Saturday, August 30, 2008

Gyor and Budapest, August 3-11, 2008

View of Budapest from Gellert Hill

On our way to Budapest, we stopped for a day in Gyor, a city in NW Hungary on the main train route from Vienna to Budapest. It’s a mostly industrial center, with a small but quaint old center city and a very big thermal bath complex. We stayed at a pension near the baths, which were on the other side of the river from downtown. We walked from the train station – it should have been about 1K, but we got a bit lost and had to ask for directions. There was not an overabundance of street signs. Lesson learned – take a taxi the first time in a new town and afterwards hoof it. We found the pension, but couldn’t get into our room until 1, and had no baby bed. No worries – Maeve had been climbing out of her travel bed all week in Vienna and falling asleep on the floor. So we stored our luggage and headed into town to wander for a couple of hours and get lunch.

We walked across the bridge into town and ran straight into a children’s festival. There were kids on motorized play tractors, and a put-put course laid out on the bridge. There were kids everywhere. We got a golf stick and Maeve played a hole or two. There was also a registration booth – I thought maybe you had to register, and we had no Hungarian money, so we wandered through more games in the square at the end of the bridge with more festival and an old yellow church and convent building, past booths selling stuff on the main street into the center city, and found an ATM. We then went back to the booth and tried to register – with no luck. No one spoke English, German, Spanish or French. At that point, we decided we’d tried and Maeve should just play. So she blew bubbles, hopped around on some cushions and played go fish. I later tried to register at another booth. Again the workers couldn’t help, but a mom in line explained that it was a free festival – you brought a photo of your kid smiling and they got an armband, but registration wasn’t necessary. There was also a fairy-tale area where the kids got colored cards and had to complete tasks like fishing, walking blindfolded, bean bag toss etc. All of this was very confusing to us, as nothing and nobody spoke English or German. We gave up trying other languages. After playing a bit, we went walking to the main square, where they had inflatable jumping stages set up, with long links of kids waiting to jump. There was a restaurant on the square with info in German and English, and after a bit more wandering around looking for eatables we could decipher, we ate there. At that point we were tired and sunburnt, and the food was very heavy. We quickly learned that Hungarian food is fried – we had some soup (Hungarian meals start with soup) and fried cheese. Not great. We called it a morning and went back to the hotel.

Maeve napped in the bathroom floor on a bedspread as the pension had only 1 travel bed and it was being used. Like many other places in Europe, we had a double bed but each of us had our own comforter. So Maeve got one of them for a mattress. We had access to communal bathrooms in the hall if we needed it, so it was better to have her in the bathroom and us be able to read and move around in the room. After nap, we lotioned up with sunscreen and headed out to explore a bit more. We walked along the river and past the cathedral. Coming back from lunch, the Children’s Festival was closing up, but when we got back out, it was going again. There was an island in the middle of the river which also had activities like making headbands etc, as well as a toddler playfield with inflatable pools of water and a big indoor-outdoor carpet covered with blocks, cars, and other toys. After dinner on a park bench, we settled down there to play. All in all, we walked around town but mostly just enjoyed the festival.

That night at the pension, we hadn’t gotten any towels or an extra bedspread, so I went down the hall and picked some extras up from a neighboring room that wasn’t rented out. That way Maeve had a mattress and I had a blanket. We were starting to realize why a pension isn’t a hotel. The next morning, we were up and ready to eat before breakfast was really out. The pension was billed as a health resort, and seemed to cater to people going to the mineral baths nearby. For example, all rooms were non-smoking, and there were so many smokers in Hungary, this was certainly a deliberate health-oriented decision. But the woman laying out breakfast was smoking like a chimney as she did it – so I paid and got breakfast for Maeve while Mike took her outside to avoid the smoke. Very strange. Later the employee moved her ashtray away from the breakfast area and into the office.

