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Published: July 12th 2018
We were wide awake at 4am, so we caught up on a few work-related issues before heading down to breakfast at 7:30am. And like the day before, it was a fantastic affair – endless varieties of bread, cheese, cured meats and pastries, along with cereals, tea and juices. We knew we wouldn’t be eating until 2pm, so we fuelled up for a morning of walking.
We headed straight for Elizabeth Town and the Jewish Quarter to get a feel for our neighbourhood, as it was very close to our hotel. With the help of a friendly local, we found a bank to withdraw some cash, then walked a short distance to the Great Synagogue for a guided tour of the second largest Jewish house of worship in the world. Our guide was a young Hungarian Jew who was also a thespian, and his insights were intriguing, despite the harrowing nature of the subject matter. The persecution of Hungarian Jews at the hands of non-Jewish Hungarians and Germans during WWII was reprehensible, and this is why memorials such as the Holocaust Tree of Life Memorial, located in the gardens behind the synagogue, are so important. It is hard to
believe that after all the Hungarian people have been through over the past 100 years, a right-leaning government has recently been elected for a third term.
After wandering through the less than inspiring Hungarian Jewish Museum and Archives, located in a building within the grounds of the Synagogue, we continued walking through Elizabeth Town and the Jewish Quarter, where we marvelled at gritty little cafes and boutique shops. We then extended our exploration in the midday sun to visit the New York Cafe, but when we arrived it had a queue to get in, which is not exactly what we were after.
We had an Urban Adventures Budapest Bites and Sights
tour of Budapest starting at 2pm, so we decided to make our way to the starting point, which was the main entrance of the Central Market Hall near Liberty Bridge (aka the Green Bridge). The sun was increasing in its ferocity, so we retreated into a small underground cafe (Caffe Torino) to shelter and refresh. This place was an absolute find. We cooled down with white wine spritzers
(wine and soda) and perked up with coffee, while using the free Wi-Fi to confirm the exact location of
the Budapest Bites and Sights
starting point, as we’d forgotten to bring our voucher.
Feeling human again, we headed out into the sun and made our way to the Central Market Hall. We arrived a little early, so we wandered the undercover market, which had all the hallmarks of a typical tourist trap – think paprika packaged in colour-coordinated sachets to match the Hungarian flag with a twee wooden spoon thrown in – yet locals were shopping here. The market was nowhere near as crowded as, say, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, but it was still very popular. We met our guide at 2pm and started our tour with a tasting of Hungarian sausages from one of the stalls, and the saltiness of the sausages was countered with a warm cheese scone. The processed meats were tasty and oily, and they included meat from Hungarian hairy pigs and horses. It was the first time I’d tried horse, and I wasn’t a fan.
An old Hungarian woman saw us trying the sausages and decided she was an absolute starter for the free food, so she barged in and had her outstretched hand almost in the meat tray before our
guide politely informed her it was a tour, not a free tasting. She walked off in disgust. We also sampled a traditional Hungarian chocolate bar with cottage cheese – turo rudi
– which was soft and mushy with a hint of orange – not my thing at all.
We then ventured along Vaci Street, which we had stumbled upon the night before, but we didn’t stay along, as our guide was not impressed with its overtly touristic focus. We took a side street and ended up at Rosevalley Chocolates to sample some handmade treats from this very trendy and tiny boutique chocolatier. My chocolate of choice had been flavoured with sour cherry palinka
(fruit brandy) and raspberries, and it was great.
We continued walking to a ruin bar, where we cooled down with a red wine spritzer
(rose), which was very refreshing. At a nearby Fish restaurant, we tried some fresh water fish, including catfish and carp. Fish is scarce in Hungary, so it is a delicacy – our guide informed us that most Hungarians only have fish once a year – at Christmas. We tried fried catfish, smoked silver carp, carp spread and some kind of gelatinous
mousse. I loved the fried catfish and carp spread, but the others were a bit odd in flavour and texture. We continued walking to a Jewish restaurant (Koleves) where we sampled a matzo ball in a goose meat consomme. The soup was weak and tasteless, as was the matzo ball, but the goose meat was fantastic. From there we walked to the Basilica of St Stephen and down one of the very touristy streets to Elso Pesti Restaurant, where we sampled beef goulash
(paprika-laced beef, potato and vegetable soup) and strudel
(thin flaky pastry with a sweet filling). This was the standout of the tour – I loved the goulash
, especially with a spoon of super-hot paprika paste, and my sour cherry strudel
While we covered a lot of territory on the walking tour, the samples were small and there was so much we didn’t do. Our guide told us how important palinka
is in Hungarian culture, yet we didn’t get a chance to sample any, apart from in my chocolate. And the path we made from Liberty Bridge to the Basilica of St Stephen was fairly standard – we didn’t stray into areas of Budapest that
tourists struggle to find. Apart from that, it was an enjoyable experience, and our guide shared many stories about her grandmother, who lived through the communist regime, and had to share her house with three Soviet soldiers – a standard requirement of the communist system. She acknowledged the Soviet Union saved Hungary from the Germans in WWII, but she didn’t feel they gained much from the occupation.
