10 days in Budapest.

A few months ago, we got some good news here. Paul got an email from the president of the International Union for the History and Philosophy of Science informing him that his dissertation had been selected (unanimously!) by the committee to receive the Young Scholar’s Prize in the Western Civilization category, and that he was invited to the upcoming Congress in Budapest to receive the award. The Union would pay his conference registration and put him up for the duration of his stay. The upshot: a relatively inexpensive trip to Budapest for the two of us!
The conference itself is a pretty lengthy affair — just shy of a full week of events — so we booked our tickets for a 10-day stay, just to make sure we would have some time to explore the city (and maybe a bit of the rest of Hungary) once the events petered out. The organizers arranged accommodations for us at Kinizsi Hostel, where we had a pretty spacious private guestroom, with a kitchenette and bath shared with a couple of other rooms (which we eventually figured out were occupied by the other two prizewinners). It wasn’t the greatest place to stay, but for no charge, we were willing to put up with a few frustrations, and it ended up being just fine for our purposes, aside from the few nights when it got really hot and we would have killed for a fan or some A/C. (Not a lot of the latter in Budapest, though — some of the conference session rooms were far, far worse: imagine 30 academics shut in a south-facing third-floor room with a projector on a 103-degree day. It’s a dry heat, but still.)
Our trip began here in Connecticut with a great deal of preparations: I bought a great little travel bag/purse from REI, we got some quick-drying towels, and I was just about as systematic and smart about my packing as I have ever been, which meant that I actually was packed the day before we left and I slept quite well the night before our flight. We had booked a flight out of Boston, since now that Paul’s folks have flown to the sunbelt, we no longer have a place to park a car for free in the New York metro area. Flights from Hartford were pretty pricey, and so Boston it was: we drove up in the morning, had lunch at Paul’s godmother’s house in Newton, left our car with her, got a lift to Logan, and we were on our way. Sort of.
We were supposed to fly via JFK (that’s logic for you), but they were “having weather” and so we arrived at the Delta ticket counter to discover that we had been rerouted through Amsterdam on a Northwest flight — Northwest, which is apparently now Delta, but which still maintains different ticket counters at the airport, a fact we discovered when the Delta agent we spoke to told us to go to the opposite end of the long counter to an identical-looking ticket desk and talk to “a Northwest agent” down there. In a Delta uniform, in front of a huge Delta backdrop. Of course.
Eventually we got our bags checked and our boarding passes printed for the first leg of the journey, though we were told that we would have to get our boarding passes for the second leg (AMS > BUD) in Amsterdam. Fine. We made our way through security and then on to our gate, conveniently located at the end of Terminal B right next to the GameOn! sports bar (it’s a little bit of Landsdowne Street right here at Logan, ladies and gents), where we ordered a couple of beers and watched the Sox lose to Baltimore before our flight boarded.
We arrived in Amsterdam pretty tired, and proceeded to try and figure out how to get our boarding passes for our connecting flight. Wandering through the airport, surrounded by KLM blue, we figured out that the Transfer Desk was the place to get it taken care of before going through passport control. We had a few hours before our flight, so we had a very European breakfast of espresso, croissant, bread, and salami before finding a place where two benches had been pushed together to create just enough armrestless space for an Amrys to lie down and get some shuteye. Which I did, gratefully, as the sun rose and the automatic photosensitive shades on the atrium windows whirred and adjusted themselves to the shifting angles of light. Earplugs are just about the greatest thing.
In time, we boarded our Malev Airlines flight to Budapest, our first taste of Eastern/Central Europe, with its slightly dated uniforms and amazing bright green color scheme. The fellow seated next to us was reading a suspiciously history-of-science-y-looking book, and our hunch turned out to be correct: he was headed to the conference, too. When we landed, we stuck together, got our bags at baggage claim and some forint from the ATM, and went off to figure out how to get to downtown Pest via public transport.
While the route itself is pretty straightforward, there were certain aspects of the public transit system that were completely new to me. The first was ticket validation. For all forms of public transport — subway, bus, trolley, tram, and commuter rail — you must validate (i.e. timestamp) your ticket upon boarding, otherwise it is not valid for travel. You do this by sticking it into these little orange boxes which are attached to the handrails of the various rolling stock (or at the metro station entrances). There are no turnstiles or anything like that, and the drivers don’t ask to see your tickets. There are plainclothes officials who come through and do ticket checks — randomly on buses, trams, and trolleys, systematically on commuter rail, and on the metro they just check your tickets or passes before you descend into the station.
