24 May 2013

Midnight Train to Budapest

My train left at midnight. 12:01 to be exact.

I found a seat by the window, popped in earplugs and pulled my hat low like a cowboy napping under a tree. A ticket puncher in Slovakia woke me up. A ticket puncher in Hungary woke me up. The rest of the trip was a dreamless blip across the continent.

At 7:30 a.m. I sat up and straightened my hat. Budapest was an hour off and I wanted to enjoy Europe whizzing past. The train ran along the banks of the Danube through countryside so green it looked Technicolor painted. Wildflowers splashed the green canvas and white cottages added perspective. The train clicked and hummed. I leaned my head against the vibrating glass and felt fully immersed in the romance of Europe.

And not because it is supposed to be romantic.

I am a history nerd. I let my imagination churn-up the wildflowers and the blurring-by green until a time-lapse of regional history raised to the surface. I imagined Roman soldiers patrolling the streets of Aquincum, the capital city of Lower Pannonia. I imagined the dark ages and the ravages of the plague. I imagined Ghengis Khan thundering over the land with his horde stretching endlessly back screaming and whooping the sound of murder. I imagined the 150 year reign of the Ottoman Empire falling to the Austro-Hungarian Habsburgs. And I imagined The Great War; when empires ended and the modern world came squalling into existence.

Europe by train isn't romantic because it's beautiful. Not for me. It's romantic because of the history beneath the rails--two thousand years of art and architecture, religion and philosophy, clashing swords and canon fire clicking and humming beneath.

I stepped off the train without a guidebook or a plan. I had the address of a hostel scribbled on a scrap of paper in my back pocket. I figured that was enough to get started. The train station was packed; over-sized backpacks stretching endlessly back like Khan's horde. I picked up a free map dotted with Burger King logos/locations and got the hell out of there.

Travel Tip: When it comes to train stations (especially in big cities) you should always get the hell out of there. Ignore the bright tourist information booths. They are reverse ATMs whose sole purpose is to sell you shit you don't need. Cross out the word tourist and write in sucker, rube, prey, the effect is the same. Instead, go to the hotel across the street (there is always a hotel across the street) and talk to the concierge. They will give you good advice and free advice. You will be oriented and on your way while the suckers and rubes are still patiently waiting to get ripped-off.

At the hotel across the street I unfolded my Burger King map and explained to the concierge that I knew nothing. He happily a drew a "we are here" X on my map and another over the location of my scribbled down hostel, which it turned out was only a 10-minute walk away. I thanked him and walked through the golden revolving doors to start my Budapest adventure. At that exact moment, back at the train station, some dumbass was plunking down $30 for an all-city transportation card. To be fair, my method does not come with a 5% museum discount or one free topping on frozen yogurt purchases over 10 Euro.

Time was short so I dropped off my bag and started walking. Budapest is split in two by the Danube River. Buda on the east bank and Pest on the west. The two were not officially merged until 1873. The oldest part of the city is in Buda so I decided to start there. My plan was to cross the bridge and get breakfast on the other side. Coffee + pastry + chill time before I really started hoofing it. This is where the spontaneous method of travel can sometimes get you in trouble. There is no food in Buda, all the eats are in Pest. There are of course a few places hidden away, but a man could starve trying to find them.

Side note about food and food signage in Budapest. The currency in Hungary is the Forint. The abbreviation for the Forint is Ft. Food in Budapest is advertised as such: "Pizza 400 Ft!", "Kebab 530 Ft!" The amount of time it took me to realize that the signs were advertising price not distance was just stupid. The sign that finally clued me in said, "Buffet Breakfast: 5642 Ft." Staring directly at the sun and drooling from the corner of my mouth I pondered deep, "That is more than a mile. Now why would they advertise... Oh!" 

With an empty stomach I started the long climb up the hill to the Citadel. The path leading up was lush and green. There were several groups of children at different points along the path running through the trees when their teachers weren't looking and sitting dutifully when they were. They were dressed like Native Americans. Or at least that's what it looked like to a native of America. Starving and surrounded by rambunctious midget Chippewas. Terrifying.

After the citadel I walked along the river looking for food and found nothing but pretty old buildings. I was muttering nonsense and dragging my flip-flops across the hot pavement. I was shouting at apartment buildings, "Are you all dead in there! Dead cause there's no fuckin food! What is this!?"

My true crisis came at the entrance to the castle complex. Buda Castle was at the top of a hill. I was reasonably sure there was food up there. But what if there wasn't? WHAT IF THERE WASN'T!! My other option was to walk across the famed Chain Bridge back into Pest. I was seriously considering a back and forth across the bridge when I found my salvation. A vendor with a small blue cart selling Amerika Style Hot Dogs. Organ music erupted! White doves flew! Cheerleaders kicked! Jesus appeared in the clouds with a double thumbs-up for this guy!

Judge me all you want judgers. That dog got me up the hill.

The Buda Castle complex is a town unto itself and the views from up there are spectacular. It is the best place to get an across the river view of the Parliament building. Also, as I suspected (but was too weak to test) there are a number of places to eat, drink and be merry.

Having walked pretty much continuously from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., I stopped for a beer and a snack and contemplated a few should haves:

  • I should have eaten breakfast in Pest
  • I should have rented a bike
  • I should have put sunscreen on my neck
It was still early in the afternoon and the weather was a perfect 80 degrees and sunny (27celsius). I decided to visit one of Budapest's famed thermal baths. Hungary is teeming with natural springs. During Turkish rule elaborate bathhouses were built around many of the springs. In Budapest there are baths dating back as far as the 16th and 17th century. 

