A Different Travel Experience – Budapest

The majority of my travel in Europe thus far has been pretty lighthearted – beautiful, majestic cities filled with history, stunning architecture, delicious food and so much more.  Quaint little towns that look like they were plucked from Disney’s Beauty & the Beast (because we all know Disney was here first, right??).   Beach vacations with clear and pristine water and white sand beaches.  And while Josh and I usually prefer country over city, especially when we are traveling with the kids, there are just some cities that are a must visit – Paris, Rome, London (still on my list), Prague (also on my list), etc etc.  I never thought that Budapest would make that list but after friends had highly recommended it, we hopped on board and planned a trip, sin niños.

While Josh has been to Prague, this was my first foray into Eastern Europe and based upon first glance, it is a very different type of travel experience than what I’ve had in Western Europe.  And well, I can’t quite decide how to describe it.  I liked it, but not really sure why.  I had this same conversation with my Spanish teacher today who felt the exact same way upon her visit to Budapest.  There is something that draws you in, but you can’t quite figure out what it is.  Is it the history?  The people?  The architecture?  Or a combination of all these factors?

Budapest feels like a city lost in time.  Yes, it is modern, fully equipped with American fast food chains, including a TGI Fridays (which we lack in BCN).  But yet at the same time, it felt like time had stood still compared to other European cities. And I don’t mean it from an architecture standpoint.  The people seemed to be from a different era.  There was a feeling of sadness and desperation in the air.  This is not a wealthy city by any means and yet it did not feel poverty stricken, just sad. Beautiful, but haunted by the past.
I’m not even a fan of TGI Fridays, but the fact that Budapest has one and we don’t in BCN was certainly a moment of jealousy!

Because it’s not a wealthy city, a friend of ours who spends a lot of time in Budapest due to a family business nearby, told us to be weary of being caught in a tourist trap, especially with taxis.  I have a friend here who just wrote about how “ethical” the cab drivers are here in Barcelona (Steph, I’m going to agree to disagree on that one BUT will agree they are MUCH more ethical than those in Budapest!).

Let me first state that our friend, James, warned us of the unethical taxis in Budapest and gave Josh a number to call to get a cab.  But while looking for the money exchange booth (while the Euro is used in Budapest, it’s primarily the HUF) and trying to figure out how we get to our hotel, we were approached by an older man (like my dad’s age), dressed in a suit with a placard for a taxi company.  I know, I know, how stupid can I be right?  Haven’t I learned in my 3 years in Europe and ridiculous amount of travel experience?

But no, I’m a sucker.  He showed me a laminated card with the prices for a cab to our hotel, just 35 euros.  Honestly, it didn’t feel bad.  It costs us almost the same to get from the airport to our apartment in Barcelona.  So we went with him.  He walked us outside, taking our luggage.  We walked past the taxi stand…hmmm…warning bells start going off.  Then we go into the short term parking lot.  Abort, abort!!  What am I thinking?  And yet, we continue on.  Then he can’t seem to find the car and I see no cars with a taxi light on them in my sight.

Finally a car pulls up with a woman inside.  She gets out, hands him the keys and walks away.  He gets in.  This is our time to jump ship.  But we look at each other and get in.  We’re probably lucky to be alive.  The good thing is, I have complete confidence that I could have taken him if I needed to, with or without Josh’s help.  So together, we’d be fine.

Once again, we have no taxi placard on the cab and we continue on to our hotel, or so we hope.  I will admit to sending a friend an email while in the cab that if she didn’t hear from me within the hour we had been kidnapped… The good news is, we did make it, unscathed, though apparently to the tune of almost 20 euros more than it should have cost us, but at least we made it!!

Our hotel, the Corinthia, was stunning.  Quite simply, stunning.  No run of the mill, European tiny boutique hotel here.  This was a mammoth sized, American style luxury hotel.  Yes, score one for us!!  But not so fast because we got to our room…our room that we were sharing without kids.  And it had 2 twin beds.  Hmmm…ok, not quite going as planned so far.  Keeping a long story short, it took me going to the reception desk 3 times over the course of 24 hours before they finally fixed it.

The lobby of the Corinthia
 
Our stunning hotel
 

But the bed “issue” wasn’t that big of a deal in the scheme of things and let’s be honest, we met up with our friend, James, after dinner and there was a tiny little bit of alcohol imbibed – so we pretty much just passed out when we got back to the hotel anyways 🙂  Let me back up though – dinner.  Yum… James is not just a wine connoisseur  but also a total foodie.  And we were absolutely in the best of hands this weekend when it came to where we should eat and even what we should eat.

Our first night we ate at WineKitchen (http://www.borkonyha.hu/) which was fabulous.  The service was impeccable and the food so beyond delicious.  A treat for me, scallops (can’t get them easily here in BCN), were light and delectable.  And for Josh, duck, a traditional meal in Hungary.  James joined us for dessert and introduced us to Palinka – a Hungarian style of brandy.  Incredibly strong but flavorful, it wasn’t my cup of tea, but Josh and James put quite a few of them back over the course of the rest of the evening.

