Hungary for History

This blog’s title is a small bit of a misnomer. Though the history is thick on the ground it Budapest, much of it (read: most) is pay in so, though I saw reams of bullet scarred buildings alternating with beautifully restored neighbours, I didn’t read all that many interpretive plaques, nor did I see that many interiors. That said, it felt historic and I did learn a bit about the Siege of Budapest, The Terror under Soviet rule, and the history of the city park by dint open air interpretive displays. So I’m keeping the title—plus it’s got a nice ring to it.


I left Vienna by bus on Wednesday morning and by mid afternoon was in a much sunnier, if not much warmer or less windy, Budapest. I wandered past several pretty churches and soon found myself in a lovely little courtyard hostel. The walls were painted a warm yellow and decorated with a variety of vintage signs, in the courtyard itself tables were arranged beneath a veritable canopy of colourful paper lanterns. Having been in HI Hostels for my entire time in Austria, this little bit of prettiness was a very welcome bonus.

Not far from my door, I found a cute little basement retro shop which called my name too sweetly to be resisted. I expected 20s-60s as has been common in most retro shops I’ve visited. What I found was shoulder-pad heaven! The 80s are alive and well in that shop and I, as the proud owner of a very square set of scapulae, was not going to find a thing to wear. So, declining to look like a football player in full gear, I went back out into the world of beautifully coloured and patterned tile roofs to find the Central Market Hall.

The central market hall is like so many other market halls around the world with fresh meat, cheese, vegetables, and baked goods on the ground floor and restaurants and textile products on the upper level. I cruised through the crowds of people hunting the delightful fried breadiness that are Hungarian langos. A Canadian friend had advised I try them in the market hall. I should have known that it would be tourist trap heaven, but that didn’t stop me. Even when the lango had tripled in size with the toppings, I didn’t clue in. It was only when they demanded 3,000 forints rather than the 890 forints on the sign that I realized I’d fallen into the trap. It turns out there was a tiny sign hidden under the giant sign which mentioned this price discrepancy. I decided not to make a scene and just handed over the cash which added up to about a tenner and then settled into one of the standing tables with my monstrosity of a meal.

The lango itself is a giant round of fried bread halfway between bannock and naan bread and when you get it “Traditional Hungarian Style” that fried platter of dough becomes a platter for sour cream, cheese, onion, salami, tomatoes, olives, mushrooms, and god only knows what else. I nearly gave up but by sheer force of will I pushed on and finished the beast. It was only mid afternoon but that would be the last thing I ate that day and it carried me easily through until the following morning.

Barely rolling down the sidewalk, I headed for the Great Synagogue which, it turns out, is the largest in Europe. Being a scabby traveler type, I elected not to pay my way in but I spent some time sitting in the sun pondering the exterior and slowly digesting my massive ‘snack’. The synagogue is a stunning big thing with gates wrapped in advertisements for Jewish concerts and an entry way filled with security machinery and personnel. I suppose there is reason for it but it seemed so sad to be present at a place of worship.

Having visited Judaism, I set off to explore the Christian side of Budapest exemplified by St Stephen’s Basilica. It’s a massively domed and towered thing and from the outside looks pretty but not all that different from any other cathedral or basilica. And then you step inside. I do not know that I have ever seen a more beautiful interior. It was all gold leaf and patterned tiles. I cannot even put words to it, but it was properly divine.

Filled with the beauty of the altars and domes inside, I spent a few minutes lounging on the steps outside in the sun, which is how I came to witness a flash mob. It was sort of a sad little flash mob. Partly because the non-mobbing crowd was minimal, partly because the choreo was on the cheesy end of amateurish, and partly because they had a leader playing an acoustic guitar and singing, it was a tiny bit sad and awkward but they seemed to have fun.

Since my serenity on the steps had been disturbed, I set off to find some coffee. I’d read that Espresso Embassy was meant to have properly good coffee and when I walked in through the warehouse style doors, all the hipster indicators were in place, but then I got my coffee and I nearly died. Somewhere underneath all the acidity I could taste that the Ethiopian beans were good, but unfortunately it was so acerbic I could barely appreciate the flavour. Local tastes.

My next stop was a rather grand monument of an eagle and an angel shielded by a fountain and accompanied by a rather odd collection of signs, stones, pictures, and people. I was soon to discover that this charming monument is seen to be a symbol of the Hungarian government’s holocaust denial painting Hungary as an innocent victim rather than active collaborators with the Nazi Regime. Everyday they stage a protest before the monument and before the monument they have created a memorial of stones, photos, and stories to honour the victims rather than glorify the government. I doubt the monument will ever be torn down as they demand, but I salute them for their efforts.

Beyond the monument, I found the parliament which give’s Bucharest’s concrete monstrosity a run for it’s money in terms of size and intricacy, it is however much prettier. I may be weird but my favourite bit was the fact that all the windows are shuttered with little wooden slatted shutters and as it was a sunny day most all of them were thrown open with that wonderful abandon that only shutters can convey.

