A Travellerspoint blog


Relaxing in Budapest and (attempting) to leave for Vienna

sunny 65 °F

Well, today is my last day in Budapest so I wanted to make it count. I got up around 8:30, booked the Hotel Meninger in Vienna for the next 3 days, then hit the grocery store to stock up on eggs, peppers and onions. While I made my omelet, Chris woke up and we planned to meet at the Baths at 2:30 for a second try. He had to do some work in the morning and wanted to climb Gellert Hill and I had some other things I wanted to fit into the day, mostly touring Parliament. I hit the street and went just a little out of the way to get back to Central Market. It was my last day and I hadn’t really seen anywhere else to buy little souvenirs to add a piece of Budapest to my collection. I settled on a model of Fisherman’s Bastion, since that had so captured my imagination. Then I headed north along the river toward parliament, but got distracted again because just across the bridge and up the hill was Mathias Church which I had never got to see inside because it was too late in the day both times that I went. With its multicolored walls and generous gold accents, it didn’t disappoint.
I also got to go up in Fisherman’s bastion since it had been closed off for the wedding last time I was up. I got a good picture in front of Parliament then decided that it was finally time to go see it up close.

Heading back down the hill, I saw this wonderful accordion player and was compelled to give him a Euro and change.

The parliament building was even more incredible up close. I even got to try out the little mini tripod for my camera.
Were these the “real” guards Aggie was talking about?

Aggie had said that tours take place every 15 minutes, so I hadn’t put much thought into it when I showed up. While she was technically right, the tours rotated between 7 different languages so English tours only went off every 2 hours. The next tour wasn't until 1:45, which would make me miss the baths. 0 for 2, Aggie! I wish I knew this before I tipped you! I was pretty frustrated because I had really been looking forward to it, but with sudden hour and a half of free time before the baths, I decided to go to the House of Terror, which commemorated the two times that Hungarians were persecuted, both under Nazis and under the Soviet Union. Since I never got to do the Free Walking Tour on communism, I figured this was the next best thing.
Both the Nazi and Communist executioners had set up their headquarters at 60 Andrassy Avenue. During WWII, Hungary was in the crossfire of the Nazi and Communist dictatorships. After WWI, Hungary lost 1/3 of it’s territory and 2 million of its people were place in the jurisdiction of neighboring countries. They were disarmed, isolated politically and weakened economically, all while being surrounded by hostile countries. It was essentially in the buffer zone between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Hungarians regard it as a great victory that they were able to avoid German occupation until the 5th year of the war in 1944. But then, the Hungarian government basically became a pawn of Hitler’s, so they made Hungarian Jews wear the yellow star and rounded them up to deport them to German concentration camps…437,402 of them. Hilter occupied Hungary to “secure absolute control over the countries natural and human resources.” The Hungarian Regent Miklos Horthy made a feeble attempt to get Hungary out of the war, but it failed and he was forced by the Nazis to resign. In his place, the Nazis put the Arrow Cross Party in power. 60 Andrassy Blvd. (the site of the museum) became the “House of Loyalty” and the members of the Arrow Cross killed and tortured hundreds of people in its basement. The only thing that saved them from this reign of terror was Soviet liberation (and subsequent occupation) in 1945. One of the first things the Hungarian communists that arrived with the Soviet tanks did was to take over 60 Andrassy. The Department for Political Police took over the former Arrow Cross HQ.
They killed without hesitation when ordered to do so, while many of their “confessions” were extorted only after brutal interrogations. They had a shadow army of informers that watched people on factory floors, in offices and at universities. This tyrannical regime seized, tortured or killed one person from every third family in Hungary. Nobody was safe. They even had a quota of Germans to round up and send to the Soviets. Undesirable citizens, those who were religious or were political opponents were labeled “Kulaks.” The term had no real criteria and became ambiguous. It was a label slapped on anyone that they wanted to get rid of. When quotas couldn’t be filled, they started taking people simply if they had a last name that sounded German. Thousands of people were abducted and sent to prison camps in this way. In this and other deportations, 130,000 civilians and another 500,000 soldiers ended up in Soviet captivity, where they were sent to camps that were part of the Soviet “gulag.” Equality under the law was officially abolished and replaced with “class-justice,” where the accused persons social origins or class affiliation were to be taken into consideration either as a mitigating or aggravating circumstance. I’m sort of astounded that I never learned about this in school, when it sounds so similar in scope and horror to the Nazi’s concentration camps. Several million died from executions and inhumane conditions.
It is hard to imagine, but from when the Nazi’s came in 1944 until the last Soviet soldiers left in 1991, almost a 50 year span, Hungary was never under its own control. Even after the Soviets left, the rebuilding has only just begun. Not just the buildings either, but perhaps more importantly in terms of culture and values. For example, the one party system the Soviets had put in place had begun ideological training at the Kindergarten level. How do you start to undo that cultural programming?

