Category Archives: Budapest

Budapest At Last

With our arrival into Budapest, the city in which our six-week journey began, came the sad notion that in three days it’d all be over and I’d be heading back to the U.S.

Our train rolled into the station at about 8:20am.  The same station that had been chilly and dusted with snow when last we saw it was now warm and dry, bathed in the morning light of spring.  It’s amazing the difference four weeks can make.

The first order of business was to get to our flat.  Our last Budapest apartment had been on the north end of Pest, near Margit Island, and I was hoping to be near there again to revisit our old stomping grounds.  This new place, while still in Pest, was a little further south.  I was just a tiny bit disappointed by this news until we got there and saw that it was directly on the Danube, across from Gellért Hill.

I could definitely get used to leaving my apartment and looking at the Danube every morning.

Opening the door to this every day? Yes please.

We were shown inside by the Russian landlord, who spoke as little English as we did Russian (or Hungarian, for that matter).  Somehow the language barrier was overcome, he bid us good day, and we were left to settle in to our new, albeit extremely temporary, abode.

Budapest, hayyyyy!!

After a round of showers, we hit the streets.  Jim had to see about a Hungarian SIM card for his phone (since he’d be staying another week or so after I’d leave), so he went to do that and I wandered the little street fair happening nearby.  The little row of stalls was book-ended by kürtőskalács stands that I wisely resisted (for reasons I’ll explain later).

Jim finished up his SIM card business and joined me in my wandering.  We stopped at our beloved Hummus Bar for falafel sandwiches, and ate them on a park bench in the sunshine, and then wandered some more.  Technically I’d now been to Budapest three times, and yet this was the first time I got to experience it in something other than bitter winter cold.  Appropriately enough, I was just beginning to revel in this realization when we wandered straight into the Budapest Spring Festival.

Complete with music!

What made this an even more amazing happenstance discovery was the fact that this was the very square upon which we stumbled back in December 2005, when we were exhausted, famished, and frozen to the bone.  We had walked fruitless miles in search of a Mongolian BBQ place in Buda only to be turned away, and by the time we crossed the river we were in extremely sad shape.  Turned the corner and– surprise!– a Christmas festival was going full-swing.  The air was alive with music and the smell of delicious food being cooked on grills in mass quantities.  It was the most fortuitous, magical thing.  Now, we got to repeat the experience of stumbling unawares onto a seasonal festival, on the very same square, but in lighter spirits and with better weather.  Full circle!

The Spring Festival egg, symbolizing the fertility of the season. Anyone can draw on it!

We heartily partook in some local delicacies…

…and politely declined some others.

At this point in the day, we’d already exhausted our second and third winds, and decided to walk the short distance back to the flat, rest up a bit, and return to the fair for dinner.  Rest we did– we slept on until dark.  Consequently, when we finally awoke neither of us felt like going out, but we also didn’t have any food at home.  If we wanted to eat, we couldn’t avoid leaving the flat.

So we walked back to the fair.  It was a gorgeous evening, only requiring a light jacket, and off in the western sky, the moon’s forecasted dalliance with Jupiter and Venus was taking shape.

The cosmic ballet goes on…

The difference between the daytime festival and the nighttime one was palpable.  The daytime festival had a relaxed feel, with musing tourists casually scoping out peasant shirts and jewelry to the inviting sounds of Hungarian folk music.  The nighttime festival’s vibe was louder and edgier, and the folk music was replaced with something a little more mainstream (think American hits from the ’80s & ’90s but sung in Hungarian).  Ordering food was downright chaotic.  You wait in one of several lines and a cook asks you what you want.  You say all the things– or, you shout them, because there are twenty cooks and they’re all taking orders and everyone is shouting.   Once they get your order, they put it all on a plate and set it next to the cashier, amid the dozens of other plates belonging to the people loosely aligned in front of you.  Because things are moving so quickly, plates get grabbed out of turn all the time.  Add a language barrier to the mix and it’s mayhem.  The guy in front of me was Italian and ordering for himself and the four other members of his family.  He got some of his plates, but some had gotten grabbed by other cashiers and had to be remade.  Then he tried to pay in euro when the stand only accepted forint.  And he didn’t speak Hungarian and they didn’t speak Italian and neither party spoke much English.  Eventually they directed him to an ATM and he left, suitably apologetic, to go fetch the correct currency.  I took my plate and paid without incident, relieved beyond words to be done with the whole experience.

Jim joined me with a couple of Sopranis, which I’d developed a fondness for, and we ate our food and drank our beer and tapped our toes to the Hungarian lyrics of “Tainted Love”.  It was different, but it was fun.

On the way home, we felt a feeling that we hadn’t had since Prague: the feeling of Oh my God, what did we eat and why did we eat so much of it??  It turns out that we had officially crossed the threshold into a land where there is such a thing as too much sausage and potatoes.  Up until this point, I had excused our indulgences with a wave of my hand and a “When in Rome…”, but now it was becoming apparent that we were going to die in Rome if we didn’t knock it off.

