Budapest: Shots in the Dark
The final trip of our year abroad was a tour along the Danube River in Eastern Europe. We hit three great cities on the way: Budapest, Vienna, and Prague.
We flew into Budapest, the capital of Hungary, once part of the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire, which was arguably the largest and most powerful since Roman times.
Hungary sits on top of a huge supply of thermal water, so the Romans initially used the area for its natural baths. In the 800’s, the area was invaded and conquered by a tribe of fierce and nomadic horsemen from the Asian Plains called the Magyars. I like to think of them as more or less like the Dothraki people from Game of Thrones. After burning and pillaging their way through a large chunk of Europe, they were eventually pushed back to what is now the area of modern Hungary, where they settled permanently, adopted Christianity, and generally became good, civilized Europeans (Khal Drogo would not have been pleased with these developments).
The result is that Hungarians have their own language that is unrelated to any other European language and a unique cultural heritage of which they are very proud.
After a day wandering around this picturesque city, these were our first impressions:
1) Hungarian food is delicious. It’s like Indian food, in that everything is deliciously spiced and there is an emphasis on creamy sauces. Plus, unlike in Spain, everything is served with a Saracha-like hot sauce that was as addictive as crack. Within two meals we had already tried the following: goulash, a red soup made with intense paprika and pepper flavor and chunks of tender meat; the “Hungarian Burrito,” which was basically a crepe stuffed with ground meat and slathered in orange spicy sauce and cream; catfish served with dumplings and the same amazing organs sauce; cabbage stuffed with pork; sauerkraut; and the best apple strudel we had ever tasted.
2) Hungarian people are a little formal/reserved/shy. Everyone we met was perfectly nice, but not outgoing like the people in Ireland or Spain. We were not asked where we were from or how we were enjoying our time in Budapest. Laura attributes this to their experience over the last century with occupations first by the Nazi’s and then by the Soviet Union. I like this notion, but my personal theory is that Hungarians are just a little colder than the average European – maybe it’s because they descend from warrior-horsemen who didn’t exactly treasure the art of conversation. Who knows?
3) Like the Spanish, the Hungarians seem to really like congregating outdoors to meet with friends. We spent time in lots of cool outdoor terraces serving up cold beer and good, cheap wine. And they were always packed to the brim. This is a city that feels very alive with young people out in the streets. It was here in Budapest that we found easily the coolest bar that we have seen in all of Europe. Called Szimpla kert, the “bar” is like a huge warehouse space that looks like the grand hideout of Roofio from the movie Hook (“Ru-fi-OOOOOOOH!”). There were at least twenty different rooms decorated with electric lights, paintings, graffiti, nets, statues, and a giant outdoor projector playing movies all night. There was a hooka section, a disco section, a chill cafe area, a garden patio, and basically everything in between. All with a communist-era nostalgia that gave it a totally unique feel. And it was stuffed with people from all over Europe speaking every possible language. If you ever go to Prague, don’t miss this spot.
4) The cheapest/best Opera is in Budapest in a stunningly beautiful opera house. We bought tickets for literally 3 Euros a person and were led to an opera box on the third level. The people in front of us didn’t show up that night, so we moved up and had an unobstructed view of the stage for a better-than-expected performance of Jenufa. The music was absolutely beautiful and the singing impressive. Even the story-line was compelling: a step-mother murders her step daughter’s baby in order to save her from a life of solitude and poverty…only to admit to it on the step-daughter’s wedding day after the baby’s body is found in the woods. Infanticide – heavy topic for a night out at the opera! The only blemish on the evening was the couple in the booth with us who moved right behind us and then started making out Euro-style (if you’ve been here, then you know how much they love their super-passionate, and super-public, make out sessions), complete with an intense rubbing and petting. It was actually impressive in its complete disregard for our presence – fortunately they left after Act 1. For the price, there is just not a musical/voyeuristic experience like this anywhere else.
