Stripping down and easing in to a thermal bath is perhaps the only must-do on a traveller’s visit to Budapest. Pioneered by the Romans and Celts millennia ago and then developed by the Turks in the 17th Century, public bathing has become a cornerstone of Hungarian society. It’s on my third day in Budapest that I decide to take the plunge inside the impressive, art-deco walls of the Gellert Baths.
I follow cryptic signs between towering stone columns into the segregated bathing areas where a gruff attendant with an ample moustache snatches my token, thrusts a white loin cloth at me and points down the hall. In the privacy of the change room I hold the scrap up to the light and study it with hesitant fascination. To call it modest is being generous; to me it just looks like a ring of dental floss sewn on to a white handkerchief. I experiment with the apron tied in various positions before giving up on ever achieving an acceptable level of cover, figuring that I may as well flaunt it like the locals do.
The Gellert Baths in Budapest are a marvel of art-deco architecture. Enlarge »
I self-consciously slink into bathing area, surrounded by intricate mosaic-covered walls and the tang of sulphur rising from the steaming water, and lower myself into the warm pool. Within minutes I’ve found myself a corner perch, have closed my eyes and am letting the echo of hushed conversations lull me to sleep.
“Tch,” clicks someone to my left. I cock my head and curiously open an eye to see a young German with an indecipherable expression looking me over. I think nothing of it and drift back to sleep.
“Tch,” he clicks a little more insistently, this time from my right, and a little bit closer. Unsure if he’s randy or just trying to work a piece of lunch loose from this teeth, I move to the other side of the pool and resume my siesta.
“Tch.” This time he’s smiling as he paddles over to take his place beside me.
My first thought is, “Wow, I can certainly pull some good looking guys!” but decide to nip his interest in the bud (every pun intended). “No,” I say kindly, before resolutely closing my eyes again.
“Tch?” More of a confused, disappointed click this time, like a child who has just been denied a cookie.
“I’m straight,” I insist and retreat to the safety of a steam bath, where bathers can sit in relative privacy amid swirling clouds of scalding, 70 C vapour. Collapsing on one of the long wooden benches, I breathe slowly so that the steam doesn’t sear my lungs, and relax as the heat begins to work its curative powers.
“Szia,” greets someone from behind me. I turn back and am greeted through the dense fog by a smiling Hungarian with a blonde mullet and a raised eyebrow. I contemplate what it is about me that screams, “Single White Male seeking casual sex in foreign bathhouse; only men need apply” but then behind my new friend I spy two more guys with their hands in each other’s laps. I shake my head and try to deflect the amorous attention by slouching my shoulders, thrusting my belly out as far as I can and shoving a finger up my nose. When I get an inquisitive tap on my shoulder a few minutes later, I decide its time to leave.
I dive into the icy plunge pool—reflecting that all these men would probably benefit by doing the same—before trying a cooler bath filled with middle-aged men who all thankfully look like they have children, and have therefore discovered the joys of heterosexuality. I relax under a cascade of hot water, but am interrupted a few minutes later by the discreet cough of a fifty year old man next to me.
I contemplate what it is about me that screams, “Single White Male seeking casual sex in foreign bathhouse; only men need apply”
“No!” it’s almost a plea now. I paddle away, but not before noticing the gold wedding band on his finger.
I spend the next thirty minutes uselessly trying to enjoy my time in the baths, as hopeful suitors swan about me like peacocks in a mating dance. When I’ve finally had enough of random men brushing up against me, I make my way back to the change rooms. On the way I pass a massage room where a pot-bellied man is lying naked on a bench while a young employee in a white coat is vigorously lathering him up, leaving no stone unturned, so to speak.
As I reclaim my clothes from the change room attendant, I enquire about the particularly ‘queer’ goings on. “Is it always this, ah, you know, gay?”
He gives his moustache a surprised twirl. “You’re not?”
