We arrived in Budapest only two hours late after missing our first train, and after a little confusion trying to buy 72-hour metro passes (Really Budpest? You just put a guy out in front of your urine-smelling train stations with a sign that says “Tickets” and expect us to believe this guy is legit?) made it straight to our apartment.
Despite the red carpet treatment at the train station, Budapest turns out to be a really cool town. Our landlady, Dora, could not have been more grandma-y and overly nice, and our apartment had all the luxuries we could have asked for (air conditioning and a washer WITH DRYER [sort of]). Starving, we headed out to explore our area which turned out to be a pretty cool part of town with some amazing food options. We ended up at a fairly nice restaurant eating traditional Hungarian cuisine: pork knuckle (me) and goose (Kristi), paired with some local wine.
Still wanting to explore we took off and ended up crossing the awesome Liberty Bridge in to Buda and found ourselves in the biggest wind storm of our lives. Is wind storm a thing? There wasn’t rain, so I think that negates the storm part. Whatever. It was freaking windy.
The next morning we did a (surprise!) Rick Steves walking tour around Pest. The highlights of which included a Postal Museum (didn’t go in, but supposedly it is neat), the State Opera House (we will come back to this), old subways that were initially made for horses and buggies, Heroes’ Square, City Park, and,of course, we found a place called Sugar! that had superheroes everywhere (with great names like “Steve”) and also had a variety of rice puddings (!) and toppings to choose from – who has every heard of such a delicious thing!
We also toured, my favorite, the House of Terror. This museum is located in a building that housed both the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party (their Nazi special forces) and communist AVH (their Soviet KGB secret police), and was the site of many tortures and executions. The museum is wonderfully artfully done and drenches of doom and symbolism. It shows side-by-side stories of how the Hungarians were controlled by both extremist groups, blurring the lines (sometimes a little too much so) between what happened during both regimes. For example, one room is a locker room with two uniforms – Nazi and Soviet – spinning in a circle in the middle of the room with looping video of real soldiers when they took off the former and jumped right into the latter. We couldn’t take pictures in the museum, but I managed to sneak a few.
That night we had made plans to meet up with Richie and Stefanie Auter (the Aggie friends) at their apartment and grab dinner. They met us with Palinka (at first I thought they said “Paul Anka” which was confusing but got me excited; who doesn’t like to start the night with “Put Your Head On My Shoulder”), which turns out to be a traditional shot akin to moonshine taken pretty much throughout dinner, and we headed to stuff ourselves full of goulash. Kristi and I also got in our dog fix by playing with their schnauzer and poodle. I think they were surprised when we wanted to go with them to walk the dogs to the park. We miss Porky and Chopper, and have been surprised by the amount of Yorkies we have seen this trip. No Chihuahuas though. Sorry, Chop.
The next afternoon we met back up with Stefanie to tour the State Opera House. Apparently they modeled this after the one in Vienna but were directed to make it smaller – so instead they opted to make it nicer inside. I don’t know if I can attest to that, but the view from a box seat was amazing. We also got a little concert by one of the singers.
After that long, exhausting tour (30 minutes) we decided we deserved a treat and needed to hit up the baths. Now, Kristi and I experienced the whole European bath thing last summer in Germany (albeit separately). She went to the nicer one and I went to the bigger one, both enjoyed it and both got a little out of our comfort zones (read: nude) but it was a fun experience. The most important thing is to know when going to some random European bath house is understanding what you are getting yourself in to before you go (read: nude or not). So we had done our homework and knew that the place we were going to, Széchenyi Thermal Bath (the largest medicinal bath in Europe), was 1) pretty much a large public pool with natural hot springs (same as the other baths we had been to) and 2) full of large Hungarians in speedos (at least here they had the speedos). Many people think all Europeans are skinny, tan people with a penchant for smoking. The second two are mostly true, but they are all definitely not skinny. Not by a long shot. However, they all love to act like it by lounging around in their super tan leathery skin in small bikini briefs while smoking and play chess. Ahh, culture. Speaking of culture, one small pool was full of large, old dudes in their speedos seemingly passed out belly-up with limbs outstretched in yellow-tinted water. They told us the color and smell (yes, smell) were from the sulphate of the natural hot springs. Whatever, man; we weren’t getting near that one.
After few confusing minutes of making sure we were going to the right area of the bath (read: not nude) and trying to find where to rent towels, we finally were able to kick back and get in. Even with fountain streams pelting you in the head (we had to try it after seeing countless Hungarian chubbos standing there letting pressurized water hit them) and surprising jets that would appear out of nowhere, it was a fun, relaxing afternoon.
We then met up with Richie, who, like a sucker, had to work all day, at one of their favorite places reminding them of home – Arriba’s Taqueria. Don’t judge. It was one of the best dinners we’ve had, complete with Freebird’s style burritos, Negra Modelo, and liters of hot sauce. It was amazing.
After spending the last two days in Pest, we decided to make it over to Buda to see what the other side of the Danube had to offer. We toured the castle, checked out Fisherman’s Bastion, did some park sitting, and walked along the river. I guess it is here that I should point out that historically Budapest has always been an attractor for mean people attacking and bombing it, so many of the sights are relatively new by European standards (but still old by American standards). But there was one year in particular that it seems 90% of the city was built for, and it was all for show. It was the Millennial Celebration in 1896. Every time we start to read about some castle or cool building or park, it all starts with “Built for the Millennial Celebration.” That must have been one heck of a year, and makes you wonder what was there before this big shindig. Apparently not much. (This also led us to wonder what ever happened to the World’s Fair. So many major landmarks – Eiffel Tower, Seattle’s Space Needle, and also the first hot dog, iced tea, Ferris Wheel, and ice cream cone – were all built specifically to show off how awesome each town was. It seems pretty cool, but what happened to it? Have we stopped building giant landmarks whose sole purpose is to show how great you are?)
We then made a bee line over to Pest to seek out some ex-socialist shoes we had read about. Back in the day, the only somewhat fashionable sneaker that people in Hungary could get their hands on were called Tisza Cipo. When the regime folded the market was flooded with Nike and Adidas, and nobody wanted the non-Western branded shoe anymore. In 2003, someone revived the brand to its former glory, being handmade and only available in limited runs in Hungary (or, if their web store is up [I haven’t seen it up yet], through their website with I’m assuming big time shipping to the US). And they look pretty awesome. So we went and each bought a pair as working souvenirs and to give our other shoes a break. If anyone wants to go into business to start bringing these kicks to the US, I want in on it.
Being our last night in Budapest, we met up once again with Richie and Stefanie for dinner and drinks. They took us to a fantastic wine bar near St. Stephen’s Basilica for some local Hungarian wine, which turns out is great. And due to the lack of an open-container law you could buy a bottle, put a deposit down on some glasses, and head over to the church steps and soak the night in with lots of other locals. It was the perfect night to end our Budapest adventure, and a big shout out to the Auters for making us feel welcome and showing us around the local hot spots. And of course for the Mexican food.
Random last picture: