It is a truth universal that time does not exist in airports. Time, and a sensible attitude to drinking.
My childhood best friend (and fellow high school survivor), Katy, and I had been planning this holiday for a few months previous, and once we arrived at the airport our giddiness had reached toddler level.
So, once we got through security (Why, oh why, do I always wear tights with holes in them when I know I will have to remove my shoes? Will I ever learn?) and in all our eagerness we were faced with a two hour wait. So we did the only thing we know how to do best – being from a sleepy, rural, quintessentially English town– and headed straight for the nearest over-priced airport bar to order a vat of prosecco.
Chat was had. Flight was called. Excitement levels soared. Whiskey was drunk on the plane.
By the time we touched down on Hungarian soil, my booze buzz was starting to wane and the prospect of navigating our way into the city seemed a little bit like hard work, and a nap on the baggage carousel seemed preferable.
But have no fear! Travelling in Budapest is REALLY easy (unless all the stations are shut and you don’t speak Hungarian, but that’s another story) Much like our lovely Capital, they have an excellent subway system (Even if the Northern Line stinks of cheesy feet, that underground rabbit-warren will always have a peace of my heart) which is not only very good value for money – 350 HF which is the equivalent of approx. 75 of your English pennies – but pretty speedy. A simple bus journey and then a short subway ride and we were pretty much smack bang in the heart of Budapest, and a stone’s throw away from our accommodation.
Top tip! If you’re a nervous traveller, first time solo wanderer, or just like to be organised, you can email your accommodation for directions. We stayed at the spacious 7 Seasons Apartments who emailed me all the deets without me even asking for them (I am not that organised). It was idiot proof, including a step by step guide of how to walk from the subway station to the reception. That’s customer service!
7 Seasons Apartments are MASSIVE. And, as serviced apartments go, it has to be one of the nicest place I’ve stayed. Having booked it all last minute when our Airbnb place fell through, I was surprised at how good a find it really was. The staff at reception were helpful and the room was really clean. We even got a complimentary bottle of wine which of course disappeared as soon as it was open. Like magic.
Top tip! Booking.com has saved my life a couple of times (most notably when I had zero money in Bali, had my passport held to ransom and only a credit card to my name) and have really great deals. The hotels are pricey AF but the serviced apartments – which in my opinion are far better as you get way more space – are often on sale.
After a shower, some strategic multi-layering of make-up (the top-up is such a good technique, am I right, ladies?) and a quick change to some crazy 80’s vintage (me), we were ready to hit the town and head to a night in local club that we’d heard good things about.
The One Where Emma Met Her Nemesis
Have you ever been to a club where some woman has decided to take all the loo roll out of the toilets, stack it up into neat little piles and charge you for the privilege to use it? Neither had I.
“Yeah, they do this sometimes,” Katy says, swiping a handful of loo roll from under the scary-looking attendant’s nose.
She shouts something at me that I don’t understand, and motions to my handbag. I grab a piece of the coveted loo roll and scarper to the nearest cubicle. “I don’t think she likes me,” I confide as we reapply mad coloured lipsticks, our reflection like puzzle pieces in the broken mirror.
“Just give her some money,” Katy says. “She’ll be fine.”
I follow my best friend out like a child, stick close to her like a shadow. I feel the woman’s eyes bore into me. Katy gives her a couple of small coins for the both of us. I want to clutch her hand. Why am I so bothered by this woman?
After a few times of dragging Katy to the ladies like some sort of bodyguard she decides that its time for me to fly solo.
“I am going to the bar,” she says.
I consider going with her, waiting it out, but the music is getting good and I want to dance. It’s time to face the scary toilet nemesis alone.
“Ok, but stay here. Just in case.”
I walk slowly down the corridor. The club is like an old warehouse, all exposed brick and metal innards hanging down from ceiling like intestines. There’s another club downstairs, you can look over the balcony and watch the revellers. A room hot with bodies. They’re playing some Techno stuff, the thud of the base beats a rhythm underneath my feet, through my veins. I haven’t been out in weeks and it feels great to feel the pulse of music again. There is barely any light up here, everything is dark and foggy from the smoke machine. It’s a bit like the setting of a horror movie.
I am also pretty drunk so things could go either way. I could be brave or, more probably, I could cry.
