This was meant to be a post about ticking country 42 and my experience in Budapest, Hungary. As I have spent some time over the week since I have been home, home in Warsaw, thinking, it has turned into something more than a review and a number on a list. I belong to a Facebook Group of females over 50 who travel solo.
About a month ago, I received a private message from Hanlie, from South Africa, a member of the same FB Group. She was going to be in Warsaw, and asked if I would like to meet up for coffee while she was in town? Well, this morning, that happened. We had a lovely couple of hours sharing life stories, adventures, travel tips and mishaps, bucket lists, favorite places and experiences, food, you name it we probably covered it. To steal a message I recently received from Maria (I’ll introduce you to her later), “It was a pleasure to meet another intrepid soul.”
I think people often don’t understand the concept of traveling solo and extended travel/life abroad. I hear the questions, “Aren’t you lonely”, “Isn’t it dangerous”, and “are you trying to find yourself”, and I’m sure you can add your own questions here. I have spent the better part of the last 9 years living outside of my home country. I can honestly say, I don’t think I have ever felt truly lonely. As a matter of fact, I believe you meet more people and it’s easier to meet people and have random experiences solo versus traveling as a group or couple.
Life on the road is no more dangerous than life in Warren, Ohio and in some cases, it’s probably safer. Yes, I have had a few of my own “Eat, Pray, Love moments (mostly the eating part), but in reality, it’s just normal life in a different country. Although, it is true that someone’s ordinary might be your extraordinary. Maybe the hardest part of not just solo travel, but travel in general, is the realization that people with whom you have formed a bond, you most likely will never see again in your life.
At this point, you are probably asking yourself what this has to do with Budapest. Trust me, it will all fall into place. First, we must roll back sometime prior to 2006. Before I became a Facebook whore, I was an active member of “Cruise Critics”. A space where people going on cruises could interact with others on their sailing. October 7 – October 22, 2006, Tom and I were embarking on a cruise out of Los Angeles, through the Panama Canal and ending in Fort Lauderdale. On the cruise forum, I met Barb and along with her husband Danny, they would be on the same sailing. We met on board the ship, saw each other throughout the cruise, and parted ways in Fort Lauderdale not knowing if our paths would cross again. We did, however, become friends on Facebook and kept in contact through random comments and likes on each other’s posts. She also followed my move to Paris, then China, Bali, and my current home Warsaw, Poland.
When Tom died in early 2020, Barb went through her photos and found pictures of Tom and me from the Panama Cruise and sent them to me. Over the course of my years abroad, Barb also virtually introduced me to some of her family and friends who also had a love of traveling. Late in 2021, Barb and crew would be coming to Amsterdam to board a river cruise. Earlier in the year she planted a small seed in my head suggesting I meet them in Amsterdam, after all, it would be 15 years since I last saw them.
In November 2021, I booked a berth on a canal boat and a plane ticket to Amsterdam. It was great seeing Barb and Danny again and I got to “really” meet her sister, Kay, and friends, Dawn, Randy, and Diana. What can I say, we had a blast in Amsterdam, and before we parted ways, me back to Warsaw and them on their river cruise, another seed was planted. Their cruise ended in Basel Switzerland, and they would be going to Paris for several days. If you know me, the word Paris doesn’t need to be spoken twice before I have a plane ticket booked. Even if it would be for a mere 48 hours.
A Friday evening in December, at 21:00, I got off the plane in Paris and went directly to Harry’s New York Bar to meet them. Back on the plane Sunday and back home to Warsaw.
Relax…Budapest is next.
I think Barb has figured out that it doesn’t take much to convince me to hop on a plane. The beauty of Europe and living in Poland is I can be in just about any country in Europe in 2.5 hours or less. She told me the crew was taking a river cruise from Budapest to Amsterdam (no, I’m not going to Amsterdam again, I was there 3 times last year). There would also be 2 others going on the cruise that I didn’t know. That’s how I met Rosa and her sister Maria who I quoted above. And that my friends, is how I ended up spending Easter in Budapest, Hungary.
All that backstory probably isn’t necessary, but hey, I’m a storyteller and more people from my past will join later in the post. Chatting today with Hanlie and then parting ways made me think about how many people I have said “goodbye” to. I don’t really like to say goodbye. It seems so permanent. I prefer, see you next time, because as unlikely as it may be, you really don’t know when you may be fortunate to cross paths again. Barb and Danny are proof of this.
Hungary would be a new country for me, and I knew little about Budapest other than it is the capital city. I also realized I could not name one other city in Hungary. Even after googling cities in Hungary, I still didn’t know any. Surprisingly, the capital has a population of 1.8 million and the next largest city only 200,000. I did a lot less research than I normally do and decided I would figure it out once I got there. I rented an Airbnb for 6 days as I planned to work while I was there. I arrived on Good Friday, a day before the crew. I knew in advance that almost everything would be closed on Good Friday, Easter Sunday, and Monday. What else did I know about Budapest? Not a whole heck of a lot.
