Back in Budapest — the rest of Day 5

After some little absence, as the bright day trembles everywhere with wind, outside, I turned our afternoon and evening of the fifth day in Budapest (Tuesday, October 25, 2011) into many more words than I had anticipated. I connect repeatedly to a map because I keep talking about details a map might make clear. Anyway, we spent the morning and midday at the Museum of Fine Arts and Heroesʼ Square, and then got on Metro line 2…

Ignoring the dumb “A” icon GoogleMaps™ inserted (and the also pointless green arrow), this map of central Budapest shows most of the sites mentioned today.

We got off at Oktagon, Janet in particular having gotten intrigued with Andrássy út, me vaguely still considering a visit to the Terror Museum (never to be realized), both of us interested in seeking out one of the guidebook-recommended coffeehouses — the New York Café. The old turn-of-the-last-century neo- (or perhaps pseudo-) Baroque splendor advertised for this place sounded worth the price of admission (not seriously admission, but the café does insist visitors actually order; and we were  feeling like an afternoon pause and refreshment might be in order). Unfortunately, at Oktagon, my resurfacing problem arrived, with me* totally screwed around as to which way was north or south or east or west. I suppose a study of a map, closely, might have revealed where the Metro outlet was located on this complex intersection — actually the roundabout/crossing of Andrássy út and Erzsébet körút/Teréz körút); but the map-containing guidebooks remained in my vest pocket(s) as we looked around and, me spotting an arriving tram, rushed across/around some streets to climb aboard on the tram-access island in the middle of a boulevard.

I had figured out that the New York Café lay along the Grand Boulevard toward the south (i.e. along the portion labeled Erzsébet körút**, the Teréz körút stretch swinging off northward toward the Danube and the Margit híd — about eight blocks before which the name becomes Szent István körút), and my gut felt (incorrectly, as reality fairly quickly made clear) that this tram was heading south. It was taking us northward, as I realized finally when the river appeared, so we hopped off just before the bridge to wait, briefly it turned out, to catch a southbound vehicle (No. 4 or 6 — donʼt remember which: it was going the right way).

So we journeyed back through Oktagon (this was one strange time that retracing a route didnʼt seem shorter than the unknowing first experience) and on around onto the actual Erzsébet körút where, in my nervous excitement I got us off one stop too soon (although I see clearly now on my DK map and in Rick Stevesʼs guide that the correct exit is two stops past Okatagon; but as I have said, I was, um, nervous and excited). So we walked a couple of blocks to the Wesselényi út intersection, where the cornerside café was splendidly evident (if only for the number of tourists hovering around at the door outside).

interior of the New York Café

We entered behind other gawkers in groups of two to eight, all but a pair of whom turned back at the maitreʼd for the cheaper haven of the streets. The couple ahead got seated and then it was our turn. We got a table not far from the door, not far from a very busy waitersʼ station, along a railing, with a nice view of things (unfortunately I only have one poor picture [to the right] to reveal the multi-storeyed, gilt-and-plaster spectacle wrapped around a — to us — distant courtyard). And we ordered… a little midafternoon sweetness (a feature of the place) and of course some coffee. I got a special combo of mini-desserts, and every one of them was delectable (lots of chocolate involved). And we ogled the décor. The place was truly spectacular, very Baroque in influence — lots of white plaster, painted dome ceilings and gilt; my one photograph doesnʼt capture even a hint of the spectacle.***

From there, once we paid our hefty tab, we climbed aboard another tram to continue around to eventually connect and reach the Great Market Hall (once again in our visit), where we wandered around in much more detail this time, exploring the second floor, where the tourist mementos are found (none of which fit our budget) and back around the first floor food stalls, searching to buy paprika for our neighbors (what else for a souvenir?) and Janetʼs brother-in-law and even a bag for me to use (so far still unopened). We also descended (via escalator, I believe) to the basement for the supermarket there, which we wandered, sometimes in incomprehension, checking prices and even acquiring some foodstuffs and wine (it was here we found that our hotelʼs price for a bottle of St. István, red or white, was actually pretty high, regardless how cheap it had seemed to us). I even figured out the costs and got us checked out without major incident or (typical-for-me) screw-up.

Great Market Hall, Pest

It was getting late in the afternoon, or early in the evening, by then. We walked Váci utca back home and debated in our room what to do that evening for food, searching through the guidebooks, considering a return to any of the three places we had enjoyed so far, settling at last on another Rick Steves recommendation, Café Gerlózsy (which, in checking the spelling, I just noticed is listed among the coffeehouse sights by that author, right with the New York).

We dressed (I had wisely this trip finally brought along only one suitcoat — works to keep one warm outdoors and dressy if necessary — and just two choices of shirt and sweater, a single pair of nonjeans pants****) and headed out into the night, crossing once more by Erzsébet tér and around some very dark streets/almost-alleys to the restaurant, where we saw smokers/grills going high-aflame outside in the courtyard, where a good number of diners sat at tables in the chill nocturnal air. Entering, we got accosted peremptorily by an aloof (maybe even rude) maitreʼd, taken to a seat right off the entryway in the overheated interior and proceeded to have a horrible time. 

 Café Gerlózsy turned out to be a mistake — overpriced, haughty and gentrified. We were treated poorly (the only such experience this trip; even the New York staff was nice to us, obvious scum-tourists that we were), and the food wasnʼt worth the cost. At all. Janet loathed her salty smoked mackerel (the daily special), although I was more tolerant of my lamb shank in a vegetable mash. Admittedly, that shank had to be from the tiniest lamb in recorded slaughtering history (about the same size as the duck legs we had enjoyed the second evening, before the concert), but it was okay. I kept offering to exchange meals, but My Beloved refused, getting increasingly displeased by every event (including the excessive heat, the staff bumping by our table… smoke, noise… everything). Basically we paid up as quickly as possible and stalked rapidly back to the hotel, burning off offended energy in our quickstepping pace, not really appreciating any sights we revisited en route. 

Oh well, canʼt be right every time.

sights along Váci utca

Váci utca

* (Janet never knows what way is what, particularly when weʼre away from home regions, like on vacation or a trip somewhere. Recently,  for instance, we were in Schaumburg, and until our last day, she always turned the wrong direction getting off the elevator. The same thing can happen to me, as the story above indicates, but I try hard to keep track of directions for both our sakes, particularly in strange locales.)

