Returning home to the UK: reflections

[quote]Here’s to journeys near and far, short and long; to the people we meet on the way, and to those we come home to.[/quote]

I can’t believe it. My month-long trip from Budapest to Athens is at an end.

It’s been awesome. From the hospitality in Albania, to the Greeks who kept trying to overfeed me; from the architecture of Budapest to the “too cool for school” vibe of Zagreb.

As I spend my first 24 hours after returning home to the UK, I’m having a little reflection time – café latte in hand – on what I’ll miss most from my time in SE Europe.

Top 5 things I’ll miss about returning home to the UK

The weather

It’s been a sunny month in SE Europe. Factor 15 has been applied on a regular basis. T-shirts have been worn. I sit writing this wearing a jumper. And it’s not technically even “cold” yet. Boo.

Eating and drinking outside

returning home to the UK

Street-side dining in Athens, Greece

Outdoor coffee culture is alive and kicking across SE Europe – from the streets of Zagreb where seemingly the entire city is on a coffee break, to the wine bars of Ljubljana and the street-side dining in Greece.

Good value

It’s no good something being as cheap as chips if it’s rubbish. The whole SE Europe region was good value, with Meteora and Athens in Greece, and Ljubljana standing out for me.

At no point in my trip did I feel as though I was being ripped off. Example: a 0.75 litre bottle of water at Athens airport was €0.50. Try that in the UK!

Albania was the cheapest destination I visited; and also good value (with the possible exception of bus travel on some journeys – always cheap, just not always cheerful with it!)

Experiencing something new every day

Castles, galleries, new cuisines, the local firewater, meeting new people, learning about history of different places, wandering and getting lost, lakes, the sea, alternative architecture, cool street art. It’s gonna be hard to keep up the same level of wide-eyed wonder back home.

Convivial people

I felt welcome throughout my travels, even where language has been a barrier. It’s not as though us Brits aren’t friendly to people visiting our country, we sometimes just need a little more warming up.

And, for balance …

5 things I’m looking forward to most about returning home to the UK

Café latte

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had a lot of good coffee during my month on the road. I’ve tried all the local concoctions: Turkish style in Albania, strong Greek coffee, to the practically inhaled variety that purveys on the streets of Zagreb. I’ve enjoyed them all, though I’ve drawn the line at coffee and a cigarette for breakfast.

Now though, I need lashing of lattes I can linger over a little longer in the British autumn. I’ve been back home less than 24 hours, and I’ve had two already. Bliss.

Cooking a meal

returning home to the UK

I’ve been to my UK equivalent of this place this morning. With fewer sausages.

The simple pleasure of cooking food. The food on my travels has been plentiful in the extreme and tasty to boot, but the freedom of making my own dishes is calling me. I’ve been to my local deli, butcher and greengrocer this morning to stock up.

Going for a run

Steps up to numerous castles in Albania and up the 498 steps of Torre degli Asinelli in Bologna have been good for my fitness, but only in a sporadic kinda way.

Plus I’ve walked everywhere; but … I miss the gym. God, there’s a sentence I didn’t think I’d ever write. I’ll be buying pay-as-you-go membership for the couple of months until my next trip.

Speaking the same language

In Albania I reacquainted myself with school-girl German and Italian in an attempt to find a mutual language in which to converse. I got by. Kind of. However, I felt a bit rubbish when I was only able to communicate in basic greetings – which has been the whole month if I’m honest. And knowing the Albanian for car wash hasn’t got me too far.

Catching up with my friends

I’ve missed you 🙂 I have a pub-filled social calendar for the rest of this week, where I’ll be raising a toast or two:

[quote]Here’s to journeys near and far, short and long; to the people we meet on the way, and to those we come home to.[/quote]

Cheers!

What have been your experiences of returning home after a trip? Do you find it easy or difficult to readjust?

Budapest city break costs – eats and experiences in Hungary’s capital

What is there to do in the Hungarian capital? And how much should you budget? Here I give a breakdown of Budapest city break costs from my five-night “flashpacker style” stay; where I went, what I did, and whether I’d do it again.

