Sunday, January 15, 2012

Returning to Budapest + Christmas

As surely most of you know, I've just recently headed back to Budapest for the second semester.  The last few weeks of last semester got rather busy with papers, tests, packing, and simulations, so my updating fell a bit by the wayside even taking my usual time delay into account.

The good news, however, is that my course load appears to be lighter this semester than last.  I'm taking fewer classes and was much more careful about teaching styles and timing, which should allow me more free time and less shuttling back and forth from school - especially important to minimize waiting for bus in the wind.  So this semester I will be taking coursework in Economic Nationalism, Ethnic Conflict, and Transnational Corporations and Governance on top of the usual waste of time requirements for degree completion.

Anyway, so as to not completely make this devoid of interest for you, I figured I can write a bit about what December/Christmastime was like in Budapest.

Like many European cities, Budapest puts up a Christmas market and displays in the city center.  Interestingly, here there were several smaller markets scattered around including one near my dorm at Örs Vezer Tere.  The main market is in Vörösmarty tér, just south of my school and right near the main transfer station between all of the metro lines.

The main tree in Vörösmarty when the market was just first being constructed.
The Market in full swing

Váci utca, the main pedestrian street that leads to the market

Another market is just on the other side of my school, just outside St. Stephen's Cathedral.  This one featured a gigantic blue Christmas tree as well as the world's smallest and least functional ice skating rink.  

Outside of just markets, Budapest also puts up streetlamp decorations on all of the major streets downtown.  This would again be fairly typical, except that Budapest has the extra step of differentiating each street with a different lighted image, making walking around a lot less repetitive, especially when you're at a major intersection with two or three images represented.

Street along my walk to school

Oktagon, one of Budapest's main squares

Happy holidays from Erzsébetváros, the Budapest 7th District
If only there had been some snow to go with all of the lights and markets, Budapest would have felt truly Christmas-like.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Public Transportation

Budapest has a fairly extensive public transportation network.  In Freiburg, I could get by just on the straßenbahn, and it was handy and functional for a largely centralized city of its size.  Of course, Budapest is considerably bigger and considerably more sprawling.  Like many similar European cities of its age, it’s largely devoid of skyscrapers.  The center of the city is made up of buildings that are all pretty equal in height, largely a consistent six stories.  The result is that there is no overridingly dense core like in American cities.  While Budapest still runs a hub-based transport network as if it has that dense core, it has to have relatively frequent transport networks throughout the city.  The density doesn’t afford itself to using the metro everywhere, so you end up with a lot of diversity in modes of transport.

(Full disclosure – I stole a couple of these pictures from my 2009 trip to Budapest.  Clearly I have not taken enough pictures of vehicles to comprehensively do an entry like this)

The centerpiece of this is, of course, the Metro.  Budapest Line 1 was the first line in continental Europe, and runs the length of Andrassy Boulevard just steps beneath the surface of the street.  Most of the stations on it still bear the more decorative designs of dating from 1896.  The other two lines feel quite different.  Line 2 feels incredibly Soviet, with station designs that are a bit darker and more utilitarian.  Line 3 feels relatively modern in its design.  The result is that you can basically tell which line you’re riding on based solely on what the stations look like – handy if you’re ever a bit confused.  Budapest is currently constructing Line 4 (which was originally supposed to be completed before I got here).  Line 4 will be handy because it will be the first line that doesn’t transfer in Deák, the main transfer point, allowing people to shave some considerable time off their journeys.  Also, it will make only the second tunnel under the Danube – there are only three subway stations on the Buda side of the river at present.  

 Old-timey line 1

Soviet line 2

Modern (and momentarily blurry) line 3

And perpetually Soviet-looking subway cars.

Metro aside, there are four major types of public transport: the HÉV (suburban rail), trams, trolleybuses, and buses.  Handily, all are color-coded: green, yellow, red, blue.  Generally, they run as you’d expect them to.  The HÉV run from the metro stations at the end of the 2 and 3 lines out into the less dense areas of Budapest, and, ultimately, the suburbs.  The only time I’ve used it is going to Szentendre, though I might take the one that passes across the street from my apartment some day just to see where it takes me.