*          *          *

The next morning, I woke up and walked around our neighborhood in search of coffee.  I found a cafe on Vací Ut that served Segofredo, but not very well.  Resigned, I took the coffees and reported back to our flat.  Jim had been keeping up a job this entire time and needed to spend a portion of the day dedicated to work.  I decided that I would work, too; I grabbed my ukulele and headed back to Vací to do some busking.

Vací Ut is the posh shopping street, just inland from the Danube on the Pest side.  Toward the southern end, the H&Ms and the New Yorkers fade into cafes and restaurants.  I picked an empty storefront (my usual M.O., since people seem less likely to mind) and set up camp.  As I launched into “Dear Prudence”, I recalled my Polish tour guide friend who reminded me that the Polish were a sad people and wanted sad songs.  I hoped that Hungary was a little less morose.

One thing I love about busking, more than anything, is watching people.  As I was singing one song, two bro-ish dudes were passing by and one feigned kicking my tip jar over.  In my head, I made a mental note of them (“Beware the bro in the blue shirt”), and they walked on and disappeared into the crowd.  An hour or so later, they returned, and I kept my eye on Blue Shirt Bro in case he wanted to kick and not miss this time.  Instead, he threw some money in the jar.  Instant redemption.

Another great moment involved an Indian man and his maybe 5-year-old little boy.  They walked past me slowly, and the little boy stopped directly in front of me and just stared, awestruck.  His father, unaware, kept walking.  After 20 paces or so, dad realized his son had fallen behind and called for him.  The boy turned toward his dad, with exasperation all over his face, and gestured toward me as if to say, “Dad, clearly I am busy watching this.”  This happened three times before the dad had to walk over and take his son by the hand to lead him away.

At one point, a Hungarian couple approached me, because the man was curious to know what I was playing.  His English was on par with my Hungarian, so there was a lot of gesturing involved.  He ultimately ended up calling the ukulele my “kicsi guitar”; “kicsi” being Hungarian for “little”.  I’ve lovingly referred to my uke as such ever since.

As daylight was beginning to fade, I was beginning to fade as well.  Just about the time I was thinking of packing it in, two girls came and sat down to listen.  Well, I thought, I’ve got to keep going now.  So I kept playing, in between talking with them.  One of the girls was from Germany, and she bought a CD.

After another half hour or so, I packed it in.  Dusk was coaxing the streetlights awake, and Jim was at a cafe nearby awaiting my arrival.  I grabbed up my things and made my way to him.  We had a beer to celebrate our productive day, and then went home so I could count my winnings.

Ka-ching!

*          *          *

The next morning, we got up and out of the flat in search of breakfast.  It was my last day in Budapest– my last day in all of Europe– and we wanted to spend it doing some Budapest-y things we’d never done before.  First item of the day was to be breakfast, which we ultimately couldn’t find.  So we wound up back at the Spring Festival, eyeing up the kürtőskalács that I had resisted earlier.  The reason?  Each one was easily a pound of pastry.  After some deliberation, we opted to split one, and in retrospect it’s ridiculous that we even had to think about it.

SERIOUSLY.

We couldn’t finish it so I put it in my bag for later.  The plan after that was to bum around the festival for a couple hours, and then hike up Gellért Hill, see what that was like, and make the hike back down to the Gellért Spa just in time for their prices to go down.

The hike up was lovely.  The woods were giddy with springtime, all chirping birds and buzzing insects, with the sun dancing playfully behind the budding trees.

Spring is here!

St. Gellért, for whom the hill is named, is credited with bringing Christianity to Hungary.

The view from the hill.

We made it to the top without too much effort, although the consequences of all that sausage-and-potato livin’ was making itself known.  It felt good to walk up a hill.  Of course, it helps when the top of the hill has this:

The Liberty Monument was erected in 1947 to commemorate the defeat of the Nazis by the Soviets. Originally a Soviet soldier stood at the base of it, but after the fall of Communism, the soldier was removed and taken to Statue Park.

The top of Gellért Hill was populated with kissy-faced teenagers and tourist groups, all lolling about together in the lazy sunshine.  We perused the souvenir shops (I was eyeing up Hungarian folk dresses for my infant niece, which I ultimately decided against) and we contemplated buying admission into the Citadel until we checked the time and decided it was time to head down the hill to the Spa instead.

The view on the way down. The cross is the Cave Church, which we visited with Sarah.

Since gravity was working with us this time, we ended up making it to the bottom of the hill way sooner than expected.  The prices drop at 5pm, and we still had twenty minutes to kill.  The Spa is part of the Gellért Hotel, which also features a cafe, so the logical decision was to grab a coffee and sit on the patio.  For some reason, we couldn’t sit on the patio, so we sat inside a dining room that was decidedly Cupcake-Palace-esque, all pink with gold accents everywhere.  I ordered a cream pastry, which I’d wanted to do ever since Jim ordered one at Ruszwurm.

Eating healthy is for suckers.

