July 4, 2015

Paris of the East


They say that the friends you make at school and college are the ones who last a lifetime. I wasn’t so fortunate during school, but met the most wonderful people during my years in Pune and Gurgaon – and I am ever so grateful.

When Ankita and I lived and worked together at Edelman, things were not always painless and tranquil, given our limited means, but I think of those days fondly as some of the best years of my life – yet. So, when she mentioned that Aditya and her were planning to see some more of Europe and asked me if I would like to join, I almost jumped at the idea! We had always talked about travelling together and I was ecstatic to be able to make it happen. The plan was to spend a week in Hungary, and then they would travel onward to Prague.

Budapest was the last major city that I had to cover, in central Europe and I was slightly put off to not be able to see it along with Prague last year – but in retrospect, it was the right decision. Anything less than a week dedicated to this city would just be unfair. Straddling the Danube River, with the Buda Hills rising in the west and the Great Plain to the east, Budapest is true to its name – Paris of the East.

My new pre-travel ritual. #ThingsArrangedNeatly

While reading about the city’s past, I learned that that the Hungarians are descended from a horse-riding tribe called the Magyars (you’ll see horses and the word Magyar everywhere in Budapest). The Romans settled here early in the 1st century AD and built what would eventually become one of their most thriving metropolises. Later, the Turks came in, followed by the Hapsburgs and one can see remnants of all these different cultures in Budapest. It is often said the past is another country, but it’s always been just around the corner in Budapest. As you walk along the broad roads lined with trees, you can see the bullet holes and shrapnel pockmarks on buildings from WWII and the 1956 Uprising. Budapest holds sad reminders like the poignant Shoes on the Danube memorial, but also acts as a beacon of hope and reconciliation – as its people narrate stories of their freedom from Soviet oppression with much pride, as the much-loved concert halls and theatres are renovated, metro lines extended and busy streets repaved and pedestrianised.

As I flew into Budapest’s Ferenc Liszt International Airport via Istanbul, my companions were slinging by Germany to make it at exactly the same time. As we descended into the capital, I hugged myself for always picking window seats – the Danube was meandering through the city, and the sheer majesty of the river could be seen, as it twisted through, dividing the city into two neat halves. The shot from the airplane is probably one of my favourite pictures from the trip.

Turkiye, galore!
Found me a spot with a view at Ataturk International Airport
The snaking Danube

On disembarking, I tiptoed to Immigration (given my Croatian experience, I am always on my guard in Europe), but everything went smoothly and within ten minutes of touch down, I was at the baggage collection carousel, connecting to Wi-Fi and figuring out where to meet Ankita and Aditya. The airport is quite compact and traveller-friendly; we were able to purchase our seven-day travel card and take a taxi to the apartment with no trouble at all. It is recommended to use the yellow-painted Főtaxi, available right outside the arrivals – also they accept cards, so you do not exchange currency at the airport.

I’d like to mention how useful the travel card was, for us. Costing 4,950 HUF per person (INR 1,108), it can be collected at the BKK Customer Service Point at the arrivals level of airport terminals 2A and 2B. Called Hetijegy, this pass is valid for unlimited number of rides on any type of Budapest public transport – metro, tram, buses, trolley buses, suburban train or cogwheel. If you would like to give your feet some rest and make the most of the excellent connectivity that Budapest enjoys- make sure you buy this – we explored almost the entirety of the city with it. It is not necessary to validate this pass but you need to show it to the inspectors upon request (We were asked for it once in a bus, and at every metro station).

We didn’t have very long to plan this trip and among them our first booking was of this Renaissance-style attic, right opposite one of the city’s major landmarks – St. Stephen’s Basilica. We had spotted it after hours of scouring Airbnb and its location ensured it a unanimous YES from all three!

On the way from the airport, our taxi-driver seemed to have some road rage issues and dropped us a couple of blocks away from the apartment, but we had no trouble locating it as our host, Michelangelo had explained everything to us beforehand. I will take this opportunity to gush a little more about the panoramic, sunlit loft that was to be our home for the next week. This apartment was quite large and could have easily accommodated six! On the sixth floor, it was not only completely furnished with a fully equipped kitchen, but had an amazing view ranging from the Basilica and Déak tér (the main square) to the Buda Castle and the Gellert Hill. Each day, as we walked back home, we blessed the central location and the fantastic vistas!

