Updated: September 17, 2001
Budapest will never be Budapest for me. If through some twist of fate I move here and spend 20 years in the city, it will not be Budapest. It will be, first and foremost, the place where I heard about the terrorist attack upon the Pentagon and World Trade Towers.
I don't want to belabour the point because certainly everyone is familiar with the trauma this event has caused. However, there is something entirely bizarre about hearing this news in a foreign country. On one hand, you want to be home. You want to be able to feel the horror and pain with your countrymen (or indeed women). Simultaneously, home seems like a very scary and uncertain place. You feel more secure and removed thousands of miles away, holed up in an internet cafe digging for news, or watching CNN with Brits in the lounge of your hostel. It is a numb, horrible, feeling to know what is happening in my homeland.
Let me also say, I am not a patriot. I am generally very outspoken in criticism of my government (especially our current leader). As such, I typically expect others to be critical. What I have found that has truly surprised me is the supportive attitude of foreigners. In general they do not seem to think that America has gone overboard, or that military action is unjustified. I have had people hear me talking on the streets, and stop me saying, "Are you American? Let me say I am very sorry for what has happened to you." This has been touching, and I think that for Americans, of all people, to be getting this kind of support from abroad is touching and speaks to the absolute horror of what has occurred.
That aside, let me say I have very much enjoyed Budapest. I have spent a very pleasant week walking nonstop around the city. At the same time, it has certainly not been exactly what I expected. When I pictured Budapest two months ago while planning this trip it seemed to me like a totally Bohemian place: smoke filled, lined with cellars where people listened to jazz and talked about anarchy, and went up in clouds of marijuana smoke. And to tell you the truth, it may well be that city – but that was not what I saw.
The defining character of Budapest, for me, is that it is spread out. There is, of course, a central downtown district. Yet things do not seem as clustered as I expect from a European city. There is not, for example, a single place where the tourists go. Some wander idly around the hilly, castle laden, peaceful grounds of Buda. Others stroll through the designer stores in Pest, while others yet take the metro out towards heroes square to see the monument, the parks, and the adjoining zoo and art museum. As with most tourists, I did some of each.
The thing about this arrangement is that Budapest doesn't seem to have the pulse of some cities. It seems a little more glazed and slightly less vibrant. At the same time, this gives it a fabulous charm. It is not an easy city in which to find good bars. However, this means that the good bars are not clogged with tourists and pretension. It is not an easy city to see in one or two days, but this means that people stay for awhile and enjoy the place. It also means you will never, ever, feel as swamped by tourists in Budapest as people complain about in Prague. So Budapest was not what I expected, but it did delight me with its unique charm and its rather eclectic mix of things to do and places to go. Certainly, it never bored me.
Our first night in Budapest exemplified this problem. We arrived on a Sunday: never a good way to find nightlife in an unknown city. Undeterred we walked around for quite some time downtown looking for a cafe (which by day, or even weekday night is hardly a problem). After hours of futile searching we ended up at a small place just off Deak Ferenc drinking Hungarian wine. While talking loudly and brazenly (we are, after all American) we managed to meet three British girls at the table next to us, one of whom, amazingly lives in Texas (when not attending school in England or traipsing around Europe). We talked to them for sometime and, I think, made general nuisances out of ourselves but no one seemed to much mind.
We then attempted to walk to a bar that the Brits recommended, but managed to get lost owing to a) my miserable direction sense and b) Budapest's incomprehensible insistence on changing the name of virtually every street in the city every few blocks. Do not think that they make an exception for major thoroughfares. Absolutely not. If you are a street in Budapest, you had best plan on having at least five names in the course of 20 blocks. And even at these numbers I believe the city planners would feel uncreative for their lack of name use. Things ended up well though, and we found ourselves and a small underground bar named Sus Fell Nap near the Margarit Hid Bridge. We ended up returning there twice, and each time were met with a totally different scene. This night it was quiet and largely empty, with very chill acid jazz setting the mood. We had a few drinks and then returned home to bed.
The next morning we got the first taste of how social our hostel is. I feel it necessary to say a few words about our hostel. It was a great place (Best Guest Hostel in Pest…Lonely Planet gives full details) full of great people. We were constantly meeting new and interesting people and things could not have worked out any better. That said, the owners of the hostel are absurdly unfriendly and intimidating. The only consistent decoration rule seemed to be that absolutely no wall could exist without a sign full of rules. My favorite sign, on every wall in the bedrooms and lounge declared at the bottom: "Also pay attention to signs in the bathrooms and kitchen." Not that you would be allowed to forget: the owners are generally quick to scold – to the point of being comical. It seems to me that if you want to run a youth hostel you should like youth. But perhaps I'm off base here. Anyhow, it worked out well for the student company, but I can't say much for the rather frightening and socially awkward owners (the whole staff).
