Frank, AKA Brut Bunny is a buddy of mine from Max’s forum. He recently went to Budapest and I asked him to do a guest post. Two things he didn’t mention and you may know this, Budapest is actually two cities, Buda and Pest (pronounced “Pesh”). Here’s Franks’s tale of two cities:
I decided to give you Budapest as I experienced it, and not as a Taggart travel guide.
Budapest was never in my cross-hairs. For weeks after I learned that I was headed there I was saying Bucharest, Belfast, anything but Budapest.
My total knowledge of Hungary was something like Bela Lugosi, Liszt, goulash, and Rubik’s Cube. I also knew they had had a “revolution” sometime in the fifties against their Russian occupiers that the U.N. (my favorite organization… NOT) refused, as usual, to get involved with. And, just one other thing. I’ve always had a secret crush on a Hungarian woman. Karoly Lotz’s “Bathing Woman.” Check her out, but just remember she is one hundred and six years old. She is beautiful, but then brunettes do that to me.
I should also explain that this trip was a birthday gift. It was planned that I was getting a fancy schmancy coffee machine. But, my family decided it would be too much to lug back home from Paris; so they decided to give me four days in Budapest instead.
It was less than a two hour flight from Paris on Malev airlines.
The limousine ride from the airport to the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace in Pest confirmed my perverted uninformed opinion…that Budapest would be a dreary, dangerous, depressing former communist city.
It was a dreary overcast day. The homes and buildings along the way to the hotel were run down, iron bars and roll down shutters on the windows, lots of graffiti. A half hour ride and we arrived at the hotel, which is rated one of the finest in the world. Six staff members greeted us as our limo pulled up as if we were returning royalty. The sun literally came out.
We were escorted to our room, which turned out to be the Presidential Suite. Four bedrooms. Four or five spa size bathrooms with whirlpools. A living room bigger than my house with a huge marble fireplace at one end and a monstrous wall mounted flat screen TV at the other.
A large dining room capable of formally sitting twelve for dinner (the table was set with platters of fresh fruit and cheese and a magnum of champagne chilling in a bucket.) A full size kitchen with all appliances and servants entrances. Ornate gilt ed fifteen foot ceilings. Dozens of fresh flowers, roses, calla lilies and tulips every day in every room
The French patio doors in the living room opened onto a small balcony directly overlooking the Chain Bridge, the Danube, the Royal Palace, the National Gallery and the coronation church of the Hungarian kings, Matyas church. A view to die for day and night.
Sound like I’m gloating? After seeing the rate for the suite at the front desk, four thousand three hundred Euros a night, you can be damn sure I am.
Four Seasons Hotel Budapest
This hotel is smack dab in the middle of everything.
Exiting the hotel you have the Parliament buildings off to the right and Vaci Utca on the left. Vaci Utca is an open mall that runs along the Pest side of the Danube… known as a commercial trade center for business, swindlers, prostitutes and
Tourists; packed streets, hostelries and shops.
I should say here that my wife and I walked everywhere. Day and late at night. I have never felt safer in any city in the world.
IMO, Hungarians are a proud, very literate, friendly people who remember their past and look forward to their future.
Some info: the average age is around forty, the average non professional worker “nets” about four hundred and thirty five dollars a month, the literacy rate is around 99.7%, and Hungarian’s love their cafes, coffee shops, and cigarettes.
The 1956 revolution is fresh in their minds and although they were decimated while the world stood buy and watched…
I think they are truly proud to have stood up to oppression. But, more on that to come.
The money was a surprise to us. We travel in Europe a lot and think in U.S., Canadian and Euros. Hungary, being part of the European Union I just assumed they are on the Euro. They are not. The currency is the Forint. The exchange rate for a Forint is around .0052 U.S. or .52 cents for 100 Forints. Hungary may not be able to adopt the Euro before 2013; if then. Why? The government is bankrupt.
Roaming around the city one day I came across the smallest store I’ve ever seen. Maybe three or four feet wide. Not much longer either. They were selling interesting souvenirs. Kalashnikov’s. AK-47 assault rifles. I made sure I was wearing gloves when I handled them. Most were used… and who knew where. Only $75 U.S. I would have bought one except worse then getting through Customs I had my wife to contend with.
A great treat for me was meeting Andrew Princz. Andrew is the author of “Bridging the Divide: Canadian & Hungarian Stories of the 1956 Revolution.” He is a producer, art historian, journalist, author of culture and a genuinely nice guy. His web site is www.ontheglobe.com.
We walked across the Chain Bridge and climbed half way to heaven on the Buda side of the river where we met Andrew in a coffee house. After coffee he took us on a walking tour of Buda.
Of course it started at the National Art Gallery. Buda reminded me of Greenwich Village when I was a kid.
After the Gallery we started toward the Royal Palace and I found myself staring at a concrete block house. Windows and doors covered with steel plates and thick iron bars. Andrew explained that it was the Nazi headquarters back in the 1940’s and has been boarded up since. Half the people want to tear it down, half want to turn it into a museum. That’s when I asked for a history lesson.
Hungary was occupied by Germany from 1930-1945. Then the Russians occupied it from 1945 until 1990 when the Soviet Union collapsed. Sixty years. Can you begin to imagine what that was like? They held their first free election in 1990. Joined the E.U. in 2004.
According to Andrew, the revolution of 1956 started as a University assignment. A professor had his students write about the freedoms and liberties they would want to have if the occupation ever were to end.
The project became so serious that the professor was asked to run for President, but he was forced by authorities to place the list of freedoms in a vault not to be discussed. This angered the students and they revolted. Russian officials and sympathizers were kidnapped, some were killed. It got to the point that the Russians retreated, pulled up and left.
Budapest celebrated, but prematurely. The Russians returned and surrounded the city with three thousand tanks. The Hungarians fought the tanks with their hands, small arms and molotov cocktails; knowing help was surely on the way… the United States, the U.N., someone in the world would help them. But, the help never came.
Time for a Unicum, a local drink made entirely from herbs. Forty proof. It looks like bug juice, tastes like a remedy for iron deficiency and will put hair on your chest, if that’s what you want a hairy chest. Incidentally, the food there was excellent. We ate at the hotel, in a couple of fancy restaurants, but mostly at the cafes where the locals go. Good food, rich deserts mit schlag – dollops and dollops.
I really enjoyed the city. It has the infrastructure, architecture, and history to become a major tourist destination. Would I live there? No. Would I invest there? Absolutely, I know people who already have major investments.
The day we were leaving I was reading a local English newspaper. An interesting article. The night before someone with a Kalashnikov Ak-47 assault rifle had shot out all the windows in the police stations. The story was written not in the sense of reporting a crime, but almost with a sense of pride. The journalist concluded “… no one was targeted. Police officers were in no danger. We did it because we can.”
Coffee and Freedom. What more could you want?