As anyone who knows me can attest to Rachel and I are planners. As can be seen throughout this website, we methodically go about each of our European adventures with careful planning and attention to detail. Rachel sets up walking tours and procures tickets/rooms, I studiously document everything and play the part of Sherpa with the luggage.
Well, what would happen if we decided to be spontaneous? Hell, what would happen if I went solo? As my last Rachel-less voyage resulted in being run over by a 1 ton bull, I wouldn’t say it’s a good track record. Sure the risks of “winging it” in a foreign country can be severe, but they could also be liberating. This week is such a story.
A colleague of mine, Jamie, was in town for a few weeks on business and was hoping for one last hoo-rah before he returned to the states (as he was a former Marine I guess that would be “one last oorah”). Talking it over with Todd, another one of our partners in crime (i.e. Southside Todd), we scanned Ryan Air (“the Cheapest Way There“) website for the cheapest deals. Sizing up our options, we quickly settled on the Hungarian capitol of Budapest.
Talking it over with Rachel, I told her of our plan to do a Eurotrip on the cheap. Basically, throw stuff in a bag, hop on a discount plane to Hungary, and find a youth hostel to sleep in for the weekend. Well, Rachel was less than impressed, and certainly not keen on sleeping in a room with strangers coming and going at all hours. However, she thought it might be the kind of off-the-grid trip Todd, Jamie and I could turn into a blast, …without her. And apparently Todd’s wife gave a similar response.
So, guys trip it was. Three American men in Budapest for 72 hours with no plans, and nothing but the bags on our back. What could go wrong?
Arriving in Hungary, I quickly found out just how out of touch my expectations of Budapest were. I was expecting a dingy, old world, pseudo-safe city full of alleyways and dark corners (aka Prague). However, Budapest was anything but. It was a stunningly beautiful city with amazing architecture, modern people, and a cool, friendly vibe. Everyone, and I mean everyone, spoke English as a primary langue. In a melting pot city like Budapest, the ability to speak English seemed to be a lowest common denominator of everyone, so it’s what everyone spoke, regardless of their background.
Oh, and get this, Budapest isn’t even actually a city. It’s two cities, …Buda and Pest, separated by the
massive Danube river. And the cities have their unique traits. Buda is older with more traditional architecture, more trade, and several key castles. While Pest is more modern and is home to the majority of the residential districts. So loosely summarized, during the day people live in Pest and work in Buda, and at night people pre-party in Pest and go clubbing in Buda. I guess you could compare it to Manhattan and Brooklyn in that regard.
Gaping up at the amazing churches and sandstone castles, Todd, Jamie and I made are our way through the streets of Budapest (see photo album), just blown away by what was all around us. “I had no idea all of this was here” we commented more than once. Such a vibrant, young city. There was an energy to it, an undercurrent of electricity. Random people called down to us from windows asking where we were from. Trails of twenty-somethings streaming in all direction with their own oversized-backpacks on. There was a chaotic order to it all, like the first day of class at University. And as we approached the youth hostel district, it really began to resemble more of a college campus. What is this place?!
Approaching the hostel we were hoping to stay at, I did have a bit of a sinking feeling that the good times were gonna come to a pretty abrupt holt. Soon the reality of sleeping in a cockroach infested youth hostel with your passport & wallet hidden in your pillowcase was about to set it.
Nope, wrong again. Welcome to the Wombats Youth Hostel. The Taj Mahal of hostels. Marble stairwells, pool tables, activity center and free wi-fi throughout. Wow, …just wow. Yes, you still had roommates, but the rooms were massive, and they had individual lockers for you to use. And as with any youth hostel, the rooms were just a few dozen Euros a night. They keep costs down by selling beds not rooms. Imagine if a hotel could put 4 people in every room every night, instead of having 70% of their space occupied by a single person. Costs would be only 1/4th as much. Yep, that’s about it.
Additionally there was no age restriction at this hostel. In some place you have to under 21 to stay. Here all that seemed required was that you came equiped with a backpack, ha ha. Our first roommate was named Bernard (pronounced Ber-nerd), an Australian bloke on his last night here. As with everyone we met, he was passing through on the way to a hostel somewhere in either Germany or Czech Republic. He reiterated clearly what we were already beginning to figure out, …Budapest was friggen’ awesome!
