A full day on the road ahead of us, we boarded the bus sometime between 08.00 and 08.30 and began our trek south through the last bit of Poland, then winding through Slovakian mountain roads, arriving at our hotel in Budapest around 17.00 that evening. On the morning segment of the drive I read in between bouts of daydreaming of hiking through the Tatras, as I watched them grow larger through the bus window. Early in the drive, we passed through some small southern Polish towns. I remember them vividly because I was finally putting together the numbering method employed by the Poles. Several of us had been trying to discern the logic since the first full day in Warsaw (day 2). I had noticed it almost immediately upon arriving in Warsaw on Sunday. My grandpa and I had quickly dropped our things in our hotel upon check-in, grabbed the essentials, and headed out to find some lunch and stretch our legs after the long Atlantic jaunt. We were in search of a pub, of course, and finding the street was no problem, but once we started down the street, we walked for four blocks and only moved from address 60 to about the mid-40s. The number we were looking for was 32. Two days later in Krakow, none of us had solved it, so we asked Renata. The number is essentially the unit number. Say when the block was built, there were four doors on that side of the street. They’d be numbered one through four. The next block is the same, and they’re numbered five through eight. They’re numbered sequentially, not by block like we’re used to in the states. When they add a unit to the block, say remodel to put in a friendly neighborhood pub, they just add a letter to the unit number; unit 3 stays, but 3a gets squeezed in. And the opposite side of the street just counts in the opposite direction, but may not necessarily jive with the side you’re on, i.e. it’s not evens and odds depending on the side. In one little town we passed through as we neared the border, I had been watching the numbers increase singly, but one thing was different for a stretch. The numbers both increased and decreased by one simultaneously. I never did put that one together, unless Occam’s razor is to simplify giving directions. That’d certainly make it easy to identify the third house on the right or the ninth house on the left, depending on which way you’re heading.
As I withdrew my gaze from the house numbers and cast a wider glance across the small town, I was instantly captured by its simple allure. The homes have a certain aged look, but are built as sturdy as old farmhouses. Fairly tightly packed together, lined by a strip of canola along one side and backed by forested hills, eventually rolling into the Tatras, the village takes on a sort of enchanting mix between centuries-past agrarian and modern rural. It’s easy to let your mind drift to visions of walking through that town in the late 1700s when it was connected by dirt roads lit at night by gas lamp or candle light, where everyone went to one Church, knew each other on a first name basis, worked in the town, sent their children to Ms. Kaczorowska’s literal school house, and rode by horseback or carriage when they needed to cover distances further than down the street. They’re so different than what we’re used to, but there’s something special about them.
After passing into Slovakia, the road started to curve through the still growing hills, and around one long sweeping left, we were surprised with an ancient castle fortress built into the rock of the hillside – Orava Castle. My mind instantly went to Dracula’s castle, but that is Bran Castle far to the east in the Carpathians, and this one looked significantly less haunting. Again it was easy to get lost imagining what it would be like to poke around in the corridors and nooks long ago abandoned by whatever family inhabited it. To sit several hundred feet above the surrounding valley, overlooking the river with the big open Slovakian sky above must’ve been pretty remarkable. The castle, like nearly everything we’d seen so far, traces its origins back to the 13th century, but this time as part of the Hungarian Kingdom. Much of the 1920s film Nosferatu was filmed here, and it’s widely considered to be one of the most beautiful castles in Slovakia. It was originally a Romanesque / Gothic style castle, but was later constructed in Renaissance / Neo-Gothic style, finally completed in 1611. King Matthew to John of Dubovec called it home, with old Johnny being the last member of nobility to do so. The Thurzó’s, a mining family took it up as home some time after his death and remained there until the 17th century. They are responsible for most of the building, which actually consists of not one but three castles – upper, middle, and lower. Sadly, much of the wood the Thurzó family did not replace with stone was destroyed by fire in 1800, and the castle subsequently ceased to serve as a residence. It was rebuilt in the 1860s and began serving as a museum. It does still, as one of the oldest in Slovakia, and is a national monument.
