We woke up to a frosty Helsinki morning* and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the Hilton before venturing out to the airport for the flight to Budapest. The moon, just past the full, was setting in the western sky and a few planes were being de-iced on the tarmac. It wasn’t even November yet. What must it be like in January?
Nothing disrupted the schedule and the aircraft took off on time, giving us a view of Helsinki and surrounds. An awful lot of it seems to be water. It was two hours to Budapest. My biggest concern was getting to the hotel and changing my undies – and, let the truth be told, my outies as well. I think my jeans could have walked out without me.
After an uneventful flight which included a view of a riverboat on the Danube, we landed at Budapest’s clean, new airport. They have a great way of controlling cabs there. There’s a booth next to the taxi rank. You tell the clerk where you want to go, she tells you the fare and prints out a voucher which you give to the driver. Everybody knows what the fare will be, there’s no meter and the cabbie can’t take you around the houses, as happens in so many places. Thumbs up for that one.
The cabby was a nice guy, Budapest born and bred, who worked hard at speaking English. He told us a little about the twin city split by the Danube, with the heights of Buda on one bank and the plains of Pest on the other.
The Marriott was a short walk from where the river boats moored, and we had a great view from the room. I noticed the view after I’d showered and changed my clothes. Ah, the relief!
Budapest is a beautiful city with a long history which is reflected in its architecture. As the second city of the Austro-Hungarian Empire it boasts many spectacular palaces and public buildings, many along the banks of the river. The cobblestoned old town had large open spaces with lots of places to eat and drink. Local shops were interspersed with the usual global corporations – Starbucks (how can people drink that stuff), MacDonald’s, Burger King and the like. We wandered around, especially on the riverfront, enjoying a cool, sunny day. When I say ‘cool’ that means our Australian, subtropical interpretation. It probably got to around 15 – so something of an Indian summer for the locals. But the temperature dropped when the sun went down.
Despite the 5 degree temperature, Pete and I ventured out to the old town for dinner. We sat at one of the outdoor eateries (equipped with heaters) and watched a film crew at work in the square. The local soup was watery, but Pete enjoyed his pork knuckle complete with crackling, and I had a local variation of ravioli stuffed with soft cheese. It was nice, and filling.
After dinner as we strolled around Pete noticed a statue and wondered who the fellow was. So he asked a couple of young women running a nearby food vending stall. Seems he was a writer. The central figure was surrounded by many smaller figures which looked very Soviet – sombre and grim. Pete went back and asked the girls about them, too. Characters from his books? Adoring fans? They looked at each other and shrugged. No idea. But they did smile.
We had intended to spend two nights in Budapest, but of course one of those was split between Hong Kong and Helsinki instead, so we had one more morning on our own before we joined our riverboat. Once again, we headed into the old town for breakfast. Budapest – like many European cities – doesn’t wake up early and most of the eateries were closed.
We found a menu on a billboard and while we were reading it a young woman who spoke excellent English approached us. Pete asked if the restaurant did poached eggs. She explained that no, they didn’t, because the food regulations to cook and serve poached eggs were so stiff it wasn’t worth the effort. They could do boiled eggs though, and she showed us a picture of a Hungarian omelette. That was good enough for us. We enjoyed a lovely meal in a beautiful, heritage listed building. Afterwards we found out that the restaurant (Cyrano’s) had a Michelin star. How about that?
Although Budapest is a beautiful city, it has its uglier side. We were warned to be wary of groups of young men. We noticed quite a few homeless people, too, some living in tents on the banks of the Danube. It starts to get to you after a while. We have so much, and they have so little. We walked through a tunnel under the main road and encountered a man who I guess was in his late forties sitting inside with a disposable cup in front of him. He didn’t say anything, didn’t try to attract our attention, but I caught his eye briefly and quickly looked away. I’d seen dignity, and pride, and hopeless acceptance in those eyes and it felt uncomfortable. I think Pete must have done the same, because we glanced at each other. Pete stopped, dug all his coins in the local currency out of his pocket, and went back to put the money in the cup. I nodded. That was good. We looked at each other again, and he went back with a 1,000 forint note. One Aussie dollar equals around 200 forints, and Hungary is moving to the Euro, so forints are worthless in any other country, and nobody wants to exchange them anymore. So it wasn’t a huge thing on our part, but it felt a little better.
We went back to our hotel, checked out and dragged our suitcases the 300 metres or so to where the Amavenita, our home for the next 15 days, was moored. The next part of our Great Adventure was about to start.
PS. If you’re wondering why we were in Helsinki, best read this first.