Budapest, Hungary
Our first short look at Zurich was a layover en route from Paris to Budapest. Click > to play video. Double-click the image to make fullscreen.

Zurich airport has the best tourist information systems I've seen, with computer terminals that give information on transportation, hotels, and even hostels in a choice of languages. Even though I had read on an Internet hostel directory that “the” Zurich hostel was out of town and accessible only by taxi, I found a number of hostels listed on the tourist information terminal, and called the City Backpacker to reserve a room for our overnight stay in Zurich the following Wednesday, when we would be en route from Frankfurt to Delhi.

We used our four-hour layover to take a train into the city from the airport, taking a long walk in the brisk and still damp weather, during which we hoped to find the hostel, but had to give up to return to the train station and the airport. I called the hostel back to give my Visa number and get specific directions to it for the following week.

Our evening flight to Budapest was also Swiss Air. A leader of a tour group who was seated in the row next to us asked us if we would be willing, with him, to give up our assigned seats for the sake of a 12-year-old girl in his group who was asthmatic and had been assigned seating in the smoking section, and was already in tears out of fear of being overcome by an attack. Though not smokers, as the father of a son who has suffered from asthma, I gladly agreed.

We conversed with the tour group leader much of the flight; he was returning from a trip to the United States—New York, Philadelphia, and Niagara Falls—with a group of mostly doctors and their families. He gave us his card and told us to call if he could assist us in any way during our stay, a reminder of the Hungarian graciousness I'd often experienced while growing up in Western Pennsylvania, that had made me want to visit Budapest when this stop could have been Vienna, or Prague, or Florence or Rome. I'd been to Italy before and had lived in the Western world all my life. As an emerging nation, I thought Hungary would hold special interest, and that proved to be true. When our Swiss Air flight, which had been smooth and uneventful, touched down in Budapest many passengers burst into spontaneous applause. We never did figure out a reason for this unique event—maybe they were mostly Hungarian tourists just happy to get back home.

We arrived on time, after 9 p.m., without room reservations, which was a bit daunting. Would anything even be open at that hour? To add to my trepidation, the airport was definitely a cut below anything we'd seen thus far, which was of course to be expected, this having been a Warsaw Pact country for four decades. I searched the phone books for the Detty Panzio (Hungarian version of a pensione) which friends had recommended, but found nothing listed under either word. So then I resorted to the airport's combination money change counter and hotel referral. They offered a double—I thought without bath en suite—for $85 US per night, including breakfast. We took it and hired an airport minibus (1000 HUF, or $8 US, each) to take us. It had one other passenger and the 20-minute-to-half-hour ride would have cost several times that via taxi.

Our hotel, the Hotel Lucky (1148 Vezer ut. 180; telephone 183-5300), was one of the happiest surprises thus far. Only three years old, it is a beautiful building with balconies, mahogany paneling and trim everywhere, lots of brass, tile floors. Our room came with a complete bath with shower-massage, from which we had a balcony large enough for sitting. It also had TV with remote control and reception that included several English-language satellite channels. Weary, we made good use of the shower and were in our beds, which were like couches with hard mattresses and thick comforters, at about 11 p.m. It was my best night's sleep in the week since leaving San Jose.


Daily expense tally—room, food, transit: $48


Friday, May 10

Budapest. Click > to play video. Double-click the image to make fullscreen.

Our day in Budapest began with our free breakfast at our hotel. It included sliced "luncheon meats" and sausage, muesli, a puddinglike rice dish, and a selection of breads, better than the continental breakfasts we'd had earlier.

With advice from our hotelier, we caught a bus to the center city,our hotel being perhaps 10 miles out. We were advised to buy four bus tickets each, at the hotel, costing 100F (80 cents) each, for the roundtrip, involving two busses each way. No one ever asked for or looked at our tickets and it seemed that no one else riding the system even had any (it would seem to make sense that in a socialist system one of the first things to socialize would be public transit). The busses were crowded, but we found friendly English-speaking people in both directions eager to help with finding our stops.

We made our way to Astoria, the intersection of Rakoczi Ut., Karoly Krt., and Muzeum Krt., which has some of Budapest's most modern buildings, and walked from there to the Erzsebet bridge over the Danube from which we got fantastic views and videos of both Buda and Pest. Budapest is a city of contrasts, affluence alongside poverty. The architecture is reminiscent of Paris but in need of more upkeep; many of the buildings have interior courts that are sometimes modern shopping and dining areas, sometimes dirt parking areas with cars on blocks. Hungary had our first actually warm temperatures—in the 60's when we arrived at night and in the 70's by day. The sky was threatening rain and we even had some heavy sprinkles, but no shower. I took lots of video and investigated bus tours of the city landmarks but found that the three-hour tour of most interest cost nearly $25 US, so decided to be content with just touring on foot and tram (never having "used" our bus tickets, we didn't have to buy any more).