From the Parliament I plopped down on a bollard by the Danube’s edge to enjoy even more of the wonderful sun. Sadly, my lounge was rudely interrupted by a charmingly adult call from the bank in Canada. I do so love dealing with tax fiascos.

Not far along from my seat, I found the Shoes on the Danube memorial to victims of the holocaust. It is much smaller and simpler than the Berlin monument but it is ever so much more human. The little cluster of empty shoes there at the water’s edge as if the wearers had stepped out of them for a swim or a wade in the river and then just never came back is a beautiful way of conceptualizing the sudden, inexplicable loss of so many innocent people.

As there was still lots of light left I decided to venture up to Buda Palace. I crossed the Danube, climbed the hill and came nose to nose with a security guard. Turns out there was a wine festival in the palace grounds so unless you wanted to purchase an expensive wristband, there was no getting into any part of the palace grounds. I watched the sunset from the eastern side of the hill before visiting the colourfully roof tiled Matthias Church and the delightfully whimsical Fisherman’s bastion which rimed the hillside like a crenelated winter frost.

Some wandering later I found a tower and a window which are the only remains of a church that stood proudly on the hill until the siege of Budapest destroyed it in WWII. The tower was also right next to a drinking water tap which was, at that point VERY much needed. As I was splashing about beneath the tap attempting to hydrate, the chimes on the tower began to ring and it was a simple sort of magic with water and ringing and the softly dying light of the sun.

As the light left the hilltop, I made my way back past the Matthias Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion now lit up all golden by spotlights. Across the river the parliament was similarly glowing and the bridges glittered with little lights running along the struts and the decks. Once I was back in Pest, I ventured down the pedestrian shopping street back to the hostel. In my dorm I found a young Canadian fellow, about 19, who exemplified all the things that make me embarrassed to be North American. Arrogant and endlessly striving through a mixture of babble and proclamations to prove that he is, in fact, the most qualified, intelligent, and experienced human being that ever existed. There is no motivation for self improvement so strong as seeing the characteristics you least like in another of the same nation or creed.

My second day in Budapest, in a frustrating replication of the weather in Vienna, dawned cold and wet in frustrating contrast to the sunshine that greeted my arrival. Nonetheless, I headed out into the grey in the direction of Andrassy Avenue hunting a pleasant place to find a coffee and a pastry for breakfast. All the restaurants I passed seemed more boozy tourist hole than pleasant local cafe so I kept walking until my stomach was growling and my head pounding for lack of food and caffeine. And that’s how I ended up turning into a random marketplace to purchase pastries and then taking a chair at a cafe in the park to get my coffee fix. The cortado was just as acidic as the previous one had been but the pastries were divine. One was a liner sandwich cookie with plum jam between the biscuits and chocolate covering everything, the other was a square of some variety with butter pastry on top and bottom and a stewed fruit filling that I think contained rhubarb and plums but probably a lot of other things as well.

As I sat in the park, the wind began to come up and my clothing choice seemed shockingly inadequate.

I adventured past bookstores, not yet open, and all manner of shops, salons, and (I presume) embassies before eventually finding my way to Heroes’ Square. It’s a very grand affair with a central monolith and statues of over a dozen statues of Hungarian national heroes. I wished I knew more about Hungarian history as I strolled amongst the (to me) meaningless names.

Beyond the monument, I found Vajdahunyad Castle, a dainty fairytale affair which now houses a museum of some sort. Across the way I found a lovely little church equally intricate but made of stone rather than bricks and plaster. Peering in the coloured glass windows it appeared that there was a service underway so I backed off and continued my wander around Budapest’s main city park. It has seen a lot of change since it was first built as a recreation area for the city. Most of the most damaging changes occurred during the communist era which has left the park to this day in that heartbreaking shade of drab that so frequently accompanies post soviet green spaces. In the midst of the rusting tennis courts and patchy lawns there are also thermal baths which remain to this day in their original buildings. I contemplated taking a dip by the mix of crowding, poor weather, and expensive entry came together to tell me no.

Wandering back down Andrassy Avenue, I stopped into an antique book shop for a little look. Most of their stock was Hungarian with publication dates ranging from the late 1700s to the early 1900s but hidden in a corner in the cramped loft I found an absolute gem: the 1965 Fodor’s guide to Scandinavia. The tone it was written in! I cannot even begin to explain the deliciousness of that terrible imperialistic tone of the all knowing British or American traveler who is ready to brave the strange customs of these wild norsemen! If it had been cheaper, smaller, or both it would have been mine, but it was a fairly large volume and it was €20.

Back out on the street I found a cold rain falling and was very quickly hustling back into the nearest warm dry place that would have me. That place turned out to be a traditional Hungarian restaurant where I ate a hot bowl of goulash soup that was served with the largest slice of bread I have ever seen. It was bigger than my face! It was also delicious, especially sopping full of goulash broth. Refuelled and rather warmer, I returned to the rain and soon found myself in the kitschy little cafe and shopping district of Gozsdu Udvar. By the time I stumbled across the Blue Bird Cafe and Roastery, I was once again frozen and damp so I stepped in for a mocha and a piece of cake. I suppose just because you roast your own beans doesn’t mean you know what you’re doing with them. At least the decor was pretty and the seats were soft.

