I awoke around 5am, but stayed in bed till 7:30am. Not much I could accomplish at the earlier hour.
Since I hadn't eaten in a while, I partook of the complimentary breakfast, which was pretty nice--cheese, ham, eggs containing meat, pepperoni, liverwurst--the trip notes were accurate about this part of the world enjoying its meats. Everyone at breakfast was old, but none were speaking English, so I figured they weren't in the group.
I set out for some sightseeing and headed due west, which made me hungry for fish for some reason. First stop was St. Stephen's Cathedral, but the photo wasn't as good as one I took on the way back, so I deleted it. I continued in the general direction of the Chain Bridge so I could walk over to the Buda side.
You know, you can use some unadulterated English words. You don't have to Hungarianize every one.
Chain Bridge looking west toward Buda and Castle Hill.
Aw come on! That one doesn't even have an H in it! (That was my genuine reaction. It doesn't make sense, but it's an excuse to add a link to this.) [Aug 1 2009: The word "this" used to link to a YouTube video of the Family Guy "Cool Whip" scene, but the video was removed.]
Parliament from the bridge. A rare zoom shot that's in focus.
There's a funicular you can take up to Castle Hill, but as I've always said: Funiculý, funiculÓ! (That counts as a Seinfeld reference. There have been a lot so far just in these two pages. Pay attention!) I preferred the exercise and the photo ops, so I walked up the hill.
Parliament and the Chain Bridge from a bit up the hill.
Higher up. I was trying to replicate a photo B2 took that's centered on the roundabout, but I couldn't find the spot. Outdone by my travel archnemesis.
Higher still! Seems like Parliament's in the wrong spot though. It should be closer to the bridge. Maybe it was built before photography.
Up the Danube. Buda on the left, Pest on the right.
Up on Castle Hill. The is the Royal Palace.
Random shot of one of the cobblestone streets. This was the medieval area of Budapest, back in medieval times.
I think it was at this point that I broke down and bought water and Coke. Tried to put it off as long as I could despite the heat and the climb up the hill. I acquired said refreshments from a nice juggy salesgirl who didn't speak English and typed the price on a calculator. Hot. I saw a good number of hotties on the hill, wearing pleasant skirts and sundresses. I'll save my tirade against fat American girls for later.
Wet naked chick made of stone, holding a tray of real live pigeons. A lot of people were photographing this.
I saw a Contiki bus on the hill! I have few regrets, but one is not starting my Contiki touring earlier, so I could do more than three before I passed the age limit.
It was really sweltering on the hill, so this was a good time to descend into the Castle Hill Labyrinths. These are a system of caves that have existed since prehistoric times, and they've been expanded and reinforced over the years for various purposes including military. It was much cooler in the labyrinths. Good call.
I have no idea if these are real caveman drawings. I doubt it. Throughout the caves they had hidden speakers that played a heartbeat, drums and warlike music. It felt like a video game.
Inner sanctuary, where Ramses II is depicted as a god. (Sorry, just reusing a caption from my Egypt travelogue.)
That circular well conceals a speaker. Those clever Hungarians!
This appeared to be some kind of Druid temple, certainly not authentic, but it was lit all spookily. But the lighting was too dim for a photo and I had to use the flash which ruined the mood. So you have to imagine what this really looked like.
I approached one cave and smelled wine. I figured it was an ancient wine cellar; in Egypt one of the tombs still smelled like wine after thousands of years, so it does linger. But then I saw it--the coolest room I have ever been in.
In a system of mostly barren limestone caves, this room is alive. The central pillar has four faces (of Dionysus I assume) that spout real wine! Seriously, with the music and everything, this felt like finding some secret room in a video game. I tasted the wine in disbelief. In retrospect I probably shouldn't have, because it's recycled through the fountain and other people were tasting it, and also there were hundreds of fruit flies.
This is why a 2-megapixel camera is good enough. Individual drops.
