Postcard from the Edge of a Bath

So we are off for a nice vacation to those places you have vaguely heard of, but are never quite sure what country they are in. Sure, Prague and Budapest are fairly easy, but what about Bratislava? Yes, we´ve heard of it, but is it Romania, Czech Republic, Slovakia or Slovenia? And are those last two really different countries? How many countries do border Hungary? Well, this trip was all about that – the ability to answer such questions, if I ever get on “Who wants to be a Millionaire?”

The first point of call was in Hungary, which is a VERY long drive from Malschenberg. It took us about 10 hours to drive the 950km to picturesque Lake Balaton (the trip totaled 2,400km). The first thing you notice entering Hungary are the place names – names like Táplánszentkereszt fly by en route. This is a country with a considerable overdose of vowels, which has serious consequences for computer keyboards, half of which are given over “extra” characters, and a total lack of Scrabble boards. We spent the first night in the first town we could pronounce – Héviz.

At least since Roman times (several sestertsi have been found in the waters) Héviz has been used as a health spa –the 5 hecter lake produces 80 million liters of poopy smelling, 40°c water every day. It was an ideal introduction to the Hungarian bathing obsession, and a rubber ring was a must, as the mineral content made buoyancy a serious problem and you were in constant danger of sinking. After a couple of hours stewing and a quick excursion to some local castles we went on to Budapest.

Over the next 3 days, we did some more bathing, visiting the Gellért and Kiràly baths, the latter of which, many people liken to bathing in a cathedral. Our experience was more like bathing in a labyrinth. Just getting to the changing rooms was an adventure and then the medieval locker system came in to play. It involved an attendant, a single key for all lockers, hieroglyphs on the locker door, cryptic symbols on a small blackboard in the locker and small metal discs. I made a mental note of the locker number just in case. Once we found the actual baths the architectural splendor shone through both figuratively and literally with an open roof and glorious surroundings. This contrasted acutely with the Kiràly (Turkish) Baths. These were built in 1570 and most of the bathers seemed to have been lolling in the water since its inception. Its claim to fame is the huge skylit dome that dominates the main pool, but it was still pretty dark and somehow a bit seedy.

The next morning a tour round the incredible Parliament building was first on the agenda. After waiting in line for over an hour, we were given free admittance thanks to an EU passport, and led in to a spectacular blend of architectural styles. The entire building is mirrored around a central axis and has over 700 rooms decorated with 42 kilogram of gold leaf. The tour “highlight” is the rather drab Crown of St. Stephen, the nation’s most important national icon, which was dropped at some point so has a wonky cross on the top and nobody’s bothered to straighten it.

Next was a stroll down communism lane, with a visit to the “House to Terror” the ex-secret service head quarters (where 30 years of suppression were graphically portrayed) and a visit to the Statue Museum, where all old busts of Lenin and other party members come to rest. Talk about propaganda, but it made for some interesting photos.

Following on visits to castle hill, churches, operas and some great meals, we headed off up the Danube in the direction of Slovakia and the capital Bratislava. The guidebook we were using for Slovakia was rather thin and the “highlights” section on Bratislava was somewhat sketchy to say the least. A pretty town, with lots of old buildings, some nice castles and statues with a very young population – this just about covers Bratislava. It was almost the total contents of the guidebook anyway, and after a more-than-ample day, we moved on to Prague.

Prague endeared itself to us immediately. Any city that models its subway station decoration on Dr. Who’s arch nemesis the Daleks has to be respected (even though the subway ticketing machines are archaic). But it just kept getting better (Prague that is, not the ticketing machines). Stepping out in the middle of the old town your jaw just drops at the splendor and flair this town has to offer – no wonder it is considered to be the most beautiful city in Europe and is now the 6th most popular European tourist destination.

Round every corner peeks architectural delights and amazing views as well as about half a million other tourists. This is epitomized on the Charles Bridge with its views of the castle and old town, where you are seriously hindered by the sea of camera wielding sightseers trying to get the best shot of anything that doesn’t move and hoards of pickpockets who mingle with the crowd and hoards of pickpockets who mingle with the crowd.

Each building in Prague seems to try and outdo its neighbours, adding turrets, statues, stucco, colour and art deco spender, seeming regardless of the era it was built. Highlights through the ages start at the magnificent St. Vitus catherdral and the castle area, various museums, the art deco Municipal House up to the ultra modern Frank Gehry “Fred and Ginger” building. You could spend weeks here and never get bored, sadly we were limited to 3 days and then drove though the first rain we had seen back to Germany.

The whole trip was excellent, a real eye opener to growth engine of Europe. OK, they need to get a decent currency (Slovakia and the Czech Republic are already well on their way to the Euro in 2009 and 2012 respectively) – and probably need to work on their some of their marketing concepts –there were several surprises along the way (I mean who opens a sushi bar and sells chocolate éclairs with that), but all in all, overwhelming positive.
(And in answer to the question, there are 7 countries that border Hungary – can you name them?).

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