If you didn’t figure it out from the three clues in the last post, the city Chiz chose for our latest trip was Budapest, Hungary. It is only a 1 ½ hour plane ride from Zurich to the huge Central European city so it made another great candidate of the long weekend variety.
The first fun fact we learned is that the ‘blue’ Danube runs through the middle of the city and separates the two parts of the city. Literally. The city to the west of the river is Buda and the city to the east is Pest. When we heard this we realized what a perfect fit this city was for the two of us. I naturally represent the Buda side with my spherical belly, which leaves Chizzy to be the… well, you get it. If you don’t have the knack for keeping compass directions clear in your mind, the Buda side can always be easily identified because it is the side with the hills. Pest is totally flat.
Chizzy got us a room on the Pest side with a great river view. We were right near the foot of the Chain Bridge and looking up into the Castle District of Buda.
Room with a view.
At night, it got dark outside.
The Pest side is basically the downtown area of the city and where you will find most businesses, restaurants, shopping, and people living. The city is enormous with over 2 million inhabitants, but if you want to take the stereotypical tourist approach like we did the city is surprisingly walk-able. Even so, we did get tickets for one of the hop-on-hop-off tour buses to double as back-up transportation. Except for one of the popular hills on the Buda side, you can hit all the main parts relatively easily on foot. The tourist method of exploring Budapest comes at a cost though. This city is not cheap at all. It isn’t expensive, but it isn’t cheap. Obviously we were often paying tourist prices, but unlike Paris where you feel like an idiot for walking into a tourist trap we didn’t feel like we had as much of a choice here. Sure, you can venture to the outskirts of the city and pay a fraction of the costs, but then you are on the outskirts of the city and there is really no reason you would want to be there. Even the small radius that our tour bus covered took us into areas the tour guide recommended against people visiting. I'm sure you could plan some fantastic excursions outside the city if you had a bit more time and wanted to see some great non-city stuff, but unless you are a hardcore traveler who wants to see the raw day-to-day view of the average citizen, it didn't seem worth searching out a bargain for bargains sake. That is just my initial opinion formed from the tour guide and that the city just felt poor in comparison to a lot of other places we have been. That being said, we felt absolutely safe everywhere we wandered and there were no beggers or obvious street scams being pulled. However, there was lots of good street music with an unusual propensity toward the flute.
Here are some pictures around Pest.
Three American fast food chains here. Burger King was the clear cut winner here. Which is good for the Hungarian people, because as our friend Piro used to say about BK; “If you are going to have a hamburger, why not have the greatest hamburger in the world?”
You may see some umbrellas in some of these photos, but not in any we took on Saturday. The sun was shining from the minute we woke up and the city looked like a completely different place from the rainy Friday we had the day before.
Another thing we learned on this trip is that Budapest is well known for its thermal baths. This is the entrance to one of the more popular ones in the city.
This is a real live woman dancing in the window and was actually one of the first things we saw as we were being driven to the hotel. From what I saw from the rest of the trip though, there are more strip clubs in Zurich than there are in tourist Budapest.
Hungary is also well known for its porcelain. Doilies were everywhere here too.
There were a ton of statues and some great architecture here as usual in Europe and I have pictures of some, but I do realize they aren’t that interesting to post. I liked this one though. This dude was at the top of a huge column in Hero’s Square which pays tribute to all the great Hungarian leaders of the past.
The Parliament building dominated this area of the bank and seemed to be the primary postcard shot. Seeing this little bit of construction reminded us that there weren’t nearly the amount of cranes in the skyline of Budapest as we are used to seeing. Not sure what this means for the city.
The Buda side feels older and I guess it probably is because the Pest side has some history of washing away in floods being the flat part and all. Although, they seem to have finally fixed these worries because the water level in the river Danube was at a 100 year high while we were here and there didn’t seem to be any danger of it coming over the bank. Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said for many people upstream in Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria this weekend where numerous cities and villages were flooded by the Danube and created a huge catastrophe.
