Archive for October, 2008

Pest is the best.

Friday, October 31st, 2008

I never quite counted Slovenia as proper ex-Iron Curtain eastern Europe. Sure, it was part of Tito’s fun park for many years, but it lacked that certain blockhouse ambiance I was seeking. But arriving in Budapest station I detected a whiff of post-imperium residue hanging in the air like steam from a bowl of goulash. I traded my euros for forints from one of the cashed up black market moneychangers loitering near the platforms. A woman spruiking on the train as we approached the capital had offered us the same place we had decided to stay anyway, but with a free minibus ride thrown in. She had made some dire warnings about the shortage of accommodation in the city due to the F1 grand prix, that I had no way of ascertaining if it was true (it was). I tend to go on the assumption that anything that comes out of the mouth of a tout is most probably a lie, and Karina haggled her down on price as she does. Vanless, this was to be our lot from now on.

The minibus was an hour late, and the driver appeared to get lost on the way as we passed the same intersection for a second time and made a couple of spontaneous u-turns. We had booked into a place in Buda, on the hilly west bank of the mighty Danube, and copped our first look at the river and the city with it’s night lights twinkling on as we crossed one of the three bridges that span it. By the time the Danube arcs through the city I’d reckon it’s almost a kilometer wide in parts, flowing at a fair rate of knots, and a turgid brown instead of a Straussy blue. The hotel turned out to be a towerblock near the summit of a hill, a university building that was whoring out it’s student dorms during the summer for tourist cash. Our east-facing window on the tenth floor had to be one of the best views of the city, with the city, the citadelle, and a giant statue of what looked like an angel catching a frisbee all lit up. We dropped of our hefty packs, and wandered out and back down the steep hill looking for some hunnish action. The street seemed fairly quiet, and we learned later that there are only two zones in the city that support substantial nightlife. The only place selling food was a country and western theme bar, but the beer was cheap and the chicken wings came with paprika.

The next day we wandered across the bridge to Pest, and up the main shopping street. I wanted to find a Lonely Planet on Eastern Europe, but either by will or luck no store carried it, so I had to pay over the odds for their Europe guide. Now Europe has 48 countries so it doesn’t get into a great level of detail on any particular one, especially not the ones we were planning to go. I have mixed feelings about Lonely Planet, and try and use the internet, maps and whimsy instead to plan my journey, as they are so ubiquitous they sort of create their own busy backpacker web that distorts things around it. However it does have one thing that other pretenders lack, and that’s good city maps with budget accommodation listed. If you’re carrying a heavy pack and have arrived at an unseemly hour at some train terminal, they definitely pay their own way or at least give you a point of comparison if you head off the page. And in those traveling hours on trains or in hotel rooms, I’ve read each one cover to cover, from the authors’ ‘zany’ bios to their ads for their website. The Europe guide allowed me to read about bus timetables in Moldova and their pick for best bakery in Reykjavik.

The huns (i use the term but they’re no more related to Atilla and his merry horde than Paris Hilton, and more people have seen her axe wound) are great ones to have a soak, so we went out on their spacious metro train to some pleasant parkland in the midday sun where a huge Rococo bathing complex was. We were ushered to our own changing cubicle by some white uniformed staff that looked like they were working in a soviet mental asylum, and wandered through vaulted halls past marble spas of differing temperatures. Emerging into a huge walled courtyard, we had the pick of three large heated lakes replete with fountains and jets, and joined the many local Budapestians floating contentedly or reclining on the boardwalks and lounges.  After a couple of hours of acting like a new potato, I opted for one of the massage treatments on offer.  Following an old fashion ticketing system, the woman masseuse when my turn came wouldn’t have looked out of place as a bond villain. She ushered me into a steamy cubicle, complaining that the fan was broken and that she should not have to work like this. I’m not sure what school it was, but what followed was one of the most brutal massages I’d ever received. The next day my calves ached from the pounding they were given. Instead of Celtic whalesong muzak, the ambiance was provided by a yelled argument with the woman masseuse in the next cubicle that flared up throughout the half hour.

After a last recovery soak we caught a tram back and across the bridge near the base of the Buda citadelle. As we neared the gate, our path rose as steeply as the beer prices, but we came across a cafe on the castle walls with such a lovely vantage point that we couldn’t resist a sit down. A gypsy three-piece of violin, double bass and harpsichord came and serenaded us in quiet a romantic moment, broken when the violinist started putting the hard sell on Karina to buy one of his family CD’s of cheesy covers. We went down for dinner that night to a long street of restaurants and bars, and ended up yaking for hours to a retired couple from Illinois who were following the F1 grand prix around Europe. The next day we had a late train to catch, so we dropped our bags off at the station lockers than went for a long walk on a hot day ending in some parkland with a stately home and lake. While we lazed on the lakeshore some bloke’s youngster fell into the lake and floundered, before being rescued by a helpful stranger. I was in such a lazy funk lying on the grassy bank that my only reaction was to prod karina awake to point it out.

"Knight to K4. Check"   "Don't call me Czech, I was born here" - Blokes playing chess in park on hot day

"Knight to K4. Check" "Don't call me Czech, I was born here" - Blokes playing chess in park on hot day

Bridge over danube - Blue, i hear you ask?

Bridge over danube - Blue, i hear you ask?

Downtown Pest - the shopping heart. more bookstores than Mcdonalds with is a nice change

Downtown Pest - the shopping heart. more bookstores than Mcdonalds which is a nice change

Karina in buadapest metro - I pissed my pants to give it that london feel

Karina in buadapest metro - I pissed my pants to give it that london feel

View from Buda Citadelle, towards Pest on the other bank of the Danube

View from Buda Citadelle, towards Pest on the other bank of the Danube

Gypsy fiddler - would you like to buy some CD's?

Gypsy fiddler - would you like to buy some CD's?

Al in front of hungary national monument,  a triumphant memorial to all the surrounding people they've slaughtered

Al in front of hungary national monument, a triumphant memorial to all the surrounding people they've slaughtered

The basement tapes

Monday, October 13th, 2008

Emerging from the tunnel into sensible, affluent Austria the motorway floated down over the fields on raised concrete pillars. Southern Austria has a more gentle landscape of rolling hills and lakes. We skirted the southern shore of the Worthersee, that I thought merited a look. Cyclists, joggers, and walkers were out in force, wearing their understated earth tones and pedometers. Wrapping around to the Northeasten corner of the lake, we stopped and pooled our euro realising we had exactly enough for a beer and a sandwich each to the cent. After that we headed out onto the motorway that snaked it’s was through the hills to Graz.

Graz is a pretty, mid-size Austrian town set on a river. Its famed for producing the condom stuffed with walnuts, as Clive James puts it, the governator Arnold Schwarzenegger, though a local we got chatty with told us he doesn’t want a bar of the town anymore after they went to the trouble of naming the footy stadium after him. We found a nice central spot to park and wandered the pedestrianised centre. Some French architect had build a bubblelike building of glass and honeycombed steel and plonked it mid stream in the river, and we went there for a pricey beer and to watch the uninviting water flow past. We then walked back past the funicular through the lanes of the old city, where we stopped for some sausage as night fell. Sated (15 is my limit on schnitzengruben), we retired to the van and manged to wake up ahead of the parking inspectors.

Al in front of Murinsel bubble cafe in Graz

Continuing north we headed for Vienna. The motorway was particularly uninteresting on this long stretch of tarmac, belting out monotonously across the plains. I’ve been to Austria a few times before, but always to ski so I was looking forward to seeing the coffee shops and east-meets-west ambiance of Vienna. As usual, my mind was warped by repeated viewings of The Third man, and the traffic filled reality didn’t instantly press it’s charms upon me. We drove aimlessly around the centre at a crawl, but after eight hours behind the wheel I just wanted to layabout so we followed a bus/tram lined road to the western edge of town and the Vienne-Ost camping ground.

Checking the emails again it seemed that a bloke from Glastonbury was genuinely keen on the van, god knows why, and was prepared to fly out to buy it. I gave him a ring to calm his nerves and dance around the topic of the van’s condition. I told him about the missing exhaust, but thought I’d have one last crack at fixing the speedo so didn’t mention this. He was prepared to pay our asking price, but could only fly to Salzburg. about 500 clicks to the west. I agreed, figuring even if wasn’t as good as he reckoned, he’d have to be fairly committed to buying once he got here.

This was an excellent piece of news, giving us a nice cash boost and somewhat vindicating our decision not just to buy the van, but also to skip town on the mechanic in the Pyrenees two months ago before he could have our engine out. However, we’d also grown attached to our brown van and I still wonder if it would have made it all the way to Australia. Probably not.

