BOB CORBETT'S TRAVEL JOURNAL -- 2007

Budapest 1: May 5, 2007 -- Budapest after 12 + hours of sleep -- notes from Bob and Sally

Bob Corbett's note:

After a simply marvelous time in Venice, my best visit there ever, we took a night train to Budapest and that was a throw back in time. Our train went through both Slovenia first and then Croatia. However, our Eurail pass is only for three countries, Italy, Austria and Hungary. So, we did purchase a ticket just from the border of Slovenia through Croatia to the border of Hungary. It turned out to be an unnecessary 28 Euro expense since the train, which was an Hungarian train had a very easy going guy taking care of our sleeping car and he didnít give a hang about our ticket, didnít even look at it. No big deal.

However, this was a throw back in time for me to before the UE came into being. In those days, pre UE, every single time one crossed a border, for example from France to Spain or Austria to Germany, one had police from each country get on at the border and check passports, and also police from the tax department to see if you had things to declare. But that all ended years ago and I hadnít been into Eastern Europe much since then, just once or twice that I can recall.

So, about midnight we were extremely surprised to have a banging on our cabin door and it was the Slovenian police to check our passports. The young French couple sharing the cabin with us were really startled since this was their first time taking an overnight train with beds. There are six beds in a compartment and Sally and I had booked these tickets way back in Florence so we were able to get two bottom bunks. There are three bunks on each side of the compartment.

I explained the system to them and after we showed our passports we went back to bed, but I had forgotten the tax guys. Minutes later the banging on the door and the question, do you have anything to declare? Now I ask you, at midnight in the dark, who in the world ever says of yes of course, I am bringing this valuable radio into the country....

I had forgotten this is often repeated at major cities, so a short while later as we came into Ljubiana the whole scene was repeated. Then again at the Croatian border and again in Zagreb, Croatia and lastly again at the Hungarian border, but NOT in Budapest. It was a rather interrupted night of sleeping.

Thus, after our first full day in Budapest yesterday we came home about 5 PM (after a stunning meal -- more later), and settled in for an evening at home. We had a nice bottle of wine, some fresh strawberries from a fruit shop next door to the hotel, some good dark chocolate and lovely biscotti from Italy.

I planned to see if there would be a soccer match on TV, but about 6:30 while I was flipping channels I noticed that Sally was long gone to sleep. I flipped channels for 5 more minutes and clicked the TV off. I was surprised to find I actually got the clicker on to the table next to my bed before collapsing into a coma of sleep. Iím surprised I didnít just drop it in the bed. We slept until 7 AM this morning, about 12 hours SOLID. We were exhausted.

I had promised Sally a REALLY easy day in Budapest since we walked a full 8.5 miles in Venice yesterday. But, as thing led to thing we ended up walking a full five miles in Budapest today.

First back to Venice yesterday. An awesome day. Sally had read a novel in which a famous fire in the 1950s figured. The Fenice theater had burned and she later discovered had been rebuilt. So she wanted to see it. We set off. Venice is a maze of tiny streets with small bridges over the smaller canals. Nothing motorized (save small boats in the canals) can be in Venice, so we walked and walked and walked. We were both reminded of getting lost often in the maze of Mykonos, Greece last year. This we did often yesterday though Sally is normally a wizard with maps. We did finally find the Fenice and it is marvelous now, magnificently restored. But wow, it is in a tiny square.

Back a day later in Budapest we discovered we had a MAGNIFICENT hotel, one of the nicest I have ever stayed in in Eastern Europe. And the breakfast this morning was wonderful and tasty and unending.

