Saturday, August 25, 2007

Buda Buda Buda Buda Shakin’ Everywhere

What do you think about when someone mentions the city Budapest? What about Hungary? For me, these two places brought to mind goulash (customary Hungarian fare) and Attila the Hun (blood-thirsty conqueror who lived around 500 AD and may have ridden elephants). Notice how I always think about the food first?

Anyway, my trip to Budapest was my first foray into the former Soviet Bloc, where people used to spend most of their day standing in line for rations. That being said, I was a bit nervous about visiting Budapest. My friend, the lovely Miss Lisa-Kim, was working in Budapest during my trip to Paris, so my friend Erin and I planned to visit her while getting in some sight-seeing. What a brilliant plan!

Being the planner that she is, Erin quickly found two tours we got excited about: a bike tour of Budapest (because who doesn’t like bike tours? They are the best kind!) and a night tour
that took visitors to illuminated sights, talked about vampire lore, and gave out wine at the end! Plus, we were going to catch up with Lisa-Kim, one of our favorite people. It looked to be a very busy and fun weekend.

Unfortunately the weather had other plans in mind. On the day we left Paris it was raining delaying our flight by four hours. We ended up taking off at 11 p.m. on a little plane with propellers and only 15 rows of seats (I kid you not). When was the last time you took a plane with propellers?! To top it off, flight was turbulent from start to finish, making it difficult to sleep, read a magazine, or do anything besides grip your armrest. I felt lucky to still be in one piece after we landed.

The arrival process was fairly simple – customs was fast, restrooms were easily found, and there was an ATM! Hungary hasn’t been admitted as part of the European Union yet, so we needed Forints (HUF for short) to get around. We followed Lisa-Kim’s advice and followed signs to Zona taxi. (Side note: you are planning to visit an eastern European destination sometime in the future, please be aware that taxis are notorious for ripping off tourists. You should definitely contact your hotel and/or spend some time investigating reputable taxi companies. You don’t want to be doing this at the airport at 1 a.m. I don’t remember how much it the fare cost but it was a flat rate to the city, posted on the Zona taxi signs.) We rode in a Mercedes sedan… with a driver we were convinced was trying to kill us. I did mention that it was raining that night, right? Apparently Mr. Taxi Driver did not notice, because he stepped on that accelerator like this foot was made out of brick and took the turns like a Formula One driver at 60 mph. I put on my seat belt as fast as I could and made my peace with God. Thankfully, the scariest ride of my life ended after 20 minutes. Apparently taxi drivers drive this way so that they can catch another fare back at the airport.

After the taxi ride from hell, we pulled up to the very posh Le Meridien Budapest and met the hotel clerk, Attila (it turns a lot of men in Hungary are named Attila). That picture to the right was my room. In addition to the high ceilings and huge desk, the bathroom had heated marble floors – oh my! After a long night of traveling and almost losing my life to an overzealous taxi driver, the heated marble floor and a bathtub so large it almost required a lifeguard, really perked me up. I think I may have shed a few tears while taking a bath – business travel accommodations are so awesome!

Like I said, Erin and I had high hopes for Saturday but the rain remained. The rain stayed throughout the weekend, with intermittent showers and bouts of thunder and lighting at night, which was fun (but not really). Normally Budapest has nice weather this time of year but we picked a bad weekend to visit weather-wise.

Our friend Lisa-Kim came to visit us on Saturday morning, and after our reunion and gift exchange (she gave me a Hello Kitty keychain from Coach, hello I love this woman!) we set off on exploring the city, overcast skies be damned. At this point we decided to hang out with Lisa-Kim instead of taking the bike tour; we didn’t want to get caught in the rain while riding a bike.

From our hotel we walked to the area known as Castle Hill. Budapest is actually comprised of two main areas separated by the Danube River. The first is Buda, where Castle Hill is located, and the other is, you guessed it, Pest (pronounced Pesch), where the commercial part of the city is located. I think Buda was where the aristocrats lived and Pest was where all the traders/peasants lived back in the day. I did not have an official tour guide on this trip so I really couldn’t tell you. I did, however, have Lisa-Kim who knew all the good places to eat, which was even better. Anyway, to go to Castle Hill you need to cross one of the most famous sights in town called the Chain Bridge (yes, that is Erin at 6'1" and me, the Hobbit, at 5'3"). It’s even more spectacular at night when the lights are on.

Once we reached Castle Hill we took the funicular, which is a cross between an elevator and a cable car used for steep slopes, up to Buda Castle. Once there, we explored the castle’s courtyard, wandered through a marketplace where I bought a hand-made sweater for Vivi, and explored the area surrounding the castle. That was where I met Attila and his falcon. For 1,000 Forints you could take pictures with this gorgeous specimen of a man and his bird. Isn’t he dreamy? I love a man in two-tone tights and dreadlocks.

The lovely Lisa-Kim and Erin inside the funicular.

Castle Hill garden

My boyfriend Attila and his little pet

Me and Lisa-Kim

After our jaunt through Castle Hill, we went window shopping and found the same necklace a very chic French girl at the office owns that Erin and I had been admiring. Since she lived in Paris and all, we didn't think she'd mind if we copied her style, and it was $20 well-spent. I get compliments on this necklace every time I wear it. I wore it the very next day since I liked it so much; you can see me wearing it at the picture below in front of St. Stephen’s Basilica.

Exhausted after our day at Castle Hill and window shopping, the ladies and I went out for dinner at a quaint restaurant whose name I can’t remember. What I do remember is ordering goulash (Hungarian beef stew), which was delicious, and red wine, which was exquisite. It was the perfect meal after a day of walking around and seeing the sights.

It rained on our way back to the hotel so Erin and I called it a night and made plans to have brunch with Lisa-Kim the next day (again with the food!). That night the trinity came: thunder, lightning, and their sister, rain. I watched them from my cozy hotel room as I caught up on my e-mails and settled in for the night. Sometimes it is good to have some down time.

The next day we met Lisa-Kim and Cristiano (whom we also met in London) for brunch. Did I mention how posh our hotel was? Apparently, it is the place to have Sunday brunch, and it did not disappoint. Over the course of two and a half hours, the four of us had three full courses plus dessert, not to mention all the Bellinis we could drink (it was a buffet) – pure heaven. After we were done, we managed to waddle out of the restaurant to see St. Stephen’s Basilica. This church was named in honor of Stephen, the first king of Hungary, whose mummified remains are housed in the church. It is the tallest building in Budapest and was completed in
1905 after 54 years of construction because of the dome’s collapse in 1868. It was very large and ornate inside, and it was humbling standing in the presence of such a beautiful church.

St. Stephen interior

Cupola at St. Stephen

In front of St. Stephen's - notice how my new necklace compliments the yellow shirt

Our last activity in Budapest was visiting a fancy wine store for souvenirs; a lot of the other shops were closed on Sunday. I bought two red wines and Hungarian liqueur called Unicum. Unicum is made from black licorice and is very strong, but Rene and I haven’t tried it yet; we love the packaging and are still waiting for the perfect occassion to drink it. For now, it sits atop our fridge, waiting for the day it will be poured into a glass.

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