Eurotrip, Budapest 24 October 2013

A slowish start to the day. We wander to the market to pick up food for lunch but there isn’t really anything appropriate – no pre-made food. Still, I wish we had a market like this in Wellington – a big hall filled with stalls, rows on rows selling fruit, meat, cheeses etc.

We take a long walk past the opera up to the main park, which features the somewhat overblown Square of Heroes (lots of statues and so on, mostly of men with big Magyar mustaches and swords and horses). We spend about 15 minutes trying to work out how to get into the modern art gallery before a friendly coffee seller tells us it isn’t open yet. We sit and drink coffee with him, and have the beginnings of an interesting conversation about politics before he’s called away to deal with other customers. I’m relieved that he thinks his government (think anti-EU social conservatives) is crazy, and especially the party that (seriously) blames a Jewish conspiracy for Hungary’s problems. Those crazies got 16% at the last election, though.

Anyway, we head to the older art gallery. It’s big, I’ll give it that. And not a bad building, nor is it badly laid out, but most of the huge collection is second-rate (or, inconveniently, inaccessible because it’s going to be used in a new exhibition that looks fascinating but opens the day after we leave). Not really worth the time but mildly diverting. We don’t find anything worth seeing at the new gallery either, so Rhonda heads home and I visit the House of Terrors.

Like Leipzig, this is a commemoration of dictatorship based in the exact building that the secret police used as headquarters. Unlike Leipzig, it focuses less on the day-to-day mechanications of the police, and more on the wider social/political situation, and on the impact on individual Hungarians. it’s a fascinating exhibition, though much of the most impactful material is only in Hungarian (I’d love to know what Stalin said about the Hungarians, but it isn’t translated). The rooms are well laid-out, with a giant map of Russia in the carpet of one, a giant cross in the floor of another, and the room dealing with show trials having pews like a courtroom, covered in pages of evidence, and with file boxes on the walls. There are plenty of videos of interviews with victims – the most striking is a film showing women who had been interred in a labour camp returning to the camp and meeting an old guard – the guard’s memory of the camp cast herself as a kindly, almost maternal figure while the prisoners were terrified of her.

An interesting exhibition, though somewhat self-serving – Hungary is always the victim, carved up after the First World War (that was started by Austria-Hungary), forced into collaborating with the Nazis, then the victim of the Communists (which is fair enough, but there’s a sense that individual Hungarians were either vile collaborators, part of the state control mechanism, or innocent victims or brave opponents – there’s none of the moral ambiguity that I found in Krakow, which exposed to a greater extent those Poles who did nothing or mildly approved of Nazi victimisation of Jews). The exhibit ended with a chillingly effective reconstruction of the cells that really existed in the basement of the building.

Returned home and we went to BARbar, a hot chocolate bar round the corner from our apartment, ranked 15th best restuarant in Budapest by TripAdvisor. It was great, just the sort of thing that would be perfect on Cuba St (I had white chocolate with orange and cinnamon, delicious). We then went for dinner at Lado Cafe, which was excellent – I had beef stew with German style noodles – the noodles so well-cooked I could have eaten them on their own. A woman sang jazz standards from the far end of the room and it was all delightful.

We finished up in Szimpla Kert – probably one of the best bars I have ever been to, one that I think everyone I know would like. It’s a “ruin pub” – basically a pub that was created by people squatting an abandoned building and turning it into a pub. This one must be legit, as it’s been going for a decade and is well-known. It’s huge – several main rooms, with an outdoor area out the back and several side rooms, multiple bars – a wine bar, a cocktail bar, etc. Upstairs rooms where you can hide away with your friends. Trabant cars used as dining tables. Rooms with crazy decorations – graffiti on brick, cables hanging from the ceiling, obselete PCs showing graphics, toys hanging from the cables, lights and sounds triggered by switches on a switchboard….and that was just the small room we hung out in. Add in a DJ playing chillout, switching into more uptempo stuff and traditional songs (‘Golden Years’ was playing as we left) and it was perfect. Like a Shoreditch hipster bar, only bigger, better and with no attitude. So, so good.

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About simonchamberlain

New Zealand librarian and music fan, living in London.
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