Callum’s 2015 Adventures: Interrailing pt.8 Budapest, Hungary

‘If you come from Paris to Budapest you think you are in Moscow
but if you go from Moscow to Budapest you think you are in Paris’
– Gyorgy Ligeti

Authors Note: This post is going to be slightly different from the ones before, because my experience in Budapest was one that left me feeling a mixture of emotions. In part this was down to the extreme heat and the location of our accommodation, but also because I found myself in Budapest at the height of the 2015 Refugee Crisis where the international train stations were closed. I know how the BBC reported it, but what I saw differed. All of which will be touched on below.

Day 16 – Day 17: Bratislava – Budapest 31.08.15 – 01.09.15

Plan of Action N/A

A mid-morning train from Bratislava brought us into Budapest early afternoon. Having heard so many great stores and having been told about so many places to go, I was eagerly anticipating what Budapest had in store. Unfortunately, for a multitude of reasons, I found myself feeling more deflated than I did after Vienna. During the time we were there it was a complete disaster, it’s only looking back on the visit that I feel any sort of fondness for the city.

To be honest, the moment we stepped off the train and onto the ground of Budapest’s Keleti Station, we should have realised something was up. Yet the constant travelling and lack of consistent internet meant Faye and I were very much out of the loop with what was going on in the world. Imagine our shock then, that the first sight that greeted us was a queue of over 150 refugee men queueing to buy tickets and many more trying to make their way onto the trains heading over to western Europe.

If that was shocking, then the next sight to greet us upon leaving the station was overwhelming.

Following the directions we had been provided for the hostel, we made our way into the underground area which was overrun with refugees. There were men so old I doubted they could still walk without support, there were children who look starved beyond belief, and there were women of all ages patiently waiting for news of what would happen next.

Due to the heatwave engulfing eastern Europe that saw temperatures sore above 40 degrees, it is no surprise that the women, children and older generations sought out the shaded areas in an attempt to stay cool. The fact that the fathers and young men would brave the heat to queue for hours in hope of purchasing a train ticket demonstrated just how desperate their situation was. The underground at Keleti station may have been covered in litter, but the hundreds upon hundreds of refugees were sitting in their own piss, eating minimal amounts of food, and having to decide between drinking the water that they had or washing in it.

This was all before the events that almost derailed our interrailing experience, but it was around the same time that news reports of the refugee crisis started surfacing across the United Kingdom. This prompted the need to leave updates about how Faye and I were getting on through Social Media, all before we had even been in Budapest for 2hrs.

Our day didn’t get much better from there. We got lost on our way to the hostel due to lack of clarity in the directions, the inside temperature of our hostel exceeded 45 degrees and the single fan set-up in our room didn’t help. Literally, as we set our bags down we both collapsed into our bunks. We had been non-stop and the travel fatigue I had been warned about pre-trip (a warning I stupidly ignored) set in. By the morning of September 1st I was just about ready to go home, which was when the hostel owner delivered some damning news; Keleti station had been closed.

The entirety of September 1st was wasted. Literally. I only left my bed to get water and go to the toilet. The heat was was even worse than the day before and if the wake-up call informing us of Keleti station’s closure wasn’t bad enough, finding out in the afternoon that all of Budapest’s train stations would be closed ‘until further notice’ made it 10x worse. Travelling was the last thing I wanted to be doing. I wanted to cry and curl up in the arms of my loved ones. That might sound selfish considering what I was going through was nothing in comparison to what the refugees were experiencing, but it was still a testing time for me.

The closures were due to alleged rioting from the refugees who were seeking asylum in Austria and Germany. The way they BBC and other media outlets reporting at the time made the refugees out to be little more than rodents who forced the riot police to be called, completely contradicting the views of the locals.  In fact, it was conveniently ignored that whilst the refugees were denied the opportunity to purchase food and water from the local stores in the area, locals went out and purchased these supplies for them as well as setting up a projector that played cartoons to entertain the younger ones.

