By Karlie Marrazzo
Three hundred and fifty days after our last month away in Europe, Dave and I were packing our bags again, going through the familiar motions and making the drive down the same stretch of highway to the airport, ready to embark on another month on the continent we love so much. This time, though, the trip carried serious significance. This would be the biggest trip of my life to date. This would be the one where I would finally achieve my goal, the purpose of my life for the past four and a half years; to travel to at least 30 countries before I turned 30 years old.
After three easy flights we touched down in Budapest, a city I’ve wanted to visit for years. We took the bus and then the metro into the historic centre. The second we emerged from the station I was stunned by the gorgeousness all around me. It’s common to be smitten with a place when you first see it, but this feeling held steady for our whole four days in Budapest, from the grandest buildings to flower pots lining the streets, from the great Danube and its bridges to multiple neon signs in the shape of teeth.
The day was clear and warm and we were feeling amazingly good for just having traveled for 24 hours door to door, so we hit the ground running. After a quick kebap lunch across the street from our cute Airbnb apartment, we grabbed our bathing suits and headed directly for one of Budapest’s most relaxing places, the Szechenyi thermal baths. Built in 1913, the stunning Neo-Baroque complex taps into two thermal springs running under the city and is home to two outdoor pools, indoor pools, massage services, saunas and steam rooms. We spent an hour and a half soaking and sweating in the hot pool (38C), absolutely relaxed, watching the old Hungarian men huddled around the stone chessboards.
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The cool pool, only 30C, has about a dozen powerful jets blasting up from the ground, and there was a little old Hungarian lady peacefully bobbing in each one. I waited patiently for my turn to try one. I stood on the spot where the jets are and almost got shot halfway across the pool, nearly losing my suit in the process. Eventually the combination of heat and jet lag started getting to me and I burned out hard and fast. The rest of our evening was quiet, with a long nap and a traditional Hungarian meal of paprika chicken with dumplings.
The best way to explore many European cities is on foot, and Budapest is no exception. The next day, Dave and I spent hours meandering around central Pest, looking at everything and nothing in particular, enjoying it all and walking over 10km before lunch. We saw all of the biggies like the Chain Bridge with its regal lion statues guarding either end, the impressively imposing Parliament building and St. Stephen’s Basilica. But the place that touched me the most was the Shoes On the Danube Bank memorial. Sculptures of shoes, some with dried flowers or melted candle wax, were placed alongside the Danube in 2005 to commemorate the lives of Hungarian Jews who were ordered to remove their shoes, lined up along the river and shot by the Arrow Cross in 1944 and 1945. It is a simple and haunting remembrance that moved me to tears as I imagined myself in that situation, living through those horrific times. At first I felt ashamed and tried to conceal my tears, but as I observed the other tourists milling about, taking selfie after selfie, I wondered if they were even thinking about those who lost their lives on that very spot and the horrors of war, past and present. Most of them didn’t appear to even take one moment to pause and reflect, and I realized that I should not feel ashamed at all.
Keeping with the mood, our next stop was the House of Terror on Budapest’s grand boulevard, Andrássy út. The building was first home to the headquarters of the Arrow Cross, Hungary’s Nazi-affiliated party, and after the war it was home to the AVO, Hungary’s secret police during the Communist era. It is now a museum dedicated to remembering those dark times and its victims. Unfortunately, the museum fell short of my hopes. It was more style than substance, with ominous music blaring loudly in every room, dark displays with little info and very long, dry printouts at the start of each room that were tedious to read.
The next morning we visited the Holocaust Memorial Centre, a modern building surrounding a renovated synagogue. It is an understated yet moving Holocaust museum and research centre on a quite side street in southern Pest. After passing through an entrance with two guards and a metal detector, we were in the calm courtyard, where I was moved by the black marble wall covered in names of Holocaust victims etched in tiny writing with room for more. There is also a glass column covered with the names of Hungarian towns where to entire population of Jews has since disappeared. Downstairs and inside the complex is a very informative, one-way exhibit focusing on the history and evolution of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in Hungary.
