I’m on the Night Train 18Jul08 | [Gill] 0

The 18th was our last day in Budapest and was characterised by a visit to the Communist Statue Park, local thermal baths, and the sleeper train that we had eagerly awaited.

The Communist Statue Park wasn’t as impressive as we’d hoped.  I was under the impression it would be the creepy place that James Bond visits in Goldeneye,  and so when we were presented with a small handful of not particularly interesting statues, and not a Pierce Brosnan or Sean Bean in sight, I felt a tad let down.  That said, there was a video exhibition in a nearby building which showed subtitled Communist Secret Service teaching videos, including meticulous detail on raiding homes (first call the victim to a made up doctors appointment that requires them to leave their clothes in the changing room, take the keys and make a copy, then put on your felt shoes and gloves and scan everything you could ever think of – not forgetting jars in the larder or the cracks between radiators).  The videos also gave a real insight to the indocrination of the Communist culture – agents were congratulated as heroic comrades and so on.  Having studied Russian history for GCSE and A level, I found this easily the most interesting.

The Statue Park also had a delightfully ironic air about it – while we were there a small American child climbed a statue of some notable Communist revolutionary and cried in a piercing twang “Daddy, take a picture of me!!”, not to mention the shop that sold South Park-esque Tshirts that said “Oh my God, they killed Lenin! You bastards!”, as well as mugs, baseball caps, badges etc.  Stalin must be turning in his grave.

In the afternoon, following a brief stop in Heroes’ Square, we went to some baths which included a large pool heated by a thermal spring, which was possibly the most relaxing experience any of us had ever had. The water was 37 degrees and there were little fountains you could sit under, and the euphoric sense this provided totally made up for all the fat old people sitting about hoping to be healed by the natural waters.

After eventually hauling ourselves out of the water, we went back to the house to pack and make our ways back to Budapest Keleti Station, hoping to have a better experience there than our last one.  We were all ridiculously hyperactive when we got on the sleeper train, not helped by the fact that we had packed a midnight feast and so proceeded to overdose on chocolate and pombears.  When we finally settled down to sleep, having bashed our heads a million times because you could barely move in the tiny compartment, taken many bizarre pictures not fit for publication, and plucked forests of leg hair, we were awoken a couple of hours later by the guard banging on the door telling us that we were on the border and the police were coming.  Although we realised that all we needed to do was produce our passports, we were all surprised when a friendly man in a baseball cap came in to check them and chat about our travels, as we’d all envisaged some surly man with a massive rifle and an ingrained dislike of English people.

And so the day finished as we trundled along the border and through Romania, not knowing what to expect of the days ahead….

Pest Control 17Jul08 | [Rio] 0

After successfully conquering Buda, we decided to cross the impressive Danube river and head to Pest, the newer part of the capital. Reaching the Inner City, and relatively dry from the unnatural lack of rain, we walked down Andrassy Avenue, and headed towards the impressive Parliament building along the Danube (one of the largest in Europe, we were later told).  When we arrived, it emerged that we could have a short tour of Parliament, and not only would it be free, but we would also have to queue to be afforded the privilege.  How could a group of British tourists say no? Not only would we be saving money, but taking part in our favourite past-time.

After queueing for about half an hour or more in the hot Hungarian sunshine, we were told that there were no available tours in English left until about 3.45 that afternoon.  Nevertheless, our queueing was rewarded by being given a ticket for this later tour, and so we decided to explore more of Pest while we waited for the tour (not only practised queuers like us could bear another four or so hours in the blistering heat of an the open square in directly in front of Parliament).

We wandered over to St.Stephen’s Basilica – a religious building erected in the name of the first King of Hungary, St.Steven.  The basilica was hugely impressive.  Most impressive of all, however, was the fact that within the church, locked away in a glass cabinet, was apparently the right hand of St.Steven himself, known as the “Holy Right”.  I kid you not.  Furthermore, to be entitled to rest one’s eyes upon this marvel, the innocent gullible tourist would have to part with 100 forint (only about 35p, but it’s the principle, surely).  Apparently the mummified hand was separated from the rest of his body several years after his death.  I’ll leave you to come to your own conclusion, dear reader, about this relic.

After another walk down Andrassy Avenue, probably the street in Budapest most populated with interesting shops and things to do (including a McDonalds), we visited the Terror Museum of Budapest.  This was a hugely informative museum, which was committed to recognising, documenting and remembering the travesties and tragedies which befell the Hungarian people during the country’s occupation by the Communists.  I think we all found this a very emotional experience.  The sort of things that happened make you wonder about the true nature of humanity.

