Diary of our trip to Budapest

March 28-April 1, 2002

Thursday, March 28:

Flew from Gatwick to Budapest direct on Malev Hungarian airlines, bought 2 "Budapest cards" for $26 each, which gave us free use of the transit system and free entry to 35 museums. Took airport minibus to centre of city, roads in poor condition. Walked 2 blocks to subway, security guard asked if we were lost. Took Russian-style subway (red line) to last station, walked 3 blocks to Hotel Eben, 4 storeys, 105 rooms, $65 a night. It was in the suburbs about 3 miles from downtown. There were many bleak-looking apartment blocks in the area but it was safe to walk around.

Friday, March 29:

After our free buffet-style breakfast, took the red subway line to the main station, looked through museum of Budapest's oldest subway line which opened in 1896. Looked at St. Stephen's basilica church which had elaborate decoration and murals. Walked up street and spotted a museum of Hungarian TV history. The man running it showed us ancient Ampex video recorders and TV cameras. Saw where the Danube river had flooded the day before (spring runoff) and flooded out a road underpass. About 50 city workers were shovelling river sediment from the street. Crossed the "chain" bridge, similar to Marlow in England but much bigger. Bought 2 sandwiches, had lunch outside, sunny and 17 deg. Went to Fisherman's Lookout, a site with views over the river and city. Looked through the museum at St. Matthias church, saw a display of excellent Hungarian cartoons about the Euro, then the telecoms museum which had old stepper switching equipment and a piece of Nortel equipment. Again, the man running it showed us around and pointed things out in limited English. Left the castle district, walked downhill to the streetcar, got off at Octagon, boarded the old subway line which had very small cars in 2-car trains. They ran every 2 minutes. Saw kids skateboarding and doing bicycle stunts at Heroes Square, a big open plaza with monuments to the past heroes (the Huns). Returned to the hotel at dark via subway and bus, which went through a very poor-looking area. Got off at a big shopping mall which opened 2 weeks before. Looked for a restaurant but returned to the hotel dining room and had a nice dinner ($28). Restaurants weren't that plentiful, as the locals all drink in smoky little bars or eat hamburgers standing up outside. Louise read a guide book on Budapest which said we should try to collect "fillers" -- obsolete coins worth 1/100th of 0.6 cents Canadian. (It would take 17,500 of them to buy 1 Canadian dollar.)

Saturday, March 30:

I felt rough in the morning but got going eventually. Budapest had some similarities to Barcelona where we went in January and St. Petersburg where we'd been before. There's a great mixture of rich and poor here. There are many old women at the subway stations selling flowers, shawls or tablecloths. The young people were all well dressed and had mobile phones. On the way to the subway, saw a near pileup of 5 cars on the street (the guy in front stopped dead with no warning) -- one of several near-misses and foolish incidents on the roads. It was another nice, sunny day out. Took the subway to the west side of the Danube river and walked up to the foundry museum where 2 Hungarian guides showed us old iron stoves, bells, railings and staircases. Walked to Margit Island via a bridge across the Danube and rented 2 bikes for an hour. It was great because the island had no cars and was similar to Toronto Island only smaller. It was very warm out and everyone was enjoying what felt like the first day of spring. Most of the girls were carrying flowers. Took the streetcar west and had lunch at McDonald's. Walked through a park looking for the cog railway station, finally found it. Took cog railway up the big hill behind Budapest, passed some very nice houses. Lots of young guys were taking their mountain bikes up to ride around the hills. The ride downhill was fairly bumpy. We returned to Margit Island so Louise could retrieve her camera which she'd left there. Returned to Heroes Square and saw a 3-D movie showing the Hungarian countryside. It cost $5.45 each with English commentary and using polaroid filters. We were the only people at the showing. At 5 o'clock went on a quick tour of the fine arts gallery and saw the Impressionist paintings. The stores closed at noon on Saturday so there weren't nearly as many people or cars out. Walked through the park and went to a nice pizza restaurant for dinner ($15 including drinks). Louise was tired so we returned to the hotel by bus, watched TV and read. The maid left 2 Easter chocolates for us.

The Danube River which separates the two halves of the city.

