Sunday, August 17, 2014

Hungary for some sightseeing

W!ZZ Air is Hungary's answer to Ryanair, EasyJet, FlyDubai, and any number of other budget, no-frills airlines. Checked bags are extra. Hand luggage that goes in the overhead bin is extra. Guaranteeing an empty seat (the middle one in a row of three) is extra. Food and drink on board is extra, although tins of Heineken still cost half what they charge in the airport bar. The seats don't recline, and Wizz flies in and out of Dubai's other airport, DWC. This is a bit of a trek from Mirdif, but the airport is huge and very quiet.

Beloved Wife had booked her trip to Budapest months ago when flights were 50p, and she pointed out that as the airport transfers by taxi and the hotel room would cost the same for one or two pax, would I like to dredge up the airfare and come along? I'd never been to Hungary, so I checked flights and discovered that I could get on the same outbound flight as Beloved Wife - although Priority Boarding and Guaranteed Empty Adjacent seat were not available. As it happened, I was one of the last to board, so I sought Beloved Wife
in her aisle seat and asked for the window seat. Hey presto! Empty seat between us. By good fortune, a similar thing happened on my return flight.

Having arrived at BUD, we awaited Beloved Wife's loud orange bag, and then took a €30 taxi ride into town and the five-star Corinthia hotel - formerly the Grand Hotel Royal - and grabbed forty winks before the sightseeing started.

The First Day

After an alfreso breakfast in a street café, we headed into town, looking at the late 19th and early 20th century architecture. Caryatids and Atlantes are everywhere. At the Opera House, one of the statues was of a sphinx, apparently doing a very feline thing.

Sphinx: playing with a ball of wool?

Then we encountered St Stephen's Basilica, a late 19th century church. We went inside, and I realised that I'd never seen a real Holy Relic before. It's the mummified right hand of the eponymous St Stephen (d. 15th Aug 1038; Canonised 15th Aug 1083) who founded the State.

St Stephen's Basilica exterior. Stern-looking saints.
Main entrance to St Stephen's.
Reliquary. Flash photography forbidden,
so you gotta put cash in the slot
to fire up the lights to make photography possible.
We paid to go up the lift into the dome, from where there are some excellent views.

View to the west, towards Buda from Pest 

Parliament building rather out-Gothics the one in London.
Under the dome.
I took the spiral staircase back down to ground level. There are so many spiral staircases in Budapest!

Here's just one of them.
We noted that there was to be an organ recital at 5pm, so we headed off to the tourist shops, mindful of the need to be back for Bach.

Busker 1
Busker 2

There were several buskers out and about, displaying varying levels of competence. These two were pretty good. Very popular items for sale were silly hats, plus traditional Hungarian embroidery and the inevitable "My [insert relative] went to Budapest and bought me this T-shirt". Oh, and this:

Smoking dragon.
We eventually found our way right down to the Danube, which was fast-flowing but nowhere near as blue as Johann Strauss would have us believe.

An der schönen braunen Donau
Back to St Stephen's for the organ recital, and then we went in search of food and then back to the hotel for sleep.

The Second Day

St Matthias and Fisherman's Bastion.
Beloved Wife and I emerged from the arms of Morpheus eventually and, after a streetside breakfast of Hungarian omelettes we headed over the Chain Bridge and up the funicular railway to Buda Palace.

It seems that lovers swear their undying allegiance
by clapping a padlock on to the Chain Bridge

Funicular railway and (unnamed) tunnel
(although the Adam Clark Tunnel after its designer might be appropriate).
We arrived just in time for the Changing of the Guard, which we stopped and watched, and then went over to St Matthias' Cathedral and Fisherman's Bastion, from where excellent views were to be had.

What a glorious nation!
St Matthias' roof.
View of the Parliament building from Fisherman's Bastion.
According to Beloved Wife's guidebook, the oldest extant cake shop in Hungary was nearby. It was too: just down the road about 50m.

It was also Beer o'clock.
I foolishly chose to ignore the advice to catch a bus and then a tram to get to Margaret's Island, and we ended up walking around 2.6km down some very steep, uneven cobbled streets until we found the bridge. The island is basically a park, where locals and tourists alike go to get away from the noise and smells of the city. There are bicycles and electric golf buggies to rent by the hour, there's a dancing fountain, there's candy-floss and other junk food for sale, and there's a thermal bath complex. This last one was what we were aiming for, heedless of the fact that it was a further 1.5km walk up the island.

