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How to Do Budapest Right in 48 Hours

Here’s a story about flying to Budapest for the weekend without missing a minute of work or spending very much money. For as long as I can remember, Hungary didn’t mean much to me. I knew next to nothing about it — it was somewhere in Eastern Europe, it was probably cold and when I was young I wrote a poem about being “Hungary, so I went to Turkey,” and thinking that was just hilarious. I also wrote a poem about a hungry fat boy who went to school in a three-piece suit made entirely of candy — bet you can guess the ending! Regardless, the biggest, most important void in my knowledge was about how half my family came from Hungary. That’s as far as I knew – not where in Hungary, or when, or what they did. And that is a damn shame. I say this as a reformed ignorant person — learn about where you came from; it’ll make your trip there even more rewarding. I’ll come back to this later. Anyway, lineage isn’t what led Tal and I to Hungary. Cheap tickets were! I’d been itching to get out of the city and/or country for awhile, as my trip to the states last summer was feeling increasingly distant the longer the winter months crawled on. One Tuesday afternoon in January, I allowed that itch to take over and I scanned some flights while sitting at my desk at work. I soon learned that a Hungarian cheap-ass airline had just begun operating a Budapest-Tel Aviv flight, and it cost less than a beer. Not exactly, but close — for under $180, I could fly round trip to a city that sounded like ‘Buddha.’ That was enough for me. I booked two tickets that night. Two days later, we flew to Budapest. As is the case with most things that are cheap, the airline was terrible. I was cramped and uncomfortable. I can’t imagine what normal-sized adult must have felt like, or even a large child. Regardless, after a quick three hours we landed in Hungary. I handed 2000 shekels to the money-change lady, and she handed me back nearly 30,000 Hungarian forints. It mattered not that this was the exact same amount of money; to have 30,000 of anything in my wallet made me feel like a king. We hired an airport taxi to take us to a small hostel I’d booked near the center of town, and 20 minutes later we were dropped off on an empty street. I pressed the doorbell, and a guy answered in broken English. “Boomerang Hostel, yes we are!” We’d come to the right place, and we opened the heavy, cast-iron door and into a cavernous foyer, then up four flights of stairs that wrapped around a metal-cage elevator. This was our first taste of architecture in Budapest: beautiful, regal and elegant on the outside; echoing and vacant on the inside. When we arrived at the front desk, our new pal was getting a family of 8 settled in their room. The papa of this family had a mustache the size of a squirrel and was commanding the hostel clerk to do this and that while his kids squirmed around in their room. The clerk moved like a more fidgety Nathan Lane in “The Birdcage,” but awkward and Eastern European. When squirrel-stache was settled, and his entire brood were inside their room, the clerk returned to the desk, flustered and out of breath, to help us out. “I’m so sorry, really, that I was so busy when you, I’m so sorry, it’s just that, I really, we’re not usually so busy (nervous laughter) and that family was very large, and so I’m sorry (nervous laughter).” “Hi. I’m Justin. I booked a private room for two people.” “Yes, and your key is here, and (nervous laughter) welcome, of course, I forgot to say that, of course.” This conversation went on for about as long as I could handle it, which was just shy of three minutes. Thankfully, in that time, we learned where the bathroom was, what time breakfast was served and even where we should head to get some dinner. But I had to sift through no less than 1,200 words to find those answers. Our room was warm and just big enough — and also on its own floor. The hostel was comprised of two floors in this big cave of a building, and it being off-season, we were all alone. The set-up couldn’t have been more perfect. We dropped our bags, said goodbye to nervous-tic guy, who was again arguing with squirrel-stache, and headed out into the Budapest-ian night. And guess what, it was fucking cold. I know, I know – if you’re reading this in the States, you have no sympathy for me because I live in Tel Aviv and it’s never cold there. That’s true, and yes, it is awesome, thank you. But the Budapest air, dry and crisp and freezing, was a total shock to the system. Tal almost immediately reverted into bear-in-hibernation mode, illustrated below:

