Monday, 10 September 2007

We’re on a train headed to Vienna, Austria, so I thought I’d write about the things we did for the last three days in Budapest, Hungary. When you last saw us we were arriving, a little bleary-eyed, from our overnight train ride from Krakow to Budapest. Our hotel was really cool, three rooms on each floor, and nine floors tall. Each room looked out on the Danube River, with the ornate, domed Parliament building on the other side. Quite a view!

Once we settled into our hotel (translate “I nested”. I love to stay in a place for at least three nights so I can put our clothes in drawers and closets and make it feel a little homey for a while) and got our bearings we headed out to explore the city. We hopped on a bus that took us up the hill on the Buda side of the city, where an enormous castle/palace sits next to a beautiful (but under construction) church. The view of the Danube from the hills was spectacular, and our chatty bus tour guide told us how to say important things in Hungarian, like “hello” and “thank you” and “wine”

Budapest is divided into two sections by the Danube River. The Buda side is very hilly, the Pest side is very flat. The bus drove us to the Pest side where our family exited to find a special pastry shop we’d read about (Maurice and Peggy opted to stay on the bus to see the rest of the tour and save their feet a while). We indulged in some chocolate, then headed back to the Buda side for a funicular ride up the hill again, in search of the grotto under the castle hill.

There are miles of caves under the hill, and we found the entrance off a historic-looking cobblestoned street. It was dark, lit only by gas lamps on the wall, and while it had been “tourist-ified” with a concrete floor and some cheesy “cave paintings” on the walls, it was still scary. I was afraid some Budapest bad guy would jump out from around a dark corner and scare the pee out of me. The boys clung closely as we made our way through the dark, drippy caves. Although Alayna said there was nothing to be afraid of, Clay was able to make her jump when he went around a corner and stuck his legs out shaking them like he was being eaten by something. “Daddy!”

The cave was used during WWII by locals to hide in during bomb raids. I can’t imagine what that would have been like, hiding in those dark places, muffled bombs hitting overhead. Budapest has been destroyed several times in different wars, the beautiful bridges over the Danube that they are so proud of have been destroyed and rebuilt several times. It takes a nation of great patience and pride to rebuild, and rebuild again. Carefully preserving their history and culture, stubbornly refusing to be forgotten. I think about New Orleans and how they must rebuild.

After leaving the caves we made our way back down the hill to our hotel, winding our way through skinny little streets, happening upon a skittish cat and wondering about the lives behind the windows of the tall, skinny buildings. We found the Fishermen’s Bastion, a pretty stone wall with arched windows looking out over the Danube and the Pest side of the city. There was an artist selling drawings, I bought two I especially liked of the skinny buildings and the cobblestoned streets. These are the souvenirs I like to buy, the kinds that remind me of a moment in time. A walk through the streets of Budapest. They are the kind Clay likes to buy, too. They cost only $17 for the two of them. The boys would have preferred the giant pencils that were as long as their arms and had “Budapest” emblazoned on them, but we passed. “Too big to carry” has become a common, and helpful, phrase.

We met with Peggy and Maurice for dinner at a Hungarian pancake place. Crepe-like pancakes with broccoli and cheese, pancakes with chicken soup, pancakes with ham and cheese, and of course, pancakes with chocolate. Lots of chocolate that first day! Rick Steves has yet to steer us wrong in the restaurant or hotel department.

The next day we went to a big market to get a picnic before heading to the big city park. The market was indoors and comprised of three floors. Almost every food stall had strings of paprika hanging from them. This is the herb of choice in Hungary, on the tables they put salt and paprika (no pepper), and they sprinkle paprika on eggs and pasta and bake it into their Pringles. We got ourselves some bread and a fruit and a tube of paprika paste (it looked like a toothpaste tube and came out a startling red when we ate it later). We took the metro to the park and started at the zoo.

This was no American zoo. The kids petted a baby rhino, unsupervised. The baby just backed up to the bars, where visitors stuck their hands through. Alayna reported some skin was rough but the part around the neck was squishier. They also fed camels little green pellets, and watched visitors throw apples over the top of the cage to the grateful orangutangs. Visitors touched the lips of a curious and hungry giraffe that eyed people’s pretzels greedily. Two hippos swam to the edge of their pond where people threw bits of food in their gaping mouths. These are said to be the most dangerous animal in Africa, and yet here they were, begging for apples and bits of bread like a common pigeon. They still had pretty scary teeth and their jaws were enormous. We came upon a tiger that was feasting on a piece of raw meat (Nate was very excited about this), and saw baby leopards and a baby lion. To top off a perfect zoo visit, they had an aquarium with a dinosaur exhibit in one corner. Benji was blissful. In every town we’ve been in, he’s asked if there is an aquarium and a dinosaur place.

