Sunday, July 27, 2008

Killing Two Birds With One Stone

Those that know me best know that I have two major phobias - a fear of heights and a fear of closed-in spaces. Today I took on both and emerged none the worse for wear other than perhaps a huge adrenaline rush.

One of the left-over structures here in Eger is a minaret that used to be attached to a mosque that no longer exists. The minaret stands 40 metres tall (120 feet) with 97 steps. It is also VERY narrow. The diameter of the thing can't be any wider than about about 4 feet. I didn't realize how tight quarters the staircase was until I was about halfway up. Its so narrow, that only a handful of people are allowed to climb up at a time. Anyhow, I slowly crawled my way up there this morning and was rewarded with some great views of the castle and the basilica. Nothing says crazy tourist more than hanging off the side of a minaret 120 feet up while trying to snap a few pictures while fighting a moderate breeze. (I'm pretty sure its because of situations like these that life insurance was invented, though I strongly doubt my policy covers falling off the top of a minaret in Hungary.)

The viewing platform was also a pretty tight squeeze. From the side of the structure to the railing it was not much more than 18 inches I'd say. Lucky for me I'm a skinny guy. It was with a deep breath that I finally made my way down again and through the exit. I'm not sure if I'd rush out and do it again but I feel a bit empowered for challenging two of my biggest phobias at the same time. What a rush, is all I can say.

Oh yeah, the castle here was pretty cool too.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Somewhere A Rooster (possibly more) Is Crying

Well folks, what can I say? I am a man of my word. A few posts ago I mentioned my missed opportunity to try "Rooster Testicle Stew" back in Veszprem. But now I can say? I've done it.

I was in the far-eastern town of Sarospatak, near Hungary's border with Slovakia and Ukraine. The place - Rakoczi Pension, where I was staying. The menu was in Hungarian but as I was scanning it, my eyes picked up on the words "Kakas Toke Porkolt". I thought I had seen them somewhere before. When the waiter brought me an English menu, I checked to see how good my translation skills were. Turns out I was bang on, only this menu had it translated a little more bluntly - Cock's Balls Stew. So...I ordered it. Heck, you only live once!

As I waited for my meal to arrive, my eyes shifted continuously from the empty table top in front of me, to the spoon, to the kitchen door through which the waiter had disappeared. Many thoughts went through my head - What would my mother say? What would Jesus do? Why am I stalling by asking silly questions??

...And then the moment of truth arrived...alone with a side order of dumplings.

Having now tried it, I can honestly say it really is a case of mind over matter. It was one of the best meals I've had on this little excursion of mine. Though I'm certain that somewhere a rooster (perhaps several) is crying.

Monday, July 21, 2008

5 Years Later

Today marks a red letter day in my teaching career as I hit the 5 year anniversary of my arrival in Nunavut. Other than gaping at the ever-increasing amounts of snow as the jet passed over Nunavik (northern Quebec), the only eventful part of the trip was a missed approach as our plane descended into Iqaluit. At the time, I took this as some sort of bad omen. I had completed a job interview and packed house within a small window of time. After a shortened summer break at my parents' in Ontario, I was now once again heading very quickly into the unknown. In the end, despite some small bumps and bruises, it has worked out pretty well.

When I left the lakes and forests of northern Saskatchewan for the mountains, snow and isolation of Nunavut, I wasn't sure what I was getting in to, just that another very unique phase of my career was about to begin. I wasn't even sure how long I'd be here. I figured (and, I'm sure, most others who knew me) figured I'd be here a year or two before moving on. Most teachers eventually do. But here I am 5 years later, winding down another school year and returning in the fall.

