Our very first Couchsurfing experience began in Budapest and we were privileged with meeting such a wonderful host! Gabor met us at the train station and took us into his family home, a hundred-year old apartment building with a beautiful, enclosed courtyard, quite near to the Danube. His parents were extremely friendly, offering us tea, biscuits and breakfast, and Gabor himself was a wealth of knowledge about the history of his city.
When we arrived at his place around 6:00 pm we didn’t really expect to do much exploring that evening, but we were mistaken. Gabor paid for a city bike ride and brought us to many different sights all throughout the night. Every part of Budapest was lit up in an alluring brilliance, and we felt like we were on a amusement park roller-coaster, stopping to take pictures along the track. Gabor was a perfect tour guide, leading us to many of Budapest’s main attractions, along with Heroes Square and Vajdahunyad Castle.
Dipping and dodging through traffic, we hurtled at top speed towards Heroes Square upon our clanky, green bicycles, stopping for nobody. Luckily, Heroes Square was rather spacious and I had plenty of room to zip around the statues of Kings and ancient leaders, striking various princely poses upon their pedestals. In the centre of Heroes Square stands the Millennium Monument, a pillar supporting the archangel Gabriel and crowded at its base by Seven mighty chieftains, leaders of the seven Hungarian tribes that first came to the region in 895 AD.
Feeling a little worn out from all the cycling, we dropped our bikes off outside Vajdahunyad Castle and warily crept up to its gates. This Transylvania-style stronghold looked menacing in the night, its sharp-tooth spires surrounded by mists, and I was excited with what evil vampires or spirits this castle might hold. I was disappointed to discover that the building was just the friendly museum of Agriculture and was made only 100 years ago for the nation’s millennial birthday. Within the fortress were several different architectural styles that didn’t seem to match, but Gabor soon explained to us that everything built in Vajdahunyad were replicas of famous monuments within the Hungarian Empire.
We accomplished a lot of sightseeing in Budapest that night, thanks to Gabor, but we only had a few days left and so much more to see. The next morning we set off on foot to spend the day exploring Roman ruins, marvellous cathedrals, and Buda’s Castle.
The Roman capital of Hungary, Aquinicum, lay just outside Budapest’s city limits, and though nobody lives there anymore the ruins of an amphitheatre, aqueduct, public baths and homes have been excavated for all to see. Ashleigh and I spent a fair bit of time climbing all over the ruins of the amphitheatre, an arena built during the reign of Emperor Antonius Pius. Mortal combat between gladiators and wild animals were once fought inside this arena, while up to 7000 bloodthirsty spectators watched from its grandstands.
It doesn’t seem to matter how many cathedrals I visit, I’m always awed and enthralled by their celestial domes and golden halls. St. Stephen’s Basilica, named after the first Christian King of Hungary, is no exception. The brightly coloured tile floor, marble pillars, stained glass windows, and vaulted ceiling of St. Stephen’s Basilica cannot be missed on your visit to Budapest. Not only is the cathedral named after Stephen, but the king’s right hand is housed within the church, his shrivelled member in open view for picture-happy tourists. Where the tradition of displaying body parts of Saints came from I’ll never know.
The monumental citadel on top of Castle Hill was the beginning of what was known as Buda’s town, a palace and village encompassed by sturdy walls and protective turrets. Ashleigh and I nearly spent an entire day hiking up the steep incline and exploring the fortifications, Matthias Church, the Fisherman’s Bastion, the National Gallery and the Castle District. If you visit Budapest, you must give yourself an entire day to explore all the medieval marvels on Castle Hill.
When night finally fell, our delightful adventures were still not over. Our target for that evening was the Széchenyi Medicinal Baths— pictures of the place looked incredible and we could not resist our only chance to try it out.
Budapest was lucky enough to have been built over 100 natural hot springs, and its people have taken advantage of the endless supply of hot water by constructing many fancy spas all over the city. Széchenyi is one of the largest public baths in Europe and was built to resemble an exquisite, Baroque palace with its mighty pillared halls, Greek statues, tiled floors and marble fountains. The baths consist of 18 pools of varying temperatures, along with steam rooms, saunas, and a whirlpool with currents that range from lazy to torrential. The calcium, magnesium, hydro-carbonate, sodium and sulfate minerals within the thermal waters are said to help cure degenerative illnesses of joints, arthritis, and post-injuries. In the evening the outdoor pools were lit up in a shimmering brilliance that was, I have to say, very romantic (if one ignores the far too many men in speedos). What a great way to relax and wind down after a hard day of touring the city– it’s like work, you know!
The finale of our Budapest tours found us in the Ruin Bars, a unique world filled with strange and wondrous relics that will keep your head spinning as you quaff your cheap beer. In 2001, derelict buildings and unused outdoor spaces were transformed into party rooms where young people could congregate, get drunk and get artsy. Everything inside the ruin bars– tables, chairs, decorations– are reused and revitalized garbage that were left behind in abandoned buildings or dumpsters. When entering a ruin pub you will first have to find the correct entrance (usually down a back alley), and then wade through a clustered jungle of bicycle wheels, Christmas lights, disco balls and giant rubix cubes, before choosing which bar and which room you’d like to hang out in. Once you’ve settled in the fun never ends, feel free to add to the art by graffiti-ing your name on the wall and just enjoy the wild atmosphere. We sure did!
Friends and family had raved to us about the wonders of Budapest and we were not disappointed. It is a fascinating city where something new, beautiful and strange is waiting for you around every corner, where the tour never ends– I could have written so much more about it. Having had a pleasant, first Couchsurfing experience and a great time sightseeing, my only regret is that we didn’t have more time. The day will come when our wayfaring travels will end, but I’m glad I’ll have memories of these marvellous places and stories to share in the years ahead.