We stayed at the penthouse on the top floor with the red curtains.
Living room – with the Basilica right in front
The kitchenette
All stocked
In case you wanted to take a nice hot bath, with sunlight streaming in.
Sigh…

The city’s history is rich and diverse and it was very difficult for us to leave out any places, and chart an itinerary which left some breathing space – but it was managed. After drooling over the views (which happened almost daily), we showered, changed and set off to find some lunch. Across the road, we found the Basilica square which was dotted with cafes, souvenir shops, quaint little coffee joints and restaurants where the specials of the day were written on a blackboard. It wasn’t very different from the public squares I have seen across Europe, but it made me think why we stopped building like this. I’d take a square over a mall, any day!

We stopped for lunch at TG Italiano, a rather posh looking place with carbon filament light bulbs overhead and some scrumptious Italian food – which we liked so much that we came back again on our last day! Chops and I had some wood-oven pizza with pepperoni and mozzarella while Aditya’s vegetarian option was some yum cappellacci pasta stuffed with taleggio cheese in a tomato and basil sauce. As I sipped on my Mojito, and watched them take selfies over some locally brewed beer, that familiar feeling of peace began to sink in. I stared straight ahead to see the narrow lane leading to the grand neo-classical Basilica and couldn’t help but wonder whether someday this could be life, and not just a vacation indulgence.

St. Stephen’s – in all its glory
Chopper and Bazzpai selfie-ing over lunch
Y.U.M.
View from our lunch spot
#IHaveThisThingWithFloors

Feeling quite full, we walked onwards towards the Danube promenade, looking for Pier 7, where we were scheduled to embark on our two-hour long river cruise on the Duna (what the Hungarians call the Danube). We had pre-booked with Legenda Cruises to spend the next few hours floating on the Danube, between Buda and Pest and to take us to Margaret Island – the green heart of the city which had an abundance of beautiful old trees and walkways making it a favourite of the Budapestis. We drifted by the city’s major landmarks, while I clicked away furiously, we rushed to take selfies next to the majestic backdrop of the Hungarian parliament building, saw Gellert Hill and looked up against the glare of the Sun to see the royal Buda Castle, all while sipping wine, champagne and lemonade.

The popular pub, Otkert – we passed it on our way to the pier
Our ride for the afternoon
Stunning capital of the Magyars
Free vino – who can say no!
Approaching the gorgeous Parliament building
These guys 

We had flown a red-eye, so thought it would be best to take it a little easy on the first day. So, we settled down at Gerbeaud’s – Budapest’s famed confectioners since 1858, where we indulged in some traditional pancake rolls filled with walnut cream, apricot ragout, vanilla bean ice cream and oodles of chocolate sauce and other desserts. The food was pretty decent, but the ambience definitely made it a not-to-miss destination.

Since 1858
Traditional walnut cream stuffed pancakes with apricot ragout – delicious!
The Esterházy Sundae at Cafe Gerbeaud. It was layered with cake, vanilla and hazelnut ice cream, crispy walnut linzer, whipped cream, one vanilla macron and a gorgeous, dreamcatcher-esque walnut crisp!

We reached home, made lofty plans for dinner as Aditya and I watched the 2015 Champions League finals, where Barcelona pretty much thrashed Juventus. By the time the match was over, my two companions had drifted to sleep and after I had cleaned up around the flat, I finally flopped on the sofa-bed and passed out!

