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Eastern Europe Without Reservations


Our travel agent advised us not to visit Hungary without hotel reservations. But Jimmy and I ignored her. We never made reservations when visiting Europe, preferring to keep a fluid travel itinerary. Hunting for a hotel room — and if we were extremely lucky, one with a view — became an integral part of our adventure and provided ample fodder for the stories we took home in our emotional suitcases.

As part of our honeymoon, we crossed into Sopron, Hungary, from Klingenbach, Austria. We stopped in Sopron for a few hours to eat lunch and admire its centuries-old architecture. Along with several groups of handsome elementary school children, we climbed the City Tower and enjoyed a panoramic view of Sopron from its Renaissance–era arcade. After stuffing the parking ticket we got into our Opal Astra’s glove compartment, we continued our two-hour journey to Budapest (pronounced Buda – Pesht). Our travel guidebook offered two warnings about the city: to pre-book hotel reservations and to steer clear of the Eastern Railway Train Station area after dark. We could do neither.

Arriving in Budapest during rush hour on a balmy Friday evening with a 1/4 tank of gas, we were surprised to find a metropolis churning with traffic. From our guidebook we knew that three historically significant areas comprised the city: Buda and Óbuda on the West Bank of the Danube and Pest on the East. Not seeing too many hotels in Buda or Óbuda, we crossed the river and patrolled Pest’s Paris-like boulevards in search of a place to stay. No luck.

We then attempted to call Tomaz, a fellow Alfa Romeo nut Jimmy had met on the Internet, and ask for guidance. He had offered to give us a tour of Budapest and take us to a clandestine auto parts dealer to obtain a fender for Jimmy’s rusting Alfa Romeo Sprint, one of the reasons we detoured off the beaten Austrian path. But because we didn’t understand Hungarian we couldn’t figure out how to use the pay phone and had no choice but to rejoin the swirl of traffic navigating the city’s confusing one-way streets.

At 8:30 P.M. with no hotels or gas stations in sight, we started to lose our cool and our desire to economize. The fuel indicator registered empty and I desperately needed to go to the bathroom. Looming in front of us was a cluster of American-looking hotels. We had nixed them earlier because of the ambiance and price. But now, three and a half hours later, we no longer cared. We roared into the Marriott parking lot and clambered to the front desk sporting angst-ridden faces, but the clerk shook his head. We raced on foot to the second hotel, The Intercontinental, expecting a similar response but the clerk surprised us. He had one room available — a last minute cancellation that he offered to us at a steep discount. When the bellhop asked us for our room number and we replied “217,” he squealed, “Oh, 217, that’s one of the best rooms in the hotel!”

Danube River and the Chain Bridge

Although anything would have looked good at this point, ours was definitely a room with a view — it gazed onto the Danube and its famed Chain Bridge, the oldest bridge in Budapest.

We reveled in the room’s opulence, then ambled down to the lobby and asked the clerk for a moderately priced, non-touristy restaurant. He suggested the Mátyás Pince Étterem and gave us directions. Taking a wrong turn and darting through a creepy underpass, we eventually found the wine cellar-motif restaurant. This establishment rewarded us with not only a tantalizing Hungarian meal but also a talented Hungarian Gypsy band.

Mesmerized by our room’s view, we agreed to blow our budget and stay at the Intercontinental for another two nights. We bounded down to the front desk in the morning to share our good news. Unfortunately, a soccer convention blanketed the city. The room was not available nor was any others. The clerk, however, knew of one hotel with vacancies. He called to reserve a room. When he gave us the directions to the Grand Hotel Hungária, the largest hotel in Budapest, I bit my lip — it was located near the Eastern Railway Train Station, which we’d be warned against.

As we checked in, I asked the clerk about the safety of the area. He said, “Just take a cab after dark.” Once in our adequate but generic-looking room we called Tomaz, Jimmy’s Alfa friend, and made plans to meet in the lobby.

Date with Tomaz

Tomaz proved to be an attentive host and a proud Budapestian. We rode in his Alfa Romeo GTV6 to Buda and visited the Castle Hill. The medieval pedestrian district offered commanding views of Pest, including the neo-gothic Parliament, one of Budapest’s most famous buildings. Mátyás Church, built in 1255 and renovated in1873, dominated the Hill. Its dimly lit interior contained beautiful frescoes, statues, and stained glass windows. Next to the church and facing the Danube was the oft-photographed Fisherman’s Bastion, a multi-turreted lookout allegedly named after the fish market that once stood there.

