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A History Lesson during a "Free" Walking Tour of Budapest

sunny 75 °F

Boy was it tough going to sleep last night. Not only was I still on an emotional high from the game, but the kid whose bed is next to mine was snoring and across the way there was another kid who was watching movies or a TV show on his computer. It wasn’t the light that bothered me so much as the fact that he was eating like carrots or something with a similar crunch. Who does that at 2am in a hostel? To make matters worse the carrots seemed to be in a potato chip bag. I mean even at movies people usually open up their candy so that they don’t bother everyone else while they eat it. I almost went off on him but when I woke up in the morning I was glad that I didn’t because in that bed I saw Alex sprawled out. Despite a little trouble falling asleep, I slept like a baby and was super excited to cook up the eggs that I bought yesterday! Also in the kitchen was Chris that I had watched the soccer game with last night. It’s pretty amazing what a great atmosphere they create at this hostel. I have spent a grand total of 3 waking hours actually at this hostel and have already met about a dozen friendly fellow travelers. Yesterday, Scott had been mentioning the Budapest Free Tour, which is a walking tour that they have in several European cities where you basically pay in tips at the end whatever you think it was worth. It usually makes for some great tours and energetic tour guides. There was a general tour at 10:30 and 2:30 as well as a Communism Tour or a Jewish Tour at 3:30. Since it was a late night of soccer last night it was about 10am already so the 10:30 tour was out of the picture. I was planning to do the Communism Tour, but Chris was going for the general tour at 2:30 figuring that it would have some of the communism stuff mixed in.
After a filling breakfast (I had forgotten what that felt like!) I whipped out my Arthur guidebook and plotted out my day. After seeing so many beautiful buildings and breathtaking vistas yesterday, I had to admit that I was a little burned out on seeing sights. What was missing was all of the stories behind all of these grand (and once grand) buildings, which is why I was really looking forward to the tour. But I had a few hours to kill, so I planned to go to Budapest’s most famous church, St. Stephan’. Before I got there, I had to google a camera store along my route so that I could pick up a new memory card. Luckily I didn’t have to go too far out of my way. As I locked up my things to head out, I met my next door bed mate. He was the one Alex had told me about yesterday that had been traveling for 2 years. He is from South Korea and traveled around Asia for 8 months before spending a few months in Australia and New Zealand, trekking across the US, continuing on to Europe and then headed home in 2 weeks after over 2 years of traveling. Wow. I don’t know if I could it. As we chatted, Scott walked up and my neighbor, David inquired about check out time. One of the other worker/freeloaders chimed in that there is no checkout time. If you want a bed, you have to pay for it, but you’re welcome to enjoy the common room, kitchen, etc. as long as you want. I don’t know why more hotel’s can’t be like that. It costs them next to nothing bud adds a lot to the atmosphere. Anyways, David had asked because he’s leaving today so after we chatted I said goodbye and then headed out on the town, picking up a memory card then headed for St. Stephen’s. Along the way, there was some kind of music video being shot. I was walking down the sidewalk trying to figure out why there was shimmery red confetti all over the street when suddenly music went on, they turned a fan on a girl in a red dress and about 30 people with umbrellas started a choreographed dance in the background, all while they shot even more confetti into the air.
As I walked, a few more random things happened before I got to St. Stephen’s. First, I saw a kid wearing a shirt of Uncle Sam and it said Vote! Since the USA game was last night, I figured he was showing some American spirit so I said Go USA! as I walked past. He looked at me funny and then proceeded to talk to his friends in some other language. It’s actually really interesting the kind of influence America has on fashion and people’s style. I see people wearing American themed shirts or shirts with English sayings on them all the time when they are clearly not American. The opposite seems to be much less common. At home, you’ll get the occasional person wearing a shirt related to their heritage (Italian or Irish), but I doubt that these Europeans have American roots when they wear American shirts. Another thing that Budapest’s sometimes crumbling buildings taught me is how they get that façade that looks like giant bricks. It’s actually just regular bricks that are offset and then covered over with concrete or something. Check it out…

The inside of St. Stephens is beautiful. But what is most memorable about St. Stephens is the creepiness of St. Stephen’s right had being preserved and kept inside the church. St. Stephen died in 1038 and was canonized in 1083. His right hand was found intact and has been a world traveler, being kept in Transylvania, Dubrovnik and then Vienna before being brought to Budapest in 1771. It was carried away to the west in 1944 (who would want to take it?) then returned to Hungary for good in 1945. Here’s shots from when they preserved it.
Craziest of all is that they make you pay money to see the darn thing. It’s in a glass box and can’t really be seen until you put money in the machine to turn lights on. Its tiny and black from the preservation process.

