The first time I went to Budapest it was the summer of 1989, the final summer of Eastern European communism. It was a time when change was in the air, when the lines outside the only McDonalds in Hungary and the only Adidas shop went round the block. I was Inter-Railing, arrived alone at the station and found a room in a private house in Buda, sharing that room with five Australians I’d never met before. Entrepreneurship was everywhere with people standing on every street corner selling the strangest things – cheap Baltic amber necklaces, odd embroidered table-cloths, most of them offered by dumpy middle aged women whose faces told of lives of disappointment and state control, and a glimmering hope for a brighter future.
My over-riding memory was the dreadful smell of the place. It stank so badly of cheap diesel fumes that it was painful to walk down the main streets. Beautiful buildings were caked in the black stains of pollution, once great buildings decaying under the indifference of a regime that was nearing its natural life cycle.
I had a great time. I went to the baths at the Gellert Hotel, one of the most bizarre and confusing experiences of my life. I ate coffee and giant slabs of cake in Café Hungaria, piled my plate with goulash and my wine glass with feisty ‘Bulls Blood’ red wine and jumped on and off of trams without tickets because I didn’t have the slightest idea how to buy them and the fines were so tiny that it seemed worth the risk. Perhaps I should have been more nervous but I was so baffled by trying to figure out how things were supposed to work. The language was indecipherable, the words so alien that my brain couldn’t wrap itself round them or recognise them five seconds after I’d read them.
At that time it wasn’t easy to find people who spoke English. I recall buying a meal in a fast food joint for no better reason than they had pictures on the walls and I could guess what the food was by looking at the names which were offered in German and then pointing. Despite being baffled and bemused, I really enjoyed it. I left by train and headed for Austria where little old cars from the most westerly parts of Eastern Europe were dragging themselves, heavily laden up and down the mountains as people pretended they were going on holiday then hid out and waited for change to follow.
Why did so many tourists drag themselves half way across Europe in the opposite direction when the easterners would eat their own livers to head west? There were two key reasons. It was at that point the only accessible bit of Eastern Europe, the only part on the Inter Rail scheme and the one that didn’t want visas. To those of us who’d no experience of the bleak east, it was exotic, in a grey, smelly, state controlled way. The second factor – and undeniably we didn’t only go for culture – was that it was ludicrously cheap. I’d started my Inter Rail experience in Helsinki, one of the most expensive cities in Europe and when I finally arrived in Budapest, it was the only place where I could walk into the poshest café in town, order coffee and cake and know I could not just afford it, but I could probably afford to ask for seconds.
Our visit this year was not something we planned in great detail. I had checked destinations for EasyJet from our nearest airport and Budapest had a good price and flight times. Did I think deeply about whether I really wanted to go back to Budapest? No, not really. I just booked the seats and decided to figure out what to do nearer the time. I ordered a guidebook (Dorling Kindersley, of course) and didn’t give it too much thought. A couple of days before we were due to go, I was getting cold feet. I was so tired from travelling for work, that I started to wonder if we should have just stayed in England and gone to the seaside. My only non-standard preparation was to pick up a bottle of eye-drops to prepare myself in case the pollution was still horrible.
Once we arrived, it was a couple of days before I spotted the eye drops and realised just how much cleaner the place was 24 years after my first visit. The air was clean, the cars were ‘normal’ and the traffic was far from dreadful. The city had an air of pride in its architecture. Beautiful old buildings had been renovated, gussied up, treated with a love. Admittedly once you got off the main streets and into some of the back streets, there was still plenty of evidence of the old, grey, stained buildings, of chipped and damaged facades and buildings in need of a lot of TLC, but the centre of the city was looking gorgeous.
I considered a return to the Gellert Baths, read lots of reviews and concluded that it was no clearer what to do and how to do it a quarter of a century later but it also no longer cost a few pennies to go. Since there were just the two of us, I feared I’d be bumbling around in total confusion, wear clothes where I shouldn’t or not where I should, and generally make a total twit of myself. I also have skin that’s not suited to the whole ‘sauna - plunge pool – lots of sweat’ regime and I’d rather eat my own eyeballs than get a massage. To all who told me I MUST go to the baths, I can only say it was my holiday and I don’t do anyone else’s ‘must’ unless I want to.
Memories of food and drink had lingered a long time. I didn’t hit the coffee and cake places but not because I couldn’t afford them. Six months of WeightWatchers and I wasn’t about to throw it all down the drain. Beer was fabulously cheap – two large beers costing less than £3 in many of the bars and pavement cafes. Food was significantly cheaper than in most places and certainly cheaper than any European capital city that springs to mind. We found extraordinary bargains and ate really well.
There was no need to share with five Australians in a local woman’s spare room. Instead we stayed in a beautiful small hotel close to the Opera on a street that runs parallel to Andrassy, Budapest’s Champs Elysee. At around £80 per night including breakfast, it was a fantastic bargain.
Did I try to avoid paying for trams? No, this time I was a good girl. I’d have been good last time too if I’d had a clue how to buy the tickets. This time we picked up packs of 10 transport tickets, clicking one for each of us each time we hopped on the Metro or the tram. At 300 HUF a go (about 80 pence) we were happy to pay.
Today there are many more McDonalds than in 1989 and Adidas is no longer the trendiest brand in town. The shops nearest to our hotel were Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Dolce and Gabbana. Times really had changed.
Of course it’s not all perfection. Things are still great value but much more expensive than before but that’s entirely to be expected. Homelessness was not something I saw back in 1989 but its evidence was everywhere this year. Homeless people were setting up their sleeping bags in doorways early in the evening and there were clearly many with drink and drugs problems. I’m not saying that nobody drank or took drugs in the old days – just that you didn’t see the evidence on the streets.
The language remains as baffling as ever although there are more people around who can speak English these days and with so many tourists around, they won’t be surprised to be approached by baffled looking foreigners. Don’t assume that you will always find English speakers though. We watched the father of an American family make a right fool of himself by getting angry at a Metro ticket seller because she couldn’t speak English. I would advise anyone who is buying a guide book to look for one that has the names of attractions in both English and Hungarian. There’s not much point knowing you want to see the Museum of Applied Arts if you’ve got no idea what it’s called in Hungarian.
Despite my reservations about returning, we had a fabulous holiday, found plenty to do with everything in a relatively small area which makes walking a viable option and public transport a cheap alternative. Locals were friendly and helpful and aside from the odd moments of confusion, everything went really smoothly.