Friday, April 28, 2006

Impressions of Budapest


First off, in comparison to Prague, Budapest is already a much more enjoyable city: a more social hostel, easier access to local night life, and fewer tourists. Given it's lack of colors on the older buildings, the city is much more reminiscent of Paris rather than Prague[1]. More cafés than pubs make it more to my taste as well. Think of it as Paris, with a Turkish influence.

The city is divided into two distinct sections: Buda and Pest. Buda is a hilly city, capped by the medieval Castle Hill. Pest is a flat city, where much of the business and industry of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries flourished. The divider, the Danube, is one of the widest rivers in Europe. It is crossed by a number of impressive bridges, joining the two cities into Budapest.

There are two incredible fine arts museums in Budapest. The first houses a great number of European masters, many of them are Spanish renaissancee painters like El Greco and Velasquezz. The second is the National museumm, housing great Hungarian works of art from the early renaissancee through today.

The public transportation has been a bit trickier to figure out, than in Prague[2]. There is a metro system, a tram system, and buses, but they are not as well labeled, nor as convenient to transfer between. So, for me, Budapest has been more of a walking city.

A ridiculous amount of walking.

I have heard, in the past, Prague described as the "Paris of the East". I don't really think that it deserves the title. If it was based solely on the beauty of the city, then it's possible. If we compare the cities on a few other levels, we might get a better idea.


Beautiful and Well Preserved Buildings
Tourist Attraction Personell Rude to Tourists
Ridiculous Number of Expats
Locals Generally Friendly

Many Cafés

Great Art Galleries


So really, it's only half as good...

Thursday, April 27, 2006

The Nouveau Tourist


I've always liked the Art Nouveau style. Great lines, cool use of symbolism, really cool in it's use of functionalism.

There was a Czech artist, by the name of Alphons Mucha who was a master of the art form. Initially based in Paris, he was a sensation in creating beautiful posters for advertisements for such things as theatre productions, as well as commercial products. He returned to the Czech republic after the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918. He participated in much of the city's artistic designs, including the new Municipal House, and stain glass in the St. Vitus Cathedral.

While the Municipal House was closed to touring, save on Saturdays, there was an exhibit of Art Nouveau in Croatia. While much of the paintings seemed to owe much more to French impressionism, with the Art Nouveau use of allegory, and the posters seemed to be weak imitations of their Parisian counterparts, the architecture and furniture pieces were the highlight of the exhibit. Fuctional, yet with great uses of lines, symmetries and asymmetries. Beautiful pieces of furniture.

Don't Say I Never Do My Homework

I did check in into the local tango scene here in Prague. There is a weekly class, as well as weekly milonga. I checked out both. The class, as it turned out, was very small - about four couples. I really couldn't find myself breaking into that. It felt almost intrusive, especially with my bull-like capacity for English.

As for the milonga, well, it was more populated with perhaps twenty-odd milongueros. But, let's be honest, at the best of times, I'm not one for going out dancing with out a wingman (preferably a wing-woman[1] and dancing partner). If nothing else, it's good to have someone to chat with between (infrequent) dances. Still, it was a nice space, and regular, making the local tango scene a bit better than Glasgow.

[1] Not a winged woman. This would certainly make for a memorable entrance, but may put off the rest of the dancers. I mean, how does one compete with that?

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

A Buzz


Once the little secret of adventurous travelers, Prague has become the tourist destination. There are swarms of tourists, many from France, Italy and Germany. It's reached that point were the large majority of visitors are middle aged. The city is relatively safe and easy.

This has knocked it out of the running for Favorite City[1] in my book.

I had been warned, about five years ago, that it's almost too late to experience the Best Kept Secret that was Prague. I was told then that it was the time to go. I just didn't really take the chance to go until now. A bit too late, in my opinion.

Don't get me wrong, I still think Prague has a lot going for it. The architecture is incredible. I've never seen churches so bright and airy, nor with so much gilded sculpture. Prague Castle is absolutely huge; it's in the Guinness Book of World Records. The main cathedral, St. Vitus, rivals any other cathedral in size and beauty. Inside there are stain glass from many of the great Czech artists from the early 20th century.

