We decided to go up to Budapest for the weekend, and in order to have as much time as possible to look around, we left Kaposvár on the 7am train, and arrived without any hitches in Budapest Déli (south) train station just after 10am. We made a quick phone call to Wendy, a CETP teacher who is in Tata, an hour NW of Budapest. We were planning to meet up with her and she was only a few hundred feet from us when we called. She brought along two of her tenth-grade students who were excited about showing us the city.
We walked out of the train station and basically followed them to Margitsziget (island). At the north end of the city, this is a large island, accessible by bridge, which has lots of open space and is a hotbed for exercise. There were hundreds of runners, people playing sports in the open fields, and the island also has a thermal spa and a really nice athletic center. This was the first stop in our 8.5 mile walk through the city, and we didn’t so much stop there as wander through. It was a nice, sunny day, probably 75 degrees, and we decided we should go toward the main city park which is east of the downtown area. From the island, we continued crossing the Margit bridge to Pest, the east side of the city. With our pop-up map of Budapest in hand, I was put in charge of guiding Wendy, Kellie, Eszter, and Peter toward the park.
I took us down a serene side street which was comprised of one art gallery or antique store after another.
At the end of this short road, maybe a few blocks…we reached a square with the glorious parliament building to the right, and a massive gathering of protesters to the left. This was a highly organized protest. I learned later, from Wendy’s contact teacher, that it was a multi-faceted protest including many walks of life and occupations, but there must have been 5000 people there, 3 hours before it was scheduled to begin. At the time, I thought it seemed like two groups against each other, perhaps the two main political parties. And I decided that this is exactly the type of setting where someone is “in the wrong place at the wrong time” which equals random violence. Yeah, I’m not into crowds, nor protests, so I got us through that several-block-long mobilization of angry people pretty quickly. A quick turn down another side street, pop-up map in hand, and we were walking by the American Embassy (note to self: It’s in Szabadsag Ter). This is where I first gave excellent directions to a group of Indian tourists who were trying to locate St. Istvan’s Basilika (which I had never been to). I helped them orient there map and gave directions, and we continued. At the other end of this square there were water jets in the ground…see the photo! Right beyond this, it became clear where the American part of town was. Oktober 6 utca…everything in English, more expensive food, a large English-language bookstore (well, not a large store, but a large amount of English books). And we decided to eat in a Mediterranean restaurant which was very casual. We were given lemonade samples upon entering and some of us ended up getting large glasses…yum! We order things like falafel, pitas, lamb, etc and they gave a student discount to Peter and Eszter. I tried for the teacher discount but no luck. There was a sports channel on the big TV. Take a look…notice anything unusual? Could you tell the athletes are ski jumping…onto artificial turf!
This is the setting for many of the signature Budapest photos that are on magazine and travel book covers. We wandered inside for a while, and after leaving I couldn’t resist quenching my Starbucks thirst. There are five Starbucks in the country, all in Budapest. Check out the menu, just divide by 200 (approx) for the price in dollars. It didn’t seem outrageous, like the $11 per Frappuccino that Starbucks charges in Switzerland. As I walked out of Starbucks the same Indian group was asking Kellie for directions again, and she passed them onto me. This time, the Opera house, another destination I have never been to. [note my tracker on the right side of this page now shows 2 additional, successful assists with directions.] Shortly behind them we followed up Andrassy Ut.
This is a long, main street which goes all the way to the park, and is know for having the expensive clothing shops and things like that. We walked past the Italian suitmakers and designer stores for a little over one mile ’til we reached Heroes’ Square. This is a very large expanse with a momument dedicated to the founders of Hungary. It is sandwiched in between two art museums and just behind is the entrance to the park. Again we wandered but just for a short time. Eventually we sat on the grass to rest our feet and spend some time chatting. Eszter showed us how to solve a Rubik’s Cube….she had one in her bag, and Kellie recorded the explanation. See her blog for that-it’s pretty amazing.
After a bit of resting it was approaching 6pm and we decided we should start to head back to Tata, which meant a metro ride through the city and a one-hour train ride. This experience with Eszter and Peter was especially valuable for me because we basically had guides who could show us the little things that are probably really helpful to know. For example, Peter tore some metro tickets out of a booklet and sold them to us, but explained that you can buy them in books of 10 and they are discounted in price. He also showed us how to validate the ticket in the little ticket-punching machines. Along our day’s journey, I was asking them questions about word pronunciation, and other random Hungarian topics, and I think they were impressed a little bit and what I seemed to already know. And it was like having a tutor for a day because when I would question the pronunciation of a word they would take the time to repeat it and help us sound it out. I think most of my pronunciation issues were on the letters ö, ő, ü, and ű. I can physically make the sounds alright but I don’t automatically recall the correct sound when I see one of those letters.
The train brough us to Tata, where we walked for 10 minutes through the city to Wendy’s home, a unit in one of the Communist block housing units. It was my first time in this type of place…I guess it seemed like a regular apartment. Of course the layout was different than ours. Kellie thinks our place is about the same size as hers. I think ours is slightly bigger, but Wendy has a nicer washing machine, good-tasting drinking water, a bedroom, and it’s in a quiet area. I guess everyone’s home is different from everyone else’s. We slept on two futon beds that we pushed together to make into one.
