Once Upon a Time in Budapest.
Once Upon a Time in Budapest.
It is coming up to twenty years since I first visited the magical city of Budapest. Twenty years. In many respects this is hard to process. Here I sit in my mid forties, trying to make sense of the 22 year old me captured in such uncomplicated and carefree times.
In the autumn of 2002 I moved to the Slovak capital, Bratislava, for what was only my second teaching position. There, I fell in with a fantastic bunch of people who fast became a tight knit group of friends. As longterm readers know well, I have documented this period in my short story series, The Slovak Files.
By the time December rolled around that year, Bratislava’s English teaching community had begun dispersing for the holidays. Some went home, back to Britain… The US… Canada… Australia. Others decided to take advantage of being in Europe to jet off to warmer climates. Greece, the south of Spain, all that jazz.
Not bothered about going home, and similarly apathetic about flying, my flatmate Goldblum and I began plotting a local excursion. Our decision to head for the Hungarian capital was down to one of Goldblum’s students. In fact, his name was Joe and he had an apartment to rent in Budapest. It wasn’t going to be a palace, Goldblum explained, but it would be cheap as chips. Cheap was one of our favourite words, so we took the opportunity.
Once Upon a Time in Budapest.
Before long, a couple of friends signed up for our Hungarian Christmas adventure. Both hailed from Canada; Myles from Quebec, Citizen Kovacs from… oh lord, I have no idea. One grey chilly afternoon we all took the train to Budapest from Bratislava. I can still taste the anticipation. Being 22 years old… heading off into an unknown city in a brand new country for Christmas.
Goldblum certainly hadn’t been kidding about the apartment. It was… basic, but entirely serviceable and big enough for the four of us. In any case we were hardly in the place, which we employed solely for sleeping and morning coffee. The rest of the time, we were out exploring.
We weren’t very organised. Rather, the four of us walked and walked, following our noses. As with so many of these Once Upon a Time / Nostalgia posts, I find myself working with limited photos. Happily at least, I have a few surviving shots of Széchenyi Chain Bridge.
Constructed between 1840 and 1849, this was the first permanent bridge to span the River Danube. Interestingly, it was a Scotsman by the name of William Tierney Clark who designed it. Moreover, another Scottish guy called Adam Clark was in charge of building it. No, the Clarks weren’t related.
Chain Bridge connects the city’s two main districts, the appropriately named Buda (on its eastern side) and Pest (on the western side). As we crossed the bridge that day, I casually asked the guys, who’d been walking ahead of me, to stop and turn. The resulting shot (above) is one of my all-time favourites, a photo that I’ve always thought would make a good album cover. If only we’d had the songs.
It was bitterly cold during our stay, though we refused to let the weather hurry us. Indeed we spent some time on Chain Bridge staring out over the icy river and picking out various buildings along the foggy skyline. The pick of the bunch, without a doubt, was the splendorous Hungarian Parliament Building.
This stunning Neo-gothic structure dates back to 1904 and has survived the considerable damage of two world wars and a barrage of national uprisings and revolutions.
I remember thinking that it looks a bit like London’s Westminster Palace. Later on, after a bit of research, I discovered that’s exactly what architect Imre Steindl had in mind! Poor old Steindl spent fifteen years working on its construction before going blind. He eventually died in 1902 prior to the building’s grand unveiling.
Once Upon a Time in Budapest.
One single surviving photo reminds me that we spent some time walking around Buda Castle. Built in the mid 1700s on the site of an ancient royal residence, the complex was once home to King Franz Joseph I of Austria. Should I ever make it back to Budapest, I’d love to spend a day touring the grounds. Especially The National Gallery, The Budapest History Museum and The National Library.
One day, we spent an afternoon statue hunting. Budapest’s most impressive and concentrated collection of statues stands in the handsome Heroes’ Square. Here we found monuments dedicated to the seven Magyar tribe chieftains who founded Hungary. There are also tributes to numerous former heads of state, while a towering stone column crowned by the Archangel Gabriel oversees everything.
The government unveiled the square in 1896 in order to celebrate a thousand years of Hungarian history. The famed Hungarian sculptor György Zala created most of the square’s statues and sculptures.
