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The "B" Trip, Part Four, Pecs to Budapest

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Jan 25th, 2012, 02:22 PM
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The "B" Trip, Part Four, Pecs to Budapest

This is Part Four of my "B" trip, including three southern Hungarian cities I visited for their Art Nouveau buildings, and Budapest. I flew back to the US from Budapest after several days in a wonderful little apartment.

I started the trip in Helsinki, back at the end of August: http://www.fodors.com/community/euro...ne-baltics.cfm

Then I flew to Serbia, before joining a tour in Bulgaria: http://www.fodors.com/community/euro...d-bulgaria.cfm

The third leg covered a chunk of the Western Baltics, including Albania: http://www.fodors.com/community/euro...rn-balkans.cfm

For pictures, see my blog: http://mytimetotravel.wordpress.com/

I started out writing from the road, but that didn't go so well, partly because I caught a bug of some kind in Albania, and have been only gradually making progress since I got home.

October 28-31, 2011: Surprised by Pecs

When I left on this trip, all I knew about the end was that I would fly from Budapest to Washington for four nghts and then take Amtrak home. How I'd get to Budapest was something I'd figure out later. Maybe the train from Zagreb? (Perhaps it had improved since 2004...) Maybe traveling north from Serbia via a couple of southern Hungarian towns with Art Nouveau architecture? I took along a few pages from Lonely Planet "Hungary" covering part of the south, just in case.

After I saw the lovely buildings in Subotica, just over the border in Serbia but clearly a legacy of Austro-Hungarian occupation, southern Hungary became even more enticing. When I ran out of time to visit the Istrian peninsula, and discovered there was a train from Sarajevo to Budapest, I added Pecs to Szeged and Kecskemet as stop-offs on the way to Budapest. I didn't have any guidebook pages for Pecs, but remembered reading about it before I left. I'd get off the Budapest-bound train in Pecs, take a bus over to Szeged, and then ride the train again to Kecskemet and Budapest.

It turned out to be an inspired decision, especially where Pecs and Szeged were concerned. Both towns had undergone excellent renovations, and in both towns I stayed in brand-new, interesting small hotels. Given the unexpected hassle of the train trip from Sarajevo (see Part Three), I was especially relieved to check into an en-suite room in the Hotel Arkadia (http://www.hotelarkadiapecs.hu/ ), which I had found on agoda.com, a site I more often use for Asian hotels.

But I would have put up with much less comfortable digs in exchange for the town itself. Small enough to be walkable, with a long main "square" amply provided with benches, it still boasted plenty of photogenic buildings. And a remarkable cathedral. Not so unusual on the outside, I was blown away by the interior, literally covered with decoration. I was reminded of Albi, whose cathedral was plain and forbidding on the outside, and a kaleidosope of color on the inside. I was tempted to return to Pecs' cathedral for Sunday mass, so I could see the place lit up, but wandered the streets instead.

Then there was the 16th century Mosque of Pasha Gazi Kassim, dominating the main square. A reminder of the years of Turkish occupation, it had been converted to a combination church and museum. The Jakawali Hassan Museum was also housed in a 16th century mosque, but a much smaller one, and with a much quirkier exhibition. The main room was walled with mirrors, and I became somewhat disoriented. I had hoped, in true ecumenical fashion, to also visit the large 19th century synagogue, but it was closed and I had to settle for photographing the exterior.

Besides the buildings I visited a couple of museums. The ethnographic wasn't especially interesting, but I had a nice time at the Zsolnay ceramics museum (http://zsolnay.com/ ), the firm having been responsible for much of the tile work decorating buildings of the late 19th and early 20th century. Unfortunately, their fountain, one of Pecs' signature sights, was covered over for the winter.

I ate well in Pecs, too, notably at Susogo (http://www.susogo.hu/ ), next to the National Theater on the main pedestrian street. Here I progressed from coffee outside, to lunch inside, which impressed me so much I made a dinner reservation. A nice touch for solo diners was the wide-screen TV, fed by a camera in the kitchen, supplementing the view of the action in the street below. But the main attraction was unquestionably the food, notably a couple of soups and a duck breast with foie gras.