After that creepiness, I decided to get as far away from the saintly hand as possible, so I climbed the steps to the top of the dome. It was an endless spiral staircase.
Up top made for great views, though.
After about 15 minutes, I had to head back down to catch the walking tour. I literally was dizzy and had to take a second to compose myself after whirling down the stairs aka running in circles.

After St. Stephens’ it was just 10 minutes until the 2:30pm tour and I was just 2 blocks from the meeting point. Chris had convinced me that the general tour was the way to go, so I headed over there. The tour was supposed to last 3 hours and I knew that I would be starving by 5:30 despite my hearty (and somewhat late) breakfast, so as soon as I exited St. Stephen’s I saw a Subway and grabbed a quick salad. Sadly, they don’t have “Five Dollar Footlongs” in Budapest. They are noted as 15 cm and they cost 3.99 Euros. Doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

I wasn’t sure if Chris would make it but he ended up showing up after all, so we both got in the same tour group. Aggie was our guide. The very first thing I learned was that I’ve been saying Budapest wrong all along. You’re supposed to pronounce it Budapesht. Then came the history lesson. Budapes(h)t and Hungary in general was made up of 7 nomadic tribes back in the 800s. The leaders of the tribes decided that they would need to band together to protect their people so to make it official, they mixed up a cocktail (of each other’s blood) and each drank from it. Sounds pretty normal to me! Later, St. Stephen realized that all of the Hungarian pagans were surrounded by Catholics and that they’d better convert if they wanted to avoid conflict, so he basically became a Saint (and got his own church) for adding a whole country’s worth of names to the Vatican’s mailing list. Here’s my new buddy Chris and I in front of the church they named after St. Stephen:

Boy are there a lot of smokers here. Apparently the research on cancer hasn’t made its way here yet despite advances in that little thing called the internet. Usually when I see that I’m about to cross paths with a smoker, I’ll take a deep breath so that I can exhale for as long as possible as I walk past them so that my next inhale can be of fresh air. But the first two times I tried that strategy here, by the time it was time for an inhale, my lungs were assaulted with another breath of cigarette smoke. No bueno. So I’ve basically had to just resign to the smoke and breathe right through it. Hopefully we can get some Public Service Announcements going in Eastern Europe so that people can wake up before I come back here. :-)

AAAAnyways, Aggie (I have no idea how to spell it, but she described the pronunciation as Maggie without the M) went on to tell us about how King Mathias brought about the “Golden Age” of Hungary where Budapes(h)t became the second capital of Renaissance Art. Mathias was so great that he got a church named after him too…right across the Danube on Castle Hill in Pest. Another story behind a beautiful building I saw yesterday.

The party didn’t last long, because they were soon attacked by the Ottoman Turks, who ended up occupying Hungary. The Hungarians quip that the only good things they got from the Turkish occupation were the Turkish Baths and a love for paprika and coffee. Other than that, life wasn’t so great, so they ended up asking the Hapsburgs (the ruling family of neighboring Austria) to liberate them, which they kindly did. The problem was that the Hapsburgs loved Budapest so much that they never left. (This is a test: When you read that did you say Budapest or Budapesht? – It’s ok…I’m struggling to knock the habit too). The Hapsburgs stayed for almost 200 years, from 1686-1867 at which point Hungary was somehow able to make a compromise with them to unify. I’m still trying to figure out what kind of bargaining chips they could have possibly had. One kid that was trying to show off asked…wasn’t that because of Sisi? To which Aggie responded, “yes, she loved us very much.” (At the time, I was impressed how much the kid knew about history, but later found out he must have just came from Vienna…more on that later – I went to the Sisi museum in Vienna). Well that seemed all well and good until the world wars where, as Aggie quipped “they lost all battles and klll lll wars.” At the end of WWI, the Austria-Hungarian empire basically fell apart, which made them an easy acquisition for Hitler in WWII. The Red Army liberated them from the Germans (yayy!) but they never left either (ouch). So they did the whole communism thing for a decade until in 1956, they tried a revolution. That failed too. Moral of the story? If you happen to want to take over Hungary, you could probably have it. Also, you probably don’t want to pick their side in any future wars. The 1956 revolution actually turned out pretty well for them though. Afterward, the practice of “Happy Communism” took hold, where basically they had more freedom at home as long as they weren’t too outspoken and fell in line in public.

