Thursday, September 2, 2010

A Little Buda, A Lot of Pest

In a little over 3 hours on the fast train I was in Budapest, Hungary for five whole nights in one place (yes, it does get exhausting moving to a new bed every night or two!).

My start in Budapest was not great-- it seemed a little Ruskie for my liking, complete with the dilapidated train station, no ATM and no one that could tell me how to find one through the construction outside (I don't want to walk 3 steps out of my way with backpack), a hard to find metro and then a broken ticket machine--- yes, even new mellow me was frustrated.

But then I arrived at Second Home Hostel and from then on fell in love with Budapest. It is an amazing city--- not as sparkling as Vienna- a much cooler, grittier version, with obvious remnants of the communist days, like the adorable, old, yellow trolley cars (they have new ones too, but they have no charm) and the not so friendly locals.

My first full day here happened to be my b-day, celebrated at the traditional Hungarian bath, Szechenyi, soaking with the locals and tourists in the indoor and outdoor thermal pools of various temperatures and features (locals playing chess while in the water, swimming, turbo jets, etc.). Follow that up with a massage--- ah, nice!

After polishing off the Andrassy and Hero's Square/City Park walking tours and talking to the fam (the highlight being Angelo's singing) I decided I would treat myself to a nice dinner at a restaurant decorated like a 70's communist cafe- the duck was delicious. And, just when I finished my entree, three guys sat next to me and invited me to join them for a glass of wine. My phone kept buzzing so I explained to one that it was my b-day (I felt rude on the phone) and next thing I knew I was embarrassed beyond belief by basically a firework display that seriously lasted for 5 minutes! (I was thankful my back was to the restaurant.)

The next day I tempted fate and tried sushi in a land locked country- yes, maybe not the best idea but I was really craving it and I didn't get sick, so it all worked out.

Obviously the perfect post sushi activity is the House of Terror, a surprisingly good museum in the building that housed the Arrow Cross (the Gestapolike enforcers of Nazi-occupied Hungary) and the AVO and AVH secret police (the KBG-type wing of the Soviet satellite government). Both regimes tortured and killed their Hungarian subjects in the basement of this building, with the 3,200 murdered commemorated on the entry wall next to a Soviet tank like the ones that rolled into Budapest to squash the 1956 Uprising.

Torture inspired me to treat myself to a very expensive tea and dessert at the opulent New York Cafe, an over the top mix of Neo-Baroque and Neo-Renaissance-- they seemed to like to mix and match different styles is all their buildings, but it work for them.

Another "must do" is apparently the Opera House. Lucky for me, there were two Budafest performances left so I got to see Il Trovatore performed again (for a bargain price). The building is quite grand and gild-a-rific (Franz Josef said it couldn't be bigger than the opera house in Vienna, so they found a loophole- make the interior grander instead). I had a seat in a box- for some reason my box had 4 people and then neighboring one was a woman alone so I asked if she minded if I moved over- unexpectedly she was not so welcoming, but then agreed reluctantly when I think she realized it made her look like at total bitch (she was from South Beach, surprise, surprise!)

The next morning I was up and out bright and early (a rarity) to get to Parliament before all the English tours sold out (damn, why didn't I bring my EU passport, yet another museum free for them). I don't think the sense of urgency was really necessary but I was glad I went since the building was stunning inside and out.

Budapest's Parliament, built between 1885 and 1902 to celebrate the Hungarian millennium year of 1896 (there was a lot built for this celebration it seems, including the Millennium Underground, the oldest subway on the continent), is the second largest parliament building in Europe (it is a couple meters longer than London). They are very proud that it was built with nearly all Hungarian materials (just a few marble columns from Sweden) and 84lbs of gold.
On view are the famous crown with the crooked cross which was a gift from Pope Sylvester II in 1000 (that oddly the US kept safe in Fort Knox for a time) and the now unused chamber for the House of Lords (they got rid of them) with the cigar holders outside. I highly recommend!

