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A Tale of Two Cities
Truly a hidden gem, Budapest provided a wonderful display of architecture, fresh air, and interesting faces during our brief stay. The streets of Pest on the eastern side of the Danube are lined with an endless array of buildings with everything from baroque to neoclassical to Communist-era architecture, each new colorful façade seemingly more impressive than the last. These structures encompass a neighborhood containing both wide, tree lined boulevards and bumpy cobbled streets, bourgeois shopping, grand squares, statues and cathedrals, and numerous cafes, bars, and hipster ruin pubs. Across the Danube lies Buda, with a hilltop castle and palace. Its moniker as the Paris of the east is well-earned, and I will always have fond memories of my time in Buda.
We departed Croatia in the late afternoon after a massive goodbye lunch, Big L chasing us down the tracks as we sped away. We changed trains in the middle of Slovenia and rode to Buda throughout a tumultuous night without much sleep. After arriving at the train station we walked down and across the Danube for about two hours to our hostel, stopping for breakfast in a riverside park. We checked into Casa de la Musica Hostel, a multicolored collection of backpackers that, true to its name, played host to a large number of Spanish speakers from both Spain and South America. We rented bikes and rode around the city, touring the massive Parliament structure, housing the congressional chambers. We rode north trying to find the Roman ruins of Acquincum, the original settlement of Budapest, only to find a very underwhelming display of a single, graffiti-laced set of a small colosseum. Nevertheless we continued for a ride around and through Margit Island, a Central Park-like island in the middle of the Danube ringed with a running/biking trail around its outer edge. The island had everything, including water parks, mini golf, a concert hall, a zoo, large fountains, and numerous bars and food stands, not to mention phenomenal afternoon views of the city with a cool breeze rising off the Danube. We then hiked up to Géllert Hill for a great overlook of the city for sunset. I fell asleep in my dorm room full of Spaniards exhausted but really happy after a long day. We even found Ronald Reagan.
After sleeping in and changing rooms we rented bikes again, riding around the city and making our way up to the Buda Castle on the other side of the river. Inside the walled fortress there was a folk festival going on, and we sampled local sheep's cheeses and sauerkraut before walking around the gorgeous castle area. We rode down south in search of a park with communist-era statues but could not find it, becoming pretty lost in the process. We threw in the towel in time to make it back up to Géllert Hill for the sunset, overjoyed after another great day riding in the sun. At night we went to Szimpla Klub, a popular ruin bar that was easily the most hip place I've ever been, my sister's room not included. Records, upside down pictures, potted plants, and old antiques lined the massive two-story bar set in an open courtyard. There were six different bars each serving different drinks, and there were numerous rooms with seats ranging from old rusted cars and tires to antique furniture of all kinds. There was also a hookah bar featuring fresh fruit hashish and homemade pizza. We left late certainly very unsure of our originality.
After a late lodging snafu we made a quick audible to head to Prague rather than Slovakia. We are living on the fly, eating meals out of grocery stores and staying in new rooms every night. However, I love the unpredictability of this style of travel, and it is clear that we will never run out of destinations, sights, and activities. Biking around Budapest was an awesome way to experience a city, being able to cover a lot of ground and get some exercise in the process. We are fully subscribed to the David Byrne philosophy of seeing the world on bikes. It is the easiest, most fun manner in which to see a place, and I look forward to many more great urban rides in the future.
After two days in Buda, we made a late audible and hopped aboard a train cutting a diagonal line across the region northwest to Prague. Despite sharing a car with three screaming children for the better part of the seven hour ride, we arrived in Prague safe and sound. A trek from the station in the rain yielded Hostel Marabou, a cozy, hip hotel a fair distance away from the city center. A home cooked meal of country style French huevos set us right, and we fell comfortably asleep after a long day.
August 20th: certainly a day to remember, for reasons both happy and sad. My lovely parents were married on this day twenty four years ago, which also sadly marks the anniversary of the deaths of two great men whom I admired and still admire deeply, Leslie Bohm and Ken Weiner. This being said, it was a big day for both Griff and I, and we set off to make the most of it. We woke up early for the first time in quite a while, grabbed a free breakfast at the hostel (that we stretched into lunch as well), and went to see Prague. The day was spent exploring and wandering about the beautiful city, viewing the old town, Jewish quarter, and castle districts. The hordes of tourists could not dampen how enjoyable the city was, especially on an overcast, slightly rainy day that was a welcome respite from the heat of Budapest and Croatia. The patterned, cobbled streets and sidewalks twist comfortably around a mix of stunning old architecture and modern malls and businesses, similar to Budapest in a sense, but exuding a more jovial atmosphere. Both cities are dominated by rivers, the Danube in Buda and the Vlatna running through Prague, but whereas Budapest is a mostly flat cityscape surrounded by plains, Prague sits upon rolling hills that offer some drastic changes in elevation.
We had a nice lunch in the Parliament gardens and walked back across the Charles Bridge, down the Vlatna and up to Wenceslas Square, completing a wide circuit of most of the city's main sights. We headed back to the hostel, decompressed for a bit, and had dinner at a traditional Czech beer hall down the street recommended by the hostel manager, our first meal eating out together this trip. Over solid, hearty food and great lagers we had a great discussion about the day, life, and everything in between. I am very privileged to be paralyzed with opportunity. After dinner we caught the tram back to the center and caught the end of the Plzen-Maribor Champions League game, a rousing victory for the Czech side. We made it home happy, full, and tired after a great long day.
Our second day in Prague involved more wandering throughout a city the two of us really enjoyed. We were both exhausted, but managed to make our way up to Visegrad, a castle fortress on a small hill overlooking the city from the south along the Vlatna. We ate lunch in the gardens, toured a gorgeous basilica filled with Baroque art and architecture, and after a brief nap in the park (I knew it would happen at least once this trip) had another set of huevos at the hostel and set off on a train to Slovakia.After a week spent in two wonderful, tourist-choked cities, it is time for a little mountain relaxation.
There is a reason why visitors flock to certain places, and Prague and Budapest easily justify the travel choices of quite a few.The trick is to get lost in these spots, wearing down the soles of your shoes and finding the little things in the back alleys that make worldly cities like Prague and Buda so wonderful. If this is possible, these experiences add to the main sights to yield a full experience both hidden and loudly proclaimed, a combination of the expected and the excitingly surprising. Three weeks are in the books, and we are headed back east with one more to go. I leave Prague very impressed with an old, charming city, a swollen arm as the result of an unknown bug bite to go along with my 19373638 mosquito bites from Croatia (must be my sugary sweet blood), and most importantly an appreciation of just how lucky I am right now, just living. Go Broncos.
From the fields of the Czech Republic,