Inside Europe’s Most Enigmatic City

Seeking the wonderfully disorienting effect of travel, writer Taras Grescoe ventures to Budapest, where bewilderment ensues.

Inside Europe’s Most Enigmatic City

Photos by Trujillo Paumier

I thought I had my addiction under control.

I always considered the travel bug one of those socially acceptable vices—akin to an obsession with word games or Tuscan reds—that contains hidden virtues. Doing the Saturday New York Times crossword can train your mind, and collecting Chianti Gran Riservas, your palate; travel, at its best, is a cleansing regression to earliest childhood. When your vocabulary is limited to a few dozen words and you find yourself miming hunger by pointing to your mouth; when unfamiliar streets and baffling geography make you lose your way back to your guesthouse; when every day feels like the first day of school and the cultural learning curve is Himalaya-high—that’s when you have become an innocent abroad, and you know you are truly traveling.

It’s been a while, though, since Europe made me feel as fresh-eyed as a child. Since I took my first trip overseas (England, BritRail Pass, age 13), I’ve puffed on hookahs in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar and hiked the Celtic pilgrimage routes to Galician-speaking Fisterra in Spain. But the prospect of a trip to Oslo or Naples no longer thrills me the way it used to. Excitement today involves eating llama steaks in a Quechua-speaking village in Bolivia’s altiplano. Or, to really experience the glorious disorientation of travel, decoding the rituals of a backstreet ryokan in Osaka. As grateful as I am to the old continent, which was the gateway drug to my wanderlust, lately it hasn’t provided that salutary return to childhood I crave.


Photo by Trujillo Paumier

But I’d forgotten about Budapest. Ever since I picked up an odd little book called Budapest: A Critical Guide in the late ’90s, the Hungarian capital has been my Mitteleuropa Timbuktu. The guidebook’s cover showed the author, András Török, self-described “Dissident no. 666,” a dashing figure with jet-black hair, a blood-red shirt, and a young Einstein mustache. He sat seamlessly Photoshopped into the terrace of a fin-de-siècle café. According to the Critical Guide, Budapest was a city where the Children’s Railway was actually run by children, where grown men gathered after work to drink wine spritzers and play chess on floating boards in 500-year-old bathhouses, and where the local street food included a giant doughnut slathered with sour cream and garlic. It was the hometown not only of Bela Lugosi, Hollywood’s most laconic Dracula, but also of Ernő Rubik, inventor of the maddening multicolored puzzle that plagued my childhood. Török’s guide painted Budapest as the Bizarro World of Europe, a place, like the cube-shaped planet in the Superman comics, where everything was more than a little askew.

Now, though, as my wife enters her final months of pregnancy, it looks as though my days of spontaneous getaways are over. Fatigue looms, not from jet lag but from 4 a.m. diaper changes. Willingly and joyfully, we are on the verge of becoming what many would agree are humanity’s ultimate homebodies—new parents. Erin, who spent a week in Hungary on her post-university walkabout, figures I have just barely enough time before I need to devote my spare hours to stroller-shopping, nursery painting, and Mommy and Me classes. For the sake of domestic tranquillity, it’s probably healthy for me to get Budapest, that symbol of unattained yearning, out of my system before I embark on the new journey of parenthood.

Go ahead, Erin tells me, feel like a kid one last time, if you must. Just don’t forget to bring me back a snow globe. (It’s a little ritual we have.) And it’d better be a really good one, she adds.

Which explains why I find myself standing on a hill overlooking the curve in the Danube, the river that splits Budapest in two like a sultan’s scimitar. I clutch a canary-yellow guidebook in my hand, trying to puzzle out one of the weirdest cities I’ve ever seen.


Photo by Trujillo Paumier

To begin with, Budapest is not one city but two. My hotel, the 1918-vintage art nouveau Gellért, looks over the Danube. The Gellért is in stately, leafy Buda, where crenellated hilltop fortifications and zigzagging residential streets remind me sometimes of a shadowy Prague, sometimes of a sun-dappled Lisbon. On the other side of the Danube, you find the broad boulevards of flat, hectic Pest, where blocks of neobrutalist concrete straight out of suburban Kraków suddenly give way to elegant buildings that look like they could have been airlifted from Paris’s Right Bank (if their facades weren’t still pockmarked with shrapnel from the 1956 uprising against the Soviets).

