I visited Hungary for the first time over this past weekend. I certainly wasn’t expecting to go on vacation so soon after going on vacation, but the opportunity arose and I took it. A friend asked if I wanted to meet there, and I said, “Yes,” and then, “Let me talk to Peace Corps.” One vacation request and 84 Euro later, and I was on a plane headed for Budapest.
I’m very close to my grandfather, and his mother was from Hungary. Visiting my great-grandmother’s home country was high on my to-do list while in Europe. I am so glad I got the chance to go!
Budapest (pronounced “Buda-pesht,” I learned), is a much bigger city than I expected. It is everything I thought Berlin would be (but wasn’t) — vibrant and artsy, with an edge to it.
My friend and I spent much of our time walking around the city. Keep reading, and I’ll tell you my favorite things about Budapest.
Tips and Observations About Budapest:
I wasn’t sure what to do my first night in the city, since I arrived before my friend did. After poking around on Google Maps, I discovered the Palace of the Arts was close to where I was staying. I went to a dance performance of Dracula, and really had a great time! Because it was a dance performance, I was able to (loosely) follow the plot, even though the speaking parts were obviously in Hungarian. And the dancers were wearing what I assume were traditional Hungarian costumes, which I got a kick out of seeing. Also, the price was right (only 11 Euro).
There is a little alley tucked into the city that leads to a court with food trucks. I got handmade gnocchi for lunch. 🙂 The food was good, cost about 4 Euro, and the atmosphere was really cute.
I had never heard of a “ruin pub” before my trip. I discovered that a ruin pub is a bar inside an old, rundown building, and that they are very popular in Budapest. My friend and I visited the largest, oldest, and most famous ruin pub — Szimpla Kert. My pictures of it stink because it was so dark inside (check out their website if you want to see more). It was HUGE and PACKED! There were so many rooms, with so many different options … a wine bar, a food bar, different lounges, and an outdoor space. The building was rough and decaying, filled with oddball trinkets and eclectic decor. While loud, busy bars are not my scene, I loved the space.
My friend and I tried to go to Szechenyi thermal bath (another thing for which I didn’t know Budapest is famous). We got there at about 3 in the afternoon. The place was packed. We would’ve had to wait for an hour or more to get in. Instead, we decided to buy a day pass at a local hotel, and use their thermal pool. It wasn’t much of a cultural experience, but we were determined to do something relaxing, and the hotel’s thermal pool was much less crowded.
We decided to have a traditional Hungarian meal on my last night in the city. Based on a local’s recommendation, we ended up at Mester. The food was excellent, and it reminded me of some of the meals my family makes. 🙂 (Nothing beats a hearty beef-and-noodle soup!)
Compared to other place I’ve visited in Europe (which, for the record, are Kosovo, Macedonia, Albania, Spain, France, England, Italy, and Germany), Hungary had the best crafts and homemade goods made by local artisans. We visited a little craft market, and I could’ve gone nuts buying things (I didn’t). I managed to rein myself in and only buy a few souvenirs for my family.
I loved Budapest, and feel like I could return and have new things to explore the next time around.
This week, I am especially grateful to have the opportunity to travel. I didn’t start traveling internationally until I reached my 30s. I’d always wanted to, but I didn’t have much money when I was younger. And, many of the jobs I had in my 20s were contract positions (meaning, time off = no pay).
Once, I had a boss who made the comment, “I’ve already done Europe.” At the time, I’d never been to Europe, and I thought, What a stupid (and privileged) thing to say. (How does one “do” Europe, exactly? Check it off the list with a plan to never return?)
I had a conversation with several friends last week, where we discussed travel and being able to appreciate it. (As we were climbing the Spanish Steps in Rome, Nicole heard a kid protest, “I’m tired of traveling!”) I didn’t grow up in a family that took fancy trips abroad. And if I had, how much of that would I really remember now?
I am grateful for travel even when it isn’t fun. Like that time when my brain was fuzzy from consuming half a bottle of wine and prosciutto with the texture of butter, and I stuck our key in the wrong door. (Insert whatever joke you want here.)
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Oh, and that time Nicole and I tried to stop someone from slipping into our building without a key, and got screamed at in a colorful mix of English and Italian. (How considerate of you to use the F-word, lady, so that we could understand you!)
But overall, Rome was a dream of a vacation. Our airbnb had a private, enclosed garden, where Nicole and I would have our morning coffee and our evening wine (and write postcards). I have always fantasized about living in a city apartment with a private garden. 🙂 This place was perfect.
While Berlin wasn’t my jam, I am privileged to be able to have an opinion about which cities I like and which cities I don’t.
The ease with which I am able to move about the world is astounding. Twice, I stopped people on the street to ask for directions in Berlin, and they were able to speak English. One man was on his bike at a stoplight, and the other was walking down the street in the rain. And both took the time to kindly point me in the right direction. I am lucky to have the money, time, unrestricted passport, and language to be able to explore other parts of the world.
I read three books while I was on vacation:
Pretty Girls by Karen Slaughter. This was a terrible, violent book. Don’t read it.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbury. While I’m all for an existential crisis, this was a bit too much pontification for me. I did like the two main characters, though.
Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver. She’s one of my favorite authors, and this novel didn’t disappoint.
I also watched the series finale of Girls. Was anyone else disappointed by that slap-dash ending?
I am grateful to be back in Kosovo. And I am grateful for a host family that will come and pick me up on the side of a two-lane highway, where the bus dropped me off (because the bus directly to my village wasn’t running on Sunday.)
Finally, one last note (and a plug!). My friend Crystal wrote a novel and got it published (by a real New York publishing house)! I am so impressed that someone I know published a book (which has long been a dream of mine). Crystal’s novel will be released this Tuesday. You can pre-order it on Amazon here. (It’s an historical fiction story set in ancient Rome — how appropriate!)
When doing research on flying to Rome, I discovered it was going to be much cheaper for me to leave from Tirana, Albania than Pristina.
At first, I considered renting an airbnb in Tirana the night before my flight. But then I would have to spend time/money getting back out to the Tirana airport (which is 18 kilometers outside the city center). Also, the bus from Pristina to Tirana stops at the airport on its way into downtown Tirana.
I had United Airline miles that were set to expire soon, so I decided to use them to book a room at the Hotel Airport Tirana. My cost for the room was only 16 Euro, after I used my miles.
As my bus crossed the border from Kosovo into Albania, I looked out the window and thought, “Albania is so beautiful.” A second later, someone coughed on me.
There isn’t much to do by the Tirana airport. I bought some snacks and spent the afternoon reading on my balcony (a fine way to begin a vacation, by the way). When I got hungry, I debated ordering room service. I’m not keen on eating in restaurants alone when I don’t have to, but room service is generally expensive. I’ve only ever taken one business trip (to Nashville, TN), and that was the last time I ordered room service. The fee was something like $16. Sixteen dollars is an obscene amount of money to order a mediocre cheeseburger, even if someone else is paying for it.
I called the front desk, and learned that the fee for room service at the Hotel Airport Tirana is 1.50 Euro.
WHAT?! SEND IT UP!
I ended up getting two room service meals during my stay, and the total cost for food + fees was 11 Euro. (Oh, Eastern Europe, how I love thee!) I got to eat dinner in my pajamas! In bed! 🙂
So, my total cost for traveling through Tirana, Albania was 10 Euro for the bus, 16 Euro for the hotel, 11 Euro for room service, and probably 3 or so Euro for snacks. (Free breakfast was included in the price of my room.) The 40 Euro I spent (plus my 70 Euro flight) was still significantly cheaper than flying to Rome from Pristina.
The Tirana airport is across the street from the hotel, which makes this the only time in my life I have ever walked to catch a flight. 🙂
After planning to spend the first half of spring break in Rome, I debated what to do for the second half of the week. Before joining the Peace Corps, I hadn’t traveled around Europe much. Looking at the prices of flights from Rome left me feeling dizzy and giddy. I could go anywhere, for less than 100 Euro!
I thought about doing some city-hopping, but that just seemed overwhelming, given the little time I had. I finally settled on Berlin, because:
I had always wanted to go there.
I knew some other volunteer friends would be there, so I wouldn’t be totally alone.
There was a cheap flight directly back to Pristina (rather than having to fly to Skopje or Tirana).
Again, I like to travel with only a loose itinerary. Here’s what I ended up doing in Berlin:
Wednesday: Arrive in Berlin at night
Thursday: Free walking tour through SANDEMAN’S. Best thing I did in Berlin! We hit some big tourist spots: Brandenburg Gate, Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, and Checkpoint Charlie. Dinner with friends at a German restaurant (cannot recall name)
Friday: (only day with okay weather) Walk through Tiergarten Park (behind the Brandenburg Gate), and visit the Berlin Wall. Dinner with friends at an Indian restaurant.
Saturday: Visit Deutsches Historisches Museum. Dinner with friends at Leander.
I’m going to be honest — Berlin is one of my least favorite places I have visited. To be fair, I had just come from a beautiful, Roman spring to cold, rainy Germany. Every day, I would put on as many layers as possible and go out into the wind. I tried to like the city, but I just couldn’t. I had pictured Berlin as this young, hip, vibrant, grungy city. But it is quiet and empty. I learned from our tour guide that Berlin is the only city in Western Europe that has declined in population, from 4 million residents to 3.5 million. Walking its wide streets and long blocks, I got an eerie feeling. Where were all the people?
I know Berlin has a reputation as a big party city. It’s the city of Cabaret! It’s the city of Hedwig and the Angry Inch! I cannot remember the last time I went to a club, so maybe if I had participated in the nightlife scene, I’d have a different opinion of Berlin.
Berlin is a very clean city. (As a friend pointed out, there are no people to mess it up.)
The subway system was extremely easy to navigate. I was able to get around with no problems.
My favorite part of my trip was the free walking tour. I’d definitely recommend it if you plan to visit.
Oh, well. I’m glad I was able to see Berlin, and check it off my list. I am also glad I visited while I am living in Europe. Had I paid a lot of money to fly over from the U.S., I probably would have been more disappointed.
(Thanks to Rachel for allowing me to post some of her photos here.)