Tag Archives: Budapest

The Heart of Pest

I found myself drawn to Andrássy út more than any other street during my week in Budapest. One way or another, I always seemed to end up there. I thought every street in Budapest was beautiful- in the sense that I may look at it and find it aesthetically pleasing- but I would think of them each as being parts of the greater whole of Hungary’s capital; as contributing to its collective charm. For me, Budapest was the summation of these little parts. It was the collection of old boulevards and alleyways, of streets big and small, that together gave life to what we may call the “charm” of the city.

However, there was one street that seemed to have an identity of its own, that seemed more than just another rib in the figurative thorax. Andrássy út had a particular sense of character to it; a tangible, affecting style that I remember feeling and thinking about while I was there. Located on the Pest side of the Danube, Andrássy connects Erzsébet tér with Városliget. The famous útca was recognized in 2002 as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its historic townhouses and landmarks. The Neo-Classical facades, rows of trees, and the wideness of the boulevard contributed to a distinctly Parisian vibe that brought back memories of getting lost and debating the wisdom of accepting an offer of help from an Albert Fish lookalike- but that’s a story for another time.

As I wandered past the luxury boutiques and international embassies, I took in several of the things on offer. The first thing I did on Andrássy was take a tour of the famous State Opera House. I was surprised by how interesting I found it. The tour guide spoke very good English and told us little anecdotes about the building. Even in the 19th century, there were designated smoking and non-smoking areas. The smoking area was a corridor that separated the bar from the balcony, and supposedly it would get so thick with clouds of tobacco that young unmarried couples would use the cover to make out in secret.

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The tour even ended with a mini opera concert. Professional singers came out in full costume to sing for us, and I was in awe of what they could do with their voices. As I watched them recite a few operatic favorites, the happiness in my ears spread to the rest of my body. I thought about how lucky I was to be able to be there and experience something like that, and just how special it was. It was probably one of my favorite moments of my entire trip to Hungary.

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After leaving the opera house I decided to hunt down some indie bookstores I’d made a note of on my phone. I turned onto Nagymező utca- a quiet cobblestone side-street lined with theaters- that is referred to by the locals as “Pest Broadway”. I was searching for a place called the Mai Manó Gallery, but after walking up and down the street several times like an indecisive window cleaner, I ended up in a fancy place called the Budapest Operetta Theater. There were a bunch of stage hands setting up props and pulling wheeled racks of flamboyant costumes. I asked if I could use the bathroom, and afterwards decided to sit in the lounge and get a drink. I ended up chatting with the barmaid, who was super friendly and seemed to laugh at everything I said. I asked her where I could find the Mai Manó Gallery and after a fit of giggles she pointed directly across the street.

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Mai Manó ended up being one of the little spots that would steal my heart. It was the perfect hidden gem I had been looking for. I entered what looked like an open door to a Neo-Classical apartment building, and found myself in a beautiful yet silent lobby. I had the strange sense that I shouldn’t have been there. Seeing nowhere else to go, I started up this staircase and came to a balcony that looked down at the lobby below. At that moment, a fellow popped his head out of a door and gave me a look. I asked if this was the bookstore and he immediately clapped his hands together and led me down a narrow corridor and into a small room with a narrow window that overlooked Nagymező utca. I felt like I was in a very nice-looking attic. A young woman in a woolen cardigan sat at the desk reading a novel. She smiled at me and asked what I was looking for.

“Books,” I said. I looked around. “What kind of books do you have here?”

“95% of them are photography books,” she answered.

I browsed the little selection, enjoying the artsy feel of the place. These are my kind of people, I thought. Sensitive, artistic, creative. Almost certainly left-wing progressives. Interested in love, beauty, and self-expression. And so keenly attached to their fantastic city. I could tell just by their faces that they loved living and working in Budapest.

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I picked up a book of black and white photographs of Budapest, each accompanied by these really interesting and poetic remarks on the city. One quote particularly resonated with me:

“Budapest is a city of startling contrasts. It is both beautiful and ugly, ostentatious and poor, filthy rich and poverty-stricken, a thousand years old and unfamiliarly new, restored, pampered and dilapidated, dynamically developing and a thing of the past.”

What a perfect description of Budapest by the book’s author- Tamás Révész. This seemed to collect my impressions of the city into a single, delicious sentence. I also picked up several postcards I liked, as well as a framed photograph of a woman standing by a train that struck me as being very Hungarian. I asked for the name of the model, hoping that she was Hungarian, and the woman at the desk studied my purchase.

“She’s beautiful,” the woman commented. “But I do not know the name.”

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The machine that scanned my items wasn’t working, so the woman had to add up all of my many purchases on paper. The whole thing took a good ten to fifteen minutes and there was some confusion about the price of one of the postcards. The man came back in and took over.