We walked towards a street that our clerk promised would be full of restaurants and bars. He was right! Nervous, but right! We landed on Nagymezo Utca (for you newbs, that’s Nagymezo Street), and quickly found what we were looking for: food. Tal said she wanted french fries. I said we’re in Hungary, not France. She persisted. We found a basement bar that looked dive-y enough and descended a flight of steps. The walls were covered with old photos of Hungarians, sports memorabilia and and incredible amount light fixtures. I approached the bar, and immediately realized that I didn’t know how much or how little English was spoken in Hungary. Plus, French fries are tough. Are they fries? Frites? Chips? Potato thumbs? That, and I had a serious urge to ask for a beer in Hebrew. Israel has done weird things to this American boy. I managed to order a beer for me and a cider for the lady, then, “Oh, and do you serve… um… fries?” (Blank stare) “Frites?” (Blank stare) “Do you make potatoes?” This last one didn’t help my case at all, and she handed me a bag of pretzels. I gave up on fries, and this lovely, young barmaid told me “Yes, pizza.” Our first meal in Hungary — pizza it is! Tal and I drank our beers and ordered more. They cost about as much as I tip for a beer in Israel. The pizza was bowling alley-quality at best, but we were so happy to be together and in Budapest and drunk that the damn thing was fantastic. We stumbled back into the freezing night and right into another bar for more cheap, tasty Hungarian beers. We were asleep in our hostel by 3am.

And up by 8! This was a mini-vacation after all, and time couldn’t be wasted. The plan for the day was to wander, more or less, through the center of Budapest, wrapping several important spots into our meandering. Night time was cold, but morning felt colder. A few steps out of our hostel and our Tel Aviv-spoiled skin was near-frozen. Coffee was a necessity, and we found a(nother) huge, cavernous building that housed a not-yet-open market. But the cafe in the entryway was perfect, and we downed rich, hot coffee and hot chocolate. A giant husky dog stood guard of the market door. Menacing, or cute? You be the judge. We were quickly struck by the look of the city, impossible to grasp drunk and in the dark the night before. The first thing that came to me was, “This place looks kinda Holocaust-y.” Maybe I’ve seen “The Pianist” too many times, but these narrow streets with tall, ornate buildings and nearly empty streets creeped me out a bit. I kept thinking sad klezmer music was going to start playing and a bunch of orphans wearing patched-up jackets and those gloves with the fingers cut off were going to ask me for a scrap of bread in Yiddish (which, in my mind, I would understand), and I’d have to say, “I don’t have bread, boychick, but take the rest of my 30,000 forints.”

Well, shit, that got morbid! Let’s continue. Next we went to a church! It was called St. Stephen’s, after one of my favorite Grateful Dead songs. It continues to amaze me how far-reaching that band’s influence is. Anyway, it was huge and beautiful and totally huge. At night, it looks like this:

After all that Jesus, it was time for some Jewish stuff. We walked towards what my iPhone Budapest App said was the Jewish quarter, home to two major synagogues. We found the first on a side street, it’s door open. The inside looked totally gutted, and a man sat in a ticket booth asking for money to enter. I stared inside the door, swung open, and back at the fat man in the ticket booth. In an instant, I was angry at myself for not knowing more about my family’s past in Hungary. The second biggest synagogue in town was a half-assed museum, without even a goddamn gift shop, on a forgotten street. So Tal and I did the only thing that seemed appropriate at the time: we said the Mourner’s Kaddish. I’m certainly not one for sentimentality, especially when it comes with a side of religion. But in that moment, without saying anything to each other, we both felt this weight, a sadness for the Jewish world that was a major part of the city just 60 years earlier, and now was represented by a fat guy in a ticket booth, who was now staring at the two praying kids with an eyebrow cocked and almost certainly a finger scratching his balls. We continued down the street to the Dohany Street Synagogue. This one was gigantic, cathedral huge. And it did have a gift shop, and a pretty ticket seller lady, and a line to get in and guided tours every 15 minutes. And that made us even sadder. The Jewish life in Budapest, it became appallingly obvious, was now relegated to tourists and a Chabad House. Still, we bought the tickets and took the tour. How could we not? We learned some amazing things too: that the SS headquarters during WWII was in the synagogue’s second floor; that the synagogue was once home to thousands of families, and now home to dozens; that it was the border of the Jewish ghetto in the 40′s; that the neatly-kept cemetery outside was actually a bunch of mass graves where the ghetto dead were dumped. Boy, oh boy! It just kept getting more and more uplifting!

We left Dohany happy that we’d gone, but thoroughly depressed. We needed lunch. And beers. After some aimless wandering, we finally struck gold: the Kozponti Vasarcsarnok! Right!? Who doesn’t love a good Kozponti Vasarcsarnok! Oh, you don’t know about the Kozponti Vasarcsarnok? Jesus, where did you go to school? The… let’s call it the KV is one of the biggest markets in Budapest, home to a great assortment of the following: hand-sewn Russian looking aprons, hats that say funny things, colorful blankets, Hungarian specialty paprika, beer, cheese, skinned rabbits, pigs, breads and drunk Hungarians. At least two of those things I absolutely love, and the rest rank pretty high in my book as well. The market was, of course, absolutely massive, with three floors and a roof that was about a football field away from the ground.

