After only two short days, it was time to leave Vienna. I arrived at the hydrofoil dock just before 8:00am, ready to cruise along the Danube River to Budapest. The only seating on the boat was indoors, and I felt lucky to grab a single seat by the window. The remaining seats filled up quickly. Most passengers appeared to be Austrian, though there were quite a few speaking English—from the U.S., Britain, Canada, and Australia—as well as a trio from Japan.
Shortly after we departed Vienna, the boat spent a full hour passing through the first of two locks. While waiting, I ate the first part of my snack, which I had purchased the day before: a slice of topfenstrudel, the dough moist and rolled paper-thin with a sweet cheese and raisin filling.
After a stop in Bratislava, Slovakia, the hydrofoil continued on to Budapest. Just prior to arriving, we hit our second lock. Once again, it seemed to take forever to pass through. As the sun streamed through the window to my right, hitting me squarely in the eyes, I came to regret my choice of seat. Some passengers had escaped the claustrophobic heat of the cabin to light cigarettes on the narrow walkway outside, and their smoke kept wafting unpleasantly through the open door (which another woman insisted on opening each time I got up to shut it).
I found solace during this second delay by partaking in my remaining snack: a slice of apfelstrudel, packed with apples and cinnamon, sweet but with just the right amount of tartness.
We arrived in Budapest an hour and a half late. Gray clouds had gathered, obscuring the sun, though it was still a beautiful sight passing under all of the city’s magnificent bridges, the Gothic-style Parliament building on the left and the Buda Castle on the hilltop to the right.
I had chosen my hotel, Hotel Art, mainly for its proximity to the boat dock, Metro stops, and famous pedestrian street Váci Utca. After checking in, I changed some money into Hungarian forints and then walked along Váci Utca to St. Stephen’s Basilica. Although the church was closed to visitors due to a wedding in progress, I was able to peek inside and listen to the strains of “Ave Maria” coming from the altar.
For dinner, I headed to one of the restaurants that seemed to make all of the “Best Of” lists in my guidebooks: Csarnok Vendéglő. I entered with some degree of trepidation, having read that Budapest restaurants were notorious for ripping off customers—even locals—but to my relief, the staff were very friendly and accommodating. As a woman dining alone in a foreign country, I did not feel the least bit uncomfortable there.
My meal was exceptional. I started with the hortobágyi palacsinta, a meat-filled crêpe served in a cream sauce laced with lots of paprika. This was followed by töltött káposzta: cabbage rolls stuffed with rice and ground meat, topped with sour cream, and served on a bed of sauerkraut. Even though I didn’t possess a palate discriminating enough to tell precisely what types of meat were used, I nevertheless determined that the dishes were seasoned to perfection.
After dinner, I returned to my hotel via the waterfront, about a 40-minute walk. The whole river was aglow with sparkling lights—luxury hotels on the eastern bank, the hilltop castle rising to the west, bridges spanning the two sides, and riverboats leisurely cruising beneath—the water alive in a magical, reflective, glittering dance. In an odd juxtaposition of Disneyland fantasy and ancient history, Budapest seemed a fairytale come to life.