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Published: November 1st 2009
Outdoor pools at the Szechenyi Thermal Baths.
Can you see what I've done with the title here? Ah, creativity lull (or I've read too many British newspapers).
Anyway, in terms of a city break, Budapest is simply awesome. As you will discover by reading on, this place has everything.
As is worryingly becoming the norm before a holiday, I had so much going on that I had not really thought much about the holiday itself until I was actually on the plane after work on Thursday. I wasn't even excited until Davies and I touched down in Budapest, and realised we were in a completely different country.
Hungarian as a language is weir- I mean, unique. It is not like any other European language so I could recognise no words or signage whatsoever except those taken from English. You know, words like "burger". Anything close to French/Italian/Spanish, even Slavic languages I can recognise key words such as "exit" and more importantly "gentlemen" and "ladies". But here, I had no idea. It reminded me a lot of Basque
in the way the language is so exclusive. Hungarian is only distantly related to Finnish and Estonian, which themselves are pretty unique. It made for an interesting three days.
Hungary's parliament building was based on London's Westminster.
taxi to the hostel, we reached a derelict building and I joked that the driver would probably stop here and tell us "this is your hostel!" So what did the driver do? He stopped at the derelict building and told us, "this is your hostel!" Oh. Fortunately he meant the old 1930s-communist, post-war building across the road.
Gingko Hostel was alright, but it was pretty quiet all weekend. I wasn't too impressed after my first night though. You know you need to start buying some new towels when the existing ones don't actually absorb any water, and rather shifts water from one part of your skin to another instead. The hostel-provided towel was ridiculously small too. We were also put in a dorm that was like a "foyer dorm" (just like in Oslo
) that people had to pass through to get to another dorm. Not ideal. The blanket was also the narrowest blanket ever, which meant it didn't even cover my width, which means it would only cover Jonah Lomu's left pec at best. We were only sharing our 6-bed dorm with one guy who was already asleep, which was good as we both needed a good night's sleep. Gkee,
St. Stephen's Basilica
Awesome church somehow missed by Lonely Planet.
and another of our school friends Claudia, and her husband Phil would be joining us in the dorm the next night.
If the dude in our room was pissed off with us for waking him up, then he sure got his frickin' revenge. He snored like a freight train and it instantly brought back memories of the fat Persian dude who slept in my dorm in Boston
. So we did not sleep a wink until about 6am when he decided to leave. We both breathed a sigh of relief when we noticed that he had checked out of the hostel completely and we would not have to endure him again. The overall result was wasting half a day because we were so tired by getting up at 1.30pm. Just as well we were here for a long weekend then.
Budapest was once two towns - Buda and Pest funnily enough, with hilly, affluent and suburban Buda being on the west side of the Danube River and the more city-like and commercial Pest being on the east. Our hostel was quite brilliantly located in Pest on the south side of District V near Ferenciek Tere, one of the main squares in Hungary.
We decided we would check out the sights
Szechenyi Chain Bridge
The oldest bridge linking Buda and Pest.
in Pest today and our walking tour started on Vaci Utca, the main shopping drag that runs through Ferenciek Tere. We then made a beeline from there to the Elisabeth Bridge and from there took a leisurely stroll along the banks of the Danube until we reached the Szechenyi Chain Bridge, the oldest, coolest and most significant bridge in Budapest.
We then continued until we got to the grandiose Parlament. Completed in 1904, the building was supposedly modeled off Westminster in London and it is certainly impressive.
Just as impressive is St. Stephens Basilica. It is a magnificent and imposing church, but it is not even mentioned in the Lonely Planet
. I just don't understand how they could've missed this because it certainly blows you away at first sight. So a big thumbs down to Lonely Planet for such a glaring omission.
Behind the church we could hear the chanting of a huge crowd and as we rounded the corner we were greeted by a large national rally. Half the crowd in front of a temporary stage were waving huge Hungarian flags in a big show of national pride. There were a lot of boots, black leather jackets and shaven
Locals displaying their national pride.
heads though - so for a minute I got a bit worried we had walked into the wrong kind of rally at the wrong time - but I was relieved once I found out that just like our trip to Krakow
, we had unknowingly arrived on the National Day. It was pretty cool to once again witness something so important to the local people. This meant it was also a public holiday which meant loads of things were shut - including the main boulevard in Budapest, Angassy.
