Day 3: Snowy Budapest

We woke up around 7:00 and there were two somewhat unfortunate things:  1) Jim didn’t sleep very well, and 2) it was snowing.  And not just a little light dusting, we are talking full-on blizzard.  We went downstairs for breakfast and I commented to the front desk girl that I didn’t know it was going to snow.  She thought about it for a moment before replying, “Well, surprise!”

Unable to do much about the weather, we geared up and plunged ahead, intent on not letting it derail our sightseeing plans.  Today’s start was to once again walk up Vaci utca, but this time we were going to actually pay attention to what we were seeing and take note of the sights our guidebook listed.  This included seeing (and photographing) the very first McDonald’s that was opened behind the Iron Curtain (as Jim mentioned several times on this trip, McDonald’s has to be our “greatest” export), and some different styles of architecture that lined the street.

It is here that I should mention the snow also brought out one more thing that would continue to plague us the rest of the trip any time precipitation was involved:  Jim’s shoe squeak.  Any time Jim’s right shoe got wet, it would start to squeak, almost in protest.  And not just a little, non-discreet squeak, a full-on, HERE I AM squeak.  Mostly it was very funny and reminded us of the beds at the Kalvin Haz.  It also made him easy to find in a large crowd.

Snow-covered Parliament

Our snow-filled, squeaky walk led us to the Parliament building, which is a huge fortress where Hungary’s legislation is born, and surrounding the fortress are a myriad of statues that we felt obligated to photograph (aka Kossuth ter).  Had the day been sunny, we might have even SP’d (self-portraited) all of them, but the blizzard kept us down to only SPing a handful of them.  A shame, too, because someone had gone to a great deal of work to make them all.

Around 10:00, after our statue-filled frolic in the snow, it was time to start making our way towards Deak ter to suss out the location of the bus that was going to take us to Statue Park.  So we boarded the metro at the parliament stop and rode it a few stops to Deak ter, where we emerged into the confusing bowl of spaghetti that is the Deak ter intersection.  The good news is that we emerged from the metro right by the large Lutheran church that was on my list of things to see, so we were able to cross that off immediately.

Once the Lutheran church had been dutifully photographed, we set off to find the TI to get more information about the Statue Park shuttle bus.  The TI was allegedly around the corner.  Well, we sure  saw signs for the TI, found the building it should have been in, but were unable to locate the actual information office.  No worries, though, because after a little ado of crossing streets, consulting our mappy, crossing more streets, and consulting the mappy again, we miraculously found the location where the Statue Park shuttle bus picks up passengers (it’s right by the HOHO buses, by the way).  By chance, a Statue Park representative was there and informed us the bus would depart at 11:00.  Since it was just after 10:00, we decided we had plenty of time for a coffee break and set off to find a café (we ended up at a place called Replay) in the immediate vicinity.

Our coffee stop was uneventful but much needed, as it allowed us to not only warm up and dry off a bit, but also recharge us for our next adventure:  Statue Park.  Promptly at 10:50, we once again bundled up and went to meet the shuttle bus, where we boarded with about 6 other knuckleheads who were attempting this bit of sightseeing in a blizzard, paid 4,000 HUF/person (that included the entrance to Statue Park), and were off like a herd of turtles.  Despite a bit of a snowy traffic jam, we were there in about 45 minutes and dropped off at the gate.

A portion of Statue Park. Notice the absence of people. I mean, who goes to Statue Park in driving snow?

Statue Park is a place that houses the communist statues that used to line the streets of Budapest to remind people to be more communist.  Budapest did a very interesting thing after the wall came down in 1989:  while many former Soviet cities allowed their citizens to tear down and destroy their communist statues, local Budapest officials decided to preserve theirs and put them all in one place for tourists to see – at a price.  This perhaps is the very first act of capitalism in their newly-freed society, and our hat’s are off.

