Cultures intersect in Budapest


POSTED: Saturday, June 27, 2009

Its people say hello to mean goodbye, paprika is in all of the food and every street corner contains either a work of art, a piece of history or a pub offering cheap local beer.





        » www.funzine.hu

» www.budapest.hu/eng


» www.budapest.com


» www.spasbudapest.com


» www.uniquebudapest.com




Welcome to Budapest.

Nestled in the middle of central Eastern Europe, Hungary's capital reflects influences of almost all of its neighboring nations, many of which have taken turns occupying the country at some point or another. The Turks, the Austrians and most recently communist Russia all made Hungary a part of their empires, only to be eventually beaten back by its proud people.

What they left behind is a mishmash of cultures that created both beauty and strife.

“;You can actually make the case to say that since the beginning of the 16th century, Hungary's history has been one of constant externally introduced forms, ideas and propositions to which there's both local acceptance and to which there is local resistance,”; said Gyoergy Schoepflin, a political science professor and a member of Hungary's delegation in the European Parliament. “;And that, I think, explains the contradictions you find in Hungary.”;

“;In a sense we've been trying to see, 'Well, who are we? What does it mean to be Hungarian at the end of the 20th century and at the beginning of the 21st?'”;

Nowhere is this clash more evident than in Budapest, its capital, which takes up both sides of the legendary Danube River. Walk down any given street and you'll see 13th-century Hungarian royal palaces, 16th-century Turkish bathhouses and 19th-century Jewish synagogues.

“;All the really interesting buildings with one or two exceptions were built before 1914,”; Schoepflin said. “;Budapest was a kind of show-town—people came from all over the world to look at it.

To this day the show-town remains vibrant and beautiful. Just walking around Budapest is like walking in a dream.

And like a dream, if you wake up too quickly you will forget everything you have seen. So here's a quick guide if you find yourself dreaming along the Danube one day, overwhelmed with sights to see and things to try.


City layout

The first thing to note is that the city's name comes from two different parts of the city itself, “;Buda”; and “;Pest,”; which are situated on opposite sides of the Danube. However, Budapest is also comprised of a third portion called “;Obuda,”; which literally means “;Old Buda.”;

Pest is almost completely flat and holds most of the city's shops, restaurants and museums. The most breathtaking is the Parliament building, where Hungary's National Assembly meets. Besides the Parliament building in England, it is the largest such structure in Europe. Tours are available daily.

Across the river on the west bank sits Buda, which overlooks Pest with many scenic views. It also holds the most famous Budapest landmark of all, the Buda Castle, which the city lights up nightly. During the day you can take tours of the palace above and through a series of caves underneath. If you can't make a tour, the castle is still a wonder to photograph and gaze at while having dinner along the river.

Obuda, in comparison, makes the other two areas look modern as it was inhabited as early as the Stone Age. A legion of Roman soldiers made its military base there in 89 A.D. and the area has many historic Roman ruins still intact.

There really are too many sights to visit and if you just plan on walking around you will no doubt miss two wonders for every one that you see. A guided tour is worth every penny here and after that you should have enough knowledge to set out on your own. Some even advise taking two tours.

“;Open-air buses are a way to get a good overview of the city,”; said Adri Bruckner, an editor at Budapest Funzine Magazine. “;Then go on a walking tour. They'll take you to the regular sites then to something unique, like a villa that's not open to the public.”;



Probably my favorite part of Budapest is the food. The local cuisine does wonderful things with pork using Hungarian paprika, which has a sweet peppery flavor without the heat. For many, a simple pork and rice dish is a popular comfort food.

Just keep in mind that almost every Hungarian dish starts with sauteed onions, paprika and sour cream and you'll have an idea of the richness of flavor of the food. A good example is the paprika chicken, which is rich with sour cream while the paprika covers half the plate.

Like pickled dishes? Hungary pickles everything, from cucumbers to cabbage to garlic and cauliflower, usually in a simple mixture of water, salt, sugar and vinegar. The taste is amazing and pickled dishes are eaten as a side at almost every meal, although I could probably eat a bowl of it for a meal in itself.

