Sunday, October 21, 2012

Hungary Eyes: This is how we saw Budapest

For the final leg of our Eastern Europe ice-breaker we're heading to Budapest, Hungary, where the food is supposed to be out of this world and hot springs flow as abundantly as sweet tea and moonshine at a Kentucky family reunion. 

Alan in the rundown Keleti station in Budapest.
Mon., Oct. 15: Today we hopped a late-morning train from Vienna to Budapest. When we finally got situated in our seats, we looked up and ... "Uh-oh," says Alan. "We're on the wrong train." We were headed to Salzburg!

Take two: Today we hopped a mid-afternoon train from Vienna to Budapest. When it dropped us off at our destination — in a little under three hours — we were thrown into a rat race to find the subway we needed to take us to our apartment. People were zooming past us from every direction, and the train station (Keleti), which has definitely seen its better days, was void of any signage that pointed us to the metro. When we finally made it, we couldn't buy a ticket with euros, so we had to run back up to the busy street to search for an ATM (which also wasn't in the train station) that would give us forints. It was a mess, but we finally made it — thanks to a kind old lady who noticed that we looked lost (and frazzled!) and helped us make the right train connections.

Our apartment is the neatest one we've stayed in so far; decked with a wooden sleeping loft, beautiful large windows and a comfy living room that was so inviting after a hectic traveling day. It's located on a snazzy street that doesn't feel a bit touristy, even though we're only blocks from the busy city center. After getting settled in, we headed to a wine bar just down the street where we chatted up the cheerful bartender. She poured us up some local specialties (a refreshing rosé with fizzy water and a splash of strawberry syrup, and a throat-melting shot of apple pálinka, or fruit brandy) and shared some eye-opening stories about how the local economy is having a tough time. For instance, she hopes to move further west to the Hungarian/Austrian border so she can work in Vienna, where she says she can make three or four times more doing the same job. We've definitely seen some evidence of a downtrodden economy. I already mentioned the nearly dilapidated train station, and you should have seen the metro cars we rode in; old and rusty, and the voice on the overhead speaker sounded muffled, like the system hadn't been updated in ages.

For dinner we went to an outdoor cafe just off the main thoroughfare of Andrássy út. It's much warmer here than in Vienna, so we were able to sit outside. It was nice, and the waitress there was super-friendly, too. She taught us some Hungarian words, like szia ("hello"), which sounds an awful lot like a phrase I use quite regularly back home: "See yaw!"

On Independence Bridge.
Tue., Oct. 16:  It was raining pups and pussies when we woke up this morning, so we had to swap our usual first-day get-oriented tour for something indoors. We chose to head to the Gustave Eiffel-designed Great Market Hall (Nagycsarnok, in Hungarian), an indoor, multi-level marketplace full of produce, souvenir shops and to-go food stands. The market is a monster (imagine the largest train station you've ever seen, gut it and fill it with hundreds of food and knick-knack stations), but it only needs to be half the size. On each level, you basically have your choice of three kinds of shops: on the first it was either produce, meat or paprika, and on the second, Babushka dolls, lace-y things or leather purses and wallets. The one reprieve was a corner on the second level that was crammed with take-away, traditional Hungarian eateries. Alan picked up a delicious snack called a lángos; basically a funnel cake that's topped with whatever your heart desires — sweet or savory. Alan chose tomatoes, sour cream, mushrooms, ham, cheese, spicy peppers and onions. I had a few bites and it was orgasmic.

Thankfully, the rain let up by the time we made our rounds in the market, so we strolled down the street to tour the Dohány Street Synagogue. For a worship place, it cost way too much to get inside (around $10 USD), but the ornate, almost Alhambra-esque sanctuary was gorgeous. The Memorial Garden behind it added a nice touch, the main focal point being the somber Memorial of the Hungarian Jewish Martyrs, a steel weeping willow designed by Imre Varga that has the names of 400,000 Nazi-executed Jews etched in its leaves.

