TIMISAORA TO BUDAPEST
30.07.2012 - 05.08.2012 30 °C
Traveling through more Romanian countryside, through small villages on bumpy roads, we soon got to the border of Hungary and were made to purchase a “vignette” – a road tax, sort of the same as e-toll back home whereby cameras are strategically placed and you’re snapped driving on the road and cross-checked in their database to make sure you’ve paid. Our camping book had options for 4 day, 7 day, monthly and annual options but we were only intending at that time to stay for a couple of nights. The woman at the counter let us know the structure had been changed at the start of the year and the smallest one available was a 10-day for about 13 EUR, which even though we only planned to be in Hungary for a couple of days, would be more than fair considering the distance we would be traveling and we wouldn’t need to pay any tolls (France, Italy, Portugal etc. would have cost us much more in tolls for the same distance)
Budapest is actually made up of two halves, the hills of ‘Buda’ on the west bank of the Danube, and the almost perfectly flat ‘Pest’ (pronounced ‘pesht’) on the east bank, both separate and contrasting cities. We planned to camp at a place close to the centre of Pest called Haller Camping – when we got in we were greeted by very friendly people and given a wealth of maps etc for the city. But when we drove around the site all we found was mud, no shade, and people taking up more space than they should have been. We were in no mood to be uncomfortable and treading mud through our nice clean van, so Paul got his passport back from reception and we tried option 2 – Arena Camping, also on the Pest side of the river, of course fully aware we could have very well made the wrong decision and this place would be just as bad. It ended up being one of the best calls we had made all trip – the main operator of the new Arena Camping, Michael, turned out to be one of the nicest and most helpful people we have had the pleasure of meeting in all of our travels. Upon arrival he gave us, along with a small group of Italian campers, a great little orientation in our respective languages, not missing a beat when switching from Italiano to English. He gave us the bus numbers to the nearest train station (which was also next to a big shopping complex – I was happy), and when Paul asked about a mechanic we were told there was one literally across the road who ran a very good and cheap workshop, and he even came with us to the workshop multiple times to act as our translator, what a legend! The campsite was beautiful, with lush green grass (instead of mud like our other option) with plenty of shade and a really nice ‘vibe’. They also have a deal with the university campus just across the road from them to allow campers access to their cafeteria meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner) at great prices (EUR3.50 per person per 3 course meal), they also had a free washing machine (there was only one so you inevitably end up queuing for it but who cares?) Happy times!
It was a good thing the campsite was so nice as we later discovered a leak in our water tank! And no doubt if Paul had to try and deal with that along with puddles of mud everywhere and no shade, he may have just tossed in the towel! Paul spent the evening trying to patch it up which meant taking EVERYTHING out from the back and then trying to figure out how to take the damn tank out, before trying to sort out the leak. With the van pretty much empty, we took the opportunity to give it a good clean out, getting a gauge of everything we’d need to do when we get back to the UK and sell it. We also spent some time finding out the best way to see Budapest, and found a free walking tour online that looked the goods, so we planned that for the next day.
I set my alarm for 8 the next morning so I could get Paul out of bed, into the city by 10 and ready for our walking tour from the meeting point at Vorosmarty Square at 10:30. I knew exactly where we were going, had the maps and the rail system all sussed out – we were going to have an awesome day! The bus from the campsite to the station, then the train into town must have been remnants from the soviet era (in soviet union, bus drives you). I thought there were still a few people around for 9 in the morning, shouldn’t everyone be at work? Never mind, at least it’s nowhere near as busy as Athens or Rome… when we got off an interchange station, I looked up at the clock, then looked at my watch… I didn’t realise we’d gone back an hour when we came into Hungary. I’d gotten poor weary Paulie out of bed and into a new city an hour earlier than I needed to. After laughing it off we had a bit of a walk down on the river to get our bearings and enjoy being in a gorgeous city NOT totally packed out with tourists. After a couple of cans of Coke Zero it was finally time to meet up with our guides. The tour guides were very professional and organised, they handed out some very handy city maps marked with some great little spots to eat, bars, and the route we’d be walking that day. We were told a little about the country’s history under Nazi, then Soviet rule, and shown a couple of soviet era statues that still remain standing. We saw St Stephen’s church/basilica, where our guide informed us that while you can pay to go to the top for a great view of the city, you get an even better one from the castle district in Buda for free, which is where we’d be heading later on. We were shown soviet architecture compared to older and newer styles (it was quite obvious which was which), then after we crossed the river on the Chain Bridge to Buda we climbed the stairs up to the castle district. There aren’t actually any castles over there, but the buildings are beautiful and house museums and galleries. We got to watch yet another changing of the guard outside the Hungarian version of the White House, and just around the corner from there stands a wall riddles with bullet holes from the 1956 revolution against the soviet regime. We finally finished the tour at the Fisherman’s Bastion, which is said to be the inspiration for Walt Disney’s fairytale castle.
