The first thing I noticed about Budapest was during the flight. The sun had long set, the streets were lit… but the lighting was quite dim. The lights had the old orange-yellow glow of sodium vapour lights that I remember from my childhood, but not very many of them, not very powerful, and the rooftops were not lit up by them (I later found out that was because most of the buildings I saw were high-rise, whereas most of the buildings in the UK are three including the loft). I hadn’t even realised British rooftops were lit until I saw the unlit ones here.
Landing and quickly through to the exit, into a car park called “London”. No explanation was sought or given. The airport taxi took us past some American-style malls and billboard advertising, but the inner city was much more traditionally old-world, with elements recognisably similar to Barcelona, Berlin, Magdeburg, Paris… I hesitate to add London to that list, but London is what I grew up with and the standard by which I am able to consider something “unusual”, so I guess it must, by seeming normal in any regard at all, be like London. There were adverts listing prices in two currencies, Euros and what I later found out to be Hungarian forints (before travelling, I had looked up SIM cards and learned of the currency, but sleepy late night landing doesn’t help the memory, and for that journey I was confused and certain that Hungary was in the Eurozone).
The first night was a free stay at a hotel associated with the tooth clinic. Nothing of note about it, it’s much like every other hotel. Well, now that I write that I realise hotels are quite varied, so I should say “like every British hotel” — Americans would find it small and wonder why there was no bath, while Dutch might find it enormous (based on my experiences of many hotels in California and one hotel in Amsterdam).
The rest of the week was spent a 20 minute walk away, just off Andrássy [Avenue], a road large and important enough to have it’s own entry on Wikipedia. When you’re used to the London Underground, it is shocking (in a good way) to see how close the Metro line along that avenue is to the surface. The architecture of Andrássy is fairly representative of what I saw throughout Budapest, in there was a lot of it in a multitude of styles (though Wikipedia focuses on Neo-Renaissance architecture in the city) and varying states of decay — shocking levels of decay when it’s apparently the most expensive street in the country. A mishmash of styles is not something I would ever hold against a place, but the whole city suffers from the decay. This is not to say the decay was universal, because there were many buildings that looked very well maintained — our hotel, the Opera house, St Stephen’s Basilica — but the decay was noticeable. There are many wooden structures covering the footpaths next to some buildings, structures which I had mistaken for scaffolding until I saw metal scaffolding elsewhere, and which I now assume is just to keep the walkways clear (and pedestrians safe) from falling plasterwork. I’m looking at Budapest house prices on rightmove.co.uk, and it’s easy to be shocked by how cheap places in the capital city are if you don’t know how many places have exterior plaster falling away.
One of the more pleasant architectural surprises was frescos painted on exterior walls. They were all faded and darkened with some combination of time and pollution, but before now I’ve never seen exterior building painting on this scale and complexity outside of graffiti and Belfast’s murals.
Hősök tere (Heroes’ Square) itself is kinda dull — large, empty, a car park with some arches and a pillar — but beyond it is a city park with a thermal lake. It’s fascinating to see steam gently rising from it even as winter was turning into spring.
After getting a bit of cash from the ATM, Sadie and I went to dinner. There were two Indian restaurants near our Airbnb, the first one we went to had the best reviews. Unfortunately for me, my British tastebuds were expecting the British style of “Indian”, which is not only adjusted for British sensibilities on taste, but also secretly Bangladeshi (since meeting Sadie, who speaks five words of Bangla, I’ve found that every Indian restaurant we eat at in the UK has had staff from somewhere in Sylhet). The second was much more my taste, but if you’re from the UK, it’s surprising and worth knowing that our system of curry names is not at all universal: my korma was spicy! (For the benefit of non-Brits, a British korma never has any spice-heat). Neither of these restaurants appeared to employ anyone ethnically anywhere near Indian, at least in the customer-facing area. Again, very surprising for a Brit like me.
The consultation and first (of two) surgeries completed, Sadie had to rest in the Airbnb while I continued to explore. The Airbnb itself was on the first floor (Americans: second floor) of a five story block of flats with a shared entrance and internal courtyard/atrium with a small raised flowerbed and a lift in one corner. There was a balcony we never used, shared with the neighbours. Apart from the balcony, all the windows were two-parts, with separate fixtures on each side of the wall, and also a metal frame on the outside that reminded me of the security fixtures all around the windows of mzungu flats Nairobi. We had high ceilings (Victorian houses in England had those, when did they stop being a thing?), the TV had voice control, but no cables to connect to either an antenna or the DVD player next to it, and in the end the only use it got was casting from our Android devices.
I tried to shop for supplies while Sadie was recovering. On the subject of prices, wages are lower in Hungary than in Britain (by roughly a factor of 4), so anything involving human labour is cheaper, but anything involving machine labour (energy, transport, refrigeration, etc) or imported from elsewhere (cocoa beans) is the same. Bar of chocolate in a supermarket? Same price. Eating out? Half to a third of the price. You may have noticed I said “tried to shop”… well, I successfully exchanged money for goods and brought them home, but I had a panic attack doing so. This was the first time I’d been in a foreign country without a friend to look to for support (because she was recovering from surgery on a sofa 1km away). The lady on the till said something to me. I still don’t know what, but I’m now guessing something like “there is no price tag on this bag of potatoes”. I had my phone with me for translation, but it’s not able to do voice offline and I wasn’t fast enough with my typing to figure out what to do. For anyone else going, most of their tills don’t have scales, so if you get loose vegetables you need to have them weighed before you go to the till. Still, she smiled when I used my phone to say “Köszönöm. I tanulok magyar.”, so the translation was probably close enough for her to understand my previous deer-in-headlight expression. I needed a good hug when I got back to Sadie, not exactly how the whole support-your-lady-after-surgery is supposed to go. Remember, while knowledge of English is common it’s not universal, I’d assume that anyone who schooled while it was still Soviet-block would have been taught Russian as their second language, and I’d also guess that anyone post-Soviet would have many sensible second language choices besides English.
After a good sleep and recovering myself, I explored the city further. There were many familiar brands (McDonalds, Spar, Tesco, Lidl, C&A, Müller, Burger King, Subway, Costa, even a Lego shop), there were tourist-focused restaurants with multilingual pictographic menus, there were phone shops whose cheapest tablet was 6000 HUF, there were even a couple of sex shops — something that makes my British self double-take whenever I see them on a major street, although less so now I’ve been to Amsterdam where sex shops are as dull as any other high street retail outlet.
Enough wandering took me to the Erzsébet híd (Elisabeth Bridge), an out-of-place modern style bridge from the 60s. The Danube river used to split Budapest into two cities, Buda on the hilly west and Pest on the flat east. I only ever wandered around Pest, and the Pest side of the bridge had the remains of an old structure under glass in a plaza. I couldn’t tell you what it was under there.
Continuing northward along the east bank of the Danube took me past the memorial of the Shoes on the Danube Bank (before finding that link, I had no idea that there had been a rise of fascist parties in pre-WW2-Europe other than Germany and Italy… so much for my history GCSE!), then onward past their parliament building, which is a similar style to the Palace of Westminster in London, but friendlier as the security didn’t feel like it was trying to stop normal people the way the fifteen foot high steel fences around the Palace of Westminster do.
Across the river was Buda Castle. It looks cool, but I didn’t have the energy or time to explore that half of the city, so I can say no more of it.
Well, it’s midnight now, and I’ve been writing and researching this for several hours now and I’m not even part way through a walk. So, more later!