Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The 'B' Capitals of Eastern Europe

Berlin... Belgrade... Budapest... Bucharest

Believe it or not, I liked geography back when I was growing up too. And since I was growing up in the Soviet Union, a lot of the geography I paid attention to dealt with the countries of Eastern Europe. And a lot of them had capitals that started with 'B' (and then when I was six, a huge shopping center named 'Budapest' opened right across the street from our house in Moscow, really captivating my attention and imagination). So, why not see all these 'B' capitals!? I got to Berlin just before the Mongol Rally in 2008; a certain Moldova-sponsored detour, brought me to Bucharest in July. That detour continued on to Budapest, but all I saw was the ring road that took me right around the city, so this time I was back!

And I got inside the ring road:

I also didn't have a car to worry about anymore

In fact, I got to spend an entire weekend wondering around Buda and Pest and taking in the sites of the city, which has begun to once again attract hordes of tourists, since its re-liberation in 1990. Before we get the photo gallery, a few general thoughts on the place... Now, just because I'm grouping Berlin, Budapest, Belgrade, and Bucharest together doesn't actually make them at all similar. Berlin is, of course, a beast entirely of its own, a German city of never-ending night life extraordinaire. Budapest, a former part of the Austro-Hungarian empire stands out, not so surprisingly, for being far and away the closest to Western Europe (its location is the most Western-most too). The architecture is more reminiscent of my brief visit to Vienna than anything else, the city (and the entire country) is predominantly Roman Catholic, unlike its more Russian/Greek Orthodox dominated sister cities to the East. That being said, Budapest also has that unmistakable look of a big city in a formerly Communist country - it's mostly just a feel for me, but I tried to categorize the visual clues that gave me that distinct impression. In the words of Jeff Foxworthy:

Your city might be a former Eastern bloc capital if:
- your public spaces are relatively unkempt. The pavement on the sidewalks and roads is torn and cracked, and there's graffiti on the houses
- your downtown buildings are all older. Even if reasonably well maintained, there's hardly any new construction sprinkled in.
- once you get out of the center of the city just a little, your city is noticeably green and verdant. Wild green, nothing like the manicured Central Park in New York or London's Hyde Park
- the insides of your buildings (say, my hostel) are characterized by big, wide, empty, and usually unlit stairwells, and no elevators. Bonus points for trash and smells of urine in abundance, but those were thankfully not present in my hostel
- smell of urine in your alleys? Definitely a plus!
- shady looking men looking to sell some sort of unspecified (but shady) goods and services outside the train station, an even bigger plus! These guys, by the way, seem to have been generally replaced by the Nigerians in a lot of the Western cities these days, including Tokyo, Paris, and, surprisingly enough, Thessaloniki, Greece, where I am at the moment

So, while Budapest is certainly very closely tied to Western Europe - culturally perhaps more so than to Eastern Europe, 40 plus years of Soviet domination have left some indelible signs of being a communist-run city. Alright, enough cultural anthropology, on to my favorite sights on the place:

The House of Parliament sits on the banks of the Danube

Did I mention the Roman Catholics? The St. Stephen's Cathedral in Pest, named for St. Stephen I of Hungary (c. 975-1038) - his mummified hand resides in a chapel inside. It's apparently traveled extensively around Europe, but has been returned to Budapest after WWII.

The inside of the Basilica - the Catholics sure do know how to decorate. Decorations a bit less blood thirsty than the ones in South America though...

A trip to the observation deck up on the roof gives an expansive view of the surrounding city

Across the river, in Buda, sits the grand, yet slender Mathias Church. Uniquely beautiful inside too, I've been told, but sadly I showed up an hour too late to go in!

Back in Pest, this is the Budapest Great Synagogue - second largest in the world according to my hostel, somewhere in the top five according to wikipedia. Either way, an amazing sight, and remarkable for having survived both Hitler and Stalin...

Ah, those crafty Jews with their funny synagogue signs...

"The Shoes on the Danube Promenade" is more somber - a memorial to Jews who were executed on this spot by the Nazis during WWII. The Germans had the foresight to make their prisoners take their shoes off prior to shooting them...

After a weekend here, I felt like I had Budapest well covered, along with prior visits to Berlin and Bucharest, so all that was left now was Belgrade, the capital of Serbia. Serbia has some other distinctions as well - Belgrade is directly on the way to Thessaloniki, where I was headed to visit friends and catch my flight to Tel Aviv, and Serbia is the only one of the seven former Yugoslav republics we didn't make it too during the rally in 2008 (Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Macedonia being the others. Granted the coastal road in Croatia passes through Bosnia for all of about 10 minutes, but that's ten more minutes than I had ever spent in Serbia). So, in short order, I boarded my Belgrade-bound train in Budapest Monday morning... and 8 hours later I had arrived in Belgrade (the journey really wasn't interesting, so I won't dwell on it).

Belgrade isn't a whole lot like Budapest. Serbia isn't in the EU; it doesn't draw anywhere near the numbers of tourists (I heard almost exclusively Serbian on the street, which is a LOT more similar to Russian than Hungarian is, by the way), and in a clear sign that reminded me of Russia and Ukraine, most women, these days, choose to dress like they are in some way employed by the adult industry (no complaints!). I also got to spend all of one evening in Belgrade, so my sight-seeing opportunities were a bit more limited, but here's the best sites of the place from the time I had:

The St. Marco Church - me thinks we are a lot more Greek Orthodox around here...

The Belgrade Fortress as darkness gathers. This is a city park, by the way, which was filled with locals just hanging out, strolling around, and generally enjoying this warm Monday evening

A relic from the Balkans war from the 90's. I don't know what used to be in this building that caused NATO to bomb it, nor why they're refusing to fix it, but it's a pretty poignant reminder

Hostel reviews along the way: Budapest, Belgrade, Thessaloniki:
- Carpe Nochem, Budapest: Cleanliness #3, Fun #1. It wasn't dirty, but it was in that older building, with the unlit stairwell in Budapest, and was always full. It wasn't full at 9 at night, every night though, as around 8:30, the whole hostel was out for a pub crawl along the local pubs, bars, and clubs, every night. Returning some time around 4 to 6 in the morning...
- Manga Hostel, Belgrade: Cleanliness #2, Fun #2. Not quite full, but close to it, close enough for their to be enough other travelers to hang out and watch a movie with at night. Quite clean though, and has an attractive little garden outside. Hard to compete with 'pub crawl till 4-6 in the morning every night' though
- RentRooms, Thessaloniki: Cleanliness #1, Fun #3. Spotless, and empty. The place is clearly quite new, and pristinely scrubbed - in a fun area of town too (University district) and also features a nice garden/backyard, but backpackers in Greece all flock to Athens and the islands, so the only ones here are just stuck making a connection (which is really what I'm here for as well), so there's hardly anyone here. Limits your fun potential... In fact, when I got stuck here for an extra day last night (damn strike!), I found the two other guys in my room asleep at 10 o'clock at night.

As for where we started this whole post:
Berlin: early July 2008
Bucharest: late July 2008, but I wasn't in the mood for any sight-seeing...
Budapest: April, 2010
Belgrade: May, 2010

1 comment:

dlott said...

Talking up the women of Belgrade while bad mouthing Moldova? Sheesh. Also since when have you started counting Kosovo as a country rather than an insurance scam?