Budapest is still one of the loveliest cities in the world. And I’m still incredibly nostalgic. Two good answers for all professors and classmates who have questioned my sanity in booking a trip to Budapest two weeks before my senior thesis (fully written, bound, footnoted, and anguished-over) is due. Should I mention that I’ll be making this excursion in the middle of a trek from Stuttgart to Oldenburg and Hamburg?

This time last year, I was trying not to think about leaving Hungary. Classes at CEU were winding down, friends were visiting, demonstrations were blocking Andrassy, and large amounts of turo pastries were being consumed. The usual. If I remember correctly, it was also almost time for the Spring Festival, which means that there’s no better time for a return.

You Budapesters, if there is anything interesting happening in late March, please send me a message to let me know! Likewise if anything new and interesting has opened and can compete with Szimpla and Instant in my heart. And if any of you have an appetite for mulled wine and Pozsonyi kifli, you know where I’ll be.

Post-March 15 is sure to be an interesting time to be in Hungary. Checking the news, I keep seeing reports of the country “stepping away” from democracy. Nuh uh! You don’t say!

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So many views, so many encouraging messages, and I still haven’t concluded the tales of Budapestivity. Through these posts, I’ve made new friends and entertained a good number of my old ones too. (Kat, Lila, Owen, you faithful readers!) I’ve kept a record of what turned out to be three incredible, memorable months. And the stats! They attest that I’ve been helpful. People from more than sixty countries have found their way to this blog. My ramblings have helped them get a vicarious taste of barack pálinka, explore Hungarian architectural history, learn how to balance ducks on top of their heads, find the proper names for Hungarian deliciosities (“cottage cheese balls rolled in toasted crumbs,” yum!), locate peanut butter and vacuum cleaners in Budapest, join debates in postcommunist transitology, plan day trips, and traverse a few dozen other fancies.

Many many things that started in Hungary followed me out of Ferihegy, through a trek across continental Europe, all the way home to California, and back across the ocean to Yerevan. They’re still solidifying themselves as living staples — new prospects, new friendships, and an incredible relationship. A three month jump into the present, and I’m working on the biggest project of my life through a fellowship that I slaved for from the CEU Library and planning for post-graduate work that I discovered while idling away in Terézváros. Going to Budapest was my way of taking to the ship, driving off the spleen, and fending off all drizzly Novembers. A prescription for Ithaca and an unbelievably good antidote.

Because I ran out of time in April, here are a few more bits of advice for globetrotters new to this corner of the world.

1. Drop every travel book that warns you against the unsmiling/guarded/whathaveyou nature of Hungarians. It doesn’t take much normative thought to see that these descriptions are misinformed delusions for every nation. I won’t negate myself by shifting the generalization to another pole, but almost everyone I met was lovely, friendly, and hospitable. Don’t count the smiles you see on the street, but don’t hold back from interacting either. Brownie points are abundant if you use any Hungarian words, which too are not as tough as guide books claim.

2. Some of the friendliest people in the city work at Gelarto Rosa in St. Stephen’s Square, and they serve the best ice-cream you will ever taste in the cutest flower shape you will ever see. Go there, make friends with them, and try a scoop of the lemon basil.

3. Visit Heroes’ Square, Statue Park, City Park, the old Jewish District, the Ludwig Museum, Castle Hill, and the House of Terror. When in the last one, keep a sharp eye out. And try to explore the districts outside of the city center if you can. Budapest has quite a few faces to show.

4. Take the free tour of the Opera House.

5. Go to Instant, then to Szimpla.

6. If you have time, take a few day trips. Szentendre, Visegrad, Gyor, and Eger are all worth the bumpy train rides.

7. Try everything made with túró. Túró Rudi, túrógombóc, túró torta. Everything.

8. Listen to Béla Bartók.

9. Visit the baths!

10. Go to Margaret Island early in the morning.

11. Observe the uncanny politics. The Contrarian Hungarian helps.

12. Hike in the Buda Hills. Fresh air, good exercise, and the best views of the city.

13. Catch an hour of Fungarian.

14. Stroll through the Gozsdu Courtyard.

15. Ride Tram No. 2 to get oriented with the city center.

16. Ride Metro Line 1, the second-oldest in Europe, hailing from 1896.

17. 1896, coincidentally, is what you should guess if someone asks you what year a public building was built in. You’ll be right most of the time.

And, most importantly — nyugi, nyugi! Still my favorite word.

Next week, I’m passing through Budapest en route to Germany and plan on checking off as many of these as possible in twelve hours. Seeing those wonderful new friends is first on the list, the magical ice-cream a close second. Hopefully, this will be the first, if the shortest, of many returns.

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Tram No. 2 in twilight, traveling along the Pesti side of the Danube. An effortless way to get an eyeful of the city’s major sights. Just hop on at one of the ends — near Margaret Bridge (in Jászai Mari Tér) or near Rákóczi Bridge (at Vágohíd Utca). Do buy a ticket, since inspectors apparently bring their personal bouncers around the trams now.

