22 October 1999
The next morning we got up VERY early. There happens to be an Intercity train that is direct from Bonn to Budapest. But it leaves at 6:09 am! We walked to the station in the dark and discovered that the train was running 45 minutes late (Bonn is only the second stop!) Eventually we got on board and were sad to discover that it was one of the NEW IMPROVED privitized railroad type carriages. Hard seats, no compartments, just one big room with many seats and smoking in the same room with non-smoking. Things got better after the sun came up and the train turned around so we were going forward, but usually the trains here are such a delight and this was a bit disappointing.
We had a wonderful ride through the center of Germany, mountains and fields. Frankfurt, Nuremburg, Vienna. A strange thing happened about 30 minutes outside of Vienna -- the train got stuck at a station for over an hour because the doors would not close! We sat around waiting and waiting -- many people changed trains. It was nice to get outside and away from the smoke for a while and since someone let us use their mobile phone, we were able to notify Gabor that we would be late.
It was dark before we crossed the border. We were entering, not just a new city, not just a new country, but the old Eastern Bloc, at night. It was very intimidating. We KNEW better than that! It made the last couple of hours very very nerve wracking!
When we arrived in Budapest we had no idea where to go and what to do... we didn't even know the person we were looking for because we had never met him (he was a friend of a friend!). We tried to prepare to set out on our own, despite being somewhat intimidated, but Gabor showed up pretty quickly.
Gabor turned out to be nicer than we could've hoped... very friendly and helpful and, this is just amazing, perfectly willing to let us stay in his flat for a week! His flat is gorgeous, and in a very busy, interesting part of town. We didn't have as much time as we would've liked to visit with him and Timi (his partner, she didn't speak much English) because they had to work everyday, but they were extremely helpful in orienting us. He was so hospitable that we were tempted to sleep all day and lay around the house!
But we didn't. We got out and saw the sights... the castle and castle hill, old town Buda and old town Pest. We took a very touristy boat trip on the Danube and explored both the touristy and local shopping and market areas. We grocery shopped and cooked at home every day. One day we took the cog railway up to the Buda hills. It was a very rainy day, and it was pouring as we rode up the steep hilly suburban area. It was a very pretty ride through the forest. When we reached the top, we needed to find a WC so we got out and wandered. We found ourselves in a lovely little hilltop forest, and as we walked through the dripping tress, the sun came out for the first time that day! It was gorgeous.
Most of our time in Budapest was occupied with two things. Shopping for clothes and the BATHS! When we set out on this wild excursion it was August and very hot. Now it is neither -- so it was time to buy some winter coats, and my very thin travel pants were not working any more (brrr) so I wanted some wool pants. I had been looking and looking (especially for the pants) throughout Germany, but really had not found anything very good. One pair that i almost got was $60 and didn't fit.
In BudaPest I found many nice pairs of wool pants as we went to MANY markets and second hand shops. I even got a cool pair of hiking knickers which I sent home to myself! But it wasn't until the LAST shop on our list (right across the street from Gabor's flat) that I found the perfect pair of black wool slacks. Nice, but not too dressy. Woolly and warm, but not arctic style. And they fit perfect. I have lived in them since... I was very happy. (Oh yeah, they were $4) I also got a big German Army winter coat and Cheri got a nice big puffy winter coat.
The baths are, of course, the trademark of Budapest and we were happy to indulge! Actually most of the baths are either men only, or alternated days men or women... so that only left a few open to us, since we preferred to go together.
They take their baths very seriously in Budapest -- these are medical spas as well as turkish baths. Many are very beautiful and most are quite old. Both the Romans and the Turks built baths in the city (which was two cities then!)
The first one we decided to try was Lukas Baths. We found the area pretty well, but we walked past the building complex several times before we figured it out (no gigantic signage!)... and even then it took us some time to find the ticket booth. Our little bit of German helped us then, because the other languages on the information signs were Russian and Hungarian, and I am helpless in both of those! Finally we paid and got lost AGAIN, but eventually figured out what building to go into. This did not look like a spa or medical facility in the states... the courtyard almost looked like an abandoned building, but inside it was active.
We still didn't know what to do or where to go and at every step through the locker room, the little changing booths and the hallway to the actual baths we got lost! But then we got in and WOW! We didn't know what to expect, but this was marvelous! 4 baths: 40C 38C 36C and 24C (that's about 103F 99F 95F and 70F) sauna and steam room. They all had domed roofs and the 40C room had a beautifully tiled ceiling. It was filled with locals! It was VERY relaxing! We returned to this bath, and will again! (it cost $2 each!)
Another day we went to the "BIG FAMOUS" baths at Gellert... the building was huge and elaborate, there were english signs and it cost almost $6 each! Although the brochure said the baths were mixed, they sent us off to separate, identical bath complexes. Instead of swimsuits we wore these bizarre little aprons, which were far more ridiculous than nudity. There were only two pools, and not very hot at that... the mineral content was very low and it was tourist HELL! The mens had about 3 Hungarians in it, a bunch of German and American kids SCREAMING, and a bunch of American CEO types on holiday. It was yuk. We tried several times to get to the baths at City Park, but they were closed when we got there and we liked Lukas so much we were happy to return there.
We did try to do the tourist thing and go to the Village Museum in the nearby town of Sentendre, but everything went wrong and after spending an hour or so walking around the cute little town, but not able to make it to the museum (and having some good ice cream, which is rare over here!) we headed back to Budapest, only to have a confrontation with a conductor that was expensive. It was one of those frustrating travel experiences where we were TRYING to do the right thing, and she was doing her job, but the language barrier and lack of signs and bad information from locals got us in trouble. It really bothered us.
Also we found a free internet access room at the University, which we took advantage of several times!!!!
It was cool being in Budapest... I remember learning in school when I was about 12 that there were two cities that merged to become one Buda and Pest. I thought that was really neat, but it seemed so very far away!
While we were in Budapest the US and Romania Foreign ministries decided to relax the visa requirements, so we decided to go! One of the things that this brought up was the subject of guidebooks. We really needed to get a Lonely Planet guidebook for Eastern Europe. I hate guidebooks, but I also hate not having one. Guidebooks are great fall backs in emergencies when you can't figure things out, but they are dangerous because the temptation is to not learn anything, just do what the book says. And they are often inaccurate.
We had two guidebooks with us, a Rough Guide Europe and a Lonely Planet Hungary. Both were disappointing. The Lonely Planet was especially frustrating just because of how negative it was. Instead of a 'have a good time in Hungary' book it was more of a 'this is why Hungary sucks' book. I know, Lonely Planet is so terrible as to have become a bad joke -- their accuracy is pathetic. But in many ways this is a recent phenomenon, in the last 8 or 10 years the owners have stopped travelling and started building a huge company. They know that most of the people who read their books never leave home and they write towards them. But many years ago they wrote the first and best book about Eastern Europe. So we figured we should get it. Problem was it was about $35!
We were in our third bookshop asking about it, and when the
attendant said he didn't have any in stock, the guy behind me
said, in a Chicago accent -- I have one I will give you. He tore
out the Hungary chapter, because he needed that, and gave us the
book. It was great! Here we are tearing pages out of a book in
a book store!
© Copyright Mark Canizaro 2000
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