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Category Archives: Rome/Budapest 2012

September 2012 trip to Rome and Budapest

Gulliver’s Travails

It’s not often that you get a member of railway staff these days who actually stands on the platform and salutes the train. But it still happens in Budapest, even if the employee isn’t old enough to drive the train.

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It would appear that Budapest has taken The Railway Children too literally, and sprinkled it with a dusting of the Sound of Music. Because high on a hill above the Danube winds a railway staffed almost entirely by kids. The Children’s Railway was built in the 1950s by the Socialist Scouts, and seems to convey the very model of a work ethic with a bit of child labour. I’m sure it’s not as sinister as that.

But this is a day of more than one mode of transport. To reach the Children’s Railway, we firstly travel by tram and then the Cog Railway.

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All of which gives pretty good views of the Buda Hills, or Sherwood Forest as the BBC calls it. Because this was the location for the most recent Robin Hood TV series. And when you board the chair lift to take you back down the mountain, you can kinda see why the producers chose Budapest over Blidworth.
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Back to earth and time for a quick tour of the City Park, overlooked by the impressive Heroes Square.
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In the afternoon we meet up again with Alison, and attempt to recall our respective versions of the hostel party back on Monday. Not content with drinking until 3am, Alison managed to both surface AND go back underground – on a caving trip.

We opt for a more gentile outdoor pursuit – with a couple of beers back in the Simple Garden.

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After which, we find a beer that flashes at you!

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It’s been a crazy few days in Budapest. Back soon!

 
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Posted by on September 26, 2012 in Rome/Budapest 2012, Travel Stuff

 

The Loin King

So after the hangover from hell, Monday afternoon is spent recharging the batteries. First, coffee and an exquisite cake at cafe next to the hotel.

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Travelling anywhere by foot today seems like a chore, but one of the plus sides to my hotel deal is a free trip to the Gellert Baths. If you’re from Nottingham, think Beechdale Baths. If you’re from elsewhere, think about your local council run pool.

Then, have a look at this…

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They know how to do pools in Hungary.

Entrance to the baths is via a private door on the first floor of hotel. Guests are encouraged to wear nothing but their swimming gear, with modesty covered only by the hotel bathrobes. After a series of confusing corridors we join the rest of the bathers by the main pool. It’s relaxing enough, but there’s more to come, with two separate thermal pools for men only.

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Typically, this is where the Germans aren’t shy. Several blokes don’t bother with trunks, opting instead for a small loin cloth provided by the staff. Proportionately, the larger the gut, the skimpier the attire.

But at least if the views aren’t always a sight for sore eyes, the waters are a tonic for sore muscles. The spas keep a constant temperature of 36 and 40 degrees respectively. After that, for the brave, there’s a hideously hot steam room. And if you really want to feel the benefit, an ice cold plunge pool to round it all off. Although quite what the benefit of having your bits frozen off is still a mystery.

 
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Posted by on September 25, 2012 in Rome/Budapest 2012, Travel Stuff

 

Destination Danube

I didn’t set out on this trip to reinforce any particular stereotypes, but I’m pleased to say that the German transport ethic – in the form of Lufthansa – is considerably better than the Italian one.

My journey to Budapest is in two legs, via Berlin Tegel airport. As I check in at Rome, I’m a little apprehensive. Several angry Germans are shouting at the Lufthansa staff for only having two bag drop desks open. There are two flights ahead of mine, and they’re cutting it fine as it is.

“Don’t worry,” reassures the girl patrolling the queues, “The aircraft will wait for you.” The Germans aren’t impressed, and demand that they open more desks. So they do. And the efficiency doesn’t stop there. On board to Berlin we’re kept fed and oiled with sandwiches, cakes and drinks. Even on the one hour flight from Berlin to Budapest, we get the same service.

The second flight also produces a stunning sunset above the clouds across Central Europe. I manage to take a picture of the top of a rainbow poking through the canopy.

I’m meeting up in Budapest with my mate John from back home in Nottingham. Both of us love eastern Europe, but John easily trumps me in the Bonkers Country Stakes, because of his love of Eurovision. Now I don’t mind admitting it, I like to ramp up the camp as much as the next guy, but this isn’t just a love of Eurovision, it’s a religion. John goes to the final each year – but he’s also an addict for each country’s own contest and final. And yet despite this, he’s never been to Budapest.

The arrival process is one of the quickest I’ve ever experienced. No passport control thanks to an EU agreement between Germany and Hungary, and my case is second on the baggage belt. My hotel, the Gellert, is equally impressive.

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A quick check in, and then it’s into town for a quiet Sunday evening beer. And it all starts in a fairly civilised fashion. First, we find an open air food and drink market with live music. Then, in the Jewish Quarter, it’s a beer at the Simple Garden.

This is known as a “ruin pub” – a bar established in a disused building. Yet despite the name, there’s nothing shabby or simple about it. In fact, it’s vast, and this picture does nothing to give you a true idea of its scale.

