Diary of a disorganised traveller part 4: Istanbul, Budapest and a brief stay in Paris

I can’t quite believe that this is the final chapter of my travels around Europe this summer. It really seems like only yesterday that I was a disorganised teen let loose on the continent with no practical shoes and a rucksack the size of a small child. And five weeks down the line, little has changed.

Our long and delayed journey to Istanbul was made slightly more amusing by the company of two German theology students who were in our cabin. Like so many Europeans, they had great English (although had no idea what bestiality was, so I feel like I taught them a valuable lesson there). They boasted to us about the luxury hostel they were travelling to, but rather pleased with ourselves for securing accommodation for €4 per night, their talk of swimming pools did not impress us. How quickly things changed.

Of course at that price we weren’t expecting anything above average, but what we were given was beyond our wildest nightmares. The place was crawling with cockroaches, the ‘beds’ were paper thin mattresses on top of tables and every ‘bathroom’ ceiling leaked. It was utterly vile. To make things worse, the place was run by a guy who was permanently stoned and didn’t actually care about the hostel he was pretending to run (I overheard him one morning saying that he ‘couldn’t wait to shut this fucking place down’), and an incredibly strange American man who claimed to be a ‘God like human.’ I shit you not.

Now I appreciate that doing Philosophy as half of my degree incites an inquisitive spirit in those who may not get the chance to wax lyrical about the meaning of life as often as they wish (for the record, we study nothing of the sort), but what happened on the first night was far from normal. It started with a half naked Italian guy asking me to explain space-time physics and the argument for the plausibility of time travel to him. This was all fine(ish) until he left and the old American guy sidled up to us for what transpired to be a three hour long non debate. It was too long and ridiculous to summarise for you now, but he believed that he had evolved to a superior human state and was travelling to Egypt the next week to ‘mentally reconstruct himself.’

Anyway, I had to spend the next few days hiding from him and his really weird teeth as he had taken a bit of a shine to me and I was slightly scared for my life. Nothing scared me as much as when we travelled to the Blue Mosque, however, the jewel in Istanbul’s religious crown. Tash and I had spent the last five weeks visiting places of worship around the globe, but the mosque was truly spectacular from the exterior, and we couldn’t wait to go inside. As it was Ramadan, we were told to come back a little later after prayers had ended, so we decided to sit in the nearby park until we were allowed to go in.

We were enjoying the sun when we realised that two men were circling us, and edging closer to where we were sitting. Initially amused by their lack of subtlety, we decided to get up and move away after they got a little too close for comfort. In short, they spent the next two hours following us round Istanbul in spite of the fact we hid out at the mosque for 45 minutes and also tagged along with a family visiting the city hoping that there would be strength in numbers. One of the guys in the family we took refuge with couldn’t quite believe that two girls had travelled to Istanbul alone, essentially telling us that this kind of behaviour was to be expected. I’m not going to start a rant here about the sexual oppression in Turkey but going to such a masculine dominated country was both incredibly eye opening and upsetting. Going from the freedom and independence we enjoy having been brought up in London to constantly worrying if our bare calves would attract the wrong kind of attention in Istanbul was very difficult to say the least.

We ended up getting a cab away from the mosque to try and get rid of our stalkers, and were feeling a bit too scared to go out alone for drinks that night as we’d planned. Not wanting to have our fun ruined completely, we decided to ask a couple of Aussie guys who had just moved into our room if they wouldn’t mind walking us up to a bar that evening, but things, as usual, went a little haywire.

It ended up being like a kind of awkward double date, made a thousand times worse by the street sellers who were trying to coerce the lads into buying roses for us every five seconds. We had intended to go our separate ways when we reached the strip, but the Aussies hadn’t got the memo, and instead frogmarched us from bar to bar bemoaning the hefty drink prices.

In the end, we took the sophisticated option and sat on a street corner drinking alcohol purchased from an off licence (class levels clearly at an all-time high) when one of the guys dropped the bomb that it was his birthday. Or the ‘worst birthday ever’ to quote him directly. I can only hope that he was just a little on the tactless side when he spent the next part of the evening ranting about how they normally ‘meet such great people in their hostels but this one sucks.’ So a truly wonderful end to a wonderful day.

I could literally fill a book with all of the bizarre things that happened to us in Turkey but a few that spring to mind include a family coming up to us in a park and taking posed holiday snaps with us without our consent, restauranteurs trying to con us and blaming it on the starvation they were feeling because of Ramadan (we had seen them play the same trick on the table next to us) and market sellers asking us if we were Japanese/needed walking sticks. It was a novel experience.

We were pretty thrilled to be leaving our grotty hovel for Budapest, but things went a little off the rails when the first leg of our 32 hour train journey was delayed by 10 hours. Wanting to get to our destination as quickly as possible, we decided to get an extortionate coach to the Hungarian capital to save time. However, when we arrived there at 4am, we had no money and no clue where we were going. We spent the next portion of the morning traipsing from hostel to hostel, bags in tow, desperately trying to find a bed for the night. In the end – and it pains me to say this – we resorted to cracking out our sleeping bags in the doorway of the hostel we had booked for the next couple of nights. We struck lucky when guests opened the door at around 6am and spent the next few hours in our new luxurious location of the icy cold hall through the doorway we had been sitting in, much to the dismay of the proprietor who arrived hours later. So much for a 24 hour reception.

Budapest was a really lovely city but disaster struck on what should have been our penultimate day. We had bought festival tickets and were really excited to be doing something apart from sightseeing/eating/hiding from Hungarian pickpockets (SO many!), but at the last minute were told that the train we needed to catch in order to make our Eurostar from Paris to London two days later was fully booked. With the disdain for our ‘lack of organisation’ from our respective mothers hanging over our heads (this genuinely wasn’t our fault), we were literally half way to the festival when we decided to sell our tickets, rush back to our hostel and try and get as close to Paris as soon as possible.

This went reasonably smoothly and I played a bit of a blinder in skipping a huge queue at Budapest’s train station after befriending some Irish guys at an opportune moment, and before we knew it, we were Paris bound. We arrived there late at night and had the usual struggle to find our hostel in the dark, made worse by the fact that I was now convinced that all Europeans were about to rob/kill me. And after one short night, it was back to the station and ready to come back to blighty.
The past month has been my first real experience of traversing a continent and it has honestly been a wonderful experience in the vast majority of ways. Of course it wouldn’t have been the same without Tash, who has been an amazing travel companion, my parents, for kindly contributing towards my trip, and those who have taken the time to read about my European misadventures. It saddens me to say goodbye, but I will end (somewhat cheesily) with a quote that I was reminded of when staying in Istanbul. St Augustine said: ‘the world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page,’ and I could not agree more.

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