There are two distinct hills on the Buda side each with a very different and interesting history. I’m not going to try to regurgitate it or separate the two here, but it is always interesting to visit these European cities and hear the tour guides talk so casually about the crazy events of the past. “Back in the communist days…” “Back when this was part of the Roman Empire…” “Back when the Hapsburgs ruled…” Anyway, you get a lot more castles, city walls, and old people on tour buses in Buda.
We got out of the rain for a couple hours on Friday by ducking into this wine cellar. For a fixed price, you got a glass, a bag of crackers, and an unlimited go at their huge collection of Hungarian wines. This is one of several rows in the cellar. And while we have gotten pretty good at the swirling, sniffing, and reflective nodding portion of the taste process, we still have yet to figure out the part where you are supposed to spit the wine back out.
This statue was erected to commemorate the Russian liberation of Hungary in WWII. Little did they know at the time the Russians would decide to stick around and ruin it for everybody.
This gives a good idea of the huge impact this statue has standing atop Gellert Hill.
“Come on. You are really going to sit there and tell me there isn’t even a little something you miss about the communist days?”
This is the Bishop Gellert for whom the hill is named after. This story goes way back to 1046 when Hungary was just a bunch of pagans. This Gellert dude shows up and tries to get everybody to jump on the Christianity bandwagon. The heathens didn’t want any part of it, so they put him inside a barrel and rolled it down the hill. He died. The Christians went on to win at some point.
If you are thinking this looks like yet another bridge, you are right. I think there were probably 5 bridges in fairly close proximity that connected the two parts of the city. Each were very different.
You knew I couldn’t go without mentioning the food. Fantastic! From the very first pub we went into on Thursday night, we had nothing but amazing Hungarian cuisine the entire trip. Paprika for days. Goulash to the gills. Beef medallions melting in your mouth. Pickled vegetables. Spicy sausage. Fantastic wines! Great local beers. They have a desert here called Gundel Pancakes that you must try if you get the chance. Budapest ranks up there with Brussels for top honors in the gastronomy department. I guess the way we would describe the difference is that Brussels felt a bit more culinary whereas Budapest was just simply fantastic home cooked feasts. We also found a café with mussels which we had to try. Although these weren’t quite to the level of the Brussels mussels, these were still great and they show what I mean about how the size is so much more manageable.
Again, English was absolutely not an issue. It is the requisite first language in the schools there and more often than not the first words you heard out of anybody’s mouth were in English. We only found one place (a great restaurant) where the preferred second language was not English, but it was German so we were actually able to communicate pretty well.
There are tons of museums here as well, but we only ducked into an historical one, the House of Terror, since art isn’t really our thing. The House of Terror is located in a building on one of main streets of town that used to be the police headquarters of the Communist party. A lot of really nasty stuff happen in this building and the tour was pretty depressing. Still, it was interesting to see.
We visited a casino for the first time in Europe here too. It is the only casino we have found so far that allowed casual attire. Fittingly, the place was called the Las Vegas Casino. Unlike Vegas, however, they make it very clear your every move is being watched. You have to present a picture ID and register when you enter and they even point for you to look up at the video camera overhead to make sure they get a good head shot. We sat down at a blackjack table with 10,000 Hungarian forints each. That’s about $50. The table minimum was 500 forints so we were able to really stretch it out and eventually finished only a little down. The maximum was really high though and the dude next to us was betting about 20,000 forints on two spots the entire time we were there. So, we were betting about $2.50 a deal and he was betting about $200. He loved us though because we knew how to play, we were having fun, and he was winning. The dealer told us he liked us too. It was mainly because we tipped him and were having fun, but I think it was also because we were American. I really got the impression they liked Americans here. One bar even had a sign that said, “USA. It’s still number 1”. I don’t know what the ‘still’ was referring to, but it didn’t seem like it was meant to be sarcastic.
All in all, we had a great weekend in a great city.
Update: How would you interpret this sign if you saw it in a foreign country?