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Heading (inadvertently) across the Ezrébet Híd in Budapest
Our original plan after departing Salzburg was to head east to Wien (Vienna), the capital of Österreich, for three nights, then north into Praha (Prague) in the Česká Republika (Czech Republic) for three more nights. Accordingly, a few days before we left Salzburg, Russell started making telephone calls to find accommodations in Wien. Using Rick Steves' recommendations, he started with our first choice, the K & T Boardinghouse. Russell was having a delightful chat with Tina, the proprietress, when she suddenly realized that she didn't have any vacancies during the time we wanted. She had rooms available on our first night, Tuesday the 19th, but was then full until the weekend.
Undeterred, Russell and Gail consulted and improvised. Because we had been unable to visit Slovenija, we were a few days ahead of schedule. We decided to go to Wien on Tuesday for one night, head further east into Magyarország (Hungary) for three nights, then return to Wien for the weekend. This would set us up perfectly for our next destination, Praha (Prague). Remarkably, it turns out that Tina is Hungarian. She was delighted at the prospect of us staying with her for four nights in total. She also gave us a recommendation for accommodations in Budapest, and promised to help us with accommodations in Praha. It also turns out that Tina is very good friends with Brigitte, our proprietress in Salzburg. We have lucked into a network that will set us up completely for the next week.
When we left Salzburg on March 19th in the rain, it took us about an hour to get to Mauthaus and another hour and a half to get to Wien. We had originally hoped to take the scenic drive along the Danube River for the second half of our drive, but we decided that the inclement weather would not permit us to see much. As it was, we were delayed several times between Mauthaus and Wien due to numerous construction zones along the autostrada.
We finally pulled into Wien at 5:30 PM. What a difference from Salzburg! Wien is very modern, urban, and industrial, with neon lights and Western fast-food restaurant signs all over the place. We exited the autostrada a few blocks too early, and ended up driving down the crowded and busy Mariahilferstraße that reminded us variously of San Francisco and New York. We were looking for the K & T Boardinghouse at #72 Mariahilferstraße; but as we drove by in the pouring rain, the only thing we could see was an Adult Store there. We finally parked the car at a garage several blocks away and continued our search on foot.
Mariahilferstraße in downtown Wien
Strangely enough, the K & T Boardinghouse is at the same address as the Adult Store; our accommodations were way up on the third floor, while the "Love Bird Erotic Shop" is two stories lower on the first floor. Gail and Russell couldn't help laughing their heads off as we climbed the three flights of stairs. (We were very glad that we have repacked our critical things into lighter overnight bags. We were also very glad that Cameron and Joss are still at the age where they think "erotic" is just another foreign word.) We were greeted by Tina, her 17-month-old daughter Ines, and Amy the schnauzer (one of the only kinds of dogs that Cameron is not allergic to). We settled ourselves into our two adjoining rooms: a large double with full bath for the adults, and a smaller room with two adjoined twins for the boys.
Home, sweet home
Tina was indeed a wonderful resource for our sightseeing needs. She told us where to move our car to save parking fees (actually, she told us to go ahead and park on the street and tear up any tickets we receive -- apparently, Österreich has no access to foreign license plates in its computers). While we will not do any actual Viennese sightseeing until we return four days from now, Tina provided us with lots of information about what to see and do in Budapest. She sent an email message to her contact in Praha to try and secure us accommodations there. Tina also recommended a local Austrian restaurant, but Cameron and Joss both asked for pizza and pasta at the eatery around the corner instead.
On March 20th, after breakfast pastries at the bakery down the street (and after learning from CNN that the HP-Compaq merger votes are still being counted), we left one of our suitcases with Tina and bid her "auf wiedersehen" until a few days from now. She even gave us a key so that we could let ourselves in when we returned. We continued to be rained on all day as we drove two hours further east into Magyarország.
We crossed the Hungarian border at about noon, and were very excited because it's the first actual border we've had to pass through since arriving in Europe. A man in a booth stamped our passports, and we had to purchase yet another matrica ("vignette") for our windshield. The process of actually purchasing the matrica was fun. At the border there are several booths selling them, and we picked one whose attendant didn't speak any English. We also had to change money for one of our first times (we usually rely on ATMs); one euro is worth about 240 Hungarian forints.
The Österreich-Magyarország border (note the trucks lined up to get through customs)
Once past the border, we were immediately thrust into a strange new language of accent marks and long, unrecognizable and unpronounceable words. Fortunately, the M1 autópálya gave us a straight shot directly into Budapest, and Tina had provided directions directly to the Charles Hotel and Apartments. Unfortunately, our accommodations were on the left side of the road, and we couldn't figure out how to get to them from the right side of the road. We ended up driving across the Erzébet Híd (Elizabeth Bridge) and into downtown Budapest before making an illegal U-turn (we followed another car who also made an illegal U-turn) and turning ourselves back around.
The Charles Hotel and Apartments turned out to be the perfect place for us. The staff all spoke English, and the bellboy stopped traffic so that Gail could drive the car the wrong way down a one-way street to get it into the secure parking lot. This in turn enabled us to leave most of our luggage in the car and only take our overnight bags into our apartment. The apartment itself is a two-bedroom flat, complete with a tiny kitchen (sink, two burners, and mini-refrigerator). We are actually staying in an "executive" apartment -- apparently, the "standard" apartments are still furnished with stuff leftover from the Communist Era. (But unfortunately, the adults' bedroom overlooks the busy boulevard below, and the hotel has not yet upgraded to double-paned windows.)
Cameron and Joss got a long-needed "down" afternoon with no schoolwork -- just PC games and Lego -- while Gail and Russell went to the little market down the street for some groceries. Here again, our awkward queries of "Beszél angolul?" were answered by people who did, indeed, speak English. We marveled at the groceries here -- some recognizable and some not -- including paprika in a squeeze tube.
But our biggest thrill of the day was eating dinner at the János Vendéglő Hungarian Restaurant next to the hotel. With a coupon good for a free bottle of red wine, we indulged ourselves to a nice and inexpensive dinner out (our tour book notes that you can get a full dinner in Budapest for the same price as a light snack in Wien). Cameron and Joss had penne with chicken, Gail had mushrooms with gnocchi (Hungarian dumpling noodles, not the pasta), and Russell had wild boar stew with gnocchi. All of us, of course, also had gulyásleves (Hungarian goulash). Gail has very fond memories of Hungarian food from her childhood in Michigan, and she was in culinary heaven as she spooned fresh (and spicy) paprika paste into her gulyásleves. The only thing more wonderful than the dinner itself was the fact that we had enough food to take back to our room for leftovers.
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