I visited the Gellert Spa which is a maze of indoor and outdoor pools. The indoor pools are old and elegant. The outdoor pools have more of a hotel vibe; wave pool, too many people and too many voices. After soaking in the outdoor thermal spa I ducked into a small wooden sauna. It was crowded in there too. 

Photo Credit: adventurouskate.com
To my right was a boisterous group of Frenchmen. To my left a boisterous group of Spaniards. Both groups seemed to be having a good time. I didn't mind their volume or their unintelligible words. Maybe I had a Spanish speaking pack-of-assholes to one side and a French speaking pack-of-assholes to the other. I don't know, it's all Greek to me. Then the Americans walked in: 

Dude #1: 
Those chicks were not feelin us, bro.

Dude #2: 
They fuckin hated us cause were American. She was all 'You can tell their not from England.' Of course were not from England, we don't have British accents. Pffft. The one in purple was alright though. Reminded me of this chick I banged back in Gainesville.

Dude #1: 
You're right about people hating Americans over here. They hated me big time in Czech bro. 

I scooted closer to the Spaniards and tried to laugh at their jokes, lest anyone think I was from Florida. Or you know, French.

Despite the crowds the spa was brilliant. I spent 2.5 hours on a pool, thermal spa, sauna, cold pool rotation. By the time I was ready to leave I was so relaxed blinking felt like unnecessary movement. I went back to the hostel and took a glorious two hour nap.

For me, nightlife is an important facet of the travel experience. It's easy to sample when you are with friends, not so easy when you are alone. One of the best ways to save money when budget traveling is to buy booze at the store and drink a few at the hostel before you go out. Again easy with friends. Easy enough if you have a laptop loaded up with movies and TV shows. I had my ereader. I've been slowly chipping away at Feodor Dostoevsky's  "The Brother's Karamazov." Brilliant book. Brilliant man. I can't think of anything less party time than Dostoevsky.

Bar Art
I went out sans pre-game knowing that the night would either end early or expensive. Budapest is famous for its ruin pubs. Pubs built into the remains of ruined buildings. The place I went to was called Szimpla. Lonely Planet rated it the world's 3rd best bar. I don't know about that, but it is a great space. It has several different areas each with its own bar and atmosphere. As well as good music, belly dancing shows and funky design work throughout. I butted-in on a conversation or two but mostly I moved around like a spy who sucks at his job; conspicuously drinking over here, conspicuously drinking over there.

As a solo traveler it can be difficult to blend in at a crowded bar or club. You end up feeling uninvited; wondering if people have noticed your aloneness, wondering what they think about that. Ironically at a small dive bar with few patrons it is easy to become background. That's how I ended my night, sitting in a back-alley Hungarian bar, sipping on local brews, eavesdropping on conversations I couldn't understand.

At one point a giant of a man with a shaved head and a leather jacket started firing words at me. He looked scary but his words sounded friendly. I shrugged apologetically and asked if he spoke English. Reaching back for what little he knew, he asked where I was from. America is never specific enough; California always is.

 "California," I replied.

"California," he repeated as if I'd said Shangri la. "Better than this." He pointed around the room as though the bar were his city, his country. The grass is always greener, even when your roots are in one of the great capitals of Europe.

I woke up Sunday morning to the sound of an overly-loud older gentleman talking to whomever would listen. I wanted to explain hostel etiquette to him; tip-toes and whispers, Sir! But, that would have required engaging him so I ignored him instead. As I was packing up my belongings the crafty old bastard trapped me. He had a fringe of white hair and a white mustache. His wife was flitting around like a caged bird; convinced that she was about to be devoured by the wild youth. The man's name was Bill and in a bizarre twist he was from my hometown: Livermore. He had "a place out by the lab." He had a lot to say about the unconventional ways of his nephew, but that's another story.

Saturday was fast and fast is not my preferred method of travel. I had less than a day and I wanted to take it slow. I wandered the streets of Pest until I found a cafe with outdoor seating. It was a quaint local spot; Starbucks I believe it was called. (Shut up. The patio was nice.) I ate my pastry fast and drank my Americano slow. I scribbled words in my journal, words that you have already read. I watched Europeans and non-Europeans pass.

I decided to walk to Heroes Square. According to my Burger King map it was straight up Andrassy Ut, an upscale boulevard and shopping district. After walking farther than expected, I came upon a beautiful courtyard with statues and garden lined paths. I assumed that I had found Heroes Square. I assumed wrong. It was just a nice setting for nice restaurants. The restaurant at the end, beyond the garden setting, was quintessentially American: Hooters. America exports all the wrong F&B. You can't buy a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale or a Double-Double Animal Style anywhere, but there is a Hooters in every city and enough Burger Kings to necessitate a map.

I found Heroes Square and ate lunch under a tree. I scribbled a few more words and snapped a few more pictures. The shade was making me sleepy and it was time go anyway. I had, had enough time to see the city and not enough time to know it. But, what else could I expect from a weekend away.

I walked back to the hostel. I smiled at the girl behind the desk. She had been there all weekend. She was pretty and spoke with a hint a shyness--the remnants of a shyer past. She blushed every time I told her my room number; embarrassed that she couldn't remember. I retrieved my bag from the storage room. She was talking to another guest. I smiled again, fainter this time. I heard her say goodbye. I turned and saw her wave through the gap of the closing door. The door clicked shut and she was gone. If I had invited her for a drink would she have said yes? If she had said yes would the chemistry have been strong enough to make us regret the briefness of our acquaintance? The answers were behind me. The curiosity was satisfaction enough. I put my sunglasses on and stepped into the hot sun. I walked away from Budapest. To another train. To another destination.