Sunday, January 5, 2014

Hungary for Christmas

I've been silent for a while, but merely because I have been busy. For a week or so over the Christmas and New Year's holiday I wasn't going to be busy. So I decided to travel a bit. I picked Budapest.
People kept telling me Budapest is a lot like Prague. In a way it kind of is, and in another way it definitely isn't. The architecture is similar, there's a river and it's in Europe. The service at restaurants is a bit worse than in Prague, I know it hardly seems possible. Make sure to watch your bill to see if the tip is added to it, this was quite common there.
I will begin with a warning: If you are going to spend more than a few hours in Budapest, you are going to step in shit. Probably my only real complaint about the city, and perhaps the people who live there, is that there was feces everywhere. Most of it was from dogs, as far as I can tell, my scatelogical knowledge is rather limited to a few types of game animals and some common livestock. I'm rethinking that, I might know more about identifying shit than your average person.
So, warning out of the way, I will preface by saying that the weather wasn't the best in the world. The sky was grey and cloudy and it was foggy most of the time I was there. That doesn't really make for a scenic city bathed in majestic light with enchanting clouds drifting slowly across the sky. Something tells me this ideal vision of Budapest is rare anyway. For the few hours that the sun did come out the light was beautiful, just like in Prague. It was warm and rich and softly filtered through some still thin clouds and what appeared to be a layer of brown smog.

Budapest, Chain Bridge, Danube, Funicular, St. Stephen's Basilica

As you can see from this photo, the sky wasn't exactly enchanting. There is a good view of the Chain Bridge, St. Stephen's Basilica and the castle funicular in the foreground. Honestly though, this is pretty much how I envision every city in Eastern Europe -- grey, drab and gritty. I'm going to say that movies have given me this preconceived notion.
Budapest has a few bridges. I know, it's a big surprise what with a river and all there. The shocking thing is that the Chain Bridge was the first permanent bridge that connected the two cities, Buda and Pest. The Chain Bridge wasn't built until the 1830s. It leaves me wondering how people traveled from Buda to Pest, and vice versa, for the 800 or so years before the bridge was built. I suppose it was more of an engineering challenge to build a bridge across the Danube than the Vltava in Prague.

Budapest, Chain Bridge, Danube

So here is a better photo of the Chain Bridge in all its glory, taken from the Pest side of the river, with the Buda castle in the background on the hill. I was fascinated to see that the "cables" that hold this suspension bridge up aren't really wound steel cables but rather long flat pieces of steel sandwiched together. It's been there for over 150 years so I guess it works.
The other interesting thing is how easy it is to get to major points of the structure when you walk across. You can literally touch the "cables" and lighting and everything else. In fact I noticed that people had, as is the custom in Europe, placed locks on every accessible light as a way to confirm undying love for someone.

Budapest, Chain Bridge, Danube, Hungary

There you have it, locks on a light. This lock of love thing really doesn't make any sense to me. I suppose it's better than carving your names, or initials, in a tree.
When I got to the Buda side of the bridge I noticed something that is what I will most likely remember the most about the city.

Budapest, Hungary, Chain Bridge, Danube

Maybe you can see it. There is a person sleeping next to this bridge support. There is a large number of homeless people in Budapest, on both sides of the river. I saw lots of people sleeping in doorways and along the Danube Promenade. I even saw a homeless couple basically living in a doorway right next to the Parliament. I was never harassed, or felt in danger from any of them though and wasn't even approached by more than about three panhandlers over the week I spent there. At the base of the Elisabeth Bridge I even saw a small community.

There were about six or eight "bunks" set up along this Soviet Era looking bunker thing at the base of the bridge on the Buda side. It didn't appear that anyone messed with the possessions of the people who were not "home." Also, many of the homeless people had the same military-surplus wool blanket which leads me to believe that there is either some charity organization or maybe a government ministry that gives these people at least a little something.
There are of course tent cities teeming with homeless people in Prague as well, but they are hidden. I know people who are aware of where they are, but personally do not know of any.
My favorite bridge across the Danube is the Liberty Bridge.

Budapest, Hungary, Liberty Bridge, Danube

This thing is constructed with rivets and giant bolts and a giant Turul is perched atop each tower. The Turul is some sort of mythical bird that the Hungarians really love, click the link. I suppose it's kind of like a Jayhawk but worse at basketball.