As public transportation goes, Prague has a great system. Three underground lines, a myriad of street-level trams, and an extensive bus system. The narrow streets of the Old and New Towns require extensive use of a system like this - parking is just not an option for those who work in these areas.

Like Glasgow, there is an amazing amount of music here. Unlike Glasgow, the majority of it is classical. Most, if not all, of the churches have daily classical concerts. There are a large number of theatres in town with opera performances. In addition, they like their jazz here. Any bar downtown not into dance-beats or classical is a jazz bar. If you overhear anyone listening to music (particularly the bathroom attendants) they are listening to Billie Holiday or Benny Goodman.

The tourists have still been a bit of a problem for me. Perhaps it is because it is starting to become The Season. May is almost here, and with it brings the tourists. At least they're not the student tourists. I'm glad to missing all of the American backpackers, out to burn up a little time and money between graduation and Real Life.

Perhaps Prague is another city to visit in the depth of winter...

[1] The Top 5 list, currently, is as follows:

1. Paris, France
2. Buenos Aires, Argentina
3. San Francisco, California, USA
4. Babb, Montana, USA - I could live at the Cattle Baron Supper Club.
5. Istanbul, Turkey

Some where just below that is Minneapolis. I wouldn't live there if I didn't think it was so damn good.

And it's not like some of these cities are difficult, or hard to manage, or lack tourists. Take Paris, for example. It's very easy to navigate and full of tourists. Yet, there just a sort of je-ne-sais-quoi...

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Night Train Shuffle


I took a night train to Prague last night. A rather amusing experience, being packed in a little cabin with a Czech, a German and myself. The Czech was very friendly, very chatty. He even bought beer for his new friends. He was also the most racist bastard I've ever met.

Good God, he just went on and on about Muslims. I've never really encountered someone that racist, where there is obviously no way of convincing them otherwise. At least, for once in my travels, I was actually in agreement with a German on politics, foreign policy and acceptance of different cultures.[1]

He was, however, very informative on riding the night trains in Poland. Crime has dramatically risen on the trains. They only allow one door to be opened when the train is stopped, they tell you to lock your door at night. I never even knew that the doors locked. He blamed it all on the Gypsies (which there really aren't any in Poland, they are all in the Czech Republic - all the Polish Gypsies were exterminated in WWII).[2]

Prague is beautiful. The city itself escaped most war time damage and, as a result, the old buildings are all still intact.

I had a lot of time to kill before I could actually check in to my hostel. I spent it wondering around before the tourist got up, while the city was still quiet after a Friday night.

The buildings are incredible. There has been a remarkable amount of restoration work in the Old town. All the buildings have been painted to their original colors, allowing the tourist to imagine the city as it was all the better. The old town is full of narrow, winding streets. The shops themselves have become quite touristy, though.

I didn't spend too much time walking around before needing to head back to the hostel to sleep. I don't know what it is about taking night trains, but I always feel a bit of something akin to jet-lag[3]. Still after plenty of sleep, I was ready to head out to a bite to eat and watch the night life move from place to place.

Prague is supposed to be this city that keeps people: people come, people just don't leave. I'll be here a bit longer than most places on this trip, so we'll see what sort of impression it has on me...

[1] In the past, and I'm sure this is a bit of a generalization, but more often then not I've encountered German tourists who have felt like they had the right and duty to just try and show me how wrong America is.

It's as if I have never even seen a foreign country or thought about foreign policy. They feel like they should correct all the wrongs of the world by arguing with me.

Man, it's frustrating.

[2] Again, he was racist.

[3] Can I coin the term "train-lag"?

Friday, April 21, 2006



I didn't really plan on it. I didn't even know that it was near by. It was just one of those things one really should do if one is in Krakow. I debated and thought, but people kept telling me that I really should go.

I visited Auschwitz.

The day started like any other day: chatty, happy, out to see the sights. Once the first exhibits were reached on the tour - the gas chamber/crematorium of Auschwitz I - the whole crowd took on a very hushed and somber disposition. That lasted the rest of the day.

It was intense. Absolutely, emotionally intense. It is a harrowing place. Nothing has ever really driven home the scale of the Holocaust before. There are actually three camps that make up Auschwitz - Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, and Auschwitz III. The Birknau camp was built solely for extermination. The scale of the place is unbelievable. The whole camp is over 400 acre. It takes 15 minutes to walk across the camp at a brisk pace from the train gate to the end of the line.

