Time for Eastern Europe. Hungary!
After the delights of the Heathrow ‘shopping centre’ airport terminal, our flight left on time at 2pm. It took just 2 hours to fly across to Budapest.
Coming in to land, we flew low over the city and had amazing views – the castle, parliament, the river and even the baths. Done the city before we have even landed (!).
2014 country number 2 – Hungary
Budapest – two cities. Buda and Pest. Split by the River Danube, running across the middle. Only in 1876 did the two cities merge, originally being called Pest-Buda. Not quite such a fluid sounding name!
We ended up landing 20 minutes early, at 6pm. The terminal was deserted, so within 5 minutes we were off the plane and into a taxi! Don’t think I’ve ever been through an airport so fast!
I’m not normally a taxi user. I hate using taxis in foreign countries. I always have problems. Turkey and China being particularly awful (see my other blogs!). However, public transport from the airport isn’t too easy. You can get a bus (25-30minute drive), which takes you to the end of a metro line. This metro goes into the city – and would have taken about 40 minutes, or more to reach the hotel (i.e. A 1 hour 10 minute minimum journey). Or a taxi – a 30 minute drive. So we went for the taxi option.
The official airport taxi is Fotaxi and has a kiosk outside of the terminal. You get given a receipt for where you have asked to go – but you still pay the driver at the end, dependent upon the meter. Our trip ended up costing £19 – so fairly reasonable.
The drive was rather uneventful, past rows of run down, tatty looking buildings. Sometimes interspersed with some old buildings which had been repainted. Apparently you can still see bullet holes in some of the buildings – I didn’t spot any.
We are staying fairly central – near to a main intersection – Octogon. The taxi dropped us off outside our hotel. And then the difficulties began.
Taxis are supposed to take credit cards. They have signs all over them to say that they do. I asked to pay by card, only to be told, “no – cash only”. I have no cash (well I did, but only large notes and I wasn’t risking the ‘no change’ scam). He gave me the “Euros” option. Didn’t have any of those. I wanted to pay by card!
So eventually he succumbed to what he is obliged to do and furnished a card machine. What a faf!!
I later found out that I should have taken his taxi number down and reported this palava – and it would have meant a 2 week suspension for him – wow, harsh tactics by the Budapest taxi regulators! I guess it has to be done, otherwise people end up with a very negative impression of a place (as I did with Turkey!).
This time we have opted to stay at a ’boutique b&b’. There are 5 bedrooms, a huge huge huge shared kitchen and a large shared balcony. Our room was lovely and the whole place decorated very modern. It’s an old courtyard-style square block building and we’re 4 floors up (stairs only!). Apparently lots of these flats were used to house people during the communism period after WWII and many of them have not changed since. The owner here has bought several of them and knocked them together to create huge rooms. One of the best places I have stayed.
After a bit of a rest, we headed out.
The Vorosmarty utca metro stop was barely a 2 minute walk away. The metro is very shallow here – just a short stairway and you are onto the platform! No barriers, no escalators. And the train was just pulling up – good timing! Transport tickets here are similar to other European cities (but not like London!). If you have single-use tickets, they must be validated in a machine which is either on the platform, or on the vehicle. A random mix – and you never seem to know. If you get it wrong, and are caught (even innocently) it’s a 16,000Huf fine (£43). So to alleviate this faf, we bought 24-hour transport tickets (not the rip-off 24 hour tourist ticket!) that do not need to be validated – and you are free to come and go on metros, trams, buses and trains as you please. Easy!
We went up just 4 stops, to the city park. Destination – the Szechenyi Baths.
Budapest lies on a geological fault line. As a result, there are hot springs. Some 123 of them. 30,000 cubic meters of this mineral water is pumped into the city every day in varying temperatures.
These baths are housed in a huge old building, with the outdoor pools in the middle courtyard. It may seem a little odd going to these baths at night – but they are all lit up and it’s actually pretty cool! You can buy a locker ticket, or a cabin ticket. A cabin ticket gives you a small individual changing room.
To get in, you are given a bracelet which acts as a digital lock to your mini cubicle. They are very old fashioned small wooden rooms. Quite cute though! Outside there are 3 large pools.
One being a swimming pool – only allowed in here with a swimming cap. And 2 smaller (but still huge!) sitting pools. The first we tried was 30 degrees. And had ‘fun’ parts – lots of squirting water, bubbles and a circular ‘path’ section of fast moving water. The second pool was much hotter – 38 degrees! And it felt really hot.
The signs around recommended that you spend no longer than 20 minutes in this one. It was a bit hot for me. There are also 12 indoor pools. I wandered around the inside section – very elaborate, decorated with columns. These pools were divided into different sections, one area was labelled ‘thermal’ (although I don’t know how that is different to the others). These indoor pools were much smaller than the outdoor pools – and the water was all different colours, one being particularly milky looking!
Saturday 22 March 2014
We had a nice lie in this morning, before heading down to breakfast. Yoghurt and pastries – lovely! (Cooked breakfast was offered, but I’m not such a fan). And then we went off for a walk down Andrassy Av. Just outside our door step – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – a lovely tree-lined avenue of shops!
Nestled in between the high-end shops is the Hungarian State Opera House. A very beautiful building! We could have attended a concert here – tickets start at just £3…maybe next time!