** The southward-swinging route changes names just as confusingly when the boulevard crosses particular major thoroughfares — becoming first Jozsef körút and then Ferenc körút just before the route crosses the river via the Petöfi híd, amusingly just past the Boráros tér tram stop, which we had reached, nervous and a little discombobulated, on our first tram day, taking the No. 2 along the river southward. The whole Grand Boulevard follows the old walls of the medieval city of Pest, by the way.

*** Coffeehouse culture was a huge aspect of civic life in Budapest a hundred years or so ago, as in Prague (where Kafka among so many others spent considerable time in these sociaable, civilized environments) or Vienna, any of the cultural centers of the Austo-Hungarian Empire.

**** Also my first trip with no sneakers/trainers. My rubbery-plastic pseudo-dress shoes worked great (kept my feet dry on these two rainy days), felt comfy and passed muster among all the Euro-footed, fancy-leather-shod stylistas (and I am talking about men).

We still have several days to go. And weʼll get to it all… one of these days.

©2012 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

More Budapest, Day 5 — Museum and Heroes Square

Museum of Fine Arts, showing a tiny bit of the breadth of plaza, which I keep talking about, that is Heroes Square

Continuing from yesterday, I ramble on about our rambles around the Museum of Fine Arts some more (and I edited the previous post to include some links that hadnʼt been there before) and our return into rain to look at Vőrös tere

In the end we spent almost four hours at the museum. I completely lost track of time (yes, I wore my watch, but I seldom think to look at that sucker), progressing forward in art history time from the lengthy medieval stuff I wrote about vaguely already through some Renaissance artists (Italian, German, British, Spanish [I remember an El Greco] — things started to get sorted by nationality, so the time sequence got a bit confused for me except by styles and subjects), Baroque, Nineteenth Century, and very little modern.

The Dutch galleries, listed by all guides as a highlight, was exactly that — more focused on big canvases of landscapes and still lives than the tiny interiors familiar from Vermeer or characterful faces of Rembrandt.

The Museum of Fine Arts has some very fine works, but what really drew My Belovedʼs attention was, obviously, the Impressionists — and there were quite  few interesting canvases to study  toward the end of our second- and third-floor wanderings. I even got to play my game of finding out how far away the painting leaped into real-life clarity and focus (amazingly far away, even in different rooms for several). I also enjoyed the earlier French artists — Delacroix, Corot and Courbet (all of whom found spacious discussion previously here on the blog). On this visit, although a few of the guards (mostly stout, middle-aged and older women) watched me getting my intrusive nose perhaps too close to some canvases, I didnʼt come near to actually touching anything.

the (admittedly uninteresting-to-foreigners) historical nobility (southern) half of the Heroes Square monument

Legendary and historical kings on Heroes Square

The mounted Magyars on the central spire, Heroes Square

Eventually, art-weariness began to make things seem less and less intriguing for this day (a false, subjective impression bred from too-muchness at any museum), and we found our way back to the steps we had come up several hours earlier. However, in the lobby (where we had paid our admission, now filled with various groups of people, plentiful schoolchildren) I noticed that a pair of large doors led off to the Greek and Roman antiquities, and we went in there (me a bit trepidatious that perhaps this wing required an extra fee — it didnʼt).

Now The Lovely One has had more than enough of Greek vases — red-figure, black-figure and polychrome — from our visits to the British Museum, where she may also have gotten more than she wanted of examining the Lindow Man, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but she does like the sculpture and enjoys mosaics (after our visit to Volubilis in Morocco back in 1984). And we ended up spending another hour-plus amidst (yes) vases (all three kinds, but a limited number) of many varieties (of use), among which I pointed out amphorae to her, and lots of Roman statues or assorted fragments thereof (also true of the vases).

Pleasantly, almost no other visitors bothered to take in these genuine antiquities, and the gentle quiet made these final rooms a real highlight of our visit… for both of us (even with vases examined, sometimes minutely, by one of us).

The heroic couple atop the central spire, Heroes Square

Unlike yesterday, my own shot of Mucsarnok, the Music Hall

But then we descended again to retrieve our belongings and depart, in order to check out the monument(s) of Heroes Square, erected like so much else in Budapest for the millennial celebrations of 1896 (which is also why so many things in the city are 896 feet and/or meters high). We toured around the two sets of historical “heroes,” the first, older group on our side (toward the Museum of Fine Arts) being legendary and historical kings and the other group comprising lesser-known Hungarian nobles. I was reading from Rick Steves and either Frommer or DK, trying to be more informed and informative than had been our experience on Saturday over on Castle Hill. It was, however, actually raining, and our studies began to feel uncomfortably wet, even after we drew out the umbrellas (difficult to hold one and read from a guidebook), so after perhaps only a half hour or so, we headed off the large plaza to find again the Vőrös tere Metro stop and descend into the bowels beneath the streets.

We were headed back under Andrassy út toward the river…

Again, more to come… someday…

©2012 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Wrapping It Up (Day 3 in Budapest, part 4)

Golly. I let a week sag by with no post (mostly because this one wasnʼt complete and I simply dogged it for seven days, tracking the Komen for the Cure/Planned Parenthood fiasco, spending a day with The Lovely One at her annual eye exam — all good news — and otherwise diddling my days away). However, as fog shifts to rain, appropriately, in present time, hereʼs the rest of our third day, Sunday, 23 October 2011, a national holiday, in Budapest. For those with memories as short-term as mine, we had, as this post begins, just returned from being lost and ill at ease in the wilds of southwestern suburban Budapest.

the possibly left-leaning crowd at Elizabeth Bridge — the Hungarian flag is on the big screen

Rain — heavy mist or lightly moderate drizzle had begun while we still stood exposed on the overpass embankment, and the precipitation had actually begun to fall as our tram trundled north and east toward the river. Once across the Liberty Bridge and off the tram, out on the street, it just seemed noticeably cold and tangibly wet. Váci utca was more open, less crowded than usual — not clear, and busloads of packaged tourists herded about (Italians, Germans, French) actually shopping for cheap cornball t-shirts, overpriced minuscule packets of paprika, fake collectible porcelain, and all the rest of the international norm of prefab predictable standardized mementos. We stalked efficiently north, bobbing and weaving around dawdling clots of less determined pedestrians (a common complex set of maneuvers for us, whether at a mall, a city sidewalk or once upon a time through the throttled halls of secondary schools on winter Saturdays for speech contests) while the cold mist condensed on our clothes. As we came toward the big intersection with Sabad Sajtó út where Elizabeth Bridge lifted out above to our left over the Duna, we could see ahead that the crowd there thickened toward impassibility, spilling in our direction on Váci utca and filling the intersection. As we neared the crowd, encountering various couples, trickles and streams of people milling around the general area, we could hear amplified speeches which soon switched to a folksy-sounding music set. Getting close, I realized the crowd filled the bridge, shoulder-to-shoulder, more than halfway out, around and beyond a kind of stage backed with a huge screen. People massed all the way across our intersection and blocks back from the river, relying in those hindmost parts on the big screen, I suppose.

