Stay A While

Last month M and I went on holiday, a very different holiday to what we’re accustom.  I’ll explain: A couple years ago we did a three week, six city tour of Eastern Europe that we organized ourselves.  The tour included Prague, Warsaw, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna and Cesky Krumlov (in the Czech Republic). We visited these cities in the dead of winter and although cold, bitter cold at times, each had their own charm.  Traveling in the winter when there are fewer tourists and everything from airfare to accommodations are less expensive was a great experience.  Unlike in the U.S., locals in this part of the world don’t hibernate in the winter; outdoor cafes were busy day and night as were restaurants and public areas.  My guess is that homes and apartments are small, money is tight so people congregate in public places for their entertainment.

Christmas Market

The outdoor cafes are what really got me.  They had propane heaters to keep you warm on top and heavy blankets to warm your legs.  I must say there’s something romantic, and a bit adventurous for Americans, to sit outside when the temperatures are below freezing (often well below freezing!) drinking steaming hot chocolate during the day and savoring a glass of wine at night. (Eastern Europeans are big smokers so choose your outdoor table carefully to avoid the second hand smoke).

Of the cities we visited Budapest was our all around favorite for several reasons.  One, it’s a beautiful city, almost as beautiful as Paris.  We visited fascinating museums; ate some excellent (and inexpensive) meals; indulged in decadent hot chocolate and pastries as good as any in Paris or other parts of Western Europe; toured beautiful churches; we were captivated by the architecture, a mix of old and modern, Neo-Gothic to Soviet era; toured the Jewish Quarter and learned the history of Jews in Hungary; we were educated in the terrorism that has plagued Hungary for hundreds of years by neighboring countries, each taking bites of land and freedom from the Hungarian people; and of course we visited the popular public baths which was a blast.  I could go on about the night life, the ‘ruin’ bars, the excellent public transportation…there was just a charm to the city and people and we didn’t have enough time to relish it all.  After three nights in Budapest we both yearned to return sometime soon for an extended stay.

Szimpla Kert Ruin Bar

The opportunity to do so came sooner than we imagined.  In the spring of 2017 I received an alert about a British Air sale from Atlanta to Budapest for $365 each round trip (you read that right; $365 each round trip).  We immediately decided we’d be crazy not to take advantage of this amazing offer so we booked that day (sale was for travel in October and November of this year).  This time we were going to spend two weeks in Budapest, plenty of time to immerse ourselves in all Budapest had to offer.  With an extended stay we decided an AirBnB would be a perfect choice, and knowing the city layout from our previous stay  we could make an informed choice of location.  Again, what a bargain; fourteen nights in a studio apartment, centrally located for $550, under $40 a night!

While I’d love to give a travelogue describing all the things we did over those fourteen days and nights, it would probably be boring; it’s easy to list the ‘things’ you do on holiday but difficult to describe the ‘essence’.  The experience of visiting one place for an extended time is so different from rushing from city to city, trying to cram in as much as possible in a short time, no matter how well you organize your schedule.  You really have the opportunity to live life like the locals.  You get to know the shop keepers, the wait staff in restaurants, the folks at the local coffee shop and patisserie.  You can tour a museum in the morning and walk the streets in the afternoon, maybe sit at a cafe for an hour or two conversing with the locals.  It’s just relaxing and a great way to learn the essence of a place, warts and all.

Hero’s Square

While we saw and did much, we didn’t cover a lot of ground like we normally do while vacationing.  And that was the idea of the trip; live like a local, get to know what it’s like to live in a place.  The first few days we were in Budapest we’d walk into a restaurant and were greeted in English, like we had a tattoo on our forehead that said ‘American’.  By the end of our stay we’d walk into a restaurant and were greeted in Hungarian, a sure sign we were one with the local culture.

I know not everyone has the luxury of an extended stay like we had in Budapest.  Heck, we may never have the opportunity again with all the places we want to visit (the more we travel the longer our wish list of places to visit).  But, maybe next time you can take a couple weeks off, think about an extended stay in just one location.  Doesn’t have to be overseas; could be a city a hundred miles away or across the country.  Stay a while, get to know the people and place….it’s an experience you won’t soon forget!

View of Pest from National Gallery of Art (Buda)