Eső után köpönyeg.
— Hungarian expression for “after rain comes raincoat”
Monday, Day One
- The First Glimpse
When I think back to my trip to Budapest, I think, first, of her street signs. Hungarian street signs look like puzzles of Latin letters spilled out of a bag and rearranged into mouthfuls of consonants, vowels, and lots of extra dots. Signs with words and phrases like artand hataratkelohely, magyarorszag, eloszallas, and vigyazz gepjarrmu-forgalom narrate the city streets on corners, in roundabouts, at crossroads, and on highways. Among these wordy pieces of advice, however, there is one whose single word I could pronounce, whose letters did make some sense to my English-speaking brain: it reads, simply, lassits, punctuated with a single exclamation mark. The sign is simple—it is rectangle-shaped, framed in a red border, black bold text against a white background.
I remember my first glimpse of Budapest this way. If I squint my eyes and look closely through the rain drizzling down the window of my cabin, I can see the road connected to the port filled with buses. I can see that one sign, its single word directing cars and buses to breathe, to hit the brakes, to turn a little more slowly around each corner. Lassits!…slow down. Because the spires of the palaces and castles are covered in the early morning fog, because the rain is so thick and the traffic so heavy, because the view is blocked by so many tour buses, this is the first glimpse I have of one of the most magnificent walking cities in the world.
Now that I think about it, it fits.
- Inside the Bus
It was early morning, under the pouring rain, when all 189 of us disembarked from the ship for the last time. Some of us exited with speed, some with languor, some with canes, wheelchairs, and the steady arms of sons and daughters. After gathering into groups of 50, we lined up and climbed, one after the other, onto a row of tour buses. For the rest of the morning, our tour went a little something like this: those of us who are able get on, get off, get on, get off. The rest stayed in their seats and marvelled the sights from the windows. Every 20 minutes, our guide, a Hungarian woman named Anita, clicked on her microphone and announced in a lovely lilt that we’d arrived somewhere important and that we should get off the bus, take the pictures, and get back on the bus.
This process wasn’t as easy as it sounds, as safely getting 48 elderly passengers on and off a bus isn’t something that happens quickly. As the last two passengers on the bus, Ryan and I waited each time, and we watched the raindrops pool into bigger raindrops on the window panes while men and women held onto the railing and made their way up and down the bus’s three big steps. As we’d done for the past 12 days, we chatted with our fellow passengers, men and women who are 30, 40 years older than we are, who’ve had more life experience under their belts than I can even imagine. Five stops and four hours later, we circled around the city one last time, sat in traffic on the Elizabeth Bridge, and inched our way up Buda Castle Hill, where the buses planned to drop us off for the next two days.
When we finally arrived at our hotel, I realised that I didn’t know where I’d been, what I’d seen, or even what route we’d taken to get there. I remembered horns beeping, traffic jams, pounding rain, and big rainy drops dissolving the castles and gargoyles into drizzly remnants of the strong, stoic architectural wonders they were. I couldn’t hear Anita as she led us around each stop because my headphones had started shorting out back in Croatia. I couldn’t appreciate the stillness of simply being in a place because I was tired of standing in queues. What kind of travel writing, I wondered, was this going to inspire?
As Ryan, my husband, and I waited in the line of fellow passengers to check in at reception, hearing them talk about the beauty and grace of this cold, rainy city in summertime, I couldn’t help but ask myself: Was this the Budapest I had come so far to see, the city I’d dreamed of visiting since the first time I saw a picture of the Danube River cutting two gorgeous, mediaeval cities — one flat, one hilly — who later become one, in half?
At that moment, we made a decision: we were going to walk the tour we’d just done. While our new friends, many of whom had tired of walking and touring, would spend the next two days dining in elegant restaurant and relaxing together, we would run up and down the Buda Castle hills, sprint over the Elizabeth Bridge, wander around the streets of busy Pest until our shoes were drenched and our feet ached. We had no idea how long it would take us, or how many kilometres we’d clock, but it would be easy to find out: we could find a spot to lay out a map and plot our journey.
We left our luggage in the lobby and turned around and walked out of the Hilton into the pouring rain, our hands over our heads, the bright red luggage tags we’d affixed to our suitcase handles a perfect kind of statement.
