Wednesday, 13 January 2016

Budapest: Mark 2

The original plan was to travel abroad between Christmas and New Years, but when my work said that basically no one would be coming in after the 17 December Christmas party, I leapt at the chance to take a few days off before Christmas instead. Dan and I threw around a few ideas, including Lapland, when I came up with the idea to perhaps return to Budapest.

I had been there once before, albeit spending a large portion of it hungover, but still thought it was one of the most beautiful cities I had seen. And at the time, I promised Budapest that I would return to her, and return I did.

18 December
For once, the journey was relatively uneventful. I had to race out of work, but had left plenty of time to get to the train station and then to the airport (for once). We decided to get an airport transfer from the airport to our hotel which, for some reason, did not allow us to be dropped at our particular hotel due to some agreement by which we would have needed to buy a return ticket also, and so we were dropped on the corner near our hotel.

I was hungry (IN HUNGARY, BadaBOOM! I'll show myself out...), as I always am, and we were surrounded by a multitude of fast food offerings and nothing open that looked local. Maccas it was, then. To be honest, I quite enjoy trying Maccas just the once in a different country; many around the world have different menus (such as the Maharaja Mac in India, and a rice-bun burger in Japan). Hungary however did not have a different menu, but what it did have was a cheap menu! We got 2 Big Macs, two cheeseburgers, two cokes and two fries for the equivalent of £5.

I'm mentioning this for a couple of reasons: a) My Macca's intrigue and b) to highlight how cheap Hungary is as a city.

After checking into our hotel - which, by the way, we got for a steal, £220 down to £67 for the 5 nights - and settled into our extremely orange room. The next few days were going to be very big days as there was much to explore in this amazing city.

19 December
This morning we did one of the free walking tours of Budapest, and it was the same one that I had done the previous year - even one of the guides was the same! On our way we picked up breakfast: a cinnamon chimney cake costing approximately 50p each. While perhaps not the healthiest option, it was by far one of the tastiest and inexpensive options! We continued on until we found the central square for the walking tour.

It was almost identical to last year, except this year it was during the day and the day was particularly foggy. This cast quite an eerie sombre feeling over the city and lent itself towards some interesting photographs. We visited most of the same places, and I was interested to learn new things that I didn't the previous time.

This time, I was privy to the changing of the guard at the top of the hill, which was an incredibly convoluted process than involved exchanging guns, flipping them about their bodies and then returning them to their rightful owner again, before marching off.

At another point we stopped by a statue of a rather rotund man. "This is the ideal Hungarian form," our guide Ursula said, patting his big belly, "do we have any vegetarians in the group?"
She looked around, tsk tsking. "You see, you can't be vegetarian in Hungary. Fish, chicken...we do not consider these meat," she laughed.

At the conclusion of the tour, Dan and I stayed on the hill on the Buda side to take some photos and then slowly wandered our way back to the Pest side to get ready for our Danube Cruise that evening. First, though, we needed a snack. Something to tie us over until our dinner date.

The tour had taken us past many Christmas markets and the one that stuck with me was near St Stephen's Cathedral. Then we saw it. Goulash in a bread bowl. Precisely what we wanted. And exactly as amazing as it sounds. As the sun set and it became night, we tucked into our goulash bread bowl, singing praises to the food of this city, 

Our next stop was completely thanks to Dan, and it revolutionised our travel experience: we bought a 7-day unlimited public transport pass. Yes, we weren't there for 7 days but the only other option was 3 days, and the price difference was minimal. There was no question, the 7 day pass would pay for itself, (roughly £10), after about 11 trips. We managed those 11 trips within the first two days, therefore if you do nothing else I suggest in Budapest (although I hope you do!), I highly, highly recommend getting yourself one of these! You can get the pass from the purple machines in most metro (underground) stations.

Returning to our hotel, we made ourselves pretty and, catching the metro right back from where we had come from, we waited to begin our Danube Cruise.

The starting point for the cruise was a random hotel not far from the waterfront. At least a hundred people were waiting, and trying to get us all down to the water was like herding cats. Dan and I tried to push our way to the front as it became apparent the seating arrangements were first come first serve. 

Boarding the boat, we were passed a [very nice!] glass of champagne and allowed to choose our table. Each table sat 4 people, meaning two couples would sit together; one on the window, the other not. We wandered upstairs and managed to get the last table with a window seat (which I was rather desperate to have).

