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Traveling In Opulence – The Reverse ‘T’ Factor, Pt. 2: Budapest

Now the second leg of our trip, this time to Hungary for one of the most surprisingly great holidays of our lives.

When I finished up my last post we were spending our final night in The Hague. We had been there for a few days after staying a night in Amsterdam, Anna had given a presentation at the Vision 2017 conference that was so well-received it left her shortlisted for a prize, and our eyes got a little bigger than our stomachs for her birthday.

Now we had a minor conundrum on our hands on the eve of leaving The Hague; our flight to Budapest, Hungary, was due to leave at 1:15pm on Thursday. If Anna won the New Generation Investigator award at Vision 2017, she would be required to accept her prize at around 11am. Anyone who has caught a plane before knows that you need to be at the airport approximately two hours before your flight so the plan was that if Anna won, she would go to the conference centre and give a very rushed speech while I dumped all of our luggage in an Uber and picked her up immediately after she finished speaking en route to the airport. In what turned out to be a bitter-sweet occurrence, Anna received an email on Wednesday evening telling her that she hadn’t won the prize, but she was more relieved than anything, as it made our Thursday a lot more stress-free and a little less hectic.

Thursday, June 29, 2017
Now that we had an unhurried approach to Budapest, we were able to get a decent night’s sleep, check out of our hotel, take a taxi to the airport and leisurely catch our flight. Anna slept the entire way on the plane while I read my book and two hours later we were in Budapest, a city we knew next to nothing about. Fortunately wikipedia can help me out there and some of the details might surprise you:

Budapest is the capital and most populous city of Hungary and one of the largest cities in the European Union. With an estimated 2016 population of 1,759,407 distributed over a land area of about 525 square kilometres (203 square miles), Budapest is also one of the most densely populated major cities in the EU.
The city is among the top 100 GDP performing cities in the world and making it one of the largest regional economies in the European Union.

Budapest is a leading global city with strengths in commerce, finance, media, art, fashion, research, technology, education, and entertainment.

Budapest is cited as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, ranked as “the world’s second best city” by Condé Nast Traveler, and “Europe’s 7th most idyllic place to live” by Forbes.The central area of the city along the Danube River is classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has many notable monuments.
The city also has around 80 geothermal springs, the largest thermal water cave system, second largest synagogue, and third largest Parliament building in the world. Budapest attracts 4.4 million international tourists per year, making it the 25th most popular city in the world and the 6th in Europe.

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The view from our hotel room

It looks like we would have a fair bit to do and see and Anna made it her mission to try and fit in as much of it as possible, but first we would have to check in to our hotel, Hotel Rum, a beautiful place with free prawn crackers on a tiny lane in a really nice district near the city centre.

After going through immigration, catching a taxi to the hotel and then checking in, it was probably about 2:30pm. Luckily we hadn’t come the previous week, because it had been hovering around 36°C (100°F) for pretty much the entire week, thus making the process of completing all we had set out to do over the following days a tad difficult. Instead, we embraced the perfect weather, looked around town for a bit, and decided this was a pretty awesome place to spend the next couple of days. Much like The Hague, however, shops here close reasonably early so we decided to do what everyone that has been to Budapest told us to do — We went to Szimpla Kert, a ruin pub that we stumbled upon while we were walking around. So, what is a ruin pub?

Budapest’s seventh district, once home to a flourishing Jewish community before World War II, has emerged as one of the best bar-hopping neighbourhoods on the busy Pest side of the Danube.

This renaissance has been led by a string of recently opened “ruin pubs” (romkocsma in Hungarian) – a fitting name given the still-derelict state of much of the area. Most can be found along the streets behind the Great Synagogue.

Each ruin pub is unique, but they all share certain similarities. The main ingredient is usually an abandoned building, preferably with a vacant lot nearby to hold picnic tables and a few beer taps. Add to that a bit of thrift-shop decor and a healthy dose of hipster vibe, and the result is what you might get if you crossed a chill Berlin squat with a smallish Munich beer hall.