It was good to go out for a meal and a drink afterwards. It helped to remember that we are alive and lucky.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

A Little Farther East...


I flew into Krakow on Tuesday morning. Quite a change of scene, really. The architecture is quite different. The language is amazingly different. The history and old wealth is just incredible.

Old Krakow is dominated by a 15th century castle that makes the Scottish castles look a bit like a cabin up on Lake Mille Lacs. There is a distinctly eastern orthodox influence in the castle itself, but all the churches are Gothic cathedrals. It makes for a very interesting mix.

I am finding it a bit strange walking around town, passing statues of historical figures that I've never even heard of. I've been thinking a bit about why this is, and I think I know why. For those of us who grew up in the eighties and early nineties, these countries were still under communist rule. Much of the news reports that we got and the history that we discussed in school was related to the post-war period, with its emphasis on the Russian sphere of influence. Because of this, I've always had the impression that there is little in the way of architecture or historical monuments from outside the twentieth century.

It's something quite different and yet very similar. Oddly enough, I find that the bar culture here is more similar to that at home than the culture in Scotland. It's more laid back, and seems to be much less about the drinking, and more about the having a drink and a conversation. Only the visitors seem to really tear it up.

I haven't been terrible good with the language. There are very few phrases in my guide book (there isn't even a phrase for buying tickets). I feel a little bit of remorse for it. Like a bull in a china shop, throwing my English weight around, shattering that rapid flow of the natural language.

I'll head to Prague on Friday night.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Music City


Glasgow has been great for culture. Edinburgh has all the neat and pretty streets, the castles, the seat of government. Glasgow has the School of Art and so much music it hurts.

Well, it's loud.

I've seen a couple of shows, now, with another on the docket for tonight. The first was the aforementioned Charlie Winston show. Last night included a total crap band, a interesting band (We are the Physics), and a technically good band (the Science). I wasn't as happy with the show as with the Charlie Winston show. Partly due to the fact that the bands weren't great, partly due to the fact the venue was that great either. Too much bar, not enough band focus. The bartender wasn't terribly impressed with any of the bands, either. He described the middle band as a "Glasgow Flavor-of-the-Month" with their Franz Ferdinand guitar stylings.

As for a seeing the inside of museums, churches and whatnot, I haven't really had a chance to do that. With the Easter holiday, most things have been closed. Today is, in fact, a bank holiday, which means everything is either closed or on sale. I'm not sure which is which.

With the holiday, I did happen across a strange site: a motorcycle rally. Apparently, every Easter this huge group of bikers get together for a rally at the Children's Hospital, in order to bring treats to all kids. Unlike American motorcycle rallies, this was all colorful crotch rockets. Hardly a Harley to be seen. Damn whiney sounding, as well.

I did go to that tango workshop on Saturday[1]. It wasn't bad - not great, but not bad. There are better tango instructors in Minneapolis, that's certain. I also was not happy with being the youngest person in the room by at least five years. I did, however, enjoy the compliments about my lead. Felt pretty good about my ability to do basic tango, because of that.

Way to go, confidence level.

[1] Are you surprised? Have you looked at the title of the blog?

Saturday, April 15, 2006

Onward to Glasgow


Skye was pretty, but due to weather, nothing to really write home about. Another case of being up on top of a mountain in weather that I probably shouldn't have been. Snow, rain, and high winds, but quite beautiful. As with all the weather of this sort, it's also peaceful with not too many tourists around.

So it was straight on to Glasgow. I'm rather glad I've allocated it as much time as I have. It's an interesting city. It's certainly not the neat and clean city that is Edinburgh (or most of Eastern and Northern Scotland, for that matter), but it has it's own flavor. It has a great music scene, as well as some interesting art exhibits and old cathedrals.

As for the music scene, I went out last night to check out a music club last night. I just sort of picked one rather randomly using the following criteria: first, that it was close; second that there were at least three groups playing - more bang for the buck; last, that it was cheap - not a lot of bucks.

