It was a lovely day as the nosewheel of my EasyJet plane touched the tarmac of the runway at Budapest’s airport, with the sun shining and the sky blue. In fact, things were looking pretty idyllic right up until the pilot gunned the engines and shot us back up into the sky at a thirty degree angle. If the steward sat opposite me thought we were all about to die he hid it well, and instead got on the intercom and said that this was “perfectly normal”. For some reason it didn’t bother me in the least, and it gave me time to finish what I was watching on my iPad: Air Crash Investigation – Runway Inferno. I’m kidding, it was something else. Anyway, we did a fifteen minute circle and the second time we had a go there were no fuckups, and we landed safely.
Having gotten my bag off the carousel I immediately fired up Uber only to discover it didn’t work. I didn’t get a message saying “Uber doesn’t work” it just said it was unable to find a car, and did so repeatedly. On further investigation I found the Hungarian government effectively banned them last year. I thought about this for a moment. Had I known that in advance, I might have hesitated before deciding to come to Budapest. Okay, I would probably still have come and as things turned out the city’s public transport is cheap and good, but having found Uber to be invaluable in Lisbon I would have had to think about it. Had it been a more marginal choice, i.e. somewhere I was only mildly interested in visiting, I might have chosen elsewhere. I think in a few years we’ll be at a stage where a city not having Uber will start to cost it dearly in terms of visitor numbers. Anyway, there wasn’t much to be done so I booked a shuttle in the form of a minibus which took me to my hotel.
Only halfway there I realised I didn’t have my iPad on me. I’d decided to hand carry it this time, due to my bringing a small camera bag as hand luggage. Normally I’d put the iPad in a bigger backpack, but not this time. I was vaguely aware that I needed to be careful not to leave it anywhere only I didn’t listen to myself and I did just that. But I had no idea where. I asked the shuttle driver to call the people manning the counter where I’d booked the shuttle and he did, but no joy. I reached the hotel and checked in and told the receptionist what had happened. She very helpfully called the airport and got through to the outfit managing EasyJet who said they’d call if they found it on the plane. I was convinced I’d left it on the seat beside me, but couldn’t understand why the guy sat beside me didn’t notice and alert me. Then again, he might have been a Scouser (sorry Thud).
I didn’t want to hang around waiting for news so I jumped in a taxi and went back to the airport. I looked around for some sort of information desk but all I saw was a row of phones. I got the number of the EasyJet management office and asked them if they’d found an iPad, and they said “Oh, your hotel called earlier and we just called back to say…no, we haven’t.” I asked them who I would call if I left it somewhere in the airport, and they said “security”. I called the security number realising things were looking pretty hopeless at this point, and explained to somebody that I’d lost an iPad. He checked with his mates and came back and said “Nope, sorry”. To be fair, everyone was as helpful as could be and plenty sympathetic. I bet they’d not be either in Manchester airport, you’d be barked at by some nasty little fascist in a hi-viz vest who would issue stern warnings about how you’d breached some law on terrorism written to neutralise hardened jihadists fighting in Afghanistan but now applied to schoolkids going through British airports.
Where was I? That’s right, my iPad. Anyway, I pretty much gave up. I hung around the ATM machine wondering if I’d left it there, then decided to write it off and go back to the hotel. On a whim I decided to ask in the Vodafone shop if anyone had handed it in, and the bloke working in there said no, but perhaps I should try left luggage just down the corridor. So I did and this fat chap behind a desk said “Yes, indeed we do have an iPad.” He reached in the drawer and pulled out what was definitely my iPad. I proved it by unlocking it, and he made me sign a scrap of paper and we were reunited once more. Apparently a policeman had handed it in, but obviously hadn’t told the guys from “security” that I’d called five minutes earlier. Anyway, I was relieved: it had been backed up that morning, but shelling out for a new iPad wouldn’t have been the ideal start to what was supposed to be a quick and cheap trip to Budapest.
