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Michael’s Travel Diary

Thursday, 03 Jan 2008

Location: Budapest, Hungary

MapAnother late morning, and once I had eventually woken up, I headed off on a long walk. A few of the people were making plans to head to one of the baths as it was Tom, the hostel owners, birthday. Being even lazier than myself, they weren’t heading out till 4 pm, and that meant I had 3 hours to kill, so I decided to walk to the thermal baths and see some more of the city, rather than just take the metro with the rest of them.

It was a pretty straight forward walk down Andrassy ut, considered as Budapest’s own Fifth Avenue. It has been described as a leafy, tree-lined street, and the entire time I was walking down the road I was wondering where these leafy trees were. It took some time before it finally clicked that there were trees, but they were all just leafless masses of branches, entwined with fairy light type decorations.

About half way down Andrassy, the Terror Haza, or Terror House. I had some time to kill on my way down to the thermal baths, so decided to stop in there and have a look at what was in there. It is a pretty full-on account of Hungary’s times during WWII under brief German rule, and the following period under the Communist regime until 1991. It is plain to see that after WWI when so much of Hungary’s land was taken from them, they found themselves in the middle of a rock and a hard place when Germany and Russia were advancing onto their land. And it was amazing that they managed to last as long as they did without succumbing to the pressures of the Nazi government. Anyway, it was a pretty horrific place, and some of the videos, photos and statistics that they listed were purely terrifying.

Next thing I know, it is well after 4 pm, and I was supposed to be meeting with Thomas and the rest of the guys at the baths at 4. So I marched down the rest of Andrassy, only to come face to face with Hero’s Square, a massive open space with the Hero Monument in the middle, a huge spire, and a heap of statues. On either side of the square, there were Muczarnok, and Mezosagi Muzeum, two imposing buildings. Unfortunately I needed to move along to the thermal baths and had to keep moving – plus it was night time and I figured I’d see a lot more if I came back during the day.

I made it to the thermal baths, and it was one of the most fascinating experiences I’ve had so far. After finally paying to get in, seems it was very popular this particular Friday night, I went into the locker rooms and got changed. The first room after you get out of the locker room is some sort of an indoor thermal spa. There are a couple big spas there, and once I had warmed up and got comfortable with the water temperature – and the crazy smell there too – I took my towel and headed outside.

It was freezing cold – literally. The temperature must have been -4 or -5 and the concrete was so cold on my feet. The steam coming off the thermal baths was just so inviting, and quickly I threw my towel on a park bench and jumped into the waters. My god, so inviting! There were two big thermal baths, either side of the outdoor Olympic size swimming pool. The thermal baths were kept at a constant 37-38 degrees water temperature and the pool must have been in the low 20’s. After the thermal bath, it was just way too cold for me to jump into the pool, so I walked past the pool and headed to the thermal bath at the other end. This second bath was fitted with jets for a spa like experience, and also a rounded wall and the first true whirl pool I had ever been in. Man, that thing has some power, and all these people swishing around this big circle as the jets created a current was quite fascinating.

The other ‘fascinating’ thing about the thermal baths is the amount of public displays of affection. Given you can’t see 6 feet in front of you due to the steam coming off the water, sometimes even three feet would be generous, it seems that Hungarians figured that public fondling, kissing and general groping was okay in those waters!

Eventually I decided to pack up for the evening and head inside to dry off. I had arranged to meet up with a guy named Andras, a local from Budapest, for a meal, and was on a tight schedule. I left the thermal bath and started quickly making my way inside to get out of the cold and grabbed my towel – uh oh! My towel had been damp from my shower in the morning, and then sitting in my bag all day. In leaving it outside next to the thermal baths, the dampness had actually frozen solid in the towel. There was no way to actually dry myself off! Hahaha. Instead, I headed inside to the indoor baths and stuck it out there for a while so that my towel could thaw off!

Once changed, I jumped on the Metro, headed back to the hostel, dumped my bag and headed out to meet Andras. He suggested that we try a place called Crème Café, however, when we got there we were told there would be a 90 minute wait for food. Why there would be only one chef working on a Friday night I am not sure, but we decided to try a place called Kek Rozsa (or Blue Rose) which was a traditional Jewish Restaurant in the Jewish part of town, right next to Great Synagogue – supposedly one of the largest synagogues in Europe.

After dinner and a bit of a brief Budapest history lesson from Andras, I headed back to the hostel to join in with Tom’s birthday drinks. Some time around 2 am we pushed off to a new lounge bar just around the corner for the hostel and had a couple more drinks there before eventually calling it a night around 4am.

The following morning was even later again. Although this time it was accompanied by the ultimate breakfast. Tom was up and make an omelet with probably 15 eggs, onion, paprika, some Italian sausage, cheese, and cooked it in the fry pan for a bit. After cooking for a little in the fry pan, it went into the oven and crisped up a bit. Then it was presented on the kitchen table, cut up like a pizza, and eaten with bread. All because the guys running the hostel wanted to cook for us!