The view from our window at night – no hotel could offer this!
Futbol!
The next morning, we loaded up on croissants and coffee from the nearby Costa Coffee (as nothing else was open at 7 am) and got ready to embark on the ultimate Hungarian excursion with Viator’s Danube bend tour! All the reviews and travelogues online had cited this as the perfect summer day trip to see more of this stunning country than just its capital. We were picked up from our apartment and taken to the coach which would be taking us to the old towns of Visegrád, Esztergom and Szentendre. It was a lovely drive through the countryside, which, in my opinion, wasn’t very different from Czech one, and we chatted along merrily as the bus meandered around the Danube amidst wooded hills and small towns. We crossed over to Slovakia to get a better view of the Esztergom cathedral – the largest church in Hungary and see some other sites around the area.  Stopping at Visegrád for a three-course Hungarian lunch (which was really mediocre – except for the view from the restaurant), we also spotted the medieval citadel and romantic ruins of the former residences of the Hungarian royalty.
Quick breakfast
The starting point of the Danube bend tour
Tram #2, the one with the most picturesque route
Leaving the city
Being engulfed in green
Extensive Hungarian vineyards
Posing in Slovakia
And out comes the umbrella – the Sun was maddening!
The bridge over the Danube, serving as a natural border between Hungary and Slovakia
The Crowning of St. Stephen
The beautiful little villages alongside the Duna
The mighty Esztergom Cathedral
Ceilings of gold
It was the peak of the Hungarian summer and the Sun was really draining us of energy as we followed our multi-lingual guide on to the Baroque artists’ village of Szentendre. And that’s where tragedy struck. After the tour, we were given two hours of free time, after which we were to embark on a boat to take us back to Budapest. It was one of the most exciting things on the tour for me, as I remembered the journey along the Rhine that I had taken with my parents – it was a delight to float by quaint little towns and villages. But alas, it wasn’t meant to be all that peaceful for me.

We were sitting by the Danube watching people cycle by, and decided to get a drink as the heat was getting to us. I crossed the road towards a café and walked a couple of steps – only to notice that my phone was missing. Of course, panic struck in my head. Ankita upturned my bag, as Aditya ran back to the spot we were sitting at. After almost an hour and half of crawling over the pebbles, asking people all around the street, eyeing the local tramp with suspicious eyes, begging people who didn’t speak any English to use their phone to call mine, find an Indian restaurant and using Hindi skills to figure out if there was a police station nearby, running helter-skelter in a state of numbness, we gave up. I had never lost a phone before and misplacing it in the middle of a trip had left me pretty horror-struck and dismayed. Come 5 pm, we got on board the boat and I kept looking over my shoulder, hoping that someone would have found it lying around and was bringing it back to me. Ankita and Aditya were most supportive and kept telling me that it was going to be okay. Chops even handed me her phone promptly and said that I could keep it, for the rest of the trip. I do not know one other person in the world who would do this. Bless her. I didn’t enjoy a minute of the trip back to Budapest, but I kept telling myself that iCloud might just be able to get my photos back, and I would have to curtail on spending for the next couple of months to buy myself a new phone – and this was not worth ruining my trip over. To many people this might not be a big deal, but those who know me are aware of how important it is for me to photograph, document, take notes, and tag locations on little aspects of my journey. But I am glad I was able to get a grip, and while I felt sharp pangs of loss throughout my time there, it didn’t bother me overwhelmingly for the rest of the trip.

In memory :'(
Half heartedly taken picture of the Duna cruise back to Budapest
One of my favourites, from the trip
Sunset, that day… 
The next day was our free day, so we started off with breakfast at Budapest’s renowned ‘Book Cafe’ – an Art Nouveau cafe inside a library! We walked along the main street in downtown Pest, Andrassy Avenue and stopped at Alexandra Bookstore, just a block ahead of the Opera House. It was like chairs and tables had been placed inside the main ballroom of Schonbrunn Castle – those ceilings would ensure that nobody really pays attention to the food.  However, the traditional Hungarian Dobos torta – a soft cake layered with chocolate buttercream and topped with caramel, was worth a mention!
The Hop On Hop Off bus stopped right at our doorstep
The treasures of Andrassy Avenue
The grand Opera House
Inside Alexandra Bookstore
Loft terem
Mesemerising
The famed Dobos Torte
Lavender season
The bench spoke our minds 🙂
With stomachs full and renewed energy, we took the Metro to our destination for the day – the Széchenyi Thermal Baths. Since Budapest is blessed with natural hot springs, it would be criminal to not take some time out to ‘take the waters’ and soak in the largest therapeutic water system in Europe. We had bought tickets online in advance, and brought along our own towels after reading the reviews on TripAdvisor, and had gained entry within five minutes and allotted our private cabins. It was another one of those really hot days and Chops and Aditya headed straight for the pool, while I walked around with my camera for a bit – to capture this unique place. The ornate thermal baths, built in 1913 come with a cupola, a massive Olympic-size swimming pool and several small medicinal pools with water jet massagers and a very fun whirlpool. Besides the outdoor and indoor geothermal pools, one can get massage treatments, enjoy the saunas, the gym, or relax by the pools which are supplied by natural waters from over 1000 meters below the surface. Budapest’s thermal waters have been a culture from the time of the Romans, as early as the 2nd century, but it said that it was only during the Turkish occupation of Hungary in the 16th century that the bath culture really started flourishing. As we lazed in the pools and felt our tiredness wearing off, while watching several old gentlemen play chess immersed in the waters – it became pretty clear why Budapest is fondly known as the City of Spas.
The exteriors
Locker rooms to keep private belongings 
Happy dippers!
Happy dippers, part two!
What a fun day!

