Topdeck Hungary, Austria and Poland

Trip Start Jun 05, 2013
Trip End Dec 07, 2013

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Flag of Poland  , Southern Poland,
Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Tour Days 37 - 38:

Today we traveled to somewhere I knew absolutely nothing about: Budapest in Hungary! I knew very little about this former country of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, so it was going to be interesting to learn some new history. And what a terrible history it was. Like many of the countries that fell under Nazi occupation during WWII, Hungary and in particular Budapest suffered through a pretty terrible history, especially the Jewish community. Hungary fell under two periods of occupation during and after WWII, with the Nazi's occupying during WWII, and the Soviet's occupying post-WWII. As a result of these occupations, the people of Hungary suffered many brutal atrocities. In particular, the Jewish community suffered as the Hungarian government colluded with the Nazi's in deportation and extermination of the Budapest Jews, including creating a ghetto in Budapest. Millions of Jews were sent to concentration camps and death camps across the German occupied countries, decimating entire generations for no reason other than a irrational hatred of one man.

After a quick orientation tour of the city including a photo stop at Fisherman's Bastion overlooking the city of Budapest we checked into our hostel The first night we had a meet and greet dinner with some newbies that were joining the group, at which I had the most massive schnitzel I have ever seen in my life, and probably will ever see again! I swear it was at least half a pig! I had to have a little bit of help, but we managed to polish it all off! After dinner we headed out to a 'ruin' bar, something Budapest is famous for. Ruin bars are basically bars with junk all over the walls: stuff you would see either in hard rubbish collections or on a trailer destined for the tip. It was pretty cool, though albiet creepy with all the crazy dolls and old children toys. Being pretty tired, a few of us decided to head off home to be ready to explore Budapest the next day!

And what a long day it was! On a tour of this length you always end up hitting a wall where you don't want to sight see or even particularly want to hang out with your new friends so much, and unfortunately Budapest was my day! We decided to go on a hop-on hop-off tour bus as Budapest is quite a spread out city, and we thought it might save us some time. Personally, I probably wouldn't do a hop-on hop-off again, as you spend a lot of time waiting for the next bus and not seeing as much of the city as you could be. Having said that, we did get to see quite a lot, starting at Europe's largest Synagogue and Jewish cemetery and war memorial. We then headed up to the Terror Museum, to get acquainted with Budapest's violent history during and after WWII. After a few photo opportunities at Heroes Square, a roundabout of monuments to fallen heroes of Hungary, we headed down to a hotel called New York Palace, the worlds oldest coffee house. We ate lunch there in opulent surroundings with classical piano music playing and waiters with linen napkins draped over their arms serving us. We really fit the image too, a bunch of sweaty 20-something tourists. It was a delicious meal, goulash and chai latte and a Hungarian dessert tasting plate. Just what the doctor ordered to get me out of my funk!

We then set off on a continuation of our sight seeing adventure, heading across the river to the Buda side of Budapest to the Citadel, which afforded panoramic views over Budapest as the sun started setting. Back down the hill, we jumped on a boat cruise included with our bus tour along the Danube. It was from this vantage point that we really got to appreciate one of the most spectacular buildings in Budapest, the Parliament building, at a time of the day when it is probably at it's glory, sunset. Photos really do not do it justice.

After such a long day it was time to head back to the hostel for some much needed shut eye before another day on the bus!

Tour days 39 - 40:

We have reached the last ten days of the tour! How did time go so impossibly fast? Today we headed to Austria, via Slovakia for lunch! We stopped in Bratislava for some traditional lunch at a restaurant that seemed to have a predilection for pictures of women with very large breasts. We then continued on our merry way to Vienna! What a beautiful city! We started off with a driving tour to help us get orientated to the city, before a tour of a traditional Schnaps factory! We got to taste all sorts of delicious Schnaps, from traditional apricot, to chilli, absinthe, bitter herbs, and one filled with gold flakes for really special occasions! We all left there with a little fire in our bellies and a little less money in our wallets, as after sampling we could not help but buy the wares! After checking into one of the worlds hottest hotel rooms (whoever thought one little fan in a huge attic room was a good idea obviously wasn't a thinking man) we headed out for an included group dinner at a local restaurant. A group of us then decided to hang out with our tour leader and driver and have a few more beers, listening to all their fascinating travel stories from the last five or so years. A few beers turned into a few more which then turned into jager bombs back at the hotel bar which turned into a far later night than any of us had anticipated!