So after arriving at the gate of Statue Park, we busily set about the task of reading about each statue and documenting each and every one with a photo.  However, as noted before, it was rather snowy which meant that not only were many of the statues (and correlating plaques) covered in snow, it was also difficult to take pictures because the lens kept getting wet and the driving snow made it difficult to get a clear view.  But we persevered and made the entire circuit – albeit in only about 20 minutes.  Once the statue part of Statue Park had been seen (including the Trabant car, which was a highly-prized communist mode of transport), we made our way over to the exhibit hall, which was more like an unheated mobile home with a pictorial about the fall of communism.  There was also an instructional video used by communist leaders to teach recruits how to spy on your neighbor.

Three frozen statues

The exhibit was very interesting, but, more importantly, it was dry, so we spent a great deal of time there.  We’d just started to thaw out when I remembered I had picked up a coupon for a free postcard from the “gift shop” (which turned out to be a glass window display of Soviet kitsch located next to the ticket-taking lady), so we decided to forge outside again to acquire said postcard.  Snow wasn’t about to deter me from picking up free goods.  As I browsed through the postcard rack, unsure of whether I could have picked out ANY of them or just certain ones, the ticket-taker-gift-shop lady spotted the coupon in my hand and waved me over.  Within 4 seconds we had done an exchange, she got my prized coupon and I got whatever postcard was next on top of her stack of uninteresting, generic postcards.  Hmm.  Not quite the value I was looking for, but it was free.

I took my free treasure back to Jim, where we both surveyed this non-descript postcard for a moment before deciding I should go back and buy the one I wanted in the first place.  Drats to this coupon, we don’t normally buy postcards but this really got me thinking about one.  Score two to Hungary’s capitalists.  The lady was quite pleased I was back, and after selecting a postcard that shows what Statue Park looks like for real (when it doesn’t have 2 feet of snow covering it), she kindly gave me a bag with my purchase this time.  Free postcards don’t get bags.

We still had a bunch of time to kill before the return bus left for downtown Budapest at 13:00, so we went back into the exhibit mobile home to sit down and watch the video about how to effectively spy on your neighbor to make sure s/he isn’t up to any hijinx.  A lot of the espionage involved female spies mounting a camera in their purse, which meant the purse would have to be sat on a table (if you were in a café, for instance) and directly pointed at the alleged anti-communist target.  It seemed to me that eventually people would grow wary of women fidgeting with their big purses on tabletops, but the communists apparently felt smugly that this was effective.

At exactly 12:55, we went back outside and got on the shuttle bus that would drive us back to Budapest.  We had another little traffic jam, but got back to Deak ter at 13:35.  On the bus we strategized our next move, and that was to visit the Great Synagogue, which, we will have you know, is the second largest synagogue in the world!  We easily found it and purchased tickets for the next English tour (tickets cost 2,400 HUF/each and included the entrance fee to the synagogue).  While we waited for the tour, we meandered into the gift shop and ended up buying a few magnets that said Budapest with a Star of David on them (one for us, one for Phyllis), and then joined the tour at around 14:00.

Budapest Synagogue, the second largest in the world

The tour started with a visit to the cemetery, then on to the Tree of Life sculpture that was erected on the site of mass graves of those killed by the Nazis.  Very poignant.  Next, it was time to go into the synagogue, and I was most excited to see my first “working” synagogue.  We stepped inside and, quite frankly, I was a bit confused.  It looked just like a Catholic church, a point that was made by our passionate Jewish guide, and it turns out that apparently the Jews had built it in that fashion as sort of a thank you to the Catholic church, who had allowed them to build it in the first place.  Our guide joked that it was the largest Catholic synagogue in the world.  Once the tour ended (which took exactly 24 minutes and not the 40 as advertised), we were free to roam the synagogue (taking pictures, naturally) and visit the 2 on-site museums.

