We have a private car with six seats but no beds so the challenge is to find a comfortable configuration for sleep. Then the challenge becomes harder: During the night, we are interrupted by a ticket taker then separate visits from passport and customs officials from Italy. Then Slovenia officials waken us twice more (once for customs, once for tickets). Then several other document checks over then course of the evening; definitely Croatian officials twice and potentially other border crossings as well. Finally twice more by the Hungarian customs and passport people. We’re not exactly sure how many times we’ve been awakened, but we are exhausted. The most sleep occurs once we are in Hungary after 6:00am, and we are thankfully a little late in arriving to Budapest. As we arrive I also discover that I've stepped on my eyeglasses overnight (while sitting upright) and they’re broken in half. Need to get those fixed somehow
Stepping off the train at Budapest around 10:00am, we find a nice cab driver standing on the platform. He’s in his 50’s, named Julien, although that’s not what his business card reads, and he speaks some English. He has a 25-year old son at Oxford with one more year to go before graduation. He offers us a good price on a taxi ride to the hotel, and escorts us to the train ticket office where we find out there are no trains from Budapest to Athens, contrary to the travel book’s information. Looks like we'll need some impromptu airline tickets.
Julien drives us and escorts us into the bank as we’ll need Hungarian forints. The exchange rate is $1 US = 180 forints, so we take out 25,000, making them feel like Monopoly money, complete with stern portraits.
He shows us the scenic drive up to the top of the Buda hillside. Buda and Pest were separate cities in Hungary until 1849 when the Chain Bridge permanently united the two sides. The city officially became Budapest in 1873. Julien tells us our hotel is very nice and sings praises of Hungarian food, saying we should try it all. We pull up to the hotel which looks like a pretty chalet with flower boxes in each window. In our room, kids have their own bunk bed in the shape of a truck. After check in, we go up a small hill within the property to the patio restaurant and enjoy a lovely lunch of pumpkin soup, goulash soup, chicken fricassee, salad and beer, of course. Sitting outside, we feel the cool air, like Wisconsin in mid-spring.
We take the bus down the hill to run our two errands - fix my eyeglasses and remove Kai’s stitches. We stop in one eyeglass store but no luck. Next door is a pharmacy, maybe they know where to find a doctor’s office. We use their English-Hungarian dictionary to explain Kai’s stitches but they just don’t know how to help. We take the bus the rest of the way down the hill to Moskva Square and the mall.
By pure chance, we find a 24-hour urgent care office near the mall and the English speaking staff sees Kai right away. Instead of letting the nurse remove the bandage, Kai wants to do it as we explain how he got the stitches. The doctor asks, “How many stitches did he get?” We say, “Three.” Snipping away, the very serious Hungarian doctor replies dryly, “Good. I’ve removed five. We must be done.”
Back at the mall, we find two more optic offices which can neither repair my glasses nor make replacements during our stay. We do, however, find Chocoland and purchase delicious goodies to take our minds off the glasses. We see a fountain in front of the mall where we can enjoy our treats.
At the end of the bus ride back to the hotel we find a wooded area and a park across the street. We walk along the path to the lookout point to see great views of the city and the surrounding hillsides. Once we’re back in our room, we’d like to return to the restaurant where we had lunch but find we cannot get in because we have no reservations. So instead we order room service and then call it a night.
In the morning, we have the nicest breakfast of the trip thus far in the hotel’s main dining room downstairs. They offer eggs, sausages, juices, breads, cereals, jams, cheeses, sliced veggies, a fancy coffee machine with hot chocolate and cafe latte - it’s just heavenly. Other breakfasts have had standout pastries or cakes but this hotel breakfast has it all. Today we take the bus down the hill again to explore the Danube riverbank and see some sights.
On our way, we happen upon another optical store where they can fix my glasses. Yeah! As a bonus, the owner speaks English! A short walk to the river brings us wonderful views of the Parliament building across the water.
We then walk along the river, passing St. Anne’s church, a pretty, all-brick building, on our way up the river bank to the Chain Bridge with its lion statues guarding the beginning and end. We walk the length of the bridge and back.
On Castle Hill ahead, we see a funicular railway climbing the hillside and, naturally, we’ve got to ride. Built in 1870, this was only the second railway of its kind in the world. I surrender our 10,000 forint bill and we hop in the lowest seating section of the three passenger areas. We ride slowly up the 48 degree incline to the top, where we see the pulling mechanism for this cable railway.
After surveying all of Budapest, we walk alongside Buda Castle, which is also the Presidential Palace. The castle was built in 1242 following a Mongol invasion. From then, the castle has been destroyed (and rebuilt) many times including in 1686 when it fell into Turkish hands during sieges and reoccupation. It was rebuilt in 1770 then burned out again in World Ward II and restored in 1946. We are allowed to wander everywhere outside and we don’t see one official or guard. The President still lives there, so I find this quite surprising.
In one courtyard, we find vendors selling tickets to an Epona Show, an equestrian school which teaches the finer skills of riding Spanish horses in the Hungarian military tradition. The show starts at 9:00pm, which is unfortunately too late for the children, so we will have to skip it.
