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August 09, 2005


Friday, August 5 to Tuesday, August 9, 2005

Budapest, Hungary:

As I look back on the blog I realize that I always seem to find a way to shirk posting descriptions of the places I like the most. For example, I have few entries up for my time in the Galapagos and, relative to the two months I spent in Argentina, the number of posts I wrote on the country and my experience studying Spanish (and eating 100 cows' worth of steak) in Buenos Aires is almost pitiful. Although I have some notes saved on the subject, I never described the four day trip I took through the southwest of Bolivia, visiting the Salar de Uyuni and some remote, spectacular mountain landscapes that looked as though they might have come from images transmitted by one of the rovers on Mars. As for Israel, I am still trying to find the time and words to describe how Jerusalem just might be my favorite destination of the trip.

I think it should be obvious that when I'm very content in one particular place, I don't want to spend too much time sitting in a chair in an internet cafe somewhere typing away about the details regarding why I like where I am so much. I might also lack motivation because I probably don't have anything very scathing or sarcastic to comment on. So basically, when I'm really happy in a place, I get lazy, but if I weren't lazy, the post would probably be more boring than usual.

Where does Budapest fit into this rambling (and boring) semi-confessional? I was there in April, 2002, and promised myself that if I only visited one place on the trip to which I had already been before, it would be the capital of Hungary. Why? I really don't know. After my short East Europe trip of 2002, when people asked me which of the two, Prague or Budapest, was more beautiful, I would shrug and say it was "Prague." When people asked me which of the two cities I could more easily see myself living in (were it an option), I would easily answer "Prague." When people asked me which place was easier to function in as a non-native language speaker, I would tell them it was "Prague." But when people simply asked me which city I liked more, I would answer "Budapest." Whereas Prague was almost unbelievably beautiful and in-your-face tourist-friendly, Budapest was stately and elegant, staid and reserved but polite. Prague seemed to bend every which way to accomodate visitors, though given the crush of Western tourists, its hard to think it could have worked out any other way. Budapest, being larger and less centralized, kept far more of its own local flavor. Without one central area for tourists to overwhelm, they were (and are) dispersed throughout the city on a wider level, never managing to crowd-out the locals, except in a few very small areas.

After returning to both cities on this trip, my preference for Budapest over the Czech capital has grown exponentially. Both cities are busier tourist destinations now than ever before, but Budapest has managed to keep its soul. Prague's, by way of contrast, seems to have been carved into a billion tiny pieces and auctioned off. (I don't think it was the average Prague resident who played any part in this, so I feel all the worse for them.) The good thing I can say for both cities is that they seem to be doing far better economically than they were before. I didn't see so many beaten-up Skodas anymore. Rather, there were plenty of shiny new German luxury cars. A Jaguar dealership near St. Stephen's in Budapest most definitely hadn't been there when last I'd visited. And the pedestrian shopping streets around Vaci Utca, which once featured dull, shoddy merchandise that no Western tourist would want in a thousand years (though I should know better than to question people's bad taste), are now filled with expensive, high-end jewelry and designer clothing boutiques.

During my four days in Budapest, I didn't do all that much. Most of my time consisted of sitting on Vaci Utca and reading on the outdoor terraces of old cafes, walking along the Danube, and spending some time with my sister and her British friend, Dale, who were passing through for a couple of days. I made an effort to find and visit one of the art museums near embassy-lined Andrassy Utca, but entered the wrong one and caught a retrospective of the work of a modern Hungarian artist named Pauer. I didn't visit any other museums after that one.

The following are some notes on each day:

Friday, August 5

I got the hell out of Bratislava before I died of boredom. My view on the city now is that it's worth a day; two days if you are feeling suicidal or want to be. My 12:30 train was jammed with backpackers and I just barely managed to get a seat in a six-person cabin, while dozens of other people sat on their bags in the aisles. My companions were three French girls (two of them shared a single seat) and two Czech children, along with their Grandmother. For the first hour of the trip I watched as the six-year old boy was taunted by his four-year old sister. The boy had a lazy eye and, when the grandmother wasn't looking, the girl would pull down hard on her eye-lid and stick her tongue out at her brother. The boy would squeal and reach out to grab his sister, at which point the Grandmother would smack him and yell. The French girls would snort and I would try furiously to pretend I noticed nothing. When the Czechs got off the train (it stopped back in the Czech Republic on its way south), two French guys came in and sat down. I spent the rest of the trip silently playing a game of "guess that Latin root-word" with myself, as the rest of the passengers around me jabbered on endlessly.

