Friday, 20 April 2012

I Recommend: Budapest.

The second instalment of my Budapest review, this is basically going to be a list of the cool places I found in Hungary. Let the jealousy within bubble up until you eventually just book tickets for yourself and go and see what all the damn fuss is about.

Szimpla Bar.

A trip to Budapest would not be complete without this place. It’s like a little wonderland- with bicycles hanging from the ceilings, old bath tubs for chairs, a flurry of different languages surrounding you in both the patrons chatter and the imaginative graffiti. These "Ruin Pubs" are often temporary affairs, but Szimpla has become so embedded in the hearts of travellers and locals that it's practically become a rite of passage visiting the place for the first time. Prices are fairly cheap, the atmosphere is incredible. The artworks and ambience will keep you discovering new and priceless oddities every time you get lost and end up in a completely separate but equally enchanting area of the shabbily cool pub.

                                                      Castro Bisztro
A little rough round the edges, this is the best place to eat in the capital. Tucked away just off a main road, with the world's most bizarre playlist to compliment your food. Go for the Spanish Chickpea thing, and just about anything else. You'll be dining with a bunch of hipsters on Macs, possibly a family, a handful of other tourists, dozens of locals and at least one pet dog. The wine is sweet, and the beer is cheap. If you had to eat at only one place in all your stay, make it here. Four courses and four drinks rocks in at under £20, leaving plenty of small change for Szimpla Bar later on.

Szchenyi Baths
Beats Failsworth Swimming Pool, right?
On a walking tour, the guides recommended Szchenyi and one other baths in Budapest. Deciding between the two was fairly simple, seeing as the other was primarily a nude swimming baths- and the almost complete lack of Hungarian studs & a burning desire to hold onto our dignity- had us walking in the opposite direction to City Park, where Szchenyi lodges. After getting lost and walking in on several old ladies getting changed, we eventually found the gem of this place; the stunning outdoor pool. A little like a holiday resort in any Spanish town you care to think of, but much less tacky, we set up camp here for hours. The water is naturally heated and apparently is very healing, so we had a good old gossip in the pool while people watching and rating the swimwear choices of other pool dwellers. The whirlpool was dramatic (we slammed into oldies and created a bit of a scene more than once), the sauna had me feeling like I was going to die a horribly humid death, and we watched old men playing chess while sat in the coldest baths. One of the best day trips we did all week, easy.

House of Terror
Although significantly less cheerful and carefree as the rest of the places we visited, this is the best museum we graced while in Hungary. The building used to play host to Hungarian Nazis and later the Communists, and has an ugly and unfortunate history. Exhibits included harrowing videos of Hungarians who survived   the era recounting the horrors of these reigns, exhaustive information on how the two dictatorships influenced every area of life, from education to farming, and a chilling walk through the old chambers which housed victims of torture and execution. Incredibly moving and shockingly humbling, the museum's goal of instilling the darker history of Hungary in our memories out of respect for the victims and as a reminder of the injustices it has faced is certainly achieved. 

Free Walking Tours
Our lovely guide showing us around one of Budapest's parks
The easiest and cheapest way to discover Budapest- and perfect if you want to absorb as much information/culture/history as you possibly can in less than a day. This company are funded entirely by tips, and generally attract quite large crowds of people from all  over the world. The guides are entertaining, and all-knowing. Some tours have themes, such as the Communist History Tour we went on, and others are more general introductions to Hungary. The general tour takes you through the language, the important buildings, up and down hills, the history, the traditions, famous Hungarians and loads more that I've forgotten about. We were lucky with the weather, though the tours are still popular in damper weather. It was engaging and open, a brilliant introduction to the city, and I'd recommend it 100%. Especially if you want a cheap way to explore Budapest's story. Visit their facebook page HERE.

There's so much more to this amazing city- 400, Instant, Bazar Hostel, Hummus Bar, and the charming Easter markets- that I couldn't write an exhaustive list of recommendations without basically handing you my daily itineraries. You could see the best of Budapest in about three days- if you were really dedicated  and armed with a map- so if you ever get the chance to visit just some of the places I've mentioned, then prioritise them. You can thank me later.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Snap Happy in Hungary.

A smattering of the pictures I took from my week in Budapest!

The builders outside of my hostel that cheerily drilled away at seven in the morning. 

 Some "Secret Boxes" on a market stall during the city centre's Easter Markets.

