Thursday, 25 October 2007

Nem Beszélek Magyarul

New York Cafe, originally uploaded by xrrr.

According to my guide book 'Nem beszélek magyarul' means 'I don't speak Hungarian'. Which is a shame because I am sure I would have got on a lot better this past week if I could.

Alison and I traveled to Budapest in 2002 and I was lucky to be able to pay a brief return visit this week.

+-+- Day 1 Saturday -+-+
I got off the plane and straight into a taxi. The first sign that Hungary is now part of the European Union was that the first three logos I saw from the taxi were (in order): Tesco, C&A and Shell. Very Hungarian so far. The last time we visited Budapest there were lots of unattractive, concrete apartment blocks on the outskirts of the city and a million and one Trabants. I don't know if I took a different route or it was dark but it seemed all very 'normal' for a continental European city. I doubt that they would have replaced the bulk of the housing in the past 5 years so I assume it was the route or the darkness.

New York Palace Hotel, originally uploaded by xrrr.

I was staying in the New York Palace Hotel. The hotel was chosen for me by the conference organisers because the conference hotel was fully booked due to my late booking (our company's foreign travel approval process is long winded at best). Now I would not normally stay at such an opulent hotel, especially on the company's coin, but this was only costing me around £120 a night. As you can see from the photos it is absolutely stunning. The room is probably about 3/5 the size as the flat Alison and I used to have in Farnborough. That was a small flat, but as hotel rooms go it was bloody big.

New York Palace Hotel, originally uploaded by xrrr.

New York Palace Hotel Room 430, originally uploaded by xrrr.

The New York Palace Hotel has only recently reopened after apparently being almost derelict for the past 20 years. The hotel was commissioned by the the New York Insurance Company and opened in 1894. The hotel fell on hard times after World War 2 and was nationalised during the soviet rule. The hotel and associated New York Cafe was eventually bought by Italian Boscolo hotel chain in 2001 and eventually reopened in 2006 after an extensive refit.

New York Palace Hotel, originally uploaded by xrrr.

New York Palace Hotel, originally uploaded by xrrr.

After spending a while photographing the hotel I went for a night time walk down to the river and spent the time having a stroll taking photographs.

Chain Bridge, originally uploaded by xrrr.

Royal Palace, originally uploaded by xrrr.

On the way back I wanted to go to the famous Gerbeaud Ház cafe for a coffee and a cake but I missed it closing by a few minutes. I took a route down the main shopping street and tourist drag Váci utca and whilst I had paused for a few moments to work out where I was I was approached by two "bottle blonde babes" in their mid 20s. They jabbered something to me in Hungarian (see it would have come in handy) and then we all determined that I was English and that they could speak English too. They said they were looking for a street and I said I had a map. After one of them poured over the map I made small talk with the other one whilst the other girl chipped in with Hungarian comments and translations. Eventually they found the bit they were after and were happy. As they wondered off they both looked back and asked me what I was doing and if I would like to join them!

Let me quote something from my guidebook:
"Budapest is generally a very safe city, but it is not without its dangers, especially late at night. Attractive peroxide-blondes promenading Váci utca and introducing themselves to single men may appear friendly and genuine at first sight, but, alas, they are not. If they insist you join them for a drink a bar of their choice, you should refrain from doing so. They are not prostitutes, but "consumption girls", employed by bars to bring in foreign men to buy them drinks - which, as will become apparent only after the bill arrives, costs thousands of Hungarian forints"
Váci utca. check!
Peroxide. check!
Lone man. check!
Late at night. Sort of (9pm) but: check!
Asked to join for drink. check!

"Thanks but no thanks!"

I *do* think the guidebook needs updating though, a glass of beer in my hotel costs thousands of Hungarian forints because there are about 350 forints to the pound!

Funilly enough I was talking to another conference delegate later in the week and he said he had overheard a conversation between a British guy and the hotel staff where the British guy was angry that he had been charged €2000 for 5 beers. The bouncer in the 'gentleman's club' he had been in had escorted him to a cash point to make him pay for his drinks! My guide book had cost me £13 and I bet he wished he had bought that instead :-)

Any way after than run in with the dodgy side of life I strolled back to the hotel and had some dinner in the New York Cafe with its baroque decoration and (because it was Saturday night) Jazz band. Great food and atmosphere, I highly recommend.

New York Cafe, originally uploaded by xrrr.

+-+- Day 2 Sunday -+-+
As my hotel room rate did not include breakfast and I was against paying £10 for a cup of coffee and a croissant I stopped at a kiosk in the local metro station and got a sandwich there instead.

Going Deeper Underground, originally uploaded by xrrr.

My plan for the day was to Metro train it over to the Buda old town and then walk down to the old market (which would be unfortunately closed as it was Sunday) and then over the bridge to the Gellert baths complex.

Moscow Square, originally uploaded by xrrr.

