i have adventures (sometimes)

Monday, 23 March 2015

Creative Skin Diseases from Strangers

Budapest Keleti station.
I've been staring at a blank screen for a while, because I hardly know where to start in writing about Budapest.

It's incredible. It's both familiar and like nowhere I've ever been. I don't feel like I have any sort of handle on it yet. In Vienna, for example, I had the sense I could stay there for two days or two years (but not two weeks). Bratislava was perfect for a day or two, but I wouldn't want to live there. Budapest... I have no idea. I feel like I could stay here for ages, but I have no sense of what it would be like to live here. A lot of the city is clearly geared for tourists, but I don't have any real feeling of what it's like beyond that.

So it's great. But also still one big question mark.

I arrived on Saturday night to find my very unassuming little hostel. I only call it unassuming because I don't know the word that means less than that but still isn't derogatory. It doesn't even assume to assume. It's unsignposted (but easy to find, as they sent excellent directions), and is run out of a converted flat in a very ordinary apartment block.

This front door makes no assumptions whatsoever.
Crouching apartment building, hidden hostel.
But inside it's perfectly lovely, and the staff are friendly, and they have an ancient laptop for guests to use, which is infinitely better than trying to blog using my tablet, which at this stage is pretty much good only for hammering in nails.

Feeling like I shouldn't waste my first evening, I went out to see the city by night. Budapest at night is stunning. But my camera and photography skills are not, so here is one picture.

St Stephen's Basilica.
I walked across the Chain Bridge to see the palace, and got on one of the trams that runs along the river. Then I realised that I didn't actually trust the British guy at the hostel who said that you could just use the trams for free, so I thought I should probably get off before getting a massive fine in a language and currency I didn't understand. So I jumped off somewhere in the suburbs of Buda, and headed back in the direction of the hostel.

Only I didn't realise how far I'd gone, and I hadn't eaten. I should have learned by now that this never ends well.

I ended up walking for about two hours, feeling sad and exhausted and hungry, avoiding the restaurants because they looked fancy, totally not appreciating the beauty of the city all lit up, until I eventually found my hostel and the nearest grocery store.

Of course, by that stage I was in no state to make sensible decisions, so I had chocolate milk for dinner, because don't tell me what to do. The good news is that food is super cheap here, and my basket of groceries cost me under R50, which was a pleasant surprise. I might have chocolate milk for dinner every night.

I got back to the hostel at last, where I had a travel cry (obligatory at least once) and collapsed into a bed which turned out to be so comfortable that I slept the sleep of the dead even though my roommates must all have come back in the middle of the night.

Well done, little hostel.

And not only does this place cost around R100 a night, that price includes free breakfast. And free breakfast includes excellent coffee and chocolate cereal. Everything is great.

On Sunday, I set off for the free walking tour, and it was so warm that I was in a t-shirt for a big chunk of the morning. Or maybe I have a fever, because everyone else was still in jackets. I don't know.

Outside St Stephen's. Possibly displaying symptoms of illness.
It wasn't the best walking tour I've ever done,* but as usual it was a nice way to see some of the major landmarks and learn a bit about the city and its history. And the language, which is agglutinative and ridiculous. Our guide (who was a medievalist called Norbert), gave us the example of one very long word which means that you've put less cabbage into something than you were supposed to. I don't remember the word, but I still really want to have an opportunity to use it.

As a side note, my favourite gloomy Hungarian expression is "Hátravan még afeketeleves" ("Still to come is the black soup"), which means that, no matter how bad things are, they can still get worse, and hearkens back to the Ottoman occupation, when the Turks would bring out this mysterious black soup after dinner and start talking about taxes. I plan to call coffee "black soup" and glare at it suspiciously forever now.

