Budapest: Hungry in Hungary

It’s been a while since we traveled through Prague, dear readers, but now it’s time for Budapest. I blame the delay on Thanksgiving, which featured Brit and I successfully cooking a turkey for the first time. But now I’m back and, equipped with a playlist of songs featured in one of my all-time favorite novels, American Gods, let’s go to Hungary.
Maggie and I arrived in the Budapest airport ready to roll. You see, it was our third country in less than a week, so we were fully prepared to figure out yet another currency and just how we would make it to our hotel. Perhaps it’s just the size of the cities, but it seemed like all of the European airports that we visited were really far removed from the metropolitan areas. As a result, it always felt weird when going to or from the airport since we were invariably seeing the least attractive parts of the cities first.

After standing in a long line for the single functioning ATM, we stood in another long line to get bus passes, then we rode on a bus that had a robot voice verbally tell us each stop, which would have been fine if Hungarian wasn’t complete madness to a non-native speaker. Finding the train station was easy enough, but then only 2 of the 6 or so stops we had to ride through even had signs telling you what they were.

Leaving the train station, we walked in one direction past a totally weird-looking hospital (a Holocaust museum was nearby and my mind kind of merged the two, creating a nightmare building that I didn’t want to think too much about), then realized that was the completely wrong direction. So, yet again, we walked for a very long time.

Turns out the hotel was right next to a big mall, and it was the only 4-star hotel we stayed in during our European travels. It was definitely the most spacious, even though they had no wi-fi in the room, which I have to say is unacceptable for 2012. We’re supposed to have hoverboards now. Surely wi-fi should be an assumed thing.

It was about 6pm at that time, and for Europe that means it was pitch black outside. We walked around the mall – which is pretty much just like any mall anywhere – and got some pizza-like contraptions from a kebob fast food place in the food court. The food smelled so good but we just got enough to tide over our furious digestive systems.

The concierge at the hotel used me to practice her English, circling a number of things on a map and telling me all about them, who founded them, how clean their restrooms are, etc. We headed toward the river and spotted
our first awesome Budapestian building on the way.

Hungarians enjoy roofs. I can say this with certainty. There were many buildings that we saw that, with admittedly impressive architecture, wore the most extravagantly tiled roofs my eyes have ever feasted upon. This first building, which is currently a museum of some sort but is probably many hundreds of years old, had a tile arrangement of green and yellow that was dazzling even in the 7pm twilight.

Turning a street just where the concierge told me to, we were suddenly in an area that was either very touristy or just upscale. Probably both. It was a cold night and the Budapestian restaurants figured that if they stuck attractive hostesses outside holding menus, people would be enticed to come in and feast. It didn’t take much to convince us, though, so when one woman started saying in fragmented English that her place was simply the best for classic Hungarian foods, we took the bait.

We were led into a basement, and from the get-go I didn’t trust our waiter. He handed us menus, then handed me a separate menu of Bavarian beers. Having heard that the beer was still cheap in Budapest, I was shocked to see $5 listed as the cheapest price, but then I realized what he’d done. He handed me the imported beer list, with cheaper options resting ever-so-slyly on the backside of the other menu.

On a nearby wall were several beer posters, one of which touted itself as the recipient of the World’s Best Ale award at a recent festival. I happened to order that one, and it was indeed delicious, but it took about 20 minutes for our deadbeat waiter to fill two glasses from the tap that rested only 20 feet away. Maggie tried to distract me from my annoyance with other things (Look at those guys with their giant beer funnel! Is that women’s basketball on TV? (It was.)), and finally we were able to order.

Our classic Hungarian cuisine was pretty similar to Czech cuisine. Maggie got a beef ghoulash stew and I got a pasta dish with an incredibly complicated name (it was one instance among many that I just pointed to the menu helplessly). It was big pasta noodles covered in sour cream and some kind of meat and potatoes and other things. It started out really great and then reduced itself to merely good by the end.

After another 20 minute absence from our waiter, we had paid and left and decided to stroll toward the city center. One funny thing about Hungarians speaking English is that, regardless of their grasp of the language, they almost always say “Yes please” in response to things. It didn’t matter the situation, nor the question we asked. A woman walking by us in a market? Yes please as she slides past. A waiter setting down a plate? Yes please.

