Every year when graduation ends and I take my summer trip to Europe, I’m drawn back to the same places that I have grown to love so much: always Italy, usually Paris and Greece, Britain or Ireland. But I also try to add a new place to the mix that I’ve never seen before. Last year was Portugal, which I adored. This year I decided to visit Budapest, Hungary.
Hungary is not a place I knew much about. I’d heard of Hungarian goulash and the famous Gabor sisters, the angelic Eva and the policeman-slapping Zsa Zsa. I knew that Budapest had been under communist rule after World War II, and that like its other eastern European neighbors, Poland and the Czech Republic, was enjoying great prosperity and freedom in the decades after the Soviet Union fell. I’d also heard that Budapest was becoming a popular tourist destination, so sandwiched in between a few days in Vienna and a couple of weeks in Italy, I decided to make Budapest one of this year’s new destinations. After three rather cold and rainy days in Vienna, a lovely city in its own right, where I dined on incredible wiener schnitzels and cakes, I was ready to make the 2.5 hour train trip to Budapest, where the weather report said I could expect sun and temperatures in the low 70s.
There are advantages to staying at a hotel adjacent to the train station. On the morning of my departure, I barely had to roll out of bed and I was at the station. I’d purchased a first class ticket, but for some reason hadn’t been able to reserve a specific seat, so I checked in at the train ticket office to inquire about this. The kind young woman informed me with a beaming smile that it was impossible to get a seat now because first class was sold out and in fact, only one open seat remained in second class. Huh? I’d purchased this first class ticket online in February! A classic episode of Seinfeld came to mind where Jerry arrives at a car rental agency and is told there are no cars available. He protests that he HAS a reservation, and the woman behind the counter repeats that there are no cars left. Incredulously, he asks her, “Isn’t the most important part of making a reservation KEEPING the reservation?!”
Somehow I didn’t think the woman at the Vienna ticket office would get the joke, but it was all I could do not to do my best Seinfeld impersonation. She apologized and said I should go to the conductor on the train and ask if there are any seats left, but that I would likely need to take a 2:30PM train and would have to come back to see her again to buy a new ticket because my ticket was only good for the 11:00 train. Something seemed rotten in Austria.
Feeling like all the stress I’d spared myself by staying right by the station was now back with a vengeance, I ran to the train and found the conductor and he said I could take any open seat. Talk about mixed messages! So I boarded the first class car and started down the aisle, looking into compartments. In the door of each one were seat numbers with names beside them, so obviously these seats were already taken. The first several compartments were all claimed, but finally I found one that appeared to have only 1 of the 6 seats reserved, so I grabbed a window seat and hoped for the best. Shortly thereafter, and older Indian couple came by and evidently they too had been un able to reserve a seat. We all came to the conclusion that unless the seats were marked with a specific name, the others must be open, so they joined me and we had the compartment to ourselves until a woman bearing a lot of luggage and huffing and puffing like she’d just run a marathon entered our compartment and took the reserved seat. She was an Austrian woman who’d just traveled to Vienna from Innsbruck on a train that was late and she’d made the connection to this train with under a minute to spare. The train began to roll and we all sighed with relief.
We began talking and I learned that the Indian couple was from Delhi, a city with the same population as the entire state of California. “Too many people!” the gentleman exclaimed. They were on a tour of several eastern European cities. The woman from Innsbruck was on her way to Romania where she would be judging a “Boxing Competition”. The Indians and I exchanged glances and asked the woman for more details, because in a thousand years I would never have pegged this unassuming woman as a judge for a boxing match! She grinned and said it is one of the biggest competitions there is and that the contestants come from all over the world. Fascinating. Well, after a few more questions, we finally gleaned that she was talking about a DOG SHOW… she was judging a show of BOXERS, the breed. When she realized we’d all thought she was going to be a referee on the sidelines of a boxing ring, we all had a very long and hearty laugh. The fun of language misunderstandings knows no bounds. Once in a while I would make jabbing boxing motions with my arms and it would send the Austrian woman into fits of laughter. It was nice to have good company as I watched the green and hilly terrain of Hungary whiz past.
