Destination: Budapest, Hungary

24 08 2009

I’ve seen the future, and it is Budapest”. The status message a friend of mine posted on Facebook was clear enough: he had fallen in love with Budapest, and frankly, you can’t blame him.

Whether you are looking for architectural gems or bustling nightlife, Budapest is worth exploring both by day and night, winter and summer.

Sights

Listing all the sights of Budapest in this article is nearly impossible. The city has been wonderfully preserved, despite the turbulent past, and is truly a gem.

I’ll spare you the typical sights you can find in any decent guidebook of the city: the Parliament, St Stephen’s Cathedral, Castle district, … For architecture lovers, there is an abundance of both Barok and Secession-gems over the entire city.

For a different Budapest, head out to the City Park, just behind Hero’s Square. It is an entertainment hub with the Budapest Zoo, one of the oldest of Europe, the amusement park and of course the Széchényi thermal baths.

Even if you’re not into architecture, you simply have to sample the baths. Don’t plan much that day, for once inside, you’ll easily spend half a day in there.

No wonder the Park is a favourite place for the inhabitants as well, and during winter time, the park lake is drained and transformed into a open air ice rink.

Transportation

Budapest is a large city, in fact, it’s two cities, and distances can be quite long. Luckily, Budapest has a vast tram and bus network that crosses the entire city.  Night busses cater those that want to paint the city red.

Even taxis are not really expensive, in comparison to the rest of Europe, and can take you anywhere. Avoid taxis that are not a part of the larger taxi companies (those with a name on the door).

Food&Drinks

Gourmet lovers are in for a treat in Budapest, the city is serious about its’ food and drinks.

The most famous bar, café and bistro is without doubt Gerbeaud. Founded in 1858, it was (and still is) the place where the intellectual and the elite came to sip away at their coffees. Today, it is the place to indulge in the pastries and be awed at the original interior. Gerbeaud is truly a coffee experience.

 Central Kávéhaz Etterem, tradition and modernity. Respect for traditions, openness to new ideas. That’s how this city centre bar and restaurant describes itself. The kitchen is both cosmopolitan and classical Hungarian, the atmosphere loungy, the staff simply adorable.

1000 Tea is well hidden and requires a map. In a small courtyard off lower Váci utca stand a small house, where it is all about tea. Living up to it’s name, the menu only caters tea, but offers such a variety, any tea-addict needs half an hour to pick just one. Lounge in typical Asian style in a Nepalese corner, or go colonial in one of the reed salons. Found your favourite blend ? Then take it home with you, thanks to the small shop.

 Nightlife

Budapest is known for it’s nightlife. Both regular as gay scenes party all night long and the list of bars, clubs, casinos, theatres and pubs is virtually endless. Have a look around in the city centre or browse this list of best clubs and venues.

 Shopping

While Budapest isn’t really Europe’s shopping capital, it makes up with it’s reasonable prices and great atmosphere. Downtown offers the large brands and typical shopping sprees you can find all around Europe.

Around Christmas, almost every square transforms into a Christmas market, with original products.

Photo Gallery

Budapest Parliament

Budapest Parliament

 

 

 

 

 

The Danube

The Danube

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Destination: Mechelen (Malines), Belgium

14 08 2009

In this series of closer looks at destinations all around the globe, the first post just had to have my own home city in it.

Hidden right in between Antwerp and Brussels, this provincial city is without doubt one of the best hidden gems of Belgium.  With as much official monuments as Bruges and a history as home-city of the Habsburgan dynasty, this rather unknown city has all trump cards in her hand.

When tourists think of Belgium, they think of the typical medieval cities such as Bruges, Antwerp, Ghent or Brussels. Few know there are quite some hidden gems about though. Mechelen, the city where a popular legend tells how the citizens once tried to extinguish the moon when they had mistaken her light for a fire in the belltower, is certainly one of them.

Mechelen is on the rise again since ten years now. A huge effort has been put in to make the city cleaner, safer, more attractive and more welcoming. And it pays off…

Only twenty minutes by car from Brussels international Airport, the city is much less tourist-trampled than her big neighbours. On top of that, it is the perfect staging area for trips to cities as Brussels and Antwerp, which are both only 20 mintes away.

