It has taken me awhile to get around to typing this one up, but I’m pretty much settled in Austin now, so there are no more excuses. Riki had been to Budapest years ago and I have been itching to explore more of Eastern Europe since visiting Prague, Vienna and Bratislava. Another cheap EasyJet flight from Basel made this possible. That and the incredibly cheap accommodations available. A morning flight in Basel got us to Budapest in time for a pho lunch on the way to our apartment. I hadn’t done much research on Budapest, mainly relying on Riki’s memories from 10 years ago to guide the way. So I didn’t realize how huge Budapest was going to be. Budapest is the combination of the two cities, Buda and Pest, with something like 2 million people. They, along with Óbuda (Old Buda) were combined in 1872 to form Budapest. During WW2 Budapest suffered a lot of damage, especially the castle area, where the Germans were barricaded. The Germans also blew up the bridges on the Danube to slow Soviet troops. Later, when the Soviets occupied Hungary, they rounded up many Hungarians and sent them to forced labor camps. Despite officially ending Soviet military operations in 1945, the Soviets managed to leave behind a government dominated by Communists. This led to revolution in 1956 and the return of the Soviets to crush said revolution. The first free parliamentary election wasn’t held until 1990 and the last of the Soviet troops left in 1991.
Here are some of the highlights:
Budapest’s House of Terror is a museum portraying to the horror events caused by Nazi Germany and the Soviets. As we were visiting Budapest during the anniversary to the revolution, the museum was free.
Riding the old trams. Budapest has an affordable 5 day pass which let us on buses, metro, trams and even boats. We partook in all.
Parliament at night, and from the water (via public boat). The changing of the guard was also interesting though just a coincidence we saw that.
Cheap restaurants. We ate as many types of food as we could and only had one meal that wasn’t great. Vietnamese, Turkish, Italian, American, Tex Mex, Thai, English, Indian, and of course Hungarian.
Walking St Margaret’s Island. A really nice park which I imagine to be even nicer when flowers are in bloom.
Kerepesi Cemetery was amazing. Way in the back the graves are a bit overgrown. There is a really interesting old hearse in the front of the cemetery with a video in English.
Vajdahunyad Castle in the city park and Heroe’s Square. There was a festival by the castle when we were there with lots of food and seemed to be medieval themed.
Fisherman’s Bastion, Matthias church and castle hill is a must see. We went multiple times as the views are amazing both during the day and at night.
Budapest was a great place to visit. According to Riki, it has changed drastically in the last 10 years. It has plenty to offer for cuisine and culture and an equally fascinating history to go along with it all.
Portugal was supposed to be our sunny and warm winter retreat from cold and gloomy Zurich. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had a different idea and we were treated to 9 days of rain, punctuated by a few minutes of sun here and there. And no warmth. But we donned our rain coats and warm shoes, covered our backpacks and used umbrellas to block the wind. And Riki still managed to take a couple thousand pictures. I spent a lot of time holding two umbrellas up so he could snap the perfect pic.
Being a pretty well-seasoned budget traveller, this trip was no exception. I snagged $50 round trip flights a few weeks before and booked the cheapest shared accommodation I could find in the neighborhoods I wanted. This kind of budget travel has its downsides, as one of our flights left from Basel (an $8 hour train trip from Zurich) and didn’t include a checked bag. But we travel light anyway so this only affected us in that we couldn’t bring home the bottle of port we would have liked. And the shared accommodation, well that could have been better, and warmer. But the price was right and we don’t travel to see the inside of someone else’s apartment anyway.
We arrived in Porto to a leaky airport roof, an omen for the remainder of our trip. Determined to explore despite the heavy downpour, we dropped off our bags and bee-lined for some food. Our first meal exposed us to the hearty potato or bean and kale soup that we would be served at almost every meal to come. We found the food to be cheap ($5 three course meal) and plentiful, especially at the places the Portuguese were eating. And very good.
Porto is the second largest city in Portugal and is situated on the Douro River. Its historic area is a UNESCO site with parts dating back to the Celtics, Romans and Moors. One side of the river is populated with narrow streets and tall skinny buildings. Across an amazing two story bridge, though technically in a different town, are much lower buildings, and the wine cellars where you can try all types of port wine. And since it was raining, we did a lot of tastings.
Day 2 had a little better weather forecast in Guimarães than in Porto so we hopped on a suburban train for the one hour trip. And this is where we discovered the madness that is Portugal’s public transportation. The metro, bus and trains are all operated by different organizations. So despite buying the reusable paper card for 50 cents, loading it up for 8 zones of use, paying the amount we had seen quoted online and validating the ticket at the TRAIN station, we still had the wrong ticket. Which we discovered halfway through when the conductor came around. We had a metro card and had to buy a whole new ticket.
Guimarães is a UNESCO site for its medieval settlement and it is believed Portugal’s first king was born here. We wandered the old town until a miraculous break in the clouds occurred and we high-tailed it up a hill to see the remains of a medieval castle and any views it may offer, which were mostly of the incoming rain storm.
We wandered the streets some more in the gloom, but soon realized we had over an hour until the next train left, which resulted in the discovery of some old waterways that go under buildings, and some cats.
Back in Porto, we caught a brief moment of the sunset from across the bridge.
That evening we walked into a near empty restaurant and were told they were probably full. But somehow they managed to squeeze us into our own 6 person table and serve us amazing pork cheek and Bacalhao (cod) cheesy omelet-like concoction.
The next day we walked to the Crystal Palace, a giant dome we had seen from afar. Expecting more from the walk than the destination, we were pleasantly surprised to discover a free book fair inside the dome and a nice garden. And since we have a history of wandering into random gardens and seeing peacocks, Riki said, “I wonder if they have peacocks.” Not 10 seconds later, we saw the most beautiful peacocks, with their feathers up and everything. And roosters.
Walking back, we stumbled upon the interesting Mercado do Bolhão, which was a mix of tourist crap and plentiful produce.
The gloom continued and we were forced to cross the river to Vila Nova de Gaia to do some port tastings. First, we did a tour/tasting at Cálem where we were told the history of port and given a look at the caves. Many people coming to Porto opt for a Douro River cruise. As it was January and the weather was rough, we decided to stay in town.
On our last full day, it was raining harder than ever. After the unnecessarily difficult task of finding the right bus (lack of maps and information), which never showed up anyway, we made it to the Foz do Douro, right on the Atlantic Ocean.
We took the historic tourist tram back rather than figure out the bus.
Back in Porto and completely drenched, we continued back to our favorite spot, Ramos Pinto cellars to taste some more port. They had the most casual set up and reasonable prices – 2 Euro and up per tasting. We even splurged and tried a 6 Euro port. Since they closed at 6 and we were still wet, we continued to another spot, Quevedo, where we tried a few more ports. Disaster ensued as we were leaving though, as we discovered someone had traded umbrellas with Riki at the door, and left him with a rather floppy replacement. And it continued to pour.
I’m not proud of our last meal in Porto, as we came across a Steak & Shake on our way home. But considering that its been years since we ate a meal of burgers, fries and chocolate milkshakes – its ok.