If you go from Moscow to Budapest, you will think you are in Paris.
There are some things in life that people who have visited a place seem to forget to mention when you ask them about it – that the Czech Republic has a different currency – and that Budapest comes from the merging of the cities of Buda and Pest separated by the Danube River, and that locals hate it when you call their city Budapest when it is in fact ‘boo-dah-pesht’.
Budapest is a city of contrast. It has good public transport infrastructure but very old trains and rickety trams, grand art nouveau buildings co-existing with communist-era housing estates, and you can get romantic cobblestone streets reeking of piss. There is so much to love and yet so much to hate in Hungary’s proud capital, and whether it’s for the right or wrong reasons is entirely up to you.
Budapest’s airport is located about 20km from the city center and on the bus ride on that summer morning of well above 30° C, the remnants of years behind the Iron Curtain was still very noticeable.
I had been a notoriously poor planner for this trip as pointed out by my friend who I hadn’t met until that morning in the airport despite living in the same city for over a month already. I had been handicapped from chronic lack of internet connectivity and free time. My friend Himeel arranged our Airbnb but he was arriving later so we decided to check in ahead and drop our bags.
We had rented a small one-bedroom flat located right across the splendid Nyugati Railway Station but I had had no contact with the host and could barely remember the listing Himeel had shared.
We managed to go through the main door and were about to call our host when he rang us. He told us to wait and we did but not for long as a man appeared through the main door. We introduced ourselves, he explained how the keys worked, crammed ourselves in the ancient elevator and led us to the flat we had rented that looked nowhere near any of the 3 listings I remember Himeel and I discussing when we were booking.
It was disappointingly small and dark but these things do happen, right? As it seemed already cleaned, we started to unpack, and then I started having second thoughts. Himeel had sent me a screenshot saying the flat still had to be cleaned and that we could drop our bags but the place wouldn’t be ready until the afternoon. Our host simply put on the new sheets and was about to leave us when his phone rang.
Surprise, surprise! What are the odds that we had a male host and were two ladies, and he was a male host and were expecting two ladies as well? In Budapest, where Airbnb is a big source of income and is regulated, quite common actually. There had been a mix up and after some apologies and laughter, our sweet lady who worked as a hostess for Airbnb renters led us to our much-better, newly-renovated flat with designer lighting.
We headed off to the river for a glimpse of the grand Hungarian Parliament. It was such a hot day that it was hard to focus on anything. To be honest, I had less than four hours of sleep and had grown unaccustomed to the heat that the day went by in a kind of stupor.
Budapest, which is still ‘the cheap city’ to Western Europeans, has a big art scene and it’s discernible from the beautiful street art scattered throughout the city, though this is most evident in District VII. Yes, in Budapest they name the districts with numbers and yes, District XIII does exist.
Having heard good reviews and recommendations for SANDEMANs (free tours) guides, we met up with Himeel by the fountain where the tour was to start but found the tour guide we had too awkward that we ended up being rude for being more interested in each other than at her and decided to separate from the group. I had’t met Himeel in over a year and so starting out with a guided tour was not very well-thought of. We crossed over Budapest’s famous Chain Bridge, the first permanent bridge connecting Buda with Pest.
It was too hot outside to do much that we skipped climbing up Buda for another day and headed out to one of the city’s main attractions: the thermal baths. Budapest sits on a patchwork of over 100 thermal springs, and the city has made good use of all of them. Since we like extravagance and were lured by the possibility to play chess while relaxing in the water, we opted for the Széchenyi Baths, the largest medicinal bath in Europe. What better way to relax after the end of such a hot summer day?
We did not get to play chess though. We asked the lifeguards and they looked so clueless about it. We assume it is a matter of bringing your own chess pieces. Needless to say, my friends felt betrayed by the advertisement.
The boat tour gave us the much-needed history lesson we escaped the day before. Budapest is one of the 4 national capitals along the Danube, Europe’s second longest river.
It has a long history starting out as a Celtic settlement fortified by the Romans, given up to the Huns until the horse-riding Magyars came in 896 AD and after a century of raiding Catholic Europe, decided that Catholicism was the key to survival in Europe. St. Stephen founded the Kingdom of Hungary in January 1, 1001.
Buda was its most important royal seat until the Mongol invasion left it devastated. Under Matthias Corvinus, it was the first country to adopt the Renaissance outside of Italy. However, he later moved the capital to Vienna after defeating the Habsburgs.
Buda and Pest fell to the Ottoman Empire for almost 150 years – and the Turks left behind many thermal baths – before the Habsburg Empire conquered it. It became relatively autonomous afterwards and in 1873, the cities of Buda, Pest, and Obuda were merged to create Budapest. Budapest aimed at rivalling Vienna and the Millenium in 1896 (1000 years since the arrival of the Magyars) saw ambitious large-scale projects like the magnificent Parliament and the Millenium Metro, the third oldest underground railway in the world. At the end of World War II, Hungary attempted to negotiate a separate peace treaty with the Allies and was in retaliation occupied by Nazi forces.
The city slowly recovered after the war and was the showpiece for Hungary’s more pragmatic Communist policies. After an uprising that installed a reform-oriented government, Moscow interfered and installed János Kádár who ruled for 30 years until the 1989 change of system that saw the country’s rebirth into a more progressive nation.
The city is an architectural treasure trove of baroque, neoclassical and art nouveau. Most of the buildings were built at the end of the 19th century, in Budapest’s ‘golden age’. A stroll along Andrássy Avenue is recommended for admiring the turn-of-the-century buildings.
There is so much to do and see in Budapest that three days didn’t even feel enough. One can easily spend a whole day in Buda alone. It’s a city I’m sure I will revisit. I went about this trip with that thought – no rush, just soak in the atmosphere. Admittedly, it wasn’t all rainbows and stars. I was subject to my first racist attack which I will talk about in detail in another post.
But to those who have had Budapest on their list for far too long – go. It’s worth it.