How About


We'd long been planning to visit Budapest someday, so we finally went there in November of 2001. Of course, it can be cold in November-- oh, and it was-- but this was a city trip instead of camping on a beach,and we probably wouldn't ever be going there in the summer anyway, which is our "camping on the beach time", you know. Anyway, it's better to visit cities out of the tourist season.

Ever since our trip to Prague in 2000 our appetites have been whetted for the East European countries, all those old cultures newly opened to tourism, and still unspoiled by it. Unspoiled by Tourism, that is, 50 years of communism is something else. Everything's been run down to the brink of ruin--look at this once elgant hotel in the center of town.  But now those cities (and this hotel) are actually in the process of being RESCUED by tourism. So they're very glad to welcome Tourists from the west--for the money, sure, they need it--but just as much for contact with the rest of the world. And for us, there's the advantage that because of their weak economies everything is relatively cheap, so everybody's happy.

We went there by train, with sleeping berths to make it an easy overnight trip, and arrived at 9:00 in the morning fresh and ready to take on the nasty process of finding a hotel. We had looked at hotels on Internet, but figured that only the most expensive hotels were online. Mostly, we had no idea of where they were located in relation to where we wanted to be since we had no concept of what the city was like, and we didn't think we'd need to make reservations out of season. Which was right enough. But we never had to lift a finger to find a place.

We headed directly to the tourist office in the central train station upon arrival, and walked past a cute little lady holding a sign "Rooms to Rent". 6000 Forints a day (about 24 USD, $12 each--not bad these days), she also seemed nice, so we took her up on it. It was a ways out of town, but she had a car, so that sounded good. Although suddenly there was a man with her, our luggage was being whisked into the car, and we were being driven who knows where.

We both had flashes from all the movies we'd seen about Eastern Europe, Russian Mafia, etc. --take the stupid tourists to a lonely spot out of town, drain their blood, sell their hearts and kidneys...  But no, they just took us to their apartment in a run- down working- class part of Budapest, which was rather like a youth hostel.

The lady's name is Vali, and she has two adjoining apartments, and must be renting out 10 rooms. There were Europeans, Japanese, but especially many Koreans. She is, in fact, famous in Korea for hosting so many Koreans that her 19 year-old daughter even speaks the language. Her web site is even partially written in Korean. Anyway, there was lots of traffic and it was pretty interesting, and we had a private room off to the side of the kitchen. It was pretty far out from the the center, but there was a Metro stop nearby, so it was easy enough to get around.

Especially since we bought public transportation passes-- also cheap, under $5 for a whole week-- and Budapest has a really good system of Metros (subways) busses and streetcars.

As you can see here, they were incredibly deep underground.  We were going to avoid the crowd and just run up the escalator that wasn't working... until we saw how far up the other end was.

The Metro works quite well, we never waited more than 10 minutes, never needed to take a taxi (about which we'd heard nasty rumours). But the first trip we made was from the run down area at Stadion to the equally shoddy Moskva Ter, which actually did resemble Moscow, and gave us the impression that all of Budapest was sort of one big semi-slum.

The negative side of a recently collapsed governmental system was especially evident down in the Metro-- all the bums and alcoholics were hanging out there because it was warm.  And there were lots of them.  At night there were literally hundreds of people sleeping in the Metro, on the floors, in the telephone booths (pretty much impossible to use a phone booth at night).  So there were also lots of police hanging around too.  It was a scene of its own-- everybody knew each other, even the cops and the bums, it seemed to be under control.

We found ourselves comparing Budapest with Prague a lot, since they were similar in many ways, physically and historically. Of the two, Budapest was less pretty, more beat up,  but we soon found that it actually wasn't so bad.  True, things looked kind of scruffy and run-down at first, but in general everything worked all right.  There were also some high-rent districts where things were new and shiny, but they weren't our kinds of places, and we soon found ourselves comfortable in those everyday streets of the city.

Budapest is big and sprawling, but laid out in a series of rings which makes it easy to figure out where you are.  Of course, there's also the Donau River running through the middle of it all, so you can't get lost.  We walked a lot, of course, exploring nooks and crannies. And when we'd burn out from walking all day, there was always a Metro or a streetcar to whisk us away to a nice warm café somewhere.

The cafés in Budapest are reminders that this was once an elegant and classy cultural center for the European way of life in the l800's.  Fine coffes and teas are served with incredible selections delicate cakes by pretty waitresses-- and best of all, it's all so wonderfully CHEAP.  Even You could afford to hang out in those ritzy joints.

So we made a point of finding at least one elegant little café each day, to take a break from prodigious tourings of the big city.

There are also many interesting modern cafés and resturants, often quite artistic in concept and nicely finished down to the smallest detail.