During the walking tour, news came in that Anthony Bourdain had been found dead in a French hotel room. He was 61. Ren and I had gained so many insights from his documentaries, and we particularly enjoyed his No Reservations
series. We’d always listen to his musings before travelling to certain countries, and I really liked his engaging journalism which, at times, was overly opinionated – but that was his thing. I’ll never forgot his haunting documentary of Sri Lanka just after the war, where he felt trapped and claustrophobic in Colombo despite the 5-star opulence of his hotel. Even the crows were getting to him. He decided it was time to leave. Thanks Anthony Bourdain for fuelling my love of travel, and my love of travel writing.
On our way
back to the hotel we dropped into the Basilica to see if we could see the mummified hand of St Stephen (which we’d missed the first time we visited), but we accidentally found ourselves trapped in a Hungarian Mass. We couldn’t escape, so we had to sit through 15 minutes of prayers and songs in a foreign language, with a woman leading all hymns on a guitar and recorders. Far out. We picked our time and left during a hymn, much to the ire of the congregation, of whom there were many. The embarrassment! Was this a sign? Was there some ineffable reason that was preventing us from seeing St Stephen’s hand? We escaped and headed back to the hotel, picking up some drinks on the way. We sat out on our balcony with hot tea, beer and pastries, looking out over the rooftops of Budapest and soaking in the atmosphere of this fantastic city. With the day slowly catching up with us, we crashed early at 9:30pm.
We woke during the night to lightning flashes through the window, and when we eventually got up at 5:30am and opened the door to our balcony, we were greeted with thunder
and pouring rain. Time to re-plan the day. We headed down to breakfast at 7am and enjoyed the endless varieties of bread, cheese, cured meats and pastries, along with porridge, tea and juices. We were transferring to a different hotel, so we organised our packs and headed out into a damp and overcast day – the lightning and thunder had stopped, but the rain was still gently falling.
We walked a short distance (three blocks) to our new hotel, hoping that our room would be ready. On discovering our room was not going to be ready until at least 1:30pm, we decided to leave our bags at reception and walk to Heroes Square – in the rain. We donned our raincoats and trudged along the wet footpaths, all the while seeing the Millenary Monument, a 36-metre high pillar jutting into the sky from the middle of the square, getting closer and closer.
It was still raining when we arrived at Heroes Square, and photos were simply out of the question – we didn’t want rain on our camera lenses, and the sky was so overcast we couldn’t frame a descent photograph anyway. We decided to sit out the
rain by wandering through the Palace of Art, located just to one side of Heroes Square, where a folk art exhibition titled Hand, Craft and Art
was being staged – including a revived instruments and a dress, style and identity
exhibition. I was drawn to a couple of stringed instruments used in Hungarian folk music – the Kontra Tambura (similar in style to a guitar, but with some strings doubled) and the Moldovan Cobza (part of the lute family). Both Ren and I were also drawn to some of the female dresses and costumes, which had such contemporary and cutting-edge designs.
When we emerged from the Palace of Art, the rain had stopped, so we made our way to the Szechenyi Baths. We changed into our bathers, dropped our day packs in a locker and walked out into the open bath area. The air was slightly cool following the rain, but the water was a very warm 26 degrees, which was incredibly soothing and relaxing. The depth was about at Ren’s neck level, so we waded around the perimeter until we found a spot to stand and take in the atmosphere of this amazing place. Thermal baths are very
popular in Hungary, and despite the rain and overcast conditions, the place was packed. I can’t imagine how many people would have been here on a warm sunny day. As fine rain fell on our heads, we were immersed in warm thermal spring water, and it was a sensational experience.
This was also a great place for people watching. The human body is a fascinating thing, and when hundreds of people find themselves shoulder to shoulder in a public bath with just their bathers on, true personalities emerge. The relaxers, the families, the friends playing chess, the groups of men, the groups of women, the posers, the selfie takers (with their cameras in the pool), the ‘immaculates’ (who continually need to check their self-proclaimed immaculate status) and my all-time favourites – the people that just didn’t care. They’ve come to the baths to relax and let it all hang out, and while their choice of bathing costumes could have done with a little more thought, it really didn’t matter. My father had the same pair of bathers all his life (well at least all my
life), and there were a few older men and women wandering around who I’m
pretty sure were wearing the same bathers they’d had since their teenage years.
We walked back through the enormous City Park (which encompassed the Szechenyi Baths and Heroes Square), visiting the Anonymous Scribe statue on the way. Apparently it is lucky to touch his pen, especially if you are a writer, and a young girl walked up and touched his pen while we were there. As always, we stumbled upon a wedding photography shoot, which we always manage to do when we travel, and we also (unfortunately) stumbled upon more than a few stag and hen groups that had travelled to Budapest to celebrate. The groups in City Park had hired pedal driven beer carts, which are basically two rows of seats with a bar in the middle, which the stags and hens pedal while they sit at the bar drinking. What could possibly go wrong? There’s nothing quite like public drunkenness to destroy the serenity of a public park.
