“Let’s go to Budapest,” Beloved said a few months ago.
“Umm,” I replied stalling for time. Ever since I figured out that Europe existed and that I could go there someday, I’ve been focused on Western Europe, primarily France and Italy. Maybe it was all those 1950’s and 1960’s movies where elegant people danced and walked and rode bikes around elegant Paris streets and had meaningful elegant outdoor meals in the middle of the elegantly disordered Italian vineyard. Honestly, Germany wasn’t on the list. Holland, Scandinavia Switzerland and okay, maybe Germany. Certainly not anything behind the Iron Curtain. Turned out that I perhaps ingested a lot of cold war fear in my All American fast food and soda drinks. No one behind the wall was elegant in the movies. Just black and white grayness. And fear. Spies trying to get across a bridge in the fog or something. The streets were all run down and crummy. And they were trying to kill me. They hated us.* No need to go until we’ve seen the cool parts of Europe first.
However, Beloved has a deep love of the cold war spy novel and movie so he’s very orientated toward the other side of that wall. He’s attracted to the exotic adventures, the danger lurking in those alleyways. Or just trying to figure out what it was like for real people. When we went to Vienna about two years ago, Bratislava was a brief train ride away and Beloved had to go. I didn’t. I knew there was a lot more Vienna to explore. Coffee houses! Art! So we agreed to split up on our last day in town. Without cell phones to find each other. We agreed to meet on the steps of one of the grand coffee houses at 5 p.m. We’d already cleared the apartment we were staying so the stakes were high. How would we find each other if something went wrong? **
So, yes, I know. Prague is supposed to be great in the tourist section with lots of beer flowing into the open mouths of England’s youth. And Krakow and Warsaw are supposed to be compelling as well. And Rick Steves thinks we can spread world peace one in-the-back-door-tourist-dollar at a time. But here’s the thing: I’m still spooked by all that brink-of-the-cold-war stuff. I remember the first time I met some Russians. It was at a reconciliation conference in the middle of Switzerland. They were at the conference to talk about what they had experienced just before the government opened up the borders. They were actually nice people. And – shameful but true – I was a teensy-weensy bit nervous to be in the same room with them. Okay more then teensy-weensy and it surprised me to be that way.
“Let’s go to Budapest,” Beloved said again a few weeks ago.
Well, Budapest is supposed to be Euro-cool these days. I remember crossing the street in front of one of Vienna’s train stations and seeing a road post, the old school kind where its just a piece of painted wood on a pole, pointing the way to Budapest. I knew that Vienna and Budapest have a deep and somewhat tortured twin-city thing in their story seeing as they were the capitols of the Hungarian-Austrian Empire for a few centuries. When I saw that sign I remember thinking, how odd to be so close as to see a simple sign saying, “that way.” Vienna also straddles that East/West Europe transition. Vienna is not fully Western. I could sense the overtones of Eastern Europe in the streets and buildings.
So, I thought, now might be time then. I feel like I’ve got a reasonably good handle on Travel in Europe 101. I understand how trains can be found in stations, how cars and seats are numbered and how that numbering system is on display on the platform so I know where to stand when the train arrives. I also know that seat reservations don’t really mean anything unless the train is crowded. I hardly blink when I pay to pee and I haven’t had a bathroom door opened on me for about a month now. I understand trams and buses and tickets and stripes and validating. I’ve got (I continue to hope) a reasonable anti-pick-pocket system. I have both a menu translator and a full translating interface on my handy (cell phone). And if I don’t go to Budapest sooner or later, Beloved is just going to keep asking me about it.
Budapest is amazing.
Buda and Pest were once two different cities on two sides of the Danube River. (The Danube!!!) A great historical river, one of the two most important passageways in Europe since forever!). Early in the 1800’s or so, the two cities combined and also did a lot of rebuilding ala Paris. Except they haven’t kept up the maintenance particularly well.
We stayed in a VRBO apartment on the Pest side – in the old town. We stayed in what must have been a very grand apartment building back in the day with a grand staircase that swept around an open elevator cage. It was an elevator as grand and as old fashioned as any you might see in a European movie.
Our particular apartment had been recently updated and was comfortable, complete with an air conditioning unit which was very necessary while we were there. But the concrete facade was crumbling everywhere. The building was – at best – last loved in the 1930’s just before the Nazi’s started getting restless. It was the kind of building in the kind of condition that you could imagine Matt Damien walking down the stairs in the Bourne Identity… faded glory. Stuck in time.