By this time, we’d noticed a couple of things about Hungary. First we didn’t speak the language. I was used to being able to communicate at least a little all over Europe. In Hungary, sometimes English worked, sometimes German (at the pension), and sometimes there was just total incomprehension. It’s one of the legacies of Hungary’s former isolation from Western Europe and felt very weird. We didn’t go to many museums, but the ones we went to were labeled in English, but off the beaten tourist track it was less sure to be able to communicate. Second, families don’t use strollers as much in Hungary as Germany. At the festival in Gyor, small kids were mostly in strollers – some in arms, and a few in slings, but many, many toddlers were walking. Some were on shoulders. They would all be in strollers in Germany. We had Maeve in and out of a stroller, but we’re ambivalent stroller users at best so really noticed the difference. Third, in Hungary, everybody smoked. We managed to avoid the worst of it, but had to make strategic decisions, particularly at restaurants, to not sit near smokers. Fourth, Hungarian food is heavy on the breaded and fried in grease variety of main courses. Hungarian cuisine was not our favorite. Luckily there were several veggie restaurants in Budapest and we ate a fair amount of Indian food and falafel. But it’s not a veggie-friendly country and veggie restaurants often had shorter hours (maybe only open for lunch), and some restaurants that guidebooks or web sites said had veggie options actually only had 1 thing without meat on the menu.

Fifth, Hungarians love kids. Especially in contrast to Germany, which isn’t kid-phobic but certainly isn’t kid-friendly. There are more kids in Hungary, and they seem to be more communally looked after. We ran into 2 children’s festivals (in Gyor and a small one in a park near our apartment in Budapest). Parents carry their kids around with them wherever they go. We ate dinner at a health-food store/veggie diner that had 1 veggie option and 3 tables on the street. A young woman was running the store and some kind of younger relation (son/brother) that was about 5 kept running into the store, on the sidewalk, and into the bar next door, which presumably was owned by the same family. Maeve enjoyed watching him play moving water bottles in the store. This is something you’d never see in Germany, or the States for that matter. There are also tons of neighborhood pocket parks, all with a water fountains, benches for sitting, and kid’s play equipment, including toddler and regular swings. The kids play with one another differently than in Germany. There’s still a fair amount of the bigger kids taking over equipment, but there’s also a lot of 6-year-olds who help their 3-year-old siblings play on equipment. There is also much closer parental/older sibling supervision of the littler kids, who are actively encouraged to explore the park instead of sitting in the sandbox while their parents sit on a nearby bench. And when a couple of little kids are on equipment, the big kids wait or play by helping the littler kids. For example, there was a very popular rope merry-go-round/climbing structure on the park near our apartment in Budapest and when Maeve and another toddler were on it, the big kids wanted it, but several joined in pushing the little kids gently until they were done and the big kids could get on and go fast. I’m not so sure how playgrounds work in the US, but I’d bet their law of the jungle is somewhere between Hungary and Germany.

On to Budapest. We spent a lot of time in Budapest just wandering around. Our apartment complex was centrally located, inside the ring road around downtown Pest (the flat side of the Danube), so public transit to everywhere was very convenient and there was a fair amount of things to see within walking distance. Our first morning we went to see the Parliament building on the banks of the Danube. It was partly under renovation. We later found out that less than 20% of the building is used by the parliament, and it was build of sandstone, which is a soft stone and continually erodes. Therefore, part of the building is always under construction. But it still looks like a cool drip-sandcastle on the banks of the Danube. We walked past the Agriculture ministry, checking out the giant metal marbles that mark where the building got hit by gunfire in the uprising in 1956. We then played a while on a bridge/sculpture of Nagy, who was president at the time and got deposed by the Russians when a more orthodox government was put in place. Afterwards, we found an Indian veggie restaurant in the basement of a nearby building and ate lunch. On our walk back to the subway, we went by St. Stephen’s church, the biggest church in Hungary. It was built in the early 20th century, and supposedly houses a relic, the saint’s right hand. The relic chapel was closed so we didn’t see it. The interior was Byzantine-influenced, with pictures of saints and angles on gold backgrounds.

