Why did we go to Budapest? Cheap tickets, and we have never been there. And a passport is required. (Any ticket that requires a passport is a good ticket to Jenny.)
Jenny sometimes conjures a philosophical reason (that proved true) that it would be nice to visit a historic city that is rebuilding itself before it was finished, and all the history was hidden under modern construction.
I would like to say the tickets cost $438 each, but you do have to add the taxes... $305.40, or 41% of the total cost of $743!
The trip from Austin to Dallas was traditional...packed flight, uneventful
The layover in Dallas was fine. Spent most of it working on a CSC conversion project - some code that I had written the day before was being tested (it worked)
From Dallas to Zurich, the American Airlines flight was wonderful. The 767 airplane was practically empty, so everyone had a row to sleep. There is only one more flight scheduled on that route before it will be (was) discontinued.
The 2 hour layover in Zurich was ok. Nice airport, smaller than most. No Admiral's club. Free internet service that only told you about the airport and connected you to the "paid" internet service of your choice. Yuck
The flight from Zurich to Budapest was unbelieveable. 1 1/2 hours on Malev airlines (Hungarian national), but in that time they provided a hot sandwich meal, with free beverages including wine, and a separate coffee course. Tough flying on such a third world airline. Jenny saw the alps for the first time.
Scary thought - while we were at the airport, Jenny saw an airplane from Macedonian Airlines. Now her quest is to find where Macedonia is, and perhaps visit there! (Answer, North of Greece)
The trip from the airport to the hotel was a nightmare. 10 miles (18 km) and it took over 1 1/2 hours, not counting the 20 minute wait for departure. The airport shuttle bus circled the train station until they surrendered...well, until the driver found the hotel on a side street where he had to drop someone. Meantime I was getting really sick, because I knew our hotel was near the train station, I hadn't seen our hotel, but there was no way I wanted to stay in that part of town. At one point the driver parked the bus in the middle of the street, hopped out, and removed the outside mirrors so he could get through. A short time later a truck backed into the side of the bus, trying to get out of our way. Only later did Jenny tell me that our hotel was at a different train station. 45 minutes later we got to our hotel, the West End Hilton.
Of course the room wasn't ready, so we sat in the lobby for twice as we were led to believe. (Someday I will learn that rooms that aren't ready are never ready quickly, but hope springs eternal.) When we did get to our room, it was very nice, and after a brief nap, walked until we dropped.
What is the building in the picture at the left, from a window near our room? Look at the picture on the right... it is the West End train station, with the "dome" at the extreme right. Don't all train stations look like a cathedral?
Do you speak Hungarian?
WestEnd is the train station. WestEnd is the specific Hilton Hotel. And WestEnd is a shopping center that connects them. Merely 400 stores on 4 floors, plus an outdoor ice skating rink that we could see from our hotel room (in use evenings despite weather between 40 and 60 degrees)
The current style in shoes is what we called "elf" shoes. Fancy ladies shoes had toes that were several inches longer than "necessary". Some men's shoes were an extra inch or two long, but not usually as pointed. I can't imagine driving a car with these shoes, especially with my feet (which barely fit under the dash in normal shoes).
There was a huge food court on the lower level of the shopping center (Burger King was there as well as everywhere else). But on the upper level, there was a TGI Fridays (we wouldn't consider that in Budapest) and a local cafe (we later found it was a chain) called Leroys. (Gee, a native word we could pronounce). In fact there was Leroy's sushi bar (no thanks), and Leroy's cafe. Jenny was looking for a native restaurant, but only one that had an English menu. Charlie saw Hungarian at the top of each offering, and French at the bottom, and reminded Jenny of the desire for an English menu. Jenny rattled off several items... Charlie was amazed at her prowess with menu French (because Hungarian doesn't look like any language you have ever seen). Jenny howled, then admitted that there were three languages - Charlie had missed the English in the middle of the tri-language menu. We had a very nice dinner, and headed to bed.
