Budapest on a Binge: A Tour on Steroids
I wanted to be sure to go on a tour boat on the Danube before I left Budapest. My flat was a mere two blocks from the river. On the morning of my last full day in town I prepared to leave my quarters at around eleven, expecting that I’d be by the river in ten minutes.
I never made it.
The story of why I never got there is worthy of recording in this narrative. It concerns a woman, of course. Don’t all stories about the reasons why a man never did something concern women?
Just as I was swinging the heavy wooden door to the apartment closed, while my phone still received a wi-fi signal, a text message came to my phone.
“At the Hero Square on the right is a museum called the Mücsarnok. Meet me in front of it in one hour.”
It came from someone named Enikö, whom I had never met before. Enikö had been recommended to me by a friend from back home, Szilvia, a native of Budapest, who thought the gal would enjoy showing me around. I had no idea how Enikö looked, how old she was or even what she really thought about spending a day with some strange American guy.
I decided to take a chance on Enikö.
Within an hour, after a subway ride, I walked through Hero Square to the front of a large imposing columned building, the Hall of Art (Mücsarnok). A colorful tour bus pulled away to reveal a woman leaning against the foundation of a column. She started waving at me. She had short blondish hair and wore sunglasses. She was young—or, at least, quite a bit younger than I was. I was flattered someone would wave at me in Budapest. It was Enikö indeed.
“Hello,” she said. “I have a car.”
When I heard Enikö say this, she rose to almost superhuman stature in my mind. I had never ridden in a private car in any large European city before now. Enikö was going to drive me. I felt like a real stud. I had no idea why this woman was being this kind and generous to me. I guessed it was simply gracious Hungarian hospitality. Either that, or Szilvia was such a dear friend that Enikö would do anything for her. I felt a little guilty.
We started walking down a tree-lined avenue next to the museum when I saw a castle across the way. I suppose Enikö was used to castles and had no particular interest or affection in this one. Of course she had probably seen it thousands of times and had grown used to it. But this was an amazing sight to me.
“Excuse me, Enikö ,” I said. “Would you mind if I went to look at that castle?”
“Okee, sure,” she said, and frowned a little bit.
I scrambled across the avenue and under some trees in the park. Vadjahunyad Castle, built originally out of cardboard and wood for the Hungarian Millennial Exposition of 1895, was reconstructed from masonry after the expo ended and opened in its current form in 1908. Today it is the Museum of Hungarian Agriculture. Later in winter, the lake in front of it is used as an ice skating rink, but it was not yet cold enough now for the lake to be frozen solid.
I probably stayed a little bit too long staring at the castle and I was sure I was trying Enikö's patience. The woman had made a great sacrifice of her time, as a personal favor to her friend Szilvia, to be my tour guide and I knew I was probably on thinner ice with her now than the ice on that outdoor skating rink. I had to be careful because I didn’t want Enikö to dump me on the side of the road. But I was mistaken; Enikö was still happy to have me.
“Excuse all the dog hair,” she said as we got into her cramped Saab. “I just took my dog to my mom’s. She lives about a two-hour drive away.”
She cranked her motor started and we were off.
“Let’s go to the Basilica first,” she said. “You’ll love it.”
Enikö had probably never heard of NASCAR, but she drove like one of its racers.
We were bump drafting on BMW’s and Toyotas. Enikö’s front fender was practically kissing the rear exhaust pipe of a big truck.
“Sorry, I wanted us to make it on time.”
Enikö shoe-horned her Saab into a tiny gap between two cars on the side of a narrow street behind St. Stephens Basilica. Two things seem worse than parallel parking to me—death by fire and dental surgery—but this woman made it look easy. We were on our way to the top of the city’s largest church and the third highest building in Hungary at 315 feet.
We had a choice between steps and an elevator and I asked Enikö if she minded the steps.
“No problem.” She was accommodating in everything.
She may have had a problem by the time we actually made it to the top. We were huffing and puffing and I was sure Enikö was probably bored and had had enough of me. I was about to thank her and wish her the best of luck and give her an easy escape from this awkward situation. However, once we arrived at the top she seemed excited. The view was exhilarating indeed.
During construction, which had begun in 1851, the Basilica’s dome collapsed in 1868 and destroyed all the work underneath it. Everything had to be reconstructed anew, and not until 37 years later was the structure completed. Today the steel underpinnings of the dome from the inside make an interesting sight.
“Hurry, let’s go to the Opera house,” Enikö told me. She made it seem as though we were in a race. The Saab was put in motion again, the NASCAR techniques used to brilliant effect. By 3:55 we were parked in an alley somewhere, and she skillfully had us in the lobby of the Magyar Állami Operaház by 3:59, just before the last guided tour of the day was to start.
Tours are conducted in six or seven languages, and a young woman of eighteen led one in English. Dating from 1884, the Hungarian State Opera House commemorates the two most famous legends of Hungarian music, conductor Ferenc Erkel and composer Franz Liszt, in statues by the entrance. We were taken inside the theater and quietly allowed to marvel at the luxuriousness of it. According to legend, Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary, who had helped finance its construction, grew jealous when he first saw it, thinking it more magnificent than even the Vienna Opera House, and he never attended any performances there as a result.
When the tour had ended it was dark, but Enikö ’s enthusiasm hadn’t waned a bit.
“Let’s go look at Buda Castle!”
She drove like a woman possessed of the checkered flag, even in the dark. I didn’t tell her I had already walked to the Buda Castle a couple of nights earlier. We went there anyway, walked up the high steps, looked down on the Danube over the city.
“Have you had Kürtőskalács yet?” Enikö asked me.
I told her I didn’t know what that was.
“You’ll love it.”
We were in the Saab again, parked in another alley, and the woman led the way into a festive Christmas market. Behind several of the exhibits, skewers were turning tubes of dough on a stick over wood fires, baking them brown. The vendors were taking them off the skewers, powdering them with sugar and wrapping them in paper.
“Here, I’ll get you one,” said Enikö . “Kürtőskalács, a Hungarian specialty. Don’t eat it too hot, or you’ll get sick”
I tried to pay for two, but Enikö swatted my hand away.
“My treat,” she said.
We enjoyed the Christmas market for a while but by now I knew it was past eight and Enikö had to work by six the next morning. She had devoted an entire day to driving me around Budapest.
“Thank you, Enikö ,” I said to her. This was my last night in Budapest, maybe the last time I would ever be there. “You’ve been a sweetheart.”
I shook her hand and watched her retreat toward her car. I walked back toward the Danube in the dark, and crossed the bridge to the Gellert Bath house. Then I remembered—the Danube, I had planned to take a tour boat on it that day, but it never happened. If I ever go back I’ll be sure to do that first.
© 2015 James Crawford