I didn't need the covered fountain to tell me I had arrived in the off season - the evenings were cold, and the souvenir shops a little short of customers. But that was fine with me. I did see one small tour group, clearly on an excursion from a cruise ship, and a number of independents, but I suspect that the town has yet to really make it onto the tourist circuit. See it now!
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Jan 25th, 2012, 03:44 PM
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Sounds magical. Where oh where did the cruise-ship tourists come from? Pecs seems a long long way from any port. Lake Balaton?
Interesting to discover agoda.com. Never heard of it before. Obviously an Asian site...Japanese? Looks like it's in my price range too!
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Jan 25th, 2012, 04:09 PM
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"where did the cruise-ship tourists come from?"

Probably the Danube - it flows not far to the east, I crossed it on the bus to Szeged. (See, for example, http://www.vantagetravel.com/trip/trips_1284 )

I've used agoda.com several times with no problems. Sometimes it's useful for finding places that have only recently opened - I found the hotel I stayed in over Christmas 2010 in Trivandrum that way, although I actually booked through the hotel's website.
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Jan 27th, 2012, 08:41 AM
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I'm glad to learn that you enjoyed Pecs. One of my kids studied abroad there back in the 1990's and the main problem was the terrible pollution. Since you didn't mention it, I assume that is has improved.
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Jan 27th, 2012, 09:02 AM
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Right, no pollution in the air, and nice clean buildings (take a look at the pix on my blog). Traveling across Eastern Europe these days you see a lot of derelict factory complexes, relics of the Communist era and probably the source of the pollution your kid experienced.
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Jan 27th, 2012, 09:21 AM
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Where are your pics from Budapest? I was there this past October and loved it!
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Jan 27th, 2012, 09:58 AM
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I haven't written that blog post yet, or sorted the photos, but I have Budapest photos up from an earlier visit here:

http://kwilhelm.smugmug.com/Travel/E...ngary-Budapest
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Jan 31st, 2012, 09:13 AM
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October 31 - November 2, 2011: Super Szeged

I really liked Pecs, but I loved Szeged. Mostly because it had so many Art Nouveau buildings, and eclectic Art Nouveau at that. It looked like the town had been lavishing some love on those buildings, too. Take the gorgeous Reok Palace, filling the corner of Kolcsey utca and Tisza Lajos Korut, which was described in my Lonely Planet as having "been left to the elements, and ... coming off second best". By the time I saw it, it looked fabulous. The New Synagogue, on the other hand, "Szeged's most compelling sight", was in dire need of help. It's gates were locked, and the grounds overgrown.

Although the town center was bigger than Pecs', it was still eminently walkable. Well, aside, perhaps, to or from the train station. I arrived by bus from Pecs at a busy bus station on the north-eastern edge, but then rolled my case westwards towards the river and my hotel, the brand-new Soleil (http://www.hotelsoleil.hu/nf2.php?lang=en - reserved through booking.com via eurocheapo.com), through oddly quiet streets. Then I remembered that while I was arriving on Halloween, a big day for American kids, the next day, All Saints Day, was a big day for a lot of Catholic adults. The helpful woman who checked me into the hotel confirmed that I had indeed arrived in the middle of a holiday.

Thanks to the holiday, I didn't see inside any of the town's museums, just the main church, but with so many beautiful exteriors, I really didn't care. The folk art museum hadn't sounded that enticing in any case, so I spent my time strolling the streets, enjoying the sunshine and taking loads of photos. I enjoyed my hotel, too, and rather wished I was staying longer (I had yet to see my apartment in Budapest...) My room had a loft for the big bed, loads of storage, a desk (with free wifi), a coffee maker, and shared a lounge and kitchen with another room. The only complaint I could make was the lack of an outside railing for the stairs to the loft - I descended with great care!

I didn't find a restaurant to match the Susugo in Pecs, but I didn't eat badly, although I was definitely finding prices higher in Hungary. When I headed for the train station, and the hourly train to Kecskemet, it was with considerable regret.
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Feb 7th, 2012, 08:58 AM
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November 2-4, 2011: Cool to Kecskemet

By the time I reached Kecskemet, my third stop in southern Hungary, my expectations were high. Maybe that was the problem, because the town just didn't excite me the way Pecs and Szeged had. If I'd seen it first I'd probably have liked it more. Not that I would suggest skipping it, especially if you favor the National Romantic style of Art Nouveau, but it didn't rate the two nights I gave it.