from the rear (more or less) of the big crowd at the bridge

Janet was feeling the chill and suggested we stop for a coffee at the (conveniently located and therefore obviously very busy) coffee shop on the corner. I needed a rest in a room by this time somewhat, so I acquiesced and prepared (unnecessarily, as always) to order in Hungarian at the counter two decaf nonfat skim lattes. We evidently hit a lull in newcomers (the small interior was almost totally filled, except for a table The Lovely One promptly claimed by seating herself while I wove a route to the counter), and I only had to wait behind about three others. The staff took my money, made change and delivered the two drinks in very good time, and I rejoined Janet at her little table right beside the toilets, where I headed next. Returning, I realized other people were at our table, and Janet actually had to raise her voice and wave to get me to see the windowside seats to which she had moved.

While we hunched in our little chairs over our cardboard cups on the tiny table, two guys heard us speaking English and came over to inquire about eating out and food prices. I havenʼt made a big deal about it yet, but eating out in Budapest was remarkably and pleasantly inexpensive (and tipping is only just seriously catching on, too — a rather snide observation for someone who, in my old age, feels very comfortable doing the 18% thing nowadays, usually). Evidently, as we learned, not so on Váci utca, where these two (justifiably) felt they had been pretty much ripped off. From our experiences they had been gouged (although we had yet to encounter our worst and most costly eating experience that day; it would come on Tuesday night). We agreed that the price they had paid was high and talked with them a while, finishing our lattes. They moved on, and we followed later, pausing to study the activities we couldnʼt actually see on the bridge and the (still enlarging) crowd. 

We took off on a side street to try to flank the crowd and get across Sabad Sajtó út some blocks away from the river — about four, I think. Turning to head toward the hotel again, we passed Erzsébet tér and the other demonstration/rally. The speakers here were markedly more fevered in tone (because naturally we couldnʼt understand word one at either gathering) and the crowd demonstratively fascistic in its reactions (they didnʼt, but I expected any moment, as we scurried past, to witness a few hundred Hungarians make the fierce right-hand-in-the-air salute). If I felt correctly about the first demonstration as being of a mildly leftist leaning, this one was coldly, harshly of the Right. And their music, when it started up as we arrived at the Starlight Suiten, and which we continued to hear as we opened and savored a bottle of Szent István white (our red hadnʼt been replenished for this holiday Sunday) in the room, relaxing, was the militaristic neo-fascist dextreme rock familiar to American audiences through certain notorious neo-Nazi-sympathising German bands. We were actually somewhat worried, considering the copsʼ armed presence and the taped off streets and access, about heading out for dinner that night.

By the time we did go out again, walking along Oktober 6 út  away from both demonstrations toward the basilica, the music we had vaguely heard having ended a while earlier, people were moving along with us… toward their cars or public transit. We hadnʼt made any definite plans but knew that we had seen several restaurants on the square outside the church and figured one of those would suffice. We chose an Italian place, which was very nice — somewhat baroque — inside. Costly and not well patronized, but we got a bottle of wine, salad and pizza. After, we wandered back toward the scene of the rally and found, accidentally, the fabled Gerbaud coffeehouse, where we entered and (this place also being nearly deserted) had some dessert with a cappuccino (her) and a latte (me). Janet went to the case (which I later read in one of our books was the correct thing to do) and ordered a chocolate-and-hazelnut torte that she loved while I chastely ordered a palacsinta (“pancake” or crepe) with walnut filling sided with apricot ice cream and some kind of tasty apricot gel stuff. Really expensive (as the tour books warn), but as our third dessert of the trip, good in our estimation (we would meet better, again as the books advised, later). 

Then home to bed so we wouldnʼt sleep half the next day away.

I think this is the single shot I felt bold enough to take in the neighborhood of the right-wing rally

There. Now I just have Monday through Thursday to cover… Someday. Possibly soon.

©2012 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Budapest, Day 3 (part 3) — feeling lost

Yesterday, I left off with The Lovely One and me standing at a stop (returned again southwards from Elizabeth Bridge, back down at Liberty Bridge), waiting for a number 47 or 49 tram to carry us across the Danube to the northern foot of Gellért hill to check out the exterior of some baths.

We boarded a tram fairly quickly (although I couldn’t tell you, probably even a few hours after, if it was a 47 or a 49*) and crossed the Danube to Buda. Here we were in a real commercial downtown area, much different than at the western end of Széchenyi lanchid (Chain Bridge) just to the north (the previous day, afoot). Lots of businesses lined the streets, busy pedestrians, traffic. The tram stopped a couple times, with plenty of exchange in passengers on and off. However, I wasn’t sure where to get off or if we passed right by the baths and could see what I wanted to see from the tram (or whether we were at the baths yet). Then the train, like the street we were following, climbed, turned, and rattled into a different kind of neighborhood, gradually less business-filled and more urban-residential. And the buildings gradually began to thin as we did not stop for a while. 

Now I was sure we had passed the baths without realizing, and as we eventually reached a stop in the middle of the broad boulevard down which we were traveling, wasn’t sure if we should get off here or somewhere less… empty. Here the buildings, large apartment structures, were set back from the street, traffic had thinned to nonexistent, and the very openness the civic designers had sought to create felt… uncomfortable. So I kept quiet, and we passed a series of stops in this kind of environment until the openness began to feel positively (negatively?) midwestern, verging past suburban toward potentially rural. The stops stopped, too, and we just rode.

GoogleMaps™ image showing part of our adventure — the cursor arrow points where we started; we ended up off the map about where this caption says, “GoogleMaps™” or even further southwest

We crossed multilane highways, up over a bridge, an elevated overpass, and stopped. Finally. It had been quite a while since the last stop, and we were clearly out beyond where we should be. Janet had grown wisely much more uneasy with this less-than-scenic excursion and determined we were getting off there — before it was too late somehow — to catch a return tram. 