Wide and tree-lined, you can immediately tell that this is the most important street in the city as we pass the grand-looking Opera House, and the stately, communist-art-nouveau architecture of the embassies on either side. I don't know if it was the clothes the locals were wearing, the haircuts they were sporting, the style of all the buildings, the booming Hasselhoff-sounding freedom concert at the end of the boulevard or the fact that the road was closed off by the police, but walking down Angassy I felt an overwhelming sense of having been beamed back to post-communist Eastern Europe in the late 80s. It felt weird but it was also rather cool and
Triumphant commemoration of the Hungary's heroes over the years.
amusing at the same time.
At the end of Angassy is the City Park and Heroe's Square where a special Hungarian National Day concert was taking place. No, they did not play The Final Countdown (although that would have been awesome
). Heroe's Square itself is rather triumphant commemoration of the heroes of the nation, and is flanked by the impressive looking Museum of Fine Arts and Art Hall.
Behind Heroe's Square is a large artificial lake that was empty, but in winter becomes a huge ice-skating rink. That would be so cool! The lake also serves as a moat for Vajdahunyad Castle (also glaringly omitted from Lonely Planet!), a kick-ass fairytale castle that was originally built as a three-castles-in-one exhibition that proved so popular that it has remained a permanent fixture in the park.
A few minutes walk from the castle is the biggest bathhouse in Europe - we would pay a proper visit there on Sunday.
Back at the hostel after the walking tour, I came out of the shower to find Gkee and Phil had arrived minus Claudia - her passport had not come back from the Home Office in time because of the Royal Mail strikes.
Awesome castle that was originally just an exhibition of three different castle styles but has now become a permanent fixture in the City Park.
Wow, how shitty is that.
An old American dude then recommended a place round the corner that did some decent Hungarian grub.
Walking into the place, it had the feel of an old two-story 1930s cafe complete with violinist and guitarist for entertainment. I always feel a bit awkward about in-restaurant musicians as you never know if you should pay them attention or not and you worry they'll ask you for money like buskers on the Tube. They didn't last long enough to stop me enjoying my delicious roast goose with stuffed goosed neck and red cabbage however - the food was delicious! The cherry strudel was very good too.
It was then off to have some beers. My colleague Monica had been to Budapest just a few weeks before and she recommended some cool nightspots that only the locals knew about. Walking past the Jewish Synagogue into District VI, we went to the first place that she had recommended, a pub/bar called Lampas. When she said that only locals would know about it, it certainly felt like it as we walked through some dodgy-looking, unlit alleyways to find a graffiti-covered entrance leading down some stairs at the address Monica
Church Inside Vajdahunyad Castle
Chapel inside the castle complex.
had given me. It was a really cool place with several caverns, some with normal tables, others with foosball tables and was very much like the brick-underground bars of Prague and Krakow. The local Borsodi beers went down well and were so cheap
as well - roughly £1.33 a pint! I'm lovin' it more than Justin Timberlake!
After a couple of beers we moved on to Szimpla, Monica's pick of the bunch. From the outside this appeared like more of a cafe, with it's old wooden decor. It looked pretty quiet and we were after more of a party, but we decided we would stay for one. You wouldn't have thought so, but there was an awesome club downstairs. It was so kitsch it even had 50s lampshades and sewing machines down there! The old school wallpaper was cool too and it reminded me a little of the cool, nostalgic bar of similar style that we went to in Berlin
. The club was actually quite big and the DJ was spinning some wicked tunes - Joy Division, The Smiths, Editors, The Knife and Bloc Party among them - this place was awesome. Just a shame that it was completely empty
Examples of the kitsch items on display inside Szimpla, my favourite club in Budapest.
I went and had a chat to the DJ to commend him on his work and ask why it was so quiet. He said that it was mainly because it was a public holiday today and that most people had gone away or back to the country for the long weekend. Unfortunately for us, tomorrow night wasn't going to be too busy either. Bugger! What a waste of some killer tracks! If the place was full, I would absolutely love this place.
