On The Way To The Gellért

So a funny thing happened when I took the metro in Budapest …

To rewind: American tour-mate Randy and I leave our sightseeing posse mid-afternoon to make a stop at the hotel and hoof it over to the Gellért before the pool shuts for the evening.

We enter the metro at Kossuth Lajos tér. Randy spots an automated ticket machine. I think, Great! I don’t have to worry about dealing with people!

Um, not so great.

Randy has enough change for his ticket, which costs about 220 Hungarian forint (0.94 Euro, or $1.46 CAD). I, however, only have a 5,000-forint note (about $33 CAD) – and the machine doesn’t take bills of that size. Plus I don’t have enough coinage. So I have to deal with a ticket person.


I walk over to the ticket booth. I can barely see the woman behind the glass, because apparently Budapest Metro feels it’s necessary to use the kind of opaque glass seen in police interrogation rooms. So I’m squinting and trying to ask her for a ticket.

I slide my 5,000-forint note onto the sliding stainless steel plate. The lady swivels the plate onto her side of the glass, takes my cash, and then swivels the plate back to me, presenting me with a ticket and a bunch of coins.

As I’m walking away from the ticket booth, I slow down to check the change in my hand.

Wa-aaait a minute …

I stay right where I am and count it twice before realizing the woman has only given me 280 forint ($1.86 CAD) … and is holding on to my other 4,500 forint (almost $30 CAD).

I turn right back ’round, approach the booth, and say, “‘Scuse me, please – I paid 220 forint, and I only got 220 forint ba – ”

The woman puts the missing bills on the plate, swivels it my way, and is like, “Okay, okay, bye-bye.”

“She totally tried to rip you off,” Randy remarks as we  go down the elevator. “And she was watching you, too. Good job. If you hadn’t have checked …” 

“I KNOW,” I say, really annoyed that she’d tried that shit on me. I can’t believe it … and I want justice. But I have to settle for getting belatedly my money back. 

Riding the metro on the way to the Gellért, though, is another story.

We enter at Blaha Lujza tér station and buy our tickets from one of the machines. It isn’t until we validate the tickets and ride the escalator downstairs that Randy realizes our mistake: we only bought 220-forint tickets, which you can only use on one metro line. If you have to change metro lines, you need to buy a ticket for 270 forints. 

Randy apologizes, saying it’s his fault; I say, “No worries. You couldn’t have known that.”

The only solution: ride to the transfer point – Deák Ferenc tér – and simply buy another ticket.

We get off the train, go down another escalator, and walk to the nearest ticket machine.

It only takes coins.

Randy doesn’t have any change. I don’t have enough change. And there’s no other machine or even a ticket booth.


“What’re we going to do?” I ask.

Randy looks at the validation machines, and looks back at me. 

“I dunno, ” says Randy. “Do we take a chance?”

“I dunno about this … ” I say, looking at the validation machines, then back at him.

In the end, we head right past the validation machines and then down the escalator.

This makes me nervous. As someone who rides the subway in Toronto, the last thing I’d ever want to do is incur a fine of any sort. (Fare evasion on the TTC, for example, will cost $345 when the by-law is approved this week.)

I remember the little handout we get from Carla earlier in our trip, which says that it’s a 1,500-forint fine (about $9.92 CAD) for travelling around without the proper ticket. So I’m trying to rationalize things by thinking, Maybe we won’t get caught … and if we do, maybe it won’t be so bad … 

Waiting for the train, I take my backpack off, hold it in my hands, and look straight ahead. I already feel like a TV show criminal.

Randy spots a Budapest Metro lady on the platform and tells me as such; we move farther along the platform. The train arrives a couple moments later and we board.

As we pass the stops one by one, the fear of having my ticket checked subsides, and is replaced by relief. Which is then replaced by a little cockiness. We’re just bending the rules a bit, I think smugly. Besides, that woman at the ticket booth tried to RIP ME OFF. I’m getting some subway justice.

That justice, as it turns out, is short-lived. As my ex-pat friend Martin would later explain, the Budapest Metro folks tend to check certain stops more frequently than others. In any case, anyone who gets caught isn’t spared from a fine, especially residents.

So the feeling of getting away scot-free lasts from the train, mid-way up the escalator – right about the moment when Randy and I look up and see the two middle-aged ladies in blue Budapest Metro shirts, standing at the top of the escalator.