The package included two drinks and a traditional Hungarian buffet dinner, all while cruising up and down and up and down the Danube, passing the beautifully lit buildings on both sides. We drank our complimentary drinks and ordered ourselves another bottle of the Hungaria bubbly (we ended up trying quite a few in the Hungaria range during our stay!). At last, the food dishes were uncovered and we could tuck in. 

Goulash, stuffed cabbage, different varieties of spaetzle dumplings and much much more, followed by amazing miniature desserts - a couple of rounds of each and I was full to bursting. The only negative aspect of the cruise - it wasn't quite long enough! By the time the food was served and finished, there wasn't a lot of time left to enjoy the view. Dan and I made our way outside, deciding to be brave and not don our coats. It was cold. But beautiful. Besides, we had our bubbly blanket on. 

All too soon the cruise was over and it was time to disembark. I had been most excited to show Dan the city by night and it did not disappoint. The fog that still hung in the air created a mesmerising glow around each of the buildings, sometimes forcing beams of light skyward. We spent some time taking night photos from the Pest side, before re-crossing the Chain Bridge to take photos at the top of the Buda side. 

Breathtaking. Again and again, it hadn't grown old - it was still as beautiful as before, if not more so now that I was sharing the amazing sight with a loved one, and a loved one who appreciated it as much as I did. By now it was late and we had another big day on the morrow, so we caught the public transport (with our nifty transport passes!) right back to our hotel.

20 December
"What are you doing in Austria? thought you were in Budapest? x"

This was the message I received from my mum, and multiple other friends when I was tagged in a photo on Facebook. Yes, I had been in Budapest, but today I was, in fact, in Vienna. We arose early on this morning for our day trip to another country. Using our transport passes flashing the date at bored security personnel, we got off a stop too early and had to walk a wee way. Getting our tickets turned out to be no-hassle, and significantly cheaper than we thought, and after attempting to board the wrong train we settled down (without a window) on the right train, headed for Vienna.

By the time we got to the city centre, I was particularly hangry. On my previous visit, I had dined at a particular restaurant and was rather keen to return if only to devour the Kaiserscharrn, or Emporer's pancake. We found the we were even served by the same gentleman. We wolfed down a delicious Weiner schnitzel, Vienna hot chocolate and the delicious dessert, while I posted a picture of our feast to Facebook. 

"This was lunch!" I wrote. "Hot chocolate, schnitzel and Kaiserschmarrn. Delicious! Same place I went to last time I was in Vienna :)". Instantly, I realised what a wanker I sounded. 

"Oh yes dear, yes, just my favourite restaurant in Vienna. My my."

No matter! The Cafe itself is inside the castle square, and this afforded us a walk past and through the major sites of the Museum area. There were multiple Christmas markets and we stopped for a peek. Due to the time restrictions and the sheer cost of entering the museums in Vienna, we opted not to, but instead spent a few hours taking lovely twilight photos, drinking mulled wine (far more expensive than Budapest!) and nomming on pretzels.

We wandered our way back towards the train station, deciding that we would attempt to catch the hour earlier train. The metro popped us out where we least expected it: a couple of blocks away with the main train station in the distance. 

"We can do this" we said, knowing the train was leaving in 15 minutes. And so we ran. Ran with our backpacks, crossed the multilane road and just kept running until we reached the final escalator, 5 minutes remaining, and collapsed onto the train to catch our breath.

Far too eventful! What followed was a gentle 2.5 hour train journey back to Budapest. But our day was far from over yet! Tonight: we were to go to Szimpla Kert, one of the most famous ruin pubs in Europe. I could tell Dan was hesitant.

On arrival, however, his opinion changed. We walked through the door and yes, it wasn't heaving as it was a Sunday night, but it had a decent number of people - enough to still be able to hear yourself talk and think. We grabbed a mulled wine (in a teacup no less!) and I gave a tour of the venue. Downstairs, through each of the separate rooms; first the shisha room, then through another bar with an entirely different atmosphere and music, through to the outside section: again with a different vibe. We walked up the rickety spiral staircase at the back, yet more different vibes and bars and through the other rooms, spying the bathtub and other strange seating arrangements, before ending up back at the front door. 