So, in the real middle of nowhere, we exited the car, just us, finding ourselves still on the downside of the overpass, a big twenty-plus-storey residential concrete-and-glass block structure about three hundred yards away, on the other side of more tracks, off the overpass, across a green space and a street. Nearer, a yellow structure, more than a shed, about garage-sized, with elementary-kid art on the side toward us showing happy people doing something supposedly fun in an outdoor setting, was almost as high up as we were. Otherwise, a pretty barren if somewhat restricted view.

It was cold, the wind cutting. I looked around and led us to the farther side of the tracks and uphill somewhat to the spot that seemed to be the stop for trams going the other way. And we waited, alone in the empty highway crossroads, at the shaking tram sign on the embankment, under the steel sky that now looked very fraught with rain. Very alone in this very empty place, where now no trams arrived for a long time from either direction. 

Someone was not happy with me. We both continued to feel nervous, out of place, chilled and uncomfortable. After some time, perhaps ten or fifteen minutes, other people climbed up the hill behind the yellow building to wait at the outbound stopping point where we had exited. A group of older people (probably our own age, although I always see my own age as people older than myself), men and women — two couples and an odd woman out, all gazing surreptitiously, sometimes obviously at us with disapproval and suspicion (well, so it seemed to me) and probably dislike. They conversed among themselves a little, while Janet and I shivered in silence.

Finally, after maybe a full half hour, a tram arrived heading back the way we now wanted to go, and we quickly got on the nearly empty train, which shuddered and clattered away back toward the river and civilization. We returned through all the sights that had seemed so ominous earlier, now friendly and more clearly suburban and residential. Back into downtown Buda by the river, across the bridge and back to Pest, where Janet quickly got us right off the vehicle immediately and headed us down Váci utca toward home. It was about 4:00 PM.

Our day wasnʼt over yet. We still had the much-foretold and otherwise heralded demonstrations to encounter…

* Checking one of my maps, I bet it was a 49. The 47 route doesnʼt appear to go far enough south.

No travel picture with this post because during the experience I forgot all about having a camera bulging in the pocket of my vest. The shot you see is a fake: I stepped outdoors just now, before posting, and snapped another gray and heavy sky. This oneʼs full of frozen rain.

Yes, I am dragging this Sunday out (probably too long, I realize). However, I did want to steer myself away from the “we did this and then we saw that and then we went there and then…” trap that travel writing (like mine) can stumble into. I wanted to express a dose of that particular tourist terror that can arise from the tiniest slip of expectations into utter surprises when youʼre in a distant place, especially without the local language. Nothing was wrong for us that afternoon, but even so we got just a little goosepimpling of spooked. And that minor and self-imposed unhappiness was an element of the whole wonderful experience, too.

Besides, itʼs true.

©2012 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Budapest, Day 3 (part 2) — digressive

Budapest reminiscences continue (more or less) today. I left off yesterday with us at the Deák Ferenc tér Metro stop, having purchased our seven-day travel passes (even though we had just five days left on our trip, counting this national holiday on Sunday, October 23, 2011). So we continue…

The Number 2 tram, whizzing by this befuddled photographer by night — taken a few days after Sunday, October 23

Then it was time to reascend to the surface and visit (Janetʼs wish) the cheese festival, which in the drizzle of early afternoon was closing up. So all we did was wander among the booths, smelling food, watching people, perusing some Hungarian handicrafts, and making silly Wallace-and-Gromit “cheese” gestures at each other. Perhaps another half hour passed. Then we crossed our busy avenue over to the big synagogue (using my map, I had figured out what it was), but it was closed for the holiday (we had vaguely hoped it was open, having been closed as usual for the Sabbath the day before).* We decided to return there tomorrow, probably. So we wandered off on side streets, desultorily visiting the Jewish Quarter in the slightly increasing drizzle/mist/haze of moisture. 

Holiday (or demonstrating) crowd on October 23, 2011

The thing I havenʼt sufficiently emphasized about our Sunday/national holiday experience was the slightly (very) menacing fact of growing crowds, police presence — tape, military-like cops, vehicles — and physical preparations for rallies. The vague menace arose from our hotel desk staffʼs apparent concern about the then-upcoming “demonstrations” about which we were not supposed to worry, but from which their list of alternative activities was designed to keep us away. Elizabeth Square, a very nice block-long and block-wide park, had actual construction ongoing (carpenters pounding and powered saws squealing — building a platform, possibly a stage), and there was a steady flow of hundreds (and hundreds) of people down one or two (relatively minor) streets toward the river. We could tell that something was going to happen — actually, as it turned out, several somethings. But we didnʼt learn that until later. We didnʼt personally experience anything about demonstrations or rallies until later. 

Once we finished our tour of rundown grey buildings on curving, narrow trafficless streets, nonetheless parked with Euro cars from end to end, both sides, driverʼs side wheels up on the sidewalk (which turned out once we consulted a map later on, to be the Jewish Quarter), we wandered southwards, eventually arriving by the Great Market Hall — a location we ended up at often over our week in town. My ignorant semi-study of guidebook transit maps (and reading) indicated that the Number 2 Tram along the Pest side of the Danube was scenic, so we hopped aboard a northbound one at Liberty Bridge. 

I rather enjoy public transit. Janet is less sure about buses and now, after Budapest, trams. Admittedly, I have a record of getting us… not exactly lost but far from known regions, a history extending back to the end-of-the-line debacle in Amsterdam in 1983 (we did get back; we just had to get off and wait for the tram to turn around and the driver to take a break), through an extended bus ride into the wilds of East London, possibly beyond the zones permitted on our TravelCards (but we did hop off after questioning the conductor and did get on a returning bus right back to Oxford Street; and the areas we were “lost” in were really just working class, not slums at all — regardless how paranoid we were feeling or oddly other passengers were eyeing us), through the incident I am about to relate in Budapest, to an extensive bus ride, intended as a brief escape from the rain, in Chicago over New Years (which also involved reaching the turnaround point on the loop, where the driver parked and took a fifteen-minute — Janet says half-hour — break). The problem is that bus and tram routes are generally shown only partially on maps, particularly in tourist guidebooks, but even on some official transit maps (not that we had any in Budapest and only Michigan Avenue tourista ones at New Years), so figuring where a particular bus or tram might go can become an issue of mere guesswork.

