Budapest is a big city. You know that immediately upon waking up in your Viking longboat. Viking docks right in the midst of the city, on the Pest side. Trams, buses and traffic surge along the busy street lining the Danube, alongside the Atla. Our stateroom, on the starboard side of the ship, gave us an early morning view of the city’s bustle (this is your warning to close your room’s drapes before you head to bed when docking in Budapest).
Breakfast was the final “regular” one of the cruise. Tomorrow’s would be similar food but the mood entirely different, with many passengers already off the ship and heading for the airport and crew members flitting up and down hallways carrying outbound luggage while other crew would be prepping the ship for the new passengers to arrive.
We enjoyed the breakfast (I asked for French toast, made with walnuts grilled into the crusty goodness–yummy!) and then headed back to our room to prepare for our last Viking tour. Mom and I had chosen to do one of the “Up Close” tours in Budapest. These feature more walking and typically use the city’s transportation to get around, not the usual Viking-provided buses. You don’t “see” as much of the city with an “Up Close” tour but you get the opportunity to experience more of it, I think. Since Mom and I would be staying a few extra days in Budapest, I thought it would be good to try some of the public transportation: we’d have plenty of time to travel outward later.
Mom is always one of the first to get where she’s supposed to be; I’m a bit of a latecomer. When I met up with the “Up Close” tour group standing on the edge of the Danube, just off the Atla’s entryway, though, I didn’t see Mom. Hmmmm….
Three Viking buses rumbled in rest nearby, passengers climbing up the steps to start the standard tour. I stepped up into the first one and eyed those sitting inside (isn’t it neat how in just two weeks’ time you’ve learned who these other 180+ passengers are?). I quickly scanned each seat to the back. Someone in front spoke up: “What do you need, Tonya?” “I’m looking for my mom,” I explained. “Maxine’s not here,” someone said. “Try the next bus.”
I did just that. This time many of the passengers laughed when I said I was looking for Mom. “She’s a hard one to pin down, your mum is,” someone said. Indeed; Mom had enjoyed the whole cruise and made friends with everyone quickly. Between her “Let’s do it!” attitude—and her enthusiasm for dancing nightly in the lounge—she was known by all the passengers it seemed.
I headed to the third bus. There she was, patting the empty seat beside her. “Come on, Honey,” she smiled. “You’re almost too late for the tour.” “But we’re not on this tour, Mom, we’re doing the walking tour.”
She laughed as she quickly headed down the aisle and outside. “Bye, everyone,” she called out. “We’ll see you later!”
If only I can have that enthusiasm when I’m Mom’s age!
Our tour began with a walk across the Danube on the Chain Bridge, just beside where the Atla was docked. The bridge is busy, one of the few spanning the Danube carrying pedestrians and vehicles from the Pest to the Buda side and back. We ambled across it, listening to the guide as she shared tidbits of Hungarian history and culture. The bridge ends at the foot of the Buda side, with the castle towering above us. While it’s a bit of a vertical hike up to the top, we didn’t have to take it; instead we received tickets for the three-car funicular and rode to the top, watching the city spread out below us as the cables drew us upward.
Up top we explored what’s known as the “Castle District.” We walked past the Buda Castle and government buildings (watch for the still-faced sentries at the Presidential Palace), museums, Fisherman’s Bastion with its conical towers, the St. Matthias Church and small shops. We also saw the Hilton, where we were booked for two nights on the Viking Budapest “extension” tour; it’s just beside the Fisherman’s Bastion and promised to have outstanding views.
An aside: When we booked this trip, we had no idea of the significance of our final days in Budapest. It turns out that Wednesday, Aug. 20 is considered one of Hungary’s most important patriotic holiday; it’s Constitution Day as well as Saint Stephen’s Day (commemorating the foundation of the Hungarian state as well as the country’s first Christian king, Saint Stephen). As a result, the city on both sides of the Danube was swamped with people celebrating the whole time we were in Budapest. A special mass at the cathedral, a 30-minute, choreographed fireworks show along the Danube, a folk craft festival and street fairs were common. As a result, our visit to Budapest may not be typical of others who don’t see the city during this holiday.
The celebrating—and plans for the next day’s fireworks show—meant that the bus schedule was quite different than what our tour guide anticipated. While she was accustomed to catching a certain bus from the Castle District down to Pest, it seemed that bus line was not runnning where she’dnnnn planned, nor did it have a stop where we were standing. We stood in the clear sunshine, though, while she figured it out, and we watched the people around us. The Hungarian language doesn’t sound like any languages we’d heard so far—the closest is Slovakian. As people swirled around us, heading for their own celebrations, we were enveloped in unaccustomed combinations of vowels and consonants. It felt very “foreign” to me.
We boarded a bus finally and rode it down to Pest. Warning: Just climb on the bus, no one asks for your bus ticket. But as soon as you board, look for one of the validating machines located on posts inside the bus. Insert your paper ticket and do whatever it takes to “punch” your ticket (sometimes it’s a whack on the top, sometimes it involves spinning a dial). But do make sure your validate that ticket or else, if you’re stopped by someone asking for your ticket, you’ll be fined. Since none of us were too fluent in Hungarian, we definitely didn’t want that happening so there was a lot of concern to try to figure out the punching machines as the bus wended its way through the streets.
We got off in the midst of Pest and wandered the streets looking at the Royal Palace and castle buildings and hearing more history from our guide. Eventually we found ourselves on Vaci utca, well known as a pedestrian walkway with shops, cafes and restaurants. I spotted an ATM and, with a few other passengers as well as Lucia, our concierge, we stopped to slide our cards and extract Hungarian forints (abbreviated as “HUF” in price tags). Hungary doesn’t use euros; our guide said that, with the state of the Hungarian economy, people were afraid that converting to a euro-based system would cause a dramatic rise in prices, so they stuck with forints. Fine and well, but after getting accustomed to euros and not needing to “convert” prices after that adjustment, we were back to square one with a new monetary system. And there are so many forints to translate!
While we were there, one US dollar equaled about 244 HUF. That meant lots of zeroes and numbers in the “thousands” on price tags. Somehow it was just a bit intimidating to be considering purchasing something for almost 5,000 HUF, even though it was only a bit over $20. Hungary was the only country in which I carried my iPhone with the app, Currency (used “offline”), to help me convert prices. I think it was just the idea of those numbers being so high. FWIW, one passenger on our ship, later in the day, pulled out what he thought was about $100 USD worth of HUF but instead was ten times that (244,000!). Oops. He converted it back, paying $12 for the privilege.
Our goal for the morning’s walk was Budapest’s Great Market Hall, a huge, three-level building with a bit of everything for sale. Wild game, meat, pickles (and not just the cucumber kind) and fish are in the basement. The street level floor has produce, spices (don’t miss the paprika), candies and caviar. Up top are souvenirs and places to eat, including one selling the Hungarian deep-fried treat, langos. Our tour guide gave us more than an hour here on our own to wander, shop and take photos. Watch your wallet here: it can be really congested, especially at the stairways, and it’d be easy to be a theft victim and not even realize it. Also, try to time things so you don’t have to use the (paid, of course) restrooms inside: pretty dirty.
Passengers had the option of staying in this part of the city on their own or traveling back to the dockside with the tour guide via one of the public trams. We opted to head back and refresh ourselves a bit before heading out on our own that afternoon. On this itinerary, you have an entire day in Budapest (since the cruise ends the next morning and you’re already docked). Our “Up Close” tour gave us a great introduction to places we wanted to return to later.