Trip Start Nov 06, 2012
Trip End Dec 21, 2012

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Flag of Hungary  , Budapest,
Monday, December 10, 2012

Day 32 - Sunday 9th December

Today the tour group was on the road bright and early as we set out to visit three countries by the end of the day. Through the slow Vienna city traffic, our driver Laurens guided us out through the industrial outer suburbs and onto open roads surrounded by farmers fields. It only took 45 minutes to farewell Austria before arriving at the Slovakian border, where we were halted for 20 minutes as a road tax had to be calculated to be paid on departure of the country. It felt in our own little way like we were going back in time and passing from the west and going behind the iron curtain, entering the socialist eastern states, just like checkpoint Charlie in Berlin!

Fortunately, we were let through the border and into the lands which was the former socialist republic of Czechoslovakia, and since 1993 Slovakia as it remains named to date. As we arrived in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, Lucian gave a good run down of the city and dispelled the image created by the 'Eurotrip' movie. The city wasn't a grey, run down concrete jungle, and there weren't savage dogs roaming the streets as depicted in the film. Instead we were greeted by a beautiful city which is set on the Danube River. The city's buildings, both old and new, are brightly colored and nicely constant against the old cobblestone streets. The main square was bustling with Christmas markets and local produce and trinkets. While Lauren had a hot chocolate with the girls, Ash took the opportunity to wander the streets and up the hill to where Bratislava castle is set.

The bus journey on to Budapest was quiet with everyone taking the chance to catch up on some zzz's. The previous nights activities at the U4 discotek (nightclub) had left those who attended a bit more fatigued than usual. Upon arrival in Budapest at around 3pm, we all had a stop at the Oktogon (major intersection and metro station in Budapest) too find a ATM to withdraw some local currency, the forint. While Hungary is in the European Union, as with other weaker economies including Czech Republic and Poland, these countries are apparently required to build up their economies to sufficient strength before they may adopt the euro as currency. Due to the conversion rate, our withdrawal of 35,000 forint was the equivalent of around $150 aud.

We checked into our hotel then some people opted to go to the Terror museum, including Ash, which contains exhibits of the fascist and communist dictatorships which have ruled over Hungary during the 20th century. The building was actually used as a place for punishment during these regimes, so now it is also a memorial to those who had have been imprisoned, tortured and murdered within the walls of the building. A very chilling place, and packed with great exhibits.

That evening dinner wasn't provided so we got together with our closer Contiki friends (Nicky, Cath, Ilsa, Tiaan, Steph and Aaron) and sampled some local cuisine on Vaci St, a pedestrian street known for its strip of restaurants. We chose a nice quiet restaurant along this street and weren't disappointed with the tucker! Lauren and some of the others had paprika chicken, a famous Hungarian dish. It was delicious! One to add to the recipe collection. The meal only cost around $10 AUD.

After dinner we took the opportunity to take some photos of the group in the street, which was lit up spectacularly with Christmas lights. The locals eating in the adjacent restaurants found it quite funny watching us jumping for the camera set up a tripod and on a timer! It only took about 10 takes to get the photo right!

The cheap dinner meant there was budget for dessert so we found a nice little cafe selling all sorts of goodies, including flaming pancakes. Ash and Lauren opted to share a normal pancake but it was quite a novelty to see the flaming pancakes lit at the table. Aaron blew his flaming pancake out before all of the alcohol fuel (which is added for the flaming effect) had burnt off, resulting in his pancakes tasting like they had a few shots of absinthe poured over them!

Returning to the hotel, we got an opportunity to photo the Liberty Bridge and the Technical University over the Danube River at night. Spectacular! Ash hung around to take further photos, however nearing midnight called it a night and made way back to hotel. On the way back, while passing some dark streets with building alcoves where people sleeping in there, this was enough incentive to jog rather than walk home in the dark.

Day 33 - Monday 10th December

The next morning we rose ready for a packed day in Budapest. First on the list was a tour of the parliament. The Budapest parliament building is the most stunning building in the city. Built in 1896, it sits proudly on the Pest bank of the Danube and is one of the oldest legislative buildings in Europe. We had a guided tour of its splendor, seeing the 96m dome and the chamber rooms.

Following the parliament tour we had local guide, Sophie, show us around the city by bus and walking. First we visited Heroes Square which stands in honour and memory of the great leaders in Hungarian history. We stopped for a photo before moving on towards the main lookout of Budapest where we had an organised group photo overlooking the Danube, chain bridge and the parliament building.