Guards doing their thing...
Fisherman's Bastion, or Fairytale Castle?
We… were… starving after this tour! But our guide had advised us all against eating anywhere up in the castle district and the best thing to do would be to head back into Pest and as far away from the river as possible in order to get some good cheap grub, with the Jewish District as one of the best areas to go. So we headed there and looked around for somewhere that looked like they had Hungarian dishes… and we found the Holy Grail (in our opinion) at the Drum Café on Dob St. These guys have a whole lot of set menus available, different types of 3 course options for 1190HUF, which was about EUR4-5, and for that you felt nicely full afterwards. They also had an awesome variety of langos. For those of you who haven’t heard of or had langos before… it’s the ultimate street food snack in Budapest. I first had one at Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park last Christmas and promised myself if I ever got to Hungary I wouldn’t eat anything else. I’ve probably put on a few kg’s but it’s worth it.
It’s a fried dough frisbee and the classic topping is garlic, sour cream and grated cheese. The Drum Café also had pizza like toppings, ham, bacon, onion etc. But our favourite was a langos folded in half, still with the classic toppings but with chicken paprika on the inside. Delish! We ended up back there every day to try something new.
Crowd pleasers - Langosh and Gulyas (Goulash)
The next morning, after we dropped the van into the mechanic for a service, we headed back into the city with a visit to the Nazi/Communist icon, the House of Terror on the agenda. The House of Terror is at 60 Andrassy Ave, and was used by both the Nazis and Soviets as the nations headquarters for imprisonment, planning and torture. It is of course now not just a very well put together museum to educate others, but also a very powerful memorial to the victims and everyone affected. Over the 3 floors there are lots of photos and multimedia telling the story of both occupations through an accurate timeline. It’s great for anyone who may be doing some research; in each of the rooms/displays there are information sheets you can take away with you. There are TV’s with interviews of prisoners and the families of prisoners… some of whom had their loved ones taken away and never saw them again. In the basement are the actual prison cells used, most of which have photos and tributes on the walls of people imprisoned there. As you first enter the building there is a massive wall full of faces with the heading “Victims’, and as you leave coming up from the basement there is also a gallery of “Perpetrators”. In my personal opinion though, the most confronting part was the first exhibit you enter, called “Double Occupation”. On one wall is a projection showing how much of Hungary and Europe had been eaten up by the Nazis and Soviets. There is a wall down the middle with one side dedicated to Nazi occupation footage (including the graphic video of countless bodies being bulldozed into mass graves), the other side to the Soviets. All in all it was a valuable experience, we never knew how much Hungary went through – it is definitely worth a visit to anyone heading to Budapest.
On our 3rd day we saw to getting the shock absorbers on the van replaced (Eastern Europe roads had really done a number on them), the mechanic said this was fine and it could be done by the end of the day. So, another early morning dropping the van off with them, and we headed back into the city, this time to visit one of the numerous bathhouses. The Ottoman Empire left behind a legacy of bath culture, and it is of course a very popular option during summer. We invigorated ourselves by alternating between warm baths as hot as 38 degrees, then cold baths as low as 12 degrees. A highlight was the Finnish sauna experience of sauna at betweens 60 and 100 degrees, then jumping into a cold bath! They also have a lap-pool, but sadly headwear is mandatory if swimming (but only in the lap pool – we think it’s a joke and a bit of a scam, as they conveniently have caps available for purchase – but the kicker is the caps for purchase are nothing more than shower caps that do absolutely nothing but fall off as soon as you put your head in the water) Desperate for some physical activity, Paul purchased a ‘shower cap’ and did some laps. After lunch at Drum Café, we headed back to camp and collected the van, complete with beautiful new shockies ☺ We could have left for Prague that day, but decided we were enjoying Budapest too much and chose to stay for another full day.
On our last full day we were in for another history lesson – we did another walking tour, with the same operators as our first walking tour here but with a Communist education theme. Our guide was Susie - in her early 40’s and therefore able to remember her youth under soviet rule. She recounted how her family had been able to leave the country due to her father obtaining a job in Sweden through his company, then they moved back in the early 80’s to be closer to family and friends who had remained behind. It was a very insightful and rewarding tour that really seemed to capture your imagination, showing you what the reality of communism was for these people, and how totalitarian oppression robbed them of their freedom, which is something that lucky Australians like us have no real concept of… Even though Paul’s grandparents had fled from Soviet Russia after WWII, his Grandmother never spoke of her experiences. He now knows why.
One of the remaining Soviet Monuments
Actual bullet holes from the 1956 revolution
We capped off our day and our eye-opening time in the wonderful Budapest, with a massive Hungarian beer, followed by some truly delicious Hungarian wine, and with a goodnights sleep we said goodbye to our favourite European city and set off towards the beer capitol of the world, Prague.