There's an area called the Labyrinth of Courage, which is unlit and separated from the main path by doors, so it's completely dark. All you have is a wire to serve as a railing to guide yourself through. Unfortunately the guy ahead of me used his cell phone to illuminate the way, so the experience was marred a bit, but I closed my eyes to do it the right way. I think I heard him speaking German. Pussy. Would Alton Benes use a cell phone light in the Labyrinth of Courage?
There were a bunch of old rocks on display that were found in the caves. This one had a placard denying any commercial tie-in and saying this 30-million-year-old rock was found this way.
I finished the labyrinth tour, left Castle Hill and headed back toward Pest.
Wider view of the Royal Palace, from that roundabout. Roundabouts always remind me of when Tom Hanks was on Letterman talking about the Elvis movie Roustabout, describing the plot as mostly Elvis singing "roustabout, roustabout".
See, I told you this one was better. St. Stephen's Basilica.
Again, to reuse a caption from my Sydney travelogue: I was asked to take this photo by an associate. Maybe not directly.
I got back to the room at 1:30pm, finished exploring Budapest and weary. There were more distant things I could have seen with more time and less weariness. I wasn't hungry, which even in Hungary is normal for the first day of a trip, with my systems all out of balance. Good thing is that a second set of bags had not yet appeared in my room, and as the meeting time approached my chances of having a single room for the entire tour (on account of being the only or odd single guy) improved.
I napped a bit, shaved (had to use a hand razor because the electric one's battery was fully discharged--how does this happen in flight?) then went down for the 6pm group meeting. We met our group leader Gorana, from Toronto. This was a full group of 12, but definitely an older group than my previous tours. We had one guy who was 19, five of us in our 30s, and the rest were 50+, which limited my options for SHAGGING, baby! The age thing makes sense because Gorana asked each person why he/she wanted to visit the Balkans, and the common answer was "I've already been to all the other countries and I'm trying to pad my total", confirming a theory she'd heard from a local person about why people go there. I admit, I got a woody last year when Serbia and Montenegro separated and a 4-country tour became a 5-country tour. The countries literally Balkanized. So I guess it's more experienced travellers like me who go to the Balkans.
Breakdown of the group: 4 Americans, 2 Koreans (mother and son) living in Switzerland, 3 Kiwis and 3 Aussies. I think I have that right...I lose track sometimes with you Commonwealth types moving so freely among nations. No Brits on this tour, especially not the type to latch onto me and then turn against me amidst post-tour self-inflicted drama. Maybe instead I'll mention Mike 110 times in this travelogue (you still need to fix your notepad that says 109) or maybe Novak. Blah blah blah blah Novak.
Observation: This was my 7th group tour, and still I have not had a black tourmate. Why don't the brothers travel? Especially with the allure of pizzle frizzle rizzle?
Gorana confirmed that I would have a single room for the duration of the tour, due to the other 3 guys being with their wives or mom. Nice. I hate having some dude or fella in my space. And we were informed that tap water is OK throughout our journey, which is awesome, because I like to stay hydrated and hate being restricted to whatever bottled water I have remaining.
We went out for our first group dinner, to an Italian restaurant. I still lacked an appetite and barely finished 5/8 of a pizza. This was worth writing down...Gorana complained that someone told her she's "lucky" for travelling. Someone at work told me the same thing, and it's really a stupid thing to say. You don't win a trip or a lifestyle in a lottery; you choose it and pursue it enthusiastically. I have an interesting life because I made my life interesting. After dinner I mentioned that I had a list of cool Budapest bars and Jeremy (from the younger half) expressed some interest, but ultimately everyone was either too tired or was planning to get up early for some final sightseeing before a 12:45pm departure the next day.
I went back to my room at 10:30pm and watched CNN a bit. Nothing much happening. There was a promo for The Daily Show Global Edition, and I stuck around for the first couple minutes of it. Not sure how the Global Edition is different--seemed like the same Bush jokes. Tip: If someone says in an online profile that the only show he/she (usually she) watches is The Daily Show, keep away. Not intellectual, not funny, not pleasant. She, not the show, which isn't bad, but typically only B students and English majors find it brilliant because anything beyond Jon Stewart (like math, or reading the newspaper) is so hard for them.