Budapest! The train ride wasn't as smooth as we had hoped, but that's all right…we're
in Budapest! We arrive around 9:30 AM with reservations again at the Strawberry
Hostel, but this time with misgivings. We have heard from one of the Strawberry
owners himself that this one was the worst of all the Strawberry hostels. So when
a woman named Beata approaches us at the train station and offers us an apartment
for rent, we're willing to see what she has to offer. She takes us to the apartment,
helping us find an ATM and tickets for public transportation along the way. The
apartment turns out to be a really good deal for only $30 a night, so we take
it. Beata is a fountain of "Information!" as she puts it, and describes the city
layout, what to watch out for, what to stay away from, and then points us to a
great place for lunch. We eat stuffed mushrooms, chicken breast and potatoes,
and beef stroganoff at the Blue Rose restaurant. (Incidentally, we are eating
beef again with no qualms about Mad Cow Disease. We met some British and Irish
medical and veterinarian students in Krakow, and they say it's fine for several
reasons. Plus they eat it themselves.) After lunch we sleep off the train ride,
waking a few hours later to go grocery shopping and take a walk down to the Danube
River, drink coffee, and read our guidebooks.
Heavy construction is usually
the mark of an improving economy, but this morning, it only serves as an ugly
wake-up call RIGHT OUTSIDE THE WINDOW at 6:00AM. Joe cooks breakfast this morning
(did we mention the apartment has a mini-kitchen?) which consists of sausage,
pasta, peas and corn.
The food is cheap and more like home than anything we've eaten so far. After breakfast,
we head down to the main square of the city to take a bicycle tour of Budapest.
Lots of people are there for the walking tours, but only the two of us are taking
the Bike Tour. It makes for a cozy tour, and Bea, our tour guide, is wonderful.
We think the tour may have actually lasted an hour or two longer than normal because
Bea patiently answered all of our questions and shared some personal stories of
her own. Bea mentions that there is an international soccer game tonight between
Hungary and Germany, so after the tour, we get tickets at the stadium. (No easy
task thanks to surly ticket-people and our limited Hungarian language skills!
But a friendly man who had once been to New York goes out of his way to help us
out.) It's still a few hours before the game, so we walk home, take a break, make
dinner, and chill. Then, around 8:00 PM, we take the ultra-crowded Metro back
to the game. We are paranoid (unduly, it turns out) about the possible hoolaganism
among the rowdy soccer fans, so we decide not to take our digital camera. Germany
- one of the best soccer teams in the world - shows why they're so good. Although
Hungary comes out extremely aggressive early in the game, with at least half a
dozen shots on goal; Germany's stifling defense shuts them down shot after shot.
After Hungary gets tired, they start to make mistakes and Germany easily takes
advantage and skunks Hungary, 5 - 2. We leave the game 30 minutes early to avoid
the throngs that are sure to descend on the Metro and fall quickly asleep at home
loud 6:00AM wake-up call by the construction crews makes sure we get an early
start on the day. After another breakfast of our favorite sausage, peas, corn
and pasta, we head out to spend most of the day looking for a new apartment. Tomorrow
Beata will kick us out of our $30 apartment because a group of Italians had already
reserved it for the Formula One racing event over the weekend, so we make a list
of potential hostels and then spend hours checking them out. They all suck. Nasty
places - one resident Joe cornered for an honest opinion actually said that small
animals are rumored to roam the halls, but he had not yet seen any. Maybe he means
cute little dogs, maybe he means rats. We're taking no chances - that hostel is
scratched from the list. Another hostel is cheap but smells bad. Another cheap
hostel is selling converted little janitor closets as "medium-sized" rooms. We
couldn't have stood up together in this tiny room! This process takes all day
long, and it's exhausting. We end up just calling Beata to see if she has another
apartment close by, at the same price. She does! Mission accomplished. We decide
we want a quiet night at home, so we rent a movie and buy some more groceries.