(detail of St. Stephen's Church)

We went back to our hotel and got into the room a bit early. We’d asked to get in before 2, the regular check-in time, so Maeve could nap. They got us in, but the room wasn’t cleaned, so we dumped our luggage and went out in the hall for another 30 minutes. We got Maeve down, and later realized that the room didn’t have wireless. So the next day, we were moved to another room that supposedly did have wireless. It was intermittent, and Mike ended up doing most of his work that week sitting in the hallway near the central staircase where the wireless was strong.

The next day we headed across the river to Buda and up castle hill, where the main fortifications were and the Hapsburgs ruled the country. Before them, the Hungarian monarchs ruled from there and the cathedral is there. We first walked a bit along the Buda side of the Danube to get to the cable car to go up the hill. The cable car was built to take workers up the hill – scribes and others who worked for the government ministries up there. It’s about a 2 minute ride – not that exciting and Maeve wasn’t old enough to think it was cool. It lets you out at one end of the hill, in front of the royal palace which is now museums and the national archives. There was a great view of Pest. From there, we walked over to the Cathedral, which we paid to duck into because it was raining. It had a very dark interior, not buying into the gothic esthetic of high and light at all. There were a number of informational signs around that included English, so we learned, for example, that all the ratty flags hanging up in the central apse were from noble families of Hungary. Maeve mostly just enjoyed running in and out of the columns supporting the pulpit. We didn’t think the interior of the cathedral was particularly pretty, but it was very different, and we were glad we saw it. Behind the cathedral, facing the river is the Fisherman’s bastion, not really much of a defensive work, that has great views of Pest. As a break from the drizzle, we went to a nearby coffee shop and got drinks and snacks. Maeve, as usual, wanted chocolate so we had a long discussion with the servers about what confections didn’t have nuts. Yummy. When we got out, we walked along the back side of castle hill to see the views of the Buda hills. It was mostly just city, both in the spaces between the hills and crawling up the hillsides. From there, we walked through the rest of the hill and down to Muskova Ter, the main transportation hub in Buda that’s at the foot of the hill.

From there, we went to lunch at a veggie fast-food buffet. It was right off the main pedestrian tourist drag, Vaci Utica, but Google maps hadn’t mapped it correctly, so we walked a bit to find it. From there, over to Deak Ter and home for nap. Deak Ter (Ter means square in Hungarian) is nothing special, but we kept walking through there as it’s where the 3 metro lines cross and is therefore a big transportation hub.

Mid-week we took a day trip out to Szentendre, a town about 20K outside of Budapest at the end of a commuter rail line. We’d wanted to go by boat to spend some more time on the Danube, but the boat times would have made napping impossible, so we took the commuter rail, which ran a lot and only took 45 minutes. The town has a long history of orthodox Christians and some nice churches as well as an open-air living historical village outside town. Our plan was to hit the village early and then the churches when they opened an hour later. This did not quite work out. When we got to Szentendre, it was about 9 o’clock and we knew the open-air museum opened then and what bus to take out there. But a nice gentleman also buying tickets for the bus was able to translate for the ticket seller – there was no bus for 2 hours and you couldn’t buy the tickets more than an hour before the bus so she couldn’t help us right then. So we had to decide whether to wander around town or take a taxi. Taxi it was, and very much worth it.

T he open-air museum had houses, stores, churches, barns and in some cases, completely reconstructed neighborhoods, from towns in different areas of Hungary. Our first stop past the entrance gate, where we did remember to ask what times the buses left, was a linen dying shop. It was a big barn where they had rooms to cook the linen in indigo, which they imported from elsewhere, and then had a huge barn with big rollers, as in large-barn –sized, where they ironed it mechanically. And they guide there spoke English so could explain the mechanisms. Next stop was the local bakery where we bought some pastries and stopped for Maeve to snack on yogert. Next to the windmill was a pottery making workshop and a class where people were learning to cane chairs. The windmill was across from a play area – Maeve hung out there while Mike and I took turns going to the windmill. The guide there was more typical – no English and a very little German. I managed to figure out that the big screw-machines were to change the coarseness of the grind – the guide didn’t really know the words for this in German, but we somehow communicated what made the flour bigger or smaller.

