Boiling Budapest, a slightly calamitous city break

A lot has happened in the last four weeks. The point of having this blog was that I’d write about the things I’d done and the places I’d seen, but if you’ve barely been in your house for a month it doesn’t free up much time for the documenting of all the activities. Since my last blog I’ve celebrated a significant birthday, i.e. one that ends in a 0. I’ve thrown a baby shower, welcomed a beautiful newborn to the world (hi Dougie!), been to a food festival, taken part in a sporting tournament which needs never be mentioned again, watched the longest film I’ve ever seen, got a new dining room table, and frightened myself with how many units of alcohol I can get through in a week and still function. I’ve also been to Budapest. A definite highlight. I’ll tell you about it…

Budapest has been on the travel agenda for some time, for reasons I can’t quite remember. It was quite like when I was planning the round the world trip and Vietnam was in my top three must see countries, I can’t recall what it was about the place I had to tick off, it was just in my mind as a prerequisite.

It wasn’t until a few weeks prior to going that I’d even opened the guide book, I knew that at some point we’d be sitting in some thermal baths, it’d be hot, and that we’d have a cocktail by the Danube, but that was about it.

Last year we’d had ill conceived plans of an Eastern European adventure, I think basically I’d told Chris so much about Poland and the prices I’d managed to convince him that the East was where it was it. Unfortunately our plans to cram Poland, Slovakia and Hungary into a fortnights holiday were dashed when we realised that the journey from Budapest to the Slovakian Tatras would mean using as many different modes of transport as it would hours in the day to get there, and Budapest was again put on the back burner. We settled for an all inclusive week in Turkey. Not really my cup of tea, and probably one of the hottest, sweatiest weeks I’ve ever had. We did also sneak in a cheeky long weekend to Poland, where Chris witnessed first hand how you can buy a stein of Polish lager for £1.20, and a 3 course meal for two with beers for under £20. But I digress. We set off to Budapest expecting baths, baking sunshine and beers for a Euro.

We left England after three weeks of the most intense heatwave I’ve experienced, just in time for an almighty thunderstorm causing backed up traffic on the motorway – and the panic that we’d miss our flights. We’d already had a slight situation the previous day, as whilst dealing with the fourth hangover in as many days we realised our hand luggage didn’t comply with regulations, my liquid bags were the wrong size, my suitcase too big, and pandemonium broke out in the mind of Chris. I think I got my own back with the over-reaction to the traffic situation, I say this with tongue in cheek, because once we’d parked up and were walking to the terminal, on a road with no pavement getting covered in mud splashes, it had advanced into a fully fledged hissy fit.

We got to the airport (on time I might add), and one of my items of toiletries wouldn’t fit in my plastic bag. Whilst trying to cram it in Chris’s state of the art, Nivea for men airline compliant travel bag, his bag broke. He had previously suggested that I maybe didn’t need a mini mouthwash as it probably wouldn’t fit, but it’d cost me £1.50 and I decided it was best to ignore him. So as you can imagine, things were slightly fraught. Costa had run out of croissants. There were no ham butties in Boots. I was still covered in mud. I had PMT. I was shattered. This was not the trip of a lifetime for my 30th I had envisaged. I wanted a cigarette, a big cup of tea and my bed.

The problem with setting off on a sightseeing city break when you’ve been celebrating your birthday for 5 days already, is that you set off somewhat jaded, and much more equipped for a few days in a deckchair than a few days in 35C heat walking miles around an unfamiliar city. But we were on our way, and it would be silly to let a little thing like exhaustion spoil your holiday. It didn’t help when a woman got on the plane with what can only be described as a trunk – as her hand luggage. Here’s a tip Ryanair – next time you’re defining what is classed as hand luggage, if it won’t fit in the overhead locker AT ALL, if it won’t fit under your chair, or on your knee, or barely in the aisle, and it has to go and sit at the front of the plane like a ‘what not to do’ display, then it’s probably not fecking hand luggage. It’s someone who’s someone managed to save 60 Euros, by completely taking the piss. And holding the plane up whilst they tried to find a home for it. Anyway…Budapest!

We arrived into blazing sunshine and pretty easily found our way onto the bus that connected with the metro straight into the city. At less than £3 each, this cheap and cheerful journey made up for the somewhat traumatic ones earlier that day. Our hostel was near one of the big squares, Erzsebet. The place was literally buzzing with people, open top buses and bikes, beautiful and sunny and full of life, it was perfect. As we crossed the square we noticed what looked like a pool, and beach type bars set up around it. We dubbed it Ibiza for the rest of the trip, and as expected, ended up back there on a couple of occasions.

Our hostel couldn’t have been in a better location, across the road from a square, on a metro line, and next to St Stephen’s Basilica. A five minute walk down a street filled with cafes and bars that wouldn’t have been out of place in Barcelona and you were at one end of the Chain Bridge and the bank of the Danube, looking up at the Royal Palace and the Liberty Statue. We later discovered we were a ten minute walk away from the Jewish Quarter, home to the nightlife and Budapest’s famous Ruin bars. Which no, I’d not heard of until arrival.

Our first day was pretty chilled, long walk down both sides of the river, sweating, stressing (we couldn’t take suncream in hand luggage – and it was 35C), then we retired to drink cold beers in the shade of the square. A meal that evening and a couple more drinks and that was about all we managed. So far though, gorgeous place but a lot more cosmopolitan than I’d anticipated. A meal in the square cost us the best part of £50, for 2 courses each and a few drinks. I also ordered a stew which came out as a steak? But there was time yet for goulash.

