Travel Report: Budapest.
December 2002. I’ll never forget the Christmas I spent in Budapest with my buddies Jon, Myles and Mat. We were living in Bratislava at the time as English teachers at a language institute in the city centre. Most of our teaching friends had jetted home for the holidays. But with so many undiscovered places right on our doorstep, the four of us decided to club together and head to the Hungarian capital for an alternative Yuletide experience.
We rented a crummy little apartment from a guy recommended by one of Jon’s students. Dumping our bags inside, we wasted no time in heading out into the freezing cold afternoon for a walk across the city’s famous Chain Bridge. Connecting Budapest’s two main districts, Pest and Buda, Chain Bridge was designed by an Englishman, William Tierney Clark, and built by a Scotsman, Adam Clark. The Clarks weren’t related in case you’re wondering.
December 2002. Chain Bridge was unveiled in 1849 as the first bridge in Hungary to provide a permanent link across The River Danube. This shot, taken during our late afternoon stroll, remains one of my most treasured shots from almost twenty years of global travel. It reminds me of a gloriously uncomplicated time of my life and that brilliant, rare camaraderie the three of us had. They were walking ahead of me and I just said, “Hey guys, turn”. I’ve always thought it would make a great album cover. If only we’d had the songs.
December 2002. It was unspeakably cold that long ago Christmas week in Budapest. But we still spent a fair amount of time hanging around on Chain Bridge gazing out over The Danube and the bleak row of ghost houses that lined the riverside.
December 2002. I was also able to grab this shaky shot of the grand, Neo-Gothic Hungarian Parliament (Országház). Dating back to 1904, this grand old structure is home to Hungary’s National Assembly and has survived two world wars and a flurry of national uprisings and revolutions. I’ve always thought its design was based on London’s Westminster Palace. And a quick look on Google tells me that’s exactly what architect Imre Steindl had in mind! Poor old Steindl spent fifteen years working on its construction before going blind just twenty four months before completion.
December 2002. I rarely had much of a travel plan in the old days. I remember we spent most of our days wandering the streets aimlessly and engaging in fierce, drawn out snowball fights. Lots of ducking behind cars and launching icy missiles from behind telephone boxes. We were very silly. It was one of those afternoons that we bumped into Mother and Father Christmas, a horribly drunk Hungarian couple greeting passers by with slurred seasonal wishes. “Merry Fucking Christmas!” yelled the lady upon seeing us. “I’m Mary!” she growled, “And this drunken bastard is Mr. Christmas, so no dirty ideas ok?” I remember assuring her that she was quite safe.
December 2002. A good chunk of our Budapest exploring was spent statue hunting. This is the Hungarian revolutionary Francis II Rákóczi, a national hero who eventually earned the amazing title The Prince of Transylvania. Rákóczi famously led The Hungarian Uprising against The Hapsburgs between 1703 and 1711.
December 2002. Budapest’s most impressive and concentrated collection of statues can be found at Heroes’ Square. Here you’ll find monuments dedicated to the seven Magyar tribe chieftains who founded Hungary, alongside sculptures in tribute to former heads of state. A stone column crowned by the Archangel Gabriel towers over the entire affair. Heroes’ Square opened in 1896 in celebration of Hungary’s one thousand year history.
December 2002. My favourite statue was probably this old grisly dude and his walking stick. Mihály Károlyi served as both Prime Minister and President for brief spells between 1918-1919 during the short-lived First Hungarian People’s Republic. His legacy is that of a committed pacifist who completely disarmed the Hungarian Army at the demand of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson! Hungarians tend to have mixed views about Károlyi because of this, although that hasn’t stopped streets all over the country being named after him.
December 2002. It still makes me chuckle to think that Jon, Mat, Myles and I hadn’t even known about Budapest’s world famous Szechenyi Baths until we were in the city. It opened in 1913 and is the largest medicinal bath complex in Europe with fifteen indoor pools, three outdoor.
December 2002. What an amazing moment it was when, shivering in minus temperatures, I lowered myself into the main outdoor pool and felt the hot salty water engulf me. I also recall the absolutely bizarre sight of beardy, naked Hungarian men playing chess all around the poolside. For more on Szechenyi Baths, check out the official website.
December 2002. We had some fantastic Hungarian food that week, including what felt like a constant supply of piping hot Goulash. But the meal that really stands out came at this amazing Indian Restaurant. I have researched and dug around… investigated and scouted, but I cannot for the life of me find out the name of the place. This is just as surprising as it is disappointing, because the waiter proudly informed us all that we were sitting at the very table Bill Clinton had dined at in the mid 1990s! There was even a little plaque. If anyone out there knows this place, please get in touch!
March 2003. Just three months after that Christmas visit I returned to Budapest with a larger group of teachers to celebrate Sheila’s birthday. And so I found myself back on Chain Bridge and this time those signature chilly temperatures were at least complimented by some brilliant afternoon sunshine.
March 2003. I also got to dive into some unchartered Budapest territory with an afternoon exploring The Jewish Quarter. The district has a rich history stretching back to the 13th century and is wonderfully preserved. Think cobbled streets, atmospheric alleyways and crumbling stone townhouses. The above photo shows the Holocaust Memorial, which remembers the 70.000 people who were rounded up here and sent off to concentration camps across the region.
March 2003. The Jewish Quarter’s main sight is Dohany Street Synagogue, a towering art nouveau structure on Kazinczy Street. This is actually Europe’s biggest synagogue, so put aside some time for the complex, which includes The Hungarian Jewish Museum.
March 2003. I outdid myself on the statue front on that second trip by checking out the fascinating Memento Park. In 1989, following the collapse of communism, around forty statues from all around Budapest were torn down and dragged out to this open-air museum in the city suburbs. The structures held here are surreal relics of an almost forgotten era. This statue of two men shaking hands was created by the renowned sculptor Zsigmond Kisfaludi Strob and stands as a tribute to Hungarian-Soviet friendship.
March 2003. This is the Workers Movement Memorial, a pair of giant hands wrapped around a granite ball. The sculpture was created in 1976 to symbolise the progress of workers under the communist regime. For more info on Memento Park, head to their funky website.
March 2003. While we did get to do some tourism, at the end of the day that second Budapest trip was primarily a birthday weekend, so a lot of our time was spent in various city bars. The drinks hardly stopped flowing all weekend, so I couldn’t tell you where these amazing black and white shots were taken. Answer on a postcard if anyone knows!
March 2003. Out of all those Budapest bar shots, this one has to be my favourite. Chris (left) and Irish Mike (right) had never been the best of friends. They seemed to disagree on just about everything and co-existed in a state of mutual toleration. I love the way the shot captures them in a rare moment of unity. “Beer. Yes.”
For more on my adventures in Hungary, have a look at my travel report from The Danube Bend.
For a deeper and more intimate window into this period of my life, dive into my short story series The Slovak Files.
I’ve been living, working and traveling all over the world since 2001, so why not check out my huge library of travel reports from over 30 countries.