Day 522 – 4 August, 2016
August in Europe. This backpacker’s nightmare. It’s taken some time, but I have learned a lot about the way I prefer to travel. If I was taking a short holiday away from work, perhaps only one or two destinations per year, I would definitely plan where I would go, where I would stay, what I would do while I was there, and maybe even where to eat. For a backpacker, this is almost impossible. Not only do I not have time to do so much planning, I also don’t want to. Having no time constraints or reservations allows the spontaneous to happen. If you’re already committed to a reservation with a deposit or the dreaded pre-payment, you’ve taken away half the fun and flexibility of not having a schedule.
Enter August, the month when the whole of Europe takes off to travel on their own “short” holiday. It doesn’t take long to discover that I am behind on the curve. I arrived in Budapest on a Thursday (somehow booking a Thur-Sat stay on Wed without much difficulty). I immediately tried to extend for an extra 2 nights and told in no uncertain terms that they were sold out. More urgently than anticipated, I began trying to book a place to stay in Lake Balaton as my next destination. Also sold out of anything less than $400. Then I tried Gyor. Same story. I finally found a place in Eger that was available, but going to Eger next meant that I would be eliminating a whole chunk of my desired itinerary in western Hungary. From Eger, I wanted to go to Bukk National Park. Two hours of Internet searching for affordable accommodations in an acceptable location turned up nothing.
I expected Europe to be busy in the summer, but I was finding my travel style couldn’t keep up. I didn’t want to book several weeks in advance and be forced to keep a schedule on these terms. If I liked a place, I wanted the flexibility to stay. And if I didn’t connect with a place, then I wanted the flexibility to move on. This had worked for me so far, but now I was in a place at the peak of its tourist season seeing more than 7 million visitors this year with at least 75% of that number during the summer months.
I started with a free walking tour of Budapest, where we visited St. Stephen’s Basilica on the Pest side and Castle Hill on the Buda side, but my thoughts were elsewhere. All the while I was letting the stress of future travel affect my mood. Sitting on the top of Castle Hill after the tour was finished, I decided I couldn’t let this bother me. I was opening the door for new spontaneous adventures to follow, maybe in other countries that I hadn’t even planned to visit. Making the conscious decision to change my attitude, I was more able to appreciate the youthful hip vibe that lingers in Budapest. The social scene was electric with trendy restaurants and “ruin bars,” Budapest’s figurative middle finger to their violent past.
Known also for their high density of thermal pools, I had to visit on of these unique architectural marvels. I had been warned of rain and advised to go to the thermal baths because they were indoors. Well, it turns out only one swimming pool and one medium-sized thermal pool are indoors, but it didn’t much matter because the rain and clouds subsided by early afternoon and I was able to take full advantage of the facilities. Outdoors, an artificial wave pool and another thermal pool and sauna were the main attractions. Before the sun emerged from behind the clouds, the temperature hovered around 65F, which was an acceptable coolness to enjoy the thermals. Two lion heads spouted a forceful flow of water so that it was necessary to fight for your turn for the water massage. After the sun was in full force and the temperature climbed to 85F, the masses headed for the wave pool. Aside from a group of American teenagers who were fighting, cursing, and screaming, the wave pool was a mass of living pulsing bodies, jumping in rhythm with the waves, and utterly silent. Maybe the strange silence amplified how embarrassed I was by the Americans, but for how much fun everyone appeared to be having, I couldn’t reconcile the lack of joyful squealing or laughter that would seemingly accompany this type of attraction. In hindsight, I guess I can recognize the typical behavior of American teenagers and although inappropriate, at least they didn’t allow their true spirit to be stifled.
I’m still not sure I understand the point of Szentendre. I went there on a day trip from Budapest; it’s only 30 mins by train from the city. It lies on the Danube and is part of the Danube Bend Historical Zone, whatever that means. I usually tend to like these small towns that are touristic for their authenticity. Szentendre is really small with a population of 26,000. There are lots of shops and restaurants and an average river walk, all of the ingredients to make a pleasant stopover, but I could not make sense of the vibe. Hungary is not big on cafes (they blame this on communism) so the only thing I saw people actually doing in Szentendre was walking up and down the same market street eating ice cream. Literally. I sat on a bench people-watching and I saw the same people walk past several times with ice cream. Now it stands to reason that perhaps they were bored of the ice cream in Budapest and I have to assume this is true as I couldn’t ascentain any other reason that people would choose to go there. There is a marzipan museum, which sounds like quite a stretch to try to entertain people who are already in an ice cream coma. It wasn’t a bad place and if you too have designs to visit the Danube Bend, I can’t say there was anything wrong with it, but it felt like they were trying too hard to reach the shallow depth of tourism outside of the busy capital.