Sunday, August 05, 2012

The Thermal Waters of Budapest, Hungary

As a treat to ourselves, we decided to fly out of a totally different city in Europe after we were done in Norway, and Romy was done with all his combustion conferences in Germany and Poland. We decided before we left, to pick a place we've never been to. Budapest was what we ended up going for. The reason we chose Budapest was because (A) it was cheap, being Eastern Europe, and (B) more importantly, it had numerous natural hot springs with several spas you can go to and soak in the thermal mineral waters!

A lady working at Széchenyi baths lets us taste the mineral spring waters.

Our goal was to try as many of the spas (or bath houses) as we could in our 3 short days there. The interesting history about Budapest's bath houses is that many are very very very old, dating from the Turkish times (1541–1686 during Ottoman rule). The bath houses that have the Turkish style resemble domes, with the main bath under the dome. Some dry or wet saunas encircle the main hot bath under the dome, and cold or even hotter tubs also encircle it. But in the Turkish style bath house, the dome was the center of attraction. The inside of the bath house was kept dark and dim, and sometimes the dome has holes punched into it so that it resembles a starry sky when you look up. The rays of light beaming through the holes also make a cool laser effect when the beams hit the steamy air inside the bath house.

Inside the pool rooms at Gellert Baths.

We went to one of the Turkish style bath houses the first night for the night swim. It was called Rudas and was originally built in 1550. As it was dark, we didn't get any pictures. But it was super relaxing and we were so excited to be there, it didn't matter that we stayed until about 2am. We weren't tired! We went that night because the late night bath time was co-ed. Normally, the bath houses separate genders. One day, only women can go. The next day, only men can go. Turkish bath houses were normally for men only, back during the Ottoman rule. Women just weren't allowed. Good thing we now live in modern times, otherwise I wouldn't be able to go!

The Gellert Baths.

The rest of the bath houses are more modern. The funny thing is, when the political situation changed, and the Turks were no longer such a prominent influence on the culture, the Turkish bath houses went into ruin. They just started rotting and nobody gave a damn. Well, sometime in the late 1800s and early 1900s, there was a revival of spas and cleanliness, and bathing started anew! However, the culture had a different style, more extravagant and flashy. Some of the Turkish bath houses, which were very simple in style, were restored. But new ones were built over the old Turkish ones too, and they reflected the modern style. This is when Gellert Baths were built. Comparably, it was very ornate and had such detailed and beautiful ceramic tile work. The style was Art Nouveau, MY FAVORITE!!!!!

The cold dipping pool at Gellert Baths.

The Gellert bath house was gigantic! It had a men's and a women's side. The day we decided to go (strategically) was when they had the co-ed bathing. Both men and women on that day could go into the men's and women's pools. I must say, the men's pools were much better looking. Structurally, they were the same, but the decoration and stuff was better looking. The women's pools were just kind of blah (comparatively). These baths were also popular with the tourists. We had to wait almost an hour to get into the pools. The staff only lets in a maximum amount of people in at one time. They don't want to over crowd the pools. So if 3 people go out, they let 3 people in. That's why we waited so long. But once we got in, we spent the whole afternoon there, until closing time (for the public).

An old man spits out cold drinking water, to quench thirst.

The last bath house we visited on our 3rd day was called Kiraly, and it was an old Turkish bath. It was kind of hard to find, out of the way of the typical tourist route. While we were waiting in line to get in, we noticed a big difference in the clientele. A lot more regular folk, locals, but a few tourists mixed in. The price was the cheapest too! Being a Turksih bath, it had a predictable arrangement on the inside, so it was already familiar after going to Rudas. I think I liked the Turkish baths the best. They just focused on the hot water, and had a more simplistic but stylistic vibe. You could really relax in the dim light and geometrical patterns all around.

The main hall at Gellert Baths.

Kiraly also had a mini museum when you got out of the baths. It also had a middle open outside section. It reminded me of the old hospitals or sanitariums. But it was nice to take a nap outside and hear the birds singing, even though you were in the middle of a city. There were a few weirdo tourists there, doing funny stuff. It all added to the entertainment. We went to so many hot springs that we never took a shower in our hostel while we stayed in Budapest!

Thursday, August 02, 2012

A Train Ride to See Sebastian and a Salt Mine

Warsaw, Poland
Catching the early train to Krakow from Warsaw Main Central Station.

We took a little break from Romy's conference in Warsaw to go sight-seeing in Poland. Also, Romy's friend from the army, Sebastian, happened to be in Poland at the same time we were for a wedding (he is Polish and originally from Poland). So we called him up and decided to meet in Krakow for a day. We didn't have that much time off (just literally a day), and Sebastian didn't either, so we made it a quick but packed trip.

