Budapest

So here we are again. Finding myself with more time to kill as I’m on a train, traveling through the Italian country side. Destination, Nice, France. But we’ll save this story, as it is yet to take fold. Let us jump back two weeks ago to the weekend that we traveled out of Italy and entered the landlocked country of Hungary, into it’s infamous capital, Budapest,

The countries of Hungary and Turkey  go hand in hand in my mind. I mistake them all the time. How can you not. I’m Hungary. Have some Turkey. On Thanksgiving you cook Turkey, it takes so long by the time it’s done you are so Hungary. I want to go to Turkey on American Thanksgiving and eat Turkey. When in Hungary, please arrive hungry, they have excellent food. So I’m also always confusing the major cities of Budapest with Istanbul. I don’t have any cleaver puns like the ones I just threw at you back there, but you get it? Buda— and —bul… Istan— and pest… those don’t work too well but that was my attempt at explaining. I found myself wondering the streets with Christine saying things like, “do you wanna know why I like Istanbul?” or “Is Istanbul landlocked?” its actually annoying at this point.

So we pack our bags, and hopped a super duper early (and cheap) flight from MPX on Wizz Air to the tiny little airport about 25 km outside of the city of Budapest. The flight only takes an hour and a half, so before we knew it, it’s 10:30am and we are walking off the plane onto the airports tarmac where we hop on the bus that takes us to the terminal buildings. Since it’s EU, we have no problems and we just leave the airport, no passports checked, we exchange a few hundred Euros for some Hungarian Forints (HUF) and we try and figure out where and how we need to take the bus to the metro into the city and figure out where exactly it is that we are staying. First let me tell you, one HUF right now equals .0034 Euros… and 1 Euro equals about 1.30 American Dollars. So you can probably imagine that our Euros or even Dollars go a little bit farther out there. This is the kind of country that has bills for 1,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000 and 50,000 and so on and so on. A bottle of water from a 24 hour store costs 200HUF, that converts to, .68 Euro.

We get our bearings together and find the public transportation bus which takes us to the stop that we needed in order to transfer onto the metro train into the city. The whole vibe of the outskirts of Budapest was kinda, real different. If you have ever seen Trailer Park Boys, there’s a group of delinquents that you never really meet or get to know called the bottle kids. This is a group of kids in the trailer park that whenever the main characters are talking and they yell, ‘BOTTLE KIDS”, everyone runs for cover, because, well, as you can guess, the kids hail glass bottles at anything and everything within site, while hysterically laughing, then before you know, they have disappeared. I imagine the whole suburban region of Budapest having groups of bottle kids wondering, and preying on the older generation of Hungarians doing shady shit. There is some real decent graffiti along the ways from the airport, and upon our arrival at our metro station destination, we easily followed the signs  towards the directions of downtown Pest. It’s real easy when this is the last station on the line, you can only go one way. So we go up the stairs get to the area where we were supposed to buy tickets, I think. It’s just a small machine, about the size of a pay phone (remember what those are?) and then next to it about 4 feet away is a little box, where you get your ticket stamped. Luckily for us, there was an attendant. Or I think he was an attendant. I would like to refer to him as Olaf from here on out. Christine and I are confused, a little. We look at this guy, Olaf, we look at this machine, we wonder. Does this guy work here or is he a thug? He had a short sleeve button up blue shirt on, and some blue work slacks, probably no older than 23. just standing there, probably wondering what the hell we were planning on doing. I say to Christine, “take the ticket we used on the bus, and see if it verifies in the machine”. I should probably mention that the ticket for the public transportation is basically a raffle ticket that you get at a school carnival, or even a split the pot at a fundraiser event. Very small. Very, very small. So she did, and this point Olaf talked… “What did he say?” “I have no idea”, but through hand ventures and common sense we came to, that we need to put a couple hundred HUF, I think 150, in order to ride this ride. So we did, and it spit out individual tickets. And we took these individual tickets, 4 feet over to this little machine, that we fed these tickets into, and it verified our ride. Interesting process, with Olaf here and all, getting paid to make sure that the people buy the tickets from the machines, the machines sell the tickets to the people and the other machine verifies the tickets, and the people go on on their marry way. Olaf smiles and goes back to his statuesque position of making sure shit’s getting done on his clock, and I ask him in my native tongue, ” In Hungarian, how do you say Thank You?” after 2-3 times of jumping around the question and pronunciation, we got that Kos-i-no (the very broken down way of translating) means exactly that. So we Kosino’d our way across the sky way tunnel and came down onto the train platform, where we verified that this station had scene better days. It’s not that it was unsafe, but it had definitely been there for quite some time with the bare minimal repairs done to it. Coming from Uptown, and using the Wilson stop on the red line for almost 2 trips minimum everyday for about 4 years, which was voted the grimiest station in the whole Chicago Transit System, I’d say that this place was actually just a little nicer and older than Wilson.