- Panorama Café, Fisherman’s Bastion
We knew there was a café, a little outdoor place with white chairs and tables, close to our hotel. We’d seen it from the bus window as we’d trekked up the hill. We walked around the corner past Matthias Church, followed the whitewashed battlements, found the café, took two seats, and stripped off our jackets. A waiter brought Ryan an espresso in a cup no larger than a thimble and me a cappuccino with a heart swirled into the milk. We peeled open my guidebook, creasing the spine on the city map of Budapest so it’d be easy to find if we needed to find it again.
As Ryan studied the map and made his way through an alphabet of Hungarian street names and districts, I thought about what had brought us here, to this place, with a group of travellers who were, on average, older than our parents. As a travel writer, I’d worked with Viking River Cruises before—on assignment, I had taken my mom with me to Russia the summer before, and the more we discovered, the more I realised that I craved to see more of Eastern Europe. I felt as if I still knew nothing about this region of our world, about a world that my mom had been taught was enigmatic and evil and a world I’ve been taught was a failed experiment in equality. I’d never been a cruiser, but that’s one of the lessons travel writing teaches you: you never really know what you are until you do it.
On the first day of our trip, I had pushed my mom to traipse all over St. Petersburg with me in search of my subjects, a renegade Soviet arcade museum and Russia’s first sex museum (I am aware that I had some weird assignments on that trip). Though I knew she was nervous about keeping up, I didn’t want to admit that she might need a slower pace—I was determined to show her that despite gracing her 60s and having survived nearly nine years of chemo treatments, she could travel exactly the same way I did. And that day, she did.
By the end of the trip, though, our pace radically changed. It was hard for me to say out loud, to acknowledge that her ankles were swelling up and the circles under her eyes half-moons of exhaustion. Instead, I encouraged us to adopt the practices of some of our fellow travellers, trading excursions for quiet mornings and on-board lectures on Russian history and language. Her body language told me it was the right decision: her right hand scribbling notes all over the margins of our Cyrillic alphabet handout; her eyes brightening as we learned about the Romanov empire; the tone of her voice alighting when she discussed with other travellers what it was like to grow up in the Cold War era.
As we sipped our warm drinks in the chilly rain, that memory, however, was far from my mind. I watched as Ryan drew lines with a pen over city streets and across bridges. He was quickly memorising the layout of the city, doing something I could never do—plot out a day’s journey—with a quickness and speed I envied. As he worked, I looked out over the raw and human beauty of Budapest, I thought instead about the privilege of being here, of having this body, of being able to tie my shoes, stretch my legs, eschew a map’s highways and roads, go on a walking tour, wherever the wind would take me. Though I didn’t know it yet, we would walk 19 kilometres that day, and the next, another 22. At the end of our two days in Budapest, we would stop the counter on my smartphone at 55,000 steps. That’s almost 42 kilometres, the length of a marathon.
As we put our jackets back on, the rain slowed to a drizzle. Under that drizzle and the slate-grey sky, we could see monuments ensconced in fog, the tips of the buildings, the spires of the cathedrals, the round domes of the synagogues, the top storeys of the skyscrapers, refusing o hide and making their presence known.
We hurried out of the café. My two eager feet, buzzing in their size-7 shoes, were ready for something.
- Buda Castle
Here’s the thing about Buda Castle Hill—and why it takes all day to get around and up to the top of it. It isn’t just a castle: it’s a massive palace complex that requires a lot of walking. Geographically, its outer walls look like a maze, winding all the way up the hill to the lovely Castle District, which is known for its 19th-century houses, churches, restaurants, and boutique shops (and, coincidentally, our hotel). It was built in 1265 by the Hungarian kings of Budapest after a devastating Mongolian invasion, and it is accessible in one of three ways: on the cobblestone alleyways by tour bus, from the Danube River by the Castle Hill Funicular, and by foot.
From the southern tip (which is visible from the street), you can see the castle’s oldest stones. These stones have been darkened by the ages, heavily stacked, many blasted by guns and other weapons. But on the other side, next to the cathedral, the stones become petite, nearly white, with all the trappings of perfect rocks that have never known cannon fire. As we walked beside the white rocks on our way up, we spotted two ageing Hungarian men in oversized raincoats sitting on a bench near one of the medieval spires, surrounded by the tangled strings of their six dogs on leashes. I could tell they had been best friends for a long time, the way they sat amicably in silence and let their dogs sleep under their feet.
