Thursday, August 2, 2012

Grand and grotty in the cities of Europe

It's another long day of travelling from Strasbourg to Vienna, via Stuttgart, Munich and Salzburg. The French and German trains are very good - when we board for the final leg from Munich to Vienna I think we've accidentally boarded first class. There is free (if intermittent) wireless internet, power points, comfortable seats and large, clean windows. The weather is supposed to be clearing after heavy rain as we arrive in Vienna

I go for an evening walk but am turned back by the rain. The next day Chris is unwell with a cold so I leave him in bed and go sightseeing on my own; it's still raining - a good day for museums. The Picture Gallery at the Kunsthistorisches Museum is incredible - whole rooms of significant Gothic and Renaissance masters such as Cranach, Holbein, Breugel, Rubens and Van Dyke, but also Titian, Velasquez … it's mind boggling, and I didn't even go near the antiquities collection. Then the Albertina for modern and contemporary art - particularly post-impressionism and expressionism, and a very strong contemporary collection with Richter, Keifer, Kentridge, Dumas … There is also a wing of rooms made up in the style of the Hapsburgs to whom the palace once belonged. Depressingly, the rich have always ruled the world. 

I get back to the hotel weary and footsore, these European museums are HUGE. Chris is feeling a little better so we go to the hotel restaurant to eat, and I get to have my schnitzel and eat it too.

Grand and elegant Vienna
Hapsburg ballroom at the Albertina
 It's finally summer as we're on the train from Vienna to Budapest. Chris is still suffering but it doesn't prevent him from getting excited about the landscape strewn with windmills and pylons. As we cross the border into Hungary it feels distinctly that we are travelling into different territory - the land seems dryer, the buildings more severe, and the churches, so prevalent in the French and German landscape, less evident. Blocks of flats look brutally functional - a relic of communist times?

Arriving in Budapest we grab a cab to the hotel - our first rip-off, and we remember why we try to avoid cabs. But the hotel seems very nice, it's on the Danube on the Buda side, and our room has beautiful views over the river to the amazing parliament building. Budapest is a revelation - an elegant city with a charming shabby and retro edge. The metro is straight out of the 50s, but operates with ruthless efficiency. The sights are picturesque and accessible - we visit Castle Hill, just behind our hotel where the National Gallery full of Hungarian art is situated, and City Park for Heroes Square and the Museum of Fine Arts with an impressive international classical collection. There is public sculpture everywhere - mostly of a classical ilk but also some contemporary. The first night we picnic by the river, but on the 2nd night we try the excellent restaurant next door to the hotel: a delicious meal of goose leg with mash and cabbage (more elegant than it sounds!), and duck breast with polenta. The weather is pure Sydney summer - warm muggy days with a thunderstorm in the evening.
Night view from our hotel room
View from Castle Hill
Gypsy Band on Castle Hill
We have loved Budapest, and are a bit sad to leave for Bucharest, by sleeper train. We have our own modest compartment, which is clean and comfortable, with toiletries, water and breakfast provided. Train food is usually unappetising, so we bring on board some kebab rolls, poppyseed cake and red wine.

It's become really hot by midday when we walk out into the blazing sun, refusing to be tempted by the multitude of touting taxi drivers. There is no tourism office, and by luck we find a travel agent who has good English and prints out a map showing which metro stop we need, and in the end we get to our hotel in 15 minutes for $1 each - victory!

Bucharest is rather shocking - from the initial unhelpfulness for tourists to the dirty clogged and noisy roads, derelict buildings and crumbling footpaths, it seems a city that is struggling to maintain its amenity, in spite of its classic bones. Many of the grand and elegant buildings seem to be owned by banks, or else quietly decomposing and gathering graffiti. The city is generally ruled by cars and is not pedestrian friendly, unlike other cities where footpaths and bike-paths abound. We brave the footpaths and end up chilling in the local park, which is pleasant, if a little unkempt, and crowded with locals. We see very few tourists, and it seems that our hotel is mainly populated by business visitors, but a stroll through the 'old town' later removes any impression of being the only tourists in town. Here the tourist restaurants and cafes are buzzing - it's one of the most remarkable tourist 'ghettoes' that we have seen.
Romanian Village
Bucharest park 
Grand Bucharest
Grotty Bucharest
A memorable (and eloquent) experience: We walk along the Boulevard Unirii (created by Ceaucescu to outdo the Champs Elysees), to the People's Palace (built by Ceaucescu to outdo every other civic building on the planet). As we walk across a vast car park to approach the vast building on its vast estate, we realise that access from the Boulevard has been bricked up, and we must walk around the perimeter to find an entry point. Of course it is 35 degrees and there is no shade. At the first entry (which is for Parliament access only) we are directed to the next entrance. This is where visitors can do guided tours of the building, but we are looking for the Museum of Contemporary Art, also housed here. We arrive, sweating prodigiously, to find that access to the museum is diametrically opposite - that is we must return to the perimeter road, retrace our steps, and then proceed along two more of the boundary walls. Again, there is no shade. After what must be a 3 km walk we arrive. Fortunately it is worth the effort! But we wonder how many others brave the trek. We have never visited a more inaccessible and poorly signposted venue. Ceaucescu's legacy - a people's palace that is not accessible to the people.
Ceaucescu's Palace from the Boulevard Unirii 
The endless perimeter walk
Travelling the cities of Europe gives the curious impression of visiting parallel universes - how different historical, social and political circumstances affect the development of cities that in many ways must have been very similar a century or so ago. Bucharest has been interesting, but challenging- admittedly, it is a relief to move on to Istanbul.

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