Budapest or Prague. After three nights in Berlin, we knew we wanted to get a taste of Eastern Europe, so we narrowed our choices down to either Budapest or Prague. Jave was pro-Prague, I believe for no reason in particular. He simply liked the idea of visiting the Czech Republic. I, on the other hand, was rooting for visiting Budapest because every article and blog post that I’d read about the city had nothing but positive things to say. Based on everything I read about the two cities, I got the impression that Budapest would be more authentic, the locals would be less jaded by tourists and therefore nicer, and that the cuisine would be more impressive. After sharing several pictures and reviews of Budapest with Jave, my power of persuasion won him over, and we booked our airfare to Hungary’s capital.
The city greeted us with rain and gloom as we were driven to our hotel. Two businessmen sharing our shuttle were dropped off at their hotel not too far from the airport in an area that looked like it was still in the midst of Communism. Colors were muted, windows were boarded, faces looked solemn. There was something oppressive about the atmosphere. I chalked it up to the weather and prayed that our hotel would hold true to reviews and be better situated. Thankfully, it was.
But the mood during our stay in Budapest didn’t change. Don’t get me wrong – the locals were lovely. Quick to point us in the right direction, warm, and very friendly. Also, Budapest truly is as marvelous as it looks in pictures.
Still, I couldn’t seem to shake the feeling that there was a drab cloud looming over our heads in Budapest. It’s hard to explain, but even when the weather brightened and warmed, Budapest seemed to have a poignant undercurrent of sadness, perhaps stemming from its turbulent history which was especially marred by WWII and its Communist regime.
Budapest also has an eeriness factor which I think is due in large part to its Neo-Gothic architecture and its lack of light. Walking around the busy main streets and the residential streets at night, I had an uncanny sense of being on the set of a vampire flick. We frequently passed buildings whose windows were completely darkened without even a glimmer of light, and as I looked up into the windows, I couldn’t help but wonder who lives in those impenetrable buildings.
One night following dinner at a restaurant in a residential area, as we made our way back to the busy main street to catch the metro, the blackened windows really stood out. With the exception of lit street lamps, as far as we could tell from our vantage point, there weren’t any lights on in any of the apartment buildings – no visible living room lights on or faint lighting streaming from televisions, no entrance lights on to welcome guests or residents home, not a glint of a bedside lamp. There were absolutely no lights on in any of the buildings! It was rather odd.
As we took the stairs down into a nearby metro station, before we could make it all the way down, we heard a man speaking in a very harsh tone followed by the sound of a woman sobbing and saying, “No, no.” My ears perked up and my heart skipped a beat. Something wasn’t right. I didn’t know what was going on down in that metro station, but I knew that we weren’t going to walk down there and find out. A local man who’d been walking down the stairs next to us continued down as we turned back, but a few seconds later, he quickly reemerged. I trusted my instincts, and they hadn’t mislead us as evidenced by the shocked look on the man’s face as he ran back up the stairs.
“Another metro this way, this way,” he told us in broken English as he headed in the same direction he was pointing towards. Feeling disoriented, we instead chose to hire a taxi parked nearby. When our fare jumped from 800 to 4,000 Forint in a matter of blocks with still several blocks to go before reaching our hotel, we were livid. We demanded the driver to stop, paid him, and walked the rest of the way; fortunately, we didn’t have far to walk.
While I wouldn’t dare draw conclusions about Budapest based on these incidents alone, they certainly added to the shadowy spirit of the city.
Knowing that a good meal can bring solace and add flavor to any somber scene, Jave and I were hoping that Hungarian cuisine would be the climax of our impressions of Budapest. While Hungarians know how to make a mean dessert – from sweet lángos to Esterházy cake – Jave and I were underwhelmed by our meals in Budapest.
We genuinely looked forward to indulging in some good food, so prior to our trip, I carefully read reviews in hopes of eating some of the best dishes at some of the best restaurants the city has to offer. We were eager to try authentic dishes like chicken paprikash accented with creamy tejföl, soft dumplings, and of course the ever-popular goulash. But in spite of Hungarian foods’ hodgepodge of flavors from Austria, Germany, Italy, and France with Ottoman and Slavic influences, we found the flavors to be lackluster. Despite its great promise, we found little comfort in Hungarian cuisine.
As travelers, I suppose that our ability to click with certain destinations isn’t much different from our ability to click with certain personalities: you either instantly know that you’ll become fast friends or you sense that you’re going to clash. The interactions between the destination and the traveler – our interactions with Budapest – were “cordial” at best.
It was a forced synergy that lacked genuineness and left us unable to penetrate beneath the city’s beautiful, albeit dismal, surface. Our time in Budapest felt like: okay, we’re here on the dance floor and though we can’t seem to catch the rhythm, let’s make the best of it and dance anyway. But we never really got into a groove there. Our sentiments for Budapest definitely don’t compare to our affection for Copenhagen, Istanbul, Vancouver, or Avignon – cities where our connections were forged instantly and indelibly.
While I don’t at all regret going to Budapest, maybe Jave was right after all. Maybe we should’ve gone to Prague.