The train pulls up and we get on. Fashioned like New York rail cars with the walls lined with benches, and a super wide body, we found ourselves beating rush hour, or better yet, getting on before rush hour, and traveling in an empty car with only 10 other passengers spread out throughout the car. The train cars were surprisingly clean and road pretty well. We only had about 7 stops to go before we were in the downtown Pest area. Along the way, we had picked up many commuters going into the city. We got off where we were supposed to, hit an escalator bank, which spanned about 5 stories, and exited out onto the street, where we found it to be… holy hot and blaring sun!

We had rented an apartment in downtown Pest right across the street from a grand museum. We found the address where a real young, free spirited host had greeted us with amazingly strong Turk—I mean Hungarian coffee, and some sweet dessert wine. We sipped both, one after the other, while listening to her recommendations on where a young couple like ourselves should go for food, drinks, and of course to capture the history and heritage of this ancient city. I can tell you one thing, she was excited to have us, she was very knowledgeable, and sure did love to talk. We finally had a chance to get to our apartment, we unpacked, took showers and headed back out on to the streets. We stopped in a outdoor cafe, and checked out the menu. Oh cool, heavy creams.  The staff was far from being any types of friendly. Whatever, Christine ordered a salad, and I got some sort of chicken sandwich. We both ordered some beer and waited for the food to arrive, as we were famished. We looked around at some of the other patrons dishes and it looked like they were really taking in a heavy meal for lunch. Thats how I like to party, note taken. Later we find out that Hungarians eat a dinner type meal for lunch, and eat a lighter meal for dinner. Noted. The food came, and it was just alright. Chicken was grilled and served on a heavy baguette, with lettuce and tomato and smothered in a heavy bland cream, served with a salad of greens, topped with a dressing of heavy cream. I hate sour cream, so you can imagine my excitement when it was just a bland cream. Christine’s salad wasn’t anything special, I don’t recall what it was that’s how exciting it was. We finished our brews and paid our bill and Kosinoed our way outta there, taking off on foot again, in a general direction of where the infamous bridges were along the Danyub River. We found some old churches, zigzagged  in and out of some little streets, and eventually came across one of the few “Ruins Bars”, a famous type of bar in Pest. Ruins Bars are bars, that are made in the buildings that “kinda” survived some world war II bombings, and converted into bars. The structure remains the same, I don’t know what kind of inspection they run through, but basically the owners bring in a whole lot of cool and kitschy shit, and install a bunch of bars and seats, a few misting machines, and boom – the most amazing bar scenario you can find yourself in. We had an amazing apricot flavored beer called Kronenburg, I highly suggest seeking it out and finding it.

We took off from the Ruins bars, and that general area, and we headed back over to the waterfront area, where we found a hustle and bustle of a beer fest event going on, walked through it, found a live polka band doing their thing, and into what I can only describe as a millennium park/navy pier type of set up. There was a giant Ferris wheel, there were groups of locals hanging out, there was a disgusting pool which had been closed, but now just filled with muck, which was in front of this arena type setting with umbrellas and seating where people where sunbathing and drinking. Around this area you’ll find a lot of historic statues and cool interactive art installations. They also do a Sunday street market where local designers and retailers will sell their homemade goods. We also stopped at an outdoor cafe, Cafe Alabi, had a beer each, and ordered a light snack to hold us over until dinner, which surprisingly was… Guacamole and chips. outdoor cafe was in a great location, the staff was super friendly, and the chips, I’m pretty sure were Doritos. I loved Doritos. The guac was alright but I really didn’t expect some bomb-ass guac in the heart of Hungary.