There was one more place on Monica's list that we wanted to try before calling it a night, but when we got to the supposed location we couldn't find the place anywhere. We walked around a small park several times but alas. No-one we asked had heard of it either (we would find the club the next day in the middle of the park, meaning we walked around it about five times without finding it. But come on, how many clubs would you find under the middle of a park?). I was quite keen to have a big night, but unfortunately for us, it was back to the hostel.
Today we would do a tour of Buda,
Memorial hill and waterfall dedicated to St. Gerard, who was martyred here.
the more touristy part of town.
Our walk across Elisabeth Bridge brings us to Gellert Hill, named after St. Gerard who was thrown off this hill to his death. A statue of St. Gerard is atop the hill and underneath it is a lovely waterfall with stairwells running up either side of it. Very Labyrinth. We walk up the hill for some great views over The Danube and over to Pest, and eventually reach the Citadella, an old fortress at the top. There are some commemorative statues and old guns up here as well as truckloads of tourists and merchants selling their wares. One particular piece of merchandise is a smoking toy horse - that is actually
We then take a rather nice walk down through a leafy park, past some flash suburban houses to the Royal Palace. We have taken the rear entrance into the castle walls and pass through some immaculately-kept gardens. Walking into the palace museum, we come out unexpectedly into the impressively grand inner royal courtyard of the palace.
If we thought there were truckloads of tourists on the Citadella, then there were spaceship-loads of tourists here. The palace is pretty spectacular though having seen
Rear entrance to the Royal Palace.
the palaces in Madrid
, I'm no longer in awe of palaces as I once was but still understand how it pulls the tourists. There was a stand selling Hungarian "funnel" cake with cinnamon that smelled delicious but the queue to get some put me off. We were also accosted by a slightly deranged man who wanted to give us a tour of the sights. He hung around a while and told us some handy facts but got pissed off with us once it became clear we weren't gonna give him any money. There are so many beggars and people asking you for money here - I was simply over it by the end of the trip.
The palace is part of Castle Hill, a huge complex much like Wawel Hill in Krakow and Prague Castle in Prague, that contains the remains of medieval Budapest. With cobblestone streets and cute old buildings it certainly felt medieval and pretty cool. In fact I think that Budapest as whole feels very much like Prague
, but I thought that Prague felt much more authentic and truly medieval
. I guess much of that has to do with the fact that Prague was
One of the towers on the Fisherman's Bastion.
a much bigger medieval city and that most of it is still intact. It doesn't quite feel authentically medieval when there are loads of cars parked on the cobblestone streets.
We keep walking away from the Royal Palace to Matthias Church, which has a huge tower, but is unfortunately wrapped up in scaffolding and tarpaulin while under repair. Bummer. Completely clear of restoration works and taking the Labyrinth theme to another level is the amazing Fishermans' Bastion. Built as a viewing terrace between 1895 and 1902, it has seven neo-Gothic towers that represent the seven Magyar tribes that originally settled in Budapest. It was probably the coolest thing we had seen all day. On the bastion, was a dude shuffling cups with a die underneath one of them. This was crazy. There were a group of Italian men playing double or nothing with the dude to guess which cup the die was under - it was pretty easy and anyone could guess it really, but these guys were putting down hundreds
of Euros. We suspected they were just his mates trying to suck people into placing ridiculously large bets. No photos allowed...
On the way back to Pest we passed
Apartment Of Rock (Literally)
What a kick-ass place this would be to live.
an awesome rock apartment. We thought it might be a church or something (like one we saw in Helsinki
) but no, it actually an apartment block with apartments to rent. Gkee remarked how awesome it would be to live here. Indeed.
We ended our walking tour back over in Pest at a restaurant called Koleves which was recommended to us by the hostel receptionist for good local food. Nothing much was said during dinner as we were all knackered from all the walking we had done.
