The train from Vienna to Budapest (called the “Paris of the East”) had its interesting moments. This was the first time through my entire travels that the train had been stopped to let on police who checked our IDs and scowled at our passports. The scenery was beautifully spotted with sun flower fields, rolling hills and blue sky. Earlier I had discussed how some spots in Europe have many locals trying to sell you a bed when you arrive off a bus or train. For the first time I saw this practiced with great organization. A very nice man came up to my little group of friends (new friends from Tokyo and Edinburgh) and told us he was from the Tourism Board in Budapest, gave us free maps and asked us if we needed a place to sleep. We all had made reservations but he had his cell phone and assured us that where we were staying was a hole and that we needed to stay with him as he had special sources. “The best bed sleep of our lives” I believe he said.
Hopping off the train I found an ATM and withdrew a stunning 30 000 FT’s. This is around 100 euros so not really that much. But it is really odd to buy a small pastry for 350 in any currency! It takes a bit getting used to (especially at restaurants where you are ordering items that cost 2150 Ft). I walked 20 minutes to the Danube River where my incredibly well located “guest house” is located. I booked the hostel more than two weeks ago and it had a 98 percent rating which is really rare. The ‘hostel’ is located in an old apartment building. Opening the huge door from the side street and turning right into a beautiful courtyard with floors upon floors of flower baskets hanging over banisters as far as the eye could see. The place is excellent, my room is really funky, sleeps 8 people who all get a huge double bed (I have gotten used to the singles).
I settled in and then decided to try my chances at a suggested Hungarian Restaurant called Fatal. What a treat. I had two half liters of Dreher Classic a great Hungarian Pils. I sat before a huge pot of Szeged Gulyas (Goulash) which is a wonderfully savory soup made of paprika, tomatoes, steak, potatoes, small noodles, carrots, onions and peppers. My entree was in another huge pot: stuffed cabbage filled with ground pork and Kolbasz (Hungarian Paprika sausage) a slice of bacon, topped with sour cream and sliced peppers. The restaurant was really traditional in a 200 year old building, bustling with locals and blaring songs from Dance Mix 95 (I was tapping my feet I’ll admit it). From the restaurant I walked along the main shopping street down to the boardwalk where my jaw dropped as I finally reached the Danube as the sun was starting to fall beneath the horizon.
I am on the Pest side of the city, Buda is the smaller side to the west which has the large and beautiful Castle District. The boardwalk amazed me as along the shore of the river there are several steep stone steps that people can sit and read or chill out on while looking over the Danube. At the bottom of these steps there is actually a sandy beach of all things. This is the first river in Europe I have come across that actually has beach, thrilling. I have to admit I was thinking to myself as I walked up the river towards the famous Tower Bridge (built in the early 1500’s) how romantic this very spot is. The sun was starting to set, the river was shimmering and I was staring out at a beautiful Castle. Along the river you can find many Pub/Restaurant boats unique to Budapest. These huge boats use the river as their post address and serve very fancy food right in the heart of the city (as the river is oddly central).
I arrived at the Chain Bridge to find a little folk festival going on which I stopped at to listen to. Two girls dressed in Hungarian folk dress and one guy unfortunately wearing the traditional tights were on a stage in front of the bridge dancing and singing to a huge crowd of tourists and locals. This was the start of my free evening entertainment. After I got my good fill of the folk, I walked to the cities huge St. Istvan Basillica. As I arrived at the square I noticed that there were many seats set up and a huge orchestra was practicing. The second free performance of the day would be found here. I saw two girls from Ireland trying to take pictures of themselves so I offered to take one for them and instantly became friends and ended up spending the next 6 hours with them which was a hoot and a half. The Irish girls decided that I needed a drink before the Orchestra started to play (it was before 8pm and the show didn’t start until 9:30 pm). We found a bar called Negro which had a high table looking right onto the orchestra stage (therefore we didn’t have to pay for admission to the concert and avoided having to stand in the crowds). We asked what was up with the name Negro for a bar and the waitress said Negro means the colour black in Hungarian. Glad to hear we weren’t sitting in a racist establishment we looked through the huge 35 page BIBLE of a drinks menu (the front has a table of contents, the back has a glossary and index). Some funny drink names included The Negro Gin Sling and the Suffering Bastard (made of Rum, Rum, Rum, Negro Mai Tai Mix, pineapple juice and lime). I looked through my lonely planet and made sure I tried a local specialty. Never order Zwack Nemes Palinkak, ever. It is the most intense spirit I have ever consumed. It literally cleans out your lungs, veins and kills all bacteria in your system with one swig. It is the traditional Hungarian spirit and comes in several flavors (raspberry, apricot, plum etc…). I ordered a shot of the peach variety (which cost me about 8 euros so they take this drink seriously over here apparently). I spare no expense for the cause of proper culinary tourism experiences.