The hotel wasn’t great, but its location was: right in the centre of all the bars and restaurants, on Rumbach street. When they said my room had a “city view” they were not wrong, only the part of the city I could view was a residential building across the street, the shop on the ground floor, and that was it. The quality of a hotel can be ascertained by the towels alone, and the ones in this joint put it somewhere between backpacker hostel and Travelodge. Nice hotels don’t supply shower gel using a dispenser screwed to the wall with the contents diluted with water; this one did. But for all that, it was clean, the staff friendly, and the breakfast adequate. For what I paid, I couldn’t complain much and I didn’t.
Hungary isn’t in the Eurozone, something I discovered sometime between booking my flight and taking off. They use forints, which sounds very medieval to me. I’d not be surprised to hear Salisbury cathedral was built for a total cost of twelve thousand forints, for example. This didn’t make Budapest incredibly cheap, but it wasn’t expensive either. I went for a wander down to the river just to catch the sunset, passing lots of bars on the way. A lot of locals were sat outside in the warm evening drinking beer out of enormous glass tankards. Budapest looked like a good place to go on the piss. Most of the buildings were nice if rather unkempt, but you could tell that people from the Soviet school of architecture had been given the run of the place for a while. Below is a photo of the Marriott hotel built on a prime spot on the banks of the Danube:
Thank God us Brits would never construct an eyesore hotel like that right beside one of our main tourist attractions.
Ahem. Anyway, by the time I’d got to the river I’d missed the sunset. I noticed a lot of Thai massage places dotted about and wondered if they had genuine Thais working in them and whether you could get a genuine massage. The attractiveness of the women would answer this latter question in a heartbeat, but they were all tucked away inside and out of sight. In Thailand they’d have been sat outside flapping price lists in your face and bawling at you.
For dinner I chose a Jewish restaurant near my hotel, simply because it looked more like a proper restaurant than a bar which happens to serve some food. I sat on a small table opposite a young American couple made up of a distractingly attractive long-haired woman in tight trousers and a ginger man with a beard who looked as though he was an engineer. For a starter I ordered Jókai, which is a bean soup, and it was excellent. For the main course I had little choice on my first night in Budapest other than to order goulash, and that was good too if a little salty. It was all helped down with a large glass of Dreher beer which seemed to be pretty good, although I’m as much a beer connoisseur as I am an acrobat. During the meal an old man in his seventies played an upright piano that was placed right in the middle of the restaurant. His appearance matched damned near every stereotype of an old Eastern European piano-playing Jewish guy you’ve ever seen portrayed, but he wasn’t half good.
The next morning I set out with my camera and followed a main road in an arc down to the Liberty Bridge. On the way I passed several bookshops, one of which had in the window a single English-language volume: Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now, which is a collection of short stories. I’m a fan of du Maurier and this collection didn’t used to be on Kindle (it is now) and it caught my attention. I went in and asked to see it: it was a hardback in good condition. I asked how much it was and he said 2,000 florins which is about 6-7 euros. That was cheap enough for me and so I bought it, although more damage was done to its jacket in a day in my backpack than had been wrought in the thirty or forty years its previous owners had had it. I crossed the Liberty Bridge and walked up the hill to the citadel and victory monument, which offered superb views of the city.
There were a fair few tourists about, but it wasn’t packed. I passed groups of Russians who looked as though they hailed from the provinces more than Moscow or Saint Petersburg, and I heard plenty of French being spoken by other groups as well. I walked alongside the citadel and just as I started to descend I came across a street hustler trying to get tourists to play the ball-and-cup game. When I arrived he was in a full-on argument with a German woman in her sixties who, from what I could tell, was outraged that he had played a sleight-of-hand trick on her. What she expected was anyone’s guess, I always thought you paid these guys in appreciation of their skill. I only hope she never went to a magic show later on.
I followed a lightly wooded pathway down to the riverbank and followed it northwards for about a mile, staying on the Buda side. I walked about halfway between the Széchenyi Chain bridge and Margaret Island, far enough to take a decent photo of the Hungarian Parliament Building partly bathed in sunlight.
