Monday, May 28, 2007

The Buda Diaries...

(from Budapest)


Still cruising toward Budapest as we woke. Despite the feeling of a cold coming on, I put in my usual pleasant solo time up top—a brief meditation and an update for this travel log. A cup of fruity hot stuff instead of my usual English tea—I normally avoid anything that masquerades as “real” tea—and woke Ellie in time for a shower and breakfast in the dining room.

At 7:30, Frank’s voice on the p.a. system invited our presence on deck to witness the ship’s arrival at its final destination.

And indeed Budapest was a very fine site, with the captain guiding us down past Margitsziget, Margaret’s Island, the playground of the residents of the city; on past a splendid view of the Parliament on the Pesht side of the Danube and the royal palace and castle district on the Buda side, to the right. A quick change as we docked, and out for a last official guided tour of the trip, boarding the familiar line of three buses at the quayside.

The tour was a good introduction to the city. On the Pesht side, we drove inland through a commercial district to the new football stadium and the venerable old east railroad station, then on to the “Hero’s Square” with its monumental buildings and statues, the great plaza swarming with gypsy women anxious to sell us maps, guide books in English, hand-knitted traditional Hungarian blouses… A short stop for photos, then down the major tree-lined boulevards, past embassies and the art and music schools, ending up at the river again with a different view of the parliament buildings, this time from the land. Then across the Margaret bridge to the Buda side, through narrow streets, and up the steep incline to the group of palaces, castle walls and churches, where the parapets offer a spectacular view of the entire city of Budapest and the Danube River.

P beginning to feel very under the weather with his cold by the time we returned from the tour for lunch, but managed to tuck into a delicious Hungarian goulash before retreating for an afternoon of rest and recuperation. We had been scheduled to join another bus tour out to the country to a diamond factory and an art colony, but alas, I lacked the energy and decided to remain back on the boat for a good rest. We did manage, Ellie and I, a long walk through the back streets of the city closest to the boat, and began to scout out the area where we’ll be spending the next couple of days, after we leave the Viking tour. It’s a less well-tended city than some others that we know—like Vienna, for example—but we attributed that in part to the continuing recovery period from the communist regime. There’s a lot of work to be done to bring it back to what was clearly its original beauty.

Instead of our customary daily briefing with Frank at 6:45PM, we gathered for “A Time to Say Goodbye.” P nursed his cold with a glass of single malt scotch whiskey, and we all got a bit sentimental about the journey, our fellowship on board, and the pleasure of the cruise. At the end, Frank invited us all to celebrate with hugs all around, and we gladly complied. A last dinner with Tom and Danette, served by our always friendly and efficient waitress, Ivana, and a fond farewell to them: they leave at 4:30 tomorrow morning. Then a few moments on deck, and an early bed for P, with hopes for better health in the morning.


I woke feeling much better than last night, but earlier than I would have liked. Made my way to the upper deck with the laptop, intending on a half hour’s meditation before writing down the events of Saturday. Shortly into my meditation, though, I felt drops of rain on my head and didn't want to risk giving the computer a shower, so I chickened out and found a space under the shelter of the bridge to get on with the log.

Not an exciting beginning to the day: we had to squeeze everything back into our bags again for the next leg of the journey, and Viking nicely organized a taxi for us to the Keplinsky Hotel in the center of Budapest—on the Pesht side of the river. During the ride, one of my two batteries and a memory card apparently slipped out of my camera case, and we were surprised and delighted that the driver took the time to bring them back to the hotel. Chalk one up for the Budapest taxi driver.

We were soon unpacked and spent a while trying to agree on an itinerary for the afternoon. P still feeling very much under the weather—this is now unambiguously a nasty cold—but not wishing to waste precious time on our vacation. We decided that a thermal bath might be just the ticket, and headed out in the direction of the Gellert Hotel, a spa that had been highly recommended to us.

First, though, a lunch stop at the Gerbeaud restaurant close to the hotel, and a long, slow walk down mostly narrow side streets, admiring some fine examples of both art nouveau and art deco buildings.

Well at least the bones are there, for the most part. The details have often weathered badly through both weather and war, and many of the buildings are in a sad state of disrepair. Again, I suspect, also a heritage of the communist period. We encounter many signs of poverty in our wanderings, from ill-kept, dusty parks populated with obviously suffering humans, to crumbling buildings and dirty streets.

Speaking of which, the Gellert spa, when we reached it, seemed no exception to this rule. Talk about faded grandeur! We ante’d up what we thought was a rather expensive entry fee at over $15 a person, but then were asked to fork up another 10,000 forints (about $60) for a towel for each of us—1,000 for the towel and 4,000 deposit. We didn’t have that kind of cash with us, and the women at the cashier’s desk tried in vain to make out credit cards work. Lacking any sign of success, we had to make a side trip to the nearest ATM, and returned with cash in hand.

The baths were certainly pleasurable. We stayed mostly in the big thermal mineral bath, where at least three dozen people didn’t seem to be too much of a crowd.

The adjacent swimming pool proved too cold for this sick soul, so we passed on that, but we did find a spot in the sun by the outdoor pool to relax for a while amidst the holiday crowd. (It’s Whit Sunday over here, in Catholic country, a big festival, it seems, for children, and there were many of them with their parents at the baths, contributing a pleasantly joyful energy to the afternoon.)

We headed back to the hotel around six o’clock, with P’s energy visibly wearing thin along the way. I was grateful when Ellie suggested staying in our hotel room for a light dinner, rather than going out to one of the many local restaurants. Our hosts had already left us a nice assortment of hors d’oeuvres, so all we had to do was order a soup and salad—which we watched as Serena Williams vanquished a French Open rival on the television. We opted not to watch a movie, which would have cost us some $30. Everything here seems incredibly expensive, though the revenues from the tourist dollars are not evident either in the appearance of the city nor, so far as we can tell, in the lives of many of the people. The results of the inefficiency and waste of the old communist system are everywhere in evidence, and we wonder how the less fortunate Hungarians survive—particularly, we have heard, the pensioners, who earned little under the post-war regime and who, today, receive pathetically small retirement income from the government.

Ready for bed. The air conditioner in this expensive hotel is not working, and it seems hotter than hell in here. Still, it’s not hard to remember that our woes are small by comparison. Malfunctioning air conditioning? What a tragedy!


carly said...

Your Budapest tour makes me reminesce.

We stayed Buda side, up and across from the church and ramparts, in an elegant old building.

Favorites: Going out to the Communist sculpture garden. Where they've placed the huge public bronzes. to the jokes of our very funny guide.

learning about Hungarian wines at a tasting

seeing the bullet holes in buildings

inside their parliment, where the next day was a protest and their president was taking political heat as we watched on TV in Vienna.

Our first taste of Esterhausy torte.

the National Gallery where I saw amazing painting by Hungarians I never heard of before.

PeterAtLarge said...

Nice to hear from you, Carly! Yes, some of these we have done, others not, and we're grateful for the thoughts. Yes, that sculpture garden! Hilarious! And sad... Later, PaL