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Published: March 19th 2015
After a final ride down the beautiful Grand Canal, we sadly left Venice. The beautiful lights of the Palazzo blinked their goodbyes as we headed towards the Ferrovia. We were catching the night train to Vienna where, after a short layover, we would be on our way the next morning for our new home of Budapest, Hungary.
We had a choice of private sleeper, four-person sleeper, six-person sleeper or regular seat. We decided to save a little money and take our chances with the 6-person. We hoped it wasn’t a full house. No such luck on this trip. David spent an uncomfortable night squeezing in a top bunk made for small children at best, and Nanci felt she had hit the lottery when she luckily traded an Argentine backpacker for a middle bunk. Attempting the wobbly 8 foot ladder to the top bunk would not have been a pretty sight.
Some Americans of our generation probably do not have pleasant thoughts about travel to former Iron Curtain countries. Images of frozen, grouchy women waiting in bread lines at empty shelved stores or tired looking men with soot covered faces waiting for some uncomfortably crowded mass
transportation or sad faced children huddled in under-heated, propaganda filled schoolrooms, sharing books with other sad children while being preached to by evil looking school masters come to mind when we think of former Soviet satellite countries. These no sun and no fun images lead us to other places for our travel destinations.
We had never travelled to any former Soviet bloc countries in the past. As the list of places that we haven’t been grows smaller, we felt it was time to get going. Would the frozen images of our childhood still prove to be true? Could it really be as bad as our anti-communist, capitalism loving government had told us? It was time for us to find out first hand.
After our uncomfortable night on our non-sleeper train from Venice to Vienna, we changed to the Railjet train for the last 2 ½ hours of our trip to Budapest. An hour in to our trip we crossed the border into Hungary. The landscaped farms and steeple-churched villages seemed to disappear and were replaced by crookedly plowed fields and bent back houses. The huge electricity generating windmills of Eastern Austria gave way to
The Spiral Staircase
Path to the bell tower at St. Stephen's Basilica
starkly vacant, broken smokestack, abandoned factories of Western Hungary. The train seemed to slow down for safety and large clouds formed above to grey the rural landscape. Perhaps our 1960’s childhood memories of barren landscapes and stark lifestyles were true.
We arrived at the Kereti train station in Budapest right on time. The semi-open air station was full of passengers and trains. The station was built in the 1800’s and showed some wear. Signs were in a language we couldn’t read. There were letters we didn’t recognize and punctuation marks that meant nothing to us. Our guidebook warned of tricky cab drivers who preyed on unknowing tourists. Even though Hungary is a European Union country they do not take Euros. We would have to change money into Hungarian Forints and surely we would be cheated. That we were going to spend a month here was beginning to frighten us.
Exiting the train station we noticed KFC and Burger King across the street. An organized taxi stand was just steps from the door. The attractive lady at the money exchange counter spoke perfect English and seemed to give us the correct amount for our no
longer needed Euros. The taxi driver gave us a set fee for our ride which seemed fair. He also spoke very good English. Something must be wrong.
We rode through a busy shopping square filled with well-dressed people. The boulevard was wide and lined with classically styled, multi-storied apartment houses. The bottom floor of the apartments held markets, pharmacies, designer clothing stores, restaurants and theaters. A yellow tram passed down the middle lane and trees were located along the wide sidewalks. Traffic was light. The architecture resembled Paris and the newly sunny skies lit the ornately designed buildings. Perhaps this wasn’t really Hungary after all.
In just minutes, we arrived at our new apartment. It is located in a handsome 5 story building with a central courtyard open to the sky and lined with beautiful cast-iron walkways. We buzzed the button and our smiling landlady proudly escorted us to our house for the next month. The ceilings were at least 15 feet high and the style was modern Scandinavian. Floor to ceiling windows made for a bright and cheerful feeling. A flat screen TV and full sized kitchen with modern appliances greeted us. The
On the Liberty Bridge
bathroom had lighting on the ceiling AND floor and had a new washing machine and multi-head shower. The bedroom was modern with plenty of closets and mirrors. Something had to be wrong. We were paying half what we paid in Venice and this apartment left us a bit stunned.
We unpacked and headed out to buy groceries. Surely we would be disappointed and we prepared for the worst. After passing the theater which had a production of Phantom of the Opera next door and the ornate coffee shop next to it, we arrived at the store on the corner. We were greeted by a brightly lit store filled with a fully stocked deli, wonderful fruit and vegetable displays and freshly baked breads and pastries. A large selection or wines of every variety were available. The prices were unbelievably fair compared to the quality. How could this be? Could we have been missing out all this time?
We have now been in Budapest for nearly two weeks and are still amazed at the beautiful surprises that Budapest brings daily. The Danube River flows majestically for 17 miles through this city of 1.6 million people. The
Torch Bearer Statue at the Citadella, an old fort high above Budapest
hilly Buda side lies on the western “right” bank and has the Castle, Citadel and Fisherman’s Bastion. The ancient walled portion of Buda contains ornate churches, classically styled houses and cobblestone roads. The massive castle provides unbelievable views over the rest of the city and is especially enchanting in the evening when the entire city lights up below.
Several ornamented bridges lead across the river to the “left” bank city of Pest (correctly pronounced Pesht). The grand Parliament building and resplendent St. Stephen’s Basilica greet the visitor entering the inner city area. The grand Adrassy Boulevard leads out of the center towards the City Park. The Danube River embankments and bridges and Andrassy Avenue are both well-deserved World Heritage sites. Designed and built in the years preceding the 1000 year anniversary of the city in 1896, the entire area easily rivals any of the Grand Boulevards found in Paris. Wonderful squares host restaurants, designer shopping stores, coffee houses and classic bars and can be found at every crossroad.
Transportation is easy and modern. 3 modern and 1 classic metro lines whisk the visitor easily anywhere you need to go in the city. The M1
line is classic and was the first in Europe and second in the world at the time it was built in 1896. It is only several feet below street level and connects downtown with City Park. The newest M4 line features vertigo inducing escalators and futuristic stations. Opened just a year ago, the cars are state of the art and unmanned. Trams connect along the beautiful boulevards for those who wish to take in the sites above ground. The entire system is efficient, inexpensive and unbelievably convenient. As we have a tram stop just outside of our apartment, we can reach virtually anywhere in town in just minutes with a minimum of effort.
Budapest is filled with many world class art galleries and theaters. They are inexpensive and located in the many ornately restored buildings from the past. Early 20th
century coffeehouses can be found everywhere. Billed as the “most beautiful café in the world”, the New York Café is located on our street and is absolutely jaw dropping. For not much more than you would pay in your local Starbucks, you can enjoy your coffee and cake in luxury that is hard to imagine.
Bridges of the Danube
View to the Pest Side from Fisherman's Bastion
We were lucky to be in town on March 15th
for Revolution Day. Revolution day marks the anniversary of Hungary’s attempt to throw off the reigns of the Habsburg dynasty. The Parliament building was open to all and we were able to view the spectacular insides of this grand building. Any pictures you see will not do justice to the real thing. Unbelievably stunning is not adequate.
Despite being nearly destroyed during World War II and suffering through many years of Soviet oppression, Budapest has truly been a great surprise for us. It seems to be an exciting time here as building is going on everywhere. It seems to be a great mix of the new with the old. History is preserved everywhere but the most modern can be found just as easily.
We look forward to our next couple of weeks and are happy to find that our childhood memories of life behind the Iron Curtain don’t seem to exist here anymore.
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