Jenn on the train
We had the train compartment to ourselves that morning on the ride to Krakow!

We decided to take the regional train to get from Warsaw to Krakow. We looked for the cheapest and earliest train, and we found one that left around 5am from the Warsaw central station. Since it left so early, we went to the train station the night before to buy our tickets, so that all we would have to do the next morning was show up to the correct platform. It was early as hell, but we figured we could relax in the train for a while. The ride wasn't too long, only about 3 hours. When we got on the train, there weren't many people at all. We had an entire cabin to ourselves! Woo hoo!

Krakow, Poland
Bazylika Mariacka stands tall in the center of Krakow's old town.

The train ride was very exciting. We rode through the rolling countryside, past many farms, and through a few small towns. When we got into Krakow, the train stopped, we hopped off, and walked into the main train station. It was connected to a big and modern shopping mall. Sebastian texted us saying that the only train he could find wasn't going to arrive until about 45 minutes after ours, so we had a little time to walk around the mall, get coffee, etc. Before we knew it, Sebastian was here and we set off into the old town of Krakow.

Krakow, Poland
Wandering inside Wawel Castle.

We didn't have any plan at all while we were there. The trip was mainly to see Sebastian, and walk around and sight see. I took a bunch of pictures but unfortunately I don't really know what building or church was what, or what was significant about them. I just took pictures of what I thought was cool. The main attraction in the old town of Krakow is the Wawel Castle. We stopped there to do a tour of the royal treasury, and the royal rooms (or something like that). We wandered around the courtyard, and inside some of the castle buildings. We went up an archery tower and got a great view of the city from above. My favorite part was going to see a museum of all the old armor, swords, and cannon guns. The collection was so interesting and amazing. Very old weaponry!

Krakow, Poland
Many towers at the Wawel Castle.

The town was getting packed as the day went on, with more tourists milling about. It was getting hot outside too! So we stopped at a cafe to have a beer break. We sat right on the main square, under the shade of a cafe sun umbrella. We planned out our next move, as we still had the entire afternoon open. I was getting hungry but it was so hot out, all I wanted to do was drink water and cold beer. Sebastian loved the dry pretzels that street vendors sold for literally a penny, so he bought a bunch of those and we munched on them. Sebastian is a very spartan kind of guy.

Krakow, Poland
Kościół Św. Piotra i Pawła, Peter and Paul's Church

A lot of tourist shops advertised side trips out of the town, and we were all interested in taking a trip to the salt mines, which were only about 45 minutes away by car or bus. We inquired about going on a trip, and the timing was right, the price was right, and so we said, "Let's go!" Heck, it would be nice and cool in the cave if nothing else, and the dry air was something I was looking forward too (Poland is very hot and muggy in the summer, like Chicago).

Krakow, Poland
I like the odd stonework here. I am not sure what church this is.

Before we boarded the minivan bus thing, Sebastian said we should stop for some Polish ice cream. It was so cheap and so good! It was like a less sweet soft serve ice cream. It was white, like a vanilla cone, but it didn't have any vanilla flavor. It was literally something like sweet cream. Mmmmmmm, very good. Then we boarded the minivan to go to the salt caves. It was so comfy, we all fell asleep on the ride until we got to the salt caves, less than an hour later. Energized by our nap, I fueled up with some coffee, and we started our descent into the salt mine.

Wieliczka Salt Mine
Entering the Wieliczka salt mine - going down down down!

There were literally hundreds of steps down a spiral staircase that we all trudged down. It got cooler and cooler as we went, and we felt a nice cool breeze. The air was remarkably dry and nice. After the mine stopped operating as a salt mine, rooms were made inside for a health spa. The dry salty air is supposed to cure all kinds of ailments. I thought it was better than the hot muggy air outside on the surface.

Wieliczka Salt Mine
I loved all of the salt carvings. They were so interesting.

We had a very nice tour guide, which gave the tour in English. She told us a lot of the history, but of course, I forgot it already. We walked through many mine shafts, reinforced by large wooden beams. The tour guide said that wood was the best support material for the mine because it can naturally flex, and it does not corrode from all the salt like metal would. As we walked around, we were literally surrounded by salt. The walls were pure salt, which looked greyish and waxy. In some places, the moisture from people's breath would dissolve the salt in the air, and then it would re-crystallize on the ceilings and walls. The re-crystallized salt was white and crystal looking, very different than the walls.

