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Published: April 14th 2015
As this trip progresses, I'm more and more thankful that I changed things up and decided to stay on the ground. That being said, I still plan on visiting Portugal and making my way back to Ireland, which are the two places that I'd planned on going, but my plans changed. Since I deviated from that planned itinerary, though, I have found myself surprised by how much I like the places I've been. Imagine if I hadn't done that...
First off, leaving Zagreb was kinda weird. This was my first true rail experience in Eastern Europe, and though I knew what to expect, it never fully prepared me for what happened. I was lucky to find some people to share it with. First off, my "train" turned into train-bus-train-bus-train-metro. The guy at the Zagreb train station who sold me the ticket told me I would have to change trains if I took the morning train, but again, I wanted to get to Budapest with daylight, not darkness. The train was 30 minutes late from its intended arrival time, which meant that it still arrived before we were expecting to leave. But they had oodles of preparations to do, so we
ended up leaving about 25 minutes late. I expected this. The car I was sitting in, though, was more like a freight car that had fold-down seats along one side of the car. No other seating. And despite what I was told about this not being a full train, it was. People were sitting on their luggage in the wide-open space of our car, and some jerk was kind enough to hang his bicycle on the rack right next to my seat when I went to check out another car. When I got my ticket checked, the guy told me that I was going to need to change to a bus, which would be behind the station, in about an hour. He also asked if I spoke English before he told me this, so I'm not sure what to make of that. I think I look pretty American these days, but hey.
At the arranged time, we stopped, most people who were left on the train got off and hopped on the bus for a 15-minute ride. It stopped on the railroad tracks, where we got off and found a two-car train waiting for us. On the bus, I
had met several other Americans and 2 Canadians. Three of the Americans were from San Francisco (and 2 of them were travelling together) and the other was a recent UVA grad who had been in India a month earlier to visit his ancestral homeland. His name was Vad, and the girl from San Francisco by herself was named Natasha. I never caught the other names, alas. When we got on this train at the Croatia-Hungary border, it was sweltering in the car, despite the 50-something F temperature outside. We had to wait there for the Croatian border control, after which the train moved about 200 yards and we took on the Hungarian border control. What drama! They looked at our passports - all American - and asked if we were travelling together. We said "no," which I'm guessing looked suspicious. They took their time with our passports - me, Vad, Natasha, and one of the other guys must've taken 15 minutes of their time. After at least half an hour, the train got moving. Fifteen minutes later, we went in search of cooler accommodations, and we found them. There were compartments in the next car, which had a/c, so the
4 of us got in there and kept talking for a while. Slowly, though, it became clear that everybody else was looking to sleep, so one by one, it happened. We found out that we were going to have to get on yet another bus around 3, but I was the only one who stayed awake. Every time we would stop, one of them would bolt up and ask, "Are we there?" I felt like a parent with children. Natasha, by the way, was at least 25, Vad was 24, and the other guy was in his late 20s.
We finally got to the bus stop, where we hauled our luggage a few hundred yards to the bus, another 10-minute bus ride, and then hauled our luggage another 200 or 300 yards for the final train. As I'm writing this, I realize how tiring it must be to read, but it only gives you a small idea of how tiring it was to go through. Needless to say, we had a good time getting to know each other, but we were all glad to get to Budapest. From the station, I had to take the Metro to Keleti railway
station because it was 2 blocks from my hotel. It was pretty clean and efficient; it reminded me of the Tube in London, only cleaner. They did say that it's the 2nd-oldest underground system in Europe.
My hotel is a godsend. A spacious room, a huge tub that I intend to take a long bath in when I finish this, free access to the spa and fitness room, and free breakfast. The breakfast, by the way, was amazing this morning. I heartily look forward to that every day that I'm here now.
This morning, I decided to do one of those hop on/hop off bus things. It's kinda lame, and I know I'm better than that, but it cost $12/day for 48 hours access. I also got 2 boat rides along the Danube and a night bus. Plus, it gets me everywhere I'd want to go, and I'm planning on writing my TCU paper on Thursday, so 48 hours is perfect for me. I got on the stop across the street from my hotel and just stayed on until the end, about 90 minutes later. I saw where it went, and where I intended to stop in the
future. We had to get off at Erzsébet Square, at which point they were offering a free walking tour of places the bus couldn't go, and it was in 20 minutes. So I walked around the area, saw some vendors, and came back to the tour location. Just me. Another free private tour. I do enjoy that part of being here "out of season."
My guide was a Hungarian woman, about 30, a foot shorter than me, giving her first guided tour with this company. So I was her guinea pig, and I suppose she was mine in a way. She showed me several of the buildings, squares, and whatnot, and I asked her about Hungarian cuisine, which she was more than willing to discuss. We talked about the St. Stephen Basilica, and I told her what Erica told me about waiting for someone to put in a coin and light up the mummified hand of St. Stephen inside the church, and she totally agreed! Next, we went over to the only remaining communist monument, next to the American embassy. That was wicked. And to top it all off, the Americans somehow got the Hungarians to build a (larger
than life) statue of Ronald Reagan on the other side of the communist monument, so now they've got the commies hedged in! This place is full of symbolism. There's also a new "memorial" set up near this square that is meant to commemorate the holocaust, but as my tour guide said, it's a bit offensive. It uses the angel Gabriel (very Christian) to symbolize the Jewish suffering under the Nazis and also appears to take the blame away from Hungary, even though they supported Hitler and had a fascist party of their own that not only sympathized with but actively assisted in the Nazi extermination of the Jews. Lastly, we went to the Parliament, which is massive and extraordinary. I didn't get to go in, because they make you pay for that - no thanks. But from the outside, it is truly monumental. I'm sure there are lots of pictures of it online, but I'll add mine on here, too.
After the tour, I came back to my room to try and regroup, make some plans for my attack of the remaining tour time I had. There are other walking tours, and I want to do them, but I
also want to get the most out of this bus thing. So I decided to do walking tours of the Jewish quarter and the Communist areas tomorrow, and hit up the St. Stephen Basilica in between. That meant I was going to need to get to the Matyas Templom (highly recommended by Erica) before it closed at 5PM today. With the bus, I got there at 4:15, which was enough time to see everything and even take a seat and take it all in. You pay 1000 forint for it (about $3.50) with a student ID, and it was totally worth that. It's a pretty amazing place, both inside and out. After that, I got some great views over the Danube and the Pest side of the city from the Fisherman's Bastion. Another bus ride later, and I decided I should go ahead and take that "cruise" down the Danube River. It was great going along the river and seeing all the sights that way. I got on the final bus after the cruise, which took me back to the Erzsébet Square. It was about 7:30PM, and the night bus started at 8PM. So, I hopped on over to the
Cserpes Milk Bar (a former cafeteria in communist times) at the recommendation of Erica, where I enjoyed a sandwich with excellent cheese and a raspberry shake (more like a smoothie, but they can call it what they want). It was a nice way to get some local culture.
The night bus took us up by St. Stephen's Basilica and the Opera House before heading for the Heroes Square. It was pretty astonishing during the day, and even more so at night. It was lit up, and the letters out front that spelled BUDAPEST were in different colors. It's meant to be photographed, so I obliged. The next stop was in front of my hotel, so I got off and came back here.
It's been a long day - perhaps the longest day I've devoted to tourism on this trip. But there's still so much more to do! I'm glad I bit the tourist bullet and got the bus deal. It'll help out tomorrow, for sure. I'm not looking forward to that paper-writing day on Thursday, but then who would be, when you've got all of Budapest around you?
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