“Budapest is a prime site for dreams: the East’s exuberant vision of the West, the West’s uneasy hallucination of the East. It is a dreamed-up city; a city almost completely faked; a city invented out of other cities, out of Paris by way of Vienna — the imitation, as Claudio Magris has it, of an imitation.”
― M. John Harrison, The Course of the Heart
Well, I’m not sure, and to be fair the quote does stem from 1992, but what I am sure about is that visiting places for a third time is a privilege providing opportunity for looking at the same stuff afresh. This was my third visit to Budapest, 26 years after my first.
My first visit was in January 1994, when Budapest and Hungary were actually still busy stepping out from behind the Iron Curtain. In those days you could still feel the cold eastern atmosphere in the Budapest streets. Strolling the streets in those days, you could see and feel the cold, grey and life’s weight on the residents but from a traveller’s perspective it was gloriously exciting. Since that trip, it has changed a lot. Budapest nowadays is a vibrant city, with a modern feel, many tourists ensuring the worldwide irritation of pedestrians texting while walking, selfie-sticks in abundance and English spoken everywhere. Don’t get me wrong when I refer to the latter negatively, but the globalised impact of being understood everywhere does dilute some of the traveling experience of old. It was exploratory on my first trip in 1994 to struggle being understood, adventuring through menus and using sign language to get to destinations or pointing at which ‘torta’ you want with your coffee. Nothing in Hungarian hints in any way to its English word, not to even think Afrikaans. Sitting in Ferenc Liszt Budapest airport just after arrival I was, for example, trying to find links between the Hungarian I saw on restaurant signs and English. Who would have thought that ‘péksütemények’ means ‘pastry’, or even shorter ‘deeg’ in Afrikaans? On that first trip, 26 years ago, there were no translate apps, no Googlemaps, nor commercial GPS’s, no Costas nor Starbucks and hardly any English; just the decent and proper ‘old world’ classy ‘cukrászda’ coffee establishments, such as Gerbeaud. Furthermore, in those old days, the clientele of Gerbeaud did not stroll in wearing hiking boots, loose hoodies and backpacks, they were dressed in old fashioned classy coats and scarves and vintage Fedora hats. In a sense, travel has become too easy, and dare I, who love wearing shorts, say, too casual?
Still, Budapest is definitely one of Europe’s premier cities, and definitely ranks amongst one of the finest destinations to explore. My trip in February 2020 was a mix between flexi work and just browsing. That’s one of the big advantages of being a freelance lecturer; you have work to do, but you can do it anywhere you can find sufficient supplies of coffee, wifi and time.
As we sat in the taxi on our way from the airport to the city, I was contemplating on the impacts of globalisation, modernisation and ‘englishisation’ of the former Eastern Europe. Some stereotypes remain, and I acknowledge it’s probably Hollywood created stereotypes, such as I had about our taxi driver. He was huge, bald and with a thick neck complimented by probably three days’ stubble beard, and very blunt in his communication. ‘Surely’ I thought, ‘he supplements his taxi earnings with bodyguarding serious people in his time off!’ My spy-movie infected perception however was immediately blown away when he dropped us off with a friendly ‘your destination and enjoy your stay’ while smiling accommodatingly.
Budapest has seen its fair share of conflict through the ages, and as so many other European cities was heavily bombed in WW2. Bridges, buildings and houses were destroyed, so much so that people had to collect wood from the rubble for fire- and cooking. During the Cold War period after the War, Hungary was occupied by Russian troops as part of the Communist Bloc, although there was a spontaneous revolution against the Communist Ruling Party in 1956. The Soviet Politburo agreed to withdraw its forces, but on 4 November 1956 broke their promise and crushed the resistance with brute force. During the Soviet occupation of Hungary, some 600 000, of which about 200 000 were civilians, Hungarians were deported and kept in Siberian labour camps. It is said that about 200 000 of these prisoners perished in the harsh conditions of these Gulag Camps. With the fall of communism in 1989 Russian troops started to withdraw from Hungary, and the last of them left Hungarian shores on 19 June 1991. The Russian authorities claimed some 50 billion forints compensation for their ‘investment’ in Hungary – figure that!
