Sunday, August 26, 2007

Budapest for the rest of us

So clearly my recent trip to Budapest is not something I would have been able to accomplish on my own meager salary, even though my boss continually likes to position her staff as “experts in the luxury market,” when in reality, on particularly bad days, my coworker and I go in on lunch together, splitting a slice of pizza and meticulously dividing up a can of Diet Coke from the vending machine. But I digress…

I took a few notes when away from the high-thread count of the hotel and here’s what I came up with, so that Budapest seems less like the London of Hungary.

First, I should say that now is the time to go to Budapest, before it turns into a shiny, reconstructed European city. Budapest was battered during World War II, and a few gritty remnants of this period remain. There is anti-Communism graffiti everywhere, which the city is in the process of cleaning up. This, I understand, but what makes me sad is the refurbishment that is ridding various buildings of fascinating bullet holes from the war. If you’re at all a history buff, you’ll want to experience this city in the next two years, before all of these time stamps are erased by new construction.

Hungary’s currency is the forint, which when I was there, roughly equaled 192 forint for every American dollar. This rate fluctuates a lot and its instability is one of the reasons why Hungary hasn’t yet converted to the euro. If I cared and/or was smarter, I could better explain the reasoning behind this, but I don’t and I’m not, so if you’re that interested, contact one of those finances types for an explanation.

Anywho, though the exchange rate ain’t great, Hungarian goods are cheap, especially the wine, which is next to impossible to get in America, simply because the wineries don’t have the capacity to meet the demand. For $20 each, I essentially got “ripped off” buying two bottles of red wine I had sampled during dinner at the Four Seasons the previous night, from a wine shop in Budapest’s fashionable Castle District.

Budapest is split down the middle by the Danube River and actually used to be two separate cities—Buda and Pest—before becoming one in 1873. The Buda side is the more fashionable, artsy side of the river, where you’ll find landmarks like the Holy Trinity Square, the Royal Palace and most shopping. It’s also the side where you’ll find the Amigo Hostel, which is oddly Mexican-themed, but offers cheap rooms and, for a little more forint, private rooms and baths. (Mind you, I didn’t stay here, it came on recommendation of the tour guide.)

You can easily walk east across the Chain Bridge to get to the Pest side of the Danube, which is noticeably less trafficked. This is where you’ll find Parliament, the second largest synagogue in the world (second to New York) and St. Peter’s Basilica. (Can anyone tell me why there seems to be a St. Peter’s Basilica in every major European city?). It’s also where the famous Gerbeaud Ház café is located. (I highly recommend the dark chocolate cake and taking home a tin of their coffee, which will run you about $16.)

While the Buda side is all hills, Pest is flat. I found out from a fellow traveler that for as little as $1.50 an hour, you can rent a bike, peddle slowly and see all the sights of the Pest side in about 30 minutes. The metro is also cheap and quite efficient for getting around as well.

If your travel times are flexible, go to Budapest during a festival, when the city is replete with markets showcasing homemade goods like handmade lace, semi-fashionable clothing, pottery and other cheap yet original goods. Admittedly, you could see all there is in Budapest in a day or two, so going during a festival easily tacks on another day to soak in the culture. It didn’t appear to me that you could haggle prices with the proprietors, but I was too shy to try, so I can’t say for sure. For a list of upcoming festivals in Budapest, click here.

Typically, the best time to visit is in the summer months, but that is when airfare will run you about $1,000—coach—roundtrip. My insiders say, however, that by planning your trip between November and March, you could easily score a roundtrip flight for $400. Despite the annoyance of having to lug a winter coat, I think Budapest in the winter could be quite charming. If you’re lucky enough to be there when it snows, I can only imagine how magical the whole scene of the Danube and the surrounding medieval architecture looks.

The city knows winter is its slow season, so as further incentive for tourists, Budapest is running the same promotion it did last winter, which is its stay three, get one night free campaign. Here you can get a full list of participating hotels that run the gamut from—yes—the Four Seasons to cheaper three-star hotels.

So that’s Budapest for the rest of us. For an overwhelming amount of photos taken over a three-day period, click here.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Are you there God? It's me, Hungary.

I'm in Budapest right now, taking part in Hungary's St. Stephen's Day celebrations. Apparently the city is on high alert this year, after what happened in 2006:

"At least three people died and more than 250 were injured when a storm lashed Hungary's captial, Budapest, as huge crowds watched a firework display."

