Just got back from a nearly six day stay in the happening Hungarian capital. Feeling a wee bit on the tired side (it’s only a three hour direct flight to Madrid, but since when have I ever taken direct flights?!), but otherwise content with my getaway. It was the perfect amount of time – I didn’t do everything, but did enough. Didn’t quite stick to my budget, but didn’t go too far overboard either. I forgot lots of (fairly essential) items (like a camera, ear plugs, daypack, and sunglasses) but I don’t think my experience of Budapest suffered too badly for it (although this post has – apologies for the lack of photos). I had a couple of days travelling solo, and then some pilgrim friends I met on the Camino de Santiago joined me for the second half of my stay.
Judging by the other tourists I talked to, and the locals working in tourism, it seems that most people try to “do” Budapest in just a couple of days, before jetting off to Prague or Vienna or Bratislava. Even if it’s at the cost of missing another city, I highly recommend taking a little extra time to soak up Budapest at a more relaxed pace. Particularly as a visit to any of the thermal baths (which is a must-do) inevitably leaves one feeling decadently lethargic, effectively wiping out the rest of the post-bath afternoon. A shame, as there is quite a lot to see.
There are two things that never cease to amaze me about European cities; the beauty and grandeur of the architecture, and the barbarity of the history. Budapest is no exception.
Whilst the walking tour I did was fascinating, the information was a bit all over the shop and difficult to take in. The wind in my ears and the guides malfunctioning microphone didn’t help the confusion. Or perhaps some basic knowledge of European history was required, something which my supposedly first rate Australian education neglected to provide me with. Anyway, the main ideas I managed to grasp were: that Hungarian is completely unrelated to all its neighbouring European languages, and that the country’s history seems to mostly consist of war and oppression. A bit of superficial online research only served to muddle me further, however (after much pausing and pondering) I think I’ve managed to decipher the history of Budapest as more or less the following:
The town was first built by the Celts on the banks of the Danube, where it was a centre of craft and trade, until it was conquered by the Romans sometime in the first century. Under Roman rule, it rose to be the military capital of “Pannonia Inferior” (the geographical region of the Carpathian Basin, which is more or less modern day Hungary). After the Romans came the Huns, followed by Germanic tribes, Slavs, and many others, in the aptly named “Age of Migrations” (around about the 6th – 9th centuries AD). One group, known as the Magyars, conquered the city and surrounding lands in 896, and managed to stick around until this day.
The Magyars, ancestors of modern Hungarians, were a people originating from an area of Eurasia somewhere between the Ural Mountains and Volga River. Back in the day (a long long time ago BC), the tribes of this region were nomadic pastoralists, and spoke various ancient tongues belonging to the Uralic language group. Eventually these tribes went their many separate ways, and their languages developed into modern day Finnish, Turkish, Siberian and Hungarian. (Which is why these languages have nothing in common with most European languages, which developed from the Indo-European language family)
By the time the Magyars came to the Carpathian Basin, they were a little less pastoral, a little more martial. After formally delineating the boundaries of the Principality of Hungary, they sought to extend them, as every fledgling Nation/wannabe Empire tends to do. Their leader, Géza, established a dynasty (however one does) and named his son, Vajk (later baptised as Stephen) as predecessor to the crown. This was in conflict with the old Magyar/Hungarian traditions (which dictated that Géza’s brother should have been next in line for leadership), and Géza’s death provoked a civil war. Young King Stephen won, and with many of his pagan adversaries conveniently dead, he set about to convert the rest of his people to Christianity. Those who wouldn’t convert (many thousands), were killed, and the King was canonised and named patron of Hungary for his miraculous persuasiveness.
Violence begets violence and that pretty much sums up the following millennia until the present day. There was more trouble with the Romans, plus the usual medieval crusades, as well as war/invasion/occupation/oppression with/from/by the Ottomans, Mongols, Goths, Bulgarians, Austrians (until they settled for becoming the Austro-Hungarian Empire), Nazis and finally Soviets. The death tolls of the various wars and executions is staggering, and I really don’t understand how there are any people left there today, let alone how the language has survived (though perhaps the reinforcement of language helps the people retain their identity…dunno, but I’m sure that many academics write theses on the topic).