Yesterday afternoon we walked and found an exceptional restaurant with live Gypsy music and extraordinary food. We ate and ate and ate and ate, then walked a bit to see a Greek Orthodox chapel I had found 20 years ago in Budapest and thought was exceptional and it was. We resolved today would be a really simple day, with lots of tram riding and such. But, we wanted to find another of my favorite restaurants of 20 years ago. After miles of searching and locals trying to help us, one man finally said that after the fall of the Wall, many street names changed and many old restaurant closed and new opened. When I showed him the name he said he had never heard of it (not surprising he was a young guy in his 30s. When I showed him the name of the Hungarian food I was hunting he was really amazed and said he has always heard of this dish but never eaten it and never heard of a restaurant serving it. It was a goulash cheese soup. My son Bob and I ate and ate and ate that in 1985 when we were here, accompanying it will lots of huge mugs of beer. One of the best meals Iíve ever had while traveling.

Today it is raining all over Europe, from southeast France to the Ural mountains. Not actually raining here now, but overcast and some sprinkles on and off. But the weather forecast is for rain.

We have been riding the lovely trams around town this morning and are on the Pest side of the Danube now (the flat eastern half of the city), but weíve ridden over into Buda (the hilly western part) -- the Danube river divides the two halves of the city. In Buda, at the top of a gigantic hill is the famous fortress and The Matthias Church. It is actually The Church of Our Lady, but is is popularly named after King Matthias Corvinus (Good King MŠtyŠs) who ordered the construction. We hope to go there today assuming it isnít just teeming rain later on.

Then we will seek a NEW restaurant today, one I donít know and hopefully one sort of on the Buda side of the river (the non-touristy side) that will look out toward Pest and the famous Parliament building, perhaps the most famous site in Budapest.

It is fun to be here and our hotel is really awesome. I have two nice bottles of wine in the room (from the little shop next to the hotel), one for tonight and one for tomorrow night. This is Saturday and Monday morning we move on to Vienna for a long stay of 9 nights, a trip to the Volksoper to see Mozartís The Magic Flute and many other things.

We are both quite exhausted today even after 12 hours of sleep, so an overcast, breezy day with some rain isnít even a negative. We have day-long passes on the buses and trams and will just sightsee from the trams (which we like best). We were just riding along looking out the window, saw this internet place and hopped off at the next stop. After we finish here in a bit weíll just go back to the tram stop and get on the next tram. One ticket, good for unlimited riding for 24 hours. Great deal.

I have high expectations for our find of a really LOCAL spot to eat tonight and to eat something unusual, maybe deer, rabbit, wild boar, something like that. However, Budapest is famous too for liver and I havenít that that in a long time but do enjoy it. If it is on the menu (and we can tell -- the language is impossible and no one where we are going will speak English, though some do speak German) then I would get that.

Onward to the Castle Hill ...... depending on weather.....

Whooops, an addendum

I have forgotten to mention the fascinating train ride from the Hungarian border to Budapest. Sally and I woke early and when I walked down to the end of the car to use the toilet I noticed the compartment next to us was empty, the people must have gotten off at Zagreb.

So we got up, moved over to that compartment, put the beds up and had the whole compartment as seats to ourselves.

First was the story at night which seemed to really frighten the French girl. When the Croatian guards came round there was a heated discussion from the compartment next door. This man who was on the train, a really big buy, and whose language was English was a Croatian citizen but lives in the US. He was on his way from Venice to Budapest like us, but since he was a Croatian citizen he was required to have a visa to even pass THROUGH Croatia. He had no idea of this and didnít have one. So, he was obligated to get off the train (wee hours of the morning) and the police told he would have to get a visa in the morning at the train station and take a train then. The guards, who did speak some English, were actually very very nice to the man, but said that was the law and they had to enforce it. The man was wildly upset. The French girl spoke a wee bit of English but not much. Her boyfriend none. I had been able to talk a bit with then me using Haitian Creole and then French, and she and I would talk a bit in English and she translate into French for her boyfriend. This visa flap really upset her and she was terrified this would happen to her. I explained the conversation and told her it was just this oddness of his citizenship and nothing more and that the police were really kind and even apologetic about it.

