Holiday Diary: Bucharest to Budapest, and everything in between

Last Christmas I decided I deserved a holiday. I was working hard. Harder than perhaps I should’ve been, but hey, c’est la vie, right? A friend of mine, who had decided to go travelling popped back to Cardiff and we met for coffee. She had set up home in Budapest, Hungary. She went there last September/October to start teaching English as a foreign language. She only intended to stay there for a month for training, but ended up staying. She told me she would be there until June, and I should really visit her.

I’ve had offers like this before. I’ve had friends visit/live in Lithuania and Japan amongst others and never visited. This time though, I thought it’s time I took up one of these offers. So I took up another friend’s offer. He lives in Bucharest, Romania. We studied together in Cardiff for a year, and at the end of the year he was offered a job back home in Romania, so he moved back. I figured, since the two cities were relatively close, I could visit them both. So I started planning.

I worked out when would be cheapest, and a timescale that would give me enough time to save up some spending money. So I landed on just after Easter, when the school’s had gone back. Not that either location is particularly popular with the UK, but just in case. My Romanian friend, Tudor, told me this was the best time to come, as the weather should be relatively warm. So I booked it.

I booked an apartment in Bucharest. The apartment, according to Trip Advisor, was the same price as a hotel. The photos made it look spectacular, and for 99€ for 3 nights, it was located pretty centrally and offered hotel pick-up at an additional charge, so I figured I couldn’t go far wrong. As for accommodation in Budapest, my friend, Cheryl, offered me her floor. So I graciously accepted.

I decided to spend 3 days in Bucharest first, flying there with Wizz Air, planned on spending a day travelling between the 2 cities (that I precariously left until I arrived in the country) then I would spend 4 days in Budapest before flying back with RyanAir. I asked both Tudor and Cheryl how much money I would need. I very naively and stupidly assumed both countries would be on the Euro. Man, I was wrong. I suggest I would take £100 with me to Romania and £150 with me to Hungary. Tudor said £100 was sufficient in Bucharest, but Cheryl said £150 was totally excessive in Budapest. So I ended up taking £100 to each country. Anyway… now you now the score, let’s dive in to the diary I kept whilst I was visiting…

Pre Holiday:

Being a totally last-minute kind of girl, I was still packing the day before… and I still hadn’t changed my money. Tudor had told me the exchange rate was much better in Romania, so I wanted to change £10, just so I had some money when I got there.

I was heading home the night before, as I was flying out from London Luton and flying back to London Stanstead. Both airports are much closer to my parents house than Cardiff, so they very kindly agreed to be my taxi service and dropped me off and picked me up.

Day 1:

Wizz Air, as budget airlines go, is by far not the worst. Sure, English isn’t their first language, the company is based in Hungary, but they gave the safety instructions at the beginning of the flight and then pretty much just left us to it. There was ample leg room, the seat wasn’t too small to sit on (a complaint I have for Monarch… never choosing to fly with them again), in fact, the seat was downright comfortable. Not a bad flight at all. I started reading ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ on the flight. This seems pretty irrelevant, but I’ll refer to it later.

I landed in Bucharest, and as I got off the plane I had the strangest sensation… my eyes simply weren’t big enough. I wanted to see everything all at once, and it was simply impossible. I grabbed my bag off the carousel and walked into the arrivals area of Otopeni Airport where a man was stood with my name on a piece of cardboard. Again, totally irrelevant, but it couldn’t have been more awesome.

He was super friendly and offered to take my bag for me and lead me to his little yellow Skoda. I mentioned earlier that my eyes weren’t big enough, but as we drove to my accommodation I can’t really describe to you the feeling of wonder that rose inside of me. Everything I saw was amazing, no matter how mundane it was to everyone else. Office blocks, parks, cars… You name it, I was impressed by it. Everything was totally beautiful to me, and in hindsight now, I can tell you what I was experiencing was love at first sight.

As I got out of the car at the accommodation, I was met by the man I had been emailing from the company. I won’t lie, my heart dropped a little. The building looked a little out of shape, where the photos had billed it as modern and luxurious… 99€ now seemed fair for 3 nights. The man was so super friendly, and spoke English like it was his first language. He talked me through everything and as he gave me the keys he told me that I had been upgraded free of charge. I was no longer going to be staying in a studio flat, I would be staying in a one bedroom apartment. He showed me where I was staying, and you could have knocked me down with a feather. It was utterly stunning. Exactly as the pictures on the website had suggested.