The hotel offers high speed internet connections. They didn't mention that you had to buy the installation of their system to use it. About $46.87 per day at the hotel exchange rate. So we used a dial-up connection, with phone charges of only about 40 cents per minute. No pictures will be in our emails from Hungary!
Day 2 dawned cool (make that cold) and overcast, but relatively dry. Jenny announced a 730 start (just after midnight Austin time), so we managed to get out of bed before 8, and were glad for the hotel buffet.
This is truly an international hotel, with the orientals here to eat fruit (when a single strawberry is worth dollars at home, and a melon is a $50 gift, the airfare to a hotel with a western buffet is cheap). But there was the usual lettuce salad and dead fish for the oriental breakfast, the cold cuts and cheese for the Europeans, broiled tomatoes and sausage for the British, scrambled eggs and bacon for the Americans, and coffee like they serve in Australia (small cups, and waiters surprised if you want more).
We took the subway to the Museum of Applied Arts... textiles and furniture - perhaps 4,000 pieces of furniture in the permanent collection, so we allowed the entire day. An hour or so later we had seen all of the maybe 40 pieces that were on display. Luckily Jenny had done ample research so we set out across the city. An antique shop had far more (and more interesting) pieces than the museum (Jenny pointed out that one of the pieces had 4 legs one way, and the fifth leg upside down - but she was shocked when I pointed that out to the shopkeepers)
We are starting to learn some Hungarian... the secret is to add as many letters as possible, especially "z", and if you are unsure throw in an extra "i". For example, see the street sign to Saint Steven's Bascilica (the patron saint of Hungary). It reads "Szt. István Bazilika" with an arrow one direction. In the other direction was a Synagogue - the sign read "Zsinagóga"
One of Jenny's favorite travel activities is exploring a grocery store. Ketchup and mustard in the supermarket look like (and are priced like) those at home. Some bottles of domestic wine in the grocery store are less expensive than the ketchup. And most of the upscale wine costs less than two bottles of ketchup (we found the domestic wines quite good). If you stop at a sidewalk cafe, the coffee, wine, beer, cokes, and bottled water are all about the same price. Well, not really. The Avian water costs more. The same coffee shops will also sell you a scotch or an imported Jim Beam whiskey (expensive). Now, this is my kind of country.
The central market was amazing. Three stories of individual market stands and restaurants, in a beautiful, clean, architecturally interesting, historical building, with a musician (okay, an electric accordian) playing in the central courtyard. Not the open air and questionably clean places we have seen in many countries. And in one of the market stalls there was hot and cold wine on tap, served in glass tumblers (like beer) for just over a dollar per glass.
Jenny got a kick out of the variety of bread available. Note the size of the loaves of bread on the top shelf... well over a foot across, and close to a foot thick.
During our walk, I was interested in the Burger King "Hot Texas Whopper" since I have never seen one in Texas. Jenny was vigorously rejecting those in favor of a local establishment (of course) for an afternoon coffee/beer. Some other tourists recognized her language and accent, and we had a delightful talk with two couples from the states, one from Dallas. They had become travel agents to get access to information and discounts, and suggested Jenny do likewise. The seeds have been planted for the next career.
Do you speak English?
Although there were almost no signs in English, we had no problem at all with the language (other than trying to remember an unfamiliar sounding address long enough to find it on a map). All the young people have studied English extensively - anyone who has finished high school in the last 10 years speaks absolutely fluent American English, with no accent (or as someone said, with MTV accent). Hungary is joining the European Union, and English is the standard language. It is a shame English isn't accepted as the standard language in this country!
Older or less educated people aren't as fluent. The ticket seller in the train station simply said "English" when we asked a question, and instantly another person appeared to help. Jenny asked a group of policemen why there was a group of policemen - three of them instantly looked to the fourth to be their spokesman. He was functional, but seemed not as well educated as the waiters.
