Wednesday, November 4, 2009

first impressions

It was a drizzly, grey Monday afternoon when I took my first steps in Hungary. I was happy to discover that Ferihegy International Airport is small, easy to get around in, with the information desk conveniently located right past passport control. The woman at Information was so friendly and warm— she not only gave me a map of Budapest, but also a printout of instructions for taking public transport into the city, explaining that all bus and metro tickets can be purchased at any newsstand in town.

With bus and metro tickets in hand, I ventured out into the chilly damp air to look for the 200E bus to Köbánya Kispest, where I was to take the blue metro train to Nyugati station to meet my friend Mirco, who was waiting for me. I met Mirco and his friends on my Cappadocian adventure in April— truly marvellous people with great senses of humour and curiosity. I've discovered it's quite hard to find people with whom you can travel well; everyone has their own internal clocks, some people like to walk more than others, there are wanderers and there are step-by-step guide-followers. Since Mirco and I have similar interests and what I consider an excellent rapport (plus he hadn't been to Budapest either), he flew in from Ireland to join me and become my first Travel Pal— Travelling Collaborator? Adventure Associate? I'm working on a term.

The train was old and rattly with a hospital green interior that I loved— there was something about the colour and the lighting that made me feel like a character in a Kieślowski film. I strained to hear the station announcements over the crackly speaker and rumble of the train, attempting to match the sounds with the consonant-filled names posted on the station map above the door. Suddenly, I heard it— "Nyoo-ga-tee Pai-yo...something something".

I let the current of passengers pull me along out of the train and onto the fastest moving escalator I have seen in my life. Visions of getting caught in the teeth for not being able to hop off in time were filling my head, as a cold began to slowly envelop me. I was not prepared for arriving into autumn; my thin grey t-shirt and blazer seemed absurdly inadequate. Fortunately, there were warmer clothes in my bag for the next four days.

I met Mirco at platform 13, and we took a moment to marvel at the structure and light of Nyugati Station before heading out to our hostel. Everywhere I turned, my eyes were excited by what they saw— ornate buildings with lions and figures on façades, tree-lined avenues carpeted with orange and yellow leaves, ladies with fashionable boots and old men in felt hats. Even the entrance to the building of our hostel was spectacular.

Maverick Hostel is right downtown in Ferenciek tere, walking distance from just about everything you want to see in Budapest. It's a couple blocks from the Danube, with a metro station right outside and, the best pastry shop for breakfast just happens to be directly across the street. The Maverick staff consists of three friendly chaps who rotate shifts and are willing to answer any question you've got— even the absurd ones. It's a clean, safe and simple establishment, perfect for travellers on a budget. Mirco and I stayed in the "Blues Brothers" room— I'm not sure why it was called that— along with two obnoxious Dutch girls and a sweet and quiet Nigerian guy.

After tossing my bags in a locker and grabbing my scarf, we decided to explore the area. Since Mirco had arrived the evening before I did, he introduced me to an exciting find— an indoor market filled with salamis, mulled wine and pickles. What more could a girl want?

Nagycsarnok, known as the Central Market Hall, was built in the late 19th century and has three floors of meats, paprika, wines, beers and souvenirs to explore. You could easily spend a couple of hours here, especially on the top floor with a few beers and a sausage.

After a quick run through, my desire to see the Danube took us down the street to the stunning green Szabadság híd, one of the eight bridges that join Buda and Pest. It was getting dark, and fog was creeping in, giving the bridge and river a dark poetry. A man in a black hat walked past with a wide grin, and Buda lay before us in the grey.

I wrapped my scarf around me tighter as we walked up Gellért hill in Buda. A vendor with a tiny push cart offered pretzels and hot mulled wine for sale. We carried on up to discover a small church built into a cave in the hill. A drunk, yet pleasant gentleman encouraged us to enter, opening the door for us. Once inside, the sound of prayers murmured echoed in the quiet cave. I have to admit, I was a little creeped out, and the thought of that hot mulled wine warming my fingers seemed more appealing. We silently snuck out and headed back to the pretzel cart. The smell of the wine was in itself intoxicating— I could pick out hints of cinnamon, clove and orange. The man ladled the red liquid into two plastic cups with a smile.

"How do you say thank you?" I asked.
"Köszönöm." He replied with a little laugh.
"I'm sorry, can you say that again?"

Aah, I detected some umlauts in there.

"Kö-szö-nöm." The syllables barely escaped my lips.


Thomas Taylor said...

You make Budapest seem very appealing. Now I have somewhere else to add to my list.

szaza said...

Thanks so much, Thomas. I highly recommend a visit— it's a truly unique and beautiful city.