Budapest (Day 2)

Jó reggelt! That was my first morning in Hungary and it started with the view of the beautiful clear sky I saw through my hotel window. There is this sultry yet sensual element of carelessness to mornings spent at hotels as you expect to get things done rather than do them yourself as part of your daily morning ritual. As our TV was on to give us a quick update on the international news, before I put my contact lenses on, I had to squint my eyes to see a very tragic footage coming from the central Italy that had just been hit by a horrible earthquake that had left over two hundred people dead. The rescue operations were ongoing and it was really devastating to see those medieval streets, which would normally have this dolce feel about them beckoning you to come for sun-kissed skin, full of rubble instead. So many holidays have to have a flavor of Italy to them somehow, but that was one that wasn’t meant to be savoured at all. It was so bizarre to be leaving behind this bello country which is an epitomy of felicita and allegria, to enjoy this day in the sunny Budapest and being here in Europe made the news feel more acute and urgent. Down at the café where we were to have our breakfast, there were already people that seemed to come from all over the globe occasionally looking up from their plates to see the TV screen bringing the same news program. That was a nice substantial breakfast with a vague German feel to it as we were welcomed to treat ourselves to some sausages and eggs. Attempting to listen in on a conversation in German being had at the next table caused this flavor to be yet more pronounced.

That was going to be a day of exploring the city and we set out to get a comprehensive introduction to it by doing a free walking tour. It was getting really hot as we were making our way to St.Stephen’s Basilica picking up from the beautiful memories of sitting in front of it the night before. I love seeing major tourist sites transforming throughout the day and this place did seem to have a more brisk and vibrant feel to it as there were people crowding in front of the cathedral obviously for their tours as well. We weren’t the only having this day all to ourselves and not having to be suffocated by the same weight of the daily routine. We had some time to spare before our tour was scheduled to begin and to watch people creating a beautiful sense of the Italian “piazza” just basking in the sun and sitting on the stairs of St.Stephen’s Basilica. Our guide, an energetic young lady, introduced herself briefly telling about how the city that originally consisted of Buda and Pest and united in 1837. We were currently in the more modern Pest from where getting to Buda where this girl was working for an air company took her around 20 minutes. It is actually great to hear stories of ordinary locals to give you a quick reality check. I think being a tour guide is an amazing thing these people volunteer to do beyond their main jobs. Then we were asked to turn back to see the Fat Policeman Statue inspired by someone who was said to have had love for food and women (it’s a quite universal kind of love I think) and you need to rub his belly for luck in love and in finding hearty food to nourish your stomach with. None of us seemed to have any trouble with the latter as we were all in the city known for its hearty substantial food.

It wasn’t too long before we reached the spectacular Danube Promenade spanning from the Chain Bridge to Elizabeth Bridge offering views of Buda after we got some tips on the nicest bars to go to, things to try, etc. To me the view lent the city a subtle charm of a sea resort with lots of emerald green spaces dominated by the tall Liberty Statue on the Gellért Hill, the castle looming at the top and the Danube to match of course. Even with the Liberty Statue, an indication of the turbulent relationship between the Soviet Union and Hungary, in sight, there was no way a thought about the Soviet past we shared would have crossed my mind. A few luxurious hotels were lining up the embankment as well giving a perspective into the Budapest of the rich and famous who had stayed there at some point of their glorious careers. Now what I was mainly thinking of was soaking up in traditional baths, the smoldering hot heritage of the Ottoman rule, taking advantage of the city’s vivid and diverse history. Sitting on the railway here amidst all this royal-like beauty and splendour in the hot sun of Budapest was the Little Princess that is said to be one of the most photographed statues in the city. The sculptor got inspired by his daughter who used to love to dress up as a princess. That in a way summed up the way I for one felt walking here with the crown of knowledge and enlightenment that travelling gloriously poises on us leaving us with a dreamy-like sense of empowerment. The views of the Chain Bridge massaged my dreamy side with another gentle touch taking me to London for a tiny second. We were to cross it to get to Buda to see the castle.

