Oh my Buda (pest)
When I was informed that I had to be in Budapest for a business conference, my mind started working actively. Curiosity beseiged me as I have never been to that part of Europe. And the fact that I did not know anything about Hungary - whether it's a communist country, whether there is a parliamentary democracy,... or whether its going to be warm and sunny or cold and bleak - all these added to my heightened curiosity. Add to that, the fact that my better half was not coming with me (she would otherwise do all the ground work, surf the net, get prepared) made me totally unprepared for the trip.
The day arrived and I was on the flight. Mumbai to Zurich to Budapest. The last leg was eventful. Managed to get hold of an english newspaper called Budapest Sun (which was a weekly edition) on board the Malev flight. That was the starting of a major learning exercise. Malev is the national airline of Hungary and has a code sharing arrangement with Swiss. Anyway, the newspaper was interesting to say the least. The English was mostly trans-literation and I was instantly transported to our stay at Almaty, Kazakhstan. In terms of news content, there was very little. Whatever was, was on the politics of the country and also on how corruption had to be eliminated before it killed the economy etc (So easy to feel at home with Politicians and corruption being the same everywhere)
The paper had numerous advertisements for rental homes and also for restaurants. Looking at the rents (fully furnished 2 bed apmt with ac for 1000 USD a month) gave me an indication that this may not be as expensive as the other European countries. Also, there was a long list of English movies running which was comforting.
Upon landing at the airport, I was in line to clear the customs. The lady at the counter was efficient but stern. Cleared me in no time but no smiles etc. (Vestiges of a bygone communist era!?!). The uniform was sober. The airport was functional with a few duty free shops and a couple of pre-paid taxi stalls. Not a big airport but better than our Indian airports, for sure. Luckily, I had been informed about an airport minibus that would take me to the hotel. Before reaching the minibus counter, I changed some money (Got to touch and feel the Hungarian Florint - roughtly 240 to an Euro and 250 to a USD). The lady at the minibus counter was also incharge of hotel reservations which was convinient. There was a list of hotels with rates displayed and people could book them at the airport.
My turn came and I was informed that a one way trip would cost 1800 Fts. The minibus was more like our matador and we were 6 people who got in. The driver was again efficient but no big smiles or small talk. The drive from the airport to the city was a revelation. Country side with old houses, old Russian Ladas jostling for space with the newer Merc-taxis, Suzukis, Hondas and Nissans . The roads were good - wide and well marked. But drivers were cutting across lines with impunity. Maybe to make me feel at home!
The hotel Hyatt where I was staying is in the center of the city. It is on the banks of river Danube, great location. While checking-in, I requested for a room with a view. Upon entering the room, I felt really great. From the room, I could see the river Danube, the chain bridge and also the palace on the opposite side. Great view. Quickly freshened up and went down to get some lunch. On the way from the airport, I was keenly observing the shops and streets until I saw a "Pizza Hut". From then onwards, my whole concentration was on how to get back to that place from the hotel! So, I had no problems in tracing my path to Pizza Hut. Finished my lunch of veggie lovers and Pepsi. I was refreshed and ready to explore the city (Map in one hand, Camera on the other - loaded with film bought for 900 Fts).
My first stop was the chain bridge. To give a back ground, Budapest is actually 2 distinct districts: Buda which is the old quarters - also referred to as castle district - which is on one side of the Danube and Pest which is on the other side. I thought it was indeed a pest for Buda to have such a hustling, bustling, polluting, noisy city as compared to the serene, leisure, scenic Buda - which looked like it had stopped growing from 1900s. The chain bridge is the most scenic of the 4-5 bridges connecting the two districts at various points.
Walking on the chain bridge, with the great cool breeze blowing due to the Danube, was exhilirating and I went across to the castle district. Not having a proper guide book (actually at the end, I concluded that you don't need one!), I just roamed and followed the hordes of tourists who were everywhere. Saw the old palaces, the handicrafts market, the cobblestone lanes. The palace is on a hillock and there is a monorail to take people up and down (Funicular rail as it is referred to). But the walk is also quite nice and takes about 15 minutes to reach the top. Recently, ancient ruins have been discovered in the Buda district and excavation is in full swing. It reminded me of Rome where an almost parallel city exists in ruins and where people are scared to dig to lay foundation for the buildings - lest they find some ruins and the govt. takes over J. The palace now houses museums and the city library.
Having covered the old district, I walked back to Pest. There was a nice basilica very close to the hotel which was a great sight. Then, the parliament building which is also very beautiful and is an architectural beauty. One thing worth mentioning is that there is so much greenery all over the city. Flowers and green grass and playgrounds for the kids - makes it look really nice.
In terms of the transportation, there is a tramway, an underground metro (2 lines) and buses. The trams and buses compete with the cars and the cycles for space in the city. But, cycle lanes are marked and special signals provided. I am sure that is how any city can encourage people to cycle and reduce pollution and improve the health of the people.
With regards to food, there are about 3 Indian restaurants (Bombay Palace - the international chain being the most famous and ofcourse costly of the three). Other than that, vegeterianism is the latest fad in Budapest and hence you find a lot of vegetarian restaurants. I located a place called Gandhi. Upon entering, I realised that the name was Indian, the settings were tibetian, the place was run by an Hungarian and the food was vegetatian (not even remotely indian). Very bland but only vegetables. The owner was keen on letting me kow that not even eggs are used. It's a novel eating experience worth one meal!
Evenings are very easy to spend in Budapest. If you are so inclined, there are numerous bars and strip tease joints and also lots of advertisements for escorts who will be stylish, elegant and discreet and will help in discovering the real budapest. There are lots of casinos to gamble away into the night too. Or one can just sit in squares which have many restaurants surrounding them. Being summer, the weather is just great to sit outside and enjoy the meal. Many restaurants have some music being played. I happened to be walking across one of the squares when there was an announcement made (in Hungarian ofcourse) and many people moving towards one restaurant. I joined the crowd and stood there for about ½ hour. The reason: the restaurant was holding a fashion show. First there were a few young ladies wearing styling office wear, then they changed into casual wear and then to beach wear. I was really surprised to see women in 2 piece bikinis, parading themselves right in the center of a busy market square. There were a lot of patrons in the restaurant and a lot more in the square watching the show.
In terms of the cost of living, a decent 3 star hotel is available for about 50 USD. A meal will cost not more than 5 USD per person. Travel is cheap (if you chose the metro or tram). Tickets cost only about 0.5 USD from one end to the other end of the city. I did not feel the need to take a taxi at all. In terms of shopping, porcelian is a major attraction but expensive as well. You can also pick up some pretty hand made dolls for about 20 USD.
Being my first travelougue, without my wifes guidance, I wonder how it feels to read it. Do send me your comments and help me in becoming a worthy competitor to my wife.