I’m not normally a bar-goer, but while in Budapest I heard about a particular kind of place called a “ruin bar” or “ruin pub.” A ruin bar is a quirky kind of bar set up in an abandoned or ruined building. In Budapest, many wrecked buildings have been turned into ruin bars.
The first and most famous of Budapest’s ruin bars is Szimpla Kert. The owners of Szimpla converted an old factory in the historic Jewish neighborhood into the hippest new nightspot in Budapest in 2002. Instead of fixing up the place, they decided to install all kinds of strange objects into the space. They allowed customers to write graffiti all over the walls. They set up several different kinds of bars in various places within the building. Each bar serves a kind of drink, such as beer, wine, cocktails, shots, and so on. They also created a space for live music and an open-air cinema.
The response was overwhelming. Soon tourists were coming from all over the world to drink and party in the Szimpla ruin bar. Many languages can be heard as young people (and a few old timers) mingle, drink, and listen to music.
On the night I was there, the place was packed, mostly with young Brits. I sampled a few of the drinks and listened to the band for the night, an indie world music ensemble. The lively vibe of the place was electric, but also a little touristy. Perhaps the original local hipsters have moved on to newer, trendier spots.
During the Communist era, the authorities in Budapest erected statues to the heroes of Socialism. This art, called Socialist realism, is a style of realistic art that was developed in the Soviet Union and became a dominant style in various other socialist countries. Socialist realism is characterized by the glorified depiction of Communist values, such as the emancipation of the proletariat, in a realistic manner. The statues typically depicted the leaders such as Lenin, Stalin and the Hungarian dictator Kadar, factory workers, and farmers.
After the Hungarian Revolution in 1989, the new government got rid of almost all of the statues. Nobody wanted to see Lenin or Stalin watching over them anymore. Many statues were destroyed, but a few were saved in a place now called Memento Park. I don’t think the purpose of the place is to glorify this artwork with a nostalgia for the past, but to be a historical reminder of the tyranny that existed in Hungary from 1945-1989.
It was kind of bizarre to walk around this park today. I think the statues are symbols of the overbearing propaganda spewed at the people of Hungary (and the other Communist countries) for decades. I’m glad to see them gone from the center city, but they make for an interesting short detour on the way out of town.
I saw the sign for the Turkish bath from a block away. It pointed down a dark alley. It looked kind of sketchy, but when in Istanbul, do as the Turks do, I thought.
The Tarihi Galatasaray Hamami bath started in 1481. It is the oldest Turkish bath in Istanbul. Not knowing what to expect, and ready for anything (well excluding getting naked of course), I pushed my way through the door. I was met by the manager of the establishment, a friendly gentleman who explained that I could leave my valuables in the locked changing room after I disrobed. I took off my clothes, wrapped a thin towel around my waist, and shuffled into the common area on wooden clogs that were too small for my feet.
“Please, go with Omar,” said the manager as he gestured to a man walking towards me.
Omar Sharif was a pudgy middle-aged man with large hands. He was wearing a towel and clogs like me. He looked eerily like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the notorious Al-Quaeda mastermind jailed in Guantanamo Bay.
“Come, come,” he said to me in his limited, broken English.
He led me into a large circular room with a domed ceiling. In the middle of the room was a giant marble slab. The room was hot and humid, not quite as hot as a sauna, but close.
“Lie down,” said Omar as he gave me another towel and a pillow for my head. He then disappeared through a door.
I laid down on the hard marble, but soon relaxed as the heat seeped into my bones. My pores opened up and I started to sweat. The grime that had accumulated on my skin as I had walked around the dirty city of Istanbul all day started to loosen in the sweat. I got drowsy from the heat and almost nodded off.
I was relaxed, but I was ready in case anyone attacked me. OK, I was just dreaming about that scene in the movie called Eastern Promises where Viggo Mortenson fights some other Russian mobsters.
