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Budapest, Hungary

❤️

The arrival

I get off the train at 11pm after a really nice and smooth ride and only 20 minutes late, which is much better than what everyone has led me to expect from Eastern European trains.

From the train station, I make my first terrible mistake: I hail a taxi instead of using an app or a booking station. It’s an « official » taxi, but I’ll soon find out that there is no rate regulation and official taxis not booked through apps are actually scams. That’s on me for not doing any reading before traveling to a new country, I guess.

When we drive past the freedom bridge, I forget the cost of the ride and simply enjoy the view. Illuminated at night, it’s absolutely gorgeous!

I finally get to Hotel Foldana, which is close to the baths and not really close to anything else. It’s by far the comfiest room I’ve had, sorry Ljubljana – and the receptionist, Roland, is an enthusiastic and adorable person who shares a bunch of helpful information with me (and commiserates about the taxi).

Stats

  • Steps: 10 571
  • Train: 6h, 1474km total.

Baths

I wake up with a horrible migraine. Great.

I also wake up with the awful realization that I completely lost the concept of time during this trip and got spa tickets for a Sunday. When I could have gone tomorrow. I consider giving up on everything, going back to sleep and emerging tomorrow.

I drag myself to the Szechenyi thermal baths. I leave my phone (and my wristband, so no step tracking today) in the locker.

Seven hours later, the migraine is gone, I am as happy as I could ever be, and I get out of the baths feeling like I could definitely travel to Hungary again just for them.

To finish off this beautiful day, I cycle around the gorgeous park that the baths are in. There’s a castle (I’ll soon come to understand that there are castles everywhere in Budapest), there’s a zoo which I thoroughly ignore, there are a bunch of statues, including one of Bela Lugosi as Dracula (fair, Romania was Hungarian at the time), of Dracula (okay), and of Ronald Reagan (don’t ask, I don’t have an answer).

The Jan chapel on a sunny day in Budapest. It's made of pale stone and has a beautiful, very ornate entrance.

What I do not find, but I also don’t look for it, is a Napoleon memorial. I got so used to them that I can’t stop myself from searching the Internet to check if there’s one, and, well, yes, but it’s an accident?

When I come back, the mix of swimming all day, the 31 degree and strong sun weather, the previous fatigue and the cycling all come back to hit me and I collapse on my bed. I only emerge to grab an absolutely delicious gyros that I ordered through the local food delivery app. While I’m waiting for my food, I met the receptionist, Noémi, who would like to visit France someday and who is absolutely lovely. The receptionists at this hotel seem to all be sweethearts!

At 9.30pm, I am fast asleep.

Stats

  • Time spent in the baths: 7 hours
  • Steps: 3 510 tracked, probably a few thousand inside the building
  • Bike: 46 minutes

Visiting the city

I wake up at 7.50, which is pretty good considering how early I fell asleep. I’d love to go for another round of snoring, but I have to checkout at 10 and it’s not worth it.

From my bed, while I’m still trying to motivate myself to get up, I make a detailed gpx trail for the day, planning for 22 kilometers of cycling, starting with a visit at the train station to grab a ticket. (Needless to say, I’ll do 10kms and stray away from the path.)

I finally get out of bed… and immediately slip on the floor and twist my knee. And my knee gracefully ignores this. No pain whatsoever – and none yesterday either, now that I think about it. Maybe the baths do have some kind of magical healing effect.

There are very few clients in the hotel, so the team didn’t make a breakfast buffet. Instead, a nice lady asks me what I want to eat and we agree, with a bit of miming, on eggs and ham. There’s also a pancake machine, which I really want for my home now. I might buy a bigger home just so I can fit the thing into the kitchen – that sounds like a reasonable plan.

This morning, the receptionist is Andrew. He’s full of banter and of good recommendations for my day – perfect! It’s the best way to start the day in a good mood.

I get a bike (the app here is BuBi, which turns out to be Nextbike, the one from Zagreb, with another name, forcing me to get two essentially identical apps) and start visiting the city.