Throughout the evening we had a lot of laughs, and enjoyed the live classical music immensely. I ended up ordering a glass of Hungarian Pinot Noir which was silky smooth and finished with a tall glass of Pina Coloda. Unfortunately the evening soured itself when the girls reluctantly phoned the uber creepy Turkish investment banker from Istanbul. The guy is so creepy, borderline psycho, his eyes jet out of his face like a salamander and he is balding at the age of 28. All he talks about is currency conversion and the travels he does for his bank abroad. He smoked like a chimney but before he arrived the girls told me that we had to “charm him for free drinks.” One of the Irish girls had her boyfriend on the phone when the Turkish fellow arrived (we can refer to him as the creepster from now on). Her boyfriend was apparently trying to get into a strip club in Dublin at 11pm on a Sunday night and they were closed. The creepster exploded at the table saying “Strip clubs are for mobsters, people who beat up their children and those who masturbate alone in their rooms.” The three of us stared at him in shock. This was the hello we got from the creepster. She finally hung up the phone and I put down 3560FT to pay for my three drinks. I complained about how much it seemed to be. I had never spent around 4000 on three drinks in my life. The older Irish sister said in a very comic way “do you need a tissue for your issue.” I burst out laughing.
We walked in the black night through winding streets until we found the lit up and elegant National Opera House. Our next free entertainment was at a swing and jazz club (they have these in Hungary?). I thoroughly enjoyed whatever drink the Irish lasses bought me and stared into the multi coloured dance floors as locals did their thing. We realized throughout the evening that every bartender hated us. The Irish girls declared that they were “cross with us.” Our server at the Negro bar was particularly hostile. She actually rolled her eyes at us when my new dear friend asked for a glass with her beer. We assumed she was trying to get rid of us so she could deal with the hoards of customers outside in front of the concert. And we weren’t dressed to the nines like the rest of the crowd, we looked like backpackers, what can I say.
On the walk back to the hostel we all grabbed a kabab which is excellent after a bit of a tipsy night. My last memory before I hit the sleep zone was a conversation amongst the two staggering Irish girls.
“Lets go to a Turkish bath tomorrow.”
“How much does that cost?”
“Nine euros for the day.”
“Shite. Nine euro to sit in water? I can do that in the hostel for free and save myself getting athletes foot.”
The following day in Pest: The sun was scorching the streets at 11am when I left my hostel for the long one hour walk up the main street called Andrassy Icta. I tried to find shade on the street but the attempt was futile. I arrived at Varosliget Park which has a stunning entrance. Heroes Park which consists of a huge mosaic square which acts as a stage to the slender sky scraper of a monument sits before the main bridge. Surrounding the monument is a semi circle of notable Hungarian dignitaries and historical figures immortalized in bronze. Walking directly behind Heroes Square you cross over a bridge and to your right find an ancient castle located in the center of a pond surrounded by a moat and fantasy draw bridge. I arrived at my destination at noon: Szechenz Thermal Baths. THIS PLACE IS HUGE. It is Hungary’s largest thermal baths and the best way to describe it is an ancient water park located inside an ornate Palace. Here is a short readers digest version of the goings on at the baths.
