It is a regret of mine that I didn’t see more of Hungary other than Budapest, I simply did not allocate enough time to do so, but I am very glad I saw Budapest before it truly becomes one of the Barcelonas, the Pragues, the Londons, before it is completely taken over by tourism, it’s getting there.
My House in Budapest, My Hidden Treasure Chest
I arrived in Budapest all grumpy and tired, I couldn’t sleep on the train and I hadn’t showered for a day, I also got ripped off by a cab driver (note: lots of them in Budapest, cabs and exchange offices). Once I started exploring the city everything was better, Budapest was definitely the highlight of my trip. Easily accessible streets, the river, the city is as vibrant as it gets, things to do from dawn to dusk, and also after that. Strolling around the city in the hot sun for 3 hours was not ideal but it was worth it.
It’s a beautiful city but I think the best thing is getting vibes from the people here, they know how to have fun and enjoy, there’s never a shortage of people. There is also the small matter of cruising down the Danube at night getting absolutely hammered (not me.) After a wonderful 3 nights in Budapest I decided to use Bratislava as a buffer zone between Hungary and Austria, like many people do (no offense, Slovakia is great.)
Budapest is only 3 hours away from Bratislava by bus, do consider RegioJet Bus, it’s the best bus service ever and trips usually only cost 5 Euros. They operate mainly in Central and Eastern Europe but offer routes to as far as London. Imagine an airplane on land (basically a bus), yes, with wifi, food (payment needed of course), movies, radio and games, I tried looking for their services whenever possible. No they did not pay me to do this, (I have like 5 readers,) I just liked them a lot and wanted to share this info with you. So, yes, Slovakia.
Old Town Bratislava is a very charming place, people were passing out drunk as early as 2pm, I can certainly see why Bratislava is a party city. I was supposed to have a host here but she went on jury duty out of town without telling me, I spent half the day trying to contact her with my bags walking around the city. Ultimately a fellow couchsurfer took me in for the night and he was super nice. The dude was crazy in a good way, for awhile he had the left side of his head shaved before fully shaving it and he showed me his half-tanned scalp, that was the funniest thing ever. Slovaks are my favorite people because as my host Juraj told me, they’re the fun side of Czechoslovakia (I didn’t say this, Czechs).
For the first day I climbed up to Bratislava Castle with my bags because I didn’t want to waste the day waiting for a response from my original host, the castle was okay, nothing quite special. The atmosphere of Old Town was sick though because it was Champions League Final day and many bars were showing the big game.
The next day Juraj could not host me so I checked into an Airbnb dorm, weather was shit but I took the bus 30 minutes out of Bratislava to Devin Castle, it was pouring and I didn’t have an umbrella (meaning I don’t own one, I still don’t.) I don’t know why but my adrenaline kicked in when I reached the top of the castle, I stood there looking at the Danube for a good 10 minutes and the greenery surrounding it, I was all wet (not in a good way) on the bus back. This was the third city and country I had seen the Danube in, a goal of mine, to see them in all possible countries.
Bratislava is small, but it’s super underrated, I guess that’s how it maintains its charm, as a buffer zone or layover destination for people wanting to get to Vienna, which was where I was heading.
Ich Liebe Wien
So there I was, in Vienna, music capital of the world, the city where Mozart rose to fame, painfully expensive tourist city but also a very enjoyable place. I spent probably the most in Vienna, not least the many 2.20 Euro metro tickets (please plan ahead in Vienna so you know if you need the day passes, I didn’t). It’s the only city I didn’t buy keychains from as souvenir, they’re usually 9 Euros each.
Let’s not talk about the cost, overall I would compare it aesthetically with Budapest, supremely beautiful, especially in the Innere Stadt (old town) area, but there wasn’t much going on, not many people were out and about, sometimes a good thing, sometimes not so much. The metro is very accessible and easy to use, I easily navigated the city despite its size.
Highlights include Schonbrunn Palace, probably the most well known attraction in Vienna, normally I don’t pay for tours of historical places but I took an exception for this one and I didn’t regret it. I took an audio guided tour of 40 rooms in the palace and it was fascinating, especially if you like history of Habsburg monarchies.
Take a stroll at Volksgarten, it’s the perfect place to relax and read a book, and one of the few free things you can do in Vienna. Small tip, have bratwurst or currywurst for lunch to save some money (not everyday), they’re also very good, to treat yourself find some cool gasthaus(es) and order anything from the menu, they’re usually all in German and the staff members might not even speak English, I’ve only had good experiences ordering blindly. Discovered leberknodelsuppe or liver dumpling soup this way.