Dancing fountains on Margaret's island.
Bikes for rent.
The Palatinus pool complex has various pools at a selection of temperatures and depths, with fountains and air bubbles. And picnic areas on the grass under the trees, and food and beverage outlets. I went down all the water flumes, including an extra steep one that delivers the participant into the bottom pool at about 30km/h, briefly doubling the number of my tonsils...

A slightly unusual, although perfectly decent thing from my point of view was the unisex changing rooms. You change in a private cubicle and then put your outdoor stuff in a locker, but there's no separate Ladies and Gents.

Having walked "bloody miles," we attempted to get a tram back to the hotel, only to discover that we had to pre-purchase tickets at a main station. So we walked back, stopping halfway at an Italian restaurant near the main railway station.

By the time we got back to the hotel, "bloody miles" turned out to be over 10km on Shanks' Pony, plus another 400m of breast stroke. Quite a lot really, but it probably burned off the beer and cake.

The Third Day

After breakfast at our new favourite café, we bought a book of ten tickets at the metro station by the opera house. Beloved Wife decreed that we should visit a shopping mall so that she could pick up some comfortable shoes that are inexplicably Not Coming In Dubai™. We rode the metro to the end of the line; she bought shoes. "Ooh, these are comfy. I'll take three pairs."

Opera metro station.
Now back into town and the Hungarian National Museum.

Roman tombstones.
Elsewhere in the museum, a "No Photos" rule was being strictly enforced by armed Bottom Inspectors, so I wasn't able to take very many, and I didn't use flash. It irked me that I should have bought a photography permit, but when we paid our admissions, I was told that the permit wasn't necessary.

Overly ornate meerschaum pipe.
Armour plating.

Having finished with the museum, we went back to the basement to recover our left luggage comprising a bag full of ladies' shoes, and then there was an enormous clap of thunder and the heavens opened. Beloved Wife had an umbrella; I had my hat. But there was nothing for it but to sit in the café and drink wine at €0.50 a glass and wait for the rain to ease off.

Budapest in the rain.
When it failed to stop, we headed off into the rain, and were actually fairly damp by the time we got to the Hard Rock Café and decided that enough was enough and we needed dryness and food.

Picture disc: Warren Zevon - Werewolves of London
I'm told that the (obviously heavy metal) sheet music
welded on to this railing is by KISS.

The Fourth Day

Another bath? Aren't we clean enough?

Apparently not. This time we took the metro to the Szechenyi Spa, a huge complex of indoor and outdoor baths, steam rooms, and saunas in a gloriously neoclassical building.

The outdoor baths.
Care was necessary. Some of the tubs were at 36°C or more; others were at a gonad-shrivelling 16°C. Great fun was to be had in a couple of the pools where water was delivered in jets to cause the entire pool volume to rotate, dragging the bathers with it in a circular drift dive.

Having spent enough time here to dissolve, Beloved Wife and I wandered around the park.

Vajdahunyad castle and moat.
Vajdahunyad castle.
There was still more to see and do, so after a beer, we boarded the metro and headed back into town and the market hall at Vamhaz Square.

Market exterior.
They love their ornate roof tiles, don't they?
Market interior. Regrettably, all these hats were too small.
It wasn't only Communist-era hats for sale. Beloved Wife purchased a handbag and some candied fruit. Not from the same shop, obviously; this isn't Dragon Mart.

As we were both by now getting the munchies, we crossed Liberty Bridge into Buda, and found a small traditional Hungarian restaurant next to the dead-posh Gellert Hotel. Beloved Wife informs me that the Gellert was typically cheaper than the Corinthia, but that when she checked, they only had single rooms; grotty concrete boxes around the back, and no opulent rooms as per the brochure.

Over the Liberty Bridge.
The restaurant was deserted when we arrived, but soon became filled with a coachload of German tourists. There was traditional live music laid on, presumably for these tourists. The musical trio was nonplussed to discover that when we got up to leave, the Germans were rather more interested in my kilt.

Yes, I've been wearing my Utilikilt around Budapest every day, and why not? It has deep, pickpocket-resistant pockets.

It was too late to go into the main synagogue by the time we got back to the city centre, so I had to satisfy myself with exterior photos followed by an early-evening walk through the Jewish quarter back to the hotel.


The Fifth Day

That was the lot, really. We went out to breakfast, and then returned to the Corinthia for our luggage and a taxi to the airport. I flew to Dubai, while Beloved Wife headed off two hours later for a girls-only week in Amsterdam.

As I didn't have any checked bags, it took the grand total of ten minutes from touchdown at DWC to hailing a taxi. I was even home at a civilised hour, and Luna the cat was pleased to see me back.


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