Finally, our wait in the sweltering sun earlier in the day was rewarded, and we were given a tour of the Parliament building by an English speaking Hungarian called Daniel.  We were shown the Hungarian crown jewels, as well as the assembly room.  I found it particularly astonishing that 40kg of gold were used to decorate the interior of the massive building in the form of gold leaf.  Just to put this into perspective, wikipedia informs me that one sqaure metre of gold leaf corresponds to just 2 grams of gold.

Szilvi was on top form, and managed to get Daniel’s phone number – apparently she asked about whether there were any jobs going for tour guides since she recently trained as one (luckily for us).  Coincidentally, he was also quite dishy.

The evening brought a horrendous thunderstorm, which almost put us off going out.  We peered out of the windows of our bus at the rivers running down the roads and the enormous flashes of lightning with slight apprehension at the evening to follow.  Luckily, the thunder and lightning died down, although it continued to rain all evening.  But this didn’t put us off.  We went to Margaret Island – a beautiful island located in the middle of the River Danube in Budapest.  Unfortunately, the weather seemed to have scared off the under 30 crowd, so after searching for a more happening club to no avail, we settled for a sort of open air bar, which played good music, but seemed mostly to appeal to the more mature punters.  And the drinks were damn expensive (as in, Guildford prices – virtually unheard of in Eastern Europe).

Tired and wet, we decided to find a taxi to take us home.  The ride home was fairly uneventful except for an encounter with two Hungarians called Adam and…something beginning with J (Maz named him Johnny), and some dangerous driving from our taxi driver, who seemed to think that having two hands placed firmly on the steering wheel was excessive and unnecessary.

Fortunately, we made it home in one piece.

Good Mornin’ Budapest 16Jul08 | [NickM] 0

With our previous attempts at catching the train not going to plan, we tentatively made our way to Balatonlelle station.  After goodbyes were made to our fantastic hosts (we really cannot speak highly enough of them) we hopped on board and ‘Hey Presto!’, 3 hours later we’re in Budapest.

Victory.  10 man points.

We were picked up from the station by Rio’s family and dropped off at the family home, where yet again we were shown great hospitality.  This time by Rio’s step second cousin, Szilvi.

But we were by no means done for the day.  After cheesy pasta (with ham optional to satisfy ‘the different one’), with bus tickets at the ready we were raring to rapidly relocate to Buda.  Here Szilvi, our tour guide in training, showed us this side of the city, including the castle and the ‘Labyrinth’ beneath it.

Just to clarify, labyrinth in Hungarian translates as a glorified wine cellar that to enter requires an inordinate amount of money to be handed over.  Once inside the attempts to scare began, as did the attempts to con us.  One sign described a footprint in the rock and certainly “not of this world/civilisation”.  The telltale Nike tick in the middle of the print told a different story.  If nothing else it provided a few laughs and anecdotes.

We had an afternoon cakey with hot chocolate (and traditional Doblos cake, very yummy) and started the epic trek up Gellert Hill, where the statues representing freedom and fighting evil look over the city.  It was tiring getting up there, but provided some beautiful panoramic views, and unwanted conversations with some born again Christians. *Possible hyperlink to christians.wat.cc*  When they state abortion is murder and I let it be known that I am pro-choice, the converstion ends fairly quickly.

Before we know it, evening has rolled on and under Szilvi’s recommendation, we head to Morrison’s, an Irish/British mish-mashed themed bar.  And guess what?  It’s karaoke night.

Now before you judge me and Mr Stylianou for taking part in this terrible excuse for entertainment, after one and no beers respectively, let me explain a few things:

1) We have a natural advantage.  I’m not talking about our God given voices, but the fact that the songs are in English.  When the Hungarians attempt them, it shows.

2) Given the slaughtering of “All Because of You” by U2 had just taken place, anything we sang would be welcome relief

The end results of the evening are as follows:

1) Two Nicks sing “Hit Me Baby One More Time” and “Let Me Entertain You”.  Applause and adoration booming in our ears.

2) Rio and Maz reel off “The Bad Touch”.

3) Nick S saw bikini clad women mud wrestling on the TV and a sudden new “interest” in female sport arises, his dad should be proud.

4) Szilvi gets hit on, gets a number and goes on a date two days later, didn’t work out.

5) Group finishes on a high (but inconsistent) note, giving the audience a last rendition of “Hey Jude” (Korean style).  We think we’re fantastic.  That’s all that matters.

We arrived home at about 12.30ish, after being fleeced by the taxi company (they made us take 2 cars when we could have fitted into one), exhausted, but while eating leftover pasta, reflected on a very pleasant day in a very pleasant city.

