It may have been the idea of connecting flights that had put us off previously, but we found a package that was too good to resist through Expedia which involved us flying out with Air France via Paris and with KLM via Amsterdam. So it was with trepidation that we split our worldly belongings into two suitcases, just in case one decided not to take the same route around Europe as we did. Which led to the dilemma “do I put make-up in one suitcase and GHDs in the other? What would I rather have – a pale ghostly complexion or curly frizzy hair?”
Not wanting to deal with public transport straight away, we pre-booked a taxi transfer through Airport Transfer Budapest. Their representative was waiting for us in arrivals, and called through to the driver who was outside in minutes. Not the most talkative driver we’ve ever had, but the service was efficient and faultless, dropping us outside our hotel within forty-five minutes of landing. Hotel Palazzo Zichy was booked as part of the Expedia package, and it was worth every 5-star review on TripAdvisor.
I love it when you stay at a hotel which makes you feel like you’ve spent a lot of money, and yet you paid a bargain price. Anywhere that leaves a little chocolate on your pillow gets a tick in my book… Only thing I would complain about would be the (relatively) pricey drinks in the lounge bar – in a city when you can get a pint of local beer for around £1, the forint-conscious Fletches were not willing to pay 4x as much, even in the comfort and convenience of our own hotel.
So we are unpacking. I am reuniting my make-up bag and GHDs, reassuring them I will never choose between them again. Mr Fletche has a slight look of panic on his normally unpanicked face. Mr Fletche, photographer and visual blogger of this Hungarian adventure, has forgotten his spare camera battery. And his battery is hanging on to its last 25% of charge. For Mr Fletche this is as bad as if I had been separated from my GHDs. Or my make-up bag. (Look, it’s like choosing a favourite child, okay?). Luckily, our hotel comes with free wi-fi and we are able to scan the local area for camera shops and useful phrases. Mr Fletche is now fluent in “photography Hungarian” and now can converse in length about batteries (akkumulátor) and chargers (akkumulátortöltő). We are unable to find the Hungarian for “I am a numpty but at least my wife has her GHDs and make-up bag”.
So with no other plan in mind for tonight, we venture out onto the streets of Budapest for the first time in search of a local camera store. We know EXACTLY where it is. Except it’s not. We systematically scan every store and every alleyway in case we are missing some hidden location, like some sort of photographer’s speakeasy that can only be accessed through a phone box, with a special password. I look longingly into bars, where people are enjoying a late afternoon beer or glass of wine, but I have promised Mr Fletche we will not stop until this camera shop is located and the required battery acquired. This is our holy grail. Eventually, soaking wet and chilled to the bone, we concede defeat. Did I mention it was raining? We decide that the internet has lied to us; there is no camera shop. We will continue our search tomorrow. Only a drink or two can cheer us now.
We are close to the Central Market Hall, so we walk through taking in the sensory overload of brightly coloured fruit and vegetables, pungent sausages, and masses and masses of paprika. Back out into the rain briefly, before the warm candle-lit glow of the “For Sale” pub and restaurant beckons. Straw and peanut shells on the floor contribute to a rustic décor, and the walls and ceiling are covered with handwritten notes from previous patrons. Not so rustic were the 80s and 90s “Europop mash-ups” playing in the background… One beer turned into two, which turned into us deciding to eat there too rather than emerge back out into the rain. The menu was extensive, but on closer inspection did appear to be made up of 100 versions of the same dish. Food was tasty and plentiful, but I didn’t feel we’d had the best traditional Hungarian gormet experience, and was also quite pricey for what we had. Still, this is a touristy restaurant in a touristy area, and yes, we are tourists…
Back out into the rain we go. It is dark and feels as if it’s about 10pm. It’s not. It’s about 8 o’clock. But tomorrow is the day for exploring and seeing the sights so we make our way back to the hotel to dry off…
The alarm goes off at 7:30am. The bed and pillows are super comfy and staying there all day is tempting. However, a tweak of the blackout curtains reveals a blue sky with not a cloud in sight. Hotel Palazzo Zichy provide us with a tasty buffet breakfast (why do we not eat cheese and cold meats for breakfast at home?) which sets us up for the day.
