My only pre-knowledge of Budapest came from a half remembered history lesson about the events of ’56 and a reference in the film Gross Point Blank, Dan Ackroyd’s character says, “ah, Budapest, city of Cathedrals”. Well it does have a great deal of ecclesiastical establishments to commend it, but it also has a great deal of dirt and graffiti too. The guidebook said something along the lines of ‘see Budapest before it becomes just another capital city of a western European social democracy. My overall advice would be, give it a few more years… and go in the spring.

What follows is a long personal post that’s as much for me as thee…

It’s not all bad though. The Art ‘Otel, where we stayed, excellent. Nice comfortable bed, proper duvets, modern design all centred around the art of Donald Sultan (?). It’s on the Buda side of the river, near the Chain Bridge, a crossing we got to know very well. Handy for Buda and the Castle, but over the river from Pest, a bit like having a hotel in waterloo rather than the west end. Still, from room 415 you do get a great view of the (grey/green not blue) Danube every morning.

Food-wise we found the place a bit hit and miss. Cyrano, Mezma, and a couple of the newish bar/cafe/clubby/restaurants we’re good. Cyrano in particular came top for decor, staff humour (serving us (free) shot glasses of beer when we asked for a small ones, and keeping up the gag for the right amount of time before bringing the real things) I had roast salmon with a celeriac risotto and Holland [sic] sauce. The Salmon was topped with roasted pine nuts and raisins, which gave a chewy sweetness to an otherwise softer comforting dish.

Other highlights include the food at Mezma, a 70s style retro restaurant lounge bar. Hungarians bean soup and a good salad with roasted veggies, just nicely put together, and they had a cocktail called a BBC

Miss-wise had to be St Peters Abbey, a Belgian place near the hotel that we went to on the first night. Scored great on beers, but zero on food. Hungary being a landlocked country the Mussels was always going to be a risk. Small, over cooked and nothing like the plump almost milky ones I’ve experienced in Brussels. But worse was the snail starter… now I love snails, they’re great with loads of garlic, butter and some bread. Perhaps it’s a Walloon tradition, but snails don’t go so great in a sauce with mushrooms… why? Well they’re both grey and a bit slimy, and the later ends up making the former taste tough by virtue of association. Worse was the hideous presentation though, nipples of raw carrot and strips of red onion forming some sort of semicolon? Alternate lemon and red pepper slices held firm by some cold mashed swede epoxy? Yuk. We voted with our wallets and didn’t leave a tip.

Budapest is famous for it’s spas and springs. Many of them are single sex, so you’ve got to pick carefully. Széchenyi Baths in the central park is a large popular one. The experience is a little bit scary, unless you went to boarding school, in which case you’re probably used to large old women ordering you around. You buy the ticket, go to the ‘cabin’ which is a small walk in locker and get changed. The woman then chalks a number on the door indicating how many people are using it, (two in our case), she then gives you a metal tag, and writes the tag number on a blackboard inside the cabin. This is the security number and you must remember it, in case youloose the tag. The cabin also has it’s own number so beware. With that we were off out to the pools. While the air temp was 5°C , the waters were 37°C. I’ve not been in a pool that hot since I first learnt to swim. I subsequently came out dying for a pee and salt and vinegar crisps.

We were there on a Saturday, and the cliental was quite mixed, Tourists, families, old Budapestians playing chess like you see in the guide books, British Stag groups trying to cure hangovers, that sort of thing. Also If you’re only in the pools for an hour or so, (by which time you’re a prune anyway) you get a refund on leaving. Towels can be hired (or take the one’s from your hotel) as can swimming costumes (think ‘I forgot my kit PE lessons’, urgh)

Other general observations.
1. They love a big door, each apartment block has a huge door leading in to it, they often have beautiful ornate handles and are covered graffiti.
2. They sure love an auto-flushing urinal, the place might be a dump, but every slasher I went in was as no hander. The classier places have auto taps too.
3. Squint you’re eyes and you can just imagine how miserable it would have been back in the communist days. Like most of Eastern Europe there’s some amazing art nouveau buildings and some hideous concrete ones.
4. You know that mobile you upgraded in 2002? Someone in Hungary is using it. Nokia 3210, the other one with the round dial interface, that pre Sony Ericsson with the stubby aerial, all being put to good use. Telecoms is a massive industry, Pannon had huge adverts everywhere, hotly followed by T-Mobile Hu and Vodaphone.
5. Hungary is set to join the Euro in 2010, and the main pedestrianised shopping streets could already be anywhere in Euroland, Esprit, Mexx, H&M, Zara, Footlocker, and the largest M&S outside England I was informed by the guide book.

On the subject of Guide books, don’t bother is my other advice. The most informative and up to date one I could find on the Charing Cross Road, (lonely Planet: Budapest published 2003) was good for history and background as well as maps, but we found that quite a few things had closed or moved. Particularly off the Castle Hill, which was a bit of a let down on a wet Friday morning. There’s plenty of maps, pamphlets and free-zines in most bars and hotels as well as at the airport, and if you really care about the history, do your research online before you go. Still, it is nice to have a doodled in book as a memento.

The airport: Get the mini bus to and from your hotel, it’s cheap and fairly quick, though it is just a Ford Transit with some seats in. You could also go for the Budapest Card, it’s valid for 48 or 72 hours, and gets you discounted (sometimes free) entry to lots of museums and money of food too. It also give you free unlimited transport on buses and trams. In the end we perhaps didn’t use it as much as we could have, but if you’re a full on culture vulture then it’s good value. It also fairly stress free, unless like me you write the wrong date starting on the card and then fret that no one will accept it as you’ve overwritten the 15th with the 17th in a really laboured scratchy way. Still, in the end everyone excepted it.

Other things we did: Churches, St Matthias on Castle hill and the Basilica, both amazing, The Card gets you in free to St Matthias, and we got a free 15 min talk off a guide. The Terror House, a bit full on, But then it does show two of the darkest periods in Hungary’s history. Worth going, but as a lot of the suvivour’s audio/visual testament isn’t subtitled it’s sort of hard to empathise, purely through lack of understanding. I suspect that this in particular is more for Hungarians that the rest of us. The scary thing is the normality of the street outside compared to what you’re told went on inside, As if HMP Belmarsh we’re on KIngsway.

House of Hungarian Photography (free with the card too) is a great little gallery. Interesting for it’s architecture as much as it’s contents. As it’s in renovated rooms in one of the old buildings, you get to have a good nose around. It’s a great space. You can imagine what this wold have been like as some rich merchants home. Work wise there’s some great shots of Hungarian life, but also a small section on three photographers competing for a scholarship, of which I liked Erdei Krisztina’s work the best.

In all, not a bad place for a weekend. Big Budapest photoset on Flickr.

1 Response to “Budapest”

  1. 1 Petro July 8, 2007 at 4:58 pm

    hi, hi, hi! Beautiful site.

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These are my personal views and not those of Channel 4 or the BBC
March 2006
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