Thursday, January 20, 2005

Budapest for dummies

Mmmm, Budapest

Well, it was cold. Probably too cold for general tourism. In fact, I came back home with only 10 pictures which, for me, is unheard of.
On my first morning there I popped out for a stroll at 6.00am, as is my way, just to get a feel for what the City is like when it wakes up. Rather stupidly, I had a quick shower just before leaving and didn't dry my hair before exiting the hotel. Even more stupidly, I didn’t have a hat with me. The back of my head was frozen with ice within ten minutes.

I think that qualifies as cold. Anyway, it warmed up later in the day, to about -8C.
To be honest, I was quite under-whelmed with the place. There's nothing actually wrong with Budapest at all really. It's just that I've seen it all before …
Tracy was travelling to Bratislava the day I returned home and the Hungarian woman she was working with said 'Oh Bratislava is lovely. There's a beautiful river, and a castle and a cathedral, and lovely squares …'. I don’t think she understood why Tracy started giggling. The problem is, to us jaded Britlanders, all East European capitals look exactly the same. Basically, anyone proposing to construct a new East European capital city needs to choose as many items as possible from the following list:
  • An enormous castle
  • A huge river prone to severe and frequent flooding
  • Not enough bridges across said river
  • A parliament building the size of Cuba; inversely proportional in size to the country's democratic tradition
  • Two cathedrals
  • An opera house
  • Huge, poorly built civil service buildings made from crumbly concrete dating from the 1940s
  • Enormous abstract monuments commemorating a seemingly endless series of National Independence days dating from 1815 to 1993
  • Countless statues of moustachioed sword-wielding men on prancing horses
  • Busts of bearded, pipe-smoking poets and intellectuals.
  • Swathes of enormous Victorian-era apartment blocks suitable for ambushing German tanks from and Stalingrad-style street fighting
  • Two enormous draughty museums
  • Crypt-style basement restaurants, bars and cafes
... all built to an absolutely gigantic, mock classical and emotionally cold, scale. Vienna is probably the worst offender and is absolutely stuffed full of enormous public buildings that possibly would be appropriate for the capital of country maybe 20 times the size of Austria. England controlled something like a 1/3 of the World at one point but never saw fit to model its capital in such a way.
When you visit cities like this your first feeling is of awe but that is soon replaced by a sense of ennui; a profound feeling of boredom, almost despair, right to the core of your soul. 'Yeah yeah big opera house yeah yeah Disney style castle yeah yeah statue of some king with a moustache bored now'.
What these city centres and their buildings lack above all is a sense of a human touch. I've said this before, but I grew up in a city that had no need for defensive fortifications for 500 years and a rule of law which meant no despot could tear down your house just to build a wide avenue, enormous statues and a mock Roman palace just to glorify his name. I like that. That's the kind of pride in our nation's history that's quite deliberately not taught in school's any more. Cities like Budapest are the result of multiple doses of despotic building behaviour - the Hapsburgs, the Communists and now the big hotel chains. Ugh. It's really not difficult to understand why East Europeans have such a hard-on for visiting Italy or the UK. Sure, Italy and the UK have their share of architectural giganticism but they feel a lot different. The other thing to bear in mind is that you're standing in the middle of a country surrounded on all sides by lots of other, similar, countries. Having grown up in the UK, it's quite claustrophobic when you think about it.
On the plus side, the Hungarians themselves seem largely to be a sturdy, hobbity people; keen on eating prodigious quantities of meat and, when younger, lots of rough shagging after, or during, evenings spent in extreme night clubs. Presumably, the Hungarians also get up to other activities when it's warmer; playing gypsy fiddle music and persecuting Turks like their Great Great Great Grandparents did (bet the Hungarians are looking forward to further EU enlargement), but in January I get the distinct impression that they just eat meat stew and screw 'cos there's nothing else to do.
Yes, Budapest should definitely be top of the 'Must Visit' list for any intrepid traveller with a meat fetish. Lots of people can be seen walking their dogs around town throughout the day. At first, I thought they were pets but, after visiting a couple of Hungarian restaurants, I realised that they were more likely to be an emergency reserve snack just in case the locals get caught short of meat for any length of time. When you order a leg of pork that is indeed what you receive. As in Austria, waiters will plonk down a large tea tray laden with a dozen hunks of schnitzel with a smile that says 'see if you can eat all of that you soft Western bastard'. And it's reasonably priced too.
That's not to say everything in Budapest is a bargain. Tracy's colleague, Shane, went cruising for action on his own one night and spent part of the next morning extolling the virtues of how cheap the night life was. After a few minutes of discussion it became clear that, under the influence of alcohol, he had mistaken the currency exchange rate when drawing money from a cash machine by a factor of ten. This meant that he had been paying £10 a time to visit a series of night clubs and had tipped a barman £15. He then spent much of the remainder of the day worrying about his overdraft.
And yes, I laughed.


1 comment:

Carl said...

Useful to know about the Budapest which is probably too cold for general tourism,and also the list given is just great to know,also this post have wonderful originality.


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