By the way, just like in Prague, the TOILETS are great!  Not only always clean, they're often just as artistically detailed as the cafés and resturants.  Either old and classical, or modern and flashy with some kinky little design twist. Sometimes we'd call each other down and say, "Hey, you've got to see this restroom!"  Not kidding.  They're also FREE everywhere (in France and Germany they prefer for you to pay half a dollar every time you have to pee).

It's fun to eat out in a city where the food and drink is good, cheap, and you get lots of it.  Here's a Wienerschnizel that covers my large plate, Marianne ordered spare ribs.

I guess I should note that I liked the "Hungarian" menu better than Marianne did, she's more into light meals with lots of vegetables, and I like big chunks of meat and potato-- which is what those resturants offered. But anyway, Budapest is a typical big city in that you could find just about any kind of resturant you wanted--Chinese, Italian, Burger King--and they were almost all inexpensive. That's the way it is in most of the Eastern European cities, not just Budapest, they're each and all a paradise for the greedy eater.

Yes, of course you can get bargains in the Western European lands as well, "Ma &Pa" resturants, truck stops, student bars, lots of places.  But quite often the places where tourists end up are relatively expensive, without any guarantee of especially good food.  You get thin steaks and french fries, over and over again.  Or if you're on any kind of budget you can end up eating pizza or McDonald's day after day.

And when you DO say "Screw it, who cares what it costs, now we're going to have one really great meal!"  Well, you can be lucky, but just as often it ends up in disappointment...hmmm...I was about to state that it NEVER happens in the eastern countries, but I suddenly remember how we said just that and went to a higher-class resturant beside the British Embassy. Because it was so cheap in Budapest that we could afford it, right? Oh well, the meal was expensive but the experience was amusing anyway.

Generally however, the food is almost always a good bargain.  Drinks too. I suppose I should mention the beer-- not that I have anything new to say about it --except that it's good, generally strong, very cheap, just like in all of Eastern Europe.  The wines are good too, but I was more into the beer.  There's also the harder stuff, Slivoviz and vodka, in myriads of variations, but we never really got around to that.

Actually, if you really do want to get into trouble in Budapest, go hang out in the bars.  There's always a rough criminal element in poor countries, and this is where the tourists get robbed, one way or another.  We heard several stories about guys having a few drinks in a bar and being presented with a bill for hundreds of dollars--because they'd bought a round or two of the world's finest champagne for a bar girl, for example-- and an ex-KGB Russian Mafia bodybuilder was collecting.  But we were a couple who stayed out of bars, so we had no trouble.

The dominant landmark of Budapest is the old but well-preserved Castle up on the hill, high above the city.  This is the historical center of Budapest.  It's actually still a functioning town in itself, over- looking Buda on one side of the Donau River, Pest on the other.   Nice view from there.

Here's Marianne enjoying that view and the bright lights of the city at night, from the Fisher Bastion.

Of course, the castle is also the major tourist attraction,  so there were several of the finer hotels and resturants up there, the Hilton, for example.  But it was also a nice place just to walk around for free.  Since we were staying in an apartment not too far from it, we went up there often.

Here's the apartment. It was owned by a friend of Valli's. She knew we wanted to be closer into town, so she called Gisele, who picked us up in her own car and drove us out to see it. It was a HUGE apartment right downtown, big enough for 8-10 people easy, but it was November and we were some of the few tourists in town so we got it cheap. Kitchen and everything, so it felt like we were actually living there.

It was on the Pest side of the river, a block from Margit hid (the Margaret Bridge), and that became our neighborhood.  We could smile and nod to the same shopkeeper every day, use our few Hungarian words, learn which streetcar went when and where.  I know, we were only there a few days, but at least we got a feel for living there.

The apartment was furnished like a whore-house: oversized bed, lots of big fluffy pillows, wall of mirrors, purple draperies everywhere.  It was an exercise in bad taste, but we sort of liked that about it.  Everything was ornamental and chincy and falling apart.  Then again, everything worked, the stove, the shower, even the TV set.

We tried seeing a little local TV late at night, and there were lots of channels to choose from, but most of them spoke Hungarian.  All foreign films and TV series were overdubbed.  We zapped past X-Files, and even one of those terrible old Danish "Olsen Band" movies.  We could get CNN, though-- yes, in English-- so we were in touch with the news, which is something we usually go blissfully without while on vacation.

We ate at "home" a few times, which was just as much fun as going out to a resturant, because we got to go shopping in the local grocery stores, buy the local wine.  As usual, everything was cheap, the quality of food quite food.

Here, we've made schnizels sautéd in lemon and garlic, potatoes, green beans.  There was even an uniquely Hungarian strudel for desert, as I recall.

