We escaped the downpour in Munich just in time by jumping on to our next night train to Budapest. As we got settled in our 6 person couchette, we met our bunk mates - one guy who didn't speak English and went to sleep right away (we think he got off the train at one of the connections in the middle of the night because he wasn't there when we woke up, and that would explain the early bedtime), and three girlfriends traveling together for a few weeks on a whirlwind trip around Europe before going back to University. They were young - just 19 - and more mature and polite than I ever was at that age (maybe it was the British accents that made them seem overly polite)! The five of us chatted for a long time about traveling, TV shows (they love Vampire Diaries as much as I do), and books, particularly Game of Thrones and Harry Potter. "How did your parents react to you girls deciding to take this trip on your own?" I asked, thinking that there was no way my parents would let me and my besties take off on night trains all over Europe at that age. "We all have been in boarding school since primary school, so we're not home very much anyway. They didn't really care." Whoa, boarding school! Yes, I guess that's fairly normal over here. Even if I had been away for many years at school, I still don't think my parents would have been totally ok with that kind of trip. I'm 30 and on this trip and they still worry! (Hi Mom! Hi Dad! :) ) Anyway, these girls were quite hilarious and they were delightful to share our little room with. I think they were happy, too, to share a room with us - talkative travelers who are married and not creepy (well, at least WE don't think we're creepy), with me to help them feel comfortable with the boys around and Jake to make them feel safe. In the morning, the conductor woke us all up with breakfast - chocolate croissants, coffee (for me), tea (for the Brits). As we pulled into the station we said our goodbyes and quickly realized we sounded like adults, "Be careful! Make sure you call your mom!" I said as we left the room.
We stepped onto the platform in the morning sunshine of Budapest to find our next hosts, Selma and Elliot, waiting for us with open arms. This adventurous couple has known me since birth and has been great friends with my parents since long before that. When they invited us to stay with them at their apartment in Budapest we jumped at the opportunity. "We're planning on being in Budapest for three weeks though, to slow down and relax for a bit before we ramp things up and finish our European tour. Are you sure we can stay for three whole weeks??" we asked. "No problem! We'll give you keys and you can come and go as you please, take day trips, do whatever you want. Sometimes we'll cross paths, sometimes we won't, but if you're around when I'm cooking you can eat. Just come and enjoy!" Well that's just about the best offer ever, so we happily accepted. As we hugged and said hello we immediately felt welcome - we knew this stay was going to be memorable!
A short metro ride and a walk around the corner and we arrived at their great apartment - a two bedroom bright space on the second floor (72 stairs up, Elliot makes sure we understand), across the street from one of the museums and blocks from the Duna (aka the Danube), on the Pest side (Budapest is split by the river; on one side of the Danube is Buda, on the other is Pest). The location couldn't have been better if we had picked it ourselves - within a 30 minute walk or a 5 minute metro ride we were everywhere we wanted to be. Selma and Elliot live in one of the hippest neighborhoods of the city, right next to "restaurant row", Raday Utca. We dropped our stuff off and went out to grab some lunch. First stop, the culinary mecca of Raday Utca, denoted by the sign of a fork and spoon, telling all who pass by THIS is the place to find great food. I have no idea what the name of the restaurant was, but our first taste of Hungarian cooking was out of this world! For lunch, I had goose leg confit with braised cabbage, Jake had the biggest piece of wiener schnitzel I've ever seen, and the 4 of us had a bottle of red wine - not a bad way to start off! Since we all hadn't seen each other since our wedding in August, we spent the rest of the afternoon catching up and, of course, drinking more wine. For dinner, we had homemade chicken soup - man it felt good to be in a real home with home-style cooking!
Since we had three whole weeks to explore the area, we did not rush out the next day. Instead, we took a couple of days to get caught up on the blog, edit pictures, and sleep. Since we were also sending the Surface (our laptop/tablet) to get repaired and would be without it for a week, we wanted to get as up to date as we could on our "administrative" tasks. But you can’t keep travelers at bay for long - we started to get ancy and eager to see beautiful Budapest, so we set out for little walk, which, of course, turned into a 5+ mile hike up and down the river, and up Gellert Hill to the Citadella. We took in the gorgeous view of Pest from the top, taking note of the giant Parliament building, massive St. Stephen's Basilica, the ferris wheel at Erzsebet Ter, and the many bridges that span the river.
As we walked around the Citadella, we got our first glimpse into the sad and terrifying history of Hungary - the Citadella was built by Hungarian forced laborers and was first controlled by the Austrio-Hungarian empire. Eventually it was taken over by the Nazis and then by the Soviets. Soviets erected a large statue of a woman holding a palm leaf - it was meant to commemorate the Soviets liberating Hungary during WW2 and had the inscription, "To the memory of the liberating Soviet heroes [erected by] the grateful Hungarian people [in] 1945." Yes, the Soviets did, indeed, end Nazi occupation, but then they took over and Communists ruled the country, inflicting more terror and pain. After the Soviets finally left Hungary and Communist rule came to an end in 1989 (yeah, 1989!), the newly free and Democratic Hungarians covered the statue with a tarp and held a dedication ceremony repurposing the statue. It was too expensive to take it down and build a new one, and the people did like the way it looked. So they added an inscription to the stone under the original: "To the memory of those all who sacrificed their lives for the independence, freedom, and prosperity of Hungary."
