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A Little Bit of Buda in My Heart, A Little Bit of Pest in My Soul: Or
What People Do Not Sing When They're in Budapest

Part 1: First Impressions

Based on all my reading, I had a definite preconception of Budapest, Hungary that was shattered once I got there. 1. I thought it was an old, beautifully preserved city, kinda like Prague (cheap too). 2. I thought the Turkish Baths were all nude. 3. I thought I would meet a thousand and one travelers looking for something different, just like me.

Since the Iron Curtin disintegrated in 1990, Budapest has become a Mecca for independent travelers. People were drawn to the rawness of it, like fresh meat. It was like an exotic disease ready for experimental surgery. Unfortunately, Americans, Australians, Canadians and other transient people rushed over immediately to deflower the beauty of this uncharted territory. That was 10 years ago. What's left in year 2000 is a McDonald's saturated, generic cosmopolitan city, full of randy expatriate club kids looking for the next party. To say I was disappointed is completely missing the point. I was disturbed by the pollution, the crime, and the desecration of its' historical buildings. It felt like New York, folks. I went halfway around the world only to end up back in New York.

Why?

Budapest did what many other eastern European cities did in the 90's and so I can't really blame it. It Westernized. That's an important word here, so remember it. I'll be using it with abandon in future articles. There might be a pop quiz later. Westernized, for those of you who don't pick up on the obvious, is a term used for people, places and things that have become more western, i.e. American. Budapest, if not for the central Cathedral and Hungarian speaking people, could have been Boston or even Seattle. It was dreary, dank (it rained a lot, so maybe that accounted for my bad mood), and had an uber-sophisticated atmosphere…I didn't feel comfortable in this city at all.

On that note let me start at the beginning. To get to Budapest I had to take an over-night train through Slovakia. There are a slew of urban legends among backpacker culture and I was taken in by one of them. Everyone I spoke to knew someone who knew someone who was gassed in Slovakia while sleeping in his or her train bunk. They woke up hours later with all their stuff gone, including their passport and travelers checks. Yawn! What a crock of shit. But that didn't stop me from staying up all night on the train jumping at each sound from outside. I felt like a gullible fool.

Exhausted, disillusioned and achy I set off for Caterina Hostel, which sounded incredibly inviting in my guidebook. It wasn't. Actually, I never made it inside the real hostel, since they ran out of room and parked me in a sketchy apartment, in a sketchy neighborhood with two sketchy roommates. Pete and Trevor turned out to be two rather ambiguously gay Canadians with a penchant for sleeping at all hours and so I was able to breath easier.

So, I wandered the streets. I got bored. I went to St. Stephen's Cathedral, which is an impressive gothic structure in central Pest. (I forgot to mention that Budapest is made up of two sections separated by the Danube River called Buda and Pest.) I've seen more churches and cathedrals than the pope so I wasn't particularly enthused but since I was there I strolled in. Low and behold, St. Steve's is the home of one of the coolest religious relics in the world: St. Stephen's hand. His real hand. The gruesome, skeletal left hand of the aforementioned 13th century saint. Freakin' Macabre if you ask me. After staring in horrific curiosity for a while and sneaking a couple of pictures I took the elevator (an elevator!) to the bell tower to check out the entire city. Ok, I have to admit that Budapest is growing on me.

Now what?

FYI: Lonely Planet has six pages of things to do in Budapest. I checked off the Turkish Baths, a Hungarian folk dancing show, museum haunting, cave spelunking and shopping. Oh, and seeing Fisherman's Bastion, the super cool medieval fort built on top of a cliff.

Gellert Hotel Bath: Must Wear Bathing Suit at All Time. DAMN! I knew it was too good to be true. Pete and Trevor came with me for this all day spa treatment. Excluding the bathing suit thing, the Bath was all I expected it to be and more. Several large, indoor, marble swimming pools of various temperatures dominated the huge building. It was pure heaven and I never wanted to leave. I would have moved in and become a permanent fixture if Pete and Trevor hadn't dragged me on to the next bath.

My favorite part, believe it or not, was the wave pool. It's such a cheesy, Disney water-park staple, that I thought I would be beyond it. I wasn't; and once again I had to be dragged out of the water and laid out to dry by my trusty odd couple companions. I owe them a lot. I might have become a water logged bath bunny with prune like skin and Olympic wave pool surfing skills. I might not be here today. Wherever you are, Pete and Trevor, in the closet or out, I thank you.

After the bathing experience, I had a famous Gellert Hotel Thai massage. Now, I don't want to make you more jealous then you already are, but I thought nothing could top my wave pool experience. I entered a small room full of soothing music and sweetly scented jasmine and was told to change into soft, cotton pajamas. My masseuse was Lee, a 5 ft 90lb Thai woman, with a sweet smile and magical hands. She worked on me for two hours! Imagine this strong, tiny woman using her hands, elbows, knees, feet, shoulders, butt and head to stretch, rub and squeeze me. I was a warm, mushy pile of goo when she was finished. I felt like I'd just had two hours of multiple orgasms. I could barely walk out of the room without help. I couldn't remember my own name. I was happier than I'd ever been in my entire life. I asked her to marry me.

Stay tuned next month for Budapest: Part 2, which includes debunking cave spelunking, picnicking at Parliament and hysterically losing something rather essential to a traveler (No, it's not my sanity).

-- Nicole Hermatz

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