My house in Budapest
My, my hidden treasure chest
Golden grand piano
My beautiful Castillo
Ooh, I’d leave it all
Those George Ezra lyrics that made the city even more famous, now streaming on repeat. Filling up every space, reverberating off the walls and delicately on our ears. The source was the headphones on a heated red tour bus. To escape the cold, we were taking a circuit tour around the city. Through the fairytale falling snow – coming at us in large flakes. Once one of our favourite songs, its repetition interplayed with narration was starting to wear thin. To much of a good thing.
Budapest for us was so many good things. But it all started off a little sour…
Budapest is home to the second oldest Underground system in the world after London – completed in 1896. Arriving fresh at Deák Ferenc tér we were stopped by a stocky woman sporting a red cropped haircut. The story goes that; when in Budapest, people not only buy tickets, but they have to validate them too. We understood this well enough and over the two stage bus and train ride, we managed to clip our honest two tickets only once – the machine on the bus was broken and had tape over its face.
The woman was having none of it and neither was her smaller counterpart who didn’t speak any English – only urgent Hungarian at our protests. Somehow, despite everyone doing the same thing, only the blondes – Mitch, Lexi and Becky, were held to account. She demanded 8,000 forints (£20) each as she flashed her official badge.
They asked for our ID and got hold of Lexis’ passport before Mitch flatly refused…it all then kicked off. There was several kinds of negotiator at play. Tom tried to appeal to their better judgment and painted a picture us as people trying to do the right thing. James tried the approach of “This isn’t a good look for tourists coming into Budapest” making them feel like the villains. Mitch tried to take a legal standpoint of laying out the facts, their role in interpreting those facts and what options they had… They were now calling the police.
Calling their bluff, we waited. We continued our protest. We asked for the police. As long as they had that one passport – it was a standoff.
Eventually, they started inspecting the passport. Juggling the New Zealand/Aotearoa black booklet from hand to hand and passing their finger over the silver ferns. James saw an opening: ” You see that? We’re from New Zealand! Have you heard of the All Blacks?”. They caved. They weren’t getting anywhere, we weren’t fresh tourists from UK or the US and as countless numbers of other victims passed, they decided to give Lexi back the passport and let us go.
“Don’t ever take Underground in Budapest again! You take taxi!” was the parting farewell.
Our apartment, right in the centre of town overlooked a lively market. James came across a stunner. With all the modern luxuries. They were short on toilet paper, but they had a high pressure bidet, ready to blast holes in the untrained perineum.
As we hadn’t been for a run in a while, we all set out for a run along the Danube; up and around Margaret Island. Budapest is actually the conglomeration of two cities on each bank. To the West of the Danube lies Buda and to the East, Pest. The two were connected in 1849 by the Széchenyi Chain Bridge and in 1873 became one co-joined name: Budapest.
Along the way we saw a line of iron shoes along the banks – a memorial to the city Jews who were in the middle of winter, lined up, told to remove their shoes, then executed by Nazi sympathizers – Arrow Cross members in WWII. The Danube carried their bodies away.
Budapest lies along important trade routes and has at many times, represented great wealth. It’s position at the entrance to the Great Plains has made it a target for many different empires, from the Romans, Maygars, Habsburgs, Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian. As a result, the city is host to a variety of architectures and practices. The notable practice inherited from the Romans and enforced by the Turks was the bath houses. We took the chance to go bathing at Hotel Gellért. It wasn’t quite the experience we had in Baden-Baden, with no nudity. Probably for the best as nudity among friends can get a bit awkward. Besides, after the plunge pools, everything shrinks too.
New Years Eve started with another morning run. It’s been a full year of running for us, including the Matterhorn, so it seemed fitting to have a blow out in sub-zero temperatures. This one took us to the top of Gellért hill and along Buda. On our return Tam was chased down by a friendly Big Bus salesman, eagerly discounting bus tours of the city – just for us!!! He followed us for a couple hundred metres, driving a good sale – unfortunately to no avail.