It occurred to me, as we hiked through the neighbourhoods on our way up the hill, that there is something entirely vulnerable about walking. We came through Budapest exposed, unadorned by anything except our clothes and our backpacks. Because of this, though, we were given an unadorned view of Hungary, a Hungary that couldn’t be whizzed by in a bus or on a trolley. Some of the steps we climbed down looked right into people’s homes, right through their living rooms, bisected their yard and lines of laundry. We interrupted conversations. We got in the way of kids playing ball in the street and friends stumbling drunk back to their flats. We walked by dog-walkers, lovers holding hands, parents corralling their kids, sometimes passing so closely that I could smell paprikash coming from kitchens, hear fingers banging piano keys, see the smiles and grimaces on peoples’ faces. It was almost as if we’d stepped into a photograph of a bustling Hungarian village but moved through it with quickness and speed.
By the time we reached the peak, the rain had started again, this time pelting down a little heavier than before. I crawled up and sat on the stone railing. On this side, we could see Communist-era blocs; shirts and trousers strung up across balconies; street signs jammed into street corners, buildings the colour of mustard, slate, and paprika. We scampered from side to side pointing out the juxtapositions of colours, textures, and lives that tapestried over the hillsides.
Truth be told, when we’d whizzed by Buda Castle in the tour bus, it looked like a big grey complex melting through the raindrops; it did not look like this, strong, imposing, mediaeval.
I checked my phone’s GPS. The trip from Buda Castle Hill to the peak was almost three and a half kilometres. It also marked an elevation change of 235 metres.
- Café Miro
After a hike back up to the Buda Castle district, stopping to see the stone foundation of some recently-unearthed ruins on our way, we slowed down for dinner. We settled on a place called Café Miro, inspired, not surprisingly, by the Spanish surrealist painter Joan Miró. The entire restaurant was like a dream, with tables with winding legs and lopsided tops, chairs with different backs, canary-yellow walls, and lamps of all shapes, sizes, and colours hanging from the ceiling by silver metal rods.
Neither of us realised how tired we were until we sat down. My feet were throbbing with the memories of the thousands of wet, slick cobblestones they’d traipsed over that afternoon. We ordered two large lagers and two entrees, a steak dish with fettucine alfredo and a chicken paprikash with tiny potato dumplings. Because we were so close to our hotel, it was virtually impossible to avoid other Viking cruisers. We watched and waved to them as they dined on their meals. One couple—the couple youngest only after us—even sat down with us a for a few minutes, to swap stories of the day. Though one of them had a knee that gave her trouble and had to return to the hotel early to rest, they’d been able to visit a museum full of wonderful Renaissance paintings.
Sitting there, listening to their stories, I realised it was the first time all day that I had really noticed anything. The voices of our fellow travellers. The layer of foam on top of the golden-yellow beer, the wave in my husband’s hair, the soft, comforting taste of the thumb-sized dumplings as my teeth chewed them. It was the only moment I wasn’t moving.
Before we went to bed, we decided another walk was in order. After all, the city was now lit up. As we walked along the rim of Fisherman’s Bastion, we ran into an old Hungarian man with wispy white hair tied into a ponytail playing acoustic guitar and singing a Johnny Cash song in a soft, perfect accent that sounded almost too much like those in Georgia where I grew up. People tossed coins, flowers, and forints at his feet. Ryan and I sat on a bench and listened to three songs as we looked out over the sparkling lights of the city, and, before leaving, gave him the rest of our coins. What I didn’t realise at the time was that those moments, all of them — the rain, the guitar player, the roses, the glittering lights, the paprikash — were now indelible images in what I knew as Budapest. Standing there, holding hands with my husband, we said hello to many of the couples we’d met as they, too, made their way around the Castle district in their own ways — able-bodied, on walkers, and with canes, making their Budapest, too.
Tuesday, Day Two.
- The Citadella
At sunrise, Ryan was already bent over our guidebook, pencilling in the path we’d take on day two. As I rolled over in the king-sized bed while he scrawled tentative itineraries, trying to connect all the dots into a day-long journey, I watched him in awe: it was effortless. For me, the world is simply a whirlwind of colours, paths, and places that emerge, unplanned; for Ryan, it’s his internal compass.