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It was getting scorching hot and we knew that might not be the most comfortable time to visit but as the summer was about to bid its farewell, being here amidst that Hungarian heat won us some more time before we eventually said our goodbyes to this season that invariably has a dreamy-like feel to it. We found ourselves at the other side of the Danube watching funiculars taking people all the way up to the castle hill. No thoughts of the Soviet past yet again… The sun was beating down as we were standing in front of the Sándor Palace, the official residence of the President. The Buda Castle with its amazing reconstructed dome matching the emerald shade gloriously painted by the Danube wasn’t given much attention to as it now merely housed the Hungarian National Gallery and Budapest History Museum. I thought the castle wasn’t much part of the national pride or that was me who expected it would be as I’m hugely drawn to castles in general for this sentimental yet grand feel of the past they provide. We could enjoy a majestic view of the symbol of the country, which is the Turul, a large bird of prey, spreading its wings against the capital’s clearest sky. A legend has it that this bird came to a woman in her dream and made her pregnant with a baby that went on to lead the Hungarian tribes to their new home. This having been said right here at this moment did seem a bit funny as “making love” to this bird was a bit too much even for a dream…

Anyway, I believe that the postcard views of the Parliament from up here made all of us stop questioning the credibility of the legend and let what we saw in front of us flirt and eventually seduce our vision to make us succumb to its charms. You want to take a while enjoying moments like this one when all the illuminating rays of knowledge and your expectations of it come together making it a moment to last in your memory.

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But as we were in a group, we didn’t get a proper chance to as it was time to make our way further up to the Fisherman’s Bastion. Before we reached the snow white neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque beauty that I was sure had to do with the Ottoman rule here in Hungary, after enjoying some views from more angles and walking an array of houses that rendered Budapest a bit different feel, we made a quick stop in front of the Statue of Andras Hadik, Hungary’s most famous hussar. They believe you have to climb up to rub the testicles of his horse for good luck and according to the guide, this is what a lot of students come here to do. This is truly what we need to grab our chances by indeed. The guide seemed a bit ashamed to be showing us how it is normally done and looked around her to make sure no one was trying to take a picture, but I can’t see why she had to.

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We found the area to be home to a few lovely cafes and restaurants that seemed to offer a retreat from the more touristy part of the city. I felt part of something quintessentially international when I saw an Italian restaurant owned by Jamie Oliver, a famous British chef that I happened to see during another session of watching the British TV channels while embracing my innermost passion for media and journalism. I assumed that place would be a bit too “posh” and expensive to visit but it was nice to see it up and running here in Budapest. Another thing the city takes pride in is its confectionery traditions owing to the Habsburg rule. We were said that the cake that we saw displayed at the Ruszwurm pastry shop offering a new form of seduction to sweet tooths was the winner of “Cake of Hungary” competition that annually takes place on the state’s birthday on August 20 (just a few days before we arrived). That was a beautiful sweet representation of the national flag that we thought we might want to savour after our tour was over.

Straight up in front of us our eyes were treated to a marvelous view of the Matthias Church that seemed to have a bit of paprika sprinkled on its imposing Gothic façade. There are things we think we might get desensitized to while travelling and being repeatedly exposed to but churches will hardly ever make it to this list even for someone non-religious as myself. I love seeing the decorative representation of religion as an integral part of culture displayed to generate feelings and sensations of a varying nature. Some atoms and molecules were working their magic at that moment for me as well.

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I could still feel them in progress as we made it further to get a closer look at the Fisherman’s Bastion that to me seemed to have a distinctive Turkish flavour to it even though in fact it didn’t. It’s a good thing I had no idea about that at the time because who knows if there had been magic happening otherwise… I felt as if I was a part of some Eastern fairytale invited to join the action climbing up and down to get the views of the city from different angles as were hundreds of other visitors. That was where our tour was to come to an end and that had been a really enjoyable one with a reasonable amount of walking and talking and there’s not much to satisfy a traveler. Well done to our guide!

