Budapest: Liberate Our Orb

And then there was light.

On the third day of our Budapest stay, and upon discovering that everyone’s favourite hostel owners – the Slumbering Magyar and his Furious Spouse – had offered us a full refund for our troubles (not before telling HostelWorld that he wouldn’t be giving us one), the clouds parted, the sun shone upon the grand Hungarian capital, and God saw it and saw that it was good.

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An angry selfie I took when I realised I had to either burn or wash all my clothes

And so, running on a total of about 6 hours of sleep over two nights at 11th Hour Hostel, Kate and I woke up at around 7am and found an amazing aparthotel online in downtown Budapest at a massively discounted rate for our last night there, meaning we were up financially from our original situation.

We leapt out of bed (not for the first time at this hostel) with an almost rapturous gusto, threw our clothing in great heaps into our suitcases, bolted downstairs past empty, cavernous dorm rooms to the reception and gleefully checked out of Bedbug Manors a night early, our rather acrimonious early departure garnering little more than a shrug from the staff. With suitcases in tow we holed up in a coffee shop nearby until we could stroll across to the southern district of the city centre and check into our new digs which, as we discovered, consisted of an enormously roomy hardwood-floored suite complete with a strangely well-equipped kitchen and – most importantly to counter our current predicament – a washing machine.

With just a hint of the Richard the Lionhearts about her, Kate began a ferocious holy crusade against the mighty bedbug hoard, chucking every single item of clothing into the washer and practically boiling them before putting the machine on a spin cycle so vigorous that it broke free of its wall fittings and shuddered its way halfway across the bathroom.

At this point I should say that, despite my inane ramblings, we hadn’t actually spent the entire time doing domestic chores cos.. y’know… we’re here to see stuff or something.

This is my third visit to Budapest and every time it takes me by surprise. Yet there’s never a discernible pattern to the surprise – the shocks and unexpected twists it delivers just seem to be a vital characteristic to a city that appears to endlessly morph. As such, no two trips to the Hungarian capital are alike, but how dependent your perception of it is on your mood or the company you bring may have something to do with it.

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Just the second-largest synagogue in the world

The first time I visited I couldn’t believe how relaxed and cool it was, especially for – and no Hungarian will thank me for saying this – a former Eastern Bloc state. Undeniably a city that has, in recent years, built a somewhat fearsome yet eye-roll-worthy reputation as a magnet for slimy stag dos and unwashed interrailers, Budapest is deep down a city where the tourism sector has melded with the local atmosphere almost seamlessly. Though there are obvious tourist hotspots which will charge 4x the price of anywhere else and where the sight of a St George’s Cross may not seem out of place, walk into most bars or restaurants around town and you’re likely to hit at least one Hungarian if you were to throw a stone, something I would – not from first-hand experience – strongly recommend not doing.

Second time was in July and man alive did the city live up to its reputation as a beautiful-city-turned-trashy-cesspool, awash with bumbling English tank-top-clad lads and their respective female counterparts, whose names are printed in bold across pink shoulder-to-hip sashes awkwardly draped across the pictures of dildos on their shirts underneath.

This time though, Budapest has seemed a far cry from those two iterations. Peaceful yet industrious and with its rowdy side hiding under its almost intimidating opulence, the city this time seems an urban behemoth; a truly sprawling European megalopolis of gargantuan eight-lane boulevards and canyon-like sidestreets that one shuffles through with awed reverence rather than the arrogance of a conquering – and most likely drunk – foreigner.

And of course, few cities in the world, let alone Europe, can boast historical pedigree on the level of Budapest, and so Kate and I decided to partake in not one but two separate walking tours.

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Mr Rubik was apparently Hungarian

First was the Communist Walking Tour, a whistle-stop tour of sites relating to Hungary’s somewhat complicated relationship with the Soviet regime and its own Communist puppet government, which as we learned not only blanketed the country in a grim authoritarian shroud but also decreed that Christmas be renamed “Pine Tree Holiday” and that all mentions of “you bloody Soviet bastard” in James Bond films broadcast on state television be changed to “you evil Chinese pirate”.