We walked back to Astoria and, as the sprinkles seemed to be turning to rain, ducked into a famous British-owned chain restaurant—Burger King—and bought a couple cups of coffee to rent a table. After 45 minutes or so the sun prevailed and we again walked toward the Danube, near which we had spotted the one site I'd been advised not to miss, the Twelve Apostles—Apostolok Etterem—restaurant on Kigyo Ut., a street closed to vehicular traffic for shopping, where we wanted to get lunch.

The Apostles is noted for its tile icons of the New Testament disciples, one in each dining booth. We got St. Jacobus, St. James. We both ordered the goulash plate special—what else?—which came with a kind of hominy side dish that was delicious, and vegetables. To my surprise, my diet-conscious brother expressed interest in dessert, so we each ordered a cake dessert with whipped cream and chocolate topping—superb. I also tried the Hungarian beer, which was described as "Hungary's dark beer," but found it less palatable than the truly dark British beer (this was golden blond by contrast). I think I've already mentioned that I'm not a beer drinker; I like British stout somewhat; others hardly at all. All in all, however, our lunch at the Apostles may have been our best meal on the entire trip; it cost us about $10 each US; 2960 HUF including service charge.

After returning to our hotel for a brief rest, we walked to a shopping area to look for hats, with no success, then to pass time we boarded a trolley and took it to the end of the line and back, still holding our morning bus tickets in case anyone should care, but no one did. Our impressions were varied: some of Budapest's streets are unpaved and most of those that are paved are in bad need of repair. Some sections were reminiscent of the visible poverty of Tijuana, Mexico, the only "third world" city I had visited before this, but then we saw modern and beautiful buildings like our hotel scattered widely about.

We were told the population is two million, many of whom apparently live in highrise apartments around the city's periphery, some of which look new and in good repair, others—like many tenements in our own country, looking nearly worn out.

For dinner, we tried the restaurant on the ground floor of the Hotel Lucky, starting with a goulash soup that was very tasty and not much like the goulash we'd had for lunch. I had weiner schnitzel, a very large veal steak, breaded, and served with french fries. Bob had turkey—two very nice breast steaks, grilled—with salad. The meals came to about $10 US each, and were better than what I'm used to getting for that price range.

After dinner we walked around an open field across from our hotel. We had an early call for Saturday, our plane scheduled to take off at 8 a.m., airport check-in at 7.


Daily expense tally—room, food, transit: $68


Saturday, May 11

The airport minibus was at our hotel promptly at 6:15 a.m., but we were already waiting. I hadn't slept well; the comforter had been too hot the night before, so I tried sleeping with just the sheet I'd brought along. The comforter was enclosed in a fresh sheet, but the hotel provided no alternative to allow for subtraction of covering. But just the sheet wasn't enough and I wasn't warm enough to sleep through much of the night.

We took off from Budapest a bit late—not on Delta as noted on our tickets, but on Malev, the Hungarian airline—on the first leg of our nearly all-day journey to St. Petersburg, but arrived in Frankfurt on time. Malev service proved to be fine. We had to change terminals at the Frankfurt airport, including a ride on an elevated shuttle train, so there was little time to spare. Our first Delta plane since starting the trip took us from Frankfurt, Germany, to St. Petersburg, Russia.

Bob and I were seated across the aisle from each other, and a college-age young man took the center row seat next to me. I noticed as we were taking off that his carry-on bag had a roll of duct tape attached to its handle, and I saw him hide a single-edge razor blade in the end of the tape. Was it a weapon he had managed to get through security? It also became obvious that he was acquainted with a group of other passengers on the plane of his same general description. Was it a plot? Would they, at some signal, commandeer the plane and force us to fly to Afghanistan or Cheknaya? Should I make my way to the "WC" and spill everything I knew to a flight attendant? An hour or so into the flight, when I noticed through the window that the ground, totally cloud-covered when we'd taken off, was now visible and mentioned it to him, he pretended not to understand English, though I'd heard him use it with the others. Despite all these clues, I kept my counsel. And we landed in St. Petersburg without incident.


 © Jon Kennedy 1996, 2009