A year ago, I took a trip to Budapest for a conference and a work meetup, and I forgot to ever blog about it! So let’s lump this one under better late than never.
One of my colleagues, Jeremy, lives in Budapest, so he showed us a very good time. We stayed in some apartments in downtown Pest and walked almost everywhere we had to go. I loved the architecture surrounding us. Here was a street just around the corner from us — note how the building facades curve along with the street:
For the first couple of days we were there, we were busy attending an all-day conference, so we didn’t look around much, but we did have quite a few amazing meals. My favorite dish was some sort of Hungarian pork speciality described as pork from a pig with long white hair. It was fatty and smoky and delicious, so if you’re ever in Hungary and there’s some sort of hairy pig on the menu, get it.
On the final night of the conference, we all stopped by the after party and had some shots of pálinka. Then we went to a nearby ruin pub. The ruin pubs are a fairly recent (last 20 years or so) trend in Budapest. They came about because the city has a great many abandoned, condemned buildings that are too expensive to tear down and replace. At some point, some enterprising hipster lugged a bunch of mismatched furniture into one and set up a bar, and it was wildly popular, and the ruin pubs have been a thing ever since. They’re very cool — old stone courtyards and arcades, winding stairways and crumbling archways all thronging with people and jammed with salvaged school desks and couches, modern light fixtures, and bars and food stalls. Here are a couple of crappy pictures from the one we went to:
These don’t really capture the labyrinthine feel of the ruin pubs, though — the buildings are huge, many of them former tenements.
The day after the conference, Jeremy took us on a walk across the Széchenyi Chain Bridge to the Buda Castle complex, which is on a hill looking over the city. From there, we walked through a little village of shops near there to Matthias Church, with its decoratively tiled roof. Then, we walked along the river in Buda for a good way, until we were just across from the spiky Gothic parliament building, and then hopped on the subway back to Pest.
In the afternoon, we took a tour. Our tour guide was a cute, skinny college girl with a mop of curly black hair. She showed us around a bunch of ruined buildings and explained the history of downtown architecture, and how some buildings were being repurposed (such as into ruin pubs) and others demolished, and still others could not be demolished for various complicated reasons and so had turned into squats in the middle of otherwise very upwardly aspirant neighborhoods.
At one stop, she led us through the courtyard of an apartment building to an unassuming-looking stone wall at the rear of the property. The wall was adorned with a small remembrance plaque to victims of the Holocaust, and had a little shrine below it. Our guide explained that this wall was one of the few stretches of the Jewish ghetto wall that had survived the siege. But then it was accidentally torn down anyway by some builders who were modernizing and didn’t realize the wall was anything special. When the locals pointed it out, they rebuilt the wall to look kind of like the old one and that’s what we were actually viewing.
Here’s the wall, along with a clear example of old apartments and new complexes coexisting on the same block:
We ended the tour at a pub. Jeremy had been talking about a surprise all day, but he wouldn’t tell us what it was, although he did say, disturbingly, that he hoped none of us were afraid of confined spaces. We had a drink at the bar, and he explained that the surprise was that we would be locked into a room and would have one hour to get out.
As alarming as that sounded, it turned out to be a locked room game that is becoming really popular in a number of places and was one of the most tremendously fun group activities I have ever done — if you live in a place where there is one, go immediately! The rooms are full of all kinds of knick knacks and furniture, and you have to look for clues and solve puzzles to find keys that unlock further clues. It’s difficult to describe, but the games are really elaborately constructed, and you have to go through them at a very frenetic pace to get out in an hour.
We divided into two teams of five, and then we each did one of the rooms, and then swapped. Our first room was called the mirror room, and we did not solve it. We didn’t even come close. We got stuck really early on, and couldn’t figure out how to use one of the hints we were given. The second one was an Alice In Wonderland themed room, and that one we managed to solve.
The next couple of days were work days, but we did use our lunch break one day to climb to the top of St. Stephen’s Basilica and enjoy the view of the city, and of course, we walked around a bunch.
In the evening, we went for a nighttime dinner cruise on the Danube, tables and a bar in a floating glass dome of a boat. There was a live singer who sang Judy Collins-type hits in English.
Next morning, we all walked over to the Dohány Street Synagogue, and then took the subway over to Gellért Hill, which we climbed and looked at the most Soviet sculpture ever made, the Liberty Statue, which is one of the few statues that weren’t demolished after the revolution.
Then we walked back down, and over to the Great Market Hall, which was bustling and multi-level and enclosed, full of stalls selling embroidered dolls and cloths and emptied painted eggshells and mystery boxes. There was also a long line of food stalls and after much fighting, my coworker and I managed to secure a giant wheel of fried dough piled with sour cream, cucumbers, pepperoni, olives, peppers, onions, and cheese. It was delicious. We hunched over a free bit of table to eat it, meanwhile using our elbows to defend our spot from encroaching families.
By the afternoon, I was pretty zonked, and I almost begged off going to the baths, but I’m glad I didn’t. Jeremy took us to the Széchenyi Thermal Bath in the middle of City Park. The baths are in a long, ornate building and are packed with every possible example of humanity: fat old fellows absorbed in a game of chess on a built-in board (Jeremy: “they get really mad if someone tries to take their spot”), gangs of tourists from various European countries, families with young children and surly teens in tow, young couples who needed to get a room. There are pools in a large center courtyard out in the open air, and then there is the building of spas of varying temperatures, freezing to boiling and everything in between. Inside, the ceilings are high and arched, and there is lots of Grecian-type statuary — cherubs look down over the bathers. The spas themselves are from a spring, so they’re not treated and they have a fungal, sulphury smell.
This was the perfect thing to do at the end of a busy week, and a fitting finale to our trip. Budapest wasn’t really on my radar as far as places to visit, but I really loved it, and I’d like to go back and explore a bit more.
(Some more pictures from Budapest here.)