We are not fooled by the blue skies and sunshine and dress as if we are embarking on an expedition to the North Pole. You can never wear enough layers. Mr Fletche has tracked down a second camera store, and it is not far from where we plan to meet this morning’s walking tour at Vörösmarty tér. I have planned metro and tram routes meticulously, so we purchase our tickets at Kalvin tér metro station.
We deliberate between a 24 hour unlimited pass, and a book of 10 single tickets. We go with the 24-hour pass; we have, we’ll use it, right? We’ll get our money’s worth? We’ll just hop on public transport whenever we feel a bit tired and footsore? I’ll jump right to the end of the story here. We didn’t use it. Our feet hurt. Our knees ached. We (I) got crabby and miserable. And we asked ourselves “so why exactly do we always insist on walking miles and miles and miles in cities which have perfectly good and efficient transport systems?”
On our way to the meeting point, and the promised camera store, we stop by a coffee shop to purchase beverages to keep us going.
“What’s that place then?” Mr Fletche says.
“That big church-like place that we’re standing next to”
This big church-like place is St Stephen’s Basilica. The largest church in Budapest. Named after the man who brought Christianity to Hungary. Home of the mummified right hand of St Stephen himself. This is why we take tours; otherwise we walk round oblivious to everything around us.
With half an hour to kill before the 10:30am start, we walk to where the internet has reliably informed us there is another camera store. And indeed there is a camera store. Hurrah! However despite the door being open, and the sign saying open, the store is closed. Booo! Mr Hungarian Camera Store Owner takes pity on Mr Fletche, clutching his camera like a child clutching his favourite teddy bear. Hurrah! Mr Fletche converses with Mr Hungarian Camera Store Owner, using his hastily learned Hungarian camera phrases, and manages to convey his need. Hurrah! Using the international language of mime, Mr Hungarian Camera Store Owner regretfully informs Mr Fletche that he does not have the required battery in stock. Booo and double booo! Thankfully, the battery has managed to regenerate slightly and is now hovering around the 30% mark. As long as Mr Fletche resists the urge to review his photos, it may just hang on…
We hover by the fountain at Vörösmarty tér looking for what may be the walking tour. And soon we are being shepherded along by a Hungarian called Zoltan who has the enthusiasm of a small puppy out for his first walk. From Zoltan we learned that famous inventions from Budapest include the Rubiks Cube, the biro pen and “do-re-mi” (not in fact invented by a nun called Maria…); Hungarian is one of the hardest languages to learn but what sounds like “t-shirt” means “ten beers”; Budapest is pronounced Buda-pesht (imagine you’re Sean Connery when you say it. Go on. Say it now. In a Sean-Connery-stylee); and Hungarians naturally look unfriendly but liven up when you find them in bars nursing a unicum or a palinka.
The tour takes us over the Danube via the Chain Bridge and up to Buda Castle via a big hill. The funicular is for losers apparently. I am jealous of those losers when I am hyperventilating halfway up the hill. Zoltan introduces us to the “fake” guards at the presidential building (which now appears to be occupied solely by a cute cat rolling around in the sunshine) and to the statue of Hussar general Andras Hadik, whose horse’s testicles have long been rubbed as a good luck charm and bedroom booster for local university students (let me reaffirm that this is a statue of a horse, not a real horse).
Zoltan leaves us at Fisherman’s Bastion, to take in the views over the Danube towards Pest (“Pesht, Miss Moneypenny”) and the Hungarian Parliament Building. The tour has been excellent, and well worth the 10 euro tip we give to Zoltan at the end. We part ways with our fellow tour-ees including the lovely American couple who had just escaped the snowstorms in their native South Carolina in order to complete the much-travelled Budapest-Vienna-Prague triangle.
