Bicycle Days in Budapest

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When was the last time you heard Hungary mentioned on the evening news?  Was it the last time the Hungarian soccer team won the Olympic gold medal (1968)?  Was it the last time a Hungarian won the Nobel Peace Prize (1986, Elie Wiesel)? Or the last earthquake to rock Budapest (December 31, 2006)?

This is not to say that Hungary has not had its share of famous people who have contributed to the global culture, it has (Ferenc Liszt the reknown composer and Laszlo Jozsef Biro who invented the ballpoint pen), but it just seems to be a country that flies under the international radar with no major international events (like Rio’s Carnival or Munich’s Oktoberfest) to bring it to the forefront at least once per year.

So we could hardly be blamed for having very little in the way of expectations when we visited Budapest.  This city was so far off my travel wish list that when Francesca suggested going there I replied, “Cool, Vampires!” to which she retorted, “You’re thinking of Bucharest in Romania NOT Budapest in Hungary!  And in any case the vampires are in Transylvania you idiot.”

We arrived after dark on a flight from Venice on Wizz Air (no joke) and made our way directly to our rented apartment.  What we did see of the city on the way from the airport seemed to be nothing special.  So you can imagine our surprise and delight when the morning came and we started to explore and realized what an undiscovered gem Budapest is!

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Nobody Beats the Wizz!!

I cannot say enough positive things about this city.  The people were friendly (and spoke English – big bonus!), the city resembles a large Western European city like Paris or Frankfurt (indeed it is known as the “Paris of the East”), but is very manageable (ie you do not feel overwhelmed) and it has, in my opinion, just the right amount of key ingredients; historical and cultural sites, open park spaces and gardens and a thriving bar & restaurant scene.  And it’s super cheap to boot!  At least when compared to the rest of Euro denominated Europe.  It didn’t hurt that we had two days of the most gorgeous fall weather which showcased the multicolored foliage and sparkle of the Danube that splits Buda from Pest.  [Fun fact: The name Budapest comes from the combination of two smaller cities that merged in 1873?  Buda was the royal and cultural city and Pest the business and political side.  Actually there was a third city that was part of the merger as well (Obuda which means “Old Buda”)].

Feeling like we wanted (needed!) some exercise and to take advantage of the beautiful weather we decided to rent bicycles and embark on a self guided tour of the city.  From under a pile of tourist brochures and maps lying in a bowl in our apartment we unearthed a neon orange flyer advertizing bicycles for rent that was fairly close to our apartment and set out to find it.  When we arrived we saw the company’s logo on the door (http://www.budapestbike.hu), but it appeared to be closed.  The flyer said “10am daily” and it was about 10:30am.  Disappointed we inquired next door in a snowboard shop and they told us that once the tourist season is over the bike people only open the shop by appointment.  Reading the disappointment on our faces she quickly said “Not to worry.  Just go down the street to #8 Wesselenyi and shout up for Paolo.”  Off of our confused looks she explained that the buzzer doesn’t work and Paolo would still be sleeping so we should yell really loudly for him.  Which we did.

Paolo was exactly the kind of guy you expect to be working in an Eastern European bike rental shop.  He was sort of a cross between a young David Carradine and Chris Elliott the B list comic known primarily for his recurring skits on David Letterman.  He wore tattered khaki capros (men’s Capri pants) and a loose, burlap looking shirt (think Charlton Heston’s outfit in “Planet of the Apes”) and Birkenstock sandals.  He was a pleasant guy although I suspect he would have even been more so if he had not just been roused from sleep.  He initially offered us a tandem bicycle which was 1,000 Forint cheaper.  [The Forint is the local currency in Hungary and is currently about 200 to the US$].  I thought this was a great idea because it would keep us together – Francesca is always critical of me speeding off and leaving her behind in any biking situation.  Francesca, however, vetoed the tandem experience (which would have been a first for both of us) because she did not like the idea of me having all the steering control and didn’t want to be killed along with me as I rode in my typical (in her opinion) reckless manner.   So we paid up (an extra $5) for two single bikes and pedaled off.

What follows is our bike route told in pictures…….

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First we rode across the Szabadsag Bridge to the Buda side and started to ascend the steep Gellert Hill to reach the Citadella at the top.