I ended up catching the middle and closing bands at a bar called King Tut's Wah Wah Hut in central Glasgow. The middle group, which appears to be the headliner, was a guy named Charlie Winston and band. Mr. Winston played acoustic guitar or keyboards, while singing vocals. While the tracks were hit and miss, for me there was more hit than miss. The best numbers had a complexity of lyrics and great vocal change-ups. Mr. Winston's stage presence was great, with good audience interaction and high energy.

Particularly good numbers were his opening number with a political song about, er, well, the war ("Gone, Gone"), a song called "Finding Home" (simple, but good), and "Yes, Yes", which was a very high energy and humorous look at the male sexual response. There's a lot of potential in Charlie Winston's work. I'll have to keep an eye out.

As for the rest of the weekend, I'll try to see another few more shows. And hit up a tango workshop...

Yeah, I know. What the crap is that about? Tango in Scotland?

I wonder if they'll have some in Poland...

Monday, April 10, 2006

A Little Bit More on Orkney

Somewhere on the Scapa Flow.

Minor note on the date of this post. I wrote it on the ferry back to Scotland from Orkney. I know that I'm publishing it a bit later, but I figured I would still date it when it was written.

One of the beautiful things about Orkney is that it feels so remote. The windswept, treeless islands, the farms and their sheep, and the Orcadiams, with their fierce independent nature reinforces this feeling.

It is intensely relaxing.

The winds are incredible, causing remarkable rapid changes in the weather. I spent Sunday walking up Wideford Hill, just outside of Kirkwall, to get some panoramic views of the island. I started out just after noon under partly cloudy skies. As I made my way up the hill, I could see out into the bay where a wall of Storm was rolling in quite rapidly. By now, being a seasoned Orkney tourist, I figured that it wouldn't last. I kept on walking.

All the sheep seemed to lay down in unison. I think they're a bit more clever than I am.

It hit hard. Driving sleet and snow made the side of my face raw. Visibility dropped off to about fifty meters. I ducked behind a stone field wall to wait it out. Ten minutes later, there were clear, blue skies.

After that, it was a pleasant, although steep, softy climb to the top of the hill. It was worth the trip: the views were stunning. Those high winds threatened to blow me off the top, however - I almost lost my footing several times. Snapped a few photos, and headed back down.

On the way down I passed a footpath over to a Neolithic tomb. Orkney has the highest density of prehistoric sites in all of Europe. Just walking past a path to some tomb is not so surprising.

The path itself was exceedingly muddy and on the windy side of the hill. In fact, I had to try it twice, heading back once to avoid another snow storm that was strangely only on one side of the hill. Unfortunately, the cairn was locked up, so I couldn't actually get inside. Still, it was interesting to be the only person on the side of that hill.

It wasn't a terrible disappointment. I had gone on a tour[1] the day before of various Neolithic and Stone-aged sites. I had seen the inside of Maeshowe, the largest and oldest chambered tomb on the Mainland. More impressive of these sites was the Ring of Brodger. It is a huge circle of standing stone. In either site the fact that these stones were moved at all is impressive. Some weigh up to twenty tons, and were moved up to nine miles.

The hostel in which I stayed in Kirkwall was far from the town center (over a mile), institutional (it was like staying in an elementary school), and had few backpackers. So far, it's my favorite hostel in Scotland. The sole staff member, while a bit eccentric, was very friendly, and was enjoyable to talk with. He was very helpful with tips on where to go, and even offered to loan me his bike. The few backpackers were all early season travelers, so they were more laid back.

Overall, Orkney is a great stop on a s Scottish tour. It's a nice cultural change of pace and a beautiful place, as well.

[1] A note on tours: I usually don't go on anything remotely like a tour. I like to be self-guided. I'm starting to find out that this is not a good idea for two reasons.

First, I don't learn nearly enough about the place if I just look at it. The only exception to this, of course, is museums. They already have an explanation at each installation.

Secondly, often times things are spread out to the point that I can't walk to any of the interesting bits. This was definitely the case with the Orkney sites.

Radio Silence


I'm leaving Orkney this morning, heading back to Inverness, and then tomorrow I'll be heading to the Isle of Skye (I've been told it's worth the trip). So, since I'll be pretty much travelling for a couple of days, it might be a little while before I can put something up.

