... and trying not to use Hungary in a pun
10.04.2012 - 12.04.2012
Three nights isn't enough in Budapest. I know that now. In fact I think I knew it as soon as I stepped off the train. The place was filthy. The main station looked rusted as if it would collapse at any moment, men were trying to sell us hotel accommodation or taxi rides, others just looking us up and down in a shady way. The streets outside were unkempt, overpopulated. The environment made me think that the Soviets had left yesterday, and no one had started the rebuilding process. But somehow there was charm, and excitement. Coming from the imperial Vienna before that, this middle class, comparatively privileged traveller got his first real taste of Eastern Europe, and I liked it.
We came in pretty late to Budapest, well it was night time anyway, and proceeded to figure out how to get to our CouchSurfing hosts place, which would be our home for the next 3 nights. I must admit I always enjoy this part, coming into a new town completely unprepared, except for an address and a shonky hand drawn map. It makes my brain switch on to a level where all the senses are heightened. I have to figure out where we are, observing the surroundings, I have to figure out the metro system while getting an overall sense of all the citys public transport, how to buy tickets, whilst concentrating on speaking the little bit of the language that I studied on the train over. I have to keep an eye on Mel, and be diligent of any kind of scams or extortion attempts. And as my brain does this its also taking in everything around me, the people, the scenery, what the locals are doing, and remaining aware that I am experiencing a new city for the first time, and try to embrace that and play tourist while doing the tasks at hand. I think its great as I see it as a real time of focus for me, an escape from the usual chaotic tornado of ideas that normally curse my day.
Anyway, loosing focus, I told you that happens. We arrived at Helga's place. And for the first time since starting CouchSurfing, we had met our host previously. If you can follow, while we were in Paris, Helga was couchsurfing at a French couples place, who had previously couchsurfed at our place in Sydney. When we had arranged to meet our former guests for dinner, Helga came along as well. We didn’t get to talk much then, as that was the night Mel got sick after ingesting some pine nuts hidden in the lasagne, but within the brief time we did chat, upon hearing our plans to visit Budapest, she had very generously extended an invitation to stay with her while we were there.
Well invitation accepted, and we found ourselves at Helgas. Greeted by herself and her housemates, we had discovered they had cooked a big dinner for everyone, which included the use of some sort of garlic leaf Mel and I had never experienced. It was like a vine leaf that tasted exactly like garlic, and it was amazing. It was the start of many new discoveries we would have during our stay. So, needless to say we felt very welcome. We chatted over dinner, getting to know each other. They were all very cool. Helga was intelligent, funny and insightful, and passionate about showing us the best parts of her city. Her housemates Balasz and Lila were great. They had both travelled Australia a few years back, and both were very welcoming. Balasz spoke more English and really seemed genuine in wanting to help us out when he could, and Lila was a little less confident in the language so seemed a little shy, but she was a photographer and was reading Game of Thrones, so we had some things in common. Later we would find out it just took a few beers to get her talking. But all three of them stayed up and talked and shared their experiences and really made us feel so welcome in their home. Again we couldn’t believe our luck with CouchSurfing in giving us the chance to meet some really cool people we could get along with so easily. We immediately felt comfortable, and being so far away from home I really think thats a special thing.
We set off the following day to explore. As far as cities go, Budapest is pretty small. We decided to split our days to Buda in the West, and Pest to the East. It didn’t quite turn out like that, but lets just say that we took it pretty carefree. Being that we were staying in the heart of everything, we set off on foot towards the famous Danube River, which splits the town down the middle in an elegant curve. Our first stop on the way was the Parliament building. Not knowing what it looked like we came across this old, ornate looking structure, a building that looked like it held dignitaries of some kind, if not parliament, then maybe an embassy or something. Well, no. It was MTV headquarters. Man I love Europe.
If not embarrassed already, the real parliament building made us feel really stupid. An Eastern European version of its London counterpart, this residence was large and intimidating, yet delicate and beautiful at the same time. Resting on the riverfront, we admired its columns, spires and detailed sculptures that adorned its facades.
From there we strolled over the Danube via the Chain Bridge, and caught the cablecar up to Castle Hill, a massive complex that overlooks the city, and houses the Royal Palace, a few museums and Matthias Church, the gorgeous structure seen from mostly everywhere in the city. We got something to eat there, found some quiet places away from the tour groups, and took a thousand photos. There really is something surreal about overlooking an entire city. Imagining its people both past and present, feeling like some sort of bird observing silently from above. I mean I feel disconnected from humans most of the time, but doing so over an incredible view feels very calming to me, as if somehow escaping the world. Plus, from that height, you can really hock a loogie on someone. (Waynes World reference, no one was spat on in the making of these images)
We walked back down the hill and back over the bridge to the Great Market. It was an old building filled with stalls of food and ornament vendors, all offering traditional Hungarian wares. To be honest, I didn’t like it too much, it was just a bit sterile.
Now, as I have mentioned before, CouchSurfing is great for a number of reasons. One of those is that locals give you ideas and insights of where to go and things to do that are very helpful for people like us who call ourselves flexible and easy going, but really just suck at planning anything. Well, that particular day, our hosts imparted three pearls of wisdom upon us that would be absolute highlights of our stay. The first one was convincing us to visit the Hungarian Baths. We took their recommendation, but came to the realisation that Mel didn’t bring any swimwear. So, although not the most interesting piece of literature here, we spent the next hour or so in search of a bikini. Exciting stuff I know. But, it did mean that we passed through the main shopping district, which is as colourful and interesting as most. No suitable bikini was found that day it may be noted.