After a while Omar came back. While I laid down on the marble with just the scrunched up towel covering my groin, he starting rubbing me all over with a rough sponge mitt. He rubbed my skin very hard, scraping over and over. Removing dead skin I guess. Either that or this was some form of torture in the old Ottoman Empire.
Next, he started massaging the muscles in my arms and legs. Hey, I thought, this feels kind of good. I normally don’t like people touching me and never get a massage. He had very strong hands and kneaded my muscles over and over. This was fine, until he starting digging his thumb deep into a muscle and pulling down the length of the muscle. He attacked my calves, my hamstrings, and my quadriceps. I grunted with pain. It was all I could do to not cry out like a little girl and start wailing. But, I couldn’t let him see me act like anything but a tough guy. I was in a Turkish bath, for crying out loud.
Wait, I was in a Turkish bath and I did actually want to cry out loud!
All during this torture session Omar sang songs and chanted to himself in Turkish or something. He must really enjoy his job. He gets to torture people with his strong thumbs.
Finally the “massage” was over. He took me over to the corner of the room and made me sit on a marble step. He then grabbed a big sponge mitt and soaped me all over. Next, he grabbed the top of my head to hold me still while he dumped buckets of cold water over me. More painful massage followed, including some half-nelson arm twists. Please don’t accidentally break my neck, Omar!
More soap, more cold water. The wash and rinse cycle was repeated several times. This was followed by more hard scrubbing. Omar kept singing to himself, stopping every once in a while to see if I was ok. Once in a while he would stop working me over and dump cold water over his own head. I guess he was working up a sweat and needed to cool off.
By the end I was certainly clean and went into the next room to take a cold shower for a cool down. I felt good overall, except for the bruises in my thighs from his massive thumbs.
As Forrest Gump once said, hotels are like a box of chocolates. When you pick one, you never know what you’re going to get. Or something like that….
My stay in Mykonos turned out to be wonderful, in large part because of the hotel that I stayed in and the people who ran it. I usually check Trip Advisor for the reviews of places before I make a reservation. Often the reviews are accurate and useful, but sometimes the reviews are faked. Your mileage may vary.
The reviews for Villa Margarita on the island of Mykonos in Greece were glowing. Every review mentioned the hotel manager named Nikos and how friendly and helpful he was. I was thinking, OK, the guy is probably friendly and helpful, but that’s his job isn’t it? I guess he could be surly and rude like some French waiters, but that would be bad for business. In these days of the Internet, such behavior would quickly be noted in the hotel’s ratings and his reservations would probably take a nose dive.
I got off the ferry from Athens and Nikos was at the port to meet me and give me a ride to the hotel. As we drove above the old town of Mykonos he told me some interesting facts about the island and things to do. His hotel was just outside of town, overlooking the famous windmills of Mykonos.
Although Nikos was originally from Athens, his grandfather lived on the island and he would spend his summers here. He said that his mother had started the small hotel 25 years ago. This was his seventh summer season back on the island to run the hotel for his aging mother. His younger brother Alex was a new addition to the team for this summer.
When checking in, Nikos and Alex quickly learned our names (my daughter was traveling with me) and every time I saw one of them they would greet me with a smile:
“Hello Steve! How are you today?”
I soon felt like they were my new friends instead of some workers at a hotel. It was refreshing to be treated that way instead of just as a customer or tourist who is here today and gone tomorrow.
Every morning I would walk the few yards from my bungalow room to the office.
“Good morning, Nikos. Could I get a cappuccino?” I would ask.
“Of course, Steve! In two minutes Alex will bring you one.” Nikos would cheerfully reply.
Nikos and Alex lived with their mother (who I never saw) on the upper level of my bungalow. They had a little white dog who would come visit me every morning as I sat on my terrace overlooking the windmills of Mykonos, enjoying my cappuccino.
“Nikos, what’s the dog’s name?” I asked one morning.
“Boobies” he replied, laughing as he did so.
“You named your dog Boobies?” I asked.
He explained that the dog was actually his mother’s dog, and that in Greek the term describes what we would call a “momma’s boy.” The dog was very attached to his mother so that’s what she called him.