I then met Tudor as he finished work. He met me right outside my building so there was no need for me to get lost. We navigated around the streets of Bucharest, and I was totally bowled over by the architecture. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind why it was known as ‘Little Paris’. Every corner we turned just took my breath away. Tudor pointed out to me the juxtaposition of the old with the new. I guess you see it all cities but in Bucharest the difference is startling. The most stark comparison is below, it’s a hotel with the old building on the front and literally built out from that, like it somehow gave birth to a brand new building, is a sheet glass and steel structure. There are more examples everywhere of this, but what struck me more were the number of derelict buildings.

The Novotel Hotel, Bucharest.
The Novotel Hotel, Bucharest.

Some of these beautiful buildings are vacant, and appear to have been this way for a while. I asked Tudor about it, and he explained that the state owned the buildings and people couldn’t afford the rent and to fix the places up simultaneously. So the properties stand in ruin. Tudor did point out a few buildings that were undergoing construction, but the vast majority stand crumbling. A truly sorry sight if ever there was one.

As we walked out of one street we came into a wide open street. Tudor pointed out that the river ran in between the oncoming traffic, and he explained that the road had been built around the river. As we crossed the road I checked out the river, it was incredible. At the top of this road was the main square in Bucharest. On all sides were shops, restaurants etc. There are many things you can say about Bucharest, and one of them is that it is definitely a green city. It has so many squares and open spaces.

From here we walked down a large boulevard, and as we walked, a huge building loomed into view. This was what Tudor had bought me to see: The Palace of Parliament or People’s House. It was commissioned by the Romanian dictator, Nicolae Ceaușescu, and it took 20 years to build. Tudor explained to me that men had died building the palace. We both agreed that ‘huge’, ‘enormous’, and ‘massive’ simply didn’t explain just how big this building is, and we settled on ‘ginormous’. Tudor told me that it’s the biggest building in the world after the Pentagon and the largest civilian building.

Tudor also told me a story, that during Ceaușescu’s reign, if you tried to climb over the fence, snipers on the building would shoot you dead without warning. He wasn’t sure if the story was true or legend, but it sure put a slightly sinister spin on the building then. He also explained that Ceaușescu used prisoners to build not only the palace, but many other buildings during his reign, as part of their punishment.

There is also a rumour, Tudor told me, that there is an intricate tunnel system built beneath the palace, but only a few people know what it actually holds. The building couldn’t be more of a mystery!

As we walked past, we could catch a glimpse of the odd chandelier, and I wondered out loud how many rooms the building held, and Tudor was certain that there are more than 500, and that every room is decorated with the finest marble and silks. As we were walking away, Tudor told me that you can go inside, but you get put on a waiting list a month-long and it costs a fortune to have a tour.

Me in front of The Palace of Parliament
Me in front of The Palace of Parliament

After visiting one of the most prominent landmarks in Bucharest, we headed back into the centre. Here, Tudor and I bought a sort of pretzel each. It was a savoury pastry filled with cheese, ham and onion (advertised as ‘traditional’). It was utterly delicious, but reminded me that I hadn’t eaten since breakfast that morning and fortunately Tudor said that although it was nice, it wasn’t filling. So we headed off for food.

As we navigated our way through Bucharest once again, I spotted some ruins on our right, so I asked Tudor what they were. He explained that no one was allowed to go by them as it was so old, it was a preservation. I’ll be totally honest, I can’t remember what he said it was, because the next thing he pointed out was a bust. The bust was of Vlad Țepeș, better known as Dracula. Tudor explained to me that Țepeș means spike, as Vlad would drop thieves and murderers onto spikes to teach them their lesson. He then went on to tell me that Dracul means devil in Romanian, and that the people would call him devil. The story of Vlad Țepeș inspired the story of Dracula.

Vlad Țepeș aka Dracula
Vlad Țepeș aka Dracula

As we started on our way in earnest to the restaurant in which we would be eating, Tudor explained to me that Romanian writers would frequent this place for “inspiration”. The key to this inspiration was the homemade house beer they offer and their traditional Romanian food was pretty fine too. The building, in contrast to the rest of the city, reminded me of a German bar. The beer truly was delicious and the food was incredible. We each had soup in a bread bowl to start, and a main meal of polenta with pickled cabbage and meat wrapped in cabbage. Romanian food, from what I’ve tasted so far, is rich in flavour and super filling.

After the food, I started to get tired… after all, I had woken up at 5am to catch my flight! Tudor suggested instead of walking back to mine, we would catch the subway. The subway was truly incredible. It was like walking into a totally different world. It reminded me of scenes from Fifth Element and Total Recall… a sort of futuristic sleazy. It didn’t fit with the upstairs, outside Bucharest. Once we got on the train, I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was so modern and big. It was almost twice the width of the London Underground trains and the trains weren’t separated. I couldn’t help but think that James Bond would’ve had a much easier time pursuing Silva in Bucharest than in London in Skyfall.