We made it to Liszt terrace (as in the composer) for dinner - we would have called it restaurant row. After reading menus on the outside of dozens of restaurants, Jenny picked Menza, and we got a table (as long as we promised to be out in 2 hours so the table would be available for a later reservation). She kept fussing about how it seemed familiar until she checked her notes... it was the top of her list of restaurants to seek out. We talked to a local at the next table towards the end of dinner, and he was surprised how we found it and got in. It was really good, and not very expensive (Cocktails, appetizers, entrees, a bottle of wine, and no room for desert, with white linen service, for under $70). The reviews included comments about how they had taken the boring Soviet architecture and style and made it elegant.
Today we crossed the river. For those not familiar with the excruciating details of history, Buda and Pest were separate cities, on opposite sides of the Danube river, and only after bridge technology became routine did the two cities merge into BudaPest. Okay, there were three cities, Obuda was the third, but Jenny hasn't taken me there yet, nor explained how there could be three sides to a river.
We bought a day pass on public transit. Which is a good thing. It is largely an honor system, since you buy ticket(s) and punch one yourself as you enter - no turnstiles. We haven't figured out when one needs to punch, and when they should not punch, your ticket for transfers. Yesterday we didn't see any transit inspectors. Today there were ticket inspectors on practically every vehicle and entrance. And at practically every trolley stop, someone was arrested and taken off the trolley for not having done the tickets right. Jenny's research said "don't try to beat the system." Boy was she right. With unlimited rides on anything for $7 per day, it is cheap enough to not be worth trying to beat the system, but still, at practically every stop, someone was arrested. The down side of an all day transit pass is that Jenny can get us to more areas from which we need to walk. Boy was I stiff!
The Pest side of the river, where our hotel is located, is flat. The Buda side of the river is hilly. VERY hilly. So hilly that one of the ways to get up the hill is a Funicular - a cable car on rails that carries passengers up the slope. A product dating to the late 1800s, the only other one I have seen before is in Dubuque, Iowa, where the replacement to the earlier "elevator" was brought back from the 1893 world expo in Chicago.
Buda has a fortress, church, and settlement on the top of the biggest hill. In fact, there are two Hilton hotels in Buda Pest. One in each. Jenny's research had discovered that the Hilton in Buda (next to the major church, on top of the mountain) had lousy public transportation. The Hilton in Pest (West End) has so much public transit that it is hard to find the hotel (train station with 20 tracks, subway, trolley, busses. Jenny wins this one for choosing the right hotel, the West End Hilton, although we enjoyed a beer in the Buda Hilton.
The church is behind the monument/fountain in the picture at the left, and directly next to the Buda Hilton Hotel (with the modern vertical architecture). Hotel guests have to drive through the church construction site to get into the underground Hilton garage. We called it the church of St. Hilton but it was also known as "St. Mathias" - spelled many different ways - or "The church of our Lady of the castle in Buda".
The church is undergoing a major renovation. But it almost didn't survive a restoration a century ago. The steel support straps are destroying the stone they were supposed to support. The replacement tiles on the roof had worn away, and the wood under the roof tiles was rotting. The restored wall paintings didn't survive, but obliterated the originals.
An unbelieveably high-tech analysis seems to have found what softness in the foundation had created every crack, and where every stone was crumbling, and how the air inside was being contaminated by the breathing of a large number of visitors, which in turn was damaging the building. Scaffolding encompases much of the church, the foundation is being fortified, any imperfect stones are being replaced, and we watched as the glazed ceramic roof tiles were being replaced. Note that the roofers in the picture on the right are also in the picture on the left! I want a "pass" the next time Jenny fusses about me working on our roof - those boys were high, and the roof was closer to vertical than any other angle.
We did tour the church, including the museum where the retired WalMart greeters go to guard the Hungary crown jewels. There were enough saint's relics there to conduct a gross anatomy class, although we weren't sure which parts were from who, since it was all in Hungarian. The museum in the church also included a centuries-old original hand lettered missal with engraved picture.