International Services (part 2) 13Jul08 | [NickS] 0

So I leaped out of my chair, most of my shirt sticking to my seat and informed Team Tired that we might be on the wrong train. After thoroughly checking some maps to make sure this wasn’t a simple country crossing en route, we found we were actually closer to where we started, on a train terminating at Prague via Vienna. Through Slovakia.

Well, actually, this information wasn’t gained through sitting on our arses watching Slovakian countryside but Gill and I found the nearest guard with whom to have a chat:

I gather we’re at Nové Zámký.
Er…how do we get to Balatonlelle? (pointing at map)
(raucous laughter)
This is Slovakia.

Fantastic. Now only a mild three hours off schedule, on a train hurtling in the wrong direction, we had to find out how to get to a place we’d never been to, from the neighbouring country we didn’t even intend to visit.

Time for the Thomas Cook Independent Traveller’s Edition European Rail Timetable Summer 2008 Edition to prove its worth. After all, we had another 30 minutes until the train made another stop…

Revised travel plan: dinner at Rio’s relatives’ abode put on hold, get off at next station, go back to Budapest and get on the right sodding train. If only it were this simple. Disembarking at what could only be described as a sparsely furnished stop-over, we were accosted by Slovakian children trying to sell us books. No thanks. No, I said…look – no!

Ah, a guard. Do you speak English? Of course not. Frenetic map-pointing and gesturing it is, rewarded by a handwritten piece of paper detailing the route to Budapest. Departing in an hour and a half.

An hour and a half later, we wait an additional 10 minutes on our Slovakian station platform home to catch our train to Budapest Keleti pu, planning (on arrival) to leg it to the metro in order to cross the river and make it to Budapest Deli pu in a mere 15 minutes. Well, some sweaty Surreyites can dream, can’t they?

Needless to say, after meeting a representative from the Budapest tourist office on our train from Nové Zámký who assured us it couldn’t be done, it couldn’t be done. This left us at another station, at approximately 7 o’clock, with more despairing investigation to do. At least we were in the right country.

Fuelled by some of Burger King’s finest Hungarian cuisine from a few kilometres away, and watching the rain pour on trains we shouldn’t board, we were left with what we hoped were a final two choices: board an earlier train to Siofok, with a 45-minute lift to our host’s accommodation at approximately 2330 or catch the milk train to our original destination, getting a 10 minute lift from Rio’s really rather lovely relatives. We chose the latter.

“Aaagh! What the hell is that noise?”

Oh, it’s the 500dB of brakes screeching at the first of our twenty-odd stops.

ETA: 0045

International Services (part 1) 13Jul08 | [NickM] 0

“Aaagh! What the hell is that noise?”

This has been an interesting day to say the least. When given the task of documenting it, I thought this was going to be a rather brief entry – a walk in the park, as easy as pie. Alas, it has turned out to be a rather different kettle of fish.

Okay, clichés aside, back to the beginning…

Being the well-planned young adults we are, we gave ourselves plenty of time to get to Wien Westbahnhof to catch our train for Budapest in order to get a transfer to the ancestral home of the Laszlós in Balatonlelle. Watches were set for 0800, train leaves at 0952. Sorted.


Don’t actually get up until 0820, then after a slightly too leisurely breakfast, we look at our watches and it’s 0920. So begins the interthink trans-Vienna mini-marathon. A race against time consisting of 2 metro lines, 2 lost room keys and to add insult to injury, a giant set of stairs at the station which we were forced to climb thanks to the misreading of a sign by our very own Miss Field. Despite all this, we made it. We shouldn’t have, but we did. Shoddy Soviet engineering paid dividends as the train (terminating at Belgrade) was delayed by 15 minutes.

No harm done, lesson learnt: Get up, get ready, get out. We pulled into Budapest in one piece, having met three of the RGS’ most outstanding chaps of ’08 on the way (Tom Wales, Joe de Sousa and Simon Rollings). Combined with our chance meeting at the Vienna ‘operetta’ with the infamous Irene has resulted in one of the most unlikely inter-rail trips possible.

The only other (arguably minor) incident of note on this portion of the journey was the distinct lack of working air-conditioning, resulting in a set of smelly, sweaty travellers.

We boarded the 1330 train for Balatonlelle on time, on schedule, on track. The air-conditioning fan’s only function was to make a mildly annoying noise, but that seemed to be the limit of its functionality, but as we already resembled drowned rats it didn’t seem to matter. Off we intrepidly went.

Two hours into the three hour trip came the highlight of the day, all starting with a mundane welcome message from a mobile phone operator. Nick Stylianou snapped out of his doze and ripped out his earphones, staring intently at his phone.

“T-Mobile welcomes you to Slovakia.”

“Oh, bugger.”