The best ruin pubs offer live music or DJs on the weekends, as well as film nights and art exhibitions. Some even have light food and hostel accommodations. They are the perfect spot to unwind on a warm summer night after a busy day of sightseeing.

Sounds like a bit of fun, but what made it all even better was that, in what could only be another anti-‘T’ Factor turn of events, it seems that Szimpla Kert is the granddaddy of them all! Seriously, check out that link, but here’s the introduction if you’re too lazy:

The opening of Szimpla Kert in 2002 has been literally and also symbolically a milestone in the alternative life of Budapest. Converting an old factory into a huge open-air cinema and pub, we were able to create a unique framework for hosting concerts, theatre shows and many different cultural events. Szimpla defines itself as a ’cultural reception space’, indicating our intention to embrace genres and performers off the mainstream, presenting them in an informal atmosphere.

Fortunately for us we got there quite early. We grabbed some beers, chicken wings, a platter of local salamis, ham, and cheeses and then later we had a shisha and lot more beer. Here’s how it looked from our perspective:

It was a good thing we got there early because by 10pm there was barely anywhere to stand inside and the line to get in was quite lengthy. When it was time to leave we both knew one thing was for certain; this definitely wouldn’t be our only venture into a ruin pub.

Friday, June 30, 2017
Friday was our first full day in Budapest and Anna proved wholeheartedly that she is truly her father’s daughter, in the sense that she had got it in her mind that we had to do everything in the first day, as she was now obsessively organising a holiday, not a work trip. First, we would go to the market, then take a look around this beautiful city, followed by a dip in one of the geothermal spas. Obviously, this recurring pattern over the following days resulted in a metric ass-ton of photos, so brace yourself.

We made our way down to what is known as both the Great Market Hall or Central Market Hall, however, maybe it’s just easier to use the Hungarian name, ‘Nagyvásárcsarnok,’ and it’s the largest and oldest indoor market in Budapest. As with most markets around the world, the Central Market Hall consists of food, both groceries and a foodcourt, and local souvenirs. We knew that Hungary was famous for it’s salami, but the butcher stalls here in general were pretty nuts. Also, I never realised that Hungarians ate so many pickles, cottage cheese and paprika. As for the souvenirs, there were a lot of creepy dolls, horrendous traditional outfits and a surprising amount of Vladimir Putin merchandise (I bought a cup). Instead of trying to describe it, I’ll let you see for yourself.

Upstairs at the market was a foodcourt with some great local stuff, but it was far too crowded at the time so we would just have to hit it up on another occasion. Instead, we would spend our day walking around the city as we always do on these type of holidays, doing a bunch of shopping, seeing the sights, that type of thing, but first came lunch.

We happened upon a place called Bock Bisztró, a restaurant that was relatively empty when we first walked in but had a extraordinarily good twist on traditional Hungarian food. I can’t remember what we ordered for lunch, but I do recall it being spectacular, but dessert was the real surprise. I don’t have a sweet-tooth, but when I saw the ‘Bizarre Ice-Cream Selection’ on the menu I just had to try it. The flavours listed were cottage cheese, tobacco, and sausage, however, the sausage ice-cream had been replaced with a paprika sorbet. They were all delicious, but startlingly, the best tasting one was the tobacco flavour!

After lunch it was time to explore and check out the city’s stunning architecture, meaning time to scroll through a lot more photos:

After all of this walking, some of which involved me carrying several kilograms of salamis, my back was getting quite painful again, but Anna had a solution in mind — Let’s take a dip in a Hungarian spa:

One of the reasons the Romans first colonised the area immediately to the west of the River Danube and established their regional capital at Aquincum (now part of Óbuda, in northern Budapest) is so that they could utilise and enjoy the thermal springs. There are still ruins visible today of the enormous baths that were built during that period. The new baths that were constructed during the Turkish period (1541–1686) served both bathing and medicinal purposes, and some of these are still in use to this day. Budapest gained its reputation as a city of spas in the 1920s, following the first realisation of the economic potential of the thermal waters in drawing in visitors. Indeed, in 1934 Budapest was officially ranked as a “City of Spas”. Today, the baths are mostly frequented by the older generation, as, with the exception of the “Magic Bath” and “Cinetrip” water discos, young people tend to prefer the lidos which are open in the summer.

