MONDAY: On finding that Hungarian buses are just as impossible to buy tickets for as Polish ones are, we yet again had to worry about being fined for not possessing a ticket (or, more accurately, for not possessing the arcane Eastern European knowledge of where to buy a ticket when there’s no provision for the sensible thing, ie buying a ticket at the front of the bus/tram). We got away with it again, but our sins were punished through the weather: a dry day at Keleti station suddenly transformed into a vicious rainstorm by the time we got off the bus, one stop further away than intended, in fabric shoes not best suited to the volatile weather.
A short, bad-tempered walk later and we were out of the weather’s caprices, and into a hostel with the world’s most cliched hippy decor. The fact it was called Shantee House should have been a clue to its pretensions of free love, peace and vogue spirituality, but still the books about trekking in Tibet, Indian throws and beards/dreads (so many beards/dreads!) came as a surprise. I rather liked it though; it was bright orange, had stairs painted the colours of the rainbow, and a relaxed vibe that put us at ease where the slightly intense guy running our Polish hostel had been unnerving.
When we finally made it into the room, it was time for a nap. Unfortunately, a shameless Australian girl and her hostel acquaintance of one day decided that being in a room with three people besides themselves was no deterrent to fornication, and indulged their primal urges there and then. Had I been more inured to listening to other people’s copulation, I may have been impressed that they’d managed to successfully negotiate the dimensions of the narrow single top bunk, but as it was I could only feel like a massive, unwilling pervert hearing their heavy breathing, the creaking bed frame, and sounds of unzipping from the other side of the room.
Emily had had the good sense to flee as soon as the telling kissing noises began. I, however, was stuck in there with an ever-fuller bladder. Feeling like Hugh Grant in the cupboard in Four Weddings And A Funeral, I eventually plucked up the courage to leave the room to use the bathroom, identifying the offending bunk as I did courtesy of seeing a guy on his haunches with a blanket over him. (Bit of a giveaway.) Unbelievably, even me loudly padding about did not interrupt their frenzied coitus.
After a well-deserved sleep, Emily and I agreed to reconvene at Buda Castle in an hour, during which she would be exploring a hospital in a rock. With an hour to kill, I ended up chatting to the offending Australian fornicator and heading into town with her. We went searching for a place to buy tram tickets while she regaled me with tales of her copulating misdeeds from the night before (a churchyard was privy to those indiscretions), surprisingly frank about it all. Unable to find a ticket office, we stopped a native passer-by who, happily, was fluent in English. He had the oddest accent I’ve ever heard: predominantly Boltonian, but with flecks of regional accents from all over the UK, as well as a hint of Kiwi.
Martzy, as he introduced himself, was a Hungarian student of Economics at the country’s best university for the subject. He was very friendly and immeasurably helpful, directing us to the ticket office and ordering our tickets in his native tongue, before boarding the same tram as us so he could go to a lecture. He spoke of a corrupt government and politics that were driving his age group out of the country due to jobs being scarce and pensions unlikely in the future – quite a sobering conversation.
By the time we arrived at the requisite tram stop, I was required at Buda Castle, so bid the Aussie fornicator farewell before hopping back on a tram and returning the way I’d come. Getting off at the first stop in Buda, I was immediately accosted by a Hungarian woman begging for money so she could afford to feed her 6 children. Mindful of our attempts to be charitable in Berlin, I lied that I had no money, before heading off deep in the throes of guilt to the castle.
Finding the route there was not an issue; finding Emily, however, was a saga that Tolkein could have written a trilogy about and Peter Jackson could have adapted into a series of widely-acclaimed, Oscar-winning films. Attempting to get through the castle – now a set of museums as opposed to a seat of royalty – to the funicular railway station involved continually being thwarted by building works and dead ends. I eventually made it to her before her phone died, having nobly struggled through its 1% battery life for so long.
We passed the Hungarian equivalent of 10 Downing Street and found our way to St Matthias Church, which is probably the prettiest building I’ve ever seen: it’s not too grand or ornate, but is enough so to be striking. Prettiest of all is the Lego brick-like roof, in a variety of colours that contrasted surprisingly well with the white walls. After slavering over it for a little while, we admired the view over the Danube from a viewing platform and took some silly pictures before heading back to the Tesco near the hostel to buy up their selection of ready meals.
Tragically, the Tesco was tiny and had little choice available – not convenient given Emily’s, erm, selective palate. A few tours of it convinced us that a) to my chagrin, the only soup available was a horrendous ‘stir in’ packet, which I bought in case my urge for soup to soothe my throat proved truly insurmountable (it wasn’t – nothing could induce me to try it), and b) nothing that Emily liked or wanted was available as a main meal. Staples such as pasta and rice were a non-starter (she truly has a selective palate), while we’d done pizza to death. The only remaining option was to buy some chicken legs and seasoning, and cook them in the hostel’s busy communal kitchen.
Being a fussy eater is clearly no hindrance to being a good cook, as Emily’s cooking skills came up trumps. But with no utensils to spare, we had to flick the hot chicken off the even hotter oven tray with our fingers, an upsettingly farcical mission which made some Belgian hostellees laugh at me. Bet they wouldn’t have fared any better if they’d tried to flick HOT CHICKEN DRUMSTICKS off a VERY HOT TRAY WITHOUT BURNING THEIR FINGERS.