We hadn't seen any free seats on our wander, but as we returned to the front door there were two right there, waiting for us. One sat underneath a ladies hairdryer, and it was perfect.

The next couple of hours were passed sampling the local liquors. First off the ranks was apricot flavoured palinka. "I went with the 45," Dan said, delivering me my shot as I stayed put with the hairdryer, "instead of the 55." I looked at him blankly. "Percent," he finished.

Ah. I had both been looking forward to and dreading this moment. Head back, cheers, and down went the palinka. And almost back up again. My eyes instantly started watering, I shuddered involuntarily for the next 10 minutes, and I was inebriated. Dan, meanwhile, sat there looking thoughtful, and said "That wasn't too bad." I couldn't believe it. It tasted like apricot flavoured tequila to me.

Next up: unicum. My turn to go to the bar, and asking the barman how it was best to be had, he replied "Straight." This time, roles were reversed. I sat there thinking it was quite alright, tasting a bit like jagermeister, while Dan rued the moment he agreed to all of this.

All the while, Dan sat beneath the hairdressing unit, being photographed and giggled at by strangers as they entered and left the pub. Sufficiently inebriated, we farewelled our little spot by the door, made one last lap of the pub, and returned on our merry way to our hotel.

21 December
You know those little cards you often see in hostels and hotels advertising activities and places to eat? Dan had spotted one for a cat cafe with 10% off the total bill. Why not? I seem to have discovered a new-found fondness for the feline creatures and so we made our way there for brunch. There were 10 cats of varying fluffinesses and I chased any that would let me pat them.

Behind my table sat a large, fluffy black lady-cat, who was subjected to the most of my patting. A large lion (it was probably only a cat, but he was huge!) frightened me, so I struggled to pat him but another sleepy cat didn't run away from me and was forced to endure a pattenating. 

The bit that intrigued me the most? Entry (free), 2 panini's and 2 coffees came to a total of the equivalent of £8 or less. 

Dan and I had been talking about Statue Park and Hero Square, not realising they were different things until the night before. It was quite a mission to get to Statue/Memento Park, which lies on the outskirts of the city (or beyond) and houses many of the monumental statues and sculpted plaques from Hungary's Communist period.

Today was very, very foggy and it added to the atmosphere. Hungary, during the Communest era, was known as the "Happiest Barrack", as they had the best conditions under the regime of all. Not everyone was happy to see the Soviets go. At the fall of The Iron Curtain, the statues were taken from the city and are now displayed in Memento Park (sometimes called Statue Park - even their own advertising isn't quite sure), out of sight and out of mind, but remaining a reminder of times past.

Admittedly, I knew nothing of the statues and extremely little of the regime, and as we circumnavigated the park (in the fog), Dan read the descriptions of each of the statues from the guidebook. Some were particularly ironic; martyring fellow comrades and heralding the companionship of Communism.

Before we left, we found a trabant car into which Dan folded himself up. I joked about whether the door would open again and, lo and behold, Dan was trapped inside (I let him out eventually).

"I would never have ventured out this far," I said to Dan, as we sat in the bus stop, "your interests allow you to see much more of a place than I ever do!". A couple of bus rides and train rides and tram rides later (all thanks to our handy all-transport pass!), we arrived back into the city centre. Rather starving, I must say.

We found a wine bar and had an early dinner/late lunch. An amazingly perfectly cooked steak and a risotto with a matched bottle of red wine. It was amazing (and cheap!). And it filled our bellies perfectly for what we were going to that evening.

What we were going to do was...relax. Bath. Float. Splash. In perfect hot water in the freezing cold air. Yes, we went to the Széchenyi Thermal Baths.

Dan and I paid for our tickets and went our separate ways, promising to meet "at the pool on the right hand side." Once inside, I panicked as I realised I had circumnavigated the pool, and what was my right was now my left. I stripped down to my bikini, grabbed my towel and headed outside towards the hottest pool. My feet began to ache from the cold ground. I stood on the edge, jumping from foot to foot, peering through the haze to see if I could make out Dan already in the pool. I looked towards the door and recognised the white towel and board shorts.

Waving frantically, Dan spotted me - glasses-less, and we threw our towels down before rushing towards the hot water. It burned my freezing feet as I lowered myself into the pool.