After all these years of navigating the capitals of Europe, I pride myself on landing like a cat, ready to hit the ground running. But Budapest is making me feel more like a bumble-footed toddler. Part of the problem is the language. Magyar, a Finno-Ugric tongue of obscure Siberian origin, can sometimes feel like an elaborate conspiracy to confuse outsiders. In Vörösmarty Square I overhear a young woman squealing what sounds like “Seeya!” when she greets a friend, and an elderly couple chirping “Halló!” as they wave good-bye to one another. (It turns out that “Szia!” means “Hi!”) Normally a little linguistic bafflement doesn’t bother me, but everywhere I go, urgently punctuated signs seem to have dire warnings to convey. “VIGYÁZZ!” screams a placard on a bank facade, “BEJÁRAT A MÁSIK AJTÓN!” A session with Google Translate back at the hotel renders this, “Look out! Entrance at the other door!” I consult a street map outside the Parliament building and realize even the compass is screwy: in Hungary, E goes at the top of the map, and the sun sets in the N.

I definitely feel like a kid again. I also feel like an incompetent fool.

I turn to friends of my wife for help. Amanda, who came to Budapest from Toronto to teach English a year ago, admits she’s made little progress in learning Magyar. “It’s an impossible language,” she moans, as we join the crowds at the outdoor stalls of the Pálinka and Sausage Festival. “I mean, just look at the names of these drinks!”


Photo by Trujillo Paumier

We buy plates of kolbász (pork sausages stuffed with paprika peppers, duck gizzards, and walnuts) and long-stemmed glasses shaped like miniature snifters, which we will have filled with pálinka, a high-octane brandy. Our hands full, we navigate the festival crowd through the cobbled courtyards of Buda Castle. I’m dying for a shot, but I can barely focus on the names of the varieties on offer, let alone pronounce them. I ask László, Amanda’s Hungarian-born fiancé, to communicate my order for a “Márton és Lányai Frittmann Cserszegi Fűszeres Szőlő.” An amber liqueur is poured into my snifter. Distilled from solid grape remains to 80 proof, it has a throat-scorching, grappa-like kick. Anywhere else, pálinka would be an after-dinner drink; in topsy-turvy Budapest, naturally, people down it as an aperitif.

“In Hungary, if you can make it into jam, you can make it into pálinka,” László tells me. Sour cherries, wild pears, mulberries, and even beets serve as mash, suggesting the peasant traditions behind pálinka drinking, and indeed most of Hungarian cuisine. Historically, the upper classes of Budapest embraced the simple flavors of the countryside, which explains why even the city’s best restaurants offer cauldrons of paprika-spiked goulash and fish soup.

Maybe it’s the pálinka kicking in, but I feel I’ve gained a tiny insight into Budapest. Part of its charm, I tell László, is the juxtaposition of urbane sophistication and down-to-earth values, like the way the rustic wooden shacks where people have gathered to savor cured sausage and fruit brandy fit so well with the neobaroque architecture of Buda Castle. And look at that crazy statue, I say, pointing to a bronze bird with the wingspan of a California condor and a sword in its talons. It’s the perfect mix, I suggest, of wildness and civilization.


Photo by Trujillo Paumier

“Oh, that’s the Turul,” says László, nonchalantly. “It was supposed to have founded Hungary by impregnating the grandmother of Prince Árpád.” Your country’s founding father, I splutter, was a ravishing raptor?

“Now you know what I’m up against,” says Amanda. “Egészségedre!” she adds, as she lifts another glass of pálinka, this one flavored with honey. When I try to echo her, it comes out “I-shake-a-leg!”

In a place where even the word for “cheers” is a multisyllabic tongue twister, I’m clearly going to need some expert guidance.