Trams are on the bigger inner city routes not covered by the Metro and have an occasional bonus 24 hour-route.  I live outside the radius of the tram network so I don’t use them nearly as often as friends who live in the central area would.  Still, knowing where the trams goes allows you to cut a significant time off your commute over the metro at times, given the nature of transferring.

 New looking trams

Soviet looking trams

Finally, there are trolley buses and buses – which basically do the same things, except I can follow wires overhead to see where trolleybuses go and I can’t with buses.  Ultimately, this means that trolleybuses are confined to denser areas where the wires can be connected comprehensively and the buses go out further into the fringe of the city.  Needless to say, buses are an essential part of my transport.

 It's blue!

It's red!

While this is the core of the public transportation system, in Buda, there are a couple of outliers mainly designed for tourists/weekenders, not commuting, both in the Buda Hills to take you into the parks.  Both are gimmicks. There is the cogwheel railroad (which I've not used yet), which is an old-style railroad that takes you in to the forest.  And then there is the children's railroad, which is run and administered and conducted by children.  Thankfully, driven by adults.

The children's railroad made all the more harrowing that, while run by children, it appears to have the fewest safety features of any of the public transportation options in Budapest.

So far, it's served me well - yet despite all of these options available, Budapest has been under a perpetually worsening smog warning for the past two weeks.  Go figure!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

I’ve admittedly been a lazy blogger of late; something about writing into the black hole of the internet loses its luster when you’ve got graded assignments to do all the time.  But a sufficient number of you have complained to convince me that people at least sort of read my ramblings, so I’ll attempt to get back into it (with a couple of backdated entries).

Anyway.  Sometime in early October, I visited Esztergom, a small city of about 30,000 right on the Slovak border, and home of the biggest church in Hungary.  It served as the capital of Hungary from the 900s to the 1200s, evidenced by the fort near the Basilica. 

Esztergom’s proximity to Slovakia should have dawned on me, but didn’t.  We sat at the Danube near the river in a nice, relaxing park area, but the thought to walk across the bridge and be in another country just did not compute.  If you ever need evidence that the Schengen Zone is working, that such a national border can be so unassuming, I guess that’s your first argument right there.

Statue down by the river

The Esztergom Basilica is not only the biggest in Hungary, but it also serves as the head of the Hungarian Catholic Church.  Given its prominence on a cliff overlooking the Danube (and OK, given its immense size), it’s readily visible from most everywhere in the city.  Nothing like an easy point of reference to avoid getting disoriented.

The center of town is well kept as well, and though it doesn’t have the obvious age of Eger, it equally doesn’t have the rampant tourism of Szentendre.  As such, I rather preferred Esztergom to both of those other day trip forays from Budapest.  Despite having such an obvious draw, there’s a feeling that people actually do live their daily lives in Esztergom.  All of this in spite of no obvious economic draw besides that one single basilica, looming over head.  

That said, the legacies of communism can be found everywhere, even in smaller cities like Esztergom.  While our train got us back to Budapest easily and cheaply, well, let's just say the train station has not received any post-Soviet stimulus funds.

The lapsing of the train station into slow, transportation obsolescence aside, I found Esztergom to be rather nice - and the lack of English speaking forced me into my first (and to date, only) successful all Hungarian interaction with a passerby.

Thursday, October 13, 2011


So, week four of classes is winding down – a third of the way through these shorter, twelve week semesters (which essentially function as a weird hybrid between a trimester and quarter system on some level but are still referred to as semesters, so something is lost in translation to someone somewhere).  As such midterms begin middle of next week and run through the end of week six, leading into a five day weekend for a Hungarian national holiday that will be a sorely needed break.