With three hours left to go until 2007's fireworks, Budapest is again currently under seige by heavy rains. Trees are toppling sideways and people have fled screaming for cover. The winds are so strong, I had to throw my body into my balcony door in order to close it. (For once, work has possibly saved my sanity. Earlier, I opted to go back to the hotel to work, instead of remaining on the large ship floating in the Danube that I'm supposed to be on right now.) I have to admit it's a little freaky.

Yesterday, during a guided tour, our guide stopped at the Holy Trinity Column, which was erected near the Royal Palace in 1713 to protect the city from the plague, which Budapest was repeatedly (forgive me) plagued with. "We don't have a lot of good luck here in Hungary," she said.

No kidding.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

An American in Budapest

Of all the things Budapest has to offer, you might be surprised to hear the one thing it has an abundance of—American tourists. Especially these last three days, when Hungary celebrates St. Stephen’s Day, the former Communist country’s equivalent of the Fourth of July. Along the Danube River, mixing well among the locals enjoying the specially commissioned music, events and markets for the occasion, Americans are roaming the streets, taking in the Parliament, shopping in the city’s newly established fashion district and eating at Gerbeaud Ház, the city’s famed pastry and coffee shop. Of all the times I've been to Europe, it's so far the best I've seen Americans blend. I don't think that speaks to Hungarians, I think it says more about the type of American traveler that is coming here.

You could say that being an American has attuned my ears to an utterance of an English word, but in Budapest, you are hard pressed not to find someone who speaks English, making it a very easy city to navigate. The reason I know Americans are beginning to flock here is because Julien Carralero, general manager at the Gresham Palace Four Seasons Hotel here, where I’m staying, tells me that 60 percent of his guests are American leisure travelers.

Though tourists often march in and out to admire the detail-oriented renovation, as well as the hotel’s stunning lobby, the 179-room hotel is rarely at occupancy. The building itself offers a rich history that spans a life as a luxury apartment building, insurance headquarters, even neglect, before the Four Seasons took it over two years ago and renovated it. It is so breathtakingly beautiful that Condé Nast Traveler in 2007 voted it best in design, service and rooms on its Gold List.

Indeed, my room, a standard king that overlooks the Danube and the Chain Bridge, is quite comfortable—a welcome respite from the 10 or so hours it took to get here. (Malev, Hungary’s carrier, flies direct from New York, but flights are so full—further evidence of an American invasion—I instead flew Oneworld alliance partner American Airlines to Zurich and connected there to Budapest on Malev.)

Also helping me to relax is the helpful staff, particularly Magdi, my masseuse at the hotel’s spa, who dutifully worked out the kinks in my shoulders and was so highly trained she said to me as she worked on my left hand, “You must type a lot.” A hazard of the job, I told her. (I'll make sure my boss reads that as evidence of my commitment.)

A delicious dinner and wine pairing at the hotel’s restaurant, Páva—appropriately translated as “peacock”—rounded out my first day. Well done simple pleasures like tomato soup, asparagus risotto with truffles and chocolate molten cake fulfilled me well enough to carry me through three hours of private car sight seeing the next day, graciously arranged by the hotel concierge. Such an extravagance isn’t necessary, however, as the hotel is located well, across from the famous Danube and within walking distance to a good number of the city’s attractions and landmarks.

If it sounds as though I’m being pampered, well—I am. What else would you expect from the Four Seasons? Plenty of non-PR commissioned pictures to follow upon my return later this week.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The New York Times has my number

Although unfortunately, it's not for an interview. This is the second time now that their travel section has graciously prepared one of their "36 Hours" pieces about a place I'm traveling to. First, Scotland, where Jay and I will be off to live in the lap of luxury for four days come December, and now, Budapest, where I'm headed this weekend, quite appropriately, for roughly 36 hours. It's almost like the editors there have a dossier in my head (or more acurately, in my trip log at work).

Friday, August 10, 2007

It's happened again

Another equally boring writer lands a coveted (at least by me) gig at an online media gossip rag. This is a girl who once earnestly blogged about why she joined one bank over another. Seriously.

Meanwhile, I can’t score a call back no matter how much I tailor my cover letter, and am left to languish at a job that values plagiarism over original reporting. Not that I’m the next big thing, but I like to think I can at least construct a few interesting sentences. I guess I just need to follow my 21-year-old, still-in-college sister’s arrogant advice and just “put [myself] out there.”

As I told Corrie, who relayed this latest news, I’m either going to kill myself or quit journalism altogether. I’ll decide later. It's all just too much right now.

Add to Technorati Favorites