descending into amsterdam
We saw the sunrise over Scotland, were served breakfast, and I got sniffly as I saw the coast of Europe for the first time in over 10 years.
We landed right on time in Amsterdam. The pilot deserves a reward for the least noticeable-landing ever. It was amazing.
We were at the back of a DC-10, so it took some time for people to exit. A couple of jovial Dutch men were chiding the Americans for always being in such a hurry, but we had a connecting flight to make in 50 minutes, and they hadn’t been able to issue us boarding passes in Minneapolis. We rushed to the transfer desk, and everything was taken care of efficiently. I wish we’d have had more time to wander in the Amsterdam airport, because it rules.
sculpture in schipol airport
We hurried to our gate, passed through security, and boarded a Malev jet bound for Budapest.
hungarian national airlines
On the flight, they gave us a little snack box with cheese, tomatoes, peppers, herbed butter, and hot rolls, as Hotel California played on the loudspeaker. They broadcast Hungarian TV, and I read an extensive article about Prague in the in-flight magazine.
From above, Hungary looks a lot like Wisconsin. We landed and got to deplane on the tarmac (something which will always be thrilling to me). We boarded fat buses and rode to the terminal. Right away, we got out about a million forint (well, like 10,000) and went to buy Budapest Cards. Besides discounts on attactions, they covered all our transportation for three days, which would make getting around on the metro and trams really easy.
There was a 40-minute wait for the shuttlebus to the hotel, so we decided to be brave and hop the city bus to the metro station. We really had no clue where the bus stopped or where we were going, but we followed everyone else’s lead and just rode to the end of the line.
The bus dropped us off at Köbönya-Kispest, the end of the blue metro line. All three metro lines converge at one station (Deák Tér), and the metro logo looks very similar to the Transformers logo, so that central station was quickly renamed ‘Decepticon Central’.
Magyar is a unique language, very much unlike anything I’d ever studied. Therefore, most signs and instructions were meaningless; I expected to be able to detect some German or Russian in it, but it was completely different. Therefore, we just made up names that sounded similar. Our directions would be something like, ‘OK, we’re going to get on at Nougati, transfer to the red line at Decepticon Central, then get off at Moscow Station.’
We exited the metro at ‘Georgie’ and immediately saw a sign pointing right to the exit for our hotel. Score! Gate 1 had set us up at the Hotel Ibis Váci Út. We checked in, dropped our stuff off in our room, and headed back out to see Budapest. It was around 2pm.
anna, a cafe on váci útca
We headed down to the main shopping area (I have my priorities) on Váci Útca, a pedestrian-only thoroughfare in downtown Pest. We stopped for cappuccinos and sandwiches at Anna, and were soon to learn that restaurants in Budapest do not take credit cards, no matter what the travel guide tells you. We wandered around the shops, stopped into H&M, and walked down to the Elizabeth Bridge. It was just starting to get dark.
royal palace and chain bridge from the elizabeth bridge
We went in and saw the Inner City Church, whose walls were right up against the road leading over the bridge. We had to climb down below the bridge to enter it. We wandered back towards Váci Útca, and Bertine convinced me for the first time in many, many years that we should go into McDonald’s. Why? Because it was a McCafe. It had a separate section just for coffee and pastries.
Things I started learning about food in Hungary, and probably Europe in general: there’s no such thing as low-fat. There’s whole milk and butter. I didn’t worry too much about it. It was simple enough to find sugar-free stuff, and vegetarian food was easy to come by. One of the things I loved right away is that their pastries aren’t like ours: they’re hardly sweet at all. I got to try everything.
We got lattes and a pastry to try, and went to sit in the back corner and study our map. A group of men came and sat down near us, and one leaned over and asked if we spoke English. I got to talking to him while Bertine buried her head in the travel guide, worried he might ask her to marry him or something. He told us he was from Tunisia, and had been in Budapest for a year. It was very hard to find regular work, because even though they wanted people who spoke English well, one also had to speak Magyar, which was apparently very difficult to learn. He said the society was very closed, so the people he knew from North Africa stuck together. I asked if he planned on staying there, and he said no, nor did he have an interest in going to America (he feared the same social exclusion, and the fact he’d probably be treated like a terrorist). He was considering going back to Paris, but never back to Tunisia, because he couldn’t make a living there. I asked him to describe it. He told me, ‘you know the old movies with the desert, and the beautiful oasis? It’s exactly like that.’ Wow.
In the span of 20 minutes or so, I heard basically his whole life story, and a bit about his friends who were with him there. The only thing that made us a little nervous was when he told us, ‘you know, sometimes you have to go out and get a little crazy!! You know?’ We didn’t want to know. After a bit, we said goodbye to our Tunisian friends. We each paid 50 forint to use the bathrooms (complete with receipt), and left the McCafe. The Tunisians waved to us from the window, and Bertine said, ‘I can’t believe we’ve only been in Budapest for a few hours and already you’ve found a Tunisian boyfriend.’
st. stephen’s basilica (e.g. the church of the holy hand)
We decided to wander around and see what we could see in Pest, heading up towards the parliament building. It was cold, but not intolerable. We came across St. Stephen’s Basilica, which I had marked in the travel guide as a must-see because they had a relic: the mummified right hand of King István. Even more exciting than the hand itself was the fact there was a penny-smashing machine outside where one could obtain a 1-forint coin with the Holy Hand impressed upon it. Neither of us had the appropriate coins, so we made a very important note to return later.
We walked up around the massive parliament building and saw about 20 different statues and monuments: Attila József, Imre Nagy, Ferenc Rákóczi, the prince of Transylvania (although we mostly knew of these people from their metro-station namesakes). We walked down to the Danube again, then headed back in the direction of our hotel. We stopped at a little convenience store for pop and gum, and the shopkeeper spoke no English, so we had to figure out currency ourselves quickly, and I got to utilize the only Magyar word I knew: köszönöm (‘kurssurnum’, thank you).
Near Nyugati Pu, the beautiful central train station, we explored a big department store, then headed across the street to Westend City Center, which was promptly renamed The Mall of Hungary. Because, seriously, it was that big.
We would mainly duck into malls and shops not just because, well, we love shopping in new places, but also because they were warm and tended to be open much later than anything else. Things close really early for those accustomed to the 24-hour lifestyle, so we would time our touristing to get to the attractions early in the day, and do shopping and such in the evening after dark.
We saw a restaurant right by the train station that looked interesting, but decided to walk back towards our hotel to see what else we might encounter. After several blocks, we realized it was a lot further than we thought, and it was cold. We hopped on the metro and took it back to Nyugati Palyaudvar (code name: Nougaty Pie Aardvark), and went to NOA Cafe for dinner.
Like many restaurants we saw in Europe, even though it was well below freezing most days, they still had outdoor seating. This place had a big screened-in patio with large heaters. It was almost tropical. We ordered drinks and I was happy to see they had a few different varieties of grilled cheese, so I ordered the camembert and pears. We watched server-girl dancing to November Rain. When our meals arrived, we discovered that grilled cheese didn’t mean ‘grilled cheese sammich’, just ‘grilled cheese’. It was a big hunk of cheese, fried potato balls, pears, blueberries, and fresh mozzarella. It was so good, if surprising.
After dinner, we stopped at the gigantic supermarket downstairs in Nyugati station for water and such, giggling our way through the store as we examined all the weird Hungarian products. We hauled our groceries back to the hotel on the metro, exhausted from all the walking.