The Continuing Quest for the Holy Grail of European Travel and other tales
With Vienna successfully conquered, or, at the very least, nibbled upon until I was full and footsore, it was time to move on to the second stop on my Three Jewels Tour of Spectacularity, the steamy city at the heart of the Danube; Budapest!
Always near the top of my Euro-exchange bucket l, Budapest was a must-see and must-experience for me. Though the trip was long and my time there relatively short (only two days), I’m thrilled to have had the chance to explore this historic city.
The Other Half of Day 2
I arrived in Budapest Keleti (the recently renovated and colourfully patterned main station) to find the world gone dark and walls of crackling stone. To arrive after sundown (which was only at 4:30pm, what’s up with that, Europe?) at an “Eastern” station, trains steaming, people bustling and a completely foreign language being spoken over the intercom was really quite cinematic. I don’t know what it is, but visiting countries with such different languages (well, at least compared to my knowledge of English, German and Spanish) really makes the adventure seem all the more interesting. Even if I’m hardly further from my German home than Adelaide is from Melbourne, running into Hungarian and Czech signs really makes me feel like I’m in a totally different world, one that is full of exotic people and shops where I might find some sort of mystical monkey’s paw or foreign, magical spices. Of course, that’s a ridiculous wish as Budapest really is a typical first world, Western city, but with a lot of unique personality and interesting sites.
There’s not too much to say about these first few hours in Budapest other than how confronting and exhilarating it was walking through the slightly ruined and crumbling city centre to my hostel, an interesting little place hidden up similarly rotting stairs and in the back of a very “European” apartment complex.
I went for a walk that night (I say night, but it was really only about 7pm by that time) to see the sites all lit up and postcard-worthy. Of course, I visited the main Christmas market near the Basilica to sample the absolutely delicious mulled wine, which is usually filled with orange and lemon pieces over in Hungary.
Parliament, the most famous site of Budapest really is as impressive as all the photos make it out to be. It is a truly humongous and rather spiky Gothic affair, intimidating and stately. It fits right in with the Danube, defining it and giving it the classic Europe meets Turkey feel that so perfectly encapsulates Budapest.
Day the Third
My single full day in Hungary started and finish early, but was so jam packed that I hardly cared that I headed home before the parties started… And boy, do the young people of Budapest like their parties.
My first port of call was the “ruin-chic” Kiraly bathhouse on the Buda side of the river. I’ve never visited a bathhouse before and so didn’t quite know what to expect, but I think I picked a good one to start with. Relatively quiet and cozy, even in its ancient state, Kiraly offers waters of up to 40 degrees Celsius and packed full of healing minerals and all that good junk. Sitting and soaking like a vegetable under the dripping some was one of the most relaxing experiences of my whole trip. I could feel the pain and tightness of over-stress melt away in the water as oldies in speedos waddled around and tattooed tough guys sat melting in the sauna.
Unfortunately, my day slowed down a fair bit after this as somehow I ended up twisting or over-working my ankle and injuring my Achilles tendon. I’ve walked around semi-uncomfortably ever since. I’m hoping it’s nothing to serious, but I’m just aiming to see as much as I can via metros and buses now rather than doing my usual twenty-K a day walks around foreign cities. Bummer, man.
Undeterred by pain though, my other sight-seeing stops of the day included the fairy-tale Fisherman’s Bastion, magnificent Budapest Castle and the beautiful City Park. I have to say, one of my favourite things about Budapest is the Hungarians’ penchant for patterned tile roofs. I love me some intricate and colorful patterns.
I also have to make special mention of the Castle Labyrinth, the former jail of Dracula himself. I got in for free thanks to part of the complex being closed, which was a nice little surprise. The walk through this medieval prison was spooky, interesting and all-round fun, though I definitely think I would have gone crazy down there if I was a medieval prisoner. I’d be that guy in the complete dark with a body length beard and a family of talking rats.
The “Maze of Darkness” was definitely one of the creepiest walks I’ve done alone, and I loved it. Touted as being incredibly haunted and in complete darkness, this section of the Labyrinth was set up as a challenge for the brave or foolhardy. Luckily, I didn’t run into any ghosts or vampires, only a group of Americans who gave me props for entering the maze alone.
My day finished with a visit to Budapest’s most famous bathhouse, Széchiny. Though it was absolutely freezing (having snowed a bit throughout the day) and possible hypothermic death to anyone stupid enough to walk around wet and naked, this bath proved one of the busiest places I visited.
Although it wasn’t as relaxing or warm as the Kiraly bath, I’m glad I took the time to visit it and just get the vibe of the place under my skin. It’s a really spectacular complex, anyway. The building itself is probably worth the entry fee. Unfortunately, the busy Széchiny waters did nothing to heal my sore ankle like I hoped it would. Bummer, again.
So Budapest was just as interesting as I’d hoped. If I had more time in Europe I’d definitely aim to go further East, but, ya know, time is fleeting and the bank account is hardly bottomless. If I’d spent another day or so in Budapest itself though I think I would have become a prune, as I’d be spending half the time submerged in water.