The bulk of my last spring break ever (since I’m graduating from law school in May, and at the moment at least, have no plans to seek further higher education) took place in Budapest with my Croatian friend Iva.
The Journey to Budapest
Iva and I reunited after 19 months of separation at the train station in Zagreb early on Friday afternoon. After lots of hugs and some staring at each other (in that “wow I can’t believe you’re actually here!” way), we wheeled our bags into an adjacent underground mall to kill time before our train at a cafe. I whipped out my two Croatian books and read aloud, which served the dual purpose of practicing my pronunciation and making Iva laugh.
Our seven-hour trip began at 2:30. This was my first train trip outside western Europe, and Iva seemed to think we’d end up getting delayed, but it went really smoothly. The train was fairly full as we left Zagreb, but a lot of those people were just traveling elsewhere in Croatia and got off at various points along our route. I was excited to see a different part of the country as I had never been east of Zagreb before. We passed through a lot of “villages,” which prompted a discussion about the use of that word instead of “towns.” I consistently hear people from the Balkans refer to “villages,” and I explained to Iva that, at least in the US, villages imply something so small (and perhaps an element of age, or even backwardness) that I’ve never heard anyone call a modern-day establishment in the US a “village.” Nonetheless, “village” is definitely the appropriate word in the former Yugoslavia, and trust me, there are some tiny ones. Six houses in the middle of nowhere might constitute a village. We saw some larger ones, including a couple with a church that I said I would probably have called “towns.” I told Iva that I always think it’s really interesting to travel through the Balkans because the land looks SO different to me – while we obviously have countryside in the US (and in other European countries that I’ve traveled in), there are not these random sprinklings of inhabitants – you’re either in a town (I would say with at least 100 people) or you’re nowhere. Much of the land in the Balkans seems to fall somewhere in between, and I find that fascinating and timeless.
Anyway, it took us close to three hours to get to the Hungarian border. The train stopped on the Croatian side first, and Croatian border patrol officers came through the train to inspect our passports. As always in the EU, my American passport required significantly more attention; everyone else can just get a quick glance at their documentation, but they had to scan my passport, wait for the information to load on their little handheld device, and then finally give me a stamp. The two Croatian guys seemed to take great interest in mine while they waited for my information to load; I swear it looked like they scrutinized each stamp in my passport as if to say “let’s see where this American girl has been!” After that it was about 10 minutes before we stopped again on the Hungarian side. (We knew we were in Hungary because suddenly the signs were completely unintelligible to us.) The Hungarian border patrol agents (who were very cute) repeated the procedure, and eventually we got underway again.
Rural Hungary on a wet day at dusk is more than a little creepy. We were quickly chugging our way through a forest where mist crawled between the trees, and I half expected to see wolves running around. The light soon disappeared entirely, and we went at least an hour without seeing anything out the windows. On top of this, we were now almost alone in our train car – there were only three other people in there with us, including an older Romanian woman (who spoke Croatian and reminded me a lot of my grandmother) and then two other people sitting at the other end. If we’d been entirely alone, I would absolutely have turned up the music on my phone and just had a private dance party in the train. As it was, I settled for wandering to the cafe car and buying a beer to bring back to the seat.
We eventually found civilization again, and some Hungarians got on the train. There was still plenty of space, and we retained control over our little square of four seats. Iva and I each put in an earbud and went through songs on my phone that reminded us of our time together in The Hague – an exercise we repeated frequently over the next several days.
We rolled into Budapest’s Keleti train station around 9:45, stepped out into the rain, hailed a cab, and arrived at our hotel about 15 minutes later. I could tell from the drive that I was going to like Budapest and that it was not what I had been expecting – in a good way.
Buda + Pest = Budapest
We didn’t stray far from our hotel on Friday night; we walked about ten minutes away and ended up getting a late dinner at an Italian restaurant. Iva had taken a five-hour bus ride from her hometown that morning, so it had been an especially long day for her, and we went to bed pretty much as soon as we got back.
Saturday morning dawned chilly and wet, but fortunately it was misting more than raining. We figured we might as well start with the main point of interest: the Hungarian Parliament building. Like our hotel, it is on the Pest side of the Danube and was a 15-20 minute walk northwest from us.