We found our way past some construction and lying before us was suddenly the Danube River, the most international river in the world. It touches 10 countries in total, with 11.6% of its water being in Hungary. It’s a big, big river.

We crossed the Liberty Bridge, an interesting green bridge from 1896. Halfway across provided us a good view of the Buda side to our left and the Pest side to our right. The concierge had made a point to tell me about The Citadel, the highest point in the city. Even if she’d said nothing there was no way I would have missed it, since even in the darkness the top is marked with a large illuminated statue that looks out over the city like a faithful guardian.

At that point my face had become a frozen facade of its old self. My ears were about to jump ship, and even as I tried to convince my mouth that smiling was natural and that it maybe shouldn’t be so numb, we decided to head back to the hotel.

It was an odd time of day, really. We had been traveling, and even though it was only about 8 or 9pm by that point, we didn’t feel like going through the effort of decoding the public transportation and going downtown. From what we’d seen in Paris and Prague, most places close by 9pm anyway, unless it’s a bar you’re looking for.

So then we stopped at a bar. Instead of stools at the counter, they had rope swings. Two guys sat in them, lightly swinging and looking around as if it was totally normal. We jealously watched them from our boring conventional chairs and drank beer that was certainly not as cheap as Prague but still pretty cheap. After chatting for an hour or so, we again took to the cold and traveled a few more blocks, thinking we’d stop if another bar looked particularly inviting.

None did, so we hung out in the hotel until sleep snatched us away. The next day was our only full day in Budapest, so we made the most of it. In Europe, that means walking a lot. Or at least it did for us.

We gorged on the hotel breakfast (the best we had during our trip), then walked past the restaurant and bright-roofed museum from the night before. The concierge had circled a building on my map and, I’m pretty sure, described it as “having really good fruits.” I was unclear as to why I would be in the market for fresh fruit, but we were walking right by the building anyway so decided to step inside.

Turns out the building was the Great Market Hall, the largest indoor market in Budapest. It was massive and had a lot more than just good fruits. We spent an hour just walking around and looking at all of the individual stands, some of which were really interesting and some of which were really touristy, then we bought some paprika (one of those things you’re supposed to buy in Budapest), and left.

We crossed the Liberty Bridge and began ascending The Citadel. The problem is, it’s on a truly massive hill. There was a cool castle-like structure at the bottom that ended up just being full of trash (not sure why that trash deserved such a grandiose resting place), and then there was a neat functioning cave church a little above that, but then there was only a long winding path going straight up.

Following the trend of our trip (walk first, ask questions later), we eventually made it to the top, giving us a beautiful panorama view of the city down below. Like Prague and Paris, Budapest is pretty uniformally short, so when you’re up on a big hill like The Citadel with a telephoto lens, you can pretty much see everything. There were quite a few old people up there sightseeing, and for a moment I felt stupid, with a light post-hike sheen of sweat on my brow, but then a bus drove up to take them back down and I realized they’d taken the easy way up.

In addition to tall statues, The Citadel had a restaurant and, oddly enough, a wax museum. It was also the first time we saw remnants of Soviet occupation in the form of giant mortars. Prague seemed very eager to destroy all of their Communist memorabilia once the USSR fell, but Budapest seems to have just stored it away for safe-keeping. Even in the Great Market Hall, there were old Soviet gas masks and hats for sale.

We had a considerably easier time coming down the hill, and lackadaisically made our way over to Castle Hill, where Buda Castle sits. Buda Castle encompasses a huge area, part of which is taken up by a museum that we didn’t necessarily want to go in to. We ended up walking around the perimeter of the place, Maggie constantly checking her iPod to see how far away a place with authentic strudels was.

Back when we’d had wi-fi, we read about how there are tunnels under the whole castle. As we walked, a modest sign announced that this particular doorway led to the tunnels, so naturally we had to go. It was eerie and silent inside, but after our excursion into the dungeon beneath the Prague Town Square, nothing could scare us off.

At the end of that tunnel was the entrance to another wax museum (look, I don’t know why, but Hungarians love wax museums), and two incredibly bored guards. They watched us confusedly back away as if they were Best Buy employees at the end of a long shift and we were another indecisive couple absently strolling through the TV aisle.

Popping out of the other end of the tunnels, we figured we’d be even farther from strudels than we initially thought, but – miraculously – we were only one street away. It was the happiest mistake we made during our trip. We were in rather poor spirits at that time, and had for quite awhile been walking in boring areas of Budapest, just a district or two away from the really great sight-seeing spots.