Wieliczka Salt Mine
These statues and scenes were life-size, and all carved out of salt!

Many artists and miners (who were not artists really) began carving sculptures into the salt. Many were religious sculptures. Others were scenes of everyday mining life, or Polish history of kings and queens. Some had lights that back-lit the salt sculptures, which was semi-translucent. It made for a very interesting effect. We walked through a cathedral that the miners carved out - everything in there was made of carved salt, even the chandeliers!

Wieliczka Salt Mine
Walking through the salt mine.

We walked a long time, but we didn't even walk through 10% of it. Many parts of the mine went deeper, and were unsafe for tourists, because they might collapse. Other parts of the mine were flooded. We saw one of the rooms that had a lake inside of it. The water was perfectly still and had a reflection of all the wooden balcony boardwalks that took miners past the flooded room, into another. It was very interesting. We were down in the salt mine for a few hours before we took an elevator back up to daylight! By the time we got out, we were very hungry and pooped from walking all day. The bus ride back was nice and we all fell asleep again. When we arrived back in Krakow, our first goal was to find something to eat.

Wieliczka Salt Mine
Incredible detail in the carvings. The back lighting is awesome!

We were interested in eating traditional Polish food. We found a restaurant that had just that, and so we ordered a bunch of food to share. Goulash, some open face sandwiches with lard and stuff, and more. We were sooooooo full after we got done eating, and it seemed food just kept coming. It was starting to get dark by the time we were done, so we started to look for a cheap place to sleep. The hotels were very expensive for some reason, so we opted to try and find a hostel that we could share. Sebastian never slept in a hostel before so he had no idea what it was going to be like. We found a place just a few blocks from the train station, and split between three people, the price was acceptable. The hostel was in an old apartment building, and they gave us a room with three beds, with a crooked and creaky floor. We were exhausted, so we didn't care. Plus, we had to wake up and take the hella early train the next morning to make it back to Warsaw for another day at Romy's conference.

Wieliczka Salt Mine
A maze of jumbled wooden support structures.

The next morning, it was tough waking up, but we said good bye to Sebastian, and then somehow made it to the right train on time, and soon arrived back in Warsaw.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

A Few Days in Warsaw, Poland

After a fun week spent road tripping through the Netherlands with Mark, we next headed to Poland, where Romy attended the International Combustion Symposium, a huge scientific conference on combustion (the science of burning things). I was looking forward to it (especially since I didn't have to attend the conference) because we got to stay at a nice hotel very close to downtown and old-town Warsaw.

Stare Miasto Warsaw
This old town market place was completely restored (after it was blown to pieces in WWII) according to old photographs only!

Warsaw is the capitol of Poland, and its history goes very very far back in time. It was first settled as a small fortified town in the 9th century! Today, it is a survivor of many wars, including WWII, where roughly 85% of its buildings were destroyed. This is the reason that a lot of people prefer to visit other Polish cities instead, such as Krakov, because many of the historic buildings are now gone. But Warsaw still has a really nice old town district. While we were visiting, there was a public exhibit installed on the streets of the old town, showing how every single building was either completely or partially rebuilt and restored to its original pre-war condition. The amount of work and effort must have been incredible!

Warsaw 1945 Old Town Market
Scanned photographs from Marek Tuszyński's collection of WWII prints, showing the old town market square completely destroyed!

In my opinion, the most dramatic restoration occurred at the old town market place, which is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site (along with the rest of old-town Warsaw). The whole square was restored to what it looked like before the war, using only a few photographs that somehow survived! I really wish I snapped a few pictures of the exhibit, which showed the restoration project that went on (in the 60s I think) and the photographs they had to go off of.

Stare Miasto Warsaw
A warm summer night in Warsaw, Poland.

The metro system in Warsaw is very convenient to use and pretty cheap if you buy a three day pass to ride unlimited. When the conference was over in the early afternoons, we hopped aboard the subway lines and explored the city. We went out for dinner in a new place each night, trying all the cuisine. The first night we got cow stomach soup (mmmmmm so good!) at a cafe on the square in old town.

Warsaw and Moscow
The Palace of Fine Arts in Warsaw looks a lot like one of the Seven Sisters in Moscow, Russia (inset)!

