Not knowing where I’ll end up is a given. –Dr. Lisa K. Glueck
I’m pretty sure we all know the worst part about stowing away on a cruise ship is not the black leather patch you need to wear over your eye nor perching a parrot on your shoulder so you fit in with the crowd. The worst aspect of stowing away is that you have no control over where you go or when you arrive, and who knows who your shipmates might be: pirates, thieves, boomers.
The sun has already set, and it’s almost dark by the time I find my way topside—ironically, to the sun deck—as the ship makes its way to our berthing area in Budapest where it will dock on the Pest side of the Danube with a view of Buda Castle on the Buda side. It’s a pleasant enough evening; however, I’m a little uneasy as I prefer to arrive at destinations during daylight hours.
If you’re a Type-A control junkie, it might drive you looney. I’m not Type-A; I’m more the Type-F traveler—go with the Flow. But, although I plan loosely, I like to hold the reins of my trips in my hands: I like to be the one in charge of delivering my fine behind where I don’t know where I’m going, and when. I know how that sounds—go with the flow but somehow control…something. I may have a good excuse: I’m a Libra, always trying to balance both sides of everything; ambivalence is my middle name, and also, there is something to be said for eating your cake and having it, too.
UNDER THE BRIDGES
The first bridge we encounter is the red-beamed, steel-girdered Rokoczi Bridge, a fairly recent and contemporary-designed addition to the river. It’s official name is the Lagymanyosi Bridge, but most locals, and maps, refer to it as the Rakoczi. Some folks—with rather wild, or throwback, imaginations—say the bridge looks like an oversized “toast rack.” You have to admit, it’s a peculiar sight in the night, and it has an interesting and rather unique lighting system. The tops of each of the five columns hold huge mirrors that reflect the light from powerful halogen bulbs beneath them. Rather remarkable, as the light is then spread evenly and continuously over the deck below, as opposed to circles of light and darker areas between.
The lighted building beside the bridge is the Palace of Arts complex, which houses three cultural foundations: the Ludwig Museum, the Festival Theater, and the Bela Bartok National Concert Hall. There are a few notable aspects of the building’s ultra-modern design; the one most noticeable from a distance is easy to discern: the outside of the building changes color, and hues.
At first, you don’t realize the color is changing as each shade lingers a while, perhaps a minute or so; you glance away toward the Buda side to view the Buda Hills on the far shore, the water, the bridge. You turn back to the flat, Pest side of the river, and you’re like: hey, wasn’t that building blue?
Evidently, this is the Greenwich Village part of town because right next door, you find the Nemzeti Szinhaz, the Budapest National Theater. Another distinctive structure, if not quite the iconic character of, say, the Sydney Opera House or the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, but fairly impressive in its own way.
While perusing these buildings from the river, I get the feeling I would like to attend a concert here. However, when I lived in Aspen, Colorado, many years ago, Itzhak Perlman lived next door one summer, and I spent many afternoons in my lounger on the patio sipping gotu kola tea or downing Mountain High Vanilla yogurt or sipping an ice-cold Coors while listening to Perlman practice his solos. The music clarified the air and leaked over the fence between our yards like poised refrains of melted butter. Music seems all down hill from there to me, and now it almost feels sacrilegious to actually pay for a ticket. Or is that merely the miser in me surfacing? Or perhaps, another instance of having and eating that proverbial cake?
SAILING TOWARD BATHING
From here if you look upriver, you see Gellert Hill looming behind Gellert Hotel and Spa. This is one reason why, no matter what Type personality you are—A or B, even F—any traveler should do a bit of research and planning before washing up in some foreign country: Budapest sits on a bubbling crucible of something like 120 thermal hot springs, spewing almost 19 million gallons of hot water a day. They say, soaking in a spa has been a traditional aspect of daily life here since the last “good” Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, ruled the place almost 2000 years ago.
Visiting a spa in Budapest is one of the top three most-popular, bucket-list items tourists tic off here; it’s number one on some lists. But get this, when I arrived, I didn’t know a thing about them: didn’t know they were famous, didn’t know they were popular, didn’t know they existed, didn’t know squat. Obviously, I’m not much of a tourist and carry no bucket list to tic, but perhaps every Type-F traveler should have a Type-A partner to handle important details like this. Or better, especially if solo travel is your thing, an online secretary somewhere in cyberspace, to do research and take care of the pesky business side of things for him? Please, just raise your hand if you’d like to volunteer?
