Monday, 16 April 2012

Tale of Two Cities.

Last week I finally edged closer to a successful New Years Resolution, and went travelling. I picked Budapest, the capital of Hungary, by basically dropping a pin into a map of Europe and hoping it didn't land on Bolton. Quick investigations on and, and then trawls through various review sites and travel blogs, I was completely smitten with the city before I'd even packed my bags. It didn't take much effort to convince three of my housemates to join me, so after a long wait we were heading towards Hungary, and I towards a completed New Years Goal. At bloody last.

Sainr Matthias' Church
Budapest is an odd city. The skyline is jagged as no buildings quite match each other, the best places to visit are often tucked away in impenetrable quarters of town, and there's a peculiar mix of old and new. Parts of the city feel very unsettled- beautiful churches and stylish bars on the same street as buildings with bullet holes peppering the walls and a pair of discarded battered shoes left on a depleted windowsill. This is a city centre that can't quite make up its mind.

The economic and political history of Hungary is arduous. This isn't a country that has the resources to doll up every building, which in some ways is a shame, and in some ways is possibly a good thing. The beautiful buildings that have undergone restoration or rejuvenation since Hungary ended its years of dictatorship are stunning. The Basilica is simply wonderful, Saint Matthias' Church on the Buda hill looks colourful and almost new in the sunshine, Parliament is a gentle nod to the extravagance of our own House of Commons. There are glimpses of just about every architectural style on almost every corner.
Market Stalls in Pest

Not having the time or finances to renovate does leave the city with a unique atmosphere. The former Ministry of Defence stands derelict and wounded as a powerful reminder of the Communist/Nazi fighting, and once proud buildings are left empty for years on end like the enormous Television Centre. It's hard to find an area of the city centre that isn't wrapped up in the country's unfortunate past.

The parks in the city have character and draw crowds of tourists and skaters, meaning that in the midst of old Communist building blocks and battered souvenir shops, there is still somewhere to picnic. The nicest bars and cafes are hidden behind churches or in off-street terraces. The only way to eat or drink in Budapest is to follow recommendations- there is no central strip that you can march down and be guaranteed to find somewhere fabulous. No, that'd be too easy in the secretive Budapest. The closest thing to a general recommendation I could provide you with is this: Stay in the Jewish Quarter. That way, if you get lost in the labyrinth of interconnecting streets, you'll probably stumble across Szimpla, the city's celebrated kert, or somewhere equally as cool and hidden.

Me being all casual outside a gorgeous church in City Park
Budpest was orignially two cities separated by the winding river Danube. Buda; the proud host to the National Gallery, Liberty Statue and a wonderful hilly landscape, and Pest; the vibrant artists' centre of undergound nightlife and grand churches and synagogues. But this capital is a tale of two cities in another way. First, the historical Budapest. The buildings with an uncomfortable history that have stood witness to generations of tyranny and oppression, the magnificent thermal baths and impressive churches and architecture. Second, the rising Budapest. The city-centre parks sprung from old bus stations, wine-cellars underneath second hand book shops, impossibly cool bars with original and dizzying art installations,and walls of restaurants papered in flyers for live music events.

I've never seen anywhere else like this city. The sharpness in the contrast between  the old and new parts of  kept on being an unusual thing to see, even after a week. I think the most bizarre aspect of it all is that there isn't a rich area and a poor area, or a more developed area versus a completely abandoned one. All of Budapest is scattered with the two starkly different slants. It's probably the only place I've ever been where each street is almost identical to the next, but only by virtue of the fact that each street is so mismatched and unique. Amazing really. Plus it explains why I spent most of the week lost or depending on my housemates for directions.
Szimpla Kert's Shisha Bar.

I'm going to work on posting some of my favourite finds in Budapest, so you're going to be treated to a more specific take on what the city has to offer. Lucky you!

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