I also learned a bit about Gellert Hill, which I climbed yesterday to catch a glimpse of the city and the liberty monument. Remember that?
Well if you want something named after you in Budapest and you don’t happen to be a Saint (Stephen) or a King (Mathias), there are some other options. You can always go out like Gellert did, inside of a barrel, rolling down a hill and voila! Your name is forever etched on maps of Budapest. ???????? Turns out, he tried to unite them but the Hungarians were still too close to their roots as pagan nomads and couldn’t be tamed. They didn’t think he could be trusted, so they gave him the ol’ barrel roll down the hill. As far as the liberation monument on top of Gellert Hill, that was actually put up by the Soviets to commemorate Budapest’s “liberation” from the Nazis. Once they got rid of those darn commies (commys?) they had a decision to make. The monument had become a landmark in the city and while they would rather replace it, they didn’t have the money to bring it down and put something else there. The solution? Cover it with a white sheet for 4 days, then uncover it and celebrate it as if it’s a brand new monument, not one that recalls a difficult past! A few decades later and most people probably don’t even remember its true origins. Sounds like a plan!

Also, when I noticed yesterday that the Pesh side was organized in a much more orderly fashion with grid-like streets, there was a story behind that too. All of the buildings in Pesh are no more than 180 years old, because there was a flood that wiped the whole place out (because of its hills, Buda remained largely unharmed).

As we passed the aftermath of the music video that was being shot,
Aggie told us that Budapest has actually become a hot spot for shooting movies. Apparently, when they claim to be somewhere in Europe, they may actually be in Budapest. Currently, Spy is being shot here, which has Jude Law and 50 Cent in it (so you know its going to be good!)

We then passed restaurant row and Aggie took us through a rundown of the favorites in Hungary.
Goulash, stews, cabbage and langu, oh my! (I asked her to repeat langu twice and I’m still not sure what that is). Nothing that sounds like its coming to a restaurant near you. Nevertheless, I usually try to eat at least one authentic meal, so we’ll see how that goes. I don’t remember who this guy actually was, but he is right at the beginning of restaurant row and word on the street is that rubbing his belly gives you good luck for your upcoming meal. When I mentioned to Chris how that was a very contrived story, he said that the last city he was in (I think Prague), the tour guide told them how there was a random statue and how tourists started rubbing it for good luck and now it has become a thing to do. At least she was honest!

Despite their lackluster record in combat, the Hungarians are apparently a pretty scientifically-minded people. The guys who invented the Rubix cube and the ballpoint pen were both Hungarians. Then she started to list off a bunch of famous Hungarians…it started with a bunch of people I didn’t know, then Bela Lugosi (whose name I at least recognized), then the likes of Adrian Brody, Goldie Hawn and Drew Barrymore, among others. That sounded like a bit of a stretch…maybe one of their parents came from Hungary? Or a grandparent? Or maybe they came to Hungary for vacation once? All kidding aside, the Hungarians attribute at least part of their scientific prowess to their language. Since their ancestors were nomads, the language is completely unrelated to the two main European language family trees (latin that lead to French, Spanish, etc. and the Germanic/English tree) which makes their language completely unrecognizable to outsiders. It was rated as the 2nd most logical language and the 5th hardest language to learn (who does these ratings?) It is so unrecognizable in fact, that it is often used in Sci-Fi movies when they need an “Alien” language. For example, Bladerunner’s aliens spoke Hungarian.

After our history lesson and tour of Pest, it was time to cross over Budapest’s oldest bridge, the Chain Bridge, onto the Buda side. Here’s the chain bridge with the palace in the background. The Chain Bridge was unlike any bridge I had ever seen. It basically looked as if it was modeled after an erector set. Just a bunch of wrench-shaped pieces of steel all bolted together. Pretty neat.

After crossing the bridge was the climb up castle hill. It made for a great view, but then it was quiz time. Looking out on the skyline of Budapest, the two buildings that rose above the rest were St. Stephens and Parliament. Which one did we think was higher? Parliament looked much taller to me, but sensing that it was a trick question, I went with St. Stephens. Turns out I overthought the trickery, because Parliament was actually built to be the same height as St. Stephens to symbolically show the balance of power.

The parliament building is exceptionally beautiful, but apparently came at a high cost. It is second only to London’s Parliamentary building in size, and after it was completed, it was estimated that the Hungarian government could have instead used that money to build an entire city for 40,000 people. But at least the saved some money on the Liberation Monument! After taking in the view, we did a 180 to find the office (but not the house) of the president. But why, Aggie asked, are there just 2 guards and no fence around this house (think about that in comparison to the White House)?
On top of this seemingly meager security, Aggie said that the guards were “Fake Guards” and that their guns were not real and their only purpose was to conduct an hourly changing of the guard ceremony. Meanwhile, a few cops in bright orange vests at the corners of the building were the real security. But besides all that, the security is light because the president has no real power in Hungary. The president is merely a figurehead whereas the real power lies with the Prime Minister over in the Parliament building (where they have much better security I’m told). A little farther down the street was Mathias Church, which amazingly was built in 1255. Imagine lugging all those stones up that hill back then. The roof was very unique, with the colorful tiles made of what she called “fire granite.”
One of the nice things about my endless trek around the whole of Budapest yesterday was that I saw everything, so on this second time around, I took little to no pictures and instead just took it all in. (Most of these pictures were taken yesterday and are only included as a reference so that you know what I’m talking about.) A strategy I might try again in the future…