We walked through several other village areas, after deciding to miss the first bus back and just spend the whole morning at the museum. There was a tiny church and a house where they had weaving games for kids. Most of the houses were farm-houses with thatched roves, wells with counter-weighted levels to get up the water, barns, pigsties etc. A fair number of the houses had activities for kids, but Maeve was too little for most. We passed by another house where they were getting ready to make corn pancakes on a wooden stove. We communicated enough in German to figure out the demonstration was starting in 20 minutes, so we wandered a bit more, checked out some pigsties, apple trees, and beehives, and hit the bathrooms before coming back. Maeve got to make several pancakes, rolling them out and watching them puff up on the wooden stove. The fire was definitely the coolest part. They were served with very garlicy butter and sour cream. Yummy. When Maeve was about finished another little girl came in and rolled out pancakes, and then a whole troop of kids. Their guide was translating between Hungarian and English, and we found out that they had arranged the demonstration for their group. So we had just lucked out.

We ate our picnic lunch in the shade of the windmill – by this point I was getting very sun-phobic as we’d been out in the sun all morning. Then we went to hang out at the barnyard – saw the ducks, sheep, cows, horses, pigs, goats, and chickens. This was a big hit with Maeve.

After lunch we checked out another area of the museum after walking through the picnic area and big playground area. The whole museum was worth a day and a great place for kids, but it was definitely helpful to speak some German and if we’d known Hungarian we could have had a lot more interpretation and better understood what we were seeing. On the way out, we had some confusion about how to find the bus – you had to walk out to the main road – but the woman at the front ticket office was extremely helpful despite our communication difficulties. We’d also left our credit card there, and got it back from her. Yikes! Thank goodness there was one main entrance. From the park, we just took the bus into town and then the next train back to Budapest as it was already quite late and way past nap time. So we missed the churches, but had a good day.

I think that evening we started our relationship with the veggie hummus joint a couple of blocks from our apartment. We ended up getting falafel and hummus there a couple of times – cheap, quick, nearby, and yummy.

One morning we walked around on Andrassy Ut, the Hungarian response to Paris’s boulevards. We walked past the opera, and Maeve enjoyed climbing on the Spynxes. It’s art-deco, and I liked the small details, like the colored tiles on the ceiling of the porch in front of the main entrance. But the overall impression was big and bulky. Mike didn’t think the building was that beautiful. We then went to the House of Terror, a museum in a building that was used by both the Nazis and Communist governments for security. The museum was very impressionistic – with excellent video footage in several rooms (with English subtitles) and good English explanations on a paper you could pick up in each room. I ended up mostly going from room to room, glancing around to set the scene, and sitting to read the info on the sheet. There was some information about the Nazis and the Nazi-sympathetic government, but Mike and I had to keep talking to one another to figure out the general timeline. I could have used more overview, but basically I understood that the Nazis were never in power in Hungary, but they were a large voting block and the whole government was Nazi-sympathetic and allied with the Axis powers, a term coined by a Hungarian but that I didn’t know also included Hungary. For most of WWII, the Jews, although badly discriminated against, were not actually sent to concentration camps. Only in the last months of the war when Germany invaded Hungary to get more assistance for “the final push”, were the Jewish Hungarians rounded up, shipped off, and systematically killed. Which explains why Budapest still has a vibrant Jewish community – not everyone got killed off. Still not a pretty story.

Most of the museum was on the Communist Era – one of the critiques of the museum was that it focused more on Communism that the Nazi years, and that was true. There was information about how the secret services were built, informants, dealing with the uprising in 1956 etc. People lived in fear of the state police. Even the man that founded the secret police was later deposed and killed as he had Jewish heritage – this was under the Communists who were apparently also very anti-Semitic. In the basement was a reconstruction of cells from other security buildings.

