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Trip Report My Overly Verbose Budapest Trip Report

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I blame Bono.

Ten years ago, an eon, really – before marriage, mortgage, little boys – my boyfriend and I slouched on a futon in a drafty garden "apartment" in Paris' 4th, swilling $2 Bordeaux from juice glasses and listening to Beautiful Day for the 5th time in 2 days on the same radio station, estimating that given the time actually spent in said apartment between sightseeing etc. they must be hitting Replay before the last chord. Psychological programming, bells with salivation, I associate the song with Paris, and the only worthwhile station in my area slid it into rotation a few months back, just in time to nose around for our annual Every Child Left Behind getaway.

Ah, but budgetary straitjackets, nosediving Dollars, and the realization that neither my arse nor my amygdala thinks that crappy backpacker beds in sketchy 'hood hotels are romantic (anymore) meant that other options had to be explored; someplace new, less spendy, and within relatively easy reach in case my folks sent up a flare or two.

I threw in the earplugs and threw down the Visa. Bye-bye Bono and Bordeaux, hello Budapest.

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    Day 1 – Saturday/Sunday (1 USD = ~200 Hungarian Forints)

    After a blubbery goodbye to our boys (OK, it was just me) and good luck and Godspeed to my 'rents, we sprinted towards Logan's Terminal E to board a full 10 PM Swiss flight and onboard some lovely Ambien. Unfortunately, I forgot to snag some water in the shops, and the efficient Swiss bovi-, um, stewardess wasn't about to let me have any before the A340 was thirty K in the air. Not sure what that was about, but eventually after a fitful sleep we landed in Zurich for a quick spell, the only airport I've ever been in where you can put $40K on your wrist and then take the same outta your lungs by lighting up in a swanky Camel Smoker's Lounge next door. And the metal detectors are on such a hair trigger I think Security Frau Cold-Hands could have at least bought me dinner first. Why is it always me??

    Anyway, we were bussed out for our connecting flight on Helvetic Air, which was a much more pleasant skip with some sweet views of the Alps as we cruised East, and arcing over Budapest I could make out the Danube, the Szechenyi baths, and some communist-looking concrete projects, a few of which were painted an incongruous Pepto Pink. Making our way into the Terminal about 2 PM, we got our bags, got some Forints at an ATM, and bought 2 Round-Trip tickets on the Airportshuttle-Minibusz, all within 5 minutes. Nice. You can't miss the shuttle kiosk and there's one in each arrival area (www.airportshuttle.hu); purchase tickets in baggage claim and then go outside, give your ticket to the next desk, and sit tight until a driver shows up. We waited about 15 minutes before being whisked through outer 'burbs and into the city proper, where every few blocks grand, surprisingly Parisian-looking buildings swathed in scaffolding and fencing belied more facelifts than a Nassau County Starbucks. As the driver dodged and weaved to the city centre, we saw dingy next to drop-dead, with the French folks in front of us yammering breathlessly, "Voila L'Art Nouveau!!" which made us eager to get going. We dropped a few folks off at the waterfront Intercontinental (where I spotted a Benz with New York plates, huh), and a few blocks later we checked into the Mercure City Center (www.mercure.com ), 20 Vaci Utca, nice desk staff and modern (if smoky – helloooo, Eastern Europe) lobby. We had a fair room, again the toilet with half-flush and full-flush options, and an oddly low platform bed, which was fine as all we really cared about in this part of the world was getting a nonsmoking room that was actually nonsmoking (which it was; clearly the ashtray in the bathroom was for suction-stress-testing the half-flush).

    After quick ablutions we headed out for the National Museum (www.mnm.hu ), thinking that we'd be best served with an initial contextual-history blitz as neither one of us ever remembers diddly-squat from history class. But ambling towards Ferenciek Tere we noticed a bakery mobbed with locals, and given that it was around 3:30 on a Sunday afternoon that had to be a good sign (Jegbufe, 10 Ferenciek Ter right near the bus stops). After watching for a bit we figured out you had to order and pay first, then hand your slip in in line, and that the yellow custard-looking squares were in high demand. So resisting some gorgeous-looking cakes we got one "Francia Kreme" to share (and wound up with an extra, gratis, as the counter lady expressed both surprise at seeing Americans and dissatisfaction with one's crumbly corner). Total plus 2 cappuccinos, 700 Ft. H was beginning to like it here, I was too busy scarfing the vanilla goodness.

    Onwards to the museum, which closes at 6 so we figured 2 hours was enough. We were wrong. After entering the impressive marbled hall and paying 1100 Ft pp we headed into the well-signed 1st room, which started with excavational goodies from the Paleolithic age, about, oh, 400,000 years ago. Wait, what??!!? Puzzled, we read furiously and after the first three rooms (only up to the Bronze Age!) I felt like a total doink. Ahahaha… the Carpathian Basin… sounds tres Star Trek, but it made sense. Modern Hungary is (roughly) bordered by the Alps in the West, and the Carpathian Mountains from about the noon (border of Slovakia and Poland) to the 3 o'clock position, the rest a fertile plain with the added bonus of several major fast-moving rivers. Over the millennia men, doing what men do best, invaded the area, settled in, invented something new, and got invaded themselves; lather, rinse, repeat. I wished I'd paid more attention in World History, but regardless, the museum has a huge cache of bronze, iron, gold and other precious metal relics that we weren't expecting to encounter. In the Roman Age galleries I especially enjoyed the Tubas (military instruments for signaling, naturally!), the recreated Ballista – an early pre-gunpowder cannon (and perhaps the next Toyota model), and because I Am Mature a glass vial meant for holding aphrodisiacs (10 Forints if you guess what it looked like!).

