2015 / march / 28

A trip to Budapest - travelogue

A trip to Budapest

First a meta intro: it’s 2015 and I’m writing a travelogue blog entry on my old homepage, rather than tweeting or putting it on fb. Haven’t even checked out Medium yet as a publishing tool, either. The old blog community has fragmented (the article what blogging has become in The Atlantic recently was something of an eulogy), as has the world of photo sharing where Flickr is a hollow shell of its former self and attention is split with instagram, FB, twitter and so on. I just like old style blog publishing, open and on a platform I control. If that makes me a Luddite, so be its.

General meandering travelogue here; for some tips for vegetarians see a different post here: Budapest tips for vegetarians.

Jugendstil at night

So me and the missus took a trip to Budapest. Never been there before. Beautiful city, the name Paris of the east is well deserved. I was struck by how many ghosts of the communist era are still around; much less transformed than Prague or Berlin, is my impression.
Hungarian signs #2

We stayed in a decent tourist hotel, Cosmo (Tripadvisor). Very close to the tourist strip of Vaci Utca, where waiters stand outside overpriced restaurants trying to talk you inside, next to pubs advertising beer in pints with a british audience in mind and shops selling tourist bric-a-brac. But the spoiled area is rather small once you know where to escape it.

On day 1 we did Buda’s castle hill. It is as impressive as it looks seen from the Pest side of the Donau. We took tram 2 along the Pest side of the river (an enjoyable ride by itself already), and crossed it by foot on the something bridge, to start a series of superlatives. This river is really wide. The castle really has might. Try to go early, we were there on Sunday morning before ten and after twelve the crowds got serious.
The gate is open Crossing the Donau< My favourite lion Scale model for the blind
After walking around the castle, we happened to see the changing of the guard in front of the palace of the prime minister. Not unlike similar rituals in London or the Vatican, but in much more militaristic garb which gave me a bit of an odd feeling about it. (can you judge a man by his friends? Orban’s well acquainted with Berlusconi and Putin…)

After passing mediaeval streets occupied by overpriced galleries we came to what was for me the real highlight of our visit, the St Mattias church. (Wikipedia). You have to pay entry to enter, unusual for a church, but don’t let it put you off.

Sissi Typical pattern

The site has a long history as church from the 13th century, used as mosque during Ottoman times, then again used as a church now by the Jesuits. In the late 19th century, around the time of the unification of Buda and Pest, it was completely redecorated in the unique Hungarian variation on Jugendstil. It’s amazingly colourful on the inside, with a palette of dark but warm colours, with repeating patterns everywhere, on walls and columns, each a different one it seems. Fantastic. And for those not quite interested in that, you can get your Sissi fix. What is it with this fascination...

Szchenyi Bath at dusk
We walked a lot the first day, so on day 2, it was time to visit a bath house. The weather was gorgeous for march so we went to the Szchenyi Spa, as it has three large outside pools. Wonderful neo-baroque grandeur, quite faded in places which only added to the charm. I guess at least half of the visitors were tourists (including several loud Italian school trips) but the place is large enough for that not to matter. Lovely to soak in the heat and sun. Good steam bath, too, with unusually high ceilings. Nice. We even took part in an aquagym session which was a lot more stern than I’m used to in the Netherlands – this was pretty fast and intense, the (friendly!) instructor reminding me of a drill sergeant in a hi-de-hi sort of way. Maybe this was just like it was in a communist holiday camp 30 years ago. I liked having that historic experience.

>St. Stephen's Basilica, Budapest Queue for the opera
Though we were at the spa for five hours, we also found time to visit the Basilisk and the Opera house (with huge ticket queue...) on the way. It's a posh neighbourhood. On the boulevard we passed the former headquarters of both the communist secret police and the nazi gestapo (that one took the building took over from the other quite a poignant point in itself), now a museum. Closed on Mondays so we didn’t go.
But the outside was already impressive enough. Not so much that in my opinion rather untasteful metal 'terror' canopy, but the small photos on the wall with a name and two annums, and many recent candles, Very much a living monument. It made us quiet for a moment, think about what happened - what living under such a regime does to peoples lives.
Trolley bus stop
On the third day I wanted to see a bit more of the city. We got a 24 hour travel card and combined sights with cruising around. Tram 6 along the grand ring boulevard was especially worth it. We took it from the beginning at Móricz Zsigmond körtér to have a good view – these enormous 54 meter long Combino trams don’t have many seats, they’re built for straphangers – and off we went all the way to the famous Nuygati station, designed by Eiffel's design firm, which now has a MacDonalds in the gloriously restored side hall, but in the main building time seems to have stood still.
Station light
A contrast we saw at more places. Opposite this station is a department store in early 80s architecture – concrete and smoked glass – which had a very old time atmosphere, including completely uninterested staff. Interestingly the clothes themselves were not trendy but certainly not outdated, think C&A rather than H&M – it was just the general atmosphere. Blast from the past.
Budapest protest
We meandered on (the travel card helped a lot to alternate walking with short stretches by tram). Margarita island, the pompous parliament building (flanked by a small occupy-style permanent protest calling for a more democratic style of government - happy to see some dissent against the current policies) and finally a stroll around the grand synagogue. Again a museum we missed, this time because we it was closing time, but we walked around the outside and you can clearly see both the courtyard name memorial and the impressive Imre Varga sculpture, the metal weeping willow.
Grand Synagogue sculpture detail

On the last morning, a little stroll and on a whim we had a peek in the small Metro Museum inside Deak Ferenc Ter metro station. To enter the museum, walk through the BKV ticket office. It is small and sweet and catered to both my inner transport and my inner history nerd. It's one stretch of former tunnel of line one, maybe 80 meters but slightly curved making it even more intimate. On the left is track with two carriages on display, one in the original state and one in the state before the big renovation in the early 70s; and on the right side a small but rather good collection of photos, maps, blueprints and scale models.
Metro Museum Metro museum
At 350 forint (around 1 euro) the ticket is a good deal, but there is a separate (and additional) photo ticket at 500. Bit steep, but okay, I knew I wanted to take some and I'm sympathethic to small museums in poor countries that need the funds. It turned out that because I got that ticket, the staff opened the first carriage, which has some wax puppets in period clothing that you can take photos with. Rather well done – nice for the missus, and I loved that this allowed me to enter the carriage and sit on the wooden benches and have a good look of the inside in general. It's a small museum, it was a perfect last 15 minutes in the city before getting a last coffee and get to the airport. Bye Budapest, we had a lovely time; see you again some day!

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