So, it turns out the train route from Bratislava to Budapest is hugely popular with the “backpacker” set. (There was a gigantic music festival going on just outside Budapest this week that may have had something to do with it.)
Now, most of you who are familiar with my travels understand that I do not usually travel in the same circles as the backpackers. I never tried the “backpacking through Europe” thing as a college student but judging from the looks of these folks, I would have hated it. Think dreadlocks, dirty clothes, obscure body piercings, large heavy packs and – apparently – very few opportunities for showers. Ick.
(Simple Disclaimer: If you, yourself, are a backpacker or have family, friends, business associates, Twitter followers, etc who are backpackers, I am sure you are all lovely people and I mean no offense. Perhaps I am just jealous that they are spending their 20’s traveling the world while I spent mine broke, working 80-hour weeks, getting a masters degree and starting a business.)
So, when the train finally pulled into the Bratislava station, the platform was lousy with backpackers – we were totally outnumbered. My strategy with trains is always head to the first car. In this case, it appeared we had no assigned seat on our tickets – so why not start at the front? Very quickly our car was packed full and we departed the station. It was hot, crowded and the air was a bit ripe. I was thinking to myself that this was going to be one very LONG 3 hour ride.
A few minutes into our ride as the backpackers were beginning to break out various groceries and turn our car into a public picnic ground, the train’s ticket-checker came through the car. As he spoke to each person, they started rapidly gathering their things and moving back to another car. Jackpot!!
I soon realized he was telling them that this car was for first class only. Now, since we were not given that option when we purchased our tickets, we were holding 2nd class tickets as well. I wondered aloud to Shannon if we could buy our way into staying up here and the businessman sitting across from us said that we could, he was getting money out to do the same thing.
As the ticket-taker worked his way down the aisle, the amount of money I was willing to pay to stay in this car was rising in direct proportion to the number of others who were bailing out to other cars. When he finally reached us, I showed him our tickets (they were only about 13 euro each – super cheap) and asked how much we needed to pay to upgrade to first class. It was only 3.60 euro (about $4.50 US)!! Little did he know I would have gladly paid 10 times that.
It was then that I realized my favorite quality about the backpacker set: limited funds = extremely low threshold for price increases. By the time the ticket taker had gone through the whole car, there were only about 6 of us left in the entire car…bliss!!
After that, the train ride was extremely pleasant.
Arrival in Budapest
When our train pulled into Budapest station, it took us a while to get our bearings and try to find the hotel. What threw us was the fact that we came into a different train station than we expected…and one that was not on our map. With navigation nearly impossible at that point and a long day already behind us, we cut our losses and grabbed a cab (yes, Dena, I took a cab – again).
Our hotel for Night #1 in Budapest was again the Ritz Carlton Budapest. It was a beautiful hotel and they were kind enough to upgrade us to another wonderful suite. It was around 4pm by then so we decided to go out and tackle a little afternoon sightseeing before cleaning up for dinner. We started with a stroll along the Danube to get our bearings.
The Danube divides the city in two parts, “Buda” and “Pest”. Hilly, residential Buda is home to the famous Castle Hill and medieval buildings; while Pest is the commercial center of the city with restaurants, bars, hotels and museums. Our hotel was in Pest but it was a short walk to the Danube and across the Chain Bridge into Buda.
After wandering along the Danube for a few hours and plotting out our full day of sightseeing for the next day, we found a great spot along the river and stopped for dinner.
Day 2 in Budapest
The next day we awoke early to uncooperative weather so we went back to sleep and tried again a few hours later. By mid-morning, it was still overcast but at least it wasn’t raining anymore.
So we rallied and headed out to our first stop for the day, the Central Market. Oddly enough, the market was amazingly reminiscent of one I’d been to in Papeete, Tahiti last year. Enough so that I knew the top floor would have the best local food stands for our breakfast.
We tried a local specialty called “Langos” and they were delicious! It’s basically fried dough (which explains why it was delicious) topped with any number of options. It was a perfect breakfast to fuel our shopping.
After shopping, our next stop was the funicular to the top of Castle Hill and the Royal Palace. We had to dodge a rain shower along the way but finally made it up to the top to enjoy the panoramic views of the city below. After exploring the “mini-city” atop the hill, it was time to head back down and move to our new hotel for the night, the Hilton Budapest City.
I had originally planned two nights in Budapest but couldn’t decide between the Ritz Carlton and the Hilton, so I decided to try both since they were in different parts of the city. And after all, spending more than one night in any given hotel is over-rated (right, Shannon??).
It turned out to be a great move since the Hilton was right next door to the train station we would be taking to the airport the next day. I was upgraded to a club level room with lounge access so we were again able to take advantage of an abundance in free food and drinks during our stay. Score! (When you’re travelling for a month, free food and wine is a huge perk.)
A Hungarian Bath
For our last day in Budapest, Shannon wanted to visit one of the many medicinal baths Budapest has to offer. Since I had visited a Turkish bath a few years ago in Istanbul, I wasn’t as excited about it but we really had seen everything else at this point so I went along for the ride.
We had to take a metro train to the Szechenyi Spa Baths just outside town. They were indeed beautiful but the entry fee was pretty steep and we didn’t have enough time before our flight to make it worthwhile so we just had a look around and then hopped back on the metro.
After leaving Budapest, we had an overnight layover in Berlin. I had been there once before but Shannon hadn’t been to that part of Germany so we got out for a bit and did some sightseeing.
Unfortunately, Berlin’s biggest attraction – the Brandenburg gate – was almost completely obscured with tents, staging, television platforms, etc. set up for the Track and Field Championships happening that weekend. So, it was tough to get any good pictures. But we had a nice walk around and then some dinner before calling it a night.
Next stop, Krakow!