Don’t believe everything you read about Hungary. Travel advisories pan it citing Budapest is rife with petty theft, fraud, people impersonating officers, sex crimes, drugging, car jacking, luring, counterfeit, overcharging in restaurants, etc… I arrive at the main train station in Budapest fearful. Will I be robbed? Will this 5 minute taxi ride cost 100 euros?
The taxi cost around 8,000 HUF… I panic… it sounds crazy expensive! But, actually after doing the math it works out to about five Canadian dollars. Have I found the one legit taxi driver in these parts?
In all honesty, Budapest is as safe as it is beautiful. Known as the “Paris of the East”, the Danube River stretches through the city just as the Seine does. Just like Paris, the Danube is decorated along the way by many stunning bridges that are brilliantly lit up at night. (It is worth walking over these bridges both in the day and at night.)
And, like Paris, the banks on either side of the river have their own distinct characters. The west-bank is known as “Buda”. The towering cliffs support the Buda Castle quarter, the Hungarian Royal Palace, the Sandor Palace and the Matthias Church. Each of these monuments are well worth the many stairs that lead to them.
The east-bank, known as Pest, is fronted by the world’s third largest Parliament building. It’s beauty is only surpassed by its own incarnation at night as it sits tastefully illuminated along the shore of the Danube.
Along the Andrassi Ut Avenue, there are many sights to see leading up to the Hero’s Way. One important sight that we happen to stumble upon is the wine festival. The timing is perfect as some white wine is served just in time to see a happy bride and groom and their wedding party spill out of the church in front of us. It’s like being in a “Come Visit Hungary” commercial.
And, just as things begin to die down… a flash-mob of swing dancers take the stage! What a great place! I can’t believe there was any hesitation in my mind about coming here.
Finally, a trip to Margaret’s Island completes the experience. Many joggers choose to take the turfed running path around the island. For me, I opt for a leisurely stroll through the exquisite gardens, water fountains, and cafes. So far, I have not been robbed, drugged, over-charged or even bothered by anyone here.
The only challenge now is getting to Serbia. Had I known that it only takes 4 hours to drive from Budapest to Belgrade, I would have hired a car. Instead, I have a train ticket with a 7.5 hour travel time.
The only trains travelling to Serbia pass through the out-post stations along the fringes of the city. Pulling up to the station I am convinced that it is wrong as it looks desolate. I carefully match each letter on my ticket to the letters on the signs. There seems to be a match. The traffic controller is not older than 12 and wearing a bellhop uniform and a fez. He seems to think this is the right place. Several inner-city trains pass by on the two tracks that service the station, making frequent stops. Small groups of people come and go on these trains… but, no one seems to be waiting for anything else.
Then in the distance I see a man on rollerblades pulling a massive suitcase. As he hurls himself onto the platform and begins to race down the uneven pathway, I notice that he is being chased by another man shakily peddling and steering a bike with his arms. (By this, I mean that he is sitting with his legs idol and pumping the bike pedals with his hands and using a side-to-side motion to steer.) It looks incredibly difficult.
The first man stops and breathlessly asks if this is the platform for the train to Belgrade. I say “yes”, but only half believe it myself. It turns out that I have just met perhaps the nicest man in Hungary… As the two men catch their breath, I hear the story of how this funny parade came to be.
The man on the bike, a German student, had asked several people for directions to the train station. He was given different directions from each person. Finally, a man on a bike (pedalling with his hands) stops to help him out. As the train is scheduled to depart within minutes, he pulls from his basket a pair of rollerblades and gives the German the option of skating or biking. The German chose the bike and regretted it within minutes. The Hungarian led the way, pulling his luggage and arriving at the station safely and on-time.
And, to be assured that there are still good, nay, great people out there he offered to go to the store for us to get food or drinks after we found out the train was three hours delayed. He then called a friend and tracked our train and found out where it was and when it would arrive. Pretty solid Hungarian PR if you ask me! What a nice guy!
After we finally board the 5 hour late train, the cabin crew are lively and possibly drunk. The food car is filled with smoke and large Eastern European men. The breathing is tough, but they lose count of our wine consumption and somewhere after we cross the Serbian border we drink for free. There seems to be no rules anymore.