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Room after room continues, spread over two floors and a sprawling garden. This music is a combination of a DJ playing low key stuff, and a chilled out jazz band at the back. It’s the perfect way to end the evening.

Had we gone home.

Then we found another bar, which looked like it was serving last orders – until we heard noise from the cellar.

If this were a horror movie, we’d find piles of rotting corpses in a pool of blood. The reality was pretty similar. A Canadian guy introduces himself and tells us that this is a party from the nearby hostel. Beer flowed, and then a small band invited open mic singers and performers to do a turn.

Initially, I suggest Crocodile Rock. It’s got an easy singalong chorus. I end up doing a duet of Stand By Me with an English girl. After several beers, I knew none of the words apart from “stand by me”. But everyone’s so hammered that my performance goes down a storm.

Then, in another moment of sheer randomness, John meets Alison – and Australian scout leader he knows from his trips down under. Every euphamism intended. This combo of his old friend and a hundred of my best new friends leads to further performances on stage, most notably the Human League’s Don’t You Want Me. This time, I have more luck, remembering almost the entire first and second lines of the first verse. The remainder of it is just a blur. Or, more accurately, a slur.

John’s engrossed in conversation with Alison, and it’s approaching 2am so I decide to head home. Getting there should have been easy – turn right at the end of the street and head in a straight line to the bridge over the Danube. I manage to find a bridge, but not the correct one. A frantic five minutes studying Google Maps on my phone suggests I’m somewhere in Sovakia. The size of the river just confuses matters more, but I eventually spot the bright facade of the Gellert and get into bed at gone three.

This blog is a result of The Morning After, which largely consisted of breakfast – because it’s free – and slowly moaning in bed with the fan turned up to full speed. I’m just about ready to face daylight.

Wish me luck!

 
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Posted by on September 24, 2012 in Rome/Budapest 2012, Travel Stuff

 

Rail Rage

Getting out of Rome proves considerably harder than getting into it, thanks to the quirks of Trenitalia, the state rail company. The previously efficient looking Termini station again looks simple enough to navigate. Buying a ticket is a painless process, and the platform for the Leonardo Express is clearly marked.

But our impending departure is thwarted in a way that any British rail traveller will instantly recognise. Having allowed a few hundred passengers to crowd onto the train, complete with bulky luggage, a member of staff steps aboard to inform us that we’ll have to change to another train. People who thought they’d got the advantage of a comfortable seat are now involved in mad dash to another platform, a task helped enormously by a series of obstacles to navigate – namely other passengers, trollies and cardboard boxes. If only Stuart Hall were here, it could easily be an edition of Jeux Sans Frontieres. “Ha ha ha! Look at the stupid Italians falling over! They’ve bumped into that English idiot with a big suitcase!” I miss that show, but I can’t say I ever wanted to be a contestant on it.

Our replacement train is just like the first. A really helpful design of narrow corridors and stairs to each carriage. We wait a further twenty minutes before pulling away. There’s then a misguided sense of optimism, as the information screen in the carriage informs us that we’re travelling at 71 kilometres per hour. For about fifteen minutes, until it stops at a faceless station in the Rome suburbs.

At first passengers sit patiently. But patience doesn’t last long with Italians, and before long they’re discussing the possible reason for our delay. The information screen contains no information of any use, no member of staff emerges to tell us what’s going on. There’s much huffing and puffing – which then turns into several people leaving the train completely, presumably in the vain hope of finding a taxi to take them to the airport on a Sunday lunchtime. Among those jumping ship, as it were, is a young man next to me with an enormous backpack. He doesn’t even bother with stairs and bridges, instead opting to use the platform and the tracks as a parkour circuit.

Eventually, slowly and painfully, the train snakes its way through the remaining suburbs of Rome. Among the ageing apartment blocks are signs of real poverty, with a line of mattresses and beds alongside the track, complete with evidence that someone probably slept here last night.

It’s been a hot and sweaty journey. The Leonardo Express has failed to live up to its name, with a trip which should have taken 35 minutes adding up to the best part of two hours. It’s a disappointing way to depart a city I’ve fallen instantly in love with, and all that remains is the dreary motions of going through airport security. I’ll be ready for a beer in Budapest.

 
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Posted by on September 24, 2012 in Rome/Budapest 2012, Travel Stuff

 

Pappa Don’t Preach

It’s wedding day and, of course, the bride and groom are the stars.

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Although judging by the… ahem… (choose your words carefully, you’re dealing with the a large Italian family here) enthusiasm of the photographers, you’d think the guests were all A List celebs. Even during the church service, each and every person is individually papped in their pews. And it continues throughout the day and into the evening.

But having a lens shoved in your face is a small price to pay for the hospitality on offer. First, the ceremony itself. Proceedings begin like the introduction to Eurovision, with the Anglican vicar from Wigan delivering his opening greetings in both English and Italian. Then, the Order of Service is carefully laid out in two neat columns, giving equal measure to both languages and we go along. It’s beautiful, and so’s the bride.