Since the Szeged-Budapest rail line runs through Kecskemet, with hourly trains, it would be an easy stop off on the way, or perhaps a day trip from Budapest. After the bus trip across country from Pecs to Szeged (no train available) I was glad enough to be back on the rails, but it was a bit of a slog from the Kecskemet train station to Fabian Panzio, my cute B&B (http://panziofabian.hu/en/hu_szolg.php ) - the town was bigger and busier than the other two.

My digs were small but comfortable, the T.I. helpful, the museums open... But winter was definitely setting in, the architecture disappointed after Szeged, and I had a particularly bad meal in a well-reviewed restaurant. (Avoid Kecskemeti Csarda, and eat at Kisbugaci Csarda instead.) After investigating the Folk Craft Museum and the Ornamental Palace I took refuge in the modern three story mall near my B&B, where I could thaw out and indulge in drinkable coffee next to a big bookstore.

Although the coffee, and the food court, and the cheap SIM stand (where I had to fill out a quite remarkable amount of paperwork) were all welcome, I could have done without the Christmas decorations. Really, it was only the beginning of November!
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Feb 11th, 2012, 09:53 AM
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November 3-9, 2011: Nesting in Budapest

A sobe at the southern end of Andrassy Ut. That room in an elderly woman's apartment, with shared bath, was my "home" in Budapest in 2004. A great location, but short on privacy.

A somewhat ramshackle hotel near the Elizabeth Bridge. My Budapest lodging in 2007. A pretty good location, but short on comfort.

So, where to stay in 2011? I still wanted the Pest side of the Danube - better transport, more restaurants, and a great view of Buda. (You can't see Buda when you're staying there.) I was tempted by the Leo Panzio, which had been full in 2007, but then I remembered reading about some great apartments (http://www.budapestvacationrentals.com ) in a trip report here, and with a little searching I found the reference (several, in fact).

Now, apartments are a great deal for families, and for couples traveling together, but like rental cars are usually not cost-effective for singles. But this time I got lucky. Between winter rates, and a new, small, addition to the collection, I could actually afford an apartment. In fact, it was so affordable I went for Liesel, with a bedroom, rather than Pierre, with just a sofa-bed (a very large one, it turned out).

The owners are clearly captivated by Budapest. Between the info on their website, and the collection of notes in the apartment, it's hard to think of a question they haven't anticipated. And the apartment showed the same loving attention to detail, from the spa bag with extra towels to the food in the fridge, from free calls to the US to the addictive Nespresso machine, it was truly a home away from home.

After two months on the road I was more than ready to settle in and enjoy the comforts. While I did eat a few meals out, I took full advantage of the kitchenette and the nearby stores to feed myself for a change. Of course, the gorgeous French cheese shop mentioned in the notes was one reason - bread, cheese, and pate did nothing for my cholesterol levels and everything for my tastebuds. And the eggs I found in the fridge made the most beautiful, golden omelet.

The apartment, on Szervita ter just one block from transport-hub Deak ter and two from the Danube, was also walking distance to ever-popular Duran, which sells delicious open-faced sandwiches (you don't need Hungarian to drool over the pictures at http://www.duran.hu ), Cafe Gerloczy, where I ate an excellent lunch, and my previous fave, Cafe Central, which had changed owners and unfortunately gone down hill.

But I did manage to extract myself from the apartment occasionally to admire Budapest itself - there are reasons why I was back for the third time. But that's for the next post.
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Feb 16th, 2012, 07:18 AM
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November 3-9, 2011: Wandering Budapest

Among the extensive information on Budapest on the apartment website I found a link for Pal Street tours (http://palstreettours.com/types%20of%20tours.htm ), which offered an Art Nouveau tour. Like apartments, individual, as opposed to group, tours, are usually too expensive for budget-minded solo travelers, but I was saving enough on food by eating in that I succumbed to temptation. And I was glad I had.