Tudor then walked me back to my apartment building where he told me that tomorrow, he would have use of a car, so that we could drive around and we could see the city lit up in the dark.

Day 2:

I woke up late and enjoyed lying in bed for a fair while today. When I eventually got up, I switched on CBS Reality (the only English language channel on the TV) for background noise. I started working up the courage to go out in Bucharest on my own. Tudor didn’t finish work til later, so I had most of the day by myself. I didn’t go out til almost 1pm, and I felt a little guilty. I’m in a foreign country and I came here to explore and I didn’t go out until the afternoon?! Then I told myself, to hell with it, it’s my holiday, I can do what I want.

With free wi-fi in the apartment, I googled where I wanted to go, and headed out. Tudor gave me some directions to a few places to eat, but I figured I’d grab some food whilst I was out.

A few things I noticed: 1. the most beautiful buildings tend to be banks, 2. Pastry shops are everywhere and they are damn hard to resist, 3. there don’t appear to be any type of tourist shops. My grandma has asked for a fridge magnet and my colleagues have asked for some sweets or chocolates. I can’t see anywhere that sells anything that fits this criteria. My 150 let a day is going almost entirely unspent. When you consider 50 lei is approximately £10, the pastries have been absolutely no more for 3.5 lei and the bottles of drink are the same. It’s very, very cheap here!

What I learnt whilst out and about today: cross roads in a group. I’m still not really confident crossing roads (the green man seems to have very little meaning). Every time I’ve crossed the road I’ve made sure there has been a handful of others crossing too… just in case!

Tudor met me a little later on and we hopped on the subway again. This time, as I walked onto the platform, I almost walked straight onto the tracks. The platform couldn’t have been more than 3′ wide. Even when I regained my composure, and stood against the wall, I still had the sensation of falling forwards into the oncoming trains. I said to Tudor that you would simply see nothing like this in th UK, health and safety would have field day! He replied “Well, we live on the edge!”… quite literally.

After a few stops we got off and walked down another wide boulevard. It was much quieter here and Tudor explained that it was an expensive area. We walked alongside the biggest park in Bucharest. Later we drove around it and I was astounded just how big it was, it certainly rivals Bute Park in Cardiff. I asked Tudor if we were on the outskirts of the city and was surprised when he replied no. I would’ve sworn that we were. Then as we walked on, I realised where it was Tudor was taking me. I’ve said before that Bucharest used to be known as ‘Little Paris’ well, it has its own mini Arc de Triumph.

This Arc de Triumph was erected after the WWII to commemorate those who fell protecting Romania. Tudor explained that Romania was fighting both the Russians and the Germans. With the sun hitting it, it looked truly incredible.

Bucharest's mini Arc de Triumph
Me in front of Bucharest’s mini Arc de Triumph

We then hopped back on the subway where we came out on another square. Here we saw Victoria Palace, the government building. Tudor mentioned that it was built in the communist era, but that didn’t stop it looking impressive. This square also housed the Natural History Museum, and this was where we were heading.

Victoria Palace - government building
Victoria Palace – government building

Tudor told me a little about the exhibit we were about to see. He said it was very controversial. It was an exhibit of the human body, with real human bodies on display and dissected. Before we went in, I formed the opinion that it was important to understand your body and to witness that for scientific purposes was a necessity, boycotting and protesting it seemed irresponsible. Surely understanding your body could only be a good thing. Tudor echoed my thoughts exactly. As we walked up to the building we were handed a flyer by protesters. Tudor later translated it for me, and it said that the bodies “donated” to the exhibit were murdered in the mid 2000s, they were Chinese prisoners and they were killed and their bodies were handed to the exhibition. The exhibition was created in the USA and the flyer suggested that it had been banned in many countries, including the UK. The exhibition itself was incredible. Fortunately, all the plaques were in both Romanian and ENglish. It was fascinating and a little bit disgusting at the same time., but incredibly informative. The part that crossed the line, for me, were the fetuses. I don’t know if they were real or models, but it was more disgusting than fascinating, to the point where I couldn’t look at it. I don’t know if the protesters were accurate, but it definitely added a bit more interest to the exhibition.

After this, we walked down the street adjacent, and we walked past Subway. Now, in the UK, walking past Subway isn’t a big deal. There are hundreds of the ‘healthy’ fast food joint. I won’t comment on the other UK franchises that have popped up over in Romania, but Subway is a different story. The first Subway in Bucharest opened almost a year ago to the day, and at that time, Tudor was living in Cardiff, where of course we have our fair share of Subway shops. He told us and showed us pictures of people queuing out the door and up the street of Subway. It was apparently the place to be seen. We walked past the only other Subway in the city yesterday and it was part of a posh department store. It’d be like seeing Subway attached to House of Frasier at home. This one is in a fancy part of town too. Well, this story became a bit legendary for me, so I felt I really needed to share the excitement of seeing the first ever Subway in Bucharest!