The movie, Amadeus, does not work in the DVD player of our laptop computer. Actually,
the video part works, but our laptop's DVD player does not have audio capabilities
for some reason. Oh well … we'll watch movies when we get back to Texas. Instead,
tonight, we spend the time doing some long-range planning on the trip, adjusting
our calendars and still trying to figure out our Italian and Spanish itineraries.
And, of course, we are kept entertained by the loud construction crews working
late RIGHT OUTSIDE THE WINDOW until 10:00PM.
get up early (loud…well, you know why). We stretch and make breakfast again. We
have to move apartments this morning, and Beata shows up at 9:00 to take us to
the next one. It's a half-mile or so closer to the city center, and appears to
be on par with the last one. This one, she assures us, is quiet. No construction.
Jenni runs off to buy a towel and other necessities while Joe naps. We meet at
St. Stephen's Basilica to see a glorious interior along with their most prized
possession: the gnarled 1000-year old right hand of St. Stephen himself which
they keep on display in a little gold, glass cage. Eeeewww. We climb the steep
staircase to the top and see a glorious view of Budapest…along with all the construction.
We count eleven construction cranes along the skyline. After the tour, we go to
the Blue Rose restaurant for delicious Beef Stroganoff. We read the "Budapest
Sun," the English-language newspaper here which has some interesting, well-written
stories. Don't know why we're sleepy, but we can barely move. It is warmer than
we had thought it would be in Budapest; around 85 degrees. We head back to the
apartment for a nap, and discover that it is indeed quiet…and also 95 degrees
in the room! Since the windows are tucked into a corner and face the courtyard,
there is very little breeze. After a 2-hour sweaty nap, we are miserable and seriously
contemplate buying a fan. Just a little 10 dollar fan that we would find a way
to stuff in our backpack or leave here when we're done. We actually go into a
store to shop for a fan when we realize how absurd that is, (not buying it but
carrying it around in our backpacks) so we reluctantly disregard the thought and
walk down to the Danube river bank for a cup of coffee. We have a long talk with
a waiter about Budapest, then check our e-mail and do some research on Romania.
Afterwards, around 11:00PM, it's time for beer and a glass of wine at the Old
Man's Blues bar. But there's no blues … the musicians had stopped playing at 10:30
PM and the locals gather to drink and smoke an awful lot and attempt to dance
techno on a tiny dance floor. Jenni takes a cold shower because of the oven-hot
apartment … Joe decides to try and go straight to sleep but stays up most of the
night an uncomfortable, sweaty mess.
We're having issues deciding when to do what in the town, so
in a burst of compromise, we make a list of things we both want to accomplish
in the next four days before we leave. Today the list includes making train reservations
to Romania, a visit to one of the thermal baths, and listening to some Gypsy music.
All goes well except the Gypsy music plan, which was supposed to happen at 9:00
PM at a touristy restaurant with reasonable prices that promises the music plus
some traditional dancing. We found this place in the morning and made reservations,
but when we show up at 9:00, there is no music and no dancing. They have amnesia.
First, they tell us they don't have any record of our reservations and then they
tell us that, in order to hear music, we'll have to eat upstairs in the waaay-too-expensive
restaurant. No thanks. We decide to just eat at the downstairs restaurant anyway.
It's too late now to try and find another place, and we have no groceries. We
probably embarrassed the manager in the process because, when the musicians from
upstairs come down to our area, the manager points at our table. At first, it's
sort of nice to see such a level of service, until we realize that this means
we must tip big. The music was very good though.
Sunday, August 19
We sleep late, then head to Statue Park, the virtual
cemetery for the Communist statues that used to adorned Budapest. It's quite a
distance out in the western suburbs, so we have to take two different buses, a
feat which we accomplish with relative ease. We get back downtown by 4:00 PM.
