Tuesday, June 07, 2005

The familiar feel of Budapest

Austria's ubiquitous advertisements and billboards (even on St Stephen's) vanished as we hydrofoiled to Budapest, a 4-1/2 hour journey down the Danube. We landed in the Leo Panzio (82 eur). The rooms here are very small, but the furnishings are clean, new, and stylish, and the double-paned window shuts out all but the noisiest sounds from the busy street below. The bed had a huge, well-stuffed pillow perfectly suited to my lazy American head. Its location right over the Ferenciek ter. subway station is super-convenient, too. The only bummer was an odor from the drain, similar to the smell of the hot springs that underlie Budapest, but this was easily fixed by keeping the bathroom door closed. The desk clerk spoke excellent English and was very helpful with directions.

There's a post on one of the travel websites that claims the Leo Panzio converted their Euro price to a Forint-favorable price. Panzio is clearly aware of this claim. The day we checked in, they mentioned the calculation was according to the bank rate. As it happened, the exchange rate was actually better than what I had computed a week earlier.

Budapest looks most like San Francisco, counting bums and dirt. It was imposing at first because we had heard the Hungary discount card was available at the metro stations, but everywhere we asked, clerks would shake their heads and turn away, unwilling or unable to answer any question. We found the card at the tourist information office. It entitles you to all local public transportation, like Vienna's 8-day card, but it also gives you discounts ranging from 10 to 100% on museums, historical sites and other tourist entertainment.

The Hungarian secret police are alive and well, and they're all little old ladies over sixty. Twice (and we were in Hungary only 2-1/2 days) I was trying to eke meaning out of the map when a greying head intruded over my right elbow and talked Hungarian at me. The first time this happened, we were trying to find a cave for a tour. I pointed where I wanted to go. The secret police pointed at the buses, wrote "29" on a piece of paper, and held up 5 fingers to us, eventually getting across that this meant bus #29, and the 5th stop. Then to make absolutely sure, she walked us over to the bus stop and told the driver where we were going. He dropped us off, and pointed the direction to walk. It saved us a huge amount of effort because the cave was far up the hill. Thank you, Budapest.

Visiting the Szechenyi georfurdo baths was great. We soaked, steamed and got massaged amidst Hungarians old, young, skinny and fat. Here they have no self-consciousness about blobs, rolls, and body hair. The mate, who loves the fact that eastern Europe clearly has no fear of hot-water-burn lawsuits, complained that the hottest pool wasn't hot enough and was happiest in the sauna. Afterwards, a half-hour massage drew out the kinks and aches from walking at least five miles per day on marble, cobblestones, and concrete.

At the Budapest train station's information booth, we were forced to confront an bespectacled underwater creature who bobbed like Bill Gates. He spoke French, German and Hungarian, but no English, and while he managed to get across to me (and my lousy French) that the train was at 2 pm, he failed to mention the tickets had to be purchased at a special desk. I suppose if we'd had our eyes and ears a little more open or had asked where to get them, we might have saved ourselves 20 minutes waiting in the wrong line, but one usually expects an information booth to offer information.

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