Budapest: a sad history, some cool “ruin bars” and incredible architecture.

Budapest is famous for its ruin bars. Young entrepreneurs had the idea of using abandoned structures not intended as bars or restaurants, such as factories or apartments, and converting them into bars.


I believe this one, Szimpla Pub, was the first, installed in an abandoned stove factory.


It boomed and there are now at least 15 around the city. The places are decorated by artists and the owner’s buddies, often using recycled materials. While they still retain the bohemian style, judging by the volume of customers I saw, they could now afford to renovate the place in marble.


Some seating, made from a vintage East-German Trabant plastic car, sawed in half!


I explored the places as part of a guided pub tour. Here’s Orsi, the guide, who is enrolled in some graduate degree related to Judaism and also conducts tours of the Jewish heritage of Budapest.  Continue reading

Stepping back in the past: a communist tour of Budapest.

The communism walking tour I went on in Budapest was more of a storytelling, rather than a sightseeing tour. It was given by two guides in their early 40′s, old enough to have lived in communist Hungary, albeit in their teenage years only. They did a great job at presenting the inconveniences of living under the system, the advantages, and the realities of daily life. I certainly realized, visiting North Korea, that even in regimes of which we only hear about horrors, strangeness and oppression, most of the time, most of the people are going about normal daily routines in a very normal and boring way. Hungary was no different, I am sure.

But before going into the good and the bad, I must talk about the ugly. A key year in communist Hungary’s history is 1956. Before that, Hungarians lived under terrible oppression, with constant fear of arrest, arbitrary detention or deportation based on secret denunciations. The ideology of the regime was one of “if you are not with us, you are against us”.

I won’t write a history lesson, but in short, the level of oppression in communist Europe had been greatly reduced since the death of Stalin in 1953 and there was an attempted revolution in 1956 to establish an independent Hungary. The Soviet Union invaded the country, thousands were killed and the revolution was crushed. However, the end result was surprising. Instead of resulting in a harsher regime, like after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, it produced a more liberal regime, known as “Goulash Communism”, and Hungary became known as “the happiest barrack in the socialist camp”! The new Government policy was: “if you are not against us, you are with us”, meaning that for the average folks who were not liberal intellectuals and the like, life under constant fear ceased. Perhaps, for example, identifying as a religious person would be bad for your career, but you wouldn’t end up in a Gulag with the rest of your family.


The bullet holes downtown were never fixed and instead were transformed into a memorial to the deceased would-be revolutionaries, most killed not by the Soviets, but by the Hungarian KGB.

One of the guide, Agnes, talked of Hungary not as a democracy, but as a “post-communist” country, the idea being that you can change the laws, but you need two generations to change the mentalities. For example, she identified excessive bureaucracy and rampant corruption as two persisting legacies of communism.


One thing which apparently declined after the fall of communism was entertainment. The socialist regime used to subsidize the arts heavily, live performances were available all over the country, and artistic productions of all kinds were broadcasted on TV. Today, the national broadcaster has moved out of its massive downtown location, into an inexpensive suburban building (apparently a Canadian company bought the building with the intent of transforming it into a luxury hotel). Local productions apparently revolve mostly around reality TV and stupid game shows, and very few live artistic performances are available outside Budapest. So people watch dumb TV all day, especially pensioners.

I think in all former communist countries, pensioners are the ones who got the worst deal. Today in Hungary old age pension is only $375 a month. Of course, none of them built their own equity, the concept simply not being part of the world they were raised and lived in.


But even the young can feel nostalgia. Agnes showed us the “horrible itchy blue polyester scarves” they wore in some sort of youth league, between the ages of 7 to 11. The activities were not yet focused on indoctrination, but on teaching the kids to work together, something which has gone away for the most part with the fall of communism. The other guide, Aron, recalls his schoolmates staying an hour after school to help him with math, while he would do the same in return for language classes. Today, tutoring is available at all levels in Hungary, but none of it is for free.


Between the ages of 12 and 15, you wore a red scarf and the tone was more political, but neither Agnes nor Aron attended. But they got ideological games, like this improbable communist version of Monopoly. It contains now funny lines like: “You have read all books by Lenin, move ahead 3 squares”! Continue reading

The land of Chuck Norris: Prague, Slovakia (or so the Germans say).

Slovakia is very much, from the perspective of this Canadian, a “below the radar” country. I would consider myself reasonably geographically literate and fairly well aware of world affairs. But if you had asked me to talk about Slovakia last month, I think that like most Canadians, I could have told you it was half of the former Czechoslovakia, and, probably unlike most Canadians, I could have told you the capital and neighbouring countries. But that’s pretty much it. Politicians? Population? Major industries or economic issues? Even currency? Nope. As it turns out, I am not the only one.