First Subway in Bucharest
First Subway in Bucharest

At this point in the story, I should probably fill you in a little as to who Tudor is, or you might think we jacked a car. Tudor is a journalist. That’s how I met him. He took and MA in International Journalism the same year I took my MA in Multiplatform Radio, and our paths crossed. As part of our course we had to do 10 days, or 2 weeks, work experience. I compiled mine all over the place but Tudor did two weeks solid on what he called ‘the Romanian Top Gear’. It’s a website and magazine about cars essentially. During his placement he impressed them and they offered him a job. So he test drives cars and writes about them. This particular evening he was given a car to test drive round the city, so he thought he’d show me Bucharest by night.

If I wasn’t already astounded by the beauty of Bucharest, seeing it lit up at night sure sealed the deal. It was like London at Christmas, how imagine Times Square would look but on a much smaller scale. It was incredible. We drove around the Arc de Triumph, we drove past The Palace of Parliament, and it looked much more imposing and majestic lit up. The lighting was so slight it almost looked sinister. In the back of my mind yesterday I thought of the Overlook Hotel, but now it was screaming at me.Everything looked truly incredible lit up and the advertising was breathtaking. I couldn’t really taken any pictures, but I could have quite happily been driven around Bucharest all night and I would have been extremely happy.

I spotted a rather nice, long wall as we were driving and asked Tudor what was behind it. He told me that the King used to live behind it and that there was a park there too. It reminded me of St James’ Park in London. Tudor also pointed out a house with gold leaf decoration and an actual red carpet leading to a front door. He said the owner of the Romanian football club FC Steaua Bucharest lived there and it had cost him 10 million euros. It was definitely garish.

While we were driving around, we stopped at a place to grab some food. This time, we opted for Turkish. The Turks are one of the minorities in Romania and the food is pretty commonplace too. Tudor explained that this particular place was the best in the city. We each had a wrap with salad. Tudor suggested we each have a yogurt drink to have with the wrap, you drink it whilst you eat the wrap. It goes alongside the food as opposed to on it. It was nice, but I found it didn’t really add to the flavour and I preferred it without it. We then had Turkish tea to follow, but I didn’t like that either. As a non-tea drinker at the best of times, I wasn’t going to enjoy it. But the wrap itself was delicious.

Tudor then dropped me back at my rented apartment.

Day 3:

Another slow morning, where I didn’t feel quite so guilty. A bit of reading and packing before I finally headed out for a (very) late lunch. Tudor had given me a few places by where I was staying to eat. So I headed out to one of these. The one I chose was called the ‘French Bakery’. The girl there was very helpful and spoke a little English. I had a warm spinach quiche with a side salad. It was incredible if a little pricey (though actually it’s peanuts in the UK… it was just under 20 lei so it was less than £5). I walked around a little bit, I would love to claim it was aimless wondering, but I was looking to finish my meal with a chocolate bagel thing, which I did.

When Tudor met me, we headed to a souvenir shop. I mentioned before not seeing any, and I was right, Tudor said he only knew of 2. So we headed to one in the mall. We then headed to the same restaurant as we did on the first night. This time it was busier and we had to wait for a table. There was entertainment in the form of dancers and a man dressed up as Charlie Chaplin with his face painted white with 2 birds.

The dancers wore traditional Romanian dress and comprised of two men and two women. They put a white cloth on the ground with money on it at the end of the dance. They then knelt down and leant across it and kissed each other on the cheeks. They did this in couples. Tudor told me this was the traditional way of proposing marriage, the money on the cloth is an offer to the parents!

Inside the restaurant
Inside the restaurant

Over dinner, I talked to Tudor about the gypsies. Whilst we were watching the ghost of Charlie Chaplin move between tables I pointed out to Tudor that when I’ve been to Spain and France, you constantly have people in restaurants trying to sell you bracelets, pirated DVDs and CDs, knock off watches and all sorts. I was impressed Romania didn’t have that. Tudor told me that actually the people selling in France and Italy in particular are more than likely Romanian and they’ve been moved on by the government here, but they’re being sent back from other countries. They have no place. It seemed sad to me, but Tudor said that they simply don’t help themselves… they loathe working. It’s in their DNA. If you offer them lodgings or anything, they will steal from you. It’s in their nature.

