Note: This is the “on our own” account of what we did post-cruise in Budapest. For tips and info on the Budapest experience as part of the Viking cruise see: Viking with Budapest and my account of a night-time arrival in Budapest on Viking (you won’t need the nighttime “see the lights” extra excursion).
I’m no big-time traveler, but, of all the places I’d been on this trip, Budapest felt the most “foreign” to me.
I think a lot of it might be attributable to the language—both written and spoken. I’ve studied a bit of French and done a teeny bit of German (that’s if the cool DuoLingo app even counts!). I lived in the heartland of Mexico one summer. But none of those languages sound or look like Hungarian. I couldn’t even imagine how to pronounce the the words on street signs in Budapest—those letters simply didn’t “go” together in my language experience. I kept staring at them and trying to sound them out; no success.
So, when Mom and I disembarked from the Atla on our final day and traveled up the Castle hill to the Buda side where we’d be sleeping for two nights, I rather wondered what, in heaven’s name, we’d do for our extra days before heading back home. Not that there wasn’t plenty to see or admire—on both sides of the Danube, Budapest offers a wealth of museums, artwork and architecture. I think I just felt that I didn’t belong there.
Thankfully, with two activity-packed days now behind me, I can tell you that there’s more than enough to keep yourself busy in Budapest. But I never did shake off that “foreign” feel…
Viking River Cruises arranged our post-cruise stay in Budapest and they put us up in the Hilton. Our room, on the fifth floor overlooking the Danube with the Fisherman’s Bastion in the foreground, was quite nice and the view was stupendous. It’s right in the midst of the Castle District and you could easily spend a couple “tourist days” just in this area.
The previous day I’d gone out with Gary and Marla on a “Let’s See What We Can Discover in Pest” tour (devised by Gary). No, he’d never been to Hungary before—at least I don’t think he had—but from previous off-ship adventures, he knew what kind of things Marla and I enjoyed seeing and he had an afternoon planned for us (Mom stayed back on the ship to finish up editing photos and enjoy a bit of quiet time).
We headed across the (very busy!) street from where the Atla was docked and headed into the city center. Some of this I’d seen on our earlier walking tour, but Gary quickly steered us on a different path—toward a multistory Ferris wheel, perched on a pocket of green in the midst of the city. As we meandered toward the attraction, though, we took a bypass through a busy plaza, crowded with revelers—Hungarians as well as tourists.
[As you might recall, we were visiting Budapest in the midst of their most patriotic holiday, hence all the crowds. I can only imagine being in Washington D.C. the week of Fourth of July…]
The plaza we walked through was lined with temporary booths featuring local foods as well as crafts. Hundreds of folks milled around, enjoying the summer sunshine. We sniffed happily at the various meats spitting and sizzling on deep grills which were devouring hefty logs as fuel. This was also the first time we saw the Kürtőskalács which seem to be a great treat in this region. A yeasty sweet dough is mixed up, rolled out into a long strip and then rolled on to a metal cone and grilled atop charcoal. When golden and crusty, the treat is slipped off the metal spit, sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and bundled in a cone-shaped paper package to enjoy. Pull apart the dough and pop pieces into your mouth. Yummy!
Many craftsmen were selling leather and fur goods—including those puffy fur caps for women that just look so very Russian/Eastern European. Of course Marla and I had to try them on. They’re certainly warm and the fur feels so soft—but I can’t really imagine wearing one of them back home. Maybe somebody’d think I was an undercover Russian spy…or a woman with a really bad hair day…
Marla, Gary and I explored around the Pest side that afternoon—climbing up the tower at St. Stephen’s Basilica (named after the first Christian king of Hungary; his right hand is stored in the church’s reliquary and I understand it was going to be brought out and carried around during a special mass the next day; we missed that one, though), riding a really tall Ferris Wheel, seeing lots of statues (‘like the photo of me with President Ronald Reagan?) and even talking with a Ukrainian woman and a Russian woman we met by chance at the statue of Imre Nagy in Martyr’s Square. Nagy, the equivalent of the prime minister for Hungary, stood up against the Soviet takeover in 1956 but it didn’t end well for him. This contemplative statue was quite a backdrop for our discussion with the two women.
Our cruise officially ended the next day (we said our goodbyes to all our new friends) and Mom and I were on our own to explore Budapest. We bought a “HOHO” bus ticket (hop on, hop off) and used it to tour the city on both sides of the river. It was only $24 each and, while we could have covered the same territory in public transport for less, this made it easier to see the sights of Budapest since we could just relax and ride around (and not have to worry about getting those tickets punched on those really balky validation machines on the trains).
We spent much of our time enjoying the biggest “craft” fair I’ve ever even imagined—it’s called the Festival of Folk Arts and it featured items made throughout Eastern Europe. It covered the entire Castle grounds, from river level, snaking around the castle’s walls and up into the top courtyards. What fun things to ogle: I saw the most fetching green leather slippers with toes that turned up (again, not really sure where I’d wear ’em, but they looked like something out of a fairy tale and I really wanted to justify their purchase because I’m absolutely positive that wearing them would make magical things happen in my life), hand-forged knives, traditional painted ceramics, metal crafts and embroidery. No need to watch out for a “Made in China” sticker on these items: Everything is made by the artisans you purchase from. I bought the sweetest little felted and embroidered animals for the grandchildren and we watched folk dances of all sorts.
We ate from one of the grills in the castle’s courtyard; I just pointed at what looked tasty (and a lot of it did—but I passed on the grilled fish, complete with fins and eyeballs) and we sat down at a picnic table to enjoy the spicy fare. With a Coke!
There really were very few people who seemed to speak English here—but a fistful of forints spoke volumes when we wanted to buy things!
And that brings up that “foreign” feeling again that overwhelmed me in Hungary. We were in the midst of pavilions packed with people but I couldn’t understand a single word that was said. It was like passing through a crowd un-noticed—I couldn’t read the signs, I couldn’t understand the language. I felt invisible—as if I was this little American bubble maneuvering through the flood of fairgoers. It was really an odd feeling and a bit unsettling; but we never felt it was “dangerous” in any way.
Rain threatened throughout our Budapest visit and it made good on its threats late on our last afternoon. We dove into a restaurant in the Castle District for dinner, carefully calculating how many forints we had remaining to spend before boarding our flight home the next day. Mom had a noodle/goulash type of meal while I ordered wild boar. The servers (all the servers we saw in Budapest were male) hovered over us with a solemn—and somewhat dark—look on his face as we ate our meal. We enjoyed it anyway.
After packing up that evening, we settled at the window of our room at the Hilton, crossing our fingers that the rain would let up for the much-anticipated annual national fireworks show on the banks of the Danube. And the clouds parted!
Okay, I grew up eight miles from Disneyland and the sound of fireworks exploding was our our Southern California clock at 9:30 pm every evening. But nothing prepared me for the fireworks show unfolding right outside our window. The iconic Fisherman’s Bastion framed the right edge of our view out to the Danube. Workers had spent the previous day positioning the fireworks devices on the Chain Bridge as well as the one north of it. More fireworks were positioned along the river’s banks. Amplified music and the voice of an announcer came through our window as the colors arched over the waterway, over Budapest’s well-lit buildings and into the sky above. Mom and I just looked at each other.
What a glorious finish to our (first? only? hmmm…who knows???) river cruise!