The East of the West & the West of the East

Trip Start Jul 13, 2007
Trip End Jul 2008

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Flag of Hungary  ,
Friday, February 29, 2008

On one hand you've got your Buda.  On the other, you've got your Pest.  Our story picks up where these two cities meet.  On the plane over from Madrid we wondered what our nomadic life would be like without wheels from now on.  We wondered if there would be any other 'its a small world after all' experiences.  While we contemplated these things we made the acquiantance of a man, Istvan, who was a resident of Budapest who had visited Vancouver once upon a time.  He and his wife were pleasant company and impressively tolerant of our rapscallion brood.  Once we landed, they bid us fare well and good luck.  We wished them the same.  We gathered our 20 pieces of luggage and went outside to hail a cab.  And what drove up first but a Renault Traffic - the exact model we had been driving for the past six months!  With big smiles we confidently packed it full of all our kit and set out to find our new digs.  We tried a new strategy: a furnished apartment found on Craigslist.  It turned out to be grand in architectural style but rather slap-dash in decor which made for easy childminding at the least.  We settled in nicely.  The next day around noon we sauntered over to the grocery across the street to pick up a few items and who do you think was right behind us in the check-out line up?  None other than Mr. Istvan himself! He kindly offered us some tips for sightseeing and some local directions.  Now given that there are some two million people in Budapest, if this is not a small world afterall, then what are the chances that for 20 years this man who had worked across the street from what would be our Craigslist apartment was to be seated beside us on a plane in Spain????  We laughed at the chances, exchanged email addresses, and once again bid each other good luck.

After sorting out all the various forms of public transportation we went exploring to see just how the Huns fight the winter freeze.  It wasn't actually all that cold but there are fabulous furry hats to be had if you wish and once you set foot in this Carpathian city you can not ignore all the peppers that are essential to the quality of life here.  They will warm you up from the inside out but let us return to that topic in a moment.