I spent a total of about 6 hours at the baths. I paid 4300 Ft for the day but found out after sitting at the pool for 30 minutes that I had been charged for two people. So, I ended up having to use body language to communicate with the employees at the baths that I needed money back. All of the employees look like nurses. The baths actually have doctor’s offices in them and many elderly Hungarians have the government pay for their spa day after consulting the physician. I have a feeling that the old people walk in and the doctor says “ya you are old” and stamps their card free. Upon entering the entrance marked “exit” (don’t ask me why, I got yelled at for walking into the door marked enter) you are given a little token on a wrist band and ushered into your own private change room where you can change into your swimsuit and store your personal items in throughout your stay.
The first thing I did was ran up the stairs to the massage office and booked a one hour full body. I had to wait until 2:15pm for my appointment so I took the time to check out the indoor facilities. Wow is all I can say. I counted a total of 28 different indoor thermal baths (some have fountains, some have pressure pumps that blast your bum when you walk over them and the best of all are the pools in the shape of a doughnut. Very powerful jets of water create a current that zings people in circles. It is really funny to watch and even more fun to experience. You basically just lift your feet up and zip around a circle with everyone beside you floating at the same speed. Think small race track meets intense lazy river. There are over 50 sauna and steam rooms as well as little huts where you can rent chess sets to play on the benches in the garden or in the water of the thermal baths on little pedestals that pop out of the water. The clock stroke 2:30pm and I graced myself up the stairs to my private massage room. My heart sank when a huge giant of a man (we’ll call him giant even though his name is Ingmar) shook my hand and nearly crushed it. I wasn’t prepared for the next hour. I lay on the bed a bit tense listening to the weird “relaxing music” which was a mix between the traditional Enya that plays in spas and Hungarian chanting monks. The giant poured liquid Vaseline all over my body and in a flash had ripped off my swim suit! All I remember was my initial reaction which was AH (in my head) and my eyes bulged out. The next 60 minutes proved to be the most intense of my entire life. I have never been contorted, prodded, and whipped into shape like that in my life. At one point I thought the Giant was going to break my neck with two of his fingers (my little head literally dwarfs itself in the palm of his hand). The weirdest moment of the massage by far was when the giant got on the bed and walked on my ass. He said “lot’s of knots in your bum, no good for you.” I fell out of the bed feeling like a rag doll. I had successfully had every knot in my body removed and I felt like silly puddy.
I walked outside into the huge garden three pool spa. Here I spent my last three hours alternating between pools. The largest pool is about two times the size of an Olympic sized pool and is rectangular in shape, cold water and has a huge mermaid fountain on the west end. Everyone in this pool has to wear a hat or swim cap (dumb rule if you ask me, as all the other pools are a free for all). I do enjoy the mandatory swim hats as the elderly Hungarian locals wear flower like bathing caps that have petals jetting out in all directions. The farthest pool is the hot thermal bath which is light green in colour. When your body first enters, your lungs gasp for breath. This pool is like a very hot bath. The hot pool is great, your entire body goes limp and you can stare into the blue sky and float under the princess and swan fountain that sprays across the heavens. The closest pool in the gardens is like a theme park of thrills. Every thirty minutes the fun changes. The first sort of fun is when huge jets of water pump up from the pool floor. You can see from the pool deck people just bobbing up and down as they try and float on top of the powerful jets of gas. In the center of this pool is another one of those doughnut pools (so it is kind of like a pool within a pool). Here people zip by at about 50 miles an hour, dizzy. The best part of the Turkish Bath experience is the people watching, obviously. The number of hugely fat 70 something year olds wearing Speedos and thongs was a site to see. I was staring at a few of them baking under the sun and realized they looked like well greased ButterBall Turkeys. Most of the older women looked red as lobsters and had crazy make up like Tammy Fay with their flower bathing caps, they looked aw some. The ravages of old age could be seen everywhere. Scary sites of old people, skin falling off like elephant skin. I didn’t know women’s breasts could sag like a sling, now I know.