The beginning of the shift in a more positive direction occurred in 1956, when Khrushchev uncovered the crimes of the Stalinist era (after Stalin’s death in 1953). In October of that year, demonstrations broke out in Budapest, lead by students and later joined by vast crowds. When the secret police opened lethal fire on unarmed people in the crowd, the protest became a revolution. Its mission was to create a democratic, free and independent Hungary. They disbanded several state and local communist institutions. In just 5 days, Soviet political leadership was forced to give up ground. While Aggie called it a failure, I suppose since they didn’t achieve their aim of a free Hungary for another 35 years, it did seem like a victory in that troops were withdrawn from Budapest and negotiations began for withdrawal from the country as a whole. The feared State Security Department on Andrassy Blvd. was disbanded, as was the one party system.

The penultimate stop on the tour was some pretty intense prison cells in the basement. Hard to imagine the horror that happened here.
They were given a cup of bean soup and 150 grams of bread (under 500 calories for the whole day) and weren’t given blankets. The guy with the cell with the bed was actually lucky…many had to sleep on the cold floor. The final stop was very interesting. It was a room filled with the pictures of the “terrorizers.” They definitely wanted to make sure that none of them could hide from their past.

After the museum I was starving and I had a few hours of bathing ahead of me. I was also running out of chances for an authentic Hungarian meal, so as I walked toward the baths I got some Goulash. Its pretty much just a beef stew. I’ll admit that with a pound of paprika and whatever other spices they put in there, they made a pretty bland dish at least tolerable. However, in a sad twist of fate, I somehow forgot to take a picture of this interesting culinary creation. Perhaps its better that way. I’m not sure any picture could have made it look appetizing, but I assure you that while it was nothing to write home about (I realize that currently I’m technically writing home about it), it was certainly better than it looked. On to the baths!

I found Chris on the steps of the bathhouse, reading what looked like a really old book, but when I got up close I saw that it was actually a Kindle. Turns out it's a homemade Kindle cover. He basically cut out the center of the pages so that his Kindle would fit in. It’s perfect for traveling because nobody would ever want to steal this old ratty book. Neat idea. I told him he should sell it on eBay…or Shark Tank!

Anyways, here’s the enormous bath house.
And that’s just the half I could fit into the picture!

Inside, there were over 15 pools, a few saunas and a steam room. The pools had a range of temperatures, from 60ish degrees (which actually feels great after a brutal sauna) to 110ish degrees, one sauna that was normal sauna temperature and another that was 10 degrees hotter and was definitely an exercise in mental toughness. The steam room had what felt like peppermint. When I stepped inside, I was not expecting that at all. It stings your eyes and skin. Some guy said it was eucalyptus, which sounds more credible than peppermint, but all I could think of was the tea factory I went to in Denver with Jocelyn where there was a similar smell and stinging sensation in the peppermint room.
Some of the pools had high concentrations of different minerals. Out in the courtyard of this enormous building there were also 2 giant half-circle pools on either side of an Olympic-sized lap pool. I was bummed that swim caps were required in the lap pool, but at the same time I was here to relax.
They even had this sweet little circular piece inside the pool with jets that made a crazy whirlpool.

