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World on a Shoestring A beginnger's guide to traveling around the world...as written by beginners...


HUNGARY | Wednesday, 25 July 2007 | Views [2429]

Try crossing the streets in Hungary’s capital city of Budapest (pronounced Buda – Pesht) and not feeling like that frantic little froggy from the 80’s classic “Frogger”.  For those who didn’t have their hands glued to a Nintendo throughout their adolescence as I did, allow me to explain:  the object of “Frogger” is to get our little green hero from the wrong end of a busy highway, through a raging, cluttered, river to its far banks where all your frog fantasies come true.  Of course the difficulty lies therein!  In order to cross each of these, you must do your best as Froggy and avoid speeding cars and 18-wheelers in the streets and randomly sinking or fast moving logs and lily pads.  So how does all this relate to Budapest, you ask?  I’d be happy to answer that for you!

While Hungary requires no precarious crossings of the Danube, the river that splits the city down the middle (more on that later), if you’d like to see the rest of the city, you will be required to cross the streets should you want to see the sights.  So, while Froggy and we do not share his aquaphobia, we do share his fear of being clobbered by a speeding car, a not wholly unlikely possibility, as it were.  On more than several occasions, it was our experience that while crossing the street with the light, cars enjoy terrorizing pedestrians by accelerating at them and through the intersection; all crosswalks should come with signs that say “Cross at own risk, Froggy”.  So I implore you:  when in Hungary BE THE FROG and move in the quickest leaps and bounds possible else you end up flat like our frog but with no reset button…oh yeah, and you’d miss out on one of the most beautiful cities on the globe.

Like you, wise traveler, Hungary itself has heeded my advice and taken its cue from the ambulatory methods of the our hero, the Frog, though more as a philosophy and less as a way of getting around…only in my dreams does a city exist where the only way to get around is to hop…everywhere.  But I digress.  Only within the past 15 years or so has Hungary gone from occupied nation to independent nation and member of the big dog’s club, the EU (that’s European Union, for those of you not paying attention).  In 1991 the last remaining occupying Soviet soldier left Hungary, ending the former communist grip on the country that had gone on for so long and handing over the reins of control to its own government.  And so, with the leaps and bounds of a confident nation of brave frogs, Hungary has managed to endure decades upon decades of occupation and tyranny, and not only come out the other end of occupation with their heads held high, but also retain enough of the pre-World War II culture and warmth that once thrived to keep a firm grasp on the mystery and beauty that attracts so many travelers and tourists every year. 

After a short three hour train ride from Vienna (in a car solely occupied by Americans) we were deposited in the heart of the city.  With a little help from a big hearted hostel hawker who helped us regardless of the fact that we had rejected his offer of cheap accommodation, we hoped on a tram and made our way to our campsite.  And score another hit for camping!  After we set up shop at our site, we hoofed it back into town (no trams, trains, buses, taxis, tuk-tuks, rickshaws, or piggy back rides, remember?) through the outskirts of the city into the thick of it. 

To love a city is to know it intimately; to be able to explore its streets from memory like your hands would a long time lover, and never grow tired of every corner turned and the romance that lies beyond it.  Unfortunately, it is impossible to build an intimate and deep relationship in only four days, so I’d say that Gen and I have formed a border line unhealthy infatuation with Budapest, like a fourteen year old girl and her movie star, hear throb, crush.  But unlike our poor young girl, doomed to a lifetime of unfulfilled fantasies, forcing her to become president of the celebrities fan club, eventually driving her to break into his house and steel his underwear (I am NOT speaking from experience here), Gen and I hope to one day return and rekindle this budding relationship we’ve formed with the fantastical metropolis.

And how could we not?  To never again walk this city’s streets, or to absorb its architecture, would be dreadful!  Though the roots of its former communist occupier are still being unearthed and disposed of, the dereliction left behind y these tyrants does not detract from the city, as one would expect, but lends to its beauty.  And through t Budapest, the heart of Hungary, runs its main artery, the Danube, of “The Blue Danube” fame.  The elegant and sweeping river separates the Buda and Pest, what once were two cities, but have combined to become one super city.

Four days is no where near enough time to explore this city, but we did our level best.  With our guide book in hand, we set out to see the whole city, but also a few specific things, as well.  And so, we spent morning and afternoons sightseeing, our lunches watching the Danube flow by, and our evenings soaking in beer and incredible views. 