Sights

Mechelen has been a historic capital of Western Europe for years in the middle ages. The historic city center is absolutely packed with beautiful architecture. The city is dominated by the cathedral of Saint-Rumbold, the patron saint of the city. Make sure you visit the old palace of Charlemange and his aunt, Margareth of Austria.

Spearpoint of the urban renewal the city went through in the last few years, is without doubt the area around ‘Lamot’.
Once an old brewery with all of its warehouses, the rundown neighbourhood is now a modern complex of shops, living quarter, trendy bars and the Lamot museum complex, all along the banks of the river Dijle.

Mechelen prides itself on being a city for children as well, and with the largest country zoo (only a boat-ride away), the toy museum and the children’s science museum, Technopolis, Mechelen truly deserves the title ‘Children’s City’

Transportation

Mechelen can easily be done on foot. In fact, its the best way to explore the historic city. Bus routes run throughout the city and connect you to the sights that are situated outside the inner city. The city has built a ‘River Bank Water Walk’, a pedestrian boardwalk on the water of the River Dijle, throughout the city, away from traffic.

Water is indeed never far away in Mechelen, and the boat rides on the river Dyle are a fun way to discover the city from another viewpoint. Mind your head when going underneath a medieval bridge though !

With two railway stations, the rest of Belgium is never far away. Antwerp and Brussels are only twenty minutes away by train, as is the airport. Intercity busses are a bit cheaper, but take you longer.

Food&Drinks

Mechelen is the city of young urbanites, who sure know and love the finer cuisines. The city is absolutely packed with interesting pubs and restaurants.

Be sure to check out the ‘Vismarket’ (fish market). The small market place, on the right bank of the river Dyle transforms into a trendy quarter at night (or on sunny afternoons).

De Gouden Vis
(the golden fish), hidden in a narrow alleyway, caters a typical atmosphere. With its’ Art Deco exterior and classical interior, its well known as a good pub to talk the night away.

Atlas is a small but cosy world kitchen restaurant which caters delicious food from all over the world. Well-known, a reservation up front is no luxury.

Finding a decent restaurant isn’t hard at all in Mechelen. Just stroll around the city center and you’ll find one on every corner.

Mechelen has always been a city of breweries, and even although most of them have vanished throughout the history, Brewery Het Anker nowadays brews the popular city beer Golden Carolus. The brewery doesn’t only offer tours, it also has a restaurant and pub, specialised in the beers they brew. The brewery is the place to get emerged into the local (strong) beers.

Nightlife

Mille , once a fish store, is now a trendy cocktail bar annex night club which serves a nice fusion kitchen. 

Barramundo is a trendy lounge bar and fusion restaurant in the shadow of the Saint-Rumbold-tower. It often offers live DJ sets, a great atmosphere and a large selection of cocktails and spirits.

Looking for latin beats, knock-out cocktails and a party that lasts until dawn ?
Then Bar Popular on the Vismarkt is your place-to-be. Make sure to order a cab afterwards to get home.

Shopping

Mechelen has two shopping streets, but for true shopping spree, I advice going to Brussels or Antwerp. You can find almost any Belgian specialty (beer and chocolates) in Mechelen as well though. Make sure to sample and buy some of the local beer, the Golden Carolus, as well.

Paté du Chef, located at the Vismarkt (where else) is a shop specialised in all the things you absolutely don’t need but want to indulge yourself.

De Goesting specialises in gourmet food and ingredients for exclusive cooking. They also offer a wide array of world wines and spirits.

Dream, at the trendy Haverwerf (Lamot), is the place for gifts.

Photo Gallery

Lamot





Get-your-gear: Sleeping bags

14 08 2009

Of all my trekking gear, I’m most fan of my sleeping bag. And why shouldn’t I be : it has kept me warm through rain, wind and snow and allowed me to rest sufficiently to get my strength up again for the next day’s trek.

Equipping the right sleeping bag is crucial to the success of your trip. In this article, we look deeper into the world of the bags and try to give out some tips to keep in mind when buying a new sleeping bag.

Bagging it….

As with tents, and with all equipment purchases, the first question is always: ‘what will I be using this sleeping bag for ?’

