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




Biking Balaton

If you’re like me, you probably have never heard of the place. Few people outside of Hungary have. My lack of familiarity accompanied me through the spring of 2017, until I was walking along an enchanting path across northern Spain, meandering my way to a city I had never seen, and will never forget, Santiago.

I am describing, of course, the intoxicatingly spiritual adventure that is the Camino de Santiago. It’s a path along which pilgrims from around the world find themselves walking together, sharing space, if only for hours, or even minutes. These encounters could be a glance, a conversation, or a budding friendship. In this instance, I came across a particularly friendly guy with an unfamiliar accent, Csabi (“Chubby”) from Hungary. We exchanged introductions. With a bad knee in tow, I mentioned I was giving up jogging for biking. “Ah,” he said, “You must have heard of Balaton.”

Lake Balaton, Central Europe’s largest lake. You’ll find it about 2-hours by train, southwest of Budapest

He described a lake in almost heavenly terms: it was beautiful, he said, large and clean, with unusual blue water, bordered on the northern side by endless vineyards, and lined on its southern shore, in summer, with busy beaches and hotels.

So it went. Sometime in the future, I told myself, I would find my way, accompanied by my folding bike, to the shores of Lake Balaton. I placed it on my proverbial “Bucket-List.”

Fast forward, months, not years. A teaching opportunity ironically took us to Hungary. Balaton beckoned. With Hungary’s Indian summer extending into late October, I grabbed my Brompton, and snuck off for 5-days of solitary biking magic.

Lake Balaton. Pictured here, the waterfront at Balatonfured

Well-marked and well-maintained bike paths surround the entire lake. While it’s true that latex-clad bikers with a penchant for speed, cycle the 150-mile circumference in a day, my choice was to cycle Balaton over 3 full days, with half-days on each end. I started out in Baldatonalmadi in the northeast, mid-day on a Wednesday, and finished in the same town, the following Sunday afternoon. In my case, 5-days of glorious, carefree biking, stopping wherever, and whenever, a whim would land on my shoulder.

The biking lanes were uncharacteristically empty – after all, even the shoulder of the busy Balaton summer season had reached its end. I was accompanied by colorful, cascading leaves, blessed by biking-friendy temps in the 50s and 60s, and treated to views few see without hordes of tourists.

Along Balaton’s northern shore. Rolling hills, filled with wine groves, as far as the eye can see. Hungarian wine, if you can get, is a best-kept secret
A colorful porch, early morning, in Keszthely, on Balaton’s western-most shore

Along Balaton’s northern shore there are rolling hills, filled with wine groves, as far as the eye can see. Hungarian wine, by the way, should you be able to get some, is a best-kept secret. The lake’s south shore alternated between quiet lanes and mostly deserted towns and villages. They are no doubt filled with people and traffic during the late spring and summer months. The hotels alone, when open, would assuredly attract tons of cars and traffic. I was pleased with my decision to bike Balaton outside of Hungary’s vacation seasons.

Moments after sunrise. Here, a lone fisherman on a pier, in Keszthely, pop. 20,895

Every turn was an introduction to a new scene with a different feel, a new flavor. The palate of colors rotating, the shoreline evolving, the skies overhead changing. My plan was to cover about 35-miles a day, to allow time to observe, reflect, to become familiar, albeit fleetingly, with the places and people I encountered.

Along Balaton’s southern shore. Here looking north, hills and wine country in the distance. In the foreground, pubic parks, places for small boats and the ubiquitous train tracks

There are times, even in late October, such as a Saturday afternoon, when families fill a park or a square. I found these occasions to be welcoming, after all, they were few and far between.

Shorefront park in Siofok. Hungarian families meet up with a few of the many swans of Lake Balaton

All good things eventually come to an end. So too, a bike trip around Balaton. My trip began with a conversation along the Camino de Santiago in Spain. It ended with a smile on my face a year later in Baldatonalmadi, Hungary. If you love biking, traveling, exploring, add a loop around Lake Balaton to your list. Balaton beckons you.

Lake Balaton beckons