Hungary for more

Trip Start Jun 20, 2005
Trip End Jul 07, 2005

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Wednesday, July 6, 2005

July 5 (Tuesday), Krivan to Budapest

We aren't really having a honeymoon, given that, having travelled from Canada to Eastern Europe, we were already kind of on it. However, we did decide to spend a few days in Budapest, somewhere I had long wanted to visit. So we caught the 8:50am train from Krivan to Budapest, via the other side of Slovakia instead of the direct route that we found out about later. When we stopped in Zvolen, Jane said we might see someone we knew. Sure enough, Rosscoe and Mike Fry were standing on the platform so Jane hollered out to them and they jumped in with us. They were heading to Bratislava, so we chatted about stuff for a couple of hours before Jane and I disembarked in a boring little town called Galanta, to wait for our connecting train to Budapest.

It was a grayish afternoon when we chugged into Budapest but the city looked great. It is very majestic and European, not as bleak and drab as I had expected. The buildings are all tall and ornate and tower over the streets like an older, smaller New York. We walked from the train station to our hostel, about a 45 minute walk through the city.

The hostel's reception is on the second floor of an apartment building and staffed by two friendly ladies. One of them, who seemed to be the manager, explained that there had been a double-booking and that the dorm we had requested was no longer available. Instead, she offered us a discount on some kind of 'loft' situation. We agreed and she walked us across the street to another building and up to the third floor. The apartment is very grand - chandeliers, high ceilings, elaborately decorated furniture, old-fashioned décor, etc. Our section of the apartment, the 'loft' is up a steep and narrow flight of stairs but only partially secluded from the dining room immediately below it. For 12 euro per person a night, however, it is more than suitable.

Following a shower (with no shower curtain, of course), we had about two-and-a-half hours before our scheduled dinner date with Jon, who had travelled from the wedding to Budapest independently. Once we got outside, it was raining so we browsed some of the local merchants. In a medium-sized supermarket I chose a little pastry for 86 forint, hoping to break my large 10,000 forint note ($1US = 200 forint), the only money we had. The lady wouldn't accept it but some nice locals offered to buy the little pastry for me. I tried to explain that I only wanted to break my large note, and didn't really care about the pastry but by that time they had gone. So I took my 10,000 note to the next cashier who accepted it with extreme reluctance and we snuck out with our tails between our legs.

The trendiest shopping street in Budapest is called Vaci Utca, which was on our way to Buda, the other side of the river. While we were window shopping the expensive stores it started to bucket down with rain so we had to zip in and out of the various shops to avoid it. As it lightened a little, we crossed the bridge to Buda and gradually made our way to the Horvath restaurant, recommended by our little guide book, to meet Jon.

It was about 7:30 when we arrived for our 8pm date, so we ordered a beer and waited. And waited. Eight o'clock came and went with no sign of Jon so we ordered starters. Eight-thirty drifted by, while the rain continued to fall outside. We had just about given up on him and ordered our mains when he rolled in, wet but happy, at about 8:50pm. The three of us shared Slovakia-to-Budapest travel stories, had our hearty dinners and another beer or two. By the time we made it home we were dead tired.

July 6 (Wednesday), Budapest

Our 'loft' was located right above the front door of the apartment, so I woke up every time someone came into the apartment, turned a light on or off, opened or closed a door or went to the bathroom. Might have to invest in some earplugs.

The Gellert baths are one of the most famous landmarks of Budapest. Very turn-of-the-century ornate and regal, they adjoin one of Budapest's poshest hotels and are quite large in scale. Jane and I swum together in the communal pools, the famous ones you see in the postcards. The pool itself is attractive without being extraordinary, but the setting certainly is, with the enormous high ceiling above you and the classical columns that surround the swimming area.

Having had our fill, we parted ways to explore the segregated thermal baths. The baths complex is just that - complex. It is a huge labyrinth of unmarked doors that lead to dark corridors that emerge into random bath areas or, just as often, changing rooms or maintenance closets. There are no signs, maps or English-speaking staff around to help, so you basically just wander around in your togs or tiny towel/apron until you stumble across a bathing area.

One such room had two large hot pools that reminded me of what the Roman baths must have been like - all painted stone with a steamy haze camouflaging the withered bodies of the patrons who reclined against the walls. The locals, generally middle-aged and older, meandered around, interspersed with the odd gaggle of Japanese men grouped together in a corner. One of the pools had '36°' marked on it and the other had '38°' on it. I presume that these were intentionally designed to be one degree lower and higher than body temperature and they definitely feel different. I felt suitably brave after a few minutes in each of these to head to the sauna. It was unbearably hot. I tried to be a tough guy and stick it out but could physically last for only about a minute before leaping into the nearby ice pool.

We had both pre-paid for massages so, after a few more dips in the various pools, I went looking for the massage chamber. Of course it was not signposted, so I had to poke my head into all sorts of rooms and ended up spending almost 30 minutes looking for the right place. I finally found it and took a seat on the waiting-bench, next to three other men. The room was windowless and concrete, a little like how you might imagine the lobby of a torture chamber would look. In one corner, a beefy, large-bellied, topless man was pounding and kneading an elderly Hungarian, who lay naked on what looked like an ironing board. In the centre of the room was a deep pool of water with a bunch of poles, straps and pipes that formed some kind of underwater massage contraption. While I'm sure it worked okay, it did not look very pleasant and it was possibly in breach of the Geneva Convention.

In time, the guy motioned towards me that it was my turn. I had to drop drawers and jump up onto the ironing board. My masseur started poking, kneading and rubbing away. It was, I'll admit, a little painful in parts, like when he was pushing down on my knee with a good amount of force and when he started digging the knots out of my shoulder. After about 25 minutes, he gave me a slap on the backside to indicate for me to get up and leave. I felt a little like Gumby for the first few steps but, after a few minutes, was back to normal.

I waited around back in the communal area for Jane to finish her massage and come out. She was quite a while and, when she emerged, it turned out that she hadn't even had one. She had waited for an hour and a half, while new women walked in and got taken care of straight away. Unable to communicate verbally, she had tried to indicate that she was next in line but was just told to sit down and wait some more. After 90 minutes of this, she gave up. We went to the front desk and insisted that she get a refund, but the attendant was dubious, believing she had been massaged and that we were taking them for a ride. We kept cool and spoke with some kind of manager, who did refund Jane her money but the episode certainly put a dampener on the overall experience.

Following an exotic lunch of pastries from a large market, we boarded a tram to the "House of Terror". It is not an amusement park ride, as the name might suggest, but a museum located in the actual former headquarters of the Hungarian Communist party. The museum highlighted a lot of the abuses inflicted on the Hungarian people, firstly by the Nazis and then, almost equally, by the Communists. The worst part was viewing the cells that they had in the basement, where dissidents were imprisoned. Overall it was rather a sobering experience.

Our dinner date was at a hard-to-find place called Marxim, which I had read about in an article in National Geographic Traveller. It is a retro-Communist-themed pub/restaurant with all sorts of Stalin pictures, satirical graffiti, red stars, chicken wire between the booths and pizzas with names like 'Gulag', 'Marximalist' and 'Siberian Dream'. Jane and I had arranged to meet Jon (who was late again) and Alastair and Taryn, who had arrived in Budapest that day from Kosice (in Slovakia). It was great to see them again so we had our pizzas and a good number of beers.
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