The train was delayed for reasons nobody could quite figure out. We sat motionless for nearly two hours and in the end, a 2 1/2 trip took over 5 hours. A Hostelling International representative came by the cabin as we sat waiting, and asked if anybody needed accomodation in Budapest. Since this hadn't worked out badly for me in Krakow, I told her I was looking for something in the central Pest area. "For how much?" she asked. I low-balled her with a figure of 10 Euro, though I did expect to have to pay a bit more.

"That will be very difficult," she told me. Looking around at the car crammed full of backpackers (a plague descending on Hungary, it seemed), I believed her. "Let me see something," she said, and pulled out her cell phone. She made a call to one place but it was full. She tried another place. Pointing to a picture in a brochure as her phone rang the hostel's number, she told me it would cost me in the range of 20 Euros per night; not for a private room, but for a bed in a dorm with 6 or 8 other people! In 2002 I think I might have found the same accomodation for less than 8 dollars.

I was in luck, however. The most central hostel in Pest (a 30-second walk from the posh 5-star Hotel Corvinus Kempinski, where I stayed in 2002) had one bed free for the night and it was mine for a reduced rate; about 14 Euros or $18. I wasn't going to do any better, so I took it.

Upon arrival in Budapest a van provided by the hostelling network took me to my digs: The "Mellow Mood Central Hostel." The place turned out to be moodier than it was mellow, or at least the changing lot of oddballs and morons shuffling in and out of my room each day turned out to be that way. Over the course of five nights I would have the joy of dealing with (1) Change-Counting Korean Guy, who came in at 2 AM and counted his change loudly in bed each night, (2) Whiny American Princess Girl, who would lock the door to the room to change, rather than doing it in a bathroom like most other people, (3) The Euro-trash trio, of an Irish guy, a Danish girl and a Dutch girl, who threw underwear all over the room and came in drunk at 2 AM one morning and proceeded to start playing cards (this did not make me happy and the cards later suffered an "accident" involving a toilet).

The good news was that I really did get a good deal: I was paying 3,600 Forints (about 200 to the dollar) which was the low-season rate. As I checked in I saw other people being quoted the regular 5,000 Forint rate. Others were being turned away because I really had landed the last free bed in the place (which was enormous, with four vast floors).

I spent my first few hours in Budapest reacquainting myself with the main streets and sights in Pest (on the east side of the Danube) and having dinner at a place I remembered from my last visit, a French-International bistro named "Cafe Kor." The food was as good as I remembered it, but now cost about twice as much. Also, the last time I had been there, it had been largely devoid of clientele. Now it was packed and I just barely managed a small table by the door.

That night as I was walking down Vaci Utca, I ran into Helen, the Swedish traveller I'd met on my train from Krakow to Bratislava a few days earlier. As we were catching up, Eikken, the Turkish girl from the same trip, bumped into us. I assumed the two had been together and Eikken had been off somewhere for the minute or so during which Helen and I were talking, but it was a complete coincidence. We wound up heading out for a couple of drinks.

Saturday, August 6

After waking up at noon and enjoying some overpriced coffee at Cafe Anna on Vaci Utca I wandered up toward "Heroes' Square" to find one of the art museums I'd wanted to see. Instead I found myself in the wrong building, looking at modern art works by Hungarian artist Gyula Pauer. The exhibits ranged from paintings to sculpture to recordings and photos of performance art. Some of it was really screwy and some of it quite traditional and normal. Pauer seemed capable of producing excellent "traditional" art, but didn't really seem to like it as much as he liked putting together the loopier pieces. I'm not sure if I liked most of what I saw or not (I'm not even sure if I understand what half of it was), but it was different.

Sunday, August 7

More coffee and reading on Vaci Utca --- for most of the afternoon. It had been gray and cool out since I arrived in Budapest and things didn't seem to be improving any. Nevertheless, I finally managed to pick myself up and get myself lost for a few hours while wandering through Pest, over the bridge to Buda and back over to Pest again. I met up with my sister, Sarah, and her friend, Dale, for dinner. They had flown in from London and were staying for a few days before heading off to Prague. After some standard Hungarian food, complete with goulash, we went out to a cafe where I tried, unsuccessfully, to force Sarah and Dale to try "unicum," the Hungarian national liquor. It tastes kind of like cough syrup and shampoo mixed together, which is probably why I didn't have any takers. I kind of like the stuff, however. At least it takes the edge off of you following a day spent sipping countless espressos and looking moody as you read depressing Hungarian fiction (Nobel Prize winner Imre Kertesz's "Kaddish for an Unborn Child") outside a 19th-century cafe in the rain. (I think only Paris can match Budapest in terms of European cafe culture; Budapest is still the better value and gives you just as much of an opportunity to pose as a fidgety, caffiene-addled, tormented intellectual in public. God bless it.)

