In the last several weeks, my feet have touched the ground in six different countries. It’s been kind of a crazy time between working in the embassy, going on vacation with my mom, and then heading abroad again on a business trip. So, before too much time slips away, I want to share some of the photos and places I’ve visited, starting with Budapest.
Budapest is one of those cities that I’ve wanted to visit for a while, but I just hadn’t gotten around to it. I was always too far west, or too far south. Last fall when I went to Prague for the first time, I’d had a similar feeling – that the trip had been a long time in coming, and it was simply magical.
When my mom was planning her visit to Uzbekistan earlier this year, she suggested that she stay for a few weeks. Given the hardship, restrictions, and difficulties in getting around here, and the lack of things to do for such a long period, I made a counter-offer: come to Uzbekistan for a week or so, and then let’s go to the EU, and maybe somewhere else while we’re at it!
We decided to pick two cities. Moscow was an obvious choice, because I have wanted to visit Moscow since I was a child. There was something about watching TV in the 1980s and seeing a crowd on Red Square, massed in front of an iconic building I imagined was a colorful cluster of ice cream cones. I was absolutely mesmerized. My mom felt similarly, and now that I am marginally facile in Russian, it was a no-brainer. My mom asked me, “When might I ever go otherwise?”
Once we pinned that down (and secured our “guest of diplomat” visas to visit the Russian Federation, which is a story for another time), we were looking at the EU. No visas, great food, ease of transport, open markets, beautiful accommodations, good medical care, public order. Right? We talked about a lot of options, but Budapest it came to be.
We awoke early in Tashkent on the day of our departure, and were ferried to the airport. Our diplomatic expediter checked us in, confirmed our seats, and skipped us quickly through the line.
After a brief connection and lunch in Istanbul, we arrived at our beautiful hotel, the Aria (which was absolutely fabulous and we highly recommend it!) on a sunny afternoon and jumped onto WiFi.
I was a little shocked by a series of news alerts stating that the Government of Uzbekistan had announced the death of President Karimov, who had served for twenty-five years as leader of the state since its independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Sure enough, the rumors which had been swirling around for several days that he had succumbed to an illness were officially confirmed. (It is not the first time I’ve lived in a country that experienced the death of its president; in 2004 I lived in the Republic of Macedonia as a Peace Corps Volunteer when President Boris Trajkovski died in a plane crash over Bosnia.) In any case, the timing of the announcement right as I’d gone felt strange, and my concern for potential instability and for the feelings of our Uzbek colleagues was in the back of my mind during the trip.
My mom and I had a pretty organized outline of what we wanted to do around the city, and in six days we managed to do a lot…we walked 20,000+ steps per day and took hundreds of photos!
Every morning we enjoyed an awesome breakfast in the “music garden”, the hotel’s glass-ceilinged ground floor that served as an indoor courtyard, before heading out for the day.
We made our way along the Danube, and went on a spectacular indoor tour of the Hungarian Parliament (Országház).
We got to see the Crown Jewels, and a whole lot of gold! In the museum exhibit afterwards I geeked out posing next to the big red star that used to be on the parliament’s roof. Then I got really excited about an old clock and apparently came too close to it, setting off a tripwire alarm. That was kind of embarrassing, but the guard saw my surprised reaction and almost smiled.
The weather was extremely hot as we watched the trams pass by the Kossuth Memorial. We sat for a cold drink, and noticed World War II-era bullet holes in the facade of nearby apartment building. I hadn’t realized that the majority of the city had been heavily damaged, with some areas outright destroyed, during the war.
There was a really cool exhibition of Hungarian folk culture. Going there was an unexpected treat; my travel practice is to plan in advance what I want to do and where so I don’t miss something special and get disappointed. However, the plan is not totally rigid, and there is always room to make impromptu discoveries. Afterwards we toured a small memorial to 1950s Hungarian revolutionaries and walked again along the river where the World War II era “Shoes on the Danube” memorial is. Given my propensity for seasickness, we decided to forego the ubiquitous riverboat tours and enjoy the sights from the shore.
