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HUNGARY

We've been to Budapest twice now and enjoyed it very much each time.  The second time was a little strange, however.

We had "trained" it in from Bratislava and grabbed two cabs at the train station and headed for our hotel--the fabulous Hilton on the Buda side of the Danube.   Our cab driver got caught up in mega traffic along a main drag and kept muttering "something" in Hungarian and shaking his fist.  He would look at the stopped traffic, look back at us in the back seat and say: "Kaboom!   Kaboom!"  We didn't understand him, of course, but did notice that cars were being randomly stopped and searched by the police.  When we got to the hotel everybody was glued to a t.v. in the lobby and we learned the story.  

Just hours before our arrival, a gangland type bomb had gone off killing 4 and injuring 25 others in a heavily touristed area.  Cops were lookin' for the culprits.

Our first trip was another one of our “weekend blitzes” although the radio station where I work was kind enough to give me Monday and Tuesday off. Then again I earned that comp time for working holidays earlier in the year!

After the shift on Friday we headed to Metro Airport in Detroit and caught our flight to Atlanta. We are Delta fanatics and that always means a jump to Atlanta or Cincinnati to start our journey for real. We had an unusually short connection this time and didn’t get to enjoy Delta’s great international business lounge in Terminal E in Atlanta. Oh well!

We boarded our jet at about 3:25pm with departure scheduled at 3:55pm. Everything seemingly went well with a flight attendant giving us the usual schpiel about “just as soon as everybody is seated we’re ready for immediate push-back.” Turns out, though, something was wrong with the anti-skid brakes on the plane so we remained at the gate---for THREE HOURS. They asked us to stay on board in the event the problem was fixed sooner than anticipated. Finally we were off and running just before 7pm.

It was a beautiful flight. We flew right over Charlotte, North Carolina...and then up the coast passing over or near Washington, Philly, New York and Boston. It was dark by the time we passed just west of Boston and the lights were beautiful. I could even see the distinct “arm shape” of Cape Cod off to the east. Then it was over Halifax...Gander...and over the North Atlantic. As the sun came up we passed over Galway, Ireland...then over Cardiff, Wales.....Bristol, England.....and close enough to the coastal city of Brighton that we could easily see the piers.

Then London appeared under our jumbo jet 37,000 feet below. We’ve flown over London before but this was a very special over-flight. We were right, smack dab over London at 7am on the day of Princess Diana’s funeral.

Soon after London we flew right over Dover and we could easily see the famous white cliffs. Calais, France was next and we could see that the car and truck ferries were still operating despite competition from the new Eurostar Chunnel Train that goes under the English channel.

Breakfast was served and soon we were approaching Stuttgart, Germany. After an hour and a half on the ground at the Stuttgart airport we were finally on our way to our final destination of Budapest. Even this short flight was interesting. We flew over Munich, Germany and passed by the German and Austrian Alps on the right side of the plane.

Finally, we landed in Budapest...cleared customs and immigration...and took a mini-bus to our hotel---the Budapest Hilton. We checked in at about 1pm their time.....or 7am Detroit time. Now folks--that’s one long day for me. I had gotten up at 2:30am the previous day...did my news shift on the air...then made the Atlantic crossing and my “day” was ending 28 1/2 hours later!!!!

We were tired but the weather was just Buda-beautiful! Sunshine and 72 degrees. So we left our hotel and milled around a bit in the Castle Hill district.

Budapest is actually two cities. Buda is on one side of the Danube River and is quite hilly. It’s where our hotel was located. Pest is on the other side of the river and is very flat. Pest is where the Parliament building is located and all the big department stores, etc.

The Budapest Hilton was an incredible place. It was built in 1977 on a site once occupied by an old Abbey. During the hotel construction they didn’t want to lose the old treasures so they restored the ruins as they built the hotel in and around them! So as we walked through the Hilton we actually saw parts of the old Abbey that dated back to the 1200’s. Quite neat and unusual.

Outside our hotel, the hills of Buda were beautiful. Cobblestone streets with a great view down the hillside to the Danube River and Pest on the other side.

One really nice thing about this part of Europe was the price. Budapest is--by far--the cheapest place we’ve ever encountered in Europe.

We had to sample the local cuisine on our first night (and every night!) and we started with the famous Hungarian Goulash. It’s a bit different than you might envision. Over there it’s simply a rich beef broth loaded with so much paprika that it’s almost blood red. It contains ONLY beef which had been cooked with onions and some potatoes. That’s it. And it was a soup and not a stew. It was okay but I’m not a beef stew lover.

The national liqueur of Hungary is a potent and foul tasting concoction called Unicum although our daughter and her husband liked it!  It tastes kind of like Listerine mouthwash with licorice and a drop or two of Jet-A aviation fuel. Definitely an acquired taste.  It comes in small, medium and big bottles shaped like old fashioned bombs.  What could be more appropriate!

Before we went and after we returned, everybody asked us if we were a bit leery about going to an old Eastern European country and former communist nation. We were also asked if we were concerned about the language barrier. Heck no!

Budapest, in many ways, is extremely modern. Most people in major restaurants and hotels do speak a little if not a lot of English. And German is nearly a second language so if you know a little Deutsch, as I do, it’s not a problem. Forget about trying to understand let alone learn Hungarian! Even the rest of Europe has a problem with it since the language has Asian roots or something like that!