There is supposed to be a formula for tackling all of these different relaxation stations: Warm pool, cold pool, sauna, cold shower, steam bath, cold showers, mineral pools, rest and relax wrapped in a warm beach towel. That was wayyy too much to remember, so we pretty much just did a lot of hot/cold/hot/cold. The hotter sauna to the freezing pool was definitely an experience. Other than that, not much to report. For a couple hours we just sat around dazed and confused. Very enjoyable at almost the halfway point of my trip that is otherwise filled with 20 miles of walking every day. They also had this sweet technology where your “ticket” was a wristband that looked like a watch and if you pressed the watch on your locker it would lock or unlock your locker.
By this point, it was almost 6pm and by the time I went home and ate, I was looking at catching the 10pm bus and not getting in until 1am, so it was unfortunately time to go. A few things we noticed on the way home. First, we could have just walked down the street and never missed a goal for a world cup game. There was a bar showing the game literally every 50 feet. If a crowd cheered, we would be able to get to a TV in time for the replay. All this and the Hungarian team isn’t even in the World Cup! Also, whereas I noticed in Germany last year that you have to pay per plastic grocery bag, in Hungary they don’t even give you that option. You’re basically expected to just bring your own. I wonder what would happen if we did that in the US. When I bought my groceries the other day, I luckily had my backpack with me. Here, all of your groceries get put back in your container (there are no carts-the aisles are far too narrow) and then they provide you a little shelf to go figure out how to carry all of your stuff home.

I quickly cooked up some chicken, then threw it in a container to eat on the road. I packed up my backpack, then headed for the train station. There was a train pretty much every hour until 11pm. I got there around 9:30 expecting to get on the 10 o’clock train. However, the kiosks to buy tickets were only for local trains. To get an international ticket, you had to go to the ticket office. That late at night, there was only one person working at the ticket office and about 30 that wanted to buy tickets, so I had to pick a number to get in the queue. I ended up missing the 10pm train, but wasn’t all that worried about it because I knew there was another one coming. When I finally got up to the ticket window, it was almost 10:45. I told the woman my destination and she asked when I wanted to go. As soon as possible! So she promptly printed me out a ticket for 5am the next morning. What I hadn’t known to pay attention to online was that the trains that left hourly alternated between leaving from the main station and a second major station. It was 10 minutes to 11 and I never would have made it across town in time. A bit perplexed, I decided to test out the limits of that “no checkout time” policy at Mandala Hostel. When I got back, everyone was asleep. I checked my bed and nobody was in there, so I just threw down my bag and fell asleep in all of my clothes since there weren’t any sheets to be had and since I had to wake up in barely 5 hours to catch my train. When I woke up in the morning, there still wasn’t anybody awake at the hostel, so I just left some cash and a note to cover my unintended stay. Now I’m headed to Vienna (for real this time!)

Posted by atbrady 17:02 Archived in Hungary Tagged trains budapest vienna of museum turkish baths terror Comments (0)

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 Comments (0)

On to Budapest!

I may or may not have joined a cult...

sunny 70 °F

Woke up early this morning and had some nuts and some meat and cheese that I saved from last night to make for a quick start today. I showered (I may or may not have skipped a day) and was out the door in 10 minutes. I was still hungry so I grabbed a salad at the airport.
They had brilliant packaging for the salad dressing. No ripping off the top, just bend!

The Swedes are very fond of these tiny little shrimps. They’re also very fond of having one slice of bread (often pumpernickel or something brown) with some mayo, maybe a tomato slice then topped with little shrimp or salmon. This isn’t a great picture, but I didn’t think to take a picture earlier and this was my last chance!
Unfortunately, I would have loved to eat more in Sweden. Little shrimp and salmon are ALWAYS on the menu! Did I mention they love salmon? But as much as I love salmon, I wouldn't buy an entire salmon to eat AT THE AIRPORT!
Stockholm airport itself was great. The security check time might even have Rochester beat! Unfortunately, the plane was running late which cuts into my time in Budapest a bit. Once we finally got off the ground, the flight was pretty quick. I was actually pretty alert and decided to spend the two hours trying to catch up on my blog. During the times when I couldn’t use electronics, I read the inflight magazine, which informed me that Munich recently legalized nudity. Headed there in a few days...Watch out!
When I arrived in Budapest, it was about 1:30pm.

Immediately after stepping off the plane, I could sense a different vibe in Budapest. Whereas everything in Stockholm was clean, efficient and slick, Budapest is decidedly gritty in comparison. In Stockholm, I had noticed that most Swedes are very well kempt and almost uniform. The guys usually have their blonde hair slicked back and wear sport coats no matter the occasion. They could have just come from a GQ magazine. The women are almost invariable gorgeous (and I don’t even like blondes ;-)), also tend to have their hair pulled back to show their striking features and are in great shape. Everyone has perfect skin. Everyone seems to be well dressed. Combine that with the ultra modern rail system and social safety net that kept me from seeing a single beggar or homeless person the whole time I was there and it’s safe to say that Stockholm (and probably Sweden overall) is in it’s own little bubble. I didn’t fully recognize the extent of the uniformity until I stepped off the plane into Budapest. As I looked around at the people, I easily could have been getting off of a plane in Dallas or D.C. There were people of all shapes, sizes, styles and (hair) colors…still not a ton of ethnic diversity.