St. Mathias survived WW II but another church, just a couple blocks away, was reduced to an entryway, the remains of a window at the far end, and the rubble of the foundation.
We came down the mountain and took the subway to Heros park, with statues of the archangel Gabriel, with the leaders of the 7 tribes who settled here, plus giant statues of the succession of kings. (We didn't get a good picture at night, but look at the transit pass above for a great picture.) Most periods had a couple of kings, then a century or two when others had conquered the country, then a couple more kings, etc. American history was bad enough... I'm sure glad I didn't have to go through the many, many periods of conquest and independence and changing borders that made Hungary, at times, one of the largest countries in Europe. (Currently the country is governed by a prime minister, is moving to capitalism, and is joining the European Union.)
Dinner was the highlight, as usual, at one of the alternate restaurants on Liszt terrace. We chose native favorites... duck breast with paprika sauce, Chicken with mushrooms and Paprika, etc. Paprika to me has always been a red powder. Here it is a pepper, more common than Jalapeno peppers in Texas. I finally can report that the yellow paprika (bought by the natives in large grocery bags full) taste much like green bell peppers. I have only had the red paprika in sauce...nice flavor, not particularly hot. Maybe a little like the red paprika powder (duh).
We are very excited about the special annual event they are having tonight. An extra hour sleep as they go off "summer" time (daylight savings time). We won't waste the hour with frivilous partying.
Day 4 dawned bright and cloudy, as each day here. One of the natives we met was upset about the weather... said he couldn't remember any period that had as many rainy days in a row. Of course, their idea of heavy rain is 1/4 inch per day, (not the Texas usual inches per hour) so we haven't bothered with the umbrella yet. It is cool, fall weather, with the leaves just changing and starting to fall.
We received a notice from the hotel reminding us that daylight savings time was over, the time on the TV would automatically reset, and the maid had changed the time on our clock. Nice. High tech clock.... Big numbers for the current time, small numbers for the time of the alarm. 5 preset radio stations. So we set the clock to buzz at 730 am. At 630 the alarm rang. We haven't figured out why. Maybe it was because it was 730 daylight savings time and the clock didn't notice it had been changed. Batting the clock to shut off the buzzer only turned on the radio. Hitting it again made the digits brighter on the clock, then dimmer, but didn't shut off the noise. It takes eyeglasses and careful study to shut off the damn clock. Only Jenny got back to sleep for the last hour.
Our plan took us to the Szt. István Bazilika (if you remember the previous chapters, you know that it is St. Steven's Basilica) in time for the 10 o'clock mass. What Jenny's research hadn't reported, is that it would be a solemn high mass (bells, smells, and music) with the Bishop celebrating, at least 10 other sacred ministers, 30 knights in the procession (with their flags, capes, crosses, and other regalia), numerous nuns or lady knights or whatever their uniform signified, organ, orchestra, and choir. Musically it was great, even though we didn't understand a word. And by the time we left mass, tourists had to buy an expensive ticket to see the basilica. Note to tour guides: An hour long concert interrupted with brief prayers gets you free admission and access to the whole church, not just the back where the unclean tourists are held. St. Steven's right hand is on display in a separate chapel, not open until 1:30, but neither of us felt any desire to stay to visit saintly relics.
In an ecumenical move, we went from mass to the Pest Zsinagóga (remember...Synagogue). Of course, the fact that it was closed to tourists on Saturday and open Sunday has nothing to do with our ecumenical fervor. Jenny was engrossed with the tile on the outside of the building.
There was a large Jewish community in Budapest, in the area surrounding this huge synagogue, until the Nazi invasion. The Nazis took over the synagogue (located between two train stations) as the headquarters for the "deportation" of all the Jews... to Auschwitz - Birkenu - about a half million of them from Budapest. As the Russians liberated Budapest from the Nazis, the Nazis killed thousands more, buried in a mass grave next to the Synagogue. The damage to the synagogue was so great that the Hungarian government gave $12 million, supplemented by worldwide gifts, to rebuild the synagogue, as it was a century ago. Synagogues are not supposed to be next to a cemetery, and Jewish cemeteries are never moved, so the orthodox Jews wanted to tear the synagogue down and move it. The less conservative Jews stayed, and the orthodox went elsewhere.