One slightly garish Russian monument and an uncomfortably sycophantic statue of Ronald Reagan later, we arrived at the Memorial to the Victims of the German Invasion, a hideously poor attempt at neoclassical sculpturing erected in 2014 to commemorate the Nazi occupation of Hungary and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in their hands.

However, as y’all may have heard and many level-headed locals will tell you, the Hungarians weren’t exactly saints themselves during this period. To say they were “occupied” by the Nazis is like saying America is “occupied” by Donald Trump; sure there was a hearty resistance in place but millions of people – including most of those at government level – joyously rolled out the red carpet.

And as a result this commemorative statue is just a laughable shitshow. Almost every inch of it is awash with protest material, whether taped to it or scrawled across it, and the fence designed to keep it from being torn down has become a wall of shame, plastered with flyers and posters claiming the statue – masterminded by Hungary’s current (and pretty racist) President Viktor Orban – was “built on a lie”.

Astride the ruined columns I can only assume were erected as a metaphor for the career of the sculptor who designed this monstrosity is the Archangel Gabriel (representative of Hungary) supposedly shielding an orb (representative of Hungary’s innocence) beneath a bafflingly cartoonish depiction of an eagle mid-swoop (representative of Nazi Germany). However, many detractors have noted that the statue’s clunky design has left old Gabriel up on his perch inadvertently appearing to shield the orb in a way that looks suspiciously like he is in fact gracefully offering Hungary’s innocence to the eagle rather than protecting it. Thanks a bunch Angel Gabe, you couldn’t keep your hands to yourself and now Hitler’s gonna liberate our orb.

The following day was spent in strangely similar fashion, this time setting out on the city’s Jewish Walking Tour, a far more sombre affair that I’m sure – for obvious reasons – I can skip the details of.

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The view from Pest

For anyone who isn’t aware, Budapest is a merging of two ancient cities handily named Buda and Pest, the latter of which is the beating heart of the modern city, while Buda, over on the other side of the river, is mostly comprised of a quaint old town of cobbled streets and narrow staircases. Kate and I spent the day walking off the jaw-droppingly grim stories from the Jewish tour before heading down to Rudas baths, an amazing bath complex which perfectly demonstrates Buda’s greatest strength – that it offers fantastic views of Pest over the Danube.

After a few glasses of wine and a dip in the Turkish baths in the basement of the building, we wearily climbed up to the heated rooftop pool and, while I annoyed Kate by humming Strauss’ Blue Danube on a loop, watched as the blazing sun drifted slowly out of view behind Gellert Hill, casting a hazy orange-blue shadow across the moored boats and colourful Viennese-style facades on the opposite bank.

I should say we are actually in Zagreb at the moment, and are about to board a bus to Ljubljana, but I felt like Budapest was deserving of its own post, such is the quality of the time we had there (and the utter nightmare that was the train journey to Croatia also in need of a separate post).

Despite being a city chock full of hipsters and partygoers, Hungary has a real gem in Budapest – a place sufficiently alien in style and attitude for it to remain a real thrill for western Europeans but also a homely, unpretentious town of laid-back coffee shops, winding sidestreets illuminated by gaslight and a seemingly bottomless mine of complex, fascinating history.

I saw it and it was good.

I just realised by writing that I have accidentally equated myself with God.

My bad.

Gabe

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Budapest: Bugs of the Bed

In almost any other dimension in which I exist, this sprawling blog post would likely start with me saying that I am an extremely unhappy man right at this moment. But as it happens I’m actually not. I’m chilling on a chaise longue, watching Roma hilariously dismantle Barcelona in the Champions League on a giant flatscreen TV and eating some suspiciously tasty Hungarian sausage that I just cooked. Life is good.

But for a (fairly) brief and chaotic moment last night it turned into a nightmarish Bruegel painting of angry hostel managers, painful insect bites and maybe the strangest phonecall I’ve ever been a participant of.