Mr Fletche and I wander around Fisherman’s Bastion for a while, like children who have been let out on their own for the first time. I lovingly finger the travel pass in my pocket, looking forward to the bus/tram/metro ride back towards home. Lunch is in a lovely little café (yes, in another tourist area… we are nothing if not predictable) where we enjoy an exceedingly hot but tasty bowl of goulash, followed by equally tasty strudel.
After lunch, it’s time to descend Castle Hill. Despite the travel ticket burning a hole in my pocket, and the number 16 bus hovering around, beckoning to us like an illicit lover, we descend the hill via a combination of steps and slope. The descent is easier than the ascent. The legs however are just starting to feel the burn. “Let’s walk along the river” Mr Fletche suggests. I nod enthusiastically, whilst in my head I envisage throwing myself to the ground like a small child throwing a tantrum and refusing to walk another step. We walk the 1.5 miles from Chain Bridge down to Liberty Bridge. And then the mile to our hotel. My hips, knees, calves and ankles are pleading with me to rest awhile.
After a much deserved rest, our enthusiasm is as recharged as Mr Fletche’s camera battery. It had been blinking somewhere around the empty mark, but somehow we have found untapped reserves. It was the mention of a newly created “pub” tour from our tour guides earlier today that have sparked our interest. The chance to seek out some of the hidden gems and experience the “real” hidden drinking culture in Budapest’s Jewish district. Meet at the fountain in Vörösmarty tér they said. Meet at 8pm they said. Fuelled by a deliciously unhealthy lángos (fried dough, cheese, onion and garlic), we hover around waiting for the hordes of tourists eager to experience a little slice of authentic Budapest nightlife. There is no-one in sight. We peer around the corner at 8pm, and there is one man, who may or may not be holding a leaflet saying “Drinking tour here!” We feel it may be a little awkward should it be just the three of us (if indeed this is the drinking tour man, and not just a fellow hoverer…) so we decide to embark on our own tour. First step. Find the Jewish district.
Like everything in Budapest, everything is actually closer than you think it is if you go the right way. After another convoluted route, we discover that the Jewish district is actually almost next door to our hotel. Mr Fletche was tempted into the Kings 3D pub on Izabella utca by the selection of Belgian beers on offer, and we decide our next move. The best way to experience proper Budapest nightlife is to experience a ruin pub. And without a trusted Budapest tour guide, the ruin pub of choice has to be Szimpla Kert.
Ruin pubs, for those not in the know, are derelict apartments, office buildings and warehouses which have been transformed into quirky bars. And Szimpla – the oldest and best-known ruin pub – is undoubtedly the most tourist-friendly option – even with the big burly security men on the door. Enter through a maze of doorways and plastic curtains, and you’re in a rabbit warren of rooms and bars and quirky artefacts. Want to sit in half a bath? This is the place to do it (although it didn’t look like the comfiest of seating options). Want a shisha water pipe with a range of fruity flavours? Yep, this is the place. Want to buy a carrot? Um, yes, this is also an option at Szimpla Kert.
We stick with beer to start off with, but if you’re going to try the traditional bitter liqueur called Unicum, then this is as good a place as any. Unicum sounds a little like the ejaculatory fluid of a mythical animal. And after drinking it? Yep, tastes like I imagined. Not one we’ll be repeating, but at least we can say we tried it.
Another beer takes the Unicum taste out of our mouths and we people-watch for a while, particularly enjoying the faces of newbies as they walked through the door/plastic curtain, like Alice entering Wonderland for the first time. Such a fun way of spending a couple of hours, and we were surprised how quiet it was on a Thursday night – I guess Fridays and Saturdays are a little busier? After such an exhausting day (another 3 miles this evening…whatever happened to that 24 hour transport ticket?), we decide the next stop will be back to home base.
Want to know what happens on Day 2? Here’s a sneak peek. Mummified hands. Another very long walk. And sloths. Yes, Budapest Zoo has a large, friendly sloth population. I may never leave.