After that, in a scene that was reminiscent of all days that I been in the hostel, a DVD was started at 1 pm. This day was Aladdin, so I figured, why not! It was freezing cold outside, the day was half gone and some of the stuff I wanted to see was full day activities. By the end of the movie, some time around 3 pm, there must have been 10 people sitting around watching the movie. Not bad for a hostel that only sleeps 20 people. That is just indicative of the warm family like feeling you get at this place.

Anyway, I figured I’d better get out and see something before the day ended, so I jumped on a train and headed up to Hero Square hoping to get a glimpse of it in daylight. Though with the constant cloud around, and the early sunsets at about 4-430pm, it was going to be touch and go to see if I would see it in daylight.

I arrived at Hero’s Square, and it is quite an impressive view as you emerge from the Metro station, and would be even more impressive it was the first time having seen it. After wandering around the square and taking it all in, I decided to wander through the City Park, where the Thermal Baths are, and take a good look around there too. It seems that all of the ponds there had been reasonably well drained and with only just a thin layer of water over the base of the pond, some people were skating a little, while most people were simply slipping and sliding around. I wandered past Vajdahunyad Castle, and had a look round there. On the way out of the City Park I noticed that the ice rink had just opened up and people were slowly starting to head onto the ice – very slowly. As I walked past the entrance I noticed just how popular ice skating must be! There must have been 1000 people lined up waiting to get onto the ice, and as I headed back down Andrassy ut walking back to the hostel, there were more and more people streaming towards the outdoor rink, skates in hand.

I wandered back down Andrassy ut and moved as quickly as I could back to the hostel. It was freezing cold, and my fingers and toes were getting numb. About half way back to the hostel, I had to duck into KFC. I wasn’t even hungry, but I needed to sit inside and warm up for a bit, and as such ordered a large fries – fresh – and held them in my hand almost until they were cold. Then I ate them! From there I headed back to the hostel. Back at the hostel, it was another group cooking effort, and a couple of the guests had cooked enough spaghetti to feed an army – all I had to do was chip in a couple hundred Forint, less than a pound!

After dinner it was a bit of sitting around doing not much until Tom left to play another gig. This one was a Rockabilly night, essentially 1950’s American swing music. About 10 of us from the hostel headed down to club Amigos, after getting lost for the best part of 40 minutes, and eventually made our way into the basement of the club where the band were playing. So many of the people there were dressed in old school 1950’s swing gear, with girls wearing crazy polka dotted dresses, guys with huge fringes, and wearing cream colored pants and bright red dinner jackets. It was a hoot to say the least, and the rest of us wearing our backpacker clothes didn’t fit in so well!

After the first set had finished, we caught up with Tommy for a drink and milled around. Some time during the second set, a Hungarian girl, who I’d admittedly been eyeing off for part of the night, called me over and started speaking to me in Hungarian. I had no idea what she was saying, and let her know that. It turned out that she wanted a dance. Now, whilst I don’t mind a dance every now and again, 1950’s swing is a little out of my league! Anyway, I succumbed to her good looks and decided to give it a go.

In nay case, she was impressed by my dancing – I don’t exactly know how – and we got to chatting. She was from Buda side of the river, and I was saying that I found the Pest side more interesting. Eventually I convinced her to meet up with me the next day and show me why Buda is better. I also found out some other interesting Hungarian bits, including the words for ‘beer’, ‘cheers’, and that ‘Mihaly’ is Michael in Hungarian.

With another very late evening, we didn’t leave club Amigo till 5am when they closed, it was yet another late wake up the following morning. It was a very chilled afternoon, and at 4pm I met up with Reka, the Hungarian girl from the night before, over at Moszkva ter, the train station near the Castle. From there we caught a bus up the hill to the castle and went to the National Art Gallery to see the Mihaly Zichy temporary exhibit. This Hungarian artist, spent a lot of time in Russia painting the portraits for the Tsar’s family and then, in his most interesting work in my opinion, created the illustrations for the Hungarian written ‘The Tragedy of Man’.

From there, after the gallery had shut, we headed to another neighborhood in Buda and went for a pizza at her old local pizzeria. We had the Hungarian pizza, which essentially meant that the pizza had a whole lot of salami, cheese, chili powder and paprika on it. Man they love their chili and paprika! After the pizza, we headed to a café near her place and had a couple of hot chocolates, before bidding her farewell and taking the long walk back to the hostel – seems that the public transport in Budapest stops around 1130 pm. And on that walk home I realized another thing that seems to end around the same time – all of the lights in the city turn off. Well, not all of them, but the lights that are used to illuminate the Castle, Parliament, the Independence Monument and Chain Bridge, were all turned off around midnight. Once again, I managed to get myself lost walking back from Buda, and it was after 130am by the time I made it back to the hostel.

The next morning was by far the earliest morning that I woke up. It was the morning I had to fly home from Budapest. A short walk in the early morning cold to the metro station, a few bus rides, and then a short bus ride to the airport. A quick check-in and then trying to get as much sleep on the plane and couple of bus rides as possible… all in all a pretty stock standard end to an overseas trip!