Sunday, December 03, 2006 Hungary Hungary

A not unhumorous city

Budapest street musicians [Enlarge]

We found Hungary a bit overwhelming at first. Hungarian is unlike any other language we've ever encountered (they have long words with lots of consonants and even two different types of umlauts). Linguists categorise it with Finnish because, we suspect, they have nowhere else to put it! In Spain and Italy our knowledge of French allows us to work out roughly what stuff means, and in north-east Europe our German gets us by. However in Hungary the foreigner has no chance.

Luckily the staff at Vámház were all bilingual (we never did find out where American Catherine learned her Hungarian, but she sounded fluent). Vámház felt like the first 'proper' hostel we'd stayed in. The common room, with free Internet access and a small library of travel books, was a gathering point in the evenings and we chatted with people from all over the world (including a Chinese-born Las Vegas croupier who learned English at Sawston Hall in Cambridgeshire, three miles from where Isla grew up!)

We have more or less decided to head for İstanbul now. This was sort of always the plan, but we were prepared to change our minds on the way if we felt like it. There are two obvious routes from Budapest to İstanbul: via Bucharest or via Belgrade and Sofia. A guy in the hostel who had been to Bucharest told us that the Belgrade–Sofia route would probably be slightly preferable (actually he said that Bucharest was the worst place he had ever been to and it had no good points at all). So we walked to Keleti Station and booked two seats on Monday's EC 345 train to Belgrade. We were promised by the man at the information desk "Special price 5,500 Forint!" This of course immediately worried us that we were being ripped off but at GBP 14.50 (USD 28.50) we weren't too upset. In the event the tickets cost even less than this, just HUF 4,860 each including seat reservation. It's possibly a complex scam to make you feel that you got an "extra special price!" but we were happy with the deal.

By our last full day in Budapest we had fallen in love with the city and its people. They seem to be universally friendly and very optimistic about the future (Hungary joined the EU in 2004). One of the Hungarian hostel staff recommended some more things to see and we headed off across the river to Buda, to see the famous Castle Hill.

Castle Hill, Buda looking over the Danube to Pest. The Hungarian parliament building is in the distance. [IMG_0356]
Castle Hill [Enlarge]

At the foot of Castle Hill is a funicular railway to ferry the tourists up. They wanted HUF 700 (GBP 1.85 / USD 3.63) each for a one-way trip so we decided to walk up. After a steep but short climb we found ourselves at the viewpoint at the top looking back across the river (photo using our cool Gorillapodtip: get the medium-sized one unless your camera is tiny, as the small one is flimsy) when we were approached by a very Hungarian man who offered us a walking tour of Castle Hill. It would last 40 minutes and cost HUF 5,000 (GBP 13.00 / USD 26.00) for both of us. He was very proud of the fact that his tour would be "cheaper and shorter" than the others! When we told him that we had walked up to the top of the hill because we regarded 700 Forints as expensive, he knew that he wouldn't be getting a sale from us. However he persisted, because that is what he does. The price immediately came down, and the length of the tour increased, as he felt confident that he could get more people to join us. He then promised that the tour would be "very interesting, and"—he leaned towards us and lowered his voice as if about to let us into a secret, his huge moustache twitching and his eyes sparkling—"not unhumorous". His delivery was dead-pan and was indeed very funny. We thanked him very much and promised to give his offer careful consideration.

After about a minute, he shuffled over to us again and said "OK, I give you some free information now!" The loss-leader technique. He said "You see that bridge down there? It has not one but THREE! English connections. ONE: It was designed by Adam Clark. TWO: It is built from the famous Sheffield Steel and THREE…" we are very sorry Hungarian guide-man, we've forgotten the third connection. But you gave us a very enjoyable taster of what your tour would have been like and we are sure it would have been value for money.