Our trip starts with a rendezvous at Hartsfield Atlanta airport. Axel has just finished judging at the NEDA show at Saugerties, NY, and I have just finished a week of catching up on photo orders and paperwork. Meet me at the Crown Room, he says, and I practically bump into him in the concourse traffic as I’m looking for the lounge door.
The flights were long but non-eventful. It is September, and the planes are more peaceful now that summer travelers have returned to work and school. The contrast: our August flight to Paris had an empty business class and packed coach; this one is full in front and only moderately full in back…. And very few children, so sleeping came easily. A good thing, as this was another non-updated cabin with far-away video screens and no music channels. I run my iPod nearly completely down by the time we land in Paris.
This is the second time in two months that we’ve connected through Charles De Gaule, and I must say that my opinion of the airport has gone up. In past years, I enjoyed connecting through the non-functional, under construction Terminal 2 about as much as I enjoy preparing my taxes. But now that Terminal 2 is complete and running, it works, however odd looking it is. And there is palatable airport food: fresh quiches, decent espresso.
Things I wonder about: how is it that on the short flight from Paris to Budapest I am offered free wine or beer and a salmon baguette (on proper bread made with a total of 4 ingredients) while on the Delta flight from Atlanta to Paris I must pay for wine and the food has been designed for transport and storage (full of preservatives and artificial flavorings) rather than tasty eating?
Budapest is grey when we arrive, drizzling lightly. The drive from the airport is congested and the roads bumpy: this is not the photogenic side of the city, apparently. But our Hotel Bemczur is on a tree lined street in the diplomatic district, and from the end of the hall we have a view of Castle Hill.
We lie down on beds that are typically European-hotel: two twins instead of a queen mattress, exceedingly firm. We both lie down, just for a second, we tell ourselves, because it feels so good to stretch out horizontally after our long trip. We awaken two hours later, somewhat recharged, and head out for a walk.
Our hotel is half a block from the Hosoktere, or Hero’s Square. Its centerpiece is a massive plinth that supports seven huge and beautifully sculpted equestrian statues of legendary Hungarians. Axel and I of course stand below it and critique the horses and riders. We continue through the park, which contains the Fine Art Museum, the Zoo, planetarium, and come to an outdoor exhibit of billboards. Not understanding a word of Hungarian, we have to ask someone to explain: it is all parody on advertising. Some of the images are self-explanatory (the colorful crocodile made up of a collage of hundreds of many-colored Crocs) but we wish we could translate some of the others that are text-heavy.
For dinner, we stop at a nearby store and buy a bottle of wine and some hard salami. We realize that we have no corkscrew (thanks, TSA), and the folks at the store are kind enough to let us open the bottle before we leave the store. After sampling those finds and a salad at the hotel restaurant, we fall fast asleep.
On Wednesday, we are met by Janos Pokol. Janos is a representative of International Children’s Safety Services, the charity beneficiary of this weekend’s dressage show. Janos is a native of Budapest and has studied in NY and Washington DC, and he has joined us for the morning to show off his city. We strike off on foot and make our way toward center city via the subway. Budapest’s subway is 100 years old, narrow gauge, and charming. Each station is tiled in white and brown ceramic, and the doors and trim are stained wood. The trains have actual leather straps for strap hanging, something that hasn’t been in the NY subway for 25 years. It all may be of old design, but it works: we arrive in center city in no time.
From the station we walk across the Chain Bridge, which spans the Danube and connects flat Pest, home of the city government, and hilly and prosperous Buda. We take the fununcular railway from river level up to the top of Castle Hill, home of the National Gallery and Matthias Cathedral, and one of the best views in all of Budapest. A fununcular railway, by the way, is a sort of an elevator: it is comprised of two small trolley cars that travel up and down the hill in opposition to each other, each counter balancing the other.
Castle Hill is teeming with shoulder-season tourists. We tour the Cathedral, which has a splendid interior of dark frescos punctuated with gold leaf (before electricity, the gold would have reflected the candle light) and colorful and intricate stained glass. The exterior in being renovated, but through the scaffolding I can see that the roof is made of colorful ceramic tiles.
We stop in a coffee shop that Janos knows that is just beyond tourist radar and step off our diets for an extraordinary piece of crème cake. Worth the calories! And we are pleased to be seated right next to a beautiful cylindrical ceramic wood-burning heater, a type which is prevalent in older Budapest homes: we hadn’t realized how cold it was on the hill until we started to warm up!
After that we head for a wine store and get a lesson on Hungarian wines from the knowledgeable owner. We choose a bottle for research purposes, then return to our hotel via streetcar.
For dinner we stroll down wide, tree-lined Andrassy Boulevard. Lots of people commute on bicycles here, and in the falling darkness we are careful to keep to one side of the wide walkway in order to stay out of their paths. We come to a pedestrian street lined with restaurants, and choose a busy one that seems to be the happening place to be, decorated in retro-chic-meets-Danish-modern-meets-2008-sleek.
Where are the pictures, you ask? I must admit that even professional photographers sometimes forget a piece of equipment! For our on-foot city tour, I only carried my “winkie” camera, a Canon Powershot. It’s got a different size memory card than my Mark II’s CF cards, and before I left home I did my best to lighten my camera bag…. One of the things I removed was the card reader for the Powershot’s card. I’ll post those once we’re home.