    Getting a move on, we headed up the grand staircase to the beautiful, gold-leafed and ornately painted atria, wandered into the stunning Cupola room (had to be inspiration for the dance scene in Beauty and the Beast, gorgeous marble floor and huge candelabras), and passed through the classical anteroom sporting unusually pastel colors. Wandering through the Middle Ages our jetlag had us feeling about as old, and we had just gotten to the World Wars when time ran regrettably short. I wanted more signage explaining the socialist and communist propaganda – happy workers all sunshine and spotless minds – but the notes thinned out and so did H's patience with my dallying, which was garnering me some stink-eye from the stalking guards. We were herded out a minute before 6, and wearily made our way all the way down Vaci Utca to the hotel area, so desperate to find a quick Sunday night meal where people weren't soliciting us to come in that we wound up at the cellar "Brewpub" of the ornate and illustrious Café Gerbeaud (www.gerbeaud.hu, right on Vorosmarty Ter), which we knew would be overpriced but were too tired to care (February was a rough month for planning…the brew tanks are fake, BTW, and any "house beers" are brewed off-premises). H sampled a few of the local Dreher beers, surprisingly decent, and I had a glass of local white, not the local Tokaji varietal but as expected pretty sweet. We each had goulash, mine pork and H's beef, a large plate of stew over potatoes, a decent and filling meal and a somewhat embarrassing 10580 Ft. Oh well.

    After washing up back in the room H flipped on the TV and rather entertainingly the forgettable movie I Spy was on - kind of like turning in in Montmartre and turning on Amelie, without snortingly bad dubbing of Eddie Murphy. If you want a preview of local sights, it's not a bad place to start, with several nice shots of the Chain Bridge at night and a few of the baths and squares thrown in. However, there's also Schwarzenegger's Red Heat (Rudas Baths), Evita (St. Stephen's Basilica, other spots around town), and Munich (Puskas Ferenc Stadium and the Gerloczy Café …and, um, Daniel Craig. Doubtless why H ignored my plea to go there, he knew I'd order a Bond, rare, hold the clothes). But the real deals would have to wait as soon we were both passed out.

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    Lovin' it. I sure miss that amazingly beautiful city.
    Nice to see the Museum still has the "stalking guards." Place would seem kind of deserted without them. They could be sound asleep when you look at them, but as soon as you do something you are not supposed to, they are right there with their "Nem Szabad" (not allowed) :>

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    Day 2

    We both woke up before 7 completely starving, and ducked back behind the hotel to a bakery we'd spotted the day before only to learn it didn't open until 8, our first indication that Budapest is not an Early Town. The Mercure has a brekkie buffet, and I do love me some breakfast, but at I don't love it 18 Euro pp much, so we headed North on a brisk Monday morning towards St. Stephen's Basilica, thinking it might be open for an early peek. Negative, Ghostrider, it didn't open until 9, which was fine as we spotted an open coffee joint on the square and treated ourselves to some Café Americanos and "bagel" sandwiches, 2160 Ft. (Fine…AND a nutella muffin, happy now?)

    It was such a nice morning we cut East and decided to walk all the way up Andrassy utca, Budapest's tree-lined and World-Heritage-Site-stamped main drag, which must be quite a sight in springtime when the leaves and flowers are out. The neo-renaissance buildings are lovely, with the streetscape changing from boutiques and restaurants to residential areas and universities, and the further towards Heroes' Square you get the more freestanding, stately Embassies you see – that is, except for the Russians' abortion of a 70's school building thoughtlessly glommed onto an otherwise stately manor, and the odd pink wedding-cake of South Korea. Passing through the Oktogon area H spotted more locals coming out of a teeny bakery and stared like a hound with a milk-bone on its nose, so we ducked in for soft pretzels studded with ginormous salted pumpkin seeds, good stuff (Pekek Kedvencei, look for the cartoon-y baker statue in the doorway, on the side facing the big LG sign). Munching along, at Kodaly Korond we gaped at the graciously curved buildings standing guard over the circle, grand old ladies heavy with ornament and inlay, intrigue and soot. Fortunately nearly half were covered in scaffolding, with one fourth of a quadrangle peeking through in reborn beauty, and I would love to see what they all look like when they're ready for their closeup.

    On, then, to Heroes' square, an arcing collection of imposing statues of tribe leaders and founding fathers - flanked by 2 museums, it's reigned over by a saucy archangel Gabriel trying to get away from tourists and skateboarders. The bas-relief below Bela IV's likeness stood out as hey, look, here's Bela checking out a dump of bodies being picked apart by vultures. Apparently he rebuilt Hungary after a particularly bad run of Mongolian invaders in 1241. I think I would remember more history if it came with more vultures picking apart bodies (*sigh*, careful what you wish for…more on this tomorrow).

    In need of a little walking break, we ventured approximately 5 feet down into the bowels of the M1 Metro line, the oldest metro in continental Europe, which given the size, history, and global ambition of Budapest I don't think you're allowed to call Completely Adorable. But I couldn't help it; I wanted to take it home. So cute! So clean!!! And the happy little doors open/closing chimes KILLED me. As drizzle was in the forecast, we snagged 72-hour passes good for trams/buses/metro, 3850 Ft pp.

