Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Re-entering the Schengen Zone: First Stop, Budapest, Hungary

On April 19th, we exited Croatia and re-entered the Schengen zone, traveling to Budapest, Hungary. I followed Vincent, who drove LandShark, to the border to ensure we all had a successful crossing. It took some time for the border agents to check our passport; perhaps they were validating that we hadn't overstayed our allowance in Croatia (which is 90 days without a long-term visa). Since we had been in and out so many times and with Vince and Paul leaving for the US twice, I could see it would take them some time to figure out. Anyway, we passed through without incident. Once into Hungary, we had to buy a vignette in order to use the Hungarian highways. The system in Hungary is to pay a 10-day, 1-month or 1-year vignette fee and to register the vehicle license. As one travels along the highways, cameras take photos of the license plates and validate that the vehicle is covered. If a vehicle isn't covered, I suspect there are traffic police located nearby and they flag down the driver.

Once we crossed the border and stopped to get a bite to eat, I continued on to Camping Niche which is located on the Buda side of Budapest. When I arrived I was a bit alarmed at how tightly packed the motorhomes were parked. There's essentially a one way road and I wondered how well Vincent had done his research this time. Fortunately, because I arrived about 40 minutes early, I had time to go to reception and learn that they had reserved a spot for us by the entrance. This would mean Vincent would only have to eventually back up about 100 feet, albeit a really tight 100 feet.
Just outside of Camping Niche's gates was this vendor making candy floss. He sold a range of flavors that I'd never seen before: Coconut, kiwi, toffee, chocolate...Here, Sarah's waiting for her watermelon floss.
That was the biggest candy floss I'd ever seen.
The restaurant and registration at Camping Niche. This was the only place to access wifi so it was often busy.
Camping Niche was the tightest campground we had visited to date. Campers were lined up as if in a parking lot with a single service road down the center. There was poor access to water and dumping facilities so we were restricted to bringing in our own water and using the campground facilities most of the time. For me, this crossed the line to too much "roughing it".
On April 20th (Easter), we enjoyed the free breakfast at Camping Niche and then set out to visit Trap which tests participants' skills to escape a room or series of rooms within an hour. It was a similar venue as Room Escape in Novi Sad, Serbia. It was rather an unusual venue for Easter Sunday but probably the best (non-tour, non-historical sight) present we could give the kids during the holiday (second only to the chocolate and the cash from Nana and that Easter Bunny).
Good news, the Easter Bunny found us in Budapest! Looks like she got some supplies from Sweden!
Driving into the city, we drove through the Easter Egg tunnel, more commonly known as the Buda Castle Tunnel. It's 350 meters long and was built between 1953-57. Its length is approximately identical to that of the Chain Bridge (seen ahead), prompting anecdotes according to which the tunnel was only built so that in rainy weather, the Chain Bridge could be shoved in and protected from wet conditions.
We arrived at Trap about 45 minutes early and so we decided to explore the neighborhood a bit beforehand. A few blocks away we stumbled upon St Stephens Basilica. A service had just ended and so we were able to slip in for a few moments. This was certainly a more appropriate venue for Easter Sunday.
St Stephens is so massive, it was impossible to capture the basilica in a single photo without the use of a special lens. The basilica was named in honor of Stephen, the first King of Hungary (c 975–1038), whose right hand is housed in the reliquary. Today, St Stephens is the third largest church building in Hungary.
St Stephens was completed in 1905 after 54 years of construction. The architectural style is Neo-Classical with a Greek cross ground plan. The interior is stunning.
Equal with the Hungarian Parliament Building, it is one of the two tallest buildings in Budapest at 96 metres; thus symbolizing that "worldly and spiritual thinking have the same importance".
Once back at the Trap experience, we worked through two games solving puzzles and other challenges. The first one had a medieval theme and the second an Egyptian theme. With good team work, we managed to unlock both rooms within our one hour time allotment. 
Trap provides the opportunity to "team race against puzzles".
The medieval Trap game: We wore these tunics which I'm sure helped us to solve the puzzles under our one hour time limit.
Following our fun time at Trap, we decided to sign up for a Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus Tour to get a better overview of Budapest. As these type of bus tours go, this one was one of the better ones in that the head sets were more usable than usual and the audio pretty good. Plus it's a way to drag the kids around a new city without making them walk everywhere. At one point, we got off the bus and caught a boat that cruised by some of the building highlights along the Danube. Despite our efforts at making the tourism easier on the kids, Paul made it clear he was displeased with the whole bus tour concept in general. What's a parent to do? There's no pleasing everyone all the time. In fact, in our family, there's rarely pleasing everyone at anytime. Everyday was a balancing act of compromise.