“No,” I confess, almost apologetically. “Am I supposed to be?”
“Normally Kiraly Baths is gay bath,” he explains, “but is closed for repair at the moment. So instead, they all come here each week.”
“So everybody in there is here to … ?”
Baths aside, Budapest is an unexpectedly charming city. While its architecture-rich streets are just as grand and fascinating as Vienna or Prague’s, they’re covered in a scruffy layer of grime and soot that fills you with the urge to find a bottle of Mr Sheen and get to work scrubbing it all clean. Pockets of parks and gardens provide welcome respite from bustling shopping districts, while at night the city transforms itself into a bar hopper’s Shangri La. When I’m not losing myself in its maze of streets, I’m helping myself to generous serves of goulash, warming myself with potent Absinthe in underground bars hidden away in warehouse squats or getting down to some serious soul at riverside music festivals. But having lured me into staying far longer than I’d planned, I finally shake myself free of the city’s grip and jump on a bus headed north.
Where to? Slovakia.
I’m going to be totally honest with you all: like most Australians I know almost nothing about most Eastern European countries I visit. Anything I’ve learned of their history and culture is crammed into the few hours of reading time I have on intercity bus trips. In fact until I read up on it in my guidebook, I’m not even entirely sure what to expect from Slovakia, or even what happened to Czechoslovakia.
To cut decades of history undiplomatically short, Czechoslovakia was born from the territorial ooze left by WWI, but when Communism collapsed there around 1990, the Slovaks—sick of the Czechs hogging all the power and wealth—voted for independence. In an untypical fashion for Eastern Europe, this actually happened relatively peacefully in a Velvet Revolution that split the country into Slovakia and the Czech Republic.
But recent history is the last thing on my mind when I arrive in Bratislava. Having checked into a friendly hostel, I loan some clothes and ten euros to Arthur, an ageing, stinking alcoholic Brit who was drugged and robbed on the train from Prague, and then set out to explore the Stare Mesto. I admire the quaint and ornate stonework of the buildings, dine on some potently strong garlic soup and flirt aimlessly with some astonishingly good looking women—may God bless those wonderful, Slavic genes—then return to the hostel to find crusty Arthur polishing off a bottle of vodka bought with my ‘emergency’ loan and rubbing his fungus breeding feet over my thongs. (And before you non-Australian readers start tittering madly amongst yourselves, that’s Aussie slang for ‘flip flops’).
The route of my European travels up to and including Prague (June 29, 2004). Enlarge »
“Consider those clothes a gift,” I tell him, wondering what I’ll use as bathers now that he’s turned them into a science exhibit on poor hygiene standards.
“Alec, you are a true gentleman,” he slurs before promptly passing out.
I awake early the next morning to the sound of the guy in the next bunk throwing up on himself after a particularly eventful night out, and head to the scenic and medieval Devon Castle nearby with a small contingent of travellers. We’re told we’ve come on a great day: it’s the annual reenactment festival. Trademark Slovakian friendliness ensures we have a great time feasting on wurst and beer, but as for the ‘reenactments’ go, as far as I can tell they’ve just let out the local Star Trek Appreciation Society for a few hours to dress up in Ye Olde garb, clink mugs of mead and compensate for personality-induced abstinence by engaging in sexually charged swordplay … but maybe that’s just sword envy talking.
I’m captivated by Prague and it’s fairytale streets and castles, but then so too are the hordes of tourists who cram the city each summer. Thousands of Westerners, mostly ideological orphans of the sixties unable to afford Amsterdam’s prices, have also made the city their home as they attempt to write pefect Graham Greene novel about Western, ideological orphans living in Prague. But despite its enchanting cafes and dirt cheap beer, Prague hasn’t stopped me contemplating my next move. I’ve been eyeing a cheap flight to Morocco for some time now, yet I still can’t help think about backtracking down to Serbia.