Much of Budapest seemed frozen in time. There was a gigantic clock face serving as art in our apartment. There were gigantic clock faces all over Budapest on display in windows, none of the arms moving. In the Orthodox Synagog, there’s a clock with Hebrew numbering. Frozen at the moment the Nazi’s cut the electricity to Budapest (4:20 a.m.) when they got tired of Hungarian foot dragging. It become one of the metaphors for me about Budapest: being frozen in time and trying to decide how or if to catch up again. My guess is that we could come back in ten years and see everything tidied back up and clean again. There’s a lot of construction everywhere and much will become retro-gloriefied. All the buildings where the facade is sloughing off will be patched back up again. We just got, perhaps, one of the last glimpses of gritty and real Budapest.
We went to the Great Market. It is a beautiful building and one of the best market halls I’ve seen. We’ve seen so many now in Mexico and in Italy. Munich keeps its market spaces out of doors. There are only a few left in the US – Pike Street Market in Seattle and I’ve seen and can’t name one in Philadelphia and one in Cincinnati. San Francisco reclaimed the Ferry Building as a Market Hall but its too upscale to really qualify. I know there’s a market hall in Washington D.C. but I haven’t gotten there yet. Market spaces seem really interesting to me. Personal and overwhelming. How do you choose which vender to visit?
While I love the food floor of the Grand Market but the tourist goods on the second floor was less than awesome. What do you buy as a tourist? We’re trying to live a possession reduced life these days so I have no need for tri-color t-shirts, sunglasses, purses, etc. In Paris, I bought a fantastic sauté pan from the same store that Julia Child and every other world-quality cook shopped at. In Rome, I bought an glass flower vase invoking a renaissance woman’s profile. Hungary? Apparently its embroidery and paprika. While I loved the cute ceramic paprika vessels in all the tourist booths, I bought local paprika in a nice but standard square can from the local grocery store. If its good enough for the locals to cook with then its good enough for me! But I digress.
We went to the Szechenyi Bath and Spa in the city park on Sunday afternoon. One of the reasons Buda and Pest exist are the numerous hot water springs enjoyed by Romans and every other passing through tourist ever since. Szechenyi, and the zoo and circus just outside the back doors, is another bubble in the time stream. A large, sprawling complex of indoor and outdoor baths, pools, and saunas built at the end of the 19th century, its fantastic. There are changing rooms and restaurants and a way of life. And yes, they do play chess in the pool.
We saw Castle Hill and took in the grand view from what some claim as the end of Europe and the beginning of Asia. The Alps apparently peter out as these last few hills along the river. I had difficulty imaging what it might be like to get in a car or a train and keep heading east. Another hangover from those cold war years. It was a beautiful view.
Oh my God.
How do we make doing these acts okay?
If you get a chance to go to Budapest, visit the House of Terror and also the Grand Synagog. It makes the horror apprehendible. Not comprehendible but at least apprehendible.*** No wonder this city is stuck in time and how bravely it is finding its way back into the 21st century.
We decided to go to Budahpest and bought our tickets several weeks ago. Then the Jet Stream got all out of position and half the Atlantic ocean piled up as clouds in front of the Alps and over our heads. All that water went downstream on the Elb and the Danube. We started watching the news for Budapest. Is it going to flood? Should we change our tickets? 24 hours before we were scheduled to go, the river crested without spilling too far over its banks in Budapest. While we were there we saw where water was still standing along some tram tracks or some roadways. It wasn’t a high water problem to be in Budapest.
Getting there was another thing. We didn’t know until we sat down in our seats heading out that we were going to divert to the north and go around Salzburg. Nor did many of our fellow passengers intending to exit the train in Salzburg. In Vienna, a passenger came and sat cross from us, on his way to see his girlfriend outside of Budapest. He said, we’d be getting off the train and on board a bus and then back on board the train because of flooding. Really? There was a mad dash off the train for sure and onto one of not enough buses for the train load for a 45 minutes ride along the highways of Hungary. And then a trudging back across another street and railway and… to be re-experienced on the return trip but at least we passed through Salzburg. Slowly. Adventures in traveling!
Finally this: Carmalized Cabbage with Square Pasta.
*Yes, I know, rationally even then I knew that didn’t make sense. But it was in water I drank at that time. I was told that these people were godless communists. I was given little Christian comic books about brave men who smuggled Bibles across borders so these innocent victims of cruel, selfish, and corrupted leaders won’t go to hell, so you know it was true. Also blue jeans. I knew blue jeans were high currency on the streets of Moscow.
**Something did go wrong but Beloved figured out how to contact me (very cleverly too) so in the end, not that big of deal and we were well served by taking some independent play time.
*** Apprehend – to take in. Comprehend – to understand