The Swing Hotel was a big step down from the great Kempinski in Prague! Next door, a gyro restaurant, a “Sex Shop” and an “exotic dancers” establishment, too. Inside, not too terrible, but there was no elevator and our little suitcases were heavy after the trip. Our concierge was a very serious man, who did his job without going too out of his way. Well, for 190 euros and 5 nights in a city we knew nothing about, we were willing to explore the downgrade from 5 stars to 1 star. Perhaps 2?
I won’t continue to describe the impressions of the hotel, because it was all erased soon enough, and it turned out to be a great deal after all. But that first day, we had to eat, and the concierge recommended a restaurant where they served traditional Hungarian food, and it was in a street that very much felt like our own neighborhood but in the 90s… Well, we are used to it, and after all, it felt real. No grown-up Disneyworld here, but real people coming and going with their shopping, their moves and their kids. The waiter insisted that we order some super-sized menu of Hungarian food, and seemed kind of annoyed when we decided to order more conservative platters. The food tasted good, but it was heavy food and we were so full we had to go to bed after the meal. Later that night, we started over.
The waiter at the restaurant said that we should go downtown, and pointed in the direction we should head. So we just started walking that way, and soon found a big museum, a metro station, a lot of “antiquariums” which here means bookstores that sell old books. The city looked kind of beat up, like Havana, but bigger scaled. Then we saw a newer hotel, and a Spanish Tapas bar, and felt sort of relieved that things were improving as we walked in this direction. But it was already late and we headed back.
I spent some hours before sleeping figuring out what to do in Budapest. I had a faint idea of what to see here from a quick Internet search back in NYC, but Juan had managed to get a little book for tourists that contained transportation maps, things to do, and was pretty much an advertisement of the Budapest card, which seemed like a good deal.
I decided we were going to the “Buda Castle”. Before that, we bought 2 Budapest cards at the hotel, which would get us transportation and free admission to 4 museums, and a couple of these museums were located at “Buda Castle.” The concierge told us to take a tram line, but Juan had asked him to validate the cards for 1 pm, thinking we were going to have breakfast before leaving, but breakfast was a coffee in a disposable plastic cup and a chocolate croissant, which took like 15 minutes, and it was only about 11: 30. We decided to walk near the tram, next to the Danube.
We still saw quite a few drug addicts, but the sights were getting prettier. We passed by the University of Budapest, a high school, a building that combined an old design with a futuristic one. And then we bumped into the market.
I had read about it the night before and thought I wanted to visit, but of course, had no idea where it was. When I saw it, I was in Heaven. There were all kinds of food being sold, and people doing their shopping. There was fresh orange juice and fruits, and other sections for gourmet goods, crafts and souvenirs, and lots of places to eat. Luckily I was not hungry, because I would have gotten a hunger attack in that place, so we navigated the long building with only our curiosity and not our craving. I don’t like shopping centers, but I love traditional markets like this, where you can find people selling and buying like in the old times. Also, this market was very different from the large market in Cairo, where you have to be careful not to be pulled into one of the stores and get harassed by the vendors (and in many occasions women have to be especially careful because the harassment is sexual and I can tell you that: a man with rotten teeth kissed me on the mouth… an experience I would rather not remember.) Here it is all very nice and organized, clean, beautiful, happy. We exited on the other side and saw one of the bridges that cross from Pest to Buda.
We walked across the bridge, trying to figure out where and what was the Buda Castle. The girl that sold us the croissants had no idea what we were talking about. We should have done what smart tourists do, and that is follow other tourists, but no, we tried our luck and took a wrong turn that sent us quite far from our objective. There were some stairs that we thought led to the castle (a castle is at the top of a hill, always, after all!), but they were so high I didn’t want to go up just to find out that they led somewhere else. We saw a couple coming down and figured they knew what they were doing, which led us to go up the stairs where we found a Japanese couple that informed us there was no castle there. Back down again, we tried another route, and figured out we had gone a long way from our objective when we took that left turn about an hour ago… But now were on the right track and I saw a bus that had the correct numbers on it, and, finally, we found an entrance to the fort through the back. So we entered Buda Castle por la retaguardia.
