Monday, April 23, 2012

Budapest- Part I

We decided it was time for us to step our traveling up to the next level. We went to the Ryanair website and spent an hour clicking on available destinations from Maastricht and Eindhoven. Budapest was the logical choice because the flight left Friday afternoon and returned on Sunday. It was also economical, at 200 Euros round-trip for both of us. We booked the flights and then reserved our room at Lanchid 19, a reasonably-priced boutique hotel in an excellent location.

Before I gush over Budapest, I must mention how much we enjoyed flying Ryanair. We arrived at the airport with 2.5 hours to spare. We anticipated long lines, stringent security, and the general feeling of being rushed in the chaotic atmosphere that is characteristic of most airports.

Check-in was a breeze. We flashed our boarding passes and passports and were quickly on our way to security. Friendly airport employees were standing by to assist us, making the process efficient and surprisingly pleasant. I began removing my shoes before realizing it isn't even required. We went through the metal detector, grabbed our luggage, and walked two steps into the terminal. The entire process, from checking-in to passing through security, took about 15 minutes. We were amazed. Maybe we spent too much time at the Atlanta airport back home.

It was another hour and 15 minutes until boarding so we kicked up our heels and people-watched. We periodically checked the screen for our gate number and began worrying as our departure time neared and the gate still wasn't revealed. Finally the number popped up and we were (luckily) standing right in front of it. The crowd surged forward, in an orderly, European manner, and we all had our boarding passes and passports checked once more. Our plane arrived and even though it was a few minutes late, turnover was rapid. We were ushered onto the tarmac, marching by the disembarking passengers in single-file. It almost reminded me of the end of a high school football game when all of the players and coaches form a line, congratulating the winners and offering encouraging pats on the back to those in second place. I was really amused. I've never been to an airport where the passengers just walk right out to the jet casually. I kept looking around for security guards and unmarked police cars. All I saw were easygoing workers hauling luggage in carts. It was very relaxing.

Chain Bridge
The flight was smooth and even though we had a late start, we arrived only 10 minutes past-due. The Budapest airport was as small and friendly as Eindhoven's. We easily arranged for a mini-bus to take us to our hotel. It was 8:30 by the time we got onto the bus so our first impressions of the city were made in the dark. Once we reached the city center, the scenery became interesting. We were taken through tunnels and onto narrow streets flanked by beautiful buildings. Driving over the Chain Bridge was the best part. Our hotel was steps away from the bridge, on the Buda side of the Danube.

We were impressed with our reception at the hotel and our room was large, especially considering other hotels we've stayed in since we've been here. We dropped off our bags and set out to find a late dinner. We crossed over the bridge to the Pest side and settled in an outdoor cafe situated on the Vorosmarty Square. I ordered goulash since we were in Hungary and I wasn't disappointed. It was rich and flavored with a liberal dose of smoky paprika. Delicious!

After dinner we spent a little while walking around. It's difficult to get your bearings in a place you've only seen in the dark so we called it a night and went back to the hotel to get some sleep so we could wake up early on Saturday, our only full day in Budapest.

The weather was perfect, by the way. It was 62F with a slight, warmish breeze. We slept with our balcony door open on both nights and it never rained even though it was forecast for 80% on Saturday. Saturday started out overcast but the clouds parted in the afternoon and we basked in the sunlight for several hours. It was a nice change to leave our umbrellas behind as we toured the city.

Our hotel was in the Castle District. As much as we wanted to see every part of the city and most especially, the Turkish baths, we just didn't have time during this visit. The Pest side remains largely unexplored for us. It's where we had dinner Friday night and we also walked over to have breakfast there Saturday, but that was it. We will definitely be returning to Budapest to see this amazing city in its entirety.

Husband's Hungarian Breakfast
Speaking of breakfast, we chose the city's most famous cafe, Gerbeaud Cukraszda. It has been serving Hungarian coffee for over a hundred years. Waitress uniforms are pinafore dresses and the interior of the cafe is immaculately designed. Upon walking in, you face an ornate bar with gorgeous cakes filling display windows. Elegant chandeliers drop down from the ceiling in the dining area. It's like stepping back in time and it's wonderful. The coffee is as good as advertised and I'm not sure what type of jam we were served, but it's the best I've ever had.

We took lots of photos during our walk back over the bridge. Budapest is one of the most photogenic cities I've ever seen. I took almost 300 photos altogether! The total would have been even more but my battery was exhausted by the end of Saturday's dinner.

We were determined to try and see everything on offer in the Castle District. We trekked up steep steps and climbed gradually-sloping hills that rivaled anything you can hope to achieve on a Stairmaster. We finally reached the top and arrived at the Royal Palace. 

Dome of the Royal Palace
Matyas Fountain
Prince Eugene of Savoy

The Matyas Fountain was designed in 1904. Matyas was a Renaissance king and the fountain is based on a 19th century ballad. King Matyas was on a hunting expedition when he met Ilonka, a beautiful peasant girl who fell in love with him. She is beneath the columns on the right. The king was in a hunter's disguise and he's surrounded by other hunters and his hunting dogs. Ilonka didn't know his true identity until after she was deeply in love. Knowing that a king would never marry a peasant, Ilonka died of a broken heart. Tragic. 

The statue of Prince Eugene is also interesting. It was unveiled in 1900 and commemorates the battle of Zenta, a victory that was a turning point in the Turkish War. The figure cowering under the prince is a Turkish prisoner.

From the Royal Palace, we decided to follow the sounds of a mirthful marching band. We came upon the Hungarian military lining up around a square. We still aren't sure what we were watching. This scene reminded me of standing in front of City Hall during Carnaval in Maastricht. Lots of official-looking people doing official things, and lots of gawping tourists (us included) taking photos and whispering excitedly. After a few minutes of speculation, we were satisfied that the ceremony was going to last a long time and we were never going to be entirely sure what it meant so we moved on to an archery range. It was set up in a woodsy area and the experience was complete with an instructor dressed in medieval garb. Unfortunately, his Middle Ages cover was blown when I saw him talking on his cell phone. 

My husband paid for five shots and he wasn't too bad! If we ever find ourselves transported back in time, he will at least have a nice hobby.

Archery range with "Medieval" Instructor. You can't see it,
but his cell phone is clipped to his belt.
The day was young and there was much more to see and do. Over the next few hours, we went to a Hungarian wine tasting in Buda Castle, toured the Matyas Church, and went into the Labyrinth of Buda Castle.  

For now, I'll leave you with one of countless photos of beautiful Budapest.

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