Because transportation seems to be the only significant free time I have while traveling, I’m writing this post on the train from Budapest to Vienna. It’s been almost a week since I left Oxford with my friend, Kyoka, for our obscenely long spring break. With two cities behind us and two more ahead, the first leg of the trip is halfway over! Read on for pictures and whatnot from the first two stops: Bucharest and Budapest.
Kyoka and I arrived at our hostel Bucharest around dinner time, so we threw down our stuff and went to find food. The location of the place, X Hostel, was pretty fantastic — Old Town was just a few minutes away, so we walked around and explored after dinner. Though the first meal we had was not traditional Romanian food, we did have papanasi, a popular Romanian dessert. It’s a little donut, basically, but there’s no hole in the middle and there’s an extra little ball of fried dough on top. Traditionally, it’s served with (sour?) cream and jam, probably cherry, but we also got a Nutella one. See picture for oily, bready goodness.
On our first full day, we went to the Village Museum, or Muzeul Satului. It’s an open-air museum with 18th through 20th century (approximately) Romanian village houses that were actually transported from different parts of the country. The insides were set up with displays, but since we didn’t visit during peak tourist season, most of them were closed. Still, we saw lots of exteriors and a couple of interiors, too. Seeing them and imagining what the peasants’ lives were like was really awesome; it was a much more immersive and immediate experience than a normal museum. The only weird part was being greeted at the entrance by a heavily armed guard. Welcome to Romania?
In the afternoon, we took a free walking tour by Walkabout Free Tour, and it was incredible. The guide was super informed and personable, and we saw all the major sights during the two hour tour. Along the way, we learned about Romanian history, like why the city seems like such a hodge podge of different architectural styles (because they were conquered by the Ottoman/Turks, the French, the Germans, and the Communists). Of course, we also got stories about Vlad the Impaler, immortalized as Dracula by Bram Stoker, so unfortunately the details of how to impale a person will be forever burned into my brain. In the evening, we ate at the adorable and famed Caru cu’ Bere restaurant, which looked like the real-life model for Disney “European” architecture inside, and shopped a bit.
The next day, we took a day trip to Brasov, a medieval village further into Transylvanian territory (Romania used to be three distinct countries: Wallachia, Moldavia, and Transylvania). Before we reached the town, though, we stopped at Peleș Castle. Built in the late 1800s, it’s not nearly as old as other castles I’ve seen, such as Leeds Castle in England, but it’s certainly one of (if not the) most beautiful that I’ve visited before. The architecture, neo-Renaissance, is very much my aesthetic, and the inside was just as beautiful, though we weren’t allowed to take pictures. It looked like, again with this analogy, the real life model that Disney used for Fantasyland.
We arrived in Brasov around lunch time, so we ate at a German restaurant before heading to Sfatului Square for another walking tour from the same company. The square, which included both the Council building and the Black Church, was wide open and beautiful, with quaint, colorful buildings framed by mountains. Less spread out and urban, Brasov was easier to take in at once — it was an adorable, picturesque little village. The tour, again, was really informative, and it hit all of the major points of interest. Seeing the massive Black Church (named so because of a fire), the last standing medieval gate in the town, and learning about Vlad the Impaler for the second time were all great, but the highlight for me was learning about the big “Brasov” sign in the mountain looming above the village. Briefly, Brasov had been renamed “Stalin,” as all of the Soviet occupied countries apparently had at least one town named after him. During his rein, Stalin’s name had been literally grown into the mountain, with strategically grown trees forming the letters. After the Soviet Union collapsed and Brasov got its name back, they had to re-plant to get rid of “Stalin,” and then they installed the Hollywood-style letters that are there today.
Before getting back on the train to Bucharest, we got some mulled wine and a giant Nutella crepe. Altogether, I was really glad we added Brasov to our Romania stop, even if we could only make it a day trip. It reminded me a lot of the little villages I saw when I went to Austria with my dance company, since almost every stop we made was a small town in the Alps. And that was pretty much it for Romania! The next day we packed up and went back to the airport to board a flight to Budapest. Turns out Kyoka had accidentally booked the wrong flight and consequently missed her original reservation, but these things happen, and luckily she got it sorted out and we made it on the same flight. Phew.
Almost as soon as we stepped out of the Metro, I fell in love with Budapest. The buildings are the perfect mixture between ornate and sleek, the streets are wide and well-kept (many pedestrian-only), the view of hilly Buda as viewed from Pest across the Danube is gorgeous (yes, Budapest used to be two separate cities), the public transportation is easy to navigate and efficient, and nothing is too expensive. Walking around, I felt so happy to be there. Although I don’t speak Hungarian just as I didn’t speak Romanian, Budapest seemed less foreign, or more Western. It was familiar, somehow, and that probably put me at ease. Immediately, I could tell Budapest was more my speed.