This morning is the first day with calm winds. Sure, there will be constant cloud cover, but it means that the ferry ride will be nice and smooth.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Windswept Isles


Up here on the Orkney Isles, the weather is particularly strange. The temperature is apparently the same all year round. It's island weather.

North Atlantic island weather.

One minute it is bright and sunny, the next it is sleeting ice. The winds are fierce and cold. Yet there is never really snow, and they never have a frost, even in the middle of winter. The only thing holding back the tourists during the winter months is the lack of light, I suppose.

The winds made for a very interesting ferry crossing. Probably the most turbulant boat trip[1] I've ever had, and that includes the times where I've flipped a sailboat. Luckly, that only lasted for forty minutes, until we could get inside the Scapa Flow. From there, it was smooth sailing.

It was a late ferry, due to the winds. I had to walk, in the sleet, to my hostel at about eleven PM. The only time I've really been caught in the rain, so far. Thanks, strange island weather.

There are some marvolous sights up here. The center of Kirkwall is dominated by the magnificent St. Magnus Cathedral, built by the Vikings in the 12th century. It is full of great stained glass, and old tombstones from the the early 17th century. The interesting part of the inscriptions is that they all end with Memento Mori - Remember Death - instead of the standard Rest in Peace or whatnot. I'm not entirely sure what the significance is.

There is also a great single malt wiskey distillery in town, Highland Park, which offers tours of their facility. They bill themselves as the "most northerly distillery of whiskey in the world." A very tasty Scotch.

Interesting, but not worth the entry fee, are the Earl's and Bishop's Palaces, ruins of 17th century castles. The tour is self guided, and the cold made for a rather rushed experience. For once, being the only person at an attraction also made it a little less interesting. It was a little too quiet.

Today, I'll head out to see some other sights on the island. There are some great iron- and stone-aged sights to see...

[1] Not enough, mind you, to make me ill. I just lay there and listened to music with my eyes shut, hoping that it would all just go away...

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Inhabiting the Uninhabitable


The wind howls, the grey clouds hang low and cold spits of rain fall. The hills are covered in rust-brown, short vegetation, peppered with emaciated trees. Snow-capped mountains sit in the distance, looming in among the clouds.

One can see why the highlands are so sparsely populated.

The wet of the ground has made it difficult for the Scottish forests. The tree cover, in the last five thousand years, through the spred of the marshes as well as human activity, have been reduced to one percent of it's orginal area. Even in densly wooded areas evidence of the damp nature of Scotland can be seen: All of the trees are covered in a shaggy, pale green moss.

Even in early April, the mountains are still covered in snow. They have low peaks, at around a thousand meters, but still look quite challenging to the day hiker. The vegetation, even at such low altitudes, seems rare. The high winds of the area must make it difficult for things to grow.

This uninviting character makes the fact that the area has be inhabited for thousands of years all the more unimaginable. The very remoteness of it all seems complete when, in the middle of Loch an Eilein on a small island, a lone castle is spotted, it's stone work falling into ruin. Yet there are few signs of civilization surrounding it.

The modern towns are inviting though, perhaps more so given the landscape. Inverness is a beautiful town situated on the Ness river. A walk along the river is great way to while a way a few hours on a sunny afternoon, even in the cool Spring weather. Small yet impressive churches line the river, owing to Inverness' past and present status as urban center of the Highlands. People still come from as far as the Isle of Skye to their shopping.

As for me, I'm making my way still farther North. I had hoped to set out early, but a slight misunderstanding caused me to miss the early train. Forteen and forty sound very similar in the thicker Scottish accent. Lesson learned for the future: err on the side of forteen, rather then the other way around.

To get to the Orkney Islands, I have to travel half again the length of Scotland, the take a bus to the port, followed by a ferry ride to the islands themselves. It will be a very long day of travelling, indeed.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

A Morbid Fascination

I've discovered that Scottish cemetaries are really damned interesting. There's something about the moss and stone color combination that is remarkable. The rain, I think, brightens the green and darkens the stone for a brilliant contrast.

I'm hoping to get some more pictures up soon (it's rather expensive to upload pictures in the UK). Hopefully then, I can get my point across a little more clearly.