Further along on the palace grounds, we take a short archery lesson then shop for souvenirs. We wander the streets, past Matthias Church, and find a sign pointing downstairs to the Labyrinth of Buda Castle, We are intrigued. Going below, we warm up some, pay for our ticket and receive two gas lanterns to use in the labyrinth. At first the kids are interested but Kai quickly loses his courage in the dark and wants to turn back.
We let him hold the lantern as we walk past “cave drawings” and oddball “artifacts” throughout the labyrinth. The strangest spot is the “wine room” where a red liquid pours continuously from gargoyle mouths at a wine fountain. We walk through hanging chains in archways with spooky music and past footprints (that resemble tennis shoes) preserved in rock. Plaques on the wall explain the discovery of these prehistoric finds, but we have our doubts about the authenticity. How strange.
Once again at street level we focus on finding an authentic Hungarian restaurant and succeed. We come in from the cold to enjoy a traditional Hungarian plate and beer. First course is sausages and cheeses, then goulash soup, catfish over egg noodles and apple strudel. After the meal, the kids point out that we still have time to go back to see the horse show, and we agree to go.
As the sun sets, we quickly walk through the cold to the palace, pay for our tickets and pick up blankets offered to us to keep warm in the bleachers. The show starts with eight white horses entering the ring, side stepping for the audience. Classical music accompanies the routine. These magnificent animals, their coats like white satin, parade around in various formations with serious, young riders on their backs. It looks just like ballet. The horses are graceful, the riders are skilled and in control. We see a presentation of Olympic dressage. Then two horses come out and simultaneously perform stunts in tandem, very close to one another. Kurt and I look at each other as if to say, “How in the world did we happen onto this? What luck!” Wherever else could we see this? Kate and Kai are entranced.
The pictures simply do not capture the beauty of the performance. The highlight of the show was a large brown horse which jumped high into the air, kicking his hind legs far out behind him. His hang time was awesome. Surrounding him in the ring were two white horses rearing up on command and one white horse “kneeling” and walking backwards on his hind legs with his two front legs in the air. We all sat with our mouths hanging wide open in amazement.
After the show, we linger at the merchandise tent to see the horses cool down and to buy some picture postcards. I question a few of the students working the tent and find that the riders, whose average age is 19, train at Epona school for 2 years to ride the horses, which range in age from 6 to 20. In the summertime, they perform three times a week in this courtyard at the palace. This show was really excellent. Finally we grab a cab home to get out of the cold.
Our next day is a leisurely breakfast followed by relaxation in the room. We have lunch in the hotel restaurant overlooking the pool and then kids go swimming. Kai’s bandage comes off for good in the water. Later we take the bus into town to pick up my repaired glasses. A trip on the metro under the Danube takes us to the Pest side of the city. Of note here is that Budapest has the nicest and cleanest metro we’ve seen in Europe. Further, nothing even remotely eventful happens to us while riding.
We pick up pastries as we depart the metro and eat them on the grass in the gardens behind the Parliament building. We see a monument to the people slain during the 1956 uprising, and a Hungarian flag - with a circle cut out of the center - flies above.
Now we walk along the streets, passing pretty parks and green areas. This feels like a different face of the city where we’re seeing fewer tourists and more local people like families and teens in the parks simply enjoying a regular Friday afternoon.
We happen onto a rectangle-shaped fountain of water jets in the park. Some kids are in the middle of the rectangle and we’re not sure how they got inside. Then Kate steps closer to the water and a row of jets stop to make a path in. Kate and Kai run in and have a blast playing in the fountain.
We pass St. Stephen’s cathedral which has a large tile mosaic in the front courtyard. We take a bus over the Elizabeth Bridge, originally built in 1897. Although the bridge was blown up by the retreating Germans in 1945, it was rebuilt from 1961 to 1964. According to legend, St. Elizabeth was betrothed to Ludwig IV in the church at the Pest side of the bridge.
Steps lead us up a mountain to the Citadel monument and museum. We climb a bit to a pretty spot with a statue dedicated to St. Gellert, who was thrown off the hill by some Hungarians during a religious protest. A further climb up the steps and we make it to the top for exceptional views. A large Statue of Liberation, here at the city’s peak, shows a woman raising a palm branch skyward. It was built at the end of World War II.
The cold wind motivates us to take the path down the mountain to the tram. Once we’re back near the bus stop, we enjoy a really good meal at a hole-in-the-wall gyro place. We stock up on supplies for our flight to Athens, Greece tomorrow.
On the evening bus back to the hotel we reflect on what a pleasant surprise this city has been. We had no expectations when we arrived. We’ve been charmed by the friendly people, interesting landmarks and comfort foods in this worthwhile destination. The one-of-a-kind experiences we’ve had here, like the horse show and the funicular railway, have drawn upon topics we already love and given this city special meaning for us.
Our journey from Paris to Budapest takes us through many countries on the train. We’re up early at 5:00am checking out of our Paris hotel. On the way to the metro, we walk over darn Marne River one last time and catch a 7:00am train to Milan. Later, we travel from Milan to Monfalcone, Italy. Here, in this tiny station, we wait two hours, have a few strange conversations with locals and then board the train to Budapest at 11:00pm. Kurt jokes that communication won’t be as easy anymore because we’ve left the land of romance languages.