“It is my first day,” the woman said, grinning.

I wasn’t in the slightest annoyed. I liked this place and I liked these people. They were very good to talk to and we shared a few laughs. When I left, I was in high spirits. I continued up the road and found myself at the Oktogon- a bustling intersection in the very heart of Pest. A hub of designer clothing stores, coffeehouses, streetcars, taxis, tourists, cyclists- life.

I returned to the Oktogon via tram on the last day of my trip. I had a few hours left to explore before going to the airport, and I continued up Andrássy utca from where I had left off that day I went to the Opera House. I grabbed lunch at a place called Like Étterem. The setup reminded me of a veteran’s kitchen or something. It was very casual and unpretentious. You pick what you want from a bunch of trays on a hot plate, kinda like a school canteen, and the chef dollops it onto a plate and heats it up for you. I asked him for his recommendation and the chef said that the venison goulash was very good. I got that, and it was swell. Every goulash I had in Hungary was different. Some were more like soup, but this one was much drier- more like a casserole. I really enjoyed how hearty and rustic it tasted. I drank some grape juice and became fascinated with the look of these Hungarian cartons.

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After I finished my last meal in Budapest I crossed the street, carried on up the boulevard and entered The House of Terror. Perhaps the most poignant place I visited on my trip, the building that had once served as the headquarters for the Arrow Cross (the Hungarian Nazi party) now served as a museum of both the Nazi and Soviet regimes. There were SS uniforms, Stalinist propaganda posters, old firearms, and even a tank. It’s definitely a place worth seeing if you’re ever in Budapest and want to learn about the suffering this great city has endured in the 20th century.

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Upon leaving the museum, I went back to the Oktogon and waited for the tram to take me back to Buda. The streetcar arrived and we all crammed ourselves in like sardines in the carriage. Next to me stood a woman with a placid dog. Some teenagers got on and cooed over the dog’s fluffy features and blank expression. A guy leaning on the wall, listening to music through his headphones. Before the doors hissed shut, a man in a suit jumped on. His tie was loose. I was surrounded by all these locals, just living their everyday lives here in Hungary. I wanted to know everything about them, right down to the most mundane and trivial of details. I was sad to be leaving, and observing all these normal people got me thinking about how life in the city goes on. The city doesn’t know it’s meant to be sad because it’s my last day. What Budapest is depends on the observer; the things we feel for it come from within. Someone else on that tram could have been gazing in wonder at the sights, experiencing it all for the first time as I once did, and many others were so used to the scenery that they thought nothing of it. For them, there was no romance to be found in a streetcar ride. And though we were all taking the same ride at the same time, none of us interpreted it with the same set of connotations.

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Wandering in the Island of Rabbits

I was sat in the shade of these giant, leafless hardwoods with bone-white, chipped and peeling facades when I opened my journal for the first time under Hungary’s sun. I hadn’t expected Budapest in April would be so darn hot. My leather jacket I’d bought years ago in the Wisconsin Dells- such an integral part of my identity- ended up doing nothing all week except take up needless space in my unforgiving RyanAir carry-on baggage allotment. It was nice that the weather was so sunny for my visit, but I did feel a little disarmed without my favorite jacket. I take this thing everywhere. However the rest of my look was still intact- I had the cowboy belt I got in Texas around my waist and my trusty Jordans on my feet. I drew strength from these things. The kind of strength I figured I would need to travel alone, but which I later realized, wasn’t even necessary. I was surprised how comfortable I was in my own company. During a video call with my roommate Aaron back at the boat, he told me “I don’t want you slipping into the meek persona. No apologizing, no bumbling, no worrying what people will think about you. I want zero fucks given. You wear a goddam cowboy belt and a pair of Jordans for Chrissake. How many people there are gonna be wearing that? Think about what makes you unique and let it empower you. If you’re gonna wear those fancy sneakers, you need to live up to the spirit of Michael Jordan. Can you do that?”

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It was time to do what I’d come here to do and swallow as much of the city as I could, for all its colors and ambient vibrations to be stored somewhere deep inside of me. So I brought this fresh journal- whose scrambled notes I am now translating into a coherent blog post. The journal seemed just right. It was a gift from my mom. She’s quite the traveler herself, and picked this journal up at a famous bookstore in Porto, Portugal called Livraria Lello, that was supposedly a source of inspiration for J.K. Rowling. The paper isn’t lined, so I was free to splurge my pen directionless over that inviting, unspoiled white. I included pictures and diagrams where necessary, and within minutes the thing was covered in a hasty series of mind-maps.

