Summer 2017: Budapest

Day Zero

Ange is good to me. She noticed that my flight into Budapest landed after the public transport stopped running, and suggested I book a taxi. A quick internet search later, I had pre-booked a cab with the promise that there would be a driver waiting with a sign with my name on it, and a private car into the city. Judging by the line of people waiting at the taxi stand, this was an inspired move!

The greeter had a couple of names on the erasable white board and I was instantly suspicious that they’d try to load more passengers into my cab (it was late, I was tired and grumpy). But no, I arrived and said which name was mine, and the greeter called someone on her phone and then told me the driver would be five minutes. Three minutes later my driver came in, I picked up my bag and we headed out into Budapest, I was staying at the Milford Suites in the shadow of the castle on the Buda side. The transfer only cost €26 from airporttransfersbudapest.com.

Day One

We headed across the river to Pest by metro and checked into the Kempinski. The problem with arriving late somewhere is that the following day you are exhausted before you even start, so we’d planned to take it easy and just do a Hop-On Hop-Off Bus Tour with City Sightseeing.

It was confusing which one to choose, with the number of routes, companies, tickets and add-ons making the complexity a bit overwhelming. One came with a couple of boat tours, a night tour and a discount booklet, so we decided that we would go with their 48hour pass, allowing us a bit of flexibility on when we went on the tours.

Decision made, we headed into the main square to have lunch and Ange saw a bargain out of the corner of her eye: three courses for €10. The restaurant is super touristy – right on the main square, but the food is good and we’re exposed to the Hungarian practise of adding paprika to everything.

The Esterházy torte for dessert is a particularly welcome revelation, with interesting layers of what we originally thin is bread but what I later find out are almond meringue dough.

Hop-On Hop-Off Bus

After lunch we find one of the ticket sellers for the company we had selected and went to the office with her to get the tickets, and then followed her directions to the nearest bus stop. We stay on the bus for a full circuit – the funniest part is the stop at the Citadel: there’s some sort of traffic jam at the top so our driver reverses down from the carpark to the road at an eyebrow raising speed!

Synagogue

After the tour we grab a snack, go past Ange’s previous hotel and head towards the Synagogue.

I frown at the time – it’s 5pm on a Friday and I think that means it will be closed for the Sabbath. Ange looks online and says that its open ’til 8pm each day so we carry on towards it. When we arrive the ticket booths are closed but there are signs up saying you can buy tickets online. I frown again because the entrance looks totally closed up. We wander along the front as Ange reads further and confirms that it closes at 4pm on Fridays. Ah well. We head back towards the hotel instead.

Vapiano

We look online for someplace to eat and find that the Italian place where we had turned up at closing time in Vienna had a branch just around the corner from our hotel here in Budapest. Ange loves Italian! So we head over there and the confusion starts.

First of all we go to the ladies at the counter at the entrance, as you would at any restaurant and ask for a table for two. They ask if we’d been here before and we of course say no. She says they’re a self serve restaurant (?) and to select what you want from the menu, find a queue and order. Then she hands me and Ange a credit card sized card each, and then turns back to her coworker and continues her conversation with her.

Ange and I look at each other. It’s not often that I am just as clueless after receiving instructions as before, but we figure we’ll give it a go and see what happens.

We had been pointed to the only English language menu which was stuck on the wall, and so head over and select what we want to eat – Cabonara for Ange, Bolognese for me. Then we watch other people at the queues. Above the cooking stations are signs saying what kind of things they cook: pasta or pizza. At the head of the queue are stations with a tray, napkins, cutlery etc. So you grab that stuff and tell the cook what you would like and then they make it there and then in front of you and get you your drink as well. Then you swipe your card at a machine and that loads the bill onto it. after eating as you leave you pay the ladies at the cashier. I imagine that there’s some sort of security in place – I suspect if they opened where i was brought up, people wouold just eat and then “lose” the card and walk out. Before too long Ange gets to the front of the queue and orders her cabonara and even gets to select her pasta.