Landing at the airport in Budapest it is quite convenient to take the Airport Express Bus 100E. I downloaded the Budapest Go app and purchased my ticket in advance. You pick up the bus right outside the terminal. The cost of a one-way ticket is 2200 HUF (Hungarian Forint) which is about 5.85 euros or $6.40.
When you board the bus someone will validate your ticket by scanning the QR code on your phone. The bus drops you at the city center on the Pest side of the Danube at Kalvin, Astoria, or Deak ter bus stops. Getting off at Astoria put me a 5-minute walk from my Airbnb. Since I mentioned the bus stops on the Pest side of the Danube, let me explain. Separated by the Danube, Buda, and Pest form the two halves of the Hungarian Capital. They have been linked by the Chain Bridge since 1849. The Buda side is known for its hills offering panoramic views of the city across the river and Pest is entirely flat. Buda and Pest were once two separate cities and were united in the 1870’s.
After getting settled in my flat, I decided to walk toward the river and see if I could find something to eat. I also wanted to pick up some snacks and a bottle of wine. I was happy to discover that there was a Spring/Easter Market around the main square and side streets. I perused the kiosks and then made my way to the food area. I indulged myself with a massive lamb shank, cooked red cabbage, and 3 giant pickles.
After eating I figured out where the crew would be staying when they arrived the next day and then walked down to the Danube. I people-watched for a bit and tram-watched because I love my trams. I then walked back to my flat and decided I wanted to check out the Ruin Bars I had heard so much about. Funny how I didn’t know much about Budapest, but I knew about the bar culture.
Ruin Bars popped up in Budapest around 2001. They are found in once-abandoned, derelict buildings and unused outdoor spaces. They have been transformed into friendly, chaotic, lively, colorful bars laden with graffiti and eclectic décor. They are also known for cheap drinks. Little did I know when I booked my flat, I would be around the corner from the most famous of the Ruin Bars, Szimpla Kert.
That was my destination for the evening. I had heard tales of long lines to enter, but being relatively early as party-going hours go, I walked straight in. I ordered a glass of wine and walked around just to feel the vibe. I was a bit tired, so I took some photos, finished my wine, and headed home. On the way home I passed a small convenient store and grabbed some instant coffee, water, and some snacks. I was all set for my stay in Budapest.
No rush to wake up, I slept late, made my instant coffee, and then headed out in search of “real” coffee. I found the Blue Bird Café after googling coffee shops. Arrived…the line was out the door, so I continued and found a cool little book café.
Inside, bookshelves covered the walls and cozy window seats, and giant pillows filled the space along with café tables. Finished my coffee, I was getting a bit hungry as it was after twelve noon. I strolled to the area where the others would be staying. On the way, I chatted it up with a guy who was with the hop-on hop-off bus. He directed me to a Mexican restaurant, and I also ended up with a 3-day pass for the hop on buses and river boats.
The Mexican food was so-so. After a bite to eat it started to rain. Since I had time to kill before the arrival of the others, I decided to take advantage of my hop-on hop-off bus pass. I was near stop number one and boarded by St. Stephen’s Basilica in which you can find the right hand of St. Stephen himself. The bus has several different routes and I happened to catch one that completed a loop of the Pest side and then with a bus change I was able to do a loop of the Buda side. A perfect way to spend time on a rainy afternoon. After a couple of hours of sightseeing, I got off the bus about where I started.
By now it was getting close to the time for the others to arrive so off I went to find them. Before I found them, I found another cute little café (it was still drizzling) and had a glass of prosecco to pass the time. They all arrived exhausted after the trip across the pond, but also hungry. We decided a few of us would head out to the food kiosks and buy a bunch of food and bring it back to their 4-bedroom flat. Of course, I suggested some adult beverages as travelers while we walked around deciding on the food…big gulp size Aperol spritz was the beverage of choice. Oh, and if you know anything about European elevators, they are phone booth size.
Silly as we were, we decided to pack 5 people in the elevator. It was a fun opening night, and I won’t tell the story of Danny and the broken table…I left them and the broken table early so they could get some sleep; I passed through the Ruin Bars on my way home and then called it a night.
Welcome to Easter Sunday…made my instant coffee and then grabbed a traveler on my way to meet up with the crew in the square outside their flat. We headed down to the river as we planned to follow the river to the Parliament Building.
