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Editor’s Note: Ryan Danz of Amazing Race 21 recently spent nearly a month in Europe going hither and yon, beginning with his Running of the Bulls in Spain. He’s being gracious enough to share with our readers more of his trip. Below the article is a slide show of some of his photos, those not included in the article, of his time in Budapest.
The bridge over the Danube River, separating Buda from Pest. (Image: Ryan Danz, © 2013, All Rights Reserved, Not to be used without permission)
Ryan Danz – Central European and Eastern bloc cities and countries are quickly becoming mainstay tourist locations beyond their better-known western European counterparts, and rightfully so. Vienna, Prague, Istanbul,
Moscow (the recent Putin/Snowden, Putin/Pussy Riot, Russian Anti-Gay movement makes this a difficult inclusion in this list), Kiev, Warsaw and Dubrovnik, to name a few, have all shed their war-torn landscape and reputations and everything else negative that may have held them back on the list of world-renowned cities in recent years. But none is more developed, exciting, pleasant to the senses or offers more to do to its visitors than Budapest. In fact, I am now proposing a name change, Budabest.
Arriving early in the morning from Pisa, Italy, I last-minute-booked-upon-arrival an airport shuttle (the kind you share with other passengers that make multiple airport terminal and city stops) at the Ferenc Liszt airport. Maybe I slightly overpaid (in comparison to having booked ahead of time) but I quickly realized that the exchange rate was quite favorable (the Hungarian forint “HUF” vs. the US Dollar; 100 HUF = .44cents). The trip to my hotel, Corinthia Budapest in the city center took 30 minutes. A 5-star property for a 3-star price, every tripadvisor.com review was spot on. This was a clean, well-appointed, beautifully decorated and designed property. The most attractive feature was that at the height of its tourist season I paid $446.22, for 3 nights. Beyond outrageously cheap; it almost seemed like there was a glitch in their calculation system. There was not. It was also during this checking-in time between the concierge, front desk staff and nearby restaurant hostesses and servers that something else became evident about Budapest, pause for effect, the women are beyond beautiful. All of them. Like supermodel-y gorgeous. The men, not so much. Heidi Klum meet Mr. Bean.
Digression. Back to my arriving well prior to my check in time, the front desk staff at Corinthia Hotel was cordial and accommodating. They offered and I obliged to leave my backpack with them while I headed just around the corner to the end of the block where a Starbucks would serve me. There are just some creature comforts from home to which I am beholden. I also found the best hole-in-the-wall gyro bar I have ever had. And I once spent nearly two weeks in Athens, Mykonos and Santorini. So I know gyros. Along the way, no later than 10am, within the span of a two city blocks, at least 3 more supermodels. It felt like a trick. I kept waiting for someone with a camera to jump out.
Eventually making it back to my room and chuckling to myself as I dropped off my very third-class, well-traveled and worn out backpack in my very first-class hotel room, I headed to the streets. Typically when I travel, I opt for the ‘off the beaten path’/‘immerse with the locals’ itinerary, and none of the ‘obvious tourist’ stuff. But with only a couple of days and almost zero background or insight on the city, I decided there was too much palpable historical and cultural happenings (buildings, events, landmarks) that I couldn’t pass up seeing.
Cue the bright red double-decker bus with the fifteen language headsets and tourists crammed in like sardines. These tour buses are common to most every major city but are a great way to see the locale, especially if it’s a company that allows for jumping on and off and switching to other routes, including waterways. Double bonus if a single days ticket allows two days of riding. I found one such company.
From noon until 4pm, the Hop On-Hop Off tour bus wound its way around the city with me jumping on and off to follow its red and yellow line paths, with stops in front of the Opera House, Parliament, Heroes’ Square and the Budapest Academy of Music. I felt an immediate adoration and connection with the city.
Hopping off at the stop in the city’s famed district V, the weather, hot and dry and not t-shirt-drenched humid like coastal Italy, I was contented enough that walking down Vaci Street was a pleasant experience.
One of the most unique features about Budapest is its thermal baths and bath houses. In the US there is a certain connotation that goes with ‘Bathhouse’ and usually involves some reference to John Travolta. That is not the case abroad. Having endured a Turkish bathhouse a year prior in Istanbul while filming an actual task on The Amazing Race, I had some idea of what to expect. The Rudas bath house (one of only four Turkish baths in Budapest), dark and cool offered a plethora of pool temperatures to soak in from sauna hot (105 degrees) to Yosemite waterfall cold (50 degrees) and a place to escape the nearly 100 degree outdoor temperatures. I opted for a 30-minute massage as well. Laszlo was gentler than his Turkish counterpart my first go round that day in Istanbul. But ‘gentler’ was not what I was looking for. I like my massages like my coffee, strong. Additionally, the proximity of the massage room to the very loud and very fast traffic passing under our 2nd story window made it difficult to enjoy the experience. I most likely will not opt for Laszlo’s services again, but would gladly return to Rudas Bath House.
The city’s design is simple and straightforward and its topography mostly flat throughout, making walking a pleasure. However, once you cross the Danube river (which also hosts Prague and Vienna to the northwest and west, respectively), from the Pest side (where the center city exists) to the Buda side, you will find a more hilly terrain and more difficult walking experience. It also happens to be the side where some of the city’s most infamous baths (Gellert, Rudas, Kiraly, Lukacs), Fisherman’s Bastion (a must if just for the views), Castle Hill and the best views of the city are all located.