Courses here appear to be a mix of styles: some are conventionally American graduate-style seminars, some feel like relatively typical lecture courses, and then most are to a certain degree peculiar to me – I’ll assume those fall under some guise of conventional European.  Unsurprisingly, I’m getting the most value out of those classes that are actually taught like American classes.  Given that CEU is a self-styled American university, one might expect a stronger American graduate style seminar system, but its lack is presumably related to fact that most professors here are continentally educated.

The peculiar courses to me are those that amount to 100 minute loosely plotted, streams of consciousness.  I avoided the ones that were obviously so, but had to drop a course that otherwise interested me because the lecture style was too opaque to result in actually productive learning.  Several professors appear to ascribe to this style, leading me to believe it isn’t any one individual’s idiosyncrasy.  It’s essential to determine who teaches in this fashion ahead of time, though, because if you find yourself in a scheduling situation where you’re trapped you’ve committed yourself to a semester of not having any idea of what’s going on – and that’s before you account to any differences in accent adding to the degree of difficulty.

My language course instruction is also a bit different than I’m used to; it’s completely conversational with no set textbook or readings.  Since I don’t learn terribly well aurally (and I’m up a level beyond where I ought be), it’s proving challenging, but I’m hoping that ultimately I can adapt to learning differently and keep up with the coursework.

In other not strongly related things, but things about the dorm:

1.     I’m still using my airplane blanket from Delta as my only blanket.  (I have a comforter/duvet thing, but it is not in use at the moment because…)
2.     This building has Twin South style heating, an applicable reference that only a few of you will get.  Let’s just say it involved essentially living in a sauna to the extent we wore swimsuits in the lobby in January.  I have the heat in my room turned completely off and the ambient heating from the building makes it too hot to function in my room.  My windows have been perpetually open until they made the switch far too early into the season.  Hopefully once it’s colder outside the heat loss to outside (and the reduction in solar gain) will allow me to close the windows once again.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011


I figure I better get around to the other half of Budapest before I get any further along.  So, Pest: the flatter, more urban center.  Or at least the part that would be more recognizable as a sizable city on its own.  An isolated Buda would feel like a historical relic, largely, whereas Pest could function fairly independently.

I of course - like most of Budapest's non-wealthy, non-geriatric population - live in Pest, though far outside the fashionable areas.  Those fashionable areas are concentrated relatively near the river, roughly coinciding with the distance between those bridges outlined in the Buda entry.

The hub of these is Deák Ferenc Tér, the main (and only until Metro Line 4 is completed at some unknown theoretical date in the future) transfer point for the Budapest Metro.  It feels much different than many similarly emphasized squares do in other European cities; this likely stems from the fact that a significant portion of the area is taken up by a skate park and combination indoor/outdoor nightclub space.  (As well as a fairly creepy shrine to Michael Jackson that has on at least one occasion had an impersonator moonwalking near.)  Needless to say, it's a bit less formal.

 Deák's fountain, its one nod to typical European center square aesthetics.

And its Michael Jackson tree, one of its five least typical aesthetic contributions.

From Deák, the various (fun) areas of Pest are all easily accessible.  Andrássy út is the most exclusive of these, a wide, tree-lined boulevard in the manner of Las Ramblas or the Champs-Élysées.  It prominently features old houses from the turn of the century, many of which now house embassies.  Beneath it runs Metro line 1, the oldest in continental Europe, which I will surely ramble extensively about when I talk about Budapest's transportation network.

 The Opera House, along Andrássy.

Andrássy ends in Heroes Square, which in turn leads to the city park, a large expanse with replica castles, baths, and a circus in addition to those more predictable park amenities.

To the west is the Hungarian Parliament, likely the most recognizable building in the city.  On our last trip, we repeatedly joked that the Hungarian financial crisis (as of 2009, the current Eurozone crisis of course has much more wide-reaching origins) was likely caused by the building's upkeep.

Right near school is the major cathedral in the city, St. Stephen's.  I could probably think of something more substantial to say about it, but I see it 5-10 times a day, so let's face it, I'm pretty jaded by now.

