Seeing Budapest by Transport Pass and ferry is a great bargain, Source contributor Kirk Grybowski writes, but on foot one should be prepared for pickpockets and overpriced taxis.
Second of three parts
Budapest's transportation system is very, very good. For about $13 and a passport picture, you can get a one-month Transport Pass good on all trams, buses, subways and trains in the metropolitan area. A significant factor in this being a bargain for the visitor is that you have paid to go, so you do.
The bad news is that the public transit system begins to shut down at 10 p.m. The good news is you can get a relatively inexpensive taxi — but only if you have the proprietor of the establishment you are in call for the cab. If you hail one on the street; you will get stiffed or pay a meter rate far greater than the "call" rate. (Meters have more than one rate which can be selected by the driver).
We took one cab to our hotel from the etterim (restaurant) Marquis de Salade (pun intended) near the State Opera House for 500 Forint (ft.). Another night, from approximately the same distance, we did not take a cab for the 2,000 ft. stated by the driver. We are talking the difference between $2 and $7, but it was the principle of the thing (and a nice night for walking). Also, I had spent more than I had planned earlier in the evening and only had 600 ft remaining. Later, we did find a cabby who took us the remaining less than half of the way for 300 ft ($1.10).
Deep pockets don't do it
More bad news is that Budapest as a major European city is prone to all the vices of any major city. While there is one well-developed set of criminals who appear to operate taxicabs, there is another who picks pockets. My first day in Budapest, I headed for the Municipal Market to purchase a sausage to take back to my room and a snack of Hungarian junk food. While I was cruising for langos — deep-fried dough topped with anything from powdered sugar to a combination of garlic paste, grated cheese and sour cream — my pocket was picked.
Fortunately, I had left my major money in the hotel safe, stripped my wallet of insurance and other cards, and taken only $200 in U.S. and Hungarian currency — and my three credit cards. I have always transferred my wallet to my front right pocket when visiting large cities, especially in Europe. In the space of 600 feet, while I was busy gesturing with my hands, someone fleeced me and I did not even suspect it until I went to pay for our langos.
More good news is the empathy and speed of assistance given me. The langos seller wrote off our snack and hurried us off to our hotel to cancel our credit cards. The hotel clerk immediately began dialing numbers in Hungary (American Express), London (VISA) and the the United States (MasterCard). And my wife has a different American Express account number, so we still had one good piece of plastic.
Rules of thumb for travel in areas where there is any suspect of losing your wallet or purse: Check excess valuables in a hotel safe. Step out with only the money you expect to use. Carry a primary card different from the one your mate carries, so only one gets lost at a time. Consider having different accounts so if one of you loses a card, the other's card won't be canceled.
One Andrew Chinn of Essex, England, wrote a letter to the editor of the Budapest Sun (the English language newspaper) concerning his experience with credit cards. It seems he and four friends visited the city baths one afternoon for several hours. Although they used separate stalls and their lockers were locked by the attendant; two months later they all received credit card bills including charges of 75,000 ft. (about $290) payable to two Budapest establishments none of them had visited. The only time all four cardholders were together was at the baths.
Chinn wrote that his bank had advised him that "anyone with simple equipment can copy these cards and decrypt the PIN numbers." In other words, his card was not stolen; it was cloned. The moral to this story is: When you know you are going to be separated from your clothes somewhere, take only the money you will need and leave your credit cards in the hotel safe.
By ferry to Szentendre
One of our adventures was an inexpensive cruise up the Danube River. My wife found mention of a ferry company that serves the Danube River communities north of Budapest. On a Sunday morning we got ourselves down to the ferry office at Vigado ter (plaza) across from the Marriott Hotel. For a couple dollars we had an interesting ride through Budapest to Szentendre. For a dollar more we could have ridden all the way to Visegrad or Esztergom.
Szentendre is said to be Hungary's most popular tourist destination. The spring day that we were there, the bus park was full and the village was spilling over with German, French and American tourists. So many houses have been converted into restaurants, gift shops, galleries and the like that one seriously wonders where the people live.
My favorite building is the Serbian Orthodox Museum, located on the top of a hill next to the Serbian Orthodox Church. I recommend visiting the museum first to wonder at this modern reconstruction of what must have been an ancient manse and to learn about icons. The building has been opened to the light to showcase one of the best collections of historic icons in Europe. Fearing the destruction of these treasures elsewhere in Eastern Europe as a part of ethnic cleansing, the church brought them to Hungary and placed them in this museum.
After studying the marvelous examples of religious art for more than an hour, I had a whole new appreciation of the icon genre. Then, we visited the church next door and studied the icons covering the altar and walls. Talk about enjoyable artistic overload. We returned to Budapest from Szentendre on the train for 160 ft. ($0.55).
By cog railway to the heights
Another adventure was by rail. In the hills of Buda, there is a cog railway that winds its way up a mountain to the top where, if you are Liberian, you get a marvelous view of Budapest.
The railway is so steep that it is impossible to run a regular locomotive and cars, especially in winter with icy rails. The train instead operates on a system of gears that mesh with the center rail, pulling it up the hill and keeping it from sliding back down. At the top of the hill is a park and another rail line that wanders off into the undeveloped hillside.
The top of the hill had been the site of posh residences until the Soviets built several solid rectangular apartment blocks. With the end of the Communist state, the area has returned to upper crust status. The hotel at the top had formerly been French owned and open to anyone desiring to partake of the commanding view of Budapest. Now, the property is owned by the Liberian government, which is remodeling it into an elegant consulate and some 40 or more luxury cottages.
While we were there, the building was closed to the public, depriving everyone of an easily accessible platform from which to view what is often touted as the loveliest city along the Danube. It will be interesting to find out what the Liberians do with the property once they complete the reconstruction and renovation work.
Regardless, the cog railway, the park with its handful of neighborhood restaurants and drinking establishments, and the model railroad to nowhere make for a memorable morning or afternoon attainable at little extra cost via the Budapest Transport Pass. I must add that some who ride the train up the mountain aren't just in it for the view. Bicyclists, rollerbladers and skateboarders, with gear in tow, find it a great way to attain the heights. I can only imagine the decent.
Next: Back to the spa, with pleasure


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