I left the baths starving as I hadn’t eaten all day and it was 6pm, due for my dinner. I will never forget the Turkish Bath experience. It would be loads of fun to go with a group of best friends. Forever I will remember the bright red cellulite bodies, chess playing grandpas and swirling baths with elaborate fountains and picturesque architecture. I stopped off on a nice side street which was full of little cafes and restaurants. I planted myself at Cafe Vian and had a local Pilsner Urquell, Summer Strawberry Cream soup and Hungarian Chicken Paprikash with dumplings. Finished refueling the tank I walked back to the Danube to get to my hostel. On the way I was astonished to find my two Irish friends from the night before! I had missed them so (and what are the chances you run into them again in a huge city like Budapest!) They insisted on buying me another drink (Baileys on the rocks) and we chatted about the crazy Turk Banker until the sun went behind the city scape. “Shinning Shimmering Splendid.”
The following day was hot, blue and hot. I walked 30 minutes along the Danube to the huge sprawling Gothic Parliament buildings. I took a stroll through Sazabadsag park staring at the various flower gardens and glaring at the Hungarian soap opera that was being filmed (apparently the leading lady catches her boyfriend cheating with her sister on a park bench…scandalous). I walked up the many steps to St. Istvan Bazilika and entered the amazing golden interior. This church has to be up there on my list of top 10 churches in Europe. The walls are green marble, the floors are black and white slate like a chess board and the ceiling is full of ornate golden decorations and colourful mosaics. This church is a Pilgrims site as it holds The Chapel of the Holy Right Hand. The Holy Right Hand is encased in an ornate glass coffin that can be viewed if you throw in 1000 Ft. It is a relic of King Saint Stephen who died in 1038 and was canonized in 1083. His right hand was found intact and has been highly esteemed by the nation of Hungary (and Eastern Europe as a whole) for centuries. The hand has moved all over: it was stolen by Romania and Austria but returned to its rightful home, Buda in 1771.
I raced down the hot marble stairs of the church and crossed the Chain Bridge to have my first visit of the city of Buda. I chose to walk up the mountain cliff instead of taking the funicular (what a fool I was). There were many great views of the city and Danube on the hefty hike upwards and when I finally got to the top I fell onto the floor of the National Gallery and absorbed the cool of the tiles (I got some awkward glances). The National Gallery is located in the Castle which looks directly over the bustling city center of Pest. I did not recognize one piece of art in the entire Hungarian National Gallery. Not that I expected to, but it made the journey more interesting as everything was new and fresh to my eyes. One of my favorites was by Jeno Gyarfas who painted a huge oil called The Ordeal of the Bier. A crazy looking bride walks down wooden steps and everyone looks horrified with psychotic facial expressions. I couldn’t read the Hungarian explanation bellow the painting so I have no clue what was going on. Non the less it was impressive. The gallery covers medieval wooden triptychs to baroque and renaissance finishing at modern on the top floor. It is a great travel through time and I enjoyed the ornate wood carvings in all of the medieval gold painted triptychs.
It was at this gallery that I realized how crazy gallery employees can be. I was followed, scratch that, stalked, by a batty old woman that looked like Tammy Fay on acid. She followed my every move, stared at me under her spectacles. I even pretended to head out of her room and I stopped to see if she was watching. Low and behold I see her sitting on her seat stretching across the doorway with her pointy nose. Trying to verify that I had in fact left. That is when I decided to spend 30 minutes of my life playing a game with her. I entered back into the medieval oil panel room and spent the next half hour weaving in and out of all of the little halls. I knew she would be following me so I wanted to give her some exercise. I jumped from one room, hummed and hawed. I got all excited about a few paintings as if I was truly moved by them and then darted out for another race around the room. She sneaked around and I could tell she was getting tired. I finally decided to leave after she came up to me when I was staring at a painting and breathed down my neck whispering ‘you can not outrun me little boy” with a very thick Hungarian accent. At that point I was scared of her and ran out of the room with her chuckling behind me in her evil little laugh. I discovered upon leaving the room that in Hungary at all galleries and museums you have to pay an extra fee to have the privilege of taking photographs or video, ridiculous I know. For the next hour as I walked through the gallery I saw all of the cute little Hungarian ladies and realized they were the enemy, waiting at any moment for me to pull out my camera and snap out of their seats ready to kill. Along the 18th century floor there were many large oils that depicted famous wars, mostly with Turks or Arab looking characters as the enemy being destroyed. The modern gallery had some interesting paintings and one sculpture that stuck out. It was a huge iron statue of a Hungarian King who was made entirely of bones.
