We arrived in Budapest early on Sunday morning after free camping the night before in a rest stop 30 or so kms out of the city. Pulling in to Haller Camping on Haller Utca in downtown Budapest we were met by a ton of campervans filling the site, a surprise considering the time of year so we wondered what might be going on. Once set up we grabbed the bikes of the back of Bee and started to cycle in.As soon as we hit the first bridge over the Danube at the end of our street we were impressed by the city’s sprawling beauty. We had been told by the friendly campsite owners there was a good bike path that ran the length of the Budapest section of the Danube on the Buda side (Buda being the westbank and Pest being the eastbank of the city) so we crossed over and made our way in from there.It soon came to our attention why there was such a glut of campers at our site – the Budapest Triathlon was in full swing and a good swag of the supporters were staying at our campsite. The triathlon lent a good buzz to what could have been a quiet Sunday morning so we were happy to have the company. As Budapest is a fairly big city we were also happy to have brought our bikes in as we could cycle around the typical sights easily without it taking up too much of our day – leaving precious time for such cultural pursuits as eating at the Hummus Bar. YUM.I’m trying really hard to avoid giving a blow-by-blow diary style account of every day on this trip so instead here’s some highlights from our two days.The Szechenyi Thermal Baths are probably the most touristy of all the thermal baths in the area but for good reason. It was the first thermal bath in the Pest area, built in 1913 in a beautiful bright yellow neo-Baroque style building and has 15 indoor and outdoor baths of varying temperatures along with saunas that we didn’t partake in due to Colin’s major sauna aversion. The baths also host constantly rotating games of chess played by middle aged Hungarian men with large bellies. It’s a total institution and definitely worth going to if you’re there.The Central Market Hall on the Fővám Tér is a huge indoor market filled to bursting with delicious fresh produce, baked goods, cured meats, cheese and anything else you could wish for. We hit this market early on our second day in Budapest and lugged around two huge bags of food all day and snacked from them as we roamed the city. The produce we bought lasted us through the next week of cooking in the van in Romania (will post on that in the food section soon…). It’s also worth checking out the upstairs area where kiosks serve up ready made food.On Amanda and Patrick’s recommendation we hit up Szimpla bar on Kazinczy utca, a popular cavernous indie bar in an Orthodox Jewish street filled with kosher restaurants, shops and a beautiful old synagogue. Along with Szimpla, we also went to a bar which I can’t find the name of, but I think is Kertem, on the same street. A sort of inner-city beach bar, it’s filled with hammocks to sit in and sip your drinks. It looked like it had a good bar menu, though we had stopped at a taco bar next to Szimpla so didn’t try out the food. If you want to go to some good bars in Budapest, check out this site, which would have really come in handy had I not just found it now. Duh.We hiked up to the Buda Castle complex on our first day in Budapest just as the sun was setting, a perfect time to take in the breathtaking view over the city. Though it’s quite filled with tourists up that side of town, it didn’t ruin the picture perfect setting, aided by a small band of men playing beautiful Hungarian music in a nook of the castle with amazing acoustics. We were really surprised when we realised they were not busking, just playing for their own pleasure, a bit of a crazy idea in such a tourist area. You can wander around this complex of castles for hours, which we did, two days in a row.Memento Park was our last stop on our way out of town. The park is a museum of incredible statues from Communist-era Budapest (1949-1989), which were taken down after the Soviet regime left town. The size of these statues is staggering, designed to show the might of the Communist system. Although we often avoid museums and particularly guided tours, this time we bit the bullet and paid for the tour around the small park. We are thankful we did, as Judit, our very informative and funny guide really helped us to understand what it would have been like to live in Hungary under the regime. The park was really moving and is well worth checking out if you’re in the area. For some lightness at the end, you can also pick up some sweet posters and postcards of Communist-era propaganda and watch a hilarious movie in the screening room on how to be a spy.
Hungarians, it seems, deal with the past occupation with a sense of humour, taking the piss out of communists and the Russian regime, as they eagerly move forward into an open and culturally-rich society.
A little more depressing but for the Pinkos and commie enthusiasts out there equally informative, is the Terror Haza. On your way to the thermal baths and national museums, it resides in the old communist headquarters and serves as a museum of communist occupation. It’s interesting but has some pretty heavy reading involved, but as a backbone, made the Momento Park a bit clearer.