Weeks ago in Belgrade I saw posters adverstising a July music festival called EXIT 04 in Novi Sad, a university town north of the Serbian capital. Despite its impressive lineup, I dismissed the idea of attending because my (admittedly loose) plans had me in Africa by then. Now I realize that it starts in just over a day and I’m still in the same geographic ball park.
“It’s not going to be easy getting there,” I confess to Maggie—who’s also keen on coming—as I contemplate just how far we are from Novi Sad and how unequipped we are.
She shrugs her shoulders and stuffs a stolen bagel into her daypack. “Good times never are.”
“Come with me if you want to live!” commands Dragon, a Serbian soldier with a shaved head and an encyclopaedic command of cheesy film quotes, as he bounds up some stairs into a fifth floor apartment in Novi Sad thirty hours later. Within minutes we’re sitting on a couch, sipping plum brandy and trying to sing along with a group of fifteen young Serbs as they bash out folk songs on an battered guitar.
Maggie and I are exhausted. In just over twenty-four hours we’ve managed to track down a bag of laundry missing in the outskirts of Prague, drag ourselves almost 1,000 kilometres across four countries, mail home half of my pack from Budapest, source camping gear for the festival in the vaccuum of Belgrade, find and buy tickets to EXIT and collapse off a bus in Novi Sad.
We plan to get a few hours sleep before the first act, but Dragon—who is officially AWOL from his unit and risking severe punishment just to attend the festival—and his recently befriended gang of friends have other plans. As he refills my cup with potent spirit, Dragon slaps me on the back, turns to me and beams. “I’m so happy to have met you, Mr Kangaroo! For the next four days you and Maggie are our guests: we will give you food, we will give you beer, we will give you kif. This is going to be great!”
Dragon slaps me on the back. “I’m so happy to have met you, Mr Kangaroo! For the next four days we will give you food, we will give you beer, we will give you kif. This is going to be great!”
I can’t help but agree.
The EXIT music festival (website) rose from the ashes of post-war Serbia, determined to provide a musical beacon to a generation of young Balkanites killed, starved and torn apart by ethnic conflict. With a fresh, politically active message free of the hippy schmaltz that plagues Western festivals like Glastonbury, EXIT manages to stage sensational performances while addressing relevant causes—this year, human trafficking—with youthful savvy.
Maggie and I pitch our hastily acquired tent in the lush campgrounds on the banks of the Danube and join 35,000 excited festival goers at the main stage of the jaw-dropping venue, the imposing 18th Century Petrovaradin Fortress perfech above the Danube. We bop along to Goldfrapp’s solid warm-up, sparking the audience for the entry of headliners Massive Attack. When they appear on stage the crowd explodes, dispensing with any remnants of self-control. For a moment it’s as though someone has zapped the ground with 10,000 volts of electricity; the crush of bodies heaves forward, and seemingly upward, while a defeaning roar erupts around us.
Iggy Pop gets the crowd pumping on the final night of EXIT 04. Enlarge »
“It’s Massive Attack!” screams an ecstatic Serbian girl next to me, who clutches her friend in deisbelief and squeals, “IT’S F#!@ING MASSIVE ATTACK!”
And amazingly this same reaction greets every act over all four days of EXIT. I have never seen a festival crowd react like this; I’ve never seen anybody react like this.
“Excitable crowds like that aren't surprising,” comments Caterina, a young Belgrade resident I meet a few days later on the train to Munich. “It’s the same reaction you’d get when you give a starving child some bread. It’s just that in Serbia, we’re starving for music.”
And she’s right. Draconian visa restrictions imposed in the wake of the Balkan conflicts force citizens of most South East European nations to apply for costly visas to enter almost any other country on Earth. Since impromptu dashes into neighbouring countries are impossible and most famous artists rarely make cities like Belgrade, Sarajevo or Zagreb priorities on their touring schedules, EXIT has become the only chance local music lovers have to see big name international acts perform songs they’ve listened to for years.
