Sunday, 16 October 2011

Twenty-four hours in Hungary

As I arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris a sickening thought occurred to me. Maybe I needed a visa to enter Hungary. It hadn't occurred to me earlier as I didn't book the flights and I'm used to Europeans being able to go freely where they want. I felt rather anxious wondering if I would go all that way by plane only to be sent back. My boss would not be happy about that.

In the end I needn't have worried. There was no border control to speak of at Budapest. I had only hand luggage. A bored border guy was sitting down, saw me and waved me through, didn't check my documents at all. Suddenly I was free in Hungary. That felt weird but it happens on entering France too, from a European country. So much of our travel details are computerised and controlled by 'Big brother'.

Budapest is the capital of Hungary. As the largest city of Hungary, it is the country's principal political, cultural, commercial, industrial, and transportation centre. In 2011, Budapest had 1,733,685 inhabitants, down from its 1989 peak of 2,113,645 due to suburbanization. Budapest became a single city occupying both banks of the river Danube with a unification on 17 November 1873 of west-bank Buda and Óbuda with east-bank Pest.

The history of Budapest began with Aquincum, originally a Celtic settlement that became the Roman capital of Lower Pannonia. Magyars arrived in the territory in the 9th century but their first settlement was ransacked by the Mongols in 1241-42.

Following nearly 150 years of Ottoman rule, the region entered a new age of prosperity in the 18th and 19th centuries, and Budapest became a global city after the 1873 unification. It also became the second capital of Austria-Hungary, a great power that dissolved in 1918. Budapest was the focal point of the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919, and the Revolution of 1956.

Budapest is considered a financial hub in Central Europe and ranked as the most livable Central/Eastern European city on EIU's quality of life index. It is also ranked as "Europe's 7th most idyllic place to live" by Forbes. Budapest is home to the headquarters of the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT). I'll write more on that in a future blogpost.

Flying over Europe was quite a novel experience. I'm so used to flying over water, the Pacific Ocean to be exact, or desert (Australia) that the idea of powering across countries without geographic borders is amazing to me.

These days I feel quite comfortable exploring European cities alone. Budapest felt safe and very liveable. It wasn't possible for me to do much in just a few hours though. I had approximately 5 hours to explore and have dinner. Naturally I started with The Danube, the mighty river flowing through this part of Europe. For size it's impressive but the majority of buildings alongside it aren't. It can't possibly compare with Paris and it's less intensely built-up. There are, after all, less than 2m people there.

I wanted to explore both Buda (left bank) and Pest (right bank). To do that I needed to cross the Danube. There are eight bridges in total but the loveliest is the Chain Bridge. The weather was bleak, cold and windy. Somehow it fitted with some of the buildings still a reminder of the communist era, but it's the older buildings that really interested me.


On the Buda side is the imposing citadel fortress, further along is Castle Hill and Buda Castle and churches. On the Pest side you can't miss seeing the Parliament buildings modelled on London's Houses of Parliament.

There's also St Stephen's Basilica which is in a good state of maintenance but so dark my camera had trouble picking out much of the beautiful detailing.

There are some surprising styles of architecture which I felt were rather solid, heavy-handed and lacking in grace but maybe the climate has a bearing on that. It's -20C in winter and between 30-40C in summer.

Night fell and I needed to find some dinner. I walked into a rather unusual (for me) place. It could have been some meetup place in a 007 or Jason Bourne movie.

It had a strange collage of images on the walls which seemed to dare you to be uncomfortable or surprised. They seemed strangely sensual, even a bit sexual. English is widespread in Budapest. I found my English much more relevant than my French so coping in a country with such a very different language wasn't too difficult, except for trying to work out how to say place names-what a mouthful.

I ordered weiner schnitzel with potato salad but it wasn't quite what I expected. The veal slab was enormous though the crumbing was good. The potato salad seemed to be hot until I tried it. Stone cold slabs of potato in a runny sauce (no not mayonnaise-based) with lots of chopped onion, Surprising but actually good.

Fortified with food at a reasonable price, I walked back across the Danube and up a hill to the castle. Buses of tourists where sqarming all over the place but not a lot to see other than the view of the city and the outside of a church. It was late at night so there wasn't much to do.

I walked on, past a poster of Tom Jones advertising his coming performance in Budapest- he looked SO old and haggard.

Past a ballroom dancing class taking their lesson very seriously. Past all the twinkling lights and back to my hotel, the Lanchid 19 near the waterfront.

There are a number of spas from the influence of the Turkish era but I didn't have time to visit any. If I get a chance to come back that's something I'd like to do, as well as a bit of shopping. I didn't have time to do any of that before it was time to get to bed and the next day head off to a conference and then straight back to Paris.

In my opinion the city is worth a two day trip.


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