After a breakfast of porn (this will explain), we felt like continuing the day with some more culture, just less X-rated. Last time I checked, Budapest has 163, 298 galleries and exhibitions at any one time, give or take, so the hard part is never likely to be finding culture, but choosing just which type to see. We chose the Ethnographic Museum, or Folk Museum as it’s also known, simply because it had a bicycle exhibition.
Cycling in Hungary is having a moment. Bike to work programmes have now been around for a couple of years, many of Budapest’s main roads have cycle lanes and people are beginning to use cycling as an everyday means of transport. They have even started a city bike share scheme called ‘Bubi’ but my guide for the day, Julia, simply sees this as yet another example of government ineptitude. As she explained, you first need to register for Bubi before you can take any bikes, so visitors cannot simply walk up to a bike station and rent a bike. What tourist will bother with the paperwork and time needed for registration, she argues? Better to just rent one from a bike shop.
When we walked into the museum, there was a coat check of sorts to the left, some stairs in front of us and a sign pointing downstairs to a Gallery Shop on the right. There was no ticket counter or information area, just a boy at the top of the stairs sitting behind a little table with a laptop, so we went to him. He didn’t look up, so we stood there awkwardly for a bit, while disinterest wafted off him like lack of deodorant allegedly does Matthew McConaughey and Brad Pitt. From where we stood we could see he was on Facebook, so Julia interrupted his important social media work to ask him where the tickets were. Sighing, he barely moved his eyes from the screen and told her you get them from the gift shop.
The interior of the neo-classical Ethnographic Museum is stunning. Located just across the road from the Parliament building, it used to be the Palace of Justice. The lobby is quite imposing, with its marble columns and staircases, huge stain glassed windows and a ceiling fresco by Karoly Lotz, the 19th century painter whose works you can see in many of Budapest’s public buildings. There’s one permanent exhibition showcasing typical Hungarian folk life, what they dressed like, what they ate, their tools and their houses and temporary exhibits rotate throughout the year, most notably the annual World Press Photo competition. If you find yourself ticking your way through a list of tourist attractions in Budapest and you’re at Parliament anyway, it’s well worth the visit.
So down we went to the gift shop, where we came across a girl this time, chatting to someone I assumed was a customer. Again we weren’t acknowledged and it was quickly apparent they were just two friends having a chat. Only once their conversation came to a natural end did the girl turn to us and, with a tad less indifference than the boy upstairs, sell us two tickets. On the way back upstairs, I wondered whether we were allowed to take photos inside, so poor Julia had to face the rolling eyes of the lobby boy again. When he told her we had to buy a photo ticket from the shop, it was my turn for some eye rolling.
The photo ticket cost only about £1, but really, besides a lifetime of brainwashing, I don’t know why I bothered. We saw nobody else inside the exhibition spaces and the only staff member we came across was a security guard trying to get some sleep in a corner. At roughly £3 for entry to the museum itself, the lack of customer service almost makes me embarrassed to mention it. Almost. On the other hand, if I’d paid £10, I probably would have got a bit antsy and done something awfully passive aggressive, like recording my dissatisfaction on a comment card. But there’s no point even contemplating that. I seriously doubt Hungary has discovered comment cards yet.
The bicycle exhibition was quite small, merely showcasing Csoda bikes from Hungarian brand Csepel in one room and a second room with an array of postman bags and bikes used over previous decades. We were in and out quite quickly.
All that culture (and traipsing back and forth between the gift shop and Captain Personality) made me hungry. It had stopped raining so we first went for a quick look at the Danube. We walked past the ministry buildings (where you can still see bullet holes from the 1956 uprising in the walls), across the road to Parliament square and around to the left side of Parliament itself to the river. I looked both ways, left toward the famed Chain Bridge, which joined Buda to Pest in 1849, and right to Margaret (Margit-sziget) Island and then I paused. Umm, yep, it’s a river alright, can we go now? When I’m hungry, there’s no point trying to have anything resembling a deep moment with me.
Julia took me to Jokai Square at Oktogon, an area around one of Budapest’s main traffic intersections, which you’ll be surprised to hear is shaped like an octagon. Just off Andrassy Avenue is Kiado Kocsma, a pub/restaurant which feeds locals, in-the-know tourists and judging by all the bicycles out the front, a good chunk of the city’s bike couriers.
You can eat quite cheaply in Hungary. Most people seem happy with soup and bread for lunch, something I likened to the UK’s obsession with a sandwich and a packet of crisps. But I’m one of those lard-ass foreigners who like to indulge on holiday, so I had a steak and lemonade, both of which were surprisingly tasty. Happily, the lemonade you get in cafes and bars in Budapest is of the homemade variety with actual lemons. It wasn’t until later I read Kiado is known to do ‘the best Goulash in town’ and I mentally slapped myself across the face. But still, at under £10 (lemonade included) my steak was as enormous as it was delicious.
Right about then I could have easily slipped into a meat induced coma, but Julia was having none of that. She took me instead to Toldi, an arthouse cinema in District V which has been around since 1932. Today it’s not just a cinema but an art and music venue too, and young Budapestians (I just made that word up, don’t quote me) come here to have a drink or a business meeting and often stay on to watch a band or arthouse film. I really like the Budapest version of trendy. It’s more dilapidated than pretentious. If something has peeling paint, big chunks of plaster missing or is just shy of actually falling to pieces, it’s far more popular than anything new and shiny. There’s no way most of the places I saw in Budapest would ever pass half of the UK’s H&S requirements and for that, I loved this city even more.
Julia’s remedy for my lethargy was to buy me a shot of Palinka, which is super strong alcohol made from fermented fruit like cherries, raspberries, pears and plums. You can find it everywhere in Hungary and Romania and many South Eastern European countries as well, like Bulgaria Serbia and Croatia, where it’s called Rakija. At somewhere between 40 and 50 percent pure alcohol (the stronger the better according to most Hungarian Grandpas), drinking Palinka, for me anyway, is like drinking bleach. After downing a whole shot I imagined the inside of my throat to be like the dirt ring in a bathtub when you squirt Domestos round it’s edges, all impurities (and a couple layers of skin no doubt) instantly melting away. Julia was verging on disgusted that I couldn’t handle it and seemed genuinely perplexed when I didn’t agree the gyspy sour cherry shot she gave me was sweet. A Romanian friend once told me her father had a shot of Rakija each morning before going to work, and tasting it now myself, this answered a lot of questions about her capacity to drink, not to mention her father’s eternal chirpiness.
One Palinka had the same effect on me that about 3 double JD and cokes normally does. So with the lemonade and Ropi finished, and my cheeks (and the rest of me) taking on a merry hue, we went off to somewhere she’d been telling about for months; Szimpla.
Budapest Museum of Ethnography
Address: Budapest, Kossuth Lajos tér 12, 1055
Address: Budapest, 3 Jokai sq. 1061
Address: Budapest, Bajcsy-Zsilinszky út 36-38, 1054