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.
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.
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.
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.
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.