Budapest, Sweet Budapest

So my march through Central Europe continued in Budapest, Hungary.  I arrived Halloween night after a seven hour bus ride from Krakow.  The bus left late in the day, so it wasn’t long before it was dark.  There was almost a full moon that evening which peeked through the clouds.  Along the way, we passed several cemeteries lit up with candles.  All Saints Day is celebrated in Poland with people going to the cemeteries and placing loads of candles on the gravestones of loved ones passed.  For the entire evening ride, the bus never seemed to get on a major highway.  The trip consisted mostly of winding country roads through Poland and Slovakia.  We also passed a few castles which added to the ambiance.  I had some good music going and felt pumped up for some reason.  Perhaps it was the exotic nature I had imagined Hungary to possess.  After arriving at the bus station in Budapest late in the evening, I tried riding the metro to my hostel.  I knew exactly what lines and stops to take, but the ticket machine in the station only took coins.  I just had my notes from the ATM, and nothing was open to make change.  I think taxis are a rip and abhorrent to my thrifty vagabond nature, so I had to walk almost two miles to the hostel.  After sitting for seven hours, I felt the walk did me good anyway.  I passed an old cemetery and several people dressed in costumes along the way.  It was a Halloween I’ll never forget.

When I was in Scotland, I met someone from Budapest at a Couchsurfing meetup.  She told me she would put together a great list of things to see and do if my travels ever took me there.  We stayed in touch, and she delivered a pretty epic list.  Thanks Judit 🙂  This post is going to be rather long because there was so much going on in Budapest, mostly because of that epic list.  The highlights include some incredible architecture, bath houses, ruin pubs, interesting people, good food, a castle, more history lessons, a petting zoo, crazy inflated currency, tech news, the new James Bond movie, an election all-nighter, and yet another awesome hostel experience.

Hungary is part of the European Union, but they’re not on the euro.  They still use the Hungarian forint which, unfortately, is somewhat inflated and can be fun to figure out how much you’re paying every time you use it.  The country technically has a democracy, but events of late are a little troubling which I’ll get into in a bit.  First, some post-WWII history.  Leading up to the war, Hungary benefited economically from its ties with Germany and Italy.  Their government had also become increasingly pro-fascist, and was eventually pressured to join the Axis powers.  They reluctantly joined, but were hoping to avoid direct involvement.  Eventually, their forces were used to invade the Soviet Union.  Towards the end of the war, they attempted a secret peace negotiation with the US and Great Britain.  Germany discovered this, and occupied Hungary as punishment.  Eventually, the advancing Soviet forces took control of the country and as a result, they ended up in the Eastern Bloc after the war.  As with the other Central European countries I visited, they had communism until 1989 when the Soviet Union collapsed and a revolution took place.  They now have an elected prime minister, and in 2004, Hungary joined the EU.  However, the current leader, Viktor Orban has recently passed laws restricting media and voter registration, much to the chagrin of European Union leaders.  I asked a local tour guide about it, and he confirmed what I had read and heard.  My couchsurfing friend from there seemed disappointed as well in the leadership, and where things were headed.  It will be interesting to see what happens.

My little history write-ups are really high level, and lack even basic details.  But I try to understand something about each place I visit because it’s almost always relevant to what’s going on now.  On to the fun stuff…

I went on another free walking tour, and learned that the name Budapest actually comes from the two sides of the city separated by the Danube river.  The Buda side is hilly and contains the castle.  The Pest (pesht) side is flat and is where the vast majority of residential buildings are located.  They only came together to become Budapest in the late 1800’s.  Locals will also point out it’s pronounced Bu-da-pesht.  It’s the capital city of Hungary.

View of Pest from the Buda side with the Chain Bridge over the Danube River..

Architecture

The parliament building was modelled after the one in London.

The Hall of Heroes

Not sure what this one was.St. Stephen’s Basilica
Same basilica from the front.  I thought this looked pretty cool.  It’s a church carved into a cliff face.Academy of SciencesMuseum of Fine Arts.  There was a Cezanne exhibit that I liked.  The interior of the building itself is impressive, even without the art.
Castle on the Buda side at night.Chain BridgeHall of Heroes again at night.

Hostel Life

So I know I sound like a broken record when I talk about my great hostel stays, but I’ve been on an awesome run since Prague.  My goal for accommodation has been to find someone who’s turned an apartment or home into a small cozy hostel.  The common area is usually a living room, perhaps with an attached kitchen, and the max number of beds should be something like 20-24.  Budapest is filled with great hostels, and a lot of people go for the ones dedicated to partying everynight.  I’m a little beyond that stage of life, and look for places that are more conducive to meeting other solo adventurers to go exploring with.  In Budapest I found The Big Fish.  Sounds goofy, but it turned out to be my favorite hostel of the entire trip.  The staff were all Hungarian and extremely helpful and friendly.  They were always more than happy to make a phone call or look up opening and closing times for whatever you might be interested in.  On my first night, I met some other backpackers who I explored the city with for the next few days.

They had a great movie selection in the common room.

