Budapest: Recreating childhood memories with someone new
By Joanne Murphy
The Hungarian Parliament Building. (Image: Gabinho, CC BY-SA 40)
I grinned back at my boyfriend Barney as he trailed behind me, hot and flustered in the unusual October heat. It had been twenty minutes since we passed the Szent Gellért Monument, the bronze sculpture of bishop Gerard of Csanád holding one arm out with a crucifix to the city. The sound of the waterfall beneath it could still be heard in the distance. With raised eyebrows, Barney questioned my motive for this uphill hike after we had spent a day walking around central Budapest. “You’ll see,” I said confidently, hoping he would appreciate our final destination.
We arrived at Budapest International Airport in the morning and made our way to the arrivals lounge to meet our Airbnb owner Paul. This was my first time visiting the city without my mother, who is Hungarian, and I was intent on everything going smoothly. After a brief conversation with Paul that had left Barney fascinated by hearing me talk the language, but clueless nonetheless, we headed to where we were staying.
Once we settled into the spacious penthouse apartment that would be our home for the next three nights, Barney and I embarked on the first part of our trip. A 36-metre-wide pedestrianised street known as Corvin promenade was on our doorstep, with restaurants and cafés located just in front of the ninth-district's most popular mall, Corvin Plaza. We walked past the shopping centre’s full-length glass windows and marble architecture. “It’s so modern here,” said Barney, as if he had not expected it to be. I zipped open my purse, counting my forint to check if it was enough to purchase our Budapest Travel Cards at Corvin-negyed station - meaning “Corvin-quarter”. The station was central to the development the area, which was demolished during the Hungarian Revolution, and was one of six to open between major transport hubs Deák Ferenc tér and Nagyvárad tér almost 50 years ago.
As we headed down the station stairs, away from the yellow and white trams and busy traffic above, a sweet aroma of cinnamon and sugar warmed my heart with childhood memories. Walking through crowds of smartly-dressed office workers and grocery shoppers, I was drawn to a cylinder-shaped pastry with steam rising from its centre - Kürtöskalács (“Chimney cake”). The traditional recipe from the Transylvanian Saxons, part of Hungary for 800 years until proclaimed by Romania in the 20th century, is now sold everywhere from kiosks in underground stations to exclusive bakeries.
“Look,” said Barney, pointing to the tranquil River Danube that appeared over the steps at Fővám tér station. So far, his reticent reactions and modest expressions had not given much away but was this enthusiasm the first sign of his appreciation for the city?
“The river separates the Buda and Pest sides”, I told him; the banks of which boast the city’s famous structures for tourists travelling on cruise boats.
We passed under the tall buildings in the ninth and fifth districts, their light-coloured bricks glowing with warm hues. The exquisite buildings such as that of Corvinus University and the Great Market Hall preserve their history, undisturbed by skyscrapers that exert modernity in other cities. Of course, the areas have been revitalised with glass office buildings, international restaurants and meticulously decorated shop windows that lead to side streets of buildings with closed shutters and graffitied walls.
As we turned another corner, Barney’s attention was commanded by a neoclassical dome between two large bell towers, built with neat limestone bricks and the most astonishing gold-detailed arch. Having experienced several renovations since it was completed in 1905, the Roman Catholic Szent István-bazilika (St. Stephen's Basilica) is the now third-largest church building in Hungary, and, besides a devout community of believers, it also hosts concerts. A woman with a red jumper tied around her waist emerged from the crowds of tourists in the square. “Can you take a picture of us?” she asked, handing Barney her phone. Trying to fit the full-structure in the lens, Barney whispered: “The photos on social media never make it look as good as it does in real life”.
Inset above: Chimney Cake, (Image:Sugaryums.co.uk)
Above: St Stephen's Basilica (Image: Adam Kliczek, CC BY-SA 3.0)
When we arrived at the Hungarian Houses of Parliament, I somewhat expected it to be less grand or magnificent than in my memory. It was not. My eyes followed the endless neo-Gothic style peaks, arched windows and stone statues that border the nineteenth-century building. “The original architect lost his sight before it was completed,” I said, mimicking my Nagypapi (Grandad) trying to keep my attention as a little girl. Standing beside the towering granite columns, I recalled how he told me that they were the only foreign element; he was immensely proud of the building, of its Hungarian craftmanship and the political and historical messages that go far beyond its visual elegance. As I pulled Barney in beside me for protection from the evening breeze, I thought about all the other stories that my Nagypapi must have had that I never got to hear. I could picture him smiling at me lovingly as I attempted to do the city justice.
The next morning, craving coffee to fuel the day ahead, we headed next door to Costa. Barney’s eyes locked on a croissant through the glass but I wasn’t going to give in. Lipóti Pékség, a Hungarian bakery just inside the doors of Corvin Plaza, reminded me of the pastries my Nagyi (Nan) used to feed me on our visits. I spotted my favourites: Kakaós csiga (“cocoa swirls”) and Sajtos pogácsa (“mini cheese scones”).
