In typical Mrs Fletche style, the following trip report is long, wordy and probably talks more about our travel style than Budapest itself. However, I hope someone may find this useful - or at least amusing!
To follow as replies...
In typical Mrs Fletche style, the following trip report is long, wordy and probably talks more about our travel style than Budapest itself. However, I hope someone may find this useful - or at least amusing!
To follow as replies...
Budapest has been on the Fletcher radar for some time. “Shall we do Budapest this year?” we said in 2011. We went to Bruges. “Shall we do Budapest this year?” we said in 2012. We went to Amsterdam and Krakow. “Shall we do Budapest this year?” we said in 2013. We went to Sorrento. So 2014 was to be the year of Budapest.
It may have been the idea of connecting flights that had put us off previously, but we found a package that was too good to resist through Expedia which involved us flying out with Air France via Paris and with KLM via Amsterdam. So it was with trepidation that we split our worldly belongings into two suitcases, just in case one decided not to take the same route around Europe as we did. Which led to the dilemma “do I put make-up in one suitcase and GHDs in the other? What would I rather have – a pale ghostly complexion or curly frizzy hair?”
First world packing problem sorted, we start out on the first leg from Birmingham airport to Charles De Gaulle. All smooth sailing despite a minor panic when we think our connecting flight is leaving early (departures board was showing boarding time instead of departure time… crazy French airport…) and we are on our second leg from Paris to Budapest. No passport control at Ferenc Liszt airport (something to do with most EU countries apart from UK & Ireland being “Schengen” flights – i.e. treated as if flying within the same country - thanks Lonely Planet website for clearing that up) and now we do the little prayer to the luggage gods that our suitcases have also landed successfully. Result. Not only have the luggage gods answered our prayers, they have also arranged for our suitcases to be the very first out on the carousel! Bravo, Air France; you have been marvellous. I look forward to the same happy experience with KLM on our return…
Not wanting to deal with public transport straight away, we pre-booked a taxi transfer through Airport Transfer Budapest. Their representative was waiting for us in arrivals, and called through to the driver who was outside in minutes. Not the most talkative driver we’ve ever had, but the service was efficient and faultless, dropping us outside our hotel within forty-five minutes of landing.
Hotel Palazzo Zichy was booked as part of the Expedia package, and selected because of its excellent reviews on Tripadvisor (and everyone knows I am a Tripadvisor addict. I read reviews of places I’ve never even wanted to go to, and hotels that I will never stay at. No trip is planned without scrutinising each and every negative and positive review on Tripadvisor) and it was worth every 5-star review.
I love it when you stay at a hotel which makes you feel like you’ve spent a lot of money, and yet you paid a bargain price. This is definitely what I would call a ‘boutique’ hotel (Hotel 140 in Boston, take note…) – anywhere that leaves a little chocolate on your pillow gets a tick in my book… Only thing I would complain about would be the pricey drinks in the lounge bar – in a city when you can get a pint of local beer for around £1, the forint-conscious Fletches were not willing to pay 4x as much, even in the comfort and convenience of our own hotel.
So we are unpacking. I am reuniting my make-up bag and GHDs, reassuring them I will never choose between them again. Mr Fletche has a slight look of panic on his normally unpanicked face. Mr Fletche, photographer and visual blogger of this Hungarian adventure, has forgotten his spare camera battery. And his battery is hanging on to its last 25% of charge. For Mr Fletche this is as bad as if I had been separated from my GHDs. Or my make-up bag. (Look, it’s like choosing a favourite child, okay?).
Luckily, our hotel comes with free wireless internet and we are able to scan the local area for camera shops and useful phrases. Mr Fletche is now fluent in “photography Hungarian” and now can converse in length about batteries (akkumulátor) and chargers (akkumulátortöltő). We are unable to find the Hungarian for “I am a numpty but at least my wife has her GHDs and make-up bag”.
So with no other plan in mind for tonight, we venture out onto the streets of Budapest for the first time in search of a local camera store. We know EXACTLY where it is. Except it’s not. We systematically scan every store and every alleyway in case we are missing some hidden location, like some sort of photographer’s speakeasy that can only be accessed through a phone box, with a special password. I look longingly into bars, where people are enjoying a late afternoon beer or glass of wine, but I have promised Mr Fletche we will not stop until this camera shop is located and the required battery acquired. This is our holy grail.
