Friday, March 9, 2012

Budapest, Hungary

In June of 2011, my friend Kim and I embarked on a journey to central Europe. We visited many major cities and had a blast. The next few posts are going to basically be my journal from the trip. If you are curious about anything in general or have questions about the places that we visited, don't hesitate to comment!!
Our flight to Warsaw was okay. I was afraid that we would get horrible seats and be bothered by kids the whole time, but we actually got decent seats in the bulkhead, and they reclined, which was a very welcome addition. Plenty of leg room, reclining seats, and we were right by the bathroom, so we could just watch for people waiting and not have to stand in wait. Because it was an overnight flight, we were both able to sleep for most of the trip and I think I was only awake for maybe 3 of the 9 hours total. Also a very welcome addition to the trip!! The layover in Warsaw was brutal. We had to stand in a ridiculous line to get through customs because everyone who was not an EU citizen had to wait in one of two lines, while everyone else was able to spread out amongst four lines. Needless to say, most people were not EU citizens and many of them had plenty of kids to slow the line down.
I don’t want to come off as being negative about children and all of that nonsense, but people please!!! Have some consideration for others traveling and be prepared. If you have six people in your party, have the passports all together, make sure that their shoes come off easily, and don’t let anyone wear a belt or jewelry! Lucky for us, after sweating it out in the customs line, we had to go through security again and I swear that every single person was stopped. One woman was being asked about her duty free purchase, which she turned into an argument. Lady, when you’re holding up a huge line of people because your stuff is not cleared through security, move out of the way and figure something out. Stop making it our problem that you found it necessary to buy an excessive amount of Jack Daniels before leaving the lovely Chicago-O’Hare International Terminal, which is another story all in itself.
After moving our way through security and passing up many of the people who couldn’t get their belts and shoes back on, we walked through the gallery of shops and eateries. There wasn’t much of a selection and airport prices are no better in foreign countries than they are in the states. We split a sandwich and each had a coke zero, which cost over $20 in total. Just another day right...

