How to see Budapest like George Ezra... or not
Traveling to Budapest was one of the more interesting road trips I have ever taken. What was supposed to be a 14 hour bus ride turned into a 16 hour trip with two unexpected wake-up stops during the middle of the night. During these stops, all 75 of us had to exit the bus and wait in line at border control until all of our passports were checked one by one. After what felt like an eternity spent outside in an icy hell, we were finally cleared by the unfriendly border control officers. We slowly filed ourselves back onto the bus, and went on our merry way to cross the border- legally, might I add.
As we crossed over into Hungary, our tour guides kindly reminded us of the currency exchange, as we were not able to use our Euros within the country. We figured we would just take out about 30 Euros worth of whatever the Hungarian currency was (it is called HUF by the way, and I will explain the HUF in a bit…) and we could happily get by, for we were only to stay in the country for one day. We made a pit stop at a Hungarian gas station, and as we all struggled to use the bathroom in time (side note, they make you pay to use the bathroom, like, everywhere. What the hell? Doesn’t that somehow breach my human right to pee?) my friend ran into a bit of an emergency, in which feminine products needed to be purchased. As we were scrambling to find some to buy in the attached convenience market, the rest of the group had already filed back onto the bus. My friend was nervous, and as she went to pay with a 10 Euro bill, the woman shook her head and said something to us in Hungarian.
I imagine she said something like, “Wherever you come from kid, I don’t know what to tell ya but I don’t have change for this shit.”
So in a panic, I handed the cashier a 5 Euro bill, which she looked at for a second, and then accepted. Woohoo! My friend quickly ran back to the bathroom, yet nothing could have prepared me for what happened next.
...The woman handed me what appeared to be monopoly money with 1000 written in the top corners. Trying to be as culturally respectful as possible, I took the change, the receipt, and held the laughter that was pushing through my insides until my friend and I ran back to the bus.
“What the hell is this currency?! Am I rich?”
Now, for those of you who don’t know, the value of the HUF is as follows…
Now that you know about the currency which seemingly makes no sense, I’ll skip to the good parts.
When we arrived in Budapest with our tour, it was quite surreal. I had absolutely no idea what to expect, and I had never dreamed that I would find myself exploring the streets of a city made famous by George Ezra. I mean, Hungary wasn’t necessarily on my list of places to visit, yet that is exactly why I wanted to go. When does one really plan a trip Budapest?
Anyway, the air was crisp as we slumped off the bus, I remember this distinctly because it woke me up out of a 16 hour bus induced trance. It was my first, true taste of winter since leaving New England, and I was glad I brought a heavy coat and gloves. We arrived on February 19th at about 12 p.m. We were all starving since we missed the “included breakfast” that was promised upon our arrival to the hostel at 10 a.m. We checked into our hostel, called “The Wombats,” which was pretty cool and not at all what I thought a hostel would be like. It was hip and had modern furniture probably from IKEA and there were worldly travelers all around! The place was covered in photos and postcards from all over the world, and the people at the desk looked like wandering-hippy-artists.
We brought our bags into a sketchy, storage room in the back since we didn’t have time to check into our bedrooms. We were late for our tour of the city, so we all freshened up in the bathroom as quickly as possible (it was like a warzone in there considering 98% of the people on the trip were girls and there were two stalls and one mirror) and we headed off as a group to take the grand, city-wide tour, where we were to visit all of the must-see monuments and buildings Budapest had to offer- in 2 hours and 30 minutes that is…
Okay- disclaimer. Don’t take day trips to grand cities. Do not make my mistake. It sounds appealing, sure, you can dip your toe into an incredibly new and beautiful place, and then you are off to the next city to take more pictures and get one authentic meal. Well, this is all bullshit. It is almost offensive to the the city itself that you have only allotted one day to see all that it has to offer. I could’ve spent a week in all of the major cities I visited, and I still wouldn’t have been able to explore all of its parts. Don’t do day trips. Day trips are for towns and villages, but not cities.