Fortunately, Paul had encountered this ticket-validation system before in Greece, and was able to show us how to make our tickets legal for travel when we boarded the bus. The bus dropped us off at the end of the M3 subway line, where we proceeded to figure out how to buy a subway ticket. When we finally found a vending machine, though, it only took coins, and of course we didn’t have any change, having come straight from the ATM. We eventually communicated our problem to the officials standing by the machine, who directed us to the other end of the station, where we eventually found the little kiosk, staffed by one woman, who sold us tickets. We then validated these and descended back into the station to catch the train into town.
We emerged at Ferenc Korut station, where we parted ways with our new friend to find our respective lodgings. After much waiting in line at the horribly inefficient front desk of the hostel, Paul and I finally got our keys and passcards and made it to our room, where we dropped our belongings, opened the window, and collapsed for a few hours of welcome sleep. In the early evening, we arose, showered, dressed, and headed out to explore the neighborhood and find some dinner before we returned to our beds.
We were fortunate to be staying just a couple of blocks from Ráday utca, a street of cafes, bars, and restaurants that is mostly a pedestrian walk, full of outdoor seating. After walking the length of the street and scoping out our options, we settled on a place our guidebook recommended, where we had our first taste of Hungarian cuisine. Nothing too predictable — we didn’t go straight for the goulash — but we did sample some potato dumplings, some Dreher beer, and there was plenty of meat in our dishes. After dinner, we walked around a bit, had some dessert in a cafe, figured out the way to the conference location, and, standing on the Liberty Bridge, watched a strange fire burn far away on the southwest edge of the city and fill the sunset sky overhead with ominous smoke.
In the morning, we arose earlyish, got ready, grabbed a pastry from a nearby bakery, and made our way across the river to the Budapest University of Technology and Economics, a gorgeous edifice just opposite our hostel on the Danube. When we arrived, we found a couple of our colleagues from Wisconsin, but I was desperate for a cup of coffee, and since none was to be set out until the first session break at 11, Paul and I ventured forth to find a cafe. We eventually found a place that was open up at Moritz Szigmond Körter (a Chinese restaurant — Hungarians aren’t big on breakfast, and places usually don’t open until late morning or the afternoon) and had some coffee on the patio. Paul did some work, and I read more of the Raymond Chandler novel I’d started on the plane.
We eventually found our way back to the conference to find some folks to have lunch with: Dana and Scott, both grad students from back at the UW. Scott proved a particular asset over the course of the trip, due to the fact that he was staying as long as we were, and that he speaks Hungarian — no small feat. One can pick up the basics of how to order food, say please and thank you, and find out where the restrooms are, but situations do arise when more complicated phrases are necessary. Stay tuned.
In the afternoon, we returned to the conference venue, and I spent some time going through the horribly designed and infuriatingly organized conference program [PDF], to see if there were any sessions I wanted to attend. After much flipping back and forth, I settled on a few that looked promising. Towards the end of the day, one of my profs from the UW arrived (after having spent the night in Detroit due to a Northwest — or is it Delta? — mixup), and when the events were over, we all headed back across the bridge and reconvened for dinner on Ráday. After another night of sleep, we were feeling just about recovered from the jetlag.
That week, we split our time between conference sessions, meals with friends and colleagues, sightseeing, and relaxing moments in cafes reading and writing. I forged off on my own some days while Paul attended sessions, he and I went for a walk up on the Citadel hill, I explored St. Stephen’s Basilica and the Chain Bridge with my professor (always great to check out bridges and buildings with a historian of technology), and we continued to eat well and relatively cheaply. We bought metro passes, learned the major tram, bus, and subway routes, and committed some general Buda-Pest geography to memory. Most of our touring was simply exploring: walking around, taking in the views from the hilltops in Buda, figuring out our favorite Hungarian dishes and how to order them, going to the market and seeing what Hungarians buy at the grocery store, and trying to stay cool as the weather got progressively warmer and warmer. My mother’s (brilliant!) idea to bring a clothesline and clothespins paid off, as we had things we wanted to wash just about every day. They dried quickly.
On Saturday night, we attended the banquet and awards ceremony, where Paul received his prize. It was held at the Museum of Fine Arts, and turned out to be quite a lovely affair, in spite of the horrible acoustics (which meant that no one could decipher anything that was said by any of the presenters or recipients), the heat, and the strangeness of a Russian historian of science bursting into song every so often. The food was good, the company excellent, and the atmosphere divine: how often do you get to dine in a museum gallery, with free champagne to boot?
