Backpacking through Europe: Budapest

We spent the past four days exploring the metropolitan city of Budapest in Hungary. It was a bit of a tough transition coming from the small towns of Cinque Terre and Fribourg, but after several days of exploring, eating new foods, and learning more about the Hungarian culture, I finally feel better adjusted to our surroundings. And now, of course, we head to Prague. This portion of the trip is a perfect example of no matter how well you plan, sometimes you have to make adjustments. We took a 11-hour overnight train from Switzerland to arrive in Budapest Saturday morning. When I bought the tickets, I was told that no sleeper cars were available, so I paid $30 and hoped for the best. Our seats were more narrow than the standard tight airplane cushion, across from one another, with a person on either side of us, with so little leg room that I spent most of the trip with my legs on Keith's lap. The two men seated to one side of each of us took turns on every stop going outside to smoke, then came back and closed the sliding compartment door, locking the six of us in with the stench. It was one of the most uncomfortable transportation experiences Keith and I have ever had. We were supposed to take another overnight train from Budapest to Prague, but decided to instead move that to a daytime trip and add an extra night in Hungary.

Our first day in Budapest, we checked into our AirBNB apartment early, then explored the local area of Pest for several hours. We enjoyed dinner at a Rick Steves recommended local restaurant, Bor La Bor, and then spent the evening researching ideas for what to do on Easter Sunday. Keith read online about several local festivities, so Sunday morning after our yoga practice, we walked across the river and uphill to the Budapest Castle's Easter Hungarian Festival. The castle grounds were filled with food and drink vendors, as well as booths of locally made products for sale. There was live Hungarian music, dancing, and tons of activities for kids (the most interesting being a spinning basket ride). We shared goulash in a bread bowl, tried local delicacies, sampled Hungarian made dessert wine, and ended by sharing a delicious and surprisingly light sour cherry strudel. We budgeted for souvenirs for this trip, but since we're living out of backpacks, were limited on size. I decided to spend my souvenir money on a handmade metal necklace charm on a leather strand, and Keith bought a small bottle of a locally made aperitif. Pricing is very reasonable here, and so far, this portion of the trip has been the least expensive for us!

The day after Easter is also a national holiday here, so most museums and sights were closed, but we did get a chance to visit the St. Stephen's Basilica, just down the street from our apartment rental, and the 2nd largest synagogue in the world, Dohany Street Synagogue. The basilica is an interesting mix of traditional Catholic religious icons, with the addition of statues of Hungarian saints. Instead of Jesus on the altar, which is typical in most Catholic Churches, there is a statue of St. Stephen, the first King of Hungary. The Dohany Street Synagogue is in the Jewish Quarter of Budapest, with an exterior design of Byzantine, Roman and Gothic elements, it's lovely from the outside. The tickets to view the interior are quite pricey, so I would actually recommend skipping that tour, and walking through the free, and far more interesting, Heroes Temple, graveyard and Memorial. Easter Monday was quite chilly, so we spent the afternoon starting to pack and clean our apartment, and then went to Parsifal at the Hungarian Opera House. I've never seen that opera before and it was a perfect second to last evening in Budapest! Our seats had a great view of the stage, the opera house is breathtaking, and the three lead singers' voices were stunning. Apparently Parsifal is an annual tradition for three days during Passover, so if you happen to visit Budapest during this time of year, I highly recommend buying tickets! Just don't make the same embarrassing mistake we did and leave after the 2nd act when the singers give a mid-performance bow. A few audience members slipped out early, and almost four hours had passed, so we assumed it had an anti-climactic ending and left with several others. Now we'll need to attend again and actually get to see the final act!

On the very long overnight train ride here, Keith spent time reading Rick Steves book on Budapest, that we bought for the iPad, and had set his heart on going to the famous Szecheyi Bath House. Unfortunately neither of us packed bathing suits, and since everything was closed for the Easter holiday, we weren't able to shop until our last day in Budapest. I must say that the idea of buying a bathing suit after enjoying many, many cones of gelato and bowls of pasta in Italy was pretty horrifying to me. Thankfully there was a shopping center near the Boscato Hotel, where we spent our last evening in Budapest, and we each found something that worked for the bath house. We walked the several miles to the bath house, shivering slightly in the cold, and wondering what to expect. On our honeymoon in Iceland, we enjoyed a day at the Blue Lagoon, another mineral fed bathing experience, but I assumed this might be a bit different. It most certainly was! When you walk into the main entrance, you're greeted by attendants all in white and a somewhat stark yet also lovely interior. You pay the entrance and locker fee, are given a floppy, electric wristband to wear that gets you access to the changing room and lockers, then follow the Hungarian signs past another narrow entry point to the beige changing rooms. We shared a changing room that locks behind you and allows you to store your clothes while you bathe. There are two options on bathing spaces - inside or outside. The outdoor space has three pools - one for lounging, one for doing laps, and one for fun. The "fun" one was my favorite with a walled off circular area at the center with jets that gently push you through the space and create a whirlpool effect. We skipped the lap pool (requires caps) but spent the recommended 20 minutes in the two others, then moved inside. The interior space has multiple options of baths, all at various temperatures and sizes, as well as steam rooms and jacuzzis. The bath house also offers massages, pedicures, facials, mud treatments, etc. Aside from being relaxing, it also allows for excellent people watching (and attempting not to watch) with some of the tiniest bathing suits and hairiest backs I've ever seen. After almost two hours, we cleaned up and spent the next few hours walking through City Park, the Vajdahunyad Castle (built in 1896 for their millennial celebration), and read the history of all the leaders and freedom fighters featured in Heroes Square.

Our apartment at the Boscato had its own kitchenette, so we bought a few items from a local grocer for dinner, then layered up again for a night out on the town. The Jewish Quarter in Budapest fell into disrepair after World War II and some areas are only just now being restored. In response, a lot of abandoned buildings have been turned into "ruin pubs" for the local youth. We walked to one just a few blocks from our hotel for our final evening in Budapest and toasted to our time in Hungary with a shot of locally made Unicum. The bar was a two-story mix of indoor and outdoor space, in complete disrepair, with graffiti on every surface, bar counters around every turn, mismatched chairs, rusted tables and wobbly bar stools, a cut-in-half bathtub for people to sit in, neon lights and oversized chandeliers with vines winding around them. It would be a huge hit in Austin! After one shot and one Hungarian beer each, we headed back to our hotel and passed a food trailer park on our way -  yet another homage to our Austin roots! Most of Budapest reminded me of Manhattan, and felt like it was just one more step toward preparing us for that big move this summer, but the occasional reminders of our home state made me ever so slightly homesick.

Budapest was an exhilarating, enriching part of our 6-week adventure. We spent a lot of our visit reading Rick Steves overviews on important historical moments and were reminded of a very dark time in our history. It's got me itching to start reading historical novels and biographies, so any recommendations in the comment section would be appreciated. We're off to Prague now and I look forward to sharing more on it soon. Thanks for following along!