    Backtracking to the Bajcsy-Zs ut Metro stop, we finally made it into St. Stephen's, which was ginormous, grandiose, massive, impressive and freezing-ass cold. In a massive FAIL the dome collapsed during construction in 1868, the result of deficiencies in materials, labor, and knowing when to freakin' stop adding height to a dome. A huge restoration in 2003 involved a very old-school method of getting the marble gleaming again, using 200 kg of beeswax and a lot of elbow grease, and the result really is something to behold – all gilt and shine and quiet and height. Note that the elevators and stairs to the overlook are apparently open only in Spring/Summer, starting sometime in April. We did duck into the Szent Jobb side-chapel to have a look at the 1,000-year-old gristly hand of St. Stephen, which has its own bizarro history, but skipped the light show, as did the nearly 20 others who wandered about.

    Meandering West towards the water and the Chain Bridge I dragged H into Gresham Palace, THE Art Nouveau Building in town that caused those orgasmic sighs in the French tourists, a huge blasted-white building lovingly renovated in 1999 and now a Four Seasons overlooking the Danube where I Will Stay One Day. Just gorgeous – I'll note that people always show love to the intricate peacock gates but what impressed me the most were the curlicued and spotless white floor tile pattern and the art nouveau indicators for the elevator cars – the old-school pointers that magically swoop across, all poetry and pendulum.

    As it was nearing 11 we made our way to Deak Ferenc Ter, where every day amongst the many red sightseeing buses a single white bus departs for our next destination, Memento Park (www.mementopark.hu ). In 1992 the still-fledgling government of Budapest had the sense to haul the hated communist statues that once littered the streets and squares out of town, not to destroy them but to make a museum-slash-park, enlisting a few local artists for an overall concept (and a few PR groups on how best to advertise without upsetting those who'd truly suffered). I really wanted to see them, and for 3950 Ft pp you can get R/T bus to/from Deak F. Ter and admission to the park – the bus leaves the square at 11 and departs the Park at 1.

    A big ol' cubist statue of Lenin and Marx greeted the bus, and within the brick enclave we meandered amongst burly concrete Workers strident for the cause, gallant soldiers with big guns and bigger red stars, an my personal favorite – a huge middle-finger of a statue of a Soviet Soldier shaking hands with a Hungarian Worker, each with a don't-f$%^-with-me look on their face. The grounds are not exactly pretty – if it's even been a little drizzly, wear your Wellies, not your Weitzmans – and the new brick pediments are themselves crumbling under the statues. Whether that's again poor materials or poor choice of materials, the monsters depicted pretty much deserve it. Anyway, after wandering amongst the grounds we went into the tin-roofed "exhibit hall", which didn't look like much from the outside but actually was quite informative, especially as the day before our history lesson was cut short just around WWI. There's a scritchy continuous-loop movie made from a found cache of secret-police training videos, and the posters covered WWI to the present-day, including the ill-fated 1956 revolution against hardcore communist rule which became a viciously crushed rebellion. Incidentally, one of them mentioned that the '56 showdown witnessed a resurgence of the Molotov Cocktail, previously used and perfected by the Finns against Russian tanks at the end of WWII and once again meeting the same enemy. If you want an up-close look at communist allegory in concrete or if you just want to give Hungarians props for being so forward-thinking (or if it's a Monday and everything else is closed), I'd recommend a visit.

    Back at Deak Ferenc Ter hunger was bellowing, so we metro'd and walked down to the delightful Central Market for some eats and souvenir-scoping. We liked what we saw at Brumy Salatbar (stall K-7, right-hand-side, their stand-up tables have candles) and the ladies were friendly, so I had a big plate of stuffed cabbage over pasta while H enjoyed some stuffed chicken over rice (800 Ft each), washed down of course with a Dreher. We then moseyed through the upper decks checking out the embroidery and other touristy knickknacks before heading to the fun of the downstairs market, where like in all cultures that have seen tough times you can get any piece of any (domestic) animal you want. A quarter of a sheep's head! Chicken feet! A panoply of pork products! By this point we were pretty spent (and a little punchy), so it was time to meander back towards the hotel (read: check out the art nouveau buildings along Vaci Utca, stop at bars, and start drinking).

    Nearing 5 o'clock we were in one such adult-beverage establishment when DH decided we should go on a drinks cruise on the Danube, as the weather was still holding. One of the tours offered a 7 PM run which met at 6:30 on Zrinyi ut, near the Gresham, so I was game but needed a bit more food. Thinking clearly this time we headed to the recommended Café Kor for a hopefully-quick meal (17 Sas Utca 2 blocks from St. Stephen's). The restaurant is small, unpretentious with very courteous service and quite the number of reservations for later on, but we easily walked into a deuce and ordered quickly – I tried a local red, Gal Tibor Pinot Noir from Eger, 2005 (1650 Ft/glass), and ordered the duck with Amaretto sauce and croquettes (2780 Ft), H had a beer and (I love writing this) Transylvanian veal with potatoes and cucumber salad (3480 Ft). My wine and the duck were, in a word, astonishing. Silky, perfectly springy duck balanced with the hint of almond-apricot spirits, the smooth density of the stock/liqueur sauce mingling with the wine…astonishing. I hadn't been this stunned by a meal since a certain cheese plate in Philly, and we were both reduced to obscenities. Holy Magyars, that one quick meal was just transcendent - get thee to Kor, they know what they're doing (and bring Forints, it's cash-only).