My daughter’s 24th birthday occurred while we stayed at Villa Margarita. Understandably, she wanted to go out and celebrate in the wild party town of Mykonos, instead of spend a quiet night in the bungalow with her co-traveler, the old man. In Mykonos, things don’t start hopping until at least 11:30pm, and the night clubs and beach clubs with their famous DJs stay open all night. The cool crowd doesn’t even show up until at least 2am. Or so I have been told. I wouldn’t know personally, since I have a hard time staying awake past 11pm.
Nikos told her that he would take her out, or if he couldn’t, Alex would. When Alex took the job at the hotel for the summer, I’m not sure he knew what he was getting into. Nikos had to stay at the hotel (he often worked all day, every day during the summer season) so Alex got date duty.
The next night was our last one at the hotel. As we came back from the beach we saw Nikos at the front desk.
“Hi Steve and Allison!” he called out. He asked about our dinner plans for the night and gave us some recommendations. He then said that he was planning on taking a rare few hours off to go out with a friend that night, and would we like to join them?
I didn’t want to impose, knowing that he worked so hard all the time, but it seemed impolite to decline his offer. We agreed to meet him and his friend at one of the best restaurants in town later in the evening.
As we approached this swanky seafood restaurant overlooking the harbor in Mykonos town I was glad that I had stopped at the ATM machine beforehand. It was that kind of place. A stunning tall blonde hostess greeted us at the entrance. 1980s pop songs pulsed from the bar. The ambiance was Euro hip and the view across the harbor was magnificent.
Nikos was there with his friend Fania. She was the manager at another hotel close to Nikos’ hotel, also working nonstop and on call 24/7 for the summer. I thought maybe she was his girlfriend, but wasn’t sure and didn’t want to pry. We had an excellent dinner and great conversation. We talked about their careers in the hotel management industry, the state of Greece’s economy, and what they liked to do for fun in their precious free time.
It was a nice night out with a local couple. So unexpected. He didn’t have to invite us, but that’s the kind of person he is.
And that’s how you run a most excellent small hotel in Mykonos.
I hiked up the steep road winding its way up to the castle. The morning cold was taking my breath away.
As the hotel clerk told me, visiting Heidelberg Castle (Heidelberger Schloss) at the end of winter meant I wouldn’t have to share it with hordes of Asian tourists in their tour group hats. It also meant the funicular train from the Altstadt up to the top of the hill was closed for maintenance.
I huffed and puffed my way across the cobblestones as the path wound its way around and up the hill. The physical effort was worth it once I saw the view of the town and the Neckar River.
The castle was originally built in 1214, expanded greatly in the 1400s and 1500s, and partially destroyed by two lightning strikes and multiple battles.
Mark Twain described it in his 1880 travel book called A Tramp Abroad:
“A ruin must be rightly situated, to be effective. This one could not have been better placed. It stands upon a commanding elevation, it is buried in green woods, there is no level ground about it, but, on the contrary, there are wooded terraces upon terraces, and one looks down through shining leaves into profound chasms and abysses where twilight reigns and the sun cannot intrude. Nature knows how to garnish a ruin to get the best effect. One of these old towers is split down the middle, and one half has tumbled aside. It tumbled in such a way as to establish itself in a picturesque attitude.
Then all it lacked was a fitting drapery, and Nature has furnished that; she has robed the rugged mass in flowers and verdure, and made it a charm to the eye. The standing half exposes its arched and cavernous rooms to you, like open, toothless mouths; there, too, the vines and flowers have done their work of grace. The rear portion of the tower has not been neglected, either, but is clothed with a clinging garment of polished ivy which hides the wounds and stains of time. Even the top is not left bare, but is crowned with a flourishing group of trees & shrubs. Misfortune has done for this old tower what it has done for the human character sometimes – improved it.”
That was a better literary description that I could ever write. Thanks Mr. Clemens.
After going through the main gate, I entered the deserted courtyard. Since the castle was built and destroyed at times over the centuries, the architecture is varied.
