Here I am again, off on another adventure. This time around, I have the pleasure of traveling with four of my lovely friends and co-workers, two non-chaperone adults (who are also lovely), and 26 of the most distinguished teenagers I’ve had the privilege of knowing—of course, this is coming from someone who’s taught most of them.
Missing from this trip, unfortunately, is my partner in crime. My dear friend Jen was supposed to co-lead this trip with me, but due to some last minute circumstances was unable to attend. Shout-out to Jen, if you’re reading this, we love and miss you!
Budapest: Day 1
Our adventure started Wednesday. After a grueling half-day at school, braving the chaos of the work day in an American public education system, I gathered my lovely cherubs, like ducks in a line, slapped some color-coded bandanas on them, hauled them onto a charter bus, and shooped everyone down to Boston.
It was a short wait before we were boarding. We spent time getting a quick bite to eat at Legal Sea Food Express—though our waitress was not happy with us when we asked her to split the bill. But if nothing else, it set the bar for European wait staff.
It was an early flight, leaving Logan at 5:05pm. This would get us to our connecting flight in Germany by 6 AM, and then into Budapest before 9. For a red-eye, it certainly would set us up for a long, full day to adjust us to our jet lag.
The flight was, well, a red-eye flight to Europe. Nothing very fun to write home about. But we were entertained by the funny trio of men sitting in the row in front of us. One was watching “A Star Is Born”—which he must have kept falling asleep to. Every time I took note of his screen I noticed he’d rewound it significantly. I saw Lady Gaga’s character sing for the first time at Bradley Cooper’s concert like six times. And then meanwhile, this person’s companion was watching Wreck-It Ralph—an interesting choice for a grown man. But I guess there are no rules at 11:30 body clock time when you’re a mile above the ground.
After a quick hop through Frankfurt customs, and a quicker run through the airport, we made it to our short flight with time to spare. Before we knew it, we’d successfully made it to Budapest, miraculously, with all of our luggage. Considering when we’d done our last student trip to Rome, we’d lost four bags, this was an amazing win.
We left the airport and found our tour guide, Vera. She is a German resident, originally from Brazil, who specializes in central European tours. As soon as we were off the plane, we were in her hands, and on the bus.
Our first stop in Budapest was on the Pest side of the city. After a walk through the city streets, we reached our final destination, the Central Market. This is a huge market, that from the outside looks like a train station or a giant greenhouse. The inside is like a farmer’s market met a souvenir shop. You could smell fresh produce and fresh meats and spices the minute you stepped in through the front door. We strolled around on the first floor for a bit before venturing up to the second, which was mostly full of tacky souvenirs. After ten minutes or so, we decided to leave and returned to the streets. We took a walk along the river and took some photos of the hills in Buda as we returned to our meeting spot and enjoyed the perfect weather.
Lunch was on our own, so we took advantage of the Hungarian street food carts and helped ourselves to many a Hungarian delicacy. We each grabbed a dish of choice, including some meat and veggies, goulash, and my personal favorite, langos, and then shared it among the group. It was all tasty, although after a couple hours of walking, some heavy food, and being awake for nearly thirty hours, we were about ready for a coma.
We took a walk to find a coffee and wound up in a souvenir shop—that also conveniently had a café inside. The café was closed, but after I bought a pair of earrings and a painted egg, one of the shopkeepers was happy to set us up with a cappuccino and an espresso. He was very helpful—thumbs up, Hungarian shop guy.
We walked back to the park nearby our meeting spot and drank our coffees while sitting on a bench. A few of our students circulated around, came to tell us some stories, and left to go off again. After about twenty minutes or so, we saw a pair of girls climb onto the fountain to try and take pictures with it. They tried to cross over the water by putting shipping crates in the water and stepping onto them to reach the statue in the middle, but one of them fell in. They were clearly drunk, and holding beers—and speaking English. Everyone in the occupied park as staring like they were watching a disrespectful car accident. Even a couple of our students came up to us afterwards and responded with “What the heck were they thinking?” Thankfully I’m not in charge of them.
