We arrived in Budapest very early in the morning. First order of business: change currency. Currencies only get stranger the further from home you get. In Hungary we were dealing with prices in the 1,000 range on a regular basis. We paid 4,000 forints for breakfast every morning. This is equivalent to 7 Euro so it’s really not that much. But it’s a bit strange to be walking around with 30,000 whatevers in your wallet.
We were hit with a very dirty looking town as we walked outside the train station. As we walked through the streets in the direction of our hostel, we grew more and more interested and slightly afraid of the city we were about to spend 3 days in. It wasn’t the prettiest nor the safest looking place to be. In contrast to the artsy sophistication of the Vienna we had just left, the shops were not fancy and people not dressed well. Many of the buildings were clearly old but unpreserved, the streets were broken and chaotic creating many alleyways, there was construction everywhere and when you add in not being able to read any of the signs… well it just was a bit intimidating. I’ll come back to this point but for now, the sun was shining and we just settled into keeping our wits about us and taking in all the sights.
We spent a bit of time walking around Budapest. We stopped for lunch and then headed to the hostel. After settling in, we did a bit of grocery shopping for our next few meals. Grocery shopping is the secret to keeping your travel costs low. It was additionally a great way to experience local life. You wander around, can’t read labels, don’t understand metric weights, and can’t ask anyone questions. Sometimes I feel like I’m in a spy movie because of how much I’m trying to blend in, secretly thinking to myself “don’t let anyone find you out!”
Ok so maybe it’s not that dramatic. But where some people are not afraid to be American regardless of where they are, the loud-speaking, confused-sounding, criticising-everything-you-don’t-understand, looking-lost sort of aura wasn’t what either of us was going for. And if you think I’m joking, I’m not- you can point out the Classic Americans from a mile away, and it’s embarrasing. Don’t be like them.
But moving on.
It was Saturday and we decided to go to mass that night. We hit the internet for options close by and came upon an English mass for expats only 30 minutes away. These days a 30 minute walk is easily done and the distance of most reachable locations. For me, the opportunity to go to mass in English is rare and I greatly appreciated that time. The doors were locked when we showed up and since I have a knack for walking into places uninvited, I wandered around the back way and let myself into a door where we were greeted by several confused faces and Risa pulled me back outside instead of letting me explore down the dark hallway. Social cues may not be my strong suit. Funny thing is that later we read in the English bulletin that confession was going on back there. So they probably wondered why we walked in and walked out. Oops. #thingsthathappenedinBudapest
Our experience at the hostel in Vienna was more than either of us expected. (If you’re ever traveling in Europe check out the Wombat hostels. Yes, that’s an Australian animal. No, they aren’t in Europe. But the hostels are clean, the give you a free drink at the bar, they have great breakfasts and they’ve gathered great traveller recommendations based off previous visitor information). So we decided to book with them again in Budapest and
were not disappointed.
The next day we joined another walking tour and learned a great deal about the city. To me, Budapest has only been a word and vague location. I associated cool things with it having known relatively nothing about it. So it was good to spend our first few hours being submersed in culture and history. The guides we had were fabulous- witty and full of useful information. For instance, Hungary has been occupied by foreign powers approximately 8 times. As our guide told us, if you’re ever in a war, don’t side with Hungary, because they always choose the wrong side.
Speaking of sides, your trivia fact of the day is that Budapest is named such from the joining of two sides of the river, Buda and Pest. Pest is pronounced “pesht”; lest you be tempted to think the city is full of pests.
Budapest is full of many different country’s designs because of how many different times they’ve been occupied. This bridge was designed by a famous Scottish man who was so full of himself that he released a statement saying that if anyone could find a flaw in his bridge he would climb to the top and jump off. The story goes that no one could find a flaw until a little boy asked the builder why the lions had no tongues. Halfway through climbing up the bridge, the man came up with an explanation and climbed back down to tell the boy that these lions were regal and not like dogs, so they kept their tongues in their mouths. The boy was satisfied and the architect kept his life. Or so the story goes. It’s called the “Chain Bridge” from when captives were lead across it in chains. The name stuck I guess. Not sure if thats for the sake of history or because it’s a catchy phrase.
Wonders of the World
Our next stumble upon was the discovery of one of the 7 wonders of the World. The Habsburg Palace of Maria Teresa (and her 11 children), is such, and is in Budapest. It was built after the Habsburgs helped free the Hungarians and then proceeded to occupy the country for some time. Coming from Vienna, Austria and having seen where the Habsburgs lived and the castles there, gave us a different perspective on this ‘random’ Austrian Castle in Hungary. You can see it pictured on the top of the bluffs here across the river on the ‘Buda’ side.
The steeple in the right corner belongs to the Church named after one of the first Hungarian Kings, Mattias. However it is not because he was religious but rather since he was a great patron of the Church and was married twice there. It is a stunning landmark on the top of the river bluffs. The turrets around the walls are called the “fishermen’s walls” since this part of the wall was where the fish markets were and as such the fishermen were also in charge of defending it during war.
The Castle was incredible. We weren’t able to go in without paying a fee- something we avoided paying as often as possible. But the grounds were huge and it was crazy to just think about what it would have been like to have this as your holiday home.
This is a panorama of the square inside the castle. It took two shots:
We were in the “Castle District” of Buda: where to this day, wealthy homes and businesses can be found just next door to a world wonder. Back in the day most of the city behind it was home to political or wealthy families. Pest was home to most of the rest of Hungarians and less wealthy- but not less beautiful. The buildings on the Pest side of the river were incredible to look at and represent one of the most architectally famous places in the world. One of the reasons for this is because there are buildings from all different eras, by so many different architects.
The weather was not too terribly cold compared to back home in Minnesota, but after being outside all day and up on the bluffs, we were freezing. We stopped into the “oldest coffee shop in Buda” for a cup of tea. Hungary marked for me the first country I’ve been where I couldn’t speak or understand anything of the language. So difficult!! This cafe was extremely popular because of it’s history so we were able to order in English… and we sat at our tiny little table watching all the people around us and figuring out our next plan of action.
After the tour we went back to warm up. Then we spontaneously decided to go to the place on the map marked “House of Horror.” It is the house where both Nazi Germans and Soviet Generals both had headquarters for planning, ‘interviews’ of Jews or POW, and ultimately, a place of torture. It was of interest because in a few days we planned to visit Auschwitz and speculated that this could be relevant. Thus began our transfer from the Old World history of Kings and Queens to WWII history of evil men and genocide. This trip was filled with astounding beauty and incredible experiences, but I also got a hard-core history lesson along the way. I’ll leave that for the next post.