company.

Saint Stephen, the other ‘Steve’ was the first King of Hungary.  There is a massive basilica dedicated to him which we were shown on the walking tour.  After the tour was finished I went back, drew it and then went inside.  I forget the exact story and precisely why his body had to be dug up again after his death but when they found him, his right arm had been naturally mummified whilst the rest had disintegrated.  This was considered a miracle, he was canonised and the holy right arm was separated and pieces went to Rome, Vienna and Budapest (apparently, other stories I  have heard are simply that the holy fist has done a tour).  Currently the holy right fist resides in a dark glass box in the basilica.  For a small fee you can illuminate the box and see the mummified holy right fist in all its glory.  I however, waited around (not long fortunately) until some other willing tourists came in, paid the money and I was allowed to gawp for free.  Most excellent.

Altered Plan –

Did not realise the parliament tour was a ticketed event and by the time I had gotten there, all the tickets were gone.  So instead I went for that hike up to the citadel.  It was steep and long and unbearably hot and I had visions of passing out and forever being lost to the hills of Buda.  And then I reached the top and saw a tourist bus glide to the top.  Grr, hiking builds character, right?  Either way, my efforts were rewarded with the most amazing views – you can see for miles and miles.  It has been recommended that it is fantastic at night but as yet, the opportunity to go then hasn’t arisen.

After, I went for a guided tour about the behind the scenes of Budapest.  It was really good.  At first, the tour guide and I stood next to each other for a minute or two because she thought I was a local (what a compliment!) and I wasn’t sure if she was the right person…  But once we got going she showed me a lot about the history of lots of the buildings and architecture.  There are so many stand-out beautiful buildings but you only see them if someone points them out.  And there were a couple that I had noticed before and were able to ask more about which was good, you got a real sense of a story throughout the buildings.  I was told about the significance of bees on buildings that were to do with commerce (bees collect pollen, people collect money, that kind of thing) and some buildings were decorated specifically with the theme of the business inside – e.g ships and marine creatures on a shipping company’s headquarters.  I loved the inner city parish church which is half gothic and half baroque.  One half of the gothic church was destroyed during a turkish invasion and when there was an opportunity to restore it, they built it in the then current baroque fashion.  Odd, but really cool.


I am here on an extra day in Budapest but I still don’t have enough time to do everything I wanted.  An excuse to go travelling again perhaps?  So on my first day I took a free walking tour to get an idea of the place; we saw a concert hall with rubbish acoustics (so more recently used for rock music and raves rather than orchestral stuff), gödör (a club whose name translates into ‘pit’) which is built under a lovely little park and you can see into through a pond, we saw a lot of silly statues – silly because the people of Budapest wanted something nice and frivolous after all those overbearing political communist statues.  Went up Buda hills to reach the castle district, saw Mattias church and the fisherman’s bastion and there were beautiful views over the city.  I am hoping when I come back in a couple days (en route to Romania, the connections from Pécs are rubbish) I will have a go at climbing gellért hill and have a closer look at the citadel statue.

It somewhat surprised me to discover I actually know someone living in Budapest, so it has been nice to meet up with a friend along the way.  We went for a drink in a ruin bar – an old disused building that has been taken over by the bar, it had a lovely little courtyard with mis-matched tables and chairs, including the font of a mini with the engine taken out and made into a chair.

Last night the owners of the hostel cooked a massive traditional paprika krumpli dish for all the current residents.  It was so filling and delicious, lots of potatoes and paprika broth (as you had probably guessed) and chorizo and some other sausages.  It was a really nice community feel.

Later my friend and I went to a folk dancing night, there were live bands playing traditional Hungarian music and it looked like everyone was having so much fun.  They also looked like they knew what they were doing so my friend and I thought we would stick to just watching the action.

