Budapest is a fabulous city and due to overconfidence in our internal compasses, which frequently led us to explore more than first intended, we feel fully qualified to review the whole of it.
Budapest is kind of two cities in one; Buda on one side of the Danube, the (mostly) old settlement and Pest on the other which is much newer. The impressive Chain Bridge is a metaphoric hyphen joining the two. Buda has a huge palace, a castle and many ancient churches. Pest has Parliament, a gargantuan feat of architecture standing alone on the edge of the river. Big may be beautiful, but it sure screamed ‘overcompensation’. The graffiti-riddled, ‘edgy’ Jewish quarter, also in Pest, is full of Synagogues (I shit you not), great bars and restaurants, and the more practical elements of a city – shopping centres, hotels, the obligatory McDonalds and an extensive metro network. You don’t appreciate the full beauty of the city until you are standing at the middle of one of the bridges that separate the two sides.
It may seem surprising given this description of the two that we actually preferred Pest to Buda. Buda, at the time we were there, was one huge construction site populated exclusively by burly builders and confused-looking tourists. It seemed that the wardrobe of every resident was filled exclusively with overalls and dungarees. In fact, it was like stepping into a Super Mario appreciation society; everyone was moustached and clad in blue dungarees. We half expected them to jump 30ft in the air and disappear into a big green pipe. We found out later on from a local that the city was all under construction in preparation for the new prime minister who was to be elected just two days after we left the city. Clearly the new leader wanted to get ‘1up’ on his predecessor. Cue pun-induced cringe.
This explained another rather bizarre aspect of the city. We’d been warned about political demonstrations and rather perversely looked out for them, excited for the drama. Unfortunately (?) the closest we got to a protest was two girls with homemade posters outside Parliament, who could have been advertising a cupcake sale for all we knew. Not the bloodthirsty riots we’d imagined, dang and blast it. On the other hand, the whole city -both sides – was covered in political posters. On almost all of these posters was destructive graffiti, a large majority of it Nazi-related. Photos of the polished, smiling election candidates would have swastikas drawn on their teeth or forehead and men were often given Hitler moustaches. One female candidate poster we saw had ‘SS’ carved into her forehead, which we reckon probably didn’t mean she was applying for State Secretary.
In general actually, Budapest had several reminders of the Second World War and its aftermath. On the Pest side of the river can be found one of the most poignant testimonies to the horrors committed during that period. ‘Shoes on the Danube’ honours the 70 Jews who were shot in the back and dumped in the river by Fascist Hungarian militia between 1944 and 1945. The victims of the slaughter were ordered to place their shoes on the bank and face the river. As such, the monument is a collection of shoes, often filled with candles or flowers, stretching along the otherwise empty river’s edge. A little pair of leather boots that could only have belonged to a child is a particularly moving symbol of the atrocities committed there.
Not all Budapest memorials to victims of the war and the Communist regime that followed were as tactfully done. For example, walking around the House of Terror, a museum dedicated to those killed or tortured in the museum building itself under fascist and communist regimes of the 20th century, is an extremely unpleasant experience. This, of course, is the purpose; it has been designed to try and excite emotions of terror and claustrophobia in those walking around it. You are marched from room to room, senses bombarded with images, sounds and depictions of torture or killing. But there are no little explanatory placards; in every room there is a TV screen and an occasional photo but no belongings or stories, very little to help one contextualise or conceptualise the gruesome scenes. In fact, ‘museum’ may not be the most apt word for the building. It all feels a little sensationalised for dramatic effect.
Memento Park is a similarly bizarre experience. The Hungarians are famous for not being able to throw things away and Memento Park, situated in the middle of nowhere and packed full of discarded Communist statues is a good example of this. The Lonely Planet Guide to Budapest perhaps sums it up best: “a cemetery of socialist mistakes […] a well-manicured trash heap of history”. We passed 26 stops on the hour long bus trip to get there. We were the only people at the park. It is hemmed in by red brick walls. A gravel track cuts its way through un-mown grass. A rusty iron Stalin and his 50 communist buddies surround you aggressively: ‘Where is your sickle, comrade? Go; toll the fields for the Motherland!’ No matter how culturally and/or historically curious you are, this is not a place we’d recommend unless you really need to sober up quick.
