Monday, March 9, 2015

Q's surprise birthday destination: Budapest

Last year, Laure and I decided we would follow our friends' advice of replacing birthday presents with surprise travel destinations. So in August, Laure took me somewhere that we have long been wanting to visit: Budapest, Hungary.
A quick layover in Vienna, Austria almost through me off.

Up until 1873, Budapest used to actually be two cities: Buda and Pest split by the Danube river. Back then, the aristocrats lived in the upper class city of Buda whereas the commoners lived in Pest. Today, many of the historical buildings remain in Buda, but Pest is more vibrant with life.

We began our trip with a food tour that covered many Hungarian highlights in Pest.
The Great Market Hall thrives with locals looking for the fresh local products.
Its architecture was inspired by similar Parisian indoor markets in the late 1800s.
We took a shot of this national drink, Unicum.
This herbal liqueur tastes like cough syrup and hopefully gets better after a few shots.
Lángos is the buttery famous street food that you can actually find in many European street fairs.
The "s" is pronounced as "sh".
Look closely and you'll notice that Laure is sticking a cow tongue out of her mouth.
In Budapest, you can find many pickled goodies; some of which are shaped into faces or animals.
Sour cherry soup (Meggyleves) sounds like a dessert, but it's more like a snack.
This Seven-Layer Cake (Dobostorte) arguably has six layers. 

Next day, we crossed the Danube river to check out the historical buildings in Buda.
View of the Danube from Buda.
Buda castle and the equestrian statue of King Sigismund.
Some of the newer parts of Buda strangely reminded me of Disneyland.
Buda has a nice promenade overlooking the surrounding area.

The historical area is very beautiful, but it is also overrun with busloads of tourists. So it is a great place to visit, but probably would not be a good place to set as home base for an entire trip.

We also checked out something called the Invisible Exhibition. Each group is led by a blind guide through a series of experiments to get a taste of the world as experienced by the visually impaired. In addition to teaching us how to use a Braille typewriter, our guide took us through a series of rooms in absolute pitch darkness. We felt around for the objects in each set up area, such as in a kitchen, or in a simulated traffic intersection (which frankly was pretty scary). Invisible Exhibitions exist in several cities, and we definitely recommend others to check it out.
The Invisible Exhibition.

By the way, Budapest has an excellent public transit system including an extensive network of subways and buses.
The Red metro line was built 35 meters underground during the communist days to double as a shelter from air raids.

Hungary has a dark past in regards to anti-Semitism; with anti-Semitic laws even before the Nazis. Jews were not allowed to live in the inner city for a while. During the Nazi occupation, the Jewish Quarter became a ghetto where the Jews were completely walled in without access to food or supplies. Today, many of the areas have been converted to memorials to honor the lives lost and to celebrate Jewish culture.
The Dohany Synagogue resembles a church and even has an organ.
It was constructed this way possibly to appeal to the Christian majority at the time.
This weeping willow sculpture is a memorial to the Hungarian Jews that died during the holocaust.
Turn this picture upside down and you might see the resemblance to a menorah.
The leaves show names of Hungarian Jews that died during the holocaust.

After the war, the Jewish ghetto remained largely neglected and many deserted buildings were condemned to be demolished. But then a new cool trend arose: people started retrofitting these old buildings as bars and dance clubs. Today you will find a couple of dozens of these so-called "ruin pubs" with a cool street artsy atmosphere.
Jelly fish lanterns sets a relaxing mood at this ruin pub.
Some pubs have really cool murals and street art.
This ruin pub seemed a bit Mexican to me.

As I understand, many ruin pubs come and go as trends constantly shift. But by far the busiest, craziest, and probably biggest one is undoubtedly the original trend setter named Szimpla kert.
One of many "rooms" of Szimpla kert.

Beyond providing a vibrant nightlife, Szimpla kert also hosts farmer's markets featuring local vendors during the day.
Farmer's market at Szimpla kert.
One of many local goodies.

Budapest has an amazing memorial of the Jews that were killed by the Arrow Cross, which was basically Hungary's version of the Nazi party. The Jews had been ordered to take off their shoes before being shot to flow down the Danube river. In order to save bullets, the Arrow Cross sometimes tied three Jews together before shooting only one of them in the head. All three bodies would fall in the river, and the remaining two alive would sink with the dead body and drown.
Shoes on the Danube Bank to honor the Jews killed by the Arrow Cross.

Amidst the atrocities of World War 2, there were also people that saved a lot of Jews. Perhaps most prominently, diplomats from Sweden and Switzerland figured out creative ways to basically smuggle thousands of Jews out of Hungary.

On our last day in Budapest, Laure and I visited the famous Szechenyi Baths with thermal spring water. The place is huge, and we pampered ourselves with a package deal that covered all areas.
Relaxation area.
The indoor thermal baths preserve some of its original architecture.
The outdoor thermal pool is huge.

Looking back, my favorite part of visiting Budapest was definitely the food. I was really impressed with the quality of food from the markets to the restaurants. To the foodies among you: I definitely recommend paying Budapest a visit.
Goulash soup (which is actually not so thick) and a cherry soup with ice cream.

Lastly, we had a few minutes to spare before heading out to the airport, so we stopped to make an unusual culinary stop: McDonald's. These Golden Arches have a special significance: they were the first of its kind east of the Iron Curtain. Towards the end of the Soviet Era, Hungary received more leniency than other communist countries and were able to open up American shops like this.
The first Golden Arches went up east of the Iron Curtain even before the hammer and sickle came down.