Over the weekend, we did our best to beat the heat by sequestering ourselves in the shadiest places we could find and moving as little as possible. By Sunday afternoon, the conference was over, and the rest of our trip stretched out before us with plenty of time for more exploring. On Monday, we spent the day with Scott, Eric, and Eric’s wife Maura. We met up around midday with a picnic lunch packed. Originally we intended to head out to Monument Park, where most of the Soviet-era monuments were moved after the fall of Communism. However, it turns out they really wanted to get that stuff out of the city: it tirned out to be quite far away by public transit, so we opted to take our picnic to Margaret Island instead. After some adventures with construction on our tram ride (which turned out to be mostly a bus ride as a result), we arrived on the Island, and found a spot to enjoy our meal: bread, salami, cheese, nutella, and fruit. As we searched for a bathroom, however, I twisted my ankle, which put a stop to our exploring: after I popped some Advil and tried to use a cold water bottle to soothe my injury, I discovered I could still walk just fine, so we found the nearest cafe, rounded up some coffee, dessert, and (thanks to Scott’s Hungarian) a bucket of ice for my ankle (ice is not a common thing, so we were lucky on that count), and a place for me to prop my foot up. My crocheted string bag came in handy to hold my makeshift ice pack to my ankle so that I didn’t have to be in an uncomfortable position to keep it in place. Ina short while, I was feeling much better, and we were able to catch a bus down to the Gellért Baths, the healing waters of course to work wonders for me.
Hungary is home to a number of hot springs, and Budapest has more than its fair share, since it lies along a fault line that runs along the foot of the Buda hills. The thermal springs have been very important to Budapest historically, and have led to the development of a serious bath culture. At least two of the bathhouses in Budapest actually date from the time of the Turks: they really are authentic Turkish baths.
The Gellért baths are not so old, but they are quite lovely, kind of (as the guidebook said) like taking a bath in a cathedral. We had quite a time figuring out the process: you pay a fee upon entrance, then make your way to another desk, where you show your receipt and they set you up with a cabin (a cubby, really) in which to change and leave your stuff, after which you can rinse off and head to any of several pools. Some are mixed-sex, others single-sex: of the former there is an outdoor pool, an indoor pool, and an indoor 36 C pool; of the latter, one each of a 36 C and a 38 C pool for men and women. It ended up being a very relaxing afternoon, and when we emerged from the healing waters, we were definitely ready for dinner.
This was the night we stumbled upon a really great restaurant in Buda: Tabáni Terasz, which on the outside just looks nice, but which turns out to have an even more amazing interior courtyard, plus a wine cellar, excellent food, attentive waitstaff, and is just all-around wonderful. We enjoyed our meal there so much (including some house-made pálinka on the house!) that Paul and I returned the following day for my birthday dinner. I had a cold cucumber soup that was delicious; their cold fruit soup is also excellent. I recommend the duck.
Eric and Maura were off to Vienna the following day, but we had made plans to meet Scott for breakfast the following morning. We met early enough that we were able to catch the 10:30 boat up to Szentendre, a village about 20 km north of Budapest on the Danube, where Paul and I spend the day walking around up in the hills, checking out some ecclesiastical art and a gorgeous iconostasis at a Serbian Orthodox church, and trying to avoid the horribly touristy main square. We took the train back in the afternoon, which gave us the opportunity to see the landscape even better than on the boat. Back in Buda, we made our way to the base of Castle Hill and took the funicular up to the top, where we took in some amazing views of the city. We made our way to the Fisherman’s Bastion, which Mike and Jeff had recommended from their travels, but found it half under construction and totally overrun with tourists, so we quickly made our way down the Royal Steps and back to Tabáni Terasz, where we had a nice dinner and a bottle of wine. We took the tram back to Szent Gellért tér, and then walked back across the bridge to Ráday, where we ran into Scott having a beer at a coffeeshop. We joined him, and soon we were all toasting my birthday with pálinka.
On our last full day in Budapest, Paul had some work to do, so we spent some of our time in the local internet cafe, as well as waiting out the rainstorm we got caught in on our way to lunch there. Eventually we headed out to a wine shop and a pálinka store to get some gifts for folks back home; that taken care of, we walked by the Basilica, the Great Synagogue, around Andrássy út, and enjoyed some delicious Hungarian pastries at Lukács, before heading homeward, grabbing some dinner, and packing up.
On Thursday morning, we got our luggage together, checked out of the hostel, ran into Scott briefly (he was catching a late morning flight), had a leisurely breakfast at a cafe, and then hopped on the metro out to the airport for our return flight to the states. This time we did fly through JFK as planned, and despite some delays on the runway ended up arriving in Boston 45 minutes earlier than schedule. We were surprised to discover that we flew in to the same gate we had departed from 10 days earlier, right next to GameOn! (which was closed). We got our bags, hopped on the T, and, exhausted, eventually made our way out to Newton Highlands, where we got a lift back to Paul’s godmother’s, gratefully ate some dinner leftovers, and went right to sleep.
In the morning, we slept in, had breakfast, and then packed up the car to drive home. We decided to extend our vacation just a little more by stopping for lunch at the Publick House in Sturbridge, where we enjoyed a lovely meal outside before driving the last 40 or so miles back to Middletown. We went to bed early that night.
For the cost of food and transportation, I have to say it was an excellent trip, a great opportunity, and a great deal. Budapest is still relatively cheap for that part of the world, so go while you can.
You can see some photos here.