Elsewhere, we stumbled across a statue of the Hungarian revolutionary Francis II Rákóczi, a national hero who earned himself the amazing title, The Prince of Transylvania. Rákóczi famously led The Hungarian Uprising against The Hapsburgs between 1703 and 1711.
Francis II Rakoczi Statue.
Another statue that caught our attention was this tribute to Mihály Károlyi. He 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 disarmed the Hungarian Army at the demand of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Hungarians tend to have mixed views about Károlyi because of this.
After a couple of days wandering the streets we finally took the opportunity to warm ourselves up in Budapest’s legendary Szechenyi Baths. Opened in 1913, this is the largest medicinal bath complex in Europe. I’m talking 15 indoor pools, 3 outdoor.
I’ll never forget the amazing moment when, shivering by the main outdoor pool in temperatures of around zero, I lowered myself into the warm, salty water. Aaaaah.
It was a lovey experience, but quite bizarre, particularly the groups of naked, beardy Hungarian men sitting around the pool playing chess. Still, I very much enjoyed my afternoon dip, the water up to my shoulders, my eyes taking in the Neo-baroque architecture.
Back on the streets, it was Christmas Eve when we bumped into none other than Mother and Father Christmas! Or at least a horribly drunk Hungarian version 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 wanted to assure her that she was quite safe, then thought better of it.
Once Upon a Time in Budapest.
Oh how I wish I’d taken some photos of all the Hungarian food we ate that week. We tried so many dishes, including what felt like a thousand bowls of piping hot goulash.
However, predictable me, my favourite dinner actually came at an Indian restaurant. Try as I might, I cannot track down the name of the place. This is as equally surprising as it is disappointing. Due to the fact, you see, that the waiter proudly informed us we were sitting at the very table Bill Clinton had dined at in the mid 1990s! There was even a little plaque. I was so tickled I asked the waiter to take a photo.
Our Christmas adventure in Hungary was over in a flash and before I knew it we were back on the train to Slovakia. I remember wondering if I’d ever visit Budapest again. You know, big world and all that. But little did I know that I would return to the Hungarian capital just three months later! This second trip came together spontaneously as a birthday celebration for Sheila, another teaching colleague in Bratislava.
This time there was a big group of us, around a dozen if memory serves me well. It was weird to be back on Chain Bridge, the sun shining, the sky a light blue blanket. Being a birthday weekend, much of the focus was on alcohol and boy did we go for it. I cannot name a single bar we visited, though there were plenty of them.
The Birthday Trip.
I love the black and white shots from those blurry nights. Loaned to me by Sarah P, a good friend at the time who I’ve sadly lost touch with. The below shot of my buddy Ben and I always makes me smile, as our matching stripy t-shirts were purely accidental.
My choice photograph though is probably this one of Irish Mike (right) and Birmingham Chris. They had never been the best of friends. In fact, they seemed to disagree on just about everything, co-existing in a state of mutual toleration. I love the way this shot captures them in a rare moment of unity. “Beer. Yes”.
Despite all the revelry, I did manage to take Budapest statue hunting to the next level with a visit to the fascinating Memento Park. Created in 1993, this open air museum houses around 40 statues collected from around the city following the collapse of communism in 1989.
And what a sight it was to see them gathered in one place, surreal relics of a gone but not forgotten era. Pictured below is the Hungarian-Soviet Friendship Memorial, made by the renowned Hungarian sculptor Zsigmond Kisfaludi Strob in 1956.
Once Upon a Time in Budapest.
I really should have photographed all the statues. But unfortunately, I have just one more, the Workers Movement Memorial. Constructed in 1976 by another Hungarian artist, István Kiss, it shows a pair of giant hands wrapped around a granite ball. According to the sculptor himself, it symbolises the personal and professional growth and unity of workers under the communist regime. No comment.
I have always treasured these memories from my long ago visits to Budapest. But of course I know that in terms of the city’s many and varied sights, I barely scratched the surface. Thus I would definitely love to go back one day and give Budapest the attention I know it deserves. Until then…
For a deeper and more intimate window into this period of my life, dive into my short story series The Slovak Files.
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We loved the architecture but no way would I take an outdoor dip, full marks for that
Ha, we were well up for it. I just remember how fricking cold it was when we were walking to the pool in those December temperatures dressed only in our swimming shorts.