Budapest is a good city to tour on a budget.  If you work it right, you can see most of the cities main attractions for only a couple bucks.  In fact, aside from the Turkish baths that the city is so famous for, there should be little else that requires funds, if you work it right.  Now, I’m not saying that everything in the city is free, but no one can charge you for a view, and a nice stroll, and Budapest has plenty of these. 

It’s not easy to miss the majesty of Gellert Hill on the Buda side of the city.  Make the investment and take the 30 minute hike to the top and you will be copiously rewarded for your efforts.  Atop the hill sits the citadel that overlooks the city, accompanied by the Fisherman’s Bastion (Gen’s favorite), affording the best views in town (it is the highest point in the city).  So breathtaking was this view that we would return on several occasions to watch the city streets flow with cars and people, and watch the set sink slowly behind the horizon.  Betwixt the two halves of the city lies the royal palace, a monument to architectural achievement, though much of it lies in ruin, devastated like so much of Eastern Europe by WWII.  Though some its grounds and buildings have been restored as a museum, much of what remains lies in neglect as a sort of modern archaeological site.  But nonetheless, make the journey to the top of the mountain as it is the best place to have a beer and watch the day come to an end. 

Another must see is the Terror Museum, which lays out the brutal history of Hungray’s occupation, but specifically tells the story of one house that was first home to the Nazis and then to the communists.  Through this one house that has been converted into a museum, the story of the country is told.  As WWII came to a head, the Nazis moved into and took over Hungary, like so many other countries.  They set up their operations out of this house and coordinated from here.  As well, they brought prisoners and victims of every ilk here and set out to break the spirits of one and all.  But eventually Hungary was rescued by the Soviets who ran the Nazis out of town.  Unfortunately, this wasn’t really a liberation, as much as it was a dictatorial changing of the guard.  The soviets took over the Nazis’ former base of operation and, in true communist fashion, made it their own and everyone’s at the same time, ecumenically imprisoning and torturing anyone.  And so this was the way things went for the next few decades, until the fall of the Soviet Union, when Hungary was awarded its freedom, and the soviet troops were removed (although the last Hungarian POW held by the Soviets wasn’t returned to his home until 2001, just to give you a sense of how recently they’ve extracted themselves from tyranny).  And we learned all this from a museum that’s no larger than a big house.  The only downside is that the whole museum is in Hungarian (how dare they!) except for the pamphlets that are available in each room, some of which number in the tens of pages, so absorbing all that info can be a bit daunting. 

NB – I would like to point out here the benefits of having a student identification handy.  Its is wise to carry yours on your trip as most places we visit have student discounts for entry fees.  The reason I mention this is because if you visit the terror museum on a Sunday, entry for students is free.

And so, our four days were spent wandering the city, taking in the sights and smells, and falling in love anew every day.  Between our campsite and the center of city is a line of little out of way bars, all of which offer cheaper than center city prices with an equal selection and quality, and outdoor seating, and so, we dabbled a bit.  But, our only true indulgence here would be our day at the Turkish baths.  Budapest is known the world over for having been constructed atop so many natural hot springs, both hot and cold, that you can literally dig a whole in your backyard and strike water.  This thought had, of course, occurred to the Hungarians of the past, and at the sight of the most proliferate springs they’ve constructed huge complexes, dedicated to soaking in the earths minerals.  So in true American fashion, we went for the biggest and best.  Szechenyi baths, located in the City Park at the long end of Allatkerti Boulevard, a street so magnificent, UNESCO saw fit to proclaim it a world heritage site.  The spa itself is within the walls a huge complex consisting of more than thirty baths, with temperatures ranging from 15 degrees to 40 degrees Celsius, and they even have a huge whirl pool!  And so, for our final day in town, we soaked our muscles and sipped beer from the bar, all while watching the regulars play chess on the famed chess boards located IN the baths.  (I should mention here that these are not baths in the literal sense, but more like huge, shallow, swimming pools of varying temperatures.)

Such a wonderful city should not be missed when on a tour of Europe, but be warned:  the temptation to stay longer and longer with each passing day is difficult to resist, but the indulgence of doing will absolutely be understood.  Be warned Budapest, you haven’t seen the last of Jake and Genny!

Tags: Sightseeing

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