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As it was getting increasingly hot, we thought we might want to take a seat in the shade to take in the view of the Parliament that we were in a way becoming desensitized to. Or maybe we weren’t. That had to be part of the magic anyway. I remember getting a bit manic with my camera zooming in and out trying to find that perfect angle for my touristic lens. The views in front of my eyes and my camera were colliding into what would inadvertently be a beautiful and endearing memory of Budapest’s most iconic view. As we were enjoying our break, we got saluted by a cute fellow traveler who had just been on the walking tour with us.

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We thought it was now time to recharge our batteries and get some lunch at one of the cafes where we could get a view of the Matthias Church as going all the way down to the Danube would take a while. We had a beautiful chicken and vermicelli served with the traditional Hungarian pickled cucumbers but the most incredible thing about that lunch was the famous Tokaji wine. I was getting increasingly aware and accepting of the preoccupation with this drink in some of the countries I had visited but none of the wines I’d had and was learning to keep a palate memory of would compare to what I was sipping on that sunny clear late afternoon taking in the view of the Matthias Church and people coming and going on my right. Here is a sweet toast to a lot more memories to make and treasure and to my new favourite! Having a favourite wine brand even if not being able to get hold of it at any time is comforting and anchoring against stress. A perfect meal has to finish with a dessert and for that we headed back to that pastry shop that had the nation’s best cake. Well, it was challenging and not really of any luck trying to explain what exactly we were after but I think we got something that looked like it after all. The Austrian feel was in the air and well steaming in our elegant coffee cups. Owned by a famous Hungarian confectionery dynasty, that place was very authentic and old in an endearing and romantic sense. I was definitely in need of more of that in my life. That’s one of these subtle little things that keeps me falling in love with Europe over and over again.

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Having had our confectionery cravings gratified in that very refined manner, we started our way down to the Danube through rather deserted streets. The views of the Chain Bridge we had as we descended were the ones to let linger in our vision so we took a seat on a bench facing all the touristy action and guarded by two majestic lions peering in front of them at both ends of the bridge, I was having a refreshing drink. “Can I be in London just like that?” That thought was nothing of a surprise as this first permanent bridge across the Danube was designed by a group of British engineers. I had my travelling dream and ambition replicated for me and that was heavenly in all ways!

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The walk across the bridge was yet even more impressive as we had the majestic views of the Buda Castle and its gorgeous dome on the right and the Parliament on the left. The Pest side was just as we left it a few hours ago bustling with people and a few luxurious hotel building lining the Danube embankment.

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We walked left to get a closer look at the Parliament and soon found the Shoes on the Danube, a memorial paying a touching tribute to the Jews who were made to take off their shoes before they were shot and eventually fell into the Danube… That was a moment of grim silence and that was that tiny little bit we could do to stay connected with the past we weren’t in control of…

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It was now time to take countless photos of the Parliament while properly marveling at its grandeur and beauty. The building designed to mark the 1000th anniversary of Hungary in 1896 was splendid and arrested our views for impressively long. A talented architect does have some superpowers to enchant, mesmerize and fascinate. I was held in sheer awe trying to compare what I had gorgeously spreading in front of me and those pictures I’d seen of it. Some cars driving by seemed a bit out of place amidst this glorious piece of architecture that appeared like one from all different angles. On our left we had something no less mesmerizing to watch – the sunset over the Danube, a subtly romantic and charming scene.