Just to keep everyone up to speed, click on the picture to go see more of my pictures...

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Swiftly Goes the Current


Very quickly I passed through a few towns on my way up North. Stirling was a nice small town, with a castle, and a fantastic graveyard surrounding the high kirk. I was lucky[1] enough to be there on one of the two days of the year where there was free entry to the castle. The castle was a little bit more impressive in scale then Edinburgh castle.

While there has been a castle in some form on the hill, the most recent incarnation was updated by King James IV to impress his French[2] bride. He didn't actually live to see the renovation finished, due to his death two years later. His son, James V actually completed the renovation. Stirling was the capital of Scotland only through James V's reign, however. Once his grandson James VI (and later I of England) was crowned king, the capital was returned to Edinburgh.[3]

I headed up to Dundee, misreading my guide book about it actually being "worth a stop." It was entirely the opposite, actually. Being a bit of a industrial town (and one where all the interesting things to see were closed anyway), I ended up relaxing and catching a movie. Capote, is a pretty good film, by the way.

I'm up in the central Highlands at the moment, in Inverness. I plan to head over to a nature reserve/national park tomorrow to do some walking (as if I haven't done enough...). Here there is snow-peaked mountains, clear rivers and amazingly bright skies. This made for probably one of the most enjoyable train rides yet.

Actually I've been surprised at the amount of sun there's been up here. Although every day seems to either start out as shit and then suddenly become sunny, or start out sunny and suddenly become shit. I've noticed that's about what the weather forecasts are worth as well. They basically say rain all week, but none of it has really proven to be at all accurate.

[1] Or Unlucky, depending on your view point. I actually enjoyed Edinburgh castle a little more in comparison for two reasons. First, there was hardly anyone there due to the weather. Second, there were almost no kids. Free day was like noisy kid central.

[2] This could be the original word used for "high maintenance."

[3] This concludes the history lesson.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Heading Up North


It's been a rather brief visit to Edinburgh. It's a great small city, but I'm anxious to get moving. I bought a plane ticket for Krakow, on the eighteenth, which has me on a time limit now. A long time limit, but a time limit nonetheless. So I'll be heading to Stirling this morning.

But as for Edinburgh, it's a lovely little city. One thing that has surprised me is the quality of the museums. The National Gallery has a rather impressive collection of paintings from early renaissance to impressionism. It includes paintings from two of my favorite artists, El Greco, and John Singer Sargent, as well as some other fantastic works.

The Museum of Scotland and the Royal Museum (they are combined) is another impressive set of exhibits. The Museum of Scotland contains exhibits relating to the history of Scotland, from prehistoric times to the nineteenth century. All exhibits excellently displayed with superbly written labels. The Royal Museum houses collections of both global sculpture (Egyptian, Japanese, etc), as well as scientific exhibits. Maybe it's this new interest in music that I've developed of the last five years, but the exhibit of historical phonographs was damned interesting.

The last two days were also on-again-off-again sunny. This made for excellent walking in the local park. The park includes a small hilltop peak named Artur's Seat. I would have missed it actually, if I hadn't walked around the other large hill that was closer to the city. The hill provided some great views of the whole city.

The best views of the city were back at the Museum of Scotland. The rooftop terrace, which is actually not that easy to find, has some excellent in-city views of Edinburgh castle, the University and all of the Royal Mile. It was an exceptionally clear day, as well. By the look of it, the last one that I'll see for a while.

Edinburgh, given it's size, is a very manageable city on foot. I'm always surprised that everything seems much closer than it appears on the map. It makes for some rather easy walking from sight to sight. Plus given how centrally located the hostel is, it easy to come in for a sit and a coffee. Sure that makes me sound a bit like an old man, but, well, really.

As for seeming a bit like an old man, I have been going out for a pint at the pubs. There is a vast selection of pubs right off of the Royal Mile. Given how touristy the street is, you'd think that the pubs would be filled with foreigners of all stripes. It turns out that this is one of the bar areas. There are locals abound at the pubs. The pub life is quite a bit more my speed than the club life in Buenos Aires.

But back to the old man bit. I haven't been able to stay out much past eleven. Perhaps I should blame it on the jet lag, really.

Saturday, April 01, 2006