So it was with that assumption that I headed into town. Budapest was not at all what I expected. The city is actually split into two parts, Buda and Pest, with the "and" being the Danube River. The city, unlike any other Eastern European city I've been in, is exceptionally Westernized. There's a definite bustle to the place, with wide busy sidewalks and streets and a McDonald's or Burger King at every turn. Normally, that bothers me, but in a place like that it didn't and I suspect it doesn't bother the locals either. I never had a chance to talk to any to verify, but I suspect that Hungarians (and any other Eastern European) sees a place like that, even if they don't like the food, as a symbol of the freedom they fought so hard for and didn't have barely 15 years ago. It's just a theory, but I do remember when I was talking to George and Kika in Bratislava and mentioning how disappointed I was in seeing a McDonald's smack dab in between some important Slovakian buildings, they didn't seem nearly as concerned.
My first full day in Budapest I was on the Buda side, where the large castle complex is located. Even though it rained for a good chunk of the time, I still thoroughly enjoyed it. The section had a massive church with spires that commanded the skyline and the castle started right in front of it, with the rampart running alongside
. On those ramparts were spectacular views of the Pest side, with numerous bridges and the enormous Parliament building. The area was one of those places where there was a picture-worthy view at every turn of a corner, whether it was the architecture, a sculpture or the scenery. After spending a couple hours there I was looking forward to dumping my bags in the new hostel and attacking the rest of the city. So much for best laid plans. I arrived at Domino Hostel at 2 and produced my reservation receipt. The problem was they had no record of my reservation and no free beds. It felt like that Seinfeld scene at the rental car agency. The only thing they could do for me, they said, was send me to a different, even shittier, even more poorly located student housing hostel than what I stayed in the night before. I did my best to not throw a shit storm, and instead of spending the next four hours hitting all the sights, I was doing laps up and down the city in search of a hostel bed. The only thing I could wrangle up was sleeping in the "VIP" room of Prima Hostel, which meant climbing up a ladder propped against the wall onto a platform about 10 feet above the ground. The only thing dodgier than getting up there was getting back down. Though the living conditions weren't the best, the hostel was much better. It had free breakfast and a common area (Domino's is under construction) where I made a bunch of friends. That day I went to the Terror House, the building that the Nazi-sympathetic Hungarian leadership used during World War II and then the Communists used until 1956
. The building witnessed some horrific injustices and human rights violations and the museum really didn't hold back in letting you know that or setting a somber mood. There's haunting music just as you enter from the street and then the first room you go into, which outlines Hungary's history in the 20th century (from large empire to political pawn) with a crazy looping soundtrack that sounds like something straight out of Fight Club. In the evening I went out with a big group from the hostel and found the type of bar that is unique to Budapest that I had been hearing about for weeks. In Budapest there have been a whole series of bars popping up that have been built out of deserted warehouses. The areas are massive, with open courtyards and DJs or live bands, and best of all, a mostly local clientele. You basically have to see someone walk out of one to be able to walk into it, because otherwise you'd never find it. There are no signs advertising it whatsoever, it looks like any other residential building. Inside it was great though, a real chilled out atmosphere, a good DJ not playing anything too heavy and foosball tables everywhere -- even a foosball cow, as part of the cow parade in town.
My final full day in town I went to Sziget. Sziget -- the Hungarian word for 'Island' -- is held, as you might guess, on an island in the middle of the Danube. It's a weeklong festival with a different headliner band on every night and tents housing different genres of music spread throughout the island
. There are 24-hour clubs and beer gardens, karaoke stands and Hari Krshna recruitment centers, anything and everything you'd need. The day pass is a pretty good bargain at about 24 euro, but the weeklong pass is an absolute steal -- about 120 euro to camp out for the whole time. That's practically how much a week's accommodation costs, and you just happen to be on an island housing fantastic nightlife and live concerts every single night. Sziget 2007 might not be in the cards, but best believe Sziget near future is now exceptionally high on the to-do list. I would've forked over the 24 euro for the experience alone, I just happened to be able to catch Franz Ferdinand live as well. I spent the day walking the grounds, hanging out with a group of Irish girls I had met in Prague and drinking normally priced beer (a little over a euro -- how much would a pint at an American festival cost? $7? $15? Your first born and a loan from the bank?) until the sun went down and it was time to make a move toward the main stage. There isn't an amphitheater or anything, just open ground, so basically everybody has floor seats, and we managed to get within about 20 feet of the stage. The band put on an amazing show, I loved it even though I barely know any of their songs. The energy during the guitar bridge in Take Me Out was incredible but the best part of the show was during the encore when they broke into a massive drum solo, which I guess you can't really call a solo because three of the band members were playing at the same time
. They used the solo to build into This Fire and that sent the crowd into a frenzy. That actually ended the show, and we set off full of adrenaline to go tent-hopping around the island. The highlight of the night was the silent disco, where everybody is given a pair of headphones and can choose which music they want to listen and dance to, so you can be dancing with your friends and you're moving in two completely opposite rhythms.
The next morning I was on the move, to Belgrade, a decision I had made a whole 24 hours before. Just one thing on this -- Budapest has the, and there's no disputing this, the WORST train station ever. They have one ticket window and no computers, so every ticket is hand-written. I got there 2 hours before my train was set to leave and with about 15 minutes to spare had moved all of, at best, 5 feet. I had to jump to the front of the line, and thankfully the Dutch guys there were more reasonable than the Hungarian family immediately behind them. I asked for my youth ticket to Belgrade and handed over my credit card -- in any normal situation, the whole transaction would've taken less time than it did for me to type this, yet I was still in full sprint to get my train by the time the ticket lady was done writing down everything. So, if you're leaving Budapest by train, go to the station a day early. You just might get your ticket in time to catch your train.
I had learned my lesson from Bratislava -- always book ahead. And the morning I woke up in Bratislava, I tried, but I couldn't book anything day of online, so I assumed, well, Budapest is a big city, better equipped for tourists and at least one hostel is bound to send a lackey to the train station to swoop up backpackers. That wasn't exactly the case. I had basically arrived in the city at exactly the wrong (and in some ways right) time. The Grand Prix was just closing out so there was still that crowd, plus higher room rates, still in town, and the Sziget Music Festival (more on that later) was about to kick off. I was able to book into student housing for the night, and knowing that not only would it be a piece of shit, but a piece of shit in which I wouldn't meet anyone, I had the travel agency in the train station book me into another hostel -- a proper hostel -- that was smack in the center of town and was also where the girls who I hung out with on my last night in Krakow would be.