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The breeze that touched my skin under that beautifully barren canopy, I realized, was the same that had touched the cheeks of those Dominican nuns almost nine centuries ago. It was a religious air that carried through the trees, and landed now on the cheeks of little schoolchildren. The island had always been a place of tranquility and contemplation for the Hungarians. I decided it would be the best choice for me to start my week in Budapest with- especially since Margitsziget is so close to my hotel. I’d walk around, collect all that precious ambience I craved, before taking a dip in the island’s spa- the Palatinus Strand. The meditative culture of the island goes back to its settlement by the Knights of St. John in the 12th century. After the Mongols ravaged Hungary and returned east for the funeral of the Great Khan, King Béla IV gave his daughter Margaret to the Dominican convent on the island, believing that a child dedicated to religion would be reason enough for God not to ask the Mongols to come back. They didn’t, and the island was renamed to Margitsziget (Margaret Island). Before that, it had been known as Nyulak Szigete, which translates as Rabbit Island, or Island of Rabbits.

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The first thing I noticed was that there were dog walkers everywhere. Budapest loves dogs! I saw two sausage dogs excitedly investigating a big, fluffy gentle giant that looked like a husky mix. Alongside the dog walkers were runners and cyclists. There were no cars. I could hear the birds singing, a sound that escapes the ears when in the rest of the city. I felt soothed by the sound of the bike rental woman as she swept the empty road with a wide broom. Old folks sat on benches while groups of teenagers rented bikes and scooters. The far off din of playing children. Couples strolled through the trees hand in hand. Some of the trees had bright colors, others were barren. The grass was dotted with dandelions. There were a few homeless people sleeping on the grass. On a nearby tree trunk two lovers had carved “Pau + Heni” inside a crude heart.

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I walked up the east side of the island and found a miniature zoo. I let the donkey kiss my palm and moved on, going north to the ruins of a Franciscan church and the old Dominican convent where Saint Margaret had lived her entire life. I imagined her admiring the birds as she collected water from a well, looking across the Danube and gazing in wonder at the outside world. I bought a little dish of ice cream and set off for the Japanese garden at the north end of the island. I sat on a bench and made notes in the journal again as a young Hungarian couple had their engagement photos taken by the pond. After finishing my ice cream I went up a narrow path, only to find another young couple deep in love. They stood facing each other and holding both of their hands between them, talking very intimately. I wondered if the guy was about to propose so I doubled back and took an alternate route. I don’t think he did though- I’ve since come to the conclusion that the Magyar people are naturally very passionate.

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I left and headed south down the western side of the island. I looked at a group of English girls peddling one of those rental buggies, giggling and screaming. For a moment I thought that I was limiting myself by traveling alone, and couldn’t help but imagine doing something like that with my friends. I messaged these thoughts to Elizabeth, and she texted back “I really think there is something special about seeing a place by yourself. Going with others limits your independence and closes your eyes to certain things. I honestly think this trip is going to be something you remember for the rest of your life as the best decision you ever made.”

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She was right. My trip wasn’t lesser; it was just different. My experience of the city would have been completely different if I had gone with friends or family. Now I can go back and discover Budapest all over again through the lens of a roommate, a friend, a brother, or a girlfriend. And I would definitely take my future travel companion to Margitsziget so that I might observe their fresh reactions to the same spiritual breeze that so affected me.

The Cafés of Budapest

Budapest has a thriving café culture. A big reason why I decided to stay for a full week and not a weekend is that I wanted to take the time to sit in these cafés and just soak in the ambience. I wanted to drink coffee and do a little people-watching. I wanted Budapest to be to me what Paris was to Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller. I needed to see this city while I was young and have it leave a strong impression on me. I wanted it to become my city, and I figured the best way to find that sense of ownership and belonging was in cafés.

It was during my time in Houston last year that I discovered coffee, and now I can scarcely imagine my life without it. The 200,000 words that make up this blog didn’t come out of nowhere. They needed fuel, and that fuel was caffeine. And I got the strangest feeling ordering my first Hungarian coffee- I was struck by how naturally and confidently I asked for it. Less than a year ago I was introduced to the sweet almond coffees my roommate Anne-Marie made for me, and for a few months I very carefully tried to replicate the exact cups she had crafted. Now I’m fine drinking the blackest, bitterest coffees out there, and it doesn’t bother me where they come from. I was like “Look at me, ordering coffee like a true connoisseur!”

 


CAFÉ GUSTO

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Address: Budapest, Frankel Leó út 12, 1023

What I Got: Bécsi virsli (Vienese Sausages), Americano, Ribizili (Cake)

My Visit: I found this place on Google Maps and saw that the reviews were pretty darn good, with particular praise singled out for the lunch menu. I was after some breakfast however, and needed someplace with which to fill my wailing gut, having not eaten much at the airport the night before. Café Gusto waited for me on a quiet street lined either side with parked cars. There were few pedestrians, and aside from the little Café Gusto, the place looked pretty residential. I was only a block away from the Danube, but the street had the charming quality one finds in cities like Toulouse when they stray away from the buzz of tourism, and realize they have crossed over into a territory that is so thoroughly its own. It’s like walking into a shotgun house out of the pouring rain and coming out on the back porch to find yourself bathed in sunshine.

