That first evening, I got off the train early evening and crossed town by train and tube. Hungary was a first for my Europe adventures so far and with baffling money and an alien sounding language it was quite thrilling to realise every step was new. My stop, Harminckettesek tere Sounded like the noise the tram made as it ran along the tracks, chuck, chuck, chuck. Once in the right area, I had to ask someone for directions. Her English was great, but she was unsure on the street and stopped someone else to help, who subsequently stopped someone else. 4 of us looking at my screenshot of directions and scratching our heads, but I got there.
The currency is HUF or Hungarian Forints. At 500 HUF to the £ it has suffered great inflation in recent years. I knew I needed to psych myself up to go hard in Budapest. The 36 hours I had was nowhere near enough and I was going to have to sleep less, eat faster, walk further and keep the camera turned on to absorb as much as possible. So with European city two in the same day, I headed out at dusk to explore. A city at night is magical and as I got off the tram at the busy intersection of the Oktagon, I made my way up the tree lined avenue of Anglesey street. Soon I passed the soviet secret police building from the communist regime which held power here for 45 years. Now it is a museum called the house of terror.
Continuing my walk, the top of the avenue was out by the impressive monument of Heroes Square which was constructed in 1896 to mark the thousandth anniversary of Hungary. Adjacent to it are the beautiful buildings of the museum of fine arts and the hall of arts. Archangel Gabriel stands on top of the pillar, holding the holy crown and cross. The seven chieftains who led the Magyar tribes to Hungary can be seen on the stand below.
Behind the square, the city park, illuminated in light and music filling the green open spaces, the water protruding fountains and on the bank Vajdahunyad castle, one of the many buildings in the city that made this place feel just like a fairytale. Walking past the moat and iron gates, I continued my detour until I found the Szechenyi baths, one of seven main baths in the city heated with water from natural springs, a mark of the Turkish occupation of the city. The building itself was grand and imposing, gracefully showing its age with its dated features. Late at night the baths were quiet with locals sharing stories on the steps in the 38degree water. I found a good position for people watching, enjoying the warmth of the water in the cool evenings air, the contrast driving steam off the waters surface. Wow, I was in Budapest. I experimented with the different pools, fountains and made the most of being anonymous in a foreign city by splashing around in the centre, before reluctantly heading out again.
This time I caught the millennium tube line under the Main Street. The stations were tiled decoratively and the trains drew in noisily before catapulting you out again. It was late and I needed to eat so, resisting McDonald’s I found a Turkish/Hungarian canteen and ordered myself a big plate of rice, vegetables and hummus, a far cry from the abundance of meat and fried cheese of Western Europe. Despite paying into the thousands for it in Hungarian Forints, it cost me an incredible £3.
This incredible country has been oppressed by the Hapsburg Dynasty of Austria, occupied by the nazis and the Soviet Union, conquered by the Mongols and the Ottoman Empire?
The city has two distinct halves, the flat side of ‘pest’ (an alteration of the word Peda meaning fireplace) named after the limestone burning Slavics and Celts who used to occupy this land, and the hilly Buda recognising the water of the 128 natural hot springs which run along the fault lines on that side of the Danube?
Moreover this city is a melting pot of Renaissance and gothic architecture, history of Jewish oppression, communism and the messy politics of a post communist era?
How do you even begin to explore this city?!?
I began with a walking tour, I needed some context. Our guide was brilliant. “It’s Budapescht, not Budapest” she began. We’re in the Carpathan basin, a base deemed so beautiful by the nomadic Magyar tribes of Mongolia in the 5th century they asked the pope to recognise this land for them officially. Were no longer Asian looking, were a melting pot. We lost 40% of our population and almost everything else to invading Mongolian tribes in the 13th century and invited the Jews, Slavs and Central Europeans in. Who are we now? We’re a mix! Since then our country has grown and shrunk in size, we’ve fought off and lost to the Austrians, the Ottomans, the Germans and the Russians. Our language is so alien it inspired Yoda, literally, they translated the script into Hungarian and back again to get his jumbled words. And what have we offered to the world, buttons, Rubix cubes and the soda bottle.
One of the two tallest buildings in Budapest is St Stephens Basilica, the other is the impressive gothic parliament building, 4th largest in the world and modelled on London. Both stand 96 metres tall, again to commemorate 896 founding of Hungary, both equal to show equal status of church and state. St Stephen was a pagan man, the first King of Hungary in the 11th century as the man who united Hungary and got recognition as a state by the pope. He is buried in the church, interestingly alongside Ferenc Puksas, a football coach who led the Hungarian football team to the final of the European cup in 2002.
Leaving the flats of Pest we crossed the famous chan bridge and began to climb up to the Fishermans Bastion. It was one of four defence bastions, the only one now remaining and only so named because of the original site of a fishermans market. This place is also like a fairytale and it is mesmerising to look back across the waters of the Danube to the stunning city beyond. I think a mark of how beautiful something is, is when you keep taking photos but you just can’t satisfy that need, and I have 572372498 pictures of this view. In the bastion is Matthias church. It’s tiled roof is another Hungarian mark. Made from ceramic they are beautifully ornate, whilst also being fireproof and basically indestructible.