There we saw a museum and when we presented our cards… they had changed the rules and, oh, well, we only had a 50% discount. Luckily, Budapest is not an expensive city and the equivalent of what we had to pay was about $3 each. I loved this museum of Budapest history because it really was a good introduction to the city we were about to discover. We learned about its history from before the Celts arrived to the Communist Era. They had English translations in almost everything, which was great for us. In the café we had nice espresso and cappuccino and delicious cake for about $6, so liberating! And it was WAY BETTER than the coffee in Vienna. I was so relieved that now I could drink my drug of choice not only at a great price but the way it should be done. Allah Bless the Great Turks for bringing their splendid way of life to this great city!
After walking outside (on our way to the castle) and inside the museum for at least 7 hours, we were dying. So we took the bus and arrived in the center of Pest, where things were looking different. There were nice cafes, we saw the Merlin theater (English language theater,) plazas… little by little we were discovering Budapest and the contrasts it contains.
The next day we returned to see the rest of the Buda Castle. Buda Castle is really a series of buildings that have suffered greatly at times of war and only the ruins of the castle remain within what is now a Budapest history museum. It is very interesting to visit, but it might be very difficult for people who have trouble going up and down stairs. I didn’t see any elevators or lifts, but I might be wrong and it is worth asking. We went to the towers and saw all of Budapest from there. This day we walked the little old streets within the citadel, and met a painter in his studio who asked us about fairies in our countries because he is writing a book about fairies in the whole world. We told him we had none, but we have the Ciguapa in Dominican Republic and the Chupacabras in Puerto Rico, which might be a nice addition to his research. He loved history and made history paintings of battles as well as rather malefic-looking fairy paintings.
We saw the hills of Buda (or at least some hills in the back wall of the citadel) and we also saw the ruins of the Magdalene Church. We walked the whole place and then went to the Hungarian National Gallery. I saw the work of one painter that I really liked and wrote down so I could research more about him later: Csontvary Kosztka Tivadar. His paintings were large and hung between the floors of the museum, taking the space of a great wall that divided the space from one floor to the next. He created around 1907 and his paintings have a mystical element, a taste of fauvism and primitivism, and an originality of vision compared to the rest of the works in the museum.
This day, Juan said he wanted to go see a soccer game at a bar. Lucky choice for me because when we finally got back to the hotel I was so exhausted I could not get up from bed after I lay down to rest a little. The trip was catching up with me in Budapest. So I was glad this could qualify as an independent adventure and just stayed resting and reading. He told me he talked to some locals at the bar he found nearby, had two beers, and that Germany had won against Spain. The guys were for Germany, of course, being closer. And Juan showed up eating a gyro, which perfumed the room, and considering I had not had dinner, made me hungry. But I was more tired than hungry and just went to sleep.
The next day we walked on another street from the hotel toward the city center, where we discovered Ráday utca, a whole street of nice restaurants, moderately priced with outside seating. So this is where we should have walked to the first day, had I only done some research… And then we realized that we had been so near to it the day we discovered the Spanish Tapas Bar. Now we knew! This street is famous and a great place to eat.
In just a couple of days, we became experts in riding all sorts of public transport in Budapest, so we were ready to go to Memento Park, the place where they put the statues that came down when the communist government fell. This was one of my favorite days in Budapest. We had to take 2 trams and a bus that took us far into those same hills we had seen the day before from the citadel. And it kept going and going, crossing highways and buildings and houses until we got to a less urbanized place and the bus voice said “Memento Park.” We entered and the first thing we heard was music playing in an old radio, the hymns of the communist era. There was also the statue of Stalin that we had seen come down in a video we saw back in the history museum. And the boots of Stalin, giant size. Then we walked in the sculpture garden (but it has no flowers or even grass, just earth and weeds in the empty areas) and saw a series of statues. I later saw a postcard with an air view of the design. It is thoughtfully designed, both respecting the art and expressing the contrary feelings of Hungarians about this time. The statues were impressive, true art within its context. Not so much the portraits of men, but the ones that sought to express the workers’ pleas.
Then we went to the barracks. There they were showing a film made in 2006 about a secret film lab where, during the communist era, they created educational films to train spies. It explained the process of recruiting informants and how the equipment, secret messages, and other special methods were to be used and delivered. The secret lab and films it created were so secret even the person who managed the projector had to step out of the room while a film was on. It had a full time staff and used even famous actors and actresses to act in the teaching films about how to be a spy for the Hungarian government.