The rest of the morning was spent trying to find a place to book for dinner whilst also finding somewhere for lunch. Hungarians pride themselves on their cuisine, including goulashes, fried langos breads and roasts. At one point, Mitch went out and had a meal of rooster testicles with his mate Jonno. The common ingredient in all dishes is paprika, although the pepper was imported from the New World, it has made its home in Hungary. With all of these choices on offer, where better to try them than an “All you can eat” Hungarian buffet for €4. It ended up being a bit sickly, but it offered a good base layer of food to insulate against cold and the drinking ahead.
Paul arrived in the afternoon, ready to begin a hedonistic night. He had just left relatively milder temperatures and sharing a warm bed in New Zealand to an empty dark flat in the Jewish Quarter. Dinner was booked by negotiation at the last place open. They had no reservations open for a party of seven, but made a concession for four boys and “three little girls”…
We made a beeline straight to one of the two most famous ruin bars – Instant. We had heard that it would be difficult to get into after ten. The place was winding up as we arrived. A Ruin Bar is pretty much an old derelict building that has been enhanced with a few licks of paint and some furniture. Instant was a multi story block. At the centre a large dance floor and stage with a chariot of hundreds of model rabbits passing overhead.
On stage was an upbeat Hungarian folk/hip-hop/rock band, playing some classics, including a great Queen rendition of “I Want to Break Free”. We hardly remember a countdown. It was all a blur. Rounds were relatively cheap and we all eventually made our way back in one state or another – naming no names.
The Hungarians have a name for a hangover called macskajaj or, “cat’s wail”. The sound coming out of the bathroom in the morning was more of a dogs gargle. A couple of the boys projecting their own goulash in the bidet. The week of constant drinking was starting to take its toll. All decisions were made so that they would take the least energy. We went back to the same sights, the same bars and ate the same food (same restaurant), although at a much slower pace – no running to start the new year.
Tom, Lex, James and Bicky left the next morning. Tam chickened out of the years first run with Lex and we enjoyed the sleep in before moving to Paul’s spare room. The place was a bit pre-1990 Eastern Europe and smelled strongly of leaking gas – almost to the point you were scared to touch any light switches.
We hung out all day with Paul in the plummeting cold, doing a bit of sightseeing at the Great Market Hall where we bumped into our friendly bus salesman. He really worked the extra charm on Tam this time and we couldn’t resist the warmth of a double decker parked right beside us.
The tour allowed us to see some of the further attractions like Heroes Square, packed with hundreds of ice skaters. No-one seemed to fall over here and they skate like they dance; gracefully avoiding one another – very different to those in the UK.
Paul had a small mishap with the cash machine with the error of a decimal place withdrew too much forints. That only meant more beer money! Szimpla,the other major ruin bar, was relatively quiet and we took the opportunity to explore this forest. While having dinner, a few people walked past to be locked into a vault in the wall. We asked the bartender what it was and it turned out the place was a venue for escape games. We called up the organiser and booked a spot in half an hour.
Blindfolded and led into a jail cell, Mitch was locked into one room, while Tam and Paul were chained together in the other. They couldn’t see each other, but could talk before they were instructed to remove the blindfolds. Mitch found several keys for the handcuffs (Tam managed to unscrew hers) and a ball bearing. The ball turned out to be part of a labyrinth puzzle which electronically opened Mitch’s door. Meanwhile a tent pole was used to collect the keys that would free Mitch from his shackles and begin solving more puzzles in the guards quarters. Our time limit was an hour and as it seemed that as we were getting closer, we were given more problems to solve. While Tam and Paul struggled with a jigsaw puzzle, Mitch fumbled with combinations to release them from their cell. A masked voice on the speaker gave tips to help us along, but we were running out of time. With 20 seconds to spare and a series of switches to press, Mitch took a gamble and pushed three random buttons…Success! The door opened and we were freed!
Budapest would have to be one of our most favourite cities we have visited in Europe. Despite the bitter cold it was lively and entertaining. A must for us to go back and visit in the summer time. For now, the long break was over and we were back to the tropical heat of London.