20 Notes From Budapest

I’d like to kick-start this new series of blog posts with a rapid-fire list of observations on life in Budapest. We’ll get to the quirky stories and all that later. For now, here are 20 notes I made during my stay in Hungary’s capital:

  1. Buda and Pest are historically two different cities, with two very different vibes. Buda, on the west side of the Danube, is situated on steep hills and bluffs. Pest, on the east, is completely flat, expanding outward onto an endless plain. It wasn’t until 1873 that the two cities unified to become Budapest. So you can’t shorten it and be like “I’m off to ‘pest mate,” because if you say that, you are referring to only one half of the city.
  2. The fact that Buda and Pest were once distinct and separate cities is well known, but what fewer people realize is that- despite the name “Budapest”- there are actually four districts. There’s Buda to the west, Pest to the east, the island of Margitsziget in the center of the river, and Óbuda to the north-west.
  3. Buda has typically been more rich and opulent. That’s where you’ll find the palaces and many of the old bathhouses. As far as the tourist is concerned, it’s like a long strip that hugs the west bank of the Danube. Beyond that strip it’s very residential.
  4. Pest, on the other hand, has historically been more poor, quirky, and alternative. There’s the Jewish Quarter, the old hangouts of impoverished writers and artists, and Kossuth Lajos tér– where the Soviets massacred the starving masses on that awful day in 1956 (Bloody Thursday). Pest feels more like a classical, mazelike European city, and walking around its wide, sylvan boulevards I was reminded of Paris.
  5. If I were to advise you where to stay, I’d go for a hotel or hostel in Pest that’s not too far from the river. I found that Pest felt like it had more going on. When I went out at night in Pest, there was a real buzz to the place. Every street seemed to have a restaurant, and it was easy to find something to do and feel like a part of something. If you’re interested in nightlife, then you absolutely must stay in Pest. That’s where all the clubs and bars can be found. In Buda, however, I found I had to walk a few blocks to find a good restaurant, and the streets were often quiet and devoid of that sleepless tourist-energy that characterizes international cities. In Pest, everything just seems like a cluster of activity.
  6. They say that Budapest is the “Paris of the East” and I can see why. But to be perfectly honest, Budapest is so beautiful, and so rich in its cultural history, that it is far more than that. For me, it stands on its own in the pantheon of the world’s most interesting and aesthetically-charming cities. It’s right up there with Barcelona and Udaipur. The streets of Budapest are leafy, clean, and spacious, with gorgeous facades. It’s never too crowded or too noisy. You can look at the cityscape from the hills of Buda, the Budapest Eye in Pest, or any of the bridges that cross the Danube, and the view will look like it’s straight out of a postcard. There’s an aesthetic consistency to the cityscape that makes you feel like you’re in the 19th I like that its historic atmosphere has not been diluted by skyscrapers and modern architecture, as is the case in London. The best way to experience the beauty of Budapest is to take a river cruise at night, when many of its magnificent landmarks are lit up.
  7. The Magyar language is one of the most mysterious and complex languages in the world. Hungary is a linguistic island- surrounded on all sides by countries with languages of Germanic, Slavic, or Latin origin. Magyar could not be more different- it’s not even European. It’s a Uralic language, whose only relatives today are languages spoken by a few tribes in Siberia. The Ural Mountains of Russia are the ancestral homeland of the Magyar tribe, who long ago migrated west and settled in the Carpathian Basin, where they founded Hungary!
  8. I learned as much Magyar as I could using an app on my phone called Duolingo. However, I found it was more useful for ingratiating myself among the locals rather than getting me out of a tight pinch. Most Hungarians I met spoke a little English, and those that worked in customer service (hotel receptionists, waiters/waitresses, etc.) spoke it very well. I also found that almost everyone expected me just to speak English. However I wanted to put what I’d learned to good use- and trying out a new language is part of the fun when traveling abroad- so I would always open conversations in Hungarian. This led to some confusion however, because people kept thinking I was either bilingual or an actual Hungarian. They’d then respond with a long sentence in Magyar and I’d break it to them that I was English, upon which they’d blush and exclaim “Oh! I thought you were Hungarian!”
  9. In Magyar, “sz” is pronounced as an s-sound, and “s” translates to a sh-sound. So szauna is pronounced “sauna”, and that’s a pretty easy word to learn because it’s almost exactly the same as its English counterpart. And “Pest” is pronounced “Pesht” which I really enjoyed saying for some reason.