    We dashed down to the Duna Palota concert hall at 5 Zrinyi ut and joined a line for tickets on the 7 PM cruise (www.ticket.info.hu , 4200 Ft pp for drinks-only, champagne + 1). Swept along to the pier with the others, we boarded while serenaded by a cheery string trio, and we were almost the beginning of a joke – so these Ukrainians, Macedonians, Texans, and Yankees board a boat… A bit smug that we didn't do the steam-table dinner (F%^&!! That DUCK!!!) we nonetheless lingered at our table for a bit before noticing the buffet steam was fogging up our view, so we spent most of our lovely eve aft, enjoying the spot-lit majesty of the buildings, the beautiful lights of the chain bridge, and just being able to Hang Out on the fast-running river.

    H: So did you notice they announced the location of the bar, then the heads, but they never did a lifejacket muster?
    A: I love it here. And that duck rocked.

    After an enjoyable 1.5 hour cruise we moseyed back towards the hotel, but by then I was fairly shiitake'd and in need of some soakage, so we hit the Café Ana on a nearby corner for some unremarkable Dobostorta and waters (1990 Ft) before hitting the sack, exhausted but happy.

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    You saw Momento Park! I am jealous...but I wanted to see the Arts & Crafts Museum, and the Castle District, and the Central Market and have a thermal bath, and see Szentendre...and there were only so many days. But I enjoyed your description of the "burly concrete workers" very much.
    And I also loved the chiming Metro 1 line -- almost like a toy metro, somehow.
    So please finish the story; it's delightfully verbose rather than annoyingly so.

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    Day 3
    After sleeping off the evening's libations, we awoke a bit later and managed to hit the coffee shop/bakery behind the hotel around 9 for a 1260 Ft pp special of coffee, OJ, and breakfast Panini, and while looking over the map I wondered aloud (and *Off-Plan*) if we'd be able to manage an English-language Parliament tour at 10, given the difficulties we'd read about from others on fodors.com. Just to see, I went to inquire at the desk if there was a way to call ahead to get tickets while H went to drop gear back off in the room, expecting that it wouldn't be possible. However, the desk clerk said something to the effect of Of course, wait right here, it's 5000 Forints per person and the taxi will be here in less than 10 minutes and then she was on the phone. Boom. Uhhh…at this time H showed up, and I feebly said the taxis' on its way and how much cash do we have left, and he's a bit… less than pleased. Oops. Clearly the coffee hadn't kicked in for me yet to say Waitaminit!, and the look I got as H handed over the last of our cash was Not Pretty. The next thing we know we're taxiing to the Intercontinental, to the "EURama" offices, and waiting for another taxi and our tour guide, unsure if anyone else would join us but very sure that this has garnered me my first FAIL of the trip (www.eurama.hu).

    About quarter to 10 our guide, a friendly middle-aged lady, arrived and led us to a taxi, which whooshed us to the Parliament square area while describing the statues and sights around us. She took us to the statue of Imre Nagy, describing his role in the '56 uprising, and pointed out the Soviet War Memorial on the next square, then walked us past the agriculture building and pointed out the steel balls marking the gunshots where during the '56 revolution the demonstrating college-aged kids were shot by Soviet snipers from nearby roofs. I don't think we would have noticed these had she not pointed them out, so was feeling a bit better about things, and while she was explaining the Hungarian flag with a center hole cut out at another '56 revolution memorial (I counted 4 within a 200-yard radius) she paused as a distinguished if short-ish gentleman walked by trailed by a beautiful, muscular, rust-nosed and rust-haired hound darting across the grass. Smiling, she said that the man was a Very Famous Hungarian Actor, and that his dog was a Very Typical Hungarian hunting dog (later investigation proved it to be a Vizla, aka Hungarian Hound. Cool. Haven't a clue who the guy was).

    There were about 18 people waiting for the tour already, and she spoke quickly to the purchasing-tix-line guard, was allowed past the chains, and in a matter of minutes was back with our tickets, and a little past 10 our goateed young guide led us into the 1st hall for the tour. So far, so good. And the building, so unusually, eclectically, semi-gothically beautiful on the outside is the same on the inside, loaded with interesting detail (check the seraphs on the candelabras) and those fabulous stogie-trays outside the House room (In my Happy World, we wouldn't need numbers, we'd simply be able to tell whose was whose based on lip gloss color). The tour takes you through three main areas – the main entrance hall, the crown jewels, and the (now-defunct but occasionally-used) Upper House – other reports/guidebooks do a better job than I at filling in the details, as I was listening and chatting in-between with our guide about the current state of affairs and the upcoming elections (it's hard to miss the election posters about town, regardless of what language they're in). The young man gave a good tour, and in grand European tourguide style got his expected dig in at the Yankees while we admired at the crown jewels, noting that we were still burning witches in Salem in the 1600s while Hungary had outlawed the practice in the 1100s. While we were all in the Upper House room, he showed his political chops, though, deftly answering questions on the post-communist political system, its problems, and what kinds of dramas were about to unfold with the April elections, spending an extra 10 minutes or so with our group to wonk out for a bit. I appreciated that, and thought that my railroading had a happy, if expensive, ending.

