Well, Pest, really. See, there’s Buda. And then there’s Pest. And we went to Pest. What? It’s like this: there are two sides of a river called the Danube. You may have heard of it. If not, read a book, slacker. Buda is on the West bank of the river, and Pest is on the East (because Celts, Aquincum, Pannonia, Huns, Hungarian tribes, Mongols, Battle of Mohacs, Ottomans, Hapsburgs, 1848 Revolution, 1873 Unification). Anyway, the history lesson is over… what’s the city like? It’s wonderful! And cheap! Visit! We did. What’s your excuse? Yeah… we thought so.
First off, the food is good! And inexpensive! Not as good as Praha, but close, and cheaper by a hair. Of course, everyone immediately thinks of goulash, so we won’t talk about that, but what we will talk about is how easy one may find high quality offerings of everything from chicken cordon-blue to shrimp pad thai to hummus and stuffed grape leaves. International cuisine is easy to find and very well made (did we mention cheap?). Cafe culture is prevalent, and you can sit and enjoy fantastic desserts while watching non-whores scam drunk Britts (it’s true, we watched… more on that later, maybe).
One thing you wouldn’t think you’d see much of in the center of Europe is an emphasis on peppers (as opposed to pepper). The Hungarians are huge into paprika, made of dried and crushed peppers of the type you measure on the Scoville scale. What? You didn’t know about that? No matter! We’ll explain: the version of the spice the Hungarians favor is derived from the plant brought by Eastern Europe’s favorite boogeymen–those turban-wearing Ottomans–in the 16th century.
It’s not particularly spicy, but it’s good, and it’s in everything. And if you don’t like the locally prepared version, you too can dry and crush your own peppers, which you can purchase at the weekend farmer’s market, to make your very own concoction of goulash and sausage. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Excuse us while we go get some…
The people in Hungary are, overall, pretty cool. Don’t believe us? Who else maintains a Michael Jackson Memorial Tree? Do you? This particular oddity was located just north of the heart of the happening (shopping, cafeing, barring, hoteling) part of town. Drink heavily. Visit it. Light a candle. It’s fun!
People are also (mostly) quite friendly (except for that lady at the airport, who apparently hated life and foreigners in equal measure). Though willing to help, we were surprised at the low percentage of English speakers for a large city. You’ll find them, but sometimes, you really have to dig around! At first, we thought this was due to the fact that they didn’t watch enough Dukes of Hazard growing up. But we were clearly mistaken when we saw their awesome Top Down Time version of mass transportation. Huzzah! Or should we say, “yeeeeeeeeeeeeehaw?” This thing looked ready to mount an outboard and head into the Danube. We’re calling shotgun for when it does.
Anyway, you’ll still be able to get by on your silly English, but you may have to use a little sign language. It’s more fun that way. And Hungarian (or Magyar, for those of you looking to impress that philology major with questionable personal grooming habits) is, by far, the WEIRDEST language we’ve ever heard (it’ll be easy for you who speak Finnish or Estonian, but not to the rest of us). It doesn’t fit into any of the typical European language groups, and word is they don’t even use pronouns (actually, they do… but they use the same pronoun for dudes and chicks, which explains what happened that drunken night–but we’re not going to talk about that).
Oh, and Magyar uses postpositions instead of prepositions. No, we’re not making this stuff up. What sort of people are these?!?!?!? We’ll tell you what sort: hot chick people, that’s what! With LONG legs! Hellz yeah! The dress code seems to be the shortest skirts or shorts you can find, and with legs like that, why the hell not? How delightful… um… terrible! No we won’t post pics, ‘cause that’s pervy, and we’re not pervs (in public). Now get thee to a church and repent. Immediately.
St. Stephen’s basilica
Speaking of churches… well, Hungary’s in Europe, and in general, the coolest places to see on this continent are the Churches, on account of the awesome architecture and hoards of shiny bits, not to mention the occasional odd saintly part. And St. Stephen’s Basilica has fine, fine architecture, shiny, shiny bits, and saintly, saintly body parts.