From Graz with Love
From Vienna it takes around 2 and a half hours to reach Graz, the 2nd largest city in Austria after Vienna, but is actually very much smaller (feels so.) I did enjoy myself here more than in Vienna because it is a university town, I don’t know what it is with me and university towns. I couchsurfed with a Guatemalan student here and it turned out there was an AIESEC event going on that week, I tagged along and met a bunch of other students. Always a fun time hanging out with other students. Graz is less grandeur-esque compared to Vienna but I think it has everything a student needs within its boundaries, including a myriad of cafe bars serving cheap food and beer, tried pfandl for the first time here (german pasta-ish dish), it was excellent, you get to choose what you want in your pfandl, cheeses, meats, veges etc.
Walked 260 steps on stairs up to the Schlossberg, a hill with a public park on top and a clock tower. You see a great deal of the city there, the view was great (might just be a defense mechanism to convince myself I didn’t waste all that energy going up.) I also treated Graz as a sort of layover between Austria and Slovenia, but it certainly exceeded my expectations. Fact: Arnold Schwarzenegger was born 1 mile from Graz in the village of Thal.
The city name you can’t pronounce
My final stop was Ljubljana, Slovenia. I spent 4 nights here because I wanted to settle in one place a little longer, I was moving every 3 days prior and was tired from all the travelling. Ljubljana was a good place to settle for a while, I enjoyed my night walks in the city center because it was always teeming with life, there were performers, people were outside, there was just something that made me very happy.
It is a small city but most points of interest are congregated in the city center, buses are fairly straightforward and accessible although you need to purchase a card from the kiosks in the city to be able to pay for buses. After walking around the city for a couple days I became an expert of the local dessert scene, my favorite place is Cacao, probably the best ice-cream place around that also serves cake, I had cake for dinner once, no judging.
The Slovenian national football team were also in town to host their Maltese counterpart for a World Cup qualification game and I was there to witness as Slovenian star striker Milvoje Novakovic played his last professional football game and also scored to much fanfare from the home fans.
If you find yourself in need of some nature, just take a bus to nearby Bled, about 50 minutes away. The Vintgar Gorge that I did not fully explore was gorgeous, especially on a nice sunny day, bring your bathing suit, water is fucking crystal clear and cooling. The famous mountain treks for Triglav National Park also begins in Bled, it’s something I would like to explore in the future.
Lake Bled which was supposed to be the main attraction was disappointing for me because it looked just like an oversized swimming pool, but the surroundings were nice, too many mosquitoes though. Slovenia is also a country I feel I did not explore enough, would love to go back and visit Koper and Maribor next time. When you’ve been to other former Yugoslav countries and visit Slovenia, Slovenia doesn’t feel like the others, (as of this sentence I have not been to Croatia and Montenegro yet.)
Macedonia, the epitome of Balkan weirdness
Fast forward a good 2 weeks, I would be in Skopje, FYR Macedonia for a long weekend due to Bajram. Buses to Skopje from Prishtina are frequent and the journey only takes 90 minutes. It is a city of mixed cultures with Macedonian, Albanian and Turkish populations. The Stone Bridge across the Vardar River seemed to also separate the Macedonians from the Albanians and Turkish because from my observations, one half of the city looked more Greek, the other more Ottoman.
Skopje is a city of a ridiculous amount of monuments, most of them unfortunately have no significant relevance to the history of the city. They were built as a recent initiative by the government to (insert word here) the city and also very weirdly placed and built very close to one another, I don’t really know how to describe how the city looks, it’s not super ugly but it looks very weird. There are also piles of trash in random corners. I arrived close to the peak of summer and my days in Skopje were the hottest days I experienced in Europe, it was even hotter than Malaysia.
In terms of things to do, there aren’t much but it’s nice to walk around and see some of the weird shit that shouldn’t be placed together, placed together. Half an hour away from Skopje is the Matka Canyon, supposedly a large canyon with a network of caves, I say supposedly because I never saw it, because I never got there, not because I didn’t try but because someone decided to commit murder in a nearby village the day I was trying to go. Roads towards Matka was closed, the bus driver who didn’t know what happened dropped us off 3km from our destination and told us to walk there, halfway through police told us we couldn’t go further.
As a consolation, I decided to walk to nearby Lake Treska with 2 Slovaks I met there before finding the bus stop for buses back to Skopje. The lake was very shitty, it looked like a sewage treatment plant, there were also cows around, one cow looked really pissed, I was afraid it was gonna charge. We then spent almost half an hour locating the correct bus stop to go back. All in all, my time in Skopje was rather weird, it was strangely quiet for a weekend and there was a murder case. Lol.