The city of Budapest was officially created in 1873 with the merger of the neighbouring cities of Pest, Buda and Obuda. The first permanent bridge over the Danube river between Buda and Pest was built in 1849.
The revolutions of 1989 brought the end of the Soviet occupation of Hungary, the Socialist Worker’s Party was simply voted out of power, so in effect a peaceful transition. Citizens have the right to own property and establish private businesses, but they say cronyism remains a serious concern. Corruption remains problematical.
Hungary joined the EU in 2004, but in 2008 the country could not service its short term debt.
THe IMF/EU/World Bank arranged financial assistance to the tune of $25 Billion. In 2010, Hungary rejected the EU/IMF economic policy recommendations, so they have had to obtain funds on the international market. The government has cut business and personal taxes, but imposed a “crisis tax” on financial institutions, energy and telecom sectors and retailers.
Hungary’s economy had slowed in 2016, however growth is forecast to pick up somewhat in 2017 with new infrastructure projects. Current unemployment rate is 4.4%. Present population is 9.9 million in Hungary and Budapest’s is 1.7 million (3.3 million in the larger metropolitan commuter area).
The Prime Minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban is increasingly heading towards a more autocratic role.
In April of this year, the Parliament passed legislation that would force the Central European University to close its doors. Just as an aside, the President of the University is Michael Ignatieff (former shortlived head of the Liberal Party of Canada).The University was founded in 1991 by George Soros (Hungarian born billionaire, investor, policy and currency manipulator!) and was intended to help shepherd a formerly communist Hungary toward free institutions and liberal democracy. Funny enough Orban himself received a Soros funded scholarship to attend Oxford University.
Buda, on the west side of the Danube is hilly and semi-suburban with winding narrow streets wending their way up into the hills. Pest sits on the plain on the east side and is the urban center of the city.
It is said that the Hungarian language is one of the hardest to learn. Robin and I always like to try to speak a few words of a country’s language….here are a few words we should master.
Thank you very much….Nagyon koszonom..(no-dyawn keu-seu-neum)
Do you speak English?… Beszel angolu?…(be-sayl on-gaw-ful)
I don’t understand…Nem ertem…..(nem ayr-tem)
Think we will be using the last two examples quite often!
Arrived around 1 pm and we had arranged to be picked up at the train station and driven to our apartment. In speaking with our driver George, a native of Budapest (not sure if one says Budepestian!), he confirmed that the economy is improving. When Hungary severed its ties with the USSR, not much happened economically until the country joined the EU. He said the problem was that early on, the politicians simply did not know how to run a country. I asked George about the Central European University. He smiled,actually almost laughed, and said that the CEU did not have a good reputation…almost like getting a paper degree without really putting in the work.
While talking to George about the economy and the politics, he mentioned that Hungary has a very different view on the refugee issue, he was almost embarrased when mentioning it. The truth is that Hungary has taken a very hard stance against immigrants. They have built a fence on the Serbian border and they do not believe that immigrants should be able to travel freely. They now have camps for the immigrants. One news report says that Viktor Orban has been emboldened by the election of the US President Donald Trump and says that Hungary must come first. The country is at odds in this regard with the EU’s stance on immigration.
When we arrive, we find out that our apartment is on the 4th floor…NO ELEVATOR! No mention of this on the website or reviews…oh well! Our host said that due to the construction of these old buildings, they cannot put in elevators. Having said this, the apartment is beautiful and situated right in the central area and just two blocks from the Danube. We unpack and make our way along Vaci Utca, the main pedestrian walkway.
O.K……this is what we see within our first couple of hours.
1) Lots of groups of young men who seem to be here for party weekends! Why do I think this…well they are already drinking, a few places have signs “all you can drink” and many “ice bars”. Kind of reminds us of Prague when you see all the party goers!
2) Lots of “Thai Massage” storefronts. Thought this was very unusual, so I asked “Dr. Google” the question. Found a forum that had two replies. One says…” Places you would rather your daughter did not work” and the other said ” Touchy subject, you can make your own assuptions”. I will say no more about the “louts” drunken weekends!
3) Lots of locals riding “Segways” approaching all the tourists to take Segway tours. I can just picture the drunken louts riding through the streets running over small children! O.k. Maybe I will continue to talk about the louts!
4) Walking down the pedestrian street, we are approached by hawkers who want to sell us sunglasses…ok…can you not see that we are both wearing sunglasses! Really!
5) Robin stops to take a picture with our Iphone, and a guy comes up behind us and says he can sell us the new and latest Iphone for 100 Euro’s. Love it… He even has an applebox in his hand.
We find a grocery store and buy our food for the next few days, ate in tonight.
After spending the afternoon on Vaci Utca Saturday afternoon, we were thinking this is just a tourist trap. Well the street itself is, but today got further afield and found that Budapest is indeed a lovely City. Would tell one just to stay off Vaci Street, except the “drunken louts”! Mind you, the guide books say to visit Vaci Utca.
