Travelog: Budapest/Prague 1999
If you are reading this, you will quickly realize that this travelog is in progress. The travelog below contains some complete portions, and some parts which are just brief words or notes to remind me what I ultimately want to write about
5/17/99 - 5/27/99, Budapest, Hungary and Prague, Czech Republic. The eighth stop on my Round the World trip.
Flying to Budapest via Munich.
Another one of these peculiar Airbus A319-100's. Through some miracle, it looks like we will be departing on time (where "on time" is defined as only 15 minutes late.) Had an uneventful flight and a pleasant conversation with a German businessman who warned me about how dangerous Budapest is. When I pressed him, and really tried to make sure that we were both speaking the same language, it became clear that by "dangerous" he meant pick-pockets, unscrupulous cab drivers, and a host of other scams (all of which I had already heard about.) It still sounds like there is little physical danger. As an American, I get a very different picture when someone tells me a place is dangerous. I picture Harlem at night, a back alley in Detroit, or the seedier parts of LA. Places where someone might kill me because they feel like it. Granted, I'd rather not have a cab driver charge me $20 for a trip that should cost $5, but that isn't my definition of danger.
My good friend Richard had arranged a pair of single rooms at the Hotel Gellert. He had been told that United Airlines Premier flyers get a free room upgrade to a double with a river view. Of course, such things rarely work out, and when I got to the hotel they told me that they knew of no such thing. Furthermore, there were no doubles available even if there were an upgrade program. [This is usually the case - even when there really is a free upgrade program in place, it is always "subject to availability", and there is never availability. Sigh.]
So I was shown to my small, dark, single room and immediately called down to the front desk to see what was available. Turns out that all they had left was a suite, so I went for it. This suite is really odd. It is dominated by a huge octagonal room in a corner turret of the hotel, with a good size bedroom off to one side, and two bathrooms. But there are many strange things about the room. First and foremost is the décor. The place looks like it had been elegant-chic in about 1972; the windows in the interior doors are rounded rectangles glazed with c. 1970's orange glass. The door handles are all oversized rounded rectangles covered in brown naugahide. Everything looks very dated. In the main room, above the modern TV, is a huge 1960's radio that gets terrible reception. Strangest of all is the window curtains. The curtains are strung on curtain rods , but the rods have supports at their mid-points, which means that you can’t pull the curtains to the sides; you can only push them in to the middle of the window. Clearly some kind of a screw-up. In various places, doors separate the different areas and in doing so, interfered with closet doors. And on and on with funny little anomalies. One nice thing was that the windows are brand new double pane glass, so most (but not all) of the street noise is kept out.
Richard arrived a few hours later and was put into a noisy little single, but by that point there were no better rooms available.
This hotel should be a gem, but isn't. Some rooms are good, some bad. If you do decided to stay here, never get a single; insist on a river side double. The outside of the building looks like it was truly grand at one time, but is now looking kind of sorry. Everything about the place feels like out of date, faded glory. Sadly, I cannot recommend it, even in a river-view suite.
While waiting for Richard to arrive I had dinner at the hotel restaurant. It was good, and very inexpensive.
Had breakfast at the hotel, which is included. It was terrible. The coffee was OK, and the bread was OK, but the eggs were truly scary, and there was little else to enjoy. Richard liked the pickled herring, but I just couldn’t face that early in the morning. Breakfast at the hotel runs until 10am, and boy do they mean 10am. By 9:55 the whole buffet was cleared and all unoccupied tables were reset, and at 10am sharp they actually turned off the lights. Richard and I practically broke out laughing.
We intended to go to "Three Perfect Days'" recommendation of New York Restaurant for lunch, but instead took the concierges recommendation for Rezkakas (V, Veres Palne U 3), which was very good, though not especially memorable. Afterwards we just wandered around Pest, following a walk described in Fodor's "Budapest and the Best of Hungary" book. Sadly, the book did not do a very good job describing the walk, and partway through the trip we stopped into a bookstore with English language books to get some different guides.