Vaci Street, Budapest. (Image: Joanne Murphy)
From there, we ventured out to Váci street and walked among the crowds of tourists that were circling statues in its several squares and 18th century buildings reclaimed as modern shops like H&M. We continued through the surrounding areas leading to the prestigious Fashion Street, home to luxury brands such as Massimo Dutti and Tommy Hilfiger. “This looks a bit like London,” said Barney, picking up on the modern retail development’s influences from Regent Street and Bond Street. Shopping bags in hand, we arrived at Karavan Street Food Fair just a few blocks away. “Nice?” I asked Barney, as he ate his BBQ chicken wrap. “Nice,” he responded, though his eyes showed regret as I devoured my glossy golden flatbread – known as Lángos”, originating from when Hungarian villagers used left over dough to create breakfast - thick with a layer of sour cream and cheese.
Feeling full up, we waved down a taxi outside. I knew how drivers could overcharge English tourists, but I hoped that my confident “Jó napot kivánok” - meaning “good day” - would be enough to avoid suspicion. I was wrong. The stubbly-faced driver pulled over and without looking back, said, “10,000 forints”. This was at least three times the normal price. Barney contested but as the driver’s bushy brows narrowed and voice became sterner, it became clear that he was not going to back down. I insisted it wasn’t worth the hassle and urged Barney out of the car to our apartment.
As the clouds fused with orange and pink hues, we set off across the Elizabeth Bridge. Standing in front of a small man-made waterwall lit by blue lights at the bottom of Gellért Hill, the walk ahead of us was far higher than we could see. Barney displayed much hesitation. “We have to walk up there?” he asked in a squeaky pitch. “Yup”, I replied, already several wooden-edged dirt steps ahead. Before long, the noise below became muted and glimpses of the view became visible through the trees. We took the final step to face the tiny cars passing on the bridge and twinkling lights that gave signs of life in the city. “Okay,” he said. “It was worth it”, with a reassuring smile and arm pulling me by his side.
View of Buda Castle (Image: Jakub Hałun, CC BY-SA 4.0)
Soon though, we were away from the tranquillity of the Buda side and passing through the arches of Goszdu Udvar (“Gozsdu Courtyard”), comprised of seven buildings draped with fairy lights and seething with energy. Down an alley fluorescently lit by the bars and restaurants on either side, tables were booming with locals and outsiders entertaining themselves over muffled music. A short walk away, we joined a sluggish queue for the famous ruin bar Szimpla Kert – meaning “simple garden” -, which led the way for buildings dilapidated since World War 2 to be recast as the heart of nightlife in Budapest. Minutes passed and, this being my own first visit, I worried that it would fall short of expectation. A stone-faced bouncer nodded us into a vibrant space with neon signs, eccentric art, sculptures and a Trabant car with splashes of paint in the centre of a courtyard. Every themed room thumped with music, kinetic dancing and drama. I got the feeling that this was an intersection that connected those who call the city home and those who are passing through. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” said Barney, with a teeth-bearing smile as he swept past shoulders of bouncing ravers and middle-aged couples clinging onto their wine.
Night panorama of the Gellért Hill with the illuminated Buda Castle, Matthias Church, DanubeChain Bridge, Parliament, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, St. Stephen's Basilica, Budapest Eye and Vigadó Concert Hall (Image: Katonams, CC BY-SA 4.0)
On our full last day, Barney and I set off in search of breakfast. We stumbled across the terrace of CRYANO, a restaurant with traditional cuisine fused with international flavours. Barney approved. “This is unreal,” he said, piling on another combination of Hungarian meats, scrambled egg and finely sliced potato fries onto his fork.
As we crossed under the cast iron structures of the Széchenyi Chain bridge which connects the western and eastern sides of the city, I recalled my mum and Nagypapi debating whether the funicular or walk-up Castle Hill would be more suitable for me and my two brothers. But, to Barney’s relief, we did neither. Our tour guide and buggy drive was not a national but did an excellent job at delivering the information while gesturing enthusiastically at the architecture. I went to speak. “Shh,” said Barney, angling his ear closer to the driver. I couldn’t help but smile at the interest he showed in the history of the changing of the guards protecting the Buda Castle. The wind rushed through my hair as we swept round the 800-year-old cobble-stoned complex which served the Hungarian Kings; the Matthias Church, popular view-point Fisherman's Bastion, and other historical buildings, including pastel-coloured houses, were part of a medieval town frozen in time.
We found shade in a small café terrace in the castle, reminiscing over the view of the River Danube and Houses of Parliament on the other side. Almost ten years after my last visit to the city, I hoped that I was able to instil in Barney memories similar to those that I had cherished. He flipped the first page of a brochure handed to him by the driver and sighed with contentment.
“We have to come again,” he said.
About the Author
Joanne Murphy is a freelance writer and Journalism BA student at The University of Roehampton. She has been published in Happiful Magazine and has a wide portfolio of multi-media work, including from experience in her roles as a Digital Content Producer and Newsletter Writer.
With a special interest in health and wellness, Joanne sees cooking as a form of escapism and enjoys exploring different cultures through their culinary practices.
She shares her work to her website https://thejournalbyjo.wixsite.com/mysite and posts additional content to her professional Instagram page @thejournalbyjo.”