Drivers in Budapest, it has to be said, are very confusing. They drive really fast and they can get a bit chaotic at times – I’m used to that, it’s fine! But when they see someone on foot or on a bike, they’ll always stop – as in, the car will suddenly screech to a halt and God help the car behind it – to give it priority. It should be very nice but it’s mostly terrifying, especially the first time, when I’m minding my business and suddenly the burnt tire smell and screech start attacking me because someone was overly polite. Generally, though, Budapest is a great city for cycling and walking, I think – not the best I’ve ever had but probably the best of the past couple of weeks.

Like in Zagreb, people seem to find it normal to cycle on the sidewalk. The bike path is actually often on the shared sidewalk, although it’s also often very well delimited on the street. The markings are very good and I feel very safe. Kudos, Budapest!

When I get to the station, I suddenly realize that things are just as chaotic as they were in Zagreb, just more low-key.

The ticket office is in prefab boxes.

A set of dark blue containers that are marked as the ticket office for the train station.

The lady at the « international tickets » counter does not speak a word of English. We manage to mime our information in a conversation somewhat like this one:

« Hi! Berlin!
-Berlin
-Today!!
points to chair ? or mimes sleeping
mimes sleeping
holds 6 fingers up
-yes a cabin will be great thanks »

Somehow it works out.

Immediately outside the train station, there’s a McDonald’s food truck. I’m so sorry, Budapest enthusiasts and lovers, I did not have a lot of energy for your city and I only noticed that kind of information.

A McDonald's-branded food truck next to the train station.

I keep cycling, going to « that one island in the middle of the city » – yes, I’m in the middle of my month-long trip, I wasn’t even planning on stopping here, I refuse to do any effort to respect the city, let’s get over it. The island is a giant park and it’s really cool. I try to keep up with three competitive cyclists. I manage to follow them for a solid 50 meters before my heart threatens to explode. Maybe I should give cardio training another chance.

In a park, a bench on a road, beautiful trees, and a set of brick ruins on the left.

Zagreb had one hill. Budapest is the first actually hilly city I go to. It really makes me wish I had an electric bike, but I somehow manage to deal.

A red and white building with a tower and a flag on top.

Until I see a castle on a hill.

You know me.

Castle on hill. Alex on hill. Alex to castle. Alex happy.

But this time, plot twist: there are actually a half dozen castles on the hill!! Government buildings! Churches, several of them! A castle! Another church! The President’s house?

A gorgeous church with a giant and ornate tower and a multi-colored tile roof.

Castle District, which is its real name, is a whole neighborhood of very fancy and multicolored and sanitized houses on top of the hill.

A chonky tower on a gray day, made of pale stone and too many turrets to be reasonable.

Remember when I said Ljubljana was a very humble city? Well, Budapest isn’t. Budapest is big and she’s beautiful and she knows it and she will put that knowledge right in your face at every turn.

Also, the view is nice.

A city with orange roofs and a couple of big buildings, seen from above.

Just below the district, there’s a park, called Europe Grove. It has one tree for each fo the European capitals (including Russia and Turkey, as well as Bonn, which was the capital of West Germany).

I think this is a really cool concept! And of course, I look for my own capital, until…

The Parisian tree, except it's been cut down so it's just a stump.

Never mind, then.

I love going through European cities. They’re all like « Guys I found a hill and a river, you’ll never guess what I’m going to do with them!! ».

I keep cycling and find this specific building which, according to OpenStreetMap and Wikipedia, is nothing special. I send a photo with the caption « can’t believe they gentrified Mordor » to my partner who replies « is this a prison for prisons ».

A dark grey stone buliding with metal bars in front of windows that don't even look like they let in any light.

On a more serious note, I find it very interesting that many churches here have tiled roofs. The first tiled roof church I saw in my life was St. Mark’s church two days ago in Zagreb and now it turns out they’re a normal thing!! I’m shocked. Can’t believe the entire world isn’t exactly like home.

Also, Budapest is very, very serious about its bridges. They’re all different and all gorgeous.