We stopped at a ski lodge around lunch time, where we enjoyed some warm soup, beer, wine, and a bit of cake, then stretched our legs a bit before we had to reboard for the final leg. The sky was big and blue that afternoon, and there was a sole parachutist gliding through the mountains above us. Being in the mountains of Slovakia felt a bit like the hills of eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, but a little more open, and there were fewer towns along the way. There may have been a small cluster of buildings used by loggers, but it was fairly sparsely populated. I napped a good portion of the afternoon drive, letting the winding mountain roads lull me to sleep. I awoke just as we were about to cross into Hungary. The canola fields were a bright yellow complement to the clear blue Hungarian skies.
Budapest is in northern Hungary, so it was not long after we crossed the border that we were entering the city. Following the Danube for some time, we entered Pest from the north. This is a city divided by the picturesque Danube River, with Pest on the east and Buda on the west. As a visitor if it’s flat, you’re in Pest, and if it’s hilly and you can see for miles, you’re in Buda. The two cities were merged in 1873, shortly after the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary was established in 1867. It is a city of nearly 2 million, with a metro population of over 3 million, and its history is as storied as it is beautiful.
Coming into the city the first thing we saw was Heroes’ Square (Hősök Tere), which we would visit on foot the next morning. Curving around in a semi-circle to the right we headed down Andrassy Avenue, one of Europe’s and Budapest’s famous avenues. From Heroes’ Square it becomes lined with palaces; not grand palaces like Versailles but more the size of a villa. At first they have small garden areas out front and after several blocks the villas become grander at the expense of gardens. The avenue was another expansion under Austro-Hungarian rule, mainly constructed in the 1870s. A metro line, the oldest electrified railway system in mainland Europe, was also added in the 1890s, originally running under Andrassy. We followed the avenue to Oktogon, the junction with the Grand Boulevard and turned right to cover the last few blocks to our hotel. We kept turning right because turning left is not a thing in Budapest. It is the exact opposite of NASCAR. I cannot remember why we were told it doesn’t exist, but it doesn’t, which makes driving very strategic. Fortunately, we had Pawel.
Our hotel seemed nice from the outside, but the rooms were very small and fairly muggy. The temps were well into the 70s, but management had not decided to activate the central air yet. With no air movement in the room, it was pretty stuffy at first. We left a window open for the duration of the stay, which housekeeping made a habit of closing each morning. Unlike the other cities we visited, Budapest was not windy. It was warm and beautiful versus an overcast and cool climate in each of the other 5 cities on the trip. The toilets were also very odd. They were situated opposite our standard toilets, with the hole in the front and a sort of “catch tray” directly under the ass of the user. Next was the shower, which was perfectly functional with both hot and cold water, but which did not readily drain. I wanted to have a shower before we headed out on the Danube cruise that evening, and shortly after stepping in, I was standing ankle-deep in water. I removed the drain plug entirely, and my hopes of remedying the situation were quickly smashed. I supposed I could make do with somewhat dirty feet since I didn’t get to wash them, but rather “rinse” them in my body stank that had been sloughed into the hot soapy puddle. The next two days, I would wash everything else first then wait for the tub to drain before sitting on the edge to wash each foot. Dirty feet are absolutely disgusting, but on this night I had to deal with it.
We had a group dinner that evening, and we welcomed nine new members to our group. They were from St. Louis, New York, D.C., and Massachusetts, and all were very nice. It was sort of odd, though, because the other twelve of us who began in Warsaw together had already started to bond, and we sort of had the “new kids” joining us. Our guarded tribal instincts are still ever-present. By the end of the trip, though, we all had time to talk and eat together. I wanted to try some Hungarian beer, though wine is more their thing, so I ordered the Dreher Classic. It was not something I would drink again. But for something like $6 / 12 oz, I had to finish it. There’s always one bad beer on a trip. I remember having an accidental Heineken in Paris one evening, and an absolutely piss Peroni in Edinburgh. That was a beer to go with a pizza, but ended up being a beer that got washed down with pizza.