We began with a morning hike to the Citadella, a 19th-century fortification on the top of Gellért Hill, because although we’d seen it as a speck in the sky from the bus, we couldn’t see much more than that. The Citadella was built in the mid-1850s by a commander of the Habsburg Monarchy after the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, a revolution that grew into a fierce war for independence from the Habsburg Empire. Its half-moon–shaped design is 220 metres long, 60 metres wide, and four metres tall. At the top are 60 cannons. As we hiked, up and up and up, it occurred to me that this city is the city it is because it has had to hide itself again and again and again. For centuries, under duress, exploitation, and destruction, it has stoically and gracefully refused to move.
At the very tip of the hill, we finally met her: Hungary’s own Statue of Liberty, a beautiful bronze woman standing on a giant grey rectangle, her arms raised above her, holding a giant palm leaf, a testament to the end of World War II. We’d seen her, of course, a speck breaking apart the horizon line in the distance, but here, standing beneath her, she stood powerful, strong, fortified. Her inscription, which originally thanked the Soviet heroes and was later revised when Hungary became a democratic nation, was in capital letters beneath her. In all its multisyllabic and bizarre Uralic beauty, it read:
Which, according to our guidebook, translated into something like “to the memory of all those who sacrificed for the independence, freedom, and prosperity of Hungary.”
Looking up at a parallel world’s Statue of Liberty, with a spirit so different from our own in New York, I thought about the concepts of independence and freedom and how connected we think they are. Over the course of our 12 days across Eastern Europe, we’d met travellers, people I’d unlikely meet anywhere other than on a river cruise, who had troubled these lines for me. Independence, the rare, beguiling thing it is, didn’t always mean freedom.
At the beginning of our journey, over lunch in Romania, we’d met a brilliant but eccentric surgeon who, because he suffered from a rare skin cancer, couldn’t emerge from the ship without covering every inch of his body. He was burdened by layers of heavy clothing and the truth that he might not live to see a new year, but he ran all over Bulgaria with us looking for abandoned cathedrals and fortresses while wearing heavy gloves over his blistered fingers, a large-brimmed hat over his bald head, and cargo pants over his hairless legs. I had always thought of the idea of independence as being rather cut and dry when it came to the body: one is able or not able. Truth be told, the world is much more complicated than that.
The rain commenced again, harder this time. Though he’d been sceptical at first, telling me he wanted nothing less than to sit some more, Ryan finally assented to my pleas. We’d sit out the storm in a Roman bath.
- Rudas and Gellért Baths
It took a long time to get from the Citadella to the baths, but the walk—through the dense and unpopulated forests—was gorgeous. When we finally reached Rudas, my body became ever-obvious: had the gaggle of near-naked Hungarian men and clouds of cigarette smoke outside not fully tipped me off, the concierge selling the tickets did. At Rudas, Tuesday is for men.
We stopped next at Gellért, which was an easy 700-metre stroll down Szent Gellért, the winding road that parallels the Danube. Our bathing suits snug in our backpacks, our shoes sloshing along the slick, wet bricks, we got there in 10 minutes. We waited in line, changed in the public gender-specified changing areas, and went through the turnstiles into the Art Nouveau-style labyrinth of pools. I loved the hottest one, the way it seared my skin, the ways the blisters on my feet seemed to throb from underneath the steam and heat.
I know that not everyone has this privilege, that not everyone can dip their toe into a bath and slowly ease their bodies into a steaming hot bath. The way we learn to experience the world — the way we are conditioned to it, really — depends so much on our bodies, on our gender, on our mobility, on our ability to run, jump, and play. As we ran barefoot between the pools in different rooms, Ryan pointed out that there was a wheelchair lift to our right for bathgoers with less mobility. A moveable metal platform on a pole, it could lift people in and out of the pool with the flip of a switch. I wondered if some of our passengers bypassed this important part of Hungarian culture because they believed the pools would not be accessible to them. I made a mental note to mention it to the cruise staff.
We soaked in the 37-degree Celsius pool for one whole perfect hour. My eyes up to the sky, I noticed every single decorative tile in the ceiling. Bodies of all shapes and sizes and colours drifted in and out.