Also, do not forget Hungarian goulash, a hearty beef stew, and Hungarian fish soup, a fisherman's meal for which there is a different recipe in every region. Sometimes it has noodles, sometimes it doesn't. Fish heads? Depends what part of Hungary you're visiting.

And don't miss the local desserts and all their uses of cottage cheese and sour cream, said Bruckner. In other words, don't plan on loosing any weight during your visit and enjoy a meal in the many outside terraces at most restaurants.



There is something for everyone in Budapest: boat parties on the river, concerts in the park and pubs, clubs and everything in between.

Popular spots right now are the ruined pubs, which are in old, rundown buildings that usually include an inner courtyard so there can be music and dancing. Spots on Margaret Island are also very popular with tourists and locals and feature several bars that have dancing until dawn.

Do some research if you're looking for something specific, but if you're not then just exploring is an experience in itself.

“;I remember we went to a club, which was in the basement of a building,”; recalls Punahou graduate James Djunaidy. “;There was a DJ spinning and a man was playing a Didgeridoo (Australian flute) over the music. It was a great experience ... but we found it by accident.”;

Local concerts are a great way to get to see the Budapest locals in action. At some concerts, even after the band stops playing, DJ's keep the party going and the dancing nonstop.

“;There's definitely something for everyone,”; Bruckner said. “;Just walk the streets and look for the latest.”;

And don't worry about what you're wearing. Both Djunaidy and Bruckner agree that Budapest is a “;come as you are”; kind of place.

“;You have women in cocktail dresses and high heels and others in jeans and T-shirts,”; Bruckner said. “;There is no dress code in this city ... except maybe the shorter the skirt the better.”;



Here's a simple rule when it comes to wine in Budapest: try some.

Although Schoepflin says Hungary has been a wine-producing country for centuries, most of the wine produced until the end of the 1980s was “;really awful.”; But with new techniques being used by Hungarian wine producers, things have changed in the last 20 years.

Bruckner points out that while under communist rule from 1947 to 1989 Hungary was directed to make wine in quantity, now wine-makers have been able to concentrate on its quality.

“;There's a new generation of wine-makers now and their work is bearing fruit,”; Bruckner said. “;You have to come here and try some.”;

Schoepflin calls Hungary's wine-making one of the country's success stories.

“;The industry has been transformed. ... We're not up there with the really grand wines of France, but we compete very well with Chile and Argentina, not to mention Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Here in Europe we compete well with Germany ... some of the competition with Spain is quite respectable.”;

“;I would say come to Hungary and drink the wine.”;

I did try some, enjoying a nice red wine grown locally using seeds from Portugal. It went perfectly with my steak, and we had another similar bottle after dinner. I can only echo the above statements: try some.


Turkish baths

While Turkish rule tore Hungary apart, it did leave behind a big tourist draw in Budapest, namely Turkish baths.

The mineral waters have medicinal properties, say some, and they are built in sometimes lavish structures.

For those of you who, like me, thought the Turkish baths were just hot tubs—it's not true. There are a multitude of baths with waters of various temperatures. Hot baths for the cold winter nights and cool baths for the hot summer days.

For more information check out spasbudapest. com.


Some loose ends

Just remember the water is safe to drink from the tap and that Hungary holds no special danger for Americans. There hasn't been a terrorist attack on this country so far and the locals were very happy to point that out to me.

Public transportation is great and even though you pay for your ticket you don't have to show it to anyone to get onboard a tram or bus. But don't be tempted to jump on for free; there are ticket inspectors who check randomly, although I did not see one during my five weeks in Budapest. You will be fined without a ticket though, so don't try it.

Also, some bars will scam tourists by charging them $50 or more for just one drink. Check prices carefully and read the fine print if it's in English.

And don't be confused if you overhear a Hungarian talking on his cell phone say hello then hang up. Like the word aloha, “;hello”; in Hungarian is apparently used to say hello and goodbye.

So with that I say hello.