Budapest, Hungary, Danube, Liberty Bridge

Budapest, Hungary, Danube, Liberty Bridge

That there is a big-ass bolt.
While I did walk across four of the city's bridges, that wasn't really the point of my trip. Bridges are cool and all, but I'm more of a dam guy. So on the first day I went to look at the castle and what ever else was around the hill on the Buda side. The Pest side is pretty flat, but as far as I could tell there was more stuff there in terms of things like restaurants etc.
I will have to say the castle wasn't exactly a fairy-tale like structure. It is just a big complex at the top of the hill. There are some pretty impressive efforts to restore it though and there is currently some sort of excavation happening that you can look into. Really, in that part of the city the Fisherman's Bastion is the coolest thing around. It's a great place to check out the Pest skyline and watch tourists. I made a panoramic photo from it. The tower at the far left is part of the structure.

Budapest, Hungary, Danube

I didn't really want to ride the funicular up the hill to the castle. It's a bit silly really to pay $2 to get pulled 200 meters up a hill in a box on a string. I can see how it would be a "romantic" ride for some people. Instead I opted to wander around the streets and find the walking way up.

As a result I discovered some cool little streets and a few sets of stairs that were quite charming. I also found a couple of nice cafes that were not crowded. Really, not much was crowded at all. There just weren't that many tourists.
Once I got to the castle, and was pretty unimpressed by it, I noticed that there were a few guards in some boxes. It was 10 minutes until the top of the hour, so I waited to see what the changing of the guard would be like. It's relatively standard, but they have a drummer. The guards change to new people every hour and on the half hour the guys there change boxes. They do some drill and toss their weapons around a bit. It's worth seeing.

Wandering around the castle complex was nice, but it was pretty clear that is has been fixed up for the benefit of tourists. There was this though:

A staple of communist greatness, the Trabant. I'm pretty sure this is a 1.1 model. These cars were made in East Germany. There were also a lot of old Skodas and a few Ladas in town too. The owner of this particular "classic" seemed to be having a little trouble with the upkeep so he decided to stay with communist doctrine and crowdsource the maintenance costs.

Strangely enough the biggest benefactors gave him dollars. The general prevalence of old vehicles like this added to the gritty, run down feel of the city but also contributed to my favorite landmark in the entire city.

Budapest, Hungary, Danuvia

This is a Danuvia and I call is a landmark because there is very little evidence that this thing has moved in a long time. It has a 125cc "thumper" engine and was very securely attached to this light pole.

I really enjoyed the kid jumping into the frame. Sure it would have been better if the two other people weren't behind him but what are ya gunna do. You can also almost see the Basilica in the background.

Several people told me that no trip to Budapest would be complete without a trip to Heroes' Square. I even read somewhere that things like Heroes' Square help make Budapest the "Paris of Eastern Europe." I've not been to Paris, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that comparing the two cities is folly at best.
Anyway, It's a big monument with traffic going around it and I suppose it's like the Arc de Triumph. I wasn't really that impressed. I was more impressed by what was around it in the rest of the city park.

Budapest, Hungary, Heroes' Square

Oh yeah, I first went to the square at night. This really is all it is. My favorite photo of the monument is actually this one:

Budapest, Hungary, Heroes' Square

While I was wondering around, after getting of the metro, looking for the square I saw this cool pond next to a restaurant with steam coming off it. To me this was a much more interesting photo than the one before it. Right next to the square is the city skating park and that was really impressive. It is HUGE. It's not as technically cool as the one in Vienna, but I'm pretty sure it is larger. The one in Vienna has several rinks connected by ice paths. Budapest's ice park was just massive with Dracula's castle looming in the background.

I don't really know if it is Dracula's castle. That castle is actually in Romania, at least it is now, it used to be in Transylvania but Europe's borders got a little mixed up some time in the 1940s. Anyway this castle is a combination of features from a few castles all over the country. It's called Vajdahunyad Castle and it is pretty cool.
The metro takes you really close to this place and the station pops up right in the middle of this city park. The metro is also the second oldest in the world and a UNESCO world heritage thing. Honestly, I'm starting to think UNESCO is a joke. 
The whole Budapest metro system is pretty crazy. It has three lines and each one is from a different era. There is line 1, the yellow line, which is the oldest one. It was not built by tunneling, but rather by digging a big trench then covering it. Because of this the metro is REALLY shallow and if you are near a station when the train goes by you can hear it rumbling past. Evidently the trains on this line used to be pulled by horses, or donkeys or something, and as far as I can tell the animals were unhitched from the trains about two weeks before I arrived. 

See those men on the left side of the frame? Those guys are there to ensure that you have a ticket and validate it. Unlike some cities that prefer to have plainclothes agents sneak up on you while riding public transport and check your pass, Budapest figures the best way to make sure people buy a ticket is to put cops in all the stations. Yes, ALL the stations.
The cars are pretty tiny and all those leather straps were really annoying for me because I'm tall. Also, all of the speakers are blown so if you plan on riding this thing count how many stops you need to travel to make sure you don't miss your stop because you won't understand Hungarian even if the speakers are in good shape.