Eventually, soaking wet and chilled to the bone, we concede defeat. Did I mention it was raining? We decide that the internet has lied to us; there is no camera shop. We will continue our search tomorrow. Only a drink or two can cheer us now.
We are close to the Central Market Hall, so we walk through taking in the sensory overload of brightly coloured fruit and vegetables, pungent sausages, and masses and masses of paprika. Back out into the rain briefly, before the warm candle-lit glow of the “For Sale” pub and restaurant beckons. Straw and peanut shells on the floor contribute to a rustic décor, and the walls and ceiling are covered with handwritten notes from previous patrons. Not so rustic were the 80s and 90s “Europop mash-ups” playing in the background…
One beer turned into two, which turned into us deciding to eat there too rather than emerge back out into the rain. The menu was extensive, but on closer inspection did appear to be made up of 100 versions of the same dish. Food was tasty and plentiful, but I didn’t feel we’d had the best traditional Hungarian experience, and was also quite pricey for what we had. Still, this is a touristy restaurant in a touristy area, and yes, we are tourists…
Back out into the rain we go. It is dark and feels as if it’s about 10pm. It’s not. It’s about 8 o’clock. But tomorrow is the day for exploring and seeing the sights so we make our way back to the hotel to dry off
The alarm goes off at 7:30am. The bed and pillows are super comfy and staying there all day is tempting. However, a tweak of the outside world behind the blackout curtains reveals a blue sky with not a cloud in sight. The rain has cleared! Hotel Palazzo Zichy provide us with a tasty buffet breakfast (why do we not eat cheese and cold meats for breakfast at home? And why are scrambled eggs only ever eaten at breakfast?) which sets us up for the day.
We are not fooled by the blue skies and sunshine and dress as if we are embarking on an expedition to the North Pole. You can never have enough layers. Mr Fletche has tracked down a second camera store, and it is not far from where we plan to meet this morning’s walking tour at Vörösmarty tér. I have planned metro and tram routes meticulously, so we purchase our tickets at Kalvin tér metro station. We deliberate between a 24 hour unlimited pass, and a book of 10 single tickets. We go with the 24-hour pass, although it is validated from when we buy it, and have no intention of using it just yet. In hindsight, this was a mistake. But hey, we have the pass, we’ll use it right? We’ll get our money’s worth? We’ll just hop on public transport whenever we feel a bit tired and footsore? I’ll jump right to the end of the story here. We didn’t use it. Our feet hurt. Our knees ached. We (I) got crabby and miserable. And we asked ourselves “so why exactly do we always insist on walking miles and miles and miles in cities which have perfectly good and efficient transport systems?”
On our way to the meeting point, and the promised camera store, we stop by a coffee shop to purchase beverages to keep us going.
“What’s that place then?” Mr Fletche says.
“That big church-like place that we’re standing next to”
This big church-like place is St Stephen’s Basilica. The largest church in Budapest. Named after the man who brought Christianity to Hungary. Home of the mummified right hand of St Stephen himself. This is why we take tours; otherwise we walk round oblivious to everything around us.
With half an hour to kill before the 10:30am start, we walk to where the internet has reliably informed us there is another camera store. And indeed there is a camera store. Hurrah! However despite the door being open, and the sign saying open, the store is closed. Booo! Mr Hungarian Camera Store Owner takes pity on Mr Fletche, clutching his camera like a child clutching his favourite teddy bear. Hurrah! Mr Fletche converses with Mr Hungarian Camera Store Owner, using his hastily learned Hungarian camera phrases, and manages to convey his need. Hurrah! Using the international language of mime, Mr Hungarian Camera Store Owner regretfully informs Mr Fletche that he does not have the required battery in stock. Booo and double booo! Thankfully, the battery has managed to regenerate slightly and is now hovering around the 30% mark. As long as Mr Fletche resists the urge to review his photos, it may just hang on…
We hover by the fountain at Vörösmarty tér looking for what may be the walking tour. And soon we are being shepherded along by a Hungarian called Zoltan who had the enthusiasm of a small puppy out for his first walk. From Zoltan we learned that famous inventions from Budapest include the Rubiks Cube, the biro pen and “do-re-mi” (not in fact invented by a nun called Maria…); Hungarian is one of the hardest languages to learn but what sounds like “t-shirt” means “ten beers”; and Budapest is pronounced Buda-pesht (imagine you’re Sean Connery when you say it. Go on. Say it now. In a Sean-Connery-stylee).
