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Chris & Allyson vs. Europe (2017)

Budapest Day One: Vaci Utca. Erzsebet Square. Danube river cruise.

You don't need excuses to vacation, but it's a great way to plan. The year Allyson turned 35, Depeche Mode was touring Europe. They were playing in Germany around her birthday. Tickets were bought, flights were booked, and an excellent vacation happened. We stopped in Amsterdam, Dusseldorf, Zurich and Vienna.

Depeche Mode is productive, and in 2017 they released another album. When the European tour was announced, we joked about seeing them again. A few weeks later, work was getting stressful. It stopped being a joke. The band would be in Portugal on Allyson's birthday, and I always wanted to go there – but Allyson's birthday is smack in the middle of Portugal's "obscenely expensive" season. Skimming the rest of the tour dates, we found our favorite Plan B. Concert tickets and plane tickets were purchased. In late May, we hopped on a plane at Dulles and flew to Budapest.

And oh yeah, we decided to stop in Portugal for a week on the way home. It's a rough life.

Our previous European vacation took us close to Budapest: Vienna is three hours away by car. Those cities were the linchpins of the Austro-Hungarian empire, but Budapest is a little more exotic than its Austrian counterpart.

Hungary was founded by the Magyars, a nomadic people from the Ural Mountains. At different times the land was overrun by the Mongols, the Ottomans, the Romans, and the Habsburgs. After World War II, Austria escaped domination by the Soviets, but Hungary did not. Throughout the centuries-long tug-of-war between East and West, Budapest has been squarely in the sand pit.

This was highlighted from the start. The friendly cab driver who picked us up at the airport was born in Budapest – but he had spent most of his adult life in California, having defected there to escape the Soviets. With the Soviets gone, he returned home to look after his aging parents. But he wanted to return to the United States with his girlfriend when he could. Budapest is a friendly city, filled with pleasant people – but there are LOTS of layers.

Budapest is also a mash-up of three cities. Buda and Obuda are on the hilly west bank of the Danube River; Pest is on the eminently floodable east bank. Our base for the weekend was the Bohem Art Hotel, on the Pest side. It sits just a block from the river and less than a mile from the city's historic core. If you're a moderately mobile human being, the location is fantastic. The hotel also has a breakfast buffet that could easily stop you from being moderately mobile, if you let it.

But breakfast was a lifetime away! Contrary to popular opinion, vacations aren't for relaxing. By the time we arrived at the hotel in the late afternoon, we already had a restaurant reservation for "authentic" Hungarian food and tickets for a nighttime river cruise. We dropped our bags, cleaned ourselves up, and hoarded all the free street maps we could find. Then we set out on foot.

The core of Budapest reflects the city's transitory past – i.e., that it has been destroyed and rebuilt several times over. Some streets seem medieval, while others have a more-modern "Secession" feel. But almost nothing towers over you, because there's a height limit on the buildings.

We found ourselves on the Vaci Utca, a pedestrian street filled with tourist restaurants, souvenir shops and people-watching opportunities. According to the guidebooks, it has been that way for centuries, although the gelato shops are probably a newer thing. We came across Erzsébet Square, where hundreds of youths loiter youthfully on nice days. A few blocks past that was St. Istvan's, the city cathedral. It's tied with Parliament as Budapest's tallest building. And it's probably the only huge church that we ignored on our vacation.

Dinner was at Rezkakas, a nice bistro where we proudly represented America by being way underdressed. The wine guy told us about palinka, the pseudo-official spirit of Hungary. It's a fruit brandy that could double as nail polish remover. Palinka comes in several varieties, but the national favorite seems to be plum. You are supposed to have one before dinner, to get your digestive system in high gear. Then you have another after dinner, to smother any last thoughts of doing work that evening. I'm pretty sure that's legit, and not just something wine guys at restaurants made up to sell more palinka.

Looking back, our vacation didn't feature much in the way of "authentic" dining. In fact, dinner at Rezkakas might have been our most authentic meal. I had their take on goulash -- which was fancy, for a dish that sounds like it should be served in a dog bowl -- and Allyson had an excellent pea risotto. Hungary actually has fantastic vegetables. Between that and the fatalistic attitude of the populace, it's practically the New Jersey of Eastern Europe.

During the meal we had a nice chat with a New York couple finishing up their vacation. They were clearly very rich, as the guy was a lawyer and the woman worked for TIAA. Their son was an aspiring sportswriter, covering the St. Louis Cardinals for the summer. They gave us a few tips on Budapest and took our picture.

And then we learned an important lesson about Budapest: Always leave yourself at least 75 minutes to pay a bill. Naïve American restaurants want to turn over tables. Sophisticated European restaurants see the economic value in sitting at a table without spending money for hours on end. European waiters will bend over backward to make sure you cannot pay your bill and leave. It's a service they provide, to make you relax and be late for things.

In this instance, we had a boat to catch. We went from "it's probably time to get the check" to "this is taking a while" to "we will have to do wind sprints or we will miss the boat; damn you palinka." It took an overpriced cab ride to get back on track, but we made it to the dock.

The river cruise was recommended by both Allyson's parents and my parents. We were assured that all the buildings on the Danube would be illuminated, and that it would be stunning. It was ... OK. It had rained while we were in the restaurant, and all the boat windows were closed. No one seemed motivated to open them up. The buildings were lit up ... but you can actually get a nice view of the illuminated buildings from the land. The cruise featured an audio guide, with "The Danube" as the narrator. On our tape, he had a peculiar British accent, and all the guest voices of the various kings and queens of Hungary sounded like people who got beat up in study hall. It was not an easy listen.

But it DID get me oriented. And once Chris has his bearings, the real vacationing begins!

For Chris, at least.

On to Budapest Day Two

In This Episode ...

The Full Trip