Jacob and I recently took our first real trip away from Vienna, heading to Budapest for the weekend with our good friends Neil and Zoe.
Zoe had been the first to plant the idea of a trip to Budapest. It had been high on the list since our short visit two years ago (which consisted mostly of parking the car and running around for an hour), but as I have mentioned earlier, Jacob and I were having trouble peeling ourselves away from Vienna - even for a weekend. Zoe, however, had a purpose for going to Budapest that extended beyond your average tourist curiosity: she had discovered the Hairy Hog festival.
The Hairy Hog festival is an entire weekend-long festival dedicated to the various foods made from a specific type of pig that has thick curly hair. Considering that one of the first things Zoe and I bonded over was our mutual love of food, she knew that Jacob and I would share in her and Neil's enthusiasm for a festival dedicated to pork. She was right.
Jacob and I took the bus early on Friday morning, arriving into Budapest around 10:00 am. The plan was to take the day to explore the city, then meet up with Neil and Zoe who would be arriving by train in the evening. Upon arriving to Budapest, Jacob and I upheld our time honored tradition and promptly got lost. (I will say, however, that we are slowly beginning to learn from our repeated traveling mistakes...this time we made sure to eat a snack upon arrival and skip the "hangry" [hungry+angry] phase of our arrival to a new place).
Budapest immediately makes an impression. It continues to fascinate me how, in some parts of the world, crossing a border can spell such an immediate shift of atmosphere. Vienna, though very much located in "Central Europe", feels much more like Western Europe than Budapest does. Though Budapest lies just a couple of hours from Vienna, the weight of it's history - as Vienna's sister city in the Austro-Hungarian empire, it's tragedies and losses in WWII, the Cold War, and beyond, lies heavy on the shoulders of the city. Everything from the glory of the Hapsburgs, to the decimation of the Jewish population and the heavy hand of Communism, is etched into Budapest's stones.
It hits you like a wave as you walk through the city. If Vienna is the pristine older sister who has her act together and constantly steals the spotlight, Budapest is the black-sheep younger sister who has a taste for the macabre.
Adding to the immediate disorientation is the language. Hungarian is a tongue which stems from a family of languages that I have absolutely no familiarity with. While I typically pride myself on my ability to quickly adapt to new languages, Hungarian doesn't give any footholds to someone who only knows Romantic or Germanic based languages. Reading a map often deteriorated into "we need to take a right at Nahg-ehz-blehbleh street".
Scanning a metro map of the city, Jacob and I picked a stop that appeared to be within the city center and decided to head there. We arrived above ground, dragging our weekend suitcase behind us, and looked around. Almost immediately to my right was a small door propped open in a large wrought iron gate. I poked my head in, and found this:
Abandoned. Devoid of people or shops, with only a mop and bucket propped up in the corner. It was enchanting. What surreal world had we stumbled into?
Jacob and I spent the next hour wandering around, ducking our heads against the ferocious winter winds that skim from the Danube, until we located our apartment and a café to while away the time. This building lay just around the corner from our apartment, once again looking quite forlorn and unused - though I wouldn't be surprised if you told me the Addam's Family lived there.
That evening Jacob and I ventured out to meet Zoe and Neil at the train station. The problem was however, that their train was not arriving at the main station, but at a small outpost set of tracks that runs through a neighborhood on the city limits. Looking at this train station on Google Maps, it is not very apparent that the station even exists. Unable to do anything but follow the directions Google provided to us, we stepped off the tram into a dark industrial neighborhood dotted with ramshackle houses. We crossed the street towards the tracks and down an unlit street with sidewalks made of dirt and broken pavement. It wasn't looking promising.
Spotting a house ahead with a dim light shining through the window, we figured that may be our train station. It was. Once again, I questioned what surreal world we had found ourselves in, where international trains arrive to deposit their passengers at an empty shack on the edge of a cosmopolitan city. This was a world where where hidden corners had yet to be touched by the hand of commercialism. This train station, likely built in the communist-era, was a holdout against the rising tide of McDonalds and Starbucks. In a way, it was as refreshing as it was unfamiliar.
Two familiar faces appeared from the train. It was time for the Budapest and pork-eating extravaganza to begin.
The next morning dawned mercifully sunny, and we set out early to our first coffee shop. Have I mentioned that Zoe and I (and Jacob and Neil for that matter), really like food? Budapest has a great deal of delicious, affordable food. Zoe and Neil had come armed with lists of coffee shops to try, ensuring that we would stay very well caffeinated during our trip.
Commence the touristy things:
Walk across the Chain Bridge.
Visit the Hospital In The Rock (Cave system-turned WWII hospital-turned Nuclear Bunker).
Walk around St. Michael's church and Fisherman's Bastion with breathtaking views of the city.
Visit (more like stand and stare with gaping mouth) Parliament.
Walk along the sobering memorial to Jewish Hungarians who were murdered along the Danube.
Visit Hero's Square.
Meandered through a Ruin Bar (a very...specific...trend of bars and clubs in Budapest that are decorated by hanging random ...stuff... all over their walls. I was ever-so-slightly disappointed. I was hoping we would be drinking a beer in an old bunker or something.)
And a lot more. We spent our days going at a breakneck speed, and I still feel like we only scraped the surface of the city. There is something beautiful, heartbreaking, and fascinating at every turn.
One of the highlights however, was the Hairy Hog festival itself. Before I get to that however, I want to explain this:
This picture shows an ongoing public demonstration (in the foreground) against the sculpture/memorial in the background. Though I cannot do the story justice, I will attempt to describe the situation. The memorial was apparently erected overnight in 2014, having been approved by a political party who had failed to consult the public before signing off on the designs. Originally the sculpture was memorializing the day that Germany (depicted by the black falcon) captured Hungary (the archangel is extending the golden orb of Hungary to the falcon). Many, many people were understandably angered by this memorial. In the face of the public scandal, the engraving on the sculpture was quickly blotted out and replaced with text saying that the memorial was to the "Victims of the German invasion of Hungary". Anger over the sculpture and it's "revisionist history" still persists, and those demonstrating have vowed to continue until the sculpture is removed or changed.
For the hundredth time I felt like I had been swept into another world. I liked this world though, where the sober realities of history and the intrigues of the present felt less Hollywood-scrubbed clean. This sight was touchpoint of past and present, more tangible and pressing than any I had experienced before.
We dragged ourselves away, lured by the scent of pig. This pig, to be exact:
Suffice to say, it was good. We ate a lot, and would have kept on eating everything in sight had our stomachs and wallets allowed.
Then we ate dessert.
I could say more, but...at some point words don't help and you will get annoyed at me for talking too much. So before I overstay my welcome: Budapest is worth adding to your travel itinerary. Especially if there are good friends willing to go with you and bacon at the end of your journey.