Thursday, November 13, 2014

A bath and a bite in Budapest: a sensory jaunt around Hungary’s capital

Szia from Budapest! After about eight hours on the bus from Prague, I’ve arrived here at 5.30am, greeted by snow. As I can only check in to the hostel after 10am, I can’t get into my room yet, so I rest in the common area while waiting for my bed to be ready.

The countries of Eastern Europe are often shrouded in mystery, having been part of the Soviet Union for so many years. However, a city like Budapest is great for backpackers travelling Europe – prices here are generally lower than in Western Europe because of lower average wages.

Buda and Pest

Budapest is made up of two smaller towns that were unified in 1873: the hilly Buda on the west bank and the flat plains of Pest on the east bank, separated by the river Danube. The two sub-cities are connected by the capital’s most famous bridge, the Chain Bridge. I decide that I may need an entire day to explore Buda, so I leave Pest for the next day.

At the top of Castle Hill in Buda is Fisherman’s Bastion, a viewing terrace with seven fairytale-like white towers. These towers represent the seven Magyar tribes who settled in this area in 896AD. I discover that, in the Middle Ages, a guild of fishermen was responsible for defending this stretch of the city walls. From this location I can get a beautiful view of Pest and Chain Bridge, and for free too!

Fun fact: Chain Bridge was built by William Clark, the same architect who built the Thames Gateway Bridge in London
The next day in Pest I start with an educational visit to the chilling House of Terror on the recommendation of other guests at my hostel. Portraits along the outside walls of the museum serve as a memorial to victims who were detained, interrogated, tortured or killed in this building, which was previously used by fascist organisations. In this museum, I learn more than I have ever wanted to about the Nazi and Soviet occupations in 20th-century Hungary and, later on, the life of fear that people suffered under the Hungarian Communist Party.

I find it baffling how history repeats itself; how we humans continue to terrorise each other, time and again.

A hot bath… outdoors
The tour of terror has left me high-strung yet low in spirits – I need to unwind. I am searching for the well-known medicinal Széchenyi Baths, and finally locate them in a lush green park. This innocuous-looking park hides underground pipes pumping from two very hot natural thermal springs (74°C and 77°C) to various indoor and outdoor pools.
Outdoor pools at Szechenyi baths. Photo: Nur Febriani Wardi
The indoor pools are about 27°C, while the outdoor ones are as warm as 38°C. Ticket prices vary depending on the time and day of your visit and extras such as a cabin or locker. In general, admission will set you back roughly 4,000 Hungarian forints (US$18) per person.

As I don’t want to be alone, I decide to try the mixed pool. I’m not sure about the dress code, and so I try to enter a pool in a T-shirt and long cotton trousers, fending off comments about my trousers. When I pass through the ladies’ changing room, a woman working there tries to pull my trousers off, insisting that I am not allowed to enter the pool wearing them. After some negotiation, I eventually pass through with knee-length tights.

Later I discover that there is no strict dress code for the pools, although one must wear swimwear in these baths (including tankinis and burkinis). Just make sure you are wearing something made of Lycra, or that at least looks like swimwear, so you won’t raise the ire of the other bathers.

I contemplate dipping into the outdoor pools, but decide against it because it is too cold to run outside in my wet clothes. There are many other people though, hopping in and out of different pools, trying them all. I am feeling rather embarrassed after the changing room incident, but I definitely want to come back here in warmer weather to try the other pools.

[Warning: Waters of the Széchenyi Baths are slightly yellow because of the sulphate content (along with other minerals like calcium and magnesium). Therefore, pregnant women and children are recommended not to spend too much time in them.]

Marks of war

In Pest, I notice that many ordinary and important buildings are still riddled with bullet holes. These marks are a result of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising against the Soviet-backed governments. The failure to hide these marks is probably not an oversight, as it serves to remind Hungarians of the price of freedom. Although both parts of the city bear bitter signs of fascist and dictatorial regimes, they still stand regal – proud of the beautiful and rich history behind their sites and buildings.

A bite of this and a nibble of that
After a good soak and swim, I need to restore myself. At the end of Váci Utca, the main shopping street of Budapest, is the Great Market Hall. This enormous indoor market is filled with two levels of shops. I am absolutely dazzled by the array of things on sale: spices, meat, fresh vegetables, fruit and pastries.

Vaci Utca
I select two food items: lángos and rétes. A popular summer snack, lángosis a deep-fried flat bread sprinkled with grated cheese and sour cream, with an optional rub in garlic. Other toppings include mushrooms, eggplant, cabbage and jam. It was traditionally a breakfast bread baked in the oven at home. However, these days it is fried in oil. Crispy, oily, warm – yummy!

Strudel, a traditional multi-layered fruit pastry, is eaten all across the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. The deliciously sweet and sour rétes, or sour cherry strudel, is one of the ways to use up an abundant harvest of cherries, grown all over Eastern Europe.

When I lived in the Spanish city of Valencia, my Hungarian roommate Andrea once prepared lentil főzelék, a cross between a soup and a stew, usually eaten with bread and a fried egg. Since it is usually a homecooked dish, it is practically impossible to find in upscale restaurants, only in cheap diners. Andrea recommended a self-service diner in Budapest, called the Főzelékfaló Etelbár (address: Nagymező utca 18). I try the lentil főzelék here, but Andrea’s version is definitely better.

I cannot leave the capital without experiencing Budapest’s cafe culture. Walking down Váci Utca, I duck into a small, half-lit cafe decorated with chandeliers. I order strawberry-perfumed tea and spend the rest of the evening contentedly writing postcards.

Lost in my thoughts, I relive the delight of Budapest: the breathtaking views of its remarkable buildings (some with a more powerful history than others), balmy public baths and delectable bites. The past two days are just a taste of what there is to discover in this dignified city that I can’t wait to visit again.

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This article was originally published on Aquila Style

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