By this point my back was hurting me (I’ve got a long-standing issue with it which won’t go away) and so I walked back to the Széchenyi Chain bridge, crossed over, and walked back to my hotel. One thing I noticed as I wandered through Budapest is how meaningless the signage was to me. Being able to speak English, French, and Russian I am pretty well able to work out what most signs on buildings refer to, but with Hungarian being utterly unrelated to any of those (and seemingly everything else except Finnish, although debates rage about this) I had absolutely no idea what any of the buildings were. I’d not been in this situation since I was in the Baltic states, completely unable to interpret any of the writing and signage. At first glance it looked similar to written Turkish, at least to me. When I heard Hungarian spoken it sounded like nothing I’d heard before. But for all that, nearly everybody spoke English well enough for me to get by, even if the older people were struggling. The younger ones, as you’d expect, spoke it well albeit with strange, heavy accents which told me their native tongue was not Slavic.
Some of my readers had advised me to go to a spa, in particular the Széchenyi thermal baths. Given the state of my back I thought it would be a good idea, but this would involve taking the metro. I walked to the nearest station and followed the steps down and was surprised to find there were no barriers. There was a ticket booth, which was closed, and some small machines into which you put your ticket each time you travel. An honesty system, in other words. This would work in Britain for about twenty seconds before it would become a free-for-all. With the ticket booth being closed I couldn’t work out where to buy a ticket and I thought about just jumping on and dodging the fare, but I didn’t want to end up in a Hungarian prison or, worse, in a pot of goulash. So I walked to the next station and crossed to the other side of the tracks where I found one that was open, only later spotting the ticket machines that are sprinkled around all over Budapest. It seems all the transport systems – metro, trams, buses – work off the same ticket, and you can use the same ticket on different systems in a single journey, which comes at a standard price of 350 forint: about 1.10 euro. A similar journey in Paris is 1.45 euro. In London it’s 5.70 euros if you don’t use an Oyster card, 3.40 euros if you do. That says it all, doesn’t it?
The line that took me to the baths (Line 1, yellow) was basically an underground tram. Small carriages rattled me along through stations that looked a bit like those of the New York subway with their vertical steel stanchions festooned with rivets and coated with paint half an inch thick. At the first station a gigantic man got on wearing the armband of a ticket inspector, and he asked everyone in the carriage to show their tickets. I was glad at that point that I hadn’t tried dodging the fare otherwise this post might have been rather different (albeit possibly a lot more interesting).
I arrived at the baths, which were in a complex of classical design and would not have been out of place in Saint Petersburg or Paris. Certainly the system of paying, entering, and renting a towel would not have been out of place in Soviet-era Leningrad. The price list had been printed on a sign in font size 8 and had so many combinations and exceptions that I gave up and just asked for 1 adult and paid whatever was asked. Next I went downstairs into a corridor full of people walking around in swimming costumes, some of them wrapped in towels but often not. I got a bit lost but eventually found where one rents a towel and saw a piece of A4 paper on the counter telling everyone that the kiosk is closed for 15 minutes because of a shift change. So a lengthy queue formed while two women went through a laborious process of counting cash out of a metal container, putting elastic bands around bundles of notes and putting them into a bag, and signing endless pieces of paper. I am sure this was set up with the best of intentions to prevent theft and one person being blamed for another’s light-fingeredness, but I can’t see this Swiss or Americans doing it quite like this. Had I not spent years in Russia where inefficencies and the resulting queues are perfectly normal I may have gotten a little frustrated (as some Germans behind me were), but as it was I found it rather amusing and a wave of nostalgia swept over me as I watched these two functionaries filling out paperwork related to towel rentals oblivious to the queue of customers that was growing steadily beside them. Whoever set this system up must have spent years in the Soviet Union perfecting their knowledge before returning to Hungary to put into practice what they’d learned.
