Budapest: First Impressions

“Bad trip idea, Tim,” I thought, and grimaced as my dilapidated Soviet-style metro creaked into yet another gruesome station on the M3 line.

By Christo (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo by Christo, license CC BY-SA 4.0 (creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

This was my first trip to Budapest, and my ride-in-from-the-airport impressions boded badly. Clunky bus to the subway, unpromising countryside, metro stations like the one above.

Resigned to a lousy visit, I disembarked downtown, climbed to street level …

Budapest Parliament

Hungarian Parliament Building in Budapest

… and thereafter thought no more negative thoughts for beautiful Budapest. Never before have first travel impressions so misled.

Consider yourself forewarned. Give the city a chance before bolting back to Ferihegy International.

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A mercifully short summary of Hungarian miseries endured in the century past:

(♦)  Allies overran Hungary after World War I, downsized the nation from twenty million to eight million.

1956 banners on graves at Kerepesi Cemetery

1956 banners on graves at Kerepesi Cemetery

(♦)  Hitler strong-armed fence-sitting Hungary into lining up with the losers in World War II, then invaded in 1944.

(♦)  The Soviet Bloc claimed Hungary after WW II, killed thirty thousand while crushing a valiant rebellion in 1956 — a date still memorialized on hand-placed gravestone banners in Kerepesi Cemetery, as in the photo — and went away quietly in 1989.

Hungary has been a calmer place since, but a tour guide agreed that a life among such rapid ideological scene changes might encourage cynicism.  Consider Memento Park, tucked off in the suburban city outskirts: a now-kitschy collection of communist-era propaganda statues, likely of far less appeal to locals than to tourists.

Statue at Memento Park in Budapest

Statue at Memento Park in Budapest

That stuff was presented seriously to John Q. Budapest, not so long ago. How might I feel as an American while chaperoning Hungarians to, say, a boutique museum recalling the Dubya years: pasting up a host’s game smile while describing that oh-so-quirky 2000 Florida ballot count, or the endlessly replayed propaganda footage we Americans saw of the toppling Saddam statue in Firdos Square?

A nice yuk for an uninvolved Budapestian, perhaps; not so funny for me. The only local I saw at Memento Park was the amiable clerk who sold me a souvenir CCCP passport. That probably doesn’t evoke many smiles in Budapest, either.

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Budapest built the second metro on terra firma, and the first on the European continent. I now kick myself — figuratively, at least; it’s hard to get my heel that high while typing — for missing stations on the M1 line, built from 1894 – 1896.

Tram passes Museum of Ethnography in Budapest

Tram passes Museum of Ethnography in Budapest

“Excellent” is my rating for city transit services overall. Most metro cars are spiffier than the clunker that ferried me into town on the M3.

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I’ve gotta work this in somewhere: I took a 3:30 a.m. cab from my hotel for a wee hours flight to Frankfurt, and was amazed to see so many Hungarians still strolling the city at that hour.

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Budapest = hilly Buda, east of the Danube, and flat, urban Pesht — that’s how they say it; with an ‘h’ — to the west. The closer you get, the more the distinction matters. The two cities became one in 1873.

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Practical information: I put my smartphone online quickly with a prepaid SIM card from a Vodafone desk at the airport, but suffered occasional connectivity issues in town. Budapest offers no transit IC card (that I know of, anyway), but I had no trouble buying a seven day travel card from the airport’s BKK desk (and soon learned to have this card ready while entering the city’s metro, no Shangri-La for fare cheats).

Overlooking Chain Bridge, Danube and Parliament

Overlooking Chain Bridge, Danube and Parliament

The frequent-running 200E bus ferries fliers from the airport to the Kőbánya–Kispest station; get on at the terminal, ride to the end of the line.  I found no use for Budapest-specific transit apps, but moovit fired up at the Kelenföld vasútállomás bus pad, gracefully shepherded me to Memento Park.

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Yes, many posts of late, and no, not written for any particular reason. We retirees can yield to whims.  Merry Christmas!

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