The church was originally built in neo-classical style, but that didn’t last long, on account of a little (big) dome collapse due to shoddy workmanship and materials, requiring the entire structure to be demolished. Whoops! So architects were switched and it was resurrected with more than a dash of neo-renaissance style thrown in (resurrected… get it?). During the mass consecrating the rebuilt dome in 1906, rumor was that the Emperor kept looking up, afraid that the second dome was about to cave in on his precious royal head. Well, it didn’t happen that day, but the dome did later suffer heavy damage when the church took a bit of not-too-friendly bombing during World War Two, requiring another major rebuild. And severe weather in the late twentieth century damaged the rebuild again, requiring a major rehabilitation lasting until 2003. It’s been a rough life! But it has been treated well with the last makeover: it received some 5 kilograms of gold, 250,000 gold leaves, 10 kilograms on aquamarine, and 6,300 square meters of renewed stucco wrap–the kind of shellacking famous things of Hungarian descent like to get (just ask Gene Simmons before a show). But what a magnificent result (the Church, not Gene!) We can describe it to you, but if a picture is worth a thousand words, here are a few thousand words’ worth for your viewing pleasure.
You really need to go see it for yourselves, but for now, be content with some closeups of the incredible interior with the following links:
And of course, fitting a church of its stature, it possesses a magnificent organ. MAGNIFICENT. First assembled in 1905, it followed the size and specifications of the French, as its creator, József Angster had studied in Paris at the famous Aristide Cavaille-Coll. What? You didn’t know that? You want more facts you’re never going to remember or use? OK. Cabinet maker Endre Thék made the beautiful case, and, much like the church, the instrument was upgraded several times over it life. It currently sports a total of four manual keyboards, 93 registers (whatever that means), and 6507(!!!) pipes ranging in size from 10 meters to 6 millimeters. This piece is commonly acknowledged as the greatest and most beautiful musical instrument in all of Budapest. If you get the chance, you should totally play it. We did! (No we didn’t.)
But once you get past the organ, mosey on back to the two far corners of the basilica and get a peek at two great artifacts hidden away. Start with the one the tourists tend to ignore: The Black Madonna. There are some 500 Black Madonnas scattered throughout Europe, mostly represented as Icons in the Byzantine style. Some were painted ‘black’. Others used pigments which aged darker over hundreds of years. In any case, this particular one is stunning, and tourists tend to walk into the little room, look for a giant flying golden Jesus festooned with gems, not see it, and walk right out. Maybe they knew that this particular Madonna was a “certified copy” of the Black Madonna of Czestochova presented to the Hungarian Parliament. So it’s not that old… but it’s still as cool as H-E-double hockey sticks! Jesus cries when we make jokes like that. But He’s cool. He’ll get over it.
And if awesome copies of cool old icons aren’t your thing, head over to the other side of the church, where you’ll see just why this is called the Basilica of St. Stephen. You see, he’s still here. Or, at least, his hand is still here. Now, you remember how we talked about relics and reliquaries and such in a past article? Well, this is quite the cool relic housed in quite the fancy reliquary. All we can think is that when we die, we want to be chopped up and put into crystal and gold houses for the adoration of the masses. Good times! But wait… notice how the saint’s hand is lit up? That’s because someone dropped a 100 Forint coin into a slot at the base of the reliquary. St. Stephen, patron saint of Hungary: getting donations for the church, 20th century style!
It must have taken a lot of 100 Forint coins to pay for these fancy digs.
After you’re done elbowing old ladies to get a shot of the saint, and giving dirty looks to the German tourists shooting off their flash against the rules (thus insuring that in the near future, photography will be completely banned), it’s time to head upstairs. And by upstairs, we mean UP stairs… 302 of them (you could take an elevator most of the way, but that would be lame).
What makes this particular climb more interesting than any bell tower hike or observation deck ascent we’ve ever made is that it goes past something we didn’t expect to see… a space between the inner dome and outer dome. Most of us would assume that the dome you see from inside the church is the same as the one you’d see on the outside, but that is not the case. The separation between the two makes you feel as if you’re in some type of nuclear missile silo. Definitely check it out!
Once all the way on top, you exit through doors to the observation terrace surrounding the main outer dome, where you get a magnificent view of the city (both the Buda and Pest sides) as well as the bell towers and square in front of the church itself.
The thing is, while up there, we kept having a nagging feeling that a minor tremor was due to send this incarnation of the dome tumbling back down to earth, taking us along for the ride. So we only stayed up there for a half hour or so–living dangerously to bring YOU, our loyal readers, the greatest travel articles evah! Also, seeing the rest of the cool Budapest architecture from that vantage point gives us the perfect segway into….
Having just come from Prague, which had the most monumental, grandiose architecture we’d ever seen, Budapest was going to have to work rather hard to maintain our interest. It succeeded! This wasn’t because it could compete with Prague on sheer flamboyance and scale–we’re not sure any city could. Rather, it pulled off this feat by being a bit more subtle, and providing both variety and volume. Rather than slapping you repeatedly in the face by one amazing building after another, Budapest takes its time massaging you all over (no, not there).