We walked back through Heroes Square and down Andrassy Street (often referred to as Budapest’s Champs-Elysees) to our new hotel. Our room was ready, so we dropped our bags and headed out to Kispiac Bisztro for a late
lunch at 3pm, which was also a belated birthday lunch for me. The meal was incredible – I ordered venison goulash
with a side of nokedli
(Hungarian egg noodle dumplings), which was sensational, while Ren ordered veal liver Hungarian style
, which was – without doubt – the best liver and mashed potato we’d ever tasted. We shared a plate of pickles to cut through the richness of our meat dishes, and they were fantastic. The sun had come out and the afternoon was warm, so a refreshing drink was in order. I went for a craft beer and a sensational shiraz, while Ren had a white wine spritzer
We waddled back to the hotel and relaxed a little before heading out for dinner to Vak Varju. This place was very popular and loud, which was a marked difference from the quiet and calm meal we’d shared on a street table outside Kispiac Bisztro only a few hours earlier. However, despite the bustle and noise, the food was great. I ordered beef goulash
(again) while Ren ordered veal paprikash
(stewed veal with paprika and sour cream), and both meals were fantastic.
We also ordered palinka
(fruit brandy) for the
first time since we’d been in Budapest, and we enjoyed it. While it wasn’t quite on the same level as, say, a smoky mescal, it was an enjoyable way to end a meal, and I’m sure it would serve as a great aperitif. After an incredible day, the impact of the thermal baths was starting to set in – our bodies were so relaxed that we were ready to sleep. We walked back to the hotel and collapsed into bed at 10:30pm.
Still adjusting to a different time zone, we were wide awake at 5am. Feeling a little disorganised and unfocused, we dragged ourselves down to breakfast at 7am, where we discovered to our surprise that a bottle of champagne was on the drinks station with the juices, teas and coffees. We’d never had champagne for breakfast, so what better place to start than Budapest. And it was fantastic – I think I could get used to it. 😊
Along with the champagne, I gathered a selection of muesli, yoghurt, toast, cheese, ham, salami, pink grapefruit juice and tea. It was a great breakfast, which we enjoyed on a table in the hotel’s interior courtyard. With energy to
burn, we headed straight to the Danube to visit the Little Princess statue near the Elizabeth Bridge (which I’d been calling the White Bridge since we’d arrived). A crowd had gathered around the statue, so we waited patiently for them to leave before setting up a photograph. Just as they left, and just as we were about to move towards the statue and take our photo, a young homeless guy walked up to the statue and grabbed both the girl’s hands, then touched both her legs before leaving quietly. He was there for less than 15 seconds. Legend suggests that by touching the girl’s legs, you receive good luck, and this young guy had a very specific ritual that he probably goes through every day, if not more regularly. I was touched by his silent hope for luck. It was no different in action or intent than praying.
After walking to the middle of Elizabeth Bridge and admiring the view of Budapest it afforded, we set off in the direction of Margaret Island. We walked past the Shoes on the Danube and Olympic Park monuments on the way, and the sun was getting hotter and hotter as my watch
edged past midday. Just as we arrived at Margaret Bridge, we came across a bloke photographing his new BMW with a scantily clad girl on the boot. He asked Ren to take a photo of him and his car (and the girl, of course, although I think she was an afterthought), but Ren focused more on him and the girl, which seemed to annoy him.
With photos taken, we walked up to the bridge, but decided to have a coffee before we crossed. We found a great little place called Ebreszto, where we settled at an outside table with a cappuccino and lemon tart. It was a tranquil little spot, where we watched locals come and go as we summoned the energy to re-enter the burning sun. Feeling suitably refreshed, we walked to the middle of Margaret Bridge, then made our way over the offshoot bridge to Margaret Island. By this stage the sun’s heat was relentless, so we were seeking shade wherever we could find it. The place had a very family friendly vibe to it, so we sat back and watched people enjoying their Sunday afternoon.
We realised we didn’t have the energy or the time
to wander the length of this island in the middle of the Danube, so we were about to turn back when Ren suggested we hire an electric scooter. It was a great idea, so I left my Driver’s License with one of the operators and we headed off around the island, with me driving and Ren sitting behind me. The scooter didn’t go very fast at full throttle, and it needed a bit of a push when we had to go uphill, but apart from that, it was a fantastic way to circumnavigate the island in half an hour. We visited the Japanese Gardens (which weren’t very Japanese) at the opposite end of the island before making our way back to where we started.
We then retraced our steps over Margaret Bridge to the Pest side of the city and made our back to the hotel via a series of backstreets that we hadn’t yet explored. The sun had reached the height of its strength by this stage, so we sought shade wherever we could find it, and we avoided streets with no shade cover. It was the middle of the afternoon when we arrived back at the hotel,
and we were exhausted, so I picked up some drinks from a local supermarket before settling in our room to escape the sun’s heat. Within half an hour the thunder started and it was teaming with rain. Spring in Budapest!
