Sunday, December 14, 2008

Bart's Austro-Hungarian tour

The reason why there's been peace in Western Europe for over 60 years is Ryan Air. Cheap flights have allowed people to travel here, there and everywhere - immersing themselves in a variety of cultures. However, this cheap travel is about to end. But I don't think it will matter. London is so multicultural that you don't really have to leave your town to experience the world.

I bought my train ticket off an Indian, before getting my coffee from a Polish girl. Bumping into an American on my way down to the tube and standing next to a Japanese lady I cursed myself because I had left my Spanish homework in the kitchen. Coming in to work I sat down with my English, Scottish, Canadian, French and Irish colleagues, chated to a Kiwi opposite me, said hi to a Fin and Norwegian by the coffee machine, took phone calls from Portugal, Germany, Brazil and the US before sending an email to a Chinese journalist. Shared a bench with Saffa at the gym, had a pint pulled by a Canadian at my local while talking with my Aussie mates and got home to plan my trip to Slovakia...and that's where we begin our story.

In 1867 the Austro-Hungarian Empire stretched from Germany to Czechoslovakia, down through Austria and in to what is now Hungary. It was one of Europe’s richest areas; steeped in beauty, wealth and had some of the most intelligent, artistic and powerful people in the land. It only seemed fair that I travelled to it to show them what all these qualities looked like in a person.
Bart’s Austro-Hungarian Tour!!!!!
Once again I was a Fanatics tour guide: this time on the road. The plan was to take 47 punters from the Spires of Prague to the two cities separated by the Danube: Buda and Pest (or Budapest for you cartographers). On the way we’d wet our whistle in the beer halls of Munich at Oktoberfest, mark our respects at Dachua – the original concentration camp – and tour the beautiful city of Vienna. I’d then go on by myself to explore Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. So off we go…

Prague , Czech Republic
skoro podvádění

If you’ve been keeping up, and you should as this will count for extra credit, I was only here three weeks earlier (, so I tagged along for the walking tours pissing off the guide with my constant interjections, and took my little group to the bars of Prague at night. Things are a little different when you are a guide. People follow you everywhere. So rather than going to the bars that I like, I went to the tourist sites. When you are doing this, you do get to act like you are on a Griswald family vacation. Prague is famous for its Absynth; however, it is only usually the tourists that get in, well when in Rome...

Ordering a few, I sat in the corner with the a double shot, a lighter and tablespoon of sugar – slowly melting the concoction, stirring it in and tasting that familiar. I was careful not to have too much of the green fairy after the last time I consumed this beverage (which ended with me forgetting where I lived, chasing a waiter around a bar trying to steal the food he was serving to patrons, passing out in my lounge room and then eating butter from the container as it was the only thing in my fridge). But this time I was fine. All that happened was that one of the people on tour went missing, and when they came looking for me to help I could only reply from behind my closed door – ‘It’s okay, delivery is on Tuesday’. No idea.

Munich, Germany
Ich fickend Liebe oktoberfest. Das und küssend zufällige Küken in Zelten.

Like an ex- on a drunken night, I went back ( The difference being that I love Oktoberfest. Completely, wholly, unfalteringly, passionately, damn near obsessively love Oktoberfest. Everything about it. Huge quantities of beer, food, tradition, colour, laughter, smiles, music and shouting/singing. You talk with someone who doesn’t speak a word of English, but it’s the best conversation you’ve had in years. There are tens of thousands of people a day there, many very drunk, but no fights. I’m not sure if it’s the Bavarian style music, the fact that there are no additives in the beer or all the revelry, but no one really has much aggression. I would say there isn't much crime, but stein stealing is a great game. Oktoberfest beer mugs (1-litre-Steins, Masskrug in German) are made from heavy glass and typically have a decorative brewery logo on the side, thus making them very popular souvenirs among visitors. If you get one out of the beer halls you then have to deal with the security guards patrolling the park grounds. Once passed them you have to try to get out the gates with police there. Now here's the bit that amateurs fall for all the time. Once out of the grounds, many take their stein out of their hiding place - wrong move. About 300 metres from the exit along the bridge to Munich, plain clothes police wait and catch those that think they have got away. Apart from that merriment, the rest of the festival is about pure glutony. Just check these stats out:

Visitors: 6.2 million
Beer: appr. 6,940,600 litres (126,900 litres non-alcoholic) - who orders non-alcoholic beer????
Wine: 79,624 litres
Sparkling wine: 32,047 litres
Coffee, tea: 222,725 litres
Water, lemonade: 909,765 ½ litres
Chicken: 521,872 units
Pork sausages: 142,253 pairs
Fish: 38,650 kg
Pork knuckles: 58,446 units

Arriving in Munich in the mid-afternoon, it was straight in to the Lederhosen, wrist strapped up to support the steins, and in to the beers halls. Straight towards Hofbrahaus (tourist tent) where it was packed. Sitting 46 people is pretty much impossible, despite the tents getting 10,000 in - as the Germans had packed in work for the day and were in the tents themselves - so we spread out. Didn’t worry me, it was full steam ahead for the steins and pork knuckles.

What's German for inuendo?

The next day was in earlier (10am) and off to . The beers didn’t taste that great so I did try a little Bavarian treat of schnapps, moonshine and sherbet. Interesting.

Back to the beer. I decided to do wander around several beer halls, sampling each one. Each tent brews their very own beer, so imagine a Stella Tent, Fosters Tent, Kronenburg Tent, etc. Leaving that night, one of the punters had managed to steal me a stein from the Lowenbrau tent and gave it to me as a present. I was chuffed.

