Budapest, and the good and bad points of tour groups

Gustav Eiffel -- he of tower fame -- designed this bridge over the Danube in Budapest. On the tour boat, they said it had been designed by

Gustav Eiffel — he of tower fame — designed this bridge over the Danube in Budapest. On the tour boat, they said it had been designed by “a frenchman.”

We are in Budapest on the final day of our trip. The official tour ended a couple of days ago. We chose to stay on here for four days in what Outdoor Adventure Travel (OAT) refers to as a “post-trip extension.” It means that our hotel and travel costs were included, but we aren’t part of a tour group any more. One other couple from the trip also came on to Budapest, and we had a local guide who took us on two walking tours – one of Buda, the hilly old town above the Danube, and one of the 19th and 20th Century “new” town of Pest on the other side.

I don’t know that I have any new insights about Budapest. It is a

Subway station on Budapest's 1896-era

Subway station on Budapest’s 1896-era “Millennium Line.”

fascinating city, still emerging from years under communism. Much of Pest was destroyed during the war, and the Hungarians are busy rebuilding it to look like its Austro-Hungarian past. You can see ugly communist-era concrete buildings next to Art Nouveau exuberance. I reminded our local guide that we in the U.S. had managed to put up some pretty ugly public buildings in the 50’s as well, and we don’t have the communists to blame it on. I’d put up the King County Administration building against

anything they have here.

That being said, there are some real architectural marvels. Budapest is larger than Vienna and is very spread out. We have used every type of conveyance available – subway, trolley, bus – to get around. Vienna has a walkable old city center, inside the Ringstrasse. Here, you need public transportation, but it’s cheap and easy to use. The subway we rode on was built for the 1896 exposition, and it shows its shabby age. But it’s still fast and efficient, and the stations are beautiful. The trolley I rode on has to be pre-war, but there were some newer ones as well. The language is undecipherable, but English is

spoken everywhere. Hungary is in the European Union but not on the Euro. It’s currency, the florint, is just about as obscure as the

language. At 280 (or so) florints to the dollar, we had to keep doing the math to figure out what we were spending on lunch.

Millennium Line rail car.

Millennium Line rail car.

As promised, though, I do want to comment a little about guided tours. Now that I have been on one, I am an expert, right. (Pat’s been on more, so she is chiming in as well.) There are plusses and minuses.

On the positive side, I don’t see how we could have pulled off a trip like this that included tours of the cities on the Adriatic, Mostar and Sarajevo in Bosnia, and the capitals of Zagreb and Ljubljana, without some significant logistical headaches. I enjoyed not having to negotiate a rental car and find a place to park it. In almost every case, we had very knowledgeable and forthcoming local guides who could talk with expertise about the culture, history

Paprika in the central market.

Paprika in the central market.

and politics of their areas. On this trip, most of our stays were three nights each, so we didn’t have to pack and repack every day. I think I learned far more than I would have on my own.

Also, we enjoyed our traveling partners. We were in a group of 16, which is quite manageable. Most of them were older than Pat and me, and some had been on a number of tours. All were well-traveled, and, mostly, they were in great shape. It is nice to have someone to talk to in English, other than each other.

St. Mattias Church

St. Mattias Church

On the negative side, we did some stuff I would just as soon have skipped, and we ate some meals that were mediocre, at best. If I had been smart, I would have spent a free day seeing more of Zagreb than going with the group to see the Croatian countryside and Tito’s birthplace. If you have the chance, skip Tito’s birthplace. Our “farewell dinner” in Ljubljana was awful and embarrassing.

I don’t think you need a tour group to see a big European capital. However, I would look into getting a local guide for the first day to get oriented. And I like spending more time in cities than the tours usually provide – time to hang out and read the paper. Also, if you have time, you can book an apartment or a condo for a short stay, which is preferable to a hotel. But to cover a lot of ground and not worry about details, the tour was really worthwhile. I would do it again in more-remote places, but probably not in Western Europe.

In Budapest, for example, because we had a little extra time, Patty was able to visit the old Turkish baths, and I was able to veer off the common tourist path to the gritty area behind the Dohany Street Synagogue – second largest in Europe. It had a number of pop-up bars and restaurants in vacant areas between buildings and made us feel like real Europeans to be there.

Bauhaus design from between the world wars.

Bauhaus design from between the world wars. is going on one of its dormant periods – between trips. We are not sure when it will come back to life, but we are talking about next year. I will let you know.