Kyoka and I dropped our stuff in the apartment we rented out and headed to the Great Market Hall for a snack. It is, as it sounds, a giant market, with fresh produce, fish/meat, souvenirs, and hot food. As it got later, we walked along the river to find the Shoes on the Danube, a memorial of steel-cast shoes dedicated to the people who were lined up and shot into the Danube by Nazis during the occupation. The installation is both touching and horrifying; it was really somber, but it was nice to see that people had left little tea candles, as well as other items like flowers and candy bars for the kids’ shoes. Afterward, we hopped across the Danube to take pictures of the breathtaking Parliament building (a huge neo-Gothic structure), its lights reflected on the water at night. Absolutely gorgeous sight to see.
We slept in the next morning, then went to an all-you-can-eat restaurant (for less than 1,200 forint, or about $4!) called Gastland Bisztró Oktogon. I didn’t care for too much of the food, granted as a pescetarian I couldn’t eat the majority of it, but I filled up and left feeling satisfied and savvy. Plus, the dessert was also all-you-can-eat, so that was a treat (or four). We shopped on Váci Street, the main shopping drag in Budapest, before meeting in Vörösmarty Square for yet another free walking tour. If it isn’t clear yet, I think this is hands-down the best way to see a new city. You need to walk to experience a place, and walking aimlessly won’t do much for you; instead, why not walk around with someone who can tell you a little bit about the country’s/city’s history and the landmarks and buildings in it? During the tour, we snacked on a traditional and famous Hungarian delicacy called kürtőskalács, or chimney cake. Since we got cinnamon, it tasted a lot like a churro. Since it’s made by stretching a strip of dough out then rolling it around a cone and baking it, chimney cake isn’t that heavy or oily. It was certainly lighter than the papanasi and lángos, which I’ll get to later.
Our guide was giving her first live tour, and it definitely stacked up to the two other walking tours we took in Romania. It was really helpful to hear about Hungarian history; it gave us perspective and context with which to understand more about the culture and the city. Like the Romanians, the Hungarians have been conquered by a score of more powerful parties, like the Ottomans, the Austrians, the Germans, and the Soviets. They were always on the wrong side of the war, apparently. In two and a half hours, we saw all the main attractions; my favorite part was the end, when we got to Castle Hill and St. Matthias Church. From up there, we got a perfect view of the Pest side of the city. Many more pictures were taken, of course.
In a happy coincidence, Hungary’s National Holiday, their Independence Day celebrating the beginning of the revolution against the Austrians, happened to fall on the 15th, our last full day in Budapest! Though we slept too late to see the flag raising ceremony, we walked around our area before heading up to Castle Hill, where there was a giant festival going on all day. There was music and traditional dance (though I didn’t get to see any); there were craft stands, spices and candies, drinks, and plenty of hot food. I got a cup of strawberry mulled wine, a paper cone of hot, fresh, twisted potato chips (a street-fair must), and a personal size raspberry cheesecake sold in a little jar. It was a very lively atmosphere, with tons of kids running around eating pretzels and kürtőskalács bigger than their heads. I’m so glad that we lucked out with the holiday; it was really fun to get to take part in some of the festivities, even if we only participated in the eating.
In the afternoon, we went to Széchenyi Baths, which are thermal/Turkish baths. We picked this specific locale because it was apparently one of the newer, well kept ones, and while the old ones looked really ancient and cool, I personally preferred a place that didn’t “need maintenance” according to online reviews. So we got there, and the inside was as lavish and luxurious as expected. When we got to the part with the pools, it was also pretty, but nothing extraordinary. The baths themselves are heated by thermal springs, and while they didn’t reek of chlorine, I didn’t think they were too different from hot tubs. Plus, only one or two that we could find were hot; a lot of them were lukewarm. As someone who doesn’t enjoy swimming very much, I thought the experience was a bit overrated, but our bodies definitely needed the relaxation. I also don’t want to write off all Turkish baths having only gone to one, so I’ll give it another go next time I’m in Budapest, which I hope will be soon. For dinner, Kyoka and I decided we needed a break from European fare — sausage and potatoes — so we ate at a place called Taiwan Restaurant. It was a much needed respite.
This morning, we made one last stop at the Great Market Hall, where I got a much-anticipated lángos. Another Hungarian specialty, lángos is a thick piece of fried dough usually served with sour cream, cheese, and garlic. However, you can also eat them sweet, so I went for a Nutella banana lángos. It soaked the paper underneath it with oil and each bite was a sinful mouthful of bready, oily, chocolate-y goodness. I was glad I got it, and I was proud of myself for trying so many Hungarian dishes as a non-meat-eater, but I’ll admit that I couldn’t stomach the entire thing. Still, it was very, very yummy, and the perfect way to end the Budapest leg of our journey.
Bless anyone who has read this far into the post. I hope I’ve properly captured my experiences in Bucharest in Budapest for anyone who might be going soon, or alternatively, painted a good picture for those who just want to make sure I’m alive and having a nice time traversing the European continent. Halfway into the first part of trip, I’m so happy with how things are going, and I feel so lucky to be seeing cities I’ve only dreamed of visiting before. Next stop, Vienna! From what I’ve already seen of Austria, I’m very excited to return.