I haven’t mentioned it yet, but there is a huge number of stray dogs in Bucharest. You see them everywhere. I asked Tudor how they ended up there, and so here is the story of the stray dogs:

Before the communist regime in Romania a lot of people lived in houses both in the city and outside. When Ceaușescu came to power, he built factories for citizens to work in, and apartment blocks for them to live in. Now in Romania it is common, very common in fact, if you have a house, you have a dog. So when the government started buying houses and the people moved into apartments, they had no space for their dogs. So they just left them to run wild. Every year the dogs breed and more and more dogs start wandering around the city.

It was an early night that evening as I had the last of my packing to do. The following day I was taking an 18 hour bus journey from Budapest to Bucharest that started at 5am. Tudor, being the absolute superstar that he is, arranged to pick me up at 4am so he could make sure I got on the bus safely.

Day 4:

I slept for less than 3 hours. Tudor picked me up at 4am as planned and we got to the bus stop super early. I asked Tudor if it was common for people to get a coach to go abroad, and he said it was generally people who were looking for work. The bus I was taking would eventually end up in Germany. I had to swap buses about 6 hours into my journey, so I would be on a bus that would end up in Italy, but it stopped in Budapest amongst other places. We got to the bus stop super early, so we waited in the car.

Once I was onboard, I dozed on and off. At the second stop, a Romanian man sat next to me (who resembled Seth McFarlane). Every time I opened my eyes, the beautiful mountains appeared closer and closer, until at one point I opened my eyes and we were driving down the other side. It was utterly stunning scenery, but I literally couldn’t keep my eyes open.

At the next major stop, I asked Set McFarlane if he knew what stop Budapest needed to change at, as the driver had just rattled off two lists of locations and Budapest was on one of them. He apologised and said he didn’t speak much English, but he would go and find out for me. He went and asked the driver exactly which stop I needed to change at. I can’t get over how helpful the Romanians are. Yesterday I saw a Romanian couple stop on the street and ask 2 confused looking English-speaking tourists looking at a map if they needed any help. This simply wouldn’t happen in London. I’d like to think it might happen in Cardiff though.

At the stop I needed, Seth McFarlane reminded me, and even pointed out which bus I would need to get onto and wished me a safe journey. So I hopped on the new bus and whipped out my iPad, which was bought exactly for this occasion. I continued to read ‘Eat, Pray, Love’. I had read my way through ‘Eat’ on the flight out and in my apartment, and I could really relate to her time in Rome with my time in Romania. I was now reading ‘Pray’ and Liz’s (the writer) journey in India. The opening chapter of this part of the book really struck a chord for me. Liz talks about how her family kept chickens, and when one died, her father bought a new one. You simply couldn’t just throw the chicken into the existing roost though, as they wouldn’t accept it. So her father used to wait until the dead of night when all the hens were sleeping and he’d put the new hen among them. When they woke up, they would assume the new chicken had been there all along and they simply hadn’t noticed her. The new chicken, likewise, would think she had been there all along and she had just forgotten. She aliked this to her arrival in India, in the middle of the night where she just blended in. I felt like that on the bus. Once I was awake and had stopped dozing, I felt like I belonged on the bus, Bucharest felt a million lifetimes away and Budapest felt like the far too distant future.

So I read until I gave myself a headache. Then I started watching the outside roll by. Bucharest was beautiful, but the coach trip showed me more of Romania than I would have otherwise seen. The mountains, the open fields… there was one part of the journey where if you looked out the windows on the left there were glorious hills, but if you looked out the right window it was flat as a pancake. It was incredible juxtapositioning. Romania truly took my breath away.

I eventually got to Budapest where my friend Cheryl met me at the bus station. I fell asleep quickly after an exhausting day travelling on very little sleep.

Day 5:

6:30am alarm and we’re off canoeing. We catch the tram outside Cheryl’s and before we swap onto a bus, we stop at a Spar. That’s right, a Spar. We grab our breakfast and a few snacks for later and we catch the bus. We’re almost late and meet other people Cheryl knows as we get closer.

We have a crash course on how to canoe… in Hungarian. One of the other girls was doing her best to translate, and we pretty much get the essential stuff. We climbed into a boat with a Hungarian boy and set off. We were in 4 boats altogether. The instructors are in one (one of them looked liked Johnny Vegas and the other Adam Garcia), Cheryl, myself and this guy in one, 4 in another boat and 2 in another. It’s good fun, but hard work. We see the work of a beaver as we row and plenty of ducks.

We eventually got to the site where we would break for lunch (or biscuits, crisps and chocolate for me and Cheryl). Cheryl bought a frisbee with her, but it soon transpired that it was a boomerang, which perhaps made it all the more fun. While the other played Boules, Cheryl and I played with the boomerang. Whilst we were playing, I spotted a lizard in the grass and called Cheryl over to look at it. Soon it was time to get back on the river.