Accommodationfood and drinkentertainment (museums, tours and spas) – transportmy costsverdict

life behind the Iron Curtain - Chain Bridge today

Chain Bridge

Sleeping

I paid £139 / €178 / $227 for five nights.

For this, I got a private AirBnB apartment on the main boulevard, Andrassy Avenue. I was 30 seconds from the metro line, and within a 20-minute walk of all the major sites. The apartment had a double bedroom, so the cost would’ve been the same if I’d been travelling with a friend or partner.

There was a palatial living area and loads of natural light, with views out to the boulevard. The bed was comfy, the hot water ran hot. The kitchen was basic, but adequate for my needs.

The communal areas were rather shabby chic, but it was excellent value for money for the price I paid.

Click here for a discount on your first AirBnB stay.

Food and drink costs in Budapest

My food and drink costs of £88 / €112 / $143 were based on:

  • Breakfast – coffee and pastry at a café
  • Lunch – street food
  • Dinner:
    • One course dinner with glass of wine at a restaurant (3 evenings) £10-£14 / €12-17 / $16-23 per evening
    • Noodle bar casual dinner with beer (2 evenings) £5-6 / €6-7 / $8-10 per evening
  • One night out taking in Budapest’s bar scene

Breakfast is pretty self-explanatory, but here’s a bit more detail about everything else.

Street food

Pizza slices abound, but for a more Hungarian experience, try langos. Langos is battered and deep fried potato, and the favoured topping is a smothering of sour cream and cheese. Healthy it is not. Bloody tasty though. Prices run around 300-500 forints (£0.75-£1.25 / €0.90-€1.50 / $1.25-$2.05), depending on your heart-attack requirements. If you want to keep your Budapest city break costs down, street food is the way to go.

Drinks

A decent glass of wine in a bar or restaurant can be found for £2.50 / €3 / $4 and up. Beer is cheaper than wine – around £1.50 / €1.80 / $2.45 a bottle. Coffee is a similar price to beer, more if you have latte needs.

A note on food and drink

Café culture abound. In the evening the pavements stay alive, with restaurant seating supplemented by patio heating and a proliferation of blankets. Make the most.

Entertainment costs in Budapest – museums, tours and spas

My spend of £28 / €36 / $46 entertainment was pretty low, partly because the weather was good so I wanted to be outside. Here’s my take on the Budapest attractions I experienced:

Szechenyi Spa Baths

Budapest has 130 spa baths, of which Szechenyi is one of the most famous, housed in the City Park. The deal includes a combo of mineral thermal pools, steam rooms and saunas. Treatments are also available. Some spas are single sex on some days, so it’s worth checking this out in advance.

Budapest city break costs

Spa bliss

My view: Blissful relaxation that soothed my aches and pains a treat. Many signs are in Hungarian only, so a bit of watch and follow is helpful ☺ The price at Szechenyi was 4800ft (£12 / €15 / $20) and included a secure private changing cabin. Other baths are a few hundred forints cheaper.

House of Terror

Housed in an imposing building that both the Nazis and Communists used at their headquarters in Budapest, the focus is on the Hungarian occupations by both. Imagery and video feature prominently. You can swot up further on the numerous take-away fact sheets.

My view: Worth every penny of the 2000ft (£5 / €6.50 / $8) entrance fee. You can rent an audio guide for 1500ft (£3.75 / €5 / $6) more.

Walking Tour (free)

There are many free walking tours to choose from. I opted for the Communism walk, as I was interested to learn more about what it would’ve been like to grow up under Communism. The lively commentary shared the good and bad realities of healthcare, employment, education, housing, TV, religion in the Communist and post-Communist years.

My view: This is a hugely educational tour lasting more than 2.5 hours. Leave a decent tip.

Museum of Decorative Arts

The small temporary Islamic arts exhibition here was impressive in detail and variety, featuring textiles and ceremonial swords. The Museum’s permanent collection includes a floor of Art Nouveau pieces. The building itself is impressive both outside and in; although on my visit most of the exterior was covered in scaffolding.