Tal saw a roasted baby pig on display and nearly cried (even though he was smiling), so we decided it was time for some drinks. The second floor of the market was lined with Hungarian specialties, and lots of drunk Hungarians enjoying these specialties. Did these people have jobs? It was impossible to tell. Professional beer drinker, maybe, and if so I applaud them. I ordered Tal a hot, mulled wine and a Hungarian beer, and good god did we enjoy them. With a healthy buzz, we walked back into the cold and immediately into an actual restaurant, where I finally ordered goulash — the thick, spicy beef stew that is among the nation’s more famous dishes. Budapest reinforced the theory we’ve culled in our travels: people love to whore out their national dishes to tourists. Israel does it with shawarma and falafel and hummus. Barcelona does it with paella. London does it with fish and chips. Any restaurant that’s sign boasts, in English, that they serve that national dish — or worse, has pictures of it in the window — is not a place that we want to go. If they do one worse and offer a ‘tourist special,’ we’re walking in the opposite direction. Treat the dish like a hidden secret, not a mined resource. Anyway, the goulash was great (our restaurant did not have window pictures), and soon we were back in the cold, walking towards Castle Hill, which is a… you get it. We crossed the Chain Bridge, exposing us to the winds that the city had kept from us. When Tal gets cold, she slows down (she also does this when walking while talking on phone). I guess it’s because she’s actually turning into a popsicle, and it’s harder to walk with frozen legs, but the trek across the bridge took about 20 minutes. By the time we crossed, the sun had started going down. I shit you not. We rode an incline car up to the top of Castle Hill, and saw some castles. We also bought a hot chocolate and sat inside an art museum to thaw, then took turns sneaking into a ‘pay only’ bathroom. No one can make me or my woman pay to pee. When we felt like humans once again, we walked towards the President’s Office (or auditorium or conference center or chill spot… I don’t know what it was), and witnessed the changing of the Hungarian guards. Those dudes could kick! But alas, the sun was nearly set and it was time to take a nap before dinner. Spotting a Viszla dog at the entrance to the bridge, Tal found the energy to walk quickly, and we made it in under 20 minutes. We plodded back to the hostel and fell into bed. Because I am a man made of steel when traveling, I stayed awake and researched a good restaurant for dinner. Picked based solely on its name, I made reservations at Regos Vendeglo es Falatozo for 9:00, a relatively early dinner for us. Tal woke up and we put our several layers back on, and back into the night we walked, through the Oktagon — a famous, gigantic intersection in the shape of an octagon — then onto a much smaller, darker street, then to the very, very end of that much smaller, darker street. I was getting nervous that Regos Vendeglo es Falatozo simply didn’t exist, but in truth, it was just well-hidden to the human eye. The restaurant had a single red sign outside, and it was in a basement. We walked in and saw the three staff members scurry into action — it only took a second to realize we were the only people there. So glad I made the reservation. Was this restaurant supremely unpopular? Based on the food we had, that seems nearly impossible. But what we did learn was that, much like London, everybody eats really early. A 9:00 reservation? We might as well have come for a really, really early breakfast. Still, the place was beautiful, brick walls and classic red table cloths. Our server was impeccably friendly as we perused the menu, so much so that I asked if he was also the owner. It didn’t seem that dumb a question — he was an older guy, very dignified. He laughed and said, “No, I just waiter!” The menu was filled with Hungarian traditional foods, largely seasoned with paprika. I ordered paprika chicken, Tal took some sort of fish. Being alone in the restaurant wasn’t bad; it was kind of romantic. But the lack of any music in the restaurant did give us the impression that the three-man kitchen staff was listening to our every word. I can only hope we were entertaining. After dinner, it was ‘see what kind of weird bars exist in this city’ time — one of my favorite times in any trip. Budapest is famous for its ‘ruin bars,’ or giant, multi-room bars made from old, gutted, of course cavernous buildings. First we headed to Instant, with its entrance completely nondescript. Inside, though, was room after room of drinking. A bar upstairs. A bar downstairs. A bar in the basement. A room with couches. A room with its own cafe. Projected images on the walls. A grimy dance club in the basement. Instant was loud, bright and young — and not exactly what we had in mind. We walked a few blocks to the very famous Simplza Kert, or Simple Garden. I don’t want to be misleading, like we stumbled into these hidden gems. Simplza and Instant are the biggest ruin bars in the city. But shit, we don’t have any ruin bars in Tel Aviv, so I wanted to follow the herds. Simplza was fucking awesome. That’s probably the best way to put it. Again, a nondescript entrance on a side street. But once inside, the place opened up to a neon-lit, lush garden-junkyard-playground. It lacked the sorta-cheesy themed rooms of Instant; every room in Simplza was purely for drinking, and it was perfectly grimy and cluttered. The whole place was like your weird aunt’s attic, filled with treasures and dust and alcohol. The hundreds of pieces of furniture in the place were perfectly old, tattered and mismatched; every corner revealed another tiny room or spiral staircase or DJ booth. We explored the bar for a solid half hour, just to get the lay of the land. We drank, and eventually sat, and then I fell asleep. Tal poked me, and told me it was late and it wasn’t embarrassing if I said I wanted to go home. Though it’s wildly against my nature to say the words “Sure, let’s go home” while traveling and/or drinking, I succumbed. We hopped a cab and crashed minutes later.