I open the creaky door and there she is. Toilet attendant, sitting calmly and creepily in the eerie light. I hand her some coins. More than I have given her before. More than I would probably dream of parting with for loo roll. Not even if Andrex actually came with real golden retriever puppies. She shouts at me again and smiles. I smile back and in my drunken wisdom I believe that I finally made this woman stop hating me. I also haven’t cried. Winner.
“I think she likes me now,” I tell Katy when I get back to the bar. She’s got a cocktail waiting for me. A mojito. “She smiled at me.”
Katy doesn’t say anything, just smiles. And then it hits me. Realisation creeps in like a slow tide, doesn’t it? I have been well and truly tricked. She wasn’t smiling because she liked me, old toilet attendant, she was smiling because I am gullible.
Toilet attendant Nemesis, I applaud you. Good game.
The next day was followed by a pretty potent hangover. There are some great bars and clubs in Budapest but you have to do your research to step away from the ones marketed at tourists.
Top Tip! Katy managed to find out about a night at LARM, a club that is more difficult to locate than the holy grail, before we arrived in the city so we had a rough idea of where we were headed. If you like your DJs, your music LOUD and your clubs dingy, this place is for you. Do a bit of research, move away from the main roads and you’re bound to find a gem like we did.
We took our hangovers out to play tourist. Since it was Sunday, most of the shops in Budapest are closed. However, bars, cafes and restaurants tend to remain open. One thing that can be said for Budapest is that café culture is rife and fabulous. After a bit of dazed walking through the cobbled streets (it felt so much like Manchester) we stumbled across a lovely café and decided that the only thing for it was a burger (chicken for me, I try not to eat red meat) and a mimosa! After chatting with our friendly waiters, we ordered some great – and well-priced – grub, and picked up some tips for touristing of the beaten track. With full bellies we bid farewell to our Hungarian friends and went in search of a tiny library with a photography exhibition that came highly recommended.
We wandered aimlessly for a while – aided by a stop at another café for a caffeine boost (the coffee in Budapest is delicious) – taking snaps of the extremely beautiful architecture.
The exhibit was worth a look. Grainy black and white photos from the Library’s archives are displayed proudly on white washed walls. The collection spans decades and continents. The library itself is truly stunning; all marble floors and sweeping staircases. I love a good library, me, and I like them old-world and grandiose. Like something out of Mad Men. Somewhere people used to smoke pipes and leaf their way through leather bound editions of classics. I want books that I can pick up an inhale the scent of times gone by. Like little time-machines. I’m a bit weird about this.
Due to its rather sad history, Budapest seems to have taken a bit of a beating. Once regal and elegant, some of the buildings in the city are boarded up, shabby and in need of a good bit of TLC. Personally, I happen to think this makes the place rather beautiful and adds to its charm.
It’s a city that wears grey extremely well. A city that has weathered many a storm in European history and managed to keep standing. While I can’t compare it to cities like London, Manchester, Berlin or Melbourne, in terms of street art (I barely found any), Budapest has oodles of character and old world charm to boot. It coolness lies in the very fact that it doesn’t try hard. People are chic looking, there are hipsters galore, but it’s mixed with the traditional. Its not done on purpose.
Architecture is stunning, especially as you make you way down to the River Danube where parliament looms like something out of a fairy-tale. The river is surprising wide and the famous Szechenyi Chain Bridge connecting Buda and Pest is far longer than expected.
One of the most beautiful buildings is St Stephen’s Basilica which stands intact. The largest church in Hungary and just as impressive from the inside with ornate, rich furnishings and a vive that just screams money.
Personally, I preferred the slightly less imposing Jewish Quarter with its yellow tinged buildings and oodles of character. Although we didn’t get to go into the Synagogue, opting for a guided tour of the State Opera House instead, you can walk around the building and view monuments through the walls and gates which offers sobering thought to the atrocities that were committed against a large number of Budapest’s civilians during the war. It’s not as prominent as in Berlin, rather it is more of a latent sadness. Mentioned on plaques hidden above doorways, in the decay of once grand buildings and the poignant monuments outside official buildings.
Budapest is a truly wonderful city with many sides to its character. On one hand its young, trendy and artistic – full of life, music, art, photography, theatre – and on the other its old world, traditional, steeped in an extremely harrowing history.
Budapest is a city of contradictions and that’s exactly why I love it.
Coming up in A Guide to Budapest: Part Two: The State Opera House, all the great things we ate, more wine than you can shake a stick out, how we never did quite make it to the baths and how no matter where you travel, there is always a bloody tube replacement bus service.