My view: At 2000ft (£5 / €6.50 / $8) basic admission, or 3000ft (£7.50 / €9.50 / $12.25) to include the Islamic arts exhibit, I felt it was a bit overpriced. Unless you have a passion for Art Nouveau.

Museum of Marzipan, Szentendre

As well as the cobbled streets, Danube walking / cycling path and café / ice-cream overload, Szentendre is home to a myriad of museums. The Museum of Marzipan caught my imagination after a tip-off – where else can you find Michael Jackson immortalised in marzipan?

My view: The 500ft (£1.25 / €1.60 / $2) entrance fee was worth it for the kitsch factor alone. The rest of Szentendre makes for a fun day trip from Budapest. To get there, catch the HEV (suburban railway) for the 45-minute journey.

Wandering

Wandering costs nothing, and in Budapest there’s a lot of wandering to be had. Up the hills, over Chain Bridge, to the palace, around the castle, to Heroes Square, along the Danube … the list goes on.

Local transport costs in Budapest


I spent £9.50 / €12 / $15.50 on local transport, plus an extra £8 / €10 / $13 for a one-way airport shuttle.

If you’ve experienced the London Underground where your nose is stuck in someone’s armpit whilst you simultaneously practice contortionist manoeuvres of which Houdini himself would’ve been proud, then you’re gonna love Budapest’s metro system.

At a cost of only 350ft (£0.90 / €1.10 / $1.40) a ticket you can whizz around town in the minimum of time. And get a seat. Day transport passes and strips of ten tickets are available, covering the metro, buses and trams.

The HEV suburban railway was also super-cheap, with a return ticket to Szentendre costing 620ft (£1.55 / €1.85 / $2.55)

My Budapest city break costs – excluding flights

All are based on an exchange rate of 398.99 / 311.82 / 244.53 forints to the £ / € / $, calculated on 25 September 2014 from xe.com. I have rounded figures throughout for easier reading.

Accommodation 5 nights – same cost for 1 or 2 people: £139 / €178 / $227
Food and drink p/p: £88 / €112 / $143
Entertainment p/p: £28 / €36 / $46
Local transport p/p: £9.50 / €12 / $15.50
Airport shuttle one-way p/p: £8 / €10 / $13
Misc (bathroom): £0.45 / €0.58 / $0.74

Total Budapest city break costs for 5 nights for one person: £273 / €349 / $445
Total cost for 5 nights for two people sharing a room: £408 / €521 / $664

How you could spend more / less in Budapest

It would be easy to spend more on a Budapest city break: stay in a hotel, avoid street food, order a bottle of wine with dinner, have dessert every night, go shopping … the list is endless.

If you’re on a backpacker – rather than flashpacker – budget, then you can save money in Budapest by: staying in hostel dorm rooms, drinking beer rather than wine (or not drinking at all), and sticking to casual eats. The market is a good bet.

The verdict

Budapest is a vibrant city with a strong artistic and cultural heritage that’s immediately apparent in the buildings, the arts scene and the tongue-twisting language.

I sensed the creative vibe in Budapest’s streets – from the outdoor and unpretentious cafe culture, to the plethora of local men playing cards or chess. Beer seemed like an obligatory drink for everyone after 1pm.

Travelling solo

As a solo traveller, Budapest was easy to navigate, felt safe and wasn’t full of touts trying to sell me things. A “hello” in Hungarian is helpful to break the ice, but in the service industries English and German is widely spoken. Which, when you see written Hungarian, you’ll be glad of!

Would I go back to Budapest? Yes, yes and yes again.

Have you been to Budapest? How do you find it compares to other “city break” destinations in Eastern Europe?

Budapest – what was life behind the Iron Curtain like?

Whilst the history of post-war Communism is likely to show up in a classroom textbook or a museum; I wanted to know what life behind the Iron Curtain was like in my lifetime.

Budapest’s museums and tours help me tell the story of Csilla, my Hungarian alter-ego. Here’s her story.

