The first thing you learn is how to pronounce it: Buda-pesht. Then you learn that Budapest is really two cities divided by the Danube River: Buda, the hilly, wealthy residential area on the south side of the river; and Pest, the much larger, flat, more commercial area to the north. They may not like each other much, but they are both beautiful and endlessly interesting.
The river trip concluded in Budapest with a city tour in the afternoon and a post-dinner cruise to see the city at night. It was cold on the upper deck, but waiters passed around shots of Palinka – Hungarian fruit brandy – to provide some warmth. The views were stunning in every direction. The Royal Palace, the Castle District and St. Mathais Church overlooked the river from the hilltop on the Buda side; the enormous and striking Parliament building dominated the Pest side; and the Chain Bridge and the other crossings of the Danube framed the picture east and west.
(The photo at the top is of the Chain Bridge and the Royal Palace. The bridge is the oldest in Budapest and, as with every other bridge in town, it was destroyed by the Nazis on their way out of the city in 1945. For a while a make-shift pontoon bridge provided the only way across the river, but the Chain Bridge was rebuilt and reopened in 1949.)
I stayed in Budapest for two days and enjoyed an authentic Hungarian dinner with local residents Adrienn and Laszlo Barta, a wonderful walking tour of the city the next day with Anrienn’s sister Anita, and a fun dinner the last night with Greg and Becky Graves, friends from the cruise. Here are some pictures of this intriguing city.
From a colonnade behind the St. Mathias Church in Buda, this is the view on a foggy afternoon back across the Danube, toward Pest.
Heroes Square features the Millennium Memorial, which honors the leaders of the tribes that founded Hungary in the 9th century. The Memorial was started in 1896 on the country’s 1000th anniversary, and completed in 1900.
The magnificent Budapest Parliament Building, on the banks of the Pest side of the Danube.
Bronze shoes affixed to the concrete and candles and flowers left by visitors pay tribute to the Jews who were brought to the bank of the Danube during WWII, and shot and dumped in the river by Hungarian Nazis.
I had a delightful dinner with Adrienn and Laszlo Barta. Laszlo is the cousin of a friend back in the States whose family left Hungary during the revolution in 1956, and he teaches mechanical engineering at a local university near their home outside of Budapest. Adrienn teaches dentistry in the city. And yes, I had goulash.
I don’t think they serve goulash here. During my walking tour with Anita, she showed me the first McDonalds ever in Eastern Europe. It was opened in 1989 and because the Russians still occupied Budapest everyone was afraid to go there. But when the Berlin wall came down toward the end of that year it became the hottest place in town, and people used to get all dressed up just to go have a Big Mac and fries.
This is the marvelous City Market, where each shop is family-owned and where most of the city goes for groceries. Upstairs are clothing shops and small pubs. “The people who are eating are tourists,” said Anita as we strolled through at 10:30 in the morning, “and the people who are drinking are locals.”
On the left, a typical shop in the City Market.
On the right, well, I guess those guys will be forever linked, even in a little shop in Budapest.
Around 2000 a unique phenomenon began taking root in Budapest: “romkocsma”, they are called in Hungarian. In English: Ruin Pubs. These hip and eclectic bars started popping up in abandoned buildings in the city’s 7th District, the Jewish section of Budapest that became neglected during and after the war when so many of its residents were deported, or worse.
Ruin Pubs are generally large areas with many smaller rooms and usually one outdoor area that is popular in the summer. Anita and I stopped by the best-known of them, called Szimpla Kertmozi … Simple Garden. To enter you walk through three doors of thick plastic strips hanging vertically. Inside, everything is junky and funky, each room “decorated” differently; one was covered with old computer monitors that were programmed with indecipherable images. Every inch of wall space was filled with graffiti, strings of lights hung randomly, and the large open space in back showed old black and white war films on a large screen. There were tables, chairs and stools of every shape and description, whatever, one assumes, could be found discarded elsewhere. There were dozens of interesting seating options, including an old car, a bathtub, theater seats, and a pommel horse.
The place was empty when Anita and I visited at mid-day, but after dinner I dragged Greg and Becky Graves back there and the pub was comfortably active. After touring the whole place – there is a substantial upstairs area as well – we found a table in a side room where some college kids were smoking from a hookah pipe. A young woman approached us with a bucket of huge carrot sticks. “This is a tradition here, they are for good luck,” she said. I already felt pretty lucky being able to see this place, and in surfing the Internet later I found that, on one site anyway, Szimpla Kertmozi is rated the third best bar in the world. The first two are in Amsterdam, where the hookahs probably contain something different.
My last morning in Budapest I took a cab to the Keleti train station, a dark, foreboding place that was still appealingly atmospheric. All the signs and announcements were in Hungarian only, and although no one was rude, no one was outwardly friendly. After two guys in uniform were unable to help guide me to the right platform for my train, I started to laugh. Five months ago I would have found this environment uncomfortable, but now, for some reason, it actually made me happy.
I walked into an enormous restaurant with marble columns and an ornate ceiling that had to be 20 feet high. It had a stage underneath some windows with speakers to either side … seriously, a train station with live entertainment? I did my best to order a ham and cheese omelet from a waiter who looked like Bela Lagosi, and got a small egg pizza that might have had a piece of meat on it somewhere. But it wasn’t bad.
As I started to enter a restroom a man grabbed my arm. “Hey, you pay first. You give that lady 150 florit”. (That’s about 70 cents I think. If I write a book about this trip, the European section is going to be called “Paying to Pee”.)
When I walked out of the restroom the same guy started following me through the station. “Where you from? USA? Oh, United States, very beautiful people, very clever. Do you like tennis? I like tennis. Mister John McEnroe, Mister Andre Aggasi, I like them very much.”
His name was Tibor (TEE-bor). “One of the greatest Hungarian footballers, his name also is Tibor”, he said. I asked him how he learned to speak English so well. “Rock music. I like to listen to rock music. You know Aerosmith? The Rolling Stones? I like them very much.” I gave him a couple of Euros, but his entertainment value was worth far more.
Tibor likes tennis and the Rolling Stones. I like Budapest.