With the fall of the Iron Curtain, Hungary transitioned into democracy, and has been a member of the European Union since 2004. It kept its own currency, at the cost of high rates of inflation, and these days one Euro is worth about 300 Florins.
Like most places, the central, touristic areas of the city appeared very affluent (in a vibrant, young money kind of way), and (conversion in mind) the prices were similar to Spain. However, the outskirts were incredibly drab, and there were tonnes of sex shops and empty buildings. Whether or not Hungary has been affected by the current economic crisis, or things are struggling along as they always have, was hard for me to tell. The weather was pretty depressing too; it was cold, rainy, and bitterly windy. All this, in combination with such a bloody history, and brutal memories of communism still strong in much of the population’s memory, it’s no wonder that Hungarians aren’t the smiley-est of people. At least that’s the justification that came to my mind. Some Germans I met thought the service was actually better than in their country, which surprised me, as in general I find Germans to be really friendly (then again, I tend to hang out with the ones that travel). Anyway, I did meet some smiley and helpful Hungarians (notably the staff at Unity Hostel), but these were the exception rather than the rule. I’m afraid to say that in Budapest I experienced some of the rudest, most infantile and petulant service I’ve ever had in my life. Let’s hope it’s just because I was (repeatedly) unlucky. Or perhaps I was unconsciously breaking some social code of conduct, you never know.
Anyway, in general, Budapest is a very easy and tourist friendly city. English is widely (albeit reluctantly) spoken, the public transport (though nothing fancy) seemed reliable and efficient, and strangely enough, the drivers were incredibly courteous of pedestrians, often slowing down to let people pass (even when it wasn’t obligatory).
Despite the sour demeanours and unfriendly weather, Budapest has become quite an epicenter of partying and foodie/hipster culture. Something that makes me think I’ve judged the people way too harshly, because to have built so many inventive and fun venues, there must be a lot of optimism and creativity amongst the population.
Whilst the Buda hills (on the southwest bank of the Danube) boast some nice hotels and the best viewpoints of the city, the real action is almost entirely concentrated in Pest (pronounced “Pesht”) on the north bank. Here, students, tourists, and local intellectuals/elite congregate in the innumerable ruin bars, hipster cafes, alternative art spaces, and converted alleyways/warehouses, to sip designer coffees and, one can only assume, come up with more ideas for more interesting themed bars and innovative pastimes. Budapest is apparently the home of “escape rooms*” (you and your friends pay to be locked up in a room and you have to solve puzzles to get out, but they let you out after an hour anyway), and now you can also find “anger rooms” (you and your friends pay to be locked in a room full of rubbish, which you smash to smithereens), who knows what they will think of next.
*If you’re interested in escape rooms, a film worth seeing is “La Habitación de Fermat”, (Fermat’s room), a Spanish thriller about some ill-fated mathematicians, who were not automatically let out after an hour.
So, what other commentaries and/or recommendations can I make about Budapest?
- Book Café: It’s amazing how quickly we become creatures of habit. This amazing, decadent old café was upstairs from a massive bookshop on Andrássy street, just around the corner from my hostel. It had high, elaborately painted ceilings, mirrors, chandeliers, and a grand piano (and live piano music). Coffee and cake ranged from about 2 – 5 euro, not a bad price to journey back in time and up a few rungs of the class ladder all at once. Another Budapest favourite is the New York Café, another decadent ancient coffeehouse, but was a bit more expensive, crowded and noisy.
- A good time to see Buda Castle: is at 12 noon, when you can watch the changing of the guard. It has a certain comic value. I’m not sure if the soldiers always wear sunglasses, or if perhaps they were a tad hungover on the day I was there, but either way I do think they’re a little in need of some fresh choreography and some less restrictive uniforms (or more rigorous training/less strudel). A definite “A” for effort though, and kudos for keeping straight faces and pointed toes!
