15 Sep 2011

Budapest Day 1 – Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Posted by Deborah

(By Seth)
About a half hour before our train pulled into Budapest, the attendant woke everyone up with a croissant and juice for breakfast. From there, we had a surprisingly easy time navigating by metro and tram to the “Homemade Hostel.” We were both pretty psyched to stay there since it got fabulous reviews, and we weren’t disappointed in the least. The hostel was located on the second floor of a large apartment building in what seemed to be Budapest’s “wedding row” since there were a ton of wedding dress shops along the street. It was a fairly small hostel – three big rooms joined by a shared living space and kitchen area. We actually stayed just down the hall in a separate, studio apartment that also belongs to the hostel. It was the perfect set-up: we had our own private room with a private kitchen and bathroom, but we could socialize with the other guests in the main common area. As nice as it was to have our own space, the young hostel staff and guests were even nicer.

Since we were way too early to get into our room, we dumped our bags and headed out to catch a free city tour along with another hostel guest named Gabriel. Emma, our guide, was highly entertaining and informative. She gave us a great sense of the history of Hungary as well as the modern culture, which is shaped by an interesting generational divide. A few decades after the end of communist rule, the younger generation is excited about engaging with the western world and building a more productive, capitalist society. Many older people, on the other hand, remain firmly set in communist/socialist ways.

Emma also pointed out that Hungarians really seem to like rubbing statues for luck. We saw at least three different statues with nicely shined spots that people touch daily for luck. A favorite was a jolly old policemen with a polished brass belly.

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After the tour wrapped up, we took the guides up on their invitation to tag along for lunch at a cafeteria not far from Fisherman’s Wharf. This was not the kind of place you find in a guidebook. There were no menus in English and Emma had to stand by the counter to relay our orders to the cook (who did not seem at all pleased about a gaggle of tourists slowing her down, no matter that we were all spending money there). Despite the service-without-a-smile, the food was amazing. Amazing. I had a mushroom soup and some kind of sausage and rice mixture. Deb had chicken with corn in a thick cream sauce served over spaetzle. It was like the Hungarian equivalent to Southern soul food.

We took a tram back to the hostel where I promptly crashed for a nap to catch up after my torturous night on the train. Meanwhile, Deb headed out for some Zumba, Budapest style.

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When I finally came to, we joined the other hostel guests for a free home-cooked meal from the staff. We’d read about this perk online but thought we would miss out since the dinners are normally hosted on Tuesday nights. Apparently, they had so much left over from the night before that they decided to do an impromptu repeat. Even better, they made a fresh batch of stew with chicken for Deb (and vegetarian for our tour-buddy Gabriel) since the leftovers contained sausage. It wasn’t nearly as good as lunch, but it was really nice to chat with the other guests as we crowded into the common room to eat. And, of course, it’s hard to beat free.

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Since we were enjoying the company so much, we decided to stick around for a hostel bar crawl that included a free glass of wine or beer at five bars. Deb and I split one ticket since neither of us felt like downing that much alcohol. Budapest has plenty of bars, particularly in the Jewish quarter. This might sound odd at first, but a unique thing has happened in Budapest over the past 10 years or so: Young people began squatting in abandoned buildings (and there were plenty in the Jewish quarter after the fall of communism) and scavenged around for anything they could find to repurpose the space into a unique hangout. The resulting “ruin pubs” are extremely hip now. The last one on the tour, Instant, was particularly weird, from the music selection to the freaky human/animal creatures painted on the walls. We also had the “privilege” of tasting Hungary’s national alcohol, Palinka. Wow is it terrible. It goes down like Everclear, and if you’re lucky it doesn’t quite taste like cough syrup. A special highlight at a ruin pub was seeing the Travelocity Roaming Gnome of Amazing Race fame.

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