Buda & Pest, the Hungarian way

From the moment I stepped out of the train, I had a feeling Budapest was going to be a lot different from the cities I’ve explored before. Did I get that from the light golden colors the buildings wear to remind you that you’ve landed in a country where it gets hot, hot, hot ? Or maybe from the dodgy looking people hovering around Keleti Station, trying to sell me lavender ? Nevermind the reason, you instantly get the vibe that you’re in the South now.

However, soon after I settled in Budapest, it started raining, as it usually does when I arrive in a new country (Vilnius, Warsaw, Prague, and even Zagreb, at this very moment). So many times I’ve heard « You’re not lucky at all, it’s been super sunny right until you arrived ». I’m starting to think that I’m travelling with my own little rain cloud over my head, ready to crack when I pass a border. After a few hours of rain, I wandered in town to find the big blue Danube. Somehow, the first view I had of river banks made me feel like I was in Egypt. Never been to Egypt, but the riverside and its rounded-roof palaces look a lot like Alexandria in the Asterix & Obelix cartoons from my childhood, so it must be historically accurate.

After the highly touristic weekend in Prague, I was more than happy to spend the week in Budapest like a local. Hosted by the lovely Zsofia, my residence was in a popular neighbourhood of Ujpest, in the outskirts of Pest, built in the 70’s by the Communists, when they were running out of money. Tall identical buildings, made of concrete panels, reassembled here to accomodate as many workers as possible.

By the looks I was getting while taking a stroll in the hood, I understood that not many foreigners dared to come this far out of the city. I really loved how there was no doubt at all, not even for a second, that I was not from here. Everytime I walked in a shop or made eye contact with a neighbour, I could hear « Hello ». Surprisingly though, I found people a lot more welcoming and helpful with tourists in Ujpest (where not many speak english), than in the city center (where they use their English to be plain rude).

Talking about the people of the city, I really have to write a paragraph about the strange population of Hungary. But how to do that without sounding like a spoilt brat from Western Europe is hard. There’s a certain poverty here in Hungary and it’s difficult to ignore the numerous signs of it, especially around Keleti station. Lots of beggars and people sleeping on benches. Some parallel businesses are also happening here, like selling lavender (that has been picked from roundabouts) or cutting cables to resell them. At the time I was there, it was the time of the year when people can get rid of their old stuff and furniture, by just leaving them in the streets. The pavements were covered in broken furniture, electrical appliances, old clothes and magazines. Which is apparently a gold mine for the Roma population, who is particularly poor, and I could see them keeping a close look on the left furniture or cutting cables off the electronical devices. This sight can be a bit surprising for the untrained eye of the tourist just passing by, who doesn’t know what’s happening. However, there’s a good news for the unluckiest of Budapest people, it’s not rare to see homeless people gathering up for parties in the shade of a tree, when their day of begging is over. Somehow, it made me smile to see all these beggars getting over their tough existence to share a laugh (and cheap beers) together. Isn’t that a great news ?

More positively, there is so much more to the city than just the dodgy-looking people. There’s also some truly beautiful buildings (the Parliament, the Palace, the Castle, the Citadelle) that will make you wonder about the geniuses behind those ideas. And more importantly, a few spots in town will offer you some views over the city that will take your breath away :

  • see Buda & Pest from the middle of Margit Bridge at night

  • hover in the Palace to admire the Danube and the Parliament

  • blow your mind away by climbing to the Citadelle where you can see everything.

I’ve had a very relaxing time here in Budapest, just lazing in the sun and simply enjoying the views. As I was craving for a countryside getaway, Zsofia recommended me to go to Szentendre (roughly 40 min away from the city), a cute little town over the Danube with tiny little craft shops and other tourists-catchers. I happily spent my day, out of the crowded town, on a nice river beach, lazing on what must be my favourite thing on Earth : a hammac. Hammac, good tunes and beer and Caroline couldn’t be happier. I had a break from all this tough relaxing to get myself one of the famous Langos, a speciality that could give you enough energy for the next 10 days. The weapon of the crime : a deep fried flatbread soaking in oil, topped with rich sour cream and grated cheese and then drizzled with « garlic water ». Very tasty. Like really stupidly good. But how could it not be tasty with all this fat in it ? I saw many children devouring those things and it got me a bit worried. I was about to call Super Jamie so he could get on the case ASAP. But according to my Czech friend Petra (yeah, they also have it over there, lucky them), she was only allowed one every year, it’s a bit reassuring. I would suggest having the annual langos before the winter, in order to get your fat intake sorted for the whole hibernation.

I wanted to be cheeky and get a second langos before I got on my way. But in the name of professional and touristic curiosity, I went for the famous and traditional Gulyasleves (Goulash soup) made with Hungary’s finest paprika and what seemed to be chicken. Spicy soup but delicious.

It is filled with this lovely gulyasleves and a certain melancholy that I left Hungary on Sunday afternoon, after 5 beautiful days. The best part of it was to have this little routine, having a flat, commute to the city center, going out with Zsofia and Szilard, having a taste of Palinka, knowing enough words of Hungarian to make rubbish jokes… I feel this full immersion into the culture made it one of the best destinations of the trip, as I learnt a lot more than I ever expected. So thank you my beautiful hosts. And thank you Dora for making this come true, now I feel like I know you much better! 😉

And for the bravest, a little bit of history !

After learning so much about communism in Poland, I was curious about Hungary’s past. Well, the least we can say is that it’s not easy to be surrounded by very ambitious undirect neighbours. To name a few countries that fought to get the control of the Magyar lands : Turkey, Austria, Germany & Russia. Someone takes over, then another country frees the country and then takes over. At the very end of the 19th century, Hungarians had a lucky break and got their independence on a very vast land (that had Romania, part of Czech Rep and more). One bad decision (siding with the Germans for WWI) and they were stripped off of two thirds of their lands, during the Treaty of Versailles, which is still bitterly remembered by the nostalgic population. The will to get their lands back got them to side, again, with the Germans for WWII. When they found out what was happening to the Jews under the Third Reich domination, they tried to pull out but got their government replaced by the Arrow Cross movement – pro-germans of course – who delivered the Jews to the concentration camps in a blink of an eye. And what usually happens to Hungary happened again. Freed by the – oh so great – Red Army (who didn’t rape anyone on their way there), those nice Russians did have an agenda and it was to impose communism on Hungary, which they successfully did for a few decades, even though the price to pay for it was a few thousands lives. The House of Terror on Andrassy Utca, showcases the pressure put on the population by the Communist party to keep this failing system working. It used to be the headquarter of the AVO (the organ of surveillance of the Communist party) and where they were taking the « system opponents » to torture them, lock them up in tiny cells and often to kill them. If you want to learn a lot about Hungarian history, that’s the place to go, but fill up with coffee first cause there’s A LOT to read. However, watching the testimonies of fully grown men weaping while detailing the horrors they had to overcome, makes you stop feeling sorry for yourself for quite a while.

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