Leaving the belchy haze of Munich, it was off to Vienna, but via Dachua. The last concentration camp I went to was Auschwitz during a football trip to Poland, so I was still in that hungover state. For those that haven't been to a concentration camp, they have this eerie silence and a bit of a chill. I remember Poland, and while it was 30 odd degrees in Krackow, Birkenau felt like it was only 2 degrees Dachua was much the same. Once you pass the gate with the words Arbeit Macht Fret (work sets you free), which is on the gates of all concentration camps, no one says a word. Opened in March 1933, it was the first regular concentration camp established by the Nazis and served as a prototype and model for the other concentration camps that followed.
Vienna, Austria
Ist für lang aber eine unfassbare Stadt nicht geblieben
We didn't get in to Vienna until late, so it was only a few drinks in the hotel while we relaxed after a decent crack at the past few days. Vienna is an architectural marvel of a place, with stunning buildings, statues, parks and streets; however, we only had a few hours before we headed off to Budapest, so not a huge amount to tell you.

Budapest, Hungary
Hungarinan asszony – szexis bár fene
Now I didn't really enjoy Budapest last time I was there ( but then again I did get food poisoning from eating horse so I thought I'd give it another try - Budapest - not the horse. In fact my next encounter with a horse was much more enjoyable. In the middle of Buda there is a statue that if you rub the horses..., shall we say, area - it grants you good luck. Before exams, students jump over the barrier and do it. Well, I needed a little luck so why not. In front of a crowd of tourists I popped on to the statue and gave those little equine plums a jolly good squeeze.
After exploring the palace of Buddha for the second time, it was down across the famous chain bridge and in to the Raday area - a street full of bars, restaurants and all manner of kooky places, including a personal favourite: Paris Texas. On one side of the bar is karaoke, on the other a DJ - it's like a screaming match with a stereo.

The next day while strolling around Pest I realised that I actually really enjoyed this city. I had made the mistake of coming here on a boys' trip - and it is really not that sort of place. It's a place to wander, to explore, to go to smaller clubs (not the larger ones) and to blend in. For those back home, it's a Melbourne vs a Brisbane. In fact on the closing night we ended up at a place called Mono, which had seperate little areas where you hide away from the crowd - it was awesome. Following a large night it was time to head to the Baths to warm up before we went our seperate ways.

The baths are split between outdoor and indoor, the hot pools (up to 42 degrees) and the cool ones outside, but unfortunately not male and female. You may think that a good thing...but when you go on a Thursday morning, there are no nubile young things bouncing around. Let me tell you, the only thing worse than an 85 year old woman getting a semi-nude massage is a 80 year old man getting a fully nude scrub down.

Leaving shortly after I had time to visit Statue Park before my train to Slovakia. Now, when the Communists pulled out of the Eastern Block many locals destroyed all the old war propoganda, statues and posters. I for one find these propaganda tools amazing - possibly explaining my choice in career - and was delighted when I heard that Hungary actually kept them, and moved them to Statue Park. Venturing out there in 2 degree, raining weather, I was astounded by their sheer size. I mean look at me next to them - I'm dwarfed - some of them must be at least 6 foot!!!! That's me standing at their base.Racing back to Keleti Station, another piece of 1960s Soviet Union transport pulled up to whisk me away to Slovakia; 3 hours North-West.
Bratislava, Slovakia
Ne ten najväčší priateľský ľudia
Slovakia and Bratislava are stunning. The old town streets, the castle on the hill and the crystal blue sky are all great attractions...but that's it. I could talk about the statues that are displayed around the town: there's a man in man hole, another taking a picture, a statue of Napolean leaning over a bench to listen to peoples' secrets (conveniently located outside the French Embassy - I told him where the Rainbow Warrier was docked); and the Schoner Nazi - yep you heard right - tipping his hat to strangers.
I should mention that Slovakia was part of Czechoslavkia until they split in to the Czech Republic and Slovakia (the smarter of you would have seen what those names are together...). There is a bitter jealousy between the two. One got the history, the supermodels and the excitement, the other got the goats.

And we're done. Borat should have said he was from here, seriously. Their tourist guide is hilarious. In the interesting facts section, the third fact down about the country is their divorce rate?? On page 10 under 'Bratislava - Info Update', under the subheading of 'Jogging Bratislava' the guide prints: "Every Thursday afternoon there will be a trainer at the Janko Kral Hay (jetty) to advise how to start jogging a pick up speed." I didn't know it was hard - just run faster!

Page 34 under 'Tourism', it starts with transport and then the next paragraph is nearly a page dedicated to the commercial sex trade with the line 'its connection with the tourism industry is complex'. It goes on further to tell me that it is illegal for hotel workers to arrange sex for you. Thanks - these are the things that Easyjet's in flight magazine just won't tell you, and golly gee I would have had egg on my face. But it least it was easy to find a club to go to. Ah well, at least they've given up the dark arts.
So after a week of highjinks, fun, sun and pork knuckles, it was time to return home to the UK and in to the winter. Little did I know at this stage, that I would not set foot out of the country for another two months, the winter would be come one of the coldest on record, and in a few weeks I would be celebrating the 4pm sunsets and -2 degree weather in the lead up to Christmas as a single man while everyone stayed at home and snuggled on the couch - it was going to be a boozy December!