We left Zagreb the same way we arrived, by bus. Not exactly how I pictured we would be traveling Europe, but it’s cheap & we haven’t had to deal with any luggage restrictions. It’s around an eleven hour bus ride from Zagreb, Croatia to Krakow, Poland and our home for June. We decided to break it up with a two night stop in Budapest, Hungary. This surprisingly made the bus tickets cheaper plus we had a free night from Hotels.com we could use.
Hotels.com has a pretty good deal, you stay 10 nights, the next one is free. You can earn nights toward a free night other ways too, sometimes by writing a review of your stay, or by taking advantage of extra night bonuses at certain hotels. I know there’s probably better hotel reward programs out there, but I’ve been using Hotels.com years now, and I usually earn a free night after every 7 or so paid nights.
The bus company we used is called FlixBus. It was a full size touring bus with reclining seats, electric outlets, and wifi. This made the four and a half hour ride to Budapest fly by. At the border between Croatia and Hungary they collected our passports and checked us out of Croatia. A few meters across the border we were checked back in to the Schengen area of Europe, no questions asked. Our 90 day visa started counting down again though.
I planned to call an Uber when we arrived in Budapest. We hadn’t been using Uber on this trip yet and when I logged into my account to update my credit card, I noticed my last ride was from 2012 in San Francisco… for $110.00. Ouch! It’s really hard to call an Uber with out an internet connection though. I tried to stay connected to the FlixBus after we had gathered our luggage, but the bus pulled away before I could open the app. We decided to go inside the terminal and see if there was a wifi connection we could use. I also had to pee. (Yes, there was a bathroom on the bus. No, I didn’t use it. Yes, in hindsight I should have.) The bathrooms were down stairs so we drug our 2 large suitcases, 2 laptop bags, and my shoulder bag into the rather small elevator. Another couple decided they would get in the elevator with all their luggage too. They stayed in the elevator on the bottom floor though so we had to squish between them with all our stuff to get off. I don’t know where they thought they were going. The elevator only goes between those 2 floors.
Howard parked himself in a corner with our luggage and I ran to the restrooms. A lady started yelling at me before I could get in the door. It cost money to use the bus station bathroom, 80 Euro according to her sign. I went back and told Howard. He asked if I had to buy my own toilet. I had forgotten what the exchange rate was. That’s almost $100 USD. I said lets just call an Uber & get out of here. There wasn’t any wifi though. We decided to go outside & find a cafe. We could get a drink, I could use the restroom, & hopefully get on their wifi. We went back up the elevator & walked out of the station to the sidewalk. We were in the middle of the city, but there weren’t any cafes or restaurants we could see. It was a zillion degrees outside & we didn’t want to drag our luggage too far, especially with the new suitcase, aka the Tan Whale. Despite it being able to roll on 2 or 4 wheels, it goes where it wants to and it’s almost impossible to steer on a cobbled sidewalk.
We went back up to the bus station. There were a group of drivers standing there talking. I asked them where could we get a cab. They pointed to the opposite side of the station and said to go across the street over there. We went back inside the bus station. This time I parked in a corner with our stuff while Howard went off to find an ATM, or Bankomat as they’re called over here. It seemed like he was gone forever and my eyeballs were floating.. When Howard came back I asked if he had Euros, thinking I may try the restroom again. He said the ATM gave him Hungarian Forint (HUF). What’s the point of the Euro if all these countries use their own currency? I’m sure the restroom would have taken HUFs but I didn’t want to deal with it. At that point all either of us wanted was to get out of the stupid bus station. We drug the Whale & our other luggage through the station and out to the taxi stand. After a bit of chaos (This guy cut to the front of the line & kept saying something to the cab drivers that would make them drive off without any passengers.) we got a ride to our hotel and a much needed toilet.
We took it easy our first night in Budapest. We wandered down some cute little European streets near our hotel, had a nice dinner, and went to bed early. We were around 3 km (2 miles) from the city center and found things in this area of town to be a lot more affordable then we had expected. Maybe we’ll come back to Budapest for a longer visit some time.
The next day we woke up early and got ready for a full day of doing touristy stuff. This was our only full day here and we were going to do and see as much as possible. We started walking towards the city center, zigzagging through the streets. There was a big market on the way we wanted to check out, plus we really like to wander and see what we find. It was a hot day, the high was 34 C (over 93 F) and humid. My hair was a frizzy puff. It hadn’t done that in a long time. Howard still had a bit of a cold he picked up in Zagreb and the heat made him feel awful. We got to the market and sat in the restaurant for a while. I got him a cappuccino, the last thing I would ever want on a hot day, but it made him feel better. He was fine for the rest of the day. Me, not so much. I began the day skipping down the side walk excited to see the city, but by the time we made it to the city center I was at a slow crawl.