One afternoon, we took a trip to the Ernst museum. This museum showcases modern art, and is in an art-deco palace off Kiraly Utica, walking distance from our apartment. The museum was named after the former owner of the house. We went because of the name, and got in for free because their computer was down. The house was interesting, with some stained glass windows and sculptural elements you could see as you walked up to the exhibition space on the 1st floor. The rest of the building must be apartments. The exhibition was of modern Hungarian art – the best piece was a sculpture than ran behind the walls between two rooms – so all you could see was little pieces of wood that were leading into a dark room. It turns out that you could climb on the sculpture, most of which was in a room with no windows and one light from below, so you could see the precarious scaffolding that was holding up the wood you were standing on near the ceiling. Needless to say, Maeve loved walking on this, and Mike and I alternatively hung out with her in the dark room, coming out, and going back, while the other looked around.

We spent one morning in the Museum of Fine arts on Hosok Tere. This square is at the entrance to the biggest city park, at the end of a huge boulevard. We first wandered around the square and took lots of pictures of the monumental statues. This is where Hungarians have major rallies, kind of like the mall in Washington, when they want to protest or celebrate. No one was there at 8:30. We then walked around the park, which is huge. Maeve looked at ducks, played in a playground, and we walked through a castle that’s now a museum. We came out of the park to eat a snack before heading into the museum at 10 – and the square was transformed, teeming with tourists stepping in and out of charter buses. The museum of Fine Arts is an impressive building. We mostly just saw the Spanish paintings – left over from the Hapsburgs who ruled both Hungary and Spain. It’s an impressive collection.

That afternoon we did a bit of a walking tour from our apartment to look at some art deco buildings. One stop was the Orthodox Synagogue, which was build on a bend in the road. The building itself was rather austere. We walked past the trade school, again very austere with huge owls looking down from the second story. We walked past the Guttenburg apartment block, which was more lighthearted but in need of restoration. Our last stop was the Museum of Applied Arts, which was stunning. The tile work outside, the atrium inside, the stained glass – just a beautiful building. After our walk, we ate dinner at the whole foods store/restaurant where Maeve enjoyed watching the little boy play.

On Saturday, we had some kind of plan that probably involved walking or a museum. But we were up early and ready to get out hours before a museum was open and it was lightly drizzling, so we decided to go to the baths. Budapest is full of mineral baths and Turkish baths. There’s a big baths complex in the middle of the city park, called Szechenyi Furdo, and we’d decided to go there, in large part because it’s mixed, so we could all bathe together. After changing clothes and figuring out how to lock the locker with some non-verbal help from the Hungarian senior citizens who were changing back into street clothes after their morning medicinal, Maeve and I found Mike outside in the drizzle waiting for us next to 3 huge outdoor pools. They were at varying temperatures from 28 to 32 to 36-38 (which is body temperature) and were pretty well used, not over-full, but not empty of mostly middle-aged or older people lounging. One pool was for swimming. And there were a few families there. We hung out mostly in the warmest pool, with a little time in the middle temp one.

About swimming pools in Germany, and apparently in Hungary: they’re a big deal. Many of the pools in Germany are part of complexes that have indoor and outdoor areas, whirlpools, jets, big and little slides etc. They’re basically water parks. The outdoor pool in Saarbruecken has a small kiddie pool, a big lounge/play pool with several sides ramping down for small children, small and big slides, water jet/shower streams, a section with barca loungers submerged to 1 ft depth etc. As well as an Olympic sized pool farther back in the complex for actually swimming. The baths in Gyor were mineral ones - mineral baths seem a big draw in Hungary. But from what we could see from outside, in addition to whatever indoor facilities they had, they also had an outdoor water park. The city baths in Budapest were less of a water park – only 3 outdoor pools, with some Jacuzzi jets, a few shower massages, and one whirlpool area, in addition to the pool with lanes for swimming. And they were all heated with mineral water. The indoor areas had some rooms for aquatic therapy and then baths of varying temperatures with and without minerals for medicinal soaks.

