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Maria & Brett's HUGE Trip 06-07-08-09-? ok, so the Socceroos lost in 'that' penalty against Italy; Adriatic summers aren't long enough (bliss!); and we found that you should never use the term "Eastern Bloc" when talking to a Czech (Central Europe, please).

Budapest: dental makeover capital of eastern europe

HUNGARY | Saturday, 1 March 2008 | Views [1897]

Trying to come in from the wind... or wanting to get out into the sunshine. Not so sure...

Trying to come in from the wind... or wanting to get out into the sunshine. Not so sure...

If Prague is popular for women (and possibly men?) wanting a cheap boob job, why is it that Budapest is the Prague of dental jobs? Any googler looking to have their crowns tipped or canals rooted might find comfort in such places as the Fortuna Hotel which offers not only breakfast as a standard inclusion but also a composite filling or even a "Cast Partial Upper Or Lower (complete with teeth)". One would hope so!

So we skipped all that, dodged all the neon signs that lured us into the web of unknown 24hour dental delights, and cut to the chase: we had only 36 hours in Budapest.

It started with a free weekend (rare these days), continued with a train timetable and a hint of nostalgia for a great trans-european overnight trip. Instead of hitting the pubs in Prague after work on Friday we darted to the squash court for our thrice-weekly fix (Maria: 2 games, Brett: 47 (ahem, i think it's the other way around Brett!)) before tram-hopping to the main station for our 10pm departure. By the skin of our teeth we made it (and those of you who know "Brett and Maria Time" are laughing right now (ahem...Brett time. I told you we should've taken the metro Brett ;) )) but wasn't helped by the fact that half the station had been ripped up under construction and the signs to platform 5 led us up onto platform 2 with nowhere else to go. Go figure!

So we found our couchette compartment and were gobsmacked to find that we'd checked-in to a moving 3-star hotel, complete with a multi-lingual concierge who fastidiously made our beds and ensured our handtowels were folded just neatly over the basin racks and advised us that he'd wake us up half an hour before arriving into Budapest in the morning - with our breakfast, if we'd care to fill out the menu now...

So the breakfast was a pre-packed nutella-filled croissant accompanied by an equally pre-packed deep-fried salami stick (Brett was in brekky heaven and Maria in brekky hell!) but the coffee and tea were just what we needed and the service was first class.

And we hit the streets of Budapest at 7:30 in the morning!

By the time lunch had rolled around, we'd induldged in some gourmet food shopping at the markets (actually, thick Hungarian salami that would stink out our cabin on the way home!! Actually, that was Brett's beer burps); walked over one of the spectacular bridges that span the wide expanse of water that is the Danube (or 'Duna' in local lingo - which reminds me: which idiot had the ludicrous thought last year of canoeing from source in Passau to the sea in Moldova?!(That would be you Brett dear) Thank God that was canned!); then onwards up the "Pest" side of the river via a tram to some random stop; up the hill to the castle overlooking the "Buda" side (wow, what a view fit for a king or queen!); nearly wind-blown OFF the castle-top across the other side of the river - but instead we had our boots of lead on and took the underground instead (thank God we got the trams and buses without inspectors up to here, because we'd not been able to find a working ticket machine that DIDN'T swallow up our cash).

Take a breath...

... then on to St Steven's cathedral which, although we found it instantly spectacular or distinct from the other thousands of similar-looking cathedrals in Europe for the reason that it had reams of gorgeous blood-red marble blocks and gold-gilded ornaments lining its interior, we were also like the other mortal souls who wanted to see a real human hand that had been cut off and put on display for hundreds of years.

And by this time it was... only 1pm!

So a snooze was in order back at our fantastic last minute hotel find after all those miles (and something to do with a rickety train trip), and of course you have to test the comfy-ness of the bed, so into a deep sleep we went....

... until the night-time Budapest (and stomach rumblings!) lured us out again.

Have you ever visited a place and then tried to recall all your romanticised pictures of that place before you got there? Apart from being a city on a river, I pictured Budapest to be a slow-paced, grand old-buildinged metropolis where brown and reds would be the order of the day, goulashes were being dished out left, right and centre, and spas and thermal centres were dotted here and there - oh and a little bit 'disinfected' as a thriving tourist centre. I even had my "Prague eyes" on: where you expect that other places in the region just don't cut it compared to where you live.