My beloved does, on the other hand, like subways, in general. And I think the London Underground and its much imitated schematic colored map is one reason. For most subways, Metros, the Underground, the Tube you can figure pretty easily where your line is going and even pretty exactly what stops to expect (Chicagoʼs Red Line proved at New Years to be a partial exception to my rule — no posted route map in the car, just advertising). 

The number 2 tram — shot, as the blue sky should reveal, a few days later

But Budapest is our topic. We got aboard the #2 heading (if I can even remember at this remove, nearly three full months after the fact) north toward Parliament. Our vehicle/car was fairly crowded (I know we had to stand — we invariably did on trams), and the view was not very impressive, especially out over the gray river on this gray and drizzly day. We could easily see Buda over there, but rushing by as we moved along. The Pest side was mostly just walls and barriers between us and stuff (like Parliament), although we did get a good, quick glimpse of the Gresham Palace and Roosevelt tér race past. I donʼt remember how far north we went, maybe to Margit híd (bridge by Margaret Island), maybe farther, then back to the south.

This southward trip was the first taste of misadventure, as somewhere south of Szabadság híd,** at what must be the Közvágóhíd terminus, in territory that seemed unfriendly beyond unfamiliar (our typical tourist paranoia arising from going beyond the regular tourist regions, just the same as the uncomfortable London double-decker tour to East London in 2001 and just the same as our worst moments later in that holiday Sunday afternoon), having to wait and catch a different set of cars to go back northwards, we both started getting nervous. Reaching the end of the line was surprising.

Possibly, the gloomy overcast and pall of threatened “demonstrations” infected our moods, but we both felt out of place. Honestly, a (very) little scared.

We got off our dead-ended tram and wandered across tracks to two other trams that seemed to be headed, eventually, back to the north and the city center. But we couldn’t easily decide which one to get on. Hesitation and fretting led to us following a few other travelers (local citizens) onto one of the cars, which after another five or ten minutes did start back up the same way we had come down. Janet wanted off once we reached Elizabeth Bridge/Vörosmarty tér, and with my now aged notion of visiting outside one of the baths, I said we should catch a 47 or 49 tram across the Danube to Buda and see the Gellért Baths.

We caught the tram easily enough, but baths we did not see, although we got to see what The Lovely One considered altogether too much of the city/suburbs south of Buda. Probably ten or twelve stops too much.

But that will have to be tomorrowʼs tale (or sometime). Weʼre well over a thousand words today.

* (Perhaps, knowing something about the paired left- and [more importantly, probably] right-wing demonstrations scheduled for the holiday, and the proximity — of the just-then-arriving right-wingers in Erszébet tér — to the synagogue, they had wisely shut up shop this Sunday. Some security was still in evidence, too.)

** (Freedom Bridge on Vámház körút, which led around through Kálvin tér becoming first Múzeum körút, then Károly körút — the big, wide street we had encountered looking for Deák tér and the metro ticket booth — the route I think we had followed more or less until we picked up the northbound No. 2)

©2012 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Budapest, Day 2 (Saturday, October 21, 2011)

Todayʼs post takes The Lovely One and me on to our second day in Budapest — Saturday, when we crossed the Danube to Buda to explore stuff that really reminded us of our Prague experience. Previous posts are yesterday, Saturday and Friday.

I talked about our visit to this building during our first day, but I never had a picture show of the structure itself. This is Janetʼs favorite Budapest site, the neogothic glory of Parliament.

We had flown in under overcast (ground fog — thick, at that) in Frankfurt in the blackness of 5:00 AM on Friday, October 21. The rain moved into Budapest on Sunday (thick wet air — misty mostly rather than actual rain) and continued all through Monday.* We just heard that Tuesday is supposed to repeat today/Monday.

The Lovely One looks back at me on Széchenyi lánchid with Hungarian flags flying in the stiff breeze.

But first there was Saturday — a glorious day of high, blue skies, scattering early clouds for brilliant sunshine. Saturday was a wonderful and invigorating day, perfect (if autumnal and therefore slightly chilly weather — however, for our whole trip this year, not any time as cold as Prague was two years ago, though). That morning, having slept a dozen hours, we arose about 8:30 to shower, drafts and head out across the Chain Bridge (almost just outside our doors) for Buda and the royal palace complex.

Although not so intimate (or old) as the romantic Karlův Most/Charles Bridge in Prague (these comparisons are inevitable, though not really were particularly appropriate, as Budapest has suffered considerable damage in warfare, some quite recent, including World War II, unlike Prague), Chain Bridge/Széchenyi lánchid — built from 1839-49** and open to vehicular traffic — has wide pedestrian ways on each side (passages that pedestrians traversed in both directions on both sides) offering memorable vistas down then up the Danube (Duna), South and North, depending which side you were walking. Parliament’s neo-Gothic spires and neoclassic green dome shone brilliantly in the grey morning. I shot far too many photos of views and bridge works as we walked eastward across the river.

the last few steps up to reach Fishermenʼs Bastion

Once over, although I easily spotted both, we elected to forgo the already extensive line for the funicular straight up the steep hillside or the set of steps which led directly ahead to the (rebuilt) castle/palace complex. We angled right (South) off streets paved in macadam (with smaller, cobbled ways off, downhill, on our right), switching back (at last) northward, steeper, until we took steps straight up to…

… a medieval-like complex I eventually figured out was Fisherman’s Bastion, with St. Mattias Church just ahead (much closer than my guidebook reading had prepared me to expect). The whole area was crowded with multiple (maybe ten?) tour groups in full tourista-rude mood and mode.

Mattyas church

Of course, nothing up there is actually old (except underground) because of the war(s) damage. We saw the Fishermanʼs Bastion, where we arrived atop the hill, and the very nearby Mattias Church, wandered around the streets of the old town area (now nice and relatively desirable residences with plenty of supposedly overpriced restaurants and right by the church an ultra-modern Hilton hotel on medieval foundations) for several hours before eventually making our way over to the castle, where we were stopped by and talked with a nice young man hawking tickets to a concert that evening (at a Baroque former casino that turned out to be just cross the street from where we ate dinner Friday night, thus just around the corner from our hotel). We offered to think about it and went on to look over the castle, although not electing to visit the museums that fill it up — Hungarian art and Hungarian history (we did do a free subset of the history in a corridor off the entry way that Rick Steves told us about in his Budapest book, where we also used an ATM for our weekʼs cash). The courtyard was scenic, particularly with the green dome looming overhead, but as Rick Steves notes, feeling empty somehow. 

