Budapest is an interesting city in many ways. Despite being known as one of the largest, most culturally significant and indeed most beautiful cities in Europe, it is probably best known to our generation as the title of a George Ezra song. As such, when the History Society decided to go there this year, many of us were confused. Indeed, the English Society’s choice to visit Dublin seemed a great decision, and even more appealing was the Politics Society’s trip to Rome. But what did Budapest have for us? Wasn’t it just a city hungover from a destructive double-whammy of Nazis and then Soviets?
In many ways, this is true, and makes it brilliantly captivating for anyone interested in history. One of the main tourist attractions is the House of Terror, within which both fascist and communist regimes are analysed and criticised. The willingness of the Hungarian people to discuss their darkest days is one of the most interesting aspects of their culture, especially considering that those days were not all that long ago – many of the ‘criminals’ that are listed on the walls of the museum are noted to be still alive, and indeed a communist Budapest before the collapse of the Soviet Union is within living memory for many of the residents.
Budapest, and its people, know that the area is an astonishingly gorgeous one, with amazing architecture, and it’s easy to agree when standing on top of Gellert Hill in Buda for a glorious sunrise with views of the whole city, or when cruising on the River Danube in the late evening with a glass of champagne. But it also understands that for every breathtaking Parliament Building, or prestigious art gallery, there is a dilapidated soviet housing block, or brutalist building covered in graffiti tags. Yet what really stood out for us is how they embrace that – how they celebrate the run down locations just as much as the glamorous areas. Nowhere is this more evident than with their famous ‘Ruins Bars’ – our group’s favourite, Szimpla Kertmozi, oozed grunge rock cool in a way that would only be genuine in this city.
Budapest can be an exhilaratingly busy city when you want it to – the relentless public transport with a bevy of trams, trains and taxis waited for no-one, and reminded you a lot of Manhattan. Yet this contrasted with the relaxing thermal baths, in which you could spend an entire peaceful afternoon and convince yourself you were in Turkey. And perhaps one of the best experiences we had was waking up from a night in Morrisons 2 – a huge club with 5 dance floors – to go straight to the New York Cafe – considered by many as the greatest cafe in the world, with gold lined ceiling and resident piano player – wearing t-shirts, shorts and heavy hangovers. We may not have belonged there, but we loved every moment.
It seems to me that Budapest is a city of contrasts. It is grandiose, yet also run to the ground. It is a place where you can go to de-stress, or get caught up in the moment. It isn’t the first place I would have thought of when thinking of going abroad, but I think it was one of my favourite places I’ve been so far.
And of course, cheap food and drinks were a bonus too!