I eventually managed to obtain a towel for 1,000 forints and another 2,000 as a deposit and I went to the lockers to get changed. Fortunately Hungarian spas are not like French public swimming pools where budgie-smugglers are compulsory and I could happily wander around in normal swimming shorts. The place was busy, and every single body type was on display from lithe teenage girls to enormously fat old people. It is times like this when I am glad that I at least attend the gym regularly, although holding the gut in for minutes at a time is tiring work. There were two huge outdoor pools, one for swimming laps and the other for lolling around in. I jumped in the latter and lolled around, and wondered if this was all there was to the place. It wasn’t far off the sort of pool you see in large hotels in Thailand. I noticed people going into the building on the opposite side so I decided to follow them, and discovered a huge indoor complex of dozens of different pools all linked together by a maze of corridors. Giant spa baths surrounded by ornate marble columns looked like the sort of places Roman orgies would have taken place in, and (staying on stereotypes) the steam rooms I imagined to be full of KGB spies meeting double agents, one of whom would later be found on the floor with his throat cut. Each pool was of a different temperature ranging from 15-40 degrees Celsius, and there were loads of them. I tried one and then the other and then all the rest, revisiting some in no particular order but avoiding the cold ones. I went in saunas that were like the inside of a lime kiln and steam rooms full of old men with large bellies. Some of the pools smelled of minerals, and if I were lazy I’d tell you it was sulphur but it wasn’t, it was something else. Limestone, maybe? I don’t know, but the water had a whiff about it and I didn’t drink any. The baths didn’t do my back any good, but it was an interesting experience. I didn’t stay more than a couple of hours, and took the metro back into town.
As I got near my hotel I passed one of the Thai massage places and, given the state of my back, I popped in. The women seated inside looked as though they knew what they were doing and for a very reasonable 4,000 forints I paid the (Hungarian) receptionist and was led downstairs past a slate water feature to a basement kitted out with massage cubicles made from bamboo. Whoever decorated and dished out the uniforms certainly knew what Thai massage places are supposed to look like. It was pretty gloomy inside and I didn’t see much of the girl who came in to work on me once I’d put on the giant pajama bottoms that Thai massages require. I told her my lower back hurt and she went to work expertly, using fingers, elbows, knees, and feet to get all the right spots. She kept at it for twenty or thirty minutes and then asked me to roll onto my back, where she patted my knob through my pajamas and asked “Does he hurt? I can massage him if you like?” I laughed at that, and declined (yes, really). She then carried on massaging my back for another five minutes and that was that. It was a good massage, but it did nothing for my back unfortunately. I think I need a new one.
That evening I went back to the Jewish restaurant and ordered the Jókai again, followed by some roast goose breast. Goose appeared all over this menu, it appears the Hungarians like to eat it. It wasn’t bad, but I think I preferred the goulash. Once again they had a piano player who was different from the one the night before but of the same age and no less stereotypical. Once I was fed I went into a place right next door, which I’d seen the night before. It was a small metal door opening onto a set of concrete steps leading downwards into a cellar-bar, with a sign posted upon it saying “live music”. I am incapable of walking past a place like this: I love underground dive bars which play live music, and most of the other places I’d seen were full of young folk in designer shirts served by barmaids with tattoos while the DJ played shite like Beyoncé at high-volume.
I went in and ordered a Jack Daniels which was less than 5 euros and went into the small area where a small, three-piece band had set up some equipment. There was a piano on the left, a microphone in the centre with a chair in front of it, and drumset in the back right-hand corner. The ceiling was low, the walls and columns made from rough brick, and it stank to high-heaven. Manky old sofas had been placed around the walls of the room and most of them were occupied, and the area in the middle filled with old chairs most of which were falling apart and no two were alike. The tables weren’t much better. The people ranged from old men with beards to middle-aged women in knee-boots, and from clean-cut men to hipsters, Goths, and artsy types of both sexes. Nobody had come here to look cool or to be seen. Half of them were tourists. I picked an empty chair which almost collapsed underneath me, and swapped it for one more sturdy. I wasn’t expecting much: there was no guitar on the stage and the whole setup looked as though they’d be playing jazz, which to me sounds like a petshop caught fire beside a saucepan factory.
