Last Hurrah in Hungary — Week 20

To say I have wanderlust, a strong desire to travel, is putting it mildly. As my Dad used to tell me, “No grass grows underneath your feet.” I gravitate toward change, adventure and freedom to experience new things. There is a glimmer of excitement in every trip I take.

Travel Tracker

Within the United States, I’ve traveled to:

Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah and Washington D.C.

The 4 remaining states on my travel wish list are: Alaska, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont. Of the 44 countries in Europe, I have traveled to Croatia, Hungary, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Germany, England, Italy, France, Switzerland, Scotland, Austria, Ireland and Spain. My international travels have also included Canada, Costa Rica, South Africa, New Zealand, Mexico, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Grand Cayman and China.

My travel wish list is organic and keeps growing. Among the next places I’ve added to my dream destinations include Scandinavia to explore my husband’s family heritage: Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark. I’d also like to make it to Portugal in Southern Europe.

And some of my top rated future travel destinations include a lot of islands and warm weather locations like Australia, Greece, Thailand (Phi Phi Island), Indonesia (Bali), Brazil, Peru (Machu Picchu), Bora Bora, Maldives, Cuba, Dominican Republic and Seychelles.

You Go Girl!

My husband always asks me, “Are you done yet?” but I have a passion to pack my bags. Researching destinations, itineraries and accommodations is an itch I continually need to scratch. I consider my mother in-law Joan as the OGG – “original go girl.” She fell in love with globe trotting and became a partner in her own travel agency. I vividly remember her talking about “fam trips” or familiarization trips exclusively designed for travel agents, supplied by travel operators. Her world class professional training made such a positive impact. In fact, she elevated the industry by breaking out of the norm in the 1980s and impacting the travel sphere for women. She inspired me to go around the world with a sense of curiosity that moves me out of my comfort zone and into environments to form global connections.

My mother in-law often collected dolls from each country and continent she traveled to. She strongly believed that sharing people’s stories, nationalities and culture promoted fewer conflicts and inequity in our world. She was a woman with a fierce sense of independence, challenging herself to discover her inner strengths by the tapping into the transformative nature of travel.

She raised 8 children and owning her own business allowed her to step outside of home life and embrace extensive knowledge of safaris, cultural exchanges, meals – all so her clients’ needs would be met. Joan’s travel made me realize that anything is possible. By meeting people in new places, our eyes are open to new ideas and ways of living. Travel is a choice we make to carve out an existence that empowers us to see the world from new perspectives.

Hungry for Hungary

The last weekend quickly approached and my sabbatical was coming to an end. Of course I wanted to squeeze in one last trip. Budapest, the capital of Hungary, was on my wish list. Traveling from Zadar to Budapest by bus is about 9 hours (with layovers in Zagreb, the capital city). I figured that multiple hours on a bus would give me plenty of time to read all 200 of my students’ final exam essays. Plus the idea of ending the semester with a thermal bath in Budapest sounded delightful.

Before I left I went to one of the local currency exchange shops in town. Hungary’s currency is the forint and the abbreviation is HUF. One euro is around 310 forints and one US dollar is around 255 forints, but it can change daily. I’ll have to rely upon my phone app calculator again.

I booked 3 nights at the T62 Hotel, a smaller boutique hotel that recently opened across from the Western Railway Station. My drop off point was at the Kelenfold Bus Station, not anywhere close to the hotel or center of town. I would either have to rely upon public transportation, which to be honest is quite a challenge to navigate during the dark the moment you arrive, or hire a taxi service. I read that Budapest taxis are corrupt and to avoid them at all costs. Uber has been outlawed in Hungary because it threatened the monopoly of taxi companies. Although Budapest taxis should now in principle be regulated, and their fares have doubled a couple of years ago as a result of lobbying by owners of taxi companies close to the government, illegal activities have continued. A significant proportion of taxis have no license or insurance, manipulate their meters, and attempt to overcharge tourists.

Great, let’s hop in. I look for a taxi with a light on top and ask the driver how many fornit to my hotel. I hand him the address. He exhales, pauses and says, “3,000.” Ok, 3,000 fornit sounds reasonable (under $10 USD). I get in and 20 minutes later (the ride is supposed to be 8 kilometers – I mapped it out before getting into the taxi), he says he is going to take me to some of the sights in the city. “No, please drive straight to the hotel,” I respond. By the time we get there, the cost has escalated to 6,000 fornit – twice as much as his original quote.

But I have safely arrived and the hotel is bright and eclectic with colorful murals of Frida on the walls. I check in and decide to get oriented by walking around. It’s now about 8:00 p.m. and when I walk onto the street I see many homeless people in sleeping bags, some shaking cups for coins, some drinking and one man straddled on the street in shorts (it was about 30 degrees outside) with no shoes, moaning. I turn around and go back into the hotel and decide to explore more in the daylight.