As we left our apartment this morning, Sunday the 21st of May, the first thing we saw were two local policeman questioning a young (Arab/Muslim?) couple.. Pretty blatant profiling,, and in addition to this, they were doing it right in the middle of the street. Really, couldn’t they have pulled them to the side and question them….the least they could do is show some respect! A little upsetting, I must say.
Always find it interesting to see what is in fashion in Europe. Seems that all the stores are selling all types of “silver”shoes and sandals, and they are being worn by women of all ages.
This morning we join a “Free Walking Tour”. We had done one of these last year in Bruges and found they were very good. Usually young people run these tours and this is how they make or supplement their living. So really, it is expected that one pays a tip to the guide at the end of the tour. Our tour lasted 3 hours. Our guide, Celia was very informative. She covered the history of Budapest and Hungary, and added funny anecdotes along the way. I would recommend these tours to anyone who doesn’t know a city, a good way to get a perspective of the layout, then you are set to venture out on your own.
Before we begin, Celia talks about the transport system, how to use the metro and tram system and taxis and what areas to avoid. Which are tourist traps….the famous Vaci Utca….no surprise to us by now! When speaking of Hungary’s history, she laughs and says they are the world’s biggest losers. The country was always overtaken by different dynasties over the ages and Hungary always seem to come out of things with less than they started with. Sometimes they were left with traditions or foods that were a way of life for the invading tribes. For example the Ottoman’s left behind their tradition of bathhouses, paprika, coffee and kabobs!. The Habsburg’s left behind a beautiful palace up on the Buda hill.By the way , the castle was built for Empress Maria Teresia. Apparently she never came to the palace; guess she was too busy in Vienna raising her 16 children and conquering the world! Today it is the Hungarian National Gallery.
In the 1920’s they lost 2/3 rds of their country, then came the Hitler occupation, then the Soviets. The Soviets left behind a “Lady Liberty” type statue up on the Buda Hill. When the Soviet rule relaxed somewhat, Celia said people were finally able to wear jeans and listen to music from the west and drink coca cola!
Then there is a large citadel next to the Palace, but it was never used, beautiful structure though.
Local scams to avoid
1) Stay away from the “orange” money exchange shops, they charge a very high commission. Go to those other exchange shops in the Jewish quarter.
2) Don’t use the “yellow” ATM’s.They charge exorbitant fees.
3)) If you use a taxi, make sure it just doesn’t say “taxi”. It must have a name of a company such as City Taxi, Buda Taxi, etc. Those that just say taxi are not reputable. By the way all the taxis are yellow.
4) Don’t go to Thai massage parlors! (Except if you are a drunken lout! – no she did not say this, just my interpretation!)
We continue our walking tour and Celia points out the number 2 tram line which runs along the Danube. One can take this line to see most of Budapests’ major sights. Our plan is to take this on Monday. She also mentioned that the number 1 metro line, was the first built in Continental Europe and is very “cute”.
Hungarian foods and liquor
“Palinka” – An alcoholic drink made from the fruit in the Hungarian plains, and comes in different flavors. Our guide tells us that it is anywhere from 30% to 70% proof. With one shot you loosen up, two shots one becomes Hungarian, three shots you feel you have superpowers, four shots you think its a love potion and with five shots you think you are being teleported and this is very bad!
“Langos” – a crisp deep fried potato cake served with sour cream and cheese and sometimes topped with garlic. Now also available in lots of other toppings. Picture below is from the market.
“”Sausages” – all types of Hungarian sausages sold in cafes, grocery stores and street vendors. Salami is also very popular.
“”Hungarian WInes” – Hungary is the 3rd largest wine producer in Europe after France and Italy. One can buy a very good bottle for about 8 Euro. We have found their wines to be excellent.
“Kremesh” – a cream filled pastry.
“”Dobos” – torte or sponge cake layered with chocolate buttercream and topped with caramel.
“Turo Rudi” – A chocolate bar found in the coolers of grocery stores, a soft inner filing of cold curd cheese with a thin outer coating of dark chocolate. Our guide says you will either love it or hate it!
“Goulash” – The Hungarian goulash is a soup, not a stew.
“Chimney Cakes” – We had these in Prague. A popular Hungarian street snack, this yeast pastry is coiled around rolling-pin shaped moulds, then baked on a rotisserie until golden, and finally dusted in sugar or other toppings, such as nuts, chocolate or sprinkles. Very good.
We walked to St. Stephen’s Basilica, we will come back to visit interior later. The dome is 96 meters high which is exactly the height of the Parliament Building. It is built in a neo classical,renaissance and baroque style as three different architects were involved with the building of the Basilica over many years. The mummified hand of St. Stephen is displayed in the church. Our guide told us that one could see the hand which is in a case. For 1 Euro you can get the case lit up to get a good look at it. She said Hungarian’s just wait till someone else pays the Euro! Also entombed in the Basilica is Ferec Puskas, Hungarys’ most famous football (soccer) player of all time. …..only in Hungary!