Somewhere we absolutely would recommend is any/all of the thermal baths. These are enormous complexes, with baths inside and outside adorned with Roman-style statues and pillars, scattered throughout the city. If you’re a cold, bitter soul or a warm and bubbly cherub, there’s something for you; the pools range from 20 – 38oC and are wonderfully relaxing. We recommend 6 hours of bath-hopping until you’re more wrinkled than Gordon Ramsey’s forehead. Having said this, if you’re squeamish the baths may not be the best place for you; the word ‘fat’ does not cover some of the bellies we saw. And unfortunately, nothing else did either. Avoiding swinging tits and watching a man that we’re pretty sure had just consumed his wife was not in the guidebook’s description. Nor does ‘disgusting’ quite do justice the image that will forever be in our heads of an entirely naked, old, fat Hungarian woman, unfortunately only half covered in foam, practically rolling out of the shower. Let’s just say we didn’t approve of the ‘Hungarian bushmeat’. Surely then, it’s a testimony to how nice the baths are that we went back for a second time even after that unsavoury viewing.
One of the great attractions of these baths is that while they may not cure all the diseases they claim to, they are an excellent cure for hangovers. And hangovers, in Budapest, are almost guaranteed. The combination of incredibly cheap alcohol (a bottle of wine is the equivalent price of two pounds), the legendary ruin bars, great clubs and European closing times (around five or six in the morning) leave you feeling like you’ve just been dredged up from the Danube by the next day. Ruin bars are dotted all over the place. There is no real definition and we have no equivalent in England but they are essentially huge, sprawling, uniquely decorated bars occupying…ruins, funnily enough. These were often abandoned or dilapidated buildings, which offered a refreshingly different setting for clubbing. In general, they also have a habit of making you feel high whether or not you are; in one the booths were old cars and waitresses went round selling carrots (probably drug-infused). In another, animal-themed one, there was a disco-ball in the shape of a boar, a big owl statue with tits, and concrete rabbits climbing all over the ceilings. I don’t know about you, but in my opinion 34DD owls, drugged-up veg, a shit-tonne of cheap booze and enough rabbits to bring Steinbeck’s Lennie to orgasm makes for a pretty fun or at least unique night.
The drinks are cheap and effective; Hungary’s national drink is called Palinka and while they give you shots of it, it is almost impossible to neck – thicker than Wayne Rooney and twice as sour. Tasty though. But the good drinking contrasted sadly with the eating. If you love meat, and we mean really really love meat (no not in that way, you dirty bugger), then Hungary is the place for you. Most dishes consist of meat, wrapped in meat, with a side of meat. All served on a plate made of meat. On a meat table. With pork wine glasses and bacon napkins and…you get the idea. It’s the literal embodiment of a sausagefest. The cheapest thing on every menu is Goulash soup, a brown, lumpy liquid which we’re pretty sure has been freshly siphoned from the Danube just for you. We fondly renamed it Poolash. It probably says very sad things about our cultural awareness that we went to Hungary and lived off the pizza place next to our hostel and that when we did go to a proper restaurant, one of us had Greek salad, the other pizza and the third southern-fried chicken and chips. One good thing we do have to say for the country’s food is that you can buy whole bars of Milka for less than a pound. We salute you, diabetes.
In fact the economy must be in a pretty bad state. Apparently their meat-stuffed population aren’t the only things hyperinflating. The exchange rate is ridiculous. Around 50,000 Hungarian currency (Forints, or Huf) is equivalent to just £150 GBP, our budget. We felt so rich! One pound is equal to 368 Forints; we speculated on the existence of a Three-Six-Eight-Hufland equivalent to Poundland. Parting with 540 Huf for a little bottle of coke just felt wrong. On the other hand, the exchange rate makes Budapest a perfect holiday destination for students; finally you can afford to live off something other than beans on toast and pre-drink on wine and not Sainsbury’s basic gin. So next time you’re looking for a cheap balance of culture and fun abroad, head to Budapest!