Once again, we are on the road, this time exploring Eastern Europe on a two month adventure. After 2 long flights, we wake up from an Ambien-induced nap to find our plane starting its descent into the (currently) rainy city of Budapest where English is a foreign language, the alphabet looks strange and inaccessible to us and the currency, Hungarian Forints, contains a dizzying number of digits. We booked just four days in Budapest, figuring from Bill's recollection that there was not much to see in this city, thereby allowing us to spend most of our time here getting over jet lag. However, five days later on the train to Vienna, we are still jet lagged and sleep deprived, going to bed after 1:00 am and waking up at 6:00, then hitting a mind-numbing wall at 5 o'clock in the afternoon every day, because Budapest turns out to be nothing like Bill remembered. While he was away, much of the city has been renovated and now has the feel of a smaller and less densely populated Paris. In other words, we could have happily spent a full week here so the jet lag recovery plan is shelved and our exploring goes into overdrive as we try to quickly immerse ourselves in this spectacular city. Actually, Budapest is two cities, Buda and Pest, separated by the Danube river which winds through the middle. Grand boulevards lined with monumental architecture and sculpture and lush trees, many in bloom this time of year, give us plenty of opportunities for screensaver shots.
While the tree-lined streets with their stately buildings are quite elegant, the people are anything but. As a whole, the population is rather unattractive to our aesthetic sensibility. I guess we just don't appreciate the thick, beefy Slavic facial features. Most people we see look unhealthy and are quite plump, eating a steady diet of fatty foods, and consuming vast quantities of beer, alcohol and cigarettes. Fashion is at least 20 years behind us with heavy nylon stockings still worn under all ladies garments including under skin tight blue jeans...so glad we are over that horribly uncomfortable look! The air temperature is in the mid-70's and I am happy wearing light cotton leggings and a short-sleeved shirt but most locals are still wearing scarves and heavy parkas. In many ways, Hungary still evokes a feeling of a Soviet Bloc country even though Communist rule here ended in 1989. It's hard to put a finger on why but the people here still seem a bit downtrodden, depressed and somber.
On our first full day, we head out to the Great Market. Multi-level and cavernous, it feels like it is the size of a large airplane hanger but much more exotic and colorful. While catering to tourists, we also notice plenty of locals waiting in line to get their strudels and spices. Caviar and foie gras are cheap and plentiful here. Hungary borders seven countries including Ukraine (major caviar purveyors) and we learn that Hungary is second only to France in their consumption of goose liver products. Of course, fragrant paprika is sold everywhere here, too. We take note of which stalls the older regulars are shopping at and go on a buying spree. Afterwards, we head upstairs to the takeaway food places and indulge in traditional Hungarian dishes of sausage, onions, and potatoes and another dish of chicken covered in a cauliflower cream sauce topping, a meal that rests like a sack of old tires in our stomachs for the next 24 hours.
Our odd waking and sleeping schedule results in our wandering the streets of Budapest at night following "Uncle Ricky's" (Rick Steves) walking tours. Fortunately, the city is just as pretty by night, and all the tourist areas are alive with restaurants, bars, and shops. Since Budapest is at the same approximate latitude as Seattle, even in early May, it's still light outside after 9 pm.
Much of Budapest is built above thermal waters, and the city has several famous public baths--day spas which are another highlight of our visit here. On the quieter Buda side of the river, we go to the Gellert Baths, located adjacent to the fancy Gellert Hotel. Inside, decorated in late 19th-century detailed mosaics, we wander through the palatial architecture entering a maze of passageways leading to the various indoor pools and end our visit with relaxing massages.
The other bathing complex, the Széchenyi baths, is in Pest. It's a much larger complex and seems to attract more families than the pricier Gellert Baths. Though not quite as elaborately designed, it is still an aesthetically pleasing experience, the best part of this one being the outdoor pools where we can watch the clouds roll by, floating on our backs in the warm mineral waters as the sun sets.
Now off to Vienna where we hope our body clocks will get reset to local time.