The only slight problem we ran into was at the train station when we went to catch a train to Bratislava, Slovakia (see the Slovakia chapter for that little side trip). The woman who sold us the tickets spoke enough English to get the paperwork done but when we tried to find out which track the train was on at the Budapest train station, few people spoke English. One guy...either being a jerk or thinking it was funny...told us in broken English to sit down at a bench along track 9. He told us we were on the Orient Express. The Orient Express???!!! People make reservations months and years out for that very special train. So we kept poking around until we asked one guy with a uniform and he pointed us in the right direction--with the train’s departure just 3 minutes away.

Our arrival in Budapest came at 1pm on Saturday afternoon so the day was half shot. Sunday was the day we journeyed up to Bratislava. Monday we spent the day just getting out and exploring Budapest on our own. We brought a couple of all day mass transit passes (only $3.50 each!) and boarded continental Europe’s oldest subway line--Budapest’s M-1 line.

The subway stations were just beautiful. They had fine wood cabinets and trim. The subway cars were quite small compared to newer systems. We got off eventually and then boarded a tram. We always feel comfortable riding a tram because they roll along surface tracks on city streets so you can always get back to your starting point unless there's a breakdown or you wait too late until service ends for the evening. Busses can be confusing.

It was interesting rolling thorough “average, schlepp” Budapest neighborhoods. In our country you usually find nice neighborhoods, so-so neighborhoods, and lower income neighborhoods. It appeared as if they were all mixed together in Budapest. You’d go by a sparkling high rise apartment building...then a beautifully maintained mansion...and then right next door there would be a boarded-up four story slum building.

One nice thing about Budapest is that it’s extremely safe. About the only thing I heard to be a problem were some restaurants that ripped off tourists. In fact a story in CondeNast magazine said one tourist got into a fight with the owner of a rip-off joint and was killed. We, however, had no problems whatsoever.

The currency in Hungary is the Forint. While exchange rates varied considerably depending on where we converted our cash, my wife told me (and I trust her!!!) that 1,000 Forints equaled about $7 U.S.  While there isn’t much of a black market for money changing these days, we were approached several times as we headed toward an official money changing office. We politely refused. One of the weirdest places we were approached by black market money guys was standing in line for a table at the Budapest Pizza Hut, of all places! Speaking of fast food, America is well represented in Budapest. We saw several McDonalds, several Burger Kings and several KFC outlets!

About the only “commie looking” parts of the city were just outside the airport--bleak, drab high rise apartment buildings and the East train station. The train station was downright depressing---drab yellow walls and ceilings, dirty glass windows, and sleazy looking people milling around. I told Cindy to watch her purse closely!

At the better restaurants they all have Gypsy bands. They stroll among the diners and take requests--for a tip, of course. Average tip is about 200 Forints. Can I be honest with you? Every, single Gypsy band we encountered suffered from a case of B.O. (body odor) even at the world famous Gundel restaurant!

We chose Gundel (pronounced goon-dool) for our final meal on Monday night.  Great place and their web site is here.  We chose a sampler platter and it was good. They’re extremely big on goose liver over there and that was one of the appetizers. Our multi-course dinner also featured a local fish called “fogas” and I probably spelled that wrong. Sorry. It’s a pike-perch type fish found only in Eastern Europe and it was quite good in a buttery, artery clogging sauce along with fresh water crayfish (crawdads!). The final main dish consisted of three types of meat with a rich wine sauce---a medallion of veal, a medallion of beef and a small lamb chop. We enjoyed a salad at the end (that’s the way they do it in Europe) and the finale was a rich chocolate cake. Really quite good.

A very good friend of mine says his brother served as a missionary in Hungary and that due to their diet high in butterfat, heart disease is a severe problem there.

During our trip we took in some tourist sites like Hero’s Square, shopping, etc. And we returned with some nice things including some very affordable yet exquisite crystal pieces (only about $15 each), a ton of paprika, some books and some pictures for our house.

Cabs are easily hailed but locals warn that most cabbies are dishonest and rip you off. A few cab companies are recommended for their honesty including City Cab and Fo Cab. We tried a variety of them and found that even the “rip off” companies only jacked up their prices a buck or two and compared to American cabs, Buda-buggies were a great deal. I personally think all the hype about the dishonest cabbies is way, way overblown. The cabbies were, however, extremely fast drivers. I noticed the speedometer reading 100 kilometers an hour (about 60mph) on city streets in downtown Budapest. One of our drivers nearly killed an old woman who walked out in front of his weapon (taxi). And they tailgate like crazy. Just sit back and brace for possible impact. What else can ya do?!!??

If you ever have a chance to visit Budapest, I’d highly recommend it to you. It’s unlike any place we’ve ever been before and the value is outstanding. Oh..I wanted to mention one final thing about Budapest. Many of the really old buildings have bullet holes in them. They’ve been through all kinds of wars and revolutions over the years so I don’t know when they got shot up but if you look closely, you’ll notice the holes--even in churches!

You’ll need a passport to get into Hungary but not a visa. The unit of currency is the Hungarian Forint. Driving is on the right side of the road.

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