This gives you a general idea of the circumstances you will be using your sleeping bag in.

Do you plan a summer’s night out or some serious winter camping ?
The first and foremost goal of a good sleeping bag is keeping you warm during the night (and if need be, day, when you have to sit out a storm).

Most sleeping bags have temperature ratings, often divided in a comfort and risk zone. There is no real standard rating for sleeping bags, but as a general rule, I always tend to ignore the risk zones. You want to stay comfortable, not walk the tightrope.

Think of the coldest temperature you might experience, then drop down another ten degrees (Celsius). That number is a safe indicator of which sleeping bag you’ll be needing.

Sleep like an Egyptian…

Sleeping bags come in all sizes and shapes…and they do so for a reason.

In general, two major shapes can be found: rectangular or mummy-shaped bags.

Rectangular bags give you more space to move about during your sleep. They don’t really restrict movement during sleep. Since they have larger openings, there is also more room for the heat to escape. They don’t keep you as warm as their mummy counterparts, and are the ideal summer sleeping bags.

Mummy sleeping bags fit around the body and often have a hood as well. They are indeed ideal for colder camping. Since almost half of your body heat escapes via the head, hoods can indeed make the difference. Fitting your body closely, there is minimal heat loss and your body doesn’t need as much energy to warm the sleeping bag.

Does size matter ?

There have been discussions on the need of female-specific sleeping bags, bags in different sizes and the like. Do you need them ? In short: yes !

The answer can be found in the way sleeping bags work in combination with your body.

By heating up the air in between your body and the bag, you get warm yourself. All the bags does is keeping the heat in. The more there is in between you and your bag, the more energy your body needs to warm the air.

On the other hand, if the bag fits too tight, the insulation inside gets pushed together, loosing a part of it’s ability to keep the warmth. Pick a bag just a little bit larger than you are: it gives a bit of extra space to stretch, toss and turn, but will still keep you warm.

Birds of a feather…

Another important decision you need to make is whether you go for a synthetic fill or a genuine down feather bag.

Down feather sleeping bags are more expensive. Period.
Another disadvantage to down feather fillings is that a wet sleeping bag is a cold sleeping bag: the feathers stick together and will not insulate as much anymore until they are dry again.

They do have some advantages over synthetic bags though: not only are they warmer, they also last longer. Many people claim they are also more comfortable, although such is up to the sleeper’s taste.

Synthetic sleeping bags don’t warm as good as their feathery colleagues, but are cheaper and often lighter as well. Although I recommend not getting any sleeping bag wet, they do work better until wet conditions.

Ten Tips to Bag it…

To finish off, I’ll leave you with a series of tips to keep in mind when buying your sleeping bag:

1) Some models come with in-built pockets. It seems a great idea, until you sleep a night on your keys or you crush your watch under your weight.

2) Get a bag lining for your sleeping bag (silk for down, cotton for synthetic). It doesn’t only add a few degrees of warmth to your bag, you also have to wash it less often.

3) Remember: each time you wash your sleeping bag, you loose a temperature degree

4) For serious winter camping, get a model with a shoulder/neck collar to seal the warmth in

5) You don’t need to sleep in the nude, a simple, comfortable layer of thin clothing warms as good as simply skin. But if you want to….feel free

6) Check if your zippers can be opened from the inside of the bag as well, or you’ll be giving a rather hilarious imitation of a giant caterpillar in the morning.

7) Never, ever store your sleeping bag for long periods in their carrying bag. Keep them loosely tucked away or hung up somewhere dry instead.

8 ) Stuff it, don’t roll it.

9) Combine it with a good sleeping mat to insulate from the ground up

10) Snuggle away after a long day of trekking!





Get-your-gear: How to buy a tent ?

13 08 2009

Buying a tent is an important purchase. The right tent can be the difference between a comfortable night outdoors or a sleepless sit-through in the cold and rain.

 There are many tents available in your typical outdoor store: different types, different brands, different materials and also, very different prices. In this article we’ll look at the important characteristics of a tent and how you can decide which tent is just right for you.

 What you need is what you get…

 The most expensive or the best equipped tent isn’t necessarily the best tent for your needs.

As with all equipment, you should ask yourself: what am I going to use this new tent for ?