Soon our group reconvened and it was time to check into our hotel and ship off to dinner. We were supposed to have an hour or so in our hotel rooms. Time to shower, change, brush our teeth—something I still hadn’t done yet. Yeah. Yikes. But our hotel was in Buda, and we were in Pest. And one of the bridges was closed. And it was the last day of work before a holiday weekend. So unfortunately due to some very bad traffic, we wound up only having about 20 minutes. So we ran up, dumped our luggage, and we were off to dinner.
We headed to a little restaurant in a quiet neighborhood off the beaten path—back in Pest. We were doing a lot of river hopping. The meal was bean soup, breaded paprika pork and potatoes, and then carrot cake for dessert. In true Hungarian fashion, everything was very paprika-seasoned. Thankfully I like paprika, so there were no complaints here. The cake was sweet—no paprika there. But there was rum in the chocolate ganache so I wasn’t a huge fan.
We took a lovely walk back to our bus and passed some beautiful gardens. I had a nice talk with one of my students about the weird architecture in the city and how it reflects all the different groups that have had power in Hungary—the Ottomans, the Austrians, the Russians. We got a kick about how you could see this beautiful, neo-classical building with gorgeous columns and colors and detailing right next to what I’ve called a “Soviet Block” building- a cube with some windows and doors in it.
By the time we got back to the hotel, it was definitely time for bed. Although our cheeky kids kept asking if they could order “Hungarian Door Dash” or spend some time in each other’s rooms. My catch phrase by the end of the night was “Nope, go to bed!”
I will say, they were very well behaved and quiet by the time we got back to the hotel. So I slept pretty well knowing they wouldn’t burn down the building. The insane jet lag wasn’t a negative factor in that regard either.
Budapest: Day 2
Day one was just about getting acclimated to Europe time and getting a feeling for the rules of the road. Day 2 was about finally introducing ourselves to the history and culture of beautiful Budapest. So we rose, bright and early for our city tour.
After a pretty simple breakfast at the hotel, we met our local guide, Peter, in the hotel lobby, and we all piled onto the bus. Peter guided our bus driver through Pest and took us past many pretty sights, such as St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the city’s giant, gorgeous synagogue, the train station, the market. This was all during the early hours of the morning when the sun was glowing gold on every building.
He also told us some pretty great history, about how the ancestors of modern Hungarians were from central Asia, near Mongolia. Those early Hungarians were pretty brutal. He told us how Gellert is a common name for locations in the city: Gellert Baths, Gellert Hill, Gellert Statue. As we passed all of these locations, we learned that Gellert was sent by King Stephen, the first Christian king of Hungary, to spread Christianity to the pagans in Hungary. In response, the pagans put Gellert into a pointy barrel and threw him off of the top of the hill. It’s safe to say the kids got a kick out of that story.
Soon after passing Gellert Hill, we made it to the Castle District in Buda, one of my favorite places in the city. We climbed the steps of the Fisherman’s Bastion and were set free to walk around and take some photos. After taking a stroll around St. Matthias’ Church, Jenn, Trevor and I went on a walk to the quiet side of the area and found this beautiful overlook lined with trees decorated with hot pink blooms. It was a quiet little area, decorated with benches where people were sitting or walking their dogs. We had a full view of Buda Castle too. And not to mention a break from the kids.
Later on our walk we stumbled upon what appeared to be an excavation site. We were trying to figure out what was down there but we never got a straight answer. It looked like something we’d seen in Rome, some kind of buried series of walls. Maybe it was a fortification of some kind? Again, not sure. As history teachers we were trying to solve the mystery ourselves.