One of the more surprising stops along the way was at the <National Museum (?)> I wanted to see the Crown jewels of Hungary which are housed there, and Richard was interested in something called the "Crooked Cross". The museum has absolutely no signs anywhere, and so Richard and I stumbled around for a while before finally someone took pity on us and said "Crown?" We nodded enthusiastically, and they pointed us off in an unlikely direction, and sure enough, there was the room with the crown jewels tucked away inconspicuously off the corner of the main entrance of the building. I think I preferred my fantasy of what the Crown jewels of Hungary would be. They turned out to be just a scepter and a crown, both completely unadorned, and looking like they had been buried for a long time (which it turns out, they had.) On top of the crown, was a cross which was bent over at a funny angle. Voila, my Crown jewels and Richard's crooked cross all at one go. The only other things in the room were a display case with a golden brocade cape, and several silver chests. It was dimly lit, and far less than interesting. But Richard and I had a fun time speculating about why they didn’t straighten up the cross on top of the crown after they dug it up, and then we headed out.
Dinner at Gundel, outstanding and a great value.
We both had the menu degustation of Hungarian specialties:
Drinks at the Marriot bar - the famous Zweig Unicum - mind numbingly awful. I couldn’t spit it out fast enough, and no amount of water would wash away the bitter flavor.
Hotel room vibrates nauseatingly with street traffic.
Spent an amazing amount of time getting tickets to Prague.
Lunch at Art Café in Voorsmarty (? Woolongogn?) square
Did a walk around the Castle Hill area of Buda.
There is something weird in the air in Budapest. Richard has been sneezing his head off, and I always feel like there is something tickling my face. There is tons of cottonwood fluff in the air, perhaps that is it.
Fantastic dinner at Magnaskert
Cock consommé with dumpling
Goose liver sautéed with pecan mango chunks and broccoli dumpling - excellent
Sherry marinated pheasant with asparagus and potato - magnificent
Strawberries with champagne mousse on top - fantastic.
Quick beer at Fat Mo's
Metro to Heroes Square <hungarian name?>, surprisingly good sausages for lunch at a little café, walk around park, interesting castle, back to metro to waterfront. Boat ride around the Danube. Walk over Gellert hill.
Fly to Prague on Czech Airlines.
Beatiful new hotel - Marriott. Open one week. Had to change room twice due to unfinished state of the hotel, but they were amazingly nice, helpful friendly.
Quicky dinner across the street at Renaissance hotel.
Walk around "New Town"
Fantastically beatiful city. Amazing. Everything that Budapest could be, and more. Astronomical clock, lunch.
Walk up to castle area. Insanely fantastic buildings, trompe l'oil.
The following is an entry by guest author,Richard Brodie:
Today’s "nice day" turned into quite the rainshower. We got stuck under a small shelter in the Palace with a group of people from Georgia with the rain coming down in sheets. We were near another door, but Andrew looked it up on the map and it was a part of the Palace that we needed a special ticket to enter. Tickets were only sold way on the other side of the courtyard, inside a third door. The Georgia peaches told us it was just a Georgia spring shower and would blow over momentarily. Fifteen minutes later, we made a run for it and got drenched en route to the ticket office.
Once inside the ticket office, we dripped around the stone floor and looked for the ticket sellers. There were four people sitting behind a long table, each with a sign in Czech behind them. One old man was helping a couple with directions on a map. The other three were free. Andrew approached each of the three in turn, asking them with a combination of slow, deliberate English and sign language if they would sell us a ticket. Each of them pointed to the old man with the map. "He will sell you a ticket." We stood and waited behind the old man with the map.
Just as the map people seemed to be getting ready to leave, a fifth staff member, a woman, came and sat down at the station next to the map man. I held our place in line behind the map couple while the indefatigable Andrew went to ask yet again if anyone there would sell us a ticket. When he asked the woman, she brought out a map and began pointing out the six places on the Palace grounds to which the ticket would permit us entrance. "Yes, yes," said Andrew with exasperated patience. "Can we BUY a TICKET from you?" The woman looked up as if puzzled, and nodded slowly. Not until I saw her bring up two long strips of paper and take the colorful money from Andrew did I abandon the place in line behind the map people, who were just now starting to fold up their map and shuffle away.
Richard bought me a birthday dinner at restaurant U Modre Ruze, Rytirska 16.
Jazz club U Stare Pani, Michalska 17
Rented car, drive to Kutna Hora. Nice drive, lovely town.
By the time we got there we were pretty hungry so we stopped at a pizzaria (yup, a pizzaria) in the middle of the main square in Kutna Hora, called Piazza Novona. The pizza was OK, but the beer was great. It is a local brew called Dacecki, and it was something special.
