Well, I'll be honest. I was a little hinkey about Budapest when we first added it to the itinerary. It seemed like it was on the other side of some imaginary line that divided the world into "within" my comfort zone and "Here there be Dragons". Of course one of the primary purposes of this trip was to expand my horizons and see places I hadn't seen, but lets be REASONABLE, right? Well, I need not have feared. Budapest will love you whether you know a thing about it or not, and you will love Budapest.
First order of business was to get money, since Hungary hasn't quite got up the economic speed to hop aboard the Euro train. The hassle of needing a different type of curreny is somewhat offset by the novelty of a very advantageous exchange rate: about 200 Hungarian Forints to the dollar. So....I withdrew 25,000 in cash. Yeah, it feels just as swell as it sounds. Add to that the fact that I am now carrying 4 different currencies and you'd feel pretty spry, too. How to celebrate that "citizen of the world" feeling and fight the broiling Budapest summer at the same time? The baths, of course!
Budapest is famous for its geothermal baths and has a long tradition going back to the Roman days when they found that this whole area (the "Carpathian Basin", thanks Rick!) is basically a big kettle of hot water with a little dirt on top. The Roman settlement at the site of present day Budapest was even called "Aquincum", or Abundant Waters. Many years later the conquering Ottomans say that the Romans had a good thing going and just expanded on it (hence all the rounded domes and yellow paint).
We hooked up with Shira and Jenna who knew what they were doing and headed for the Szechenyi Baths in the middle of Pest. While others have their claim to fame, Szechenyi is the acknowledged best. A little unsure of what to expect I paid my 2400 forint, changed into a suit (this would be one of the progressive yes-to-bathing-suits-and-women bathhouses) and stepped into the tile-floored baths. Fortunately, as cultural experiences go, this one was no more difficult than a trip to the waterpark, but with all the payoff. We got the full frigidarium (64 degrees!!!), tepidarium, caldarium sequence, plus saunas, large outdoor pools with fountains and jets, even a pool with concentric rings, one for bobbing, one with a circular current, and one giant spa/whirlpool in the middle.
We saw many dignified old Hungarian men bobbing in the warm water contemplating chess moves across a board propped on the intervening wall, and many examples of the fearsome Inverse Speedo Law: The bigger the belly, the smaller the Speedo. As Patrick noted, though, the ratio of attractive bathers to look-the-other-ways was significantly higher here than on either the beaches of Nice or Cinque Terre.
We were actually in the water by 10am, which sounds early until you realize that it was almost 94 degrees by then, humidity about 70%. Though we didn't know it until we got back this evening, today was actually a record breaking high temperature.
After the baths we went to the grand market hunting lunch. The Hungarians don't exaggerate; it's like a train station (it might even have been, considering the turn of the century chic, I-beam and decorative wrought iron architecture) but instead of trains it has dozens upon dozens of food vendors. Produce grocers, butchers, fishmongers with great tanks of live fish ("I want that one. No, not, the other one. The one that's swimming in circles...") and a whole mess of hot food stands are stacked 3 levels high in the cavernous hall. We browsed for awhile, following rumors of Chinese food (lies, LIES!) and eventually settled upon a Hungarian stand offering...*nothing* we recognized. We led with our noses and what looked good, literally just pointing and indicating relative portions ("YES! Gimme more of that. Um..can I try ,I just a smidge of that?) I also managed to order a Coke when I thought I was asking for a fork. With gusto and no small amount of curiosity we dug in. Patrick got what can best be described as a pseudo chile relleno. It was a delightfully spicy stuffed pepper (though "Stuffed with what" is still a matter of conjecture) I made off with an herb crusted chicken leg (Hungarian chickens have MASSIVE legs) that had some sort of ultra-dense bread/pastry stuffing on the INSIDE. The Coke was tasty, too.
Thus sated and also filled up on water we set out to cross the Danube west from flat, business-like Pest to hilly, historical Buda. We climbed Gellert Hill (named in honor of Bishop Gellert, the patron saint of the city, who was offed by his political opponents by being nailed into a beer keg and unceremoniously booted down said hill. End effect: Martyrdom by barrelroll and a new patron saint.) Gellert Hill is topped by the Citidel and a massive statue of Peace personified as a woman (ostensibly) holding a palm branch. The locals call her "The woman with the fish" but to us she will always be "Our Lady of Perpetual Ascent" because DAMN that hill is tall. Getting off the hill and out of the sun we poked around Castle Hill which doesn't quite seem to live up to its exciting name. Fortunately, our penchant for seeking our perches and ditches steered us right once again. We found the Castle Hill Caves and Labyrinth.