It seems to me that in Nunavut's smaller communities, most teachers stay for 2 or 3 years before moving on so it looks like I've beaten the average now. What has given me my staying power? I have ideas. Perhaps I will be able to spell them out more clearly in a future post. Will I still be here 5 years from now? I can't honestly say. I do know that as time passes, I take the view that I am not just here for adventure, an experience or a temporary change of scenery. This place is slowly growing on me and changing me. When I get off the plane now, I am no longer back just for more adventure (although I still do have that from time to time). When I get off the plane now, I feel that I am home.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Second City

After another "misreading of the bus schedule" episode, I still managed to catch a bus shortly after noon for Debrecen. (Now, for the most part I'm pretty good with schedules. Its just that I didn't read the fine print on the schedule, which was in Hungarian anyway, telling me that the morning bus I planned to take didn't run on Sundays.)

No worries though. I eventually ended up where I wanted to go. The long bus rides between towns are now pretty much over since the last few places I plan to see are a lot closer together. Considering Debrecen in Hungary's second largest city, my initial impression was that it seemed pretty comatose. Kind of strange when you consider who much history the city has. Hungary's Declaration of Independence from Austria was proclaimed here in 1849 and this is also where the country set up a provisional government in 1944. At any rate, there aren't a lot of major sights here I had planned to explore so I expect to have a couple of relaxing days before I head out. This place definitely has an "old Europe" vibe to it.

For the most part, I spent the day hanging around in the main square. A giant stage was set up and there was some sort of folk music concert on the go. My hotel is right on the main square too - a big art nouveau palace - spacey comfortable digs for sure. I have to say, that as far as hotels have been concerned on this trip, I've made out remarkably well. (knock on wood) Essentially, I'm just backpacking around and I've had quite a few nice hotel rooms considering I just show up at the front desk.

Before I forget, I should mention that I also have a (very) tenuous connection with Debrecen. Turns out one of my favourite history professors from my University of Windsor days is originally from here. I recall telling him I'd try to make it here if I ever got the opportunity.

Small world.

Saturday, July 19, 2008


After the heat and general confusion of Szeged, I've reached my little oasis on the Hungarian plain yesterday - Gyula. I'm here for a couple days so I can relax a little after a couple long travel days. What a nice little town, especially after all the bumpy back roads the bus rattled over to get here. I'm not too far from Romania at the moment and actually would have ended up there yesterday if the bus hadn't a last minute turn. The countryside was flat as Saskatchewan and I saw seemingly endless miles of corn and wheat fields along the way.

Gyula is turning out to be a very pedestrian-friendly little place with some interesting sights. It boasts a compact 15th century castle that I checked out yesterday. Considering how invasion-prone this area has been throughout history I'm quite impressed with the castle's condition. Perhaps the place was so small it wasn't deemed worth the trouble of attacking it. This is also one of the few castles I've visited that isn't built on a high hill so my knees are rejoicing.

My hotel is a bit rustic perhaps but it has a lot of character. Anyhow, my room faces the canal which meant a very restless sleep last night. This morning I visited a Romanian Orthodox Church along with a couple museums. One was a 19th century house of a well-to-do bourgeois family and the second was the birthplace of a Hungarian composer, Ferenc Erkel, of which I know very little but he was the man that wrote the music for the country's national anthem.

Having seen all the big sights, I plan to loaf around this afternoon after a good meal, do a little reading perhaps and of course look forward to the coming week which should put me up into the northeastern part of the country. There are at least a couple more castles I look forward to seeing, plus I will soon be visiting the towns of Tokaj and Eger, well-known in Europe for the great wines they produce.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Lost In Translation

As anyone who deals on a regular basis with second language issues can tell you, sometimes when you switch between languages, it just doesn't work.

Witness this little gem. I came across an interview by Blikk, a pop culture magazine here in Hungary. Back in the 1990s, the magazine interviewed pop icon Madonna, while she was shooting her movie "Evita" in Budapest. The questions were asked in Hungarian, translated into English for Madonna to respond to, and then translated back into Hungarian. Later, when the interview was picked up in the US, the transcript was re-translated back into English for American readers. The results were interesting to say the least.

Blikk - Madonna, Budapest says hello with arms that are spread-eagled. Are you in good odour? You are the biggest fan of our young people who hear your musical productions and like to move their bodies in response.

Madonna - Thank you for saying these compliments. Please stop with taking sensationalist photographs until I have removed my garments for all to see. (laughs) This is a joke I have made.