According to a guide on a walking tour of the city, the German magazine “Der Spiegel” published this photo in 2008 with the caption: “Praha 1968″. The problem? This photo was not taken in “Praha” (Prague), but Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. I walked passed that very distinct circular university building. So even when something does happen in Slovakia, people don’t even realize that’s where it’s happening!

It was taken by Ladislav Bielik, a photographer whose work was never acknowledged during his lifetime. He managed to take these photos and send them to the Free World so that all would know what was happening in 1968. The pictures became immensely well known, but it was only discovered after his death that he was the photographer, a little bit by chance. Since he had remained in Czechoslovakia, he could not risk revealing his identity.

What was happening was that the Czechoslovakian Government had decided to lift restrictions on journalism in particular and free speech in general. Since Communism had never been popular in the region’s countries and had been imposed from the outside, the Soviet Union feared the country might break free from its hold. Furthermore, Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev realized that relative free movement behind the Iron Curtain meant that intellectuals from anywhere in his empire could just travel to Czechoslovakia and publish works banned by Soviet censorship. He was also worried Czechoslovakia might go further and decide to open its border with Austria, which could result in an exodus of millions from the previously nearly inescapable Warsaw Pact nations.

This could not be allowed to happen from the Soviet perspective, so they launched a massive invasion of Czechoslovakia, using half a million soldiers and thousands of tanks. Locals reacted by painting over the city signs, so that the invaders, with little in the way of navigational equipment, would never be certain where they were. But of course, since the Czechoslovak Government decided not to resist, this only delayed the inevitable and the Soviets placed a hard-core Communist regime in power and the Soviet Army remained in Czechoslovakia until 1991.

Since I had forgotten a few dates and facts from my visit, I looked them up on Wikipedia and for some reason, had the idea to check the Russian version (through a translation app). It produced this gem:


The English version: Warsaw pact countries invade Czechoslovakia.


The Russian version: Warsaw pact countries, including Czechoslovakia, fight “The Rebels”, which in this case happens to be the Government of Czechoslovakia, acting with wide popular support. I think I will be reading a lot of Russian Wikipedia in the next few weeks! Continue reading

Weird things about Austria and Vienna pub crawl, extreme edition!

I don’t know exactly how it happened. Somehow, Chris and I were talking about Vienna over a beer on Friday and he mentioned the Viennese were the third biggest beer drinkers in Europe (after people in Munich and Prague, I think). He also mentioned some Viennese do the ultimate beer tour of the city by having one beer in each district. I think the blame for what followed can be shared. I take responsibility for thinking this was a great idea on Friday afternoon. I blame Chris for still thinking it was a great idea on Saturday morning, when more sober thoughts prevailed in me!


So on Saturday morning, along with my two Austrian friends, I headed to this sordid bar in a suburban mall, at 11h50. Sure enough, an old local guy was having a beer. Theory confirmed.


I also blame Tina for encouraging us, when I was trying to convince Chris this was perhaps not the best idea. I met Chris in Africa last year, so at least I knew he could take a few drinks, as you can see in this story about Malawi. But I was a little worried about Chris’s friend Tina, having just met her. But as it turns out, she can drink most men under the table. So this was stop #1, district 23.

Wait, did I write 23? How many districts are there? Does it start at #10? No, there are in fact 23! And we started with 23, and the distant suburbs, for logistical reasons. This was going to be a very long day…


Speaking of stupid ideas, or in this case, impressive ignorance, Chris, who travels a lot, informed me that a clear MAJORITY of people he meets outside Europe ask him about kangaroos when he says he is from Austria. Probably not the case in North America, because we all know Arnold Schwarzenegger, but certainly in Africa and Asia.


Stop 3, district 4, 12h52. The only place where we didn’t see locals drinking beer, but it was a minuscule cafe and we were the only patrons.


The day included all manners of bars, cafes and restaurants, including this little stand on the street, stop #5, district 11, 14h06.


And simply beer in the park, because this is not North America and we can! Stop #6, district 3, 15h00.


In fact, the Viennese love drinking outside. This place has these large plastic structures on which people sit with drinks for hours. Hard to find an empty one in the summer. This is in the museum district, hence the sign: “Add some art and culture to your schnitzel!”


There was a technology exhibit when we walked through (Note: on friday, non-drinking pictures not necessarily in chronological order). This device really spoke to me:

- [Device] Hello North American visitor. Do you know what I am?