The more we walked, the bigger the city looked. After visiting Memento Park, eating and resting, I wanted to go see the river. They have river cruises, but I was not interested. I just wanted to walk by its side and see what people do there. But first I wanted to walk by Andrassy Street because the brochure said it was “the most beautiful street in Budapest.” I suspected that this meant lots of designer shops, but still had to go and check it out, and I was right, but the great thing about Andrassy was that we found the building of the Opera, and the Cathedral of St. Stephen nearby. After exploring this old part of town, new for us of course!, and making it a point to see the next day and go have coffee in the cafes of the plaza in front of the cathedral, we kept on walking toward the river.
That’s when we discovered the rich tourists’ part of Budapest! We had been wondering if Budapest was all poor because the part where our glamorous hotel was located is so beat up. Now we could see a great contrast. Expensive restaurants, cafes, well-kept buildings, beauty and sophistication everywhere. This is not where we were coming to eat, but it still was nice to see. After all, nobody wants to visit a place where there is only poverty and no hope of improvement. And Budapest is so beautiful that when you are here you want to know that someone will fix the buildings that are deteriorated and not let them rot and fall at some point. I know the consequences of gentrification for poor people, but at the same time, if buildings are not kept, they do deteriorate and eventually fall. And then there is nowhere to go either. But I was not lucubrating about this while we were walking; I was just enjoying the views. And as we kept on walking, we saw the river.
The view from the river was stunning, especially at the time in the evening when there was still light. You could see the Buda Castle and the bridge, lighted. We walked for a while, and then sat to see the people walk by. Unlike Cuba and Santo Domingo, where the malecones are more of a party place, here people walked quietly, and it was all very tranquil. There were some teenagers having fun, too, but they were also passing by. You could only hear some jazz coming from the hotel behind us and the buses and trams passing by. Then I wanted a virgin mojito from Pata Negra, the Spanish Tapas Bar.
We discovered Pata Negra on our first night and then went back for a late lunch the next day. They had no tables left, all were reserved, but they said we could sit at the bar. This is a tapas bar after all, that was fine with me. After our first meal here we were reconsidering Hugarian food. It was so heavy, we didn’t want to spend the entire trip sleeping and trying to recover from eating! So we went for the promise of lighter delicious food at Pata Negra. It was fulfilled. We had salad, Spanish/French style bread (which I was missing!!!!) and some tiny palomilla steaks and manchego cheese. And I had a Virgin Mojito, with lots of mint, very refreshing. I don’t know how so little food filled us so well, but we just could not go on eating so many heavy meals. I guess we were missing home. At least here we knew what we were getting!
The day we went to Memento Park, we also had lunch at a typical “bufe.” Bufe must mean buffet, but in the style of college cafeterias, where you ask for the dish you want and someone serves you. Then you go and pay at the register. Most bufe restaurants seem to be Turkish, but I saw the same concept at the market with traditional Hungarian food. There are lots of Turkish restaurants here and this one seemed like it could have a bathroom, so we went it. I ordered one of those famous gyros, which in Budapest are served with a burrito kind of flour tortilla, like a wrap but warm and a little toasted. And they can be chicken or lamb. I chose chicken and that was really good. Juan chose Turkish rice and chicken in sauce with vegetables. Yes, he was missing home… He loved it so much we even went back to this place the next day. We were kind of afraid of Hungarian traditional food and, after all, the Turks were here for 150 years, so it is not like we were not eating what Hungarians eat!
Food and transportation has become a theme with me I guess… Well, what else do you need when you are trying to see a city? You need to move and you need to eat in order to move! Oh, and you need good coffee of course. After the Turkish place I wanted desert, but not Turkish because I can have Baclava in NYC. I wanted something… Italian? A few blocks ahead we found an outdoor Italian café. The sun was beautiful this day, really the first glorious day of spring we got in Europe, and this outdoor cafe was perfect. I ordered espresso con panna and panacotta with raspberry topping. (Sorry Jefa, when you read this I will be guilty of reminding you of our favorite treat at Yo In Yo Out…!) The coffee was so glorious, I had to announce it in Facebook. And I don’t do that unless something is truly magnificent!
After eating, riding. This must be one of the cities with the best transportation. Once you have your map and a pass, it is all so easy and accessible. For about $7 per day or less, you can go everywhere. They even have a ticket that admits about 5 people riding together for (I think) 5 days for only about $20. Unfortunately, we didn’t know this and bought the Budapest card, 3 days for 31 euros, which is not as good a deal as it seems from the advertisements. But that was ok, tourists who choose freedom from tourist guides must make mistakes, and we loved moving freely around in this city. Though we did walk a lot, like in the other cities, and often preferred to walk instead of riding. But it felt good to know that you could hop on something pretty much anywhere and it would take you where you were going. It seemed as if every single street had a tram, bus, metro or combination of these. I am probably exaggerating, but it really seemed that way, especially in the center of Pest.