Perhaps the most enjoyable thing about the cafe, besides the pastry, was the piano player.  An older gentleman with graying hair, he was clearly used to the high-tea set who pay little attention to the ambient music, and he was very clearly enjoying himself nonetheless.  I was entertained by his patent amusement, and once he noticed me noticing, he would wink or cock an overly theatrical eyebrow in my direction every so often.  Occasionally I would recognize the tune (“Piano Man” by Billy Joel was one of them) and I’d start singing along in between bites of pastry; this would elicit a head nod or a fleeting smile.  After a few tunes, we had finished our afternoon snack and got up to make our way to the spa.  The piano man nodded to us as we walked past him to exit.  He never said a word.

We headed into the hotel lobby, and went to buy spa tickets.  Jim had practiced what to say in Hungarian, which the lady at the desk answered with more Hungarian, which we answered with blank stares (this was actually a really common problem everywhere we went; in an attempt to speak the local language, we were often mistaken as native speakers.  The actual native speakers would become aware of this after talking for a couple minutes and watching our faces go blank, and they’d have to answer us in English anyway, which was what we set out to avoid in the first place.  Best-laid plans and all that…. but I digress).  After the lady explained in English that the spa would be closing early today, we were handed our entry bracelets, which looked like watches with no faces.  The bracelets allowed you to enter the turnstyle into the locker rooms, and they were also the key to your locker, which I absolutely could not figure out until some kind German girls showed me how to get it to work.

The baths were pleasant.  We stayed mostly in the thermal bath, although occasionally, just for perspective, I’d run into the cool effervescent baths for a quick moment.  It was nice to take it easy on my last day, and nicer still to be able to cross off “Gellért Baths” on our list of Things We’ve Done In Budapest.

After we dried up and headed out, we had an hour or so before our dinner reservation, so we strolled across the river, passing the last of the kürtőskalács between us.  Dinner was going to be interesting.  Remember Fat Thursday?  Well, Budapest was at it again.  In honor of Restaurant Week (seriously, I love the Hungarians), a whole list of restaurants was offering a fixed-price three-course meal for the US equivalent of $15.  Most of the restaurants from Fat Thursday were again represented during Restaurant Week, so we were eager to get a second chance to try one out.  We settled on Kárpátia, based on three criteria:

  1. It was the kind of stuffy, upscale place we would never go to, especially if we had to pay full price.
  2. It promised authentic Hungarian fare, accompanied by live gypsy music.
  3. I really liked the name.

We arrived with our reservation confirmation in hand (because without it, you don’t get the prix-fixe– they’re sneaky like that).  We were sat in what I presume was the Restaurant Week section, where the view to the music was obstructed by the pillars that separated us from the rest of the place.  No matter.  We ordered beers and perused the menu.  I had a little crisis because the main course I wanted (trout caught from Lake Balaton, with vegetable pearls in a cream sauce) came with an appetizer that featured veal.

Now, here’s the deal.  I’d never eaten veal before, and already knew I objected to the eating of baby animals who never had a chance to have a real life.  But I ordered it anyway.  Part of me was like, “You should try everything once before you decide you hate it”, and who knew– maybe I’d realize it was unbelievably delicious and the widespread eating of veal would suddenly make sense to me.  I secretly knew that wouldn’t happen, but whatever.  I ordered it anyway.

When it came out, it was presented with a steaming side of shame.  I tried it, and it was good, but not good like “I-would-kill-all-baby-animals-if-they-were-this-delicious” good.  And the shame kind of ruined it for me.  Growing up in Wisconsin, I’d seen little calves tied up in their dog kennels, forced to do nothing so their muscles remain tender enough to make it in the veal market.  So there you have it, the first and last time I’ll ever eat veal.

Moving on to the trout with vegetable pearls, which was what I was truly after:

Right?  YUM.

While we ate, the gypsies were going from table to table, taking requests.  Someone requested the habanera from Carmen, someone else requested the Blue Danube.  At one point, Jim leaned over and said, “You see what they’re doing, right?”

The gypsies would play the requested song, and then wait at the table for a tip.  This, for whatever reason, made me feel really awkward.  Perhaps it was because I suddenly felt like prey; once they spotted you and came to your table, you were obligated to suggest a song, and then obligated to pay for it.  I just wanted to enjoy my last night in town, with my boyfriend, and no social obligations.  Besides, I couldn’t for the life of me decide what song I would request.  Consequently, we tried to make ourselves as invisible as possible, and it worked.  We finished our meal, paid our bill, and left without incident.

So Kárpátia wasn’t the greatest.  It was good, though, and that was enough.  And, like Gellért Spa, we could now cross it off our list.

We ambled back to our flat, looked at the planetary conjunction, headed inside.  I finished up my packing and we stayed up way too late, because neither of us wanted it to be over.

*          *          *

The next morning, I would have to get up at 5:15am in order to catch the metro that would take me to the bus that would take me to the airport.  Jim would accompany me until check-in, and then he’d stay behind in Budapest for another week, before moving on to Milan.

Leaving is never easy, and leaving your love behind is harder still.  As the plane took off from Ferihegy Airport, I could see the Danube from my window, and the monuments and buildings of central Budapest.  I found Gellért Hill, and thus the approximate location of our flat.  I saw all the places that were so huge in my memory, now just tiny toy replicas below.  Jim’s down there somewhere, I thought, as I settled in for the short ride to London.