I’m always conscious of how I am perceived when I’m overseas. Am I an obvious American? In Sweden it seemed that I fit in pretty well. People spoke to me in Swedish and expected me to understand. I had two different people say “You’re not Swedish?” when their greetings were met with a look of confusion on my face. But now that I’m in Budapest, apparently I’m French. The airline employee directing passengers off the flight spoke a variety of languages as he sent us on our way and I’m almost sure he spoke to me in French.

I found the ticket office to get into center city and had to get a dual ticket with a bus to the train station and then a train into Budapest proper. When she quoted the price, my jaw dropped. It was 550 Forints. I had forgot to check the exchange rates and didn’t know how much that was, but I assumed it had to be at least $30. Oh well, I didn’t have much of a choice. (It turns out it was $2.50). I found my hostel, the Mandala, without too much trouble. On the way, there was this sweet bar with bars to lean against rather than seats...kind of a great idea!

I may or may not have joined a cult. When I got to the hostel, I had to take my shoes off at the door. There were a ton of pictures of the Dalai Lama as well as Indian and Chinese proverbs. Everybody was super nice. Like overly nice. Like that's probably how they get you to join. Scott who checked me in is from Australia and has been in Budapest for 8 months. Another guy, Yonnas?, is from Germany and has been traveling for years. Another guy, who may or may not be running the show, doesn't say much but is always sitting out on the porch with his dog. It seems like all but a few of the inhabitants “work” at the hostel in some capacity, whether checking people in or doing some vacuuming. Sort of seems like they bought an apartment in Budapest and figured they could open a hostel to pay for part of their rent. Here's the courtyard of the apartment building.

Scott was extremely nice and spent about 20 minutes with me drawing all over a map that he gave me showing me all the things to see. I was sort of blown away by his hospitality and/or cult recruitment campaign. He also directed me to the grocery store just down the block where I stopped quickly to grab some eggs, peppers and onions for breakfast in the morning as well as tuna fish and apples for a snack on the road. Other than the long-term occupants, I met Alex, who was a quirky kid from Chicago that seemed to think he knew everything there was to know about traveling. He means well, but boy is he chatty. He was not getting my hints as I kept trying to leave to explore Budapest as it was already close to 4pm!

Here’s my room:
Not a bad view out the window either!
Did I mention that this costs about $7 US per night? Quite a change from the high prices of Sweden!

Alex told me about how my next-door roommate, David, had been traveling for 2 years and was finally headed home in 2 weeks. Last week, his computer was stolen (before he got to Budapest) and along with it 2 years worth of photos disappeared. I was devastated just thinking about it. Here we had been upset about losing half of our two weeks worth of pictures and this kid lost all of his pictures from two years worth of traveling! I can’t even imagine. Alex also mentioned how much he loved the vibe at the hostel and how the reviews online were all so darn positive that he thought it was a cult. This did nothing to quiet my nagging suspicion…was Alex a plant? :-)

At long last, I escaped to hit the streets of Budapest. Budapest was actually two different cities, Buda on the west side of the Danube and Pest on the east side. Don’t worry…I didn’t know that either until I consulted Arthur during my research last night. Interestingly, Buda is super hilly—almost mountainous—and has streets that wander every which way while Pest is entirely flat and has grid-like streets. Pest is the more downtown-type area while Buda has a lot of the castles and palaces from centuries past. Plus, with the giant hills, it provides great views of the city. Since the hostel is in the southeastern part of the city on the Pest side, I decided to cross the southernmost bridge onto the Buda side, wander north through the streets of Buda cross back into Pest on the northernmost bridge and the come back down through Pest. It was an ambitious plan. Probably too ambitious.