Those dark days are over in Budapest. In 1994 the city still had that feeling around it, but today its modern, vibrant and a delight to stroll through, awe at the restored architecture and just delight yourself in the cafés, bistros, restaurants and the shores of the Danube taking numerous photos of the two beautiful bridges spanning the river.
On this trip, February 2020, I had two days to do some academic work and stroll the streets. I found the restaurant where we had a delightful dinner in 1994, called BohémTanya at 6 Paulay Ede utca, and can gladly report that hardly anything has changed in the 26 years. The waiter was younger though. When in Hungary in winter, obviously you have to start a dinner with Goulash soup (gulyás) – I have no idea how to pronounce ‘á’, but feel free to apply your own pronounciation. BohémTanya did not disappoint with their version of the thick, hearty beef and vegetable soup. It’s just the way to get rid of the February cold in your bones. Following up on the soup with a ‘Malacsült párolt káposztával, hagymás tört burgonyával’ or roasted piglet with hungarian smashed paprikas, onion, potatoes and steamed cabbage proved to be more than enough and the chilly walk back to the apartment after dinner was a welcome meander just to get my breathing and belt size back to normal.
For our second dinner we ended up in a typical tourist restaurant in the fashionable Vaci Utca, a pedestrian fashion and shopping street in downtown Budapest. I say tourist restaurant due to its reception and location, but the decoration, architecture and food was very authentic. My tourist remarks further stem from the trap that if you say ‘large beer’, it’s a litre, and when you give attention to the live musicians, you have to pay. The music was excellent though, and the two violinists in both look and sound took me back to the old days of cold and grey Budapest. Those days were not good for the people of Budapest, but these two violinists took us back in time for the two hours I spent in their presence. The food, consisting of a thick bean and sausage soup plus a pork chop smothered in letcho, was worth the suffering through the 1 litre of beer, and the compulsory tipping of the musicians though. Letcho is very much like a South African sheba stew or ragout of tomatoes, unions, paprika or yellow pointed peppers (obviously, this is Hungary), and peas. Of the two restaurants, I will however recommend BohémTanya for value for money.
And then there is always Gerbeaud, well nearly always, as its been the city’s exquisite coffee shop for coffee and cake since 1858 on Vörösmarty Tér. Gerbeaud is the perfect venue for your afternoon coffee and cake stop when you’re in the vicinity, and I can vouch that the Sósmogyoró-barack szelet is simply divine.
Though it’s a convenient tram trip (4 stops) with Tram 47 from Deäk Ferenc tér Metro to Fövám tér I suggest you take the 1.4km delightful stroll down Váci Utca to visit the huge indoor market Nagy Vásárcsarnok. This stroll takes you past many shops, cafes and the interesting boutiques of Budapest’s premier fashion street. The market was built in the late 19th century and is still the place to go to for fresh produce, Hungarian linen and materials, leather products and a huge variety of Hungarian street food. The market is conveniently located at the beautiful Sabadság hid or Liberty bridge, which you can cross by foot. Across the Danube in a cave is a Catholic Church which is housed in a series of caves on Gellért Hill. From there you also have access to the hill for a stunning vantage point over the river and city, to take your Budapest river view photos.
I think it goes without saying that simply strolling along the banks of the Danube is in itself a pleasure, even in winter. I nearly said take sufficient film, but nowadays it’s okay to just remind people that they must have a backup power-bank with them, as those many many photos may just drain your power! Make sure you stroll north beyond the magnificent Széchenyi Chain bridge on the east shore to see the monument of the shoes. Read about that story Behind the Iron Curtain (in 2015)
Budapest obviously have much more to see than what I was able to fit into my two days. I did not touch the Buda parts of the city (on the hilly west banks of the Danube) and only briefly walked through the central parts of Pest on the east. There’s still so much to do in this fascinating city that I’m already dotting down a few thoughts for some future visit, but I do think I’ve seen enough to be able to answer my own question in this posting’s heading.
Budapest is no imitation, nor fake. It’s a city rich in its own history while tormented by many conflicts and wars. It’s a city with its own character and feel and style and a city with its own enthralling architecture, sights and sounds. It’s a city worth visiting for sure.