We skipped outlying sights I had seen on my own, like the Ethnographic Museum and the Zoo, and spent two busy and informative hours in Central Pest. For photos see http://mytimetotravel.wordpress.com/...u-in-budapest/

Between the apartment and the Art Nouveau tour, my visit to Budapest would have been a success regardless of what else I did, but I did enjoy a few other sights as well. The "top ten" lists for Budapest include places like the Opera House, the Terror Museum, the three bath complexes, the Great Synagogue, and Castle Hill, all worthwhile sights, but places I'd seen before. I did go back, for the third time, to the Ethnographic Museum, as much for the building as the collection, and to the covered market, which confirmed the bad news I already suspected. Since my previous visits, Budapest had been "discovered" and was now firmly on the tourist trail.

The market was mobbed, with tourists outnumbering the locals. Vaci ut, the main pedestrian street, was full of tourist shops and tourist shoppers. I hated to think what Szentendre, the cobblestoned village a short boat-ride away, would look like now, as it had already been over-run in 2004. Fortunately, Budapest was big enough that some escape was possible by avoiding the main streets.

Except that I wouldn't skip walking Andrassy ut however big the crowds. (Luckily, most people took the metro instead of walking.) I did the whole length, slowly, camera in hand. Then I went back, on the advice of my Art Nouveau guide, to see the inside of the recently renovated number 39 with the Alexandra Bookstore on the ground floor and a lavishly decorated cafe above. At the north end I stopped off to visit the brand-new Gold Museum (aka the Zelnik István Southeast Asian Gold Museum), full of beautifully displayed Asian artifacts, but unnecessarily anal about handbags (everything is under glass anyway!).

I finally made it onto Margaret Island, a great place for the energetic and with views of both Buda and Pest. I rode the old-fashioned tram up and down the Danube in daylight and at dusk. I visited the Orthodox Synagogue, and found it as interesting as the Great Synagogue. I still failed to get around to seeing the inside of the Parliament Building, or heading out to Esztergom Basilica, but I had to leave something for next time.

And I do hope to go back to Budapest. But also to too many other places... So the reluctance with which I headed to the airport to start the trek home wasn't solely related to the early hour. (The streets were eerily empty at 4:30 am!)

Note: That finishes the European part of this trip. I flew Lufthansa (a great improvement over Continental) via Frankfurt to Washington DC, where I spent four nights before taking Amtrak back home. But I'll just put a post on my blog about that. I spent most of my time at the Newseum, although I did finally get to the Diplomatic Rooms at the State Department. I had enjoyed this trip, but soon started planning the next one!
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Feb 16th, 2012, 11:13 AM
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Thanks for your report, thursdaysd, very interesting!
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Feb 16th, 2012, 12:54 PM
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Thanks! If I may ask, what's the average time you spend at home between mega-trips?
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Feb 16th, 2012, 01:05 PM
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Hi Marija - depends on the year. Last year I got home from the RTW end of March, and left end of August for the "B" trip. But I got back mid November 2011 from that and am not leaving again until end of April 2012, and don't expect to travel again until mid November. But I have a bunch of stuff I should be taking care of here this year.
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Feb 26th, 2012, 04:44 PM
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We've just returned from a trip of our own and I'm catching up on your posts. I loved your account of Budapest as well as the pictures. It brought back memories of a city we liked very much. We also enjoyed walking Andrassy ut and I absolutely loved the architecture in Budapest - and your pictures! The Terror Museum was moving and was one of the highlights of our visit. Your comment about wanting to return vs. wanting to discover other places resonated. It's always a battle between going back to what we love and discovering the new...

Thanks for your wonderful reports.
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Feb 26th, 2012, 05:16 PM
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Thanks ellen! Nice to hear from another Budapest fan.

I visited the Terror Museum and the Opera House the first time I went to Budapest, I've been thinking I should take another look. Where are you headed next?
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Feb 27th, 2012, 05:28 PM
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We just returned a few days ago from London and Iceland. It was a wonderful trip. As much as we enjoyed London, we fell in love with Iceland. India and eastern Europe are on our list, but not sure where we're headed next. I want to go back to Iceland!
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Feb 27th, 2012, 05:57 PM
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India's an awesome destination, but hard work!

I've been thinking about stopping in Iceland on the way to Europe, but that won't be this year. Did you get to see the Northern Lights?
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Feb 28th, 2012, 03:31 AM
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Iceland is an easy stopover; Keflavik is a beautiful airport and easy to manage. Unfortunately, we didn't see them; the weather/conditions didn't cooperate. I'm definitely returning, though.
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