We had a few days of sunning ourselves in the campground before having to go. We had a last sentimental ride on our bikes, which we ‘d included in the deal. I’ve had 5 bikes stolen in thieving London, but this had been the best one I’d pedaled. But the shipping costs were more than it’s secondhand value. We’d be vanless soon, with only what we could carry on our backs, so we rationalised our gear, sent a couple of boxes of stuff off, then went for a overdue haircut. Bequiffed, we had an afternoon beer in a beer garden attached inspiredly to a psychiatric hospital, and watched the patients pair off and quiz each with clipboards on the grounds. We figured they were more likely mild depressives or bratwurst fearers then the rock back and forth in your own filth type of psychiatric patients.

The next morning, I set about trying to fix the speedometer. The Haines manual devoted a cursory two paragraphs to it, with a photo from a different model van. After poking around again under the dashboard to no avail, i tried to trace the cable to the left front wheel. To get a proper look at it, I would have had to disassemble the wheel housing, something I lacked the tools or the time to do, but I did notice on the photo of the termination of the the cable under the hubcap, there appeared to be a little circlip that mine lacked. It was worth a shot, and after driving to about seven dealers and mechanics, I found one that specialised in older model VW’s. The chief mechanic, after making some jokes in german to his laughing crew as I stood there giving him my best stare of contemptuous indifference, finally wandered to the storerooms and through me a  tiny c-clip on his return. Outside in the street, I fitted it and with only moderate hopes gunned the van out into the street. Success! for the first time since the outskirts of London months ago, the needle bounced into life and the odometer resumed its rolling on 99,000 km. It seemed like a small thing, the van seldom threaten to break any speeding laws, but I reckon not having a speedo would have put a lot of buyers off.

We headed out to Salzberg on the van’s last voyage with mixed emotions. I was glad that we’d found a buyer and stood to recover a hunk of cash that standing by the van in the mechanics forecourt in the Pyrenees had seemed unlikely. But we had grown quite fond of our little home, of cooking breakfasts as storms raged against the windows, or waking up to the sound of gulls next to the Atlantic. From now on we we would be at the mercy of train and bus schedules, of hotels and hostels, of leaving backpacks in station lockers and lobbies. And a small amount of anxiety was mixed in as well, that the van not breakdown as the sale was within our grasp. However this anxiety was forgotten quite quickly, as the stunning rugged mountain scenery of Salzkammergut took all our attention away. We passed one beautiful alpine lake, but couldn’t bring ourselves to drive past the second, and turned off at the Mondsee and parked by it’s shores. Swans herded there cygnets around on the grassy shore, and the craggy mountains were reflected on the lake’s still surface in the late afternoon light. After a refreshing beer we continued in the dark to Salzburg. Karina and I had come to this pretty old town before we married, enroute to skiing in the good Bad Gastein. It had been winter then, and snow had covered the town and overlooking castle, and we had wandered markets drinking hot gluwein past boutique store and overblown Mozart chocolate shops (I never understood the Mozart-Chocolate connection), joining the throngs of stately couples in fur coats.

This time we had a beer in a Irish pub next to the icy town river that because of a cookin’ guitar duo playing there became several. I was woken up at some evil hour of the morning by a policeman banging on the window. Dressing, and holding back the urge to throw my voice, I found the road I’d parked in had become a clearway with me blocking one lane of the early morning traffic. While Karina slept, I drove around looking for the airport, unintentionally seeing several different neighbourhoods of the town before stumbling across it and falling asleep in the Airport carpark. I was helpless without my GPS. We roused just before the buyer John’s flight had arrived and were having coffee when I saw a bloke who instinct told me was the one. He was with his 5 year old daughter, and seemed relieved that so far he hadnt completely wasted his time. I babbled a bit about the van, though I wasnt in a great selling mood owing to the hangover. He took a first inspection and immediately noticed more rust than I’d noticed myself, as well as the scratches and off-colour attempt at hiding them. I offered to drive first and explain the nuances of the van, but underneath I was afraid he’d get in and immediately start grinding the gears as is very easy to do, or the van would hiccup as it does sometimes deaccelerating sharply.  I said we were looking for the train station but the road signs took us to a freight station, and we became lost as we tried to navigate together. By the time we found the station he seemed happy that the van ran well and pulled out his wedge of cash without offering to drive first. We did the paperwork, wished him good luck on his intention to drive with his daughter straight back to England, then jumped on the first train to Vienna. Arriving, we stopped for a coffee at one of the overpriced yet lovely street cafes and Karina made me take out the cash from my bulging pocket that was making me look even happier than I was, and put the rolls of twenties somewhere safer.

We caught the afternoon EC train to Budapest, and as the train rolled over the wide Hungarian plains that lie south of the Danube, I was gently rocked into a happy daydream as I imagined how long this windfall would last us in a place like India.