Monday, September 08, 2008
Hungary 1: Budapest Impressions
In Budapest, the old is reflected in the new, but it's just mirrors.
On Friday we saw the central area of Budapest.
Nearly all of the people we interacted with in Budapest were friendly and tried their best to help us when we asked questions.
Despite what we were led to believe, you can get around Budapest quite easily speaking only English. English may not be the country’s second language, but if and when signs are in a second language, they are in English. I guess this is due in part to globalization and in part due to cultural dissemination of English-language culture.
Not everyone speaks English, and those who do may not know too much, but at least half or more can understand and communicate in English.
The tap water in Budapest is excellent.
Hungary is in the process of transitioning to the Euro. In a few more years, the Euro will be the standard currency.
In the meantime, Euros are accepted at large places like hotels and car rentals, but are not accepted in most other places. Many popular tourist locations, groceries, shops, and so on don’t accept them; the ones that do will give you a bad exchange rate. I suspect: investment in handling multiple currencies is a bother, as is changing between them; local sentiment against the Euro and/or EU is expressed in this passive-aggressive manner.
In central Budapest, there are dozens of legal change places, all of which offer excellent rates with no commission. If you are Israeli, bring dollars or Euros and change them in Budapest; if you are American, Canadian, or European, bring your cash and exchange it. Don’t accept offers to change money in any non-business location, as it is a scam of some sort. As always, don’t wave large amounts of cash around.
Prices in Budapest are the same as, or slightly cheaper than, Jerusalem.
Pest is flat. Buda is hilly and green. The Danube River flows between them, and the two sides are linked by a number of bridges. Many of the most important and ornate buildings abut the river. You can cruise up and down the river for a fee. People walk around trying to get you to take sightseeing tours on the red or yellow open top busses that circle around the city.
A pretty roof on a cathedral in old Buda
From the banks of Pest you can see the first hill of Buda and some nice buildings, but you can’t see the rest of Buda until you are on top of that hill. Then you see Buda rolling out beyond the river. Buda is probably worth exploring, but you won’t find anything in Buda that’s not on that hill listed in your tourist books. The nicest walk we had was leaving the main hill of Buda on the back side and walking down side streets to get back to the river.
The castle with three museums in Buda
Looking the other way from that hill is an expansive look across the Danube to Pest.
The parliament in Pest
Statues and Gargoyles
This seems to be the definition of a European city: gargoyles of men, women, lions, and monsters, and statues of various military leaders, revolutionaries, and politicians.
They try to push Budapest Cards on you, which will give you free access to much of the transportation and discounts on the museums and such. But they don’t tell you that you can get a day pass on transportation (without the museum discounts) for less money.
There is an extensive network of public transportation in the form of subway, trams, and buses. There are no transfers; every ride is a ticket, which is about a Euro. There’s one exception to this: a ticket and transfer between two subways, bought in advance, is 1.5 times the price of a normal ticket.
You don’t buy tickets on the transport. You have to buy them from a person at a metro station. One would think that key bus and tram stations would have automatic machines from which one could buy tickets, or even that the metro stations would have automatic machines from which one could buy tickets, but one would be wrong.
There is a strange mountain-climbing car called a Fenicular that goes from the banks of the river up to the top of the Buda hill. It’s a 30 second ride, your Budapest Card doesn’t cover it, and it’s ridiculously expensive. You can take a bus up, or walk up, as it’s not that hard or long a climb.
Driving is on the right, like America and Israel. You need to pay special fees to certain authorities before driving on highways, in Budapest, and so on, but our rental car company took care of all of these.
On top of Buda near one of the main churches was a pair of men selling the opportunity to take your picture with some live falcons. They train the falcons the old-fashioned way, with lines and hoods, and so on, but for tourist purposes, to give shows and so on. The culture that used to use falcons to hunt for meat is probably gone.
Back in Pest, we went to a great building that houses a market, the kind with stalls, each selling wares, fruits, vegetable, spices, or meats. Best place to get fruits and veggies, hands down.
Outside the market is a pedestrian mall area, selling tourist knick-knacks and endless varieties of goulash and chicken paprika with rice. Probably most of it was average fare. The clothes, jewellery, pottery, and so on of Hungary, as sold in the central areas, are ugly and tacky looking. It’s as if people who saw a picture of Hungarian products decided to create and sell their own. Not that I’m so enamoured with Hungarian style to begin with.
The Dohany Synagogue
There are several internet cafes, and many restaurants and bars offer free wireless connection (can be spotty). The most distinctive feature about Budapest in my mind is that the public phone booths all have pink phone handles. They take coins and credit cards. We bought a phone calling card, available in many locations, but we couldn’t get it to work properly. We finally got customer service on Monday morning, which told us that the access number printed on the card is incorrect. They gave us another number which worked.
Old Man's Music Pub
Saturday night we went to the Old Man’s Music Pub, conveniently located twenty-five steps from where we were staying. OMMP has no entrance fee, offers free wireless, and free live music every night from 9 to 11 in a wide range of styles. We heard some cross between Cajun and Blues, and it was mighty fine. They also offer free disco dancing from 11 to 3 or 4 am. The crowd from 11 to 12:30 was mostly 30something or higher, but getting younger as the night went on. They have an incredibly lovely menu (not kosher, but fun to look at), and they charge for bathroom and coat/bag watching. Prices were decent.
Speaking of which, many public bathrooms ask for money. It’s hard to figure out why, as the ones that do look no better stocked or cleaned than the ones that don’t.
A Tesco had Zooloretto, Settlers of Catan, and other interesting games at reasonable prices.
Regular stores had fancy chess sets, and, if they sold many sets, there were always a few three-player Chess sets: