Tuesday, 20 January 2015

More than Just a Happy Holiday: Chilling Soviet History in Budapest (and Lighter, Brighter Attractions to Enjoy)

Soviet History on Holiday in Budapest

Hungary's Soviet past is expertly both commemorated and commiserated and it is possibly the most well-preserved of all the Eastern Bloc countries. Call us dark and sinister but the following two attractions made interesting and thought-provoking additions to our city break in the beautiful and atmospheric city of Budapest. My husband and I certainly got more from our trip for learning about this depressing history, getting a bit of a shock, and gaining a chilling perspective on when politics go very wrong indeed...

House Of Terror

The House of Terror is a sobering, chilling attraction. Its history as the headquarters of the Hungarian Communist Party, and later as the Soviet headquarters in Budapest, is showcased in a tangible sense with artefacts, films, preserved rooms, and basement cells.

Once inside the building, I wasn't to be fooled by its respectable address on an unassuming leafy avenue not far from the dignified Opera. This building witnessed truly terrible acts of violence, domination, and systematic corruption, which became all too evident from our tour of its cellars in the basement.

As I laid eyes on the disgusting conditions where non-conformists to Communism and suspects of revolution were held prisoner in dreadful conditions with no daylight, no toilet, and just a plank of wood for a bed, I sensed a very real sense of terror. As Richard playfully closed one of the cell doors while we were looking around I found myself inexplicably unable to be in that room with that door closed; I certainly felt something and it had a lot to do with the unbelievably cruel physical and psychological torture methods that took place in this very basement. 

It was horrifying to see the actual execution room as it existed, and the miserable 'cupboard' where solitary confinement was so tiny that it forced a prisoner to stand for days at a time in pitch black, without even enough space for kneeling...

The House of Terror is a 2 minute walk from the Oktogon metro stop and is well signposted. It was a very educational experience and well worth the time and cost. Tickets are around £10-15 per adult and student discounts are available.

Memento Park

Strolling through Memento Park with its preserved communist statues was a strange experience indeed. Huge likenesses of prominent figures such as Lenin, Stalin, and even Stalin's boots made their presence known to us in the wide open space on the edge of the city limits. The many huge statues and sculptures were once placed around the city in Soviet times, imposing on and terrorising its inhabitants. Wandering around at a leisurely pace I found it hard to imagine them as anything other than grave reminders of a sinister past.

After admiring the gargantuan sculptures we visited the indoor exhibition space which showed an entertaining film and artefacts concerning the Communist spies, giving us a different insight into being a spy for the Communist Regime. The gift shop housed a wide range of curious Soviet memorabilia, and the Soviet CD which was playing added to the echoes of a politically charged atmosphere.

The park can be reached by bus from Ujbuda Koszpont outside the shopping centre and takes about 20 minutes. Entry costs less than £10 per adult.

Lighter and Brighter Budapest

Bath Houses

What better place to relax and unwind than this stunning spa city's historic baths. A small number of Turkish Baths more than 400 years old remain, such as the Rudas Baths on the Buda side of the river. Richard and I opted for the beautiful Neo-classical Gellert baths adorned with colourful mosaics, in the Gellert hotel on the Buda side opposite distinctive Liberty Bridge. We aimed to spend just a few hours but ended up whiling away the entire afternoon soaking in the mineral-rich water and plucking up the courage to run from the steam chamber to the ice cold plunge pool!

Eating Out

Our favourite little restaurant was the traditional and aptly named 'Paprika.' The food was deliciously flavoured and the country-style decor made us feel right at home. We were lucky enough to stumble across this place on our first night, just down the road from our hotel 'Mirage Fashion Hotel' at Heroes' Square (Hosok Tere). I was so glad we did, as the next few nights after that the place was packed and they couldn't fit us in without a booking. 

Another favourite of ours was Robinson - a beautiful and classy mid-range restaurant set on a miniature island, with an emphasis on fine wines and perfect cuts of meat, and wonderful flavours. My steak was indescribably tasty and cooked to perfection. The restaurant had a fantastic atmosphere and the service was impeccable. 

Performances at the opera are surprisingly cheap, and not so surprisingly, very popular. We managed to get tickets for a fantastic Ballet we hadn't heard of, on the day of the performance. We did end up with one seat behind the other, however these turned out to be in the upper dress circle with no seats in front, so we moved them slightly to our preference - oh and they cost just £20 each! It is even possible to get obscured view seats for just £5. 

Other Attractions & Out of Town

The parliament building (inspired by Westminster) is a striking building of gargantuan proportions. We enjoyed the view best from the River cruise as it is situated right in front of the water. 
Castle Hill and the short 1800s funicular railway up the Buda Hillside afforded us magnificent views of the city at dusk - the beautifully lit buildings gleaming in the half-light. We reached the impressive Gothic Mathias Church further up the hill and stood gazing up at its detail. There was a sort of medieval music playing across the courtyard and people milling around admiring the view from the various turrets around the church. 

Mathias Church

Out of Town

Visegrad town is situated on the Danube river, bending around the hills. The view from the castle at the top is supposed to be magnificent. We took the train which was around half an hour however we ended up in a village opposite the actual town on the other side of the river. There was a boat across but it was a bank holiday and there was just one so we decided to go for a walk in the hills and catch a view of the river bend.

A day or two in majestic Vienna makes an exciting trip from Budapest and it is just a 3 hour train journey. Our tickets included the metro so we headed straight to the centre and enjoyed stunning sights, shopping, and divine artisan chocolate, as well as a trip to the 3-floor flagship Swarovski store and a tour around Mozart's home which has been turned into a fantastic interactive museum. 