Second pearl of wisdom gifted upon us. Helga suggested for lunch we try an establishment called Hummus Bar located on October 6 street. I mention the address, because if anyone goes to Budapest who enjoys, um, eating, and doesn't go here is missing out. I am going to go so far as to say we experienced this as crack cocaine for the tastebuds. To say this meal had flavour, is to say that the Louvre has some paintings in it. And it was really cheap as well. On their menu they have written “Hummus is sexy” and I'm not ashamed to say that I did feel slightly aroused.
Food drunk and intoxicated with flavour, we stumbled around the corner to St Stephans church. It was the middle of a service, so the place was lit up and looked very nice. We didn’t stay too long, but were happy we went. Its pretty cool.
Third pearl of wisdom for the day. Local bands and a cool club. In fact I may have heard the “coolest club in Budapest” but that may have just been because I was there. Anyway, Helga, Balasz and Lila invited us to tag along to see their other nomadic housemate who we hadn’t met yet play bass in a band in a special location. Helga went off earlier than us to meet some other friends, so the rest of us went in together, which gave us a chance to get to know each other better and learn a bit more about the Hungarian psyche. The bar was revealed to be an old Soviet ship, now moored on the bank of the Danube River, the inside converted into a live music venue which also held some pretty loose parties from the sound of things. The band we were seeing tonight was described as Hungarian folk-jazz, which was kind of a mix Bjork, Dream Theatre and Herbie Hancock. They could all really play, busting out the chops when they could, but laying down the groove when they needed to also. I really dug it. And another thing that made the night special, was beers were cheap in Budapest. I'm talking I could buy a round of 4 or 5, for what I could buy 1 beer for in Sydney. Not that we drank heaps, but it helped loosen everyone up. It was great to meet new people again, Helgas friends were cool, and as she promised, with a few beers under the belt Lila was busting out the English to everyones delight. In fact, they even bought us some traditional Hungarian spirit, Palinka, to shot at the bar. To be honest, it wasn't great. I thought Mel was going to gag or throw it back up over the bar, but she kept it down. It was just very raw and a bit nasty on the throat. I didn’t mind it. The taste of experiencing new cultures I guess.
The next morning we miraculously found a bikini for Mel, then made our way to the Citadella, which was a fortress/battlement nested on top a green hill overlooking the city. At the start of the ascent, we came across a church built into the side of the hill. Literally inside a cave. The history was kind of interesting, but it all felt a little fake.
So we then made the hike up to the top, and were blown away by the view. There were a few monuments that were amazing, but the city itself was the real star of the show. We sat for a while just taking it in, then trekked back down through the lush green trees. It was really cool because there was so many different paths leading up and down, that we were pretty much alone, and with the density of the trees you could easily imagine it being in some jungle or forest away from any civilisation, but then some of the beautiful city skyline would poke through and you were glad that you weren't.
We found that all that walking and well, sitting down, really took it out of us and worked up a hunger. So we went back to Hummus Bar. And to be honest, this made me feel really guilty, because I don’t like going to the same place in the same city twice. I would much rather try a few different places to get the experience and feel for the local cuisine. But guilt never tasted so good.
So, what do you do after stuffing your face full of falafel? Go swimming! Yes, we made the journey to the 19th Century Szechenyi Baths, a massive complex of traditional Hungarian baths of different types, located in City Park. And it was incredible. I cant really explain how amazing it is, after a month and a half of living out of a backpack, staying in other people houses, and just being on the go everyday, to just get pretty much naked, and sit in a hot spring pool, outside in fresh air, and just chillax. It was heaven. Not to mention the fact that the building was just gorgeous. Mel and I just shut up, put our heads back and embraced the waters healing powers. I even indulged in a nice massage by a firm yet gentle Hungarian man who I didn’t quite get a good look at come to think about it, so I hope it was a man, or maybe not, I'm not sure now. Anyway, the whole thing rocked. Mel's eyes didn’t open more than half way for hours after, and our skin looked like dried fruit, but it was totally worth it.
Tip for travellers wanting to travel from Budapest to Krakow, plan it a little earlier than the night before! After our swim we realised we hadn’t made plans for our departure for the next day, so thought we'd quickly look it up. Up until this point, this tactic had pretty much worked for us, but this time it didn’t. Turns out that rather than the 1 train that we thought might take 5 hours max, the best we could do was catch 4 trains, taking 14 hours, and every connection has to be on time or we were stranded somewhere. And anyone whos experienced European trains, isnt going to put their money on them running to schedule. Now at this point we could’ve freaked a little bit, but instead, we decided to go for a drink.
It was our last night in the city, and with our CouchSurfing hosts. They had talked about Budapest's famous ruin bars, which were old, partially damaged buildings, many from the war, that instead of being fixed, just get converted into bars and clubs. Despite obviously being tired, Helga, Balascz and Lila took us out once again to a bar that I think used to be a Dentist office pre-soviet collapse. Now, the place wasn’t in ruins as expected, but it was a really cool vibe. It was like an artsy student hang out, and there were some photo exhibitions by local artists in each of the rooms. We had a few beers, met some new friends again, and even battled it out in a few games of Fooseball. We let the girls win a few times, but the boys were still the clearly dominant sporting species.
More beers and a few slices of pizza later and we were off home. On the way we got a little sad thinking it was our last night here. It really felt like we had just started to discover the place, just started to get to know some new friends, and kinda started falling in love with another city all over again (I know, we'll never learn). Budapest was truly a city that had a flavour for all the senses and for the soul. It was yet another unique taste in our degustation tour of Europe, one that will stay on our tastebuds for a long while, and one we hope to experience again very soon.