I suffered the same harrowing misfortunes coming back through Heathrow as I did the first time around, but this time, because of a baggage issue, I actually had to clear customs in order to re-claim my carry-on (that is a really long story involving a lot of hysterical crying on the part of yours truly, so we’ll skip it for now).  The bright side of that, besides the fact that I made my connection even after having to claim entry into and out of the UK, is that I got an extra stamp in my passport.  Hooray!!

*          *          *

And there you have it.  Six weeks of wandering (and eating and drinking) through central and eastern Europe.  It was an amazing experience, unlike anything I’ve ever done before, and I couldn’t have done it without the support of my life-partner-in-crime, my parents, my sister and bro-in-law, all the wonderful people who came to my going-away house concert, and the awesome folks we connected with once we were abroad.  This is your story as much as mine, so thank you.  For everything. 🙂

Until the next adventure, this is Ramble On, signing off-

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szia budapest

SATURDAY

With Sarah in town, it felt like a little bit of Portland had made its way to Budapest.  That feeling was compounded when we woke up on Saturday with the undeniable urge to go to brunch and found Most Bistro.

PDX in Budapest

From the moment we walked in the door and saw the lobby walls papered with black-and-white images of audio cassette tapes, we knew we had found our people.  The tables were mismatched, the walls were covered with abstract works of art, and everyone in the place was sub-30 and very hipster-looking.  Bloody marys and mimosas were offered up alongside omelettes, eggs Benedict, and a list of indulgent French toast variations.  And the soundtrack upon our arrival was Gotan Project’s rendition of “Paris, Texas”, followed by a Clancy Brothers tune.  Hallelujah.

This is what I had.

After brunch, in true Portland spirit, the next item on the agenda was a gastronomical festival taking place at Erzsébet Square, called Gőzölgő.  There were various food items available, but given the fact that we just ate an enormous brunch, and given that we were still hugely addicted to the forralt bor, we opted to drink instead.

There’s hot wine in that mug

A couple mugs of forralt bor later, we decided we did have to indulge in one food item we found: Kürtőskalács, or chimney cakes.  If anyone reading this has seen my Pinterest page, you’ll recognize this pastry as something I decided early on that I needed to try.  Pastry dough is rolled into a long, thin rope, and then wrapped around a wooden spindle and roasted until the outside becomes brown.  Then it’s brushed with butter and rolled around in any number of coatings; on this occasion, we chose one vanilla and one cinnamon to split between the three of us.  And oh man, was it delicious!  The wooden spindle ensures that the inside of the pastry hovers on just the right side of under-done, which complements the crispy outer side extremely well.

As it turns out, after the brunch we had just come away from, two kürtőskalács between the three of us was something of a feat of strength, but we triumphed.  Feeling rather hedonistic at this point, we left the festival grounds to go for a walk, and made it about half a mile before we found a place to stop and have a beer.

The rest of the day continued on like so, with some walking and sight-seeing, and then stopping for beer or coffee.  We ended up walking through the tourist-trap part of Pest, which I’d recognized from our first trip because of the H&M– at that time, it was a familiar landmark to which I could desperately cling, but this time around I found myself annoyed at all the commerce going on around me.  We pressed on, heading south, to Central Kavéház for some Weiner Mélange and decadent pastries (which I neglected to photograph, but Sarah ordered a giant macaron that looked like a raspberry hamburger, for what that’s worth).  Dinner that night was at a place called Vörös Postakocsi, which promised more Fat Thursday prices but failed to deliver, and none of us was up to the task of challenging the bill in our extremely limited Hungarian.

SUNDAY

Sunday was a day of work for Jim, so Sarah and I decided to hit the town.  Originally we had hoped to see an opera, but when we went to the ticket office, the cheapest seats were around US $37.  Not outrageous, mind you, but a far cry from the US $2.50 we were aiming for.  So instead we decided to pub crawl our way back to the neighborhood in the hopes that Jim would be finished working by then.  The first place we stopped at was called B City Bar, where the walls were plastered with movie star memorabilia.  The featured work of art in the room where we sat was a rendition of the Last Supper, wherein Jesus was replaced by Brad Pitt, and the apostles were likes of Marilyn Monroe, Robert Deniro, Al Pacino, etc.

At some point we went from not having any idea where we were to arriving at the main drag where we knew exactly where we were and how to get home.  So, not yet ready to call it a day, we turned down a side street and headed away from the apartment.  We were looking for another pub, but we came to a tea house instead, and went inside.

We were greeted by the distinct and inviting aromas of nag champa incense mixed with various teas, and a giant mural of the Himalayan mountains on the far wall.  Apparently it was a special day, because the place was packed. We ordered the “Advent Tea” because its description contained the most Hungarian words I could understand (narancs, ananász, etc.), all of which sounded delicious.  And it was.

The picture’s kind of dark, but that’s a tiny mug of honey

After our relaxing tea session, a woman with a friendly face, who was perhaps near 50 if I had to guess, came up to our table.  She spoke a decent amount of English and asked us if we wouldn’t mind coming over to where her and her colleague were sitting.

