Every couple of years, our business partner for The Wirie goes on a vacation with his family. Since he is responsible for the assembly and distribution of our product, we usually put a notice on the website that new orders will not get shipped until a certain date, when he is back a week or two later. Mark, who is responsible (among many other things) for customer support, continues work, wherever we are. That’s what happens when the product is your “baby”, you are extremely responsible, you want customers to be happy and you hate catching up on all the piled-up emails and phone calls afterwards. That’s why Mark and I never go on a holiday. Luckily, our lifestyle as house and pet sitters is diverse and exciting enough as we move locations a lot and enjoy the weekends as mini-vacations.
This spring, however, we had the greatest of ideas! We did not take a full vacation as Tim set out with his family to Italy, but we added a few lines to the notice on the website, the automatic email response and our Wirie answering machine. It said: “The Wirie crew is on vacation from May 18th through June 4th, 2017. No orders will be shipped during this period and customer support might be delayed. Requests by email have a quicker response rate than by phone. Back orders will start to go out on June 5th and customer support returns to normal then as well. Thank you for your patience and understanding.”
It worked! It was amazing. It was great! 🙂 Mark’s “relaxed” attitude about responding to inquiries helped us tremendously, when flying to Belgium and being there the first two weeks, getting settled at my parents’ place, dealing with the jet-lag, going on a long weekend to Friesland, the Netherlands and even planning a little getaway, just the two of us. Not that there was much planning involved! Lack of time and feeling sick prevented us from making a decision and booking plane tickets until 40 hours before departure. I guess you can call this a last-minute trip. Our first choices, Barcelona and Krakau had become unaffordable this late in the game, so we went with a decent alternative: Budapest. Apart from a little camping trip to Acadia NP in Maine last October, this was the first real vacation (in a hotel!) Mark and I took since starting our business in 2009.
Since the plane didn’t leave until the evening of June 1st, Mark and I decided to drive to Charleroi (where our Ryan Air flight departed from), walk around town a bit and have lunch. This industrial city does not have much to offer. After half an hour of strolling through its dilapidated and dirty center, we ate a late Chinese lunch and opted to spend the remaining hours at the airport lounge. With our fancy credit card, we don’t only collect extra miles, but we have this amazing perk that is easy to get used to!! The lounges in Boston and San Francisco, however, were much nicer than the one in Charleroi…
Once in Hungary’s capital, we took public transportation (which is easy and cheap) to Hotel Charles on the Buda side of the city and arrived late. The lobby clerk surprised us with an upgrade for a bigger room, with a wider bed (two twins next to each other) and air-conditioning, which came in handy, as the temperatures reached into the nineties (30s Celsius) while we were there. We loved it! Sun, warmth and blue skies for three days. Once again, we lucked out with the weather and we took full advantage of it.
On Friday, our explorations started in earnest. We walked over one of the bridges spanning the Danube into the city center. We had planned to join a two-hour walking tour with the highly recommended “Free Walking Tours Budapest”. Our guide Peter led us around parts of town – the flatter and more crowded Pest side and the hilly, greener Buda side – and showed us an affordable, local cafeteria for lunch. We tipped him generously (which is the idea of the free walking tours J) and had our first typical Hungarian meal: mushroom goulash for Mark and a meat/potato lasagna for me. The portions were huge and heavy. We needed a minute to let our stomachs settle and start walking again!
We remained on the Buda side, the Castle Hill district, for most of the afternoon. I really liked strolling by the historic buildings and through the quit, narrow streets. Highlights like Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion are much busier. We joined the crowds for a visit inside the church with its colorful, painted and stenciled walls, and found a level on the bastion that had free access. The views were incredible and reminded me a bit of St. Petersburg, Russia.
We crossed the Chain Bridge into Pest again and glanced inside the cheaper and more intriguing St. Stephen Basilica. The interior was grotesque and spectacular with a lot of marble and glass-stained windows. By coincidence, we stumbled across its biggest attraction: St. Stephen’s holy right hand on display! He was the first king of Hungary. If pickled body parts creep you out, please skip over the next photo gallery.
Mark and I finished our first and busiest day in the Jewish Quarter with a quick pass by the Grand Synagogue, a drink at one of the famous ruin bars and a healthy dinner in a “street food” corner.
On day 2, Saturday, we took it a bit easier. Kind of. We walked to the Citadel, not too far away from our hotel and climbed to the top of Gellert Hill, the tallest one, where a massive monument welcomes the exhausted climbers. It is – ironically – called the Monument of Liberty. It was erected in 1947 by the Russians to commemorate the liberation of Budapest and Hungary from the Nazi rule. It is also a communist monument to celebrate Hungary’s being part of the Soviet rule, as the citizens weren’t really free after the liberation, but remained occupied by the Russians. Nevertheless, Hungarians grew to love the statue enough not to remove it in 1989 when Hungary became a democratic country after decades. The views are spectacular, especially along the hike up.
Back down, we had lunch at the Central Market in Pest. Be warned that – at least at the stand where we bought our meals – you pay for the cardboard boxes used as trays and you pay for everything they suggest you take with the meal, like sauerkraut, red cabbage and pickles! It doubled the expected price of our lunch.
Our afternoon was spent relaxing at Gellert Baths – what a treat! Sitting outside was wonderful, soaking in all the hot baths, sporting different temperatures was divine, trying out a Swedish sauna and a Turkish steam bath was eye-opening (and very sweaty) and dunking ourselves in icy tubs was invigorating! When you are on vacation, you might as well spoil yourselves a little bit. The cost was $20/ person.
In the evening, we returned to the Jewish Quarter, by bus this time, to check out a couple of other ruin bars and have dinner. This area is famous for its (affordable) bars and restaurants. Walking back home around midnight, to see the “city by night”, we were surprised by the hordes of European youth and the not so young, getting drunk in the bars and on the streets. Budapest must be a popular college student, midlife-crises and bachelor party town!
Sunday was the day to check out of our hotel, store our bags to pick up later and explore another part of the city on foot. We walked for miles, along the National Gallery, over the Chain Bridge, past the exquisite Parliament building and deep into the city, all the way to City Park, where Heroes Square and Vajdahunyad Castle, a castle straight out of a fairy tale, draw most of the attention. We found an outdoor bar/snack bar to have lunch and took a nap on the shady lawn. Our vacation finished in the lounge of Budapest Airport, complete with a healthy meal and a complimentary full-bar!
Conclusion: Traveling with Ryan Air was not the best or most comfortable experience, but the planes left on time and the rides are affordable. If you know what to expect (next time!) it is not a bad deal. Mark and I truly enjoyed our long weekend away. We took it relatively easy, because we were not feeling 100% health wise and cherished the unusual “no rush vacation feeling”, but feel like we experienced a good chunk of the city, leaving enough undiscovered for a return trip!
(Click on the photos for a bigger version and captions.)
Insider tip: When withdrawing money in Budapest (at the airport or elsewhere), the ATM machine asks “Do you accept the local exchange rate?” Anyone would just select “Yes” as we did the first time. Don’t! While the machine notes there is no ATM fee locally, bad exchange rates and fees from our own bank caused us to lose over 10 euros on a withdrawal of 100 euros converted to florins. Instead (and we did this the second time around), select “No” as the answer and agree with “not knowing the exchange rate”. This transaction set us back only an extra 3 euros.
For more about Budapest, check out my blogging pal Anabel’s blogs who visited the city for a week in March.
Have you ever been to Budapest? What was your impression? What is your favorite city trip? Why?