Falling Hard for Hungary
I fell in love with Hungary while studying abroad during my junior year in the spring semester. I was attending business school classes in Madrid when Ryanair began flying from Madrid to Budapest. I logged onto the Ryanair website, searching for somewhere to go during a long weekend in February. I spent 25 dollars for a roundtrip ticket to Budapest and booked a hostel for about six dollars per night for four nights. Budapest is an excellent destination for budget travelers because although prices for the museums, restaurants, hotels, and attractions are low, the quality of things to see, eat, and do is very high.
In February, it is chilly in Budapest with temperatures getting close to freezing and occasional snowfall. I packed a winter coat, gloves, scarves, and a hat into my backpack and prepared to be cold. Instead, I spent the majority of my weekend feeling quite warm.
The thermal baths, palinka, and excellent museums in Budapest might be enough to make one fall in love with Hungary, but what really did it for me was the friendly people I met during my trip.
One of Hungary’s main tourist attractions is the thermal baths available in every major city. In Budapest alone, there are more than 15 thermal bath complexes spread throughout every district of the city. During my trip, I spent several hours lounging in the hot mineral pools at Széchenyi Baths, one of the largest bath complexes in Europe. Temperatures in the thermal pools vary, but most are in the 70s, keeping bathers very warm.
Thermal pools are not the only way to stay warm in Budapest. Another way is to visit the many bars and nightclubs on the Pest side of the river. The most famous spirit in Hungary is called palinka and it is usually around 50 percent proof. After a few rounds of palinka, even your toes and fingers will be feeling warm on a cold night!
Although it would be easy to spend an entire weekend bathing and drinking in Budapest, I also visited some of the excellent museums and monuments in the city. The House of Terror Museum on Andrassy Utca features a fascinating educational exhibit about the history of Communism in Hungary. The museum is interactive with many multimedia exhibits. I learned a lot about the history, emotions, opinions, and consequences surrounding Hungary’s Communist past.
Additionally, the architecture of each district in Budapest helps to provide further glimpses into the history of the city. Stylish and detailed buildings are located right next door to drab Communist concrete apartments.
The thermal baths, palinka, and excellent museums in Budapest might be enough to make one fall in love with Hungary, but what really did it for me was the friendly people I met during my trip. As a frequent traveler, I have spent many long weekends exploring cities where I did not know anyone. Nowhere else in the world have I met so many warm and welcoming people! Hungarians are helpful with directions when you are lost, willing to talk to you if you dine at a restaurant alone, and always offering suggestions about the best thing to see or do while in their country.
The friendliness and helpfulness of the Hungarians I met during my first trip to Budapest in February drew me to return for another long weekend in May. Then another weeklong trip two years later. After three visits, I was convinced that I wanted to spend a year living in Hungary. I applied to the Central European Teaching Program for fall 2015 and was accepted for an English teaching position in Orosháza in southeastern Hungary.
Since moving to Hungary, my experience as an English teacher has been absolutely amazing! The other teachers at my school are extremely helpful and offer great advice not only for working with my students but also about what to do on the weekends, how to travel to other cities by bus, and where to get the best cookies in town. They have even helped with finding pet sitters for my dog when I want to travel, finding a chiropractor, and negotiating with the import office at DHL to help me a get a package shipped from the States.
Some things about living in Hungary have come as a surprise, such as the fact that many Hungarians sleep on pull-out couch beds instead of normal mattresses like Americans. However, my pull out couch bed is actually comfortable!
Before coming to Hungary I was worried about the availability of fresh fruit and vegetables. But my small town of only 30,000 people has a daily farmers’ market with fresh fruit, vegetables, milk, yogurt, cheese, jams, honey, and more locally produced food products. I was also worried about bringing my 70 pound black labrador with me, but many people have large dogs in our town so he has managed to make some new friends.
Some things about living in Hungary have come as a surprise, such as the fact that many Hungarians sleep on pull-out couch beds instead of normal mattresses like Americans.
The most surprising part of arriving to our small town was that the majority of the 30,000 people live in apartment buildings. There are many buildings more than ten stories high in the city center and very few individual houses. In most of the small towns I have been to in America, the opposite is true. In the States, only larger cities have large apartment complexes. In Orosháza, there are almost 30,000 people living within a ten minute walk of each other with very few families living in actual houses in the outskirts of the town.
Although I first fell for Hungry during a touristy weekend trip in February 2012, I am still falling for this beautiful country almost four years later. As I explore the small towns and villages in the countryside outside of Budapest, I am even more certain that I made the right decision to spend a year as an English teacher in this friendly, welcoming country.
Top Photo By Paolo Margari