We lucked out, however. Our tour guide Aaron (spell check?) was a Hungarian citizen through and through, born and raised near Budapest. My favorite part about his tour was that he began the whole thing with a 15 minute captivating lecture on the nation of Hungary and the role Budapest played in its history. Personally, I feel as though every tour of a city should start in this way, because we were able to put all that we were seeing in a historical context. As we moved through the city, Aaron pointed out details in the architecture, gave us tips on the cuisine, and he even told us about some of the more brutal aspects of the city, like the persecution of the Jewish people during WWII, displayed by the shoe monument on the Danube Bank. He also told us of the controversies regarding some of the monuments within the city, like the positioning of an American monument of President Ronald Reagan competing with a nearby Russian monument that is quite massive.
I would have never known any of this as we walked through the city. Near the end of the tour, which ended by the great Chain Bridge (right near the lion statues!) we could not feel our extremities, and we were running off of a wurstel sandwich which we had eaten as our first meal of the day almost 3 hours prior. In parting with Aaron, I was really satisfied by the tour. Yes, it was extremely cold, cloudy, even rainy at times, but it was just a part of our experience.
Visiting Budapest was actually more of a learning experience than a get-away. Aaron gave us an important glimpse of the nation of Hungary, and how it has endured many downfalls throughout it’s unexpectedly short history as a nation (including, as Aaron put it, joining the wrong side of nearly every war it has been a part of). Yet, Budapest seemed like it could offer the nation a glint of economic hope and modernity. Not that I would really know however, hence my disclaimer above. It is true, I really didn’t get to learn all that I wanted to about the city. I didn’t get to meet other Hungarians, I didn’t get to understand their culture or how they feel they are doing as a nation. In being there for just one day, I could really only speak to the obvious fact that it is a marvelous city full of things to do and see.
Luckily, we did band a small group together and checked out a local restaurant for dinner that had authentic Hungarian food and fantastic reviews. This restaurant, called VakVarju, had a full menu of delicious sounding foods, fun drinks, and luckily for us- unbeatable prices. (Shout out to my broke student travelers!)
Now, if you eat anything in Budapest, make sure it is the Goulash!
We all had a blast trying to pronounce the names of the food to our seemingly unamused waiter. (I am not sure why this always happens to me, but our intimidating Hungarian waiter seemed to fancy me even though he was definitely well into his thirties and extremely harsh with the others…LOL. He laughed at me and mimicked me throughout the night, faking a large Patty-like smile to which I could only laugh more at… adding fuel to the awkward fire.) Anyway, aside from the Goulash, I also ate a delicious flatbread-pizza-like dish with some unknown yet incredible cheese, caramelized, red onions, and sausage on top. We all got a round of drinks, and spent the dinner getting to know each other, sharing our stories.
Oh yes! I cannot forget! The Baths!
After our dinner, we met up at the hostel once more to take a late night trip to the famous Turkish Baths.
Everyone knows that the Turkish Baths in Budapest are pretty much the place(s) to be. Even in the middle of February, on an unforgivingly cold night, the place was just packed. It was a disaster getting there, which is a story I will save for the ‘behind the scenes look at our Budapest trip’ on the blog, because I really don’t want to discourage those reading this. (Let’s just say, always verify your train tickets, and stick to the group!... If you don’t know what this means, I promise I will explain later.)
I myself did not bring a bathing suit, nor did my two friends traveling with me, but in the end we paid to get in just to see the wonder of it all. Once we finally entered, I was completely amazed by all of the people there- half naked, just bathing themselves, only to die of hypothermia on their way out. Truthfully, the experience seemed completely worth it.
It was a beautiful place filled with romantic white sculptures, magical spraying water and steam everywhere. I felt like I was in a mermaid’s playground. Since we couldn’t go in the baths without a bathing suit, and since we were practically out of money and all of the shops and rental booths had closed anyway, we headed straight for the bar and drank a pint in honor of the Turkish Baths.
At least we got to dip our feet in.
And that pretty much encapsulated my entire one-day trip to Budapest. I was lucky enough to just dip my feet into this wondrous city, and despite my desperate longing to dive completely in, I comforted myself with the thought of returning someday.
Thank you Budapest. Hopefully someday I will up and run to you, youuuuuu, you, youuuu-
Okay I’ll stop with the George Ezra thing.