Blikk - Madonna, let's cut to the hunt. Are you a bold hussy woman that feasts on men who are tops?

Madonna - Yes, this is certainly something that brings to the surface my longings. In America it is not considered to be mentally ill when a woman advances on her prey in a discotheque setting with hardy cocktails present.

Blikk - Tell us how you met Carlos, your lover servant who is reputed? Did you know he was heaven-sent right off the stick? Or were you dating many other people in your bed at the same time?

Madonna - No, he was the only one I was dating in my bed then, so it is a scientific fact that the baby was made in my womb using him. But as regards those questions, enough! I am a woman not a test mouse!

Blikk - May we talk about your other "baby", your movie, then? Please do not be denying that the similarities between you and the real Evita are grounded in basis. Power, money, tastey food, Grammys - all these elements are afoot.

Madonna - What is up in the air with you? Evita was never winning a Grammy!

Blikk - Ok, here is a question from left space. What was your book "Slut" about?

Madonna - It was called "Sex", my book.

Blikk - Not in Hungary. Here is was called "Slut"...There is so much interest in you in this geographical region, so I must ask this final question. How many Hungarian men have you dated in bed? Are they No. 1? How are they compared to Argentine men, who are famous for being tip-top as well?

Madonna - Well, to avoid aggravating global tension, I won't say. It's a tie. (laughs) No, no. I am serious now. See here I am working like a canine all the way around the clock! I am too busy even to try the goulash that makes your country for the record books.

Blikk - Thank you for your candid chitchat.

Madonna - No problem, friend who is a girl.

Making It Up As I Go Along

After one night in a small town called Szigetvar, I caught a morning bus back to Pecs. This is where the fun started. Before leaving Pecs two days back, I noted when the bus was to leave from Pecs to the next place I wanted to go once I passed back through. Apparently I messed up when I thought I could get the next bus I wanted out of Pecs. I guess those little numbers next to the times on the bus schedules mean something afterall. I probably should have paid a little closer attention. So I didn't get out of Pecs at 10am as planned. I'm not sure that that particular bus was even running on that particular day. Oops. Rather than wait around until 3pm for the next bus to the place I hoped to get to (Kesckemet), I hopped on a 10:30am bus for a 4.5 hour trip over to Szeged, mere minutes from the Serbian border.

Now, on my map Szeged looked pretty simple to navigate. Its shaped sort of like a bicycle wheel cut in half with a river running along the bottom. Unfortunately, a lot of the inner streets I tried to follow as I searched for a hotel seem to have been drawn by a 5-year old with Attention Deficit Disorder. It seemed that at every intersection, streets changed names. The 33C weather certainly didn't help. The little map in my guide book left a little to be desired too as a few streets shown lacked a name. For the most part, I'm pretty good with finding my way around but I think the long bus ride coupled with the heat and fatigue was leaving me a little dazed and confused. Eventually, on the third try, and after a mere 2 hours of searching, I found a nice little hotel. I'm only here one night. There aren't many sights here that interest me - a couple churches, a couple minor palaces, the ubiquitous statues.

The plan was to use Szeged as a stepping stone to get over to the eastern part of Hungary. The entire transportation system here is well connected to Budapest but I'm finding that in the southern part of the country, getting around can be a bit tricky. Buses are the only real option. No worries, though. At least I have air conditioning now.

I plan to get extra early in the morning so I have plenty have of time to find my way back to the bus station. You know. Just in case.

(Now, hopefully, I'll find myself in Gyula, near the Romanian border tomorrow.....oh great.....Dracula.)

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Many Faces of George

Long-time readers of my blog will know I've taken many pictures of King George V over the past 3 years. Indeed, it does provide a rather stunning backdrop to the community here. And, so I present to you a number of shots taken over this past school year from August 2007 to May 2008. Enjoy!