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It would have been even more so if we hadn’t had a pushy senior gentleman following us and saying something obviously incomprehensible to us. I had to have a little thought of the Soviet past we had to share somehow and I guess that only had to do with his age as he seemed someone who had had a fair share of communism in his life. Anyway, I thought right there in this spot with the lovely sunset and the side of the Parliament in front of us was the right place to call home and speak a bit in another language incomprehensible to some strangers here. For some reason we had the same nasty man approaching us again after it had been a while since our first encounter. That really agitated my sister and we crossed into the square in front of the Parliament happily with no sight of this horrible man. As perfect as the place seemed to be, our judgments of people can’t be so clear-cut at all. I tried to focus more on this beautiful area surrounding the Parliament with large flowerbeds. I couldn’t help noticing a couple walking by and a man cheekily picking up one of the flowers and presenting it to his female companion. I had no idea why but I thought about Italy the second time round that day… For all I know, he might have been Italian for bringing this charming bit of romance and spontaneity to this evening in Budapest. Transformations, manipulations in our minds and hearts – that is where they are sure to originate…

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As if I hadn’t had enough, I had a few more photos in front of the Parliament to round off my time with it for that day because I felt a sinister  Parliament overdose was impending!

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We had a familiar walk through semi-deserted streets towards St. Stephen’s Cathedral and thought we might want to grab our drinks at one of the places recommended by the tour guide earlier today but the area was really bustling with people having fun as opposed to the one surrounding the Parliament.

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That’s really the case with Budapest where you would find streets going from slightly uncomfortably deserted to incredibly and perhaps annoyingly bustling. My sister insisted we found somewhere quieter for our late dinner and that is how we ended up at a lovely place where we thought we could be offered a selection of local dishes. We just had to keep a bit off Váci utca, one of the main tourist streets in the city that we assumed would be overpriced. There weren’t too many people here and neither was the place empty. Looking for a place to eat has to be a bit intuitive after all. The famous Hungarian goulash soup had to be tried along with a shot of pálinka, a fruit brandy. It was amazing that we had our goulash served in a large paprika-red pan that was designed to look slightly overused. Some group of men having reasonably loud conversations and not worthy of giving any extra attention to while enjoying our unreasonably nourishing dinner matched the ambiance of this night filled with the juicy smell of paprika-rich goulash and the drink leaving the burning sensation in my stomach. That summed up my current feel of the country – a bit rough, spicy and conspicuous (inspired by the location of the eating place). We had a bit of a melting pot feel as well as we saw a man working at a currency exchange place putting a sign that read something like “It’s time for a prayer, I’ll be back soon”. Happily filled with food, we walked slowly back to our hotel where we took very little time to fall asleep after the wonderful substantial meal. There had been so much we’d done and as much as we are craving for more magic to unravel, sleep is an essential element to help it along. Jó éjszakát.

A Tiny Bit of Vienna (Was That All Just a Dream?)

