Budapest, Hungary: Mentored by a Local

It had been weeks since Hannah and I found ourselves in a truly major city. Budapest was alive and we could feel it in the large number of people and endless attractions and things to do. In fact, we became worried we might not fit everything we wanted in during our short 4 night stay.

The beginning of our visit to Budapest involved a walking tour. Our guide provided some history, language, food, and cultural information which always helped provide context. Hungarian is one of the top 10 most difficult languages to learn, according to our guide. Budapest is also known as a gastro destination for food enthusiasts. The history of Hungary is a complicated one. It was embroiled in several wars and, as our guide put it, had a habit of falling on the wrong side at times. It found itself under occupation at various points by the Huns, the Ottoman Empire, and the Austrian Hapsburgs. It eventually led to revolution and, although having lost the war, was granted independence and more equal footing with Austria. During WW1, Hungary naturally sided with the Austrian empire, as it was part of the bigger Austro-Hungarian empire. In WW2, Hungary was on the side of Germany and Italy, which also did not end well. After the war during the carving of “spheres of influence” by the Allied powers, the Soviet Union stuck around and inculcated communism for decades.

Budapest which is bisected by the Danube River was once originally two different cities, Buda and Pest. Buda was hilly and filled with lush clusters of green trees. We walked up the three-part white stone staircases that led to the terrace of Fisherman’s Bastion. Towers and windows brimmed with tourists looking down at the cityscape of Pest across the Danube. At the pinnacle of the hill, the roof of St. Mathias Church gleamed in the sun. The red and yellow tiles of the roof are made from a unique Hungarian porcelain that has a substantially long life. Crowds of tourists happily basked in the beautiful weather as they took in the views.

Fall was in full force as we walked a pedestrian promenade toward Buda Castle. It is my favorite season of the year. A light breeze dropped dozens of colorful leaves across the walk. Donning long sleeves, Hannah and I marveled at the massive courtyards, historic ruins, Gothic architecture. The entire city spread out before our eyes, and we knew that our 4 days were not long enough. We hiked down the steps to the riverfront and proceeded to our next sight: the Gellert Hill Cave. It was a church built in 1903, hewn into the rock face. The church’s history was multifaceted. It was shut down and a large wall placed around it during decades of Soviet occupation in Budapest after WW2. It re-opened in 1989 after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Pauline order resumed care of the church. Inside the cave passages, several small chapels and altars were tucked in craggy rock corners.

On the Pest side, the crisp morning air made for a perfect walking atmosphere as we rounded the corner to the Hungarian Parliament building. It is an incredible example of architecture. As the second largest government building in the world (Romania has #1), it boasts 365 separate spires and towers. Our Airbnb was situated in a historic Jewish district in the Pest side of Budapest. We snacked on langos, a deep fried, round flat dough with garlic and sour cream.

This visit to Budapest brought special meaning for me. I graduated in 2013 from Webster University with a Master of Arts in Management. 4 year later, I wanted to give back and applied to be an alumni mentor for a current student. The program coordinator explained Webster does its best to match based on career or professional interests, and I did not get matched the first year. I was a bit disheartened but thought perhaps next year. The second year (2017) I was matched with a woman, Zsuzsanna, studying abroad from Hungary with a background in finance and pursuing an MBA.

Though I wondered how much actual “mentorship” I was able to provide given her intelligence, experience, and ambition, we still stayed in touch 2 years through social media after the program. We finally had the opportunity to meet during this visit. Hannah, Zsuzsanna, and I shared a delicious dinner of some typical Hungarian dishes and wine at a restaurant called Borze, which translates to “stock exchanges”. It was located across the street from a beautiful building that formerly housed the Hungarian Stock Exchange. Hannah and I started off sharing a savory Hungarian pancake starter and ghoulash while Zsuzsanna had a pate. For our mains, I enjoyed a sort of beef stew while Hannah ate something akin to sausages, au gratin potatoes, and boiled egg. It was all delicious. Zsuzsanna kindly provided us with many amazing recommendations on things to see in the city, places to eat, and local tips.

North of our Airbnb, City Park stretched its green lawns and forested clusters to the busy streets of Budapest’s suburbs. Inside the park, We explored the grounds of Vajdahunyad Vara, a Hungarian castle from 1896. It left me reminiscent of English country estates that I had seen. In Heroes Square, a crew was hurriedly preparing a sound stage for a concert later that evening while tourist buses deposited crowds of interested travelers.

Hannah and I have come to vastly appreciate markets and fresh food along this trip. Any time that a city contained one, it became a must stop. The Central Market Hall is a permanent structure where artisans sell traditional Hungarian clothing and souvenirs upstairs, while downstairs is a maze of fresh vegetables, fruit, meat, and fish. The is one segment upstairs with prepared food vendors selling hot lunches and snacks. Hannah and I each chose something for a quick bite and settled in among strangers at the shaky tables. Hers was a nutella langos and mine was a sesame bread cone with Hungarian sausages and onion. We waddled away through stalls after to select a small Christmas ornament to take home since we fell so in love with the city.

Another evening, Zsuzsanna met up with us and educated us on the finer points of cake selection at Szamos Gourmet Has. One fun tradition that takes place each year is the “cake of the year” where a special flavor is chosen and celebrated throughout the year. We tried this among several others. To my befuddlement, my wife left cake on the table. Her sweet tooth had been satisfied and it was just too rich to go on. Afterwards, our friend took us to another staple of Budapest: a ruin bar. The bar was situated in a worn “ruined” building and contained an eclectic smattering of décor. The interior was dim in places but lit with strings of colorful bulbs. The area we sat in contained an old medicine cabinet with antique pharmaceutical and medical vials. Other rooms held similarly unique items. This was but one of the several “ruin bars” that exist in Budapest. Hannah and I normally do not explore cities much at night and it was great to have a friend show us something we otherwise might have missed.

Our final day started off with a tour of St. Stephen’s Basilica. The church houses a peculiar relic, the right hand of St. Stephen of Hungary. The church was not very available earlier in the stay due to a birthday party for Will Smith in the square. He has an apparent affinity for Budapest and filmed some of his recent movie in the city. After, we shared wonderful brunch with Zsuzsanna at Elso Pesti Reteshaz. Bakers stretched out the warm, pliably thin dough into a large rectangle and filled it in different sections with apricots, grapes, nuts, sweet cheese curd, sour cherries, cinnamon apples, and many more to make strudels.

During lunch, Zsuzsanna explained the Hungarian tradition of a “name day” where all those of a given name are celebrated, like a birthday. She explained that hers is in February and florists love it because there are so many Zsuzsannas. Hungary regulates name giving, to an extent. She told us that there is a central registry where parents of Hungarian descent choose the name of their child. They can potentially propose a new name be added, but it is reviewed by a committee before acceptance or denial, and often denied. You won’t see any Blue Ivys or Psalms added any time soon. Because of this, many people bear similar names in the country. We parted ways full of strudel with the traditional Hungarian kiss on each cheek. It was great to meet a friend on the road and the experience was magnified thanks to her. East meets West in Budapest, and it is a lovely combination.

Hannah and I spent the next 5 hours or so in the Budapest airport dealing with some delays before our late evening flight to Amsterdam.


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