Caveat: this position is an unpaid internship and will most likely also involve making decisions for said F-Type traveler, but if you’re capable of flipping a coin, you’ve got an edge on other applicants.
I’m pretty sure that Attila the Hun and his tribe didn’t waste time building and lounging in spas, frittering away precious pillaging time. But I can easily conjure them hopping off their horses and barreling into the hot water after a long day of killing and maiming, most likely with all their bloody clothes on and their bows and quivers, too. Someone has suggested that this is how water polo was invented. And goulash. But remember, you can’t believe everything you read.
There are something like 15 public spas in Budapest, all with multiple pools; for instance, the largest and perhaps most famous, the Szechenyi Baths, has 18 pools fed by two thermal springs. And there are quite a few other, private spas inside hotels. I did think about trying one of the spas. But then I discovered they give you an electronic bracelet to wear to enter and to use as your locker key. I don’t know—something about anything electric mixing with water doesn’t sit well with me. Along with that, I’m a bit of a clean freak, and embedding my body in a bathtub full of broiling strangers doing what strangers, and their kids, do in pools of warm water doesn’t sit well with me either.
I do appreciate the concept of a thermal spa; I love the idea of steeping myself in curative hot mineral springs, which many cultures through the centuries have found so healing: Turks, Native Americans, Japanese, Romans, Indians. According to local legend, bathing in hot springs lowers your blood pressure, increases your circulation, aids metabolism, increases the absorption of essential minerals, relieves joint issues. But that’s not all. If you believe what you read, soaking your bones in thermal pools also treats chronic digestive diseases, alleviates constipation, prevents diabetes, cures gout, and aids liver issues.
That all sounds healthy, wondrous, magical (if perhaps, a tad exaggerated or unbelievable to the cynic in you). And when I lived in Aspen during my John Denver/Itzak Perlman days, I would drive down valley maybe once a month or so to dip in the Glenwood Hot Springs and worried little about sanitation—well, it is America, land of lawsuits, where you could expect high-level sanitation.
But many years later in Peru, I visited the hot springs near Machu Picchu just upstream from the nearby, tiny pueblo of Aguas Calientes (“hot waters” in Spanish). If you google the word “odious”, you find 856 stock photos of this hot spring—I forget its name, if it had one other than Aguas Calientes. It costs maybe a buck or two to enter. And they do have a couple rules: you have to have a towel, you have to wear a bathing suit, and you have to wear thongs; they will rent you thongs if you’re wearing your hiking boots, which most travelers are at that elevation in the Andes.
One of the very first things I might desire after hiking the Inca Trail might be to soak in a thermal spa. Almost the last thing I desire is to wear thongs that someone else just wore on their feet in a third-world country at an elevation so high you have to chew coca leaves to stay well and where sanitation is a tragedy searching for a chance encounter. I’ve traveled enough to learn a few things about things: like, scabbies, ringworm, and foot and mouth disease (it’s not limited to animals, you know). Perhaps, the very last thing I desire might be to slip into someone else’s thong that they just wore–at any elevation.
I took a few photos of the springs at Aguas Calientes, but I could not lower myself into that pool. And ever since then, I discover when I’m at other thermal pools in foreign countries, no matter how much I desire to soak or how clear they seem, I just can’t get past the ick-factor firewall I’ve built in my head.
PARTY ON THE BRIDGES
We continue cruising toward Liberty Bridge and Gellert Hill. Liberty Bridge, built in the Art Nouveau style, is the shortest in Budapest. It transforms into a dynamic gathering place for the younger generation at night during summer. If you happen to wander along Liberty Bridge at sundown wearing your eye patch, goatee and parrot, you might be offered a bottle of Dreher brew, a snifter of slivovica, or something to smoke. If you enlarge the photo, you notice numerous travelers sitting on top of the sloping green steel girders. From the ship, I don’t notice them until we pass under the bridge, and I look back from the other side. Two turul bird sculptures spread their wings atop their globes at the peak of the two vertical pillars. The mystical and mythical turul, a huge falcon-like bird of prey, is one of Hungary’s ancient symbols, dating back to prehistoric times.
