Paris to Prague to Budapest to Bucharest.
I knew from the start it would be a whirlwind trying to cram these cities into just under two weeks of travel time, a prospect that left me buzzing. After an exhausting few months at work, it was time for a break – time to open my eyes to something different for a few days.
My journey started in Paris, where I had an appointment to visit a graduate school program. After a few visits to the city over the past year I've started to be taught the less-touristed parts, unblemished by towers of postcards for sale or Eiffel Tower keychains. It's here that I found the charm that I was always after but didn't first find. The boulangeries where bread is bread but it's so much more than bread. The patisseries where biting into a pastry causes an instant involuntary reaction of a closed-eyed smile. The impeccably-clad locals striding confidently alongside the centuries-old avenues. Gratefully, it's fairly inexpensive to reach Paris from Madrid, a voyage that I'll never turn down.
Tragically, these same Parisian streets I began to love last year are the same ones that fell victim to the terrible attacks last November. French flags hung from balconies and somber notes in the windows of the restaurants/bars/venues that were hit offer reminders that the wounds are still fresh.
Prague is an exhaustingly beautiful city. The architecture covers hillsides and seems to go on forever, through the landscape and backwards through time. It's a sensory experience just to walk the streets. In the densely crowded areas where there are tourist attractions, it's difficult to get around given the number of people alternating between map-consulting and selfie-taking, but off the more beaten path it's very charming. One of the most sought out destinations in the city is the astronomical clock, which performs an automated "show" every day where different parts of it move (though I found it more interesting to watch the huge crowd that formed to watch the clock).
Also, Prague has one of the more interesting Jewish quarters I've seen. As gut-wrenching as it is, apparently it's so well preserved because during WWII, Hitler wanted to keep the area intact as a "museum of an extinct race." The Jewish cemetery is small and with the space constraints they were forced to layer the graves. Something like 100,000 bodies are thought to be in the small space. The synagogues are also some of the most ornate ones I've seen.
Two more interesting things about Prague: Absinthe is apparently a big deal here (that particular green-fairy kind that in larger quantities makes you hallucinate) despite its questionable taste. And you can go crazy and graffiti the Lennon wall as much as you want. I enjoyed the latter more than the former.
I set the bar way too low for Budapest. After a fairly quick night train from Prague, I arrived early in the morning to the main station in the capitol city of Hungary. It took all of five minutes walking toward the city center to realize that this was going to be a great city. Much of the residential architecture in the city center looks to me like a subtle mix between eastern and western European – a quick glance upwards in many places reveals at least one or two broken panes of glass or unoccupied floors. But don't mistake it for being a dangerous place. From start to finish, every single interaction I had with locals was polite and warm. In fact, one of the first people I saw was a homeless man whose kind face and mannerisms instantly reminded me of another homeless man named Buster I met a few years ago (someone who I recently and sadly found out passed away earlier this year). He smiled and nodded approvingly when I asked if I could shoot some photos and his face lit up when he saw the photos on the back of my camera.
One of the best parts of traveling toward the eastern parts of the continent was the affordability. Three course meals at luxurious restaurants for the equivalent of less than $10, breakfast for pennies, beer for a dollar. Especially when I was traveling with a pretty tight budget already, it was a nice surprise after spending some time in Paris. And don't think because the prices are low that the venues are dull. Budapest has some of the most atmospheric bars and restaurants I've visited. They're known for their ruin bars (they mostly fill the Jewish neighborhood in central Budapest that was left to decay after WWII) which are essentially old apartments or homes that have been converted into bars and clubs, keeping intact their decrepit, underground, ruined feel. It's hard to describe accurately, but they're unique and fun (Szimpla Kert's interior pictured below). Plus, Budapest has an incredible selection of bathhouses when you need some time to relax. I spent some time at the incredible, ornate Szechenyi Bath, though I didn't bring my camera.
Budapest deserves much more than the two and a half days I gave it. I'll definitely be back to revisit.
After a delayed (and 17-hour) night train to the Romanian capitol, I had less than 24 hours to explore the city before my flight back to Madrid. My best feel for the city is that it's one trying very hard to reach past its history of communism, corruption, and poverty. The palace, now used as the parliament building (final photo) is the heaviest building in the world and one of the largest, and was constructed by the former communist leader Nicolae Ceausescu. He was never able to use it though – after creating crippling food shortages by exporting much of the country's agricultural products the Romanian people rose up against communism in 1989 and executed him (and his wife) Christmas day of the same year. Now, despite the incredibly cheap cost of living in Romania for an outsider, I saw a large number of homeless people begging for food and money as I made my way around the city. It's a place that to me felt off balance, a strange mix of new and old, rich and poor, ornate and decaying.
Both exhausted and with a full heart, back to Madrid.