The tour takes us over the Danube via the Chain Bridge and up to Buda Castle via a big hill. The funicular is for losers apparently. I am jealous of those losers when I am hyperventilating halfway up the hill. Zoltan introduces us to the “fake” guards at presidential building (which now appears to be occupied solely by a cute cat rolling around in the sunshine) and to the statue of Hussar general Andras Hadik, whose horse’s testicles have long been rubbed as a good luck charm and bedroom booster for local university students (let me reaffirm that this is a statue of a horse, not a real horse with polished yellow balls).
Zoltan leaves us at Fisherman’s Bastion, to take in the views over the Danube towards Pest (“Pesht, Miss Moneypenny”) and the Hungarian Parliament Building. The tour has been excellent, and well worth the 10 euro tip we gave to Zoltan at the end. We parted ways with our fellow tour-ees including the lovely American couple who had just escaped the snowstorms in their native South Carolina in order to complete the much-travelled Budapest-Vienna-Prague triangle.
Mr Fletche and I wander around Fisherman’s Bastion for a while, like children who have been let out on their own for the first time. I lovingly finger the travel pass in my pocket, looking forward to the bus/tram/metro ride back towards home. Lunch is in a lovely little café (yes, in another tourist area… we are nothing if not predictable) where we enjoy an exceedingly hot but tasty bowl of goulash, followed by equally tasty strudel.
After lunch, it’s time to descend Castle Hill. Despite the travel ticket burning a hole in my pocket, and the number 16 bus hovering around, beckoning to us like an illicit lover, we descend the hill via a combination of steps and slope. The descent is easier than the ascent. The legs however are just starting to feel the burn. “Let’s walk along the river” Mr Fletche suggests. I nod enthusiastically, whilst in my head I envisage throwing myself to the ground like a small child throwing a tantrum and refusing to walk another step. We walk the 1.5 miles from Chain Bridge down to Liberty Bridge. And then the mile to our hotel. My hips, knees, calves and ankles are pleading with me to rest awhile.
(Google maps tell me we walked around 5.5 mile today. This does not include the additional doomed trip to the camera store, or the endless pacing up and down Castle Hill in search of toilets).
After a much deserved rest, our enthusiasm is as recharged as Mr Fletche’s camera battery. It had been blinking somewhere around the empty mark, but somehow we have found untapped reserves. It was the mention of a newly created “pub” tour from our tour guides earlier today that have sparked our interest. The chance to seek out some of the hidden gems and experience the “real” hidden drinking culture in Budapest’s Jewish district. Meet at the fountain in Vörösmarty tér they said. Meet at 8pm they said.
Fuelled by a deliciously unhealthy lángos (fried dough, cheese, onion and garlic), we hover around waiting for the hordes of tourists eager to experience a little slice of authentic Budapest nightlife. There is no-one in sight. We peer around the corner at 8pm, and there is one man, who may or may not be holding a leaflet saying “Drinking tour here!” We feel it may be a little awkward should it be just the three of us (if indeed this is the drinking tour man, and not just a fellow hoverer…) so we decide to embark on our own tour. First step. Find the Jewish district.
Like everything in Budapest, everything is actually closer than you think it is if you go the right way. After another convoluted route, we discover that the Jewish district is actually almost next door to our hotel. Mr Fletche was tempted into the Kings 3D pub on Izabella utca by the selection of Belgian beers on offer, and we decided our next move.
The best way to experience proper Budapest nightlife is to experience a ruin pub. And without a trusted Budapest tour guide, the ruin pub of choice would have to be Szimpla Kert. Ruin pubs, for those not in the know, are derelict apartments, office buildings and warehouses which have been transformed into quirky bars. And Szimpla – the oldest and best-known ruin pub - is undoubtedly the most tourist-friendly option – even with the big burly security men on the door. Enter through a maze of doorways and plastic curtains, and you’re in a rabbit warren of rooms and bars and quirky artefacts. Want to sit in half a bath? This is the place to do it (although it didn’t look like the comfiest of seating options). Want a shisha water pipe with a range of fruity flavours? Yep, this is the place. Want to buy a carrot? Um, yes, this is also an option at Szimpla Kert.
We stick with beer to start off with, but if you’re going to try the traditional bitter liqueur called Unicum, then this is as good a place as any. Not an experience we’ll be repeating, but at least we can say we tried it.
