At the end of March, I jetted off with my special someone to Budapest for a three-night getaway. The city is beautiful but for the endless roadworks and some signs of under-investment in building renovation; the food will see to it that you leave slightly more convex than when you came, even after walking constantly; and the people will make you contemplate how communist and post-communist life can affect ‘the national mentality’.
Our first foray into Budapest life was in the Jewish Quarter, very close to our hotel. Spinoza Cafe provided the eats, which were sweet dumplings and apple strudel, and strong coffee – fuel for our exploration of the district. The Great Synagogue was strikingly ornate for a synagogue (synagogues are typically austere, as places of worship go), and I thoroughly enjoyed my Muslim fellow traveller adorning a kippa inside the building – even more so when the thing kept falling off (sacrilege!). On a side note, the site on which the synagogue was built was the birthplace of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism.
After admiring the Great Synagogue, we wandered on into the Memorial Park. We attempted to assimilate into a guided tour to find out more about the place, but were ever so slightly conspicuous in the over-60s group. The tour guide was keen to highlight the presence of Hungarian Schindlers during WWII; a running theme of Budapest seemed to be the desire to stress homegrown heroes, evidenced not only by their mention in the Memorial Park but also by statues across the city. In that particular instance, it was certainly a nicer picture of history to paint than one of the million member-strong fascist Arrow Cross Party and the severe depletion of the Hungarian Jewish community (800,000 became 80,000).
Day Two of the trip saw us cross over from Pest into Buda via the Chain Bridge and take the shortest uphill tram ride imaginable to reach the Castle District. After appreciating the view, we went on to visit St. Michael’s Church and the Fisherman’s Bastion (a structure built purely to provide a nice vantage point).
Next was a cake and tea break, which would’ve been decent if not for the appalling service. Generally the service we received in Budapest was lukewarm at best, possibly because Hungarians are not the most positive people, to the extent that they are apparently known for their ‘patriotic sorrow’. However, our spirits rose when we got to explore the Buda Castle Labyrinth – a surreal experience to say the least! The underground caves first appeared to contain historical features and artifacts, but it later dawned on us that these weren’t exactly genuine – a realisation reinforced by the toilet exhibition near the end of the labyrinth and a ‘fossilised’ Pepsi bottle. The Hungarian sense of humour is somewhat baffling.
Not satisfied with the fake history we’d seen underground, we headed for the National History Museum, a museum that gave the (wholly unfair) impression that Hungary has no history whatsoever! It’s easy to sum up the place: sparse rooms, the smell of cigarette smoke, and dead ends. The museum map suggested that our visit should take hours; we spent less than ten minutes wandering around in a state of bemusement, before deciding it was time to escape the Castle District for greener cultural pastures.
Unaided by signposting, we trekked ‘up’ in search of Gellert Hill. Not for the first time that day, we were treated to stunning views of the Danube and both halves of Budapest.
The night continued with a well-earned chill-out session at Budapest’s best-known ‘ruin bar’, Szimpla kert. The dilapidated building and surly bouncers on the door were not exactly inviting, but we were pleasantly surprised by what we found inside. The bar had a wonderfully bohemian atmosphere, fun decor and lighting, and cheap and cheerful plum wine. It left me questioning why London can’t have places like Szimpla kert: so cool and yet so unpretentious!
We started Day Three with a look around the elaborate St. Stephen’s Basilica before journeying to Margaret Island, a 2.5km strip of land in the middle of the Danube between Buda and Pest. A highlight of our stroll down the island was the church ruins. We crossed back into Pest and skirted the river bank downtown, to catch the afternoon tour of Parliament.
The evening started rather disappointingly, as we struggled to seek out the city’s nightlife. Having vetoed the poor offering at one of Budapest’s main cultural centres, we found the Cotton Club and hoped for the best. The decor was pretty cool, mimicking a 1920s American bar, and the cocktails were also well-received! The music was an entirely different story; our pianist for the evening seemed to be Budapest’s answer to Michael Buble, complete with a songbook of said Buble (for shame, fellow traveller who recognised that the guy was playing a Buble album!).
Day 4: what better way to round off a lovely stay in Budapest than with a visit to the House of Terror? The museum has a rather harrowing history; the actual building was once the HQ of the fascist Arrow Cross Party, and then the HQ of the secret police force of the Hungarian Communist regime, representing a continuity of terror in 20th century history. In its Communist days, The HoT served as a centre of torture as well (we had the privilege of visiting the cells in the basement). We both found the exhibition bizarre in parts, not least at the start when inappropriate ominous music was playing (do you really need Hollywood-esque theatrical music to convey the horrors of the Holocaust?). There’s some controversy relating to the Hungarian (right-wing) government du jour’s motivation for building the museum; some accused it of trying to tarnish the current Socialist party by dredging up the Communist past. It did seem strange that so much room was given to the Communist era at the expense of the fascist period, although the former was far longer lasting.
In stark contrast to our morning in the House of Terror, we spent lunchtime in the up-market Gerbaud cafe, with its luxurious interior and artisan cakes. The experience epitomised holiday indulgence; it was the perfect – and most delicious – way to end the trip.