We took a break from our relaxing on Wednesday to catch a free walking tour of the area (if you're coming through Budapest, we highly recommend the Original Tour given by Free Walking Tours Budapest). We spent about 2.5 hours learning about the city with our guide, Norbert, taking in the exterior of St. Stephen's Basilica, the Buda Castle, the Matthias Church, Fisherman's Bastion, and ending the tour with a great lunch. Norbert took us to a cafeteria-style place that only locals, and other people who do tours with this company, know about. Jake and I shared some veal paprikash with dumplings and OH MY GOODNESS was it good! While I usually don’t eat veal when at home in the US (I don’t like to support how inhumanely the baby cows are usually raised), I have less qualms about it abroad. And I'll just say, as hypocritical as I may be, it's freaking delicious! After a bit more walking to work off our big lunch, we went home. We needed to rest up before heading out for a special dinner later - life is hard in Budapest!
The day we arrived, Selma and Elliot told us all about their friends, Victor and Margareta, with whom they also do business. Victor and Margareta's son, Arnold, was going to be married to Inez on May 23 and they were going to the wedding. Selma and Elliot spend a lot of time with the whole family and were eager for us to meet them. So, on Wednesday night we put on our best clothes (my black and white striped skirt and coral top, and Jake's jeans and collared hiking shirt), and went out to an amazing dinner at Spoon Café, a restaurant in a giant boat permanently docked on the river! Arnold and Inez were unable to join us (they had dance lessons for the wedding - Jake and I can understand!), as was Victor and Margareta's youngest daughter Zsuszi. Selma and Elliott introduced us to the vibrant and energetic Victor and Margareta and we all kissed hello - one kiss on each cheek - as is custom here in Hungary. Victor, who speaks English well, invited us to sit down at the table underneath the blue chandeliers, Margareta, who can understand and speak a little English, kept saying, "Sit! Sit! Big Announcement!". We walked past the waiters in white coats and bow ties (dang, this place is fancy!) and sat down and Victor made the big announcement, "Arni and Inez are very sorry they could not come to dinner tonight. But they would very much like for you to come to the wedding. So please come." I'm sorry, what? Did we just get invited to the wedding?? Jake and I were surprised, and Selma clarified for us, "Arni and Inez would like to invite Noelle and Jake to attend the wedding in 2 weeks, yes?" "Yes! They should see traditional Hungarian wedding before they leave!" Holy cow! We hadn't even met the bride and groom yet, we had just met the parents of the groom, and we were being invited to the wedding! We didn't know what to say and blurted out "that sounds wonderful! Thank you!"
That night we enjoyed a perfect dinner with the best service I have ever seen - apparently this was "French service", but I've never been in a place that does that so it was all so fun to watch! First, a server came by with a glass cart full of bottles and shot glasses - a little palinka to get you started. Palinka is basically the Hungarian version of vodka and is considered an aperitif. I took a whiff of one flavor, something that was supposedly plum flavored, and passed. I can't start out a new friendship by getting drunk before dinner is even served! Jake and I decided to stick with wine. Which brings me to the next server, the wine waiter! He stood by the wine bucket and refrigerators all night, save when he was taking drink orders or refilling glasses. I do love a server who is dedicated solely to making sure my wine glass is full. And lastly, of course, the dinner server, who took our dinner orders. Dinner was delicious, but wasn't nearly as exciting as dessert! My favorite part of the whole dining experience was being served by beautiful dessert - the server placed in front of me a chocolate sphere dusted with gold and then pour hot chocolate caramel sauce on top; the sphere melted and revealed fresh raspberries and cream sitting in the middle of the chocolate ball! It was insanely delicious (check out my excitement over this dessert in the video we posted on Facebook)!
After an incredible dinner, Jake and I took a walk along the river. We said thank you and goodbye to our friends and set out, hand in hand, taking in the dramatic sights of the city at night. Budapest is gorgeous during the day , clean and ornate, but nothing compares to the way the city looks at night - each building perfectly up-lit to show each spire in shadowed detail; every bridge, already different in physical design, adorned with lights so that no bridge looks the same; the Buda castle glowed golden in the distance. It was romantic, dramatic, stunning - one of those moments that made us both stop, look around, and think "Holy crap, this is awesome." (I know, sometimes we're so eloquent.) We, of course, stopped to take some night photography (one of Jake's favorite things to do). As we were both playing with our tripods and testing out different exposure times to capture the perfect glow of the river, we noticed lightning behind the castle. A storm was rolling in. It looked like it was blowing away from us, but moments later the drops started coming down. We quickly packed up our stuff and started the mile long walk back to the apartment. Just moments before the drops fell, though, Jake was able to capture the most perfect shot of lightning behind the castle and Chain Bridge - this is probably my favorite picture that he has ever taken!