We look at each other and know we’re so very SCREWED. Our only defence at this point is to play as dumb as possible and hope, at the last possible minute, they wouldn’t ask for our tickets.

Fat. Chance.

Randy gets the lady on the left; I get the lady on the right.

She asks for my ticket, which I produce (and cringe as she checks it). She motions to me that it’s the wrong ticket (to which I respond by wearing my “dumb” face) and she gestures to me to step to the side.

She asks if I speak German or English (I obviously choose the latter). She asks me how long I am in Budapest for; I tell her, “One day. We leave tomorrow.”

In her fragmented English – and I’m sure Randy’s getting the exact same spiel – she tells me about the one-day ticket one can purchase, which can be used on whatever metro line one takes; one can even transfer to other metro lines, if one chooses.

Then she looks down at her cell phone (which maybe she wants me to think is her magical “ticket fine calculator”), looks up at me and tells me I have to pay 6,000 forints (about 25 Euros, or almost $40 CAD).

“Six thousand forint?” I repeat a bit incredulously. Gulp. I fish around in my wallet and show her I only have 4,500 forint.

The woman pauses a moment, then says, “Okay, okay … give me 30 Euro, then.”

Same problem – I only have a 20 Euro bill.

That’s when opportunity presented itself.

She looks over to her co-worker, who is talking to Randy, looks back at me and says:

“Are you …” and makes the international waving-finger symbol for “together”.

I think I understand what she’s getting at, but I doubt myself.

“What?” I ask, confused.

The woman repeats, “Are YOU …” and takes my hand and Randy’s, and holds them close together, as if she’s about to join us in holy matrimony.

Randy knows exactly what’s going on and is nodding empathically. I start half-nodding too – whatever will get us out of this mess. Especially if that lady likes Randy.

So instead of paying 6,000 forints each, I end up paying 20 Euros, plus 2,000 forints (which equals roughly 6,600 forints – 28 Euros or  $43 CAD) for the pair of us. Randy and I later do the math, and we figure the odd sum is actually the 6,000 forints I was originally going to pay, plus a nifty 600-forint “tip” the Budapest Metro lady generously took for her leniency.

So either way I lose to the metro. But at least the lady was nice. It could’ve been a lot worse. And now I have a fake husband for the rest of the trip.

So boys and girls, the morals of this story are:

(1) If you’re going to use the metro in Budapest, buy an all-day ticket.

(2) If you don’t want – or don’t think you need – an all-day ticket, then make sure you buy a fare that allows you to transfer onto different metro lines.

(3) If you don’t have the right fare and get caught, (a) pray you get a nice transit lady that reprimands you, (b) act dumb whenever possible and (c) if you’re with another person, pretend you’re married to get the fine reduced. 

Okay, so maybe not that last one. But now you know. You can’t say I didn’t warn you.

Heaven, Dinner and A Rooftop Bar

To simply say that I love the Gellért Spa is an understatement. It’s like saying Ron Burgundy loves scotch.

If I ever go to Budapest ever again, I’d go straight to the Gellért and only leave when I had to catch my plane – and then I’d cancel my flight. If I magically scored a job working in Budapest,  l’d be at the Gellért so often, I’d look like a California Raisin.

(Sadly, I didn’t take any pictures, because I didn’t want to lose my camera in the midst of my love affair with the thermal baths. So I snatched the following two photos from official tourist sites online.)

First stop: the outdoor wave pool. I spot tour-mate Will as I cross the pool deck. He’s been there for hours, as his sole goals for the day are to (a) sleep in late and (b) sunbathe by the pool for the entire day.

I ditch my towel on a deck chair and wade in. Refreshing. It’s just like Seville last year, except the pool’s 10 times bigger.

I get out and approach my deck chair to grab my towel and sit, when Will says, “Don’t miss the waves – they’re about to start.”

“How d’you know?” I ask.

” ‘Cause they just announced it,” he replies matter-of-factly. (Of course. Why question someone who’s been on the deck ALL DAY?)

Back in the pool a second time, I see both Randy and Surabh, Chris (one of the other fellow Canadians with our group), as well as Adam and Michelle, one of the Australian couples on our tour.

The waves subside, and we (minus Surabh) leave the pool to try and find the famous thermal baths.