As I set out, I quickly noticed another difference from Sweden. While I was in Stockholm, NOBODY crossed the street unless the crosswalk sign said they could. A very compliant people, those Swedes. It didn’t matter if there weren’t cars for miles and some tumbleweed crossed the road while the theme from Gunsmoke played, they were not crossing. Being an apparently rebellious American, I got plenty of strange looks when I crossed as soon as I had an opening. Now in Budapest, people are still hesitant to cross without permission, but as soon as I’m halfway across the street and they realize that nobody from the KGB has come to tackle me and take me away, they follow suit. I’m sure that I’m over-generalizing, but its fun to try to draw larger cultural themes from these minute occurrences.

As I was about to cross the bridge, I accidently passed Central Market, which had been recommended by Arthur, so I decided to stop and take a look. The lower floors were lined with shops selling meat and produce and were filled with mostly locals. The upper floors had all kinds of tchotchkes, a few restaurants and was filled with tourists. The place was enormous.

Some of my favorite souvenirs were hand-painted, hallowed out eggs. How the hell do you get one of those home in one piece?
Every little stand had gulash. Apparently, they’re known for their Gulash in Hungary. I haven’t even heard the word gulash since probably the 4th grade lunch line and I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I hope the Hungarians have something authentic to offer that's a little more exciting.
Also, they are OBSESSED with paprika. It’s everywhere and on everything.
Another highlight were these Russian dolls. They had all kinds, but these were like the dolls of evil, with each successive doll being painted with the face of another world leader, each more evil than the last. Osama, Sadam, Castro and Gaddafi all made the list.
It’s actually very interesting…beginning with the Russian dolls and the endless line of sausage vendors, you can really see how Hungary has been shaped by its Russian neighbors to the east and German neighbors to the west.

After Central Market, I crossed the bridge. In the background you can see the Liberty Monument on top of Gellert Hill.
That was my next destination. The walk wasn’t as bad as I expected. In just 15 minutes or so, I was up to the top.
The view was more than worth the trip!

At the top of the hill, I bore witness to one of the creepiest events of my life. An Asian tourist must have never seen white people before, because after he snapped easily 100 pictures of the view, he started snapping them of people. I’m not talking the quick, discreet shot from far away. This guy literally walked up to two girls who were looking at a smartphone and must have taken 20 shots of them from less than 3 feet away. When I saw him take the first couple shots I thought that for some reason they asked him to take a picture of them on their phone, but by the time the 5th shot clicked and the girls started to anxiously laugh and nervously look at each other to say “is this really happening?” I realized just how awkward this situation was. Later, there was a guy sitting on a bench with his girlfriend and they were being pretty lovey-dovey. After the paparazzi man had his fill of the texting girls, he turned his attention to the couple. By the time he got his first few shots and got close enough that the girl saw what was going on, she jumped up, exasperated and squealed NO! and ran away. The Asian guy laughed and waved his hand as if to say that the girl was ridiculous. I reveled in the awkwardness of the whole situation. I had an urge to take a picture of the paparazzi and the irony of that urge was not lost on me.

Seemingly right next door to Gellert Hill was another hill filled with important looking buildings. Unfortunately, there was no way up that hill without first climbing down Gellert Hill. In between the two hills, I noticed several buildings that seemed to be a metaphor for Hungary’s history. These once great buildings were now in noticeable disrepair. Nevertheless, it gave an authenticity and charm to the place and matched the “grittiness” of its people.

Just a few blocks away from that picture as I began my ascent up Castle hill was what looked like a palace. It too showed signs of wear but was actually in the middle of a renovation.
This is a completely unfair comparison, but I had to laugh when I saw the little hut that this guy was in and mentally compared it to the huts of the soldiers guarding the palace in Stockholm.

Another picture I sort of manufactured to capture the grittiness of Budapest was this unbelievable mural at the base of Castle Hill. There happened to be a completely unrelated pile of paving stones nearby and if I got down low enough, I could get them in the same shot. Kinda neat.

Speaking of rubble, I was passing Budapest’s first and most famous bridge, the “Chain Bridge.”

There was a picture on the journey up the hill that showed the Chain Bridge destroyed at the end of WWII.

The top of Castle Hill is deceptively vast. First, here was the office of the president, with a proper guard’s hut to boot!

I also found St. Matthias’ Church, which had an absolutely beautiful roof covered in colored tiles.

By far the best of all was Fisherman’s Bastion.

It looked like a Disney castle and really inspired the imagination. Everywhere I looked, I literally couldn’t help but to fabricate backstories of the characters in the castle. This girl was looking for a prince as all Disney princesses seem to do.