The way back seemed ten times harder, and our boat was taking too much of a leisurely pace. So they split Cheryl and I up (I don’t think it was just due to our lack of skills, we were talking and laughing quite a lot!) The last kilometre finished me up and my right arm seized up entirely and I ended up with the beginnings of blisters on both hands, and Cheryl and I both got fairly burnt. But it was still fun, and free as it was organised as part of the school Cheryl works at (she teaches English as a foreign language).

After this we headed back to the city centre and started looking for somewhere to eat… we were both ravenous. So we headed into an all you can eat. I honestly have no idea what I was eating, but most of it tasted pretty good, and I didn’t feel so bad leaving the stuff I didn’t like so much.

Cheryl and I then headed back to hers and got ready to go out… her colleagues had organised a night out. Neither of us were really in the mood, but we got ready nonetheless.

We first headed to a bar that Cheryl was eager to show me. I had absolutely no idea what to expect. So I went in and my jaw dropped to the ground. I felt like I’d walked onto the set of ‘Dusk Til Dawn’. It really wouldn’t have surprised me if the patrons of this bar had turned into vampires. It was the weirdest place! It was a converted set of apartments, so downstairs was relatively open but split into different parts. Through the back some girls were belly dancing (fully clothed), it had the feeling of being outside with concrete floors and people with dogs just hanging out. We headed upstairs up a very tightly wound staircase and up here the rooms were much smaller. There were bars all over the place. We didn’t stay here long as it was super busy, and her friends were elsewhere.

When we got to the actual location, I met a few of Cheryl’s colleagues. They were all really lovely and quite anxious to find out what I thought of Budapest. Everyone was really friendly and accommodating and all their stories of how they ended up there were super varied and fascinating. I ordered myself a JD and coke and it was 1100 Forints, which is about £3.30. I then sat with Cheryl and we made the decision to leave. We were both tired and had had a long day. As I was saying goodbye to her colleagues, one of them suggested I should see the Danube at night. The buildings all along the riverbanks are lit up and it’s worth seeing. So I kept that in mind.

Day 6:

Cheryl has a lesson today 12-2, so we decided that I would meet her after her lesson… braving Hungarian public transport alone. Terrifying, but actually incredibly straightforward. Whilst she was out, I compiled a list of things I wanted to see and do over the next couple of days.

I met Cheryl and she decided we should take a visit to ‘Sugar’ and cake and sweet shop. Here we bought 3 cakes between us. We got on the metro and we headed to Heroes Square to enjoy our feast. It was utterly stunning here. On either side of the square are art galleries and behind the square is a castle made up of inspiration of castles across Hungary and the main baths are there too.

Heroes Square
Heroes Square

After scoffing our delicious cake treats, we walked around to the castle building. It reminded me a lot of walking into Disneyland and I later found out that not only is it built from different Hungarian castles, it also has a Sleeping Beauty theme too, so it would explain why it felt like Disneyland!

We decided to eliminate one thing on my list today: The Hospital in the Rock. It was located in the Castle District by where Cheryl’s apartment is. Tours there left every hour and we were both quite eager to see it. The hospital was built just before WWII and functioned throughout the war and was then transformed into a nuclear bunker during the Cold War. Turns out, this hospital is almost impossible to find. We spent an hour and a half looking for it, then realised we had missed the last tour of the day. We did get to see a lot of the Castle District though, and we looked out across from this hill towards the Pest side of the city.

Budapest is divided by the river Danube. The part of the city on the west side is Buda, and the East is Pest. Cheryl lives in Buda, where the Castle District can be found.

The view of Pest from the Castle District in Buda
The view of Pest from the Castle District in Buda

After giving up the search for The Hospital in the Rock for one day, we headed back towards the city  for some food. We ended up in a sort of pub/restaurant that Cheryl had been in a couple of times before. She said she always ordered the same thing. She ordered the chicken soup in a bread bowl, much like the soup I had with Tudor in Romania. When the waitress arrived, I asked her what she would recommend, one of them was Gypsy Style Pork, so I ordered that. It was delicious, the pork was cooked in a tomato based sauce and it was served with chips, rice and a sort of pickled side dish of onions and gherkins.

Day 7:

Cheryl had an early morning lesson this morning, and when she got back, the plan was to go sightseeing together. The first stop was the Shoes on the Danube. This is a memorial to the Jews who were lined up and forced to remove their shoes before being shot into the Danube by the Arrow Cross. It was incredibly moving to see the statues of the discarded shoes, and it affected me more than I was anticipating. I shed a tear thinking about the unfounded persecution of an entire race of people. I started to imagine losing my friends and family that way, and it really upset me.

