May 15-18, 2018
This morning, our boat completed the journey to Budapest. While we were still cruising between Bratislava and Budapest, Adrian, the cruise director, gave an hour-long presentation on what it was like growing up under Communist rule. He's 50 now, so he remembers it well. All of the employees on the boat come from former Eastern bloc countries: Romania, Slovakia, Serbia, Latvia, Hungary, so they share this common background, although a lot are around age 30 so they might not remember much. Adrian spoke about the rations and coupons for buying foods and supplies, the daily line-ups that started early in the morning, and the "7 Paradoxes of Communism":
1. Everyone works.
2. Everyone works, but nothing is produced.
3. Nothing is produced, but production quotas are met by 110%.
4. Production quotas are met by 110%, but the shops have nothing to sell.
5. There is nothing in the shops, but people have everything they need (they trade among themselves).
6. People have everything they need, but everyone steals.
7. Everyone steals, but nothing is ever reported stolen.
Adrian also spoke of the suppression of the church and the loyalty to the state that was nurtured in young people, relating difficult situations he had experienced. We all appreciated this presentation from his heart.
We stayed onboard the night of the 15th, allowing us to do an in-depth bus tour of the city in the afternoon and an evening cruise along the river. We were parked right across the river from the parliament building, an immense, stunningly beautiful building by day and by night.
On the Pest side of the Danube, the bus tour took us to the Heroes' Monument, past the Szechenyi Baths (mineral spas) that we were to visit later, and to a school for blind students where Csaba Kiraly was giving a musical performance of Lizst piano pieces and several organ works. The concert used a performance hall in the school that had perfect acoustics for this music and a world-class organ. The Liszt music was as smooth as silk! Ahh, dreamy!!
On the Buda side of the river, the bus tour took us up to the Fisherman's Bastion, near the Royal Palace and Mattias' Church, perched high above the city. We found a great lookout to take pictures of the Buda hills.
After the tour, a group of Hungarian folk musicians and dancers put on a terrific performance. We discovered that Lyle's style of dancing (when he has had a few!!!) has its roots in his Hungarian heritage. The men did a lot of thigh slapping and kicking their feet - a very energetic performance!! In the second picture, the dancer is balancing a flask of wine on her head.
On the 16th, we left the boat and took a taxi to our airbnb apartment. On the way, the taxi was involved in a minor accident (rear-ended at a low speed). It held us up a bit while the driver looked after exchanging information with the other driver. When we arrived at the apt building, the entrance way looked very sketchy, but in an old European urban bohemian way. Dingy walls, dark alleyways, and stairs and hallways that have definitely seen better days ... somewhat off-putting for Lyle. I've stayed in European pensiones before, so knew not to judge a book by its cover. The hallway outside our apt. was in better shape.
We had a bit of trouble contacting the host who lived in one of the 3 adjoining apt buildings. I didn't realize until reaching Prague that I could use my cellphone without turning on the cellular data. Duhhhh! Anyway, as it turned out, Regina, a graphic designer in her mid 30s, was a super hostess; the apt was completely renovated with an IKEA style kitchen, fabulous bathroom and comfy beds. One bohemian touch was in the red carpet; we saw one like it in the museum (in much better condition) that said it came from Transylvania in the 17th century. The norm in our airbnb accommodations seems to be 2 single beds rather than a double or queen. Each bed has a fitted bottom sheet and a separate duvet for each person. The balcony was just big enough for one chair and a tiny table.
The price of the apt was right, though, and the location was fabulously convenient to the sites we wanted to visit. Lyle found that for his morning walks, he could walk across the various bridges, explore the woodsy pathways below the castle on the Buda side of the river, and wander around the historical areas, including some Roman ruins on the top of the hill. He loved being there when there were very few tourists present.
The apt building was located at the gateway into the former Jewish ghetto, which is starting to be renovated. A lot of clubs, pubs and restaurants have opened up in this 'Ruins District' with open air seating and cheap prices, so it's very popular with young people. We saw lots of tour groups heading into the area to explore 'the Ruins', learn about the history of the Jewish district, or just see an alternative side of the city. Just around the corner from our apartment, we stumbled upon a very unusual two-part statue that commemorates Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz's courageous activities during WWII to help about 65,000 Jewish people escape from Hungary. There is more information about him at www.greatsynagogue.hu/blog/?page_id=253
We took a tour of the Dohany Synagogue which is the second largest in the world (after one in New York). It looks like a basilica inside - complete with a pipe organ! Very different from traditional synagogues! Apparently synagogues that are part of the 'reform' movement try to adapt to the society in which they find themselves; in Budapest, they were influenced by the many churches and basilicas around them. We were told that the organist is not Jewish as Jewish people are not allowed to play an instrument on the sabbath. In the gardens outside the synagogue, there were memorials to Jewish people from Budapest (and particularly, the nearby 'ghetto') who died during the Second World War. We also toured the Jewish Museum which contained a historical collection of religious items.
