Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Bewitched by Budapest

My list of favorite cities has shifted to make room for Budapest. I loved the confluence of cultures that exude mystery and dark secrets, but also puts a brave face on centuries of turmoil and takeovers. It’s like Istanbul married Vienna and they had an only child.

We arrived here by train from Prague. At the station we met a gaggle of 60 somethings who unfortunately fit the American tourist stereotype. They were over-packed, over-bearing and definitely over-shared. They were on a two week Vienna/Prague/Budapest trip and could tell us ANYTHING we needed to know about those cities - especially all about the weird food, the heat, the stairs, the lack of air conditioning, the prices, and a serious lack of people who spoke decent English. Of course that was after we learned everyone’s relationship to the others in the group - who's sister-in-law shouldn’t put up with her husband one more minute, who’d been neighbors for thirty years, etc. … you get the picture. This all happened in less than twenty minutes! Finally we made a break for it before and found a spot much further down the platform.

The American Tourist is alive and well in Europe.
And there the pendulum swung in the other direction and we met Stephanie Danforth - also American. She was well-traveled without being boastful, friendly without immediately sharing her life story, curious about the world, confident and didn’t shy away from things that were different. And of course, she was very well put together.

We learned she had traveled extensively in Africa and South East Asia. She had been on her way to Nepal when we met her, but the earthquake there made for a change of plans and she was heading to Budapest for a week with an eye towards re-visiting Morocco. She lives on Martha’s Vineyard and is an accomplished artist. Through sales of here paintings she supports a school in Sambaru, a tribal community in northwest Kenya. You will love her paintings! Here’s a link to a recent article: http://www.eisenhauergallery.com/download/danforth.pdf.e7cc34984dbe3de2ef07bab2967b9857

Enjoying one of the worst meals of our trip with one of the best friends we've made.
The train journey took seven long, hot hours and the train itself had seen better days, but the passing scenery was interesting and we were both deep into our books. Our cabin was fairly comfortable until it filled to capacity with six passengers and their luggage. We brought our lunch and enjoyed a cramped picnic. One seat mate also brought his lunch, although I wish he hadn’t. His was a plastic container of pickled cabbage and sausage to be savored slowly with a liter of warm beer. Sadly, the windows didn’t open. I bolted to find Stephanie (carefully avoiding the other Americans). She was in the car ahead of us with just one seat mate so it was to my advantage to spend time getting to know her better.

Our cabin mate on the train to Budapest.
So, beyond truly enjoying our stay in Budapest we came away with a new friend. Well, actually I made two new friends, if you count Misha the cat that lived next door to our apartment. Once again our Airbnb location was prime real estate. The apartment building was built in 1737 and our apartment was still owned by the family that lived there for over 200 years. Here's the link: https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/1126755

The front door to our Airbnb and my new friend Misha.
We were on a quiet street just two blocks from the Danube River, and one block from the mile-long pedestrian street that bisects the city. The fairy castle Parliament building was at one end, and the famous Market Hall sat at our end - but you had to run a gauntlet of restaurant hawkers and tourist traps in between.

The entrance to the Parliament Building.
Inside the massive Market Hall just two blocks from our apartment. Heaven!
For the first time we took three free walking tours in one city! And they were all excellent. I know I’ve said this before, but wherever you travel if a walking tour is available, take it. Our first tour was an overview of the city and it’s history. There was a lot to pack in and it took over three hours! Our guide, Andrew was really good and he would be guiding the Jewish Budapest tour a few days later so we booked that. In-between we took the Communist Budapest tour, and that was fascinating, too.

A moving memorial to the Jews shot at the bank of the Danube.
Michael took a tour of the Parliament building and he also trekked to a park filled with discarded statues and monuments from the Soviet era. To top it off, we spend a rainy afternoon at the House of Terror, a memorial to the victims of the dictatorial regimes in 20th-century Hungary who detained, interrogated, tortured or killed thousands of citizens in the building.

Just one of the many Communist era statues in Memento Park.
Dear Comrade Lenin, I'd like a new Porsche for Christmas,  please!Oh wait. There is no Christmas!
It was very hot during our stay and we were fortunate that our apartment faced a shady courtyard. So while Michael was boning-up on Hungarian history, I spent some quality time with the cat in the garden, scoured the food hall from top to bottom, and did some shoe shopping! It’s been a long time since I’ve done that, but after 700 days two of my three pairs were ready for retirement.

It was hard to leave this handsome, green-eyed lover. I mean cat.
During our first walking tour we explored a part of the city filled with what are known as “Ruin Bars”. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, many apartment buildings were abandoned and became derelict. About a dozen years ago, some young entrepreneurs began to use the large spaces as impromptu bars and clubs - and a culture was born. You could not recreate one of these with any of the authenticity that comes from scavenging for the furniture, bar ware, and found art. Most Ruin Bars covered multiple floor of an apartment building with an open courtyard. Many had different themes on each level with their own music and intimate spaces. One bar we visited held 400 people at any one time, and often 4,000 people would cycle in and out until the wee hours of the morning. Some also offered hostel rooms on the upper floors. Good idea. Here's a link to the best Ruin bars as of 2014: http://welovebudapest.com/clubs.and.nightlife.1/the.best.ruin.pubs.in.budapest.2014.edition

The IKEA of Ruins Bars. This was on the bi-annual junk collection day.
Oddly, these bars were really clean! It only looked like you'd stick to the chairs.
Michael checking out one of the upper floors of the Szimpla Kert Ruin bar.
Patrons are encouraged to add their own personal touches to the decor.
Budapest is known for elaborate bath houses and pools where locals and tourists alike while away a few hours soaking in mineral rich waters. The famous Gellet Spa was just across the bridge from our Airbnb. The labyrinth of elaborately tiled hallways led from one pool to another. Each one offered dips in a range of temperatures, the hottest ones followed by nearby cold showers and then a stint in  the steam room. Once inside, I couldn't see Michael across the room - but something about this heavy, hot fog saps you of the energy you might spend thinking about much of anything other than the relief that toxins are pouring out of your body like rats leaving the ship.

One of the few times it is okay to be in hot water!
The outdoor pool was a great escape from a hot afternoon.
On our last Sunday, we attended service at a Calvinist church that was hosting a 160 member choir from Holland called “Holland Zings”. It was one of those great Senior Nomad moments that come from living like locals. We saw the flyer posted on the door of the church during a walk, and the experience was a five star experience. The service was in Dutch as well as Hungarian - a priest from each country presided. The average age of the group looked to be fifty plus. The group loves to travel together and perform abroad once a year.

Inspiring choral singing in a simple setting made for a perfect Sunday morning.
The soloist was a talented younger woman with a soaring voice that suited the acoustics of this simple, elegant setting in a 150 year old church. Most of the songs performed were in Dutch, but a few were in Hungarian, Latin and English. As a finale the choir sang both the Dutch and Hungarian national anthems. It was very moving.

Farewell from the land of goulash and paprika. Lots of paprika!
Our next journey takes us to Belgrade in Serbia. We're looking forward to learning more about about that much-maligned country first-hand. 

Thanks for following along!

Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads


  1. Budapest is the most beautiful cathedral in Hungary and one of the best in Europe. Some of beautiful cathedrals of Europe are situated in My Hidden Paris .

  2. I enjoyed this trip to Budapest very much. Your pictures and text are wonderful; I felt like I was right there with you. I would have had a hard time leaving that cat, too. :-)