Budapest was originally two cities across the Danube River from one another, Buda on one side and Pest on the other. The more commercial areas of the city are in Pest, while Buda is evidently a bit greener and quieter. Weeks before the trip I had received an e-mail from the train company that the main station, Kileti, located on the Pest side of the city, was closed for a construction project and that we would stop in an alternate station instead. This was news to my Indian friends who had no idea about this, but soon after, the ticket taker came to our compartment and confirmed that I was correct. Luckily for me, the alternate station was on the Buda side of the city, which was also where my apartment was located. So in actuality, it would be easier for me to get to my place from the alternate station with only one simple tram ride. It turned out that the Indian couple was staying at a hotel in Buda as well, so after wishing our Austrian boxer judge adieu, when we arrived at the station, we stayed together, bought our tram tickets and rode into the city on the same tram, with me hopping off a few stops before them. I was amazed by how quiet, sleek and clean the tram was. One could safely eat off the floors, and I could not help but compare it to what a typical bus or subway car in San Francisco looks like these days.
I can’t imagine a better location than the one where my apartment, the Five Seasons, was located. The tram, stopped about 50 feet from the front door, just at the base of the Liberty Bridge, an ornate, green bridge that crosses the Danube. I could walk to Pest within 10 minutes. At the apartment I met the owner of the place, Gabor (his first name and absolutely no relation to Zsa Zsa), who gave me an orientation to the apartment and the city. The apartment was a huge one bedroom on the 4th floor of the building. From the tiny terrace off the bedroom I had a view of the Liberty Bridge and a famous spa hotel, the Gellert. It was really lovely, and the A/C cranked on very efficiently. This would be my home for the next four nights.
My first priority was to get some money. Despite its membership in the European Union, Hungary is not on the Euro for its currency, using the florin instead. The florin reminds me of the old Italian lira (it used to cost 2,000 lira – about $1 – to buy a coffee in Rome before the Euro). Well, I withdrew 50,000 florins from the ATM, which amounted to not quite $200! I really had to do some mental math… 1,000 florins is the equivalent of about $4; 10,000 is about $40. Whichever the currency, the money sure went a long way here. I’d say that everything in Budapest is almost half the price of places like Rome, Vienna, or Paris. My 72 hour bus/metro/tram pass was about $15; For Venice it’s $45.
Ever since arriving in Vienna, I was really struggling with pains in my legs and back, so I had a lazy afternoon the first day, though I did try to get some walking in. I ended up at a restaurant called Up & Down for dinner, with an outside table overlooking the lights of the Liberty Bridge. My first taste of Hungarian cuisine was an appetizer portion of a dish called Hortobágyi, a crepe-like pancake stuffed with minced chicken paprikash, which has sour cream and paprika as its main ingredients. It was delicious and I almost wish I’d had the main course size of the dish instead, though my main course of a beef stew with dumplings was good too. It was a warm night, the waiter and waitress were so friendly, and I was so enjoying the evening when an American couple perused the menu and then took a table right behind mine. I felt my body tense as I listened to this man use the “f word” in every single sentence, complaining about how long it was f’n taking to have a waiter come over, how they f’n do this to tourists all the time, how they probably ought to f’n get up and leave, and how the f’n waitress was ignoring them. Finally, I could stand it no more, and I turned and said, “If I were the waiter or waitress, I’d be ignoring you too considering the way you’re speaking.” I half expected to be attacked, but the guy was silent, and the silence was deafening. Expecting a chair to be thrown at me at any second in a sneak attack, I cautiously turned and the couple had left without a trace. At that moment, the waitress appeared with menus for them and wondered where they’d gone, and I assured her that they were not nice people and that she should be glad they’d left.
After dinner I walked back across to “my side” of the river and at 10:00PM got in line for admission to the Rudas Thermal Spa. Budapest is crawling with spas and there are literally a couple dozen to choose from, but this particular place had a Friday night special and for a set price you could stay from 10PM till 4AM. I figured that my aching muscles needed nothing more than a long soak, so there I was, joining a pretty large crowd of folks who were of the same mind. The facilities were beautiful and clean, and you get a locker, towel, and use of both a huge indoor pool, three different hot spas of varying temperatures, a cold plunge, and an outdoor, rooftop jacuzzi tub with a view of the city. I went to the pool first and had it entirely to myself, and then explored the different hot spas until, like Goldilocks, I found the one with the temperature that was JUST RIGHT. At one point I ventured to the roof to try that outdoor hot tub, but there were so many people in it that I sincerely don’t think I’d have been able to fit! It looked like a big boiling pot of human stew! But I went back downstairs and soaked my bones until close to 2AM and then a little rubbery in the legs, I walked about 20 minutes back to the apartment and proceeded to sleep until almost noon the next day!
