WHETHER IT’S THE coffee or the lingering nostalgia of the Central Kávéház I’m not sure, but it made me think about the city I had spent the last three days in. Tucked away from whirring Renault engines, the 19th century café is welcome respite from the thirty degree heat. It smells, unsurprisingly, of coffee, and it’s enjoyably calm, only really disturbed by china cups and hushed Hungarian. But perhaps the most enchanting thing about one of Budapest’s many coffee houses is that it has a certain grand air about it that commands you to sit and admire it, not unlike the poets and painters would have done before me. I, too, imagined myself spending hours in its leather seats, armed with newspapers and paper and pens, nourished by a continual stream of Dobos torte and black coffee. But however much I tried to convince myself, I was not in Art Nouveau Budapest – the WiFi reminded me of this – yet I was glad that I was enjoying Budapest of 2013, because Hungary’s capital had surprised me.
There are places, and it usually is places more than anything else, that we create expectations for and only in going there can we stick a red cross or green tick next to them. It’s only natural to envisage a place before going there and I’ve racked my brains trying to think of what my expectations of Budapest were (a. because they weren’t that clear, and b. because there is only so much Google Images can show you) after having heard from various sources that it’s a “beautiful city” and probably a Brit’s favourite recommendation: “the booze is dirt cheap!” But as for my own expectations, I would say I had an image of certainly, a beautiful city, but perhaps fairly jaded beauty, any colour smeared by its undulant history of Austrian alliance and post-war Eastern Europe, with stubborn threads torn from the Iron Curtain and strewn through its narrow streets. Fortunately, my preconceptions were swept away almost as quickly as I passed through Hungarian customs, and I was quickly lured into a thriving metropolis, beating with a modern pulse but keeping check of its enviable history.
It’s difficult to know where to start when somewhere has taken you by surprise so quickly, but perhaps what was most evident about the EU’s eighth largest city was how clean it was. In fact, I’m glad I shared this first because one of those awkward Gangnam Style-hopscotch routines over dogs’ mess and leftover Subway doesn’t paint the rest of the city in a particularly good light, no matter how pretty it is. Its cleanliness might have something to do with the pavements being hosed down every day, or maybe the fact that its two million residents clearly take pride in their city, and rightly so. This pride is no more apparent than in the Vár part of the city, on the western bank of the Danube – the ‘Buda’ half of ‘Budapest’. Perched well above the rest of town, and with the sorts of views that seem to force tourists into a frenzy of camera-clicking, this old segment of Budapest looks so perfect that it could have been painted. Small bars and gelaterias (they love their ice cream, the Hungarians) stand humbly along little streets shadowed by the vast palace that crowns this leafy hill. It all sounds very idyllic, because it is – given this setting it’s no wonder that King Béla IV decided to settle here more than 800 years ago, no more is it a wonder that the Vár remained home to Hungary’s monarchy and now houses its president. But I think all thanks has to go to whoever decided to stick a funicular railway there – given that it was really quite hot that day, the walk up there didn’t seem quite as tempting…
Though I don’t think the hill was the greatest challenge in Budapest. That prize goes to the Hungarian language. To any English, Spanish or even German speaker it is as impossible as it looks. Courteously I tried to learn at least a smattering from the back of the guide book, notably ‘do you speak German?’ since it seems to be Hungary’s second language. Yet even on the first day my efforts were met with a ‘huh?’ and a screwed up face by an otherwise friendly barmaid. So eventually I gave up trying to speak German, my vocabulary of Hungarian extended to around four words and I spoke tentative English for the rest of the trip. I call this chronic condition the anguish of a linguist.
The remedy, however, for linguist’s anguish is easily found in Budapest’s brightly multicultural heart, most notably the Vörösmarty Square in the historic Belváros quarter of Pest, and the streets radiating from it. More or less completely shut off to cars, it is the perfect place to waste the afternoon, not only for its glittering array of places to spend money, but what seems to be everybody’s favourite holiday sport: people watching. In the time I spent there, I managed to see Yorkshire terrier puppies, a puppet playing the Benny Hill theme tune on a sax and even a waiter throwing a glass of water over a beggar. If that’s not worth the city’s more expensive prices for a round of drinks then I’m not sure what else would be. This charming district of Budapest can nonetheless justifiably boast a café culture to rival some of the other big European cities, and the presence of giants such as Louis Vuitton and Lacoste suggest that the city is head and shoulders above its turbulent past. In fact its future seems to be a key priority. Wherever I went there seemed to be a movement towards expanding – or at least improving – its already extensive transport system. There were underpasses being built, tram and metro stations updated and pavements reshaped, which, despite Hungary’s economic problems of the last five years, are a reminder of this country’s fairly recent admittance to the EU and the consequent improvements it seems to be constantly striving to make.
That said, Budapest is a pretty good deal itself. Since it lies outside the Eurozone, a meal for three here is likely to cost you somewhere in the region of £20 (which roughly equals around 6400 Hungarian forint and sounds exorbitant) and the Brits before me were right: the booze is cheap. But if you can pull yourself away from its countless bars and head to the remarkable Great Market Hall, for example, the city’s less-advertised bargains can be found. The late 19th century marketplace is a true feast for the eyes and ears (and nostrils, if raw meat’s your thing) but put it this way – if it were financially viable, I’d head to Hungary next time I wanted some paprika.
It’s fair to say that Budapest surpassed my expectations, but a striking city on the sun-drenched Danube as rich in history as it is, with a buzzing atmosphere to match was never going to come up short. Hungary’s capital is a beckoning finger for westerners to explore the Eastern realms a little more, and if they’re going to throw up as many surprises as this place, then it can beckon away. I learned a lot in the short time I was in Budapest, not only about its intriguing past and alluring appeal that seemed to attract tourists from as far away as Japan, but how easily the world can surprise you in such a short space of time. I’m just sad I can’t speak any Hungarian.