Beyond these, there are still several architecturally well-preserved major squares spread around the area.  These, however, are much more local spaces than tourist spaces and bear the marks of frequent use as such.  Also, it turns out I don't have any good pictures of them.  Oops.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A bit further afield - Szentendre and Eger

I’ve been able to get out of the city a couple times so far, once on a class field trip and another on a short day trip just north of Budapest.  When leaving Budapest, there’s a fairly clear and immediate infrastructural drop off.  The road quality declines, the buildings become noticeably shabbier: it just appears as a country in which wealth is strongly centralized.  We took the suburban train on the day trip, only at the border of Budapest proper the train tracks were under maintenance, which necessitated transferring to a replacement bus.

Szentendre was the closer of the two destinations, accessible by the aforementioned suburban train/replacement bus.  It’s only about 20 km north of Budapest, but the opposite side of Budapest from where I live in southeast Pest, so it still took about 90 minutes to go door-to-door.  It basically felt like the Hungarian version of the Black Hills, one of those inexplicable tourist destinations that arose in response to nothing more than geographic proximity.  As such, it is overrun with tourists with little to do except walk from tiny kitschy jewelry shop to tiny overpriced knife shop.  Also, our waitress was essentially Ursula from Mad About You.

The main theoretical attraction of Szentendre, beyond its location convenient to Budapest on the Danube, is that it is the historical center of the Serb minority in Budapest.  As such, there are lots of Orthodox churches around the city.  Besides the legacy of religious buildings, though, the Serb influence did not feel considerable.

Eger, our full class field trip destination, is outside of the Budapest metro area bubble, a couple hours east and slightly north in Northern Hungary.  Eger falls in the foothills between the Great Hungarian Plain and the Mátra Mountains.  Though “mountains” is a pretty strong term, since the highest point is less than 3000 feet.

Given that physical geography, it’s unsurprising that Eger is the core of Hungarian wine country.  Eger is also historically significant for several sieges – the most important of which in 1552 essentially stopped the Ottoman advance in Europe and serves as a major Hungarian national sociohistorical touchstone.  Eger was ultimately occupied in 1596 by the Ottomans and as such has the northernmost Turkish minaret in the world.  

The main reason the town survived and the siege unsuccessful was due to the Castle of Eger, which was built in the 13th Century after the Mongol invasions destroyed the nearby castle at Várhegy.  (Hegy means hill in Hungarian, one of the few things I’ve been able to retain thus far).  It’s partially ruined because the Austrians blew part of it up in 1701 – I’m not sure if it’s as bad a circumstance as when the Venetians blew up the Parthenon because it was storing gunpowder inexplicably, but either way, it similarly exists today in only partial form.

Castle aside, Eger felt like a fairly typical smaller central European city, albeit one with a slight Turkish influence owing to its occupation from 1596 to 1687.  I would guess that without the cultural significance that the battle in 1552 retroactively acquired as a symbol of Hungarian resistance to outside oppression, Eger would be rather more limited as a tourist destination itself as well.

Just as both a method for you and I to both know what’s coming, the following posts are in the theoretical pipeline, some suggested at other people’s urging:

-       Pest
-       Transportation
-       Legacy of Communism
-       Language
-       Classes
-       Retroactive post from my week in Vienna this past summer if I have a few weeks with little happening

I am entirely open to topic suggestions, so if there’s something that you might be curious about, please let me know and I’ll see if I can write anything coherent and possibly remotely interesting about it.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

A (re)-Introduction to Budapest: Buda and the Danube

Before I got too far along with this blog entry, I stepped back to read my first impressions of Budapest the last time I was here.  They were a bit superficial (given the time frame and the fact that I had been to three countries that I was unfamiliar with immediately before Hungary), but that's not terribly surprising.  It of course takes longer than three days to really get a sense of the place.  Longer than two weeks as well.  So I won't intend for this to be comprehensive, as there's much of Budapest left to see and left to experience. 