Apparently, there are requirements for switching over to Euros and Hungary has not been able to meet them yet. They need to get their act together because money on this trip has been a pain! From Stockholm to Budapest to Vienna to Prague to Munich to Copenhagen, only Vienna and Munich use Euros, whereas the rest I have to exchange for local currency. I understand the Eastern European struggle to qualify for the Euro, but I wonder why the Scandinavian countries (or England) haven’t made the switch.

By now, our tour was about over and it was about 5pm, meaning that most attractions would be closed. However, I remembered that according to Arthur, the main Turkish Bath, Szechenyi Bath, is open until 10pm and since I only have one more day in town, I figured it would be a nice way to unwind rather than squeeze it in to my final day. Since Arthur is getting a bit old, I verified with Aggie that it was still the case. I was jumping the gun a bit, because just before she said goodbye (and reminded us that she makes all her money in tips), she gave us a nice little newsletter that covered all the hours for the things to do as well as do’s and don’ts and a few miscellaneous facts, such as:

-The color code for bottled water: blue=fizzy, pink=still, green=lightly carbonated – good to know
-Even better to know…don’t say “thank you” in a bar or restaurant when paying until you get your change. If you do, you’re essentially saying “keep the change.” What a convenient way to dupe tourists!
-Beware of girls that try to bring you to a specific bar…money will be extorted out of you if you go – duly noted!
-Don’t accept a 200 Forint (abbreviated HUF for Hungarian Forint) note – they went out of circulation few years ago

Also, a rundown of so called “Hungarian Culinary Delights” – Turos csusza (curd dumplings with bacon), Fozelek (veggie stew), Csirkepaprikas (chicken stew), Bikaver or “bull’s blood” (dry full bodied red wine from the Szekszard or Eger regions) and Palinka (national “firewater” – Hungarian Fruit Brandy)…so many choices for tomorrow haha.

The newsletter also confirmed that the main bath was open until 10pm. Chris decided to come along and luckily he’s a walker too. We were basically going from central Buda to the farthest Northeastern part of Pest, just barely on the map, but we both enjoy walking in foreign cities, so we set off. It was at least an hour walk—back across the Chain bridge and then down Andrassy Blvd. Budapest’s best effort at Paris’ Champs Elysses (which is known as a long boulevard filled with high-end luxury stores).

The walk was at least an hour, but we had plenty to talk about. Chris works for a startup that is an online tutoring service. Every day, from anywhere in the world, he can log in to tudor kids in SATs, GREs and a variety of subjects. The format sounds like an interesting platform to connect students and tutors. Plus, he loves that he can work from anywhere in the world and basically makes enough to pay the bills in just a few hours a day. For the last year or so, he has been living in Lyon, France, with a French girlfriend. He’s originally from Nashville, but lived in the San Franscisco Bay area for a while when he first started working for his current company. Before that, he spent 15 months as a teacher in Seoul, South Korea, which sounds like it was a life-changing experience for him. While over there, he got to see a lot of South East Asia and took some time off to explore it before coming back home. Hungary is actually his 40th country! (On the plane to Sweden, I calculated that by the time my trip is over, Denmark will be my 14th country – 15 if you count the interesting night I spent in Morocco and 18 if you count the US, Canada and Mexico. I don’t know which of the Caribbean Islands count as their own country…Bahamas? Aruba? Dominican Republic).

Anyways, the Budapest Champs Elysseys left a lot to be desired (not that either of us are into high-end shopping) and we eventually made it to Hero’s square. It has a giant pillar in the center (Chris hypothesized and I think he’s right that it's the 7 blood drinking nomads) with two quarter-arches surrounding it with statues of the leaders of Hungary’s past.
In the square were two young girls offering free hugs, so we had to take them up on it.
Not a bad hug…and it was free! Just past hero’s square we crossed a bridge. To the right side was a small late and an epic castle. It looked like they had a wakeboarding competition or something set up on the lake too.
To the left and a little farther on, we reached the baths at long last. It was about 7pm, so we had lots of time to relax and enjoy…or so we thought. When we walked in, the ticket office was closed. It seemed like there were still people around, but nobody that would let us in. We double-checked the newsletter from Aggie and sure enough, it said 10pm. Mentally it was a challenge to summon the energy for the almost hour walk back from the northeastern part of the city to the southern part where our hostel was. We had both spent the last half hour talking about how badly our feet hurt and how much we were looking forward to the relaxation. Oh well. I guess it’ll have to be on the agenda tomorrow. Although the quickest way back would have been to start back on the road we had come from, we both have an aversion to taking the same path twice (because there’s so much more of the city to explore…and usually off the beaten path is the best place to find the gems!) so we went over a few blocks before returning on a parallel street to central Pest, then heading southward to get home.