Well, we finally found them. We ducked into a tiny shop – the very one Maggie had found online (it’s so nice when the internet and the real world match up, especially in foreign lands) – and a pleasant woman got us both strudels and espressos. We took them to a bench that overlooked the Pest side of the city, the extravagant Parliament Building lying almost directly ahead of us across the wide swath of the Danube.

There we sat and ate, next to the Matthias Church, another building with a beautiful tiled roof. A homeless man offered to sell us a pamphlet of his, and it was one of those situations where the language barrier is just such that we understood what he was doing but have no idea why or what the pamphlet was even about.

In what looked like a tiny reproduction of the Great Wall, there was a long stretch of castle wall that provided what has to be the best view in the city. It was littered with tourists, naturally, and after downing the last of our coffees we joined the throng of people, snapping all kinds of pictures of all kinds of things.

The wall had a few spires along its length and the color and design very much looked like a sand castle. How odd it is that, as Americans, all we can compare the architecture to is something made of sand.

Coming down from the wall, the sun was starting to set. We stopped at an empty restaurant and got mulled wine and a cheese plate. It ended up being the best snack of our travels, the cheese plate consisting of several kinds of cheeses, lots of bread, apple and cucumber slices, and olives. The chill from outside was effectively staved off by the hot red wine and we took our time eating there, trying to figure out how and what to do next.

With only a day in a major city like Budapest, it becomes a challenge how to see a little bit of everything as opposed to seeing few things very intimately. One of the things I for sure was interested in was a thermal spa, and after winning Maggie over, we decided to ride the metro up to one that was fairly nearby. After a long line and two metro rides, we got off and walked north until we entered the courtyard of what looked to be a hospital. It was supposed to be the place, so we hesitantly wandered inside.

Situated atop thermal springs, Budapest has long been known for their medicinal thermal baths. There are two huge ones, the Gellert and the Szechenyi (the largest public bath in Europe), but we didn’t go to either of those. The decision to go to the Lukacs Baths instead was based mainly on the fact that the others separated males and females. We were already going into thermal baths with people that didn’t speak our language; doing it solo wasn’t particularly appetizing.

The problem, however, with not going to one of the bigger ones is that Lukacs apparently doesn’t get many tourists. We walked in at 6pm, 2 hours before they closed, and the woman at the front desk looked at us like our spaceship was outside behind us.

Only one woman spoke English, and she was quite helpful in walking us through what to do – until a point. “There’s where you change,” she said, pointing upstairs. When we looked back, she was gone. “Wait,” I said to no one. “I have so many more questions.”

Unsure of whether or not men and women had separate changing areas, we both wandered upstairs, where a Hungarian man with a mustache spoke non-stop Hungarian at us. Reminding me of the Prague train conductor who seemed to care nothing for the fact that we were speaking different languages, the man in the spa seemed to think that if he kept explaining things in Hungarian, something would click and we’d suddenly become fluent.

We changed into our swimsuits, which Maggie had been lugging around all day in her huge purse, but we had no towels or any place to put our stuff. The mustachioed Hungarian then took us to lockers, motioned for us to put our stuff inside, and pulled out a keycard. This is where it gets interesting.

See, I expected for him to wave the card over the electronic locks and bind them together, then hand me the card or something. But he didn’t. Instead, he took out chalk – chalk! – and wrote “200” on the inside of my locker. He pointed to it, said some stuff (not like I could understand him), and made sure I saw it.

Then on the outside he wrote “f 67” with an arrow pointing up to the number of the locker, which was 255.

He did a similar ritual to Maggie’s locker and made sure she saw it, too, before he kept the keycard and walked away. WHAT.

Maggie still had on clothes over her swimsuit, and when she asked the man about towels, he just shook his head, motioned at her clothes, and said, “Bikini?” I think that was supposed to make towels appear, but it didn’t. We didn’t know we were supposed to bring our own.

Feeling very cold indeed, we made our way downstairs, where there was a big outdoor pool with steam rising off of it. We got in and waded around for a while. It felt wonderful. The reason the place looked like a hospital is because a portion of it was actually an in-patient facility. The thermal baths were medicinal and supposed to be great for joints and stuff.