Up again at 8! I don’t know how we do it. Saturday we set aside for the thermal baths, famous in Budapest. We booked the best known baths in the city, Szechenyi. The best transit, we were told, was the subway. Budapest has a beautiful mix of old and new; chic cafes and traditional restaurants, fancy cars driving on centuries-old streets. The city subway, however, is all old. Each train is just a few cars long, and looks like a car you might board at some coal miner-themed ride at an ol’timey theme park. The flimsy doors open for — and I timed it — eight seconds before closing. Thing is, I’m pretty sure if the door closed on you, you’d be more annoyed then hurt, like ‘What the hell is this piece of cardboard trying to do to me?’ But, still, eight seconds. Either Hungarians are really quick (not true), or no one rides the subway. Six stops of unpronounceable places later, we were in City Park, home to Szechenyi thermal baths. We’d planned to pick up breakfast at a cafe in the park. Bad decision. The only thing open was a convenience store/bar/cafe, where three guys were already drunk at 9am. The barmaid was the more toad than human, and scowled when we ordered coffee. Breakfast was over in about two and half minutes. Szechenyi is nearly indescribable. All adorned in pastel colors, it could be the Barnum and Bailey international headquarters, if such a thing existed: all the majesty and oddity of the circus, in one giant castle complex. The place was built in 1913 and became one of the most popular attractions in the city; some of its current clientele attended the grand opening. We were the youngest people there by half a century. I was intrigued.

The man at the edge of the pool has a distinct, disturbing look of “Come on in, the water’s warm”

We changed in separate locker rooms and met in bathing suits. Some of the thermal baths are inside; the big ones are out in the open, under the sun. In the summer, I can imagine, this is just lovely. But stepping outside in 20 degree weather wearing nothing is an odd sensation: for about thirty seconds, I thought, “Oh, this isn’t so bad!” then my nipples froze, fell to the ground and shattered. When in the baths, though, the cold melts away and you just feel relaxed. Or as relaxed as one can feel with 80-year-old Hungarian men ogling both you and your girlfriend. We explored the two big pools and the dozens of indoor pools, as well as a whole melange of scented steam rooms and festively-lit saunas. Sure, spas exist in the States. But this was a step into another century; tile floors, columns and geriatrics. We had a great time for a few hours, then packed up, reassembled my nipples and searched for lunch. Next to the baths was Gundel, one of the most famous, and famously fancy restaurants in Budapest. Figuring they had a cheap brunch menu, because we are idiots, we approached the door. We wavered back and forth on whether to go on, to the extent that the doorman opened the door and asked if we’d made a decision. We awkwardly said sure, and walked in, where we were seated in a room that we quickly decided was for undesirables. It was empty, and we were wet, unshowered and wearing sweatshirts. The menu boasted eggs for thousands of forints. As Tal and I have many times before, we looked up from our menus right at each other, and unanimously decided to leave. But shit, was that place nice looking! We rode the train back to town, quickly slipping onto the car in under eight seconds. Once again in territory we knew, we found a small Italian restaurant for lunch. It was also empty. We agreed that either 1) No one ever eats in restaurants in Budapest, or 2) We always pick the worst restaurants in Budapest. We truthfully didn’t see any packed restaurants in the city, and our food was good all weekend, so I’m opting for 1).

Lunch over, we strolled around town center once again before returning to our hostel. It was, believe it or not, time to go. A fond farewell to nervous tic-guy, a shuttle to the airport, another cramped flight on WizzAir, the least safe-sounding airline of the year. And that’s it! I went to work the next day, like the whole thing never happened. A few days later, I was Skyping with my grandmother. I asked her to tell me more about our family in Hungary. Oh, she said. They lived in Budapest. They had seats in the Dohany Street Synagogue. They left before the war. They had seats. I’m going to have faith that their seats were in the back, and that I spent a few minutes sitting in them in January 2013.

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