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March 22, 2002
Exploring Budapest (Russell)

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Magyárország played a pivotal role in the fall of East German communism -- in gratitude, Budapest received two pieces of the dismantled Berlin Wall

Magyarország (Hungary) has an absolutely amazing and fascinating history.  After a feudal state was created in AD 1000 by István (King -- later Saint -- Stephen), the country became part of the very powerful Austro-Hungarian empire in the 19th century.  After WWI, however, Magyárország was completely decimated, split up, and parceled off into other "countries" like Romania, Yugoslavia, and Czechoslovakia.  WWII further decimated the country; between January and July 1946, the price of a postage stamp inflated from 100 pengó to 100,000 quadrillion pengó -- the worst inflation in world history ((this necessitated the creation of a new currency, today's forint).

Even through the decades of Iron Curtain Communism, however, Magyárország was at the forefront of reformation.  In 1989 (six months before the Berlin Wall fell), Magyárország created the first "hole" in the Iron Curtain by opening its barbed-wire frontier with Österreich (at the same place where we crossed over).  Free elections were held for the first time in half a century in 1990, and the last Soviet troops departed in 1991.  (As we sat in the restaurant for dinner on our first night, we couldn't help but wonder what it would have been like to be here twelve years ago.  Today, we have a maitre d' and waiter providing impeccable service, and Wham! music is playing on the stereo.)

Budapest, the capital of Magyárország, was created in 1873 by uniting three cities along the Danube River: Buda (the hilly city west of the Danube), Óbuda ("old" Buda), and Pest (the flat city east of the Danube).  There are nine bridges connecting the two sides of the river.  Three-quarters of the city's buildings were damaged or destroyed in WWII (all of the bridges were also destroyed by the Nazis retreating from the Soviets).

It was raining when we arrived in Budapest on March 20th, and it looked like it was going to continue raining indefinitely, but we did not want the weather to impede our sightseeing.  Rather than conduct a guided or self-guided walking tour, however, we decided (mainly for the boys' sake) to purchase a three-hour guided bus tour through Budapest Sightseeing, the outfit recommended by our hotel (they promised free hotel pick-up and no charge for the children).  At 10:30 AM on March 21st, we were surprised when a taxi showed up to take us to the departure point.

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The tour bus

The tour itself met our expectations.  There were about two dozen of us on the huge, comfortable bus, and Yolanda the guide conducted live narration in English and German (at one point, we were forced -- horrors! -- into the tourist stereotype of following the woman holding the umbrella).  Cameron and Joss wavered in their attention, and mostly enjoyed the times when we got off the bus (for "ten minute photo stops") and got to walk around.  Our stops included:

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Hősök tere
: statues of Árpád and the six other Magyar tribal leaders who led the Magyar Conquest in AD 896 that secured the Carpathian Basin
Halászbástya: the Fishermen's Bastion

Our tour ended at 2:00 PM, and in one of those "read the fine print" moments, we discovered that while Budapest Sightseeing provides hotel pick-up, they do not provide hotel drop-off.  Even though we now found ourselves somewhere on the other side of the Danube River, we were undaunted.  The rain was dwindling, so we took a long walking tour back across the Ezrébet Híd (Elizabeth Bridge) to our hotel.  For dinner, we tried the Karât Restaurant down the street for variety, and found it just as delicious (we were about the only patrons in this white-tableclothed restaurant, which was a crime).

On March 22nd, we awoke to magnificent sunny and blue skies.  We hurried through breakfast (the Charles Hotel provides a full western buffet -- very rare in Magyárország) in order to begin our day of walking, but by the time we left the hotel, the sky had already clouded over.

Our plan (based on Tina's recommendation) had been to do the city tour yesterday, then take today to revisit the places that we had enjoyed the most.  Our first stop was Gellért Hegy on the Buda side, where we took more than an hour on the meandering paths through the park (Cameron and Joss amused themselves by playing "hinky pinky," collecting sticks, and climbing trees).  The Budapest Spring Festival has just begun, and we were amused to see hoards of schoolchildren dressed in traditional garb, engaged in some kind of treasure hunt or school project.  We saw the statue of Bishop Gellért (marking the spot where he met his demise) as well as the huge Liberation Monument at the very top of the hill (built in 1947 to commemorate the Red Army's liberation of Magyárország from the Nazis).  Gail remarked that it is amazing how much you can see when you actually have more than ten minutes to look at a place.

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North from Gellért Hegy: the Erzsébet híd (Elizabeth Bridge), Szécheny lánchíd (Szécheny Chain Bridge -- the first permanent bridge built across the Danube), and Margit híd (Margaret Bridge)
South from Gellért Hegy: the Szabadság híd (Freedom Bridge) and Pet
őfi híd (Petőfi Bridge)

We crossed our old friend the Ezrébet Híd into Pest, where we wandered the street markets and souvenir shops along the very touristy Váci Utca.  The boys asked for McDonald's for lunch (we bought them sajtburgers), while the adults enjoyed a sausage with mustard from one of the street vendors.  We boarded the yellow földalatti, the oldest metro in continental Europe (Budapest has three lines: the yellow, red, and blue), back to Hősök tere.  From here, we walked further east into Budapest's Városliget (City Park), where we found a playground for Cameron and Joss.  (We also noted later that this was the farthest east that we will set foot in Europe during our entire world trip).  We made it back to our rooms by 3:00 PM, just as it began to rain again.

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The yellow-line földalatti, the oldest metro in continental Europe

Considering that this entire excursion was a last-minute impulse, we have greatly enjoyed the history, people, sights, and food of Budapest (we are greatly amused by the large number of bushy-haired, bushy-eyebrowed, bushy-mustachioed Russian-looking men).  The people are friendly and helpful; and most important, they do not treat us as strangers, but as guests.

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Gail neighboring with the friendly, English-speaking owner of the food market


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