We were starving though and my aubergine pate on toast certainly whet the appetite for my chilli and chocolate steak. Yep, you read correctly, a steak coated in chocolate sauce. It had to be tried. The steak was nice, but I don't think I'll be having it with chocolate sauce again. Some fusions of tastes come off surprisingly well, but this just wasn't right in my opinion. For dessert I had a piece of Jewish matzo layer cake, and me being me, ordered a large
. What came out was huge
even by my standards. It was the size of a brick. With layers of apple, moist ground-poppyseed and walnuts, it was OK but not
Minus the cars, Castle Hill felt pretty medieval.
nice enough for me to want eat the whole thing. Ugh, so full
It was pub crawl night but unfortunately for Phil, he pulled out as he wasn't feeling too good.
On this pub crawl, you apparently got unlimited shots all night for £10!
On the way to the meeting point we bumped into two Aussies, Tim(bo) and Richard who just so happened to be on our pub crawl as well. They were a good laugh. At the meeting point we were surprised at number of girls on the crawl. Usually these things are sausage-fests. Also on the pub crawl were three Americans, three Aussie girls and an Aussie guy, a Swiss dude and another Kiwi.
The first place that our guide Judith took us to was a bog-standard pub/bar and a shot of vodka-cranberry got us warmed up. It took us ages to get to the bar though but the local Dreher beer went down quickly and it had to, cos we were moving on. Neither Timbo nor I were good scullers, so we urged each other on to finish our pints before we could leave. Man, really regretting that matzo cake now.
On the way to the
Gkee, Davies & Phil
Looking out at Pest from the Fisherman's Bastion.
next place we were all issued with a plastic shot glass with which Judith would pour us all shots of really strong vodka and orange. It was hilarious, we would all swoop her with our shot glasses for her to fill and once shot, we would put the glass back in for more. She was definitely earning her money tonight. To an onlooker it must've looked pretty feral, like vultures to a carcass or piglets to mama.
The next place we ended up at was really cool. The place was called Instant and was an apartment block cum multi-level bar. On the top floor was an eating area where they served some pretty yummy-smelling food and the ground floor, complete with courtyard was for drinking. Below, was a club. We were all pretty hammered by now, having a good time as we knocked back some Jaeger-bombs.
At the next place, we managed to snare a table for everyone and things started getting err...frisky.
One of the Aussie girls, Harriet, quickly became Dirty Harry, after assaulting Timbo's tonsils in front of all of us, while another of the Aussie girls was getting touchy-feely with the Swiss dude. Meanwhile, I got to
Gkee, Aussie Ash and American Chris.
know my fellow crawlers a bit better - Judith, the crawl leader, is a sweet girl and told me she wasn't getting in on the drinking action tonight as she had to drive home; Emily the third Aussie girl was in fact working at one of the other hostels and had an 8am start the next day and wasn't looking too good (ouch); the Americans were studying in Venice (how nice) and were here on a weekend break.
The final place we went to was a proper club and was pretty cool. You got an ultra-violet stamp and the bouncers have UV torches! I was toasted at this point and down went another Jaeger bomb. Memory gets hazy. I ask Richard where Timbo is. "Oh shiit", he responds and goes off to try and find him. We completely lose the Americans. The Aussie girl who was feeling the Swiss guy up is now feeling me up. The Australians decide they want to go to Burger King before heading back to the hostel. Judith is going to a house party, as the crawl is officially finished now. We think about going with her. The Australians take off and we lose them.
Budapest's main shopping parade.
We get in a taxi. I have no idea where we are or where we're going. It seems we are meeting up with Judith and a couple of friends at a club now rather than a house party - so Davies, Gkee and I end up at a club called Merlin.
It's a pretty cool club set in what seems like an exhibition centre or art gallery. We meet up with Judith and a couple of her friends, one of whom is quite hot. None of them are drinking though. I reckon there is nothing worse than trying to talk to someone sober when you're drunk, so I didn't hang around long and started talking to a couple of the locals. One of them was a girl called Dori, who has actually lived in London before so we had bit to talk about. She was of a creative bent as well as she was wearing some very interesting jewellery that she had made herself including earrings made of Maomix (candy) and glo-stick necklaces. Another girl I talked to was Agnes, who seemed to know everyone in the club. The music was pretty boring - house/techno crap - and the crowd
Szechenyi Bathhouse Entrance
The bathhouse entrance felt like a step back in time.
was disappearing. Not that it was completely packed when we arrived though. It was such a shame we were here on a long weekend when no-one was around.