Another walking tour, this time of Leopold Town and Pest Town Central. Highlights, other than Parliament, were:

1) St. Istvan's Basilica which interestingly does not have the standard Jesus on the cross over the alter and creepily has the right hand of St. Istvan on display (this 1000 year old relic crossed the line to gross!)

2) The flag with the center cut out, where the communist seal was inserted by the Soviets, commemorating the 1956 Uprising when the communist police and Soviet troops opened fire on demonstrators from rooftops. Sadly, there are tons and tons of failed Hungarian uprisings- they didn't seem to be very good at overthrowing any regime.

3) Liberty Square was pretty, despite the controversial Soviet War Memorial (they did liberate them in April '45, but then their fate wasn't so great), with ornate apartment buildings from the late 1800's. The US Embassy is also on this square and even I am starting to hate us since we block off huge areas around the building making it very hard to get around.

4) Historic McDonalds- the first one behind the Iron Curtain (they no longer have Cherry McFlurries :-(

5) The Grand Market Hall- well, pretty much like most markets selling food and tourist stuff--- a lot of paprika in this case.

6) Parisi Udvar Gallery- a hidden gallery with lovely woodwork, mosaics and stained glass dome that used to house fine shops and is now basically empty and in disrepair, like much of Budapest's beautiful buildings covered in soot (there are major renovation projects underway).

Good thing I quit touring after a late lunch (where I sampled their fruit soup- eh, not my thing) because I was out LATE with my b-day buddies. The night started with drinks in an outdoor courtyard, then some violin playing at a small Hungarian restaurant, more drinks at a really cool hidden bar, dancing to god knows what in an underground bar that used to be the "National Ditch" (an aborted construction pit) and then more bars (I think).

Seriously, we could buy huge buildings for a bargain price since many of these bars were inside courtyards of huge, empty buildings. From the outside it looked like nothing and then you walk through a random door and into these amazing spots with DJ's, cool art (aka graffiti) and whatnot.

That 4am evening didn't help my efforts to get to Buda, but I was down to my last full day and needed to make it across the river (I couldn't pull another Salzburg and skip it).

In fact, I didn't really love Buda all that much, other than the views of Pest. I quickly ran through the Castle Hill walking tour, stopping at Matthias Church (which was at least different from the other zillion churches I've seen the last couple months) and Fisherman's Bastion before making the very strange decision to go to the Hospital in the Rock museum (at the expense of the more obvious choices of the National Gallery or History Museum, both housed in the palace).

The Hospital in the Rock was an underground network of hospital and bomb shelter corridors from WWII and the Cold War. They had waxy figures to add color, but it was actually just weird. The best part was the very Ruskie looking cape I got to wear since it is chilly in underground tunnels.

Given my late start I really didn't have time for museums and culture, I needed to get to Rudas Baths, at traditional Turkish bath that is only open to women on Tuesdays. There I spend an hour going from pool to pool- warm to hot to cold to cool, and so on. I am not exactly sure the proper way to operate these baths and the Hungarian women are not particularly helpful.

That night Second Home cooked dinner for the guests (I didn't get there in time for any lesson), which was so nice and good to have a mellow evening with some of the other travelers I had gotten to know a little over the past few days.

Last day and I had to hit a few things in Pest before my night flight. Really I just wanted to get my hair done, but I found no bargains to be had so figured I would wait until my next stop.

So, in honor of Laura, I went to the Holocaust Memorial Center which was honestly just too text heavy. I have a MUCH better understanding of the plight of the Jews in Hungary where 600,000 perished at the hands of the Nazis- one out of every 10 victims of the Holocaust!

On my walk back I did pop into the Applied Arts Museum for a quick glance-- as the guidebook said, the building inside and out is a sight to be seen. Interestingly it was inspired by the Indian dynasty known for the Taj Mahal with white stucco arches and columns inside and a green tiled roof outside.

Since my hair was to remain looking crappy, the rest of my time was spent at a western style shopping mall where I was actually able to buy some supplies for upcoming adventures, including sailing gloves, a surprise in a land locked country (stay tuned for my next update to see why!)

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