“You see,” she said, “today is a very special day in this place, and we are offering re-energizing service to everyone.  But there is someone who has been sitting there a long time, and if you come with me, we can say ‘Oh, sorry, these girls would like to sit down now’ and maybe he will leave.”  Sarah and I looked at each other, nodded, and grabbed our coats to go be re-energized.

We were seated  back-to-back, and given energized water to drink.  The woman working on Sarah spoke no English whatsoever, so the first woman, whose name was Valerie, became the interpreter.  We chatted during the whole session, which involved a wand being waved in circles above each of our chakras; she asked if we were students and we said no, to which she reacted with some surprise since, as she put it, “Hungary is a small country and not a lot of people know it is here.”  She seemed extremely pleased that we were just there to visit, which pleased me in return.

As the session was drawing to a close, Valerie was summing up what the effects of the energizing process would be. “Tonight, if you are up at 3am, you will think of us!”

We thanked her and paid for our tea, and left to go back to the apartment, thoroughly charmed by our experience.  Our plan was to collect Jim and go to dinner.  After a brief internet search, our choice destination was the Old Man’s Music Pub, not only because of the menu but because they stream their live music online in real time.  We could hear that the band for the night, Mojo Workings, was just getting tuned up, so we refreshed ourselves and headed out.

The Old Man’s Music Pub is down in the basement of the building, and when we arrived, Mojo Workings was in full swing.  It’s a group comprised of three men– a rhythm guitarist, a lead guitarist, and a harmonica player– who all wear the same hats and who sing American blues with adorably thick Hungarian accents.  I was in love from the first moment I heard the harmonica.  One of the songs they performed, “Chevrolet”, has since become an integral part of the soundtrack of this trip.

Sadly, Mojo Workings packed it in before our food came, and a DJ took over.  We ended up hanging out there all night, and when it got to be 2:30am on our walk home and we were still in high spirits, I thought of Valerie and her colleague.

MONDAY

The bummy thing about staying up past 3am is that the next day is guaranteed to be a late one.  We didn’t wake up until almost noon, and our plan was to go to Castle Hill because it would be Sarah’s only chance to see it.  However, Most Bistro had re-awakened our brunch lust, so the first item on the agenda was food at Cafe Brios.  The food was good, so good in fact that we opted for breakfast dessert in the form of Nutella-stuffed French toast and fruit.  Finom.

From Cafe Brios, we headed down the river to the Chain Bridge, and did and saw many of the same things we did the first time.  The exception this time around was a stop at Ruszwurm, the oldest pastry shop in Budapest, and with good reason.

After our indulgent afternoon on Castle Hill, we decided to head south on the Buda side to the Cave Church, a Pauline establishment that was walled up during the Communist occupation.  Though I’m not religious by any stretch, I have an historical appreciation for the impact of religion on Western history, particularly as it pertains to wherever I am at the time.  Thus I found the Cave Church wildly fascinating, especially since it’s only been reopened for two decades, since the end of Communism.  There is a guided tour that leads you by headphone set through the caves, past a host of statues and relics, and gives you the story of each in delightful accented English.  By the time we finished the tour, it was dark outside.  We thanked the man who was handling admissions and souvenirs and headed back to our apartment, at the end of the day, for one last time.

Thus ended the Budapest portion of the trip (though I’ll be back at the end of the journey in order to fly back to the States).  We left the next morning, by train, to head to Prague.  I’m excited to get to know Prague, and visit the Czech Republic (or, as I’ve affectionately dubbed it, the Mother Country).  What I know right now is that Budapest has captured my heart; the people are friendly, and the city is magnificent without being heavily trod.  It’s a city to which I never thought I’d go a first time, but I find myself immensely thankful that circumstance allowed me to come again.

Szia Budapest!  Ahoj Prague!

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fun with sarah

Sarah’s here!

Sarah just got off a plane

She’s a stronger woman than I, because when I got into town, I immediately wanted to nap.  She opted to stay awake, so we stopped at the Tesco to get more forralt bor stuffs (it’s seriously becoming an addiction), and went to the apartment to make the wine and drop off her bags.

If drinking forralt bor every day is wrong, I don't want to be right.

The wine went into the thermos, and we took the thermos to Margit Island to enjoy the afternoon sunshine (and the unbelievable 50°F).  We didn’t get time to explore the Island really, since there was wine and sun to be enjoyed, but we did see the Centennial Monument.

The Centennial Monument

Wine and sunshine, as it turns out, do not mix well with jet-lag, so in an effort to keep our companion alive and with us, we moved on to our lunch destination: Marxim Pizzeria.

Having been to Statue Park and the Terror House, I found myself hesitant to fully enjoy Marxim at first.  I mean, everything I’d experienced up til this point solidified in my head the idea that Communism wasn’t funny.  And it wasn’t.  But I can appreciate dark humor and camp as much as anyone, so in short order I checked my guilt at the door.  And thank heavens, because this place is hilarious.