Love to see you try that twenty odd years later 😂😂😂
Twenty years ago just seemed like the best of times didn’t they? Young and carefree…. I was doing the whole Aussie in London thing exactly 20 years ago. Such fun times!
It does feel a bit like that Anna, you’re right. I suspect most people feel this way, somehow I feel I should’ve savoured it all a bit more. But that’s not really how it works, right? 😉
That’s it… at the time you don’t appreciate it, it’s only in hindsight we realise those were good days!
I thought that photo would do a great album cover as soons as I opened this article – it would indeed, what a great shot! Budapest is such a great city, I visited for my own birthday celebration in 2018. The architecture, the history…the views! And of course the baths…I’m not going to lie, I do feel visiting this place 20 years ago was likely a very different experience… the city has become quite touristy, and we kept running into stag and hen parties! Thanks for sharing these experiences, it seems you had such a great time!
Thanks for reading Nic, and for your thoughtful response. Stag and hen parties… aaaarrrgh. What can you do? I’m glad you also have your own special memories of Budapest. I would love to see how much it’s changed, but also a little wary that it wouldn’t measure up to those “good old days”.
Time certainly does fly! I first visited Budapest in 1972 and can still vividly remember that maiden trip.
50 years ago, crikey Sheree. What were your standout memories of Budapest?
Bullet holes in the walls, queues for food and the contrast with Vienna where I’d been studying German for past 6 weeks.
this piece is dripping in nostalgia as maybe only leighton can. im sure budapest has changed immeasurably, i wonder if you might be disappointed if you went back. i can see why you look back on this all so fondly, but i wouldn’t mess with mother christmas.
Hey Stan, Mother Christmas was a real character eh? Yes, I do get unashamedly nostalgic in pieces like this. Maybe this is my signature blogging style. Or just my weakness ha ha. Thanks for travelling back in time to Budapest with me.
There’s this quality to your photos from that first trip to Budapest that I can’t quite describe in words. The city looks dreamy, mysterious, cold, yet warm. It’s great that you still keep the photos from two decades ago! I’ve lost the ones I took from my first ever overseas trip to Europe and I really wish I took a better care of the image files. I agree with you about how that spontaneous photo on Chain Bridge really suits an album. If only there were songs, indeed.
Hey Bama, Budapest was all those things and more. I’m happy that I could cling to these grainy old photos and even improve them a little with some light editing. Sorry to hear you lost some old photos, that has happened to me and… well, it’s a source of great regret. Thanks for reading and contributing to the thread.
It’s funny to look back at our younger years and compare how we travelled then versus now. Sounds fun to visit Budapest for Christmas and then to return a few months later for a birthday celebration. We visited Budapest a few years ago in the spring and had a wonderful time. I couldn’t get over how cheap the food and accommodations were compared to other places we’ve been in Europe.
Interesting to hear that Budapest is still really cheap. I had assumed prices had soared, like just about everywhere else. Thanks for reading and commenting!
Ahh the good old days and carefree youth. Remember your parents saying to you at various times “You don’t know how good you’ve got it?” or maybe that was just me. We truly did not know how good we had it in our younger days. Excellent post and great surviving photos Leighton. I like the stripey shirt one. Thanks for sharing. Allan
I do remember my mum saying precisely that, Allan. My response, I imagine, would have been something like “yeah, yeah, yeah”. I’m glad you enjoyed this post and these foggy old photos. I had to play around with them just a little to make them even half decent.
The two sides of the city are very different. I remember never running out of places to explore the summer we were getting our Celta certificates at the Cambridge Academy there. Lots of good memories in your photos for both of us. That first visit of yours produced a lot of cool album notes photos. You guys were good at posing. Just need a sound track.
I had forgotten you guys took your CELTA in Budapest, Memo. How long were you actually in the city for? Ys, we had the pose for an album, but were lacking absolutely everything else.
We were there for about 10 weeks in the summer of 2002. It was a great experience and a great education on living in a foreign environment. Loved every moment (well, except for some of the intense Celta). The exploring was fantastic.
That’s a thoroughly decent period of time. I also found the CELTA (which I did in Doha) quite demanding.