Monday, August 8

Sarah, Dale and I went down to the Keleti Train station to sort our tickets out. Dale and Sarah needed to book seats to Prague. I wanted to book seats to another destination, though I didn't really know where that might be. In fact, I couldn't figure anything out and held off on a decision in order to see if I could find cheap airfare someplace --- maybe to Helsinki or Tallin.

That afternoon we walked across the bridge to Buda and took the funicular up to the Royal Palace and Fisherman's Bastion, with views over the Danube, part of Buda and almost all of Pest, spreading out onto the eastern plains. The line for the funicular and much of the hill at the top was jammed with tourists and the price to take the funicular (a small one-car train that runs up and down a steep track) had gone from about 70 cents to $3.50 in the course of the last three-and-a-half years. In addition, parts of the Fisherman's Bastion now require a ticket for admission and other parts feature a cafe that hadn't been there previously. I suppose this is all good for Hungary in terms of increased revenue, but the place didn't have the same serenity and sense of history it once held for me. It's much more obviously commercial now. I just hope this levels off and doesn't escalate much more; it's not nearly as bad as in Prague and hopefully never will be.

Late that afternoon I went to a few travel agencies to look into the possibility of getting a cheap flight to Helsinki or (though I thought it would be tougher), Tallin, Riga or Vilnius. People talk endlessly about how easy it is to fly anywhere in Europe on Ryan Air or EasyJet for next to nothing, but it really isn't so easy as that. The flights I looked into were all priced well above $400 for a one-way ticket, all throughout August. Maybe in the dead of February things are a bit better...

Sarah, Dale and I wandered down to the far end of Vaci Utca that night for beer and dinner at a Hungarian restaurant named, appropriately enough, "Fatal." The portions were immense; my stuffed cabbage probably consisted of two heads of cabbage and half a pig. My sister's dish came with a bread and egg-based dumpling that was (I am not kidding) the size of a softball. Dale's steak came with what might have been a pound of egg-noodle dumplings. The food was very good; the waiters looked (and sometimes acted) like they'd just escaped from prison.

Tuesday, August 9

That morning I wandered down to Keleti station to buy myself a ticket to somewhere for the next day. As I stood in line I kept waffling mentally (because I'm a waffler) between Belgrade (7 hours), Kiev (25 hours) and Bucharest (11 hours, or so I thought). Not until I reached the ticket window did I decide upon Bucharest, largely because I could still choose to go to on to Ukraine or Serbia from there, or maybe even Bulgaria. Basically it kept the most options open and I'd wanted to go there for a while anyway, probably because so many people had told me I shouldn't. However, as I left the ticket booth and looked at my ticket, I realized that my trip would be a bit longer than I had originally thought: departing at 8:30 the next morning, I would not get in to Bucharest until 11:40 PM. And that was assuming the train was on time. Fat chance.

I met up with Sarah and Dale for lunch before heading back to my room to pack and run a few pre-departure errands. We met again for dinner at a restaurant highly recommended in Lonely Planet's full guide to Hungary, which I studied up on in an English bookstore. Unfortunately, the prices at the place were now fully twice those quoted in the guide (published in 2003) and so we chose a cheaper local-oriented place nearby. Hungary is really starting to catch up with its Western neighbors. It will take some more time before it fully does, but it's going strong and things may happen a lot faster than people initially predicted. Also, while I once thought that it would be too difficult to live in Budapest, I now think it would be quite easy. Plenty of people speak English and the city shows signs of heavy international investment. Although I've made fun of the description "Paris of the East," that Budapest once held (along with a number of other east European cities), I can see where it came from. The sense I have of the place is that it is attempting (successfully) to show that the time from the late 30s through the end of communism was an anomaly in its history. "This was a cultured, international city before World War II and is a cultured, international city now, so please excuse the 50ish years of inconvenience," it seems to say. "They were inconvenient for us also."

Posted by Joshua on August 9, 2005 05:49 PM
Category: Hungary
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