Budapest in a nutshell, on a shoestring (January 2011)

Picture courtesy of Amy

The towns of Buda and Pest were amalgamated into one city in 1873. The monumental castle of Buda became the focal point for the new city; it sits enormous on the west bank of the Danube. It is the latest in a long line of castles to be raised and razed in this spot, the current castle is a Frankenstein’s monster consisting of parts of the 18th Century upgrade and reconstructed areas of the medieval castle amongst others after the castle was heavily damaged in World War II.

The amalgamation of histories and styles is a reflection of the central European hodge-podge that is the capital of Hungary. Landlocked in the centre of Europe, Budapest’s history has seen war after war; from Celts to Romans to Huns to Christianity, the Ottoman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian empire, occupation and conquest saw the landscape of Budapest change and mar through past generations. And what remains today is a damn fine spot for a holiday.

Landing late in the evening, myself and my lovely girlfriend Amy embarked upon a 5-day adventure in this striking city. We came to do a gung-ho tourist trail, promising ourselves an active long weekend of trips to the famous castle and the renowned health spas alongside some less well-traveled tourist routes.

We touched down in hostel HQ after the relatively short journey from airport to city. Our abode of choice for this trip was the Caterina Hostel, which, it is worth mentioning, was pretty much the lap of luxury of the hostel world. The building is beautiful, with high decorative ceilings juxtaposed against a modern interior that works perfectly (to my bemusement). The private bedroom was extremely reasonable on price, and the on-site fridge etc. came in extremely handy for the adventurer of limited pocket.

On to the city!

Picture courtesy of Amy

The trams in Budapest are great. They are Eastern European in every sense; snarling old mechanised things that make you feel like you are really taking a journey. Most of the city is easily navigable by foot however, and this is how we made most of our way.

To get a brief point out of the way quickly: the famous health spas are underwhelming if you aren’t into that sort of thing (I have learned that I am not). The buildings are lovely, but to me naturally warm water is just like unnaturally warm water, and besides the nice fresh smell they are really just glorified swimming pools.

With that gruff moaning taken care of, there is a wealth to do in the city besides the spas. We managed to stick to the tourist routes, but allowed time for meanderings and deviations along the way.

The old town of Buda surrounding the castle made good on some of these meanderings – on side-streets we caught sight of lines of old Trabants and Ladas that are still chugging away in the more remote regions of the city. We also stumbled across some great cafes in this region.

Picture courtesy of Amy – my Tiltshift edit

The castle itself is part of the Budapest UNESCO World Heritage site, which incorporates a variety of the historical riches in the city. It is spectacular for an evening wander and offers the best views of the city from its spot perched on high above the west bank of the Danube. The surrounding walls are great to explore, and the old cable car that brings you up the hill to the castle is worth the journey even if it is extortionate by Budapest prices.

There is a labyrinth that runs underneath the castle and is advertised as a tourist attraction, but beware! Although a bit of fun to explore on the late-night torch-light excursion, the cavernous tunnels are a little conceited, with unneccesary sound effects and somewhat tacky art pieces along the way; and the labyrinth culminates in a bizarre and inexplicable pseudo-exhibition placing the viewer in the future, with fossils of laptops and mobile phones on display. It is hard to describe but in my humble opinion it’s not really worth a visit even for the kitsch factor.

When night falls, Pest is the party side of the Danube. Here you can find the trail of ruin pubs that we sampled on our visit. These are terrific – the buildings are derelict and decorated sporadically with graffitti and recycled art. The ruin pubs form the centre of a lively Budapest nightlife. The Hungarians are good drinkers too, and behave more or less like the Irish when smashed (high spirits, don’t stop drinking til you hit the floor). The similarity could be due to the Celtic influence. Or the history of occupation.

On the art and culture side, the textile museum is great for a visit, with a comprehensive history of Hungarian clothes on display. We were also lucky to land during a terrific art exhibition at the Ludwig Museum showing a collection of Taiwanese art. The show was typical of group shows, in that there was a wide variety and something for everyone to love. And, of course, something for everyone to hate. But the exhibition and the museum impressed no end. Budapest’s art scene is decidedly contemporary, but offers a rich variety from grungier young art to high art museums and historical exhibitions.

Outside the Ludwig museum stands Heroes Square, a large monument commemorating the leaders of Hungary through the centuries. Completed in 1900 (and part of the enormous area of Budapest that comprises a World Heritage site), the square comprises  a semi-circle (never mind…) of statues, each one showing one of fifteen admired Hungarian historical figures. This is worth a visit and a long ponder over the variety in the excellently crafted sculptures.

The tourist hot-spot Margaret Island proved a high point on this trip on our last day. Bathed in fog we set forth on a long walk around the tranquil space, encountering joggers and tourists and freezing in the cold January air. Until this point the winter cold hadn’t hit – the days had been sunny throughout and temperatures were mild, but in the fog Budapest got extremely chilly. We passed an open nature reserve that held a selection of domesticated animals and wandered by the Danube catching sight of broken piers and the barely-visible far bank of the river, until the cold was too much to bear and we packed it in.

I haven’t exactly told this story chronologically – I decided to meander in and out and give a taster of all that was on offer, which is really how this flying visit went for myself and my adventuring companion.

But I wanted to save the best for last. Although the historical beauty, contemporary culture and boisterous nightlife were magnificent, the arguable highlight of the holiday was Pál-völgyi Cave, which we visited during a guided caving expedition north of the city. It is easy to find information on the caving trips in the hostels of the city. Take a couple of buses to the outskirts of Budapest (around an hour of traveling) and you’re there.

We were guided by Laszlo (excuse the probable misspelling), a magnanimous caver and all-round enjoyable chap. Provided with jump-suits and making up half of a group of four eager tourists, we descended into the winding, squeezing tubes of the cave. We took a route affectionately known as the “toilet seat”, which brought us on a 3-hour loop underground through some of the most fascinating tunnels I have ever seen. This was my first ever experience of caving, and I could not recommend it higher. Crawling, pulling, climbing, scraping and getting stuck were all part of the fun. Not for the claustrophobic or anyone who is afraid to get dirty, but this adventure is really worth having, if not in Budapest then somewhere. For me these underground tunnels were a terrific introduction to caving, and the tour was exemplary in every regard.

A choice of riches described, and this doesn’t come close to the full Budapest experience. The markets, although disappointing, are worth a visit. Traditional Hungarian-style garbs are on offer, along with games and trinkets, but the space is very tourist-orientated and extremely expensive. The walks along the banks of the Danube are a treat at all times, and it was fun to follow the tram-lines around the city. There is incredible architecture everywhere you look, and grand statues are nearly more common than people. Although still a very poor city, the people are extremely friendly. The high street shops are popular and much the same as they are anywhere else – better avoided in my opinion but people do travel to Budapest to shop.

It is also worth mentioning, I left Ireland with €300 cash, ate and drank liberally, went on numerous adventures and came home with money to spare. There is value to be had for anyone who wants a holiday but feels like it might be out of reach. Avoid the city-centre restaurants and dodge extortionate tourist fares and spending a few days in Budapest will not break the bank.

And that is Budapest in a nutshell. 5 days of extremely proactive tourist-ing later and we caught the next flight back to Ireland. On a whole, the city is extraordinary, and although we didn’t see everything, the essence of Budapest can certainly be experienced in a shotgun visit.

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