At the end of Andraasy Av is the large intersection of Deak Ferenc Ter and here we hopped on a tram for the rest of the way down to Nagycsarnok – a huge market hall.
Lines of mini shops circling around the massive hall selling everything from fruits and vegetables to meats, cakes, alcohol and a few bits of tourist tat (i.e. magnets!). It was quickly obvious that Hungary is proud of its paprika and fruit flavoured brandy – sold everywhere!
We bought a slice of raspberry cream cake (50p) and ate it sat down by the river – lovely views of the Citadella atop Gellert hill, opposite.
We headed up the river on the tram and got off by the Szechenyi Chain bridge – the oldest in the city – built in 1849. Flanked by 2 lions at each entrance, the tall stone blocks are connected by long green metal sections. And covered in Hungarian flags! It was pretty.
And rather windy as we crossed over to Buda! With great views up the river. The Buda side of the river is dominated by the Castle Hill, upon which the Buda castle dominates the skyline and has done since the 13th century. The castle district runs for 1km, 170m above the river and is now a maze of churches and castle buildings dotted along small cobbled streets. Another UNESCO world heritage site. This city is full of them!
To get up to the hill, there are paths of winding steps, through a small leafy area. (Or if you can be bothered to queue, you can take the short funicular to the top). We walked. On the Southern end of the castle hill is the palace. This site has been home to several palaces. The first being built in the 7th century which was destroyed in 1686 by the Turks. A subsequent palace destroyed by the Nazis in 1945. The buildings were then rebuilt and now house averts museums. Some old ruins of walls/ foundations can still be seen. Probably the best part of the hill was the views out across the Danube and it’s bridges, and the Parliament building.
As we made our way up and along the walls, the view just got better and better! We made our way along the hill, past a small market and bumped into the changing of the guard. Men dressed in green uniforms were marching and passing guns between them! The Matthias church is pretty from the outside – decorative spires and a colourful tiled roof. The small gardens to the side were full of cherry blossom.
The Fisherman’s Bastion was built as a lookout point in 1905. The seven turrets – built to represent the Magyar tribes who arrived in the 7th century, are said to offer some of the best views out across the city. Not one to miss out on some views – we went to have a look! At a fairly reasonable 700Ft (£1.86) entrance fee, it did indeed offer some great views!
However as a company had hired out half of the area, we were restricted to only a small part of the walls, which was a bit annoying – and you could have got the same view by not paying and just walking along the bottom of the wall. After making our way down from the Castle Hill, we wound our way back down to the river through various streets of houses and small parks.
We eventually ended up at Batthyany Ter – directly opposite the Parliament building. (Again for some nice views!) We carried on up river, towards Margaret bridge. A yellow coloured bridge which connects Buda and Pest to the large Margaret island which sits in the middle of the river.
The island was very very busy – full of locals. Not sure where everyone was headed to! Perhaps just a Saturday afternoon in the park.
From the bridge, we caught the tram back to our hotel – almost right back to our door! And sat up on the balcony enjoying the afternoon sun.
Later that evening we headed back out for dinner. We went to a restaurant which came recommended – and was very busy! I wanted to try something Hungarian so opted for a stew ravioli in a paprika sauce. Not my usual kind of food, but it was really tasty! We wandered back down to the river for some night views!
At nighttime the buildings and bridges are all lit up – really pretty! After wandering along for a while (and coming across a random band and bar set up on the river banks!) we caught the tram back up the river and back home again (via an icecream stall!).
Sunday 23 March
First stop this morning – Parliament.
Completed in 1902, this building is an icon of Budapest. The only way to get inside is to book onto one of the 45minute tours (1,750Huf – £4.68). We had booked for 12pm, so had some time to wander around the green squares surrounding the large building. The surrounding grounds were all very new – recently refurbished!
To get inside there was airport-style scanning. So by the time everyone had passed through, that was the first 15minutes of the tour done!
We visited only a couple of the 690 rooms. All were extremely extravagant; gold paint, murals covering the walls and ceilings and sculptures built into the walls. As soon as we were in, we were greeted by a huge staircase leading down on each side – and down further through the middle. Very elaborate.
We went into the dome room. Apparently 96m tall. Directly under the dome was the Hungarian crown of St Stephen (a gold crown!) and sword – these are national treasures. We also visited the circular parliament room, with all the MP’s seats. A very gold room! An interesting insight into a very extravagant building!
A few streets away was St Stephens Basilica. Another very pretty, huge domed building. The ceiling again covered in detailed frescos. Apparently the main sight here is a mummified hand of St Stephen. We didn’t go to see that…! One thing I have noticed here is that they seem to love their statues. Almost every street corner is adorned by a statue of a some man. A variety of politicians, artists and an American president. Random.
At 4pm it was time to head back to the airport. Weekend over already! We opted for a taxi again, rather than try out the public transport. So the hotel called one up for us and within 30 minutes we were at the airport. I suppose it was too much to ask for it to be this easy. This driver made a big fuss about taking a credit card. (Again!!) But eventually did. The whole time the car was being circled by several policemen. Who, as soon as we got out, pulled the car over. Don’t know why!! I just don’t get on with taxis! Our 6pm flight was slightly delayed, but still landed early. Back in chilly England.