Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Budapest March 2010

I left home at 6.30am on 26th March for an 8.45am flight, because the tiny City Airport is right next door to my place. I had a Lufthansa flight from London to Düsseldorf and another from there to Budapest. The only reason I didn’t take a picture of the miniscule plane I boarded for the first flight, was because I didn’t want to get arrested for taking pictures at the airport – but that tiny thing definitely deserved to become famous. It looked like something straight out of the 1950s! To think that I’ve always made fun of low-cost airlines for the unsteady-looking planes they have, it hurt to know that airlines like Lufthansa and Swiss Air are no better with their fleet.

Anyway, I arrived in Budapest a little before 3pm, and went straight for my pre-booked airport shuttle bus, which to my surprise runs on a pretty organised system. I got a receipt for my online booking from a lady in the baggage lounge, who confirmed my destination details and sent me off to the exit lobby, where another desk re-confirmed details and asked me to wait for 15-20 minutes for the next available driver. In the meantime, I saw a driver turn up every 5 minutes to collect 3 sets of passengers in the order they must have arrived at the desk. Roughly 15 minutes later, a gruff-looking driver arrived and called out the names of the girl who’d arrived just before and just after me, along with mine of course. We all hopped on and my city tour began.

My first impressions of Budapest were similar to my first impressions of parts of Istanbul or Rome. There’s some dilapidation about the buildings, some Mediterranean sort of look about the people, some feeling of austerity that is prevalent in the once-great-but-no-longer-rich nations of Europe, that I noticed at first glance. I guess that made me feel right at home fairly immediately, and I settled back to enjoy the journey (with Madonna and Michael Jackson blaring from the radio – some things are just common to every part of the world!)

I was outside Dora’s apartment within 30 minutes, after the driver had dropped one of my companions to her hotel. As he helped me with my luggage, he very sweetly explained that he couldn’t park in front of the building due to the road-works, and pointed at the building I needed to get to by crossing the street. I was pleasantly surprised at his manner, considering he had appeared to be scary when he collected us at the airport. First lesson learnt - Hungarians don’t hate foreigners; they’re just a bit uncomfortable about their limited English-speaking skills - a lesson I was reminded of over and over again the next couple of days.

So, I met Dora, checked out her empty and spacious apartment (she doesn’t actually live there, and had cleaned it only for me), and settled down for a chat. Hours went by before we realised we were both peckish, and finally stepped out to get some grub. There’s a newly-opened large mall 2 minutes away from her place, so we ended up at the food court, where I discovered to my dismay that Hungarians love meat even more than Pakistanis (if that’s actually possible). Even the vegetarian food had meat-based gravy! After much discussion, I got some lentil-based soup (apparently a very traditional New Year dish – each grain of lentil signifies the proportion of prosperity for the coming year), with some potatoes on the side. Definitely not a lavish meal but it tasted good and I was hungry.

After dinner, we picked up some groceries from a corner shop, Dora dropped me back at the flat, and went back to her own home. I was alone in a new place, with a LONG history (her grandparents lived there, her mother grew up there and they survived wars in that place), which would usually spook me out, but I fell asleep within minutes.

Woke up to the sound of the first tram of the morning, and kept waking up every few minutes after, till I was actually ready to get up. I fixed myself some breakfast, showered and got ready to start the day. It was strange that so many things about the flat reminded me of other countries. The windows, the kitchen, the shower all echoed of Turkey, and something about the slightly old- fashioned, well-ventilated but musty smell of the toilet brought back memories of my grandmother’s house in India. I realise that sounds horrible, but I mean it in a good way. Dora and I concluded that it might be the old ventilation system or possibly the overhead flush tank that was causing the nostalgia. Whatever it was, I felt at home in that flat.

Buda Palace
Dora came to pick me up, and we took a bus to our first destination – Varhegy – or Castle Hill – which is a large plateau district on the Buda side of Budapest (divided in 2 sides by the River Danube). Skipping an in-depth historical lesson, it should suffice to say that the famous Buda Palace rests here, along with various other sites.
We checked out the landmark Lanchid (Chain Bridge), walked past Kilometre Zero (from which all distances in Budapest are measured), glanced at the Turul Statue (used as the symbol of Hungaryand took the Siklo (funicular train) up to the top of Varhegy. Stopping only to take pictures, but never actually entering the buildings, we walked past the Buda Palace, Matyas Church and Music History Museum amongst others. 

Cake!!! (And Scone...)
Most importantly, we stopped at a corner café, called Korona, where we had coffee and cake. Coffee was good, but the cake was exquisite. In fact, choosing a cake was the most difficult decision I had to make that day. Everything in the display looked like a work of art, and considering the beautiful flavours of what I did order, I have no doubt everything tasted divine. Dora ordered a savoury scone, something I’d never seen before, and a couple of bites of that made me very happy indeed!