After having some cereal at the apartment for breakfast, I took the tram over to the Pest side of the city to explore the downtown area. There was a music festival going in in a park, and it was just such a nice event, with families sitting on benches or on the grass under the trees, food vendors, tourists, all mixing happily. The city really has a nice vibe to it; friendly, safe and clean. Though the locals do not speak quite as much English as you might find in Western Europe, they make up for that with a very friendly and sweet demeanor. I felt instantly at home in this city.
I had lunch at a place called Pörc & Prézli Étterem, which I assumed meant pork and pretzels… but according to Google translator it means something like “The Turn of a Phrase Restaurant”. OK, that was not obvious! The friendly waiter, Csaba set me up at a nice, shaded outdoor table on a square overlooking the beautiful St. Stephen’s Cathedral. I started with a draft Hungarian beer that was just delicious and thirst-quenching, and had the Hortobágyi stuffed pancake again as an appetizer. It was maybe not quite as tasty as the one the night before, but the chef made up for that with the main course. I had duck breast, served with sour cherry dumplings and surrounded by beautiful fresh kiwi, green apples, and strawberries, all resting in a tart apple sauce. It was a beautiful dish, both visually and taste-wise. What a find! I finished with another traditional Hungarian specialty called Túrógombóc, which translated roughly to curd dumplings or cottage cheese dumplings. Csaba complimented me on my dinner choices because they were very typically Hungarian, and he was very funny and conversational. The dessert was beautiful, and I loved the warm dumplings, but they were a little more sour than sweet and had there been sugar on the table, I might have sprinkled some over it. When Csaba asked what I thought, before I could answer, he said, “For me, I like them, but they are not sweet enough, and I always put some sugar on them!” We had a good laugh as I explained that this was my thought exactly, but as I eyed his 32” waistline while he passionately explained his addiction to chocolate, pastries, anything sweet… I sighed heavily.
From here I walked to the banks of the river to view the Shoes on the Danube, a memorial in honor of Jews killed in World War II. Evidently they were told to remove their clothes and face the river, then shot in the back so that they would fall into the Danube and be washed away. For several yards on the river bank are sculptures of men’s, women’s and children’s shoes, many containing flowers or candles placed by family members to remember the victims. It is a very stirring sight, spoiled only by tourists virtually sitting or lying on their bellies amidst the shoes to get a better shot with their cameras.
In the late afternoon I took a bus and then walked up the very steep slopes of a hill on the Buda side to visit the Fisherman’s Bastion, a fortress built in the late 1800s that looks like a fairy tale castle of towers and walls, and surrounds the magnificent Matthias Church. Frighteningly, I remember this place being a “pit-stop” one season on TV’s The Amazing Race. There is a million dollar view of the entire city from up there, and I watched the sun set and the lights of the bridges and the city below gradually twinkle on. Meanwhile, the towers of the fortress and the church gradually also became illuminated, and it was one of the most tranquil and magical evenings one could imagine. All of the buses leaving from up there were crowded with people, so I opted to walk through much of the “old town” and then took the funicular back down to the river. I then treated myself to a 10PM massage appointment at a spa for the unbelievable price of $20 for one hour. I felt like I was trying to exorcise evil spirits from my body, whether through hot mineral waters or a via a rigorous kneading of all the sore spots in my body!
On Sunday morning I went out to breakfast at a courtyard café called Kuglof, located across the river on the Pest side of town, where a salmon eggs benedict, a chocolate croissant and a cappuccino set me back about $10. The prices are amazing. I then wandered out to a huge city park where I visited what is purported to be Europe’s largest spa, the Széchenyi Thermal Bath. This place has a huge outdoor swimming pool, and equally huge outdoor thermal pool, and then 15 different indoor spas of varying temperatures. It was very crowded, even late in the afternoon, but it was so nice to be out in the open air, watching the clouds pass by, socializing and soakings. And soak I did. I probably stayed for about 3.5 hours and talked to a variety of nice folks from all over the world, in particular an Indian family visiting from Chicago. This being my second thermal soak, and after the massage of the night before, I could finally feel the muscles in my body, probably overly tensed up from endless grading papers and end of the semester tension, finally loosening up and giving me a well-needed break from the pain. What a relief!
