I'd set off for Hungary already aware that Budapest was made up from two separate cities, they being Buda and Pest, just as in Wales the phlegm inducing town of Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch was was the result of the amalgamation of the much smaller, previously separate twin towns of Llan and Fairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.
Incidentally, here’s a joke:
Question - Who is the most hated man in football?
Answer - The man at Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogh F.C. who shouts ‘Give us an L!’
But anyway, Budapest came about from the unification of two smaller cities into a single municipality in 1873, and I noticed today that a difference is still quite evident. High on the hill on the western bank of the broad majestic Danube, with its palace and ramparts and castle, Buda is a fairy tale place of aristocracy and opulence, and champagne and caviar whereas Pest, to the east of the river, is a hustle and bustle of a city that suggests a history of merchants and artists, business and prosperity, struggle and deprivation, and beer and goulash.
I could further sum it up by saying that Buda is a pretty and twee place frequented predominantly by tourists and people who earn a living from selling overpriced fridge magnets and snow storm scenes in glass bubbles to tourists. Pest also has its magnificent old buildings but amongst them a modern vibrant city gets on with its life in the twenty first century. Buda, although extremely beautiful and interesting, would appear to have been purpose built for the tourist and historian but in Pest, with its miles and miles of nineteenth century streets packed with a myriad of interesting places to eat, to spend Forint or to just stare in open mouthed amazement, anything and everything goes.
I think I felt happier in Pest. Here I could walk for hours on end without really bothering to look at my map and never get bored. I could look round any corner and know I would find something new and interesting to amuse me. I could escape the crowd without escaping the city.
Before going there I had spent five days in rural Hungary by the shores of Lake Balaton and in the Baroque town of Eger. Both had been scenic, peaceful and underdeveloped places, so when I arrived in Budapest I noticed that like its capital, the country was made up of two quite separate and contrasting areas. As you would expect, the serenity enjoyed in the countryside wasn’t all that evident in Budapest but I hadn’t anticipated such a great contrast.
In the Magyar metropolis, the foot count rose from barely any visitors to far too many visitors. The prices of souvenirs, food and drink just about trebled in Budapest (though remained quite reasonable by English standards). In the city I paid 700 Forint (£2) for a bottle of water whereas in Balatonfüred there were free drinking water fountains on every street corner. In Eger I paid less than £1 for a bottle of very nice red wine but high on the hill in Buda I paid more than £1 to use the toilet. Had I known that this was going to happen I would have bought an extra bottle of wine, poured the wine out down a drain or the gullet of a Budapesti homeless person and just weed in the bottle. In the countryside hardly anybody spoke English but in the city everybody did because they were more geared up for prising money out of visitors’ hands and, for the same reason I suspect, more people smiled in the city. The smaller towns had such wonderful old cafés and bars, and so did most of Budapest really, but in its very core there were only stylish and expensive bistros and restaurants which seemed totally out of character with the Hungarian way of life. And there were branches of McDonald’s, Pizza Hut and Starbuck’s but I’d rather just forget about them.
What would my dear old country friends Ferenc and Lajos have thought? In actual fact they had both forewarned me that Budapest had everything and the rest of the country had nothing. I detected a note of resentment when they told me this and I understood what they had meant after spending a few hours exploring Budapest. I think I felt happier in the provincial places. I enjoyed the friendliness in the capital but it lacked the sincerity that backed up the affability of Ferenc and Lajos.
What really rammed the point home was the variation in quality of the views from the rooms in the three hotels that I stayed at. From my Balatonalmádi balcony I had a 180° panorama of Lake Balaton; in Eger I opened my curtains to see an overgrown but lush garden of lilac and lavender; and peeking through the broken blinds three miles from the centre of Budapest I had a spectacular view of an enormous modern shopping centre illuminated by a large, electric ‘Tesco Extra’ sign. The furniture and fittings in the first room had sufficient character to match that modern extension built onto an old house; in Eger they were antique and exquisitely stylish; but out on the Budapest ring road they looked tatty and old even though they had probably been procured only five years earlier. I didn’t see an M.F.I. shop in Hungary but I guessed from the contents of that final hotel room that they must have had them.
Tesco at dusk from my Hotel Chesscom window in Budapest.
I’d like to emphasise, however, that my words above aren’t in any way a complaint but a mere observation. Everywhere I went in Hungary I felt welcome. Everywhere I stayed was clean and comfortable. Almost everybody I spoke to was friendly. Everything I ate was wholesome and tasty. I loved my time in Buda and in Pest, and I loved my time in the countryside and small towns. Buda was good, Pest was great, but the small towns were best.