And then I gave up on the day. I do so hate being cold and it seemed that no matter where I went or what I did, I was doomed to be cold, so I headed back to the hostel to while away a few hours waiting for the rain to stop or salsa time to arrive. Salsa time came first.

The salsa party was in a rather posh club with a live three piece band and a pair of professional dancers to start the party. Sadly, as is the story of my life these days, everyone was dancing Cuban! As an additional frustration, only one lead was really dancing with anyone other than the person he’d brought so I was limited to as many dances as I could steal with him without depriving the other single ladies. It was a bit of a pain. The greatest sorrow was however the fact that NO ONE danced chachacha! The band played Oye Como Va and I was on my own! Which did not stop me dancing. I tried to be discrete but the whole bar was watching so I decided to use it as a chance to practice dancing just for me and not caring what people thought. I’m to sure if it worked but the conguero gave me a thumbs up and a huge smile at the end of the song so at least he liked it! There was another chachacha played later by which point a group of Chinese girls had arrived and they dragged all the ladies up to dance so we had a wonderful great time all doing shines and enjoying the band. I even got to play with the percussion a bit on speed which was gratifying to me even if it did make me look like an idiot or a show off.

At the end of the party, the lone social lead walked with me back to my hostel before setting off to another party, and I just threw my tired feet into bed.

My final day in Hungary I finally managed to find a cortado that didn’t abrade my throat on the way down! So if you’re ever in Budapest and in need of decent coffee, get ready for it, it’s quite the mouthful, go to Műterem Kávézó & MTRM roast Kávépörkölő Műhely. After coffee and a croissant I headed back over to Buda to visit the Citadel on the hill. On the way across I may have made a tiny little detour to the Central Market Hall for more pastries (one tiny little cheese puff, a fruit cake of some variety, and another cave to my passion for poppyseed). Climbing up the hill to the citadel I passed all manner of slower tourists whilst stuffing my face with pastries. By the time I reached the top, I was ready for a break. Fortunately there were lovely views so I had a totally plausible excuse to lean on the rails and let my sweets digest.

The citadel itself isn’t really that much to see but the views were spectacular and I can only imagine how lovely it would be on a sunny day. On the side of the citadel I also read a bit of history which enlightened me as to why exactly everything is so ruined in Budapest. It seems that the siege of Budapest was quite the thing. There were enough hills and fortifications that the Russians and the Germans managed to make a rather bloody go of it.

After my views I wandered back down the hill and then up the other hill to make one more go at visiting the castle and the national library that lies within it. Alas, I was still foiled by the damned wine festival which was occupying the entire palace property. And so I gave up on virtue and settled into Ruszwurm Cukrászda for all the most delicious sorts of indulgence. I had the Ruszwurm Cake and the signature coffee. The cake was a rich dense chocolate torte with sour cherry and slivered almonds in the ganache between the layers. The coffee was a sinful blend of espresso, chocolate, cherry brandy, and cream. They paired very well and I left in a slight haze of sugar and alcohol to drift back down the streets to Pest. Whilst drifting in my cherry flavoured haze, I crossed three muscular bronzed men with sun bleached hair that could only have been earned on Australian beaches. Lo and behold, when they got closer the accent matched and I knew at once why Aussies are the holy grail of global hotties. Seriously, all the sexy masculinity. However, none of the sensible or classy dress sense that I tend to appreciate.

Drifting closer to the hostel, I came across another little pedestrian treat in the form of a trio of buskers playing under the title “The Trouble Note”. Their music was a curious mix of gypsy fiddle and castanets with rock rhythms and harmonies and a cajón just to round it all out. Had it not been raining again I might have stayed to listen. My final stop before collecting my luggage from the hostel and heading for the train was the grocery store where I was scandalized by the possibility of purchasing a kilogram of bread for about €0.60. Believe it or not, I managed to resist. I only bought the half-kilo loaf which was still too much to be healthy but was so delicious that I ate it all anyway.

At the train station I found rather fewer refugee tents than expected—I guess the quota system is starting to work—but still a hefty police presence at every platform. There were also impressive queues for picking up tickets which were a great cause of consternation for one young Hungarian fellow I met. I allowed him to cut the queue before me (typically I was over an hour early) but the folks ahead of me were not so obliging so he was left to catch the train after the one he’s intended to get. I felt bad for the guy, but what can you do? He offered to help me with the machine once it was evident that he’d missed his train but as everything is in English these days and I was just printing tickets not buying them, there was no real need.

At long last, and after no little bit of panic about platforms, cars, etc., I was on the night out of the Schengen and on to roam the wilds of Romania, hopefully in better weather.

The Canadian


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