At 7:00am, I wake up alone. Used in any other sense, this could be sad, but here, it’s a great thing. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the dream is alive – a couchette for one! A few minutes later, there’s a knock on the door. It’s my boyfriend, Impad, bringing me coffee and a croissant. I smile the best I can as, even when you have a couchette for one, and pop an Ambien the night before, well, let’s just say I’m not completely sure there was a mattress on that plastic bunk. Still, at one point during the night, I awoke and looked out the window. It was dark, but the snow dusting the pines and the ground reflected the light and I could see the trees climbing the side of the mountain next to me. It’s a beautiful travel snippet that I’ll hold in my memory.
I remove the lid from my coffee cup and see that it’s more than half empty. Yes, before my coffee I’m not exactly an optimist so really, don’t talk to me about the glass half-full crap. Oh Impad, you’ve disappointed me. Still, I’m sure he can be trained.
As we approach Budapest, I gather my things and drag my luggage off the train. I find myself in a huge train station hall which looks like something out of an old movie, The arched-ceiling seems to reach the sky and the walls look like a photo taken using a sepia filter. Although it’s covered, it’s cold as, except for the roof and the ancient walls, it’s open to the tracks and the entrance. Oh, and it’s long, really long, While Geneva may claim the title of the largest train station hall, I believe Budapest could challenge that if they wanted.
I change a minimal amount of money in the train station, knowing that, although the sign says “No Fee” this means that they’ve added it into the exchange rate, and also, a train station is not the place to get the best exchange rate in the first place.
“You’re still in Europe, so why do you need to change money?” you ask.
Great question (you’re so smart)! While Hungary is part of the European Union, it’s not part of the Eurozone, which, in general, are the states who also use the Euro as their monetary unit; Hungary uses the Forint, or HUF. I hope to take the metro (subway) to my hotel but, should I run into problems, I always have enough money for a taxi.
Police officers stand at the exits of the station (this seems as if it’s the norm) and, as they see me dragging my bags up the stairs, one kind steps in and offers to help. I step outside and and happy to say that, for the first time in six-weeks, it’s a purely sunny day. I feels fantastic. I ask people where the M4 is – I really don’t know if it’s a bus, train, subway or tram – and a nice lady points me downstairs (it’s the subway). When I step up to the ticket machine some official-looking men standing by the escalator motion me over to buy a ticket from them and even show me the elevator around the corner. So far Budapest is a very friendly place. I find the train easily as the station is well-signed and very clean. Three-stops later, I exit the train, cross the street and look for the Kabob shop (a very big thing in Germany and Hungary) as I’ve read online that the entrance to my hotel, the Museum Central, is through a large wooden door next door. Things seem easy to find here as the streets actually have very visible signs and most building entrances have addresses on them.
I’ve read the online reviews of the hotel – I’ve booked four nights as it said city central and four nights will give me a good idea if this is a place and location I want to stay longer – before booking through hotels.com (after this stay I’ll have one free night due to their rewards program) which have told me that the entrance of this place might be a little off-putting, but the hotel is just fine. After pressing intercom buttons to get buzzed through various doors, I make my way to the entrance of the hotel on the second floor and the reception girl couldn’t be nicer. It’s barely 10:00am and she’s apologizing that my room isn’t ready yet. I assure her that this is fine as I had no expectation that it would be ready (people, if it says check-in is at 2:00pm, it’s nice if it’s available earlier, but you have no right to be upset if it isn’t). I tell her I’ve heard about the market and ask for directions.
After a ten minute walk down to the Danube River (of Blue Danube Waltz fame), I see a large, very-old building on my left – definitely the market. The Central Market, or Nagy Vasarcsarnok, was built in 1897 and is the largest and oldest in Budapest. I enter and am immediately hit by the smell of spices and fresh vegetables. The entire ground floor is filled with booths of vendors selling fresh and dried fruits, fresh vegetables, sausage (the Hungarians are proud of their pork which apparently comes from a furry pig which are abundant here), nuts and spices. Hungarian Paprika is known worldwide and the smell permeates the market.
I make my way up to the first floor where I find tourist shops. . . many tourist shops, offering the opportunity to sell you pins, magnets, cups, chess sets, lace, scarves, bags, toys, and some really nasty T-shirts, and that’s all at one booth! There are about seventy more booths selling similar items. The scents from the ground floor have whetted my appetite and I find some counters serving traditional Hungarian food. I bypass the goulash for some type of traditional spiced chicken dished wrapped in a pancake with a tasty sauce. It’s hot, hearty food which goes down even nicer after a long, overnight train-ride and walking on a sunny, yet brisk, Hungarian winter day. Oh, and there’s the hot, spiced wine to wash it down (don’t judge me).
I make my way down to the bottom floor where I find a grocer and pick up some snacks before walking across the street to the square to look out at the Danube. I notice a bustling pedestrian street – Váci Street – which has an interesting mix of shops, restaurants, bars and Thai massage places. I check out the menus of the massage places and make note to return for one. I head back to the hotel to check in, quite pleased with the location and the view of the Hungarian National Museum, I grab a quick nap before heading out for the evening.
Waking up feeling refreshed – well, not so much but I must go explore. I head back down to Váci street thinking the energy of the day might transfer over to the night. I’m wrong about this as I find it fairly empty. Still, I find Monarchia, a nice place for a traditional Hungarian dinner accompanied by Hungarian violin and guitar music. I use the Hungarian term loosely as, well, perhaps Frank Sinatra was part Hungarian. Anyway, the violinist guy is nice and appreciates that I sing along with his music. I end my dinner with a nice aperitif (I have no idea what it was but it burnt a bit going down and warmed my toes) and move on to walk down Váci Street.
Next stop, the Ice Bar. You should know that spending a night at an ice hotel is on my bucket list. As I’ve not been to one yet, I thought I’d dip my toe into the icy-cold water of the bar and have a drink. I pay my entrance fee which includes my choice of one cocktail and get suited up. The lady takes a cute red poncho and slips it over my head, then hands me some gloves (I miss drinking margaritas on the beach in Mexico). She opens the freezer door (yup, just like a meat locker) and I step inside. It’s a tiny room with walls made of ice, ice sculptures – some with holes cut out to insert your head for a photo opp. – an ice chair to sit in (yes, it has a fur cushion), and an ice bar. The selection of drinks includes an Eskimo Kiss, Reindeers’ Viagra, Don’t Touch My Snowball, Melted by Love, and You and Me in My Igloo. I order up Frozen Ice Balls and am served my drink in an ice-shot glass.
I meet some English ladies who are doing a girl’s weekend in Budapest to celebrate a birthday and we take photos of each other having icy fun before we all decide to head outside into the Budapest winter to warm up. I walk down the empty Váci Street towards my hotel (I think) and notice a chocolate bar on my right. No, not like a Hershey’s chocolate bar. It’s a coffee shop-like place which serves all kinds of chocolate drinks. It’s just about to close but Matthew, the waiter seems to understand not to get between a girl and her chocolate. He serves me up a hot Dark Chocolate with Cherries from Guanaja drink and gives me some insight on where to go in Budapest for nightlife.
Tomorrow – A visit to the Synagogue and a Ruin Bar. In the meantime, don’t forget to VOTE