The small prop-jet that took us from Warsaw to Budapest was okay. It moved along well and was not crowded...shoot my bag even had it’s own seat and was buckled in to place. Once landing in Budapest, we were able to quickly get our bags in hopes that our car would be waiting for us and we could get to the hotel and begin the real journey. Surprise! Our ride wasn’t there. Fantastic. We waited about 10 minutes, walked around, discussed what to do, and finally our guy showed up.
The hotel was nice. The guy at the front desk was very helpful and seemed to want to help us get around the town. It was definitely a new place and we quickly realized how far out of the city center we really were. After checking out our room, which was small but did the job, we showered and quickly got ready for an evening out.
Our first taxi ride was a success, as we were headed to the Vaci. What we later learned, was that we paid way too much for the ride that we were given and the driver didn’t even take us to the Vaci, which would have been at least another 10-15 minutes into town, he dropped us off near the Oktagon. There was a street lined with restaurants and bars, which were all pretty lively and offered a great selection of food to choose from. We walked up and down the street, between tables and the stares on many onlookers, and finally decided upon the restaurant Mediteran. We began the meal with some wonderful bruschetta, yes bruschetta in Budapest. You would never think that we would be eating Italian food in Hungary, but it was great. I had some simple spaghetti bolognese and Kim had a cheese ravioli with gorgonzola sauce, which was fantastic as well. We coupled our meals with some local beer, Dreher, which was down very smoothly. Throughout the dinner we questioned the waiter, we wanted to know about the night life, what there was to do and where we should go for the following nights that we had in the beautiful city. We had already heard about the “island”, but the waiter highly recommended this island where we would be able to find any type of discotech that we could imagine. I truly believe that it’s probably some hedonistic place where 20-somethings go to indulge in everything that the normal world see’s as wrong. There was definitely a draw to this island, but attempting to travel on a budget, I was willing to try other options before settling for the crazy club life of Budapest.
After dinner, we walked around, looking for some places to have a drink and talk to some more locals. This became a very difficult task as many of the restaurants and smaller bars close somewhere between 23:00 and midnight. It was actually quite disappointing. We did find one local establishment, which I thought was okay, but there wasn’t much going on. We had one drink and moved into the night to attempt a cab ride home. In Budapest, you must ask the taxi driver what they are going to charge you before you get into his car because they will meter you at a very high rate. After turning down one taxi driver, we met a local man on a bike. He was kind enough to call the large cab company for us and have a taxi come to our location, and then he pointed out several places on the map where we could find things to do and places to eat and have a drink during the following days. We quickly learned that many of the locals are very nice and helpful, but you never know what kind of advice you are getting.
As we rode home, we realized the mistake that we had made earlier with the taxi driver, as this trip was much cheaper, to our surprise and elation...and we were locked out of our hotel. Oops! The front desk man was asleep on the couch, waiting for us to arrive back “home” shortly after 1:00am. We apologized for being late, but how did we know that we would be locked out like a dormatory??
Day 2
We had every intention of getting up early and heading to the bath houses. That didn’t happen. We believe that we finally woke up around 11:30am, quickly got ready, and made our way out onto the street and into the world of public transportation in Budapest.We were told to take the 77 or 82 bus to the last stop, which would be the metro station. From there we would be able to get pretty much anywhere in the city. Both Kim and I have experience on metros in foreign cities, so we felt fairly confident in our abilities, but it’s always rough when you first start. We bought our 72-hour metro pass and made our way onto the train. It only took us about four stops to figure everything out and become very comfortable with the city’s system. Our first major stop was the bath house (Sty.....). It was beautiful. From the outside it looked like an old palace or museum. When you went in, it was an oasis of pools and people walking around freely, swimming, relaxing, tanning, and just enjoying the beautiful weather. Kim and I quickly decided that this was the place for us, so we paid our entrance fee and entered. Then it happened. We had no idea where to go, where to change, how to use the lockers. It was bizarre. But like always, we figured it out. We changed in little wooden rooms which were located between the hallway and the locker area. Them we proceeded upstairs to the lockers, where you had to push on the lock with your bracelet to activate the locking mechanism. That only took about five minutes to figure out. Yikes! From there we headed to the outside pools where the sun was shining brightly and we found a nice moderate temperature pool to relax in. The best part of the whole scenario was that everyone was there to relax. It wasn’t like in America where it’s all a big show and everyone is judging you. Everyone is there to enjoy themselves, and people of all shapes and sizes are welcome to join in the tradition.
There were three big pools outside, which was where we spent most of our time. Inside the building, which went all of the way around the outdoor pools, there were mineral baths, hot tubs, saunas, and an array of therapeutic treatments including mud baths and massages. We walked through all of these areas just to explore, but decided that our favorite spot was definitely the outside pools.
After leaving the bathhouse, happy and refreshed, we walked through the nearby castle, which was built as a replica of a castle in Transylvania. They were having a small festival, so there were local baked goods, candies, and entertainment. We walked around the back side of the castle where there was a small pond with row boats. After seeing the line for the boats, we decided to continue walking. What was very interesting however, was the fact that there were pieces of artwork all over the pond and there was a pier, connected to the small cafe, which had small tables and giant beanbags, where you could sit, eat, drink, and enjoy the weather even more.
We decided to grab a bag and have a drink. Since we really hadn’t eaten, we shared a chicken caesar salad and each had a Soproni beer. As we were enjoying the weather and the ambiance of the beanbags on the water, we heard some people behind us speaking English, and we quickly engaged them in a conversation. One man was from Hungary, but had been living and working in Florida for about 6 years. He was very helpful and talked about more places to go out that evening. The other man, who was from New York, but was currently living in London because of his career as an Opera Singer...yes, and opera singer, was just visiting because he has never been to Budapest. They were both very well traveled and interested in hearing about where we had been and where we were going. We had the very best intentions of meeting up with these guys later for a drink, but the world works in mysterious ways.
