It’s the first of October and I’m in one of the most beautiful cities in all of Europe. I walked nearly twenty miles today through 2,000 years of history: through the overthrow of kingdoms and empires, the fall of communism, the rise of capitalism, the evidence of centuries-old glitz, and the stories of human survival and defeat… and through it all, Budapest (pronounced Boo-da-pesht) has held its head high.
About Last Night…
The bus ride from the airport last night took me past lights illuminating modern outlet malls. Giant billboards stood above a newly paved highway for Pizza Hut, NewYorker clothing, a Mercedes dealer, mattress stores, and diamond merchants. Was this right? Had I just landed in Hungary? I was expecting sturdy grandmothers, about as wide as they were high, clothed in brown and slinging potato sacks into communist-built trucks while selling unevenly carved salt blocks on the side of a dirt road. But this looked as if I were riding past a strip mall in middle America.
We left the outskirts and were soon in the city proper: Baroque, Gothic, Classical and Art Nouveau architecture… it was like Prague, only the streets were wider and the buildings a touch more opulent. We pulled into downtown, and what I’d later learn to be the Pes(shh)t side of the city where a giant white Ferris wheel, a replica of the London Eye, stood next to the Danube River and a purple-lit Chain Bridge.
I exited the bus and walked down a narrow cement canyon made up of five-story high buildings. Drunk college kids staggered and laughed in packs, weaving their way down the sidewalk. It was a Monday, but may as well have been a Saturday night- it was like walking through the East Village in Manhattan. Graffiti was scribbled on old decaying buildings, giving it that mysterious post-communist look. Dark alleyways and shuttered store fronts looked like part of an intended stage set. Kids covered in tattoos smoked cigarettes in doorways and wandered into crumbling “Ruin” bars (pop-up bars with antique furniture and communist paraphernalia in abandoned buildings) before hitting the late-night pizza parlors, pianos bars, or even taco stands. I’d later learn I was just a few blocks from the big tourist draw of Saint Stephen’s Cathedral, down from the Four Seasons, the Ritz, and the Parliament. Luxury was mixed with disintegrating alleyways; it was all part of the city’s pallet.
I found my Air BnB, after having walked past it twice, tucked away between a furniture store and a construction site, located on one of the uprooted side streets in the Jewish Quarter. The cement walls on the exterior and in the open courtyard were crumbling, a patchwork of grey filler smeared the walls in no particular pattern. Chicken wire caged the mineshaft-like elevator, which was surrounded by a spiral staircase. There was a central area between the buildings that opened to the sky where trash was kept and laundry hung from railings. Red ivy cascaded alongside large cracks that ran the building like deep scars: another perfect backdrop for an East Berlin spy movie and no wonder it was $35 a night.
The inside of the apartment, though, could have been a museum: two old-fashioned typewriters, an antique sewing machine, gilded mirrors, fedoras hanging from walls, and half a canoe posing as a bookshelf. The place was big, maybe 800sq ft, with twelve-foot ceilings. During the day, light would pour in from double-paned windows and every once in awhile there would be a burst of pigeons, like fireworks over the rooftops, visible through the windows. In the living room, old wooden oars hung curtains and in the bathroom, antique golf clubs hung towels.
I looked down at my phone to see how many miles I had clocked walking through the city that day: 19.3. No wonder I was exhausted. Making my way into the apartment, I searched for anything edible in the old-fashioned kitchen. A bar of chocolate and an apple were propped up against an Italian espresso Moka Pot. Caffeine, an apple, and more caffeine? It looked like it was time to track down some authentic Hungarian cousine… would pizza count?
The night before, I had ridden the massive white ferris wheel to get a view of the city from above and then photographed the beautifully lit Chain Bridge. I grabbed pizza (it rivaled New York City’s) and ice cream and sat watching the crowds flow in and out of the square in front of Saint Stephen’s Cathedral.
