Under the Magyar Sun

Budapest, August 3.

I head out with my tour-mates Angela, Lauren and Randy –  along with a new addition to our group (Nic, who’s Australian) – to explore as much of Budapest as possible before I break from the group and make a beeline for the famous Gellért Baths. I’m giddy just thinking about it.

Our first stop is the Great Market Hall (Központi Vásárcsarnok or Nagycsarnok, pictured at left), on the way to the Liberty Bridge (Szabadság híd), which will take us over to the Buda side of Budapest.

The building’s pretty … unfortunately it’s closed because it’s Sunday. In fact, a lot of places are closed in Budapest on Sunday, which makes perfect sense in practical daily life. It just doesn’t make any sense for a tour company when plotting out a trip schedule for people who are going to want to shop. Sigh.

We cross the Liberty Bridge (technically not the bridge itself, since it’s under construction, but the pedestrian footpath), pass by the Gellért Hotel and keep walking. We see a huge cross at the top of the hill; when we go up the stairs, we discover what turns out to be the Gellért Hill Cave Church. The inside is dark, cool, and lovely. We’re not there for very long – within 10 minutes, we’re back out in the heat and humidity bearing down on us.

To describe the weather as hot is probably not accurate. It’s sweltering. I can actually hear  the sweat as I periodically wipe my forehead. And it’s probably just after 11:00 a.m. at this point.

We continue sweating, backpacks and t-shirts sticking to our backs, as we walk past the Széchenyi Chain Bridge over to the Budavári Sikló (Castle Hill Funicular) and take it up to the castle complex. We wander around and stumble across the Labyrinth of Buda Castle. It’s a much-welcomed break from the heat; we practically drain the (free!) water cooler near the entrance.

I think it’s kinda neat, all the winding tunnels and various pre-historic wall drawings and such. I quite like the wine fountain we come across (even though the wine is so fermented, it stinks to high heaven). Angela, on the other hand, isn’t as keen as the rest of us to look around, as she haaaates the dark. At one point, we go into this one labyrinth cave which is pitch-black, with nothing but the flashes from Nic’s camera to light our path. My chief concern is walking into things because of the lack of light. Angela is practically hyper-ventilating. But she – and we – make it out in one piece.

Surfacing from the Labyrinth, we continue wandering around the Buda Castle district until we come across a bunch of kiosks selling souvenirs and several knick-knacks. Yes! I can finally buy some stuff, having passed up the chance in Prague and Krakow because of my disdain for the pricing. After some deliberation (and borrowed forints from Nic, which I dutifully repay), I get myself a nice waterprint of the Széchenyi Chain Bridge, while Angela gets a really nicely lacquered “secret box” (the “secret” is figuring out how to open it), which the woman selling them offers to her for a bit of a discount. (How nice!)

We keep going, leaving the castle complex. We end up back on one of the bridges, and walk smack into some kind of festival. There are flower garlands hanging from above and there are food and trinket stands everywhere. We also run into a bunch of our Aussie tour-mates who’ve been wandering around the area.

At this juncture, Randy and I opt to break from the group if we’re going to get enough time to spend at the baths.  The plan is to return to the hotel so he can get his swimsuit and a towel – while I drop off my souvenirs and call my friend’s ex-pat friend (named Martin) – and then get over to the baths. He asks if I want to take the metro, to which I say yes without even having to think about it. I was dog tired from the heat.

We cross the bridge, walking along the sandy path towards the Parliament buildings. We stumble across (and pause briefly at) the Holocaust Memorial – iron casts of shoes to remember those who were shot into the Danube during World War II. It is said the victims were told to remove their shoes before they were shot.   

We walk past the Parliament buildings and find the metro, which we take to the stop closest to our hotel over in Pest. We then stop for McDonald’s (the first of several shame-filled fast-food stops during my trip) ’cause we’re both starving, then arrive at the hotel.

In my cool hotel room, I call Martin to touch base. We’re going to meet up at around 6 p.m. – after I’m done with the baths, but just before I meet up with the tour group for dinner. Fifteen minutes later, Randy and I depart for the metro.

It’s supposed to be an uneventful 15-minute subway ride, followed by a three-minute walk back across the Liberty Bridge. We end up being delayed by our run-in with a couple of public transit ticket-validation workers. (Keep reading my blog this week to find out what happens.) 

But in the end it’s all worth it. We finally arrive at the Gellért … the part of the trip I’ve waited almost an entire week for.

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