Budapest, bent and a little down at the heels, but still plucky, still classy

from Russia with love

Chain-link Bridges and funiculars

Up the Danube
Why did we come here

Why did we come here? The reasons are amorphous: it is in part because we knew that it was an old and beautiful city, and of course one from which very many talented people have emerged, but we also thought it might be interesting to see a city only beginning to crawl out from under nearly a century of fascism and communism; I guess we just wanted to see how they’re doing.  This is the first city on our trip that seems to me truly “European” in the grand sense of architecture and fine sensibility. The architecture truly is grand, and while one cannot expect to be able to detect much sign of “sensibility” in such a short visit, it was visible in obscure, and silent, ways.

The Danube river separates Buda from Pest. Buda is the older city on the west side of the river topped by a magnificent castle on the high hill, while Pest, the more commercial of these twins, is across the river, and low and flat. Historically Buda was the dominant city, perhaps regal is the better  term, while Pest was the commercial city with easy access to the river. But Pest eventually became larger, and Hungary’s magnificent parliament building was built there, facing the Danube.  We spent most of our time in Pest, in part because it is hilly and it is difficult for me to walk uphill, but mostly because Pest is now where most of the people are.

Since the city is bisected by the Danube river there are of course numerous bridges, just as there are in Pittsburgh, a city of several rivers. I was surprised to see that some of the bridges in Budapest were of quite an unusual type, a type that has also been built in Pittsburgh, and in no other cities that I’m aware of. This type is called a chain-link bridge, a kind of a suspension bridge without cables, one that uses parallel sets of specially forged steel bars linked together with strong steel pins at regular joints along the span.  Thus it hangs freely in a catenary curve, as does a “chain,” or a cable bridge.

I presume that the bridges here are much older than those in Pittsburgh and that somehow this technology, which depends on a relatively advanced steelmaking capability, was imported from Europe to Pittsburgh. Having now seen a little of central Europe, where many Pittsburghers’ ancestors originated, I can see strong resemblances, though unlike in Pittsburgh, the bridges here in Budapest are supported on great piers of stone, with marvelous carvings. Pittsburgh was all business. Any grandeur was incidental.

Another very unusual structure here in Budapest, that also can be seen in Pittsburgh, is called variously, an incline, or a funicular. It provides transportation up and down a very steep hill. Cables that wind up on a drum pull a tram up a pair of rails. At one time a steam engine powered these funiculars, but now an electric motor does the job.

Nearly all buildings here are built of stone or brick, with wrought iron much in evidence. And while these edifices are usually dark and grimy, their underlying grandeur and elaborate detail, raises them from the merely “dingy.” I noticed that in an effort to rejuvenate a grimy building the Budapestians occasionally resort to paint, rendering one building in a grimy block almost surreally iridescent.  One does not need to stroll very far to see that many buildings remain pockmarked from bullets, silent testament to Budapest’s past, and the overwhelming sense that life here has differed greatly from life in, say, Peoria, Illinois. And yet in some strange, near-Transylvanian manner, it only increases its appeal.


This is the first place on our trip where English does not seem to be widely spoken. The second language here, after Hungarian, or more correctly, “Magyar,” is German, with English a distant third. A trip to a pharmacy here, to replenish some drug that I was running out of, was a frustrating one. She, the pharmacist, at first expected me to speak Hungarian, and when it became obvious that I could not, she switched to German. Of course, I do look German, but that didn’t work either, since I know about as much German as I do Hungarian. I have been to pharmacies all over the world practically, and this is the first where English was not spoken.  The problem was resolved by our returning to the hotel to get the near-empty bottle of the drug I needed, and making another run at it. All pharmacies it seems, have some large book with drug equivalents around the world. In the end, I got what I needed, or something close to it. By the way, no prescriptions are necessary here, except perhaps for codeine or something potentially habit-forming like that. This is true practically all over the world, except for the United States, where physicians seem to have a lock on the prescription business.

We stay in a rather nondescript two-star hotel, perhaps a step or two up from our aparthotel in Istanbul. The beds are small here too as, it seems, is true over the entire world, excepting only the US. It has a restaurant on the second floor, and the restaurant has a bar. A singular blessing, the bartender at the restaurant is friendly, and speaks passable English. This makes me notice another thing that is true practically the world over, again excepting only the US: bartenders are men. One should not underestimate the value of a good bartender. Not only can he make a very good drink and transition you very nicely from stresses both physical and mental to a state of tranquility, but he is a fountain of information, always a good thing but especially helpful when traveling.