TUESDAY: We’d been planning to visit the Széchenyi Baths when in Budapest for some time, pencilling in Tuesday as the day for it. Our loooong walk there took us past Heroes’ Square, among other important-looking buildings, but was forced on a detour when a coughing fit so violent it made me cry (and nearly chunder) convinced us to get me to a pharmacy for some throat relief. We spotted a tiny pharmacy across the street and tried to ask one of the cashiers if the box to her right was cough syrup, which is what it looked like. Not understanding us, she passed us over to her colleague who, deadpan, responded, “No, it’s urinary tract infection medicine”. Explains why ‘urinal’ was in the name, I suppose.
Loaded up with lemon and honey Strepsils, paracetamol and cough syrup with a childproof cap so secure that it was also adultproof, we headed on to the baths, where our ticket (roughly £12) entitled us to access 16 baths/pools as well as a whole host of saunas. Our lockers, we discovered, were in the men’s section – only a problem when some old codger came in and started shouting “MEN (pointing at the ground beside him), WOMEN (pointing away)”. I tried to explain to Mr Grumpy (as I unaffectionately dubbed him) that my locker was there, but he was still being lairy, so I took the hint to flee.
The baths ranged from 18•C (a post-sauna dunking pool) to 40•C, from salty to minty, outdoor to indoor. It was my highlight of the trip so far – so incredibly relaxing. Our favourite pool was the 38•C minty pool, which smelled and looked pleasantly like Listerine; we slobbed about in it until our fingers wrinkled and we were almost asleep. Better to slob than exercise, though – our go in the aerobics pool got us evils from the locals after we tried to rollerskate on the floating weights.
The sauna experience was a mixed bag. A minty sauna cleared my nose and throat to the point where I was practically 100% cured – newsflash: HEALING BATHS ACTUALLY HEAL! – but being in the sauna with 9 very sweaty fat men was slightly alarming. However, it was the non-minty sauna I tried that was more of a concern; when I left it, my towel had disappeared! Attempts to find out if it had been handed in to the staff were misinterpreted, as they thought I was asking about towel rental. Will have to use bedsheets to dry myself from now on.
5 hours were spent there relaxing, swimming and pretending to lech on old men – except the tables were turned when one old man leched on Emily, and there was no pretence about it. He was very fat, and using two of the handrails by the stairs to rhythmically bounce up and down. As we rose majestically out of the pool, he briefly glanced away from his bouncing to unmistakeably feast his eyes on Emily’s rear. Every time we wandered past the pool he was lurking, like a hungry, sexually voracious hippopotamus.
The evening was spent at a ruin bar – literally a bar set in ruined buildings. It was huge and very busy; we brought Daniel, our Australian roommate, with us to meet Hannah – an American (DEFINITELY not a Kiwi) we’d met in Prague – and her hostellees. Though the baths had seemingly cured my cold, I was still wary of drinking as it makes my throat balloon when ill, so remained teetotal. This was unfortunate: while the bar was exceedingly cool – totally shabby, with squat toilets and rickety chairs to show how super-authentic it all was – the hostellees were not so interesting.
After briefly meeting so many people, you cease to care about where they’re from, where they’ve been, where they’re going – why should you, when you’ll probably never see them again? I chatted to a guy from London who was soon to join the Royal Navy. He was fine at first, teaching card games to a group of us, but after the joys of me winning Irish Snap and losing at Cheat had dried up, we had to talk again, and found we had no common ground. He didn’t like football, and his only view on Countdown was the objectively wrong one that Carol Vorderman should never have left (a view that I scorned and rebuffed with stats), while his interests of aviation (nope), the military (of which, as a pacifist, I am deeply suspicious), and World War II (nah, it’s all anyone over the age of 60 ever bangs on about) held little promise.
We then made for the exit to move on to another bar. Bored, tired and ill, I wasn’t keen on the idea, but was even less keen on the idea of getting/paying for a taxi back to the hostel by myself. Somehow me, Emily, Daniel and Jamie (Captain Boring’s friend) became detached from the trail of people that Hannah led and, after a fruitless goosechase around local bars in the rain, we settled in the empty but hilariously named Irish pub ‘PUBlin’. This was far preferable to being in a huge group and having to yell pleasantries over a group of obnoxiously rowdy Italians, and were now able to discuss the important things like music and TV. Jamie lost credibility points when he asked if ‘Summer Of 69′ was by Guns ‘n’ Roses, but regained it by being impressed by meeting a real life octochamp. We eventually called it a night at 2, bringing a loooong day to a close.
WEDNESDAY: I awoke on the Wednesday to novel Twitter fanmail, in which a boy had taken the novel approach of wooing me with an anagram of ‘We should go on a date’, by which I was deeply amused and almost convinced. Emily had gone caving with Daniel, leaving me with most of the day by myself.
I strolled around Pest for a while before deciding to walk up to the Parliament building along the river. By the time I was opposite St Matthias, it was dark; the sight of it along with the castle glowing in the dark across the river was possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. Oops, folks, we’re getting close to sycophancy here – but it really is gorgeous. After some poetic gazing, I set off for Parliament again, thwarted by building works. When we finally reconvened (all starving, the others exhausted), we slumped at a cheap Italian restaurant off the main shopping road, Vaci Utca, and alarmed Daniel with our ‘interesting’ conversation topics.
Nothing much has happened since. Time to get off this Railjet train (easily the nicest train we’ve been on thus far, minus the shrieking noises when we leave stations) and find our hostel, the amusingly named Wombats, in Vienna – the Ultravox song named after which we had playing on a loop for an hour, until we realised that you CAN have too much of a good thing.
A hand-cramped Jen