I entered the café and it was near 10am. The place was quiet, and there was only one other patron- a young woman drinking coffee and reading the newspaper on the terrace with her bike propped against the wall. I sat on the inside to get a feel for the place and ordered some Vienese Sausages. The sausages were excellent, and went perfectly with the mustard. I wasn’t sated however, and ordered a slice of cake after I was done. The interior design was super-cozy, the tables adorned with flower pots, the walls with classy paintings of Budapest and idyllic Hungarian country scenes. Pop music played, not too loud. I admired the little lamps that hung from the walls.

It was here that I learned that you shouldn’t be put off if a Hungarian first comes across as reserved. The waitress was quiet and professional, but I persisted in offering her smiles and acting deliberately goofy. When she took my plate away I said “csodálatos!” which means “wonderful”. She paused and I said “wait!” and typed it into my phone on Google Translate. Then I showed her my phone and repeated the word and she laughed, thanking me. When the cake arrived I asked her for the Magyar spelling. Ribizili. She told me how to spell it and I wrote it down. Obviously, I could have looked it up online, but I was committed to talking to as many locals as possible and bringing them out of their shell if they were on the shy side. According to Dale Carnegie a good way to get someone to like you is to ask them for a favor. I wondered if most of the natives’ exposure to the English was the boisterous lads on Stag-Do’s that paraded down the streets in spring chicken onesies and puked their lángos out into the gutters come morn.

 


Café Smuz

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Address: Budapest, Kossuth Lajos tér 18, 1055

What I Got: A Magyar kedvenc: szalámis-körözöttes svendvics (Hungarian’s favorite: salami with creamy paprika flavored cottage cheese), vizet (water), blue-velvet latte

My Visit: This place is on the Pest side of quirky, and was easily the most hipster lunchroom I went to during my stay. What makes this café so awesome is that it doubles as a florist. I sat inside and the air was thick with the aroma of fresh blooms. I came here for lunch after leaving Margitsziget and ordered what the menu described as the “Hungarian’s favorite”. I like salami and cold cuts, so it went down very well. I’m not really a latte person since I don’t like my coffees to feel filling. I am most definitely a drinker of black coffee. However, I decided to try the blue velvet they had on offer here, because it seemed in keeping with the colorful tone of the place.

Smuz had a different atmosphere to Gusto. My breakfast was had at a little hole-in-the-wall, a hidden gem, the kind of place where the staff are on first name terms with the regulars. Smuz, however, was located right next to the awesome Parliament building and had a distinctly cosmopolitan vibe to it. The place was full of natural light, which made sense given it was also a flower shop. It lacked that cozy feeling, but the staff were very friendly. They were young, spoke good English, and they were very helpful when I asked them for the names of things for me to write down. As if the place couldn’t get any more quirky, there was an old school nacho machine on the counter like you’d get at an old American movie theater. The music was all 1960s counterculture; John Lennon and Don McClean. I found this amusing, because the last song we listened to on my last shift at the warehouse was “American Pie”.

 


Callas Café & Restaurant

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Address: 1061 BUDAPEST, ANDRÁSSY ÚT 20

What I Got: Sült ananász quinoa-val (Baked pineapple w/ quinoa), Coke, slice of cake

My Visit: The Callas Café sits right outside the Hungarian State Opera House. I came here for lunch before I took my tour. It was a little late, so there were few other patrons. The restaurant is very opulent- everything is clean and gold and shiny. The staff were very professional, and I don’t know whether this was an intentional hiring policy or not, but all the waiters had shaved heads. It made me wonder whether this was considered proper in Hungary, that the best waiters ought to be bald. I sat right next to the cakes in the window and admired them as I wrote in my journal. Hungary is a damn good place to go if you enjoy cakes alongside your coffee. Most places I went to offered a slew of cakes as the primary dessert options, and I came to learn that the cake is a big part of Hungarian cuisine.

I wanted a light lunch because I didn’t want to feel like one of those pythons that had just swallowed an entire Caiman when I went for my massage in a couple hours. I also realized that this café was a little fancy and I didn’t want to spend too much money. I looked at the other patrons and imagined that they were quite well-off. I imagined that the British guy opposite me held a managerial position of some kind, that he was divorced, and that the woman with him was his secretary or something. I ended up getting the baked pineapple with quinoa. Fucking great choice. I wasn’t sure what a baked pineapple would taste like, but it turns out the answer is delicious.

