Oct 242011

For Jude, the best part of visiting Budapest was definitely going on a pony.  Jude and I were hanging out at a small petting zoo in City Park (while mom soaked in one of the city’s thermal baths nearby) when we saw a little girl (maybe 3 or 4) taking a pony ride.  Jude was captivated, but didn’t want to get too close as he has always been scared of large animals.  When she was finished, I told him, “Now it’s Jude’s turn.”  “No!” he screamed.  Sensing that he would have a change of heart, I picked him up while the screaming continued, and placed him on the pony.  I had to wave off the woman in charge who gestured in surprise that I would put a screaming child on top of her pony.  Sure enough, the screaming quickly subsided and Jude ended up loving the experience.  He talks about it still pretty much constantly, and even did a second ride to show mom how brave he had been after she got out of the bath.

Budapest is a great city, or until 1873, two cities: Buda (west of the Danube), and Pest (east of the Danube).  (A third city was also part of the 1873 unification, Obuda [also on the west side], but since it didn’t get any recognition in the post-unification name—it’s not “Obudabudapest”—and it doesn’t work with our post title, we’ll ignore it for the time being.)  Residents still refer to the two sides as “Buda” and “Pest,” and we stayed on the Pest side during our entire more-than-week-long visit.  We ended up loving the “city” so much that we spent more than double the time there than we had originally intended to (as explained in more detail below).

We first arrived in Budapest in the late afternoon of a sunny and crisp autumn day, approaching the city from the west.  As our car winded down the Buda Hills, the Danube came into full view with the sun shining spectacularly off of it, reflecting onto two promenades, one on either side of the river, and onto the gorgeous neo-gothic buildings that were beginning to spring into view.  Crossing the famous Chain Bridge (the Szechenyi Lanchid), we were starting to fall in love.

We walked past St. Stephen’s Basilica on our way to dinner at Café Kor on our first night.

Our enthusiasm was not dampened in the least by our first dinner in Budapest at Café Kor: a classic little Hungarian café recommended to us by the owner of the apartment where we first stayed.  The food: Rome, Italy; the prices: Rome, NY.  In all seriousness, one of the best things about Budapest is that the architecture and amenities are equivalent to what you’d expect to find in a Western European capital, but the prices are much, much lower.  Hungary has not adopted the euro, and still uses its forint.  Apart from that dinner, we ate most of our dinners at home with groceries picked up from Budapest’s 24-hour convenience stores, or “non-stops,” as they call them here, and supplemented with delicious produce and meat purchased in the Great Market Hall.

We also enjoyed several meals at the Great Market Hall dining area.  Half of the upper level is essentially a food court with stalls serving tasty Hungarian food like sausages and goulash (the other half of the upper level sells touristy trinkets and we stayed clear).  The dining area of the Market is fairly raucous, with large groups of older Hungarians taking their time over midday meals, complete with several bottles of Palinka—fruit brandy—sitting out on the table.  Younger Hungarians stroll by, maybe stopping to drink a Dreher—Hungarian lager—or grab a quick bite.

Why is Budapest so beautiful?  One reason is that it was a seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire—i.e., swimming in cash during the late 19th and early 20th centuries —and many beautiful things and places came into being during that time.  In particular, a lot of now popular tourist sights were inaugurated on Hungary’s 1,000th birthday, in 1896, including the fantastic Hungarian Parliament Building and the City Park.  (Historical aside: according to Rick Steve’s great guidebook to Budapest, Hungary’s actual birth-year is 895, meaning that millennium celebration came one year too late; however, city planners recognized this problem, but knew they wouldn’t be able to meet an 1895 deadline, so stretched the historical truth a little bit.  We’re willing to overlook this one, and are just thankful that they took the time to get things done right.)

There is so much to see and do in Budapest that we were not disappointed when we found out that our time there would be unexpectedly more than doubled.  We had planned to spend four days in Budapest, and then head on to Belgrade for an additional five days, where we had planned to stay in another apartment.  Unfortunately, before we left for Belgrade, the apartment owner there engaged in some strange behavior: he asked for double the security deposit listed in the contract; asked for it in cash; and bizarrely told us that he had had hundreds of positive customer reviews, when we could see from the Airbnb website that he only had one.  We contacted Airbnb, and to their credit, they canceled our booking in Belgrade and gave us a full refund.

After forgoing our rental in Belgrade, we had a decision to make.  Would we go to Belgrade and stay somewhere else (a hotel maybe?) or would we stay in Budapest?  It was an easy decision, really; we were having such a good time in Budapest that we didn’t want to leave.  Unfortunately, our fantastic apartment right at the foot of the Chain Bridge, on the Pest side, would not be available for the remaining days.  We went back on Airbnb and got the best place we could: a studio nearly two miles north of the city center, but close to the Danube on the Pest side, and just several blocks north of the Margaret Bridge (the Margit Hid).

