Friday to Saturday, September 22-23: Four days in Budapest and this is our first, but only after Lufthansa carries us, miserably uncomfortable in economy class aisle seats, for 7:55 hours through a six-hour time zone change and across the north Atlantic to Frankfurt.
While airborne, I squirm and wriggle and try to sleep, but manage to snooze less than a half hour, instead captivated by a series of shows on the small screen inset into the seatback: first, a German-language movie Die Reste Mienes Lebens, in which Schimon lives his life following his pregnant wife’s death by clinging to a sentence his grandfather once told him, “Everything in life happens the way it should.” Second, Mama Mia and its exuberant ABBA songs delight me once again (how many times have I watched that movie?), although our destination will be nothing like the Greek island where that magical love story takes place. Finally, I watch the first of seven episodes of the TV-miniseries, Big Little Lies, which took away eight Emmys this year.
We wait in Frankfurt for nearly three hours, where Mike gets a little shut-eye while splayed across the seats in the airport. All airports should ban armrests and have sets of lounge chairs like Frankfurt does so people can relax between flights. Meanwhile, I busy myself with a fancy coffee and pastry, in what will become a 2-week pastry extravaganza — resulting in a few extra pounds!
Finally, the airline lifts us the last hour and a half to our destination. We taxi to our Pest neighborhood in a steady drizzle under heavy clouds, bringing to mind the 1999 movie, Gloomy Sunday, which takes place in 1930s Budapest and features the famous melancholic melody which, according to urban legend, triggered a chain of suicides. The suicide connection is unsubstantiated, but it’s probable that events in the decade in which the song was written, such as famine, poverty and the rise of Nazi Germany, may have influenced the high number of suicides at that time.
Instead it is a Gloomy Saturday, but our enthusiasm at exploring a new city is not one bit dampened.
The taxi drops us off on Kazinczy utca, the street on which Charlie’s Budapest is located; we booked the apartment through Airbnb. Number 7 is simply a weathered door in a long nondescript wall. We beep for apartment 7 and soon Charlie arrives with his two lively little girls, Chia and Eliye, to let us in. We enter through two large disheveled 4-story courtyards with peeling yellow paint, hinting at Old World charm. The apartment has a large bright bedroom, a nice well-stocked kitchen with an instant espresso machine, and a patio out the back door which we will use if the weather improves and if we’re able to open and close the door easily (for some reason it’s rather challenging).
The apartment sits on the ground floor in the far corner of two adjoining four-story courtyards. Our door is to the left of the two pink chairs.
After Charlie gives us the rundown on Budapest, we put on our raincoats and venture out into the drizzle.
Kazinczy Street is in Budapest’s old District VII neighborhood, the old Jewish quarter, and since spring of 2012 has been dubbed as Street of Culture (a Kultúra utcája). Here in the decaying buildings left by World War II, funky bars and a lively nightlife scene have sprung up amidst the ruins. These so-called “ruin bars” line our street. We plan to visit one during our stay, so I’ll talk more about them when that time comes.
Szimpla Kert, the city’s first and most famous ruin bar, set in a dilapidated apartment complex, sits a few doors down and across the narrow street from our apartment complex. Tour groups and lone travelers wander down the street, snapping photos of the colorful ruin bars and eatery exteriors with cameras, iPads and smart phones.
Can you find Waldo in the picture below?
Immediately, Mike throws my detailed plan (outlined in an extensive spreadsheet) out the window, pointing out that going across the Danube to the Buda side doesn’t make sense for today as our apartment is on the Pest side and we’re getting a late start. He’s right of course, so I shrug and we meander through grand pastel-colored baroque, neoclassical, eclectic and Art Nouveau buildings to Szent István tér.
We wander streets garnished with enigmatic street art, curvaceous facades, vibrant flower stalls, and empty outdoor cafes.
The outdoor cafes would look inviting but for the light drizzle and cool temps.
I fall in love with the vintage signs found through Budapest and even end up buying one later in our stay.
The neo-renaissance Roman Catholic St. Stephen’s Basilica looms in front of us at Szent István tér and we must of course climb the 364 steps to the dome’s observation deck. Both the Basilica and the Parliament Building are 96 meters tall, and regulations don’t permit any other buildings in Budapest to be taller than these. The equal heights of these buildings represent a power balance between church and state in Hungary; they also represent the balance between worldly and spiritual thinking.
The patron saint of the church is St. Stephen (c. 975-1038), the first king of Hungary. His mummified right hand is kept in a glass case in the reliquary.
We find a statue of St. Gregorius in a niche on the wall of the Basilica.
We also find Gothic looking details on a building across the way.
After climbing the increasingly narrow and claustrophobic 364 steps to the dome, we find fabulous panoramic views of Budapest from the solid balcony. The Parliament Building, one of the Basilica’s bell towers, the Buda Hills, and the Budapest Eye Ferris Wheel on Erzsébet Square sprawl out before us. At this point, I don’t know enough about the city to identify other sites.
Inside the church, we’re awed by the red marble and gold interior.
Doing things in reverse order, we view the front facade of St. Stephen’s Basilica as we exit the building.
We’re hungry by this time, and though there are Hungarian restaurants aplenty, we opt for the Hachapuri Georgian Restaurant across the street from the Basilica. The menu out front looks healthy and enticing.
I can finally shed my raincoat inside the warm and cozy Hachapuri.
I order Hikali, a set of four dumplings with four different fillings: mushroom, cheese, spinach and potato. Drawings on the menu demonstrate that one should hold the dumpling pouches by the gathered opening, and then bite into them, but I find them too hot and simply cut them up. They’re delicious.
As we will do many times during our trip, we forget to take a picture of Mike’s colorful Vegi Gobi before digging in, so I take a picture of the menu. The Georgian platter has tomato-cucumber and parsley salads, hummus, cheese with mint, and various flavors of walnut balls served with a light yogurt sauce. Meant to be shared between family and friends, Mike kindly shares some with me, although I’m too stuffed from my dumplings to partake much in his meal.
Lunch takes longer than we intended and by the time we finish, we realize we will miss the final daily 3:00 English tour of the Hungarian State Opera House. Instead, we decide to follow the Budapest Walking Tour in Lonely Planet Hungary, walking down Andrássy út, an avenue dating back to 1872 and recognized as a World Heritage Site since 2002. The avenue is lined with Neo-renaissance mansions and townhouses and is one of Budapest’s main shopping streets. The walk ends at Heroes’ Square, near the largest medicinal baths in Europe, Széchenyi Baths. We have our bathing suits and flip-flops in our backpacks, intending to check it out!