When I delved into the guidebooks to craft our Eastern European route, visions of sugar plum fairies danced through my head. Well, not fairies exactly, but castles and palaces, the refuges of storybook princes, evil stepmothers, and the occasional winged godmother. These faraway countries, for so many decades closed to Western view, held an almost magical allure.
Budapest, the fourth stop on our medieval wonderland tour, seemed particularly inviting to me, but I could not explain why. Perhaps it was my penchant for paprika, the mystery of its strange Finno-Urgic language, or the fact that it was named after a group of nomadic warriors who bear no relation to its current population (even so, Atila is an immensely popular name here). In the week before we arrived, I found myself repeatedly opening my books to their respective Hungary chapters and searching for something, anything, that could explain my fascination with the Hungarian capital. Each time I came up empty.
When we arrived, I immediately set us on a quest to discover the source of Budapest’s magic. It had to be out there…somewhere. In order to find it though, we would have to ride the metro…and the bus…and possibly a tram or two. We don’t fear public transportation, but Budapest threatens its tourists with stiff penalties for failing to grasp the intricacies of its system. Riders must buy tickets before boarding their chosen vehicle and validate them on board. If a ticket is a) not present, b) not validated, c) expired based on a timestamp, or d) does not cover a transfer, the rider can be fined and bears the shame of bungling what for locals is the most basic of survival skills. Certain we would mess up at some point along the way, we purchased pricey tourist passes which allowed us to hop on and off every moving object in Budapest at will without the need for validation or angst.
We took the metro under the mythical Danube to the Buda side of town to begin our search. Here on the famed Castle Hill centuries old buildings lined cobblestone streets and costumed riders trotted by on their trusty, decorated steeds. The weather, however, was cold and gloomy and throngs of noisy visitors (including my own children) milled about. Scaffolding covered the church, cars overtook the horses, and a little man, a ticket machine, and a lack of forints kept me from taking in the promising river view. If magic was here, I certainly couldn’t find it.
Perhaps the secret was one known only to locals. We vowed to ask our new friend, Andrew, whom we had arranged to meet for a cup of hot chocolate. Andrew arrived with his 3-year-old daughter, Emma, and led us to a nearby cafe. The marketing manager for a Budapest-based group of hotels, he had helped secure us a few nights’ affordable accommodation in the centrally located Domino Hostel on the Pest side of the Danube. An avid traveler in his pre-fatherhood years, he was eager to pick our brains about an upcoming trip he and his wife are planning to take with little Emma.
As a British expat, Andrew claimed he was no expert on matters Hungarian, but his command of the difficult language, longtime love of a native, and many years of living in Budapest led us to believe otherwise. He amused us with facts about modern Hungary and its often painful transition from communism to capitalism. He explained that in the years following the collapse of communism, Hungary was left with the capacity to produce pharmaceuticals, ham, and tractor engines. Not bodies, just engines. Everything else had to be imported until internal industry could be developed.
Andrew and Emma showered us with snacks they had carefully tucked away in Emma’s miniature suitcase. (Serious travelers know that high calorie treats are an essential part of life on the go.) After gobbling down at least a third of the stash, Emma and Asher, fast friends and partners in mischief, began darting through the restaurant as if to remind us adult conversation is a privilege reserved for those who hire babysitters. Much to my dismay, any intellectual foray into Budapest’s magic would have to wait for a later encounter.
Andrew graciously escorted us first via bus and then tram to what proved the kids’ favorite place in Budapest, the MOM shopping plaza. His wife, Dorca, greeted us at the door and helped hustle us upstairs where we would partake in the cinematic magic of Spiderman 3. We tried to convince our new friends to join us, but Emma had had a nightmare about the masked hero just the night before. We would have to watch Tobey transform into Bad Spidey without her.
The next two days in Budapest we milked our transit passes for all they were worth and visited many of the city’s monuments and museums. Some were beautiful, all were interesting, but it wasn’t until we took a leisurely stroll through Varosliget (City Park) that Budapest gave me the answer to my question.
We had just visited the Heroes’ Square, where I forced the kids to pick a favorite from the dramatic statues depicting Magyar heroes. Amidst the familiar cries of “Where are we going?” “I’m thirsty,” and “I need to go to the bathroom!” I spotted something intriguing in the distance. I walked closer and when my suspicions were confirmed, I eagerly shouted, “Hey, guys! Look what’s over here!” Some wise guy American sitting on the grass nearby immediately mimicked me. I turned and shot him a glare, and he looked penitent when he saw a group of children rather than women come scampering to my side. Even he couldn’t squelch my joy at my discovery. In an untraveled corner of the park, a mammoth cottonwood tree had shed thousands of bits of white, billowy fluff which now covered the ground like a blanket. McKane, Kieran, Asher and I leapt in, swooping, spinning, and diving in an effort to send the fluff skyward. We laughed with delight and begged Dax to turn off his iPod and join our fun. Tom captured the moment with his Canon and agreed it felt like a scene from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel.
Though the kids might argue they enjoyed Spiderman more, for me this was the highlight and the magic of Budapest. The city that boasts hundreds of architectural and cultural wonders showed me that I can search and search, but no matter where I go, what I’m looking for is right under my nose: it’s the people I’m with and the moments I spend with them, whether they be in a castle, on a mountaintop, or in a flurry of fuzz. They’re why I’m here; they’re the source of my joy; they’re my magic.
Budapest may reveal its particular mystery to me on another trip. For now this is all I need to know.