I took a TON of pictures of Parliament from various vantage points around the city over the course of our time there. Here is a sample from Saturday, when the weather was the worst (so they get better from here!):
Anyway, the Parliament building is just stunning from all angles, inside and out. We went on a tour and learned that it took 17 years to construct. My other favorite factoid from the tour was that the stained glass windows inside the main entrance hall had been taken out and stored before the World War II bombings, so the originals were preserved! Pretty cool (and what good foresight).
We walked a huge loop around the Danube that morning – from Parliament down to the famous Chain Bridge, across the river to Buda, and then back north to the other bridge that connects to Margaret Island in the middle. The Buda side has a lovely, paved promenade along the river where lots of people were running, and it made for easy walking. (On the Pest side they’re doing some sort of construction in the blocks south of Parliament, and this disrupts pedestrian traffic.) I’ll wait and post pictures of these same things, which we saw every subsequent day, for later on when we had better weather.
We ended up doing some further wandering back on the Pest side in the afternoon and found a mall with a lot of the stores we had shopped at together one day in Rotterdam. We spent a couple of hours in there and eventually had a very late lunch at a restaurant there, but I didn’t buy anything from the stores.
In the evening we ended up at Saint Stephen’s Basilica in the center of Pest. It’s a lovely church, inside and out.
That evening we dressed up (Saturday night!) and set off planning to go to an Irish pub (Iva loves all things Irish) and then another bar called Morrison’s that had rave reviews on TripAdvisor. The Irish Pub turned out to be closed, so we continued on to Morrison’s. As seems to be the trend in Budapest, this bar was built in the courtyard of a building (though it had a dancefloor and other areas inside the buildings). There was some sort of ceiling, so it was plenty warm, and the less observant would not have been aware they were actually outside. We secured a table in the main open area, and I got us drinks from the bar.
Now, we had generally been admiring the Hungarian men over the past 24 hours. For me at least, Hungary (and Croatia!) are great places because almost all the men fit the physical description of my type: dark haired, olive skinned, and handsome. I had had many occasions during the day to think to myself “mmm, Magyars.” There were, as always, SOME attractive men in this place, but on the whole we were a little underwhelmed, especially when a young, drunk kid (Iva and I are both 28, and at this point anyone more than a year or two younger than us just seems like a teenager) planted himself at our table and started talking to us. I will give him points for his persistence despite his very much less than perfect English, but he persevered FAR beyond the acceptable point, and eventually his friend joined us too, making things even more awkward. Iva and I were not there to find lovers, but we would much rather have preferred each other’s company to that of some random guys whose conversation was awkward more than anything else. We finally managed to excuse ourselves after about half an hour and headed to the dance floor, where things were much better. Still, this bar was closing at midnight (I have no idea why), so we didn’t stay that much longer. We walked home thinking that if we passed another bar we’d check it out, but we didn’t really see anything.
On Sunday morning I went out for a run (I am running the Paris half marathon in three days, agh!) and came back feeling cautiously optimistic about the weather: I had seen patches of brighter cloudiness that hinted at the forthcoming appearance of the sun, something I haven’t seen much of lately in Paris. We left the hotel at just the right time and enjoyed about 40 minutes of actual sunshine, which helped us capture these pictures:
There is a funicular that goes up the steep hill to Buda Castle, but we opted for the winding pathway instead (which didn’t actually take that much time or energy). Buda Castle is a bit of a misnomer – there’s not a castle there now; some of the wall built into the hill might have been part of a castle at some point, but now there’s just a large palace housing some sort of art museum. We were there for the views, which were great.
We witnessed a fun sort of changing of the guards, which involved about a dozen Hungarian men in uniform twirling their long guns and marching around while someone else played a typical drum selection. From there, we worked our way north through the Castle District to Saint Matthias Church and Fishermen’s Bastion (I have no idea why it’s called that).
The church is lovely on the outside, and though I was a bit affronted at having to buy an entry ticket, it was amazing on the inside too.
Fishermen’s Bastion is sort of like the front wall of a castle, with some turrets. It’s fun to walk through, and if we’d had more time, I would have enjoyed sipping a coffee in the cafe at the top of one of the turrets.