 


Café Gerbeaud

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Address: Budapest, Vörösmarty tér 7-8, 1051

What I Got: 2 slices of pistachio & raspberry cake (yolo), black coffee

My Visit: Gerbeaud is regarded as one of the grandest coffeehouses of Europe, and the fanciest in all of Budapest. I had this place written down on my bucket list at the front of my journal. This, it seemed, was the heart of Budapest’s vibrant café culture. I took the streetcar to Vörösmarty tér in the morning and found it a real hub of activity. The square was filled with stalls selling traditional products, handmade crafts, and all kinds of street-food. Music played and people danced on the balls of their feet, bouncing from side to side with hands on hips. I tried Gerbeaud but the door was locked. A sign said something about not being open until lunch. I was surprised and disappointed. It messed with my plan for that day. I decided to damn it all to sod, and eat street-food for breakfast. I found a stall and got in line. Just as I was about to give my order, I saw that there was another door at the other end of the building, and this one opened. I left the line and went inside, and it turns out the bistro and the coffeehouse are separate entities.

This place was next level fancy. There’s a distinct Gründerzeit flair to the architecture, and the whole place just seems to shine. It’s elegant beyond compare, with its grandiose chandeliers and polished woods, and wonderful staff. I felt like I was really being looked after here. I decided on cake for breakfast, and the slice was so moist and so delicious, I promptly ordered another one when the waiter came to take my plate.

Near me there was a family of four, I think from Russia or somewhere like that. The husband was ginger with a very tidy goatee, and the wife was blond and somewhat Claire Underwood in her appearance. The parents spoke in Russian to each other but the little children- a boy and a girl- spoke perfect American English. The kids were adorable. The little girl had French Braids and was clad in a white, floral dress. I thought it was very sweet that despite her young age, she had the affectations of an adult, with exceptional posture and manners, often trying to calm her baby sibling. I couldn’t help but smile when she got up and stood next to where her mother sat, and caressed her mother’s arm, as though soothing her. Everyone around me seemed to be smiling at this perfect little family as well. The tiny girl seemed wise beyond her years, and said “Papa, you can’t ever judge a thing by its cover.”

 


New York Café

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Address: Budapest, Erzsébet krt. 9-11, 1073

What I Got: The Writer’s Dish (cold cuts & cheese platter), Wiener schnitzel w/ mustard potato salad, New York lemonade, raspberry ice cream sundae

My Visit: I had my eyes on the New York Café above all others, since it developed a reputation in the early 20th century as the preferred hangout of impoverished writers. This place seemed to sum up my vision of what I wanted from my trip to Hungary. A place to eat, drink, and get my creative gears turning. I can’t help but think this establishment must have changed over the years though, because it was easily the most expensive place I went. I walked all the way from the Szechenyi Baths, through Varosliget in the rain, on my bloodied toes to get here. When you enter you have to wait to be seated, and then they lower the rope. It felt nice to be allowed entry. My hair was fluffy from the bath and I was dressed in jeans, my Texas belt, my Jordans, and my UHCL Hawks t-shirt. I was sat in a quiet corner beneath an enormous chandelier.

I opted for the Writer’s Dish for my appetizer since I came here with an interest in the café’s literary history. I actually enjoyed this more than my main meal (the wiener schnitzel), since I do like Italian cold meats and cheese. Opposite me was a table of vacationing Americans. Just like I did in Gerbeaud, I tried to listen to their conversation and imagine their lives. The women talked like the stereotypical suburban wasps, no doubt with tennis instructors and several cars. They tied the sleeves of their sweaters around their necks or waists when it got hot. The men were equally trim and clean-looking, and I overheard them talking about business. They all clinked glasses and one said “from the bottom of my heart, I love everyone at this table”. They discussed their visits to Barcelona and Copenhagen and offered each other travel tips on what to see and where to stay. It was interesting to catch a glimpse of their world. It’s been several years since I used my iPod and I don’t see myself ever needing one again. People are so interesting, and you can learn so much just by getting out of the house.

10 Photos From Hungary

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In Hungary people don’t clink their glasses and cups together. Apparently this is because of the Revolution of 1848, when 13 generals were executed by the Austrians. The story goes that after each execution the Austrians would clink their beer steins together, and so that is why the practice does not exist in Hungary. It’s all about honoring the memory of those men.

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“Hungarians are well renowned for their love for freedom, their noble and generous hearts, and their heroic courage. Their hospitality is legendary.” – CHARLES-LOUIS MONTESQUIEU

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I only have three regrets from my trip to Hungary:

  1. I never got to sample some Tokaji- Hungary’s sweetest wine.
  2. I never touched the pen on that anonymous statue in Heroes Park that looks like a grim reaper. Supposedly, if you touch it, you become a great writer. Which explains a lot, because Hungary has produced a lot of awesome poets and novelists.
  3. I never got to see a Mangalitsa pig. They’re a special breed of Hungarian swine that are famous for their wooly coats. They honestly look like pigs wearing a sheep-disguise. I want one…

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“Hungary is a thousand-years-old state, a historical and geographic whole, welded together by centuries, and held together by internal attractions. This unity cannot be torn apart in a moment, neither by weapon, nor by pen.” – G. FERRERO

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In Hungary, the lucky number is 96. Buildings in Budapest are required by law not to exceed 96 feet, and the Hungarian National Anthem- if sung at the proper tempo- should last 96 seconds. This is all because the first king of the Magyars, Arpad, was crowned in 896- which marked the birth of the Hungary as a nation.