Here's a (very) little history about Budapest. Budapest was first inhabited by the Celts and then the Romans until the end of the 4th century. Magyar tribes invaded and inhabited the area from the 8th century and their presence is still felt in the country today, throughout the culture, language, customs and cuisine. The first king was Stephen I (as noted earlier between ~1000-1038) who later became St Stephen. Until Stephen I came along, Hungary was a pagan settlement. Stephen however was raised to become a devout Christian and transformed Hungary into a Christian state. The Mongols had a presence in the 13th century and the Ottomans ruled the area for about 150 years during the 16th and 17th centuries. The dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary was established via the Austro-Hungarian Compromise in 1867; at that time, Austria-Hungary was geographically the second largest country in Europe after the Russian Empire. In 1873 Buda and Pest were officially merged with a third town, Óbuda (Ancient Buda), thus creating the new metropolis of Budapest. After the end of WWI in 1918, Austria-Hungary found itself on the wrong side of the war and was spit up; via the Treaty of Trianon in 1920, Hungary lost over two-thirds of its territory, and about two-thirds of its inhabitants. In 1949, Hungary was declared a communist People's Republic. In 1956, there was a revolution against communism that didn't overthrow communism but "softened" it. This is one reason why Budapest retains much of its historical buildings whereas those in Bucharest, Romania were destroyed in favor of exhibiting communism's strong presence. (As a side anecdote, believe it or not, even today apparently some people who intend to travel to "Budapest", end up in "Bucharest" (as told to us during our walking tour in Bucharest) and I presume the vice verse occurs.)  Hungary's transition to a Western-style democracy was one of the smoothest among the former Soviet bloc; by late 1988, activists within the party and Budapest-based intellectuals were increasing pressure for change. In October 1989, the Parliament adopted legislation providing for multiparty parliamentary elections and a direct presidential election. The legislation transformed Hungary from a People's Republic into the Republic of Hungary; it guaranteed human and civil rights, and created an institutional structure that ensured separation of powers among the judicial, executive, and legislative branches of government.
Here are a sample of photos I took along the way on our Hop-On-Hop-Off bus and boat tours.
Hungarian Royal Opera House: Opened in 1884, it was constructed in a neo-Renaissance style, with elements of Baroque.
The Széchenyi Chain Bridge is a suspension bridge that spans the River Danube between Buda and Pest. Opened in 1849,
it was the first permanent bridge across the Danube in Hungary.
Margaret Bridge (Margit híd) (1876): It was the second permanent bridge in Budapest after the Széchenyi Chain Bridge. It's an unusual shape in that it's two branches are at a 165 degree angle such that the bridge connects to Margaret Island.
Paul, once again, wanted it to be known that he was not happy with the boat tour.
Buda Castle (Budavári Palota): It was first built by King Bela IV of Hungary between 1247 and 1265 but nothing of that structure exists today. The oldest part of the current castle (foundations of the castle keep) dates from the 14th century. It wasn't until the time of Queen Maria Theresa that the current castle was constructed and was finally completed in 1769. Much of the castle was destroyed however  in 1849 when the Hungarians were fighting for control and the Austrians were using the castle as their last stronghold. The castle/palace was once again rebuilt between 1850 and 1856 by Josef Weiss and Carl Neuwirth. After the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867, Franz Joseph was crowned king of Hungary and the palace played an important part in the lavish ceremony. The castle continued to play a role in the coronation of Hungarian kings right up until the coronation ceremony of the last Hungarian king, Charles IV, in 1916. Unfortunately damage from WWII and post-war reconstruction from the Communist era had destroyed most of the interior from the time of Maria Theresa and Franz Joseph.
The Hungarian Parliament Building is one of Europe's oldest legislative buildings. It is currently the largest building in Hungary. Construction began in 1885 and the building was inaugurated on the 1000th anniversary of the country in 1896, and was finally completed in 1904.
Szent Gellért Hegye (Hill of St Gellert): The monument is a tribute to Bishop Gellert who was killed by the pagans during the great pagan rebellion in 1046. He was put in a barrel and tossed down from the top of the hill.
We finished the day with a second Chinese meal, having eaten at the same restaurant for lunch, and then returned back to Camping Niche.

