Thursday, April 03, 2008

Ha ha, it was called Pest!

One of the factoids that every American seems to know about Europe and want to bring up at a given opportunity is that Budapest used to be two separate cities called Buda and Pest. Several people mentioned it to us when we said we were going there. "Are you going to BUDA, or PEST? Har har har!!!! I'm not only in the know about Budapest, I'm funny!" I very distinctly remember learning this in elementary school because it sounded hilarious at the time, for whatever reason. It was also entertaining to imagine other cities having been named in this way. Budapest was Buda and Pest! Omaha was Oma and Ha! Chicago was Chic and Ago! Har har har. I remember very little else about those lessons on Europe. At that time I never imagined I'd actually get to see Budapest someday.

Anyway, the two sides are still called Buda and Pest, and we did indeed go to both.

Budapest Mar 08

We only had two days, so we did a lot of walking past things rather than going into them. On day one arrived in the morning, checked into our hotel, then took in the Great Market Hall (ok, but touristy), walked across the river and went past Gellert Hill, climbed up to Buda Castle (not so exciting) and walked along the terrace, went around and through St. Matthias (amazing!) and the Fisherman's Bastion, went back down past a neat museum and church, crossed the Danube (it's huge) on the Chain Bridge, had cake at Cafe Gerbeaud (I was skeptical, but it was delicious), walked through a touristy market square, checked out a grocery store (hello 5-liter vats of oil!), and ate dinner near Oktogon. On day two, we rode the M1 out to Heroes' Square (if you like monuments...), walked through the big fake reconstructed Vajdahunyad Castle (they did pick some nice buildings to fake up), down Andrássy Avenue (very cool), checked out St. Stephen's (you can see his mummified hand - nifty), ate near Oktogon again, went over by the Synagogue (wasn't open), had coffee, went to another church I can't find any info on (the German tour book called it the Pfarrkirche, but that's in German), went down part of Váci Street (incredibly bland) and past the Museum of Applied Arts (very cool building), got some more cake at Gerbeaud (yum!), and went past the Market Hall again for souvenirs (I'm a sucker for simplistic embroidery in primary colors - this is the first place where I actually like the tourist knick-knacks).

Some notes:
*The Great Market Hall continues in the grand tradition of places like Fanueil Hall in Boston or the stalls around Heiliggeist in Heidelberg. They woo in tourists by billing themselves as markets that have been markets since the dawn of time, which is supposed to give them an air of localness and legitimacy, which tourists love. The Hall does have some places that draw locals, but don't be fooled, the majority is tourism. Buy your paprika, if you've got to have it, at the grocery store, not from someone selling it with ceramic holder that says "Hungary" and a bow on it. Don't get the icky food in the stalls on the second floor (we did - mistake). However, the souvenir prices were better than other places we looked (though it's not saying too much).

*St. Matthias is definitely in my personal top-five of awesome churches. It was being re-roofed, but we could still see some sections of its patterned roof, which puts all the ones in Basel to shame. The entire inside is painted on every surface like the columns in Notre Dame were. If you can see only one thing in Budapest, unless you're not into churches at all, see this!

*The cake at Cafe Gerbeaud really is good. I wouldn't have gone because I always worry about these touristy places (they rest on their laurels and stop being good), but my friend recommended it, and she was right. We ended up going a second time just to have it again. Watch the receipt - tip is included in the bill, don't tip more on top of it!

*Smoking seems to be allowed pretty much everywhere. Yuck.

*In tourist areas, everybody seems to be trilingual - Hungarian, German, and English. Hungarian is not an Indo-European language and as such is really difficult for foreigners! However, how cool for them. I would love to be a true speaker of a language so unusual. You could really be carrying the torch for something cool.

*We ate at Menza because Lonely Planet (not my favorite guide for sights, but the best for hotels/restaurants, I think) "implored" us to do so. It was hard to get a seat so we had to make a few attempts and ended up being successful at lunch the second day. The garlic cream soup is awesome, but we ordered way too much food, not counting on the enormous free dessert they brought us! Get a reservation if you really want to eat there.

*We saw bearded hipsters! Of course they might have been American students, who run rampant over eastern cities right now (it's hip and cheaper than Paris). But, I never see bearded hipsters in Germany, except in H&M ads.

*We saw misuse of English on clothing - a jacket that said "AMBIGUOUS" across the back, and a kid wearing a shirt that said "FOR YOU". I wish I knew where to buy that stuff. I definitely need an "AMBIGUOUS" item.

*Keleti is a mess and a madhouse. To buy train tickets to leave the country you have to go to a separate desk outside the station. WTF? There's no one to help you figure things out. We asked one employee where to find the track we needed and he pointed in the completely wrong direction. We wandered around and ran into another guy who wanted our train and was traveling to Berlin. He tried to ask someone if the train went to Berlin, and all they said to him was "Praha! Praha!" He didn't know that Praha was Prague, and the train did go to Praha, but it went to Berlin too. So I don't know what that conversation was about. Eventually we found a car that was marked with the train route and got on in some confidence.

*Our hotel gave everything in three languages, except for a sign one evening on the door, which was only in Hungarian. Hmm....

Budapest was our main goal on this trip. Bratislava and Wien, which I'll write about later, were just afterthoughts that we tacked on, since we are worried about seeing a lot of things in a short period in case we have to leave Europe soon. The trip left me with a lot of thoughts on tourism and what is "real" that I'll maybe write about another time.


  1. Budapest is one of my fav cities in Europe. I especailly love the Parliament building. Bratislava is nice for a day and Vienna is just awesome.

  2. There really is a strange dearth of bearded hipsters in Germany. Althought there were a couple in one of my Germanistik seminars last term.

    Keleti is insane. The post office in Budapest is also a very confusing, Hungarian language only, communist era service culture, experience. The cafes are fabulous though, even though they are ridiculously expensive.

  3. I've been wearing a lot of shirts purchased via and while on vacation most recently, I grew (ok, still am growing; it's a work in progress) a beard.

    If anyone accuses me of being a hipster, can I just say I've been doing these things for the sheer irony, or would that cement my status? That'd be totally fin*.

  4. J: Yeah, I really liked Parliament too, though we didn't do any tours of it - I liked the outside.

    Jones: Damon speculates that the lack of bearded hipsters might be d/t there being still too strong an association of beards with these older, traditional guys (like the type you see in beard-sculpting competitions on TV). Thoughts?

    Cliff: I'm never clear on whether irony is or is not hip at any given moment, so I can't tell you whether it'd cement your status...
    It might. :)


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