And by Bellagio, I don’t mean the Steve Wynn version, I mean the original. And by Budapest I mean Budapest.
Janeen and I just got back yesterday from a great little vacation. A short recap:
Bellagio and the entire Lake Como region of Italy is probably the most serene place I’ve ever been. It occurred to me after a couple of days there that I had not seen a person in an agitated state the entire time. No one screaming, no one running, no one doing anything that might raise their heart rate. I think the reason is that everyone on Lake Como–tourists and locals alike–is subconciously cowed by the awesome visual splendor of the place.
You get swallowed by your surroundings on Lake Como: the lake itself is a massive, deep, still, shiny body of water. It is ringed entirely by the Italian Alps, whose incredible proximity to the water’s edge makes a person on the lake feel especially tiny. When you’re in Bellagio or any of the other lakeside villages, you are nestled into a very small crevice between two impossibly large creations of nature. The effect is so striking that it alters one’s state of consciousness.
Bellagio is the kind of place that can make a wacky person sane, and the kind of place that can arouse existential thoughts in the brain of even the dullust moron you know.
Lake Como’s villages, many of which are only reachable via ferry or other boat, only add to the overall effect. They date back to medieval times (or later) and retain the look and layout with which they were designed. These places are truly untouched by modern tourism. The “streets” are actually cobblestone stairways built into the side of the Alps, making them unaccessable to automobiles. The businesses, from the largest hotels to the amazing restaurants to the retail stores to the newsstands, are all privately owned. You will not find a McDonalds or a Hilton anywhere near the lake.
Janeen and I spent 3 days in Bellagio doing the only things there are to do there: relaxing, hiking around and eating. And that was just fine by us. Highlights included a ferry ride up the length of the lake, four or five excellent meals, and the breathaking view from our hotel room. It is safe to say that this part of our vacation was romantic. 🙂
Selected for the simple reason that neither of us had ever been there, Janeen and I went to Budapest for the second leg of our trip. Once there, we decided that the time for relaxation was over and we threw it into hardcore tourist gear, as we attempted to cram every site in Janeen’s Frommers book into three days.
I am half expecting a mad Hungarian (Al Hrbosky?) to read this and correct me, but the main historical fact that I took away from Budapest is that Hungary is the Los Angeles Clippers of Europe. From Roman times until the present, it seems that Hungary has been on the losing end of at least one war per generation, with no wins whatsoever sprinkled in. They’re batting .000 in the A.D. period, and that’s a pretty bad slump. The result is that Budapest has been sacked more times than Vinny Testaverde.
What this means for the 2007 traveler is that Budapest has no particular historical cultural identity, which is actually kind of cool because the city has been left to develop its own identity in recent times. This means that although the city features architectural feats of old and even ancient vintage, it is a decidedly modern place.
Janeen and I saw all the major sites and partook in all the expected activities. This included the obligatory visit to one of Budapest’s famous public bath houses, which was strange for me because I’m typically rather private about my bathing. This was nevertheless an enlightening experience, and I’m happy to report that Europeans and Americans continue to have very different ideas about what kind of bathing suits are appropriate for obese men to wear.
The best part about Budapest was mixing it up with the locals at night. The city has several highly regarded restaurants, and Janeen and I ate dinner at two of them. They were both relative cheap and delicious. Even better was going out for drinks at local bars and clubs. The bar scene in Budapest leans toward the bohemian; the best bar we visited was an old apartment complex in the old Jewish quarter that was sloppily revamped and turned into a rollicking scene filled with Hungarian and various expat hipsters. Hungarians like to get down: Janeen and I went club hopping in, of all bizarre places, a large multi-level mall. Yes, in Budapest one of the local shopping malls turns into a club complex at night. Once there, we wandered into a packed salsa party (a testament to how modern Budapest is and how global music has become), an authentic hip hop party (replete with metal detector at the entrance), an upscale-ish house music party (hilarious female model/do-nothing DJ on the decks) and your basic drunken pop music meat market (Sutton Place, eat your heart out!).
While I will surely have very fond general memories of Budapest, the singular memory that might last the longest is the fact that everyone there smokes cigarettes. I’m not talking about 50% or even 75% of the people. I’m talking about everyone. It was insane. I’m not even going to pretend that I’m not being prissy about this. I have never been much of a smoker myself, but at the time that the New York City smoking ban was enacted, I was strongly opposed, believing that people should be able to do as they please in public. Several years later, I am now firmly in the “smoking is a disgusting stinky gross habit and you should get that smelly shit out of my face” camp. So you can probably imagine my discomfort as plumes of toxic garbage wafted across my nose in between bites of my gourmet dinners. And at the bars, the general smokiness of Budapest was extended to its logical extreme. Many of the bars are underground places without much ventilation, making the air thick with a visible cloud of fumes. To Janeen and I these bars were literally unbearable. Within five minutes in these places, our eyes were burning, my beer tasted vaguely ashy, and we had to flee. Yet these places were rammed full of people completely oblivious and obviously fully adapted to those conditions. Yuck!
Overall, Janeen and I had a great vacation. The entire thing worked out perfectly. Lake Como allowed us to empty our minds of all that sinister day-to-day clutter that we unkowingly accumulate. Then Budapest let us see how other people live. The whole thing sure beat the shit out of sitting on a beach in the Caribbean, which bores me to tears. I’ll post some fun pictures once I get my hands on ’em.