10 Things I Hate (and Love) About You: Budapest
As I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t harbour particularly warm, fuzzy feelings towards Budapest. To cut to the chase, it made it onto my ‘list of places I’ll never go back to’, and for all the wrong reasons. In all honesty, Budapest mystified me – I’d gone with everyone else’s praise for the city ringing in my ears; some folks even said it was their favourite city in Europe, if not the world. So when I turned up in a grim city dank with rain and fog, and met similarly miserable locals who seemingly couldn’t crack a smile, I was a bit confused. Why on earth do people rave about this place? I’m still not entirely sure what the answer to this question is, although in fairness there were a few things that I liked. See if you agree with my list below – and if you know why people love Budapest, please enlighten me!
Unfortunately, my friend and I were scammed out of all of our remaining money in the last hours of our trip (literally, pocket fluff and everything), which obviously wasn’t the best end to an already somewhat gloomy trip. To cut a long story short, a rogue taxi driver picked up on the fact that we needed to get to the airport quick-sharp (for more on this see my rant about the trains below) and made a quick buck out of us by switching on his magic taxi meter (the one that quadruples the normal fare).
I’m not the only one, however. My partner similarly fell foul of some locals looking to make some cash out of a few tourists when he visited with friends. This was for a stag do, so the finer details are best left to the imagination, but the essence of it involved lots of drinks being consumed in a bar (apparently at a ‘set price’), only for a very different bill to then emerge. My other half is a bit more ballsy than me and pegged it, although he admitted afterwards that he did wonder how close to death he was at the time. Maybe we were both just unlucky, but I’ve never come across such vicious and cruel scams in any other country, and two scams out of two visits isn’t the best track record for any city!
Just look at that. Ugh. As with the scams, I’m sure we were ‘just unlucky’ with the weather, but it really didn’t help things. The first day, the weather was so bad we could barely see the river from our (riverside) hotel, let alone Buda Castle on the opposite side. Travelling up to Fisherman’s Bastion was similarly disappointing. We were visiting at Christmas and had visions of snow and twinkling markets, and were met with drizzle, mist and occasional downpours of rain. Granted, good weather is never guaranteed anywhere, but trudging round in the wet never makes for the best city break.
Obviously the whole scam thing sours this one slightly, but by and large I found Hungarians to be unrelentingly unfriendly. Wherever I go, I aim to at least learn ‘hello’, ‘goodbye’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you’ in the local language, and despite whatever mangled pronunciation I come up with, it tends to conjure up a smile in most countries. Folks generally love it when you give their language a try, all the more if they can have a laugh at your shoddy attempt (which is fine). In Budapest though? Nothing. Not even a flicker of recognition. Generally more of a cold silence. At worst, an eye roll. And maybe my pronunciation was bad to the point of causing offence, but … really? Both my travelling companion and I noticed it after a few days, and let’s just say it only added to the already chilly atmosphere created by the sodding weather.
Smug from mastering the metro, we decided it would be a breeze to catch a train back to the airport. Oh how stupid we were. Despite English being fairly prominent elsewhere around the city (on signage, menus and so on) it suddenly seemed to disappear at the station. And I’m sure it was there, but gazing at a huge departure board with a list of unintelligible names, I felt a faint surge of panic. Not to be beaten however, we joined the queue at the ticket desk. And what a queue it was. I can only imagine that it was the one day of the month when pensioners can renew their train pass, as we seemed to be standing behind all the grandmas in Budapest, and gosh were they slow.
We finally paid, deduced which platform to go to, and sat on a train that was apparently the ‘next train to the airport’. And we sat there, and sat there. Now, this will be a sweeping generalisation, but in most major cities that I’ve been to, the airport trains are pretty swish, regular, and timely. Not so in Budapest. Maybe we were just unlucky (how many times I have said this now?) but this was ridiculous. Eventually our panic reached critical levels, and we dashed out to the taxi rank. You already know what happened next…
Depending on where you’ll look, you’ll see Hungarian (or magyar) described as ‘very difficult’ or ‘very easy’ – which is totally helpful (not). I will admit to being thoroughly baffled by the language, and found it very difficult to pick up, largely because it is so different to other European languages. I have a fairly decent working knowledge of French (or at least, enough to get by) and the merest smattering of Spanish, which tends to serve me well in a variety of contexts – and English helps too, of course…! But Hungarian was something else.