Stopped by the Academia of. Science. Some famous Hungarian inventions…Rubik’s cube, ball point pen, rotor for a helicoptor, contact lenses, hologram, hydrogen bomb, vitamin C. Many scientists moved away as the country simply did not have the resources to support them.
Another fun fact from our guide regards the Hungarian language. As I had earlier mentioned, it is one of the hardest to learn and sounds very peculiar to outsiders. Apparently the Hungarian language is used in Alien movies. So the language of the Jedi and Yoda is Hungarian!
We walk over the famous chain bridge, the first bridge to be built (1849) across the Danube to join Buda and Pest. Destroyed by the Nazis, but quickly rebuilt. One can take a funicular up to the top of the hill to see the Palace, but our group walks up.
At the base of the hill is an large oval statue which marks the heart of the country.
The Palace was damaged during WW11 and when the Soviets settled here, they refurbished it, but unfortunately used subpar materials, window frames are plastic. Must say while walking through the City one sees beautiful buildings, then just next door you will see large stark “Soviet era” type buildings. No redeeming features in these buildings and as a matter of fact a lot are being torn down or refurbished. Following is an example…the. beautiful Basilica with a soviet era building just next door.
Walking around the Castle District we also see Matthias Church, very beautiful. Our tour ends, a great 3 hours…very informative and fun.
Robin and I decide to take the bus back to the Pest side and end up in the Jewish District. We walk around, stop for lunch and eventually wind our way back to our apartment. Another packed day, impression of Budapest much changed from the first afternoon…..a good change!
Monday night we decide to head to the Jewish District for dinner. As we near the District we hear loud music and come across a demonstration. There must be some 10,000+- people, peacefully walking down the broad boulevard. I stop some of the people walking and ask them what is happening, we see signs that say its time for President Orban to step down. Well folks…..this is another chapter in the CEU (Central European University) story. I speak to another two young men who tell us that Viktor Orban is trying to close down the University, which we already knew. But unlike what our driver told us last week, the truth is that Orban is trying to squash free thinking and progressive views. Think we believe these guys and not the driver! WOW…this was quite the sight. Would we ever see this in Canada?
Monday arrives and we head off early and catch the subway to the famous Szechenyi Baths. The baths are one of the largest in Europe and the first to be built in the Pest side. I had bought tickets before we left home. A real experience and we really enjoyed taking this in. Glad we went early as it got very busy by the time we left. Spent about 2 1/2 hours at the baths, mostly outside as was again a very beautiful day. When in Hungary do as the Hungarians!.
We take the subway back to the Jewish District for lunch then walk down to the Danube and take the number 2 tram to take in the sights along the Danube on both the Buda and Pest sides of the river. The Parliament buildings are beautiful and immense, plan is to visit them tomorrow.
On our final day in Budapest, we head off to the Central Market Hall, which is Budapest’s produce market. As with usual markets lots of stalls selling meat, salami, vegetables and fruits. Strawberries and asparagus definitely in season right now. Upstairs are small cafes and souvenir stands.Very crowded with locals and tourists alike. On our way, we venture down some beautiful side streets, nice to get off the busy streets.
Take the tram and head off to the Parliament. This building is huge, classified in guide books as a “hulking oversized neo-gothic building” . The Parliament was built from 1885 to 1902, during the time of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Overbuilt by today’s standards considering the size of Hungary. It has a striking resemblance to Westminster in London. Referred to as a Neo Gothic Palace with a Neo-Renaissance dome. At one time a huge red communist star sat atop its tallest spire, but needless to say, that is now gone. Visited the Museum of the History of the Hungarian National Assembly, interesting history.
We hop on the subway and make our way to Deak Ter (square) and head off once again into the Jewish Quarter. We are on a mission to find a “ruin pub”. I had read about these before we headed out on our trip, and are quite the phenomenon. During WWll this area was heavily damaged and the neighbourhood sat dilapidated and forgotten for decades, even when other parts of the city were being refurbished. They really cater to the younger crowd in the evenings, not our bag, so we decided to go during the day. The entrances to these various pubs look abandoned, but once you walk down a hallway, you will find yourself in a large hall or open courtyard. We went to Szimpla Kert (simple garden). Tiny rooms surround an inner courtyard and seating throughout these areas. I am not sure how to begin to describe these pubs. I hope the pictures below will give one an idea of why I really can’t describe them!
After a drink at the pub, we head back to our apartment, another full day. About one hour after arriving to our temporary home, a rain storm comes in…good timing!
Once again, did not see everything we wanted! Overall thoughts on Budapest…..beautiful city, very walkable, transportation very good, lots of history although culturally seems to be somewhat lacking. Has become more of a party destination. Nonetheless, worth a visit.
Tomorrow morning, we take the train back to Vienna and pick up a rental car and head off to our next destination…Krems an der Danau in Austria, along the Danube.