Wednesday, January 23, 2008

9 Budapest, Hungary

In Patrick's free time he searches for travel deals online. A week and a half prior to Martin Luther King Day he found a trip to Budapest at a big discount at Best Travel Store, by Monday Katrina had her day off approved, and that Friday night we were off to Hungary.

We took a red-eye to Amsterdam where we connected to our flight to Budapest on Malev--Hungary's national airline. At first Patrick was shocked to see how many blue-passport toting Americans were on the flight. He was also surprised to see one of these Americans wearing a cossack hat. Turns out that Hungary's passports are also blue and that we were definitely the only people on the plane who were not Hungarian.

Upon arrival, we went through the easiest customs we had ever experienced and were out within two minutes. Our plan was to purchase the Budapest Card first thing: a tourist card that allows free transportation around the city via bus and subway and free or discounted admission to most museums. Patrick spotted the booth immediately and asked if the vendor spoke English. "Of course," was his reply, and he promptly sold us a 72-hour card for our stay in the city at the hefty price of 8000 Forint each (170 Forint=1 dollar).
Unfortunately, we found this card to be a major rip-off. We walked nearly everywhere during our stay, and many of the high-profile sites and museums were barely discounted or not at all.

The bus from the airport took us to the subway station, and there we hopped on a spray paint decorated Soviet-era train to the city center. Our arrival in Budapest was nothing short of stunning. We stood in Buda in the shadow of Castle Hill looking out across the Danube to Pest which was punctuated by Parliament (at right) and statuesque old churches. We navigated the quiet cobblestone streets of Buda to find our accommodations for our visit, Hotel Carlton.

Our hotel was in the perfect location at the foot of Castle Hill, mere minutes from beautiful Széchenyi Chain Bridge (pictured with Buda Castle below), our gateway to Pest. After checking into the Carlton we hiked up the hill to the castle to take in fantastic views of the city at dusk. Buda Castle is the latest of a number of incarnations of a royal residence to sit atop the hill. We visited the art museum that is currently housed inside the castle, which features Hungarian paintings ranging artistic periods from the last 5 centuries.

A short walk from Buda Castle is the seven towers of the Fisherman's Bastion (one of which is pictured at left), a neo-gothic tribute to the guild of fishermen that defended the hills of Buda during the Middle Ages. The winding staircases, narrow corridors, and beautiful vistas from the Bastion definitely make it a must explore.

Underneath Buda castle are six miles of tunnels originally used as a wine cellar. During WWII, the subterranean layer became a bunker and now it is a tourist attraction known as the Labyrinth. We had a blast navigating through the tunnels—especially the "Labyrinth of Courage", a pitch-black section where a rope along the wall is your only guide. Patrick was very excited to have a chance to prove his bravery.

In Pest, we got to see many impressive buildings including Parliament (and the very intimidating guards at its gate), St Stephen Cathedral, and the Great Synagogue: the largest synagogue in Europe. Patrick enjoyed his first opportunity to wear a yarmulke and had trouble giving it back. Attached to the synagogue is a museum on Jewish history that we got to visit as well. This was the only place we went in Budapest where we had to pass through security.

The Museum of National History is also in Pest. While only some of the exhibits were translated into English, it was fascinating to see the maps of Hungary's changing borders throughout the ages. The most interesting part of the museum was the exhibit on the Soviet Era. While we have of course read a great deal about this time period and seen pictures and propaganda, it was an entirely different experience to be seeing this in the country where it happened, surrounded by people who lived through it. We found ourselves not only taking in the exhibit, but also watching the other visitors' reactions.

Our experience at the Museum of National History primed us for the House of Terror (pictured
at right). This museum, dedicated to telling the story of Hungary under Nazi and then Soviet
rule, is actually housed in what used to be the Nazi Party headquarters and then the Communist Party headquarters, during their respective regimes. We heard stories and saw pictures of unimaginable misdeeds that happened in the very building in which we stood. The aura in the building alone was enough to chill one to the bone.

In need of a lifting of spirits we sought out one of the public baths for which Hungary is renowned. As it turns out, Hungary is situated over a number of natural hot springs, including the springs that lie underneath the biggest public bath in Europe, Széchényi Spa. Once at the spa, we rented towels and changed into our bathing suits (Patrick's rented), and walked from pool to pool to test the waters. Outside we found steam rising from the biggest pool into the chilly January night. We hopped in with the teenagers, grandparents, and new moms with babies in tow. If you do anything in Budapest, go to Széchényi Spa.

One of our most surprising cross-cultural interactions came the night of the AFC Championship football game. Patrick had researched sports bars in Budapest prior to our trip, so we were able to find one of the few places showing American football in Hungary. Upon arrival we were told that all tables had been reserved and that we could try to squeeze in at the bar. Instead, we found a table of twenty Hungarians clad in Patriots gear who invited us to join them. Hungarian Patriots fans? We were intrigued. We befriended a few during the course of the game who spoke English and who introduced us to a variety of their favorite libations: a pear-flavored schnapps, a very strong blackberry liqueur, and Unicum—a Hungarian alcohol similar to Jaegermeister, but less sweet and more herbal.

Unfortunately, before we knew it the time had come to return home. Though it was not the most relaxing vacation ever (not counting the spa), our whirlwind tour of Budapest was exciting, thought-provoking, and ultimately an amazing weekend getaway.

9 comments:

  1. You guys are silly!

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  2. Glad the spirit of travel is alive and well with you two.

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  3. Hello. This is probably the single best thing I've read about Budapest in terms of helping me to decide what I want to do there - thanks so much!

    Andrea

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  4. Thank you.. I'm heading to Budapest this week and have been searching on things to do..

    Anthony

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  5. This will be so helpful for our 4 night stay this week!

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