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 budapest

15 duben (apr)
Language schools
don’t have a week off for spring break in the Czech Republic, but I did have a three day weekend. I booked a sleeper car and rode the night train to Budapest on a Friday night. A Romanian woman and her teenage daughter shared my cabin. We didn’t have a common language but were polite and respectful of each others’ space. They seemed to be old hands at train travel, so I took their lead. A customs official pounded on our door at 3:30am to check our passports in Slovakia, and again at 5:30 as we crossed into Hungary.

From the station, I took the metro (subway) to my hotel. The sturdy, metal cars were embossed with CCCP on the side, and were reminiscent of the design of heavy, old refrigerators from the 1950s. Although I couldn’t understand the announcement warning passengers to watch out because the doors were closing, I paid close attention – the doors smacked shut so hard that they bounced back open a bit before they settled. You didn’t want to catch a limb between them. Things seemed a little older and shabbier in Budapest, compared to Prague, and the streets a little dirtier and less crowded, but comfortable and inviting just the same. Prices were cheaper, too, although they looked higher at first glance because there was an extra zero to factor in when calculating currency exchange.

My hotel was easy to find and convenient, on the south end of the ring road around the center of Pest, just a few blocks from the Danube River at Independence Bridge. A little balcony opened to a shared, disheveled yard. A Hungarian black cat stepped stealthily across the grass in slow motion, stalking birds. I dropped my stuff, grabbed a map and was out the door. Standing next to the bridge is an old train station converted to a marketplace, with local arts, crafts and food. I was later glad I took the time to explore it the first day; it was closed Sunday and Monday for the holiday. I munched on a traditional fried flat bread called langos, rather like a light pizza dough only greasier. I walked up the river, from bridge to bridge. Budapest has the feel of Prague as do, I am learning, many of the Central European countries, with a wide river snaking through it, and a showcase of many of its most impressive buildings visible from its shores.

The city center at Vorosmarty Square was decked out with booths and a stage for music and theatre, a lively street festival. Some unusual gifts were for sale. A fur boar’s head, fox stoles with their heads hanging, chains of red paprika peppers, medieval styled clothing, aromatic potions, pig legs, sausages, grilled meats, multicolored candies and big doughy looking pretzels. A woman in embroidered country dress painted a huge white egg shape. I couldn’t resist having coffee and a rich pastry at Gerbeaud’s, the restaurant on the square. It was surrounded by dozens of sidewalk tables, yet it was hard to find a seat. I had recently read a novel called Prague (but really about Budapest, by Arthur Phillips) where the characters met at Gerbeaud’s regularly for drinks, and I had promised a friend to stop there. A great place to sit and people-watch.

I walked, seeking out many of the major city sights in Pest that first morning, reserving the late afternoon for a glorious soak in the thermal baths. The Gellert spa was right across the bridge from my hotel, a welcome reward for my tired muscles after walking for hours. The swimming pool was light with sun streaming in through tall domed cathedral-like windows that took up one wall, white columns rose to the high ceiling. But the treasure was downstairs. Two luxurious semi-circle baths, one at 36 degrees Celsius and the other at 38, were decorated with art deco tiles and cherubs in sultry colors: caramel, turquoise, cinnamon brown, cool yellow and olive green. People moved slowly in the baths, heads without bodies along the rims. I could feel the stress leave my body, dissipating into the water. It’s a good thing I’m not living in Budapest. I would surely melt away from an excess of soaking in the mineral baths.

I was staying in a great little neighborhood. The next street, Raday street, was full of trendy restaurants, sidewalk tables extended into the stone tiled streets for blocks. I had to sample the chicken paprikash. I found a jazz nightclub nearby and stepped in after dinner, but wasn’t impressed with the singer, so just wandered out along the bridge to enjoy the night lights.

On Easter morning, I found a chocolate bunny on my breakfast plate, a painted egg in the flower vase. It was a perfect sunny, spring day to wander among the medieval buildings and green landscape of Buda atop Castle Hill, church bells ringing below. I went back across the metal bridge past a stone structure at the base of a hill, the old Gellert fortress, that appeared carved into the mountain. I hiked up the gradual rise to the top, the residential hills on one side and a stunning panorama of river, bridges, churches and city on the other. A stately palace, several churches and interesting little streets covered the hill. St. Matthias’ Cathedral, under restoration, is surrounded by little stone turrets, topped with a shining roof in many colors. I had the thrill of standing inside at back for part of the mass, listening to the choir echo up into the vaulted, dimly lit arches.

There were plenty of dinner places open despite the holiday. I had scoped out a Spanish tapas bar – I haven’t seen one in Prague and missed the one I frequented with friends in Guatemala City. Pata Negra turned out to be one of the “best of” restaurants of the past year, according to several framed awards on its wall. The music of the Buena Vista Social Club welcomed me as I entered, it felt a bit like home, or like one of my homes anyway. I ate slowly, as if lingering over conversation with a friend, as I did at the tapas place in Guate so many times.

Before leaving for the train station Monday morning, I followed the ring road, quiet with businesses and shops closed. I cut over to the river to see the imposing Parliament building. I wondered if anyone has ever counted the number of points that stick up from that wide, impressive structure. On its south side, there is an approachable, black sculpture of Jozsef Attila, the Hungarian poet, sitting hat in hand. I found a translation on the Internet of the quote next to the figure, in brass handwritten script, from his poem By the Danube: "As if my heart had been its very source / troubled, wise was the Danube, mighty force." The Matthias church gleamed across the river. Walking back, I found a wine tasting festival in progress in a green park. I strolled back down Vaci street as vendors and cafes opened up for the day.

Some of my students had recommended that I book train reservations in advance. Good advice! The train was way overbooked, apparently a common occurrence. Passengers clogged the aisles, standing and sitting on suitcases and backpacks, but I was happy to have a seat for the long ride home.

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