As we walked home, the warm drops fell around us - we didn't have our trusty umbrellas as the forecast had not called for rain. Fortunately, it was a warm storm so we didn't mind; the rain merely added to the incredible evening we'd had so far. On our walk we talked about what happened at dinner - we were invited to the wedding! We talked about our shock and what to do - we had so many questions to answer. Should we go? What would we wear? Are our clothes appropriate? We were concerned that we would be rude if we showed up in the same clothes we wore to dinner that night, which were also the nicest things that we had packed. We wanted to go, but did not want to be disrespectful. We could go shopping for clothes, but then what would we do with them? We don't want to carry around fancy clothes for the next seven months. We went over all our concerns, and then we realized we were being REALLY STUPID. This is an incredible opportunity to really experience Hungarian culture with an amazing family! This is exactly what we'd been dreaming about, that we would meet a family on our trip who would take us in and make us feel like we were their own, that we would make lifelong friends and have rare experiences that we would talk about forever! This is exactly what we wanted! We decided to let go of the concerns we had and give in to the amazing generosity of this wonderful family. We stopped in the middle of the sidewalk under the pouring rain and yelled "We're going to a wedding!"
We spent much of the next few days shopping - ugh - for something to wear to the wedding. Margareta had made it clear that we could show up in anything we had packed, that nice clothes were not necessary. And, while we appreciated the permission to be a bit casual, we really wanted to show the family how grateful we were for the invitation, and that we respect them and the ceremony. So we set out to find a dress for me, and slacks and a button down for Jake. Ultimately, I ended up with a green/gold/black dress from H&M, and Jake got blue slacks from Gap and a button down from C&A. We looked pretty darn sharp for less than $150!
We did take breaks from shopping to take in a few more local experiences - On Friday we went to the office building that Selma and Elliot own with Victor and Margareta to meet everyone who works at Victor and Margareta's company, Green Pass (long story short, we were having my new Surface that replaced my stolen ipad shipped to the office and needed to see where it was and meet everyone), and had lunch with the usual suspects nearby. With a tummy full of traditional goulash (Hungarian soup), Jake and I we strolled through the giant park and watched people ride their bikes through the flurry of chestnut tree fuzz that was floating about the air, and watched workers set up for the cheese festival. Wait, cheese festival? Yes!
The city was prepping for the annual Cheese Festival held at the Vajdahunyad Castle in the park. We made a note to come back in the morning to check it out. On our way back to the apartment we stopped for a traditional snack , Langos (prounounced lahngosh), fried dough with garlic, sour cream and cheese on top, basically a Hungarian pizza! Our day was almost complete but required one more stop - the Belgian Beerfest! There was no way we were going to pass up the chance to drink more Belgian beer, so we wandered down to the waterfront building known as "The Whale" to enjoy a few beers. Eight tokens worth of beer later (the beers were small, I promise), we determined that our favorite beer of the night was La Trappe, and we were full and tired. It was time to take this party home.
The next morning we got up "early", before 9, and made our way to the Cheese Festival! Unfortunately, we were a bit disappointed. We were thinking, and hoping, that there would be cheese stands everywhere, that samples would be abundant, that we would get to try all kinds of food revolving around cheese…but there were about five cheese stands and only two were giving out samples. The rest of the booths were for people selling crafts, candy, food, knick knacks that we certainly didn't need. It wasn't a total bust, though - we did find Jake and great brown leather belt that was fitted exactly to his waist, and we got to try a local sweet, kurtos kalacs (aka chimney cake, pronounced kurtosh kolatch), dough that is wrapped around a rotisserie spit and roasted over charcoal, then covered in cinnamon and sugar. We wandered the festival for about an hour before heading off to the huge West End mall where we ultimately found Jake's wedding pants.
Our first week ended with a phone call from Arni and Inez - it was Saturday night and they invited us to their friend's house party and then to spend the night at their house! We hadn't even officially met these amazing people yet and we were already attending their wedding and having sleep overs! While our spontaneous sides were saying "Go! Go!", we had had a very long Day of shopping at West End and walking about 12 miles, and we were already meeting up with them, Victor, Margareta, Zsuzsi, Selma, and Elliot for a day of wine tasting in Eger the next morning, and we certainly did not want to be tired and hung over for a big day of my favorite activity! We thanked them for their generosity and told them we'd see them in the morning for our trip to Eger.
Our first week in Budapest was amazing - we toured the city; we had fancy meals and local cheap treats; we met the nicest, most generous family who has made it their mission to ensure we have a wonderful trip. Our hearts were already so full thanks to the incredible hospitality we had been shown by Selma, Elliot, Victor, Margareta, Inez, and Arni, and there was so much to look forward to! Wine tasting and wedding, here we come!