The inside of the airplane had purple walls, and the flight crew asked us passengers to switch seats so that our weight would be distributed evenly across the middle section; we could already tell that our visit to Budapest would be out of the ordinary.
My best friend's Hungarian college friend was going home for the holidays that January, so we decided to take a trip east. In order to travel from Spain, where we were, for the least amount of money possible, we cobbled together a ludicrous travel plan using overnight buses and discount airlines to go from Madrid to Barcelona to London, where we caught our purple WizzAir flight to Hungary.
When we stumbled out of the little cabin just about two days after we caught an overnight bus from Madrid, we tried to call our host. When we saw the payphone instructions written in Magyar and prices written in “HUF”s, we cracked into hysterical laughter. We didn’t have any huffs! It was a hilarious and irresolvable tragicomedy: Hungary and the Huffs. We were saved when Zsuzsi appeared to take us back to her family’s home in a large old building, the kind with many apartments arranged around an interior courtyard, cracking paint and echoing sounds.
Thanks to her parents’ marvelous—and by all accounts typical—Hungarian hospitality, we had an unbeatable experience in Budapest. They fed us home-cooked meals that somehow felt foreign yet familiar: plates of goulash and fried meat (something dark purple and delicious which I’m convinced was horse meat).
They drove us around the city, which is actually two cities, Buda and Pest. The two halves are separated by the Danube River but connected by a series of bridges, all beautifully lit up at night. At one look-out spot high above the river, we came upon a young Hungarian couple’s candle-lit winter picnic. Zsuzsi eavesdropped and said that the man had just proposed, but it was unclear if his bid had been successful.
Budapest in January was cold, dark, and absolutely magical. Its huge, soot-stained buildings loomed over us, but its people seemed so sturdy that I felt immediately safe among them. Never mind that we spoke three words of Magyar. We had only a few days, and our tour guide wasn’t going to let us miss a thing. Zsuzsi showed us the old synagogue and the two-story indoor market whose stalls overflowed with traditional crafts and heavy Hungarian food. I passed on the fancy lacework, but I bought a bright yellow tin of authentic Hungarian paprika, red as blood.
We went to the Szechenyi, the first thermal bath house in Pest (information on this and others at http://www.spasbudapest.com/tartalom.php). I was a little skeptical about the hygiene of the whole operation, but I waded into the huge pools of mineral water, determined to try out the Hungarian lifestyle. We lolled around in the deliciously warm water, people-watching and taking in the glamour of the historic building. Little jets shot hot bubbling water up from the floors, and clusters of fat old men bobbed around marble columns—chess tables built right into the pools. I sprung for a cheap massage, but the treatment was more like an elaborate lotion-application than muscular therapy. More exhilarating was the hot steam room, where, if you could stand to move through the asphyxiating humidity, you could scoop up a handful of ice chips to suck on while you sweat.
We got tickets to the opera and saw Wagner’s Valkyrie from the tippy-top level of the gorgeous opera house. I would be lying if I said I didn’t doze off a bit – the singing was in German and the subtitles were in Magyar, but I felt like Hungarian nobility all the same.
Another evening, we went to see the Castle District, which we’d meant to visit during the day. Our timing proved lucky: when we reached the golden Matthias Church, lit up in the quiet, dark evening, we could hear an ethereal, operatic voice coming from some unseen place above the balcony. We had a haunting moment all to ourselves in the pews, taking it all in.
If historical Budapest was all grandeur, its nightlife was more raw. Zsuzsi lead us down several quiet streets and then suddenly stopped to go through the door of a nondescript, unmarked building. The basement-level bar’s only décor was Japanese animation projected onto a projector screen. Zsuzsi said we had to try the traditional Hungarian herbal liqueur, Unicum. Look for the stout green bottle with what seems to be the Red Cross symbol on its label, if you dare to try it yourself. We chased its overpoweringly leafy, medicinal punch with tall, sloping glasses of dark beer.
Nondescript location number two looked like an abandoned warehouse that had been restored about halfway and then abandoned again, making for a vibrant, crumbling, sprawling bar. We sipped wine out of drinking glasses while sitting cross-legged on a worn Persian rug spread across a small platform or stage.
Zsuzsi had one last item on the must-do list: try absinthe. She took us to a labyrinthine club, where the dark and twisting corners added suspense to the forbidden adventure. My friend and I were both so wary that we decided to split a single drink. It was everything I’d hoped for in terms of spectacle—flames dancing over the green liquid, stirring in our sugar cube like it was a witch’s brew. I was mildly disappointed when I didn’t have any visions or transcendent revelations. Maybe I should have had a glass to myself.
Only a couple days after we’d arrived, it felt like a lifetime, and it was time to go. Zsuzsi had been telling us about the incredible music and party scene that takes place during the summer, and we were on the verge of booking our next visit then and there. There was so much more I wanted to explore. At the airport, Zsuzsi’s father gave us each a small parting gift, a tiny blond angel in a red robe, to be with us on our travels, but I knew that our visit had already been guided by an entire host of benevolent Hungarian spirits.