Tag Archives: travel

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.


*          *          *

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.


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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A Day Trip Worth Its Salt

After our much-needed day of rest, with our time in Kraków drawing to an end, we had two destinations we had to reach.  The first, we decided, would be the Wieliczka Salt Mines, about an hour’s bus ride outside of Kraków.

I had looked up the mines on cracow-life.com (a great resource if you’re ever in the area) and was immediately intrigued.  Underground chapels?  Salt statues?  Subterranean lakes?  Count me in.  More than that, I was drawn in by the comments left by past visitors.  Overall, they were enthusiastic and complimentary; the only ones that deviated from the norm were those left by American visitors (“The lines are too long!” “The ceilings are too low!”).  In fact, the comment directly preceding the one I would eventually leave said, “… it had to be an American who has given this wonderful place a bad review.”

Well, that settled it.  I was determined to go, and to enjoy it, and to show the world that not all Americans complain incessantly about minor inconveniences.

We had a tricky time figuring out where to catch the 304 bus out to Wieliczka; once we found the stop, we had a little time to wander around, and so we meandered over to Old Town.  As we drew nearer, we saw a sign advertising a familiar European pastry.

Well, looky here...

The woman in the window didn’t want to make eye contact, however, and I wasn’t bold enough to knock at first, and so we continued wandering.  As we came back around, and started making our way to the bus stop, we passed by it again.  I still really wanted one, but the lady in the window was making it very clear that she did not want to make any unless she really had to.  Jim told me to confront my fears about speaking Polish and go up and ask for one; after all, she was sitting in the window– she was clearly there to do a job.

Drawing a deep breath, I went up, and she looked at me but didn’t open the window, so I knocked. “Przepraszam, jedno cynamon, proszę.” She looked unenthused and told me it would be 10 minutes.  I said fine.  Ten minutes turned into twenty, and “cinnamon” became “cheese and onion”, which was more expensive and also not what I wanted.  By the end of the transaction, I was extremely annoyed.  Any talk of facing my fears was met with sullen resentment.  Plus, as a consequence of my desire for chimney cake, we missed the bus we were trying to catch, and had to sit and wait for the next one.

Once the bus got going, I promptly fell asleep, and woke up 30 minutes later in much better spirits.  Before too much longer, we arrived at our destination.

The entrance was positively crawling with tourists of all different ethnicities.  At first we couldn’t even determine where to buy tickets, until a friendly man at the door directed us through the throngs and into the building.  There, we found the ticket counter and paid our US $20 apiece.  The waiting room, too, was packed to the gills with tourists and schoolchildren.  We weren’t really sure what we were waiting for; there was an English tour happening shortly, but we were afraid any announcements would get drowned in the din.  Soon, a tiny and adorable Polish woman caught our attention, and ushered us toward a group of a dozen other visitor; together, we made our way to the lift.

The lift is one of the things that the Americans on cracow-life absolutely hated.  It’s a bizarre contraption made up of four compartments, two stacked on top of two more, and each compartment fits nine people snugly.

The red gates are the two lower compartments. You can kind of see a staircase going up behind the gates, to the left; that's how you reach the two upper compartments. The whole thing's hilarious.

It’s definitely not for the claustrophobic, but salt mines probably aren’t ideal for claustrophobes anyhow.

Once we got off the lift, a process that occurs in stages due to the stacked compartments, we were in a cavern that was pleasantly cool and dim.  Our guide extolled the virtues of the mineral-rich air and the constant temperature in the mine, and we began what would ultimately end up being a 426-foot descent into the earth.

These cauliflower-like salt patches are a result of the evaporation methods currently used in the mines.

As it turns out, getting good pictures of a mine is not the easiest thing in the world, but we tried to capture what we could.  Most of the statues were carved by miners.

Salt veins and a bit of a chandelier made of-- you guessed it-- salt.

This is me with Casimir The Great. Also made entirely out of salt.