    After we said goodbye to the guide we checked out the aforementioned Soviet War Memorial celebrating the "liberators" on Szabadsag ter, conveniently across from the nicely restored yellow-and-white American embassy. Once upon a time a concrete FU to the evil capitalists a few yards away, now it's more of a local pain in the ass as it has to be fenced and monitored to prevent constant threat of vandalism, and according to our tourguide there's a perpetual ruckus to move it the hell out to Memento Park. Regardless of the enormous baggage of both structures, there was a passel of preschoolers running around doing what preschoolers do best (which is to say, running around like crazies yelling and screaming), which palpably softened the scene and we smiled at each other, shaking our heads before moving on.

    Ever onwards, we took the Metro one stop from Kossuth Ter to Batthyany Ter to cut under the Danube to the Buda side, with the intention of taking the funicular up Castle Hill. Deciding a snack was in order first, though, we quickly checked out the colorful houses along the square (including the neat white one sunk below street level) and ducked into the Market Hall, but this one was more like a mall up top with a grocery store on the lower level. I love me some foreign groceries, so H indulged me by buying snacks at the bakery stand up front while I puttered around, looking for (possibly cheaper) paprika (no dice) and noting that big bottles of Dreher were only 200 Ft. Plus the meat counter is a hell of a lot more exciting than our local Stop-Chop-Save-Rite-Mart back home (Tiny livers! Feet! Guts!).

    Moving along the Danube to Clark Adam Ter, we discovered the funicular was malfunctioning, so we turned left and walked up the paved path (if you take the concrete cut-through about 50 yards along, it takes you to a path to the 2 little bridges that go over the funicular's tracks). Since this is getting too lengthy, I'll only mention that in the Castle area we skipped the museums and the National Gallery, and didn't manage to rub the balls of Andras Hadik's horse for good luck (such as the engineering students do at the University two blocks away. Luckiest horse statue Ever). We did, however, greatly enjoy the views from the Fisherman's Bastion, the fairytale-like fort-line overlooking the Danube, Parliament and the rest of Pest, and the colorful tile patterned roof of St. Matthias' church - unusual and gorgeous. We paid to enter the church (750 Ft pp), and while the interior painting is unusual in its byzantine reference, the ongoing renovations are a bit jarring – there's electrical cable jutting out of a back wall painted with hundreds-of-years-old scenes. I think the best part of the area was wandering the cobblestone streets of Tancsics and Fortuna, realizing that people actually live here in colorful little townhomes within the ancient walls. We departed through the "Vienna Gate" where the Hungarians finally pushed through and reclaimed the Castle from the Turks in 1686, and wandered Szabo Ilonka utca to Franklin utca back to Batthyany ter, a neat cobblestoned walk through residential buildings and some swank hillside houses that eventually lead to a big set of stairs overlooking just the dome of Parliament.

    Definitely needing lunch, we entered Nagyi Palacsintazoja, the red building to the right of the Market Hall on the Ter, a cute wood-paneled Hungarian-style fast food counter selling stuffed jacket potatoes and crepes and crammed with local students. 2 "Hungarian" potatoes slathered with goulash were soon shown a little radar love and served up hot, followed by 2 Nutella crepes and 2 coke lights (total 1700 Ft) and we rested at the window seat, chowing down. America may run on Dunkin', but on vacay AHaugeto runs on Nutella. And there's a restroom for patrons upstairs, just watch your head!

    Switching to the M1 line to Vorosmarty Utca, it was time to visit the Terror Museum, where we tried to set aside mixed reviews and preconceived notions and just see what's up for ourselves (1800 Ft pp, www.houseofterror.hu, Andrassy ut 60).

    [Initial verdict: We agreed with other fodorites that it's not perfect – there's a dearth of English signage, and the English leaflets in most rooms are pretty verbose (and that's coming from me!!) – but I think the layout does make sense if you follow the pamphlet: after the entering at ground level, take the stairs or elevator TWO floors up (US 3rd floor), not one, and start there following the black arrows in the pamphlet layout. Then go down ONE floor, and at the end of that floor (US 2nd floor, Hungarian 1st) the elevator takes you into the bowels of the building.]

    Where to begin… if invasion is the story of Hungary, then terror rides shotgun – be it from Mongols, Hapsburgs, the homegrown Arrow Cross fascists or the Soviet secret police. Not knowing if Daddy will come back home after taking in ever-so-slightly less of his compulsory milk quota for the Soviet Army because the cows are sick, having your girlfriend get sent to prison for 3 years for picking a horribly bad spot to neck with her fiancé, praying to God with one eye over your shoulder… though the signage may have been lacking, the everyday experiences pictured plus the historical recount of who and when and why and how got the point across, regardless of some rather opaque allegorical displays. Terror. At the end of the 2nd floor (Hungarian 1st), we were sent into a large, pitch-black elevator with a single flatscreen TV where in black and white an old man began talking, english subtitles jumping along. As the elevator sloooooowly descended he described his job in the secret prison below.
    He had to clean the torture chambers.
    He had to clean the hanging rooms.
    He described in detail how men (and women) were prepared to be hung.
    How they convulsed.
    How the doctor said the same thing every time after listening to the chests.
    And then the door slid open to the low, dank ceilings of the recreated cells.

