Hungry For More

No other city on this trip filled me with more regrets than Budapest. Regrets of the positive kind, that is. Because there were so many sights to see, so many dishes to savour, and so many pubs to bar-hop that I almost fell into a near depressive state while packing my bags on the first (and my last) night in this beautiful city.

Did I say “beautiful”? That was an understatement!

Budapest is probably one of the most magnificent but understated (and under-rated) cities in Europe. Relatively a newbie compared to its ex-communist brethren (Poland and Czech Republic), Budapest has grown exponentially in the last decade. In the streets, Michelin-starred restaurants, local artisan stores and luxury hotel chains and designer ateliers are sprouting like moss after a springtime rain. Fortunately, a relatively depressed forint means that you get more bang for your buck.

There’s one thing that the Hungarians and Japanese share in common – their love for baths. Although the number of baths here pale in comparison to its Japanese counterparts, the tradition dates back to the Romans and there’s nothing more “local” than to spend a day at one of the dozen public baths that dot the city. Of course, as you may have guessed, this tradition is more like a graying pastime in modern Budapest. If you ask me, picking up some words of wisdom or being regaled by tales from Hungary’s Iron Curtain past from some septuagenarians doesn’t sound like a bad idea at all.   LS

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Cracking Krakow

DSC01365It’s funny how sometimes you just feel like doing random things. Like sit in a Lego shop and play with the bricks for a good two hours before heading to your next destination. If you must know, I managed to fashion a synagogue / church (can’t really tell which it resembles more) out of a ton of yellow bricks.

That’s what I did, of all places, in Poland’s second largest city. Don’t get me wrong. Krakow is a lovely city, and there are tons of things you could do besides playing with Lego. But I thought I needed a break after a three-hour excursion to Auschwitz. I guessed I just needed somewhere to sit down and contemplate what I’ve just seen in what is known as the largest Nazi concentration camp in Europe.

DSC01570I had chosen to base myself at Kazimierz after reading about the cool bohemian vibe in this Jewish quarter. Of course, rentals here are also cheaper than elsewhere. And I was surprisingly rewarded with an adjoining Chinese restaurant run by Vietnamese immigrants. I know this might sound silly but I was really craving noodles and fried rice after two weeks in Europe, so this restaurant was a godsend. And its portions were extremely generous – I had never seen so much rice on a plate for 4 euros!

DSC01868DSC01863DSC01870Exploring the Jewish quarter is another adventure on its own. A little sedate in the day, the cobblestone enclave really comes alive at dusk – when the pubs and restaurants open and start filling up with locals.

Unlike Warsaw, which was completely flattened by Nazi bombardment, Krakow was spared after a stroke of luck. This means that most, if not all of its churches and castles dating back to the 10th century – remain gloriously pristine. Rynek Glowny is the city’s heartbeat. Ringed by swanky restaurants and creative pubs, the market square retains the Old Town vibe, untouched by globalisation and American brands (but that could change in the future).

Here, I found myself content to just kick back on my salon chair and people-watch while slurping on a Zywiec. Prague seems like an inferior cousin already.  LS

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Poles Apart

DSC01138For a city that was completely flattened by Nazi bombing during the Second World War, Warsaw (or more affectionately known to the locals as Warszawa) has come a long way.  Although remnants of its post-war Soviet Cold War era still survived (most notably the inappropriately named Palace of Culture and Science – a Stalinist monstrosity which turned 60 this year by the way) across from the Warszawa Centralna Railway Station, Warszawa is changing so fast that six months would seem like a decade.

DSC01117DSC01258The Old Town Market Square (Rynek Starego Miasta) overlooking the Vistula is the heart of Warsaw and probably any traveller’s first stop. However, when the sun goes down, hipsters and well-heeled Poles flock to Nowy Świat, a cosmopolitan F&B thoroughfare that boasts some of Warsaw’s swankiest cafes and fine dining restaurants. Here, you can spend hours just people watching or bar-hop to find your ideal poison. Luckily for me, they still count in zlotys. So go ahead, indulge your inner demons!   LS

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Special Tribute: To The Faithfully Departed

Watching the news on Hiroshima’s 70th anniversary of the atomic bomb brings back memories of my visit here last year. In Singapore, we have been brought up to hate the Japanese because of their atrocities during World War II. I grew up on a diet of stories of Japanese soldiers’ cruelty, the Sook Ching massacre in Singapore and other war crimes, vividly told to us through documentaries, television dramas and illustrated in history textbooks. However, I bet few of us knew the horrors caused by the atomic bomb on the residents of Hiroshima. These were ordinary citizens too – men, women, children and babies.