Having spent half the day afloat, we were quite famished. However, since we were very close to the Hero’s Square, home to the Millennium Monument, which was erected to commemorate the 1000-year-old history of the Magyars. The square is flanked by the Museum of Fine Arts on the north side and the very opulent looking Palace of Art and is a lovely place to spend an evening in Budapest. We took the metro back to our apartment, right in time for the sunset (around 9 pm!) and mixed up some Cosmopolitans using our duty-free purchases and raised a glass to the terrific day we had had.

Hosok-tere
The Palace of Art
This adorable ball of fur!
And this gorgeous boy – of course I mean the Husky 🙂
“I am the way, the truth, the life.”
Lunchtime face!
Dinner that night was at this lovely little Italian place called Trattoria Ciao Ciao just a few steps away from the Basilica. My ravioli was among the best I’ve ever had and Ankita and Aditya almost went to war over the Tiramisu. Squisito!
The next day was dedicated to exploration of the Buda Castle district. We started off with a hearty breakfast of eggs and orange juice and then walked across the city’s most popular landmark and a highlight of its panorama – the Chain Bridge. What is most interesting about it is that it was the first permanent dry link between Buda and Pest, and the aristocracy, previously exempt from all taxation, had to pay the toll. I walked really slowly, trying to get the best pictures and eventually reached Clark Ádám tér at the Buda end of the Chain Bridge. We then got in line to buy tickets for the Funicular (Sikló) – the easiest way to get to the former Royal Buda Palace to see the royal courtyards and gardens.

Home stretch
Breakfast spot
The morning cuppa
Chain Bridge with Buda Castle in the background
Guarded by two lions on each end
🙂
Entrance to the Funicular
This view!

Today, the imposing Buda Castle is nothing more than an enviable vantage point over the city as well as the home to the National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum. Overlooking the city from its elevated position atop Várhegy (Castle Hill), rising forty-eight meters above the Danube, it is said to have witnessed the nation’s tumultuous history. After walking around its numerous sightseeing points, we sat down to cool off with some beers and iced teas and felt relief in seeing a dark overcast coming our way.

Vines, vines, vines!

After catching our breath and hydrating (and not to forget using the free restrooms), we proceeded towards the last few landmarks for the day, but not before stopping to see the changing of guards ceremony.  In just ten minutes we could spot the white spires of St. Matthias Church getting larger and we knew that we were close. The Roman Catholic Church which is over 700 years old was the place where most of Hungary’s royalty were crowned – and it looked every bit as regal with the colourful Maiolica tiles, nothing like I have ever seen across Europe. Right behind St. Matthias is the Fishermen’s Bastion (Halaszbastya) which was built as a viewing platform in 1905. The place got its name from the medieval guild of fishermen responsible for defending this stretch of the castle wall. The gleaming white turrets and the view there from is nothing short of spectacular!

Rains cometh!
Entrance of St. Matthias
Isn’t it regal?
Simply had to take one of these shots…
And they began…
By this time, it had started to rain and we hurried to Ruszwurm – another one of Budapest’s popular coffee and cake destinations. We would have liked to try the classic cake, but there really wasn’t any room as it had started to come down really hard and people were looking for refuge. So we stayed for around half an hour, packed up all the electronics in a plastic bag and made a run for it! I didn’t mind the rain at all, but Aditya wasn’t feeling very well and we didn’t want his condition to exaggerate, so got to the Funicular and back to the apartment, as soon as we could – but not before stopping for some chips on a stick, which seemed perfect for the weather!
Accidental bokeh
Intentional bokeh. And raindrops 🙂
It was the most magical evening, as we sat munching on Oman Chips and other condiments I had carried, with more cocktails – talking about how important weather is, in shaping our lives and our moods. I’ve mentioned this simply too many times before and I’ll let it pass on this instance. We rested our feet for a bit, and then threw on jumpers and went back to Trattoria Mamma, because their Tiramisu was to die for and the weather was simply too lovely, to ruin with unsatisfactory food. We sat inside this time, and discovered an all new side to this little restaurant; the interior decor looked like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel  and our server was so charming that even Aditya wanted to tip him! I gorged on a home-made lasagne as the rains lashed outside, and found myself feeling blissfully happy – such is the magic of good food and precipitation J
 