The group of guys at the highest point of the castle were well dressed and must have been royalty. (later I found out it was a wedding party)

Fisherman’s bastion was really incredible and my timing to be there couldn’t have been better.

As I descended Castle Hill, I discovered that my camera memory card was full. I last bought a 16GB when I was in Germany so just over 1 year later and it’s full…that’s a lot of pictures! I had to delete a few errant shots so that I could keep snapping away as my journey was still less than half over! It was starting to get dark and I was starting to get hungry. It was probably 9pm by this point. I had had my apple and tuna fish a few hours early to tide me over, but the tide was turning. Things were pretty dead over on the Buda side. I figured that I would need to take out some cash for food so I stopped at an ATM. As a rule, I never exchange cash at the airport or with a person because you get absolutely destroyed on exchange rates. This ATM posted a fair rate (the smaller the difference between what they buy dollars for and what they sell dollars for, the better), so I stopped to grab some cash for the next couple of days. Big numbers hurt my brain. Apparently I’m a little out of practice on my math because I intended to take out 10,000 forints. Everything here is dirt cheap, plus I pay by credit card whenever possible, so 10,000 forints or about $45 would be plenty. Instead I clicked 100,000 forints and by the time I realized my mistake, I had $450 worth of funny money in my hand…ten 10,000 forint bills. I later learned that this is a tourist trap… and I fell hard. Apparently, the ATMs that have decent exchange rates get their money by taking advantage of the crazy exchange rate (and of people who can’t do math) by posting huge numbers as the defaults for taking out cash. The smallest was 50,000 ($225) and the largest was $250,000 (about $1,200)….who takes out that much cash from an ATM ever?

Anyways, I tried to distract myself from being pissed off at being the target of a tourist trap and found a street vendor selling gyros. Those giant hunks of meat on a vertical skewer that spins endlessly that you see at festivals are everywhere here. After filling my stomach, I was almost at the northern bridge when I caught a glimpse of the parliament building lighting up the night sky. Even though it was taking me back in the wrong direction, I couldn’t help but trek back south along the river to take a few shots. It was truly breathtaking.

After I made it back up to the bridge, it was almost 11pm and the US World Cup match was scheduled for 12am local time. Scott had mentioned a giant park about halfway down the Pest side that had several outdoor bars that had put up large screens for the World Cup, so I found it on the map he had given me and set my next destination, and bid the Buda side adieu. (But not before snapping a few more shots)

The bar did not disappoint and neither did the US team! A Clint Dempsey goal in the first minute! There was a great crowd there and I got to try a Hungarian wine. Pretty good contingent of USA supporters too!

At halftime, I saw that I still had a half hour walk back to the hostel and I was completely spent after waking up at 7am in Stockholm. Sure managed to cram a lot into an afternoon in Budapest! On my walk back, I saw this interesting bar with real grass?
Also, it must have been obvious that I had 100,000 Hungarian Forints burning a hole in my pocket because I definitely got solicited by a hooker. She walked past me and casually mumbled a few words that I didn’t understand and one I did (sex). I’m guessing she just said sex in a bunch of different languages. I kept walking.

When I got back to the hostel, there was luckily a few guys watching the game on their computer in the common room. Scott, Ryan (from Canada) and Chris (from Tennessee) were all good guys and we had a hell of a nail biter but somehow the Stars and Stripes managed to pull out the victory!

A few random cultural notes that I noticed before falling asleep…

In Europe, this counts as wheelchair accessible.
It was the same in Sweden too. I guess I understand that all these old buildings with stairways made of stone are kind of impossible to retrofit, but dang those ramps are steep!

Here’s everyone’s shoes that we have to take off at the door.
It seemed silly at first, but I must admit that it adds to the home-like atmosphere.

Finally, the toilets.
They are built with the drain in the front and a depression in the back where everything pools up. I’m sorry if this is gross but you can’t really tell about the pool if there’s nothing in it. This doesn’t make too much sense to me in terms of cleanliness. I haven’t tried it yet, but I can only imagine what happens when you have to poop.

With those visions of sugar plums dancing in your head, I’m off to bed!

Posted by atbrady 13:58 Archived in Hungary Tagged budapest bridge hill castle hostel hungary mandala chain gellert Comments (0)

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