In the midst of our plans, our wonderful, traveling-gypsy friend Sherrie told us how much she loved Budapest when she went to visit years ago. "Budapest?" I had a vague inkling that I had learned about Budapest in my AP History class, but couldn't recall one thing besides the whole, "I'm Hungary. Are you Hungary?" joke. Lame. Anyhow, she told us that it was a really beautiful city and that it was super cheap to live there, too! We looked into it and found that it was indeed cheap and would get us cheap access to several Central and Eastern European countries. We looked on Airbnb, found a steal of a place, and made our plans to go to Budapest. We stayed in Budapest for 3 months and I fervently wish we will be able to go back.
Here are the 11 most surprising things about Budapest:
- Budapest is broken up into 23 Districts (yeah...kinda like the Hunger Games). Each of the Districts has a name that ends in -varos (P.S. the 's' in Hungarian is pronounced as an 'sh'). We lived in the 8th District, Jozsefvaros (Yo-zhef-va-rosh).
- Hungary's name in Hungarian is Magyarorszag. The language is called Magyarul. "Hungary" is derived from the Latin word "Ungri," which was used to describe the Magyars (Hungarians). Hungarian is a Uralic language...that is to say, it is one of the three European languages (along with Finnish and Estonian) that are not Indo-European in origin. While I was studying Hungarian, it used to blow my mind that only 15 million people in the world spoke the language and it was considered one of the hardest languages to learn. What was surprising to me was how much I enjoyed learning and speaking Hungarian. Even now, whenever I hear someone speaking Hungarian or even someone with a Hungarian last name, I become really happy, like I'm in on a secret.
- Tourists are definitely advised against living in the 8th District. After having lived in El Raval in Barcelona against the advice of most tourist-focused publications, we thought we would chance it in exchange for a more "local" experience AND, who are we kidding, we found a super cheap (like, $350/month cheap) place that looked really, really nice in the pictures. We got to our apartment at night, so we couldn't really get a feel for our neighborhood until the next morning. Suffice it to say, although we grew to like (not love) our neighborhood, it took us over a month to get used to living there. To be perfectly honest, we have never lived in a neighborhood that was so, what's the politically correct way to say it, economically depressed. We weren't used to living among such a diverse group of people. Living in Jozsefvaros definitely provided us with plenty of fodder for conversations about poverty, homelessness, ethnic groups (a lot of Roma live in this District), and history.
- Budapest, for the most part, is a jaw-droppingly gorgeous city. It originally was two cities separated by the Duna (the Danube): Buda, to the East, and Pest, to the West. Buda is really green and hilly and contains the beautiful Castle District. From Buda, you can see over the River to the most beautiful building in Budapest, the Parliament Building (picture above). Funny fact, the Hungarian Parliament building was modeled after the British Parliament building, but was made slightly taller and wider than the British Parliament Building. It wasn't just the Parliament building that was so beautiful...It seemed like every street had beautiful buildings representing different architectural styles. I hardly ever looked down when I walked: no matter how much in a hurry I was, I never tired of soaking in all of that beautiful architecture.
- After the initial shock of living in Jozsefvaros wore off, I started seeing beauty all over our neighborhood. Hungary has been invaded and split up pretty much consistently since 1000 CE, first by the Mongols and the Turks, then by the Austrians, Germans, and Russians. They actually didn't become a democratic country until after the Russian domination ended in 1989. Many of the buildings in our district still had bullet holes on the facade from the 1956 failed uprising against the Russians. I was told by our landlady that although District 8 didn't have a lot of money to redo the facade of the buildings, the residents rather liked this visible reminder of what was lost but ultimately gained.
- Every Wednesday, I would strap Des on my back or run after him riding on his bike to the Market to buy our week's worth of food. Then, loaded up with our groceries, we would walk across the street to our favorite restaurant: Csiga Cafe (Csiga (chee-ga) means "snail" in Hungarian). A 3-course meal (appetizer, main entree, and dessert, plus water and coffee) would cost about $7/person. We would seriously go every week without fail. The food was always delicious and was a nice mix of traditional and fusion Hungarian dishes. All of the servers there were super nice to us and Des even became friends with one: Janos. If we would miss a week, the servers would notice and ask why we didn't come by. We never expected to find our sense of community in a little Hungarian cafe.
- Hungary is known for its abundance of peppers (although originally not native to Hungary). Therefore, cooking with peppers and paprika is common in lots of dishes (side note: paprika is pepper in Hungarian). Traditional dishes are gulyas (goulash), csirke paprikas (chicken paprikash), palacsinta (crepes), langos (fried dough with sour cream and cheese), and my favorite, kurtoskalacs (this pull apart bread dough that is baked and sugar/cinnamon glazed). What I wasn't expecting was how good their cheese would be. I mean, don't get me wrong...it's not like the quality and abundance of cheese you might find in France or in the cheese section of your local Whole Foods, but their cheese was very simple (like farm cheese) and had a wonderful flavor. Every week I would buy a round of my favorite Hungarian cheese, Urda, and top it off with fresh berries and honey. Urda had a similar texture to ricotta and a very mellow flavor, making it a wonderful vehicle for the natural, local honey I would get at the market.
- Budapest has a pretty decent transportation system composed of buses, trams, and an underground metro. It is really easy to use and some of the buses, trams, and metro lines were really old, and I loved that about them. It made for a really unique experience instead of just an unmemorable way to get from point A to point B.
- Budapest has some of the coolest pubs I've ever seen. My favorites are the ruin pubs, bars and dance clubs that are housed in old buildings, "ruins." Our favorite also happened to be used as a Farmer's Market on Sundays: Szimpla Kert. The building is the most unique building I have ever seen. Inside, there was a functioning bar, cafe, kids' area, and food staging area. It was such a pleasure to step inside every Sunday, out of the sun and heat, and into the coolness of the building, where we would buy a 1/2 lb of raspberries, some cheese, some pickled veggies, and a beer (juice for Des) and spend an hour or two hanging out.
- The countryside around Budapest is absolutely lovely. Based on the recommendation of our dear friend and super talented artist Agnes, we visited Lake Balaton, about an hour's drive from Budapest, when my friend Sherrie came to visit. It was the end of summer and the leaves were JUST starting to change. We ate dinner al fresco in a village on the northern shore of Balaton, Tihany, atop of one of the hills. We could see the lake and all of the gorgeous surrounding countryside. Our friend Christy also came to visit us and we took a little day trip to Szentendre, a small town on the Danube that has maintained a lot of its historical architecture and is home for a lot of Hungarian artists.
- I really enjoyed Hungarian folk food, crafts, and dancing. And they take great pride in keeping those traditions alive. To celebrate America's birthday, Sherrie and I went to see a folk dance by the Hungarian State Folk Ensemble. My favorite is their embroidery: all of these beautiful flowers intertwined.