I am finally getting around to writing about our Budapest trip. But I am trying a little experiment. Today and tomorrow I am running the first day as I recorded it in Budapest (at the end of that first day). But I also composed a variant for my brother Stephen in a letter, and I want to try that out on Sunday… to have you, gentle readers, let me know which version is better.
Hereʼs what I originally wrote on October 21, 2011.
So we arrived to discover Budapest on a gray day. Again — it seems we find every European city under overcast: Prague, London, Dublin.
We had overnighted at the Hyatt Regency OʼHare (on a park-and-fly package that more than halved the hotelʼs actual, pretty steep rates) on Wednesday night, October 19 — a gloomy, cold and very rainy evening and night. The place being in the midst of nowhere, a suburban business wasteland surrounded by expressways, we ate at the hotel restaurant and found it really good. Janet had pasta and garlic tomato sauce (very lightly sauced) with shrimp. I ate hickory grilled chicken with “creamy mushroom potatoes,” which turned out to be sliced potatoes in a mushroom sauce.
We slept as late as the lovely one of us could (arising about 8:00 AM Thursday) and diddled about until close to noon (our flight wasnʼt out until around 2:00 PM). Mid-morning we took the dirty stuff from Wednesday to the car, depositing those clothes in the trunk, and then traipsed down to the lowest floor to use the hotel airline check-in kiosks (which they hid in the darkest end of that lower lobby).
Later Janet stood by the luggage down there at the foot of the escalators while I went back up to level 2 to check out. We caught a bus to the airport just as I returned and were the first ones off at Terminal 1 at OʼHare. We even checked our bags pretty smoothly. A ninety-minute wait got us on board for our seven-and-a-half hour flight to Frankfurt — arriving at 5:40 AM (Friday).
I slept for about four hours on the plane, but Janet couldnʼt — mostly thanks to the seatback in her face because the guy in front reclined almost constantly from the moment we took off. She did get him to go upright during the dinner snack, but not afterward whatsoever. I had bought an inflatable neck pillow at Target, along with a European-to-American current converter, and I think my pillow and an acetaminophen PM helped me rest. She watched movies as best she could in the seatback screen but mostly seethed with frustration. I awoke as we got over Ireland and enjoyed observing the lights of southern England and northwestern France (and Belgium) as we flew toward dawn.
Frankfurt airport was confusing, and we had only an hour and fifteen minutes to make our connection. I took us the wrong way first (probably wouldʼve been more observant if I had been told that our boarding passes indicated Gate A30, but I was desperately searching for a flight information display and followed the direction that most people were flowing). However, we got turned around not too far down the long corridor and headed back past our entrance gate to passport control (through which we passed amazingly fast) and on to our departure gate, where we waited a brief fifteen or twenty minutes before flight was called and we got on board.
The Lufthansa flight from Frankfurt to Budapest really demonstrated how tightly we had been herded and boxed on the United plane out of OʼHare (on United I couldnʼt even get scrunched over at any angle to see into my carry-on under the seat in front, but I had another six to ten inches distance on Lufthansa and could actually get things in and out of my little bag nearly effortlessly). The plane took off at 7:00 AM, and we arrived in Budapest about 8:40, getting a little breakfast, our second and superior morning meal, on the way.
There was no customs check (again, just like Prague two years earlier) — simply straight through from “baggage reclaim” (poggyászkado) where our two suitcases were among the first five or six off the plane — a previously unheard benevolence. We wandered the small exit lobby, just off the baggage carrousel, searching for taxi information (the travel books all indicated Zóna was the only licensed operation permitted at the airport) and for an ATM (supposedly “easily found”). After some minutes of fruitless examination, I asked at the information desk, stumbling through “Hol egy bankautomata”* to get a brusque English response, “Far end to the left.” We seemed to to be the first from our flight to attempt this machine, which, once my card was taken within, offered a choice of languages on the next screen. Fifty thousand forints (HUF or ft) poorer, we elected to drag bags outdoors — right into the taxi kiosk we needed to find. Not Zóna but Fotaxi (red logo). The capable girls at the dispatch booth there created a payment slip for 5100 ft (the price is supposed to be preset for airport-to-various zones downtown in Budapest [and we hope the same back out], which was 300 ft cheaper than advertised — for cash, we presumed).
Our driver, grizzled and iron-gray, was silent but effective, and we arrived at the Starlight Suiten Hotel in under thirty minutes, traveling four lanes past Sovietski concrete high-rises (that seemed deserted), malls, American fast food joints, billboards (repeatedly a brunette in a bra and tights) often in English, graffiti tags everywhere into two-lane roads that became streets, then a roadway around a lovely park, busy city streets, city sidestreets, another busy street for a while, then more side, then Mérleg utca (our street, right near the Danube) and the hotel. His GPS, visible from my seat in back, kept me aware of our constant movement toward the Duna/Danube, always a blue band across the top of his screen. We pulled up outside an unassuming little indentation in large gray buildings on a tiny street, but the blue sign said “Starlight Suiten Hotel.” We were home (for the next seven days).
* “Where is an ATM?” in case that bit of Hungarian wasnʼt self-evident from the context.
If there are any lessons from this part of Day One — donʼt fly United (or in our humble opinions, any domestic airline). Lufthansa, as we would discover to our pleasure going home (our flight was code-shared so we had United tickets but flew Lufthansa in Europe and all the way back to the States), remains unimaginably, infinitely superior to United.