I had heard that Budapest was full of vibrancy and life, telling the tale of two cities separated by the Danube river.
My first impression of the Pest half of the capital was not exactly ideal, as the welcome party included dragging our suitcases through streets thick with icy mud. Our stay in Hungary was supposed to be kick-started with a river cruise along the Danube, but huge chunks of ice were floating rapidly down the dividing body of water. Considering the temperature had dropped to below zero, the river was almost-frozen and unaccommodating to the boats docked along its shore. Despite the boat not actually moving, we managed to transform the gloomy greeting into a memorable night. It’s not hard to look on the bright side when there’s an entire country to explore.
We walked through something of a mini blizzard on our way to the boat, our boots crunching in the snow. Once we reached the ramp connecting the land to the ship, the soles of our shoes were particularly icy and we gripped the railing with care. I was the first person to enter the boat, and as I walked through the doorway I was handed a glass of champagne while a trio of string musicians launched into the opening song of the evening. It would have been one of those perfect fairytale moments, but seconds before I entered I lost my footing and began sliding down the plank! Thankfully, one of the boys grabbed me and helped me regain my balance, so our arrival was chaperoned by laughter.
We were served a traditional Hungarian meal as we watched the icebergs drifting past the windows, with Buda on our left and Pest on our right. I recognised a selection of the musicians’ repertoire, as it reminded me of the night we saw a Mozart & Strauss concert in Austria. Throughout the night, two dancers entertained us by demonstrating their culture’s unique style of dance, changing costumes to reflect conventional Hungarian dress. By the end of the night they had us all on our feet, teaching us a series of moves in the aisles of the boat. That night was full of laughter, good food and warm wine.
Day one began with a walking tour. Unfortunately the weather didn’t get the message and decided to rain all day, so we endured three hours walking in muddy snow without umbrellas. The rain sunk through my gloves and drenched my fingers, transforming my whole body into a dripping ice cube. Despite the shitty conditions, we saw some very impressive buildings and learnt that Hungarians love symbolism in architecture. For example, no building in Budapest can stand over 96m tall, because in the year 896, the first Hungarian Magyars arrived and initiated the Hungarian Kingdom. (I’m sure all of this random info will come in handy at least once in your life… or not. Yay for fun facts!)
After a guided tour through the House of Terror, what once used to be the headquarters of the Hungarian Nazis as well as the AVO and the AVH (communist terror organisations), my friends and I beelined toward the Szechenyi Baths.
The famed Szechenyi Baths had been on my bucket list for a very long time, so seeing them in person was such a surreal moment. The baroque building was painted pastel yellow, with polished white marble forming the inside. One ticket to swim in the outdoor thermal bath cost 5000 forint, approximately $23 AUD. I was so excited I practically sprinted for the change rooms… not that I had anything to change into. Swimmers weren’t exactly packed in my suitcase for a winter in Europe, so I stripped off my coat, jumper, shirt and thermals- all the way down to my underwear.
Once I was ‘changed,’ I walked under the high domes and past the indoor pools to a sight I had been itching to see in person.
The clouds of steam hovering above the outdoor healing baths were so thick that I could barely make out my own hands let alone the entire spa. Glowing red numbers penetrated through the fog, reading the temperatures: Baths- 28 degrees, Air- 2 degrees. Running from the indoor pools to the outdoor baths wearing nothing but underwear in two degrees was a very cold, but very worthwhile experience!
There was a moment in the Szechenyi baths when I lost all my friends to the fog and it was just me in the middle of Budapest, swimming in its natural thermal waters. I stretched my arms out and floated on my back, relishing the feeling of being on top of the world. I felt so ALIVE.
Viszontlatasra for now, Budapest.