No museum, this; it's its just what it sounds like. An a la carte cave and labyrinth experience for those of us who still play Dungeons and Dragons in our head while we tour medieval castles. Climbing down three stories into the rock and foundation of Castle Hill we left the sun and the oppressive heat (106 degrees at 3:45pm) behind, trading it for darkened passages, dripping ceilings, and frosty breath. The cave system was wonderful; no point, just caves, and every BIT as cool as it sounds. They even worked in various themes. At the entrance stood a carved Theseus, stoically peering into the darkness with a ball of yarn in his cupped hand. Elsewhere you stumbled upon him crouched in the shadows while you heard strange, hoofbeat like rhythms. Very environmental, very creepy, VERY cool. Another part featured stacked stone pillars with capstones positioned to give them a clear head and shoulders. Spears leaning against them or thrust in the ground in front of them completed the uncanny impression of soldiers guarding a passageway in the flickering torchlight. For anyone who ever wanted to try to sneak into a castle in a daring nighttime raid, this is the place. The strangest room of the labyrinth was actually the most well lit. Coming around a corner Patrick and I heard cheerful but still oddly minor key *music* echoing from a bright cave up ahead. A few steps further and we both stopped in our tracks at the pungent odor of...blood? Ammonia? No, vinegar! Entering the cave we met a very strange sight indeed. A square pillar of rock in the middle of the room, reaching to the ceiling, covered in bright green ivy growing thick and lively even despite the gloom and total absence of sunlight. Protruding from the rock were 4 bronze fountains, rusted to a turquoise patina, forming mouths spouting down into basins. And from the mouths poured a constant, blood-red stream of vinegar. It was fascinating, utterly mysterious, and vaguely unsettling for reasons I still can't quite put my finger on.
Leaving the caves was sad, and returning to the heat was unpleasant, but it did dry our clothes from the dank subterranean air. Hustling over to the train station before it closed I pictographically reserved us two couchettes (sleeper car berths) on the night train to Krakow in two days. I drew it up ahead of time for maximum comprehensibility and total coverage. The date for the tickets hung over 2 stick figures standing on the word Budapest, which was connected with an arrow to Krakow. Rising over the arrow was a crescent moon and sleeping soundly beneath the arrow were our two travellers, each in a bunk. I was more than a little nervous about what reception my little masterpiece would receive. The last think I want to do is insult and upset the poor woman. I might wake up Friday morning in Siberia! Fortunately, she loved it, gibbering excitedly in Hungarian before declaring "You make so easy!" Don't think I didn't double check the tickets even so, but all is in order, much to my relief.
We finished the night by grabbing dinner at a local Hungarian hole in the wall. I practiced "Thank You" on the waitress ("Kursunum", with umlauts over all the vowels. And it's basically not pronounced one bit the way it looks.) I also had a chance to finally take a crack at "cheers" in Hungarian (phonetically "eh-gesh-eh-ge-druh", still working out where the emPHAsis goes. Easy pneumonic for remembering it, though: "Eggs should get drunk".) I had a bacon wrapped chicken in a white (perhaps cheese-based?) cream sauce, Patrick had the fried pork chops. Annn, NOW I see why those great old Hungarian men are overhanging their Speedos. If that's the price for eating Hungarian cooking I'll gladly pay it.
So Budapest is my buddy now. Tomorrow Patrick and I are planning on catching the bicycle tour tomorrow morning and then heading to Statue Park (1980's, Budapest: OY! Loads of Communist era statues, no longer communist. Historical value. Can't just cleverly paint over them Ooh, eeh, um, what to do? I know! Statue park outside the city!) or maybe trying our another of the bathhouses. Maybe see if we can bait some crotchety Hungarian guy into whooping us at chess.
(Ps: I apologize if all the talk of food is making you Hungary. ...er, sorry. I ought to get the country name puns in Czech before I drive my brother to distraction.)
[EDIT: Holy CRAP that was a long post. Er...sorry? Can someone or some several of you nominate yourselves vox populi and tell me if the long ones like the above are too long and should be kept somewhat more bite size? This ok? Crickets?]