Trip to the western edge of eastern Europe: Chapter 6 – Budapest

Our bus trip to Budapest was memorable for several reasons – one, it was easily the most luxurious bus rides we have ever taken – with large seats, in bus entertainment, free tea and coffee, magazines etc. and two, because we got really really late in reaching Budapest.

Thankfully, we discovered as soon as we reached, that our hostel in Budapest was extremely well located. Just a short walk from the metro station and more importantly, a short walk from practically all the major touristy places like the St Stephan’s Basilica, the Spanish Synagogue, the CEU, Academy of Science, and the Chain bridge which took you across to the other side of the Danube to Buda.

Pest is the cheaper and seedier part of the city – but it certainly has more character than Buda which is full of rich people. And we lived in the centre of Pest – right in the pub district. Totally lucked out on acco!

The first night was spent in trying to find places to change currency and then finding some food. After ordering a large portion of red meat for dinner was when Enthu broke the news to me that he does not really have meat – and I had to finish it on my own. One unnecessarily heavy meal later – we headed back to our hostel and went to sleep. The next morning, we got up and leisurely lazed about for a while – and did something we were looking forward to for the last few days – washing our clothes. Getting currency was a nightmare and we soon discovered that no-one in Budapest speaks English. Several frustrating interactions later, we finally put together enough coins to get our laundry done.

Once we were done with laundry we got down to trying to figure out the rest of our trip in Budapest. We started by making friends with the receptionist who was super happy that finally people were asking her stuff other than “Where can I buy cheap booze?” and helped us a lot in finding cool things to do, nice restaurants, live music and other attractions.  We also met an American group who had just come from Croatia – these guys gave us a lot of gyaan about Croatia which helped us quite a bit in our time there.

The first day, we had lunch at a local eatery which was football themed. Images of the Hungarian football team adorned the wall – but we noticed that they were all pictures from the 1950s. Pictures of Puskas, Kubala, Czibor, Hideguti, Kocsis, and Grosics et al are all over the place[1]. It was a sad realization that this country is so deprived of sporting heroes that they have to go back over 60 years to find one person they can be proud of.

Also, literally everyone has heard of Puskas. Not just heard of, everyone knows that Puskas was a great player and almost worships him. I found this remarkable – that’s like Indian kids singing of the glory of Vijay Hazare even today.

After lunch we roamed about the city and saw all the old buildings, went across the chain bridge and saw the Buda castle and the St Matthias cathedral and the Fishermen’s Bastion.

We got back to a small place where we were to catch some live Gypsy music along with dinner. While the music was good – it was slightly disappointing that it wasn’t truly gypsy music. As soon as they saw us, they first gave us a weird look as if to say “Brown people here? HERE?” and then proceeded to play some songs at other tables ahead in line (they go one by one to each table and play songs). When they got to us they asked us where we came from and stuff and then confidently added that ty are playing only traditional Hungarian music. They were in for a bit of a surprise – for we had both identified the first piece as “The Blue Danube Waltz” by Johann Strauss (not remotely Hungarian ) and the second piece as the Russian folk tune “Kalinka” – much open mouthed gaping later we were asked if we were really from India or just pulling his leg. When we assured him we were – we were asked if we were musicians. Then they at least played some music we hadn’t heard of earlier – but it didn’t sound very much like gypsy music.  I also had a lovely meal of a traditional roast duck.

