Thursday, August 7, 2014

DAY 51 – 5 August 2014; Budapest to Ljubljana

The sad fact that Budapest was not given enough time to explore kept haunting me through the night. But then, every city cannot be explored fully during this journey and many important ones will be missed too. The deadline to complete the tour is paramount. In the next 25 days the journey will end in London. Therefore, visits to many cities, I reckon, to be merely data markers, those that have to be returned to as possible. Thus, Moscow, St. Petersburg, Astana, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, etc have already entered the list of places to be explored in detail later. The wonderful people we have made friends with in all the places we have travelled to so far have made the trip remarkable. To this list were added Jithesh, Mahesh and Francis and his family yesterday. None of them, including the names mentioned, need have done what they did. But all of them factored us into their equation and helped us make the most of our short visit to the places that we travelled to.

I had only fruits for breakfast. The heavy non-vegetarian portion in the buffet was skipped. The drive was nearly 500 kms and I did not want to do that on a heavy stomach, lest I feel sleepy en route. Moreover, there was forecast of rain too. The receptionist at the NH Hotel in Budapest was a sweet chap. Yesterday he helped us completed the check in quickly. This morning he helped with the check out process, the car parking ticket and directions to leave the hotel for the highway. He also wished us the best to complete the journey successfully – I had shared with him yesterday why we were in the City.

We left the Hotel by 7.15 am and almost was out of the City without a hitch when the Navigator lost track of the GPS signal and ‘fooled’ me into taking a couple of wrong turns. I lost about 15 minutes to correct the mistake and got on to the right highway after tanking up. While Hungary is part of the European Union they are not part of the Euro Zone. Hence, most transactions are done using the Hungarian Florin. Fortunately, the travel card avoids exchange of currency. The preloaded Euro Card converts and charges instantaneously, without any additional charges. My next task was to get a Toll Card for Slovenia. This system is extremely convenient and completely avoids toll booths and attendant paraphernalia. The toll card can be bought at the border from any fuel station or tobacconist. It is in two parts – one to be stuck on the windshield and the other to be kept as back up. Various countries have various minimum days for charge. The Slovenian one was for ten days and cost me Euro 15. With the sticker displayed on the windshield one can travel in all the highways of Slovenia for 10 days without having to stop for any other payment for using the highways. This is a very convenient system and could be done without a hassle in India too; stickers could be bought for each state at the entry point or even for the whole country at the start point so that the entire toll gate administration can be dismantled and costs reduced. I stopped immediately after I entered Slovenian territory and tanked up besides buying the toll sticker. Slovenia is a member of the Euro Zone.

The road from Budapest to Ljubljana was a beauty. The highways were mostly cleared for 130 kmph. In less than 5 hours I was in the city. The navigation system malfunctioned once again at the wrong time and I was forced to seek instructions from two sources before I located the Hotel. The Slovenska Cheska is one of the main streets in Ljubljana and the Hotel Centre was located on that. They did not have parking facilities and hence, was directed to use a public garage, not far from the hotel, on payment. The hotel was being renovated – summer is the time when all works are undertaken so that everything works fine during the winter. The same is the case with roads too. Lal and I had a double room booked through Mirus, Delhi. While the room was adequate, I thought that the rate was a bit steep at Euro 66 for the facilities. However, the cheerful girl at the reception offered us apples and bottled water, as many as we wanted – something that had never happened in any other hotel during the journey thus far. She also helped us connect effortlessly to the WiFi. Besides, she told us that we could take advantage of the walking tour of the City so that time could be best utilised. With all that information we met up with Uros, Mahesh’s (of Budapest) friend and business associate. He took us out for lunch to the Katrca Restaurant, one that was established in 1905 and specialised in Slovenian cuisine. Two of his friends joined us and we exchanged views on the development of Slovenia since its independence in 1991. Whether the breakup of Yugoslavia helped the various new countries is still a hotly debated issue. While it certainly helped the political ambitions of many the economic effects are subdued, particularly after 2008. Youngsters were migrating out of the country as they were unable to find suitable jobs in Slovenia. However, they were of the opinion that life had become better in the past two decades; the flip side is that the pace of life picked up after the break up – they had to work harder now to put bread on the table, so to say. Of the 2 million population of Slovenia about 20 per cent lived in Ljubljana. While officially Catholic few youngsters practiced the religion. Another interesting fact is that more and more youngsters opt to live in without marrying so that they can get out of a relationship without judicial and religious hassles! The custody of kids is invariably with the mother; any live in relationship of two years and more has the same entitlements as in marriage – maintenance has to be paid by the man to support the woman and child.

The first course of the food arrived. Carrot soup with the special bread was the right way to start the meal. It was followed by a bowl of salad and a huge portion of pork and sauteed potatoes. The salad of radish, cabbage, beans, onion and lettuce was dressed with Italian vinegar and pumpkin sauce. It was delightfully crunchy and tasty. The pork was succulent and juicy. It was tough to get through the portion – to incentivise myself to finish the portion I decided that I would not have dinner! An egg based souffle topped up with raspberry sauce completed the meal. I could barely get up from the seat.

Uros had arranged to get us a taxi to the start point of the walking tour. Frankly speaking I was stuffed beyond capacity and what I actually wanted was a good rest in bed. But with little time available in the city I forced myself to take part in the tour. A lady volunteer conducted a group of nearly 30 tourists from the Preseren Square. The Preseren statue, Franciscan Church, Triple Bridge, Central Market, St. Nicholas Cathedral, Dragon and Butcher’s Bridges, Parliament, Slovenian Philharmonic building, Monastery, etc were covered in the walk that consumed the whole of 150 minutes. She kept up a lively commentary explaining the importance of each location and the history of the City. I particularly liked the story of the Preseren statue. It is said that the church officials were up in arms against the naked figure of the muse who voluptuous breasts offended devotees and priests alike as the statue was in front of the Franciscan Church. Efforts were made to remove the statue, which did not fructify. A priest even climbed on top of the statue and covered the breasts with a stole. That did not outlast the first strong wind which revealed the pulchritude of the muse all over again! Some wise men gathered and planted a few trees in front of the statue so that the muse and her naked breasts would remain hidden from those emerging after prayer from the church!! The trees are still there beside the statue.

At the start of the tour the volunteer had warned us of pick pockets, particularly in the Market and the St. Nicholas Cathedral. As she was explaining the reliefs on the door of the Cathedral a lady police officer came by. She mentioned to the volunteer that a tourist had his backpack lifted inside the Cathedral! Such incidents do occur. But, by and large, there is hardly any threat to life and property in the City. By the time we finished the walking tour dark clouds had gathered sufficiently to send street vendors looking for cover. We bought a salad and doughnuts for dinner. I could not have had another heavy meal. Just as we reached the hotel the skies opened up and the City was drenched in heavy showers. The River Ljubljanica was muddy and dark brown owing to the storm of the previous evening. Locals fear that the rains today will raise the level of water in the river. 51 days, 16 countries, 18000 plus kms done thus far and 24 days, 11 countries and an estimated 7000 kms to go. It has been a fabulous journey – a journey embellished by new friends and acquaintances.

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