Leaving the gallery I walked along the castle walls and realized I would not be eating any lunch as no restaurants take Visa in this country. I took a stroll through a small local super market and was amazed when my bill came to just over 1000 FT. I had bought a Liter of Fanta, a large can of beer, two Hungarian sausages, three cheese buns, red pepper cream cheese and a bag of chocolate filled wafers that resemble acorns. All for 5 euros! I found a shady tree in front of St. Mathias Church and spent the next hour eating this huge meal and cooling off with the help of an ever so slight wind. After lunch I walked into the House of Hungarian Wine Museum where you can spend all day for 30 euros tasting their selection of over 700 Hungarian Wines! The wine tasting is self serve and self touring. You are given a map of the underground caves and their employees help you figure out which wines to sample. I walked all the way to the far northern end of the city of Pest and stood outside of the Marzipan museum which had a huge thirty layer marzipan cake on display.
It was 3pm and I was burnt, tired and hot as hell. I decided to take the funicular down the cliff instead of walking and ran back to my hostel to have an exhilarating cold shower. I headed out for dinner at 8pm with my friends from California to a traditional Budapest riverboat restaurant. On the walk down the Danube the craziest thing happened. We were waiting to cross the street and I hear a SCCCCCCCCREEEECH and turn my head in fright to see a car throw a man off his feet into the street. The guy was about 60 years old, an American tourist who crossed the busy street when it was a red light, without looking. I will forever remember the intense feeling I felt when I saw this old man wack right into the hood of the car and sprawl slow motion into the air, hitting the pavement with a thud. He was alright in the end but it really reminds you how horrifying car accidents can be! After that little ordeal we found the spot where we would be eating which was called Columbus Café which had a really neat interior as well as a nice live jazz band. I had a bowl of summer cold cream fruit soup. This one was different from my last: whole fruits (cherries, blackberries, pears) were floating in a lovely little soup that tasted like Christmas (spiced with cinnamon and cardamom). For my entree I went all out and ordered a plump and juicy duck breast in a Cinnamon and red wine plum sauce with croquettes. I was stuffed and ready for bed.
My last day was quick. I walked to the huge indoor farmers market and stared at the many vendors who sold long chains of red dried peppers and garlic. Several butcher stands with odd little pigs feet for sale were also of interest. The most interesting little shop specialized in different grades of saffron and paprika, fascinating. My final tourist stop in Budapest was at the National Museum which covers the history of the country from prehistoric times to present. It became evident that the majority of Hungary’s history consists of fighting with the Turks. Battle after battle. My favorite part of the museum was the period of communist rule. The communist poster collection and several statues of Stalin and Lenin were a thrill. Budapest actually has a Statue Park that you can take a bus to see an hour outside of the city. After communism fell the locals didn’t want to be reminded of their soviet influenced past so they gathered up all of their communist statues and put them in one big park outside of the city as a neat tourist attraction. It is eerie to walk through and see all of these relics of the past. My last concern of the day was to get rid of my 2000 Ft which I had in my pocket. I found a tourist t-shirt shop and bought a cheap red Che shirt (Viva Cuba?). What better place to make the purchase than in a former Communist Nation.
Hungary is brilliant! I am a bit nervous as I leave at 3pm for a three hour train ride to Vienna and then hop on a 12 hour night train to Venice. Cross your fingers for me!