The last day we were already losing strength after so many days traveling. This day I decided to “work.” I have been visiting pilgrimage places or miraculous Virgin Marys in each of the places we visited. I plan to write about these topics for Ángeles y Milagros and thought it was a good idea to go on little pilgrimages as a way of doing research and experiencing the things I write about. This way I can write the personal experiences in the blog and more general articles for the site. I had planned to go to a pilgrimage place to see “Our Lady of Remete” in the outskirts of Budapest, but could not find an address before leaving NYC or while in Budapest. The night before I did some research and kind of figured out how to get there (with the help of google translations!), but after the long trip to Memento Park, I was not sure we should make such a long trip the day before leaving. And in the process of researching this place I discovered another, nearer place, right across that first bridge we crossed to Buda, with a replica of my favorite advocation of the Virgin Mary, Our Lady Of Chestochowa. And there were also the St. Stephen relics, Saint King of Budapest, at the cathedral. I had a plan.
It always feels strange to walk into a church where they charge to see things or it is some sort of hybrid between a museum and a church, but this is the rule in the great churches of this area at least. St. Stephen’s Basilica dates from the 19th century, is neo-classical in style, and contains the relic and treasury of King Saint Stephen. I was relieved to find out they only charge for the treasury and the view from the tower, but you can see the relics in a special chapel of the church. If you want to see them lighted, pay a few coins for 3 minutes of light. I didn’t have any coins, so I only saw the reliquary and the shape of the inner reliquary in the shape of a hand. These relics were in many places of Europe before finally being brought back to Hungary, the country of St. Stephen. I still need to learn why these countries have the tradition of having king-saints. There is another such king-saint in Prague.
For the Church in the Cave, we rented audio guides that told us about the history of the church and each of the chambers within. This church was created by Pauline monks. From it, during nazi occupation, Hungarians went on pilgrimage with the main purpose of asking the intersession of the Virgin Mary to deliver Hungary from the War during WWI. At this time, the monks took in and protected refuges and people performed rogations and pilgrimages to Spain and Lourdes leaving from here. After the Communist rule began, its entrance was covered with what seemed like concrete, but apparently the interior was left undamaged. And I was so glad because it is breathtakingly beautiful. Being in a cave (some of it man-made with explosives) the light is low and restful, the images and decorations unique, and far from the neoclassical grandiosity of the Basilica. This church is closer to Matisse’s beautiful chapel, conceived in great detail by his vision. I don’t know whose vision created this church, but it seems like it was the original creation of a specific person who conceived the place with a specific ideal in mind. Of course, there is a reference to the Lourdes Grotto as you enter, but inside it expands into something else. There was a funeral going on the last, exposed and naturally lighted chamber, and the monks were chanting, which really added to the beauty of the place. The Crucifix in the main chamber is a replica of one in Spain, and in a smaller and diagonally opposite chamber is the replica of the Black Madonna of Częstochowa, a gift of friendship from Poland, where the original is in Krakow. This little pilgrimage is going to help me explore the idea of how and why replicas of miraculous images are considered to have the same miraculous properties as their originals. We’ll see how it goes.
For our last day in Budapest, we had to rest in the afternoon because I just could not go on, but at night, revived by a miraculous siesta, we headed back to that restaurant-lined street. We had no idea what we wanted to eat, but I had been curious about a Persian restaurant I had seen the first day. When we passed by, we looked at the menu and it seemed attractive: broiled meat and salads were not unlike what I cook at home. We wanted to seat outside, but there was nothing available, but when we agreed to go inside, we did not regret it. It was great! We stepped into the tent of some sheik with low seats and tables, veils trimmed with gold, and even a belly dancer that made several appearances as the night went on. I had a secret desire of seeing dancing, but we didn’t have time or made reservations, so I had given up on that, so when the belly dancer appeared I felt this was really the grand finale of the trip. All my wishes had come true!
We stayed here until everyone else left, and then walked back to the hotel saying good bye to this beautiful city. Even the Swing Hotel was looking good by now, so cheap and so close to everything, with its #4 and #6 tram stop right in front of the door. Viva the Swing! But be brave if you choose it…
Writing on the train back to Prague, I am feeling exhausted and ready to go home. There is still one more stop and a truly grand finale. But that will be in Prague, tomorrow.