Our plan for the next day was for Wendy’s contact teacher to take us to a nearby city and show us sights. Agnes picked us up at 10am, and her husband and two small children came along in a separate car. We drove to a city about 15 miles north called Komarom. It is right on the border with Slovakia. In fact, our main destination was a large fort which was built in revolutionary times but I believe was also used during communism. It was right against the Danube (Duna) RIver, and as soon as we pulled in, Agnes remarked that the parking lot should be empty. It was packed and they were charging admission. We soon found out that this historic setting was closed for a dog show. On to Plan B!
We went to another fort which wasn’t as large but I’m sure I enjoyed just as much. I think we got in free because we are teachers but I don’t know…I didn’t do the talking! We got to wander this isolated, silent fort. There was a section of excavated Roman tombstones and coffins which I got to enjoy all alone. There were lots of opportunities for photos including the network of tunnels and rooms which my imagination tells me must have been used for torture. In really, they were probably just for barracks, training, etc., but I don’t really know. I does feel weird to me to go into Cold War settings..it kind of creeps me out for some reason. But I hope I got good pictures out of this experience. In the main countyard there was a large wall, maybe 100×50 feet which was destroyed by bulletholes. It must have been the target practice wall. Here’s how living in a small country works. What did you do for dinner yesterday? Did you go to another country because there’s a good pizza place there??? I bet not. But we went to Pizza Lux in Komarno, Slovakia. No border checks here.
Note that the bordering cities are KomarOM, Hungary and KomarNO, Slovakia. Different language on the street signs, and they only accept Euros. We did see three exchange offices at the border though. After a few minutes wandering in the town square, we sat in the pretty outside terrace at the pizza place. My pizza had…well, I don’t remember. Actually I know it had whole slices of bacon can I can’t remember anything else. I also had a cappucino.
Afterward, we heading back into Hungary for the drive back to Tata and we were dropped off at the train station. And here starts an interesting story. The facts: Trains from Tata go to either a) Budapest Deli or b) Budapest Keleti station. Trains to Keleti arrive at :14 after the hour. Trains to Deli arrive at :29 after. We purchased tickets to Deli (where the train to Kaposvar leaves from). Then we followed the schedule telling us to go to track 4. More important facts: Trains here do not have the destination anywhere on them…you just have to know, or, I suppose, understand the messages being played over the loudspeaker at the train station. A train arrived on track 4 exactly at :29 after, and we got on. Another fact: Almost immediately, the ticket checker looked at our tickets for Budapest Deli, validated them, and gave them back. End result: One hour later, our train terminates at Budapest Keleti. “Hmmm…what just happened here? I guess we need to take the metro back to the other station.” Fortunately the two stations were at opposite ends of the same metro line so we just had to get on one train, without transferring. When we got toward where we needed to be, we realized there was a popular yoga studio nearby and on their website, I saw that they sell yoga mats. We decided to walk there, about 15 minutes away, and check out their selection. Fortunately they had a few varieties and, although the mat I purchased is not a long one, it will still be ok and for $30 US, it’s certainly better than not having one. I actually like it a lot though I haven’t used it yet. On the walk from the yoga studio back to the train station I think our feet were really starting to get sore. Additionally, we were getting hungry but I had plans to Skype chat with my family at 10pm so we were in a hurry to get on the train. At this point, it was almost 6, and the train ride to Kaposvar is supposed to be about 2:50 start to finish. Well, we go to the ticket window, looked at the schedule and saw that the next train for Kaposvár wasn’t for 45 minutes. And furthermore, it was not the fast train, it was the one that makes frequent stops at all of the middle-of-nowhere stops. I called my mom on my cell phone and left a message to apologize that we wouldn’t be back by 10, that I would turn on Skype when I got home, and if it was inconvenient for them, we could do it another time. On the ride, we had a train car all to ourselves, noticing the frequent stops at places where it was too dark to even notice it was a train stop. Seriously, in the countryside, in the pitch black, the train stops. No illuminated signs to identify our location…nothing. As the ticket checker was talking a break, I asked him where we would be at the stop where we would connect to our final train. He pulled out his electronic timetable, and showed me that we would be in Dombóvár at 10:02. At about 9:45 I couldn’t sit much more and began stretching while looking out the window. At 9:50, I recognized the station we were stopping at was the exact place where we needed to get off… A quick wave to Kellie to grab our things, I held the door open, we got off, and as we walked away and the train got ready to continue on its path, it was time for another “what just happened there? How did the train arrive 12 minutes early?” There was no need for our hustle over to the final train, however, because once we got on, we sat there for 25 minutes. We didn’t get back to Kaposvár until after 11, and got back to our place around 11:30. I made a quick snack, turned on the computer and my family was waiting for me! I love them.
P.S. Congratulations Amanda Knox. Welcome back to Seattle…soon.