You may not think of Hungary as being very close to Italy, but actually Budapest makes a perfectly do-able weekend trip by car (okay, a long weekend)
Budapest is one of the most easily reachable Central European cities from Florence. Just ten hours drive northeast of Florence and two hours from Vienna, it is linked by good highways as well as by train. As we were staying for a week, we made a road trip (from Florence) out of it, spending 2 days in the Friuli region of Italy before reaching our final destination.
This post contains some general observations about Budapest (made just before it entered the Euro zone, in 2005), and some practical tips about food and transportation. Read also about the architecture in Budapest and the Decorative Arts Museum.
For me the most visible aspect of “Westernization” in Budapest is the omnipresence of worldwide brands.
Since the fall of the wall in 1989, Hungary and other “eastern” countries have been the targets of companies looking to expand in a new market. You can now get anything in Hungary, though prices are at par with Euro prices in the rest of Europe, while salaries are not. The main drag boasts Max Mara and Escada, but you don’t see anyone wearing that stuff; the locals prefer the huge malls popping up in the burbs.
When it comes to food in supermarkets and bilboard advertising, there’s no question it’s 100% local!
The upcropping of “western-style” hotels has made tourism a major business here, and they have quickly learned to charge entry fees to everything, though they tend to be rather low by most standards (1-2 euros).
As areas are becoming gentrified, the clean-up of buildings has been slowly taking place, though many home-owners prefer to fix the inside of apartments but leave the outside in ruin. It is amazing that so much of the beautiful architecture in Budapest lies in the ruin of only 50 years: white buildings are blackened with dirt that looks as if it were accumulated over half a milenium.
On the other hand, when given the opportunity, the Hungarians appear to be marvllously clean. In museums, theatres and concert halls, cleaning staff are omnipresent, and bathrooms everywhere are spotless, especially if they are newly rennovated. Budapest is clearly a city in transition, and it will have to be seen what changes will come as they continue their EU integration.
When I last visited Budapest in 1999, I saw many more “eastern block” cars on the road in. Now, Trabants are a dying race, and all the common European brands whip by as in any other city. Locals say the traffic is terrible and that driving is very scary. This is relative — if you’ve driven in Rome or Sicily, Hungary is nothing.
Budapest residents claim that their yellow line subway is the oldest in europe. The photo shows that is rather squarish and old looking, and the man inside doesn’t look too happy about it.
Getting around by public transportation
Bus and subway tickets can be purchased at subway stations. There are machines that only take coins, and ticket windows with inevitably long lines. Most staff know enough english to recognize what kind of ticket you are asking for if you use the proper term, but no more. For every part of your voyage, no matter how short that part may be (ie, one stop on the blue line and then 3 on the yellow), you must validate a new ticket. The “single ticket” can only be used for one portion. You can buy a “transfer ticket” if you need to take two types of transportation. There are also 3 and 7 day passes available which are a good deal.
They say that Hungarian is a language to itself. Knowing Latin or any other latin-based languages won’t help here, where you really cannot guess what anything says. In tourist areas some people you will find will speak English. At the central market we found a butcher who knew some German. Our one attempt to buy vegetables in a non-tourist area required lots of pointing, and we are quite sure we were overcharged, but politely said “koszonom”, thank-you, our first acquired word. Our vocabulary increased at the impressive rate of about a word a day.
Fried food, goulash and salami? I don’t mean to be reductive, but this is not a country for vegetarians or dieters!! “Light” and “salad” are words that tend to be foreign to restaurants, where eating out is taken seriously. Cafe’s serve almost exclusively elaborate and heavy sweets and cakes.
We ate most of our meals in our apartment. We were helped with food shopping by our Hungarian cousins, who showed us that vegetables and fruits are bought usually at smaller separate stores, and everything else at small supermarkets. Large supermarket chains with more variety are also cropping up. We visited in December and found the selection to be rather seasonally limited. There were lots of root vegetables and oranges. By the end of our stay, were were happy never to see cheese and salami again, although we did bring home a long paprika salami weighing one kilo.
The main market
The market is the place where all tourists should go to purchase salami to take home (within the EU of course!). Otherwise you can pack your suitcase full of paprika. The floors are remarkably clean and the market does not smell bad as one might expect.
NB: this trip dates to December 2005, so some information might have changed since that time.