Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Return to Budapest

Back in the days when I was a bored law student, longing to get out of my small college town, I got wind of the possibility of a summer study-abroad program. I would pay for the credit hours and flight and the University would take care of my room and board. There were three options. Belize, London or Yugoslavia. Belize held the promise of beaches, which I had in ample supply back home. The London program, at Oxford I believe, was rumored to require actual studying.  Nope. I knew next to nothing about Yugoslavia. Couldn’t have pointed it out on a map if I’d been asked but this program was led by a favored professor, a notorious good time guy who liked to throw extravagant parties at his home. (extravagant, at that time meant that he used actual glassware and provided beers from actual bottles and not whatever keg was on sale at Mike’s Beer Barn). Additionally, word had trickled down to us about how cheap everything was, words that sing loving harmonies to broke college students.

So…it was our second week in Dubrovnik. Our classes, during which heavily accented professors would read straight from a page, were opportunities to write out postcards, catch up on crosswords and look ever so studious while highlighting travel guides. Our party professor, a rather portly gentleman, had introduced us to Slivovich, shown us some of the best restaurants in town and provided an indelible memory to some classmates who had the misfortune of stumbling upon him at a clothing optional beach. Our per diem, which was something like $20 per day, had us eating and drinking like kings, with plenty of cash to spare. Our first weekend, we used our surplus to book a live-aboard sailboat and cruise around the nearby islands. The second weekend, our professor proposed a trip to Budapest. If I knew little about Yugoslavia prior to this summer, I knew even less about Hungary but he had not led us astray, so off we went.
In my 25+ year old memories, I remember it being kind of like Dorothy’s trip from Kansas to Oz, where everything goes from black and white to dazzling technicolor. Looking back at my photos, there is no question that Dubrovnik has an incomparable rugged beauty that I would love to revisit, but somehow, maybe it was the weather that summer or the weariness that Iron Curtain brought alongside it, I remember it being gray and drab. Could be the lectures we had to sit through. But Budapest was something else.

Our first night, instead of our usual student dormitories, our professor treated us to a stay in the nicest hotel in town, with plush towels and resplendent views of the Castle Hill district. The second night, we moved to a hostel (my first ever), which was set in a building that had once been a royal residence and was now a museum, that in communist era Hungary (1989) did double duty as affordable housing. I have vivid memories of the wide marble staircase leading up to my room. For the first time in two weeks, we were no longer sweating. In my mind, Budapest was frozen in amber as this magical regal place that happened to have a funicular and a bridge with lion sculptures at either end. Strange what sticks with you but those were the snapshot memories I could recall.

Now, a quarter century later, I had a chance to go back. It was work related but I would have a couple of days off. I was thrilled at the opportunity to revisit this place that had made such a positive impression the first time around.

The day we arrived, fresh from our sojourn through Munich and Liechtenstein, I had booked us on a pub crawl. This is not something I would normally do, as I feel I am plenty competent at finding drunken tourists (and if at all possible, avoiding them), therefore I don’t feel the need to pay someone to guide me straight into the heart of the calamity. However, Budapest was different. Two words, they have “ruin pubs”. These are bars born out of the post-communist remains of the dilapidated Jewish quarter, essentially squatters pubs that have gone semi-legit. As with so many things cool, they began with bored artists looking for a place to gather and grew organically into an artsy neighborhood, which is now in the intensified stages of gentrification. Our tour took us to five different ruin pubs.

The bars were just as cool as I'd hoped, providing a mix of Hungarian hipsters and backpackers, gathered around mismatched furniture and cheap drinks.  It was good to see that the prices were still low but even taking into account that this neighborhood had obviously undergone major changes, nothing looked even vaguely familiar.

After the official pub crawl, we continued to bar hop with a young Dutch guy, who had been staying in the city for the last few months, as our new guide.  He had one of those generic Dutch names (Joost? Jan? Jerooen?) that I could not, in my semi-inebriated state, commit to memory, so I latched on to his uncanny resemblance to the actor Jude Law and for the remainder of the evening dubbed him Baby Jude Law.  BJL took us to everything from dance clubs to dive bars.  I feel like we covered a good 60% of all the bars in Budapest that night....which makes the video I saw a couple of days later all the more shocking.  On the very same night that we were carousing with Baby Jude Law, hitting up every place with a liquor license (and some probably without), actual middle-aged Jude Law was drunk off his ass in a bar right there in downtown Budapest!! Had we walked in...with Baby Jude Law...and seen this, I am pretty certain my head would have exploded.

Despite our introduction to Hungarian ales, we were up bright and early the next morning to go on one of the city's many free walking tours.  It began at Vorosmarty square, on the Pest side of the city. (note:  there are 2 sides, the hilly Buda side and the flat Pest side, divided by the Danube River).  We walked past parks, churches and squares, none of them looking the least bit familiar.

The love locks epidemic claims another victim

This portly statue led into our guide's discussion on Hungarian cuisine, subtitled "Meat, meat, meat" or Just put paprika on it".

As we continued, I began to worry about the state of my memory.  Had I actually been to Budapest? Had I gone to Bucharest instead?  What else was I forgetting?  Was I secret agent, trained in the art of killing, but currently suffering from amnesia?  Where was my deja vu?

And then there it was.  The lion on the bridge, or better said one of four lions presiding over either end of the bridge linking Buda and Pest.  Right where I had left them.

From the moment we crossed the bridge, it all made sense.  It appears that on my first visit, by virtue of never crossing the bridge, we had been shorted 2 lions. We were all Buda, no Pest.  No wonder everything on the Pest side seemed like I was seeing it for the first time.  I was.

Instead of taking the funicular (also still right where I left it), we walked up the hill to the castle district.

Turban honoring the city's Ottoman past or obvious phallic symbol?  You decide
It was Dorothy landing in Oz all over again (thankfully minus the musical midgets).  There were the storybook castles,  the views, the cool Danube River breeze.

While the royal palaces were no longer doing double duty as hostels,  the castle district was just as spectacular as I had remembered.  It was a quarter of a century (and probably 60+ countries) later and Budapest still blew me away.  Just imagine if, adding to that,  I would have witnessed the meeting of the Jude Law's. I don't think I would have left.

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