Another beer takes the Unicum taste out of our mouths and we people-watch for a while, particularly enjoying the faces of newbies as they walked through the door/plastic curtain, like Alice entering Wonderland for the first time. Such a fun way of spending a couple of hours, and we were surprised how quiet it was on a Thursday night – I guess Fridays and Saturdays are a little busier? After such an exhausting day (another 3 miles this evening…whatever happened to that 24 hour transport ticket?), we decide the next stop will be back to home base.
No ill-effects from the beer or the Unicum. A few ill-effects from the 8 miles of walking yesterday but nothing that another day pounding the Budapest streets won’t cure. First stop (after breakfast of course) is back to St Stephen’s Basilica. We walk. Of course. No just-in-case ticket today. For a small donation, we enter the basilica and admire the beautiful interior. We also get to see that mummified hand. Zoltan had advised us that to see the mummified hand in its full glory, sit back and wait for other unsuspecting tourists to pop coins in the slot to light up the display case… Apparently other bits of St Stephen’s arm are scattered around the globe for those who want an interesting quest…
You know when would be the perfect time to use public transport? From St Stephens up to Heroes Square. But no - what’s a mile and a half walk? Halfway up Andrassy utca, I am pooped. I am ready to drop. But some ridiculous sense of pride keeps up walking. This is a habit we really have to break. Public transport is not for wimps. It is for sensible people that want to enjoy places when they get there, not be moaning, limping and searching for the nearest bench (that’s me, not Mr Fletche. Much). Next time, we will buy tickets AND WE WILL USE THEM. This is our solemn vow, made to you, our readers. Next time you read a Fletche trip report, it will be filled with public transport tales, and will not be filled with moans and groans about aching limbs, or endless (boring) details about how many miles we have walked…
We feel like heroes ourselves as we finally make it to Hősök tere – Heroes Square. No-one is likely to immortalize the Fletches with a statue though. We don’t quite have the energy for ice skating, but the rink was huge and it looked like a fun thing to do if only our legs weren’t made of wibbly wobbly jelly. One thing I have become adept at in European cities is politely ignoring anyone who looks like they may be selling anything. So when someone asks if I am looking for any tours today, I give them the usual polite “no, thank you” without making eye contact. Only when I have passed by do I realize I have just shunned the nice American couple from yesterday’s tour. Luckily they are amused by my faux pas, and forgive my lack of social awareness.
It’s something of a grey day today, with the sunshine trying to peek through but a chilly wind. We sit by the pond for a while, before deciding to go visit the local Budapest animal life at the zoo. I’m not expecting great things from this city zoo, but I am immediately taken by the sloths that are roaming free, and make friends with an inquisitive alpaca. Not all the signs are in English, so sometimes we have to play guess the animal (easy when it’s a giraffe or a rhinoceros. Not so easy when it’s a blue-breasted, red-crested, long-toed iguana). The zoo is deceivingly big and it’s easy to spend a whole morning or afternoon there. But (unsurprisingly) the need to rest our weary feet overwhelmed the need to see every single animal, so we said a fond viszontlátásra to our friend the alpaca and left the zoo in favour of a fast food lunch at BRGR (opposite the zoo entrance). Messiest burgers ever, but yummy!
Faced with the 3 miles back to our hotel, we finally give in and take the metro back homewards. Fast, efficient – why have we not done this earlier? Mr Fletche wants to eke out the last of his battery life (yes, it’s still going…) with a last walk along the Danube. I do not have the heart to remind him that this is another 2 mile walk. Instead, I grin and bear it (almost) and am rewarded with a beer at For Sale at the end of it (where we witness a disgruntled customer arguing with the bar staff – most entertaining).
Back at the hotel, it takes all my will power not to crawl into my pyjamas, sink into that comfy bed and sleep til morning. But it’s Valentines Night, and more importantly it’s our last night in Budapest, so we cannot give in to the lethargy.
We hadn’t planned a dinner anywhere particularly because:
a) We didn’t know what we’d want to eat
b) We didn’t know how far we’d want to walk
c) We don’t really do Valentine’s Day
So we hoped that there would be somewhere nearby that would fit us in last-minute! A quick scour of Tripadvisor suggested Café Intenzo. We’d walked past this little restaurant on many an occasion. We tentatively peer through the window. It looks full. There is one table empty. Hurrah! We’re in, taking the last unreserved table.