In the new modern downtown section of Warsaw, there stands the most gigantic, impressive, and tallest building in town. Its the Warsaw Palace of Fine Arts. When we first saw it, the building reminded us of the Seven Sisters in Moscow, Soviet skyscrapers built by Stalin. The architecture, in my opinion, is very beautiful, but also seems to imply power and control, almost evil in a way. After our visit, I learned that the Palace of Fine Arts was actually designed in the same Stalinist architecture as the Seven Sisters when Poland was under communist control. Looking at a drawing of what the lost 8th Sister was supposed to look like, the resemblance is uncanny, and in fact, I just learned that it is the 8th Sister! After Stalin died, plans to build the 8th Sister in Moscow were scrapped, and they decided to build it in Warsaw instead. Woah!

Jenn 7.29.2012
Who ever invented mixing beer with juice, and then drinking it with a straw? POLISH PEOPLE!

One of the hot afternoons, we took a walk through the Royal Gardens, where we stopped at a small cafe for a refreshing beverage. We ordered a cold beer, but the waitress asked us if we ever tried it "Polish style." We looked at each other, and then decided, what the heck, we'll try it "Polish style." When she came back with the beer, it was actually pink and had a soda straw! She explained to us that when it's really hot outside, the afternoon beverage is beer with sweet juice syrup, drank through a straw. It wasn't bad (but really sweet), since the beer was really light. Certainly refreshing! We relaxed with our beers for quite a while as summer thunderstorms rolled by us.

Chopin Letterboxing
We found a letterbox in the Royal Gardens!

As you might know, I recently got into letterboxing (see previous post here). Before the trip, I learned that letterboxing is an international phenomenon, and there were a few letterboxes hidden around Warsaw that we would be able to find. The one we tried for first was near the Chopin statue in the Royal Gardens. It was hidden in a bush, and Romy found it!

Romy 7.31.2012
Mmmmmm, pierogi, filled dumplings of goodness.

During lunch on one of the conference days, I lured Romy into trying some pierogi at a Bar Mleczny. These are cafeteria-style cheap eateries offering homemade fast food. Historically, they used to be operated and subsidized by the state, offering cheap milk-based food, but eventually expanded to serve regular stuff too. Many closed down, but there is a recent revival. We found one not too far from the university where the conference was being held, and we ordered cheese pierogi and Russian-style pierogi. The cheese ones were stuffed with semi-sweet cheese. They were soooooo good! The Russian ones were very fatty (but so delicious), stuffed with bits of fried lard, bacon, and caramelized onions. OMG! I don't think we ate dinner that night.

Warsaw, Poland
A lit up water fountain danced in sync with classical music along the banks of the river near old-town Warsaw.

Fresh out of spending the summer in Norway, we had forgot that there was a such thing as hot weather. One of the things we realized we missed were the hot summer nights. I am so used to taking a sweater with me everywhere I go, especially if its the evening. In Warsaw, it was hot during the day and hot during the night. We found a really cool fountain one of the evenings that was lit up and the fountain danced to music that was played on a huge PA system. It was refreshing when the wind blew the mist off the fountain your way. While we were sitting watching the fountain, next to the banks of the large river that runs through the city, we also noticed a bus that ran along the road next to the river. The next day, we tried getting on that bus to see where it would take us.

Warsaw, Poland
Trying out the exercise equipment near the walls of a large fort and dry moat.

The bus took us a little farther out in the city where most tourists probably don't go. We found an old fort, with the moat (mostly dry now) still there, and attempted to take a walk all the way around it. The moat area was turned into a park, and there was random exercise and fitness equipment placed all around. Finally, we found what looked like the entrance to get inside the fort. It was open, so we walked in. There was nobody at the huge gate, so we kept walking. Our crappy tourist map showed we could walk through the fort, back towards old town, so we decided to try that out.

The sun was starting to set, and the road through the fort took us past old bunkers, and other military buildings in various states of decay. The place was totally deserted. We poked around, but then realized that the road that looked like it went through was blockaded by a high fence, complete with constantine wire. So we started to turn around, but were still kind of looking at all the old stuff. Out of nowhere, a fat old man walked out between some buildings, and started yelling at us. I guess he realized we didn't speak Polish, so he started saying, "Closed! Closed!" and pointed us back towards the old door. Oops! We hurried back out the large gate, and by now it was getting dark. He slammed the gigantic door behind us as we left. To this day, we wonder how we would of got out of there if he didn't see us on his way to lock the gate! It was a fort, after all.

Romy 8.2.2012
I came with Romy to see what this International Combustion Conference was all about.

On our last day in Poland, I wanted to go with Romy to the conference to see what it was like. The university was very old, and the lecture halls were huge and tall. The room was pretty full by the time we arrived, so we walked all the way to the top row of seats, and sat down. It was soooo hot! We stayed for one talk, and that was it!