Retreat to Budapest

Retreat to Budapest

This was my first experience of solo travelling. I wasn’t in the best head space at home and knew I needed to do something for myself and by myself. So I decided to go on a bit of a retreat to Budapest, going at my own pace and taking the time to do lots of thinking and writing.

I booked a room in an apartment on Airbnb, and my host was extremely helpful, greeting me with tea and some recommendations in the city. Throughout my stay I shared the apartment with various guests and visitors. The place was owned by an artist, so it was a bit shabby chic with a homey bohemian vibe. I was staying in the heart of the Jewish district, historically a ghetto, now a thriving space of ruin bars and independent restaurants. Ruin bars are located in old abandoned buildings, and ‘Szimpla‘ was the original example. The buildings have been modified for safety but are decorated in eclectic and provocative styles. They act as independent art spaces, with original installations as well as screenings and gigs. I absolutely adored the concept. I also took the opportunity to try Palinka, Hungary’s national drink, which is a fruit brandy which tastes like being punched in the throat.

Eleanor Rigby graffiti
Eleanor Rigby graffiti
Rubick's Cube street art
Rubick’s Cube street art
Szimpla ruin bar
Szimpla ruin bar
No one is illegal
No one is illegal

I went on a free walking tour to get my bearings on my first day. These are tip-based, so guests donate as much as they like at the end. We experienced a potted Hungarian history and language lesson, and were given context for some iconic architecture. We hit up some of the famous landmarks, including St Stephen’s Basilica and the Chain bridge, which was the first bridge built across the river Danube to connect Buda and Pest. We climbed a hill to the Castle district, named for the castle which was destroyed many moons ago, and were treated to some cracking views of the city. This is also where Fisherman’s Bastion and Matthias Church are situated. A few of us stuck around after the tour and went to a canteen-style restaurant which had lots of traditional Hungarian dishes, such as goulash (a hearty stew) and langos (deep fried flatbread with toppings… so drunk food).

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Fisherman’s Bastion
Matthias Church
Matthias Church
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St Stephen s Basilica

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Chain Bridge
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Parliament

I ended my day at the Hungarian National Gallery, also in the Castle district. Most museums are extremely cheap and worthwhile, and there are discounts for under 26 EU residents. The Gallery housed an expansive array of Hungarian artwork, which was fascinating for me, as I knew very little about Hungary before my spontaneous trip here.

There were other free walking tours which were more specialised, so I took a tour around the Jewish quarter. It was refreshing to learn about the local area in which I was staying. Our guide had recently completed her MA in Jewish Culture and History and was extremely knowledgeable about Hungarian Jewish history. We visited several synagogues, admired the architecture and heard about the history of Jews in Hungary. Spoilers: it’s not always a happy one. I also went on a Communist themed tour with the same guide, which included lots about Hungary’s 45 year Soviet occupation. She had lots of childhood mementos and showed us some controversial monuments around the city. Only a few remain, as most are in Memento Park – an area just outside the city where all Communist monuments where taken after Hungary became a democracy.

Dohany Synagogue
Dohany Synagogue
Soviet monument - guarded 24/7 from vandalism
Soviet monument – guarded

I spent some time on Magritsziget (Margaret Island), which is a large park on an island in the middle of the River Danube. It’s a huge sprawl of a place with ruined churches, a lovely Japanese garden and musical water fountain. I must say the last thing was my favourite. At night the fountain is lit up in different colours, and the choreographed routines moved between traditional Hungarian folk songs, Western pop music from the 1960s and classical music.

Music water fountain
Music water fountain
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Part of the Japanese garden

Another outdoor space I really enjoyed was Kerepesi Cemetery. Similar to Pere Lachaise in Paris, you’re given a map upon entry. It lists famous graves and various monuments, and I spent several hours just wandering around. There’s an atmosphere of reflective tranquility and I found it a peaceful place to do some writing.

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I took a trip to the City Park, at the end of Andrassy Ave, which is the home of several famous Budapest landmarks. There’s Heroes’ Square, with the Millennium Monument and Kunsthalle and the Museum of Fine Arts. Inside the park is Szechenyi Baths and Vajdahunyad Castle, from the 19th century. When I was there, it housed a food and crafts fair.