At breakfast we met Linten. Linten was an Australian who had been variously working in England and travelling in Europe for three years now. In these three years he had never left Europe, which seemed a bit uncreative to me. He was a culture buff. He didn't like inconveniences and very much liked "civilization." It was quite clear to me that Australia didn't exactly meet his standards of civilization which makes him perhaps the first Australian I have ever met who was not firmly convinced (as, in fact, am I) that Australia is the best place on Earth. Though he never mentioned being gay, it would be a very big surprise for me to find out he was not. He fit every stereotype one can imagine and to top it off spent the whole day humming Stephen Sondheim songs more or less under his breath ("Do you like Sondheim? I simply adore him? Oh, you do? So you know the songs I'm singing! Wonderful". Sure Linten).
For all his quirks though Linten was an enjoyable companion, and as a bonus he was a much more ambitious traveller than I. Neither Lada nor I had to think the whole day. Linten eagerly herded us through the Buda attractions, reading all the relevant information from Lonely Planet the whole time. It was great because it meant that I didn't have to do it. In the course of the day we saw far more of Buda than I could have imagined possible in one day, and still got back to our hostel by 6pm – in time to go see an Organ concert at the mammoth St. Stephen's Basilica.
After that we began our quest for some nightlife. Though Lonely Planet has something of a tendency to really drop the ball on that category, we followed its recommendations to The Old Man's Pub, about a fifteen minute walk out of downtown. That turned out to be a remarkable decision. We couldn't find anywhere else in Budapest with ten people in it. But here we found three huge rooms, all packed with people. It was, admittedly, mostly expats – I didn't meet anyone the whole night who was not a native English speaker. But I certainly had a hell of a time. We drank Paulaner (which impressed many Brits who take Americans for lightweights) and happily chattered away the evening.
Then we met Dave and Richard.
Dave and Richard could probably merit a whole book, but I shall try to describe them more succinctly. Dave is perhaps the most voluble person I've ever met. He will talk to absolutely anyone. He has a bit of a posh accent, and an irascible charm. Richard is Cockney. Hopelessly. He sort of tags along with Dave everywhere and adds a bit of interest (which Dave hardly needs, but is still helped by). They are an excellent odd couple. As soon as I met them (while ordering beers) they were ordering champagne. And they kept ordering champagne. Eventually we discovered not only that we were staying in the same hostel, but actually the same ROOM in that hostel. We of course bonded and spent much of the night together.
However, Lada and I left on our own and beat Dave and Richard back. In the morning we learned what we had missed: Dave had somehow gone to two separate strip bars with God-knows-who (he certainly did not!) and had fallen for the oldest scam in the book. A girl came up and he bought her a drink. Since this is a scam, the drinks were fifteen quid each. Dave ended up blowing a hundred quid in a night (and returning well after dawn). It was too funny to be true. The whole story was relayed by Dave, hung over or still drunk, holding his head in his hands and nodding wistfully.
The next evening resulted in another Dave-led adventure. This one wove its way through three bars (we left each when they closed and kicked us out). At the final bar, Dave had managed to meet about five Hungarians, and we eventually ended up drinking with them in one of their apartments somewhere deep in the maze-like streets of Buda as the sun rose and we listened to drum and base on vinyl. It was a blast and it helped me towards a realization. In some senses, travel is certainly about doing new things, or doing things you can't do at home. This was not one of those things. I'm not so pretentious as to claim that by drinking with five Hungarians I "really understand Hungary" or some such rubbish. I don't think I'm deep. What makes much of travel so great is that you are doing things you could very easily do at home, but with a sort of abandon that you simply don't have at home. I can sit in a cafe and people watch for hours in Budapest. In Houston, I always have something else to do. People make plans, I make plans, and I have to conduct my life. That takes time and attention. But here, in the middle of Europe, very few ties bind me. Here I can walk the streets for hours and not feel like I have to be walking SOMEWHERE. I love it.
The next three days in Budapest passed at a somewhat slower pace. We did most of the things one is supposed to do in Budapest. We saw the big buildings, we went to the thermal baths (which are heavenly), and made our way well out of town to my favorite attraction, the ruins of the Roman city Acquicinum. Despite all these wonderful attractions in Budapest, it is the walking I will remember. I loved Aquicinum but I loved even more the carefree 10km walk we had back into the city. I learned something about travel in Budapest, and it has helped me to appreciate why I travel, and in turn, to enjoy it more. I am not about to stop seeing the new things, or being a tourist. Those things are still wonderful. But I am not going to forget that the people, and the living with no constraints is the true joy.