Hősök Tere, or Heroes’ Square, is a huge expanse aaaaaaaaall the way at the end of Andrássy Ut, just short of the beautiful City Park. Home to the three portions of Millennium Monument: an obelisk supporting a menacing Archangel Gabriel with the Seven Chieftains at his feet and two arched colonnades of various state figures. Very grand, very symbolic, clearly meant to impress.

I’m not a fan of either very big squares or very tall monuments. (Maybe a side effect of my thesis, as it’s both about big squares and tall monuments?) Whether or not it’s because I smell squashed revolution, something about physically concrete, monumental shows of the national ego irk me, no matter what the nation. But because I was lucky enough to be in Heroes’ Square during an incredible time of day — just as rain clouds were clearing away and letting sunlight through — I have beautiful photographs to share. And my personal preferences aside, this place is undeniably beautiful and well worth a walk to the end of Andrássy.


The square has been host to a few great events and oddities over the years, including the mass gathering before Imre Nagy’s reburial, a symbolic dismissal of Habsburg rulers from one of the colonnades, an ego trip of Michael Jackson’s, and a few Soviet hissy fits.

If you decide to visit, stay a bit longer for a few neighboring sites: the Museum of Fine Arts (pretty good), the Palace of Art (hit or miss — they had absolutely nothing on display when I visited), City Park (refreshingly green escape from Pest), Vajdahunyad Castle (surprisingly pretty result of architectural incest), and the statue of Anonymous (if you require luck in writing).

I’m nostalgic for my first few minutes in District VI, walking into my apartment building and seeing the spiral staircase and the central yard lined with tilting balconies and the open blue sky in the middle. All producing the first picture I took in Hungary, snapped on my phone while dragging two suitcases to the top floor.

The central courtyard, so charming and confusing when I first saw it, is pretty typical of Budapest. Before the advent of the hideous concrete boxes of the communist era, most residential buildings were constructed in this style. (Anyone know its official name?) Imagine it as a square or rectangular hole in the middle of the building, so that from an aerial view, the building looks like a thick picture frame with the courtyard floor the picture. The neat thing is that while many buildings now have restored and renovated exteriors as recovery from age, deterioration, and war scars from the middle of the 20th century, many courtyards remain as they originally were.

The one in my building is quite empty today. Just a dusty, green patch of ground. I’ve seen a few with fountains and statues, one with a garden, some with tables and chairs, and others that have been privatized for business or commercial use. Historically, however, these spaces had pretty exciting uses. Sure, there was always the business of laundry and dusting carpets. But some courtyards have been centers of political mobilization and open dialogue in times of trouble — like the Gozsdu courtyard, host to dissenters and rebels in the 1950s.

An excellent New York Times article from 1990, written by Alexandra Shelley, is full of great facts and musings about courtyards where “a traveler can find forgotten treasures of art and architecture, and footprints of the wars and revolutions that have marched across Hungary for the last millennium.” A conjunction of the past and present, these are also places with “sculptures ranging from neo-classical Greek gods to a socialist-realist bear on a scooter; an old dungeon; silversmiths’ workshops and stables; lush gardens, and the basic component of Hungarian urban landscape architecture: car tires planted with flowers.” What also makes them special today, Shelley says, is their unassuming, tucked-away existence.

The politicization of the everyday that has cyclically engulfed Budapest over the last two centuries did not miss these structures. Speaking of the socio-economic matrix within which the courtyards were originally designed in the 19th century, Shelley says —

“An interior yard allowed the coexistence within one building of both lower and upper classes – ‘Park Avenue and the South Bronx in the same building,’ as one Hungarian professor of urban anthropology, Istvan Teplan, put it. Facing the street were exclusive apartments. But fronting on the interior were small flats whose residents shared one bathroom in the corridor and drew their water from the courtyard well. In the country’s stormy history courtyards have also served as centers of rebellion. After the invention of the vacuum cleaner and the Communist system, grievances (if not rugs) continued to be aired. In fact, Professor Teplan speculates that this architectural device was abandoned during the Communist era precisely to discourage the subversive commerce of ideas.” And perhaps to bolster the hypocritical insistence on equality that was so painfully expressed in the kommunalka, since this autocratic regime rarely left a decision without the hammer of petty ideology.

The fist poem, “Budapest.” Enjoyed in a green sweater.

Let Scrooge Read!

Nirmit Shah sent across this unassuming video the other day, about Billy Collins (two-term U.S. Poet Laureate as he reminds us) reciting five of his poems set to animation.

The video really caught my attention at poem four (The Country) about a small white mouse and a matchstick – its completely unexpected twist in the plot had me glued to the poem, with twinkling eyes and an affectionate smile.

Billy also recites a poem at the end of the talk, addressed to a 17-year old teenager. This poem has no animation – but it doesn’t need it. Not in slightest. Listen on, as faces of all your siblings/ neighbourhood kids / school juniors burst hilariously into your head.

PS – Watch the video in HD. The animations and stage look crystal clear, and you can count every wrinkle on poor Billy’s face.

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