We finally got off Castle Hill, and crossed the Danube via the Chain Bridge to get to the Pest side. By now the sun was shining and it felt like the beginning of spring. We walked down a long street to get to St Stephen’s Basilica (which we didn’t enter either), and moved to Andrassy Street. This is considered the Champs-Elysees of Budapest. I happily gawked at the beautiful buildings, and crossed from one side to the other to take pictures. Having walked for a good few hours, we sat down to stretch our legs and tuck into some food at a restaurant on a small side street. Once again, Hungarian food didn’t disappoint. I ordered some obscure local fish that came with garlic sauce, and enjoyed every mouthful.

Next stop was at the end of Andrassy Street – Hosok Tere (Heroes’ Square). So, I looked at various monuments honouring ancient kings and the history of the country. It was truly amazing, but I still don’t know enough about the history to understand what I was really looking at. 
Hosok Tere
Time Wheel
Then we went to see the Timewheel, the world’s largest hourglass, which in this case doesn’t actually measure time by the hour, but by the year. It commemorates the inclusion of Hungary into the EU in 2004, and is turned 180 degrees every new year.

Exhausted and done for the day, we headed back to the flat, and after a long discussion about the state of the world, we decided to call it a night, without even having any dinner. Dora went away, and I spent an hour reading my guidebook to comprehend what I had seen all day, and decide what I wanted to see next.
Spring Festival!

Next morning, the clocks had gone forward an hour, without my knowledge or permission, so I was running late. Dora came to pick me up a bit later, and we headed out towards Vorosmarty Square, where she wanted me to go to Gerbeaud Café, one of the largest and most famous café-confectioners in Europe, in existence since 1858. Instead we got waylaid by the Spring Festival, which had started that day. So, we walked around Vorosmarty Square in a daze, checking out all the handicrafts on display, as well as the variety of food and baked stuff being prepared around us. 

Temptation got the best of us, and we sat down to eat some local food (I ended up eating a hot potato-based dish, with loads of paprika, the spice that is their major export, which was being served as a side for all the sausage and meat dishes!). As we sat munching, the small stage set up at our corner of the square stared buzzing, and a trio arrived to sing and play folk music. As Dora said then, everything I had originally wanted from the trip was now complete – sunshine, good food, spring festival and folk music. 
Dora and I having yummy food at Spring Festival
More Cake at Gerbeaud!

To complete the experience, we went to Gerbeaud Café, to have their famous Gerbeaud cake and coffee. Considering the history and prestige of the place, I was expecting a hefty bill, but like everything else, it was most reasonable. 
House of Terror

Having had a fantastic day so far, I was determined to put a damper on it all. The only museum I was planning to visit – the House of Terror – was our next stop. Acting as both a historical journey through the fascist and communist regimes of the 20th century, and a memorial to the victims of both these periods, it is a grim place to be in. The building formerly housed the AVO (Hungarian secret police) office, and in the basement were the cells, where many of the victims were tortured. But as a museum, this is possibly the most interesting one I have ever seen. Whether it is the elaborate set up of the video interviews, with quotes from Nazis and Communists on the walls, or the darkened rooms with red lighting, or over-powering uniforms hanging in the middle of small connecting rooms, or an entire labyrinth with walls of pork-fat bricks (actually of rubber, but it looks very realistic), or a library with benches covered with newspaper clippings – every room has its own character and it never becomes repetitive or boring. The highlight is of course the very slow, dark lift that transports visitors to the basement, with a video interview about the tortures that used to take place in the cells. And when the lift doors finally open, you can walk around the actual cells where real inmates had once suffered atrocities. It is all very powerful.
When we finally came out, we were feeling a bit more sombre, so we took the tram home, and chatted for a couple of hours. Finally as hunger struck me again, we walked back to the mall, and ordered ‘giant’ savoury pancakes and fresh orange juice. A combination of immense hunger and absolute delight about the quality of the food, compelled me to ask Dora to tell the waiter to start making me another pancake (sweet, this time), when I was only halfway through my first one. He of course thought I was mad, but I didn’t care. I wanted my second pancake to be on the table as soon as I finished my first one. I timed it right, and continued eating without much breathing, and ended up finishing my glass of juice as well as Dora’s. I think she was a little scared.

We got back home, and chatted for hours, and as she was staying over this night, we went to bed really late. Woke up Monday morning, had breakfast, and soon after my shuttle bus driver arrived to take me back to the airport.

I boarded a delayed flight to Zurich, and a connecting flight to London City Airport and en route the weather had changed from bright and sunny, to grey and wet. I was home. And thus ended my short but excellent trip to my first CEE country.

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