We were almost late for our meet-up time, we were so busy taking in the scenery. But we made it back, thankfully, as the kids would have never let us live it down. Upon regrouping, Peter took us back down the route we’d taken towards the pink trees and brought us to a statue of a man on a horse. He asked us, “What’s the shiniest part on this statue?” We all gave it a look over. We all noticed but were all a little afraid to be the one to say it. Peter confirmed, “Yes, well, it is tradition when you need luck, like before a test or promotion or something that you come to this statue and touch the horse’s golden balls.”
All the hard work I’d put in to make sure my rambunctious teenage boys were respectful and calm went out the window, as my students began to climb over each other to touch the testicles of a horse statue.
At least it was allowed.
We looped back down the walkway with the pink trees and headed back towards the bus. We passed a couple other horse statues along the way and Peter had to remind us that “No, you can’t touch those, it was just the one over there.” This was a joke that lasted for a WHILE.
Next on the agenda was to hop back over to Pest and see Hero’s Square. Since I’d last been, they put up a big sign in the square that said “Budapest,” which of course is what Instagram is made for. So we all spent some time taking some photos there.
Soon after we were grouped back together and brought into the City Park, which is just beautiful. I hadn’t spent much time there on my first trip, but I’m glad we did this time. There was a huge castle that looked like something out of a Disney movie. I guess it was originally located in Transylvania, but to celebrate the Millennium that the Hungarians had conquered the Carpathian Basin, it was moved to Budapest. We said that while walking around that area, it felt like we were about to have the birds talk to us, or that we’d all break out into song.
After we said a fond farewell to Peter, we broke for lunch. The adults of the tour, Jen, Lauren, Trevor, Becky, Jake, Farrah and I all found a pleasant little café right near the lake of the city park. The wait staff was all very nice, and we got to have some very tasty food. A couple of us decided to be a bit adventurous and order what was labeled as “fried goat cheese” with salad. We weren’t exactly sure what we’d be getting. But it was basically a salad topped with a delicious, crispy slab of goat cheese. All of the greens were so fresh and delightful, and the cheese was to die for. Also Becky tossed me some of the sautéed mushrooms from her lunch, which were absolutely divine.
After we left our lovely lunch, it was time to group up for our time at the Szechenyi Themal Baths. I’m so lucky that both times I’ve visited the baths, it’s been on a beautiful blue sky day. It makes the yellow buildings pop against the matching sky and water. Farrah, Becky, Jen and I all planned on swimming, so we let the kids change and then took over the changing room after they’d left. By the time we’d reached the baths after them, they’d completely taken over the center ring of the pool, a little sectioned off area almost like a hot tub. I found out later that they made their way in there and splashed around a little bit until everyone left. Honestly I’m just glad they didn’t do that when I could see them. But they sure did look cute hanging out by the time I got there.
We spent a bit of time soaking up the warm water and the sun, and after some relaxation (and a LOT of sunburn) we were ready to head back outside for another walk around the park. We went back to the Transylvanian castle and took some pictures and got some food. There were all kinds of sweets stands set up, so we treated ourselves to some marzipan and some macarons. I bought three kinds of marzipan to save for later—original, brownie, and Nutella. When I did eventually eat them, they blew my mind. Lauren treated us to the macarons and we all picked a different flavor. I asked the shopkeeper what her favorite was and she said it was poppyseed and plum jam. I gave it a shot. It was the best macaron I’d ever had.
After our lovely walk through the park, we gathered for dinner. Our bus driver, Andre, took us to a nice restaurant with a covered courtyard. Dinner was sausage soup (with paprika, obviously), chicken with noodles (almost like spaetzle), and apricot crepes. It was all pretty tasty. How can you go wrong with a thousand pounds of Hungarian paprika?
We had a bit of time before our evening boat cruise, so a bunch of us all gathered at a café along the water and got some coffees so we could wake up a bit to enjoy the sights. I got a very tasty cappuccino and we sat and talk about Game of Thrones. But in mixed company. So we had to be careful not to reveal any spoilers. I was flapping my “wings” a lot to say “dragon.”
