Blog #24 - Feeling Hungary Yet?

Last we left you we were mid-air from Naples to Budapest, via the previously unknown to us “Wizz” Air.  It was a short flight that didn’t give us much time to get over the fact that we were leaving the most amazing food land on earth.  (You can bet when we left Italy, we didn’t leave Hung(a)ry …wah wah… sorry, we couldn’t resist).

We landed in Budapest on time, jumped directly into a taxi, and headed straight to our accommodation for the week, an apartment courtesy of Airbnb (www.airbnb.com).  

After being able to function in Italy (even in Rome!), speaking the local language, it was a bit of a shock to again be in a country where we knew literally none of the language.  Our taxi driver spoke only a little English, however he managed to teach us a few Hungarian words before taking a call from a very funny friend and/or professional comedian that went on until he dropped us off.  His laugh was truly contagious.  

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Giddy or not, the driver dropped us right in front of our beautiful Baroque apartment for the week, right in the centre of Budapest!  We had picked the perfect location for the week of exploring right across from the famous Synagogue.  Super score!

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Our hosts Patricia and Matteo were there on time, waiting for us to give us the key, and presto, we were now officially in Eastern Europe, with our own awesome lofty apartment and our own kitchen!  We would spend many mornings of the coming week buying groceries in the Central Market (which is just like St. Lawrence Market in Toronto).  

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It reaffirms one’s faith in humankind when you find an apartment on the internet, and when you show up, it’s better than the photos!  It was “flash as a rat with a gold tooth” (this is an Aussie expression we have been dying to use!  :)

But back to Budapest, and more specifically Pest, the east side where we were staying – it is a magical, beautiful city filled with amazing architecture and the smell of deep fry dough everywhere.  

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The first thing we noticed was that our area (District V) was intensely driven by the cafe and bar culture.  There must have been a baby boom in the 80's and 90's because there were zillions of twenty-something’s everywhere.  Everyone seemed to be enjoying the beer, conversation, and music at all hours of the day.  We had arrived in a young and hip city.

Our second notable observation was the awesome public transport system.  

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Did you know that Budapest was the first city in Europe to build a subway?  It is just a few feet below the surface of one of the main roads in Pest.  And the trains, whether trams (above-ground) or the metro (below-ground), ran very often.  We never waited more than a few minutes for any vehicle!  Perhaps this is a holdover from Soviet days?  Either way, people in this city moved around on transit quickly and efficiently, and happily, for that matter.  The smooth transit made this place very easy to enjoy –we ended up buying a week-long transit pass for about 20 dollars, and we made good use of it. 

However on the first day it rained like crazy, so we spent that day just enjoying the apartment, catching up on our emails, celebrity gossip and cooking with paprika.

The next day we went to Castle Hill on the Buda side and did a self-guided Rick Steeves tour on our iDevices.  During this tour we stumbled upon the most unbelievable fountain of King Mattias hunting with his dogs.  It had to be one of the most unique and captivating fountains we had seen on our travels so far (other than the Trevi Fountain in Rome, and the 1:12 scale replica of Niagara Falls at “Windows of the World” in Shenzen, China).  

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Not too far away from the fountain there was a lonely medieval-costumed squire-guy just waiting for tourists to come his way and try their hand at archery.  Vince couldn’t resist, so he paid his two euros for five arrows and, against all odds, showed the guy, and Steph, exactly where the bullseye is! 

We rented bikes one day and manage to cycle up to Margaret Island, which is a cute little spit of land smack in the middle of the Danube River, dividing the two sides of the city.

We went to a “gypsy” classical concert, which was filled with recognizable classic music, folk tunes, and the funniest boot-slapping dances you could imagine.  It was like watching a Hungarian Michael Flatly (Lord of the Dance) ... but way less green and with fewer curls :).  Have a look: http://youtu.be/CDlDMZ2h4VM

When Saturday night rolled around, we thought maybe we could pretend to be hip 20-somethings and we had caught wind of the “ruin bars”. 

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About 10 years ago someone had the idea of rolling a beer keg into an abandoned building in downtown Pest, and start serving beer.  Ten years later Pest is now full of ‘ruin’ bars, which range in style from gritty to just strange.  We hit three bars in total, the more popular ones: one was graffiti garage sale themed, one was circus themed, and the last was enchanted forest on acid themed (think flying owls with boobs).  

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On our walk home, we walked through a square that was basically a BYOB chill party, with its own live rapper … oh to be young again.  This city is a fantastic backpacker place with tons to see, do, eat and drink!  Fantastic!

NOTE ABOUT LAX DRINKING LAWS:  Along with the extensive subway lines there were trams and buses and even a rolling bar (human and beer driven of course).  Check it out: http://youtu.be/xSjFWcBlv6s

On the last day, when our week was almost up, we were feeling pretty comfortable and trusting of the place, we took a leap of faith and tried the most local of things one can do in Budapest: an escape game! 

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The owner of the one we picked (there are about 20 different places in Budapest) told us that it’s a unique Budapest idea that is only now slowly being copied elsewhere.  

So, get this ... you pay some guy to lock you in a room and your mission is to figure out how to escape, in less than an hour.  There are a series of clues and puzzles and crazy devices in the room you need to figure out, before the ‘bomb’ goes off.  We managed to get out in fifty minutes, however, we did get a lot of help from Big Brother, who every so often would tell us over the loudspeaker to: “look in the vacuum cleaner”, or “try to turn on the computer”.

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Hahaha, what a blast but what a mental headache the morning after a few ciders.  We loved the escape game, and were in the “zone” the whole time (except Vince, when he was taking photos), but if you are at all claustrophobic, a germ freak, or think you might not be at your best trapped in some low-rent inner-city basement maze – this might not be for you.  Here is the website of the one we did so you can see:  www.trap.hu.  Fun!

We ended our six days of Budapest in true Hungarian style in a public bath.  Did we mention that bathing is a huge part of their social life here?  The turks showed them how it’s done. 

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We picked the big one in the main city park called Szechenyi, and spent four hours there roaming around in hot tubs, cold tubs, lukewarm tubs, saunas, current pools, salt pools ... we think there is a total of 18 different pools in all.  Our fingers were large prunes by the end but we felt great and very relaxed afterwards.  

We could see why this was so popular with the locals.  Hitting a bath is the definite must-do when in Budapest!  It makes every Sunday a funday.

We highly recommend this different and beautiful city.  Rent a bike, take transit, or take a bath.  We will have long and fond memories of our week as Pesters.

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We sign off now, en route to Prague in the Czech Republic.  We are meeting up with Steph's bestie Safiya for a week of fun, antics and more European adventures.