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The reception is a couple of miles from the church. But instead of having to make our own way there, there’s a double decker tourist bus to transport us, complete with comedy Italian guide giving commentary on some of the spectacular sights:

“In dees building – huh – is a da militaria muzeeeeuuum. Very good for da men, not-a so interesting for da ladies.” Brilliant.

And there’s more to come. The reception is held in the Palazzo Brancuccio.

“It’s your typical Italian wedding venue,” Tim told me a few week ago. If this is typical, I’d like to see luxury.

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And those were just the desserts on a SEVEN course menu.

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In between the food, a collection of speeches. Letizia’s dad deliver his in English, Tim’s in Italian. It couldn’t have been more spectacular.

We ate like Kings, were papped like Princes, and Rome is a place I can’t wait to get back to.

 
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Posted by on September 23, 2012 in Rome/Budapest 2012, Travel Stuff

 

Up On The Roof… and under the table

If Rome is impressive by day, by night it’s positively sexy. But in a laid back Italian kind of way. The groom to be, Tim, is hosting a drinks party on the roof garden of the Hotel Diana. At sunset, the view is stunning.

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This is a chance to meet some of the other wedding guests before the big day. A great idea, as I only know a handful. Tim’s dad has pulled out all the stops laying on copious quantities of wine and some tasty snacks to soak it up with.

I’m not sure whether it’s an age thing or just the venue, but this evening can best be described as relaxed and almost civilised. By my standards anyway – even when 50% of the guests are journalists! Anyway, it’s a nice way to round off a pretty exhausting day of in depth tourism. And a good opportunity to see practising bits of his wedding speech.

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Nobody’s quite sure what to expect tomorrow, and rumours circulate about the exact number of courses we’re expecting for dinner. Offers range from seven to twelve. “Don’t eat the nibbles – you’ll be full!” warns somebody. It also emerges that every last step of the service has been rehearsed to perfection.

Saturday morning emerges to confirm that my hangover was also rehearsed to perfection. So it’s time for some fresh air and a bit of train spotting.

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Rome’s Termini station is a vast monolith of seemingly terrible design. The concrete frontage gives way to around thirty platforms. I’m pleased I came today, as I’ll be navigating this departure board on my way to the airport tomorrow.

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But it all seems pretty straightforward. Gone are the days of trying to decipher confusing timetables. The banks of self service ticket machines do the job for you.

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Now, there’s just the wedding to get through. What could possibly go wrong?

 
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Posted by on September 22, 2012 in Rome/Budapest 2012, Travel Stuff

 

Pope On A Rope

“And you know what to do if he comes out onto that balcony? We all say ‘Happy Birthday’!”

When queuing, it’s not uncommon to overhear an amusing conversation. When bunched up so close to others, it’s virtually impossible not to be able to hear another English voice among the general melee of expectation. Or to be absolutely correct in this case, an Irish voice.

The family next to me can’t wait to get in. And they’re in great, vocal, Dublin humour. Because this no ordinary queue at an ordinary tourist attraction. This is full on Pope Idol, outside St Peter’s Basilica in the heart of Vatican City.

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In case anyone mistakes my opening remarks for an insult, I should probably declare an interest. I’m a lapsed Catholic. Extremely so. And although I’ve come all the way to Rome, I wasn’t all that bothered about seeing the Vatican.

But my mate Mike is suitably persuasive when it comes to tackling the cynics. I say persuasive. H actually just walks towards the Vatican walls and into the museum – complete with its €15 entry fee – before I have time to complain.

However, once through the doors – and the thick walls – you can’t deny the impressive artwork. A cleverly constructed, lengthy route takes you through miles of corridors and galleries to literally the mother of all paint jobs, the Sistine Chapel.

Along with about a thousand tourists at any one time, this sacred place is constantly patrolled by Vatican security guards, with a constant cry of “No video! No photo!”. So, just to be clear, I definitely didn’t take this picture.

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That’s the problem with Rome. It’s just one photo opportunity after another. Make sure your camera batteries are well charged. And a spare memory card might not be a bad idea. But if you’re planning that perfect romantic photo of you and yours throwing a coin into the Trevi Fountain, think again. These were the scenes on a Thursday night:

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We head just up the street and choose from the multitude of restaurants. Like any capital city, there’s no shortage of choice. And in these austere financial times, Rome’s city centre prices are suitably competitive. A €12 main course seems perfectly reasonable, as does a €20 bottle of local wine. It’s somewhat perplexing,then, that dinner for three comes in at over €110. The generous portions of bread and mineral water seemingly don’t come that cheap.

We end the evening by catching up with Tim and his bride to be, Letizia – along with her family and friends from the United States – in an impressive ice cream parlour. For a nation of often svelte and stylish people, it’s impossible to know just how they can eat so much rich food. And don’t start all that “olive oil is good for you” nonsense. Actually, there are plenty of plump Romans knocking about the place, so don’t feel guilty about indulging.

Talking of which, today’s blog end with a series of suitably indulgent pictures. Belissimo.

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Posted by on September 22, 2012 in Rome/Budapest 2012, Travel Stuff