Our next item on the agenda of course was the cruise along the Danube. There’s just nothing quite like that view. As soon as the sun sets, all the street lamps come on, the bridges light up, and those beautiful riverside buildings, the castle, the church, the Fisherman’s Bastion, the hotels, the baths, and of course, that Parliament building: they all glow gold and reflect in the water. If you go to Budapest and DON’T do an evening Danube cruise, you haven’t really seen Budapest.
And of course, the final highlight of the day. Becky, Jenn, and I were convening in my room for some late night planning when we got the best text from Farrah: “I got my HBO account to work! We can stream GOT together in Vienna!” Becky and I celebrated with an over-exaggerated high five. This was good news.
Budapest Day 3
Day three in Budapest at first felt like it had a light itinerary compared to previous days so we were a bit worried it would drag. However, we definitely finished the day feeling like we had seen the whole city, down to the last nook and cranny.
We started our day after breakfast with the House of Terror Museum, which is a showcase of the atrocities committed by the Nazi, Soviet puppet, and Hungarian communist governments. I had been there before, and as a history teacher, knew that it was something my students should see.
Outside the museum was the piece of the Berlin wall sent in from Germany that everyone was very impressed by. There was also a literal “Iron Curtain” made from hanging metal chains. Of course we took a few photos there and headed into the museum.
I was a little worried about the kids in the museum. There’s a lot of heavy stuff in there, and I know some of my kiddos are sensitive to topics involving violence. So I did my best to hang around them, give them more information, and answer any questions they had. I kind of felt like a mother duck with about sixteen ducklings—shepherding through a museum about murder.
They did pretty well though. They had questions about what happened to a lot of people under the communist regime, and who the key figures were. They did a good job analyzing some communist propaganda: happy colorful images of the smiling communist citizens completing forced labor with the sun shining behind them. They noticed the Russian influences on the Hungarian propaganda too. I was a proud teacher.
The only place they got a little shaky was down in the basement: which featured the actual cells and execution chambers of political prisoners. Every cell had the image of people held there. There were also two punishment cells: a dark cell that was pitch black from wall to wall with a low ceiling which forced its victim to sit, and a standing cell a square foot wide which forced its victim to stand, closed in. Around the corner from there was the execution room. It was very small, featuring only gallows and a noose. But that alone was enough to give us chills. My kids came up to me and said it was creepy. But as we made our way out, we had good conversations about how important it was to see these things so that they don’t happen again. I was, once again, a proud teacher.
We left the museum in waves. I thought me and my ducklings were behind another chaperone. I was mistaken. I was outside with about fifteen kids by myself waiting for the rest of the group and my colleagues. But luckily my ducklings were very well behaved and stayed in a nice little cluster. In a few minutes we were joined by Lauren and Becky, some more kids, and soon Trevor and Jenn came back a bit later. They wanted to spend as long as they could in the museum. Typical history teachers.
Once we’d regathered, it was time to split off for lunch. Becky, Jake, Jenn and I went to a lovely little café where we got some lighter fare. I hadn’t had goulash yet as a meal so I made sure to get some on our last day. It did not disappoint. This dish featured some spicy paprika and was accompanied by a giant, fluffy piece of bread. It was delicious. Our restaurant also had some nice, funny waiters. We’d seen people at a previous restaurant eating a sandwich with a fork and knife so Becky tried eating hers with one too. She asked the waiter if that was “a thing,” and he responded with a bit of a laugh, “No no, you eat with your hands. It’s a sandwich. Or fork. This is Hungary, relaaax. You could eat it on the floor if you wanted.” They were really nice there.
After lunch we took a scenic walk around the area. We found some pretty gardens full of tulips and other flowers that were just gorgeous. The weather was perfect—granted it’s been perfect the whole trip. We’ve really been lucky. But it felt especially perfect when accompanied by flowers and trees.
