And here I was, carrying a big blue suitcase, a bright orange ruck sack, and a whole mixed set of prejudices and expectations.
It’s true. I was in Budapest, the city that’s wedged between the ostentatious, but popular Vienna, and the newly fashionable, but truly spectacular Prague. Popular opinion varied. My friends told me it was nice, but there was a seedy part to it. The truly trusted Internet gave me raving reviews, but cautioned me that falling in love with it was not easy – it was opulent, but disfigured too. Would I be able to get over it?
As in the case of every passionate love story, I realized that it was going to be a journey of discovery. As in the case of a lot of love stories, we had an inauspicious start. I arrived at Budapest Deli station and immediately looked for a Money Exchange center. Common sense told me that since this is where a lot of international travelers arrived, I should get cheap rates here. Well, turns out common sense was wrong. Well, since airports give the worst rates, I am not sure why I expected anything better from train stations. Well, long story short, I got ripped off; though thankfully, I had the good sense to exchange only what was required for about a day. As a side note, tip of the day: It actually makes sense to withdraw money from an ATM, if you have a travel card. The rates provided are much better.
Anyway, yes, inauspicious start, but I didn’t give up. The day got better as I got into the metro, and moved towards the older part of town. I had debated about taking a taxi, but between haggling with taxi drivers, and a one-euro metro (350 HUF one way) ride, I chose the latter. And a smart decision it was too – 3 days in Budapest and I realized how well-connected the metro is, and how cheap it is. A 5 euro pass (1650 HUF) and you can travel on the metro unlimited times for 24 hours.
And the day got better. As I rolled my suitcase and walked towards my apartment near St Stephen’s Basilica, I not only noticed the beautiful spectacular architecture, I also noticed how gloriously lost I was. My apartment was supposed to be a 5 min walk from the metro station, but after walking for 45 minutes in every possibly direction, I had to admit that as pretty as everything was, I really needed to ask for help. So I did. Armed with my multi-colored map, I walked across to random people on the street, and confessed my total incompetence in reading maps. It’s a measure of their character that they not only sympathized, they also told me they had the same problem, and actually gave me their own set of confused directions.
One guy didn’t know where the apartment was, but he went inside a restaurant, called two of the waiters outside, and then argued with them on the directions. I finally managed to make peace (somewhat!), promised to follow his directions, and walked away before a fight ensued. But yes, people were sweet. Most of the restaurants looked upscale, and I was quite hesitant to walk in with my errrr….unkempt, grungy, look. But as snooty as they looked from outside, people were kind and sweet, and tried their best to help. Finally, one sweet soul actually walked with me to my apartment, almost as if he was afraid I would never reach if he hadn’t. His fears were true.
I took one look at the apartment, and fell in love. It was exactly what I had imagined it to be, or well, wanted it to be. Old, spooky, and full of character. 🙂 It was in a really beautiful old building with a huge wooden door at the entrance, a lovingly but subtly carved house number, and the kind of architecture which makes you go wow, but which is so marvelous, you just can’t describe it. Inside, it was …different. Lovingly carved balustrades on the stairs, a small but obviously un-used courtyard, apartment doors that were barricaded with painted iron bars, huge windows with laced curtains overlooked the balcony, small narrow passages that connected the seemingly quiet apartments. I loved it. Loved it, loved it, loved it. There was such a sense of lived in history in the place, such a sense of character, you knew that you were special for being part of it. Yes, I think Budapest would probably suit me.
I settled in, but before I could start off with my sight-seeing, I had to fortify myself with much needed nourishment. I went across to the department store there, and that’s when I saw this. That’s it. I knew this place was special. I had confirmation.
As the day progressed, I knew I was in a special place. So many different sights, so much beauty, so much soul. I began to write about each and every single piece, but that would hardly do it justice. Pictures probably would do a better job, but nobody can replicate the feeling that the place generates. Yes, there are hordes of tourists, yes, there are the souvenir shops and the McDonalds, but there’s also a feeling of decadent history in the air. The monuments, the architecture, the streets – yes, they are beautiful, but they also have weary old soul feel to it. How could it not? It’s lived, breathed, thrived, and survived in both good and turbulent times.
This – this was a special place, and I was only getting started.
More to come!