When we first booked this trip a few months ago, we resigned ourselves to staying at 11th Cinema Hour Hostel in the Astoria district of Budapest, booking it through the HostelWorld website. Cheap and cheerful but with great reviews and in a decent location, we felt like it would be hard to go wrong here; I’ve stayed at many a hostel on my travels and – bar the time my bed collapsed in Nagasaki – most of them have been relatively incident-free.

When push came to shove, however, 11th Hour, the great hope, was a great shithole.

You could tell from the moment you regrettably waltzed through its oversized doors; cavernous, cold hallways, rude staff and a bizarre 8-bed dorm room masquerading as the “private double en-suite” bedroom they had sold us, this was a dingy, empty and grimy hostel. It was the exact thing you didn’t want to see when trying in vain to convince your partner that hostels are a great way of seeing the world. We checked in, dumped our bags, triple-locked our door and headed out into the city to spend as much time away from the room as we could.

The first night – we thought – went without a hitch. Despite the blazing heat from the radiators that were inexplicably on full blast all night, the sleep was pretty comfortable.

And then…

Bedbugs. Bed bugs. Bugs of the bed.

After a second day of hiding in a point on the map of Budapest as far from our hostel as we could physically reach, we headed back home after a night of drinking and boom: while getting changed Kate noticed a row of three bites on her hip. Having learned – ironically in Budapest three years earlier – that three bites in a row was some sort of cruel joke only played by scheming bedbugs, we immediately freaked out and darted out of bed, both of us no doubt resisting the urge to leap into the others’ arms like Shaggy and Scooby at the sight of a vampire.

“What do we do?!” was my immediate response, to which Kate replied, after we had decided that bleach-boiling our skin or passing out were not viable solutions, that we should stay calm, move all our clothing off the beds and onto the floor, and go get someone from reception.

While I was putting my shoes on I heard a faint but purposeful “oh there it is” from behind me, and I swivelled to see Kate forlornly pointing at full arms-length toward a shrivelled black insect resting on the sheets in much the way a family from Basildon might point at a vandalised council-funded fence in a local newspaper. We took some close-up photos of the creepy little intruder to both present to HostelWorld and to undoubtedly reminisce while fondly looking over with our distressed grandchildren, before I left the room and headed down the corridor to the reception.

Nothing. A pitch black room with nobody in it. Sure, it was midnight by this point, but come on. There should be some way of contacting a staff member, right? There was no way I was heading back to that bloody bed. But nope; the nothingness continued despite me waiting around. Nobody came for 15 minutes. With hope sinking I shouted into the staff room, I waved at the CCTV as if there would be someone watching every move I make remotely, and then gave up and called the main phone number of the hostel listed online.

After a brief connecting tone, a small 2005-era flip-phone in the bookcase in front of me lit up and started vibrating. I silently watched as it shuffled its way across the shelf, teetered on the precipice for a moment, and bravely plunged its way onto the stone-tiled floor behind the counter, leaving me standing in a dark room listening to the voicemail message of a phone I had just witnessed kill itself.

Then I saw it: the overnight number pinned to the wall in scrawled handwriting. I thought it would be my ticket out of this surreal waking nightmare, but was sorely let down when I phoned it and it rang out the first three times.

Fourth time, however, someone on the other end rejected the call before the voicemail came. Aha! Someone’s there! You can run but you can’t hide.

Fifth time they rejected the call even earlier.

Sixth time it went back to ringing out again, so I gave up and began composing a tedious email to them while Kate and I started making solemn, tear-soaked preparations to sleep on the floor and/or in the bathtub.

Suddenly, in the dark, my phone rang. It was the same number. No longer would I be left wondering what might have been. I grabbed it, pressed the “accept call” button and heard a croaky, sleep-deprived female voice say “… hello?”