You have certainly lived a fun life, Leighton! When I was 22, I was just embarking on a new career that would last 40 years, Mike was finishing college, and we were about to get married. Needless to say, we didn’t get to do much traveling back then. It’s so cool that you were in a place where you could dash off with your friends and spend a few days exploring a new city. Album cover was the first thing I thought when I saw the picture of the guys on the bridge too! Great minds really do think alike.
Ah Kellye, would love to see a photo of you guys at 22! A 40-year career is truly impressive, I think my personal record for staying in the same job is about 4 years. Though I guess I will break that now I’m working for myself. That photo is the closest thing I have ever (or will ever) come to global rock stardom 😉
Christmas in Budapest with a bunch of friends … sounds like a journey with lots of good memories! The Hungarian Parliament building is quite impressive and it seems that there’s no shortage of statues either. I wonder how you will find Budapest if you should go back there now? Oh, and it was good to ‘see’ Goldblum again 😉 … and yes, that bridge photo is a winner!
From what I can see the Hungarian capital has changed a lot. I would be up for seeing it again sometime if fate allows it. It always makes me smile when a reader recognises an old character like Goldblum, you’ve been a great reader over the last year/s Corna.
I’ve never spent Christmas abroad, but would love to. I’ve never been to Budapest, so its been a joy to read of your memories of the place.
Hey, thanks for reading and welcome to Leighton Travels. I fear I have lost count of the number of times I’ve spent Christmas abroad. It is always an adventure doing Xmas in another country, though I also treasure those Christmases I get to have back in Britain. Thanks for your comment!l, I will be sure to take a look at your blog.
I’ve always thought I should get to Budapest some time and now I’m sure of it – although as I’m not keen on the cold I think I’ll avoid the winter months! The parliament building looks stunning and the Memento Park absolutely up my street (very like the museum we recently visited in Sofia – post to come!) I completely agree that photo on the bridge could be an album cover, as could several of your other ones here 🙂
I don’t blame you for giving a winter visit a miss. I really loved Memento Park, so will await your photographs from the similar site in Sofia. Thanks for stopping by Sarah.
Later this week!
I’ve visited twice and the first time was in January when it was snowing. I was going to use the pool but couldn’t bring myself to do it!
Ah that would have been even braver than my efforts in chilly December. I can understand why you opted to sit that out Marion. Cheers for dropping in.
Leighton, I loved reading about these memories from the past. There are the details of the city mixed with the experiences of being there and the magic of past moments. How many stories indeed there are to tell!
Cheers Geoff, appreciate that. So many stories to tell indeed. As I glance at my blog to-do list, I see I still have over 200+ articles that still need writing up. Ah…
Great article, there is a romanticism to your writing that is really appealing.
Thank you so much for your kind words. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.
I love this! I think it’s amazing how many cool places you’ve been able to visit and memories you’ve been able to make in the last twenty years. I was so focused on school and getting internships/jobs that I missed out on taking advantage of all the free time I had to travel. My first international trip was to Greece in 2017 and it opened my eyes to how big the world is and all the cool places to visit.
Hey Lyssy, sorry for the late reply on this one, it slipped through some kind of WordPress void. I appreciate your long readership and that you’ve been able to get a sense of the scope of these experiences over the last twenty years. I’m sure the fact that you were late to starting international travel was more than compensated by your academic and professional achievements. And of course it’s a case of “better late than never”.
What an amazing set of adventures you’ve had. As I am about to hit 35, I often sit and wonder where the hell did the last 10 years go?! I think the years pass faster every year and time doesn’t slow for any of us. I visited Budapest in 2019 for the first time, and can imagine it soon being 2039 wondering where 20 years went haha!
I hear ya Han. I’m 44 and, frankly, don’t know how the **** that happened. I guess all we can do is ensure that we make the most of our time and live life to the fullest. I cannot imagine how awful it must be to look back on one’s life and feel like it was wasted. Happily, I sense that most people here on WordPress won’t be in that position.