We headed out to dinner a little earlier than normal, as we were leaving Budapest the next morning, and we needed to prepare. As this was our last meal in Budapest, we wanted it to be meaningful, so we walked to Karavan, a food truck courtyard that we’d walked past a few times since arriving in this fantastic city. This was literally a narrow space between two buildings where a collection of food trucks had set up, and we had one thing on our mind – langos
– a deep fried dough served with a variety of toppings. We had been told Budapest Langos was the best food truck in the courtyard, so we lined up and ordered The Classic
(served with sour cream and cheese) and The Red
(served with sour cream and red peppers). Langos
is not for the faint hearted or the health conscious, but it is a fantastic street food, albeit a bit hard to
eat with your fingers in a smoky outdoor setting. But that’s what makes it so unique to this city. I washed mine down with a Szent Andras Meggyes Sor
(Cherry Beer), which I’d been wanting to try since we arrived, but I don’t think I’ll try it again. I love cherries, but cherries and beer don’t seem to mix – at least not for me.
We wandered back to our hotel as nocturnal Budapest came to life around us. We’d well and truly fallen in love with this cosmopolitan city. We felt comfortable walking its streets, we knew our way around without a map (well, almost without a map) and most importantly, we felt welcome. Very welcome. A sign of a great city is how it makes you feel, and we felt incredible in Budapest. SHE SAID...
We woke on Friday (Day 3) at 4am again. It was too early for anything other than organising ourselves for the day and catching up on our emails and travel notes.
Despite finding it slightly alarming, I had been looking forward to the fried camembert we’d had for breakfast the day before. However, I was saved from myself,
as the hotel had opted to offer us the usual boring old baked beans and sausages to accompany their beautiful scrambled eggs. The salad bar had an addition of sour cherries and olives… I didn’t think I’d love preserved sour cherries for breakfast, but I did. And it turned out that I also love rye bread with ham, smoked cheese and olives! 😊
Today we were exploring Erzsebetvaros (Elisabeth Town) District 7 – the smallest but most populous district in the city, which contains the Jewish quarter where the Jewish population once thrived. Our first order of business was to find a bank, and then make our way to the Great Synagogue complex, which is the largest in Europe and second largest in the world (synagogues in Hungary are named for the street they are on, so it’s also called Dohany St Synagogue).
This was our first experience of a synagogue, so we didn’t mind paying the rather steep entry price. The ticket included a guided tour with a young volunteer called Gergo who gave a much needed and interesting summary overview of the architecture of the building, Judaism, the history of Jews in Budapest, the holocaust and
the current situation of their community in Hungary.
The complex consisted of the Synagogue, Heroes’ Temple, cemetery, the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial and the Jewish Museum. The community belongs to Neolog Judaism, which believes in culturally assimilating into the society they live in, but are still traditional in their worship (with Orthodox Jews and Reformed Jews on either end of that scale).
I loved the synagogue building which was built in 1854. It was highly ornate with geometric shapes (including eight pointed star designs alongside six pointed religious ones), stained glass and rich colours. It successfully blended moorish, byzantine, romantic and gothic elements into the design – reflecting the influences of the time and the more moderate stance of the community. Entering the main building felt like walking into a large cathedral but with some marked differences…a Torah Ark where the Altar would be, no iconography of any sort, and gender segregated seating (men downstairs and women upstairs). Apparently this ‘church-like’ building layout wasn’t normal for a synagogue, and synagogues didn’t usually have a pipe organ or cemetery either.
The cemetery is in the synagogue complex by circumstance, not design. Dohany Street was the border of the Budapest
Jewish Ghetto, and the 2000 people who died in the Ghetto in 1944/45 were buried in mass graves in the courtyard of the synagogue. It was quite confronting standing on the spot where horrendous evil also once stood.
The Jewish Museum had some interesting religious iconography, but simply putting stuff on display in a room doesn’t make it a museum. It could really do with some love, organisation and curation. On the other hand, the Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Garden was a beautiful space. Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat who worked to save thousands from Nazi and Arrow Cross persecution. The main feature of the garden is the Tree of Life sculpture designed by Imre Varga. Its metallic leaves are inscribed with the family names of holocaust victims.
I left the synagogue under a shadow of sadness. I had been well aware of the brutalities this community had faced during WWII before I visited the synagogue. However, I’m also aware that this history could easily repeat itself with the global turn we seem to be taking towards extreme right wing politics and fascism, most particularly in Eastern Europe. I felt exceedingly disheartened that humanity doesn’t seem capable of
learning from the past.
After leaving the synagogue we walked around the Jewish quarter, exploring the small streets and narrow passageways. The once-elaborate Habsburg squares and avenues were now faded versions of themselves. However, the once-haunting shadowy buildings of the old ghetto apartment blocks have been revived to a large extent.
