Going to Ruin

Those who have been following me since about this time last year will remember that I had one very rainy afternoon and evening in Budapest after my Intrepid tour through central Europe last September.  I loved the city straight away, despite the rain, and was disappointed at having such a limited amount of time here.  The feel of the city was gritty and a little overwhelming, but exciting at the same time and I had a real feeling that this would be the kind of city I would love to explore more.  I vowed to myself then that I would be back one day, but little did I think it would be so soon.  Pretty much the reason I chose the Intrepid Tour I’m about to embark on in a day or so’s time, was because it started in Budapest and would give me the excuse I was looking for to get back here.

So I have wasted no time at all getting out to explore this morning.  It’s still a little early, so the streets are fairly quiet – the best way to see what is normally a busy city.

I find myself at the Deac Ferenc Square and spying a ferris wheel, I decide to jump on for a birds eye view of the city.  It’s here I get my first glimpse at the beautiful Parliament Building.  This is the first of what I’m sure will be millions of photos of this gorgeous building which graces Budapest’s waterfront.

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Stepping off the ferris wheel, I decide to wander around and check out the promenade.  A yellow tram trundles by every now and again ferrying around tourists and locals alike.  It’s like a touch of Melbourne right here in Europe.  Boats are lined up along the Danube, some docked as restaurants or bars for later on in the day, others plying the tourist route up and down the river.  It’s one of the things I wish I had done last time I was here as the Danube looks so beautiful.

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So I board one of the boats and sit back to enjoy a bit of respite from the melting heat and enjoy the scenery.  It’s hard to know which side of the river to look at because both sides are dotted with beautiful buildings and things to see.  But I definitely know which side to look out when we approach the Parliament building – my first close up glimpse of what I now consider to be the most beautiful building in the world.  Big call, but I think it’s justified.

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My ferry arrives at Margaret Island and I have a couple of hours to check it out before the ferry does its return run back down the river.  A long footpath follows the water past tennis courts and running tracks and it takes about 10 minutes before I arrive at a clearing to see where all the action might be.  There are loads of people here enjoying their weekend, picknicking on the lawns, cooling their feet in the paddling pools and driving pedal cars around.  I grab a big cup of lemon fruit drink, with huge chunks of citrus fruit and icecubes floating around in it, and take a seat on the grass to cool down and see what everyone is up to.

There’s a little train that shuttles tourists from one side of the island to the other.  There’s a massive water feature in the middle of the park and not long after I notice it, the water starts spouting and dancing to the sounds of Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman”.  Kitschy!  It’s kind of like what I’d imagine Sentosa Island in Singapore was like 20 or so years ago before it went attraction crazy.  If I had a little more time, I would have liked to jump on the train ride and perhaps take a swim, but I’ve got other things to do.

I’m excited about this afternoon and evening.  I’m joining Urban Adventures to do their Budapest Happy Hour tour.  I meet my guide, Natalie, outside the old protestant church in Deac Ferenc Square and with a stroke of luck, it turns out I am getting a personal tour because I am the only one here!  Natalie explains to me a bit about the Hungarian people and the history of Budapest, before we wander over to the old Jewish Ghetto to discover the coolest local hangouts.

But back to the story of the ghetto first.  We are standing outside the Great Synagogue, which is currently the largest in Europe, and currently the second largest in the World.  It’s still used by Budapest’s Jewish community, now much smaller than the years before WWII.  The Emanuel Tree, a memorial partly funded by American-Hungarian actor Tony Curtis, is a stunning tribute to those Jewish lives lost and blossoms in the synagogue’s courtyard.  It’s a metal weeping willow tree, each of its leaves inscribed with the name of a life lost.

Our first stop is at a little bar called Doblo Wine Bar where we try a couple of different white wines with a snack of bread and an accompaniment called Liptauer – a kind of spread made from cheese with paprika and probably other things mixed in – quite nice.  Natalie explains the different wine regions of Hungary, as we sip on some fine examples. Doblo also do an amazing array of wine and palinka (I’ll talk about that a bit more soon) tastings so if you make it to Budapest drop by to Doblo Street and check them out.

Natalie points of a few things along the way – did you know it was a Hungarian that invented the Rubix Cube?  How about the story of Hungary’s famous footballer (which may mean soccer player – not a sports fan AT ALL, so I have no idea), Ferenc Puskas?

The coolest thing to do in Budapest of an evening is to head to a ruin pub.  Yep.  As it sounds, these are pubs located in various abandoned buildings around Budapest.  Some are ‘permanent’ and others operate seasonally more like a pop-up bar that you would see back in Melbourne.  The trend started about ten years ago, but the popularity hasn’t waned.  Generally, they are in large, former apartment buildings, with what would have been the apartments hollowed out to create a number of different bars, all decorated as oddly as their owners can imagine.   There are coloured lights everywhere, stuff hanging from the brightly coloured walls, and from the ceilings.

At an outdoor foodpark named Karavan, we chow down on a langos (one of my favourites from my last visit to Budapest).  Unlike a lot of our most favourite international foods which were not created in the countries we associate them with, it’s good to know that langos are actually a favourite snack amongst Hungarians, eaten regularly and at all times of the day.  And I can see why – they are just so delicious.  Ours tonight is a traditional variant with sour cream, garlic and cheese, but these days you can buy an amazing array of toppings limited only by the menu from which you are ordering.

Szimpla Kert (translated as Simple Garden) is a pioneer in the ruin pub scene, being Budapest’s first ruin pub when it opened in 2001.  It’s moved from its original location to its current home in Kazinczy Street, where you can watch some open air cinema, take a seat in a trabant or join a jam session.

Another local favourite is fröccs (pronounced ‘fruutch’), or wine spritzer.  Consisting of rose or white wine mixed with soda water, it’s the drink of choice for summertime.  A small fröccs is one part wine to 1 part soda, whilst a big fröccs is 2 parts wine, to 1 part soda.  Thought you’ll forgive me for forgetting the rest of the names of the venues I visit from this point forward.

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Before our last drink of the evening, Natalie guides me to a locked gate.  She enters a pin code, the gate swings open and we go inside.  At the end of the paved corridor, there is a courtyard, surrounded by apartments (now I know what is behind those doors I saw last night).  In hushed tones, we continue through another walkway until we reach a kind of paved yard.

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The back wall is a higgledy piggledy puzzle of different sized bricks.  This, is one of the last remaining parts of the ghetto wall.  A small plaque commemorates the area.

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Our last drink to top off the night is a local one known as Palinka, which tastes a little like petrol, or at least what you’d think petrol would taste like. It’s a traditional fruit brandy, sometimes flavoured with anything from almond to raspberry.  The word Palinka derives from the Slavonic word páliť, meaning ‘to burn’, which is exactly what it’ll do to your throat.  Oh, look, it’s not actually that bad, but you will definitely want to throw it back in one gulp and get it over with cause it’s about 40% proof.

The pub in which we are drinking has been overrun by a horde of bucks.  The very drunk English kind.  What I find strangest about this is that they are accompanied by two rather sober looking ladies.  Natalie explains to me that these are chaperones and that this is a big thing in Budapest – that groups of usually English bucks will hire a couple of chaperones for the evening to take them to some of Budapest’s best drinking holes and look after them.  In fact Natalie used to do this job herself for a few years and she even knows one of the chaperones this evening.  We are caught up in a conversation with the groom to be, who is some what waffling on about something that I already can’t recall.

We are having such a great evening that before we realise it, our tour has run over by about an hour and a half!  This has been an absolutely incredible evening.  I would never have found, let alone entered, any of these places on my own.  Egeszegedre Natalie!

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