If it is just to survive your local music festival overnight ? A family camping trip with the kids ? Or a trekking through snow and rock perhaps ?

It is important to have a good idea in which conditions and circumstances you’ll be using your tent, so you won’t experience unpleasant surprises when using it later on.

 Three is a crowd…

 The first thing you need to ask yourself is how many people will be sleeping in the tent.

You’ll find that tents are labelled with their capacity in your local outdoor store. Yet, don’t be fooled: a tent destined for two people means just that: two people in their sleeping bags, with often little elbow or moving space.

 Do you want to store your backpacks or kit in the tent as well ? Or do you want some level of manoeuvring comfort ? Often it is better to pick a capacity which is one or even two persons above the number of people who will be using it. 
 
If you plan to use your tent for the family camping trips, make sure you look into the multi-roomed tents. These look on the outside like one big tent, but have separate one or two-person compartments inside. Tents in a tent if you wish.

 The change of the seasons

 Another item you’ll often find on the tent labels are a certain numbers of seasons: this number represents the way in which it can handle weather conditions such as rain, strong winds, snow, …

1 season tent:

These are often small, cheap tents, ideal for the kids in the garden. They are only suitable for ideal, summerlike conditions and are more of a toy than a real tent.

2 seasons tent:

Two-seasons tents are typical summer tents and often have larger mesh areas to stimulate ventilation and battle summer heat. This makes them excellent tents for a warmer climate, especially if they are also equipped with a full mesh canopy that keeps out insects. They can mostly hold mild rains as well.

 3 seasons tent:

This is the workhorse amongst regular tents: it is often a versatile tent that can withstand most normal weather conditions and terrain. Even though they sometimes have a tendency to get a little warm in sunny conditions, they still have enough ventilation. In combination with a good sleeping bag, this tent can also keep you warm and comfortable throughout most of the year, rough rains and even early, soft snowfall.

4 seasons tent:

These tents are prepared for the rough work: often very good insulated, with strong guy line structures against the wind. Ideal for rough terrains or more severe weather conditions. If you are going to be using it in the snow, make sure to pick one in a bright colour such as orange. It helps you finding your tent quickly again when you have to go out. These are trekking tents, no doubt about it.

 Carrying the load…

 There is a golden rule in backpacking and trekking and it also applies on tents: You have to carry what you pack.

 Tents can range widely in weight, depending on the materials they are made off, their size, the poles, …

If you are going to have to carry your tent yourself, you might want to be looking out for a lightweight tent. There are lightweight carbon-fibre tents who still offer full protection, but they are often quite expensive as well, being the technical marvels they are.

 If you plan a road-trip, or if you don’t really have to carry your tent around, weight matters less and you shouldn’t really worry.

 Ten Tent Tips…

 To finish off, I’ll leave you with a series of tips to keep in mind when buying your tent:

 1) Aluminium poles are stronger than their fibreglass counterparts.

2) Check the seams: double-seamed tents are not only stronger, but also dryer.

3) Exercise: you don’t want to have to find out how to put the tent up in the rain

4) Look for a tent in which the outer wall goes up first, it keeps the inside one dry when you put it up in the rain.

5) Always carry a tent repair kit or plain old duct tape.

6) Look for a tent that has ‘ripstop’ technology, which prevents further tearing when damaged.

7) Get those guy lines up, you never know what the weather will be changing into.

8 ) Inspect the stakes: are they strong enough or do they bend/ruin easily ?

9) Make sure the flooring of your tent is sturdy, waterproof and covers all.

10) Have fun with it !





First Aid on the go : your first aid kit

6 08 2009

I never travel without a seriously stocked first aid kit. I’m willing to cut down on other travel gear in order to travel as light as possible, but never on the first aid kit.

You don’t have to experience life-threathening accidents to need one, even a simple insect sting or splinter can become a travel nightmare.

When you’re in doubt, always consult a doctor or hospital, when not…this is what my first aid kit typically looks like.

