As a hopeless romantic, I tend to project stories I’ve read and films I’ve seen onto the places I visit (in France, I dreamily pretend to be Amelie/Madeline/Juliette Binoche; here in an Oxford college, I’m playacting at Brideshead Revisited/Greek). When I saw The Grand Budapest Hotel last year, I was immediately enchanted by its stunning scenery, quirky characters and portrayal of the receding splendour of 1930s Eastern Europe.
Whether because of my deluded projections or the city itself, the three days I spent in Budapest recalled the feeling of the film. Like Wes Anderson’s masterpiece, Budapest is transportive and visually arresting; Old World glamour still glows in its opulent coffee houses and hotels, while crumbling buildings and war memorials are a reminder of the horrors of Hungary’s past. Add to this painfully hip ruin bars, bustling crowds and a rollicking music and art scene, and you’ve got one heart-stoppingly beautiful and fascinating city.
A City of Stunning Views
When I travel, I seem to spend a large portion of it climbing things. Like a kid clambering up a jungle gym to proclaim themselves King of the Castle, I like to get the lay of the land, the tiny victory of a physical feat, and my Insty snaps (natch). Peering down from above, I’m always struck by a sense of onism (the frustration of being stuck in just one body, that inhabits only one place at a time…) occhiolism (awareness of the smallness of my perspective…) or some other self-indulgent Obscure Sorrow which is the bittersweet and amazing thing about travelling. This view from Gellért Hill (where you can find the Citadella fortress and Liberty monument) was literally breathtaking. Or maybe that was the steep climb and my weak lung capacity…
A short ramble along the Buda shore of the Danube is Castle Hill; home to Buda Castle, St Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion. We spent a couple of hours at the National Gallery (housed in the Castle), mesmerised by the late Gothic winged church altar pieces, Munkácsy collection, and our tour guide’s elaborate violet leather fanny pack.
Buda Castle, Altar pieces in the National Gallery, Picnic in May by Szinyei Merse and interesting bumbag, St Matthias Church from Fisherman’s Bastion
On my last morning in Budapest I decided to climb the St Stephen’s Basilica tower to get a view of the Pest side of the city. I’d read and pooh-poohed some lady’s long-winded spiel on Tripadvisor about how terrifying the climb was (and how she got halfway, freaked out when she suddenly remembered that she was afraid of heights, but couldn’t back down because of the hordes behind her…) but had to nibble crow when I got to the top. It might have been the huge ‘You climb the tower at your own risk!’ sign, the lack of enforced barricades or the gusting winds…but for fear of being blown off I was inching around the tower like a spider on a drainpipe.
There is something magical about the buildings in Budapest, from the Disney-logo spires of Fisherman’s Bastion to the glittering rainbowfish roof scales of St Matthias Church and the Museum of Applied Arts. And the Hungarian Parliament Building? Not even the annoying (American) tourists in our group who refused to ascend any stairs (‘There’s an elevator, right? We’re not sherpas, you know!’) and blithely ignored our guide’s simple instructions (‘This is the one room where we kindly ask you not to take photos’) could detract from the beauty of the place.
Museum of Applied Arts, Opera House, Parliament Building, Parliament grand staircase
Budapest’s grand coffee houses are redolent of a decadent bygone era; of men in well-tailored suits with pencil-thin moustaches, svelte ladies in ermines, and intellectual discussions over coffee and cocktails. The Boscolo Hotel’s New York Café is hands-down the most beautiful café I’ve ever been to. Sipping a Bellini and marvelling at the frescoes, chandeliers and golden stucco work, I could almost envision myself in La Belle Époque. Too bad I was wearing a bright blue nylon knapsack and 6 hours of travel grime…
The Alexandra Bookcafé (on Andrassy Avenue, in the former Paris Department Store) was another favourite, for its Mendl’s-esque patisserie and snooty waiters. Cracking open the leather-bound menu, my friend Sam beelined for the chocolate mousse torte, I for the whipped vanilla-poppyseed cake. When we tried to order them at the same time as our sandwiches, however, we were bitingly told, ‘No cake for you!’
‘But I’ve been dreaming about this cake,’ Sam protested, jokingly.
The waiter sniffed and crossed his arms. ‘We all have dreams,’ he said, before stalking off.
(This might have been due to our ‘backpacker’s look’, but I do maintain that you’re not really travelling properly unless your practical garb and insistence on visiting beautiful places sparks at least a few Pretty Woman shop scene moments.)
We did eventually get to order the cakes, and they were delectable.
The Budapest baths are also a must see. We visited the beautiful neo-Baroque Széchenyi Baths one crisp evening, and spent a couple of hours luxuriating in the outdoor spa. Through whipped tendrils of steam we watched old men playing chess, ladies letting the fountain streams massage their backs, and flirty young things sipping their beers. Inside, we tried pool after pool of different temperatures (which was entertaining, although it did take me a while to get over the thermal ‘Dad’s burning an omelette again’ smell and disconcerting ‘has some kid just peed in here?’ water discolouration).
History and Revival
Romantic though it may be, Budapest is also tinged with pathos. One of the most heart-rending experiences of my short sojourn was visiting The House of Terror; the former headquarters of the fascist Arrow Cross Party and the Communist Secret Police. Now a museum, it illustrates the horrors of decades of Nazi and Communist repression. The Shoes on the Danube Bank, which honours the Jews who were shot by Arrow Cross militiamen at the waters edge and dragged away by the river, is another powerful reminder of a terrible past.
Shoes on the Danube Bank
A particular sense of revitalisation is captured in the Romkocsma (Ruin Pub) scene of district VII, Budapest’s Jewish quarter. This dilapidated, inner-city area is now one of Budapest’s most vibrant. Push past grubby doors with peeling paint and you’ll find a Narnia of hip bars, beer gardens, music venues and cafés. We visited Szimpla kert, the grand mamma of the lot (because I don’t argue with Lonely Planet). It’s a raw-brick rabbit warren of kitschy furniture (including a reappropriated Trabant, bath tubs and DJ deck made of videocassettes), neon lights, and at least 6 bars serving up everything from traditional pálinkas (fruit brandies) and shisha to cocktails and carrots (because nothing quite sates alcohol appetite like crudités).
Szimpla kert, Púder Bar
We also enjoyed the drinking and dining dens along the ominously named ‘Gastro Street’ (Ráday utca), like Púder Bar, and sampling the pearl onion pickles, salty salami, and sweet poppyseed pastries at the Great Market Hall. I personally ate enough marzipan to encase a multi-tier wedding cake and warrant a long, final stroll along the glorious Danube bank.
Three short days after arriving in Budapest, I made my way to the Keleti railway station, bound for Vienna. I know I’m stretching it to impose some narrative onto my travels (I’m rolling my eyes at my pseudo-poeticism already), but in that moment I felt like that edifice stood for the spirit of my Budapest experience – an amalgamation of Old World charm and modernity; gritty and absolutely splendid.
Keleti station (credit: NoMeEsuches)