I’d neglected to make a reservation for dinner because I didn’t know how long I wanted to stay at the spa, so as I stopped along my walk at a variety of restaurants I was met with a number of “no seats available”, “the kitchen is now closed” or highly rated places that just happened to be closed on Sunday but didn’t say so on their websites. At almost 10:00PM, when I was about ready to give up, I saw an Italian restaurant, Trattoria da Coppola that was open and had seats outside. A young couple next to me was just finishing up and when I asked how they’d enjoyed the meal, in heavily Italian accented English they told me that this was “very good and truly Italian food”. I learned that they were from a small town just south of Padova called Monselice, Italy, which is the next town over from Pernumia, where my friends Claudia and Marco live. They were astounded that I had even heard of their town, let alone where it was. And they were right: the food was excellent; I had a very tasty penne with salmon in a vodka sauce and for dessert, profiteroles. Viva Italia!
I really just puttered around on my last day in the city, walking, exploring, sampling the ice-cream filled chimney cakes that are called, kürtőskalács in Hungarian… but let’s just all agree to call them chimney cakes! You can watch the baker rolling them out in the window of Molnár’s, which is supposedly the best place to try them. They were good, but there was no easy way to eat them, and despite trying to watch and copy how others managed it, I had a table covered in chocolate shavings, melted ice cream, and chimney cake crumbs. So embarrassing! I almost had to take a shower in the rest room to get all the chocolate off my hands. Not my most dignified moment.
For my last night’s dinner, I decided to try Eat and Meet, which was listed as the #1 dining experience in Budapest according to Trip Advisor. Basically a woman named Suzie, and her parents, native Hungarians who own a farm outside the city, invite 14 guests to their 6th floor apartment overlooking the Danube in the far outskirts of the city. They provide a 3 course meal with wine pairings for about $45 and when I e-mailed Suzie, she replied that there was one space at the table open for me that evening, so I grabbed it and took an exceptionally long bus ride out to the area where they live. The other guests consisted of a very large contingent from Florida, a couple from Chicago, and several folks from England. Suzie was our hostess and talked to us about Hungarian food and customs, while her mother cooked the meal and her father served the platters and generously poured the wine. It was a fun evening with good conversation, though the dinner is held in a long, narrow room and I was at the far end of the table, so unfortunately I didn’t get any chance at all to chat with some of the folks at the dinner. People were very curious about my travel website, so I handed out a few of my cards (actually a lot of people I’ve talked to on this trip have asked for the web address and I have seen a nice spike in viewership, which is exciting!)
Dinner started with Pálinka, a fruit based drink that evidently comes from Transylvania on the Romanian border! It can be made from various fruits, but we were served an apricot-based one. Suzie said that Pálinka can be “either very beautiful or so bad it’s like drinking gasoline” – depending upon the brand. However, what they served us was from their farm and it was very nice.
Suzie also warned us in advance that we should NOT expect goulash at dinner. Contrary to the stereotype, evidently this is not a common Hungarian dish at all, and she said they might have it 4 or 5 times in an entire year. She wanted us to experience the more traditional types of food that are commonly served in her country. Dinner was actually 4 courses, starting with some tiny appetizers made with various breads, vegetables, cheeses and meats. Suzie explained everything about the dishes, and added interesting glimpses of what it was like under communist rule, when times were very bad and people struggled to even put bread on the table. In fact, over my 4 days in Budapest, many locals actually brought up the communist times in Hungary, expressing much disdain about how bad things were back then.
After our appetizers, we were served a very simple tomato based soup with a poached egg dropped inside, followed by delicious pork marinated for over 24 hours, potatoes with thyme, and a fantastic cucumber salad. Cucumbers, alas, are one of my least favorite veggies, but I could eat this refreshing salad every day. For dessert there was a lovely vanilla cake and some sweet wine. The whole affair lasted about 3 hours, and I chatted with the couple from Chicago whom I’d not gotten to talk to at the dinner when we caught the same metro train to go back to our apartments, so that was fun and all in all, it was a nice way to wind up my stay in Budapest.
When I’d checked into my apartment the day I arrived, Gabor had suggested I might want to take a taxi to the airport to save the hassles of public transportation, but that would have been almost $40. Instead I hopped onto the tram right in front of my building, rode it for 3 stops, and then caught a direct airport bus for $4.00 that got me to the terminal in plenty of time. My impression of this city is that things really seem to work here. I did not see a lot of tension, impoliteness (except for the ugly American tourist I described earlier), I had no fear of crime and walked everywhere as late at 2:30 AM without any problems at all. The city is beautiful architecturally, the streets were clean, there were no homeless people on the streets, and there were no annoying hawkers trying to sell me things that no one of sound mind would want to buy, as is true in so many other European cities. I realize that in four days, one only scratches the surface of a place, but when I scratched, I saw a place that I would definitely want to return to and explore a lot more fully.