On April 21st, we went back into the Pest side and parked again in a street not far from the Opera House.
While walking to find a place to eat lunch, we walked by this city park located on a street corner. The building walls had been painted with a landscape making the playground really inviting. What a great way to dress up an ugly gray wall.
After a bite to eat we set out to take the second Hop-On-Hop-Off bus route while once again Paul made his wishes known that he did not want to do another one of these bus tours. Nevertheless we did and then disembarked a little after 14:00 so that we could take a Free Walking tour of the city. Here are a few snaps I took while on the bus. Not many are very good because most were taken while the bus was moving.
Heroes Square: Located at the end of Andrassy Avenue and next to City Park, Heroes Square is the largest square in Budapest. The Millennium Monument in the middle of the square was erected to commemorate the 1000-year-old history of the Magyars.
Museum of Fine Arts: Located at Heroes Square, the museum contains more than 100,000 pieces of art including all periods of European art.
Kunsthalle (Hall of Art) houses contemporary art and is located on Heroes Square.
Pesti Vigado Concert Hall.
At 14:30, we met three "Free Walking Tour" guides at Vorosmarty Square. After an introduction from each guide, the group was divided into 3 and we were assigned to a guide. Our guide, a woman whose name escapes me at this time, was very enthusiastic. At this point, Paul made it known that a walking tour was even a worse idea than the bus tour and I was pretty discouraged. But despite my dark mood, it didn't take long for our guide to sweep me into her talk and engage me into the highlights she was presenting. This was the best tour guide I think I'd ever encountered. It was a 3 hour walking tour, yet she found places to stop so people could sit while she covered different topics. She was interesting, engaging and fun. She received a big tip from us at the end and we decided we'd like to try to take the "Communist" tour the next day, if we could swing it. Here are a few photos I took during the Free Walking Tour.
A beginning overview of Hungary's very complicated history.
James rubbing the knees of the Little Princess statue (Kiskiralylany Szobor): It was the first statue to be added to the city after the fall of communism. As such, the small statue of the little girl is as far away from "communist ideals" as possible. Rub her knees and you are supposed to have good luck the rest of the day. James doesn't seem too convinced of this.
The statue of József (Archduke Joseph), Palatine (Governor or deputy of the King) of Hungary: The statue stands on József nádor tér, the square named after him. József was the seventh son of the Habsburg Emperor, Leopold. From 1796 to 1847 he was the palatine of Hungary and showed a great interest and genuine care for Hungary and its capital. He was an advocate of city planning, public works and constructions, which helped to turn Budapest into a metropolis. His statue faces the city that was developed during his tenure.
Danubius Fountain located in Erzsébet Square which is the largest green area in Budapest's inner city:
Apparently if one rubs the policeman statue's tummy, one will eat very well that day. Looks like a lot of people have eaten well in Budapest.
Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
The view over Budapest after having climbed up to the Royal Palace grounds. We are looking from Buda across the Danube to Pest.
The President's Residence: Apparently no one would be interested in harming Hungary's President and so the two guards here are not armed. If there's trouble, they'll do what anybody else would do: Call the police.
Statue of General András Hadik (1710-90) of the Habsburg army: He was a Magyar hussar (light calvary soldier) who embodied the best military virtues: bravery, finesse, steadfastness and patriotism. (Another interpretation of the Magyar hussars was that they were mercenaries serving in several different armies of Europe in the 18th century.) This was another statue in Budapest with a "rubbing tradition"; in this case, if one rubbed the horses balls one's virility would strengthen. As a result the horse's balls are very shiny. A few years ago, people in the neighborhood got so fed up with drunk college kids climbing the statue and rubbing the horse's balls that it is now illegal to do so.
Matthias Church: The original church was built in 1015. The current structure was built during the second half of the 14th century and was extensively restored in the late 19th century. Officially named as the Church of Our Lady, it has been popularly named after King Matthias (1443-90).
On April 22nd, we went to the Szechenyi Bath and Spa house. It is the oldest bath in Budapest, as well as the largest. It is recommended for families and had pretty good reviews on TripAdvisor. The other recommended bath house is Gellert which architecturally is the most stunning. But since we had the kids, and Paul and Sarah so far hadn't experienced one of these public thermal baths (James, Vincent and I enjoyed the Thermae Spa in Bath, England), I was fine with trying the Szencheny Bath.