Bernard turned us on to checking out a “Ruin bar” down the street. He had been there the night before and said it was insane. Turns out, a “ruin” bar is an abandoned building or hotel that has been turned into a club. They have a very unpretentious Bohemian vibe, with incredibly eclectic decorations.
Once we found our way over there I was a bit taken back by the entrance. There is no way this hovel could be a club. Yep, wrong again. Walking in, I was immediately hooked by the ‘consignment-shop-gone-wild’ decor and plethero of rooms to lounge in. This was less like a club than your buddy’s bacement in college. Eclectic was right. Wow,
how cool is this place? There was a hookah lounge, random couches and tables everywhere. There were trees growing through walls, and movies being projected on other walls. Half the club appeared to be in a greenhouse, however turns out that the “glass” ceiling was actually a wire mesh atrium that wrapped around to another floor. The DJ spinning must have been MC Echer (see what I did there).
Upon leaving the ruin bar we immediately got a line on three other ruin bars in the area. Check out my Ruin Bar photo album to see all the craziness that is pseudo-condemned housing. Extra points for spotting the King Kong climbing the tree.
And if Ruin bars aren’t you thing, Bernard said all have to do is head down to Wombat’s first floor pool table area, and you’ll get a very quick idea on what’s going on *everywhere* around town. Turns out, because the wi-fi signal was the best in the main lounge, people tended to congregate there in large groups. It’s amazing what brings people together these days. Kinda like airports. All those people on the corner on the floor aren’t camping out till their next flight, they’ve just found a group of power outlets to charge their phones and what not. Hey, at least they’re hanging out.
Whatever the reason, people being together in groups is a good thing. Society has become all too segregated. Sure we’re still all social creatures, but our tendencies towards social “media” these days results in sterilized relationships. More and more cities are getting hip to this and creating large public wi-fi squares as a way to draw people together. I’m all for it.
And Wombats was a great proof of concept. The main lounge area on the first floor was bristling with activity as countless groups of people intermittently pulled information on-line and shared it around them. It was like a 150 person strong party-line nerve center. And it didn’t take Todd and I too long to jump in forming our own synapses in the Wombat brain-trust.
And the results of a collection like this could be amazing. The final night we were in town, Todd, Jamie and I creaked into a quiet place to grab a few drinks and get off our feet for a while. Place was dead, apart from us and a half-interested bartender. Well, no more than 15 minutes goes by and a stream of groups began flowing in. And they kept coming, …and coming! The place went from a crypt to a 400 person strong party inside of twenty minutes.
Turns out three separate youth hostels had jointly decided to descend on this place. It was like a flash mob. I tell ya, if social media can take down a government in Egypt, it can also turn a dive bar into the coolest club in town in an instant. But at least here social media is being used as a means to end, as a means to bring people together in the flesh. In that case I’m all in. Viva la revolution!
Back out in the daylight of Budapest, our group ‘o merry men decided to take in some of the more grandiose sites of Budapest near the river. Like the Parliament building, or Buda Castle. Check out our impressive photo album of the Castles and Monuments of Budapest to take in the sites for yourself. We even took in a dinner at the castle.
Wouldn’t that be expensive you think? Don’t forget this is still Eastern Europe. And while receipts like this can be shocking, you have to remember there is a ridiculous 227 to 1 Hungarian Florint to US Dollar exchange rate. A nice meal, a few cold beers, and views like this this would be several hundred dollars in the States. Here, $15.
And turns out Budapest had several more surprises for us. Wandering even further into the Buda side of the city (our hostel was on the Pest side), we saw several non-descript signs for a Labyrinth. Curious that David Bowie might be involved, we eventually found some obscure stairs further advertising this undergound maze. We followed them down below the city level (yes, our wives would have *never* let us do this), and found ourselves in an underground museum of sorts. Paying our few florint cents, we were led into a chamber that opened up into paths in all directions (well, truth in advertising).
