Budapest; Free laundry; Chilling out; Rattly trams; Buda Castle and lots of statues; Counting spikes; Buda vs. Pest; Grocery difficulties... again; Kittens and hedgehogs; Up Gellért and back down again; Pálvölgy Cave and a very frustrating tour; Strolling down the Danube in the rain; Sheryl goes to the thermal baths and I don't

I’d thought our day of exhausted relaxation in Vienna had been enough, but Budapest proved me wrong. Granted, we did have lots of laundry to do the first morning, but still, we didn’t get moving until after noon. We headed back to Kelenföld station to take the number 19 tram downtown, the hostel being far out of the centre. Budapest’s ticketing system proved interesting. They have single tickets and transfer tickets like Prague, but transfer tickets are really nothing more than double-use tickets, because you can only use them twice. Each vehicle you board, you’re required to validate a ticket. For anything complicated, you can end up using 4 tickets just to get across town. It’s 270 Hungarian Forints (about CAD$1.70) per single ticket and 420HUF for a transfer ticket. This makes Budapest’s the most expensive public transit system we’ve seen so far - as expensive or more than the TTC, in fact. The tickets themselves were an adventure, too. Getting them was difficult enough, as almost no one in Hungary speaks any English. Once we had them and boarded the tram, though, we couldn’t figure out how to validate them. It was clear which end of the ticket to put into the machine - the end with the blank space to print the time on. There was an arrow on the machine pointing down and toward us, and it was clear too that this meant ‘insert ticket here’. But after fumbling with the stupid thing for ages, we couldn’t get it to print on the ticket. No matter how we put the ticket in, nothing happened. Finally the driver came over and showed us how it was done. You insert the end with the grid of numbers into the machine, then pull a chunk of plastic toward you (hence the arrow) which punches the ticket. We felt pretty stupid, but in our defense the machine was a perfect example of bad industrial design and usability - there was no indication of which bit ought to move (no ‘affordances’ in usability terms).

We rode the number 19 into the town centre and got off at the end of the line. Random wandering brought us up the hill to Buda Castle, an imposing domed building with a lot of statues and a museum, which we didn’t bother with. Likewise the National Gallery, which had an exhibition on Laszlo Moholy-Nagy. We ducked around the back of the castle through a tunnel (there were no barricades or signs forbidding entry, and that’s always been good enough for me). Behind the castle there were no tourists, and there was a small walkway which, upon investigation, proved to lead to a narrow balcony circumnavigating the building halfway up. From there we could look out onto the Danube River and its nine bridgers linking the cities of Buda and Pest. The contrast in landscape was arresting - Buda is all steep hills, and Pest is a flat plain. The river loops at the edge of Buda’s hills and was high enough in its banks that I imagine flooding is common in Pest. The embankments on both sides were lined with long, flat cruise boats like horizontal hotels. Sheryl said they spend a week or two cruising up and down the river, stopping in a different town every day. It sounded like a relaxing, zero-pressure way to travel, but I’ll save it for when I’m older.

Coming down from the balcony we noticed a small red ‘x’ painted on the wall. It turned out to be the Roman numeral 10, since right beside it were IX and XI. It was marking the position of a metal spike fixed into the wall, of no immediately clear purpose. It intrigued us enough to follow, though, and so we wound around the walls and up and down stone stairways counting spikes. We got up to XXX at the end, which was at an iron gate in a stone doorway, with the number 16 fashioned into the metal of the bars and latch. It may all have some cosmic significance, but if so, it escapes me.

Walking around the castle grounds, we noticed that the wrought-iron fence had a big gap in it at the bottom at one point, and there were some intriguing looking buildings beyond. I tried to duck under the fence, but there was a small landslide and my foot slipped out from under me. I had to grab upwards for the bottom of the fence in a hurry to stop myself from sliding into a pile of dead trees. My feet couldn’t get any purchase on the loose dirt, and so I had to haul myself up the fence hand over hand. At some point during the exercise I pulled a muscle in my chet - I didn’t feel it at the time, but it’s been causing a lot of pain for a few days tnow. Once I’d inched slowly to safety, we walked five meters down the fence and climbed over it like normal people. Behind it there was an old terrace with some monumental buildings, which had fallen into disrepair. There didn’t seem to be any easy way in, and neither of us were in the mood for a full-on urban-exploration-style strenuous entry, so we contented ourselves with a couple of exterior shots. There was no way out, the stairs down to the street being boarded up tightly, so we jumped back over the fence.

Back at the bottom of the hill, we decided it was high time to see about findeing groceries, since otherwise we had nothing to eat. Our book said that there were plenty of supermarkets in Pest, and so we headed for the Chain Bridge to cross over. The Chain Bridge is a pedestrian-only bridge cum marketplace, filled with stall selling overpriced tourist crap, and clogged with the tourists themselves. You’d think I would have learned to avoid pedestrian bridges after the Charles Bridge in Prague, but it was the closest way to cross to Pest. At the far end was a food stall, and the smells of cooking food made our mouths water and our stomachs ache, and we realized just how long it had been since we’d eaten. The made the search for food more urgent, but after the third closed supermarket we began to see the pattern. It was a Saturday evening and everything had closed at 2 that afternoon - and everything was closed on Sundays in Budapest, too. This was a bit of a problem. It took us ages to find anywhere to sell us food, and when we did it was an expensive 24-hour corner market. Relieved and yet unhappy at the price, we retreated across the Erszébet bridge and walked to the stop to catch the number 19 tram back to the hotel. As we were walking to the tram stop, Sheryl poked me and pointed up ahead - she’d seen a cat-shaped blur. There was a small green space behind a fence near the Gellért Baths, and there were four semi-feral kittens hanging around - three tabbies and a black kitten, all around four months old. As we were trying to get them to play with us (I never learn) we saw something else moving - a hedgehog! There were three or four of them as well, eating the kibble someone had left out for the kittens. The cats themselves didn’t seem to mind or even really to notice them much - they must have grown up around the hedgehogs. It was a funny, cute little scene. It made us miss our tram but we considered it a fair exchange.