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“Hungarians are of Turk race and their leader goes to battle with twenty thousand horsemen. The land of the Hungarians is filled with trees and waters. They have a lot of croplands. These Hungarians are handsome and beautiful people, tall, and wealthy – which they owe to trade. Their clothes are made of silk. Their weapons are laid with gold and silver and pearls.” – AHMED IBN RUSTA

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Here’s a haiku I wrote in the hotel bar while drinking Soproni:

views of the Danube
I watch the clouds plunge into
a moving charcoal.

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“I admit I have a Hungarian temper. Why not? I am from Hungary. We are descendants of Genghis Khan and Attila the Hun.” – Zsa Zsa Gabor

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The first thing I did in Budapest was check out a small park named for my favorite singer of all time. It turns out Hungarians love Elvis Presley almost as much as I do. Just a few years ago, Elvis was posthumously made an honorary citizen of Hungary and the small square I visited was renamed for him. The reason for this was a performance of “Peace in the Valley” that Elvis gave on the Ed Sullivan Show, which he dedicated to the Hungarians in the wake of Bloody Thursday. Elvis was appalled at the brutality of the Soviets and wanted to raise awareness of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. Back then, there were only a few TV channels and Elvis was the most famous human being on Earth, and so millions of people became aware of the suffering in Hungary and a lot of money was raised for relief efforts.

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“The Hungarians bear labor, toil, searing heat, cold, all kinds of necessity well. They love freedom and splendor.” – LEO the WISE

The Baths of Budapest

The Romans didn’t just colonize the area of modern-day Budapest for its strategic location on the Danube. Bathing was a huge part of Roman culture- both as a means of hygiene and recreation. The ancient city of Aquincum- which served as the administrative capital of the province of Pannonia- was founded so that the Romans could enjoy the hot springs there.

Budapest contains a whopping 80 geothermal springs and boasts the largest underground thermal lake in the world. When the Ottoman Turks occupied Hungary, they too made use of these springs, and built several decadent bathhouses that are still in use today. The three Ottoman baths- Király, Veli Bej, and Rudas- are some of the most popular in the city. You can tell them apart from the other spas by their Turkish design- the main baths are all octagonal with high, domed ceilings.

By the early 20th century, Budapest had established itself as the “City of Spas”, and frequenting its many stylish establishments soon became a staple for tourists looking for the Budapest experience. The thermal baths are part of what makes Budapest unique, and I decided before I arrived that I would go to one spa every day- and not do any repeats.

Here’s how it went down:

 

DAY ONE – Palatinus Strand Baths

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The first thing I did on my first morning in Budapest was visit Margitsziget (Margaret Island). After walking around its tranquil gardens, I stopped off at the Palatinus Strand to relax and take in my first Hungarian spa experience. Supposedly, this is where the locals go, since Gellért and Széchenyi are loaded with tourists wielding Gopros and selfie-sticks.

It’s certainly the least historical of the spas I went to. The design is modern and slick. But it’s also got this relaxing, summertime vibe to it. Outside there are several pools surrounded by pine trees. There’s an outdoor gym, a wave pool, an Olympic swimming pool, and loads of sunbeds where people sat with newspapers and novels. It’s easily the biggest of the spas I went to, and you really feel like you’re on vacation here. It reminded me of my time at the Mt Olympus Water Park in the Wisconsin Dells.

However, when I went there was a lot of construction going on so a bunch of the outdoor stuff was off-limits. Also, no matter how long I stood in the wave pool with hands on hips and eyes narrowed, the waves didn’t come…

 

 

DAY TWO – Rudas Baths

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The Rudas Baths are very popular with the locals. A taxi driver told me “Rudas is very good baths, very good”. I went here on the evening of my second full day in Hungary. I’d been all over the place- to Roman ruins, Opera houses, indie bookstores and massage parlors, and it was gone 7pm when I showed up at the Rudas Baths with a hungry stomach, depleted phone battery, and toes ravaged with blisters. The Rudas Baths, while retaining their historic charm, are obviously well-maintained. Even in the late evening it was more touristy and busy than the much larger Strand. The best feature that the Rudas has is its rooftop terrace bath, which offers a breathtaking view of the Danube and the rest of the city.