I was wrong. Three guys came out and immediately launched into Chicago blues: the pianist was superb, playing rock and roll and boogie-woogie and the singer not only had a superb, deep voice perfect for blues but was also a whizz on the harmonica. That cheered me up no-end and before long I was rushing back to the bar to get myself another drink, and then another (and then another). They played for about forty minutes then took a break during which I shook hands with the singer and had a conversation with the pianist. He told me he was in his forties and had been playing the piano since he was seven, and it showed. He’d been classically trained, and Hungarians know a thing or two about pianos, but now all he played was blues and rock and roll in several bands, playing in this particular bar once per month just for fun. A little later on I spoke to a small, thick-haired chap sat just behind me and he told me he was a schoolfriend of the pianist and he always comes to watch him play. He said they were actually from Romania, only a part of it which is ethnically Hungarian (Transylvania, normally associated to Romania, straddles both countries on some definitions). He told me he’d grown up speaking both Romanian and Hungarian, and had moved to Budapest decades ago, as had the pianist. He had in front of him a shot glass containing a dark liquid and I asked him what it was. He told me it was called Unicum, a popular Hungarian liqueur which probably faces marketing difficulties in English-speaking countries. I’d certainly never heard of it. He offered it to me and, hoping it was cheap as buttons and not the equivalent of some 80-year old single malt whisky, I necked it in one. It was pretty foul, a lot like Jägermeister only without the Red Bull. I pulled a funny face, and thanked him. The band did another maginificent set of 40 minutes, wrapped up, came back for an encore, and then left for good. It was way past midnight at this point, so I shook the hand of the man who’d given me the drink, said goodbye, and made the short walk back to my hotel.
The next morning I decided to go to Memento Park, which is where the Budapest authorities stuck some of the old Soviet statues from the Communist times. Mel had mentioned it in the comments and it sounded interesting, but for some reason I thought it was this place which is actually in Tallinn. Anyone sensible would have researched this but readers of this blog ought by now to know that sense isn’t something I possess in abundance, and so I discovered my error only once I arrived there. The journey took about an hour and was in three parts (all on the same ticket): first a tram, then Line No. 4 of the metro, and then a bus. This part of the metro had clearly been either built recently or very much refurbished because the stations were spacious and ultra-modern and the carriages more of the type you see in the West. The bus was very modern as well, and had digital displays telling you where you were and which stop was next, and the main bus station had a digital display saying when each bus was leaving next. The bus route took us through what amounted to suburban villages, small roads lined with independent houses which didn’t look much different from the modern dachas you see built on the outskirts of Russian towns. Memento Park was probably worth the visit because I got to see some stuff outside of Budapest, but very similar statues I’d seen littering Russia in a hundred towns already.
When I got back into town I went to the Franz Listz museum which, as Squawkbox had told me in the comments, consisted of four rooms where the maestro used to live and work. I saw old pianos, some personal effects and, erm, that was about it. They weren’t playing any of his music, but my merely visiting this place lifted my knuckles off the ground for a few minutes, or so I shall claim. Next I went to the New York cafe where you can sit under chandeliers and drink coffee in a palatial setting. Well, you can if the maitre d’ doesn’t whip a Tensabarrier across the front of you and tells you to “wait there” as if you’re trying to get into a fucking nightclub in Salford. My eye was drawn to a poster advertising a coffee and biscuit for 17 euros and so turned on my heel and left. I made my way up the street to a Tex-Mex place I’d passed earlier: not very Hungarian I know, but Budapest has a pretty international range of eateries and drinkeries. I passed quite a few bars with outdoor seating areas, several of which accommodated groups of young British men obviously on stag parties. I saw parties of Norwegians and Germans as well, who also looked to be in town for the purpose of getting smashed. I went into the Tex-Mex place and the waiter was an old man whose idea of answering questions about items on the menu (such as “How do you cook the beef strips? Rare?”) was to read out what the item was (“Beef!”). I ordered some burritos which, when they came, were very average.
