Budapest’s days as a budget detour from the wallet stomping clutches of western Europe are officially history. The rules of supply and demand, compounded with enterprising locals knowing a good thing when they see it, couldn’t keep the epicenter of Hungary and one of Eastern Europe’s most popular jumping-off points a cheap destination for long. The coup de grâce was Hungary’s 2004 tap-dancing entry into the EU, which triggered yet another painful jump in the economy, biting both locals and visitors alike in the ass. From the visitor perspective, accommodations and transportation have been hardest hit – I paid more for a train ticket out of Budapest going to Bucharest in neighboring Romania on a half-busted, slothful train with frontier-era seats than I paid to cross all of France on the TGV – but this lost perk is only a chink in the armor that is Budapest’s all-around allure.
In 1873 the scenic and historic cities of Buda and Óbuda on the hills west of the Danube River charitably united with industrial and uninviting Pest across the river to form Pest-Buda, later to be wisely renamed Budapest. Though a fantastic amount of economic and cultural flourishing followed the formation of Budapest, it was nearly all pounded to dust during the two World Wars where Hungary found itself on the losing team both times. Forty years of Communist rule proved to be slightly less disastrous in Hungary than in neighboring countries and Budapest managed to bounce back, becoming one of the most prosperous cities in the region. The 1956 Uprising hammered the city one last time, when Russian retaliations killed thousands and left the citizens to once again clean up and polish its image.
After two full days of self-imposed confinement in my room at the pricey, but disarmingly hospitable Hotel Hid recovering from an especially punishing bout of travel, I finally made the long foot trek down Rákóczi át, one of Pest’s main arteries, past the imposing Keleti train station and out onto Erzsebet Bridge for the much anticipated Oh-Wow moment I had been seeking. Despite the long build-up, I was not disappointed in the least. I stood for a full 20 minutes, slowly rotating in place, occasionally taking pictures, admiring the river, both banks and the exquisite scenery stretching off into the distance. Once I snapped out of my mouth-breathing reverie, it was time to dive into the teeth of Buda’s offerings, as they were collectively beckoning the travel writer in me from the top of the hill like a carrot in front of a starving donkey.
As tempting as the hilltop Citadella looked with the neighboring Independence Monument and the statue of St. Gellért taunting and daring me to brave the intimidating steps for a closer look, instead I averted my gaze and pushed north. I had Castle Hill Fever and I wasn’t going to let a fortress, some cool monuments and what was probably a million dollar view of the river sidetrack me. After a mild climb, my first stop was at the Royal Palace, which has been leveled and rebuilt a half dozen times since the original was thrown up in the last half of the 15th century. Today it is home to the National Gallery and the Budapest History Museum, among other things. Quite honestly, the Palace is a tad on the plain side by European standards, but that doesn’t stop bus-loads of tourists, me included, from staggering around the front courtyard with appropriate looks of reverence, cameras up and clicking away. As I had approached the Palace from Ferdinand Gate on the south side, though I didn’t know it at the time, the best was still yet to come.
I’d like to tell you that I opted for the walk back to the Pest side of the river over the Chain Bridge and indirectly home up Andrássy át boulevard because I was bursting with vigor, but in truth I was just too cheap to shell out for public transportation. The foot pain was tremendous, but the experience was nevertheless rewarding not only in that Andrássy át’s tree-lined walkways and elegant buildings are captivating, but it offers many shaded benches for one to rest his cheap-ass feet and enjoy an ice cream cone.
Not counting the time I spent in a prone position, I ultimately gave Budapest two and a half days of focused touring time, which was just about perfect. I left while I was still agreeably captivated, but before the unexpectedly high prices wore down my spirit enough to make me burst into tears (though the moment when I bought that train ticket was a close one).