Buda versus Pest

The next morning I am walking around by 7:00 a.m. It’s Sunday and nothing is open. The city is quiet and immediately I am enveloped by impressive architecture. Built on a series of hills, Buda is the site of the Hapsburg palace and is known as the “settled wealth” side or as a hotel staff member stated, “It’s where the snobs live.” In contrast, populous Pest, the side where I am staying, appears as flat as a prairie. It’s busy, buzzing with an assortment of bars, cafés and gourmet restaurants. Buda and Pest offer very different atmospheres, but which do locals really prefer? Is being on one side of the river versus the other the same as being on the “other side of the tracks?”

Budapest is divided into several districts, or neighborhoods. It’s not especially well lit at night, and very easy to get lost (Google Maps will not work reliably here). My hotel was in located in District V. I was told that the seedy district not to venture into was District IX. It sounds like one of the “Hunger Games” movies.

Sunday Prayers

As I am walking, I run into Stephen’s Basillica, one of the many gorgeous churches in this area. Construction began in 1851 and the roof, towers and external walls were badly damaged in World War II, with most of the church’s mosaics destroyed. The church’s most holy relic is the mummified right hand of the church’s patron saint, St. Stephen, and is displayed under glass in the chapel to the left of the high alter. Religion in Hungary is predominantly Christian. Historically, the formation of Hungary was based on Christianity as it was declared the state religion by King St. Stephen. Many Christians have converted from Roman Catholics to the Reformed Church of Hungary. The Reformation dates back to the 16th century when Lutheranism and later Calvinism swept the population.

Over time, the percentage of Christians has declined from almost all of the population to about forty percent of whom are Roman Catholic. I was told that most millennials started identifying themselves as either atheists, agnostics or unaffiliated altogether.

Biking in Budapest

By 10:30 a.m. I had walked a while and stopped in a local McDonald’s (yes, fast food is here!) for a drink and to use the washroom (toilet, WC). By the way, I have learned there are no public washrooms in Budapest. If you do find one, you’ll have to pay approximately 1 Euro to use it.

At 11:00 a.m. I had scheduled a 3-hour bike tour of the city. We met at the Opera House (it first opened in 1884), which will be under construction for the next 7 years, so it was covered in scaffolding. It was about 32 degrees outside, but the sun was shining, so we bundled up and hopped on the rental bikes. We were in a group of about 8 and rode all over the city. Our first stop was Heroes Square, featuring the historical equestrian statue complex called the Hungarian Millennium Monument, dedicated during the World’s Fair. The square is flanked by two fine art museums, the classical Museum of Fine Arts featuring mummies to Raffaello and art collections from all over Europe. Opposite of the Museum of Fine Arts is the contemporary Hall of Arts (Mucsarnok) which features temporary exhibitions from a variety of international arts.

We rode on to see the City Park where the famous large outdoor Szechenyi Baths is located. More on the thermal baths later in this blog! And nearby is the Vajahunyad Castle with an artificial lake full of ice skaters.

We didn’t stop, but rode by the House of Terror, a unique museum showing the dark pits of communism and the Nazi regime in the ex-headquarters of the secret police.

One of our last stops was on the Pest side along the edge of the Danube River, the Hungarian Parliament Building.

The guide took us for a snack and drink. Unicum is a the Hungarian national beverage and can best be described as an herbal liqueur. And Pálinka is Hungary’s fruit brandy. It varies in alcohol content and is made from a variety of fruits, including plums, apples, and apricots. That evening I go out to dinner at a restaurant called the Meat Boutique and have the best Hungarian goulash (one of my husband’s favorite meals).

A Country Under Siege

As I cross the Chain Bridge and look at all of the buildings on the river, I think about what the tour guide told us. She aid Budapest is considered the “Paris of the East” and one of the most culturally important metropolises in Eastern Europe. She told us about the sieges throughout history and how the Hungarians have suffered as the underdog for far too long. She talked about the Turks in the 16th century, loved the city so much that they lingered on for another 150 years. She said they did introduce Hungary to the most popular spice paprika (it is sold everywhere) and of course the healing powers of the thermal baths.

Most of the city dwellings were in ruins after the long siege and by this time, Turkish tax registries show that most of the settlers were Hungarians of Christian religion and the two major minorities were Germans and Jewish. 1686 was the next turning point that said goodbye to the Turks under the leadership of the Habsburg emperor Leopold I. The city started to rebuild. The city gets back its privileges as a free royal city, which hastens its dynamic growth into a modern commercial and cultural center. During the19th century the water of the river Danube is sold for drinking, which today is hardly suitable for even bathing.

In 1838, a flood washes away many things, animals and people and ten years later the Hungarian revolution upsets the peace yet again. After the Austro-Hungarian Compromise in 1867, when Hungary is given some freedom, both the Pest and the Buda side gain even more impetus for development, and the two sides join in 1873, giving birth to Budapest.