It was a great idea at the time and there are several to choose from, but some have gender restrictions and others would be reasonably busy, however, Anna managed to find one that seemed to fit our needs. The only problem was that it was a lot further than we expected, extremely difficult to find and when we finally arrived it was closed for renovations. By this stage I was in agony and a bit of a surly mood so we pulled up a seat in a cafe to utilise the free wifi and it turned out that there was another one nearby, Veli Bej, a spa built in the sixteenth century. Veli Bej Baths consists of several thermal pools, massage room and sauna. Apparently the medicinal properties of the water are supposed to help with degenerative joint illnesses, chronic and sub-acute joint inflammations, vertebral disk problems, neuralgia and a lack of calcium in the bone system. Normally I don’t really buy into natural remedies, but I was just happy to get off my feet because I was now struggling to even walk. It definitely was the right choice.

Anna went and got a massage while I kicked back in a small pool that was about 35°C (100°F) and zoned out for an hour, only to eventually be joined by a bunch of overweight, middle-aged Hungarian women. Anna tried to find me after her massage, but her vision isn’t the best (I guess that’s how we worked out) and it was quite dark and steamy in there, so she ended up approaching a random stranger and asking how his back was. Eventually she found me and joined me in a pool until it was time to leave.
Up until that point we had found Hungarian people to be quite friendly, but when we left the spa the people working there were extremely rude, with one man whose job it was to book taxis speaking to us in English and then deciding he couldn’t be bothered any more, telling us he couldn’t speak English (something almost everyone in Hungary can do quite fluently), then turning his head and refusing to communicate with us at all.

We were able to flag a cab down on the street, went home to dump our wet clothes in our room and then walked down to grab some dinner and some drinks. It was already about 10pm by the time we left the hotel so we didn’t have a particularly big night, but my back felt surprisingly better.

Saturday, July 1, 2017
The previous day we had walked about 20km (12.5 miles) so we decided to take it easy on Saturday. What was the best way to do that? Climb a really steep hill, of course! Anna wanted to do a bit of shopping and then we climbed up Gellért Hill on the banks of the Danube to see the statues and the Citadella while taking in the views of the city and of young douches drunkenly climbing statues.

We had noticed since Friday morning that we could hear a lot of low-flying planes while were in Budapest and figured it might be a rehearsal for a parade or something. Instead, it turned out that the Red Bull Air Race was in town.
For those not familiar with the race, let’s turn to wikipedia for a little background info again:

The Red Bull Air Race, established in 2003 and created by Red Bull GmbH, is an international series of air races in which competitors have to navigate a challenging obstacle course in the fastest time. Pilots fly individually against the clock and have to complete tight turns through a slalom course consisting of pylons, known as “Air Gates”.

The races are held mainly over water near cities, but are also held at airfields or natural wonders. They are accompanied by a supporting program of show flights. Races are usually flown on weekends with the first day for qualification then knockout finals the day after. The events attract large crowds and are broadcast, both live and taped, in many nations.

At each venue, the top eight places earn World Championship points. The air racer with the most points at the end of the Championship becomes Red Bull Air Race World Champion.

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One of the competitors doing their thing

I had seen highlights of the Red Bull Air Race on ESPN and sporting shows before and although it looks pretty impressive when you see it on TV, it wasn’t something that could hold my attention for long. The pilots manage to pull off some incredible manoeuvres, but I’ve never really been a fan of either motorsports or any particular form of racing for that matter, so it was never a going to be a winning combination for me. However, when you see the event in person, it is a whole different situation. These guys are absolutely fearless and complete some totally unimaginable feats over the course of the race.

Budapest, often considered the “spiritual home of the Red Bull Air Race,” was the fourth stop of this year’s season and we had the perfect vantage point half-way down the hill to take it all in. The Budapest race is one of the most popular, due mainly do its unique start, where the competitors begin their run into the track by flying in low under the Chain Bridge, which was closed to traffic for the weekend, before making their way through the air gate course.