We find the huge indoor pool with the beautiful columns (swiped picture at left). We also spot a small half-moon shaped pool with some people submerging themselves along the sides, which we try out.

The water’s much warmer; the skin on my legs prickles. Epsom salts? Sulphur? I can’t put my finger on it.

We sit on the submerged tile ledge against the wall of the pool. The warmth doesn’t really last, though – within about five minutes, it feels as if the water is getting cooler.

“This can’t be the thermal bath,” Randy says as we we’re sitting there. He has a point; I remember seeing signs for the men’s and women’s baths when we arrive earlier.

We get out and walk alongside the regular pool to investigate. While Michelle jumps into the pool, Randy walks to the end of the deck, and spots Surabh. I wander over to them, and Surabh explains you have to go through the respective changerooms to get to the baths. So I walk to the other changeroom, wend my way past the lockers and showers …


Two glorious half-moon shaped pools beckon. I drop my watch and towel, and submerge myself into what I discover is the hotter pool – it’s a cozy 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit). I sidle up to the underwater bench and just relaaaaax

I chat with an older lady already happily sitting in the water. Turns out she’s from Baltimore and just about to begin a boat tour which starts in Budapest. Her friend, who joins us about five minutes later, is also from Baltimore but was originally from Alabama, but married a Canadian and, until recently, had lived in Claremont, Ontario. Go figure.

Michelle eventually joins me, and we just hang out for a while. I briefly test out the other pool, which is supposedly 36 degrees Celsius (96.8 degrees Fahrenheit). It feels much cooler.

Michelle and I then leave the baths and try out the cold plunge pool (huhh! Sweet baby Moses! Freee-zing!), the steam room (the eculyptus stings my eyes), and then back into the plunge pool (still cold, but I’m not screaming).

Time’s ticking for me, so I head back to the wave pool. I see Randy, and we wait for the next round of waves. Just after it starts, I turn around to see this middle-aged woman clutching Randy’s arm. I figure she’s trying to maintain her balance and will eventually keep wading around. But she’s not letting go. So Randy has to help her get to the other side (if only to at least get his left wrist back.) 

(Unofficial running joke: Middle-aged women love Randy. He’s an assistant principal back in the States, so he explained early in the trip about how the PTA moms just love him at parent meetings. But it almost isn’t a joke during the trip – his last “admirer” was an older lady in Krakow who smiled at him all the way home on the bus.)

To fast-forward: I leave the pool, hurriedly change, and leave the Gellért (*sniff*) just in time to meet Martin – and then walk right past him as he’s coming in. Because we never asked each other what each of us looked like, nor whether we’d meet at the spa or the hotel, I assume he’s ’round the corner at the hotel. The lightbulb in my head goes off four minutes later, and I walk back to the spa, where he’s waiting outside the front doors. 

We walk back over the Liberty bridge and towards the area I’m supposed to meet the group for dinner. He then takes me over to Szent Istvan Bazilika  (St. Stephen’s Basilica, pictured at left), which is very beautiful from what little I can see. Unfortunately there’s a Sunday service, so we don’t stay long.

After about 90 minutes of walking and talking, we walk back to the street where the restaurant’s located. We run into three tour-mates – fellow Canadians from Vancouver – and chat while we wait time. At 7:30 p.m. – when the others are supposed to show up – we decide to go inside. Martin asks if he can join us for dinner; we have no problems with that.

Our tour guide Carla told – and warned us – of the huge schnitzel this place is known for. The schnitzel isn’t the ONLY thing that’s friggin’ ginormous. EVERYTHING is huge. I’m no slacker in the eating department, but I had such trouble finishing my meal, I’d be sure to be a Hungarian mother-in-law’s worst nightmare. (Well, that and the whole “not being European” thing.)

I order the chicken gulyás (goulash). I’m expecting a meal of similar size to the one in Prague.

I get a behemoth skillet with a mountain of something that remotely resembles gnocchi and a sea of sauce which is concealing not one, but three pieces of chicken.

I officially meet my Waterloo during dinner. And the two pints of Dreher beer I dumbly order before and after the meal do not help. I’m BLOATED.

The Vancouverites leave after dinner, but most of the group wants to go out, since nine tour-mates are ending their trips in Budapest.