 

 

DAY THREE – Veli Bej Baths

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The Veli Bej Baths, built in 1574, are said to be the oldest in the city. I went here upon returning to Budapest from a day out in the village of Szendendre. It’s said that these baths are Budapest’s best kept secret- since they aren’t as well-known and admired as the likes of Rudas and Gellért. It’s very similar to Rudas- they’re about the same size, and they’re both of Turkish origin. However, I think I preferred Veli Bej. It wasn’t too busy, and I really felt like I was living in the Middle Ages. The historic main bath is so wonderfully-preserved, and it had perhaps the best atmosphere of any of the baths I went to. I felt like I was a Turkish Sultan, unwinding after a busy day of conquering.

There’s a good range of saunas on offer, a swimming pool, and best of all- a Jacuzzi. I spent ages in the Jacuzzi just sitting there with my eyes closed and mapping out the plot for my next novel. The only reason I got out was so that I could rush back to the locker room and write my ideas down- so I attribute all that inspiration to the work of the bubbles.

 

 

DAY FOUR – Gellért Spa

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Gellért is often listed as the best bathhouse in Budapest. It had number one spot in all the power rankings I could find, and is celebrated for its opulent, Neo-Classical architecture. I got the feeling, when I entered along with a stream of other excited tourists, that this was “the big one”. Before I even stepped out of the locker rooms I knew that the other baths I had been to were small-time compared to this. The locker rooms were unisex, and for a while myself and a bunch of other lads were left scratching our heads and wondering where to change, since you had to pay extra for a cabin.

“I guess it really is mixed. Boys and girls. I’m cool with that,” the man near me said.

I recognized his accent as American and so I asked him where he was from. Turns out he’s a radio announcer from New York. I ended up chatting with him and his family for a while. They said I sounded American. I get that a lot, but mostly from British people. I told him I was raised in Wisconsin, but when I learned that his son was a trained linguist, I modified my story to say I was half-American.

The pools here are very grandiose. You feel like you’re in a fancy, 19th century hotel, which isn’t exactly untrue. I hobbled around the tiles on my heels, since my toes had open wounds from which poured blood and a strange colorless fluid. The way I was walking you’d have thought I just got released from a lengthy prison sentence, if you catch my drift.

The pools were super-busy but super-good. I spent well over an hour hopping from one to another before trying out the Finnish sauna, which reminded me of that scene in The Witcher 3 on the isle of Hindarsfjall.

 

 

DAY FIVE – Lukács Baths

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The guidebook I brought with me rated the Lukács Baths second to Gellért, but for the opposite reason. The Lukács Baths are also famous for their Neo-Classical architecture, but the scene is much more quiet and low-key. Most of the people here were Hungarian locals, and there’s this sense of authenticity that comes with it. It’s also the most confusing of the baths I went to. I got lost several times when I was here. Heck, I got lost just trying to find the entrance to the damn place. And inside it’s a bit of a maze too. The Lukács Baths offer a plethora of spa experiences, including massages and a wide range of medicinal treatments. The main indoor thermal bath smelled strongly of sulfur, which, combined with the run-down tone of the place, actually added to its historic charm.

 

 

DAY SIX – Széchenyi Baths

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This place was probably my favorite. It’s undoubtedly the most popular with younger folks, and it’s the iconic bathhouse travelers go to in order to get their “gap yaar” and “bucket list” Instas. This was the only thermal bath I went to in the morning, since I wanted to avoid it when it got real busy. But even at 10am the place was packed. There were people from all corners of the world taking selfies by stone statues and frolicking in the water. There were old people bobbing up and down along the edge, roaming packs of teenagers splashing each other with glee, and of course the obligatory young couples fondling each other with hungry hands beneath the surface.

I really enjoyed Széchenyi because it’s so big. Even though the Strand had a bigger area, Széchenyi had more pools by far. One of the indoor pools even had this thick, minty aroma which I thought was an interesting touch. The architecture is so grandiose and really channels that antiquity vibe. I liked the steam room because those tend to be less overwhelming than the saunas. I don’t feel like I’m gonna collapse and be discovered face-down next to the coals. The Finnish sauna was very good too though. The young woman next to me took her top off. I wasn’t sure if this was allowed or not- perhaps my Hungarian readers can enlighten me in the comments. I didn’t stare, because I didn’t want to make her feel self-conscious. I believe in topless equality as much as the next guy. I didn’t look away either though- because that would be rude, wouldn’t it?