We were on the Pest side of the river and planned to cross one of the bridges to the Buda side and check out Buda Castle and the palace complex. I started to feel dizzy and nauseous and said I wanted to get lunch first. We had seen there was a Nobu near by and that’s where we headed. As soon as we were seated, I got a stabbing head ache. We ordered some food, then it felt like my tongue was a giant ball of cotton. I think the waiter realized something was wrong and he brought me a glass of water. I drank it & he was right there with another glass, and another. I started to feel a little better but salty sushi probably wasn’t the best thing to have for lunch. Howard kept pinching my hand. He said if my skin doesn’t go back where it should, then I need to go to the hospital. The last time I had heat stroke was in Austin, TX. I remember laying in he cool grass of the capital building trying to convince Howard to go inside and ask for a glass of water.
As far as our lunch went, the sushi was good, the prices were definitely Nobu prices, but the decor was a bit lacking. We could have easily been in a PF Changs. It was not like the experience we had at Nobu San Diego, which is one of my all time favorite restaurants in the world.
The rest of the afternoon I was on a constant quest for the next bottle of water. My headache and nausea kept coming back in waves, but I was going to explore this damn city if it killed me. We walked between the large stone lions guarding the Szechenyi Chain Bridge, crossed the Danube and hopped in the Funicular that took us up to the castle grounds. After wandering around there some, we headed over to the main part of town up by the castle. We were searching for some shade or air conditioning when we saw a sign for the Labyrinth. The Labyrinth is a vast cave system that runs all underneath the caste hill. Over the years, the caves have been used as cellars, prisons, catacombs and even a hospital in WWII. The labyrinth was formed early on as many of the cellars were inter-connected, creating an elaborate maze.
Only 5 to 10% of the Labyrinth is open to the public, but it was well worth the small admission fee. The Labyrinth is creepy, dark, but best of all a cool 15 – 20 C (60s F). The creepiness comes from the wax figures dressed in opera house costumes from the 1780s and is supported by stories of the infamous prisoner who was held there; Vlad Tepes, aka Vlad the Impaler, aka Count Dracula! The story goes that it was the dark confines of his cell in the Labyrinth that gave him an aversion to light, contributing to the vampire mythology.
One section of the Labyrinth is completely dark. So dark we literally couldn’t see anything. I walked slowly until I found a wall. It was wet & slimy so I told Howard to follow the wall and I would hold his arm. He felt around and there was a guide rope along the wall. It’s really weird being in complete darkness like that. I half expected someone to jump out of the dark & scare us like in a haunted house attraction, but no one did. Sound echoed strangely and we had no idea what we were walking through. Luckily there wasn’t anyone else in this area of the maze so when we got back to a dimly lit tunnel, we used our phones as a light to see where we came from. It was a giant room with man made pillars to support the roof.
The next section was damp & misty and this hall took you to Dracula’s cell. We saw a few other people on our way out some refusing to go any further down the dark corridors. We found the labyrinth fun and my body temperature was back to normal again, but I was exhausted. We jumped on a city bus that took us back to the Pest side, wandered down a few more cute European streets, grabbed a quick dinner, then a cab back to our hotel.
In the morning we headed back to the bus station and put in place a new luggage strategy. One of us deals solely with the Whale and the other person handles all the other baggage. It seemed to work better. We had time to kill before our bus left so I thought I would give the restroom another try. The sign did say 80 Euro, but it was 80 Euro cents. Ah, that made more sense! She took my 200 HUF instead, about the same amount, a little less thank $1 USD.
I was all set for our six & a half hour bus ride to Krakow. I had copied some stuff to my phone and tablet, and was planning to do some work on the bus. Unfortunately there was no internet. Three hours into the ride we stopped and I asked the driver about it. He said it was supposed to be working and no, he wasn’t able to restart the router or do anything to fix it. I was not as impressed with FlixBus as I was before. There was a lot to look at out the window though. We went from a Hungarian river plain, past an abandoned border crossing, up into the foot hills and Carpathian mountains of Slovakia, another unused border crossing, and down into Poland, our home for the next month, maybe two.
EDIT: I forgot to mention in this post, despite the heat stroke that day, I walked 30,000 steps according to my smart watch!