After walking around endlessly, taking photos, sweating, and just flat out exploring, we headed back to the apartment were we washed off, got our bearings together, and headed out for our 9pm dinner reservation at Trattoria Pomo D’Oro, which had come highly recommended and set up for us from Christine’s classmate Francesco, who knew the owner. He also mentioned that the owner was a former TV personality, and that he was fairly famous in the Hungarian entertainment scene. I mean, coming from Italy, what would normal Italians do… Go to an Italian restaurant of course, I mean forget about the Hungarian cuisine that we have yet to truly taste. But we made no mistake here. This restaurant actually had some of the best Italian food I’ve had since being in Milan. We started with an order of mussels in the tomato sauce. Prior to the mussels arriving at our table, one of the 6 waiters we had, politely brought us a bread basket and two adult bibs. I laughed and jokingly put it on for a laugh from Christine… and then took it off. The mussels had arrived, and it was such a grand spectacle. We had only ordered one order for us to share as an appetizer, but they brought out two plates, and insisted that they split it into two for our sakes. I cannot even imagine one individual eating all of these mussels as a personal appetizer, the amount was just so much. We ate the mussels and stupidly, I didn’t listen to the waiter and joked about the bibs, after my tenth or so, I look down and there are just a few little spots of mussel juice specked on my shirt. No big deal, it’ll evaporate, no one will notice and I’ll shout it out when I get home or use a tide stick. Too soon to be thinking like that. I pry open a little mussel and BLAM-OH, this little fucker was carrying its whole shells mass in tomato juice and oil and when I pried it open, it slipped outta my fork and forefinger pinch and just SPA-RAYED the front of my shirt. Christine was losing it. My whole shirt was just streaked with lines and spots of fresh mussel juice. I was sweating, nervous, here we are in this real nice restaurant, shirt just completely annihilated. Luckily it was a dark lit situation, and I was wearing a dark green button up collared shirt, but oh man. Any chance of me going to the rest room, or even going out for a drink after was out of the picture. I even asked Christine if she can just take the whole vat of mussel juice and immerse my shirt into it so that it would all match… she said she would, but it was only half way through the appetizer for cripes sake. She also said she can hardly notice, while laughing, and that it can pass as a cool Affliction shirt, if there is such a thing. We got over the fact that I was musty with mussel juice, and tried to finish our plates. She had little luck, but me being a lover to the mussels and with a bigger appetite, I was able to finish her 3 that she claimed to not have room for. After the waiter took away our plate of shells and empty dishes, I can smell nothing but the mussels lingering off of my chest, it was amazing and horrible at the same time.

Our main dishes arrive and both were absolutely stunning, Risotto for the misses, and some beef tenderloin medallions wrapped in prosciutto for myself. Delish. After dinner, the owner came out and greeted us. He claimed to be busy, and drinking too much. Between a bachelor party, and a famous television actor celebrating something or another in the back private room, he was getting up there, and wanted to make sure that we were enjoying ourselves and our food. Grazie. We wrapped up and were both on our last legs, after being up since about 3 or 4 am, to catch our early flight to the airport, we had both wanted to retire back to the apartment and sleep. But I got a second wind on our way home, after seeing the the nightlife and people of all ages, in the piazzas. They were out in full force. Messed up shirt or not, I thought it might have been a good idea to go out and see what the nightlife was like on a Saturday in downtown Pest. Christine, eyes barley being able to open, and after some convincing,  agreed that we should, but only after we stop back at the apartment, so that she can use the restroom, and I can change my shirt. She had ulterior motives the whole time. We got in, we both did our thing, and she somehow convinced me that we had been up for way too long, and it was my fault for not letting her get an after dinner cafe. Eh, whatever, we crashed out hard, and was thankful we didn’t go out so that we were 100% for the next full day of exploration.