Seeking some warmth, I headed for the wine cellar. A large café welcomes tourist groups with apfel strudel and bratwurst, wine and coffee. At one end of the cellar is the Great Heidelberg Tun – a gigantic wine barrel.
The barrel is so big (a grosse fass in German) I felt like Mickey Mouse in that animated classic Mickey and the Beanstalk. The wine barrel must be owned by a giant. I was afraid the giant might be coming to eat me.
The barrel was built in 1751 to hold up to 58,000 gallons of wine that was contributed by local landowners as a tax on agricultural production. It is reputed that 130 oak trees were used in its construction. A few years after it was built the barrel started leaking and it has been used only as a tourist attraction ever since. When Napoleon’s army captured the castle, the French soldiers believed the empty wine barrel to be full of wine; their hatchet marks are still visible on the barrel.
If this was a barrel of monkeys, how many would fit inside?
I kept driving down the narrow road through the Sian Ka’an Ecological Preserve of the Yucatan Peninsula looking for a break in the jungle. I knew the Caribbean Sea was on my left. I could see glimpses of the water every now and then through the trees. After an eternity I came upon a sandy spot where the road widened slightly. There was a car parked half on the road, half in the brush. There was just enough room behind the car for me to park.
I got my beach towel and climbed a small dune. Ahead of me the turquoise water sparkled brilliantly in the afternoon sunshine. The small waves crashed into the shore onto smooth sand. To either side, the strand stretched as far as the eye could see. Not a person in sight, I was like Robinson Crusoe discovering a beach paradise.
Until the sound of hip hop assaulted my ears from a boom box twenty yards away. A guy was lounging in the shade of an impromptu lean-to made out of sticks and fabric. He had a cooler of beer, snacks, a Speedo, and a little black Dachshund that followed him out to the water and yipped when the guy went under the surf.
Still, I was almost alone on an incredibly beautiful beach on the Riviera Maya. It was warm and the sun was shining. It was a good day to be alive.
My first stop that day in Tulum was at the famous archeological ruins. The pre-Colombian Maya built a major port city on the site in the 13th through 15th centuries. The city, with 1,000 to 5,000 inhabitants, was situated on top of 40 foot high cliffs above the beach. Tulum appears to have been an important site for the worship of a “Diving” or “Descending” god. The people were probably wiped out by smallpox brought by the Spanish conquistadors.
As I walked around the site in an hour, I kept thinking of the movie called Apocolypto. Luckily, while I was there nobody got sacrificed or had their heart ripped out.
Next, I went into the nearby pueblo (town) for lunch at a traditional local restaurant. As I sat on a plastic chair on the sidewalk, munching excellent taco chips and salsa, a smooth jazz trio played a tight groove behind me. It was a good change from the mariachi bands prevalent in the tourist areas. I was the only outsider in the place.
Fortified with a burrito and a local beer called Sol, I went in search of a Mexican beach to call my own. I drove down a road called Highway 109, which quickly degenerated into a narrow path into the hotel zone south of Tulum. The Tulum hotel zone is quite different than Cancun’s abomination of a hotel zone. Places to stay on this part of the coast are small boutique hotels, beachfront cabanas, and eco-camping spots. The place had a hippie vibe to it. It was the kind of place to hide away from the world for a while. Just turn off the cell phone, have a margarita and relax.
Unfortunately I wasn’t staying at any of those retro chic resorts. The properties were enclosed by fences, there was no parking, and no obvious public access to the beach. So I kept driving south farther into the preserve, hoping for a break in the fencing.
I drove until I finally discovered the only car parked along the Preserve road, and saw the path to the beach. It was worth the drive.
Millions vacation every year at the mega-resorts in the Cancun hotel zone. If you like a swim-up bar, noisy pool volleyball, multi-level marketing bonus groups from Sheboygan, and kids kicking sand in your direction, please stay there.
For peace and relaxation, and maybe a little isolation, head south of Tulum until you can find your spot in the sun.
Travel Stories from Around the World by Steve Skabrat