Okay, so very quickly: last night we discovered this little gem called Ladó Café, a small restaurant right next door to the hotel with live jazz music every night. We had a great dinner for 10€ each and the singer was great.
Today our first item on the agenda was to book our train tickets to Vienna for Wednesday. There are several connections between Budapest and Vienna, but it looks like the fastest one -3h- is the one leaving from Keleti Station, so that’s where we went. Foolishly, we thought it would be quick and easy (we even knew which particular train we wanted! What could go wrong?).
As soon as we entered the International Ticket Office, though, we stepped into a different space-time continuum where nothing made sense anymore. For starters, there were 25-odd people already waiting there, and you had to pick a number, but the numbers they called made NO SENSE. They would call 197, then 732, then 230, then 195… And our number was 311, so what gives? It felt a bit like those IQ tests where you have to guess the pattern.
Then there’s the fact that the numbers went ahead at a glacial pace, especially as one guy speaking English with an impenetrable Slavic accent hogged the counter for a solid ten minutes agonizing over whether he would get to sleep on the train or not. There were machines outside, but they only print pre-booked tickets, so in any case you’d have to book online, but I had my iPhone, except of course the website didn’t list any available trains for Wednesday aaaaaaaargh.
After waiting forever, finally our number came up at random (I pictured this giant lottery draw behind the curtains) and we quickly specified we wanted three tickets, to Vienna, on the 11:10 train on Wednesday. The lady behind the counter made this “Oooooh” face, you know, like “Boy that’s gonna be tough”, but the computer offered three seats immediately anyway. She then informed us that she would book return tickets for us, because those would be 30€ each, whereas one-way would be 40€ each. After discarding “I don’t understand anything that’s happened since I walked through the door” and “I just wanna go home”, I went with “Sure” and got the hell out as soon as we got our tickets. The return tickets, by the way, had to have their dates handwritten and stamped twice each (I guess they were out of wax).
Our next stop after that was the Central Market Hall, a big covered market right next to the Danube. By now it was half past eleven, so the place was packed with tourists and quite a few locals as well. The ground floor is dedicated to food items, especially cold meats and paprika (all the stalls carried the same brands; none looked artisanal or upscale), whereas the upper floor was covered wall to wall with tourist-trap stands selling souvenirs and embroidery. As far as food markets go, it doesn’t hold a candle to Borough Market in London or Nishiki Market in Kyoto.
From there we took the tram up to the parliament, where we wanted to book a tour. The only Spanish tour was at 16:30, even though the hotel website -and, for that matter, the printed chart right there on the ticket office’s wall- gave totally different times. I don’t know, you guys.
So, with time to kill until the afternoon, we took a stroll southward, past the old Postal Bank’s building (which can’t be visited, so skip this one) and into St Stephen’s Basilica, an enormous church towering over a beautiful square. The interior is as grandiose as befits such a gigantic construction, full of gold leaf and colourful marble. The building isn’t particularly old (late 19th, early 20th), but even with that in mind it’s amazingly maintained, every surface shiny and polished.
We also walked halfway along the endless Andrassy utca, a shopping avenue that goes northeast. This seems to be where all the upscale clothing brands nest, but we liked it because of all the tiny squares that branch off the main avenue, each one with its own statues and lush, green trees to provide shade. It’s also where the opera house is (perhaps something to visit tomorrow?).
Finally, after having walked for what felt like hours, and were indeed hours, we took another tram back to the Parliament for our tour.
If you read about my visit to the Palace of Dolmabahçe, in Istanbul, you saw me rant about compulsory tours. Well, this one is the polar opposite of that. I loved it: we had plenty of time to soak up the splendor and the sights, we had ample opportunity to take all the pictures we wanted (except in the crown room, pity) and the commentary was interesting enough. The guide wasn’t a native Spanish speaker, but she spoke the language well enough that she didn’t need to be.
In keeping with what I’ve seen of the Buda Castle and the basilica, the interior of the Hungarian Parliament is lavishly decorated and so polished that you could eat off the walls. Every ceiling had carvings covered in gold leaf or frescos depicting historical or religious scenes. Everything was golden, green and red. The visit takes you through several corridors and halls, one of the Houses (the parliament was apparently built when the system had two Houses, but now only one is used, so the spare one can be visited) and finally the Crown Room, which sits under the dome and marks the exact centre of the building. The Holy Crown of Hungary, as it’s called, dates back to the 12th century!
And that was all for today! That was exhausting! But there are so many things to see…