Winter Break 2013 began with Budapest. A city that we’d heard offered little to do completely hooked us. Enamored with the city and my experiences there, I ended up staying for five nights.
On Thursday I left Barajas airport in Madrid with Molly, another language assistant in my program. We’d never met before, as she teaches in Galicia, but we connected over Facebook and decided to travel together. From the very beginning we got along famously, which just goes to show that strangers sometimes make the best travel partners. We touched down in Budapest around 4:00 pm and began our trek to the hostel, which involved a bus, a metro out of some horror movie, and a long walk. Thanks to our ignorance of Hungarian and a total lack of signage underground, the journey took two and a half hours. But when we arrived at Carpe Noctem Vitae, we got a warm, affectionate greeting. The place seemed like a home away from home for Australian backpackers (the majority friendly, bearded guys). The hostel was like the song “Hotel California:” people check in but never leave. Everyone there seemed to be old friends. One Aussie girl staying there said she had booked for three nights…six weeks ago. As a party hostel, the group was early to hit the bars, so Molly and I joined the Australians walking en masse to Morrison’s, a bar offering Happy Hour specials at obscenely low prices. I found myself chatting to another American girl who turned out to also be from my area and went to our rival high school! Europe seems to be getting smaller every trip I take.
On Friday morning we made it out by lunchtime, now joined by two more friends teaching in Spain. We tucked ourselves into a dark, wooden corner of a cozy little restaurant and feasted on Hungarian food. Then we wandered around Pest (Budapest is divided by the Danube river into two sides, Buda and Pest), checking out St. Stephen’s Basilica and its little Christmas market. Stalls sold traditional Hungarian hats covered in deliciously soft fur with pointed tops and long tassels, leather bags, intricately decorated gingerbread cookies, wooden trinkets, and other handmade goods. Steaming metal cauldrons of mulled wine, piles of sausage, goulash in bread bowls, and marzipan candies enticed us. Eventually we continued on, passing the Great Synagogue on our way to Buda.
Buda Castle wasn’t much to write home about considering we were in the restricted area where construction workers literally barked at us. We did catch a good view of the city, cloaked in fog. We trudged further to Fisherman’s Bastion, a stone terrace that was named for the guild of fisherman that defended these walls in the Middle Ages. We retreated from the extreme chill to a little café for more mulled wine before crossing over the illuminated Széchenyi Chain Bridge into Pest for dinner. Our first taste of goulash (defined by Wikipedia as “a soup or stew of meat, noodles and vegetables, seasoned with paprika and other spices) was incredible. The stew, served in little silver cauldrons, warmed us up from the inside, and our chicken, stuffed with cheese and covered in sauce, plus mushroom risotto, put us into a food coma.
That night the hostel offered a champagne boat cruise on the Danube River. I’ve been on a few too many boat cruises, but this one was the best. We saw Parliament, other important landmarks, and seven different bridges all lit up against the velvety sky. We all toasted the city and drank our champagne from the bottle. The night ended with dancing at Instant, a “ruin pub.” Ruin Pubs are usually old buildings once abandoned, never renovated, filled with forgotten and eclectic decor, and multi-purpose. They are the stars of Budapest’s nightlife.
Saturday made up for the bitter cold of Thursday and Friday. It was warm and sunny, so we grabbed a snack and walked to the baths. We passed Heroes’ Square and Europe’s largest ice skating rink on the way. Budapest is known for its natural thermal baths. We selected the Szechenyi Bath and Spa, the city’s first baths on the Pest side and one of Europe’s largest bathing complexes. The high, decorated ceilings, Greek arches, and fountains lent the whole place an air of grandeur. We lounged in the huge outdoor pools and people watched. It was a little strange to be in a swimsuit in Eastern Europe in December but the old, wrinkly Hungarian men showed no self-consciousness so we didn’t either. After a few hours of the baths and saunas our bodies were sapped of energy and totally relaxed. Naturally, we wanted to follow up this detoxifying experience with burgers and bars.
The following day we explored the Jewish Quarter, an interesting triangle of the city sprinkled with quirky little cafés, boutiques, and kosher markets. We stopped by Szimpla, a ruin pub Lonely Planet ranked the third best bar in the world, for its Sunday farmers market. We browsed stacks of pastries and crusty breads; huge cuts of meat and sausages; jarred honeys; mysterious, floating, pickled foods; piles of produce; crumbly cheeses; and handmade chutneys, jams, and syrups. After, we shopped and I bought my first “infinity scarf” to bury my face into.
Then we wound our way to a more touristy area to shop for souvenirs. We snagged some Chimney Bread, a traditional Hungarian sweet bread that’s baked into a soft spiral shape, glazed, and covered with a topping. It’s absolutely delicious. The Hungarian guy making the bread hammed it up for our pictures then gave us one on the house. The Christmas market was bustling. Smells of smoky sausage and goulash and mulled wine mingled together. We passed stalls of artisan goods like woven baskets, painted ceramic tea sets, candies and chocolates, supple leather bags, and printed journals impossible for me to resist.
Later, the four of us met up with three more friends also traveling in Budapest for a heavenly meal of weiner schnitzel, goulash, potatoes, and more. Then, off to drinks at Szimpla to take in its various crumbling rooms of art and graffiti, old televisions blaring nonsense images, live music, creepy old toys, wine tastings, and hookah. We met up with our Australian hostel friends back at Instant for dancing to early-2000s American jams.
The next day, our group was whittled down to Molly and me again. After buying our train tickets to Vienna for the following day, Christmas Eve, we walked all the way to the Citadel, atop a high hill in Buda. On the way we stopped at the Grand Central Market, a huge indoor market of food and souvenirs. There, I witnessed the horrifying site of a butcher taking a massive, squirming, struggling fish from a tank and whacking off its head. Oof. Then, we finally climbed to the top of the hill, panting all the while, for a foggy view of the whole, beautiful city.
After scarfing giant bratwursts for lunch, we returned to the hostel to prepare for caving. Just outside Budapest is a sprawling, 30 km cave system that offers tours to unsuspecting backpackers like us. During the war people used some of the caves as a bomb shelter. One grand cavern is still used occasionally for underground concerts. Our pack of mostly Aussie guys donned jumpsuits and helmets and, with little introduction or fanfare, plunged into the depths. Caving turned out to be quite harder than our guide had intimated. We crawled through extremely tight crevices and holes, slid down and climbed up narrow passageways, scrambled over rocks, and took care not to fall in this or that gaping abyss. It was intensely physical and dusty and fun. By the end of the two and a half hours my dirt-covered body ached but I felt accomplished.
That night we rewarded ourselves with cheap beers and foosball, a game which Hungarians take very seriously, at a low-key pub crawl. On the morning of Christmas Eve, Molly and I boarded our train to Vienna, sad to leave Budapest and all the lovely people we’d met there. Saying goodbye to cities you’ve fallen in love with is the bittersweet part of travel.