For one thing, the booths are lined with chicken fencing and barbed wire.

Working for the state of inebriation

Then there were the menus.

Not pictured: my selection, "Gagarin's Favourite", with smoked cheese and broccoli. (Just guess which one Jim ordered)

And then there’s just the overall aesthetic of the place.

And finally, there was the pizza, although in the throes of our revelry I completely forgot to take pictures of it.  But it was delicious.  And, true to the spirit of the place, we all shared.

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Fat Thursday

This is a story about the greatest holiday I’ve ever experienced abroad: Fat Thursday.

It was something we’d read about on multiple travel websites, and knew we wanted to explore when the time came.  Before feeding our bellies, however, we wanted to feed our minds.  We decided that meant a visit to the Museum of Fine Arts, which involved a trip on the Metro 1 (yellow), the oldest line in Budapest’s underground transport system and the second-oldest underground transport in the world (after the Tube in London).  Riding it, with the jovial musical interludes that play on arrival at any stop as well as the flashing lights and loud buzzing sounds that occur as the doors close, feels a bit like riding a skeeball machine through town.  Definitely an experience.

Coming up from the Hősök tere station, we finally got to see Heroes’ Square.

Heroes' Square

We agreed to give it a longer look after we partook in some fine arts, and headed into the Museum.  It costs 1800 Ft per person to get into the permanent exhibit (we opted to skip Mummies Uncovered), but the woman at the counter only charged us for one admission.  Upon further review, it seems that 50% admission is given to European citizens under the age of 26, which means that a) our language skills don’t immediately betray us as Americans, and b) we look younger than 26.  Woo!

We happened into the Museum just as a free tour (in English!) was beginning, but we could only manage to stay with the tour for the first few paintings before we felt the need to venture on our own.  We meandered for a few hours, exchanging opinions on different works of art (Monet vs. Gauguin, why people pre-Renaissance couldn’t paint a decent pair of boobs, etc), before we felt we’d seen everything and were ready to get some fresh air.  We were also starting to get hungry at this point, which brings us to Fat Thursday.

so hungry...

Fat Thursday is similar to Mardi Gras, wherein leftover food from the Carnival season is feasted upon in anticipation of the fasting that will take place during Lent.  It exists in many countries throughout Europe, but the Hungarians go the extra mile by involving the Board of Tourism and offering 50% off your final bill at an extensive list of participating restaurants.  Jim had a copy of the list stored in his phone, which we consulted as we wandered through the city.  We had neglected to make reservations, so we crossed our fingers and hoped for fortune to smile upon us.  Our first stop was the First Strudel House of Pest.

We were seated, after a few moments of confusion, at a two-seat table right next to the man who makes the strudels.  In fact, he was probably three feet away from us, if not closer, and separated only by a piece of glass.

The Strudel Man is in the background, and that's as far away as he ever got from us.

We had originally intended to eat here, but the feeling we got from the staff was that we were just ahead of the Fat Thursday dinner rush, who presumably had the foresight to make reservations, so we opted for coffees and strudel in an effort to be quick.  Besides, being a mere few feet away from the Strudel Man as he worked had a disconcerting, zoo-like quality to it, and eating a full meal would’ve felt… uncomfortable.  So we settled our bill (two coffees and two strudels for US $3.50) and moved on.

Strudel Man does make a damn good strudel

After departing, we wandered in the general direction of home, aware of places that were participating in Fat Thursday but not really getting our hopes up about being able to participate ourselves.  Luckily, we happened by a cafeteria-style Indian place, Ganga, that was offering a full vegetarian dinner for US $3.50 in celebration of the “holiday”.

Three cheers for Fat Thursday!

Full of coffee, strudel, and now Indian food, we walked back to the apartment in a gustatory euphoria, glad to have been able to partake in such a glorious tradition.

THE STORY OF THE DARING LAUNDROMAT ESCAPE:                                                                         

One of the things I learned while packing for a six-week adventure is that it is absolutely ludicrous to attempt to pack six weeks’ worth of things to wear, which means that doing laundry, and hence finding a laundromat, is imperative.  Google informed us that there was a laundromat near-ish our apartment, which was fully outfitted with high-capacity washers and dryers, vending machines, coffee, internet, and a play place for children.  It closes at 10pm.  We finally had all our things gathered and were ready to leave by 9pm, which didn’t leave a lot of time in which to get it all done, but we figured we could at least get the stuff washed and deal with air-drying it or something later on.  We made some forralt bor, threw it in a thermos, and were on our way.

The laundromat was very hip and funky, and totally unmanned.  We put our load in, set the washer to its task, and settled in with our mugs of wine.  After the wash, we purchased ten minutes of drying time.  At this point, closing time was nigh, and we knew it, but we carried on.  As our ten minutes of dry time winded down, suddenly the front door (and, incidentally, the only door) made a very loud locking sound.  Jim and I exchanged glances, then said, “….Nahhhh.”

The dryer wouldn’t let us buy more time, it being 10pm at this point, so we started emptying our damp things into our bag.  Then the lights went out, and so did the internet kiosk (although the radio, for whatever reason, remained on).  We got the hint and packed faster.  Finally we were suited up and ready to leave, and went to do so… and the door wouldn’t open.  We pulled and pulled.  Nothing.  We were in a laundromat, in near-total darkness, with Hungarian radio playing overhead, and we couldn’t get out.

While Jim set to inspecting the mechanism of the door lock and how it might be taken apart, I went over to the play area and noticed a latch on the window.  One weak pull (mine) and one strong pull (Jim’s) and it swung wide open.  Freedom!  We hopped out the window, pausing in dismay at the realization that there was no way to close the window behind us, but ultimately deciding that it was the laundromat’s fault for locking us in.  We walked back home, mugs of wine still in hand, giggling hysterically at what had just happened and hugely relieved that we didn’t have to sleep on a laundromat couch and subsist on vending machine food.

Next post: Sarah’s here!

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sarah’s here!

We just fetched Miss Sarah from the airport, and we’ve gotten back to the apartment.  Forralt bor is on the make while we decide what to do with the afternoon.

Yesterday was Fat Thursday and Jim and I did some legitimate touring, so I’ll have pics and stories (including our heroic after-hours escape from an unmanned laundromat) coming soon.

half-hearted wanderings

Part of me is glad that, if we were going to have to be sick for any segment of this trip, it’s while we’re in the city we’ve previously visited.  On the other hand, our half-hearted wanderings don’t make for very interesting travel-blogging.  But we still try.

I hadn’t gotten to sleep until nearly 5am Monday, and so I slept in until about 11:30am.  My one order of business was to make it to a music store and get a microphone cable, since I’d meant to bring mine from the U.S. but cleverly grabbed a 1/4″ cable by mistake.  After some Google Map research, I decided the most likely place to have what I needed was Tajti-Music, near our old stomping grounds on Károly Körút.  Another preliminary search showed that the Hungarian phrase for “microphone cable” is “mikrofon kábel”.  Score!

So we walked there, went in, and found what I needed.  My tiny victory of the day was saying “mikrofon kábel” with such stunning accuracy that the man behind the counter answered back with a lengthy stream of Hungarian.  The blank stare I offered in response tipped him off to the fact that I had no idea what he had just said, which somewhat diminished my tiny victory, but without missing a beat he simply repeated what he’d said in English, which was to ask me what length I needed.  The rest of the transaction proceeded without incident, and in minutes we were ready for the next destination, which was– what else?– coffee.

Jim knew where he wanted to go, and led me down some adorable side streets to get there.  Before long, we came to a café that had some top-notch signs.

Donuts + rum. every. damn. day.

Speaks for itself, really.

As it turns out, this place with the awesome advertisements, Cafe Gerlóczy, was the exact place Jim was taking me to.  The signage belies the swank factor of the interior, which was decorated with marble and plants and lots of dark wood.  We sat down and took a look at the menu.  Jim went with the “tea menu”, which inexplicably involved no tea– rather, it was a choice of hot or cold chocolate, accompanied by pistachio cake and some kind of cream sauce.  I snapped a pic of his hot chocolate but the cake was gone before I could document it (I did get a bite, though– finom!).

Commence diabetic coma.

I went with a less indulgent pairing: café latte and a macaron.  I’ve been hearing the virtues of proper French macarons extolled with increasing frequency over the last few months, and once I saw that I had the opportunity to try one, I couldn’t say no.  Merci à Dieu that I didn’t, because it arrived on my latté saucer like a shy little ruby-encrusted secret.  How enchanting.

Enchantée, mon chèr.

After we were sufficiently indulged, it was time to walk a bit more.  We decided to hoof it over to Andrássy Út, Budapest’s biggest avenue and a World Heritage site.  My original intention was to walk to the end and see Heroes’ Square and City Park, but the avenue is quite long and so we never made it that far.  We did, however, take a gander at the lobby of the Opera House.

If the price list is to be believed, the lowest-tier opera ticket costs about US $2.50. We may have to see an opera while we're here.

After that, we continued on.  A few more blocks down the way, we came across a familiar site.

Terror House. Enough said.

Behold the Terror House, located at the former headquarters of the Hungarian Nazi (Arrow Cross) party, as well as the Soviet secret police. We won’t be going there this time; we’ve already been once before, and once was enough for me.  The museum is a palpable retelling of the horrors of the back-to-back Nazi and Communist occupations (they don’t call it Terror House for nothing), including a refurbished Soviet state car, the likes of which would be used to “disappear” dissenters in midnight raids, as well as a Soviet tank in the lobby.  Next to the tank stands a multi-story mural of all the faces that disappeared during the occupations.  The museum tour ends with the triumphant exit of the last Communist from Hungary in 1991, but that only comes after rooms and rooms of desperation and despair.  If you’ve never been, I highly recommend it– but plan to do something light-hearted and fun afterwards, because it is a bit of a mind-f*ck.

Once we passed the Terror House, we both decided it was time to head to the grocery store for more forralt bor makings, and then back to the apartment for dinner.  Soup and hot wine does wonders for the sick traveler, after all.  On the way home, I saw this sign, which summed up my feelings at that moment:

happy

yeah. 🙂

That’s all for now!  Hopefully my next post will involve the words, “I’ve stopped coughing!”.  Cross your fingers.