Bizarre Ossuary in Sedlec ("Kostnice Sedlec"), hard to find because the guidebook only referred to is as "The Ossuary", and all of the signs only referred to it as "Kostnice". Richard told me that as a travel writer, it is my duty to include the local language names of things, and I agree. Sooooo, when you go to Kutna Hora, remember to go to the Kostnice, eh! (Oh, and don’t bother looking for signs pointing to Sedlec, there is only one and you probably wont find the sign until after you have found Sedlec.) [Postscript: I have been reading Neither Here Nor There, by Bill Bryson. In it he comments on a Capuchin monks mausoleum in Rome in the Santa Maria delle Concezione that sounds almost identical to the Kostnice Sedlec. Parallel evolution?]
Fantastic church (St. Barbara), amazing art nouvea windows, carved pews.
Dinner at Barock Bar & Café, Parizska 24
Lunch at Pravda
Wensislav (sp) square
Dinner in (Old Town?) square; great people watching, mediocre food
Jazz club with no name, cool funky band, neat place
Back to the Castle Hill area to go to the National Gallery
<Beggar girl who doesn’t speak english>
Watching the changing of the guards at Noon, great pageant
National Gallery: Many examples of the work of Peiter Breughel (sp?) the Younger. Very nice Rubens'. Fun with Durer. A good, though small, museum. Highlight: lovely secret garden behind the museum. Chairs, chestnut trees, birds.
Return to the Castle grounds
Very relaxing time eating and watching the band at a café/restaurant called Bizarre. A wonderful spot. Great view over the valley, sunshine, food, just wanted to stay there forever.
Dinner at Pravda
Packed up and checked out of the hotel, then headed over to <Petrin?> Hill. Nice climb through attractive forest along old "hunger" wall. Interesting looking youth hostels on top. Slightly lost. <Petrin?> Tower, great view, no elevator. Mirror maze, literally minutes of entertainment.
The following is an entry by guest author, Richard Brodie:
Yesterday we climbed up "Prague Hill" (not its real name) in search of the "Eiffel Tower" (not ITS real name). We turned left at a crucial juncture and found ourselves on the far side of the "Hunger Wall," a miles-long stone wall built in exchange for meals by some starving peasants (hence the name). At the top of this hill, on what you would think would be some choice Prague real estate, were block after block of the ugliest low-income housing imaginable. I can only guess what evil communist regime had built these things on top of this beautiful hill, but by now many of them had been turned into hostels. The problem was, it was impossible to get from the hostel side of the wall to the Eiffel side.
After going several miles in search of an opening in the wall, we doubled back and (shudder) asked directions. With broad, sweeping hand motions, a bus driver told us, "you go…alley…links." Andrew remarked that there must be a golf course up on top of Prague Hill. Well, we never did figure out what "links" the guy was referring to, but eventually we found the passage through the wall (an "alley"?) and lo and behold, the Eiffel Tower.
We climbed the 6,758 steps to the top at a brisk pace, passing several elderly couples and some teenage boys taking a cigarette break (smart move) on the way up. When we reached the top, the view was spectacular of course. We could see the yellow canopy over the place we had lunched the previous day, the place with the very tall blonde hostess and the Czech Dixieland band that had opened with "All of Me." We could see all of Stare Mesto and Stare Novo, and doggoned if we couldn’t see everything there was to see. We realized that if we had just done this first, we needn’t have spent several days here.
We descended a separate stairway that interwove with the first, a cute trick but necessary to keep ascenders and descenders from colliding in the narrow stairwell. At the bottom, surrounded by several thousand fifth-graders, was the famous Maze of Prague. The guide book said that the mirrored maze here was a must for children (apparently!) and good for a few minutes of enjoyment regardless. Counting down our last few remaining korunas, we entered the maze. You have never seen such spotless mirrors. With our mental discipline, we easily passed the children in the maze, some of whom have been lost in there for months or more, setting a new record for fewest minutes of enjoyment which we intend to have notarized and sent to the guidebook publisher.
We concluded the day’s frolics with a trip down the cable car, or "funicular," a trip enlivened by the joyous strains of "funicule funiculi" from the lips of ONE of us. Modesty forbids me telling you just who.
Back down the hill, final time across Charles Bridge, a quick hot dog while sitting on the steps of the statue in the center of Old Town Square, then off to the airport for the flight back to Budapest.