    I am not a squirrelly person but…damn. Walking around amongst the cells, there's one in particular in a corner that won't leave my head – not tall enough to stand up in, not wide enough to sit down in, bare damp concrete wall and a wooden door with a small hole. Dear God. Finding myself in a room with the smaller-style hanging pillars, nooses and stepstools at the ready, I thought I couldn't be creeped out any more, but I was wrong. In one room there is another flatscreen, another B&W film from '96, of a bunch of old women - babushkas, thick glasses, sensible shoes - resting on metal bunkbeds in a stark room. They're confronting their former jailer and tormentor. They're alternately crying and yelling at the woman, remembering, rupturing craggy, deep scars and bleeding for all to see. Grandmas. Great-grandmas. Talking, screaming about how the woman lined them up at 1 AM for fun to be "counted", how she chose who got medical care and who did not. Who lived. Who died. Terror. Dear God. After about 2 hours we decided we had seen all that we had come to see.

    So now what, exiting the museum (and taking deep breaths)? We hustled back to the M1, thinking we'd catch the free walking tour of the Jewish quarter at 3:30 as we were already (kind of) in the area, only to discover at Deak Ferenc Ter that neither of us had brought the info with us so we didn't know where to look (not to mention the Tourist Info booth on the square is in the midst of renovations). So, against my better judgment and feeling way too tired, we kept going like a Camry, not knowing when to quit. When we got to the Dohany synagogue, all I really wanted to do was bail, hit one of the baths, and soak for a few hours, but I didn't have the ovaries to say something, so served me right to pay about 4800 Ft pp for admission to the park and synagogue, an English tour, and admission to the museum… where I'd wind up seeing more photos of several hundred bodies piled up in their tiny courtyard-slash-cemetery during the pogroms than my psyche was ready to receive. It's a beautifully restored, massive and unusual synagogue with unexpectedly Christian accents and several impressive memorials (the weeping willow sculpture in particular, with holocaust victim names on every leaf, is movingly beautiful), but take my advice and don't go right after the Terror Museum.

    We quietly headed back to the hotel and I asked for a timeout, wandering the streets off of Vaci Utca by myself for a bit in an attempt to process and unwind and just be alone for a bit. It wasn't working too well, started raining to boot, but when we met back up at the Silenus pub behind the hotel, a hearty pub meal and a lot of talking and mental and physical digesting went a long way towards clearing the air, and I made DH promise that first thing tomorrow we'd hit a bath, and even a bakery and a bar or two.

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    You're bringing me back to our trip to Budapest 3 years ago, just at about this time. How I miss it! Want to go back! We went to see the ballet on opening night at the Opera House. Our B&B hosts arranged tickets for us. They did a full length version of "Gone with the Wind". Really. Wonderfully danced, although amusing Eastern European folk dancing soldiers. (When did the Russians take over Atlanta?) Anyway, it was an experience.

    We also took an overnight trip to Eger. Wonderful.

    Keep going. I'm ready to hear more.

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    Day 4

    Up a bit after 7 we threw bathing suits, flip flops, and hotel towels into the bag and picked up the Metro from Vorosmarty Ter back to Oktogon to revisit DH's new favorite little bakery, this time getting some decent pains au chocolat, pains au Nutella, and cappuccinos. Back on the M1 we exited at the Szechenyi Fordo stop supposedly about a ½ block from the Szechenyi baths in the city park, and noticing 2 women with red-hair-rinse and Adidas bags we bird-dogged them into the fabulously baroque main entrance. Like the Icelanders and Japanese, Hungarians may not have a beer culture but they absolutely have a bathing culture, and within 20 seconds of H and I staring at a map to get our bearings, a young blonde woman helped us out in perfect English, and hooked us up with locker-only tickets for 3100 Ft pp. They have a new, easy wristband deal now (a la Blue Lagoon), but with the new system you don't get a refund if you leave before 2 hours. Even after yesterday I was still intrigued by the idea of having a Hungarian going all Jersey Shore on my c-spine, but decided against booking a massage (next time…note you can get any number of treatments extra, they didn't look all that spendy).

    After taking a few pictures of the gorgeous mosaics in the soaring, glittering entryway we eagerly went our own ways down circular marble stairs. I was greeted by a nice older woman who motioned to me, helped me open the locker with the wristband, and showed me the shower and bathroom, and after a giddy change I went upstairs and eventually made my way past the cabana area to find H already smiling in one of the slighty-green mineral pools, set at a toasty 38C. Ohhellyeah. In grand European style several men were sporting "suits" only a registered nurse could get them into (and out of), but as far as I could tell we were the only tourists in the joint. After an initial braising we happily pool-hopped in several of the 5 interior pool rooms, even spending a little time in one of the 50C saunas, steam and eucalyptus blasting any remaining resistance (and beer) out of our pores. Eventually we made it to the outside pools, which were positively awash in sunshine – the 1st pool out of the doors is about 38C, and has a nice fountain that will pound the snot out of you if you back up to it, and I was thrilled to see a group of old men hanging out in the water playing chess on plastic boards on a little concrete jetty. Cool. I watched for a while, then H convinced me to try the back 34C pool where to my delight we found the circular wave-pool, which had some surprisingly strong current. Way fun. Best of all, every 15 mins or so half of the back pool floor erupts with sizable circular jets aimed straight up, making the whole area look volcanic, and apparently while standing on one I had a look on my face that made H ask if I needed to be alone.