I started my walk in Moszkva tér which translates to Moscow Square but to me it was very reminiscent of City 17. Lots of grey buildings, tram lines and overhead tram cables. There were a few homeless people in the square and people hawking lace tablecloths and flowers.

Street Seller in Moscow Square, originally uploaded by xrrr.

I noticed a lot of homeless people in the city this time round. They were fairly obvious because they mostly carried a Tesco bag for life and could be seen rummaging in litter bins.

Moscow Square, originally uploaded by xrrr.

I walked up the hill to the old town of Buda. It could not be any more different to Moscow Square, old buildings, picturesque and *very* quiet. As it was Sunday, the north end of the town was very quiet.

Old Town Buda, originally uploaded by xrrr.

As I walked over to Fisherman's Bastion it got much busier and more touristy.

Fisherman's Bastion, originally uploaded by xrrr.

After admiring the views at Fisherman's Bastion and the front of the Royal Palace I strolled down the hill back to the Chain Bridge and walked into the Four Seasons Hotel Lobby at the far end of the bridge. No interior photos because the staff were all looking at me funny, but check the pictures on their web site.

Peregrine Falcon (I think), originally uploaded by xrrr.

I walked back to the Gerbeaud Ház cafe for a coffee and a cake (it was open this time) and after drinking (yet) another small cup of coffee I was really hankering after a drink that took more than 3 sips to drink.

Fatal Restaurant, originally uploaded by xrrr.

I happened across a restaurant that Alison and I enjoyed on our last visit called Fatál. The sign noted that it had air conditioning. It bloody needed it as it is a cellar restaurant and when we went last time in the Hungarian summer I found it was almost fatal. A fatál by the way is the large wooden dish that they serve up the food on.

I got to the market place that was closed, I knew it would be closed but I went on the off chance. Last time we went to Budapest it was full of amazing stalls selling whole heads of pig and cows feet etc. Alas it was closed so I could not gawp.

Outside the market the road was all closed because it turns out they are building a forth Metro tunnel. I took a look at the website for the project and it is actually really interesting! Honestly! I took the opportunity to photo-document a pair of Ladas parked up by the hoardings.

Lada 2105, originally uploaded by xrrr.

Lada 1600, originally uploaded by xrrr.

I popped over the bridge to the Gellert Hotel. We had been for a swim here last time and I hoped to get a few photos of the interior. Unfortunately you had to pay to swim to get in (even if you did not intend to swim) so I caught the Metro back to hotel and chilled out.

+-+- Day 3 Monday -+-+
Went to work, nothing interesting to report.

At the conference, originally uploaded by xrrr.

+-+- Day 4 Tuesday -+-+
Went to work, nothing interesting to report. Part of the conference was a meal out at the Gundel Étterem. One of the best restaurants in Hungary. We were in the function room (as there were about 200 of us) and had a 'gypsy band' that did not look very gypsy like. I was expecting 'Dexy's Midnight Runners' but they were 4 old blokes in black ties playing the violin, harpsichord and clarinet. They were very good and the food and Tokaji was tip top also. The restaurant owns it own vineyards so I bought a bottle of Gundel Tokaji Aszú from the airport for Alison. I also bought Alison a small bottle of Unicum as a joke. Unicum is a Hungarian digestive liqueur and best described as an 'acquired taste' i.e. horrible.

On the way back to the hotel we had a short bus tour round the city, whilst the tour guide was trying to get us to concentrate on the city sights all of us on the bus were more interested in the 20 vehicle strong police convoy consisting of water cannons, armoured cars and buses full of police. October 23 is the anniversary of the 1956 uprising against the Soviet occupation but this year also coincided with a demonstration against the current government. Riots had occurred the night before on the other side of town!

Cash, originally uploaded by xrrr.

+-+- Day 5 Wednesday -+-+
Went to work. Had a mad taxi ride through the soviet style concrete block apartment suburbs - the ones that I had thought were missing on day 1. They were still there, it was just dark on Saturday!

Budapest is definitely a city where the gap between rich and poor is very evident. Five star hotels are separated by rows of tatty looking shops, often with homeless men sleeping in the shop fronts.

Budapest has the feel of a city that once saw really great times (e.g. all of the amazing buildings and infrastructure built in the 1890s). A lot of the central Pest part of the city was built especially for the 1896 World Fair and 1000 year birthday of the country. Since World War II (when a lot of the city was destroyed and then rebuilt after the war) and the Soviet 'Oppression' the city went through a period of decline. Hungary lost a lot of its territory and almost all of its natural resources after WW2 and therefore lost a lot of its heavy industry. Nowadays the country survives on agriculture and tourism and to me seems to be starting to make a recovery - at least in central Budapest - maybe it was the fall of the Iron Curtain or entry to the European Union has helped, maybe both.

Parliament Building, originally uploaded by xrrr.

Chain Bridge, originally uploaded by xrrr.

If you have not been, I urge you to visit Budapest as it is a wonderful place to visit.

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