 

 

DAY SEVEN – Király Baths

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Király was interesting, because it was easily the most run-down of the bunch. It’s one of the oldest baths, and probably in dire need of some refurbishment if it wants to capitalize on that sweet tourist cash flow. The only bathers here were Hungarians, and it wasn’t busy at all. Unlike the Lukács Baths, Király is not stylishly-dilapidated. It’s not got that Victorian hotel feel. But it has got an atmosphere all its own. It’s one of the oldest baths in the city, but it’s just been forgotten about for some reason. I came here not just for my last bath, but as the last thing I did before I got my taxi to the airport. I’d already checked out of my hotel at this point. I liked the idea that I was bathing with the locals- working class Hungarians with tired expressions. No selfies, no Gopros, just ordinary folks looking to unwind from the stressors of daily life.

It’s not the biggest spa complex, but it does have a Jacuzzi, and a pretty good one at that. I stayed in the Jacuzzi for a long while, and I swear it took a soul-crushing amount of effort to drag myself out.

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.

Why I Went To Hungary

I started planning my trip to Hungary in December of last year. Even as I sit here now- sorting through various photos of the Danube- I’m still not entirely sure where the idea came from. At the time I had just started working at a pub in my hometown of Nailsea. It was my first or second shift in the kitchen, and one of the waitresses was showing me how to drain the dishwasher. We got to talking, and before I knew what was happening I blurted out “I’m going to Hungary.”

At that point I hadn’t booked anything. I hadn’t even told my friends. And yet here I was, saying with absolute authority to someone, who- at that time- was a total stranger, that I was bound for the Pearl of the Danube. I was saying it as much to myself I think. I knew that I would definitely go, that for some reason, this journey was of paramount importance. But why?

Hungary is landlocked. Let’s start there. Something about landlocked countries intrigues me. When I was a little kid, I wanted to know what was going on in places like Paraguay and Mongolia, and why no one seemed to be talking about them. There’s a sense of adventure intrinsic to the road less traveled, and it wasn’t until December of 2017 that my mind wandered to Eastern Europe. I looked at Slovenia, Slovakia, and Romania. I settled on Hungary. I wanted to know what was going on there. I wanted to know how the people spoke, how they laughed, how they dressed, what they did with their hands, what they thought in their heads- everything. I wanted to breathe in the air of the Carpathian Basin and feel everything that they feel for myself. Out of all the countries I looked at, this one stood out. The land where the great steppes of Asia finishes in Europe. A nation descended from a “horse and bow” tribe of the Ural Mountains, that despite centuries of occupation, annexation, and bloody upheaval, has retained its cultural and linguistic identity. It fascinates me that a history so wrought with conflict and tragedy has done little to the Hungarian sense of nationhood. There is a clear sense of continuity from the Magyar tribe that emigrated from Asia over a thousand years ago to the Hungary that exists today. I had to meet these Magyars, these members of a tribe that has existed for so long, and which flourishes today.

But that still doesn’t answer the question of why I needed to go. Everyone has a bucket list. It’s natural to become suddenly obsessed with a foreign country and to dream of one day going there. The decision to go was made very quickly. All of a sudden I had this new priority in my life. And the first order of business was justifying it. How could I explain my need to see old Magyarország? I had just spent 4 years in the USA, doing odd jobs in between to fund my travels. Was that not inspiration enough? Surely I ought to be planting down roots, saving up for a car, finally trying to secure a career? It seemed like the absolute last time to think about traveling again. All these thoughts came at me like so many Tatar arrows, but in my heart I knew that my mind was made up. The only thing left to do now was to justify my itchy feet.

I knew that it wasn’t just about Hungary. The Magyars would still be there in 10 years, and assuming there’s no nuclear war on the horizon, so too would Budapest be waiting for my discovery- and just as beautiful. I wanted to go so that I could test myself. It wasn’t just about the physical journey, but the inward one. The primary motivation behind my trips to America was the need to see my friends Aaron and Anne-Marie. If they lived in Chad, I would have still visited them for four consecutive years. My energy was focused entirely on soaking up as much of them as I could. When I was in the UK I felt their absence as a very literal, very painful ache. I couldn’t stand to be apart from them, and I felt that the only time I could flourish was when I was in their presence. Around them, I was my best self.

My trip to Hungary was a solo affair. I wanted to do something purely for myself, to engage my passions on my own terms. My trip to Hungary was in many ways about self-reliance, to test my wits and my inner resources, to use them to go somewhere exotic and engage with it as thoroughly as I could. I wanted to form connections and relationships independent of a third party. I wanted to generate my own sense of happiness and fulfillment, without relying on the Americans who have done so much for me over the years. I had to do this, and I had to do it myself. The urgency, I think, is the same urgency that has compelled me to write more and do more since my 25th birthday. I want to do as much as I can and I want to do it now. I don’t want to wait for anything. I’ve already wasted so much time in my life already, and now I have a craving for vivid experiences that grows ever more insatiable.

Now that I think about it, the whole thing really is pretty darn morbid. I can feel the ticking of an unseen clock in my heart, and I shudder every time its black hand strikes twelve.