In an ode to the 17th century Grand Tour idea of a world tour, something entirely previous to the stadium-filling, pop endeavors of today (for example, Beyoncé’s “Mrs. Carter World Tour”), I set out after graduating college this past May to travel, watch, eat, and meet. I hoped to grow closer to attaining that ever-elusive adjective that college, try as it might, just couldn’t really give me: “cultured.” I pointed my toes east, packed a rollie-duffel, and embarked on the Miss Spears World Tour.
In reality, it was a three-week trip of five countries, six cities, one national park, two castles, one fortress, two palaces, one brewery, four rivers, and so, SO many lakes – not a world tour, but then again I was lacking in patrons.
First, Budapest. Budapesht.
Quick history: Budapest, is a city of nearly 3.5 million people that sits on the shockingly wide Danube River. On the west side is Buda, on the right, Pest. The two united in 1873, but only after existing under the Ottoman and then the Hapsburg Empire. Following WWII, with the dissolving of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Budapest became independent. This was short lived, however, since during WWII Budapest fell first to German Nazi rule, and then to Soviet Communism. In 1956 with the Hungarian Revolution, Budapest finally gained self-rule.
This history of the dual cities, claimed and reclaimed, manifests itself in the edifices and layout of the current combined Budapest. Since the Danube runs through the city, the old divide still exists, at least geographically. This split creates the phenomenon that I could not ignore throughout our stint in the city: the feeling that the “sights” are literal vantage points. The gothic Hungarian Parliament (the building that made me come to Budapest because of its absolute intensity) sits on the river’s edge as the jewel of Pest. Opposite parliament, in Buda, is Buda Castle and Matthias Cathedral with its colored-scaled roof. Connecting these two runs Fisherman’s Bastion – a wall giving a panoramic view of the city, allowing you to stare down Pest.
Budapest does a fine job of presenting its scale. It feels big. The big river, the big bridges, the huge Hero’s Square. This is magnified by the fact that, unlike, say, Istanbul, the main sights of Budapest are spread out across the city (the previous two cities). The city became one, but it lack the fore planning that a single city has, or the organic outward growth that a single city produces. Budapest is a series of appendages butterfly-bandaged together by four major bridges. Therefore, the sights at times feel obvious (i.e. Parliament) and at times almost hidden (House of Terror, Dohany Street Synagogue, the Market).
It is a city of layers, aptly fitting its history. Find Margaret Island, a park in the middle of the Danube that once housed a convent. Find the Szechenyi Baths and wade among Hungarians in the naturally occurring heated water. Eat goulash and paprika and goat cheese and layered crepe pancakes.
And then discover Budapest by night.
My constant travel companion Katie has friends in and from Budapest. We will dismiss the fact that Akos called Budapest “nothing special during the day” and focus on where he took us at night. Budapest’s Ruin Bars, so called because they grew out of condemnable buildings and unused outdoor spaces, are like stepping into an entirely parallel weird world. We went to Szimpla Kert, the oldest ruin pub. It’s Peter Pan. Actually, Hook. It’s like the hang out of the Lost Boys. Old tvs and dolls and phones and foliage line walls. Baskets and bicycles hang from ceilings. Old cars turned into booths sit in the courtyard. It’s the place you could go every night for a week and sit in a different room and feel entirely different. Be entirely different. Or the same. I dug it.
Insisting that we try the native spirits, Akos (now joined by “G” and “Marti”) took us to another bar.
Where his friend “Yoshi” bartends.So, here we are, in Hungary, having gone to Neverland, now in TGI Fridays after hours.
Being served Long Islands.
“Something’s amiss,” thought I. But Oshkosh B’gosh, G, Marti, Yoshi, and Zolt loved this place with its very inaccurate map of the Midwest, and who am I to judge, so we stayed.
To conclude: the crown jewels of Budapest include a crown with a bent cross on its top. The box that the jewels were kept in during a particularly tumultuous period of Hungarian history bent the cross. The Hungarians never straightened it. Now the crown, and its askew cross, is the symbol of Budapest. Likewise, the Hungarians never straightened the city. The points of interest crisscross the map. They sit and look at each other, as if aware of the distance between them. Modern Budapest grows among the confines of the existing points, filling the gaps in space, bending its metal. It grows inside of old buildings and creates alternate, fantastic, Peter Pan worlds. And, I suppose, TGI Friday’s.