The Year of Living Extemporaneously: Budapest at the Half-Way Point

It wasn’t easy leaving for our winter break. Our departing flight from Budapest was delayed because of high winds in Amsterdam. With less than an hour wiggle room, we ended up missing our connecting flight at Amsterdam’s Schophol airport. Our journey back to the States had to be re-routed. Go with the flow, we decided. An apt metaphor for our 6-months of living and working in Budapest.

While we call Portland, Maine home, we were headed to “the other Portland,” the one in Oregon, to see our newest grandchild, Julian, and his parents. Europe, with its melange of countries and cultures, feels like it’s about a zillion miles from Oregon. Hungary, positioned as it is in the heart of Europe, is roughly the same size as Indiana. Getting anywhere in Hungary can be accomplished with a several hour car ride, a bit longer by train. Almost any European city is within a one or two hour flight.

Our home away from home, 87 Rose St., District VI, Pest

Living in Budapest as an expat, or anywhere for that matter, allows you the chance to get caught up in the ebb and flow of the host-country’s culture. I feel the river’s current propelling me as I commute each morning to the school where I teach. I exit the subway along with Hungarian workers and students and shuffle up the moist stairs. At the station, I pass fruit vendors and bakeries with fresh baked goods in dimly lit windows. I switch to the tram which takes me within a block of my school. There’s a panoply of faces on this journey, from the commuters whose sullen stares could be found anywhere, to the students I see at school who too often seem ambivalent, at best, about their own daily grind. When I play the role of tourist, I tend to miss these nuances of  people and place. I’m more likely to focus on where I am headed, my thoughts somewhere between the content of Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor.

Being back in the United States, albeit temporarily, affords the chance to look back at our experience in Budapest. The international flavors of the city are striking. Riding the Metro’s number 1 line here, as we often do, you can overhear almost any language being spoken. Even in the dead of winter, the streets of downtown Budapest are filled with tourists drawn by the Christmas markets and the seemingly endless string of holiday lights. Refreshingly, Christmas here is more a celebration of lights, than one of religion.

Then there is the yin and yang of economics here in Hungary. Hungarians are said to make roughly a third of their counterparts in some other parts of Europe. That is tough on our Hungarian friends and colleagues. For tourists, on the other hand, it makes Hungary surprisingly affordable in comparison to trips to say Prague or Vienna, and certainly London, Paris, and Amsterdam. Dining out, and savoring fine Hungarian wine, costs a fraction of the prices you encounter in other European cities.

If you’re coming to Budapest for the sights, for the food, or the intriguing history, you are coming to the right place. Few things are more breathtaking than catching a glimpse of the city’s remarkable skyline along the Danube at dusk. This stretch is a World Heritage Site. So too, is the glorious Andrassy Avenue, from one end at Heroes Square, to the other, near St. Stephen’s Basilica. These two points are connected by the Millennium Line, Europe’s second oldest subway (after London) and my favorite line here in Budapest, with its smaller-scale orange cars and beautifully tiled white and maroon stations.

Being car-less in Budapest, as with other European cities, is easy and preferable. Public transportation is readily available and getting around is almost always seamless. But one encounters another challenge while navigating the streets of this great city: endless clouds of cigarette smoke. It seems that nearly everyone smokes in Hungary. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes could be the national song here and sadly, cigarette butts are everywhere, not just in the containers attached to waste bins for that purpose.

The calming, azure waters of Lake Balaton, one of Central Europe’s largest lakes

Regardless, Budapest is a must-see city. However, if you have several extra days, visits to Hungary’s smaller cities and sites are well-worth the time. Consider Eger, Lake Balaton, and Szentendre-all short trips that will give you other tastes and snapshots of Hungary, beyond the capital city.  And yes, certainly enjoy the country’s signature dishes, Goulash and Langos, but don’t ignore the other world-class international culinary options also available here. Certainly, no trip would be complete without a few hours spent relaxing and contemplating life in one of Hungary’s famous baths. Before I depart Hungary, I promise myself to take-in a few more visits to Hungary’s famous baths, such as the Szechenyi Thermal Bath, located in City Park, just a short walk from our flat. The hot, calming waters and billowing steam, a few ingredients that are part of the mysterious embrace that is Budapest.