That evening I went to a Spanish bar which I’d spotted earlier and looked quite lively. I think it was called Bareclona. I walked into a place that was almost entirely empty and a young, tattooed waitress immediately asked if I had a reservation. I said I didn’t and just wanted a drink, so I was invited to sit at the bar. I quickly realised I was in one of those bars that is run by a bunch of young staff for themselves and their mates; nevertheless they did a good bourbon cocktail of which I drank two. I then went to eat in a restaurant that was far more touristy than the one I’d eaten at the two nights previously and I ordered what turned out to be a giant schnitzel served on a bed of very bland and greasy potato crisps (described as chips in the menu). Like the burritos I’d had for lunch, it was very average. Like most places, food in Budapest is highly dependent on where you go. Afterwards I went back to the underground dive bar, choosing to avoid mainstream places full of posers and hipsters. This time the band was again three-piece but made up of a man on guitar, another on drums, and a woman playing bass. All of them were in their fifties, playing stuff like Jimi Hendrix and Carlos Santana. Not really my cup of tea but I got a drink and sat on another rickety old chair and listened anyway.
After a while I started talking to the chap next to me, a Spaniard in his early or mid thirties. He had been living in Budapest about a year, working as an engineer on railways and trams. That’s the beauty of engineering, you can take it pretty much anywhere, it’s all the same. He was in the company of a dark-haired girl who, when he introduced me, I asked if she was Hungarian. She laughed and said no. I asked if she was Spanish, and she laughed again. She asked me to guess where she was from, and I said I had no idea. She insisted I try, and I clarified that she wasn’t Spanish-but-not-exactly, like Colombian or something. She said she wasn’t. I picked up something in her accent and took a guess.
“Turkey,” I said.
“Right!” she said.
She was from Istanbul, and the two had met when he’d been working there before he moved to Hungary. I sat with them for a while, chatting and watching the band. When the music had wrapped up David, as the Spaniard was called, and his Turkish girlfriend invited me to join them in the next place they were going: the Barcelona bar! So off we went and by that time it was packed, and people were dancing anywhere they could and crowding the bar. We got some drinks in and chatted as best as we could above the din of the music. David said the place had opened only in the past year, and when he heard about it he, being Spanish, decided to check it out (despite being from Madrid he didn’t mention wanting to firebomb it. But then he also said he didn’t like football). As he put it:
“When I first came I saw that it looked quite Spanish. But then they asked if I had a reservation! Nobody makes a reservation for a restaurant in Spain!”
I laughed at that. A little later on, when David was at the bar and I was stood next to his girlfriend, out of nowhere she turned to me and said:
“I don’t know what is going to happen in Turkey.”
I found this telling: Recep Erdoğan is hoping to drum up enough support to win a referendum this April which will change Turkey from a Parliamentary Republic into a Presidential Republic, thus putting him firmly in charge. This young lady was not the first Turk I’ve met who showed signs of being deeply concerned about the future of Turkey under Erdoğan, so much so that they feel compelled to share it with complete strangers. There was very little I could say in response to that. We didn’t stay out much longer, and we all had a photo together (which David emailed me over the weekend) before calling it a night and going to our respective homes.
I didn’t have time for much the next morning other than going to the airport and returning to Paris. I liked Budapest: it looks like a great place to go on the piss, as bars are plentiful, they are quite cheap, and drinking beer appears to be a national pastime. The atmosphere was pleasant, the people friendly, and the city welcoming. I don’t know if I’ll go back but I’m glad I’ve been once, and I recommend everyone else does too.
(The full collection of photos taken on my trip to Budapest can be seen here.)