Budapest, the Big Bood. Actually, as far as I can tell no one calls it that. Not sure why, it seems like a perfect fit. Anyway, after the comfortably moderate temperatures and timeworn beauty of Sicily we were ready for our first foray into Central Europe. Or is it South-Central Europe? The Eastern part of Western Europe? Just plain Hungary? These were just some of the questions we needed answers to. For now, though, it turns out that Budapest is just as cool and atmospheric as advertised. And just the right combination of international and Hungarian. Meaning, vaguely Hungarian, mostly where it pertains to food, pedestrian habits, architecture, and bars whose entire draw is that they are built in crumbling old buildings and in really terrible condition. These last are called “ruin pubs”, and generally consist of a confusing jumble of rooms in various states of disrepair kitschily “decorated” in as random and apparently meaningless fashion as possible. Does your group want to sit side by side in discarded theatre chairs? Try upstairs. Would you like a photo of yourself drinking beer with a gigantic pink rabbit/giraffe? Second door on the left. Walls covered in haphazard items you don’t really recognize and photos you don’t really understand? Just look around you. It’s like a vintage pop culture store ate too much at a garage sale and vomited everywhere. Nonetheless, the beer is cheap and there is no shortage of stuff to keep your attention if you happen to be drinking in silence with a person you’ve spent the last 450 straight hours with. Not the least entertaining of which is watching a steady parade of male tourists walk in and head directly for the washroom, or at least what they think, and ardently hope, is the washroom, testing numerous alcoves and false doors as the situation, namely stop four or five on their late afternoon ruin pub crawl, becomes increasingly urgent and it starts to become obvious to all that, at least for these desperate souls, the labyrinthine layout and purposely obscure markings simply aren’t as fun as they used to be.
We were mentally braced for the drastic change in weather from Sicily (20-ish, sometimes windy) to far more northern and far less Mediterranean Budapest (0 to 10, often rainy, sometimes windy). But it was still a shock physically, to us as well as the scores of green leaves lying around like they had somehow also been caught off guard. It was especially noticeable when strolling the riverbank on a particularly windy 0C day, or when scurrying along in only slightly warmer rain in the depressing darkness of 5 pm, that late afternoon darkness known all too well too Canadians that is even more depressing because the rush-hour traffic and neatly-dressed workers heading home so clearly underline the lack of tranquility that normally makes the dark of night much more palatable. If nothing else, however, it was comforting to no longer be the only person on any given street with pockets full of previously-used Kleenex. It also snowed one morning which was, needless to say, unwelcome.
Architecturally, Budapest is positively littered with extravagant buildings, magnificent palaces, breathtaking churches, an alarming number of turrets and, of course, a plethora of statues immortalizing no-nonsense men in large jackets or voluminous capes as they sit very erect on horses, and Ronald Reagan. The bulk of the buildings in the old part of the city bear a certain resemblance to a giant version of Legoland. Big blocky, symmetrical buildings lining wide comfortable streets as far as the eye can see, comfortingly homogenous despite housing everything from foreign embassies to goulash restaurants to sex shops to grocery stores to photocopy centres to indecipherable art to paprika, so much paprika in all its shocking variety of forms and uses.
The Danube cuts directly through the centre of the city, separating regal Buda from bourgeois Pest, and is lined with impressive mansions and the stunning – and arguably exorbitant – parliament buildings. Their collection of bridges are no slouch, either, headlined by the famous Chain Bridge, considered one of the wonders of modern engineering when it was built over 160 years ago, and no less fascinating today for the swollen ranks of tourists puttering around on its edges.
We made sure to take in the historic M1 underground, built as the first of its kind on continental Europe back in 1894, which was described by more than one “Best of Budapest” lists as being truly “unmissable”. Which it most certainly was, assuming you are a person who had never, in fact, ridden an underground train before and delighted in the whole experience as that of a child first experiencing the joy of manual dexterity, or the freedom a cliff diver feels as he hurtles toward the raging surf. If you had, however, at some point in your life ridden a subway, train, tram or even any of the least-exciting Disneyland rides, then this was basically just more of the same. Maybe a little older, with a bit of a period theme to the platforms, and with a little more rattling, but similar in most other respects (i.e. hard seats with gum stuck to the bottom, hunched old people, a faint urine smell).
Since we were staying in Budapest a full week we rented what turned out to be a fabulous third-floor apartment, spacious and warm with great wifi and a super-handy window connecting the bathroom and bedroom. It overlooked a fascinatingly busy intersection and a major thoroughfare which featured the high, keening, and uniquely European whine of various law enforcement and emergency personnel vehicles roughly every quarter-hour throughout our stay. We were never able to conclusively determine whether this was the result of a scandalous level of residential violence, the inevitable consequence of a sausage-heavy diet, or actually part of a massive crackdown on jaywalking, possibly the real reason not a single Hungarian seems willing to disobey the seemingly cheerful animated pedestrian lights. As opposed to a residual fear of Russian dictatorships who would punish offenders by confiscating their rope belts and forcing them to pack their bread at the bottom of the bag where it inevitably ended up completely squished, which was my first guess, or a city-wide game merrily designating the street as “lava”, which was my second.
The combination of cold weather, picturesque tourist attractions and the general deterioration of human society meant everywhere you looked there were excitable groups of girls monopolizing all the best photo spots while diligently working on their already colossal selfie collections, each cluster indistinguishable from the next in their matching black parkas with collars lavishly lined in that mixed brown-grey fur that unpleasantly brings to mind the chest hair of an aging Scandinavian pirate.
So, to recap, Budapest is, without a doubt, an extraordinary old city with more than enough to see and do to fill a week or more. Which is why, despite our abnormally long stay, we still never got around to taking on one of the city’s famous “Escape Rooms”, wherein partially drunk civilians try their hand at problem solving and – when attempted by couples – conflict resolution, nor did we find the weather suitably agreeable to shell out for a scenic boat ride along the Danube, despite the romantic connotations. On the other hand, I did convince Laynni to spend one morning walking the entire circumference of Margaret Island, although she complained most of the way and was only moderately placated by lunch at McDonald’s, and we tracked down a theatre showing Arrival in English with Hungarian subtitles, a fascinating, thought-provoking film even though some parts were only written in Hungarian and audible in whatever language the aliens were speaking, forcing us to look up some things on the internet later to fill in the final few blanks. Plus, we saw a film crew getting ready to film an intricate car chase scene. We didn’t actually see the scene itself, since we have nowhere near the patience for that, but did see the cars all lined up, the cameras attached precariously to windshields, the actors’ trailers lining the streets, and the police standing around their official cordons smoking and guffawing at off-colour jokes. It was truly magical.
Now we’re in Cesky Krumlov and on our way to Prague via 3-hour bus ride, it is 5 degrees and so foggy that you can barely see across the street, and Laynni is sick and quite grouchy. But apparently the bus shows 80’s movies with Czech subtitles, so I think everything should be fine.