Fortified against the chill we set out to learn a little of the vicinity's history.  We sought out Szoborpark which is on the outskirts of town.  It is a great gravelly graveyard for all the gigantic monuments of the communist regime.  Surprisingly, these statues were collected here to serve as reminders of the socialist politics of the past.  There in the third photo you can see Isaac and Rosie dwarfed by the boots of Stalin.  This statue was destroyed in the Revolution of 1956 and all that remains are the boots he wore for stomping millions of innocent people.  Given its size, it must have been a wholly impressive monument in its day but now it only brings to mind Shelley's sonnet "Ozymandius"....
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
There were some amusing souvenirs for sale and some somber faces perhaps wondering why tourists get such a kick out of seeing anything that has to do with such an oppressive era.  But history is always interesting, except apparently when you are eight or ten years old being dragged around a statue park...  Around town there are still many signs of the ongoing process of shedding the coat of communism.  One political party still uses a red star in its logo even though this symbol of Communism is illegal.  The power tripping subway staff is only too happy to stop you for no reason and call a conference on whether to fine you or not.  Also it seemed to us that the majority of people are dressed modestly without regard for exuberant consumerism or fashion trends.  Countless grannies are wearing the fur coat they have worn for more than half a century despite the mange that seems to have taken hold.  Plenty of buildings are bland on the outside though many are still beautiful inside.  And in the end, walking around gawking at just the architecture alone one gathers a distinct sense of the contrasts this city holds:  Western - eastern; ancient - nouveau; drab - ornate; proud - humble; communist - religious.  Eclectic...
We were keen to enjoy the cold snap with some ice skating.  The City Park ice rink is a gorgeous locale and really quite exotic with a Transylvanian castle as a backdrop.  It is the place to be at 5pm onwards as gaggles of giggly young girls in pretty sweaters are wooed by the packs of young men showing off their cool moves and sheer speed.  Good clean fun in a spellbinding setting.  The night may be topped off with a hearty mug of hot chocolate for the little ones and a shot or two of Transylvanian brandy otherwise known as Palinka.  It will most certainly warm your blood, and will likely curl your eyebrows at the same time.  Not for the faint of heart!
Another must do in this city is the thermal baths.  Our visits to Szechenyi were where we encountered perhaps the most profound and mesmerizing contrasts of all.  While it was 2 degrees centigrade outside, it was 34 degrees under water.  As the sky turned a cobalt blue, the yellow building that surrounded us glowed.  As the steam rose up towards the full moon so too did our spirits.  The water felt divine! In fact there is not a Hungarian alive that won't tell you of the healing properties of these baths.  And who can argue?  They feel good, smell good and sit at the centre of community-based leisure.  In the baths you will see families playing in the whirlpool as well as troops of old men playing chess.  Middle aged women in circles chatting, and the occasional odd individual who brings the newspaper in to read or maybe an apple to nosh on.  In addition to all these characters if you stay late enough you may very well see those same young ones you saw courting at the ice rink the other day with their sweaters and skates now decidedly missing.
So after a good splash the obvious question is what's for dinner?  And the answer is Goulash of course!  You can have it with meat or beans depending on your culinary persuasion and you can have the feast of a lifetime if you know where to go.  The key to this meal is of course the paprika which is an essential part of any Hungarian kitchen.  (The word paprika is Hungarian.)  Now if you ever thought you knew what paprika was, just ask a Hun.  There are no less than eight different kinds according to them and while some might make you smile with satisfaction, others will certainly make you cry.  They adore their peppers; mild, sweet, pungent or hot.  After all, it was Albert Szent-Gyorgyi, the Hungarian scientist who was awarded the Noble prize in 1937 for discovering vitamin C, in - but of course - paprika.  We learned where to go for good authentic Goulash from a man we met named Elek.  An unassuming young man who rides the tram system toting an open Becks in hand and eavesdropping on English conversations, he seemed also to carry a wealth of goodwill.  When we asked him where our destination was exactly he did not just tell us.  He got off at our stop and escorted us to the very spot and then showed us his personal favorite restaurant "Eklectika".  How apropos! When we suggested to him that the number of English speaking people in Budapest was most impressive he replied "No, no, this is not so true.  You are misinformized."  When we suggested to him that he, like all Hungarians we had met (except the subway staff), seemed prone to unwarranted acts of kindness he said "So you say but every one has their bad habit."  How humble, how charming he was!  As it turns out his name means "Defender of Man" and wasn't he just that, ensuring our success as well as he could with the chivalry of a true gentleman. 
Back to the history lesson, we took some time to roam around the underground labyrinth that has for millennia served various and sundry purposes.  Carved out of rock by the thermal waters this sweaty subterranean maze has been refuge to people in the Middle Ages, home to people during war, secret passages to the nobles, and play areas to present day tourists like ourselves.  From there we took time to visit the Dohany Street Synagogue which is the largest in Europe.  Built by a Viennese architect in the 1850's it is a mix of Moorish, Byzantine, Romantic, and Gothic elements.  There is the eclectic factor again.  Sadly, it became an internment camp to thousands of city Jews in 1944 and was the sorry witness to much suffering and death.  It was severely damaged in WWII and not restored until the Communist cloak was lifted in 1991.  At that time a striking memorial was erected in the courtyard.  On this weeping willow hang thousands of silver leaves each bearing the name of a Hungarian Jew who died in the holocaust.  It is very touching indeed.
On a lighter note we were determined to taste the culture that this fine capital has to offer.  For a fine family moment we took an afternoon to enjoy the ever famous Budapest Puppet Theatre.  Despite the obvious linguistic barrier, all six of us were delighted with the music and the vivid depiction of a cowardly tiger that lost his stripes and had to earn them back.  We would have liked to see more.  The good news is this company tours the world so if you see their posters we would say don't hesitate to take them in.  From there we felt compelled to have a peek into one of Europe's finest opera houses.  And with great seats costing no more than $35 we had no excuse not to.  Lucky us, we saw La Bohčme in the luxury of a Hapsburg venue painted in real gold.  Complete old world charm from the inside out. The show wasn't bad either.  If we have one Budavari regret it is that we did not get to see the folk dancing.  Please take a look at this 3:09 minute clip and see if these fiery boot-slapping fellows don't get your blood pumping.  They are fantastic!
A cruise up the Danube on a grand bateau, a trip to the Marzipan museum, nearly daily doses of the local pastries that rival any of those found in France, and a few school lessons here and there filled in any spare moments we had in our agenda.  We were thankful to once again have the pleasure of visiting with our friend Jean-Marie. A French man living in Budapest he is the one who is ultimately qualified to show us where to feast and tutor us on the highlights of Hungarian wine.  Little did we know that the North Eastern part of Hungary has been producing wonderful wine since Celtic times, well before Christ.  We happily imbibed and were truly pleased with the fruits of this land.  As for dessert, we were surprised and thrilled to find Hungary's answer to tiramisu: Somlói galuska!  Oy Yoy Yoy!  While Su has been known to worship tiramisu above all other desserts, she has claimed this dish as the best runner up.  Ask her to make it for you some time and she will with glee!
It is easy to say we were thoroughly enchanted by this town sometimes called the City of Spas, the Paris of the East, or the Pearl of the Danube.  It is steeped in history and culture, rife with fine cuisine, and brimming with heartwarming people.  Surprisingly inexpensive and somehow modest and grand all at the same time - we bid Farewell to you, Budapest - the city of contrasts, eclectics, and kindhearted defenders of men!  What a delightful discovery it has been.  However, we must now embark on the next leg of this journey.  The jet plane is waiting to take us to the most beloved city of all time....
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starlagurl on

What a very well researched and written blog! You should request a special feature!

Louise Brown
TravelPod Community Manager

zsobig on

I hope you really had a great time in Budapest, and you will come back to this beautiful city soon (summer is the best time for a vacation ;)).
Best wishes,

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