The next day we woke up, bright and early, stopped again at Alabi Cafe for some Hungarian Eggs, which is simply scrambled eggs with Paprika and tomato, and some croquette, which is some sort of breaded breakfast paddy with salmon, and the most amazing mango smoothie I’ve ever had in my life. We felt revitalized and ready to own this city and take it all in. We started down a street which was known for having all of Pest’s finest and oldest mansions.—

—Wait a minute, let me back track. I keep referring to Budapest as Pest throughout this story up to this point. A little background of Budapest, if you don’t already know, is that Buda and Pest are two separate entities that make up Budapest. Buda is one side of the Danube River where in the early days, all amazing parks, castles and palaces are located, and Pest is the side of the river where all the everyday people of society lived. So Buda on one side, Pest on the other. Now you know.

So we were in Pest, walking down the streets of some of the oldest and finest mansions. This was a long street that would eventually take us by an opera house, the terror museum, and land us in a grand piazza. Our destination was an older, smaller castle, and the infamous bathhouse, one which we were told is the most grandest and that we must go to. Along the way we did stop in and visit the Terror House. When hearing about the Terror House, one would think that it is of the sorts of a place that you would find in the Wisconsin Dells, like a Riplys Believe it or Not, or that there would be torture devices that were so unbelievably creative that they could only have been conjured up or mirrored from the Spanish Inquisition. But no. This Terror House was a house turned museum. The house was over taken and occupied by the Nazi’s and the fascists group Arrow Cross, and was used as a headquarters for their socialist takeover of Hungary. In it you will find four floors of actual footage, uniforms, memorabilia and recreations of some of the hardships and terror that WWII and holocaust victims had to go through. In the basement of the building, they take you into the holding cells of their prisoners of war and you can see that this was no luxurious ride for them. Many peoples lives ended in that building, it is quite terrifying.

We proceeded down the street and ended up in the Piazza took some photos, and headed over to the smaller castle. I imagine that this was the house of a count, It was a castle, but not as grand and majestic as the one on the side of Buda. it was actually kinda gross, because this castle, no matter how many tourists were surrounding it, seemed to be a good place for the homeless and drunk to pass out all over and within the picturesque locations. The stench over ran a statue that I was trying to photograph, only to reveal that about 20 feet behind the statue and within the bushes and arches, there was a pack of homeless dudes, straight up, passed out. This is like 2pm, snoozing. Not even fazed by the hustle and bustle of the tourists flocking around. and I’m pretty sure they were using the entrance to to the gift shop as their personal bathroom because that stunk of urine like you wouldn’t believe.

So we left there. We continued to walk and take pictures, stopped and drank some spritzes and ate a simple ham sandwich, and headed over to the Bathe-house. We had pre-purchased our tickets so we flew right past the line, did a lap around on foot and debated on if we were going to get in. Was it gross? No, it was actually very beautiful… What about all these weird Hungarian people, just flaunting it? Well they’re still alive and they do this all the time. Was it clean? Do they use chlorine? The water was crystal clear blue, there were small fountains through these ginormous pools, signage everywhere was posted on how you need to rinse your body before entering the pools, and the pools water is getting fed from one of the many natural hot springs in the surrounding area. And fuck it, we’re in Hungary. When’s the next time we can say we kicked it at a Hungarian bathhouse. So we stripped down to our swim suits, found a place for our towels, rinsed off at one of the many showers, and waded into the nicest most relaxing feeling water I’ve ever submerged myself into. Here we are, surrounded by these amazingly old and well maintained buildings, wading through this water which was just at such a perfect temperature, being Hungarian for the day, and walking into the man made whirlpool with about forty other Hungarians laughing and trying to keep afloat as this tide whips you around in a circle. What a time to realize you are alive.