Maeve is much better in the water this summer, as long as she isn’t cold. She still very much wants to be in arms as we’re moving around the pool, but when we’re at the side she likes to jump from the stair into our arms, or “swim” as we hand her off between us. After swimming a bit outdoors, we explored the indoor pools and hung out in one for a few minutes. It definitely smelled like minerals. 2 hours into the experience, we headed home exhausted to put on more clothes as the temperature hadn’t warmed up to shorts weather in the drizzle.

For lunch, we’d planned a quick excursion to a cafĂ© in the Goethe Institute that supposedly had vegetarian food. There was one not very appealing noodle dish. So we decided not to eat there and went in search of the other nearby veggie restaurants. We went walking again down Vaci U, the main pedestrian street that’s full of tourists. We ran into some construction – Budapest is putting in a fourth subway line and every once in a while you run into construction. Then we went to the first place – under new management and no longer veggie. Second place – not open. Third place, a bio store with small buffet was open but no buffet on weekends. Fourth place – closed for Saturday. At this point, our easy morning had turned into an exhausting forced march around town to find food. We ended up going to a bakery near Deak Ter on the way home. There are not many veg options around.

That afternoon, we had tickets to do a sight-seeing cruise on the Danube. So we got Maeve up early and headed out. The cruise was great – they had headphone with explanations in many languages – Buda was a male voice and Pest a female so it was easy to know which side to look on. By that point, we’d seen most things already but learned more – for example that there was a monastery inside Gellert Hill, when the bridges were built linking the two sides, and that the Parliament building is continually under reconstruction. We had an hour break on Margaret Island – an island in the middle of the Danube that’s got a bath, a couple of hotels, and otherwise is park, no cars allowed. There was an optional guided tour, and we were the only ones that took it. We saw the oldest church on the island, and the remains of a Dominican convent which was where Princess Margaret (hence Margaret island) lived and was buried. There is also tons of park, some paths lined with sculptures of Hungarian artists, and a small Japanese garden. A popular form of transportation is multi-person bikes – the even have little ones for kids, or big ones for 4 people and seats for 2 kids on the front. When we went back to the boat, we were told that there was a bomb threat on Margaret bridge, and the boat couldn’t take us back to downtown. So we picnicked dinner on the island amid several bridal shoots, and walked off another bridge to the metro.

On our last day in Budapest, we had an easy morning and hiked up Gellert Hill, the second main hill in Buda that faces the river. In the afternoon, there was a festival going on on the Chain Bridge, and we walked there from Deak Ter. The festival was the usual arts and crafts with several music stages without anywhere to really sit and listen and lots of meaty food. Maeve liked listening to music, watching the boats on the river, and watching the guys selling devil’s sticks. On the way back to Deak Ter, we had to pass through a park which was heavily used by skateboarders and a latin dance practice group. We watched for a bit as Maeve watched a fountain. We were too late to re-visit a nearby veggie restaurant, which closed at 6pm, so we just went to an Indian place around the corner from our hotel. The food was super yummy but spicy!

Monday was heading home – flight from Budapest to Frankfurt Hahn and then a bus to Saarbruecken. We’d called to schedule an airport pickup, which didn’t come, so we took the subway. It took about an hour – subway to Deak Ter, change lines to end of line, then bus to airport, but was not a problem. The public transit in Budapest is really quite good. We’d never flown to Hahn before – it’s just for low-cost airlines and basically a hub for Ryanair, which we flew. Getting back wasn’t too bad – we had to wait about an hour for the bus, which turned out to be a mini-bus, at which point I was really hoping Maeve wouldn’t get car sick, and was dreaming that maybe she’d take a nap. We ate an early dinner before the bus, passed Maeve back and forth, working hard to keep her entertained and seated on the bus, and got home just in time for bed. Good to be home.


RiverCruiseNews said...

Thanks for your Budapest Post it was very interesting. Can you remember the name of the Idian restaurant and the address from your last night.

Mike Davies

schowell said...

I can't remember the name of the Indian place, but we were staying at Akacfa Utica, right off Blaha Lujza Ter, so I think it was off the corner of Akacfa Utica and Dohany Utica, on Dohany Utica.