Josh and James with their palinka

First thing the next morning we called a cab (the one James recommended this time) to get us to the Celeterias Shooting Club.  Yes, we were heading out to shoot some guns.  Guns.  As in real bullets.  Let me preface this by saying that the reason we went to said shooting club is because a few friends of mine have done this and raved about it and their husbands raved even more about it.  So Josh, knowing this, of course, wanted to shoot guns in Budapest too.  Hence the bomb shelter-esque shooting range.  In the middle of no where.

Thank goodness we knew people who had done this before because not only was it in the middle of no where but it was in this underground room that had a door that looked like it belonged in a bomb shelter.  I mean, I guess there is no need for pretty flowers or painted walls or even in some cases, flooring, when all you are going to do is shoot guns.  It’s a hard core sport and the range reflected that – this is no country club, for sure.

Entering the shooting range… bomb shelter like entry felt just a tiny bit sketchy.  We’re not at the Ritz!

It was Josh and I and 5 other people – maybe 1 of whom had previous experience.  All except us were from England as well.  So apparently those of us from strict gun enforcement type countries just needed to get our weapons on.  The instructors spoke fluent English and I will say, were incredibly professional.  Yet, this still did not go how I expected.  I pictured a room with individual little cubicles, reaffirming our safety by being separated from each other.  But no, everything is laid out on a table in the middle of the room – and on either side, a “student” with a “teacher”.  The teacher explained to us how to handle each weapon and where to shot, how to shoot, etc.  The instructors stood next to you the entire time but there was still something that felt unsafe about having everyone in such close proximity to you as you shoot a firearm.

Totally in his element here
Can you tell which one is mine and which one is Josh’s??  
 
See that tiny little hole right there next to the bullseye?  Yup that’s my one shot that made it.  At least the one shot was a good one!
How hot do I look here???  hahahaha!
Ok, I will admit this is an awesome shot of Josh… totally gangsta… 😉
This is the creepy hallway to get to the shooting range.  

Let’s just say that I will not being joining any weapon related field of work – the CIA, FBI nor the police or armed services will be banging on my door begging me to join them.  In the first place, I didn’t even know for the first 2 guns which target was mine – I thought I was just aiming for any of them.  Yup, I was that person.  However, the one or two shots I made during the first round with the pistols were good – right to the throat.  Yeah, don’t mess with me…

While we were taking our turns, the room began to fill with an acrid smelling smoke from the GSR.  I can totally understand why our instructors were not just wearing eyeglasses and earmuffs but also air masks.  I don’t blame them.  It got to be a bit much after a while.  What was also interesting is the fact that as you stand behind the person shooting, more often than not you were being pegged with gun shells as they popped out of the guns.

Hoping we were done, but in fact, we were not, we headed over to the rifle room.  Surprisingly I was much better at these but again, not so much my cup of tea.  Josh, however, was totally in his element and had a perma-grin on the entire time we were shooting that morning.  The feeling of the weapons in my hands was two fold – part of me absolutely got off on the power that was in my control.  However, on the flip side, that power was also a bit terrifying.  I’m strong and yet, they felt heavy, they all kicked back (even though we were told they didn’t, I totally felt it) and required a keen eye that apparently I do not have.  I’m absolutely glad that I did this, a moment of relinquishing control can be healthy here and there.  But I’m good and don’t need to repeat the experience.

We grabbed a late lunch at a fantastic place, Chess (http://www.chessrestaurant.hu/), that was amazing.  Probably the best tomato soup EVER.  And our favorite part, potato donuts with little chips of chocolate in them – yes, chocolate chip potato donuts.  Interesting and yummy.  And since we were the only ones in the restaurant, leisurely as well, no rush to get out.

But we had plans for the afternoon and were meeting James at 6, so off we went.  To the Terror House.  Yes, this is a day jam packed full of light bright fun things.  Um, not.  But again, this is an instance that I’m glad we experienced despite it being a downer.  It really helped to put the city in perspective for us and help us to understand why it feels the way it feels.  These people lived in Terror (hence the name of the museum) from the Russians and before that the Germans.  They were occupied by Russian forces up til around 1991 – barely 2 decades ago.  No wonder why it felt so sad here.  Josh and I were blown away by both the emotions the museum brought out in us as well as the horror that the people of Hungary lived in during half of the 20th century.  The 20th century people – we weren’t in medieval times here.  World War II and the death camps were just a preface to what the people in Hungary still had to live through.  The fact that people can do these things to other people just blows my mind.  It’s inhumane.

Terror House
Memorial lined up outside the Terror House
Technically not supposed to take pictures inside but this was a full sized tank – how could I not?  
One of several walls that had images of those lost during the Soviet occupation in Hungary.

Feeling a little down after the museum we walked around for a bit. I noticed that there really were no decorations in the city for Christmas.  Barcelona hasn’t lit the lights here yet, but they’ve but up and ready to go for weeks now.  Despite our mid 60s temps, the air feels festive.  Not so in Budapest.  Again, going back to that feeling of sadness.