Yesterday I had a little excursion to Szentendre, a town (although the map called it a city, like, yeah right) which is covered with little art galleries and craft shops.  It lies along a river and is very quaint.  I think it would have been prettier had I not had the misfortune to visit whilst they were doing loads of roadworks everywhere…

Today I am going to try and get to parliament in time for the free tour and after, have a behind the scenes tour of Budapest, which sounded a bit similar to the kind of crazy guides tour we had in Krakow.

Lazy Day in Košice

So I went for my tour, I was quite taken with the Saint Elizabeth cathedral; I was told about a few legends and stories about the buildings here  – one of my favourite being that there are monster gargoyles on the cathedral except one that is a woman.  apparently the builder’s wife was an alcoholic so as punishment he immortalised her in an ugly stone carving with a bottle under her arm, cursed to be forever spewing water.

The floor is all paved here but there are sections of crazy paving which denotes where the old city walls were.  There were some underground tunnels accessible to the public which I had a wander around whilst it looked like rain.  It was ok, they were a bunch of tunnels.   What was strange was that some awareness group had set up there too.  The bigger rooms had big tv screens set up and you could press play and they would tell you about psychology conspiracy theories.  They had slovak subtitles but the dvds were all American sensationalist episodes.  Ugh, cue cynacism.  It was everything i don’t like about American tv, I accept a lot of people like it but hey, whatever.  For me, it was deep booming voice, thin on facts supported by fast montages, red overlays and scary music.  For example, it spoke about how eugenics came from American psychologists; it inspired Hitlers plan on ethnic cleansing and then when it all went tits up and nazis were put on trial for war crimes all the American psychologists pinned it on their Nazi counterparts with ‘who, me?’ expressions.  Now this I know and believe, but the dvd spoke about all of this and finished with ‘and now LOOK!! the tyranny continues today!’  Its like, what?  you just missed several decades of information.  Oh and psychology invented racism too or something.  Suddenly the bland tunnels seemed more interesting.

I had a very very slow afternoon drinks session where I just people watched outside the cafe next to the musical fountains.  It was such a great feeling.  I don’t have to be anywhere, do anything at all.  It was nice to just zone out, a luxury I never give myself back home.  I always suffer from ‘the guilt’ that I should be doing something when I try and zone out, which is partly why I can never do a quiet lifestyle!

The musical fountain is kind of cool, the fountains spew water in time to the music, kind of like a water version of the Bristol balloon night glow.  It’s nice at first but the novelty had kinda worn off quickly for me, it works to a sort of pan pipe muzak instrumental version of pop songs.

Have done some drawings when I can stand to be out in the scorching heat, even got some ol’ etch-a-sketch action.

Tomorrow, next country – Hungary!

the most scenic train journey ever taken

I can’t believe I forgot!  the train journey from Zilina to Košice was one of the highlights of the travelling!  Once I had gotten into Zilina the hills were looking lovely, the next day, speeding along in the train, the rolling green hills continued and spread and grew.  Sometimes a river joined the scene, wide and calm tripping over rocks occasionally.

Here is a word sketch:   lush forest, thick carpet of trees, rich dark greens where the mountain curves in, bright fresh green where trees hit the light.  Steep expanses of grass are dotted with occasional trees at the base of towering mountains.

The green mountains eventually gave way to monstrosities with jagged raw edges nestling in the clouds, you could see the snow still in the crevices despite how hot it had been earlier.  Although that being said, I could feel the temperature drop and cue flash storm.  rain = go, lightening = go, thunder =  go, heavier rain = go, then stop.  And then as the mountains got greener again I could tell we weren’t so high and the scenic route had passed.

Train passing tatras mountains

saved at the last minute

Since I had booked an extra day in Krakow because I loved it so much, I thought it was probably best to move on or I would never leave.  So I got the train to Zilina in Slovakia.  I planned to arrive early to go to the tourist info and find a place to sleep but with massive train delays I was really late arriving.  The tourist info could not be found anyway so I wandered round hoping to find something that wasn’t a hotel.  Eventually I did bump into a map of hostels at another tourist info, wrote down directions, reached the place as it was getting dark, managed to book a night at the hostel speaking to a man who knew nothing of English and fell into bed.  Whew.  I thought I was going to have to sleeping bag it up at the train station.