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Along the way we enjoyed spectacular views….

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And beautiful fall foliage.

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After taking in the panorama we headed down the back side of the mountain towards the Buda Castle built by King Bela IV after the Tartar invasion.

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Within the castle walls stands the impressive Matyas Templon (Matthias Church) built in several stages between the 13th and 15th centuries (and apparently still being worked on as it was largely covered by scaffolding with workers hammering away on her).

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Behind the church stands the white stone masonry of the Fisherman’s Bastion erected in late 1800s.

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From there it was a fun ride down the castle hill and across the Chain Bridge, the city’s oldest bridge, to the Pest side.

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Sticking to the bike path along the wide Andrassy Boulevard (complete with bike specific traffic lights!) we made our way past the Hungarian State Opera House…..

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….and all the way up to “Heroes Square” at the entrance to City Park with its signature 36m high center column with a statue depicting Archangel Gabriel holding the Hungarian Holy Crown and apostolic double cross.  It looks particularly impressive at night.

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After riding around City Park (Budapest’s best answer to NYC’s Central Park) amid the changing leaves….

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…..we lunched alfresco in the park……..

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….and finally ended up at Szechenyi Spa Baths, a sprawling complex of thermal pools, saunas and steam rooms in a Romanesque setting.  It is one of numerous public and private thermal bath houses in Budapest.

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After a perfect day on two wheels we had worked up an appetite and so headed out to trendy Raday Street to have typical Hungarian fare (goulash, chicken paprika and Hungarian dumplings).  We were joined by Bea Juvancz, a fellow Wharton Alum whom a mutual friend had introduced me to via email a few days earlier.  Originally from Budapest she has lived in several cities all over the world, but returned several years ago to start a family with her husband.  She now has three children who we unfortunately did not get to meet as it was past their bedtime when we met up with her.  She provided us with many interesting cultural and historical tidbits which gave richer context to all that we had seen during the day.

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Around midnight we finally let her go as she had a big work meeting the next day.  In the morning we took the subway to the train station for our short ride to Vienna.

Budapest Underground collage

Francesca and I agreed that Budapest is now one of our favorite cities and vowed to return one day for a longer visit.  As this made us think on our favorite cities I figured I would ask you all to chime in with your favorite all-time place that you’ve visited.  I realize it’s a difficult question to answer because I know that people probably have their favorite large, metropolitan city, their favorite beach resort, their favorite historical city, etc., but for the purposes of this poll, please just pick your general, overall all-time favorite place in the world.

Speaking of polls, here are the results of the “Favorite Italian Book & Movie” poll.

It was a close race for favorite book involving Italy, but the winner was “Eat, Pray, Love” by Elizabeth Gilbert (33%) followed closely by Hemmingway’s “A Farewell to Arms” (22%).

Your favorite film involving Italy was a 4 way tie between “The Talented Mr. Ripley”, “A Room With a View”, “Tea With Mussolini” and “Roman Holiday”.

Thanks to all who participated in the poll.

Country Stats:

Official Name: Republic of Hungary

Native Language: Hungarian (Magyar)

Country Name in Native Language: Magyarország

Population: 10,020,000

Capital City: Budapest

Government: Parliamentary Republic

Current Leader: President Laszlo Solyom, Prime Minister Gordon Bajnai

For more information on Italy click here.

 

In Retrospect (November 13, 2010):

While there are many “favorite” places on our RTW adventure, without a doubt the one that gets mentioned the most when we are asked that question is Budapest.  I have no doubt that a lot of this has to do with (1) expectations (we had none!) and (2) the weather (which was absolutely gorgeous).  I would definitely like to go back at some point, although, I feel that, contrary to other cities we visited for a short period of time, like Venice, Budapest is a place that I feel we “did” in a day and wouldn’t really experience much more in terms of sights in the city itself, although, of course there are always adventures to be had and things to see outside of Budapest proper, in the outskirts and surrounding Hungarian countryside.  If Budapest is not on your European itinerary, please reconsider.



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One Response to “Bicycle Days in Budapest”

  1. Helen **** Says:

    wonderful pics and narrative.

    pops sent it to me and i love having it.
    hope all is well.

    love, Helen

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