Petrovadin Fortress, the venue for the EXIT music festival. Enlarge »
Maggie and I while away our time at the festival drinking coffee by day—I’ve finally found a travelling partner who never says no to an espresso—and beer by night as we watch some inspired performances by over 200 acts including Cypress Hill, Iggy Pop, Goldfrapp, Massive Attack, Neneh Cherry, Adam Freeland, Kings of Leon, Timo Maas, Roger Sanches, Steve Lawler and a whole lot more. Dragon and his group of friends seem intent on plying us with all the beer and friendship we could possibly ask for, while the same hospitality is extended to us by just about every Serbian, Croatian and Slovenian we meet.
After four days of musical indulgence we bid farewell to our new friends and Novi Sad, and head back to Belgrade, where I thankfully discover that despite my concerted efforts (see my last email) the nice guy of Serbian politics, Boris Tadič, has won the presidential elections. A few hours of online research lands me a cheap ticket to Morocco, and a day later I’m speeding away from Eastern Europe towards the bright lights and glitz capitalism of Munich to catch my flight.
'Excitable crowds like that aren't surprising ... It’s the same reaction you’d get when you give a starving child some bread. It’s just that in Serbia, we’re starving for music.’
With one night to spend in pleasant, park-filled Munich—the heartland of German kitsch—I feel obliged to partake in the quintessential Barvarian experience: getting lagered in an old-fashioned beer hall. In the company of two Swedes and an Irish girl, I head to the cavernous Hofbrauhaus where beer is served in one litre steins and drunken tourists make spectacular fools of themselves.
At the midnight closing time we wander out into the foyer and I spot an elderly but spritely German man, dressed in traditional Bavarian clothes, leaning against the wall. He looks remarkably like a miniature Gandalf ... in lederhosen. I introduce myself and chat for a few minutes with ‘Casper’ in his surprisingly good English
Mary, the Irish girl who really should have said no to that last litre of beer, staggers out of the bathroom towards us, slurring, “Look, it’s a German in lederhosen! Cool! Can you yodel?”
“I’m sorr-”, I begin to apologise to Casper for Mary’s tactlessness, but he interrupts me with a raised hand, opening his mouth and filling the echoing stone hall with an amazing, shrill yodel. Casper, as it turns out, was judged Europe’s best yodeller for five years running. During his youth he toured the world’s concert halls as a cultural ambassador for Germany, performing for dictators, presidents and queens.
Festival goers take a break from the partying at EXIT 04 beneath Petrovadin Fortress's clock tower. Enlarge »
He continues his impromptu performance for us as we wander Munich’s dark streets, but when we approach a dark alley he leans across and takes my arm.
“Ally,” he whispers conspiratorially, “let’s go to a real pub.”
We slink away from the group and climb some dank stairs. On the third floor Casper opens a door to reveal a closet-sized bar: rich wood pannelling and quaint pictures line the walls, while twenty middle-aged Germans are crammed along wooden benches, swinging steins of beer and chanting along with an accordian player. This, I figure, is about authentic as it gets.
We step through the entry, greeted by a raucous roar of welcome from the gathered drinkers; Casper is clearly a much-loved regular. A beer materialises in front of me, and I’m soon singing along to song I can’t understand as a frumpy, forty-five year old woman wraps an arm around my waist and tells me “I am like lion, in bed.”
Hours dissolve into each other, and at five o’clock I’m still at the bench, now nursing a pear schnapps, while Casper treats the gathered drinkers to a mournful, yodelled ballad. I pause for a moment, reflecting on the fact that in less than a day I’ve gone from munching on burek in Belgrade to sculling schnapps in a Bavarian beer hall, and tomorrow I’ll most likely be feasting on paella in Spain.
Berit, my self-appointed, curvaceous betrothed, looks at me and wryly observes, “You’re thinking about something.”
“Just my good fortune,” I reply, raising my glass. “Prost!”