We had almost made it back to the bus when we sauntered into a clothing shop. It was five minutes before meeting time and Becky and I found ourselves frantically trying on shirts while Jenn was telling us we had less and less time left. We basically threw some money at the shopkeeper and bolted out and made it back in time—down to the minute. But hey, we got our shirts!
After lunch time we took a walk through the shopping neighborhood towards our strudel-making demonstration. Conveniently we made a stop in St. Stephen’s Basilica, a gorgeous gigantic Catholic church. We all had a walk around and then reconvened outside to head to strudel time. But on our way out there was an accordion player, a very talented one who caught our attention. We stayed an extra five or ten minutes while he serenaded us with a couple tunes—one of them being “Country Road,” which is one of my students’ favorite. They had a little sing-along and some kids took some videos. We all applauded and everyone paid him a bit of money. He thanked us with a smile and we were off to strudel time.
We all piled into a little café and sat down. There was water and wine glasses on the table. Of course the kids all made a show of swirling their water in their wine glasses. Soon we were entertained by two Hungarian men—one who prepared some strudel, and one who narrated. The dough of strudel is apparently very light and flexible. They demonstrated by laying it out long and stretchy over a skinny table, flapping some air under it like it was a fitted sheet, and letting some air stay under it like that rainbow parachute little kids play with in kindergarten, and it stayed puffed up. Then he pulled it tight, filled it with apples, cinnamon, oil, and a LOT of sugar, rolled it up and sliced it. He then gave the kids a chance to play with some of the dough. They did pretty good until they ripped it. There was a little bit of disagreement over who’s fault it was. Though it didn’t matter, they weren’t eating that one—thankfully.
Then we got to actually taste the strudel—this was the good part. We got to try an apple strudel and a sweet cheese strudel. They were pretty good—but I will say I was more impressed by the cappuccino. That coffee hit the spot. As for the strudel, I stand by it, Innsbruck, Austria has the best.
Before dinner we took a trip up to Gellert Hill, from which the missionary was tossed in a spiky barrel. Well, now it’s a pretty scenic overlook where we took many a photo. My kids were observing a pair of girls basically having their own private photo shoot with a million angles and poses. One of my boys said, “When it’s my turn, I want you guys to do that for me. Get the lighting and angles right.”
After a lovely view, we hopped over to Pest for dinner in a quiet neighborhood which we later realized was just a quick hop down the street from Heroes Square. Kids frantically bought sodas from the bar in an attempt to get rid of their remaining Hungarian Forint. Dinner was just okay tonight. It featured a noodle soup, a very odd grey-sauced chicken (where was the paprika?) and a crème puff coated in some kind of pudding? It was definitely not photo worthy. But the kids were having a good time. I gave them the good news that we’d be driving through Slovakia the next day, as well as the news that we’d have a chance to go on a walk to the mall after dinner so they were all excited.
So after arriving back home at the hotel, we gave kids five minutes to change, drop anything off, etc, and then we headed out to the Hungarian mall. Now, kids have been obnoxiously asking me to go bowling for three days. I’ve told them “No” 800 times. But then we approached the mall, and there was a giant sign that said “BOWLING.” I’ve never seen sixteen year old boys so excited.
It worked out perfectly. Anyone who wanted to shop got to shop. Kids who wanted more food got food—KFC seemed to be the popular choice. And a cluster of boys got their wish and got to go bowling. We popped in to see their game, and it was clear they were having a blast.
After a short walk back to the hotel, we were ready to settle in for the night and prepare to say goodbye to Budapest in the morning.
I was a little nervous that the magic of Budapest would fade in my second trip, but it couldn’t have been more of the opposite. I love this city so much, and I’m sad to leave it again. But I’m happy to have been again, happy to look forward to coming back, and happy to have passed my love for this magical city to my students.
And for the record, “Team Social Studies” has already picked out our fixer upper that we’re gonna buy, renovate, and then use as a timeshare. Or live there permanently. I give you, Buda Castle: Light. Alternate title, HB East: