“If you went to Budapest and did not go to the baths, well that would just be dumb.“
I’d never even considered the fact that castles and cathedrals and monuments could begin to blend together after a little while, but then again, I’d never seen so many in such a stretch before. Whether it’s been a short stretch or long one depends on perspective, I suppose. Once this little adventure is over, if someone were to mix up my photos and then ask me to identify where they were taken, I think I’d do pretty well with the general region, but my exact location percentage might rival that of my lifetime Little League career at the plate. Let’s just say that’s one of the reasons I’ve been getting up at 5:15 on freezing cold winter mornings to drive to an equally cold ice rink for the past three decades instead of playing beer league softball on warm summer evenings.
Prague’s architectural wonders had given me a welcome kick in the ass, however, and what lie ahead in Budapest held potentially greater promise. But as the train approached Nyugati Station, I saw nothing on the skyline that could be described as wondrous. In fact the only thing I noticed was a tall, dilapidated, formerly white apartment building in the distance. It sat well beyond the train yard which was littered with abandoned railcars and rundown warehouse buildings. Even more disconcerting, the map on my phone had a red pin in what appeared to be that exact spot: My AirBnB.
I remembered then that the description said the apartment was on the 11th floor, and that was the only place I could see that rose even close to that height on the skyline. I also thought I remembered it saying it was just a few minutes from the train station, but then, like those castles and cathedrals, I’ve slept in so many different beds already that they’re beginning to blend together as well.
The train rolled slowly on, and unless it was about to pull a U-turn, I had quite a walk in front of me. It’s funny how when I’m going for a hike in the woods back home, two-and-a-half miles is a literal walk-in-the-park, but when that’s how far your bed is from the train station, well…fuck.
When I started walking I was already tired and hungry, and those closest to me know that’s when my usually angelic demeanor can go a bit south. Boo was the first one to give it a name. “Low blood sugar,” she called it, but I think she was just being kind, like using one of those safe phrases couples counselors tell you to use when you’re partner’s acting like a dick. It worked, though, and I felt better believing I had some sort of condition over which I had little control, the only surefire treatment being a cold beer, an order of wings, and a nap.
But in order to get to any of those things, I would first have to walk those two-and-a-half miles through a dreary, concrete neighborhood, where all the shops and restaurants and bars appeared closed, and the only people out on the cold gray streets were those dragging trash cans to the curb.
Weeks before I’d seen a backpacker in Edinburgh walk past with a large pack on his back, and a smaller daypack strapped to his front, and I wondered why the hell he would’ve have packed like that. Later I would learn why. Not unlike flying, when traveling by bus or train you have to stow your larger pack. Sometimes you can access it, other times you can’t, but even when you can, it’s a pain in the ass to get what you need. So the smaller pack is essentially your carry-on, except you have to walk to and from your stations wearing them like some sort of sandwich-board doomsdayer. The first time I packed like that, however, my entire backpacking world changed. Not only was it more efficient, it was more comfortable, redistributing the strain on the wrecked, old-man back I’ve had since it belonged to a much younger man. But in this particular moment, with another mile-and-a-half to go, I was feeling the weight of both, and to be frank it kind of sucked.
And then I came upon the Budapest Zoo.
I have a love-hate relationship with zoos. I like the idea of seeing exotic animals if they’ve been, say, rescued and rehabilitated and can no longer live freely in the wild, but of course that’s rarely the reality, and I tend to leave wishing I’d never gone in.
And I didn’t here, but I happened to be walking past at closing, just as families were pouring out. Parents. Grandparents. Kids in strollers. Kids at the wheels of those little plastic push-cars. Everyone was smiling and laughing and enjoying the antics of their adorable little bundles of joy in those short and blessed moments before they become the larger monsters of their destiny.
I watched a sidewalk balloon hawker expertly find her prey, like a lion spying that one gazelle with a gimpy hammy, but there was no heart-pounding, zig-zag chase to be had, this particular dad not even pretending he wasn’t going to exchange a few huf for that high flying red balloon, handing it to his little daughter who looked at it as if she’d just been given a live unicorn.
And that’s all it took.
Suddenly I was reinvigorated, my stores replenished. With my head a bit clearer, I remembered then that it was late on a Sunday afternoon (days of the week sometimes blend together as well), which explained the closed businesses, the empty streets, and trash hauls for Monday morning pickup. Even the cold air of the shaded downtown streets had given way to the warmth of a green grassed park flooded with late day sun.
As has happened a few times already on this trip, families and kids remind me that wherever we are, whatever our differences, we’re all really very much the same, with the same relative wants and desires, and there are few adults who can’t appreciate the moment of seeing a young child find his or her own stupid little bit of joy, whether it’s seeing the seemingly happy Alice The Elephant for the first time (rest her soul), playing with a toxic, fish-choking planet killer filled with floating gas until it inevitably pops and makes them cry, or simply eating a spoonful of dirt right after you tell them Do not, under any circumstances, eat that spoonful of dirt. It’s that short little moment in time where kids from the Americas to the African continent know nothing of the reality of the world they’ve been pushed and pulled into, despite being warned with a welcoming slap in the ass.
I’d finally arrive at my building and rode an excruciatingly slow elevator in which I pictured at least three scenarios where I would die before reaching my floor. My apartment, despite having been decorated in 1970s Hungarian style, was very clean and comfortable and had every amenity, including a wall of windows with a view all the way to the Danube.
I’d shop at the corner market for pasta and vegetables, bread, eggs, cheese – beer and wine, of course, and a few other things, staring blankly at the woman behind the counter who was speaking Hungarian and seemed to be telling me something more than simply what I owed, while I smiled and nodded and handed her my credit card. For all I know she was telling me I had a spider on my face.
Back in the apartment I’d stream both the Patriots and Bruins, my first time watching either this season – both were wins – while planning my next day’s itinerary.
My first day in Budapest had started a little rough, but ended on a very nice note, with the sole hiccup being my downstairs neighbor banging on the exposed water pipes that ran up the length of my kitchen wall to the apartment above. I wasn’t sure what was happening exactly until I shuffled the wooden kitchen chair on which I was sitting a second time, realizing only then that it caused a rather grating noise of wood on tile. That led to another round of water-pipe rapping (Ártatlan vagyok!). I yelled something punky toward the pipes (Nem vagyok ártatlan!), hoping it would reverberate to the neighbor below, but then decided the last thing I needed was some huge Hungarian guy rapping on my door instead of my water pipes – or worse, his huge Hungarian wife. I decided it was best to move to the living room to enjoy the rest of my home cooked meal – but not before checking the deadbolt.
In Prague I had hit nearly every must-see site. And before that, Berlin, where I did the same. My list here included Parliament, the Chain Bridge, Buda Castle, Freedom Square, St. Stephen’s Basilica…all the usual suspects. While I have at times struggled with the idea of playing traditional tourist, taking prerequisite selfies in front of all the places everyone has already seen – as if it somehow makes a backpacking adventure somehow seem “less than” – I then remind myself that there’s a reason sites become landmarks, and landmarks become tourist attractions.
Because they’re worth seeing.
And if I was there and I didn’t see them, then I’ve probably missed something special. Maybe something historical. Maybe a once-in-a-lifetime erupting volcano. Maybe the Arc de Triomphe wrapped in the world’s largest tarp and deemed art because it was commissioned by Cristo, who I like to believe was vacationing at his villa in Spain, and when he heard it was completed, laughed and said “Holy shit, they actually did it??”
So I tend to set aside my first full day to see the major sites, check them off and tick that sheet. And I have yet to be disappointed, though now and then I do long to get back to nature. But that will come soon enough…
Several of the countries I’ve visited have horrifically difficult histories with which they must attempt to make peace, and which cannot be ignored. Hungary is no different. From the Shoes on The Danube, a memorial to Jews who were ordered to remove their shoes before being executed and dumped into the river by a wing of the fascist Arrow Cross Party, to the striking memorial to Freedom Fighter Peter Mansfield, jailed in 1956 at aged 16, and executed two years later, to the still controversial Monument to Victims of the German Occupation. Hungary not only cooperated fully with Germany in sending its Jewish citizens to concentration camps, it far exceeded the requested quota. While the monument is claimed to represent the Archangel Gabriel being attacked by a German Imperial Eagle, opponents claim it depicts Hungaria’s agreeable capitulation, willingly offering up the orb that represents the power of state.
In keeping with my newfound tradition of trying the local fare, I would eat at Vigadó Étterem, not once, but twice. After I told the waiter how much I enjoyed the meal my first evening, he said “Tomorrow, then.” Who was I to say no?
Of course, as Margot pointed out, “If you went to Budapest and did not go to the baths, well that would just be dumb.” Having arrived tired and sore, and then having spent a handful more days walking, scootering and subwaying miles upon miles around Budapest, it was time for some rest and recuperation. Not being much of a human soup guy, I admit I walked into Széchenyi Thermal Baths with a handful of reservations, but my lord was it spectacular. There are traditional indoor baths, essentially pools of various sizes with varying degrees of thermal heating. And then there’s the huge outdoor thermal pool, a massive area with various jets and water massage stations. I would leave a couple hours later, dangerously pruned, thoroughly massaged, and incredibly relaxed. I would head back to the apartment and have a solid daytime nap, my first since starting this trip.
Skipping the baths would have been dumb indeed. Now I would be ready for the outdoor activity that awaited me in my next stop – Slovenia.