Once we parked the car, we first had lunch at the Szechenyi Garden Restaurant, which was lovely.
My birthday lunch at the Szechenyi Garden Restaurant: Refined atmosphere with linen table cloths and napkins. May not seem like much but when this was day 278 of camping, these details were a big deal!
In reading reviews of the Szechenyi Bath House, we were told to bring bathing suits, towels (so we wouldn't have to rent them) and flip flops. We did and felt prepared. We got changed and met in the outdoor pool area. Here, there was a warm pool, a lap pool and a hot pool. I spent a bit of time in the warm pool and then the hot pool and then set out to see if I could find a sauna or some other thermal pool in the building.
A view of the warm pool (left) and lap pool.
Szechenyi boasts "free massages" with the water jets in the thermal pools. In the circular area below, people are pushed around at a fast clip; it looked as if I was watching a movie in fast motion. The kids loved this feature.
I discovered a few issues with the facilities. Firstly, the place is huge. There are several maps posted with a "You Are Here" icon but they never bothered to place the red dot on the map to actually show one where they are in the bath house. The second, and biggest issue, was there was no soap or shampoo at all in the showers. I've been to dozens of pools, spas and bath houses in North America and Europe and they always request people take showers before entering (preferably with soap) but regardless one always wants to take a shower afterwards (definitely with soap) to wash off the "public water". Here there was nothing. I was astonished. The soapy shower goal was particularly important to me because I really didn't want to have to go back to Camping Niche and take a shower in their unheated, shower stall later in the day. Surely Szechenyi would sell little bottles of shampoo or shower gel. So I set out to walk 200 yards to the rental counter where I stood for 15 minutes while the two people behind the counter attended no one, but instead counted money as they were changing shifts. Couldn't there be overlapping shifts so that customers didn't have to stand and wait 15 minutes? And when the man finally decided his shift had started I asked if he sold shampoo or soap and his answer was "No, you must go up into the lobby to purchase." At this point, I was pretty annoyed. I shuffled up to the entrance to the lobby in my bathing suit and flip flops but had trouble convincing the person controlling the entrance that I wanted to leave to buy soap. She was perplexed that I'd want to buy soap but eventually let me out. I went to the kiosk where they sell bathing suits and caps and asked to buy shampoo. "We don't sell shampoo", was the reply. Huh? They only had a few bars of soap, so I bought one. I asked why they don't sell shampoo. "How do people wash their hair here?" ("How do people wash at all"?) The woman behind the counter clearly thought that the need for soap or shampoo was odd. I eventually made it back into the bath area and then set out to find a massage place, knowing from reviews that they can be hard to find in the complex. (I should also mention that I did find a sauna, but it was cold, dark and not in operation.) I found the Thai massage center tucked away in a corner of the 2nd floor and, to much surprise, found they could take me right away for a massage. I chose a 45 minute oil massage, which was really lovely and salvaged the whole experience, upgrading my rating from a one-star to two star score for Szechenyi.
The ornate entrance hall to the Szechenyi Baths.
After leaving the Bath house we got back into the car and drove over to the Jewish section of town and found ExitPoint which is another one of those "solve a series of puzzles to escape a room within 60 minutes" exercises. We'd started looking out for these "escape exercises" because they apparently originated in Hungary for Europe (Japan may have been the true originating country) and Hungary had at least 45 companies offering these 60 minute games. It was also about the only activity in which we could all agree would be fun to do.