Paprika

We slurped our first Hungarian Goulash at one of the Hill’s outdoor cafés. After savoring the soup’s last drop, we dashed off in the Alfa to Margaret’s Island, Budapest’s most exotic park and a nature lover’s paradise. While strolling through a landscape of young lovers, joggers, tulips, weeping willows and chestnut trees we noticed a quintet of burly men with crew cuts striding our way. Once the men passed, Tomaz whispered, “they are members of the Russian Mafia, but don’t worry — they will not bother us. ”

Historic Hungary

In the morning we hopped into the Alfa and headed off to the Danube Bend. Tomaz proclaimed it to be most beautiful section of the river as it snakes to the Black Sea. True to his word, the view from atop the Citadel was spectacular, while inside several exhibits depicted medieval Hungarian life. Outside, a man dressed in traditional garb demonstrated hunting techniques with a falcon.

Next on the Hungarian history tour was Heroes’ Square and its focal point, the 1896 Millennial Monument. Tomaz explained that the winged creature on top of the pillar was the Archangel Gabriel, the warriors at the base were tribe leaders and the 14 statues in the arc were Hungary’s most important royalty and politicians. Impressed with the monument we ambled over to City Park to see if the Vajdahunyad Castle lived up to Tomaz’s rave reviews. It did. Erected on a man-made island, the fairy tale building was modeled on the Castle of Vajdahunyad in Transylvania.

Alone at Last

We bid Tomaz adieu at the hotel front door. Although he was a great host, we looked forward to a romantic evening of staring into each other’s eyes without seeing Tomaz’s reflection. The nearest recommended restaurant was only a block away, so once again we hoofed it where we’d been warned not to. Despite my paranoia, we arrived safely. But we were surprised to find only one other party — a family of eight — eating while this fabulous mini-Hungarian orchestra entertained them. The menu was in Hungarian so it was hard to tell what we ordered, but it was the best meal so far on the trip. And with the band playing rhapsodic music in the background, we felt blessed to be celebrating our honeymoon in a country once hidden behind the Iron Curtain.

Goodbye Budapest, Hello Kescemét

After our last delicious breakfast of eggs, ham and muffins at the Hungária, Tomaz met us in front of the hotel where Jimmy had parked the Opal. We threw our suitcases in the trunk, piled in and took off for downtown. Jimmy and Tomaz dropped me off in front of the Hungarian State Opera House on the elegant Andrássy Avenue, the spot we agreed to meet at two hours later. They continued on to a residential neighborhood where a clandestine auto-parts dealer reportedly had the fender Jimmy’s Alfa so desperately needed. As I worked my way over to Falk Miksa Street and its world famous antique shopping, I had an opportunity to admire Budapest’s eclectic architecture, handsome people, and bustling café culture.

After rendezvousing at the Opera House, we took our positions in the Opal and dropped Tomaz off at his car. We thanked him for his hospitality and followed him to the start of E5, the highway that would take us south to Kescemét, our next destination. It was the place our guidebook said Johannes Brahms called, “the most beautiful town in the world.”

The Great Plain or Putza

Tihany’s Benedictine Abbey

It took an hour to reach Kescemét. Whereas Budapest thrived in Transdanubia or the foothills of the Austrian Alps, Kescemét lounged in the Great Plain or Putza. Along the way we enjoyed the gently undulating farmland, the proliferation of poppy flowers the color of paprika, and the scent of Apricot Vineyards.

Arriving at Kescemét’s historic center, we agreed with Brahms. The architecture was lovely and unlike anything else we’d seen in Hungary — much of it Art Nouveau. Memorable buildings — the pink Town Hall, Szent Miklós Church, Catholic Great Church, and Cifrapalota Palace— lined the multiple squares. But after half a day we’d exhausted our architectural options and scrapped our plans to spend the night. Lake Balaton beckoned.