Martin suggests this bar on the rooftop of a department store, which is supposed to be very cool. He warns us that it looks a bit sketchy (which it does). But after climbing four graffiti-ridden flights of stairs, it turns out he’s absolutely right. It’s humongous, with enough space for everyone. And the nice breeze and clear, starry night (the first I’ve seen – or paid attention to – since landing in Europe) make it a perfect night for drinking.

Before I know it, it’s the wee hours of the morning, and our group of 16 has shrunken to Martin, my fellow Canadian tour-mate Chrish, and myself. So we call it a night. Martin kindly walks us girls to the underpass at Blaha Lujza tér station, and we part ways.

What a calm, serene ending to what I thought would be such a frustrating leg of the trip.

Just when I start to change my mind about you, Budapest, I have to pack up and leave. Figures.


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.

Next Stop: Budapest.

Looking back, Budapest was my second favourite city on this trip. But I wouldn’t have guessed it, the way the trip started …

The drive into Hungary is a bit sticky and a little angry.

“Sticky” because, as the bus is pulling away from our first rest stop of the trip – and we’re still in Poland at this point – I accidentally spill a bottle of Pepsi over part of my skirt, and the floor underneath my seat, narrowly missing another tour-mate’s belongings.

NOT. Pleasant.

(This also doesn’t help me shake my unofficial reputation amongst some of my travel-mates as the disorganized, spill-prone tourist. Yes, I am the comedy relief.)

“Angry”, because when we pull up to the next rest stop – just inside the Hungarian border – and one of my tour-mates, whose bladder is practically busting and HAS to use the facilities, is stopped by the angry Hungarian rest-stop owner, who comes out of the building yelling and waving and prevents her from going inside.

It seems our poor bus driver has parked in the “wrong” spot, prompting the owner to shout and whistle at him to move the bus. And, as it happens, the bathrooms aren’t located inside the rest stop, but at the side of the building. And they’re not in the best condition.

One of my other tour-mates later recalls getting yelled at by a supermarket cashier when we stop for lunch, because he tries to pay at the check-out with Euros, only to be sternly told, “No Euro!” When he insists he doesn’t have anything else to pay with (they take credit, as it turns out), she apparently gets really huffy with him.

At this point, I almost wonder if Hungarians should be re-named Angarians. So angry …

This is temporarily forgotten when we finally arrive in Budapest. We first stop at Hősök tere (Heroes’ Square in Hungarian) and snap some photos. Then it’s over to Halászbástya (Fisherman’s Bastion), which resembles probably any castle you’ve seen in a Disney movie. The building is pretty, as are the views.

We are finally driven to the hotel we’re staying at, on the Pest side of Budapest (and, unlike the previous two cities, relatively closer to points of interest). The triple room Lauren, Angela and I are staying in is huge. And the meal we have for dinner is, I think, pretty good (although from what I hear, the bartending staff needs to take a semester’s worth of classes in the hospitality department).

Soon, it’s time for a bit of a night outing. One group wants to find an internet café, some ice cream (a staple on this surprisingly hot trip) and maybe a nice drinking establishment. The other group wants to also find ice cream. But not just any ice cream. According to a tour-mate’s guide book, there’s a place called Butterfly, located up at Oktogon.

I end up going with the second group, thinking I can return to the hotel in enough time to (a) call a friend of a friend, a Canadian ex-pat working and living in Budapest, to make plans to meet up the next day and (b) catch up with the first group, since I want in on the internet café and the drinking.

My plan doesn’t work. It takes us about a half-hour just to walk up to Oktogon (and my companions aren’t exactly jazzed about their surroundings – which they describe as “dodgy” and “scary” – despite there being five of us travelling together. It’s really just kind of dingy). We look for Butterfly (and the long lineups that apparently accompany it), but to no avail. It also doesn’t help that none of us thought to get the address.

On the way back, we stop at the McDonald’s so a couple people can get something to eat. By the time we return to the hotel, the first group has long since left, and I have a pulsating headache, likely from the heat.

I call my friend’s friend, who answers and mentions that he was on his way out to meet friends, and if I wanted to join them. Me from 45 minutes ago might’ve been up to the challenge; Me with the headache (and no sense of direction) opts to pass and plans to call him tomorrow.  

So while group number one enjoys their time at the Old Man’s Pub, I have a quiet night in, involving hand-washed laundry and sleep.