Exit Point offered 3 escape-themed rooms. Because of Sarah, Vincent signed us up for "Down the Rabbit Hole" which is loosely connected to Alice in Wonderland.
Our photo taken "down the rabbit hole". It had a broad set of puzzles that required some knowledge of certain things, such as the basics of chess. It had a good use of space and a great themed experience. We solved the puzzles in about 46 minutes but asked for 3 clues along the way.
Once we completed the "Rabbit Hole" everyone really wanted to try ExitPoint's "Madness" room but it was fully booked for the rest of the day. With that decision made for us, we headed off to find some dinner in the Jewish quarter. We eventually found a Bistro Restaurant which had an interesting menu and we all had a pretty good meal with a couple chocolate lava cakes to share for dessert. We then returned to the campground and I checked email to find numerous birthday greetings via email, facebook and linkedin. Social media receives a lot of criticism, but I must say when it helps people remember you, it really helps make a birthday special.

On April 23rd, we had two more "room escape" activities booked, this time with Claustrophilia. Our first appointment was in a room called the "Wicklewood Heritage". The theme was based on a Lord Wicklewood who was a real adventurer who dedicated his life to find lost treasures around the world. The start of the game was a little different than the others we had tried in that we met no one at the beginning. Once we found the starting address/room of the game, we read an introduction letter, had to sign it agreeing to the terms of the game and place the signed letter in a mail box. Once the signed letter hit the mail box, the game (and timer) began. We successfully completed the game without any hints (other than being told we solved everything and the last key in our hands was the key to exit the room). There were some clever and unique puzzles and everyone got to participate. Sarah did a great job collecting clues.

When we finished we had about 20 minutes before our next game, "Voodoo Tales", a couple blocks away.
Entering into Voodoo Tales and the unexpected challenges.
Once again, when we arrived at the entrance no one was there to meet us. We just had a letter of introduction, which we were required to sign, and a walkie-talkie that we could use to radio for help. A couple of the puzzles/tasks were pretty hard to complete and there weren't as many problems to solve so it was harder for all of us to participate equally. This was the first time we didn't complete the escape within the 60 minute time frame, which was disappointing.

After we left the "Voodoo Tales" activity, we found a place for lunch and then hoped to join the Free Communist Walking Tour that would start at 15:30. Unfortunately, lunch took a bit too long and traffic was not in our favor trying to get to the tour meeting point so we had to give up those plans. As an alternative, Vincent suggested we visit Csodakpalotaja (Palace of Wonders) which appeared to be some type of science museum. It's billed as a 1300 square meter physics playhouse. The GPS directed us to a shopping mall and so we were a little doubtful that we were in the right place. But on the second floor of the mall we found it and discovered a real gem for the kids. There were over 100 games and exhibits that were all interactive. The content was engaging for a wide range of ages so even Vincent and I enjoyed visiting different stations and trying various challenges. Explanations were given in both Hungarian and English.
James and Sarah trying to talk to each other while hearing their voices with a delay. It's very difficult because the mouth-to-ear feedback mechanism has been tampered with.
Vincent and Sarah testing out their musical memory.
After leaving the museum, we headed back to Camping Niche. The next day we'd be traveling to Vienna, one of my favorite cities in Europe. Camping Niche turned out to be a good spot. While space was tight, facilities were clean and the staff very friendly. In addition to our welcome drinks when we arrived, they sent us off with a bottle of wine upon departure; no wonder the campground received such great reviews!

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