There’s a handy sign with pictures of the different pastas and they come in single size packets which the cook empties into what looks like a french fry basket and then dunks into a vat of boiling water. He then proceeds to add all the components to a wok and cook the meal right in front of us. So fresh!

A couple of days later we happen to be walking by and in the window I see someone making the pasta and then filling the single serve bags, ready for that evenings meals. It’s a different kind of set up – almost adding fast food ordering to Italian cuisine. I’m not sure what the purists would think!

On the way back to the hotel we stop off at a supermarket and get food for breakfast. I just can’t see how any breakfast could justify the €32 that the hotel is charging!

Day Two

The next day promises to be a bit busier and we have breakfast, check out and store our luggage. We’re in two minds of how to get to the Széchenyi Thermal Baths and in the end elect to take the metro instead of utilising the Hop-On Hop-Off bus. The M1 is the Millenium line – the oldest metro on the continent apparently, and the carriages themselves are quaintly old fashioned.

Széchenyi Baths

We eventually figure out how things work with the Baths – you get a plastic watch upon entry, plus a super-coat-hanger and enter the complex by holding the watch to a sensor on the turnstiles. Then you’re confronted by a line of doors – like priest’s confessional booths. These are the changing booths and it’s all unisex.

The booths have doors on both sides and little coloured wheels at knee height which tell you if the booth is occupied or not. Once you get into the booth and close the doors you see that the bench at knee height has a hinge and an additional piece which folds out. By folding it out you lock both doors (they open inwards) and at the same time on the outside the little wheels turn to show that the booth is occupied. Clever!

After changing you go through to the lockers, which are opened with your watch. There you store all your clothes on the super coat hanger which nicely fits into the locker. Then close the locker, hold the watch to the sensor and when the light flashes green you have a second to flick the little switch to lock the locker. Opening it is the same – hold the watch to the sensor and you have an instant to flick the switch to open it.

Then it’s around the corner to the towel hire place, where you can also rent robes, bathing caps and slippers. Finally ready to get wet, you head into a labyrinth of 18 pools – 15 inside, 3 outside, of various temperatures. Theres also a sauna and steam room. Some of the pools are the cold plunge pools and some are barely heated and are marked for swimming and you have to wear swimming caps. The three outdoor pools are huge. The biggest is marked as being for swimming and a lifeguard stands watch, periodically blowing their whistle and motioning to people that because they aren’t wearing a swimming cap that they should leave. They love blowing that whistle!!

The outside pools have water features which pour water out into the pool, allowing you to stand with the water thudding onto your shoulders giving a lovely massage. One of the pools has water coming up through the floor so you can stand on the jets and allow your self to be massaged by the water. And one of the pools has concentric walls and a flow of water making a whirlpool effect. So there’s plenty of variation. After we explore outside, we head through the inside pools. Whenever there are too many people, we just leave to find a more sparsely populated one. Our fingers are soon wrinkly and eventually we decide that we should head off. I think we managed to get to 11 of the pools.

House of Terror

We head back to the metro and two stops away we pop up into the brilliant sunshine and head towards the building which housed the Arrow Cross Party during World War 2 and the Secret Police during the communist era.

Breakfast was a long time ago so we grab a snack at the cafe before heading into the museum. The museum itself is brilliant – well laid out and engaging exhibits. Its definitely worth getting the audio guide as the alternative is a lot of reading. The subject matter is rather dark and the fact that the museum occupies the same building where a lot of the atrocities took place gives it additional poignancy. Photography is not allowed inside.

It’s a bit of a relief to leave the museum and re-emerge into the sunshine – a relief which turns to wonder as a cavalcade of motorcycles rumbles up the street towards Heroes Square. There must be over a hundred motorcycles, accompanied by police and tooting their horns and revving their engines. We never do find out exactly what that was about…

Anyway, we head back into town and pickup our luggage and then check in to our next hotel. It’s a bit of a hike from the bottom of the hill in Buda to the hotel which is right at the top. It’s a relief when we discover one of the elevators that allows us to avoid a section of steps. We only have time for the briefest of rests before heading back out, this time to catch the tour boat (part of the Hop-On Hop-Off deal) at Jetty 10 in time for the 5pm sailing.

