Last week, we left humble Bulgaria for the ornate charm of Real Europe. We spent a week in Hungary, and I say Real Europe because Budapest has everything that people associate with Europe when they fantasize about studying abroad, or “finding themselves” on a journey of self-discovery with topless beaches.
Budapest is usually linked with Prague and Vienna as one of three uniquely beautiful European cities. Hungary’s capital is truly breathtaking: a blend of ornate Gothic splendor, baroque Hapsburg grace, and the charm of art nouveau. Budapest boasts a railway station designed by Gustave Eiffel, and its incredible parliament building makes the mad King Ludwig’s Neuschwanstein look like a puddle of piss. Ludwig II spent the duration of his reign and much of the royal Bavarian treasury building otherworldly castles—Neuschwanstein inspired the castle in Disney’s Cinderella—and NOW HE LOOKS LIKE AN IDIOT.
As our bus wove through Serbia towards Hungary, we noticed how much the scenery resembled what we’re used to in Bulgaria. Along the highway were countless signs in Turkish and red-with-white-crescent Turkish flags, advertising Turkish food and roadside mosques for weary truckers on long hauls from Anatolia. There were even separate lanes for trucks coming from Turkey at the border, a sign of how dependent the Balkans are on trade and commerce from our regional power. As our friend observed, kind of like a mini-China.
But Alhamdulillah for the Turkish influence, because by the time you get to Hungary, everything is German-inflected. Hungarian food is delicious, but it’s very Central European. After a few days of eating animal fats, fry, carbs, and starch, you’re ready for plain yogurt again. Eating in Hungary starts to feel like dining at an upscale county fair, and funnel cake gets old fast.
The richness of the food and the grandiose architecture are awe-inspiring, especially coming from Sofia. The perverse course of history conspired to make Sofia a warren of Brutalist Soviet-era concrete bloks, with the occasional Stalinist Gothic and Byzantine revivalism thrown in. To put it euphemistically, living in Sofia has a certain lo-fi charm. In contrast, Budapest is very developed, with first-world touches like the availability of pour-over coffee and toilets that can handle paper. It’s amazing what a difference it makes when every local you encounter speaks excellent English. A testament to both Budapest’s status and the bizarre and inscrutable nature of the Hungarian language.
Budapest’s stature isn’t just written on the façades of its buildings, it’s on the street. After driving through 3 countries in this neighborhood, I noticed that the trash bins are a good indicator of whether the coffee is imported from Ethiopia or dispensed from outdoor Nescafé vending machines. The ritzier parts of Europe have new trash and recycling bins, while these Czech-made aluminum whales are omnipresent in Bulgaria and Serbia.