Saturday, November 8, 2014

Toussaints #3: Budapest

Budapest: Where I fell in love with a city, paid 1500 for scarves, played in a cave, and took a bath

You know you love a place when you start planning your return before you've even left. Budapest was stunning and the people we met were fantastic and the food was cheap and I really hope to go back someday.

I loved Budapest before we even got on the airplane for the simple reason that it was the first (and only) place we were going to settle down for more than two days. We could finally sleep in past 6:00 am without having to worry about missing a train or bus or car or camel or whatever.

Getting there still required an early morning though: we woke up at 6:00 to get on the shuttle that took us to the airport from which we flew to Budapest. The first thing we did once we landed was exchange our money: 300 Hungarian forint to the euro. We walked out of there with 5000 notes and 1000 notes. They have coins worth 100. For four days I felt rich, although I never quite got used to paying 3000 for my groceries or 300 for a coffee.

To be honest I was nervous about Budapest. I had just finished up in two cities that failed to impress and I was under the impression that it was because I hadn't planned them well enough. Chelsea was still working on her thesis at this point and it was on me to plan the days, so I blamed myself. At the same time I had heard great things about Budapest and I really didn't want to screw things up.

A quick note on Budapest: you can't screw it up.

The moment we landed I felt better than I had in Italy. Something about being surrounded by sauerkraut, poppy seed cake, cabbage rolls, and goulash made me feel more at home than pizza and teeny tiny espresso shots, everything seems more familiar to me except the language. The hostel was also really great. It was called Home + Hostel, and it definitely merits its name. The staff was super friendly and helpful, the people there were open and nice, and there was free breakfast.

Some first views

I do you NOT fall in love with that?
Roasted veggies, mmmmm

Chelsea decided to stay in that first night; her knee had been hurting her and she needed to finish her thesis. So I went out and did the Jewish tour (here is an itinerary that roughly matches the tour I did), which was one of the four free walking tours offered in the city. The tour was great, a little long (3 hours), but not complaints.

The famous Budapest Parliament. I ran into it on my way over to the walking tour

At one point on the tour I was sitting on a curb and there was this crazy little dog running all around the square, seemingly without an owner. Aw, how cute. I called the little guy over and pet him for a second... and then the little bugger stole my map! He just...grabbed it, played tug-a-war with me for a moment, ripped it out of my hands and ran off. Thankfully the guide had an extra, otherwise I'm not sure how I would have gotten home.

The largest synagogue in Europe, second largest in the world.
Sadly I didn't get a chance to go in, but it looked great from the
Dohany Street Synagogue 

Another memorial behind the synagogue, on each leaf is the name of a Jew that died during the war 
WWII memorials behind the synagogue 
Carl Lutz monument: a Swiss diplomat who is said to have saved the lived of 62,000 jews during the Holocaust  
Murals all over the Jewish Quarter:

One of the remaining Soviet housing blocks, nearly falling apart. Since it's state-owned, no one has the incentive to restore it, but it's so cheap no one wants to move out. 
By the time the tour ended it was already dark and I walked back to the hostel by the Danube river, and it was amazing, the city is absolutely gorgeous at night. It took me forever to get back because I kept stopping to stare at the lit-up buildings.

I got back around 7:30 where the hostel served us free dinne, but not before giving each of us a shot of Palinka, a traditional Hungarian fruit brandy. Apparently you drink it before a meal to increase your appetite. Everyone hated it but me, honestly I thought it wasn't that bad. My Polish was showing.

After than we just sat around the table and talked for a while with some of the people we met at the hostel. Sitting around a hostel table laughing with random strangers you just met and will probably never see again... it was good.

There were a surprising number of Australians (just a quick note: they told me pasta sandwiches are just as weird to them as they are to me, just by the way, so it's not completely an Australian thing). We walked around the city with one of the Australians we met that night. Breath. Taking. (The city, I mean, not the Aussie).