Speaking with Hungarians

I won't pretend that I will be anywhere close to having a basic grasp of Hungarian by the end of my trip. For the most part, I've picked up a few basic words and rely on luck to help get me through. Normally, if I have trouble making myself understood I can always point at myself with a big dumb look on my face and say "Angolul...Canada." But, a few things did cause a bit of confusion at the start of my trip through.

1. The informal way of saying "hello" in Hungarian is "szia", which is pronounced like "see ya" in English. This same word is also used to say good-bye. It was a bit odd to my ears to hear "szia" when I would walk into a shop during my first few days here (hey, but I just got here!).

2. And just to throw in a wrinkle, a slangy way to say "good-bye" is "hello".

3. Also, more than a few times I've responded to a waiter using the Inuktitut word for "yes" because, to my brain at least, its very close to the Hungarian equivalent.

Thankfully, "nem problema" needs no translation!


Today is my last day in Pecs. I must say I've rather enjoyed the city. Initially I was thinking of giving the place a pass in order to travel through a few small places instead. I can say I'm very glad I changed my mind. Pecs is the 4th or 5th largest city here and is due to become Europe's "Culture Capital" in 2010, which will allow it do more fully develop its tourism and should led to the construction of a world-class concert hall, among other things. I spent the morning exploring a labryrinth of Roman and Christian burial sites along with parts of the city walls underneath the square and the cathedral. What surprised me was that many of these excavations are not behind glass. There are housed in an underground visitors centre but for the most part there's not a lot to prevent curious Canadians from walking right up to the old walls and vaults and touching them. The old frescoes were something to see.

Along with Sopron I'd have to say that Pecs is the place to go in Hungary to see such a wealth of Roman-era remains. I was able to get some decent pictures of some of the tomb sites that I definitely plan to post on my blog once I get back across the pond.

Tomorrow morning the plan is to grab a morning bus to the small town of Szigetvar (try saying that 10 times fast). Anyhow, the town holds the remains of a giant fortress that was attacked many times by the Ottomans. The 2500 Hungarian and Croatian defenders were pitted against 80 000 Turks. Needless to say the defenders were wiped out but not before the Ottomans lost about a quarter of their own force. Anyhow, the fortress covers a sizeable area from what I understand so I plan to spend the better part of tomorrow their before slowly working my way over to the eastern part of the country. This will mean a couple of long bus trips ahead of me but since there are a few more castles there it will all be worth it.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

The Deep South

I was up early this morning and bid farewell to the Balaton Lake region. I caught a 6:45am bus and headed all the way down to Pecs, not too far from the border with Croatia. Most of my bus trips up to this point had been little ones of no more than 2hours. This morning's haul was around 3.5 hours so it was a tad tiring with the earl rise and now the new surroundings. Not too bad though. I have a few more long hauls waiting over the next couple weeks so I figure I might as well get used to it. (I should mention before I forget that the north shore of Lake Balaton, which I passed through earlier in the week, has some of the best scenery I've ever seen...anywhere - rolling hills, vineyards, great views of the lake...and I hope to pass by there again in the future.)

Pecs is turning out to be a very interesting place. I plan to spend 3 days here which is just as well since I have a lot of territory to cover and today's heat was positively boiling. There are hundreds of ancient Christian and Roman graveyards buried right under the heart of the old town. A rather impressive structure is the Mosque Church which I believe is now a Christian church although the Islamic architecture and art work on the walls is still very prominent. I believe there is a mosque not far from my hotel that I plan to see before I leave. I also several minutes walking along the old town bastions, marvelling at the the bishop's palace and gazing up at the bascilica....positively huge.

I took a short siesta to get away from the heat and Ive just spent the past hour aimlessly wandering the streets of the Old Town. Since its Sunday, its pretty quiet so even though I am in one of the country's largest cities, I am left with the feeling of having the whole joint to myself. Shortly it will be back to the hotel for some R and R before I set out to explore tomorrow.