Some three or four hours later we found ourselves in Austria to visit Vienna, the city of music, the city of dream… We were listening to some Mozart on the way as we were about to arrive at our 4-star hotel for the night. Even though it was a Friday night, the streets of the capital were deserted and we didn’t see many people out. Maybe people were escaping the bustle and hustle of the big city somewhere… We checked in to the hotel quite late and found out that wasn’t up to the high standard and accidentally my friend and me unlocked a safe with some drinks and were expecting to be made to pay for it the next morning. Russian people are inherently tempted with what can possibly get them into trouble… We were looking forward to watching some German-speaking TV the way we did in Dresden and all we got was an invitation to tune in to some adult content which we were certainly in the mood for that night… So we hit the sack and unfortunately as my new player didn’t have FM-radio, I was listening to a couple of songs I uploaded and eventually had difficulty getting to sleep as my nose was totally blocked and the night in this romantic city didn’t feel so at all… As I was already asleep at the break of dawn, I heard some commotion in the hallway and some people whom I assumed to be Chinese or Japanese… Why did they have to be so loud? I’d rather have had some Mozart to wake up to… The breakfast, which was absolutely amazing, made up for the night… And luckily for us, we were not charged for unlocking that safe…
It was getting cloudy when we were leaving the hotel and I was getting tired of those weather extremes… I regret to say that the tour of Vienna was the most disappointing tour we’d had on this trip and what it did was detract from the city itself…
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… Our guide was really unprofessional and her accent was terrible and even that microphone she was carrying around didn’t help us understand her monotonous speech… She did a terrible job and didn’t deliver at all… In hindsight, I still feel I really missed out on the beauty and romance of Vienna… It is known to be the city of music because it’s home to many greatest names in music but it’s also called the city of dream because it’s a home place of Sigmund Freud who was renowned for this in-depth study into the nature of human dreams… I didn’t get any dreams when I was in bed but my whole experience of Vienna seems like a blurred dream I woke up from even before the best bits started… I was so peeved and disappointed… So now I’ll be trying to piece together what I remember seeing that day which is not an easy thing to do…
We started off at Maria-Theresa Square which was under reconstruction but still looked magnificent and was all I expected a square in Vienna to be on a quiet Saturday morning… In this square there was the building of the Museum of Natural History of Vienna which is one of the iconic views of the city… We saw a bit of Museumsquater from over there too… It was raining so we didn’t get may photography opportunities…
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Then I believe we drove through the famous Ringstrasse which took us to us to the attraction which is considered to be off the beaten path and makes for a nice getaway from the imperial Vienna which we hadn’t really experienced yet and weren’t much expecting to thanks to our “lovely” guide…That was the Hundertwasser House. I was really looking forward to seeing this public housing in the central Vienna and somehow knew I would be genuinely astonished by what I was going to see… Quirky and bizarre things which this piece of architecture unarguably is have always seemed to fascinate me. This house was nothing short of bizarre. I loved those multiple inconsistent colorful details of the façade.
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Hundertwasser who originally came up with the idea of creating something completely out of this world amidst all the typically Vienna architecture collaborated with some architects to put his crazy ideas into practice. The building now has several dozens of apartments, some offices and private terraces. Another extraordinary thing about it is that it has flowers and trees growing from inside it (by the way, Hundertwasser has a plant growing on top of his burial place in New Zealand). It’s a shame there was no chance to get inside but this place is known to have uneven floors so it would have been a bit of a challenge to take a tour of the building I believe. Hundertwasser said that “an uneven floor is like a divine melody to the feet”. I agree that the whole piece of architecture was against all common architectural sense and to me it looked as if it was going to fall apart just as we were standing there. We made a brief stop at some of the shops in the so-called Hundertwasser Village just across the road and got to see some nice pieces of art and the Hundertwasser memorabilia. I got some stuff featuring some of the popular paintings by Vienna artists and wish I had got a poster with a picture of the Hundertwasser House… I just had no time to make up my mind because we were in a stupid rush again… When we were about to leave, I had to turn back to take one final look at the building and wished I had more time to experience it in the way I should have…
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As we were back on the coach, we got some views of the Danube Canal which for the reason unknown to me looked green… There were lots of business centres, banks all around as well…
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I believe the next attraction on our way has to be the Hofburg Palace which used to the residence of the famous Habsburg dynasty since the 15th century and now serves as the official residence of the President. I don’t remember much about this place because as I said we couldn’t rely on our guide to give us in-depth knowledge of the places we were visiting… I remember seeing the Sisi Museum. This is what Elizabeth of Austria was called. Along with Mozart, she was featured in many billboards in the city. She looked like a very beautiful lady and we watched a part of a film about her life on our way to Austria. I think her image matched what Vienna was thought to be, beautiful, romantic and intimate…