Uneventful flight to Budapest on Czech Airlines. On the airport bus to our hotel, Richard recognized some people that he had seen at Pravda the night before. Had a pleasant conversation with them about Prague, Budapest and Podiatry (the father is a podiatrist, and his daughter is currently in med school for podiatry.) After holding out as long as he could, Richard finally couldn’t hold back any longer and made a foot pun ("Following in your father's footsteps, eh?") Surprisingly, she said she had genuinely never heard that one. I took that as my OK to pun away, and let forth a series of groaners that gave Richard a headache, but seemed to entertain the good doctor.
Checked into the Marriott in downtown Budapest on the Pest side of the Danube. Much more modern than the Gellert, with all the comforts of home, and (of course) nothing to let you know that you were in Hungary instead of the USA (except the presence of Zwack Unicum in the mini-bar.) It was actually a really nice room with a balcony overlooking the Danube and a fantastic view of Castle Hill. It was sunset just as we got to our rooms, and was very striking. Richard and I did a laser fast change into jackets and ties and headed back to the restaurant Gundel for our final diner together.
Richard and I each had the "1999 Year of Great Wine and Food in Hungary" Menu, as follows:
Richard and I disagreed slightly about the dining experience this time. We both agreed that the musicians had been far better the previous time, but Richard felt the food was slightly better tonight, and I thought the food was slightly better the first time. In any case, we had a great time and continue to hold Gundel in high esteem.
Richard returned to Seattle in the wee hours of the morning, and I decided to take the opportunity to sleep in. After a leisurely packing and checking out, I wandered over to the nearby <Voormsky Square?> for coffee and "sweet tea cakes" at <café name?>. By the time I finished that, of course, it was lunch time so I just moved right on in to that and had a nice light tomato soup. Then I boarded the metro for heroes square (Hosok Tere) and the Museum of Fine Arts (Szepmuveszeti Muzeum).
The Museum of Fine Arts is a beautiful building, and houses a large collection of paintings. Unfortunately, it is not a very good museum. Glare is de rigeur, and you can pretty much assume that any painting of importance will be unviewable due to bad lighting, glare, or hanging 15 feet above the ground. The collection is large, and does contain the occasional significant piece, thought the lions share is not noteworthy. Unfortunately, the guide map does little to direct you to the interesting pieces, and it would be easy to overlook some important works. This is especially true because the paintings appear to be arranged by size, not importance. Thus, you find a small portrait by Rembrandt hanging far above eye level above a relatively insignificant large canvas. Everything is neat and orderly, but frankly, who cares if the Brueghel you came to see is 10 feet above your head and rendered invisible by glare. It is also somewhat disconcerting to be wandering around skimming past innumerable random paintings, and then boom, you're suddenly be confronted by Rubens or Rembrandt. After I had been there quite a while I was just deciding to leave when I found Cezanne, Gaugan, Toulouse-Lautrec and Rodin. The map of the museum indicates where to find German art, French art, Flemmish, etc. but it doesn’t break things down any further.
Of significant note are the Rubens, Rembrants and some of the Breughels (variously Peiter and Jan, Elder and Younger.) Also, a single Durer (Portait of a young man) which is very nice but starting to crack. There are some interesting art nouveau paintings, and a couple of impressionist pieces by artists I am not familiar with.
As I wandered around the museum, I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps the best thing would be for the Hungarian government to sell the entire collection to some museum that would properly display it, and use the money for the kind of public works projects that have made Prague so fantastic. I also couldn’t help feeling that this museum was kind of a metaphor for all of Budapest: A fine building housing a large collection with a few stand-out pieces, but utterly mismanaged and mis-displayed.
After the museum I headed back to the hotel, freshened up, and went to the airport. Today I am flying to Phuket, Thailand via Frankfort and Bangkok. This will be a long day indeed. Needless to say, the flight from Budapest to Frankfort on Lufthansa is delayed. As usual, at the announced boarding time the plane hasn’t even gotten here yet. This plane is an Airbus A320-200, which is far superior to the 100. Much roomier and more comfortable. However, this is the largest business class section I have ever seen. 75 seats in business class, and all full. Also, I am in a seat in the first of two exit rows, so the seat does not recline at all. Oh well, its still nicer than the Airbus A319-100.
<Mention the "demonstration pour">
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© 1999, Andrew Sigal
except guest author entries, © 1999, Richard Brodie