We also walked through the maze-like courtyards of the rambling buildings. There were some old school kosher eateries around, but the streets were mostly filled with restaurants serving modern Jewish food, hipster cafes, chic bars, romkocsma
(ruin bars), street art and cool arty design boutiques packed with beautiful handmade things. Some of the street art looked organic, but others were part of a project that commissioned local artists on a rotating basis. A visible student and arty population gave a vibrant energy to the neighbourhood.
We walked to the New York Cafe to check out the architecture and interior of ‘the most beautiful cafe in the world’. We meant to have cake and coffee there, but on seeing the crowds, we decided it wasn’t really our scene and started making our way towards Jozsefvaros (Joseph Town) District 8. We stopped and refuelled with a coffee and
very refreshing white wine spritzer
(a popular summer drink of half wine and half soda water) at a tiny subterranean cafe called Cafe Torino. We really love the tiny coffee shops that are hidden in most street and squares – they are quirky, unique and serve superb coffee. We continued walking along the back streets, past schools, local shops and very elaborately decorated old apartment blocks. The affluence just a few streets either side of the Jewish quarter was very noticeable.
We were doing an Urban Adventure’s Budapest Bites and Sights
tour that afternoon which started at the red brick Nagycsarnok
(Great Central Market Hall). Budapest seems to have a special place in its heart for its piacs
(market halls). We’d been to a few local ones but the old Central Market was the largest and busiest one yet. The building was framed internally with a cast-iron skeleton and divided into three floors – the basement had the meat and fish stalls, while the top floor had Hungarian crafts of Zsolnay porcelain, lacework and embroidery. The stalls on the ground floor were the most interesting with fresh fruit, vegetables, strings of dried paprika and garlic, mountains of spices, pickles,
palinka spirits, Unicum bitters, Tokaji wine and numerous varieties of sausages and salami.
The guide Zsuzsi gave us a quick overview of the history of food in Hungary – from the nomadic Maygars to the influences from Italy and Turkey. We started our food sampling at a butcher’s stall by tasting a platter of sausages and salami, with a very tasty pogacsa
(cheese scone). The salami was either white or with paprika, and the sausages ranged from normal, to one from a Hungarian hairy pig (bred from a Siberian pig), to horse meat. The horse one had a strong flavour… I liked it, but Andrew wasn’t a fan! 😊
We tasted a local Pottyos turo rudi
(chocolate bar with cottage cheese filling) which apparently Hungarians are very fond of and miss when they are homesick (probably the way we feel about Tim Tams). Even though it was apparently the best place to come for specialty meat, I wasn’t overly impressed with the Central Market. It felt overly touristy.
Leaving the market, we walked back into the quiet back streets of Belvaros to visit an artisan chocolate shop called Rozsavolgyi Csokolade. Andrew tried their award-winning raspberry and sour
cherry palinka (fruit brandy) chocolate, and I had a fabulous tarragon infused chocolate which was truly delicious. It was very good chocolate, but I was a bit confused as to why the shop had been included in a tour about Hungarian food.
We had a round of rose wine spritzers
at a romkocsma
(ruin bar) called Csendes while we took in the bizarre decor of the gorgeous high-ceilinged space (that used to be a grand coffee house in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). The term romkocsma
is unique to Budapest, where abandoned buildings with low rents in Erzsebetvaros were adapted into bars on the cheap with reclaimed ‘art’ and mismatched furniture. The concept caught on, and now ruin bars are popular around quite a few neighbourhoods. In reality, they are no different to kitschly decorated bars in edgy arty suburbs all over the world. Melbourne has had its fair share of these in my neighbourhood (inner northern suburbs) from the early 1990s onwards.
Speaking of Erzsebetvaros, we walked there next to try a local restaurant known for its fish dishes. Given Hungary is landlocked I hadn’t thought I’d be tasting much fish, but Halkakas Restaurant specialises in
fresh water fish. We shared a platter of fried catfish, slices of smoked silver carp, a carp spread and carp pate. I wasn’t a huge fan of the fish dishes, but Andrew seemed to like some of it.
We continued to walk through Erzsebetvaros, past synagogues and more ruin bars. We settled in at Koleves Restaurant to try their matzo ball and goose soup
. I had been really looking forward to this, and I’m sad to say it wasn’t outstanding. The matzo ball was dense, the soup was bland and the goose was tasty but saltier than I’d like. 😞
Our last stop was at the old establishment Elso Pest1 Reteshaz which claimed to be the oldest strudel
(thin flaky pastry with a sweet filling) house in Pest. We started with a very traditional goulash
is the ultimate Hungarian soup dish (and it’s very different to the thick stew we know as goulash
in Australia). It was a steaming hot paprika-laced soup containing rich chunks of beef, potatoes, vegetables and tiny dumplings simmered in the broth. It was a dish originally made by herdsman on the Hungarian Plains, and apparently is still best made in a big
pot over an open fire. Zsuzsi told us they have parties where they collectively make goulash outdoors in summer, in a similar vein to our weekend bbqs I suppose. 😊
The main attraction at this restaurant was the pastry chef making strudel
at a glassed-in bench top, and it was amazing watching him work the elastic nut very very thin pastry. Strudel
is a traditional Hungarian pastry originating from the Austro-Hungarian era in the 18th century, and it is much loved by the locals. I ordered an apple strudel
, while Andrew ordered a sour cherry and cottage cheese one. The strudels were really tasty, but this wasn’t a restaurant I’d revisit.