Buda and Pest were actually two different cities separated by the Danube and only linked together as the mega city of Budapest in the late 1800’s. We stayed in a great house on the more mellow Buda side, under the shadow of Matthias Church and Fisherman’s Bastion which is an impressive complex on the hill which overlooks the rest of the city.
With an easy one-stop metro ride, we were on the busier Pest side, where we took a tour of the impressively massive Hungarian Parliament building. Hungarians have only had democracy since they broke off from the Soviet Union in 1989, and they are rightfully proud of their relatively young democracy. In its massive central dome, the parliament building houses a glass display featuring the Crown Jewels, which are at least 800 years old. The crown is made of gold and contains elaborate figures of the Apostles along with all kinds of precious gems and stones. It is also crooked on top. The gold cross sitting atop the crown was apparently bent a few hundred years ago – but the Hungarians are just going with it: the crest you see around the city is topped with a cross bent at an awkward 45 degree angle (I guess it is too hard to repair with damaging it).
We also spent a few hours at the very interesting House of Terror Museum which chronicled life in Hungary during occupation by first the Nazi’s and then the Soviets. During this time, Hungarians lost many of their freedoms and many people were executed for all kinds of imagined “crimes” against the state. It was a dark time in Hungarian history and they are doing a good job of preserving the horror that they experienced in the hopes that such things will never happen again.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise came on the last day when we decided to try an off-the-beaten-path exhibit called the Invisible Exhibition. The idea of this unique experience was to replicate life as a blind person. Basically you are put in a blacked-out obstacle course with an actual blind person from Budapest as your guide. Our guide was named Alex and was incredibly friendly and accomplished. Without much of an introduction as to what to expect, he closed the door and we suddenly couldn’t even see our hands waving in front of our faces. We then had to make our way along a hallway and then feel our way around the pitch-black room. Alex would place our hands on various objects and ask us to identify them. We figured out that we were in a mock apartment, complete with a sofa, TV, computer, and bathroom. Alex, as a blind person, navigated around this space as if he could see, while the rest of us (there were 7 of us in total), tentatively shuffled forward. He would go from person to person like a pro and always knew who he was speaking to (almost always – at one point he reunited me with my “wife” who, upon heavy groping turned out to be a young French girl). We navigated the apartment and then went out to the “street” with traffic noise and full size cars and experienced first hand the scary world of a blind person navigating the urban jungle. We walked to a “market” and felt different fruits with our hands. We then took a nature walk over a bridge with running water and tried to identify different works of art in a sculpture garden.
Alex then gave a demonstration (still in the dark at this point), of how to help a blind person on the street. He showed us what not to do by slapping me on the back, shouting “I help you now!” and then picking me up like a rag doll (Alex is a huge Hungarian guy who competes internationally in Judo competitions, so this was no problem for him), and carrying me across the street. The correct version involved saying hello and asking for permission to help and then giving the person your arm, rather than dragging them around which feels very unstable if you can’t see.
We wrapped things up in a fake club (still blind), where Alex offered us beers and shots of Hungarian booze. I jumped all over that opportunity and we soon had the bar packed, listening to music and hearing about Alex’a life. He plays a sport like soccer for blind people where the ball emits a sound so that you know where it is. He also took special pride in showing me his iPhone which is already a great device, but rises to the level of miracle when used by a blind person. The screen in navigated completely by verbal indicators that tell the user what icon they are touching. When he touches his texts, for example, they are read aloud to him. When he opens up the camera app, it describes what he is seeing in the screen (up-close face, far away faces, etc), it was absolutely incredible. We were very impressed with Alex, needless to say, and left with a totally different perspective of what it means to be blind in this vision-oriented world. I hope this exhibition makes its way to the US sometime soon.
With a new appreciation for our sense of sight, we grabbed some delicious Thai food in a really cool, non-touristy neighborhood and headed off to the train station to catch our train to Vienna. Nothing beats traveling by train!
Just want to quickly end the post by saying that…Laura looks like a Hungarian Muppet!
And she is very proud of the photo of her and the egg which she peeled in one completely in-tact piece of eggshell…