The boat trip is supposed to take an hour, giving us two hours before the night bus tour to grab something to eat. We do manage to get some photos on the way, but it’s very much a mad rush across to the jetty.

Boat Tour

We’ve almost left it too late and we arrive at the jetty after power walking across the Chain Bridge and along the river side. With a sigh of relief we go to board the boat when the staff member checking tickets tells us that there is a regatta on the river so we may be delayed getting away – the last two tours have been delayed by 15 and 30 minutes respectively. Typical!

Even if we’re 30mins delayed getting away, we figure we’ll be ok with 90minutes to have dinner and get to the starting point of the night tour. We get on board and grab a seat on the lower deck. We avoid the upper deck because though it has unrestricted views in all directions, the sun has come out and is beating down quite ferociously.

I settle in while Ange gets up to go and get ice creams from the vendor on the jetty when the boat staff pull up the gangway and we set off, a mere five minutes after our scheduled departure time. Talk about mixed emotions: I’m happy to be underway, but… no ice cream! 🙁

The boat tour heads up the river, past the Hungarian Parliament building, around Margaret Island and then back to the jetty. We’ve made the turn and are heading down the Buda side of Margaret Island when we notice that the boat is driving erratically. The bow turns towards the island and the engine cuts out. Then it comes back on and the boat passes under a bridge and then starts circling. We finally figure out that we’re in a holding pattern due to the regatta, but there’s no announcement or communication.

We sit back and enjoy the view, the sun and the calm. A whole bunch of other tourist boats are in the same predicament and I joke if any more turn up we’ll be able to walk to the shore by jumping from boat to boat. Half an hour goes by and then with a rush, the all clear is given and a different race develops as all the tourist boats head off at the same time.

We’re dropped off at about 6:45 and we figure we need 10-15 minutes to get to the starting point of the night bus tour and so head off to find the pick up point and then hunt down some food nearby. Ten minutes later we find the pick up point with not too much trouble, it’s on the far side of the Basilica of St Stephen.

A large open square is in front of the church, surrounded by restaurants, but we had passed a little bistro on the way and so after establishing exactly where the pickup point is, we return to the Misto Bistro and try their Tourist Menu.

Night Bus Tour

And so on to the Night Bus Tour (again part of the Hop-On Hop-Off ticket)! We check with the ticket checker that we can get off on the Buda side, because the second to last stop is at the Citadel and we want to get off as close to our hotel as possible. We’re assured that even though it’s at night, its still a Hop-On Hop-Off bus so that won’t be a problem.

The bus is the same sort as we took for our day time tour and as it sets off we notice that the commentary is the same, and the route is the same. Sure, some of the sights are prettier in the night time, but we very quickly come to the conclusion that it’s just not worth it. If we hadn’t been using the tour as a trip to our hotel, we would have gotten off much earlier!

It also doesn’t help that the iPhones we use aren’t the best in low light, so it’s not like we can capture those few sights that are enhanced from the night time lighting.

Once we arrive at the Citadel I go down and ask if we will be stopping anywhere closer to the castle and am told that they’re will be an unscheduled stop right beside the chain Bridge. I’m very happy to hear that as the funicular is there, which will save us climbing all those stairs to reach the castle level! Bonus!

Funicular

The funicular are two single carriage trains which go up the tracks on an angle. It’s a bit pricey, but I figure we’re tired and the last thing we need is a thousand steps right now. The views are quite spectacular also!

You get a choice of three seating areas and we decide that the first one provides the best views, so settle in and enjoy the ride up.

At the top of the hill we take a few photos and then head towards the hotel. We stop off at Fisherman’s Bastion for a few photos – at that time the ticket booths aren’t manned allowing us full access for free!