Yesterday's thermal bath outing was soooo relaxing we decide we have to go again
today - it's only about $1 per person if you leave within four hours. Once again,
it is wonderful and relaxing! Afterwards we meander down Andrassi Utca; Budapest's
main boulevard lined with trees and embassies. Turns out that tonight is Buda-Fest,
the last of a series of celebrations that commemorate the 1000th birthday of Hungary
(tomorrow there will be fireworks). Organizers have shut down Andrassi for 6 or
7 mini-concerts. Bands are playing on stages at every major intersection. We grab
a schedule, pick out a few acts we want to see, and spend the next few hours before
showtime wandering Margarit Island in the middle of the Danube River. The island
is named for the young girl sent there by her father, a Hungarian King, who promised
he would make her a nun and cloister her on the island if the Turks didn't decimate
the city on one of their attacks. Margarit almost escaped a life of solitude -
although the town was destroyed, it was not decimated. (Who decides the difference!?!?)
recommends a good place to eat, and once again, the guidebook is right. We eat
traditional Hungarian dishes of goulash, stuffed potato pancakes and chicken.
The chicken dish Joe orders turns out to be fried … it does not say, "fried" on
the menu, but it is so delicious that we decide we don't care! We stroll back
up Andrassi Utca, wading through thick crowds. We stop first at the Opera House
to hear the symphony, then move on to a small stage between a DJ playing Shaggy
and a Hungarian 50's Rock 'n Roll band to watch and dance to an awesome display
of Gypsy Swing Music. The music is still blaring loudly when we head home around
1:30 AM. We both take ice cold showers and sleep soundly.
We're still a little unclear on our Romania plans, so we skip
breakfast and hit the Internet café for a few hours for some research. We leave
in time to get to St. Stephen's Basilica and stake out a good place to stand for
the afternoon's High Mass. We end up with a dinner of absolute junk food we bought
from street vendors as the entire city gears up hours in advance for the fireworks
show at 9:00 PM. After standing in crushing crowds for three hours at the High
Mass, we decided we didn't want to repeat that performance for the fireworks show.
So we wandered up Gellert Hill overlooking the river in search of a good, (uncrowded)
seated vantage point for the show. Who were we kidding? Hundreds of thousands
of locals had already staked out the prime spots weeks earlier and had been camped
there all day. Despite our best attempts, we end up packed shoulder-to-shoulder
with thousands of Budapestians on Elizabeth Bridge. We wonder how much weight
it would take to collapse this thing… The fireworks show was spectacular. Forty
minutes later, as thousands of people herd down main boulevards towards home,
the metro, and the city center, we head to a bar to get out of the crowds and
watch the flow of people from the comfort of a chair, some beer and several glasses
of wine for Jenni. An hour later people are still flowing by, but now relegated
to the sidewalks as the streets have been reopened to traffic. We watch a pretty
good guitar duo at the bar, finish our drinks and go home. An ice cold shower
once again allows us to sleep throught the night.
Today is our last day in Budapest. Around 10:15 AM, Beata brings
new recruits to the apartment as we are leaving. We spend a few minutes giving
them some tips about sightseeing around Budapest. We don't have the heart to tell
them how hot the apartment gets. We don't want to embarrass Beata and, besides,
it's still the best accommodation we could find for such a low price. We leave
our packs at the left-luggage counter at the train station, which is a kind of
baggage check where we get a ticket from an attendant. Beata says it's much safer
than the lockers (did we mention she's a fountain of information?). Then we buy
some picnic supplies in the tiniest grocery store a few blocks from the station.
table in City Park is our restaurant for lunch, and we feed the leftover bread
to the skittish pigeons. With 11 hours to kill before the train leaves tonight,
we camp out near Hero's Square and take a leisurely nap (covered in OFF to thwart
the mosquitoes). Later, we pick up some travel books mailed to us from Des Acosta
in Prague (thanks, Des!) then eat some Spaghetti Eis, ice cream that looks like
spaghetti (but tastes pretty good.) After ice cream, we stop by a computer store
to see what's wrong with the audio system. They fix the problem in just a few
minutes (to Jenni's monumental surprise!) and we are on our way. We then browse
an English-language bookstore where Joe buys a book ("Virtual War" by Michael
Ignatieff. It turns out to be an excellent book about the war in Kosovo). We then
buy some postcards and a Budapest keychain, have a cup of coffee on the Danube
and update the Web site. We buy two big bottles of water and some pretzels and
get on our 11:30 PM train with plenty of time to spare.