Nonetheless, she was back asleep in minutes. :)

Then, since Sally and I got up just as we entered Hungary we had four hours to see the Hungarian southern areas from the Croatian border to Budapest and the light was just coming to the miles and miles and miles of gigantic flat farm fields. My guess is those must have been co-operative farms during the communist days and probably have now been sold to private firms. After the fall of the Wall in 1989 we have read of the new development, especially to Hungary and The Czech Republic (formerly part of the nation of Czechoslovakia which no longer exists). But, what really struck me in southern Hungary were the huge number of dirt roads. There was one highway that looked much like an American interstate highway. However, aside from there were large stretches of magnificent looking farm fields filled with crops, many of them new and developing crops, but towns, and villages galore with one or two very small narrow two-lane paved roads and dozens more dirt roads serving them.

We spent over an hour riding alongside a gigantic lake and it was so odd, since it was obviously a major tourist area and nicely developed, but completely boarded up, mile after mile. Not abandoned, clearly SEASONAL and the season isnít opened yet. Even here, while there was a paved road next to the train and the train was about 100 yards from the lake, in between the road and train tracks were these miles and miles and miles long development of cabins and tents which looked much like a site from the U.S. in the 1940s. And dirt roads serving it all.

Very surprising to me. I thought the new development would be much more widely spread. Even Budapest doesnít look much different at all than it did back in the 1980s when I visited here many times when it was under communist rule.

I just got Sallyís note and she said I would probably tell you about the lady and the tram tickets.

Maybe I was TRYING TO FORGET. But I forgot.

At the train station some simply lovely people at the tourist information gave us a city map. I told them the directions our hotel gave us to get there by Metro and tram. The guy said, Metro and tram!, you can walk faster itís just a couple blocks. (In the Florence train station when they tried to book the hotel they told me the same thing. But in Florence their computer couldnít make the connection. Thus in Siena I got on line and did the booking. Immediately the hotel sent a note and directions to the hotel. But, the guy at the train station was right, it was a short walk.)

In any case, I asked about day-long tickets and the guy said right in the basement of the train station was the Metro station and I could buy tickets there.

After getting some Florint (money of Hungary) we went downstairs and I got in line. An elderly lady was there. She spoke no English, German or French, so I was out of luck with language. I was trying to signal day-long passes. Then a young woman stepped up and asked in English if she could help. I said please, I wanted to buy day-long passes. She told the woman. I signaled 6 of them. The lady seemed exasperated and asked (I guess) really 6? Again I held up 6 fingers. The young woman came to my aid again and told the woman 6.

We needed two for each day, three days. But, then I noticed she had to fill in the DATE on each ticket. She was doing number 4 when I saw this. I said, no no no. She stopped and had an utter fit yelling at me and screaming to all around. Again the young woman came back. I explained. She told the woman I needed two for each of the next three days. The lady went bonkers since sheíd ruined two tickets and then came the last straw. And she grumbled, complaining loudly to all as she finished the tickets SHE wrote in the wrong date on ticket. She threw it aside and screamed more and more at me. The sweet young lady came up to me and quietly said: You really should learn Hungarian. It was everything I could do not to burst into roaring laughter.

These things happen. It is so much easier to travel when one can knows or recognize some bits and pieces of language even if not all. In Turkey and Greece last year we had some similar difficulties, but it was about the longest and loudest lecture Iíve every had while traveling. Bless the poor lady, I had hit her wrongly.....

Bob



Sally's note

Hi Everybody,

We arrived here in Budapest yesterday around noon I think. And a very interesting experience in what was our last overnight train ride.

We boarded our train a bit early as Bob said it would be a good idea to settle our bags in before our other travelers arrived. We found that two of our 6 travelers were already there. A very nice young French couple.

She (hmmmm....we never asked their names nor gave them ours) was concerned about their luggage... mostly hers I think. It was a huge wheeled bag that could have been used as a coffee table... :)

The conductor, bless his heart, couldnít speak a word of English, and nodded and smiled his way with those of us who couldnít speak a word of Hungarian.