The following day, I meet with András Török, the author of A Critical Guide, which is now in its seventh edition (complete with “idiotproof” maps and a primer on “That Awful Hungarian Language”). He is sitting at a marble table in the Café Gerbeaud, a genteel jewel box of a confectionery in a square off Váci Utca, the city’s pedestrian-only main drag. He’s eating Dobos torte, a caramel-topped sponge cake delightfully layered with chocolate and buttercream, and sipping on a mélange, an equally delightful mix of coffee, honey, and foamy milk. The bushy ’stache I remember from the cover of the 1998 guide is a little whiter, but Török, nattily attired in a camel blazer and brown cords, remains the image of the consummate boulevardier. He tells me what the city was like during the Communist era. “While our Western counterparts were working as waiters in the evening, saving up for vacations in the Bahamas, we pestiek (that’s the word for Budapest people) were reading very long novels, listening to cheap records from Czechoslovakia, and sharpening our wit for criticizing the illiterate ruling Communist elite,” he says. “We were eggheads, and we had time for everything: going to museums, attending concerts, exploring the city. If anything, we were overcultured.”


Photo by Trujillo Paumier

The pace of life may have picked up since then, but Budapest is still a great place to have time on your hands. “You need to know that Budapest is a spa city,” Török tells me, “which is actually quite rare. Historically, spas were usually in faraway places, in small towns or villages, not major metropolises.” Thanks to a geologic fault, Budapest is undergirded by more than 120 thermal springs, and as early as the first century C.E., the city became the destination for arthritic Romans. The Ottomans, who ruled the city for nearly 150 years in the Middle Ages, left their mark with Turkish baths, and some of the domes remain intact. The next day, Török drops me at the Széchenyi bath, the largest medicinal bath in Europe. For an instant, I’m returned to my first day of kindergarten, and I feel the same urge to turn around and run for safety (in this case, back to my hotel, with its English room-service menu and round-the-clock CNN). Without a father figure to walk me through this strange institution, don’t I risk being mocked, scolded, rejected? My graduation to fatherhood, I can now see, isn’t coming a moment too soon. It may be no surefire cure for your neuroses, but shepherding your own offspring through the same situations you went through as a kid is bound to put your anxieties in perspective. I’m starting to realize there may be truth in the idea that if you never have a child, you risk staying one for the rest of your life.


Photo by Trujillo Paumier

A neobaroque building wraps around the outdoor pools at Széchenyi, and dipping into them feels like having a shvitz in the courtyard of a high-kitsch Versailles. Next to a concrete ledge, where three rubberized chess boards are spread, I paddle up to the crowd gathered around a man with pomaded, Omar Sharif−like hair. When a woman in a straw sun hat takes his black knight, Omar drowns his sorrows by sinking his head underwater, surfacing a few seconds later still perfectly coiffed.

I enter a sauna and observe that one can find relief for steaming skin by scooping up handfuls of chipped ice from a giant stone half-shell. I watch as the silver-haired man in a black Speedo next to me gazes at the ice in his outstretched palms, lost in contemplation as it deliquesces from the size of a bowling ball to that of a ball bearing—a pastime that, in its exquisite absurdity, may be rivaled only by watching paint peel.

A visually challenged masseur named Zoltán palpates my flesh and maintains perfect pressure throughout. (Török had taught me the phrase “Ne olyan erősen, kérem,” which translates to “Not so hard, please,” just in case.) Afterward, I catch a glimpse of myself in a full-length mirror and see that I’ve found exactly what I was looking for: Tenderized by expert fingers, my skin pinkened by steam, and wearing a diaperlike loincloth, I not only feel newborn, I also look newborn. It’s taken only a few hours in Budapest’s baths to transform me into an overgrown, middle-aged, prune-skinned baby.

A day of purging your body of toxins turns out to be the perfect preparation for a night on the town. The following evening, I meet Török near the Deák Ferenc Tér metro station and he leads me to a fluorescent-lit bar around the corner from City Hall. “It’s a talponálló, which literally means ‘standing on your soles,’ ” he explains.