    After almost 2 hours of cavorting we were thoroughly pruned, and back at the main entrance we stopped to chat for nearly 15 minutes with the blonde attendant, who had studied in the US for 6 months and who filled us in on the state of affairs for Szechenyi (not good – not enough tourists, not enough money coming in from the medical benefits of the pensioners, so they are thinking of selling to a private company). As for her prospects, we were amused to note that she'd already ruled out moving to the States, as it's too big and nobody smokes.

    Sluggish and mellow we entered the Museum of Fine Arts back at Heroes' Square about 2 blocks from the baths and checked our bag reeking of bath and wet towel (www.szepmuveszeti.hu , 1600 Ft pp without special exhibit entry). We discovered a smallish set of galleries next to the coat check that did have some Impressionism – Puvis de Chavannes, Rodin and the like – but on the main floors the 13th-18th century dominates, and the Hungarians have to have the most suspicious guards I have ever seen, following you from gallery to gallery like a bad smell. Amongst all the imposing Velazquez's and the El Grecos, all El Greco-y, my favorites were a Spanish painting of loud shiitake'd men surrounded by books (my book club, only dude form!) and in one of the Italian galleries on the 2nd floor (Hungarian 1st) I swear it looks like the Last Supper is about to be fetal pig (posthumous note to artist: He's A JEW). The top floor has a smallish collection of Dutch paintings, and it's worth a peek in the back room – if I've said it once I've said it a thousand times, nobody paints fowl like the Flemish (Caruncles!! Snoods!!!).

    Eventually we picked up the metro, emptied out the backpack, and did the obligatory tram #2 ride along the Danube back to Central Market Hall, where we hit booth K-7 again for eats (lovely porkolt over potatoes for me, beef version for H) and then did well over an hour of trying to find things to buy for our Mothers Who Already Have Everything ("Liar – your Mom would LOVE that sheep's tripe, we'll just check that bag!"). This may have been the only time in my life where visible aggravation with me and my vacation-shopping habits was only an act on DH's part – I think one of his stink-eyes and sighed "Seriously?"'s knocked another 200 Forints off my tinned paprika haul. Yk is right – head to the back right stalls for the best deals, and don't be a kittycat – negotiate a little.

    By now we both needed some refreshments, so we did the obligatory walk over the Chain Bridge to the Buda side once again, heading to Apor Peter utca and the recommended Pater Marcus beer house, a cellar pub boasting nearly 60 Belgian beers – most holy, some unholy (I still hate you, Duvel). After sampling a few of the house brands and wandering into more familiar territory, DH had forgotten my plantation of paprika and was ready to head back to the hotel to clean up for dinner. Out on the breezy walk back to the Metro alongside the racing Danube, I stopped to tie my shoe and looked up to see H gazing at the murky current, hands behind his back, then turning towards me. Saint Sebastian waiting for the arrows.

    Did I mention we were going to the Opera?

    Food first: we headed to the swanky Klassz (41 Andrassy ut), which doesn't take reservations but as we were there about 5:20 (for a 7 PM curtain) it didn't really matter and we easily got a deuce. The high, narrow room and way-chic wallpaper almost make you forget to look down, where in a rather clever feat the floor has been concrete-stamped with the same pattern as the paper, and up about 10 feet in the back wall there's an unusual window to the upper-level kitchen where the chef himself can pace the meal without having to rely on floor staff. Interesting. I tried my luck again with a local Pinot noir – this time St. Andrea, not quite as nice as the Gal Tibor but still better than expected – and H settled in with a Dreher before I convinced him we needed to split the grilled foie gras on quince drizzled with a Tokaji and honey sauce for starters (1950 Ft). Whoa… they must be keeping the geese in the back, it was so fresh as to be practically pulsing. I took another chance on duck, served atop fresh peas macerated with mint and accompanied by pickled pearl onions and buttery potatoes, and H went for roast lamb on a potato galette (he won this time, though my peas were very interesting and tasty). All in all, a good feed, but I would quibble with their lights being up way too high - it made it seem a bit sterile regardless of the reasonably friendly service.

    To the Opera! Turandot, to be precise, performed in the amazingly lush Opera House across the street, tickets scored while DH was in bed with a roaring fever, GI bug, and a leering wife with her laptop open to www.jegymester.hu (Level 4 Tickets, 3500 Ft pp, left 9th box, 2nd row seats). We had plenty of time to poke around the fabulous, neoclassical interior loaded with gilt and red carpet, enjoying a split of Hungarian bubbly in one of the terrace bars before taking our seats in the box behind a few older couples who thankfully weren't That Tall.

    Lest you think I'm a complete witch, I don't think H minds the Opera, really, as a) tickets and alcohol are relatively cheap in Eastern Europe, b) it's not something we normally do at home, and c) the spectacle of it all is frequently just beyond. In terms of costumes, with the Asian theme going I was hoping to see something along the lines of Lady Gaga meets Princess Mononoke, but no dice. Calaf had quite the fake widows' peak weave with "Asian" topknot, however, geeky on the tenor but not Travolta-level-laughable. A row of five-foot high vertical poles with white wads atop at the front of the proscenium separated the stage from the audience, and I had hoped we'd be treated to some heavy Stomp-style interpretive-Puccini-gong-thrashing but alas, partway through the first Act it was clear they were suitor's heads on pikes. Oops.