After the zoo we walked over to Heroes’ Square, where Peggy and Maurice hopped on the metro back to the hotel. They were big chickens and did not want to accompany us to the Hungarian bathhouse. When we got to the baths Alayna and I went into the locker room where women were walking around entirely naked, letting it all hang, flop, and bounce before our very eyes. Alayna was deeply disturbed and managed to change under her shirt and a towel, without revealing any skin. “My eyes”, she moaned in my ear.

The baths were wonderful. Housed in a palatial yellow mansion, there were scores of pools of varying shapes and sizes. Three of the largest baths were outside in the courtyard. They were three different temperatures, one was a lap pool, one bubbled like a cauldron with a center that had a swift current that shot you around and around the donut shaped center, and the hottest one had chess boards on the edge. Clay managed to get a game with a man who looked like part of the Hungarian mafia, a “regular” who had a sidekick that irritated Clay by chattering and gesturing the whole time in Hungarian, clueing the mafia man in when Clay was trying to get him. Clay lost, but defended himself by saying he “made a stupid move and lost a piece early on, I regained the piece but my pawns were a mess”. It would have been cool, to beat a regular at the baths. I don’t think the amorous couples (some in their late sixties and beyond) who were enjoying the baths, were enjoying our children. But what do they expect when there are currents and bubbles and fountains that are perfect for squirting each other?

 We left the baths and found a playground in the park. I spread out all our wet clothes on a park bench, willing them to dry, while the kids played. Alayna was disgusted by one particular boy who was about her age. He had an air soft gun and would take aim and fire, usually at trees, with all the panache of a guerilla. He had his eye on some pigeons but Alayna gave him the evil eye and scattered the pigeons before he could get a bead on them. “He thinks he’s so cool” she muttered. Boys. After the playground (I loaded up the still wet swimsuits and towels, no luck) we saw some cars racing around cones in a lot down below the road. Their tires squealed to high heaven, smoking and spinning out. Clay and the boys were thrilled, but Alayna had a headache and I worried about witnessing some sort of terrible collision. We finally dragged the boys away and checked out some guys on bikes doing all sorts of cool tricks in Heroes’ Square. They’d stand on the front tire and spin the bike around, hopping over it each time, or hop it across the square.

We took the metro home, grabbed some dinner, and went out to a nighttime cruise of the Danube with Maurice and Peggy. The lights and the bridges are really beautiful, I think this is the most beautiful city we’ve seen by night. Castles and churches, the university and Parliament building, all lit up like Christmas. The boat had headphones with some commentary, and you could select the language. They had tons of languages, and it was kind of fun to flip through and listen to some of the stranger ones. Benji conked out before the trip was through, so we carried him half the way home until he roused up. Clay was disappointed to see a running race finishing up as we crossed the bridge to our hotel, he would have loved to run in a race on this trip. We still have many countries ahead of us, I’m sure he’ll find one eventually!

Our last day we spent on Margaret Island, a grassy park in the middle of the Danube, where we enjoyed the beautiful day along with a bunch of Hungarians. People took naps on the grass, and many who looked like locals lined the pretty squares. They would tilt back their heads and soak up the sun, smiling at the beautiful day through closed lids. We rented a four-seater bike and toodled around for a while, the kids loved that, but what they loved most was just playing. Climbing trees and making up elaborate games with sticks for guns and rocks for currency, they were happy for hours. Peggy and Maurice watched them from a park bench while Clay and I went for a run, there is a very nice running trail that goes all the way around the island. It was a great run.

A random thing the kids enjoyed at this hotel was doing shadow puppets on the stairs. They would sit on the stairs and use the stair lights to create perfect shadows on the opposite walls. I love seeing the games they come up with, they find a way to play with whatever is at hand. Another random thing, the bells on the trams that ring when the tram arrives at its stop sound like a circus. It’s a happy little bell, we found ourselves humming along as we hopped on and off.

I’ve come up with a phrase that sums up part of this trip. Live, learn, and leave. As soon as we figure out how the public transportation works, the current exchange rate for currency, what kind of food we like, where to do the laundry … it’s time to go and figure it out somewhere else! We’re getting good at it, though. Ten minutes until we arrive in Vienna. Time to live and learn some more!