When we were almost home, we saw that the World Cup games were on and decided to stop at a bar to watch for a bit. We ended up ordering a bottle of wine, picking up our conversation where it left off and sort of forgetting about the game. Chris laughed telling the story about the time he spent in Asia where people would often tell him things such as “oh wow, look at your big nose” and “you’re so light/white/pale.” Things that would normally be considered insults in America but that were intended as high compliments. What happens to be in vogue is such a funny thing. I remember watching a 60 minutes segment on how in some Asian countries, it’s popular to get skin lightening treatments and sometimes even nose jobs. Meanwhile, Americans go tanning and if they get a nose job, it’s to make their nose smaller! Everybody wants what they can’t have. Such is life, I suppose. Chris had earlier mentioned that he was coming back to the states so when I inquired further into it, it turns out he’s actually going back to school for a masters degree in international education and technology education, basically fusing his past experience in South Korea with his current job in tech. He is passionate about figuring out how find a sustainable business model for delivering basic education to people in developing nations at low to no cost, recognizing how much human potential is out there that is untapped. We talked a bit about Khan Academy and I told him about the MAPP program and Martin Seligman’s work with bringing Positive Psychology principles into education. We talked about travel and about how we’re both dying to get to India, about philosophies on life in general and just about everything under the sun. When I asked about what was going to happen with his girlfriend when he comes to the states, he said that she actually found a job over in Boston (I forget what it was exactly). When I said how perfectly that worked out, he seemed less than enthused. Turns out, he’s in an eerily similar situation to what I experienced a few years ago. Everything seems to be going well and he’s happy but he can just feel that she’s not the one. The problem is that his friends and family like her, they have a good relationship that his friends envy and there’s nothing he can point to that isn’t going well. Any yet, something just doesn’t feel right. Like I did, he’s currently wrestling with whether that feeling is just the classic “guy that doesn’t want to be tied down” (which is only made worse by the spirit of an adventurous traveler) or if there is something more to it. Turns out, he’s going to Harvard for grad school, which he chose over Stanford because of his girlfriend’s gig in Boston. He knows that he can’t go wrong with two of the best schools in the country (And the world), especially in the tech-ed scene, but you can tell in his voice that he wistfully longs for Stanford. Anyways, the wine was almost gone and we were both starving, so we continued our journey. We said “Thank You” to the waitress so that she could keep the change :-). Chris is a vegetarian and we had seen an Indian restaurant just a block earlier, so we doubled back so that he could get some take out. While we waited, we ended up talking to some Indian guys who were in Budapest working for a month. It was their first time out of India and they were telling us about the posters of famous Indian actors on the wall. It’s crazy the people you’ll meet if only you look to make connections. When we got back to the hostel, I cooked up a giant double chicken breast (I had never seen the two breasts attached before!) We were both exhausted by that point, but since it was my last night in Budapest, Chris said I had to go to one of the Ruin bars. It’s basically exactly what it sounds like. These dilapidated “ruin” buildings that in the states might be converted into lofts were instead converted into bars.
The one we went to was the first ruin bar that started the trend. It was actually pretty amazing because the place was enormous and each room had a totally different vibe. There were small, relatively quiet rooms if you wanted to talk with your friends, loud dance floor rooms and everything in between, all decorated with the most bizarre modern art-type pieces that looked like the interior designer was heavily drugged.
We only stayed for a drink but I was glad to come and experience it. Interestingly, all of the bar scene and nightlife is in the “Jewish Quarter,” about 10 blocks by 10 in central Pest. While we were there we even saw someone in a Brazil jersey hooking up with a girl in a Mexico shirt and face paint despite the fact that the two sides had just played earlier in the night. Thanks for promoting cultural understanding, World Cup! With that, it was back to the hostel and I was out like a light. No carrot crunching to be dealt with and no snoring neighbor next door!

Posted by atbrady 16:32 Archived in Hungary Tagged budapest walking hand hill tour st stephen matthias gellert

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