That night we went out to explore the ruin pubs of Pest. These are essentially abandoned buildings which have been converted into pubs. They take ambiance to a whole new level and the one we went to first – the oldest and best known one called Simpla was something else  – neon lamps, graffiti on every inch of the walls, stuffed toys, CDs hanging from the ceiling, broken tables, trees, car lights and everything imaginable in one room together giving a surreal feel to the place. After a drink and much bonding with Swedish guys and girls over how bad the weather in Budapest was[2], we left to find some other Ruin Pubs.  Much pointless roaming about and fruitless searching later – as we were walking down the road, a large burly Hungarian man came up from behind us and said something very loudly in Hungarian. Both of us turned around with a start and he realised we do not speak Hungarian (and also that we were obviously not from here). He proceeded to ask “I am sorry, did I scare you?” We said “No, why would we be scared of you. You seem like such a nice guy”[3]. A conversation started – names were exchanged – his name was Levante – a Turkish Hungarian. Some conversation around meaning of his name followed. Levant means “rising” in latin – but when he said he didn’t know what the name meant Enthu proceeded to tell him “it is a north African origin word which means the eastern wind that gives solace to the weary traveller”[4].  We told him we were looking for a ruin pub and he insisted on buying us a drink. He said he would take us to a nice bar (called Piritosh) and buy us a drink. So we went to Piritosh and had a drink and a conversation. He revealed he works for Citibank in IT and said he could easily get us jobs there. Also he said we looked like “those people who were in terrorist groups[5]”. A lot of “No, we are not from there” later, we moved on to other conversations. We had initially planned to hang around outside for just a couple hours and be back in the hostel by 1am. It was already 2am when Levante said – “Now I take you to discotheque”.  One coordinated panic attack followed and we protested profusely and said we are late and we are really not interested but he would have none of this. We were particularly freaked out because he said the place is not walkable and we would have to take a cab[6] – last thing we needed was to be far away from our hostel at an ungodly hour. He would not listen and practically threw us into a cab to take us to another ruin pub cum disco called Instant. Once in the cab, I was thankful that drinking in Europe is so expensive and that given our budgets, we were almost never high. Both of us were on high alert and noting the route the taxi was taking, and names of roads where we could. Our worries were unfounded as Instant was barely 500m from Piritosh and Levante simply was too drunk to guide us there on foot. So we went into Instant[7] – which also had a superb ambiance. We drank some more – tried Palinka[8] – Enthu danced with random Spanish people and we finally said our goodbyes to Levante and got back at 4 am.

The next day we decided to take the walking tour – which was largely underwhelming as we had seen most things and knew most of the stuff the guide said anyway. We had a nice lunch near the Buda castle and then proceeded to visit the Szechenyi baths – a series of Turkish baths in the Pest side of the city. We spent about 2 hours at the baths – going from pool to pool with varying temperature (the lowest temperature they had was 100C and we were to finally work our way up to a 700C sauna).

We then headed back by the metro to our neighbourhood. Small digression here – one of the most interesting things about Budapest is its metro system. Some of the trains as well as stations are obviously remnants of the communist era with harsh metallic colours and no effort to conceal the brute power of the machines. Some of the stations on the more restored parts of the city especially Andrassy – are like out of a movie from the 1930s – beautiful tiled walls, quaint little ticket boxes and vintage furniture.

After the baths, we went to watch the Hungarian Folk Ensemble Orchestra. The Orchestra put up an amazing performance where they played Bohemian music and folk tunes (lots of Berzsenyi Meszaros), tunes made famous by Hungarians or which were about Hungary (such as Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody and Brahms’ Hungarian Dance No.5). The only issue I had was the dancers which distracted from the music for the most part – they were great dancers but given the gypsy-ness of the performance they were required to make shrill sounds and shriek in the performance which killed some of the musical effects for me.

We decided to spend a quiet night in the hostel and finish the bottle of wine we had been carrying with us all the way from Krems. As we drank in the common room, there was a bunch of British kids (all under the age of 20) who were also drinking the Hungarian equivalent of tharra and ….quizzing! They asked us if we wanted to join in the quiz drinking game, and we of course did. A while later we were bonding about football and taking each other’s case about which football clubs they support when we were joined by Jose. He was returning from Romania and had with him a bottle of wine – which needed to be finished as he wasn’t going to take it with him on his flight the next day. It was excellent wine and we were not going to protest – so a quiet night turned into downing 2 bottles of wine between 3 people and we went out again with our Brit friends to Simpla for a drink to end the day in god-awesome atmosphere.

The next day we walked down Andrassy Street which has all the good buildings in Budapest. Sadly we could not see the House of Terror (a museum dedicated to the communist atrocities the people of Hungary had to suffer) as it was closed that day. We had lunch at a little Jewish place and had some excellent Jewish food. As expected, Flame Rouge again – a short run later, we were on our way to the Train Station to catch our train to Zagreb.

[1] Along the way also we had seen huge hoardings celebrating the great Hungarian Laszlo Kubala’s career at Barcelona all over the roads and assumed it was just a weird thing that Barcelona were doing.

[2] I do not exaggerate when I say the weather was horrendous. And I mean Calcutta level horrendous.

[3] Sarcasm was probably not the best course of action at this point

[4] This guy would make a great consultant with those bullshitting skills

[5] At this point it is pertinent to mention that Levante had just had a fight with his girlfriend and was drunk

[6] Our receptionist friend had also told us to avoid the immediately adjacent neighbourhood which was super shady. This came to us as we got into the cab.

[7] We found out the next day that this is one of the best clubs in Budapest. Whodathunk

[8] Traditional Hungarian drink – very strong schnapps. Sucks. Feels like drinking ethanol.

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