It boasts a healthy mix of everything from Roman ruins to neoclassical masterpieces to the latest in glass and steel. And the way the city is tastefully assembled, flowing from one style into the next, it doesn’t appear disjointed or awkward. Good job, highly competent urban planners, or preservation minded town council, or picky old ladies working those politicians, whoever you may be.
Of course, politicians get their fancy offices as well, such as the uber-gothic Hungarian Parliament Building, also currently under renovation. We’re not sure of the exact reason, but quite a bit of the city’s amazing architecture is in the midst of renovation at the moment, and that’s a good thing. Way to keep ahead of entropy, Hungarians!
But if politicians get fancy buildings, what about the taxpaying public? Fear not! They get to inhabit digs with balconies held up by those who rebelled against the ancient gods and lost.
Courtyards are another common feature among these early 20th century abodes. Feel free to walk into one or three and look up. On a nice day, it’s quite the view!
And of course, you can’t leave businesses behind. One of the great things about having businesses in charge of upkeep is that they tend to keep their buildings the best painted and maintained and most graffiti free of all. If you’re going to pull money from an ATM, wouldn’t you rather pull it from a building which looks like this? I know I would!
But hey! Let’s not leave museums out of the mix. The Ethnographic museum (above) is a prime example of wonderful neoclassical work. Really, people… if you’re going to build something, take a page from the Hungarians and build it to look good. No sense making your city look like a bunch of windowed boxes. What? A few gods and goddesses above some Ionic columns aren’t good enough for you? Then here’s a bit more of the museum (not above… figure it out, Sherlock):
And if you can’t tell, the chariot sculpture (above) is rather large. Budapest has a liking for large sculpture, it would seem. If you can’t tell how large the Magyars like their sculptures, look for the two young ladies sitting at the base of the statue below:
Budapest is a great city to go out… just exercise a bit of caution in your choice of venue. If you’re interested in more than Europe’s “café culture” of sitting around and watching the world pass by while you sip your mocalatechino, hit the bars. Specifically, hit Budapest’s “Ruin Bars.” A number of historic buildings throughout town were slated to be demolished due to their advanced state of disrepair. As a last reprieve, the city agreed to let groups of artists, working hand-in-hand with entrepreneurs, to repurpose the spaces into something useful. So, Bars from Ruins! And not just any bars. Each has its own character, inspired by artists rather than marketing types, and the results are phenomenal. What you’re looking at here are shots from one such bar, “Instant.”
Regardless of whether you’re a bearded BBW or cauliflower head, no smoking!
Its creepy decor and mazelike passages put you on edge all night. The best way to describe it is to say that if, while drinking and wandering the stairways and hidden rooms, Leatherface popped in with his chainsaw and started carving everyone up, you wouldn’t be the least bit surprised. We’re only going to say this once: do NOT under ANY circumstances drop ANY acid while in this establishement, or it’s off to electro-shock therapy for you.
This is, by far, the least creepy of the 40 odd rooms in the club.
Now for the caution bit (and that cryptic comment we made earlier about the scamming non-whores). Apparently, there’s a prevalent scam in town whereby pretty young ladies approach partying out-of-towners (who are generally lacking their full faculties due to earlier drinking episodes), chatting them up, and convincing them to journey to a nearby tavern, where said young ladies order a mysterious drink or two, each of which cost, oh, a hundred euros, and the young men are not let out of the establishment by the burly staff until they’ve maxed out their credit cards. While we hear about warnings of this sort all over cities frequented by tourists, Budapest is the first place we actually saw this happening in person. As a note: whip out your iPhone and google any bars recommended by pushy people you just met in the street. And be wary of “instant friends.” Your best bet: find your own bars, get drunk, then get crazy with the locals. It makes for a better ending.
What a great city! Fantastic for tourists, without being overrun by them. Safe streets, cheap, good food, great bars, fantastic architecture. The museums may be wonderful, but we don’t know. We didn’t go. Who’s got time for that when you’re trying to get your half-dead convertible running so you can limp it across the border into Romania? But we will certainly be back, hopefully not too long into the future, to see the huge amount of awesome we surely missed. Meanwhile, safe travels to you, whether you travel by foot, train, plane, or automobile.
Compelete Budapest flickr photoset slideshow:
(hit the “play” button to start)