I am now in Kosice, still Slovakia for those unaware, very pretty.  Hoping to take a free walking tour tomorrow to suss out the history of those gorgeous buildings they have.

Crazy Guide to Krakow

Amy, Florent (someone else from the hostel) and I took a Crazy Guide tour of Krakow, the guide was a little late so we had a customised tour to skip the traffic.  He turned up in a little Trabant and we all squeezed in.  this was a good trip for cheap thrills in that the guide Kooba, drove a little crazy, it started raining, we discovered his wipers didnt work, it rained harder so we rolled up the windows.  we started steaming up so Kooba had to wind down the window to turn.  It started hailing, the car started leaking and Kooba insisted on still driving.  he did admit defeat after a while though and we took shelter in an old ‘milk bar’ and ate perogie whilst Kooba told us about the communist relic of Nowa Huta where the steelworks factory is several times bigger than the district itself.  We were also treated to a trip to an Austro-Hungarian fortress which gave us panoramic views of Krakow, and a trip to a limestone quarry which had filled up with ground water.  It was beautiful.  I also got a go at driving the trabant!  Great fun!

‘Arbeit Macht Frei’

I went to Auschwitz not entirely sure what to expect.  I left Auschwitz reeling from what I had learnt.  It was such an evil place.

Amy and I (someone I had met the previous night and had decided to go together) took the bus, which was a small minibus so packed with people that we had to stand for the hour and a half that it took to reach the town of Oscwiecim.  Although considering where we were going, it didnt feel like the time to complain.

We were given a guided tour packed with information.  We walked under the Arbeit Macht Frei sign into the barracks of Auschwitz.  This sign promised those that walked under it that if you worked hard, you would be rewarded with freedom.  Of course we all know that wasnt the case.

It was a beautiful day, in stark contrast to the place we were and I had to keep reminding myself that I was treading those same paths and that this was not some replica museum.

We were shown how prisoners of war were first kept in Auschwitz and then how Jews were enticed in with promises of  work.  I couldnt believe how far the propaganda to hide it all stretched.  Most people were shipped in in trains, went through a selection process, those that were strong were kept and went to work, others went straight to the shower rooms.  However, a few families were occasionally kept together, long enough for Nazis to force them to write happy letters home telling of the work and good conditions that were provided at Auschwitz.  Then they were sent back through the selection process like everyone else.

Once selected for work, belongings, clothes, families and identites were taken leaving the individual with just a number.  The items that were taken were looted through and sent back to Germany.  Every one was shaved.  Human hair made a good price in the textile industry.  We were taken through rooms that showed these items –  the ones that were not sent off or destroyed before the liberation.  That was hard to see.  there were so many stolen things.  There was a whole room full of mounds of shoes.  Each pair having once belonged to a person.  It was a sharp reminder of the souls that were here, you can listen to facts, look at photos but these…  Well, it was really something else.

We also went to Birkenau which was truely massive.  there were concrete chimney stacks left where the barracks had been burnt away around them in an effort to destroy evidence.  The barracks which people were forced to live in actually were designed as horse stables.  The brick barracks were made from the houses that had been dismantled from the town that was previously on the site.

Of the 90,000 that could be kept in Auschwitz at any one time, at the liberation, only 7,000 were rescued. The Nazis optimistic to the end- many had been marched to Germany to continue back there.

all in all, a heavy day.  It was a busy day there and it was good to see so many people still care.

reflection on looted shoes at Auschwitz

Thank you, lovely readers

Also, I just wanted to say thank you to those of you that have replied and posted comments and even sent a text, I’m a little bit scared about Facebook throwing a fit due to my nomadic nature so don’t always risk going on there lest they test my knowledge of my (oh dear, hundreds of) facebook friends again…  So it’s nice to still be connected.  However, that being said, when I am brave enough to face the facebook challenge, it has been lovely to see your facebook messages too!