Walking around, we discover The Market. It is The Market because it is a grand place designed by no less than Eiffel himself, of Eiffel tower fame. I love walking in such places, even when it is impossible for me to prepare food. I like to look at the fish, always unique to the place one is visiting, and I like to see how they cut the meat in fashions different than our own. And of course the grand arrays of vegetables and fruits tell one something about the surrounding area. 

Marketing in The Market is different than merely shopping in a supermarket. Here one interacts with sellers who, on the whole, know what they’re doing. As an example of what I mean, I once in the United States tried to buy a pork loin roast with some fat on it which, it seems to me improves the flavor and the gravy.  It seemed a simple thing to me, but the “butcher”, nowadays rechristened the “meat cutter,” said to me, “ I can’t do that, it comes in already cut off by the wholesaler. You see,” he explained, as though to a simpleton, “people don't eat fat anymore.”

As I travel I continue to be surprised at how popular and very good ice cream is. For some reason I had the impression that ice cream was a thing of the United States, as pizza is a thing of Italy. Both notions, I find out, are wrong. And here in Budapest ice cream is ubiquitous and very delicious.

Of course the national dish here is Hungarian goulash, made from clunks of beef or pork and lots of paprika which, in turn, is made from the peppers that you can see drying at the market, just above. Goulash isn’t bad—and the peppers work well against vampires too—but it is not great either. And after trying it once or twice it can easily be put aside for more adventuresome fare.

It is an interesting adventure to look at a restaurant’s menu on the wall and realize that you can understand absolutely nothing. This begins a process inside to see whether the waiter can understand English. Usually he can’t so he will rattle off something very, very fast in Hungarian, only this time louder, on the theory that then you will understand it. Finally, when this breaks down, he will reluctantly go to the kitchen or to some room in the back to solicit help. If no help is forthcoming you can do one of three things: first, of course, you can get up and leave; second, you can look around at nearby diners to see if any are eating anything that looks good, then you point to it and then to your mouth (I have sunk this low on extreme occasions, but it is crude); third, screw up your courage, take a shot in the dark and just point out something on the menu and say “Da” or something positive-sounding like that. This can occasionally be interesting, and occasionally disastrous, but if you’re in the correct mood—and for me that means that I have a drink on the table—it can be pleasant just waiting to see what one will be having for supper.

Here, as everywhere else in Europe, people enjoy sitting at a table outside and watching the people stream by. There is perhaps no show that quite equals watching people; it is endlessly fascinating. Here in Budapest it has been brought to a fine art.  Quite grand restaurants have very large terraces, or they simply take space on the city square (for which they probably pay the city fathers), and you may have a choice of even 30 or 40 tables.  Mostly people will be eating something sweet and having a coffee, or drinking a beer or a mineral water.  Few rush through this process which can take hours. 

We spend a very interesting three or four days here just walking around, going to restaurants, and being what in Spanish is termed simply “tranquilo” but we decide that it’s time to move on.


Our next stop is Vienna which, as it happens, is just up the river from Budapest a few hours.  So we decide to take a ride up the river on a small hydrofoil, a boat that after it achieves a certain speed lifts up and out of the water on two thin horizontal underwater planes thus reducing the friction and increasing the boat’s speed dramatically.  We had once before traveled on a hydrofoil, in Buenos Aires, but it was such a large ship that one did not get the same feel as on this boat which is only about 60ft long.  Also the Danube is a very pleasant river, covered by forests on each side and, as the song goes, “blue”.

The next morning we take a taxi to the pier in Pest, purchase our tickets, and board the boat. The boat people take care of stowing our luggage, which I appreciate.  Passengers sit at small, fixed tables, and drinks are served. My kind of boat. We leave the dock slowly of course but after awhile the boat begins to plane and the speed accelerates markedly. We’re told that we are going about 50 miles an hour. We just relax and watch the scenery go by. It’s cool but the sun is shining brightly.  After some time a small lunch is served.  A very pleasant trip. We slip right past Slovakia on our right and eventually come to dockside at what they call “Wien,” you know, as in wieners.