I managed to capture one pilot’s complete run, but unfortunately there were two strange specks on the lens of my camera (visible in the image above), one of which makes it look like there is constantly a large black bird trying to escape the plane’s path. Anyway, it’s definitely worth a look, even if it is difficult to see the far end of the course.

My back was still feeling fine thanks to the spa the previous day so we walked back into the city and wandered around for the afternoon, then went for a dinner that consisted of jellied calf hoof among other dishes and then it was back to Szimpla Kert. We met some cool people while we were out and feasted on the bar’s cheap carrots, but we didn’t want to overdo it; we had an early start the next morning.

Sunday, July 2, 2017
Yet another thing we didn’t know about Budapest was its massive cave system, but I guess it makes sense when you factor in the thermal springs:

Budapest is the capital of caves. It is the only capital in the world which has caves of significant size and length underneath its buildings and streets. More than two hundred caves are known under the Buda side of the town. However these caves also have a special place in the world because of their unusual thermal water based development.

The hydrothermal caves of Budapest were created by the same thermal springs that supply the famous spas of the capital and the entire area is on the tentative list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

We saw the brochure for cave tours when we first checked into our hotel so Anna had them book us a tour. There were three options available:

  1. Cave Walk – A less adventurous tour, fine even for those who suffer claustrophobia; no upper age limit.
  2. Geological Tour – Cave walk and climbing-crawling tour combo.
  3. Adventure Caving – For the most courageous.

We’re both rapidly hurtling toward 40, we’re no spring chickens anymore so that ruled out the Adventure Caving option. My size would probably make the Geological Tour a bit difficult as well, because if people need to crawl, I’m going to have trouble. We went to the Củ Chi tunnels in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam, several years ago, Anna had absolutely no problems at all going through them, but when I tried to enter I got stuck waist-deep after going in head first and had to be pulled out by my feet by several tour guides to the great amusement of everyone in my general vicinity. Also, our legs were still feeling a little gelatinous from climbing Gellért Hill the previous day so the Cave Walk it would be.

Our taxi picked us up at around 10am and off to the caves it was. We definitely chose the correct tour, because the other ones were full of children, not exactly my cup of tea. Our tour had only two little kids on it and they were tolerable, but it was their mother that got on my nerves during the almost three-hour walk. She just wouldn’t shut up, constantly talking when everyone else was trying to listen to our guide. Still, the whole underground trek was impressive, but it was surprisingly cold inside. A few pictures:

The caves were great and different geological features had their own names, but sometimes there was something lost in translation. One example of this was the fact that in the photo of Anna and the stalagmite, the area was described to us by the guide as “White Snow and the Seven Smurfs.”

The rest of the day was spent in the usual way; walking around another part of the city, just exploring and shopping. There are a bunch of food trucks a few doors down from Szimpla Kert on Sundays so we got some burgers made from Lángos before we went out. Dinner was at Cupákos, an amazing BBQ restaurant that definitely isn’t for vegetarians, and then we spent the night at a rooftop bar overlooking the city. Good times.

Monday, July 3, 2017
Monday was our last full day in Budapest and there were still a few things we wanted to do so we would have to pack them all in the one day. First on the list was a visit to Esceri  Flea Market. It was kind of a bittersweet deal because very little of it is open on a Monday, but if we had’ve gone at the weekend it would’ve been too crowded to see anything. There were some strange things for sale in the few stalls that were open, especially Soviet Union and Nazi paraphernalia. As usual, I’ll let some pictures do the talking:

I thought it would be pretty cool to get a giant, solid stone bust of Vladimir Lenin, but something like that might put me over the luggage limit for the flight back to Singapore.

After the secondhand market we went back to the food market for a chance to have a really traditional Hungarian lunch. The afternoon and evening was spent at the Gellért Baths, another spa complex, just hanging out in the warm outdoor pool, quietly mocking many of the other bathers to ourselves. We were completely ruthless, but totally forgot that other people could understand us, a fact that came rushing back when the woman sitting next to Anna told us that she had to get out of the pool because she couldn’t stop laughing.

