Sunday, September 20, 2009

next stop, budapest

Hello friends, family, and blog readers. It is time for another installment of my ongoing travel journals. This set will take us to Budapest, Hungary.

Blog readers - I usually write these short pieces when I come home from abroad to give people and idea of what kind of experiences I have had. Friends and family - I have decided to take control of Karena's blog every couple of days to post my writings. I think it will be easier this way, so now all you'll need is a URL to access everything that I've written. No more worrying about individual emails. I hope everyone finds them enjoyable.

I bought plane tickets back in February to surprise Karena with a trip. I had planned to surprise her, but due to scheduling and Karena's persistent questions, I revealed our destination a couple of months before our departure. A lot of people ask me "Why Budapest?" To be honest, the decision was driven mostly by the cost of airfare. I found two round-trip tickets for $1300. That was cheaper than going to most any European city (aside from London) in early September. I was quite surprised by that. Also included in my decision was the fact that Hungary uses the Forint (HUF) instead of the Euro. So, the exchange rate was pretty favourable...I think it was $1USD bought 185 Ft. That is down from past years but things are still relatively cheap, especially considering that we would have had to use the Euro in other continental destinations.

We left Wednesday night on Lufthansa, had good exit row seats and ate a good meal on the plane. The flight crew was very personable and helpful. I'm always impressed by the standard of service on foreign carriers, especially compared to service on international flights operated by U.S. carriers (more on this later). The flight took us from DC to Munich and from Munich to Budapest. The leg to Munich was a fast seven hours and from there another 1.5 hours to Ferihegy Airport. Compared to my flights to/from Asia, the duration of seemed like a quick nap. We had a good layover in Munich, which is an amazing airport. It has free drinks, newspapers, and magazines spread out between every 5-10 gates. It is like a self service café inside of the airport...brilliant idea!

We arrived at Ferihegy around noon or so. Both of us were pretty tired since we only got a couple hours of sleep on our trans-Atlantic flight. We were definitely not prepared for the scene that we were going to be thrown into at the baggage claim. When we got off the plane in Budapest we traveled down a short walkway - not through any gate area - to some automatic doors. About one minute later the automatic doors open to a hazy bag area. WOW, it was a mob scene. It seemed like five planes had de-boarded all passengers and were trying to offload the luggage to one of three carousels at once. We were a little confused and disoriented and just stood in the doorway for a bit. This would have gotten us trampled in China. We soon threw ourselves to the fire and joined the madness by trying to navigate through all the people to the carousel we thought our bags would come out of. After about 10-15 minutes my bag made it. Oh yea, big red came through without any major harm! Karena's bag was a little difficult to locate since it is a small, rectangular, black bag similar to 75% of the other luggage in the area. We took a fixed-price taxi to our hotel, the Opera Hotel, and our driver gave us an impromptu tour as we got closer to the city center. He asked if I was on business, which I thought was a little strange until I noticed that I was still in my work clothes. Either way, he was a nice guy that pointed out some interesting stuff. I wasn't prepared for him to throw the death stare at me once we arrived at our hotel. See, I have a problem when it comes to tipping taxi drivers after long international flights. I'm not sure why this is...maybe I just get too confused by simple math in these situations. I do fine on the way to the airport and in countries where tipping is not customary, but watch out otherwise. Anyway, our fare came to 4800 Ft, I gave the man a 5000 Ft note and asked for 150 Ft in change. WHOOPS!!! Thinking that I was dealing in hundreds and not thousands, I thought a 50 Ft tip was more than adequate. At first he just stared at me, then he went through his pockets and pulled out some change. I saw at least 500 Ft in coins, so I thought that I was still good. Then he flipped me a 100 Ft coin and gave me a look like he was prepared to strap me onto his taxi and drag me up and down the cobblestone street. At that moment I noticed the error that I had made. So instead of correctly giving the nice man a tip, I hightailed it into the hotel :)

We checked in, showered, and was only 2pm after all. We figured that we had plenty of time to do some wandering and then catch dinner. Around 5pm we decided to get up and moving. Karena and I walked all the way up Andrássy út to Hősök tere. There were tons of fancy shops and beautiful buildings along the way. One thing that I read before leaving was to make sure to pay attention to the details of buildings above street level. It was true. It seemed like every office or apartment building, no matter how small, had amazing architectural details on the façade. Sometimes there were just designs in the pediments above the doors or medallions in the transoms...other times there were full figurines in alcoves at the roof line. The variation in architectural designs in these buildings was spectacular. We walked around Hero's Square and pondered the bronze casts of the seven Magyar tribe leaders and scenes from Hungary's history. We walked briefly into the City Park to find some water and wandered around the trails surrounding the small lake.

Karena and I were very hungry after walking around for so long. We also hadn't eaten since our flight from Munich so we decided to sit down and figure out a game plan for eating. This involved us navigating from the City Park to a restaurant that I had flagged that sounded delicious. Nevermind the fact that we were going to have to wind down roads that we couldn't least these streets had visible names. It was pretty cool to walk down through residential streets. The buildings all continued to have unique architectural elements to them. We even found a school that was so ornately decorated that it looked like something out of a fairy tale. So we continued walking for about 30 minutes and found ourselves on the corner of where we thought the restaurant should be. We walked up one block following the address restaurant. We walked down one block following the address restaurant. We walked up the block again...same results. It wasn't until I realized that the address we might be looking for could actually be on the corner. So we j-walked across the street and looked at the number. SCORE, we found the building. But wait, there was no restaurant to be found. I walked inside and there was a desk attendant sitting in the lobby. I must have had a confused look on my face. I looked at the man and he said "restaurant?" We nodded in the affirmative and he pointed us through to the courtyard. It was here that we found Feszek. You can read Karena's description of the restaurant here. Dinner was delicious. I had veal paprika with Hungarian cheese noodles. YUM. I'll leave the food talk to Karena, but let me tell you that I also loved the fried duck bites and biggie-size Dreher times 2. Total damage for dinner was 8780 Ft ($47), but that included one appetizer plate, two entrées, four biggie-size beers, two waters, and a 10% service fee. One funny thing did happen at dinner...the waiter spoke English to us throughout the service. When he brought the check I think he got a little confused though. He switched to German. Reaching all the way back to elementary school, I was able to understand some of what he said and managed to pay our bill. Maybe I understood none of what he was saying and the Dreher had a bigger effect on me than I thought. After dinner we stumbled out of the restaurant and wandered back to our hotel...both of us feeling deliciously full and relaxed. Let me tell you, getting to sleep was NOT a problem, especially when I had thoughts of burning rubber on a Segway tour the next morning!

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