How could so much vomit come from a human so small? That was my first thought. My second was: Scheisse, now what?
The night before we were to board our sleeper train to Romania – an epic 13 hour journey which we had been gearing towards for weeks – our youngest daughter began erupting like an Icelandic volcano. She wasn’t the only one either. Shortly after it was J’s turn and then our son joined in, soon a chorus of heaving and splashing rang through the house.
Fortunately, we had kept our trip open ended for just such occasions – so there would be no need for us to get up close and personal with the toilets on a Romanian train. The journey had to be postponed (seeyaw €180) and another apartment in Budapest sought out for the meantime. It was a shame we couldn’t stay put. Our current abode was one of those rare finds on AirBnB which exceeds expectations. It was advertised as “minimalist”, which I cynically took to be a fancy word for “bare”. With three kids though, the fewer objects they could smash, smear or injure themselves with the better. On arrival – after navigating the bus network from the glass bellied leviathan that is the Keleti train station, walking a couple of blocks through laid back evening scenes, and then following our detailed self check-in instructions – we found the apartment to be clean, stylish and simple, yet well equipped.
We were well situated too, in the district of Újlipótváros, a trendy neighbourhood on the Pest side of Margaret bridge (Budapest is split by the Danube into two halves – Buda and Pest). Sheltered from the tourist thralls, the “shabby chic” vibe of the cafes, bookshops and bars here still has a genuine feel. It is perhaps similar to what our neighborhood in Berlin, Prenzlauer Berg, was like twenty years ago – before gentrification scrubbed it clean. The towering buildings, with their flaking, exhaust-stained facades built in Bauhaus and Modernist style, tell the tale of the progressive, intellectual neighbourhood of the turn of the 20th century which would be gutted by holocaust, war and communist dictatorship.
Our second apartment was more expensive, smaller and, though only a couple of blocks away, not so nicely situated. Turns out we would be living opposite the Hungarian Ministry of Defense – a large yet surreptitious building patrolled by bored young soldiers sporting maroon berets and automatic rifles. One positive was we were handy to the “Olympic park” playground, which had plenty of space for the kids to run around. They struggled with the language barrier however (their response to being asked something in Hungarian was to back slowly away), and it was a little heart breaking to see them watching the raucous play of the school groups from the shelter of a nearby oak tree.
With stomachs fortified by Zwieback and Fennel tea every one was soon fighting fit, so we were able to take advantage of the couple of extra days we had. Having spent most of our time so far exploring our neighbourhood, it was now time to go full tourist. We decided to take a trip via the Funicular to Buda castle. After reaching the base we forked out the 5,800 forint (about €14) for two adults and two kids. Pretty steep for a one and a half minute trip up a hill (no pun intended). We would probably have passed had we not already spent the morning selling the kids on the idea.
We did learn a valuable lesson on the subtleties of the Hungarian language however. After receiving our tickets, J asked exactly how to pronounce the word Siklo (funicular). In response the vendor opened her window, looked J in the eye and very deliberately pronounced the word. A little over the top, we thought, sharing a look. Her colleague then approached with her smartphone, gesturing for us to look at the screen. Turns out siklo (pronounced with a sh) has a very different meaning to csiklo (with a hard s). I’ll let you google it for yourself, suffice to say that asking strangers on the street to help you locate the csiklo may land you in hot water.
Speaking of which, another draw card in Budapest are the natural thermal baths – some of which have been wrinkling toes since Roman times. I was keen to take the kids, but after some research found they were more places for sitting and relaxing as opposed to splashing and screaming (some outdoor ones apparently have kids’ pools and slides, but it was a little late in the year for that). In the end I was able to find a more suitable, if less historic alternative the Aquaworld Aqua Park. The website promised “unforgettable entertainment” and an “ocean of adventure”. As one of Europe’s largest indoor water parks I figured we would find some thing to suit us, so we hatched a plan. I would take the two older kids and J would go with our youngest to explore the bohemian Jewish quarter.
With towels and togs packed, as well as a few snacks for the journey, we boarded a tram and travelled about an hour to the north of the city. Passing through the communist era housing projects, we watched the locals board and alight on their daily business. Some of the older passengers would smile and say something in glowing tones to the kids, who (with nowhere to escape to this time) would look at me for help. All I could do was wave my hands awkwardly and say “Sorry, we don’t speak Hungarian”. That didn’t stop one woman sat opposite us, who continued to coo at the kids for about ten stops. Eventually we arrived to Aquaworld, paying the 11,000 forint (26 Euro) entry fee for the three of us for three hours.
There were half a dozen pools of various depths and temperatures, with a selection of slides (most of which the kids were too short for). They were happy enough though, just splashing around, clambering over me and generally flailing about. My daughter even learned how to swim underwater – which was a family milestone to add to my son losing his first tooth a couple of days later, and my youngest daughter taking her first steps, all of which happened in Budapest.Returning home red eyed and wrung out, we met J who was nonplussed about the Jewish quarter. She found it too commercialized, swarming with pouting tourists whose only mission was to enhance their social media profiles. Weirdly it seems like we had a more genuine experience at Aquaworld.
With more boxes ticked than we had ever planned, we were now ready to continue our journey east, the mystery of Transylvania awaited. That was until that evening, when my stomach began to bubble and gurgle like a defunct dishwasher. A dash to the bathroom confirmed it, I had been struck by the dreaded Buda-belly. As I lay bed ridden, J desperately searched once more for a new apartment. At least we hadn’t booked our train tickets this time.
The next day saw another move, another two blocks, another step down in the quality of our accommodation. Mercifully, the illness again passed quickly so after a couple more days of sightseeing, audio books, below average sushi and playgrounds we were well and truly ready to go.
Our destination was Brasov, one of the Siebenbürger – fortified towns settled by ethnic Germans in the first half of last millennium. It’s a well known launching pad for many to visit “Dracula’s castle”. We saw it more as a chance to get a taste of the Carpathian wilderness – an untamed land where brown bears roam and lynx prowl. More importantly it would be where we would spend an unforgettable week turning back the clock in a 100 year old farm house on a traditional Romanian farm. It would be a retreat back to nature, back to simplicity, a reminder of what’s important. And, after a week of stomach bugs and harried house hopping in Budapest – it would be just what the doctor ordered.