He brought us 5 sets of bed linens, sheets, pillows with cases and blankets. (One more person was supposed to be in our cabin but never showed up.) Bob reminded me that I loved having a blanket last trip and used it not only for warmth, but for protection from the lights. Though I had to walk down and ask the conductor for it. We all learned later that the blankets were totally useless on this trip, as the heat was on in the train cars and even I was warm... :)

We talked a bit to the young couple and then because we all were tired, and the conductor seemed to be busy elsewhere, we... um, Bob and the young man did what had to be done to set up the two middle bunks and the couple made up their beds and after they climbed into them, Bob and I made up ours.

Though I have not slept well before in night trains, though enjoying the restfulness of stretching out rather than sitting up all night, this time I was nearly exhausted and was happy that I might really sleep this ride.

Turned out that I did sleep better... but in between our border stops. Our trip went from Venice to Budapest via Slovenia and Croatia, which meant we crossed borders three times, and each border there seemed to be passport stops on both sides, maybe it was passport and duty checks on both sides, no matter, we were awakened at least 6 times by border guards in uniforms and asked for our passports.

Bob, bless his heart, is the one who carries both our passports, airplane and train tickets as he is both a wonderful travel partner, AND travel guide!

Well, he keeps these VIP papers in one special zipper section of his vest... and so each time they asked for the passports, he sat up, reached for the vest, and bless his heart, he had to actually put on the vest to find the passports... every time! But with his sense of humor, we both got a great laugh at it later.

Bob will talk a bit I know about the bus ticket lady in Budapest, but we had very little trouble finding our hotel. Though we chose not to mess with the Metro and the bus that our host recommended in his confirmation note. Instead we used a very nice city map that we got at the information desk at the train station.

Turns out that though Bob is the super travel guide, I happen to be a good map reader, and found us the streets we needed to walk from the train station to the hotel.

Then we got settled in our very lovely hotel in our room on the 7th floor, and cleaned up for another 'easy' day of sightseeing and mid day meal.

Of course it turned out that our easy day logged about 5 miles here and we returned to the hotel really, really exhausted. We had gotten some strawberries and wine on our way home and so we settled in and rested until we just couldnít stay awake another minute and slept at least 12 hours.

We had showered last night so it wasnít long till we were dressed and ready to search out our hotel's breakfast area. It turned out it wasnít hard to find. If I didnít tell you our hotel is build in a square around a central courtyard. Each of the floors has an open view down to the restaurant with the white clothed tables. Not the best hotel for someone with vertigo, but wow.... what a breakfast.

We were awe struck at the long serving table. Everything you could imagine was there, not just the coffees, teas, milk, juices, cereals, breads and jams, but also cold slices of meats and cheeses, hot scrambled eggs with meat and an unsweetened version of French Toast. Even cold salads, maybe 4-6 of them.

Bob said he will definitely write about this breakfast as the best of our trip so far.

Also, we found one of the restaurants that Bob remembered from his other trips here, and had a delicious, huge meal yesterday. After which we were happy to walk around searching for the other restaurant (for another day) which unfortunately we never did find. Found the street, thanks to the city map and a young lady at a book store. But it seems that its just not there any more.

Today is overcast and some sprinklings of rain, so we took this morning to ride the streetcars -- trams they are called here, and eventually found where we want to go sightseeing this afternoon, but havenít found a restaurant yet. But I have faith that Bob will be able to find a fine one. :)

And I might even do some shopping later today. Could depend on how warm it gets this afternoon in the rain. So far, my choice of clothes has served me well. But in this chilly rain, if it doesnít warm a bit, I might buy myself a long sleeved shirt or sweater, something lightweight though and easy to pack. And if I see a rain jacket I like, who knows I might take the plunge there too. Not a matter of funds, as I still have my unused birthday gift card. :)

Well, off to see more of the Buda side of Budapest. I have to say that the streetcar we rode this morning was nice and clean and bright, even if the weather is dreary this morning.

Sally Ryan Sharamitaro

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