The Travel Diary is a retrospective blog about our 3-month long wedding trip in 2003. We’re sharing stories about our honeymoon across 11 countries, including accommodation details, recipes, travel stories, and the story of how 2 people started a lifelong adventure together.
I started this entry of the Travel Diary by titling it, “Midnight in Budapest”. Sounds so much more romantic than “At 2am we got off at the wrong train station and ended up walking through the city of Budapest in the dark with heavy packs on”. But wait – I’m getting ahead of myself…
We had another day in Prague before we began to head out of town. We enjoyed some of the cafe culture (which you’ll discover extends far outside of France and well into Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean) where sitting on the sidewalk with your coffee and a little pastry to people-watch is a perfectly acceptable way to spend 4 hours. We observed couples and families opting for horse-drawn carriage rides around the historic old town square, we enjoyed another “performance” of the astrological clock (which is like something out of a very macabre Disney movie), sat on the Charles Bridge for a while enjoying the sight of other travelers and tourists taking in the sights, and walked through the old Jewish quarter. I had finally got the hang of ordering proper amounts of food, and yet I was still amazed at how inexpensive it was to eat here – even in a major tourist city like Prague. Of course, I was in for a real surprise when we finally got out of the city.
We hopped on a train to Tábor, a small town a few hours south of Prague. Tábor is famous for what many other small European medieval towns are famous for – well preserved buildings, quiet atmosphere, and a great big castle. We had chosen Tábor for another reason, however.
Tabor’s main square sits on top of a network of tunnels, originally carved out by the citizens who wanted to dig themselves cellars, and eventually they ended up connecting the tunnels into a large network which served as protection from fires & wars, gave them a place to store their wine and food in the winter, and at one point it even served as the town jail. It was a fascinating, somewhat claustrophobic experience to walk through this tiny underground city, even though we had accidentally joined up with a Czech language walking tour. Thank goodness for good travel books!
(Editor’s note: One again, I shall blame the fact that it was 2003 for the blurriness and bad quality of all my photos of the tunnels. We have learned a lot about which cameras work for travel and which don’t. Please see this webpage for clear, bright, detailed images of the tunnels under Tábor).
Tabor was our stop for my 24th birthday, and we celebrated with tiny cakes from the local coffee shop, and managed to catch an all-Czech dubbed version of Ghostbusters on our fuzzy little hostel tv. We don’t spend much time in our rooms when we are traveling, but after almost 2 weeks of being on the road, we were ready for a quiet evening. The next day, we would be boarding a train to Budapest!
The following morning, we knew we had a few hours before we needed to catch our train, so we spent one last sunny afternoon in the Czech Republic sampling local beer, trying out new foods, and touring through the local Hussite museum. There is always something to see in charming places like this – we had enjoyed the Czech Republic so much, and we knew we would return someday.
Our train for Budapest left in the afternoon, and we were happily packed away in our little compartment, watching the landscape roll by. Stephen had been to both the Netherlands and the Czech Republic on previous travel excursions, so this would be his first “new” country. We were both excited, and set our little alarm for midnight, as that would wake us at just the perfect time to pack up and get ready to disembark.
The alarm went off as planned, and we readied ourselves. The language barrier had not been much of an issue so far, but we had heard that attempting Magyar – the Hungarian language – was usually not advised as it was a very difficult language for foreigners to speak and usually just leads to confusion or insult. Even our guidebook suggested we try some simple German or French instead. When the friendly ticket agent on the train came by to advise us that our stop was nearing, we struggled through a few phrases in Magyar (“Which stop is ours? There are 3 listed? Where do we get off for the City Centre?”) and sure enough, there were awkward laughs and shrugs from both sides.
We decided to take a chance, and get off at the station that most of the other passengers were off at. Unfortunately, we chose the wrong station, and ended up stepping out of the train station and in to a rather industrial area of Budapest, near the outskirts of the city. It was nearing 2:00 am now, and we had no idea where we were.
We noticed across the street that there was a young couple chatting under a streetlight. Just as we were about to cross the road and ask for directions, the young fellow and his lady embraced in a passionate kiss, which caused the young lady to drop her handbag and melt in his arms. It was like the ending of a romantic movie. We couldn’t possibly disturb this moment.
We decided to hike our packs through the city until we found some road signs to point us in the right direction. At this rate, our hostel would be shut down for the night anyways, so we knew that if we wanted a warm bed somewhere, we would have to hit the road.
(Apologies for the lack of photos during this portion of our adventure. The camera came back out the next day when we were not hiking around in the dark!)
2 hours later, we had navigated some dark streets and found a sense of direction. We stood beside the Danube river with the whole city to ourselves – every sensible person was already home from the bar at this point. We were definitely cranky and way too tired to keep going. Just as I was getting ready to suggest that we curl up on a park bench until sunrise, 2 gentlemen about our age came by and asked if we needed a hotel. Of course, one must always be careful when approached by strangers offering help – most people are quite genuine, but travellers look like easy marks for those with bad intentions. We said yes, and if they could recommend one near by we would be grateful. They told us to follow them – this is often not a good sign, but we were young and adventurous, so we went with them. My husband stayed by my side, and when our young helpers asked if we needed help with our bags, we politely declined, knowing that if they were just being polite the worst thing that could happen is that we seem stubborn, but if they weren’t just being polite we would likely be without our bags in a flash.
We turned a corner to find that these young men were indeed on the up and up, as they had brought us to the “Queen Victoria Hotel”. It was, of course, far more money than we had budgeted for our first night of accommodation in Hungary, but when you’re stuck on the street for a night, you just make do. We knew we would only stay the one night anyways, as we had reservations at a quaint little hostel run by a tiny sweet lady in the centre of town, which we would find once the sun was up. For that night, it was simply 2 grateful travellers sinking into lumpy beds at the overpriced Hotel Queen Victoria. C’est la vie!
Being flexible with your plans is essential if you are going to survive on the road. In some countries, the more you plan, the more frustrated you will be! The whole world doesn’t run on the same frantic and often tightly wound level as we seem to in North America. In fact, we have discovered that the further East you go, the more comfortable you need to be with letting things be what they are. Besides being hungry and tired, being too set on your schedule or plans will only lead to frustration. Be ready to take a chance on an offer of help if you know you’ll be safe. Be ready to miss a train and take another one instead. Be ready to get off at the wrong station and have to hike your backpack through a new city at 2am. It’s all part of the journey!