1987 – behind the Iron Curtain

My name’s Csilla, and I’m twelve years old. I was born in Hungary in 1975.

My birth was difficult, because, even though we have very well educated doctors and midwives, we don’t have much medical equipment. Mum was in a lot of pain so dad had to pay some money to the hospital staff so they found her some pain relief drugs.

I understand now why dad had to pay that bribe. Those doctors had to study for ten years or something crazy and they must’ve been really narked that the hospital porter got nearly the same wage as them.

I don’t have many toys, but we have a set of Monopoly. It’s not like your Monopoly in the West. It’s all about life in the city, but my friend Laszlo lives on a farm, and his Monopoly is a game of farming. We can’t own homes, so that’s why our Monopoly is different to yours.

life behind the Iron Curtain - The last surviving Russian monument in the centre of Budapest

The last surviving Russian monument in the centre of Budapest – the remainder have been relegated to Statue Park

Mum and dad aren’t Communists, but they tell me the schooling I get is good. We have to learn Russian, but no-one speaks it beyond the school gates.

The Government runs all the TV, and the adverts tell us to drink milk, read books and smoke cigarettes. I think most people must listen to the TV. We drink milk and read books, but we don’t smoke cigarettes. Mum and dad are the only two grown ups I know who don’t smoke.

Mum goes to church, but not many people do. The Government doesn’t like religion or the priests; they say we should follow them, not God. I’ve heard that some priests are Government spies, I suppose being a spy makes the Government forget they are preaching. Mum makes sure she doesn’t confess anything worse that forgetting to get something for dad’s dinner.

Everyone works. It’s a crime not to. But I don’t understand what many workers do? When I go and see mum at her work it seems to take two people to do anything.

Dad is a gardener – he keeps the Budapest City Park looking its best. Mum works for the state bank. They both get three weeks paid holiday every year. I heard that’s more than many people in the US.

When we have holiday, we’re only allowed to travel in Hungary and to other Eastern Bloc Communist countries. We go to Lake Balaton with my friend Erzsébet and her mum and dad. Only the top Government people get to travel to the West.

It’s very expensive for Westeners to visit Hungary, but the West Germans have a lot more money than us, so they save up and pay the special fees to the Government.

They come here to meet their relatives from East Germany, who can also travel here. I see them running towards each other on Chain Bridge into each others’ arms. Sometimes they’ve not seen one another for more than thirty years – that’s longer than I’ve been alive! I can’t imagine not seeing my grandma or grandad for that long.

life behind the Iron Curtain - Chain Bridge today

Chain Bridge in Budapest today

Fast forward to 2014

Csilla’s now 39.

In 1989, when I was fourteen, everything changed. In East Germany the Berlin Wall came down, and it wasn’t long before Hungary and our neighbours declared their independence from the USSR. Russia – strapped for cash after investing in a decade-long war in Afghanistan instead of in Hungary and its’ other Socialist Republics – didn’t put up a fight.

We didn’t know what to expect next.

Our new Government quickly realised they couldn’t afford to pay the wages of staff who weren’t really doing that much, so they let them go. Including mum. Unemployment in the early 90s hit 30%.

It dawned on us then how much the old Government had subsidised basic goods. Bread. Milk. Metro tickets. Their costs rocketed more than ten fold.

Our apartment – which previously the Government had owned – was now ours. It seemed like a brilliant deal at first, especially as we had a place in the city centre, not on one of the awful blocks in neighbourhoods that looked – and still look – like a monotonous Jenga puzzle.

Home ownership was tough to start with, as we suddenly had to pay for all the upkeep and bills on only dad’s wage. When the communal entrance hallway in our block needed repairing with new electrics and plasterwork, we had to wait years until all the apartment owners had enough money to put in their share. We carried torches for more than two years to go up and down the stairs. Thank heavens there wasn’t a leak! We were lucky: at Erzsébet’s place they’re still waiting. Her spruced up apartment behind a peeling façade is the definition of shabby chic.