This is the life, I thought to myself, and probably said it out loud, too. Hot, hot water began to relax sore muscles and sore feet from days of walking. We splished our way to the other side of the pool to have a look, taking hundreds of photos on our respective underwater cameras. After a while, we decided to look at the pool on the other side.

"It's not as warm as this one," I warned. One, two, three and we were out of the water, walking as briskly as we could across the partially frozen pavement towards the other pool, and plopping down with relief once we reached it. This pool was cooler, but not cold and had some cool coloured lights. In the middle was a circular tiled section that created a current - you could float or swim your way around in circles really fast - occasionally taking out an old lady as the current raced you past! (Oops).

We spent many an hour here, moving between the warm and the hot pool, taking hundreds of photos (mainly selfies...) and just enjoying....being. It was almost closing when we were sufficiently wrinkly and ready to leave - a quick metro ride and we were back at our hotel.

22 December
This morning we were going to go ice skating on the biggest outdoor iceskating rink in Europe, so we jumped on the metro and stopped off at Hero Square, right next to the rink. 

The first - and only - day of blue sky that we had in Budapest! And it was beautiful. 

As we approached the iceskating, I started having second thoughts. I was quite tired, and I could see there was a long line. From the bridge, there was a perfect view of the enormous rink and I said to Dan, "I'm not fussed if we don't iceskate..." I had lost a bit of confidence - there was no railing, everyone looked at home on the ice (except for the poor 5 year old thrashing his feet about in front of us) and I was feeling a bit sore from all the walking we had done. Dan agreed, and so we took some fairytale photos and  continued walking.

We wandered through the castle and across the bridge to an outdoor pond that was clearly filled with thermal water - the ducks were swimming in gloriously steamy water. I took my glove off and stuck a finger in - a nice warm bath! I couldn't believe the warm water brewing in the middle of the city like that. 

Our next stop: The Hungarian Railway museum. It was quite a way out of town, so we walked a way, jumped on a bus and then alighted, to find we weren't quite where we expected to be. No matter, Google maps told us there was a pathway up to our left. After some walking, we found a very small, muddy pathway and figured it must be that - definitions of pathways are different from country to country. Next thing we knew, we were standing on the tracks.

Hmm. This doesn't look right. In the distance we could see the museum, and so we stayed on the "pathway", to the very side and continued along. There was normally a train stop right here, but at this time of year it was not running. When we reached the back entrance of the museum, it was closed. Bugger. We again took to the tracks until we had found our way to the front entrance, and walked inside.

Dan approached the window and after a few moments, a man emerged. "Two adult tickets please."
The man looked at us quizzically, and said "We are closed, closed until March," and then led us over to a sign that stated (in Hungarian) "Closed from November until March."

It didn't say anything of the sort on the website, it was disappointing but I had to laugh at the mission it was to get there. In my usual way, it was round about this time I became desperately hungry, so we caught the tram back to the city centre and found ourselves some food at the central Christmas market and began to plan the rest of the afternoon.

There was also a Children's Railway on the Buda side of the river that Dan was interested in, and I scoured the website as best I could to see if there was any mention to it being closed. To get there, anyway, one could take a train that uses cog-wheels to get up the mountain, and so we decided, since our metro passes were all encompassing, to do that.

The scenery was very beautiful and the Cog-wheel carriages noisy and bumpy, but I still managed to doze off for a couple of minutes despite the jostling. The angle of the track was so steep that alternate seats in the carriages were made leaning backwards to accommodate the angle. When we reached the top, we wandered to the start of the Children's railway to discover it too was closed (and didn't say on their website).

Oh well! We could see the sun was setting and wondered where there would be a nice view. We walked towards the sun and ended up in a bit of a forest pathway, with a spectacular sunset beginning on the horizon. We stayed and took countless photos of the pretty sunset before catching the cog-wheel back down the mountain again.
It was only 4pm, although it felt like midnight. We figured we would make our way back to the hotel to get ready for our night time activities and a bit of a rest.

This night, we were going to the opera. We were going to be adults doing grown up things. I had heard the Hungarian Opera House was beautiful and it turned out tickets were rather on the inexpensive side. I chose Handel's Messiah as it was just in time for Christmas, and should be in English. If I were to have chosen the cheapest of cheap seats with a restricted view, a seat would have been a total of equivalent 70p. 70 pence. I decided to splash out a bit and bought £12 tickets. Oh my!

