Weekend in Budapest


Budapest is a short train ride from Vienna, so it's a perfect weekend getaway, offering both relaxation at its elegant thermal baths and gaiety at night, even if that only involves strolling along the shimmering river, aglow with reflections in emerald and gold while music and laughter spill from the restaurants and clubs.

Szechneyi Thermal Bath

If you are interested in more photos and details of this particular bathhouse, just search this blog. I have been here a couple times before and probably had more to say.

Although it is lively and feels cutting edge in some ways, that is, the place you want to be, there is a pervasive, romantic, complex old feel to the city of Budapest. Strikingly different cultures have claimed Budapest as their own... over millennia. The first time I visited I recall seeing an old broken monument, a huge green and black iron man rising out of an overgrown hillside that was evidence of a Turkish invasion, but the memory is indistinct and may even be wholly inaccurate. I tend to lose interest when reading about thousands of years of history which run pretty much along the lines of B conquered A, then C invaded and conquered B, then D came along...and naturally these stories all involve murder, rape, pillage and enslavement, so it's really hard to root for the winners, let alone remember the oft-obscure names of tribes and from whence they came, and then lodge their successes somewhere meaningful in my head, mainly because it is unlikely I will care about ever retrieving this information. A very distilled history of Budapest which might be close to accurate is this: Archeological evidence has thus far revealed human settlements in Hungary as far back in time as 500,000 - 250,000 years ago. Not much is known about them, except that some of them built fireplaces using the teeth of animals. Nonetheless, the origin of Budapest proper is generally attributed to the Celts, which I am happy to go along with because the name generally conjures up the nature religions, dancing under a full moon and fairies rather than bloodshed. The Celts hung out in Budapest from the 4th century BC until the Roman soldiers came marching in around 100 AD, in their crazy mad determination to dominate the entire world, and of course conquered the dancing Celts. Then it appears that during that free-for-all period of general Barbarian Invasions, from 300 to 800 AD, guess there wasn't much else for folks to do, all kinds of different peoples had a go at claiming power here through the usual violent means, but the Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin in 896 AD is generally considered the end of all that and the beginning of modern history here... as evidenced by the construction of Heroes Square, begun in 1896 to celebrate their thousandth anniversary. This is not to imply a static period of peaceful governance since then by any means. Many gruesome military actions have been staged here in the quest for dominance over the ensuing years, including as recently as the mass extermination of the large Jewish population that had emigrated here for safety during World War II, as well as post-WWII revolutions. The present political system has been in power only since 1989 with the fall of the Iron Curtain and the transition away from the Soviet Communist State, and even today the nationalist sentiments of the current prime minister do not sit comfortably with many of Hungary's European neighbors, but the Hungarians nonetheless remain a cohesive group with a strong national identity - think more goulash and paprika than anti-immigration rhetoric.

Most of us still manage to be happy despite our politicians and Budapest, the towns of Buda and Pest joined by the construction of Chain Bridge over the Danube River in 1849, is no exception. It is hands down a vibrant and lovely city.

Heroes Square. The construction of Heroes Square was part of a larger project which joined three major boulevards here, a city planning idea modeled on Paris and which also included the construction of the first metro line in Budapest, my favorite, the yellow line.

There is something about this line that is reminiscent of the train in Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. Maybe it's the small scale. Or perhaps it's the tinkling sound after the car stops and before the doors slide open. The stations are clean, with gleaming tile and polished wooden cabinets for storage (built long before 9/11, during a pre- apocalyptic era when people thought of storing umbrellas rather than ticking bombs). Architecturally, the stations are pleasant spaces for being subterranean. I find it hard not to picture grandmas in garishly colorful floral babushkas baking Christmas cookies when I look at the tiles around the station name here.

While a lot of buildings were bulldozed by Soviet tanks in World War I, some weren't. Here are some random photos of buildings that caught my fancy while wandering, waiting for the bus, or in the case of the last one, while at the top of a ferris wheel.

Do you know the line in that Simon and Garfunkel song (Feelin' Groovy): "Hello lamppost, whatcha knowin?" For some reason it pops in my head every time I see a cool lamppost and I end up photographing a lot of them. Here's one from this trip.

I find Budapest even more charming at night. So many old European cities have that amber lamppost glow that tumbles into your heart and mellows your mind.

Almost home: this is the street near our hotel.

I usually stay in airbnbs these days, but sometimes it's nice to have the predictability of a luxury hotel, preferably one that also offers an amazing breakfast.

The first night was pretty cold and we decided on a ghost tour. Frankly, it scared the bejesus out of me. We simply downloaded an app and went where we were told to go, while it provided ghastly stories that happened in these places right in front of us. Naturally as it got darker and colder, the narratives cut more deeply.

I'm pretty sure this was the place where a stupid number of housekeepers' heads were found.

The second night found us in a much more frivolous mood, with the goal being only to try different flavors of palinka, a fruit brandy from the region. I think we were doing a pretty good job, but the bars were body-press crowded and it didn't feel like the right vibe for having a kid along, so we decided to just buy a bottle. When we saw the name of the nearby liquor stores was Manna, of course we recognized that as a sign from heaven that this was absolutely the right decision. So we procured a bottle of pear palinka to drink as we sauntered along the river. 

At some point we realized that our feet were going to give out from all of this carousing, and that after a long day of exploring, so we slowly wove our way back to the hotel, having a grand and silly time of it all. I'm pretty sure in this photo that we were getting Low in 1964. My son and I share this love of rock music and often hit upon an obscure reference which takes us places where we can hardly stop laughing, and then we build upon that, maybe with a poem, or just a limerick and so on... but it generally loses something in an attempted explanation... You probably know those moments when someone wants included in the laugh. There are just times you know it's a fruitless endeavor that will only make you appear heartless.

This does remind me though of something someone told us somewhere there that weekend that may be of use to you, and that is NOT to clink your glasses in a toast. Evidently this is something the Austrians did when celebrating dominance over the Hungarians and it still does not sit well with them. Seeing as we had come from Austria, we felt de facto guilty and were especially careful not to breach this etiquette.