Never mind! The next morning we still managed to scrape ourselves up at a reasonable hour to head off into the city of Vienna to do some exploring! After a spot of breakfast (in my case, apple strudel with hot vanilla sauce...who says you can't have dessert for breakfast!), we poked around a record store before heading into the center of Vienna to see all the beautiful old buildings, including the Succession Museum, the Opera House, Museum Quarter, the Parliament Building and the Winter Palace. After getting our fill of photos, a couple of us dug our novels out of our bags, lay down on a nice patch of grass under a shady tree in one of the gardens attached to the Winter Palace, which are always open to the public, and had a read and a snooze. A beautiful way to recharge the batteries. Later, the rest of our buddies caught up to us, so we headed back into the main shopping district to find a schnitzel house that had been recommended, and had a rather delicious schnitzel for lunch, before heading back to the hostel to get all glammed up for our night at the Viennese Orchestra! And what fun it was! It was so exciting to hear some of the beautiful classical pieces I know and love (and one I can actually play), played by a 15 or so piece orchestra, along with singers and a little bit of comedy thrown in to spice things up! It was also good fun to get dressed up with the girls, especially considering the dress I brought with me to wear had not been worn yet! After a little too much champagne and wine at the included dinner, we should have gone to bed, but instead we headed down to the hostel bar and had far too many jager bombs! Luckily the next day was a bus day, so we could sleep off our hangovers on the road!

Days 41 - 42:

Luckily none of us had hangovers that were too bad, because today we headed into Poland, and on our way to our final destination of Krakow, we headed to the former concentration camp of Auschwitz. What an atrocious place it was to visit as well. The local guide was spectacular, imparting all the information with dry confidence with no skimming over any of the nasty details: simply telling it exactly how it was. There were actually three concentration camps that made up the Auschwitz complex, namely Auschwitz I, Auschwitz II - Birkenau and Auschwitz III - Monowitz. The first camp was the main administrative camp, the second was a death camp, and the third was a labor camp. There were also approximately 45 satelitte camps in the surronding areas. It was an operation for human destruction on a grand scale. Firstly, we headed to Auschwitz I where we took a guided tour around the complex. Auschwitz I displays an incongrous face. It was a sight of mass killings and unimaginable hardships. The Polish government has spent a lot of money to make it into a respectful and informative place to visit. As a result it is actually a very beautiful sight, almost reminiscent of an expensive boarding school, planted out with well established trees and manicured lawns. It makes it difficult to imagine what actually happened there until they take you through the exhibits of torture, killing and peoples possessions. A lot of industry was created in Auschwitz I, as it was officially an administrative and labor camp, with one particular industry being the weaving of fabric and stuffing of pillows and blankets with the human hair shaved off the prisoners. There is a whole room in which is encased tonnes of human hair, which is quite frankly disgusting. After finished our tour of Auschwitz I we moved on to Auschwitz II - Birkenau, the death camp. The scale of this camp was terrifying. I have never seen something so large in my life, set out with such precision and order, all for the purpose of destroying other peoples lives. On previous travels through Cambodia, seeing the Killing Fields and S-21 Prison, which were all requisitioned buildings, just shows how truly fanatical the Nazi's were in their anti-Semitic policy: they created the infrastructure they needed to perpetuate their fantasy. Auschwitz II - Birkenau was created with one purpose: to kill people. Approximately 1.3 million people were transported to and died at Auschwitz II - Birkenau, mainly in gas chambers. People arrived on trains, often in the middle of the night, and were divided into two parties as soon as they stepped on the train. The first party were those able to work, usually men. The others were women, children, the elderly and infirm, who were often lead directly into the gas chambers on the premise that they were to shower. Cyclone B, a type of gas capsule that dissolves on hitting the warmth of human skin was dropped through holes in the roof. The dying process could be as long as half an hour. The bodies were then incinerated. In the dying days of the war, the Nazi's blew up the gas chambers to try and hide the evidence, but as Auschwitz was the worst kept secret of the war, and the fact that the ruins still remain, mean it is glaringly obvious what was happening. The third camp, Auschwitz III - Monowitz, no longer exists, as it was bombed by the Allies during the war. In fact, on hearing that the camp had been bombed, the Jewish community in Europe begged the Allies to drop bombs onto the train lines leading into Auschwitz II - Birkenau, yet they were refused on the basis that it was a civilian train line not a military target. Who knows how many hundreds of thousands of lives could have potentially been saved.

After such an afternoon, we were all in need of a drink once we arrived in Krakow! We were staying quite a distance out of the city, so we had an included dinner at the hotel before having some drinks in the corridor while we all tried to use the terrible wifi! The next day we headed into Krakow itself, visiting the town square, the Wawel Castle and the Schindler Museum, which detailed some of the facts about the man the movie Schindler's List was based on. By this stage we were so mentally drained from all the information about the Holocaust we had heard in the last few days that it was time to treat ourselves in the best possible way: traditional Polish dumplings followed by a chai latte. It was then back to the hotel for an early night before heading off to Czech Republic!
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