Sunday, March 31:

Another clear sunny day. Various bus tour groups were staying at the hotel, and today it was Germans, who ate most of the buffet breakfast before we arrived. Took the red subway to Astoria station. Very few people out. Saw an art gallery with "interesting" arrangements of imitation heads and arms. Crossed a big 6-lane bridge over the Danube, which still had trees floating down it from the flooding. Stopped in at Turkish baths but Louise said it looked dodgy so we left. Took the streetcar 1 stop to the bottom of castle hill, lineup to the funicular was too long so walked up the steps, looked at views from the top over the river. Saw an excellent display at the Budapest city museum about its history from 1800 to 1945, which ended with sobering pictures of bombed-out buildings and ruined bridges. The museum was in a huge, well-made building in the castle district. It was getting hot out and we needed lunch, so we crossed the square to the Contemporary Art Museum. They had a small restaurant on the 1st floor; Louise had pork cutlet and I had a grilled ham and cheese sandwich, all for $5.80. The curator had decided to mount an enormous colour painting, "Baby Hurling" on the wall which I didn't think belonged in a restaurant. There was an excellent exhibition of Henri Cartier-Bresson's black and white photographs upstairs so we looked at them all. Walked down the hill, crossed the chain bridge to the subway station and went to the park where we found the outdoor thermal baths. It consisted of a rambling Italian renaissance building with changing rooms and 3 outdoor pools with water at 29 deg. It was warm enough outside not to be uncomfortable and cost $3.45 each. Everyone was enjoying the hot water and the kids liked a circular pool with jets making the 3' deep water flow like a fast circular river. The children were very well-behaved and stayed with their parents (unlike England where they run around by themselves). The buildings were decorated with Greek statues and the walls were bright yellow. We had a great time. It closed at 5 o'clock so we changed and went to the fun fair across the street. It was very clean with plenty of new rides. We rode on the ferris wheel which was quite ancient. I didn't think there'd be many restaurants open so we went to a little one beside the fun fair. We sat outside and had a delicious dinner of salad, turkey, pork stroganoff, and french fries. There were a few families there and the waitress spoke good English. Took the subway to Octagon, then transferred to the streetcar. I was aiming for a classical concert at 7:30 and was 5 minutes late but it hadn't started. It was in the Italian cultural centre and featured the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra (35 piece) with a saxophone quartet and huge girls' choir from the area. The program included Bach, Bartok and Philip Glass and was superb. The concert hall was quite large and was almost full. Like Russia, they had the heat on full blast. Easter was a low-key event with hardly any decorations.

Monday, April 1:

There were lots of American teenagers at breakfast. Good Friday wasn't a holiday but today was. All the stores were closed and nothing much was going on. We checked our bags and walked around the neighbourhood, another hot sunny day -- the 4th in a row. The walls of the apartment blocks were in many cases crumbling, with depressing 60's architecture, so many of the residents headed for their neighbourhood bar and had beer and cigarettes -- starting at 9:30 AM! The houses were a lot nicer, with well-kept gardens and many had guard dogs. We passed one which had 2 jowly dogs sleeping in the sunshine. One of them was sound asleep; the other one lifted his head to check me out, but he just couldn't keep his eyes open and drowsiness won out. Bought some lunch at a variety store and a bottle of wine for $2. Returned to the hotel at noon where a taxi was waiting for us. The driver was quite careful compared to some; another couple at the airport said their cab driver was a maniac. On the flight home we talked to a girl from BC who had moved to London. Sadly, we never found any filler coins.

Conclusion:

The guide book said a visit to Budapest is like stepping back 30 years. The people look after things fairly well. There is alot of graffiti everywhere but equipment such as streetcars and playgrounds is in good shape. A man at the airport told Louise they pay 25% tax and get nothing in return (for example, the streets are full of potholes). The Communists were in power from 1945-1990 (despite the Hungarian revolution in 1956), so many Communist characteristics are still present. Hungary has one foot in Europe (they have applied to join the European Union) and another foot in the past. Like Russia, there are plenty of staff in stores and restaurants, usually outnumbering the customers. They are glad to see visitors (they get 15 million a year) and treat everyone nicely. We managed OK with sign language, as Hungarian is impenetrable and does not use the words of any other language.

Louise noticed that the children were very happy and not spoiled. We saw a little girl at the playground who was more interested in chasing a chicken than the playground equipment.

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