Oooh whee, where am I? More importantly, where was I?
After my huge crush on Paris, it was time to move onto Italy. I took an early morning train that zipped me across France into Milano, at the dead of night.
I booked myself into a bare bones hostel to grab shut-eye. There ain’t much to say about this one, it was literally a boarding school style, beds ganged up against each other.
The only thing of note when you disembark a train at 10 pm in Milano was the use of benches at the platforms.
Round, and I mean, the kind of men who eat pasta three times a day, used these benches as a space to lay out and sleep. I saw several scattered across the platforms, happily snoring away, their shirts hiked up to reveal a jiggling belly.
Not exactly what I wanted to see at that time of night.
I got to my hostel, and literally passed out into my assigned bed. Then woke at 6:30, opening my eyes to another large, Italian man beside me, chest heaving, whistling away like a freighter train in a hurry.
I couldn’t get away from them!
A consolation prize was trying my first Italian cappuccino at the Milano train station before departing.
My coffee palate will never be the same again. I am ruined. Forever.
Next up: Verona.
Why Verona, you may ask?
Shakespeare says it best.
In Verona, I treated myself to ricotta and spinach pasta with a house, white wine. Was deelish.
Seems this train trip is centered on food.
The train station is very close to the historic part of town, so I strolled in and took in a few sites. Mostly, I sat on the steps of a museum and watched tourists or natives alike enjoying gelato, greeting each other, holding hands, laughing and chatting. Sometimes watching normal life unfold is just as satisfying as catching a well-known attraction.
Verona suspended time. People didn’t seem to rush, whittling away moments at sidewalk cafes in the noonday heat.
My next train didn’t leave until night, which would take me from Italy through to Graz, Austria, then beyond into Budapest.
Before walking back to the train station, I fortified my strength with some squash and prawn risotto.
My first, true night train to Graz proved highly embarrassing. I turned into the idiot backpacker who crashed into her sleeper car when everyone was already bedded down for the night and to add insult to injury, an Austrian businessman kicked me twice as morning crawled up. On purpose.
See, Michael is not the only one who snores. Yet, as Nora describes it, I expel ‘lady snores’. Nothing that offensive. I still contend Austrian businessman was angry my alarm was going off, as it had for 10 minutes by the time I noticed.
My messily scrawled note to the whole sleeper, left on the fold-out table:
“I’m sorry I snored, but was kicking me necessary? Hope it doesn’t bruise.”
People can be so mean.
Graz, Austria was a quick stop where I scheduled the rest of my tickets to Budapest.
Without my Eurail pass, I’m sure this leg would have cost 200 Euros or more. It’s been a huge treat to have this pass.
I arrived to Budapest by late afternoon and felt heavy with exhaustion, so much that my navigation skills fell apart. The hostel owner had to retrieve me at a Starbucks and lead me to the hostel.
This find was a delightful surprise. Not far from the center of Budapest where the sights are and a dorm bed is about € 9.00. And I did loads of laundry for about € 2.00.
Budapest was unusual because I met no other travel bloggers, but a variety of people discovering the world one city at a time. My whole dorm got on like gangbusters and we stuck together for three days.
I did walking tours. Ate down home Hungarian food. Partied full bore at Morrison’s, the fruits of my labor being my kick-ass karaoke video. Walked the Chain Bridge at night. Went to the coolest ruined bar called Szimpla. The entire bar was an art piece.
Poor Hungary was on the losing side of both wars, siding with the wrong ally, and after World War II, the Soviets rolled into Freedom Square, and didn’t leave until 1991, when the Iron Curtain crumbled.
The last Soviet monument, an obelisk, garners mixed feelings for Hungarians, most want it moved away from Freedom Square and have petitioned the government to do so.
Any hard-line regime will use torture or imprisonment to control the population and instill fear, and the Soviets at that time were no different.
The square itself was once a barracks, destroyed twice, in 1848 and 1849. To remember the many Hungarian Freedom Fighters who perished in the barracks, the government built a‘prison’ fountain. It symbolizes a prison, but as you walk slowly towards it, the ‘bars’ recede and you can enter, but also leave whenever you like.
I thought it was a poignant way to express confinement, physical or otherwise. Water is also the element of life, and what a better way to show that?
I left Budapest having made some new friends, feeling like I had a more well-rounded experience of a place since this challenge started.
I literally blew through Kiev, because my stay was for one day. I had to grab another overnight train and I was somewhat nervous. In the Urkaine, English is not easy to come by. And my Urkrainian? So non-existent.
I had little time to research how to say ‘hello’, which bothered me. I at least like to know that. And the Cyrillic Alphabet was nothing short of intimidating.
By now, my Eurail pass would not cover the Ukraine, so I paid € 55.00 and got a comfy cabin with a two bunks. My Russian born bunk mate, a woman of 61, tried to teach me Russian, insisting I really needed to know some if I planned to handle Moscow.
She laughed at me a lot. I would either pronounce it all wrong, or when I did pronounce words correctly, she’d laugh at my dramatic, serious tone.
I’ve seen far too many films with Russian villains. The key to Russian? Push the tongue towards the teeth. In English, our tongue tends to sit in the middle of our mouths.
Kiev was mostly steeped in food, food. Potato and cabbage are staples, and a popular place to eat is cafeteria-style restaurants.
Courses start with salad, rolls, then a potato and/or meat combo and vegetable. Anything resembling a meat steak is referred to as ‘cutlet’, whether it has fish, beef or chicken. Most people then top that all off with dessert.
These ‘cafeterias’ also serve alcohol. Far better cafeteria than I ever experienced in high school. Imagine how much studying I would have gotten done with a nip of beer?
Oksana Arkhypchuk of Active Ukraine took us for lunch cafeteria style, while Nora and I had the same for dinner. Why mess with a good formula?
It was nice to be paired up again. Nora and I worked in tandem to spot the correct platform and off we went towards Moscow!