So after exploring the pools, and walking around the grounds a little more, we went over to the bar, ordered a couple drinks, and found a nice table to sit back and enjoy before calling it a day at the bathes. We weren’t really expecting to stay the whole day, just to see what it was about, and give it a try. I was sitting at our bench, Christine had gone to the rest room, and I was smoking a cigarette, when a small Englishmen came up to me asking me if he can buy four cigarettes from me for five hundred HUF. Now- we’re traveling, we have a small budget, as anyone would know when they travel. Also if your a smoker and you want a cigarette, yes, I would gladly give you one for free. But four? Yes, I will gladly take your HUF. It’s like 3 Euros. So we gladly make the transaction, he explains he’s English and he seams already, kinda bombed, been drinking a bit, i explained that I was here with my girlfriend and we were traveling, we parted ways and that was that.

We left the bathhouses, walking around the parameter where we found an older looking, not as crazy nor as large to what we have scattered around the states, amusement park. Unimpressed, we walked past the smaller castle we walked through before, took some pictures by the lagoon and decided we would take some side streets in the general direction of where we were staying, with the plan to stop back at that ruins bars, checking into whatever looked appealing along the way. We walked, walked and walked, and came across a Starbucks where Christine almost lost her mind. I tried to convince her that she comes from a country that kills it in coffee and we are in a city that has some of the bomb-est coffee there is, and she wants to give in and go to Starbucks? She misses it, I understand, so I do what a good boyfriend does and I give in. She deserves it. I even got myself one of the familiar iced coffee drinks that I used to indulge in. Ehhh, not so bad, but not really all that great. We walked some more, and we came across a ruins bar which we hadn’t been to yet, so we stopped in, had a beer. It was OK. We liked the first one we were at, because they had the Kronenburg apricot beer. so we set off from there, more wondering, and we came upon, the Ruins Bar! At last we found it. At about this time, it was probably 7pm, and we found ourselves a little table, and the place was significantly busier this time on a Sunday. I can only imagine what it’s going to be like at 10p or 11p, or even on a Saturday night. we stayed there, drank beers, split a slice of bar pizza, and all of a sudden, a little bald englishman walks up and asks me if he can borrow my lighter. I look up and its the same little wanker from the bathhouse, we both go, “eyyyyyyy” point to each other, and start laughing. I say of course, and ask him if he wants to sell me 4 cigarettes for 500 Huf, for I am out. So we complete the whole same transaction, in reverse, and cracking up about it the whole time. I invite him to come hang out at our table, but explains that he’s actually there for his mates bachelor party and he’s the best man, so he has to go hang with them, but he’ll stop back over to say hi. Deal. He ends up stopping by every time he’s going to and from the bar, with one of his different mates, explaining the same story, to each of them, and they continue to tell us that we’re a top couple, I’m a top geezer, and Christine is a top “flatdick”… A funny one out of the bunch was a chap named Clark, who had to fill me in on what it was to call someone a Knob. I thought it meant something totally different, but it means probably what your thinking. Well, this bachelor party was here for a whole week, apparently, Budapest has been becoming a top holiday destination for English because of how far their british pound goes and the amazing weather and nightlife that it offers. Their crew was something stupid like 14 people, ranging from the ages 30-60. They’re from Manchester where having a bald head and bad teeth is quite the style. We drank and joked with them for a while, they lost the bachelor, then they found him, then they lost him again, and then they invited us to some other bar or strip club, I’m unsure of what, but we declined, explaining that we needed to get back to our apartment for some rest and some dinner. So we shook hands, hugged it out and parted our ways. Christine and I stopped and got some Gyros, which was delicious and called it a night.

