Monday, July 28, 2008

Europe By Rail - Trip 3: Budapest, Hungry

I suppose hindsight being twenty-twenty; we would have saved Vienna for our last trip! But we did not know any better and did not really calculate that way. We had actually thought about deviating from the plan and taking a trip to Krakow, Poland instead. It would have meant that we would travel overnight in a sleeper car – and use up two of our five days! But it sounded like a cool idea. However, once we did some investigation we soon found that we would have to make reservations for the sleeper cars at an additional cost and at this point of the trip – we just did not feel it was worth it. So we decided to stick to the original plan and head to Budapest, Hungry.

Here is what we have learned along the way so far. When you get into a station there are some housekeeping chores you must take care of:

1) Find out your return train for that evening
2) Get local currency
3) Find the Tourist Information Center (we did this in Vienna – the girl behind the counter was wonderful! The map she provided along with her directions made Vienna that much more enjoyable!)

Once we arrived in Budapest – we head for the Rail Information booths to get a schedule. While a little abrupt – the woman behind the counter gives us a schedule for the day. The station itself is pretty large – probably three times the size of Union Station in Chicago and probably three times as filthy. Its hot today to boot – in the upper 80’s to lower 90’s we guess. So the day is a winner!

We go to cash some American Express Travelers checks and that goes smoothly – so far so good! We head for the Tourist Information booth and we are greeted by a young lady who speaks English! Wonderful! Our intent is to just get a map and information and head out the door – she provides that along with a little pitch on a Hop On and Off Bus Tour. A bus tour of Budapest where at various stops you can ‘Hop Off’ tour the area and just grab the next tour bus that comes along – they come by each stop though the city roughly every 15 minutes. Our intention however is to walk around as in Vienna, so we thank her and leave the station.

Once outside of the station however, we are assailed by the city of Budapest! Congested – dirty – graffiti strewn, litter strewn – this is not the shining star that Vienna was – in fact – this was the polar opposite – at least outside the station it was. The smell of urine was incredible!

“Bus Tour!”

$4000.00 FUT later – we are headed to the Budapest Grand Hotel to grab our bus – along the way we stop at this little street side CafĂ© to have some lunch. I am not sure what I had – but it was very good – some type of Goulash – mine was beef and Lisa had turkey – both were very, very good!

Company and we start the process of waiting.

15 minutes pass – no bus.

30 minutes pass – no bus.

Just for grins I take Lisa’s picture nest to the bus stop sign and I take a picture of the sign as well.

45 minutes pass – no bus.

Now I am pissed. We head back to the station intent on getting our $4000.00 FUT back and leaving this smelly, dirty country. We get to the station and are warmly greeted by the young lady – I tell her we waited over 45 minutes with no bus – she claims that is impossible and proceeds to make a few calls.

We go back and forth because at this point I am asking for a refund and of course she can not do this – we need to go to the central office. And of course they have sent other tourist to that location and they did get on a bus. Really I ask? Would it be this location? Pulling out the camera we show her pictures of the bus stop sign – it is – of course the correct stop. Perry Mason eat your heart out! But my bad cop routine back-fires a little as she is visibly getting upset – so Lisa steps in and lets her know that we do want to do the tour – we just want to get on a bus!

She makes another call and promises that a bus will be at the stop in the next 8 minutes. So we head to the stop and sure enough there is a bus there! It is a broken down bus – but it is there! But – within minutes – another one does show up and we are on our way!

If you do go to Budapest – take a bus tour. It is a large, spread out city. You will never make it on foot (or stomach it for that matter). I am always amazed at the youth of any city and the pride they take in a city. Everything and I do mean everything was tagged with graffiti. Great works of architecture – buildings that date back to the creation of Buda and pest (it is actually two cities) were tagged with graffiti – some actually artistic, most profane and vile. It really is a shame – the city itself has such an opportunity to be so beautiful.

But, doing it form the comfort of a bus was really the best thing. We got out twice to check out a couple of sites and to grab a drink – other than that – we stayed on the bus – and open air upper deck with very comfortable seats and headsets that provided history in English.

Upon our return to the station – with a few hours to spare – we stopped at the Tourist Information booth to find our girl and shake her hand. The bus tour was, after all that was said and done, very nice and we wanted to thank her. She was still working and seemed to appreciate our effort.

We grabbed a very nice dinner at a local restaurant located in the station – I get a fantastic stuffed chicken dish and Lisa enjoys a veal dish. And then proceeded to watch the board for our 8:00 PM train to appear and tell us which platform to board.

7:30 – no train.
7:40 – no train.
7:45 – no train.

Crap! Did we get bad information? Feeling a bit of dread rise up we headed for the ticket office to check our information. We approach the counter to ask the information and the lady behind the glass refuses to help us! We have to take a number and wait to be called apparently! She points to what we think is the number dispenser which we go and push – several times – only to realize it is the Emergency Call button for the police! Of course – no cops show in either case – so it is a good thing we did not need them!

We see a young couple standing in the hall holding a ticket with a number so Lisa inquires where they got it – he points to his left but then tells her to take his.

“We don’t need it anyway,” he claims. “We lost one of our tickets and they will not re-issue it for us – we have to buy another one.” Of course he then asks for $5 Euros. Now I have seen this scam before in Chicago – people asking for bus money with their kids in tow and an armload of shopping bags – but I must admit – if this was a scam – this kid (and his girlfriend) deserve an Oscar for their performance. They had a true look of panic on their faces. They were loaded down with backpacks’ and gear as well. So I do doubt this was a scam.

Lisa gave him $5 Euro and I asked if it was enough – he said no but he would ask other people – thinking, I suppose that it was easier to ask many people for small amounts than few people for large amounts. At that point Lisa just tosses another $20.00 Euro into his hands. You can see the grateful look in his eyes!

Our number is two away from being called and these ladies behind the counter glass are not moving fast at all. It is getting close to 8:00 and that is the last train to Bratislava – I DO NOT want to be stuck in Budapest!

Thinking I saw a Wien (Vienna) on the board – we formulate a plan to get to Vienna and then from Vienna to Bratislava. We rush to check the boards and the Wien is now off of the board – meaning the train has left the station!

Crap! Back to the line – hopefully we weren’t skipped over! We get there just in time – our number is up there and the person ahead of us is just leaving the window!

We come to find that Bratislava is a stop on the Warsaw line! Had our schedule shown that – we would have known that. Every other station we have been at does show the stops along the way so you can figure out which line to take – but Budapest – Noooo!

With about two minutes to spare – we are on an ancient Class 2 car (like this city – the rail card are filthy and old) – but we have the compartment all to ourselves (at least for half of the trip).

So goodbye Budapest! I’m glad we went there – so now I can say we were there! But I doubt we will be back!

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