Believe it or not, within my first hour of being in Budapest I'd already screwed something up. Hungary has their own currency, so you have to be very careful taking money out of the ATM. Now being an actuary you'd think I'd be able to handle the calculation for the exchange rate: 1 euro = approx 250 forints. I guess I could've really used my calculator that day because I ended up taking out the equivalent of $600 in hungarian currency. And I'd already paid for the hotel, so there really weren't any major expenses to cover... Long story short, I ended up paying for everything Sara and I did together, and she just paid me back electronically rather than me having to go to a currency exchange and get a crappy rate on euros.
After checking in to the hotel I went out for a walk around the city before it got dark, grabbed some dinner, and chilled in the hotel room for the night. Here's some pics from the walk:
At about 10pm all the power went out in the hotel (and apparently half the city), including all telephone lines and internet connections. There were police sirens all over the place, and looking out my window i could see tons of people walking out onto the street looking very confused. Luckily everything went back on about an hour later, but it was not exactly the most comforting experience - although at least I wasn't trapped in another elevator!
The next day I decided to just walk around both sides of the city. Buda is the older, more historic half, while Pest is more modern with all the high-end shops and fancy restaurants / hotels. Apparently they used to be completely separate villages, but then at some point combined to become one.
I spent the afternoon at the outdoor Szechenyi bath - the largest of the roman baths of budapest. There were several indoor baths areas that smelled like pee and sulfur so I stuck to the outdoor warm pools with a bit more fresh air flowing. To be honest, it really just seemed like a big swimming pool, except the water was warm / hot. One of the pools was really fun though - it was circular with strong jets about waist-level that pushed you in a clock-wise direction all around the edges of the pool. When the jets got stronger, everyone in the pool was pushed by the force of the water in a circle, and people would laugh and bump into each other because it was impossible to stay in one place. Thank God I went on a day when bathing suits were mandatory...
outside view of the bath
On my way home I came a cross a random parade of ponies...
This one must've been naughty...
The next day Sara was in town and we went to the Rudas baths together. Rudas was actually better than Szechenyi in my humble opinion, and was definitely more turkish/roman in style. People used these baths for their geothermal healing effects as early as the 1500's - crazy thinking that we were sitting in the same baths used by people 500 years ago. The baths here were entirely indoors, however, there was no smell of pee - only sulfur. The pools ranged from cool to extremely hot, and we spent a few hours just going from one to the other and progressing to the hottest one, then going into the coldest one to get refreshed. The only complaint I have was that there were a ridiculous number of people making out and getting a bit too cozy for comfort all around - to the point where it was hard to find a place to sit in the bath without being surrounded by overly-affectionate lovebirds...About once a month they have a night party from 10pm-4am, with dj's spinning house music and a crazy light show. We missed the party this time around, but perhaps next time...Here's a picture of Rudas:
Sara and I also did a really nice wine tasting of all Hungarian wines at the Faust wine cellar in historic Pest. The cellar literally seats only 4 tables, so we were really lucky to get in. We decided to go with the short tour, which was 6 wines. And no, we did not spit them out - that would be a waste of good wine! They were all really good, but the last one was especially interesting - it was from 1989. I think the people working there found us amusing because we weren't being all serious about the tasting - and each wine tasted better than the last!
We also did a bike tour of the city to complete my goal of doing one in each city of the trip. We rode all over town, drank some sulfur water, saw the Nazi party headquarters (now a Nazi / Communism museum), saw gorgeous views of the city, and ate a home-made Hungarian goulash meal at a tiny little restaurant run by the grandmother herself. Here's some pics from the tour:
historic streets of Buda
view of Buda from historic part of town
views of Pest from Buda and chain bridge
park near Szechenyi bath with lots of water activities for kids
statue of some guy on a horse. if you look closely, you can see that the horse actually has gold manly bits. our tour guide said that when he was a kid they used to rub them for good luck, and that tradition still carries on to this day...
the delicious goulash we had for lunch - best i've ever had!! nice and spicy too. :)
The highlight of Budapest was going shooting. Sara and I got up early in the morning to head off to Celeritas Shooting Club, which is pretty much in an undergound bunker in some random industrial park outside of town. Seemed a bit dodgey at first...
However, soon we were set up with our instructor, Peter, who helped us to feel a little more comfortable (he was a cop for 10 years and worked as the police firearms instructor, so he definitely knew what he was doing). We purchased the "shoot 'em all" package, which means we got to shoot every single gun they had!
This is the table where we shot all the guns from:
he started us out with the handguns
then we progressed to some bigger ones like the AK-47
i think this one's going on next year's christmas cards...
Overall, we got to shoot the following: Ruger mk, beretta 92, sig sauer p226, glock 17, colt 1911, skorpion vz61 (apparently not legal so we couldn't take pictures), taurus 941, colt king cobra, smith & wesson 629, GSG-5, H&K MP-5, GSG-47, AK-47, SA vz58, Dragunov, Mossberg 500, and a Saiga 12k. So 17 guns + lots of ammo = lots of fun! I definitely liked the fully automatic guns the best - they were CRAZY!! These things can shoot like 1000 rounds per minute. I kept my silhouette cut-outs as a souvenir of my impeccable aim (well, maybe not impeccable - Peter mentioned he did NOT think we'd make good cops / soldiers after our demonstration...)
It was a great way to start the morning and really fun! Peter was surprised that we came all the way to Budapest to shoot guns - he thought this was something that anyone could do anywhere in the states. Perhaps in some states, but I really don't know - I'd never heard of a place like this before back home! Either way, i'm sure it was much cheaper to do it in Budapest.
So that wraps up the Eastern Europe Extravaganza! It was an adventure, and I'm really glad I did it. My favorite part was probably the Vienna bike tour and gun-shooting in Budapest, but each place was wonderful on its own and gave me some great memories. Rarely did I feel alone despite traveling by myself, probably because I met so many kind and fun-loving people along the way in the hostels and on the bike tours. Now back to reality and work in Dublin. Until next time...