We made up for our gloomy start to the day by having one of our best meals so far, at a happening spot on Franz Liszt Square called Menza. Specializing in updated Hungarian fare, the place reminded us of Jones in Philadelphia, with colorful (a lot of orange), retro décor that our guidebook refers to as "Communist kitsch." There was loud music playing and a line of well-dressed locals out the door, but that didn't distract the chef from preparing us one fine meal. I had a creamy catfish stew flavored with paprika and paired with a bed of cottage-cheese pasta, and Alan had pan-fried trout with steamed spinach and mixed vegetables. It was all so beautifully prepared and presented. I ate every bite. I would have licked my plate if the people sitting next to us weren't so damn cool.

Statue of 1848 revolution leader Lajos Kossuth.
Wed., Oct. 17: Today was a perfect go-with-the-flow kind of day. We started with coffee at an opulent cafe on Andrássy út called Alexandra, then trekked toward Budapest's impressive Parliament Building to do a little touring in Leopold Town and the Inner City (Innenstadt). Throughout the day, we walked past a number of monuments commemorating various Hungarian revolutions, including one in 1848 against Hapsburg rule and another honoring the 1956 uprising against the Soviet Union. Unlike Prague, who seems to sweep all its Communist-affiliated history under its fallen curtain, Budapest doesn't seem to shy away from displaying relics from this murky period in its past.

From the Parliament area, we strolled down Budapest's Antique Row to gawk at things we can't afford, speed-walked through the touristy shopping zone of Váci utca and took a peek at what's left of Párisi Udvar, a fancy early-1900s-era shopping mall that, too expensive to restore to its original style, now sits like a fossil in the middle of town. We also got our first glimpse of the Buda side of town when we crossed over the mighty Chain Bridge. If you don't know, Buda and Pest are two separate parts of the city separated by the Danube River. We plan to head back there at the end of the week, so we didn't stick around long.

For dinner, we followed a recommendation in our Rick Steves guidebook and went to a hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurant called Shalimar. Steves' review was right on point: "Everything about this place is unexceptional ... except the food." The waitress was crabby as hell, fruit flies swarmed around our rancid wine the entire time and it took 45 minutes before a single morsel was placed on our table. But when the food finally came we were blown away. We shared two fish dishes, a catfish curry and spicy tikka fish in a red sauce, and saag paneer. It was scrumptious.

Afterward, we zapped ourselves into a sugar coma at a confectionery just around the corner from our apartment called, fittingly enough, Sugar!.

The busy front pool at Szechenyi Baths. 
Thu., Oct. 18: Over the past two weeks our bodies have been treated to a wonderland of stimulants: our tongues the delicious tastes of flavorful Eastern European cuisine, our eyes art and architecture that's graced this planet for centuries and our hearts the flutter of excitement that comes with exploring exotic new lands. Our poor feet, on the other hand, haven't had it so well. If we added up the miles we've walked since arriving two weeks ago, we'd probably discover that we could have walked from Philly to California and back. OK, maybe that's a stretch, but try telling our ankles that.
That's why we decided to devote today to rest and relaxation at Budapest's Szechenyi Baths, a Turkish-bath type landmark that's fed with a vast underground system of hot mineral springs that supposedly run throughout all of Hungary. The complex is made up of about 20 indoor and outdoor pools of varying temperatures. The outdoor area is where the fun's at. One large pool is equipped with jets that massage your back, a stream of bubbles that come up from the floor to tickle your tootsies and a powerful whirlpool in the center that picks you up and swirls you into a game of Ring Around the Rosie with a gaggle of giggling Hungarians.

Inside, it gets more serious It's where people go to "take" the medicinal waters. Several smaller jacuzzi-like pools dot a system of rooms in the large building, with water temperatures ranging from 28- to 38-degrees Celsius. We started with tepid pools, worked our way to the hottest, ducked into a steam room until we couldn't stand it anymore and then plunged into a pool that felt like ice water. That last part felt more like torture than pleasure, but the Scandinavians swear by it.

We also treated ourselves to an invigorating full-body massage, finally giving our legs and feet the TLC they deserve.

Our time at Szechenyi was a definite highlight of the trip. It was an ideal escape from the full days of site-seeing we've been doing — and a nice way to experience another side of Hungarian culture.

In the evening, we went to another A-plus restaurant called Klassz, a stylish spot that serves up contemporary Hungarian cuisine on Andrassy ut. Afterward, we put our feet back to work by taking an evening stroll along the Danube Promenade. The banks of the city are dazzling when all lit up at night.

