Saturday, 22 January 2011

New Year in Budapest

New Year's eve in Budapest was not what I had imagined, and very unlike other European countries I've visited. Expecting the restaurants to be packed and the bars crammed, we ate early, and ventured out at around 11pm (after some drinks in our hostel) to try to locate the centre of celebrations on the streets.

As we approached the centre, everything was remarkably quiet. The restaurants were busy, but certainly not crowded, and bars and pubs half empty. The main pedestrian street was deserted, and although the clubs were most likely full, that wasn't the atmosphere we were seeking.

Close to midnight, we were beginning to worry that we had missed something important, when we heard shouts from nearly Liberty bridge. Relived, we turned the corner to find most of Budapest waiting expectantly, laughing and drinking in groups as the river slowly flowed beneath them. Families, groups and tourists had all gathered together, braving the cold, and as midnight struck, fireworks exploded and everybody celebrated.

A great way to ring in 2011.

Losing contact with my toes...

Although I am a bit of a planner, and like to have a vague idea of what I want to do and see wherever we go, I often leave the actually issue of getting to these places to chance, relying on local maps or friendly faces to give me a push in the right direction.

After our experiences jumping on a random bus in Chile, hoping it would take us in roughly the right direction and ending up somewhere different, but just as interesting, to what we had planned, we took a similar decision when trying to reach Memento park the following morning.

We had a rough idea of the area we wanted to end up in, and finding a bus heading in the right direction, we hopped on. After half an hour, winding our way out of the city and well into the suburbs, we began to get a little concerned that we had made the wrong choice ("Surely it's not this far out?!"), but staring out the window at the surroundings and seeing glimpses of life outside the city was still a treat. Eventually, after a further half hour and as the passengers on the bus began to dwindle and our feet became colder, we must have looked increasingly confused, as a lovely old lady guessed our destination and confirmed that we were indeed on the correct bus (through a combination of nods and hand gestures).

Minutes later the bus stopped, and as we stepped off to Lenin towering over us we guessed we'd hit the right place. That, however, was where the fun ended. Exposed and outside of the collective warmth of the city, the snow was heavier, the wind icy and the temperatures much, much lower. Within minutes, and despite being well-dressed, my feet had frozen. We paid our entrance for the park, and, I am ashamed to say, did the quickest sight-seeing circuit I think I've ever made.

The statues were incredible, huge imposing figures representing in every way the history of former Soviet states - statues of men muscular and brave, flags held with pride and everywhere the father figures of Lenin and Stalin watching over. The white snow contrasting against the stark black of the statues made them even more dominant in the landscape, more affecting. There were a few other visitors braving the cold, but not many, and it added to the isolation. That was, until huge squeals of laughter sounded out behind us and we turned to see someone climbing up a statue for a better picture. Everywhere we go, the same thing. Such a shame.

After 50 minutes, our feet were throbbing and I had lost feeling in about 75% of my body. We made it back to the bus stop in time for the next bus back, and I spent the next hour of the ride trying desperately to encourage some circulation back to the extremities and worrying that I was never going to feel my little toe again.

The park was definitely worth a visit, and the snow really did add something to the aesthetics, although I would certainly think twice before recommending a trip outside the city in below-zero degrees...

A city of two halves, one soul

After the picturesque highlights of Buda, the next day was concentrated across the river in Pest. Home to the parliament, bustling Christmas market, main shopping streets and bakeries from which delicious smells wafted their way towards us at every turn, if Buda had the more tranquil atmosphere, Pest was definitely the life of the city.

We set off on a sort of 'walking tour', following the river from our hostel up to Parliament, then working our way back slowly, stopping briefly at the pointed spires of some of Budapest's many beautiful religious buildings, catching glimpses of statues dotted around, and stopping just a few times for some snacks and warming hot chocolate or wine (as an aside, I would never really have connected Hungary with hot chocolate, yet it was the hot drink of choice at many cafes and street stalls and was absolutely divine).

After another amazing dinner in the evening (every meal we had was incredible...), we escaped the cold and snow and made plans for the next day.

Friday, 21 January 2011

5 days in Budapest

I find it increasingly difficult to have some time off work and not spend it travelling. The initial reasoning of 'it'll be nice to have some time at home, do all those little niggly jobs that add up', swiftly turns into 'well...a couple of days away wouldn't hurt', and the constant itch lying just below the surface needs to be scratched.

One cheap, budget flight later, and Budapest for New Year it was then. Having had various experiences with budget European airlines, we chose our dates carefully, leaving just after Christmas and flying back on New Year's day - one of the quieter periods for travel (we had counted on most people not wanting to get on a plane the morning of the 1st January, which turned out to be true).

Our first impression stepping off the place was how cold it was. Not that we were expecting tropical sunshine, but the wind there was biting. I think the actual temperature hovered about -6 degrees Celsius during the days, but the wind chill, especially in more exposed areas, brought that crashing down further.

Nevertheless, we were determined to see as much as possible, and set off on our first full day to conquer castle hill on the Buda side, home of the royal palace, liberty statue and some of the loveliest views over the city. And it is a beautiful city. Solid, ornate bridges stretching over the misty river, buildings topped with snow and patches of green dotted here and there.

After a quick climb we arrived at the most famous part of Buda, packed with picturesque churches, houses and the fishermen's bastion, covered with a dusting of the white stuff and looking just like a postcard. Almost by accident we stumbled upon a sign for the Buda castle labyrinth, an underground cave system, and were won over by the promise of a constant 20 degrees down below.

The winding tunnels, discovered by complete chance, ended up being my favourite part of the trip. Temporary and permanent art exhibitions filled the spaces, the dark and almost eerie statues adding to and enhancing the atmosphere. From giant heads half submerged in water, to back lit statues and fountains, every turn brought a new surprise and something to discover. A definite recommendation.