The Great Market, another city landmark, was nearby so we thought we’d pop in for a quick, cheap and authentic Hungarian lunch. We generally avoid big markets when we’re traveling because I find them to be a bit overwhelming and anxiety inducing, and while it’s a nice idea to see where the locals shop, I’m never going to walk out of there with specialty meats, oils or fresh produce. This one was quite open and not very crowded, until we got up to the food hall, a narrow alley packed full of tourists, clamoring to see what was on offer at each counter, which tended to be something doughy, greasy, covered in cheese or all of the above. We backed away slowly and went to the gyros place across the street.
A stroll, a tram ride and a metro ride later, we arrived on the west side of the Danube in Buda, a separate town from Pest until its unification in 1873. The sky was grey and it was drizzling lightly. The further we got from the metro station, the more charming the streets became. Even still, as we got closer to the heart of Buda, the streets were almost deserted. The pristine buildings painted yellow and red and the slick cobblestone lanes reminded me of Scandinavia. We passed the interestingly ugly Hilton hotel, built in 1977 and incorporating a 13th century Dominican church and a Jesuit college from the 17th century, before making a pit stop at Fisherman’s Bastion, an impressive neo-Gothic lookout point offering spectacular views of the Pest side of town, and the spot where all of the tourists were hiding out. Meandering past the Royal Palace and the ruins of the Ministry of Defense, bombed out during WWII, we ended our day in Buda at the lookout beside the funicular, taking in even grander views of the gorgeous city.
Budapest is known around the world for its night clubs and ruin pubs, bars that have popped up in old abandoned spaces that feel more like someone’s basement circa 1972 than the hip hangouts that they are. The downside to visiting at the beginning of the trip was that we were always too bagged to really go out and enjoy the nightlife properly, but I was excited to experience at least one ruin pub. We started with Szimpla Kert, the granddaddy of them all, only a few minutes walk from where we were having dinner. We ended up cutting through a side street rather than sticking to the main, well lit roads. I felt slightly uncomfortable with this but knew the pub was just around the corner. As we walked, the scene unfolded in front of me like something out of a bad movie. There was a man hovering in a dark doorway a few feet in front of us, his face hidden in the shadows. I instantly quickened my pace, my heart racing in my chest, my mind saying, “We’re going to get mugged. Please don’t, please don’t, please don’t,” over and over. The moment we walked by him he popped out and was right on our tails, way too close for comfort. We walked even faster, each of us constantly half glancing behind us, trying not to be obvious but also trying to send him the signal to back off. I gripped the handle of my umbrella hard, ready to use it if I needed to and not knowing what would happen if I actually did. We’ve been to Europe many times before this trip and had never encountered any situation like this, but we must have acted the right way because as quickly as he jumped out behind us, he stepped into the street and awkwardly hovered around a parked car.
Needless to say, I was quite rattled and was ready to turn around (down a well-lit road, of course), head back to the apartment and crawl into bed, but we went ahead into the pub. It was massive, a series of rooms with each one bigger than the last, with random décor (if you can call it that), several bars, odd lighting, a nasty bathroom, music playing over the PA plus a band playing in a back corner, and a coveted old Trabant converted into seating. We had our drinks and left, thinking it would be an awesome place to return to with a group of friends.
I woke up the next day, a Friday, our last day in Budapest, feeling like garbage. I had started to get a case of jet lag-related digestive troubles, combined with regular jet lag, and I was not happy. I can barely remember what we did on this day and I didn’t record anything in my travel journal, so we must not have done much. Before we left home I had bought opera tickets for that evening, knowing that Budapest has one of the best operas in the world and spending only $14 CDN for two tickets. I laid on the bed in our apartment until the last moment and then sluggishly rode the metro and then walked to the Erkel Theatre, the second home of the Hungarian State Opera, making it just in time for the 6 pm performance of Don Carlos. It was our first time seeing an opera, and I was in awe of the power of the singers’ voices and the intricacy of each and every lavish costume. However, the theatre was stifling hot, I was dizzy and could barely keep my head up, so we left at the intermission of the three-hour-plus performance.
After stopping for pizza slices and snacks, we settled into the apartment, getting ready for the 7-hour train ride to Belgrade the next day.