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We also saw multiple horse-drawn carriages riding along the cobbles streets of Vienna and wished we could take one to explore the city as well… It was just so Vienna I think.
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The last stop I remember we had was the Stephenplatz with St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom), one of the tallest churches in the world. The view of the church was just breathtaking and an absolute pleasure to see. At this point we didn’t care at all what the guide was going on about and all we did was take it in. It had some poster on it which gave some facts of a staggering number of children dying of hunger every day…
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We were given a little time to ourselves and were happy to say goodbye to the guide. So we decided we couldn’t leave without trying some Vienne coffee and took a “Kaffee break”. We chose a coffee shop just across the road from Stephansdom. We were looking for a table and got inside first where one of the waiters or whoever he was gave me a charming smile I can never forget… We ended up getting a table outside and ordered some mélange coffee which was a local specialty. Coffee in Vienna is served with ice-cold water from the Alps which tastes fantastic and you can run it from a tap wherever you are in Vienna. Such a big change from that intoxicated water we have here! We also got some banana split ice-cream. The waiter was friendly and nice. When our order arrived, we were shocked by an enormous amount of the ice-cream. It would have been enough for all three of us, I think. The coffee was served really beautifully and even though I’m not a coffee drinker, I was excited to try it. It actually tasted quite good and the whole experience felt like nothing we can have happen to us back home. I knew there was no way I was going to finish the ice-cream so we all had to leave most of it behind even though it wasn’t something we normally did. The waiter was really professional and didn’t mind us taking the time to figure out how to pay the bill and was nice to have no objections to us paying him with a huge pile of coins…
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We headed off to do some souvenir shopping and I had one of those jaw-dropping moments when I saw the price for the Rolex watch! It was staggeringly high and I knew why this spot was a shopping venue for the European nobility back in the day.
We had some other interesting encounter there which I think I need to mention here. As we were taking a stroll of this street lined with luxurious shops and souvenir places, we got approached by a couple of ladies whose looks suggested they were members of some religious group and were on a mission to recruit more people. The funny thing is that they turned out to be our fellow countrymen! Where else in the entire world would I have met Russian people… They heard us speaking Russian and thought we were just the people they were looking for. They asked us something about our religious beliefs and my sister was quite adamant to say we were not interested and it was actually wrong to be asking this kind of questions. This is when the ladies gave in and left us alone. I knew if they hadn’t, my sister would have tried to call the police. I wasn’t happy to meet those ladies because they might be sending out the wrong message about what Russian people are like to people abroad. Instead of trying to do good for themselves, they were wasting their lives away… But well, that wasn’t really any of my business after all but meeting them wasn’t sure the best part of the day…
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We got to see the popular Albertina Museum which was just some minutes’ walk away from where we were. I was starting feeling unwell after that coffee I’d had… I guess it was too strong for me and that was my body’s response to it… This sickness I had certainly deterred me from drinking coffee ever again if I’m in Vienna. That day wasn’t just meant to be nice and happy after all… It was embarrassing to walk into public places feeling like this and I was praying to whatever gods up there for me to feel good again. And I eventually did which was a Vienna miracle for me…
I had another blow to my national pride as we were sitting by the Albertina Museum waiting to meet our tour guide. I heard some teenage guys sitting on the bench next to ours say “Russin” (Russians). Words cannot describe how I hated them at that moment. Did they have a problem with us being Russian? I know I might have taken this comment too personally but that did feel like a smack in the face, a label… I wonder what it is we do that makes people from across the world discriminate against us… If I was more fluent in German, I think I would have approached them to ask what they thought was wrong about being Russian… I was fuming at that remark and I think I still am now that I’ve brought it up…
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After a meal we had at a café owned by a Russian (I found out there are surprisingly many Russians in Vienna and this is where all this stigma comes from I should think), it was time to leave. Before that, we had to find our way back to Maria-Theresa Square which was said to be just some minutes’ walk away. We had this man in our group who was brilliant at finding his way around so we all followed his lead and relied on his gut instinct. It might have been funny to watch several dozens of people following one man, like a group of school kids out on an excursion. As we were walking, I caught a glimpse of the Mozart Monument in the City Park and was sad I had to leave before the music of the city started playing and resonating with my soul… Later on, I saw the film “Before Sunrise” which I highly recommend which tells a story of two people who meet on a train and eventually fall in love over one single day they spend together in Vienna having insightful conversations and getting to know each other… I had this incredible feeling when I was watching the film and reliving all these views of the city which were lost upon me on my visit… Maybe it wasn’t my time to explore the city which is filled to the brim with culture, romance and music… I’m really looking forward to coming here again and taking another chance with Vienna (no more coffee for me, please)…
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