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From a tourist's point of view

One evening earlier this week, a succession of trams disgorged their passengers at Corvin Negyed, the drivers giving very clear reasons for the disruption in fluent Hungarian (to be expected). My plan was to take the 4 or 6 tram to Blaha and then a bus to Keleti (the lazy joy of owning a monthly travel pass) but the trams weren’t going anywhere and I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why.

The new intercoms were alive with messages but none was slow enough or clear enough for me to understand. I wasn’t alone in my confusion. Other foreigners (tourists by the looks of their camera bags and backpacks) were equally bemused. And as we hung around in ones and twos and threes in vague anticipation of the next tram actually continuing to its appointed destination, no one seemed to notice our cluelessness. I had a fleeting thought as to how nice it would be if some English-Hungarian-speaking commuter took the time to explain what was going on. But at least I knew how to get to where I was going.

rakI decided to walk to Rákóczi tér to catch the M4 metro, along with hundreds of others, as the replacement buses that usually appear on such occasions hadn’t yet materialized and I wasn’t quite sure whether or not they ever would. More camera-toting tourists standing in coffee shops along the körút peered out of windows, curious to know what was going on. I wondered how this locust-like two-directional odyssey would be portrayed on their travel blog, what impression they would take home of the city? It must have looked very strange indeed: one minute relatively empty streets, the next two crowds moving quickly en masse in either direction.

keletiI finally found my way above ground at Keleti. It took a while. Although familiar with the surface streets surrounding the train station, try as I might I couldn’t superimpose that mental image onto the maze of corridors beneath the ground. It took me a while to figure out which way was up.

I walked around to the side-entrance to the station where I had arranged to meet a friend. A train (or three) had just arrived and hordes of wheelies cases were leading their owners to buses and taxis and waiting cars. A dozen or more policemen in full uniform stood curbside, watching or chatting on their phones as more of their colleagues searched a group of what might well have been an extended Roma family: an elderly couple, a middle-aged couple, and about four young people of varying ages. Each in turn held open their coats and jackets as they were patted down, showing none of the concern or nervousness I would have shown were I in their place. They offered, when asked, what looked like ID cards. And they answered whatever questions were put to them with what sounded very much like resignation.

Again, I didn’t understand.

I could, of course, have written my own script, one that would have been largely shaped by political commentary and social observations. But what if I were a first-time visitor, a tourist just off the train from Prague or Bucharest? What would I have thought had I come across the scene, knowing little, if anything, about Budapest other than that it is billed as being the must-see Paris of the East (a descriptive liberally applied also to Baku (Azerbaijan) and Beirut (Lebanon))? How would I have written it up on my travel blog? Would I have been shocked, horrified, enraged? Or have such things become so commonplace that we no longer even register them?

First published in the Budapest Times 23 January 2015

So … I might have been wrong

For years I’ve been rather mean to the city of Prague. Not because of anything it did to me or because of anything bad that happened while I was there. Yet since I’ve lived more on than off in Budapest, I’ve come to regard Prague as falling short in the beauty stakes in comparison. I’m mad about Budapest. Yes, she can be a cranky cow at times, and she has her drab and dreary days, but for the most part, she’s consistently stunning. Prague, on the other hand, didn’t leave any lasting memories with me other than the Charles Bridge and the difficulty in finding local spots with local people. She didn’t leave much of an impression. And all these years, I’ve been doing her a huge injustice.

IMG_2859 (800x583)Given a clear sky on a cold night, she looks rather well. I’d even go so far as to say that there were a couple of ‘wow’ moments.

IMG_2855 (600x800)I’m the first to admit when I’m wrong (not from any heightened sense of fairness, mind you – I’d simply prefer not to give anyone else the satisfaction of pointing it out to me). So let this be a public confession. To everyone I advised to skip Prague in favour of Budapest, I stand my ground. While the competition might have gotten a little tougher, Budapest still gets my vote. To those to whom I offered Vienna, Bratislava, and Berlin as better alternatives, my apologies. I stand corrected.

IMG_2887 (800x600)The one drawback about the city is still the number of tourists. Even at 8pm on a freezing night in March, the old town was packed to capacity. The eggshells on Charles Bridge were cracking under the weight of the footfall. Walking a straight line was practically impossible. At least this time though, the stag parties were notable by their absence. Back in 2002, Prague might just have been at the peak of its attraction and I’d say she’s relieved that the boys have moved on.

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