So, we are definitely in Eastern Europe now. There are more people, more strange sounding languages, more questionable smells and more dodgy-looking buildings! Arriving in Budapest (pronounced Budda-Pesht locally) was like what I imagine someone would have experienced arriving in New York or Chicago at the turn of the 20th Century – a bit overwhleming!
After arriving at the station and printing our departure tickets for later in the week, we pulled local currency out from the cash point. We pulled out 50,000 HUF, which is only about $250, since the Hungarian Forint is currently 222 to a dollar. But the money came only in 10,000 HUF bills which were far too large to be accepted by the subway system ticket machines for our 350 HUF subway tickets. No worries, we said, and pulled out our handy Capital One card. The ticket machine had an English option, so that was easy enough, but the credit card component was in Hungarian alone… and it didn’t work when I put the card in! Tony finally went out in search of change and we made our way through the subway system.
Since that initial small stress though, I think we’ve all fallen in love with Budapest! It’s the capital of a country with a very troubled history, first taken over by the Ottoman Turks, then by the Austrian Hapsburgs. Just as they seemed to gain some autonomy, along came WWI, the destruction of their kingdom and the loss of 70% of their lands. Who promised to get that land back for discouraged little Hungary? None other than Adolf Hitler, and again Hungary found itself on the losing end of a war, only to be occupied by the Communists for 44 years!
One thing we found while traveling in college was that walking tours are the best, and cheapest, way to get to know a new city. I’d told Tony this before we set out on our adventure, and he scoffed at the idea! Nonetheless, we took advantage of a great free tour all around Budapest on Sunday morning. The tour was fascinating, and I’ll share information we learned throughout this post, but the real victory of the day was when Tony leaned over and said, “I hate to say it, but you’ve sold me on this walking tour thing.” We actually went on another one that same afternoon!
On the tour we saw the royal palace. Honesty, it’s not that impressive, but that’s because it was destroyed during Germany’s last stand against the Allies and was rebuilt in a simpler style by the Communists.
And at night it looked like a Disney Princess Castle!
Amy and I took a Jewish Quarter tour as well. Only about 1% of Hungary’s population is still Jewish, many of those who survived the Holocaust having left during the Communist regime. Since Hungary was allied with the Germans during WWII, they were allowed to sort of “take care” of their Jewish populations themselves. This spared their Jewish community for most of war, but in 1944 Hitler got wise to the Hungarians passively protective attitude. A new group of people were put in power, and in just 6 months 600,000 Hungarian citizens were exterminated. Much of the Jewish Quarter is still very run down, but it’s starting to bounce back. The establishment of Ruin Bars over the last 10 years has started to revitalize the area.
This pub, the original one, showed up in the ruins of an old building which was never fixed up after WWII, and was meant to be around just for a summer. However, it was so successful, that the owner made some adjustments for the winter and kept the pub open. The tourists discovered the ruin pubs a few years ago and now there about 14 or so operative in the Jewish Quarter.
The insides are generally decorated with found items or recycled art.
While Amy and I toured the Jewish Quarter, Tony learned a lot about the Communist Occupation on a different one, particularly how Hungary is doing bouncing back. Turns out, it’s having a pretty tough time. Many of the politicians currently in power are the same ones who ran the country under the Russians, just with a different party name. The last several voting ballots only had one party to choose from, and the press is limited, so forming another party to oppose those in power is challenging. The building where Parliament meets is modeled after London’s Westminster.
One common experience in Hungary is “taking the waters” at their natural spring baths, a tradition that dates back to the Ottoman occupation of the country hundreds of years ago. There were lots of options as to where to go, but we chose the one most recommended. The Széchenyi Baths were completed in 1925 and are the largest in the area with 18 different pools to choose from! Luckily, swim suits are now the norm at these places!
Amy and I went from pool to pool, trying them all out. Some were very hot, some very cold, and lots of pools in between. They are all different colors too, due to the different minerals that are most prevalent in that spring. One of our favorites had jets that pushed you around in a circle and was surprisingly fun!!
There were a few really touristy type things that were very fun as well, like our visit to the caves under the Buda Castle. (Budapest is actually two separate cities, separated by the Danube River. Buda is hilly and houses the castle, while Pest (Pesht) on the other side is flat.) These caves were formed by the natural springs in the area and were used for hundreds of years as refrigerators, storage, and even for prisons! The one we went to was supposedly the dungeon prison of Vlad the Impaler, better known as Count Dracula!
Another spot was called Sir Lancelot’s, a medieval themed restaurant. During dinner we were entertained by musicians, a belly dancer, and even a a fire eater! The meals, which came in massive portions and were absolutely delicious, were served on gigantic silver platters. The low lights, wooden tables, and stone paintings on the walls completed the motif and made for a very fun dinner, especially since no forks were provided!
We also had some great down time on this trip, including our visit to Margaret Island in the middle of the Danube. It’s like a great big city park, and we were there on a national holiday, so it was a great opportunity to people watch while listening to the musical fountain. The water spray is synced with traditional Hungarian music!
As much as we loved our time in Budapest, it wasn’t always easy. We ran into a couple communication issues. One morning at breakfast, we each placed our order with the sweet Hungarian woman who spoke very little English. Tony and Amy received their plates and I waited for mine. And I waited. Then I waited some more. As Tony and Amy were finishing their meals, I went to the waitress to ask about mine, pointing to the menu and to myself to try to communicate what I wanted. She apologized and went back to the kitchen. Again, I waited, but nothing came. Finally, Tony called her over to ask again, but she didn’t understand. So we gave up, and I went somewhere else for breakfast!
At another place Amy and I tasted some Hungarian wines and Tony ordered a glass of grapefruit juice. It arrived and was delicious, so he ordered another one as Amy and I continued to sip our different wines. We asked for the bill and were astonished at the high price, sure a mistake had been made. Tony asked our server, and he explained that the grapefruit juices is priced per deciliter, not per glass, so Tony ended up having $12 worth of juice, instead of the $3 he was expecting!