Much of modern Budapest dates from the turn of the century.  Most of the most famous Budapest buildings were all built for the 1896 millennial celebrations, celebrating the 1000th anniversary of Árpád settling in the old Roman town of Aquincum (currently located in the northern parts of the Buda side of the river).  The role of the river - as well as the strong differentiation between the banks - gives Budapest sort of a Paris-of-the-east feel at times. 

That said, there's a grittiness to Budapest in ways that the inner arrondissements of Paris lack.  The ordinary stone buildings, though architecturally beautiful, show the scars of 50 years of Communist apathy.  Of course, the further you get from the center of the city you can see the apathy of communist design, not maintenance, so it's a trade off. 

Just for some semblance of organization to the rest of the post (and as a method of conveying pictures to appease some people who shall remain nameless), I'll do a bit of Buda/Pest/Danube division.

So far, Budapest has an interesting relationship with the Danube.  There's an architectural nod to be sure - buildings façades often face the river rather than anything more logical for an engineering point of view.  But there's no readily apparent sense that it was the economic lifeblood of the area in a fashion like the Mississippi has been for most of the cities on its banks.

Budapest does do Bridges fairly well.  All of the inner city bridges are in completely different architectural styles.  I'll go through the four major ones from north to south.

The Margaret Bridge is the longest of the inner city ones and connects Buda and Pest to Margaret Island, an outdoor recreation center that is one of the biggest parks in the city.  It's currently under reconstruction, but tram lines are still running across it.  

The most famous and first bridge across the Danube in Budapest, the Chain Bridge.  It, of course, was reconstructed after World War II as well, but still retains its original character.

 The Elizabeth Bridge, a more traditional suspension bridge, with the moon rising in the background.

The wrought metal Freedom/Liberty Bridge (depending on your translation - and depending if you've also rejected the recently rejected name of the Franz-Joseph Bridge).  Hungary has a peculiar habit of renaming things when new administrations take power.  On my metro line there are two stops that have been renamed for purely political reasons within the past year. 
There is one historical center-city bridge missing - just south of the Parliament was the Kossuth Bridge, a bridge that the Soviets had to rapidly construct as a river crossing after the retreating Nazis destroyed all of the existing bridges in Budapest.  Rumors have it that a new bridge will be constructed on the site sometime in the next decade to make river crossing easier.   If you want to put that in river order, it would fall between the Margaret Bridge and Chain Bridge.

There are of course other bridges further north and south, but they are A. outside of the typically walked inner city and B. much less architecturally interesting.

Buda is the wealthier, stodgier, and more omnipresently touristy of the halves of Budapest.  Not to say that there isn't touristy stuff in Pest or that no one lives in Buda.  It's more that no one WORKS in Buda.  It simply moves from tourist sites along the river (Buda Castle, the Fisherman's Bastion) to progressively more expensive houses as it feels like you're moving further up into the Hollywood Hills.  It's much quieter than Pest.  I would like to say slower paced, but everything is at the more leisurely European speed; perhaps I can say even more slowly paced. 

Beyond the economics of the situation, the biggest difference between Buda and Pest is elevation.  Buda is hilly, whereas Pest seems to be the beginning of the plains of eastern Hungary that the country is so famous for.  I've spent a couple days within the last week going up two of the more significant Buda Hills: Géllert Hill in the city and János Hill out the far side of Buda.

János Hill is the highest hill in Budapest proper.  It's peaked by a stone lookout tower that emerges from the trees looking like a Lost set.  The day we climbed was a bit smoggy, but you can still oversee all of Buda and much of Pest - if you look closely, the Parliament is visible on the right side of the frame just above the river.  Apparently on clear days you can see as far as 77 miles.

Closer to the main city... Géllert Hill - next to the similarly named Géllert Hotel

 - is notable for two things.  This statue:

 The Hungarian Statue of Liberty, which is visible from pretty much anywhere in Budapest.

and this view:

With that I'll leave you for today, as classes start tomorrow.  I'll talk about Pest sometime soon, as well as my day trip to Eger and whatever else grabs me in the interim.