We’ve done a few Urban Adventure tours around the world, and they’ve always been worth every cent and much more. Unfortunately, I couldn’t say the same about the one we’d just done. The tour was lacklustre and fragmented, and the food portions were stingy. Zsuzsi was a lovely person and shared interesting insights, but we certainly wouldn’t be recommending the tour.
As we’d become accustomed to doing, that evening we walked back to our hotel via St Stephen’s Basilica. There was a Friday night Mass just
starting, so we sat in until the Gospel started, and then escaped and made our way back to our room. We had been walking for nine hours, and even though it was less than our 12 hour effort the day before, we were well and truly ready to stop and rest our feet!
We sat out on our balcony in our nightly routine, with beer and chips for Andrew, and tea and pastries from the bakery for me. It certainly was an excellent way to end our hectic day.
I was awake at 5:30am. I wasn’t sure if my body was finally waking up later, or if was because I was tired from having a restless night (due to being unwell)… I decided to ease up on my gorging of preserved meats. The Hungarian ham, salami and sausages had been so tasty that I’d indulged in them at most meals, but unfortunately my head (migraines) and gut don’t love them as much as my tastebuds do.
We had woken to a thunderstorm. It had drizzled or rained almost every day since we’d been here, but this was the longest rainstorm yet, and it forced us to postpone
our plans for the morning and take it easy. My breakfast involved the usual scrambled eggs that I had really enjoyed at this hotel, and I also indulged in brioche toast with Nutella! This was Day 4 and I’d finally tasted everything on offer at the breakfast buffet! 😊
Sadly, it was our last breakfast at this hotel, as we were changing hotels to the Intrepid Travel hotel for a couple of days. We checked out and walked the three blocks to our new hotel – Star Inn Comfort Hotel. Not surprisingly our rooms weren’t ready, so we left our packs at reception and walked along Andrassy utca to Varosliget District 14 in the rain.
At the end of Andrassy utca sat the vast Heroes Square, known for its commanding statues of the seven Chieftains of the Magyars and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Sadly, the square was somewhat ruined by ugly scaffolding, sound equipment and raised seating that was being dismantled from a recently held concert.
By now it was raining heavily so we visited the Palace of Art in a gorgeous neo-classical building that looked like a Greek Temple. From what we’d read, we
assumed it would have a contemporary art exhibition, but it turned out to be an exhibition of Hungarian folk art. Even though it wasn’t our favourite subject matter, it was beautifully curated and we enjoyed it much more than we thought.
Budapest sits on a web of over a hundred thermal springs, and it has a rich history of ‘taking the waters’ dating back to Roman times… and further enhanced by the Ottomans and their Turkish Baths. We wanted to experience the thermal baths in the city, and it was suggested that the best bathhouse in Budapest was the neo-baroque and neo-renaissance Szechenyi Baths in City Park.
What started as a few small marble pools in 1880 has grown to over 15 different pools ranging from freezing to steaming hot. It’s not only the largest bath house in the capital, but also one of the largest in Europe. I’ve visited a few bath houses around the world and I think Szechenyi Baths is easily the most beautiful one I’ve seen. The ticket buying process wasn’t the most pleasant, as the girl at the counter clearly had other places she’d rather have been. Anyway, we got changed in a
private cabin, then walked to the hot pool outside. It wasn’t as crowded as we’d been warned, most likely because the weather wasn’t brilliant, but it was still pretty full. It had started to rain again and there was something really really fabulous about being immersed to the neck in the thermal waters, with a cool breeze and cold rain drops falling on us… while admiring the fantastic architecture through a haze of steam. I don’t think I would have enjoyed the experience as much had it been a hot day.
I was surprised but happy to see there were as many locals as tourists in the pools. The European style of bathing suit is vastly different to what we’d consider ‘fit of public’, but there’s something very empowering about people who just don’t give a damn about how their body may be perceived by others. There were chess tables built into the pools, and we watched some older local men playing while lounging in the hot water.