Budapest has some great big markethalls, which had everything you'd expect, were nice and clean, and best of all-- they were WARM in November!  Made you feel like looking around, shopping, eating in one of the stalls, whatever.

As mentioned, it was quite cold in Budapest in November, just above freezing, in fact, We had on ALL of our clothes most of the time.  But there are many thermal baths in Budapest, and we found one near our apartment.  Wowee, was it was ever wonderful to escape the cold by submerging ourselves in those ancient hot tubs.

They're actually Turkish baths, because the Turks conquered Buda and Pest in the 1500's, so they established the baths during the century they ruled here.  When the Hapsburgs took the cities back in the mid-1600's, they ripped down all the mosques but let the Turkish baths remain.  Seemed like a good idea.

The thermal baths we visited were quite old, the buildings containing them are either run-down and soggy, or elegantly impressive like historical monuments of marble and alabaster.  They're rather like indoor swimming pools, but laid out as lots of smaller pools, ranging in water tempature from quite cold to rather hot.

The baths are a way of life there, a folk behavior.  In the daytime, old people and rheumatism patients come for free (they still have socialized medicine), get treatment, water-jet massages, lay in the water to warm their bones.  Then there's a rush-hour in the early evening, when younger people are getting off work. The pools fill up with pretty girls, muscular guys.  There's socializing, they know one another.

The bathouse nearest us was like a catacomb, confusing and difficult to find around in.  There were dark and eerie passages leading to round pools, like grottos in a cave world, and people sat around or in those pools, or shuttling to and from.  The hot pools could have you gasping after 10 minutes, so you'd cool off in colder water, then come back.  People were wandering all the time, warm pool, cold pool, warm again.

It seemed somewhat otherworldly in the old bath building: slippery tunnels blurred by warm fog, dark pools shimmering light upon the ceilings, incomprehensible language echoing softly, heavy shadows, diffused light. Unfortunately I couldn't take any pictures of the place due to the steam.

Anyway, that was Budapest.  On our way back to Denmark we stopped at Vienna, Austria, for a few days.  Which was nice, but the contrast between Eastern and Western Europe is pretty much like going from Mexico to California-- suddenly everything is bigger, better, cleaner, newer, and 4 times the price.



We experienced the epitome of rip-off cuisine in an Italian beach town once when Marianne ordered prawns for dinner, costing a little over $10 US.  She assumed she'd get-- you know-- a nice meal.  But she got 3 naked prawns on a plate--nothing else, really, not a slice of bread or blade of lettuce, and certainly no rice or pasta.  If you want an actual meal you're expected to assemble it, item by item, antepasta, pasta, minestra, piatto primo, at each its own special price. Those resturants prefer that you experience the authentic Italian cuisine...for about 30 bucks a mouth.


Like most resturants, it was down in a cellar, quite elegant, and the sign that pulled us in announced that "Hungarian Gypsy Violins" could be found here. This was where all the British lords and dignitaries ate, no doubt about it....although there were no other customers than us there at that moment. Well, it wasn't really tourist season, you know. However, there were lots of waiters in tuxedos with white towels over their arms, etc. They swarmed over us, offered an apertif, suggested the most expensive meal and wine on the menu (which was still cheap anyway, so we agreed-- must be good, right?)

The wine was okay, the food uninteresting (I don't even remember what it was), but the Gypsy Violinist-- ah now, HE was interesting. Not that he played the violin especially well, he was okay, background music. He was an older guy (these days that means about my own age), rumpled tux, shaggy moustach, and evidently desparate for a tip.

Okay sure, we could afford to tip him, and probably would have if he hadn't come closer and closer to us until he was playing right under our noses, so that we couldn't even talk to each other--he wasn't settling for being background music, he was center front, a STAR. But what got us was how he'd tucked one of the biggest Forint notes into the bridge of the violin, as if this was a standard tip that someone else in that empty resturant had just given him, and that we should certainly do the same. Again and again, closer and closer, he waved that violin literally under our noses, winking and smiling (or grimacing?), wiggling his eyebrows, HINTING that we should GIVE HIM A TIP, and NOT to EMBARRASS ourselves with A LITTLE ONE! We began to frown with irritation, but he wouldn't go away. So we totally ignored him and he gave up.

Actually, the atmosphere of the entire place was so greedy that we began to feel amused by it. Made a game of it. The waiters kept suggesting drinks, desserts, they were really after us. We just kidded them back. When we got the bill there were all sorts of added costs-- cover charge for plates, napkins, tablecloth, bread, butter-- but by then we knew that there would be, so we just paid with a smile and left. The violinist glared at us, the waiters were unsatisfied that they hadn't plucked us for more money. Could have been uncomfortable if we hadn't been ready to laugh on the way out the door.