Vajdahunyad Castle
Vajdahunyad Castle

I went for an intense day, tackling the House of Terror and the Holocaust Memorial Centre back to back. Not gonna lie, had to come back to the apartment and watch a happy Disney film because it had made me lose so much faith in humanity. In the House of Terror, photos weren’t allowed, which I felt was appropriate. In the latter, I could only take photos of the building and the synagogue, not the actual exhibition. The House of Terror acts as a memorial to the victims of the fascist and soviet regimes in Budapest, a looming dark building on the popular Andrassy Ave. It was used by both the Nazis and the Soviets as a place of torture and imprisonment. There’s an oppressive soundtrack which follows you around the exhibit, and I’m always fascinated by historical bias and the way information is presented. I was most affected by the basement, which shows images of the victims who were imprisoned in those cells and subsequently died. The atmosphere was overwhelming, even though most of the spaces are empty. I felt claustrophobic at times, looking into a windowless pitch-black cell and imagining hearing that industrial door slamming behind me.

House of Terror
House of Terror
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Part of HMC Memorial

I felt the Holocaust Memorial Centre was more underrated. It’s more out of the way, and is housed in a less intimidating building. There’s a beautiful Synagogue on the site and a memorial to Jewish victims. Inside the museum was a wealth of interactive information on the history of the Roma and Jews in Hungary. There was an evocative section where you walked through to the sound of an army march with blinding lights, making you feel as exposed and vulnerable as those being deported from their homes. There were some graphic films showing the abused survivors of the liberated concentration camps and detailed information about the medical experiments the Nazis were performing. The layout of the exhibition was excellent and there was a lot of general historical overview, as well as specific cases and individuals. It ended with a debate around historical accountability and a memorial to Hungarian individuals who had assisted the liberation of some Nazi captives.

Shoes monument for Holocaust victims
Shoes monument for Holocaust victims
Controversial new WW2 memorial
Controversial new WW2 memorial

Hungary’s historical involvement and commemoration of difficult historical events was fascinating to me, especially as someone who knew very little before coming to Budapest. I don’t claim more than a cursory knowledge now, but I listened to some edifying discussions around the Siege of Budapest, the deportation of Hungarian Jews and the 1956 Revolution (links for a summary). For example, on our Communist tour we were told of a controversial statue which was erected and is disliked by a lot of the Budapest locals. It seems to portray Hungary as a victim to the Nazi regime, whereas for example the deportation of Hungarian Jews in 1944 was facilitated by Hungarian authorities.

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I had another museum day at the Hungarian National Museum and the Museum of Applied Arts. Both were situated in beautiful buildings, but I really preferred the collection in the first. It was laid out chronologically with historical pieces and information about Hungary’s development, all the way from pre-historic archaeology to the modern day. My favourite part was actually a historical re-enactment animation which was totally modded from Skyrim. MAA was pretty small, made up of some beautiful art objects and some great Islamic art pieces.

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Cave Church
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Summit of Gellert Hill
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Sunset
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Me at the summit

I went to the Central Market Hall which was an indoor market with all kinds of food and trinkets. There I bought some souvenirs and postcards for a song, retes (stuffed fruit pastry) and fresh fruits and vegetables. It was all a bit mad, and for someone who dislikes aimless crowds, I found it a bit intense. After that I climbed the beautiful Gellert Hill to check out the Cave Church and old Citadel. A short steep climb was rewarded with spectacular views of the city.

I caught a bit of a cold and had been feeling a bit rough for a few days, so I decided to have a relaxing day in one of the famous bathhouses. I chose Rudas on their women only day (gender segregated in the thermal pools during the week and mixed on the weekend) and found it therapeutic. Initially I was intimidated, so I did lots of research beforehand. Most signs were also in English and I just sort of followed the crowd and found my way around. You got a little cabin which also acted as a locker and showers are obligatory before and after the pools, and between the pools and the sauna/steam room. There were five different thermal pools of different temperatures, and about half the ladies were naked or topless. I joined the latter group, and it was a chill atmosphere in a dimly lit Turkish style bathhouse.

Hospital in the Rock
Hospital in the Rock

On my final day I went to the Hospital in the Rock Museum which was initially built as an emergency WWII hospital, but also used during the siege at Budapest and as a potential nuclear bunker during the Cold War. Now it’s a museum, still with many of its original features and equipment and enough uncanny wax figures to fuel the rest of my nightmares. The place was made up of winding halls and full of tripping hazards, so there were obligatory guided tours. Unfortunately, the ones in English were only once an hour and we had a pretty big group. At times it felt as though we were being herded quickly from room to room, but the guide was very informative and excellent at crowd control.

After that I went to Janos Hegy, the tallest of the Buda hills. There are various hiking paths, a dinky railway or the chairlift. I opted for the latter and was treated to some lovely views as I ascended. At the summit there are various wee cafes, trails and playgrounds, but the main spectacle is the Erzbert (Elizabeth) Lookout Tower where there are some phenomenal views of Buda and Pest.

At the top of the tower on Janos Hegy
At the top of the tower on Janos Hegy
Erzbert Lookout Tower
Erzbert Lookout Tower

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