A bridge with two pale stone pillars and the rest made of metal chain.

I get to one last chonky basilica, and then go for food, which is way more interesting.

At the restaurant, I do not get goulash.

See, there is a skill to being a good tourist. There are also different types of tourists. In some countries, I am the know-it-all tourists – notably in Italy, where I will only get Really Local Food and judge people who ask for « spaghetti bolognayzay please » (this really happened in Venice, in the same restaurant that had the NO PIZZA sign on its window). In other countries, I am that one dude who wears cargo shorts, doesn’t know how to say hi or thanks, and will do the guided tour and eat the Really Local Food (according to the menu in English). Hello, Croatia.

In Budapest, I should be in the second category. After all, I did no preparation, no reading, I have no information, I’m almost as clueless as an American at this point. And yet. Yet, I did not order the goulasch.

I got stuffed cabbage, it was absolutely incredible, I have no regrets.

Stuffed cabbage rolls with sour cream and a slab of pork.

I am tired and I am also coughing a little, and I don’t want to cough on five people for twelve hours. I go back to the train station to get a private cabin, which is a really useless luxury. That I can afford. It’s an important comfort upgrade anyway and I really need to rest. The more it goes, the more I think about it, the more I realize that I’ve been travelling relatively low-key – a couple of hostels, a few hotels where I’d have slept much better for twenty euros more. I realize I’ve been trying to travel like a student, because this is the trip 20-year-old me dreamed of. I still dream of it, and I’m having the time of my life. But I’m in a place now where I can afford to travel in more luxury, and there’s really no reason why I shouldn’t – truly, trying to travel like a young adult has mostly reminded me that my back hurts in the morning.

Anyway.

Yellow neoclassical buildings on a street.

I walk in the park as the end of the day grows closer. I drink a delicious lavender lemonade and say farewell to Budapest – a city I wish I had explored more, but I can’t sustain an entire month without a break and that’s fine. Maybe I’ll come back in a few years, who knows.

Then, I chill at the hotel for a while, having a nice conversation with Andrew, who is actually from Australia and who seems like a pretty interesting guy.

This hotel might win the prize of best hotel of the trip – definitely the best staff, at least. The pillows have some strong competition from Ljubljana, but that’s about it.

If I’m to believe the colour of the sky, it’s about to rain really hard, so instead of cycling to the train station, I ask Andrew to get me a (non-scammy) taxi.

I get on the taxi, ride for twelve minutes to the station, it’s great. Then I pay. Then I get the notification on my phone confirming that I just paid 108 euros.

Wait.

The taxi driver suddenly doesn’t speak English anymore. He gives me 1000 florint (that’s about 3 euros) back because he thinks I’m accusing him of having included a service fee int he ride – which he has, but that’s really not the problem here. We’re both irritated and confused, until he takes his phone off, makes the calculation to prove that he’s not scamming me… and we realize he missed the comma on the card machine.

He immediately pays me back, apologizes profusely, we wish each other a nice day, laugh a bit about it, and move on.

It could have happened anywhere, but it happened in Budapest, and really, outside of the baths, I don’t think this city is for me.

Finally, I’ve made it into the train. The cabin is wonderful. They even gave me a little bottle of Hungarian sparkling wine!

A train cabin where three seats have been converted into one narrow but comfortable bed.

It is now time for a 12-hour train ride, a hopefully good night of sleep, and phase 3 of the trip: « rekindling old memories ».

For the next ten days or so, I’ll be:

  • seeing old friends
  • trying to remember some basic German
  • visiting places where I’ve lived and skated and which have completely left my memory somehow
  • coming back to Italy, which will usher the final phase (« my partner is here woo I’ve missed them », a phase for which there will be no blogging, sorry to the Milan enthusiasts out there)

Stats

I normally don’t do stats when the day is not over, but since bathroom trips in the train won’t be hundreds of steps…

  • Steps: 19 316
  • Bike: 2h 12′
  • Knee pain: none!!
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