We survived our first adventure beyond German borders this past weekend, although it wasn’t without a little bit of drama.
Budapest, the capital city of Hungary, is a city of just under two million people. It actually used to be two separate cities – Buda (on the west side of the Danube river) and Pest (on the east side). We stayed on the Pest side in a nice hotel just off the pedestrian-only center. We were only two blocks from the river, which made sightseeing just a walk away.
For those who may have missed it, I already blogged about our first night there. As for the following day, I spent much of the morning doing work and then made it out of the hotel around 11:30 a.m. to try and find some lunch. This was the only part of the trip where I left the hotel and walked away from the river (most of the more touristy sights and shops are along the water). After walking for 15 minutes or so, I stumbled upon a restaurant that looked promising. I had a generous portion of chicken, vegetables and rice for only $3.00 – a meal that would have cost at least twice that had I eaten at a place closer to the river. We’ve learned that cheaper meals and better values can sometimes be found by straying away from the touristy areas.
After lunch I walked over to St. Stephen’s Basilica. It’s a beautiful church that was built in the late 1800’s and is named after the first King of Hungary. In the back of the church, in a small chapel, visitors can catch a glimpse of Stephen’s “incorruptible” right hand. (Yes, his actual right hand is on display. Weird.)
The main portion of St. Stephen's Basilica
Later that afternoon, once Katie had wrapped up her meetings, we joined two of her colleagues for a walk around Budapest. We began with another visit to St. Stephen’s before moving onto the Hungarian Market. This place reminded us of Milwaukee’s Public Market in some ways – just on a much bigger scale. It’s in a large building with two floors. The lower floor is filled with produce vendors (fruits, vegetables, meats, spices) and the upper level is more retail items and hot food. It was here that we enjoyed our first cup (but not last) of Hungarian “hot wine,” which is basically hot wine with sugar and spices added to it. It tastes a lot like mulled, hot apple cider. It’s a delicious way to keep warm in the winter.
A shot of one of the produce stands taken from the second floor.
Many of the vendors are selling the same thing as the vendors to the left and right of them that makes us wonder how anyone makes a consistent profit. To that point, I was particularly impressed with this vendor’s attempt at product marketing:
A good example of product marketing!
After the market we made the long (and cold) walk to the Chain bridge where we crossed to the Budapest side and continued north in order to catch a glimpse of the Parliament building at night. On the way, we were able to get some other great photos of the city in an evening setting. They’ve done a wonderful job lighting up their historic buildings and bridges that make the city come to life in a whole new way once the sun sets. (See the last blog entry for some of those pictures.)
Once we were satisfied with our pictures, we made the walk back to the hotel. After a quick drink with her colleagues, Katie and I ventured off to find dinner. We ended up at an authentic Hungarian restaurant near the Danube called “Szazeves Etterem,” which claims to be the oldest restaurant in Budapest (dating back to 1831). It was a very elegant place with candles and live music (piano and strings). I had bacon-wrapped pork medallions (they were as good as they sound) and Katie had duck.
What’s funny about dining in Hungary – something we noticed at multiple places – is that their servers are really driven sales people. In America, after dinner there’s typically an offer for dessert. If you say no, you get the check. In Hungary, if you decline dessert, it’s followed up by two or three additional attempts to convince you otherwise. If that doesn’t work, a different server might come over – someone you haven’t seen all night – to make his or her attempt at convincing you to buy more food. On this particular night, we firmly held our ground and finally got the check. It was definitely a “fine dining” experience, but it only cost us $45 (wine included), much cheaper than what a similar meal in the States would cost.
(Another interesting dining quirk: The night before, when Katie was at her work dinner, she was served a multi-course meal. When she didn’t finish every single bite on the plate for one of the courses, four separate servers came by to ask her what was wrong with the dish. They were concerned that she didn’t like it.)
The following day was a highlight for me. We took the city’s subway (which felt rather rundown and dirty) to the famous Szechenyi Bath and Spa – one of the largest spa complexes in Europe. Now, dismiss what comes to mind when you hear “spa” in American terms. It’s not really like that (although you can pay for massages and whatnot). It felt more like a public swimming pool. We paid our entrance fee, picked out a locker and walked to the pool. There are 19 pools at Szechenyi filled with natural water that comes from a depth of 1,246 meters (three quarters of a mile deep!) at a temperature of about 76 degrees Celsius, or 168 degrees Fahrenheit (of course, the water is much cooler – though still piping hot – by the time it’s filtered into the pools).
The water itself is rich with calcium, chloride, sulphates, fluoride and more. Because of this, there’s a strange odor when you first walk in that takes some getting used to. Hungarians believe the water to have “healing” properties – both when soaked in and when drunk. In fact, citizens in Hungary with certain medical conditions can get free passes to the spas for “medicinal purposes.”
We spent about an hour and a half at the pools. I capped off my visit with a trip to one of the outdoor pools (we chose Szechenyi because their outdoor pools stay open in the winter). The walk to the pool was freezing cold, but once in, I was in heaven. I wish we had photos to share, but we opted not to take our camera along. You can see photos of the place on the Szechenyi website.
If any of you find yourselves in Budapest and visiting a thermal spa, here are some things to do that we did not: 1) bring your own towel (they’re cheap to rent, but the deposit is unnecessarily expensive), 2) bring sandals (I think we were the only people without them), 3) bring a bag for your wet suits (we actually remembered to do this, but the bag ended up being too small so we had to carry wet suits on the metro).
We spent the afternoon walking around the river area. Katie wanted to walk up to the former Royal Palace (which sits on the Buda side of the river) and it turned out to be an excellent call. Not only is the palace area rich with its own history and architecture, but also because it’s built high up on a hill, it offers stunning views of the Danube and Pest side of Budapest.
The Parliament building is one of Budapest's architectural wonders.
I even found a place behind the palace to practice my archery skills.
None of my arrows hit the target. One flew over the haystack altogether.
We returned to Munich that evening. Poor Katie had to drive the entire trip – both ways – because I can’t drive stick. That changed on Sunday when we returned the car. We spent some time on the side roads where I learned how to make myself more useful on future road trips. I can’t promise I won’t stall out on occasion, but I don’t think that matters to Katie since she’ll be asleep in the passenger seat.
Prior to last month neither one of us had ever had any inkling whatsoever to visit Hungary. It was just never high on the list. But we’re glad we did. And as Katie’s work travels pile up, we’ll likely go to many other countries that we never thought we’d visit. Bosnia, Serbia, Ukraine … who knows! We’ll happily go wherever the wind – er, work – blows us.
(If you’d like to see more photos from our trip to Budapest, you know where to find them.)