June 14-18, 2001
I had originally planned to go to Bratislava, Slovakia, but after ex-flatmate yuChen telling me how Budapest is better and this being confirmed hands down by some fellow travelers, I'm off on a different train. Slovakia, I am told, requires more time to appreciate and Bratislava is not the best of the country. The natural wonders are in the Northern mountains.
Budapest is the merger of two twin cities, Buda and Pest, exactly opposite of each other on the Danube River.
Increasingly so, I've been finding that more and more top European cities are not making my jaw drop with wowdom. It's been that way for months now and I've been considering avoiding flat counties and capital cities altogether in Europe and looking towards nature and perhaps even Asia.
Budapest, at least the first half so far (Buda) has given that sense of exploration again! There were a few mouthings of wow-WOW! Seeing one amazing view and then turning the corner to find another made me glad that I can still get excited like this. The churches, buildings and the people, all of their place.
I'm sure a major factor is that it is a bit more exotic, being in Eastern Europe. There's traces of Soviet liberation and the influence of capitalism. Prices are quiet cheap, but remaining half street-wise is essential, particularly during the night of Pest. Although you should expect this in most cities anyway.
Given that it's raining, after 5pm, a holiday in some neighboring countries and I don't have reservations anywhere, I didn't have a problem going with a woman at the train station looking for travelers for her B&B. For Hungary, the price is high at $25USD per night, but it's a clean double and off the beaten track of tourist map Budapest. This is common practice in the East to rent out rooms in a home to make some money, but this one is a full blown joint complete with a breakfast bar. Others don't have the space to offer and babushka's can been seen on the streets knitting and selling their patterns or cut flowers. I'm sure there's some poverty, but begging as a tiny fraction compared to that of New York or London and other major Western cities I've been through.
Up to the scenic vistas of Capital Hill to snap away some pictures that I'm already eager to get back and weaving around the oldest part of the city. 16 meters below the surface was the Labyrinth, perhaps the oldest used structure of mankind, although continuously only in use for the past 6 thousand years. Cavemen lived and hunted down here and societies hid here (outfitted to support 10 thousand people during the World Wars), and now for touring. All good stuff, but the final part is a bit corny with their imprints from the mock Homo consumus of sneakers, mobile phones and computers.
Emerging from the darkness, I felt the heat of day and am reminded that the bland London drizzle has advantages for my acclimation in everyday life. It's going to scorch here in August.
Night has come and I'm noticing my newly pink skin in this Internet cafe. A dinner at another cafe or kiosk and I'm back on the bus to house of Ildiko and her mother Olga. Tomorrow, I'll do Pest.
Surprisingly, Óbuda was a let down in the shadow of Buda's Castle Hill. It's now surrounded by hi-rise flats and split by a freeway. But that could be forgiven as some charisma is in the buildings and, although I don't feel it in my bones, some history. The streets are wide, the structures overly restored and the layout flat. There's more personality in a paper cup.
This where the grit and grime of the city live. The earth is flat here, so the character is completely in the architecture. Structures of interest are just about every few blocks, so just walking around is interesting enough.
I left the B&B on the Buda side and am now at a Hostel. I met some other great travelers from all over the world. Two Americans had been teaching English there for 6 months, a 40-something couple from Singapore was doing their Eastern Europe whirlwind tour and two younger Norwegian girls were there to share travel tales. A group of three 'k00l dudez' Americans also shared my room, sleeping half the day, drinking all night and annoying the neighbors enough for them to fire a warning gun shot! But even more amazing on a negative slope was the obnoxious Dutch girl who was angry at every native who couldn't speak English! I've never seen Dutch like that before... usually they'd apologize for their poor Hungarian (Magyan?) here.
While the mock-Mozart dressed guys in Vienna are attacking tourists to see an opera, it's regular looking guys who are trying to bait guys into strip shows and there pretty direct about that too. They act offended if you ignore them and follow you around a little if you're friendly, so I find answering 'no' without hesitation works best. Women do pretty much the same thing. I figured they must be prostitutes and ignored them (although they acted if I was being rude walking away after they said hello or asked for a cigarette). I later read a tourist warning that they are part of a scam that goes like this: attractive native strikes up conversation and, hey, why not go for a drink (or for a bite) at a nearby place? All is fine until the bill comes at more than 10 times the local price and then the smiling stops. A hefty referral commission is paid out later. I hear than man are pulling this scam too, especially in Greece.
But that's just the night time touristy area. The park in the daytime makes up for it. A fake, yet realistic, castle provides a romantic backdrop for winter ice skating and summer walks. There's intense chess matches going on, lots of friendly dogs on their walks and all ages of folks about, but the treasure here is the Széchenyi thermal baths.
People came for miles for the soothing "healing" of these year round warm waters and it does feel great! You pay 1500huf (under $5/Ł4 and well worth it), but get back money if you stay less than 2 hours. It starts off with your own changing room that is also your locker that you have to remember a secret number to have the guy bring the right key to open back up later.
Now time to find the exit to the pool and step in. Your body melts into butter in the warm pools so that you can't tell where your limbs end (in a pleasant way). The ceilings are like those of an old church, except green and grimy where the cleaner can't reach but the steam can. All sorts of little pools and sauna rooms abound. One was completely dark and steamy hot I couldn't breath... another was hot, but so dry it eliminates a need for a towel in minutes! It doesn't stop there... outside there's more warm water! It's like swimming in a palace here. On one end is a pool spiraling quickly everyone around until they stop their dizziness in the calm center. The farthest pool on the other side has crowded in pool chess matches going on. This was definitely a top cultural treat!