19.12.2016 - 22.12.2016 -4 °C
After Bratislava gave us the parting gift of snow, we were a little sad to leave… but Budapest was calling us, and we answered the call. We arrived at the train station in plenty of time, thinking that if we were there early we would have more hope of finding somewhere to store ourselves and our luggage. Unfortunately, the 11.53am service to Budapest didn’t arrive in Bratislava until 11.52am – so that ruined that plan.
We jumped on board and wandered through the carriage that was made of of cabins – just like the good ol’ Vline glory days. Unfortunately these cabins were reserved for people travelling with bikes, for people travelling with children under 10, for people with limited mobility… I didn’t see any cabins reserved for people with green eyes or for people with red suitcases, so we had to continue on until we found the regular seats for regular people. The Hungarian countryside was rather picturesque, and we rather enjoyed the journey.
Once we arrived in Budapest, we headed for the metro ticket machine and totally had it all under control except that the touch screen element seemed to be rather unresponsive to our touch. Out of nowhere, a young girl came and offered to help us defeat the machine by using the strategy of pressing the screen repeatedly – basically what we had planned to do anyway. And as she chatted to us animatedly while pointing out where our target station was on the metro map, I had a sneaking suspicion of where this interaction was headed and surprise, surprise, she asked us for money once we were at our destination. Pretty sure she needed the money more than we did, and at least she was pleasant about it.
We settled into our Airbnb room and then set off on a quest for food. We enjoyed some seriously good goulash with amazing mashed potato, then returned home for a chat with Rita and Ivan about life, the universe and everything.
The next morning, we walked into town to join a walking tour. It was -3 degrees. MINUS THREE DEGREES. There was snow falling at some points. Remind me again why we came to Budapest? Our tour guide, Leve, taught us a lot about the Hungarian character – a tendency to over emphasise one’s own attributes (‘mountains’ that are mere bumps, a ‘sea’ that is just a lake), to focus on victories and delete losses from historical records, and to be a little bit narky with tourists. But on the plus side, he did show us a spot to have a really hearty and cheap meal for lunch at the end of the tour. We got chatting to a couple from Portugal who were living and working in London, and we discussed the health and education systems of our respective countries while reminiscing about being warm.
Our afternoon entertainment was a guided tour of the Hospital in the Rock – a hospital and former nuclear bunker built into the rock (kudos to the people of Buda for their creative naming skills). The guide was rather serious in the face of some mildly hilarious mannequins positioned around the place, but the history of the place was really quite interesting. And it was 15 degrees underground – so it was totally worth doing the tour, just for the opportunity to be warm again.
After being ejected back out into the cold, we enjoyed the dark and foggy views over the Danube from Buda to Pest, and then after crossing the Chain Bridge we enjoyed the views back again from Pest to Buda. We then enjoyed the views of cake from inside a café – dobos torte, nom nom nom. The lights around the city were spectacular and it was a city that we had fun exploring - hard to pin it down precisely, but there was just a good 'vibe' about the place. Not as grandiose as Vienna, not as grungy as Bratislava, just a little bit flashy but still seeming 'real'. I liked it. The people were fairly friendly too - and while everyone spoke English to us, it was fun to be able to say "koszonom" at the end of the exchange and what their smiles suddenly become that little bit more genuine.
It wouldn’t be a trip to Budapest without a trip to the thermal baths, so on Wednesday morning we found ourselves walking across the city (-4 degrees!) to the Lukacs baths and being given a slightly overwhelming tour of the ‘medical treatment facility’. I felt like I was in some sort of institution – people in white coats everywhere I looked… and pretty much not my idea of a good time, but travel is supposed to be an opportunity to broaden the mind and have new experiences, so I gave it a go.
Most of the bathing participants were elderly Hungarians, with fairly sour expressions on their faces. The tourists were all the people under the age of 70 with slightly confused expressions on their faces. The sign as you entered the baths said “silence heals” – and maybe it does, but I never had the chance to find out due to intermittent drilling going on in the steam room next door. But in between bursts of drilling, there was a certain element of relaxation that could be obtained if one just stopped thinking and let the waves of Hungarian conversation roll over you. Simon loved the whole experience, and even had a massage (my worst nightmare) before we headed off to take our newly relaxed selves back into the city.
The afternoon was spent at the Flipper Muzeum – a collection of pinball machines and arcade games, all available for free play (once you had paid your admission fee, of course). Oh my goodness. This was MUCH more fun for me – and couldn’t have been further removed from the thermal bath experience! Flashing lights, strange noises… no signs saying ‘silence heals’ here! My favourite machines were those from the 1950s and 60s – something about their simplicity really worked for me. Simon was the official ‘Buckaroo’ champion, but the ten pin bowling machine found us fairly evenly matched. There was table soccer, table ice hockey (we were terrible at this), air hockey, and all sorts of other weird and wonderful entertainment options. Great fun!
We mellowed out again in the evening with a concert at the Budapest Jazz Club, which was more on the thermal bath end of the spectrum than the pinball museum end. The players seemed slightly disinterested and disengaged – all except for the drummer, who was rather offputting in his tendency to make as many different noises as he possibly could. He seemed to be trying to solo constantly instead of providing a rhythm section. Maybe it was my uncultured ears, but each piece sounded a bit samey – same tempo, same crooning vocal style. But I’ve heard much worse before, and probably will again.
For our final morning in Budapest, we hit up the Christmas markets, which were full of food stalls, souvenir stalls, hot wine, and police with massive guns. Following the unpleasant happenings in Berlin earlier in the week, there was definitely an increased police presence around the city. I think that was supposed to make us feel safer, but instead it was slightly unnerving.
We spent the afternoon commuting to the airport on a totally packed bus, and ended up standing in line in a shed while waiting to board our flight. Thank goodness the shed was heated – otherwise there may have been an uprising from the passengers of flight FR8357 as the scheduled departure time rolled around and found us all still standing in the shed.
We eventually got underway, and it was fairly meh as far as flights go. It didn’t start well, with a terribly lacklustre safety demonstration from the flight attendants. I feel that I have seen enough renditions of this routine this year to be able to offer insightful and constructive criticism, but the attendants were too busy trying to sell us overpriced sandwiches to listen to my feedback. Their loss.
We touched down at 7.40pm, and less than an hour later we were jumping on board the train to Leeds, having negotiated luggage collection, border control and the walk to the station in record time. There was even time to grab a slightly-less-overpriced-than-on-a-plane sandwich to keep us going, which Simon thought was a great investment because he’s learned how important it is not to let me get hangry when travelling. I couldn’t have been happier – I had food, and it was five degrees, making it a whole nine degrees warmer than the temperature we had left behind in Budapest. British winter come at me!