The beautiful ceiling of Saint Stephen's Basilica foyer. 

 Lily having a look at the posters covering the walls in Castro Bistro, our favourite restaurant.

Charlotte and myself getting our footing right on the ridge of the pool before posing for the intended photo.

Szchenyi Baths.

Pair of abandoned shoes on a broken windowsill in the Jewish Quarter.

Shisha Bar in the Szimpla Kert,

Grumpy traditional singer at the Easter Market.

 Graphic "No Pooing" Sign... 

Upstairs in the Szimpla Kert.

Monday, 16 April 2012

Tale of Two Cities.

Last week I finally edged closer to a successful New Years Resolution, and went travelling. I picked Budapest, the capital of Hungary, by basically dropping a pin into a map of Europe and hoping it didn't land on Bolton. Quick investigations on and, and then trawls through various review sites and travel blogs, I was completely smitten with the city before I'd even packed my bags. It didn't take much effort to convince three of my housemates to join me, so after a long wait we were heading towards Hungary, and I towards a completed New Years Goal. At bloody last.

Sainr Matthias' Church
Budapest is an odd city. The skyline is jagged as no buildings quite match each other, the best places to visit are often tucked away in impenetrable quarters of town, and there's a peculiar mix of old and new. Parts of the city feel very unsettled- beautiful churches and stylish bars on the same street as buildings with bullet holes peppering the walls and a pair of discarded battered shoes left on a depleted windowsill. This is a city centre that can't quite make up its mind.

The economic and political history of Hungary is arduous. This isn't a country that has the resources to doll up every building, which in some ways is a shame, and in some ways is possibly a good thing. The beautiful buildings that have undergone restoration or rejuvenation since Hungary ended its years of dictatorship are stunning. The Basilica is simply wonderful, Saint Matthias' Church on the Buda hill looks colourful and almost new in the sunshine, Parliament is a gentle nod to the extravagance of our own House of Commons. There are glimpses of just about every architectural style on almost every corner.
Market Stalls in Pest

Not having the time or finances to renovate does leave the city with a unique atmosphere. The former Ministry of Defence stands derelict and wounded as a powerful reminder of the Communist/Nazi fighting, and once proud buildings are left empty for years on end like the enormous Television Centre. It's hard to find an area of the city centre that isn't wrapped up in the country's unfortunate past.

The parks in the city have character and draw crowds of tourists and skaters, meaning that in the midst of old Communist building blocks and battered souvenir shops, there is still somewhere to picnic. The nicest bars and cafes are hidden behind churches or in off-street terraces. The only way to eat or drink in Budapest is to follow recommendations- there is no central strip that you can march down and be guaranteed to find somewhere fabulous. No, that'd be too easy in the secretive Budapest. The closest thing to a general recommendation I could provide you with is this: Stay in the Jewish Quarter. That way, if you get lost in the labyrinth of interconnecting streets, you'll probably stumble across Szimpla, the city's celebrated kert, or somewhere equally as cool and hidden.

Me being all casual outside a gorgeous church in City Park
Budpest was orignially two cities separated by the winding river Danube. Buda; the proud host to the National Gallery, Liberty Statue and a wonderful hilly landscape, and Pest; the vibrant artists' centre of undergound nightlife and grand churches and synagogues. But this capital is a tale of two cities in another way. First, the historical Budapest. The buildings with an uncomfortable history that have stood witness to generations of tyranny and oppression, the magnificent thermal baths and impressive churches and architecture. Second, the rising Budapest. The city-centre parks sprung from old bus stations, wine-cellars underneath second hand book shops, impossibly cool bars with original and dizzying art installations,and walls of restaurants papered in flyers for live music events.

I've never seen anywhere else like this city. The sharpness in the contrast between  the old and new parts of  kept on being an unusual thing to see, even after a week. I think the most bizarre aspect of it all is that there isn't a rich area and a poor area, or a more developed area versus a completely abandoned one. All of Budapest is scattered with the two starkly different slants. It's probably the only place I've ever been where each street is almost identical to the next, but only by virtue of the fact that each street is so mismatched and unique. Amazing really. Plus it explains why I spent most of the week lost or depending on my housemates for directions.
Szimpla Kert's Shisha Bar.

I'm going to work on posting some of my favourite finds in Budapest, so you're going to be treated to a more specific take on what the city has to offer. Lucky you!