Following them around we found signs talking about the vast history of the Buda underground. Eventually we came upon a cluster of prison cells. Seems many a person over the centuary was thrown down here to be forgotten about, permenantly. There were shackles on the wall (still in working order, turned out). Apparently long ago someone had been held here, someone important. Making out the writing on the floor, it said …Dracula?!
Seriously, this was Dracula’s dungeon?! …No f’n way!!
Reading the literature it turns out one “Vlad Dracul III” was indeed held in Hungary for a time. Exactly right here to be precise. Romania is next door after all. Wow, …Budapest is just showing off now!
I must admit the room suddenly felt a little colder as we tried to picture the scene. It is spooky that someone from 500 years ago can still leave such an impression. And to think had the Hungarians simple executed him when they had the chance we wouldn’t be tortured by Edward, Bella & Jacob all these years later. 🙂
Todd, Jamie and I wandered around till our feet got sore. What a (pardon the pun) *captivating* place this was. Check out (you guessed it) my full Dracula’s Labyrinth photo album for the rest of the subterranean shots (extra point for spotting the hidden underground movie theater we stumbled into). Crazy.
Speaking of sore feet. Looking to get off yours for a while and relax a bit, then you must try one of Budapest’s countless bath houses and spas. Think public pool, but *way* cooler. And by cooler, I mean hotter. Like 50 yard long, 90 degree heated pools and 20 person Jacuzzis. The one we checked out, the Szechenyi Bath House, looked like Monaco. No kiddie pools here. Hungarians know how to relax in style! Check this photo out. Unreal. Hell, …check out a whole album of this place.
Ya, Budapest just kept getting better and better.
In the center of the pools was a large oversized hot tub, and around it was what can only be described as a whirlpool, but more literal. Like when you got near it, underwater jets shot you into an outer ring of sorts, and you (and dozens of others of your soon to be *closest* friends) started dramatically revolving around the main hot tub area. Check out this video. What a way to meet people, in uhm, bathing suits. Seriously, is that even legal?
And the best part, this place actually turned into a bar after nightfall. That’s right, heated pools, spinning hot tubs and …alcohol. Wow, to be 18 again.
The city at night was even more stunning as all the major monuments along the Danube river were just swimming in spotlights and color. Wandering around the river front on our last night, we spoke in hyperbole the whole time. See our Budapest at Night photo album (last one, I promise), to really take in the grandeur of it all. It was like walking back in time seeing all this regal architecture overlooking the river. Seriously how Rick Steves hadn’t picked up shop and just moved here is beyond me.
On the tail end of our last evening, we saught out a quieter venue for some good food and conversation. It was pretty late, but we ducked into a small open bar which turned out to be Belgium restaurant. A Belgium *beer* restaurant. Of course it would be. That’s the kind of trip we were having. What a great meal, and perfect bookend to our trip.
Alas, good times are fleeting and soon we poured ourselves into our suitcases and were back on a plane heading into the Euro-zone. We vowed to each other to single handedly try and drum up PR for Budapest, ‘cause clearly they needed it. This place should be a must-do tourist stop on everyone’s European itinerary. There are things here for the whole family. Jaw dropping site-seeing, a beach like atmosphere at the pools, a killer nightlife, plus great medieval history. And its all only costs pennies on the dollar. It was too amazing not to be shared. And you know me, I’ve done been some places in this world, and Budapest blew me away.
Well, I don’t know, …maybe that’s part of the allure. It’s that hidden gem of Europe waiting to be found only by the worthy. Found only by those willing to wander off the main tourist thoroughfare in search of an un-commercialized experience. Perhaps it’s like that favorite fishing hole you always go back to. Or that Indy band you love so much. In the end you love them more because you feel their yours, and you found them.
Maybe Budapest will become the new go-to Spring Break capital of Europe and its raw, vibrant atmosphere will be satiated. Maybe someone reading this will go to Budapest one day and not be as captivated by it as we were. Or maybe, just maybe, there are really dozens of other hidden pearls spread across east and west Europe like Budapest to be discovered. Perhaps the real lesson in this whole trip for me is what an amazing time I can have by throwing planning and expectations to the wind, and not trying to force the experience so much.
After all, the best experiences in life are the ones you never see coming.