The next morning, a slight hangover, Christine and I are moving a little slower. We freshened up, drank some of the deliciously strong Hungarian coffee and made our way on foot in the direction of the “market”, the river, and the palace. First stop was the market. We were told that in this market we would find some of the most authentic and reasonably priced Hungarian food around. We wandered around the first floor of this indoor market, taking in all that there is of Hungary. A whole lot of fresh cured meats, fresh veggies and fruits, raw meats and cheeses. We headed up to the second floor where the actual food was being made, with an appetite to be reckoned with, we stared and walked by all of the food that was being cooked, and freshly cooked food on display behind plexiglass. Christine ordered some kind of sausage in a big doughy croissant served with mustard and I ordered the cabbage roll. The cabbage roll reminded me of Christine’s family’s Easter celebration by her aunts house, what they would refer to as “pigs in a blanket”. This Hungarian cabbage roll was the bomb, and about the size of a burrito I would order from late night Mexican joints in the US. Ground beef, sour crout and rice, all tightly wrapped in cabbage leaves and slow cooked in a light tomato broth. No joking around. They topped it with heavy cream and a dash of pepper sauce. Christine’s sausage croissant thing was a little tough to eat, so we split what we both ordered, while making a new friend, Susan. She was an older woman, maybe in her early fifties, and explained how she had just moved to Budapest from Canada. Her husband’s company had transferred locations, apparently for the amazing tax benefits of setting up shop outside of Budapest (close to no taxes), and they were in the process of finding apartments. He was at work for the day, so she was wondering around, doing the same as we were, checking out the city. She was a really nice woman, with some great suggestions on where to go and what to check out for our last full day in Budapest. She too was eating the Cabbage Roll, all on her own, and it was taking her a while.

We parted ways, and headed over to the river and walked all the way down to the Chain Bridge. This is Hungary’s oldest bridge, one of eight, that takes you from the Pest side to the Buda side. As soon as you cross this bridge, you are at the entry point of the palace. You can take the long way, which winds back and forth along the side of the hill, or you can take the stairs… or you can take the tram. We took the stairs and I thought Christine was going to die. Usually she’s full of spunk and energy, but today, as I mentioned earlier, we were both moving rather slowly.

Alas we made it to the top of the hill/mountain and roamed around, taking in the view. In front of the palace, there are two guards which resembled nutcrackers, and we got the chance to see the changing of the guards take place. Truthfully, they weren’t really that on point, saw some flaws in their synced movements and actually saw them bump guns, causing one of the guards to almost drop his rifle. Anyways, we kept meandering throughout this hilltop village, came across a church, took in some amazing views of both Buda and Pest and were swarmed by a bounty of Asian tourists. The sky was getting dark, the day was getting late, our hunger was striking again, so we decided to bail. Only this time I lead Christine and I down the long way down, zigzagging up and down the road, that was the alternative path of us taking the stairs.

Once on flat land we took the opposite side of the river, passing by at least three of the bridges, and back across the Elizabeth bridge, landing us right in front of the market that we started out at. And it was our goal to get back here to eat our final meal in Budapest. We got in, about 15 minutes before the market was set to close, and already having the lay of the land, we darted up the stairs, went to the rest room to wash up and hit the food market with a game plan to stuff our faces. I went round two with the cabbage roll, this time with a side of beef goulash. Yummo. Nothing like some slow cooked beef stew to accompany a giant loaf of cabbage wrapped beef. Christine came back to the table with a Lángos, which is a flat doughy food, almost  like a fluffy personal pizza, but slathered with cream and dill. This was super sloppy, but so good. As we always do, we took turns trading plates back and fourth so that we can enjoy and try both dishes. We inhaled the food while watching all the shops close down for the evening. I’m pretty sure we were the last people in the market by the time we were done. We got up and joined the herd of people flowing towards the exits. We headed back to the apartment, washed up, and began to pack. Our flight out the next morning was at 630, so we needed to get some rest and get a cab queued up for a 4:30am pick-up time.

The final leg of this journey finds us in the cab going to the airport, with a cabdriver, who I thought kept nodding off with his eyes open, but he made all the right turns, didn’t scare us for a second and kept up with the same speed as the rest of the cars. At the airport, we breezed through security, piled out onto the tarmac, loaded into the plane in a timely manner, and landed safely in Milano. Upon landing, I checked the Facebook and found out that the Chicago Blackhawks had won the Stanley Cup. Oh what a year for Chicago Hockey, and we are both sad not to be in our home city for the celebrations. But hey, we were in Budapest, and I’m sure it won’t be the last time the hawks win the Stanley Cup.