Later in the day, after additional walking and sightseeing (none of which I found remarkable enough to merit pictures or further description here), we discovered that Budapest at night is a real rival to Paris at night in terms of beauty. It was stunning, and I really wish I had a camera that took good night photos.
On Monday morning, having completed our sightseeing in Buda, we stuck to the Pest side of the river and walked to the southern end of the city. We stopped first at the second largest synagogue in the world and spent about an hour walking around its various areas and exhibitions. I think I had only been in one synagogue before (though I have no idea where), so this was an interesting change from the usual routine of seeing churches. I thought the interior of the synagogue was lovely (and in most ways exactly like a Christian church), but the real treasure was the rest of the grounds that dealt with the experience of the Hungarian Jews during World War II. The synagogue is in the middle of the Jewish neighborhood which became the Jewish ghetto during Nazi occupation, and thousands of Jews starved or froze to death within its walls. Several thousand of those victims are now buried in a garden within the walls of the synagogue, and there are various other memorials within the grounds.
After this sobering experience, we shifted gears and walked further south to go to the Central Market. If Anthony Bourdain has ever done an episode of No Reservations in Budapest (hmm, should check that out), he MUST have come here. It’s a huge building filled with beautiful piles of colorful vegetables, butchers selling all sorts of sausages and meat that was not immediately identifiable to me, bottles of palinka (the Hungarian version of rakija), and a few restaurants serving traditional Hungarian food (which smelled INCREDIBLE, and unfortunately I didn’t get to have any).
The most highly anticipated moment of the trip, at least for me, finally came on Monday afternoon when we went to a thermal bath. There are a bunch of these in Budapest, and I want to go back to experience all of them. We went to the Szechenyi baths in the northeastern part of the city (getting there was a whole other adventure that isn’t worth recounting here, but suffice it to say that my dead-tired legs were so happy to soak in that warm water). We arrived around 5:30 and spent the next 80 minutes or so rotating through the various thermal pools. Some were actually really cold (which would have been fine in the summer), so we stuck to the ones that were between 34 and 38 degrees celsius. It was strange to be in something that looked like a pool or hot tub that was not chlorinated! The signs weren’t in English, so I’m not sure what differentiated each one other than the temperature, but there were definitely differences in the color and smell of the water. Some were more green and had an almost menthol-like scent wafting off the top. It was LOVELY, and if I lived in Budapest, I would go at least once a week.
On our way home we passed an ACTUAL castle and then went through Heroes Square, both of which were, per the city standard, beautifully lit up:
Our final act of tourism in Budapest was to go to a ruin pub on Monday night. I’d read about these ruin pubs but still wasn’t really sure what they were. This is a good opportunity to discuss how my expectations of Budapest compared to what I actually saw in Budapest. Having seen a solid amount of formerly (or, in the case of China, currently) communist countries, I was expecting the city’s appearance to reflect a lot more of that history. Instead, Budapest could just as easily be a city in western Europe; it is chock full of grand architecture and is one of the most aesthetically pleasing cities I’ve ever seen. Thus, I’d expected the ruin pubs to tie in the visual element of post-communism that I had anticipated in the rest of the city.
The ruin pub we visited was, in a word, awesome. Like the bar we went to on Saturday night, this place was build into the exterior space between a set of buildings. It was a huge amount of area – there were at least six separate rooms, some of them larger than entire distinct bars. Iva’s assessment of the decoration was very accurate: “it’s like all the stuff that no one wanted anymore ended up here.” The “ceilings”, walls, and other surfaces of this ruin pub were decorated with all sorts of random stuff – disco balls, buckets, netting, toys, old radios, shovels, fake flowers, dolls, etc. This is another situation where a video would be a lot better at conveying the overall atmosphere. There were plenty of people there despite it being Monday night.
…and that about sums up Budapest! We took an afternoon train on Tuesday, but we didn’t do anything else of note on Tuesday morning. The journey back to Zagreb was much the same as the journey to Budapest, though with fewer people on the train.
My last spring break ever may not have been spent on a tropical beach somewhere, but it was still great! (It was my first and only European spring break!)