DSC06812DSC06874If what the Japanese did to us was abominable, what the Americans did to the Japanese (in the name of ending the Pacific War) was unpardonable. I recalled the solemn atmosphere at the Peace Memorial Museum, the silent weeping of Japanese visitors as they pored through the exhibits at the Museum – remnants of children’s clothes, locks of hair, a sandal, lunch boxes, school uniforms, a tricycle, even finger nails.

Many of the dead and wounded were children. Many were drafted to work in factories because all the men had been conscripted to fight for their nation in the Pacific War. Stories of survivors fleeing the city, suffering third degree burns, and with burnt skin hanging from their limbs like melted candle wax, were displayed inside the museum.

DSC06844On 6 August 1945, Hiroshima was flattened by a uranium bomb, dropped by a US B-29 bomber, and which exploded about 600 metres above the city. Nicknamed ‘Little Boy’, the bomb unleashed a gigantic fireball (370 metres in diameter) over the city when it detonated, measuring 6,000 degrees Celsius. Thousands caught in the hypocentre of the bomb instantly vaproised. The resulting firestorm from the blast swept across Hiroshima, incinerating everything in its path. 140,000 people perished. The radiation emitted by the bomb will continue to haunt the generations after.

DSC06876DSC06875The Peace Memorial Park just outside the Museum had a dedicated section to the children who perished during the bombing. Thousands of colourful paper peace cranes, painstakingly folded and woven into Japanese kanji (or Chinese) characters symbolising Peace, dotted the Children’s Memorial Park. I stood in front of the Children’s Memorial, the statue of an angel, and said a silent prayer.

DSC06883DSC06887DSC06833DSC0689020141128_131112DSC0682720141128_132014DSC06845DSC06848DSC06849DSC06851DSC06854DSC06862DSC06871DSC06867DSC06877DSC06891DSC06893This year, Singapore celerbates 50 years of independence. On the same day 70 years ago, the Americans dropped a second atomic bomb, this time, on Nagasaki. If only you knew…   LS

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Czeching Out

DSC00945Cemeteries may not be anyone’s idea of a “tourist attraction”. Unless of course, you are one of those paranormal investigators or enthusiasts. However, to me at least, cemeteries can be an ideal place for an early morning amble for some quiet contemplation. And so it was, on the morning before I departed for Warsaw, I reflected on some of my experiences in Prague over the last few days.

DSC00632Prague was beautiful, but not spectacular. Something happened on the bus on my way back from Prague Castle that left a sour aftertaste in my mouth, like leftover beer from last night’s party. You see, I was ‘cornered’ by what I believed to be one of those plain-clothes ticket frauds, who preyed on unsuspecting tourists and insisted that it’s mandatory EU law that you carry a valid EU ticket on public transport, subjected to a fine of 50 euros if violated. Under normal circumstances, that wouldn’t even bother me a wimp, but on that day, I just had to forget bringing my ticket day pass (I had absent-mindedly left the pass in another pair of jeans the previous day). Be warned.

On my overnighter from Prague to Warsaw, that incident weighed somewhat on my mind. It wasn’t really the money that bothered me. Sure, you could argue that 50 euros wasn’t a large amount anyway. But it’s the entire experience – the fact that I was defenceless and had no way to communicate or retort in the same language. Fortunately, except for a couple of chatty Polish (who disturbed my beauty sleep), the overnight train proved to be safe and sound (I’ve heard stories of missing luggage and thieving passengers). An overnighter was also not such a bad idea to see the rest of Czech Republic and even Slovakia. This time though, I made sure the train pass never left my sight.  LS

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