After dinner the group hopped on the bus and headed to the Danube for our cruise. We all got our free wine and headed to the top deck, and naturally they had piped through Strauss II’s Blue Danube, which reminded me of one of my favorite segments of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The city lit up at night was captivating and a bit seductive. I could see this as another “city of love,” a bit like Paris. Budapest has several famous bridges, all of which the Nazis blew up during WWII, and there was quite an impressive effort to construct pontoon bridges when the city was liberated. The first bridge we passed under was the Margaret Bridge, the first three-way bridge I’ve ever seen, connecting Pest, Buda, and Margaret Island. Much of this bridge’s original steel was raised from the Danube and used in its post-war reconstruction.
Almost immediately thereafter we passed by the Parliament building, which is without a doubt one of the most beautifully designed buildings in the world, and is the largest building in Hungary. Sadly, I didn’t get to visit it like I intended, but I plan on revisiting Budapest one day, so it will have to wait until then. On that night with a perfectly clear sky and a full moon shining above it, I’m not sure I’ve seen a more beautiful manmade sight in my life. Stunning.
The next bridge we came to was the Chain Bridge, the oldest across the Danube in Hungary, opened in 1849, and probably the most symbolic bridge in Budapest, essentially the Brooklyn Bridge of the city. The third was the Elisabeth Bridge, named after an assassinated 19th century Austro-Hungarian queen, which spans the shortest part of the Danube in the city, and connects Pest with Gellért Hill. We followed the river just a bit further south before swinging around to head up the western side. The first landmarks encountered were all named Gellért-something, after an 11th century monk named Saint Gerard, canonized for the legend of his death, whereby pagans through him down the hill that now bears his namesake in a barrel in which they’d driven long nails. Brutal. During the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the Soviets launched an artillery attack on the city with tanks perched on Gellért Hill. Some may make the argument that the Soviet occupation was possibly a darker, at least as dark a time for the city compared to that of the Nazis, but more on that later.
Just past the Gellért Hill on the shorter Castle Hill was Buda Castle, and guess what…it was originally built in…let the suspense build…the 13th century! However, the oldest part of the current castle can only trace is origins back to the 14th century. It was significantly expanded under King Sigismund thereafter, and in the 16th century would fall to the Ottomans several times during their invasions of the city. The Ottomans let the castle decline and remain empty for decades, then used it for barracks and eventually the storage of gunpowder, which would provide for part of the means of its detonation during the Ottoman siege in 1686. In 1715 the ruins were demolished, and the castle was reconstructed in Baroque style, though much smaller than its predecessor. It then burned down again, and over the next several decades was rebuilt, with financial and design contributions coming from Maria Theresa. It would serve as both a nunnery and a university for most of the remainder of the century before being repurposed as a palatinal palace, which the Hungarian Archdukes would call home. Fire damage would occur yet again in the 19th century, resulting in more rebuilds. Additions were then made through the remainder of the 1800s by the Hofburgs. Emperor Franz Josef was crowned in the castle in 1867. The last 25 years of the century and the first 12 of the subsequent saw a rebuild of the entire castle. The last King of Hungary, Charles IV, was crowned there in 1916, but when the Habsburgs were ousted in 1918, the castle was returned to the Hungarian Kingdom. Sadly, in 1945, the Soviets destroyed nearly all of the castle (equivalent to the siege of 1686). Archaeological research of the castle grounds, in addition to rebuilding, ensued over the next several decades, and work on the grounds has continued into the 21st century.
Fisherman’s Bastion was the final landmark we passed on the western edge tour, which I will not delve into here, as we visited it again the next day during the morning tour. We had all finished our two included glasses of wine well before we docked, and we were a bit sleepy after a long day riding in the bus, a nice dinner, and several glasses of booze. Even though it was a bit warm in our room, I don’t recall it being difficult to sleep that night.