Near the parliament is a memorial called Cipők a Duna-parton or Shoes on the Danube Bank. It is a memorial erected on 16 April 2005. Conceived by film director Can Togay, he created it on the east bank of the Danube River with sculptor Gyula Pauer to honor the Jews who were massacred by fascist Hungarian militia belonging to the Arrow Cross Party in Budapest during the Second World War. They were ordered to take off their shoes (shoes were valuable and could be stolen and resold by the militia after the massacre) and were shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried away. Most of the murders along the edge of the river Danube took place around December 1944 and January 1945, when the members of the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party police (“Nyilas”) took as many as 20,000 Jews from the newly established Budapest ghetto and executed them along the riverbank. The memorial represents their shoes left behind on the bank…A very powerful scene.
Being after one o’clock everyone was getting a bit hungry. We decided to take our chances and see if we could eat at The New York Café. Now Instagram famous it is dubbed as the most beautiful café in the world. At the turn of the 20th century, the New York Café was the most beautiful and the most beloved coffee house in Budapest. It was a popular place among writers and editors, in fact, the most influential newspapers were edited there, upstairs in the gallery. After World War II, the once famous café fell into disrepair, and it served as a sporting goods shop. Although the café reopened in 1954, under the name of Hungária, it wasn’t until 2006 that the New York Café was restored to its original splendor. Today, the New York Palace, built in eclectic Italian Renaissance style and opened on October 23, 1894, gives home to the New York Café. The day before during my hop-on bus trip, we passed the café and even in the rain the line was around the corner, but we said let’s go and try. We grabbed a taxi. I ordered a vehicle for 6 people, and we all questioned the fact that they were sending a Prius. When it arrived we all learned there is a Prius+ with 3 rows of seats. Not pertinent to the story but if you could have seen us (we also had mulled wine while we were at the river) trying to figure out how a Prius could take the 6 of us…it was a laughable, memorable moment. Arriving at the café, indeed the line was long, but I have a little tip for anyone who may be reading this and planning a trip to Budapest and the New York Café. Walk to the front of the line, and there is a small sign that says, “fast track”. It points you into the café and for 5 euros per person added to your bill, you can skip the line and we were seated without a wait.
The first thing we did as we perused the menu was ordered some lovely pink bubbles. It is indeed a sight to behold…it is worth the 5 euro…food was good…I wouldn’t say it was out of this world, but the atmosphere made it a perfect place for Easter lunch. By the time we finished a light, leisurely lunch, the others needed to head back to get ready for their 5pm Hungarian Cooking Class which would last about 4 hours. We made plans to connect after they finished, and I went off walking to explore the neighborhood.
I had walked around for about 15 minutes, and I heard the sounds of Frank Sinatra floating out the door of what looked like a cool place. It was Doblo Wine Bar. I peeked in and was drawn inside by the music, the décor, and the thought of some more bubbly. I ordered a glass of prosecco recommended by the bartender and got lost in the classic American music as I sipped. Next, I continued walking until I ended up back at the main square of the Spring Market and sat at another café since it was nearly 6pm, I ordered a meat and cheese platter, and people watched. I then decided to go to the river and take an evening river cruise since it would be a few hours until the others finished cooking. Bad idea! There was a massive line, the boat that was leaving was full, and everyone would have to wait until the next one 30 minutes later. Looking at the line, and hearing the people yelling at the poor guy checking tickets, I decided there was no way all those people could even get on the next boat. I went on my merry way. Walking along the river I caught a most glorious sunset and then stopped off for a coffee. The group messaged me as they were finishing up the cooking class and it was decided a trip to the Ruin Bars was in order.
There was a short line when we arrived at Szimpla Kert but it moved quickly and soon we were inside ordering cocktails. After a bit of picture-taking, a gin & tonic, a long island iced tea, a bit of dancing, and lots of laughing we decided to call it a night. The line to get in had easily tripled as were leaving. What happens at the Ruin Bars stays at the Ruin Bars and I’ll just leave it at that. A good time was had by all even when you end up in a wee street ruckus.
I knew there was no reason to rush on Monday morning as the others needed to check out of their AirBnb by noon and could move into their rooms on the riverboat around 3pm. So I slept late and then headed their way around 11 am. The weather had been cool and rainy since I arrived, but this day looked promising. I remembered a little coffee shop/bar in the square outside their flat, so I made my way and sat and enjoyed a cappuccino while I people watched. I decided not to go up to the flat because somehow with 8 people packing luggage and moving around I figured I would just be in the way. Herding kittens comes to mind. Soon I saw them come out and we got a table in the sun at Marty’s, a nice restaurant in the square.
After a leisurely lunch, it was time to get taxis to take them to the boat. I should probably mention here that the waiter twisted our arms, really, and talked us into sampling some traditional Hungarian Pálinka. Pálinka is a traditional fruit spirit (or fruit brandy) with origins in the Carpathian Mountains, more exactly known under several names, and invented in the Middle Ages. Protected as a geographical indication of the European Union, only fruit spirits mashed, distilled, matured, and bottled in Hungary and similar apricot spirits from four provinces of Austria can be called “pálinka.”