- [Me] No, I have never seen one of your kind.

- But I bet you know I make no business sense whatsoever?

- Yes, my very heavily subsidized friend. I know.


At the amusement park, in front of the Wiener Riesenrad, one of the oldest Ferris wheel in the world, built in 1897. It was also the tallest in the world until 1985. Stop #8, district 2, 16h15.


There is a lot of old architecture in Vienna, a city which, surprisingly, we Allies didn’t level to the ground in WWII.


What would be a showcase iconic building in most cities is just another building here in Vienna. This is the public library.


Back to the suburbs, on the terrace of a Western-themed “saloon”. Stop #9, district 22, 16h53.


Speaking of the suburbs, I learned something very strange about Vienna: the majority of residential real estate is state-owned. This is not low income housing or anything like that, just Government owned apartments. They are quite nice, modern and well maintained (at least the one in which Chris lives). Rent is not crazy low like in North-American subsidized housing, but it is much lower than in equivalent private buildings. Unsurprisingly, house ownership rates are very low.


And drinking on the tram, because it’s Europe and we can. Wait, actually, we can’t, it’s prohibited! Oups. “Stop” #10, district 11, 17h36. This crazy pub crawl would have been impossible without Vienna’s excellent public transportation network.


The pedestrian streets also help, especially after a few drinks.


And drinking in another park, with the swans! Stop #11, district 20, 18h05.


Stop #12, district 19, 18h45. With some ribs, because food is important. Of note, we shared these 3 racks of ribs, but this is meant as an individual portion! Austrians love their meat.


In fact, the casual visitor might very easily think vegetables are illegal in Austria. I don’t know how these two slices of cucumber got on my plate of meatloaf.


In case you think it’s just me choosing meat on the menus, this is a local advertisement!


Here we crashed a private party. It hadn’t really begun, so they let us have a drink even though the whole bar was reserved for the occasion. And it turned out Chris knew some of the guests. Strange things happen in Vienna. Stop #14, district 18, 20h00.


Typical Viennese people, going about their normal week-end routine. (It’s because of all that beer!)


Stop #15, district 13, 20h55. Hey wait! That’s not a drink!


Drinking beer at McDonald’s! My personal request; exotic because in North America, we can’t. Tina had a coffee, allowed as a chaser for a shot of store bought chocolate liqueur.


Another weird thing in Vienna is that they have crazy regulations about stores opening on Sunday. As a general rule, it is not allowed, but some things are allowed, like food. But if the grocery store is open, that doesn’t mean they can sell you anything you want, only allowed items, so you can buy a steak, but not Puppy Chow for Fido! In this store, books are for sale, but half the place is in the dark because it is Sunday and they are not allowed to sell video games or music. I know nothing of Austrian politics, but I bet there are quite a few lawmakers who drink on the job.


Technical difficulties, stop #17, district 16, 21h50.


The main difficulty of this challenge was the transportation delays, and the fact Chris is a slow drinker. Stop #19, district 6, 22h45.


And finally, success, after 13.5 hours of transit and drinking! Stop #23, district 8, 01h10. At this point, probably a good thing for Chris that Vienna doesn’t have 30 districts ;-)

So I now know Vienna really well, having had a drink it all manners of establishments, in each and every district, and at most hours of the day. What else? Oh yes, tourism. People go to Vienna for the castle where Empress Sisi lived, so I went on Sunday. Here it is.





Prague: to see friends and because the flights to Vienna were too expensive!

I met Linda and Viktor in Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression, a place National Geographic called “the most cruel place on Earth”. In fact, in my story about the Dallol, it is Viktor’s hand holding the GPS which indicates we are 129 meters below sea level, standing amongst multicoloured lakes of sulphuric acid and chlorine.


Working around Viktor’s busy work schedule, we met for lunch and I learned there were now 3 of them. No more Danakil and no more Yemen trips for a while!


As I found out, eating with a baby can be a little stressful.

I had been to Prague before and visiting the Czech Republic was not really a plan in my already busy travel itinerary. But, since I couldn’t find a cheap Tel-Aviv – Vienna flight, I flew to Prague instead, figuring I would revisit beautiful Prague and stop for a day in Brno, the country’s second largest city, which I had never visited. But since dinner plans became lunch plans, all I had time to do in Prague was to get up very early and witness a beautiful sunrise on the Charles Bridge, overlapping the Vltava River.


The bridge is usually full of tourists. But before dawn, it was pretty much me and a few pigeons.