    Speaking of remembering, I (kind of) knew the plot ahead of time as it's performed in Italian but supertitled in Hungarian, which I still couldn't help but try to read only to remember "Dammit! It's in Hungarian!" (this happened about 500 times). Quite a spectacle for three full hours, though, and while Turandot threw an arial hissyfit at the end of the first Act I quickly tried to count the bodies on stage and stopped at 100 – companies must HATE staging this ("Can't we sing Waiting for Godot next time???"). And Calaf's weave was getting to him – at the end of Act II, he's ditched the remora, answered the three riddles correctly, bagged a princess bride, and saved his own neck - you'd think he'd show some swagga but no, homeboy expressed all the emotion of a lasagna. Turandot could throw it, though, and by the end I think we both enjoyed the spectacle and the spectacular theater. We were a bit bummed at the end when the place erupted in applause, waiting for the Communist Clap (no, you naughty thing, you – it's where the entire audience claps in unison, gradually upping the tempo), and when it DID happen we smiled and bolted for the doors and the happy chimes of the M1 line back to Vorosmarty Ter.

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    Your mention of Central Market Hall alone is enough to make my mouth water! Oh, how much I miss authentic Hungarian food (which does not exist in the Boston area).

    I'm glad the Hungarian audience didn't disappoint you in the communist clap! Did you clap along? =D>

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    Day 5

    On our last kid-free morning we slugged a bit, then dragged ourselves out into the overcast morn to the Jegbufe bakery out at Ferenciek Tere for some not-exactly-cinnamon rolls (woo! There is custard in there somewhere) and some meh turnovers washed down with cappuccinos. Without agenda, we pointed ourselves in the direction of Raday Utca off of Kalvin Ter and put the map away to wander, enjoying peeking into the store windows and noting that the restaurants and galleries seemed to be more interesting than on Vaci Utca (a little late for it now…oh well). I'd half a mind to look for that Gal Tibor wine, and headed for the Bortarsasag store (the retail arm of the Budapest Wine Society, 7 Raday utca) only to find that it didn't open until noon. Not an Early Town, Budapest (other locations can be found at http://www.bortarsasag.hu/en/ - click on the bottom "winestores" link). Regardless, we now had A Mission, and ducked into various groceries and bodegas, picking up sundry Euro-candy for the boys and requisite nibbling bread for H.

    After days of wandering it was by now second nature for us to look for a highly unusual phenomenon, and even in this part of town it remained constant: the jaywalking thing. The majority of the good folks of Budapest simply don't do it. DH, being from New York, has a black belt in jaywalking, and I think he noticed it first: this bizarre behavior whereby a sentient being at a crosswalk, devoid of any vehicular challenge whatsoever for blocks, will simply NOT break bad and just cross the damn street against the red-light-man, not even where there are NO police in sight. There could be crickets, tumbleweeds rolling down the street, and even younger folk won't go (notable exceptions around the touristy areas – esp. the Central Market). It's completely foreign behavior, no doubt a remnant from keeping your arse out of trouble when even the stupidest little infraction could land you in a cell for a few years. Weird.

    Wandering back towards Vaci Utca but paralleling East, H spotted a large wine display in a CBA grocery and ducked in; I followed, scanning the rack tags only…Dammit! They're in Hungarian! But wait, H found the vineyard label, and before I knew it I had 2 bottles of the '05 Pinot Noir in my hand, 3450 Ft each. Hooray (um... Back home on the Bortarsasag site I noticed it was cheaper, but God knows what shipping would cost. Just don’t tell DH please. Thanks.) Back on Vaci, we now saw the same Pinot in a tourist-trap wine store a few blocks from the hotel, 4990 Ft, which made me confident enough to finish packing my bags and try my luck at the fast-fashion stores down the block. Ah, but the shopping gods punish the smug, and the shoe deities clearly said Peace-Out on my first attempt, so before I knew it I was empty handed and heading back to meet the minibus-shuttle to the airport to catch the first of two flights home.

    [If we manage another trip, I would like to see the Arts & Crafts Museum and soak in the Gellert baths, and I'm a little bummed I didn't make it to see Glenn Brown's show at the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art (only running until April 11)…next time!]

    So. I suspect that a great number of travelers come to Budapest on the heels of other cities like Vienna and Prague, which is understandable but inevitably makes for comparison where one paints with one's handiest brush – that is to say, if you're easily offended by graffiti tagging then you might think it dirty and unsafe compared to Vienna, or if you prefer your Art Nouveau already cleaned up and sparkly then bomb-dodging Prague may suit you better. Again it's understandable, but I don't think it's fair.

    But it takes all kinds, and I'm hardly a delicate little flower, so... Graffiti? Look up, above the 8-foot mark, and enjoy the surprisingly carved buildings you won't see anywhere else. Soot? Yeah, but for every sooty building there's a grande dame covered in scaffolding waiting to be reborn (and some, thankfully, already are). Seriously depressing history? Yup. Go see what you can, learn what you can, feel what you can, and then hit a nice bath afterwards for some happy time. It's a beautiful city that has embraced and opened its painful history for all to witness in a way we hadn't seen before elsewhere, and deserves to stand on its own.

    Just look for cops before you jaywalk. And try the duck.

    Happy Travels.

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    Loved your report. We're attending a wedding in Kosovo in August and debated for a while which city to tack on to the trip. Budapest won. Your report was descriptive and just detailed enough. It's made me super excited to see this incredible city. The walking you did was amazing; I hope we'll have the same stamina! Bookmarking for reference - thanks!

    Ellen

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