Hectic, dry, and dusty were the first words that came to mind when stepping out of Budapest train station. After the trek to our digs, we also added another word to our list of first impressions: Massive… Not knowing much more about Budapest than name, location, and a penchant for Goulash, we were both surprised that the city is such a huge, busy, metropolis (the Pest side at least).
It’s commonly known that Budapest is an amalgamation of cities: Buda on the West side of the Danube, and Pest on the East. However it apparently also consists of a third city – Obuda, Buda’s neighbour on the West side. I guess Budaobudapest didn’t have the same ring to it, although I personally think it’s a cop out. The cities were only combined shortly after “The Austro-Hungarian compromise of 1867″ – the least dramatic sounding historical event of all time – And the beginning of Hungarian independence from those pesky Austrian Habsburg’s. Pressburg (now Bratislava) was the Capital for much of the time under the Austrians, and it only became Pest in 1848, then Budapest in 1873.
Budapest was the first city we noticed to have a distinctly more Eastern feel to it. The Ottomans occupied the place for over 100 years from 1541 and left behind, among other things, Baths, Mosques, and a general imprint of Turkish culture (and a load of 24 hour kebab shops it seems).
We couldn’t find a hostel with a private room in Budapest, so we ended up staying in a 1 bedroom apartment (Separate living-room/kitchen area, balcony, double bedroom etc). For backpackers this seemed ridiculously luxurious, however for £35 per night, it was bob on. (It was actually about £28 a night Wednesday to Friday and £50 on Saturday). We were even presented with a free KitKat by reception on arrival. (Not one each, that would be absurd, just a standard four finger biscuit to share between us. I must assume that some thorough market research was undertaken in order to conclude that, what a tourist pines for on arrival to Budapest, is a KitKat).
KitKats aside, Amy had undertaken a serious gastronomic mission: A hunt for the perfect Goulash. I’m afraid to report that so far the best Goulash has been had, not in it’s natural home, but in Bratislava. (Budapest’s Goulash ranks bottom so far, but was the cheapest at about £2). We will be sure to keep up to date with the findings of this vital research mission.
We spent most of our 4 days putting in some serious leg work, seeing the sights and getting a feel for the City… Buda (or at least the main area next to the river) seems to basically be an exhibition for tourists. Buda castle is an immense walled complex of palaces, churches, old buildings, museums, galleries and cafes. Although it is undoubtedly and amazing place to see, at the heart it’s so completely over-run with tourists its almost not enjoyable. You can’t move for smacking your face into somebodies iPad as they bumble around viewing the amazing sights in front of them through a digital screen. If it was this busy in February I would dread to see it in the summer.
Pest on the other hand is a proper warts’n'all city. In some places the huge old buildings with their decorative facades look like they are almost crumbling in front of your eyes, but the city bustles along around them seemingly oblivious. An eclectic mixture of huge 4 lane boulevards and little busy cobbled streets, Pest has a definite lively yet slightly grubby, charm. If you stay away from the tourist traps (which are mainly in Buda anyway) it is very cheap. Pint of beer around £1, goulash £2-£3. And accommodation is dead cheap too. Perfect for budget travelers.
The best place to be was down by the Danube. Here you see both sides of the city and the mighty river and its magnificent bridges, and it’s just a really nice place to be. It’s also particularly jaw dropping at night.
The last night we went out for a few cheeky beverages and ended up in one of the famous local ruin pubs: Szimpla. A ruin pub is, as you may of guessed, a pub – which is ruined. It truly has to be seen to be believed, and I reckon this is one of the nicest places to drink we have ever been in. Basically the building seems to be a few large derelict townhouses knocked into one, kitted out with a load of random trinkets and fairy lights, the odd bar here and there – and Voila – Ruin pub. There are little rooms, corridors, and staircases everywhere – and you get lost every time you try and find your way back from the toilet, stumbling into a previous unseen room, filled with lively chatter and strange going ons. With these ruin pubs, and the general buzz in the air at night time, I would say Pest’s night life has a lot to offer.
On the last day, a little hung over, and with a full day at our disposal before we got the sleeper train to Krakow, we decided we couldn’t leave Budapest without treating ourselves to a day in one of it’s famous thermal spas. They say that there has never been a true cure for the hangover, but I disagree. I can confirm that it is: lying in a 42degree pool for 10 minutes, then jumping into a 5degree plunge pool. Amazing… There are 5 thermal baths of varying temperature, a plunge pool, a sauna and steam room (with ropes connected to buckets of cold water to pull over your head upon exiting – if you like that sort of thing). Rudas baths is an original 15th century Turkish baths, with hot water from underground springs. It’s supposed to have healing qualities, and local doctors even give out free passes to the elderly and infirm to help with their ailments. Not being a believer in homeopathy and suchlike, I would guess the effects are psychological (apart from the obvious physical relief you feel at the time, submerged in hot water). Either way – its an lovely way to spend half a day – and is a nice break from hectic city life. Apparently it’s part of local culture and is a big weekly social event. Groups of friends and family get together once a week or so, and go and chill out and chew the fat, and just generally unwind. A great idea that should be immediately implemented in all UK cities.
The baths are now open till 4am at weekends, and this night bathing is supposed to be another dimension to the experience. Rudas used to be men only until 2006, however women are now allowed to join men twice a week, and even have a women only day once a week – Now that’s progress – lucky Gals.
Other things we have learned about Budapest:
Cardboard City. By far and away the most homeless people we’ve ever seen in a city. Under every bridge, subway, and archway there seems to be a community of homelessness. It’s very sad – but locals seem to be used to it and just ignore it. It’s actually quite hard to deal with at first. Especially since Budapest is often cited as one of the top cities in the world to live for culture and quality of life. As i don’t know anything about Hungary’s socio-economic situation, I can’t say much more – just what we’ve seen.
Hungarian is impossible. Apparently Hungarians are proud that their language bears no real similarities to any other European language – other than being a distant cousin to Finnish. This means a small knowledge of any of the main European langues ain’t going to help much with deciphering Hungarian.
A wee problem. Like pretty much everywhere since we left the UK, Budapest hates public toilets – particularly Pest. As is standard in Europe, if you find a toilet – public or in an establishment, you have to pay. That’s if your luckily enough to find one. We often came across signs like “WC 900 metres”. Great, just what I need when I’m brasting for a wee, an almost 1km bladder busting journey. I must confess that their may exist CCTV footage of some suspicious wee like activity happening in a bush on a traffic island opposite the Four Seasons Hotel. For legal reasons I can neither confirm nor deny the nature of the events captured on tape.
Amy is a Terrorist. We had a gander in the cave church, which was actually very impressive. When examining the place from the outside, Amy managed to destroy a piece of the Holy Steps, kicking it down the hill. This also appears to of been captured on CCTV.