Despite all the good stuff, though, the first night in the hostel was rough. There was some sort of a party just under our window and I couldn't fall asleep. Around two in the morning (and keep in mind we hadn't slept much up until that point) I was so desperate to sleep I went to the front desk to ask if there was any way I could move rooms just for the night. She was nice enough to put me in their private room (which I'm sure was against regulation). She made up the bed for me and everything. It would have been great, but outside of that window there was some sort of loud dripping/knocking sound which was just as bad as the party. At three in the morning I gave up, took my covers back to the first room and was relieved to hear that the party was over. Then about two seconds later one of the guys started snoring. Aw hell no. If I hadn't been so tired I would have cried. In my desperation I may or may not have tried to wake him up by rumpling a plastic bag he had put near his pillow. Maybe. I will not confirm nor deny. In the end I don't think I got to sleep until 4:00 am.

So inevitably the next day I was tired (surprise surprise), but I was ready to see the city. Before I left France, one of my roommates had contacted a friend she has in Budapest. He offered to meet up with us and show us around for a couple of hours. He was so so so nice. We climbed up the hills on the Buda side where you get an amazing view of the city and the river, and then he took us to his university (which, fun fact, is where the 1956 revolution started), and then we ate lunch together in the university cantine  (basically an under-priced cafeteria) which smelled like my grandma's house.

After that we took a bath.

The running joke in Budapest is that if you dig a hole, you'll find thermal waters. The city is known for it's "baths" which are basically thermal pools/spas. There are a lot to choose from, we decided on the Gellert Baths, which isn't the best bath, but was one of the only places we could find that would rent out swimsuits. Yes, yes, it's kind of gross, but we had no choice. The lady didn't seem to care much about getting the size right, she just sort of chucked one at me after looking me up and down. The suits were... thin, and not the best at covering everything that needed to be covered. It was fine, though, as long as we were in the water. Getting out was a bit tricky though.

But pre-worn swimming suits aside, the baths were amazing. We floated around for what must have been about two and a half hours. it was a great way to just relax and let the healing waters do whatever it is healing waters do. I would have loved to go back the next day. And the day after that.

On the way back from the baths we walked through a market where I paid a few thousand for scarves (I never got used to paying in thousands), we got some stuff for dinner (soup and canned beans which was our staple for the first half of the trip), and we headed back to the hostel. Afterwords Chelsea stayed in while I went to the nightly light/fountain show in Margaret Park. It was calm, relatively small, well put-together but unpretentious. I'm not sure why, but it was one of my favorite moments of the trip.

The third day was another early one as we took a day trip to Vienna, but I'll make that a separate post.

On the fourth and last day we had rotten weather, it poured all day long. We walked along Andrassy Street which is known as the "Champs Elysee" of Budapest. To be honest it wasn't anything special. At the end of the street there is a cool-ish looking square (Hero's square) and the museum of agriculture. We were wet and miserable so we took refuge in one of the oddest museums I've ever been to. It was some sort of a sound museum, where we walked through mostly-empty rooms while listening to weird humming noises. I don't recommend it.

Museum of Agriculture
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By the time we came back home my shoes were totally soaked, and I had resorted to putting my feet in plastic bags. The lady at the hostel gave me a look of pure pity and offered to see if there were any extra shoes lying around in the back, but I said I was okay. (This was not the last time during the trip I would be looked at like a hobo's puppy.)

Then we went caving, which was really fun. (although not recommended for people with claustrophobia.) Unfortunately I didn't bring my camera with me because I was scared it would be crushed, as there were a lot of tight squeezes, but I found this video of a girl doing the same tour (I think), so it'll give you a general idea.

We had a hilarious little Hungarian as a guide who liked to swear and talk about butts. We started off the tour by going down a ladder into the caves, and then we stood in front of a tiny hole. Were we seriously going to try to fit ourselves through that? The guide looked at us, "follow me." Pause. Then he had what looked like a seizure and leaped through the tiny hole. We all stared at each other, a little confused. "Come on, hurry up!" He shouted from the other side. And so through the hole we went, and another, and another.

That lasted about two and a half hours. It's obviously very touristy, something any real caver would laugh at and do in 10 minutes, but it was worth it.

Our last morning in Budapest was fantastic. We didn't have to leave until early afternoon, so we had a long breakfast and spent a few hours hanging out with a very "bogan" Aussie (according to Chelsea) and an Italian (who was from the south and really did talk with his hands). I was sad to go, I think I left a little bit of my heart in Budapest, it's definitely somewhere I want to go back to.

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