Soooo, back in May we went to Budapest, and yet I'm only just getting round to writing about it now. Why? Well, because I've been pretty busy, and because it's the last in my backlog of unwritten blog posts. I'll try to keep it short but informative for you...
I had been before, in the dead of winter (it was actually painful to take off your gloves) and with no money at all (I was living in France at the time). My budget didn't stretch to a lot, so I didn't feel like I'd done it properly, and James was interested in going, so we thought, why not?
One of the first places we went was Cafe Gerbeaud. There are several very old-world cafes in Budapest, which had a thriving cafe culture from the middle of the 19th century. They are quite reflective of the old Europe that Wes Anderson felt has been lost, the one he tried to recapture in the Grand Budapest Hotel - with the same wonderful service, sumptuous decor and decadent pastries. Above is James, tucking into an Esterhazy ice cream sundae (it sounds like it's mega expensive, at 2550 forints, and it is, for Budapest - but in reality that's about £6 and this was a very high-end cafe).
We thought we may as well have an Austro-Hungarian-inspired ice cream and imagine the days of the old empire, when people sat around in nice cafes discussing philosophy and not worrying about fascism or socialism or genocide. Budapest looked as thought it was all set to ride out WWII in relative peace until 1944, when the Arrow Cross (a nationalist socialist party) took over at Hitler's behest, set up ghettos and deported and murdered all of the Jews and communists they could find.
A sculpture on the banks of the Danube, called Shoes on the Danube, is a poignant reminder of the events of 1944-45. Jewish people were ordered to remove their shoes and were shot into the river by Arrow Cross millitiamen, where their bodies would be swept downstream. The sculpture, by Can Togay and Gyula Pauer, is deeply affecting because it's so visceral - you could almost believe it had only just happened.
This terrorism is a sharp contrast to Budapest's largely genteel exterior, a theme we found would continue throughout our short trip. In the picture above, you can see Buda Castle, the royal palace, not far across the river from where the shootings occurred.
For all of its troubled past, Budapest is certainly bursting with creativity. It still feels a bit down-at-heel for a European city, a little more Eastern Europe than its more central neighbour on the Danube, Vienna. It's no surprise, since creativity can come from constraint and relative poverty, that Budapest makes its own fun rather then trying to emulate its richer neighbours. This could be seen in the ruin bars and the amazing grafitti we saw while we were there.
The terror museum is probably the scariest place I've ever been, not least because it still has the original torture cells in the basement and you can actually go inside them. There's one like a tall, narrow cupboard, where you'd have to stand up with lightbulbs shining in your eyes, and one where you'd have to crouch due to the low ceiling. Apparently the base of it was often filled with freezing water, which you'd have to sit in when your legs got tired of squatting. It pickles my brain that humans could devise such awful ways of torturing each other. The other scary thing about it is that it's right on Andrassy Avenue, a broad, tree-lined main street home to many of the nicer shops and cafes. Imagine a torture chamber on Regent Street, or Picadilly - this is equivalent to that.
At the top of Andrassy Avenue is the City Park. We went to Robinson, a restaurant by the park's lake, and had some lovely crisp pizza, whilst watching turtles and fish swim past under the pontoon.
Also in the City Park are the Szechenyi baths, the largest medicinal baths in Europe. Budapest was occupied by the Ottomans, so like the Turkish, they are quite keen on spas (as are we). There are 21 pools of varying temperatures, naturally heated by hot springs, and the outdoor ones were roasting hot (38 degrees, in 25 degree sunshine, was a bit melty). They are full of minerals thought to cure various rheumatic aches and pains. This place is huge, and has been described as a "wedding cake" - it's certainly ornate and you can imagine patients being sent here for rest cures. Old men play chess on marble boards in the outdoor pool.
Further into the park, you'll find the zoo and the amusement park. We were gutted because we read online that the park had been shut down, but as it turns out, it wasn't. Condemned or not, the rides were still running!