Tihany Peninsula

We took route 52 to Dunaföldvár, the only place to cross the Danube between Budapest and Baja. Once over the river, we switched to route 61 then 64, entering the Lake Balaton area near Lepseny. The description of Tihany, a peninsula and nature reserve, sounded enchanting so we followed the curves of the lake. We passed town after town with Balaton prefixes: Balatonakarattya, Balatonfüzfó, Balatonalmadi, Baltonfüred. The sun just started to slip under the horizon when we reached the peninsula.

Tihany immediately appealed to us — lush vegetation, historic sites, and beautiful vistas of the lake. But similar to our Budapest experience, we had trouble finding a hotel room. Not that these hotels were actually full. The last place we tried looked adorable — turn of the century, porches, awnings, wooded setting and with an almost empty parking lot we thought landing a room would be simple. I jumped out of the car, threw my pink knapsack over my shoulder, and strolled into the lobby. Three clerks immediately stopped talking. Tension stabbed the air. I asked the woman with red hair, “Do you have any vacancies?” She replied, “No. All our rooms are taken.” A bit odd considering it was 8:30 on a Monday night and all the room keys dangled from their hooks. We guessed they must be leery of Americans with backpacks or, perhaps, a tour bus was coming in later. We never found out.

Respite at the Marina

According to the guidebook, hotels thinned out after Tihany so we headed back towards Lepseny. Soon we reached Balatonfüred, a popular resort town on the lake. A post Stalinistic high-rise appeared on our right. After pulling into the Hotel Marina parking lot, we debated whether or not we wanted to stay in a place that looked like public housing. Once inside, though, we changed our minds. The clerk was super friendly and offered us a room for around $60 per night. Nothing special but clean and it had a private bath. We could, however, hear a woman coughing through the wall. It was approaching 10 PM so we opted to eat in the hotel’s restaurant, The Danibus. The waiter was charming and the food excellent. We devoured Bakonyi Sertésborda, pork chops drenched with a sour cream tasting mushroom sauce, Halászlé, a delicious Paprika-seasoned fish soup and palacsinta, a crepe smothered with chocolate sauce. We went to bed satisfied.

Our sleep, though, was anything but gratifying, thanks to the uninterrupted hacking of the woman next door. To perk up, we had a buffet-style breakfast of cereal, muffins, fruit, eggs and a delicious yogurt sauce on the outside deck. Drinking in the turquoise-colored lake and natural beauty of the marshy setting, our juices started flowing again. And although we didn’t have a room with a view, we had a hotel with one.

The Hungarian Sea

Back at Tihany, we parked the car and hiked around the peninsula. It jutted into the middle of the lake, offering great views of the “Hungarian Sea.” Tomaz had told us that Lake Balaton was the largest freshwater lake in Central Europe, but that it was shallow and because of that unusually warm.

We next visited Tihany’s Benedictine Abbey, a baroque church with twin towers. It offered spectacular views of sailboats prancing across the lake and men fishing on a pier. Then we sauntered down to an enclave of thatched-roofed cafes, restaurants and shops, where we bought three attractive pieces of inexpensive pottery.

Lake Balaton

Our last day at Lake Balaton was spent at Keszthely. Its focal point was the sprawling Festetics Palace and its surrounding fountains and gardens. Nearby was the Georgikon Farm Museum, Europe’s first agricultural college. A hot day in the sun, we kept cool by ducking in and out of stores. We most enjoyed an antique shop brimming with inexpensive treasures. Jimmy bought a broken anniversary clock made in the former East Germany for his downtrodden clock collection.

Back to Austria

We ended our Hungarian journey at the RábaFüzes crossing. Returning to Austria at Heiligenkreuz, I was paranoid we’d be thrown into jail for transporting the Alfa fender out of the country, but all the Hungarian border patrol wanted to know was if we’d bought any cigarettes. Apparently, cigarettes carried a tax but we were free to transport as many memories as we could stuff into the crags of our hearts —not too mention a huge auto part.

Once out of Hungary, Jimmy pulled over. “Where do you want to go next?” he asked while poring over a map of Austria. “There’s a town near the Slovenian border called Deutschlandsberg that sounds cool,” I said. “A castle with a drawbridge has been renovated into a hotel. Perhaps we can stay in a room with a view of the moat?”

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