The end of the Communist era meant we were free to travel abroad; and – post 2004 when Hungary joined the EU – work in other EU member countries. “Brain drain” is a reality here; Hungary has a well-educated population where the average wage runs at 550 Euro a month. Even a doctor gets only about 900 Euro a month.

Ironically, despite an influence of two generations, Russian is around the sixth most spoken language in Hungary. German and English are the foreign languages of choice. It feels as though we’ve tried to wipe our Communist legacy from the map, but after two generations of rule – some things are engrained.

What did you think of Csilla’s story? Did you grow up in Eastern Europe? What were the realities of life behind the Iron Curtain for you?

Greek, long division, packing, and my mum’s email needs: Budapest to Athens here I come!

Budapest to Athens: It’s only five days and counting until I shake off my Eastern Europe /Balkans virginity on my month-long solo trip.

Several practical questions – beyond the emotional ones around the excitement of it all – are whizzing around my head as I count down the days to my departure.

Why hadn’t a trip through Eastern Europe and the Balkans occurred to me before?

Bosnia and other parts of the Balkans have long staved off their mid 90s no-go status. I heard tales of majestic cities, captivating coastlines and historical fascination. “Right,” I thought, “it’s time to put a temporary pause on my long-haul obsession.” Duly decided, I booked myself a short hop flight of a mere 2hrs 20 minutes from Manchester to Budapest.

How do I choose which places to go to en-route from Budapest to Athens?

My next thought, after a brief sojourn through a couple of travel guide books and more than a couple of websites: How the hell am I going to try and see everywhere I want to see?

Simple answer to this one, I can’t. Boo! I’m going to have to pick and choose. For example: I’ve reluctantly decided Dubrovnik and Split can wait, as I can easily fly there direct from my local airport (Leeds/Bradford) in the future.

My route is still only a vague plan, but I do know I’ll be catching up with an old school friend in Budapest, and a former work colleague in Zagreb, Croatia.

Beyond that, I’m torn. Ljubljana? A little detour to my wish-list destination of Bologna? Lake Ohrid? Mostar? Meteora? Delphi? Sarajevo? The Bay of Kotor?

Hmmm, maybe I need to book another trip!

How will I manage with the Greek alphabet? And getting by in Albanian?

As I continue to struggle with improving my Spanish, is there any chance whatsoever I’ll remember the bits of Greek alphabet I learnt in A Level Maths (aged 17), and from preparing a book design layout for Homer’s The Iliad (aged 19) in my first desk-top publishing job? Alpha, beta, kappa, delta, epsilon err … err … *googles frantically*

And what about all those other languages I’m going to need – pretty much a different one for every country from Budapest to Athens. Albanian, anyone?

Money matters: Will I be able to divide by 368 in Budapest?

Budapest to Athens

5000 Forints = £13.59 or about $20. Apparently.

Apparently there are 368 Hungarian Forints to the British Pound. Who knew? Best get practicing my times tables. And long division.

Which countries are even in the Euro? (Yup, showing my “we love the pound” British-ness there!) I’ll be learning to love Lek, Kuna and Forints on my trip.

I’m going to try out a Travel Worldwide Debit Card – one of those cards you pre-load before your trip. I’ve not used one before, but so far the company I’ve used have been super-efficient. I’ll report back after my trip, but I’m hoping it will save big-style on those pesky ATM charges and foreign transaction fees.

Packing

I’m planning on staying mostly in AirBnB places, so I should be able to get clothes washing done pretty easily. Needless to say, that means my major concern is shoes. Obviously. Can I narrow my packing choices down to two pairs? Tricky.

Keeping in touch

Will I be able to meet my mum’s strict instructions of sending her and dad an email ready for her to read every Tuesday morning? “Tuesday, Julie, Tuesday. That’s when I’m going to go to the library to read my email”. OK, Tuesday is it then!

Mum and dad won’t get internet at home, in case it gives them a virus. There are no words.

I’d love to hear your tips and experiences about travel in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. Places to go from Budapest to Athens, those I should give a miss, getting from A to B, and more. The comments box below is ready and waiting … ☺