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6 thoughts on “10 days in Budapest.

  1. Ah, Budapest. The Paris of the East! Sounds like you had a great trip. I loved it there. How did you find Margit Island?
    I remember JCB and I making fun of the Metro’s ridiculous ticketing system when we were there.
    Congrats to Paul!
    @JCB: Particularly amusing that she referenced us as well.

  2. Ah, Budapest. The Paris of the East! Sounds like you had a great trip. I loved it there. How did you find Margit Island?
    I remember JCB and I making fun of the Metro’s ridiculous ticketing system when we were there.
    Congrats to Paul!
    @JCB: Particularly amusing that she referenced us as well.

  3. Ah, Budapest. The Paris of the East! Sounds like you had a great trip. I loved it there. How did you find Margit Island?
    I remember JCB and I making fun of the Metro’s ridiculous ticketing system when we were there.
    Congrats to Paul!
    @JCB: Particularly amusing that she referenced us as well.

  4. Third time’s the charm, apparently!
    It was a lovely trip. Margaret Island was very enjoyable until I twisted my ankle, after which it became difficult to explore the place very extensively. Given that the rest of the city is pretty light on vegetation, it was nice to be in a place where there were lots of trees and plants. There are some sycamores there that are just enormous!
    JCB: Seriously. I don’t blog for months and then when I do post something you can only afford to skim it? 😉

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