Our trip to Budapest felt like a really educational experience, packed full of culture and delicious food! It is imperative to mention at this point that we saved the House of Terror for the last day so as not to set a macabre tone for the rest of the holiday! 

Useful links:
House of Terror: http://www.terrorhaza.hu/
Hungarian Railway: http://www.mav.hu/english/
Hungarian State Opera: http://www.opera.hu/en
Paprika Restaurant: http://www.paprikavendeglo.hu/

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Dracula's Castle at Halloween & Other Transylvanian Treats in Romania

My cousin from New Zealand recently went travelling in Europe and when he came to us in the UK I asked him what his favourite place was. He gave an unexpected and unusual answer: Romania. The people, the scenery, the history - it seemed to have it all, so I decided to head on over there too, and what better time to do it than at Halloween...

The first notable thing about any of this is that everything was so cheap! It was also a fantastically exciting and unusual holiday, needless to say.

We flew for £82 each to Bucharest (Ryanair), got the 3.5 hour train from Bucharest to beautiful Brasov in Transylvania for £5 each, and stayed at the immaculate and well-equipped Kron Studios in Brasov for £28 per night, per 3/4 star double studio apartment! (booking.com)

Brasov Town

Brasov is a traditional Transylvanian town, located within a few miles of major attractions Bran Castle and Rasnov Fortress, as well as the Libearty Bear Sanctuary and the Carpathian Mountains. 

It is an absolute pleasure to spend time in the town of Brasov whether you're simply after a little bit of shopping and deliciously creamy hot chocolate, architectural and historic sights, or even a bit of a test of logic at Mind Games (see below)!

The cable car up the Tampa mountainside is a good little excursion from the town to get into the hills above and take in the views of the town below. The enormous 'black church' cathedral that looms over the town seems suddenly tiny from the top.

'Mind Games' is a fantastic and unusual attraction involving being shut in a room with a series of varied puzzles to solve in order to get out! There are rooms like these in other cities too, and the one in Brasov is fantastic, run by the friendliest and most accommodating people. Mind Games can be found in an alleyway just off the main square where the banks are.

Getting around is easy and the attractions nearby (such as Bran Castle) are simple and cheap to reach by taxi. Make sure you use a branded taxi as pirates are a problem. Martax and Reytaxi are good. 

Other than pirate taxis (a problem in Romania in general) Brasov is a very safe city with a relaxed and sociable atmosphere. 

Libearty Bear Sanctuary

This wonderful and noble sanctuary for rescued bears was started by a Romanian lady when the first bears were rescued from being exploited or kept as 'entertainment'. Until the late 90s it was legal to own a bear and amongst other atrocities, many restaurants and other places kept bears in small cages outside to lure people in; although it must be questioned which sort of person would be lured somewhere by something like that. 

The sanctuary is set in the natural forest and the 80-something bears have huge areas to roam free. The sole purpose of it is to house the bears and tourism is secondary to that which is refreshing to see - Libearty Sanctuary make it very clear that they are not a zoo. 

It is around £10 to enter and a knowledgeable guide shows groups around at set times on the hour, around three times a day (such as at 11am), but email first to check availability (apamp@clicknet.ro)

The sanctuary is in the forests above the town of Zarnesti and is really only reachable by taxi. It is not very well signposted but if you're driving it's up a winding gravel path after Zarnesti - don't turn off and you should reach the parking area within a few minutes. 

Rasnov Fortress

Set on a hilltop that is visible from the main road to Bran, this enormous fortress from the 14th century was built on top of pre-historic Bronze-Age and Neolithic settlements. The mixture of residential ruins and defensive towers are fascinating to wonder around, with the backdrop of the unspoiled and forested Carpathian mountains. Local people also sell a variety of items such as painted local pottery and ornate scarves. 

Bran Castle

The legendary castle built by Vlad the Impaler in around the 14th century is the inspiration for the classic novel Dracula by Bram Stoker. Its foreboding sheer stone walls glow orange at night, and at Halloween jack-o-lanterns are placed around the courtyard, flickering an eerie light. The narrow tunnels and steep staircases are exciting to walk around, exploring the various chambers and rooms within - many left as they were when various Royals inhabited them through the ages. 

The castle is set on a steep hill and is surrounded by trees. It involves a fairly impressive walk up to the entrance, just adding to the imposing atmosphere. 

Bran town, although fairly geared up the tourists, is a good place to spend some time too, especially if shopping for gifts or souvenirs, and delicious Romanian treats such as kurtos kalacs - a traditionally Transylvanian pastry cooked around a sort of cylinder chimney and covered in various combinations of walnuts, cinnamon, sugar and coconut. 

It is around £5 to enter the castle, although special events can be slightly more, such as Halloween tours. 

Peles Castle

In the lovely town of Sinaia, just on the edge in the green hills with a mountainous backdrop, lies the stunning and fairytale 19th century Peles castle. It is a simply stunning royal residence which is now a heritage site and open to the public as a National Museum. 

Peles makes a good stop if driving back to Bucharest from Brasov to the airport (or vice-versa). 

Eating Out in Transylvania

Eating out is divine, especially in higher-end restaurants (still around £13 for a main, a drink and a dessert)! Expect traditional central European cuisine on most menus, such as schnitzel, stroganoff and strudel, and also local specialities such as meatballs and cabbage. Transylvanian cuisine can be surprisingly waste-not, and don't be surprised to see 'lamb's brains' or something similar nestled between more appetising options...

Sergiana is a fantastically local, popular and classy restaurant in Brasov, as well as Bella Musica across the main road from the cathedral with its lovely atmosphere and winding low-ceilinged halls and cubby-holes.