The only other place I have felt so linguistically lost is Finland, which makes sense as the two languages are faintly connected. Both are part of the Finno-Ugric branch of Uralic languages, as opposed to many other European languages which have roots in Indo-European. Amongst other things, Hungarian has no less than 14 vowels to grapple with, has single ‘letters’ made from combinations of other letters (so ‘j’ = ‘dzs’) and words like “megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért” are a thing. Have fun with that one.
Located at the end of Vaci Utca – one of the main pedestrianised streets in Budapest and possibly its most famous – sits the Central Market Hall. Both a fully functional market and a ridiculously ornate tourist attraction, it’s worth a wander for the mix of souvenirs and traditional Hungarian fare. Along with some more standard market stores, you’ll find Hungarian sausages, hams, salamis and cheeses on offer, as well as a range of exotic spices and regional wines. Head up to the higher storeys for snacks and meals where you can find hot, garlicky langos (deep-fried flatbreads). Service is generally fast and the vibe is very informal – sharing tables with the locals or snacking whilst standing are the norm up here.
The opera house
This one really is a beauty. Exquisite inside and out, you should definitely stop by the Hungarian State Opera House for a visit even if you haven’t snagged a ticket for something. (Tickets do sell out quite quickly in advance, so look early if you’re planning a visit). Unfortunately without a ticket you’ll usually only get as far as the lobby, although daily tours are also available and there are occasional open days. Located on smart Andrassy Ut. and built in neo-Renaissance style, the detailing on both the exterior and interior is breathtaking. Walk by at dusk if you’re in the area: the building is illuminated at night and is beautiful against the evening sky.
As well as the aforementioned langos, Hungary boasts some seriously heavyweight culinary delights, most of them stodgy, warm, and hearty: perfect food for fueling travellers, and a welcome antidote to traipsing the cold streets, as we found to our relief. Say hello to steaming bowls of goulash, doughy dumplings, rolls of sweet strudel and the delicious dobos cake – layers of sponge with chocolate buttercream and caramel.
Cake fans in particular should head to Cafe Gerbeaud in Vorosmarty Ter for decadent gateau and hot, strong coffee in grand dining rooms. Meat lovers will also do well in Budapest: enjoying a warming plate of roast goose and creamy mashed potatoes whilst sat outside in the crisp air at a Christmas market was one particular highlight, and I still think about the pigs trotters I devoured there too. The soft, juicy pork meat combined with a crackling skin was a revelation – so much so that I enquired about getting some from my local butchers when I came home…
One aspect of Budapest that I did find particularly striking was its architecture. With a rich heritage ranging from Renaissance, Gothic, Turkish and Roman to the more recent signs of its Communist era, the buildings are a fascinating mixture of the different influences and forces that have shaped and developed the city. For Gothic architecture head to the Castle District, whilst neo-Gothic is on display in the design of the stunning Parliament Building (above). St Stephen’s Basilica and the Opera House both draw on neo-Renaissance styles, and check out the various surviving Turkish baths for a real taste of the Ottoman Empire. Baroque style (think ‘wedding cake’) was a very different influence on other spas in the city, such as the Szechenyi Baths, and if you’re on a bit of a spa tour, compare this with the Art Nouveau stylings of Gellert Baths. And if none of the above mean anything to you, just wander the streets and look up: you won’t be disappointed.
In many ways, my experience at the Szechenyi Baths sums up my love-hate relationship with Budapest. The spas here are famous, the buildings are often beautiful and the experience is unique. But they can also be a bit decrepit, slightly dingy and dirty in places, and if (like us) you’re particularly unlucky, you’ll come across a bloke having a wank in a jacuzzi. C’est la vie.
Moving swiftly on. Despite this (and if you’re still struggling to get past that last point, I apologise) I would still recommend visiting at least one spa whilst you’re in Budapest. The city is well-known for the thermal springs supplying its residents with warm bathing waters, and as mentioned, many of the older spas are architecturally and visually grand in appearance and scale. (The city also has more modern, sanitised options if that’s your bag.) There is also something special about soaking in steaming hot waters on a cold winter’s night. Just don’t think too carefully about what’s in that water…
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