  • bandages or bandage gauss + adhesive tape to keep them in place
    (don’t go for the metal clips to hold them, they just don’t stand the test)
  • band aids , water proof
  • disinfectant
  • insect repellant + insect sting treatment
  • pain relief  (paracetamol-based)
  • stomach relief (against nausea, vomiting, …)
  • bowel relief (against both too much and too little)
  • muscle pain relief
  • blister relief (second skin solutions are quite handy)
  • solar block with a sufficient protection
  • a good pair of small tweezers (they come with my swiss army knife)
  • a large needle (again blisters and splinters)
  • safety pins (also for general quick repair needs)
  • cotton wool pads (as you find in de-make up pads)
  • any personal medication you might need

I never invested in a fancy first aid satchel, a resealable freezer bag can as easily be used. It keeps things dry as well, can easily be replaced and doesn’t take much place.

If you do find yourself out of necesarry equipment and medication, these travel-savvy tips might come in handy:

  • Vinegar

    Do you happen to pass by a road restaurant and see those small bags of vinegar ? Don’t you just discard them, because they have a medical use as well.Vinegar can be applied as relief in case of jellyfish stings and some insect bites. Not only will you find relief, but in elegance, it beats peeing on yourself as a solution.

  • Apples

    Take an apple, peel and core it and leave the pieces exposed to the open air for a while. You’ll see they turn the typical brownish colour ?Excellent, you now have diarrhea relief at hand !You might want to think twice before washing your apple though…often it’s the water which caused the diarrhea in the first place !

  • OnionsWhen you suffer from a first degree burn,  expel excess heat by running cool water over the burn for several minutes, then cut an onion in half and let it rest on the wound.Onions contain a mild analgesic which is supposed to help heal first degree burns.
  • Candle wax and tapeLeft with your hand full of thorns and you don’t have any tweezers at hand ?Light a candle and pour melted wax on the hand, let the wax harden, then peel it off. This should free the more stubborn spines. 

    Or you can use the sticky side of  tape to gently remove any thorns left in your flesh.





The Welsh Lady…

5 08 2009

She was 81, but you wouldn’t have given her a day older than 65. The rain hat pulled firmly over her bonnet, she was losing a wrestle with gravity, her bike and a newly bought drying rack. Her hand bled already, most probably from a previous stumble.

At first, she wouldn’t want me to help her, but eventually she allowed me to carry her drying rack for her. With concern over my youthful health, she warned: ‘But it’s still a long way to go, sir…’

While walking up to her home, we started talking. As many conversations go, it started with the weather and evolved to holidays and travel plans. When I told her I was bound for Wales the next days, she suddenly stopped in her pace. In the pouring rain, she looked up at me. “Oh but sir !”

war in MechelenIt was as if we had been catapulted to the years of the war. An era in which a young girl from my hometown Mechelen met a young Welsh soldier.

He bunked at the (in)famous Dossin-site, she happened to walk by.

Even during war years, people are as they are and the young couple get married, the young girl following her husband to a little village just outside Cardiff. Each morning he has to take the train, catch another train and eventually arrive at work by bus. Work at that time is in the greater London area, because besides the coal mines, Wales hadn’t really much to offer in terms of employment.

“But it was ever so beautiful, sir…”

After ten months, the first baby is on it’s way, but salaries are modest. At the end of the month, managing the household is quite the challenge. The young mother, used to working when she lived in Belgium, wants to go out and work herself again, something which wasn’t really seen that time in Wales.

After two years, the family returns to Mechelen, to stay this time. He until he passed on several years ago, she until today, in the rain.

“And the wild horses, sir…”

wild horses in WalesHer story shifts to a hard winter, with up to two metres of fresh snow in the small village in Wales. Roofs moan under the frost and snow and no one goes out to work. The stove burns and wild horses descend from the mountain range to the valley, in search for food. People tend to chase the horses off, but secretly, she feeds one of the stallions with some stale bread.

The next morning, the house is woken by heavy knocking on the wooden door. Hooves clatter and once the door opens, they find a stallion in the living room. He has returned for more and will do so each day, the rest of the winter.

In the meanwhile, we have arrived in her street, and she now tells me about her children and grandchildren. She offers to pay me for carrying her purchases, which I refuse. I settle instead for the promise of a coffee the next time we meet in the streets.