- The Jewish Quarter
The world sped up again when we reached the Jewish Quarter. By the time we’d dried off, walked all the way across the Elizabeth Bridge, and entered Pest, we were in the middle of a downpour and rush hour. It took us about an hour to walk the 3.1 kilometres. Ryan pushed forward, leading us with his impeccable GPS past the Great Synagogue, the Holocaust Memorial, a couple of museums, and a whole bunch of bookstores and bars, all the way to the Jewish Quarter. I’d been begging Ryan to take me there ever since somebody had mentioned the ruin bars there, bars that emerged in the back rooms of dilapidated buildings in the 1990s.
Under the drizzly sky, the Jewish Quarter was shabby, lively, edgy, a derelict mishmash of thrift store finds and graffitied walls. We popped into Szimpla Kert, the most well-known ruin bar, wandered through the spray-painted rooms and past the other patrons who pulled off being edgy (without trying to) much better than I ever could, ordered a lager, and sat on picnic benches. We were soaked, sweaty, elated. Next to us was a homemade wishing tree—a spindly little thing with crumpled-up papers punctured through its many limbs and branches. It had no leaves left—just branches and messages. I scribbled a wish onto a napkin and nestled it into the soil. Ryan wrote one, too.
Over the course of our cruise, we spent a lot of time dining and talking with a Canadian couple who, ever since they’d retired and sold their house, had lived out of an RV. They were the epitome of freedom. But here’s the thing: the husband, who wore a knee brace and had difficulty walking more than a few hundred feet, was cast as a security risk in Eastern Europe and denied entrance nearly everywhere we went because police feared what might be hiding in his brace. Because he couldn’t walk without the brace, he’d been forced into a role of leisure while his wife forged ahead and took photos for him. You’d think he would have minded, being stuck on the cruise ship while his wife adventured through their holiday, but he didn’t. Every day, we’d find him sunning himself on the top deck, sometimes asleep, a Hungarian book from the on-board library creased open in his lap.
I thought about them as we finished our lagers and decided to try out the restaurant next door, a Mexican spot called El Rápido. We ate chicken burritos in a bar decorated with dilapidated license plates and street signs, band posters, and knick-knacks from Mexico and the Southwestern United States. We tried to show the line cook—a middle-aged woman with tattoos down both arms, bleached hair, and thick cat-eye glasses—our drivers’ licenses from Arizona with images of saguaro cacti and mountains on them, but the act was definitely lost in translation.
- The Long Walk Home
In the lull of the late afternoon, we made our way back across Pest, back across the Elizabeth Bridge, back up the winding hills to our hotel. As we walked, we stopped at St. Stephen’s Basilica and marvelled at the frescoes on the ceilings. We strolled by a heavy metal band in the park, and we grabbed one last coffee at an outdoor kiosk. I wanted to remember all of it — the smell of the grass being trampled by kids head banging to loud music, the sound of shoes pummelling down cobblestone streets, the noise of bodies going back and forth in a busy urban centre. There was so much movement, so much pulse, so much life.
When we finally reached the top of Buda Castle Hill, we ran into many of our fellow cruisers for one last time. Unlike us, they were having coffee, playing cards, sitting in the lobby, reading books on Hungarian history, remapping the tour we’d just taken through five countries, sipping cocktails. Everyone seemed relaxed, at ease with the pace of their day here.
As we talked with a sweet British couple who’d recently retired and who’d come to Eastern Europe to trace their Romanian ancestry (a noble pursuit for a cruise, am I right?) the sun burst through the clouds. Matthias Church transformed into colour, her spires alighting into glowing metallics. None of us had seen the church that way before. It felt like a suitable ending—a new beauty in an act of stillness.
The British couple laughed as Ryan and I trailed off, transfixed by the church’s glow. “The thing about travel,” the husband said, elbowing his wife on the arm, “is that the age of your footsteps will change.”
He’s right, of course. A speck in the sky can bloom into an enormous bronze woman standing tall atop a grey obelisk, and a green hill can become a labyrinth of hiding spots and switchbacks, but a vista can simply remain a vista, too.
It is advice I’ve never forgotten. It’s like that Hungarian expression, the one about rain and raincoats. A raincoat doesn’t really help after it’s already raining.
Still, I loved the way my feet ached that night as I lie in bed that night. Unable to sleep, I decided I never wanted to throw my shoes away, even though the soles were almost completely worn off.
I never did throw away those shoes. After all, I’d like to tell my grandchildren one day, as I sit in a café watching the afternoon linger into sunset, that I had once done a Budapest marathon.