A few of the pretty buildings near our hotel

However, things were on the upswing with yet another fabulous meal thanks to James.  This time at the Bock Bistro (http://bockbisztropest.hu/), one of the top rated restaurants in the city and coincidentally right next to our hotel.  Even better, we don’t have to walk back later!  Now as many may know, I’m not an adventurous eater – not by any means.  In fact, I’m downright picky.  So much to Josh’s shock, I allowed myself to just let James take over – he ordered our appetizers and suggested a few of the main dishes that were traditional to the area and would be the best choices.

Now, I can’t tell you exactly what we ate.  There was a lot of pork, duck and goose, that’s about all I know.  And pretty much all of it was delicious.  Actually more than delicious.  Sometimes, kind of like with the guns, it’s nice to take a risk here and there.  I mean, sure with the guns, someone could get killed, but really, what risk was I taking by trying some new food?  None.  Lesson learned – must be a more adventurous eater and trust those around me to advise me well.  We ate and drank from 6PM til after midnight.  It was just so great catching up with James whom we hadn’t seen since a friend’s wedding several years ago.  We were sorry we didn’t get to catch up with his wife, Eva, since she was actually on her way back to the States, but we were grateful for the opportunity that our paths crossed while in Europe of all places!

With 6 hours of drinking the night before I was glad that I made our spa appointments for 10 the next morning.  Just enough time to sleep in and still grab a croissant before my massage.  Josh and I spa whenever we get the opportunity.  We miss our masseuse in the US that we saw every 6 weeks.  So when we get a chance, we take it!  And this spa did not disappoint.  The perfect start to our last day in Budapest.

After spa-ing, we headed off for lunch and to head to Buda (for those who don’t know, Buda is on one side of the river and Pest on the other) to do some sightseeing.  Being Sunday in Europe, it was not surprising that not much was open.  What was interesting though is that many restaurants are also closed on Sundays, something that is unusual here in Barcelona – everything may be closed but restaurants and cafes are always open (unless there is a massive strike!).  And on one of the main shopping streets there were a few high end stores that were open though you wouldn’t know it since there was very little foot traffic both inside and outside the city.

Some of the cool buildings as we walked along towards Buda

We got to the famous chain bridge that was the first official link for Buda and Pest to become Budapest – starving we were debating if we should wait til we crossed the bridge and get something to eat there or attempt on our side of the bridge which looked a bit limited.  Well, in the end we had no choice.  We got to the bridge as some workers were about to (notice I didn’t say they already had) close the road to the bridge.  The told us it was closed (but it wasn’t officially yet) and that we had to go down to another bridge a 30 minute walk away to cross.  It looked like they were going to do some kind of filming – movie, tv, commercial, who knows.  Josh likes to think they were doing some extra scenes for the new Die Hard since much of it was filmed here.

View of Buda from Pest
Another view
Not sure what this building was but I liked it

Decision made for us, we stopped at the first place we saw – the Four Seasons.  Lunch was good, but not spectacular, especially for the cost.  All the other restaurants we ate at were much better.  However, on the plus side, they were able to make espresso martinis and for just that I will give them 2 thumbs up 🙂

As the workers close the bridge
Some kind of childrens choir???

After lunch we headed down to the secondary bridge, the Farmers Bridge, they called it.  As it was getting close to 4, the sun was already starting to set.  There were children on the chain bridge singing – again, not sure what they were shooting but should there be a scene in Die Hard with kids singing, we were there!!!  It didn’t make sense for us to cross over into Buda unfortunately, given that the location we wanted to go to was directly across from the chain bridge, it would have meant a minimum of an extra 1 1/2 hours of walking.  It’s not that we aren’t accustomed to walking distances but an extra 1.5 hours is a lot for anyone!!

So we went down by Parliment and took some pictures down there, then took a different route back to the hotel.  I will admit, some of it felt a bit shady.  James told us there is not much crime here despite the poverty of the city, but it still felt a bit creepy as we walked along these desolate streets with storefronts closed and motion detector lights coming on as we walked by (why would you need motion detector lights if it’s safe?).  We made it back to the hotel just fine and decided that after 3 jam packed days we would just chill out at the hotel for the rest of the evening…that and most of the restaurants were closed anyways (and to be honest neither of us felt great after the Four Seasons).

View of Buda again
And again…
And one more time
Interesting memorial using shoes, many of which looked like they had been there for years.  Not 100% sure what the memorial is for but could make a few guesses…
Parliment
Different view of Parliment
Front on view
While I’m totally used to the Duck Tour boats, this one totally caught me off guard.  I wasn’t expecting a full on bus!!

In the end, it was a fantastic trip.  Well worth the 40 euro round trip Ryan Air tix.  I definitely would go back as we didn’t get to see the famous Turkish baths nor any of Buda.  Another weekend would do it! Until then we’ve still got 2013 planning to start…where to go…

Besos,
Julie

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