Friday, October 7, 2011

Budapest, Hungary

Budapest had to grow on us.   It is a big city, actually two cities that were turned into one – the older and more dramatic Buda on one side of the river, and it’s more modern sister Pest on the other.  We had a very nice two-bedroom apartment on the 5th floor (they call it the 4th) right in the middle of the happening part of Pest.

That's the Basilica reflected in the balcony window

The view from the balcony

To get to it we had to find the closest metro and then hike through several blocks of skateboarding parks, market stalls and busy foot traffic.  We saw few tourists.  The people of Budapest were busy enjoying the great weather but doing so as they went about their daily lives.  So what was wrong with Budapest then?  Well my guidebook referred to it as gritty.  I would use the term grimy instead.  It wasn’t much at all like Disneyland invoking Prague.  Instead it was a big eastern European city.  After I came to terms with that I was more able to appreciate its charms.
 The Danube

What helped with our attitude adjustment was a museum we visited called the House of Terror.  It was housed in a building that had been used, first by the Nazi supporting Hungarian Arrow Cross Party and then by the Communist  terror organizations that followed, to accuse, interrogate, imprison and execute political prisoners and civilians.  Following the ousting of the Communists (which only occurred as recently as 1990) the Hungarians turned the building into a museum to comemerate those that were tortured and killed and for the purpose of educating the public about the recent history of Hungary.  This was a very modern museum that utilized lots of videos and theatrical staging to demonstrate the atrocities that were carried out.  The tour concludes in the basement where you can view the cells and torture chambers.  Our visit there made a big impression on all of us, and helped us to understand that, for Hungary, being liberated from the Nazis was just the beginning of another brutal occupation – this one by Communist Russia.  Budapest has only had a short 20 years of freedom and democracy since.

In that light somehow the city became more charming.  We noticed how nice everyone was, and understood the presence of the ugly communist era buildings mixed in with all the beautiful ones.  We tried to appreciate the things that we found positive, like the lower prices and really yummy cookies.  I, in particular, enjoyed a very nice salon pedicure that turned my feet back into things I wasn’t afraid to show off in sandals.  Scarcity does indeed bolster appreciation as it felt like the best pedicure I’d ever had and kept me happy for several days afterward.
A box of these yummy cookies cost less than $2

In addition to crossing the famous Chain Bridge to visit Buda and its beautiful castles and buildings there, we spent a day on Margaret island walking through the parks and photographing some of the zoo inhabitants.  Peyton in particular is drawn to playgrounds of any type and was especially smitten with this spinning device.  Just watching her on it made Mark and I feel queasy.

 The Chain Bridge - blown up by the Nazis but rebuilt

She is actually spinning really fast!

One morning when the kids weren’t up yet, Mark and I went to find the central market.  It is a large three story daily food market with everything from fruits n veggies to sausages, whole pigs and large tanks of fish.  One happy shopkeeper caught me, while I was taking a photo of the pigs, by jabbing a long pole with a dead ram’s head out at me from inside his stall.  He got me good.  I screamed and he laughed and then so did I.

 Exterior of the Central Market

As I write this I’ve just woken up in our couchette on the train headed to Romania.  The sun is coming up and I have a nice view of the countryside we are traveling through at dawn.  Mark and the kids are still asleep.  It is one of those magic moments that I’ve come to treasure on our trip.

This next week we are renting a villa in Sinaia.  It is a mountain town about an hour outside of Burcharest that was originally the summer retreat of Romanian royalty.  We are too late though for summer.  Temps promise to average in the 30’s (that's Fahrenheit) during our stay, and there is the possibility of snow flurries.  We hope to enjoy the countryside, visit Dracula’s castle in Transylvania and get the kids caught up on their schoolwork.  It should be a relaxing week after our whirlwind tour of all those European cities.

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