Despite not doing Valentine’s Day, it’s hard not to get into the spirit of things with the rose petals, and candlelight, and heart-shaped balloons. Bottle of wine it is then, on the recommendation of our waiter. We opt for traditional Hungarian meals (i.e. meat in sauce, with lashings of paprika) and enjoy our traditional desserts too. When our waiter recommends a palinka as a digestif it would be rude not to. Yep, that warms the throat nicely, and is slightly more palatable than last night’s Unicum. Wonderful meal, fantastic service, around 55 euros. No complaints at all and would fully recommend.
After a long, leisurely meal, we decide to call it a night. There are so many different bars and restaurants to try you could be here a month and not touch them all, but after packing so much into our few days, we are ready to spend our final night in that comfy bed
Our airport transfer is due at 9:15, so it is with a heavy heart that we repack our suitcases (same old dilemma re make-up bag and GHDs – I may have to purchase two of everything next time just in case…) and enjoy our final breakfast. Our return journey to the airport goes smoothly, although the driver is as uncommunicative as the first one, but who wants cheery conversation in a taxi anyway?
We wheel our cases towards the self-service check in machine. Mr Fletcher. Tick. Mrs Fletcher. Tick. Suitcases. No tick. Hold on – suitcases? We have two. The computer says no. Our outwards flight on Air France kindly gave us 23kg luggage allowance. KLM give us zero. Other than leaving our worldly belongings here on the concourse at Budapest airport (NOOOO! not the GHDs or make-up bag!), we have no choice but to pay the 18000 forints (just under 60 euro) to take our own stuff back home. (On arrival home, we find that KLM’s luggage policy changed last year and no, there is no longer any free luggage allowance in economy. However Expedia failed to advise us of this. Our fault for not checking the small print…).
We finally negotiate our way through security (bye suitcases, at 30 euro each I hope you make your way home successfully…) and we find ourselves a seat in the departure lounge for the long wait before our flight is called. Why does time seem twice as long in airports on the return flight than it does flying out?
There is a 15 minute delay. This cuts our connection time down to an hour and a half, roughly the same as it had been in Paris. We’re finally on the plane, pootling along quite happily, but high winds over Amsterdam mean we have to delay landing by 15 minutes. This cuts our connection time down even further. So much for grabbing lunch at Schiphol, at this rate we’ll be running from one gate to the next. And indeed, this is what we find ourselves doing as the departure gate is about as far from the arrival gate as it can be without being in another airport.
There is a huge queue outside the gate, as security is carried out at this point. It is now, with half of the plane’s passengers already through security, that we are notified that there has been a gate change. There follows the most unorganised, incompetent shuffle of passengers from one gate to another, with hoardes of ever-increasingly frustrated passengers queuing outside the second gate whilst those that have already passed through security are herded up like sheep from one cage to the next. Unsurprisingly, the flight is delayed. KLM/Schiphol – you were amazingly efficient when we travelled to/from Amsterdam two years ago. Today – not so much. However, after a short hop, skip and jump over the channel, the Fletchers and their suitcases (although one rather soggy) are reunited in Birmingham.
If you're still reading this - congratulations! You have reached the end! The short version of this tale is that the Fletches loved Budapest. It is such a bustling thriving city, and it is easy to immerse yourself in the local culture and all the city has to offer. With such a big wide world to explore, who knows when we will return, but next time we will definitely use that wonderful public transpor system...
Sounds like you had fun! My gf and I are off next week. We're there 4 nights though, so maybe won't do quite as much walking every day and fit a bit more drinking in :D how does this "ticket verification" work?
What a great, and wonderfully readable, report. Couldn't agree more about the walking/public transit balance, but after a dozen years of frequent trips I still can't use up a 10 ticket book in a two-week stay … the walking is just so compelling.
Hi James - if you buy tickets then there is an orange machine located at metro stations (at the entrance to the platform) or on the bus/tram. Really simple to use - makes me wonder why on earth we didn't use it more often ;). Passes don't need validate like tickets do.
We would have drank more if we wasn't so exhausted!
Great report Mrs F - thoroughly enjoyed reading it. I'm going in June in a group and some great ideas here. Just one question - would it not have been easier flight wise to have driven to Luton and got a direct flight with Wizz?
If only we always took the easy option Stew!