- The Hungarian cake of the year: is decided annually on the 20th August (St.Stephen’s Day), by the National Guild of Hungarian Confectioners. What a wonderful tradition! If only I’d found a cake shop (other than the packed out tourist traps next to the Matthias Church) that was selling it! I didn’t really look hard enough though. Mum, if you ever go to Budapest, this is your mission!
- Hummus Bar: Hungarian cuisine is famous for its hearty goulash, paprika poultry, and disgustingly cheap force-fed-goose-liver-pate, none of which appealed to my newly meat-free palate. Even the vegetable soups and salads seemed to somehow contain hundreds of tiny bits of bacon, and there’s a limit to how much battered fried cheese covered in jam one can eat (it was good, but that’s it for me until 2020). Fortunately, there was Hummus Bar, a Hungarian Restaurant chain which specializes in amazing hummus, plus a wide variety of affordable and healthy Middle Eastern cuisine, with plenty of options for vegetarians, vegans, and omnivores alike.
- Bakeries: were both the bane of my existence and a godsend (as Hummus Bar wasn’t open for breakfast). The Hungarians do fantastic things with poppy seeds, walnuts, plums and cottage cheese; strudels, scrolls, and stuffed croissants… the poppy seed strudel fast became my daily staple (ie addiction), so much so that despite being a reluctant baker, I’ve bought nearly a kilo of what I hope is the filling (it’s all in Hungarian but they look like crushed poppy seeds) to try making some at home…
- Poppy seed gelato: just because two things are delicious separately does not mean we should try them together.
- A38, aka “The Best Bar in the World” (according to a 2012 Lonely Planet survey): this was… extremely disappointing. A38 is an old Ukranian stone carrier ship that has been reincarnated as a bar/restaurant/“cultural centre” and moored on the banks of the Danube. The idea is cool. The clever lighting is very cool. But we went quite out of our way to get there, and the restaurant turned out to be sleek but boring (very conservative), the cocktails less than ordinary (sometimes not speaking the language keeps me out of trouble, I was so tempted to challenge the bartender to an Aperol showdown!), and although the service was attentive, last drinks were called at 10.30pm! The bar downstairs was closed for a private concert, which sounded like some kind of hideous Hungarian death metal…and so we traipsed back along the windy riverfront, to Pest side, for some real drinks on dry land.
- Szimpla Kert: A derelict (or should I say, “Derelique”?!) factory, once sentenced to demolition, that was converted into a “cultural reception space” (ie, bar) in 2002. It’s since become a Budapest institution and now hosts an arthouse cinema festival, live music, and lots of dancing every night of the week. The décor is outrageously ‘organic’ (chaotically strewn recycled bits and pieces), and the music is fantastic (electro swing, dance, really old oldies, all done well). There are many sub divisions and mini bars, serving fine wines, pastries, cheap and flavourless local beers, potent berry liquors, hot real food at 3am, kachimbas/shishas/waterpipes (whatever you call them, with every flavour), fresh carrots (I kid you not), CDs, t-shirts, postcards, paintings by local artists… and that’s at a fairly superficial first glance. Despite its dilapidated aspect, it was well run, and even had toilet paper, which is more than can be said for many bars in Spain.
- Fisherman’s Bastion: a collection of Neo-Gothic terraces on the top of Castle Hill (Buda side), with fantastic views of the city, and in particular, Budapest’s famous Parliament building on the opposite bank. Best to go there at dusk, watch the sunset, and see the Parliament, the Basilica, and the three big bridges all spectacularly lit up.
It’s also worth adding that something I didn’t do, but would have liked to, was see some of the cave networks under the city. The land is apparently full of tunnels, which have played an important role through history (mostly as hiding places, but once as a hospital), and it would no doubt be fascinating to do a tour of some of them.
But tours cost money… and caves make me claustrophobic… and it was such a long way to walk through the rain to to get to the starting point. And I was having such a nice time ‘Pest side’ with the Pilgrims, where there were so many more than six days worth of cafes to visit…