The entry price was steeper than the other baths, but I felt it was totally worth it for the beautiful surrounds and sense of relaxation and revitalisation we felt after
our long flight, not to mention all the walking we’d done since we’d arrived in Budapest. I may have imagined it, but I thought I could literally feel my tired body being soothed with each passing minute. 😊
After a longer than anticipated stint at the Baths, we explored City Park, seeking out our third ‘lucky’ statue of Anonymous the scribe. All we knew was that it was a statue of a hooded figure in City Park. The statue depicts a famous chronicler whose identity is unknown but was famous for penning the Gesta Hungarorum (Deeds of the Hungarians). He holds a pen in one hand, and apparently touching the pen will bring luck in the writing and literary department. Of the lucky statues we’d found so far, this was the only one with a queue – there are clearly more people wanting literary luck than luck in the women, food or bravery departments. 😊
We were also entertained by the tourists who mobbed a couple having their professional wedding photos taken in front of the very cute little Jak Chapel. Some of the older tourists actually pushed in front of the professional photographer to take their photos.
The photographer saw the funny side of it, but how rude are some people? It might be because I’m getting older and grumpier, but it feels like tourists are becoming more unbearable in their selfishness. Speaking of bad behaviour, it seems City Park is THE place for beer carts peddled around by bunches of drunken loutish stag guys and shrill hens party girls… It wasn’t pleasant. So we didn’t hang around for long.
We had really loved our time in Budapest, but since Friday afternoon we’d noticed a sudden increase in groups of stag party boys (wearing obnoxious t-shirts) and hen’s party girls (wearing equally obnoxious attire) from Western Europe, in town for the weekend. I should mention that their attire was quite tame compared to their insufferable behaviour. We quickly ensured that we would be nowhere near any of the popular drinking venues for the rest of the weekend.
It had been so busy before we left for the holiday that we hadn’t had much time to celebrate Andrew’s birthday (in late May), so we had a belated celebratory lunch at Kispiac Bisztro. Andrew had the venison goulash
which came with a side of nokedli
noodle dumplings), and I daringly ordered the veal liver (cooked ‘Hungarian style’ it said). The perfectly cooked rich liver dish was served piping hot, with a mound of mashed potatoes that was as lush as the liver. On the recommendation of our waiter we also shared a plate of mixed pickles, which balanced the richness of our meat dishes to perfection. We drank red wine and white wine spritzers
as we people-watched, and ate till we could eat no more. It was an outstanding meal and I would very highly recommend Kispiac, but certainly not if you’re a vegetarian.
After admiring the highly ornate and colourful Royal Postal Savings Bank, we walked back to Star Inn Comfort Hotel to organise ourselves for the start of our Intrepid Travel trip – Eastern European Explorer
. At the group meeting that evening we met Mattia our group leader and the group, which comprised of Chris (NZ), Adrian and Wendy (South Africans from NZ, and now Aus), Jenny and Bruce (Aus), Karen (Aus), Narelle (Aus), Dion (US), Gregory (Canada) and Cheryl (Aus) who we met the next day. One of the key reasons we travel with Intrepid Travel is for their knowledgeable local
group leaders who usually add tons of value to our travel experience… so we were a bit surprised that Mattia was Italian. However, he seemed confident and experienced in the region.
The group was very eclectic, and most had more candles on their birthday cakes than us. However, almost everyone was very well travelled and had also travelled with Intrepid Travel before… which usually (hopefully) meant they were easy going / low maintenance travel companions. Fingers crossed!
The composition of the groups we find ourselves travelling with is an often-discussed topic of conversation. Andrew and I agree that the most important trait of a good fellow-traveller is an easy going and generous personality, with a decent sense of humour. Things like age, gender, nationality, life and travel experience – the first things we notice about a person – tend to be the least important. The fellow-travellers we’ve found most annoying are the whingey, superior, controlling, know-it-all ones. Luckily, almost all our trips have had more nice people than issue-ridden ones. 😊
Mattia had chosen Vak Varju for our first group dinner. It was a lovely traditional Hungarian restaurant, but catering for big crowds. Andrew had the beef
goulash] and I had the veal paprikash
(stewed veal with paprika and sour cream) served with baked egg noodles. Both our meals were lovely and very flavourful. Instead of dessert, I decided to have a shot of palinka
(fruit brandy) with Andrew… I picked honey and quince, while Andrew had honey and sour cherry. It was much smoother and tastier than I’d envisaged. The best description I can think of is that it’s a cross between flavoured schnapps and grappa. At 40% proof, I definitely felt the effect of the shot on our walk back to the hotel… but I think I could get used to having a ‘digestif’ every night after dinner! 😉
We woke at 5am which sounds early, but we’re so glad our bodies have stopped waking at 4am! We had a leisurely breakfast on our last full day in Budapest. Even though the quality and quantity of breakfast at Star Inn Hotel wasn’t a patch on Medosz Hotel, they served champagne! Which was weird but very pleasant – we are on holiday after all! 😊
We had a group-free day and wanted to do one last day of exploring. We left the hotel at
10:30am, our latest start yet. We walked along the Danube to the Elizabeth Bridge, and walked across it. The white Elizabeth Bridge is much loved by the locals, but I preferred the green Liberty Bridge for its design and feel. On the way there, we found the Little Princess statue, the last of the ‘lucky statues’ I’d wanted to find on our walks (on this trip anyway). She was perched very cutely on the tram railings between the Chain and Elizabeth bridges, her little knees shining brightly from people touching them for good luck.