In the evening I made my way by foot to Raday Street – lined with bars, cafes and restaurants, all providing outdoor seating (save but a few taxis, the street traffic was limited to just people). I found a pleasant checkered tablecloth type eatery where I ordered the mustard chicken, side salad, a coffee (espresso) and bottle of still water. Total spent: $3100 HUF or US $14.00.
Something that I haven’t been able to get used to and isn’t native to just Budapest, but rather Western and Eastern European towns and cities more generally, cigarette smoking. Everywhere. Including at the dinner table. During dinner. While people eat. Inside or outside.
If Day 1 was a chance to take it all in, see the layout, feel the vastness of the cities historic buildings and districts, then day 2 was about living it up and immersing in the Budapest way of life.
To do this I hopped-on/off my double-decker bus at Central Market, Fisherman’s Bastion, Gellert Hill Cave (a church within a cave) and worth the six minutes it takes to tour it thoroughly, for free)), crossed the Schzenchi Chain bridge by foot, perused the Millenaris Park and then accidentally discovered one of the highlights of my trip.
Walking from Fisherman’s Bastion the wrong direction to get down the hill, I passed an open door in a quiet town on Uri Utca (street). Glancing in as I walked by I saw nothing but a single stair and a steep drop. That seemed odd, so I did a double take and stuck my head in the open doorway. The artwork on the wall indicated it was open to the public and something of historical significance. I made my way down the very steep and very dark staircase. Twisting through an underground tunnel, I found a front desk of sorts and paid the 3000HUF/$13.00US to explore the unknown. The Labyrinth of Buda Castle are a series of tunnels that offer a variety of twists and turns, head bending low ceilings, temperatures 20 to 30 degrees cooler than street level and a well-developed history of Count Dracula replete with wall placards, an imitation coffin, jail cell and arm cuffs chained to a stone wall. Yes, please. My counterparts at tripadvisor.com do not seem to be in unanimous agreement, but I thoroughly enjoyed this underground experience and would recommend it to anyone looking for something to do off the sun drenched beaten path. If you can find it.
In the evening, the TG Italiano restaurant in the heart of District V and a cup of gelato from just beyond the doors of St. Stephen’s Basilica was as trendy and sophisticated as any SoHo NYC hot spot. Afterwards, I decided to brave the rumor and legend that is known only as ‘spa party’. It is in fact no rumor. It is not for the faint of heart, and it’s definitely all spa and all party, all night. The Szechenyi Baths by day are a place for adults and families alike to enjoy the thermal waters, take a lap or enjoy any of the many pools in a castle like setting. A must for any Budapest visitor. But by night during the summer, only on Saturday nights, it’s about as close to a real life bacchanalia as you can get. The party kicks off at 10:30pm, and under this night’s full moon, the night belonged to the young revelers and their inhibitions, or lack thereof. I won’t
nauseate bore you with the details, but in addition to excessive amounts of alcohol, there were no fewer than six different acts of extreme public display’s of affection that I noticed. We’re not just talking about kissing couples off in the corner or under the towels of some private bungalow. This was a whole lot more than a kiss, right smack dab in the middle of the pool party. Heads up on that one if you’re wading nearby.
Overall, Budapest was a wonderful city, it’s people kind and welcoming, its sites breathtaking, its history rich and well-preserved and its buildings dramatic and filled with culture and energy. In time I will prepare a list of my favorite major world cities and you can be sure Budapest will be at or near the top.
A Featured Attraction that was no Highlight to me
Passing by the New York Café day 1 on the Hop On-Hop Off tour bus, I learned it was regarded and acclaimed as “The Best Café in the World”. Judging by its outward appearance of grand allure, I could see how that might be the case. On the inside the main room hemorrhaged royalty everywhere. Extravagant chandeliers, Sistine chapel-esque ceilings, lavish wood work. It certainly had the appearance of what I would guess would be number one of anything in the world. Since the café was just a hop, skip and a jump down the street from my hotel, I made it over just around the time a mid-morning coffee and snack made sense. Let’s call it 11am. Granted, I do not travel as most, I’m usually unshaven and my attire is comparable to how I dressed on The Amazing Race, some combination of Lululemon Athletica top and bottoms (shameless plug), a bandana, and Ray Ban sunglasses. So I get that I don’t look like the pre-eminent world traveler that would frequent such a celebrated café. And while I’m certainly not taking this to Oprah-esque levels of gripeness, it should be noted that just because I look a certain way doesn’t mean I cannot afford your elitist croissants or parvenu bagels. Keep the change paraszt.
Regardless, the service (or lack thereof) at New York Café would have you believing I walked in reeking of dead fish, dragging an injured puppy with an image of Elizabeth Báthory on my t-shirt. I stood alone at the counter for over five minutes waiting to be hosted by the hostess. I swear to Buda (see what I did there?) she was standing right there, the entire time. It was a weird few moments of awkward silence. By time I politely demanded her attention and desire to be seated, she reluctantly brought me to a table far removed from the other patrons. It was then another handful of minutes passed before a server attended to me. I asked for coffee and what my breakfast options were, as no menu was dropped off. Conversation was minimal. I ordered the coffee. It was fine, just as good as anywhere else, but certainly not worth the 1464HUF ($5.20). The breakfast buffet begins breaking down promptly at 11am. Yet, do not be surprised if you are not informed of this even after you serve yourself and manage just one serving of fruit and a croissant. You will still see the 8000HUF charge on your bill ($35). Good times. Here’s a link to the Cafe’s website so you can enjoy the only positives of this establishment without all the negatives. http://budapest.boscolohotels.com/restaurant-and-bar/new-york-cafe/