After leaving Gellért Baths, we spent the bulk of the evening the same way we always do, but later that night came probably the best part of the trip; Anna had been wanting to go on a nighttime cruise down the Danube, however, we hadn’t been able to due to the air gates for the Red Bull Air Race. The race was now complete and the gates were gone, finally giving us the opportunity to take in the spectacular riverbank at night and see all of the palaces and other buildings lit up. Here’s why we did it:

Tuesday, July 4, 2017
Our trip was coming to an end. Today we would fly from Budapest back to Amsterdam and spend a night there before flying from Amsterdam to Singapore on Wednesday morning. This flight was another in Premium Economy, but still a pretty basic one. When it came time to board, we had to walk down to the tarmac and wait in a long line. Anna and myself were allowed on first with the other Premium Economy passengers, then a member of the flight crew herded the rest onto the plane like some kind of latter-day Noah getting goats on the ark.

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The struggle is real

The flight back to Amsterdam was only two hours long, but the urge to take a leak soon hit. I’ve mentioned previously how difficult it is for me to use the toilets on a plane; I’m too tall to stand, but I can’t bend because it doesn’t go in the bowl, however, I also can’t sit because my legs are too long and obstruct the door. This particular case was no exception so I decided to get photographic evidence after I went (right). The technique to pissing on a plane for me is not a difficult one but it can leave one in a precarious position — I need to drop my pants to my ankles like that one weird kid in primary school, then I have to bend at the knees in a way that keeps everything over the bowl. The problem with standing like this is that after a while your legs start to wobble and that’s where disaster can strike. Fortunately I was able to complete this task unscathed.

We arrived in Amsterdam and took the airport shuttle to the Park Plaza hotel near the airport, where we would be spending the night. The food in the restaurant was good and the beers were cheap, but the room was a bit of a letdown, complete with a bed that was like trying to sleep on a marshmallow. Still, it was just for one night.

Wednesday, July 5
We both barely got any sleep in our shitty little bed in our tiny room in the Park Plaza, but maybe that would be a blessing in disguise, hopefully allowing us to get some sleep on the flight, one that would depart at 11:30am, but due to the time difference, get us into Singapore at around 6am the following morning.

We took the airport shuttle and arrived at the airport two-and-a-half hours before our flight was due to depart, something that almost never happens. We were the first to check in and it turned out that Premium Economy on our Singapore Airlines flight had been overbooked, meaning that one of us could be upgraded to Business Class if everyone checked in, which relied heavily on a flight from Brussels arriving on time. We initially declined the offer due to the fact that Anna likes to sit with me on flights in case I have a seizure, but then she had the bright idea of upgrading the other one of us to Business Class using frequent flyer miles so we would both be flying in luxury. Only time would tell if that Belgian flight would arrive on time so Anna utilised the spare time filling out and handing in tax forms for everything she had bought over the past two weeks, a task she was able to complete surprisingly quickly.

Soon it was time to walk down to our gate and when we showed our boarding passes, the flight attendant smiled, tore them in half and handed us our Business Class tickets. Yes, it appeared that everyone had showed up for the flight, including those from Brussels, so I got into my little booth, watched a few episodes of Fawlty Towers, took a nap on a bed I almost fit on, and then had what could be considered a decent lunch by airline standards. After lunch I popped a couple of industrial-strength sleeping pills that are also supposed to prevent seizures. They took a little while to take effect, but when they did I was wiped out until the attendants woke me for breakfast and the pills must’ve worked well, because I was having some insane dreams that resulted in me asking Anna as soon as I woke up where pelicans buy their shorts. Seriously. Breakfast was served, I watched one of my favourite films, Office Space, for the rest of the flight and before long we were back in Singapore

Oh, and I could use the toilets comfortably in Business Class, too. The luxury did indeed carry over from the Dutch leg of the trip.

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Although that clearly isn’t my reflection in the screen…

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