Day Three

Hospital in the Rock

Budapest is built on hot springs which manifest themselves in the many baths dotted around the city. But the water also carves out caves in the hills of Buda, making natural labyrinths which were turned into a hospital for World War 2 and then into a Nuclear Bunker in the Communist era. Unfortunately the hospital got a lot of use in the Siege of Budapest and then again in the Hungarian Revolution in 1956.

Unfortunately they don’t allow photography inside, but I guess the exhibits would lose their impact if you could see them online before going. It’s a great tour which takes an hour and takes you through both the hospital part as well as the nuclear bunker part. Our guide was nursing a sore throat, sipping honeyed tea as we went through, but it didn’t have any effect on her volume – no problems hearing her!

After we finished the tour we headed back to our hotel and checked out. We then grabbed a bus across to Pest where our next hotel was. After settling in we headed out to find something to eat – I had spied a burger place on the way in and so we retraced our steps.

Kajahu

We walked in and again (see Vapiano above) aren’t greeted immediately and shown to a table. Instead we’re pretty much told to find any vacant table. As we start to sit down I notice that the table has a screen under glass and a touch pad below it. I start to get an inkling how things work here. A silly grin sets in as I’m proved right.

So you can order what you like from the monitor at your table and then the wait staff bring it to you. So far, so straightforward. The fun stuff comes with the additional things you can do. There are animated stories and videos for the kids, and you can do a grocery shop for you to collect at the end of your meal. But my favourite is that you can chat with other people. You can type messages for broadcast to all, or you can use a seating map to figure out who you want to chat with and chat directly with them. The only negative is that the interface for typing messages is very clunky which would make conversing stilted.

Special mention must be made of the dessert – a cheese cake in a jar. The topping and base are as you would expect, but the filling is a party in our mouths – delicious!!

We head back to the hotel to do some work – only venturing out later that evening for dinner. Ange mentions she’s keen on some Asian food as we pass a cheap and cheerful place, but we go past until we are in the touristy area and are bombarded with touts encouraging us to try their bistro. None of them have Asian food on the menu so we do the sensible thing and head back away from the touristy area and back to the original restaurant we had passed. Much closer to the hotel too!

Aroy Thai

Our last evening meals in Budapest are Thai – I have the Pad Thai with pork and Ange has the Yellow Chicken Curry. Delicious, quick and reasonably priced, we really couldn’t fault it. Soo tasty!

Day Four

Gellert Baths

We had some time before I had to go to the airport for my flight back to London and we wanted to go to the famous Gellert Baths – primarily to contrast with our experience with the Széchenyi Baths. Both are served by public transport, but whereas Szechenyi is on the Millennial line with what must be one of the oldest undergrounds still running, Gellert is served by a brand new station.

The changing rooms themselves operate on the pretty much the same system as Széchenyi with the exception that the locks have a knob on them that you push with the wristband/watch and so lock or unlock accordingly. While the buildings are more impressive and the wave pool enticing at Gellert, I actually preferred the sheer number of pools at Széchenyi: I think there were more people at Széchenyi when we went and being able to spread them out meant that it didn’t feel quite so crowded.

I asked Ange what she thought given that she had been to three baths, and she agreed that Széchenyi took first spot for the same reasons I gave and then she put Gellert above Rudas because the architecture was nicer and again, there were more options. She also made the point that Széchenyi and Gellert both had more optional extras, like massages etc.

It’s worth mentioning that we used the discount booklet that we got with the Hop-On Hop-Off bus ticket to get 500 HUF off each of the tickets to Széchenyi and Gellert.

Before leaving we paused at the cafe to replenish our strength, and then it was back across the river yet again for me to collect my luggage and for Ange to check into her next hotel. I splurged on a cab for the airport which cost me £25. I was surprised that the driver didnt speak much English, but we muddled through and he was impressed when I said kosomon (thank you) to him at the end of the trip. It was the only word of Hungarian that I managed to learn in my entire stay.

Would I Go Back?

I keep going back to Budapest – this was my third trip. It’s freezing in winter and boiling in summer. It’s got a lengthy disturbing history and an… interesting approach to customer service! The prices are cheap and there are a million things to do, so yes, I can see myself returning at some point in the future!