The next morning, we had a lazy morning in and after brunch set out to climb to the top to St. Stephen’s Basilica and then visit the Libegő – one of Budapest’s unique experiences, a two-way chairlift system that takes you to János Hill (the highest peak in the city), and providing beautiful panoramas along the way. While it is a little away from the city centre (read: hardly any tourists) and relatively less crowded, it is one of the must-visit attractions of the city, in my opinion. We had a bit of trouble locating the right buses to get to it – so I decided to post some clear instructions so that anyone visiting next would have it easy, just in case anyone needed it:
Step 1: Take the Metro (M3) Blue Line to Nyugati Pályaudvar (Western Railway Station).
Step 2:  Exit the underground station, looking at orange signs mentioning Bus number 91
Step 3: Take Bus Number 91 to Nagyajtai Utca (16th stop)
Step 3: Cross the road to find the next bus stop and take Bus Number 102 to the last stop Zugliget.
Some websites will mention there is a direct bus #291 from Nyugati Pályaudvar to Zugliget, this has been discontinued since March 2015, so it is highly recommended to research a route right before trying to get there. There really isn’t much to do there once you get uphill, but the ride itself is worth the journey. Also, we got to experience a tram, bus and the metro – while not having to walk much, so it was a win-win!
Getting to the top of the Basilica – thank heavens they had elevators
The altar
View from the top
Chops is a Japanese tourist. Aditya is not interested.
Extra long elevators!
It might be a case of too-much Sun :3
On our way back to the city, we took the metro north to Budapest’s top sport destination – named after the Hungarian legend, Puskás, because Aditya is an ardent football fan and then headed back to our part of town as souvenirs were yet to be purchased and they had an early morning train to Prague the next day.
Sports fan happiness on Aditya’s face
Celebrating our last night in Budapest…
I dawdled at home scrolling through photos as they packed, periodically walking up to the window and taking in the view, before stepping out for dinner where I finally ordered the Hungarian speciality, Goulash and was quite taken by how full of flavour it was.
As Chops and Aditya left the next morning, I couldn’t go back to sleep since I had no phone and hence, no alarm. So, I grabbed the map and some roadside Kürtőskalács (twisty bread baked over hot coals and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar) and walked to the old Jewish district, where we had not been yet. On the itinerary was Szimpla Kert – said to be the absolute be all and end all of ruin pubs in Budapest.  We hadn’t found the time here to go together, but I think they would have loved it.  The ruin pub was in a huge building with nooks filled with graffiti, modern art and all manner of mismatched items – while I didn’t stop for a drink, I understood why it was said that places rise phoenix-like from abandoned buildings and formed the beating heart of Budapest.
Entrance to Szimpla Kert ruin pub
It was a surreal experience walking through the Jewish quarter armed with just my camera and the keys of my apartment. As I walked my way back to be in time for my pre-booked taxi to take me to the airport, I realised that even though I still feel terrible about losing my beloved phone which was a present from my mother, travelling sans connectivity was actually liberating.
As my very well mannered cabbie whizzed through the city, I realised even more what an architectural treasure trove Budapest is. Splatters of baroque, neoclassical, eclectic and art mouveau buildings at every cross road left me mesmerized, and I was most definitely bowled over by the warm, confident city. On the weekend that I was there, its sheer spirit had me stunned. Even though its freedom was recently won, its language was too complex to comprehend, and its food was a little too heavy, the time spent here with Ankita and Aditya was wonderful and the city embodied a magnetism that has ensured that I will definitely return. If for nothing else, then the Tiramisu J
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