Shoes on the Danube
Shoes on the Danube

From here, we walked into a square that Cheryl likes visiting. For some unknown reason to us, the Hungarians had a statue here of Ronald Reagan. Here we found the British Embassy, which was a rather spectacular building.

We walked through here to reach St Stephen’s Basilica. We walked around the church that was built in the 1800s. The architect discovered that the buildings surrounding the Basilica would be taller, so he elevated the dome on his existing plans. Unfortunately, the building couldn’t support it, and between this, poor workmanship and unsuitable materials, the dome collapsed during construction. Another architect was then bought in, who returned to the original plans, and so the Basilica stands as it does today.

St Stephen's Basilica
St Stephen’s Basilica

We went up to the observation deck for 500 Forints (about £1.50) where we climbed up to the dome. Having skipped breakfast, this was a harder feat than it would have otherwise been. It reminded me a little of ‘In Bruges’ when Colin Farrell warns the Americans not to go up the bell tower. But the climb was certainly worth the pain. The views from here were incredible. We had a 360° view around the Basilica and could see the view back towards Buda (The Basilica is situated in Pest).

The view towards Buda from the top of the Basilica
The view towards Buda from the top of the Basilica

From here we returned across to Buda, by Cheryl’s where we had some Langos. It was a sort of fried flat savoury doughnut, topped with garlic, sour cream and cheese. It’s a traditional Hungarian food, usually served in summer.

We then walked up to the Castle District again, where we headed this time into Buda Castle Labyrinth. At first I was hoping to bump into David Bowie, but it quickly turned Scooby-Doo. Cheryl kept trying all the locked doors in the place and I half expected to turn around and she would’ve disappeared into a trap door.

the first part of the labyrinth is about Verdi’s opera ‘The Masked Ball’ with models depicting the characters and the story whilst music from the opera played on the loud speakers. It was fascinating though a little bit creepy for Doctor Who fans.

The second part of the Labyrinth was about building and building materials. This part was poorly translated and some parts not translated at all, so it didn’t really pique our interest.

The third part, however, was about Dracula. It told the story (a totally different story to the Romanian legend) of Dracula who was friends with Mathias who was a king in Hungary in the 1600s. Dracula eloped with (I think) his daughter. Mathias was pretty annoyed about this and set about a man hunt for his former friend. Dracula and his new bride hid in a castle with an ally, but eventually Dracula was captured and imprisoned back in Budapest. He was actually kept in the Labyrinth initially but slowly his sentence was lessened and lessened until he was under house arrest in Budapest, but he longed to see his bride. He was distraught when he discovered she had thrown herself out of a window to avoid being captured by the Turks. When Dracula was released he exacted his revenge for his dead wife.

It was around this point, it stopped feeling like Scooby-Doo and started feeling a bit Indiana Jones meets Tomb Raider. We discovered Dracula’s grave stone, combined with the mist, the damp and the atmospheric music, it actually got a bit creepy in there. I was quite concerned that at some point someone would jump out at me… which we witnessed a guy do to two of his friends. Funny to watch, but so glad Cheryl didn’t do it to me!

After leaving the Labyrinth, we set about once again looking for The Hospital in the Rock. We still couldn’t find it, and ended up asking a rep for one of the open top bus tours for directions. At this point Cheryl left me, as she had to prepare for a day full of lesson the next day. So I headed to the museum on my own.

The Hospital in the Rock
The Hospital in the Rock

The tour was incredible and it was entirely in English. I learnt such a huge amount about WWII and the Cold War in Budapest and how it affected its inhabitants, I learnt a fair bit about medical history too. It was fantastic balance of everything and was so interesting (though at points it felt a little like House on Haunted Hill…) If you’re visiting Budapest, I would put this place on the top of your list. Though just ask for directions from the word go and save yourself some time.

I then headed back to Cheryl’s with a view to heading out and doing more sightseeing though once I sat down it was very hard to get motivated to go back out. After a while Cheryl returned (she writes lesson plans in cafés) She decided to go for a jog, and I wanted to see the Danube at night, so we agreed to find our dinner on our own. So I popped into the mall opposite her place for a while to kill time before it got dark. I then grabbed the tram and headed to the bridge. It still wasn’t dark so I stayed on the tram until I saw restaurants.

I stopped at an Italian restaurant on my own opposite Nyugati train station. This was a happy coincidence, as I wanted to see this train station. The picture you see below, in the 1970s a train crashed through the plate-glass front and ended up not far from where I took the picture. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was also filmed in and around this train station too.