On my fourth night, I wasn’t feeling too well and needed some fresh air.  I went for a nice long walk around town, over one of the bridges and along the Danube river for a couple hours.  By the end of it, I felt a lot better.  I came back to the hostel to find two new roommates… Anthony and Lucy from Melbourne, Australia.  They had just arrived, and seemed kind of tired after a 10 hour train ride from Romania.  We hit it off right away and despite a busy day, we all seemed eager to go out for a night on the town.  I had a blast hanging out with them and swapping travel stories.  We had been to a lot of the same places, and agreed Edinburgh and Berlin were some of our favorite cities.

Bathhouses

So I didn’t realize it until I arrived that one of the things Budapest is best known for are its bathhouses.  The area has a massive amount of geo-thermal activity which provides the city with loads of hot water for these mineral baths.  There are several around town, but we went to the biggest and most popular one, Szechenyi.  Anthony, Lucy and I went one evening and were really glad we went after dark.  The atmosphere was pretty freakin’ cool as you can tell.

The main pool outside was heated to 38C (100F).  You felt instantly relaxed the moment you went in.  We also went into the sauna.After that first night at the bath house, I knew I’d have to come back at least one more time.  I was enjoying the city and the people I was meeting, so I extended my stay a couple more days, and joined my friends for a morning bath session this time.  I felt like I was some billionaire swimming around in that place.  The funny this is that the bath house admission was only $15 for the whole day.

Ruin Pubs

Another staple of the Budapest scene are ruin pubs.  Think bombed out or abandoned building that no one bothered to repair.  Just put a bar in there, add some lights, and don’t worry about the section where the roof is missing.  This is what a ruin pub looks like.  The most popular one is pictured below and is called Szimpla.  Lonely Planet travel guides rate it the third best bar in the world.

I didn’t take any pictures inside, but found this one..Cendes (CHEN-dish) means quiet in Hungarian and is the name of this other ruin pub my CS friend recommended.  As its name suggests, it was pretty chill.  My friends from the hostel and I went here a couple times and had some Hungarian wine.  Unlike Germany or the Czech Republic, Hungary is known more for its good wine than beer.Near the Danube River on the western side of the city lies a giant market.
My couchsurfing friend from Budapest recommended the food upstairs.  Not only was it very delicious, it was traditional, and also cheap.  We agreed to each order something different and share so that we could sample more of the food.  Backpackers really don’t think anything of this.  We share rooms, common areas, kitchens, bathrooms.  Why not germs? 🙂A second visit to the market… more shared food experiences.  I could have eaten at the market everyday.  The cabbage rolls with sauerkraut on the bottom left was one of my favorite dishes.

At the hostel almost every night, one of the workers would offer everyone a shot of pálinka.  It’s a traditional homebrew Hungarian fruit brandy.  I know, it sounds like moonshine, but I felt if they were offering it all the time, it must be safe.  This particular one was made with honey so it was fairly smooth going down.  We never had just one shot 🙂

In a bit of tech news, I bought a Budapest travel app for my iPhone.  At $3.99, it turned out to be a really great move, and I used it everyday to not only find my way around, but also find good places to eat.  I really have no need for a data plan on my phone when I can get an app that has a map and the ability to use the phone’s GPS to find points of interests, restaurants and cafes.  It’s was one of the best travel apps for a phone I’ve used.

Some other random highlights included seeing the new James Bond movie, checking out Margit Island, and watching the US presidential election returns.  Skyfall hit the theaters in Europe before the US, and Anthony, Lucy and I along with some of my other roommates went.  The hostel employee called ahead and made sure the showing we went to was in English (with Hungarian sub-titles of course).  Cool movie, and we all enjoyed it.

There’s an island in the northeastern part of Budapest called Margit (Margaret Island).  It’s accessed from one of the bridges.  Daniella, another Aussie backpacker from my hostel, joined me for walk to check it out.  I was just expecting a park, but we also stumbled upon a small petting zoo.There was also a ruin of a 13th century church.  It’s funny, we first thought it was an old bathhouse until we saw the sign.

And yes, I was actually able to watch the US presidential election returns live.  Hungary is six hours ahead of EST in the US, so the online coverage I watched started at 1:00AM.  I was determined to stay up all night if necessary.  The common room in the hostel didn’t have anyone else in there, so I just sat there patiently with my laptop watching each state get called.  It was 5:00AM before I got to bed.

As I mentioned, Hungary’s currency is called the forint.  It takes about 225 forint to equal one US dollar.  A very quick rough calculation I did to do conversions was chop off the last two digits, and then divide the result in half to roughly get the US dollar amount.  For example…

10,000 forint would be 100 divided by 2 or roughly $50.  It’s actually $45.40, but it’s better to overestimate a tad.

My original five day stay in Budapest turned into six, then eight and finally nine days in total.  I just kept extending my stay and had trouble leaving.  I almost wanted to go back immediately after I left, it was such a great visit.  It put all of my travels into perspective and made me realize that some earlier cities weren’t as amazing as I had first thought.  It was that perfect blend of an interesting city, with loads of things to see and do, awesome travel companions, good food, and a sweet hostel.  That said, I don’t think I’d want to live in Budapest.  Hungarian is one of the hardest languages to learn, and I don’t think the job market is the greatest right now.  The country also has some issues around its leadership and future in the EU that are troubling.  But the city is at the top of my list of fun places to visit, and I really hope I’m able to come back someday.  I love you Budapest, please don’t go back to being in a country that has a dictatorship.

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