Szia!

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castle hill

It’s just after 9am.  As I write this, Django Reinhardt is playing on our alarm clock, and I am waiting for our adorable little percolator to make me an individually-sized cup of coffee.

oh god give it to me...

Such has become our morning routine: I get up, turn on some lights, make some coffee, and start in on my various writings, while Jim intermittently rises to snooze our Django alarm.  This will continue for the next hour or so.

Since Friday, I’ve started feeling a little under-the-weather as well, though not nearly to the extent that Jim has.  So far, all I’ve had to complain about is what I’ve diagnosed via Internet as mild bronchitis (slight burning in the bronchial tubes, light but occasionally painful cough).  This hasn’t helped us improve upon our departure time, as you might imagine, but we still manage to get out. Yesterday, we decided on an afternoon walk to Castle Hill.

We’ve been to Budapest once before, in December 2005, for about four days, and we visited Castle Hill then as well.  It’s absolutely gorgeous, and full of things to see.  From the Pest side of the Danube (or Duna as it’s called here), you can see the Palace, the Gothic spire of St. Matthias Cathedral, and many other steeples and eminences, all majestically set into the hillside.  Since we weren’t really going to have time to do any in-depth exploring this time around, we decided to turn it into a reconnaissance mission for when Sarah arrives, since it’s one of those places any first-time visitor has to see.

The Royal Palace as seen from the Chain Bridge

Once we crossed the bridge, we had to decide if we were going to buy tickets for the Funicular (or, as we’ve affectionately dubbed it, the “Fun Car”) or ascend the hill on foot.  We decided we needed the exercise, so we proceeded on foot.  Ahead of us, a group of people making the same trek turned off the main trail and disappeared into a wall.  Naturally, we followed, and it turned out to be a shorter way to the top, lined with very interesting graffiti.

Found this on the shortcut to the top of the Hill

Once we got to the top, we were greeted by another bird: the Turul.  The Turul holds an important place in the origin myth of Hungary.  As legend has it, the bird appeared first to the wife of the leader of the nomadic Magyar people in a dream, wherein she was symbolically impregnated by it and a great river began to flow from her womb, signifying that she would bear a son who would father a long line of  great rulers.  The Turul also appeared in another dream, to another Magyar leader, in which it rescued his people from attack and instructed them to migrate to what would eventually become Hungary.  The Turul represents the will of God, and it sits on the Tree of Life and carries the Sword of Attila (thanks, Wikipedia!).

The Turul Statue at Castle Hill

Once atop the Hill, we began to search for a place to get coffee (this seems to be a recurring theme with us).  The first place we found was Korona Cukrászda, a pastry shop near the National Gallery.  We sat down near a picture window looking out at the Palace and began to peruse the menu.  One of the specials listed was Forralt Bor– hot wine.

Context: On our last trip to Budapest, we’d spent one of our days at Statue Park just outside of town, and returned at the end of the day famished and exhausted and in search of a Mongolian Barbeque restaurant that was highly touted in our Lonely Planet guide book.  We ended up getting mega-lost, finding the restaurant only after they’d stopped seating for the night, and so we made the long trek from Buda back to Pest in the lowest of spirits.  Upon crossing the river, hungry and dejected, we turned a corner and stumbled onto a Christmas festival full of music, delicious street food, and– best of all– forralt bor in mass quantities.  It was then that we first fell in love with it.  So of course we ordered it now, with a slice of sour cherry strudel alongside.

yum yum yum yum yum

The service here was a little lacking– our clean plate and empty glasses sat for a good while before getting cleared away, and then it was another considerable chunk of time before it occurred to anyone to bring us the bill– but the wine was near perfection, and the strudel wasn’t bad either.

At this point, it had grown dark, and we decided to make our way through the district, down the hill, and back to the Pest side of the river by way of a different bridge.  The Castle district is lined with cobblestones and every road is flanked by unbelievably quaint and picturesque rows of houses and storefronts.  Once we left the busier sections, and descended into the residential hillside, the only sound was that of our footsteps on the cobblestones.  We weren’t exactly sure how to navigate our way out, but we were on an adventure, after all.  Once at the bottom of the hill, we found the river, and the bridge we needed to cross.  And then we saw this.

Parliament building at night

Suffice to say that Budapest at night is unrivaled in its luminescent beauty.  There are so many historic structures, all of which are lit up like a Christmas tree as soon as darkness settles.  It makes for a lovely backdrop on an evening constitutional.  The view from the bridge we crossed to get back to our side of the river wasn’t bad either…

Parliament to the left, Castle Hill to the right, and the Chain Bridge over the Danube in between

Such was our Saturday.  Today is Sunday and I have no idea what we’re going to do.  Jim is finally awake and showering, which is a sure sign we’re going to be out by noon, but our only destination so far is coffee-related (what did I tell you?).  After that, it’s anybody’s guess.

Til next time! 🙂

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