Getting to Budapest from Ukraine was a little more difficult than we would have hoped. After a quick layover in Uzhgorod, and an incredibly sweaty bus journey to a town called Chop we stumbled into the remote train station hoping for a train. Even before we had deciphered the cyrillic timetable, an old lady had, without using one word of english, convinced us to share a taxi with her! After a quick Vodka/Cigarette stop-off for the driver, we headed for the border and off to Hungary!
Once we made it to Hungary, things didn’t get any less complicated. With the nearest ATM a solid one hour walk, the only option was to haggle a money transaction with the same old lady from the taxi for some Hungarian forint… 20 minutes later, with no english being spoken, and input from several other people in the station, we had enough Hungarian currency to buy ourselves a sandwich and a drink, with a little left over for the train to Budapest… we defiantly had our priorities right! After an overly complicated but memorable day of travel, we were intoduced to the city in the best possible way… a friendly hostel owner with a plate of traditional stew and a cold beer…. Hungary had already won us over!
As you might expect from a capital city, there was a lot to see, more than we could possibly fit into our four-day stay, but we gave it a good shot. We started, as has now become custom, with a free walking tour of the city. We have found these tours can be hit-and-miss, and even if they aren’t great.. they do gave you a good overview of the city. This one we took in Budapest was quite good, and the guide took us to both the Buda and Pest Sides of the city (they used to be separate cities until someone built a bridge across the Danube), showed us the big hitters, and also gave us some good tips on where to eat and drink… which is always a winner in our books!
Like most tourists to Budapest we started our explorations at the Buda Castle Hill. Climbing up the steps (we were too cheap to take the funicular railway – even though Ella loves them), we were rewarded with fantastic views back across the river to the impressive parliament building and the spires of St. Stephen’s Basilica, where you can see the severed hand of St.Stephen himself (you can even light it up for 50 cents). Apart from the view there is much more to do on the hill, including walking around the castle, marvelling at the brightly coloured tiled roof of the Matthias Church, or just hang out of the Fisherman’s Bastion taking in the views and watching the world go by.
Not content with just seeing both sides of the Danube, we headed out to Margaret Island in the middle to check that out as well. The island is now a large park which people cycle around on chucklevision-style bikes (sorry to anyone not from the UK for that reference), or peddle tiny cars as if they were in Bugsy Malone. These pedal powered machines, driven by giddy tourists, actually proved quite dangerous, and sometimes it felt as though standing in the middle of a motorway might have been safer. Having managed not to get run over we checked out the other main attraction on Margaret island, a water fountain which put on a display to music every hour. It had so much potential to be good, with jets firing water high into the air, and spiralling water cannons all around the edges… but the high-pitched, cheesy, Hungarian pop music kind of made it a bit rubbish… at least the kids enjoyed it.
Needing to relax after all the near misses with bikes on the island, we headed off to one of Budapest’s most famous attractions, its natural hot water spring baths. The locals and travellers have been making use of the hot waters for centuries, and have built some pretty impressive bath houses in which to “take the waters”. We opted for the more traditional Gellert thermal baths, a gem of Art Nouveau architecture, with thermal pools up to 40C! After facing more nudity in the changing rooms than either of us would have hoped for we spent hours switching between the hot pools, the outdoor swimming pools, the wave machines, and even considered getting a massage… trust us when we say it, there are much worse ways to spend an afternoon.
After eating some cheap and tasty goulash, we finished off our time in Budapest by visiting the unique ruin bars dotted across the city. These aren’t all falling down wrecks, as the name might suggest, but more converted old buildings, sometimes with outside areas, always with good drinks and a brilliant atmosphere. We really liked Szimpla Kert for its great surroundings and the crazy hooded band who performed with a saxophone and a didgeridoo… the only downside of the bar would be the high proportion on drunk Aussies (and not the good kind)… you have been warned!
After a few more goulash’s and a brush with a Chilean delegate (complete with guard of honour), it was time to move on and drink some Hungarian Wine.
Thanks Budapest, you’ve been great,