Two sides to every story, right?

Day 18: Budapest 02.09.15

Plan of Action:

  • Leave the hostel
  • Visit the Gellert Thermal Spa
  • Take the River Danube City Cruise
  • Dine at the New York Cafe
  • Find a “Ruin Bar”

A new dawn, a new day… kind of. All trains to and from Budapest from across Europe were still unavailable but, with it being our last day and the outside temperature being cooler we wanted to make the most of our time. So, after working out the tram system, the first stop was a relaxing few hours over at the Gellert Thermal Spa.

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Not only is this a magnificent building inside and out, but it has four heated baths as well as the spas and a two massage rooms. On top of that there is an outdoor wave pool; going in that reminded me of trips to Milton Keynes’ very own Dolphin Splashdown  when I was a child due to the wave simulator. It is extremely affordable and should definitely be at the top of the list of places to visit if you make your way over to Budapest – just be aware of the open changing space if you don’t pay for a cubicle.

If this wasn’t great enough, the Gellert Thermal Spa backs onto the Gellert Hotel on the Buda side of Budapest, next door to a little hillside that grants an amazing view of Pest and the Danube River.

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Which lead us nicely onto our next activity (once we found it); The Danube River City Cruise. And a cruise is exactly what it was.

Unlike the cruise in Amsterdam, this one was without any commentary, with the boat literally taking us up one part of the river, turning around, and heading back. All in all it lasted around 1hr 30mins and, if you’re a fan of photo opportunities and some fresh air, is worth a shot. Although, your trip won’t suffer too much without it.

Faye and I ended up taking the mid-afternoon cruise so the sun began to set on the last leg. Whilst the sunset wasn’t too impressive, the towering buildings and cloud formations on each bank threw up some interesting photo opportunities, especially in regards to silhouette images (see below).

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With the day running away from us we searched for the New York Cafe, otherwise known as the Boscolo Budapest.

What. A. Building. Grand really doesn’t do it justice. It is absolutely gorgeous, reminiscent of a palace which is just as well since the food is equally fit for royalty. The best part of it? The clothing of the diners. Dining alongside us were others in their slacks as well as some dressed to the nine’s. It really was an experience you should not miss out on and I won’t give away much more. Still, it was one of the best meals I have ever had and if you don’t eat here you are seriously missing out.

The evening fizzled out from here. We did find a ruin bar but it wasn’t what we expected at all; less of a ruin bar and more of an actual… bar. So we headed back and rested up, knowing that we were supposed to be leaving the next day.

Day 19: Budapest – Zagreb 03.09.15

Plan of Action:

  • Get out of Budapest and arrive into Zagreb

Uncertainty. Fear. Anxiety. Exasperation. Patience. Jubilation. Frustration. Fear. Relief. That pretty much summarises the emotional roller-coaster of that day where we started in Budapest and eventually arrived in Zagreb.

Keleti was a no-go. You could only get to local stations from there. Fortunately, Budapest has 4 other stations. Unfortunately, only one other station allows international travel so that was where we headed. The morning train out to Zagreb was cancelled, leaving us in a state of limbo because if we were unable to get on the afternoon train we would be stuck. Things began to look bleak when all other international trains that day were cancelled – it even had us looking up flights to see where else we could go, since the involvement of the riot police had escalated and their treatment of the refugees had deteriorated.

Yet that was when we finally caught a break. At just before 2pm we learned that the afternoon train to Zagreb would be running, which we presumed was to help tourists and backpackers alike leave the country (there were a lot of us). Still, it wasn’t the easiest of journeys. A couple of hours in we were made to get off the train and onto a coach to another piece of track in order to board a second train which would take us into Zagreb. On both trains our passports were checked by armed police, and I was forced to hold my breath on the second train when they used this weird scanner and discussed my passport before handing it back.

A couple of hours later and we arrived into Zagreb late at night. A casual stroll led us to our hostel and after a quick check-in it was time to head to bed and sleep off a rather tumultuous day.

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