After our snack and relaxing day around the bathhouse and castle, we headed back to the hotel via public transport. It was becoming easier, but we definitely had to have patience. Especially when it came to the trolly. The metro was the easy part, the bus/trolly was another story. They would stop randomly and take breaks, sometimes they wouldn’t even stop when you pressed the button. It was quite frustrating at times, but much cheaper and more local than taking taxis everywhere we wanted to go.
We returned to the hotel for a short 30-minute nap, and then proceeded to get ready for a night out. We let the man at the front desk know that it would be late when we arrived, but he seemed okay with it and said that he would be on the couch!
We chose a different restaurant on the same street as the previous night, once again opting for a more italian influence. We began with Bruschetta and Dreher, which I followed with some Hungarian Goulash, and Kim had a spicy cheese pizza. All of the food was very good, and we were once again satisfied with our choice. From there we began the walk of shame...looking for someplace to go and have a drink and restaurants and bars all around us closed their doors. We asked if we could use a phone to call the guys we had met earlier, but no one would oblige. We assumed that was our hint to head home early and get some rest for the sight-seeing that we had scheduled for the following day.
WRONG! As we walked past the Opera House and decided to begin looking for a cab. As we continued our walk, we ran into some french-canadian men who were looking for a bar and asked us to join them. There were four men, nice looking, and very friendly. They were all living and working in Paris, but originally from Quebec. Three of the men work at a bank together and one is a director at Euro Disney. They were quite the group and all with very different personalities. After finding out that the bar they were in search of was closed, we tried another street and found a fun little bar. It didn’t look like much from the outside, but once inside, you realized that there were many different areas to the bar, upstairs and downstairs as well as a dance floor and separate bar area...all with a tree growing through the middle of the main room.
We spent the next couple of hours talking with these guys, getting to know them, and asking them about all of their travels around Europe. They said that it is very cheap to travel around Europe once you are here and that the sky is the limit. They are able to experience many different things in small increments and determine what they like best. We got many good tips about places to go and things to see.
We decided to return ‘home’ with and we woke our front desk man up around 3:30am. So much for getting up early!
Day 3
The next morning, once again, good intentions gone awry, we woke up around 11:30, quickly got ready and headed out for our hop-on-hop-off boat tour. We took the metro to the Buda side of the Danube to begin the tour. Upon arrival, we realized that we had about 45 minutes to kill before the boat would be back. So we walked around checking out the sights near Bettyhany Square. There were lots of beautiful old buildings and churches, as well as the Castle district where we saw the Buda Castle and the Fisherman’s Bastion. It was a warm day and it was time to eat. Our hunt for an elusive Burger King began and took us over one and a half miles of twists and turns. By the time we actually found the BK, it had become more about the hunt and much less about actually eating there. To be honest, we went to the McDonalds across the street instead. Ugh! I won’t speak of either for the rest of the trip. That’s my goal anyways.
From lunch, we took a quick hop on the metro to get back to the boat area. When the boat arrived, we found out that it would only take us to on other stop on the Pest side of the Danube. WTF! We paid money for what?! People kept talking about the buses though, so we were curious as to whether or not our ticket was good for those as well. We walked across the Elizabeth Bridge, looking for a way up the Citadel and to the Gallert Hotel. About 45 minutes later, we checked out the Gallert, with its’ nice bathhouse and wave pool. We decided at that point, with blisters on our feet and the sun weighing heavy on our skin, that we would take a taxi to the top of the Citadel, take some pictures and return to the bottom. One guy said that he would do it for 2800HUF. WRONG AGAIN!! Damn! By the time we got to the bottom of the hill and right in front of the bridge, we paid him 4800HUF. Jerk. That’s all we could say in our shock and awe of the events that had just happened. Oh well. A walk back across the bridge and a 20-minute wait at the bus stop, and we made our way onto the double-decker tour bus. It was nice to just sit and be driven all over the city, while you could listen to the history and have many major sights pointed out to you. The bus ride was about 2 hours long and guess where the last stop was?? The Citadel! We could have gone for free, but because we were just going through the day spontaneously, we lost out on about $25. Oh well, such is life.
After finishing the tour, we headed to the Vaci to find a place to have dinner. Since we had a cheap lunch, we decided to have a nice dinner before returning to the hotel to pack. After checking out many restaurants along the street, we ended up at Cucina...yes more Italian! We indulged ourselves with pizza bread, a spicy pasta with black olives, and mushroom risotto. The food was fantastic!!  After dinner, we took a walk to the Chain Bridge, where we had hoped that the lights would be on for some great pictures. It was 8:30pm by that would think...WRONG. We took the pictures anyways because it’s something to see, but we were very disappointed by the lights not being on. From there we took a short walk to the metro station and boarded our last city train.
The trolly, our favorite, took over an hour to get us home. The best part of the ride was when the driver wouldn’t stop at our hotel stop and we had to ride along for an additional 15 minutes. We were not happy campers arriving back at the hotel at 10:00pm, smelly and needing to pack.
We both showered, for a long time, and packed, checked email, and went to bed around 11:45pm. 5:30am was the wake-up call for a ride to the Keleti Train Station to board our first International Eurail train ride.

We learned a lot during our few days in Budapest (pronounced Buda-Pesh)...and we both agreed that it is a city worth visiting. Not only for it's beauty and sight-seeing, but because the people are nice and it is such a different atmosphere from what you would expect. It should be a stop on everyone's list...

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