Just outside our apartment building, there were several Hungarian restaurants where we enjoyed chicken paprikash, stuffed cabbage rolls (just like Lyle's mom used to make), and goulash soup. Also, just a few steps away was an amazing 'gluten-free, lactose-free' health food store!!! How lucky for me!!
The first night, our airbnb hostess invited us to join her for an 'eat with' meal she was hosting. Eatwith.com invites travellers to have a cultural experience in places they are visiting, by eating in the kitchen of a local family. Our hostess, Regina, prepared chicken paprikash with spetzle, along with an appetizer of Hungarian sausages and pickles, and a traditional dessert; this is what her family normally eats for Sunday dinner. The other guests for the dinner were 2 women, one from the USA, and one from Israel. After the meal, four of Regina's friends came over for some lively conversation and to practise speaking English. Two were Hungarian; the others were students from Iran and Mongolia.
We spent our four days in Budapest looking up to enjoy the architectural beauty of the buildings. From a viewpoint atop St. Stephen's Basilica, we could see that many multi-unit residential buildings are built around courtyards which allow for more light and better air flow through the apartments. Others have interesting airy rooftops.
While in Budapest, we spent a half day at the Hungarian National History Museum which covered the history and development of the Hungarian nation and many aspects of the culture. We also spent half a day at the Szechenyi Baths which have 11 different mineral pools at different temperatures, each with unique healing properties. Most of the pools were indoors and much smaller than the one in the picture.
In Hungary, it's common for a doctor to prescribe a number of sessions in a specific bath. One very cool feature was the system for locking your locker. Each person is issued a rubber wristband with a magnetic spot on it. The lockers have a toggle. When you touch the spot on the wristband to the lock mechanism, the toggle operates and you can lock the locker. It stays locked until the magnet that locked it is applied again, allowing you to open the locker.
Completely mellowed out from the baths, we wandered around the gorgeous park which used to be the estate of Count Szechenyi, and strolled around the castle grounds. The castle now houses the National Museum of Agriculture and is also a lovely wedding venue.
We spent our evenings enjoying the local culture: attending an organ concert at St. Stephen's Basilica, enjoying supper at the Spinoza jazz piano bar in the 'Ruins District', and dining at the classy Muzeum Restaurant where I had a traditional dish: goose leg. The waiter assured me that it would be very tender (and it was). It came with warmed, spiced pears. Divine!!!! Lyle enjoyed a very tender lamb shank and another authentic Hungarian apple strudel. We discussed the restaurant's high ceiling with the manager who said the interior was typical of buildings built in the late 1800's when most men smoked. The 12-foot high ceilings allowed space for the smoke to rise so it wouldn't bother the patrons.
On our last day in Budapest, we used the metro system to locate the Nepliget bus station where we would catch our bus to Prague. We tried to ask people in the food kiosks at the station what time they opened in the morning but they indicated that they spoke no English. Eventually, a woman at the bus information desk wrote out our question in Hungarian so we got our answer when we took the paper back to the vendors and found out that they opened around 6 a.m. When we arrived the next morning, we discovered that they didn't open till 6:30 but we were still able to spend our remaining Forints (Hungarian money) and grab something to eat before boarding our bus to Prague.
We had to get up very early on Saturday morning to hop on a city bus to get to the bus station for our bus to Prague at 7 am. Unfortunately, the remnants of Friday night were still visible on the streets at 5:30 am: drunks falling down on the street and others weaving their way home.
Lyle and I came away with very different opinions of Budapest. It struck me as a gritty, glum city with many social problems (e.g. homeless people wrapped in blankets sleeping on the floors of the subway stations and on the streets, and prostitution apparent in many forms). Lyle felt these were no different from what you would find in a city like Toronto, Montreal or Vancouver, but I noticed a huge contrast between super-clean Vienna that does not allow homelessness and Budapest. On our last night there, we walked through a more upscale part of the downtown area where the tourist hotels were. That was certainly a more pleasant environment than where we had chosen to stay.
Lyle, however, had a very different impression of Budapest. As he walked miles and miles each day on the streets and in the parks, he felt increasingly proud and connected to his Hungarian roots (his mother's parents immigrated from Hungary in the 1890s). The more goulash, paprika and strudel he ate, the more his Hungarian blood awakened in him and he saw the beauty in the city and and its rich history. He's the first member of his family to return to the home country, and he is very glad to know more about where his mom's family came from.