An Englishman in Prague – Castles, Hairy Backs and Lenin in Budapest

This weekend was my second visit to Budapest. I had been before when I went interrailling about four years ago but this visit showed me how poorly I had done it the first time round. Last time, the weather was horrible, my travelling buddy began to smell slightly funky after his showers became less frequent, bars were a real mission to find and we didn’t really do anything. That was except for one of the weirdest tourist attractions in Europe – Memento Park. This crazy spectacle is basically a field outside of Budapest where they dumped a load of statues of random Communist leaders for posterity. To be dwarfed by surrounding giant stone replicas of Lenin and heroic workers wrestling with evil Nazis is a surreal experience.

The coach tickets were a present from my girlfriend and there was a twinge of ‘couldn’t you have chosen a different city?’ But I’m glad we went as now I know what a great city it can be.

Budapest and Prague are close on the map but seven hours apart on a coach. We went by Student Agency who are a much better version of Eurolines for travelling around Central Europe, if only because you get free hot drinks and movies to keep you occupied. They’re normally better than the trains too because they’re much cheaper and in this part of Europe they tend to build railway lines in concentric circles that eventually bring you to your destination.

Sometimes the aggressive form of customer service that was the inspiration for Guantanamo Bay really annoys me but occasionally the lack of political correctness, health and safety and not caring about offending anyone is strangely refreshing. Take the unusual choice of movies on my coach journey which included a kids movie, a film about grieving and incest and ended with Venus, a hugely disturbing Brit-flick following a pensioner’s attempts to get into the pants of a teenager, casually showing boobs and dropping C-bombs to at least ten kids on the bus. I used to work for a travel company in the UK and that would have resulted in a lawsuit, nationwide housewife boycott and a televised apology by the Queen.

The first thing you notice about Budapest when you arrive is that the language is very. very confusing, making it the most westerly country in Europe where you feel totally out of your depth. I always try and at least mumble incorrect foreign at people but this time I didn’t even try, it was a lost cause. First stop, McDonalds. Don’t judge me.

The second thing you notice is that their underground system is not exactly aesthetically pleasing. The blue trains – or in the words of the American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman, more of a dirty blue – turn up looking like they made it all the way through the Communist era only to end up in a drag race. However, these little stallions did their job pretty efficiently alongside the excellent, and less depressing, tram system.

The highlight of our trip – as any guidebook will tell you – was the thermal baths (an impossible phrase for someone who can’t say their ths). We stumped up for the Szechenyi Baths which are one of the more expensive ones but amongst the elite for getting your sweat on. This really was a pleasant Sunday morning experience as on a freezing cold day we uniquely got to sweat out the Hungarian wine in an boiling hot outdoor swimming pool. We also made use of the indoor thermal pools and saunas and got to see more hairy backs and middle-aged women who shouldn’t be wearing two-piece bikinis than you can shake a stick at.

After regaling you (four readers) with the inanities of a bus journey and the Budapest transport network, I should probably at least mention the sightseeing attractions of this predominantly (the new town is pretty seedy and has more stripclubs that I could visit in a night) beautiful city. Castle Hill and the Matthais Church are really impressive, peaceful places to spent a few hours and the happy snappers will have a ball. Buda, on the West of the Danube, is where most of the sights are at and from here you can get great views of Pest and the pretty remarkable parliament building that puts London’s to shame.

Budapest isn’t the kind of place you’d travel from far and wide to go for a wild night out. The bars in the centre are a little sparse but there are a few decent efforts if you stumble down the right roads near the Oktogon. There are some unpretentious bars that are very welcoming and sell Hungarian wine (no idea if it’s good wine but it’s generally cheaper than beer so had my attention), like Szimpla (on Kertész utca), which was packed with locals to listening to a weirdly eclectic mix of music and having a good chat. We also stumbled upon a bar themed entirely on the 1953 6-3 humbling of the English football team by the Lions of Hungary which reinforces the view that Hungary have not exactly been a sporting powerhouse since then.

Like in most cities we ended the nights with a kebab – not, don’t judge me again, Hungarian goulash. There are a lot to choose from here as the Turkish influence is pretty huge and I wasn’t complaining as mixing the sophistication of wine and the dirt of a kebab brings the night out to a nice, neat zero balance. This again reminded me of my interrailing days when, from the overwhelming Greek Feta Kebabs of Brussels to the near perfect Durum Kebabs of Germany, we accidentally embarked on a kebab tour of Europe. Now I can tick the Hungary box.

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