Only then, it will be my turn to tell stories about Wales…





First Aid on the go: altitude disease

5 08 2009

Whether you are a seasoned mountaineer, a first-time trekker or just embarking your airplane at Cuzco, your body reacts to the altitude you’ve reached. And while everyone has at least heard of altitude sickness, there are still many urban legends and misconceptions about it.

An attempt to answer some questions about it…

1) What is altitude disease / mountain sickness ?

Few people know three types of altitude disease exist, mainly because they are often recognised as the same illness.

In general, altitude disease is a series of symptoms your body experiences when it reaches high altitudes. There’s less oxygen in the air you breathe, causing the body problems.

Type A of altitude disease, better known as ‘mountain sickness’, is what most people would call altitude disease. The body enters a constant state of hyperventilation to make up for the lower amount of oxygen in the air. Hunger and thirst seem to disappear. Gradually, when getting worse, it starts causing nausea, headaches and the like.

Type B, better known as HAPE (high altitude pulmonary oedema), is the possibility that the body suffers from oedema in the lungs due to the lack of oxygen.

Type C, better known as HACE (high altitude cerebral oedema), is the possibility that the body suffers from oedema in the brain due to the lack of oxygen.

A patient can suffer from just one of these types or any combination of the three.

Another possible danger at high altitude is dehydration. Water is a necessity for the body, but alot of it is lost again through sweating or urinating. It is the body’s way to get rid of it’s waste. Water is also lost through the air we breathe out. As the body enters a state of constant hyperventilation, we breathe out more often than we normally do, losing a larger amount of water. Combined with the fact the body does no longer experience thirst, dehydration is a risk.

2) How do I know I suffer from altitude disease ?

The first symptoms are often the loss of hunger and thirst. Far from dangerous, this simple requires a mental resilience: force yourself to eat and drink at regular times, even if you’re not hungry or thirsty. Soup is ideal in the mountains: it’s not just extra liquids, it also contains the necessary salt and fat.

The first real physical symptoms are often headaches, nausea, feeling light in the head and a general fatigue. Allow your body to rest sufficiently, take your time and take it easy.

Things get more severe when vomiting, difficulties breathing, confusion and hallucinations appear. Coughing and being unable to walk a straight line are also typical signs altitude disease is worsening.

When it seems you, or one of your companions is seriously drunk without having had a single drop of alcohol, you know there’s trouble about.

3) How do I avoid altitude disease ?

While you can’t always avoid it, there are two golden rules:

a. Take your time !

When you remain at larger altitudes, your body releases a hormone which stimulates the production of red blood cells. More of these red blood cells mean a larger capacity of the body to pump oxygen through your body, making up for the lack of oxygen in the air. It is the classical altitude camp for professional athletes.

This also means the slower you gain altitude, the more time your body gets to adapt to it’s new surroundings. Nothing’s harder than exiting a plane at 4000 m. altitude (like Cuzco). It’s much easier (oxygen-wise that is) to slowly trek up to that altitude on foot, taking your time.

b. Trek high, sleep low !

Always try to sleep lower than the altitude you trek on during the day. Not only is nighttime the best time to allow your body to rest and adapt, it is also often the longest period of the day you remain at one spot and altitude (six up to eight hours a day).

4) Will I get altitude disease ?

It is almost impossible to predict whether someone will suffer from any of the types of altitude disease or not and at what altitude symptoms might kick in. Age, gender, body type, …, there are no real variables that allow us to say someone is bound to get it or not. Some people develop it as early as 2500 metres altitude, while others still inflate their bed mats at 4000 metres without gasping for air.

Generally, the better your physical condition, the better your body can solve the oxygen-problems. People who suffer from overweight, asthma or other general artery or breathing-troubles, will have a higher chance of early altitude disease symptoms.

5) How do I cure altitude disease ?

Most important of all, there is only one cure for altitude disease: descend !

I know there is altitude disease medication available out there, but those cure nothing. The only thing they do is suppress the symptoms for a while, often long enough to allow you to start descending. You might feel better after taking those pills, but that does not mean the altitude disease has disappeared all of a sudden.

It certainly doesn’t mean you can go on to reach that summit as you were doing before. Ignoring altitude disease can be lethal, even though it is a disease which can simply be cured and does not have to be dangerous.