Puffing my chest out with an unearned victorious pride, I described with great gusto the current predicament within which my girlfriend and I had found ourselves, after which was a painful, lingering silence before she sighed, composed herself and shouted something along the lines of: “… I don’t really give a f*** what is happen with the bugs, you are f*** idiot and I have baby here at house and it is night and [swearing in Hungarian] bedbug [swearing in Hungarian] emergency [swearing in Hungarian] f***ing hold on moment.”

[sic]

Then I heard a click. Then the line went dead.

Having overheard the rather surprising conversation as it pierced the glum silence of our disgusting room, I spun round to see Kate standing in awe, jaw on the floor and hands frozen mid-sock-fold. But before we could even begin to stammer ourselves back into coherence, my phone again buzzed in my hand. I looked down, my mouth still agape. It was the same number. I picked up and said “… hello?!”

This time it was a softly-spoken Hungarian man. “Hello? Hello there. Hello Mr Gabriel. Hello I hope everything OK,” he said with an extremely unsubtle, almost pulsating guilt punctuating his words.

“Hello,” I responded harshly. “What the hell happened there?”

“Nothing,” he said.

“Nothing?!

“It is nothing.”

“Why on Earth did that woman just speak to me like that?”

“Oh it is nothing,” he again insisted with an almost bizarrely passive tone, as if trying to persuade me that I had somehow imagined being sworn at by an aggy mum.

After a lengthy chat about the bedbugs he promised he’d drop by so we made ourselves comfortable for the hefty hour and a half it took him to get to our hostel. Sleep deprived and riddled with insect bites, we insisted he move us to another room, which he did, before we sent him on his way while reminding him we would be seeking a full refund. We then woke up the following morning to find that our new room had also been infested. Ten new bites. We took more photos and left immediately.

Long story short, we salvaged our stay here. We booked a quite amazing aparthotel at the last minute for £30 while waiting for HostelWorld to fully investigate what they call a “case file” on our incident at 11th Hour to determine whether or not what the manager called a “rigorous poisoning scheme” on the bugs had in fact wasted everyone’s time by doing f*** all.

We’re off to Zagreb on a lengthy train tomorrow so, although my writing feels a little rusty, I hope I can use that time to fill you in on the stuff we did in Budapest that didn’t involve taking close-up shots of bloodsucking insects and engaging a hypnagogic Hungarian man in an unexpectedly abstract debate over whether being sworn at by his raging wife counts as “nothing” or not.

But right now it’s pretty late and the word count on this post is getting out of control. Well done to those of you who have made it this far.

Also, never stay at 11th Hour Cinema Hostel.

Gabe

Budapest: Diesel and Petrol

Who would have guessed that, having left it idly snoozing on the shelf of forgotten dreams for close to two years, I would ever have enough confidence (that I may be accidentally mistaking for arrogance) to look back at my clumsy old blog posts and, reeling with sheer visceral adrenaline from thrill-a-minute stories of the time I went bowling in Ukraine or said the wrong form of “thank you” to a 7/11 worker in Japan, thought I should dust off my laptop, flex my fingers and give it another go.

Hello darkness, my old friend

And what better place than here, what better time than now? I can actually answer both of those honestly: a better place is probably somewhere that isn’t the back row of a Ryanair flight where I am squashed into the corner by a proportionally challenged Hungarian woman who appears to need help translating the Daily Mail’s sudoku game despite it being comprised entirely of numbers, and a better time, it goes without saying, is any one that isn’t 7am.

Today Kate and I fly to Budapest for a few days before snaking our way through to Zagreb, Ljubljana, Lake Bled and Trieste before flying home. I’ll admit that due to other commitments and the small window we were afforded for travel by the Easter holiday, our timeframe was somewhat limited for cramming that all in so we’ll be entering and leaving cities before you can say “mi a lényeg az életben?”

And already we’re off to a flying start for the blog as I was held up at Stansted Airport (as if that isn’t bad enough) by a security guard who logged “traces of chemicals” on my luggage after three goes over with that magical swab wand thing.