Some people say the Liberty statue atop Gellert Hill is holding a palm leaf. But I have my doubts. First, where in Hungary do they grow palm trees? Second, where are palm leaves symbols for freedom? And third, it looks more like a mystical turul feather than a palm leaf, doesn’t it? These may not be tough questions, but you have to wonder, right?
You can take a taxi or walk to the top of Gellert Hill to view the Liberty Statue up close and take in a fairly nice panorama of the city. However, if I were in the habit of offering advice, I’d suggest renting a Segway and roll to the top of that hill. Way more panache than a taxi, way more fun than walking, way less hectic than the bus, way less electric than a streetcar. Segways are not as cheap here as they are in Bratislava, but then, neither is goulash.
The ship slips under these bridges, but just barely. The bridges are actually fairly low to the water; the ships that ply these waters are three or four-decks tall.
Side note: This may be another instance proving an F-Type traveler needs a research secretary because it turns out, they do grow palms in Hungary and have since the 1800’s, if only indoors in botanical gardens. Still, my vote goes to the feather of a mystical bird of prey in Liberty statue’s hands.
FLOWING WITH THE FLOW
We continue cruising toward the castle district. Elizabeth Bridge stands in the distance, a modern suspension bridge named after Empress Elizabeth of Austria, Queen of Hungary (in the 19th century). Buda Castle crowns the hill behind the bridge. Some people think this bridge is the most stylish bridge spanning the Danube here: because of its shape and alabaster color. Personally, I prefer the elegance and atavistic charm of the older bridges, but this one’s not ugly—like, say the Conowingo Dam spanning the Susquehanna in Maryland—and its backdrop is rather picturesque.
Clearly, Elizabeth Bridge is nowhere near as popular as Liberty Bridge with the tat-generation, beer-sharing backpackers. But it may have less to do with elegant styling and more to do with the fact that Elizabeth’s girders are not flat like the Liberty, so there’s nowhere to sit on them with a lovely view of stars and lights and water, no place to rest your Dreher Classic, or to hang, to look cool, be young and generous.
You know, looking at this photo reminds me how much I appreciate miracles. I mean, the ship is not speed-boating down the Danube, but we are moving; and with no moon, it’s dark outside tonight, and somehow, I’ve managed to capture a couple of almost-sharp photos—all taken at very slow speeds, like 1/5th second or 1/25th. This rather worthless shot allows you to see what these photos should all look like, a blur off to the left and the out-of-focus wake of the boat on the right. I did have my lightweight Manfrotto ballhead tripod in my carry-on, but for all these shots, I merely rested the camera on the deck.
This reminds me of something Gertrude Stein once mentioned: “One of the pleasant things those of us who write or paint [I’ll insert blog and photograph] do is to have the daily miracle. It does come.” I’m pretty sure I couldn’t get through a day without at least one miracle. Is that a hand raising in the air I see back there volunteering to be my research intern? The one negative thing about miracles is that you can’t simply order one off the menu. Oh, and this: you really have to be careful, and very clear, about what you ask for.
I’m impressed at the size of the castles in this part of the world. Remember, the one in Prague holds a Guinness world record for size. But we can, once again, discount Bratislava. If there is a disappointing castle in this part of the world, it sits there in Bratislava—that square mousey, little thing with pointy corners. I’m not judging, you understand. It’s just that when they call something a “castle”, you expect to see a castle, not a bread box with worthless turrets. Maybe it’s time to confess that I believe I may have passed that milestone in life—to paraphrase Michael Ondaatje—when you begin to identify with sardonic and futzy minor characters in B movies.
As we near Buda Castle, we catch a glimpse of the famous, stone Chain Bridge a few fathoms in the distance.
To my eye, Szechenyi Lanchid, or Chain Bridge as it’s commonly known, is the most elegant bridge in Budapest. Elegance, apparently, is in the eye of the beholder? If you’re a Brit, and you’re going, “hey, that looks like Marlow Bridge on the River Thames,” it’s because they were both designed by the same English engineer in the first half of the 1800’s, perhaps specifically so they could haul a palm tree across to the other shore? The Chain Bridge is the bigger brother to the Marlow.
