Almost Caught Naked In Budapest

22 February 2015
Read Time: 3.0 mins

I’m stood naked, bare ass wobbling behind a beach towel held by two friends I met 48-hours ago.

The unmistakable slap, slap of thongs echoes along the underground corridor towards us.

“Is someone coming?” I ask, frantically yanking on bathers.

I’m tying on the top, fingers at warp speed, when the owner of said footsteps’ lurches into view – or rather his bulbous stomach does, the rest of him a few beats behind. His side-eye catches three Lycra-clad swimmers, casually throwing towels over shoulders.

Mission accomplished. We’ve bathered-up, sans the cubicle fee, and are moments from slipping into the healing spring waters of Gellert bathhouse in Budapest, Hungary.

When I signed up for this Contiki trip to Eastern Europe – seeing Budapest, Vienna and Prague – I never envisioned myself near flashing a middle-aged Hungarian. Itinerary aside, it seems you can’t tell what will go down on tour.

 It's easy to make friends on a Contiki tour

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A Tour Virgin Arrives In Hungary

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I’d arrived in Hungary as a tour virgin, clutching my backpack apprehensively and wondering what I was in for: Would our guide be like the history teacher I fell asleep listening to? What if I hated the food? How could we see three countries in six days?

Most of my worries disappeared after our group met in the hotel lobby. The tanned, blonde I'd initially had for a Scandinavian traveller introduced himself as Hugh, our 28-year-old Australian guide – no way a professor-type, but with an equally impressive knowledge of European history.

Hugh cheerfully announced the first activity: lunch. My jetlagged stomach, which felt like it was dinnertime, flipped appreciatively and put away three courses, with wine and gooey chocolate sponge, without pause.

 The Contiki group all together in Budapest

A local guide then showed us around, telling us how Hungary battled through the Ottoman wars and 42 years of communism, while pointing out Budapest’s many World Heritage sites – including the imposing monuments of Heroes’ Square and majestic Buda Castle, on the Buda side of the Danube river.

Dinner was at a restaurant and cellar run by the same family since the 1800s. After a few generous tasting glasses we were ready to go. It was Saturday after all, and we were in a city with some famously happening nightlife. At least, we’d heard it was happening, we just didn’t know where.

This was when Hugh came into his own, cranking the music on the bus, rattling off options and letting us choose how gritty we’d get.

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Dancing With A Throng Of Shirtless Locals

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We started at one of Budapest’s ruin bars, Szimpla Kert, a crumbling 19th-Century apartment strewn with lights and second-hand furniture – including a bathtub that soon filled with an intertwining couple.

Hugh knew of a great DJ playing in town and the night ended dancing amid a throng of shirtless locals in the basement of Corvinteto.

The next day we had free time to explore, so we scouted the local markets, before of course soothing our hangovers in that spectacular art deco bathhouse.

 

That evening we boarded a dinner cruise on the Danube. With the sun sinking behind Gellert Hill and the city lighting up, we could be served cardboard and love it, it’s so achingly beautiful.

We woke up early to go to Vienna, but I’m soon nodding asleep against the bus window – loving not having to stress about finding my way there. I woke to tree-lined boulevards, classical buildings and chiselled statues.

We’re dropped at Café Sacher, a traditional Viennese tearoom, famous for its sacher-torte. Biting into a slice, I say a prayer of thanks that someone had the ingenuity to combine melt-in-your-mouth chocolate cake, with a layer of apricot jam and chocolate icing in the 1800s.


Budapest: A city for all seasons. The Wintry Charms of Budapest

See Prague in winter. Rug Up and Explore Prague In Winter


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Absinthe And Giggle Fits

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That evening we celebrated my towel-buddy’s birthday at the historic Wurstelprater amusement park. We squealed thinking our octopus ride was malfunctioning as dry ice jetted from the machinery, but still left in one piece, if a little wind blown and knotty-haired.

The next day we spent free time exploring galleries before the group visited Alt-Wiener Destillerie schnapps museum. Of course we had to sample some, and were soon daring each other to try the absinthe and suffering giggle fits.

Prague wins our hearts moments after our bus rolls in. On a bicycle tour through the cobbled streets of the Heritage-listed Old Town, past Charles Bridge and the colourful John Lennon wall, we’re already planning our reunion trip.

Hugh has been entertaining us with tales of Prague’s “underground” clubs. So, after lining our stomachs in a gorgeous art nouveau dining room, we clamber down to Harley’s Bar, where the cocktails are vase-sized.

 A view of historic Prague

Some of us don’t make it to the morning tour of Hradcany Castle the next day. But after a long afternoon exploring Old Town by ourselves, we’re rejuvenated and ready for our last night. It unfolds at a series of clubs, ending somewhere in the middle of Karlovy Lazne, a multi-storeyed labyrinth of music.

It’s been a few years since I took that trip and I’m still tight with my towel-holding buddies. And yes, tours are a great way to get a taste of a country – just remember to carry change.

Alys Francis

Alys Francis is a freelance journalist based in India. She travels South Asia reporting on everything from elections, to Bollywood and the best places to get chai in New Delhi.