Every year in October a particular best friend of mine organises a trip in honour of his birthday, and invites everyone he knows to join him. The destinations are always interesting European cities, and I’ve been lucky enough to take part in almost all of these trips, which have included Riga, Berlin, Krakow, Vilnius, Paris and Kiev. This year our exciting annual foray took us to Budapest.
This is the second time I’ve been to Budapest. The first was in 1997, a mere six years after Soviet occupation ended, and it was quite a different place. Welcoming restaurants were thin on the ground, whereas nowadays, of course, there are endless interesting places to eat and drink, with tables set out invitingly on pavements and something for every taste. I also recall Trabants – those boxy, utilitarian cars unique to the Eastern bloc – being everywhere in 1997, and I must admit to having been a little obsessed with them back then. Made of a similar substance to bakelite, they came in a range of funky colours – yellow, pale blue, lime green – like retro cookware. Their design was unchanged in 30 years, looking uncannily like a child’s drawing of a car, and seemed to perfectly embody the strange otherness of Soviet-Era Eastern Europe.
Nowadays Trabants are a rare sight, and the only place you’re likely to see one is a museum. We visited one such place, called Memento Park on the outskirts of the city, which is effectively a graveyard for communist monuments and statues. Having uprooted these gigantic unwanted tributes to heroic workers or figures like Lenin and Marx from around Hungary, rather than melt them down or smash them up, it was decided to preserve them as relics of cultural interest. All except for the giant 25 metre statue of Stalin that stood in the centre of Budapest, which was sawn off at the knees during the 1956 Hungarian uprising, leaving just the boots. A replica of this somewhat comical effigy stands at the entrance to the park.
Designed to be imposing and hammer home the message of Soviet supremacy, these ugly, overbearing monuments must’ve looked so out of place in elegant, ornamental Budapest, with its Art Nouveau buildings and splendid cafes. No wonder the communist experiment never caught on! Fortunately, some of the historic coffee houses that characterised the pre-Iron Curtain city still survive, and we made a point of stopping in at one or two.
The New York Cafe describes itself as ‘the most beautiful cafe in the world’, and to be honest they do have a point! Although it looks grand, you don’t have to be posh or privileged to go there – prices are quite reasonable and the clientele is very mixed. One of my companions had read that in the days when journalists frequented here a writer would file his copy by passing it to his editor who would be sitting at another table, and the editor would pass him his payment. It sounds to me like an excellent way of working, and I could happily make this place my office and drink their delicious hazelnut coffee all day.
We also visited cafe Muvesz, which boasts cosy decor and delicious cakes. If you’re looking for something a little more intimate then this one fits the bill.
The weather, although mild for October, was particularly wet, so not being one for umbrellas I fended off the rain quite happily with my Aislinn hat. However, the reason I never bother with umbrellas is because I always lose them, and unfortunately I managed to do the same thing with Aislinn! Stuffing her under my arm whilst looking round an absorbing museum (the sobering House of Terror) clearly wasn’t the best plan. But happily, thanks to the lovely, non-English-speaking staff who responded straight away to the universal sign language for ‘hat’, Aislinn and I were reunited.
Tomorrow is the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, and I’ll be enjoying homemade Hungarian goulash and raising a glass to that turning point in history, when tyranny crumbled away and Eastern Europe was able to start rediscovering itself. Kedves egeszsegere!*
* Cheers in Hungarian!