The stroll along the Danube to Margaret Island was a beautiful walk, with heavily fragrant flowers in the Linden trees lining most of the walk. By the time we reached the yellow Margaret Bridge, we were very much ready for a coffee stop on the beautiful tree-lined street near it. We found the tiny Ebreszto Cafe which served a tasty cappuccino and lemon tart. Suitably reinvigorated, we carried on to Margaret Island which is accessed by an off-ramp from Margaret Bridge. The island is a beautiful green oasis in the middle of the Danube, and it was full of families enjoying Sunday picnics, walking their
dogs, jogging, riding bicycles and doing yoga.
By now the sun was beating down on us, and we didn’t know if we wanted to walk all the way to the other side of the island to see the Japanese Garden. We had seen all the bike, scooter and pedal carts, but the electric scooters caught our eye, and we hired one to traverse the island in half an hour. It was a lot of fun, even though the top speed was embarrassingly slow (in hindsight, this kept the park areas safe from hooning Bogans).
We met a very very cute Hungarian Vizla puppy and his human on the jogging track around the island. The doggy was very friendly and eager for pats, and I started patting him before I realised he had been swimming in the Danube (the short rusty coloured fur didn’t show that he was wet). Not only was he wet, he stank of fishy seaweed. He was an affectionate dog, who licked my face and then leaned into my legs and arms. For the rest of the walk back to the hotel, my t-shirt, arms, legs and hands smelled foul. Five applications of hand sanitiser
barely masked the hideous stench on my hands! Andrew teasingly suggested that I needed to be more discerning with my puppy friends. 😊
The walk back to the hotel was determined by picking the streets with the most shade. I had started to realise that the back of my neck and my feet were sunburnt. The weather in Budapest had been very variable and unpredictable. We thought we’d been overly cautious in packing our raincoats for the day, but no sooner had we returned to the hotel than a massive thunderstorm broke. However, it only lasted 40 minutes and the blazing sun was out again. We had a quiet late afternoon in the room to pack for our travels the next day.
We spent the evening wandering the streets of Erzsebetvaros again. The area is interesting during the day, but really comes to life in the evenings. Szimpla Kert was the first ruin bar in the area – started by arty youths who wanted an alternative to the mainstream scene. It’s still got the colourful kitsch decor with mismatched scavenged furniture and original art that set the ‘bar’ (pun intended) for all ruin bars that came after; but
as with anything really good, it has become too popular with the previously mentioned stag and hens parties. It’s similar to what happened with the laneway bar scene in Melbourne – we loved our little unnamed bars and clubs in dark alleyways only known to the locals. Then someone wrote an article listing them all and they got too popular and needed security to keep the idiots in check. And as happened in Melbourne, the local kids here are apparently on a mission to establish new lesser-known places to recapture what they once had with the laidback ruin bars.
Next door to Szimpla Kert was Karavan – a very cool collection of food trucks in a small empty block between two buildings. It was the sort of neighbourhood where street food belongs (rather than those sanitised ones that scream ‘imposed by the council’). Karavan was steadily busy, but not so much that we couldn’t get a shared table space. We tried the langos
– the side-plate sized deep fried savoury dough with various topping is supposed to be the ultimate Hungarian street food. I had the classic version with sour cream and cheese, while Andrew had one with sour
cream and red peppers. The langos
was delicious, but I felt like we should walk the length and breadth of the entire city to balance out the calories we’d consumed!
When planning this trip, Budapest looked very walking-friendly, so I had planned most of our days around walking through specific neighbourhoods. I was very glad that it was a good place for walking… especially considering the local cuisine was more on the stodgy side of the food spectrum! 😊
This was our last night in Budapest and I was a little sad. Budapest had been a heady mixture of classical architectural elegance, old-school restaurants and homey local shops that sat comfortably alongside a bourgeoning design scene, new wave coffee shops and rough-edged young culture.
Despite being nothing like what’s happening in Barcelona or Dubrovnik, the influx of stag/hens parties and big group tourists had dampened the feel of some parts of the city for us. And I did feel bad for the locals who told us they had to change their daily routines as a result.
Even though the gentrification of some areas is obvious, thankfully modernisation hadn’t ‘blandified’ the city. There was an extensive ‘Hungarian
Eclectic’ diversity of architectural styles on every street, so the skyline was a joy to look at. It was also refreshing to see that most areas still retained strong identities, with perfectly renovated buildings providing a beautiful contrast to run-down buildings with peeling plaster. It was a genuine city filled with real character.
We had given Budapest a good crack in the five days we’d been there, but there was still so much to see and do. I could easily have spent another week walking around the city… we have promised ourselves a return trip very soon.
Next we travel north-east to Eger, in the Valley of the Beautiful Women in Northern Hungary.
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