Our guide ended the tour with a Hungarian poem of Liberty and it was emotive to feel how many oppressors it has succeeded, and certainly an imperfect political situation to this day. We joined with her to a canteen, definitely a mark of its communist era. As we queued up she told us the dishes, traditionally a lot involving meats and pig fats. You got a dinner tray and much like a school dinner, a bulky cheap meal was selected and put on your plate. I got a vegetable Fozolek, some noodles and veg cooked up almost like a lasagne, and my new friend Laura got a veggie stew served with some obscure looking sticky rice. None of it looked appetising but it was tasty, cheap and bulky. Once you were done you cleared your own table, put you tray on the shelf and dismissed yourself as if school lunch break was over.
We walked to the National Palace, an incredible building which sits on the grounds of an even older Buda castle and now houses a huge art collection. After further admiring the view from here and the grand architecture of the building, Laura went inside, and I returned to Pest for a second dollop of history, this time more specifically about Hungary under communism.
The feel of the tour was a lot heavier, a difficult but vastly interesting peak into 45 years of Russian oppression. Hungary had a unique experience and even within the 45 years it was a far from uniform time period. By the end of World War Two, Hungary wanted to pull out of the war and so the Nazis, not allowing that to happen, occupied the city on March 19 1944. At the end of the war, the USSR liberated Hungary and imposed communism. Communism held until the two week revolution in 1956 where people marched on parliament to resist the oppression. On 4th November the politburo sent a force to crush the uprising to the death of over 3000 civilians.
From this point communism evolved, firstly the new leader János Kádár worked to restrict the secret police and repealed most of the restrictions on speech. The period was come to be known as happy communism or goulash communism as Hungary was less tightly controlled. Kádár was deposed for his work in Hungary after only 2 years but still Hungary continued to be slightly less restricted than other eastern bloc countries. By there 1980’s, the failing economy was beginning to put pressure on communism and civic unrest accelerated the changes in Hungary.
It was interesting to walk around the city picking out the ugly highlights, like the bloc housing, the ugly remnants of this period. During this time there was a red communist star on top of the church to make it that few metres taller, showing the importance of the regime above everything else. Hungary was enlisted mainly in building buses, unlike surrounding countries who produced cars or other produce. While rent was paid, wages were minimal but it was illegal to be unemployed so everyone was involved in building the communist state. If you’re not with us, you’re against us. She joked that they pretended to pay us while we pretended to work.
An interesting insight into post communism was a statue near the parliament showing Hungary as an angel holding a sceptre being attacked by the hawk. It was put up only in 2014 by the current prime minister, Viktor Orban, under the dark of night despite protests by the people. The message is that when the Hungarian Jews were forced out of Budapest in 1944, this was at the hands of evil nazi Germany. The people feel this is a rewriting of history absolving axis power Hungary of any part in this horrible deed and so a protest memorial has been set up in front of it.
We ended our tour at one of Budapests famous ruin bars and our guide was able to show us some artefacts from her youth and family life. There was pictures of her in the pioneers, a version of scouts, there was a version of monopoly where the benefits and penalties were based on being a better communist, showing that the brainwashing started young. most interesting was the two passports. A red one was issued to everyone and it was for travel to friendly or communist countries. It was also later on possible to apply for a blue one which would enable travel to western countries however the application process was lengthy and would mean heavy scrutiny into your past and likely only approved if your family were to be left behind as hostages. It was an emotional eye opener into another era of this brave country, oppressed by so many.
I met Laura once more and we had Langos for dinner. Our guide has jokingly described this Hungarian fried bread as the communist pizza, a doughy, greasy base covered in tomatoes, cheese and whatever else there was. It was salty, garlicky, completely unhealthy and it tasted amazing!! We then walked to meet a group that we would be joining to experience we of Hungarian night life and it’s ruin bar culture. The main nightlife is in the Jewish district, an area that was given to Jews living in the city to keep them separate from the Christians. When the Jews were forced to flee in 1944, this seventh district was abandoned. Used since then, within the last 10 years a culture of ruin bars has started up in abandoned and run down buildings where without renovating, they are turned into works of art, anything goes, from bullet holes in the walls and tumble down doorways, to eclectic collections of light bulbs, bottle tops, strange graffiti and other colourful pictures. It was a nice small group, all girls and we went to a few bars with music sampling along the way cherry bear, Hungarian wine and Palinka, a strong spirit made from fruit which by law has to be between 36-87% proof. Each time we took a drink we declared the Hungarian cheers, which sounds much like a drunken slur of the phrase ‘guess she can drive.’ Something resembling Ege shege dre.
We then visited two ruin bars, the first Mexican themed with art and mementos across the bar and walls, then a second one which used to be a dentist. The large open rooms transformed into dance floors. Our small group was by now laughing and joking like old friends, enlarged by the addition of a football team from the UK on tour in Budapest who to our amusement were explaining to us the drinking penalties you could incur on tour. And with that, the night grew longer and thus the gap until I had to get up for the airport, grew shorter.
Next stop Istanbul