I read somewhere that this city can be substituted in films for Moscow, Paris, Berlin, Rome, and even Buenos Aires. Four historical periods are visible in the architecture, including 1st Century Roman ruins next to Buda Castle and medieval buildings at one of the bath houses. The city just feels familiar- like I’ve been here before and have been waiting unknowingly to come back.
In the morning, I went for a run over to the Buda side where the Buda Castle is. The lush rolling hills of Buda (previously a separate city from Pest) includes gorgeous lookouts of the city from Fisherman’s Bastion: neo-Romanesque architecture with a view of the Parliament across the Danube. I did a three-hour historical (free) walking tour and learned that Hungarians prefer the term Central Europe, not Eastern Europe; that post-communism is a mixture between democracy and communism; that the Turks brought the bath houses, coffee houses, and even paprika here over 500 years ago; that the Austro-Hungarian empire (post 1867) had a shared capital between Vienna and Budapest. (Each city tried to outdo the other in architecture and panache resulting in a building boom that made most of the city’s grandiose buildings of today.) And interestingly, 70% of Europe’s gold is from Hungary, which may explain the demand for the region and its prosperity.
I wandered back and forth over the three bridges, visiting the Parliament and an art instillation from 2005 called Shoes on the Danube River (a memorial of shoes left behind by Jews during WWII who were shot into the Danube. The shoes had been worth more than the people and they’d been instructed to remove them ahead of time). Learning about historical tragedies like these (over 600,000 Jews were killed in Hungary during WWII) and the rise and fall of the many kingdoms, empires, and modern governments had me in a trance, the crunch of pebbles under my feet, the feel of the leather shoes against my fingers. I stared across the river to the Buda side with its rolling hills and castles, the crisp fall air wrapping around me like a hug from an old friend.
As the sun dipped below the horizon, I made my way to the 1888 Baroque-style Turkish Baths at Széchenyi in City Park, my towel and swimsuit stuffed in my backpack. For the equivalent of $7, I had the use of all the mineral pools of varying temperatures from ice cold plunges to naturally hot pools, saunas and steam rooms. Faucets on ancient pipes in the sauna could be turned on to refill your water bottle, which reminded me of the fire hydrants around the city that also have a device allowing people to refill with delicious tap water. Water was flowing from everywhere, I had never seen anything quite like it.
When I got here two nights ago, I had known almost nothing about Budapest. I came because of a $49 airfare from Paris and a spare two days. Getting off that plane and riding into a worn yet opulent city that faces a fairy tale of castles and palaces across a winding river had me more fascinated than I expected; I knew immediately that two days wouldn’t be enough.
One thing I’m embarrassed about is that I didn’t experience Hungarian food. The immigrant cultures of Turkey and Italy are so prominent, with gyro shops and pizza restaurants everywhere, there wasn’t much of a draw to heavy Hungarian food. Still, I did learn the importance of Paprika (a mild pepper powder) in every dish- like in goulash (pronounced gulyas) and paprikash. Onions, garlic, potatoes, paprika and bacon make the basis for most Hungarian dishes, which run close to 3,000 calories per serving.
Another interesting tidbit is that the 500-year-old coffee culture, brought in by the Ottoman Empire, had created more than 400 cafes by the 19th Century. Intellectuals and writers would gather, chain smoking and waxing poetic in their caffeinated excitement. The culture was squashed by the communists after WWII, but it’s made a comeback since their independence in 1989. Coffee “take away” (as the Europeans call it) and drip coffee isn’t very popular, so chains like Starbucks and McCafe have adjusted by serving espresso in china teacups.
As I rode the bus back out to the airport, a day and a half after my arrival, the scene looked more familiar in the light and more fitting. Of course there would be malls outside of this bustling city with English billboards; Hungarian is one of the top 5 most difficult languages in the world after all. With communism over, this country leapt at the opportunity to connect with the capitalist west and it’s worked out well.
Budapest, known as the Paris of the east, should be on everyone’s bucket list; I know I can’t wait to return.