Every once in a while, RAFH includes guest posts from world travelers and explorers. Today we have a story about Budapest from DC-based Carolyn Blake. You can read more about Carolyn below, and if you want to submit your travel story you can do so here.
I’m not sure if I can classify this as an experience with running away, because I am still not sure where home is. I was raised in Texas but never truly felt like I fit the bill. After living in Washington, D.C. for five years, I want to call it home, but everyone here seems to look at this city as a stepping stone. As anyone with wanderlust knows, it is hard to imagine any one place as being permanent. So I’m still looking.
There is no one I would rather be on this search with than my significant other, Nicu. Nicu lives in Brussels, and looking forward to our monthly trips makes the distance easier. For each trip, one of us plans the location and the other will be given clues as to where we are going. I was beyond excited when I received my hints in May: this place has its own currency, baths are roomy, and what once was two, now is one.
After some googling and begging for more clues, I knew we were headed for Budapest! The city originally was two, Buda and Pest, separated by the Danube, united into one in 1873. Hungary has its own currency, the forint, which comes in the thousands and feels like Monopoly money to me – it’s dangerous. The baths I’ll get to.
I’m not sure what I expected of Budapest. But whatever images you conjure up, just dip them all in gold. Every building we entered had beautifully painted ceilings and moldings covered in gold. The little inn we stayed in had a marble staircase and a table with legs that ended in ram heads. It was like staying with the Habsburgs. We walked down the cobbled streets to Matthias church. At its edge you can look across the Danube to the Parliament building, which when lit up at night, might be the most magnificent structure I’ve ever seen. Its renaissance style dome sits like a crown on top of its gothic base. (Photo above!)
Like most trips, it’s all about the food. To this day, the food in Budapest is my most vivid memory. Our first night we went for dinner at Kehli, a traditional Hungarian restaurant where I had my first ever bowl of Goulash. Oh man. Goulash. Nothing so meaty and full of wonderful smelling spice has hit my belly before–like a warm sweater for your stomach. I continued to eat goulash the rest of the weekend, but never found it as delicious as at Kehli. Braver guests at the table next to us were digging into the bone marrow, but after a brief time spent as a zoology major, it was a bit too anatomical for me.
At dinner I tried out the few Hungarian words I’d learned on the plane. Their language is both tricky and great at the same time. I cherish those few words I was able to train my mouth to say, like koszonom (thank you) or puszi (kisses). That night we also enjoyed music from a gypsy band; the entire table was clapping and stomping along with the traditional drinking songs. The Hungarian people are friendly and welcoming;. Excited to share with you their culture and a glass of palinka – a Hungarian liqueur that tastes like a mix of gasoline and plumbs.
The next day we headed for the Roman baths (clue number 2). I’d seen photos online of the Szechenyi baths, and imagined I would be like a nymph dipping my feet into the warm pool surrounded roman statues. Not so much…the baths are a huge complex, with indoor pools surrounding two larger outdoor pools. Dozens of people are crowded into the warm water and you feel a bit like you are being made into a base for some goulash. A cold dip in one of the indoor polls is exactly what you need afterwards to feel refreshed. In the water you’ll also see a chess table with old Hungarian men intently calculating their next move. I am told they come every day.
We finished off the night like real locals, watching futball. At the bottom of Buda Hill they had Hungarian dishes to enjoy (like flaky bread covered in fat) and local wines to try, as well as a screen playing the champions league game. We laid in the grass well into the night.
After a lovely long weekend I returned to D.C., with a full heart and even fuller belly.
On the cusp of Central and Eastern Europe, Hungary has a culture that is truly unique, with food and customs that are rooted in tradition, but with a population that embraced the western world when the iron curtain fell. I would be lucky to call it home.
Carolyn Blake is a Texas native working on international policy and research in Washington, D.C. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Texas A&M and a Master of Public Policy from Georgetown University. As a lifelong logophile, Carolyn is a serial-book club starter and a firm believer in the magic of handwritten letters.