There is a myth surrounding the origin of the mines, wherein a Hungarian princess, Kinga, was to marry the Prince of Poland.  As a dowry, she asked her father for a salt mine, since Poland had none.  On the way to Poland, she stopped at the mine she was given, and dropped her engagement ring into it.  Upon arrival into Poland, she ordered a well to be dug.  Soon, salt was discovered underground.  The legend goes that, as they were digging and discovering more salt, they soon uncovered a ring– Kinga’s engagement ring.  From then on, Kinga became the symbolic protector of the mine and those working in it.

St. Kinga, as she's known.

Kinga’s importance in the mines is emphasized by the eponymous Chapel of the Blessed Kinga, an underground worship area that still holds Sunday masses.  The Chapel is the grandest of all the chapels in the mine (there are several), and everything, down to the “tiles” in the floor, is carved out of salt.

The Chapel of the Blessed Kinga, as seen from the top of the staircase.

Over a thousand salt crystals make up this chandelier.

Me and Salt Pope John Paul II.

What appears to be a tiled floor is actually just tile shapes etched into a salt plateau.

The tourist path through the mines is so well-trod that it’s easy to forget that, since the 1200s, this was an actual working mine (excavation stopped in 1996, though the mine still employs hundreds of workers).  As tends to be the case with mines, conditions were hazardous.  When toxic gases would build up in the upper reaches of a cavern, the miners had to crawl on their bellies while holding long torches with which to ignite, and thus eliminate, the gas.  This often led to the miners igniting themselves as well, but there wasn’t exactly a choice about it.  Horses, used to power the excavation process as it became more sophisticated, spent their entire lives underground since there was no way to move them.  Fascinating stuff.

My favorite room was probably the Weimar Room, which featured a mini-light show above a brine lake, while Chopin played overhead.  Very soothing.  Unfortunately, it was too dark for pictures.

After a couple solid hours of being ushered purporsefully through the mines– the tours are so regimented, we were told, because they actually only travel through a small section of the mine, and if tourists were allowed to meander at their own pace, they’d likely end up lost underground– we were led to a large cavern with a gift stand, and told that we were near the lift back to the top.  We could either head straight to the lift, or go to the mine museum; our tour guide was setting us free.  Jim and I decided not to visit the museum (it seemed redundant after 2+ hours of walking through the mines) and headed instead for the bar (!!) where we would determine our next move.

On the way to the bar, we passed this.

A salt emblem of the Unesco World Heritage sites admitted around the same time as the mines.

A couple bottles of woda gazowana later, we decided it was time to go home, so we waited in line for the lift, behind a pack of twenty or so loud, possibly Italian high-school aged kids.  They were singing football chants and laughing raucously, which annoyed me instantly because of the ringing acoustics of the mine.  Soon the line opened and we were led, by another guide, to where we would catch the lift.  As we walked, the football chanting continued, but slowly I found it more endearing, because they were genuinely enjoying themselves.  They joked around with the tour guide, despite the language barrier, which I also found endearing.

On the way to the lift, we turned a corner and came face-to-face with two archetypal miners, complete with lighted hardhats.  They were standing over a tray of rocks, from which we were each encouraged to take a sample.  In fact, the tray was full of salt crystals in various forms, which I thought was fantastic– we were being given souvenirs of the mine by the miners themselves!  After we each thanked them for their generosity, we continued to the lift.

We got to the waiting area and stood around.  The lift is definitely a slow affair, so we had a bit of time to kill.  The kids continued their singing, and eventually ended up teaching the chant to our guide.  Once he learned it sufficiently, there was enthusiastic applause, and then they asked him if he would teach them a Polish song.  He was hesitant at first, but then taught us “Sto Lat“, the Polish birthday song.

As if on cue, the lift appeared just as we had all finished applauding our halting group rendition of “Sto Lat”, and we began the comical process of packing in, nine at a time, into the tiny lift compartments.

Back above ground, the sun had set and we made our way to the bus stop, satisfied.  We headed back to our neighborhood, stopping at a Delikatesy (or “delika-teezy” as we started calling them) for things to cook for dinner.  Bedtime was going to come early tonight, because tomorrow, another day of travel awaited: we were headed to Oświęcim.

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