** This post is part of an ongoing series detailing our experience cruising down the Danube River visiting Christmas markets in Hungary, Austria, and Germany, aboard AmaWaterways‘ MS AmaSonata in late November 2015 **
Our first stop on our Amawaterways Christmas Market Cruise on the Danube was Budapest, Hungary. Most companies run the cruise up and down the river and as a traveler if you’re flexible with your dates, you can choose which of the two embark/disembark locations you want to start and end your journey with. Without knowing what date or cruise line we were going to end up booking with, I absolutely knew regardless of how it played out we wanted to end the cruise in Nuremberg, Germany.
We flew into Budapest on Tuesday, November 24, on Lufthansa (via Frankfurt), our first experience with this airline. The situation in Frankfurt was a little disconcerting – the gate agents don’t do a wonderful job of announcing boarding for anything other than first class passengers, and then once you are in line it’s a massive free for all and then rather than boarding the plane they transfer you via bus to a smaller plane located on a tarmac that’s practically in the next city. Aside from that, both of our flights were uneventful and we landed in Budapest around 6 p.m.
Because this trip was booked pretty last minute, I wasn’t prepared at all. I knew absolutely nothing about Budapest, aside from the fact that it was once a communist country. Upon hearing our American accents, a nice man at the exit to the airport pointed us in the direction of an official looking taxi stand. We went to the kiosk, told the man behind the glass where we were going, and he gave us a foot long piece of paper that said many things we couldn’t read. In very small print at the bottom of that paper was a note telling us the ride from the airport to where we were going would be €25. As we drove through Budapest – both highways and local streets – we were a bit nervous because the meter was running up incredibly high numbers that made no sense to us whatsoever. We both pulled out our phones and much to our horror we learned that despite the fact that Hungary is part of the EU, they are not in the euro system and have their own local form of currency, the fornit. We had no fornits on us, had absolutely no idea we’d need them. We figured worse case scenario we’d get to the hotel and ask the concierge how to go about paying for the taxi. When we arrived, we asked the cabbie if he took euro and he was incredibly happy to do so. We found out the exchange rate benefits them taking the euro instead of the fornit so we dodged a bullet with that one. Or so we thought.
We checked into the Hotel Prestige Budapest, a beautiful, remodeled historic property located in the city center. The front desk agent explained that while we had upgraded the week before to an executive room the hotel was out of them so we had been further upgraded to a suite at no additional charge. Score! The room was way more than we needed for a one-night stay, but it was incredibly gorgeous with ceilings that were easily higher than even our 12 foot ones here in Dublin. The bed was comfortable and the bathroom had a great, spa-like quality to it. We quickly got settled in and then went to the front desk to ask about currency. The woman working there told us that it would be best for us to get fornits because it was likely that no one at the Christmas market would take euro. Oh how wrong she was. EVERYONE we encountered in Budapest accepted euros. I don’t know if that’d be the case in the summer, but for the sake of the Christmas market environment, that was our experience.
We didn’t really know where we were going that first night so we just wandered around, and ended up eating at a food stall located off the main market. The food wasn’t great at this particular stall, but it got us in the Christmas spirit sure enough.
The next morning we woke up and as we were getting ready for the day I realized that I had packed the same medicine twice, leaving my GERD medicine at home. Since traveling during a GERD episode can be a nightmare, this really worried me. I tore apart my purse and luggage hoping that maybe my Nexium had fallen out of my toiletry bag, but no luck. Thankfully I had a half packet of Tums in my purse, and almost a full week of an emergency pack of Pepcid AC I had purchased at the airport in Portland the last time I went up there for work. Yeah, I know I haven’t worked there for nearly a year at this point, but my incredible laziness when it comes to emptying out my purses was a good thing in this particular case. I wasn’t freaking out as much as I normally would have been, but I was still worried so I looked online to figure out how the pharmacies worked in Budapest. Let’s just say the market is heavily controlled and it’s not easy to get many medicines over the counter that Americans may take for granted. And, of course, there’s a language barrier to contend with. On our way out to do some shopping and eat, we stopped in to two pharmacies and there was no way anyone at either was going to be able to help me so I tried to go really easy in the food department that entire day.
We had several hours to ourselves before we could check-in to the boat (or so we thought), so we spent a lot of time just wandering the city center and shopping and eating at the Christmas market. The other thing we did, which I’m pretty sure no one else on our boat did, was walk across town to the indoor market. Not a Christmas market, but a green grocery market that is used by the inhabitants of Budapest all year long. Markets are kind of our thing, and when we visit a town with a particularly good one we definitely stop in to visit. This one was a bit different from the ones in Canada and the U.S. in that there weren’t a ton of prepared foods available, but it was really interesting to see what the traditional foods the residents of the city typically buy when they’re out shopping.