The synagogue is a large gothic building that looks much like a church - even two pulpits part way down the narthex, and a huge pipe organ (they say the architect wasn't Jewish and didn't check the requirements and normal configurations). It is often used for concerts, and we stayed for the rehearsal of that night's concert with organ, brass, and percussion. Among the pieces, the theme from Star Wars, played by a noted organist, in a facility with outstanding acoustics!
After the tour of the Synagogue, we went outside to several memorials. One was a stainless-steel willow tree, with names on the leaves of which symbolize a tiny fraction of the Hungarian Jews killed in the camps, and roman numerals as grave numbers. If you look at the tree upside down, it has the seven branches of the minora. Very graphic. There was also an outside stained glass sculpture filled with symbolism.
We walked through the Jewish "Ghetto" after the tour, but it had been overrun by the gentiles - no longer interesting, with few Hebrew signs, and lots of commercial construction. So we rode trolleys through the historic districts.
We approached Margarite Island, a city park similar to Central Park (but an island in the Danube, not contaminated with buildings like that little park in New York) . When Jenny saw a bus leaving, headed for our hotel, she wimped out and needed a nap, so as the more mature person, I used the opportunity to document the first part of that day's activites.
For dinner we returned to the area of the Bascilica.... yah Bazilika. On the first night we ate at a Leroy Cafe in the shopping mall attached to our hotel and the train station. Noisy but great food from an extensive menu, at reasonable prices. After church today we saw a smaller, quieter Leroy Cafe near the Bascilica, so that is where we returned (with our "all day" transit passes). Two appetizers, two entrees (great), two desserts (to die for), bottled water ($ouch), a bottle of good wine, and tip, with linen tablecloths and "professional" service, for about $90. It is worth coming back here just to eat!
Our flight from Budapest to Frankfurt on Malev (whee) leaves at 745 am, which means we can leave the hotel (if we don't have the adventure of the airport bus) at 6 am. Which means we can get up at 5 am. Which is 11 pm Sunday night in Austin (yuk).
Since it was too early to eat breakfast at the hotel, but they had already charged us for breakfast, they offered a "bag" meal. Now these folks know how to eat... The desk clerk picked a shopping bag of food from a cart ... for each of us! A couple meat and cheese hoagies for each of us, multiple croissants with butter, jam, and honey. Bottled water. Yogurt. Fruit. Hot coffee in the lobby. etc.
We took a taxi to the airport. Wonderfully direct, simple, and fast. A bargain at $40 for a half hour ride instead of a 2 hour adventure on a $22 airport Minibus. A Mercedes Benz taxi, of course.
The flight from Budapest to Frankfurt was a pleasure... a 737 this time, with similar meal service (but no wine for breakfast).
A tight connection in Frankfurt. Much of the airport is being rebuilt, so a long hike through construction areas, and pass through security again.
The American Airlines flight from Frankfurt to Dallas was on a 777 (big) that was oversold until a team of 10 people didn't show up. Ten empty seats among 300 or so still makes it a jam packed plane. A couple of the flight attendants had apparently retired from the ranks of WalMart greeters, but were nice... as long as someone gave the carts a push to get them moving up the aisle.
The Dallas layover was brief, but confusing. We arrived in terminal D and went to the Admiral's club briefly, then took the train to Terminal C (the gate was a long walk from the train), only to find that the gate had been changed to Terminal B (another long walk).
The flight to Austin was only 8 minutes late departing, and basically arrived on time, and the checked suitcase made it in short order. A kind neighbor met us, with refreshments and a ride. Home at last, life is good!
Now is the next trip to Berlin, St. Petersburg, Macedonia, or ....
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