Thankfully the hostel was literally over the road from the synagogue so we were only a 10-min walk from the hostel.
So I was pretty hungover the next day - amusingly, the previous two days in Budapest have been the first two days I remember where I have not been hungover. I wasn't as bad as Davies though - he was breaking out in cold sweats.
Anyway, when you're in Budapest, there is nothing better to cure a hangover than to sweat it all out at the thermal baths. Taking the rather efficient Metro (complete with the cutest station arrival tune ever) to the City Park, it was a glorious day to be laying in the pool. It's a little confusing when you first get there though, as there were no signs directing you to anything so I got a bit lost before finally making it to the outdoor pool, where I met up with Phil and Gkee who had got there earlier. Davies was sleeping off his hangover outside. The
Hours of fun for the whole family!
Szechenyi Furdo is a spectacular neo-Baroque bathhouse built in 1913 over two thermal springs. The inside is rather ornate as well.
The first thing to grab our attention was the whirlpool
. Built into one of the pools, a jacuzzi is ringed by "moat" and on the walls of this moat are jets that propel water in a clockwise direction. A current is therefore created and without any effort, you are flying around the whirlpool. Gkee remarks that we are enjoying this far too much for 27-year-old adults. Kids are having a great time and I keep crashing into slow people in front of me. We've all got smiles as we go around for what seems like 20 minutes but it's impossible to wipe them off our faces - we must've looked hilarious. Oh, the fun. We then retreated indoors where there are loads of pools of different temperatures and pools for different uses such as the one for exercise. The 40 degree pool is pretty hot, don't wanna stay in there too long. Phil and I then go into one of the many saunas and have a session in the 50-60 degree sauna.
We then follow that up by going
Definitely the coolest spa I've ever been to, and probably ever will.
into the steam room. This is by far the hottest environment I have ever
been in. The air in there is so hot that you don't wanna breath it in and when you do, you feel like you're breathing fire. We challenge ourselves to stay in there for five minutes before plunging ourselves in an 18 degree pool. The last two minutes are the longest of my life and every movement my body makes just makes it hotter so I'm sitting dead still. At the end of the final countdown, we sprint out of there and jump into the 18 degree pool. Woah! Shock! Who would've thought 18 degrees could be so cold! I'm outta there and my body is tingling. I'm buzzing though.
We meet up with Gkee again outside and we tell him we should do it again. But not before we spend five minutes in the 80-100 degree sauna. Phew, that was hot.
We then wile away the rest of the day in the outside pool. Davies never made it in and in hindsight it may have been a good idea as he probably would've passed out from the dehydration.
On the way back to the hostel
The inside of the Szechenyi Thermal Baths looked like Roman baths.
and the airport I'm as lethargic as I've ever been and my movements have slowed down ten-fold. I'm sure my body temperature was raised a couple of degrees and it remained this way until I landed at Luton Airport, where I was wearing just a t-shirt in the sub-10 degree weather.
I use the last of my Hungarian Forints to purchase some Hungarian salami at the airport. I only just
didn't have enough to buy some palinka
which in hindsight I was disappointed not to try while I was there.
Anyway, it was another fantastic weekend break - there is loads to see and do in Budapest and the prices are still relatively cheap. The food is good and the nightlife I'm sure is pretty good as well, it was just a shame we were here on the wrong weekend. The thermal baths were the perfect way to round off an awesome long weekend. Hungarian people? Though not outwardly friendly, the younger ones are friendly enough if you approach them.
I would definitely recommend Budapest as a long weekend destination.
For some reason I seem to always save up all my travelling for the winter months - in
three weeks I'm off to Milan, and the week after that I am off to Bratislava and Vienna. Then it's Christmas in Iceland - awesome. Anyway, you'll hear all about those trips in the coming months.
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