I couldn’t agree with you more. We are all too adventurous to ever be bored though or feel like we’ve wasted time 🙂
We loved Budapest too – I first went on a work jolly and was eager to return with Michaela, making sure we went in deep midwinter. The outdoor pools in sub zero temperatures, in the pitch dark, was an unforgettable experience, as it was for you. Your visits may have pre-dated the “ruin bars”, another great thing to do. If indeed it did pre-date them, you need to get yourself back there!
Noted, Phil. I haven’t heard of the ruin bars, so I’m off to Google for a look.
We did a post about it if you want to take a look…under cities/Budapest on our site
Well you certainly found a beautiful place to spend a spontaneous Christmas holiday. That incredible architecture in the snow- be still my thumping heart! I think the biggest mindset shift between 20 something and 40 something is that you recognize how fast time goes and so you are determined to make the most of the time you have. When you are 20 something you kind of take it all for granted so you take less pictures and try fewer things. But by 40 something you are going to go and do and be part as much as you can.
Sounds about right, Meg. Ah the wisdom that comes through the experience of life’s ups and downs. Thanks for joining me on this long ago visit to Budapest.
What a fun walk down memory lane for you, filled with friends, revelry, good times with a little history mixed in, along with two US Presidents! I like the striped shirt photo, and the potential album cover. It’s never too late to start a band. 😉
Ha ha, thanks for your encouragement Tricia. I think, if truth be told, I am a rock star every night in the shower. And according to Sladja, I’m not bad 😉 She may be biased.
You’re halfway there!
Ah, your post brought me back to my last visit of Budapest in the winter of 2018…bone-chilling cold, but absolutely breathtaking all the same. Your photo with your friends on the Chain Bridge really looks like a U2-esque album cover– I’d buy that, haha! All the same, I’m sure you had a lovely time sightseeing and enjoying all of the delicious food and drinks it had to offer. Hope you can return someday!
Ha, I couldn’t put my finger on what album cover the photo reminds me of. But your comment indeed makes me think it has a… perhaps… Joshua-Tree-like quality to it. Thanks for reading Rebecca, it seems we both had memorable winter experiences in the Hungarian capital.
This seems like such an interesting place to explore, and with great friends as well, and that is always the best way to travel!
Thanks for reading Allie!
I also like the photo of the rock band in the opening, nice depth of focus. Like you I barely scratched the surface of Budapest in the middle of a summer heat wave. At the time I drove all the way from Paris, something not to be done again, there are planes or trains for that. Budapest remains a mystery to me, I’ll have to go and explore some of these mysteries, I hope soon.
Driving from Paris to Budapest, eh? That’s somewhere between 15-16 hours? Hats off to you. Hope you give Budapest another whirl someday.
Thanks so much for sharing this. I would love to see Budapest and the architecture is so stunning.
Thanks Anita, knowing you I’m sure it won’t be too long before you get there.
I remember the baths. Outside the water is cold but the pool temperature is bathlike. Don’t remember any naked guys though.
Hey hey, thanks for reading and taking the time to comment. I’m glad you also got to visit Budapest and experience the baths. Even better that you were spared the old, hairy naked guys 😉
I remember I knew someone from Budapest, he would always talk about how good the architecture in that city was. I hope to visit soon!
I’m sure you’ll love Budapest Cejay, thanks for your comment.
Great article on Budapest 🙂 I like it so much
Thanks for reading and commenting!
[…] Once Upon a Time in Budapest. […]
The architecture is amazing!
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Great article, your blog seems amazing.
You are quite the prolific blogger. Great article and wonderful site.
Thanks for reading and dropping me a line, it’s always appreciated!
The photographs are splendid: of people and of the wintry city. This was a fun and interesting read. Architecture is a big draw for me, and Budapest certainly delivers on that front. One of these years…
Hello Ingrid, Budapest is indeed an architectural delight. I wish I’d taken more photographs of its splendorous buildings. Thank you for reading and commenting!
Great memories. Somehow the b&w photos seem to memorialize them well. I spent a long weekend there once when living in Prague. Lots of walking, walking, walking. Glad you had the nerve to do the outdoor hot springs – I didn’t!
Hey Ruth, it’s lovely to hear from you, I hope you’re well and enjoying the many delights of fall. The hot salty water in winter was a joy, but boy do I remember how utterly freezing it was in those brief moments darting from the changing rooms and into the pool.