Finally, it was time to check in and we were so nervous. We had booked an upgraded room because that was really all there was available, and I was super worried that the upgraded cost wouldn’t match the experience. Our only point of reference for a small cruise room was when we went to Alaska, so I totally expected our room to be tiny. And it was, but by cruise standards I’m pretty sure it was quite large, and I found it very luxurious. Amawaterways talks about their boats being a floating luxury hotel and I’d definitely agree with that sentiment.
After we checked out our room and Alan unpacked for a bit, we made our way to the lounge where we struck up a conversation with an older couple from San Diego. After about half an hour we got to talking about where Alan grew up and then the man was telling us about his nephew who lives in the same town and that’s when it hit us – we knew him! Alan actually played soccer with their nephew several years ago. Such a small, small world. It was so funny so I ended up taking a pic of Alan and the couple and then Alan posted it on his former teammate’s Facebook page. Of course he was like, “they know everyone – where are you?” I got a huge kick out of telling him that we were sitting on a boat in Budapest!
We had dinner with the couple which was our introduction to the food and wine aboard the MS AmaSonata (good food, decent wine that was made better by how freely it was poured) and then we got bundled up for the nighttime “Illuminations Cruise” that would give us a view of both Buda Castle and the Hungarian Parliament building from the water. It was FREEZING up top and despite the fact that I had brought my heavy winter jacket and had my face wrapped up in a huge scarf I could not get warm. My fingers froze every time I took my hands out of my gloves to take pictures. But wow. It was worth it to freeze my arse off up there because Budapest at night, from the river, is spectacular!
The next day was our first official day of the cruise and we started out by taking a bus tour of the city that included a stop in Buda where we were able to roam the Fisherman’s Bastion and learn about the history of Matthias Church and St. Stephen (not to be confused with the same St. Stephen that so much of Ireland is named after). [I learned post trip that the walking tour done by the Viking River Cruise team that was in town at the same time took their guests inside the church, which would have been a nice perk but wasn’t offered to us.]
We got some time to wander around up on the hill so when I started feeling really stuffy I asked Alan if we could try one more pharmacy so that I could pick up some Sinex or something (I was pretty sure I’d seen it at a previous pharmacy). We walked in and it was a bit different than the other ones we had visited. Eventually we sheepishly approached the counter and when I asked for the Sinex it became clear that the pharmacist spoke perfect English! I asked her about Nexium, which they can’t give out without a prescription, but she did give me the Hungarian version of the over-the-counter equivalent, as well as more medicine for upset stomachs. I walked out of there feeling like I’d hit the medicinal mother load!
We continued our bus tour which drove us around Budapest for about an hour and we passed several sites that I would have liked to get out and take pictures of – especially as we saw other tour groups doing just that – but that wasn’t on offer. Eventually, we were carted back to the main Christmas market where we were given an hour or so to wander around and shop. Since that was our third time visiting since landing on Thursday evening, we took the opportunity to buy an ornament and eat an amazing bowl of goulash soup. Of all the Christmas markets we visited on the trip, the food at the one in Budapest’s Vörösmarty Square was the absolute best and most varied. When our time at the market was up, we got back on the bus and were driven about two hours away to another city in Hungary across the border from Slovakia where we rejoined the boat (we later learned it was due to low water levels on that particular stretch of the Danube since there had been NO rain for weeks and it was a very warm winter thus far in the area).
Back on the boat, our Cruise Director Maddy gave us an overview of the itinerary, a history of Christmas markets along our route, and basically let us know what to expect in the coming days of our tour. And then we were free to mingle with our fellow guests or just chill out.
So, a word on our evenings …
We basically spent every night in the lounge in one capacity or another and with the exception of a couple of very specific experiences, I have a hard time keeping it straight in my head who we talked to and when. And strangely, I was terrible about taking pictures at dinner so I have absolutely no idea what we ate, when, or with who.
While relaxing in the lounge we had heard we’d be going through a lock later that night, which is something we were very excited to experience. We’ve cruised through the Ballard Locks in Seattle and Alan is extremely fascinated by works of civil engineering so that this particular lock at a change of 75 feet (I think) was something we did not want to miss. When the time was right, we went back to the room, got on all of our super warm gear, and made our way back up on top of the boat for that experience. It took about an hour and a half from the time we approached until we sailed away, what with waiting on the traffic through the lock and then having to wait while the lock filled with water, and it was incredibly interesting to see the whole process up close and personal. I mean, really close.
By the time that experience was over and done with, we were freezing cold and it was pretty late at night so we made our way back to the room to get some shut eye before our next day’s adventure.
And that folks, is our Budapest experience! It’s a beautiful city filled with amazing architecture and a unique and compelling history. I really wish I had better prepared for our down time away from the boat because I’m sure we could have done some really interesting tours or something to even more immersed into the culture, but I’d have no problem whatsoever going back someday if the situation called for it. I highly recommend you put Budapest on your Eastern (actually central) European travel wish list.