The bartender, a thickly made-up woman in her 50s, ladles white wine into tall glasses from a stainless steel tub and tops them off with squirts of soda water from an old-fashioned seltzer bottle. Fröccs, as Hungarians call their beloved wine spritzers, have their own gleeful semiotics: A “buffalo’s kiss,” for example, is four parts wine to one part seltzer; an “assistant janitor” is mostly bubbles. I take in the scene as we find a patch of fake wood counter to lean on. Two men in paint-stained overalls are selecting the next Magyar heavy metal tune to play on the jukebox, while three students feed forints (the Hungarian currency) into a video slot machine. “A place like this,” confides Török, “is really for people who want to drink cheap wine. Before work, after work, instead of work.”


Photo by Trujillo Paumier

After bidding “Halló!” to my guide, I meet my friends Amanda and László at Szimpla Kert, a romkocsma, or “ruin pub,” one of the city’s disused rooftops and abandoned buildings that have been colonized by hipsters. I wander wide-eyed through the ground-floor apartments of a Jewish Quarter complex as drinkers gather at tables in its interconnected courtyards. Three men dressed as Smurfs (Budapest is a popular destination for British stag partiers) are sharing a hookah in a Trabant, the iconic automobile of Communist-era East Germany, that has been cut in half and turned into a bench seat. Actually, I might be imagining those Smurfs. By now I’m drinking my fröccs with more wine than spritz, and I seem to have developed a pressing need to test the truth of László’s repeated assertion that Unicum, an herbal digestif, is “Jägermeister for real men!”

The rest of the night is a little blurry. I recall a side trip to a hole-in-the-wall snack bar, where I break the first rule of exotic gastronomy: Never eat anything bigger than your head. But I can’t leave Budapest without trying a lángos, a huge holeless doughnut, deep-fried to a golden brown. Daubed thinly with sour cream, topped with shredded cheese, and redolent of garlic, it instantly satisfies all the brain’s pleasure centers—the fat center, the salt center, the garlic center. This, I tell Amanda and László, could be the best food ever invented!

Or maybe, I realize, it’s time for me to find a taxi.


Photo by Trujillo Paumier

My late-night Skype sessions with Erin, now in her third trimester, make it clear that my quest to reconnect with my inner child is at its end. Budapest has given me the childlike shock of unfamiliarity I relish when I travel, but my subconscious won’t let me forget that I’m a full-fledged grown-up on the verge of parenthood. Before I leave, I pay a visit to the Children’s Railway. Located in the woods on the hilly outskirts of Buda, it was built by Communist youth brigades in 1948 and is now run by members of the Scouts and Guides movement, none more than 14 years old. I buy a ticket from a tiny blonde Girl Guide and board a carriage on a narrow-gauge track, where a freckle-faced conductor demands my ticket. As we pull out of stations deep in the woods, prepubescent attendants in blue uniforms line up to salute our departure. No smiles cross their faces; the work of running a railroad is taken very seriously indeed. (Strangest of all, it’s a school day.)

The Children’s Railway brings me some cheer about what the future has in store. Watching these little people act out their grown-up dreams reminds me that kids can be really great company. I have no idea, of course, whether my own son will end up having a penchant for finger painting or choo-choo trains. I hope, though, that whatever he ends up doing, he’ll do it with the kind of passion these kids bring to punching tickets and raising and lowering gates. And one thing’s for sure: As soon as he’s old enough, one of the first big-ticket presents he’s going to get will be a really cool model railway set.

Back on Váci Utca, I stop at a souvenir shop to buy a snow globe. I select a model in which tinsel swirls around a crowned Turul bird on a bridge over the Danube. Cradling it in my palm, I feel its fragile heft and think about the brand-new adventure awaiting Erin and me. Becoming parents isn’t going to make us any younger, physically, but it will add to our lives someone who will rejuvenate our visions of the world on a day-to-day basis.

Actually, I doubt it’s even going to slow us down very much; knowing us, we’ll be on the road again soon, this time with a son in tow. And with any luck, one day he’ll make it to Budapest himself, for a ride on Europe’s weirdest railway.

Wanderlust, I’ve been told, is a hereditary condition.

>>Next: The Surprising Story of Moscow’s Food Revolution

Taras Grescoe is a Canadian non-fiction writer who won the Writers’ Trust Non-Fiction Prize in 2008 for his book Bottomfeeder: How to Eat Ethically in a World of Vanishing Seafood.
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