The next oldest line, line 3, appears to start somewhere in Moscow in 1972 and go straight to Budapest.

The newest line, line 2, really isn't worth mentioning. It's super modern and basically like the U-Bahn in Vienna. Why are the lines not numbered in order of age? I have no idea.
I spent a good few hours walking along both sides of the river and there is a pretty good place to walk on either side. Although there is construction at the parliament building so you have to take the long way around off the river for a bit. On the Pest side there are stairs that will take you right to the water's edge where, if you are a homeless person, you can take a shit. Getting right next to the river didn't really make the city look any cleaner.

Budapest, Hungary, Danube, Chain Bridge

I didn't find any stairs to the water on the Buda side, but the view of parliament was pretty good.

Budapest, Hungary, Danube, Parliament

Along the river on both sides there are numerous retaining walls and random doors leading into what I can only imagine are Soviet Era bunkers, or in some places garages. At one point I saw an iron door open and a man walk out to go about his day. I'm pretty sure he lived in whatever was behind the door.

The man didn't emerge from this door. This is by parliament, so I'm guessing security was a little tighter.

However a church/monastery was built into a cave on the Buda side and there were plenty of alcoves and doors in the wall for that complex. Most of the alcoves served as defacto trash bins. 
Another place worth a visit in the Great Market Hall. It's an indoor market, wow right. It's a two-story building that looks like a train station. On the ground floor you can buy produce and sausage and things you'd find at a supermarket. Upstairs there are food stands and some flea market type shops where you can buy all manner of  tchotchke. Locals definitely do their shopping there, but mostly downstairs. If you want a cool souvenir it's a good place to go. There isn't a lot of ventilation and there is cooking happening upstairs so it's a little smoky, but you won't really notice until the light is right.
I got lucky when I went back to take some photos and there was a bit of light. Even though I have always struggled with photographing light as it travels through smoke. I am always amazed about how they do it in the movies. I know they just blast the scene with a hazer and expose for the dark parts but still it's challenging for me.

Budapest, Hungary, Great Market Hall

The above photo is from upstairs and you can see a little of the light hitting the smoke, but it's the best way to show the size of the place.

Budapest, Hungary, Great Market Hall

This one really shows the produce and stands on the ground floor and of course the smoke trapped in the upper area. Sadly, the market was closed when I returned on December 26 to buy some gifts. Oh well, so were some of the museums I wanted to see.
One of the other things I wanted to do was to visit one of the many spas in Budapest. The place is famous for them and I've read Pest means oven in some Slavic languages, this is actually true, and the Hungarians just kept the name. I chose to go to the Szechenyi bath. I chose it mainly because I knew it would be open. 
There were some warm outdoor pools and some nice indoor pools, although they were smaller and more crowded. I spent about 6 hours at the place relaxing and moving from sauna to sauna with a soak in a warm pool from time to time. Some of the saunas were too hot for me at 70 degrees Celsius though. I'd sit in there for about two minutes burning my feet and back and then I'd leave and jump in the nearby 18 degree dip pool. I honestly didn't get anything out of that, I'm not sure why it's so popular. What I did find that was excellent was an aroma steam sauna. It was about 50-60 degrees and so full of steam that you couldn't see more than two feet. The place was mentholated or eucalyptus scented, I'm not sure. It was like sitting in a giant Vicks Vap-O-Rub steam room. I spent a long time in there just sweating and breathing. It was great and I was very relaxed after the day there. Of course I didn't take my camera, because it's a pain to lug around, so I took a photo with my phone. Plus, I'd rather not be running around with a huge camera making other bathers nervous, even though people were snapping photos with point and shoot cameras and no one seemed to mind.
The place was really affordable and they offer towel and swimsuit rentals for a great price, the deposits are pretty high though. If you plan on going all you really need to know is that you should take your own flip flops or slippers. I did not and ended up spending something like $10 for a pair of flip flops. While it was a rip off, it was nice to have them. 

Due to the city's gritty feel and the number of homeless people I think it has some really great opportunities for street photography. Thanks to the sheer size of the rig I usually use, it is pretty difficult to pull off a lot of Bressen type work. You can tell from the photo of the two reading homeless guys that it's difficult to have subjects who aren't camera aware. I was able to pull it off a few times though. I really would like to go back with a smaller rig and see what I could do.

As you can see it's not impossible to shoot from the hip with a D3, but you only get one shot because the shutter noise gives you away instantly.
Overall, I liked Budapest and wouldn't mind going back when the weather is warmer and there is more sun.

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