Want Something Different? Try Hungary.

My family and I have made two trips to Hungary. The first was in 1985, before the Iron Curtain came down. The second was almost 10 years later after the Russians had left. The two experiences were quite different, but we enjoyed ourselves immensely both times … so much so that I’ll pass along some of my recollections today and more in a couple of upcoming posts

On our first visit to Hungary, we entered the country by rail from Vienna. When we stopped at the Austro-Hungarian border, armed guards were posted every hundred feet or so on both sides of the train. Clearly, getting out for a stroll on the platform was not an option! While teams of uniformed and armed border guards worked their way through the train checking identification, others, with dogs, walked the length of the train looking up under the rail cars with mirrors on long poles to make sure no one was hiding beneath the floor of the car.

When the guards working the inside of the train reached our compartment, they politely asked us to step out into the corridor. While one studied our passports and checked our visas, the other looked under the seats, then stepped up on a portable stool, pushed open a small trap door in the ceiling and peered around into a narrow crawl space above our compartment. To me, all of this security begged the question: Why would someone want to smuggle themselves into a country with such an oppressive system?

In Budapest, we stayed at a fabulous 100-plus-year-old hotel, the Gellert. It may have been renovated since, but back in ’85 it was pretty threadbare. No matter. There was plenty about the place that spoke very clearly to the elegance of its past …

… particularly the thermal baths down in the lower level of the grand old place. The water in the pool is naturally heated to what I remember as being around 80 degrees and is thought to be therapeutically beneficial. You’ll get no argument from me. We spent a delightful and relaxing hour there, although my colorful Hawaiian swim trunks did draw some curious stares.

Budapest – pronounced, as you probably know, Booduh-pesht – is actually two cities in one: Buda with its castle on the cliff to the left, Pest with its shops and markets and Parliament building on the right. The Danube is a green-gray (not blue) dividing line between the two halves of this wonderful city.

For anyone looking for a fascinating part of the world to visit, I absolutely and enthusiastically recommend Hungary. More later.