The Square in Szentendre




Riding in Style on the Millennium Line

There’s a rumble, then a strange metallic buzz, the glow of amber lights, doors open and close, and in less than 10-seconds, the yellow-orange cars are moving on to the next station. My favorite subway, the old Millennium Line, rolls its dignified way along the 11-station route only a few feet under Andrassy Street, the entire length of which is a World Heritage Site. First constructed in 1895, it’s Europe’s second oldest subway, and the first here in Hungary’s capital city, Budapest.

Budapest’s venerable Millennium Subway Line

I love trains, pure and simple. It’s been a lifelong passion. As far back as I can remember, I looked forward to my dad setting up our family’s Lionel train set right around Christmas every year. As an adult, I’ve seized just about every opportunity I can to ride trains practically anywhere. I’ve taken Canada’s national train, VIA, from Halifax, Nova Scotia, clear across the plains, over the Canadian Rockies, and on to Vancouver. That experience sealed my love for those old-fashioned, glass-enclosed observation cars. On Taiwan, I rode a crowded, small-gauge, red-colored train that crawled its way up Ali Mountain, a traditional honeymoon destination for Chinese couples. In North Korea, I entered the deepest subway in the world, gripping an escalator that seemed to have no end. To most tourists’ surprise, the Pyongyang subway is glorious in its own right, with large colorful lights in the shape of flowers, and giant sweeping propaganda murals depicting workers, artists and farmers happily joining together for the good of the State. On that capital city’s diminutive subway line, passengers seem intensely uncomfortable when they suddenly find themselves riding alongside curious foreigners.

To my complete pleasure, Hungary has its share of special train lines. There’s the Children’s Train high in the Buda Hills, managed and operated by kids. Here in Budapest, there are three major train stations, the one closest to our flat, the dignified, though in dire need of renovation, Nyugati Station, designed and built by Gustave Eiffel’s office in Paris. Yes, that Eiffel. Trains regularly depart Nyugati Station and its two counterparts, for destinations clear across Europe.

Budapest has a robust subway system which I unofficially refer to as the Green, Blue and Red Lines. Then, there’s my favorite, the old Millennium Line. While small in scale, it’s impressive in its quiet elegance. Like an old man sporting a beret and a well-waxed mustache, the train requests your admiration. Each station is adorned with oak doors, closets or lockers, and covered with white and maroon tiles that are so shiny, they look like they were just washed by Mr. Clean. The exclamation point on the platform is a wooden ticket booth, occasionally staffed by a transport employee dressed in dark blue.

Ticket booth at the Opera stop on the Millennium Line

Both ends of the line feature notable tourist destinations. Near the eastern terminus, you’ll find Heroes Square and the world famous Szechenyi Baths. At the western end, lies busy Vorosmaty Square, steps from the Danube, and at the northern end of Vaci Street, the busiest tourist lane in Budapest.

Each station’s platform  is clean, bright, and adorned in oak

Not surprisingly then, while riding the Millennium Line, one almost always hears passengers speaking languages from around the world. The tourists are invariably chatting about what they’ve just seen or excited about where they are headed. It’s safe to imagine that their stay here in Budapest is meeting, more likely exceeding, their expectations.

Old photos and drawings reveal images of those early cars that rode the Millennium Line’s rails back in the 1890’s. They have all but disappeared, except for one solitary car. And, if you want to see that last surviving original car, you’ll have to head clear across the Atlantic Ocean. The last Millennium coach resides in, of all places, the Seashore Trolley Museum in Kennebunkport, Maine.

So, whether you’re heading to the baths, or considering riding on the city’s majestic ferris wheel, the Budapest Eye, the venerable Millennium Line will get you there. While in Budapest, if you want to get there in style, ride the Millennium.

Vorosmarty Street, our local stop on the Millennium Line