Our second apartment was in the 13th District (Budapest uses “districts” the same way Paris uses “arrondisements,” by numerals which are also inserted into the neighborhoods’ zip codes).  The 13th District, from what we could tell, is the Brooklyn Heights or Upper East Side of Budapest (whereas, prior to that, we had been staying just off of Times Square).  There weren’t a lot of tourists around, and there were a lot of nice-looking cafes and restaurants, seemingly populated almost exclusively by Hungarians.  By the time we moved into the 13th District we were beginning to feel like locals ourselves (despite speaking almost no Hungarian), as Bliss went to get her hair cut and we were learning the basics of Budapest life, like being able to name the city’s bridges and to order goulash.

Margaret Island

Our new location also gave us easy access to Margaret Island, which houses a couple great medieval ruins, including a convent where the eponymous saint lived, and some other neat attractions, like a Japanese garden and a small zoo.  We all (especially Jude) had a good time renting a golf cart decorated like a Bentley and zipping around the island checking things out and avoiding puddles from the previous night’s heavy rainfall.  I was also able to go for a couple of runs around the island, which is circumnavigated by a synthetic track and seems to be the running destination of choice for Budapestis.

Jude listening to the boat tour narration

It is hard to pick out favorite moments from our time in Budapest (having had such a great time there), but we really enjoyed the river cruise we took on our first night, which gave us a great overview of the city and helped orient us.  Jude, of course, loved being on the boat because he loves all vehicles.  We, parents enjoyed looking at the beautiful architecture which was nicely lit up, and listening to the somewhat surreal audio-guide, which anthropomorphized the Danube—in the form of a sultry-sounding woman with an English accent— to tell us about the city’s history.

Another highlight was stumbling into St. Stephen’s Basilica on our last full day, and happening upon the Hungarian National Philharmonic rehearsing for a concert the next evening (celebrating the 200th anniversary of Franz Liszt’s birth)–we got a kick out of seeing the conductor in an un-tucked and oversized green t-shirt.

The Terror House. "Terror," written in stencil on two sides of the building, casts shadows of the word across the building.

We were also very impressed with the Terror House, a very dramatic museum set up to document life in occupied Hungary, first by the Nazis, and then by the Red Army.  Visitors descend the building slowly in a darkened elevator; once the lights go out, a video starts to play in which a man describes in chilling detail the process by which masses of Hungarians were publicly hung in Budapest during the occupation (the narrator, it turns out, was the man responsible for cleaning up after the hangings).   Arriving on the bottom floor, visitors then walk through the prison cells where Hungarians on death row spent their final days, with photographs of the victims displayed in each cell.

On a less somber note, we very much enjoyed seeing Buda Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and also taking the funicular up to the castle.

The City Park is a relaxing oasis within the city, and as we noted, Jude sure loved his pony ride there.  Walking to the Park along the tree-lined Andrássy Avenue (also a UNESCO World Heritage Site) is itself a treat.  (If you were dropped onto Andrássy from outer space, you’d probably think you were in Paris, or maybe Fifth Avenue except with more statutes of mustachioed 19th-century men and fewer investment bankers.)

Bliss and Jude at the Citadel with views of Budapest in the background.

We also enjoyed visiting the Citadel built on top of the Buda Halls, to the south of Buda Castle.  Although most tourists seemed to get there by taxi, we were glad to have hiked it, and we enjoyed our views all the more.

The people also deserve special praise.  The Hungarians we met all went out of their way to be friendly, cheerful, and helpful (such as offering to help Bliss with the stroller on multiple occasions).

Language was never a problem.  Whenever we met someone who didn’t speak English, they generally quickly found someone who did.  For the most part, people did speak English, especially young people and others who worked in the tourist industry.  (This observation, though, is belied by some statistical evidence I encountered while reading the September copy of Time Out left in our first apartment, which reported that: “74.8 per cent of Hungarians do not speak any second language, making Hungary the most monolingual country in the European Union.”  It could be that this statistic is applicable more to Hungary at large, and less to Budapest in particular; in any event, we never had any problems making ourselves understood.)

As I do ahead of visiting any country, I tried to pick up a couple words of Hungarian before arrival.  I was elated to see that “hello,” in Hungarian, meant not only “hello,” but “good-bye” as well.  I never got sick of telling people “hello” when leaving a restaurant or shop, and hearing a cheery “hello” in response.  Simple pleasures.

Shoes on the Danube Promenade (Budapest)
Culinary Aside: Hungarian Paprika Tastes Really Good



  5 Responses to “Budapest: A Tale of Two Cities”

  1. You could consider working for the Budapest tourism agency. I’m sold and ready to go! PS the woman doing the pony ride might have been worried that the pony would spook at a child screaming on his back, altho clearly he didn’t!

  2. I’m with Regina – I could go to Budapest tomorrow! It sounds really lovely! Maybe the pony ride will be a turn-around for Jude re liking large animals. I offered Beren a ride on a pony a few weeks ago when we were at a fair at a Waldorf School (w Caitlin, Justin, V&B, Z and Natane and assorted friends) but he wouldn’t go near the ponies and of course I couldn’t just pick him up (there is a picture of him on my wall in FB)!

  3. I went to Budapest about 7 or 8 years ago, and I swear NO ONE spoke English. Either times have changed or people were messing with me!

  4. How can I not comment when both my sisters have?!

    Budapest sounds wonderful. I’m sold! Now to find the time . . .

  5. Budapest sounds great and interesting. Jude was wearing a serious look while listening to the boat narration.

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