The two world wars bring long and sad devastation, followed by another ruinous communist era. And in 1989, the fall of the iron curtain occurs and democracy is introduced. The guide comments that it is still “quite new” and Hungarians are not sure how to embrace it fully.

Hot bath and a donut? Yes!

The next morning I visit the Box Donut Shop next to the hotel. You guessed it, all of the donuts are shaped like squares. It is a display of art as I look through the window at pistachio raspberry, salted caramel, coconut cream and more. They also make a variety of coffee. Yum!

Again, I was told when in Budapest, go to a bath. Budapest baths are really like palaces, historical Turkish baths. You can soak, have a lazy morning, and get a massage. Sounds good recipe to me. I chose a bath about a 20 minute drive from my hotel on the Buda side called the Gellert Thermal Spa. I had seen pictures of the turquoise porcelain tiles in a GQ magazine photo shoot with none other than Ryan Gosling. Gosling was filming the movie “Bladerunner” in Budapest for 5 months in 2015. In his interviews he mentions liking the grocery chain Aldi (yes, the same one in the states), the strong Hungarian “bread game” (their fresh breads are delicious) and chocolates. And I figure if it’s good enough for Gosling . . . well, you know.

Hungarians take great stock in the thermal baths. Some have a prescription from their physicians to go to the baths early and often. Having a healing bath is not only good for your joints, it is also a great way to get back your strength after stress and grading a towering stack of final exam essays was stressful. So in the bath I go!

The Gellart baths are like a labyrinth of hallways before it opens up into a giant blue warm water paradise. You can rent a “private cabin,” which is a lot fancier than it sounds. Picture an older, worn well, gym locker room with a lock and that is the cabin. Bring your own towel and flip flops, otherwise you will have to rent those items as well. In Gellart, one side of the baths was exclusively for men (what I like to call “the good side”), but now it is open to women as well (glory days), although the “men only” signs are still visible. I bypassed the signs and was relieved to find the baths mixed and everyone had bathing suits on (read previous post about Slovenia).

To Market, to Market

After a hot bath it’s time to go the store, right? But this isn’t any store, it’s a mega warehouse with soaring ceilings and football field sized rows of vendors. You can buy gifts, buy fresh vegetables and fruits, paprika (of course), salamis, cheeses and gaze at displays full of meats in the Central Market Hall of Budapest by the Liberty Bridge.  

Today was even colder than the day before (about 26 degrees), so it was a perfect day to go to the thermal baths and explore the market (although it is really chilly in the market – not very well insulated, so be prepared with winter gear). This was a great place to mix and mingle with locals buying groceries on the lower, quieter level. Food is served cantina style upstairs along with an array of t-shirts, refrigerator magnets, dolls, headbands, lace tablecloths and all of the souvenirs imaginable. A few of the booths even sold old Soviet military headgear, but he sellers would loudly object if you wanted to try on a hat or take a picture (just saying).

Shopping on Váci Street

I am still wary of taking public transportation (it’s accessible, but I would have to take time getting to know the routes in order to feel comfortable and I’m only here for 2 days), so I have walked everywhere in Budapest (except for the overpriced taxi I took from the far away bus station). It takes another 30 minutes to walk to Váci Street and I’m glad I did. This famous street is flanked by many 19th century residential and commercial buildings, banks, trendy and classic boutiques, souvenir and antique shops.

The story of Váci utca (street) goes back to the Romans. In the middle ages, Váci street was called Big or Main street in the 15th century trading city, which had 3 gates to let people in and out through the thick protective walls.

It’s worth a look, but the souvenirs are cheaper in the Central Market Hall.

The Danube Shoe Memorial

In October of 1944, Hitler overthrew the leader of the Hungarian government, Miklos Horthy, and replaced him with Ferenc Szalasi, who immediately established the Arrow Cross Party – a fascist organization that brutally terrorized the Jews in Budapest by beating and killing them. Nearly 80,000 Jews were expelled from Hungary in a death march to the Austrian border and approximately 20,000 Jews were shot along the banks of the Danube River.

The victims were forced to remove their shoes at gunpoint (shoes being a valuable commodity during World War II) and face their executioner before they were shot without mercy, falling over the edge to be washed away by the freezing waters. This is a memorial to the many, many victims.

The shoes on the Danube Promenade is a haunting tribute to this horrific time in history. The monument consists of 60 pairs of 1940s-style shoes, true to life in size and detail, sculpted out of iron. All styles of footwear from men’s work boots to loafers, women’s heels to the tiny shoes of children illustrate how no one was spared. The shoes appear in a haphazard fashion, as if the people just stepped out of them, a grim reminder of the souls who once occupied them.

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