08/05/2016 - 08/08/2016
Just over the Hungarian border, we stopped off in the pleasant town of Gyor. Figuring out parking proved to be problematic as all instructions on meters were written in Hungarian only. I can pick out the meaning of a few words in virtually any unfamiliar European language, but Hungarian is an exception. It has nothing in common with Latin, Germanic, or Slavic languages, not being derived from the Indo-European tree at all. It's more closely related to central Asian languages, along with Finnish and Estonian. The bottom line was I might as well have been looking at signs in Klingon.
I found a bank and was able to withdraw some forints, the local currency, without too much difficulty. I broke a bill buying some drinks and returned to the SUV, where with the help of my offline Hungarian dictionary app I managed to put some time on the meter. I wasn't exactly sure where we stood with the time, so I spent most of our stay in Gyor with the uneasy feeling the SUV was going to get ticketed or worse.
We got through the touristy old town fairly quickly. The buildings and streets were very well kept, although there wasn't much particularly memorable about the place. The most impressive structure was the 17th century Basilica with its imposing triple apse.
I might have forgotten Gyor entirely if we hadn't encountered a wide open square in the center with a group of burbling water fountains that was a great spot for the kids to cool down in the summer heat. Lots of other families with kids had the same idea.
Driving into Budapest was particularly fun because unlike our arrival in Vienna it was still light and we could see the majestic boulevards and beautiful architecture that the city is famous for. We met the Irish property manager at our Airbnb a block away from the Central Market Hall on the Pest side of the Danube. As in Vienna, our apartment was atmospheric and spacious.
After we settled in, our host directed us to a restaurant street a couple of blocks away where we had a decent dinner of goulash, duck, and grilled vegetables. I also discovered a dark local beer called Arany Ászok Félbarna that I liked. It turned out to be impossible to find in supermarkets, so I had to be content with drinking it in restaurants.
We began the next day in the Central Market Hall. This is the largest covered market in Budapest but also the most popular with tourists, and on Saturday morning it was a mob scene. The selection of produce and other goods on the first floor was excellent. On the second floor were stalls containing various kitsch catering to tourists and also food stalls that were mostly too crowded to try. We eventually opted for a sit down buffet restaurant inside the market which was mediocre, but we got to try a lot of local specialties like stuffed cabbage and sauerkraut.
We launched into the best part of every visit to a new European city, the day-long exploration by foot. We crossed the green Liberty Bridge over the Danube to Buda, with great views of Gellért Hill and the Cave Church carved into its side.
It was a long walk to Castle Hill but there was plenty to see on both the land and the river sides.
There was a long line for the funicular at Castle Hill so we decided to take the inclined path instead. There wasn't much to see outside the castle except for the views over the Danube. Inside of the castle are the art and history museums, which aren't for us.
There was more eye candy a ten minute walk to the north, where the majestic Matthias church rules over a small square at the apex of the Castle District. Close by is Fisherman's Bastion, a spacious terrace with neo-Gothic towers and parapets. Cleo was thrilled to see a wedding taking place in one alcove of the terrace.
On the way back down we ate dozens of tiny plums that grew on trees at the side of the road. We took one last look at Fisherman's Bastion and Matthias Church from the lower level, then crossed Chain Bridge over the Danube to Parliament. I thought this was the most beautiful of all the buildings we'd seen that day.
We took a long walk up central Pest's main boulevard, Andrássy út, to City Park where we took the kids on a pedal boat and admired Vajdahunyad Castle from the water.
The park was obviously a major gathering and relaxation spot for locals. We took the kids to the playground and the trampoline to bounce around. Here's the sign with the trampoline rules. Feel like learning Hungarian?
We ate at Városliget Café on the side of the lake, with a great view of Vajdahunyad Castle.
On Sunday the covered markets were closed but I had an ace in the hole, the Szimpla Farmers' Market, which is held weekly inside the oldest of Budapest's famous ruin pubs. There was an eclectic mix of elderly Hungarian farmers manning stands laden with baked goods and cheeses, young local urbanites, and expats. The pub was a labyrinth of small rooms, staircases and terraces with the market at its center. It was much smaller than the Central Market Hall, but we found much more that was to our taste and we had a large lunch of fresh, natural food. At one small cafe, a group of people were making pasta by hand and dishing out plates of it doused in delicious homemade tomato sauce.
We'd covered so much ground the previous day, I couldn't think of anything else to do in Budapest so we headed north to the Danube bend, where several pretty and historic villages are nestled. Szentendre, the most visited of all of these, abuts the narrower of two branches of the Danube formed by a temporary split in the sharp bend of the river. I missed the parking lot and nearly drove into the heart of the crowded pedestrian zone before a local thankfully waved me off. There was one main street mainly occupied with outdoor cafes and touristy boutiques, and we found lunch at a busy barbecue stall in the middle of everything.
One block down was a promenade along the river, which was busy with boaters and paddleboarders. Back at the main square, Cleo discovered a narrow alley that led upstairs to the solitary Church of St. John the Baptist on Szentendre's miniature version of Castle Hill.
Despite the short distances between the towns on the map, the one lane roads were very curvy and slow so it was almost dusk when we arrived at Esztergom. We only had time to walk around the enormous Renaissance Basilica before racing back to Budapest to make our dinner reservation.
Monday morning we stopped off at a couple more covered markets, had lunch, and loaded up on fruit for the drive back to Slovakia.