Well, strike it all out and replace it with a down-to-earth, modern, funky, friendly place to rival Prague. Closer to the Dead Sea than most other European capitals, we felt like we were more connected to the West - or something modern and Now - than in Prague where it's only a stone's throw away from Germany. The locals seemed more comfortable in their own skin (even when parading around naked under their thermal=spa gowns!) or is such a short trip too brief to scratch under the enamel and get to the veneer?

Take Menza, for example. Stepping into this packed-out restaurant we knew we were in for something special when we were told we had to wait at least half an hour for a table. Making a bee-line to the bar was a tricky affair dodging the waiters as they criss-crossed the room under the sharp watchful eye of the maitre d', all of them dressed schmickly in waistcoats and matching funky runners - and they bloody smiled as though they were enjoying themselves and were happy to have you there.

We won't recreate the sumputous meal course-by-course but let's say this neo-70s restaurant, where we expected James Bond to walk into at any moment, had the best soup and most mouth-watering boar goulash (with blueberry sauce, yum!, with more than the standard 'three pieces of meat only' that are served at other ahem places in Central Europe. Brett: I've actually sworn off goulash until I return to that same place! Maria: Thank God for Menza!) was a more than memorable discovery in Budapest. And did we mention how cheap it was?

Sunday - or our 'last day' in Budapest - greeted us with a kiss of blue sky, but not before we took part in a buffet breakfast to end all brekkies. Gotta love last-minute value!

Our goal was to traipse along the grand Andrassy avenue (picture: long, straight, tree lined, dramatic old manor houses) towards Heroes' Park, stopping in to some of the old metro stations that follow the avenue underground. At the grand centrepiece (obelisk guarded with bronzed horses etc) we laughed at a kitschy music-clip being filmed, before heading into the park for a wee-wander. Spring was here, as hundreds of families and people of all ages and walks of life did whatever they wanted to enjoy the first gorgeous weather of the year, even though all the trees in the park looked as bleak as a lunar landscape without their new leaves.

Peeking in at the outdoor thermal bathhouse we saw a picture of summer activity, with suntanners, swimmers and of course the oldies taking a stroll around the perimeter. Opposite, the zoo was back in fashion with a queue down the street almost stopping traffic. We were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of the elephants and Hippos as they backed onto the street. Back in the park, the edge of the lake (which probably didn't even freeze over during winter) was swarming with fisherfolk (what on earth would you catch in there, apart from a stomache bug?!), with preztel sellers peddling their wares (of course accompanied by the dodgiest of "pop" music blaring from gaudy mini stereos).

Our day was nearly at an end, but not before wandering back into town to discover that shops were actually closed on Sundays - even in Budapest (probably the reason for all the activity at the park!). Looking at a map to see where we were, an odd looking couple approached us and asked us something in Hungarian ("do you have money?" was the first thing we thought) then when they saw we didn't understand, they asked in English "Do you want some help? Are you lost?" and we were gobsmacked. Where else in a big city would you find this hospitality? And when we tried to say the odd word in Hungarian, like 'thank you', 'hello' or 'please', their faces would light up with a huge smile - but then we'd be left stranded after a string of more Hungarian words came splashing forth - the smile still painted hugely the whole time.

So it was off to the station to our awaiting couchette for the overnight ride back to Prague.  Unfortunately, our expectations were set quite high due to the unexpected 5 star couchette on our way to Budapest so you can imagine our disappointment when we rocked up to find an old Eastern European train, decked out with thin foam matresses, smelly communal WC, and a conductor who had obviously downed a bottle of vodka in his 30min break between arriving and departing. 

I guess you just have to laugh and see it as an experience!

Our personal favourite was when he showed us to our compartment, tried to force the lock, couldn't lock it therefore showed us to another all whilst a fag was hanging out of his mouth and squinting due to the smoke.  So much for the non-smoking signs on the door! And we wondered why we were the only people on board that carriage. And THEN he came back later to show us how to lock the doors...again.

Actually, we have another favourite - on our arrival into Prague, at 3.30am, Brett knocked on the conductor's door as we needed to collect our tickets (he had told us the night before that he'd wake US up!). He apparently staggered to get up in what looked like one of those smokers rooms at the airport so we decided to just let him be and left.

So we didn't get the dental makeover but what we did get was a sweet taste of what Budapest has to offer.  If you have 36 hours to spare you won't be disappointed by a city that is a "fusion" of laid-backness and coolness with an Eastern European twist.

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