Buda is split into Buda and Pest by the river. We’d planned to do a side a day, so the next day, and the day of the seminal 30th birthday, we set off to explore Pest on foot, buying suncream and gallons of water along the way. The buildings along the way to the Széchenyi baths were a lot more like what I was expecting from Eastern Europe. The Opera House and various statues along the way down to City Park were stunning. It wasn’t like other cities, where you walk around for a few streets to find ‘the’ beautiful building you’ve read about, they were just dotted around, no explanation really of half of them. It is one of the most stunning places I’ve been to. We got to City Park, with Heroes Square guarding the entrance, and made our way to the baths via a beautiful little castle just by the entrance.

The thermal baths were the one experience I’d wanted to tick off, and I’m glad I did, but it was a very surreal experience. I’d read it had a huge outdoor pool with two bars, and thought it seemed a pretty pleasant way to spend your birthday, lounging in the heat by a thermal pool with a cocktail. It took quite a while to actually find our way out to the swimming pools, so long in fact that I thought we’d paid £15 each to try and cram into a miniature jet pool with some old men, when we could be outside in the sun. Anyway when we finally made it outside, it was pretty cool. The building looked almost like a film set, paint a bit too bright to look real, it was quite bizarre. The water was fantastic, warm, mini jet pools that massage your feet, and an area where you basically whizz round in a simulated current screaming like you’re at a theme park and then getting tipped out and usually into one of the old men who’d come outside for some sun. Only thing was we had to lie on the concrete floor on our hired scratchy towels (£15 deposit, yes, you’ve guessed it, we couldn’t fit ours in our hand luggage) because we’d not got there early enough to hire one of the few sun loungers. It was fine, but when the heat and the one beer had got me nodding off on the floor, we decided we’d probably had enough and would walk back. You can be in the baths from sun rise to sun down, but I honestly don’t think that’s necessary. Definitely worth a visit, and if it’d have been a different trip we’d have tried one of the party nights or cinema nights that sounded like an experience, but as it was, I needed feeding and watering and a bit of shade.

That evening we hit the town. I was 30 and we needed to try some Hungarian fizz. Which is surprisingly nice! The Jewish quarter supplied us with a lot of restaurant choice, we headed to Menza thanks to @nicolahrigby and her recommendation, ate escalopes and drank Palinka. The palinka is rough! If you drink a shot and then look so distressed the waitress at the beautiful restaurant has to bring you water, its time to leave, and not drink any more of that stuff! We headed to one of the Ruin bars, which was an interesting experience. I ended up sat in a bar / nightclub, in a pink plastic car, watching lots of gap year backpackers have the time of their lives, whilst I ruminated on why I’d eaten so much, and why it was far too cool in there for me. The ruin bars are basically a series of mini bars in a courtyard, so it’s like a club, funky music, shisha pipes etc. We tried in vain to fit some more steins in but were far too full, and headed back to Ibiza to sit in the beach bar.

Our last day was Buda and we got the world’s shortest funicular ride up to the Royal Palace for a walk around. The viewpoints up here are pretty spectacular, we decided against making the walk up to Liberty Statue, as you could see it so well from where we were, and thought it’d be more relaxing to go for a Hungarian meal of the day.This involved a lot of paprika! The Fisherman’s Bastion is up here, and we had a lovely little stroll looking out over the Basilica and Parliament buildings. A walk home via a boat bar on the Danube, (tick off the list -not quite a cocktail but a Dreher beer did just the trick) and I really did feel that in just two days we’d managed to get a really good feel for the city.

The best bit of the trip happened that night. Chris had been observing with what seemed to be increasing frustration that large groups of men had started to arrive in the city for the Hungarian F1 that weekend. In celebration there was an F1 fizz festival that evening in the square, Ibiza had been taken over! All you had to do to gain entry was buy a glass, which cost just under £2 each. Then you could sample a glass of fizz from one of the 12 stalls, which were anything from £1 to £5 each. After 6 glasses we had a walk back up to the bridge to look out over the Palace all lit up. 10.30pm at night and there were families, couples young and old, all clutching cameras doing the same thing. Night views have to be among my favourite in most places, and it was completely picturesque. We rounded the night off with more fizz, then lager, then the best burger I’ve ever had (Grill Terranz. TRY IT), a terrible Beatles cover band, some DJ’s mixing Abba with bad house music, and a very, very messy young man dancing around with a frying pan. It would have been a perfect evening if my very advanced Hungarian hadn’t let me down. I accidentally only ordered one burger, which I claimed for my own. I then got so enraptured with my burger that I didn’t hear them shouting me to tell me Chris’s was ready. The burgers are so good you forget everything else that is going on around you…

Our last day was spent killing time, which basically means me panicking we were going to miss our flight, again. We were there 3 hours ahead of our flight as a result, but not before we’d headed to the Parliament buildings, had a look round the inside of the Basilica, drunk the most expensive coca cola I’ve ever had on another boat bar, and wandered through some more lovely squares. Once sat safely at the airport, we made plans to come back in two years, but this time I’d let Chris go to the F1. I would drink fizz.

So did it meet expectations? Definitely, but in a completely different way to what I expected. I think we were both expecting Poland, particularly when it came to prices, and what we got was more Western Europe, but with architecture that you have to see to believe, great nightlife, and just a really pleasant place to spend time. I never felt unsafe, even at night, and there was a really friendly, lively atmosphere that made me feel like I was in a (not tacky) beach resort. We still came home with money in our pockets though, and that’s in spite of the fact that they put the prices up for the F1.

We’ll definitely be going back, but this time I’ll relax on the airport arrangements so as to make me a more pleasant companion, and make sure I’m well rested beforehand. Hindsight tells me I’m definitely not too old for the Ruin bars, but we may well be if we leave it too long to go back…

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