Since the boat was docking there overnight, I went along to see if I could go onboard and check it out. It was the first time I had been on a Viking River Boat…very impressive. I hung out for a while before heading out. They had a night tour of Budapest scheduled through the cruise line and I was going to see if I could get on the evening hop-on river cruise. Plans were to go to the Central Market the next morning. I was successful in getting on the river cruise that was just before sunset, so it was beautiful to watch the city light up. Picked up a pizza on my way home and had a quiet evening in my flat.
Grabbed a tram and headed to the market around 9am Tuesday morning and met up with the others. I bought some spicy Hungarian paprika and a Budapest t-shirt that caught my because it had a tram on it. After the market, we started walking toward St. Stephen’s Basilica.
We had to pass the Dohány Street Synagogue also called the Great Synagogue. It was at the end of my street but unfortunately, I never made it inside. It is the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world. The synagogue was built between 1854 and 1859 in the Moorish Revival style. The synagogue was bombed by the Hungarian pro-Nazi Arrow Cross Party on 3 February 1939. Used as a base for German Radio and as a stable during World War II, the building suffered some severe damage from aerial raids during the Nazi Occupation but especially during the Siege of Budapest. During the Communist era, the damaged structure became again a prayer house for the much-diminished Jewish community. Its restoration and renovation started in 1991, financed by the state and by private donations, and was completed in 1998.
On the way to the Basilica, we stopped at a small bistro for some lunch. The waitress to me the goulash was almost as good as her grandma’s, hence I had my first bowl of real Hungarian goulash. It was delicious and filling, although Hungarian goulash does not have pasta like I was used to in the States. On to St. Stephen’s where we would part ways and exchange our, “until next times” because with this group it’s not goodbye. They were setting sail later that evening and I was having dinner with friends I hadn’t yet met.
As I said earlier in this post, which has been turned into a small novel, I would be bringing up others from my past along with a new cast of characters, Rosa and Maria being just two of those. Not long after I posted on Facebook that I would be going to Budapest (no comments Mark, I know your opinion of Facebook), I received a message from a woman I had met at a wine tasting in my hometown. Pamela was in Warren temporarily as CFO (I hope that’s right) of our local hospital. Other than a few times at wine tastings, we didn’t see each other around town, and she eventually moved back to Arkansas when her time at the hospital ended. When I moved to Paris, she came and spent the week between Christmas and New Year’s along with her friend Patty. See what I mean by saying see you next time and not goodbye. So, back to Budapest. Pam messaged me that her husband’s brother and his wife lived in Budapest. She even set up a group chat so we could exchange plans. Being a holiday weekend, Matt and Erzsi were mostly busy with family plans, but graciously made time to take me to dinner on Tuesday evening and then an evening tour of the city. We had a lovely evening at Rosenstein. Rosenstein is a well-known restaurant in Budapest serving traditional Hungarian and Hungarian-Jewish dishes. Tibor Rosenstein, currently eighty, started this family-run operation which is located a bit outside the city center and is currently helmed by his son Róbert.
What a lovely evening. I had an amazing wild garlic soup and veal paprika with spaetzle along with red wine. The best part of the evening is passing time chatting with people you just met, yet it feels like you have known them forever. I know I overuse this quote by William Butler Yeats, but it is so true…”There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met.” After dinner, we took a ride to the Buda side and up the hill to the Citadella which is the fortification located upon the top of Gellért Hill and offers amazing views of the city. It was glorious at night. Afterward, they dropped me at my flat and I turned in because I had early classes to teach in the morning before I checked out.
Over the weekend, I also received a message from another friend in Warren, Marty. His cousin also lives in Budapest. Unfortunately, our schedules didn’t match up because of conflicts for both of us. Naturally, I said, “Well, maybe next time.” There just may be a next time, Budapest is a one-hour flight from Warsaw, and I didn’t get to explore the Buda side of the city and I completely forgot about something my friend in Warsaw, Pawel, told me. Did you know?
The Budapest Metro is the world’s oldest electrified underground railway system, and the second oldest underground railway system with multiple stations, after the originally steam-powered London Underground. Budapest’s iconic Line 1 was completed in 1896. I am so fascinated by trams, I completely forgot that he told me to ride the metro. Even worse, he told me more than once. I did, however, photograph a couple metro station entrances for whatever reason.
It was a fabulous six days in a beautiful city with amazing architecture and history. I met up with old friends and made new ones. I am reminded of a quote from Brooke Hampton that my friend Andree sent me, “I am pieces of all the places I have been, and the people I have loved. I’ve been stitched together by song lyrics, book quotes, adventure, late-night conversations, moonlight, and the smell of coffee.”
Life is good and I am blessed…thanks Pamela I took that from you. Peace out!