A shot in the castle courtyard

On our way out, we did buy the tickets from the guy (now with a girlfriend with whom he was eating a midafternoon lunch) so we had an activity that night (and the concert we attended later was good, too). Then because the caverns under the castle are a big sight to visit one way or another, we took a “tour” of some of the former wine storage area. The expereince was mostly intended just to be a tasting of Hungarian wines (we were, I believe, the only people all afternoon to actually do the tour, which was kind of fun if excessively informative, almost entirely in in Hungarian, about the countryʼs many wine regions — Hungary is resuscitating its wine industry that produced mostly mediocre junk wine under the communists). It was cool and medieval in the cellars, and I took (again) far too many ill-focused pictures before we got to the end of the line and had to turn around and retrace our route back to the beginning for our (included/featured) wine tasting. The enthusiastic young man who served our four wines, explaining about the region and vintering for each vintage, was very nice (and even got The Lovely One to attempt the final Tokai — She Who Usually Shuns Any Sweet Wine actually drank a dessert white). We were enthused about our underground adventure and bought four bottles after our tasting (not, however, including any Tokai). 

Heading home on the other side of Chain Bridge, Janet clutches lovingly to our purchases from the wine cellars.

Heading home, we opened another bottle of the St. István red (resupplied) in our room, then changed for dinner and the concert. We ate just up Mérleg utca at Palinka Bistrot Kafeház (coffeehouses, as we would discover, can be many kinds of places in Hungary, including actual restaurants, like this one) where, at our charming young waitressʼs suggestion, we ordered the prix fixe feature of the night, “meat pancakes” (sounds strange the way the restaurant chose to translate the thing, actually an Hungarian specialty, palacsinta is a heavy crepe filled with meat, in this case ground beef, we think — I had them at two other restaurants later, always delicious) followed by duck leg (slightly paprikash, as was the sauce for the palacsinta) with warm cabbage/sauerkraut and potatoes. It was great, and the waitress was very nice and even funny all evening (however, only one other family came in for dinner after us, and we arrived as one other couple was grumpily finishing their meal — all of us tourists). Then the concert, featuring the Hungarian cimbalom for about a third of the numbers — rather like an open grand piano struck with hammers, soft but very pretty sounds. We were back to bed about 10:30.

* (drizzle and light precipitation the whole night before, also that night and the day after)

** (this version is a reconstruction after the Nazis blew up all the bridges retreating from Hungary before the Soviet advance in WWII)

The neoclassic castle dome from the castle courtyard

This bit of our story actually combines what I tried to write in Hungary with elements of my letter to my brother. As itʼs all I have so far, I think I may add some more pictures and some details later (letʼs hope — at least I shall — tomorrow).

A view of the castle complex on our way across the bridge in the morning.


©2011 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Same Thing Again (in a Different Way) — Budapest

All right. So I have posted my original narration of our first day (actually, calendrically two days) arriving in Budapest. About a week after we got home, I wrote what I intended to be the quick summary version of our trip to my brother Stephen in a letter. My summary bloated into nine pages. So I have what amounts to an alternate version of the events I took time to record while we were actually in Hungary (not just for the first day, but the next two as well).

I am posting the letter version of Day One to see which you, gentle readers prefer…

Gellért Hill with Liberty statue atop, shot from Buda (although I donʼt remember just when, maybe from the #47 tram on Sunday). This, blog readers, is the picture I put into Stephenʼs letter with these paragraphs.

First, Budapest was wonderful. Some things about the city reminded us of Prague (more of the “New Town” area we werenʼt in most of the time in Prague than the thousand-plus year-old “Old Town” — mostly because Budapest has suffered considerable damage in warfare and rebellion over its history, unlike Prague; the Nazis even blew up the bridges when retreating from Hungary, and the Soviets bombarded the castle hill, Buda, where armaments and supplies were located, as they “liberated” the area). We also used public transit, which didnʼt happen in Prague (no real need except for the two- or three-mile hike in the rain, both directions, to visit the old castle). Although I intend to write a full travelogue with many photos, hereʼs a brief synopsis of the trip (assuming, that is, that I can keep myself brief — adding this after I just spent an hour on our flight over and the first day).

We left on Wednesday afternoon, October 19, in order to overnight and leave our car at a hotel with transport to and from OʼHare, flying out about 2:30 PM the next day. A park-and-fly packager company got us in the Hyatt Regency OʼHare for less than half the hotelʼs actual rates (pretty cool), and the place was very fancy. However, being out in the middle of nowhere in the OʼHare suburbs, we had to eat at the hotel restaurant — a bit pricey but it was actually quite good food. Not having to get up hours before dawn (our usual departure schedule), we slept well.

Great Market Hall, near Liberty Bridge, at the end of Váci utca — I left it quite large, so if you click on the picture, you can appreciate those roof tiles.

We got to the airport easily, and even used the new-fangled pre-check-in online (via a kiosk at the hotel) and inhuman bag check devices to get ourselves quickly to security (we did actually have to talk to an actual counter staffer to check the bags, but that went really smoothly, as we already had our boarding passes from the hotel kiosk). We flew out on United to Frankfurt, changing planes there for a smaller plane to Budapest (nothing much evidently flies direct from the states to Hungary). The United tourist seats were small, uncomfortable and inhumanly close together (my knees literally pressed into the seat in front of me without that person reclining his/her seatback, and I could not get to my carry-on under that seat — no way to get through my legs and no room whatsoever). However, we survived for seven and a half hours; I even slept for about four hours (Janet couldnʼt as her person in front had reclined his seat and she had absolutely nowhere to go; she tried to complain to him and to the cabin crew without success, or even any actual response).

Nowadays United and other American carriers have invented a new tourist classification (costing about a hundred bucks extra) that offers “more legroom” (about two inches worth) and, for some, computer power plugs; I believe Janet wishes we had taken that option — now. We of course arrived the next day (October 21), having seen the lights of southern England and northeastern France/southern Belgium in the darkness. The layover in Frankfurt was pretty brief, but even with me misdirecting us in the complete wrong direction to find our departure gate and having to wait in line and get through passport control, we made it with a half hour to spare (the return layover was to be even shorter).