The castle district was next on the list where we spent an hour admiring the view and walking through the old streets. The castle is now the Budapest history museum and an art gallery. It has been modernised inside after being completely rebuilt after the war but is still beautiful to look at on the outside and provided great views of the Danube and parliament building.

With a good grasp of the city, the tour concluded by dropping most of the group off at the famous Szechenyi Baths. They are largest medicinal bath in Europe. Its water is supplied by two thermal springs, their temperature is around 74 ° although the baths are cooled to between 30 and 38 degrees.

This was a wonderful local experience. We headed to the two large outdoor baths. The first one we jumped in was 34 degrees, a warm relief after running through the -5 temperatures and barefoot across the concrete paths to jump in. We all tried the whirlpool, where a circular current is generated by some pumps and takes everyone in the currents path around a 10m diameter circuit. After a while this pool was a little too cold for most, so we moved to the second bath which was 38 deg and felt wonderful! Fountains projected streams of water which people let pound the backs of their heads for relaxation, while older Hungarian gentlemen played chess while semi submerged on special chessboards which protruded out of the water. People crowded around the chess game and chatted, it looked like place where the locals could meet up to socialize and discuss life over a soak in the baths. As we bathed for over an hour it began to snow which added to the experience. Of course the snow melted instantly through the steam of the baths but managed to settle on our heads and unfortunately on our towels! The dash to the change rooms couldn't come fast enough as our towels were crispy with ice! We were also careful to not lose our towels. Although entry to to baths was cheap, the bond to hire to towels was 4000 forint each, over $20 AUD. No towel returned meant no bond back.

After the baths we headed for some ice skating on Europe's largest outdoor ice rink. The rink is a frozen lake overlooking the Vajdahunyad Castle. It was a stunning backdrop for a late afternoon skate before we had to get ready for our dinner cruise on the Danube. While some of the experienced skaters took like ducks to water, others looked rather new to the activity, shuffling along and regularly throwing the arms out for balance to catch ourselves from falling! The locals here are fantastic skaters, weaving in and out of the crowd with ease.

Tonights dinner plans was for a meal aboard a Danube River cruise. Heading into the city from the hotel, Lucian presented a summary of all the great moments of the trip, and our daily get up and go sing, "its always a good time" by Owl City and Carly Rae Jepson blasted from the bus sound system. As we walked onto the boat that evening the snow fell again. The boat was decked out for comfort and the food was delicious. A buffet was set with local food like paprika chicken, salads, goulash and cheeses as well as local wine. It was a great way to cap off our Contiki tour as sadly the tour ended the following morning. We finished the night with a visit to a local bar called Morrison's. This was a great opportunity to have final night out with our Contiki tour mates. Drinks, karaoke and laughs was a great way to finish off the trip.

Day 34 - Tuesday 11th December

This morning was sad as we said goodbye to 44 new friends and especially the group of 10 or so who we spent most of our time with. The goodbyes lasted several hours and we both had PTB, post tour blues. Hopefully we can have a reunion next year to relive the memories. Conitki was definitely a company we would recommend to any young person wanting to travel with other young people.

Our flight to Krakow wasn't until 9.30pm that night so we spent the day browsing the local produce and goods market. We purchased a fabulous Budapest box with a secret way of opening it. It is a famous souvineer. Maybe we will show you the secret when we get home!

That evening we went to the airport to fly to Krakow in Poland. Flying with budget flier Ryanair, we made sure our baggage met the weight restrictions, this achieved earlier in the day with some strategic packing and reshuffling of items into different bags! Before boarding, all passengers were huddled inside a shed located down on the Budapest Airport Tarmac. It was freezing, even with the outdoor camp heater turned on! The flight to Krakow was smooth and only took 39 minutes! The pilots did not waste a minute, taxiing the plane faster than usual then getting the plane up and away in a really short time. The pilots must have been keen to get home!

On arrival in Krakow, we negotiated a taxi fare to the Red Brick Apartments in central area of the city, and through the snow the driver took us there along dark back roads, which then popped out into the city streets. We think he avoided the highway. It was after midnight before we could get to bed, and we were a little sad to leave our newly made friends but it was also exciting to be traveling with just the two of us again. What a big day! Farewell Budapest, you gave us some wonderful memories and good times!
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