Looking not quite like this guy (the Little Princess): the first statue built in the democratic period, which makes it as old as me.
Matthias Church, which was also used as a mosque during the Ottoman occupation.
King/St Stephen. With bonus... eagle? Maybe? (Next to the chap in red in the middle.)
The Fishermen's Bastion
Budapest from the Castle District.
After the tour, I decided to stay on the Buda side of the river, so I wandered down through the Castle District to find a vegetarian restaurant my guidebook had recommended.

In a country where meat-stuffed meat is apparently a real dish, this was a nice place to find.
I had a pretty average meal which seemed fairly pricey by Budapest standards, then headed off to climb Gellert Hill, named after the saint who was chucked down it in a spiked barrel because the locals weren't thrilled about being converted.

My legs had already had it, what with all the walking and tower climbing over the past week, but I successfully hauled myself to the top, where I saw the Liberty Statue. The statue was initially for the "liberating Soviet heroes" of 1945, then when that didn't turn out so great, they changed it in 1989 to stand for "the memory of all those who sacrificed their lives for the independence, freedom and prosperity of Hungary."

Super heroic. And now more generally so.
The most heroic pose.
 Budapest is really ridiculously good looking.

Stop showing off, Budapest. (Click to embiggen.)
By then I really was exhausted, but I decided to wander home through the Jewish quarter and see the Great Synagogue. Somehow I missed it, despite it being huge on the map, but I was not in the mood to go back and hunt for it, so I left it for another day.

Then I took my sore legs off to Szechenyi Baths. I wouldn't normally go to anything like a spa, not least because it just sounds like an expensive way to get creative skin diseases from strangers. But Budapest is famous for its hot springs, and apparently this is The Thing To Do. So I Did The Thing.

It was surprisingly hard to find, and then there was no English signage, so I was pretty grumpy by the time I got there, bought a ticket and managed to find a locker, but once I was in, in was great. I drifted around in the indoor pools and the steam rooms until they closed, then hung out in the outdoor pool for a while. Leaving was a challenge, because the water was heated but the air was not. I eventually persuaded myself that it was only going to get colder, and so I should definitely not hang around all evening.

It was a good place to spend an evening, particularly after walking for hours and hours every day for the past week. Between this and all the chocolate cereal, chocolate milk and chocolate chocolate, I am winning at self-indulgence right now. I would pat myself on the back, but that seems like hard work and I refuse to do it.

I treated myself to a ticket back on Budapest's funny old subway (the oldest in continental Europe), and then headed back to the Jewish quarter for dinner at Hummus Cafe, because I can't pass up restaurants that have hummus right there in the name.

Afterwards I sought out Szimpla, one of the ruin pubs. These are apparently also The Thing to Do in Budapest.

Doing The Thing.
It was the coolest pub I've ever been to, but it was also very self-consciously cool. Like if the late CCHQ was in Maboneng. This impression was reinforced by the fact that they were selling ironically ugly postcards, and next door was a "farmer's cafe" and a place selling paleo bread.

The trendiest.
Still, it was a really cool place to hang out and have a drink. The prices made me raise my eyebrows, because my small cider cost me almost as much as dinner had. But then I did the maths and realised that dinner had cost me all of R30, so it really wasn't all that bad. Budapest, you are great.

At this stage of my trip, I am so tired. It's mid-morning and I'm still resisting going out, even though there are so many cool things still to do in Budapest. The sun is shining! The basilica is waiting to be climbed! The market is waiting for my weird Hungarian currency! And who knows? Maybe there are more creative skin diseases from strangers just out there waiting for me.

*The best walking tour I've ever done was in Edinburgh, where we all fell in love with our guide and the city and the stories he told, so much so that I went out and bought a book about the daring liberation of the Stone of Scone, only to find out that basically all the cool details were made up. I feel betrayed to this day.


  1. I have a recipe for black soup! No way I'm making it though, the main ingredient is blood.
    Goes nicely with the death & taxes theme I guess...

    Honestly I'd rather try a creative skin disease!

  2. Now that's a black soup worth being gloomy about!