On Castle Hill with Pest gloriously in the distance. 
Fri., Oct. 19: I woke up this morning — the last day of our trip — feeling all kinds of emotions: kind of ready to get back home/kind of sad to leave, kind of wanting to get up and get the day started/kind of wishing I could wallow in pity our apartment.

That tug-of-war of feelings followed me throughout my final day in Budapest, so it was a little shadowed. But I wanted to get up and make the most of it, to see what delicious new foods I could find while getting lost in its lively streets for just one more day.

We decided to cross the Chain Bridge to kick around on the Buda side of town. Our guidebook-led tour started on top of Castle Hill, where we caught excellent views of Pest. The rest was kind of humdrum; the area surrounding the palace felt like a second-rate Bruges- or Cesky Krumlov-type tourist trap. Much of Buda was destroyed during WWII, so a lot of the sites have been rebuilt in modern times with the apparent intent to draw in the crowds. One respite was a makeshift picnic we threw together at a local grocery. We bought a delicious spread of smoked salmon, a few roles, a mozzarella salad, a couple pickles and a mini bottle of wine, and gobbled it up while sitting along a shaded promenade over looking Buda Hills. It was lovely. Picnics are such a good idea.

After that we checked out a few sites that made up for the lackluster ones around the castle — Matthias Church and the Fisherman's Bastion — and went to the House of Hungarian Wines for a tasting. We sampled three, nicely poured Tokaji-region wines, a dry, semi-sweet and super-sweet. They were all very tasty, but we liked the semi-sweet best. Our server was very informed, too, so we walked away with some nifty new knowledge about Hungary's 22 wine regions.

A quick (read: tipsy) stroll back down the hill and around the thriving Víziváros neighborhood capped off our tour and we headed back home to start packing for our trip home.

View of Parliament from Fisherman's Bastion in Buda. 
Final Impressions:
Our trip to Budapest has certainly added some spice (or paprika, if you will) to our travel history. For obvious reasons, it certainly felt like the most eastern Eastern European country we visited — a burgeoning metropolis on the verge of holding a candle to some of the world's best cities. As Alan emailed his mom earlier in the week, "You can still feel that it hasn't completely repaired itself from those years of Communism." Many buildings, which, thanks to WWII bombs, have been built in the last century, are grimy and unkempt, and the rail system (the M1 train is the oldest subway in Europe) is run with rusty cars that could have been trucking along during Soviet Rule.

The people, however, are fantastic cut-ups; so full of energy and happy to strike up a conversation with two wayward travelers like us. We felt very accepted here, and more comfortable connecting to its people. They kind of remind me of folks back home — a little "country" and always looking for that next chance to giggle.

We really liked the city a lot, and are looking forward to returning one day, when, I can only imagine, it'll be a totally different, even more Westernized metropolis. At least we'll be able to say we knew it when!

Language: Really weird. In Hungarian, you can't even try to pronounce words in ways we consider phonetic. For instance nagy is pronounce "nadge" and utca is pronounced "ootsa." After a while you gotta give up trying and just pray the person you need to communicate with knows English. We didn't face any problems of significance.

Food: I've explained a lot of our favorite Budapest food moments — and there were many. My dinner at Menza (see above) was my trip's No. 1 meal. That thick, creamy, paprika-packed stew was exactly what I had been dreaming of when Budapest was nothing but a twinkle in my eye. If you go Budapest, go stew, and sprinkle on that paprika till the Hungarian Heffers come a mooing.

Money: Unless you're a crossword whiz, you probably never heard of a forint (or HUF). These funny little monies are low on the value pole, which is good for our at-least-grasping-for-air dollar. Dinners were cheap but there didn't seem to be a significant difference in souvenirs or clothing, though. Here's a quick trick for converting HUF to USD. 10,000 HUF \ 2 = $5000, then you lop off the last two numbers and presto: You've got $50. We found that most of our on-the-splurge-side meals cost in the $50 range, so you'll be eating on the cheap. Do it up!

Next stop: Philadelphia, PA, where we're gonna snuggle out pets like never before and just die on the couch till it's time to get back to work on Monday.

Thanks for following along on this really special journey. Here's to the next one!


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