We hadn't realised that our ticket also got us access to the zoo (double win), so this day turned out rather better than expected. It seemed quite a disorganised place, with very few staff around (like, the Stalinist opposite of Disneyland) but the animals appeared quite well-cared-for.
They even had a little town just for guinea pigs.
The amusement park is home to Europe's longest wooden roller coaster - you can relive our experience here. But imagine the fear when we saw the driver's seat, complete with brakes - yep, no mechanics really at all on this beast.
Our second-favourite ride was the haunted house. It's an amazing old place - it looks like a 1980s horror meets-Ghostbusters-meets-Soviet-meets-Goosebumps dolls' house. It's pretty unsafe and would probably not be allowed in the UK, which makes it about 150% more fun.
After all the trekking about, we needed some drinks, so we went to Szimpla Kert, the grandaddy of all ruin bars. What is a ruin bar? asked my mum. Well... also known as garden pubs, they're old ruined buildings that you can imagine squatters living in, but they've been taken over by artists and bartenders and made into bars, usually with very good music and the wackiest furniture you've ever seen.
The bar below is made of old wine crates. There's a hugely informal feel, mainly because the middle of the building is missing - it's a huge courtyard and it's all open to the outside. You may be in one of the little differently-themed rooms off to the side, but you're essentially still outdoors. There was a shisha bar, a wine bar, a post office, a room with a rocking horse on the ceiling, a garden with a Trabant sawn in half to make two sofas, and a little back room with an a capella recital. You can't get bored, because there's so much exploring to do, and wine is only £1 a glass. We stayed for far too long and got very, very drunk. I think this might be my favourite bar ever.
The music was an inspired mix of recent stuff, 90s classics and hip hop - it's been a long time since I wanted to dance to all the songs being played (maybe blame the £1 wine for that though). I made a playlist because I liked it so much, but there was one elusive song I couldn't find for AGES.
I didn't catch any of the words, but the video was of a tattooed couple getting married in a totally no-frills way and I thought it was amazing. I searched and searched - I thought it would be easy to find because the bride had pink hair and an undercut - I was also convinced it was 90s, so all I got was Gwen Stefani every.single.time. James even tried Reddit but no-one knew. THEN! About three months later, I was trying on clothes in Sweaty Betty, and it came on! And the shop assistant knew its name!
Anyway, long story short, the song is So Good To Me by Chris Malinchak (it's not 90s at all, it was made in 2013 with Ministry of Sound) and the video is not the original, but one made by Chris Koch. I have posted it here for you all to enjoy (and to forewarn my mum that this is the sort of simple wedding I'd like).
The next day, horribly hungover, we dragged ourselves to the Gellert baths - we only had three days there, so we had to make the most of it. The Gellert was probably the most similar to my imaginary version of the Grand Budapest Hotel - a little bit posher, a little more expensive, but oh man so worth it. You know when you watch old 30s/40s films, and the Americans in them are staying in really amazing hotels? This hotel was like that. AND it had a wave machine in the outdoor pool. Which meant that I lost James for about two hours. You known when dolphins leap facefirst into waves? Yeah. That.
Luckily, every other male of a similar age was doing the exact same thing, so I didn't have to be too embarrassed. I should mention the Continental Hotel Zara, where we stayed, was lovely and had a neat little rooftop spa and pool - we got a reasonable deal through lastminute.com as well.
This is James tucking into chimney cake, or funnel cake. As you can see, he's pretty tired after a morning pretending to be a sea mammal. Despite its ubiquity at Christmas markets even over here, I'd never tried funnel cake until this year. It's delicious - the outside is all crispy and crusted with cinnamon sugar (or chocolate) and the inside is soft and doughy. Another thing to look forward to post-whole 30!
The last place we went was the Parizsi Udvar (below), a hidden art deco covered shopping street inside a little doorway. You can read more about it here, but you should take a look if you visit - it's a rare example of beautifully preserved and yet abandoned deco.
That's it for this trip - I look forward to updating you on our New York adventures when we come back, but until then, I will be blogging about some delights that are closer to home!