We stayed around the hostel all the next day, since we both needed rest and it was Sunday anyway. My chest was in a lot of pain, and I had trouble moving it in certain ways. Every so often I’d move the wrong way and it would take my breath away. Rolling over in bed was no fun either. You don’t realize just how many other muscles are connected to that one until it’s hurt.

Our original plan had been to spend a couple of days in Budapest, but soon after we’d arrived we’d seen a pamphlet for a cave tour. Budapest is known for its hot springs, and all that geothermal activity has resulted in a network of caves under the city. Not yet having had enough of caves, we jumped at the chance. There was a three-hour English tour available, but only on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, so that necessitated staying for Monday night as well. We rested in the morning and set out for the meeting point for the tour around 2, which left us almost 2 hours to get there. Alas, the directions we got from the hostel were a bit garbled, so the bus we took didn’t help us. Stranded in south Buda, we tried to find a way on public transit to north Pest, across the river. The bus driver told us, laboriously in sign language and the three or four words of Hungarian I knew, to take the number 4 tram. This we did, getting mildly concerned about the time. An old lady helped us out with the number 4, and soon it took us in a wide counterclockwise half-circle, which nevertheless got us to Nyugati station (our meeting place) with ten minutes to spare.

We needn’t have worried, in the end - the guide was ten minutes late, then had to give his spiel, then had to sort out bus tickets for those missing them, then he had to make a phone call, and then we had to wait for the bus. It took easily an hour before we were under way. After the change of bus, the stop for drinks and snacks, and the ride in the second bus, I was steaming. The whole ‘meeting point’ thing had irritated me anyway - it would have been far easier and cheaper for us to meet at the cave, no to mention less annoying. It was nearly 6pm by the time we finally got to the cave. Suiting up in our coveralls and helmets, we all waited, overheating, for half an hour before the guide finally came to collect us and lead us into the cave. He’d been a real sourpuss until then, but at least warmed up a little once he’d started the tour. We were doing the cave backwards from the usual, since the group was big enough to be split in two. Our group contained a French family - a mother and son who were surprising the other son with the tour - and unfortunately, the mother wasn’t really up to the physical demands of the tour. It was a fairly tough cave actually - there were two very tight twist-and-squeeze sections and one spot where you had to support yourself on one hand while arching your spine backwards and breathing out to squeeze through. She was a large-framed woman, and got stuck in the first tight spot. She started to panic and lost her English, as you would, and then had a small panic attack. Her son had to talk her down and translate the guide’s instructions. She’d been the first one in, so all the rest of us on the tour were glancing at each other in trepidation, wondering what we’d gotten into. Full kudos to the French lady, though - she got through that tight spot and the ones that followed, and never complained - though she did look a little grey at the end.

I myself didn’t do so well. Between my pulled chest muscle and the clumsiness of my camera, I had a hard time with a few of the tight tunnels. Sheryl got told by the guide that she went through like a real caver, though. I wish I hadn’t brought the camera - there was nothing to take pictures of. No formations or really any interesting rock shapes. To be honest, the whole tour kind of disappointed me. It was just a muddy two-hour scramble underground. I think it was shortened because of the older lady, too. It was fun, and I always love being underground, but I’d have enjoyed it more if it had been better organized, if there had been something interesting to see, and if I’d been in less pain. I did see a couple of small gypsum flowers, though, which I’d never seen before.

Leaving the cave, we saw that it had been raining while we were below ground. Indeed, a downpour started as we ran for the bus, but sopped as we got off. The bus let us off in the north end of Buda, so we decided, instead of another long and complicated series of transit connections, that we’d just walk south along the Danube until we got to Batthyány ter, the final stop for the tram which would take us back to the hostel. It was a lovely walk throught a warm, moist evening, and the lights on the Chain Bridge and the Hungarian parliament building came on to guide us. At least, it was nice until it started raining on us. We walked the last 20 minutes in the driving rain, and had just dried out when the time came to get off and walk to the hostel. We knew that tea and a good dinner were waiting for us, though, and that kept us going. Late though it was, we cooked a big dinner with chicken and salad, and talked to a nice couple from Seattle for the rest of the evening. They were very impressed with our culinary efforts, but we hastily demurred and filled them in on our normal dietary habits, lest they get the wrong idea about us.

The next day was another rest day for me, since my chest was again in a lot of pain after the cave tour, and a bad headache had settled in as well. I spent the time working a bit on the sites and researching Romania, our next destination. Sheryl had invited me to go along with her to one of Budapest’s thermal baths, and it probably would have done me some good, but I just didn’t think I’d enjoy it enough to justify the price tag (2200HUF, about CAD$14). I’m all for a good hot bath, and I can spend a long time in one if I have a book - but that’s a lot of money. Plus, call me a prude if you like, but I’m not too keen on the idea of bathing in a huge room full of people. Sheryl enjoyed herself immensely, though - she had a long soak and a massage, both of which she needed badly.


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One Comment on this Dispatch:

August 13th, 2008

Hey you

Be careful with that injury (just like you always tell me)…hope you heal up quick and look after yourself.

¬ Nicola
Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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