By this point, having spent most of our day outside in the driving snow, we were in serious need of a coffee stop to warm up.  So we set about trying to find a Kave Haz (coffee house) in which to thaw.  You would think it should have been an easy task in this city where café culture is catching on rapidly, but for some reason we were unable to find any place suitable and our hunt took us over an hour in yet more driving snow and cold.  We finally managed to locate a place near our hotel on Raday utca called, ironically, Paris, Texas, where we took our water-logged bodies inside and each indulged in a hot chocolate covered in whipped cream (and served to us by a waitress who kept giggling at us), surrounded by a bunch of chain-smoking locals.

We sat in the café for over an hour, unwilling to bring ourselves to the fact we had to eventually go outside again, but we finally managed to drag ourselves from the warm, smoky nest and headed back to the Great Market Hall to acquire some souvenirs and search out a local Hungarian specialty called langos, which I had read about on the trip forums before we left.  Great Market Hall is a fantastic place in which to souvenir shop, and we found a very nice lady at a paprika stand and purchased some authentic Hungarian paprika.  She also pointed us in the direction of the langos stand (which was upstairs), so we headed up and found the langos lady.

The Holy Grail in Budapest: langos

After a bit of confusion over what kind of langos to get (you can add several toppings), we settled on the way the forums had described as the “original,” which was the deep-fried, round langos covered in a layer of sour cream, cheese, and fresh garlic (all for 500 HUF, or about $2.50).  Holy cow, if we have one regret about this trip it is that we didn’t try this earlier so we could have gotten more.  It was absolutely delicious and we decided right then and there that if we ever open our Little Orbitz donut stand, we will also have langos.  Little Orbitz, by the way, is a donut that made quite an impression on us in 2007 while at the Memphis Zoo.

After dining on the delectable treat, we headed down to the basement of the Great Market Hall to see the seafood stands (something I had avoided doing the first day).  The smell down there was a bit overwhelming and there were tanks of half-dead fish that looked so sad.  We made quick work of seeing it.

Back outside, we headed off to our hotel to rest and dry (especially Jim’s squeaky shoes and socks, which were well-soaked by this point), but before going to our room we used the internet in the breakfast room to check out the bus schedules from Budapest to Vienna.  You see, I had found a bus company called Orangeways before we left that appeared to take you between the two cities via bus for only a fraction of what the train would have cost, and it was supposed to take the same amount of time (3 hours).  The price difference was so compelling that we felt the need to check it out further.

The Orangeways website showed a bus leaving at noon on the Saturday we needed to travel, so we decided that we would go to the train station later this evening to see how much that would cost, then go to the bus office in the morning to buy tickets if the train was too expensive.  Pertinent information in hand, we went to the room, relaxed, dried out, and headed out again around 19:00, our mission was the train station.  We took the M3 metro to the Keleti pu (main) train station, got in line at the information office, stepped up to the window only to realize you needed to take a number first (oh, is THAT what the flashing numbers on the sign meant?), got our number, then were called a few minutes later.  We learned that the train would cost 10,000 HUF each (about $50), so we decided we needed to pursue this bus lead a little further.

As it was past the hour the bus ticket office was open, we focused our attention on something very important:  dinner.  We got back on the M3 line with the purpose of going to an Italian restaurant (Trattoria Toscana), but they were full and had no tables.  No problem, we had an ace in our pocket called Raday utca.  If Raday doesn’t have it, then you are too picky of an eater (says the über-picky diner).  We found an Italian restaurant that was simply called Trattoria, where we scored a great table in the corner and Jim had a spaghetti Bolognese and 3 beers and I had a cheese, tomato, and basil pizza and 2 beers.  At the end of the meal I was dying to try Zwacks Unicum, a specialty Hungarian after dinner drink, so the waiter brought over a shot-sized glass and we tried it.  Well, it’s an unforgettable taste, that’s for sure.  A bit like anise-flavored cough medicine with a paint thinner finish.  And, unlike the langos, there was no regret about not having had this before.

We got back to the hotel around 23:00 and exhaustedly fell into our squeaky beds.  All it did was remind me of Jim’s squeaky shoes.

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