I do have to say that the only mistake I made when planning this venture is that I miscalculated the number of days I had to work with. I don't catch my train back to Zurich until August 3rd. Now that I've reached Pecs I've pretty much been to all the places I originally planned to visit...and I've been impressed with them all. There are only a couple more places on my "absolutely must see" list. After that, I turn into a real adventurer and hope to head off for a place or two NOT in my guidebook. Must be the jazz player in me.....just making it up as I go along.

Oh, and for anyone wondering, I really did try to order that rooster testicle stew the other night. Unfortunately, or fortunately, if you're a rooster I suppose, the restaurant didn't have that dish available on that particular evening.

Friday, July 11, 2008

"Waiter, I'll Have The......"

I'll admit I haven't been all that adventuruous when it comes to food choices over here. For the most part I stick to the dishes I know.....chicken, beef, fish and the odd steak. Occassionally I've challenged myself with the Hungarian versions of these staple meats and I have to say it's all been quite good. The wine menus here would more than compensate in the event I made a choice that didn't agree with me I'm sure. One menu item I saw has me very curious though.

As I was perusing the menu outside one restaurant here in Veszprem I saw...


Honest to God, I kid you not. But, you does come with a side order of dumplings. Actually my curiousity is piqued. I'm here through the weekend before I set off to explore the southern part of the country, so maybe, just maybe, I might give it a go. It can't be that bad. I'm quite certain it was much worse for the roosters involved.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

On the Shores of Lake Balaton

I departed Sumeg this morning and have now made it to Keszthely, on the western shore of Lake Balaton. This must be the only town on the lake that doesn't derive its tourist dollars from hordes of vacationers seeking the pleasures of the lake. I think the shoreline is a bit too reedy but it does have nice views. (And it was nice just to stare out at the birds and sailboats and the surrounding hills without the sound of loud motorboats or jet skis.)

As I discovered, its the big palace here where most of the tourists seem to end up at. I popped up there shortly after arriving for some pictures but I'll save the grand tour of the inside for tomorrow. There were just too many people around for me to handle. Well I see from a glance outside that the rain clouds have moved in. We're getting pummeled with rain (but at least it will keep temperatures on the cool side.) Good thing I brought my guide book with me to serve as an umbrella for an anticipated soggy walk back to the hotel.

Stay dry folks!

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


I find myself in the small town of Sumeg at the moment with its imposing medieval castle sitting atop a limestone cliff. Thankfully, we had some rain last night which cooled things down for me. I had short run in with a snake at the castle yesterday (don't worry, it was live but in a basket)...freaky looking all the same. This morning around 5am, I was awaken by the sound of a rather enthusiastic rooster...definitely something you don't run across living well north of the Arctic Circle.

Tomorrow I look forward to catching my first glimpse of Lake Balaton.

Sunday, July 06, 2008


For anyone curious, I'm not dead. I've just been away from a keyboard for a bit longer than usual. The last few days have been a blast as I slowly meander my way down the western end of Hungary toward Lake Balaton. Trip highlights so far have included the 1000-year-old Benedictine Abbey in Pannonalma (the second largest in Europe after Italy's Monte Casino by the way) and a day trip to the Eszterhazy Palace in Fertod where composer Joseph Haydn spent 30 years of his life. I even had a chance to walk through the room where his well-known "Farewell" Symphony was premiered. Oh yes, and I've seen more Roman artifacts than you could shake a stick at.

At the moment I'm in Sarvar. I toured around the castle yesterday (from what I know there was a countess here at one point who enjoyed feasting on the blood of young girls and women....tastey.....more likely though it was just a nasty Habsburg plot) and now I'm just taking it easy. And yes I'm in some pretty nice digs - a fantastic 4 star hotel. I swear that except for the two young girls at the reception I'm the only person here under 50. But the room is fantastic. I came here yesterday from a 2-star hotel in Koszeg where there was barely enough room to swing a dead cat and now I'm ensconsed in luxury. Better enjoy it while it lasts. I won't be able to do this once I get down to Lake Balaton I'm sure.

I'm already way past the point of where I thought I'd be when I first started planning this grand venture and I'm not due to fly back to Canada for a month so it looks like I'll have tons of time to explore. Which suits me just fine.