  10. The Hungarian people are super-friendly. They’re not as extroverted and expressive as the Greeks or Italians, but they’re extremely nice. Some Hungarians can come off as reserved at first, but if you try to speak a little Magyar and give them a smile, then they open up quick. I didn’t encounter a rude person while I was there, and everyone I approached seemed very cheerful and patient. People helped me with directions, agreed to take my photo, and took the time to indulge my questions about the language and culture.
  11. I also found that the Hungarians were a very honest bunch. There were several occasions where people would decline tips in whole or in part if they felt they didn’t deserve them. One taxi driver tried to persuade me not to pay him at all! He got confused and took me south for a few minutes, and seemed so embarrassed by this harmless mistake, that he refused payment. I eventually convinced him to take half the money, and he vowed to give it to his children. I was very impressed by this, because it would have been easy for all these people to assume I was a naïve tourist and to take advantage of that. And this same refusal happened with all kinds of professionals- shopkeepers, masseuses, and taxi-drivers alike.
  12. Budapest is super-easy to get around. I found that the trams were especially useful, because they came very frequently and I’m pretty sure they’re free. I mean- no one asked me for a ticket. I used the tram several times and it seemed like a hop-on, hop-off kinda deal. You can get from one side of the city to the other very quickly, and using them turned out to be so much better than wandering the streets looking for a taxi.
  13. Budapest loves dogs. I saw doggies everywhere I went, many of them well-trained and following their owners without the need for a leash. I kept wondering if the dogs here were the same as the dogs back home. For some reason, they seemed smarter.
  14. In Hungary, the familial name comes before the given name. So it would be “Puskas Ferenc” and not the other way around. However, Hungarians don’t change the order of foreign names, so I would still be called Michael Vowles and not “Vowles Michael”.
  15. A shopkeeper in Szentendre told me “In Hungary, we love flowers”. It’s true. I noticed that a lot of traditional designs featured floral patterns. Hungary is a great place to go if you’re looking to buy a classy scarf, skirt, china plate, curtain, or table cloth.
  16. Budapest is most definitely a city for lovers. I noticed that the people here are a lot more affectionate with their partners in public than they are in the UK or the USA. Everywhere I went I saw young couples making out up against a wall, having intensely-intimate conversations as they held hands and maintained unblinking eye contact, and kissing beneath a streetlight as though trying to replicate a movie poster. I saw it a lot in the city’s many bathhouses. I was at a thermal spa in the UK once and a young couple were told to knock it off after kissing too much, but in Budapest they’re free to pretty much go at it. So I definitely recommend Budapest as a honeymoon destination. The many lovers you see on the streets are in some ways a feature of the city, as much a part of its enduring character as the hot springs and the Chain Bridge.
  17. Budapest is a city with a turbulent history, and everywhere you look there are reminders of tragedy and revolution. Be it the Ottoman occupation or the Mongol invasion, or more recent events such as the atrocities of the Nazis and Soviets, the city of Budapest very much wants to preserve the memory of all that has happened there. Perhaps most poignant was the “Shoes on the Danube Bank” memorial that honors the many Jews murdered by the fascist Arrow Cross during the Holocaust.
  18. I liked Hungarian cuisine, but I didn’t love it the way I love Italian. I noticed that a lot of traditional Hungarian restaurants featured game dishes. I saw duck on the menu more than I did beef or pork. Things like goose liver, wild boar, and venison are also very common. One thing my Brazilian friend and I noticed was that the Hungarians use a lot of fat and oils in their dishes. At one point she actually got a stomach ache from a particular meal. The fried potato cakes for example- a common side dish- are quite filling.
  19. Of course, the most iconic Hungarian dish is goulash. It’s not quite soup and it’s not quite stew, but you get the idea. I had several varieties of goulash, some of which leaned more towards soup, some more towards stew, so I’m not entirely sure which version is the most authentic. But every goulash I had, I liked. A lot of the time, it’s served as a starter. In my opinion, the best meat for goulash is venison!
  20. I wasn’t sure whether to stay in a hotel or a hostel while I was in Budapest. On the one hand, I wanted to meet as many people as possible and feel energized by the spirit of adventure. On the other hand…I wanted the privacy and comfort of my own room, especially if I was going to be doing any writing. I ended up staying on a boat anchored to the Buda-side of the Danube that operated as a hotel. All the staff there were amazing, and I spent many an evening in the hotel bar drinking Soproni and writing poems.
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