That evening we went out for sushi; given that my mom lives in California and I live in one of the only two doubly-landlocked countries on Earth, I think it’s safe to say that I was a tad more excited about it (even though my mom did think it was excellent)!
The next day we made our way across the Chain Bridge (Széchenyi Lánchíd) to the Funicular and rode up to Castle Hill.
We visited the Hungarian National Gallery (Magyar Nemzeti Galéria), ate gelato while overlooking the sweltering city, and posed in front of Sándor Palace (Sándor-palota) at St. George’s Square (Szent György tér), the official residence of Hungary’s president.
We visited St. Matthias (Mátyás-templom), drank some nice coffee (or, I drank some nice coffee, while my mom pondered the lack of ice in European iced tea), and made our way along the walls of Castle Hill.
After we descended back to the lower part of the city, we returned to the hotel in time for the daily wine and cheese hour (which was actually two hours) and parked ourselves near the piano player. Such beautiful ambiance!
That evening we dined in the Aria High Note Sky Bar, otherwise known as the hotel’s roof restaurant and lounge. Watching the sun set over the city as we enjoyed meat and cheese delicacies, pasta with seafood, and delectable desserts a literal stone’s throw from St. Stephen’s Basilica (Szent István Bazilika) made for an unforgettable evening.
The next morning after some angst with public transit maps, thanks to our hotel concierge, my mom and I managed to walk to a metro station. We took one train, and then connected to another, alighted and caught a bus, which drove us way out into the suburbs until we reached a fantastic destination known as… Memento Park (or sometimes, Statue Park).
Now, if the idea of a bunch of Soviet-era communist statues spread across an open-air, somewhat overgrown park floats your boat, this is a must-see. It’s not the easiest place to get to, and you can see it all within about an hour. But Lenin, Marx, Stalin, and the whole gang are there.
That evening we attended a cathedral organ concert at St. Stephan’s, followed by a traditional dinner of goulash, and finally a Hungarian folk dance show at the Danube Palace (Duna Palota). We definitely got a good dose of culture in this day.
The following day we headed uptown via metro to Hősök tere (Hereos’ Square), and later paid a visit to the Terror House (Terror Háza Múzeum) where to my eternal consternation, no photos were permitted. (I did manage a couple anyway.)
After one unsuccessful trip to the post office, and a more successful trip to Starbucks, we made our way to the Glass House (Üvegház), the site where a Swiss diplomat named Carl Lutz hid Jews during World War II. We quite by chance stumbled upon the Great Market Hall (Nagyvásárcsarnok), when all we were looking for was a bathroom.
We went for a good walk and then hit up the Hard Rock Cafe (don’t judge me, I live where nachos don’t exist) and finally stopped by the renowned Cafe Gerbeaud. We capped off our final evening with massages and pedicures in the hotel’s spa, and prepared ourselves for an early departure.
There were some funny moments that I will treasure from this trip, my mom’s second trip to Europe. One was me demonstrating my feelings about the largest denomination of Uzbek currency being worth approximately $1.65 by throwing nearly half a million soums in the air over my bed and then crawling around in the falling papers as if I’d won the lottery. I have to admit it annoyed me greatly to put it all back in order, but it felt so good to do something ridiculous for once.
Another funny moment was my mom and I realizing we had ridden the bus in a daze several stops beyond the Memento Park, and seeing the driver’s reaction when we asked if we could just walk back. (According to my Google maps app it wouldn’t have taken more than 20 minutes.) We got off the bus, and realized we were standing totally in the middle of nowhere, Burbsville, Budapest. We laughed when literally seconds after our bus disappeared from sight, one came towards us from the opposite direction.
It was a great trip, all in all, and I think my mom had fun and was amazed by how many things we did. After Budapest we were off to Moscow, which I’ll write about next time.