Monday, February 9, 2009

Anybody, Hungary?

Apparently Berlin has been blanketed with ads for winter escapes to Budapest for months. Bonn is not a key market for this campaign, so a couple of weeks ago when Halley, a fellow Fulbrighter living in Berlin, asked if I wanted to take a trip to the capital of Hungary to celebrate her birthday, I was a little surprised. I really didn't know much about the capital of Hungary except it was east-ish and...actually that was about it.

It’s a fourteen hour train ride from Bonn, so I looked at my air options and was introduced to the incredible world of European budget flying. I discovered German Wings, which flies out of the Cologne/Bonn International Airport, had tickets to Budapest for 50 Euro and Easy Jet had tickets for 50 coming back. That's with taxes, and very little foresight. If I order just a month in advance, I can find flights to all kinds of incredible destinations for 20 Euro and lower. Crazy. This discovery has lead to my new method for wasting time: searching for cheap flights to Milan, Copenhagen, Krakow, Reykjavik etc. Of course I don't plan on going to all of these places, but I love the thrill of discovering how frugally I could do it.

Unfortunately, there aren't many departure times, so I had to settle for flying out on a Friday, arriving around 7:30 in Budapest, then turning around to fly out at 10 on Sunday. Roughly 36 hours in town. Erin was also making the trip and using the same flights. We made a pact to make the most of what little time we had by getting up early, staying out late and sleeping when we're dead (or on the plane).

Friday January 30th arrived and I put my fossils away and headed to the Cologne-Bonn International Airport. I was expecting a tiny establishment with 5 gates, something like the Bismarck Airport, but was surprised to see a recently renovated, massive glass and steel structure. I have a habit of forgetting Cologne has about 1.8 million people in it and the surrounding area gooses that number even more. I met Erin and we boarded. I kept waiting for something to go wrong because the tickets were so shockingly affordable, but they let me sit and we were touching down in Budapest a few hours later.

The first order of business was getting cash. Hungary is in the European Union, but they are not in the Euro Zone, so Erin and I had to track down a ATM to get out a couple Hungarian forints (HUF). Or rather, fistfuls of forints. The conversion rate was roughly 280 HUF to the Euro. This is a difficult number to process quickly and it’s a little disconcerting to stand at the money machine and press the button for “10,000 HUF.” That’s a lot of zeros. The rest of the weekend would be punctuated with each of the adventurers – Halley, Rachel, Erin and I – staring at our wads of money, slowly calculating how much we even had.

The directions provided by the hostel we were gunning for suggested we take the bus into town. Dutifully we stood by the modest bus stop sign trying to figure out how to get tickets. The ATM had spat out one 10,000 HUF note for each of us and we had a sneaking suspicion that the bus driver wouldn’t appreciate making change for our 400 HUF tickets. Sure enough, after the bus arrived and the tourists who each had massive bills started boarding, we watched the change drawer slowly dwindle to nothing. We were the last two to step aboard and the driver just shook his head in frustration, looked at the other passengers, looked at Erin and waved us through. Free ride to the train station, I liked the place already.

The bus dropped us off behind a construction site. There were bags of concrete, lumber and antiquated equipment squatting in the dark. This was how I pictured Central (read “Eastern” Europe). We followed the confident commuters and climbed into the rusted train station that had clearly seen better days. Winos and homeless dudes milled around as Erin and I sized up the train ticket machine. It only took coins and we were still rocking 10 G’s. As we tried to figure out if the convenience store could help us, a control officer approached us. In every train station there were control officers surrounding the validation machines, watching you punch your card. Of course, some people have day passes, others have student passes etc. The controllers don’t check for this or ask why you didn’t stamp your ticket. They just stand there and everyone walk by. We never met a control officer on one of the trains. Bizarre, but I guess it’s a good way to create jobs.

The controller understood our problem and gestured towards an older woman sitting near the stairs to the tracks. She was behind a plywood booth reminiscent of Lucy’s Psychiatrist “Real In” booth. She had each ticket neatly laid out in front of her, and all the change we could hope for. With tickets in hand we could finally descend to the tracks of the oldest subway line in Continental Europe, and the second oldest in the world. The London Underground was the first in 1863, and the Hungarians opened their trains in 1896 in honor of the millennial celebration of Hungary’s founding. Some of the stations still have the ornate Corinthian filigree on the platform’s steel girders. The trains themselves are standard, if slightly used, examples of Europe’s amazing ability to make urban centers accessible and affordable.
We emerged from the station somewhere in downtown Budapest. We spent about ten minutes playing prairie dog, popping out of different tunnels trying to orient ourselves, while being lightly heckled by a homeless dude. We finally saw the street sign we needed, found the hostel’s address and stood in front of a massive steel gate. No lights were on. Erin and I eventually decided to press the main button on the panel next to the door to see what would happen. “Hello?” We stared at the speaker like baboons trying to figure out a radio. “Uh…” “Hello?” “Uh…wir…er, we’re looking for a backpacker’s hostel?” What did I say? We’re backpackers? Did we bring our water purifiers and iodine tablets? “Come on up.” The door buzzed open and we entered the dark passage way, following the wide staircase up to another grated door.

This one said “Hostel.” Entering we saw Halley and Rachel sitting by the computer in a brightly lit lobby. Okay, less horror movie vibe one you got inside. That’s always reassuring. We dropped our gear by our low-slung bunk beds that must have been lifted from a 4-H summer camp, and asked for dinner recommendations. The guy at the desk directed us towards “Mensa” near the center of Pest, the part of the city on the east Side of the Danube. Budda is the city on the western bank. I was skeptical. A “Mensa” in Germany is a cheap, government subsidized cafeteria for students. I’ve seen backpackers in mensas looking for a cheap meal. I really didn’t want typical mensa food, but the location suggested there might be restaurants in the area.

After passing swank designer boutiques and the Budapest Opera House, I decided this wouldn’t be a typical mensa. Indeed Mensa was a very trendy restaurant with a hip, nostalgic vibe and lots of young locals. The food was traditional Hungarian with a twist. For instance, I had Fisherman’s stew, a typical paprika infused dish (the Hungarians love paprika), served over noodles. This was topped with cottage cheese and a tomato and basil sauce. Fantastic. The venison, chicken-stuffed doughnuts and stew were all hits as well. An excellent recommendation. That night as we planned our excursions for the next day, Rachel and I notice that our guidebooks, hers from “Let’s Go Europe” and mine “Lonely Planet’s Europe on a Shoestring,” each demanded we try Mensa if we only ate in one restaurant in Budapest. Things were off to a great start.

We had a pow-wow and decided what we wanted to do the next day: Parliment Tour, visit the St. Steven’s Basilika, visit Buda Palace and Buda hill, visit the Labyrinth recommended by “Let’s Go Europe,” visit the Hungarian History Museum and finally, experience the famous medicinal hot springs of Budapest. If we had extra time, we would figure out what to do with ourselves…will we do it? Stay tuned!

1 comment:

Halley said...

I am on the edge of my seat to find out what happens next! So much to cram in, with so little time. Can it be done?? : )