The Chain Bridge was opened in 1849 and was the first bridge here. Before that, if you wanted to cross the Danube during winter, you had to trudge through the snow on foot or horse or stage coach to Vienna, some 240 kilometers away, where you’d find the closest bridge.
During summers in Budapest, you could cross the makeshift flat-bottomed pontoon bridge, which had to be extracted during winter due to ice flow. Is anyone actually suggesting palm trees grow outdoors here?
Matthias Church, dating back to the 13th century and late Gothic-style, sits on the Buda Hills in the Castle District of town. Sitting next to the church is a World Heritage Site, a former Medieval Dominican cloister and monastery, which has now been morphed into…get this…a Hilton Hotel.
If you visit the Hilton for a drink at their restaurant overlooking the river at sunrise (well…um…when in Rome…), you can also visit a portion of the ancient monastery—if it isn’t under restoration and cordoned off as it was when I visited. I did pretend not to see the signs and lifted the ropes and slipped under (I might try anything after a slivovica for breakfast), but the Hilton’s super-slick secret police had their radar on me and ushered me right out of there with gusto and a little less graciousness than I would have preferred. However, you can see remnants of stone arches in the lobby. If you rent a room here online in advance, make sure you request one with a view of the Danube, some rooms have views of stone walls just next door. Neither are cheap.
When we hear the words “City of Light”, we probably most commonly think of Paris, although some call Paris the City of Love. But other cities also claim to be the city of light: Abu Dhabi, Las Vegas, Tehran, Be’er Sheva, Ohrid in ancient Macedonia. Oh, and Eidhoven, but here it may be only because they have a manufacturing plant that produces light bulbs.
However, right now as I drift on the Danube—which magically, now and again, appears almost blue in this light—it seems like Budapest should be on the top of anyone’s city-of-light list. This thought actually runs through my head: if I was impressed with Prague, I’m really impressed with Budapest. What is it about lights, especially bright lights in the night (even fireworks), that impresses us so thoroughly? Perhaps it distracts us, or empowers us, against the dark side of things? Or maybe a piece of our DNA remembers when night was only dark, all night long, and dangerous. Or maybe it’s just that light is inherently beautiful to our eye—like moths to candles?
Spoiler alert: Budapest does not harbor quite the same ambiance and elan during daylight hours. Still impressive, but not Prague impressive, not Amsterdam impressive, not Venice impressive. On the other hand, nobody’s calling Budapest the timid wallflower at the party of A-list impressive cities.
Hungary, luckily, now has one of the lowest prices for electricity in Europe—it’s cheaper in Bratislava and Novi Sad. Makes you wonder how much it costs to light up all these buildings each night. Here, the Budapest Parliament building shines like an irregular galaxy embracing the river. It actually is quite a star, and might be worth the $25 ticket to tour the place as it is the third largest parliament building in the world and is over a hundred years old. It has almost 700 rooms and just under 13 miles of stairs. If you see a hallway cordoned off with a rope in the Parliament building, do not pretend you don’t see the sign and try to slip under it–security here carries the 12.7mm Gepard M6 semi-automatic anti-material rifle slung over their shoulders.
There are a few more bridges spanning the Danube in Budapest, but we reach our berthing area, and the ship moors at its dock at the river’s edge.
In the morning, the haze at sunrise smolders into fine layers of vermillion lace along the horizon, then rises into thin ribbons of gray, lavender, pale blue. A bold skein of bright cumulus billows above, and over that, a swathe of cerulean veils the heavens. You feel as though you could sit here all day and relax and enjoy the view. Maybe even peel off the eye patch, and parrot—be yourself for a while, do nothing while savoring a serene romance with solitude.
Just to be clear: As you may surmise, I have received no compensation from Hilton Hotel. Actually, I’d reckon, they would prefer I stay away, stay on my side of the ropes, drink breakfast on the other side of the river, and just shut up about them.
COMING UP NEXT WEEK: POT LUCK
You can find more of Lucile’s: Photo Rehab
Find more DP Photo Challenge: New Horizon
Find more DP Discover Challenge: Tough Questions
source 1 Photo: Daniel Zsolt Hajmasi Thesis-http://elsolanchid.hu/konyvek/pontonhidakrol2012.pdf