First off, dinner. Our hotel recommended a place, but stated it may be very busy. We arrived, and the lady in front of us was told that there was only one table remaining and she would have to leave by 7.30 to make way for another reservation. We waited with bated breath to see if she would accept it as that would have been perfect for us...and for some reason she declined! The table was ours.

Delicious champagne and hungarian meat and mushrooms later (all extremely cheap, of course), we were wined, dined and ready for the opera. Inside the gorgeous building, we were instructed to leave our coats at the cloak room before being shown to our seats.

Now, as some of you may know, I am a classically trained musician but even I find classical music can help me get the best sleep of my life...and so I play little games (and so did Dan). Over to our right, there was clearly a date underway, and over the progression of the evening the boy went from trying to impress his lady, to falling asleep, to sitting behind her playing on his phone while she looked unimpressed. It was all going downhill for him (although he kindly took a picture of Dan and myself on the beautiful spiral staircase!)

On the stage, a large Christmas tree, fronted by a choir, orchestra (with an unusual placement of string instruments; the cellos weren't where I expected them) and our 4 singing stars. The tenor was a rather rotund man, the bass thought he was Hot Stuff, and sang with a strong Hungarian accent, our alto was a strange witchy looking woman with a nice, if not powerful voice who clearly had a rivalry with the soprano, who was an extremely impressive belter. There was so much tension on the stage, but it added an extra element to the evening.

I hadn't heard the whole Messiah before - everyone knows the showstopper Hallelujah Chorus, but it was nice and easy to follow with repeated (and repeated and repeated and repeated) verses and English subtitles above (which for us served the purpose of translating the sometimes thick Hungarian accents).

In front of us sat a young couple who, to put it simply, fell asleep. They both did the uncomfortable nod and jerk. I willed them to just let it's quite normal...and it was very warm in there. Just let yourself close your eyes for a'll feel much better, I thought to myself, but they continued to fight sleep.

At the conclusion, an elderly lady behind thumped her walking stick against the rows of chairs by way of clapping, and thus the night came to an end.

Dan and I left the Opera House and bid Budapest-by-night farewell.

23 December
Our final morning in Budapest, with our flight in the early afternoon. We grabbed one final chimney cake (always cinnamon for me!) and returned to the square. I had perviously found a brooch I was interested in but the stalls weren't open this early, and I decided I didn't want to wait. We had a few hours to kill before our flight so we returned to the waterfront.

When we arrived, "waterfront" turned out to be a bit of a stretch of the imagination. What waterfront? Today was so foggy, that nothing beyond the edge could be seen. Nothing. Not even by peering hard. There was no other side to the river. There was no river. I laughed at the people who were taking the walking tour that day, imaging what the guide was saying.
"And on the other side of the river is the'll just have to imagine it is me, there's a castle..."

We were just killing time, so we decided we could kill time at the airport. The journey there was effortless and uneventful, and we managed to skip most of the queue for checking in. On the other side, we had a good hour to wait and so we began using up the rest of our Hungarian Florins on, you guessed it, bubbly wine.

Two bottles, in fact, as our flight was delayed and delayed, over 2 and a half hours in the end. I was quite tiddly. Next minute, last call - and we ran to the queue. Round about here, my pressing need for the bubbly to evacuate became overbearing, and we stood in the queue for approximately 45 minutes. I officially began to hate Ryanair. We finally boarded and the attendant said I could use the toilet once everyone had boarded. Everyone boarded, and I made my way to the toilet, just for her to shake her head at me and say no.
I looked her dead in the eye, said "I CAN'T" and she relented.

Another uneventful, if late, flight home and we landed on British soil, rejoicing in the fact that we still had another 11 days off and that our holidays were continuing.

I sailed through customs. I am now a Registered Traveller so gone are the days where I get interrogated and put into the little holding pen. I put my passport up to the little scanny thing, the little scanny thing scanned my little face and I breezed my way into Britain, almost giggling with glee.

And thus my Budapest tome is concluded. So very much was packed in - four extremely jam packed days - and my love for the city continued to swell. Especially at night. It is so very beautiful at night. Thermal baths, goulash, Christmas markets, the Danube, castles, day trips to neighbouring countries - you name it, Budapest has it. 

Budapest, you remain in my heart.

Til next time,