We eventually got out of the pool – a very difficult thing to convince your body to do when it knows you don’t have a towel – and frantically looked around for a sauna. I was pretty sure I’d read about there being a sauna on their website, and, after asking an attendant, it turns out I was right.

This was the first time I’d been in a sauna. It was pretty wonderful. We stayed until we were nice and hot, then hopped back in the thermal baths and lounged like sea lions.

10 minutes before the baths closed, we again hopped in the sauna in an attempt to dry off enough that the cold night air wouldn’t kill us when we got back outside. We stayed so long that we weren’t sure if the water streaking down our bodies was sweat or bath water, so we exited and found our mustachioed man.

There was no chalk quiz. He simply waved the keycard, unlocked the lockers, and let us be. I wonder if he was just messing with the foreigners, eager to use a strange chalk trick so he can tell his friends about it later. I think it’ll forever remain a mystery…

Back out on the Budapest streets, the air felt considerably warmer than it had before. Yes, my hair was wet, but somehow everything felt lighter and warmer, and there was a spring in my step as we again crossed the Danube
River, taking the Margaret Bridge this time. We got a nice view of the city at night as we crossed, going right into a rather crowded restaurant and ordering some kebob sandwiches.

The food wasn’t stellar but good enough to keep my stomach on speaking terms with me, and then we decided to buy some wine. Twenty minutes later we’d purchased Hungarian Black Currant wine and, with the bottle tucked in Maggie’s massive purse, we took off across the city. It was about 9pm at this point and most stores were already shut down.

For some reason we were again unwilling to hop on public transportation, and we actually ended up walking all the way across the Pest side of the city. It’s a sizable distance, but the food and the baths had reinvigorated us. The knowledge that it was our last night in Europe, and our last together, made our walk go by fairly quickly. We found ourselves in a wealthy retail district, one of few places that still seemed to be crowded at that time of night.

We saw a few more big churches, one of which had a large congregation just leaving, and we had to guess aloud just what they were doing in there. Inevitably the conversation led to animal sacrifice of some sort, and by the time we were back in our hotel room, the black currant wine sounded like a really good idea.

Thankfully it was tasty (it was about $6, so you never know), and, since it was black currant wine, it had an interesting flavor to it. We finished the bottle and I soaked in the Europeanness of everything, trying to stock up on it until I could come back.

Maggie had a last-minute freak-out when the airline she would be flying with back to Germany emailed her to notify her that if she didn’t print her own boarding pass, there would be a fee of 40 euros. The lazy concierge pointed us to a computer we could print from and I browsed reddit and laughed at animal pictures while Maggie became mortal enemies with a computer.

She figured it out and everything was resolved fairly painlessly. Back upstairs, the last night of European slumber went by like a fruit fly across a television screen.

Friday morning came and we chowed down for the last time on the hotel breakfast, bid the hotel goodbye, and marched to the metro, from the metro to the bus, from the bus to the airport, and then went to check-in to our respective flights.

At the desk for my airline, I handed the attendant my passport, she typed some stuff in to her computer, and then she verified my flight, headed for Heathrow Airport in London. Then she looked at her computer some more, turned to her supervisor, spoke Hungarian to her at dramatically-increasing speeds, and then made a phone call. At that moment I was fairly glad I didn’t understand what they were saying, because it appeared to be bad. Had zombies finally become a thing, with the outbreak starting on my flight?

She got off the phone, printed a ticket, tucked it into my passport, and handed it back to me as if nothing happened. I asked what that was about and she replied that I was the last seat on the plane. They oversold the flight and I had the very last seat. WOO!

I met up with Maggie again, who was freshly flustered because her idiot airline decided that yeah, the flight was scheduled for 12:30 but maybe they would just go ahead and leave at 12:05 for absolutely no reason. We rushed through security and she had to board her flight almost immediately, making a prolonged goodbye impossible.

OKAY BYE we shouted to each other as the stoic stewardesses dragged her away. Don’t fly that airline. They’re insane.

So then I waited alone for the first time in a week, sitting next to a British couple who kept talking about bagels for some reason. I boarded the flight and headed for London, my European trip of three countries in seven days having officially come to a close.

It was a raucous good time, and in a few days’ time I’ll make a follow-up post to recount all the madness that occurred on my long trip home. You know you want to find out what I mean by that!

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~ by Jon C. Forisha on November 29, 2012.

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