The Lufthansa flight to Budapest was like heaven compared to the international torture experience on United, making us hopeful that, with the return being booked as a code share on Lufthansa, the flight home would be better (longer by three hours into head winds). Our plane got us into the Budapest airport about 8:30 to 9:00 AM, and we were downtown, via taxi (after, just like Prague, absolutely no immigration procedure whatsoever at the airport) well before 9:30. However, unexpectedly, the very friendly (and, like all Hungarians we met, English-speaking) girl at the desk had our room ready for us, even that early in the morning! (There was some problem finding our reservation, as Expedia had somehow gotten my middle name as our last name, but we worked it out.)

The lower half of St. István Bazilika, showing the square — the top part was in yesterdayʼs post.

The hotel was right down by the Danube (Duna, locally), just across a big park (Roosevelt tér, named for FDR) from the Chain Bridge (Széchenyi lachíd, named for the Count who paid to have it built mid-1800s — the current version is, of course, a reconstruction — supposedly because storms kept the Count from boating across to Buda when his father was dying, so he arranged for the Danubeʼs first bridging between Buda and Pest). We were actually on a side street (Mérleg utca) around the corner from the Gresham Palace (rebuilt as the Four Seasons Hotel — with a really cool lobby). Ours turned out to be an excellent location, making it easy to walk to most sights, which had been our idea in booking that place.

We got to the room (a huge three-room suite — bath, living area/kitchenette [sink in counter over a microwave and tiny fridge, actually a mini-bar stocked with drinks to buy)] and bedroom), cleaned up a little, unpacked a little, and then headed out (we knew we couldnʼt afford to collapse until it was truly evening here in Europe, making Janetʼs first day a hugely long one, but she held up really well). I guided us past a nearby basilica (St. István, named for the Magyar** king who accepted Christianity for himself and his people in the early eleventh century) and off northward toward the Parliament building, a vast neo-Gothic marvel, which we examined all around, and then we headed back along the river (more or less — major four-lane roadways run right by the water), past our hotel and south along Vaci utca,* a pedestrian mall and popular tourist/shopping street all the way south to the Great Market Hall, maybe a mile or so downriver from our hotel, where Janet had us actually shop at the many, many stalls for some food — cheese, bread and a couple grapefruit — intending to make use of our kitchenette for breakfasting. I was nervous about trying to interact this early (and use the 20,000 forint bills I had acquired from the airport ATM so weʼd have cash for the taxi; the 20,000 HUF bill is the largest in circulation, roughly a bit less than $100) and worried that we wouldnʼt communicate with the vendors (actually there to sell to locals), but the place is a major tourist stop, too, so I neednʼt have worried. We spent the change from our taxi driver (food, even dining out, was noticeably inexpensive in Budapest) and headed home to relax before finding a restaurant for dinner.

a park near Parliament (I think itʼs to the right), showing a nice planting of flowers and a statue. Statues are literally everywhere. Literally.

We had both packed quite light (at least for us, trying in our elderly years to finally learn), but we each did have at least (for me, only) one change for evening dress, and we did change after relaxing over a bottle of red wine from the mini-bar (only 1450 HUF, and we figured $6.75 for a bottle of wine was pretty good, even though we later saw that same wine in a grocery store for 750 HUF) and sought out a place Janet remembered seeing early in our hike that featured “pumpkin risotto” on their menu outside the door. We did find the place (actually just on the other side of the Four Seasons), a bar mostly, and successfully got a seat (pretty early dining, at only about 6:00 PM, for Budapest), ordering the risotto, both of us, and a bottle of red wine, which turned out to be the same thing we had enjoyed in the hotel room. We were back in the room, exhausted and getting ready for bed well before 9:00.

* (“utca” meaning “street,” and pronounced “ut•stah” — accents in Hungarian always on the first syllable only, the “u” like “put” and a solo “c” sounding “st”; the “s” alone, by the way, as in the cityʼs name, is always “sh,” so itʼs pronounce “Bu•dah•pesht” with the “e” like an American short “e” — in fact quick food eaten between slices of bread is “szendvics,” which would come very close to “sandvich”)

** [pronounced “Muh•dyahr,” so every time I have said that word for forty years, I have been utterly wrong, the “gy” combination in this case being said “dy”]

I did here edit out the “letter” portions, leaving just the travelogue. Compare with Friday and Saturday, folks… I notice that I explain different things in each one, however obvious that they must overlap. Preferences? Comments?

©2011 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Budapest, Day 1, part 2 (test continues)

Here is the rest (the exciting part, the part where we are actually in Budapest) of my original composition late that evening, October 21, trying to capture the events of our first big day. It didnʼt help I was utterly jet-lag exhausted (although Janet, who had not slept during the flight east across the Atlantic, was in worse shape than I).

The Lovely One and a tram outside the Great Market Hall

If you recall (or have reread yesterdayʼs segment), we have just arrived by taxi at our hotel in downtown Pest, only a couple blocks from the river Danube.

looking into our hotel room from the door

the writing desk in the sitting area

We unloaded bags. I paid our driver 10,000 HUF for 5700 (5100 + tip, a bit high — should have been 5610), studiously pronouncing “köszönöm,”* received my change, and went inside. The lobby was small, yellow but comfortable. A cheerful dark-haired girl in a white shirt, leather vest and leather pants had trouble finding our reservation (it was under “Randolph Burr,” the software having put my middle name into our last name for no good reason), but we were able to check right in! At 9:00 AM! Outstanding.

Room 308 (fourth [American] floor) was really big — door opening into a hall past the bathroom on the right, big living room/sitting area with kitchenette and on to big bedroom (roughly king-sized bed) with windows opening onto the street where we had arrived. Plenty of storage, too. Writing desk by the window in the living room. Two TVs — one in the living room, one in the bedroom. Pocket doors to close off bedroom and shower area (with toilet) in the bathroom. The bathroom had no actual door.

We unpacked, showered, organized, and headed out for the day (both feeling utterly exhausted). We wandered up, easterly, to St. István Basilica, just a few blocks away, going east around the Gresham Palace/Four Seasons — onto a street parallel to Merleg utca on the far side of the same hotel. It was closed to cars all the way to the Basilica. We walked to the church, noticing desultorily restaurants all along the way. We crossed the huge square in front of the church and around that the building (we werenʼt sure we could enter without paying) to the right and behind onto a very busy street, taking a left and onward for blocks and blocks — me attempting to head us toward Parliament — until I guessed we probably should turn, left again, on another busy street, straight at the parliament building.