Nyugati Train Station
Nyugati Train Station

I then headed back to the bridge, where I walked back and forth and took photos of both the Buda side and the Pest side in the dark before heading back to Cheryl’s for the night. Before we went to bed, we heard the horrible news about the Boston Marathon bombings whilst I packed.

Buda Castle at night
Buda Castle at night
The Budapest Parliament building by night
The Budapest Parliament building by night

Day 8:

My last day in Budapest, and I overslept. But I still managed to cram in everything I wanted to do today. This started with the House of Terror, just a stone’s throw away from the Octogon tram stop. The building itself was super imposing on the beautiful boulevard it inhabited. The museum itself cost 2000 Forints, though I got a 50% discount as I’m still under 26. It has a fascinating and extremely bloody history, and I was so eager to see it. Cheryl warned me that it was boring, but I didn’t listen to her. I spent 2 1/2 hours reading a history textbook walking room to room. As a result, I was a bit history-d out by the end of the visit. And I’m a huge history buff, especially WWII history, and this place had managed to bore me about it. If you’re visiting Budapest, I would give this place a wide berth. Even for history nuts.

I then walked down the boulevard the House of Terror was on. It was beautiful day and it’s a beautiful boulevard, and I was looking to catch a sightseeing tour bus from Heroes Square, which was at the other end of this boulevard. I had a feeling of déjà vu. It felt exactly the same as the boulevard Tudor and I had walked down before seeing The Palace of Parliament.

I reached Heroes Square and bought a bus ticket for the day with a river cruise ticket included… the river cruise was on my list for the day. The tour bus was a great idea, but history heavy, and after my trip to the House of Terror, I simply couldn’t digest anymore. I saw the beautiful Jewish Quarter from the bus and ended up at the top of Gellert Hill, where the Liberty Statue and the Citadel reside.

Gellert Hill, the Liberty Statue on top and the Cave Chapel on the right
Gellert Hill, the Liberty Statue on top and the Cave Chapel on the right

From here I walked down the hill in search of the Cave Chapel. That’s right… a church in a cave. After the hospital in a cave, I kind of liked the idea. This was much easier to find than the hospital, but just as beautiful and rich in history. The entrance fee was only 500 Forints, so it was a total bargain. Definitely worth a visit if you’re in Budapest!

From here I crossed the river back to Pest on foot and walked the length of the Danube to catch the river tour. Again, this was history heavy and delivered in an incredibly monotonous voice in the English. It was worth seeing the city from the water, but it was pretty dull again.

The Parliament building from the water
The Parliament building from the water

I realised then I only had half an hour to get back to Cheryl’s and I’ll confess, I was a little lost. Not the best time! I was very fortunate to stumble across a metro station which thankfully was the metro line I needed. I got back to Cheryl’s in the nick of time, and threw the last few of my belongings into my bag. We headed off then to the airport, where we went on the metro, had to swap lines, and Cheryl left me then to get on a bus and complete the last of the journey by myself.

I had the most incredible time, I couldn’t be more grateful to Tudor and to Cheryl.

I’ve mentioned ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ a few times throughout this post, but I wanted to close with one particular musing. Liz, the writer, realises that every city has a word, and everyone has a word. If your word is the same as the city you’re living in, then you will live there harmoniously. She lives in Rome for the first part of her book, and she decides that Rome’s word is ‘sex’. So I started thinking about what word I would give to Bucharest and what word I would bestow upon Budapest.

Bucharest’s word was relatively easy to find. So many buildings standing vacant, and even the posh areas looking forlorn. Bucharest’s word is ‘melancholy’. I felt like once this was a great city, but everybody looked away and it’s fallen apart. It needs some TLC and a bit of attention. I had a love affair with this city, that I knew would be unhealthy. Like a relationship with someone who is self-loathing. For a brief fling it’s fine, but I would want to fix it if it was a long-term relationship, and that does no one any good.

Budapest… Budapest took a little longer. Then I realised, it was just as obvious. After talking to so many teachers from so many different countries on my first evening there. It’s homely. Cheryl only intended on living there for a month and she’s been there for 6 now. All the teachers I spoke to had had no intention of staying for long, and yet, there they were. After just a few days there myself, I had started to feel like it was my city… it wasn’t foreign anymore. So yes, Budapest’s word is ‘homely’.

I was so nervous about going on holiday alone, even though I was meeting friends in both locations, but it was beyond amazing. It opened my eyes to the world and to myself. It made me reassess my life and it has helped me start to change my plans. if you’re looking for a holiday that’s a little bit different, I couldn’t recommend these two cities to you enough. I went on holiday looking to get away, but I ended up with not one but two love affairs. I never knew you could fall in love with a location and this trip proved me wrong… twice over.

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