After him and a few other people started scurrying around and pointing ominously at me from across the concourse, I started to grow fractionally worried. When he came back over I asked what was up, to which he responded with the chemical remark. I asked him what kind of chemicals, and, poring over a roll of receipt paper that had just printed out of a sort of futuristic anti-terrorism machine, said “hmm… diesel and petrol.”

And as if having a girlfriend who works for the police and frequently tells me I have “almost certainly” been watched remotely by counter-terrorism forces due to having to look up ISIS movements online for work, the security guard looked me up and down following his assessment, scribbled my name onto a form, paused for a moment and said “… alright. You can go.”

But yes, the blog returns! And ho ho ho, this time you poor souls who have decided to come back for another round will be subjected to a big difference since the time I bored you all to tears with my last outing.

If I come across as an arrogant tosser throughout this new series of entries, it’s because I, ya boi Hidden Gabe, against all odds and for reasons that shall likely remain a mystery until I’m in a morgue, am now an award-nominated blogger. Yes that’s right, in perhaps the most uncool turn of events imaginable, in August last year my mum, in a classic motherly fashion, pushed me to submit a piece of my choice from my blog to the AITO Travel Awards, and what happened next was a little surprising to say the least.

Upon asking her why on Earth I would put myself through the shame of coming bottom of a ranking of the 500+ blogs that were likely to be submitted, she said: “Well I just remembered that really funny post where you were climbing over that wall in India and then fell off and landed on your face.”

Thanks mum.

“That post is not very well written though,” was my response, to which she shot back with “… yeah maybe actually.” A more damning yet predictable indictment I could not have wished for.

bob
Alright everyone stay calm and nobody will notice we’re here

Nevertheless, after a few whiskies one night I decided that I would try submitting one because what’s the harm, right? I chose one called Dnipropetrovsk: Runaway Train, a concise but slightly over-earnest snapshot of travelling through the gargantuan, perplexing wilderness of eastern Ukraine, somehow drawing blood from a stone by wrangling unnecessary emotion out stories involving drinking warm Staropramen on a train served by a woman called Gollum yet omitting details of how I also managed to make the entire nation of Palestine cringe by absentmindedly greeting some Christians from Ramallah with a hearty “Shalom”.

I read the piece again, made a few tiny adjustments and submitted it. To six separate categories. Including ones it didn’t meet the criteria for. Go big or go home, that’s what I say.

Skip forward to October and I get an email from AITO with the subject header “Re: Re: Fwd: AITO Travel awards invitation”, followed by a worrisome, stark question – “Gabriel could you possibly let us know if you are able to attend next week?”

Suddenly it hit me – all those emails about some travel awards thing I had for some reason been dismissing as primitive spam were actually a first class ticket straight to the biggest of big times. I quickly scrambled back to track down the earliest one, discovering to my horror that almost a month previously I had been told I was nominated for Travel Blogger of the Year and given an invitation to the ceremony. No longer would my rambling words mean nothing. No longer would I be casting blog posts callously into the abyss. Now I would be casting them into the abyss with a little metaphorical gold sticker on them.

In all seriousness, I’m not quite sure why my post made the shortlist of six, and was stunned when they told me there had been over 400 submissions to that category. I mean, I do like that post or else I wouldn’t have chosen it, but… really?

First off, my piece was the wrong length for that category. Second, I was nominated as a travel blogger of the year despite my piece being published over a year before the ceremony. And third… I dunno, it’s hard to explain.

I suppose in a world where the majority of travel writing and blogging has morphed into a feel-good cascade of inspiration porn about finding your inner self and claiming enlightenment through embracing other cultures while wiping self-congratulatory tears from your own keyboard as you type, mine felt like a bit of an interloper; a shonky, hastily cobbled together bit of prose about how ugly Dnipropetrovsk is and how trying to sleep on a hot train didn’t do much for me.

However to say that all blogs are like this would do a great disservice to the other shortlisted nominees – their pieces were informative and quirky in way that mine could never hope to emulate. And of course I didn’t win. Or come in the top three. Out of six nominees.

So stay tuned as I – in all likelihood – fail miserably to secure a nomination for next year.

Gabe