Then the runners showed up, along with some pretty intense early moring air traffic.


And finally the sun. Continue reading

My poorly planned visit to Jerusalem and a few stops on the North Coast.

Contrary to my fun visit to Tel-Aviv and my informative visit to Hebron, my visit to Jerusalem was a bit of a disappointment, fully due to my lack of proper planning. So I will start with the best.


Catching-up with my friends Natalie and Avishai (on the left), with whom I climbed to the Annapurna Base Camp 6 months ago in Nepal. On the right, Erika, with whom I visited Hebron… 12 hours earlier! She taught me that many people in Finland don’t speak Finnish. On the island where she lives, everybody speaks Swedish. I did not know that.

I had deliberately come to Jerusalem on Shabbat, as I was curious to see the large numbers of people praying at the Western Wall.


Unfortunately, this is what I saw. While people do come in droves on Shabbat, they specifically come after sunset on Friday, and very early Saturday. When I arrived late in the morning on Saturday, there were only a few people. Mostly women, in there section about a third the size of the men’s. Furthermore, while I could take this picture from a distance, pictures close to the wall are allowed everyday, except on Shabbat!

That left the rest of the huge city of Jerusalem to visit.


But of course on Shabbat, the city was closed. I even had to take a shared taxi from Tel-Aviv, as public buses and almost all other forms of transportation shut down on Shabbat.

This left the Old City, where I did go on a guided walking tour. However, as much as I was fascinated by the visit to Hebron, I know that my interest in recent history is much greater than my interest in ancient history.


What did these guys do in the 12th century? I may spend some time figuring it out on Wikipedia on a rainy day when I am feeling curious, but most of the time, I don’t really care. Continue reading

Hebron: my very small introduction to the big conflict.

I think one of the reasons I had difficulties entering Israel with my passport stamps from crazy countries was that the security officer looked at my blog and might have been worried I would deliberately walk into danger to get a selfie of myself in a Hamas tunnel, or some similar stupid move. Of course, I did no such thing, but I wasn’t either going to visit the country without having at least some first hand exposure to the perennial conflict.

I booked something called the “Hebron Dual Narrative Tour”, which takes you to the Jewish sector of Hebron, with a Jewish guide, and then to the Palestinian sector, with a Palestinian guide. As far as I know, this is a unique activity in the country. These are my impressions of Hebron. I use the term “impressions” carefully. This is not my thesis, my opinion or my analysis. And it is about a small section of Hebron, visited for one day; not my take on the Middle-East.


Early in the morning, we saw a dove, universal sign of peace. But alas, a dog had killed it and was proudly showing us his catch. The tone has been set.


Actually, the tone had been set in Jerusalem, as we boarded a public inter-city bus. I was disappointed by the relative opacity of the windows, which certainly wouldn’t allow pictures along the way. While the buses looked like any other Israeli bus, the windows were triple layered ballistic glass (or possibly acrylic), to prevent injuries from rocks thrown when passing near territories controlled by the Palestinian Authority.

Hebron is divided into two sectors: H1, which is under full control of the Palestinian Authority (PA), and H2, under full control of the PA, minus security. Within H2 sits the tiny Jewish enclave, with a population of about 500 in a city of close to a quarter million. The purpose of the H2 security zone is to protect this tiny enclave of 4 “neighbourhoods”. I put the term in quotation marks because the so-called “neighbourhoods” are typically just a row of 3 or 4 buildings.


I got the impression our first guide, Gili, did the best he could to present a balanced and fair image of the situation from the Jewish perspective. (Although standing up there, he does look like he is preaching!) I am not in the habit of visiting religious buildings, but I have been to some of the great cathedrals, mosques and Buddhist temples of the world – as a tourist – but I think this was my very first visit to a synagogue.

Like most Jewish buildings in the sector, the synagogue is brand new. In 1929, bands of Arabs attacked the Jews of Hebron and killed 67 of them. While most citizens of Hebron had cohabited in peace for a long time, the Mufti in Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husayni, riled up hatred in the context of the Palestine riots, in an unknown and still debated mixture of nationalism and/or antisemitism.

Amin al Husseini und Adolf Hitler

Source: Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1987-004-09A/Heinrich Hoffmann/CC-BY-SA, through Wikimedia Commons.

He certainly kept questionable company in those days. Following the killings, the British authorities decided they could not protect the survivors – or did not want to – and they forcefully deported them to Jerusalem. The synagogue and many other buildings were destroyed or left in disrepair, until the Jews returned following the defeat of the Arab coalition in the 1967 war.
Continue reading