When I was planning out the adventures I wanted to take during my 4 month study abroad in Europe I had all the big guys; Paris, London, Rome, even some not so big ones like Monte Carlo, and Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany. But on my long list of things to do and see, I never included Budapest. But my trip to this forgotten gem, was probably one of my favorite trips I have ever been on. It was our first big trip that we were going on, for the first month or so the school that I was attending had us all pretty much booked, but our first free weekend we were itching to get out of town. Around half of our group decided they wanted to head to Poland for the long weekend, but after I had a panic attack in the crematorium at the former Mauthausen concentration camp, I decided to opt out of their rendezvous at Auschwitz. So there I sat, at 2 am in the Salzburg train station with the other half of our group awaiting a train that would take us to Budapest, Hungary. We went during the last week of Oktoberfest in Germany, which has a direct line with Salzburg, this fact is what landed us with a 300lb drunk man passed out in the cart that we reserved. He was snoring and reeked of alcohol, this smell was also accompanied by the 3 beers that had spilled all over the floor of the car. After the guys got him to leave, the 5 of us girls settled into our smell car. Luckily one of the girls had brought oranges, she was always prepared with snacks, so we took the peels and put them above us to take away the smell. Well it worked and we took turns napping for our 6 hour journey. None of us knew what to expect when we got off the train, we knew where we were going to sleep, but that was pretty much it. By some random bit of luck the girl with the oranges had a friend from home who was studying in Budapest, he picked us up from the train station and whisked us away on our little adventure. The only picture that I had ever seen of Budapest was of their parliament building, and although it was very impressive, so much of the city was beautiful.
Before studying abroad I had been to Europe, multiple times. But every time that I had gone I was with my family, I was a kid with her parents going where they went and having family fun. So during this trip was the first time I felt truly like a young adult on an adventure. There was no one there telling us what to do, no one saying what we had to do and when to do it. We were staying in an apartment in a residential area of the city, so there were no hostel curfew hours, we stayed out as late as we wanted. Sitting here in this coffee shop I am having a hard time controlling my smile as I reminisce on the incredible time I had just being a young adult in a foreign city. With our own personal travel guide who was our age and who lived there, we go to see and do what all of the local young folks did. Of course we worked in a little toursity activities along the way. It never hurts to be a tourist sometimes. Climbing up the steps of St. Stephens Basilica to see an incredible view of the city, squishing into a tiny bus as it rattles us up to the top of Buda Castle, going to see a Ballet at the Opera House. But thanks to our amazing personal tour guide our heads weren’t in maps or guide books. He knew everything there was to know about Budapest. Even though he just sort of laughed at us when we tried to figure out the Hungarian currency, paying 1000 Forint for dinner seemed ridiculous only because handing over anything that says 1000 on it makes me feel uneasy even though its only around 5 bucks. But as another American student abroad Andrew, our guide, knew exactly what we needed, which for a group of Americans who were missing home, we needed an american style breakfast and Mexican food.
The first place Andrew took us after we got off of the train was this little restaurant in the Jewish neighborhood that served an american style breakfast. We inhaled all of it, in four seconds flat. On our second day there Andrew took us to this hipster Mexican restaurant that was almost identical to Chipotle. It was our little american haven, Mexican food, free wifi, ice cubes, free refills. We stayed there as long as we could, until Andrew said he was taking us to this amazing park. In the park was the Budapest Zoo, which was by far the most amazing zoo I have ever been to. In America all of the animals are behind huge bars, even the not so dangerous ones, you pretty much need binoculars to see them. But at the Budapest Zoo, that’s not really the case. While the dangerous animals are still behind thick glass, the non dangerous ones are sort of just out in the open. I made very good friends with one sloth in particular in this sloth terrarium where they were allowed to just climb around and hang anywhere they wanted.
As the darkness took over the sky and all of the lights in the city came on, we really started to have some fun. The first night some of the girls and I went to the Ballet, so we missed the start of the night when everyone drank on top of a bridge. But they met up with us and then we started our evening. Andrew took us to this odd place called the Stock Market Bar. Which surprisingly is exactly what it sounds like. At this bar, instead of having a set price for all of the drinks. The price of the drinks go up and down according to how popular they are. So if everyone is ordering tequila sunrises the price rises. I blame this bar for my new love of vodka fantas, it was always dirt cheap. According to legend, sometimes the stock market will crash, and everyone gets free drinks, but Andrew said he had never seen it actually happen. This bar was full of very excited people who wanted to dance, but the dance floor wasn’t cleared yet, so they hopped up on the table. There were a few girls that thought that they were really hot s#*t, until this 40 year old man wearing a birthday sash got up on the table and started showing them up. The whole group of us couldn’t stop laughing. The bar started getting a little crowded so we headed back onto the streets of Budapest.
(photo credit: Cheryl Fetky)
Suddenly we found ourselves surrounded by other American students as we got into a rustic street car and headed into the heart of the city to Andrew’s favorite bar. From the outside, it looked like any normal bar, with taxis and young people outside. But when you walk in, it’s like you enter some other world. The bar is called Szimpla Kert and it is one of the most famous “ruin bars”. A ruin bar is an abandoned building that has been converted into a bar, and Szimpla, it was an old soviet base. The building looked like it had been bombed out, like it was just a shell. The inside had this weird vibe, where it looked like someone took everything from old storage lockers and glued it to the wall. There was a room that was entirely filled with TV’s that were playing old cartoons. But by far my favorite room was the outdoor courtyard. I assume it used to have a roof on it, but now it was just open. There were vines growing up the sides and lights hanging everywhere. Our favorite spot to sit in was half of a car that they glued to the wall. They left the two front seats so you could sit in the car, but they also took out the engine and put seats on it, very cool. While we were there Andrew decided to give us the proper Budapest welcome, which in his mind meant that we had to take Palinka shots. It tasted like the bar had taken all the left over alcohol and mixed it together in a shot glass. Never has anything burned my throat as much, I could feel my insides rotting, but it was still fun to see everyone’s reactions, especially Andrews, he was pretty much rolling on the floor laughing.
Overall, there was a charm about Budapest, that I really didn’t get in any of the other cities. It felt both old and very new at the same time. From the rubble has emerged this thriving city, with beauty around every corner. I felt like I had experienced something amazing before anyone else had. It sort of made me feel like a hipster in that sense, which is something I don’t feel often. Budapest had a subtle magic, that made me feel safe and adventurous all at the same time. Maybe it was because it wasn’t overplayed in movies, the magic of this city wasn’t romanticized, I had no grand expectations for the city, but I left with memories of my Grand Budapest adventure.