Saturday, April 14, 2012

Introduction to Budapest

We arrived in Budapest on Thursday morning, bought Metro tickets, and rode to the neighborhood where our Minsk landlady lives. Her parents-in-law take care of the place for her when she’s out of town and somehow we’d never been in Minsk at the same time together. We weren’t expecting to be in Budapest at the same time together either, but the family had urgent business in here and they arrived shortly after we had let ourselves into their apartment. Our landlady and her husband are just as nice as his parents, and we were very happy finally to meet them. But anyway, this paragraph started out with a Metro ride and I should surely finish with the Metro ride. The cops nabbed me at the exit, discovering that I hadn’t properly stamped my ticket when I entered the system. I stuck the ticket into the machine and didn’t realize that the machine was supposed to take a bite out of the end of it. I finished the ride with an intact ticket and they wanted a fine worth about US$80. We thought they’d be nice to us when they saw us carrying luggage and two tickets, one of which was properly punched. They did not want to be nice, but finally gave up when we refused to pay the fine until we talked to a supervisor.

We haven’t needed the Metro much since then because we’re staying pretty close to the center of the city and we like to walk. On Thursday we walked the length of Margaret Island and then took a self-guided walking tour of the Pest town center. In both Buda and Pest (two sides of the river) we saw LOTS of beautiful buildings, though Pest has more parks and a greater variety of things to see and do. I was about one step behind for most of the afternoon because I hadn’t been thorough about reading the guidebook before we left, but I did a much better job on yesterday’s tour, which included the truly-spectacular Parliament building. I won’t write about what we saw because I’ve posted plenty of pictures here. I’ll just say that we really like this city.

It’s not clear that everybody here likes Russians, however. The parks department had to build a barrier around the Soviet Army memorial because vandals kept stealing the star and the Soviet crest from the monument. We understand why folks objected to the Russian domination after the war, but we don’t understand why they would want to desecrate a memorial to people who put their lives on the line in order to liberate the country from fascists. It’s possible we ran into some more anti-Russian sentiment today. We found an outstanding strudel restaurant yesterday and went back for lunch today. This time we walked in speaking Russian to each other and our waiter brought us Russian menus. When he finally came to take our orders, we realized that his English was better than his Russian and we tried to order in English. He walked away before I finished my first sentence, ultimately returning with our mineral water. I asked to order and he said he’d be right back but he stayed away even longer. The story goes on and on, but it’s just a lot more of the same. Everybody else in the restaurant got more attention than we did, and even our soup took half an hour. In general, however, people here treat us kindly enough and we all talk to each other in English.

Today we took a more casual tour of Buda. I left my guidebook in my pocket and we explored Castle Hill without guidance. The air was heavy with moisture and we dodged a few raindrops but stayed dry. The heavy humidity dimmed the view across the river, but we could see well enough to enjoy being up high and Alla really enjoyed being inside a walled city for the first time in her life. In addition to the fortifications and historical treasures on Castle Hill, we saw windows into a fair number of unpretentious-looking apartments. We had not expected to see regular people living inside a walled city.

We finished today’s tour with a long visit to Szechenyi Baths, where we soaked in waters of various temperatures and sulfur levels. We concluded our spa trip with hour-long massages because the price seemed reasonable. Alla apparently got the best masseur and insists that her massage was worth the price of two. Mine was OK but, as we say, nothing to write home about.

We lost track of time here and we were surprised to discover that we fly home on Monday. Tomorrow is our last day in Budapest and I think we’d both prefer to have yet another day. I’m not sure how we’ll optimize our time, but I think we’ll have to anticipate a return trip. That’s OK: this is a beautiful city.

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