St. István Bazilika

It was kind of awkward, with traffic and pedestrians, for us to get around the parliament building, keeping to the left. And we wanted to cross a busy street and tram tracks to stroll by the river behind Parliament, but we turned back and took streets toward our hotel and past, seeking Vaci utca, the tourist mall/street. We walked that  street, closed to cars, all the way to the far end where we found the Great Market Hall just up the street from Liberty Bridge. Although I was nervous, Janet took us inside the huge building for bread (four croissants and a round loaf of brown bread), cheese (a brie wedge and then an Ementaly slice) and two grapefruit. We were planning snacks and breakfasts.Although I was hesitant to an extreme about our abilities to communicate, each stall operator either showed us the correct price for what we pointed at or told us in varying degrees of English.

We shopped the whole main level, returning to three or four kiosks to buy. The grapefruit had ranged from 498 HUF per kilogram to 250 per kilogram. We chose the cheapest, but most of that fruit had all been very badly bruised; even so, we found two that turned out to be in fine condition when we ate them days later. Leaving the market, we walked the Váci utca pedestrian mall with our fruit in the zip-to-store bag I have carried in the butt pocket of my vests, unused, for nearly a decade (yay, it got used!). Back in our room, we had some snacks and talked (bread and cheese with a red wine, named St. István, supplied with the minibar in the room for 1450 forints). About 5:30 we decided to dress and seek dinner, having drunk the wine, about half brown bread and Ementaly cheese.

Great Market Hall

I had pointed out a restaurant sign featuring “pumpkin risotto with pork tenderloins” (in English, as most restaurant signs were — much the same as Prague) which we had passed on our walk. Janet (eventually, with my incorrect recollections) got us back there to eat. Tense, our first experience interacting (well, save the Market stalls), we got seated, non-smoking, right by the door, and ordered. Our wine turned out to be St. István for 2800 HUF (though we somehow paid 3200 on the bill), and we both had the pumpkin (squash actually?) risotto with fried chunks of pork chop. Really good. We added dessert and coffee (hers espresso, mind cappuccino — decaf both), the dessert being fried cheese dumplings in sour cream sauce, a variation on a Hungarian specialty — lovely!

Váci utca with typical tourist hordes (yes, that is a green cow statue)

We were home to early bed about 8:30 to 9:00 PM, having stretched our jetlagged bodies as long as we could.

Thus endeth Thursday, October 20 to Friday, October 21 — day number one of our vacation in Hungary.

* “Thank you.”

©2011 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Travelogue, day 1 (a test in three parts)

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.

Day 1, I think — viewing Buda from “our side” of the Danube, Pest

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.

Continues tomorrow…

©2011 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.

Reviewing Bliss Hungarian Style

Pest from the Castle in Buda, featuring Széchenyi lánchid across the river toward our hotel (hiding behind the elegant Four Seasons Gresham Palace)

We returned from Hungary successfully. And our flight home was infinitely less aggravating than our return from Prague two years ago (which does have a downside — I came away from OʼHare two years ago with a story idea, almost completed, for the Tourist; no one annoyed me enough to devise a means to fictitiously kill him or her this time, unlike the pompous slick who mercilessly reclined his seat into my face the entire flight, thus earning an excremental demise by drowning, outside baggage claim, in my short story*).

The recent trip was a lovely experience. I now know what all those items in the image I used from Wikipedia are — namely: an aerial view of Buda Hills across Parliament and the Danube from Pest, the Chain Bridge—south side with one of the lions, Heroes Square at the end of Andrássy út, Parliament viewed from a boat on the Danube, Fishermanʼs Bastion north of the castle in Buda, St. István Bazilika in Pest (quite near our hotel), and finally a view up the river toward Margaret Island from Gellért Hill in Buda. Since I really didnʼt know any of those things before the trip, the awareness now is pleasant.

Anticipating our time this October might be too reminiscent of Prague, we harvested instead an entirely new set of treasured memories along the Danube. Budapest was extraordinary and interesting, lively, and although not as antique as Prague (having suffered destruction repeatedly over its history, particularly in the closing months of World War Two) still romantic and exotic to dulled Midwestern eyes (even if reconstructed recently).

tram tracks and trees along the Danube, Eótvos tér, heading “homeward” toward the hotel

Travel books had warned us that Hungarians might seem stand-offish and remote, even officious (as Czechs had also felt), but we experienced none of that, meeting pleasant people who did their jobs well and folks who spoke with us and helped us out if necessary. Although I did study my Hungarian handbook and memorized important sentences to say in nearly a dozen situations, none of it was necessary. Everyone with whom we spoke or had dealings possessed some level of English sufficient to their and our needs. My feeble pronunciation and probably grammarless constructions earned faint smiles and quick English responses every time, except with our cab driver to the airport on the final morning. The hotel had called to schedule the cab for us the previous morning, and because it is a German chain (Starlight Suiten), the cab company dispatched a driver with German but no English. Even so, we communicated, and he enthusiastically accepted my payment and “Köszönöm”** with an unexpectedly warm handshake.

The city was beautiful, interestingly mixing restoration of past glories (like the Rick-Steves-criticized Royal Palace aloft in hilly Buda or the sturdy Chain Bridge/Széchenyi lánchid over the Duna*** and just across Roosevelt tér [park] near our hotel) with contemporary energy and industry. We loved the food (all except one Rick Steves recommendation that was our worst meal of the trip, ranking below even airline eating — not to ridicule the renowned Rick whose book, along with DK and Fodor, did steer us well usually). The people were wonderful. The sights and experiences were invigorating and vividly memorable. We had a marvelous time.****

(And I have absolutely nothing appropriate to say for this day, Halloween.)

* I guess that the opportunity to review what lies where and in which order in the passport clearance—>baggage claim—>customs experience arriving in Chicago helped with the old tale, however.

** “Thank you,” which I hope I pronounced keu-seu-neum (with those eus like French neuf, accent, as with every Hungarian word, on the first syllable).

*** Danube

**** Yes, we wish we were there… And I will have much more to say about the trip (perhaps in too much detail, again) in days to come.

©2011 John Randolph Burrow, Magickal Monkey Enterprises, Ltd, S.A.