Some holidays carry more significance than others; some are cultural pilgrimages, some are family affairs that forge collective memories for generations to come, and some are trips that make you remember that there is a world, larger and more exciting, outside of your small one. Budapest isn’t a ‘gap yah’ destination, nor is it a ‘Shagaluf’ dupe – despite what the recent flocks of stag weekends might infer – instead, it’s a remarkable experience, part cultural, part historical, part fun.
My trip to Budapest, as a disillusioned graduate, was a reminder that there’s something worth striving towards, that there are places to see far beyond our day-to-day lives. As a twenty-one year old waitress getting more and more stressed by the idea that success is only defined by how quickly you get your career on track (I’m looking at you, multiple emails about my graduate prospects), Budapest was a welcome excursion. It’s a city that prides itself on history, good and bad, and builds upon the past. And for someone who’s not particularly happy with their life, it’s a welcome reminder of just how good the present can be.
In a way, it reminded me of my childhood. When I was younger, I’d go to the Balearics, and me and my brother would tentatively say thank you – ‘gracias’! – to the waiters with our best growly Spanish ‘r’; and the waiters would always be delighted with our attempts. Now, I was a lazy tourist – I went to Budapest merely knowing ‘please’, ‘thank you’, and ‘goodbye’ in Hungarian, but as I went, I picked up more and more of the language. Everyone I came across in Budapest was eager to be friendly, thrilled to hear me speak my rudimentary Hungarian, and only happy to teach me more phrases. I felt I was being made at home by everyone I spoke to, and it was this delightfully inclusive atmosphere that made me feel as though I were being surrounded by friends. In an unfamiliar city, the kindness displayed by so many was a welcome calming balm, and a testament to the nature of those in Budapest – from the receptionist of my hotel to the wonderfully friendly woman in the bathroom of the nightclub I visited.
One of the many charms of Budapest was that even the tourist-filled places were a far cry from the jam-packed sightseeing hotspots I’d visited in the past – this might have been down to the fact we went in February, which I’d highly recommend; cold, yes, but dry, and with a brisk sunlight. Instead, the square of St. Stephen’s Basilica (a mere two minute walk from our hotel), was half-empty, even in the early afternoon, and those who were there spent their time trying to get the perfect shot of the impressive Gothic dome. There never felt like there was any need to move faster than at your own pace, and even the scheduled walking tour we embarked upon seemed to amble across the city with a casual ease. There was a fascinating tour of an underground WWII-hospital-slash-nuclear-bunker (well worth a visit) in which no detail of the city’s history was spared. We visited a cafe that sat above a bookshop, which had a vaulted fresco-style ceiling painted by one of the most celebrated German-Hungarian painters ever, Károly Lotz, and drank a glass of wine whilst we gazed upwards.
Lunches and evenings felt like time well spent, even if in reality, they only lasted an hour or so. It seemed that time slowed down here and moments were better captured and remembered for it, even if in reality they hurried by at the same pace as always. I spent a lazy two hours at the Szechenyi thermal baths, looked out from Fisherman’s Bastion over the Danube for the best part of half an hour, and stared at the ceiling of the foyer of the Hungarian State Opera House. Everything in Budapest is so vibrant, so rich, that whether you realise it or not, you spend that precious time just soaking it in.
It’s a city of juxtaposition, too. For every McDonalds in the globalised tourist-friendly squares, just off the beaten track are a hundred and one locally-run restaurants with prices to rival the chains, and food that will surpass anything you’ve ever tasted. In the once-abandoned buildings of District VII, techno music and chart remixes blare through the ruins, quite literally fusing old with new – they’re an experience everyone should have, even if, like me, you’re not a regular party-goer. We ate breakfast at a rustic strudel house that professed to be Budapest’s oldest; all the while, a Nelly Furtado megamix played. We strayed well out of our way to an Irish pub, only to find the ale of my family’s hometown on tap, and the photo of a past County Clare haunt on the wall next to us. It’s a remarkable, beautiful, exciting city, but somehow, things feel like home.
It’s like that old cliché says; life moves fast, so stop and look around once in a while. Sometimes, when we’re caught up in all the hubbub of our lives, it just takes a place as stunning as Budapest to halt you in your tracks and remind you of it.